The Vision Quest

IMG_4817Many tribes in the North American indigenous world believe that individuals have to go on a journey of discovery. When an individual is ready, they send that person out into the wilderness for days. With little food and water, the individual has to scavenge for survival. Other tribes don’t believe at all in letting the individual have food on this quest. The goal is that the experience will produce some revelation about the individual. Gods speak, the earth moves. Some tribes believe that one has to leave a part of themselves behind to gain another part. Fragile childhood behind to gain the rights and roles of adulthood in the tribe. So that when they return to the tribe, they are able to describe this intensely personal experience to the tribe. That vision then becomes how the tribe understands and relates to the individual. This experience, this vision, becomes the defining moment for that individual.

When planning this trip, I wanted to go to Joshua Tree, I wanted to go here because last year the drive through the town of Twentynine Palms and seeing those bent trees set my imagination on fire. I stayed with a friend in Palm Springs, on the other side of the mountain, and when we entered the park on the Western entrance, there were no Joshua Trees. I wanted that experience, but alas, it was not meant to be with a short time frame of nine days to drive across the country and back. In planning for this, I wanted to go to the park, to feel the earth, to see these magnificent trees. The closer and closer the date came to leaving, the more quasi-spiritual the park became in my heart. Having only experienced the outside walls, I felt that there was something more here that I needed to have. Joshua Tree, is also the significant end of the first leg of this trip. With the timing around the anniversary of my life falling apart, I felt that this was going to be something more, something special. I made plans for this park to have special significance as well.

The first morning after arriving in Twentynine Palms was already blistering hot. The host’s house was not far away, but the problem was the heat. Pockets of hot air come billowing  from all sides. The ground radiates heat from below. The sun seems to almost bake you. In Tennessee, we have humidity that makes life miserable in August, but somehow this is worse. The reason that I thought camping would be sustainable, was that there was to be strong winds. While there were winds, this only teased cool air at the face and arms.

My original plan was to drop Scout off and then head for the Split Rock Trail and Mount Ryan that the ranger had discussed the night before. I knew that the park would be packed with people, and the earlier that I got up the mountain, the better. The problem was that the dog boarder that I found would only take Scout after 9:30. The lady that I am staying in her yard, came out and we talked about how the desert life is, what kinds of ecology there would be in Joshua Tree, and her life here in Twentynine Palms. She is nice, but it was time to get the show on the road.

Traveling down Amboy Highway, the desert goes up and down, before finally turning at the first red light to the left. Turning right would take you to the military base. Going up a few streets, Adobe turns into Highway 62. The town of Twentynine Palms is a shell of its former self, the walls of the city are lined with both reminisce of the past, and nods to the artistic community that subsides here. Soon the town subsides between rolling hills until the arrival at Joshua Tree. The formal town starts miles back, but the first red light is the way that you now that you have arrived into town. Subsequently, that is also the left turn onto Park Boulevard. Climbing the mountain, the heat of Twentynine Palms starts to subside. The radical change in elevation means that there are quite a few more homes here than in Twentynine Palms as well.

After dropping Scout off, I returned the climb up the mountain. I knew that the park map was a little sketchy. Earlier, both myself and the landlady tried to find Split Rock Trail for about fifteen minutes without avail. Pulling into the gate, I found a ranger and he instructed me that I would go past Jumbo Rocks and there would be a campsite, Split Rock would be on the left. Armed with this knowledge, I continued up the hill, trying to find the mythical trailhead.

Almost immediately, the landscape changed from rugged mountains, to almost a savannah plain of Joshua Trees. For most visitors and locals, I guess that this is a common sight, but to me it was breathtaking. While I had on U2’s Joshua Tree, the openness of being on top of the mountain, I could feel the reverb drenched album coming to life. I could see the mountains that Bono had said that he was climbing, I could feel the guitar bounce off of the walls of the mountains. This felt open, this felt whole, it was a moment that was. I was probably worse than the average tourist, seeing each individual Joshua Tree bent, the unique designs brought something out in me. While it was not the best, I was starting to write a song in my head about these trees. I was becoming more. Lost in the moment. God did it feel good.

After stopping what seems like a million times, I finally made it to Jumbo Rocks, where the geology of the park shifts. The lush green savanna of the Eastern side slowly climbs until the volcanic remnants start to become the major feature surrounding you. The rocks, were full of families, making memories of climbing them. To see the park littered with people came with mixed emotions, I wanted this to be a personal journey but at the same time, I too was looking for that moment to remember.

I drove for about thirty minutes, by this point, the signs on the map were starting to disappear and I was heading towards the Western end of the park. I knew that I had passed it. I turned around, only to find that still, no sign of this mythical Split Rock, or picnic area that was supposed to be located near. I gave up and decided that I would do Skull Trail.

I was one of about fifty, who decided that this was the trail for them as well. One of the more interesting aspects of this trail is that there are not really any trail markers, there are only rocks, that you climb. It is clear which ones you can not, those with the narrow footholds, the narrow passages through. The rocks were part of the volcanic activity in the region and they feel gritty, the various components are on display and rough to the touch. I climbed for thirty minutes or so, took some interesting pictures and climbed back out.

All the while, I was open to the experience. I have no idea what this means, but I was seeing a feather ahead of me. I took my hair down for a few moments to let the wind rustle through for a picture, when I felt this stirring. I don’t know what it means, but the feather was something that just leapt into my mind. I saw it attached to a wing of a hawk or a turkey vulture perhaps, long brown, designed for flight. The tip white, while the bristle ends ruffled to catch air. Designed to buoy the animal in flight.

Perplexed with what this mean, I continued on to the car. I decided that there was no way that I was going to find this trail, so instead, what I should do is to go to the next trail and just walk it. I wanted to experience the park and let it be damned what happened. I knew where Mount Ryan was and I was going to go to that by the end of the day. I had time, walk a few hours on the trails, the information that I got from the ranger said that most of these trails were less than four hours long for the average person, so I was plenty good on time.

I stopped at Jumbo Rocks and found Skull Trail on the right hand side of the road. This was marked in the same information, stating that it was a 1.5 mile loop to see the diverse ecology of the park. Great, my first thought was that I would see more Joshua Trees. Unfortunately that is not the case, the trail is more about the volcanic rocks and the desert ecology that is not Joshua Trees. The trail is close to the road and at times has a few narrow passages (while thiese wouldn’t be bad for a normal person, I was decked out in my camera bag, complete with Tripod and water on the other side, so needless to say that I was wider than normal). I walked the trail until there was a three way split in the trail. Ahead was Skull Trail Look, to the right was the parking lot, and to the left was Split Rock. Oh, finally I found the unicorn in the park. I took the trail to Split Rock, which winded down hill towards the formation known as the face. From a distance, this reminded me more of an elephant than a face. I made it to the bottom and found the face in the rock. While it was interesting, I decided that this trail didn’t really offer me much more. I turned around and headed back to the car.

The entire time, I kept thinking about how this landscape must have looked to the first settlers. The Mormons were the first to come to this area. Searching for a better life. After the settlers, came the prospectors. Those looking for the next gold rush came through Joshua Tree, but failing to find any real gold, moved on. Next were the cattle headers and then finally the towns in the area were settled. Thinking about cattle in the park, this was imaginable. How could anyone think that cattle in this rugged of an area would have been sustainable?

By the time I reached the car, I could feel the effects of the sun on my body. While I’ve spent the better part of two weeks outside, the intensity of the sun on the areas of the back of my neck, shoulders and on spots of my arms were starting to cause issue. I could feel the familiar sting of too much sun. Yet, I had other places to go.

Pulling into a full parking lot of Ryan Mountain, I felt my stomach drop for that personal experience. Ryan Mountain is one of the trails in the park that goes straight up the mountain. The park ranger at Twentynine Palms recommended this because there was the best vantage points of the park, and the geology of the park would be on full display. What I understood was that this was a 1.6 mile trail. What I didn’t understand is that this was a trail that sneaked up the mountain, around different levels, approximately 1000 feet in elevation gained before the summit. In less than 1.5 miles, that is quite a change.

I laced up my shoes and started the trail. The gentle curve of the earth meant the change in elevation was not as bad, as say Ramsey Cascades in the Smokies (approximately every foot forward is a foot in vertical gain). The problem is the footpath is only as wide for one to one and a half people. Many times, those coming down the mountain would have to wait as those going up were traveling. Yet, as many cars as there was in the parking lot, it didn’t seem like there were half as many people on the trail. By halfway up, I was hitting my stride. The constant movement forward, knowing that the summit was close, kept me going. I kept measurements on my elevation gain by the mountain in the distance, whose peak was covered in snow (I don’t know the name of the mountain, but it was quite surrealistic to feel the 100 plus degree heat and see snow on the mountain near you). After climbing what seemed like forever, I finally made it to the top. The breeze lifted spirits. The sweat soaked clothes that clung to the body started to dry. Spirits were lifted, as others that made it to the summit let out a small cry of joy for reaching the top. Celebrations in personal forms were had by all that go there.

I opened the camera and decided to test out the wifi system. Previously, I have struggled to take pictures of myself, because it is hard to do everything on your own. If you are behind the camera, you have to set it up and then hit the timer, race to where you are supposed to be, act natural, then wait for the familiar click. Few times have I been successful in doing this. But the 6D has a built in wifi system that enables the operator to use a smartphone to connect and see in real time what the image is going to look like, change the focus to a specific spot in the image, and take the picture. Finally, a useful technology. After setting this up, I went to the rock, and framed everything. I was looking at the phone and realized that there was a crow, about 6 feet away from me, riding the waves of air like a hawk. Clicking the phone, I took the image of the bird. Feather. Something felt that I was to have this moment. My mind was racing, did this mean anything? Was this just a moment between two creatures that just was, or something more? The crow’s feathers were darker than the one that was in my head, but still I couldn’t escape the feeling that this was more than just a chance encounter.

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Being at the top of the mountain, I was filled with a calming peace that I was not expecting. For weeks, I was dreading this moment, knowing that this was the start of a chaotic point in my lie. I have carried that for what seems to be a lifetime. Yet, sitting up there, looking at the distant mountain, the cars that were smaller than toys, this was a surreal feeling of calm and assurance. Blame this on my lack of vocabulary to describe the feeling, but it was transcendent. I knew that there was a magic in the rock that I had never felt before. Breathing, the earth was alive under me and pulling the magnetic components of my soul northward, to stability.

Climbing down the mountain was quicker than going up. The trail seemed to be half the length as going up, but the problem was the quick drop offs and the sand that was the trail. The hiking boots worked the best when there were rocks to catch myself. On the sand, with weight that was shifting, this was a very uncertain venture. Watching the rocks in the distance go from being below you, to then towering above you fills you with a humble experience. I knew that today was special, but I couldn’t understand or formulate what it was about the day that was so unique.

By the time that I got in the car, I was feeling it. My feet had the brunt of sharp rocks, hard hits, and some close falls (a day later they are still sore). I knew that my plans for trying to catch the sunset was not going to happen. I decided the smart thing to do was to take another day and try to recuperate in the evening, take a late morning, to afternoon relaxation, then drive out to Covington Flats area, where Scout could go, and hike up the old growth Joshua Trees. Then, the next day head to LA to meet a friend.

I drove down the mountain and went to the visitor center, where I received my park ranger badge (my 21st of the year to be exact). The person that swore me in, was actually someone from a previous life. Many years ago, I might have been staying in park housing illegally with my partner at the time. We had two dogs and neither of them were supposed to be in the housing unit. The first house that we were at was a shared unit of seasonals that revolved around four or five different people. One of those seasonals had made their way from the Smokies to Joshua Tree. It was coincidence that this person was the one that swore me in this time. We reminisced about the Smokies and caught up for a moment. Small world, even smaller for those that work in the parks.

One thing that I feel bad for, is at the moment there are not the opportunities for those that are interested in this line of work to move forward. The person told me that they had spent the better part of the last three years looking for a permanent job, but unfortunately those are being cut significantly. Who else do we have to run the parks? Let them be staffed by seasonal people, who are willing to move across the country for little better than minimum wage, keep them for six months, then tell them to leave and find another job? What kind of loyalty does that create? Ugh, the work is hard enough dealing with millions of people, let alone those that are dumb enough to try to do something like feed elk, boulder climb, or bring animals near bears. Shouldn’t they deserve more than just six months and say best of luck?

