Day 7 – Bear River Tribe

October 7, 2016

There are so many places in the world where we could hold our Challenges, but they all come down to the service project. However crazy, difficult or fun our Challenges are, the folks who participate tell me the highlight is the part where we are giving back. The truth they tell me is we gain more as individuals than we give. It is the best part of the Challenge.


In this case, I suppose we could have found a forest somewhere and challenged ourselves to plant 10,000 trees. Or we could work with Grid Alternatives to fund and install solar power for 6 homes for the Bear River tribe. The equivalent of planting 10,000 trees. We chose the latter.

Not only are we supporting the environment, we are saving hundreds of thousands of dollars for the homeowners, and tangentially supporting Grid’s efforts to provide real-world training to people looking for a marketable skill. We are thrilled to be working with Grid Alternatives on this project.


We start the day with coffee, bagels and an hour reviewing safety. I smile. One of the reasons, I support the Challenge is to expose people to the different tra_9427-2ways we see the world and breaking through misunderstandings. Imagine our view of safety in the USA, prepping the site, rules for placing ladders, using harnesses, how to carry tools, appropriate
footwear…and then imagine us on the phone or email trying to manage a project where all those rules do not apply. As an example, as we scrambled up the hill to the school in Rwanda, we noticed the folks there hammering away at some cut up trees about 2 inches around…they were building our ladder for the day…if were to have applied our USA rules, nothing would have gotten done in Rwanda…on the other hand, on our beautiful perch on the very northern coast of California, the rules made for an extremely efficient and effective day. We finish three homes in 6 hours. Group 2 will likely be repeating the feat tomorrow.

The Grid supervisors are surprised at how good we are with tools, materials and even math.

The safety features are so secure, even those of us afraid of heights have no problems scrambling around the rooftops. Actually, it is a lot of fun.


We are done early installing the systems and head back to the hotel. We are going to have a banquet this evening with the folks from Group 2 and Grid Alternative. I am adding up totals for the teams to determine who is the winner. The 10 point to be allocated for best picture could get Not Fast but Furious to sneak by Annie Get Your Goat for first place. I can’t decide whose picture is the best. Annie Get Your Goat is not even a contender for best picture, but Orsi Brutti have a couple of great entries as does Rogue Two. And Sujoy of Kicheko throws things off with a very late submittal (I hope he doesn’t manage projects this way.) I can’t decide.

I ask for a projector at the banquet and will let the crowd decide. The 50 or so people gathered groan at some of the swimming photos, love the colors of photos in the canyons, but Sujoy’s photo from the prior day in Lassen National Forest wins the day.


Which means Jonathan and Christine win the Northland 2016 American Spirit Challenge for Group 1 with 67.5 points.  Andy and Brendan come in second with 59 points. And Sujoy and Akram come in third with 57 points.

Our Champions. Although Jonathan looks like the normal one here, don’t let that fool you. They are both crazy!













Group 2, Have a great time!!!


Day 6 – Gold Country

October 6, 2016, 300 miles

This is our last day in our Jeeps as today we arrive at our final destination, and tomorrow caroline1we will be working at the Bear River Band to install solar power at some local tribe members’ homes. We will be crossing two mountain ranges from the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada to the Pacific Ocean. On the way, we will cross three national forests: Plumas, Lassen and Shasta-Trinity. The landscape is absolutely beautiful and the trip is long, but uneventful. Although it is hard to imagine traversing all of this on foot, it is easy to see why people did, and why they would want to settle here.










We do encounter an odd tree growing sneakers, and an old friend along the way.










This is also our last chance to win Challenge points, including having to swim in alpine lakes and the Pacific Ocean. I have not sent out the latest standings, and rush to do so from the car as I know people are figuring out where they stand and what their chances are. Annie Get Your Goat is in first place. There is a chance for another team to push them out if they don’t get every point possible. Annie Get Your Goat arrives at the Pacific Ocean and decides they have enough points to win it all, until they see Not Fast but Furious make their way up the road. Brendan and Andy get out of the car, are not sure, but are in contention. They jump in. The screams are a certain sign it is freezing!


The point total may not be too close capturefor Christine and Jonathan to call.
Jonathan takes the first mover advantage, points at Christine and says, “you have got to jump in!”

