Sunday, January 28, 2018

Winter Batman

While driving home in the middle of a blizzard the other night, I reminisced of days without cell phones. Back then, there was no calling for a tow truck if a person managed to get hammer-stuck in a snowbank. Instead, it was time to throw on a parka, and start digging. With a bit of luck, a friendly passerby might stop and help push. Those were the days of buckin’ through snowdrifts in the family station wagon, trekking across the plains of North Dakota on the way to Grandma’s farmhouse. 

As a kid, there was little comfort in hearing the snow scrape the underbelly of the car, causing us to swerve off course, clipping the edge of the ditch. When visibility got really bad, Dad would hop out and lead the way by foot while Mom took the wheel. Nothing to hold back the whirlwinds of snow except for a couple of crooked corn stalks left behind from the combines. No margin of error on the single path gravel road to the farm. Anything to the right or the left of the mounded center-line veered straight into the ditch. 

One year, Old Man Winter had our number, leaving us stranded, cockeyed in the ditch, with exhaust seeping through the floor. No way to contact help, so we bundled up under a blanket in the backseat while listening to Mom and Dad come up with a plan. 

Not long after Jack Frost crept into our boots, a faint light peered through the storm, accompanied by a rumbling noise. An unexpected shape slowly came into focus- a Batman like figure hauling a 100-pound chain slung over his shoulder. Behind him shone the lights of a beat-up pickup truck with a cattle guard welded to the grill in the shape of a permanent frown, threatening to mess anything up that dare cross its path. The massive machine rocked back and forth to the pulse of an irregular idle, angry enough to yank 30 oxen out of a swamp without even touchin’ the gas. My mother gasped with relief at the sight of her brother. Mike was normally our jovial, fun loving, mustache-smiling uncle with a cackling laugh that could be heard two counties away, but today, he was Winter Batman. 

After clanging around under the car with the chain, he gave a quick tug with all his weight that jerked our heads back. The glint in my eye locked on Dad and Winter Batman taking on the storm together, pages unfolding of a larger-than-life comic book. The two of them trudging through snow like a couple of hulking water buffalo with icicles dangling from their beards. A degree of manliness that sat me back down in my twelve-year-old booster seat. 

From that day forward, I couldn’t count the days fast enough until my mamby-pamby, peach fuzz face finally grew something worth shaving. Memories of youth- details probably a little skewed, but integrity of the message still loud and clear. I feel fortunate to have experienced life that way, as opposed to the modern day equivalent of some stranger flopping out of his company tow truck to pull the green lever while scarfing down the last bite of doughnut. A few minutes later, the powdered sugar faced man slips a bill through the window. Dad grumbling under his breath for having to cut a $200 check so that someone could pull a stupid lever. All the while, kids glued to their devices in the backseat with headphones blaring. I will still remember when Winter Batman had to go head-to-head with Old Man Winter. Thanks for setting the bar Uncle Mike!

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

2017 Colorado & Utah National Parks Trip

7/20- Arrive in the Colorado Rockies
Today, Sherri & I started our westward trek to explore the National Parks in Colorado and Utah. After driving through part of the night and all the next day, we finally arrived in Estes Park, CO around 8pm. There was a KOA located just outside Rocky Mountain National Park that had 2 tent sites left, so we snatched one of them up. The site was perched on the hillside with gorgeous vistas of the mountain country. We confirmed that it was indeed Long's Peak to the south of us, towering above the surrounding mountains (the only 14er in the park). After cooking up some Pad Thai, we crawled into our tent for a couple games of cribbage, and then hit the sack.
 It was our first time sleeping in our new Marmot backpacking tent.
 Trying out our new Sea to Summit cookware set.
 View from our KOA campsite (Longs Peak in the distance).

