Kanab and North Rim of the Grand Canyon

Kanab is another one of those cool border towns for the National Parks.  A place people move to after having traveled through the area at some point or another.  It’s a fairly small, but there are quite a few awesome little restaurants that remind me of my beloved Coral Gables home in Florida.  Unfortunately, these are also places that charge $12 for a side of Brussel sprouts. 

For one evening, I pretended I was back in my hometown and enjoyed an expensive cocktail and dinner at one of these roadside eateries, Rocking V, sharing a conversation with a gentleman who was doing the same.  He was a retired doctor from Canada who sounded like he was going through a mid-life crisis, racing his crotch-rocket down to Mexico.  He made it clear he was interested in high speeds and didn’t have much fear of the road.  It was the kind of awkward conversation that I wouldn’t have stuck around for under normal circumstances, but it was the first time in quite a while that I enjoyed a nice dinner with someone else.  I would learn throughout this trip, that dinner with strangers can be exciting, informative little snapshots into other people’s realities.

My hosts at the Airbnb spent almost 45 minutes telling me about the interesting places I needed to visit nearby.  I mentioned I wanted to see the Grand Canyon so when I left they pointed me in the right direction and told me about two other places I must see along the way.  Looking at the timing I realized it would take too long to go to all of these spots because I still had no clue where I would be staying overnight; so I decided to skip these for now.  I have added Paria, Toadstools, Glen Canyon Dam and Buckskin Gulch to the list of places to come back to see and explore. 

It was hard to leave my Airbnb, where I felt so cozy and welcomed, but I said goodbye to their pet donkeys and set out on the next leg of my adventure.  They were some of the best hosts I have stayed with and I would definitely recommend their Airbnb home if you are in their neck of the woods – which you should be at some point in your life.  

The approach to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon started to look more and more forested as I got closer.  A stark contrast from the dust bowl appearance of Kanab and the surrounding areas.  It’s amazing how different the landscape can change in such a short distance. 

Inside the park, you travel for quite a distance before you approach the lodge.  It was very resortish with the Welcome Center seeming to be a last minute thought.  My first site of the Grand Canyon was through the rustic lodge’s window- large wooden beams highlighted the natural beauty of the place in a way that you imagine Roosevelt himself to be ushering you to view.  I wished I could join the other guests in lounging around the fireside, dining at the patio restaurant and not have to worry about finding a place to sleep for the night.  I searched one last time to see if there was a reasonably priced room but the lodge was by far out of my budget, even factoring in the sublime beauty and convenience.  I would love to come back on a better-planned adventure and stay or eve camp. 

The site from the lodge was such a striking view that I could have just sat on the couch for hours looking at it, but I decided to immerse myself on the short trail that went out to another overlook.  It was only a 15-minute walk round trip, but I took 45 minutes to explore and absorb the staggering view before heading back to my car.  The canyon itself provides an enormous amount of scientific data with exposed formations that were created 500 million years ago and having been carved in the last 70 million years.  If these numbers make you say, “Wha”, they definitely should and the sight itself will humble and render you speechless.  National Geographic Society(2016).  Guide To National Parks of the United States (8th Edition).  Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society.

At this point, the only way to get anywhere was to do some serious backtracking.  There is no bridge over the Grand Canyon (thank God), so I headed out of the park the same way that I went in.  Fortunately, the drive was beautiful. 

From here I could have gone to Paige or Flagstaff for the night.  Being Labor Day weekend, I knew that Paige would be busy, and Flagstaff would seriously take me out of the way. It also wasn’t known for its beautiful outdoor features – however, it would be less time spent on the road.

The landscape turned into a dustbowl once again. I passed through a couple of teeny towns before I made it to the outskirts of Paige and traffic started to back-up.  My hosts from Kanab told me about Horseshoe Bend – it was about an hour hike and very crowded.  I decided to add it to my bucket list and moved on to find a campground at a large reservoir on Labor Day weekend…

Zion National Park

I was glad to arrive in Kanab at my Airbnb, Burro Flats, and find something that more resembled a B&B than a room in a house someone was letting me stay in for a small fee.  The entire first and second level of the house was set up for guests with a constant influx of mostly foreign travelers.  The nearby National Parks were obviously the main draw, and the hosts prided themselves on providing helpful tips and information about how best to see the the area in the allotted amount of time each guest had available. 

My hosts gave me some tips, and despite a fairly large rain storm moving through the area, I hit the road early for my one day at Zion National Park. 

Bighorn Sheep at Zion
Bighorn Sheep at Zion

Upon entering the park, I was welcomed by a herd of Bighorn Sheep easily scaling the steep-sided canyons. 

This park, like Bryce, had a shuttle system and it was still a mandatory requirement.  So, I parked at the visitor center and grabbed my pack for the day, a raincoat, and plenty of layers.  Unfortunately, the finicky battery on my phone died after trying to answer a few questions about a Facebook account that I had been managing.  My failure to charge my backup phone AND my external battery left me sans-technology until I returned to the car. I wasn’t concerned for safety – there is not much reception in the park anyway – but bummed that I would have no way to take pictures.  I chalked it up to fate’s gentle reminder that experiencing is better than being stuck behind a lens and, I got on with living my adventure. 