Christine does, and they are likely in first place. The only thing that will keep them out now are the 10 wildcard points awarded for best overall picture, which won’t be determined until tomorrow.



Day 5 – Ghost Town

October 5, 2016, 166 miles


tra_9381We start the day driving a long dusty road into the back hills of California behind Mono Lake. We arrive at Bodie, a boom town during the gold rush that was home to 7,000 people in what seems to be the middle of nowhere. Given the altitude, the dry air and cool temperature, what is left of the town is amazingly well preserved, and a bit eerie. Another testament to the ingenuity, fortitude and perseverance of the adventurous spirit that will one day become the basis of the Silicon Valley.




Another quintessential aspect of the Silicon Valley is its “free spirit.” Some might say the hippie era was spawned from the 60s, but I suspect it has long been a part of the fabric of tra_9391the Californian psyche, both native American and settlers. Our trek across the Southwest would not be complete with a stop at a natural hot spring and spa deep in the Sierra Nevada. We end the day at the Sierraville Hot Springs and Spa. No, it is not what you think.  It is more of a zen-like, hippie-ish place with a bit of grunge. It is perfect. The 18 of bathing suit-garbed Challengers huddle close together in the wonderfully hot, clothing-optional, pools. Unfortunately, we have no photos. Trust me, it was not only fun and a great first exposure to a more open-minded lifestyle, but it was also quite relaxing and refreshing.

That night, half of us roomed in the main house, and the other half in a hotel a mile away. Scott got to the other hotel, the Globe, a bit early. It was deserted except for the old man who looked upon Scott with great suspicion. Once inside, Scott had entered the Twilight Zone combined with the Bates Motel. As cell phones were not permitted, he was not immediately able to make contact with the outside world. He did eventually sneak out, and waited for the rest of us at a nearby restaurant.



Day 4 – Death Valley

October 4, 2016, 400 miles

In spite of going to bed at 4 am, the gang is up at 9:00 and ready to go by 9:30 am. As folks start coming out of their rooms, we congregate in the hallway of the Bellagio. After some banter of their night, I come to understand one of the guys was having too much fun and didn’t want to come home with the others. “You left him where?” I ask incredulously.

We knock on his door, call his phone…no answer. We get security to open his room…the bed has not been slept in, but all his stuff is there. I would rather lose someone in Uganda than Las Vegas. Of course the jokes about eventually finding him with some new found tattoos and a new wife abound. Once we eliminate a few possibilities, we determine he is asleep somewhere and will not likely wake up until 2:00 pm. His partner gets a late checkout, settles in his room to get some works done, and leaves a few messages for his partner to call.


By 11:00 am , the rest of us get on our way tra_9325as we have a long day ahead of us. We head for Death Valley. The route there is arid and desolate. It is amazing to think people would not only cross this area on foot or horseback, but even settle in what appears to be the middle of nowhere. One small outpost even built an opera house.

While many of us did not get going till 11 am, Annie Get Your Goat was on the road by 9 am, and making the most of their time by accumulating points, taking side roads and getting to the camp site at Mono Lake early. They would enjoy the late afternoon having drinks on their tent’s lanai.


Our team, Wind Talkers, encounter Kicheko, Orsi Brutti and Sol Survivors and stick together. We do hear from the team that was left behind around 2:00 pm, and our lost boy is now found. They are on their way. We are reminded of the importance of the saying, “leave no one behind.”

Somehow we make up for a lot of lost time, and tra_9352manage to also grab all of the points for today’s scavenger hunt. We get to the camp site in the dark, set up our tents and hustle over to the restaurant before it closes.



Day 3.2 – Las Vegas

October 3, 2016

Amazingly, our motley gang powers through the Bryce Canyon Hike in 3 hours. Including the UK boys running an additional 2 miles and 2000 feet of elevation to get to a lookout point they saw from the trail.

With time on our side, we head to our next destination of Las Vegas via Zion National Park.

I will go back and update the teams’ efforts at gaining points for the Challenge in a few days from now, but one such effort is to get a photo with a police officer. Leo and I did see an Indian Police car, but were not able to stop him in time. Jonathan and Christine went looking for a police station, but it was empty. However, they spotted a departing officer, and followed him…all the way to his house…but decided to stand down when the officer walked up to his house and gave his wife a kiss…they didn’t want to startle the bejesus out of him. Brendan and Andy did succeed in getting a photo with a police officer.

