Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Playing in the Park

Two and a half weeks between leaving my job in Utah and starting a new job in Georgia provided time for a New Mexico jaunt.
Meadows with flowing streams. 
Less than 24 hours after teaching my last field trip, Jan and I set out for two nights in the San Pedro Parks Wilderness. A place I’d visited once before for a Leave No Trace Trainer course back in 2012. The "parks" are open grassy areas. No swingsets or monkey bars though. Just quiet expansiveness.
Joining the CDT for a while.
Gentle terrain greeted us. Much of the area is above 10,000 feet but it wasn't steep. A perfect a transition into vacation mode. The busyness of packing up and saying goodbye had me wound up. Mentally, I was still double-checking my work to-do lists. I was reeling from separating from my friends, coworkers, and students. Why must I always feel such deep emotion upon moving?
Butterfly friends.
We climbed to a few so-called high points shown on the map. This one even had a cairn marking it, even though it’s just a little hill. Still, it was fun to stand about on top of something.
Marking some sort of high point.
Easy hiking meant the mind was free to wander. I kept thinking about my students. I never imagined they would mean so much to me. One first grader at the beginning of the year would throw himself down on the ground and refuse to move and make me want to quit. He motivated me to be a better teacher. I learned how to listen to him and give him more challenging assignments. Eventually, he’d run up to me to give me hugs and say, “Your favorite student is here!” My last day, he was scheduled for another (more fun) club with another teacher. Yet, he insisted on joining my tutoring group. It was hard to hold back my tears. I still am blown away that I would find a way to connect with young people that at first seemed so out of reach. Working with kids was not something I ever expected to do with my life, but I am grateful that I found this experience and it has changed me. Will my new job feel as meaningful? Will it be as challenging and heart-wrenching and make me feel so alive?

Rain and grauple finally shook me from my introspective mood.

Bit of mud.
 Jan and I huddled up our first night in her tent to discuss our route.
We wanted to hike a giant figure 8 route through the wilderness. However, when we got to our supposed junction the morning of the second day, we couldn't find the connecting trail. Finally, we found the decrepit sign for our intended trail, but it turned out to be completely unmaintained and obliterated. We walked up and down the slope, searching for any sign a trail. Nothing. At. All. Should we go cross-country? Should we turn around, retrace our steps, and take the known way back?

“Let’s give cross-country a try for 5 minutes,” said Jan.

Nine hours later, we emerged onto another trail. A full day of route-finding had us exhausted but also exhilerated. We'd seen no cut-logs or recognizable trail tread. Instead, we'd made our own way.
What we did most of our second day... what I call gymnastics. Sort of like playing on a jungle gym.
A part that had more rock hopping.
It wasn't all uphill.
But the part that was uphill was steep and had the most downed trees. Of course.
Venturing into the hole in the rock.
Which turned out to be a cave with a stream flowing through it.
Is it graffiti or a historical inscription if it is from the 1930's and written with beautiful penmanship?
Discovering a hidden cave and finding signatures on trees from the 1930’s made it all worthwhile for me. Plus, I love the full mind-body engagement of navigating pick-up-sticks for hours on end. It feels like playing on the jungle gym with my students during recess. When everything else slips away, and there is nothing but the here and now. Which is all that is needed.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Goodbye for now, La Sals

One last backpacking trip to the La Sal Mountains before I leave Utah for my a new job in Georgia. I worry that it is perhaps too snowy, but I have to at least try to venture up inside my beloved mountains.

Grey and wintry from the start.
 At least I can get to the trailhead. But not a car in sight on the way up.  Perhaps there is a reason that everyone has flocked to the canyons around Moab, where spring is in full force and sun warms the redrock. Up here is a different world.

Above 9000 feet, the snow is thick. A road has been packed down which makes for easier travel. Still, several miles trudging uphill takes me longer than I expect. Blasted by icy wind, getting colder as I rise above 10,000 feet, I start to have doubts about heading up any higher.

Instead, I take a turn down a familiar canyon, one I know I will be able to navigate.

No human footprints up here. Just animal tracks. The air is sweet with pine. Snow crunches underfoot. Mostly, I can follow the place where the trail is hidden beneath the snow. Other times, I wander around calling "Trail, where are you?" into the wind.

Last fall, Jan and I climbed this peak. But I decide today is not a day for it given the wind and ominous skies.
The steep part where I clutch my poles tightly and don't look down.

