Road Crew

Thursday, January 4, 2018


Normal people go to a tropical island with an agenda that goes something like this:
 1) sleep in
2) walk hand in hand on beach
3) have fruity umbrella drink
4) get a tan
            But I am not the usual sort and managed to avoid most of it.
            The first step to accomplishing this is to skip taking your romantic partner and take your parents instead.  In the company of my parents, trips are decidedly more upscale than my usual trips to a national park.  There were no campers involved and I didn’t have a single peanut butter sandwich the whole trip.  The other upside is that they are super helpful.  I have them so well trained that they think it is actually normal to drop their daughter off and wait around until they find her miles later.  The only drawback is their navigational skills.  First mom lost the park map then dad found us a replacement printed in German.  Lesson learned: dad is no longer fluent in German.
            The second step is to avoid the beach all together. As it turns out, volcanoes are quite tall and just like on the mainland, the higher your go, the colder it gets.  Foolishly believing that I was going to a tropical island, I did not consider the effects of altitude in my packing.  While most people take home a bit more tropical attire, my souvenir was a hooded sweatshirt that I lived in for the week to ward off the cold.
            Volcanoes National Park did not disappoint and graciously put on a nice show for us.  Watching that thing spit and glow really makes you think, why on earth would anyone dare to live here?  As it turns out, lava does not flow nearly as fast as it does in the movies, I’m sure giving everyone a very false sense of reassurance that there will be plenty of time to round up grandma before evacuating. 
            Instead of sand between our toes and waves lapping at our ankles, we chose to ambulate across grossly uneven, disorienting terrain in order to see lava up close.  First bike 4 miles on a gravel road and hike two more miles to an unknown destination across miles and miles of black rock.  If you feel a sudden blast of heat, look for orange and don’t step in it.  That is basically how you find “fresh” lava in a lava field.  In case that isn’t challenging enough, try this in the dark.  

            For part two, we moved to Maui.  Once again, we skipped the beach and headed straight up the mountain to see Haleakala National Park.  This protects the caldera of an ancient volcano that made much of Maui.  While visitors are encouraged to appreciate the rare silversword plant and nene bird, what people literally line up for is sunrise.  This once again defying the purpose of going to a tropical island, this errand required a 3:30 wake up call to stand around shivering in the cold at nearly 10,000ft while waiting for the sun to come up.  Ultimately, this is a bit like watching water boil, tedious but totally worth it in the end.
            With the rising sun we were finally free to explore the beach, but once again, we skipped the beach and headed straight for the water with the primary intention to see sea turtles.  While standing on the shore I could see the damn things poking their heads up taunting me to come find them, but they proved to be elusive in the silty, turning water.  Yet again Hawaii, I was reduced to shivers and retreated to dry ground searching for my now well-worn sweatshirt.  The second attempt was aided by a wetsuit that obviated the need for sunscreen, continuing the trend of bucking the typical tropical agenda.  Once again, there was failure to find a sea turtle but any disappointment I had was diminished by the presence of horny whales.  Testosterone can drive men to do some crazy shit but when it fuels 25 tons of humpback whale, it results in an impressive water show. 
            Altogether a successful trip accomplishing all we set out to do. Fortunately, there are plenty of reasons to go back to Hawaii.  First thing I would do?  Get a fruity umbrella drink.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Redneck Riviera of the North

Not every park is turns out to be what I envisioned and Voyageurs is one of those places.  While most refer to the area as the “boundary waters area”, it is a separately designated area encompassing four large lakes.  It is described as a “water based park” and indeed, that is an accurate description.  One could not walk into the park boundaries without getting your feet wet.  Even the parts of the park that are on “dry land” are quite soggy.  You are encouraged to view the area from appropriately selected water craft based on your needs and interests.  With this, I envisioned gentle paddling around a lake in a canoe and fisherman quietly slumbering over their pole while waiting for a bite.

That isn’t exactly what I discovered.

