Author Archives: josephandmichelle

The Coast of California

Aaaaah, Blue! Beaming from the horizon is blue. We are high on the last of the beautiful California hills. Grass and forest pastures mingle and role several thousand feet down towards the coast. This is the first time we see the Pacific all year. So exciting, so beautiful, I work the breaks so as to not lose control of our trusted minivan, as an impatient car screams around us and downward toward the coast.

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Cambria. We sleep without the tent fly able to gaze at the stars on the pleasant night. Michelle wakes me up in the middle of the quiet night… “I think there is something getting into the cooler – must be a raccoon.” She peaks up out of her sleeping bag and is face to face with a skunk! “Ahhhh” I hear. “Duck she wispers hoarsly!” She tucks back into her sleeping bag protecting Ila. What is ducking going to do I wonder? A bit later we look again, the skunk backed away and for some reason it is my job to quietly sneak out of the tent without stirring the skunk and put our cooler in the minivan. It is a standoff skunk vs. man. With a raccoon I would make a bunch of noise to scare the critter but the skunk is a much more delicate situation. In the morning we learn about the destruction…the dexterious skunk somehow, opened the cooler and made off with Michelle, Elias and Ila the eggs, the turkey jerkey and a really good bar of chocolate. Jacob celebrated the miracle that the bacon was still there.

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We pack up and drive north on Route 1 with its mysterious curves and spectacular views. We see an unexpected sign for “Elephant Seal Viewing”. Our curiosity is peaked and we pull over park and head to a boardwalk overlooking a beach completely covered with huge Elephant Seals. Loud thunderous growls, they are hilarious from our comfortable distance. We watch and we learn little Ms. I giggling imitating the seals. What’s next? Wildlife viewing was not on my radar. We head north.

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The hills that our coastal highway is following steepen, as the clouds thicken ahead. “Is there really a road that continues along that coast?” The ocean gives birth to increasingly steeper and more other worldly hills as we enter the fog and I begin to yawn. Yes it has been very busy and very active as of late and I am beginning to feel tired. It’s no longer sunny out as we wind in and out of mountain ravines and ridge lines, why am I so tired? “Whale!” Jacob yells out, we pull over with more excitement of viewing exotic wild life. Three maybe four-hundred feet below there are whales out at sea. We witness one blowing water into the air, haha so cool. Finally we file back into the car and the dizzying ride continues.
Lime Kiln state park is on a creek in a deep ravine with Redwoods that opens up to a cove on the Pacific. We play by a stream from the forest making its way to the ocean, Michelle’s favorite type of confluence, freshwater meeting the sea. Waves splash and happy kids disperse. Camp is set but it’s still early, why are we so tired? Michelle yawns. “Let’s go to the beach, it’s only yards away”. I lie down and drift away to the sound of waves, sea gulls and Jacob and Elias wrestling, running, building with rocks and sand. Now I’m driving in the desert again, driving towards Los Angeles, but now it’s on fire, why am I driving there if it’s on fire? I notice that my wheels aren’t touching the ground but I’m speeding way above the desert and there are piles of animals, they have teeth, they’re like huge crocodiles covering the entire horizon and the snapping noises they make are frightening.

“Daddy, check it out there are Sea Otters out there.”

“What?” I pop up. “Sea Otters?”, “Weird dream” I brush it off when I understand what Elias is yelling and eagerly look through the binocs. Sure enough there are a few Sea Otters floating around on their backs in the waves. “Wow, they’re big.” I concede to make it clear that I’m excited. After awhile I stop watching, I notice Michelle is at camp cooking dinner. “It’s cloudy here.” I think to myself and lie back down. Drifting waves, drifting sounds I am now on the top of a huge cliff. I’m above the clouds. “So this is what it looks like above the clouds”. I think about jumping but then the back of some really big animal surfaces. “I can’t float like that” I think, “I’ll just sink to the bottom.”

“Dinner!” Michelle yells. I realize I was snoring and again work to shake off the sleep.

We stayed at Lime Kiln another full day and night enjoying the otters and the occasional Harbor Seal that popped it’s head out of the water as curious about us as we about it. The spell of the Big Sur coast was impossible to escape as we drifted in and out of different stages of our dreams. Even when I was awake I had to pinch myself, was I really awake? It was probably somewhere between dreaming and awake now that I reflect back on it. On day three the clouds still thick as if they are always there, the noise of sea birds, waves and the rushing creek mingle with the sleepiness. We pack up and drive onward, winding north on Route 1. Slowly, the clouds intermittently give way to the sun. The spell is broken like Rip Van Winkle waking from his sleep we start remembering where we’re heading and began thinking about our itinerary again. That’s right, my cousins in Menlo Park, Michelle’s brother Simon is meeting us in San Francisco after that, our trip is only weeks from over. But it is certainly not over. Today we’re headed to The Monterey Bay Aquarium.

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The aquarium is an absolute treat for all of us. The mysteries of both the deep ocean and coastal life are beautifully explained throughout with jelly fish of all sorts, big, amazing and bizarre fish and answers to our questions about the cool local wildlife we had been seeing.
The Elephant Seal is not only humorous and entertaining to watch but they are incredible. Sometimes weighing as much as 6,000 pounds they can spend more time without air than any other non Cetacean mammal (whales and Dolpins). They have been recorded ad depths at over 7,000 feet deep in the Ocean.

It turns out the whales we saw were most likely the Blue Whales. They are the largest living thing to have ever existed weighing up towards 170 tons. What we probably saw was a mom and her calves, being only a month and a half from peak viewing season it was not an uncommon viewing.

The animal that had our attention the longest was the incredible Sea Otter. The Sea Otter has the thickest fur of any animal in the world. They live in the kelp forests and are sustained by the life within the forest. It is also no surprise that we watched them floating around on their backs because they spend a majority of their lives doing exactly that, floating on their backs. They are one of the only animals in the animal kingdom to use tools, such as their use of rocks to pry open shell fish. They are also a keystone species keeping populations of Sea Urchins in check so they do not destroy the kelp forest. What I think is amazing is how big they are, the males can way close to 100 Ibs. That means that they were surely further than we thought while we watched them at the beach. That’s the same as the Blue Whales. Had they been a different species of whale we probably would never had seen them.

Here at the Monterey Aquarium there was one fish that caught our interest. We never saw the Great White Shark in the wild but we did watch a presentation that was fascinating. First of all they are not a coastal species like previously thought; they only come to the coasts to feed. From there they go out into the open ocean and do things that nobody quite understands as of yet. What we do know is almost all of them travel out to an area between Hawaii and Baja California referred to as the Great White Café. On their way out there they will dive as deep as 3,500 feet below sea level. Once they get there they never dive below 300 feet. It could be that they are mating, or perhaps that they are fishing but the fact remains that nobody knows.

Now back in the car we continue on to see family again and experience a bit of city life.

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Categories: Blue Whales, California, Camping, Car camping, Coast of California, Driving cross country, Ecosystems, Elephant seals, family, Family camping, Great White Shark, Monterey Aquarium, Sea Otters, Uncategorized, Wildlife | Leave a comment

Yosemite

“It was my good fortune to know John Muir. He had written me, even before I met him personally, expressing his regret that when Emerson came to see the Yosemite, his (Emerson’s) friends would not allow him to accept John Muir’s invitation to spend two or three days camping with him, so as to see the giant grandeur of the place under surroundings more congenial than those of a hotel piazza or a seat on a coach. I had answered him that if ever I got in his neighborhood I should claim from him the treatment that he had wished to accord Emerson. Later, when as President I visited the Yosemite, John Muir fulfilled the promise he had at that time made to me. He met me with a couple of pack mules, as well as with riding mules for himself and myself, and a first-class packer and cook, and I spent a delightful three days and two nights with him.”

