Monday, July 12, 2010

on another grand adventure!

Today is my first day back home after 10 days of incredible adventure. I love that post-trip haze that clouds everything as you try to unpack and readjust to being home again. You are different than the you who left for the trip- and all that you've learned, felt, and experienced is hovering around your thoughts. Impressions of all your adventures are trying to integrate themselves into the you of your daily life, and it can take a while. I love this feeling. You are assured an existence outside the daily grind, and you can look at old things with new eyes. Ah, yes.

So let me tell you all about it. Chip and I have officially named this particular trip (which we also are counting as our offical honeymoon) VIVA- vicious intense vacation adventure. And of course, viva being spanish for live, we were incredibly overjoyed to spend these days living completely on our own terms. Too many people just tell themselves they'll do things later, when they have the money, or when they retire, and unfortunately never end up doing them at all. So we vow to always do things now, regardless of the excuses we can come up with. And this particular trip really felt good in the extremity of the now it encompassed.

Friday we hit the road, car loaded down with 3 tents, 2 cookers, sleeping bags, mats, a cooler full of food, more dehydrated food than we knew what to do with, sunscreen, bugspray, firewood, and so much other gear that Thel could barely accelerate. Destination numero uno: GC, Arroyo Grande, The Pit, none other than The Grand Canyon National Park. It being the infamous fourth of July weekend, and this trip decision arising a mere 2 weeks prior, we were incredible lucky to have been able to obtain campsite reservations for this and Saturday nights.

The park was full. We arrived around 9 p.m., (luckily driving through dusk, as we saw some elk on the way in) and thus had a blast trying to find the campground sans map and then pitch our tent in the dark. We got a good fire going and cracked open a couple of Blue Moons and all was well.

The next morning we arose to the caw-caw-caw's and nevermore's of dozens of Common Ravens who so beautifully graced the campground in hopes of a scrap or two. Though I thought I was keeping a clean camp, one of these mischievous fellows actually pecked a hole in a plastic bag full of black sugar to steal a lump from me.

After a delicious breakfast of smoked (although not intentionally) taters, we hiked out to the Rim Trail from the campground and then westward along the rim. We were privy to the comings and goings of a great many cute critters, and of course the grand and breathtaking views all along the trail. It was Chip's first time there and I was so glad to finally get to show it to him. We wandered around the rim and in and out of the visitor centers reading the history and checking out the field guides. We saw so many awesome birds:

White throated swift

Pygmy Nuthatch

White breasted Nuthatch

Broad tailed hummingbird

Violet green swallow

Common Raven

Juniper Titmouse

Western Scrub Jay

Western bluebird

Mountain Chickadee

Golden crowned kinglet

After hiking about 4 miles along the rime, we took advantage of the free shuttlebus to ride up to the westernmost overlook. There and at Desert View are some pretty good glimpses of the Colorado. How amazing to think that this is what cut the canyon over so many years!

We headed back to camp for some grub (awesome grilled peppers, zucchini, taters, and boca burgers) and then took off back to the rim to catch the sunset. Always my favorite view of the canyon- the colors get so intense and the feeling is incredibly surreal. Post sundown, it was back to camp again for a fire and an early turn-in.

Early Sunday morning we were up, fed, and packed for a long day of driving. Destination numero dos: Ogden, UT (where I lived for 4 months in 2007). My favorite drive in the country is through Northern AZ and Southern UT, Highway 89 snakes its way through some of the most breathtaking views and interesting little towns. We headed up I15 once we hit it, and landed in North Ogden around 6 p.m. The plan was to see my friend who lives there, and crash at her place for the night, but for reasons I'm still not entirely sure of, we never were able to meet up with her. After waiting around NO until 7:30, we decided we'd be better off to get back on the road and get closer to Yellowstone, as opposed to having a 5 hour drive the next morning. So, we made it to Idaho Falls, got a room, showered (as we hadn't for 2 days and knew it'd be our last chance again for 5), and crashed. I was exhausted from driving about 12 hours that day, and nervous because I knew the real adventure would start the next day.

