Hailstorms, Fireworks

The storms out West were stark and angry. The sagebrush and juniper desert of New Mexico and western Texas allowed me to see the expanse of skies darkening out into the afternoon. Though the inside of my car was a much lower temperature, I could still smell the coming rain—the metallic scent of wet minerals and sage.

On the westbound side of I-40 a tractor trailer had blown over so that its whole long body was spread diagonally across both lanes. I could see the backed-up traffic for miles—people getting out of their cars, holding their hands like visors over their eyes, walking their leashed dogs in the tall grass of the median. At the time I felt pity for them, all these suddenly immobile people, but I didn’t know the danger that lurked ahead.

Once over a steady incline, I saw the storm. Its proudly blackening, circular cumulonimbus puffs of water vapor and electricity mounting, building, eating up space.

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Rain began to fall in fat, disparate drops, leaving quarter-sized splats on my windshield. The pace of their pattering quickened. Then their splats grew harder, little bits of ice melting upon impact. My throat tightened as I saw the cloud above and ahead fill suddenly with dark dots—hail pummeling into my line of vision. The sound was a roar. Cars around me slid off the road, their hazard lights blinking like a human’s uncomprehending gaze. I followed suit with the lights but kept on, much more slowly.

At first the hail was infrequent enough that I could still hear my music and my quickening breath, but it soon became a deafening clash of ice golf balls against thick glass and thinner plastic, so loud I could feel my lips form the shapes of curses without actually hearing them pronounced at all.

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It’s strange how one’s ability to sense time passing devolves in moments like these—I couldn’t tell you if the storm lasted for ten or twenty minutes, or more. I passed a bridge under which the shoulder was filled with cars huddled like rabbits in the rain. This, the storm’s edge as it moved over the highway, was already so destructive—what would its middle be like? I didn’t want to stick around and find out.

After countless dents all over the body of my car, I was under clear skies again. My rear view mirror was a black rectangle in the spider-web-fractured blue of the windshield. To the north (my left) I could make out another wide thundercloud in the shape of a dinner plate hovering low in the sky, menacing.

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Lightning stayed inside the cloud, flashing it red. How many more thunderstorms lurked ahead? I drove to Amarillo holding the steering wheel the way a scared kid grips their mother’s hand while getting their first vaccination. My little brother’s pediatrician once told him he could punch him if the shot hurt. My kid brother, upon being vaccinated, promptly socked him in the arm. I still wish I had something to pummel after that day.

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West of Amarillo I-40 goes right by a feedlot full to the gills with cattle. From what must’ve been a half a mile away I saw it first—tall, fluorescent lights like streetlights and steam rising up from beneath their reach. Then I smelled the steam—that distinctive stench of warm, wet fur mixed with hay cud. Then I was next to them, their bodies still wet from drenching rains, their muddy hooves, their muffled shuffling, their matted black and white mottled fur. Then I passed them, left them behind—an island of glistening light in the nighttime darkness.

I’d forgotten it was almost the fourth of July, basically was since it was the Saturday just before. As I approached Amarillo from the dark western desert expanse, I spotted blooms of fireworks low in the sky, hanging in the air like slow lightning. I’d never really deeply considered the well-deployed physics of fireworks until now—to explode as they’re still rising, but just barely, then to catch in the air like a lump in your throat before falling—slowly, at first, then going out, blown out not by the movement of air but of it through air—before you get to see the colored sparks pick up speed. From this far the displays were all silent—something I’d also never experienced. I spotted several—maybe 4? —all going on at once, and wondered which were official and which were happening in open fields or neighborhood cul-de-sacs. I saw the displays as three-dimensional for the first time as I moved through them—I suppose that’s what was so surreal about it. Quiet, static fireworks, limited to their small patch of low sky.

When the repairman pulled out my weather-worn windshield last week, it completely shattered. I’m still picking out shards of glass no bigger than the ridges of my fingerprints from the passenger’s seat.

 

New Mexico, Land of Enchantment, Land of Circles

New Mexico, Land of Enchantment, Land of Circles

After two and a half weeks in the high-altitude New Mexico desert sun, I confess my summer freckles have returned. I like to think of them as my skin’s seasonal blossoming. They’re little circular perennials, roots dug deep and hibernating all winter long, waiting for a warm week to reappear.

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Juniper in front of Abiquiú Lake

I stayed in Abiquiú, New Mexico, a rural town outside Santa Fe, in June to work as an instructional counselor for a creative writing class for gifted and talented high school students. Ghost Ranch is now a retreat center, made famous by the renowned artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who stayed there for many summers and eventually lived there full-time.

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Instructor and friend Natalie atop the overlook at Chimney Rock

This was my first time to New Mexico even though its entire northern border is most of Colorado’s southern border. The high desert there was overrun with crooked trees and low brush—juniper, sage, chamisa.

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Trail to Chimney Rock on Ghost Ranch, Cerro Pederal in the distance

At the welcome center for Bandelier National Monument I flipped through samples of dried and pressed plants, matching them to what I’d seen on our hike around the cave dwellings, their ruins. These amazing light brown sandstone cliffs full of holes and pockmarks, made hollow by centuries of erosion.

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Cliff dwellings at Bandelier National Monument

Circular structures ringed with stacked stones were built and called kivas by the Pueblo Native Americans who lived there. These buildings were used in rituals, especially coming-of-age ceremonies for young men wherein the structure functioned like a sweat lodge.

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More cliff dwellings at Bandelier National Monument

Bandelier National Monument is a dormant volcano featuring an enormous caldera, basically the collapsed crater-like center of a volcano since overgrown with grasses, shrubs, and thirsty western high-altitude trees like cottonwoods and aspen.

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Bandelier plant life

As our class stopped beneath some of the less accessible cliff dwellings (reached via a series of ladders) for lunch, we wrote in response to a prompt about rituals, and it occurred to me that the caldera could be seen as a sort of first kiva—the stone circle first laid by some ancient, powerful hand. This is what it looks like when the land forms circles—a collapse, an eruption, layers of volcanic ash pressed into earth, then sandstone.