Theodore Roosevelt

So it was in May 1903 that at a time when Yosemite Valley was overrun with saw mills, sheep herding, saloons, brothels and filth there was one influential man who saw it for what it was, one of the world’s greatest mountain temples. John Muir successfully convinced the president that Yosemite Valley must be protected by the United States. This Three day horse packing trip that Roosevelt was talking about is still considered the most important camping trip in the history of conservation.

Now in May of 2014 Michelle brought Jacob and Elias to see a play in Yosemite Valley, The Tramp and the Roughrider, where this was to be re-enacted and celebrated. Jacob described the premise of the play; “It’s the last evening of the camping trip that Roosevelt and Muir went on together. They had to actually get away from all of the commissioners that currently ran the Valley. They were making great profits from the saloons and businesses and you could tell that t they didn’t want the status of the Valley to change. Most of the time Roosevelt told stories of his personal adventures but you could tell John Muir was working really hard to get the conversation back to the Valley. As the end of their last camping evening approached, John Muir pressed Roosevelt reminding him that they needed to discuss the transfer of the Valley from California to the national government. Finally Muir got Roosevelt to promise to add the valley to the National Park system and they ended the play. I was able to get a great feel for both John Muir and Roosevelt as the actors did a great job portraying them. “

While Michelle had a date with the boys, I had a date with Ila. We took a short walk up to the base of the most awesome wall of rock in the United States, El Capitan. We laid down on our backs, with our hands behind our heads and gazed up. Then Ila began, “What’s that daddy, what’s that?”

“That’s El Capitan.”

“Oh” pause….”What’s that daddy, what’s that?”

“That’s El Capitan.”

“Oh” pause….”but what’s that daddy, what’s that?” Ila continued pointing up at the seemingly endless swath of perfect granite.

This continued back and forth for a bit and finally I struck a deal. “I tell you what Ila. In 12 years you and I will climb that together…..OK?”

“OK”, Ila agreed.

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This promise was based on the fact that the day before I had taken my fast growing, double hamburger eating 12 year old son up Half Dome’s Snake Dike. Nothing quite so big and mighty as El Cap but with 18 miles round trip, 5,000 feet of elevation gain and loss and a total of 800 feet of rock climbing, I saw that in just two more years El Capitan as a reasonable goal for any well adapted 14 year old.

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In November of 1958 a man named Warren Harding after a year and half of effort topped out on The Nose of El Capitan and made history. Not only was he and his two other comrades Wayne Merry and George Whitmore the first people to ever climb the “unclimbable” wall and not only did the efforts that lead to this monumental climb concoct a stream of innovation in climbing equipment to a level never seen before, but Warren Harding transcended the ages when at the top of the climb a reporter asked, “What does it feel like to have conquered El Capitan?” and Warren responds, “Well, it seems to me that El Capitan is in a lot better shape than I am right now”. With that one comment the culture and stigma around climbing shifted to the timeless fact that the mountain shapes us. And what better place to be forged than on the strikingly beautiful walls of Yosemite Valley?

I have always been careful not to push this stuff on the kids. It’s important that they want to climb in their own right to insure the level of motivation that’s required for such huge climbs. It was in this sentiment that Elias was instantly motivated to go climbing with dad when he watched Jacob soaking in his post mountain adventure high, actually it would have been cruel and unusual punishment not to take him climbing. As promised, Elias and I went to climb several three pitch climbs on the beautiful apron of rock below Glacier point.

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In 1993 our society once again received enlightenment from El Capitan when Lynne Hill “free climbed” the entire route. She was not the first woman to free climb The Nose of El Cap rather she was the first person to free climb the Nose of El Capitan. That feat was on par to Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. To climb El Cap with my daughter at any age would be a dream come true…If she wants to.

When Ila and I were done with our date we went to the theater to meet Michelle and the boys and eat ice cream. Sticky ice cream drenched her hands and face when we greeted the gang as they walked out of the theater beaming with smiles. “That was the coolest play I’ve ever seen.” Jacob said in a daze.

Teaching our kids about these great characters and their role in protecting our dignity and land is important to us. We had no idea it would be this easy for them to understand. Really all we needed to do was show up. Just like singer, song writer Greg Brown says:

“John Muir walked away into the mountains. In his old overcoat a crust of bread in his pocket. We have no knowledge and so we have stuff and stuff with no knowledge is never enough to get you there. It just won’t get you there……Two Little Feet to get you across the mountain.”

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Trees!

Our Sierra camp was in the southern end of the Great Basin Desert. Sage brush is the common tree here, a shrub really, with plentiful sage green leaves that are small and soft as you wrap your hand around a branch. It’s virtually impossible to resist the temptation to snap off a piece of sage and smell it. Fresh and soothing and difficult to put down, we collected the sage, keeping it in short bundles to freshen our car and relax.

Now we head south leaving the Great Basin and into the Mojave desert. Low and dry we continue through Mojave creosote flats. Finally we turn to the West heading up and over the Southern ridges of the Sierra. Joshua Trees are the signature plant of the Mojave Desert, a Yucca, yes, but like no other. Close by, J-trees grow in thick forests on the southeast slopes of the Sierra with trunks as big as I’ve seen them anywhere, some more than a foot in diameter. Growing upward like a tree and branching out in all directions in comical and chaotic ways, the green tufts of sharp and pointy yucca leaves disguise the thickness of the branches then continue down the branches giving way to dead leaves of yellowish and then black color.

When I say growing upward “like” a tree, I say that because although they resemble trees, they are not tree. Trees are what we need right now. When I see communities living in these barren lands, living with tree like cactus and giant branching yuccas I am fascinated, but not envious. “How do you live without trees?” I can’t help wonder. A good tree soothes the soul like a mother’s embrace and eases the spirit like a much needed rain. After months of desert living, our little family is in need of trees.

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Up and over the first few ridges we arrive in Kernville. These shrubby and grassy hillsides will not do. We do our laundry, buy groceries and head onward, up the Kern River and higher into winding mountain roads. The hills are mostly covered by an increasing number of short shrubby green that gives the steep mountainsides an elegant luxurious texture with increasing numbers of clustered pine groves as we head higher and…..hupla! We head over a final defining ridge and into a thick forest, familiar, with thick green shade provided by fir and cedar, grassy and moist understory with water loving plants everywhere.
“Trees!” Ila yells out.

We were in a mysterious mist. Our curiosity spiked when we finally stopped. With no other people around we hop out of our cars excited for a little stroll in an ancient forest. We walk slowly and carefully through the casual trail flushed with big smiles and wonder, the kind that comes with new discoveries and affirmations….that the world is in fact as mysterious as you had always hoped. Our big wild ride takes us all the way back to when even us grownups were small children, a time when our imaginations were the main lens in which we viewed the world through, when we believed in dragons and fairies and magic and mysterious enormous trees that move around when nobody was there to watch. The trees where so big that there was surely a door somewhere on the back side that leads into a well furnished home. Walking through the trail of 100 giants we explore each and every giant sequoia we came to searching for the hidden secrets.

These are the largest trees on earth. Some say the largest living things. They are also older than is easy to imagine. The lives of these trees were being played out here in this forest while the entire story of Ancient, Classical, Medieval, Renaissance and Modern world history was being played out. Some of these living trees that we were walking amongst were born at the time of Jesus Christ, while others were saplings before Rome was an empire and Alexander the Great was pushing into India. But, the biggest and oldest of these trees, trees towering above us right now, towering higher than we can properly gauge were alive when our oldest written stories of the old Testament and of Homer’s Iliad were being played out in real life. “How is that even possible?” I think to myself as I look around at the tiny new Sequoias in the forest and wonder about 3,000 years into the future. To think that time is only accelerating now, our lives changing by the day, my computer updating every five seconds. “Do we even let things live that long anymore?”

