Category The Great Outdoors

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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oregon-coast-afternoon-22-of-28Father of Lies foam

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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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Prehistoric Gardens in Oregon’s Rainforest

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If there is a dinosaur-based attraction anywhere near where I’m traveling, I will find it, like a divining rod for giant lizards. Though, to be fair, I don’t know how anyone driving on 101 could miss these particular dinosaurs, given the way they loom over the road. They WANT to be found. And what better place for life size dinosaurs than a section of Oregon temperate rainforest, dripping with moss and ferns? That’s what Ernie Nelson thought in 1953, when he began sculpting size-accurate dinosaurs. Two years later, Prehistoric Gardens opened to the public.

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Prehistoric Gardens acts as part dinosaur attraction, part nature preserve, with the sculptures carefully nestled among the trees, and the vegetation allowed to encroach as it pleases–the handrails are really there more for the moss and fungi than human hands.  When I got in close to look at the teeny-tiny mushrooms that had sprouted on the rails, I saw even teeny-tinier spiderwebs attached to them. And looming behind that, of course, a steel and concrete dinosaur.

prehistoric-gardens-7-of-52What’s up with the ellipsis at the end of the sign? “State law prohibits smoking in forested areas…but we won’t tell if you won’t”? “…so don’t test us!” “…and we have plenty of places to hide the bodies of those who do”?

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Ernie strove with all of his creations to make them as scientifically accurate as possible (to the standards of the time, of course–you’ll see no feathered dinosaurs here). It took him nearly thirty years to complete the twenty-three sculptures on the property, and they’ve held up remarkably well for their sixty years, with some weathering but otherwise intact. It also features some dinosaurs beyond the well-known favorites, and each exhibit comes complete with a sign containing the name, the meaning of the name, and some factoids about them.

prehistoric-gardens-10-of-52Triceratops’ goofy smile? SCIENTIFICALLY CORRECT.

prehistoric-gardens-11-of-52Dimetrodon’s halloween coloring? SCIENTIFICALLY CORRECT.

prehistoric-gardens-26-of-52The melancholy of the ankylosaur? SCIENTIFICALLY CORRECT.

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prehistoric-gardens-16-of-52Birds were angry long before 2009.

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prehistoric-gardens-21-of-52Lystrosaurus, the swamp lizard.

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prehistoric-gardens-22-of-52When I looked up to the canopy, I saw that the tree branches were not only covered in moss, but had ferns growing out of them as well.

prehistoric-gardens-25-of-52Psittacosaurus, the parrot lizard.

prehistoric-gardens-28-of-52Struthiomimus, the ostrich mimic. Known for the way it struts around like it owns the place*.

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prehistoric-gardens-39-of-52Trachodon, the rough-tooth.

prehistoric-gardens-41-of-52This ichthyosaur doesn’t appear to be doing so well.

prehistoric-gardens-49-of-52Seymouria, purportedly named for the town where it was discovered, but was actually** named after Jane Seymour, who glared in just such a fashion on the set of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, when her coffee was served with an incorrect ratio of beans to additives.

And now the thing you all came here to see, an impending T-Rex attack on a car:

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*Well, NOW it’s known for that.

**Not actually. It’s the town thing.

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Lassen Volcanic National Park

 

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At least, Lassen was the plan. We’d spent the night in Dunsmuir as it put us within easy morning striking distance of this national park–it would be a not insignificant detour on our day’s route, as that evening’s destination was Anaheim, which was a nine hour drive without a detour, but national parks are worth detouring for. We ended up sitting in construction traffic for a while, but the sun was shining, we  had podcasts playing, and there was jerky to gnaw on (the breakfast of champions). Often as you approach a national park, the land around you will grow wilder, a hint of what is to come. I can’t say that was really the case here. It grew more rural, certainly, and our car got chased down the road by a pack of dogs which was pretty wild, but there were no glimpses of the park through the trees, no clues to what lay ahead.

What lay ahead was that the park was closed due to snowy/icy roads. Dang it! The visitor’s center and a short walking trail were still open, but the driving loop through the park was closed. I was disappointed but this area isn’t so terribly far away that I couldn’t make another attempt in the summer. If I’m honest, I’m already half planning my next trip to that area. And it wasn’t all bad–we got to take a bathroom break, stretch our legs in the crisp air, listen to bird chatter, and see a tiny part of a place neither one of us had been before.

