Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Three out of the Four corner states

I’m writing this from a gazebo in a random little park in Las Vegas, NM. We happily discovered electrical outlets and are charging all our electrical things. Seymour is chasing his tail and John is playing on the charging Nintendo DS. The sun is about to set, and my belly is full of pizza and beer. My fingers are cold, but in my happy alive state, I don’t mind one bit.

After leaving the glorious area of Springdale, UT and Zion National Park, we headed North East to Bryce Canyon. When I had visited Bryce with all the other canyons in 2007, Bryce had been my favorite. This time around, however, I was seeing it with different eyes. On my hike day on the second day there, I discovered why I loved it so. The hoodoos, as the tall skinny towers are called, are out of this world. The surrounding landscape in the park is your typical desert with low shrubs and scrappy trees that look like they could kick another tree’s ass. As you step below the rim suddenly you’re in a different landscape all together. All around you are these tall, bizarre hoodoos. The visitor center tells you that they were formed by wind and erosion, but still, it’s almost hard to understand-and they are everywhere. 360 degrees of crazy scenery unlike any other.  The bright white against the bright burnt reds against the deep, bright blue sky makes me wish I were a painter. Although I’m sure no one that hasn’t been to Bryce Canyon would believe that it was an actual landscape painting and not from a sci-fi dream of mine.

Eventually, though, I got sick of the up and down hills. (Although not really tired, I’m proud to say. At one point a couple resting on the switchbacks commented how they had just watched me pass everyone that was behind them without losing my breath. This is what happens when you live in your car, eat very little fat or dairy, and hike a few times a week!) However, Zion is now officially my new favorite National Park, taking even the place of Bryce, Redwood and Yosemite. I needed the test of a second trip to Bryce to be sure.
Earth bending at Arches, my favorite kind of bending. (Avatar: the Last Airbender, for those that don't know. And no, not the blue people, and no, not the M. Night movie.)

After we were done with Bryce Canyon, we drove on to Arches National Park. At this point in the trip we had been Seattle-ites who had not seen rain for 63 days (except for a 10 minute downpour at the Grand Canyon.) As we pulled into Arches it was sprinkling rain and the clouds were promising to give us more. We were stoked! We planned to spend the day trading turns during mini hikes. (Since Arches didn’t seem to offer us any hikes to make us feel badass; more chips thrown into Zion’s bucket.) However, within an hour the clouds were gone and it was gross, sweaty hot out again. We had put on jeans and long sleeve shirts and had been so excited to be rained on, and so this put us in a sour mood for the rest of the day. We stopped at the view points and went on the little hikes, but we found it difficult to be too excited when we felt like raisins drying up. As John likes to say, he likes it cold, dark and damp, and we had been experiencing hot, bright and dry for way too long.

Cranky hot whining aside, Arches is a unique landscape, and the arches at this park, a monument to erosion of the Earth, will only be around for so long. The night before we arrived one of the 200 or so arches collapsed in the night-however, not the famous skinny one. The longest arch in the world-longer than a football field, only 6 feet thick at its thinnest point, Landscape arch is pretty much expected to go any day now. I watched the sun go down behind it and then went to get some cereal to ease my cranky hot mood.

After sleeping on highway shoulders and in rest areas for the last 2 weeks, John and I were ready for some quiet semi-privacy. We found a free campsite just past the Colorado border and headed to it. Oh boy, what an oasis this place was! We had a beautiful epic view of the Colorado River with a huge, perfect rainbow over it as soon as we arrived. We spent 3 wonderful nights there and 2 long lazy days. Our first night it rained a little. We didn’t care how little it was, it sounded loud on the tent, and we pretended it was a storm. We spent both days in our pajamas, only leaving the tent to retrieve snacks or new books from the car. It was exactly the rejuvenation we needed.
Our cloudy beautiful FREE campsite

On our second day there, our camping neighbor told us he heard there would be a storm the next day, so he was heading out. That night, the third night, we saw that storm. We had been yearning so hard for rain, and we got it! As we were lying down to go to sleep, the rain started to come down on the top of the tent harder than ever. John felt confident that the tarp over top of the tent would keep us dry, but warned me to not touch the sides. Well, I’m almost 6 feet tall; it’s very difficult to not touch my head and my feet to the sides of our little tent, especially when the wind is whipping it around! A couple hours after falling asleep I woke up with wet feet. I bent my knees a little bit and figured if I stayed like that I could make it through the night. An hour later I woke up to find that the water had pursued me. At this point I have John cramping my space on one side and poor little Seymour trying to steal my warmth on the other. I bend my knees more and hope that I can make it the rest of the night. The rain pours down more and in an hour the water has accosted me in that position as well! I realize I would have to stay in the fetal position all night, cramped, cold and uncomfortable and I still may not escape getting soaked. I decided that whatever John wants to do, I’ve gotta move to the car if I want to sleep anymore that night. John, whose about 3 inches shorter and likes curling up in his sleep, declared that although he could stay in the tent, we’re a team, and so let’s do this thing while the rain has paused itself.

It was 2 am, dark, wet and cold. We moved 2 days’ worth of stuff from this tent (remember we haven’t left the tent the whole time except to bring more things in), the bed mats, 2 bins and the wet bedding.  And a cold, confused dog that has recently decided he’s afraid of the dark and must growl whenever he sees it. We also had to take down the tent and stack heavy things on it to keep it from blowing away. It was a fun middle of the night adventure to have, that’s for sure. We chose the least wet of the blankets, layered with the sleeping bag that had stayed in the car and made a new bed, falling asleep fast. And it’s a good thing we moved in there after all-the storm got so bad that it was shaking even our big fat van, which had trees on either side.

Because we’d gone living in the van for over 2 months without any rain, we had also have gone over 2 months without discovering one little problem: the back door leaks. Right onto where our feet are. This time I was able to make it the rest of the night with bent knees, being that there was only half a night left anyways. Needless to say, we left this oasis earlier than we had planned, and headed straight for hot coffee and a Laundromat. Our hearts, however, have been filled with the love and life that rain gives, and for that I forgive the wet feet. We are still trying to figure out the best combination of tarps, duct tape and wedged towels to keep our blankets and feet dry when it rains.