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We hop back in the car and head to our camp near the small community of Nelson. This entire area is protected as a National Monument otherwise none of these trees would stand a chance. Some of the largest remaining old growth groves of Sequoias are found here in this low key National Monument. Three days we camp and explore the forest. We are visiting on the off season and there are no other visitors, just green forests. On the third day we pack up and head down in the Valley.

Heading into California’s central valley from the higher forest is to undertake yet another ecological journey. Down into the Oak Groves, at first steep forested mountainsides turn from conifers to varieties of deciduous and live oaks and then as the steep mountain-scapes turn to rolling hills the forests turn to woodlands and then prairie. The prairie quickly shifts to citrus fields, then busy and crowded farm land. We drive north for about 30 minutes through the most heavily cultivated land in the west. We set up camp in Visalia California poised to head up to Sequoia National Park, but first we need to resupply, shower and wait out a big much needed rain. A cool Pacific storm drops a half inch of rain on the valley and we hear rumors of snow up high. Back towards the mountains now we watch the reverse again: citrus, prairie, oak woodlands and then forests. We set up camp in the Oak forests of Sequoia National Park.

Of all of the trees the Oaks are my favorite. These Oak forests are teaming with life and the trees overflowing with character. At night we heard the scream of a mountain lion and the hoots of owls. In the middle of the day Jacob and Elias shockingly watched a Bob Cat take down and devour a squirrel. On one hike the trails were literally littered with huge bright red salamanders from 4 to 8 inches in length, at one point we had to run and jump over an immense pile of bees. Every moment we spent here was rich and green.

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These are the Foothill, or Blue Oak but there are also the large Valley Oaks with large luscious leaves and far reaching canopy. Among these forest are many other hardwoods such as Ash and Maple and Walnut but the Oaks are the most abundant and coolest. With their thick trunk leaving the ground there is no way to know which way an oak tree will grow. They twist and turn without a hint of reason other than pure joy of tree poetry as they grow. They are the best trees to climb or hang a swing from or just lacksidazicly relax beneath as we create, draw, color and write. But our time in the oaks would not last forever, we wanted to go up higher and see the giant forest in a way we had not seen before, all covered in snow.

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Cloaked in white, the Giant Sequoias carry that distinct feeling of ancient nobility and strength like nothing else. Timeless as they seem, I can’t help but wonder, how much snow can they hold before this giant falls over? I reflect on deep winters back at home. There was one particular ski tour in our old growth Hemlock and Cedars in North West Washington, impossible amounts of snow spraying all around me with every turn down the steeply forested mountain side. The heavenly winter feeling was sharply interrupted by a huge rumbling fear. I heard and then saw mass destruction through the forest as I watched 500 year old trees not as much as half the size of these Sequoias giving way under the suppressing tonnage of snow, trees big and small being crushed all around and I could not ski fast enough back to the car. But these Sequoias won’t fall under this snow. There will be heavier snows that come and go, there will be fires as well. Fire is required for a Sequoia to release the seeds to continue the cycle of life. These fortress like trees seem timeless and in the white coat completely unreal and indestructible.

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One single lifetime of these Sequoias is difficult enough to fathom, but what’s even harder to conceive of is how long the species has been around. These few groves found mainly here in the National Park and further south in the National Monument are some of the last remnants of trees abundant over 150 million years ago during the Jurassic Period. The last ice age destroyed most of them isolating them to just a few specific areas. Fortunately their logging was stopped and the land they are on protected before they were completely wiped out. There are only three subspecies left and two are found in California. The Coast Redwoods, the Sequoia and the Dawn Redwoods in SW China are all that’s left. We can’t help but wonder how much longer they’ll be around, millions of years? Thousands? Hundreds? Decades? What matters most to us right now is not the past or future but spending this time right now together amongst these trees as they are now imprinted on our minds forever.

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Breakfast in the Sierras

“Hey Jacob you ready?” Elias yells enthusiastically

“Yea, let’s go!” Jacob answers.

Through the sound of a rushing creek I slowly awoke realizing the boys were off again on another adventure. My mind stirred and I remembered drifting to sleep the night before while watching Ila and Michelle’s eyes reflecting the bright white light of infinite stars above. I stretch big but not to disturb the girls since they’re still dreaming of stars, put on my blue shorts my blue T-shirt and greet the big sloping sage brush plain and the Sierra’s, aaaah, heaven.

“Coffee is ready hun!” I say after I hear Michelle starting to stir.
Both burners on the trusted Coleman stove are frying breakfast now. Michelle and I sip coffee together and deeply enjoy discussing nothing important.

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“I guess Ben is down in Prescott by now” I say. I am reflecting on the first day we arrived here – four days ago. We met up with Ben and Ruth, our friends who recently moved from Prescott to Mammoth Lakes, two hours to the North. Together we went on a hike after connecting that morning, up sage brush slopes with snow capped peaks towering way above. Big horn sheep ran on distant hillsides and wild flowers were in bloom as we hiked up a trail with no goal other than catching up. Ila attached their dogs leash to Ben coaxing him down the trail. We shared dinner, drinks, stories and soccer that night.

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“Pancakes and eggs are ready” I yell loud enough to make sure the boys can hear  as they play out in the sage near the creek. Do they really need to come now? No, Michelle and I can enjoy breakfast quietly, they’ll eat later.  They pretend they didn’t hear me regardless and keep playing.

This is more or less how we greeted the last five days, completely surrendered to the comfortable and spectacular scenery. Every morning soaking it up, letting it inspire us all over again and then diving into the next adventure.

On our third day here, we went up to the great craggy and snowy mountains that stand high above camp. Mount Whitney is the tallest of these peaks. It sits at just around fourteen and a half thousand feet in elevation higher than all of the mountain in the contiguous US. Although the mountains are high and craggy, this year they remained snow free for over 2,000 feet of our hike taking us to over 10,000 feet of elevation into the snow. Jacob and Elias were entranced by the seriousness of the mountains as they ran way ahead up the dry trails, telling each other stories. Michelle and I tried to keep up with Ila. Living in the desert for weeks without big mountain strolles made this hike all the more appealing.

“What a beautiful hike that was” I say while flipping one of the classic pancakes I’ve been making on a regular basis since we left Bellingham last year – about 4 inches in diameter and cooked deeply in butter. Not complete without eggs and really nothing is better when you’re hungry.

“Super fun,” Michelle agrees. “Still not enough to wear out the boys though,”  she adds.

It’s true that over the last month we’ve noticed a big jump in their fitness.  The way they were jogging up those switch backs was an incredible affirmation that this year of athletic family adventure is above and beyond what they would ever receive during a conventional year at home.  The mental and physical health benefits will reverberate through their entire lives.

 

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On the second morning I woke up to Jacob and Elias going on their morning adventure but this time it sounded like the adventure was taking place closer by.   A rush of panic hit me as I remembered it was Easter Sunday. “Darn – did the Easter Bunny do its job” I thought to myself.  Ahhh… I remembered that yes indeed, the Easter Bunny did do its job….almost. In the end it mistakenly gave Ila, Jacob’s treats and Jacob, Ila’s treat but I decide to forgive the bunny this time. I imagine the delivery rabbit was a cousin of the Easter Bunny anyway, the Desert Long Eared Jack Rabbit. Regardless, the boys found chocolates eggs, rabbits and other delights throughout the sage brush that morning. They also woke up to a basket stuffed full of treasures and dutifully helped their sister discover the magic as well.