There were a lot of recommended sights to see, but with the rain, I had to slightly alter my plans.  One of the main canyons was somewhat questionable because of the area’s tendency for flash flooding, and it had been raining since I entered the park.  I hadn’t done much of a hike since Arches National Park a few days prior, so I chose a hefty one: Angel’s Landing. 

Angel’s Landing is on the to-do list of many adventurers.  It’s a 5-mile trail which includes over 21 switchbacks, cool canyons, an overlook where the majority of people like to end their trek, and then an intimidating climb to the top assisted by a series of poles carved into the steep rocks connected by chains.  At many points, hikers must pull themselves up or lower themselves down by these chains.  The instability of the situation was demonstrated by one pole dangling along the rock, held only by the chain – apparently; they don’t always stay fastened into the ground. 

Angel’s Landing was a tough hike for me.  I’m the kind of hiker who likes to stop often for short periods of time to catch my breath and then continue.  I don’t go on for hours and take a long break when there is a lot of elevation involved.  Others…not so much.  One group of guys who blazed passed me talking loudly about their sweet skills, I later found rationalizing why the last ascent was unsafe, and they should turn around. Lesson: everyone does things differently. It’s never good to compare yourself to others especially in situations where you have your doubt to overcome. 

The total elevation gain was 1488 feet with 5.4 miles covered, as per the National Park Service website. 

The park recognizes no less than five deaths on this upper portion of the trail and advertises caution with a large sign stating this fact right before you start on the chained section. 

My hike on that steep section was quite an experience and encouraged a lot of commiserating and friendly bantering between strangers. With narrow trails and room for only one, there is a lot of stepping aside for others and accepting that same offer when others throw it your way. It is nice to offer encouraging words while giving each other a look of “what the hell did we get ourselves into here?”

Because it was extremely challenging and required a lot of fear management, sitting at the top of the overlook was a proud moment for me.  And sitting there, I thought about how this was probably the hardest hike I did on my entire trip. But, it was possible because I wanted to prove to myself that the challenges of the days before (flat tire in the middle of nowhere without phone reception) wouldn’t throw off my determination to live boldly. 

What it reminds me of now, (sitting in my new Oregon home on the opposite side of the country from where I started in Florida all those months ago) is all the major obstacles I ran into on this journey and before, and my ability to deal with them and move on.  It’s impossible to avoid the tests life throws your way. But it is quite fulfilling to use these tests to discover the weaknesses and cracks in your personal foundation and strengthen and grow for the next time around.  Ultimately, it helps us recognize and acknowledge our efforts and achievements, no matter how small they may seem. 

Tire replacement and Bryce Canyon

The story of my day in Bryce begins at a hotel in Torrey, Utah.  A wonderful cute little rustic roadside inn, nothing fancy.  It was special because it was the first bed in five nights (the longest stretch up to this point) and with that, the cleanest, warmest place I had been in for just as many nights.  I woke up fresh with a plan of action to deal with my flat tire.  The fix-a-flat was still working its magic on the bulbous sidewall tear, but I needed to deal with it and move on.  This side-jaunt to Utah was meant to be a quick trip.

My “Uncle Dave,” had helped me purchase this car when mine was totaled and had insisted upon getting a lot of extra protection since I would be “Lord knows where.”  So I pulled out my large envelope of coverage and gave a quick call to the tire protection service.  I had barely owned my car for a month, so they had not even received the registration paperwork yet.  With an edge of panic and maybe a little vinegar in my voice, I called my friends at the dealership and laid it to them straight.  I had been stranded on a fairly deserted road in Utah without reception, drove three hours over the mountains in a National Park and was stuck in Utah with little time or money.  They were extremely helpful and told me to go wherever I could to get the tire replaced and send them the receipt.  In the end, they reimbursed me immediately without hassle. 

I had to go another 20 miles North and West (not my intended path) to find a place that had a tire for a sedan.  Apparently, it is unwise to have anything but a large pickup in this part of the country. Hmmmmm…food for thought.  The repair shop had to finagle a deal with the intended owner of that tire for a later replacement, and I paid a little more, but they had me set up and ready to go in 45 minutes, along with a brand new can of fix-a-flat.

I got back on my schedule which included a stop in Bryce Canyon National Park and then an Airbnb in Kanab for the following couple of nights so that I could hit up Zion and the Grand Canyon. 

Bryce Canyon National Park was insanely crowded but for obvious reason.  You don’t have to go on a hike to see the beauty, and you can only see a beauty like Bryce.. in Bryce. Walking up to the edge of the overlook trail at Sunset Point, I was in awe of the bright orange and white hoodoos (https://www.nps.gov/nr/twhp/wwwlps/lessons/64bryce/64bryce.htm)  rising from the canyon floor.  This place is truly magnificent, and for 20 minutes or so, I just sat on a bench in silence taking it all in. 

I wound my way through the visitor’s center and fortunately it was enough on the downside of their busy season that they were allowing cars, and not just shuttles, to get to the inner region of the park.  I drove to the main lookouts and ogled mother-nature with everyone else.  I gazed at Thor’s Hammer from afar and longed for the future day when I would take a hike into the maze of hoodoos rather than view them from the overlook. 

