The universe intervened on the roadtrip last night, and after driving for an hour without finding anywhere suitable to spend the night White Sands was removed from the itinerary; I probably should have known that overnight parking areas would be limited near a national monument surrounded by a government missile testing range, but I’m not often accused of having an overabundance of brain matter.
Missing White Sands probably worked out for the best as Carlsbad was further away than I realized, and despite waking up before 7AM, arrival time at the park wasn’t until after 10AM. From there the fun began: Ryan loves him some caves. Photos of Carlsbad can’t do it justice – the cave formations are probably more amazing than any other easily-accessible cave in the world, but the most awe-inspiring thing (to me) is how big it is. There are multiple rooms with ceilings well over a hundred feet high, and the aptly-named “Big Room” is 4000 feet long and 625 feet wide at its widest point; it’s tough to imagine how something like this could be engineered by man, much less occur naturally.
After four hours of romping through the cave it was time to leave, and I’m now making a beeline for Louisiana, although a large state that smells strongly of oil lies in-between. I haven’t quite figured out what the route across Texas will be, but it’s likely to take most of the day tomorrow, after which this roadtrip will be in uncharted territories and hopefully involve much more exploring and much less driving.
The Big Room. Clever comment about the genius behind the name is left to the reader.
The Chandelier. I’d guess that the largest stalactite in this formation was easily over ten feet long. It’s also visible in the previous photo.
The town of Winslow was along the route last night so I decided to be a tourist, stopped, and yes, stood on a corner. I didn’t see a girl in a flat-bed Ford (my Lord) but there was a guy in a F150, so mission accomplished.
Today I woke up just before sunrise to a temperature of 38°F, drove to the gates of Petrified Forest National Park, and, while the horizon turned amazing shades of purple, stared in horror at a sign indicating the park didn’t open for another hour. That disappointment aside, the four-hour park visit was a good one – there were far too many photos and far too little hiking, but the supposed goal of this trip is to visit the Southeast so some sacrifices are needed.
What little plan there is for this roadtrip calls for getting to new places as quickly as possible and limiting the number of visits to old haunts, but White Sands and Carlsbad Caverns are kind of on the way, so I pointed the Subaru in that direction. I’m doing my best to travel backroad highways as long as there is daylight, so I was debating the merits of three possible routes when a dot on the map caught my attention: National Radio Astronomy Observatory. From that point the route was clear, and the fifth of December 2010 will live forever as the day Ryan went to the Very Large Array. The geek juices were flowing strong as I came upon 27 radio antennas, each 25 meters in diameter, spread across 22.3 miles of a high mountain plain. Sadly I only arrived with an hour to spare before sunset, but made the most of it by hurriedly visiting each part of the facility that didn’t have an “authorized personnel only” sign. Am I a huge dork? Clearly. But I am a very happy dork.
Blue Mesa in Petrified Forest National Park. “Why is it called the Painted Desert” is a question that is infrequently asked.
One of the 27 radio antennas that make up the VLA. Each one is twenty-five meters across and totally awesome.
No journal update yesterday – I mostly lounged, and an attempt to photograph birds failed miserably when the wildlife refuge gates were locked at 4:30 PM.
Today was my last day on Kauai, so I decided to get dirty. After waking up at 5AM I left the disappointingly unimpressive Kauai Beach Resort and headed back towards Waimea Canyon for some more hiking. The handful of photos I took along the way turned out rather bland, but hopes were higher for a hike at the end of the road at 5000 feet elevation above the Na Pali coast. The trail started out slick and got about an order of magnitude sloppier with each quarter mile, and the last bit was a slog through a river of mud all the while pulling myself up rocks with whatever vegetation was available – six year old Tevas with worn off treads were clearly the footwear of champions today. The views along the way were great, and the challenge of trying to hike without getting completely disgusting was a fun one.
