Yosemite (Pronounced Yo-Seh-Mighty in my book)

Original Post: August 16, 2015

Leaving Sequoia National Park, I was excited to head to Yosemite.  Yosemite.  That amazing park where Ansel Adams produced so many phenomenal photographs.  Images that influenced my love for photography, perhaps even images that fueled my insatiable love for nature. (Though I admit, early childhood hikes with family had already sparked that fire.)  When I “discovered” Ansel Adams, I was a freshman in high school and my Intro to Photography class with Mr. King taught black and white film photography.  We learned to develop our own 35 mm film, used the dark room to produce photo prints, and broke into the photo room like James Bond with our school ID cards – a skill all of the photo students at Freedom High possessed.  How else were we supposed to get our work done if we couldn’t find Mr. King to open the photo room for us? Given the digital age, I wonder if that class is still offered.

In a short 2-hour drive, I would soon be in the very park that had inspired my love of landscape photography.

Oh, but I should have known by now that no anticipated drive time was ever truly accurate.  2 hours to Yosemite, yes, but another 3 beyond that to the campground we had booked. Outside of the park. To the east.

Let me present this image to you to make our dilemma even clearer:

But, that wasn’t all of the fun!  No!  Tioga Pass Road (i.e. The Road from Hell) is the ONLY road through the park.  And it was under construction.  One lane closed on a two lane road.  You don’t have to be a genius to figure what fun that brings.  It means…you guessed it, we sat and waited for 20 minutes while the traffic coming the other way followed a pilot vehicle (a very slow-moving pilot vehicle) through the construction zone, before the pilot vehicle would turn around and lead traffic in the opposite direction.  But we didn’t get to experience this fun just ONCE.  We went through two large sections of road like this, adding about an extra hour to the trip.

Our only bonus, we got to see a bear butt.  No, not a bare butt (although he wasn’t wearing clothes), but a bear butt.  The black bear had just crossed the road as we arrived and we got to gawk as a he continued on into the woods, having really only been able to see his rear thanks to the line of cars that had stopped before us to watch him cross.

By the time we passed Tuolumne Meadows Campground, we were beat and in no mood to drive another hour to our campground.  So, we decided to ignore the “Full” sign by the roadside and check to see if they had any availability.  We were in luck (Or were we?  More on that later.) and they had a single site available.  Relieved, particularly since it had started to rain, we headed to our site.

Oh, but the camp site.

We arrived to a large puddle of water covered in a delightful chartreuse-colored slime.  I’m still not sure to this day whether it was pollen (from pines?) or just a slime residue from the trunks, but the stuff was everywhere.  The puddle leading to our campsite was just the most offensive build-up of it.

We set up the tent in the steady rain, hurrying to get it done before the real downpour began and to our amusement (yes, that’s a little sarcasm), the rain stopped the instant the tent was set up.  Lovely.

Part of the reason we had chosen to stop at Tuolumne Meadows instead of continuing on to our previously booked campground had to do with the fact that I wanted to capture photos of moonbows, a phenomenon that only happens at a certain time of night, at a certain time of the month, with very specific conditions needed.  In order to capture moonbows (yes, that’s a new link), I needed to be able to be at Yosemite falls at night during this very specific time.  By fate or by simple good fortune, we were at Yosemite during a full moon.  Condition number one was met.  And we could be at the falls when the moon was no higher than 42 degrees in the sky.  Condition number two – check.  And, of course, the sky needed to be clear.

(Hear the chirping crickets on that one?)

Oh, right, the rain.  Well, the forecast still looked optimistic, so I just hoped that it was true and I could look forward to the sky clearing.

The drive back to the falls was at least an hour and a half from Tuolumne Meadows.  Add in the extra hour to the campground we should have been staying in and you’ve got a 2 1/2 hour drive in the middle of the night on a winding road in pitch black that we would have been taking.  Not my idea of a good time, though let it be duly noted that I was up for whatever it took to get the moonbows on film.  Er, make that on my SD card.  Whatever.

We were prepared to drive it.

We were not, however, prepared for the unpredictable weather.  It stormed the entire night, a storm that produced lots of lightning and thunder and pouring, pouring rain.  Hooray, more chartreuse slime to look forward to!  (And all over our tent nonetheless!)

Yes, it was safe to say that night number one for Yosemite was a bust.  But I still had high hopes that perhaps night two would fare better.  Thank goodness I’d thought ahead to plan TWO nights at Yosemite.  (Can you hear me snickering in that statement?)

On a side note, does Tuolumne Meadows Campground sound familiar to you?  If you keep up to date on the news, you should be well-aware that it was closed down this very week due to the discovery of two dead squirrels who had been infected with…the plague.  That’s right.  The plague.  The one that killed 25 million people in the 14th century. This one.   

Well, we’ve been plague-free for over a month now, so I think we’re probably in the clear.  They say that fleas are the only way to become infected (and the primary route of transmission between animals and people), but I’m still left pondering that creepy, yellow slime.  Perhaps the fleas are a coverup…

To See a Giant

Original Post: August 11, 2015

Though we could have enjoyed the coast forever (And really, who couldn’t?), we packed up early and hit the road for Sequoia National Park to meet with The General.  (Sherman, that is.)  We were on our way early and fully prepared for hitting LA traffic in full-on rush hour.  Yeah. Well. It’s one thing to say that and another to do it.  We weren’t really prepared.

How can you be prepared for this?  See those red dashes?  That’s a delay.

Los Angeles traffic only added an extra hour to the trip and I guess we should have been grateful for that.  It could have been worse.

One thing we discovered along the way was that most of California looks like this:

With the exception of the times it looked like this:

Or like this:

Seriously – weird, grassy, rolling hills or orange orchards or vineyards.  That was it.  I’m certain there must be more to California than this, but in all the miles we traveled (from San Diego to the Redwoods) this was, more or less, what we saw.

We reached Sequoia National Park at three in the afternoon and headed straight for the world’s largest tree. But first, a massive downpour.  It was hard to imagine that California was in a drought when the view through our windshield was hardly visible at all.

When we finally got to into the park and had our first views of Sequoias, our jaws dropped.  There is nothing that can prepare one for the sheer mass that is a few-thousand year old Sequoia.  They are awesome in the true sense of the word. The gorgeous rust-hued trunks are not what you would expect.  I put my hand on one and expected to feel a tree trunk (duh, right?), but I was shocked to feel a soft texture, almost spongy.

We made our way down the path to General Sherman, and while he was not the most gorgeous specimen, he was regal nonetheless.  There was a line to take photos next to him.  Dutifully, I stood in line so that Nate could get a picture of me with the tree, but no camera could really capture the stunning presence that these trees have.  (So go see them in person!  You won’t be sorry!)

If Sequoias can convince Nate to hug a tree, they can convince anyone.

