Days 52 & 53: Yellowstone & the Tetons

A couple girlfriends came to visit me for the Perseid Meteor Shower this weekend, and since some of the west’s darkest skies are a little ways outside of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, we definitely planned to explore it.  Like the most popular animals in the place, the park is huuuuuuuge.  We’d drive and drive to see sights then turn around only to realize we had 100 miles to drive back to camp.  Yikes!

One of my favorite features of the park is the bison.  Or American buffalo.  We asked a gal at the visitor center where we were most likely to see large animals, and she recommended we take the east route through the park, bypassing its busiest stops and more trafficked roads.  Sure enough, it wasn’t long before we came upon a traffic jam.  Two of us got out and walked ahead (we walked way faster than the traffic moved), and I was delighted when I saw my first buffalo in the distance.  I probably took 15 pictures (not really but almost)…then we circled the bend only to see DOZENS MORE.  To me, it was absolutely incredible.  Up until that point, the only traffic jam I didn’t mind involved farm machinery.  Moving forward, I’ll wait patiently for a herd of bison any day.  I was absolutely in awe.  (And I’m fascinated with the history of the animal and its conservation and management in the park.)  Looking at the bison, to me, is like looking back in time, since some 65 million of the massive animals once roamed free in North America.  There are far, far fewer wild buffalo today, and most of them (98% or more) are likely genetically different than their ancestors due to breeding with cattle over the years, but seeing the bison roam free in their natural habitat at Yellowstone felt prehistoric to me (I half expected Fred Flinstone to show up!).

For better or worse, we didn’t see any grizzly bears…but we did spy an elk lying unphased in tall grasses while a mass of tourists (including us) snapped pictures of him/her from a safe distance.  And we saw a wild (!?) llama, which is an animal near and dear to my heart. ❤

Watching the sun set over spouting geysers and glistening pools of geothermal activity, including the Grand Prismatic, was breathtaking.  Knowing we spent much of our time in the park in the caldera, or hollowed-out part, of a once and still-active supervolcano was nothing short of mind-blowing.  And the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone was almost more incredible to me than that other Grand Canyon to the south.

We skipped the more snailed-pace of the watercraft (canoes and kayaks) and rented a small motorboat for exploring as much of the area of Jackson Lake as possible.  It’s disappointing nearby wildfires have created such a haze around the Tetons (tis the season), but even seeing their grandeur through a veil of smoke is pretty incredible, especially over the lake.  I love water, and I love mountains, so spending a few hours this close to both of them brought my soul joy.

We didn’t see much of the meteor shower because of cloudy skies, and that was a bummer, but the maniacally-aggressive mosquitoes in the area made retreating to our tents early more than tempting anyway!

It’s interesting having folks join me on my journey.  I’ve got my routine, I’m not in a hurry, and I’m generally at peace with and sometimes delighted by unexpected happenings such as bison backing-up traffic for miles.  Sharing my car (my living space), time, and energy with folks who think, travel, and camp differently proved trying at timesand I’m sure, as with anything and everything in life, there are lessons I’m supposed to learn and take away from the experience.

 

 

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Days 49-51: Travel, To-Do, & Yoga

For a few days, I’m on the road longer hours and just getting shiznit done (splurged one night on a hotel in Grand Junction, presumably the armpit of Colorado, for shaving legs and doing laundry and such).  Squeezed in some intense hot yoga for mind, spirit, and muscle work in the midst of readying for company…and I’m on my way to Wyoming for dark skies and a weekend of star-gazing (Perseid Meteor Shower!), Yellowstoning, and Teton Mountain-ing with girlfriends.  Can’t! Wait!!

Days 47 & 48: Telluride

I followed my heart in coming to Colorado early, skipping some of the routes and sites my geologist cousin recommended I see in Utah.  I loved the red rocks and Monument Valley…but as I drove and hiked in the blazing sun, through and amongst rock formations which seemed to amplify the heat of the season, I couldn’t help but feel a little like once I’ve seen one giant and incredible rock feature, I’ve seen them all (sorry Nathan!!).  Perhaps I’d feel differently if I had a geology guide and translator, or if it weren’t August…but as it were, I got to craving higher elevations, more green, and the mountain views I remember from my first visit to Colorado years ago.  I knew I’d made the right decision as I moved east, the temperatures cooled, and the scenery turned from rocks and scrub brush to mountains and pines.