Following the jungle-slog-of-filth-and-domination I headed to the far end of the island to a beach that the guy at Subway said was his favorite. I was momentarily stopped by a “four wheel drive only” sign, but Hawaii is clearly not as hardcore as Utah and the rental Dodge made it to the beach without any trouble. Kauai is an island with narrow sand beaches and a lot of rock, but this beach was an exception with its massive expanse of sand set against the cliffs of the Na Pali coast – Subway guy is all good with his recommendations.
The red-eye for home leaves in a few hours, but luckily the weekend has a few days remaining before the slog back to work starts again. Vacations are definitely good things.
The Na Pali Coast. The muddy, disgusting part is to the right. The lovely, inspiring part is to the left.
Two weekends ago Aaron and I met in Phoenix to hike the Grand Canyon. After making the acquaintance of the poop-eating dog and watching a stranger blow up Aaron’s ego by telling her friend “Look, it’s Chris Daughtry” we headed north to the park. My all-time record for rim-to-river-and-back hikes stood at something like 4-2 when we started (hiking in the heat is not my strong point), but we set off on the 16-mile round-trip with tons of Gatorade and confidence brimming.
Before continuing the story, for anyone visiting the Grand Canyon don’t try to hike down and back in a single day. The park warns against doing this hike for a reason, but Aaron and I are both in pretty good physical condition, and more relevant, we’re both stupid people.
The route we chose took us down the Kaibob Trail to the Colorado River and then along the river before we started back up the Bright Angel trail. This is where things got interesting. Nature decided that ascending five thousand vertical feet wasn’t enough of a challenge, so she threw temperatures at us that were twenty degrees above normal. Hiking through the desert, uphill, when it’s 105 degrees in the sun isn’t an ideal scenario for someone who likes to vacation in Alaska and the Antarctic. Aaron and I were both suffering by the time we got back to the top, but sadly I was the one in worse shape. Despite having to stop frequently to rest my spasming quads this one will go into the books as a draw, which puts the current all-time record at 4-2-1. Next time, however, we’ll go in March when it’s guaranteed to be cooler, hike it twice, and put two more ticks in the win column.
Aaron & the Grand Canyon.
Grand Canyon, 8:00 AM. The trail is visible in the bottom left.
Aaron, looking beastly, during the Grand Canyon descent.
Did you ever try to take a picture of something nice only to realize you got some idiot, airborne, in the shot?
Aaron and I during the descent. This is before it got blazingly hot and smiling was no longer an option.
Today was the earliest day of the trip thus far with a 5:30 wakeup – Audrey was surprisingly mentally alert, although she had scouted the entire town the night before to make sure she could find coffee (for anyone in a similar predicament: there is a pot they keep brewing at the desk of the Mammoth Hotel). After the drive out to the Lemar Valley we joined Russ (the ham radio operator), Rick (the wolf biologist) and a small crowd on a hillside and got to watch three wolves, some bison, a few elk, a pronghorn and a handful of bighorn sheep through the myriad spotting scopes that people had with them.
After breakfast the temperature had risen from 25°F to a balmy 35°F so we headed up to the huge, terraced springs that give the area its name. Following that excursion and a short nap Audrey wanted to add Montana to the list of states she’s visited, so we made the quick trip up to Gardiner, stopping along the way to photograph a pronghorn that was standing in a turnout – having recently told Audrey that I thought the pronghorn is the one animal that is so wary that it would never, EVER let anyone get closer than about fifty yards, this fellow spent five minutes posing for pictures thirty feet away from us.
We ended the day with a drive up to the Norris Geyser basin which is the home of Steamboat Geyser, the world’s largest geyser, capable of erupting to over 300 feet in height. Its eruption cycle is from four days to fifty years, and with the last eruption having occurred in May 2005 we decided not to wait around to see if it was our lucky day. While the geysers were neat, the highlight was actually the scenery along the drive, including a stop on the outbound and return trip to re-visit with some of the wolf folks who were on the lookout for the Blacktail pack which had killed a bison in the area; we missed the wolves but saw (and heard) a coyote and a good number of elk, and Audrey was given a really cool photo by a really nice professional photographer who was hanging out in the area, so all was well.