Leaving the park, I got Scout and we headed back to camp for the night. It was still before six, and the sun was nowhere close to setting. By the time we arrived back at the tent, the temperature was close to 103. While I know that I was miserable, you could see the look of contempt on Scout’s face. In the yard, there was a hose that I used to douse him off. I could tell this helped, but he was not exactly thrilled to be soaked in water. There are times he is like a cat, this was one. He pouted for the better part of the evening, but at least he still had breath to do this with. I attempted to rest, lying in bed with the sun on my back was not comfortable at all. I felt miserable. While in Tennessee we say that we could stand it if there wasn’t as much humidity, this is not the case, the oven baking heat from the sun is worse without the humidity. No breeze to attempt to cool you only makes this worse.

By early evening, the sun went down and I emerged out of the tent. I was recharged enough to capture a few milky way shots here in the parking lot and attempted to write. Nothing was coming. I hate those nights, where there is a mixture of loneliness and frustration. I reached out to a few friends but it is that point in the journey where I am on an island, forgotten by the mainland. I know that this is not their fault, I planned this, I have to live with the consequences. But that doesn’t help make the loneliness go away.

By morning, I was recharged. The sun came through the tent earlier than was expected. I left the cover off the tent, trying to let some of the cool desert night air come through. It also meant that the six am sunrise let the light hit me. I awoke with Scout between my legs on the air mattress. I smiled, I knew that he was miserable too and the cushion of the mattress made him feel more at home. I couldn’t blame him, in fact I might have given him encouragement by asking him to come join me on the pillow. I got up and moved the tent cover around so that the sun would not be in our eyes. While this helped, it did not alleviate the problem of being awake. The morning had started regardless of if I wanted to admit it or not.

Something was different about today, when I awoke, I was singing words to a song that I felt I had sang before. These words and melody were of that Appalachian folk experience, but yet they were nothing that I have heard. This song was unique to me being right here. Lacking a guitar, I can’t tell you what key or even how the words all went. It came in a dream and faded quickly. I recorded what I could to try to preserve this song. Rarely have I woken up out of sleep to a song that was basically ready made. Something was happening, the seismic shifts of my soul was stirring.

I got up and sat in the car, trying to desperately finish Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. I red close to half the book this morning. I’m constantly amazed by his prose and his way of telling the story. While there are times that he rambles, after looking at the word counts of some of these posts, you might say that I do that too. I can feel the issues that he is discussing.The industrialized tourism, the chronic problem of parks not being wild, instead they are cash revenues for small towns, and the idea that you have to have wilderness to save culture/civilization. Where else do you have a solitude, refuge from the modern if not for the wilderness?

The problem was, today was starting to become hotter than the day before, Scout tried to cling on to any of the shade that was left available. Under the car was not an option, so he did the next best thing, of parking himself beside me until the shade disappeared in the noontime sun. Even I was starting to feel the heat and might have taken a few moments to doze off from Abbey and rest. By two, I started stirring, I had asked if it was alright to take a quick shower before going today. The last one I had was before Las Vegas and I could feel the nastiness on myself. After removing about three layers of dirt from my body, I returned outside. The cool of the shower meant that I felt as if I returned to a normal temperature. Going outside was like walking into a nuclear reactor. You could feel the earth rejecting the heat and broadcasting upwards. I realized then, that the well water shower, even as cold as it was, what been affected by this heat. The cold water that comes through the pipes back home was another fifteen to twenty degrees cooler than this water. The heat consumes all.

Finally, about three in the afternoon, Scout and I made our pilgrimage into the park. The plan was to drive east to west, then come around to Covington Trail and walk the old growth. I had approximated that by leaving at 3, we could drive and have enough time to catch an 8 pm sunset. Making our way through the park for the second time, I felt that sense of wonder returning. How were these Joshua Tree’s made? Why did they bend in all these directions? After passing the trail sign for the mythical Split Rock, I started venturing into new territory. Cottonwood is the West entrance and is approximately 60 miles away from the East Entrance of the park. The entire park changes as you make it from Split Rock. The volcanic rocks that were only mere inklings on the horizon, become the centerpiece. The drop down to the bottom of the mountain means that you can see the changes in elevation affect new and different plant forms. Cacti start to dominate the landscape that was once Joshua Trees. This feels more remote. The mountains are more or less piles of bolder and remnants of what once was boulders. The air is warmer, but there is a breeze as you climb down the mountain. Several times, it felt that I was in another place. I know that the Mohave and the Colorado Deserts are approximately in this area, but I’m curious if that split is right there on display with the cacti versus Joshua Trees. After making it through the park, I turned up I-10 towards Palm Springs to start the second leg of the loop. I found myself drawn to singing songs that were once so important to me last year. The Wild Reeds, Everything Looks Better in Hindsight was a top pick for the moment. The haunting refrain, the angelic voices that then howl in pain. I felt that this fit the moment, yet it wasn’t exactly what I wanted. I tried Where I’m going. This was better, even I don’t know where I’m going. But there was something different in the moment of singing the song. I felt that I had more agency. That I knew that where I was going and a real destination, instead of the vague call that I’m just leaving. I felt whole again. The creativity was returning. I can feel the emotional banks recharging as the road turned into Yucca valley, then Joshua Tree.

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In the distance, the sun was starting to set between mountain peaks. I wanted to try to catch the Joshua Tree at the moment of sunset. That was the big reason for going to Covington, yet I was only in the town of Joshua Tree, another 30 minutes to the Covington Trails. I turned up Park Boulevard, and kept going northward, turning down Alta Loma, I could see the sun was about to set in the next few minutes. There was no way that I was going to make it to my destination and find that spot for pictures and my plan.

For the past few weeks, I had this plan that I was going to go on a vision quest of sorts here in the park. That I was going to try to have a transcendent moment that was going to redefine and reshape who I am. I was also going to make a small sacrifice to the desert. I was going to cut off part of my hair and bury it in the desert. Not all of it, but rather a good portion of the pony tail as a way to honor the proverbial gods of the desert and to link myself here.

Watching the sun setting, I knew that there was no way to do all of this in one night. I made it to a grove of Joshua Trees and started taking pictures. This might have been private property, but I didn’t care. I was in a spot that I wanted to be in. The Joshua Trees broken and bent in many different directions were beautiful against the mountain side. I could feel them re-charging me. I don’t understand it, I am drawn to the se trees somehow. I feel that they are a part of me, unique in each way that I can see. Spines that are almost hair like, the blossom that reminds you of a pine cone.

Walking around the area, I found a fallen Joshua Tree, and stood there marveling at it. Half decomposed, the tree was on the ground and was starting to turn back to desert. The lifeless grey of the sand that it was melting into was enough to make me pause. The texture of the wood was there, but somehow the middle was gone. I had been at this site for thirty minutes, and for some reason there was a magnetic pull towards this spot. I took some pictures of the fallen Joshua Tree and others in the setting sunlight. I felt that this was something more. That the fallen Joshua Tree was giving life to these new trees all around it. That this was a deeper metaphor for my life. Being overcome with the emotion that this was right, I retrieved my scissors and cut my hair. I buried it in the desert in the unmarked grave of between two Joshua Trees. I have their pictures, but this will not help. After cutting my hair, it was almost like a light switch being turned on, there was a new life in me.

One of the stories that I have carried and thought a lot about over the past year is the story of the two monks. In the Middle Ages, christian monks had various denominations and the stricter the order was the more that there was a need for an apprenticeship to guide the younger ones through the pitfalls of being a monk. One day these two monks were walking, the master and the apprentice, through the woods to the monastery in the next town over. When, they come across a woman who needs help. She begs both of the monks to help her across the river, that her family was there and she had no way to get across. The apprentice knew that it was forbidden to touch another human being and was about to tell the woman that she was out of luck, when the master reached down and picked her up. He quietly carried her across the river, while the apprentice followed almost dumbfounded in knowing that the master was doing wrong. Across the river safely, the woman thanked the two and went on her way. The master bowed and kept on the path that they were originally one. After hours, the apprentice, full of questions, ready to scold the master, finally broke his silence. “Why did you pick that woman up?” He almost yelled. The master turned to the apprentice, “My son, you are correct I did wrong. But which one of us is more in the wrong, I only carried her across the river, you have been carrying her for miles?”

I think about that story a lot over the past year. I’ve been carrying this other person inside of me for a long time. It was funny, after cutting my hair, I felt, almost an instant relief. There was this feeling that I buried not a part of hair, but a part of my life that I don’t want any more. I put that person down. My question that I’ve struggled with, is that person my ex partner, or that older version of myself? The person who was weak, who understood that they were afraid of everything around them, a person who struggled to understand? I feel that I put down something at the moment, but I’m not sure which one. Either way, it was a relief to just be. I probably did a hack job with the cut, but there was something so powerful about being able to physically cut a bond that I did this. It was my decision, my agency that caused this to happen. For so long it seemed as if I was not the one that was making decisions, that the universe was happening around me. This was my decision and it felt so empowering to have that one little moment. Thank you gods of the desert, for you have a place in me, and I have a permanent place in you.

I came to the desert looking for relief, looking for a type of salvation. I wanted to have that vision, that deeper meaning of who I am to emerge. While I had those moments, I don’t know if I have that redefining moment of who I am yet. I struggle so much with an outward identity. I know who I am, but does anyone else (or can they know another for that matter. Down the existential rabbit hole with that question…)? If anything, I feel more assured in my self. I know that this is contrite, but maybe the feather represented the hair, the free flow, letting the wind take you there, that sometimes has to be cut, to make new growths happen. I don’t know. Meaning and signs in the desert happen all the time. Mirages and lights at night confuse distance and reality. Maybe this was a mirage that I saw… or maybe it was something more…

 

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Time the Revelator

What draws millions of people a year to the Grand Canyon? Of course, it is the beautiful rocks that have been etched by the Colorado River over millions of years. But subliminally, what draws people to the canyon is that it is a manifestation of time. We talk about time in quirky ways. There is this long-standing idea that time is this force that is measurable. It’s five o’clock somewhere…It’s about 45 minutes away from downtown Atlanta….Time then is a distance that is something that is quantifiable. Maybe that is the problem with current lexicon or way that we use language, is that it is a measurement of distance. If we are to take the physician’s approach, then time is the postmodernist nightmare of subjective reality. Einstein, in his infamous theory of relativity stated that the only constant in the Universe is light, everything else, from gravity to time, then is subjective. For me, it is hard to look at the Grand Canyon and not see a objective quantification of time. There, stacked in rocks, layered, is the manifestation of time in front of you. Millions of years on display, to slowly be worn down by rain.

Betting back to the other problem of time, is how do we measure it? With distance, it is easy, there is the inch, meter and mile, to all demonstrate distance between space. Yet, with time, we are measuring not distance that is observable, but distance between the present and the past. That is the problem. The present sifts into the past like sands in the desert, moving and shaping in a subtle and nonlinear way. Who made up the measurement of a second? The snap of a finger? Is that the best calculation of the basis of our current understanding of time? What then is a second in relationship to the Grand Canyon? What then is a second in comparison to the Milky Way?

I mention all of this, because in reality, I am fascinated with time. History is the movement of people over time. I think that the reason that I love photography is that it is basically capturing that moment in time. I can manipulate the shutter speed from 8000ths of a second, to over 30 seconds. That is time manipulation. I am manipulating time over a fixed plane to capture something that was there, but was not there. Long exposures are beautiful because they expose how the understanding of time is a fragile misconception of ourselves. I love looking into the chasm of the Grand Canyon, because I can feel the movement of slow geological time, capturing those moments within myself. I also love looking into the night sky, seeing backwards in time, feeling an ancient connection to reflections of light that have traveled millions of years to my eyes. All of this is the past, yet it is the present for me (another possible problem with our language of time/conceptions of past/present?).

Maybe we should do better to say that time is moments. I realize that this is even more vague language, but in many ways, this seems to capture the raw essence of what time really is.  A moment to one is not a moment to another. A moment in the scale of the Grand Canyon could be thousands of years to me. A moment to an ant, might be thousandths of a second to me. I realize that this is starting to travel down a path of subjectivity, that becomes harder and harder to congruently fit together how these ideas work on a larger scale. But if we are to conceptualize time as moments, simple snapshots of one’s life, then we are able to see the passage of time in a much clearer manner. You don’t have to have the minute details of their everyday existence to know the much larger picture of their life. History then, is the collection of moments that make us who we are, not about distance, but rather, a photo album of an individual who they are and how they are moment by moment. While I love David Byrne, I heartily disagree, time is holding us. That these moments are our design of who we are and how we present ourselves to the universe.

