Saturday, September 24, 2011

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Park

After I left Zion I stopped briefly in Bryce Canyon National Park.  I had hoped to spend a day there but I’d over-run my time in Zion so I only had a couple of hours to spare so I chose not to pay the $25 entry fee in order to see the whole park.  Luckily there is one canyon that you can check out without paying so I spent a little time at Fairylands Point.

My next stop was Escalante, the jumping-off point for the next part of my adventure- exploring Peek-a-Boo and Spooky slot canyons.  I had heard about the canyons from Mariah and Kris and had further researched them at the public library in Springdale (the little town right outside of Zion) so I had a pretty good idea of what to expect but I have to admit that when I turned onto the gravel road just after passing Escalante I did pause for a moment to evaluate how much I REALLY wanted to do this…  The access road to the trailhead was about 26 miles down the road and there were signs that warned that the road “may be impassable when wet”.  I’d checked the forecast and it hadn’t rained for a couple days and, although there was a 40% chance of rain for the next afternoon, the weather looked pretty good.  The sun had just set but there were few clouds in the sky.  When I remembered the videos Mariah and Kris had shown me I decided to take the risk of having to turn around or possibly even getting stuck (with no cell service!) and committed myself to driving 60 miles (round-trip) out of my way in order to explore these slot canyons. 

It turned out that the road was actually not in terrible shape; there were a few places where I had to creep along in order to avoid bottoming out but overall I was able to go about 30 mph (I was unwilling to drive faster on an unfamiliar road at night) so it took me about an hour to reach the access road.  By this time it was about 9:30 pm and it was getting pretty dark. 
The corner- picture taken the next morning
The access road was 1.7 miles and I had gone approximately 0.7 miles of that distance when I came upon a muddy, rutted-out corner and realized I could go no further. I didn’t trust that my car could make it through the mud and the path where people had “cut the corner” in order to avoid the mud was through a patch of uneven, sage-brush covered ground that my car didn’t come close to having the clearance for.  Thoroughly frustrated at this point, I am not ashamed to admit that I cried for a minute!  It was so upsetting to have traveled so far only to be stopped so close to my destination!

my tent, pitched directly behind my car!  I had already taken
the fly off before remembering to take a picture.
After a moment I put on my big girl panties.  I realized that, worst case scenario, I was only about a mile from the trail head so I could always just walk in in the morning.  I decided to re-evaluate the mud hole in the morning when the light was better, moved my car over slightly in case someone came through early in the morning and pitched my tent directly behind my car. The ground was rock hard and I hadn’t staked my tent the previous two nights, plus the weather looked great and I was feeling lazy… so I didn’t stake my tent or put on my rain fly.  What a mistake THAT turned out to be!

I awoke at 12:30 am to lightning and thunder all around me. “Crap!", I thought. I stuck my head outside of my tent to test for rain and immediately felt drops coming down. Annoyed, I launched into action, attempting to secure my fly while still standing inside of my tent, all the while conscious of the fact that lightning was flashing all around and I was the tallest thing around for miles. 

As you can see, the land is quite flat!
The fly of my tent normally extends to either side of the tent about 2.5 feet but I didn’t have a single thing within the tent that I could use to pound the stakes in with and I was afraid my tent might blow away if I wasn’t inside of it, so I wrapped the end of each fly around one of my sandals and wedged each bundle under my tent, a solution that worked for oh… about 2 seconds.  Annoyed at the weather for being so deceptive as well as at myself for being deceived, I settled in for one of the loudest nights of sleep in my life.  The storm lasted until about 4:30 am and there were several times where the lower part of the side of my tent (as in, where it touches the ground, normally!) was actually ON TOP of me and my tent was basically lying completely sideways.  Amazingly, I actually WAS able to sleep through most of the storm and awoke at about 7:30 feeling fairly well rested!  There was about ¼ cup of dust covering everything inside of my tent (which is over ½ netting), me included!  “Well,” I thought, “at least I have an amusing story to tell!”

