Category The Great Outdoors

Hiking Point Defiance Park

This December, we bought Jason a new (used) car, because you could hear his old junktrap Saturn squealing down the street from a block away, its bumper held on with a bit of string, the oil puddle in the garage growing into a horrible pond. It was ridiculous, and we were both determined to get him into something that was less likely to heave a sigh and collapse in the middle of the freeway. Ultimately, we bought a Mini Cooper. It had some flaws in the chrome pieces surrounding the headlight and taillight, and since it was certified and the trim should have been pristine, they gave us a thirty day IOU to replace them.

When replacement day rolled around, they gave me a new Mini to tool around in until the work was done, and since it was a gorgeous day, I decided to go to Point Defiance Park and walk around. 

I parked near Owen beach and climbed the staircase back up to five mile loop road, backtracking to the rhododendron garden. I started wandering the trails and found myself on this absolutely magical moss pathway: 

How is it even possible that this didn’t lead to a witches’ hut?

While the branches here don’t sigh as heavily with mosses as the ones at the Olympic National Rainforest, it’s a close thing. Even in the winter, with dead leaves carpeting the ground, this place is verdant and full of life. Very few other people, however, so I almost shrieked a couple of times when someone I had been unaware of suddenly passed me by because I had been looking too intently at my camera and too deep in podcast land to sense their presence. I might as well wear a sign on my back that says “Murder me“. 

What a neat mushroom!

Olympic mountain range

Tacoma Narrows Bridge

Speaking of getting murdered out in the woods somewhere, I misinterpreted the map and ended up getting a little lost. Not, like, “oh shit I need some survival skills alone out in the wilderness for 72 hours” kind of lost but more like “this road keeps splitting and somehow every fork is marked with the fort going one way and the zoo going another but I never arrive at either”. If I only had access to those signs, it could have turned into the former kind of lost situation, but thankfully T-Mobile’s coverage has improved since I switched to them and I was able to use GPS to figure out that I was nowhere near where I thought I was. 

Once I had that information, I was able to orient myself back on the path toward Owen beach, and took myself out for a celebratory “I didn’t get myself killed out in the woods” lunch at Duke’s Chowder House. This wild salmon with goat cheese and blueberries was so good, and while I’m still iffy about mixing cheese and seafood (probably from hearing it my whole life and not because I’ve had a particularly heinous cheese seafood experience), the tangy goat cheese paired beautifully with the flaky, rich salmon, the balsamic blueberries a burst of earthy summer on a cold winter’s day. A window seat with a beautiful view of the sound was the cherry on top. 

I can’t believe how long I’ve lived in this area and had never been to this park before. I’ll have to make it a point to go back during the other seasons to see how it changes–maybe I can twist Mini’s arm into giving me a loaner for oil changes.

The Topiary Park in Columbus, OH

Have you ever wished you could step inside a piece of artwork? To move about the people portrayed, smell the luscious ripe fruit gently warmed by the sun on a rich wooden table, see the horses’s muscles ripple under their shining coats? Well, you can’t go quite that far, but you can walk among the topiary version of Georges Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.

Located in the downtown of Columbus, Ohio, the Topiary Park (also known as Old Deaf School Park) was dedicated in 1992 and contains some 67 yew topiaries: 54 humans, 8 boats, three dogs, a monkey, and a cat. I didn’t count them all, but I trust none have scurried away in the night since its inception. It’s a “landscape of a painting of a landscape”, a work of art that references and celebrates art, a living painting. What’s especially striking about recreating this particular art style in topiary is that needles of the yew tree perform a similar function: disparate points of greenery, they come together en masse and provide shape and depth in the same way the distinct dots of color create a pointillist scene.

The rest of the park is no slouch, either, with its careful landscaping, cicadas buzzing from the branches. I was excited to see my first ever cicada exoskeleton here (although the live ones still eluded me), and I got all up in its business. It’s impressive how tightly this discarded casing clings to the bark of a tree, even with no visible leverage. I’m sure I’d feel a little differently about it if I lived in one of those places that sees massive swarms every thirteen years, no one likes a “swarm” unless it’s a “swarm of the world’s cutest puppies” or a “swarm of pizza delivery people each with a pizza more delicious than the last” or a “swarm of money being pumped into your house through the mail slot, turning your living room into a giant cash cage”. Sadly, that kind of swarm has yet to materialize.