After the success of this campsite, we ventured to find another one. We took a beautiful drive over the continental divide through the Rocky Mountains. We had never planned on coming to Colorado, it had been a consolation prize for the loss of the rest of the trip. The aforementioned campsite, the friendly people with hot coffee in Grand Junction and this drive, have made Colorado a damn good consolation prize.

However, this luck with wonderful like-minded coffee drinking hippies and gorgeous free campsites was short lived. Our next town visit and free campsite were a total bust-the road to the campsite was paid and closed anyways by the time we got there. And we realized we were venturing into country where when John wears his hippie jacket with Ohms painted all over it, he gets more untrusting looks than compliments.

And so we ended up at some more rest areas, then we paid for a campsite we hadn’t looked into. It ended up being the most expensive and the least scenic site we’ve had on the trip so far, so we learned that lesson.

Today we have ventured into New Mexico, my home state from age 14-18. Tonight we’re splurging (gas is $3.25 over here!) on pizza and a movie, and tomorrow we start our loop of southern New Mexico, visiting the famous aliens, caverns, and nuclear weapon testing sites. Our trip is winding down to its end after that-after Carlsbad Caverns, we head North West the rest of our time in the car. We’re starting to transition our excited energies into our dreams of coming home. Oh boy, to have a home! I will never again underestimate how lovely it is to have running water and a refrigerator! Last night I daydreamed about all the different types of cheese I could keep in my house at the same time without them going bad! But, of course, the end of this dream is coming up, and that is a bummer thing. While our crazy exciting hiking days are pretty much behind us, I will continue to live it up and relish every moment of the next 3 chilly weeks.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Holy Land, Fires of Rock and Portals of the Desert

Hey y'all! It's John again.  I'm trying to keep my posts a bit more regular (mainly so that I don't have to suffer the accusing looks from baristas wondering why I've been sitting in their shop for 3 hours on one cup of coffee.)  Nevertheless, there is much to report. 

Zion National Park

I'll start with the gorgeous and adventurous Zion National Park.  I had not really looked much into what I was getting into with this place and was therefore very pleasantly surprised to find it to be both very engaging as well as very accessible.  We came in through the east entrance, driving through many wonderous sites and eventually came to the west entrance which boarders the town of Springdale.  Luckily for us, Springdale had both a nice little park (which we used on our off days quite freely), a free shuttle which runs through the main drag of the town, and several turn outs perfect for sleeping.  In short, it had everything we needed. 

During our 'off' days we mostly spent time at the local park, which fortunately enough, had a dog park attached in which Seymour could run around and fetch sticks out of a nice little river.  Being that it was very hot and he is covered in black fur, he enjoyed this very much.  Otherwise, there was a lot of time spent sitting under the shade of various trees reading books and practicing guitar for me.  The first morning of our stay was also the morning of the local farmers market at the Bit and Sur Park a bit up the road.  We grabbed some pears and were ready to tackle the Park!

My first hike was the Angel's Landing, a very steep uphill climb through a canyon and then up a mountain to a breathtaking view of the valley.  And although the view is one that I'll never forget, I will have to say that it is the hike itself that left the greatest impression.  Over the course of two and a half miles there is about a 1400 foot gain.  For those of you not familiar with such things, that is like trudging up a very steep staircase for 2 1/2 miles.  Not only that, but about 3/4 of the way up the trail a remarkable change occurs.  Instead of making your way up a trail a few feet wide, even if very steep path, you are faced with bare rock.  On one side is a chain that you can use to climb up the side of this cliff and on the other side a sheer drop of about 1000 feet.  This goes on for about a half a mile, sometimes more secure than at other times, sometimes with no chain and the drop off on both sides, sometimes with people coming the opposite way down the same trail.  It was an adventure to be sure.  But when you reach the top, you really feel as if you had earned it.  What surprised me the most was the great range of people accomplishing this.  You had there seasoned hikers, teenagers, old ladies, and even a few kids around age 9 or 10.  I spent about an hour at the top, taking in the view, eating lunch and watching the chipmunks scurry around collecting scraps.  Then it was time to head down.  And let me tell you, if I thought the way up was scary, the way down was terrifying!  I think this is probably because when you are climbing you are looking up the whole time and when you are descending you are forced to look down in order to get your next foot hold.  The drop is ever before you!  Needless to say, I made it down alive. 

Since I had some time left in the day, I decided to check out a couple of other trails including the Weeping Rock, a natural spring which pours out like a trickling shower from the side of great sandstone cliffs producing hanging gardens of wild plantlife.  I also went a mile and half out of my way to see the incredibly underwhelming Emerald Pools.  After hiking up to Angels Landing and seeing the Weeping Rock, I was expecting a pond of emerald hue.  Instead, I found a puddle, no more than 12 feet in diameter with some moss in it.  It was a big let down, but the day in general was a fantastic experience.

The next day was my down day, but certainly not uneventful.  It was Amber's day to hike and she tackled the Narrows.  Earlier that week we had heard of a music festival which was to be occurring that weekend and since we hadn't really had a night out since L.A. we figured it would be a perfect place to blow some money and have a good time.  And we were absolutely correct!  Just as we arrived we could hear delicious bluesy rock music and a sultry voice coming from a mass of tents.  As we went in we headed for the beer garden (an unusual feature in Utah, a relatively dry state).  After a couple of beers and hamburgers consumed while watching the West Coast Jazz Players the real fun started.  At the other stage was a New Orleans band who had all of the danciest music that my little heart could take.  And after dancing up a storm for a good couple of hours, I was thoroughly drenched in sweat, happy and tired.  I don't have to tell you we slept excellently that night.

After all that it was my turn for the Narrows.  For those of you who have never heard of it, the Narrows is a hike that takes you up the Virgin River through the narrow canyon which it is busy creating.  This hike was very different from the Angels Landing.  While the first had been very hot, uphill and dangerous with a big payoff at the end, this one was very cool, wet, with constant marvels around.  In fact, most of this hike is in the river itself.  For this reason, just before the hike begins you can find many walking sticks leaning against the rock that have supported countless adventurers.  After choosing from among these, I happily punged my feet into the water and set off! It was not long before my body up to my chest had been submerged and I was pushing my way up the river against the current.  On either side of me could be seen all manner of textures on the rock, ranging from very smoothe to stripped colors to almost ninety degree cuts to large sultry curves and more.  The canyon itself varies greatly in width sometimes being hundreds of feet wide and at other times being just wide enough for a few people to pass through.  The like I have already said the shapes and colors of the rocks around you are in constant flux.  If you look up you also see many jutting pires and mountains beyond the reach of the river.  Being that it is a river, ther are also many plants and the occasional animal living off the life giving properties of the water.  About 3/4 of the way up the river it splits.  To the right is the narrowest part of the canyon which is very cool.  To the left the river continues to the terminating point of the trail (to go on you must obtain a wilderness permit).  At this final point the river becomes very deep again and to the right as you look out to another very narrow point in the canyon is another weeping rock type spring with attendant hanging gardens.  The way back is of course much easier as you are walking with the current instead of against it and I found myself back to the entrance where I had collected my trusty walking stick in about half the time it took me to battle against the current.  The experience will definitely stay with me. 

