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Entries about parks

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)

4000 Miles In 30 Days: Side Tracked in Chicago

Miscalculations of Bliss and Twenty Four Wonderful Hours in Chicago

overcast 47 °F

I have an amendment to make to the title of this journey. I was halfway across the heartland of Wisconsin, when I tapped my odometer button to see how far I had driven on this trip. It read 2,812 miles. I was surprised. I didn’t think I had driven that far. My original estimates were WAY off. Who is in charge of logistics and plans here? What clown is running this show? My estimation of two thousand miles was a joke, as I have at least another thousand miles to go before I near my destination. Not only that, it looks like I shortchanged myself a week as well. My flight to Seattle leaves on May 9th making this a thirty-day trip, not twenty-two.

I like the changes. Every trip should be flexible and free to morph as it will. If I had chosen to, I could have forced this journey match my original parameters, but that would have robbed me of some wonderful experiences somewhere along the way. Despite my poor planning, I am humbly and happily changing the name of this journey to “Four Thousand Miles in Thirty Days.”

Chicago Explorations
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I want to tell you about Chicago. This was my third trip into Chicago, though I have driven through the city at other times on other trips, and have flown into O’Hare International on numerous occasions. In my mind, those visits don’t count. I need to spend quality time wandering around a city for it to register as a visit.

Before I get into my Chicago explorations, I want to talk about my approach to large cities. For those (both) of you that read my blog, you know I am happiest out in the wilderness, tramping around a park, viewing the wonders of the sea, or on the road passing through some lonesome landscape. However, I love visiting cities.

Large cities look intimidating from the outside, but once you get past the outer loops of frenzied freeways, the charm of the neighborhoods and bustle of urban life takes hold. They lose their intimidation factor.

Chicago is a good example. Driving around the outskirts of Chicago offers nothing to the driver (other than frustration). On my last visit, I had to concentrate on driving, usually at a high rate of speed as though I was in a race. I hardly had time to enjoy the brief view of the city before it was gone. When I rode the train downtown and spent my day on foot, I found Chicago a very approachable town. It has a decent public transportation system and teeming with interesting sights, parks, restaurants, history, and life. Chicago has it all.
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I find when I am walking through urban centers that I notice everything. I enjoy getting completely out of my element, and city life fascinates me. Why do people live here? How they live here? What makes them tick? In a city like Chicago, there are hundreds of stories all around you, and interesting vignettes of every day life, if you care to notice them.

With that mindset, I boarded the Metra Train in Kenosha, Wisconsin headed for the wonderful city of Chicago. The Metra train I rode connects the northern suburbs with the city itself. The train line has expanded since I had last ridden it. I used to have to board in Waukegan. I was glad to see the rail line expand further north. I hope to see it connect to Milwaukee some day.

Riding the train was novel. I don’t ride trains very often, but I enjoy them when I do. There is something proper to riding a train. It evokes a sense of historical appreciation, especially in Chicago. For decades, people have lived out in the suburbs and have ridden these trains to get to their jobs in the city. It puts into perspective the growth of the city. As for me, I enjoy the speed, the ease of travel, and the satisfaction of using good public transportation. While on the train, I passed through suburbs and neighborhoods with strong North Chicago names. Names like: Winthrop Harbor, Lake Forest, Ravinia, Wilmette, Highland Park, Glencoe and Evanston.

As I rode, I thought of how this trip bloomed into reality. Two days before I drove down to my sister’s house, I sent a note off to my niece to see if she was up for some company down in Chicago. As it turned out, not only was she around, but she had free time, VIP tickets to see a band I had never heard of, and excitement about my visit. It made sense to stay the night, and explore the city of foot the following day. I had hatched a solid plan, and I was on my way.

She picked me up at the train station just north of downtown. We drove into Edgewater down a long street packed with charming, brick apartment buildings from a bygone era. Each building was wide, on average three stories high, and built of brick. The amount of bricks that went into the buildings of this street alone was staggering. A skilled mason laid and set each one of those bricks. I am a fan of brick buildings. I like their clean look, and historical feel.