Tree Cave at Kalaloch Beach

This summer I realized I still hadn’t made it back to Kalaloch beach to see the legendary tree cave; I’d looked for it on my last excursion but was on the wrong beach entirely, as there are several beaches called Kalaloch beach to the confusion of no one but me, evidently. When yet another photo of it popped up in a NW photography group, I asked if the photographer could be more specific about its location and got “It’s on the beach” as an answer. Gee, thanks. Well nuts to you, lady, now it’s been added to Google Maps and anyone who comes here searching for more information will be glad to know that it’s easiest to park at the Kalaloch campground and take their stairs/ramp down to the beach, and once you’re on the beach, walk north.

Ahem. 

We really wanted to take little Napodog to the beach–he’d been to lakes and rivers but never the ocean, and I wanted him to have that experience.  He loved it. Water that comes rumbling forth in a challenge? Check. Gross dead critters to nibble? Check. Driftwood to pee on? Big check. He was like a little dog shaped machine, pulling us at a high rate of speed up and down the beach to whatever new thing interested him, fiercely fording streams of ocean water, leaping over driftwood, and generally acting much younger than his age. He definitely wasn’t ready to leave when it started pouring rain, which is especially funny because he would always give me the hairiest of eyeballs if I made him go out in the rain to pee at home, but it’s different on the beach, guys

All that, and we finally found that darn tree cave.

Driving the Seward Highway

I’d driven the first stretch of the Seward highway on my excursion to Seven Glaciers, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to drive it again the following day on my impromptu road trip to Seward. The views are absolutely stunning–the Seward highway hugs the winding curves of the Turnagain Arm coastline, each curve revealing a new postcard-worthy photo opportunity. Scores of cars lined the numerous pull-out locations, each person striving to commit this rugged beauty to memory.

Each new part of the road was simply achingly beautiful. Roadside jerky stands suddenly looked majestic with snowcapped mountains rising behind them into low clouds. The same goes for a collapsed barn and the knife shop with the Paul Bunyon size knife planted into the ground out front. Waters sparkled impossibly turquoise from glacial sediments. It was like driving in a centerfold in National Geographic magazine that kept unfolding.

I was excited to see spiky purple lupines studding the sides of the road, and eventually I found a pull off spot where I could examine them more closely and take a few landscape photos. Never have I regretted my lack of photographic skill more than in Alaska. I could only capture a poor shadow of the sweeping vistas, the natural beauty there is simply unbelievable. 

That’s entirely too close, zoom out.

Not far enough, zoom out.

Aaaaah, that’s better.

At the end of the Seward highway lies Seward itself, a small port town of just under three thousand residents. For comparison, Seattle’s football stadium holds some sixty seven thousand. It seemed evident upon visiting that the main industries are fishing, tourism, and tourism fishing, which is when salty sea captains compete to reel in the whopper with the biggest wallet, tales of which will be told beside a roaring fire over pints.

We wandered into some shops, but neither of us saw anything we needed. There was a shop called Mermaid Co that was super cute, though, and if I’d browsed there longer, I probably would have bought something. If I don’t object to the price and I sort of like it, sometimes I will buy something just because I have held it long enough that it feels like it’s mine. I have bought a shirt because it circled the whole of Target with me in the cart twice and I couldn’t leave it behind, now that we had the survivor’s bond and all. This is why the prospect of entering a car dealership is singularly horrifying to me, as I don’t know how many minutes it will take for my brain to accept that my butt has sat in the driver’s seat long enough for me to feel a sense of obligation to buy it–after all, I’ve ground my butt into it, it’s only polite. Anyhow, Jason dragged me out by the arm just in time as I was evaluating some sort of decorative buoy.

The only thing I can tell you about this dog is that he’s unhappy about whatever’s going on in front of his nose.