“I wish we could stay here forever.” I say

Michelle knowing what I loved most of all agreed, “We should just load up one of those rocks in to our roof rack and take it with us.” She was talking about yesterday when we went rock climbing!

The basin that we are camped above is not just a sage brush plain but just below us there is a series of craggy broken hills called the Alabama Hills. The famous granite outcrops with a spell binding mountain back drop has been viewed by millions of people throughout the world as a classic western scene for dozens of big Hollywood productions. The gritty granite usually tops out on super cool 40 to 100 foot block of granite. The landscape of rocky climbs has no defined end to it.

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“Not even two months left on our trip.” Michelle says in a solemn tone.

“Ya”, I answer. “I miss it already.” We both know what I’ll miss, the same thing we’ll both miss, the mystery, the adventure, all of the excitement when planning the next stage, the endless time together just enjoying each others company. I wonder if we’ll do this back home. I wonder if the boys will continue to be so excited to see each other in the morning and go off to play indefinitely like they are now. I wonder if I’ll get the time and if they’ll get the time to go on one of these big adventures. We’ll still do this stuff I know, but not like this. Not every day.

“I wonder where we’ll live back in Bellingham.” She questions the universe out loud.

I shudder at the idea of going back to the day to day, but shoo the glimpse of it and my mind takes me back to the sage blowing on the breeze, the sound of rushing water and the two brothers out there absorbed in a close friendship. Then my mind moves on to where we are going.

“Can you believe that there are over 30 million people on the other side of that mountain range?” I inquire. It was hard to fathom considering how absolutely barren our current landscape was, but in that still moment it hit me. That single mountain barrier is holding back one of the most densely populated regions of our country.

“I’m excited about tomorrow.” I say

“Me too” Michelle answers with a mutual understanding. We are referring to something other than lots of people that lies on the other side of that mighty ridge line. Something else that we haven’t seen very much of for quite some time and I know we all miss quite dearly:

TREES!

Categories: Adventure, adventure geology, adventure travel, California, Camping, Family camping, Family Climbing, Homeschooling, Mt. Whitney, Rock Climbing, Rock climbing kids, Sierra Nevada Mountains | 1 Comment

Death Valley

When Pacific storms slam into California they are liable to drop healthy amounts of rain along the coast before moving inland and getting relentlessly forced upward in to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. As the wet air is driven higher it becomes thin and unable to hold moisture, therefore causing it to condense into clouds. These clouds then condense into rain. Once the moisture gets high enough the rain turns to snow, lots of snow. The largest snow falls in a given winter storm are on average larger here than anywhere else in the United States. The air continues to rise because in the Sierras there is nowhere else for it to go but up. The Sierra Nevada runs like an impenetrable fortress wall down the eastern side of the state of California with peaks higher than anywhere else in the contiguous US. Only the burliest storms make it over the spine of the Sierra and then down the other side where the moisture evaporates and leaves just wind for the lonely basins on the  east side. What moisture does make it to the there is forced up once again over another range of mountains almost equal in height, only to go bombing down the other side even drier and further down until it bottoms out in Death Valley, the lowest, driest, and hottest place in the United States.

Our drive towards Death Valley took us through dreary and lonely looking desert valleys and over craggy desert mountains of the Basin and Range province. We crossed into California and soon after the border, into Death Valley National Park where we found ourselves starring down into a frightful giant tear mark in the earth’s surface. We continued to descend with feet working the breaks trying to keep our overloaded minivan happy in low gear.

The rock formations that the road twisted around were stunning. Stories of very ancient mountains were quickly laid out in the crazy scenery as we rushed onward. Even though the stretching of the Basin and Range began only 16 million years ago the rock that has been exposed is over a billion years old.  The elevation continued to drop until we hit sea level and kept descending. This big broad flat valley was made up of giant lakes back in the last ice age.  Now the water that leads down here heats up, evaporates and leads to nowhere. What’s left is salt, a vast flat expanse of salt. There are no major river ways that drain the Basin and Range Province. To put this in perspective, this entire region: eastern California, southeastern Oregon, southern Idaho, western Utah and the entire state of Nevada, is without a major river drainage. Mountain ridge lines collect snow and rain, it flows down hill like all water should but then poof, it’s devoured by the basins.

When we made it to a sign that read -150 below sea level, we parked our car in the salt flats and greeted the 100 degree heat. Curiously, we all walked into the sea of white salt and pulled shoes off to feel the comfortable crunch under our feet. The walking led to jogging and then regardless of the heat, to sprinting. You could run as much as you wanted in any direction and it would not matter if your eyes were open or closed. The crunchy white salt was uniform throughout the valley bottom. We played in the salt flats and our skin and spirits felt gritty and good.

 

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Back in the car we charged on towards our destination driving by towering sand dunes where Jacob pleaded with us to stop and explore. The temperature was even warmer when we got out and walking around felt like a huge effort. As we drove further and began the climb up and out of the valley the family was still, content with their books on tape or sleep as I quietly noticed warning signs that suggested we turn AC off so as not to let the engine overheat. The poor van pushed  4, 5 almost 6 thousand feet back up and out of the valley. The AC blasted as I thanked our faithful car for the big push. We continued down the other side on a road that cut through yet another lonely basin with nothing in it except the large expansive natural shape of the mountain and valleys flowing together as one with giant dunes on the northern end piled high just as it had been for several thousand years.

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Michelle and I bonded without speaking with our hands and our smiles while we deeply absorbed the freedom of endless scenery. Topping out on the last mountain ridge the Sierra Nevada stood in front of us reaching up into the heavens. They reminded us that not all mountains look like these dry basin and range hills. Their steep noble mountain slopes were flanked with the beautiful clean look of granite walls and ridges. It was like a fortress of the heavens and we had finally arrived. Snow etched the stately and tall lines which lead up to the summits which were crowned with clouds. The first clouds we had seen for weeks.

 

Categories: Adventure, adventure geology, adventure travel, Death Valley, Desert, Driest Desert, Driving cross country, Ecosystems, Great Basin, Hiking, Lowest Point, Sand Dunes, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Vegas

From Zion we drive down Interstate 15 which takes us off of the protected and cohesive layers of the Colorado Plateau and the strict codes of the Church of Latter Day Saints. We descend steeply into the Virgin River Gorge and into a very low and dry landscape where we admire the flat expansive views with lonely looking mountain ranges on the horizon. The expanses are never quite flat but are curved upward ever so slightly so you can see just how empty the landscape is, a landscape that is actually being stretched apart. The basins are in the process of sinking and the mountain ranges are like the stretch marks, holding ancient stories of the past. This is the Basin and Range, the desert is the Mojave, the driest in the US and the city that resides at the bottom of this sinking basin we are heading towards is Las Vegas.