We stopped briefly, to drop off my things and to pick up her boyfriend. We went out for sushi (which was delicious), then took the L train (elevated train) down to Wrigleyville where the nights entertainment would be.
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After walking a few blocks, we crowd surfed into a small theatre, and stepped into the queue to show our tickets. We had to pass scrutiny of the bouncers and collect our wristbands, before finally climbing up the wide stairs into the balcony to get to our seats. It was a great show. Imagine seeing a young James Brown as the front man of a young Blues Brothers band. Now they are not playing at that elite level yet, but the band was tight, and carried a fat sound. The front man had moves, timing, one hell of a voice, and had the crowd licking the tips of his fingers (if he wanted). The music they played was a mixture of originals and some covers, played and sung with a soulful funk that had us all on our feet.

It was a great night, and it was fun to catch some live music from a tight Chicago band. I would go see JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound again.

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The next morning I awoke to a very comfortable and quiet apartment. In the morning stillness, I sat in the kitchen, and admired the small green garden that my niece cared for in her back lot. I caught up on my journal, and read from Niehardt’s “Black Elk Speaks.” When my niece arose, she made breakfast for us, and I relished the relaxed freedom of Saturday morning. I enjoyed scrambled eggs on toast, fresh squeezed orange juice, and hot black coffee. Eating a relaxed breakfast on Saturday morning is one of my favorite pastimes in the world.
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After breakfast, we ventured out into the cold, gray Chicago April. The wind blew steadily off Lake Michigan, and I was glad I had chosen to wear my woolen coat to combat the chill. We took the train downtown. I took polite glances at all of the riders. I kept wondering what was going on in their heads. Everyone who rides public transportation keeps their face fixed in a mask of introverted boredom. Nobody wants to look too long at anyone else. Nobody shows any emotion. Almost everyone keeps to themselves listening to their Ipod, staring off at a neutral point within the train car or out the window. It was though any outward showing of humanity would get them branded with a scarlet A (for Animated). There were a few conversations going on between friends, but nobody else said a word.
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We started our day by walking over to Centennial Park. Centennial Park is home to the Cloud Statue, more commonly known as, “The Bean.” The bean is a photographer’s dream. It has a unique giant bean shape that has been highly polished to a mirror finish. The skewed reflections of people and cityscape it produces are interesting, and this statue makes everyone smile. Everyone likes the bean. As you might imagine, there are hundreds of happy photos taken there every day. Memories are made of this.
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The flowerbeds of Centennial Park are beautiful. There were long rows of purple and cream tulips in healthy blooms. I enjoyed walking through the rows of flowers, appreciating the quiet oasis away from the sounds of the city.
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My niece had free tickets to the Chicago History Museum, and so we went back the subway, which took us closer, but we still ended up walking five blocks or so. When my travel companions ask if I‘d like to go to a museum, I‘m usually excited. I like the idea of collecting history, and seeing old objects, and scenes from the past. However, when I start walking around the knick-knacks of history, I kind of feel a little let down, a little bored, and often stifling a long yawn. The stuffy air of the museum started to put me to sleep, and my feet felt as though they were weighed down with concrete blocks. After walking through the exhibits for a while, I found my niece sitting down on a bench and I happily joined her. I was beat.
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“It feels good to sit down,” she said. I agreed. “How do you feel about deep dish pizza?” I asked her. “That sounds amazing,” she replied. One of my objectives for this trip was to get a true Chicago deep-dish pizza. I didn’t particularly care where I got it from, but I wanted a legitimate pizza. We left the museum, and went to find a good pizza joint.
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After wandering around Old Town, we still hadn’t found a place that served deep dish. Finally, she called her boyfriend and got directions to Gino’s East. It was eight blocks away, almost back down town. We laughed, and started on another long walk. We were getting our exercise in for the day, that was for sure.

Gino’s East is one of the more famous deep-dish pizza joints in Chicago. I was glad I was going there, so I would get this pizza straight from the source. Our timing was good, and we had a table after only a brief wait. The ambiance of Gino’s was fun. It was dark, very spacious, and loud. The dull roar of the restaurant was raucous with stories, punch lines, laughter and music. On almost every surface of the walls, seats, tables, and picture frames, were the signatures of past diners. Gino’s encourages graffiti, but you have to bring your own marking device. White was the most popular ink, as most of the furniture is painted black at Gino’s.