That then begs the question, do we define the moment, or does the moment define us? For example, that moment that the perfect song comes on and we instantly have that memory of a song in the moment. Or, transversely, a terrible car wreck that destroys not only property, but alters an individual’s life for forever. Maybe the other problem here, is that search for meaning, that we try to ascribe to make ourselves whole and understand that there is an order in the random chaos of this infinite universe.

Within that random chaos, we are proverbially stuck, flesh and bone that is connected to some memory of the past, a collection of moments that somehow defines who we are. That canon of memories, then is the masterpiece that we create of our lives. We shape and mold those moments, to make ourselves We highlight ourselves as the heroes in this moment, forgetting that from another’s perspective, we could be the villains. This story that we have of ourselves is what makes us who we are, yet if that is the case, then what are these moments, but hollow ghosts of reality? Psychologists say that you don’t have memory until you have language. Then is that the problem? That we have this problem, in lack of true communication with another person is the root of discontent? While the Socratic method is wonderful, I struggle with this conceptualization of what we are and time throughout my personal and professional life.

This moment marks a anniversary. This is the weekend of Memorial Day, a celebratory time in the United States, supposedly to honor those who have fought and died in wars, that we have turned into as the unofficial start to summer. This was the moment that started a series of chain reactions that both reformed and reshaped me to who I am today. While I don’t want to go into the specifics, because that is too personal, this was the slow breakdown of my life and gradual reformation. At this point last year, I had a plan, I knew here I was in the next 30 years, teaching career, PhD, beautiful wife, dogs, llama farm (slightly joking, though if academia doesn’t work out this is the option C…), children surrounding. The daydream that brought comfort knowing that there were goals that made the struggle worth it. I knew the big milestones that were to come. I had just been accepted at a major institution in Florida and was about to start the process of moving to Miami. Life wasn’t going to be easy, but by the same token, it was a path forward that was going to be made. Yet, that didn’t happen, this was the start of the long fall down the stairwell of life, loosing most of those things that I thought were going to be my life.

In the intermediate chaos of those few months, I found myself more and more drawn to nature and photography. I spend days lost in the woods with Scout, searching for meaning, searching for answers. I found my long-lost love of music, singing and playing guitar, wanting to play and write songs again. I discovered that I am stronger than who I thought I was. That the comforted daydream sometimes is really a nightmare that we convince ourselves that we want.

I’ve been really torn the past few days, it’s hard for me to think about. That moments are what they are, but yet, it is how we define and redefine them that makes all the difference. Again, if you were to ask me a year ago, would you be sitting, writing a blog about travel, about 30 miles outside of Joshua Tree, I would have easily laughed ad you. I probably couldn’t have pointed out where Joshua Tree was on a map at this point last year. That moment of complete loss and destruction, while it was more than I care to admit. In conversations that I’ve had with a friend that I met in August, they said that the first time they met me, that I was a broken man. That they could see that I was completely and utterly destroyed on the inside. Yet, here I am, maybe not completely stitched back together, but at least the thread has made it to the holes, and needs to be tightened. I am different than I used to be. Throughout the chaos of the intervening months, I would tell people, look this isn’t me, you should have seen me when. No, that isn’t right either. I am me, I have to always be me. That is the only way forward.

I’m sitting in Twentynine Palms, in the cooled evening heat, the wind is blowing from the west. In this moment, I am put together again. I was here last year, only for a few days, passing through almost, I remember that drive through Twentynine Palms, then Joshua Tree before Yucca Valley. That long drive down to Palm Springs, the air is radically different on the other side of the mountains. I remember seeing the Joshua Tree for the first time, the bent trunk, the limbs that are scattered to the wind, the palm itself that seems to grow in each direction. I was fascinated and ready to see more. Yet on the Palm Spring side, not many of these trees grow there. Because of time constraints. This time it is different. This moment is different.

 

Las Vegas was a cauldron.  The way that we would say that in Tennessee is: “It’s hotter than the hinges on the gates of hell.” But that might be a bit dramatic here. Faulkner discussed the “unspoken character” of all Southern literature was the heat. If that is the case, this was a fever ready to kill the patient. The heat was on the lower side of the 100s and all three of us, sister, dog, and myself were miserable. The morning wasn’t terrible. We set up camp at Red Rocks National Forest. The winds from the night before meant that the weather was a constant low temperature. The problem was, when I planned this trip, my understanding was her plane took off on Thursday. This was not the case, her plane left on Friday morning, which meant that we had another day to find something to do in Vegas with the dog. Not an easy task.

We took down camp about mid-morning and then decided that we would try to go to Valley of Fire. I’ve seen pictures, and the orange and red valley of rocks was a place that I wanted to go anyway. I didn’t realize that it was so far north of Las Vegas. Arriving at the park, we were informed of a few good trails to go down, specifically the White Domes, and the Fire Wall. We packed in the car and drove the short distance to the Fire Wall. This was a really fascinating geological trail, because the colorful waves in the rocks were almost like that of Vermillion Cliffs in Arizona. The basin at the end of the Fire Trail was worth the trip. The only down side was the temperature on the rock was approaching 100 degrees by noon, and all three of us were feeling the heat exhaustion.

We traveled to the end of the road to the White Domes trail. Supposedly this trail was once used in an old movie and still had the set up there. Also, there was a slot canyon (another reason that I was ready to go on the trail). The problem was the heat was only starting to climb when we arrived and by the time we made it to the canyon, it was almost unbearable. There were moments that both my sister and I were worried about Scout and his safety. Not only is he a black dog, he also has a pretty long coat of hair as well. We never finished the trail, my sister volunteered to take Scout back to the car and let me try to find the slot canyon. I had success because the trail was not clearly marked at the bottom, meaning I probably went off trail lost for at least a mile. While this might be a great hike, it was very confusing not knowing which way to go.

Turning around, I made it to the car, feeling as if I was going to dehydrate on the spot. Gulping what little water we had left, we started towards Las Vegas again. We were going to be staying at an Airbnb in the area and had to kill some time before we arrived. Even though we tried to time things for the early afternoon, we were still way too early. This was when I decided that we would try to go to Lake Mead and try another adventure.

Driving up to Las Vegas, there was the attempt to go to Hoover Dam. The problem was Scout, many parks are not dog friendly and this is one of them. It is a beautiful structure, the problem is that it is very non dog friendly. I noticed that Lake Mead was very close by and it was a National Recreation Area, aka, another park to visit to add to the list of places that I’ve been to this year. I knew little to nothing about the park, but this is the beauty of going on the road with no specific time frame to hit, that you have time to go on side adventures and see things that you never knew about before.

We arrived at the visitor center and was told that the best trail that would be short and dog friendly was the old railroad line trail. This was the train line that carried many of the supplies for the construction of Hoover Dam. The trail was pretty flat and had some shady spots due to the construction of tunnels. We started down the trail and the intensity of the heat radiated back from the ground. It was so miserably hot. Both my sister and I talked about how strange it was that only a few days ago that we were in knee deep snow on top of mountains and now we were in such insufferable heat. The tunnels were nice and offered a refuge for a few moments from the sun. They were full of bats, but because they are so small, it was difficult to identify them at all. When we left the trail, we made our way back to the visitor center to earn the official badge.

Finally, it was time to escape this insufferable heat. The room was ready and we made our way to the northside of Las Vegas. The house was nice and we spent the evening getting ready to take her to the airport. We had a nice celebration/send-off dinner and both were ready for bed when we returned to the house.

The next morning was bittersweet, on the one hand, I gained a freedom; and on the other I lost a companion on this part of the journey. We awoke and drove to the airport. Surprisingly, Las Vegas seems more like the city that never sleeps, because traffic was just as active at 6 in the morning their time, as it was at 5 in the evening. My sister got out of the car and was off on her own adventure home.

I’ve wondered what she has thought of this trip. My sister is a wonderful person, but she is not necessarily the “outdoorsy” type. On this trip, we went from camping, to hiking, to going through snow, freezing water, up hills, down canyons, into the intensity of the sun, and almost all variations in between. This was a different slice of life for her. Camping in the car was something that I doubt that she has done before (not to say that I’m proud to do it myself, it sometimes just is done). I’m proud of her, this was her chance to see something of America that I know that she had never experienced. Hopefully she was able to take this experience and pull some larger life goals and understandings out of it. From what I’ve seen on her social media, I think that she is proud of those long hikes and hard day’s work. It’s good for her in the end.

After dropping her off, I made my way southward, down I15 towards Joshua Tree. The goal was to camp near the park and spend the next few days in the park, lost like a child. After entering California, the GPS said that I needed to go through the Mojave National Preserve. Almost giddy, I saw this last year and I wanted to go through the desert, to experience something real and unique here. Driving a short way, the landscape changed and the cacti and Joshua Trees started to emerge. Ah, I’ve never seen such a beautiful sight. The twisted branches that curve in unique designs towards the sun. There is a magic in each of them. As the Fleet Foxes once said, “Unique in each way you can see.” The trunks hairy and husky, branches bent with the green ends that sprout small white buds. Magic in the world created these trees. Something about them speaks to me in a deep way and I’m not sure why. A mountainside covered with these trees is heaven. The Mojave has a smaller version of the tree that the national park is known for, and they cover the eastern side of the park. Driving through this made me feel as if I was going home.

I made it to the park office and asked for a trail or something that would be ok for a dog to travel. I was told that the only real trail on the trek that I was going was the sand dunes on the way out of the park. Making our way the few miles westward, Scout and I pulled into the parking lot. The car temperature gauge read 99 degrees, and here I was going to take a small, black, long-haired dog up a sand dune that was probably going to be radiating heat (there are times that I wonder how smart I really am). The shifting white sands beneath our feet was difficult to travail. The intensity of the sun blaring down was almost too much. We made it halfway up the dune and it was so surreal. Here we were, in close to 100 degree weather, the sun beating down on us, the yellow sand almost white from the glare. In the distance, lush green near the mountain side that was capped white with snow. To stand there, and take that in, almost was too much. It was at this halfway point, that I decided that we had had enough, and that it was time to make it to the car. We turned around and quickly scampered down the hill. Along the way, we ran into a lovely Scottish couple, who were past the point of being burnt. They were a shade of pink that was crisp. They were wonderful people, I just kept feeling sorry for them because of the lack of sunscreen they had on themselves. I knew that they had pretty much second to third degree burns and that their trip back to Scotland was going to be miserable. We talked a while about the Southwest and traveling, they had been to many of the places that I was at, just missed each other somehow. We exchanged pleasant goodbyes and Scout and I were off towards Joshua Tree.

I had planned on trying to stay in Twentynine Palms, because I remembered that there was a vibrant arts scene there. I remembered the murals that lined the walls and I felt that there was a magic in the air. I found a campsite near the city on Airbnb and I was ready to make my way there. The ride down the 10 and eventually along Route 66. The feeling of the desert is absolutely amazing. There is a life in the fire of the west. I haven’t seen tumbleweeds, but you can feel the cliché’s: hot, rugged, wind beaten houses, strung together without telephone wires, people who are harder than the dirt that they live on. There is an elegance to it that city life doesn’t have.

I made it to the campsite and established base of operations. The site was a great place, only a few miles away from town. When I arrived, the wind was blowing pretty steady, enough to make the tent need to have steaks. The problem, it was this hot air that stung the skin as if it was lashes. I went to get stakes and finished prepping. Tomorrow, I’ll be ready. Tomorrow, the sun will shine and the birds will call me forward.

Time is a funny thing. We have this limited amount that is mercurial. Some days are great, others are terrible. How do you know which one time brings? If it is time that reveals all, then do we have any agency in the matter, or are we stuck on that proverbial mousetrap of fate, doomed to play a cosmic tragedy over and over and over again. Heidegger talks about present and being, how being is about being in the moment, that there is a historical person that you once were, and a present person that you are. Maybe that is the trick, to not get bogged down and lost in that past person, but be the person of the present. That makes the future slightly more hopeful and gives you that agency so much longed for.

