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.
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.
New year, new…. activities? Sure, why not! That wasn’t exactly the plan. We’ve been wanting to try out snowshoeing for over a year now, but last winter’s extreme lack of snow, and our poor efforts to seek it out, resulted in a year-long delay. So for the first weekend of the year, after the Sierras have been appropriately dumped on for a couple months now, we decided to take our snowshoeing ambitions to the white mountains of Yosemite at Badger Pass.
Yosemite. A love-hate relationship. We love it for its beauty, its history, its ability to inspire a love of nature in anybody. We hate it for those three things, too, because they have an annoying ability to attract droves of tourists with selfie sticks. But the other glorious thing about Yosemite is the moment you go about a half mile away from any trailhead, you’re usually in relative solitude.
And that is what we found on our turned-out-to-be-too-short first snowshoeing trek. We explored the back-trails of Old Glacier Point Road and found deep, snowy trails, so insulated and quiet. Fresh snow all around, and small trails leading every which way. A decent climb led us to a view of the peaks surrounding us. And an expansive meadow turned out to be a perfect place for lunch.
We began our return trip, and found ourselves back at the car all too soon; and back in the Yosemite crowd madness. We were left wanting more. We had found something new; a new way to explore the backcountry that we loved, and that was exciting in itself. Next time we’ll just have to choose a longer trail…
All photos in this post taken on a Canon Rebel SL-1.
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.
A bit further along and you find the landscape begins to change; lush greens and waterfalls give way to black and in the distance almost inching towards you, your first glimpse of a glacial tongue. Skaftafell is Iceland’s premiere glacial national park and since ice accounts for about twenty percent of the island’s surface – a huge portion – this ice is not to be ignored, and Skaftafell is a great, albeit crowded, place to kick off.
A quick stroll brings you from vibrant brush and floor to the forefront of Falljökull glacial tongue, and the lagoon it melts into. It’s immensity, at one time creeping towards us, now recedes, continually gaining momentum and disappearing faster and faster as time trudges forward and our kind does little to reverse the mistakes we’ve made that have brought us to this point. A conversation for another day.
The chunks bobbing in the lagoon range from baseball size and crystal clear to car size and blue, to pure white and the size of a bus, all from the same place and all ever so slowly getting smaller to feed the lagoon.
As you take this all in, reflect on scale, time, politics, etc… the whipping wind coming off the ice chills you to the bone and through layer and layer you begin to feel it; noticeably fifteen or twenty degrees cooler and somehow fresher than the rest of the air, a bit more pure, a bit more free. Or maybe it’s just cold and that’s how you justify it. Regardless it’s time to get back to the car.
Now sometimes you have to go to great lengths and distances to be able to find what you are looking for, be it solitude, beauty, immensity, challenge, adventure, etc… Sometimes, it’s right under your nose, right off the road and you knew it, or you didn’t. These places, these things, sometimes they are crowded by throngs of tourists, but sometimes, sometimes they are yours and yours alone for that moment.
Iceland is gaining ground in the tourism industry, just about every person we ran into before and after was going, had been, or knew someone who was going or had been; this doesn’t detract from an adventure. Folks say that if it’s crowded, it isn’t worth it or at the very least imply this, we ourselves have done so and it is a constant struggle to not be negative in this way. Yes, Iceland is busy, there are loads of people around most corners, but it doesn’t take away from the validity of beauty, immensity, challenge, adventure of these sights; they are popular for good reason.
Many things we saw on our trip were right off the ring road, Iceland’s main drag that loops around the island, and they were all gorgeous. Waterfalls more powerful than you can dream, so strong and rushing down so fast that you can feel their immensity in the blast of mist that hits your face as you approach. They are surrounded by lush green whose contrast illuminates just how impressive and otherworldly they are.
To every gorgeous waterfall though, there are everyday sites right off the road where, if you pull over, get out, and take a look; you can find the same impressive beauty, the same history, the same country. So yes, in the end, some places are busy and some places are unknown and under-appreciated, a huge amount right off the road, but they’re all worth your time even if you need to say “excuse me” to get through (or “pardon me” for trespassing).