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Blooming Cholla cactus at Bandelier National Monument

The town of Taos contains the Taos Pueblo, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the longest continuously inhabited villages in North America. Here the Pueblo people built their multi-story homes out of adobe brick, which consists of clay, hay, and water.

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A typical adobe home at the Taos Pueblo site

Both the mortar and the plaster which covers the bricks are made of mud. Cedar logs were laid across each structure to help form and support their ceilings. These ceiling also functioned as the floor of the story atop it, accessed by wooden ladders.

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Red chiles as decoration at Taos Pueblo

Because of the materials of these structures, it is impossible to outfit them with modern plumbing and electricity. Our tour guide told me only five families remain as full-time residents here, though many more keep their ancestral homes while they live primarily in the town of Taos, or elsewhere on the reservation.

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A window at the Catholic church in Taos

While walking around Taos Pueblo, I saw a man setting up a table with a display of turquoise jewelry underneath a hay canopy in front of an adobe home. We chatted, and he invited me into the home he said had been the birthplace of his great-grandfather, and inhabited by his family many, many generations before that.

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The Rio Pueblo de Taos in the foreground, and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the background

It was a simple, surprisingly cool single room with a small fireplace in one corner. He explained to me the technique by which the Pueblo people made the chimney. They took a cedar trunk and covered it with adobe plaster. Once dried, they then set the wood on fire, which would leave them with a hollow, cylindrical adobe structure. A circle of sky, open to sky.

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One of many art galleries in Taos Pueblo

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A close-up of the bison leather dreamcatcher

One night on a silent walk to Matrimonial Mesa at Ghost Ranch, I pointed out to the students the hoofprints of a deer in the mud. In a place that receives fewer than eight inches of rain a year, it had rained that afternoon. One student had spotted a garden snake who’d been coaxed out of the shadows by the cool rain. And the small, halved circles of the imprints of hooves wandering from the dirt road to the arroyo’s cottonwoods, weaving between chamisa and juniper.

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Desert daisies and pink sunsets on Ghost Ranch

On the mesa that night we watched the scattered, sputtering circles of stars come into being. We lay there quietly, listening to the high-pitched echoes of chirping bats as they drew their own looped circles in the air above. Kivas, nightly natural rituals. Circles in space and time. Each time we return to repeat the ritual, each time we circle back, something is different. We hold constant what we can, but we treasure everything.

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Looking west from Chimney Rock at Ghost Ranch

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

[from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours, translated by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows]

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Sunset over Chimney Rock on Ghost Ranch

Georgia O’Keeffe painted Cerro Pedernal (Flint Mountain) over forty times. The story goes that she took any paintings with which she wasn’t satisfied, drove down the mesa, and burned their canvases right there in the desert. About Cerro Pedernal O’Keeffe said, “God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.” She returned and returned. She ritualized the process.

Locals heard of her affinity for bones and brought them to her, bleached white by desert sun and preserved by desert air. She painted a series centered on a cow’s pelvis. There are circles here, too—the spaces for each leg, the ball of each femur joint, the socket space. She painted it so close up, sometimes, that you can’t tell what the curves are a part of at all, what the lighting reveals.

Circles form from gravity, from wear and falling and moving and the difficulty of moving. Everything softens over time, forgets its corners, collapses. The desert is a land of circles, the simplicity of curves, the complexity of a single eye.

Ode to Snow

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Brighton Ski Resort, Utah

Winter is a time for contemplation. Everything takes a little longer to do. Food must be warmed, layers must be compiled and worn, windshields and sidewalks must be scraped and shoveled of ice and snow.

Whether you are in the midst of knee-deep snow yourself or whether you only dream of it, I invite you to listen to my new snowy playlist on Spotify while indulging in some wintry reading (sources cited) and photography (all by me) below. Enjoy.

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Laramie, Wyoming

“Tonight as it gets cold
tell yourself
what you know which is nothing
but the tune your bones play
as you keep going. And you will be able
for once to lie down under the small fire
of winter stars.
And if it happens that you cannot
go on or turn back
and you find yourself
where you will be at the end,
tell yourself
in that final flowing of cold through your limbs
that you love what you are.” -From Mark Strand’s “Lines for Winter”

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Southern Wyoming

“I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says, ‘Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.'” -Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

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American Fork, Utah

“Everything is flowing — going somewhere, animals and so-called lifeless rocks as well as water. Thus the snow flows fast or slow in grand beauty-making glaciers and avalanches… While the stars go streaming through space pulsed on and on forever like blood… in Nature’s warm heart.” -John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra 

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Steamboat Springs, Colorado

“One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land…” -From Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man”

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Centennial, Wyoming

“It snowed all week. Wheels and footsteps moved soundlessly on the street, as if the business of living continued secretly behind a pale but impenetrable curtain. In the falling quiet there was no sky or earth, only snow lifting in the wind, frosting the window glass, chilling the rooms, deadening and hushing the city.” -Truman Capote
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Steamboat Ski Resort, Colorado

“A few feathery flakes are scattered widely through the air, and hover downward with uncertain flight, now almost alighting on the earth, now whirled again aloft into remote regions of the atmosphere.” -Nathaniel Hawthorne
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Medicine Bow National Forest, Wyoming

Love and warm wishes to all from the wintry American West.

Desert Abundance

Over Thanksgiving break, Matt and I visited Zion, Canyonlands, and Arches National Parks in Utah as well as Antelope Canyon on the Navajo Reservation outside Page, Arizona, and Horseshoe Bend (of the Colorado River) there too. I’ve never been any place that dry before, that red.

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Puddles at Horseshoe Bend National Military Park, Arizona

North Carolina clay is notoriously red and dense, but that’s all disguised by layers of roots, worms, sloughed needles and leaves, thickets of thorn and vine.