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ca-trip-2016-3-of-30The trees were coated with the most neon green moss I’ve ever seen. It flipped my cameras out, they utterly balked at its vibrancy.

ca-trip-2016-2-of-30Greeeeeeeeeeeeeen!

From the sort-of-fail at Lassen, we pushed hard toward Anaheim, making a stop for In N Out burgers (a given), taking a short detour for an address I’d plugged into RoadTrippers which turned out to be an empty orchard in the middle of nowhere (uhhhh, thanks, past me), and stopping for the occasional restroom break. Sometimes, adventure is seeing new sights and plunging off a rocky cliff with a parachute strapped to your back, and sometimes, it’s flossing a chunk of jerky the size of a toddler out from your teeth in a McDonald’s parking lot while being watched by something like twenty feral kittens, and this drive was definitely more the latter. Not just more the latter, exactly the latter, because that was precisely what happened. One moment, I felt I wanted to pull over and get out some dental floss, and the next, there were cats everywhere and my mouth was giving birth to something so large I should have probably given it a name.  I suppose it’s not too late. Rest in peace, Jay Erke.

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Even pushing, we arrived at our hotel late, with all of the usual complaints that come with a long day’s car travel, so I was thrilled to learn that the pool and hot tub were 24 hours. I wasted no time after check in to don my brand new suit decked out all over with sharks (only $10 on Amazon!) and head to the pool–it was late enough at night that Jason and I had the entire pool to ourselves, which was a blessing in more ways than one. Not just for the quiet and moving a body that had spent too many hours sitting and the warm water on aching muscles, but also because within a minute of hitting the pool, one of my boobs popped out, and also, the suit turned see through. Not “naked in the pool” sort of see through (minus, of course, the escapee situation which was corralled immediately), but definitely “it’s a good thing there isn’t a strong light source nearby” sort of see through. What I’m saying is, there’s a solid reason that swimsuit was only ten dollars and it wasn’t quite the bargain I thought it to be. So, you know, thanks again, cover of darkness and other hotel guests with reasonable bedtimes. You saved me a lot of embarrassment. At least until I splashed it out all over the internet.

 

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Sunburn and Bugs 2016: At Night, The Bison Come

I’m not going to name names, but a very stupid and naive person once said “There’s no drive as long or as tense as the one to a gas station of indeterminate distance when your gas light has just ticked on.” That is patently untrue, and I know this because I have made two drives since that were much longer and much more tense: the drives to and from the Grand Canyon. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

No trip to the southwest is complete without a gander at the biggest goddamn hole in the world. The Grand Canyon is actually so large that the north and south rims of it are drastically different. Most photos and videos you’ve seen of the Grand Canyon are from the south rim: rocky and dotted with desert scrub, the elevation is lower than the north rim, which makes it easier to see the other side and appreciate its, uh, grandness. The south rim is also the side that offers mule rides and helicopter tours, and has that skywalk that will test one’s comfort levels with heights. Owing to our route, visiting the south rim would have involved more backtracking and made for an overall longer day, so we went to the more hipster north rim, which is heavily forested and cooler, both because of the aforementioned forest and elevation, and because you then get to say that you visited a part of a national park that’s like, totally more obscure.

Heavily forested is where the problems came in. We were actually making excellent time from Antelope Canyon, and were poised to arrive at the Grand Canyon just before sunset which would give us a view of this natural wonder in the most gorgeous light possible. We turned off onto the road that leads to the north rim, and I was just congratulating myself for timing the day juuuust right when I saw the deer warning sign. With a deer under it. Every other time I’ve driven past a deer warning sign, I have not seen a single deer. Not a single one. Between that first deer and the parking lot for the north rim, a distance of about thirty miles,  I saw literally hundreds of deer. On summer trips to Eagle River, Wisconsin, my family would go on car rides in the evening to go look for deer. I could add all of the deer sightings of all of those summer trips together and still come up short of the sheer number of deer I saw on that thirty mile stretch. Deer ambling across the road, deer cropping alongside, deer churning in heaving waves across a stretch of meadow, a frothing sea of fucking deer. I drove, white knuckled, the entire stretch to the north rim. Less so drove than crept, foot hovering over the brakes, looking in despair as the sun began to slip down over the horizon, the sky bursting in gorgeous color that I could not appreciate because I was desperate to not destroy Emily’s new car via gutwrenching deer incident. And then came the warning signs for cows. And bison. And now that I knew that they were totally not kidding about the deer, I took these warnings very seriously and wailed in despair at the thought of more thousand pound plus animals that could come charging blindly at the car. What warning signs would be next? Warning: Elephants? Warning: A Damn Landwhale?