Bryce Canyon National Park

Done with Zion's treasures, we mournfully said goodbye and headed north a few miles to Bryce Canyon National Park.  If Zion had been the heavenly place hear on Earth, Bryce was a place you'd expect to see in some other world in the heavens.  This time it was my turn to hike first and I chose to do a hodge podge amalgamation of several trails including the Queen's Loop, Navajo Loop and Rim Trail.  Immediately when you look out on to this bizarre landscape you cannot help but be overcome by its uniqueness.  Everywhere there are towers of red on white rock of all sorts of sizes.  The Queen's Loop takes you down into these polyliths.  Below you is blindingly white rock and above you are red, orange and white petrified fires against blue skies.  It is really quite American, lol.  For those of you who ever watched the show Dragon Ball Z as a kid, the environment can't help but make you think of the places where the Z fighters had many battles.  At every turn I half expected to see a couple of Super Saiya-jins duking it out.  Anyway, all super heroes aside, the trail is very awe inspiring as you see many of these different spires move across eachother as your perspective shifts.  At the junction with the Navajo Loop the trail stops going down hill and takes a steep uphill turn through very narrow passes through fins of the canyon.  As you scale the side of the canyon your view is ever evolving from looming cliff walls to a valley of the tops of the towers to an eventual view of the canyon as a whole.  From there I made my way from Sunset Point where the Navajo Trail terminates to Inspiration Point, a view point from a fair bit higher up that looks over the whole canyon.  There I spent some time resting, taking in the view and eating my lunch.  Because the park itself is much smaller than the others the whole hike only took me a few hours so Amber, Seymour and I spent the remainder of the day one of the picnic areas.

Arches National Park

Our final stop on this tour of Utah was Arches National Park.  The main thing that set this park apart for us was that it is not filled with adventuresome hikes, but rather, it has many view points with short hikes bringing you to some of the more fantastic arches and geological formations.  This was lucky for us, for we were starting to get tired from the many long hikes and driving.  Along the road through the park we stopped to see the Balanced Rock, Garden of Eden, the Window Arches, Double Arch and Delicate Arch.  Amber also ventured out to see the Landscape Arch, but I was a bit too tired.  The arches are certainly marvelous and as you look through them, you can't help but feel as if they are somehow portals to another world.  Yet, amazing as they were, I kept finding myself drawn instead to the long reaching view of the surrounding desert.  Every direction could be seen for many miles and because the air is so dry a surprising amount of detail can be made out.  We only spent a day there but it was certainly a memorable experience and deserves its place among the experiences of this trip.

We are now in Junction, CO.  Ahead of us lies about a week of camping and relaxing in several of Colorado's many free campsites.  Hopefully we won't have any more encounters with our furry friends the bears, but we shall see.  Until next time!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Zion, I never want to leave you!

Here we are on the second half of our trip, and boy has it been delivering!First was Grand Canyon, where my family met up with us. That place could never get old (although it is ancient, with the youngest rocks being 270 million year old). If I lived at the park and visited the rim everyday, it would still blow my mind every time. We didn't do any major hiking here, mostly just went to the rim and stared. It was wonderful to see my family, too, and my mom gave us a giant bucket filled with dehydrated and canned foods from her farm, including peach sauce (like apple sauce but with peaches), gourmet tasting zucchini pickles and tons and tons of dehydrated zucchinis to make our ramen more bearable. As John mentioned in his last post, we also had a night where we watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail at the campfire while eating my mom's popcorn, under the Grand Canyon desert stars. One of my favorite memories ever. On our last night there John and I went to watch the sunset, and it was definitely the most beautiful sunset I've ever seen. I think I took about 40 pictures of it, but the photos could never tell you.

The next stop was Lake Powell, where we cooled off and Seymour went swimming for the first time. My goodness, that was one of the cutest things you could ever see, if you like that sort of thing. It was here that I started getting tired of the lack of privacy. I love cooking at epic scenes, it's such a fortunate opportunity that we have. However, "what's for dinner?! Haha!" from watching strangers is getting very, very old.
The next place we went was Zion National Park. About four years ago I went on a Green Tortoise tour of the "Canyons of the West," and so I've seen most of these places before. That doesn't make them less epic, nor do the other beautiful pieces of land we've been seeing. Zion looks like a desert version of Yosemite, with similar high rock faces, only where Yosemite is in shades of grey, Zion is shades of burnt reds.
When I came to Zion before, the driver of the Green Tortiose had given us a run-down on some of the hikes of the park. She stated that Angel's Landing was one of her favorite hikes in the entire world. Now, this woman has hiked all over the entire world and drives an adventure tour bus, so if she says it's great, I must do it. She warned us that it was encredibly difficult and dangerous, so don't do it unless we're in shape and have no fear of heights. It was our first stop on the Tortoise, I hate heat (it had been 110 degrees or more at this time) and I was terribly out of shape, but I thought I could do it.
Well. Angels Landing, which is about 1 mile of hiking with a chain, is gotten to by about 4.5 miles of very steep uphill switchbacks. I failed this trail miserably on that summer day in 2007. Lisa, the friend I had been hiking with, was fine and continued on without me, while I hiked a little bit down the Narrows. I realized later that I wasn't just being a baby, I had been suffering some heat exhaustion. Anyways, Lisa came down to the camp raving that it was the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen, showing me photos that of course could never do it justice. I've kicked myself ever since for now finishing the hike.
(my miserable face 4 years ago, right before I turned back.)