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Sagebrush in Zion National Park

The abundance of the desert is different. Desert comes from French, then Latin—desertus for “left waste.” In English, the word desert is also a verb—to abandon, to leave a place, causing it to appear empty; to fail someone, especially at a crucial moment when most needed. A desert landscape is one with high stakes, where the smallest actions are amplified by emptiness. A horizon unscuffed by silhouettes of trees, left yawning open to dawn and dark alike. It is like the prairie in this way, “big sky country” —weather approaches like an oncoming train, openly. Its plans laid bare as plains. This is like what happens when someone deserts us, isn’t it? Their plans, their feelings and intentions are all laid bare, made plain.

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Mule deer at Watchman Campground, Zion National Park

Only the wily can effectively hide in the desert—the gray fox we saw skim the road at Watchman Campground inside Zion National Park, the chipmunk who approached us atop Angels Landing, the rabbit among the sagebrush near Moab. Mule deer were unabashed in their hunger, making meager meals from fallen cottonwood leaves gone to almost dust in their mouths.

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The roads in Zion are paved with maroon asphalt, presumably to blend into the landscape, which reddens fiery at dawn, then fades to rust at dusk.

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Canyons are the hiding places of the west, the shadowy forests and warren bungalows of the desert. Rivers don’t always run year-round, leaving behind dry “washes,” but when they return each spring, new snowmelt or runoff sand sediment, we allow them to do so under the same name as before. In that way, the name seems to mark the bed—a ditch, a crease in the fabric of the landscape—rather than the water.

Folksongs sing of the “rolling” Shenandoah, the “falling waters” of the Mississippi (the National Park Service has a whole webpage dedicated to “Songs of the Mississippi River”). The silence of a wash, a dried bed, doesn’t lend itself to rhythm, to song. What does it lend itself to?

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Cerberus Gendarme area of Zion National Park

When songs insist on the desert, I feel they then concern themselves with liminality—waiting to get to one place, leaving another. The desert isn’t a place in which we can stay for long. This makes it sparkle with an ancient mystery, the mystery of existing in a timeline so outside of our own.

The river that formed Zion National Park’s main canyon is the Virgin River. I’m still working on a way to formulate the following fact into a joke: the Virgin River is what cut through layers of sediment to form the cliffs now known as the Court of the Patriarchs. These are all Mormon-assigned names. The Paiute people originally called this area Mukuntuweap, purportedly meaning “straight up land.”

We spent our day in Zion climbing at the Cerberus Gendarme area, which is named after the multi-headed dog monster from Greek mythology, and then hiking the famous Angels Landing trail. Each time we went into the park we took the shuttle, which is the only way to park in Zion unless you’re willing to pay for a permit in addition to the entrance fee.

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Matt flaking out the rope before climbing in Zion National Park

The climbing was a fun, varied introduction to the splitter crack sandstone we’d be visiting in Indian Creek south of Moab later in our trip.

Angels Landing isn’t a particularly long hike (2.4 miles one way), but it gains quite a bit of altitude (1,488 feet) over its relatively short distance, resulting in a couple stone staircases and many cement switchbacks.

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Matt on a flatter section of the Angels Landing Trail in Zion National Park

The last half mile or so is very exposed, meaning an accidental slip could result in a deadly fall.

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Matt approaching the steep, exposed section toward the top of Angels Landing, Zion National Park

Every so often there are metal posts bolted to the rock with chains strung between them for you to grab as you walk.

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Matt clinging to the chains for dear life! (Angels Landing Trail, Zion National Park)

The view from Angels Landing is spectacular, allowing you to see down each end of the canyon the Virgin River has carved over many thousands of years.

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We made it! The view from Angels Landing, Zion National Park

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Another view from Angels Landing, Zion National Park

After Zion, we drove to Page, Arizona where it rained all day. The weather prematurely ended our Antelope Canyon tour for fear of flash flooding.

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The sanctum of Antelope Canyon, Arizona

Water streamed down the canyon walls, carrying with it little red grains of sand. Matt and I stood underneath a temporary waterfall in our rain jackets.

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In the car I found red particles of sandstone crystallized to my jacket like salt.

Right before sunset it stopped raining. We spotted a double rainbow through our hotel room window and drove out to the Horseshoe Bend overlook.

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The desert sand had congealed itself into a mud, and puddles were everywhere, signals of the ground’s inability to absorb so much water so quickly. We passed many other tourists and photographers on our way up the short trail to the overlook.

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The pale colors of the cloudy sunset reflected off the surface of the Colorado River.

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Horseshoe Bend, Colorado River, northern Arizona. Ignore the human hand 🙂

I wish I’d had a fisheye lens to better portray the huge, prehistoric bend of riverbed.

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Horseshoe Bend

More temporary waterfalls streamed down from the desert surface into the canyon.

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All smiles, all orange at Horseshoe Bend

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From Page we drove through Monticello, Utah and out to a tract of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land known as Indian Creek, famous among rock climbers for its beautiful sandstone cracks sized almost perfectly for hands and fingers.

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Indian Creek, Utah

We luckily found one unoccupied campsite at Hamburger Rock (with a pit toilet, hooray!).

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Part of our campsite at Hamburger Rock in Indian Creek, Utah

We spent a couple days at Indian Creek—Matt leading some hard and impressive routes, me starting to come to a sort of understanding with the way I would need to position my hand inside a crack in order to pull down on it like gripping a rung on a ladder, reset my feet ever higher, and do it again, and again, and again.

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Splitter cracks! All the gear!

Climbing, ladies and gentlemen. Tackling infinite variations of rock formations with the same square pegs—hands, feet. Not simply admiring but analyzing, utilizing. How can I lean against this? How can I stand atop it? How can I twist and contort my body such that I find a shape against the rock that feels almost like a rest? How, then how? The landscape a puzzle.