We made our way to Lodgepole Campground, which was, hands down, one of the best sites we booked on the trip.  The park ranger who checked us in quickly reminded us that we were in bear country and that just the night before, they’d had to shoo away a black bear from the campgrounds.  This made me somewhat nervous, as I’d booked a campsite on the outskirts of the grounds.  Oh well.  You only live once, right?  And that’s what bear boxes are for.

The campsite was perfect, and right next to the Kaweah River (which was more like a creek at that point in time) and you know exactly where Nate went.  Fishing, of course.

The native brook trout, though tiny, were feisty and Nate caught several.  Since they weren’t used to people, Nate discovered that some stealth was required to catch them.  If they saw you, they were gone…  

Of the woods, Sequoia National Park was one of my favorites.  It’s a long and windy drive to get to (But unlike the Rockies, there were guard rails and stone walls!) and it’s a hike to see General Sherman (although there is handicapped access available), but it was worth every second. 

And we managed to avoid a bear encounter.  Woohoo – that’s two for two in bear country!  Safe!

This Concludes the Desert Portion of Your Tour

Original Post: August 8, 2015

We headed out on Day 10, eager to be leaving Las Vegas.  (Hey, isn’t that a movie?)  A “quick” stop at McDonald’s for breakfast, but oh, that’s right.  That’s where we discovered, yet again, that nothing in Vegas is as quick as the reputation.  We got to the drive-through lane at 10:15, to be told when we got to the speaker at 10:30 to order that they were out of breakfast.  What?  How is this remotely possible at a McDonald’s? Now, we were stuck in the drive through, boxed in by curbs they have absurdly placed to lock you in.  It was after 10:45 by the time we were finally able to leave the McDonald’s parking lot…without food.  Nate, to say the very least, was in a foul mood.  (It was already bad enough that they don’t offer bagel breakfast sandwiches at McDonald’s after you cross the Mississippi River, but to have to wait a half hour, get no breakfast, and no real apology, well that was a whole new level of aggravation.)

But some mishaps are blessings in disguise.  Once on the highway to California, we passed more than one sign for the Ghost Town Cafe – “Serving Breakfast All Day.”  Seeing as it was nearly noon by this point, we figured ‘why the hell not?’ and followed the signs to the exit.  But, the cafe was actually located six miles from the exit and Nate, in his mood of Hangry Desperation, was ready to turn right back on the highway and forget it all. I managed to convince him that breakfast was worth it, and off we went, down a dusty, close-enough-to-dirt road for six miles.  And aren’t we glad we did?

We arrived at The Pioneer Saloon and Ghost Town Cafe in Goodsprings, Nevada, and it looked every bit what you would think.  There was a single car out front and Nate made a half-hearted comment as we entered that no one would ever find our bodies.  Once seated at the bar in the Ghost Town Cafe, we ordered a delicious, if greasy, breakfast and while we waited, the manager began to chat with us.  He asked how we’d heard of the place and we had to confess that we really hadn’t.  Signs on the highway had led us in desperation.

He seemed somewhat surprised and cued up the 3 televisions on the wall to play a recorded segment of Ghost Hunters.  It appears The Pioneer Saloon, established 1913, had a handful of ghosts and a dicey history.  Who knew?  (A few million people who watch Ghost Hunters, surely, but not me.)

After our breakfast, and our educational update on The Pioneer Saloon, we perused into the saloon to take a good look around. Sure enough, three bullet holes still remain in the original tin wall where a man was killed after cheating at poker.  The floor and tables are original to the building and there’s definitely a creepy ambience despite the friendly bartender and the patrons that were now wandering through the door for lunch.

Before we got back on the road, we used the restrooms, one of which was reputed to be haunted.  Guess which one?  The ladies, naturally.  So, yes, I peed in a haunted bathroom.  If I had any ghostly audience, they thankfully remained silent, but I still booked it out of there as fast as I could while still trying to maintain my “cool.”

Back down the dusty road, we encountered the biggest dust devil we’d seen to date, right before getting on the highway.  Truly fascinating and, well, just plain weird.  I wonder if that sight ever gets old to those who live in the desert area.

It was 108 degrees when we got back to the highway and I was incredibly relieved that by the end of the day our “Desert Tour” would be fairly well over and we would enjoy the coastal breeze.  But both Nate and I started to get a bit nervous when the temp was steadily rising.  In fact, the car registered that it was 115 degrees F around the time we passed the world’s largest digital thermometer (why is that even a thing?), reading 111 degrees.  And about five minutes after that, Nate noticed the radiator temp was beginning to climb.  Enough to make me nervous.

And ding!

There goes the alarm, letting us know that the car is close to overheating. We pulled over, opened the windows and shut off the car for five minutes.  Being stuck in the Mojave Desert was not my idea of fun and I hoped it wouldn’t happen.  Thankfully, once we started the car and got on the road again, the decision to drive with the windows down and no a/c proved to be a wise one.  We managed to keep the car from coming close to overheating.  A half hour later, we rolled up the windows and turned the air back on, but not near full-blast, and that seemed to be okay.  Whew.  If there was ever a time that I’d felt I’d dodged a bullet, this was it.  To the dozen people we passed on the side of the road in the next hour, I am sorry you did not think to do the same…  Yikes!

Aside from Independence Pass in the Rockies, this ranks as one of the scariest roads I’ve driven on.  The sheer vastness of the surrounding desert and the inescapable heat is terrifying.  To this day, I am very relieved we were able to keep from breaking down!

When we finally arrived at South Carlsbad State Park in California at 6 pm, we knew that we had to set up camp quickly.  I had managed to secure the very last spot (physically) in the camp about a year prior, so that we were on the end, facing the beach, with only one campsite near ours.  At the time I had booked it, it seemed ideal. But, as we navigated through the seemingly endless line of campsites, with oblivious children riding bikes and skateboards right in front of the car without even a glance, it was an excruciatingly slow drive to the end site.  Seriously, what was with these kids?  And why didn’t their parents seem to care?

When we finally reached the end, there was a truck parked in our spot.  The neighbors next to us (you know, the ONE site next to us) had parked their truck there since no one was there.  They were thankfully kind enough to move it quickly once approached, but it was obvious later why they had no room at their site.  Aside from their 30 foot RV and the truck they used to tow it, they had a tent (for the kids), two full 6 ft fold-out tables with pop up canopies, the picnic table provided by the campground, and about fifteen bicycles.  Okay, it was more like four.  But, still.  I can’t imagine traveling with that much junk!

We had the tent set up in ten minutes and, even though Nate didn’t want to get back in the car, even though it was the very epitome of what he dreaded the most, he got in anyway, and drove us to Scripp’s Pier in San Diego so I could get the photos I’d hoped for in Southern California.  I was certain that it wasn’t the right time of year where the sun lines up perfectly at the end of the pier, but I couldn’t wait to see the sunset from beneath the pier anyway.