7/21- Backpacking Rocky Mountain National Park
This morning was an early start as we the first ones to arrive at the ranger station to inquire about backpacking options. The ranger who helped us was a retired teacher. While swapping stories, I discovered that the ranger's children attended outdoor school at Camp Redcloud, which is where I worked for a year. He warned us that our only shot at backpacking in the park this time of year was if there happened to be a cancellation. After surfing the reservation database, he announced to us with a shocked look on his face that there was not only an available site at the base of Long's Peak, but also another popular site on the other side of the park for tomorrow. The ranger wasted no time reserving the sites for us before, presented us with two permits, and then sent us off with an inspiring J.R.R. Tolken quote from Lord of the Rings. Suddenly, I felt a heavy burden from that little slip of paper now dangling from my pack on the way to Mt. Mordor/Long's Peak. The parking lot at the trailhead was cram packed, but we were able to sneak our little Prius between two SUVs that were hogging 3 spots. The hike up to our site was really steep, approximately 1,000 ft. of elevation per mile. Long's Peak greeted us as we climbed above the tree line, and our campsite tucked away about a quarter mile off the trail. It wasn't very easy to find. After searching and rechecking the map several times, we finally spotted a sign labeled, "Privy." A little farther down the trail was an enormous group site where we started sprawling out all of our equipment, only to find out that our extra fuel canister was not compatible with my stove- aaarrrggghhhh! Apparently, my model of stove is now obsolete, so I decided to bust back down to the car, and grab the old style canister. Without having to carry a pack this time around, I made it down and back in 1hr., 24min., and 33sec. Consequently, I suffered from some major altitude sickness that night, barely able to keep down my food, and a pounding headache. It probably didn't help that I chose to take a shower in the rain with afternoon temps dipping below 50 degrees. It rained on us throughout the night, with a thunder crack that nearly made us pee our pants. Fortunately, our tent proved to be a total champion in the weather, keeping us completely dry. We played a lot of cribbage that evening as we weathered out the storm in our tent perched at 11,000 ft.- Yikes!
 Excited to touch ground in our first National Park for the Summer.
 Plenty of rest breaks since we are carrying our backpacks full of gear.
 Looking back upon the valley as we climbed up the hillside.
 Our first up-close sneak preview of Longs Peak
  This is were we turned off the Chasm Lake trail to claim our backpacking site.
 Cooking some chow with the old style fuel canister that I had to run back to the trailhead for.
Great place to relax and prepare/acclimate for our climb tomorrow.

7/22- Climb to Chasm Lake
The sun greeted us the next morning, allowing us to dry things out before packing up. Later, we continued up the mountainside to Chasm Lake, proving to be a real butt-kicker of a hike while carrying our packs. The end of the trail required us to scramble up a steep rocky slope to a high mountain lake which reflected the massive granite face of Long's Peak- absolutely breathtaking. We chose not to dilly dally at the lake since it was apparent that another storm was brewing. As soon as we dropped back below the tree line, the sky turned dark, grumbling with thunder. Fearing a lighting strike, we made it down the mountain lickity split. Upon reaching the parking lot, we threw our packs in the car, and started driving around to the other side of the park. The road lifted us up and over the continental divide without a single guardrail as the sides of the road dropped straight down into an abyss of no return. During our descent, we noticed an elk crossing the road a few cars ahead of us. It was quite a sight watching the frantic elk charging down the slope in a clumsy, yet highly acrobatic gallop. After reaching the trailhead for our next backpacking route, a ranger stopped us to check our permit. He informed us that a moose and her calf had been spotted in a meadow alongside the trail. Not more than a mile into our hike, there they stood, pulling up swamp muck in their mouths along the river's edge. We later came upon a crowd of people huddled in an alcove along the river, which we assumed was the result of more wildlife viewing. As we approached the hushed crowd, we soon realized that it was some sort of ceremony. So we quietly began tiptoeing back to the trail while the somber crowd continued dumping grandma Mable's ashes into the river. A few miles later, the signpost for our campsite pointed us down into the valley toward the hidden sounds of a rushing river. After climbing over several downed trees along the way, the trail led us out onto a rock ledge overlooking a deep gorge with cascading rapids tumbling over the rocks below. The trail continued along the cliffs to a splendid little campsite at the river's edge. What a fun little spot to call it a night.
 We continued hiking past the waterfall shown in the distance.
 Breathtaking view of the snow covered lake at the base of Longs Peak
 Rock climbers were climbing this rock face as we approached the lake.
Panoramic view of Longs Peak towering above Chasm Lake.
 View of the river meadow on our 2nd backpacking trip in Rocky Mountain National Park.
 Mrs. Moose leading her calf away from hikers on the trail.
 We snuck up on this dear which was only a stones throw away from the trail.
 Trespassers beware! Where's Gandalf when you need him?
 One of my favorite campsites of all time.

