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A Day Hike In Denali

Hiking to Impress, Polychrome Mountain, Denali Mountain Dance, Clearing Skies, and Night Life

semi-overcast 54 °F

When I stepped outside of the dark plywood shack, it started to rain. I didn’t even get my boots on yet. My plan was to hike over to the WAC, and catch a bus into the park to enjoy a little day hike. My time in Denali was running short, and I wanted one more excursion into the park before it was time to go.

The first thing I found out was that my shuttle was free. If you buy two trips into the park, you get one free ride. I thanked the clerk, and went off to the coffee stand to purchase some coffee and pastries while I waited for my ride. I sat on the porch, sipped the surprisingly decent coffee, and ate some prepackaged danishes. Not bad.

The journey into the park was uneventful. We did not see much in terms of wildlife, and the clouds were still hanging low over the mountains. The rain had quit, but it was still cold and gray. Maybe not the best conditions for a hike, but good enough. We finally saw some dahl sheep near Polychrome Mountain. We watched them for a while, as they sat unperturbed on a nearby knoll. Then the bus broke down. The driver couldn’t get it into gear, which meant we were stuck there until the next shuttle came.

I looked up at the mountain and figured that I could start my hike here. Why not? It looked steep, but I was used to that. I got up and filed past my fellow passengers to the front of the bus where I asked the driver if I could start my hike here. She asked me which way I wanted to go. I told her, “Up.” She said, “Sure, so long as you don’t go near the sheep.”
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I grabbed my daypack, exited the bus, and started hiking up the first slope directly along side of the bus. Now, I knew I had an audience. Besides the sheep, I was the only interesting thing that was happening on that bus- the weirdo- who left the bus and was actually hiking straight up a mountain. I wanted to get away from the bus as quickly as I could, but I wanted to look good as I did so. I started at a good clip, picking my way expertly up the rocky tundra, through the willow whips, matted lichens and around the scattered brush. The first slope was about two hundred yards long, and every step took me higher than I was before by a significant amount. My legs began to burn. I began to gasp, sucking in air as if I had just been underwater for five minutes. Still, I didn’t want to take a break. I kept going. “Gasp“, step, “GASP“, step, “WHEEZE“, step. My “good clip” had slowed to a very bad clip, but I made it out of sight of the bus without stopping. Success! I celebrated, by collapsing on the tundra, and continuing my gasping. Eventually, I caught my breath, and let my wobbly leg muscles recover. As I lay there, I enjoyed imagining the envy of the other passengers. “That weirdo sure makes a lot of noise when he goes hiking.” “Say Mel, pass me a cookie.” “I wonder when the other bus is coming.” When I recovered, I smugly started up the next section, out of sight, and out of mind.
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To reach the top of the ridge, I had to climb a steep talus pile of jagged rocks that gave way with each step. I made decent progress, though with each step I slid back down a little bit, sinking up to my ankles in sharp rocks. Then I caught onto a sheep trail, and followed it up to the top of the ridge. My plan had worked, and I had reached my first goal.
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The wind was raw, and I was glad I had a good windbreaker. Not that it breaks wind (which is another term for farting) (which would be silly), but it kept me warmer than my adventure shirt would. As I walked along the ridge, scanning my surroundings for wildlife, I came across this flower. The wildflowers bloom quickly, here in Denali.
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I was among the foothills of Polychrome Mountain that loomed above me separated by several steep ridges and valleys. Since the walking was now quite easy, I decided to cross the canyon and climb up to a high point on the other side. I figured I could get some good views, and perhaps follow that ridge back to the east fork of the Toklat River, which could take me back to the park road. I didn’t know if I could, but I figured it would be a good place to start.

I descended the steep slopes of open tundra, and lichen covered rocks. I picked my way down carefully, as I didn’t want to twist an ankle out here. That would spell trouble. Once again, nobody really knew where I was, I didn’t leave a hiking plan with my nephew, as I didn’t know where I would be hiking. This is bad hiking etiquette, and I do not recommend it. I digress. At the bottom of the canyon, I stepped over a small creek, and began another ascent. This one was much easier to accomplish, as I did not have anyone to “impress.” I took my time, enjoying my thoughts, my exertions, and my day. As I neared the top, I found this feather stuck into the ground. In some cultures, feathers are thought to carry powerful energy. I handled this one carefully before returning it to where I found it. The bird that left it might not like to kindly on my handling of its feathers.
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When I gained this second ridge, it was easy enough to follow an old path up to the high point that I wanted to climb. As I neared the pyramid, the trail steepened, and the rocks grew slippery. However, it didn’t slow me down, and it wasn’t long before I was high above the surrounding countryside. Do I have to mention the view was incredible? It was.
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Inspiration struck, and I decided to do my version of a Denali Mountain Dance. I didn’t have any specific goal for the dance, as in, “make it rain” or “make it stop snowing” or “I’d like a pizza dropped from the sky,” but my spirit carried me on for the sake of the dance. I set my camera on a time lapse setting and got down with my bad self. In truth, it was all improvised, there are no steps, and you simply dance for the mountain. What fun. It was so much fun in fact, that I did two Denali Mountain Dances. That’s good stuff!
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I happily sat down out of the wind, and pulled out my lunch. It was simple food for a simple man, and I enjoyed it while I gazed out over the earthy purple, tan and gray shades of earth that make up the countryside, stretching from Polychrome Mountain as far as I could see into the Wyoming Hills.
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It was time to turn around, and make my way back to the road. I just didn’t know how I wanted to get there. I could have went east to the river and follow that back south to the road (the hard way), or I could follow the ridge I was on west to the road (the easy way). Looking at my options, I chose the hard way, after all, I am me. At the end of the ridge, I realized the hard way was going to be a lot harder than I first thought, and after a little deliberating, I decided to cancel that approach and instead hike back down the canyon and back up the other side, summiting further south from where I started. At the bottom of the canyon, I stopped to filter some water into my water bottle. I figured it is always better to fill up when you can, rather than wish you did when you cannot. From there, I started back up the canyon wall yet again. At the halfway point, I took a break. I was getting tired. This was my third ascent of the day, and the foothills and mountains of Denali are not easy. They are steep!
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When I reached the top of the ridge, I had to cross several patches of knee-deep snow. The sun still hadn’t gotten to these areas yet, but I didn’t mind. I could see a small section of the road below me, and as I descended, I realized it would make a great picture. I found an appealing perch on the tundra and decided to wait to see what happened. What happened was that the clouds that were once so thickly covered the higher peaks of the Alaska Range, were breaking up. The sun came out, and blue sky began to appear in growing patches. My Denali Mountain Dance worked!
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The following images of are among my favorites that I have from Denali. The park road was a perfect leading line into the awe-inspiring mountain landscapes. The pack of dahl sheep I had seen earlier in the day reappeared, adding yet one more element to theses photos. They are small, yet you can pick them out in the bottom of some of these photos.

