26 May 2010

Grand Canyon and Zion National Park (May 24-25)

So we were able to see the grand canyon :). The dust storm wasn’t quite that big I guess. And it was awesome as expected. It was cold though! We arrived in the evening and it felt cold, but we just figured we were being pansies because we just came from 100+ degree weather. But when we got up in the morning and got in the car to drive to the trail we were going to take into the canyon, the temperature gauge in the car said 35 F. So I guess it was pretty cold. We warmed up on our hike though. We did a 6 mile round trip hike that went a little over 2000 feet into the canyon. It takes quite a bit more than that to get all the way down though—we weren’t even half way. I got my hopes up that we might be able to hike all the way to the river because our Belgian neighbor at our campsite in Big Bend said he’s hiked it in one day before. He said it took him 11 hours, but only because his wife is slow. Haha. There seemed to be warnings everything that said you shouldn’t attempt to hike to the river in one day though. So we decided 6 miles would be good enough. And, although I still want to hike all the way in, it was a good hike. We definitely experienced the temperature rising as we descended, and basically 3 miles of climbing stairs it a pretty good workout.
Then we drove to Zion National Park in Utah! Whenever I told someone I was going on this trip, if they’d been to Zion before, they would spend at least a few minutes convincing me that I need to go to Zion. It definitely lived up to the hype. It was incredible—unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I can’t really even explain… so hopefully the pictures will help. If you have to choose just one national park to visit in your lifetime and you asked me for a suggestion, I would say almost certainly say Zion. I’ll let you know at the end of this trip after a see a few more parks if that changes, but I don’t think it will :).
The only issue with the park is that so many people like it, so it’s hard to get a place to stay. When we got there all the campgrounds were full, so the attendant at the entrance to the park said to just keep going on the road we were on and that we’ll see some people camping. I didn’t really know what that meant… but it sounded like it might be free so we looked for it and found a sort of squatter village on the site of the highway probably 10 miles outside the park. Haha. There were a few people there who looked like they’d been there a while. You could probably live there if you wanted to… no bathrooms or anything… but it could work.
The next day I decided it was about time I try to run again. My ankle still feels a little weird, but it no longer looks like a softball, and it usually doesn’t hurt. And, really, what better place to run than in the most beautiful canyon I’ve ever seen. We ran about 3.5 miles on a bike path that followed the Virgin river into Zion Canyon. It was beautiful, and running felt pretty good too! Yay. We spent the rest of the day riding the free park shuttle around and seeing the sights. Since the park is so popular they no longer allow cars on most of the roads—you have to take the shuttles. It sounded initially like it could be inconvenient, but it was actually really nice. The shuttles arrived every 5-10 minutes and they took us to see everything we wanted to see. We didn’t hike anything big, but we did all the little trails at each stop, which took us to some pretty sweet places. My favorite was this sort of hidden waterfall. Overall, we calculated that we ran/walked/hiked about 8.7 miles. Pretty good day.

Now we’re on our way to Las Vegas, for some civilization, and our first shower in 6 days (washing off the dirt of 4 states… 5 if you count Nevada, but I’m not because we’ve only been driving here… haha).

Big Bend National Park to the Grand Canyon (May 22-23)

I’m writing now from the heart of an Arizona dust storm. We actually had to re-route around Flagstaff because I-40 was shut down. We’re on US-87 now, a smaller highway that was probably just not a priority to shut down, but it doesn’t really seem that bad to me. It sort of just looks like brown fog, and I’ve driven through worse fog (and much worse snow storms). This alternate route is taking us through the Hopi Indian reservation which is pretty cool. We just passed a sign that said tune to 88.1 for weather info, and instead of weather info we got some tribal beats. Sweet! Haha. And if we wanted any Hopi Indian art I think we could stop at a shop about every other mile.
Anyway. Last night we stopped in Gila National Forest in New Mexico at a little (free!!) campground just outside of the bustling town of Glenwood (just kidding… there were probably like 10 people there… haha). There wasn’t really much to do, so we explored Glenwood a little (which took about 20 minutes on foot). 2 bars, one gas station/convenience store, a couple of creepy looking inns, and a pizza/video shop. Not bad I guess. The scenery was really nice. It reminded me of the mountains in Virginia or West Virginia plus cacti. Haha.
Today we started driving to the Grand Canyon. I didn’t realize when I was planning the route that we were headed right past the Petrified Forest National Park, so we decided to take a short detour to drive through the park. If you’ve never heard of it, it’s not actually a Forest—it used to be, but now it’s expansive desert with fields of fossilized wood from the time of dinosaurs. We also got sweet views of the Painted Desert, which we decided probably looks like Mars.
Now onto the Grand Canyon—hopefully we’ll be able to actually see it through the dust. Haha.

