It’s that time again

sky-yellowstone-national-park-usa-www.tourismprofile.com_

“Without leaps of imagination, or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning.” –Gloria Steinem

The second quinquennial Road Trip is no longer a dream, but is actually going to happen.  And I could not be more excited.  Actually, I could be.  I mean, I could win the lottery AND be going on another road trip. After much contemplation, the 2016 Road Trip will take me across the northern US and land me in the granddaddy of our national park system – the one that started them all – Yellowstone.

Yellowstone has been on my list for such a long time.  It’s been the proverbial unicorn – my white whale if you will.  I’ve decided that life is too short and that it needs to happen now.  So come May 2016, I’ll head back across the country, just as I did in 2011, with a new string of destinations, a new Jeep, and a whole new set of expectations to fulfill.  While Yellowstone is the focus, my planning also involves Grand Teton National Park and the surrounding areas.  The area itself is so beautiful that I’ll likely spend just as much time exploring the back country as I do inside the parks.  As I did in 2011, I picked up the best book I could find to help me do just that.

51gF9jam9cL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

This kind of pre-planning, the time, the research, the bookmarking, the highlighting, is now what takes up the small portion of free time that I might get in between changing planes, or waiting in traffic in the backseat of a taxi.  The Google Image Searches for iconic photography locations, the trip reviews, the forum threads – all slowly leading up to a road trip that I expect it to be.  2011 set the bar very high and I have faith I can do it again.  (And hopefully every 5 years after that.)

Part of all of this planning adds an element that most people don’t bother with – vehicle prep.  In 2011, I took my then 2010 Jeep Grand Cherokee on the journey.  Knowing the terrain I wanted to cover, I ended up slightly modifying it (a small lift, off road tires, etc) to better suit my needs of exploration.

DSC_0810compressed

In 2016, the 2015 Jeep Wrangler will earn its Rubicon / Trail Rated badge and take me back into the wild.  As much more capable as this Jeep is over the last, the destinations are also much more challenging.  For that reason, in addition to all of this logistical planning, I’m also undertaking what I like to call “Project:  Overland”.  

Overlanding is self-reliant overland travel to remote destinations where the journey is the principal goal. Typically, but not exclusively, it is accomplished with mechanized off-road capable transport (from bicycles to trucks) where the principal form of lodging is camping, often lasting for extended lengths of time (months to years) and spanning international boundaries – or so says Wikipedia.  Basically, I’m going to try and live out of my Jeep the entire time.  That requires certain gizmos, gadgets, and equipment.  Project:  Overland is about my pre-adventure of making my Wrangler into that support vehicle.  And because I love to tinker, it’s has become a fun way to familiarize myself with all the engineering and nuances of this vehicle should I need to fix something on the road.

Well, that’s enough for now, but with the trip preparations picking up, I’ll be posting here much more often.  And with Project: Overland keeping me busy on the side, I’ll likely post topics about that as well.  Stay tuned and I’ll drag you through the lead up and adventure along the way.

“Don’t worry, I got this…” 

xn92yd

Want to get away?

“Choosing to live your life by your own choice is the greatest freedom you will ever have.” -Dr. Shad Helmstetter

Last year at this time, I was well on my way in to planning what was the best vacation I have ever taken.  This year, not so much.  And it’s not from lack of interest, just lack of time and the small detail of not having picked a destination yet.  Pfft, details.

The good news is that I have figured out where I don’t want to go.  The southeast US is out.  I’ve seen everything there is to see there and many things I really never wanted to see in the first place.  From palm trees to pines, from rednecks to rampant tourism, been there, done that.

So what IS on the list for the last year before the world ends? Well, I figure last year, as awesome as it was (and would repeat it in a heartbeat), was mostly desert backed.  This year should be a little different.  So without further delay…
Option 1:  The Great American Road Trip Part Deux.  This trip would involve a drive back across the country again, retracing my tracks from 2011 only to break off toward Yellow Stone National Park.  I’d revisit Rocky Mountain National Park because I only got a half day there last trip.  Then at Yellowstone, I’d spend a good deal there hiking and exploring, and truth be told, could easily spend my entire trip there.  From there I’d head northwest towards the coast, passing through Idaho and on to Seattle for a little civilized tourism and hike Olympia National Park.  Leaving Seattle I’d head south and drive down the coastline along highway 101 and then back east.  If there’s time I’d head back to Zion National Park to FINALLY hike the Narrows.  As you may recall that dream of mine still remains unfulfilled.  Then back home retracing that drive of mine that I’ll never forget and the sunset the acted as my copilot.

Option 2:  The Great North Atlantic Adventure.  I’ve always said that I didn’t get enough time in Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor (one of my favorite places on earth).  This time, with my kayak on top, I’d make my way back up the eastern seaboard toward Bar Harbor, ME, spend a few days in Acadia again to pick up the things I didn’t get to do last time.  From there I’d head north to Baxter State Park to get my hiking fix and jump over to Allagash Wilderness Waterway State Park.  From there, I cross the border in to Canada and live out the rest of my life head to the coast through Fredericton with the goal of Nova Scotia.  Then I’d ferry on over to St. John’s for views like this:

It’s true.  I will probably request political asylum.

Option 3:  Getting LOST in Hawaii.  Without a doubt the most expensive option, but possibly the most rewarding.  The plan involves visiting Pearl Harbor to pay my respects and then getting the hell away from everyone on the most unpopulated island and tracking down vistas that look like this:

Yeah, exactly.  I’m not going to beat around the bush here.  Drop me on this path and you may never see me again until they film Castaway 2.  I’ve already purchased a volleyball.  Other than exploring an active volcano, I have no interest in the commercialism of Hawaii.  Just me and my rented Jeep are all I need.