 

And the Road Goes On Forever

There is something magical about the road. There is our conception that the road goes on forever, that there is always another adventure to be had just around the corner. I find that the road is both freeing and lonely. That is the duality of travel. You are able to have that life changing adventure, to be whatever you want to be, but to have that, you have to get away from all of those that you know. While we are intricately connected to one another in invisible waves/wires that surround us, there is a magic in being lost from who we once were. We make the plans to leave, we make the goals of where we want to go, then we leave. Yet, there is this magic in not knowing, in finding the quirks of life and exploring not only ourselves, but the world around us.

Alas dear reader, I have struggled the past few days to write, this has been a challenge that I have faced because of an over taxing of myself in regards to hiking quite a bit more than usual, and the fact that I have struggled to find that theme that ties things together. It is that struggle for words that I have found the most perplexing. I’ve had thoughts and many things happen since the last time that we spoke, yet I have struggled to convey them in a meaningful way to myself. How can I expect you to render them as comprehensible if I can’t understand them myself? There is a part of me that in a post-modern way says that I don’t have to understand, because I’m talking to a universal ideal that we all can then tap into. Yet, that doesn’t satisfy me. There has to be something that grounds a conversation, otherwise why does the listener keep listening?

When last we spoke, I was at Zion, due to hike the Virgin River Narrows on Friday morning. Last year, I went to Antelope Canyon in Arizona, which is a slot canyon. This is a beautiful naturally made canyon that has the most vibrant reds, oranges, and yellows that I’ve ever seen. In the past year, I discovered that many of the slot canyons in the Southwest are like this, that they are vibrant and full of color. My fascination grew with slot canyons, and when I learned that Zion had, what some consider to be the best, slot canyon known as the Narrows, I had to go on this adventure. That was why the trip to the Narrows was so important, because I wanted to experience another slot canyon. My sister and I drove what seemed to be an entire week to make this goal possible. Needless to say that when we awoke on Friday morning with the sunrise to travel from the side of the road outside of Zion to the Visitor Center we were ready to make sure that this goal was a reality. Upon arriving there were several other adventurists who were also ready to get their permits and start on their own sojourn. Standing in line, I realized quickly that the Narrows was closed due to the enormous amount of rain that we have had this year and that the entire reason for moving heaven and earth was now gone. Upon confirming this, I talked to the ranger about other hikes in Zion and found that Angles Landing was possible that day, so was Emerald Pools. The only part of the park that had a usually flowing waterfall. Of course I was going to go to that.

After leaving the visitor center, we traveled by shuttle up to the Zion Lodge, which is absolutely gorgeous from the outside (We had no reason to go in). We hit the trailhead and were quick to discover that the reason for the Emerald pools name is because of the slick rock and algae that grow throughout the trail. After a short climb up the hill, we encountered the first of several small trickles of a waterfall. The rangers said that these waterfalls happen throughout the park due to Navajo Limestone. This is a special limestone that holds water for hundreds of years in the rock and slowly seeps out and creates these natural waterfalls throughout Zion. While the waterfall was a nice change of pace, it was merely a trickle. My sister and I kept moving through the trail up to the second and eventually the third level. At each of these levels, there was merely a trickle, and the algae became less and less pronounced. This was a slight let down, because we traveled throughout the country to get here and the one trail that we wanted to go down was closed, and the second was not nearly what we were hoping for.

Upon returning to the lodge, we were going to do the Angles Landing, but both of us by this point were tired due to not sleeping the night before and were ready to go take a nap. We saw firsthand how the camping permits in the park were gone by 7 in the morning and we knew that there was no way that we were going to be camping anywhere close to the park. I made an agreement with my sister, if I bought the hotel, that she would buy dinner, and off we went back to I-15 to try to rest for the day. While I wanted to do Angles Landing, it was just too much, the lack of sleep was one of the biggest components on my side, but on hers, the shoes that she bought before the trip were starting to tear into her feet and leaving her with large blisters that were growing as the hike up Emerald Pools went on. We arrived at the hotel in Cedar City and immediately I went for a long shower and a nap. My sister quickly followed the pace I set and after we work up in the late afternoon we were both ready for food. Eating and taking our time, we settled in that evening for a long nights rest.

The next day, we were ready to go again on our hiking adventures. The previous night I saw that we were close to a national monument known as Cedar Bluffs, and I thought that this might be a worthy adventure. When we packed the car to go, she reminded me that we needed to pick up some supplies and we went to the local store. It was there that I discovered a new adventure that we could go on that might make up for the fact that we could not go down the Narrows.

Maybe now is the time to discuss how I travel. This makes the third trip that I’ve planned to go on and each time I spend months and months of planning to figure out some of the best spots to go to and what I would like to see. The first time, I planned that I wanted to go to the Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree, Austin, and Muscle Shoals. These were the planned place, and because there was a tight nine-day timeline, those were about all that I could do. The second trip, in September-October, was slightly different. I planned that I wanted to try to go to the New England area and see the beautiful fall foliage for the first time. I planned that I also wanted to go to five different parks: Cuyahoga, Niagara, Watson-Glenn, Acadia, and Shenandoah. The goal was to take a few weeks to make it from here to New England and see these colors explode, then come down with the leaves through the Appalachians. With that, I went northward and found that at each night, I had new places that I wanted to go to. I spend almost four weeks traveling and exploring, using both Instagram and locals advice to find cool and interesting spots. With that, I also gained quite a few stories from misadventures as well. To me this is what traveling is really about, finding new and cool places to go and explore life with. I believe that the technical term is called serendipity. This type of luck has yet to fail me to this point….

When we arrived at the store, I checked Instagram and noticed that there was a waterfall that was within a 15 minute drive from us. The waterfall was at Kanarraville, upon a few more minutes of research, this was also a slot canyon. I was instantly sold.

After getting the supplies, we traveled down I-15 to the spot. There was a small parking lot that had some amazing attendants. My sister and I spoke with them for a few minutes and learned that they recently purchased the property and that they wished us luck with taking the camera up to the falls. There were three different falls, that each had different levels of water, from knee to chest deep. Already I was a bit nervous because I didn’t want to ruin a brand new camera in such a situation. I packed everything triple tight and was ready to go. The short hike was in and out of the water throughout. Part of the problem was that the water was freezing cold, due to the weather. I can imagine on a warm summer day that this would be refreshing, but not when the temperature is closer to 60 degrees.

We made it to the opening of the slot canyon, about three miles in and that was when the magic started. IMG_7447-1.jpgBoth my sister and I were complaining that the water was so cold on our feet that we couldn’t feel them. Yet, when we got to the orange and black opening of the mountain, both of our heads turned up. We arrived right around noon, so the sun was perfect, casting that beautiful glow on the upper rim of the canyon, making the walls glow with an iridescent feeling of fire. I heard my sister say, “wow.” I knew that she was hooked on the slot canyon as much as I was. We walked a few paces and she was just as eager as I was to set up the camera and take pictures of the canyon walls. The water was alive and roaring in our ears, the sun was almost melting away this beautiful orange above us, it didn’t matter that we had no feeling in our feet at this point. We were both lost in the moment of the canyon. Taking a few pictures, we kept moving to the first falls. There is a short step latter to the top of the 10 foot falls. Patiently we waited for that perfect moment to capture the water and latter for the long exposure. Thirty minutes passed standing in the knee deep water waiting before that shot arrived.IMG_7474-1.jpg

Both of us climbed the latter, but quickly realized that the next leg of the journey was up steep rocks that had no way down safely without getting completely soaked. Thinking about the expensive camera on my back, I was not ready to take that extra chance. We quickly decided that the adventure was over and to turn around to the car. On our way back, we met a wonderful couple from Oregon who talked to us for the last mile. They were amazing. I learned so much about Oregon’s natural history and places to go, we exchanged information and was offered that if I was in the Portland area to look them up for coffee. This is another part of the life on the road that is so difficult to replicate. You meet people and go to places that you never thought was possible before. This is all part of the experience that is individualized and personal for you. Also, when we returned to the parking area, the attendants asked if there were any good pictures. I showed them the back of the camera and they were very interested in the images that I shot. They asked if there was any way that they could possibly sell some of these images at their gift shop. I’ve never been asked if my art work was sellable before and that was a wonderful feeling.

When we arrived at the car, both of us were ready to go on another adventure but we weren’t sure what to do next. The original plan was to go to Zion and then travel to the Grand Canyon and try to do the slot canyons in southern Utah/northern Arizona. Places such as Spooky Gulch, or Zebra Canyon, or even Buckskin Gulch. That is the problem, is that we had five days that we were trying to figure out what to do. There are so many natural beauties of the area that it is difficult. Adding to the problem was that many of these require a permit that usually have months in line waiting that we did not have the luxury of when my sister finally decided to come to the trip. With that, we decided that we would try Cedar Bluffs and there was another park pretty close by, called Bryce Canyon. When we were at the Grand Canyon, we learned that there are a few national parks in the Colorado Plateau that are known for their geological structures and heights. The highest point is Capital Reef/Bryce Canyon, then the Grand Staircase/Escalante steps down into the Grand Canyon elevation. I thought it would be a coo idea if we would go to these parks to see the different geological features. Granted, I knew nothing about where they were located in relationship to get back to Flagstaff, this just sounded like a cool few day adventure. My sister, not really understanding how big of a driving commitment that this would be agreed and off we went.

The scenic highway from Cedar City to Cedar Bluffs is one that goes basically straight up the mountain. The elevation change was so swift that within minutes of leaving Cedar City, we were in almost knee deep snows on the side of the road. I think with more preparation that we would have realized that the almost fifty-mile drive between Cedar City and Cedar Bluffs up a mountain was a bit much, but because we were improvising, distance was not a concern.

The GPS gave us that final warning, fifty feet to turn, and the sign for Cedar Bluffs was right there beckoning us to come into the park. We turned and in less than a quarter of a mile, tragedy struck. The park was still closed for winter, yet the only warning that we had was the gate being closed and the message: CLOSED FOR SEASON, written on it. Ugh, sometimes even the best improvisers get things wrong.

Looking at the map, we were already halfway to Bryce Canyon, why not continue on our journey and try to camp there for the evening. The drive up and down the mountain was at times too much. The scenic road was nothing but sharp drop offs ready for the driver to not pay attention and fall to their deaths. Or at least that was what was going on in my head. We arrived at Bryce Canyon in the late afternoon and both of us were road weary. It was close to a four-hour journey and we had already done six-miles round trip in hikes. Needless to say we were both pretty beat and went in search of. Campsite. We found one at a local campground right outside of the national park and decided that we would go back after dinner to see a ranger led night program.IMG_7725-1.jpg

Returning to the park, there was a small herd of deer standing on the side of the road, where many visitors were lined up to see these animals. While I understand the fascination of seeing wild animals, these are deer. They are overpopulating the North American continent and they are a nuance almost anywhere you go. Back in Tennessee, people stop and do the exact same thing, so this is a universal. I could understand if this was a bear, a moose, a buffalo, yet these are animals that are almost at epidemic proportions in the United States. After getting around the traffic jam, we went to see the astronomy program. This was interesting, mostly because of the heavy discussion of individual astronomers and their contributions. After the program (and having the ranger sign my junior ranger book), we returned to the tent built a small fire and went to bed.

The next day we went back to Bryce Canyon, ready to see what the park had to offer. I had heard that the Sunset Point trail was one of the most beautiful trails in the park, that stretches over the rim of the park for a few miles and to try to get there early to see the sunrise over these peaks. We arrived much later than sunrise, but were still in aw of the geological formations. The points that are standing are known as Hoodoos, and this is what the park is known for is their collection of hoodoos. We walked the rim trail and then turned down the Queen’s Garden to descend lower in elevation and watch these hoodoos climb skyward. It was a really cool feeling to see this start to take on the almost castle like formations all around us. Some of my favorite pictures are of the hoodoos in the distance.IMG_7707-1.jpg

After Bryce, the plan was to go to the Grand Staircase and see what we could find there, before turning southward to Flagstaff. The four-hour drive to the Grand Staircase was littered with small towns that were mostly devoid of people. The hard road between the different parks in the spring, would only be compounded in the winter and made even more treacherous. I can see why there wouldn’t be as many people here in rural southeastern Utah.