As an east-coaster, there’s something almost magical about watching the sun set over the ocean, like I’m in a fantasy world on another planet or something.  Where I come from, that just doesn’t happen.  The sun doesn’t set over the ocean.  It rises over it.  Everyone knows that.

So, off we went, and got to the pier in time to illegally park in a 20-minute only parking zone at the institute…  Heh.  This was, perhaps, maybe the one time I didn’t yell at Nate for doing something we weren’t supposed to do.  I wanted my photos and I was game for whatever it took to get them.  Including gimping my way through the sand to get to the pier.

To my dismay, there was already a photographer onsite.  I had heard that this would happen.  I had read that photographers flock to the pier and that on any given evening, there could be a half dozen sitting beneath the pier, waiting for the sun to set.

I guess I should have been happy that there was just one.  I was also disappointed that it appeared to be a higher tide, so I was going to get wet and there wasn’t much way around it.  The bandage around my ankle didn’t stay dry for long.  And for the nearly 100 shots I took, I got a handful that proved to be decent.

I was just glad that the sun was visible at all, since it looked like this when we’d first reached the west coast:

 It was a good way to spend my birthday.  Yep, my birthday.  On the beach at sunset, breathing in the salty air and enjoying the sound of the waves.  The culmination of many years wanting, and a whole year planning, the vacation of a lifetime. Had it not been for the foreign photographer who was slowly and steadily creeping closer toward me and encroaching on my space, it would have been positively perfect.  To add insult to injury, his camera and his lens were both bigger than mine.  Jerk.

And where was Nate during this adventure?  While he had started by my side, he disappeared at some point to check on the car, and I began to wonder if he’d been arrested and had his car towed away.  When I texted him, I received no immediate response.  Hmmm.

After I’d put my camera away and dumped as much sand from my tripod as I could, I found Nate a while later, chatting with two guys who maintain the aquarium at Scripp’s Institute. It figured.  If there was a way to talk about fish, Nate would find it.  If there was a person alive who would want to discuss it, Nate would manage to locate him.

We headed back to car, to a (non-candlelit) dinner at Subway, and for a little grocery shopping.  Then, back to the campsite.  For Nate, a walk in the sand to hunt for anything cool in the dark on the beach.  For me, bed.  Plain and simple.  Bed.

Well. Sleeping bag.

Pure exhaustion had finally caught up with me after so many days on the road and hiking, pushing ourselves to the limit every day.  I passed out to the sound of the surf, a fabulous end to a fabulous day.

The sun isn’t supposed to set over the ocean. Everyone knows that!

Hauntings, Indeed
Day 10, part 2

Original Post: August 10, 2015

No, I don’t usually add to the blog once I have it all written and published, but this was one video that needed to be shared.  Nate and I finally sat down to look at some of the video we had taken along the trip.  Of all of the hours of video we captured, there was only one video that had a problem.  This one.

So much so that I had to record the computer playing it just to put it on the web.  YouTube wouldn’t load the original.  The file claims to be 0.4 seconds long, but it continuously loops and the blue progress bar on the bottom of the window jumps all over.  Nate tried to film The Pioneer Saloon starting at the bullet holes and panning around to the bar.  But, all we have are bullet holes.  And jumpy ones at that.  Creepy!  (And now you might have to share it with someone so you don’t die a horrible death.  No?  Not that movie?)

Viva Las Vegas

Original Post: August 6, 2015

Bring on the crazy!  Day 9 meant Vegas time.  Life in Las Vegas is supposed to be pretty fast, right?  Everything on television and in the books, at least, seems to imply that’s the case.

Oh, but didn’t your mother ever tell you that not everything you see on TV is true?

But before I get ahead of myself…

We left the Grand Canyon, with me still on Ibuprofen, and headed to Vegas. I was still bummed that my ankle was in pain, but by my calculation, I had several days for it to heal before I intended to use it in any sort of vigorous activity.  We were ready to live city life for a bit, culture shock though it might be. 

And it was.  But first, a stop for car maintenance.

We stopped at Jiffy Lube to get an oil change and tire rotation as we’d now traveled our 3,000 miles (what responsible car owners we are).  But, Jiffy Lube was anything but jiffy.  Over a torturous hour later (spent watching golf on their mini-tv, snooooooooze), we were on our way to the hotel.  Despite the delay, we still arrived at the hotel an hour earlier than check in, but the hotel had a room available.  Thank goodness.  This scored The Mirage major points in my book.

The lobby of The Mirage is everything a Las Vegas hotel lobby should be.  Gorgeous and reeking of money (and stale cigar smoke from the casino).  But, we soon discovered that that appears to be the case for everything in Las Vegas. 

We were too tired to worry about the lunch that we skipped, so we headed to our room on the 19th floor for a nap.  A glorious nap.  In an even more glorious bed.  We hadn’t slept in a real bed since St. Louis (although there was a cabin bed in Kansas) and the feeling of sinking into pillows was divine.

When we woke up, we were more than ready for dinner and I practically salivated in anticipation of In-and-Out Burger, which I had been told by a coworker was the best burger I’d ever have.  I was ready to put her words to the test.  Finally ready to leave, we exited the room and entered the hallway only to hear a strange noise.  Pausing, we waited.



Yes, the person (Um, people?  One would likely assume.) was having a good time doing exactly what you think should be going on in a Las Vegas hotel mid-afternoon.

Moving on.

We headed to the elevators, giggling a little on the way.  It’s true.  Some of us never really do grow up.

Remember that culture shock I mentioned?  Our drive to the local In-and-Out was enough of a shock in weirdos alone.

Where else can you see this: 

Ass-less chap-wearing Native American.  Where else, I ask you?

And this:

If you’re going to wear a diaper in public (and he had a pacifier, too), you’d better be prepared for the ultimate wedgie.

And this:

At least these guys are wearing clothes.

There are no words.

Onward to dinner.  Best. Damn. Burger.  I’ve ever had.  Yum.  Why on earth don’t these exist on the east coast?  Why are we resigned to eating McDonald’s and Burger King when west-coasters dine on gourmet fare such as this??  Something here is wrong.  In the name of equality, I urge you all to rise up.  Rise up and help to bring the In-and-Out Burger to the east coast.  We deserve this.  You deserve this.  (More importantly, I WANT it.)

We made it down to the Monte Carlo just in time for the Blue Man Group.  It was a phenomenal show – funny, entertaining, and interactive – a good choice and definitely recommended.  Plus, you can pose for a photo with a sweaty blue man afterwards.  And who doesn’t want that?

We spent a half hour or so at the casino, put $10 on red and won twice.  That was enough for us.  (About two times more than I needed, to be honest…)

But of all of things we saw and did in Vegas, there was one thing we DIDN’T do.  (No, it had nothing to do with the strip clubs, we had no desire to do those…either one of us…and yes, I believe him.)  We completely forgot to see these guys:

One of Nate’s favorite shows, it had been on our list of things to see in Vegas from day one.  But we had been so distracted by everything to see that we forgot to check in with Pawn Stars.  How?  How could we forget it?  Las Vegas is like ADHD on crack.  We didn’t stand a chance at remembering anything we had thought of before coming in.  Should you travel this way, you’ve been forewarned.  Vegas is a vortex.  You won’t remember half of what you do, and you’ll likely be distracted by every– oh, look, a squirrel.  

