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.

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So You’re Planning a Roadtrip

Though it’s easy to make traveling purely about the destination (because we get excited about new places!), if you have the time to commit to a roadtrip, it’s an ideal way to refocus your travel around the act of traveling itself- that is, the journey. The way roads wind through landscapes, the roadside vegetation, the climate, the people-watching- these are all things I love about roadtripping. And as someone who’s made their way across the country via automobile a few times, I like to think I know what I’m talking about.

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Driving through Banff National Park in Canada

I’m planning a few roadtrips for this summer too- one from Wyoming to New Mexico, another from New Mexico to North Carolina, and then one from North Carolina back to Wyoming. Mapping out potential routes is almost more fun for me than the actual trip itself, but looking at Google Maps got me thinking: what advice do I have to aspiring roadtrippers? (I know you’re out there!) So below I have some advice organized by stages of the planning process, and then at the end I’ve included my abridged packing list to spark some wanderlust-y ideas for you!

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Southern Wyoming sagebrush prairie

Planning a Roadtrip:

  • Map out your route, starting with the quickest way between your start and end points. Are there nearby cities, national parks, historical sites, or other places you may want to stop that aren’t on this most direct route? If you’re planning on making your way quickly, try not to plan a day of driving longer than 8 hours. Though that doesn’t sound like a lot, when you throw in eating and bathroom breaks (and sightseeing!), that’s absolutely a full day. If you’ll be trading shifts behind the wheel with a partner or friend, you can of course do longer days, but even then be mindful of how cranky several full days of sitting can make your body feel. Also try to avoid large cities around rush hour– that is, unless you love traffic.
  • Get AAA! Or figure out if your car insurance company or car manufacturer offers roadside assistance. These programs are lifesavers should your car break down. In addition, AAA members get discounts at campgrounds and hotels all over the country. To note, if you’re roadtripping with a friend, only one of you needs to have AAA because they’ll provide roadside assistance to their members even if that member is a passenger in someone else’s car- of course speaking from personal experience.
  • Try to make reservations ahead of time, if possible. During the summer especially many campgrounds (both private and public) book up months in advance! Websites like reserveamerica.com allow you to search for campgrounds and pay online. If you’re considering a private campground, check for reviews on websites like yelp first to ensure the amenities you want are available, like potable water, toilets, or showers. KOA campgrounds aren’t the most scenic, but they often have laundry facilities and other conveniences available. For any campground, try to arrive before nightfall since it can be practically impossible to find your campsite in the dark. If you lean more toward hotels, consider setting up an account with a website like hotels.com, which gives you 1 free night at member hotels for every 9 nights you book through them. If you don’t want to shell out for hotels but still aren’t psyched on camping, check out websites like airbnb and couchsurfing, which allow you to stay with locals and within the bounds of your budget. If you’re bringing along a furry friend, you’ll need to check whether all the places you plan to stay are pet-friendly. Certain hotel chains are pet-friendly, but typically charge extra fees for the service.
  • If you’ll be traveling through or spending time in wilderness areas where predators like bears or mountain lions live, educate yourself about how to behave in these animals’ territories and what to do should you encounter a bear or mountain lion. For example, if you’ll be backpacking through grizzly bear country, buy some bear spray and learn how to use it. Being in bear country also affects the way you store any scented goods like food or lotions- here is a good list of tips for traveling in grizzly bear country.
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Driving through Big Sur on the California coast

Right Before You Leave:

  • Call your credit card company/ies to let them know when and where you’ll be traveling. I forgot to do this once, and when I tried to buy breakfast at a cafe in San Francisco the first morning I was there, my card kept getting declined. After a brief call to my credit card company I was able to use my card again, but only after I was a little annoyed and thoroughly embarrassed. Communicating your plans ahead of time will ensure your card works throughout your trip.
  • Get a phone charger for your car so you aren’t reliant on electricity, which is great if you’re planning on camping. This way your phone can charge while you drive!
  • Bring physical maps with you, whether you buy a road atlas or just print out copies of your directions from Google Maps. There will likely be many instances in which you won’t have cell phone service or LTE/4G to help you navigate.
  • Get a simple first aid kit outfitted with things like bandages, antibiotic ointment, alcohol swabs, tweezers, gauze, medical tape, and painkillers. You can find a complete kit like this at a drugstore or a store like Target or Walmart. You might also consider adding small packets of antihistamine medication (in case you struggle with allergies on your trip) or caffeine pills (if you get tired behind the wheel)- you can get these smaller packets at most gas stations. Obviously stock up on any medication you use regularly and bring that along, too.
  • Consider buying or borrowing jumper cables, a small jack, a spare tire, and a headlamp or flashlight. These items will seriously help you out should you encounter any car trouble.
  • While we’re on the subject of your car, schedule an oil change and get any timely maintenance your car may need BEFORE you leave, such as tire rotations/new tires, new belts, new brake pads, fluid flushes, etc. Your car can’t take care of you if you’re not taking care of it!
  • Make a fun playlist! Not only does this keep you excited about your trip, it will also prevent you from messing with your phone or iPod while you drive. Bonus: if you select songs to which you can sing along, this will keep you from getting sleepy behind the wheel (speaking from personal experience here, obviously). You can also utilize driving time to catch up on great podcasts or audiobooks.
  • Stock up on yummy snacks that won’t require refrigeration and won’t melt in the backseat like nuts, dried fruit, M&Ms, pretzels, veggie chips, granola, protein bars, jerky, little cups of fruit or applesauce, etc.
  • Tell someone you trust your entire itinerary in as much detail as you can provide including where you’ll be when, the route you’re taking, how to contact you, and where you’re planning to spend each night. Provide them with your car’s make and model in addition to your license plate information if they don’t already have it. If something happens and you aren’t where you planned on being, this person will not only know, but will be able to provide authorities with crucial information about your plans. Also tell this person where/when you anticipate not having cell phone coverage, if applicable.
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Bears Ears National Monument in Utah

On the Trip:

  • OMG you’re doing it! Take all the photos! Fill up your journal with tales of your adventure! Eat all the food! Stop at all the cool, weird, beautiful places!
  • Be mindful of possible delays on your trip like road construction, traffic, weather, and accidents. Many roads in more mountainous or remote areas close seasonally, so check the Department of Transportation’s websites for each state you’ll be traveling through for relevant information, especially if you’re traveling in the winter or spring. Additionally, if you’ll be driving anywhere at 5,000 feet above sea level or higher, no matter the time of year, bring a big coat and a warm hat. High deserts, prairies, and alpine areas and campgrounds can get below freezing temperatures even in the summer.
  • Some basic ground rules: don’t text and drive– use a friend, voice recognition software, or just pull over if you need to. In this vein, please don’t drink and drive either. Consider only drinking when you’re set up for the evening, or when you’ve arranged alternate transportation (e.g. walking, public transit, taxi, or designated driver).
  • Give yourself time to eat and move. Though it can be tempting to drive all day and eat fast food in the car, try to take a break for lunch, maybe eating at a non-chain restaurant. Websites like yelp and tripadvisor can guide you toward unique eateries. Take regular breaks not just to use the bathroom, but to walk and stretch. Our necks and shoulders can get particularly tight in the car- here are some useful stretches you can practice on your trip.
  • Only access sensitive information on secure WiFi. In other words, avoid checking your bank account balance or your email on public, non-password protected WiFi networks, like those at restaurants.
  • Trust your gut. If something seems off, it probably is. Don’t be afraid to pack up and leave because the guy in the next campsite is acting creepy, or to change your plans entirely when the motel or diner feels off. You’re not obligated to chat with or help someone if you feel unsafe or if you don’t have the time. This is your trip! You don’t owe anyone anything except to keep yourself safe.
  • Keep in touch with your trusted person! Tell them at regular intervals where you are and how you’re doing. Use a payphone or a landline if necessary. Send them amazing photos and make them jealous!
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Salt Lake City, Utah