Denali Visions
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On my way down to the road, I saw my first marmot, which looked like a giant rock squirrel. It perched on a rock not more than 25 feet away from me, happy to be out in the sunshine again. Down on the road, it took well over an hour for a shuttle bus to pick me up. I really didn’t mind, as the glacial river valley that I was walking along was absolutely gorgeous. This was a fine day to walk in the park! Finally, a bus rounded the corner, and I flagged it down. It was time to go. However, I was well satisfied with my efforts for the day, and this day was seized.
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As a final parting gift, “the high one” came out of the clouds, and I was able to see Denali one more time.
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I capped off my day, by hiking back to the shack. There I enjoyed a “luxurious” lukewarm shower. I ate a gigantic dinner, with some good beer, and hung out with the hill people until I was able to convince one of my new friends to come over to glitter gulch for some fun. What happened was another night of Denali carousing in its most beautiful forms. We drank, we laughed, and we giggled at everyone. There was karaoke being sung (which I did not partake in, thankfully). There was some dancing, many friends hanging out and having fun. Somewhere near the end, there were a few nips of tequila. I stumbled off to bed at 3:30 a.m. (it was still light out). I smiled to myself about how good this day had been.

I am still smiling about it. Denali is awesome.

Posted by Rhombus 16:09 Archived in USA Tagged mountains parks flowers hiking roads alaska dancing photography denali Comments (2)

Denali's Backcountry

The Denali Experience, Into the Wilderness, Igloo Mountain, Mountain Grandeur, The Front Country

semi-overcast 49 °F

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Denali is a wild place. In the past week, I have spent time in Denali’s front country, the area of the park near the entrance, and two days in the wilderness that is Denali’s backcountry. While not in the park, I have been living in a hillside community of Denali workers. They are here to service the multitude of tourists that visit this park each summer. I am in a unique position, because though essentially I am a tourist, I am living with the summer community of amazing people that work in the Denali region.
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My position has allowed me to see both sides of the Denali experience. I’m free to explore the park as I will, unhampered by the need to work everyday. Because my nephew works here, I have been able to stay with him in the plywood shack that he calls home. The people that work here are a motley collection of folks from all around the world that are here to take in Denali, and make some money. When they aren’t working, they take advantage of their free time by hiking, white water rafting, going on a tour, and partying hard. Your liver gets a workout when you live up here in Denali.

The Denali Backcountry

Denali National Park is unique among our national parks because of its designation as a wilderness area. There are no trails in the backcountry. There are no easy paths to follow to your next campsite. If you choose to leave the comfort of the shuttle buses that take visitors into the park, you are on your own, and you had better know what you are doing. Denali’s backcountry is unforgiving. It is a hard land that is difficult to navigate, and people have died here.

That being said, the landscape is absolutely amazing. I am in awe, and I cannot believe that I’m finally here, ready to explore this amazing jewel of our national parks.

To gain access to the backcountry, I had to watch an informational video at the WAC (Wilderness Access Center) and fill out a free backcountry permit. Denali is broken into numbered sections, and in order to keep the park wild, the park service only allows a certain number of people into each section. As this was my first visit to the park, I didn’t really know where I wanted to go. After looking through the descriptions of the sections, I chose one to my liking. I exchanged forms with the clerk, and I was on my way. I purchased a ticket on shuttle bus into the park for the next morning, and I went back to the shack to pack for the adventure.

The next morning, I walked back to the WAC, where I would meet my shuttle into the park. I was tired, I had stayed up too late, hanging out with the hill people that I call neighbors. I yawned, sipped some coffee, and I checked my gear. I studied the topo map of the land near Igloo Mountain. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I was on my way.
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The bus ride was somewhat lame. Granted, we saw some herds of caribou, a moose, a lynx (the first I had ever seen), among other animals, but the bus driver was a nitpicker for petty rules, “You HAVE to wear your seatbelt.” and my fellow passengers were pretentious, full of stupid questions, and mildly rude. I hate to be negative about my fellow men, but these were a bad lot. I was happy enough to ignore them and focus on the amazing scenery and wild animals all around me.

I saw long sweeping views of the snow capped mountains of the Alaska Range. The Alaska Range is home of Denali, the highest mountain in North America. The land is a mixture of taiga, spruce forest, swampy wetlands, wide braided and rocky rivers, arctic tundra, grassy highlands, foothills, and snow capped mountains. My words and photos cannot really do this place justice. Denali provides a vivid sensory overload that left me speechless.

The bus stopped and let me off at Igloo Creek. I was happy to be free of the bus, but as it pulled away, a twang of uncertainty rippled through me. I was about to walk into the Denali wild, and not one soul on this earth knew where I was, or knew where I was going. To tell the truth, I didn’t really know either.
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Igloo Mountain towered high above me, and I knew I had to decide which way I wanted to walk around it. I decided to scramble up to a rocky overlook and take stock of the landscape. On paper, the mountain looked approachable from any direction, but in reality, a lot of it looked impassable, and I did not want to have to turn around. From the high point, I had my first breath taking view of the Cathedral Mountains, and of the Teklanika River Valley. The Teklanika is the same river that stymied Alexander Supertramp’s escape back in the early nineties. I looked over the landscape, decided to try to walk around the mountain to the east, and backtracked back down into the spruce forest.