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the real reason why what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

Even the Best Laid Plans Go Awry

Original Post: August 2, 2015

Hooray, we were finally blessed with a day when we could wake up slowly and take the day easily.  I had booked two nights at the Grand Canyon and we were grateful for the down time.  Showers and shopping for souvenirs before a short drive to Cape Royal where we’d been told by another camper and photographer that there’s a great view of the canyon, perfect for pictures.

View from Cape Royal.  I almost didn’t want to Google this one.  Made me want to cry.  Photo Credit: http://cdn.c.photoshelter.com/img-get2/I00002fMl9VpSyxs/fit=1000×750/Grand-Canyon-Wotans-Throne-8334.jpg

But Cape Royal (or Cape Royale as Nate wanted to call it) was not in our future.  Our plan was ultimately foiled by a turnoff for Green Lake.  There was a trail off the side of the road that looked little used and we figured it had to be worth the short hike just to see what might lie ahead.  Not 50 yards in, I stopped to take a photo.  When we began to move forward again, I foolishly adjusted my camera and wasn’t watching the trail.  I rolled my ankle on a loose rock, felt a snap, and let out a string of imaginative curses I could only have put together in pain.

It was several minutes before I could place my foot back on the ground and bear any weight on it and only when I was sure it wasn’t broken did we make our way back to the car.  I won’t lie.  I was in tears on the way back to the campground.  I saw all of the plans I’d spent so long preparing (much of which involved hiking) fall to pieces with my five seconds of stupidity.  And accompanying this regret?  A flashback of my honeymoon, where I ended up with acute tendonitis in the very same ankle from walking a few miles in sandals, causing my new husband and I to miss our scheduled trip to scuba dive the coral reefs in the Bahamas.  It’s twelve years later and we still haven’t done it.

I took three Ibuprofen and as soon as we got back to the camp, settled in the tent, put my leg up, and iced the ankle for three hours.  I discovered it didn’t hurt at all once it had gone numb.  Nice!

The good news – it wasn’t a bad enough injury to stop me from enjoying the rest of my trip and participating in everything I wanted to do, with the exception of a hike in or on the rim of the Grand Canyon.  

The bad news – it’s definitely injured and will take a few months to heal.  Since I’ve dealt with tendonitis frequently in my wrists, my ankles, and my knees in the past, I’m pretty sure that’s what I injured.  Now, a month later, it’s a whole lot better than it was, but it’s still not great!  Give me two more months at least.

The worst news – I injured it after taking this shot

That wasn’t even worth it! 

The only good news from this day?  At least there were several lookout points we could drive to.  I did get a few decent photos, but I’ll just have to face it.  The Grand Canyon was simply bigger than I was this day.  I’ll suppose this means I’ll just have to return to conquer it another day!   (Just twist my arm…  Hmm, maybe a bad phrase to use, given that I’ve already twisted the ankle.)

No Encore, Please

Original Post: July 31, 2015

We had packed up and gotten on the road by 7 am, determined not to be in the the canyons of Zion when the temperature rose above 90.  We’ve certainly had enough of that to last a lifetime.  Plus, we needed to reach Antelope Canyon Tours in Arizona by 9 am to make sure we’re able to get a spot on the 10 o’clock tour!  But we’re in for a surprise.  Two, actually.

First, it wasn’t 9 am when we reached Arizona.  It was 8.  Huh?  I swear this map shows the time zone divider clearly located between Arizona and Nevada, but whatever.  

See that funny dotted red line between Nevada and Arizona?  That’s the time zone marker. Notice how there is NO line between Utah and Arizona.  Remember this for the future.

So, one might think showing up an hour earlier is even better for getting a seat on the tour bus, right?  Not actually the case if you need reservations for the tour.  Bummer.  This is a huge disappointment for me especially, as Antelope Canyon was one of the highlights on my list and I couldn’t wait to visit it in person. 

Antelope Canyon Tours directs us to another tour company directly across the street, but they, too, are booked.

Still, they tell us about a company directly at the entrance to the canyon which books only on a first-come/first-served basis.  Well, it’s worth a try.  Not even sure exactly where we were headed, we get on Rt. 98 where we’ve been told hosts the entrance to the canyon.

About ten minutes later, we found Antelope Canyon Navajo Tours and are surprised to learn that it’s $8 a person just to park the car in the lot.  THEN, we could go to the kiosk and determine if they have any openings in their tours.  $40 a person for the tour.  Wait, what?  $16 just to find out if we actually can go on a tour?  We’re too desperate by this point to care. 

Thankfully, when we got to the kiosk, there was plenty of space available on the 10:30 tour.  And, it was now nearly 10 at this point.  So, we purchased our tickets and waited an hour.  Doing what?  Not sitting in the sun, that’s for sure.  In the air-conditioned car, we loaded photos to the laptops and spent time goofing on Facebook.  45 minutes passed quickly and, seeing that the lot has filled up and that people are waiting in the itty bit of shade provided by the kiosk, we decided to get out and join the crowd.  After a 10 minute wait (during which we are soaked in sweat again), we were given assigned vehicles to ride in – open pick-up trucks, fitted with bench seating and covered cage tops. 

It’s a ten minute drive to the mouth of the Upper Canyon and our drivers/tour guides rather enjoyed racing each other.  We hung on for dear life.  Kyle, our guide, parked and brought us to the entrance of the canyon.  Before we entered, he explained the best camera settings for taking photos within the canyon walls, saving me a lot of trouble of flipping back and forth and trying to figure out exactly what settings I wanted to use.  I liked this guy already.  In fact, Kyle ended up taking the majority of photos for many people, but I was loathe to relinquish either of my cameras, surely leading Kyle to believe that I was a bit of an ultra-possessive nutcase.  (Yes, not knowing which lens would be best, I brought both my wide-angle and my regular “go to” lens.)  One of the interesting differences I noticed between my perception of Antelope Canyon and the reality is that most of the notable images you’ll see are actually photos taken by looking straight up.  The most spectacular sights are just above your head!  I hadn’t anticipated that!

Believe it or not, Antelope Canyon isn’t very large at all.  It’s quite small and only takes about half hour to tour completely.  Photos of Antelope Canyon have always captivated me.  What an amazing, entrancing, abandoned place!  Ha.  Abandoned.  I’m funny.

There were people.  Lots and lots of people.  Remember back on Day 6 (That’d be yesterday.) when I said I wasn’t much of a “crowd” person?  The tour guides for several different companies are all Navajo-led since Antelope Canyon is on Navajo lands.  However, the tours run one after the next with one tour frequently immediately on the heels of another.  Multiple times we had to wait to turn a corner to get to the next section of the canyon since the tour in front of us was still there.  What made it even more challenging was the fact that once you came to the other end of the canyon, you had to turn around and head back again, essentially swimming against the current.  

