Just Another Muddy Monday

We were foraging for sticks – good ones that were both sturdy and sized correctly.

“How’s this one? And look at the pine needles I found for the brush part!”

I couldn’t help but smile, relishing the contentment I felt at spending time outside with a league of children. Our current project: creating paintbrushes using natural items we uncovered in a nearby wooded area. My young charges were very intentional in their scavenge, and eagerly helped each other construct their art tools.

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Paintbrushes my students created using natural objects

The best part? This was just another Muddy Monday at my new place of employment: Lorien Wood School.

During the latter part of my 47 Parks trip, I began the onerous task of finding a new job. I vacillated between curriculum writing careers, outdoor education positions, and returning to elementary education. I was ecstatic when I stumbled upon an opening at an occupation that combined all three.

Lorien Wood is a private school located in Northern Virginia. The curriculum is integral, arranged in thematic units that incorporate multiple subjects, among which is outdoor studies. After spending so much time outside during my travels, I was pleased to be offered a position at a school that encourages joyful discovery of natural spaces and wild places.

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Autumn mural using our handmade nature brushes

Every Monday is a designated Muddy Monday. Small groups of students rotate through various stations designed to promote a spirit of discovery as children interact with the outdoors. As the designated STEAM* director, I get to design engineering and art projects for the students to undertake. I am looking forward to building forts, making miniature rafts, and exploring solar energy over the course of the year.

I look back over my national parks tour fondly, but relish in my new job that combines my passion for nature with my love of all things teaching/learning.

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Students design and construct representations of the 4 seasons.

Rain, snow, or sleet, I treasure the opportunity I have to share this passion with my students.

Mondays just couldn’t get any better.

 

* STEAM = Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math

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Guest Post by J.C. (Travel-Safer)

I first met J.C. in a tiny camp store during my visit to Great Sand Dunes National Park. It was one of those serendipitous encounters that led to some great conversations and a follow-up visit to Denver. J.C. is a guru on all things regarding safe travels. His website contains a wealth of information including country profiles, packing tips, and how to stay safe online.

This is his story.

 

Somewhere, Utah. Not far from Escalante.

It was dark. Pitch dark. So dark that watching the road in front of me as I walked was so disorienting that I stopped watching where I was going and looked up at the stars to keep from sitting down and taking a nap.

The three of us were five miles into our starlight walk and had already hiked 17+ miles that afternoon. This was the final test of a week-long survival course with the Boulder Outdoor Survival School (BOSS), and no one had any clue as to what time it was, or how many more miles until we reached the campsite.

The coyotes in the distance reminded us that we were not alone.

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Onward

So why would you subject yourself, much less PAY to put yourself through an experience like this?

  • Well – for one: I’m a MUCH lighter packer because I know what is necessary and eliminate that which I don’t need… Okay, well, I still pack a luxury item or two when I hit the road.
  • Secondly, you’ll know yourself on a much deeper level. You’ll find your limits and what you can actually
  • Maybe the biggest reason is the boost of confidence. After spending a week with minimal clothes, no tent, flashlights, electronics, backpack or lighter, I know that if I’m stranded overnight while hiking a 14er that not only will I survive, but I will know how to make the experience more tolerable.
  • Bonus reason: Having the added benefit of doing it in a supervised environment will keep you from doing the dumb things and put you on the path to success much quicker while minimizing the chance of injury.

Here in Colorado, we like to call this style of activity “Type 2 Fun”. It’s the sort of thing that you curse most of the way through, then start planning the next one as you drive home.

For me; however, there was a broader reason behind this “fun.” As a serial traveler and ever the curious type, I continually seek out ways to make myself a safer and better traveler. Not every option I look for is this extreme or results in losing ten pounds in a week. It can be as easy as keeping my CPR certification up to date, or sampling random martial arts like Krav Maga, Tae Kwon Do, and Systema and, of course, taking a language class here and there.

I’ve heard study abroad program directors remove self-defense classes from their pre-travel courses because “the goal of the course was not to train MMA fighters.” I found this incredibly short-sighted. If you plan on traveling solo, I highly recommend taking a CPR class and enrolling in self-defense at a local gym or martial arts facility. The result is the same: an increased sense of security and self-confidence. When traveling, whether abroad or here at home, the vast majority of crime is a crime of opportunity; meaning that criminals are going to go after the easiest target. Thus, if you look more confident, aware, and put together this may cause a potential attacker to look somewhere else.