Thors Hammer
Thors Hammer

I took the long drive up to the peak of the park and the Alpine forest.  It is an interesting thing that the woods appear so near, but high above, this odd, desert-looking place.  I took a quick hike on the trail to stretch my legs.  I came around a corner, stopped at a beautiful vista and quickly lost my breath as I came face to face with a Buck just 10 feet away.  We were both surprised.  I snapped a quick pic with my phone and then slowly backed up and returned the way I came. 

At another trailhead I went the opposite way, not wanting to end my hike so quickly.  Before long, with my heart still racing, I saw two guys coming my way.  “Oh, my God, another person!” they exclaimed.  I saw this as a chance to share my recent find with other humans.  They immediately cut in and told me that they hadn’t seen anyone for hours, got lost, and ran out of water.  I gave them my water bottle and we shared a couple of moments of chatter about this crazy beautiful place and their unplanned adventure. 

I continued on the trail a little while longer and then returned to the trailhead.  I took a moment to stop at a bench overlook for some quiet contemplation and meditation.  Bryce is truly a beautiful and odd place, and I wished I could stay for a few days.  I put it on my list as another place to return to for a more intense visit.

When I returned to my car, I saw the two hikers again, and they called out my name, raised their granola bars, and thanked me loudly for “saving their lives” J.  They were far from perishing, but none-the-less, I was happy to help and have a human connection in this beautiful place.   

Utah – Moab to Torrey

After leaving Arches National Park, although I was exhausted, I wanted to visit Dead Horse Point State Park.  There is an iconic viewpoint of a bend in the Colorado River that I wanted to see in person. 

I took the gravel side road off of the state highway and entered the State Park.  I drove in and put my already exhausted feet back into my hiking shoes.  The paved trail overlook was a welcome adjustment to my expectations.  It didn’t take long to absorb it, snap some pictures, and I was out. 

I have to reiterate at this point that this is not my preferred mode of travel.    I only travel this quickly when I am doing R&D for work, which was common in my former life.  I spend my personal trips listening to the music, eating the food, talking to the locals, seeing the sites and absorbing each experience.  But, time and money limitations after leaving a stable income source behind and abandoning my belongings to travel for an undetermined amount of time, created a different reality.

Leaving Dead Horse Point State Park, I was unsure of the fastest route to my next stop, Torrey, Utah, so I took a few turns before I got back on track with some cell reception and Google Maps graciously returning to life.  The theoretical plan was to take a short trip on the state road, a highway, and then a few more backroads through Capitol Reef National Park. 

As I got off the highway, still covered in dirt from my hikes, I noticed how the landscape started to look more and more like Mars.  I passed a pull off for Goblin Valley State Park (no joke, actual name) and then noticed my tire pressure light was on.  A wave of dread passed through me as I prepared myself for whatever came next.  Sure enough, it was a blowout. 

As the sun still scorched overhead and the dark black tar road made it feel even hotter, I unpacked things quickly in ninja-like determination. 

Obviously, this was not my first flat tire, but it was my first in a very long time.  When I first left home after high school, I drove 14 hours back and forth to my chosen college in Vermont.  It was a necessity to learn how to check the oil, change tires, troubleshoot, and take care of myself. 

It was no surprise, after the miles I was racking up on this trip, that I would have a blow-out. Fortunately, I had inspected the car after I bought it and so wasn’t surprised by the small compressor and can of fix a flat in the wheel well built for a spare tire.  Apparently, they don’t use spare tires any longer?  Or Kia doesn’t? I pulled out the manual and began reading.

A car finally approached and pulled up behind me.  I had almost figured it out, so the guy just calmed his frantic wife down.  She was worried about being slightly on the road of a deserted highway while they were late for something hours away.  Once I had it all figured out, I asked them if they could just follow me for five minutes to make sure it was going to hold.  They did, and I waved them past so they could be on their merry way. 

Did I mention, there was no cell reception?  Most of the places I seemed to be frequenting out west have an unofficially strict “no AT&T” policy.  After about 20 minutes, I make it to Hanksville and with cell service once again, Google and call a tire place.  It ended up being a semi-tractor shop, and the nice lady told me in very clear terms not to stop in Hanksville.  She said I was better off breaking down in the middle of Capital Reef National Park in the dark and having a park ranger find me in the middle of the night than having anyone in Hanksville fix it. 

Adjusting to this new reality, I pull over in town anyway and check my tire pressure again.  It was a sidewall blow-out, so I had a golf ball size bubble sticking out of the side of my tire.  I have no idea how it happened as I didn’t hit anything (that I recall). 

As I pulled over, two guys driving by, turned around and drove back to me.  They asked if I needed help and I said I just had some tire issues but was all good.  They saw the tire and said their friend owned the tire shop across the street and they would be happy to check to see if they had something.  Long story short, the guy showed up, opened a mobile storage locker and rummaged around until he pulled out a tire that looked worse than the one on my car.  I said, “thanks anyway!” and hit the road praying they wouldn’t follow me and with my 30 ft projectile bear spray within reach.

While driving, it started to look a bit like the backroads of New Mexico I had passed through, which wasn’t at all a friendly looking neighborhood.  At this point, I wasn’t so sure that the advice from the tire lady was all that accurate.  I made it into Capital Reef National Park and Torrey eventually.  As I drove 40 mph and had several cars passed me, I kept track of the spots along the road that might make a good or bad place to sleep overnight – you know, just in case. 