When we finally made it to the parking lot, Emily got behind the steering wheel and said she’d find parking while Rachel and I dashed out to try and get a peek before darkness totally overtook the canyon in a way that would make dashing irresponsible, lest one of the less-coordinated members of our organization (me, I’m talking about me) trips over a rock and hurtles over an unseen edge.

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The admittedly small taste I got of the Grand Canyon was tantalizing. I absolutely want to go back and spend some more time looking at this giant hole in the ground, do some hiking around, enjoy it while I don’t have a stress knot in my back from running through brain scenarios where I trash an expensive vehicle, kill an animal and possibly one of my friends, and leave us stranded on the side of the road thousands of miles from home. You know, those kinds of calming mantras that tend to always pop up whenever they can make a bad situation more stressful because my brain is helpful like that. I’m fairly certain that if I ever got into a really bad situation, like one of those “trapped under a boulder and I’d have to cut off my own arm to survive” type things, my brain would chime in and convince the rest of my organs to just go ahead and die on the spot because it’d be easier. Sort of a biological “nope, everything is too fucked up” force shut down.

We somehow managed to find Emily in the now pitch darkness and set off for our day’s final destination of Kanab, Utah. I got behind the wheel again as it was still my turn, and I figured the drive out had to be less harrowing than the drive in–the deer would be less active now, right?

WRONG.

Having borne witness to the sheer masses of deer within the park on the way in, we were on high deer alert on the way out, and for some reason, decided to count them. You know, for funsies. We spotted deer number one almost immediately. My hands clenched into fear fists around the steering wheel. In the dark, the most reliable way to spot a deer is to look for the glint of reflected headlights in their stupid, stupid eyes.  And spot them we did. Deer two, deer three, deer four, deer five…deer six charged directly at the car. Road trip radio seemed to be making light of the situation with a selection of music that seemed almost diabolical.

Slow ride, take it easy
Slow ride, take it easy

Deer twenty, deer twenty one, deer twenty two–HOLY SHIT WAS THAT AN OWL THAT JUST SWOOPED DOWN AT OUR WINDSHIELD? Why does nature hate us?!

Deer forty three, deer forty four, deer forty five…we began to do that hysterical kind of screechy laughter that happens when you’re in a situation that is entirely out of your control and is simultaneously scary and ridiculous. Cars blazed up behind us, swerved around us, and disappeared into the night. Have they never seen a deer explode over the hood of a car before? Were we the only ones being threatened by this hoofed menace?

It’s the final coundown, whoaaaa
It’s the final coundown

And just as we pulled off of the park road and I began to breathe a sigh of relief that the worst was over, I slammed on the brakes and screamed as a cow appeared from out of the darkness inches from the bumper, placidly chewing its cud. The worst was not, in fact, over. Ahead of us we faced another deadline: get to Kanab before their only restaurant open this late, the paragon of fine cuisine otherwise known as a Wendy’s, closed for the night. The Race for Fries had begun. Rabbits dashed out in front of the car, another owl swooped at our headlights, and I did my best to keep from smooshing anything in my quest to get to Kanab on time for a hot meal.

We got to Kanab just before 10pm. Wendy, that bitch, had decided to close early, so we made a meal out of whatever we could scavenge that sounded appealing from the lonely Kanab 7-11. And I mean, bless them for being open, but if I never have to eat one of their sad dry refrigerated sandwiches again, I would be just fine with that. I didn’t end up eating much, anyway–my throat hurt from all of the gasping and laugh-shrieking and just plain screaming, and I was more than ready to call it a night and await the coming of the light, when suicidal animals would be a lot more visible.

Final count:

  • 65 murder deer
  • 2 owls
  • 2 night cows
  • 14 rabbits
  • 1 cat
  • and the ominous ever present threat of the night bison

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Sunburn and Bugs 2016: Escape From Santa Fe

 I slept poorly my last night in Santa Fe, tossing and turning fitfully, sweating and waking up in what seemed like twenty minute intervals. I’m going to go ahead and blame the room’s air conditioner, which ran constantly but never kicked out anything that could be remotely called cold. I believe it had two settings: “Devil’s Buttcrack” (aka off) and “Mouthbreathing Stranger”, in which air is moving but resembles nothing so much as a stranger standing close enough to breathe hot breath down your neck. I mean, sure, all of the alcoholic drinks and the rich food and the multitude of chiles I ate probably played a role in my discomfort, but the air conditioner won’t mind if I point a finger in its general direction, and I do enjoy divesting myself of any culpability.

