Road Trip VI, Days 12-15, Anza-Borrego Desert Park: Musings on Rarity

I know–usually I title my posts based on the start and end points of the days in question. But would you read a post about “LA to Scottsdale?” Me neither.

Yes, we left LA last Friday and are now visiting friends in the greater Phoenix area. But in between we visited Son One up in the San Bernardino Mountains–think 5,000 feet above the valley, where the air is scented with cedar and more different kinds of pine than I can remember–and from there spent nearly three days in Anza-Borrego Desert Park.

Never heard of it? Neither had we, until recently. It’s only the second-largest state park in California (and simultaneously a national monument), but it’s pretty much in the middle of nowhere: halfway between San Diego and Palm Springs. You have to WANT to go there.

The Mate and I went on two gloriously sunny hikes with our friends, noticing the touches of spring the recent rains have brought. I saw lots of tiny golden poppies, and red chuparosa looking like the custom-made hummingbird feeder it is.

Hummingbird feeder.

Hummingbird feeder.

But the flowers that really caught my attention were the singletons.

In a whole giant desert full of agave, I saw exactly ONE blooming.

Also called Century Plant, 'cause supposedly that's how often it blooms

Also called Century Plant, ’cause supposedly that’s how often it blooms

And traditional-looking barrel-type cactus? Same thing: ONE.

Actually I've no idea what kind of cactus this is. Anyone?

Actually I’ve no idea what kind of cactus this is. Anyone?

So which pictures do I post and write about? Why, those two. They’re not the prettiest things we saw, just the rarest. Rare = Special.

Why is that? Is the answer too obvious, or too subtle to perceive?

 

Road Trip VI, Days 8-11, Pinnacles National Park to L.A.: How Giant Rocks Bring to Life My Inner Philosopher-Child

I said it last year in a post from Joshua Tree: I LOVE big rocks. Climbing on them, sitting in their shade, hiking around them–heck, even just driving past. There’s something about the way a nondescript hillside suddenly bares its soul to reveal the inner globules of sandstone or tuff or conglomerate that were there all along: “Look what I got going on!”

Let's go, y'all!

Let’s go, y’all!

And yes, of course I don’t mean “suddenly”–we’re talking about erosion here. But that’s the effect, and it gets me every time.

The Mate and I just spent two nights camping in Pinnacles National Park. While our nights were private, there were actually four of us on our daily hikes: us two, my inner child, and my inner philosopher.

Big Rocks!!!!!

Big Rocks!!!!!

Inner Child was the loudest: “Can we climb on that? Can we can we can we? Ooh, look–CAVES!!!!”

Caves!!!!

Caves!!!!

But Inner Philosopher was just as insistent: “Do you REALIZE that all these fantastic spires and hoodoos are actually just the remnants of what is there ALL THE TIME–what you are even now walking upon and taking completely for granted? Have you thought about what it MEANS that only passivity in the face of inexorable forces can reveal the inner truths of external appearance? Was the Buddha right–all is illusion? Or are these rocks the living soul of the earth? Or are they merely the next layer that our mortal eyes are capable of SEEING?”

I see a spire. Inner Philosopher sees...inspiration.

I see a spire. Inner Philosopher sees…inspiration.

Luckily for The Mate, most of this chatter was inside my head. All he had to put up with was me, oohing and ahhing at the condors and hummingbirds. But he was doing the same.

Couldn't get a picture of a condor. But here's a hummingbird for you!

Couldn’t get a picture of a condor. But here’s a hummingbird for you!

I know this isn’t a classic travel blog, but just in case you find yourself in the lower Bay Area or traveling toward LA on I-5, here’s a classic travel blog tip, take yourself to Pinnacles. Who knows who might turn out to be making the trip with you?

 

America’s National Parks: Big, Beautiful, and…Downright Un-American: Ever Wonder Why?

Hey, I’m back. Just spent a wonderful four days wandering with my besties from high school through Olympic National Park–which should be called Olympic National Parks, it contains so many different ecozones. From the giant cedars and spruces of the rain forest to the wild waves and fantastical drift logs of the Pacific beaches, from the azure shores of Crescent Lake to the glint of Blue Glacier shining across to Hurricane Ridge–all in four days!–we luxuriated in accessible diversity and diverse accessibility.