Finally, the snow gives way to soft ground. I make my way down to the same spot where I spent my last night in the La Sals at the end of my last season here, back in May of 2017. I was only gone for the summer, then I found my way back again in the fall. If I camp here again, maybe I will make a tradition of returning too.

Not much sunset. But still, glad to be here.
 A ravine provides partial shelter from the battering winds. My hammock is a cocoon of warmth.

Morning brings clearing skies.

It's heartbreaking to leave this place that I've grown to love so much. My hope is that this is not goodbye forever, just so long for now.

A little teary-eyes.
I remind myself that I'm not going to an entirely new place this time. I lived in Georgia from 2008-2014. I hope to reconnect with old friends and explore some of the incredible places in the southern Appalachians. I'm just going to one of my other homes for a while.

Bluebells remind me to be hopeful.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Lower Muley Twist in Capitol Reef

“Jan, I might turn around if it gets bad,” I reluctantly admit.

It’s the third day of our trip. I'm tired and frustrated by how sore my body feels. It’s been two and a half months since the surgery and my body isn't used to carrying a 30 lb pack (due to 6 L of water). The trail description of “steep exposure” up ahead sounds intimidating.
Grumpy Joan trudging uphill (Photo by Jan)
“We could just take a few trips with our stuff over the sketchy part,” Jan coaxes, “Let’s wait and see how bad it is.”

When we get to a false summit, I whine, “I’ll bet we aren’t even a quarter of the way there.”

Jan pulls out her map, "We are more than halfway there. You're already past the exposed section."

I realize I'm being an idiot.
Biscuitroot (Lomatium)
Jan shouts “Biscuitroot!” and I run over and leap about excitedly. My energy has miraculously returned when when plants are involved. Or maybe my overactive imagination was getting the better of me thinking I was in worse off shape than I actually was. Thank goodness Jan is so unfailingly positive.
Dwarfed by massive alcoves
Lower Muley Twist Canyon is known for the massive alcoves that envelop you. The Mormon pioneers said this canyon was so narrow and windy it could "twist a mule" which gives the name Muley Twist. We twist our way through miles of canyon and check out the cowboy graffiti from the 1920's.
A few weeks ago, I found rusted out tobacco tins north of Moab, so it's neat to see one with the print still on it in the shelter of an alcove.
We set up camp within a huge rock bowl that seems like a giant amphitheater.
Extended testing of the suitability of this site for camping AKA napping(Photo by Jan)
This spot is relatively protected from the ever-present wind, though we still get some gusts.
After dinner, we scramble up slickrock to giant pools of water teeming with water boatmen. Then, we chase sunset, which eludes us in the twists of the canyon.
How'd you manage to get up there, Jan?
The sweet song of canyon wrens wakes me before dawn. As we take our first steps down the canyon, first light hits the highest rocks behind us, glowing orange.
The side-trip to Hamburger Rocks isn't marked. We re-trace our steps three times to find a way up  that won't damage the biological soil crust. The "Hamburgers" are hoodoos in the Navajo Sandstone. I immediately climb up and start jumping from the top of one hoodoo to the next in a long arc.
Hamburger Rock Challenge (Photo by Jan)
Those of you who have hiked long trails may know of traditions such as the ice cream challenge or 4-state challenge. I decide to invent my own challenge that involves making a loop of the hoodoos without touching the ground. The reward is an imaginary root-beer float. Jan and I make slurping noises as we pantomime sipping them from imaginary straws. Benefit: less calories than a real float!

Muley Tanks are the next destination. We weren't sure what kind of tanks we'd find- Sherman tanks or tall metal tanks with ladders like on the Arizona Trail? These tanks are natural rock pools of water made by flowing water. An oasis.
Muley Tanks
The wind picks up on the hike back to the trailhead. I notice rock outcrops that look exactly like Entrada sandstone, which is the layer of rock that forms arches at Arches National Park. Only these rocks seem out of place- everything is so topsey-turvey here along the Waterpocket Fold.
Final couple of miles through the Strike Valley
Then back at the trailhead, we meet a group of geology enthusiasts and they confirm that it is in fact Entrada and show us a geology book that helps us understand all the layers out here.

In the evening, we are tired so we decide to go find a FS road to disperse camp. As we drive through washes, Jan decides we can take imaginary “washes” (like in a shower) and it will make us clean. So, we pantomime doing our hair and scrubbing our pits whenever the car dips down to a wash. This way we don’t have to waste time actually going to town for a shower. Works just as well as our imaginary root-beer floats. In that it makes us laugh.
Jan sleeps in her car while I set up my tent in a wash for protection from the wind.
Jan has a pretty sweet setup for sleeping in her car. So cozy for watching the sunset after another great backpacking trip.