Finally, here’s my abridged roadtrip packing list for this summer:

  • Journal + pens
  • Approximately 50 books
  • Cell phone equipped with some audiobooks + earbuds
  • Laptop + charger
  • Wallet
  • Sunglasses (maybe 2 pairs since I seem to always lose 1 on every trip)
  • Hat
  • Sunscreen
  • Bug spray
  • Lip balm with SPF
  • Deodorant
  • Face/body wipes (I like Burt’s Bees and these Yuni shower sheets)
  • Scentless lotion
  • Dry shampoo (these two are my favorites)
  • Hairbrush/comb
  • Extra ponytail holders
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Toothpaste & toothbrush
  • Travel towel (like this one)
  • Toilet paper
  • Sandals for driving (wearing close-toed shoes in the car? ugh!)
  • Hiking boots + wool socks
  • Rain jacket
  • Warm jacket
  • Swimsuit
  • Comfy driving clothes (aka NOT JEANS)
  • Travel yoga mat (I have this Manduka one that folds up into a little square)
  • Camera + battery charger
  • Headlamp + extra battery
  • Sleeping bag + sleeping pad
  • Pillow
  • Swiss army knife or multi-tool
  • Camp kitchen like this one (including stove, gas canister, eating utensils, etc.)
  • Sponge + biodegradable soap
  • Paper towels
  • A few plastic shopping bags to serve as trash bags
  • Water bottles + Camelbak bladder
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Wide open roads in Wyoming

What does your ideal roadtrip look like? And what would you add to my tips or packing list? Let me know! Happy travels.

Love to all.

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.

Horsepersonship

Matt and I recently completed a Horsemanship Level 1 course through the University of Wyoming’s Outdoor Program. When I first suggested signing up back in January, Matt replied that the correct, gender-neutral terminology for the course title really should be “horse-person-ship,” which I do not dispute. The course included six Sunday afternoons, March-May, for three hours each session at the local Sodergreen Ranch, which is about a 35-minute drive from Laramie, toward Cheyenne (east-bound, for you non-Wyomingites).

I am lucky in that, before taking this course, I already had a few experiences riding horses, but I didn’t know anything about how to catch, bridle, saddle, or groom one. Armed with curiosity and my grandfather’s cowboy boots, which seemed too nice to muddy up (but oh well), I drove up the dirt road driveway of Sodergreen Ranch with Matt in the passenger seat. There were about 20 students in our class, all college-aged, and some international students too.

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Matt opening the gate at snowy Sodergreen Ranch, and the horses in the distance

For the first two class meetings we only rode the horses bareback, without any saddle. I think this was supposed to get us used to the movement of the horse and to strengthen our legs, but Matt and I later realized it had primarily resulted in some uncomfortable sores on our behinds. Obviously we were excited to graduate to the saddle.

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Riding bareback in the outdoor ring

We both chose to learn on an English saddle over the Western one. The English saddle is pretty bare-bones, consisting of a blanket, a little flap of felt and leather which forms the saddle itself, and the stirrups for your feet. A Western saddle is designed for long treks and work like roping cattle, so it’s made almost entirely of leather and is formed to be more comfortable for the rider. It also has a horn in front of the rider for hanging equipment like ropes and bags, and for holding onto when your horse bucks (just kidding, Mom!). The stirrups on a Western saddle are bigger and include more leather, which lines the body of the horse and protects it and the rider from thorns and cacti and such. The reins are also different; for Western, the reins are held with one hand (traditionally so the other hand could be free to do things like rope cattle), but in the English style, each side of the reins is held with the corresponding hand. You’ll encounter Western saddles at rodeos, on ranches, in Clint Eastwood movies, and on horseback trail rides since they are easy and comfortable for the rider. You’ll see English saddles in Europe, obviously, and at certain competitive horse shows and events like dressage.

