Part Four: Stormy skies, hot springs and other wonders of the great divide.
Summer storms. The power of rain torrentially pouring down upon you, a dark sky ever looming in the distance, threatening to blow your tent down, the most epic rainbows, and lightning’s strobe-light show, slapping loudly not-so-high up above. At any moment the weather can change, really change, drastically, and after five years in California, and a couple weeks in the desert, this was a gloriously welcome addition to our lives.
We burst into Colorado and you could feel the moisture in the air nearly upon crossing state lines. The world was green and the air cool and dewey. After much needed (free) hot showers at Mesa Verde, we started a journey up and across the state, driving through 11,000 foot mountain tops, exploring picturesque old mining towns, and finally landing ourselves in hot bubbling waters beneath the big Colorado stars.
Teetering on the edge of the Great Plains and the Continental Divide, we found ourselves stunned when the Grand Tetons suddenly emerged from behind a poof of clouds with all their jagged glory. We had our first sightings of buffalo, first rumors of bears, and took in the epic views, winding our way up to the most popular park in our country’s system, Yellowstone.
Upon arrival we felt disappointed. The lines of cars, the crowds of people stacked with selfie sticks, and the seemingly zero fucks being given about the reality of where they were besides snapping your photo with Old Faithful, made you think you were at Disneyland rather than America’s greatest natural park. But we soon realized that the moment you make the effort to walk further than a quarter mile on one of the many trails the park offers, you are in absolute solitude and the great wilderness we were promised is anything but disappointing.
After some adventuring we hopped back in the car, and made our way deep into Montana. We got away from the crowds and more glamorous sites this country has, and instead found lakes and rivers we’d never heard of, throwing in a line or two. We found hot springs we got hot tips about, quirky ghost towns, and we drank Banquet Beers at a small town rodeo in Belt, MT. We stood on the spot where Custer had his last stand, and drove by those faces up in the rocks because we didn’t feel like paying for parking.
As we descended from the Rockies into the Great Plains where the buffalo roamed, and hopped on more highways rather than winding roads, the world got a bit flatter, but never less interesting. Our journey was approaching its end with our plan to fast-track across the Eastern half of the states, but we still had a few adventures left ahead of us before we’d be settling down.
Photo Locations (from top to bottom): Plains below Grand Teton mountain range; looking out above Silverton, CO; mountains near Ouray, CO; power lines; through the trees at Leigh Lake, Grand Teton National Park; Leigh Lake, Grand Teton National Park; Buffalo and the Tetons; Log cabin, Tetons; Beaver at Jackson lake, Tetons; Storm and thermal in Yellowstone National Park; Thermal creations in Yellowstone; Land of steam in Yellowstone; Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone; road in Montana; Hot spring in Montana; Rodeo in Belt, MT; Buffalo at Custer State Park in SD; Abandoned roadside in South Dakota near Badlands; Sunset at Jackson Lake, Grand Tetons.
Photos taken on Canon AE-1 with 35mm film and on Canon Rebel SL-1.
Sometimes on a road trip, it’s the little things rather than the big views that bring you the most satisfaction. Upon our exit from a horrendously hot and demoralizing experience of backpacking in the Grand Canyon, we were fortunate enough to have an oasis of sorts to go home to, hang our Roo’s and have a cold beer. Our oasis wasn’t necessarily physical to start, but rather a couple sweet, sweet unicorns that were also road tripping around the southwest at the same time we were.
Our friends, Risa and Michael, offered some much needed comfort, some killer cooking skills, and just the companionship we wanted at that moment. Over the next week, we made our way up and out of Arizona and into and across southern Utah, zipping through all those Utah state parks that without fail cause a shortness of breath and the occasional tear. We caravanned through desert, mountains, and even took refuge from the heat in a pine valley, a cool valley of pines, happily accompanied by the name “Pine Valley”. We saw nature in full Kodachrome, constantly astounded by the colors flying by and taking shape as the sun laid down for another southwestern evening, putting on a show and casting golden hues across our smiling, satisfied and full faces.
Our friends cooked, and when we say they cooked, THEY COOKED! They made meal after meal, carefully crafted on cast iron, heated only by the fires we tended, maybe a stove or two as well. Regardless, we were healed through food, fixed through friends, and when the time came to part there was a palpable bitter-sweetness to leave our comrades. And so we did, on to Colorado separately, while our friends stayed to explore more of the Mormon wonderland by way of Moab and Arches.