I’d heard about Telluride and had seen beautiful pictures from a friend’s wedding there years ago.  Still, I couldn’t have imagined how lovely it was before visiting.  I’ve never been to Switzerland, but Telluride seems like what I would imagine a little village in the Swiss Alps to look and feel like (and when I told this to a local I met up with, he told me I’m not far off).  It also reminded me a little of Lake Tahoe, a community of laid-back locals living their lives in the throngs of visitors from all over the world.

The village itself (with a permanent population of only 2300, making it about the size of my hometown) is adorable, much of the historical look maintained in the years since the town sprung up at the center of mining activity in nearby hills.  And the mountains themselves… My Gosh.  Breathtaking!!  I came into town in the afternoon, parked my car, and just walked the quaint (but busy) streets ogling at lovely homes and staring up at the unbelievable beauty of the hills and rocks and trees and blue skies and fluffy clouds surrounding them.

I visited a local bookstore, hung out on the town’s only rooftop bar (reading a book with my beer, of course), camped out in the nearby national forest (and slept very cold for the first time in weeks, which was welcome and invigorating!) just up the hill from a river whose current sung me to sleep… A recommendation from the gal at the visitor center sent me up the hill the next morning to Bear Creek Falls, bursting with cold water from mountain run-off despite the recent draught.  There were families and children galore at the look-out, but the hike and the view were worth…the clamor.

Then I popped into a local bar and pizza spot, another local recommendation, and met Jim, a fellow wanderer and adventure-seeker who volunteered to be my guide for the evening.  After I spent a lovely afternoon at the town library (a local bumper sticker touts “I came to Telluride for the mountains; I stayed for the library”), he and I headed south to a natural hot spring outside of Rico.  I’d never been in a hot spring, and under a canopy of stars in the chill of night air, amid mountains and pine trees with a river rushing nearby, my first experience certainly didn’t disappoint.  I could have stayed there all night, wishing on falling stars (until a bunch of kids showed up and disrupted the calm and quiet we original five strangers had shared).  What a great addition to my already lovely time in Telluride, again, provided by a stranger who became a friend.

Someday I’ll come back to this place and stay a little longer…

Day 46: Sacred. And sad.

After having breakfast with Ellena and Zoë, sharing our milk with the kittens, I visited Monument Valley Tribal Park, an area of red sand desert known for its towering sandstone formations.  The Park is located within the Navajo Nation, the largest mass of land retained by a Native American tribe, covering 17 million acres in portions of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico.  Being on the “res,” as it’s know by locals, felt significant to me in ways both positive and negative.  

A few miles into my drive through the Nation, I felt a heightened awareness that took me by surprise.  It was as if all of my senses were suddenly wider awake than they’d been before.  Sights seemed more vivid and sounds clearer.  In general, I felt more in tune with my surroundings…and the feeling seemed to have come out of nowhere.

The landscape was breathtaking, but it was the human features that drew my attention.  I was struck by the condition of the land and the dwellings dotting it.  In every direction, I saw litter – trash generally and lots of beer cans and booze bottles specifically.  Even within the park itself, in areas not frequented by tourists, I saw evidence of the imbibing and alcoholism I know to be common among native populations.  Most of the homes I saw were trailers, some with ramshackle additions that looked to be made of plywood and other random materials.  I was surprised to see American flags flying in a number of yards, then campaign signs along the roads, evidence of upcoming Navajo Nation Council elections.  Everywhere it seemed there were cars, trucks, and myriad vehicles in various states of use and disrepair.  I estimated the ratio of vehicles to dwellings to be 4:1.

The sociologist in me thought “This is what abject poverty looks like.”

I felt sad.  I felt angry.  I felt confused.  I felt…white guilt.  And white guilt doesn’t do a damn bit of good for anyone (does it?), so I tried to fight it…but I couldn’t.  I drove through the reservation thinking “My ancestors made this mess.”  I could only imagine what the landscape look like before the Europeans came along with their guns and disease.  I tried to envision what the lives of the native peoples looked like then – and juxtapose that vision with the one I saw before me.  I don’t know what life would have looked like for the Navajo people if white people had never come along, put their children in boarding schools, and [eventually] resettled what remained of their population to reservations, but what I saw made my stomach churn.

I can’t help but believe the “awakening” I felt early on in this space came from the spirit of the land and the history of the people living on it.  There’s still a sacredness here, of this I am certain.  There is also much sadness and despair.  And I’m at a loss for words and a greater loss for what in the world I might do to make any difference.

