Whiteout in the White Sands National Monument

From space, the White Sands National Monument looks like someone spilled WhiteOut on the the New Mexico map.  Up close, the sand is as white as snow and unlike anything I have seen in this country.  Dunes, twenty to thirty feet high, carve the landscape for as far as the eye can see.  This quickly becomes one of my favorite – and most surprising – places.

White Sand Dunes are, um, White

I arrive in the late afternoon at the Ranger’s Station to register for a campsite.  There are only ten primitive sites in the entire park.  A friendly Asian woman staffs the desk.  As I register she smiles and says, “It’s very cool out there.  Oh, and tonight, it’s going to be cold!”  I think to myself that rangers are like news reporters: they like to give bad news with a grin on their face.

She runs through some rules before issuing my camping permit:

“No fires in the dunes.  Please bring plenty of water.”

“Carry in and carry out whatever you need.”

“There are no toilets out there, so bring your own toilet paper.”

“Most people who get lost do so because they set out after dark, so if something happens, just stay put for the night, then make your way back in the morning.”

“What cell phone carrier do you have?” she asks.

“AT&T,” I reply.

“It won’t work out there,” she says.  “If you have an emergency, go to campsite 2, they have Verizon.  Don’t go to 5 – they’re German and their phones don’t work here.”

“I’ll be just fine,” I smile back at her.

“I’m sure you will,” she say as she closes the registration book . . . with a smile.

Camp 2 Neighbors

At the Backcountry Camping parking lot I repack for the night.  The campsite is only a one-mile hike, so I take only minimal gear: tent, sleeping bag, food, water and toilet paper.  I leave the Thermarest Pad, assuming the dune field is soft enough for sleeping.  As I hike, I begin to sweat.  The weight I have gained eating too many burritos and fast food hamburgers feels like steel bars around my midsection.

Campsite 4 is sandwiched in between two 30-foot white sand dunes.  The sun is low in the horizon and colored clouds make an appearance just above the mountains to the West.  I set up quickly, grab my camera and climb up the hillock to watch the sunset reflect off the gypsum.

For dinner I prepare Backcountry Pantry Teriyaki Chicken and Rice followed by freeze-dried spumoni ice cream, which sticks to my teeth in an un-ice-cream fashion.  Exhausted, I check the time to see if it’s anywhere close to bedtime.  5:54 pm.  I scan the sky. It’s dark, midnight dark, maybe my watch is wrong.  I crawl into the tent to rest my eyes.  I dream about magical creatures with bells.

Middle of the night:  I wake, cold and stiff from the hard sand.  “It must be 3 in the morning,” I think to myself.  “Perfect for night writing!” – the long exposure photos I enjoy taking.  I unzip my tent and crawl into the cool desert air.  I shiver, rub my arms fast, then pull on every layer of clothing I have: two sweatshirts and a thin Spring jacket.

Evening in the Dunes

At the top of the drift, I see Holloman Air Force Base shining brightly in the distance.  I snap a few pictures, but it’s too cold so I slide back down the dune to my tent.  Maybe I can get a couple more hours of rest before the sun comes up.  I look at my cell phone.  I was completely wrong about the time.  9:53 pm.  Damn, it’s going to be a long night!

3:00 AM: A chorus of amphibians outside my tent.  Chirp, chirp, rouuuuu.  Chirp, chirp, rouuuuu.  I dream of toads dancing hand-in-hand in a circle around my campsite.  I unzip my tent and shine a light.  Nothing.  Silence.  I zip up and close my eyes.  Chirp, chirp, rouuuuu.  Their dancing resumes.  Maybe it’s a special ceremony.  Maybe I am the guest of honor.  Or perhaps the human sacrifice?  I snuggle into my sleeping bag.

5:00 AM: The amphibians have moved off in the distance – maybe onto another sacrifice.  I lay awake cursing the sand for jabbing my rib cage and thigh.  Turning on my back doesn’t help.  I unzip my tent and crawl into the freezing pre-dawn dunes.  The sky is changing color, ever so slightly.  What a wonderful time to snap photos!