Pronghorn antelope. I wish I could say that this photo was taken in a remote corner of the park and not at a turnout on the side of the road…
Grass growing in a hot spring pool. I got all artistic and stuff with this one.
After the late night last night we slept in a bit and luckily were able to switch our room to a cabin in the north part of the park, making for a more leisurely day. Highlights of the drive from Grant Village to Mammoth Hot Springs included another stop at Yellowstone Falls, many hundreds of additional bison, a coyote that everyone (including me) initially seemed to be mis-identifying as a wolf, and finally a group of five bighorn sheep wandering along the road. The sheep in particular were very cool, and by driving ahead of them a bit we got them to wander up to us, allowing for extreme close-ups of sheep nostrils the likes of which the photographic community will never condone.
The evening activity was a trip out to the Lemar Valley for wolf watching. As everyone knows, the way to find wolves is to look for people with big, expensive spotting scopes and stand next to them, and we were very successful at this. With winds whipping and temperatures in the forties a group of us stood on a hill and watched two black wolves more than a mile away. Seeing wolves is always very cool, but the crowd we were with added a bit of additional color – at one point after noting that the wolves had mange Audrey joked that she wanted to give them some medicine. A guy off to the side in a cowboy hat turned to us and in very serious and thick southern drawl intoned “Medicine? Lady, not in a national park you won’t.” We found out his name is Stacy, he is from Tennessee, and apparently one does not make any off-color remarks about wolves in his presence. We’re heading back in the morning for a bit more wolf-spotting, and based on conversations tonight it sounds like we’ll be seeing many of the same people again.
Bighorn sheep. Terrible background on this photo, but I like the eyes. Also, note the nostril detail, clearly my photographic specialty.
For anyone visiting Yellowstone in the future: while park rules forbid you from invading an animal’s personal space (25 yards from all animals except for bears which get 100 yards), it is apparently ALSO against park rules to allow an animal to invade your personal space – after an elk wandered to within about ten yards of Audrey and I a ranger pulled over to inform us that we were very, very bad people; he may be correct, but a female elk without a calf that is simply grazing isn’t the most vicious of creatures. That unfortunate incident aside, it’s still extremely cool to see elk and bison at such a short distance.
Our day started a little after 6 AM with a trip out to see Old Faithful at sunrise, followed by a stroll around the Upper Geyser Basin. On our way back to the lodge around 10:30 we noticed that Grand Geyser, the world’s largest predictable geyser, was expected to erupt between eight and noon. Figuring it was past due we sat down to wait, and for the next ninety minutes baked under the sun until, at 11:55, a plume of water jetted 150 feet into the air for ten minutes; it was worth it. The afternoon found us in the car exploring some of the other nearby geyser basins, running afoul of the park law, and in general having a very nice time. The pictures below hopefully do a better job capturing the day than my limited grasp of the English language is capable of.
Gigantor in golden grass.
Boiling muddy mud.
It is 9:30 at night and I am too tired to write coherently, but luckily lack of coherence has never yet stopped me from putting together a journal entry. Today we hit Arches National Park, and judging by the level of exhaustion it hit back. The morning saw visits to Double Arch, the Windows, and Turret Arch, and at each we ran into a pair of woman travelers who scrambled on the rocks while offering strangely valuable photo tips. After a stop in Moab for lunch we headed to Devil’s Garden for some hiking during the hottest part of the day (solid planning on my part) and sweltered along to the massive Landscape Arch (300+ feet) and then up to the very scenic Partition Arch.
The day ended with a climb up to Delicate Arch (the Utah license plate arch for those not up-to-speed on their arch identification). I’ve visited this arch at sunrise when only a handful of hardy souls were present, but never before at sunset when it is a MUCH different experience – perhaps seventy-five people were arrayed around the arch waiting to take photos, with the souvenir-seekers lined up in front of the arch waiting to get their photo taken. One-by-one they stood under the arch, got their picture, and then traded places with the next person in line, all while the nature photographers fretted that they would miss out on an amazing photo while waiting for the Johnson family to get their Christmas card photo. As frustration mounted loud shouts of “Boo!” erupted anytime someone lingered a bit too long. While this may not have been the most serene natural setting it was fairly amusing, particularly when one especially clueless girl stood for a minute under the arch admiring the view while everyone yelled and whistled; when finally she got the hint a rousing cheer erupted from the assembled gallery. Lightning flashed on the horizons during the journey back to our campsite making for an awesome display, and we’re now heading to bed under slightly cloudy skies with hopes of staying dry until morning.
