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Thursday, May 30, 2013


Just got back from a two week trip through the southwest/midwest. We must have broken some sort of record this time around--here's our tally:

  • 14 days
  • Seven states
  • 380 gallons of gas
    Mark and his new friend.
    He was a barrel of laughs.
  • 40 mph winds
  • 3900 miles driven
  • 4 showers taken

Our first stop was supposed to be Mitchell Caverns in the Mojave Desert National Preserve, just down the road a piece from Barstow. We had heard the caverns were pretty spectacular and since they were far off the beaten path, not very crowded. Upon further investigation however, it turned out the caverns had been closed due to state budget cuts, and subsequently vandalized. Some low-lifes broke windows, stole things from a supply shed and pulled all the wiring from the visitor's center and campground, presumably for the copper. So now not only does the state have to come up with money for the staff, it has about $100,000 in damages to repair before it can be reopened. (There is presently a grass-roots effort to reopen the park; if you're interested go to )

So reconsidering the area, we noticed a place on the map just down the road from Mitchell Caverns called Hole-in-the-Wall. The campground is run by the National Parks Service, so it is still operating (at the moment). From I-40, the campground is 20 miles up a canyon (4400' elev.) on a bumpy paved road. The sites are a steal for $12.00/night and they provide water, pit toilets, picnic tables and trash/recycling areas. Pretty posh compared to some of the more remote places we've been (pack it in/pack it out/no water).

Open range cattle were our greeting committee: Mojave National Preserve.

We were one of maybe three other vehicles in the large campground. The weather was pleasantly 80's, warm in the sun but perfect in the shade. We were there on a Wednesday, and since the visitor's center was only open on the weekends I'm guessing it's more popular with the locals on the weekends.

Our lonely camper, one of three in the large campground.
There were several trails based out of the campgrounds that were definitely worth a return trip. Since we only had the one afternoon to spend there, we chose the mile long Rings Trail. At first, we thought it was called that since it followed a canyon and went around in a loop, depositing you back to the trailhead. We soon found the true source of it's name.

Big warning signs at the trailhead cautioned to bring plenty of water, tell someone your travel plans, and to pack plenty of extra supplies. We thought, geez, we were just going out for a little walk, a mile hardly even warrants bringing water (although we always do).

The trail followed a canyon that quickly got very narrow and rocky. It became less of a trail and more of a clamber over boulders and around the tall canyon walls. It then abruptly dropped down a dry fall. The park service had drilled into the rock and placed heavy pins with rings looped through them to aid in climbing. It was really a clever way to enable the hikers and, unless you are afraid of heights, not hard once you got the hang of it.

The "trail"
The rings in Ring Trail

Once down, the trail opened up into a wide canyon with tall volcanic cliff faces on three sides. The "Holes-in-the-Walls" were formed by volcanic gasses bubbling up through the lava as it hardened. They made great nesting spots for birds, lizards, snakes and black widows. For that reason, it was strongly suggested to look into the holes before sticking your hand into them.
Looking back toward the trail through the canyon

Petroglyph, Rings Trail, Hole-in-the-Wall
The trail then made it's way around the hills, through open desert with a variety of cactus, yucca, and grasses. It was late afternoon and the gray of the rock was set off by the reds and tans of the soil and surrounding mountains. A large rock outcropping toward the end of the trail had a variety of petroglyphs carved into it's face.

Beautifully painful; we came back from our hike with spines
from these cacti stuck in our  boots.

Overall, it wasn't all that hard. I think the park service is required to place dire warning signs to ward off the unprepared and/or litigious. I suppose if we had taken a wrong turn we would have been wandering a while in a very hot and unforgiving environment. Fortunately we are blessed with a keen sense of direction, aided by our years of experience, uncanny ability to read the terrain, and the many, many sign posts the park service placed along the way.

Went back to our camp happy to have found such an unexpectedly nice spot. It always feels good to do a little hiking after sitting in the truck all day, and after hiking, justified snacking.

Mark and his cheesy grin to go along with his cheesy puffs.

Went to bed early, very quiet with just enough breeze to make it pleasant. Just as we started to get to sleep, the wind kicked up and over the course of the night started howling. It blew so hard the truck was rocking back and forth on it's axles. The gusts would die down long enough to be fooled into thinking it was over, just to start up again even harder than before. Mark got up a few times during the night just to make sure our gear was still where we had left it.

Got up early in the morning with the goal of making Flagstaff by noon. On the road out, we were lucky enough to see a desert tortoise. For the many trips to the desert we've made, we've only seen a desert tortoise once before. They are endangered now; illegal off-road drivers crush the dens where they seek shelter from the heat. People have also released pet turtles into the wild and diseases have spread to the native tortoises, killing them off.