I scramble to the top of the tallest sand pile.  “That would make a great shot,” I think to myself looking at the next dune.  I walk.  “That one has no footprints.”  I walk.  “That one is angled differently.”  I walk.  This goes on for some time and I chase the composition in my lens from dune to dune.  As the sun rises into the sky, I strip off one sweatshirt and tie it around my waist.

Time for breakfast!  Starving, sweaty and thirsty, I make my way back to my tent.  The dunes look different now.  Light changes their configuration.  The horizon is different too.  I walk.  And walk.

I don’t find my tent; it’s not where I placed it on the map in my mind.  The sand looks defiant now, angry.  I see one set of tracks leading in the opposite direction.  I compare my imprint – no match.  I follow them anyway.  Then, they fade away into the earth.

Dune Shadow Play

Next I find many tracks: bobcat, snake, barefoot person and hiking boot.  I mentally compare the night horizon with what I see in the distance now: a water tower, mountains, sand dunes.  Can’t figure it out.  I use my camera lens to scan.  I see four tents all set up in a row.  If I can make it there, I can trace the trail back to my tent.

Approaching, I see that they are not tents at all, but picnic shades.  No one here.  Dammit.  I curse the 275 square miles of white gypsum dunes that stand in between me, breakfast and hydration.  I climb again to scan the whiteout.  There I see my salvation: a trio several mounds away.   I practically fall down one hill and crawl up the next.  I come to a road – THE road – saved!  Except, I could be anywhere on a ten mile stretch.

I lunge towards the couple and their teenage daughter, whom I saw in my lens.

“Are you camping?” I ask, screaming “Help!” in my head.

“No,” they reply.  “Are you?”

“Yes, but I lost my tent.”

They laugh, looking at each other.  The daughter comments, “See mom and dad, we should have camped.  That’s how we get sunrise pictures of the dunes!”

“Did you get some good pictures?” she asks.

My mind races, “I’m completely fucking lost and first you laugh, then you ask if I got pictures?  Can’t you see I haven’t eaten anything this morning and have been without water?”  Then, I hear, “Yes, I got some great pictures” come out of my mouth.

“How long have you been lost?” the girl asks.

“Two days,” I lie, looking for a reaction.

Their eyes light up, “Two days?!”  There is the sympathy I seek.

“No, I’m joking.  Just since this morning.”

The group is of no help in figuring out where I am on the road or in the park.  They left their map in the car.

“Good luck!” they yell as I walk down yet another hill of white sand.

“Good luck?” I think to myself.  Good luck that I don’t find your car and have a sharp object in my pocket!

I strip off clothes and follow the road.  It doesn’t matter which direction I follow.  My stomach flip flops eating itself for sustenance.  I walk.  Then, a miracle.  My car!  Dusty – the amazing lesbian Jeep that has carried me thousands of miles.  True salvation!  Only, my keys are in the tent.  Dammit again!  But, at least I know where the tent is now.  Only a mile away.

Approaching my car, I hear “Gud mornink.”  A young couple is smoking by their black Ford 500, both dressed head-to-toe in black spandex.  I smile.

“Morning,” I reply.  These must be the Germans from Camp 5.

“Nice car,” I say.

“Ya, vee thought vee look like Men in Black,” they look at each other and laugh.

I nickname them Boris and Natasha.  I know they are not Russian, but the names seem to fit.  They are from Munich on a six-week US road trip.

“You must be from camp 5,” I say.

“Ya,” says Boris.

“Und yooo?” asks Natasha, blowing smoke over her shoulder.

“Camp 4, but I got lost this morning.”

They look at each other and laugh.  “How deed you git lost?  It’s only one-point-one miles to the camp,” Boris says with some authority.

“I was taking pictures of the dunes.”

“Oh, ya, vell, stay on da trail today!”  Boris says.

“Ya, on da trail,” Natasha adds for emphasis.

They puff on their cigarettes and laugh as I walk towards my breakfast in the sand.