The lakes felt more like small seas connected together.  I was quietly relieved that before I even arrived I had given up on the idea of renting a canoe to paddle out to one of their many camping spots dotting the lakes.  I’m pretty sure I would have either become lost or drown.  I visualized myself aimlessly paddling like a ship wreck survivor on the high seas, having run out of food and praying for one of the eagles to take pity on me and drop a fish in my boat. 

The reality is that this would never happen because there were so many people out on the lake.  While I did see a couple of canoes, for the most part, these were motor boats and house boats.  The real reason that I would have been stranded on my canoe is that no one would have noticed me with the speed and noise with which they flew by. 

This was no quiet fishing lake. This is the Redneck Riviera of the North.  The bigger, louder and faster the boat, the better your bait must be.  And like most fishy tales, there was much discussion about fish and far fewer fish actually caught.  The good news is that the eagle population is quite robust so clearly not everyone goes home empty handed.

No boat?  No problem.  The National Park Service offers a pleasant tour of the lake on one of their pontoons.  There are several locations they point out where people lived for decades on their own in this very remote area.  There was much discussion of why you would choose to live that way.  My suspicious has something to do with being close to Canada and the Prohibition.  I suspect that these people were neither very alone, nor very poor, but I would only be guessing.

If you aren’t into luring cold blooded animals out of the water and couldn’t fit the canoe in your carry on, it’s okay.  Just don’t forget the rain jacket because if you aren’t getting into the water it will be coming down on you.  I frequently found myself thinking that Voyageurs would be a very pleasant place to visit in the summer…except that it was already July!

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Moose Tracks

I will spare you searching Google Maps and tell you Isle Royale is a large island in the middle of Lake Superior.  Not the easiest place to get to which is why it claims the title of least visited park. The ferries have a very short season and the boat carrying about 30 passengers doesn’t go out every day.  What occurred to me on this trip is that I am getting down to the more complicated parks.  By that I mean getting there requires a graduate level degree in logistics to coordinate cars, planes, boats and trains and requires no small investment of time just to get there.  A travel agent’s dream! (Do they still exist?)  Once there you will find yourself on an island so remote even boarder patrol doesn’t bother even though anyone that goes there these days probably contemplates the very short swim to Canada.
This was my first “camping” trip, as in no teardrop in tow.  That meant no down comforter, memory foam mattress or convenient kitchen.  That also meant I had a lot to learn.  I made multiple trips to REI where I personally upped the quarterly revenue.  My impression of camping is that it seems to be one of those last hold outs where they don’t bother with froofroo differences to make it “men’s” or “women’s”.  Everyone needs to be warm, dry and fed and have it be as light as possible.  In other words, there are no pink tents.  I could get used to this.  I borrowed a lot of gear from a friend including a much appreciated air mattress and camp stove.  Like any good novice, I proceeded to over pack until I could barely lift the back pack off the floor.  It was good fortune that on my first trip out I wouldn’t actually need to carry it very far.
Once there you will find yourself on a densely forested island where the entertainment consists entirely of moose watching.  Fortunately this can be done from the comfort and warmth of your sleeping bag because the endless rain put a real damper on going out in search of the beasts.  The campground is on the edge of an inlet where the moose tend to come down and feed in the evenings.  I like to think that we had dinner together: ramen noodles for me and aquatic detritus for him. "Royale" did not refer to the dining. Fortunately a small camp store stocked NutterButters.  It turns out they work well for breakfast, appetizer, dessert, pad thai topping and, well, everything. 
At one point the island also had a large population of wolves but they are unfortunately down to two due to a canine virus.  I guess that answers the question that if you are stuck on an island with the last remaining member of your species, procreation is not your first instinct.

My only disappointment is that I did not have the opportunity to traverse the entire length of this 40 mile island.  That just means I will have to contribute to another one of the park’s statistics: it is one of the most re-visited parks!

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Yes, I had to go to the Virgin Islands. It was on the list.

