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

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Sedona: Does this Vortex Come in a Tablet?

“Do you know where this vortex thingy is?” a man asks heading up the red dirt trail.  “I think it’s up in that direction.  You’ll see a bunch of people meditating.”  I cough, then walk the other way.   “Oh, goody,” he says clutching a Canon Rebel and smiling at his female companion.

Energy Tourists at Boynton Canyon

Sedona, Arizona is a spiritual tourism mecca and one of those places that people say, “You must stop and see.”  I have come in search of energy.  More specifically, in search of the energy vortexes  said to be scattered around the area.  My visit comes at a time when I’m nursing a bad cold, complete with sneezing, fatigue, fever and cough.  I have three days to see four sites.  More than enough time if I can find the, uh, energy.

The problem in locating, precisely, these “vortexes of subtle energy” is that there are no x-marks-the-spot signs indicating “here is the vortex” or “this way to the energy.”  Instead, one must read online accounts and feel their way to the right place.  One website (John and Miki’s Metaphysical Site), the one I use to find the vortexes, says: “You’ll notice that the energy is strong as soon as you get out of your car” in certain areas.  “Strong” is a relative term.

Red Rock Crossing/Cathedral Rock

The first vortex I assail is Red Rock Crossing/Cathedral Rock, located on Route 89A to the west of town.  As instructed, I enter Crescent Moon Park, pay the $9.00 fee, and continue to the farthest point where I can park.  From there, I walk a short distance along Oak Creek through beautiful maple, juniper, sycamore and oaks trees.  Fall leaves are an intense golden yellow with splotches of orange and green.  On the path are pillars, six-inches to two-feet high, of smooth river rocks stacked precariously one on top of the other that people have carefully erected.  My cell phone abruptly stops functioning and turns off completely.  I click it on several times to no avail.

The website says this center “strengthens the feminine side” that exists in all spiritual beings.  I didn’t know that energy has gender, but I’m open to the idea.  As I walk, my heart beat increases, though I am not certain if it’s the DayQuil, extra weight I carry around my midsection, or the vortex.  The prominent emotion building in me is anger.  I scream, in my head, at the other tourists who linger in several landscape photos I wish to take.  My iPhone still will not click on.

I recenter myself – after all, this is a special place and I am trying to have a spiritual experience.  Breathing in the fresh air and scenic location, I build a small rock tower.  Not as nice or elaborate as some, but it adds to the multitude of altars.  I pray and set an intention to welcome more feminine energy into my life.  Then, I walk back the way I came.  Before making it back to my car, I notice a man sitting on a log.  He grumbles, then pushes over some of the rock pillars.  Apparently I am not the only one who feels anger here.

Boynton Canyon 

Sedona Road Runner

The next center I pay homage to is Boynton Canyon, northeast of Cathedral Rock about 4 miles.  In the parking lot, I notice “parking permit required” signs.  Other cars display papers in their windshields, and after minor investigation I see an automatic pay box where for $5 a day I can get a permit – credit cards accepted.  I hate being nickled and dimed, so grumble to myself while inserting my card.  Total amount to see the two energy sites is now $14.

I follow the Boynton Canyon Trail to Vista Trail, just a short walk.  Along the way, my cell phone, which I have clicked a few times, reboots itself.  I overhear someone comment, “I don’t know where this what-ever-it-is is, but let’s go this way.”  I go the opposite direction, not wanting my experience to be disturbed.

Juniper trees jut out of smooth red boulders.  A couple in front of me points out a roadrunner off in the distance.  On this trail, I notice a vibrational hum coming from the earth.  I hear it in other places, but it sounds deeper here.  The website, which I pull up on my iPhone, says this energy center helps “balance the masculine and feminine.”  Again I feel my heart beat faster as I approach the supposed site.

I never find what I consider the exact location of the vortex, but decide my visit here is complete after saying a short prayer in an area where others are praying, meditating and even napping.