Audrey at Turret Arch.
Delicate Arch at sunset. This is clearly a prime example of the creativity a photographer can exercise in composing a scene – my thought process: “point at the arch, click the shutter button”. Ansel would be proud.
I’m currently sitting in my tent under the most amazing night sky I’ve ever seen – with no moon, at least a 6,000 foot elevation, and a location that is the most remote area in the lower-48 states the Milky Way is lighting up the evening and the stars are shining so brightly that it’s possible to differentiate sizes and colors; Audrey even pointed out what we’re guessing is the space station flying overhead. Being the reliable outdoorsman I left the star guide sitting on my bookshelf, so we’ve been forced to come up with our own names (“Blinky” is popular) but it’s no less incredible without knowing exactly what it is we’re seeing.
The route that brought us to this astronomy laboratory started in Bryce Canyon with an early wake-up to see sunrise followed by too many pictures and a visit along the way from a group of pronghorn antelope. This adventure inevitably led to coffee and bacon at the lodge, and then off for more canyon adulation at Bryce Point. After checking out of our hotel the route took us 275 miles across the state and along some absolutely ridiculous roads – apparently the Great Depression led to the ultimate in make-work programs in Utah, and portions of Highway 12 are literally blasted out of solid rock only because someone decided that a good way to create jobs was to build roads through impossible places. In addition to Highway 12, portions of Interstate 70 (“No Service Next 123 Miles”) traverse canyons and cliffs that made it one of the few parts of the interstate highway system to be two lanes up until the mid-eighties when it was finally expanded to match the rest of the system.
Bryce Canyon at Sunrise.
Christmas this year was again spent at Ma & Pa’s house in the Bay Area. Aaron was given the gift of Cavs tickets and an Anderson Varejao wig, the Skipper got a cookbook for curry (he cooks now), and Ma got enough pedicure gift certificates to keep her toes pretty for months. In a surprise move, rather than the usual gifts of sweaters and bizarre neck massagers mom also put together a really awesome album with copies of the family Christmas cards and letters going back about twenty years; Aaron and I were expecting the worst when she told us to “close our eyes”, so this gift was a pleasant surprise.
This year’s holiday miracle came in the form of a visit from Roto-Rooter after Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo took up residence in the downstairs bathrooms. Combining blocked toilets with the holidays brings out the best in everyone, and despite Sally’s initial dismay and Aaron’s dry-heaving it ended up being a fairly amusing (if expensive) event.
Tonight I’m camped out in a closed forest service campground in the Eastern Sierra near the base of Mount Whitney. After driving through gold country and up to Tahoe yesterday I spent the night in Carson City before heading south today. Hiking and photography at Mono Lake went well, although the silver dollar-sized blisters on my insteps indicate that the afternoon’s attempt at cross-country skiing was less successful. The interesting fact of the day comes from Mono Lake, which apparently lost forty feet in depth (and a signficant amount of surface area) due to diversion of streams by the city of Los Angeles starting in 1941. As of 1994 a lawsuit requires LA to restore twenty of the lost forty feet to the lake level to provide improved habitat for the two million birds that visit the lake each year, although at present the lake has risen only about eleven feet from its low point. Along with the restoration of the Lower Owens River, returning Mono Lake to a healthier state could have a huge impact on the wildlife that migrates through the Eastern Sierra each year, thus making me the slightest bit more optimistic that people may actually make the world a bit better during the remaining decades of my lifetime.
Sierra Nevada Winter Landscape.
A lot has happened this month:
- Obama was elected President; I’m excited and optimistic.