Here was my grand idea:  Work hard, run a marathon, then go sit on the beach and do nothing like a normal person.  This is something that I have never done.  Every trip seems to be planned around running.  I find myself in these incredible locations only to feel like I need to go to bed early, eat responsibly and get up early to torture myself in the morning.  I cannot count how many exotic places I have raced but felt like I never had the opportunity to enjoy the area.  So for the Virgin Islands, I was going to try something new.  I was going to take a vacation.
            This was going well until three weeks before my marathon, I strained my hamstring. It wasn’t one of those injuries that was just a nagging pain.  I couldn’t run faster than a stroll without tearing pain.  I hobbled along until I gave up on the idea of running the Pittsburgh Marathon; but having put in months of work and desperately wanting a miraculous recovery, I thought maybe I could rebound for another marathon 5-6 weeks later.  The only problem with this is that my trip to the Virgin Islands sat in the middle.  So I dutifully packed my running gear and committed to continuing my training through my vacation once again. 
            The island is stereotypical Caribbean gorgeous with crystal clear water lapping onto white sand beaches.  It had once been completely cleared of its forest to produce sugar cane but Mother Nature rolled her eyes and has reclaimed the land.  Hidden beneath a dense forest are endless stone ruins of a once bustling island.  The place looks like it should be haunted. 
            I quickly discovered the reason people do nothing but sit around and drink pina coladas is that if you get any ideas of doing something with effort, that perfect weather will instantly feel absolutely miserable. The weather was a steady 80 degrees and 80% humidity. Since it is exactly the same temperature at 6AM and noon, the idea of getting up early to run in the “cool” part of the day was irrelevant.  To compound the problem, the island’s trails and roads are nearly vertical.  My attempts to run were comical. In other words, there was really no reason to get out of bed at all.  Each passing day made a marathon seem like a ridiculously bad idea.
            Instead I worked on my tan lines and snorkeled with turtles.  I slept in.  I stayed up late.  I drank “pain killers” even though I didn’t have any pain to kill.  I ate fish so fresh I watched it carted in through the door.  I allowed myself to be coated in sand and didn’t mind. For the first time in a long time, I took a vacation and it was good. I might just have to try that again.


Trying to Die in Death Valley

Very few sequels live up to the hype. That hasn’t stopped the industry from pumping out bad follow-ups to otherwise perfectly good stories. Rocky tried five or six times. Perhaps only Indiana Jones comes close to having a successful follow up but the pressure rides on a handsome leading man and some unexpected twists and turns. So in the Return to Death Valley, it was only natural for me to take a new cast of characters to create a whole new story.
            For the first time on my National Park Tour, I didn’t just take someone along, I took a whole party.  Not only did both my parents come, but so did Dwight and Susie.  Dwight and Susie are special friends selected for their good looks, intelligent conversation and not coincidentally, their Jeep.  Little did I know that a second jeep was my Dad’s entire back up plan, survival guide and escape route.
            My prior trip to Death Valley was limited by lack of appropriate vehicle to navigate some of the dirt/rock roads leading to some of the most famous landmarks. Expressing my frustration inspired my father to plan a trip back using his now souped up Jeep with extra large tires, high clearance and super powers designed to conquer anything…I thought.
            My goal was to see the Racetrack and Titus Canyon.  Knowing this, my dad put in a great deal of research into interesting routes and sites along the way.  He even went so far as to ask the ranger on arrival about the route.  The park ranger had no idea what to tell him because no one had been there for while which should have been our first clue.
            My father’s ambitious plan was to head out of Death Valley and take the back way into the Racetrack.  Death Valley is famous for being the lowest point in the US but it gets overlooked for the incredible mountains (11,000ft+) around it. While it may be warm and toasty in the valley, the peaks are in fact snow covered.  So much snow that Titus Canyon was closed due to snow.  This should have been our second clue.