I had arranged Las Vegas with great trepidation. However, given our hike and driving distance today, and long road tomorrow, it was the only way-point that made sense. As we approach Las Vegas around 6 pm toward the end of this tiring day, I sensed the people in the other cars perking up and smiling. No, I could not see them, but after spending time bonding with the group and getting to understand the energy of the land better, I could sense it. Team-building, remember. I again became nervous at the choice of this quintessential, only-in-America monument as a layover.

We settled in to the hotel quickly, and headed to the Hofbrau Haus for dinner. Las Vegas looks to recreate entire cities, but does not manage to recreate the cultural vibe of Paris, New York, Rome or Venice. However, the Hofbrau Haus, a German beer garden, has managed to import a sense of Munich. And it being Octoberfest…why not?

Dinner started off well enough. The waitress mocked my half liter while lugging 6 full liters in one hand. The band was good, but insisted on playing American folk, country and rock songs I imagine countless of Americans have requested in the past. Once we asked for some German songs, the mood improved dramatically.

Entering the Hofbrau Haus, we noticed the waitress serving someone a shot. The person then proceeded to be smacked with a large wooden paddle by said waitress. We were a bit taken aback. I guess anyone stupid enough to order a shot of something in a beer garden deserves it. Steve, ever up for a challenge, ordered Chris a shot, and himself one as well. The young German couple sitting next to us were besides themselves with laughter at the absurdity.

Needless to say, others couldn’t let Steve have the upper hand. Mind you, there were not points being given for this challenge. Also, mind you, up until now, I had been feeling bad for Steve. So far on this trip, he had been stung by a yellow jacket wasp, bitten by a puppy (yes a puppy) in the privates (don’t ask), and kicked by a horse (we thought he broke a bone.) It was at dinner that I realized that he might just somehow track disaster wherever he goes much like pigpen tracks dust. Once the first smack of the paddle resounded around the beer garden, it was not long before the whole gang had their turn. And as I keep reminding myself, this is a team-building, cultural awareness exercise, I couldn’t be the odd man out…I should have considered my options better … It hurts!

A few of the more mature folks on our wayward team of cowboys know Las Vegas well enough to call it a night right after dinner. However, the newbies and some of the old hands, had to see what trouble they could rustle up…they headed off to go zip lining in the newly refurbished area of downtown Las Vegas, the Fremont District. I went to bed.


Day 3.1 – Bryce Canyon

October 3, 2016, 5 mile hike, 250 miles driving



Today we have two options for hiking in Bryce Canyon National Park. We will be starting at 8,000 feet and are worried are normally sedentary bunch may have some trouble. After finding out all the trail heads are open, it is up to us to decide. We opt for the 4.9 mile hike with an elevation gain of 3,000 feet (1,500 feet twice as it is a double loop) or the single loop but longer 5.5 mile hike with about 2,500 elevation gain. tra_9258

In preparation, I head to the visitor center to get more information on trails, while others go to the general store to get provisions. Mainly peanut butter and jelly for the two loaves of bread we did not use on the horse back riding trail. We did not use the two loaves of bread because Sujoy and Akram had left them  in the car (for some reason that was deemed to be my fault…this team-building thing is working). In any case, trying to avoid going hungry on this hike, Scott our provisioning master (a la Catch 22,) appoints Josh and Chris to get the pbj.

Yep, at the half way mark of our arduous hike, we were scrounging old raisins out of folks’ backpacks for every bit of energy we could muster. For some reason, we had plenty of bread, but no pbj. In spite, of our talking about it for 2 hours. We at least had our conscript lunch of bread and water. Of course, when we get back, Chris announces the pbj was in Josh’s backpack the entire time.

Our first world problems aside, it was an extraordinary outing. As Andy mentioned all along the trail, words and photos do not do it justice. Stunning is an understatement.




Day 2 – Cottonwood Trail

October 2, 2016, 8 miles on horseback, 250 miles driving



We all slept well last night with a filling dinner of Navajo tacos in our bellies, and wake up to a hearty cowboy breakfast. We have a 2 hour ride out of the canyon ahead of us. Some of the boys
have taken to this life already, and were wishing it wouldn’t end so soon. Gavin, Josh, Andy, Leo and Akram make the most of it. Galloping along the canyon floor like the Wild Bunch.