Fast forward 3 weeks and 3000 miles. We had figured we wouldn’t see our dear friends for quite some time, but as fate would have it, South Dakota had a different plan and we were once again greeted by Risa and Michael as well as an evening of crackling lightning, deafening thunder, and rain drops so thick they sting with their weight. An evening soaked in fear and soaked in a tent, and we were left a little tired, but happy to grab some diner breakfast and continue on our separate journeys. We said our goodbyes (for real this time), and each moved on to newer, literally greener pastures along the rust belt, every day pushing a little further East.
Photo Locations (from top to bottom): Camille taking pictures in Bryce Canyon; Zion National Park geology; Risa at Bryce; Bryce through the pines; Desert tree; Bryce Canyon rock formations; Desert flower; The depth of Bryce Canyon; Ty walking into Bryce; Bryce Canyon big view; Ty at Bryce sunset with camera; Risa’s Bryce sunset; Home at Pine Valley, UT; Michael cooking a feast; Ty’s Bryce sunset; Glen Canyon view; Camille standing in Zion; Desert sage and cactus in Utah; Risa and Michael at Bryce.
Photos taken on Canon AE-1 with 35mm film and on Canon Rebel SL-1.
You forget what it truly means to be on the road. You are rich in places to sleep, yet essentially homeless. Your car is your home. Your car is your kitchen. Every national forest is your home. Your hammock and tent, your nest. Every Walmart parking lot, a potential home if all else fails. You create systems inside your car that only you understand. Everything has a place. Five inches of space are as valuable as a whole room in your house. You become one. Your seats start to smell. The dashboard is thick with dust and dirt. You brought a bunch of clothes, but you wear the same every day. There’s a collection of rocks starting to grow already. Cold beer is god.
We alternated between trail and road. Sweaty then showering down in the campground bathroom. Or a bath in the creek, any cool water would do. The heat penetrated our souls as we careened across the south west of our country, and some days we felt like we may never be cool again. We began to deeply and carelessly long for our future in Maine; the notion of cold winter and icy fingers became an every day daydream.
A hike into the depths of the Grand Canyon brought us to our knees far away from the comforts of civilization. We struggled in a new way, but that discomfort made the reward that much sweeter: friends awaiting us at the rim with a campsite we’d call home where we hung our hammocks, drank cold beer and ate not-cliff bars. We slept like babies (until one of us was nudged by a burro in the night), and awoke refreshed, ready to find new roads to explore and new places to lay our heads for a night or two.
The options were endless, we chose the way. This was our new life.
Photo Locations (from top to bottom): Roadside stand east of Grand Canyon on AZ Rt 89; Crossing the Colorado River near Marble Canyon; Hermit Creek trail inside the Grand Canyon; Vegetation inside the Grand Canyon; Dreamcatcher on AZ Rt 89; The vast Grand Canyon National Park; Dealing with the heat inside the Grand Canyon; Rocks in Arizona; Comfort at Desert View Campground, Grand Canyon; Roadside stand flags east of Grand Canyon on AZ Rt 89; View of the Colorado River from the Tonto Trail inside the Grand Canyon.
In May we packed up our San Francisco studio apartment – the one which has kept us “cramped up” – and we busted out of the Bay Area with one thing in mind: to get out.
We got out of our routines, out of our jobs, out of our apartment, out of our comfort zones. Outside, out of town, on and off roads, in and out of our typical notion of civilization. Five weeks zig-zagging our way across the United States, knowing it was only the beginning of an entire three and a half months we would spend on the road; plane tickets awaited us on the East Coast, bound for Europe.
But first this. Our first week was spent working our way down the 395 through the great state of California, our now former home, enjoying its beauty and slowly preparing to detach. Quickly remembering what it feels like to roam free.
Photo Locations (from top to bottom): Route 62 driving east from Joshua Tree; Yosemite National Park; Hike near Lake George in Mammoth Lakes CA; Crystal Crag from trail in Mammoth Lakes; Shepherd’s Hot Spring in Mammoth; Fossil Falls off CA395; view off Route 62; Desert life in Joshua Tree National Park; Friend’s re-furbished trailer in Joshua Tree; Warm sunset in Joshua Tree; Plant silhouette in Joshua Tree; Ready for bed in friend’s trailer Joshua Tree; Joshua Tree starry night.
