Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Monday, July 30, 2018

Return to Medicine Bow

We enjoyed ourselves so much on our visit to Wyoming's Snowy Range and Medicine Bow Peak last year, we decided to return again for a 3-day trip last weekend. We chose to do a smaller loop, as we have both been sick on and off since my birthday weekend.

We saw a moose on the drive in, but I guess we're now moose snobs, because we didn't even stop to take a picture. I prefer to see my moose on the trail.

Last year had been the ideal trip, aside from nearly getting killed by lightning: days of walking through sunny, wildflower-studded meadows past scintillating lakes under snow-white mountains, without ever getting tired. It was impossible to take a bad photo. But you can never take the same trip twice. Our weather this time was chillier and rainier, and the flowers were past their prime. And there were cows. (Ranchers are allowed to graze their cattle on national forest land, for a small fee.)

But, at least there were fewer mosquitoes than on the last trip here, where we often had to wear full rain gear and head nets. We set up our tent in a daisy-filled meadow.

For dinner I had prepared some quart-sized freezer ziplocs with:

3/4 cup mashed potato flakes
garlic powder
dried mushrooms (ours happened to be wild porcinis we collected last year)

Add frozen peas, grape tomatoes, and pre-cooked bacon, and 10oz. hot water. Stir and eat.

We were in the tent by 8pm and played some cards. Then, we were lucky to witness one of the most beautiful moonrises I've ever seen. I hadn't planned it but the tent was oriented toward it.

In the morning, the inside of the tent was wet with condensation. I know better than to set up a tent in a meadow, next to a pond. We had just been too tired the night before to keep looking for a site under the trees.

Daisies forever 

By 11 the weather had turned windy and rainy again, putting a damper on our mood. (However, it was still better than a day at work!)

This snowfield had a big crescent crevasse. 

The sun did come out for a little bit in the afternoon, and we took the opportunity to set up the hammock, eat too much food, and nap a little.

Our campsite that evening was better than the last one, under the trees by Lost Lake. One of the trees came with a convenient seat.

K. woke me for sunrise, which was beautifully pink.

Warming hands as the stove heats our water for oatmeal

We only had a couple miles left to get back to our car, and took plenty of pauses to watch some deer, eat snacks, and admire the scenery.

We took some senior portraits.

The area was too beautiful to leave. After we got back to the car, we took a little day hike on another trail.

And then, alas, back to our everyday lives.

Friday, June 01, 2018

In Wyoming, adventure has YOU

My car camping trips have generally ranked far below my backpacking trips in terms of drama and excitement -- in fact, there have probably only been a couple interesting enough to write blog entries about -- but I can truthfully state that I hope I never have another one quite as exciting as this past weekend.

I'll begin with a little pre-trip drama. Since it was going to be a holiday weekend, K. and I decided to drive up to Wyoming and grab a campsite ahead of time, in case they were all full by Friday night. I was working from home that Thursday, and was shuttling some stuff out of my dented, cracked-windshield 200,000-mile Mazda because it was being picked up for charity that day. Somehow in all the activity, the cat escaped (he has recently learned that he can open the screen door by pushing hard).

The cat is not allowed to be outside. The last time he got out, he was gone for days and came back the worse for wear. I knew if I didn't find him by night then we would not be going camping. I thought K. would kill me; she worries about her animals like nobody's business. I combed the neighbor's bushes and back yards on all sides for an excruciatingly long (and hot) 45 minutes with no luck. I will just say that there are a few yards with somewhat of a "wild prairie" aesthetic here. There was no way I was going to search every place in a 3-block radius, so I changed tactics and set out a plate of tuna.

The offending creature

I was working on the front porch and watching for the cat when a large tow truck began to pull up. I stepped out to see, out of the corner of my eye, the cat slinking in toward the tuna dish. But then he noticed the man coming out of the tow truck and ran off into the neighbor's weeds. I chased him without even greeting the tow truck guy, dragged him out from under a bench and carried him in my arms back to the house.

He was fine for a few seconds, but then something -- the loud truck, the approaching stranger, or simply realizing that I was going to put him back in the house -- caused him to freak out and start clawing like a madman to get away. I was pinning him to my chest with both hands and couldn't get the door open, so the tow truck guy asked if he should open it for me. Yes, please. I literally tossed the cat in, closed the door and turned back to try to conduct a civilized conversation with bloody gashes on both shoulders holes torn in my shirt. This was a beautiful artsy T-shirt that K. had gotten me for Christmas! But I had done it. I had saved camping.