Upon exiting my tent I realized that I had neighbors!  There was another car and a large tent not 100 yards further down the road.  I made some coffee and went over to introduce myself.  It turned out that their names were Matt and Tabitha and they were from Valdez Alaska.  They were intending to do some canyoneering as well and so we decided to hike to the trailhead together.  We broke up our respective camps and headed in. 
Peek-a-boo canyon

The three of us hiked together for about 20 minutes and then split up when, about 5 minutes after entering Peek-a-boo canyon, the terrain got too difficult for Tabitha to feel comfortable with.  The rain had accumulated in depressions, forming muddy puddles which sometimes had bits of unidentifiable debris floating in them.  At places where the walls were further apart than about three feet it was necessary to step into the puddles in order to reach ledges, which were sometimes at about chest level.  The mud stuck to every inch of your shoe and any portion of your leg that it touched, sometimes resulting in you having a 5 lb “boot” of mud encasing each foot from mid-calf down.  It’s hard enough to scramble on top of a ledge that is chest high, and even harder when you weigh 10 lbs more than usual!  But, in my opinion, that just added to the fun!  
Cool hole in the wall in Peek-a-boo
In the end I have no idea if I made it to Spooky canyon or if I even WAS in Peek-a-boo canyon, honestlyFrom the hiking books I had read and the maps I had checked out I was under the impression that Peek-a-boo and Spooky both ran sort-of Southeast to Northwest, were roughly parallel and about a mile apart from each other, and that there were no other canyons between.  Upon exiting Peek-a-boo I was to cut right and walk perpendicular from the direction I had been traveling, across the ground between the two canyons.  The guidebooks made it sound like it was impossible to NOT drop into Spooky canyon  but in fact there were tons of little slot canyons all over right after exiting Peek-a-boo!  I attempted to measure the distance accurately and walk in the correct direction but I didn’t REALLY have an exact idea of distance OR direction and any sort of precise land navigation is pretty difficult without taking lots of compass readings (probably not possible with the compass on my watch, although I DO think it’s actually pretty accurate!) and I don’t have GPS.  The only real landmark that I had was the big ridge that was to the south that looked largely unchanged throughout my hike and thus was no REAL help in navigating other than that I knew I had to walk that direction to get back to my car! 

Sweet arch in Spooky
Well, I DID actually find a lovely narrow slot canyon that I had to do a bit of interesting maneuvering to drop down into so I think that I may actually have found Spooky canyon, although I don’t REALLY care because it was wonderful to explore in any case.  I DID have a little anxiety at one point when, at the bottom of a crevice that was about 12-18” wide, I heard thunder and spent the next 15 minutes “hauling ass” to try to get out of the canyon, the entire time wondering when the water was going to come crashing around the bend behind me!  As much as I enjoyed the canyon I was certainly relieved to see the walls widen and was completely content to spend the next 45 minutes out in the open as I hiked back to my car, thunder rumbling ominously in the distance from time to time. 

From other videos I've found onine I'm now confident that I DID actually find both Peek-a-boo and Spooky slot canyons!  Yay me!  :o)

Friday, September 16, 2011

Zion National Park

Zion was amazing.  I am sure I will start many blog posts with something similar in the months to come but Zion truly was awe-inspiring.  The rock rises around you on every side, rearing thousands of feet into the sky.  When you hike to the top of one of these cliffs you truly feel as though you are on the top of the world.  The striations, curves and depressions give the rock around you such character that every step presents new and amazing views.

My first day in Zion I hiked the West Rim trail to Angels Landing, against the advice of one of the rangers who told me that the hike was “a zoo”.  I started early so as to avoid the crowds, and I feel I did pretty well.  There was a pretty good-sized handful at the summit but the crowd did nothing to diminish the spectacle before me…

Five miles, 1500 feet elevation gain- a decent hike to start your day with! The first couple miles are mostly shaded during the early morning, the trail well maintained, albeit a good climb. The last ½ mile or so is along a spur of land- you’re basically hiking along the top of a fairly narrow ridge with steep drop-offs periodically appearing on either side of the trail. The views are unreal. You stand on top of the ridge looking down into the valley and you think “I did this!” It does wonders for the self-esteem!

Here is a pretty cool website if you want to read more about Angels Landing. This guy is obviously a pretty amazing photographer and there are tons of photos that are way better than any I took.

During my ascent I met two very cool individuals named Mariah and Kris. It turned out that they had also planned to do the Narrows hike later that afternoon and we were enjoying each others’ company so much that we decided to do it together.

Mariah, Kris and me about halfway back down from Angels Landing.
The Narrows is probably Zion’s most famous hike.  The whole trail is 16 miles long and I had originally hoped to do the entire length, either as a day hike or as a two day trip; there are multiple backcountry campsites along the way.  However, I was a little pressed on time and also didn’t feel comfortable tackling a 16 mile-long hike by myself in unfamiliar terrain.  It wasn’t the length of the trail that I found daunting, but the fact that for significant portions of the hike you are walking in the Virgin River in water anywhere from ankle to hip deep (most of the time- although there was a portion where it was up to my armpits!).  Also, I’d heard that even storms 100 miles away could result in flash flooding in slot canyons and I wasn’t really keen on possibly experiencing one of THOSE on my own (or with someone else, now that I think about it)! 