Big Bend National Park (May 20-21)

When we left I-10 in Fort Stockton to head toward Big Bend it was pretty clear that we were heading into the desert. It was over 100 miles of nothing on a back road before we reached the park boundary, and then another 35 miles to the campsite. The scenery was unreal though—miles of flat treeless land and mountains suddenly rising from the desert in the distance. And it was hot. The temperature gauge in the car said 100 degrees, and it would get up to 109 the next day. Luckily we chose the campground in the Chisos Mountains in the center of the park where it’s often 20 degrees cooler than below in the desert… it was still hot though. Haha.
The campground was incredible. It was called the Chisos Basin, and it looked like a bowl sort of carved out in the middle of the mountains. So we were camped at about 5600 ft and surrounded on all sides by enormous 7500 ft peaks. Awesome! Despite the amazing campsite we had a few camping issues. As we were setting up, the string that holds one of the poles together broke, so the pole was in pieces. It’s still functional, but it’ll be annoying to put up in the future. Then, the second night, my sad old tent didn’t hold up so well against a nasty thunderstorm. Even after moving the tent under out little picnic shelter and tying the rain fly to the bear box it still couldn’t stand up to the wind. After it totally collapsed a couple of times we decided that we wouldn’t be able to sleep if we spent all night fixing the tent, so we hastily packed everything up and slept in the car (which is a feat in itself because the back seat is so full of food that the front seats won’t recline all the way). It wasn’t so bad though—we definitely survived unscathed (and now I guess I have a good reason to invest in a new tent :)).
Anyway, tent mishaps aside, like I said, our campground was awesome in many ways, another being that it had immediate access to many miles of trails. We did a short hike during the evening of our first night there, and I saw a bear!!! In all the hiking I’ve done in all the national parks and remote mountainous areas where there are tons of bear, this is the first one I’ve ever seen. And, according to a video in the visitor’s center, there are only 12-15 bears (strange estimate… I know) in the whole park, so pretty luck I guess. However, it was only about 10 or 15 feet from the trail when I saw it. So, although I was excited to see it, I decided it’d be best to not linger and I, perhaps more hastily than necessary (since it was just a small black bear), pushed Jason down the trail before he was able to see it. I think he’s a little upset with me that has thus still never seen a bear… but we have also not been eaten by a bear. You have to pick your battles I guess :).
The next day we got up early for a longer hike before it got too hot. The trail we decided to take went up into the mountains even further (about 2000 ft elevation gain), which made for some pretty incredible views (and some difficulties with the altitude for me… haha… Jason was wondering why the altitude wasn’t really affecting him and I had to remind him that he’s currently training for a 50K). The temperature was beautiful in the morning, but by the time we were done hiking it was near 100 again. Whiped from the hike… and very hot… we found ourselves trying to figure out how to get out of the heat for the rest of the day.
As I think I mentioned before the park is huge. Jason pointed out the name, Big Bend, and if they call something “big” in Texas it must be pretty big. To drive from end to end was something like 60 miles, and we did it, partly because the car has air conditioning, and partly because there are so many things to see! We visited the Rio Grande in two spots and contemplated swimming to Mexico. At one of the stops we saw the huge canyon that the seemingly calm slow river carved. Pretty amazing. We also stopped at a few visitors centers (they also had air conditioning), which was nice because I learned a few things! Haha. The Chisos Mountains (where our campground was) are sort of like an island in the desert, and there are plants and animals on the island from the last ice age that weren’t able to survive in the surrounding area when it turned to desert. Very interesting.
In the end, I wish I did a better job of standing up to the heat, but it was an awesome place to visit regardless. I could probably easily spend a few weeks there. I’d suggest visiting in the winter though :).

