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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Road Trips: Passing Time in the Passing Lane

Some of our favorite places are really far away and finding things to pass the time as we roll along can be a challenge. Over the years we've found a few things to combat the monotony of the road.

Almost every trip we take starts at sunrise.
(Richmond/San Rafael Bridge)
We start out with the radio: flipping through to find the local stations is always interesting. We had the blue and red states pegged back in the 80s, long before Fox News, just by listening to the local talk radio in the areas we traveled. Country music and Spanish stations are the most prevalent in the central valley of California as they are in most of the agricultural areas on our side of the Rockies. Utah tends to drift more toward religious programs and pop music, Arizona (apparently) loves a talk show. A trip through Canada once revealed a fantastic station that we theorized was broadcast out of some guy's garage; Benny Goodman's "In the Mood" was followed by the Eagles "Take It Easy" which was followed by Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" and Beethoven's "Pastoral" symphony. We were on the edge of our seats waiting to hear what he'd play next and were pretty upset when we lost the signal.

Sadly, it seems local radio programs are disappearing across the country. On our road trip home from Nebraska last summer, it was hard to find anything that wasn't part of some kind of national programming, another casualty of conglomeration and homogenization. Some of the more remote places we've been don't have any radio reception at all; because of this, we've resorted to podcasts saved up for the trip. One of our favorites is Wait Wait Don't Tell Me, an NPR news quiz show. They're funny and help pass the time, although sometimes it's a little strange to hear "breaking news" questions from six months ago. Books on tape are always good, and I've always wanted to try learning a language. Then maybe we could understand those radio stations in the valley...

Teakettle Junction, on the way to the Racetrack, Death Valley
We play little games we've made up over the years. One, called "Hard Questions" we stole from our niece: "Would you rather go blind or deaf?" or "Would you rather eat a rattlesnake or a scorpion?" is always a good one when we're getting hungry. And there's always the double barreled "Would you remarry after I die or pine away for me the rest of your life?" Silly, I know, but it can get pretty interesting when you have to justify your choice.

One particularly long and boring drive we made between Minnesota and California we resorted to flipping through the atlas and quizzing each other on the capitol cities, official state 'things' (birds, minerals, flowers, etc.) and population sizes. Out of desperation we actually learned something, dredging into our 7th grade geography memory banks to help find the answers.

What counts as traffic on many of the backroads through the desert.
Exercise is hard to come by in the cab of a truck, and keeping the blood flowing (not to mention to keep from falling asleep at the wheel) requires creativity. Foot flexes (the driver is required to set cruise control first to avoid sickening the passenger with the acceleration changes) are always good, as are arm stretches and ab crunches. We choose landmarks for the start and finish, and make rules about the duration of the exercise. On one memorable trip on a particularly straight stretch on California's Highway 5, our rule was "start at the next sign and keep going until the next exit." Little did we know we would be doing butt squeezes for ten miles (exits are few and far between on some sections of that road.) That was one of the few trips we had muscle soreness from the drive and not the hike.

Always keep an eye on the road. You never know what you might see.
Of course, just sitting back and watching the scenery roll by has it's attractions. You never know what you might see along the road; we spotted a rare wolverine on the Dalton Highway in Alaska, and we've seen countless bear, deer and moose along the roads in the northern states. We've seen a cow tied up in the bed of a pickup truck, one frayed rope away from falling onto the street; a goat in the back seat of a Crown Victoria; horses pooping out the back of their trailers, road apples bouncing along at freeway speeds. We've even had an 18-wheeler blow a tire right next to us on the freeway (that's enough to wake you up in the early morning.)

Our fellow travelers are sometimes the most entertaining; we've passed (or been passed by) people we eventually meet up with at the next rest stop. Once in a while we find ourselves camping next to the very same people. It's fun to hear how far they came and where they're going; the added benefit is getting a few great tips about things we otherwise would have missed from these folks.