Desert Tortoise
Eating a small bit of cactus growing on the side of the road.

Notice the long legs and leathery skin. Desert tortoise can withstand 140 degree F ground temps,  and get their only moisture from the plants they eat. They can live up to 80 years if left unmolested.
All in all, Hole-in-the-Wall was a great area to visit. We have now added it to our growing list of places we'd like to spend a lot more time exploring.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Remembering Not to Forget

After 25 years, I'd like to think we've got this packing thing down. The camper has all the basics ready to go at a moment's notice: stove, dishes, canned food, tools. We throw in sleeping bags, clothes, drinks and the perishable food items and we're ready to go. Seems easy, right?

On a memorable trip to Tahoe, I got up the first morning to discover I had forgotten to pack underwear. I had enough socks to cover twice the number of days we planned to be out, but no undies. Facing the prospect of wearing the same pair for 6 days straight, I made Mark drive back to Truckee with me to the outlet mall. I endured "camping panty" jokes for years after that one.

After 10 hours of driving, just as we cruised into Death Valley for a week long camping trip, I asked Mark where he put our black bag. "I don't know, you were the one to pack it." "But I thought you grabbed it." The "black bag" is our catch all bag--the one that has toothpaste & toothbrushes, soap, shampoo, towels, sunscreen, and most importantly, my contact lens case and solution. I could have worn my glasses for the rest of the trip but they were...let's see... oh yeah, in the black bag. It was 5:00 pm at this point, and the only store within 50 miles closed at 6 o'clock. We raced to the gift shop just before closing and searched the shelves for any useful items. They had all the normal stuff: soap, shampoo, deodorant, even contact lens solution (all in travel size of course), but no contact cases. I settled for two shot glasses; one with a colorful map of California on the side, and the other with an old black and white photo of a dog and cowboy with the inscription "Designated Driver." They held my contacts that night, covered with aluminum foil to keep the dry desert air from evaporating the saline solution. I used the California one for the left lens, of course.

An unusually hot Labor Day weekend in the redwoods turned into a sweltering nightmare when, inexplicably, we only brought hiking boots and long pants. We tried cooling our feet off in the river, but it was so hot the rocks blistered our bare feet when we walked across the beach to the water.

We used to make beef jerky before our trips, carefully marinating it in our own concoction of sauces, drying it in the oven and packing it up in air-tight bags. We'd put it in the truck cab to eat during the long driving days. Once, two or three days into a road trip, we realized we didn't have the jerky with us. After comparing notes about the mystery bits of plastic we had found on the living room floor, we realized our dog must have stolen it off the counter and eaten every single bit before we left. I just hope he was so dehydrated after that he got a headache--would have served him right.

On a long trip to Arizona and Utah, we did meticulous research about the parks we planned to visit, but failed to pack any maps for the route to and from our destinations. This was before smart phones and GPS. We stopped at a gas station and had to make due with one of those tourist maps, trying to decipher campgrounds between the cartoon gold miners and their mules.

We've shivered our way through long cold nights in the mountains having forgotten to bring an extra blanket. We've hiked all day in the hot sun with the promise of cold drinks awaiting us just to discover someone forgot to load them in the cooler (that would be me--it's my job to load the food. Oops.) Mark once forgot to pack shirts--he wore the same one for three days. He claimed it was better than the same underwear. I guess...

We're packing for a two week trip now. I've got lists going in every room: one for electronics, one for clothes, one stuck to the fridge detailing what I need to grab right before we leave. I'm pretty confident we won't be forgetting anything this time around. But when you leave at 4 am, it's hard to get your head in the game. I better bring some extra cash just in case. I hope I remember...

Friday, May 10, 2013

Nature vs. Nurture

A few years ago, during a happy hour mixer held one night at the Overland Expo, a question was posed to me that I haven't stopped thinking about since: As a woman, what can you say to convince other women to get out and explore the outdoors?

The woman who asked me this is actually pretty famous for doing some serious "getting out there." Monika Wescott, along with her husband Gary, travel the world in a camper. They are the reason we chose the camper we did, and they have been a huge inspiration to us. They've traveled extensively in Mexico, crossed Siberia in winter and are presently on a four year trip around the world following the Silk Road. Their website  goes into detail about their adventures, but suffice it to say, they are out there exploring.

Mark with Monika Wescott of the Turtle Expedition.

So when she asked me that question it seriously got me thinking. To be clear though, I don't think it's really a man vs. woman thing; I personally know several men that would never consider camping as a vacation choice. My first reaction was a nature/nurture argument; I was pretty young when my dad started taking me camping; my two brothers and I were treated equally as far as chores and expectations; I was and am more of a tomboy than a girly-girl, a fact to which Mark and pretty much everybody that knows me can attest. But why was it that Monika and I were standing in a group of men, most of whom were complaining they couldn't get their wives to come along on trips with them?