Obviously, I find my way back to my tent, water and breakfast – freeze dried eggs and bacon.  After eating and hydrating, I consider my experience.  I determine it unwise to set out on foot without water, food, and car keys.  But, I also think that getting lost in the pursuit of such immense, otherworldly beauty is well worth the humiliation of a few snickering strangers!

The Fibitz Dune Tracks

Climbing Yosemite Falls, Almost Twice

I arrive at the Yosemite National Park Backcountry Permits office at 1:30pm.  In my hand I hold a topographic map and a copy of Backpacker Magazine with an article about a 3-day hike.  I’m proud of myself for arriving early and being prepared as it allows me to judge the couple in front who are unprepared and haven’t figured out that rangers cannot recommend hikes.  When it’s my turn, I ask for options. He gives me one, then – almost under his breath – lists several others, which sound uninteresting.

“But have you seen the weather forecast,” he asks.

“Yes,” I reply, “it’s going to rain in two days.”

“Rain and snow – up to two feet,” he corrects.

“Snow? Two feet,” I look at him as though he is speaking Chinese.  It’s September and this is California.

“Yes,” he smiles.

I mentally catalog the items in my Jeep, finding no long underwear, no wool sweaters, no ear muffs.  In fact, the warmest things I have are my jeans, a thin sweatshirt and spring jacket.

“Are you sure it’s going to snow,” I ask.

“Yes,” he smiles again.  “Next.”

As I step back slightly dazed, another couple steps up, underprepared.  I leave the building just as he says “as a government employee I can’t recommend any . . . “

Half Dome in Clouds

Determined to get to the trail head early enough for an overnight, I speed through the park to find where ‘Mr. No Recommendation’ instructed me to leave my car.  Yosemite requires all food to be stored over night in bear-proof lockers, so I move my cooler, water, Oreos and dry goods out of my car into a metal case.  Although no one else locks their container, I pull out a Master Lock and clamp it closed – I would hate to return and find my food missing.  Next, I repack my backpack for an overnight.  Do I take the laptop or leave it in the car?  Take it; again, would hate it to be missing when I return.  By the time I get to the shuttle stop, which will take me to the trail head, it’s 3:30pm. I can still hike for four hours – should be enough time to reach the camp site, which is two miles in.

The shuttle is painfully slow and the driver cheerfully narrates each section, deer, tree and grain of sand along the way.  People, happy and talkative, get on and off the bus.  Several comment, “Wow!  That’s a big pack.”  “Yeah,” I grumble at them.  At 4:30pm the bus comes to a stop at Campground Four.  I ask about the trailhead, to which the driver responds, “Cross the street and parking lot.  You’ll see a campground, veer to the right.  Then just go up.”  “Then go up,” I ask with a scrunched look on my face.  “Yes,” she smiles, closing the shuttle doors.  The shuttle pull away and I follow her instructions.

Timeline of Events
4:40pm: arrive at trailhead
4:50pm: breathe heavy
4:55pm: sweat profusely
4:57pm: stop, grab knees, catch breath
5:01pm: pass sign – “Entering Yosemite Wilderness.  Hike at your own risk”
5:05pm: stop, grab knees, catch breath, determine signal strength of cell phone
5:10pm: call National Park Service to understand lodging options
5:12pm: descend 75 feet to shuttle stop
6:00pm: unlock car, remove food from bear locker
6:20pm: check into Curry Village
8:00pm: enjoy fresh baked pizza and 7Up
 

Yosemite Falls – First Light

The next morning I’m awaken at 5am by people in the next tent.  Half asleep, I decide to make the Upper Yosemite Falls hike, the first section of the overnight hike I was supposed to take.  I reach the trailhead, by car, in no time and start the hike by 6am with a headlamp to light my way.  The switchbacks are killer.  I am sweating and breathing hard in no time, but with daylight coming and a lighter pack on my back, it’s manageable.