7/23- Black Canyon National Park
Today, we drove to Black Canyon National Park on the Gunnison River. It felt like we were driving into the middle of nowhere without any indication whatsoever of a National Park in sight. When we finally pulled into the abandoned ranger station, we soon realized that we had landed on the less popular, but more scenic side of the park. Since it was now late afternoon, we were fortunate enough to snatch up the very last available campsite. We then drove along the rim, stopping at each of the overlooks to peer over the edge of this seemingly bottomless canyon. The sight caused even my stomach to churn as we clung to the few scattered railings, safeguarding us from certain death if we happened to slip, or the edge of the cliff decided to give way underneath us. After an evening hike to Exclamation Point, we returned to our car at the ranger station just before dark. While repacking the car and taking spit baths in the restroom, we heard the eerie cries of a nearby coyote, yipping and howling like a banshee. Creepy!
 Arriving in the more remote/scenic South side of the Black Canyon.
 Still no bottom in sight.
 Statographic layers scraping along the valley wall like bear claws.
 We were very appreciative of the extensive network of fencing along the rim of the valley.
 Staring into the belly of the canyon.
 We got used to spinning our hats around since the wind was strong enough to knock a person over.
 Massive granite fins rising up out of the canyon.
 We could faintly hear the roaring of the river down below.
 We continued driving along the rim with a white knuckled grip on the wheel (no guardrails).
 Exclamation Point overlook.

7/24- Canyonlands National Park
After capturing a few morning shots of the Black Canyon, we continued driving toward the Canyonlands near Moab, UT. We reserved a campsite at the local KOA, and cooled off in the swimming pool during the scorching mid-day heat. That afternoon, we drove through Canyonlands National Park despite flash flood warnings. It was quite a sight to see scattered thunderstorms develop across the valley. Flashes of lightning in dense clouds hovered over certain areas, while sun peered down upon other patches of land. Driving out of the park that afternoon, we watched the horizon turn black with storm clouds, slowly consuming the entire sky. A fire truck passed us with sirens blazing as we entered Moab. Water was pouring across the street from the hillside. Out of desperation, we conveniently pulled into a local brewery for some protection from the storm. While listening to the rain pelt the windows, we ordered up some fresh baked pretzels, a Lager, and a Hefeweizen. When we returned to our campsite, we noticed that our tent was located directly in the path of a drainage that was carving its way through the sand and loose rock. Fortunately, our tent just laughed at it all, keeping us completely dry as water billowed underneath us.

7/25- Arches National Park
Early the next day, we threw our drenched, mud-covered tent into to back of the Prius, and drove up to Arches National Park. We were some of the first people to arrive at the Devil's Garden trailhead at the far end of the park. This trail attracted us because it was classified as "primitive," allowing hikers to explore off the grid. Sherri used an REI GPS tracking app to help us stay on course when the trail became undefined. The recent flooding had created deep pools in the washes, requiring some creative maneuvers to avoid getting dunked in a pool of poop brown mud. Occasionally, we took the opportunity to cautiously walk along the crests of enormous rock fins jutting out over the surrounding landscape, offering spectacular views of the surrounding caverns and towering walls of limestone. For the remainder of the day, we focused our energy on small hikes featuring "natural rock openings," which is apparently the more sophisticated and scientific term for rock arches. Our final hike was to the famous "Delicate Arch," the poster child of all rock arches, pardon me, "natural rock openings." It was not an easy hike, requiring people to clamor up a giant slab of rock on the side of a mountain. Peering up from the parking lot, climbers looked like Crayola ants trying to claw their way to the top. Once we reached the top, the route continued up a narrow ledge that spiraled around the back of a giant hillside, gradually unveiling the quintessential rock arch that appears on everyone's screen saver. It was larger than I expected, sprawling over a huge amphitheater where people could soak in the beauty. We left the park later that afternoon, hoping to find a campsite near Capital Reef National Park. We were pleasantly surprised when we came upon a small little RV park that offered tent camping on a grassy lawn for $16 with showers (our least expensive camping fee yet). We unraveled our slobbery, mud coated tent, spraying it off with a nearby water hose. Next door was a restaurant where we ordered a couple of drinks and snagged some free Wi-fi.
 We was some really strange signage at Arches National Park.
People must have tried this at one point in time, hence the ridiculous instructions- so GROSS!