We ordered our pizza. Deep dish pizza takes about forty minutes to an hour to bake. We were tired from walking all day, and thirsty. We ordered some beers and settled into our seats. That first sip is always amazing after a long day. It was Ed Rickett’s of Steinbeck fame who said, “The first glass is for thirst, the second for taste.”

It had been awhile since I had hung out with my niece and I enjoyed a thorough conversation with her flitting among the subjects like a bumblebee amongst the dandelions. We chatted of family, dogs, memories, Rex (her brother, my nephew), life, relationships, drugs, Chicago, and what else, I forget.

The pizza was as good as I hoped it would be. If you have a chance to try a true Chicago deep-dish pizza, do not hesitate. I am always amazed at the versatility of pizza. I have traveled throughout the U.S. and I am always amazed at the regional differences in the pizza that people make. In New York, the slices are huge and you fold them to eat them. In Chicago, it is deep-dish, that looks a lot like a pie. In Minnesota, they have a fetish for thin crust, and it is delicious. In Ohio, you order the number of slices you want, and they are square, thin and very crunchy. In California, they emphasize fresh ingredients with a medium thickness to their crust. I could go on, but you get my point. No matter what style of the pizza, I have enjoyed them all.
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We finished our beers and I paid the bill. I was tipsy at this point and felt great. What a wonderful way to finish off my day in Chicago. My niece hailed a cab, and we rode back to her apartment. I had to catch my train back north to Kenosha. She dropped me off at the train station, and it wasn’t long before I climbed aboard and sat down. I was exhausted. I rested my head against the window glass as so many riders have before. I shut my eyes, and smiled.
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What a great weekend.

Posted by Rhombus 11:00 Archived in USA Tagged trains parks cities flowers walking chicago breakfast music photography pizza Comments (1)

The Long Journey to Idaho: The Minnesota Sessions

A Photo Shoot Every 100 Miles, The Power of Pizza, Abandoned Parks in Mist, Asleep at the Wheel

overcast 31 °F

Wednesday February 1st - A Photo Shoot Every 100 Miles, Friends

While traveling south along Minnesota state highway 23, I noticed my odometer was nearing 210,000 miles. An idea popped into my head to make this trip more interesting, and I decided to stop every 100 hundred miles and make a photo shoot of whatever was there. I became excited about the idea, and when the odometer turned, I slowed down and found a safe place to park on side of the road. I stepped out, and began looking at my options. As it was, it was a very gray, overcast day in Minnesota, and a feeling of contented quiet held over the entire state from the shores of Lake Superior in Duluth, all the way down to the suburbs of St. Paul.
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I stepped into a low lying wetland area, looking at the puffy tubes of cattails, and found my shot.

Mileage 210,000: "Cattails" Somewhere in Pine Co. Mn
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Satisfied, I climbed back into the van and headed south another hundred miles, which happened to be a small roadside park near Lake Josephine in the northern suburbs of St. Paul. I became enamored with the oak trees that resided on a small hill, and found my new lens to be just the thing to take pictures of the dried oak leaves still on the trees.

Mileage 210,100: "Oak Leaves" Near Lake Josephine, MN
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I found my friends in St. Paul. We spent the day hanging out, enjoying good conversation, with a field trip to the Como Park Greenhouse, and Como Lake. The greenhouse was so beautiful, full of flowery scents and reminders of the warm greens of summer. After our lark, we returned to the house. In the evening, I made homemade pizza, and we spent a wonderful evening talking, eating delicious (if I do say so myself) pizza, and drinking wine. It was such a good day.

