Zion National Park

Featured image: I wish I could claim credit for the photo, but that goes to Wolfgang Staudt. Thanks be to him for making this photo available via Flickr Creative Commons. 

One of the best things about a road trip is stumbling onto things you didn’t even know existed – and loving them. Of course, on the other hand, you spend the following five years of your life kicking yourself for not seeing what was right in front of your face.

I’ve mentioned our serendipitous journey to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon when we intended to go South, but that wasn’t the only twist of fate for the day. When we left the wrong rim, the route we had planned to take to Las Vegas obviously wasn’t going to work. So we fired up the GPS – dubbed Sheila – and followed her lead.

Now, you have to know this was the most ridiculous GPS unit I’ve ever used. She was something built into the rental car that they threw in for free. It was nearly impossible to tell it where we were going unless we were headed to something preloaded, and of course nowhere we went was loaded in the thing. We didn’t call on Sheila and her split personality much. When we did, she got us lost more often than not. But on this day, Sheila came through in a big way: She introduced me to Zion National Park.

Our path from the Grand Canyon took us along State Route 9, which cuts across the southeastern corner of the park and takes you to the main entrance. Honestly, I had no idea we were passing through another park. For once, I wasn’t looking at the map; I was just letting the GPS do its thing. I can’t remember if I picked up the camera before or after I realized we were in Zion, but I know I couldn’t put it down the entire drive through.

As we passed through canyons in just a small corner of the park, our breath was constantly taken away by the view. This section of highway will take you through the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, a 1.1 mile tunnel that was completed in 1930, according to the Park Service. This tunnel was created to connect Zion with Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon. Its long. It feels long when you’re going through it and if you’re like me you have to push that panicked feeling to the back of your mind when you start thinking about how much is on top of you. This tunnel kind of skirts the edges of the rock and you get gargantuan windows that let in blinding natural light, providing a glimpse of the vista outside.

As with everything else in the Gypsy Trip, we only got a tease of what the park had to offer. Since then, I’ve been dying to get back and explore more. Zion offers backpacking, hiking, bicycling, camping, canyoneering, boating and more. When you go – because you know you want to – you may as well hit up Bryce Canyon and Monument Valley.

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TBT: The lake that isn’t there

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This is not a scene from Bonny Lake, this is the Rocky Mountains, which distracted us from enjoying Bonny Lake while it still existed.

Our Gypsy Trip across the country in 2010 was so named because we decided to camp our way across the country, but it wasn’t until our second night that we actually camped. What a first night it was.

Unbeknownst to us, we were camping on land in the middle of an Old West Style war about water. Coming from a water-saturated part of the country, we were all unfamiliar with the water wars that still rage in the western United States today.

Basically, there was an agreement established in 1942 between Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado that required Nebraska and Colorado to supply so much water to Kansas. Decades went by and finally, one day someone realized that Kansas wasn’t getting all the water they were supposed to be getting. So a court case went all the way to the Supreme Court and Colorado had to pay up.

What does this have to do with us camping in 2010? Well, we stopped at Bonny Lake State Park, in Colorado, on our second night of the trip. It was a stopover for us – we didn’t put much thought into the location except that it set us up to get exploring the rest of the state the next day. Not thinking about this more was our loss. I believe there was a lake there, but we never saw it. We arrived late and left early, eager to get moving checking things off our To See List.

The first telling of our Bonny Lake story included the parts about the rowdy neighbors and putting up the tent after dark in a thunderstorm. I’m kind of impressed with us putting that sucker up in the dark and rain; I don’t know if I could do that now and I must have pitched it 50 times since then. I’m also impressed that it stayed staked into the ground with only the corners pinned down. Way to go, little Wal-Mart tent!

The part of the story that didn’t make the first cut is what happened between the time we set up the tent and when we went to sleep – and what happened to that park since then.

We’d been on the road all day, it was late and we’d just put up a tent in the rain. We knew we’d need an early start in the morning, so Amanda and I decided to hit the bathhouse that night so we could pack up and head out quickly. We took the car and drove to try to avoid some of the weather, and left Cory, my brother, in the tent at our campsite.

Hindsight being 20/20, that was a pretty inconsiderate thing to do. See, Cory never complains about anything – or even expresses much of any emotion. He’s someone you never notice there until he cracks a joke about something. He never said a word when we left.

I don’t know how long we were in the bathhouse, long enough for us to pump a few dollars in quarters in the showers. I’m sure we’d been there close to half an hour, and that felt like hours to someone who was alone, in a half-staked tent, in a torrential thunderstorm, a few dozen feet from five or six drunken campers, hundreds of miles from home.