Having lived and worked in northern Minnesota for many years, I was quite comfortable walking through a boggy spruce forest. It was still a lot of hard work, as my heavy pack seemed to catch on the stiff branches of the brush. I worked my way around the mountain, eventually finding and following a moose trail. Moose, like elk, know where to walk. It made my hike a lot easier.
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As it turned out, I had chosen wisely, a long grassy taiga covered ridge led up a long ridge onto Igloo Mountain. Since I was only going for one night, I wanted to find a place that wasn’t too far into the wilderness. This ridge looked ideal. I wanted a good view, and I wanted a good campsite. I began to climb up the spongy taiga and loose gravel that took me higher and higher up onto the mountain.
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Eventually I made my way to the top of the ridge, and found a few promising campsites. I set down my pack, and grabbed my camera. The high ridge was dotted with pockets of beautiful wildflowers, and the view of the distant mountains was incredible. I did not expect wildflowers to be out this early in the mountain season, but I wasn’t complaining. I found three varieties, and I had fun putting them into focus.
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After eating lunch, I put on my rain gear and laid down on the dry spongy taiga. I was very comfortable, and I grew sleepy. The moss was perfect, and it wasn’t long before I passed out. I awoke to the gentle patter of rain on my rain gear. I sat up, rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and decided to have an early dinner. I walked to where I was keeping my food in the black bear proof container some distance from my campsite. I made a sandwich of peanut butter and honey, crunched some almonds, and ate the last of my beef jerky with a couple nips of red wine. I ate this wonderful meal, sitting on the bear barrel, as another rain squall passed over me. I was glad I had good rain gear.
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Mountain Grandeur
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After dinner, I started hiking up a ridge that looked like it would take me to the top of the mountain. I took only my small camera that fit easily into my pocket. The ridge was easy to follow, though it was steep, made up of loose scree, and wet from the rain. I was feeling good, energetic and moving fast. Then I found myself atop a twenty-foot high rock tower. It was made of very sharp rock, loose, and untrustworthy. I decided to climb down it instead of backtracking and finding a way around it. It wasn’t the smartest thing I have ever done, but using basic climbing techniques, and double checking my holds on the wet rock, I made my way down safely.
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From there, it was an easy trek. I followed the ridge higher and higher onto the shoulder of the mountain. Then I followed a Dahl sheep track across a steep open talus slope to the top of the mountain ridge. The rain had quit, and I had stripped down to my hiking gear. The thick clouds weakened and broke open in spots allowing the sun to shine through. The white light highlighted the mountains, and low clouds near the breaks. It was some of the most breathtaking mountain grandeur I had ever seen.
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To get to the very highest point, I had to walk a knife-edge of sharp rock. If I slipped, I would have fallen thirty feet on either side, before sliding down the mountain. This was a badass hike if I had ever seen one. I climbed the last twenty feet up a slippery rock face covered in wet grass, loose rock and mud.
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I summited. I sat down, and I soaked up the mountain views all around me. “My God,” I said aloud, then, waving my arms around me in every direction, “This IS my God.”
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I looked down on the pale ribbon of the Denali Park Road that wound through the zebra striped mountains of brown and white. It looked tiny in comparison to the immense landscape around it.

I was in awe. I keep saying this, but I was. The following poem came to mind, written by Chia Tao

Searching For the Hermit In Vain

The master has gone alone.
Herb picking, somewhere on the mount.
Cloud hidden, whereabouts unknown.

I love the last line. And that is exactly where I was.
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On my way down, I retraced my steps back down to the ridge. Instead of following it, I decided to put on my rain gear and try sliding down a snow slope that would take me down to my campsite. After one gentle push with my arms, I began to slide easily on the snow. Then, I began to slip faster and faster, more or less rocketing down this slope. I giggled, whooped and dug in my heels trying to slow down. I laughed all the way to bottom, where my weight caused me to dig into the soft wet snow near the edge of where snow met the grass.
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I thought about climbing up again for another ride, but instead walked back down to my camp. Another rainbow appeared, the third of the day. That’s when I named the ridge I was camped on, “Rainbow Ridge.”
I sat in the rain and enjoyed the rainbow. The clouds moved in, and it rained harder. I laughed. I drank the rest of my box of wine, and went to bed.

Front Country Scenes

The Denali front country has been very good to me as well. From visiting sled dogs, to shooting pool with my nephew and talking philosophy under an old railroad bridge, and long hikes up into the mountains. Denali has been amazing. These are just a few scenes from my first week.
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Posted by Rhombus 18:57 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes mountains snow parks flowers hiking alaska family denali poetry Comments (2)

2000 Miles in Twenty Two Days: Taking The Long Way

The Beauty of the American West: Sand Surfing, Western Landscapes, Elk, From Moorcroft to New Castle, The Black Hills

Over the course of one day, I came to the realization that the first part of my trip was over. It had been a great first week meandering slowly through the hinterlands of central Idaho. However, I realized there was more to this journey then indulging in my own self-satisfaction. It was time to reconnect with some good folks I had not seen in a long while. I was missing my people.

To get to my people, I had four days of steady driving to enjoy, and I made a fairly straight forward approach to the road back to the Midwest. To me, “fairly straight forward” is dictated a lot by general direction and roads I had not driven before. If I fail at finding new roads, then I settle for new parks and places I haven’t explored before, or roads I haven‘t traveled in some time.

I love driving. I love Marvin (my van) and making steady progress with her across the spacious lands of the American west. The following photos are from my journey east. I am often distracted by magnificent scenery, and if I see something that interested me, I stopped to enjoy it. My stops usually vary from five minutes to five hours and sometimes five days. I usually let spontaneity rule the day, and I’ve yet to be disappointed.

Sand Surfing at Bruneau Dunes
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The dunes of Bruneau rise 470 feet above the valley floor. In years past, I have thoroughly explored the many charms of this small park in South Central Idaho. However, despite all my efforts, I had never taken a board to the top of the dunes to attempt surfing them. Over the last two years, I thought about this every time I would review my pictures from these explorations.

