A Year to Remember

In October 2010 while living in San Diego, on a whim, I decided to raise some money to attend a fundraising camping trip out in Joshua Tree National Park. I was newly single, working full time, attending school, and looking for a fun new way to meet people and get outside of my routine. That fateful weekend was when I first met Andrew, who was a guide on the trip. He seemed pretty cute under his greasy, dirty bandana and scruffy facial hair, but I wasn’t sure this hippie kid was for me. He tried to impress me with his knowledge of the constellations, and over the next several months would take me on late-night excursions to nearby hilltops to observe the cosmos free from the glare of city lights.

That was the first indication I had that maybe there was more to Andrew than dirty feet and a freewheeling lifestyle, but it didn’t stop there. I often found myself listening to his philosophical rants, not quite understanding his logic but fascinated with his interest and curiosity about matters of the mind and soul. His hugs were (and are) incredibly warm and comforting. He has wonderful, crinkly laugh lines that light up his face and soften my heart. He is incredibly stubborn, and loves a good argument, but is quick to apologize when he gets overzealous and accidentally hurts my feelings.

Andrew has changed me in ways I never expected when I first met him. Or rather he has allowed me to change and grow by encouraging me, nurturing me, and exposing me to new and exciting things. In the past two years I have gone from a dissatisfied, rather bored, uncertain consumer to a confident, energized, adventurous producer. Starting with our first Christmas together, we decided no store-bought presents were allowed. We rarely stray from this rule. That first year I gave him a painting of his dog Zephyr. For his birthday last week I commissioned a cool guy I found on Craigslist to make a BBQ out of a burn barrel. It sure beats wandering around the mall, trying to make a mass-produced item “fit” my unique, one-of-a-kind, wonderfully picky husband!

One year ago Andrew and I took our vows of foreverhood, among friends and family in the beautiful desert where we first met. Since that moment, my life has been nothing but a whirlwind of awesomesauce. Yeah, that good. Obviously there are moments where we argue, or where things are difficult. We are human, and we are both stubborn. But when I take a quiet moment to think back on how much fun, adventure, love, joy, and warmth I have experienced this past year I am blown away. This has certainly been the best year of my life, and I know that from this point forward it is only going to get better. With Andrew as my partner, I am confident I can navigate this crazy world blissfully and with a passion that only he can inspire.

Happy one year anniversary my Love! Here’s to many, many more!

Ain’t Life Grand?

We entered Arizona on a blustery day, which led to several entertaining complications. Just as we crossed the border, Andrew yelled some profanities and I looked behind us to see that the hatchback to the trailer had managed to pop open. The latch for the hatchback had broken many miles and states before, but there was enough weight in the door to keep it down. I’m not sure if the wind is completely to blame, but for some reason the door had swung up and open, and so we pulled over to assess the damage. My first concern was for the coffee, especially since it had been so cold and wet these last few days and coffee has become my morning lifeblood. I ran back and saw that the coffee was still safe and sound, and assumed that meant everything else was in order. We secured the door with a bungee cord and continued on our way, unaware until later that we had actually lost four plastic cups and my vanilla sweetener somewhere down the highway.

The second funny thing happened when we pulled over at a scenic overlook so Andrew could make a sandwich. It was incredibly windy so I decided to stay in the truck while Andrew fought the wind. Apparently the wind won out, as I once again heard Andrew swearing. I opened my door in time to see bread, ham, and cheese go flying past. Andrew had set his sandwich down for a second on the tailgate and the wind had lifted it up and sent it sailing. Not one to let a good sandwich go to waste, Andrew put it back together after attempting to brush out the gravel. It turned out to be a rather crunchy sandwich, and he ate begrudgingly with a hearty side of grumbling.

We continued on into Northern Arizona, driving through the Navajo Nation Indian Reservation on our way to the Grand Canyon. Heavy, dark clouds loomed ahead, warning us of the cold, wet weather to come. I zoned out in the warm truck, delirious from lack of sleep and the physical exertion of our morning hike in Zion. On the radio we picked up a local Navajo station, and I was lulled into a spiritual stupor by the steady drumbeat and harmonic chanting as we passed increasingly impressive chasms and colorful canyons.

Our first order of duty upon entering the National Park was to take showers. We arrived at 5 PM, and only had one hour before the showers closed so we high-tailed it over to the laundry/shower facility.  I was still cold and damp from our rain-soaked hike, so I was prepared to spend $4 for 16 minutes of shower time. As I put in my first two dollars, the machine got jammed, and when I pushed with force one of my quarters popped back out. I don’t know what happened, but the shower started running, and not only was the water hot and wonderful, somehow the timer was disabled and so I was able to shower as long as I liked for $1.75. I was so stoked for this little bit of luck, I felt like I could go out and buy a lottery ticket and win the jackpot.

