Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Monday, August 30, 2010

Slight redesign for my blog, and my life

I'm going to try to reach a wider audience with this thing, and I hope the stories I'll tell in the next few months will be worth it. The pretty new picture is me in the Painted Desert, on my first visit.

It's my last night in Golden. Suddenly everything is poignant; my last time walking by Clear Creek, last supper sitting on the deck watching the sun set on Green Mountain, last time driving in the dark with the lights of Denver in the distance. I'm suddenly regretful of leaving this town, and also of leaving my friends. It's a very nice testament to the good times I've had this summer that I feel sad about leaving. Most of all I've been very lucky to have met some very nice people in such a short time, and to have had company for so many of the things I wanted to do this summer; hiking, learning to dance, even tubing. Yes! From the first day I strolled through downtown Golden and saw people on the creek I wanted to go tubing, and I finally did, yesterday. My butt is covered in bruises from encounters with the rocks. It was tremendous fun, and there will be pictures, eventually, once they are rescued from the disposable camera.

I have no pictures for you right now. I also don't have much to say; I'm very aware that soon there will be no more dancing, or seeing friends at all, and no more bed, no more refrigerator with a pound of ground beef and a cold beer in it for supper. But I do have a booking for a helicopter tour of Glacier on Saturday, and at the end of the month I am going to be picking Katie up and we will travel together through October.

I have an unusual thing for the rest of this blog entry, which is an excerpt from an essay I wrote once about backpacking in the Painted Desert. It's by way of apology for the lack of pictures in this post, and also because I only ever include one kind of writing in this blog anymore, and that's a sort of matter-of-fact reportage I dash off without editing, knowing I'd never get it done otherwise. Below, for the interested, is a story that is actually composed.

I don't know when I'll blog again or from where. I hope to have an entry up every week. To my readers, new and old, please leave your comments! I will be lonely. There are some different options that blogger offers when you click on the comments link, including posting anonymously, which is fine. Just lend me your words and the memory of your company for a little while.


I’m at a place called Chinde Mesa. There's not much here except sunlight, and it's hot. I've been hiking since eight AM, already climbed to the top of one 6,000-foot hill, and right now my feet are heavy and swollen. I'm going to rest here, despite the fact that this will be the first time I've settled for a shadeless spot all trip. But there's no shade anywhere at Chinde Mesa, not at two o'clock in the afternoon.

I don't know exactly where I am, but I know I'm close to the border of the Navajo Nation. I'm not sure what I'll see when I scale the last few hundred feet. Cattle? Green in the distance, or just more desert?

In front of me, five miles to the south, is the volcanic-capped mesa from which tourists are taking pictures of the Painted Desert through their car windows. I can't see the cars. I can't see the road or the Painted Desert Inn or the low, boxy 1950s apartments where the park volunteers live. But the mesa is clear as day, a black and green bluff thrusting out of the nothing. And it looks small from here.

At this point I realize I'm going to do something uncharacteristic. I am shortly going to get up and head back down to my pack. I am not going to keep slogging through the sand to the very highest point on the mesa. Exhaustion has beaten the ambition out of me. Last night I descended into the badlands with ten pounds of equipment and thirty pounds of water on my back, and now the water is hot, half-gone and heavier than ever. I haven't been able to walk for more than two hours at a time today without needing to stop for a significant rest. I've been lucky—-the temperature has only been in the low 90s—-but late June in Arizona is before the monsoons arrive, and there hasn't been a cloud in the sky all day.

I'm taking this last weekend before the rains hit to backpack through the wilderness of Petrified Forest National Park, my summer employer and also one of the most understatedly beautiful places I've ever been. Since I first saw it three months ago on a school field trip, I've been dead set on getting out where I am right now. The Painted Desert actually stretches 160 miles from the Petrified Forest to the eastern Grand Canyon. It's an alien landscape of mesas, hoodoos, distinctively rounded hills and dry river valleys with very little vegetation. This is what the badlands are; there weren't a lot of things native peoples and early explorers agreed on, but one of them was that these places were good for no kind of hunting, farming or homesteading and were hellish to travel across. Plants can't get a toehold on the steep clay that cracks in the sun most of the year and swells and sloughs off its skin in the July rainstorms.