I rise quickly above the valley floor and witness amazing views of Half Dome and Yosemite Valley.  Switchback after switchback means I feel like a zipper going up the mountain.  Reaching the lookout at mile one, I encounter another hiker – the first – who passes me.  “Now the real climbing starts,” he says as we wave goodbye.  “Real climbing,” I question under my breath while cursing him for being the bearer of bad news.

And he’s right – as the Falls come into view, the trail gets steeper.  It’s almost comical to observe my mind while heading uphill. It runs through all the things I could be doing right now: sleeping, eating, having sex.  It says I’m too old, can’t make it to the top anyway, and should turn back now.  Breakfast – no, pancakes – sound marvelous . . . I’m sure I can find some nearby . . . if I just turn around.  I choose not to listen, but instead push onward, upward.

The next level of incline is worse than the one below.  Now, my mind is just getting in the way, so to shut it up, I employ the ‘counting method’ of climbing: each 100 steps means I get to take a short breath break.  I do this over and over, telling my head to “shut up!” many times over the course of the hike.

Arriving at the top of Yosemite Falls is breathtaking and well worth the internal battle of wits.  A smooth, grey granite deck drops off 2425 feet to the valley floor below.  A staircase – protected by a rusty banister drilled into the rock – leads to the outlook.  Looking over I experience slight vertigo.  Trees cling dearly to the face of the mountain.  Wind whips from all directions.

Matt’s Leap of Faith

Climbing a short distance back from the overlook, I find two deep dark pools fed by a river and smaller waterfall.  I make my way down to the base of these falls, snap a few pictures, and decide I haven’t lived until I jump in.  They’re protected – from going over Yosemite Falls – by a few hundred feet of river and rock.  Stripping off my clothes, I leap.  “Waahoo!” I yell, hearing an echo as my flesh hits the near freezing lagoon.  The water is bitter and, unlike my other recent naked dips, so is the air.  I towel off and shiver while eating a lunch of nuts and dried cranberries.

The second hiker I encounter that day – a 24 year old dude from New Jersey – asks about the water.  “It’s awesome,” I say, “Haven’t lived until you jump in!”  He catapults himself from a higher elevation.  I snap a few pictures of his death leap.  He survives.

I sit at the top of the falls for a some time contemplating my accomplishment.  I realize a few things: First, that my body performs better than expected sometimes, even though we have been through hell and back.  Second, my mind gives up too easy and would rather be on vacation.  Third, my soul is ablaze with love and expansion in nature.  I decide it better to listen to my soul more often as I make my way down the mountain.

Mammoth Snow

After brief consideration of lodging options – there is space available at the base of the Falls in Campground Four for $6 – I exit Yosemite via Tioga pass.  That night, I sleep soundly in a Comfort Suites in Mammoth Lakes as two feet of snow fall on the park and surrounding area.

Sequoia Hugger!

Redwoods

We arrive in the Golden State just after 5pm and I am worried that we are not going to find suitable encampment for the night.  The temperature has dropped 30 degrees and fog now hugs the top of the redwoods as we continue our westward drive on Highway 199.  Reaching Jedediah State Park and Campground, we pull in and see the “campground full” sign.  We have to pull forward in order to turn around, but before anyone in the car can get a word out, the friendly, young ranger asks “looking for a place for the night?”  Yes, I reply.  “You’re in luck, we just had a cancellation.” I ask if we can we take a look at it.  Yes, he says, “but I get off in 30 minutes, so make it quick.”  We’re back in ten, paying $35 to camp in the keystone of redwood parks in northern California.

In no time, Malaika and Purdie are cooking delicious zucchini succotash using the small backcountry stove I brought along: I’m impressed by what two determined Aussies can pull off with bare minimum.  I set up camp, take a quick walk around the grounds and breathe in the sounds of people talking, kids playing or complaining, parents trying to figure how to set up tent, and RVs running generators.  I’m struck by the desire of human beings to be in nature.  Not everyone wants to be in it in the same way I do, but it is interesting that every year people pack the national and state parks with their family and friends.  It gives me hope.