Finally, we made it to the Grand Staircase park headquarters. The Bureau of Land Management shares the building with the National Monument’s headquarters. Walking in the door, I was greeted with the fossil of what I have always called a triceratops. It was so cool to know that this fossil was found right here in this area. Talking with the ranger for the Bureau of Land Management, I learned that Lower Calf Creek Falls is the only waterfall in the park and that it was only a ‘short mile’ or two to the waterfall. By this point, there was a rainstorm front that looked like it was developing and when I asked would this trail be safe if it did rain, I was reassured that this was almost flat. Eager, I went to the car and we drove the few miles to the start of the trail.

While the ranger was right, that this was a “short” hike, that was not exactly accurate. The Lower Calf Creek trail has a number of interesting cultural and geological aspects to it. First, the trail starts off in what can only be described as harsh red desert rocks, then ends with a beautiful lush green environment. The ecological and geological changes are amazing. This is mostly due to the sharp increase in elevation and water table. That means, the “flat’ walk that the ranger had stated before, was not exactly accurate. Also, there are a number of petroglyphs littering the canyon walls that are interesting as well. The last problem is that this was not exactly a short hike, it was closer to six-miles round trip. Though, what the ranger didn’t say was how beautiful the falls really is. The orange clay of the rock is highlighted by an almost 80 foot drop to the bottom. The free flow of the waterfall is absolutely amazing. And worth the trip.  Though the return hike isn’t the most fun, knowing that you have almost three miles of up and down hill climbs ahead of you. Also, note that the trail is not accurately marked as you go back from the fall, so that it is pretty easy to get lost a, as we did a time or two.

Leaving Calf Creek Falls, we climbed the steep almost 11 percent grade up the mountain to find the two-lane road is all that separates you from a close to 1000 foot drop on either side of the road. There are little guard rails and there are moments you feel that you are going to fall off the side at any moment. Though the views of the valley floor are spectacular. When we arrived in Boulder Utah, we were in desperate need of food and lodging for the night. I stopped at the only gas station in town and was greeted by a very friendly attendant who told us of the free camping in the area and the restaurant down the road that had the “best food in town.” This might have been true because it was the only one of two restaurants in the town, and the other one was already closed for the evening. Both my sister and I were starving and eagerly ate the food in front of us. When we left, we found the free camping spot that the attendant talked about and set up camp for the night.IMG_7851-1.jpg

The next day we realized how far east that we had gone. The major high way down to Flagstaff is State Route 89 and it passes through the Grand Canyon. Where we were there were only two routes to get to 89, the first was to continue through Capital Reef, then turn south through the Navajo Reservation; the other was to turn around and go back from where we came. Eager for another national park, I pushed us forward towards Capital Reef. We ma it to the park, and the headquarters suggested that we go on the Chimney Tops trail. Hiking the almost 700 foot in elevation climb, the valley floor became in clear focus. I feel in love with the evergreen trees that littered the side of the mountain. While I’m highly allergic to these trees, the smell was intoxicating. It was almost as if the west is personified with this evergreen/aspen smell. We climbed, again, what was supposed to be a short hike, that turned out to be closer to 6 miles. We returned to the car and continued our way Southward back into Arizona.

It was at this point, in the early afternoon, that I realized that we were going to be going through Page and that we had an opportunity to go to Horseshoe Bend. This is a famous site in Arizona, where the Colorado River bends like a horseshoe. Many photographers come here to try to capture the bend in the glory of the sunset. When I realized that we would be getting to the Horseshoe Bend area by about sunset, I quickly pushed us on to make sure that I tried to get the shot. The next three hours drive through the Navajo reservation was treacherous. I was trying hard not to speed, yet I wanted to make it there before sunset. Ugh the struggle.

We made it there about fifteen minutes before sunset. I bolted out of the car and raced up the short hill to the bend. I found that it was not just myself that had this same side, but about one hundred other people. On the way, I set up my tripod and was looking for that magical hole to get my shot. I arrived at the center of the bend, where a young lady was sitting at the farthest edge of the rock. I set up my camera and started shooting, only to share the spot with another photographer trying to capture the same moment. My sister arrived a few minutes after and we talked about the next few shots. I continued to take pictures until right after the sun went down. Both of us were hungry and decided to turn around to Page to get food before climbing up the Grand Canon’s North Rim.IMG_8193-1.jpg

On the way to the North Rim, both of us started talking about home and realizing that the trip was ending for her very soon. It is funny, the past few days we have seen more than I ever expected to see and traveled to places in Utah that I had never heard of before. I was really grateful that she came, because not only was she a traveling companion, but she also made me realize that I enjoy having someone to share my experiences with. While I love taking Scout with me, it is not quite the same as having another person to say, Wow” or “look at that!” Sorry Scout, I still love to take you, just not quite the same as another person. We talked for a while as we rounded what seems   Like the forever long basin of the valley floor before the canyon. When reaching the near top, we pulled off and made camp in the forest. Around 1 or so, I decided that I wanted to try to capture the Milk Way one last time before I was in areas that would have too much light pollution. There are a few good shots of this that I have attached.IMG_8243-1.jpg

The next morning, we. Made it to the Grand Canyon and watched as the sun slowly started to rise over the rim. This was a moment of peace and harmony. I have heard of such beauty before, but to experience it first hand is something else. The sun rose from behind and you get to see time on full display, slowly moving further and further down these ancient walls of the canyon, revealing more and more ancient rock. This feels like home to me in a very strange way. I feel oddly comforted feeling and that there is no one else that is experiencing this beauty around me. That I am the first to see this (clearly I am not, but there is this magic of the canyon that gives you that illusion). After spending some time on the North Rim, both of us were tired and ready to go get Scout.

The four-hour drive back to Flagstaff was uneventful. The traffic is a steady pace and both of us were pretty tired. The goal was to rest and recuperate a little before trying to make it to Las Vegas to send her home on Friday. We got a very eager Scout from the border and found a hotel for the night. Both of us were ready for that late afternoon shower and nap, which we did. By 8, we were both fast asleep from almost three days camping, a bed was more than welcome.

By Wednesday, there was little that we had planned, the goal was to rest and try to relax before heading to Las Vegas. We woke up late and decided that since it was our first day back with Scout that we needed to take him on a short hike before leaving for Las Vegas. We both knew that it would be hot in Las Vegas and so we wanted to try to find something in Flagstaff that would take some time and make our arrival in Las Vegas later in the day. We went to the Coconino National Forest headquarters and was told about a small park right down the road called Tuthill Fortress. This was a great suggestion because there were several trails that were available to go down. Scout has a weird affinity to evergreens and was eager to brush up against any and all of them that he could. We walked for a few miles in the park before heading Westward.

The trip from Flagstaff to Las Vegas was hot, it was odd to go from snow to over 100 degree heat in a matter of a few days. We went down I40 and then turned up State Route 93. Signs for the Hoover Dam appeared and I decided that we would check it out. When we got there, we realized that this was not dog friendly and so we went over the dam, tried to find a visitor center, and then left. That is an adventure for another day. We kept going to Las Vegas and found a campsite in the Red Rocks National Forest for the night. Again, looking for something at the last minute on the road, I was lucky that I found the campgrounds at Red Rocks. While the temperature was well over 100 degrees, the strong winds made it feel like the lower 70s. After setting up the tent, my sister and I talked for hours about family, relationships, and life. It was reaffirming because we haven’t connected in that way in years. It was good to hear about her perspectives and ideas.

At this point, it is becoming more and more apparent that the road does keep going on for forever. We have traveled most of the way across the United States, circled southern Utah, and arrived at a destination of Las Vegas in less than two weeks. It strikes me more that she is about to leave. Part of me is sad, because we have connected and found that there is a bond on the road. There is another part of me that is glad that she is going because she has been done with the desert for a few days. I don’t want to push her any more than I have to. For me, I’m getting to the end of the first leg of this journey. I planned this for close to six months. I want to go and see new places, but this first leg has been a remix of new and familiar areas from the past year. I felt free on the road last year, it was an escape from that life that I was drowning in. This time, having a companion was nice to share the load and to have someone to talk to. More and more I am realizing that I want to have someone to share these types of experiences with, someone that I can have the magic of hearing: “wow, that is amazing.” Sharing that moment with another is bliss. With that, you never know what the road brings. There are the good days and the bad days. There is the harsh winds that sometimes try to push you around, and then there is the sun that is always shining asking you to keep going.

My Moment of Zen

It was almost three in the morning when I finally saw it: the southern entrance to Zion National Park. I had been driving for almost four hours. From the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, winding around the basin for almost one hundred miles, to feel the earth slowly change from desert to hills. My sister drove for most of this, we switched positions about Page because she was feeling tired from driving as well. I took the wheel as the cold winds started to come through the car. We left the Grand Canyon with snow gently falling. The temperature dropped throughout the day and you could feel the howling winds growing more desperate. After Page, the slow climb to the North Rim before continuing on Highway 89, meant that temperatures continued to drop to a balmy 29 degrees. Neither of us were prepared to return to winter. As we climbed up the hill, the sun finally left the horizon and the first stars came to greet us. The winding road wasn’t much help either, taxing the already depleted senses. After the North Rim, the mountain becomes a National Forest, civilization fades into the distance as the road becomes windier. The few cars that passed only reminded me that I had a lane to stay in the center of, otherwise the road became more and more blurry. Tired quickly became exhaustion as the double digits of the clock grew from 11-12. By 1, the first signs of civilization, the small town at the border of Utah and Arizona was nothing but a red-light and gas station, offering nothing to really help keep me focused. Finally, the left turn to leave Highway 89 to State Route 9, meant that there was more twists and turns and hills. Exhaustion faded into that state of depleted where the eyes start to blur and the brain starts to nod off into moments where you don’t remember what just happened. The gps said three more miles. It felt as if those three miles were each three hours, time started slowly fading together. Then it happened, the small stones that held up the brown painted sign, “Entering Zion National Park,” appeared. Pulling off to thank the universe that I made it, I get out of the car. The goal was to make it to Zion by Thursday, and while technically it was Friday by a few hours, goal achieved. Turning to go back to the car, the exhaustion faded as I saw the miracle of the universe unfold in front of me.
 There between two crests of the mountains, taking over most of the southern sky was the Milky Way. On the East Coast, this is a rare sight, too much light pollution means those colors of the galaxy aren’t as alive. I stood there, almost in dumbfounded admiration, wondering for how long had I been driving and not seen this beautiful sight? Those depleted senses then faded into almost childlike glee and excitement. I grabbed the tripod and camera and began to sit in the middle of the road and just watch. The last car I had seen was hours before, so I was in little danger of being hit. The silence was deafening, no cars no rustle of trees, nothing surrounding me, I was completely alone here in this moment (my sister was long asleep in the backseat of the car). Sharing the stars only with the camera. The cold was there, but even that faded as I just sat in wonder of these stars. I was a child in the moment, lost to the world, my senses were not apart of me. From my understanding of buddhism, this was the closest to nirvana that I have been. Completely entranced, mesmerized by the gentle glow of the sky. I kept thinking about, how would life be if you had never seen a star before? I felt that this was me, seeing the stars for the first time, I was just in awe of how each tiny dot was a burning nuclear reaction. Every element that we are composed of comes from the centers of stars, and each molecule inside of me felt that it was returning home. Everything was stripped away in that moment, transcended to just sit and breath in this sky. While the previous days were amazing, this moment, being lost underneath the stars, was the highlight of all of it. This was my moment of zen. I should take a moment and back up to explain how I arrived at this moment of bliss…

You think you know where I’m going, The truth is I haven’t got a clue. 

The Wild Reeds

 Like every great moment of Zen, this one began two days before in Texas, where we were awoken by an emu that was about fifty feet from the car. The long ride to Amarillo meant that we pulled into town at about one am. We set up camp and quickly fell asleep, the car ride alone across Oklahoma and the storms meant that we were all past shaken and tired. We knew that this was a campsite, it was a legitimate business that was established right of the interstate, but we did not know that the site was next to a large farm. Awaking, slightly startled at first, to find a four foot tall bird that is not the most friendly creature to begin with, looking into your car was a little strange. Clearly we were on the bird’s territory and he did not like that. Of course, I thought that this was a golden opportunity to go and capture an animal that I rarely have interactions with on a regular basis, got out of the car and charged headstrong at the bird. Luckily, he was wiser than me, and he started backing up, until he saw Scout, then he was not exactly ready to concede his territory. Scout, on the other hand, was not sure what was happening and was treading lightly around the bird, he didn’t bark or make a noise, instead he sniffed and looked very concerned that I was moving closer to what could have only been from his perspective a giant bird that could easily have carried him away. After our momentary excitement, we all packed in the car and were off again towards Flagstaff. 

