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.

 

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Joshua Tree Recap

Length of Stay:

  • 3 days, 3 nights
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Looks like an old-timey postcard, right?

High:

  • Rock! More specifically, exploring all the nifty boulders in the park.

Low:

  • Dropping my phone and cracking the screen while trying to take a picture

Favorite Hike:

  • Split Rock
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A big split rock

Favorite Treat:

  • Looking at desert blooms
  • Eating honey-jalapeno candy
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Check out these little cactus buds

Trees Named Joshua

I entered the Mojave desert in the dark, and I mean truly dark. With no street lights and an overcast sky, my car headlights were barely able to cut through the night. The Joshua Trees stood like silent pillars, welcoming me into their world as I zipped down the highway. My peripheral vision caught flickers of these madman-looking trees (which are, in fact, not really trees).

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Entering Joshua Tree National Park in daylight was an entirely different experience. The unique setting drew my attention, causing my to pull over one too many times on my way to a popular hiking trail. The trees were bold, owning their differences while the rock in the background looked like a giant had simply dumped it in huge piles. To top it all off, the desert flora was in full-bloom. I geared up for a wonderful day in paradise.

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After a mile of hiking, I decided that I had never experienced beauty quite like this. I am, at heart, an explorer. I thrive in places where I can discover. Joshua Tree – or JT as the locals call it – was an entire world rife with nooks, crannies, and interesting things to see. I wandered around the rocks, finding familiar shapes in the formations, and scrambling over nooks and crannies. Every so often I’d stumble across a new desert flower I hadn’t yet seen. The Joshua Trees themselves seemed to stand guard over this special wild place.

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“Face Rock”

Scientists predict that within 100 years, there may be no more Joshua Trees in the park due to climate change. How sad to think that future generations may be missing out on this national park’s namesake.

I touched the trunk of a young Joshua Tree and wished it luck.

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A Joshua Tree teenager

Death Valley Bust: Part III

A continuation from Death Valley Bust: Part I and Part II

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The entire region experiences the effects of strong winds. (News article)

Once again, the crinkling plastic water bottle alerted me to my change in elevation. My car shuddered, responding to the huge gusts of winds, and I felt my MyPod oscillate behind me as I began my slow ascent out of the Valley.

I was in for a wild ride – 30 miles of road, wind, and low visibility. I kept my thoughts favorable: there was a hotel close by, where I was hoping to stay for the night.

I let out a sigh of relief when I spotted a long white motel-looking building in the distance. I pulled up close so the wind would be slightly buffered as I checked in. I sprinted to the door, accidentally flinging it open so a gust caught it. “Sorry,” I said to the lady at the front desk.

My heart sank as I looked around. The waiting room was full of weary travelers. It was a shot in the dark, but I asked, “Do you happen to have any rooms available for tonight?”

“Sorry hon, nothing left.”

I stood in place for about a minute, gathering my thoughts and stirring up my fortitude for more driving. I knew that there were more small towns in the near proximity, but my best bet might by Pahrump (yep, that’s a real name), which was another good 45 minutes away.

As I ran back to my car, I spotted others parking and gathering their things to check in. “Just so you know, there’s no more rooms for tonight,” I shouted over the racket of the wind. I could tell that neither the young couple nor the father standing by the mini van heard me. “No more room,” I yelled. Both parties gave a nod of thanks and ran back to their vehicles. Everyone and his brother were trying to find a safe, quiet place to settle down for the night. It was survival of the fittest, but, unfortunately, I was at a disadvantage having to lug an extra 550 lbs behind me.*

More driving.

More wind.

More dust.

When I pulled up over a set of mountains, I began to check my phone for signal every 5 minutes or so. Pahrump was close, and I was intent on calling up a hotel rather than simply showing up.

Holiday Inn – no vacancies

Best Western – no room at the inn

And so on and so forth. I called five places, before the fifth one kindly explained that the whole entire city was booked up. “You’ll have to go to Vegas, sweetheart.”

I forlornly pulled over, filled up with gas, and heated up some food for dinner.

I would be returning to Vegas with my tail between my legs. Death Valley ate me up and spit me back out. Checking my phone, I noticed that the next day was slated to be almost as miserable weather-wise.

Once I secured an Airbnb, I hopped in my car for another hour-long ride. I was exhausted. There was grit in my ears, nose, eyes, shorts, shirt, and shoes. My poor car had a thin layer of grime over everything in the front seat. Despite the craziness of my day, I smiled as I listened to music and headed eastward to Sin City. Though days like these aren’t the most fun, they certainly are memorable. I would have much rather spent a long, fabulous day enjoying the sights and wonders of Death Valley National Park, yet there was something invigorating about my wind/dust storm adventure. When hit with obstacles, we can choose our response; I have found that optimism is always the best way to go.