Emily wanted a cinnamon roll for the road from the French Pastry Shop, and since Rachel and I were all packed and ready to go, we walked over there to get her one. Not having learned my lesson about rich food one bit, I bought myself a pastry with fully half a peach inside and a cookie stuffed with raspberry jam. What?! We were going to be covering a lot of terrain with not many food options, so at the very least I’d have two food items just packed full of fruit-y, healthy vitamins.

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sunburn and bugs day 6 (2 of 64)Healthful. And so tasty, too!

sunburn and bugs day 6 (5 of 64)Feminist Killjoy, ready to hit the road

Our original plan called for driving to Albuquerque and heading west from there into Arizona, and I had a really solid list of things I wanted to do in Albuquerque, but if we were going to get back in three days, there just wasn’t time to spend an afternoon in Albuquerque. Not if we were going to hit two big targets that day: Antelope Canyon and the Grand Canyon.

canyonero

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sunburn and bugs day 6 (11 of 64)Even if that rock already has a name, I’m renaming it to zombie face rock. You see it, right?

Antelope Canyon is a slot canyon (well, two of them) in northeastern Arizona, on Navajo land just outside of Page. The canyons are known as Upper Antelope and Lower Antelope, and they each come with their own advantages and drawbacks–Upper Antelope is much more expensive but requires no climbing. It’s also wider at the base, gets those pretty and photogenic light shafts more frequently, and draws larger crowds of people. Lower Antelope is narrower and twice as long as Upper Antelope, significantly less expensive, requires a lot of stair climbing, and tends to draw fewer people. I suppose if we really wanted to get our fill of slot canyons, we could have done both, but with another, grander canyon on the horizon and hotel reservations in Utah, we had to choose one or the other, so I chose Lower Antelope.

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When we arrived, I had to pee. They had a huge row of port-a-potties, and as I walked across the parking lot toward them, I saw a woman walk down the row, open each door, shake her head, and close it. Every single door, all down the line. I immediately judged this woman as unbearably prissy. Oh, sorry these portable crappers don’t live up to Your Majesty’s standards–there isn’t even an attendant to pat Your Majesty’s royal hands dry after being sprinkled with perfumed water from a diamond faucet. Unbelievable.

Then, of course, I reached the first door, opened it, saw what she saw, and regretted my harsh inner monologue. Peeping out the top of that toilet was a veritable mountain of shit, a filthy human Everest that continues to rise as one brave soul after another says “fuck it,” climbs up on the seat, hovers above it, and unleashes an avalanche*. And it wasn’t just one toilet like this, but one after another, after another. Add to that the oppressive heat, blazing sun, and the stench of raw sewage, and I decided I could hold it for a while longer. I went back to the group and told them I no longer fear hell, because there’s no way it could be worse than those portable toilets. Rachel, who was judging me for my prissiness, went to go use them herself and came back with a similar conclusion.

We didn’t have to wait long for our tour to start. All visitors to Antelope Canyon (upper or lower), must be accompanied by a tour guide for safety reasons. During monsoon season, flash floods can whip through the canyon, and it’s important to have someone who can guide you to the nearest exit in case of trouble. A tour guide can also monitor the people in the group for signs of heat sickness, which isn’t terribly uncommon. Our tour guide also told us a bit about the geology of the canyon and posed each person (or group of people) in front of the most photogenic spots.

sunburn and bugs day 6 (13 of 64)The walk to the first staircase descending into the canyon. No photography is allowed on the stairs for safety reasons, and frankly, I’m glad. The stairs are scary enough without someone whapping you with a selfie stick.

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Once I got down the stairs and took a look around, I was astounded. It was astonishingly beautiful. Every single step in the canyon is gorgeous. Every angle was something that I wanted to capture with my camera, to hold on to forever.