So those are my top three choices for 2012.  Knowing what it took to reserve the prime locations that I did for last year’s trip, I’m concerned that I’m starting my planning late.  With Option 1, I’d have to research Yellowstone, figure out campsite, trails, and the same for the subsequent parks.  Option 2, I could probably do on a much shorter notice and spend more time because it’s closer, and Option 3 is just a money sink, which again I’d need to do a lot of research on.

I have plenty of time before May rolls around, but I value my vacation time like nothing else, and so I put my all in to making sure I get the most enriching experience I can out of it.  The goal to to try and top the previous year’s trip.

2011 set the bar pretty high.

That recurring feeling

Souvenirs are perishable; fortunately, memories are not” – Susan Spano

I don’t usually buy a lot of souvenirs when I travel.  Everything I want to remember is in my head as a memory and (hopefully) captured within my photographs.  I may pick up something small here or there, or if I find that I need something that I may have forgotten, I’ll purposely pick up a replacement that is branded with the place I’m visiting.

That said, this trip was a little different.  Sure the 1,600+ photos instantly transport me back to that moment in time but this trip was so epic (in my mind) that I felt I needed something else.  A totem that would, with one glance, pull me back, not just to one park, but the entire region.  What could possibly remind me of all of the places I’ve been?  What are the constants?  At the very core, I decided it all came down to two things…

Rocks and sand.

As I explored the tourist trap gift shops they all had the same items.  Some stores even solely dedicated their business to selling rocks.  Kids loved the polished rocks, I was drawn to the sandstone art.  Hmm, sand and rock.  I guess you could say, that kills two birds with one…..  *puts on sun glasses*     …stone.

Yes, I know they are touristy and I know I paid way too much for a large sandstone paperweight, but the rock striations caught my eye and every time I pass it sitting on my shelf I’m reminded of hiking the canyons and the campgrounds I spent so much time in.

Another thing I have gotten in to the habit of doing is picking up a “DVD postcard”.  (See top image)  Another touristy item, these are professionally produced DVDs that are wrapped in a cardboard envelope that is designed to be written on like a postcard.  I’ve found these to be a constant at each National Park I visit.  They are nothing but scenic shots of the park with some soothing background music in some cases.  I’ve started to collect them as I hit these parks.  They come in handy when relatives visit or when I just feel like quickly revisiting the park without digging through my photos.  My disc from Acadia is absolutely beautiful.  I haven’t had a chance to watch my new ones yet.

Browsing the “book stores” and I emphasize “book store” because it seems National Parks no longer have “gift shops”.  They have changed their name to “book stores” .  They are now, and always will be gift shops to me.  I come across a book that I’ve seen before, have always wanted to pick up, but just never have.  Yes, I could have gotten it for half the price just about anywhere else, but I thought where better to buy Ansel Adams’ National Park book than inside a National Park.  It wasn’t about the cost, it was about the fact that whenever I look through that book now, I’ll be reminded where I got it and the joy that the trip gave me.

If you’ve never had the opportunity to page through this book, do yourself a favor, swing by a library or Barnes and Noble and do so.  This Google Image search will give you a taste of his talent.  In an age before digital cameras, Adams’ photographic eye was king.

Last but not least, I bought a cheesy recycled glass coffee mug.  This was one of those items that I intended to use for hot chocolate while I was camping or on the porch at night, not wanting to “contaminate” my water bottles with coco mix.  Never.  Even. Used it.

I’ve been extremely busy trying to dig out from the work I missed, but in between I’ve also started drafting the epilogue for this trip.  To say a trip was life changing is a pretty strong label.  But during all that time outdoors doing what I’ve always wanted to do, something changed in me  I’ve had a lot of time to figure out what I really want out of life and how I can go about achieving that. The blueprints of my master plan have been drafted.

Stay tuned.

The Green Table

There is something even more valuable to civilization than wisdom, and that is character” – Henry Louis Mencken

Mesa Verde was more than I was prepared for.  This National Park sits atop a huge mesa (go figure) covered in vegetation (green – verde, go figure again).  Once you enter the park you immediately snake your way around the mesa after about 18 miles, and close in on the top.  The mesa itself is huge, and I was not expecting the park to be anywhere near this size.  I admit that I hadn’t researched this park as I had the others on my trip.  This park was sort of the afterthought.  I see now that I have underestimated this place.

The weather here is pretty much perfect.  About 75 degrees and a slight breeze.  I stop at the campground registration station and see that they have very nice facilities for shopping, showering, and laundry.  Probably the nicest all-around I’ve seen on this trip.  Your reservation here reserves you a spot, not a site.  So it’s first come, first serve.  It’s about 5pm so I figure I’m screwed.  I head on down to the tent area and to my delight, there’s several “neighbor-less” spots still left.  That will fill by the end of the night.  Apparently my site is sitting on top of a huge buried rock because each stake I pound in hit said rock and bends in half.  Nice.  Note to self, purchase new tent stakes.

Except for some screaming kids and a baby that won’t stop crying, the campground is pretty quiet.  (Hey, we just had a baby, you know what would probably be awesome, if we took him/her CAMPING!  What a GREAT idea.)  Lots of backpackers and hikers here.  I fill out some postcards and cook diner when a couple decides to pick the spot next to me.  They are German.  (I’m not kidding.)   I hope that someday I can go visit Germany.  I expect to see nothing but Americans.  I have every intention of making it an early night, being up and packed by the time the Visitors Center opens the next day.  Because of the archaeological sensitivity of some of these cliff dwellings, only Ranger-led tours are allowed to visit them.  I intend to be on the first one.