After our showers we were wonderfully warm and dry, just in time for the hail/sleet/snow to start falling. At this point we couldn’t imagine sitting outside in the cold trying to cook and enjoy our dinner, so we took advantage of how developed the Grand Canyon is and headed to a restaurant. We had a mediocre and overpriced meal, but I would have paid double just to sit inside and drink my spiked coffee. After dinner we went back to our campsite to let Zephyr run a bit, since he had been cooped up in the truck all day. As we shivered in the snow, Zephyr ran, romped, rolled, and shook about, in love with the weather. Being half husky he is naturally prepared for the cold, and his joy was palpable. That night I made a promise to Zephyr that I would never take him to Florida, or any tropical locale, ever again!

The next morning I awoke early to the eerie silence that accompanies bitterly cold weather. I bundled up and went outside to let Zephyr out, but was thwarted by the frozen truck doors. After a lot of yanking, pulling, and cursing I pried open the back door and let him out. I fed him and then grabbed his water bowl, only to find a thick layer of ice instead! We had some fun sliding on frozen puddles, and then packed up and headed to an overlook parking lot that was in the sun to cook our breakfast.

Sun aside it was a frigid morning, with a temperature of 27° F and a wind-chill of 18° F! We ate our breakfast quickly, and had a brisk walk along the Grand Canyon’s rim. We would have preferred to take a hike down into the canyon, but dogs are strictly forbidden and so we satisfied ourselves with the occasional rock scramble to get some good photos. After our stroll we loaded up and drove out into the chilly Northern Arizona day with our cold noses pointed south towards my native city of Tucson.

You Ought to See Utah

Utah is a land of many wonders, and so although we were sad to leave Moab and our friends, we were excited to check out more National Parks in the state. We headed west and arrived at Canyonlands National Park after dark, so we quickly set up camp and headed to bed. The next morning we drove through some of the scenic areas and parked at a trailhead where we made breakfast and enjoyed the sunshine. As we were sitting there quietly drinking our coffee I heard the unmistakable revving of engines in duress, and I looked up to see some awesome Jeep off-roaders heading up the cliff side. Canyonlands is one of the few National Parks that allows this kind of activity, and it was fun to watch these little vehicles with giant tires navigate rocky paths and boulders while driving at 70-degree angles. After breakfast we took a little stroll with Zephyr to check out some “pothole communities,” which are little holes in the rock that fill up with water in the rainy season and allow strange creatures to thrive. Unfortunately all of the potholes were dry, but we enjoyed the surrounding red rock “needles” and the fresh air.

After leaving Canyonlands we continued to head southwest through Utah. The geology of this mostly uninhabited region of the United States is phenomenal. We wished multiple times that we had a magic lamp we could rub to summon my geologist stepfather Dale, so we could learn about these amazing formations. The next National Park we hit was Capitol Reef, a park I had never even heard of before we arrived. It is a small park with similar geology to Canyonlands, but through the center of the canyon is a small river that provides enough water for an orchard and homestead that pioneer Mormons established back in the day. We camped near the orchards, but were disappointed that the fruit trees were done producing for the season. Apparently if you arrive at the right time you are free to go collect as much fruit as you want!

Up next in Utah was Bryce Canyon, which now sits at the top of my list of most beautiful places visited on this trip. We arrived thinking we would just do the usual drive through, but Ranger Kevin in the visitor center advised us that Bryce Canyon has the “best three-mile hike in the world.” It is even printed on their map as such, and so we felt compelled to check it out. We left Zephyr in the truck (with a silent prayer that he stays put), and gave ourselves a goal of finishing the hike in one hour and 15 minutes. We managed to meet this goal, despite stopping a million times to take photographs of the wondrous rock formations. At one point on the trail we discovered a Cairn forest, and of course we built our own Cairns to leave our temporary mark on this wonderful hike. (If you don’t know what a Cairn is, see the photo below.) We hurried back to the visitor center to thank Ranger Kevin and we had to concur: so far that was definitely the best three-mile hike we have ever been on!

I was sad to leave Bryce, but the call of Zion was strong, and so we headed even further west to this famous site. Several times as we drove through Utah and visited its marvels I thought to myself, I can see why the Mormons settled here! Coming across the plains in a covered wagon and stumbling into this wild land with its enormous, balancing red rocks, spires, and arches, it’s no wonder they thought this was sacred land! Of course this land was sacred to the native peoples well before the Mormons arrived, and I am happy to add myself to the long list of people who find wonder, awe, and inspiration in this amazing place.