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The Utah wilderness in all its glory

I close out this post with a challenge to you: Get outside your comfort zone; take a CPR class, learn a new language, sign up for a self-defense course, or maybe even a survival course in the woods. You’ll be a safer, more self-confident traveler and person.

Rocky Mountain Moments

My rather impromptu Colorado visit landed me in Rocky Mountain National Park once again, a few days shy from a year after my first go-round. Back then, I trod eagerly through many sections of the park, exploring multiple lakes, ecosystems, and wildlife via a wide variety of hiking trails. As I once again stood within the alpine climate – 12,000 feet above sea level – I took deep breaths and let the happy memories of the previous year rush in.

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Two cuties in the Rockies (Kate and I)

Heading down the east side of the mountain range, my friend and I had one main agenda: hike trails with water. This turned out to be a rather easy goal, since so many streams, rivers, and waterfalls undulate throughout the park.

Day 1 was a hefty 8-mile hike to Fern Lake, passing by some gorgeous cascading rivers and a not-too-shabby waterfall on the way.

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Pretty and peaceful Fern Lake

Day 2, after more camping, boasted one of the best waterfalls in the park: Ouzel Falls. While only 5 miles round-trip, my poor feet were screaming to be let out of my hiking boots. A lazy summer in flip-flops had apparently spoiled them to laborious trekking.

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Ouzel Falls

While my life has taken on a rather consistent rhythm now that I’m back home and off the road, I appreciate the fact that I can still have miniature adventures in the outdoors. Life’s too short to stay indoors. 🙂

“A pilgrim is a wanderer with a purpose.” – Peace Pilgrim

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A Mile High (and more) Once Again

I couldn’t resist fitting in one more outdoor trip before heading back into full time teaching. All 47 parks had been successfully checked off the list, but I jumped at the opportunity to revisit the Rockies. Re-branded as the Park Pilgrim*, I hopped on a plane sans Clarence, ready to have some rugged adventures with a Denverite friend.

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The Colorado River at Radium Springs (I had to scramble down to reach the natural “hot tub”)

First stop: a primitive hot spring located pretty much in the middle of nowhere. I took a hefty 2-mile hike down to an rocky outcropping where natural hot spring water mixes with the Colorado River. I was not aware that this was a popular stopping point for rafting trips until I heard jubilant shouting halfway down the mountainside. There were a few too many people for my liking, but it was fun watching people awkwardly cliff dive from 40 feet up.

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Pretty sunset during the drive to Timber Creek campsite

During my first go-round in Rocky Mountain National Park, I didn’t spend any time on the west side. Nestled neatly in between mountains, the gorgeous night sky made the cold camping experience worth it. I felt snug in my friend’s little tent, but I have to admit I pined for Clarence the teardrop trailer most of the night. Bugling elk lulled me into a fitful sleep; I awoke in the morning to a small herd gently chomping on foliage within 15 feet of my tent.

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Getting an early start to the day

And there was still more to come…

* Explorer of wild places and natural spaces

 

Cairns

A Throwback Tale

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Peekaboo Trail

Cairn. I rolled the word around in my head, almost like a chant, matching pace with the sound of my feet hitting the slick rock. Canyonlands National Park in Utah was an adventurer’s dream. I was taking a much-needed break from Arches, the tourist trap only 45 minutes to the northeast. After being run into by one too many inconsiderate photographers, I was looking for some good hiking trails off the beaten path.

The visitor’s center was tiny, showcasing some of the local flora and fauna as well as the particular geology of the park. The list of trails was comprehensive; many were long and remote, boasting miles of solitude surrounded by canyons.

The Peekaboo trail caught my interest; it was an approachable 10 miles and rewarded you with a “peek” at the end of some ancient petroglyphs. I loaded up my pack, double-knotted my hikers, and went on my way.