As I approached Chinde Mesa I saw a little pile of broken bone nearly the color of the clay at my feet. It was an armor plate of an aetosaur. This creature, something like a vegetarian crocodile, had died two hundred million years ago, rotted or been consumed, and had its bones separated in the tumble of the river. One plate had fetched up where I stood. When the land eroded in recent times, the plate neared the surface, where the clay around it was shrinking and swelling and cracking under assault of the weather. The bone burst with it. Now there it was, a pile of pitted fragments at the surface. In another hundred years it would be dust. I may be the only human being ever to see it.

There's so much purple here. And orange. They blanket each other in horizontal layers, bordered by red and white and blue bands; from a distance the crumbly popcorn clay surface looks like dyed velvet. I couldn't keep from taking pictures as I approached. I took a hundred pictures, knowing none of them will be any good because the sun was above me and the light was even harsher than the landscape. Then I got ready to climb.

I had to leave my backpack in the full sun, where inside it, the only water for miles around is now getting warmer by degrees in its five-gallon plastic bag. The bag with a hole I discovered the first night. I lay my pack on the red ground and tried to adjust it so the hole was still at the top, where no water would drain out of it. I got past the first, easy bit and the real climb began, dry clods of clay skittering down the slope into the thirty-foot gullies either side of the ridge. I knew that if I followed them, most likely I'd end up with enough bruises to have me gritting my teeth weeks ahead. But there’s also a chance I'd slide wrong and strain or even break something, and I wouldn't be able to walk out by myself. And I would hate that more than anything.

So I told myself I wasn’t allowed to fall, and when I finally looked up the slope had eased off and I was trudging up through the loose sand on the top of the mesa, heading for the summit. And that was when I sat down. Because I realized I am truly exhausted. Not the exhaustion of a long day at work or five-mile run a or even a day hike up a mountain. I am beyond being exhausted in my bones. I am exhausted in my cells. I am exhausted in my mitochondria. All the food I managed to shove down last night and this morning is not enough, the steaming water I'm constantly forcing down is not enough.

Maybe it's the heat. Maybe the sun itself is exhausting me. Maybe it's the fact that although I've only walked six miles today as the crow flies, in reality it was more like twelve, because the badlands don't allow a person to walk in anything like a straight line. There was no even ground and nowhere is flat. But there is a thin shred of cloud coming in now from the north, over the mesa, miraculously, and suddenly there's a breeze, for a few seconds. The wind gets in around the buttons of my old collared shirt, and for the first time in hours I'm comfortable. I have to get down and go back home. I know I won't make it in until sometime tomorrow. Tonight I have to walk another six hours and set up camp again.

I want to share this place and I want to keep it all to myself. I want to live here, raise a hogan of dead junipers, eat purple and drink silence. But there are people who would miss me. Sometimes the great virtue of having friends, I think, is to ensure I come back from the wilderness.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

In the dark, everything sounds like a bear

This post is dedicated to bears, for reasons that will be explained later. It is also going to be a much heavier post than I usually make, but I hope everyone will find it interesting.

As some of you know, I have been thinking about traveling for a long time now... ever since, in fact, I started looking at grad schools. Because looking at grad schools made it very clear how ambivalent I was about attending, which made me think about what on earth I was going to do with myself in the fall of 2010 if I didn't go to grad school. In fact the answer is obvious. Consider that I

(A) am unencumbered, having neither children, spouse, significant other, pets, nor an apartment or house
(B) currently have no job, and am not in school
(C) have been saving money for a long time, and
(D) love to travel.

At this point it doesn't make any sense to do anything else. Of course things are non-ideal; ideally, I could have more money, I could have a better car, I could have a significant other who was free at the same time... but to split hairs now would be to decline an opportunity that's been practically handed to me.

And so I will travel, in my car, camping and seeing the West, for I don't know how long. As long as makes sense. People keep asking me where I am going first, and that is Glacier National Park.

Most of the pictures in this entry were not taken by me, by the way, because I haven't been to these places yet.