The first Ranger tour of the Cliff Palace (the largest of all the cliff dwellings) starts at 9:00am and it’s sold out – already.  I grab the 9:30am ticket and drive on down to the meet up point which is an overlook from where the top image is taken.  There is a Ranger there already but it doesn’t dawn on me that he’s guiding the 9am tour.  He’s wandering around and looks at my Penn State hat and asks if that’s where I went to school.  I answer yes and he tells me he’s from Pittsburgh and went to IUP.  Small world.  We chat about PA for a while and he says it’s time to start his tour. He seems like a pretty cool guy, probably a few years younger than me.  He was obviously trained well as he knew a lot about the park history.   I think to myself, bummer I’m not on that tour, he probably has some interesting things to say.  I could learn a lot.

I wander around a little more to kill time and groups of new people start to file in for the 9:30 tour.  They are all German.  In fact, some of the SAME PEOPLE I saw over two weeks ago at Arches National Park!  There are 60 people on my tour, 3 of them were Americans.  It’s blowing my mind.

I’m snapping a few more photos when I turn around and see a female Park Ranger walking down the steps.  She was walking down the steps in slow motion, her hair was blowing in the wind, and I think I heard angels singing at one point.  Maybe it was Jimi Hendrix’s Foxy Lady.  What?  Nobody else saw that?  (I have a thing for women in uniform.) Regardless, my first thought was – tour guide UPGRADE!  She cracks a smile and starts to make her way around the crowd.   All the Germans are chatting with each other (how convenient for me) and so I say “good morning”.  Seemingly delighted to find someone who speaks English, she stops to chat.  Turns out she went to school at Berkley.  As a NPS Ranger, she is required to move 4 times a year and has only been at Mesa Verde for two weeks after being at Arches.  I’m impressed by how much she knows about Mesa Verde for only being here 2 weeks.  She says they are required to ramp up to speed really fast when they rotate.  Of course she could have been talking about mathematical theory for all I care, she had a killer smile.

She leads us down to the palace where she explains that we are not to touch or sit on the ruin’s walls and begins the history lesson.  In between my undivided attention stints, I manage to snap a few photos.

I was generally surprised at how close they let a large group of people get to these ruins.  I was also amazed at the ability that these people had to climb in and out of these structures.  You can see the footholds and hand holds on the cliff side that they used to use more than 800 years ago.  With the exception of the Park Ranger and the guy dead center in the plaid shirt, every person in the photo below is German.  Again, not that it matters, just pointing it out.  By the end of my trip I could pick them out just from mannerisms and clothing.  They always deck themselves in American flag garb.  Maybe in an effort to blend in?

It is largely thought that the Cliff Palace was the “downtown” of the tribes, or a meeting place for ceremonial activities.  There are single family dwellings across the ravine.  She explained that if you were to stand at the top of the mesa at night, you might see thousands of small campfires in this ravine 800 years ago.  Very cool.

To exit the Cliff Palace, there’s a series of connected ladders that retrace the original access that the tribe used.  It was very cool to walk the same path that they did years ago.

There are 5 (visit-able) cliff dwelling locations at Mesa Verde, some more elaborate than others and hundreds in all.  Some take a little hiking to get to, which means even more switchbacks.  At least these were paved.  Many dwellings, such as the Cliff Palace required multiple sets of ladders to get to.

There’s a museum and a few restaurants as well.  I also noticed several groups of wild horses roaming the mesa top, many of which were standing in the middle of the road.  All in all, this was a great park and a pleasant surprise on which to end my trek.

Tomorrow I make my way back home, a day early (due to my extra day at Zion not doing the Narrows).  This is a good thing, because I tend to take some back roads and explore small town America a bit.  I thought about work for the first time in nearly 17 days today.  Now I just have to figure out how to institute a mid-life career change.  I have a long drive to think that one over.

Auf wiedersehen!

Chad – 1, North Kaibab Trail – 0

This post is going to be drastically different from the normal posts because I’m mentally and physically exhausted.  You see, I’ve hiked from the top of the Grand Canyon down to the bottom (notice I said bottom and not river), and then back up today.  It’s taken me all day; 15 hours.  I took a lot of pictures, went through 3 full refills on my camelbak pouch and just about killed myself doing this.  But you know what?  I can say I did it. We went 12 rounds and I beat it.  I’m sore, tired and dirty.

So rather than a narrative about how my day went, the following is a series of thoughts that ran through my head at different times during the day

5:15am

Jesus, it’s freezing and there’s ice hanging off my tent.  Maybe I should just skip the Kaibab and relax back at the cabin today.

6:00am

Finally at the trailhead.  There’s hardly anyone here yet.  Good, I like getting on my way before the crowd.

Should I take my trekking poles?  Nah, my camera will be in my hands most of the time.

Wow, this trail is covered in mule shit and smells like the livestock barn at a county fair.

Hmm, this descent angle is pretty steep.  There are a lot of switchbacks here.  This is going to be rough coming back up.

6:15am

Oh wow, the trail is starting to open up, what a beautiful view.

I wonder how far down I should go?  I know it’s going to take twice as long going back up.  I’m making good time, let’s push it a little.

6:30am

Wow, the further down I go the more beautiful this view gets.

Ok, this is starting to get really steep. Man, I am NOT looking forward to coming back up this.

What a beautiful day this turned out to be after last nights horrible mess.