Also flowing into this Great Basin off of the Colorado Plateau is the Colorado River just finishing its job of carving the mighty Grand Canyon and poised to take its last lazy float down to the Gulf of California like it has for millions of years. But in 1931 that was all changed when a giant hydroelectric dam was built corralling the largest reservoir in the country. This ambitious project took place hundreds of miles from anywhere and anything, thousands of workers were needed and over a hundred died to build it. The result was the down trodden water stop of Las Vegas, sprung up to service the needs of all the lonely, homesick workers. This was the 20th century so most states of the nation had laws against hired love and or leaving all of your hard earned money up to chance, but in the great state of Nevada there was almost nothing and nobody. Laws were voted on for the workers, by the workers. Eventually word got out beyond the scope of the Hoover Dam project and the Nevada State Lines that there was a place where everyday common moral rules did not apply. Large scale gangsters and businessmen came in from LA, Chicago and New York. They happily collected money from those addicted to chance. This quickly sped up the city building momentum and financed bigger and more luxurious hotels, casinos and shows – some of the biggest shows in show biz with Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and of course Elvis Presley. Soon a powerful man in the aviation industry, Howard Hughes, came for a visit. Instead of leaving his room in his hotel he bought the hotel and then most of the city. It became internationally known as Sin City, a place of high class adult entertainment and a hot spot for famous musicians, entertainers and show biz. Finally by mid 90s Las Vegas’ destiny of becoming one of the biggest tourist destinations for seeing a live show in the entire world was attained.

I have been visiting this region for almost two decades and I love it here. But when I come I spend very little, to no time in Sin City. I fly in and then head out of the Las Vegas basin as fast as I can and into one of my favorite mountain ranges in the United States which is most commonly known as Red Rocks.

On this visit we began the Vegas experience by camping and climbing in Red Rocks. Red Rocks is made of the same awesome sandstone layers as Zion National Park but around 16 million years ago it broke off from the rest and has been increasingly surrounded by a sea of Mojave desert basin. The result is that Red Rocks is a paradise of some of the greatest climbing in the US. We spent our time on the single pitch rock but there is everything here up to 2,000 foot big wall wilderness ascents, all taking place on rock that was forged almost exclusively for those of us who love to rock climb. There are easy climbs, moderate climbs and extremely difficult climbs. There are climbs that have been done thousands of times and there are spectacular swathes of rock perfection that have never been explored.
After three days at our camp we were ready. The kids just can’t wait any more and I really can’t figure out what they can’t wait for. “Why in the world am I taking my kids to Vegas?” I can’t help but ask myself again.

We move our camp from Red Rocks to a giant Hotel, Casino, spa, resort monstrosity in the south of Vegas. Jacob’s good friend Walker and his mom Janet flew down to play with us for several days. Why were we showing the kids Vegas? Part of this trip is about sharing iconic America that means “Vegas baby”. Las Vegas is as American as Superman and Johnny Cash. It’s where the ultimate American dream can be realized. To party hard like a rock star and return home a super hero. That’s the American Dream….damn it! Wads of cash stuffed in my pocket.

The mission while here was simple: Take many showers, watch movies, eat lots and observe. Here Jacob explains his experience:

“When Walker came it didn’t seem like 8 months since I’d seen him last. He and Janet surprised us not only with Rocket Donuts from Bellingham but with Janet’s homemade Challah, our families’ favorite especially as they came on Shabbat. Together we went bowling at this huge bowling alley inside of the hotel. We also went to see movies in a giant movie theater also inside of the hotel. It was the first movie in a very long time. The food at the buffet wasn’t very good but it was still fun to eat as much as we could. We had a tiny breakfast and a huge dessert. I got so full but still wanted more and I literally couldn’t fit more dessert.

The Casino was overwhelming because there was a ton of people smoking, yelling and gambling. I couldn’t believe that these old people sat at machines for hours and gambled all of their money. I saw the same people at the same machine for more than a day. Some were sitting in corners playing cards and smoking huge cigars, they looked like that was where they lived.

After Walker left we stayed on the strip with Aunt Libs. The hotel was awesome but I am pretty sure if the strip was rated it should have been XXX. There were billboards with more XXX images everywhere. There was an M&M store and we bought tons of multi colored and flavored M&M’s until we realized that a pound of M&M’s was close to $8. It was still fun because we were with Aunt Libby. It’s always a party with Aunt Libby. The hotel we were staying at had a posh pool on the roof that frowned on noise, laughter and smiles. We visited the Bellagio gardens and fountains, the Liberace Museum and explored the craziness of Vegas. After months of camping, Vegas was shocking and a blast but I wouldn’t want to live there.”

The first Hotel Casino Jacob was talking about was called South Point Hotel and Casino. It was a mega complex complete with hotel, casino, bowling alley, super mall, buffets galore, mega swimming pool, spa and horse arena and stables. That is correct, yes, the largest indoor horse arena and equestrian center in the country actually. Not sure why they built it indoors since the weather outside is almost always perfect except of course in the dead of summer. Michelle and Ila went to watch the final round of the International Arabian Breeders World Cup. Ila witnessed Qatar’s beautiful example of horse perfection grace the arena and ultimately crowned champion. What a buzz.

Michelle’s Aunt Libby flew in to play with us after Walker and Janet left putting us up in the Polo Towers right smack in the middle of the Strip. “If it’s good enough for them than it’s good enough for me!” Aunt Libby said with gusto as we were checking in, (by them she meant the mob). Later we met up with Libby (and Michelle’s) Cousin Jon, Vegas entertainer and wine maker extraordinaire. They reminisced telling old colorful stories about their childhood.

I spent most of the time enjoying the view of the strip from the 33rd floor. While I caught up on work Jacob, Libby and Elias went and had regular adventures in this NC 17 City. Speaking of which, Vegas is now being touted as one of the leading family getaways in the country. It all makes sense… No, I’m not talking about the fact that Las Vegas is a great place to teach your daughters that above all else they are a sex symbol and all other aspirations in life should be secondary. I am not talking about the Vegas you go to, to get absurdly drunk and obnoxious anywhere and anytime of day no matter what and that’s totally cool. I am talking about the Vegas where you give away ALL of your money. That’s right. You no longer need to leave the kids with some family member back at home you can bring them with you and stay longer. Do really neat “family” stuff by day and then neatly tuck the kids into bed and head back down to Casino by night.

Friends, family, entertainment, beds and so on, Michelle and I left with very little desire ever to visit again, that said, we had a great time with friends and family and it was a hell of an adventure. We’d been roughing it in the wilderness for some time now and we found an antidote. Now we couldn’t wait to go back into the wild for a big strong cleanse.

Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Zion

As we turn on to Interstate 70 and head west we are quietly absorbed by the red desert landscape floating by. Jacob and Elias watch through the windows entertained by their audio books, Ila quietly sleeping, and Michelle and I are planning our next adventure. Once again we are coasting along at high speeds comfortably watching the inhospitable desert screaming by.  I look ahead and see the abrupt walls of the San Rafael Swell that our Freeway will float easily through as if there is nothing there and I am floored by how easily we can cruise around this country. How did this all happen.

In the summer of 1919 while the lessons of “The Great War” aka, World War I, were being considered by the United States and its military a transcontinental convoy of over 300 military personnel left Washington D.C. and arrived in San Francisco, California two months later. On duty on that convoy was Lieutenant Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower. It should be no surprise that in 1956 Eisenhower as president was the one with the vision needed to push through the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act – highways reaching coast to coast. Thirty five years and $114 billion after the act was passed the Interstate System was considered complete. Now recognized as one of the engineering marvels of the 20th century the Interstate Building Project is the largest human powered earth moving project on the planet.

Interstate 70 ends in the rural, remote and scenic mountain valleys of Mormon country, and here we merge on to I 15 South. I ask myself, “Didn’t the Mormons want to cut off from the rest of the country?” In popular culture they have been branded as a male dominated polygamous, bigoted religion. What I have found in Utah are very hospitable, friendly people, willing to go way out of their way for you, much more than is common. That said there are certainly sects that practice the old values such as polygamy. The United States government outlawed the practice of polygamy in the Mormon Church in 1890 and The Mormon Church officially abandoned the practice in 1891. Why does that matter so much? I believe that slowly the majority of the Mormons are and have been settling into the positive attributes and motivations of their faith which seems inevitable as they are a part of a larger network like the United States. This could also be attributed to the highways, the infrastructure, and the fact that although many want it differently they are part of something bigger, rather than a secluded radical nation or kingdom in some remote corner of the globe. We rise over another wild mountain pass and through canyons of the Mormon Promised Land and continue our glide towards Zion National Park for our four-day back packing trip.

