Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Worst-case scenario

When the oil leak was first discovered in my car a couple weeks ago the outcome I dreaded most was not an expensive repair, specifically, nor even the need to find a new car, but a scenario that dragged on for weeks of waiting without a place to live, false diagnoses, and struggling to find somebody in Denver who knows how to take apart a Toyota carburetor. This was the worst thing I could imagine, the last thing I wanted to happen. Of course, this is now what is happening.

And of course, it's not really the worst thing that could happen to me. I am in good health, my family and friends are well, and I have yet to be the victim of a theft or assault, or even a really bad joke. Unless you count the past couple weeks, I mean... the car troubles are only one source of misfortune, but I don't think it's prudent to get into all the details at this time. I have simply found myself at the end of a string of misfortunes.

My car was rendered into a drivable state by the 2nd mechanic I took it to, and so, having basically worn out the kind friend who took me in for 2 days and ended up having me for 2 weeks, I determined I'd return to camping for a little while. Not the most comfortable thing in the world now that temperatures are below freezing some nights, but with my 0 degree bag I'm not exactly in danger of hypothermia, just a certain amount of tossing and turning. Anyway, it's free, and with more car expenses on the horizon, saving money has become even more important to me.

However, as I drove around yesterday checking out places to camp, the car became more and more sluggish, until I couldn't get it to top 15 mph. So I gave up and had it towed to the garage of a Toyota expert whose name had been passed to me. He is the 5th mechanic. I know he can't take a look at it for a few days and, if the repairs are affordable, won't be able to get them in until the following week at least. Spent last night with friends who don't really have room for me, and at the moment am, phone in hand, proceeding through the (very short) list of other people I know in the Denver area.

Temporarily carless, homeless and jobless, which is not a situation I've ever found myself in, it's kind of a struggle for me to keep in mind the fact that I am not particularly down and out, comparatively speaking. I am not ill, broke, saddled with debt or children, in jail, or addicted to anything, just enough of a control freak to be as stressed out as if I did have those problems... the fact that it's easier for me to endure camping in the snow than to endure asking a friend for couch space is kind of a silly issue, but what can I say? I am perhaps too attached to the goal of self-reliance. If the goal I'd had in mind all this time were, say, to become a more flexible person, then I could pass all of these travails off as fodder for the crusade.

Another excellent goal would have been "to be very comfortable with waiting and uncertainty." (Of course, it is not too late to adopt either of these. My forebrain is quite aware that life is about learning how to let go of control, not learning how to control everything; it's the other bits of me that have a problem recognizing this.)

Anyway. Whether the Toyota is fixable or I must buy a new car, my travel money will be wiped out, so this is the end of the travel blogging (for this year!). My current "adventures" don't have quite the same photo-readiness, but I will continue to blog on them. I did a funny thing and attached some more photos from last month to the previous blog entry, instead of writing a new one, so if you've already read it, go through it again to see the new photos.

Now, back to finding a place to sleep tonight.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Down and out in Denver

I was supposed to be in the Grand Canyon at this time, but shortly after the last blog post was written a large oil leak was discovered in my car. I am trying to get BP to pay, but in the meantime I have been stuck at a friend's place waiting to hear estimates back from various shops and then waiting for the parts to be ordered... work will commence tomorrow... I suppose I could have my car back tomorrow night, but there is the additional problem that it suddenly became very hard to start the morning I took it in to the shop and this problem has not yet been diagnosed, let alone worked on. So I do not know how long I will be here in limbo.

Watching the snow fall on Denver from my little prison. Katie and I took all of last month to get through Harry Potter 3, taking turns reading to each other in the evenings. I read Harry Potter 4 in two days, waiting, then read Krakauer's Into Thin Air today (it's very good, by the way). It took a long time to decide whether to repair the car (which has 175,000 miles on it... yeah, I know it's a Corolla) or to take my remaining money and buy a new one. In the end it seemed to make more sense, economically, to repair this one... it is remarkable what even another used car with only 150,000 miles would cost if I wanted to replace mine... and it means I will still have money to continue traveling, if I wish.

I am reevaluating the scope of my November/December travel plans in light of the repair expenses but at this time am still hoping to visit at least a couple more parks before the holidays. Best case scenario, the car and I will be ready to go tomorrow evening; worst, it will still take a couple more weeks to diagnose and fix the starting problem. I have been really languishing, mostly just reading to try to keep from worrying, not really taking advantage of being in Denver. Because I wanted to be in Arizona right now. I spoke of flexibility in the last entry... apparently I'm only able to be flexible if I'm already on the road. Right now I'm just sad and angry at being stuck here.