7:00am

Oh wow, I’m at my first water station, I’m making pretty good time.

Look at these other hikers with their trekking poles.  pa-tink pa-tink pa-tink, all down the hill.  At least I can hear them coming up behind me.

Mules.  Bunch of lazy bastards.  Hike down like the rest of us.  It’s called exercise.  Does that mule ride swing you through the McDonald’s drive-in when you’re done?

Oh look, a tunnel, I wonder what’s on the other side?

Holy shit.  Look at all those switchbacks!  Ugh, THAT is going to destroy me coming back up, but it’s so early I can’t turn back now.

8:00am

I wish my ears would stop popping.

Getting warm now.  Time to shed some layers of clothing.

Oh wow, look at that view.

I pity these people carrying their 50lb packs down here to camp.  Having to come back up this with that added weight would be hell.

Oh look a bridge.  Wow, I’m close to the footbridge and I haven’t even broken a sweat yet.

9:00am

Ok, well, I guess I wasn’t as close to the footbridge as I thought.  But it’s getting closer!

What’s that sound?  Sounds like heavy blowing winds but there’s barely any breeze at all.

9:30am

Whew, made it to the footbridge.  I should take a picture of how far down I’m come so far.

Now I should take a picture of the other direction to show how much is left.

Wow, still a long ways to go.

Despite my impending horrible climb back up, this keeps getting better and better as I go down.  I’m glad I chose to do this instead of skip it.

It’s still pretty early, let’s see how far I can get by noon, each lunch and then head back.  That’s the plan and I’m sticking to it.

Oh this is a cool little bend in the trail.  Whoa, that’s a pretty steep drop off.  I think I’ll stick to the inside.

Wow, every corner I turn it the scenery gets better and better.  You certainly don’t get this view from the top.

10:00am

Wait a minute, why am I going up again!?

Whew, it’s getting kind of warm now.

I should have had more than an apple for breakfast.  At least I can stop for lunch soon.

11:00am

It’s amazing how much sound carries in this canyon.  I can clearly hear people’s conversations that are near the top of the trail.

Well, I knew that leveling out was too good to last.  Back down again.  Ugh, and it’s stairs instead of a ramp too.  That makes for a rough return trip.

This is REALLY going to be tough going back up, but I REALLY want to see what’s around the next corner.

Oh, look at this little rock bridge.  I guess if it can hold a mule it can hold me.

That wind noise keeps getting louder but I still don’t feel any wind.  This is weird.  Maybe it’s just an echo of the breeze off the canyon walls.

Wait a minute, oh wow, that’s no wind.  That’s a HUGE waterfall falling out of the middle of the canyon all the way to the bottom!  This is gorgeous!

Wow, how can I get this whole thing in the picture and still convey the size of it?  (That’s what she said?) This is impossible.

11:30am 

Getting close to lunch, I’m starving.

Oh almost to Cottonwood.  That’s a good place to eat lunch.

12:00pm

Whew, made it to Cottonwood!

Ah, lunchtime. Time to shed these layers of clothing, unzip the convertible pants into shorts and eat my tuna salad packets.

Hmm, there’s quite a few people passing through here now.  Geez, those packs look heavy, haven’t these people ever heard of ultralight?  Yeah, I’ll be passing you on the way back up.

Funny that I haven’t run into an Germans today.  Maybe their bus tour is over.

I should change my camera lens for the trip back up and take some zoom shots.  Hey look, there’s a butterfly on the other side of the canyon.  And a lizard.

1:00pm

It’s really too bad I didn’t decide to do this as an over night trip.  It’s only 7 more miles to the Colorado River and nearly flat.  I’ve done the hard part already.  I really should head back.  Ugh.

Oh, I need to refill my water first.

Ugh, look at that.  Can the helicopter just come down and get me?

1:30pm

Starting to breathe deeply now.  Slow and steady, this isn’t a race.

Ok, wasn’t such a great idea.

Ok, short break.  Then more stairs.  Miles and miles of stairs.

2:00pm

What’s that noise?  Whoa!  Where the hell did THAT come from?!?!   Holy shit!  That’s a rattlesnake!

I think I need to change my pants.  I’m totally not going any closer until that thing leaves.  Go somewhere else, you’re in my path.

Oh my God that scared the shit out of me.  Glad it moved off.  Whew!  Calm down, Chad.  I need to slow down and take my time.

2:30pm

Man, my legs are burning and I’m sweating like crazy.

There’s the waterfalls again.  I should just go dip my head in one.  I need to take another break.

This spring water is awesome.

3:00pm

Where the hell is that footbridge?

Ugh, more mules.  Smile and wave as they go by.  Fake laugh at their little comments about how tired I look.

I swear to God if one more person on a mule says that looks tough, I’m ripping them off their mule and shoving their face in mule shit.

Damn this camera is heavy with the zoom lens attached.  At least I can use it to look ahead – ah there’s the footbridge!

3:30pm

ATTENTION Brain:  This is the legs, we will not be following instructions anymore today until we are safely in a vehicle.

Wow, this may have been the dumbest thing I’ve ever done.

I wish I had my trekking poles.

WTF are these two jackasses doing?  Are they RUNNING the North Kaibab Trail?  These guys are in TEAM USA uniforms and RUNNING the trail – two wide. I don’t think they even see me here.  There’s no room for 3 wide on this ledge idiot, stop running and move over!  Why are you still running at me full speed?  That’s it buddy, I’m bracing to put my shoulder into your skinny ass because I have nowhere to go and you are NOT pushing me over this cliff.  Yeah, you see me not moving now don’t you jackass?  Uphill travelers have the right of way and you don’t need to be RUNNING on this hazardous trail.