            The view on most of our drive was a stark desert landscape, barely a green thing in sight, much less snow.  That was until Hunter Pass when we found ourselves on the north side of the mountain and into some snow.  The first snow patch went pretty easy.  We slid around the second snow patch a bit but made it.  With so much success behind us, we boldly started down the third. 
            Dad stopped 100 meters in to assess the situation.  I hopped out to run down the road and get a sense of how much more snow to expect.  There was no end in sight.  Finally we came to our senses and decided that this was probably a bad idea.  Let’s turn around.
            Easier said than done.
            The snow was turning to mush as the day warmed and all we could do was spin the wheels.  We spent three hours digging and spinning and going nowhere.  It was then that the little details came out, like we had no matches or saw to collect wood to start a fire.  No, my dad did not have a winch to pull himself out.  No, there was not anything that might do us any good if we got stuck on a cold mountain pass in the middle of nowhere.  In Death Valley they always warn you about dying from the heat but no one said that you might freeze to death stuck in the snow.
            Fortunately Susie and Dwight had not started down the third snowfield so we abandoned the Jeep and headed back to camp to figure out what to do.  As it turns out there is exactly one person that does back country towing but only for a small fortune.  This motivated Dad to be resourceful.  He wandered around the lodge and camping area until he found a vehicle he thought adequate to help out and then he tracked down its owner.  The one ton dually truck belonged to a good Samaritan who was willing to drive 45 miles out of his way to help us.
            I went with my father and our new friend and his wife.  After an hour of getting to know complete strangers, we rounded the bend for the first snow patch.  Our hero gunned it.  The wheels spun and we came to a complete stop.  My father and I looked at each other.  This was the easiest patch and we were already stuck. This was really bad.
            The heavy pickup simply sunk into the snow patch.  Chains and four wheel drive made no difference.  The more he tried, the worse it looked until finally he was precariously perched on the edge of the cliff, unable to risk moving the truck at all out of fear it would simply slide off.
            I ran up the mountain to the stuck Jeep to retrieve the shovel so they could get to work on the dually.  Then I ran down the mountain to the meeting place to retrieve the second Jeep.  I was glad I had not done my usual run that morning.  The chance of needing to run 17 miles back to the highway to retrieve help was looking more and more likely.
            Finally the gods smiled on us.  With the help of Dwight’s Jeep, they were able to pull the dually through the snow patch. It still didn’t make it through the second.  That was okay because after assessing the situation, they made a decision to deflate the tires on my father’s Jeep.  The snow was still frozen enough that they were able to back it up onto the crusty top and it made it out on its own power. 
            Flush with success, we thanked our helpers and waved goodbye.  We were off to the Racetrack.
            We returned to the cutoff that would take us to the Racetrack to find our friends waiting for us.  Suddenly they were out of gas according to the fuel gage. It was an hour back to camp and even further than that back to a station with diesel.  We wouldn’t think of abandoning them after helping rescue us, so we instead followed them back out to be sure they made it far enough to get gas. 
            In spite of the late hour and two days of digging trucks out of snow, we decided to give it one more try to see the Racetrack.  One long bumpy ride later, we stood on the mudflat to witness one of nature’s slow but ceaseless wonders.  Here boulders leave tracks in the mud as wind and water slowly push them across the mudflat.  The marks they leave take years to form.  A truly amazing piece of art by Mother Nature: worth every shovel full of snow.


Thursday, November 24, 2016

A Single Girl's Guide to Thanksgiving

It’s thanksgiving.  My day looks like this:

Yes, I have paired it down to the essentials because if you are celebrating solo, no one will know if you bought cheap wine and pie from the store. If you are feeling indulgent, add a rotisserie chicken and a can of potato soup.  After the bottle of wine, you won’t even taste the difference!
The question you are all asking is, how did it come to this?  Like any holiday, there was some good old-fashioned maneuvering for a place at the table.   This shifted a good number of times this year in my family.  The only thing I was committed to was making myself available to the family for the first time in many years for ALL the holidays, wherever they might be.  Travel to the East Coast during the busiest travel time of the year? Sure, why not? Stay in Sedona to keep parents company? That’s fine!
 For various reasons, all these options caved in front of me with less than two weeks to go.  It didn’t help that I threw a little poorly timed dynamite into my relationship to watch it explode right before Thanksgiving as well.  That left me with exactly no place at any table.  Honestly, I am a little relieved.  I still appear young and hip enough that I have not yet reached the level of spinsterhood that warrants a pity invite.  Cheers!
Face it: a good 50% of America would love to be in my shoes.  This year I will not be groped by TSA.  I will not have to politely listen to Uncle Cracker toast America’s new found greatness.  I will not have to share a bathroom. Grandma’s dinner rolls were always a little dry and Aunt Jane’s salad never did much for me anyway.  This year I won’t have to lie about it.  There is much to be thankful for!
Fortunately this year has left me well practiced at wandering by myself. I planned on Utah to nab Capitol Reef National Park but at the last minute, even the weather turned uninviting.  Undeterred, I headed to Death Valley.  This way I could say that I was in the lowest and most desolate place I could be on Thanksgiving just to layer on the guilt to anyone that asks.
I had the privilege of being present for one of the three days it rains here.  I lay in bed at night listening to it ping off my aluminum roof while thinking of the blanket I left out on the picnic table. I imagined a sopping mess in the morning and worried how I would get it dry before having to pack it away.  No worries.  As it turned out, it evaporates at the exact rate it rains, which means that while it was raining, I folded and stowed a perfectly dry blanket.  I am still entranced by this bit of magic.  Perhaps this explains the price of ice. Death Valley will be memorable for several things not the least of which is the premium on any frozen object.  At twice the price of a gallon of California gas, it is hands down the most expensive ice I have ever purchased. I suppose trying to keep ice frozen while hauling it through one of the hottest places on earth will do that but, damn, it’s not like it turned to wine once it melted.  Ice cream might as well be gold.  Good thing I brought pie!
So raise a glass and a fork! It’s Thanksgiving!

Friday, October 14, 2016

Mesa Verde

You are much more likely to find me out on a trail than a museum but one thing I can say for the parks is that their ranger programs have been universally excellent.  Each time I walked away feeling like I had a much greater understanding and appreciation of the park.  They are really able to pull together the history, geology, climate, and ecology that makes me think, yes, I definitely picked the wrong profession.  I have never wanted to wear poorly fitted, forest green pants so much in my life.
In some parks like the caves or Mesa Verde, a tour is almost required to get up close and see the best stuff.  I always have mixed feeling about this.  It reminds me of middle school or high school when you love the book you read for English class but then discover you have to do a group project on it.  To compound the problem, the teacher would assign the groups so you knew she would pair you with one of the “under performers” to even things out, as if my spending time with these students would suddenly inspire them to crack open the book and want to dissect the symbolism rather than just reduce me to spending a class period explaining the plot to those that could not be bothered with Cliff Notes.

Tour groups in the parks have a way of attracting the same range of abilities, intellectual and physical. First you have the many retired couples.  They are usually active if not fit types that I am accustomed to from the campground circuit.  They are quick to strike up personal conversations that usually border on the intrusive.  “Alone?  Why are you here alone?  What happened?”  
There is a least one person that has been there before and tries to impress the ranger with her extensive, if questionably accurate, knowledge based on their one visit 15 years ago. 
There are two families.  One has the bored looking teenagers with glassy eyes and headphones on. The other has the 3 children ranging from 10 to infant.  The only thing interrupting the 4 year-old’s chatter is the intermittent screeching of the infant which we all pretend is not making it hard to hear the ranger. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how active and fit everyone is in the group, if there is that one person with a cane or oxygen, you will not be going any faster than that. 

This became a critical factor in Mesa Verde. Unlike in the good old days of 1280, they don’t make you free climb the rock walls to get into the houses.  Instead there are a series of ladders and steps to get up and down.  I am not great with heights.  This means, yes, I have been known to panic when given time to contemplate the possibility of failure.  I do okay when I just go for it (See Crater Lake).  However, being in line with 40 people climbing a 32 foot ladder means being stuck 20 feet in the air while someone else has a panic attack.  Those seem to be infectious.  It starts taking a lot of will power to not grab the ankles of the guy above me to pull him off so I can just get to the top already.

The experience gave me a lot of respect for the Indians.  I barely survived 2 hours with my groups and they made it almost 100 years!