So here I am, about 25 pound lighter than I had been then. I've been living in my car for the last 2 months, by night sleeping on highway shoulders, by day hiking in different landscapes in the heat. This is the most bad-ass and in shape I've ever been, if I can't conquer this Angel's landing trail now, when else will I be able to? So of course I go to this one on our first day in Zion.
If you've never hiked this trail, let me tell you-it is a challenge to your body, your breath and your gut. After the 4.5 miles of steep switchbacks I mentioned, there is about a mile of steep up hill on a cliff sometimes only 10 feet wide, with thousand foot drops on either side and your only safety net is an old chain attached to the rock. This hike is epic and terrifying. But also amazingly beautiful. When you look down, if you can brave it, at first it makes you want to pee yourself. Once you get over that, you realize how beautiful it is and you feel like you're on the top of the world. Now, of course I made it to the top this time! With hardly needing any breaks, I might add. It felt amazing. When you get to the top you can understand why they called it Angel's Landing. If I were an Angel I would totally fly there as often as possible. (Also because if I could fly I wouldn't have to brave the trail.)
(Part of the Angel's Landing hike. Yeah, you hike along that ridge there, all the way up.)

(the view from Angel's Landing, of course being overwhelmed 360 degrees by it is much more amazing.)
(I made it, I made it!! (yeah, pale belly. I also have a silly tan line straight across my chest from a strapless dress.))

And so then after a little hike to the Weeping Rock and I got a drizzle of water on my head, I went back to John and Seymour with magic in my eyes again. We also happened to be here while the Zion Music Festival was going on. We showered for the first time in 9 days and went on a splurging date, buying delicious cheeseburgers and local beer. The bands were fun folky, jazzy, funky things, and the final band of the night got a lot of people dancing. I am proud to say that my boyfriend got more down on the dance floor than any other man there. :)
My second hike day I went down the Narrows, further than I had gone on that hot day long long ago. The Narrows is a hike where the trail is the Virgin river. At this time of year, the water doesn't get past chest deep, and then only for a short bit. The hike is difficult because you're wading against the current, but it is just as beautiful as the Angel's Landing, with huge, towering cliffs on either side of you, making it shady, with the river echoing off the canyon walls. I'll let John tell you more about that one.
(note the little people. Man was this gorgeous.)

Zion also has a charming little desert tourist town attached to the outside of it, Springdale. I love this town. It hasn't been overwhelmed by tourism in a gross way. Everyone is friendly and has that tanned, mystical face that people who live near Zion should have. If this were a different kind of trip, the kind where I was alone and taking my time, I would try to find a job here and stay for a couple months. Although our next stop is Bryce, which on the Green Tortoise had been my favorite, I am reluctant to leave. Don't tell John, but I've fallen madly in love.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The change in the trip

So, as you may know, this road trip was intended to be a Great American Road Trip. After I lost my waitressing job I wasn't able to save as much money, followed soon after by an emergency root canal taking 1/5th of the money we had saved. Because of this, we had cut off all of New England before heading out. We suspected in the back of our heads that that would not be the end of our cuts, but we set off anyways with high hopes. In our detailed planning we'd done for a year or so, we had estimated the mileage for each "leg". Leg One was Seattle to Los Angeles, and we had estimated it at 1,700 (plus 30-40% for wiggle and such).
Well, in our time in Los Angeles, we assessed the money we had spent and the miles we had done. We were at over 3,000 miles, and though we had spent less on gas than estimated and we were right on track with food and recreation spending, we found out that we were at the halfway point in our journey. And so, now the trip is expected to be ended around the first week of November (as opposed to the first week of January) and we won't make it east of New Mexico. So we planned out the last 6-8 weeks and re-worked our budget. We will do loops of the beauty Utah, Colorado and New Mexico have to offer, and then head back up to Seattle.
Surprisingly, we aren't sad about it. Right as the trip started I realized the trip I had spent a year+ dreaming about and planning was a completely different thing than the actual trip we were on. The trip turned itself into more of a "Wilderness and National Parks of the West" trip. We'll be in Chicago and Florida in the next year for weddings, and someday maybe we'll take a train down the east coast. Eastern USA is probably not best seen with an old van and a dog anyways. I am a little bummed I won't be reading Huck Finn as we drive down the Mississppi, but hell, this trip is epic wicked sweet anyways! So just a little "bummer" on the loss of the second half of the trip.
Now, onward to the second half of the trip!!

Catching up for John

Alrighty, I know it's been a long times since I've written anything, so I'll try not to leave anything too important out.  Amber has done a nice job of covering most of the stuff, so if my story seems disjointed, please read the previous post. 

I last left y'all at the Redwoods, which now seem like a long time ago.  Since then, we have seen towering rock faces, the largest living face in the world and many friendly faces, not to mention the enormous inverted face of the Grand Canyon.  We'll start with the rock faces.


Yosemite, like Amber said is a seriously crowded place, especially during the end of summer when everyone is trying to get in their last second summer kicks before their kids have to go off to school.  Nevertheless, it is stunning.  Even before you enter the park proper there is a very senic drive on which you see a gorgeous river winding to your right and many view points that overlook smaller valleys.  However, there is nothing like the blast to the eyes you get from that first view of the Yosemite Valley.  All around you are enourmous monoliths looming in grandeur.  At any time of day some of these are bathed in light in a most splendid way.  Of course, in the valley are vast multitudes of people swarming everywhere, but if you keep your eyes up it is easy to forget this in the sheer beauty that captures you.

My favorite spot in the valley was the Yosemite Fall.  It is the largest waterfall in North America and truely wonderous to behold.  The waterfall itself is divided into two sections by a large cliff.  The lower fall is accessible from the valley and there are many rocks to climb all over to get to the base.  That part was really fun.  Often Amber has commented to me that she wishes there were adult playgrounds, and the climb to the base of the waterfall is pretty much just that.  At the base of the Lower Fall, there is a nice pool of crystal clear water where a few daring people can be seen swimming (it is icey cold).  On my hike day I took a trail to a view of the Upper Fall.  Although it is best seen in springtime when the water gushes spectacularly, the view of it in the summer is nonetheless quite breathtaking. 