I also took a couple of cell phone videos accounts of my situation with hopes of having a good laugh later but also just in case anything actually happened.  They are quite hilarious and no, I will never show anyone.

When I arrived in Torrey, my already paid for campsite ended up being an empty lot that would have been a lovely place to stay if it wasn’t completely deserted.  The campsite host knew about my flat tire and that I would arrive late and left me instructions to find a spot and pay in the morning.  It was pitch black and completely deserted aside from the sheep surrounding the property.  There were also no bathrooms to be easily found.

Completely elated to have made it safely but deflated by the highs and lows of the day with no one to share, I found the nearest hotel and got a room.  It was a cute small motel with a restaurant that was closing for the night as I arrived, but I was happy to go to my room with my box of wine and elk jerky and call my mother… to finally tell her of my adventures. 

12 days of Christmas (drunken nature remix)

A drive home or a drunken 12 days of Christmas?

One blindingly bright and sunny day on a familiar drive,  I was rewarded with not just my normal scenery, but that of snow covered pines and animals venturing down from the deep woods.  Over the river and through the woods, from Baker City to Bend, mother nature came out for a show.  In addition to the usual collection of sheep, cows and horses, on this day I also spotted:

1 bald eagle soaring,

1 coyote prowling,

2 coyote running,

5 head of deer a grazing,

6 magnificent Elk a laying,

Another 15 head of deer (also grazing),

20 head of deer a grazing (this is where I started to wonder where I can find a venison meat hook-up),

and 200 Canadian geese a roaming!

Note: Yes, I realize that I am way off on the original song and my numbering system is a bit out of whack. And yes, I have heard from a few people already that I shouldn’t quit my day job when it comes to singing or lyrics…but fortunately I don’t really have a day job! 

Alas, though my blog will go on with the amazing adventures I have yet to share on my 5 month #summerofchange #megzawander, I have landed somewhere!  If you want to hear the details, join my “yet to go out newsletter” list.  I promise I won’t spam you.  In fact, my great aunt has signed up 9 times thinking she missed something. Sorry, Aunt Lela. It is coming soon! 

Arches National Park

Until visiting, I’m not sure if I had ever heard of Arches National Park.  Upon looking at my book of National Parks, it talks about specific arch-shaped rock features created by erosion over time and the delicacy of some of these arches from collapsing.  Some are easy to get to, and others are not.  I chose a full day of hiking that included one iconic feature and a second that would be more challenging and lead me away from the crowds.  It would be a long day- visiting a local State Park and a three-hour drive to my next campsite in Torrey, UT. But my Mesa Verde tours were not at all strenuous, so I felt a good workout was in order.

The first one I went to was easier and the closer of the two., I read that people crowd the arch in hoards and by mid-morning it is hard to find a parking spot.  When I arrived at 8:00 am, there was already a crowd, and I was never alone at any single portion of the hike.   

Seeing this region for the first time amazed me with more than just the arches.  The color and smoothness of the rock hills I climbed and the sparse desert plants that dotted the hills around me inspired the same sensation that I would expect from visiting Mars. 

At Mesa Verde, they had a strict “no food” at the cliff dwellings policy to deter the animals from burrowing within the historic sites looking for scraps.  They did a good job with it, as did the visitors, because looking back I didn’t see one animal on those trips.  Arches, however, was the perfect example of these little squirrels/chipmunks and their curious, hungry nature.  I took a little video of one that reminded me of the squirrel from the movie Ice Age.  Shortly after his film debut he snuck up on me and jumped on top of my backpack looking for food.  Freaked me out a bit.

The Delicate Arch was magnificent and a perfect view from afar.  Because it was so crowded, I chose to grab a seat and take in the view from the spacious edge of the rim. This allowed me to watch all the other tourists vying for a picture underneath the arch without having to participate.  I almost snagged a shot without people in it while they were switching out.

My second hike was to be a bit longer, but after that first trek, and realizing how hot and dry this climate is, I was already a bit tired. Time had passed rather quickly despite my early start.  Instead, I decided to start out on the same trailhead I had planned the longer hike and check out the first of the arches. I’d decide to go to the second arch once I got there. 

At The Windows trailhead, I took the shortest .25 miles up to Landscape Arch.  The Windows hike is a shorter hike than Delicate Arch, so there were just as many people with me as on my first hike.  

Once at The Landscape Arch, the trail took a steep incline and looked more like bouldering to get up to the next section of trail.  I was intrigued by the challenge and what the view would look like from above, so I decided to conquer that climb and reassess.  Once there, I saw another bouldering opportunity and decided to continue just a little further.  The trail became unbelievably amazing and at one point required sideways climbing on steep ledges and drop offs of 30-60 feet.  I called my bro on Facetime from the steepest portion so he could witness the incredible view.  And, the first hill scared people, so I saw a few other couples along the trail.

This ledge is the trail!
This ledge is the trail!

By the time I finished repeating to myself, “just a little bit more,” I had added two additional hours onto my hike, but the view was worth it at Double Arches.  This hike also helped remind me that it isn’t just the destination that is the reward but the trip along the way.  I must have taken 400 pictures of which, I’m positive, none will accurately show just how phenomenal this part of the world is. 