I return to find Malaika and Purdie discussing America.  It’s been interesting to see the country through their eyes.  Malaika is surprised at the beauty and diversity of the landscape; she had the idea of a barren, overdeveloped land.  Those places exist, I say, but there are also breathtaking sanctuaries that people in this country have worked hard to protect.

The highlight of my evening comes when opportunity meets need.  The girls have never heard of, nor had, S’mores.  Given my food cravings, I am ready for just about anything on a stick.  Unfortunately the only chocolate in my possession at the moment is organic raspberry, large chunk.  Being that this is a S’mores emergency, any chocolate will do.  Over burning marshmallows and melting chocolate on graham crackers we exchange stories of our lives, loves and sorrows.

Footbridge to the old growth

The next morning is quiet and misty.  We’re up early and, after short debate, decide to hike a short point-two (.2) mile trail. We learn later that we have misread the signs and it closer to 2 miles.  In no time, we are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the mighty giants we call redwoods.  They shoot up out of the land like prehistoric monsters and it is easy to feel as if one has stepped back in time.  Fog embraces the canopy and ferns and tall grasses grow large and green along the forest floor.  We cross a river via footbridge and enter old growth forest, which is larger and more mysterious than its younger counterpart.

As I step close to one colossal giant, which I cannot even see completely, I wonder what we can learn from beings this large and old.  Many cultures see trees as magical beings that bridge realities and walking amongst such presence, there is no mistaking that these sequoia are alive.  I realize this is a silly statement, but let me explain: by alive, I mean conscious.  Not in the way you and I are conscious, but they are aware of us, their surroundings and the world.  I believe that there is vast knowledge accessible to anyone patient enough to listen.

Tree Hugger

Malaika tells Purdie and me about an artist in Australia who hooks up diodes to trees and then has people hug them, which produced unique sounds.  One time, he conducted a symphony by coordinating tree huggers.  To demonstrate, Malaika walks up to a redwood and hugs it as if she is embracing a long-time friend.  Wanting to hear what the tree will sound like (or say), Purdie and I move into to embrace our conifer brethren.  If you have never hugged a tree, or had a conversation with one, I highly recommend it.

Four hours later the gals and I emerge from the hike more centered and peaceful.  We race back to checkout of the campground.  Later that day, I say “so long” to Purdie and Malaika for the moment – human style hugs all around.  Sebastian, my stuffed frog copilot, takes his rightful place in the car, riding shotgun.

More NorCal pictures are available –> here

Dirty Work: Rockhounding in Idaho

Shovel in the garnet area

With the exception of a few moments to send a text or make a quick call, I have little cell phone reception from Glacier National Park through most of Idaho.  I choose to leave the radio in my Jeep off and the windows down, taking in the fresh country air.  I have a day-and-a-half to kill before I am due to be in Spokane, WA to stay with an old friend of my mom’s.  I decide to jaunt down into the Idaho Panhandle National Forrest from I-90 for a night.  A day or so before, I had read about a place where visitors can rockhound for garnets.

Without cell phone reception I have no GPS, so stop at the Idaho Visitor’s Center – it doubles as a miner’s museum – for a map and directions.  I have been impressed by the these information hubs in every state; the staff behind the counters have always been knowledgable and helpful.  In all cases they have given me too much information, but steered me in the right direction – mostly off the major interstates to smaller, more scenic byways.  The man behind the Idaho Visitor’s Center counter leads me over to a large pull-down wall map of the area where I plan to camp.  He traces the road I should take: State Road 3 through the town of Saint Maries to the Emerald Creek Campground.

By the time I leave the center/museum it approaches 3:30 PM and I still have to stop for supplies (which I find in St. Maries) and find bivouac for the night.  On a Sunday night, I am one of three campsites that will be occupied – the encampment is quiet and surrounded several varieties of evergreens.  I’ll gain an hour tomorrow (by crossing into the pacific time zone), so the sky stays light a little later than usual.  I set up tent and settle in for the night.  Again I am able to stoke my relationship with the with the stars, hold a conversation with the trees and watch as the fire dances in her pit.  I roast S’mores and recollect my youth.