 The goal was to make it to Zion by Thursday, another day away, via Flagstaff. I promised my sister that I would take her to the Grand Canyon, and in terms of travel, this path seemed to make the most sense, because of a permit to go down the Virgin River Narrows on Friday, we were on a path to get to Flagstaff by Wednesday evening, then turn north to Zion on Thursday to camp and then we could make our way back south to Flagstaff to hit I-40 by the following Friday and put her on a plane back home. Also, many of these parks do not allow dogs, last year when I traveled to the Grand Canyon, I left Scout with a wonderful border in Flagstaff. This would be a good way to get him to a place that he would be safe, while we traveled north and pick him up for the rest of the journey. 

 The Great Plains of the Texas panhandle slowly became drier and more yellow as they morphed into the sandy plains of New Mexico. When you read about the great migrations of people from Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico into California during the 1930s it is hard to believe that this once had more people and was more stable. The pictures of the walls of dust that were stories high flying through over the continent are hard to believe today. The large quadrupeds that the Spanish, and subsequent English, brought with them radically redesigned the Plains, from grasslands that held native waters to one that is heavily reliant on an aquifer that will go dry due to over taxation of resources. There is something almost mythic about the gentle turn from grasslands to desert. Last year, this was more apparent in the hill country, further South on I-10. There the landscape changed in a stark and drastic way when the rocky alcoves took over the landscape and turn the entire scenery a yellow that stretched for miles. Here, further north, the gentle slope from green to yellow is so gradual that if it weren’t for the mountains growing in the distance it would be hard to notice the change. 

 Arriving in New Mexico, I pulled off the interstate to a rest area, mostly to stretch my legs, but to also find information about the state. I knew that we had a seven to eight-hour drive ahead of us, and that we were in good standing with time. Why not go and see something while we were here? The person behind the desk was extremely helpful and said that there was Chaco Cultural National Park, Los Alamos National Park, and Pecos National Park, all within a short drive from I40, going north. With the possibility to see other national parks, I quickly changed courses to new adventures.

 We headed towards Pecos first, westward on I-40, then turning north before Albuquerque. I knew almost nothing of the park, it was just another park. Obviously, it had to have some significance if it was a national park, so we continued northward. But after visiting, this was easily one of the best moments I had up to this point. As we drove, the southern Rockies started to demonstrate their majesty, with the snowcapped peaks and the beautiful tree lines that were standing in the distance. It is the middle end of May and there is snow on the mountain tops that is visible for miles. For some strange reason this was intoxicating. We left on Monday and the weather was already approaching the low 90s, and here there is snow on the mountains. Arriving at the visitor center, I got my usual badge, patch, and park map, and that was when I began to realize how important this place really was.

 I study Latin American history, while it is primarily South American history, I had an amazing study at Appalachian State about the Spanish colonial system in the New World. One of the works that I read was When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away, about the transformation of Spanish society among the indigenous peoples of the Southwest. This was a fascinating work, that opened my eyes to periphery colonization, versus center forward that the Spanish did in places like Mexico. The use of the church in the periphery was central to the “civilizing” methods of the Spanish in New Mexico. Yet, because of the Spanish lack of treating indigenous people like human beings, the Pueblo revolted in the 18th century. I remember reading this and being absolutely amazed the role that church organization had in the American Southwest. The Pueblo were eventually successful in driving the Spanish out for a short while.  

 At the visitor center, I realized that Pecos National Historical Site was one of the main places that the Church established a base of operations and that the indigenous people had destroyed during the revolt. We drove to the end of the trail to find the ruins of the Spanish church. There are the stone walls that were once a part of a bigger mission that are still there, while most of the building was destroyed. The scene was amazing, the snowcapped mountains in the backdrop, while there was the orange building standing in front of us. The entire time I was lost thinking, how did I not realize that this was the place that I have read about so many times? 

 Not only was I lost in this moment, so too was my sister. For me, I was history nerding it out, going, oh and this was what led to this, and this affected the Spanish here, and on and on and on. While she was genuinely interested in the architecture, the people, the reason that they were living in this mountain community. Over the past few days, we shared stories of growing up, of discussing the different perspectives that we have on our family, relationships, and life. By the time we reached Pecos, those conversations had blossomed into both of us being lost in that moment. Yes it was in two different directions, but the fact that she admitted afterwards was that she was impressed because this was something that she had never experienced before in her life, meant the world to me. While both of us felt this amazing pull of Pecos, we were on a deadline to the next park.

 Traveling northward, we passed through Santa Fe, into Los Alamos. This is one of the truly breathtaking routes, because you snake along, near Bandilier National Monument, before climbing to the top of the mountains at Los Alamos. The snowcapped peaks that were in the distance at Pecos, we were now at the top of. Los Alamos is a small town that was a part of the Manhattan Project in the 1940s. This was where they test dropped the nuclear bomb before using it on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The test site is miles away, it was at Los Alamos that they were more or less testing and putting the final touches on the bomb.

 One of the sad aspects of National Parks, is the fact that they are so closely linked to the political problems in Washington. The Manhattan Project has three different branches, Oak Ridge Tennessee, Los Alamos New Mexico, and Hanford Washington; the three places that developed this technology. These are some of the newest national parks in the United States. Yet because of Congressional inaction to pass a budget successfully in the past years, these three parks are orphaned from a home that is on their own. In Oak Ridge, they share the building with the Museum of Science and Energy. In Los Alamos, the park is a part of the town hall. When I went inside, and said that I was from Oak Ridge, it was in that moment, all of the rangers/volunteers were instantly curious what was life like there? I felt that I had the same questions for them, and we conversed about how the bomb was made and the history of the two areas for a few moments, before I was back on the road. I would gladly go back to the town of Los Alamos, even if it was in the middle of what felt like nowhere. 

 Leaving Los Alamos, our destination was the Petrified Forest, in Arizona. I realized at this point that we were barely going to make it to the destination before they closed if we did not get in gear. The drive down the mountain into Santa Fe was beautiful as it was going the other direction, and we got back on I-40 around Albuquerque. When I traveled this path last year, I was amazed by the beauty of the city along the road. I kept waiting to see those iconic landscapes and people from Breaking Bad, though. Unfortunately, we were on a bit of a time crunch and we couldn’t soak in the city as it properly needs to be. 

 We arrived at the Petrified Forest right as they were closing the office and the gift shop. Saddened by the fact that we were only going to be there for the duration of going through the park, I did buy a patch at the gift shop and got an idea of where the different parts of the park were. I didn’t realize that part of the Painted Desert was in the park. I thought that only the petrified remains of trees were in the park. Driving to the park admittance desk, the ranger was amazing and offered the coveted Jr Ranger badge to me (ahh all was right with the world, and thanks to that park ranger for his understanding!). 

 The park is arranged in a giant loop, the first part is the Painted Desert. Here, the beautiful scenic landscapes stretch as far as the eye can see. The red hills that fade into haze blue are wonderful. It was here that my sister really came out of her shell. The red dunes amazed her. One of the things that I have learned spending time with her the past few days, is when she is genuinely excited. While the cold winds were blowing at our faces the entire time that we were there, she was smiling and laughing. She wanted her picture taken, she kept asking me, how was this created? What formed that? While I might not have all the answers to those questions, this was one unasked question that was being answered by her interest in the place. To me, that was one of the greatest gifts that I have gotten out of her being here, being able to see the world from someone else’s eyes for the first time and share that amazement with them. This was a blessing that I have gotten, never would I have thought that I would have shared that moment of awe with my sister before. Driving through the park, at the Blue Mesa, I was showing her how to use the DSLR camera to take stunning pictures. Her shots rival mine with their ability to capture the colors and the landscape.  

 My sister was deeply interested in the idea that a tree could become petrified. She kept bringing up the fact that this barren landscape is what you think of when you think of dinosaurs roaming the world. The windswept mesas, the plains, the harsh conditions might be conducive to life in general. While I understood that there were petrified trees, I don’t’ think that I realized how truly beautiful they are. The geodes are richly colored, purples, reds, greens, yellows, are layered in what was once the tree rings. This is absolutely stunning to see in person, the pictures I have do not do them justice. There are somethings that I can understand, and everything else I have to acknowledge that is the ways of the universe. This is one of those moments.

 On Wednesday, we made it to three National Parks in one day, and we still had more driving ahead of us. I think both of us agree that the trip really began on Wednesday, because that was when we were really at peace and understanding of where we were and what we were going to be looking at in the coming days. While we continued on, the rains and winds were pounding. The cold front that brought the tornados the night before in Texas, had a sister cell in Arizona that caused extremely cold winds (down to the low 20s in the valley) and rains. While the Prius gets great gas mileage, due to the constant uphill climbs, and the hard headwinds, the gas mileage went down to the low 30s per gallon. For most cars, this is anything to be ashamed of, for the Prius that is not a great thing. The 10 gallon tank doesn’t bode well for low gas mileage, as we found out about 10 miles outside of Flagstaff. The gas light kept dinging as we were driving on the interstate and there was just nowhere to pull off with a gas station. Tensions ran a little high as we were desperately looking to find a gas station. Finally, at the last moment, as we were running on the Prius’ battery power and that was going fast, we pulled into a gas station. We continued on to Flagstaff, where we made it to the hotel and crashed for the night.

 The next day our adventure was to go to Zion. Again, knowing that the drive was less than 8 hours and starting early, I knew that we had some time that we could visit other areas. On the way into Flagstaff, there was a sign at the start of town for Walnut Canyon that I suggested that we go check out. This too, was an adventure that I knew nothing about before we arrived, but quickly was amazed by what we found.

 Walnut Canyon National Monument is a historic indigenous site. There is a small village that you can walk around. While most visitors are there to discuss the indigenous people, the canyon’s geology is absolutely fascinating. This is in a volcanic area and you can see the ridges at the bottom of the canyon of the changes over time. I was fascinated by the geology more than the indigenous community aspect. The village sits on a small island in the middle of the canyon. You are able to walk almost 360 degrees around the village and see back in time. My sister was really interested in the history, which is an interesting change of pace, because it is usually the other way around. After walking the loop, it was time to head norrhward up Route 89.

 Leaving Flagstaff, I had mixed emotions. Part of this was the fact that I had to leave Scout for a number of days and just general worry and loneliness about missing my buddy. We have spent a lot of time together on the road and he is a source of both happiness and companionship. I miss him more writing this and thinking about how important he is to me. What kept going through my head was the last time that I made this long drive northward to the North Rim and Page. Last year was a time of hardship and problems. I drove here because I wanted to demonstrate that I could do this, that I could achieve and be this person, that those limitations of who I was were starting to strip away and I was emerging as a new being. One of the things that kept me going through that transition was the Grateful Dead song, “Brokedown Palace.” I couldn’t help it, I had to listen to this song as we left Flagstaff. The soft harmonies and the words, that are so epically true were cutting to the core of me at that moment. “Mama mama, many worlds I’ve come since I first left home.” No truer words were spoken in that moment. I have found that my mind often drifts back to the desert and that freedom and power of a completely different landscape. This in a strange way, feels like an ancient home to me. Coming back to this place, to be a part of something that was greater than me, felt like I was returning home, to a mother and telling her of all the changes that I have gone through. I have changed for the better and so many worlds in between I’ve traveled to get to this point.

 On the other hand, I wanted to share this moment, this magic of seeing the Grand Canyon with my sister for the first time. I had been encouraged over the past few days with how she reacted and wanting to share that experience. I remember being overwhelmed last year when I first stepped out of the car and walked the North Rim down to the Lodge. Feeling so small, so tiny in the presence of greatness was overwhelming. I admit it, I cried when I stood there that first time seeing it in all the epic grandeur, but that is another story for another time. I didn’t want to spoil her experience by having my negative emotions charge the air. 

