Best Election Year Strategy Ever: Head For a Giant Hole in the Ground

During the next two weeks, I’m planning to drop out of sight. Also sound. And touch.

I’m going back down into Grand Canyon with The Mate, Son Two, and some friends. The only things I plan to see, hear and feel are red rocks and stars; canyon wrens and rushing rapids; and hot sun  and dousings of cold river water.

This will be the third time down the river for my Mate and I, but the first time down the lower half. Both previous trips–one in 1989, one in 2004– involved putting in way up where the canyon walls are only 100 feet high, rafting for 6 days, then hiking out of the canyon’s deepest point, up this:

The Bright Angel Trail.

The Bright Angel Trail.

In fact, both previous trips involved hiking the 7.5 miles in full summer sun carrying the extra gear of friends who had been scorpion-stung, or were suffering from heat exhaustion, or both. Not the pleasantest way to end such an epic excursion. This trip? We’re hiking DOWN the Bright Angel. I. Can’t. Wait.

I'm coming!

I’m coming!

Now if only I could stay there until after the first Tuesday in November…

Road Trip VI, Days 24-27, Cumberland Island, GA to Durham, NC: Bewitched By Spanish Moss

Cumberland Island is known for its wild (or feral) horses, and I’m a horsey gal.

Horse in your campground, ma'am? Why sure.

Horse in your campground, ma’am? Why sure.

But here’s what really couldn’t drag me away: its Spanish moss. Can anyone tell me WHY this stuff is so entrancing?

Soooo....pretty...

Soooo….pretty…

Seriously. Tell me. I’ve been trying to figure it out.

It’s gray. It’s parasitical–or at any rate it gets a free ride from the trees it drapes; we’re not talking any sweet symbiotic relationship here. And it’s EVERYWHERE in South Georgia, especially on the barrier islands. It should creep people like me out. Instead, I can’t get enough: fondling it, taking pictures, gazing at it from every angle.

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In my quest to break down the components of natural beauty, one word kept coming to mind: grace. But what does it mean to call something graceful?

OK, the tree ain't bad either.

OK, the tree ain’t bad either.

It undulates. Something about the smoothness of wave action must be inherently awe-inspiring, or comforting, or both.

It hangs vertically in a forest of torturous sideways live-oak limbs (seriously, these things grown LITERALLY every which way but up) and herky-jerky pines and saw palmetto, providing a soft set of downward strokes, like Impressionist painting. Or like tinsel strands on a Christmas tree. Also comforting, though I have no idea why.

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It’s soft, despite looking spiny. Well, OK, I get the appeal of soft.

Somebody stop me!

Somebody stop me!

As for connotation–if you read my last post, you know that Southern scenery, even at its finest, is haunted by ugly history. So I would never say Spanish moss’s beauty derives from its context. More the opposite.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten here in my quest to understand. What do you think accounts for its beauty? Help me figure this out, y’all.

All RIGHT. I'm done. Wing out.

All RIGHT. I’m done. Wing out.

Road Trip VI, Days 20-23, Monroe, Louisiana to Cumberland Island National Seashore: Whose Woods These Are I Think I Know

Piney hills. Black-water cypress swamps. Real, deciduous oaks that understand they’re supposed to grow new leaves every year. Maples starting their spring blush. Redbuds already blushing hard. Spanish moss. Magnolias.

We headin’ HOME. Or I am, anyway. But this journey was the idea of my Californian Mate, so he can hardly complain.

But the scenery is already leading to some arguments interesting discussions. I’m a western chauvinist with a deep strain of southeastern nostalgia–an uncomfortable combination. Makes me tetchy. I can claim–and do–that northwestern forests are more dramatic, beautiful, and walkable than those in, say, my home state of North Carolina…but you can’t. The Mate walks into this trap constantly.

Him: “Those pines are a such a weird shade of green.”
Me: “Well, at least they have more individuality than our firs.”
Him: “These wintertime hardwoods make the forest look dead!”
Me: “But at least you can see through it this time of year! And look at the size of that hickory!”

I’ve come to think of these southeastern forests as the ultimate glass-half-full-vs.-empty scenario. I can choose to see a scrubby, scratchy, inhospitable tangle of poison ivy, smilax and honeysuckle…or I can see heritage: my daily walk to school; summer blackberrying; finding a safe spot to pee in the woods during a run. Or, in literary daydreams, Scout Finch and Zora Neale Hurston’s Janie.