I can only hope the spirit wins out over the sadness, theirs and mine.

 

Day 45: Unstuck & Smiling

Definitely started the day feeling leftover ick from yesterday.

As soon as the desert sun started to heat my tent, I headed in the direction of a narrows hike the guy at the visitor center recommended…and found myself wondering all the way if he’d ever been on the particular backroad he’d sent me on because it definitely wasn’t suitable for my Civic!  After making my way over rocks of all different shapes and sizes, crossing ruts and washouts, and questioning the route at almost every turn, I reached a point I knew I couldn’t travel beyond.  Carefully I backed probably a quarter mile uphill of the narrow road.  With no turnaround in site, I negotiated some sagebrush for a sticky 14-point turn-around (rough estimate there)…only to get another half mile up the hill to a jumble of rocks I had managed to clear coming down but definitely couldn’t clear going back up.  Thank goodness I got a AAA membership before I embarked on my journey – and that the tow company fudged my location just a bit to get my recovery compensated.   As it turns out, AAA doesn’t cover backcountry towing… Thank goodness for the kindness of strangers.

It’s funny; stuck in the desert waiting for a tow truck (er, jeep, cuz the truck couldn’t traverse the road either), I felt no frustration, no upset, no impatience.  I talked with my dad on the phone, and he said “I’m so sorry this happened,” but I found myself surprised to be totally calm.  The situation was what it was.  And I just was.  It seemed like part of the journey, maybe a lesson about being kind to myself and patient with circumstances even in the face of being stuck, figuratively or literally.

After my assisted escape from the rocks, I took my time en route to my next destination, enjoying talking with my people by phone and observing my surroundings, stopping when the sights and scenery seemed right (toadstool rocks!!!).  My gosh Utah is hot this time of year…!

Surrounded by Navajo Nation, where I can’t do any dispersed camping, I decided to book a Hipcamp spot for the night.  (Hipcamp is a website that lets folks rent their land to campers; sites range from ordinary to extraordinary, primitive to glamp-ish, and I’ve had mostly positive experiences with it.)  What I discovered when I arrived at the backside of a giant mesa and the base of a red rock formation near Monument Valley was something of a camping bed and breakfast, with spots for tents, a spot for my car, and some underground native shelters, as well as a large communal restroom (with showers that don’t take quarters or run for a limited time), a barn full of furniture for lounging and a shared kitchen, and outside space with communal seating, firepits, and the like.  And kittens galore!!

I settled myself into a swinging chair with an awesome view and relaxed into my book, hoping to attract some company – and it worked!!  In just a bit, a woman with a lovely accent started a conversation and asked if she and one more could join me in a bit.  Yes please!  Ellena and her daughter were traveling from Switzerland, on a birthday and pre-school outing for Zoë.  Today was her 16th birthday, and we shared cake and conversation and lots of laughs under the Milky Way, talking into the night, wishing on stars, and snuggling with (or narrowly avoiding, in Zoë’s case) curious and playful kitties.  Most of my chance encounters have been with men, and that’s okay, but tonight, I was grateful to be in the company of women.  More than anything else (except maybe my couch and a daily shower…), I miss my cat and my girlfriends.  And tonight, I was delighted to have my love cup filled with kitty snuggles and feminine energy.

I’m certain I’ll fall asleep wearing a smile.

Day 44: Oops

I woke up again this morning in my lovely private wooded site in the Kaibab National Forest (still smiling about dinner last night with new friends).  I wanted to stay there, spend the day reading and doing yoga and just being under the canopy of pines, reflecting upon my journey and the experiences I’ve had… For whatever reason, I didn’t do that.  I didn’t listen to my inner voice, even though it was speaking loudly and clearly (though gently).  I got back on the road again and regretted it all day.  I should always listen to that voice.  It knows me so well.  It knows what my soul and spirit need the most.

The day wasn’t terrible, but it was one of the most unsettled I’ve had.  I didn’t want to drive.  Or see any sites.  I didn’t want to leave the cool comfort of my forest for the heat of Utah.  I wanted to “bathe” in the trees, practice what the Japanese call shinrin-yoku – literally “forest bath” – slowing down, just being present in the woods, deliberately taking in nature with all of my senses.