When I re-entered the house the cat was sprawled on his back on the floor as if this was all very relaxing.

It took me a couple hours to settle my nervous system down, and by then K. had arrived and we loaded up. We drove up to Vedauwoo in separate cars, I enjoying the like-new blue Prius V that I had bought just a few days ago, the nicest (and most expensive) thing I've ever owned -- have you seen this car? Here, I'll show you:

I was insanely lucky to find a 2012 one in near-mint condition, 36,000 miles, with complete service records, all accessories and cleaning products included too. It had been babied. And it was blue!

But, this is a story about camping.

We found a nice site and both spent that night, enjoying a little walk before dinner. It was lovely to be camping on a "school night" -- I would have to drive back to work the next day -- and we will probably do this more often in the future.

The sunset was one of the best I've seen:

The dog, who will never try to escape because it gives him a heart attack to be more than 0 inches from K.

It was a little chilly that night.

I woke up too early the next morning and proceeded to Colorado to work. K. stayed (she has Fridays off this semester).

I rejoined her on Saturday morning and we took a walk around Turtle Rock in the lovely weather, and had some reading and relaxing time in the hammocks. Later we explored out by the climbing area off road 700. Our friend D. joined us in the evening with baby Q. Since there was only room for 2 cars at our campsite, I parked my car in the overflow area a ten minute walk away.

That night, I woke when I heard something like gunshots in the distance, in the direction of the dispersed camping area. It woke me up about halfway and I was going to go back to sleep when K. sat up, waking me fully. I was irritated because I just wanted to sleep. Sometimes I have a hard time sleeping, and when I get into a deep sleep I guess I don't care why I'm being woken up -- nothing could be as important as going back to sleep.

In the morning she told me that she'd heard a helicopter for a while after the gunshot-like sound, which I'm surprised I missed, but I did have my earplugs in. Nevertheless, it was another beautiful day and we entertained Q. while his mother napped, then took a little hike.

Dancing with Q.

Three hammocks

Rain was forecast for that afternoon, and not long after we returned from the hike, it began to get cloudy and cold. All of us took turns going to the outhouse in preparation for being holed up in our tents for a few hours. I read in my hammock until I couldn't stand the cold wind anymore, then headed into the tent. K. and I planned to play cards but ended up falling asleep, and it was a light but very pleasant sleep until K. woke me up by saying, "Uh oh. Hail."

I was irritated because I just wanted to sleep -- it hails all the time where we live! But I sat up. The hail was getting pretty big.

It was fun being in the hailstorm. We were safe and protected in our tent. After a little while, the hail got bigger. At first it was very soft, like large snowballs, and was disintegrating on impact. Then some of the balls were a little icier.

The tent was holding everything off us. We heard a noise to the south, something like a not-too-distant plane, or a big vibration. It got closer, and then our tent shook just as if someone had punched it. Then another punch. Hail the size of tennis balls was falling! K. reached out and plucked one off the ground:

Obviously if one of these punched through the tent we'd be seriously injured. We covered ourselves with our mats and pillows.

We were having fun -- in awe at the hail, and uninjured. Now it was like a whole group of people was standing around our tent punching it. The tent deformed under the blows then sprang back up, and the only hail that depressed the nylon far enough to impact my shoulders or head was mostly glancing and not painful. I wish I had thought to take a video. It was actually really cool. In the end, though, we did get about 8 holes in the fly.

We worried about D. and Q., but it didn't seem like a good idea to run to check on them. Finally there was a lull in the storm and we came out to check. Everyone was all right. D.'s tent had two holes which we patched with duct tape; we put a tarp over our own tent.

D. kept Q. distracted with maracas during the storm

It looked like more storm was coming. Some camping neighbors came up to us and asked the fateful question: "Hey, are those your cars?"

Oh, right. The cars.

I think if the hail had been smaller it might have occurred to me to worry about the cars earlier, that space in my brain had been taken by worries for little Q. Now we hurried to look at the cars. The damage was worse than we ever would have guessed.

The hoods of both K and D's cars were cratered with dents, both front windshields were shattered and both back ones knocked out completely. K's car even had the paint cracked off in a few places. It was pretty devastating to see, especially with more weather clearly about to reach us soon. Glass was everywhere inside the cars, in our gear and clothing and food. The hail had even smashed the plastic water jugs, dumping gallons of water into the cargo area.

Then K. turned to me and said, "I'm so sorry, baby." My new blue car.