Monday was THE day. Our reservations for 5 days in the Yellowstone backcountry started that day. We had to pick up our permit by 10 a.m. So up early and on the road, we drove a little ways through Idaho, into Montana, and finally Wyoming... through some very beautiful parts of the Targhee National Forest. And, a good omen, we saw an Osprey fly overhead as we were on the way. Upon finally arriving in Yellowstone (I had been dreaming of this moment for a couple of years), we had a little bit of trouble finding the backcountry office, as everyone we asked pointed us someplace that was not it. A lack of a map, 30 + miles, and one super unfriendly park employee later, we found the office with 13 minutes to spare (they give up your reservation if you don't make it on time- or fail to call- so we could have called if the need had arisen). Now I was getting super pumped. My only other backcountry adventures were much shorter (at most 2 nights) and in Tennessee (just a little different than Wyoming grizzly country). The rangers were super nice and after a cheesy orientation, we walked out with well wishes and permits in hand. Oh yeah!!

Seventeen more miles to the Delacey Creek Trailhead and here we go. We had so much stuff to pack out- food for 5 days- all dehydrated- water filter- warm clothes (the forecast said the lows would be around 35 F), etc. After about an hour of trying to get everything into our packs and our other stuff put in the car, we were off. Neither one of us could lift our own packs, much less walk with them on. They were ridiculously heavy (owing much to toting too much water at first- I guess we're too used to hiking in the desert sans water source- and the fact that Chip's sleeping back and backpack [which I was using] weigh about 30 pounds apiece on their own). So, yes, we need better gear, but we couldn't exactly afford all the lightweight stuff and still afford to go on this trip- so you cope. The first couple miles were painful as we adjusted to carrying that much weight, and the lack of sleep and proper meals prior to leaving. I think the knowledge that we had a 9 mile hike to complete that day didn't help much either. 9 miles might sound like nothing to some of you serious trekkers who do 15 miles per day, but let me make our case- neither of us had packed out in years, we were at 8500 ft, our packs were crap, and we were carrying too much water. At least in spite of all this, I was able to appreciate the beauty of the whole thing. And what beauty there was!! Yellowstone is really something else, and the Shoshone Lake area is breathtaking. 3 miles from the trailhead lies Shoshone Lake, the largest backcountry lake in North America. It was super windy as we approached, and we noticed the mosquitoes were out, but it wasn't too bad at that point. We stopped for lunch (bean dip, zucchini chips, and homemade chapati), and then kept on. And on. So it felt. The trail hugs the lakeshore for most of the trek, then cuts inland for a couple miles before leading to campsite number 1: 8R3. Official time: 5.5 hours.

Seeing the sign was oh so sweet relief. We were worn out. The site is a good ways off the trail, through the woods, and to the lakeshore. There was a gorgeous view from the main area, and we pitched our tent much farther away uphill in the woods. The lodgepole pines are really gorgeous- so thin and tall. It's a young forest, as they tend to catch fire pretty often, and there are tons and tons of down trees. The cones only open when exposed to a heat source, so they rely on wildfires to reproduce.

It was really cold that first evening, as the wind was relentless. It was difficult to pump water from the wavy lake, but we did and dinner was a success. We made good use of the bear poles, and followed the Leave No Trace philosophy the entire trip.

I was entirely convinced that we would have a bear encounter, and I had read so much and researched so thoroughly everything about black bears and grizzly bears and what to do if you encountered one and how to be safe and make noise while hiking, and we even had bear mace... So, not to ruin the end, but I was just a little disappointed that we did not see one bear on our entire trip. We saw bear tracks (grizzly and black) and bear scat, but no bear. It's probably for the better.