We ended up stopping into the aquarium (more on that later) and buying some coffee and chocolates from Sweet Darlings (a shop visited by the Obamas on their trip to Seward in 2015). We picnicked in the car,  looking out on the steely waters of Resurrection Bay and gnawing on the leftover pork chop from our previous night’s dinner with a side of flaming hot cheetos picked up from a gas station. That’s all fine dining is ever missing, really, the spicy cheese note. It was particularly fun to eat those notoriously red treats and a pork chop with my bare hands in a brand new car that wasn’t mine, full of self satisfaction from a successful adventure. Every decision I’d made led to this greasy, pork choppy moment, in this brand new car, with this amazing view, with my favorite person, and it was perfect in both its deliciousness and ridiculousness. 

On our way back to Anchorage, I had to stop for photos with this giant eagle because, well, of course I did. If they carve it, I will come. If it’s not too far out of the way.

 

And then, just beyond the eagle, I spotted a moose eating in a field. I set up the moose alarm code we’d established earlier. “MOOSE! MOOSE! MOOOOOOOOOSE!”, the two short blasts and one long indicating in primitive moorse code that the moose is female, on the right, and there appears to be parking available. Jason dutifully pulled over and we dashed to the viewing platform. There she was, all knobs and bumps and awkward proportions, picking her way through the field. I still haven’t managed to get that toddler size camera lens I yearned for in San Juan and briefly lamented my inability to see her very well with my camera or with my eyes, when I came up with the idea of mashing the binoculars up to my camera lens and seeing if that brought the moose any closer. Surprisingly, it sort of worked! 

 

This mini trip really cemented in me the desire to come back to Alaska and see more of the interior of the state, maybe after I’ve upped my photography skills. Or maybe, just maybe, practicing in Alaska is the only way for me to get good at photographing Alaska. There’s really only one way to find out.

Baked Alyeska: Seven Glaciers Restaurant

Occasionally while on a trip, I will forget where I am. It happens in museums most frequently, it’s as though in the process of taking in new information and linking it to things I already knew, some other recent stuff has to be shoved out temporarily. Goodbye, plane ride! Goodbye name of the street my airbnb is on! Goodbye, gas station sandwich! The important stuff comes back, such as if I’d already thought of a good joke to tell about the sandwich (because what is writing and specifically blogging but constantly immediately acknowledging to yourself how clever you are and making a note to tell everyone about it later?). At least, I think the important stuff comes back later. How would I know if it didn’t? I’m sure this spacial forgetfulness also has to do with subject matter as well–if you’re in a museum display of dinosaurs, it doesn’t really matter whether that display is in Colorado or Wisconsin or Utah. You could, in essence, be anywhere looking at dinosaurs. 

Alaska doesn’t ever let visitors forget that they are in Alaska. You wake up in the morning and open your curtains and a mountain range that screams Alaska slaps you in the face. Maybe when you’re walking to continental breakfast in the morning, there will be a musician in the lobby playing the 2013 smash hit “Let it go” from the movie Frozen, and even though you’ve never asked anybody or done even a second of preliminary research, you know in your heart it’s because all of Alaska, the frozen state, loves Frozen more than anywhere else. Also because without a gold rush, trends can take a little longer getting up there. Either way, ALASKA. From there, you could have lunch at a pub called Moose Tooth. Alaska.  Maybe at some point in the car, a moose will just amble across the street directly in front of your hood and into the woods and you’ll hiss “get the camera get the camera GET THE CAMER–goddamnit”. Alaska.  A shop isn’t a shop in Alaska if it doesn’t have a stuffed bear looming somewhere. Neither is a hotel lobby. I haven’t checked and thus have no basis on which to claim this but I feel almost certain that in any Alaska dinosaur museum, there will also be a bear. Potentially fighting the dinosaur. No matter what, you will at all times know that you’re currently in Alaska.

I definitely didn’t forget that I was in Alaska at any point during my drive to or time at the Alyeska resort, what with the aforementioned moose road incident, the mini museum in the lobby of the Alyeska, and its giant grizzly statue staring menacingly at me through the window. The one time, the sole time I forgot was when I was browsing in the Alyeska shop, and one of the shopkeepers half shrieked “Ewww! A mosquito!”. I kept my mirth to myself, but on the inside, I thought it a severe overreaction to a minor pest. After all, I grew up in Wisconsin, right? Where we grow ’em so big the locals joke about them being the state bird? Pfft, I could defend against them in a dead sleep. They’re annoying, but not a big deal. 