We have promised the kids another backpacking trip for awhile. The time was now and we needed to craft the perfect trip for our multiaged clan. As Ila is older now she is less interested in being carried for long periods of time and so we needed an itinerary light enough for little feet with opportunities for great adventure. The trip packing was swift and marked a turning point in our family as it was the first backpacking trip in 13 years without diapers – super exciting.

Elias, when reflecting back on the trip explains: “When I first started the backpacking trip I had butterflies in my tummy. It was so fun.” We saddled our packs while Ila searched for the perfect “stick hike” (read:. walking stick) and we were off strolling our two miles in to camp on flat ground hiking next to a dry creek. After about a mile we watched in wonder as this dry creek bed gave birth to a running river due to storms higher up in the mountains. Our careful planning to make sure we had enough water suddenly became irrelevant as the previously dry wash was now the key water and entertainment source for the remainder of the trip.

Elias shared about the first and second campsite:

“We had a big pool with a waterfall running into it. It had big tadpoles in it. I mean big. Jacob and I raced as fast as we could through the creek and sometimes I won. The sand felt so good on our feet. At the next camp we made a Giant dam in the creek, it was really awesome. We could actually walk on the dam and the next day tadpoles started coming to our dam.”

It was a big adventure that will always rest in my mind as one of the freest wild times of the whole year for my kids. Ila and Elias were in the river and covered in mud almost the entire time. I remember seeing the two of them with an almost permanent look of wild and euphoric glee, bouncing on logs, chasing down rodents and insects. At one point Michelle turned to me “Oh my gosh, I think Elias is going feral.” I was reminded of a book I read to Elias at the beginning of the year called Incident on Hawk’s Hill where a little boy growing up on the Canadian Prairie runs away with a badger and over several months learns to live and act exactly like a badger. “Don’t worry Michelle, I think he’ll bounce back” I answer although I wasn’t totally sure.

Zion is a playground and adventure capital for some of the most scenic terrain in the United States. Big Wall climbing is popular on the Kayenta formation and Navajo Sandstone giving rise to the highest sandstone cliffs in the world. Canyoneering is famous in the Virgin River Gorge and countless locations around the park. On this visit, the mighty walls just acted as dramatic back drop. For us Zion was where we were able to keep our promise to our kids and ourselves on what this year was all about, connecting with each other, connecting with ourselves and connecting with nature.

When we arrived back at our hot car on the side of the busy road when the trip was through we got to work organizing. I became impressed with the kids. None of us needed to talk; I didn’t need to give directions. We all worked to blend our life from the last few days out of our packs and back into our lives of the past year and into our car. We settle back into our seats and Elias lets out a big sigh and says, “That was the best time I’ve ever had in my life.” I look at Michelle and say quietly with a shrug, “Maybe he is feral.”

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Categories: Adventure, adventure geology, adventure travel, Backpacking, Family camping, Hiking, Homeschooling, Interstate System, Mormon Church, Utah, Zion, Zion National Park | Leave a comment

Canyonlands

As we drive out of Colorado into Utah we turn North onto Utah state highway 191. Down, down, down we go back into the layers of the Colorado Plateau. We turn left onto highway 211 towards Canyonlands National Park. The road continues to descend into older sandstone layer bringing us into the tight curves that take us into Indian Creek, a creek that cuts its way through the awesome Windgate sandstone. We wind down the road and my eyes are stuck looking up at the walls. One, two hundred foot uninterrupted, red beautiful walls, “watch, the road!” Michelle bursts forth. “OK, I’ll try. but….” The road winds, the canyon widens, the walls get taller. I try and keep my eye on the road. New canyons join Indian Creek and our canyon widens and the walls stand ever so awesomely until they turn to the North and South and we are sailing into a wide open plain looking at an otherworldly landscape. Bizarre red and white rock pinnacles and spires own the horizon. Rock is everywhere.

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My friend William, a former college roommate, recently became a Park Ranger at Canyonlands National Park. Impeccable timing. Within moments of arriving at his house Jacob, Elias and I squeeze into his tiny Suzuki Samurai 4×4 with Will at the wheel and sputter down a dirt road leading into a maze of rock. We arrive at a parking lot to what looks like a trailhead. At the trailhead Will puts his machine into four low and up this steep trail we go. All I see in front of me is steep rock before the hood of the car pops up and shares the view with blue sky. As the car rocks like nobody’s business I make sure the boys are well buckled and holding on. “Maybe they should have helmets” I think to myself. We stop at what seems to be a dead end and commence a four-point turn in order to continue heading up the switch back that keeps climbing the hill. We’re all giggling like kids and for a brief moment I remember the crazed feeling of glee that visits an eight year old on a regular basis.

Back at Wills apartment, nestled most appropriately in rocks, we shower, eat, drink and most importantly plan. Will is a lover of maps. On detailed maps laid out over the kitchen table he points out some areas he’s been exploring deep within a forgotten maze of canyons. He highlights a hidden valley where people are not permitted to enter. It’s one of the only valleys in the area where cattle have never grazed and is strictly off limits. Then he points to a camp he’s reserved for our next adventure out in the middle of a dense maze of canyons for the next three nights.

The following morning we pack up 4 days worth of stuff, water and people into the back of his 4×4 pick up truck. Somehow we all jammed into the cab, Michelle, Elias, Jacob, Ila in the seats behind with me sitting shotgun and of course Will at the wheel. “Can this truck drive those crazy roads?” I enquire with some doubt. “It’ll be tricky but we’ll take it slower than with the Samurai” he answers.
The first hill, the one that we had driven the evening before is called Elephant Hill. It has a national reputation as a hell of 4×4 track and it’s the first named feature that we tackled to get out to our destination. The giddy fanaticism that I had possessed the day before was soon replaced by puckered hope. Jacob, Elias and Will were happy as ever – Michelle and Ila got out and walked when things became questionable. Questionable is a mild term for the road that we traveled…

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From the northern end of the mighty Wind River Mountains in Wyoming, Glaciers give birth to an important river called the Green River. From there the Green can only flow southward picking up more water along the way. The Gros Ventre Mountains and the Wyoming mountains contribute generous amounts of water before the Green makes its way across the border where it receives ample amounts of water from both sides of the Uintah Mountains, the highest peaks of Utah. It then continues flowing down onto the Colorado Plateau where it begins cutting deep canyons in the Sandstone. Finally after 730 miles it merges with and becomes the Colorado where it then continues downstream to carve the Grand Canyon before being put to work hydrating 30 million Americans throughout Arizona, Nevada and California.

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The Colorado River itself headwaters from the highest of the Rocky Mountains which is fed via water sheds along the entire length of the continental divide through the state of Colorado from its Northern border with Wyoming and its southern border  with New Mexico. The journey these rivers take before merging meanders through some of the wildest and most pristine land in the United States. Where the Green and the Colorado rivers meet is at the geographical and spiritual heart of what could be argued as THE wildest place in the United States: The Canyonlands.

This central region of the Colorado Plateau is quite literally a maze of canyons so much so that one of the zones of Canyonlands National Park is called The Maze and is considered one of the most remote and inaccessible places in the country. Something that adds to this maze like structure is that not only are canyons created because of classic water erosion but these layers were cracked and separated with the Colorado plateau uplift. The end products are “canyons” that lack a down-hill or an up-hill or even water flow. They are just corridors of sheer rock that may meet up with another corridor or may dead end. When visiting the Canyonlands it is clear that they have their own set of rules and you had better be careful if you want to make it back out.