Haha, your running hat blew off down the side of the canyon!   HAHAHAHAHAHA! (and yes, I actually did laugh out loud at that.)

4:00pm

Oh God, make the pain go away.

That’s it, this camera is going in my pack, I can’t carry it anymore.  It’s like an anchor.

Oh no, my camelbak is empty.  I need a break anyway.  Time to use my reserve bottle to empty into the camelbak.

Oh no, I sat down and now I can’t get back up.  Maybe I can camp right here.

If one more cheerful person on their way down asks if I’m OK, I’m pushing them off this ledge.  Yeah, we’ll see how cheerful you are on the way back woman.

5:00pm

I think I’m having a heart attack.

I can’t feel my legs anymore.

I need to take more breaks.  Maybe one every two switchbacks.  Yes, that’s my new goal.

5:30pm

Stop smiling at me you lazy donkey riders!  Wait, don’t leave, can I get a ride?

Ok, new goal:  pick a tree or rock and make that the waypoint for the next break.

Ack, my camelbak is empty again.  I know there’s a water station up here somewhere.

6:00pm

Oh water!  Thank God.  Don’t mind me passersby, I’m just bathing in your spring water.

I smell mule shit, I have to be getting close.

I don’t remember it being this long on the way down.

7:00pm

…it’s the eye of the tiger, it’s the cream of the fight…

It’s getting a little chilly now.  Maybe if I wasn’t soaked in sweat, that wouldn’t be a problem.

Maybe if I push a rock over on myself they will have to chopper me out.

7:30pm

I can hear cars again.  I never thought I’d be excited to hear the sound of a car in the middle of the woods!

Ok, I think I remember this part.  Not much further now.

8:30pm

Chad, you are such a pussy.  Breaks every 100 feet.  What’s wrong with you?

It’s got to be the thin air.  I’m from Delaware, I have an excuse for not being used to this elevation.

That’s a sad excuse.  And why are you now talking to yourself?

9:00pm

I can see the parking lot but my legs won’t move.  Move legs, MOVE!  There’s food and water in the Jeep, GO!

I think I’m dying.  Come get me Jeep!  Save me!

I can’t even drive, I’m so exhausted.  Having a hard time keeping my eyes open.  Oh, a country store.  I need two Mountain Dew’s, two Snickers bars, and a bag of Doritos.

I should get gas.  Hey kid, I’ll give you $5 if you pump my gas for me.

OYMYGODTHISMOUNTAINDEWANDSNICKERSREALLYHITTHESPOTANDNOWI’MWIDEAWAKE!

And that was my day.

Ain’t Life Grand?

The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. The resources of the graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail.” – John Wesley Powell

To break up the pace a little I scheduled my visit to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon for a Sunday and Monday.  I left base camp that morning thinking, “oh, I’ll be heading south into Arizona to hike the Grand Canyon, that means shorts and a t-shirt.”  That was a bad call on my part.  It was about 65 degrees when I left the cabin this morning, with only the promise of getting warmer and sunnier.  As I drove south, up and over the mountain and descended toward the North Rim, I noticed the outside temperature steadily falling, and falling and falling.  When I stopped at the front gate to flash my pass, the Ranger was warming thermal gear.  Seriously, Mother Nature?  Seriously?  The place where you have to worry about dehydration and heat exhaustion and 120 degree temperatures was having a cold (and windy- VERY VERY VERY windy) spell.

Why do you hate me so much Mother Nature, when I have nothing but love for you?

I roll on down to the campground and check in with another Ranger.  She tells me that the wind gusts are hitting 55mph and there’s a 20% chance of snow tonight.  There I am standing in shorts and a t-shirt.  I assure her the first thing I’m doing is changing.  The North Rim camp ground is nice.  It’s laid out very well and there are a lot of services available to accommodate all types of campers, be it long-term, short-term, RV, tent or cabin.  There’s a little general store that is stocked better than my Walmart back home.

I make my way to tent site 06, an end site that I reserved about a year ago, and I’m getting excited to see my digs.  My site does not disappoint.  I hardly notice the wind blasting through the campground as I make my way to the back of my site and take my first picture.

Satisfied with my site research and early reservations, I break out the tent and perform some sort of dance with it in the wind as I attempt to stake it down to keep from blowing away.  This is the hardest blowing wind I’ve ever camped in.  I’ve also never had to use both my metal and plastic sand stakes to hold my tent in place.  It’s blowing that hard.  When the sun dips behind the clouds it gets down right cold.  Since it’s lunchtime, I fire up the Jetboil again for a quick meal, put everything away and set out to explore.  Lucky for me (actually, I planned it) the trail runs right behind my campsite.  I make my way around the rim trail stopping to take pictures.  Each spot I stop at is better than the previous one.  I eventually get around to a few lookout points that sit out over the canyon.  The wind was so strong that I had to pack away my hat and wait until it stopped gusting before I could even get steady enough to take a picture.  It was literally one hand on the camera and the other on the railing otherwise I’d be blown down in to the canyon.

The North Rim isn’t that big of a place, from a trail perspective.  It’s famous for the start of the North Kaibab Trail but doesn’t get as many visitors as the South Rim does per year.  The Visitors Center, which is usually pretty impressive for National Parks of this caliber was merely a little cabin too cramped to turn around it.  My Kaibab hike is planned for daybreak tomorrow, at least as far as I can get and back in a day.  For now I circle back around to camp, where I make myself some hot chocolate and gather tinder for a fire.  I wave and make casual conversation to random people passing by on the rim trail.  Each one comments about the wind.  I tell them it’s not windy over here where I’m standing to keep the mood light.  After picking up two bundles of dried wood at the general store, my fire is roaring (and toasty) thanks to my little friend “lighter fluid”.  I decided to build an elevated stacked square fire and let this gale-force wind help me keep the embers stoked.  It worked flawlessly.  Finally, something goes my way.