The official start to the Alaskan Highway,
Dawson Creek, BC
1523 miles later at the other end,
Fairbanks, AK

All of this is a small price to pay to get to the marvelous places that can be found in North America. We're lucky enough to live within a few hundred miles of some really fantastic parks, and within a two-day drive of even more. I'd trade a little boredom for outdoor adventure anytime.

So here's a Hard Question for you:
Would you rather go on an eight hour road trip, or go to work and sit in front of your computer all day?

Friday, January 24, 2014

Been There, Got The T-Shirt

I don't consider myself an addictive personality. Oh sure, I can go a little overboard with the chocolate now and then, but overall I don't feel there's much I couldn't live without. Lately though, during a little early spring cleaning, I realized I just may have a problem.

A whole drawer full, in fact.

I love t-shirts. Not just any t-shirt, but the ones you can find at the visitor's centers and gift stores at national and state parks. I've collected them for as many years as Mark and I have been camping, that's wrong...longer than that. I think I got my first one when I was in high school. I try to tell myself that pictures are what we take away with us when we go to these places, but about 90% of the time I come home with a shirt, hat or sweatshirt as well.

Here's a picture of what I found on the top layer of my drawer:

I went through them just before Christmas and must have given ten shirts to charity. I thought I was doing better. I thought wrong.

I'm embarrassed to say I'm wearing one right now; my pink Yosemite shirt, purchased this summer on our annual trip. I've got one (or more) from all the major parks in the western states, a few from Canada, and a couple from our local county park. It's gotten so bad I have flat storage boxes that slide under the bed filled with shirts that won't fit in the drawer. And that doesn't even include my ball cap collection.

I wear them all, but confess to having a few favorites. My Crater Lake national park t-shirt started out life navy blue but has faded to a light purple, and holes are starting to form along the shoulder seam. I tried to put it in the rag pile but just couldn't bring myself to do it. I've gone so far as to search online to see if they sell the same style as a replacement. No dice.

Mark rolls his eyes when we walk into park stores and as a preemptive measure, warns me I can buy one only if I get rid of one (if by "get rid of" you mean putting it in the box under the bed, then it's a deal...) He can't exactly complain though; he's got a few himself, one of which he still wears even though it looks like an 80s acid-wash gone bad. The seams have the look of really sloppy lace, and there are spots on the back worn so thin by his backpack they're almost translucent.

Mark wearing his favorite Yosemite shirt when it was new-ish. Photo taken in Arches NP, Utah.
(We have a rule: we can't wear a shirt bearing the name of the park we are currently in. For instance, when camping in Yosemite, we have to wear a Glacier or Rainier shirt. Wouldn't want to look like a tourist or something...)

We're working on our plans for trips this year. We've got maps laid out all over the dining room table and guide books with sticky notes poking out the sides; we're looking for some interesting new places to explore in the Arizona and southern Utah regions. We have certain criteria: it can't be too crowded, the weather can't be too cold, and some four wheel driving has to be required. All of this is fine by me, as long as there's a gift store on the way out.

If I don't have a t-shirt, how can I prove I was there?

Friday, January 17, 2014

Picture This: Yosemite Camping Then and Now

I don't know exactly what draws me to some photos. I could make up all sorts of fancy reasons why (cue the snooty voice); the composition of the frame intrigues me, the subject matter juxtaposed with the organic nature of the piece is stunning, drawing the eye to the infinite reality of the universe as a whole...

In reality, I just know what I like.  A lot of the time it has more to do with the era it was taken, or the good memories it conjures up while I look at it. I'm sure all of you have a photo that is the polar opposite of "art" but you proudly keep it on your mantel (or as the screen shot on your iPhone) anyway. Out of focus, off kilter, bad composition--it doesn't matter, it's a keeper. Because you like it.