And I noticed something I’ve noticed many times before in national parks. We met lots of people–people of all colors speaking Dutch and Chinese and Hindi and English. Except the English speakers were not exactly ALL colors. We met very, very, very few Black folks. And that reminded me of this article I’d recently read on Al Jazeera America.com about just this topic. 

According to the article, my perceptions are sadly borne out by statistics:

According to a 2009 survey by the University of Wyoming and the National Park Service (NPS), whites accounted for 78 percent of the national parks’ visitors from 2008 to 2009; Hispanics, 9 percent; African-Americans, 7 percent; and Asian-Americans, 3 percent.

When compared with their share of the U.S. population, white park visitors are overrepresented by 14 percentage points, whereas African-Americans were underrepresented by 6 percentage points. Whites are overrepresented not only as visitors but also as park employees. According to a 2013 report by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, 80 percent of NPS employees were white. And the National Park Foundation’s 22-member board, whose mission is to support the NPS through fundraising, has only four minorities.

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The article goes on to emphasize that this issue isn’t simply one of Black folks not being particularly drawn to natural beauty. Ironically, the National Park Service itself appears to be contributing to African Americans’ feelings of unwelcome in our parks:

Last month we learned firsthand about the racist mistreatment of African-American park visitors during a scholarly event at Yosemite National Park in California. By inviting a diverse group of women to the park, we inadvertently carried out a study of racial profiling by park gate agents.

As part of our event, eight female academics — four of them white or Hispanic and four African-American — drove into the park. The organizers told participants not to pay the entrance fee and to inform gate agents that their fees were waived because they were visiting the research station.

The white and Hispanic drivers gave the agents the information as directed and were welcomed and waved through. The four African-American scholars entered the park at different times and entrances and gave the same information. In all four cases, the African-American professors were extensively questioned, made to fill out a superfluous form, which required extra and unnecessary effort and a check-in with the research center staff, and reluctantly let into the park.

One of the black professors was questioned about her college degrees, the title of her research project and her university affiliation and was asked to provide a faculty ID. The agents appeared incapable of imagining that a black woman could hold a Ph.D. and visit a research station for a scholarly event. (The Yosemite National Park Service has since opened an investigation into the incidents.)

I’m glad to see that Yosemite is investigating this incident. I hope the whole issue gets more attention. My recent re-affirmation of a lifelong love affair with our national parks reminds me: these parks belong to ALL of us. But until ALL of us go there, they won’t be truly national.

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Care to weigh in with your own experience? I’d love to hear.

 

Dog Days Indeed: Taking a Blog-Break

Back from a quick backpack trip with my Ironwoman goddaughter, straight into a Bakery Blur, and tomorrow I’m off again for my annual Girliepeep Get-together. I could blog, or I could pack. You know what? I’ll see you in a week. Be well and happy, everyone!

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Trip Envy: When This Little Spousie Stays Home

My Mate is leaving me, and I’m beside myself…

…with envy. Because he’s not LEAVING leaving; he’s going on a buddy camping trip with an old friend and his son. Guys only. Well, I’m sure I could get myself invited if I made big enough puppy eyes (or threatened to withhold pie). But they’re going for a week. And it’s high season here on Crawling With Tourists Lopez Island. I have to stay and bake.

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Don’t get me wrong. I’m so happy for the guy. He doesn’t get out as often as I do, being retired, nor is he half as social as I am. I get together with my high school Besties every summer. He and his pal have done this only once before. It’s great to watch them piling up the backpacks, stove fuel and water filters. Great to hear all that discussion about what’s going into the gorp, and how many nights in a row they should eat noodles. Just…great.

I’ll be fine once they’re gone. But seeing that map of British Columbia, hearing them bandy phrases like “towering peaks,” “turquoise lakes” and “giant cedars” is making me a little crazy.

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I love where I live. THAT LOOKS SO BEAUTIFUL!!!  I love my daily life. TAKE ME WITH YOU!!!! I love my job. PLEASE... Would you like another slice of pie before you head off on your adventure?