The closest tent to mine, about 100 yards off,  is large enough to hold a convention in.  It’s only a guy and his girlfriend, who I can clearly tell wants nothing to do with the outdoors.  Poor guy, he’s driving a Jeep too.  A Ranger makes his rounds and asks if everything is OK.  I wave and ask him to turn the wind down a notch.  It got a chuckle.  Ugh, tonight’s going to be another one of those “assume the mummy sleeping bag position” nights.  It’s Kaibab at dawn with some of the best chances for photos of the Canyon.

Hoodoos, Hammers and Hemlocks

Rocks are records of events that took place at the time they formed. They are books. They have a different vocabulary, a different alphabet, but you learn how to read them.” -John McPhee

After visiting Zion, Bryce Canyon was next on my list.  I’d only seen pictures and heard accounts of other people’s experiences, but I was just about as fired up as I was for Zion.

Bryce Canyon is a little further away from base camp than Zion was, but only about 60 miles.  Considering how close these parks are, they are worlds apart in landscape.  That’s why I love Utah.

To get to Bryce Canyon National Park, you must pass through Red Canyon.  Red Canyon is this short little stint of road that has two cool little archways that you drive through.  Cool enough to stop and take a picture, but nothing to write home about.  (sorry for the over exposure, I’ll fix it when I get home)

As one of the first people in the park (surprise, surprise) I swing in to the visitors center to check out the latest information.  After the little Narrows fiasco, I’m fully prepared for them to tell me that Thor’s Hammer has fallen over and smashed in to a billion pieces.  (I’ll get to Thor’s Hammer later, just know for now it’s a main attraction here.)  The park is like any other, with camping, and trails and it even looks unusually normal – that is, until you hike back through the trees to the amphitheater.  I took my first steps out from the trees and found myself on the top of an outer rim trail that encircled what is known as the Queen’s Garden.  My jaw dropped as I thought for an instant I was looking at Mars.

Hoodoos, which are the totem-like sandstone rock formations stand perfectly balanced throughout the park.  Some in clusters with others, some as singular units.  Looking at some I wonder how they don’t just topple over.

The first thing on my mind is, how to I get closer to these things.  I find myself a path that leads down in to the canyon, through something the park service refers to as “Wall Street”.  As I round the corner I can see why.  After following a series of switchbacks (that seems to be a recurring phrase this trip) I being to descend down into a dark, tiny slot canyon.  (pictured below)

I feel like a little kid again when I see an hobbit-sized hole in the wall that you must step through to continue forward. I gladly do my best Bilbo Baggins impression and waddle right on through.

I descend into Wall Street, which has nothing to do with money, but the fact that you’re surrounded by towering canyon walls.  It’s dark and I remember reading that light only hits the bottom of this canyon at noon.  Voices of those around me are echoing off the canyon walls.  Naturally they’re all in German, because, yes, they have invaded this park too.

Pressing forward, I see a beam of light shining down on two lonely trees.  I think to myself how amazing it is that deep in this canyon, where almost no light gets in, that two trees have defied the odds and found a way to break free and flourish.  Life finds a way.

I continue on down the path and marvel at the rest of the wonders in the park.  Such a strange place.  So very different from anything I’ve ever seen.  I wander around in awe of everything I’m seeing, snapping pictures like it was my job.

The park is relatively small compared to Zion and I wrap up in just about a half day. There’s one final stop to make on the way out and that’s a visit to Thor’s Hammer.  Why do they call it Thor’s Hammer you ask?  Well, because it looks like Thor’s Hammer sticking out of a rock…

With a newly found half-day to fill, I decide to start my off-road exploring a bit early by hitting a nearby trail. My guidebook was dead on accurate with its description but as I climbed my way to the top I found that the trail was blocked by some serious downed timber.  There was supposed to be an outstanding view at the top.  Fallen trees were in the road at several spots but many had been cut through.  This last one, in combination with the snow on the ground was a little too much for me to handle today.

Although I did not make it to the top of the trail this day, tomorrow I have a full day planned to track down some ghost towns and views of Lake Powell.

Ascension

Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.” – Albert Einstein

Zion National Park.  The crown jewel of my trip.  My expectations were high from the moment I started planning this trip.  The beauty would not disappoint me, but unfortunately Mother Nature strikes at my heart once again.

The park visitor center opened at 8am.  I was pulling in to the parking lot at 8:01am.  You think I was a bit excited?  There were two main things I wanted to do here:  hike to the top of Angel’s Landing and prove that my discomfort of heights was all psychological and that I would not be  bothered by heights anymore.  And then I wanted to hike The Narrows.  Considered to be one of the top 5 hike in the world, this was the driving factor for me taking this trip.  I brought both sets of hiking gear (normal and water hiking) in case after checking with the rangers on the conditions, it would be better to go today, then I’d save Angel’s Landing for tomorrow.