One of the highlights of the trip was undeniably the hike we did in Canyonlands National Park on Thanksgiving Day.

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Needles District, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

When I’d told people about my plan to go to Canyonlands, I kept hearing recommendations to go to this particular area—Chesler Park, which is accessed via the Needles District of the park. Its remoteness drew us, too.

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The Needles of Canyonlands National Park, Utah

We began at the Elephant Hill trailhead, then took that out-and-back trail to a loop (I like to call this style of trail a “lollipop”) through the Chesler Park area. The out-and-back section of the trail gave us some beautiful scenery of the “needles,” sandstone formations.

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Walking amid the Needles, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

It took us through an eerie slot canyon, too, another dried-up crease in this landscape’s fabric.

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Matt in a slot canyon (on the trail!) in Canyonlands National Park

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Matt took this one of me- same slot canyon, all the awe

In the meadows and open spaces we walked among cactus, pinyon pines, and warped junipers.

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Matt can’t *not* climb

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In the grottoes of the wider canyons there were yellowing cottonwoods, and Russian olives and shinnery oaks gone brown. I was surprised to see so many deciduous trees and bushes.

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More needles! Canyonlands National Park

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Armed with jackets, trail mix, and enthusiasm in Canyonlands National Park, Utah

The rock formations felt otherworldly, enigmatic. Perhaps this is because their histories, though still mostly unknown, are worn visible on their surfaces. The layers of sediment, proof of years and years, are outwardly visible. Their shape, sculpted by weather’s wind and water, speaks to their experience. We cannot entirely know this history, but we are invited to know by the unlayering made visible—we can start to know.

The final day of our trip (not including driving back to Laramie) was spent in Arches National Park, just outside the town of Moab. The contrast between Arches and Canyonlands was immediately apparent. A long line of cars with out-of-state license plates waited at the park’s entrance to be admitted. The parking lot for the Delicate Arch trail was nearing capacity. A park ranger worked to empty the overflowing trash bins nearby. Children cried and argued noisily. There were lines for each pit toilet, and above each toilet was a sign instructing visitors, among other things, to please go in the toilet rather than on the floor.

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Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, Utah

Due to the recent rains (it had rained here as well as in northern Arizona), the upper road to the Delicate Arch overlook was underwater, so we parked at the trailhead and did the 3-mile out-and-back hike. The trail was reminiscent of Angels Landing at Zion National Park with practically no shade and lots of hiking directly on slick sandstone, but significantly less steep and exposed this time around. The trail was cut out of the rock in places, but those sharp corners had been smoothed over by years of foot traffic.

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Maybe it was the crowds, the two hikers I’d seen shuffling down the trail in their Uggs, or the iconic image of Delicate Arch (it’s the one on all the Utah license plates), but I just wasn’t impressed by Arches, and certainly not in the same way I’d been impressed by Zion and Canyonlands. Was this eerily red and open landscape (an earth-wound) becoming familiar already? Maybe I’d arrived with unrealistic expectations, or I’d let myself be bothered by the presence of hundreds of other people who were also there for the same reason (so hypocritical), allowing a minor discomfort subsume the odd and fragile beauty of this place.

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More Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, Utah

Hiking back down from Delicate Arch, we took a quick detour to see some petroglyphs believed to have been carved by members of the Ute tribe, after whom Utah is named, in the late 1700’s since the people depicted are on horseback.

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The petroglyphs in Arches National Park, Utah

So maybe my characterization of this desert land being one that only experienced in passing is false? How would these people have survived? The National Park Service says the Ute and Paiute were nomadic peoples at that time, traveling seasonally as needed for food, water, and shelter.

This red, sparse land gives the impression of openness—open to curiosity and exploration just as to death and slow, methodical destruction. But inherent in the brutal openness of desert is a threat, some lurking danger. The ground beneath you may shift to sand, may collapse to canyon, may flood instantaneously. The surrounding air burns you all day and chills you all night. These extremes constitute a radical abundance, one both delicate and fierce.

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Yours truly, dizzy with joy in the Devil’s Kitchen area of Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Visiting the Poudre River

Visiting the Poudre River

As many of you know, I began my graduate studies this fall at Colorado State University in creative writing. An assignment in one of my classes required that I choose an outdoor “site,” which I am to visit on a regular basis, take notes, and then journal about it later. I’ve been visiting the Cache la Poudre River, which runs through Fort Collins, via the city-owned Poudre Trail, for a little over a month now. On my last visit, Friday September 30th, I took my camera along with me. Here are some excerpts from journal so far, along with a few photos.

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A sign for the Poudre Trail via Lee Martinez Park in Fort Collins, CO

August 20

I arrived at my site at 3:20PM. It was 86° Fahrenheit and mostly sunny, with puffy white cumulonimbus clouds in the north. I was sitting on the south bank of the river, the water flowing east. The river appeared almost a copper color because of the stones in its bed. The current was rather swift –as I could tell by the passing inner tube floaters—like a slow jog. According to the markings on the underside of the Poudre Trail pedestrian bridge over the river, the water was just under three feet deep.

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Willows and cottonwoods on the Poudre’s north bank

All around me were dogs, children swimming, and more people walking, running, or biking on the paved trail. Through the trees and over the sound of rushing water I could hear people cheering, laughing, and chatting. There was a constant sound of crickets chirping, and an occasional whisper of breeze through foliage.

In the water, a fresh four-foot Russian Olive branch with all its leaves floated by. I noticed stray, straight spider-silk threads in the grass and in the elm branches above me. Slowly a dragonfly flew by me toward the east. Some individual sparrows crossed the river as well. Dogs barked in the distance, and thunder could be heard coming from the north; the clouds grew darker across the river.