But, while I am posting, here are a bunch of photos from the first half of last month that got cut from my previous posts.

Our initial drive into Canyonlands.

A picture Katie took of me doing a yoga pose in front of some odd blocks of sandstone at Canyonlands.

A strange wall at Canyonlands. This was in the backcountry, I thought it might have been some kind of horse corral. The hilarious thing about it was that the builder(s) had used five different materials. From left to right, they are: barbed wire (difficult to see on far left); wooden boards; corrugated metal; sandstone slabs stood on end; and sandstone blocks piled into a wall.

One of the interesting geologic features we found on the trail. Katie said she thinks these are mud cracks (seen in side view) filled in with sand (all of which was later distorted, giving some of the cracks a lightning-bolt shape). The climate at this time, more than 200 million years ago, may have been becoming dryer.

On one of our long hikes, while I keep rushing on because of the thunderheads building on the horizon, Katie keeps stopping to look at fossil wood and bone in the Chinle Formation, the same formation she did her master's thesis work in in Arizona.

Katie and a pile of petrified wood.

Me and a view of the White Rim, which stands above the inner canyon.

A picture Katie took of me in the Joint in Canyonlands.

Katie in the Joint. I don't think I included this one in my previous post, though now I'm not sure why, as it's a great shot of the narrow canyon. Perhaps it was because Katie's expression didn't match the pure geologic delight of our surroundings. As far as that goes...

Katie threatens me for taking a picture of her painting her nails. I was fascinated with the process, never having painted my own nails, and especially with the fact that she was choosing to do this the night before we were going backpacking. And that she was choosing to paint them bright canary yellow.

Our good friend The Car, in Gobin Valley State Park at sunrise. I actually took this picture because of the guy sitting in his chair at the top of the hill who was watching the sun rise.

A shot of Little Wild Horse Canyon. When I was there I kept wanting to say Little Dead Horse Canyon, because we'd driven past Dead Horse Point State Park not long before. The story of how the state park got its name is predictably gruesome, but somehow the idea of a little dead horse is even worse.

Small eroded holes in the wall of Little Wild Horse Canyon. I believe there's a name for these, and I'm disappointed I've forgotten this one piece of geologic arcana.

A gigantic dog footprint at our campsite near Capitol Reef National Park. These huge prints were interspersed with human prints, leading Katie to decide that the site was most likely previously occupied by a werewolf. The other spooky thing about the site was that we were right next to a creek that was cutting into a bank of shale, and it was eroding fast enough that all night long we could hear chunks of rock breaking off and falling into the creek with great plops.

Strawberry-rhubarb pie and afternoon tea at the werewolf campsite. It was very civilized, except for the fact that we were sitting on chunks of wood in the dirt. Another thing about this site was that it was in the 70s while the sun was out--we'd be sweating in our t-shirts--and then the moment it set, the temperature would drop about 30 degrees.

The making of pizza on a pita. When we didn't have a picnic table, as was the case at undeveloped or "dispersed" camping sites, the trunk of the car sufficed. By the end of the month it had remnants of every meal stuck to it, as well as a good smattering of coffee grounds and cocoa powder from breakfast.

If I'm stuck here another week I'll do another post with more previously unseen photos!

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Off again

Here's a shot from the convention center. I attended a lot of interesting presentations during the four days I was there, many of which were about geoscience education. Some particularly interesting ones involved eye-tracking cameras to see how students differ from experts in where they looked when examining photos of rock outcrops. I also found this at one of the technical poster presentation sessions:

In this study, students were interviewed on their knowledge about plate tectonics. As I read this, I realized that I'd been one of the interviewed students back at URI (as you can see, the poster's primary author is from Rhode Island) and that I was actually in the majority who got some significant concepts wrong during the interview. Oops. The poster went on to show how simple line drawings were much more comprehensible by students, as opposed to detailed, full-color 3D drawings of the type that textbook makers now seem to prefer. (Oops for them!)

I am heading now for the Grand Canyon, where it will be extremely cold on the rim. I want to hike to the bottom, but I'm not sure if I'll be able to do so... there are a limited number of permits given out for camping at the bottom, and I'm not really in good enough shape to make going to the bottom and back in one day an enjoyable experience. But after that, it's on to Death Valley and 90 degrees, then southern CA, AZ, NM and TX. I could continue traveling through the spring, but don't currently plan to... the places I won't have been yet will either be very cold or rainy, and I'm not sure I would enjoy the experience as much.