- The stock market and economy have continued to crash – the DOW is off almost 50% from its high point, and my savings are in a similar predicament.
- Ted called, and it looks like I may be taking a trip to swim with whales in March. I’m ready.
- The annual Holliday Thanksgiving extravaganza took place over the weekend, and Sally once again produced a ridiculously great meal. Much food was eaten, and much fun was had.
- Following Thanksgiving the family headed off to the horse races; betting on horses based on odds and jockey records was a losing strategy for me; betting based on which horse had the best name was much more successful.
- Aaron and I embarked on our usual shenanigans, including a quest for expired food items that led to some gagging as we disposed of a 25 year old bottle of lime juice.
Random pretty picture – detail of a King penguin’s neck feathers.
A few photos from the past week:
Elephant seals in sleep mode.
Elephant seals in angry mode.
Last Friday night Ryan Sutherland, Aaron and I headed to Vegas to celebrate Aaron’s birthday. The trip started with Sutherland’s primordial response upon hearing the cost of a hotel room for the evening (“Goo”), was followed by much Beastie Boys music along the way, and culminated with an appearance by Charlie Chisel and a journey led by the ouija beer. The night ended late, and the following day we hit the Bellagio for brunch before heading home by way of the Mad Greek in Baker.
Audrey and I headed out to the desert two days later for some camping. Death Valley is a good bit cooler in the winter, and we had some good hikes in between coyote and kit fox sightings. Highlighting the differences between someone like myself who prefers the outdoors, and someone like Audrey who has spent almost all of her life in cities, the wind picked up Tuesday night and lulled me to sleep, while Audrey was up most of the night wondering if the tent would blow away (it didn’t). We headed to Vegas Wednesday to catch the Blue Man Group show (it ruled), lost some money on a baffling video slot machine involving an old prospector and Q-Bert, and finally headed home this afternoon after visiting the Mirage’s pool and jacuzzi.
The slow push to get through the remaining Antarctica photos continues, although I should be able to get most of them online tomorrow. As to the rest, at the rate I’m going it may be several more years…
Golden canyon landscape in Death Valley.
It seems that people reading this journal are either shy or non-readers, but at least the good Mr. Gallaway added a few titles to the reading list.
As sort of a last expression of freedom before rejoining the corporate world I made a quick trip up to Yosemite, waking up just after 5:00 AM yesterday to be on the Half Dome trail by 6:00 AM. As always it was amazing, but sadly the final half mile of the trail was closed for repairs, and in addition there were some issues with… well, chafing, that made the trek down somewhat excruciating. On the positive side I took a ten minute water break with a deer who was browsing six feet from where I was sitting.
In addition, for the first time in Yosemite I saw a black bear while coming down the trail. The black bear was foraging near the trail and ambled to within about fifteen yards of me at one point (kids, don’t try that one at home). In the midst of watching him tear apart logs another hiker came along, happily munching on trail mix. After pointing out that there was a bear just off the trail and that it might be prudent for him to put his food away this guy did so and then wandered directly into the bear’s path. Noticing this brilliant maneuver, the bear paused, looked around to see if there was an easy way to get around him, and then slapped his claws against the log in a way that had me convinced he was about to charge. And of course, our hero still didn’t move from the bear’s path! Luckily Smokey climbed off of his log and took another route, but it was tough not to be impressed with the animal’s restraint.
Today I’m hobbling around on sore legs with the plan being that I’ll probably head down to LA tomorrow to try and find a place to live, preferably one in which no more than ten police helicopters buzz by each night. Los Angeles again…
Bears are apparently intrigued by logs.