When we arrived at Zion I immediately compared it to Bryce Canyon. Zion is huge, incredibly developed, and immensely popular, while Bryce allows more of a feeling of new discovery to the visitor. Initially I was dubious about Zion’s merits, especially since the campground we pulled into was crowded, unimpressive, and expensive. The night was cold and wet, and I had a hard time sleeping with the howling wind and fat raindrops beating on the teardrop. The next morning we awoke early and drove to a trailhead for a hike Andrew was determined to accomplish. Initially I was worried about leaving Zephyr in the truck for so long, since the hike was a steep and difficult 5.4 miles. Fortunately the weather was miserable, and so we were confident Zephyr would be more than happy in his warm truck house for several hours.

We headed up the trail to Angel’s Landing in the cold drizzle, which involved many switchbacks and steep hills. After a few hours of climbing, we arrived at a point where you basically scramble up boulders while clinging to chains that have been installed “for safety.” The chains were wet, cold, and slippery, and I had to wear my mittens to keep the blood flowing to my fingers. We finally arrived at the top, and were rewarded with a gorgeous view of the immense valley that was carved eons ago by the beautiful Virgin River. As we sat amazed and stupefied by the scenery, the skies opened and hail began to fall. We made a hasty retreat back down the rocks, mumbling curses as large hailstones made contact with our heads. The hike back down was hard on the knees, but we were smart enough to bring our hiking poles, which definitely helped. Despite being good planners and having our raincoats on, I had stubbornly worn my jeans and suffered for it. By the time we arrived back at the truck we were soaked and cold to the bone.

We did a quick clothing change in the parking lot as one lone thunderclap exploded overhead. I was grateful we had safely descended before the weather became dangerous. As we hiked down we saw many people just starting their ascent, including a group of teenagers hiking in cotton sweatshirts and tennis shoes. I crossed my fingers that they were smart enough to know when to turn back. As we piled into the truck we said hello to Zephyr, who (as predicted), had enjoyed a nice warm nap. We blasted the heater in an attempt to warm our bodies to a temperature that matched our exhilarated spirits, and then headed out of Utah and towards the Grand Canyon.

Prairie Dog Salvation, All Hallow’s Eve, and a Bucket Shower

The scenery during our several-hour drive through the Texas panhandle was fairly monotonous, with lots of heavy machinery emblazoned with the Halliburton logo, dirt, scrub brush, more dirt, and jack pumps sprinkled throughout. Our favorite Texas memory was witnessing the world’s fattest prairie dog run for his life across a freeway on ramp. He barely escaped death by rubber, and as soon as he crossed safely he collapsed flat on his big belly and tried to catch his breath. It was adorable, and much better than witnessing a fresh road kill!

We passed through Texas without stopping, and entered New Mexico where we stopped for lunch along a random dirt road in an open ranch area. We drove over several large bumps, and though we were careful to make sure Gertie was secure, we managed to knock off the license plate on our trailer. Of course we didn’t notice this until we were long gone, and I imagine some cattleman on his horse finding a California license plate out in the middle of nowhere and thinking how crazy Californians must truly be.

In Santa Fe we hit up our two favorite stores: REI and Trader Joe’s. We tried to get some ideas for Halloween fun, but most of the young people we talked to said that Santa Fe is more of a quiet, retiree town so we decided to head up the mountain to Los Alamos for some camping and sightseeing. We drove up the mountain pass at night and twice we had to hit our brakes hard as large bull elk bounded across the road in front of the truck. We have seen plenty of elk on this trip, but when they are that close to you their size and antlers are nothing short of breathtaking.

At this point I hadn’t had a hot shower since leaving Hot Springs several days ago, but we opted to camp out in the National Forest without any amenities.  It was a very cold night with a brilliant full moon, and the next morning we were a little grumpy when we discovered that the regulator on our stove was shot, and we would have to go without our coffee. We drove through the area admiring the geological sights, including a giant caldera that looked like a huge dry grassland, complete with a massive elk party. We thanked New Mexico for her hospitality and beauty, and then headed into southern Colorado to check out Great Sand Dunes National Park.

By the time we arrived at Great Sand Dunes it was late in the day, and since it was Halloween we put on the masks we bought in New Orleans and set up camp. There were several other campers in the campground, although we were the only ones silly enough to dress up. I was tempted to go trick or treating, but Andrew convinced me that it was very unlikely the elderly couple in the trailer next door had a surplus of candy and/or alcohol, so I was contented to sit by the fire with my husband and dog (who was decidedly perplexed by my newly acquired cat face).

I was still desperate for a shower, so before the sun set completely Andrew set up one of his famous “bucket showers.” We have two galvanized buckets, one of which has holes poked into the bottom. We stack them together, and heat up water on the fire. Then Andrew places them up high on a tree branch and when I’m ready he pulls the outer bucket off and I have a shower! We try to place the extra bucket down below in a way to catch some runoff, and this way he can refill my shower for me a couple of times before the water runs out. It wasn’t as nice as a real shower, but desperate times call for desperate measures and I’m grateful that my husband is so clever and handy!