I think at least some of it comes down to discomfort. Most of us get up in the morning, take a shower, put on clean clothes and go about our day. We attend to our various grooming rituals to be presentable to the world and each other. We like our coffee in the morning, our toast with butter, our paper on the porch. We like our own bathroom, our own mattress, our own chair in front of our own TV. When that's taken away, it slips into the uncomfortable zone.

Contrary to what most non-campers might think, you don't have to give up all the rituals to go camping. Mark makes his coffee camping the same way he makes it at home: boiling water poured into a cone over his coffee cup. We have a two burner stove that cooks up pretty much anything you could make at home, and a little travel grill that works perfectly for a steak or chicken. Our bed is a foam mattress with the pillows taken from our bed at home. We have a solar shower that we use to clean up in the afternoons, and if there's no sun that day, we heat water on the stove and pour it in to warm it up. After a few days on the road, not wanting to be mistaken for Sasquatch, I stick my feet in a washbasin and shave my legs, using the sun shower to rinse off.  Men do have it easier on that front; Mark just lets his beard grow and gets more handsome by the day (I might be biased).

Our camping Beauty Salon.

The Milky Way: more than just a candy bar.
If you're having a bad hair day, just put on a hat--it's probably best for your sunburned nose anyway. If you wear makeup, bring along a little compact mirror or use the car mirrors. If you want your clothes to smell dryer-fresh, line your duffel bag with dryer sheets (it has the added effect of keeping the mosquitoes at bay, or so I'm told.) If you don't like pit toilets...well, you're going to have to dig your own hole. Or bring a coffee can. Sorry.

The tradeoff for this little bit of extra effort is enormous. To wake up in the morning and see the sun rise over a mountain range, the only sounds coming from the birds in the trees. Seeing the entire Milky Way spread out across the sky at night without any city lights interfering with the view. Meeting people from all over the world that came to enjoy the same experience. It saddens me to think many people will never see these things because they don't want anyone to see them with messy hair.

If taking care of the creature comforts isn't enough to convince you, let me appeal to your pocketbook: the average lodge room in Yosemite costs $220.00/night plus meals (and they're not cheap). A camp spot will cost you just $20.00/night, and you can cook up whatever you want or go out for dinner, your choice. So if you camp for a week, you've just saved $1400.00 that would easily cover the purchase of a tent, sleeping bag, cooler and camp stove, and you will be able to use them for years to come, anywhere you want.

Here in the U.S. (and California in particular), we are really lucky. There are huge areas set aside just for our enjoyment. Ancient trees, snowy mountain ranges, bubbling sulfur pits, sandy beaches, deep caverns, and endangered animals all saved in your name. National, State, Regional and County parks all out there, waiting for people to come see them. Death Valley National Park alone is bigger than some European countries, 5300 square miles set aside just for you. And as taxpayers, you're helping to pay for it. Why not go check out your acreage?
Could you ask for a better washroom view?
North Rim, Grand Canyon National Park

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Up, Up and Away: Hiking in Yosemite

It's time to start looking for a challenging new hike for this year's trip to Yosemite. I tease Mark about torturing him every year, making him come along on a forced march, but more accurately I'm torturing myself; Mark is in much better shape than I ever hope to be.

There are hundreds of hiking trails to choose from and they are all beautiful in their own way. There are the big famous ones: Vernal and Nevada Falls, Yosemite Falls, Half Dome. These are the trails that get hundreds of people a day trekking up and down in such numbers that hardly a vista point can be seen for the flailing legs, arms and cameras (If a trail is hiked in a crowd, does it have scenery?). There are the lesser known trails that don't have as many grand views, but offer closer looks at the granite walls and river habitat in the valley. Then there are the ones that are so gut-busting very few people are willing to try them and they have spectacular scenery to boot. Those are the ones I look for.

View from Yosemite Valley floor

Part of the excitement of any trip is in the planning. I have a thick California Hiking book (Foghorn Press) I've used for every trip we've done and it's a great help. I also love the website Yosemite Hikes (; whoever writes the descriptions on this site deserves a Webby. Funny, informative, and once you finish the prescribed hike, so true (sometimes sadly so--ALWAYS take their advice, trust me on this). I would love to live in Yosemite from mid-May through September every year and do nothing but hike each trail listed. Unfortunately, I have not yet become independently wealthy (not for lack of wishing), so I have to be satisfied with a week a year sometime around the end of July and make the experience count.