Photos taken on Canon AE-1 with 35mm film and on Canon Rebel SL-1.
The hike in was tough, typical for Big Sur, a lot of steep ups and downs, putting a mid winter pressure on out of shape knees as they slam down cutting through switch backs along the ridge line. Hiking was gorgeous, the fog tendrils drifting down ravines in the distance and a welcomed breeze floating by at the top of every climb. Hiking through the burned remnants of the 2008 fire at dusk was a little eerie but beautiful in it’s own right as the blazing sunset peeked around the scorched remains of some of the bigger trees now resembling totem poles.
Regardless, we arrived at Pat Springs just as the last bits flaming orange were disappearing beneath the flat line of cloud above the great Pacific. We pumped some good water from the spring and up we went to make camp in the dark and eat a well deserved dinner. Our camp was right on the front of the ridge, a little windy but would surely have a fantastic view come morning and tucked away enough to not be “so” exposed. Getting a fire going was tough and so it was foregone after dinner in favor for the warmth of our sleeping bags and the prospect of a decent nights sleep.
The wind came up in the night and as we were expecting some light rain it was no surprise when the pitter patter against our tent began and eventually soothed us both into a lasting sleep. Upon initially opening our eyes the tent sagged a little but nothing seeming too crazy at that moment, probably just the damp of Big Sur and maybe a little frost as we were up on a ridge.
Waking up a second time a bit later, the sagging seemed more pressing and so a raised hand out of the warmth of the bag and a tap against our tent walls triggered a micro avalanche; unexpected snow had fallen, and our exposed ridge and all the woods surrounding us were coated in a white snowy blanket – the dread of a cold camp breakdown was already in the air.
The wind was still howling and the snow still falling, and as we unzipped, dressed, and put our things together for the sheer sake of getting off the ridge we chuckled to each other over our misfortune and maybe with a slight edge of anxiety over the day’s hike out still ahead. Boots on, lucky to have thought of the gaiters normally left at home as well as the thin gloves and an extra layer, a pat on the back was in order but as the damp cold wind chilled our bones camp was broken down instead. With one foot in front of the other we made our way off the ridge line and into more sheltered lands for breakfast and a warm beverage.
As we sat, savoring the last of our warm oatmeal and coffee discussing the prospects for the day ahead and having a laugh periodically to break the dread of our wet and cold future, we both knew it’d be fine, but the work to get out was going to be way more than we’d bargained for this weekend.
The trials of the hike out began instantly with the thick small vegetation of the area being completely weighed down across our trail inhibiting our ability to travel fast, or dry for that matter, never mind what was still falling from the sky at that point. The first third of our day consisted of not only hiking through a half foot of snow but pushing branches and small trees covered in it out of the way and crawling under or through bushes that became snow walls; hoods up we pushed on comparing ourselves to the winter Buffalo of Yellowstone occasionally shaking the pile of snow that developed on our backpacks.
Arms sore from pushing and wet from the snow we emerged from the thickets and pressed on, up and down, getting wetter as the day went along, the snow giving way to slush which gave way to water shedding from the trees. By the time we made it out and back to our car, soaked and beaming with self satisfaction of a journey well made, we were happy to report the conditions to the ranger of Botcher’s Gap whom only gave us a barely satisfactory “well, I didn’t expect snow on the ridges last night.” Nor did we sir, nor did we.
“It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong…” ~Yvon Chouinard
We drove and we drove, down dirt roads until they got too gnarly, around in circles trying to find the spot that suited us, stopping, getting out, looking around, getting back in, and moving on. We eventually found the spot we needed, threw our gear out, set up the hammock, stripped down and jumped in; while it was still swimmable, it was cold, we could tell that the dog days were gone and they were taking summer with them.
We cracked beers and cracked jokes, lazing about on the rock rim of the Utica Reservoir (no boats this time), and when the sun started to fall, retreated to the insulated camp we had set up, protected from the cool breeze by a stand of trees and some boulders. Dinner was prepared, sweaters were donned, and we scarfed on camp fajita’s as the sun dipped into the water saying goodbye to summer.
As night came on and the fire gave us some warmth, we talked of how we hadn’t done enough this summer. We hadn’t gotten out enough, were too busy with work, with obligation, responsibility, and everything else, kicking ourselves in the ass as we watched our prime season slip from our grasp.