Flower Detail
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Pizza Party
I love making pizza. I also love making pizza for other people when i'm travelling. If you like pizza, and meeting roving vagabonds, drop me an invite, and I might bake you a pizza!
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Thursday February 2nd - Oh, Brother! Freezing Fog and a Sleepy Driver

I woke up very early, slipping out of the cool, dark house well before sun up. It was dark, and very foggy out, a moist heavy feeling to the air. I started up the van, and rolled out heading westerly to the small town of St. Michael, MN. My brother Karl resides there, and as I have not spent much time with him lately, I was excited to take in his company.
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After getting some tea from the local coffee shop, we drove out to a small park on Lake Beebe. Soon we were wandering around in the airy mists, of an abandoned park. Karl and I are quite close, and it wasn’t long before we were lost in compelling conversation. We discussed the park, girls, the beauty of mist, the good air we were breathing, brain exercises, the stupidity of television, three year plans, the beauty of the trees we were walking around, cutting a moat around an ice fisherman’s shack as a practical joke, the sick system that is American politics, good sitting spots, how hungry we were (which we soon remedied), Artificial Intelligence, and other nonsense.
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We went back to his house so I could get my long board skateboard, and after awhile, I said, “Seeya later, Bub.” And with that, I drove away. I hadn’t driven very far, when I realized that I was very sleepy, and I really had to use the bathroom. As I had planned to drive well into North Dakota, my sleepiness was going to be a problem. I resorted to my old tricks to stay awake: I slapped myself in the face (this doesn’t work), I rolled down the windows, I yelled at myself, and drove on.

Mileage 210,200: "Ice Droplet" Riverside Park, St. Michael, MN
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I finished one book on my mp3 player (Al Capone Does My Shirts) and started another (The Atlantic: by Simon Winchester). I love listening to books while I drive.
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The fog came back just before I crossed into North Dakota. It was beautiful, and completely obscured the sun that was getting low in the sky. Finally, it grew dark, and the temperature gauge read 30 degrees (F). It was just cold enough to allow that fog to start freezing on the roadway and on the van. Not good. I looked at distance signs to the next sign, and it looked like Bismarck was the next major city of any size, and it was another two hours away. I sighed, and went through another round of slapping myself, attempting to stave off sleep for another ten minutes.

Then, I noticed a big billboard on the side of the road advertising a couple miles up the road. There were more of them, and I grew excited. JAMESTOWN! I had forgotten about Jamestown. It was the equivalent of getting out of jail a year early; I happily exited the freeway, and followed the signs to a hotel.

Ten minutes later, I was standing in my room, feeling good about myself. I knew that a hot shower, a delicious dinner of homemade chili and a beer followed by a good long sleep in a quiet bed. Ahh… Is this not happiness?
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The journey continues tomorrow when I take on the western side of North Dakota, and decide on where to play in Montana. Stay Tuned!

Posted by Rhombus 19:35 Archived in USA Tagged trees fog parks ice friends mist photography pizza minnesota roadtrips Comments (0)

Big Bend Country

The Rio Grande, The Window View, Rain in the Desert, The Best View in Texas

sunny 75 °F

I rambled on down to Big Bend Country in southwest Texas. Big Bend Country is so named after the big bend that occurs in the Rio Grande, that famous, well storied muddy crossing that separates the United States and Mexico. I like the Rio Grande. In a parched desert where water is scarce (especially this year), it was good to see a cold-water stream cheerily chuckling through the rocks, desert and canyon.
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When looking at a map, the boundary marking the border looks like an imposing river of great magnitude. Something on the size of the Amazon, or even the Mississippi, clearly marked, well guarded and defined. When I stood on the gravelly desert shoreline under the glare of the noonday sun, I saw a river that was far less imposing, defined and guarded than I ever would have figured.
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The river level is way down this year due to a lack of rain. Despite having all of my expectations dashed (usually a good thing, especially when traveling), I still thought the river was charming. It was cloudy blue, gurgling healthily through the rocks and between the giant river cane. The giant river cane was impressive, a towering reed that rises well over fifteen feet above the river growing in a thick forest of reeds. This plant is a non-native species (originally from Asia), invasive, having been introduced several hundred years earlier perhaps by the Spanish, though that is mere speculation among scientists.