We made our purchases from this young woman ten minutes later (a button up shirt for Jason and some Alaskan unguents for my face), and she brought the mosquito incident up, not because she was embarrassed and wanted to explain the earlier shriek, I think, but because a mosquito biting her head was extraordinarily noteworthy. “All this over a mosquito? Do they not have Game of Thrones?” I wondered. Later, while sipping some cold beverages and waiting for the tram, we started poking one another and whispering “EW! A mosquito!” giggling maniacally. Then one drifted by. Or, rather, we drifted, shocked, in the wake of its passage, the slow, meaty flap of its wing slapping at the air, demanding to be borne upward, and physics too frightened not to comply. An Alaskan mosquito can be properly described as “husky”, as in, an average one could carry away and fully drain a husky child, leaving only a husky husk. Alaska.

Properly chastised for our ignorant mockeries, we rode the tram to the top of the mountain to have dinner at Seven Glaciers. What can I say? I like eating on mountains when the option is available.  Alaska had its stamp all over this restaurant as well–Alaskan crabs, halibut that was caught that morning on the restaurant’s proverbial doorstep, incorporating local flavors like birch syrup. We ordered half the menu and ate until we were fit to burst.  During the course of the courses, our server mentioned that today had been a particularly good day, in that she’d seen a bear crossing the road that morning. I don’t think it had occurred to me until that point that it’s possible that every single Alaskan has a bear story. I deeply regret my missed opportunities for bear-related lines of questioning up until that point, but I hope to never miss another, and, in fact, started almost immediately making up for lost time.

My server’s other bear story was an older tale involving the restaurant itself, and the time an intrepid bear broke in, ate pounds of butter, and was caught in a butter coma. By viewing security footage, they were able to determine that in order to get inside, the bear had to stand up on her back legs and shimmy sideways down a hallway, culminating with an “I’m a little teapot” side crunch to leverage the door handle. Authorities were able to get the bear out and away, but evidently a bear who has discovered the wonders of butter is difficult to dissuade.  If a bear took a liking to my house enough to break inside, I would just go ahead and deed the house to the bear, there’s no feeling safe in there in your underwear ever again.

We ended up bringing back a goodly portion of our entrees back with us down the mountain, eyes peeled for hungry bears and mosquitoes alike. The doorman didn’t have a bear story.

Next stop, Alaska!

I had been itching to visit Alaska for years. In high school, we read James A. Michener’s Alaska, learning about the northernmost frontier state’s wild history: adventure, betrayal, giant bears, it had everything. I could hardly be described as an outdoorswoman (frankly, it would be a stretch to call me an “outofbedwoman”) but I still wanted to see the state’s rugged beauty for myself. So when a flight deal for a weekend getaway too good to miss appeared in my inbox, I smashed the buy button without any hesitation whatsoever–I still would like to road trip up through Canada into Alaska someday, but in the meanwhile, this was an opportunity for a small taste of what this giant state has to offer.

As it was such a short trip, I was leery of booking too many things to do–not because tour activities are shockingly expensive and I’m cheap (though they are and I am, I was excited about the idea of riding a dog sled on a glacier until I saw it cost five times what my round trip flight cost and then I fairly well gagged) but because spending my trip going from scheduled activity to scheduled activity didn’t seem in the spirit of Alaskan adventure. So bright and early in the morning, I flung open my blackout curtains and stepped outside to see what Alaska had to show me.

First, I saw some pretty explicit instructions about where my urine was unwanted, which, frankly, raises far too many unanswerable questions for me. Was it happening so often that they needed an edict? If so, why and what is the lure to that specific spot? Is there some sort of Tinkle Bandit on the loose in Anchorage? Or was it just preventative in case someone started whizzing willy-nilly all over various walls and structures and the building owners are only particular about that one area? Who will penetrate these ammonia mysteries for me? Is this yellow journalism?

Jason and I wandered the streets, browsing shops, buying fine art, though in general, neither of us had much use for bone knives, animal pelts, or silver coins struck with the face of Sarah Palin. I might have made an exception on that last if there was a little speech bubble coming out of her mouth that said “I can see Russia from my house!” but sadly, they were not catering to people like me, which is actually good, because if they did they’d probably go out of business. 