I returned to the dunes to give it a try. After all, it was practically on my way (which is dangerous logic), and I had a long board that would probably work very well for the attempt. On my first day at the park, it was very windy, and looking up at the dune through binoculars, I could see a long cloud of sand blowing over the crest of the dune. I would have to wait it out. I spent the time taking my long board apart, reading, slack lining, and staring up the dunes.

The next morning, my alarm went off at 6:25 a.m., and by some miracle, I got out of bed and onto the trail well before dawn. The sky was pale pink with golden bands to the east as I began trekking toward the tall dune. It was over a mile away, and I saw the crack of dawn just as I rounded the lake. I stopped to smell the fragrant leaves of fresh mountain sage (“Ahhhhh”). Everybody should start their day like this.

I began to climb. Walking up a sand dune is not easy. The slope steadily became steeper and the sand harder to walk through. With every step I took, I lost six inches sinking into the sand. However, I made it most of the way to the top before I had to stop and take a breather, I was pleased with my efforts.
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I made it to the crest and stopped to appreciate the panoramic view of the high desert plain all around me. It was splendid. The breeze was picking up a bit, but not too bad. I sat in the cold sand and ate a small breakfast of hard-boiled eggs and an orange with tea. The sun was still low to the horizon in the east, and I welcomed its warmth. It is funny how such a simple thing as breakfast in a beautiful place can make such a difference in one’s day.
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I spent the morning attempting to find the right combination of sand, slope, and gravity to allow me go surf down the dunes. At first, it was a complete failure, the sand was too wet, and I barely slid more than a foot. Eventually as the day warmed and the sand dried, I was able to make a go of it, and had fun surfing the sand. In truth, it was not as epic as I imagined it, but I had fun, and caught a couple of fun rides. The best one was the last one, when I rode down the dune from the top, some 400 feet, to the valley below.

Idaho Road Scenes

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Mountain Lake Scene, US 20, Idaho

Craters of the Moon, Idaho
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This black, barren landscape was once an active lava flow from several volcanoes that once erupted here. I spent the afternoon hiking through it, and exploring several lava tubes.

Craters Along US 20, west of Idaho Falls
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The clouds began rolling in from the north in the mid afternoon. I had just finished my explorations of Craters of the Moon, and this scene opened up before me. The thick clouds held snow, but I wouldn’t find that out until I passed over the rocky passes in northwestern Wyoming.

Elk In Winter Pasture
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This was a quick roadside scene that I stopped to enjoy. These elk just north of Jackson, Wyoming spend the winter down low in the flat grassy meadows. I’d never seen so many elk in one place, and stopped to take a few pictures. Those heavy clouds I saw earlier had caught up with me, and the temperature dropped into the twenties. It began to snow as it always does when I drive this section of Hwy 26, and I made it up and over the pass before any accumulation made the driving hazardous.

Wyoming Road Scene
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This road is somewhere south of Thermopolis, Wyoming. This road headed into the mountains and into a rugged river canyon. The western US is full of views just like this one. I can’t seem to get enough of them. There is something soulful in being surrounded by grandeur. My life seems to slow down and I like to take it easy.

Driving these long roads of the American west, I find myself day dreaming a lot. To be fair, I am not only daydreaming, but also thinking about events from the past, some from the future. I like to try to stay in the present, but it’s not always possible. I’ll be listening to my book, then as the narrator drones on and I’ve just passed my 200th mile for the day, my mind wanders off and I’ll be lost in my head. “I wonder what it was like to travel these plains by wagon. Wyoming… Why not, Whyoming? Wyoming’s Motto should be: Up, Down, and Brown…” And so it goes.

From Moorcroft to New Castle

To some, the hinterlands of Middle America are a never-ending hell of monotonous driving. Picture an endless day of straight roads, and billboards; the roar of passing semis, sticky fast food, chain-smoked cigarettes and boredom. I feel sorry for these people, they just don’t get it. Like any landform, the plains have a beauty all their own. They have landscapes that you will see nowhere else on the planet, and though I may not make the plains a destination, I love driving through them. My advice? Appreciate where you are at, while you are there. I can find good things to say about almost every place I have traveled to.

There is one stretch of road that runs from the small town of Moorcroft, Wyoming southward to the charming town of New Castle, Wyoming. It is a wide two-lane highway, driven fast by almost everyone who uses it (except me). I had left Moorcroft just as the sun was beginning its final show for the day. The grasslands were lit up by that magical light of late evening, which lasted roughly an hour before the sun finally set.

I pulled over numerous times, sometimes turning around to go back to view the scene again. It’s hard to appreciate something you only get to see for a hundredth of a second before you have cruised past it at 67 miles an hour. I have never regretted stopping along side of the road to watch something beautiful happening.
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The larger of these two pronghorn antelope was chasing a smaller one across the prairie. It was obviously some act of male dominance, a show of force to prove to the young buck that he ought to leave town before things became ugly. I watched it all happen just on side of the road. I was hoping the antelope would try to cross a fence. I was told by Tommy and Dal (see Beginnings and Central Idaho) that antelope will not jump over a fence, but will dive under it. I wanted to see if it was true. They didn’t cross the fence. Ah well, perhaps another time.

The Red Horse
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This was another roadside picture. I turned around to see if I could get a nice picture of this horse. I was lucky, and I shot this picture just before the sun past below the western hills. This was the last light of the day, and it made this horse glow. Simply gorgeous.