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If you have a partner in your life, do you ever take separate pleasure trips? If so, how do you deal with Trip Envy? Just, you know…wondering.

Road Trip V, Days 38-41, June Lake, CA to Tacoma (aka Almost Home!): Top Four Reasons to Road-Trip

1. Discover America. More specifically, discover hidden treasures no one ever thought of telling you about. Here are some of our faves from this trip.

Caprock Canyon State Park, south of Amarillo, TX. (In a previous post I mis-labeled it as Capstone.) can’t wait to come back with more time!

I'm coming back!

I’m coming back!

Secret Canyon near Page, AZ. Nothing like as crowded as its famous cousin, Antelope Canyon, but just as breathtaking.

More, more!

More, more!

June Lake, CA. It’s the cute, low-rent version of Mammoth Lakes, which caters to skiers and hikers. We loved its understated beauty and lack of Starbucks.

Like a mini Lake Tahoe!

Like a mini Lake Tahoe!

Mono Lake. This one’s a bit more famous, having been saved by activists in the 1990s after thirsty LA had drained it down to a dustbowl. But The Mate and I had never taken the time to get off the highway and explore its incredible “forest” of tufa formations.

The shell of an ancient freshwater spring into the saline lake. Really.

The shell of an ancient freshwater spring into the saline lake. Really.

Bizz Johnson Bike Trail, Susanville, CA. Susanville?! What the heck is there to do in Susanville? Ride this amazing rail-trail, that’s what: 16 miles through a wild canyon, complete with multiple river crossings, huge Ponderosa pines, flowers, and even some tunnels!

Best bike path yet!

Best bike path yet!

LaPine State Park, just south of Bend, OR. Here the Deschutes River is serene, and you can wind along its banks without having someone blow past you on a $2,000 mountain bike like they do in Bend.

Would've loved to have camped here, but it got down to 19. We're not that tough.

Would’ve loved to have camped here, but it got down to 19. We’re not that tough.

2. Renew ties with family members and old friends you might not otherwise see. Last year we visited with a newly-met cousin in Indiana. This year we checked in with some other cousins whose twins are 18 months old–such a precious, fleeting age! We potlucked with friends we made back in 1981 when I took time out from college to be an intern at a little mountain school. And, of course, we got together with our Tarheel Tribe to act like idiots, watching basketball and eating BBQ.

3. Get closer with your traveling partner. My Mate and I joke that any couple contemplating marriage ought to be sent on a 6-week road trip to find out if they’re truly compatible. I call our annual road trip “marriage glue.”

The Mate and I in the NC mountains

The Mate and I in the NC mountains

4. Fall back in love with where you live. I have enjoyed every single day of Road Trip V. But on our penultimate day, as I visited a waterfall in the Columbia Gorge, within sight of my home state, just the smell of wet fir trees was enough to choke me up.

Ahhhh...welcome back to Ecotopia!

Ahhhh…welcome back to Ecotopia!

Those are my reasons. If you have others, I’d love to hear them. But for now, travel-blogger Gretchen turns back into regular ol’ blog-about-whatever Gretchen…until next year!

Road Trip V, Days 29-31, Dallas to Flagstaff: News Flash, Scenic Texas NOT An Oxymoron!

Texas, I owe you an apology. You know you’re my favorite love-to-hate state. You’ve heard me say that someone must have picked you up and shook you so that all your scenery ran down into one corner, down at Big Bend. Oh, you pretend you don’t give a gosh durn, Texas, but I know I’ve hurt your feelings.

No scenery in Texas? I stand corrected. The Mate and I have discovered Capstone Canyon. It’s a lil’ ol’ state park about 90 miles south of Amarillo. For hikers and bikers and campers like us, it’s a lil’ ol’ slice of joy.

Crumbly red rock striated like glittery bacon with stripes of quartz:

imagePeople-imitating red hoodoos like something you’d see in Arches National Park:

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Slickrock a la 127 Hours:

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Balancing white capstones fallen from the canyon rim like giant clamshells dropped by giant seagulls:

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And…bison?!