Of course I rubbed the bear’s tummy, who am I to turn down some good luck or free germs?

l-r: Raven Stealing the Moon and Stars, (smug) Eagle and Giant Clam

After I’d had enough shopping, we found ourselves outside of Pablo’s Bicycle Rentals and decided to rent a couple of cruisers and hit the trail. They had a surprising variety of bikes, and part of me really, really wanted to try out one of the electric bikes, but for some reason, I’m reticent to let people know in person just how very little muscle tone I have, whereas I’m just fine blasting that information all over the internet. What I’m saying is, Hannibal Lecter might be annoyed at carving off my fat cap, but he’d be thrilled by my overall tenderness. You could cut me with a spoon. Not a grapefruit spoon, a wooden one. Anyway, I wasn’t about to admit that to Pablo or his representative. Only you, my pets. Only you.

The Tony Knowles coastal trail runs along the Cook inlet for eleven miles, and is supposedly an excellent place to see wildlife, including moose and bear. The person who rented us the bikes quickly explained what to do if we saw either, but I’m actually glad we didn’t end up startling any wildlife, as I’m certain any knowledge of what to do when I encountered a bear would fly out of my head the second I was actually encountering a bear. What I did encounter were a number of other people scattered along the trail, and almost every single one of them smiled and said hello. As a Seattleite (or as close as I’m ever going to get), this was shocking to me. People do not greet one another here. Neighbors walking past one another on their way to/from the mailbox will suddenly both find some interesting point in the distance to stare at fixedly, or will hurriedly pull out their phones and pretend they have urgent text message business to attend to only to quickly slip it back in their pocket when the danger period of potential human interaction has passed. Smiling? Saying hello? Eye contact? Where am I, 1986?

I saw a seagull strutting out there like he knew he was a very important bird, indeed, and it filled me with an inexplicable joy.

This is the first magpie I’ve ever seen, and I was probably more thrilled than any non-elderly person should be, but I couldn’t help myself. It was just gorgeous, its feathers flashing iridescent and blue, its  squeaky little noises. It’s backit here, so you’ll have to take my word for it. When I first looked them up and read they were also in Washington/Oregon/California, I was surprised I hadn’t seen one before, and then I looked at their range map and realized they only live in a whole swath of the States I haven’t spent much time in.

Do you think the moose take the suggestion to slow down? I’m not very familiar with their general lawabidingness so as to hazard a guess, and the people at the bike shop didn’t really address that point.

Other than the pretty gnarly-on-a-bike-especially-if-you’re-not-fully-comfortable-on-a-bike hill between Pablo’s Bikes and Elderberry Park, the coastal trail was fairly easy even for someone as non-exercisey as myself. No, I didn’t bike the whole thing, but I was out there for a few hours and had an excellent time, aided by the aforementioned lack of bears. On our way back to the hotel, we grabbed lunch and swung into the Qiviut Shop, where they sell musk ox yarn goods, which is claimed to be warmer than wool and softer than cashmere. I touched their little sample and it was wonderfully soft, but I didn’t inquire as to their cost as they were far too fine for someone like me who tends to take her scarf off, ball it up, and throw it up onto a closet shelf, potentially to never be seen again.

Man, this guy’s work is everywhere. I wonder if a coastal city doesn’t feel it’s “made it” until they have a Wyland?

There’s just something about this Mr. Prime Beef van that’s deeply unsettling. It’s not just the bloody, meaty skull, it’s the way the i gives said bloody, meaty skull an eyeball that stares at you in agony. Something like that.

Early summer blossoms? Goddamn have I been sitting on this post for a long time! Here’s a current photo of Alaska for comparison:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I think I’ll save my Canada-Alaska road trip for the summer, my years in Washington have made me too weak for most kinds of snow-based adventure, much less an Alaskan snow-based adventure.