New Orleans, LA to Bastrop, TX (May 19)

On our way to Bastrop state park (the most historic small town in Texas, and last home of the endangered Houston Toad!), our stop on the way to Big Bend, we finally left the interstate! I’d sort of like to make the whole trip off the interstate—you always get a much better view from the side roads—but then we’d probably never get anywhere… haha (although… the speed limit on the side roads in Texas still seems to be 70, so maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Haha). The state park was beautiful—huge pine trees that they called the Lonely Pines, and a nice little trail system. Again, we were the only ones in the primitive camping area. I’m hoping we’ll actually have a little company in the next few places we stop. Being secluded in the woods is cool, but there’s definitely some comfort in the company, and of course interesting people to meet!
After setting up camp, we actually managed to get a fire started! Jason scored a stack of New Orleans tourist maps from the hotel which burned long enough to get a fire lit for a feast of hot dogs :) (with my stolen winking lizard sauce of course… hehe). After dinner we took a walk on the trails that connected to our campsite, and we ended up very sweaty (it’s like 90 degrees down here) and covered in spider webs, but it was nice! My ankle seems to be healing (I sprained it backpacking over the weekend)—I can walk on it without much pain if I’m wearing a brace, and it no longer looks like I have a softball in place of my ankle. This campground also had a pool, but for some reason it isn’t open until Memorial Day. I can’t really figure out why they wouldn’t want the pool to be open when it’s at least 85 degrees outside every day… perhaps I’m biased I guess.
Now we’re venturing into nowhere (in case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m writing these posts in the car while Jason’s driving). The speed limit just increased to 80 on I-10, and we can’t even find a Whataburger for lunch (until now there seemed to be at least one at every exit in Texas). We’re also venturing into the dark and dangerous land of showerlessness. There was a shower at Bastrop, but I’m not sure if we’ll have one again till Las Vegas, which is almost a week away. Gross I guess… but I’m a little excited :). Having an excuse to live simply (as simply as I can with a computer and 3G anyway…) is always sort of exciting for me. It’s a good reminder that I’m not necessarily entitled to the nice comfortable lifestyle I’m used to—that someone worked hard for me to have plenty of water to drink, let alone shower, and air conditioning when I get too hot (and usually it’s not me who did the work). Plus, that shower in Vegas will feel really good! Haha.

20 May 2010

Tannehill, AL to New Orleans, LA (May 18)

It took is about 5 and a half to get from Tannehill to New Orleans. We experienced a bit of good ol’ southern hospitality on the drive when we stopped for gas. We pulled up at the gas pump and the man in the truck next to us told us where to find gas for 40 cents cheaper! Yay! We didn’t quite find the station with the cheap gas, but we did find gas that was 18 cents cheaper :).

When we got to New Orleans around 1:00 we found our hotel, just a block from the French Quarter. We got a good deal on the hotel, but of course parking was $28, so we spent the next 20 minutes searching for a better place to park. I found a lot for $15… not free but oh well :). Then we walked around the city for a while. We visited the only microbrewery in the French Quarter, Crescent City Brewhouse, and Jason had lunch at a candy shop. Haha. We also walked down Bourbon St. in the daylight, which I’ve never done before—it’s definitely a much different experience. For dinner we had some traditional Cajun cuisine, and of course some I got a customary daiquiri to go :). New Orleans is a very interesting place. Aside from the overwhelming influence of a single culture in everything from the food to the street names, it’s definitely the only place I’ve been where it’s totally acceptable to have a whole street lined with bars and strip clubs a couple blocks over from the elementary school. And it’s one of the few places where anyone between the ages of 21 and 80 can carry around a 70 oz. plastic bud light bottle full of beer and walk the streets in perfect harmony. And, I guess everyone was probably just drunk, but it’s always sort of refreshing to see everyone enjoying the musical talents of the homeless guy on the corner instead of walking as big a circle around him as possible. I can’t say it’s my favorite place in the world… but it’s always been fun to visit :).
Now we’re on our way Big Bend National Park! For our lunch break we passed up the opportunity to visit the live tiger at the truck stop in Gross Tete, LA for an equally awesome truck stop further down the road that also doubled as a casino. Haha. We just crossed the Texas state line and once we hit Houston we will be in a place I’ve never been!