The Lower Yosemite Falls
Our second stop in Yosemite was Hetch Hetchy Lake.  Because of my great experience with the waterfalls in the valley, I decided to take a trail that took me past a couple of them near the lake.  On my map I could see that there were two not to far off and decided to see them, taking more time to rest than walk.  Off I started walking, across the dam and through a tunnel, over the rock face that lines the coast of the lake to my first waterfall.  This was was quite nice.  It split into a few waterfalls where the trail crossed with a view of the big one from beneath the smaller offshoots.  An easy climb from the trail brought me right next to them and I was even able to catch a view from the backside of one.  My spirits raised by such a sight, I set off for the second waterfall, which I believed to be only a mere 2 miles walk.  However, despite my map and my sense of where I was, I walked and walked and walked, up and down, up and down, up and down, for what seemed like many miles through forest and desert before I reached my second waterfall.  This one was very wide and shallow, running across a great flat stone.  I soaked my feet for a while and found a nice shady spot to rest and began to head back.  After much walking again, up and down, up and down, I finally reached the first waterfall again only to realize that it was named the name of the second waterfall on my map.  Suddenly I realized that the first waterfall I thought I would see had dried up and that instead of the 6 mile round trip hike I had intended, I had walked a 13 mile round trip hike to the Rancheria Falls!  Oh well, I said to myself and with sore feet I made my way back to the van where Amber was cooking up some yummies for me!  Yay!

The last stop in Yosemite was the Mariposa Grove of the giant Sequoia trees.  We spent just and afternoon here, mostly to see the General Sherman Tree, the largest tree in the world.  All I can really say about this tree is that is incredibly huge.  Apparently it grows enough new wood every year to constitute a normal size adult tree of other varieties.  The sequoias in general are a marvel in that they are some of the oldest living beings on the planet.  Their superior bark and chemical makeup essentially makes them immortal.  The only weakness they have is a shallow root system which makes them vulnerable to toppling over.  But, honestly, I'd like to see someone just try to push over one of these behemoths!

Sequoia Camping

After Yosemite and San Francisco, we decided we had had enough of people and went for some actual camping for a change.  We chose the Lodgepole campground within the Sequoia National Forest.  It was just what we needed.  Our campsite was relatively reserved, right next to a trail that followed a nearby river.  The most exciting part were the bears we saw.  As we were sitting next to the river I commented to Amber, "You know, we've been in bear country for a long time and still haven't seen a single bear." No sooner had a said this than we looked behind us and saw not to far away a mamma bear with her cubs.  Now you must realize that in our imaginations we had projected bears to be ferocious bloodthirsty beasts ready to clobber us to death in an instant.  This was not what we saw.  Instead the animal we beheld was much more like Baloo fromt the Jungle Book. "Bear necessities, the simple bear necessities."  Nevertheless, we excersised due caution and kept our distance.  Later in our stay we saw another two mamma bears with their cubs crossing the trail in front of us.  The scariest sighting, however, happened just after we had finished making dinner one night.  It was just after dusk and the rocks to the north of our camp were just shadows.  We were finishing eating when suddening Seymour started barking and growling.  Looking to the north we saw a mamma and her cub casually strolling down the hill to our campsite!  Luckily, with a few claps and loud sasquach like "Whoops!" the bear diverted course and wandered back into the woods.

Amber's Family and Southern California

From our nice long time camping we then headed to the city areas to be spoiled by Amber's family and then mine.  Our first stop was to Bill and Liz's place, Amber's uncle and aunt.  They set us up with a nice spare room, treated us to enormous amounts of delicious food and we let our brains turn to mush watching Hoarders on TLC all night.  After that we headed to Lompoc, where Amber grew up, saw the flower fields, tasted the local coffee and got some work done on the car.  We were also treated to the wonder of the kindness of strangers by a couple named Dave and Bonnie.  After Lompoc, we spent a night and morning with Amber's cousin Rich, who with his many cats and welcoming home offered us a relaxing night of conversation and tacos.  For a more thorough telling of this part of the story, please see Amber's post.   

Los Angeles

Me and my Dad at the adult playground
From Amber's clan we went to my clan in Monrovia, CA just north of Los Angeles.  We had somewhat been dreading the experience of L.A. since the bad taste San Francisco had left in our mouths.  But to our surprise, it ended up being a joy.  I hadn't seen my dad for about three years and it was a very happy moment to see his smiling face when we rolled in.  Determined to spoil us while we were there he paid to put us up in a hotel room for a week!  What a treat that was!  We had a bed to sleep in every night and stove and a refrigerator and TV.  Quite luxurious I must say.  Beyond the hotel room, he took us out to Venice Beach where walk for the day down to Santa Monica Peer.  Venice Beach was very fun, with Medical Marijuana and head shops everywhere and a crazy guy jumping on glass.  We also found another adult sized playground and I even swang on a swing for the first time in who knows how long.

After Venice Beach we checked out the USC Science Center, which was very interesting.  There were many interactive displays and sections ranging from Middle Eastern science in the "Dark Ages" to ecological systems, to basic technology, and even a few of the landing pods used by NASA during the space race.  We topped off the day with a visit to the little Mexico near the Union Station where we had some excellent food and were even treated live performance of Rancho Grande by an itinerant musician. 

After USC and the Mexican food, we drove out to see my brother Michael.  His house was a little hard to find being that on his street all the streets are named the same thing (I don't know who came up with that genius idea).  But once we were there, we were treated to sandwiches and beer.  Michael's house was also quite nice.  He has worked in construction and loved projects since he was a youngster and his house definitely showcases this.  Even as we were there he as busy casually completing some frames for his daughter's bedroom as well as some metal panelling for his garage.  It was very nice to see him again and to meet his wife and kids.  Hopefully we can make more of a habit of it.

Griffin Observatory
The following day, we went to the Observatory just outside Hollywood, which was just as interesting as I remember.  With exibits showing everything from the movement of celestial bodies, to the intricacies of the Sun's activity, to the passage of cosmic particles through a special device that could detect them (and there are more of them than you think) I was very pleased to visit again this temple of the sky.  After the observatory we went down into Hollywood, to Graumin's Chinese Theater and the Walk of Fame.  We had a good time pointing out the names that we recognized and my dad had a good time gasping at the fact I knew so few of them.  Capping that off with some In-N-Out and some good reminiscing, it was a great day! The next night we went out to dinner and karaoke with Amber's friend Tanna, who most generously treated us to everything.  Along with her came her friend Udi, a genuine pro at karaoke, featured on America's Got Talent. 