But, for this:

It was worth it.  I’d would have given my left arm to see the infamous light beams.  Thankfully, no one had asked for such payment and I walked away from the experience not only with all of my limbs, but with a feeling of ultimate satisfaction.  Another destination to cross off the bucket list.  And one that was beyond words.  I do still wonder, however, what Antelope Canyon might be like without hundreds of people also experiencing its marvels at the same time.  I’m probably a century too late to ever know what that experience is really like.

We made the ever-essential PB&Js and sat in the lot, contemplating our next move.  It was only noon and the very last thing we wanted to do was get to our next stop, the Grand Canyon, too early in the day to face a repeat of the temperatures in Zion. I had zero desire to repeat that experience. (Dear Lord, please no sun!)  So, we backtracked.

We’d passed Kanab, Utah (which I’d been pronouncing wrong my entire life…) and decided that some extra time on the clock meant we could go back that way to tour an animal welfare organization that was near and dear to my heart long before I started working in the field of animal welfare.  We arrived at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary at 1 pm…er…2 pm.  Right, there was that weird time change again.  We got there just in time for another tour to start at 2:30.  I balked only momentarily at the fact that it was 2 hours long (That does seem excessive for a tour of an animal sanctuary, right?), but signed up because, hey, I’d only be here once and – oh, right, who wants to go to the Grand Canyon and set up camp in 100 degree heat?  Not us.

So, we took our Best Friends tour and for as much as I love the organization, 2 hours was definitely not necessary, despite the fact that the facility is over 3,000 acres.  The 10 minutes we had in the cat houses and the 10 minutes we spent with a dog (who ignored me, thus breaking my heart forever) was the best part, hands-down – especially for me.  Seven days without animal contact and I was in full withdrawal.  I can also now say that I am familiar with every single building on the property.  Every. Single. Building.  And the two pet cemeteries.  So, yes, it was a neat place to visit, but if you already know animal welfare and you’re familiar with how things go, perhaps it’s not the tour for you!  (Or, in this case, me.)  Regardless, I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity since I’ll never have it again.  At least we were sweltering in a van with poor air conditioning as opposed to sweltering in the sun on the rim of the Grand Canyon.

This pretty much sums up our relationship.  And he really must love me to agree to a 2 hour tour. Oh, that’s right, he agreed to a 3 week, 8,000+ mile road trip. Yeah, he’s my best friend.

Another two and a half hour drive brought us to the Grand Canyon and imagine our shock when we saw how green the road leading to the North Rim really was.  Kaibab Forest greeted us with many beautiful pines and even a full wide meadow or two.  After so much desert, it was positively stunning.

Some 60,000 acres had been decimated by fire about 8 years prior and the evidence was still plain to see, but regrowth was surely and steadily making an appearance. When we finally reached the park entrance, we were greeted by a herd of bison grazing in the meadow.  I expected to see bison on this trip.  Just not at the Grand Canyon.

Welcome to the Grand Canyon! Wait, what?

Imagine our surprise when we reach the North Rim Campground to find that the entire location was fully forested and in beautiful, sweet shade.  And we delayed coming here???  What were we thinking?  We found our campsite – one of the best on the grounds – perched not 50 feet from the north rim of the canyon.  It was breathtaking.  (Yes, I realize I use that word to describe the experience in many parks, but it is as close as I can get to explaining how it is.)  100% amazing.  After setting up the tent, we headed to the edge and captured a few photos of sunset at the Grand Canyon.  Another fabulous view.  I’ll never be content with a Berks County sunset ever again.

Then, another night in the tent.  Without sand baking us as we sleep.  That’s right.  Finally a cool night to close our eyes.  Relief!  Oh, and remember that funny time change thing?  When we got to the Grand Canyon, we saw this:

Well, thanks, Arizona, for just deciding you don’t have to follow the rest of the country in daylight savings time.  So, it turns out that depending on the time of year, Arizona is either in Mountain Time or Pacific Time.  Who knew? (Yeah, yeah, those of you who live in Arizona knew.  I know.  You really should have given a girl a clue!) 

Hot Stuff

Original Post: July 29, 2015

No, not that Zion.

As if driving through the Utah landscape wasn’t torture enough, we faced another scorching day.  Leaving Bryce, we found the first place to shower since we’d left Missouri and I swore I heard a heavenly choir when I stepped into that shower stall.  Or perhaps that was me.  The bathroom was empty and everyone knows showers have great acoustics…

After showering and doing a quick load of laundry, we headed to the road and to Zion National Park.  Talk about a phenomenal park entrance!  Zion has an incredible road that travels straight through the mountain for 1.1 miles.  The tunnel is exceptionally dark and it is, hands down, a million times cooler experience than driving the Lincoln Tunnel.  Oh, right. The Lincoln Tunnel isn’t really that cool (at least if you’ve been in it a few dozen times).  Plus, if you’re really daring, you can park your car near the entrance of this tunnel and walk through it.  That’s right.  There’s a walkway!  And a “secret” window about halfway through that takes you to a lookout point – only viewable by foot.  Nate and I said we were definitely going to do it, but time got away from us and we ended up missing that opportunity.

It was amazing to me that the views in Zion were so drastically different from those in Bryce Canyon just a few hours’ drive northeast.  Everything in Zion was bigger, more solid, and yes, still breathtaking.  The biggest shock, perhaps, came when we reached our campsite at Watchman Campground to find that it was 100% in direct sun, there was no shade in sight, it was 2 pm, 104 degrees, and the sun wasn’t due to set for another 6 hours at least.

Oh, and of all of the campgrounds I’d booked for this trip, it was the only one I’d managed to secure that was a walk-in site, meaning that we had to carry everything from our car in the parking lot to our campsite about 50 yards away.  That doesn’t sound too awful until you start to do it in 104 degree heat and direct sunlight.  It didn’t seem to matter how much water I consumed, I was sweating it out as fast as I could put it in.  So much for that shower this morning.

The Watchman

We dragged our picnic table off the camp pad and next to the only tree around (which didn’t provide much shade, either) and watched a couple of fawns in the brush behind us as they warily kept an eye on us, trying to figure out whether they should continue foraging or take off in our presence.  The temperatures didn’t seem to bother them in the least. I wished I had their outlook.

The heat didn’t do much for our nerves either.  Nate was instantly annoyed with me for having booked such a site, even if our view was of The Watchman. And I felt horribly guilty as if I should somehow have known that the weather would be so unbearably and unseasonably (for the time of year, anyway) hot.  Somehow, we managed not to bite each other’s heads off and decided that putting up the tent was out of the question. Instead, we headed to catch the shuttle bus through the park to hike the Emerald Pools.  (Just like my spreadsheet said: 6/25/15 Zion, Hike Emerald Pools 1-4 pm.)  I was in no mood to hike, but it seemed to be the only place where we might find some shade.  And though spending hours in the gift shop was an option, I’m not much of a “crowd” person and the gift shop really wasn’t that big.