Dry sifted earth and rocks

The next day I’m up early and prepare a camp-side breakfast of hash browns, eggs and hotdogs.  I drive two miles to the Emerald Creek Garnet Area, where, for ten dollars, I am given a permit, two buckets and a shovel.  I didn’t realize I was going to be doing hard labor.  The forest rangers explain the process: “fill the buckets, dry sift them in the sifting area, then wet sift them in the washing area.  Look for dark-dark red, almost black, glass-like rocks . . .  and keep anything else you like.”

The washing area

I love rocks and collect them from different places.  Occasionally, I will buy a semi-precious stone from a store.  But, there is something satisfying and fascinating about digging my own out of the ground.  As I work, I feel connected to the earth.  I love that my clothes are increasingly muddy and my hands and arms (and even face) turn yellow-orange from the clay I wash off the rocks I mine.  I love watching the faces of the children – both young and old – standing beside me asking “is this one?” or exclaiming “I found one!”

My prize for the day come in the form of a nearly perfect dodecahedral garnet crystal.  The rangers all agree: “very nice.”  Along with it, I take three grams of garnet (the rangers weigh everything that comes out of the site) and leave with a smile on my face, a song in my heart and stained yellow-orange clothes and skin.  More than that, I leave with the satisfaction that connected with mother earth, I know exactly where my rocks were born.

For pictures of Idaho, Washington State and Victoria, BC –> Click Here

Glacier Rocks! (and the story of how I almost didn’t make it out alive)

My pattern of pulling up to park entrance gates late in the afternoon is not broken by the time I reach Glacier National Park.  I know immediately — even though the sign says “open” — that there will be no camping available in the main campground by the time I get there.  And, as luck would have it, the lesbian couple on motorcycles in front of me score the very last camp site in Fish Creek that evening.  I am OK with this outcome as I intend to stay in the back country anyway.  I drive and watch as the bars representing my cell phone reception disappear.

Amazing Bowman Lake

Bowman Lake is a 16 mile drive (10 miles unpaved) from the Apgar (West Glacier) entrance to the Polebridge (north west) entrance, then another six miles on rough, dusty road where to drive any faster than 25 MPH is certain car death.  A small mercantile at Polebridge sells supplies and amazing sticky buns, but I blaze past in search of a place to sleep for the night.  Bowman Lake campground on a Thursday night is practically empty – a few other campers are there – and friendly.  I set up my tent and sleeping arrangements and then take a walk.  I am slapped in the face by the awesome beauty of Bowman Lake.

I meet a friendly older man, Leo, and (presumably) his son, John.  They offer me firewood and advice on hikes and avoiding the bears: “you don’t have to worry about them for about four miles, but always makes lots of noise”.  I jump in the lake; the water is so cold that it hits my skin like a million shards of glass.  I swim 10 feet and start to hyperventilate.  The cold snaps me into thisreality – I know I am alive – I yell at the top of my lungs: “whoo hoo!”  That night I light a fire with the wood that Leo and John gave me, and watch as the orange and red flames dance around the pit.

Stars over Bowman Lake

The stars that night are mind-blowing.  One of the things that I miss the most in NYC is my relationship with the stars – when I look up on a clear night and witness the millions of tiny lights in the sky I feel more connected to the universe, the planet.  I no longer feel small or insignificant – I don’t think that we are just a fleck of dust whirling in empty space.  My presence in this world is significant and observing the universe allows god to witness his/her/it’s amazing creation.

The next morning I get up and decide, after looking at a map, that I am going to do the Quartz Lake loop. Twelve miles.  If I leave by 8 am, I should be back before lunch, I think to myself.  I grab a liter of water, a pack of Trader Joe’s Turkey Jerky and two Cliff Bars.  The trail has two inclines – one of about 900 feet and the other of about 1000 feet – on either end of the hike.  Any real hiker will look at my preparation and start to worry.  I start out along Bowman lake and rather than taking the harder incline first, which I had intended to do, I take the easier.  I am sweating and panting just a mile into my hike.  Even in the cooler air, I begin to strip clothes as I walk . . . and walk.