I was finishing up when I heard a knock at the bathroom door. Now, Cory has some big, hazel peepers on a normal day, but when I opened that door his eyes were all I could see.

“Uhhhh, how much longer are you going to be?” He was obviously nervous, shifting his weight.

I guess waiting in the tent while the wind tried to rip it from the ground got to be too much for him, so he braved the weather to walk to the bathhouse.

He hung around for the last of the 10 minutes or so Amanda and I took to finish and we all went back to the tent and crashed. Or at least I did. I always sleep like a baby in storms. (And that time, the tent didn’t leak.)

So we – along with those drunkies a few spots down – made some pretty good memories at this park. But what about that war over water?

The entire dispute reminded me of a standoff in the west. I could just see John Wayne and Robert Duvall standing off on either side of the state line. (Hey! I know they are different cowboy generations, but it would make a great standoff, no?)

“That’s our water you’re holding over there,” Duvall would calmly state from the Kansas side of the state line. He’s on horseback, slouched a little, his hands on the saddle horn.

“Yeah?” Wayne would be casually smoking. “Well, come and get it then.”

Then he would flip the cigarette, probably starting a wild fire that would then require the use of all the water to put it out and no one would have any water and all three states would start hounding Montana or something to send them water.

Whew. That kinda ran away with me, but you get the idea. Instead of a wildfire inducing cowboy standoff, Colorado ultimately decided to drain Bonny Lake and let the water flow away to Kansas. Today, the state park now operates as a nature preserve and is still open to hunters, and I wish we’d taken just a couple of hours to visit the lake.

Let this be a listen to you: When traveling, if you stop to camp beside a lake, make time to actually see the lake. It may not be there the next time you pass through.

TBT: Land of Enchantment?

My beautiful picture

Just one example of the beaut of New Mexico – and this is just the side of the road. These are the kinds of things I missed the first two times through the state.

“The land of enchantment” is New Mexico’s state slogan. It sounds like something from a fairy tale, right? Well, my first experience with New Mexico was more like a nightmare. I was 16 and we were on our way to the Grand Canyon.

We were logging major miles to get from Cincinnati to Arizona in a couple of days, and we rolled into Tucumcari, New Mexico late one night, ready to get a few hours of sleep and then carry on our way. We’d been on the road about 12 hours that day and we were all sick of being in each other’s faces.

My beautiful picture

One of the places we visited was the Cathedral Basilica St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe. There are beautiful sculptures in the prayer garden outside.

We checked into the hotel and immediately began questioning staying there. It looked sketchy, it was dirty outside and had some obvious damage to the building. But we were tired and needed to sleep before driving any more. So we went inside.

The room was dank, it was old and hadn’t been updated since, well, ever. Still, nothing seemed bad enough to warrant trying to find somewhere else in our half-comatose state. The bathroom seemed clean enough – despite the water stain on the ceiling – so I thought taking a shower was a good idea, until I realized I had an audience of the six-legged variety coming out of that water spot in the ceiling.

There was no hair-rinsing, there was only putting on enough clothes to get out of the bathroom and screaming about the bugs. Of course, by the time Mom went into the bathroom, they had all retreated and no one believed me. Just more ravings of a self-confessed bugophobe.

Oh, but I had the last laugh after an abrupt departure at 1 a.m. when Dad woke up and found bugs crawling around the room. I don’t know what kind of bugs they were, and I didn’t care. My stuff was already ready to go. If Dad was good to drive on two hours of sleep, I was fine with sleeping in the backseat. At least then I knew there wouldn’t be things crawling on me in my sleep.

So the only thing I experienced in my first trip to New Mexico was a crappy hotel room and sleep in the back seat of the car. We drove through it again about a year later and the only thing I remember about that drive is a heckuva dust storm scaring the life out of me. I didn’t have high hopes for it during the Gypsy Trip, but that was Amanda’s Mecca of our pilgrimage. She was an anthropology student, and New Mexico is full of history and culture.