When the six of us pulled into our back country camp we were delighted. The entrance to the camp was through almost a tunnel like corridor into a large chamber flanked on four sides by sandstone and overhanging rock above. Within the first hour the boys found petroglyphs etched into the rock that probably dated several thousand years. We spent the next few days hiking and exploring the canyons, the needles, the wind and the quiet. There seemed to be a petroglyph, pictograph or crazy rock formation around every corner. On the third day we received a forecast that it was going to snow over night – time to leave so we wouldn’t be stuck. The following morning at Will’s place we woke up to snow on the ground as we enjoyed mellow morning turning our attention to the next adventure in this area, rock climbing at Indian Creek.

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Indian Creek is home to the worlds best crack climbing. It’s most famous for the consistency in crack width. That width may vary less than a half inch as it shoots up a smooth vertical cliff for over 100 feet. To climb it you need to put your fingers, hand, fist or arm into the crack as well as jam your feet. Then you pull, step up and do it again. Jam, pull, jam, jam, pull, jam, over and over… It’s a hell of a work out. It sounds tedious perhaps but it’s so much fun. We spent a few days focusing on this area which is only enough time to begin getting accustomed to this type of climbing. In my opinion every day climbing at Indian Creek is a good day. In the end nursing scrapes and scratches on hands and arms it was clear I had not turned Michelle and Elias into lovers of crack climbing, but when talking to Will about coming down for a week next fall Jacob in an insisting tone said “I wanna’ go with you dad. Can I go? Can I?” Ah ha mission complete…

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Evenings were always fun with lots of wine, good food and peppers, lots of peppers. Will even took out the accordion at times. Our bodies felt healthy and vital and our minds were rested with the silence that comes with the land here and although we had not reached our fill, it was time to move on.

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Categories: Adventure, adventure geology, adventure travel | 2 Comments

Durango

I have a distinct memory of visiting my great grand parents when I was 7 or 8 years old. They had a tiny farm house that was on what seemed at the time a vast sea of farm country somewhere in the French countryside. During hot summer visits we played on giant jeep like big wheel toys for days upon days throughout their extensive property. One of the most exciting activities came each evening before dinner when we heard the distant toot of the train that passed through the region. We would drop what we were doing and scurry out to the tracks via the old farm trails to hopefully make it on time to watch the trains go screaming by. One of the most distinct single memories from this time and place came during the after dinner activity of watching movies with the family. I remember watching with absolute terror a movie that took place almost entirely on a giant mountain cliff face that did not end well for most of the characters. One by one they fell into an endless abyss and when they fell they would scream a most hysterical scream. To this day I don’t know exactly what movie it was. It could have been a French drama, because the French definitely love drama, but I think it was The Eiger Sanction, a classic American mountain climbing movie starring Clint Eastwood. What I realized was that I was not scared because I was afraid of heights or that I was worried that the characters were going to die but I was scared because I was fascinated by it and I knew that mountain faces like those would be in my future.

Flash forward to May of 1999 – I was being considered as a contestant to work as a mountain climbing guide for a company called South West Adventures in South Western Colorado. I remember showing up impossibly nervous to attend the two week guide tryout. I remember stumbling into the office the first day convinced that there was no way they were going to hire me. It was then that I met the boss and owner, Clay Patton and was immediately put at rest. The interminably laid back and relaxed Wyoming native was a man who loved to tell a story that was always fun to listen to. Clay’s endlessly humored perspective with just the right amount of off colored language was the perfect recipe to keep everyone’s attention. I remember Clay explaining to us new guides how the tips can be quite good if we provide a service above and beyond what is expected, “but then sometimes you get these fricking people that don’t know a fricking thing” he would explain in a matter of fact framework.

Michelle and I moved to Durango together straight from Prescott. All of a sudden we were nestled in the big, rugged snowy and wild San Juan Mountains. There was no city, no urban area, no Interstate Freeways. Durango was the only bit of civilization anywhere around. In all directions, up, down east, west there were lifetimes of mountains, cliffs and ice to climb and explore. We had endless expanses of desert and mysterious canyon country to adventure in. I had finally moved to live, work and play in the mountains and we found a fantastic community of people to do just that with. Actually when we lived there we thought we would never leave. Why would we?

Within a year of being there we adopted a dog… a Super Dog. We found Sunder at two months old in the local pound. Sunder is the Hindi word for handsome – he was not just a pretty boy and not just a good dog, he was Sunder the Wonder Dog, our first boy. Sunder was present at each of our children’s births and protected and loved them as much as he did Michelle and I. Although, he passed away last July he lived a big full life and we loved him deeply. We have carried his ashes with us on this trip through the whole country up to this point. As we let his ashes fly in the wind on Animas Mountain above Durango all of those sweet moments of his younger years came flooding back. He was a close friend and devoted companion. We love you Sunder.

After Two years in Durango Michelle and I got married and soon after had our first son, Jacob. We were certainly crazy back then. We lived in this tiny A-frame cabin way up in the mountains above town. We were completely set on having Jacob born at home on our own sans midwife. We bought a giant metal cow trough that we filled up with heated water where Michelle was going to give birth. We stayed curled up and watching movies as Michelle labored for one, two, three days. Finally we called our midwife/ birthing coach to come and help us. After much work this crazy alien spilled out of my wife into my hands. I had no idea what the hell was going on, I was waaaay out of my league in this moment. Everything changes in such a short instance when your first child comes into your arms. It’s like all of a sudden your decisions and actions and even thoughts affect more than just you. It will never be the same again.

December of 2001 the reality of living in a small community with temper mental seasonal work hit us hard and we left Durango. Now twelve and a half years later we arrive back into town and the realization is clear…. part of me had never left. When I close my eyes and put my head back for a rest I feel it the most. Rest is just better here. Nobody locks their doors in Durango. Actually you don’t have to ever worry about losing your keys. Your car keys you just leave in the ignition. House keys you don’t need. What would it look like to move back?

As we drive into town to have a busy day of sharing meals with old friends and hiking in the hills I ask Jacob, “Jacob, do you want to see where you were born?”

“Surrre”, he replied. We were so excited to show him and we couldn’t help but to be wondering what was going on for him.

We drove down Lightner Creek road and soaked in the sights, the memories were tender. Everything looked similar, so picture perfect but wild enough in a rustic sort of way. As we wound down the road Silver Peak came into view of the La Plata Mountains and then there they were up and to the right: The A-frame cabins. They looked the same as before, thankfully: Tiny, simple, brown and all lined up in a row. We wanted so much to share this place with our little boy who is now becoming a man. To share a little piece of who we were back then. Looking at him you couldn’t tell that the magnitude of it all was sinking, but it was. This is where his life started. Later when he drew the cabin on a Mother’s Day card for Michelle with some sweet words, we could feel his understanding and the significance of the visit.

Showing Clay, “the outcome” of our life, was another important mission of our Durango visit. Clay sold South West Adventures several years ago and now worked at the Crow Canyon Archeological Center. He was super excited to show us around the place after following our adventures this year via the blog. There were so many things to catch up on. I was proud to be sharing my big family with him. We were excited about his invitation to visit the Center with the kids.

As we followed his directions that morning to meet him I had to laugh as I could picture him saying it all as if he were there. It could be that just about everything he said had some undertone of humor mixed in. While summing up very detailed directions he writes “Take road L all the way west and you’ll come to the big highway 141. Carefully crossing 141, as it is a major, 4 lane highway. All this will test your guiding skills, but you can always call if you run into troubles.”