The Narrows were very impressive, with the sides of the canyon rising sharply on either side and looming over you the entire way.  It was fun and a little bit of a challenge to have to hike in the water, and the We ended up hiking up the main canyon about 2-2.5 miles and then turned down Orderville Canyon do explore this narrower slot canyon a little.  We turned around after a mile or so, as the temperature was falling rapidly with the end of the day approaching. 

Here are links to both the main Narrows hike and to Orderville Canyon.

The three of us grabbed some dinner and called it an early night, camping in a primitive site just outside of the park.  The next morning we said our goodbyes; Mariah and Kris were off to do some mountain biking and I had more of Zion to explore!

The destination for the first half of my day was Observation Point, an 8 mile (round-trip) hike with an elevation gain of over 2100 feet, that required me to hike a portion of the West Rim trail.  The trail description said to allot 5 hours for the hike but I had a lot I wanted to accomplish that day so I pushed myself and finished it in 3, which made me feel like a rock star.  It goes without saying that the views were amazing. 
I used an online site to generate this panorama.  It did something a little funny to the middle of the picture but you can still get a pretty good idea of the view from the top!  :o)

After finishing Observation Point I checked out the Kayente Trail to the Emerald Pools, about a 2.5 mile hike with very little elevation change- for which I was profoundly grateful!  The pools were beautiful and the relatively cool and shaded hike was a welcome change from the heat and full sun of the Observation Point trail!

This concluded my time in Zion National Park.  I am sure I could have spent a week there but I was pretty satisfied with my day and a half, and felt that I had really picked a great handful of hikes!

Burning Man 2011

Burning Man.  There’s so much to say about it that it’s hard to even know where to begin…  I had heard about Burning Man from many friends over the years and I was only slightly more than “lukewarm” about it going in to it.  My friend Genevieve, who I’ve known from way back during my time at Bozeman MT when I was working towards my BS in Microbiology, had mentioned that she knew someone who had a ticket for sale…

Hmmm…  I could do Burning Man.  My job search had been proving largely unsuccessful so it was reasonable to assume that I would at the very least have an extended weekend free, and I’d heard so many stories about it… Why not!?  So I bought my ticket.

The next month or so was overwrought with planning… food, supplies and costumes to get together, technical difficulties to sort out… how was I going to suspend my hammock!?  If you really know me you know how much I LOVE my ENO hammock!  Of COURSE I HAD to have it on the playa!

Well, suffice it to say that I DID in fact figure out how to suspend my hammock in the mid­dle of Nowhere, NV.  The Black Rock Desert, in fact, but if you’ve  been there or even looked online you will know that it is completely barren and devoid of any THING that can support even 5 lbs, let alone my 130 lb body!  But, with the help of several anchors  (6, in fact) I did actually succeed in my endeavor.  If you’ve never laid in a hammock in 90⁰ F you don’t know how wonderful a thing it is but take my word for it- it’s amazing.  The air flows underneath you as well as all around you and it feels a good 10-15⁰ cooler.  Hammocks are the BEST!

Considering that we were a group of five girls who pretty much had never been to BM (Burning Man) before, we did pretty well for ourselves.  We had a kick-ass camp- comprised of two tents with Ag-netting strung between, a hammock and a 15 foot-tall PACE (peace, in Italian) flag… Oh, and I can’t forget to mention the LED lights, graciously provided by our neighbor­­ whose actual name I can’t remember… Wilks?  Anyway, he introduced himself as “charming English bloke”, and so he remained in my mind.  :D  Those LED lights were probably the best gift we received during our time at BM.

During the daytime we mostly hung our in our camp, figuring out what we would wear that day/night and doing the occasional henna tattoo, which was one of our "gifts" to the community.  We usually left the camp once or twice during the day to go explore- it's amazing how much there is to see and there's no way you can even come close to seeing half of it!  There are so many pictures on the internet of things I never saw, but the things we did see were amazing. 

We dressed up every night and went out to explore or dance or just ride our bikes around "the playa" and see all the art cars.  Since the art cars are mobile the playa looks different every time you see it so it was sometimes difficult to orient yourself!  It was amazing to see so many lights everywhere and the music was fantastic.  It was easy to dance for hours.  Even just riding your bikes around was a blast, as there were thousands and thousands of other people riding around as well and avoiding eachother, especially at intersections, was a bit challenging!
Getting ready to head out for a night on the playa- from left to right, Sarah, Melissa, Molli, me and Genevieve.