She planned all our explorations for the state, I had no scruples – except avoiding Tucumcari at all costs. The second time around, I wasn’t disappointed. I got to find out why New Mexico is called the Land of Enchantment. We hit several things that day, it was probably one of the most packed days of the trip as far as sightseeing. Here’s the list of places we saw, and I’d recommend visiting them when you go:

  1. Capulin Volcano National Monument: A road circling the volcano takes to you to the vent of an extinct volcano. At the top, you can hike into it’s mouth and take in views of the surrounding volcanic field. Even though they say this is extinct, I still had prickles on my neck while we were up there. “Extinct” volcanoes have erupted before.
  2. Taos Pueblo: These pueblos have been continuously inhabited for more than 1000 years. There are still about 150 Taos Indians living in the pueblo, according to their website. The historical significance of this location earned it the distinction of becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site.
  3. Taos, New Mexico: We only spent a few hours in this city, but you could easily spend days getting lost in the art and culture scene here. It has a great history – and super cool architecture.
  4. Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi: Not to be confused with San Francisco de Assisi in Taos, which I just did when trying to remember the name of the place we went. They are both super cool, but I didn’t visit the Mission in Taos. St. Francis however, was full of sculptures and art in the beautiful prayer garden in front of the church.

#TBT Manhattan Beach

I have a confession to make: I am terrified of the ocean.

Stepping into a large body of water – with or without a life jacket – creates a silent kind of mind-numbing terror. Part of this is that I literally sink like a Stone – its not just my last name, it’s what I turn into in water: total dead weight. I don’t even panic, I just fall into a calm state of giving up. I accept the water as it wraps its cold arms around me and drags me to the bottom of the abyss.

When we reached the Pacific Ocean on this trip, it was late at night. Around midnight, I think. We were bone-tired but we knew that we wouldn’t have much time the next day to spend at the beach, so Amanda and I dropped off our bags and my brother at the hotel and set off for a late night rendezvous with the Pacific. Our hotel was only a couple of blocks off the shore, so we didn’t have far to go. I had been to the beach before, but in Florida several years before. That did not prepare me for the sight of the ocean at night.

Ink and infinity is how I remember it. It was a cloudy night, so the only light came from the shore behind us. Everything was black: the sand, the water, the sky. There was really no way to tell where one thing ended and another began. We stayed a safe distance from the water, but when we stopped to sit, I couldn’t shake a nervous feeling. If that water came up just a little too far and swept me off my feet, I knew I’d never be found. I would give up and let the water take me where it willed.

We walked quite a distance on the shore that night, stopping at a couple of guard stands. We passed few others enjoying the quiet night – if deafening waves can be considered a “quiet.” Despite the terror playing on the edges of my consciousness, I could have stayed there all night. But sleep overcame us and we crawled back to our warm beds.

#TBT Monument Valley

When you think of the American Southwest, you probably see a place like Monument Valley. You wouldn’t be the only one; it is one of the most photographed places in the West. With its sweeping vistas, towering rock formations and dry, dusty wind, it’s the perfect place to set down a saloon, strap on some spurs and sidle up to the bar for some whiskey to wet your parched throat. But what you will find missing from one of the most recognizable places in the American west is the cowboys.

Monument Valley rests entirely in Navajo Nation and straddles the state line between Utah and Arizona. Today, the Navajo Nation is the largest Tribal group and has the most sophisticated tribal government, but, like other Native tribes that faced relocation and forced assimilation, it has been a long road.

Their government was formed in response to requests to lease Navajo land after oil was discovered in the 1920s. But the reservation didn’t gain widespread notoriety until its first brush with Hollywood when John Ford directed “Stagecoach” there in 1939. Since then, 12 movies have been filmed in Monument Valley.

Part of the fun of visiting the valley is getting to travel through Navajo Nation. I’m a sucker for any kind of roadside stand – you can find the coolest things there. Monument Valley does not disappoint; there’s a market not far from the park entrance.

There is one main road – US 163 – that snakes its way through the valley.  Once you get into Monument Valley, there is a large visitor’s center that has a panoramic window with a view that doesn’t even look real. I’m not kidding. I looked out the glass and thought I was looking at a picture. I can try to wax poetic about it, but I’ll just sound silly and won’t do it justice. Just go see it. Put Monument Valley on your bucket list, push it to the top and go.

There are a couple of ways to see the valley: drive yourself or take a guided tour. We decided to drive ourselves. There’s a great visitor’s center before you drive the loop. We ran a little Toyota Corolla through and it handled it like a champ, even if we didn’t. When I make it back, I’m definitely checking out one of the guided tours. There are a few reasons for this. First off, I can still feel my bones jarring from the drive. I’m not complaining – a smooth, paved road would seriously detract from all that natural beauty. I am warning you though. If you have back problems, this may not be the drive for you. Also take advantage of the facilities before you start jarring your bladder.