Photo credit: http://turville-photo.com/Resources/EmeraldPoolMini.jpg?55

Thankfully, once we joined the trail, temperatures immediately dropped in the shade and, though we were still sweating, it was no longer intolerably uncomfortable.  We reach the Lower Pool after about an hour or so (it was a slow hike), and were surprised by how empty it seemed.  Where was my gleaming pool that I was itching to photograph?  It was supposed to look like this —>

It was underwhelming to say the least…but oh, right, there’s that little thing called evaporation that happens when it’s hotter than hell out.  What I didn’t realize before coming to Zion was that what I actually wanted to see and believed I would see at the Emerald Pools  was this (below): 

(Photo credit: http://www.harrylichtman.com/imgs/gallery/17160/17160_9190466484ee17517119ea.jpg & Photo Credit: http://zuzog.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/80ec1fffa646c411111fe84b1d457da1.jpg)

Oh, I’d seen the photos and I couldn’t wait to see it in person.  But, I didn’t do enough research into where exactly these particular Emerald Pools were located.  These bad boys aren’t on the Emerald Pool trail at all.  They’re on the Subway.  That’s right.  The Subway.  (Because that’s just where gorgeous, natural, emerald-colored pools always are, right?)  A 9.5 mile hike requiring 7 hours, rappelling skills, and one of 80 permits issued by the park per day – none of which I had.  Well then.

But no disappointment lasts long in any national park.  Our trail back led us to these cuties, and I managed to get at least one worthy landscape shot (of the trickle that barely flowed).

One thing we noticed in Zion, and even in the previous parks before, was that wildlife didn’t seem to be intimidated by humans at all.  Sure, if you got too close, they’d take off, but most of the time you could walk right by and you’d get an ear flick or a tail swish as acknowledgement.  It was like living in a Disney film.  (I wonder what would have happened if I’d broken out in song…  Ah, well.  Too damn hot to try.)

When we reach our campground again, the site was still blazing hot.  Dinner?  You bet – someplace air conditioned, please.  We ended up stopping at Flanigan’s Spotted Dog Cafe just outside the park.  Once inside, the decor indicated that perhaps we were a bit underdressed (and undoubtedly wearing more sweat stains than necessary), but other patrons were similarly dressed and the hostess greeted us warmly.  The menu looked fabulous and made me believe that this restaurant was really quite out of place.  But, thank goodness.  Air conditioning AND real food!  It’s a minor miracle.  For Nate – filet mignon.  For me – pasta “purses” – homemade ravioli made from pear and ricotta and quite out of this world.  If I ever end up on death-row (for a crime I didn’t commit, naturally), please note that I choose pasta purses from Flanigan’s to be my final meal.  The view from our table (in the air conditioned cafe – did I mention that it was air conditioned?) was nothing short of spectacular.

By the time we left the cafe, the sun was near setting, but not down yet. I came up with the brilliant idea of — shopping!  Off we went for a few necessities, a few souvenirs, and by the time we returned to the camp- ground, the sun was finally off the site.  Oh, but it wasn’t so simple. Once we had the tent set up, the sand continued to bake us through the floor of the tent and the insulating layers we used as cushioning all night long.  It was like sleeping on an electric blanket set to high heat. Great in the wintertime.  Not so great when all you want to do is cool off!

Regardless we finally managed to get some rest…

…Until about 2 am.  Ridiculous wind gusts we never could have imagined made the windows of the tent (which had remained open for air flow in our little oven) flap like an entire flock of birds.  Raging nylon from every direction!  We managed to secure everything down quickly and settle in again.

But now my mind was awake and turning.  “I wonder what the sky looks like right now…”  Finally, I gave in to the impulse, set up the camera and unzipped the tent.

Wow.  Glad I did.

So, sometimes, my friends, when the wind wakes you up in the middle of the night, there’s a reason.  You just have to figure it out.  (This same reasoning does not apply to infants and toddlers, by the way.  There is no way to figure that out.  Ever.)

Yep, hot stuff alright.  Definitely visit Zion National Park.  In the spring.  Or the fall.  Or good God, any season but summer.

The Longest Drive

Original Post: July 27, 2015

The title of this post might be slightly misleading.  The drive from Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness to Arches National Park was hardly the longest drive.  Not even close, in fact, but there’s something about the Utah scenery (or lack thereof) that makes the drive exceptionally monotonous.  The desert is initially amazing and we were instantly in love with the color and the scrub, but as hour upon hour passed, we were over it. It went something like this: mountain, rock, scrub brush, mountain, rock, scrub brush, rock, rock, scrub, scrub, rock, scrub, and so on and so forth…for four hours.

As a bonus, we reached Arches National Park about an hour earlier than expected.  Suffice it to say that Arches is one park that I couldn’t possibly have realized the immensity of when I booked our stop.  It was once again 100 degrees, though the sky was relatively overcast, which worked to our benefit in that we could walk without being in direct sun, but I was still disappointed that I wouldn’t get the chance to capture any amazing photos of arches with that incredible blue, blue Utah sky behind them.

If you ever have the urge to see Arches (and who doesn’t?), my recommendation is to take a few days to see the park.  There are a ton of different arches to view and many of them can only be seen by hiking.  That means lots of time, which we just didn’t have.  The road through the park is well laid out and it’s a good substitute to actually hiking the park (especially in 100 degrees), but don’t expect to get close to some of the more well-known arches like Landscape Arch and Delicate Arch.  

We were rewarded after a few hours with some bluer skies and we managed to get a few photos of brilliant orange-hued rocks against a more interesting background than cloud cover.  If nothing else, it was nice to see the sun…especially since we were returning to our air-conditioned car after a short hike fighting through the crowded walkways filled with people of questionable intelligence.  No, truly, we really encountered some true nuts.  One such nut comes to mind instantly.  We dubbed him goat-boy. (Though, believe me when I say that his act was not nearly as hilarious as that SNL skit years ago…)  Crazy goat-boy jumped from rock to rock, running at full speed, and urged his parents to hurry because “this is the fastest way down.”  (He was close to being correct.  Had he stumbled, we would have seen him go down…really fast.)  As it was, he ended his hike directly in front of us – by about two whole feet – on the walkway despite his ridiculous “Look at me!” antics. But we all know that teens are immortal, so I guess I should keep my stodgy old-lady opinions to myself.

Hooray, only a 5 hour drive from Arches to Bryce Canyon National Park.  That’s nothing, right?  Wrong.

Oh, so wrong.

