Park Number 48? 49?

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Courtesy of NPS

Since I completed my national park road trip in June of 2017, I haven’t been aggressively keeping up with news regarding our nation’s park service. To be honest, most of my energy has been upward and onward, focusing on outdoor education and travels abroad. It was to my great surprise when I realized that America now officially has 61 national parks, 49 of which are in the contiguous United States.

If you’ve been with me from the beginning, you’ll recall that I successfully attempted to visit 47 parks in 47 weeks, launching this blog as a way for readers to follow my journey. Since the consummation of this trip, I have continued my pilgrimage to other fantastic outdoor areas, places as close as five miles from my house (Backyard Magic) as far as the other side of the globe (South Africa).

When Gateway Arch and Indiana Dunes cropped up on my radar, I figured it was time to pay a special tribute to them, honoring their place among the greats and determining a potential visit in the near future.

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The picturesque view of the Arch (from the National Park site)

Gateway Arch National Park

  • Status changed from Memorial to Park on February 22, 2018
  • Located in St Louis, Missouri
  • My thoughts
    • This looks like a very nature-less park. The arch and related museum appear to be the big-ticket items. I’m interested in checking this off the list, but probably won’t make a trip out here just to spend a day indoors
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Brand new park! Congratulations.

Indiana Dunes National Park

  • Status changed from Lakeshore to Park on February 15, 2019
  • Located in Porter, Indiana, along Lake Michigan and east of Chicago
  • My thoughts
    • This area looks quite pretty, and probably would be a fun three-day visit in warmer weather. I drove right through this area on my way from Voyageurs to Cuyahoga towards the end of my national park circuit.

 

Looks like I need to plan another mini-adventure! My passport is in dire need of stamps from the Midwest.

* If you’ve visited either of these places and would like to contribute your thoughts, please leave a comment.

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Chasing Waterfalls

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Hiking is so much better without the crowds…

…and when running water is involved.

A recent Shenandoah hike, Whiteoak Canyon, was the perfect trail to start the New Year. No resolution needed, simply a desire to get outside and check out some nearby wilderness that I hadn’t experienced during my previous foray into the park.

I pulled off the Blueridge Parkway and set out into the crisp winter air. This particular trail followed the Robinson River the whole way, ending at the top of a series of waterfalls. I admired the flowing water that cascaded beside me, tumbling over rocks, under fallen logs, and around natural curvatures in the land. When I stopped to regard the landscape, a tiny field mouse crept right up to my hiking boot, sniffing the air. No “stranger-danger” alarms must have gone off in his little mouse-brain; he proceeded to munch on fallen seeds, ignoring my presence while bustling around. I felt like a Disney princess.

 

 

Continuing on, the river began to gain in both speed and volume. My knees weren’t used to the downward tilt of the land, and I was reminded of how long it had been since I’d done any mildly strenuous hike. Too long, I decided.

Downward I went, stopping at one point to creep out onto a rock that made me feel like I was in the middle of the rushing river. The surrounding mountains formed a chute, ready to careen me forward to be launched into the air. I noticed Old Rag Mountain off in the distance, a steady presence on the eastern Shenandoah landscape.

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Serenity now

Then I saw the waterfall.

It wasn’t the most awe-inspiring one I had ever seen, but it was still gorgeous. I noted the way the water flowed in and around. All waterfalls are special in their own way, unique in how the H20 molecules fall alongside of rock, dirt, and organic debris – shaped by the landscape but also shaping it. This particular one looked like a water slide, which I briefly considered attempting. Nope. Frigid water and bruises wouldn’t be worth it.

At this point, the trail continued down for many more miles, so I had a quick snack before turning around to come back up. Then, just for fun, I decided to walk down a couple more yards to see what else was around. Little did I know that I almost completely missed the fantastic viewpoint! I was so caught up in my little patch of earth near the falls, that I failed to recognize that I was only partway down the flow of water. Perhaps I was too content to settle for a sub-par experiences. With a teensy bit more effort on my part, there was much more to see.

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The actual waterfall viewpoint. Hard to put into perspective, but it’s sizable.

I feel like there’s a life lesson in here somewhere.

The hike back up was was peaceful. I let my mind wander and relished the crunch of the rocks under my hiking boots, the sound of birds floating through the trees. Two red-tail hawks swooped in close and I was caught off guard for a glorious moment. At the end, I savored the keen sense of satisfaction I felt upon completing this 5 mile hike.