Yes, if you drive yourself you get the freedom to go at your own pace and you don’t have to interact with people if you’re not feelin’ it. But you’re restricted to the road and can’t venture far from it. If you take a tour with one of the many tour operators you get insider backstory and access to more locations within the park – including sites off the main road.

Another option we did not take advantage of on this trip was the Piute Farms Road route. According to The American Southwest, this road leads to the site of a former Navajo Marina on Lake Powell. The marina was destroyed by flooding in 1989, and the lake has receded from the road, but the little-traveled dirt road offers a less populated perspective of the valley. The link above gives more information about how to find this road and warns that four wheel drive may be needed for part of it.

A good remedy for working out the kinks after a bumpy ride could be hitting one of the hiking trails in the valley. There is only one official trail. The Wildcat Trail around the West Mitten Butte.  Just remember that there are private residences in Monument Valley so it is important to be respectful of posted boundaries.

 

#TBT: Yosemite National Park

When I was going back through the video for this part of the trip, I didn’t come across many clips. I also couldn’t remember much about visiting the park. I remember Bridal Veil Falls and that was about it. So I looked up the first telling of this story.

Not much there either.

By this point of the trip we’d gone as far west as we were going to and had started the return trip home. With only a few days left on the trip, we were tired and tired of eating out of the trunk of the car. We were tired of sleeping in tents. And we were disappointed that we weren’t able to finish going up the West Coast to Washington.

After the excitement the night we arrived in San Francisco — the night we thought we had enough time to drive to Seattle — we just crashed. In the time it took to try to map out a route from northern California to Seattle, we realized there just wasn’t enough time. We went from being at the top of El Capitan to the bottom of Death Valley. The Gypsy Trip had switched from embarking on an exciting adventure to finishing out a list of places to see on our way home. That was how we treated Yosemite: Not as a place to explore and experience, but as a place to come in, check out the high points, and high-tail it out to the next destination.

in retrospect, I wish we’d taken the extra time to go up the coast. It would have been impossible to do it on the timeline we agreed to, and I would never have been able to get back to work on time. I was worried about getting in trouble for attendance, but I shouldn’t have been. I came back to work for about two weeks before leaving permanently for an internship. What’s the worst they could have done? Fire me for my last two weeks? So here’s the lesson to take away from my trip to Yosemite: Take the extra days NOW. You never know where life will take you, so enjoy the sunshine while it lasts.

Featured image credit: From Flickr Creative Commons, By Edward Stojakovic. 

#TBT: Death Valley

#ThrowbackThursday: Each Thursday, I revisit a past adventure and publish more of the story than made the first cut.. Beginning the series, I will be recounting parts of the Gypsy Trip – a cross-country endeavor in 2010.  

I really love Thursdays. Its the day that – even though its still within the work week – I get to go on a little adventure. Sure, I’m still technically stuck at my desk watching the clouds roll by outside my window, but for a few minutes I can pull out some old video and relive some pretty amazing adventures. This week we’re traveling back to Death Valley.

It’s hot. It’s dry. It’s dusty. It lives up to its name. But it is also beautiful.

Like just about everywhere I’ve ever been, I want to go back to spend more time. We really only made one stop off on the Gypsy Trip and that was at Zabriskie Point. There was a reason for this that I went into greater detail on the first telling of this story. Without rehashing too much, it was the setting of a cult classic Amanda – one of my travel partners on that trip – had seen. It involved stealing a jet, an orgy in Death Valley and then crashing the jet. Since Amanda’s YouTube channel is gone, and along with it the video, I thought I’d put up my version of the story. It’s ridiculous, and therefore awesome. Amanda is the blonde narrating at the end of the clip; my brother Cory is the guy helping her with the reenactment.

Also in this week’s video are a few snippets of video that I finally edited down. You’ll get some scenic vistas of dusty Death Valley, some complaints from me about needing to “Q.” (Because we felt like we had better manners if we weren’t constantly complaining about how badly we needed to find a ladies room in the middle of nowhere, and called it “Q” instead of “P.”)

#TBT: Yellowstone National Park Part 1

#ThrowbackThursday: Each Thursday, I revisit a past adventure and publish more of the story than made the first cut.. Beginning the series, I will be recounting parts of the Gypsy Trip – a cross-country endeavor in 2010. 

My first trip to Yellowstone National Park was too freaking short. My second visit to Yellowstone was too freaking short. I really think that no matter how much time I have to spend at Yellowstone, it will be too freaking short.