This is one of those for me:

Yosemite Camping circa 1950's: (Photo Credit: William Miller)

I wasn't even there when this was taken: Heck, Mark and I weren't even alive when this was taken. It's a shot of Mark's family's campsite in Yosemite, probably sometime in the 50s. If you look closely you can see a play pen set up for one of Mark's uncles, and all the towels (both dish and swim) were strung up on the line between the pine trees. The family is gathered around the picnic table (playing Yahtzee, if my experience with that side of the family is any guide) and chatting it up. Mark's extended family went to Yosemite every summer and spent a week playing in the river and walking around the valley. That tradition has continued to this day: our Yosemite trip every summer is an extension of that when we join Mark's sister, cousins, mother, aunts, uncles and all the kids that have cropped up over the years for a week of swimming in the river, walking around the valley and eating popsicles whenever we can get away with it.

Mark's grandfather was a photography enthusiast, taking photos on vacations and bringing the film(!) back to his house in San Francisco to develop in his basement. Those were the good old days when you could have all those nasty chemicals laying around (come on in kids! I'll show you how to process film. Nah, you won't need gloves...) He probably dumped those same chemicals down the drain when he was through too. Things were simpler, if not more dangerous, back when we didn't know any better. Of course, Grandpa lived well into his nineties, so maybe there's something to this living dangerously thing. Hmmm...

Anyway, I really like this photo because for me it symbolizes the essence of camping. When I look at it I like to imagine camping in Yosemite before it was overrun and over-regulated. Even then it was hard to get a campsite--my mother-in-law tells me her father used to send her ahead of the family car to ask each family if they were leaving that day and could we have your site?--but it was still possible to get one the day you showed up.  None of this logging in from three computers five months in advance, frantically pressing the refresh button as you watch all the available campsites disappear before your eyes.

I like the way the photo is dark, and a little smoky. And I really appreciate the way you can barely make out any other campers in the background; the sites seemed more spaced out then or perhaps so much foliage has been trampled and ripped up now that there's nothing to shield you from your fellow campers anymore. It looks like you could walk to the end of the road and find yourself alone in the forest.

For comparison's sake, here's a photo of our campsite last summer in Yosemite:

Yosemite's Upper Pines Campground, 2013

Sure, it's a little less smoky--the park has put a moratorium on campfires in the daylight hours--but you could hardly call it secluded. A concrete pad with a picnic table and a bear bin to call your own, the invisible barriers known only to the seasoned campers to hold your place in the dirt. Of course, Yosemite is full of un-seasoned campers, so expect people of all nationalities to traipse right through your site at any moment. Privacy is not an option so it's best to just roll with it.

Even with the crowds though, I will never tire of Yosemite. It's one of those special places that cannot be compared to anywhere else on earth. It works to our advantage that most people don't have the time or the energy to get much past the turnouts and overlooks. If you're willing to go a bit farther, you can find yourself alone in some of the most spectacular scenery you will ever see in your lifetime.

So I will continue to press the refresh button madly (while reciting a few choice words) five months in advance of our next trip. Not because I enjoy it, but because I have to. To skip a year would be a shame and an early morning marathon session at the computer is worth a week in paradise, as crowded and overrun as it is. The family tradition has to carry on and it takes a concerted effort to bring everyone together for a week; Mark's sister gets on the phone a year and a day before the selected timeframe and keeps calling until she gets a reservation in the housekeeping units. When I start to wonder why we bother, I just look at that photo again and it helps me to remember.

And every year during all of this, somewhere up there Grandpa is looking down and smiling to himself:

"Sure didn't seem all that hard when I was doing it."

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Endangering Ourselves

As a (somewhat) established blogger, I am approached by all sorts of people looking for a mention of their chosen cause. I've been asked to review books, join "Healthy Lifestyle" clubs, fitness programs, crowd sourcing projects and political causes. It seems there is a never ending line of people interested in a little free publicity.(I've been propositioned in a few other ways as well, but those go directly to the trash: Sorry, I'm not sure if I've mentioned this, but Mark is my husband which means I'm married and not available for those, uh, activities...) 