One of the longstanding items on the to-do list has been to scan in the approximately fifty rolls of print film that I took from 1994 through 1999. The job is about half done, and while my good photographs today aren’t really much better than my good photos from ten years ago, the percentage of photos that are complete and utter crap has definitely decreased; far fewer of today’s photos require asking the question what the hell was I trying to photograph? That said, a few photos from back in the day are actually worth sharing:
El Capitan in Yosemite National Park (1998)
Yucca in White Sands National Monument (1999)
Shortly after I had curled up in the back of the Subaru and fallen asleep last night another car came down the road, parked right next to me, and two guys started setting up camp. Bearing in mind that we were the only two vehicles in the national forest, and also keeping in mind that there were numerous other places where camping was possible, I was a bit perturbed at the breach of privacy. Certain places in this world — examples include camping spots, urinals, and elevators — all have unwritten rules of occupation, violations of which are so unexpected that the brain really has no response except to think “but you just don’t do that…”
This morning I arrived at Bryce as the sun was breaking the horizon, and the clouds parted long enough to grab a few photos. I was a bit curious about Ebenezer Bryce, who the park was named for, but learned only that he was known to have described his canyon as “a hell of a place to lose a cow”.
Made a brief trip through Zion, including a trek up a small peak that I’m sure my mother would have preferred me to skip. Ate a quick dinner in Vegas, and should be home sometime tomorrow afternoon, barring surprise sidetrips.
Bryce Canyon at Sunrise.
I did my utmost to get up before sunrise, but it just wasn’t happening. Luckily Delicate Arch was still free of visitors when I arrived at 8:00 AM. Later in the day while visiting Double Arch I ran into a college group that I had seen in Canyonlands yesterday, and we hung out under the arches, enjoying the sun and talking about everything from golfing at the South Pole to local geology (despite my obviously immense knowledge, I let them do most of the talking on that one). The remainder of the day was spent crashed out in a hotel doing my best to scrub off a week of accumulated dirt. Clean is good.
Tonight’s camping spot is another unexpected destination, but with a name like “Valley of the Gods” it seemed like a place not to be missed. Spent the entire day in Monument Valley, which was impressive (as expected). Unfortunately the Navajo don’t permit any travel except on the park road, so there was no hiking or quiet moments. Nonetheless, there were numerous opportunities for photos, although with my usual skill I seem to have botched the vast majority of them.
Shortly after this picture was taken the wind blew the camera over, and I spent the next ten minutes climbing down a cliff to retrieve the (broken) lens.
U2’s “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” seems to be the theme for this trip, and I had it on repeat for about four hours while driving through the desert east of Joshua Tree. I decided to take the secondary roads instead of the interstate, and it was a good choice — the desert out there is the type of place where time and distance blur, such that you don’t know if you’ve been traveling for one hour or six, and it was a good time to think.
By the time I reached the Grand Canyon clouds had set in, but I still managed a bit of hiking. I’m hoping to hike the Kaibab trail tomorrow, although the forecast is for rain, which wouldn’t be ideal. My eating habits have been abysmal thus far on the trip, but tonight I decided that the possibility of a tough hike warranted a good dinner. Stopping at a cafeteria I discovered that the old Mexican woman manning the “South of the Border” station was totally hooking people up with the portions — plates were literally overflowing when she handed them back. The drool was probably evident by the time I got to the front of the line, at which point a Thai girl stepped in to take my order and made me a burrito the size of an egg roll; the Gods continue to mock me.
In other news, I shaved the dome again today. In the span of four days I’ve gone from being a guy whose hair was thinning at a young age to being a badass who inspires mothers to stand protectively over their children; I’m digging the change.
The Grand Canyon from the South Rim.
Yesterday’s wildlife sightings included a mouse fleeing across the highway. Today’s wildlife sightings included another mouse, although this one was in the process of being swallowed by a coyote. I spent an inordinately long time trying to get a picture of the coyote pouncing on mice (his mouse-catching batting average was one out of ten while I was watching him), but he had an uncanny ability to avoid being photographed. A group of ten deer had no such issues, and having several deer within feet of me provided the rare experience of feeling like wildlife was coming too close to me, rather than vice versa.
I thought it might be different to see Yosemite in winter for once, but was instead greeted by a high temperature of seventy-two degrees, and no snow whatsoever in Yosemite Valley. Baffling. Badger Pass, located at a much higher elevation, is rumored to still have some of the white stuff remaining, so I’ll make a run up there tomorrow and show the world how cross-country skiing was not meant to be done.