Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Desert Living

Not a lot has happened since the last post, yet somehow a week has passed. We have mostly been taking it easy in the desert, which has been pretty nice. As fall begins to settle in and we head farther south chasing the sunshine and warm temperatures, I feel more and more like our snowbird RV peers.

From where I left off in Idaho, we traveled south and back to Utah Lake State Park in Provo, Utah, where we had previously stayed on our way north to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Our car was due for routine service and new tires, so we spent the day doing some life maintenance. The highlight of our stop in Provo was probably Bombay House where we dined two nights in a row. Ryan discovered the restaurant and we agree that it is some of the most delicious Indian food we have ever had. If you ever find yourself near Provo, do yourself a favor and have a meal here. 

One surprising thing we have learned from our time in the southwest is that there is a monsoon season. Who knew?! I’m sure many people know that, but it was news to us. We have now weathered three monsoons since we have been in the area. And by “weathered” I mean it rained and thunder stormed for a day at a time. 

From Provo we drove south through some of the most beautiful landscapes in this country. We still contend that southern Utah is incredible, so much so that we nearly scrapped our original plans as we passed Zion National Park and fell in love all over again. As we drove south, the landscape changed from a river valley to the most beautiful rock formations and then out to the flat desert and the Lake Powell area. After some debate, we decided to stick with our plan and continue south toward Grand Canyon. That night we ended up at a campground in Panguitch, Utah, which is where we stayed almost exactly two years earlier when we visited Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks. We never thought life would bring us to Panguitch more than once.

Saturday night finally landed us in Grand Canyon National Park in the only overflow campsite at the first come first serve campground. We have counted ourselves extremely lucky with campgrounds on several occasions throughout this trip, and this is one of them. We are so grateful we made it just in time to get the very last spot. We hunkered down for the night as the rains rolled through. 

Sunday morning I woke up at the break of dawn, made tea, and stepped outside to the woods next to our campsite. I have recently developed an interest in foraging for pine nuts, so I stepped into the woods to look for pine cones (to be clear, I would NEVER collect things from a National Park or any other area in which it was prohibited or otherwise discouraged, but I wanted to practice identifying the right pine cones and seeing which ones were likely to contain pine nuts). I had picked up a pine cone and was closely examining it when I heard a subtle noise right in front of me. I looked up and less than 50 feet away (I am the worst judge of distance - maybe it was 20 feet, maybe 100) was a young bull elk munching on some breakfast! I had heard the elk calls throughout the night and pre-dawn morning, but they were off in the distance. 

I froze in place. I had read the warnings in all the National Parks about avoiding wildlife. The elks were in their rut and said to be extra aggressive this time of year, so the last thing I wanted to do was to give him a reason to gore me. He definitely saw me and really didn’t seem to care as he went back to his grazing. I watched him for a while and then went back to camp. I grabbed my camera and went back to watch him from a safe distance, hoping to get a couple pictures of him. He just kept on eating. I could actually hear him ripping the plants out of the ground and chewing. I left him alone for a while, but periodically checked on him until he disappeared. 

Curious about the evidence an elk might leave after grazing, I explored the spot in which I had observed him. To be honest, I couldn’t really tell from the plants that he had been there, which surprised me because he had been eating in the same spot for so long I figured there wouldn’t be any vegetation left. Because it had been raining overnight, I was able to find his hoof prints and followed them both from the direction he came and as far as I could find them when he walked away. It was a lot of fun!

After my adventures with the bull elk, I sat at camp enjoying my tea. A crow had been hopping around our campsite and continued on as I sat there. This wasn’t a normal crow. This guy had an entire repertoire of strange noises he made. There was clicking, chirping, beeping and monkey-type screeches, all while looking back at me, probably to see which noise encouraged me to give him food (spoiler alert: none of them). Later on Ryan asked me about what types of animals had been running around our campsite all morning and when I said it was one crow, he was so surprised. That crow was hilarious! 

We spent the rest of Sunday exploring Grand Canyon. The rains were still spotty, so we weren’t sure if we’d be able to get a hike in. We stopped at many of the vistas and then in the afternoon, when it seemed as though the rains were done for the day, we set out on a hike down the canyon. We were very careful about how far down we went because the sun was coming out and it’s the hike up that will really get you. It was great to experience the park and descend back in time via the rock layers. Afterward we headed back to camp, exhausted, but not before we saw a mom elk on the side of the road resting while her two kids grazed nearby. 

The campground had cleared out a bit in the morning and the host had asked us to move to a site that wasn’t the overflow site, and we happily obliged. When we returned for the evening, we were surrounded by Europeans. Without exaggeration, every group around us was either French or German. It felt a bit like an exotic vacation. I haven’t looked up the numbers, but to us it often feels like we see more Europeans in the National Parks than we see Americans. 