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Yes, bison. Wandering around free. Capstone is apparently home to the Official Texas State Bison Herd. (Note to other western states: do YOU have a bison herd? Why not? Talking to YOU, Colorado!)

Now add to these images a perfect blue sky, 75 degrees with a cooling breeze, the honey scent of blooming mesquite and the buzz of happy bees, and…scene. Bucolic western scene. Within a stone’s throw of Amarillo! Texas, please accept my apology.

How The Mate and I wished we had planned to camp in Capstone Canyon! But we had only paid a day fee, and changing our minds would have meant driving all the way back to the entrance. Plus we wanted to make some miles that night to get us closer to Grand Canyon. Plus there were, ahem…some basketball games we wanted to watch. But we will be back to spend a couple of nights, weather permitting, and I can’t wait.

Leaving the scenic area, Red Rover climbed up out of the rolling redness and suddenly–boom, there we were back on the North Texas plains, and let me tell you, they are PLAIN. As in plain ugly. But now The Mate and I know their pretty little secret: beneath that flat brownness lies a curvy red heart.

If only more Texans knew about it! No one we know has ever heard of Capstone, or its more famous cousin Palo Duro Canyon. On the other hand…maybe it’s better this way. Bison don’t really enjoy company.

Road Trip V, Days 21-23, Durham, N.C.: Let Us Now Praise Famous Trees

…or not-famous trees (which was kinda the point of James Agee’s title). Trees that are famous only to ourselves, perhaps. Special. Dare I say sacred? Do you have one in your past?

I do, and I visited it today. Actually, I visited its ghost; the tree itself died many years ago. It’s a sycamore growing by a creek in the woods outside Durham where I grew up, and once upon a time it looked like this:

(Courtesy Wikimedia)

(Courtesy Wikimedia)

Sycamores are special. Like madronas, which I wrote about at the start of this trip, they start unremarkably but show more individuality with each vertical inch. Twisting, curving, pied, spotted, toward the top they gleam creamy, crazy white–so white you can spy them from 100 yards away through winter woods. They also have the quirk of growing solo, so that a single sycamore will stand out amidst hundreds of gray and brown fellow tree-citizens. (I try, but usually fail, to avoid thinking of sycamores as tree royalty reigning over their patch of forest.)

My sycamore was solo. She grew in some woodsy acres my family bought when I was in high school, and we discovered her while exploring. Not only did this single tree stand out, her roots supported the banks of a little creek with tiny rapids and wild violets growing in the crevices. I was enchanted. When my school’s annual Mini-Session came around, one April week for high school students to pursue special projects, mine was to camp alone in our woods, in the company of my sycamore.

This was hardly Outward Bound. I was only a couple of miles from my home, but deep enough into the woods as to be safe from outsiders. I had my tent and a little cooking stove, and I spent my days reading, writing in my journal, going for walks, or just lying on a log watching the creek. (Can you tell my Senior English teacher had assigned us Thoreau and Annie Dillard? Yeah, I was quite the teenage Transcendentalist.) I had to leave the woods twice to attend college classes I was taking, and my then-boyfriend (now my Mate) even came to visit me once. So, hardly Annie Dillard either. But mostly I kept company with my tree.

Years later, The Mate and I enjoyed taking friends, and then our young boys, to look at Gretchen’s Spot and visit my sycamore. We could always sight it long before we could reach it through those tangly southern woods. Then some years went by without visits, until we finally went back to find my tree looking like this:

The ghost of my sycamore--keeping company with our friend's son

The ghost of my sycamore–keeping company with our friend’s son

But in my mind? She’s still a queen, and she looks more like this:

(In Big Sur last year, with our sons)

(In Big Sur last year, with our sons)

Do you have a special tree, or did you? Care to share?

Road Trip V, Days 3-5, Oakland to Bishop, CA: To Blue Highway or Not to Blue Highway?

I’m pretty sure no one ever wrote a book extolling the romance of interstates. They’re fast, efficient, and generic as hell. The Mate and I like to think of ourselves as less-traveled road travelers…except when, you know, we have to BE somewhere by a certain time. Or the weather is iffy. Or…yeah.