We sat around the campsite composing haikus:

the forest stands tall

as crashing wave by wave

the wild fills my veins


the price of alone

is cold and hard

but the beauty is worth more

Then it was time for bed- sundown is around 10 p.m., and we headed into our tent a little after. The first night was cozy. Listening to the song of the lodgepoles is pretty magical as well- the make this kind of moaning sound all the time because the ones that have fallen have landed on others and they are slowly sliding down and readjusting themselves.

Day 2 we slept super late (exhausted from the previous day). It had rained for about an hour in the early a.m., but we and all our belongings were dry and fine by mid day. As we were filtering water later that day, a Park Ranger came by to check our permit and reprimand us for having our food bag down while we were pumping water. Oops! First time we had actually left our bag down when we were not eating-- and certainly the last. That afternoon we went on a little 2 mile hike, and were able to appreciate more of the forest sans heavy packs. It is so incredible to be in that sort of immensity and know that so few other people are within miles and miles of you. We even saw a Golden Eagle. By the time we got back to camp, the mosquitoes had officially turned extreme. The wind had died down (no waves on the lake), and they were everywhere. We had to don our mosquito head nets at all times, and while eating, we had to pace back and forth quickly to try and stay one step ahead of the mosquitoes which were trying to devour our exposed faces. We were in the tent earlier than the previous night in an attempt to gain bug-free relaxation. That night we absolutely froze- the temp must have been much lower- it was hard to sleep for much of the night.

Day 3, we were up early to hang our bags and tent out to dry- some crazy condensation had soaked everything inside the tent. And the bugs were equally bad if not worse. Imagine having to relieve yourself in the woods which are FULL of mosquitoes. Bites, ahem, everywhere. Not pleasant. But, we hit the trail early, and they're not so bad when you're on the move. It was about 3 miles to 8R5. An easy trek, as we were now accustomed to our packs, etc. This site is very popular (so we were informed), and it's obvious why- it has an incredible lake view, and it's 1 mile from the geyser basin. So after pitching tent, eating, and raising our packs, we set off to explore. This is probably my favorite part of this area. It is something unlike anything you can imagine- or see many other places for that matter. It's a basin in the back country full of thermal features. As you approach it, you see steam rising from random places, and water gushing and bubbling and mud boiling and popping- and it's SO hot and smelly. Yet there are wildflowers growing along it, and a river running through, and a grassy marsh and lodgepoles surrounding it. It's crazy beautiful. You can see steaming features from the road, or hike around them from parking lots, but it was something else to be hiking around this area completely alone. It was absolutely magical. We went through the Basin loop, and then continued back through the hills and meadows to complete the entire 5 mile loop from North Shoshone Trail to Shoshone Lake Trail. We saw an otter sunning herself on a rock- a wild otter! I'd never seen one except in a zoo. She was beautiful! We also saw a Blue Heron, tons of Least Chipmunks, and some American White Pelicans. We also had to cross several creeks and streams, some rather precariously. Back at camp, it was an all out mosquito war, although we were able to eat dinner (though whether or not successfully so is still in question) and watch the sunset over the lake (so beautiful).