4/26- Bryce Capitol Reef National Park
We started our day at Capital Reef with a hike up the Grand Wash. It's basically a dried-up drainage at the bottom of a steep canyon, funneling water down the valley during monsoon rains. It was hotter than Hades in there, so we hiked a couple of miles, took a few shots, and headed back to the AC in our car. Our next destination was a massive natural rock bridge tucked away high up on the rim of the canyon. We found some shade and ate lunch while enjoying the scenery. As the afternoon was winding down, I ventured out on a solo hike to Chimney Rock while Sherri took a nap in the car. After reaching an overlook, I noticed an angry band of storm clouds creeping our direction along the southern horizon. The warning signs posted throughout the parks had thoroughly freaked us out about the dangers of lightning and flash flooding in the canyon. So I picked up the pace, running most of the next few miles as the  trail looped around toward a wilderness area called Spring Canyon. The mouth of the slot canyon beckoned me toward it as sunlight shimmered off a stream winding through painted walls rising steeply overhead. Unfortunately, behind me was a much more grimacing sight as thunder rumbled from a now completely blackened sky. At this point, the rational voice in my head that has been mostly nonexistent throughout my youth screamed, "Run, you fool of a Tuke!" After a grueling series of frantic sprints and hurled-over episodes of respiratory failure, I made it back to the car looking like a sweat drenched zombie. Rain was now pelting the ground, and we weren't going to stick around to witness the aftermath of water tearing down the hard packed clay hillsides. Following the huge billboards broadcasting Ruby's RV Park and Campground, we drove out to Bryce Canyon National Park. Apparently, there is a family owned town that has completely taken over the entrance to Bryce Canyon, shamelessly capitalizing on the hoards of tourists funneling through their gauntlet of gift shops, restaurants, cabins, ATV rentals, and a rodeo at the edge of town. We succumbed to the lure of Ruby's Funland, noticing the bathhouses, swimming pool, and hot tub in the campground. With childlike excitement, we reserved a two night stay.
 Sherri making her way along the valley bottom of the Grand Wash.
 You can barely see our little blue Prius in the background behind Chimney Rock.

4/27- Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon was a pleasant surprise as we set out on a trail called the Fairyland Loop that next morning. From the canyon rim view, early rays of sunshine set aglow a land of castle-like structures and rock towers called Hoodoos. The trail dropped us down into the enchanting realm where the air was still cool and crisp, sharing the views with only a handful of other hikers. With midday approaching, and the influx of eager hikers, we hightailed it out of there to the abandoned hot tub, pool, and ice cream stand back at the campground. We figured that families would later be forced to return to the campground amongst the onslaught of whining kids complaining, "I'm hungry! It's too hot out here! I'm bored!" affording us the opportunity to return to the empty trails in the cool of the afternoon. Our plan paid off as we waited for the shuttle, watching heat exhausted families stumble off the bus, leaving behind a wake of serious bus funk amongst the now empty seats. Our evening hike was cut a little short as a gnarly storm started brewing overhead, once again, warning us of the perils of flash floods and electrocution.
 Check out our shadow poses in the bottom right of the photo. We like to call it shadow bombing.
 The Fairyland trail was like another world, with castle-like rock towers called Hoodoos.
 We were secretly scared to death during this photo as an angry thunderstorm brewed overhead.
 This unbelievable rainbow stretched across the entire horizon- absolutely breathtaking!

4/28- Zion National Park
We had a 4 hour drive ahead of us today to Zion National Park, so we packed up and hit the road early. As anticipated, the park was already starting to log jam at the entrance by the time we got there, without a single parking spot remaining anywhere in the park. Cars, trucks, and RVs were swarming the lined asphalt like hornets, hunting for backup lights to snatch a newly opened spot. Sherri & I couldn't stand it any longer, opting to take our chances in the town of Springdale, just outside the park. We ended up pulling into an RV lot and campground that still had a few available tent sites. We only made reservations for one night since the chaos and crowds at the park was almost enough to make us ditch this destination altogether. Fortunately, our campsite was perched on the banks of the Virgin river. There was a sign stating, "swim at your own risk, No Lifeguard," so we strapped on our swimsuits and jumped right in. It was fun floating downstream through some of the light rapids- a perfect way to cool off in the midday heat. Later that afternoon, we decided to try going on a hike, hoping that the shuttle bus lines into the canyon had tapered off a bit. We were able to get on the next available shuttle without waiting, but it was still a full house. Our original plan was to hike a popular climb called Angels' Rest, but we changed our mind at the last minute, suspecting that everyone and their brother would be on this trail. Instead, we chose to tackle a longer and more difficult climb to Observation Point. Our suspicions proved correct as practically everyone piled off the shuttle at the Angels' Rest stop. At the next stop, we were they only ones to get off the bus. Charging up the side of the mountain, we only met a handful of people on the route, and at the lookout, we actually looked down on Angels' Rest about 1,000 feet below us. It was an amazing view as we busted out the tripod and took a slue of photos. Upon reaching the trailhead, we figured that we had enough time for another short hike before the last shuttle bus, but we would really have to hustle. It was a gradual mile and a half climb up to the Emerald pools, reflecting the soaring canyon walls, lit only by the deep purple glow of the evening sun. Running back to the bus stop, we caught one of the last busses returning to the Visitor Center parking lot. Before transferring to our shuttle back to the campground, we noticed a brewery that we couldn't pass up. Again, we had to rush since the last bus would be leaving in roughly one half hour. We picked up our tab and slipped on the bus with two minutes to spare. Unfortunately, we didn't realize that there were two different locations with the same name as the campground where we were staying, so we ended up having to walk an additional mile or so back to our campground with tired feet. Needless to say, we crashed hard that evening.
Our campsite was located right beside the river, which made for a fun swim that afternoon.
 We found our lunch spot beside this quaint, little reflecting pool.
 Sherri looking down on Angels's Rest from our overlook- Observation Point.