I walked in to the Visitors Center / Ranger Station and looked on the board.  It listed temperature hi/lo, some other information and then BAM, it hit me like a truck.  The next line read:  The Narrows trail is closed due to extraordinary snow melt runoff.  At first I thought it wasn’t real.  Someone was playing a joke on me.  Maybe I didn’t read it correctly.  I read it again.  And again.  My shock started to turn to rage and I felt like pulling a Clark W. Griswold.  There was no one at the desk yet because I was there so early.  I needed more information.  I would rearrange my trip to do this in a heartbeat.  When will it reopen?  Just then, a ranger, who had to be pushing 70, stepped out from the back and asked if he could help me.  I inquired about the closure and he explained that it was a very weird thing.  The Narrows has NEVER been closed this late in the year but the record snowfall this winter and subsequent flooding is making it too dangerous.  He went on to explain that their hydrologists are estimating end of June before it will reopen.  My heart sunk.  I attempted to play the pity card and explained that I’ve driven out here all the way from Delaware just to hike The Narrows.  I even joked about signing my life away on some waiver if he’d let me go.  He seemed genuinely sorry, but I was left with a lump in my stomach.  I didn’t know what to do now.  I got all confused as if I was lost and wasn’t sure what to do next.  I actually had to walk back to the Jeep and sit down to recollect myself.  I can handle bad weather or screaming, rabid children, but crush my dream and it’s over.  Needing to quickly fill the void in my soul, I decided that I was going to tackle Angel’s Landing.

I board the shuttle bus (the park is huge and in an effort to reduce human impact, they don’t let you drive past certain points – pictured above) with a group of climbers. They are all very scruffy looking, extreme sports-types with their rope, and carabiners hanging off their packs.  There are also several German tourists on board as well.  In fact, throughout the day I meet more German hikers than Americans.  Come to find out, there are 27 bus loads of German tourists in town.  Apparently they thought David Hasselhoff was playing at Zion or something.  Anyway, back to the story.

I start down the trail toward Angel’s Landing.  It’s only 5.4 miles roundtrip but it’s ALL up hill on huge grades.  Then it’s straight up climbing from there.  There are signs warning you that you will die if you screw around.

The path slope begins to increase – rapidly.  Before I know it I’m shedding outer layers of clothes like they’re on fire.  You can see the nice, level path from the canyon floor below and then shit gets real. The switchbacks are just the beginning.

The path juts into the rock face and increases in slope.  I’m sucking wind at this point but still steadily moving.

Then I reach the “wiggles”.  A park manager named Walter decided that he wanted to make people earn the view at the top of Angel’s Landing (not really) so he (ingeniously) created a very steep, very draining series of switchbacks dubbed “Walter’s Wiggles”.  It’s tough to get a perspective on these from a picture but I tried.  Just take however intimidating you think they might be and double it.   See how tiny that guy is at the bottom?

At the top of the wiggles, I’m feeling my age.  After a short break I push on toward the hard stuff.  I put my DSLR camera away for this climb because I needed to be balanced and I also needed to use both hands to pull myself up on things.  You don’t get any pictures of me climbing up because I didn’t want to die.  As I got higher and higher I never really had any issues with height.  Even looking down and enjoying the view while waiting for others to pass by.  In fact, I let go of the safety chain many times, standing on the very edge while others who were obviously having height issues passed grasping for their lives.  I never really had a “fear” of heights, per se, sometime they make me uneasy.  And this hike proved that it’s all in my head.  I’ve always been pretty sure-footed, for the most part and once I got into my rhythm I was scampering up rocks like nothing.

Many, many people turned back after going 3/4 up because of the sheer intimidation factor.  Only a select few pushed forward.  I was determined to be one of them.  Where I’m standing taking the picture below, is where most people stopped and said “screw this”.  But this was a life goal, and I’ll be damned if I was going to turn back now.  Climbing up the back of the beast was what I came here for.  What this picture doesn’t convey is scale.  The footpath was maybe about 3 feet wide at points with nothing but a 1,400 foot drop on both sides.  Intimidating.

Pushing onward, my heart raced as I grew closer and closer to the top.  The entire time I was thinking, man, I have to climb back down this same way, but that was only secondary to standing at the top of this thing.  I was also starving and was looking forward to eating my lunch up top.  Moments later I crested the last rock and what I saw before me was absolutely the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Neither my words nor my pictures can even come close to conveying what I’ve experienced climbing up here.  The feeling of personal achievement and the reward of a sight that others can only see in photos is almost spiritual.

There were a few other people sitting at the top when I got there.  It was dead silence.  Each of us just taking it all in as if time suddenly stood still.  One of them spoke up and said “Excuse me, could you take our picture?” – in German, of course.

And that’s how I found out about the 27 busses full of Germans.

To infinity and beyond

Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”-
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Why, I believe that sign has my name written all over it.  After a rough night, tent leaking again, crappy campground, etc, at the first sign of rain stoppage, I threw everything in the Jeep without even rolling up my tent.  I folded it, wet and sandy in to a garbage bag, said a few choice words and left camp.  It was dawn and I was anxious to do some exploring – to get away from all these tourists.  The first sign on the road (not pictured) read “Impassable when wet due to deep sand washouts.”  I thought about how much it had rained the night before, but then I remembered – screw that, I’m in a modified Jeep.  What’s the worst that could happen?  I have to dig myself out.  I have a shovel.  Onward!

Despite the storm and the crowded campground, this little excursion made up for it. Not just the off-roading, but the ability to get out and see some of these rock formations that 95% of the tourists don’t (can’t) get to.  That was the best part, for me.


The trails are slow going for the most part so that ate up my morning.   It was time to say goodbye to Arches and head toward the main event; Zion and Bryce.  That meant I get to sleep in a warm, comfortable bed.  I refer to my cabin at Zion Mountain Ranch as base camp. I have it for the next 9 days but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll be sleeping there all 9 of them.  I know at least some of those nights will be at the Grand Canyon.  But I like the idea of having a fall back place where I can get a hot shower and perhaps shave if I’m so inclined.

