For us, New York City is a landscape of overlapping neighborhoods. Residents and tourists alike can feel like they are traveling across continents by simply turning a corner. In Lower Manhattan while walking through Little Italy on Grand Street and looking for a dinner spot, a shop window caught Joe’s eye. It was filled with the bodies of roasted birds in neat rows. After he snapped a photo or two, we turned down Mott Street and found ourselves in the middle of a lively Chinese market. Both sides of the street were lined with storefronts using sidewalk displays to entice customers. Joe weaved in and out of women pulling shopping baskets or loaded down with plastic bags as they moved from stall to stall looking over fish, vegetable, spice, and fruit options. To avoid the foot traffic, I stepped between two parked cars. Standing there I overheard two women negotiating the price of possibly a purse. At one store we watched shoppers flock to a Bok choy bin when the price suddenly dropped. The per pound or per item prices were hand lettered onto scraps of cardboard, but not named. It was a local market street. A slice of life. In Joe’s word’s, “A find.”
“F@#k, f@#k, f@#k, sh#t!” A rhythmic stream of invectives shoots forth from the mouth of the lithe 20-something hiker with a blonde Rastafarian hair-do as she passes us by, sits down, swings off her backpack and then frantically rummages through the bag. Pulling out her cell phone, she speed dials someone, forgoes any form of greeting and starts in with, “Are you at the top?”
We overhear one side of the conversation, which includes a curse storm with one f-bomb after another, punctuated with the following dialogue:
“I’m only halfway…at the big boulder.”
“My lungs can’t keep up.”
“It’s already 11 o’clock. I don’t want to bail out but you have to work at 12:45.”
“Okay, okay, okay. See you at the top.”
Putting her phone away, she looks up and notices us – two middle-aged lowlanders standing on the edge of the trail trying to convince our bodies that the air at almost 8,000 feet does indeed contain some oxygen.
“Oh, I’m so sorry for the language. You guys are amazing. Keep going, you’ll make it.”
I answer, “No problem. It was very entertaining. If I had a pen, I’d write it all down,” and we both laugh.
“So this is the halfway point?” I ask.
“Yes. There’s a trail to the base off to the right, but you can make it,” says the curse queen as she takes one last swig from her water bottle before dusting off her quick-dry skirt, shouldering her pack and continuing up the mountain.
We are on the Manitou Springs Incline trail, a mile-long, 2,000-foot vertical climb. Railroad ties create a staircase on this popular hiking trail, which originated as a funicular – a cliff railway – to a series of water tanks. From the hiker’s viewpoint, it looks like you are climbing a stairway to the sky. A mudslide washed out the railway bed in 1990 and locals converted it to a hiking trail.
Over the last hour, dozens of 20- to 30-somethings, and the occasional 40- to 60-something fitness buffs, have breezed by us. Some huff and puff, seeking, but not finding, enough air to fuel their uphill climb, and others remain deep in conversation with their trek mates, not the least bit out of breath.
We are huffer-puffers, first climbing a 100 steps before taking a breather, then 50, next 20 and now 10. It is slow going, but the crisp April air coupled with a bright blue, cloudless sky creates a spectacular view of the valley below. Jonah opted out of this excursion, noting that we are staying at a resort, a place designed for relaxation and recreation, so there was no need to leave the premises.
Near the top, we encounter two brothers enjoying the morning. A casual conversation reveals that they are fellow Michiganders, one transplanted to Colorado and teaching in a nearby town, the other there on spring break. At the top we rest, breathe deep and hydrate. That morning we had emptied out our small orange camera pack and squeezed in four water bottles and two protein bars.
Our walk up took two hours and four minutes. Olympic skater Apolo Ohono made the same journey in 17 minutes and 45 seconds. The speed record of 16 minutes and 42 seconds belongs to Mark Fretta, a professional triathlete. Fellow hikers report that the average time is about 45 minutes. In our fifties, we are below average and fall into the slow, steady but determined category.
While searching for the alternate route down, the Barr Trail, a four-mile switchback through the trees, we walked past four young ladies practicing yoga and one man in the middle of a push-up marathon. Steep in places, the descent is easier on the lungs and the knees and only takes an hour and a half. Hikers are encouraged to consider the staircase as a one-way, upward path.
Back in the parking lot at the base of the Cog Railway to Pikes Peak, we hear the excited chatter of groups stretching to warm up as they synchronize their watches – a pre-climb ritual. Some of them are on their second climb of the day. After one time up and done, we load up the car and contemplate our lunch options.
Mya, wing’s extended to the full three and a half feet, swoops toward my left arm held out at shoulder height like a tree branch, and zeros in on my hand sheaved in a thick black glove. My fist is clenched with a bit of meat sticking out. Landing gracefully the Harris Hawk nabs the treat with her beak. Claws extended as she comes into perch, the landing is gentle and dips my arm just two inches. We are out walking the grounds of the Ashford Castle, Cong, County Mayo, Ireland, with Mya, her brother Aztec and our guide Conal.
We met the hawk duo thirty minutes earlier at Ireland’s School of Falconry, enclosed by 12-foot high brown wooden fence. Per the posted instruction we tapped gently on the gate door and were let in for our nine a.m. experience. Three sides of the rectangle enclosure were filled with caged birds, the fourth with a low stone building. First item on the agenda was a bird of prey education where we found out that falcons are fierce and handled by experts. Harris Hawks, native to Arizona’s Sonoma desert are hatched in captivity by a special breeder in the United Kingdom and can be trained.
The hawks are not capable of developing emotional attachments to the breeder, their sole interest in humans is the easy access to food. Hawks see into the ultraviolet spectrum and hunt by tracking their prey’s urine trails and do not possess the sense of smell. Prior to walking out with the hawks, they are weighed. Detailed notes are kept on how many grams each bird consumes. Hawks above their flying weight are sluggish and uninterested in leaving their perch.
Prior to leaving the Falconry School grounds we waited for Conal in the office/education building, grateful for the few extra minutest of warmth, with temperatures on this last Sunday in March around 32 degrees Fahrenheit, we are bundled in layers.
Conal briefs all three of us on hawk handling basics: walking, launching and recalling the birds. You walk slowly with the bird perched on your forearm, your elbow is bent and the bird is carried close to your chest. Particular care is taken when navigating corners as hawks lack peripheral vision and become agitated if they can not see ahead. While walking or standing still the bird’s leads are firmly grasped in your fist. To launch the launch the bird, your arm is extended and raised to shoulder height, leads released, then moved forward to propel the hawk away. Recalling the bird involves dangling tasty morsels like baby chick legs in your fist. The meaty treat is held tightly in fist with a bite protruding, while the arm is held out like a tree branch at shoulder height. Only the hand clad in the black, rubber, elbow length glove is used for the handling maneuvers, as both the hawk’s talons and beak are razor sharp.
We asked, Conal our guide how he developed such a detailed bird knowledge base. His surprising reply, “Nine months ago a was a primary school teacher. I heard about the opening so I applied.” In his spare time, Conal takes the birds off property for extended flights.