 

 

White Sands National Monument

Sorry, Anakin, take a seat and buckle your whiny ass up, because we’re headed to the Land of Sand: White Sands National Monument. Composed of gypsum from under the Permian sea, the sand is soft, cool, and almost impossibly white, glittering in vast dunes under a deep blue sky. It is, in fact, the largest gypsum dunefield in the world, home to more than 800 animal species, some of which are endemic to White Sands. And it was in this ecological marvel that we were going to go dune sledding. Now, before you get your engine all revved up about my clear lack of respect for these natural areas, I would like to clarify that this is national monument sanctioned dune sledding as in, they sell the sleds on site. Which is good, because there was no way a sled was going to fit in the overhead compartment and I don’t know where one might find winter sporting equipment for sale in the middle of the desert at the end of April. Maybe lots of places, I didn’t check.

The transition from the surrounding area to the dunes occurs rapidly–first I saw a line of jagged white at the horizon, and then suddenly my whole world was sand, sand covering the hills, the road itself. Inside the dune areas, the roadway is grooved, presumably for traction. The rental car did not like this one bit, and it jittered and shook like the bridge of the starship enterprise on top of a vibrating bed. “This is what I get for not buying rental car insurance,” I groused. Thankfully, violent shaking was as bad as things got, and we were soon able to find a parking spot in a location I was pretty sure wouldn’t get buried in a sand drift by the time we were ready to leave.

After parking and waxing the bottom of the sled, we trekked out into the dunes, looking for just the right one. Eventually we found a dune that was suitably steep and it was sledding time. Jason has discovered a new interest in video recording on his phone, particularly using the slow motion effect. Unfortunately, when those videos are removed from the phone, instead of a small portion of the video being in slow motion, the entire thing is slow motion, so I am now in possession of a video in which I make deeply disturbing sounds as I struggle to launch a sled down a sand dune and laugh like Jabba the Hutt at the bottom. And because this is really one of those things where one should show and not tell, that video is included in this post. You’re welcome.

The thing about dune sledding is that for each five seconds of sledding joy, there’s a much longer slog back up. At first, I circled out to a lower incline ascent so I could walk up but by the second slide, we were both brute forcing our way back up the dune, feet scrabbling in the sand, using the saucer to dig in and pull ourselves upward, in a balmy 81 degrees. And we each did it something like six times, at which point, I was well and truly tired and ready to head back to the car. On the way, I spotted some plants I wanted to photograph, and a bleached earless lizard (one of the species that has adapted to the white landscape) and I happily snapped photos for a bit. When I stood up, my vision went black. Even though I’d worn a hat and sunscreen and had been drinking water, clearly I had still overexerted myself a bit. I felt baaaaaaaad for at least an hour afterward, so I probably should have stopped sledding just a bit sooner. Or drunk even more water. Or both.

Jason had maybe a little sand in his shoes. And also a hole.

Oh yeah, and while I was gone, I’m pretty sure a mummy climbed into my trunk.

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Carlsbad Caverns National Park

When I plan a trip, I definitely push my limits in order to see and do as much as possible. It’s about finding a balance. Ambitious but achievable. Aggressive but not arduous. I’m not going to skip sleeping entirely, but I will forgo a few hours’ sleep if it means I have the leeway to add something awesome to the docket. Which is how I found myself at four in the morning in freezing cold pitch darkness outside a gas station in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico, fumbling around,  trying to figure out how to open the gas tank door on the rental car. There was no release lever on the driver’s side floor. Nothing under or on the dashboard. Not in the glove compartment nor in the center arm console. No mention was made in the owner’s manual. And THAT would be because a fuel door button doesn’t exist on that car, the fuel door just needs to be pressed inward to click open*. Soooo I suppose this means that I’m coming to an age where I start to complain about all this newfangled technology and reminisce about the good old days of foot-powered cars. What I’m saying is, I am deeply interested in buying an Amazon Echo Silver.

We covered a lot of ground before dawn, the sun rising fortuitiously to Westworld’s rendition of “House of the Rising Sun” over what appeared to be a shootout between plywood giants.