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I happily snapped photos all the way through the canyon, and reluctantly climbed the stairs when it was time to leave. I hung out on a rock near the exit for the tour guide to finish taking some final photos so I could give him a tip and also let him know that Emily had gone to get some water in case he needed to make sure he’d left with the same number of heads he went in with. I offhandedly mentioned to Rachel that I wasn’t even that hot, more comfortable, really, and she told me that was a sign of heat exhaustion. Whoops. But hey, if I was going to keel over and die, at least I felt fine right up until the end, right? Still, I chugged an extra bottle of water on the way out. I’d rather have to pee in a gross bathroom than die just yet. Also, I couldn’t trust those other Harpies not to strap my corpse to the roof of the car and keep driving until they found a canyon grand enough into which to dump my windblown, dessicated ass.

*This analogy** got completely out of hand, sorry about that.

**Heh, anal.

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Sunburn and Bugs 2016: How Can I Have Moab If I Haven’t Had Any Ab Yet?

On the morning of my departure from Salt Lake City, I took one of those showers that leaves one still feeling dirty. Not because I was taking a shower in the middle of a giant jetted tub in a carpeted room, or because of all of the french fries I’d consumed hours prior in that same tub, or even because of the drinks that got me to the point of consuming fries in a tub like a bargain Hasselhoff. No, I still felt dirty because Salt Lake City has the hardest water of anywhere I’ve ever visited, the kind of water that leaves you feeling like your skin has been airbrushed with grime, leaving nary a single nook nor cranny unscathed. I probably would have been better off just slathering on more deodorant and hanging my greasy head out of the window to be blowdried by the salty wind. Perhaps the other people who had to share an enclosed car with me and my various odors wouldn’t have been better off, but that’s a hypothetical for the next road trip that runs through Garbage Water USA.

Before we met up with Emily’s brother for breakfast, I wanted to get a couple of snaps of the stuff I’d seen the night previous in the daylight, namely the astronaut and Brother Zack the alien. Although they were just a few blocks away, it took a bit longer than I thought it would, because SLC has long blocks, which are made all the longer for the relative lack of anything worth looking at on them. Granted, I didn’t see the entire city, but what I saw felt dull, empty, and oddly sterile. Few people out and about, primarily chain establishments, empty business spaces for lease everywhere, and none of the small stuff that makes a city feel vital and thriving.

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After breakfast, we swung by the Gilgal Gardens, which are so set back from the street and unobtrusive that I never would have found them if I wasn’t specifically looking for them. The gardens’ sculptures are all intended to be physical expressions of the creator Thomas Child’s internal philosophies, primarily focusing on religious belief. If you’re interested in the intended meaning of the sculptures, you can learn more about them here. I was primarily interested in the Sphinx with the face of LDS founder Joseph Smith, because that was the weird thing that put this place on my radar to begin with. Aside from the photo opportunity, the gardens didn’t really resonate with me. It’s not impossible for me to be moved by religious artwork, there just needs to be something more to it than an obscure bible verse carved into a rock.

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After the Gilgal, we were ready for some fresh, salty air in our faces, at the Great Saltair. I definitely half-assed my research, because when we arrived, I expected to see something that looked a lot more like this instead of the discount Wal-Mart version we got. If only I had scrolled down even a little further on the Wikipedia page. Just a little, eensy bit. Regardless, this was our first time getting a real glimpse (and smell of) the Great Salt Lake. It was, uh, not good. The lake has receded quite a bit since this Saltair was built, shimmering in the distance across a vast expanse of salt-crusted sand, while the wind whips its pungent odor up into the nostrils. It’s not the fresh salt air of the ocean, it’s a malodorous crusty decaying shoreline that assaults your nose. That’s some great salt air! Still, Rachel and I decided to venture out to the water’s edge, with me boldly declaring that I was going to taste the water to find out how truly salty it was.  The entire walk to  the shore was littered with bird corpses, and I began to instantly regret my earlier announcement. Bugs swirled around us in disgusting tornadoes. Bones crunched underfoot. And still there were people out wearing swimsuits and carrying beach towels, either because they were optimists or they were bound and determined to use the things they’d lugged along with them. As we reached the shoreline, the water lapped at thousands (millions? I wasn’t going to count) of dead insects and I really hoped Rachel wouldn’t remind me that I was letting her, nay, the world down for not putting some of that salty bug water in my mouth. Thankfully, she is far more humane than I would have been if the situation was reversed (I would have at least teased her about it), and the water remained ungargled. At least by me.