Spending two months on the road has not really been difficult... some things have been different than I expected them to be... everything is farther away than I expect it to be, and I don't really feel good after sitting for several hours, nor after seeing how much I've spent on gas; so these long drives have been the hardest part. My other expenses have been more what I expected. Sleeping on the ground every night has been no trouble at all, and living with so few possessions has been great; while it's true I used almost everything I brought with me when I traveled alone, when I put 1/3 of that stuff into storage to make room for Katie, I didn't actually miss anything I'd ditched.

Sleeping in the freezing cold is not a huge problem as I have an appropriate sleeping bag, but it is annoying dealing with the cold and darkness in the morning and evening. What exactly can you do with your time when it's freezing and pitch black from 7 in the evening till 8 in the morning? Katie and I had been sitting in the car to read at night, going to sleep at 9 and getting up at 8 AM... and my body seemed to have no problem with the sleeping, perhaps because there was little electric light to tamper with my biological clock, but it's hard to manage to not have to go to the bathroom for 11 hours straight.

Anyway, here I've been in Denver for the past week, thinking about what I'll do when I'm done traveling. This is really up to me; I could travel virtually indefinitely, if "travel" meant staying at one free campsite for the maximum 14 days and then moving on to the next closest one, as retirees with campers sometimes do, making food the only significant expense, but I imagine I'd be a bit bored with that. So I expect I shall settle somewhere, either volunteering for one of the national parks that provides housing for volunteers, or coming back to Denver here.

All these thoughts of settling have been a bit depressing, not so much because travel is necessarily more fun than living and working somewhere particular, but because travel is itself a buffer against depression that I am happy to have. Travel--at least, the kind of travel I am doing--requires constant decisions about where to go, which route to take, where to try to find a campsite, et cetera. More importantly, the consequences of those decisions are fairly immediate. If I choose wrong I am usually going to be cold, or wet, or waste time and gas driving around.

(Choosing a campsite, for instance; BLM land is usually much warmer than National Forest land, being usually at lower elevation, but it's often harder to find a place to pull my little car off the road and camp on BLM land. Their roads are either hugely built up into a mountainous ribbon of gravel bordered by monster ditches, or they're tiny threads of barely passable mud and soft sand. So do I want to risk being cold in the forest, or losing two hours of my day driving around the featureless scrub, perhaps ending up heading to the forest anyway?)

Anyway, all these decisions and their immediate consequences lend a kind of interactivity and vitality to life that it usually lacks, for us here in the developed world, with our schedules and our houses sheltering us from the weather. I think the concept of agency is essential to happiness; we need to feel that our actions affect our environment and vice versa, and we need timely feedback on our decisions to be able to recognize our own agency. Being able to choose where to camp at night, even though it may be a choice between being cold and wasting time, keeps me in the present and connected with my environment in a way that, say, choosing whether to invest in McDonald's or Exxon doesn't. And this can be much more effective at preventing depression than any kind of invented treatment.

Today I have felt good, getting all my stuff together and deciding what to take and where to go for the coming month. Though I have been unemployed since the end of summer, I've gotten tremendous practice at certain skills--well, okay, mostly how to plan for cheap camping. I've also become a lot more flexible (weather is the darndest thing) and I care less what people think of me (we can't all afford campgrounds with showers!) than before I started. I feel good about things today because I have become good at what I am doing, and so, armed with both a sense of agency and a sense of competence, I go forth happily.

I am sad, of course, that Katie has left for the east coast. A funny thing happened before we left. She had contacted the cousin she was going to stay with on her way back, in Kansas, and he said he wouldn't be there--he was at a conference. In Denver. He was staying at the Sheraton--which was where we were staying. So we went out to dinner with him, and then he said he was getting to fly home early, and would in fact be in Kansas to welcome Katie when she drove in the next day.

There have been many other things that happened that I'm sure I forgot to write about... like the deer that hit our car, or how the mountains bordering Hells Canyon may be rising due to erosion (how's that for some geology?), but a blog post can only be so long. Especially without pictures. But here's the final photo from the conference:

in which Katie and I gaze hopefully toward the future, our rainbow glasses on. Or perhaps we are just goofing around.