Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Monday, March 26, 2012

Top ten travel memories, maybe

You know this photo:

which I have posted a couple times on this blog before, and of which I also have a print at home, and which may or may not be on my computer desktop at work... that was taken at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, along with many others, including the four below:

Katie and I had the chance to explore the park for maybe 2 hours a few years ago, and I have always wanted to go back there in order to go backpacking and take more photographs. So I was very excited to have the chance to go back to NM this past week, on a weeklong itinerary that would have me camping and backpacking and taking photos in White Sands and some other of the state's most scenic places. The Bisti Badlands...

Tent Rocks National Monument...

Acoma Pueblo...

& cetera. I got the time off work and carefully planned and packed. But I didn't go.

I would like to tell you that what kept me from this journey of wonder and snapshots was that I got an even better opportunity to do something else. Skydiving into the Royal Gorge to land on a whitewater raft and ride the rapids to a five-star hotel with an in-suite jacuzzi, maybe. But I was simply sick. I have had some kind of Supercold and have spent most of my vacation time in bed with a fever and a throat as fiery as the lava that once scorched New Mexico's landscape, congealing with time into such pleasing and photogenic attractions as those found in scenic El Malpais National Monument.


Well it breaks my heart to have missed out on all that, for nothing more exciting than staring at my wall and coughing like a seal for four days. I shall simply have to go another time. The good news is that I finally feel better this evening, and will likely be able to participate in the last segment of the trip, joining friends for a couple days in Santa Fe later this week.

But in order to make up for all the photos of lovely wild places that I won't be bringing you in this post (unless they're pictures I took in previous years or pictures taken by other people, as above), and in honor of all the thinking I did about travel in the past week, I now bring you a top 10 favorite memories from my travels.

These are somewhat random and off-the-top-of-my head, and the ranking doesn't represent how I feel about particular places or people, nor the actual significance of what was going on; only the degree to which these memories have continued to stand out for me against the blurring of time.

The Sea Ranch. My trip with DP to this sleepy vacation community on the California Coast last November was like a dream floating unattached in some kind of ocean of stress that was last Fall for me. Coming off my unhappy stint of unemployment into a high-pressure job that had me averaging only a few hours of sleep a night, I was frazzled in the extreme when I went to spend a few days in the absolute peace and quiet at her parents' rental. When I wasn't dead asleep I was walking up the coast arm-in-arm with DP, who somehow managed to continuously be the most wonderful person on the planet, as always.

Halloween in Provincetown. This is the night on which Katie and I were invited to join a friend on Cape Cod for costumes and club-hopping, and ended up being abandoned sometime around midnight. Saying, "I think our friends went that way," I led us through a hedge. We came out into a graveyard and realized we were lost, without our cell phones, in a town where we'd never been before and knew no one except our friends. In a graveyard. On Halloween.

Above, Katie pretends to be only slightly drunker than she is in front of an actual gravestone from actual 1891. (After an hour or so of our goofing around, fretting, and trying to stay warm, our friends did come back for us. They'd thought we knew where we were going.)

Waking up under the stars at Hole-in-the-Wall, Wyoming. I'd chosen to spend the night at this famous hiding place of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, not knowing how beautiful it was, with sheer red cliffs and miles of wild sunflowers lining the road. But the memory that stands out isn't the cliffs, or even that my car almost drove into a ravine (without me at the wheel) the next morning, but my waking up sometime in the middle of the night.

This was the first night of my two-month road trip in 2010. I knew what I was doing--I'd planned it obsessively, putting most of my belongings in storage, selecting routes, making reservations--but that night as I heated supper on my stove, utterly alone, I didn't know what I was doing. I now had no housing to go back to--or forward to, for that matter--no job lined up, no good friends within 2,000 miles. I had wanted to do this more than anything in the world, but that first evening I was lost, bewildered and scared.

I ate supper and went to sleep on my pad, under the sky. For some reason I woke after midnight and there were the stars above me, looking electric, tinted blue and so great in number they were like a high-voltage gauze draped over the whole sky. I have never seen, or felt, the stars to look like that before or since.

The deer in Glenwood Springs. It was evening on the day this picture was taken and DP and I were lying out on a tarp at our campsite, about where I stand in the picture. We must have been quiet for a while, or quiet enough, because at some point we looked up and just beyond where the hammock is were two bucks, watching us as we watched them.