4/29- The Narrows
Despite getting to bed late last night and putting in a good twelve miles of hiking the day before, we knew that our only chance of beating the crowds at Zion would be to arrive at the Visitor's Center before sunrise. We were not the only ones with this strategy, but it did enable us to venture into The Narrows with fewer people than normal. It's the last stop on the scenic drive, the end of the trail so to say, as the path is consumed by the river. Deep in the belly of this dark and secluded canyon, voices echo as if in a cave, accompanied by the sound of rapids tumbling around blind corners as hikers brace knee deep in the river's current. At certain points, the river deepens to a level that forces hikers to swim if they wish to continue passage upstream. Sherri attempted to swim around a narrow channel, but the current was so strong, that we opted to skirt the river by climbing up and over some boulders along the shoreline. It was a truly remarkable experience, as if exploring some kind of foreign terrain on another planet. The only downside was the occasional pockets of urine smell from the thousands of people tromping alongside the river, day in and day out. The amount of sandal funk and human waste that flows downstream from all that foot traffic immediately triggered my gag reflex. Making our way back to the trailhead, we passed bus load after bus load of people methodically wading upstream like Zombie hoards. Zion National Park faces an unsurmountable challenge of fulfilling its pledge to preserve and protect this phenomenal landscape. Upon our return to the Visitor's Center, looks of shock and dismay came over our faces as over 500 people were now waiting in line to board a shuttle into the canyon. We wasted no time in high tailing it out of there toward Mesa Verde National Park. We arrived late that evening, just in time to watch the sunset from an overlook perched near the campground where we pitched our tent for the last time this trip.
 Sherri braving it out as she navigates through the deep water, carrying her pack overhead.

4/30- Mesa Verde & Great Sand Dunes National Parks
We knew that we needed to hit the Visitor's Center early again today in order to purchase tickets for guided tours of the cliff dwellings. Sure enough, there was a line of people waiting for the doors to open, only to find out that tours of the Cliff Palace had already sold out from the day before. Fortunately, there was availability for the Balcony House, which was promoted as the more adventurous tour since it required crawling through tunnels and climbing a 30ft. ladder. The tour only lasted about a half hour, after which we strolled around some of the different overlooks and archeological sites. We then began our final trek out to Great Sand Dunes Nation Park. The drive consumed most our day, placing us in the park with just enough time for Sherri to bop in the Visitor's Center to stamp her National Park book. The ranger encouraged us to drive down to the beach access parking lot and explore the dunes. He warned us that there was rain in the forecast. Apparently, lightning strikes the dunes quite frequently, so it's not a great place to be in a storm. Sherri and I took his advice and began climbing dune after dune in our bare feet, until we reached a high point overlooking the surrounding mountains. The coolness of the dreary wind and mist in the air was actually quite refreshing after spending several sweaty days in steady heat. It started to rain just as we returned to our car. We drove straight home that evening and showed up in MN around 6pm the next evening.
 This was the start of our climb up to the Balcony House.
 Sherri making her way through the tunnels without even having to duck down.
 There were hundreds of different cliff dwelling scattered throughout the park.
 Our final National Park visit on this trip.
 Making my way down the ridgeline of a dune with the San De Cristo mountains in the background.
 Leaving nothing but footprints in the sand.