Day 4 we awoke to wet bags and tent again, and hung them up on the line. It took us about 3 hours to eat and get packed up (including pumping more water, etc). Today's hike was about twice the previous day's, to campsite 0A3, away from the lake, and following the Firehole River. The hike had us cross several creeks again (the most memorable being the one we had to cross about .1 miles after crossing the first, drying our feet, putting our shoes and socks back on, getting our gear straight, etc.). Today took us through more forest, much marsh land, up some hills, through some meadows, and through some pretty muddy swamp, even alongside several thermal features. Our campsite was super close to the trail, with not a lot of places for pitching a tent. It was marked by a bison skull. The mosquitoes here were even worse than anything before, and it was pretty intense. It was only this day that I had realized they had been biting me through my clothes, and I was now wearing about 4 layers, and it was HOT, and there was no shade and no place to get away from the swarms and swarms of bugs. It was beautiful, the meadow along the snaking river, with hotspots and wildflowers and marsh all around, but my patience with the bugs was really starting to wear out. We had pitched our tent on an area we thought was where most people pitched their tents (at the other sites, you could find the bare dirt tent-sized flat area about 200 yards from the bear pole and food areas). This site didn't have much possibility for pitching a tent that far from the bear pole (you'd either be in the muddy marsh, on the river bank, or in the thermal area), but we found what looked like the site people had been using. While erecting the tent, I heard an intense bubbling noise. Chip and I thought a feature must be nearby, and went searching. We couldn't hear the noise anymore, so thought it must have stopped (they do that). Later we were putting some stuff in the tent and I heard it again. Chip said, “I bet it's underneath our tent,” and I said, “There's no way we could have pitched our tent on top of a thermal feature.” Even later, when I heard it by our tent a third time, I started to think Chip could have been right. I lifted up the tent to find, yes, a steamy stink, and a soaking wet ground. We had pitched our tent over a thermal feature! Granted, you couldn't see anything but a flat area of dirt, but it must have been a boiling pit not too far below the surface. Crazy! So, of course, we moved our tent into the meadow, and as we were readjusting, I caught a glimpse of something moving across the marsh. It was alone gray wolf. So freaking beautiful and majestic and perfect. He just looked at us and continued on his way. He was about 40 feet away. I tried to grab a camera and get a shot, but he was heading away from us, and I only got a couple of blurry lumps. I felt incredibly privileged to have had the honor of being able to witness a wolf in the backcountry of Yellowstone (where they were completely eliminated just decades ago). Later that night (as we had not yet been able to stay awake until the stars came out), we were able to get a glimpse of the absolute immensity of the Yellowstone night sky. Talk about feeling small. Talk about beauty of infinite proportions. Talk about... not having words. Oh my. You need to hike into the Yellowstone wilderness and look at the stars (among other things).

Day 5 was bittersweet. I didn't want our adventure here to be over, yet I really really really wanted the mosquito situation to be over. At this point I had so many bites, in spite of nets, layers, and bug spray. My entire forehead was covered with bites, not to mention my hands, my arms, my waist, etc. Luckily 3 Mule Deer came to wish us happy trails, a young buck and 2 females. They are so beautiful, especially in the wild, drinking from the river in the meadow in the early hours of the morning. The hike out was much shorter (or easier) than expected, and we skirted around the Lone Star Geyser at the exact perfect time. We, along with another really lovely older couple, were able to see it errupt!! Something which happens once every three hours, so what are the odds! It was really phenomenal to watch the whole process, there are phases to its eruption, including the quiet steam phase, the water bubbling phase, etc. It gets 30 to 40 feet high. 3 miles from here is the Lone Star Trailhead, where we were scheduled to exit. This route was determined in a phone conversation with the backcountry office a couple weeks before the trip. The original route I wanted to take was impossible as the campsites were all reserved back in April, so he worked something out for me, and assured me that it'd be really easy to hitchhike the 6 miles back to the car upon exiting this trail. Luckily he was right. I've never really hitchhiked in my life, not with my thumb out for perfect strangers, so it was really fun. It only took us about 50 minutes to catch a ride in the back of a pick-up truck!! And we were back at the car. Oh it felt crazy to be back to “civilization” (if that's what you can call life inside YNP). We were stinky and filthy dirty and covered in bites, but we hit the road. We drove through some more of Yellowstone and down into Grand Teton NP.