The Black Hills
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Many people hold the black hills of South Dakota sacred, and I am one of them. The Lakota have always held these lands as sacred, and I can see why; there is a powerful peace to these lands.
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I don’t know where to begin in giving a historical description of the black hills. There is too much to tell, and I’m not an expert on its history. I will say that this region has been a very contested piece of real estate between our Native Americans and those that wanted to take the land from them (and did). In truth, it is a very ugly history, and not one of our bright spots in our nation’s promise of “liberty and justice for all.”
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With that being said, I am going to focus on more positive themes for this narrative. Namely, my expedition into the heart of the hills. I pulled into Custer State Park at mid-morning in mid April. I was the only car in the lot. I pulled on my hiking boots, grabbed some food, camera, the usual, and set off. I walked around Sylvan Lake. Sylvan Lake is a beautiful mountain lake, flat and serene, with giant boulders bathing in the shallows of the north side. I walked around to the north side, and climbed up on one of the giant granite islands that make up a lot of the scenery of the hills.
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A red wing black bird sat on a branch high above me, and sang a pretty song. I took it as a welcome. I set off with visions of tagging the top of South Dakota’s highest point known as Harney Peak (elevation 7,244 ft). I figured this would be easy enough, and a good way to get a feel for the land.
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The land was powerful. It consisted of a pine forest that grew around a changing landscape of steep rolling hills, ridges and valleys. From these hills, jut giant granite islands into the sky, some of them hundreds of feet high. Over time, they eroded, and formed massive twisted phalluses and sharp spires of intricate shape and delicacy. In and around these wonderful lands are crystalline rivers and small mountain lakes, water for birds, beasts, and man. Beyond these great hills is a sea of grassland that stretches far to the east and west. Immediately to the north and south lie the badlands, a region of great beauty and hard passage. See High Plains Drifting from March 2010 for my adventures in the badlands.

The ground on which I walked was covered in shiny metallic wafers. I don’t know what mineral it was I was looking at, but walking into the sun made the ground glitter as if there were thousands of tiny diamonds scattered about. I marveled at the giant rock formations. They were amazing, and I could feel the solemn power of the place just by sitting with my back to them for a while.

As I climbed higher onto the ridge, I saw a spur trail leading off to Little Devil’s Tower, and I decided that was where I wanted to go. I figured the high point would probably be a well-visited place, and I was looking for some solitude to sort out my thoughts concerning these sacred lands I was trekking through.

It didn’t take me long to make my way to the top, and I knew I had made the right choice. In every direction, the hills spread out before me, with the twisted spires and rock formations in the near distance, the endless plains far in the background. It was magnificent.
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I spent a lot of time up on that tower of rock. I was really digging the vibe of the place, and the views were superb. I sat down to take it all in. I had found the perfect perch, with my legs dangling over the edge of the cliff. I opened a can of almonds and peeled and orange. It was time for lunch. It wasn’t long before I realized I had a guest. A small chipmunk began to silently scale the rock wall near where I was sitting. I wondered if it would be interested in sharing an almond with me, and I held one between my fingers. It climbed cautiously, testing for trouble, scurrying close, and then retreating. Finally, sensing no danger, it climbed up on my hand and began to eat.
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I smiled and asked if it was the “Little Devil” and if this was its tower. I complimented the chipmunk on its choice of homes, it seemed a palace. It was a fun lunch, and I ate my food, and admired the view with the chipmunk. It’s not everyday you get to share your lunch with a chipmunk.
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Then as we digested our meal, an elk bugled somewhere far below in the valley. An elk bugle is a shrill high-pitched snooty sounding blow. I had heard them before in other magical places (the south rim of the Grand Canyon), and this made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It was really cool.

Then, a Red Tailed Hawk soared by not more than fifty feet away. It was level with where I was sitting, and it streaked by so fast and so effortlessly, I almost missed it. Given the fact I was perched up high on one of the best mountain views I have seen in such a sacred place, I couldn’t help but feel humbled. I am a very fortunate man.

After awhile, I moseyed on, saying thanks. I still had a long way to go if I was going to make it to Minnesota any time soon.

Stay Tuned!

Posted by Rhombus 21:21 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes mountains lakes wildlife hiking roads sunrise sunsets sand photography dunes Comments (1)

Two Thousand Miles in 22 Days: Beginnings and Central Idaho

Morning Bliss, Road Trips, Chasing Spring, River Roads, and Fine Hiking

semi-overcast 60 °F

Do you know how good it feels to wake up to the sounds of birds chirping all around you? Do you know how luxurious it feels to be bathed in fresh air all night long after a year and a half of the dank air of a ship? Do you know how intoxicating the smell of fresh green grass is, laced with the earthy potpourri of the nearby river chuckling steadily over the rocks? Do you know how pleasant it is to open your eyes and look in any direction, and see charismatic trees standing about you, almost waiting for you to awaken to appreciate them? Do you know the pleasure I feel in preparing a leisurely breakfast, making coffee in my small percolator, unpeeling the hard boiled eggs, slicing the aromatic oranges, and undressing the lemon poppy seed muffin?

These questions epitomize my ideals of waking up in this world, and let me say that I have almost reached the apex of morning serenity. The only thing lacking is a sweet soulful lady to share it with, but nine out of ten is good enough for me.

I am in Idaho once again, a state that calls me back time and time again. As it is April, I’m chasing spring around the state from north to south. The trip so far has been going very well, so far, and I am embracing my freedom, my emancipation from the clock, and my newly reacquainted love affair of traveling across the US by van. Things are good around these parts.

After stocking up in Coeur d’Alene on food, gasoline, sunglasses, and meeting my landlady, I was ready to head out onto that open highway and get this trip underway. However, since it was near lunchtime, and I was a bit hungry, I decided to stop in at the Moon Time for a Lamb burger and a Mac and Jacks. I didn’t know when I would be back, and I couldn’t pass up the lamb burger. After polishing it off in under five minutes, a new record, usually I have it gone in three, I told my waitress, “As you can see, I could barely choke it down.” She laughed and complimented me on my vacuum like skills.

I paid, jumped in my van and headed down the road. I didn’t make it too far, before I started to get very sleepy. It was as if they put a knock out drug in my burger. I pulled off the highway onto a little roadside park I knew about and hopped on my mattress to catch a siesta. The trip was off to a great start!
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I should mention that I drive a GMC Safari van named Marvin. Marvin is a she, and a very good van. I have custom designed and built the back of her to where I can comfortably travel out of it. I have a feather mattress, storage for food, clothing, water, computer, banjo, grill, a wok, a frying pan, a cooler, a book box, toolbox, utensil box and a tent. Organization is the key, there is a place for everything and everything goes in its place.