From what I could tell, the U.S. border isn’t as well guarded as one would think, what with all the news stories of recent years highlighting the problems of drug runners, “illegal” aliens (what a horrible name), and border crossings. I didn’t see much of a presence from the border patrol, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t there. They are a sophisticated bunch using hidden cameras, stings, and other unseen ploys.
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I saw Mexicans crossing into the U.S. on two occasions. We were walking along the sandy path to the 105-degree hot spring outside of the Rio Grande Village, I saw three Mexicans wading across the river. This made me slightly alarmed, as there was a large sign warning visitors of car break-ins (I admit this was unfounded, and I apologize. It could‘ve been anyone). Since it was a busy day, we continued on to the hot spring and had a good soak. As we steeped, one of the Mexicans, ran up, hurriedly grabbing his inventory of beadwork trinkets, minerals and walking sticks, before running back to the bank and crossing back over to Mexico. He was selling his wares on the U.S. side, plying for cash from sympathetic tourists. A couple of minutes later, a park ranger ambled by, mostly keeping a presence of law to keep the Mexicans honest, and on their guard.

I figured the reason there weren’t any border patrol guys running around was that this probably wasn’t a hot spot for illegal crossings. In Big Bend National Park, you are still a long way from any population center, and therefore not the target market. The Mexican’s I witnessed had no troubles crossing and re-crossing the border. It looked as though a couple of guys kept an eye out for rangers and the border patrol, while one man crossed to make his sales pitch.
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It was novel to see Mexicans cross the river. I bet these guys have a lot of fun with it, so long as they aren’t caught. I had no interest in the knickknacks they were selling, but enjoyed watching them play cat and mouse with the rangers.

First Takes on Big Bend National Park
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At first glance, Big Bend National Park is somewhat intimidating. It’s a huge park. The map they give you is gigantic, with lots of options for adventure. I had never been to Big Bend before, and I hadn’t done much research into the place. As we drove into the park, I had my eyes mostly on the map, trying to do some quick planning on what I wanted to see. We stopped at the Panther Junction Visitor’s Center, to get some information.

After perusing the photo books, postcards, and trail guides at the visitor’s center, I came up with a half ass plan to our visit. Visitor’s centers are great places to get information on most national parks, and this was no exception.

The first thing that caught my eye was the trail to the top of Mount Emory, the highest point in the park. At 7,795 ft, it seemed a worthy challenge, and a good way to introduce ourselves to the park. There is nothing like plodding slowly up a mountain to give one the feel of the place.

Since it was already past noon, we decided to find a campsite, hike out to see the view from “the window” and start early in the morning to take on the summit.
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I also wanted to see the giant rock arch hidden somewhere up in the Grapevine hills. The photos and postcards of the arch were beautiful, and I wanted to see the place for myself. Besides the arch, the boulders around the valley looked climbable, and could be a fun place to play.

The Window View and the Rain
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The hike out to the window view is a short one, about three miles round trip from the campground. It’s an easy hike. It was enjoyable cruising along on the wide flat path. It was a nice to be able to look away from the path unlike our treks on the rocky paths of the Guadalupe Mountains. The path followed the course of a dry wash, surrounded on all sides by high rocky canyon walls and Mt. Carter looming just to the west.
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The Playboy Bunny of the Prickly Pear
Near the trailhead, there were many signs warning of mountain lions and bears. BBNP does not mess around when it comes to wildlife signage. On every trail we passed in the Chisos Basin, there were signs warning hikers of the dangers of wildlife. The bears and mountain lions are probably flattered to receive so much attention. It seemed unnecessary to me. I would be thrilled to see a mountain lion, but for as much time I’ve spent in the wild, I’ve only found their footprints, scat, and kills (a deer).
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Along side of the trail grew the largest agave plants I’ve ever seen. The agave is a cool looking plant. It has greenish gray, stout stems that come to a lethal point. If you are ever falling out of an airplane, do not aim for an agave to land on. The other interesting thing about the agave is their reproductive stalk. Towards the end of their life cycle, agave will send up a tall flowering stalk that grows well over fifteen feet high. In short, it reproduces and dies, but it goes out with a bang.
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The trail followed the course of dusty dry wash. The canyon walls closed in on the trail, and we were soon walking through a rock canyon that twisted around boulders, rock shelves, and dry waterfalls out to the edge. The window view was on top of a high, dry waterfall. It was awesome. I would have loved to see the view, and listen to the roar of the falls if water was running. A spur trail runs down to oak canyon for a view of the falls. If you find yourself in Big Bend during the wet season, go check out these falls.
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It began to rain.