But it seemed unimportant, in the face of how badly any of us could have been injured by the hail. I didn't think about it much at that time.

Then another camper told us that a tornado warning had been issued.

Many people took this opportunity to flee the campground, leaving their tents and gear behind. With front windshields ready to dissolve into thousands of shards, that probably wasn't an option for us. We wanted to go check and see if my car was in a better state, but with lightning starting up again it didn't seem like a good idea to go wandering out into the treeless area to the south.

D. was the only one of us with cell service, but she didn't have AAA, so we had a long and confounding call in which we tried to set up three tows using K.'s and my memberships. Then we hunkered down to wait things out as the storm resurged.

There was a cleft in the granite behind our site, and this seemed as good a place as any to take shelter from a tornado. As the rain came, D. and son went back in their tent nearby while K. and I hung by the rocks, scanning the sky for funnel clouds. Rain and hail as big as quarters poured down. During one lull I went back to the cars, and the hail started again. I scanned the inside of the car for something protective and grabbed the dog's car seat, which is basically a heavily padded fabric box. I put it on my head and walked back up to the rocks. It was an ideal head cushion, but any hail that reached my limbs stung like ten horsefly bites.

This was the very stressful part. I resisted D.'s imploring to come inside the tent, thinking the worst would be over soon, but the storm kept going on and on. Dark clouds swirled continually in the distance. The temperature had dropped steeply, and in the commotion of the busted cars and tornado warning K. and I hadn't taken time to put on all our rain gear. Now she and the shivering dog were soaked, and I was sodden from the waist down.

D. was understandably panicked to be in this situation with beloved Q. We all felt a massive responsibility to do whatever we could to protect him. Wet and freezing, I stalked the tree-sheltered area by the tent as lightning flashed, searching for funnels in all corners of the sky. Time slowed down. It seemed like we'd been shivering in the storm forever.

You can see a falling hailstone to the left of me in this picture. One happened to hit K. in the face as she leaned out of the rock shelter, and she picked it up and used it immediately to ice her cheek.

Tornadoes sound like a freight train, right? You always hear that. We listened carefully, tried to hear everything, but the wind obscured a lot and that was stressful. At one point another round of extra-large hail passed over us, and then we heard a massive thrumming to the west that made our breath catch. I popped up and looked over the rocks. It was just the sound of all that hail hitting the granite faces of Turtle Rock.

AAA had called back. They couldn't come get us, because we were on a dirt road. We were not on a dirt road. Now they couldn't come because the tow companies were busy, there was an accident on the highway. Now they couldn't come because the tow companies refused to come out in this weather. They would have to cancel our tows.

These calls blew our minds. Cancel our tows?? Why not just get us later? We were stuck at a campground with undrivable cars and a 20-month-old, being covered in hail, in a tornado warning zone. Call the sheriff, they suggested.

D. called the sheriff. By the time he arrived the storm had calmed somewhat and the precipitation tapered off. We spoke with him. He recommended getting ourselves to Laramie; he could take D. and the boy. K. and I looked at each other. At this point, she said, she would rather stay by our granite shelter than be out on the open highway with tornadoes threatening. I agreed, for other reasons -- leaving all 3 of our cars and all of our stuff here to go 20 minutes in the wrong direction, further from home, was more logistical annoyance than I wanted to take on if we didn't have to. And, honestly, it was starting to look like the storms might be done for the night.

It seemed to me that the sheriff had a kind of "It's your funeral" shrug as he drove away. The few campers remaining in the campground were concerned for us. They would give us a ride to town. More stressful decision-making... but we decided again to stay. Finally my stress level began to descend. D. and Q. would be taken care of, and we had made our decisions, and had only ourselves to worry about. What's more, the birds were starting to sing again.

A forest service ranger drove by. She was sympathetic to us and gave us all the info she had. A tornado had been seen at some point from Curt Gowdy State Park just to the east, but now the National Weather Service had finally cleared all the tornado warnings for this area. We told her about the AAA situation and that it looked like we'd be spending another night here and maybe longer. She said she'd come by to check on us next morning and evening.

I chatted with our very nice next-door camping neighbors, who were mountain bikers from PA on a road trip across the U.S. Their tent was holey as well, and their windshield cracked, though not as badly as ours. We expressed our condolences for their trip taking a turn for the worse this way. They were cheerful, though, and helped us feel less alone. One of them juggled some hailstones for me.