After awhile, my sleepiness wore off, and I got up. It was a beautiful spring day, well into the upper sixties with the sun shining bright on the land. I pulled out my banjo and set down to have a go with it. My fingers were working well, and I was thumping my way through one of my favorite songs when a big old’ diesel truck rolled down and parked. A dude got out and walked over to me. He introduced himself and his friend (Tommy and Dal) and told me to keep playing.

I played, and we chatted, it turns out they had specifically stopped because they wanted to hear me play. They cracked beers, didn’t offer me any, and we talked of Idaho, fishing, hunting, antelope, the banjo, the mandolin, and northern pike. I liked them. Dal was a bit negative, and he was packing a gun. Tommy was pretty chill and a big fan of the banjo. When they left, we wished each other well, and he said I had made his day, just by playing the banjo. I smiled. The banjo has that affect on people.
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I rolled on. I set a book going on my mp3 player and settled into my seat. This was more like it! I watched the miles of pines, small meadows, weathered mountaintops, small towns, and ranches roll by. It was getting on toward evening, and I still didn’t know where I was going to be staying that night. Part of the fun of vanning is figuring out where to camp. It gets tricky in early spring, because some of the forest campgrounds are still closed for the season. So, even though there is a tent sign on my map, it does not necessarily mean it’s going to be open. I had already struck out twice, driving off into the forest, only to be denied by snow, mud, or gates. I eye balled my map, and decided I wasn’t far away from Hells Gate State Park, just outside of Lewiston. I had stayed there on a previous trip and remembered it was a nice place. I aimed the van that way passing down into the Clearwater River valley. I passed through towns like Kendrick and Jullieta before catching Hwy 12 west to Lewiston. I noted that it looked like the good people of Kendrick and Jullieta had put in a nice asphalt trail that looked like it would be fun to ride my long board on.

I pulled into the park just after sundown. In the gloam, I set about to make some food, that being my favorite food of chili, for dinner, and some hard-boiled eggs for breakfast. It was well past dark by the time I finished cooking, eating, and cleaning up. I settled in for the night, with my windows wide open listening to the river, feeling the fresh air roll over me, and I was out.

My morning routines have been returning. I like to wake up to the birds, as there is no better alarm clock. I figure if the birds are late, than that is reason enough for me to be “late” in getting up. If I am hungry, I’ll make breakfast, if I’m not, I’ll do some yoga. After that, I’ll read or get my slack line set up and work on my balance.
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Eventually, I packed up and headed back east to Kendrick. I wanted to go long boarding, and so, I did. I love long boarding in springtime. There is a feel of complete freedom to be gliding through the warm fresh scented air in the sunshine. Everyone about me was at work or on some mission, but I felt like I was playing hooky from school. I soaked in the springtime sensations, and smiled. It was a good trail that followed a rushing river. Fresh grass grew along side of it, and the trees were budding. It was warm in the sun, and pleasant on the board. I felt great.
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I moved on, not making particularly good time. I kept pulling over at many of the roadside dirt “pull offs” that frequent the river roads in Idaho. Pull offs are usually just a small section of gravel large enough to park a couple of cars. They are frequented by fishermen, drivers who want to catch a break, or myself, who likes to take their sweet ass time getting anywhere. Idaho’s roads mainly follow rivers, as they are the easiest places to build roads in this mountainous state. I love both rivers and roads, and so I was constantly following my urges to stop and admire the river, or to keep going and enjoying the twists and turns of the road. The roads I’ve followed through this state have ran along the St. Maries, an unknown branch of the Clearwater, the Clearwater, the Salmon, the South Fork of the Salmon (I think), the Rapid, the North Fork of the Payette, the Middle Fork of the Payette, the Payette, and the Snake Rivers. I’ve loved all of them. The spring melt is causing them to run high and fast. They are surging, and gushing, roaring their way over rapids, rocks and bedrock. It is impressive!
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Along the Salmon River are numerous anglers’ campgrounds and access areas. I pulled into one of these sites, found a beautiful site right along the banks of the river with seven big Red pines to keep me company.
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The next day I left in the morning and made my way down to Riggins, ID. I was on the lookout for either a ranger’s station or a outfitter’s store to get some information on hiking in the area. Instead, I spied the city park. It was covered and green grass and had nicely spaced maple trees growing there. I pulled over and executed a U-turn. My other plans would have to wait, it was time to get my slack line out, and have a morning session.
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After that, I found my outfitter’s store, it was one of those little bit of everything places that sold rafting trips, t-shirts, espresso, a little bit of camping gear, and ice cream. They didn’t have anything I was looking for, so I asked for a dirty chai to go. The barista looked at me quizzically. “What is that?” She asked. I told her it was a chai latte with a shot of espresso, and she said she had not heard of that before. I told here it was good, and she ought to try one. I paid and thanked her, and went on down to the ranger’s station for some hiking info.
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About my only option for hiking that was open was the Rapid River trail, and since it sounded good, I opted to go. I was not disappointed. I went on a 8 mile day hike following the banks of the beautiful river into the mountain canyon. The river was roaring, and the steep canyon walls had limestone cliffs that towered above me. I wondered if there were any caves in them and it looked like there were.
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Young spring flowers had begun to bloom all along the path, and I saw many different kinds of flutterbys out enjoying the spring warmth, and sweet smelling flowers.
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I had stopped to take a break, and had sat down on two logs that lay across the river. I was sitting midstream enjoying the gushing river and sipping some tea when I heard the beautiful song of a Dipper not far away. I watched it jump from a low stone into the river, diving deep to pluck out a worm. Then it hopped back on to a rock, fluttered to a small waterfall, and ate it.
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Why do Dipper’s keep showing up wherever I am? I am beginning to think it is more than mere coincidence. This isn’t the last time I was to see a Dipper on this trip. More on that later. I enjoyed the show, and after resting for awhile, I decided to make my way back to the van. I had decided where I wanted to camp that night, and I had some distance to go before I was going to get there. As I walked down the canyon, a terrific wind kicked up and began gusting through the canyon. With it, came some rain. I could not remember the last time I had seen rain, and I laughed at the novelty of it.