Backpacking in Dinosaur. Just about everything about this trip was great, at to date it ranks as the best time I've had on a backpacking trip. A big part of that was how much fun it was finding our own route through the mostly trailless wilderness, and the welcome lack of mishaps (historically unusual on my backpacking trips). For an especially memorable moment, though, I'll go with dancing under the moon. Kris is also a country dancer; after we watched the moon rise over the cliffs behind us, she put the music on on her iphone and we two-stepped in the soft sand, in the soft August nighttime air, with barely enough light to watch out for rocks by.

The campsite at Zion. This campsite, where Katie and I stayed during the road trip, wasn't actually in Zion National Park. It was on some land of uncertain ownership a ways outside the park, with clear evidence of frequent squatters as well as a lovely stream and trees good for hanging hammocks. Part of the reason I liked this campsite so much is very simple, and is the same reason I have liked several of the campsites in my travel history more than they probably deserve: as soon as we got here, the weather got a lot better than it had been. We'd spent previous nights in the cold and wet, but here we were warm and dry, and that alone made the place seem like heaven.

Being able to sit out on a warm evening in your hammock, with a cup of tea and some cookies, doing crosswords, makes a patch of sand feel very homey and civilized. Although there were a lot of ants, prompting us to remove our leisure activities to rocks in the stream.

Sleeping under the stars at Petrified Forest National Park. This was my first backpacking trip in the desert, and the Painted Desert can be especially lunar, the landscape devoid of any plant material as far as the eye can see. I had experienced many starry nights in the country already in my life, but I had never lain down below the complete sky--horizon to horizon, uninterrupted by any plant or nearby hill.

I remember being particularly spooked that night. Maybe it was having hiked all day in an alien landscape with no voice for company but the one in my head. In any case, I recall a certain terror at realizing that the whole great bowl of the sky was rotating above me, that I could see the stars slowly but actively disappearing below the horizon on one side of me and appearing on the other. This sounds very cool as I write it, but I know at the time it inspired only panic and vertigo.

4th of July weekend in Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon. There's not much special about this trip except that it was a ton of fun. Great weather, great company, lovely things to see and do. Above, the hail that soon covered the ground to a depth of 4 inches in the mountains outside Flagstaff, sending cars skidding off the road. It had started hailing while we were hiking in a lava tube; we exited to find the midsummer day turned to winter.

The Grand Canyon was simply its best self, the weather perfect, the crowds light, and we had a wonderful meal and a hike and that was that.

Sedona. There were a lot of things that happened the day Katie and I took our mountain bikes to Sedona--like swimming with blue crayfish, trying to bike on a trail way too hard for us, and my injuring myself--but the thing that left me with one of the most memorable moments of my life was the storm that came in while we were finally enjoying ourselves on a not-too-difficult trail through the bare red rocks outside town.

The rain came down hard and then all of the dry creek beds we'd passed were alive, and we were covered in mud, splattered up to our faces, and kept riding, which was suddenly the most enjoyable thing in the world. When a strong shaft of sun broke through behind us the most vivid rainbow I had ever seen appeared over the butte up ahead. We got off the bikes and Katie stepped forward, and forward, trying to touch it. It was just in front of us.

Singing in the car with DEF. This might seem like an odd and anticlimactic thing to have in first place, after the wildlife and hailstorms and rainbows, but this one stretch of time stands out more strongly in my mind than any other. We were on a geology field trip for school, crossing some stretch of Arizona or Utah in minivans, I riding shotgun next to my professor, whom I had been rather frightened of before the trip but was coming to genuinely like and value my time with. And I found out that he liked oldies. And had a fine singing voice, as a matter of fact. And so while half the van slept we ran through several (mostly I remember Ricky Nelson's "Travelin' Man"), he providing the harmony, as we connected on this one thing no one else cared about, in what was one of the most quietly peaceful and fulfilling things I did all year.

Above I seem to have captured DEF at one of his nastier habits, which was doing things other than driving while he was driving, but I like the below picture. I'm sure they were discussing geology. There is something comforting about this, in the old-blanket kind of way, but now it seems like a very long time ago.

I don't know that I'll have any pictures from Santa Fe, or stories, for that matter. There are only so many things to say about shopping and eating at restaurants. Nothing of the grand terror of spending a night alone under the entire sky.