However, some of us are happy to finally get off the horses, massaging our sore rear ends. We find our Jeeps, and saddle up a different mode of transportation. We have a long drive ahead of us as we head to Bryce Canyon in Utah.





We even get Caroline to drive on one of the back roads through Cottonwood Canyon Road. Bill cringes a bit, but survives the ordeal.





Leo, my partner, takes to the back roads like a bandit. I later heard most folks loved taking the Jeeps Cottonwood Canyon Road. Not only was its beautiful landscape on display, but it provided for a slightly more controlled drive than our horses from earlier in the morning.



Day 1 – Canyon de Chelley

October 1, 2016, 24 miles on horseback

We are in Navajo Nation, and are about to explore one of the most beautiful canyons in the Southwest. We struggle up our horses. tra_9036Most of the gang have never been on a horse.
We set out at 9 am for an 8 hour ride.

We get off to a bumpy start with a bit of trotting. The discomfort is definitely offset by the phenomenal scenery. We ride by a number of cliff pueblos built by the Anasazi. tra_8897


At one point Jonathan and his horse take off galloping and it seems we have a bit of a show off. Little did we know his horse got spooked, with Jonathan hanging on like a pro.

A few hours later, when we reach the furthest point, the horses sense we will heading back to camp soon. Martha’s horse has had enough  of the dominguero on her back and gallops off. We are impressed at the chivalry of Brendan as he goes after her at top speed hollering something. We assumed he meant for Martha’s horse to stop as he storms off. We found out later, he was holding on for dear life and was not the least bit worried about Martha. tra_8946

Toward the end of the day, we are alone in the canyon. We make our way toward Junction Ruins, and set up our tents. We are all walking a bit funny.



In spite of the soreness we all feel, we scramble up the cliffs above us for an incredible view highlighted by a double rainbow. It has been a rough day for this gang of motley cowboys.


Day 0 – Route 66 @ the WigWam

Sept 29 and 30, 2016.

image1After traveling half a day to the USA, standing around for a couple of hours to register for their Jeep Wranglers, and driving another 3 hours, the folks from England and Ireland, Andy, Andy, Josh, Gavin, James and Caroline, found themselves driving on Route 66 at midnight. Along with Brendan from the DC office, they drove up to the WigWam Motel dead tired. Their first night in America was to be in big cone shaped rooms built in the shape of a wigwam.

The motel looked a bit familiar. The cone shaped rooms were surrounded by antique automobiles. This is the place that inspired Disney’s animated movie Cars. A nice start to our American Spirit Challenge. The wide open road, car culture and adventurous spirit.


Staying at the WigWam gave the UK folks time to rest and make their way to the starting line of the Challenge, Chinle, AZ. Finally having got a bit of rest, a chance to stretch, take a look around the somewhat desolate town in Navajo Nation and attend a high school football game, the gang is a bit perplexed. They walk up to the registration desk and ask, “excuse me mate, where can we find the nearest pub?” A long pause, “well, that would be in New Mexico about two and half hours away.” A much longer, somewhat stunned pause, “excuse me?” “Well, this is a dry county.” Welcome to America.

1 Week to Go


Preparations for the 2016 Northland Challenge are being finalized. This year’s Challenge has been a long time in coming. As I have traveled for Northland and participated in Challenges in other parts of the world, a recurring theme is “you guys are different.” I sometimes understand this to mean “you Americans” are “eedjets” or “naive” or “narrow-minded.” However, it more often seems to mean “I can’t believe you just did that” or “we could never do that” or “you are a bunch of cowboys.”

This last impression is one popularized by old western movies and tv shows, reinforced by the Reagan years, and glorified by the Silicon Valley.

I don’t believe there is much truth to this stereotype of Americans as Cowboys abroad, but I thought it would be a fun premise for the Northland Challenge 2016. What would it take for someone to travel over hundreds of miles of desolate landscape on foot or horseback? Why would someone leave home, to pan for gold in the Sierras? or prospect for oil in the desert? or act in a movie? or turn sand into computers? or electrons into intangible wares?

It seems surviving the American Southwest with little more than a paper map, a Jeep and some boots might have something to do with it. So, in a week’s time, we will begin a journey to better understand the American psyche.