I stepped outside the camper after the sun had fully set to find the night sky exploding with stars! It was awesome in the truest sense of the word. This was the first time in our 146 days on this adventure that we had been in a dark enough area with clear skies and a New Moon so that we could see the night sky in all  her glory. The Milky Way was so clear and Ryan had a hard time picking out some constellations because there were just so many stars. We even think we may have seen the ISS (International Space Station) fly by. It was mind-bendingly beautiful and we gaped at it until our necks were sore from looking up.

Monday was a short travel day to our current location in Flagstaff, Arizona. Neither of us had previously been to Flagstaff nor did we know much about it, so we were pleasantly surprised to find it tucked behind ancient volcanoes that make up the San Francisco range surrounding the area. We also love the pine forests that cover much of the land. Because we had made it in so early, we had plenty of time to head east to see Meteor Crater, advertised as the best preserved and first identified meteor crater in the world. It is privately owned and I cannot attest to whether either of those claims are actually true. It was, however, the training ground for some of the astronauts that later went on to step foot on the moon.

We checked out the crater and toured the museum. The crater is huge and it can be seen from miles away. It’s hard to fathom what force it took to create it. The museum is well curated and has exhibits on the science of the crater, other meteor craters in the world, and craters on other celestial bodies. There are also walking tours of the crater, but nobody is allowed inside. However, they do have a little photo booth where you can photograph yourself and it gives the illusion that you are standing at the center.

Today is a relaxed day. We’re not sure of our exact plans for the next few days, but we will be exploring Flagstaff and nearby Sedona. There are a lot of outdoor adventures in the area and the weather is nearly perfect. See you on the flip side!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Utah, Yellowstone, and Grand Tetons

From the last post, we headed out of southwestern Colorado and crossed the border into Utah. Spoiler alert: we skipped southern Utah on this trip. We agree that it is some of the most spectacular land in this country, but a large part of what this trip is about is exploring new places. We visited Bryce and Zion two summers ago and loved them. In fact, Zion is where Ryan proposed to me, so they have a special place in our hearts. We highly recommend them!

Our first stop in Utah on this trip was Canyonlands National Park. Neither of us had heard of it, so we really weren't sure what to expect. We rolled into the park early on a Saturday afternoon and were able to snag a campsite. As we later learned from the super friendly campground host, we completely lucked out. We were on the cusp of the really busy season and the campgrounds fill up quickly. People wait for the temperature to come down from averages in the 100s, which usually happens a week or two after we visited, but we were fortunate it was only in the 90s.

The drive into the park is spectacular. Edward Abbey, who frequented the park, described it as, "the most weird, wonderful, magical place on Earth - there is nothing else like it anywhere." I think I actually liked the geology just outside the park a little more than what we saw inside, but it's all incredible. Our campsite had a brilliant view of the surrounding area and, except for the road, you would have no idea anybody else was around. The man who lobbied to turn the area into a national park, a former head of Arches National Park, was deliberate in making the campgrounds different than other parks. Whereas most National Parks cram people into small areas, this man wanted everybody to have a view and feel closer to the land than their campground neighbor.

After setting up camp, we rested in the shade for a little while. Because of the heat, intense sun, and lack of showers, we decided hiking sounded more like torture than fun, so we opted for the drive and mini-hike tour of the park (we call them touchy tours because of the silly graphic the park service uses to denote them on maps). There are four main sections to this park: Island in the Sky to the north, the Needles to the southeast, the Maze to the southwest, and the rivers cutting the canyons. We were in the Needles section. We did the mini-hike at Spring Creek to see some pictographs and toured the rest by car and by turnout. Unfortunately, we timed a visit to one of the darkest places in the country with a full moon, so instead of seeing the Milky Way at night, we saw moon shadows.

The next day we headed out and drove north toward Moab and Arches National Park, but not before a stop at Newspaper Rock. It is a giant rock wall carved with petroglyphs spanning 2000 years and is one of the largest known collections of petroglyphs in the world. The carvings were made by the people from Archaic, Anasazi, Fremont, Navajo, Pueblo, and more recent Anglo cultures. We had purchased a book at the park store to help decipher petroglyphs and pictographs in the area, so we had fun trying to interpret what some of the carvings are.

By the time we got to Arches the campgrounds were, of course, already full, but we found a beautiful and much less expensive BLM site just outside the park on the banks of the Colorado River, tucked into the neatest canyon. We set up camp and went back to explore Arches.

Once again we were faced with the blazing desert sun and 90 degree temperatures, so we kept the hiking to a minimum. We stopped for all sorts of pullouts and touchy tours, and even did a few short hikes. Arches is an American classic, but it sure is crowded. We managed to wear ourselves out, so that night we treated ourselves to pay showers at a nearby campground and dinner at a restaurant, and it was glorious. The moon was still bright, but we managed to take in some beautiful night sky.