I really wanted to get my video edited from the second trip, but I didn’t get that far this week, so you will have to sate your appetite with my old flip cam video until I can get the rest of it put together. It’ll probably be at least another week; the weather has been so nice that I’ve been spending more time outside having adventures than at a computer splicing them together. The constant rain this week is keeping in indoors and helping me get caught up on work.

But back to Yellowstone. It’s the Big Daddy of the American National Park System and does us proud. I find it so interesting because it has so many different geological formations – there’s geysers, hot springs, even the Grand Prismatic Spring – that in two visits to the park I STILL haven’t seen! Seriously, I don’t know why I keep missing it. And of course, there’s Old Faithful.

My favorite thing about the park is the wildlife. No other park I’ve been to has shown me so much diversity. There’s bison – not buffalo, those are only in Africa and South Asia – elk, and bears. Thankfully, I haven’t met a bear yet. If I did, whatever bear safety research I did before my last trip out west would go right out through my ears and I’d get eaten.

#TBT: The elusive Golden Gate Bridge

#ThrowbackThursday: Each Thursday, I revisit a past adventure and publish more of the story than made the first cut.. Beginning the series, I will be recounting parts of the Gypsy Trip – a cross-country endeavor in 2010. 

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Who knew finding this bridge would take the better part of an afternoon?

The first telling of this story didn’t even include any part of this week’s #TBT, probably because all I was thinking about that night when we turned in was the prospect of continuing our drive up the West Coast. At this point we were nearing the end of a 13-day roadtrip and the only things we really planned to do in San Francisco was to find the Golden Gate Bridge and drive Lombard Street. For those of you who may not know, Lombard Street is called the “crookedest street in the world” because it contains eight switchback turns to get travelers down its steep precipice.

You would think that with all the research that occurred before the trip and the GPS that came loaded in the rental car we wouldn’t have any trouble finding these two well-known San Francisco icons.

Think again.

Our search for Lombard Street was fruitless so we turned our attention to the bridge, finding it only as the sun was setting.

Consider Lombard Street on my #BucketList for my next trip to San Francisco.

The Journey of a Lifetime

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The Journey of a LifetimeNew Gypsy Trip TagThere isn’t much to say about our last couple of days on the trip. After we left Yellowstone, we stayed in Deadwood, South Dakota in the nicest cabin of our entire trip. The next morning, we saw Mount Rushmore, and drove into Minnesota to sleep before leaving early this morning to come home.  Everything kind of ended slowly, with all of us sorry to see the trip end, but looking forward to sleeping in our own beds, with our own showers and real food. Not something from a gas station microwave or out of the cooler.

We traveled a staggering 7,500 miles on this trip. We covered 17 states in 13 days and 12 nights. We visited two UNESCO World Heritage sites, eight national parks and monuments and as much Pacific ocean as we could squeeze in. We camped in the tent four nights, stayed in cabins three nights and bunked with my aunt and uncle one night. We stayed in hotels in Hannibal, Mo., Manhattan Beach, Calif., San Francisco and Las Vegas. The Paris Hotel at that.

We started the trip eating only from the food we brought, but halfway through the trip we couldn’t stomach any more hot dogs or turkey wraps. That’s when we started living off the land, and by land I mean gas station food. (I really don’t recommend this.)

We did all of this without one time getting into a fight. Without much disagreement about where we should go or what we should do. And we stayed pretty well within our budget. Between the three of us, we completed this trip on approximately $3,000.

I’m trying to think of a more interesting way to end this chapter of my blog, but I’m really just in awe of what we just completed. I don’t think I’ll ever willingly cover that much ground in such a short time again, but there is nowhere we went that I don’t want to return.

SerendipityThat being said, I think everyone should do a road trip like this one. You need to camp. Setting up a tent in the dark in the rain isn’t as bad as it sounds. Just get you a bright lantern and it goes right up. You need to experience new things and see new places.

You need to rent a car and beat the tar out of it. Sailor Moon has no tire tread left and needs about two oil changes. Naming the car is also a must. You need a GPS that will get you lost and that has a split personality. And you need to take your closest friend with you and test the bounds of your friendship.

There’s nothing about this trip I would change. There’s a lot of things I wish I saw more of and more places I wish we had time to visit. I wish I had more photos of Sacramento. I wish my camera hadn’t died on day two and I didn’t end up with a $40 cheapie from Wal-mart. I wish I had more memory on my computer so I could store more media. I wish I could have made it through the trip without getting walked in on in the bathroom, or mistaking a urinal in the men’s room for a fountain. But all of these things were just part of the adventure. They’re part of the stories we will tell for the rest of our lives.