“We’re walking towards the building”, I text him after we’re parked and walking in.

I walk in and we don’t see him so I ask the receptionist. She runs off and after a bit, a very distraught older woman walks out. She has us come outside. “How do you know Clay?” she asks.

This is weird, I think to myself. “We’re friends and he invited our family to show us around for the day. I haven’t seen him in twelve years.”

“I am so sorry”, she answered, “He passed away last night.”

Clay had suffered a heart attack the night before, quietly, while watching TV. There was a flood of emotion that took me by surprise. It had already been a week of allowing memories to go further in than they do on a day to day basis. I had to walk away for a bit. After being gone more than 12 years he passed away right after sending me directions the night before. He had managed to give me one more thing before moving on. Thank you Clay

Moments later a friendly looking younger woman walked up and introduced herself as Shawn Collins. She said she was going to give us an educational tour in Clay’s absence. I think she and the rest of the staff were just as shocked as our little family. It was a crazy moment in time. Everyone was clearly affected by the current circumstance. This was what we had to do. This is what Clay was going to do this morning. Thank you Shawn for a beautiful tour of the Center, we look forward to coming back.

Several days later was Clays’ memorial. It was on a picture perfect, typical sunny early spring day in Durango. The White peaks of the La Plata Mountains cradled us to the West and the Twighlight Peaks were looking wild like always to the North. The Lion’s Den, an open air structure atop Fort Lewis College was overflowing with people wanting to share stories about their friend at rest. Chris, David, Bob, Tim, Amos, Marcus all of these faces and people I had spent my time with 12 years ago were there like none of us had ever left. I looked out over the Animas Valley and it really hit me how quick and fleeting it all is. I showed up in this place so long ago with big ambitions to climb all of these crazy walls and mountains throughout the world. In my youth I had thought I was going to devote my life to just that but it turns out the climbing is just a side show after all. What I found in Durango was much better.

 

 

Categories: Adventure, adventure travel, Ancient Pueblos, Colorado, Crow Canyon Archealogical Center, Durango, family | 1 Comment

Natural Building in the Four Corners by Jacob Anderson

After driving through the night we came to daddy’s friend Andrew’s house. It was really late and we drove for a long time down a driveway. We went inside and went to sleep. We stayed at his house for three days but he was not there. When he came in on the third night he told daddy “you have a plethora of Piñatas” in referring to us kids. He was really funny and entertaining.

Andrew lives in Dolores, CO in the middle of nowhere on 6 acres of ponderosa forest in a 2 story straw bale house. The outside walls of the house are plastered to look like waves and you could see the grains of straw in the coating. We got to stay with Andrew for about 2 weeks in early spring. In between great waffles and super fun stories, I asked him why he started working with natural building materials; he told me that when he used to work with conventional materials he would come home sick. He said this happens to other builders as well and is called “sick building syndrome.” When he started working with natural materials instead he felt great. Therefore he learned the art of straw bale building and started “Natural Dwelling” his building company. Andrew invited us to visit a house that he was building on the border of Utah and Colorado, this time in the ABSOLUTE middle of nowhere. The funny thing was the homeowners just moved from Bellingham.

It was neat to see the stages of building a straw bale house. The exterior walls were unfinished when we pulled up to the house and you could see the straw bales under the 1st layer of earth plaster that is referred to as “mud”. Andrew was waiting for warmer weather to finish these walls. The inside on the other hand was just about finished being mudded and although it was freezing outside the inside was toasty warm. I learned a bunch about earth building during our time we stayed with Andrew. Here is an overview.

Foundation:

Many straw bale homes have a concrete foundation with radiant heat inside the cement. To build the radiant heat system you lay down a metal grid and on top of that lay the pipes that will hold the water. Attach the pipes with plastic ties and then pour the concrete. When the concrete dries the pipes are set and the hot water flows through the pipes. This heats the floor and the heat rises to heat the house.

Straw bale design and Insulation:

Straw bales are used to form the walls. First you make a frame out of wood and then place straw bales within the frame creating thick insulating walls. It is the combination of this insulation, a south facing house design and the radiant heat that keeps the house at a pretty consistent temperature, cool in the summer and warm in the winter. I noticed that in both Andrew’s house and in the house that he was building all of the wall edges, doors and window frames where curved and quite thick. It is important to note that they use straw bales not hay bales because hay has seeds which (1) can germinate and (2) attract rodents. In Andrew’s case he is able to speak to the farmer before he buys the straw bales to make sure that the straw isn’t moldy, didn’t have seeds and that the bales were a consistent predetermined size. When designing the straw bale home it is helpful to build the roofs overhanging with the ability for water catchment. You would want to build the roof with metal materials so the water is safe to use.

Earth Plaster:

Earth Plaster is made from a mix of sand, straw pigment and water. Together it makes a great plaster for drier climates although it withstands the snow. The pigments that I saw were made from crushed minerals and different types and colors of clay. There are also synthetic pigments used for less natural colors. The plaster is then “coated” onto the interior and exterior walls at a consistent thickness and left to dry. When I attempted to coat a wall at a consistent thickness, I failed in utter misery. One needs to eat much spinach and have years of experience to master the art. It’s all in the Popeye arm strength!

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Although these were modern homes, Andrew was not the first person to build with straw in the four corners region. It turns out that the Ancient Ancestral Peubloans built their homes called Pueblos out of straw, mud and stones in the same region as Andrew’s houses starting as early as 1,200 BC. When we went to visit Crow Canyon Archeological Center and were given a tour by the awesome Shawn Collins we visited th Center’s replica Pueblo and learned about the Ancient Peoples culture and lives. She explained that before this completed Ancient Publoan replica visitors would ask, “Why did they live in these ruins instead of a finished structure.” Although this may seem obvious to many of us, the special thing about the replica is that nobody ever gets the opportunity to see what an actual completed ancient Puebloan structure looks like, or make the mistake that they lived in it looking like it does today…in a state of ruin. All of the thousands of structures that remain in the four corners region are only preserved ruins of the past. I noticed that the windows of the short thick walled Pueblo structure were facing south and the doors were roughly 4 ½ feet tall. The attached rooms that were used for living, weaving, sleeping and grinding corn were cool inside even on a mild day. I imagine on a hot day the Puebloans would feel comfortable.

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A few days later mom and dad took us to a National Park called Mesa Verde. Mesa Verde is the most intact and largest ancient Puebloan group of villages and they put their villages in cliffs. We walked down a paved trail to the bottom of a canyon to where the most intact cliff dwellings were located. You could walk right up to the walls, you could see the living areas. You could go into this hole in the ground called a Kiva by a wooden ladder into a round room with log ceilings. On the way out we saw this maze that was not a cliff dwelling. It turned out it was another shrine to some god but people lived in it. From a distance we could see many more cliff dwellings. The biggest one could fit 150 people. Another interesting thing is that back when the Ancient Peubloans lived here over 30,000 people lived in the 4 corners regions where nowadays only 25,000 people live in this region.

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It is a good thing to note that even though we have all of these modern building more and more people are using older and more traditional ways of building that have obviously worked well for thousands of years, like straw bale because the materials are healthier and better for the environment.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this unabridged version of Natural Building by Jacob S. Anderson narrated by you, the reader, and brought to you by 5andaRoofRack.com Thank you.

Categories: Adventure, adventure travel, Ancient Pueblos, Camping, Crow Canyon Archealogical Center, Durango, family, Family camping, Homeschooling, Mesa Verde, Natural Building, Strawbale construction | 6 Comments

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