The next day we hiked up the sand dunes with Zephyr, who is a pro at sand dune hiking since we took him on a similar hike in the Mojave Preserve last year. Hiking to the top is excruciatingly slow and difficult, and requires lots of resting. As you climb up it’s basically two steps forward, one step back, but the views at the top and the satisfaction of completing your goal are well worth it. Even better is the fun of sliding, running, rolling, and skating down the sand dunes once you’re done! This is also Zephyr’s favorite part, and the three of us yelping, running, and streaming down the dunes must have been a sight to behold!

That night we headed west to Durango, a small fun Colorado town I had previously visited as a child. We found a replacement regulator (hallelujah!), did some laundry, and hit up Durango Joe’s coffee shop for some chai tea lattes and free Wi-Fi. Andrew took Zephyr on a walk and made friends with some locals, who advised us to take the drive up to Telluride, which would add about five hours to our trip but is supposedly well-worth it, with a crazy mountain pass and beautiful vistas.

That night we found a campground next to a lake, and picked a spot that costs $34 in the summer season. Fortunately for us it was off-season, and with our inter-agency annual pass we only needed to pay $4.75. Thank goodness too, because even the bathrooms were locked and we were required to dig our own holes, hoping all along that the resident black bears were already dormant for the winter.  We went to bed early shivering in the cold, ready for our next Colorado adventure.

I Feel Better Already!

Hot Springs National Park is the strangest National Park we have yet to visit. The town of Hot Springs, Arkansas sprang up in the 1800s because of the natural hot mineral water that flowed into a nearby river, and people would come to sit in the river for recreation. Eventually it was determined, (through what kind of testing I have no idea), that these waters were beneficial to health, and so a city was built with various bath houses that captured the natural hot spring water and diverted it into tubs. Doctors would prescribe their patients trips to Hot Springs to cure their ails, and for the first half of the twentieth century business was booming. The National Park was created in order to preserve the history and healing properties of the area, although really the “park” is actually just the town itself.

Unfortunately, (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), modern medicine was born and with it came miracle drugs like penicillin. People no longer needed to travel to Hot Springs to get well, and the area began a steady decline that is still apparent today. Out of the many historical bathhouses in the town, only one is still in operation in the same fashion as it was 100 years ago. Another has turned into a more modern spa, and the rest of the buildings are being retrofitted and leased into various businesses, including a brewery that is slated to open in the near future.

In light of this decline, it is easy to see why locals are now investing their time and energy into typical tourist traps like the Mafia Museum, along with kitschy shops and mediocre restaurants. They need to do what they can to stay afloat, and if people no longer want to pay for the healing waters, maybe they will pay to learn about Al Capone’s trips to the area. That said, we decided we did want to pay for the waters, and so we checked into a hotel that allowed dogs and had the hot spring water piped into the bathroom. The hotel was a shell of its former glory days from the 1920s, but we still enjoyed the live music in the lobby, the decent restaurant, and the various fountains and spigots that dispensed delicious untreated mineral water.

Exploring the town we discovered that there are fountains everywhere that pump out hot springs water, and several faucets that the public can use to fill up their water jugs. We took advantage of this and now, (over a week later), are still conserving the last of our delicious, magical mineral drinking water. The National Park visitor center was under renovation, so we visited the temporary location which was placed inside the gift shop. It was pretty depressing to see the rangers in their uniforms hawking bathrobes and sea salt soaks, but Hot Springs is an important cultural site and I am grateful the National Park exists here. Because of the National Park designation the old bathhouses must be maintained or refurbished in their original style, so the unique history of this city will forever be preserved, at least on some level.

After a peaceful night enjoying the luxury of the mineral bath, a king sized bed, and bad television we hit the road into Oklahoma. We found a state park alongside a lake, and as we drove up we were greeted by the park ranger. This man was a sight to behold. He was missing a few fingers, and even more teeth, and smoked so many cigarettes that his plastic lighter was attached to his pants via an elastic leash. Looks aside he was quite friendly, and even had us follow him to the best campsite in the park. We were the only campers that night, and Zephyr enjoyed the freedom to run about untethered and swim in the lake.

The next morning we awoke early to frost, and a thick fog was resting on the lake. We had a quick breakfast and with chattering teeth we drove the next few hours into Oklahoma City. I needed a spot to post my blog, (lucky you!), and so we stopped at Elemental Coffee, a hip, industrial-style coffee house with hand pour overs and delicious coffee. Again, as I discovered in Chicago, I know the coffee is good if I don’t need to add a bunch of flavored sweetener! In this case our barista (or baristo?) was a nice young man from Escondido, a town in San Diego County not far from our last home. I asked what on earth brought him to Oklahoma City, and he replied, “I dunno. I just wanted something different.” Obviously someone like me cannot argue with logic so sound. I tip my hat to this fellow adventure seeker. Knowing that there are so many of us out there makes me all warm and fuzzy inside.