I ate a late lunch at the van, and changed out of my dirty clothes. I hopped in the van, and pointed it south heading for a campsite east of Banks. I was heading into hot springs country, and this particular campground had a beautiful hot spring pool right across the road from it. I don’t even have to say this, but the first thing I did upon parking in my spot was to grab my towel and march off to the spring for a good long soak. It was awesome.

Little did I realize just how good the hot springs were going to be the next day…

There’s more to come from this adventure!
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Thanks for reading.

Posted by Rhombus 20:27 Archived in USA Tagged rivers hiking roads camping spring photography idaho vans longboarding roadtrips Comments (0)

The Fortunes of a Vagabond

An Unforgettable Two Weeks In Mexico: Whales, Dolphins, Landscapes, Friends, and the Best 24 Hours of my Life

sunny 81 °F

I have just lived two weeks of my life I shall never forget. I apologize for the delay since my last entry, but life has been too full of late to take time to document it beyond photos and journal entries, and it is better to live then to be a slave to documentation.

That being said, I want to share with you some of my experiences of the last days that are burned into my soul. They include mega pods of dolphins, close encounters with whales, an amazing flock of birds at dawn, sleeping outside under starry skies and awakening to a beautiful sunrise. I‘ve enjoyed amazing hikes in a desert paradise through powerful landscapes. I’ve shared these experiences with some of the best people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing, and I look forward to many more.

I wonder why I am so blessed.

Whale Encounters

Picture a fiberglass panga full of crewmembers speeding into the protected waters of San Ignacio Bay. The bay is a major nursery for California Gray Whales, and our timing was good. The Gray whales were still here preparing for their long journey north, and we were seeing spouts all around us. The water was choppy, and the breeze was fresh off the pacific. We were bundled up in windbreakers, and looking out for a whale that wanted to come say hello. We found one, and as mom watched nearby, the calf swam right next to the boat and began to spin in slow circles allowing us to pet her on all sides. It was beautiful. We smiled all day.
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I had never seen a pod of pilot whales so close to the ship. Pilot whales look like a cross between a dolphin and a whale. It looks like a really big dolphin with a flat face, and acts like a very small whale. We watched a pod of them for several hours just after dawn. The cool thing about Pilot whales is they usually have a pod of bottlenose dolphins that hang around them as well. Nobody really knows why. I like to think that the dolphins and whales are in harmony somehow, and in truth, they appear to be.
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Towards the end of the two week photo trip we were on we were far north in the Midriff Islands of the Sea of Cortez. The water is a lot colder up here, and very deep. It is squid country, and Sperm Whale territory. We came on several sperm whales right as the sun was setting, and I watched them breathe surrounded by the golden light of sunset. Then having readied their lungs they would arc their backs and dive deep leaving us with a fluking tail to remember it by.
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On my last day of actual work, we came upon a small humpback whale that seemed to be teasing us. We would watch it for a while, and it would dive and breathe, as whales do. It was nice, but we had to move on. So as the captain was starting to pull away, the whale would start breeching right next to us, and we’d slow down, turn around and watch it some more. Of course, the whale would go back to diving and breathing again. This went on for a half hour before the powers that be decided to finally say farewell.

Dolphin Mega Pods
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I have seen many dolphin pods down here in Mexico, but there was one this week that offered behavior I had never seen before. For one thing, it was a huge pod with hundreds of members. They were very active, very acrobatic, and the air was filled with flying dolphins. It was awesome. The air was filled with a cacophony of their squeaks, cliques and whistles, and the sound large splashes from lots of mammals. We watched them for twenty minutes, sailing along side of the main pod. It offered many photographers their dream shots of dolphins. As for me, I mostly watched them, I sat on the fantail with my feet kicked up on the rail drinking ice water, and eating Italian bread, as the machine gun clicks of photographers shot pictures without thinking. Eventually, I got up and grabbed my camera. I thought it better to enjoy them first before freezing them electronically.
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Then it happened. It was as if somebody flipped a switch under the water. En masse, the dolphins turned around and swam as quickly as I’d ever seen dolphins swim in the other direction in an organized, purposeful action. They took off. There was no way to keep up with them, and it was in the wrong direction. In the distance, I saw a white line from their wake receding into the distance. Awesome.

Birds of a Feather
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I was taking in the sunrise when a flock of sea birds began to circle the ship flying low to the surface of the waves. It was so cool. As the sun rose, I was able to time a few pictures of the birds whipping around in golden glow of the sun and waters. What a gift! It was so very beautiful.
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We visited Isla Rasa on morning. Isla Rasa is one of the more unique islands in the Midriffs as it is home to a huge colony of terns and gulls, with a population of well over a half a million birds. It is amazing to see, hear, smell, and watch that amount of birds in one place. Though I had to work that day, I was able to get close to shore for ten minutes to appreciate that experience. The one thing I noticed was that the terns seem to fly in pairs. Despite the chaos of hundreds of identical birds in the air at any one time, they were able to stay close and follow one another to their destinations. I was hoping to see the mating flights of the terns that I saw last year, but it was not to be.

Landscapes
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In my time in Mexico, I have seen some of the best desert scenes of my life. In my last days here, I was able to walk through some of these masterpieces one last time, exploring some new areas, and appreciating some I have already seen. I took these walks with some good friends from the boat, and these shared experiences of paradise will be long remembered.
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San Juanico remains one of my favorite landscapes in Mexico. I remember last year when I first explored it, I kept thinking to myself that it really would be great to meet some beautiful senoritas down on the secluded beach. This year I am a year wiser and invited two along to come for the hike. We hiked high above the sea, and the rocky spires, points, and islands stretched out before us in the aquamarine blue of the sea. It was beautiful.
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There is an arroyo on the west side of Isla Partida that could be the most magical place I have ever visited. I like the word magic. When I use “magic”, I’m more referring to a combination of my feelings about a particular location, and the energy of the location itself. As I’ve written about before, there are places in this world that hold dear to me, and I can pick up on the strong currents of energy that emanate there. Now if you think I am a crackpot, hippie influenced nature man, I stand guilty as charged. However, before you judge, I think you should go on this hike.