Another night on the playa- from left to right- Melissa, Sarah, me, Molly and Genevieve.

We were part of a larger camp called The Wanderer's Camp, which provided "Toxic Tonics" and hotdogs for the community every night we were there.  Everyone was expected to work a shift, which our small group did with enthusiasm on Saturday night.  It was a lot of fun to provide delicious gin and tonics and hotdogs to the thirsty, hungry masses.   
When you come in the gates at BM they say “Welcome Home”.  When I first heard those words I thought “yeah, ok- welcome home- woohoo… it all sounded very “hippie” to me.  But after having experienced BM I truly understand.  It’s a community you can’t really understand unless you’ve actually been there.  It’s the world as it should be- everyone accepting, exploring, understanding, giving, sharing, contributing…

In the “normal” world I think it’s the default reaction to expect the worst from people.  At BM you expect the best from people- and you’re not disappointed!  99% of the people who come there are genuinely devoted to the vision that IS BM.  If you care to learn more here is a link to the “10 principles”…

…but it is probably enough to stress that art, self-expression, acceptance and sharing are basically the core concepts of BM.  Yeah, there are drugs and people walking about naked but that’s a very small part of what BM is about- really, it’s about 50,000+ people getting together and creating their idea of how the world SHOULD be.  It’s about helping out in whatever way you can, contributing to the global community, sharing what wealth you have with your neighbors, appreciating all the diversity around you… I could go on and on…

Will I go back?  ABSOLUTELY!  Every year I am able to, until I die.  Black Rock City is HOME. 

Crater Lake

My first destination once leaving Portland was Crater Lake. I had never been, despite having lived in Portland for 7 years, and it was a total spur-of-the-moment decision to visit Crater Lake on my way out of Oregon. After all, it IS the deepest lake in the US and the second deepest lake in the world, I guess! Not to mention that it was only an hour or two out of my way!

I arrived at a time approaching sunset and chose to drive down the east side of the lake.  I was able to catch some great pics of the lake and of the sunset over the mountains to the North.

I didn't know where I was staying, as it was late August (prime Crater Lake tourist time) and I knew that all the reservable camp sites would be taken and the "first come, first served" sites would already be taken. My plan was to go to the campground and, if all the sites were full, loiter around the campground for a bit and see if there were any "cool people" who wouldn't mind me stringing my hammock between a couple trees in their campsite in exchange for a few bucks toward the site fee.

The sun had just disappeared below the horizon, marking an end to my photo-taking activities, when I came upon a large parking area where I saw a giant telescope. My initial thought was that it was one of those contraptions that national parks sometimes have, where you pay a quarter to see something cool. Or I thought, maybe the park had star gazing parties and this was a telescope they allowed the public to look through?

After a few moments of surreptitious observation it became obvious that a guy who was parked near the telescope most likely was the owner of said telescope. When I asked him what was up with the telescope he said he was going to look at some nebulas and galaxies... or whatever there was to see. After a few minutes of conversation I asked him if he minded if I pitched my hammock in his campsite, to which he acquiesced. 

After pitching my hammock I returned to what I can only describe as basically THE COOLEST way I could possibly have spent my first night away from Portland!  Dean, as it turned out the guy’s name was, showed me one amazing thing after another, zipping from galaxy to nebula to cluster in a matter of  minutes.  Literally, about every 5 minutes on average he showed me something new.  He is an art teacher at some university near/in San Francisco, CA but he has always had a passion for astronomy and he had built the telescope (which was seriously about 7 or 8 feet long and like 14 or 15 inches in diameter!) all by himself, even hand grinding the glass for the mirror!  I saw a “river in space”, which I have no idea exactly WHAT it was but it looked a lot like looking at a river at night- all liquid pewter and reflective.  The other thing I remember most was Jupiter, which was about the size of a nickel in the scope and had 4 of the moons in attendance.  SUPER COOL.  You probably have to be as big of a geek as me to truly appreciate how INCREDIBLY AWESOME this night was…

The next morning Dean and I had some coffee and breakfast and said our goodbyes- he was off to do more star gazing in Lava Beds National Monument and I was off to Reno NV to see my friend Genevieve and prepare for BURNING MAN 2011!!!  I saw a little more of the park before I left but really my heart was already in Black Rock City…