Our last night in L.A. was spent having dinner with my dad and grandma at their place.  I got to play for them some of my songs on guitar and we had a nice quiet night chatting until way past their bedtimes ;).  In the morning we packed up our things and said our goodbyes, which are always a bit sad, but agreed that we'd be back the next year for grandma's ninetieth birthday.  Hopefully I can drag my brother Mark down too.

On the Road Again

From there we set off for the road once more.  Heavily fattened up and ready for adventure we drove for a staggering 7 hours.  And I must say that Arizona roads are by far the best roads we have encountered in this trip.  However, the great roads were offset by the fact that pretty much every rest area we drove past was closed, including the one we had planned to sleep at that night.  Luckily enough, just after it was a Pilot Station just after it, which turned out to be better than a rest area in that it had many amenities and we didn't have to deal with semi-trucks zooming past us all night. 

Grand Canyon

The following morning we arrived at the Grand Canyon Desert View.  Being that I wanted my first sight of this wonder of the natural world to be as breathtaking as it could be, I kept my eyes to the ground as we approached.  When I looked up, I truely did see a wonder.  In fact, I felt so overwhelmed by it that my mind just stopped.  Amber made a few comments about how this was just a small part of the canyon and ask what I was thinking, to which I could only say "shhhh".  Once I recovered from my giant "slicer" (a term used in my friend group to mean "I forgot what I was thinking about") we set up camp and awaited the arrival of Amber's mom and siblings.  When they arrived, we were immediately gifted many dried and fresh yummies from Julie's (Amber's mom) farm.  She had even brought the firewood we had forgotten!  After some fun setting up the "easy" tent they had brought, we enjoyed delicious calzones Julie had prepared next to an open fire.  It was a very nice start to our stay.

The next day was spent down at the Grand Canyon Village, a 25 mile drive west of where we were staying.  There we walked along the edge of the canyon for a few miles, taking time at many of the vistas to absorb the magnitude of what was before us.  Once again, my mind was totally slicered by what I saw and together with the heat, I was as empty as the canyon itself by the time we got back to camp.  That night we set up another fire and this time Amber's sister Hannah prepared a soup for us to eat.  After that the popcorn.  The thing you must realize about Amber's family is that they are all totally in love with popcorn.  From Bill, who inhales it jealously even if nobody else wants some, to Amber who would make it every night if she could, to now her mother and siblings who had brought a special heirloom pan to hold this precious yellow snack, the love affair this family has with popcorn runs deep.  After enough had been made to feed a small army, we sat down by the fire, set up the laptop and watched Monty Python's Holy Grail (a favorite of Hannah and Aidan) while chatting up a storm.

The next day we all took turns visiting various parts of the canyon while the others watched Seymour dog.  On the shuttle bus, the driver commented that some people ask, "What's the best view of the canyon?"  He went on further to say that "best" in that respect is regarded as a four letter word to those who know and love the canyon.  There is no "best" view.  Each is spectacular and breathtaking.  And that's the truth.  I could spend all day looking at that canyon.  After everyone was done looking, Julie, Aidan, Lila and Hannah had to go home to get the kids back to school.  While it was a sad parting, it was not so bad, because we know we will see them  again on the tail end of the trip. 

The next day we spent simply sitting with the canyon.  On the way to the Watchtower, we were told of a more secluded trail and view point not very far out of our way.  We decided to take it and were not sorry.  To our left and ahead of us was the canyon, great and glorious.  To the right was an endless expanse of desert marked by hills and mesas.  There we sat for much of the day, trying to even out our now starkly contrasting tan lines and absorbing as much as we could of this natural wonder.  After we had enough of the sun, we went back to the shade of our van until sunset when we headed back to the Watchtower.  We were in for one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen.  As the sun set beyond the canyon a tower of purple shot up above the orange and greens which lined the rim.  To the left of the tower of purple was a greenish blue which extended into the northern sky.  Along it ran high altitude clouds which, taking the purple color, created a layered effect which was both awe inspiring as well as calming.  That night we started reading the Hobbit in our tent and fell asleep to the thoughts of dwarves and wizards and seed cakes. 

The next morning we made sure to get up early to watch the sunrise which, not as spectacular as the sunset the night before, was nonetheless very beautiful.  As the sun crept over the horizon of the desert, it lit up various parts of the canyon and gave a view to what we had been looking at that was clear and subdued.  After we had our fill, we took down the campsite and hit the road.  We are now in the town of Page, which boarders the magnificent Lake Powell.  I have been sitting writing now for a good two hours on my second refill of coffee in a local coffeehouse.  Hopefully I'll be more regular in my posts in the future.  Until then, I'll be thinking of you all!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Yosemite, Sequoia, Family in Southern California

Oh boy it's been awhile! 6 days in Yosemite, 3 days in Sequoia, and now we've been in Central and Southern California for about a week. Unfortunately we've been mostly camera-less the entire time. I've taken some cell phone pictures, but without internet on my phone, I can't seem to figure out how to transfer them to a computer. There is much to tell about...

our first camp spot, right before Yosemite, was a view point called "The Rim of the World"

Yosemite is swarming with tourists-and with good reason, it’s amazingly beautiful and incredibly unique. We’ve only been on this See-America journey for a month, but I sure haven’t seen anything at all like it before. I think you could stare up all day long and not get sick of it, because the light shines on each rock face in vastly different ways during different times of the day and different seasons.

On the Mount Rainier trails we took, we only saw a few people during the day, and the trails were occasionally overgrown and hard to see. In the Redwoods we only saw a couple people more, and the improved trails were still just dirt and stone paths, with narrow, steep and winding parts. In Yosemite, nature feels a bit like a spectacle, it's like an amusement park of nature. The paths are paved and big enough for cars to go down and there are tourists and parking spaces every way you turn. Now, you may be thinking “But, Amber, you say ‘tourist’ like it’s a dirty word-you’re a tourist, too!” and you would be right. We are tourists, but I’m still using that word with a sour face a little bit. There seem to be 2 different types of tourists at Yosemite-those that are there to explore and experience the beautiful nature…And those that are there to do that, but go on trails in full makeup, perfume, and fancy clothes. They only take their ear buds out or set their iPhone down for a moment to take a picture, blast their music in the peaceful picnic areas, feed Cheetos to squirrels, trample across meadows instead of using the paved paths, make rude commentary about the Natives that had this land stolen from them to create the park, and litter their trash wherever they please. During our stay there I saw all of these things and more multiple times. There is definitely a reason why every 10 feet you see a sign warning of the $5000 fine if you’re caught feeding an animal, a list of reasons why NOT to feed an animal, a sign saying “Give nature a chance! Please keep off!” or the reason trashcans are everywhere. I was picking up litter everywhere I went. I talked with a little kid, who said his favorite parts about his trip was that he got to watch Wipeout in the hotel at night, and he loved feeding the squirrels. They got caught and almost fined, so he was trying to feed Seymour instead.