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sunburn and bugs day three (28 of 67)Look at how far away the Saltair is from the shore!

Our next stop was the “Up” house in Herriman. This Disney dream house was built in a relatively normal Utahan suburb, and the new owners are kind of prickly about people taking photos of and with it, which doesn’t really make sense to me as long as people aren’t actually trespassing. If privacy was paramount to me, I don’t know that I would buy a house that was built for the express purpose of marvel and amazement in a populated area and then get angry when people marvel and are amazed. When I emailed to ask for permission to take photos of the house, they said a couple of photos were fine so long as we didn’t have any balloons or wear costumes of any kind. FINE. That’s what Photoshop is for.

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Our next architectural marvel was Krishna’s Lotus Temple in Spanish Fork, which was built as a replica of a temple in India. It was beautiful and they even let us feed their koi. I can’t speak to the quality of their $5 all you can eat vegetarian buffet as I was still full from breakfast, but had I more time, I could have definitely done some reading there in the sunshine while peacocks strutted around. Alas, we had to pack back into the car relatively quickly as we had at least three more hours to drive–and that’s without stops.

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Speaking of stops, we tried to take a short detour to see the World’s Largest Miner but after pulling off at three different (wrong) exits, finally getting off at the right one and being forced on a detour due to construction, and still not seeing it, I (as the driver and also the person most interested in seeing the world’s largest anythings) declared “Fuck it, we’re going to keep driving”.  And so we did.

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Until we saw the world’s largest watermelon. The world’s largest driveable watermelon. I don’t know how the fuck the driver sees anything from inside this seedy behemoth, the important thing(s) is (are) that: it was completely unguarded, I was able to go inside, and they wisely did not leave the keys in the vehicle so I couldn’t attempt to take it on a test drive. It’s like they knew I was coming.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

sunburn and bugs day three (49 of 67)Once we were done trespassing in Green River’s giant watermelon, we made our way to Ray’s Tavern for a quick bite, and then it was back on the road, with a minor stop-off at another Pixar-happy location, Papa Joe’s, where the cars from Cars went to retire, grow decrepit, and die. It also appears that the Scooby Doo gang met with an unfortunate end here. The real mystery is where their bodies are buried.

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At this point, we were about thirty miles from our destination. Rachel and Emily passed time by competing to see who could find the most prairie dogs, and I began to feel a little left out because as the driver, I couldn’t see any of them except the road-flattened ones which I was informed don’t count. So while they tallied up real prairie dogs, I began pointing out all of the ones they didn’t see, like a hitchhiking one on the side of the road wearing a tiny metal bikini with dreams of going to Comic Con. Apparently those don’t count, either.

We were passing Arches national park just as the sun was starting to set, and I asked the group if they wanted to swing in–knowing that we couldn’t possibly see all of it (including the most famous part of it, Delicate Arch, which I already knew was off the table as it requires a fairly strenuous hike from which the unprepared often have to be rescued) but that we could at least see some of this beautiful scenery that we may otherwise never visit. Everyone agreed, so I pulled in, racing against the sun, careening around hairpin turns while Rachel and Emily photographed out of the car windows. We made some pretty good progress before we lost the sun, stopping a few times to better take in the area. As the driver, I don’t have many photos, but what I saw was unforgettable, from the startlingly red rocks towering above us as we began our ascent into the park to the first twinkling stars peeking out over the formations.

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We stopped at balanced rock and had just enough light to eke out the short hike around it. At the back half, Emily elected to go back the (more paved) way we came, and I decided to press forward, telling Rachel which way I was going. I got back to the car and pulled on the handle, expecting that everyone had beaten me there and were anxious to get to the hotel while I fiddled with camera settings. The car was empty. I walked back to the path. Full darkness had set in and there was no cell signal. “Emily? Rachel?” I called out, getting louder with each repetition. “EMILY?! RACHEL?!?” I found Emily back on the path, using her phone’s light to look at the various insects that had wandered out in the absence of the heat of day and told her that I’d gone back to the car but Rachel wasn’t there, had she seen her? “That’s not funny,” she replied. “I’m not trying to be funny,” I hissed back. Rachel joined us almost immediately thereafter, saying she’d been calling for me and some other hiker told her which way I’d gone. It’s not that he knew my name, he just figured that the two ladies stumbling around in the dark without any equipment must have been together. At least we didn’t have to be rescued.

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