Fortunately, my interest in being completely alone in the outdoors, and being outdoorsy in general, meant I was very prepared.  I had plenty of water along with hydration tabs.  As soon as I took a turn up the boulders, I popped it into my water and started sipping.  I saw other folks who came less prepared without water, food, or anything really.  I came complete with a first aid kid, binoculars, compass.  And for once, I was extremely pleased to be carrying all of that stuff around. 

The next leg of my journey is a bit more complicated…so I will save it for the next post.

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

I set a plan to wake up early at my Mesa Verde campground and take one or two of the ranger-led tours of the cliff dwellings.  This cultural resource in the beautiful setting was the big draw of Mesa Verde. 

I still remember learning about the disappearing Anasazi people in grade school Social Studies and the wide range of theories on why they picked up and left.  As a kid, I remember being confident it had something to do with aliens or ghosts of their past.  Some popular and scientifically possible theories include drought and internal political strife.  Later, on my hike, I learned that the park now sticks with calling the people who lived here the Pueblo Indians to distance them from the stigmatism of the Anasazi disappearance.  It still sounds to me like no one knows what happened and there is a lot of room for other-worldly theories. 

Rainy view from an overlook at Mesa Verde National Park
Rainy view from an overlook at Mesa Verde National Park

Having studied Outdoor Recreation (yes, that is a real Bachelor of Science major) I was very interested in the interpretation by the Rangers, so I did not plan on doing any hiking other than the cliff dwellings.  The park is a beautiful natural wonder, but my main purpose for being there was to learn and see these ancient artifacts and dwellings. 

The first hike to “Balcony House” was quite impressive.  Even though it was the smaller of the two I visited, there were fewer people as it was the first tour of the day, and was labeled adventurous – there was a 32-foot ladder we had to climb and a small passageway we had to crawl through to see the dwelling. 

The interpreter was excellent, providing a perfect combination of knowledge and personality to take us back in time.  Once we reached the top of the ladder we got to see the religious subterranean room called a Kiva, rooms got an up close and personal view. There were some places with evidence of wear and tear, but for an 800-year old home, it was very well preserved.  To imagine what conditions caused people to scale this cliffside and build a home here makes me feel a bit wimpy when I complain about having to sleep through cold rain storms in my nice warm, dry car. 

The second cliff dwelling was called, “Cliff Palace” and was the largest and most impressive in scale. But, with 50 or so new friends now along for the journey, it wasn’t quite as personal.

We were right on the tail of one group and soon followed by yet another of the same size.  I learned when handing my ticket to the Ranger on this tour that single individuals do not often come to the park.  The first Ranger had looked at me sideways when taking my ticket and said, “Niiiiice,” but I had no clue why.  I obviously assumed this bearded hotty was hitting on me.  The second Ranger looked at me, pointed to the “Group: 1” on my ticket and said, “Oh, you are by yourself!”.  He then went on to explain to me, and everyone within earshot, that the last time he had said that a woman almost slapped him.  Kind of made me wonder why he thought to say it again, but I clearly had no issues seeing a beautiful piece of history and outdoor wonder on my own – or any of the other things I have done alone over my lifetime.  Do I do it alone because I prefer my company to that of others? No, I do it alone because I happen to be by myself and want to see it.  I am cautiously friendly when traveling alone in some situations, but in places like this, I meet lots of cool people.  I was almost adopted by yet another family while chatting before the tour until I admitted that I didn’t watch Nascar racing.  

The Ranger at the Cliff Palace was a little less scientific and little more passionate about his subject matter.  While I preferred the former, this guy gave me a pretty good takeaway.  He read a poem from a book of the Pueblos (I wish I had written down the name) and part of its message was about putting your energy out into the world and letting it be.  It doesn’t have to be big and loud, just positive.

This message reminded me of a moment in the STAX Museum in Memphis where one of the movie interviewees talked about letting the talent ooze out of you and letting the world either accept it or reject it.  For someone who has always been very concerned with making others happy and taken the first 28 years of her life overcoming self-confidence issues, these were both messages that were very meaningful.  And hearing such different worlds proclaiming it resonated particularly to me at this time in my life.

After my hike, my plans were still unknown.  I had every intention of planning my next couple of weeks, but this was the first time I didn’t have anyone waiting for me to visit somewhere nearby.  To most people, who don’t know the details of my actual day to day routine, it seemed odd that I couldn’t have put together a full schedule by now.  After all, my former job relied heavily upon my ability to plan travel schedules.  Driving, hiking, writing down notes so I could later compile these posts, finding the best place to stay whether that be a campground, hotel, or Airbnb; all of these things take time.  

I considered going north to the next spot in Colorado (Telluride or Gunnison).  But after my brief chat with the couple from Arkansas along the roadside in New Mexico, the seed was planted, and I decided to keep going west to a bucket-list of impressive National Parks.  I got out my trusty, and extremely outdated, National Geographic Guide to National Parks my mother had given to me when me when I first moved away from home, and reviewed my options.  I also found an awesome map of the Colorado Plateau that included the parks.  That seemed like a good place to start.