 Ultimately, I decided that it was for the best to go to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, to let her see the more tourist area first, then we could hike down some during our return from Utah in the next few days. The long drive up to the Canyon was interesting, the valley and canyons that litter the landscape are highlighted as you move higher and higher up towards the rim. When we first arrived, we went to the Watchtower, a really amazing spot overall. Yet, it was the early afternoon and the place was packed. School groups in particular, were the most problematic. There had to have been at least a thousand people between the parking lot to the tower. On our short walk to the tower, I was excited to show her the canyon. Yet when she got to the edge and saw down into it, there was a moment of apathy. Clearly she had other things on her mind and the beauty before her eyes was not one of them. We climbed the Watchtower, congested with children and elderly people going up and down the very small stairwell. Several times being bumped, or bumping into people. We made our way back to the car and I suggested that we continue on to the visitor center. Along the way we made several stops and took pictures. Unfortunately, again, people were very rude in sharing spaces and we had to be slightly rude to get the pictures that we wanted. So far, our experience with the Grand Canyon was not turning out so well.

 We made it to the Visitor Center and tried to get a badge, yet they were not as eager to hand these out. The patches that I collect were not at the Watchtower’s gift shop and the line for the Visitor Center’s gift shop was out the door. Thursday, so far was not boding well for success. How could one day be so amazing, and the next be, meh at best, to slightly grading, to frustrated at people in a national park? This doesn’t make sense. One goes to these places to share and be human again, not to stand in line for tourist gifts, or to struggle to share just a moment of such scenery with another human being. This feeling of hostility towards others is something that I really do not like in myself. Add to that, that I started feeling this in a sanctuary was beyond comprehension. 

 I pushed us to walk around the South Rim’s trail to try to see if there were better opportunities for pictures. While congested, there were several spots that were great to take pictures from. Ultimately, we ran into the same problem, over crowded park and people who were rude and not wanting to share this amazing place with others. By the time that we left, we were both burnt out and tired of people and knew that it was going to be a long ride ahead. The cold that was there in the morning was returning, when we got in the car it was snowing and neither of us were prepared for the new chill in the air. She drove first until we got to Page, then I took the wheel as she went to the back seat to sleep.

 Over the next four hours, I was lost in this state of anger, frustration, and tiredness. Why did I react in such a way towards those that were clearly trying to have a good time? Was this a byproduct of my state leaving Flagstaff? Were there some other issues that I was not wanting to admit that were bothering me from the previous few days? All the above was the correct answer and I had to settle into a grating excoriation of myself in my head for being less than what I know that I want to be. I am better than this, I told myself, don’t fall into those mental traps that you always do. While it is easy to talk yourself into seeing the worst, it is even harder, for me atleast, to talk myself out of those. Usually it takes a day to get over that feeling of just sheer stupidity at being upset at nothing. I have been working on fixing this, but change is a slow process. 

 That is why pulling into Zion at 3 in the morning was such a big deal. That calming effect that only nature can give alleviated all of those thoughts and problems. I sat like a child and let the world float away. I was energized by the stars in a way that I wish that I could explain. I think that Walt Whitman got at that feeling the best in his poem, “I heard the Learn’d Astronomer Speak.” In it, he talks about hearing scientific thoughts and processes, yet there is something magical about just going and experiencing things for yourself. I sat on the side of the road taking pictures for almost an hour, a few cars drove by, but for the most part I as alone and content. 

 Even now as I write this, I’m sitting at a campsite under the stars with the dying embers of a fire outside of Bryce Canyon. I look up and se the small dots that are millions of years old, and think, how lucky I am to just sit here and be able to look upwards and see this mosaic of lights and time sprawled out in front of me. I’m reminded of a line in a Trampled By Turtles song, “I’m surrounded by forever, but I don’t have any time/ Left to wander in amusement, left to ride, my breath is dyin’.” 

Congaree

It’s a deceptively easy question, almost benign in conversation, “where are you from?” When learning a foreign language, that is one of the key phrases that is taught. While this is a question that we ask almost acutely in getting to know one another, has so many other meanings and connotations that it becomes difficult to separate the easy answer of geographic and place based answer.

For example, I am from the mountains in East Tennessee. This is fairly straightforward, yet it underlies that there is a much deeper understanding of who I am caught between the subtle words of location. Geographically, it is a pinpoint that defines who I am, yet this is much more. Going to the area and feeling the land move, the gentle hills, the trees that come alive in the spring, the flame colored earth that is the eulogy of warmth before a gentle cold that starts to take hold, this is what helps to define who I am. The geographic landmarks of the hills, springs, and water warn flats and hollows are but a simple part of this. IMG_6219-1.jpgThe land defines the culture, each of these microcosms of geography highlight and redefine each individual. I mention all of this, because it is the cultural baggage of who we are, who I am, that not only defines myself, but the way I interact with the world around me.

Almost a century ago now, the creation of the New South’s economic power started to come into view. The rebirth of cities, such as Atlanta and Charlotte, alongside newly emerging economic centers, such as Hickory North Carolina, meant low skill low wage jobs were the spoke in the broader wheel of this new economy. Migrants from Appalachia made their way to the city, with the hope that there was a brighter future, a hope that one day that they could return to their homeland.  You can hear it in the origin of Bluegrass and Country Music, the longing to go back to their, “Kentucky hills,” or to be part of the “Tennessee mountain home,” once again was the central theme of the newly emerging working class migrants from the mountains. Granted, the resource rich mountains did have some jobs, the coal mines were the primary way that many were able to stay in the region. The coal towns were a product of further north in Appalachia, here in Anderson County especially, the Coal Creek Wars came to define the relationship between labor, the state, and prisons for the next half century. It is the people that were able to leave and make a life in the city that are interesting. For almost a century, the population of Appalachia has been slowly diminishing, the sociological term is “brain drain,” This is where the best and brightest look for a way to make it, and due to the low economic conditions in Appalachia, mean that they have to find work in the city. How then do these migrants think of themselves and, “where are they from?”

This past year, I took a position a position teaching at a well-established regional college near Atlanta. One of the questions I asked my 250 plus student body population, “How many have ever been to the Appalachias?” To me this was an hour’s drive up the road, many of the Southern Appalachia’s greatest beauties lie in Georgia and southern North Carolina. Their answer astonished me, only five had ever said that they had been to the Appalachias. Growing up in the western side of the Tennessean mountains, this answer was baffling. I could not imagine never seeing these scenic vistas, or experiencing even the Smoky Mountains. This question of where I am from, the ability to relate to another human being, about something as fundamental as experiencing a mountain was difficult for me to try to communicate. Yes, the topic of conversation had nothing really to do with the Appalachians, but I was quickly becoming aware that I now had to struggle to reconceptualize how to communicate with another human being, was a profound struggle. Not to mention a vague and lighthearted distrust of flatlanders. How does one then describe who they are if the lexicon that they use, carries no weight with the listener? That made me rethink, who am I? What makes me, me? Who I am as an individual? Granted these questions of introspection usually are those that visit at those hours that sleep has yet to come, for some reason they were at the forefront of the travel to Congaree National Park this past week.

Earlier this spring, I made plans with a graduate school colleague to visit Congaree National Park because I’ve heard of the amazing biodiversity and swamp geography. While the plans were made months in advance, this was almost perfect timing because I was able to finish grading and able to test out new equipment. In the past week, I purchased a Canon 6d and I learned that Lightroom can geocode photos, which is a handy tool if you are taking pictures and traveling, trying to remember where each location was. The trip was to go from Knoxville and meet in Charlotte to then travel down to Columbia. What I didn’t realize was how important that drive was going to be to me.

The easiest way to get to Charlotte from Knoxville is to take I-40 through Asheville, then turn on to I-77 south to Charlotte. This is a six-hour drive, assuming that traffic isn’t bad around I-26 in Asheville or going down I-77. Geographically speaking this is pretty straightforward, the Knoxville valley then turns into the heart of the Eastern side of the Appalachians in East Tennessee/Western North Carolina. After passing the Gatlinburg exit on I-40, civilization almost disappears and you watch the mountains in the distance, melt into the sky, the road dives around rock blasted areas, through the literal heart of mountains with tunnels. From Asheville, the slow climb to the top of the mountains, before the almost rapid descent to the bottom near Marion and the flattening out until one reaches I-77, brings beautiful scenery to the driver.

The reason that I know this all too well, is because in the past three years, I’ve driven both sides of I-40 countless times. In the fall of 2014, I traveled from Sylva (near Cherokee North Carolina, exit 27), to Surry (north on I-77 near Virginia) every Tuesday and Thursday for the semester. That semester, I put about 17,000 miles on my car. Last year, I traveled back and forth from Sylva to Knoxville for another countless number of times for work. Needless to say, I know this road well. But this time, it was different. Like visiting an old friend, the road was welcoming, the mountains were more than just landmarks between destinations, they were a kind of home, a refuge that I didn’t realize that I needed. After getting around Gatlinburg exit, there was a constant smile on my face, feeling the welcoming embrace of returning home. Each turn in the road was another friend I felt I hadn’t seen in years. The entire time, being lost in the road, being lost in the moment of realizing how much this small stretch of highway was, meant everything to me. I became the small, my fraction of a second time that I was present here, in comparison to ancient mountains that were thousands of years old made me only realize how tiny my time on this earth really is. The light traffic only meant that I had time to absorb the fresh green of spring around me. You could feel the almost magical state of life returning to the woods and beckoning you to come to them. What I kept coming back to, is the almost confidant quality of these mountains: how many times had I had a great day teaching and was reflecting on how amazing that connection felt with students, or struggled to find the right way to handle a situation, to fix things that were broken. These mountains, while impersonal my connection to them was, held some of my most personal secrets in the way that only a mountain can. A stony stoicism that is obstinate. How again, can you describe that to someone who has never experienced a mountain before?

I left for Charlotte at four and arrived by 10, the traffic on I-77 was a bit of a mess, which meant that I was more than ready for sleep. I awoke the next day and meet my traveling compatriot near UNCC. We drove to Columbia, about two hours away and entered a different climate. While the mountain air was, cool and composed, the piedmont’s temperature was on the steady climb to the low 90s. The marsh like air was a complete change to what I’ve been use to for the past few weeks. Congaree is a magical place of life, you can feel it when you step out of the car, the singing birds that great you, the skinks that surround you on almost every tree, you can feel the life surrounding you.

The park was a national monument in the 1990s, and became a national park in the early 2000s. The lush green of the park was mesmerizing. The trail that we took was the boardwalk to the Western loop trail that was recommended by the visitor center. This gave us the clearest views of the Cypress trees that litter the ground with their knees and take over the forest floor. The smallest change in elevations, even a few inches, meant a completely different ecological zone, from a mostly dirt floor was a grass covered. After about a mile, the boardwalk ended and you are put on a mud path through the woods. Make sure that you bring mosquito repellant, because these were more than a nuisance. Several times, both of us were smacking full mosquitos that smeared blood over our arms, making us look like we had been caught in a combat zone. The marsh plain and path had many different points of interest and the self-guided tour gave clear ideas and instructions on why each area was important. Around mile 3.5, the boardwalk returns and there is an amazing area to watch the river. Several turtles were waiting for food at the bottom of the boardwalk. While most of my photography revolves around landscapes, Congaree’s wildlife was an excellent change of pace. I captured several turtle, skink, snake, and woodpecker photos. Congaree’s swamp was well worth the trip, next time, I would like to have a canoe or paddle boat and go out on the swamp to explore more of what the park has to offer. I feel that I didn’t get the best pictures, but what made up for it was the ride home._MG_6404-1.jpg

I returned to Charlotte at about five in the afternoon, parting ways with my friend and having a wonderful dinner, it was time to go home. I punched in home address on the GPS and I was expecting to return basically the way that I came. Yet that was not the case, the GPS took me southward towards Kings Mountain, then across and up I-26 to hit I-40 at Asheville. The road through Shelby and lower central-western Carolina was fairly uneventful, it was when I hit I-26 that I realized how much place and location actually started to mean.

In the fall of 2015, I taught at a school in South Carolina, thinking that this was primarily for an online course, I was badly mistaken. I had signed up for a hybrid 8-week course that meant that I was driving to Florence South Carolina twice a week from Sylva North Carolina, another 200+ mile trip. Each school day, I left the house before noon to arrive in Florence at 5, taught American History II at 6-8, then was on the road back to Sylva by 12-1 am. While it is very clear, the life of an adjunct is one that is not sustainable, this is not the purpose of mentioning that. Every day I had to find something new to entertain my thoughts on the drive to Florence, I learned that semester what a podcast is and discovered some amazing interviewers, such as Marc Marion. As summer became fall, the drive back on I-26 from Greenville South Carolina to Asheville became more and more the reason that I would be amazed. One of the least traveled interstates (in comparisons to others in the South), is that section between Greenville to Asheville, I believe they call the rapid descent from Hendersonville to the piedmont as “the Gulch,” because of the 7-10% gradient, that then has the slow rolling hills of South Carolina. The speed limit is 70 MPH, but because of the lack of traffic, that turns out to be the minimum speed. It was here, in the sparsely populated, and remote area of the two Carolinas, that as summer turned to fall, I watched each night with splendor as the stars came out and were magical. That feeling of being so insignificant, to be lost like a child under a blanket, where you are safe and protected, yet full of life, is the most magical feeling as an adult.