The luxury of car camping with Jan: fresh veggies from the cooler to add to our hot soup and hot cocoa for dessert.
Jan is a pro at lining up her car to make a sheltered spot from the wind for sunset-viewing.
The view of the Henry Mountains with the moon
More Information

Muley Twist Canyon (NPS)

Permits are required for all backcountry camping in Capitol Reef National Park. Be sure to pack out all your trash and toilet paper.
Astragalus with pollinator friend

Thursday, April 5, 2018

The last named place

 To understand the significance of this trip, I must take you back to when I was 17.  When I was enthralled with Edward Abbey, and obsessively read (and reread) "Desert Solitaire" in my college dorm room during bleak Chicago winters. Which led me to Wallace Stegner’s "Beyond the Hundredth Meridian" about John Westley Powell and his expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers in 1869. I loved how one-armed Powell climbed up above his camp each evening after a hard day to survey the landscape. Tireless, bold. He named the Henry Mountains, the last named, mapped, and explored mountains in the lower 48. Member of his expedition explored the Henrys during their second trip down the Colorado.  Inaccessible, rugged places filled me with longing, and I daydreamed about what it took to venture to places like this. A seed was planted.

It was not by accident that I ended up at Arches last January. More like a wish fulfilled. Since then, I've asked around but haven't found anyone who’d actually been to the Henry Mountains. "Road's too bad." "Too hard to get to." Which only added to their mystique.

I thought I'd leave without ever seeing them.

But then, Jan came.

At the ranger station, they say, “Haven’t heard if the snows have melted enough for you to drive up there. Just head and see how far you can get.”

"What do you think, Jan?" I say with a lump in my throat.

"Let's try!"

And this is why Jan is the definition of a good friend.

Jan drives over cattle guards, through washes, near an old stone miner’s cabin, steadily upward. “Turn here,” I say, “Now veer left.” I’m practically jumping out of my seat with excitement. We. Are. Here.

“How will we know when we get there?” Jan asks.

I’m madly flipping between my GaiaGPS topo maps and the Avanza map that they recommended we download at the ranger station. There isn’t really an obvious boundary line. No sign. But when we see pinyon and juniper and smell the mountain air, it feels like we have arrived.
Bursting out of Jan’s car, I can’t stop dancing and singing. Woohoo.

The red desert stretches out behind us. Snowy peaks ahead. I’m closer than I ever imagined. A journey that has taken half a lifetime.

I tuck my tent in the trees at a dispersed campsite littered with rusted tin cans and beer bottles. No one else for as far as the eye can see. The La Sals turn pink on the horizon, the Abajos too. I can see all into Canyonlands. These places that I love. So much.
Full moonrise.
The next morning, Jan drives us as high as we dare to venture in her "baby 4WD" vehicle, about 8000 feet. Then we follow forest service roads on foot. There are a few recent tire tracks, trash, a set of footprints. Maybe these mountains aren’t so remote. Are there really no wild places anymore?
Into the ponderosa
Into the aspen and snow.
But it feels remote even though we are on roads. I love the starkenss and the views. I love the history. I am bursting with joy.

Do you think were were having fun? (Photo by Jan)
We turn up a slope that had less snow rather than going around deep snow to the pass to climb Mt Ellen.
Then above treeline
No trail here. An old ATV road though, but it's packed with deep snow so doesn't help. Jan postholes up to her knees as we climb towards our unnamed peak.

“Come on, Jan. It’ll get easier once we get above this snowy spot,” I lie.

The hiking is hard. I don’t know if we will make it or not. So I sing all the way and do little dances and decide it doesn't matter.
Here you can peek over to see Capitol Reef National Park in the distance.
More up.
We are in the heart of the Henry Mountains. The summit of an unnamed, 11,116 ft peak. With 11,527 ft Mt. Ellen in the background. (Photo by Jan)

Changing socks and putting on "bagtek" on the way back down.
More hiking the next day, looking southward
Clark’s nutcracker

Being somewhere I'd been dreaming about for so long felt incredible. It reminds me of the importance of sticking with things. Following through. Making it happen.

Perhaps the greatest gift on can give another person is saying simply, "Lets see how far we get." Which is giving it a try, despite the unknown. I love that attitude. Honestly, with everything I'd heard about the roads, I didn't think our chances were very good. But we tried, and this time we made it. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Jan.