With the threat of Hurricane Norbert bearing down on the area, the following morning we thought it would be best to leave our campsite on the banks of the Colorado River in a flood warning area surrounded by slick rock and runoff, and head to higher ground. Salt Lake City was just outside of the flood warning area and Ryan had always wanted to see the Great Salt Lake, so we drove north.

We made it to Provo, just south of Salt Lake City (SLC), just as the rains started pouring down. We hunkered down and had a nice evening in. The following day, Wednesday, was our day to explore SLC. Our first stop was Temple Square, the hub of everything Mormon. We had a basic understanding of the religion, but spent some time looking through the exhibits, walking the grounds, and talking to a couple if the volunteers that approached us. While we are not in the market for religion, we appreciated the beautiful gardens and emphasis on quiet contemplation in the Square.

Our next stop was the Great Salt Lake, so we headed west out of town. Another wave of rain was coming in and it was too cold for swimming, so we stopped at the park, took it all in, and headed back for the city. The rain was really coming down strong, so we stopped for some groceries and headed back to camp.

The next day, Wednesday, was a super relaxed day. Ryan got out the telescope to work out some issues by the light of day and I did some reading. Then we ran some errands. It was wonderful!

Thursday we hit the road again, driving north. We were aiming for Yellowstone National Park, but made it just south of the park, stopping for a night in Rigby, Idaho. It was our first taste of fall temperatures and the first time we have used the heater in a long time.

Friday we made the short drive into Yellowstone only to find out the road that connects the western entrance to our campground had just closed for construction, so we had to drive around the entire park to get to our campground. We set up camp and had a little time left in the afternoon for some initial exploring, so we visited the Muddy Volcano and Sulfur Caldron. We saw several bison along the way, as one always does at Yellowstone.

Saturday was for exploring the entire park. We did the classics like Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot Springs and everything in between. I do not recall the name of every geyser and hot spring we saw, there were a lot of them (half of the world's geothermal features, in fact), so below are a slew of photographs.

Yellowstone is, of course, known for more than just being a slumbering supervolcano teeming with geothermal activity, ready to blast the planet into another ice age at any moment. People also visit the park to experience the megafauna that roam the area. We saw bison. So many bison. Bison splashing in a creek, bison sleeping in groups, bison eating in the distance, and a bison walking down the middle of the road holding up traffic. We also saw a moose and elk or deer. Every morning, just before the dawn, I also heard elk calls just outside our camp. We did not see any bears, but that is probably for the best.

Sunday was for Grand Tetons National Park, just to the south of Yellowstone and one of my favorite national parks. We stopped for a picnic lunch at the most incredible spot along the south side of Jackson Lake with a view of the Teton Range reflected perfectly in the glass-like water.

After lunch we went drove up Signal Mountain which was meh, but does have a nice view of Jackson Hole. It did, however, have the best cell reception I've ever had since it houses a couple cell towers (hence, Signal Mountain).

After being slightly irradiated at Signal Mountain, we went to Jenny Lake for some hiking. We hiked to the opposite side of the lake and back, stopping at Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point. The whole experience was like living in a Bob Ross painting with the happy trees on the happy mountains with a happy little lake in the foreground. It was magical and made me want to take up painting. On top of the picturesque scene was the most incredible smell. It was fall leaves mixed with pine and sage, and finished with the crispness of the mountains.

By the time we got back to camp we were exhausted. Unfortunately, I am a light sleeper and a worrier, so when I was awoken at 2:25 AM by gunshots, there was no going back to sleep for me. I heard four or five shots, a pause, and then another three or four shots. I laid awake trying to come up with a perfectly logical explanation for it, like a camper or a ranger confronting an aggressive bear that had wandered into camp. I used my phone to scour the internet for an explanation of guns in a national park.

I was still searching the internet when I heard one more shot 30 minutes later. That's when I decided it was a killing spree or a murder-suicide and I woke up Ryan who reminded me that calling 911 in the park goes to the ranger station. I am a worrier, and I know I'm a worrier, so I didn't want to be an alarmist without checking with another person to see if my thoughts were reasonable. Ryan is almost always that other person. He had heard the last shot, too, so I called it in. The ranger told me they had received other reports of gunshots and were still trying to "pinpoint the issue." I was really hoping she would tell me they knew what was going on and that there was no cause for alarm.

I stayed up the entire night watching the rangers drive through our campsite every 20 minutes with their floodlights and rehearsing my plan for evacuation should we hear any more shots. In the event of an emergency, I'm the one you want to be with because chances are I have a plan and have already rehearsed it in my head, which research shows, leads to survival.

The rangers never followed up with me and I still can't find any news about what happened. I've settled on either illegal hunting or maybe a murder-suicide. I hope it's neither.

Yesterday we headed out of the park and to warmer weather. We're back in Idaho for now, and will be heading back to Salt Lake City to get the car serviced and get new tires. See you on the flip side!

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