So at the end of my tours in Mesa Verde, I hit the road heading further West.  In a parking lot of a grocery store in the next town over I compiled my plan to temporarily abandon the trip north through Colorado and spend the next 4 or 5 days exploring some of the most distinct and other-worldly lands in our country.   

Adventure this way...
Adventure this way…

Taos, Pagosa Springs, Durango

Upon leaving Taos, I forgot one of them major suggestions that a friend gave to me, which was to stop and see the Rio Grande.  Fortunately for me, there was no way to miss it, and I was able to pull over while I scraped my jaw off of the floor of my car.  I may be repeating myself on this, but the pictures do not do the place any justice – and these are particularly bad pictures with the lighting the time of day I stopped. 

Part of my amazement with the beauty was how flat and vast the land appears to be on upper rim and then the degree it plummets to the riverbed below; 800 feet according to Wikipedia.  

The river is a result of plates shifting some twenty-nine million years ago.  It is also designated as a Wild and Scenic River.  For my South Florida people, the Loxahatchee River also holds this distinction.  It is easy to take for granted what lies in own backyards sometimes. If I had to pinpoint one of the first and biggest lessons I learned while working in tourism industry these past ten years, it is to let explorations of new places renew an appreciation and sense of awe in the things that we see on a regular basis. 

In this picture, you can see another cow on the road and a car in front of me.  The couple in the car were also visiting the Rio Grande, and we ended up following each other for most of the next 100 miles, often passing each other at different pull offs. After the second stop, we struck up a conversation.  They were from Hot Springs, Arkansas, a place I had stopped several states ago during my first couple of camping nights on this trip. I was going to Mesa Verde next, and they were going to check out the Grand Canyon.  Having seen Mesa Verde before, they suggested that I also make time to visit Chaco Canyon, a place very different but rumored to be related to the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde.  Despite the short conversation, they would influence my travel direction over the next week.  Part of the joy of traveling is being okay with being a tourist and talking to others who may have experiences or knowledge of a place.  And since I had no schedule what-so-ever, I welcomed suggestions with open arms.

The drive from Taos, New Mexico to Pagosa Springs, Colorado was a beautiful one through the most desert-like conditions I had ever seen.  I passed the Earthship Biotecture community, a place that makes you say, “Wha?!”, and a lot more cows in the road.  I traveled through my first of many areas with no cell reception and from the look of the ranches and their signs threatening to shoot without question, I crossed my fingers that my car wouldn’t have a breakdown.  It would be a long walk in a place I would not want to have to ask for a ride from the locals.  On US-64 between Tres Piedras and Tierra Amarillo, the roads were steep, the private property signs somewhat frightening, but the vistas of mountains were awe-inspiring… and the first like it for me.

As I crossed the state line into Colorado, I passed trucks with paddleboards on their roof racks and began to wonder just where I was and if I could just stay there forever.  I am a water girl and a big fan of paddleboarding in my Miami world.  I soon entered the town of Pagosa Springs and immediately fell in love.  Back in January of this year, I came to Colorado for the first time with some friends on a ski trip but kept to the snow and mountains between Denver and the ski areas of Keystone and Breckenridge.  So, Pagosa Springs was a nice introduction to summer in Colorado.  It was a tourist town filled with cute restaurants, breweries, a beautiful little river and an active-in-the-outdoors type of community.

 I loaded up on brochures of Colorado towns and information on the Hot Springs in Pagosa Springs and said goodbye; it was too soon on my drive to stop overnight.  I believe I was afraid I would stay forever if I had decided to spend the night.    

I pushed on to Durango, another cute town that was on my list. This town was bigger than Pagosa Springs, and I could see the river and rafts filled with adventurers as soon as I entered the city limits.   I looked at a couple of campsites around town so that I could check out the community and Mesa Verde National Park which wasn’t too far away.  The first campsite was in the middle of nowhere just northwest of town. It was beautiful but did not have hot showers, let alone running water.  After contemplating my last couple of nights of waking up to 40-degree weather and a pretty rustic shower with poor internet service, I decided to move on to search for a place with more creature comforts for a change.  I did a couple of drive-bys of downtown and looked through Airbnb options, but it was not a cheap town, so I decided against it.  The downtown of Durango reminded me of an old western movie with the look and feel of the architecture, but the people were more like a Patagonia catalog.  Add it to the list of places to look into moving.

I decided to go straight to Mesa Verde and check out the campsites inside the National Park.  If I were going to spend money, I would rather at this point, spend it there.  As I pulled into the campground to check out conditions I was flanked by some scruffy looking deer I later learned were mule deer.  They were not shy and blocked my car from leaving while they wandered from one abandoned campsite to the next.  I had called ahead the night before to check with the park service to find out about the threat of bears.  I knew that some National Parks have major issues with bears preying upon recklessly discarded waste and wanted to find out if keeping food in my car was safe enough or if this was a place where bear lockers were a necessity.  After a long time on hold, the nice lady (nowhere near or familiar with this park) informed me that bears aren’t an issue at all.    

As soon as I paid at the general store and came back to grab my campsite, the skies opened up, and the biggest rain storm I had seen since I was in Florida passed through.  I stayed in my car for a few hours and got some writing done, all the while wondering if that would be the picture of my next 12 hours. 