I went on this scramble with one of my favorite compatriots in the world. The day was sizzling. The sun beat down mercilessly. We were sweating after the first steps. The hike began with some boulder climbing and scaling some small dry waterfalls. We found several lizards doing “push ups” on the hot rocks. I’m not sure what makes them work out so hard in the hot sun, but I think I heard the theme music to Rocky, on a tiny lizard Ipod.

The arroyo was beautiful. The canyon’s rock was very porous and hollow and there were many caves carved into the rock. Some of them were large enough for us to stand in, and we rested in the shade and gulped down water. We held quiet, and let the desert speak. It was silent, save for the hot breeze curling around the arroyo walls. However, deserts speak not so much in sound, as in vibration, and sitting under that rock, we were feeling its power. We shivered, we smiled, we laughed and said thank you.

We moved on, climbing higher and higher, we had no destination in mind, but were hiking for the joy of it. Eventually we realized we were nearing the top, and decided to go all the way up. The last one hundred yards was covered with small cantaloupe sized boulders and we walked over them and to the top of the ridge.

It was gorgeous. We caught our breath and took in the sweeping views of the green water far below, the rugged mountain ridges, and blue skies. Turkey vultures silently soared by, not 30 feet away, each time I saw one, it felt like a gift. We stood on top of rock statues, yet to be carved, and I yodeled. I’m always nervous about yodeling in front of other people, because sometimes my voice cracks badly and I sound like a howling teenager in English class. At other times, it comes out beautifully. Luck was with me, and it sounded good.
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A hummingbird zipped by. It poked around the sparse desert plants that were blooming this time of year and moved on. We smiled at our fortune, and smiled wider when the humming bird returned. The desert was buzzing with good energy. It rather felt what I would imagine Ray Kinsella’s “Field of Dreams” would feel like. The desert provided a spiritual calming, a feeling of happiness that you just can’t quite put to words. It was beautiful. The composition of the desert was perfect, as if some giant had been cultivating a perfect cactus garden high up on the mountain. We were fortunate, and we knew it.

Alas, that magical afternoon came to an end, and we made our way back down the arroyo. We were tired, and very thirsty. We were longing for ice water, and to jump into the ocean. We found both the ocean and the ice water very refreshing. We smiled again, thanked each other for the marvelous afternoon and I went off in search of my bunk.

Moonlight Sonata

I recently enjoyed perhaps the best twenty-four hours of my life (so far). It began on the lido deck, sipping drinks, watching the bright moon overhead light up the balmy ocean night. There were five of us chatting amiably, sharing stories, laughing and dreaming. I don’t know who had the idea, but a friend and I both had the day off the next day, so we decided to sleep out under the stars.

I had always wanted to do this, but for some reason, never had. Fool I am. However, it is better to do things late, then never, so I set about building us a bunk of bench cushions, wool blankets and pillows. Not too shabby if I do say so myself. I went in for some clothes, another drink, and then we went up to settle in for the night. And what a night it was. We laughed, we giggled, we talked, we dreamed, and it felt like we were camping. Eventually, we fell asleep.

We woke up just as the sunrise cracked the horizon. The sun was a bright orange disk rising and getting brighter by the second. It completely lit up the rugged peaks of Isla Danzante and the Sierra de la Giganta in a crescendo of reds, oranges, and rich browns. Words fail to describe the beauty, and stirring feelings of grandeur in front of us. We held one another, and laughed. I laugh a lot. Laughter it seems, is my only answer to the question I keep asking myself, “How can you be so lucky?”

I’m still laughing.
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The day consisted of an easy stroll on the north shore of the Isle of the Dancer, a spot I’d never explored before as often the swells are too big to walk the shoreline. We picked up some of the ever-present litter on the beach, and swam in the cold clear water. It reminded me of Lake Superior, though salty.

After our hike, we decided to snorkel. The ship had picked up a giant circular air mattress with a pirate on it. It was dubbed the pirate raft, and we had taken it to shore. Well, we were going to use it as a swimming platform, but once we were on it, we realized how comfortable it was just to lay in the sun floating around in the small bay. It was great. Soon, our staff was buzzing by us on the zodiacs, and we bobbed in their wake.
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I think we made a lot of people smile that day. We must have floated around for about an hour when the expedition leader and the wellness specialist swam up and climbed aboard. They had plans for tipping us, but soon realized it was a great place to chill out and lay around in the sun. So, there I was, floating around on a raft with three beautiful women to keep me company. I laughed. If you would have told me the morning that I would be on a pirate raft with the EL, wellness specialist, and my favorite steward, I’d have told said you were probably dilusional. Then as a finishing touch, someone brought up a tray of iced limewater and cookies. I think it made a good picture.
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That evening, the sun set and the full moon rose within 20 minutes of one another. It was a good night to be outside sipping good wine, and taking in the aerial show. Both events were gorgeous, but the winner was the moonrise over Isla San Jose. The moon was gigantic, and bathed us in a gorgeous orange light as it rose into the sky.

To cap off our amazing day, we had dinner outside on the sun deck. The moon bathed us in white gold, and we ate like royalty, and felt like it too. We had fresh bread and butter, delicious rib eye steaks on Caesar salad, a touch of ice cream, and good wine throughout. We talked, we laughed, we dreamed, and “carped the de-em.”

Eventually all good things must transform into other good things, and we had to call it a day. The day was seized, throttled, hugged, embraced, and squeezed of all of its splendor, and we still couldn’t get all of it out.
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The next day, I packed and left the SeaBird, saying farewell to many of my good friends and crew. They will be missed, but other adventures are afoot. At this moment, I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Coeur d’Alene Idaho with a full tank of gas, a weeks worth of food, and the open road sixty feet away. I have two thousand miles to travel and twenty days to do it.

I’m laughing.

Posted by Rhombus 11:15 Archived in Mexico Tagged islands hiking whales deserts friends dolphins photography philosophy grandeur Comments (2)

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