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September 12

I always thought the Poudre River was named after snow powder, especially since it drops 7,000 feet in elevation from the Rockies through a narrow, chiseled canyon, to conjoin with the South Platte River east of Greeley, Colorado. It actually refers to French Canadian trappers, in the early 1800’s, hiding their cache of gunpowder there during a particularly bad blizzard. The Poudre River is Colorado’s only nationally recognized “Wild & Scenic River.”

Behind me, a woman running west clears her throat. Two bikes tick east. The sun clouds over.

September 17

Today the Cache la Poudre River is just over one foot tall, the pedestrian bridge informs me.

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This means about 775 gallons of river water, of Rocky Mountain snowmelt, are flowing beneath that bridge every second. What seems like a humble stream to the eye—especially with monumental rivers in my mind, the Colorado and Snake nearby, the New and Mississippi and Chattanooga out east—is really a powerhouse, always on the move. Small yellow leaves are floating downstream, to the east, away from the Rocky Mountains and toward the South Platte River, toward the heartland. I read that brown trout spawn here in the fall, but I see no fish in the clear water down to the copper-y bottom, littered with round granite stones. Sometimes I hear the fish—a sudden catch of water, white flash slap above the surface.

Along the bank two blue jays stutter squawks at one another. One flies into view and lands on a yellowing cottonwood branch. His body is a jewel blue and he wears a white collar just above his breast, beneath a blue cockscomb. Later I learn this is the edge of the blue jay’s livable range, as far as they come; the foothills of the Rocky Mountains halt them the way they halted railroads, the way they still halt clouds and precipitation.

I think about the river, about the trout. What would it feel like to live in water constantly flowing in one direction? Not like an ocean where the tide is a rhythm of give and take, but always east, the way our ancestors felt pulled westward continually. I ask a fisher friend about the trout—the brown, the rainbow, the cutthroat. He says you can often go back to the same spot on the Poudre or Snake or wherever, the same hole or stone, and catch the very same fish—they don’t stray too far. My concept of fish life has been shaped mostly by the story of spawning salmon and—let’s face it—Finding Nemo, so this was news to me, that fish don’t drift or migrate or explore in spite of the debris that floats right by, that the river doesn’t become their timeline on which to travel. I thought a good metaphor might be that little conveyor belt in sushi restaurants that slowly slides enticing sashimi and rolls right before your eyes, for the taking. I guess a river might feel more like that to a fish—food constantly coming and going all day, all night, abundance set spinning by the engine of gravity, by the churning of season, of freeze and thaw.

September 22

I count thirty-five bleats of train horn in the span of several minutes. A helicopter hovers somewhere to the south and car engines rumble to the east. Behind me, bikes pass and dog leashes jingle. Occasional bits of conversation slip through the weeds—two students stressed about the new semester, a mother making safety-related requests of her young child on a miniature bicycle, two middle-aged women building each other up. A propeller plane’s engine rattles from above, behind cover of low, gray clouds.

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Cottonwoods framing the Poudre River Trail

I have just heard how little land in this country remains untouched by human-generated noise. If not an interstate, then a highway. If not a highway, then a railroad. If not a railroad, then trails for ATVs or snowmobiles. If not a trail, then a reservoir with a marina. And if no marina, then planes etching their contrails above, or helicopters leading rescues of people lost in the wilderness. Silence deserts. The scarceness of silence. This must have devastating effects on animals, especially those who rely on their hearing to find prey, to hunt, to stay safe, to not become prey, to survive.

When I hear a sound—a splash of water, birdsong, crackle of twigs or dry grass—I hope for a sighting of an animal—a trout, a blue jay, a crow, a grasshopper. When animals hear our omnipresent noise—engines whirring, tires squealing, horns honking—what do they hope for?

September 30

All the vegetation and leaves are more yellowing today, rustier—oxidized colors. There was a light drizzle all morning. My field notes are speckled with the occasional raindrop ink-stain. The Poudre River was measured at two feet high, higher than my last visit because it’s been raining up in the mountains, to the west.

Little white wildflowers upstream catch my eye. I walk over unsteady pebbles and a large cottonwood root to get to them. The root is far enough away from any trees that it’s impossible for me to tell to which it belongs. Each flower is in various stages of unfurling—some are fully open, dripping their petals into their watery reflections.

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As best as I can tell, the flower is Carolina Bugbane, or Trautvetteria Caroliniensis, which is native to this area

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Carolina Bugbane is in the Rananculaceae family, or the buttercup family, and seems to prefer wetter habitats

I find myself thinking how it would feel to live in a river that can get as low as one foot deep—to have distance infinitely available to you (seemingly), but know your explorations, your knowledge, were all limited to one foot by the width of the river by its length. I suppose human life, until the inventions of the airplane and rocket-ship, is fairly limited in that way as well—we’re basically stuck to the earth’s surface, most of us. This, I think, is the origin of the desire to fly, our envy of birds. We can’t see the earth’s rotund nature from our limited depth, the slice of air in which we live. We’ve had to escape this space to see the world for what it really is—a sphere remarkably like and unlike any other.

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Rest & Relaxation + Nature

I love it when people visit us in Laramie, Wyoming. I love to show them our little house (on the prairie? almost), our fun frontier town, the mountains that surround us, the stark and undeniable beauty of the West.

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My parents waving from the pedestrian bridge to the oncoming trains that run right by downtown Laramie, just in the distance

Most of my family came to visit me this summer after a long roadtrip or flight/s. We explored Laramie as well as Fort Collins, Colorado (since that’s where I’ll spend much time next year). Thankfully the weather stayed sunny and warm for most of their visit, unlike the last time.

We went back to Vedauwoo (pronounced VEE-dah-VOO) for a little hike on the Turtle Rock Trail. My mom was impressed by how lush everything was. Most of Wyoming in the summer is like dried herbs on a cracker crisp- sagebrush, dust, sun, wind. But because the granite in Vedauwoo leads the rainfall into certain pooled areas, through June and July many wildflowers bloom in the shade of lovely aspen groves.