 

I know my bipolar attitude is the result of too much history. I can’t see cotton fields without thinking about James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; can’t see big magnolias without thinking of Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit.” The South is soaked in more misery per acre than any other region in our country.

Usually, I’ll admit, I see those scruffy, history-laden woods and and think how lucky I am to live diagonally across the continent from here, in forests where nothing wants to bite me or make me itchy, or make me think of slavery, share cropping and the KKK.

These woods aren't dead--they're just getting their beauty sleep.

These woods aren’t dead–they’re just getting their beauty sleep.

But if anyone else says that to me? Nuh-uh, honey.

BTW: I’ll write about our discovery of Cumberland Island in my next post. Right now I just have to give a little shout-out to our friends Raven and Chickadee (a.k.a. Eric and Laurel) for steering us to Oak Mountain State Park via their travel blog, Ravenandchickadee.com. This largest of Alabama’s state parks offers miles of steep, winding trails in wild-feeling woods an astonishing ten miles south of its largest city, Birmingham. We didn’t get enough time there and look forward to staying longer some day. In Alabama!

Oak Mountain, Alabama? This western scary snob says, "Pretty pretty!"

Oak Mountain, Alabama? This western scenery snob says, “Pretty pretty!”

Road Trip VI, Days 16-19, Scottsdale to Dallas: A Texas-Sized Apology

This is NOT the post I was planning on, until last night. The Mate and I have spent the bulk of these past few days hiking and biking in our favorite Texan discovery: Caprock Canyons State Park. Last year we only had time for a day hike, so this time we were thrilled to have nearly three days here. I was planning to talk about the park’s bison herd, and to post lost of pictures like this:

"Do not approach wild bison," the brochure says. Ummm...

“Do not approach wild bison,” the brochure says. Ummm…

And this:

Hey, big guy. Or gal. Ma'am. Please, after you...

Hey, big guy. Or gal. Ma’am. Please, after you…

Or some of the park’s beautiful red scenery:

No, "Texas scenery" is not an oxymoron.

No, “Texas scenery” is not an oxymoron.

In between photos, I was planning on inserting as many snarky comments about Texas as possible, like: “Someone must’ve picked up Texas and shook it, ’cause all the scenery ran down into these canyons.” If you’ve read any of my Road Trip posts from the past five years, you know I love to hate on Texas–its in-your-face attitude, its giant vehicles and lack of carpool lanes, not to mention recycling bins…and don’t get me started on its senators.

But guess what, Texas: something happened, and I owe you an apology.

On our second night of camping, we were to be joined by our friends from Dallas. These dear folks were willing to drive five hours through Friday traffic to meet us at our campsite in the evening and go hiking next day.

When they didn’t show up on time, we thought, “Oh well, traffic,” and got dinner started. (We were out of cell phone range.) But when they arrived in one of those Texas-sized pickups, followed by a state trooper, we turned off the stove. What happened?

Turns out they’d hit a deer, out in the middle of Texas nowhere. The deer died instantly (and mercifully). This is what happened to their little VW:

I still can't believe neither of them was hurt.

I still can’t believe neither of them was hurt.

As they were standing on the roadside, in shock, assessing the damage, a truck drove by, did a U-turn, and stopped to help. The driver was an EMT, and even though our friends were (blessedly) unhurt, I found this very reassuring. This guy insisted on escorting them to the nearest town, Turkey, Texas, 10 miles away. That’s about as far as the now-radiatorless VW could limp.

That guy got our friends as far as a garage, closed for the night. But as they were standing there, discussing their options–motel? None in sight; Rental car? Seriously? This is Turkey, Texas–an old guy stepped out of the convenience store across the street and overheard them. He invited them in to recover, and had them leave their poor mashed car on his driveway. Then he insisted on driving them the remaining ten miles to the park, then escorting them to our campsite. He left them with his phone number in case they needed help the next day.

Thanks, guy from Turkey, Texas!

Thanks, guy from Turkey, Texas!

I know, I know. Good Samaritans come in all shapes and sizes. But the fact that this one came in the guise of someone with whom our friends likely shared NOTHING in common politically was especially poignant to us. A bunch of sweet, helpful Texans. Thanks, universe. I needed that.

 

 

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!