Two days later I returned to the Valley. It was a gorgeous day with perfect (hot) weather. Death Valley: redeemed.

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*Clarence, I have no problem with your weight, but at this point in time, I felt like it was a slight inconvenience.

Death Valley Bust: Part II

A continuation from Death Valley Bust: Part I

The wind stirred up layers of silt and dust, obscuring the road and making it difficult to see. I watched a poor crow try to fly towards shelter. Flapping his wings furiously, he eventually gave up and just let the wind carry him. I slowed down my speed drastically, straining my eyes to see the center yellow line. The wind picked up even more, allowing me to see only five feet in front – just enough to spot the taillights of another car.

I followed this Subaru for about 20 miles at a snail’s crawl. I could hear the sound of small pebbles hitting my car roof, sounding like a minor hailstorm. Larger rocks skittered across the road, along with uprooted plants. Eventually we reached an intersection.

Even more bedlam.

Cars had pulled over, simply giving up on driving. The National Park service had closed down one portion, and plows were being sent out to scrape dirt and debris off of road surfaces. I was so close to my camp, and determined to check up on Clarence, so I slowly edged my way through the impromptu parking lot.

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The view from my windshield. Click here for video.

After another 15 minutes of white-knuckle driving, I pulled into camp. Thankfully I had left the window closed, or else my MyPod would have been brimming with soot. I scavenged my wheel chocks, which had gone flying, and tried to hunt down my entrance mat. Putting these items back in their designated container proved another challenge; a huge gust swept up the lid, whipping it away at lightning speed. Off I went again, holding my shirt down so it wouldn’t keep blowing up.

I knew with 100% certainty that I wouldn’t feel safe camping tonight, so I went across the street to book a room. My heart sunk, when I saw the line, and heard the receptionist announce “all full”. With no reception or wifi, I had to get the heck outta Dodge as soon as possible so I could find a secure location to sleep for the night.

I raced over the Visitor’s Center in hopes to quickly get a refund on my site. When I opened the door, it looked like a airport terminal on layover. Long lines of stressed individuals waited to speak with a park ranger. Some couples exchanged heated words, while others whispered quietly in an attempts to provide encouragement. A gentleman came in with a gash down his leg due to flying debris and one couple reported car damage caused by a flying rock hitting their windshield. More road closure announcements were made. The lights flickered on and off ominously, causing the computers to keep resetting. My credit card refund would have to wait.

Hooking up Clarence, the MyPod, took longer than usual despite my harried pace. As I drove away from the park, I noticed a mother running with a crying child towards their vehicle. A group of three ladies linked arms, and then eventually sat down on the ground waiting for the latest gusts to somewhat subside.

I could handle rain, snow, cold, and heat, but my adventurous spirit had met its match with 60 mph bouts of wind.

I drove out of the park a little after 5 pm, slow enough as to not get blown off-road, yet quick enough so I could get to a hotel room before they were all booked.

It appeared that I should have left just a couple minutes earlier.

(to be continued… again)

Death Valley Bust: Part I

The plastic water bottles next to me crinkled as the air pressure increased, reminding me that I was driving down into the lowest place on the continent. The sun was shining, the day was crisp, and I was relieved to be out of the Vegas metropolis.

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The view while driving in (Zabriskie Point)

As I set up camp at -196 feet below sea level, I chit-chatted with my new neighbors. “Supposed to get a little windy tonight – why dontcha’ park it a little closer so our rig can act as a barrier.” I thanked the gentleman for his advice and maneuvered Clarence so that he was in a cozy little nook. Setting off with my adequate water supply, I was eager to begin hiking before the full heat of the day took effect. After all, Death Valley boasts being the hottest, driest, and lowest national park in the country.

I soon found out it was also one of the windiest.

After about a mile and a half into my canyon hike, the wind really started to pick up. I recognized that the towers of rock next to me were acting as a buffering, so I was concerned as to how bad it was back at the parking lot.

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The rock walls somewhat blocked the roaring wind

“I’m going to turn around – I’m not liking this wind so much,” I explained to some hikers I had met. At this point, my sunglasses were doing very little to block the grit from getting in my eyes. Tiny debris whipped up and pelted my legs, and I had to give up on wearing a hat, resulting in my hair going every which way.

As I exited the canyon, every step became a struggle. I could feel the dust going into my nose when I breathed, and I started to lose my balance. I fell three times trying to make it back to my car. As quick as I could, I yanked the door open and practically fell inside, bringing a whirlwind of soot with me. I was safe.

For now.

(to be continued)