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Libby took this photo of my dad on the Turtle Rock Trail through quivering aspen leaves

The granite at Vedauwoo is unique for its roughness (local climbers don’t call it “Bleed-auwoo” for nothing) in addition to its unusual shapes. The Sherman Granite is thought to be 1.4 billion years old.

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Sam and Boone enjoying the hike through sagebrush and wildflowers

I kindly allowed Sam to struggle with walk Boone the whole hike. They both seemed to enjoy it.

Matt and I also took everyone on a more intense trail in Medicine Bow National Forest which we’ve dubbed “the ridge hike.” We originally scouted out the trailhead via online maps of the area, but it was very difficult to spot from the dirt road you take to get there. The trail eventually emerges the further you walk up the very steep hill and into the woods, and is occasionally marked by helpful cairns.

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Parents enjoying a break from hiking while the kids take selfies and contemplate life

We refer to this trail as a ridge hike because, at several points, you get an almost 360º view- from the Rockies down in Colorado to the Snowy Range west of Laramie, and out toward Nebraska to the east.

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In the distance, Sam, Libby, and Boone enjoy the eastern view

It’s also a fairly exposed hike, with few trees to cover you, despite being in a national forest. You wouldn’t want to be up there if a storm rolled in.

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Introspective Ben on the right

After living in Wyoming for 3 years, I still can’t get enough of its beauty. I am continually surprised by the openness, the almost silence, the skies, and- let’s be honest- the wind. I am afraid I’m now used to the practically empty trails (I’m told this is not the case in Colorado). I believe we saw one other person the entire couple hours we were hiking.

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Even Boone, a Kansas native, prefers Wyoming hikes

Each year Laramie celebrates Wyoming’s anniversary of statehood, July 10th, 1890, with a week-long series of events it calls “Jubilee Days.” There are concerts, a parade, a carnival, a local beer festival, and- you guessed it- multiple rodeos.

I hadn’t been to a rodeo since I moved here but, what with everyone visiting, it seemed like as good a time as any to experience the cowboy side of this state. I took my folks to the ranch rodeo which, unlike your typical rodeo, isn’t full of professional bull riders and events like barrel racing, but is instead made up of local ranch cowhands (both men and women).

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Almost got ’em!

They were all trying to do the same thing within a six-minute period: rope steers, get one into a fenced-in pen, and another into a trailer behind a shiny new truck which was provided somewhat riskily by a local car dealership. The announcer jokingly asked if there was anybody left in the town of Walden- a small ranching town in nearby northern Colorado- that day, and dozens of people in the audience whooped and cheered.

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Got ’em this time

At the beginning of each round, one participant had to stand without her or his horse on the side of the ring opposite the rest of their teammates and horses. When the timer began, another teammate on their horse had to gallop across the ring, pick up the horse-less cowhand, and they both had to ride back across the ring so the first person could get their horse. Most of the horses were okay with having two adults on their backs for that short of a period of time, but one horse wasn’t so sure. The audience began to giggle as the horse refused to go forward. Then, very slowly, the horse stepped forward in lurches, eventually bucking its way across the ring, making for a very bumpy ride for the cowboy sitting on his haunches, and uproarious laughter from the crowd.

Though the roping was of course entertaining and impressive to watch, my family was slightly traumatized by the treatment of the cattle. Sometimes the poor animals ran face-first into the metal fencing at high speeds, which resulted in nosebleeds. Despite their black fur, you could still easily see the red blood dripping from their nostrils as they fled from the horses.

After Margaret, my older sister, flew up to join us, we drove down to Fort Collins for the fourth of July.

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Old Town of Fort Collins on the 4th of July. Photo by Libby.

We walked around downtown and Colorado State’s campus, ate burgers and sandwiches at Choice City Butcher & Deli, and tried local beers at Funkwerks Brewery, which specializes in refreshing sours, saisons, and Belgian ales.

The next day everyone but Margaret departed, so we began packing the car for a trip to Ten Sleep Canyon, a rock climbing destination in the western part of the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming. It’s about a 5.5-hour drive, though a pleasant one, from Laramie. We were able to reserve a nice campsite (nice meaning with a picnic table and near a well-maintained pit toilet) at Leigh Creek Campground, which is at the bottom of the canyon on the banks of Tensleep Creek, for the first two nights of our trip. Though we’d never seen any poison ivy in the canyon before, the plants seemed to really enjoy living right by the creek. I’m actually surprised none of us ended up with any rashes. Anyway, after setting up camp, we went CLIMBING!

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Margaret on her FIRST EVER outdoor top-rope rock climb!

Ten Sleep is known for long, sustained, and really fun limestone sport climbing routes. This is kind of the opposite of what Margaret was used to climbing- short, powerful boulder problems. At first it was hard for her to get to the top of several climbs, even though she was strong enough to do every move of the route separately, but by the end of the trip she easily got to the top of a 100-foot climb. I hope we successfully convinced her that roped climbing is SO FUN!

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Me belaying Matt in the Lake Point area of Ten Sleep Canyon, WY. Photo by Margaret.

The approach trail to the Lake Point area, which crossed over a small CCC-built dam above Meadowlark Lake, was stunning.

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Boone on the trail toward Meadowlark Lake, through sagebrush and wildflowers, with the Big Horn Mountains in the distance

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Matt and Boone at Meadowlark Lake in the Bighorn National Forest

On our second full day in the Big Horns (our third day climbing), we decided to take a break and go for a hike instead. I’d only ever been climbing in this part of Wyoming, so I was excited to see more of the area.

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Margaret in front of a small waterfall just off the Lost Twin Lakes Trail

Matt decided on the Lost Twin Lakes Trail, just the portion that would take us to Mirror Lake, which was about 7 miles round-trip. We started at the West Tensleep trailhead, which is adjacent to a campground and picnic area at West Ten Sleep Lake.