The Tetons are gorgeous, huge, and snow covered. There are many lakes along the way and we saw ducks and swans as well. We stopped at several areas to catch the beauty, and even watched a huge storm roll in and over the park. We got poured upon near Jenny Lake, with hopes of stopping at a picnic area to grill some grub (yes, we were really tired of dehydrated meals) going up with the thunderheads. We had even considered grabbing a campsite in the Tetons for that night, but the rain, and the absolute stink of us convinced us that a motel room was the better choice. We lingered in the Tetons for the better part of the afternoon, drove through the Elk Refuge (where we saw no elk, but many swan). Then it was down through Idaho along 89 again. We passed through some cool looking towns and some really gorgeous landscape. We saw so much wildlife too, some sandhill cranes taking flight, several different hawks, and many other birds. We stopped in the Caribou National Forest (finally) for our dinner. We grilled out some corn on the cob, sweet peppers, and soy dogs, and it was the best meal... it felt good to be eating food that was not mushy and cooked with white gas. Full and content, we were back on the road and ended up driving all the way to Logan UT for a motel room, as all the motels in the city an hour and a half north of there, where we wanted to stop, were booked for the Cowboy Poetry Convention. You can rest assured that we left there heavy hearted because both of us would have liked nothing more than to attend a Cowboy Poetry Convention. How cool!

Anyway, the shower in Logan was the best shower EVER. The tub was black with filth by the time we were finished, and I felt like a million bucks with clean clothes, clean skin, clean fingernails, etc. We were starving by this point (again), and after a 15 minute conversation with Wok to Go, which consisted of repeating “No meat and No eggs” about 1000 times, we had ordered... something edible, we hoped... for dinner. We didn't know what we'd get or when we'd get it, but it turns out that an hour later we got some delicious veggies and rice which we devoured happily. Followed by a deep sleep.

Saturday was another day of driving. Destination: Bryce Canyon. The drive was pretty pleasant, and we arrived at Bryce mid-afternoon. A huge storm system followed us there, making the colors of the canyon that much more distinct. We checked on campsites, with some reluctance considering the clouds, and the fact that the only ones left were right on top of other people (yes, the backcountry spoiled us). Decided to wait on the sleeping arrangements, found a lovely place to cook out our lunch complete with Raven song, and then set off to see the canyon.

By the time we got to the top of the canyon, the rain had started, and a rainbow had formed overhead. So beautiful and shortly followed by an intense hail storm. It was pretty crazy. We were able to see the rest of the canyon and refill our water jugs before making a break for it (definitely no camping in that). We wound up that night in Mt. Carmel Junction, UT. And though it's a dry county, it's one of the cooler little places I've stopped. It's home to a kickass roadside cafe, started by a lady back in the day, complete with a sign that says “Ho-made pies” and a line of beers from a Moab brewery that have names such as “Polygamy Porter,” “Chasing Tail Amber Ale,” and “Evolution Amber.” Haha, welcome to Utah's antithesis. The cafe even had BOCA BURGERS to our utter delight. Dinner consisted of a Boca Burger with the toppings and some greasy diner fries. Oh yeah. And I even ordered a glass of the Outlaw Red wine. Yum! Our little cabin room was complete with Moose d├ęcor. The people were super nice and I discovered these amazing little books of quips and quotes written by an older Utah lady that had me cracking up. Great stay.

Sunday our destination was, sniff, home. I didn't want the trip to end, but we made Sunday count. On our way down through Page, via 89 again, we stopped for the short hike to Horseshoe Bend. Worth every step. Later we stopped at a Navajo arts and crafts store, and I got some awesome Navajo made earrings. Once we got south of Flagstaff, I was getting tired of driving. We kept on and on, and finally made it home. It felt crazy to see the desert again after so much scenery, and the heat was really intense. But, the desert is just as magical as all the other places I've seen, and I'm definitely lucky to live here. And while I wish I were still on vacation, it is good to be home. Chip and I had an absolute riot, and we hope to do it all again soon.

I'll leave you with a quip from Dorothy Gaylean (the one and the same who wrote the books I found in Mt. Carmel):

“The tragedy of life is not that it ends so soon, but that we wait so long to begin it.” - R.L. Evens

So don't wait!!

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