I have had this life goal to visit Glacier for the past few years. It has been stuck in my head. Is there some significance to the way my mind has kept returning to the place every time I think about where I'd like to travel? I'm not going to give it one; I'm both naturally inclined to and trained for science, and I know of no evidence that a "feeling" that we should be somewhere is any indication that we actually should. Nonetheless, the feeling exists, and has for a long time, and there are certainly many worse reasons to visit a place. So I am going to Glacier first because it is the most important to me, but also because it's the coldest of the places I want to see, and the park's amenities start to shut down in mid-September.

Do I know where else I'm going? Sort of. I am flexible, but I have in mind some destinations:

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota, above; below, Badlands National Park, South Dakota...

This is going to be a trip exploring the geologic wonders of the west. Not because I'm a geologist; I admit, I can barely force myself to read interpretive signs about the rocks I'm standing on. I hate reading about science. I do love actually doing geology, but the opportunities for that on this trip will be limited; you can't exactly go to a National Park and just start digging. Rather, I'm very much into beauty and photography, and I like the look of exposed rock a lot more than forests or oceans or buildings, or other things you might want to take a picture of. I love what is exotic, and being in places like this makes me feel like I'm on another planet. It can't be beat.

I also suppose I'll visit the front side of this prominent monument, since I'll be in the area...

...and then return to the Bighorn Basin of Wyoming, to visit all the places I loved during field camp last summer and see a few new ones as well. It is a fantastic place and I expect I could spent a whole month in the Bighorn Basin alone, if I chose. There are so many beautiful rocks. Also, it's largely BLM land. Remember the BLM?

For one thing, the Bureau of Land Management allows collection of invertebrate and plant fossils on its land. During field camp I had filled a box with the fossils I found and had them shipped back to Rhode Island, but they never arrived. My finds have been lost. I am going to correct this, on my own time this time, no need to wait till the professor isn't looking to scrounge for whatever fossils are close by because I'm "supposed to" be working on a map.

Also, like the Forest Service, the BLM allows what is called "dispersed camping." This means that if you follow certain rules, you can camp almost wherever you like on their land, for free. On our land, I should say, as it's public land. This is not necessarily convenient--I will need to bring my own water, and dig my own latrine--but it is cheap, and is, in fact, what will make this trip affordable enough to actually be possible. So, thanks, Uncle Sam.

Above, spot my tent, hidden from the road in a small drainage on BLM land, when I visited Katie in Montrose.

Talk of camping inevitably brings up the same questions from my listeners:

1. Aren't you afraid of animals?
2. Aren't you afraid of people?
3. Aren't you afraid of having an accident when you're alone in the woods?

The short answer to all three is no, I am not afraid. But I am concerned. I will skip #1 for the moment and handle #2 and 3 first. I am duly concerned about other people mugging me, breaking into my car, stealing stuff from my tent, and generally being creepy; or, if you want to go that far, committing unspeakable acts then chopping me to bits with a machete and burying me in the woods. I am aware that I am a woman traveling alone. Other people will be aware of this too.

And I know that some of my listeners... and now, some of my readers... especially other women... will never develop the ability to portray risk in their own minds as a vast gradient of grey--less risky to more risky--rather than dividing the world's activities into "safe" and "unsafe"; nor the ability to fully recognize how much control we can exercise over that level of risk by choosing to educate ourselves and take appropriate action. I mean that I can camp alone with some confidence not because I believe I'm safe, but because in most cases I know something about the dangers and am making decisions to protect myself. I have a sense of control, and so a sense of comfort, that some people never allow themselves to develop.

It begins with education. I don't shy away from stories of untimely or even horrifying deaths in the woods. When I'm talking with people about my upcoming trip, someone will eventually say, "Did you hear about that woman who got attacked in Montana last week?" and then "Never mind, I won't worry you with that!" And I have them tell me, because I actually want to know this stuff. It might be useless to me, but then it might help reinforce something I already know... say, leave the trail before sunset so that you're not entering a parking lot after dark. And that story, remembered, will help prompt me to make the right decision on days when I'm feeling tired or lazy and inclined to take shortcuts.

#3. Accidents. This is Aron Ralston, who for a long time was known (to everyone around me, it seems) as "the guy who had to cut his own arm off when he got trapped under a boulder." This guy was brought up every time I talked about backpacking alone. Nobody knew his actual name or, for that matter, his actual story. But of course I had devoured everything I could about him. Aron Ralston didn't have to cut off his arm; he chose to, because the arm was already dead and because he was not in denial about his situation. His lack of denial was in fact helped by his being alone. There was no hiking partner who would, theoretically, be returning some time (in enough time?) with a rescue team. He knew he was responsible for himself. And so he's still alive.