The campground that had been full of holiday weekend vacationers was now nearly empty, but new people were pulling in, people without smashed windshields. One said to us, "I'm moving across the country and every campground I stopped at has been full. Except this one!" It's funny how the misfortune of some can so quickly turn into the good fortune of others.

As the sky lightened and the air began to warm up again, I took a deep breath. K. and I held hands and finally began the walk down to the overflow lot to check on my car. A bluebird lighted on a fence post in front of us.

Hail can be very localized. Sometimes one block will get piles of chunky hail, while the next block receives none. It wasn't impossible that my car had been spared. From a distance, it looked almost as good as new.

But as we got closer, I saw that it wasn't to be: while I was lucky enough to have an untouched rear windshield, the remainder of the damage was comparable to that of the other two cars.

It's hard to see all the dents in this picture; let's say it looked like the car had hit puberty. But I was actually saddest about the fact that our fun camping trip had turned into a stressful, life-threatening experience for everyone.

Back at the campsite, our neighbors told us they'd decided to take the chance and try to drive their shattered-windshield car back to Fort Collins and stay with a friend while awaiting repairs. They offered to give us a ride to Fort Collins. We declined, and they gave us their leftover water and departed.

It started raining again. We moved our stuff into D.'s tent and heated up some beef stew for a warm dinner.

 We were very grateful for D.'s tent, which kept us dry.

Duct tape patches

Our plan was to just relax and try to enjoy the evening and a nice breakfast the next morning, then walk to the highway (where K. had a little bit of service) and call AAA again. It was hard to relax, though; every strong bout of wind during the night set us to listening alertly for the "freight train" roar of a tornado, which was problematic as actual freight trains were also going by quite frequently in the distance. Our nerves were simply on edge. Eventually we slept.

I was packing up in the morning before breakfast when I heard a diesel engine. There were two large tow trucks pulling in, and we weren't anywhere near ready. Not only were both tents still up and most of the gear unpacked, but the cargo areas of both cars were filled with items and debris that would have to be moved and cleaned up so that nothing came flying out of the back while they were being towed. It took over an hour.

The tow guys were frustrated with us until they heard the whole story. They were shocked that AAA had cancelled our calls. "We weren't busy last night -- there was just one rollover on the highway. They said it was our choice not to come out in the weather? No, they never gave us a choice." It turned out that D. had called AAA back from her Laramie hotel and gotten them to reinstate our tows, but somehow her own hadn't gone through. We had to use one of the tow guys' phones to call AAA once more and have them take care of D. One of the trucks headed back to Laramie to pick her up and would return to the campground for her car.

They loaded K.'s and my car onto the same vehicle and we set out.

101 miles later, we were back home. We have Plus memberships and didn't have to pay anything.

K. called AAA to make a complaint, and they were horrified to hear what had happened on Sunday. They said our requests shouldn't have been cancelled, and they should have called the sheriff for us. It was good to have a little validation.

I began a news search to see if any tornadoes were really reported near us, and found that several had touched down in the county. No human injuries were reported, but there was a lot of property damage (one photo made the Sydney Herald in Australia) and a horse was reported to have been picked up by a tornado and carried several blocks, surviving.

Another news item caught my eye. Remember the shots we heard on Saturday night? It turns out that law enforcement had been warned about a suicidal woman driving a Ford truck in the county. She was located in a Vedauwoo overflow lot and a drunken confrontation began, and shots were fired by the officers. (She survived and received care afterward.) Based on the articles it looks like this occurred about 1200' from us.

Back at home, we have had to face the realities of cleaning glass out of all our belongings, getting rental cars, and having too many phone calls with the insurance company. Many of the emotions associated with the experience have been unpleasant ones, but I'm also left with the amazingness of the giant hail, the felt-as-much-as-heard drumming music it made as it came up on us, and knowing I've experienced another awesome side of nature that few get to see.

There's a temptation to ascribe this kind of weather to Vedauwoo, as if it were a storm spawning ground, and in fact I'd be delighted if the rest of the world was scared away from this lovely little place. But data shows that Denver has just as bad a hail and tornado problem, if not moreso. Our friend's car was smashed up even worse than ours last year in a Denver parking lot. Still, these events are very localized and bad ones are rare. We would like to go back to Vedauwoo again soon to camp, and hopefully we can properly enjoy the entire weekend!

For now, in consolation for the relaxed Sunday night we never got to have, and especially because it was almost 90 degrees in the house, we camped in the yard last night. Some adventures can be just as small as you like.