Quartz Lake and her smaller sister, Lower Quartz Lake, are beautiful, secluded, undeveloped and primitive. I meet two groups of campers at Quartz Lake and forgo the naked dip out of fear that I might interfere with their peace.  Lower Quartz Lake is a different story – one group and by now – nine miles into the hike – I am exhausted, sweaty and bug bitten.  I strip off my clothes and jump in – again the feeling of the cold, recently glacier-frozen water hits my skin.  “Whoo hoo!” I yell, and leap out quickly, before I cannot catch my breath.  Well past the lunch hour now, I don’t have time to waste – I must get back to camp.  I borrow some bug repellent, finish the turkey jerky and eat my last cliff bar.

In no time I see the final 1000 foot incline – a mountain – representing the last two miles of the trek.  I take my last swig of water and begin.  Here is where I realize that the level of fitness I THINK I am capable of and the actual level are different.  Add to this my poor planning – I am out of water, food and energy – and I start to doubt my ability to survive this walk in the woods.  I sweat profusely and pant almost uncontrollably.  I hunch over and grab my knees to catch my breath.  I imagine the hikers behind me finding me dehydrated, nearly dead and curled in fetal position on the side of trail; I decide this is not an option (vanity pushes me forward). I start counting the number of steps I take; agreeing with myself that if I take one hundred steps, I can lay down and take 100 breathes.  I do this for the next 1000 – 1200 steps, sometimes going a little over or under so I can rest in the shade.  Finally, the top of the mountain.  The last mile of the hike is downhill.  “I can do this!” I think to myself.

By the time I made it back to my tent – well after 2 pm – my legs are cramping so bad that I cannot lay down.  I eat a whole watermelon and some energy beans (basically souped-up Jelly Belly jellybeans) and drink a liter or two of water.  Leo suggests potassium or bananas for the cramping, so I drive back to the mercantile in Polebridge.  No bananas, so a sticky bun – or two – will have to do.  It does the trick (along with four Advil) and I am able to sleep well that night.  I make myself dinner, then sit back and look around.  The lake, trees, stars and everything else is even more beautiful than it was just the day before.

Looking back, I guess any quest would neither be meaningful nor complete without moments where one’s survival was in question.  Next time, I will plan better.

For pictures of Mt. Rushmore, Devil’s Tower, Glacier Nat’l Park and more –> Click Here

Yellowstone Sucks, or Does It?

I get to Yellowstone late in the afternoon and see by the sign in front of me that nearly every campsite is “Full.”  All except three, that is, that seem farthest from where I chose to enter the park.  “I have to get a campsite,” I think to myself as I entertain the familiar feeling of rush.  Can’t stop along the way – I tell myself – I’ll come back to see whatever everyone else is looking at, stopped along the side of the road.  Yellowstone is a huge park, and I don’t realize how spread out it is until I am driving for some time and only cover one tiny part of the side road on the map.  I push on to find a campsite before the car in front of me does.

Bison in the fields of Yellowstone

Two hours into the drive, I am frustrated and angry with my fellow park-goers.  Why did they choose this month to come to the park?  Oh, yeah, they have kids and the kids are out of school.  I cant stand kids, or people for that matter.  And the traffic is awful – do THEY have to stop for every damn buffalo, moose and river? I watch them as they jump out of their cars wide-eyed and breathless with camera in hand.  I plot how I might mow them down and still make the Mammoth Campground by dark.  Still, I push on . . . must find camping.

My head continues it’s dialog: And Yellowstone sucks anyway, I don’t even want to stay here – I mean, it’s all tourists – and they suck, and . . . . . GET OUT OF MY WAY! . . . there are no spirits on this land – it’s not sacred – it’s just ugly, ugly, ugly.  Yellowstone is more like an attraction, a natural Disney of sorts.  That’s why I can’t stand it – and rightfully so, who would like this place?  GET OUT OF MY WAY!