We can't prevent bad things from happening to us. My traveling with companions is not going to prevent everything bad from happening with me. And, importantly, my staying in Golden and getting another job is not going to prevent bad things from happening to me. All we can do is gather all the facts we can and make informed, conscious decisions. This is why I go into the wilderness; preferably with companions, but alone if I have none. I could say here that we are not really whole or fully alive until we willingly research the consequences of our actions and begin to make conscious choices about who we travel with, where we sleep, what we eat, and generally how we go about our day. It might be true. It is certainly true that unless we're pressed to it, we tend to sleepwalk through much of our lives. And it is certainly true that I want to be wholer and aliver.

#1. Animals.

I lied above when I said I wasn't afraid of animals. I am, but only at night. Something about the human brain doesn't work quite right when it's dark out. All the things I know--how rare bear attacks are, how much I've done to reduce or eliminate food smells on myself and my belongings--suddenly don't matter; the only thing that matters is that I can't see and I keep hearing noises.

There are both grizzly and black bears in Glacier.

Above, a grizzly; below, a black bear.

Bear attacks on humans are strikingly rare. For instance, the chance of being mauled by a bear in Yellowstone... perhaps the place where humans and bears come into contact most often... is still reckoned at only 1 in 1.9 million. Compare this, to, say, your risk of dying in a car crash this year, which is about 1 in 6500. Cars don't terrify me, and I've already been hit three times in accidents of varying severity. I've been hiking alone for years and never seen a bear. But humans didn't evolve with cars. We did evolve with large predators.

In the dark, everything sounds like a bear. My God. Mice, deer, twigs falling from the trees, your tentmate... so, this is the thing. I am sitting here right now planning my trip remembering how I often feel alone at night in the woods, and it's spooked. Profoundly spooked. Everything is eerie, I can't quiet my nerves, and there's no overhead light to turn on. Nothing but a flashlight that makes the blackness outside its cone even blacker. (Never mind the prospect of seeing eyes shining back at you, an experience I have yet to enjoy.) The fact is that despite my general confidence I do still experience many moments of intense discomfort, exhaustion, misery and fear when I'm in the wilderness. I know there will be some on the trip ahead of me. I don't know if you'll hear about them because it's not the sort of thing I typically write about. The point is that the experience of being in the nation's wildest and most beautiful places is so tremendously worth it that even a large helping of the awfullest moments doesn't keep me from coming back.

One of the choices I can make to lower my level of risk while hiking in the woods.

I went to the USGS map store yesterday and spoke with one of the workers there at some length about Glacier... he had been there ages ago, hiking with his wife and very small daughter, when they came across some old, dried bear scat on a rock. They continued hiking. On the way back, there was fresh scat on the rock. They soon became aware that a grizzly was following them through the woods. When they could see the end of the trail below them in the distance, they noticed the land appeared to be moving... binoculars revealed it was full of people with their own sets of binocs, looking in their direction. A ranger soon met them on the trail. The bear that had been stalking them was a problem bear and had to be put down. I was grateful to the guy for his story. (He also said he'd been to Glacier in September and gotten 10 inches of snow, so we'll see, but I am certainly prepared to camp in such.)

What I have discerned about bear safety from everything I've read:

1. Bears can run as fast as a horse.
2. Bears can climb 30 feet into a tree.
3. Though they have Super Speed and Super Strength, bears are apparently not possessed of Super Hearing, being relatively easy to surprise on the trail.
4. There is no evidence that bear bells, designed to warn a bear of your approach, work. In fact, some have speculated that the non-natural sound makes bears curious.
5. Bears are curious. They are more likely to be drawn to a garishly colored tent than a camoflage one.
6. There is some evidence that polar bears and grizzly bears (but not black bears) are drawn to odors from menstruation, but then, bears are curious about odors in general.
7. Bears will be curious about bear spray, if you try to use it like mosquito repellant and spray it all around your campsite.
8. Used correctly, bear spray is better at deterring bears than shooting them with actual bullets.
9. Playing dead works with grizzlies. It does not work with black bears, whom you should always fight back.
10. Since black bears can be brown, you may not be able to tell whether the creature attacking you is a black bear or a grizzly bear. Guess.