Rolling toward southwest Utah, I start taking note of which towns have gas stations.  I’ve been on the road four and a half days now and stopped for gas 12 times already.  Now, not all of those have been full tanks, but a good majority are 3/4 fill-ups.  This is precisely why I’m noting where the gas stations are.  In just under 5 hours, I pull up to Zion Mountain Ranch and check in.  The young girl working at the desk looks at my reservation and says, “wow, did you drive here?”  I’ve been getting that a lot, especially when people either see my plates or remark about my Penn State hat.

ZMR is exactly what I expected.  Quiet, serene, and picturesque.  My cabin bay window opens to a buffalo-filled meadow and the sun sets in front of it each evening.  There’s a TV which I immediately unplug and won’t use the entire stay, but there is a gas fire-place which I fire right up.  I’ll post pictures later in the week after I’ve had a good chance to walk around the grounds.

Ah, my little slice of heaven. Tomorrow is Zion National Park.  A dream fulfilled.

Into each life, a little rain must fall

“And when it rains on your parade, look up rather than down. Without the rain, there would be no rainbow.”-
Gilbert K. Chesterton

Deluges and rambunctiousness.  That’s what Arches National Park is.  But we’ll get to that in a second.

It hit 30 degrees in my tent last night . I turned in early but didn’t get much sleep.  It wasn’t from the cold, I was warm as could be.   It was more the headache from the elevation and the fact that a I was wrapped like a sardine in that sleeping bag, I really couldn’t find a good position to get comfortable.  I woke up at about 5am and when I poked my head out of my bag, the blast of cold Rocky Mountain air hit me square in the face.  There was no way I was going back to sleep now.  I was the only tent camper in the campground so I gladly made my way to the main building in the dark and took the longest steaming hot shower off my life.  To go from 30 degrees to a 120 degree shower was almost a vacation in itself.  I packed up and left before they even opened the office.

Taking I-70 west out of Denver is the most beautiful drive I’ve ever seen.  You climb the Rockies and end up in a narrow pass (can’t remember the name) which is like another planet.  There’s an elevated road that twists and turns like a Disney World ride, so much that it’s very surreal.  In fact, they drop the speed limit to about 40mph there and you drive the entire pass that way.  But the crazy thing is that the opposite direction is below you, almost directly at times.  I wish I could have gotten a better picture, but again, there was nowhere to stop.

Entering Arches National Park is beautiful.  After flashing my annual pass, the road takes you up a very steep set of switchbacks until you climb up and over the plateau.  I’d swear I was on Mars, looking at the landscape.  I stop at a few pull offs to snap some photos.  As I do it starts to drizzle.  There are hundreds of photos I want to take, but with the hint of rain, I want to set up camp first then venture out.

Now, on to the ridiculousness.

There is a family camped out across from me with two SCREAMING kids.  And I mean SCREEEEEAAAAMING.  At the top of their lungs.  About everything.  I could hear them half way across the canyon and it’s awesome that they’re right across the road from me.  They are trying to set up this Grand Central Station of a tent and it’s blowing around in the wind.  I’m mildly amused at their hardship.  That’s karma for letting their kids run wild.  Wait, shouldn’t they be in school?  That’s why I take my trips this time of year.  I’m reporting them.  I have loaded my tranquilizer gun, but I’m waiting until nightfall to put them down.

There is a German couple next to me and the husband is barking things at his wife in German like it’s WWII.  He damned near backed over the picnic table with their rent-a-RV.  She started screaming at him in German to stop.  (NEIN! NEIN! NEIN!)  They’ve had their generator running since they got here.  It adds to the ambiance of the pristine canyon.

There is a group of teenagers whose voices are just going through puberty that think it’s cool to scream into the rock formations and hear their falsettos echo back at them.  I think I can ninja kill them in their sleep though so that’s ok.  That is, if the towering rocks they’re climbing to the very top of don’t do it for me.  Their parents don’t even care that their kids can easily fall to their death at any moment.  I wouldn’t go up where they are without a harness of some kind.

I decide to get away from all of this by setting out on a hike.

There’s a loop close to the campsite so I’ll take that.  Halfway into the loop, at my furthest point out, the sky opens up and pours down rain.  My camera gear immediately goes in to the dry bag (I use for kayaking) and I start huffing it back toward camp.  With the rain comes thunder, and with the thunder comes wind.  Lots and lots of wind.  I had staked my tent down before I left but I know better than to think that will hold, so I tied it off to a tree too.  I’m drenched from head to toe, my boots are covered in wet sand and I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that I got the camera gear in the bag fast enough.  There’s nowhere to hide.  I can’t just dive in my tent because I’ll be sleeping in there later and I’d rather not sleep on dirt/sand/water/wet socks.  What a mess.  Rain is blowing sideways so hard it hurts my face.  I grab my rain gear from the Jeep, bundle a clean/dry set of clothes inside it and head to the tent where I systematically remove one article of clothing and put that body part in the dry tent.  It was a something I’ve now patented as the “Chad Maneuver™”.  Once in the tent and in dry clothes, I weather the storm clear through until morning.

I have half a day planned here tomorrow.  This park is absolutely beautiful, but this campground is too crowded.  I’d recommend staying outside the park or in the back country.  I guess nothing can be 100% perfect.  Rain or shine, tomorrow I’m exploring some of the 4×4 trails!