Airport Vortex

View from Airport Vortext

The third vortex is due east of Boynton Canyon on Route 89A at Airport Road.  Up a short trail, the site overlooks the city of Sedona.  I see the same “permits required” signage, which makes my masculine blood boil.  Here I decide to use the same permit from the last location – and rush through the experience less I be caught.  Not until later, do I realize that the permits are good for all locations, all day.

Before walking into the area, I center myself to see if I can really feel the energy.  I’m expecting it to hit me like a tab of ecstasy or LSD.  It does not.  By now, I am exhausted from the short walks taken in the name of spiritual growth.  I pause, breath deeply, then walk 200 feet up the path to the overlook.  Other visitors surround me, meditating, talking, walking deep in thought.  Images of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead play in my head as someone shuffles by expressionless.

This location actually has a pile of rocks enclosed in a metal cage that appears to mark the spot.  Offerings – dollar bills, flowers, personal notes, pictures – are placed carefully in between the red stones and wire.  I consider reclaiming the dollar bills, but decide karma might not look so kindly on such an action.  I have nothing in my pockets but my phone and wallet.  I thumb through it for something to leave, but find nothing.  I offer another prayer and set another intention.

Once again I experience a light, rapid feeling in my chest – my heart center – sort of like a strong cup of Starbucks first thing in the morning.  Being that this is the third time in as many locales, I determine the experience must be due to the vortexes.  I meditate, finding a nice, smooth boulder on which to sit.  The few moments I spend are filled with incessant chatter . . . from my own head.

Bell Rock

Bell Rock, Sedona

The fourth and final vortex I visit is located south of town at a pull out just off Route 179.  Pulling into the parking lot, I leave the permit from the previous day on my dashboard hoping to skirt the $5 fee (which I do).  It means I have to rush through the vortex or risk a ticket should some meticulous cop cruise the lot.

Bell Rock is a short, beautiful hike to a very “Sedona” place.  It overlooks a large bell-shaped geological formation covered in smooth red boulders and juniper trees.  The website says of finding the specific location: “Notice the twisted Juniper trees.”  I see branches twisting on themselves in a circular fashion as if growing in a slight whirlwind.  People are abundant in this location.  I notice tourists with cameras, maps, and a familiar look in their eyes – almost as if they have just spotted big game on safari.

This vortex supposedly strengthens all three of the previous areas: feminine, masculine, and the feminine/masculine balance.  I don’t notice much in this place – maybe because I haven’t paid my fair share of parking or maybe because the DayQuil is just kicking in.  Either way, I pause, then say a prayer for the land and breathe in the fresh air, red rocks, trees and land.

I come to the conclusion that feeling energy in each of the locations is nothing like drugs.  In most cases it is not even as powerful as a cup of coffee.  But, if I am willing to pause, listen and breathe, I might notice something just below the surface of perception.

Before I leave town, I catch up with my new friend, Malaika, the Australian/vegetarian/dance instructor I met in Oregon.  She has spent a month in Sedona – full of adventure – and is about to head off to Florida in a van she bought for $4500.  We review her and my adventures, misadventures, love, and loss on the road. It’s fun to compare notes.  We agree to meet along the way, perhaps for lunch in Austin or a swamp tour in Louisiana.

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.

Scoring P*$$y at Baker

It has been years since I have visited  Baker Beach – the famous clothing optional strand within the San Francisco city limits – and I am excited.  SF gets nice weather – the nicest, I think – in September when fog gives way to brief, but much needed, “Indian Summer.”  Mika, the dog I am sitting, is a nudist and she is equally excited to beach while her parents are out of town.  She and I climb into Dusty, who is now furry inside, and head to the oceanfront park inside what used to be the SF Presidio.

We find parking quickly, which is unusual on a warm weekend day, and make the short walk to the shore.  As we hit the sand, Mika overflows with excitement.  She looks at me, the beach, then back at me.  Seeming to beg “let me off this leash,” I unhook her from the chains of bondage around her neck.  She takes off running down the beach after a tennis ball – the back of her butt looks like a bunny hopping feverishly down the sand; it’s cute and comical at the same time.  “Beautiful dog,” one passerby comments.