I am not even going to bother talking about mountain lions right now. The post is too long already.

I am certainly not going to backpack in Glacier, and I am going to take advantage of their ranger-led hikes to enjoy the backcountry... and, soon, the Montana-woods portion of my trip will be over, and I will be spending as much time as possible in canyon and mesa and badland country, where I'm not likely to see much of anything besides antelope.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The 13th configuration

Hello. I haven't written lately because I haven't been doing anything lately. I guess I could write about making supper and going to Target, but it would take a better author than me to make anything out of that.

Well, of course, I haven't been doing nothing at all. One weekend I went to a "jazz in the park" thing in Denver. The bandstand is shown here with one of the area's ubiquitous rainbows:

And, with some of my budding acquaintances:

Note the other side of the rainbow in this picture.

Well. Guess who came for a visit? Katie and I did not do anything extraordinarily adventurous this time, preferring instead to enjoy the more civilized pleasures of the metro area. I was going to start with a description of the diner we visited for breakfast, but I realized there are also diners in Montrose, and my town's Golden Skillet did not stand out in any way except for the memorable aggression with which a young boy fired marshmallows into the street from a marshmallow gun during the entirety of our meal, which we were foolish enough to take outdoors.

However, the Dushanbe Teahouse in Boulder... this building was gifted to Boulder by its sister city of Dushanbe, Tajikistan. It was carted over in pieces and assembled here. I have one somewhat lame picture of (part of) the outside...

While I stole this photo of the inside off the web:

We did actually have afternoon tea in here. Another famous sight of Boulder is its array of street performers.

This is a guy getting into an acrylic box. There were many other performers who did such things as play the harp, juggle fire, and ride unicycles, but if your talent is getting into a box, I say make the most of it.

Also in Boulder, we visited the Celestial Seasonings factory for a tour, despite the fact that I do not like tea (I know I had just recently paid for the privilege of drinking it in ostentatious surroundings). The tour was at least interesting and you can drink free tea samples all day long, if you like that sort of thing.

This is the Denver Art Museum, which was cool, though we got there late enough in the day that it was half closed. We took some pictures on the rooftop sculpture garden. It was very difficult not to take Artsy pictures there.

Then we decided to have supper at a Belgian place down the street, which had $10 beers and which I liked very much, and then went for a stroll on the downtown mall.

Sometime in the evening Katie pointed out that our destinations that day had been on 13th street or avenue. We had breakfast on 13th in Golden, tea at Dushanbe on 13th in Boulder, then the art museum on 13th in Denver. Imagine our horror when, upon returning to the car, we found we'd parked at meter BA-1313!

Now, as if all this weren't enough, I kid you not, it was FRIDAY THE 13TH that day. However, nothing unlucky happened. In fact, we had a very special treat ahead of us... North America's (self-proclaimed) largest liquor store.

It is called Applejack... as you can see... and walking into it is like walking into a grocery store in which every food item has been replaced by a bottle. They even have full-sized shopping carts, because, you know, if you've driven down from Wyoming to go to the continent's largest liquor store, I guess you might as well stock up. We were only 10 minutes from my home, however, and thus restrained ourselves to two six-packs and a bottle of port.

On our last day together, we climbed Lookout Mountain, which I had already climbed twice, but being right behind my house, it's just too convenient. There were many parasailers who had launched from the mountain.

And then Katie went back to Montrose.

Things have been changing here. The creek runs so low that the people going tubing keep having to stand up and waddle to deeper areas, Green mountain is definitely no longer green, and wasps have replaced hummingbirds at the hummingbird feeder.


This is not my guitar... this is somebody on the internet's guitar... but it's the same as the one I just bought in a Denver pawnshop and was too lazy to take a picture of. A Yamaha classical guitar from the 70s, nylon strings. It's much easier to play than the one I used to have. I was compelled to go out and get a guitar after a friend brought hers over a couple times and I played and then couldn't stop thinking about playing.

Another change:

Colorado plates on my car. This was purely for the sake of practicality. My internship has ended and I will only be in Colorado for another week. But you will all have to wait to find out where I'm going.