I was contacted by Amanda Milster with the Endangered Species Coalition recently regarding the de-listing of the North American gray wolf from the Endangered Species category. Coincidentally I had just read an article about OR-7, the gray wolf that lives in Oregon but occasionally wanders over the border to visit California. He slipped over the state line on December 7th, then ran back into Oregon a short while later (perhaps he caught wind of our higher taxes?) all of which was tracked through his electronic monitoring collar. California legislators are being urged to pass laws protecting wolves in the state, using him as proof that wolves will be coming our way, even if they haven't moved in quite yet. This story, coupled with the article I had just read about the US Fish and Wildlife Services proposal to take wolves off the endangered list and the reasons hunters have been pushing for it made Amanda's email all the more intriguing.

Balancing the needs of wild animals and the general human population has never been a simple matter. Habitat destruction, human fear, protection of livestock, and trophy hunting all interfere with the predator's ability to roam freely. In the old days, anything that interfered with commerce or was perceived to be a threat was eliminated, no questions asked. People moved in, claimed a spot of land, put up fences and shot anything that crossed over them. In California, grizzly bears were killed wherever they were discovered until the last one was finished off in 1922. I remember seeing poison openly laid out in the sheep pastures to kill coyotes here when I was little. They politely put up signs (spray painted on old car tires hung on fence posts) warning you not to let your dog loose or he might end up dead from the poison (or the rancher's gun I suppose.)

Coyote in Bodie State Park.
This guy will have some competition if wolves move back to the state.

Nowadays we've got regulation, litigation and political agendas to tell us what will happen to the wolves. And, no surprise, it seems like it all amounts to which side has the most money. Hunters are claiming the wolves are eating up all the deer, leaving nothing to shoot for dinner. At least one survey has found that it's really the poaching, loss of habitat and over abundance of deer licenses that should be blamed for the missing fauna. The ranchers are concerned that the wolves will slowly pick off all the young cattle, then start working on the adult animals, severely cutting into their profits. Of course, there will always be trophy hunters who just want to go out and shoot a wolf for the sake of bragging rights.

Interestingly enough, there are some businesses that are now standing up for the wolves. Patagonia, Dansko and Fishpond LLC have all thrown their support toward keeping the wolves on the endangered list. Although they no doubt have noble motives, there are monetary reasons behind it as well: the recovery effort relocating wolves to Yellowstone National Park has resulted in an uptick in tourism from all over the world, all vying for the chance to see a wolf in the wild (and perhaps sporting some new Patagonia wear while doing so.)

I've been googling issues surrounding wolves for a few weeks trying to get a feel for all sides of the argument. It's a tough issue for me. I tend to automatically side with animals when it comes down to it, so I have a hard time seeing the trophy hunter's point of view. But I do feel for the ranchers; I realize it's a hard way to make a living and seeing your profit literally being eaten up must be infuriating. As for the deer hunters...come on down to Sonoma and Marin counties! The deer here are so numerous and hungry they are coming into the city and eating all our rose bushes.

A field of deer is a common sight in our neck of the woods.

So I'll leave you with this final point of view, one that I was unable to find anywhere else:

Let's say you're tired of the rat race that is southern Canada. It's crowded, all the good mates are taken, and you just want a change of pace. You move south and find a nice spot along the river in a new area. You get to know your neighbors, maybe find a good looking single lady that came south around the same time. You settle down together and a few months later you've had quadruplets and boy are they hungry. So you run down the hill to stock up on groceries. This place called the Lazy R moved in a few years after you did--at first you were annoyed because they took down a lot of trees and kind of ruined it for the game that was living there--but it's turned out to be a nice place; neat, well maintained, a pretty good selection. You find some nice veal you know the missus would really enjoy so you pick it up and take it home. The family really likes it, but hey, it was much easier to pick up a rabbit or squirrel here and there so you stick with those for a while. A few months later you remember just how good that veal tasted, and haven't you been working hard? Don't you deserve a nice dinner once in a while? So you go back down to the Lazy R but this time they shoot at you. So you run back to the house to tell the family about your crazy day but you don't realize some guy on a horse has followed you. Within a few months your whole family is dead.

So I have to ask: Should we, as humans, always come first? Why?

(Here's a link to the Endangered Species Coalition in case you'd like to read more about their campaign.)