Coming back from Charlotte the other night, was that same feeling of rapture at seeing those mountains. There is nothing more empowering than having the radio of the car turned up, drowning out your own voice, singing at the top of your lungs, and feeling that sense of home. The problem with saying smile, is that seems almost too weak of a word to describe the feeling/expression. I was in a state of almost euphoria feeling the mountains return and being a part of them. The sun setting in the distance, further north, casted a pink and purple on clouds, was in direct contrast to the lush green of the mountains. By the time I was near Asheville, the stars were starting to come out and again, that feeling of home was so overwhelming.  I was too caught up in the moment to do anything other than take a few pictures of the mountains, but that doesn’t even begin to demonstrate how amazing that moment was. While I am not from this area, I feel this deep connection to the place and would say that it has that quality of home that for myself that is not found in all corners of the world. Even if I’m not from here, can I call this home, can I lay claim to being colonized by this area?IMG_4636

This question of home, location, and place are common themes in the human experience. The legend goes, that when the Spanish arrived at the Yucatan, they asked, “Donde esta aqui?” To which the local Mayan, who looked slightly confused, responded, Yucatan. Asked a second time, the same answer, thus the Spanish marked the toe of Central America as Yucatan. Only centuries later, did anyone care to decipher what Yucatan meant in Mayan: Loosely translated as, “I don’t understand you.” That is the critical problem with language and trying to describe these mountains, the words that we use to describe them are temporal and don’t really take into consideration that the listener has to experience this moment or it is always lost in translation. I return to this question of where am I from, because in many ways this definition of myself is so hard to formulate into anything that means something to another human being. Even though I am something in the ballpark of 95% genetically similar to another human being, there is something deeply different in my experience that I struggle to communicate with others. I’ve been reading Dan Flores and his discussion of the natural history of the Western United States, which is a fascinating read, but throughout it, he points out that there is a fundamental difference between place and location. Transversely, location is a geographic point. That place is where you are connected, through language, experience, through culture. In the past few months I have had the ability to teach outside of Atlanta, having to leave the confines of the mountains. Maybe that’s the problem, that I am part of that larger economic trend, of Appalachian refugees, looking for better economic opportunities somewhere other than home, and have this hagiographic vision of a place that is always lost in memory, or a translation of myself in a former life. Meaning, that I need to quickly learn the banjo and get on the hipster return to the earth movement currently en vogue. Or maybe, I’m the strange one evolutionarily. Thousands of years ago, we descended from the great savanna apes, and never really found refuge in the mountains, maybe it was my ancestors that were the strange ones and encoded me to be different, with that love of a place that is foreign to all of those around me.

First Adventure of the Summer-Burgess Falls and Cummins Falls

 

The first adventure of the summer was at two different places in Tennessee, Window’s Peak at Burgess Falls State Park Natural Area, and Cummin’s Falls. Both of these were wonderful hikes and very accessible from I-40. These two areas are incredibly close and breathtaking in their own ways.

I started the day with Widow’s Peak, a 5.5 mile roundtrip hike that encompasses river crossings, cliff bluffs, and some amazing scenery. Widow’s Peak is part of the Burgess Falls State Park. If you have not been able to take a trip to Burgess Falls, this is one of the most iconic waterfalls in the state and is also on a very short and accessible route. Widow’s Peak starts off with a slow decent towards the creek at the bottom of the hill. The friends of the park offer walking sticks for free, I would suggest that you use one to make sure you have solid footing. Be aware that there are no pets allowed in this part of the park, and that if you are going to go to the bluffs at the end, that you will cross the creek a total of 18 times (so wear shoes that you don’t mind getting wet). The crossings are manageable because of the rope that goes across the creek, the rocks are slick and covered in algae that make it difficult to keep your footing. The path is pretty wide throughout the entire hike and it is mostly in the shade. While on my trip, there were several wildflowers in bloom and the butterflies/insects were a welcome sight. After the sixth river crossing, there is a slight uphill climb, where you will come to a very nice waterfall to your left. The seventh through nineth crossings are pretty close together and then it will be about .75 miles before you arrive at the top of the bluffs. Here is a really interesting view. The top of the mountain was carved out through rain and dissolution that created natural bridges. The area was originally from the Mississippian and Ordovicain limestone.[1] Here you are on top of the mountains on the Cumberland Plateau, the bluffs are one of the most interesting features of the East Tennessee area because most of the mountains worn down to gradual hills, not these rocky outcroppings. For those that are adventurous, these formations stretch for about a quarter of a mile and range in their height and level of difficulty. Window Cliffs is an interesting trail, it is rated as moderate-strenuous, but has some amazing views.

After leaving Window Cliffs, I traveled up I-40 towards Cummins Falls. Recently I found the Punch Brothers, in particular their “Who’s Feeling Young Now,” album. If you haven’t heard of these guys, all of them are virtuoso musicians who write clever and catchy songs. While traveling to Cummins Falls, the song, “Flippen (the Flip) was playing, this is a lively instrumental that went perfect with the green rolling hills of the plateau and the starting greens of the spring. One of the reasons that I wanted to go to Cummins Falls is, last year I traveled out West to the desert for nine days. The first trip that I wanted to go on when I returned home was Cummins Falls. This is only fitting because I’m about to travel back to the desert and it is a full circle from where I began.

Cummins Falls is great state park, not only is there a beautiful waterfall, but the creek is the primary trail. This is one of Tennessee’s newest parks, established in 2012, where it was donated from the Cummins family (CHECK PLAQUE PICTURE). The waterfall was originally given to Sergeant Blackburn in the 1790s and was sold to John Cummins in 1825, which it stayed in the family until purchased by the park.[2] The trail is pretty short to the creek. From there it is about .5 miles to the waterfall all in the creek as the trail. Do be careful, because the creek is prone to flash flooding and make sure that you do not take electronics that you mind getting wet, incase of falling. Dogs are permitted at this park, so long as they are leashed and under control. The hike to the falls has some amazing geology, the rock walls that line the basin show the details of thousands of years of water cutting away and exposing the layered sedimentary rock underneath. The last leg of the waterfall is a bit trick, there are quite a few rapids and by this point, your shoes are pretty slick from water and rocks. When you reach the falls, it is a breathtaking sight. There are some areas to the left that you can rest, and some floatation devices that you can use if you want to swim. This is a great swimming hole, and that is what many of the locals come here for in the summertime. There is an area to the right that also is open if you can make it across the rocks.

I had a slight misadventure at the juncture crossing the rocks. The gap between the two sides is approximately 4-5 feet across, just wide enough that you probably could not safely jump this distance. There is a washed up log that is between the rocks that offers some stability. The water is moving rather rapid and is difficult to judge how deep it really if you do not want to get wet. The first time I crossed over, there was a couple that I helped across the log. In return, they took my backpack that had my camera, lenses, and tripod. I crossed over safely and the man handed me the backpack. To reach it, my feet turned ever so slightly on the rocks, and I fell into the water about waist deep. The backpack was soaked, fortunately the bag was wet, but the camera did not get any water in it (whew). I brought some plastic bags to try to keep things dry but didn’t bag the camera, man I got lucky. I took some pictures of the falls on my tripod and was ready to leave. There was another couple that was enjoying the falls that said that they would help me get across safely again. The entire time I was feeling that something terrible was going to happen again. This time, I crossed with out any problem and I was standing on the big rock. I turned and successfully grabbed my bag from the couple. I put the bag on my shoulders and the small jolt that came from putting it on my shoulders was enough to loosen my tripod. I hear a splunk in the water and look and the man is pointing at where the tripod fell, right in the middle of the rapids. Both of us looked for about 15 minutes and we couldn’t find the tripod. At that point, I decided that the camera survived and that was more important, thus keep trucking. Fortunately, there was no other incident when walking back.

For the first adventure out with this new blog post, Window’s Peak and Cummins Falls were two great adventures that I would highly recommend. These offer great views and hikes in the Cumberland Plateau area and demonstrate some of the best natural beauty that Tennessee has to offer.

[1] “Window Cliffs Class II Natural Scientific State Natural Area – TN.Gov,” accessed May 13, 2017, https://tn.gov/environment/article/na-na-window-cliffs.

[2] “Tennessee State Parks,” Tennessee State Parks, accessed May 13, 2017, http://tnstateparks.com.

Introduction

There is almost something magical about the first time that you visit a new trail. You are about to embark on a journey, one that others might have traveled before, but is wild in its own way. That hyper realist moment when you leave that civilized world, and enter into the primordial the original part of you. Each step you travel closer to finding some hidden truth, finding not only yourself, but the collective spirit of who we all are. You chose this moment, the universe fills it with creatures with life, with moments that can never be replicated, that time that you are present in the trail is yours alone. That is the magic of nature, that stirs in the blood and makes you come alive, some spend their entire lives searching for another taste of that adventure. That first time on the trail is both scary and exhilarating. In many ways that is what it is like to start a blog.

Welcome, I am Nathan, a historian, musician, nature enthusiast, and photographer. In the past year, I have traveled around the United States taking pictures of some incredible places. I’ve traveled to the Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree, Niagara Falls, Acadia, Shennandoah, Blue Ridge, and the Smoky Mountains. While these are just a few of my adventures, in the next few months I have big plans for adventures in the great American West. I am leaving in May and this is a blog to try to catalogue my adventures and to share some of my photography.

Speaking of photography, the gear that I use is in the process of a major overhaul. I started taking photos last year on a iPhone, then purchased a Canon T5. That seems like so long ago now.  I currently am using a Canon 60D as my main body. I purchased this last year and I have really enjoyed the dynamic range and capture abilities of this camera. The lenses I use are primarily: Canon 17-40mm f/4 L, 70-200mm f/4 L, and Tamron 90mm macro. I’m in the process of upgrading my camera in the next few days and will hopefully have an update on that. I found that this combination is a great way to capture the minute details of a waterfall, or the distant setting sun. While I have loved learning how to take photos, really it is more about being outside and engaging in nature for what I enjoy doing.

I grew up in East Tennessee, where it seems like one can take almost any interstate exit and find natural beauty there. I grew up wandering in nature almost all my life, spending hours at Norris Dam, being lost with the moment and my thoughts. There is a comfort that nothing else can describe. While I love nature, music and history were two things that had my interest from an early age. There is a song in the way that the wind moves through the leaves and a story that the woods tells you if you are only willing to become in tune to what they are saying. The Greeks used to call this, being in harmony with the vibrations of the planets, but the same holds true if you just stop and breathe. I often find myself hearing a song each time that I go into the woods and become lost in the tapestry of the moment around me. Often times, there is never a separation between being outside and music in my mind, it is one of the syncretic experiences that is beautiful but also hard to explain.

With that, it might be time to explain my goals with this blog. First and foremost, this blog is to get me back in the habit of writing on a regular basis. I’ve heard that great writers write a minimum of two pages a day. Since graduating from Appalachian State University in 2014, I don’t think that I’ve written that much in a very long time. This is my opportunity to start writing to get back in the habit, regardless of academic, personal, songs, poetry; writing is writing. Second, is therapy for the past year of my life. This time last year, if you would have said about half of what has happened, I would have laughed because it seems implausible. For example, last fall I was to start my PhD in Latin American history at a major institution, but because of many factors, I am now teaching full time at a well known regional college. The mercurial qualities of life are what makes it the most interesting.  Third, my goal is to share some amazing places. This summer, I have planned to go almost all over the Southwest and Pacific Northwest. I am planning on spending about two months on the road and I’m looking forward to it. I’ve never been to the Pacific Northwest, so this is a true adventure for me. The places that draw my interest the most are those in the National Park system. Not only are they national treasures, but they also have some magic that is only captured by being there in the moment. For the next few weeks, I am traveling, trying to prepare for this long trip by going to small adventures in and around Tennessee to get ready.