Both Nate and I were convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that we were being featured in an episode of The Twilight Zone in which a warped time-space continuum meant that we were actually stuck in an endless loop, forced to live out our remaining days in the Utah desert, never actually reaching our destination.  My proof:

How long until we ran out of water?  Haven’t we seen this landscape before?  I swear it was an hour ago when I looked at the clock, but it’s only registered that three minutes have passed.  What is going on?  We were nearly delirious by the time we reached Bryce Canyon. (And we DID finally reach Bryce Canyon.)

Real men wear coral.  (I’m sorry…Cabela’s calls it ‘citrus.’)

About an hour from Bryce, we decided to stop for gas and to pick up a few grocery essentials, paper plates, bread, etc.  It was a tiny town called Marysvale and it is exactly what you would expect to encounter when you believe you’re traveling in The Twilight Zone.  The locals were sitting on the front porch of the convenience store and gave us the hairy eyeball as we walked inside.  I guessed they didn’t see many outsiders on a regular basis.  Or it could have been because they’ve never seen a man wear a shirt this color.

I suppose we could have purchased a Marysvale sweatshirt (yep, they really were for sale at the gas station/grocery store/ice cream shop/souvenir shop) so that he fit in a little better, but somehow I doubted that would have been adequate camouflage.

The entrance to Bryce Canyon National Park was impressive.  Upon entering, the first thing we noticed was the drive through a squat tunnel carved out of the red Utah Rock.  It was akin to driving through a wall (only without the resistance of a wall, naturally…).  All in all, it was pretty spectacular.  When we finally reached the campground, we set up camp and looked forward to doing nothing but sleeping.  It was already early evening and I, for one, was tired of walking after having taken lots of short hikes in the heat around Arches earlier that day.  Plus, I’m pretty sure my retinas were slightly burned out after staring at the desert for hours on end.  I’m pretty certain that I’ll  see scrub brush in my sleep for years to come. Perhaps I’ll see a doctor about that…

And yet, once again, temptation was too great.  It was sunset.  And going to the canyon rim at this time meant that I wouldn’t have to get up at sunrise the next morning as originally planned.  This plan had some merit.  So, off we went, and as it turned out, the rim of the canyon was only a half mile or so from the camp.  

The view was instantly revitalizing.  Breathtaking.  Bryce Canyon was one of the destinations I had most looked forward to on this trip.  I had always admired those incredible spires (which I learned were actually called hoodoos….yeah, you can say it.  I know you’re thinking it.  Hoodoo that voodoo?) and thought that Bryce just seemed to have this indisputable energy.

I was 100% correct.  Instant awe.

Of all of the places we visited, Bryce has definitely landed itself in my top three short list.  Once the sun finally set low enough that it no longer illuminated the hoodoos, we headed for the campground and for the blissful oblivion known as sleep.

Bryce Canyon at sunset.

But guess what?  We’re at an altitude not much different from our campground in Maroon Bells.  And we’re still up several times a night to visit the bathroom.  No one tells you about this part of traveling high altitudes.  Drink, yes.  Stay hydrated, yes.  Pee a lot, funny, I read not a word about it.  I suppose it should go without saying that one thing leads to another, but really…perhaps I just thought I’d sweat it off.  I digress.

Despite the fact that we’d visited the canyon the night before, we greeted Day 6 at 5:30 and were at the rim of Bryce Canyon by 6 am for a stunning sunrise.  Far more photographic than sunset the night before and I was grateful that sleeping in a tent was so revitalizing despite our wacky schedule.

After the sunrise, Nate turned to me with a question.  “Hike?”

Well, heck, yeah!  He didn’t have to ask me twice!

Off we went, into the canyon, amongst the hoodoos. We hiked for two hours, beating the heat of the day with the timing and enjoying some of the most indescribable scenery.  Amazing in every way. 

It should be illegal for someplace so striking to be located somewhere so desolate.  Utah, of all places.  But, I suppose that’s the biggest part of what makes it so amazing. If it were in Phillipsburg, NJ, I’m willing to bet the charm somehow just wouldn’t be there.

Just as the temps neared the 90s, we reached the top of the rim, took one last glance behind, and returned to camp to embark on the rest of Day 6, blissfully unaware that we were about to discover the true Utah desert in a way we hadn’t anticipated and couldn’t have imagined.  Soon enough.

Onward and Upward.  Very, Very Upward.

Original Post: July 24, 2015

We’re up at 5:30 and on the road by 6, but not without first appreciating the views that early morning Kansas plains have to offer.  Deer in the tall grasses, pheasants calling unseen, and the golden sun rising over the horizon.

We decide to stop for gas early in the trip, since we’re low and we want to make sure we get a full day of driving as long as we can.  What’s this?  Oh, gas at the next exit.  So, off we go, but there’s no gas station in sight.  Instead, we drive two miles down the road to a “town” that wasn’t yet awake.  Though the sign in the window proclaims it to be open, it’s quite obvious the gas station is not.  And given the other sign they’ve posted, I think I’ll pass on the hospitality offered in this town anyway…

No need for me to guess, I’ve no need to be here, thanks!

We eventually do fill the gas tank and I am especially glad to be on the road to Colorado.  At the very least, it has to be cooler, right?  It was a long drive, longer than we expected, coupled with an extra 1-hour delay in Denver.  Denver…what’s that smell?  As we sit in traffic, waiting to get back on our way, we realize that we’re smelling…wait…could that be what we think it is?  Yes, pot.  Hey man, a mellow traffic jam is the best kind, I suppose.  At least the road rage will be kept to a minimum.

When I planned this particular leg of the journey, I noticed that the roads we’d chosen happened to be marked with “Closed in Winter” warnings on the maps.  But, hey, we were journeying in the very middle of summer.  Surely the roads would be fine.  No, it’s true that we didn’t encounter any snow or ice on the road.  But, we did encounter roads only 1 1/2 lanes wide with more hairpins than any elegant bridal up-do.  

Remember back on Day 2 when I said I wasn’t afraid of heights?  At this particular point in my life, I seriously began to reconsider.  At one time in the drive, Nate pulled off to one side (where there actually was a small side…) and pointed my camera straight down the ravine below.  The result was this:

And it doesn’t nearly do it justice.  I won’t lie.  During the time we were pulled over, my heart actually might have tried to leap out of my chest.  (Probably just trying to cling to the road in case the rest of me went tumbling below with the car and all of our belongings.)  I am not afraid of heights, but I’ll fully admit to having a healthy fear of landslides and could only too clearly picture our car slipping off the shoulder and into the empty space below.  

You can image my relief, then, when Nate pulled the car back on the road and we resumed our drive.  When we finally reached the summit at 11,318 feet we had to pull over one more time.  Why?  To do this, naturally:

Who doesn’t want to throw a snowball in June?  By the time we are on our way down the other side, we’re happy for an excuse to stop at a rest stop and trailhead not only to use the rest rooms, but also to check out the ice cold stream flowing with impressive turbulence just off the trail. Naturally Nate can’t resist and he throws in a line.  He catches two cutthroat trout, but both make it off the line before he can reel them in.  A disappointment, but then, he hadn’t really expected to catch anything at all at a rest stop.