So on our road trips, the question of whether and when to steer down those blue highways for a life of cslower adventure comes up fairly often. Example:

Me:  Google says it’s a half-hour shorter to take route 50 from Sacramento and bypass Lake Tahoe altogether.

Mate: Yeah, but…what kind of road is that? How high’s the pass it goes over? Does Google know the road conditions?

Me: Umm…8,000 feet…and no, Google Maps doesn’t, but let me look up the weather and see if…Yeah, it’s a high of 56 in the town nearest the pass, so I’m pretty sure it’s clear.

Mate: But look at the size of that road! It’s a two laner through all these towns, and then the mountains. Does Google know how many stop lights there’ll be? What if we get stuck behind a slow truck?

Me: All I know is, Google says it’s faster.

Mate:  Is that the same Google that sent us to a bank in Santa Rosa when we were looking for a state park?

See what I mean? Our problem is, we want too much. We want scenery, which is why we opted for going down the eastern side of the Sierras on our way to Albuquerque, instead of driving I-5 to LA like normal people.

We want camping, because we’re cheap outdoorsy folks.

And we want our daily workout.

So we don’t leave Oakland till 8:30 because our cousins’ 18 month-old twins are so CRAZY CUTE, and why get stuck in traffic anyway? Which means that we now have an hour of discretionary time, once we arrive at our destination, either to set up camp, or to go biking, but not both. Not in February when it gets dark at 5:30.

Donner Pass--where's the snow?? (Courtesy wikimedia)

Donner Pass–where’s the snow?? (Courtesy wikimedia)

In the end, we compromised. Took I-80 over Donner Pass, marveling at the scrubbed-looking granite, and at the fact that we were driving there at all without having to chain up. (Serious climate change evidence up there.) Then we diverged before Truckee, to skirt true-blue Tahoe on a highway nearly the same color (hyperbole alert; I mean it was a small road). Got to Bishop in time for a glorious Sierra-ride, and then crashed in a cute little motel.

The view from Bishop (Courtesy wikimedia)

The view from Bishop (Courtesy wikimedia)

(But I got my camping fix: I cooked dinner on our stove out in the courtyard.)

I look forward to more blue highways on this trip. But I’m grateful for the opportunity sometimes to pull onto a big gray one too, and haul.

 

 

 

Are You Highly Campetent? (Stephen Colbert Would Be, If He Went Camping)

Like my new word? Thanks, so do I.

Since I really will backpack for chocolate, and since I just got home from doing just that, I’ve been making mental lists of the little extras that, over the years, have made ordinary camping trips extraordinary.

Though they’re most effective in backpacking, where luxury is harder to come by, I see no reason why these tips can’t be adapted for car-camping too.

Ready? Here we go:

Campetent campers pack mac & cheese. Highly Campetent campers do that too, but they add a small, chopped-up brick of real, extra-sharp cheddar…and some fresh greens. (Mustard greens are the best!)

Campetent campers pack a sleeping pad. Highly Campetent campers pack a chunk of carpet padding, 4 inches thick, 18 inches wide, long enough to pad a tired body from shoulders to knees, compressed in a sack to the size of a small sleeping bag. (I give all credit to my Mate on this one! Best camping sleep EVER.)

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Campetent campers bring rope to hang their food out of reach of critters. Highly Campetent campers bring bright orange rope, so they don’t trip over it at the edge of their campsite.

Campetent campers stay fully hydrated. Highly Campetent campers stay fully hydrated in the knowledge that they can safely enjoy a small box of Cabernet after dinner and still be ready to hike next morning.

Campetent campers pack biodegradable soap. Highly Campetent campers make sure that soap is lavender, or peppermint, so when they take that icy, delicious creek-or-lake bath at the end of a hot trail day, not only does their body thank them, their fellow campers do too.

Campetent campers pack a change of clean clothes. Highly Campetent campers leave a change of clothes in the car to change into when they arrive, sweaty and dusty (or cold and wet).

flowers

 My dad used to mix Tang into Cream of Wheat to make camp breakfasts more fun. Not necessarily recommending that, but…Got any tips of your own?