Two and a half hours into my mental tirade of a drive, it occurs to me that 1) I am making this situation far worse than it needs to be and 2) I am meant to be on a sight-seeing trip – tourists or no tourists.  Then I do something miraculous: I stop my air-conditioned Jeep, get out, and walk 100 yards to an overlook: everything changes in that moment.  I walk on and am slapped in the face by the beauty of Yellowstone.  As I walk, I touch the trees, smell the air and feel the sun.  I notice fascination and awe on the faces of the young and old explorers who walk next to me snapping pictures along the way.  I watch swallows feast on bugs over a river than is 400 – 500 feet below.

Birds in Yellowstone

I had been listening to . . . and believing . . . what my head was telling me.  That non-stop narrative on everything.  It’s like having a close friend with you 24 hours a day who won’t shut up, and then believing everything they say.  The remedy, I find, is two fold: first to recognize that there is both the observer and the observed.  When I can observe my thoughts, I am not as attached to them and I can actually be entertained by what’s thought.  The second part of the remedy is to take action – stop the car, take a walk, change my physical environment.  The bottom line for me is don’t believe everything my mind tells me.  Much of it is wrong, some it is lies, and all of it will mess me up if I only see the world through that lens.

Although I didn’t spend as much time as I would have liked in Yellowstone, I made a commitment to come back to the park another time (e.g., when the summer hoards have gone back to their homes, school and communities).  And, I will plan better the next time I venture to Yellowstone.

Devil’s Tower

Devil's Tower

The first thing I think when I see Devil’s Tower up close is: I want to climb him! And I do – I want to scale all 867 feet of the tower . . . if for no other reason than to say I did it! Maybe it’s a typical male response. Maybe not. I don’t know. What I do know is that the nation’s first National Monument emits an energy that I can feel from miles away. I am as drawn to it as the people who sculpted it out of mashed potatoes and mud in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (still one of my all time favorite movies). If there is not alien energy coming from the Tower, there certainly is something unique flowing from this one-of-a-kind formation.

After setting up camp at the base of the Tower, I head to the ranger’s “fireside chat” to learn about the ecology of the park. Chancey, an attractive, young man with funky glasses (not unlike the ones I wore after college, which makes me like him immediately), tells us – with great skill I might add – about how each of the major species of plants, prey and predators fits into the ecology of the park. He tells us that scientists still debate how the Tower actually formed – they agree it formed a long time ago, underground, but beyond that there is lively discussion in the scientific world on the matter. Half way through his talk I notice an HRC sticker – I think: I give to them too!

The Bears' Claw Marks

More than ecology, the stories Chancy tells that grab my attention are the Native American tales of how Devil’s Tower was formed. Tribes have different narratives, though remarkably some core elements (e.g. seven sisters or sever brothers) are the same. One history of Devil’s Tower goes like this: seven sisters were playing in the forest one morning when they heard bears. Afraid for their lives they ran; the bears wanted to eat the girls – they were hungry – so they chased the sisters. The girls knew they could not out run the bears, so they found the biggest rock they could in the forest, climbed on top, and begged the rock to save them. The rock obliged and rose up out of the forest, while the bears clawed at them. As the rock grew, the bears would claw at the girls and slide back down the rock into the forest. Today, you can still see where the bears clawed at the mountain. The sisters were saved, but they were now way up high on the rock. In their tribe was a family of seven brothers and some had magical powers – one was able to fly up and save the girls. To make sure this never happened again, the seven brothers hunted and killed every bear in the forest for miles around – all except for two, that is. Those two had their long tails cut short as a punishment to all bears for trying to eat the seven sisters. And that is why bears today have short tails.

I love this story; I look at Devil’s Tower and can see the bear claw marks in the mountain.

The following morning, I take a short hike around the mountain – it feels as though I am the only person in the park (that is, until I reach the visitor’s center). I listen to the Tower, to the wind, the trees and rocks. There are many stories here. Although I don’t climb this time, I make a mental commitment to return with ropes and harness (and a bit more experience).