Most of the rest of the drive was uneventful: a flat lot of nothing to look at except for a few cows, some ramshackle buildings, oil pumps, an entire town that smelled like a fart that had been bottled up by a lactose intolerant milkshake guzzling giant for a generation, and some kind of oil or gas tower thing that appeared to have a continuous purposeful fireball shooting out of the top. You can buy about a million cliched items boasting that travel is about the journey, but I’d argue in many cases, the destination is far more compelling. You don’t take a ten hour flight and turn around to come home, boasting about what an amazing journey you took that involved one cup of tea, three trips into a bathroom the size of kindergarten cubby, a battle over the shared armrest, and mild turbulence. You aren’t like, “Ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you the riveting tale of the entire town that smelled like a fart and why it made my entire trip worthwhile” unless you are me. No. You set out to do something, whether that’s see something or eat something or lay in a prone position in a location that has better weather than home. This day, I set out not to look at an unchanging landscape for hours on end but to see Carlsbad Caverns.

 Carlsbad Caverns became a national monument in 1923 and was upgraded to full national park status in 1930. This gigantic limestone marvel was described by Will Rogers as “the Grand Canyon with a roof over it”, and I’m hard pressed to find a better way to explain its vastness. Whether one hikes from the natural entrance or takes the elevator shortcut (I’m not deriding the latter, as an experienced indoorswoman I also elected to take the elevator), once you reach the Hall of the Giants, you’re nearly a thousand feet underground surrounded on all sides by speleothems of all shapes and sizes. It’s so large, when a noisy group would push past me gaping in awe, I would not be able to hear them any longer after a minute or so even though we were in the same cave chamber. Looking around is disorienting, with all the formations on every side I felt as though I’d stepped into one of those children’s rock crystal growing kits.

It is an astounding place, to be so deep under the surface of the earth, to be surrounded by these formations, to hear nothing but the occasional clink of rings and wristwatches against the guardrails and steady drips of water from overheard.  I took so many photos and even a few videos but the truth of the matter is that I have yet to see a photo by any photographer that could convey the vastness of the caverns and the true beauty of the speleothems. It truly must be seen to be believed.

Here’s a ton of photos anyway.

Nope. Nope nope nope.

You know why I took this photo. You know.

After our walk around the caverns, we were both ravenous, having been up since the wee hours without eating save for some guacachips procured at the aforementioned gas station. We decided to check out the on site restaurant and Jason proclaimed that if there was a cave burger, he was going to eat it. Not only did they have a burger, it was literally called a cave burger, and with the gauntlet thus thrown and the challenge answered, his food decision was made. I selected a “1923 panini” (which, if you were paying attention, is the year Carlsbad was made a national monument) and was also drawn to a drink bottle named, simply, “Cherry beverage” with an orchard listed on the side. I took a bite of my panini and pronounced it “not bad”, and Jason offered me a bite of his cave burger.

…It literally tasted exactly like the school cafeteria burgers of my youth. Exactly. That precooked patty pulled out of a warming bin that tasted like it had been boiled brought back a rush of emotions, none of them good**. I gave him half my sandwich because I couldn’t in good conscience let him go back to that mediocre burger when there were still potentially hours between us and our next meal. He ate the sandwich half and finished the burger anyway: THAT is how hungry we were.

And the cherry beverage? I should’ve looked at the nutritional label instead of being swayed by an orchard’s name on the side, because nary a cherry ever touched it save for the ones printed on the label. It tasted like corn syrup cough syrup, and that’s being generous. That, we did not finish. So even if all of our national parks get stripped of their funding and they need to rely on tourism to survive, I doubt the new motto for Carlsbad Caverns is going to be “Come for the caverns, stay for the food!”. But seriously, come for the caverns, though.

 

*This may in fact mark the first time in the history of the world that a correct answer was found on yahoo answers, and now that I’ve called them out on some accidental correctness, they’ll probably delete it and replace it with an answer about how you can’t get pregnant if it’s a full moon and you rub your genitals with a mr clean magic eraser

**I ate a fuckton of those burgers during junior high/high school though, because I had bad taste and my gut wasn’t going to fill out my JNCOs all on its own.