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At two points, the trail crosses creeks in lush meadows surrounded by lodgepole pine

We didn’t start hiking until midday because we had to change our campsite to an area higher in the canyon that didn’t require reservations, but the skies were clear and the trail was practically empty. We passed a few people in the first mile, and then ran into two more on our way back, but that was it.

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Margaret and Matt on the Lost Twin Lakes Trail

Our hike was very quiet and peaceful, except for our run-in with a marmot. He stood on his hind legs atop a rock pile and chirped loudly to alert his fellow critters that we were entering their territory.

It turned out to be surprisingly difficult to spot Mirror Lake from the trail; it was somewhat hidden behind a low-lying area of pine trees. At first we weren’t sure that was the right way since there wasn’t a distinct trail down to the shore, so we kept walking for another half mile or so. We never once saw the lake again, so we turned around and walked toward the lake through the trees, away from the trail.

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Margaret at Mirror Lake

Here we drank water, ate a few Clif bars, swatted away a few mosquitoes, and basked in the cool air coming off the lake’s surface. Then we headed back for the car and to our new campsite for dinner.

There was another day of climbing and camping, and an evening of visiting the town of Ten Sleep as well as the Ten Sleep Brewing Company to escape a brief thunderstorm in the canyon. This microbrewery opened almost three years ago, and their beer is really terrific. In the summer, dirtbag climbers drive up in their dusty rigs to pay for a shower and a beer, which they drink under strings of lights and stars at outdoor picnic tables. I honestly cannot recommend this place enough. Should you find yourself in this part of western heaven, get thee to the brewery.

After driving back to Laramie, Margaret and I showered and went out for dinner in downtown Laramie during the height of the Jubilee Days festivities. Streets were blocked off for live music, dancing, drinking, and the carnival. We walked around for people-watching purposes, but were too tired to join in.

The next morning we met up with several friends to show Margaret the bouldering in Vedauwoo. Before this, she’d asked us why we don’t just go to Vedauwoo every day to climb, why we bother driving to places like Ten Sleep. After trying it herself, I think she understood why.

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Our friend Bart Cubrich on “Bombay Hooker,” a crazy-looking and very hard V6 boulder problem in Vedauwoo

Not to say that Vedauwoo’s climbing and bouldering are bad- they certainly aren’t. They’re just- well, different. They take some getting used to, both mentally and physically. Callouses help. Physical callouses. Although if you’ve built up some mental callouses, those could quite possibly help here too.

We especially enjoyed the start to “The Hatchet,” another V6, which was seemingly made for campusing, meaning only your hands are on the rock while your feet dangle beneath you. Yes, we do these things for fun.

After a quick shopping experience in downtown Laramie, I took Margaret to the Denver airport for her flight back to North Carolina. This past week has mostly consisted of me sitting inside at work and putting off cleaning and organizing our kitchen. It’s hard to be productive inside when the weather where you live is only this good for four months a year. Live on, Wyoming summer! Live on!

Love to all.

Banff National Park, Canada

We got to Banff by driving up the west side of Glacier National Park, through the Canadian border, and up through Kootenay National Park in Canada. The highway that runs through Banff National Park is called the Trans-Canada Highway, or AB-1 (the “AB” is short for Alberta, the province).

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Driving through Banff National Park on AB-1

We stopped for dinner at the Juniper Bistro just outside of the town of Banff, which is located in the east-central part of the national park. The cafe is inside the Juniper Hotel, and has excellent views of the park thanks to a whole wall of windows. I’d say the food deserves the hype; my crispy duck was delicious. Plus our waiter was really helpful in telling us how to locate the climb Matt and I planned on doing while we were visiting the park, a multi-pitch sport 5.7 called Aftonroe.

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Another drive-by photo from AB-1

We stayed at the Grande Rockies Resort in Canmore, a town just outside Banff National Park on its eastern side. This place had a mean waterslide, and a very nice hot tub to boot.

The next morning, Matt and I awoke early to eat breakfast before our climb. In doing some additional research the night before, Matt had learned that the portion of the road you drive to get to the approach trail to the climb, Bow Valley Parkway or AB-1A southeast of Johnston Canyon Campground, is closed from 8PM to 8AM every day to protect wildlife. This meant we didn’t have to wake up super early since we couldn’t get to the approach trail until 8AM anyway.

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The view from the hike up to our climb, with Bow River in the foreground

We drove toward Banff, then got on AB-1A just north of town, and parked at a small pulloff to the left after driving about 8-10 minutes on AB-1A. A little overlook of Bow River was to the left of the pulloff. The approach trail started on the right side of the road, eventually crossing underneath some powerlines. It was a short hike (maybe 20-25 minutes), but very steep. We joked that Canadians must not approve of switchbacks. Already the view from the hike was pretty incredible.

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Matt on the hike up to Aftonroe

The last five minutes or so of the approach were filled with scrambling up scree. Finding the route was fairly easy since it’s the rightmost one on the wall. The rock in this part of the park is a very featured limestone, though in other areas it transitions to granite.

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One of the middle pitches of Aftonroe- slabby, heavily-featured limestone

The skies were mostly cloudy that morning, which didn’t bother us at all since that meant we didn’t have to constantly reapply sunscreen. We were the first climbers on the route, but three other parties began climbing after us. Aftonroe is popular for its scenery, accessibility, and easy climbing.

The rappels down were a little annoying; they took us almost as long as climbing up. Once when I pulled the rope, it coiled itself around a tree. Matt had to climb out to fetch it. Constantly pulling the rope also knocked off some loose pebbles, which tumbled past us and the other climbers to the ground, sometimes bouncing off our helmets on the way down.

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Spectacular views the whole way up!

At one point Matt had begun to rappel down another pitch while I was still at the anchor, and I saw what I thought was a large hawk coasting towards us. As it approached, I could just make out its white head and bold yellow beak. I shouted to Matt, “Look! Turn around! It’s a- a bald eagle!” We watched in awe as it soared past on some invisible current. Even from 40-ish feet away we could tell this eagle’s wingspan was enormous. It rested in a faraway pine for a minute or so, and then flew back past us, this time overhead, and then out of sight.