I got in my car, drove a mile down the road, and did another one – just for fun. 🙂

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Hawskbill Summit (hike #2 of the day)

Back to Where it All Began

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It was cold and crisp. I could see my breath wafting into the atmosphere as I stood and relished the sight. The hand warmers in my mittens were keeping my fingers nice and toasty, my wool socks protecting my toes from the sub-freezing temperatures. I scanned the horizon, noting astute differences from when I was here last. The grass was dried out, taking on an interesting orangey hue. The trees were gnarly, lacking their summer greenery, and stood out against the Blue Ridge Mountains. The chain across the road into the visitor’s center signaled that things were closed up due to the government shut-down.

This was Big Meadows. This is where it all began.

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Over two and a half years ago, I embarked on the adventure of a lifetime. I resigned from my job teaching, bought a teardrop trailer, and decided to visit all of the national parks in the lower 48 states.

I did it. I spent months at a time on the road, enjoying the gems of our country. It was an experience so profound that I could never possibly forget the joy I discovered throughout my park pilgrimage.

That is why, on January 1, 2019, I decided to pay homage to the first park on my series: Shenandoah. A mini park adventure to beat the winter doldrums was also a perfect way to begin the new year. I drove slowly along the Blue Ridge Parkway, reminiscing of Clarence (my trailer/home) and how I eagerly set up camp for the first time in Big Meadows. I was reminded of the blend of excitement and anxiety I felt back in July 2016 as I began my epic journey, not sure how it would all pan out. Never could I have imagined how much fun I would have over the course of the next year, learning how to navigate an extra 550 lbs attached to my car, hiking in all kinds of weather, and managing a (somewhat) healthy diet.

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Fast-forward to present day.

It was colder now, and the landscape looked vastly different. Birds circled overhead, as I sat in silence, leaning against my car eating a picnic lunch. So much has changed in my life, yet many things remain the same.

My love of nature.

My belief that America’s parks are public lands for the people.

My understanding of the simple beauty found outside.

My appreciation for Shenandoah, the park that started it all.

Sometimes the places that are closest to home don’t quite get the appreciation they deserve. Although Shenandoah is my “backyard” park, I chose to recognize its allure by driving its length and exploring its depths.

Shenandoah, I salute you.

Poetry Intermission (Part II)

Move, Coast, Repeat (Great Sand Dunes)

 

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Sandboarding down the Dunes (August 2016)

She grips the cube of wax in hand, wielded like a sword

Plopping down on the sand, she quickly flips the board

Then like a desert artist, she draws a spiraling curl

Quite certain of the purpose – intent to give a whirl

She carefully removes her boots and sets them to the side

Then places each foot carefully within the sandboard binds

Rising up, she inches close – the point of no return

Brow is furled, lips are curled, it’s time for her to learn

Knees bent

Begin descent

Faster and faster, her board speeds down the dune

The laughter come unbidden, like a favorite tune

Leaning back, she attempts, a cautious revolution

Wobbly legs and spinning arms become the best solution

The speed now uncontrollable yet joyous all the same

Reaching the bottom now becomes her central aim

Once the focus falls away, her limbs begin to flail

It doesn’t take much longer for all her balance to fail

Poise is lost

Limbs are crossed

Tumble and squeals

Head over heals

A mouth of sand comes spitting out but the gritty feel persists

She warily stands up again and shakes out both her wrists

The long walk back from her wipes-out is sure to take awhile

But up she goes, forgets her woes, shouldering a smile

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Poetry Intermission

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The setting sun (Skyline Drive, Shenandoah)

Just Drive (Shenandoah)

A serene road

Up, down, and slightly around

Epic sunsets

And sunrises that make you think beyond

Overlooks that communicate

A different message each part of the day

Pull-offs that push your imagination

Sights that stimulate your eyes

Then back in the car

Steer through a place of wonder

Content to be behind the wheel

Or gazing out a truck window

Watching the world

As you pass by

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Enjoying the sunshine on Angel’s Landing (Zion)

Majesty (Zion)

Majesty

Regal rock reaching

Wisps of life-forces

Ebb

And

Flow

Between the sandstone and through my ribcage

To be part of such thing transcends the moment

To belong blinks through spaces in time

Such dignity in your grandeur

My words are pennies

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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