As we walk back to the car, the one thing that strikes me as odd is a slight dizzy feeling that I can’t seem to shake.  Before we’d left, a coworker had asked me if I had ever suffered from altitude sickness and up until that point, it hadn’t even been something I’d thought about.  I laughed it off, thinking it sounded ridiculous.  “I’m not even leaving the country!” I’d thought.  But, after she’d brought it up, of course, I did a little research on it to familiarize myself with the symptoms…you know…just in case (Hint: Read – “to add to my repertoire of things about which to worry”).  Now, as I fought a funny lightheadedness, I realized it might actual be a real threat after all!

Our home away from home.

Thankfully, dizziness was the only symptom I experienced in the Rockies.  We camped at the Silver Queen Campground in the White River National Forest near the Maroon Bells Recreation Area.  The campsite, our first true tenting experience on this trip, was perfect.  Gorgeous tall aspens and reed-like grasses made the campground.  The only downside – bear boxes!  Yikes, that meant we were really in bear country now (black bears, anyway). I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I told you that I made sure every last smelly, aromatic, scented item in our car or on our person ended up in that box.  According to the brochures, bears find the scent of soap, deodorant, detergent, and many other odd things attractive.  They’ll come around to investigate dish soap just as quickly as they will for a cooked ham.  (Well, I didn’t actually test that one.  It’s entirely possible they’ll move a little faster for a juicy ham, but I took the brochure’s word for it and stashed everything smelly into that big metal box, regardless!)

After setting up camp, we debated just calling it a night, but we were both too excited to actually relax.  So…off to Maroon Lake for some stunning views of the Maroon Bells and the amazingly clear waters of the lake.  Nate threw on a pair of waders and was in the lake without even having to be asked if that’s what he wanted to do.  He caught (and actually reeled in) his first cutthroat trout.  Though the fish here are small, they are native to the area and brilliant in color…which kind of makes sense because just about everything is brilliant in color.  It’s an amazing view and breathtaking (literally – remember the altitude involved).

When we finally get back to our campsite and climb into our sleeping bags, we’re surprised to learn that at 9:30 pm, it’s still as bright as 5 pm back home.  How is this possible?  It seemed to take forever to finally get dark.  We’re up early (and several times during the night to use the bathroom – high altitudes = peeing a lot) and at 5 am we decide on one more trip to the lake to see the sunrise before we go.

Getting up early sure does have its benefits.  Not only are we treated to an amazing sunrise on the peaks above, but we’ve also gotten to see our first elk, mule deer, marmots, and grouse.  I’d call that a successful Rocky Mountain trip.

Next destination?  Funny you should ask.  We actually have two in mind for Day 5 – Arches National Park and Bryce Canyon.  It promises to be another long day, but I guess they all are when you get up at 5 am.  I just looked forward to finding a lower altitude where I didn’t have to pee so often.

Beautiful water. Beautiful fish.

Here We Go…To Kansas

Original Post: July 21, 2015

In the beginning of the trip, I would take a photo of our next destination  from wherever we were when we started that day.  This habit didn’t last long…

It should come as no surprise to anyone that Kansas was not on my hotspot list.  I mean, other than Dorothy, who have you ever known to actually WANT to go to Kansas?  (I think even Toto would have opted out if he’d been given the chance, but dammit…Dorothy just had to ask “Toto, too?”  Poor dog.  He not only came from Kansas, but he had to go back!)

Shortly, before we left for vacation, I had taken a quiz on one of those ridiculous internet sites to see which state I should live in, as if answering 15 questions online could actually be a legitimate determining factor in where I’ll hang my hat.  And the result – you guessed it – was Kansas.  How on earth I could answer that I loved the ocean and still get a state smack-dab in the middle of the country as a result was beyond me.  The last thing I’d want to do is end up in any part of “Tornado Alley.”

I believe my exact words just a few days before we left were, “If I thought I could actually make it from St. Louis to Aspen in a single drive without going insane, I would definitely try.  But since we need to sleep at some point, Kansas it is.”

The drive through eastern Kansas provided endless views of slow rolling hills that eventually flattened into plains that went on for miles.  By the time we reached western Kansas, we’d seen more corn and more oil pumps than I had realized could exist in one state.  Our only saving grace?  The time of year we chose to travel.  Had we booked our trip just a few months later, those miles of landscape (though long and unchanging) would not have been visible at all.  Instead, higher and heartier corn would have meant stunning views of – wait for it – corn.  For 9 hours.  Corn and sky.  Thank goodness for June.

I was a bit hesitant when we stopped at a rest area and found a piece of molted snake skin.  I guess I hadn’t really thought I’d see any snakes.  Did I know they were out there?  Sure, the same as I knew rattlesnakes inhabited Hawk Mountain in our part of Pennsylvania, but since I don’t encounter evidence of their existence 99% of the time, I can keep them filed away in the “imaginary monster” files of my mind.  Suddenly, they had become much more real.

This surely came from the belly of a fairly good-sized snake.  Glad I didn’t get a chance to meet him.

When we finally arrived at Cedar Bluff State Park, I was impressed.  I had not expected to be at all intrigued with this strange land in the middle of the country, but there was actually a serene beauty in that tall grass which swayed like waves in the wind.  And wind there was.  With no mountains or tree lines to block it, the wind was constant.  I would be the last person to complain, however, since it meant we had some relief from the 102 degree heatwave.

We checked into our cabin, aptly named The Jumpin’ Catfish.  (Yes, I’d had Nate in mind when I booked that one.)  It was adorable.  From top to bottom, it was cute as can be – and covered with walking stick bugs (on the outside…not in – thank goodness!).  Funny how some bugs can creep you out completely and others are, for lack of a better word, cute.  Walking sticks definitely fall into the latter category.  So, if you happen to stop in Kansas and need a place to stay, Cedar Bluff State Park is it.  A great camp!

Nate fished the reservoir (of course) and we both enjoyed spending the evening on the porch of our cabin, watching the sun set and the lightning bugs buzz through the grass.  Perhaps the most memorable part of Kansas was the incredible birdsong.  I have never heard birds sing like the ones we heard there and it just added to the serenity that was the prairie.  If I didn’t know that tornadoes frequent the state every year, I could have contemplated buying a little cabin of our own in the area. Birdsong aside, I think I’ll pass.

We spent the evening experimenting with our cameras and scopes, practicing for the nights we knew we wanted to get some great dark sky shots, and despite the lack of geographical contrast to use against the sky, we got some pretty decent photos.

We headed to bed fairly early, knowing that we’d be up early and on the road to the “real” vacation tomorrow.  (Are you sensing a pattern, yet?)  Aspen, Colorado and Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.  Finally, a change in landscape!  

And we survived Kansas.  Nary a tornado in sight.