Afterwards I joked that this bald eagle probably didn’t understand its prominence in the country just south of its homeland. Do Canadian bald eagles have egos?

Eventually we rappelled all the way back to the ground, hiked to the parking area, and waited for Matt’s folks to pick us up. We got a late lunch in Banff at a little Cajun restaurant called Tooloulou’s, where Matt had the best catfish sandwich of his life, and John tried his first sazerac since the legal drinking age in Canada is only 18.

The next day we checked out of our hotel in Canmore and drove all the way to Lake Louise, which is on the west side of Banff National Park, west of the town of Banff. Lake Louise itself is an icy blue color thanks to the glacial silt in the water.

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Lake Louise & looming snowy clouds

From the lake, you could see the downhill ski runs in the trees above the Fairmont Chateau, a huge and fancy hotel on Lake Louise’s shore.

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John and Matt on the trail with Lake Louise, the chateau, and the ski area in the background

I planned for us to do the Plain of Six Glaciers hike, which begins on the paved trail that wraps around the shoreline of Lake Louise just in front of the Fairmont Chateau. We parked in a public lot and followed the flow of tourists to the lake. There were many signs for cross-country ski trails, which we saw before the signs and maps for hiking trails.

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Matt’s family on the trail before it splits off from Lake Louise

The Plain of Six Glaciers trail takes you up to the aptly-named Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse, which was built in the 1920’s by Swiss mountaineers who had been hired by Canada’s Great Western Railway to guide tourists on expeditions through the Canadian Rockies.

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Matt in front of the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse

The Teahouse, surrounded by pine forest, doesn’t have any electricity or running water, so their supplies are flown in once or twice a season by helicopter. You can sit in their unlit rooms or out on the porch and order tea and biscuits, like we did, as well as other fare like soups and cakes.

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Inside the teahouse

They accept both Canadian and US dollars (there is a $2 fee for using a credit card since they have to manually write down your information, then run it once they’re back down at Lake Louise at the end of the day), so I paid with US dollars and received Canadian change.

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Our tea!

The well-marked and highly traveled though fairly rocky trail up to the teahouse is 4.3km long, with pretty steady elevation gain after the trail parts from the shoreline of Lake Louise. Horses are also allowed on the trail, though the horse trail splits off from the hikers’ trail a few times as the hikers’ trail narrows up against several steep rock walls, which can get slippery from snow-melt and rain. For the best views, or so we were told, you can continue an additional 1km to talus fields from which you can see Abbott Pass, in addition to those famous six glaciers.

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Socked in & snowy

Unfortunately for us, the weather hadn’t exactly been friendly that morning, and it began raining, then snowing as we finished our tea at the teahouse. The snow and clouds made it impossible to see any one of the six glaciers, but just through the fog we could get a sense for how massive the mountains around us really were.

A couple times on our way up we heard very loud, booming, echoing crashing sounds from the peaks to our left and in front of us. We could tell that the first one was an avalanche, with that telltale sound of cracking compressed snow, but the second one sounded more like thunder. After speaking with the waitress at the teahouse, she assured us there were almost never thunderstorms in that area of the Canadian Rockies, so it was definitely another avalanche. Because of where the trail travels, hikers are protected from avalanches, at least according to posted signs, from May to October each year.

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Matt’s parents and Matt hiking back down

The whole of the Plain of Six Glaciers hike, from the trailhead to the overlook and back, adds up to 10.6km with 365m of elevation gain, or just over 6.5 miles with just under 1200 feet of elevation gain. Next to the teahouse is a pit toilet and several benches and informational signs, so it’s a very well-developed area.

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John taking in the foggy view in front of the teahouse

After our hike, we drove to nearby Moraine Lake, which is south of Lake Louise by way of Moraine Lake Road. I had heard excellent things about Moraine Lake, so I wanted to make sure we stopped there quickly before leaving the park.

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Part of the view from Moraine Lake. See that icy chunk thing on the left? That’s a GLACIER!

The parking lot again was near the shoreline of the lake. There was also a restaurant, gift shop, and lodge all at the lake, so it was a pretty busy area. We didn’t have time to do any of the trails here, but we got out to take some spectacular photos, SAW A GLACIER (finally, right?), and bought some chocolate and matching t-shirts at the gift shop.

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Moraine Lake

Matt and I wore our Moraine Lake t-shirts (as well as our matching Deuter backpacks) to the airport the next day- it was adorable. We also think the t-shirts are kind of funny because they prominently say “ELEVATION: 6,183 FT.” which is actually more than 1,000 feet lower than where we live in Laramie.

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Matt at Moraine Lake

We had dinner in Banff on our way out of the park at a little restaurant next door to Tooloulou’s called Coyotes Southwestern Grill, and it too was delicious. I had sweet potato polenta with ratatouille, John had a thin-crust pizza, and Matt ordered the most tender of all beef tenderloins with fresh chimichurri sauce- yum!

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Crazy cloud formations in Banff

That night we drove back to Calgary, had some more doughnuts at Tim Horton’s, a Canadian institution, and went back to the hotel at which we’d previously stayed. Matt and I woke up super early (like before 4AM) the next morning to catch our flights, both of which ended up being delayed by more than two hours, but we eventually made it to Denver, and then back to Laramie.

Final thoughts: it is my destiny to open a teahouse somewhere. I’m open to location suggestions. Banff is one of the most beautiful places to which I have ever been and I can still hardly believe that it exists on this earth. If you even remotely feel an affinity for mountains, GO. NOW, before all the glaciers melt. Bring some warm jackets though, and maybe gloves. The next time we go, Matt and I would like to spend some more time climbing (no surprise there), maybe at Lake Louise.

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Majestic Banff

Love to all! Until the next adventure…