If you've ever visited Yosemite Valley in the summer I don't have to tell you how crowded it can get. If you are one of the lucky ones to have scored reservations at a campground or cabin you pretty much have to park the car and leave it there until it's time to go home. There are virtually no parking spots during the day and the traffic can get so backed up it looks like the MacArthur Maze met Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. It's really best to walk or take the shuttle bus once you get there. With that in mind, I try to plan hikes that take off from the valley either within walking distance from our camp spot or from a shuttle stop. Of course, the only way out of the valley is up--3,000+ feet depending on your destination--so it's a good idea to do a little training before you get there.

I would love to say that I get up at the crack of dawn and run like the wind for an hour, then hop on my bike and ride to work by way of the next county...but it's a good day when I get the milk on the cereal and the OJ in the glass without switching it up, so I do what passes for training after work. I start in March just walking around the neighborhood, going farther out as it stays lighter during the month. Then I start wearing a backpack with a few things in it, gradually adding weight as my feet and knees get used to the extra pressure. Although it's a little challenging to find a decent hill around town, I find them on the weekends and walk up and down with the goal of having my lungs stay inside my chest (I just hate it when they try to crawl out--it's so inconvenient). I'll admit, no matter how diligent I am about this process, once we get to Yosemite I still have to acclimate for a few days. The valley is 4,000 feet above sea level, which doesn't sound like much until you try to climb a few thousand more. That little difference in oxygen really takes away your gusto.

6:30am: On the way up Four Mile Trail, gusto leaking out by the minute.
Once we get to the park we usually spend the first day walking around the valley. It's really amazing sometimes; with all the thousands of visitors in Yosemite on any summer day, walk down the side trails just a hundred feet from the road and you find yourself all alone. After careful study, I have come to an (admittedly unscientific) conclusion: people are lazy. We've walked by a shuttle bus stop at a popular wayside and passed a hundred people waiting to get on a bus that holds fifty. Then we've walked along in the same direction as the bus and met it unloading those very people at the next stop. I much prefer the quiet and solitude, so I guess I should thank them for not cluttering up the trail.

There are, apparently, people on the opposite side of the spectrum. Once, while waiting our turn at the visitor information desk, a gentleman with a heavy accent dressed in matching olive green shirt and shorts, long wool socks, hiking boots and an impressive knee brace was demanding to know where the trail to the top of Yosemite Falls was located as he planned to hike it that afternoon. It was fairly late in the day and the ranger was trying to impress upon him how strenuous it was and how long it would take to complete.

Ranger: "It takes 6 to 10 hours to hike it round trip, and it gets dark quickly in the valley."
Knee Brace Man: "Where does this trail begin?"
Ranger: "It's 2600 feet of switchbacks up the valley wall."
Knee Brace Man: "But where do I go to start this trail?"
Ranger: "We really don't like to have to send the helicopter after people who get stuck on the trails. It's very expensive and endangers our crews."
Knee Brace Man: "But where can I find this trailhead?"
Ranger: "It's a very hard trail and with an injured knee, I wouldn't recommend it."
Knee Brace Man: "But is it hard for a German?"

Yosemite rangers are saints. I know what I would have said, but the ranger just smiled and told him to start his hike in the morning. He never did tell the guy where to find the trailhead though.

That brings me to another unscientific-but-interesting observation as a hiker on the trails of Yosemite. Americans will, almost without fail, say hello when passing on a trail. If they are particularly tired, it comes out more as a panting grunt, but they acknowledge you in passing. The Japanese tourists will nod and smile and make sure to leave plenty of room to pass (which is MUCH appreciated on the narrow parts of the trail with steep drop-offs). In general though, Europeans will not make eye contact, do not acknowledge your presence, and occasionally pretend you don't even exist. I have a German friend who explained to me how long it took to get used to strangers talking to her in the supermarket here in the US. She said in her country you just don't talk to people you don't know (which made me wonder how in the world you ever make friends, but I digress). So it makes more sense now, but I still find it a little off-putting, especially when you haven't seen anyone for hours and it would be nice to think if they came across your lifeless body lying prone in the middle of the trail they would at least stop to check for a pulse.

While we're meandering off topic, another trail observation: When you're in your eleventh hour of hiking and you're coming down off the trail, you can sometimes catch a whiff of shampoo or cologne or general cleanliness as you pass the fresh new hikers starting up the trail. Then in a moment of panic, you wonder, what in the world are they smelling coming off of me?

So anyway, I'm still mulling over which trail to choose this year. Only one thing is for sure: we'll be heading uphill soon.
The view from Panorama Trail. The lump of bare granite in the upper right is the side of Half Dome, and the valley below is the home of Nevada and Vernal Falls.