An abandoned high sierra camp and a picturesque waterfall gushing into oblivion. It’s a quick trip, basically 6 miles each way leaving from Tuolumne Meadows, typically bustling with folks seeing all of the Yosemite high country that they can muster, but not so for us. For us, this is basically the last weekend of high country backpacking with a weather system promising the rest of California some much needed rain and a good dump of snow at elevation, needless to say Tioga Pass will close.
We park down a dirt road off Tioga road, throw our packs on and get on trail right on schedule; knowing that the distance is short makes the journey light and easy, fun and we are generally excited to be hanging out with friends from the east side. Making our way in, we don’t see a soul, one of Yosemite’s favorite trails and not one person do we pass heading in, it’s kind of remarkable. Passing cascades, waterfalls, and iced over puddles, we all fall in love with the day, crisp and in the 60’s, sun out with some cartoon clouds to interrupt the blue expanse of the sky.
Glen Aulin leaves nothing to be desired. A beautifully lonesome and quiet seasonal camp a couple weeks past it’s close date and now some great friends throwing lines into the water to try and nail one of those little Sierra Brook Trout to snack on before dinner. As afternoon progresses, we laze about, basking in the sun as we know it will dip into the 30’s this evening. The sun goes lower and lower until it disappears behind the wall of pine; its instantly cold and the small fire is the only source of heat for us now. Snacking on our friend’s lucky catch while we wait for dinner to rehydrate, we sip red wine with a whiskey chaser and reflect on good times past, present, and future.
Dinner is backcountry chicken burritos, wrapped in foil, and thrown in the fire to get that extra heat and cheese melt; again we are thankful for a dehydrator back home and the leftover chicken carcass from last week. The night rolls through, the cold sneaks in, the whiskey warms, and voices get louder as the “cheers governor” games get belligerent. Drown, stir, and off to sleep; warmth in a bag and a high country cool just kissing all of our faces.
Waking up, we linger in our bags, holding on to that last bit of heat until the need to pee is too much and we’ve got to get the day started and confront the cold of the outside as the sun meets the frost and warms the forest. Coffee to melt away the headache that the Turkey 101 birthed in the night and whatever is left for food to put in our stomaches. Break down camp, pack it away, give it a stretch and make sure no T’s were L’d; we are off, marching from whence we came, up up up and along the trail this time passing a few folks out on a morning day hike in the Yosemite High Country.
A quick one out, and we are back at the car ready to head back to the city, refreshed and relaxed. The ticket on the windshield could say otherwise, but fuck it. Note to self: dirt roads off Tioga road are apparently still part of the Tioga Corridor on which there is no overnight parking allowed past 10/15.
The morning is still with a small bit of haze and a quiet likened to Cape Cod summer mornings skipping across the harbor in our 14 ft whaler. “The water’s like glass,” I say, as we slip our paddles in and out and push our boats onward exploring rocky inlet after rocky inlet, “how about here?” We dart into a small escape from the larger part of the lake. Rounding a corner, our boats are suddenly in the midst of a lily pad forest, and we slide up onto the adjacent granite shore with ease. Once up and out, we find our spot, lay out our towels and bask in the Sierra summer morning sun. “It doesn’t get much better than this,” we exclaim before one or both of us leaps off the rock to break the stillness of the water.
The Eel River holds our summer hearts. Each year the high wall and its deep pools and lone river beach draw us back for long, hot days of dozing and dipping and jumping and beer. The steep trek, loading down everything we can for our one night’s stay, all worth the mildly treacherous slipping and sliding so we can eat, drink and sleep. It’s summertime bliss on the river.
There’s a place just north of San Francisco that used to be home to a fishing village of over 500 Chinese immigrants. Before that it was a dairy ranch belonging to a wealthy Irish-American family. And long before that it was the home and hunting grounds of the Miwok people for hundreds of years. After most of the Chinese fishermen left, the land was saved from potential developers, and turned into a protected state park for us to enjoy.
These pieces of land transfer from one hand to the next, serving different purposes for each. Who uses it best? Who deserves it the most? Who should it belong to? Now it belongs to the State, and therefore to all of the people, more or less. Although you can’t use it to farm your cows, catch shrimp, or fully sustain your life anymore, you can use it to enjoy the outdoors, and to be thankful that one more stretch of the Bay’s coast so close to the ever expanding city was spared. Happy Earth Day!