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Riding in the Sky: The Sandia Peak Tramway

The Sandia Peak Tramway was once the longest tramway in the world. Bumped to third place, it remains the longest in the United States. Construction started in 1964 and was completed two years later, with the second support tower requiring the aid of helicopters to construct. And not a little helicopter aid, either–it took some 5,000 helicopter trips to complete tower two and install the cables, which is probably more helicopters than you’ve ever seen in your life from all sources combined, even if you’re a dedicated fan of Steven Seagal’s oeuvre.  The span of the cables is 7,720 feet, which is long enough that that the cables and even the car itself seems to disappear as it moves away. It’s so long that a trip up or down takes a solid fifteen minutes, so it’s reassuring to know that over the course of their operation, every part of  the tram save for the towers themselves has been replaced at least twice. Less reassuring was our car operator’s description of our current elevation above the ground as a “seven and a half second freefall”, but even that gave me a small assurance: that I’d have enough time to shout “I waaaaaant aaaaa reeeeefuuuuuund” as I hurtled toward the ground. Petty until the very end, that’s me.

Healthier, more ambitious people than myself can choose to hike up or down, and thus tickets are sold at both the top and the bottom station in one way and round trip forms, so I was careful to not lose them in the depths of the abomination I call a travel purse: some forty pounds of anything I might need and no way to recover any of it without five to ten minutes of swirling my arm around in it up to my shoulder. I mean, yes, if I had lost the tickets it wouldn’t have been the end of the world to buy new ones or even hike down (let’s be honest, if you’re going to have to hike one of the directions, down is preferable), BUT then I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to pepper the tram operator with questions–they have a prepared spiel they give on the ride up, but not on the ride down. The kind of hard-hitting questions I’m known for, like ” Has the tram ever gotten stuck? For how long? If there always has to be an operator on the tram, who rides the first one down in the morning? What does that red handle do?” Answers: Yes. Usually no more than 15 minutes but it has been stopped for longer waiting for a car to stop swinging back and forth so it doesn’t risk collision with a tower. Someone actually has to spend the night up in the peak to ride down in the morning, which our (female) operator has never had to do, and for which she’s grateful (“I’m a women’s libber, but you get a bunch of weirdos showing up in the middle of the night.”). It’s an emergency brake that stops the tram completely, requiring the operator to have to strap into a harness and climb outside the tram to manually reset things–which, of course, spurred an inevitable follow up question of “Have you ever had to do that?”. Thankfully, the answer to that one was no, not outside of training. Just picturing being harnessed to the top of a swinging tram a seven and a half second freefall above the ground made my insides roil around a bit in a way that had nothing to do with the rebel donuts crammed in there. Can’t a helicopter do it instead?

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An Oregon Coast Afternoon

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It took some real effort on my part to not try to cram this wooden scarecrow from Something Awesome in Bandon into the car, which I think is precisely the reason I bought a compact hatchback rather than a truck, to curb these sorts of impulses, lest my yard turn into an unintentional roadside attraction. However, the very real possibility of all of my weird hobbies and collections turning into an unintentional roadside attraction is precisely why I bought a home in a neighborhood without a homeowner’s association, because intentional or not, I’ll be damned if I’m going to let my neighbors dictate to me what size my yard alien can be.

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oregon-coast-afternoon-10-of-28Tahkenitch lake

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I had to pull over for the Sea Lion Caves. America’s largest sea cave? Yes, please! I parked in their large lot on the east side of 101 and dashed across the road only to be told inside that their elevator was broken and they weren’t allowing anyone into the sea cave, not on the walkways, not to their viewpoint, nowhere, because someone might look over/fall into the elevator shaft. “It’s a liability issue,” they said. “The lawyers won’t let us.” Evidently the lawyers have no problem with them encouraging people to run across a highway, though. So I took the liberty of fixing their sign.

liabilitycavesI also considered adding “The lawyers encourage visiting our gift shop instead” at the bottom but I don’t actually know the lawyers’ stance on that.

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My next stop was Devil’s Churn, a narrow inlet where the waves crash into a milky froth to make Beelzebub Butter. Or so I assume. When the tide is in, the waves can crash up to hundreds of feet into the air, and there are signs everywhere warning visitors never to turn their back on the ocean. The rocks down near the water were very slick with satanic ooze, and my boots skidded right off which is how I ended up in ankle deep demon muck with my boot covered in rock snot*.

oregon-coast-afternoon-17-of-28Baal’s Half & Half

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Then it was off to learn about a very different kind of churn: the ice cream churns at Tillamook. Monday, a cheesy exposé!

 

*technical terms, every one

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