Fortunately, the rain did stop, and it turned into a beautiful evening.  The campground was in a small canyon which blocked part of my view, but what was visible was full of stars. I shared the campground with what appeared to be a load of Germans in RVs, all running their generators while the deer grazed between us.  I say that with loving memories of not only my German co-workers but of those tourists to South Florida who seemed to storm the parks with more numbers than most other nationalities.  I would soon find out that in this part of the country, the sheer amount of National Parks and international tourists would rival what I had already imaged to be a crowded place.

The campsite was close to an amphitheater where a ranger was to do a night sky presentation, but the rain canceled the program.  I regret the times on this trip that I didn’t get out of my tent at night and explore but often the cold, loneliness, and pile of reading material for my next day’s plan kept me from fully letting go and enjoying all of my surroundings.  Though I saw a lot while traveling through these places, my list of things to do when I return continues to grow.

I have always joked about getting a van or mobile home, and this was about the time that I kicked myself for not having taken a closer look at getting one instead of a car.  If I had, my trek might have been slower, and I may have increased the number of roadside breakdowns buuuuutttt……….It would be so much more convenient to live out of my vehicle and not worry about setting up a tent, or spending money on a hotel room, or carting my necessities in and out of the car.  There is always tomorrow, I suppose. 

 

Taos, New Mexico

When I think of Taos, I think of mysticism.  The few times in my life when I looked to astrology to provide some profound answers to life’s questions, I seemed to find some connection to this area of New Mexico.

 Before I left Miami, upon the advice of a friend, I had a natal birth chart read to determine exactly where the planets and stars were the very moment I entered this world.  I did not take the next couple of hundred ($) steps further to have it interpreted, so unfortunately, I don’t know what any of that means.  A physical journey trumped a spiritual journey at this point in my life.  I wonder if I had gotten the report if I would have come on this same adventure?…  Yeah, I think I probably would have. 

An important lesson learned on this camping trip was the relativity between temperature and altitude.  It’s obvious to me that temperature changes with altitude, but when you are looking up the forecast for a particular town and your campsite ends up being 15 miles outside of town, this can mean a 20-degree temperature change.  The campsite was around 8,000 feet of elevation.  I went from expecting lower 60’s to 40!  I was chatting with my mom and brother on the phone, my tent was set up, the fire started, and the steak (from my awesome friends and Texas Tech) was on the grill when the sun began to dip, and I could see my breath for the first time. 

The next morning as I got into town, I quickly made my way to the nearest thrift shop and stockpiled fleece.  The campsite hosts and I had a good laugh later that day over the couple camping next to me that cold night. Apparently they went to their car and turned on the heat around 3 am. They did not stay the second night.  I was proud – and thankful for my 30-degree sleeping bag!  To me, it was almost like a rite of passage to be on my own (even in a tent in a secluded section of the RV park), slightly uncomfortable but thrilled to be alive. 

The campsite hosts warned me about the elk and coyotes in the area when I asked if I should be worried about any bears.  I saw lots of cute little prairie dogs (especially along the roadside) but no large animals.  However, I heard one of the most startling sounds one night laying in my tent.  I awoke from the howling of a coyote, and I soon heard them in surround sound as they talked, pack to pack, along our little mountainside.  It was magical.

For my hike, I decided to originate from Taos Village ski mountain because it seemed the most challenging and I hadn’t been doing much as far as exercise for a few days. It was the Williams Lake Trail which is in Carson National Forest (this 1.5 million acre forest also surrounded my campsite just East of Taos).  It is also home to the highest peak in New Mexico, according to the Forest Service http://www.fs.usda.gov/carson/.  Fortunately, I had a couple of maps because each slightly contradicted the next on where the trail would start. I used AllTrails, an app on my phone, but the local Forest Service map described the parking area in more detail.  Unfortunately, it did not explain it clearly enough. But after contemplating it in the lower lot and then wisely ignoring the comically large sign that said “NON-FOUR WHEEL DRIVE VEHICLES PROHIBITED,” I eventually found the upper parking lot.  Don’t worry mom(s), as I passed I could see the sign also said from “November-May” in small lettering underneath.  Regardless, the road even without snow was terrifying.  Loose gravel, switchbacks, potholes, and what I would deem to be unwise inclines all made me question every second of it.  When I got to the parking lot, there were a couple of other adventurous sedan-driving folks parked there too.  YOLO (you only live once).

The hike was challenging.  AllTrails claims it to be 3.8 miles out and back with an elevation gain of 1,013 feet.  Taostrails.com http://www.taostrails.com/williams_lake.html says the top lot starts at 10,191 feet above sea level.  For my non-active friends and family reading this, all of this stands to mean a very out of breath and tired girl from sea level.  Once again, it was all worth the effort and stressful drive.  The trail was a spectacular start for my first “out West” hike.  For the difficulty, I was surprised at how many people were on the trail.  It was B-U-S-Y.  And, as an animal lover I feel kind of bad for even saying this, but there were too many off-leash dogs.  At the top of the trail, as I sat snapping my pictures and eating my PB&J, two dog owners got in a fight over leashes, and one threatened to pull out his gun.  I was a little bit frightened for the other guy, and it detracted from the serenity of a beautiful alpine lake I worked my ass off to have the pleasure to enjoy.