Dog on Baker

Mika loves to play catch, but with a twist.  I throw the ball, she runs bunny-butt style down the beach and even into the oncoming surf; she chomps on it a few times, turns around to look at me, then drops the ball and walks away.  “Get your ball,” I shout, to which she continues walking the other way.  As I run up to grab the ball before it is forever lost to the unforgiving sea, she turns back around (as if she hasn’t been watching), takes the ball in her mouth and takes off running down the beach.  I wonder whose game we’re playing: mine or hers?  Another person notes: “nice dog! Corgi?”

Besides the nudists, a prominent feature of Baker Beach is the view of Golden Gate Bridge.  It looms large and magnificent to the north, just beyond the rocks where nudist pose and sun themselves.  Mika’s game of catch leads us forward in that direction.  We reach the clothing optional section and notice people of all shapes, ages and colors basking in the sun.  There is different energy about a naturalist beach.  Sunbathers seem friendly and uninterested in the standard of beauty displayed on the newsstand.  It’s refreshing.  In fact, I sometimes love to check out older men, imagining for a moment what I will look like when I am eighty and naked.  I pray that I live long enough to see winkles cover my war-torn chassis and lines lay deep in the foundation of a laugh-filled face.

Looking up, I notice one man with a t-shirt, and nothing else, posing on the rocks.  He is next to fully-clothed Chinese tourists positioning themselves on the rocks with their children in front of the bridge.  They’ll rotate with one another so everyone has a chance to have their picture taken.  Naked T-shirt Man (NTM) rotates with Completely Nude Guy (CNG) as they guard and protect their claim to this area.  I snap a few pictures of the bridge, tourists and nudists.

It is not long before I am surround by a small gang or what I surmise are teenage women, maybe just barely legal or even college age (it’s hard to tell from this side of forty).  They are talking about Mika as if I am not there, which is a bit strange, in the worse form of Valley Girl dialect I have heard yet.

Girl #1: “Oh, he’s [sic] so cute, I wonder what his name is?”

Girl #2: “I wonder if he’s friendly.”

Girl #3: “Oh my gawd, I want that dawg.”

Girl #2: “Totally, I want that dawg.”

They continue this banter for a short time.  Mika ignores them and plays in the surf.  “Good dog,” I think to myself.  Finally, the threesome discuss something else – shopping, I think.

A few moments pass and the banter from the gaggle starts again.  “Man, I wish I had brought the pot that I left at home for us to smoke.”  One of the girls says this loud enough for me, and the two men (NTM & CNG) on the opposite rocks, to hear.   Some sort of San Francisco Gen Y mating call?  Another moment passes and their conversation continues, again as if I am not there:

Girl #1: “he’s kind of cute.”

Girl #2: “you mean thaaaat one in the hat?”  (I scan and I’m the only dude in visual distance wearing a hat)

Girl #1: “uh, yeah”

Girl #3: “I’d tap that.”

Girl # 1 and #2 together: “yeah, I’d definitely tap that.”

Baker in Full View

Suddenly, I think I know how women feel when walking past a group of cat-calling construction workers.  I am being objectified, right here on the nude beach in San Fran.  I can’t believe what I am hearing!

Just as the future ladies of the night are about to (gasp) ask me a direct question, a wave douses Mika.  She runs up onto the beach and shakes it off.  I laugh and the girls do too.  Saved by a wave.  I walk up to get Mika.  Glancing up at the CNG on the rocks, I notice he is completely shaved down under.  I wonder to myself why guys do that – it leads to nothing but pimples and uncharacteristic scratching for me.  He nods (and I swear winks) at me knowingly and then looks at the girls.  I shudder, then collect my Corgi companion to we make our way back down the beach to the safety of Dusty.  “Pretty dog” someone shouts as we exit the beach.

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

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.