19 May 2010

The adventure begins: Akron, OH to Tannehill, AL (May 17)

So my crazy summer of adventures has begun! Quite a few people have requested a log of my travels, so I thought I’d start updating this blog again… only a year between posts :).

This weekend we (Laura, Jamie, Chris, Dan I., Toby, Dusty, Brett, and I) finally got our West Virginia backpacking trip in, and yesterday began my epic road trip with Jason!! We’re going to be driving a big circle around the country, starting down through the southwest, then north through California and the northwest, east to Montana and ending in Colorado before we head home (here's a map of the route). We’re visiting 11 (ish) National Parks, and 7 cities. After this trip there will only be 6 states I haven’t been too :) (Arkansas, Oklahoma, Minnesota, North Dakota, Alaska, and Hawaii). After the road trip I’ll be biking the first two weeks of the Fuller Center Bike Adventure from Niagara Falls to Washington D.C., and then on to Honduras with Engineers Without Borders at the beginning of August to start our project to help 4000 people provide themselves with clean water!

Yesterday Jason and I got up at 5:00 am to start our drive to Tannehill State Park in Alabama, en route to New Orleans. We drove about 11.5 hours through Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama. On our way we stopped at Mammoth Cave National Park in KY for a lunch break—it seems like I’ve driven past it so many times, but never stopped. The park was a nice break from the interstate, but to see any of the caves you had to take a ranger led tour, so we opted to just have lunch. We did get to see a few wild turkeys though, and Kentucky’s largest rock shop. Haha. We also considered taking a detour in Tennessee when we saw a sign for the original Jack Daniels Distillery, but it turned out to be an hour and a half out of the way. I think we’ll be a little more open to hour+ detours in a few weeks :).

We got to the state park in AL and set up camp at about 4:30 (central), and we attempted to make a fire but failed… all the wood was a little wet and we only had a few sheets of paper to start it with. Oops. We’ll be better prepared for our next campsite :). Luckily 85 degree weather doesn’t really require a fire. The park was beautiful though! We had a nice site next to a river shaded by huge trees, and we had the primitive camping area all to ourselves—I guess it’s still early in the season and, everyone else seemed to prefer their enormous motor home to a tent. Haha. Jason of course woke up an hour before I did this morning to run, even though he just ran the Cleveland Marathon in 3 hours, 36 minutes and 54 seconds. Ridiculous… hahah. :)

Now we’re on our way to New Orleans, and a brief respite from the outdoors. I’ve felt a little guilty about taking this trip, I guess primarily because everyone expects me to go do something right away that will put my skills, talent, etc. to use. Now that we’re on the road though, I know I made the right choice. I’ve of course worked harder than most people know to have this freedom, but even beyond that, I think everyone deserves a break and everyone deserves some adventure. It may be naive or idealistic to feel this way, but I wish everyone could find the opportunity and courage to take that break or adventure for themselves! If nothing else, I know we’re going to learn a lot doing this, even though we’re not necessarily being a productive part of society at the moment. That should be worth something :).

Anyway, more soon!

We're trying to take pictures of all the signs when we get to new states... we missed Tennessee though because Jason was sleeping (bum!! :) ).
Mammoth National Park.

The biggest rock shop in Kentucky!! Hahaha.