Taos itself was an interesting town and a unique landscape compared to my previous journeys.  Alas, I didn’t have amazing artwork or jewelry alongside the local jerky and coffee on my shopping list, so I decided to skip the stroll downtown.  I also didn’t want to get stuck driving back to my campsite in the dark.  There was a lot of talk about Elk in the area and a story of a couple of locals who recently took a turn too fast and flew off the road.   One couple I met at a bar in town while having dinner told me that the tow trucks don’t even bother to retrieve you or your car from the ditches in many of those cases.  I have no idea if they were telling the truth, but it seemed like a logical story… and interesting enough for me to share.  They may have just been enjoying too many prickly pear mojitos! 

I enjoyed my time in Taos, but it didn’t seem like a place I needed to linger.  So after two nights, getting reacquainted with car camping and some awesome time enjoying the outdoors, I headed toward Colorado.

Lubbock, Texas to Taos, New Mexico

When I arrived in Lubbock, Texas, I had no clue where I would head next.  I had already made the decision to skip the North Central states.  I had a lot of friends in Colorado I wanted to see but not many that were easy to get a hold of.  Yet, the travel advice I had been receiving from every friend and stranger all pointed to Colorado towns and included almost every major city or road.  A former Aspen resident advised me to get through Independence Pass before the snow arrived, which can be as early as September or October.  I would have to hit Boundary Waters, Mt Rushmore, and the Badlands on another trip.

My general rule – since the car accident – was not to travel more than 3 hours without stopping and no more than 6 hours total in a day.  Stopping any less would mean I would miss too much.  And the whole point of this part of my trip was to see the places out West that I had never seen before.  The fact that I had not traveled west of Illinois until recent years was not something I told people with pride, though it was something I told them as a personal challenge to overcome.

I deliberated with my Texan friends and they gave me some good advice on roads, towns, restaurants, margaritas, and other points of interest between their town and Colorado.  I wanted to see the whole state but it would take a while no matter how I did it.  I used their suggestions, took a look at what was interesting on the map and set a course with Durango, CO in my sites.  Half way there was Taos, New Mexico.  And it was from this point on that low-tech strategy combined with a bit of spontaneity became my traveling plan.   

I couldn’t pass through Fort Sumner without a trip to the kitschy Billy the Kid Museum, complete with a stuffed Siamese twin buffalo(s).  Regardless of that, the antiques and old newspaper articles provided some interesting history at this roadside attraction. I would recommend to anyone that they stop and take a quick tour through to support the museum– though don’t look too closely at the buffalo….it’s creepy. 

From here, I wish I would have taken the more visually interesting route that actually went a little further west through the towns of South Carmen to check out the canyons along the roadside. I didn’t know about it until after I had already passed through. The landscape remained fairly flat on this portion but at least it was not interstate – a nice change from most of my driving the last couple of weeks.  My next stop was Santa Rosa, New Mexico to check out part of Route 66 and the famous Blue Hole Margarita at Joseph’s Mexican-American diner.

As I headed north through Mora I had to make a choice of taking the eastern or western route to get to my campsite. The western route would have led me through Taos, and I had hoped to hike the first day and stay and check out town the second day. So I chose the alternative eastern route through Angel Fire since I wasn’t likely to head that way afterward.  This is where a map with elevation would have probably come in handy, or even one with a little more detail about the condition of roads.  Fortunately, it was still daylight and this road was one that I actually made it thru (stay tuned for the Telluride story).  This road was one lane, BUT at several points I had to share and squeeze by a large extended cab truck.  I had driven on what were relatively steep paths (at least to me) in Tennessee, but these were sheer mountainsides and very scary compared to what I had been on thus far.  This was probably the kind of road that gets closed in the winter.  It was absolutely beautiful and totally worth the stress though.  Sorry, no pictures.  Imagine crisp cool air, beautiful yellow and purple flowers along the roadside and every turn of the mountainside presenting a new view.  People were taking advantage of the beautiful clear skies, warm sun, and cool breezes, fishing in the roadside streams, or pulled over to enjoy the panorama.

The road ended and ran into Angel Fire, a cute little ski town.  There was quite a bit going on with a summer concert series in the park but I wanted to get to my campsite.  If I had stopped everywhere I really wanted to, I might be on the road for a year or more.  Though this trip was designed an exploration I also had a budget and a purpose to sort a few things out.  Seeing as much as I possibly could and only stopping at what really spoke to me was a necessity.  So I headed up one mountain pass only to drop down it on the other side. What goes up, must come down….the bear went over the mountain…  The thought of this is logical but frustrating when you have been driving on straight, flat roads and highways for 10 years. 

drive through New Mexico
drive through New Mexico

I found a couple of campsites online that had good reviews and websites that showed someone had taken care and interest in the place.  I wanted options in case I got a bad feeling about the place or it was right next to a road.  My first stop was a place just outside of town called Enchanted Moon.  The camp hosts were very nice and the price was right, so I took the hillside spot and a campsite far away from the RVs. I spent two nights freezing at this site but don’t regret it one bit.  Read more about why that is so on my next post about Taos, New Mexico. 

Morning view from my campsite
Morning view from my campsite