The sun was hot, but not fierce, and my mind began to wander as it normally does during my long walks. After thinking of something meaningless for a couple minutes – let’s say food trucks – I stopped to take stock of my surroundings. I was off trail… or was I? In forested parks, the trails are well-marked by packed dirt and handy signs every junction. Here in the Utah desert, however, cairns were the beacon guiding the way towards the final destination.

They were also easy to miss.

I soon realized that constant vigilance would need to replace my usual daydreaming m.o. while I hiked. My initial irritation at this concept surprised me. Was I so arrogant that I couldn’t stand to actual pay attention and “work” to find my way? Certainly not.

I plodded on.

For those unaccustomed to the ways of hiking, cairns are piles of rock that vary in size from 6 inches tall to taller than a human. On the Peekaboo trail, the cairns were good-sized, meaning most of them were about a foot tall and easy to spot. It amazed me that someone had taken the time to gather rocks and stack them on top of each other, basically erecting a sign that read “follow me – stray ye not from the path”.

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Hunting for cairns in all the right places

So I followed. I put aside my random thoughts about penguins, Lisa Frank, and the invention of soda, and decided to actually pay attention. I eagerly looked for the next marker, confident that some well-meaning and intelligent park ranger would not lead me astray with these cairns.

In the end, the petroglyphs were interesting, yet it was the hike itself that was most memorable. Following piles of rocks for 5 miles in and back felt akin to being guided on an epic treasure quest. Here’s the part where I could throw in some deep metaphor about people in my life who have guided my way, leading me along my quest for discovery.

But no, this is purely about rocks.

I promise.

 

Botanic Day Adventure

I studied the plant. It looked simple enough – full glossy leaves splayed open with a thin but sturdy stalk running along the length. I peeked closely, searching for the pod-like fruit, knowing full-well that I was staring at the most toxic plant in the world.

The Castor Oil Plant was just one of the truly interesting things I saw at the United States Botanic Gardens. I was expecting pretty flowers and lots of color, but not so much intriguing vegetation with unique stories.

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Just hanging out (in the heat) in a rose garden

I wandered around the Conservatory, taking in the beauty and diversity of the flora. The World Deserts room brought back fond memories of my time in the Southwest. I marveled at the cactuses, saying hello to old friends that I had encountered during my miles of desert hiking. The Mediterranean room was crisp and refreshing, reminiscent of my visit to the southern coast of California.

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Cactus gathering

The Garden Court featured commerce plants – cacao, bananas, citrus, cotton, and many others. I enjoyed reading each placard, soaking up the information about each unique tree or stalk. When I joined up with a tour, my curiosity about economy-based plants was satiated; lots of questions = lots of answers!

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This endangered plant is nicknamed Cabbage On A Stick.

The heat finally started to get to me, so I ate a sushi burrito for lunch and hopped on the metro to go home.

Day adventures can be fun and I still get to sleep in a real bed in a real house.

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Don’t know what these are called, but they’re quite nice-looking. 🙂

Sugarloaf Mountain

Nothing quite beats climbing on real rock. While I thoroughly enjoy my local rock climbing gym, gripping raw granite while puzzling my way up a cliff face is a whole other type of adventure.

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Taking a break and scrambling around off-rope

During my year of travels, I only climbed a handful of times. Getting back into climbing shape has been a gradual process, so Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland seemed like the perfect place. This local crag is short-ish (35 feet?) with easy routes and a simple approach. It was supposed to be hot, so Lauren, my climbing buddy, and I headed out early to avoid the heat.

On the hike to our spot, we passed a wild raspberry bush. I couldn’t help but pause for a little taste. They were cool, tart, and delicious – one of nature’s little surprises.

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The next couple of hours passed along quickly; time was eclipsed by the flaking of rope, placement of gear, and the motion of scurrying up the rock. There is something so beautifully methodical about climbing outside. At the same time, the climbs I did at Sugarloaf felt so natural and rhythmic. I let myself relax, happy for the shade provided by the tree cover.

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Look at all those fabulous cracks.

I was reluctant to leave, but knew that the high heat of the day was fast approaching. This trip rekindled by love for outdoor trad climbing. Over the past year, I’ve put in quite a few miles hiking in the wilderness – over 320 to be exact. Now, I feel like it’s time I put in some vertical miles. There’s simply so much rock to conquer!