Anyways, I despise crowds and heat, so I got a little cranky-but still Yosemite’s beauty prevailed and made it an amazing experience. For my hike day I took a short hike to Bridalveil Falls and fell in love. I climbed the rocks and laid down, looking up at the falls for a few hours while I watched the sun come up from behind it. Bridalveil is a misty waterfall, and moves around down a sheer rock, changing direction according to the wind. At the point where the water starts to fall down, there are misty swirls dancing around, and with the sun shining in behind it, I had no choice but to sit and stare, enjoying the mist blowing across me.

Yosemite Falls, the tallest falls in North American, and our favorite ride-eh-attraction at the park

When the weekend came, we decided to hit up a less popular area-Hetch Hetchy lake/reservoir. Years ago it was dammed up to be used for the San Francisco area’s water and hydro-electric power. It had been a big, long battle between John Muir and other nature conservationists and the people of San Francisco. After the great earthquake and fire that they suffered, it became obvious that the people needed this water source, and John Muir lost. Well, I don’t know what Hetch Hetchy looked like before the dam, but I am inclined to think that it is even more protected now as a reservoir than if it had stayed public access. There is no swimming or boating on the lake and fishing is regulated. As a result, you have a less frequented part of the park, with a beautiful vast, untainted view of the water (except for the dam, but that’s not on the more beautiful side of it. When it was my turn to hike, I hiked to the big waterfall and sat and stared for 5 hours. Pictures can never do justice for the beautiful things we’re seeing, even if I was taking pictures with something better than a camera phone.

On our 6th day in Yosemite we went to the Mariposa Grove to see the Sequoia trees. We each did a 0.3 mile hike, reconvened at the van and realized we were just sick to death of tourists, moving around, hiking, and sleeping on the sides of roads. We were terribly home-sick and missed having a roof over our heads, a fridge and most importantly, our friends. We decided to search for a hotel that night, but our budget of $60 (which is a big splurge considering our weekly budget is $75 plus gas money) didn’t hold up, so we ended up at a rest area that was disgustingly hot after the sun went down, and had hundreds of semis driving on one side of us, and a busy train track on the other. Thank goodness we’ve just learned about Valerian Root’s sleepy powers, otherwise we never would have slept.

The next day we found a campsite at the Sequoia National Forest and didn't move for 4 days and 3 nights. It was a magical mental and emotional battery re-charge, I'll let John tell you about all the bears we saw.

So after 10 or so nights in the Yosemite/Sequoia area, we emerged from popular nature and came down to the Central Coast, in the Lompoc area where I grew up. We got spoiled rotten by my Aunt and Uncle Bill and Liz in Santa Maria. We basically spent another 2 nights not moving, but this time had a mattress, TV and cold milk to drink. It was wonderful to see family I don't get to see often!

We didn't have a working camera in Lompoc, but this is what a lot of it looked like when I grew up there; flower fields

Then we went down to Lompoc, and I gave John a tour of the town-which probably took about 40 minutes. We sat in the grass at the park, drove around, and went to the 99 cent store. After all the winding and steep hills we'd been going up and down, Luna the Car was starting to have brake problems. First she was getting shaky coming down hills, then she started screaching at us when we braked. So, we took her in and got the back brakes replaced. Definitely could have been worse!

We got spoiled yet again in Lompoc when a big crew of my family met us at Mi Amore, the best Italian food in Lompoc. Bill and Liz spoiled us yet again, and John got to meet and fall in love with my late Grandpa's girlfriend Peggy. We filled up like we wouldn't eat again in a month and said our see-ya-laters.

Our first night in Lompoc we slept on a side street. The second night, we had our first big experience of kind strangers. We had tried to go to the beach near town, but it was closed down for an endangered animal that nested there. We were sitting in the parking lot, when a guy came to lock the gate and kick us out. He asked us if we needed a place to sleep, and ended up directing us to another park just outside of town that he lived on. He locked the gate behind us and assured us the cops wouldn't come knocking. This was a glorious treat of a place to sleep! It was dark, quiet, safe, legal, and in the morning light we saw that it was beautiful, too. In the morning Dave and Bonnie, the couple that live in a bus at this park, made us a huge delicious breakfast while Bonnie chatted our ear off about everything from their battles against cancer to her husband's impotence. I'm happy to say that this kindness from these strangers happened in my old hometown. We said our thank yous and good-byes and headed on our way.

I got this pic from Rich. John, me and Rich in front of Luna. Yay!

That day we tried to be tourists in Solvang, but it ended up being too hot to move. We sat still in some shade until we felt brave enough to venture into the farmers market. We stuffed our faces with fruit, then headed on our way to Santa Ynez to see my cousin Rich. (Hi Rich!) We have never met as adults, and so it was great and a little odd to see each other. We got spoiled yet again, this time with homemade tacos, beer, garden fresh tomatoes, and many adorable cats and kittens. They let us sleep in their quiet driveway under the stars. It was very great to hang out and see what kinds of people we've become in adulthood, and getting to touch on early childhood memories with someone I haven't seen in such a long time, so he had a different set of them.

The next morning we headed out early for LA-John's dad lives in Monrovia, on the Northern edge of the sprawl. It looks like we aren't done being spoiled! We had been dreading LA, but it looks like it'll actually be a great experience.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Redwoods, Monastery and San Francisco/Bay Area, according to Amber

Hello again!

It feels like weeks since we've seen the internet! Every day has been filled with so many moments, so much growth and so much emotion. This journey has been getting more incredible with every point on the map. My life feels like it's on fire.