As we walked back to the campground, the rain began to fall harder, and it was a beautiful sound. We stopped twice along the way back to sit down on a trailside bench to listen to the rain. Rainfall on a carpet of parched papery leaves is a beautiful sound. Tendrils of scent, the smell of rain, penetrated through the dusty air, and it smelled wonderful.

Conversation overtook the silence, and the smells. We chatted amiably for a quarter of an hour letting the conversation choose its own course. Eventually, we moved on, but not before we had enjoyed the experience of sitting through a rainsquall in the desert.
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The Best View in Texas

The hike to the top of Mt. Emory was pleasant. The park service had recently updated the trail, making it a bit more user friendly to hiking. At this point, we were in great hiking shape and we cruised up the switchbacks through the cold morning shadows. At one point we stopped for a water break, and a small flock of Mexican Jays showed up. They had the look of beggars, handsome, fluffing their pretty blue feathers in hopes of fleecing some dumb hikers out of a pistachio. They had played this game before, but so had I. If they wanted my pistachio, they were going to have to pose on my hand for a picture. It was a tough bargain, but a fair one. We moved on.
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The higher we climbed, the more beautiful the scenery became. There were fat puffy clouds moving quickly through the blue skies, and the Chisos Mountains were on display in all their grandeur. The final thirty feet of the hike was more of a scramble up a rock wall. You have two options: left or right. Both scrambles go to a high point, but the right hand scramble rises a bit higher than the left peak.
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Sitting atop the right hand peak and overlooking the incredible mountain scenery was probably the highlight of my trip. It was awesome. It is easily the best view in Texas, bar none.
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I laid down on the rocks, and closed my eyes, listening to the wind. Beautiful.
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After an hour of watching the clouds pass us by, we retraced our steps back down the mountain to the lodge store. We bought ice cream, knowing full well that it is probably the best food to eat after a ten mile hike. It was a fine day, and I was really starting to like Big Bend National Park.

Posted by Rhombus 11:10 Archived in USA Tagged mountains parks rivers hiking plants photography texas philosophy Comments (1)

Picturing West Texas From North To South: A Gallery

Hiking Guadalupe Peak, San Solomon Springs, The Finer Reaches of the Davis Mountains

sunny 64 °F

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This week is a gallery of images from the top of Texas (the highest elevation of Guadalupe Peak), down to the Big Bend country way down south. I’ve covered a lot of ground in the last week and a half, and I’ve a lot of good things to say about west Texas, and their splendid desert parks in particular. I'll let the images tell you my journey, but I want you to know that it has been a splendid journey thus far.

Scenes From the Guadalupe Peak Hike
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Guadalupe peak is the highest point one can reach in Texas. It is a beautiful hike, one that brings you high above the surrounding desert. We took it on as a day hike, and enjoyed the second best view in Texas. More on the BEST view in Texas next week.

San Solomon Springs
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While working my way south, I’ve swam in the wonderful desert springs at Balmorhea State Park. The San Solomon springs are a true Desert oasis that produce pure water at 76 degrees (f). The water is crystal clear and full wonderful to swim in, especially after a spectaular slack lining session.
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First Take on the Davis Mountains
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I really like the Davis mountains, and the small town of Fort Davis. The mountains are beautiful and full of intriguing rock formations that I'm just itching to explore and climb. The landscape is a mixture of rolling mountain ridges, rock outcrops, dotted trees, and desert vegetation. I'll be spending some more time there in the next few days, and I want to write a true essay on them.
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I've finally seen wild Javelinas. I've been waiting to see these spike haired, narrow bodied pig like creatures since I've started exploring the southern southwestern United States. As I was driving back from a hike, a herd of them crossed the road. I pulled into a parking lot and watched these little guys run by.

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The quaking aspen have turned a brilliant orange, giving me a taste of autumn. To listen to a quaking aspen rustle in the wind is akin to listening to an audience applaud the greatest natural maestro. I quite agree.

Bravo to the Davis Mountains!

Posted by Rhombus 19:10 Archived in USA Tagged mountains parks hiking photography texas Comments (0)

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