But I didn’t.  I drove.  To Utah.  In the heat.  Wearing a long-sleeve shirt to protect my left arm from the onslaught of sun coming in my driver’s side window.  The day wasn’t fulfilling or peaceful.  All day, I felt aimless and at the same time like I was chasing something.  I didn’t make wise decisions, and I wish I could take back the day all together.  (But I can’t, and that’s okay.  I’m learning.)

I was grateful to find a quiet place to camp within the Grand Staircase Escalante…but the tiny ants that covered the red dirt beneath my feet and car and camp chair bit me relentlessly, as if to remind me that I’d chosen wrongly.  Still, the sunset above the desert landscape was beautiful and calming, and as the cool breeze cut through the heat of the day, I rested and read and tried to unwind.

In nature, I looked for forgiveness and restoration, for nature is redemptive wherever we sit with her and just be.  Today, I learned a valuable lesson about tuning inward, listening, and trusting myself.

Day 43: Kismet at the Grand Canyon

I woke up this morning under a canopy of Ponderosa pines outside the national park.  As I watched the tops of the tall trees sway back and forth with confidence in the wind, I couldn’t help but think of the strength of their roots and wish to tap into their tenacity.

All the noise I heard in the night came from nature – the wind, the rustling of trees, birds chattering, insects rattling and chirping, deer making their way through the woods… I’d made reservations 60 miles north on some Hipcamp land, but the Kaibab National Forest beckoned me to stay within her quiet confines.  It’s funny for me to think back on the first time I “boondock” camped on public lands.  I was just this side of terrified and thought every noise was an animal or – worse – a human coming to menace me…but I was determined, finding peace in Grandma’s moon outside my window.  By now, these secluded spaces are my favorite finds and offer me the best night’s sleep.  (I look for the moon in all her phases keeping watch on me from above.)

Later this morning than I would have liked (darn that tricky border between the Mountain and Pacific Time Zones!), I set out to explore the scenic drive along Cape Royal Road, stopping to take in vistas along the way and hike the Cape Final Trail.  It was a tranquil hike, for the most part, flowing with rolling hills out to the rim of the Canyon.  I was frustrated by the grumpy faces of nearly every single hiker I met but grateful they were relatively few and far between (excepting the group of 20-some of the unfriendliest hikers I’ve ever met, spread out along the trail but identifiable by their matching shirts proclaiming “I don’t know these people”).  For the most part, I hiked alone, in quiet contemplation.  Visiting the Grand Canyon and looking out upon her majesty felt like something of a dream to me.

I’d been thinking of Karen last night and into today.  She was one of the other riders on my mule outing yesterday and was traveling with her daughter and grandsons.  The whole group of them made me smile and feel like I was a part of something on our ride, and I’m so grateful for those moments of connection out here.  There was something about Karen specifically that reminded me of a couple of dear women I’ve been lucky enough to call friends in this life, and I wished I’d gotten the names of her daughter and the boys (who, by the way, were much better at riding mules on the side of a canyon than me!).

Wandering toward the last of the look-outs, I heard someone call my name and looked up to see none other than Karen and her family.  I surely lit up at the sight of familiar and SMILING faces!!  The North Rim isn’t as ginormous and crowded as the South Rim section of the park – at least that’s the impression I get – but I was still surprised to run into someones I “knew.”  We caught up on our day and shared stories then went our separate ways, or so we thought…then an hour later, as I was heading into the Park’s public showers, I met them again, and we knew we were meant to share dinner together.  The Universe must have brought us together again and again for a reason!

It’s not very often I treat myself to fancier dinners on the road, but the occasion called for a splurge.  I’d been debating about where to spend the night (in my reserved spot up north or back in my secluded spot in the forest) and was grateful to Karen for making my decision for me – we’d eat and then I’d boondock nearby.  We managed to snag a table at the restaurant at the Canyon Lodge, where visitors apparently make reservations months in advance, sharing a dinner of trout and venison and pork and chicken and playing my favorite high-low game (What was the lowpoint of your day? What was your highpoint?), which they call “Thistles & Thorns.”  We drank wine and shared traveling stories and even talked a little politics (carefully, of course) and splurged on rich desserts.  I felt like I’d encountered kindred spirits in Karen and her daughter, Bridgette, and something tells me we’ll keep in touch.  And as far as kids go, I found Anders and Carston delightful and entertaining (even when their mother didn’t).

Once again, the greatest beauty of my trip comes not in solitude but in connection.