So we have entered California. California drivers are like Honey Badgers-They don't give a crap, the do what they want! I wonder what percentage of CA drivers are aware of blinkers? But then you use a blinker and 4 people behind you speed up to make sure you don't merge in front of them, and so you, too, become a crazy turn-the-turn-signal-on-as-you-turn drivers. Anyways, first up was the Redwoods, as John has told you below. My first hike into the Redwoods was a 12 mile round trip hike in the coastal Redwoods near Crescent City. The awe that Redwood trees inspire in every cell in your body is something that must be experienced. We could tell you all about them, post every picture and video we took, and you still have no idea. I thought I had an idea before, but holy moly I sure didn't. I was meandering down the path, marvelling at the smaller Redwood trees, thinking how even the smaller ones must be hundreds of years old, when BAM! Suddenly I'm standing underneath a tree so huge I can't see the top of it. The hike near Crescent Beach was one of the most magical experiences of my life. And it wasn't nearly as magical as the one I would take a few days later. (Which I also thought I had an idea about, but holy moly was I wrong again!)
(A sillier version of a face the trees inspire)

After the grueling 12 mile hike I returned home (aka the van :) ) and John made us dinner. As we were sitting down in the front seats getting ready to eat, a car pulled up in front of us. I felt immediately that the two girls were about to do something shady, despite the boy in the back seat (maybe 6 or 7 years old.) A few moments later another car pulls up next to us with 2 more girls. A girl gets out from each car and approached each other. The driver from car 1 pulls out a camcorder and the girls just start tearing into each other! Total cat fight, scratches and hair pulling, etc. With the 3 giant boulders surrounding them, and the seclusion of this parking spot, I thought things could get ugly fast. Plus there was a child watching, so I didn't hesitate to jump out and approach them. "Excuse me! Ladies! Is this appropriate with a child present?" --OMG I giggle a little to myself whenever I remember the words I chose. When did I become such an adult? They stopped fighting and retreated to their cars. Camcorder girl was eyeballing me, I think debating whether or not to give me the evil eye. I just hiked 12 miles so I felt badass. Honestly I don't care if trashy girls beat each other up, but when your kid or nephew is watching, I'm gonna get a no bullshit stance. So they left and we went back to eating. And I felt like a badass adult.

The next 3 days for me were days of rest. I ran up and down the beach with Seymour, we ran into the ocean and felt the waves on our bodies. I grew up near the ocean, and so I felt like a kid again, being purely sensory and enjoying the feel, smell and sights of the sand, ocean, sun and sky. It was almost as incredible as the Redwoods to feel that joy again.
(Take 40-50 or so small steps in a circle and you'll get an idea of the size of the base of these trees)

I went on the Trillium Falls hike the day after John did. He came back with magic in his eyes. "You know how majestic and incredible the coastal trail was the other day? Multiply that by 2. At least." No exageration, no joke. This trail was amazing, every moment of it. Again, the trees are indescribable. If you ever have the opportunity to go, please go. They look pretty in pictures, but...my... Plus if you think about how trees give us the oxygen that we breath, which our bodies then put into our cells, I am currently made up with some of the Redwoods-literally and figuratively. The Redwoods have stolen my heart. During this hike I took my time, meandering along with my jaw dropped, neck bent back as far as possible. I sat at one of the benches and started journaling. I found myself open, vulnerable and raw. I ended up crying and laying down some emotional baggage I didn't even realize I had at their roots. I'm kind of a crier, so don't feel uncomfortable or sad for me, it was beautiful. I was proud to be exposing myself to the trees in that way, and I somehow felt safe and vulnerable at the same time. I came back to the car lighter, freer, happier and more alive. The Redwoods will affect you in whatever way they will affect you. I can't tell you what you will feel, think or experience. You must go and see for yourself.

Ah! So after the experience of the great trees, we went to John's mother's monastery. I unfortunately never had the chance to meet Laura. It felt good to be surrounded by the imagery and words and most importantly, the people that meant so much to her. John showed me the icons that she wrote/painted and introduced me to the first monks I've ever met. As a non-religious person who has very little experience with churches, it was a very new experience for me. Their service is about 2.5 hours and standing. Dave and Dorris and all the monks treated us very well, and while we had had the intention to stay one night and one morning, we ended up staying from Friday evening until after the Sunday lunch. It is a beautiful place, and it should not be rushed. I felt very silent and peaceful.

(Our pretty good sleep spot for San Fran)

After all this peaceful silence of trees and temples, we head out to the chaos of San Francisco, which I had been very excited to see. My only experience had been short chunks of time before and after taking a Green Tortoise tour in 2007, and I had loved the little bit I had seen. However, San Francisco failed us on all fronts. We spent the first evening searching for a rest area that apparently only existed on the map. We ended up parking on a street near the Golden Gate Bridge that had a pretty decent view of the city and the bridge. That's where the decency ended. The next morning we head to downtown and end up wandering a business area looking for a coffee shop. The first maybe 6 we pass don't have power outlets. We finally find one and tie Seymour up outside. Some rich bitch (excuse my language, there is no other way to describe her) comes into Starbucks with a bleeding heart to the manager of how this poor dog is tied up outside. After getting so many dirty looks as we walked down the street (do we really look that much like bums already?!) I was sick of the higher than thou attitudes we were receiving and told her to back off, stop judging, the damn dog is fine. Soon after we wrapped up the computer and headed back to the car. We drove around trying to find a park to hang out at and gave up after all the deceptive streets and false maps. We spent about 4 crappy hours in San Francisco before heading on.

As John mentioned, we drove down HWY 130 for about 2 hours last night before we realized we were only a 5th of the way down. It was dark, the road was windy without ceasing, and we were running low on gas. "Highway to Hell" comes on the radio and we decide to cut our losses and turn around. We find an oasis by the name of In and Out and find our way to a rest area, about 3 hours after our normal bedtime.

(It was about 2-3 hours of driving, with a sheer drop on the side and this view of San Jose and a clear night sky.)

Today we prepare the car and our cooler for 6 days in Yosemite. So far so good on this trip. There have been days and moments of stress and terror like yesterday, but for the most part everything has been beautiful. I feel alive, and I'm purging myself of bad mental, emotional and health habits. John and I have always been cheesey in love, but if you saw us now you may vomit in your mouth a little. Our love is good, and it's such a blessing to be able to fall more in love with all these majestic backdrops.

I also want to take a moment to thank all of you for still paying attention to us! We miss everyone a lot, and I wish we had more times with internet connection and cell phone ranges to talk to everyone. I can't wait for face-to-face and heart-to-heart connections with everyone. Don't forget us! We sure aren't forgetting you guys. We often fantasize about seeing people again, like we used to fantasize about the trip.

Love love love to everyone!