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Matt riding English saddle in the indoor arena

Each class began with discussion and sometimes demonstration in the indoor arena. Thank goodness for that shelter- we often heard wind and snow pelting against the sides of the building. We were then paired up and assigned a horse, whom we had to fetch from a nearby fenced-in field where they (and the occasional donkey or mule) were snacking on hay. To get a halter on a naked horse, which is necessary in order to walk the horse back to where you can put on their saddle, you approach from the horse’s left side and hug their neck with the unbuckled halter in your hand. From there you can slip the halter around the horse’s neck and over their nose. Attached to the halter is a short rope, which we used to walk the horse back to the indoor arena.

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This is Hal being haltered by my partner

Once there, we tied the ropes using a quick-release knot through metal rings which were mounted on the arena walls. We then brushed the horses and cleaned any mud and rocks out from their hooves. Believe me- picking up an uncooperative horse’s dinner plate-sized hoof can be challenging. After grooming, we put on the horse’s bridle, which is like the halter but made of leather and has reins attached. We then slid on the saddle blanket, the saddle, and stirrups, walked the horse around a little, and then tightened the cinch on the saddle (basically the belt that runs underneath the horse which keeps the saddle attached).

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Tiffany was not pleased with my cleaning her hooves. She was ready to roll.

If I remember correctly, there was only one Sunday with nice enough weather that we got to ride in the outdoor ring; every other time we rode around the indoor arena in a big circle, one after another, trying not to cut corners.

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This is representative of the weather at the ranch most of the time

Each horse was distinctive in both appearance and personality. There was Janey, a chestnut, who was known to kick at anything within three feet of her backside. And Alder, whose coat was silvery, was half draft horse (think of the Clydesdales in the Budweiser commercials), so he was a head taller than all the other horses, at least. Fred was an old show horse whose bridle sparkled from rhinestones and had one blue eye encircled by white hair and one brown eye encircled by brown hair. Tiffany, the horse I rode on the last day of class, was eager to go at every portion of the class. When we practiced trotting, she got so excited watching the horses in front of her trot that, before it was our turn, I had to walk her around in little circles so she didn’t run into the horse in front of me (especially if that horse happened to be Janey).

Matt and I are planning on signing up for a Level 2 class for the summer- maybe we’ll learn to gallop! In the meantime I am working on mentally preparing Matt for buying me a horse in the future. Until then I’ll just have to keep riding other people’s horses.

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My friend Makaiya took this photo during our trail ride in Estes Park, Colorado, just outside Rocky Mountain National Park

Keep adventuring and trying new things! Love to all.

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The end.

California Trip, Part II: Big Sur, Yosemite, and Santa Barbara

This post is a continuation of my last post, California Trip, Part I: San Francisco, about Matt’s and my trip to California a couple weeks ago.

On Monday morning, we left San Francisco and drove down to Big Sur, of which I’ve seen beautiful pictures and heard wonderful things.

Big Sur, view from Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park overlook

Big Sur, view from an overlook. Do you see the skinny waterfall in the middle of the photo?

I’d read (thank you, internet) that two of the best day hikes were in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park just off of the renowned Highway 1, so we drove there, paid the $10/vehicle day fee in the parking lot, and went for two brief hikes.

Matt at the overlook

Matt at the overlook

One was not even a mile long round-trip, appropriately called the Waterfall Overlook Trail, just out to a wonderful overlook and back to the parking lot. The water was an amazing azure-to-turquoise ombré, and the beach’s sand was untouched and serene.

Hello, Pacific Ocean!

Hello, Pacific Ocean!

There were many other tourists at the overlook too, even though we were there in the morning on a weekday, which speaks to both the popularity of Big Sur and the accessibility of this particular overlook.

One last overlook photo

One last overlook photo

We then went on a longer, five-mile loop hike through the redwoods just off the coast, called the Ewoldsen Trail. The redwoods were pure magic.

Redwoods in the magical morning mist of the Pacific

Redwoods in the magical morning mist of the Pacific

The trees felt prehistoric, ancient.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, California

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, California

Matt in the redwood grove

Matt in the redwood grove

The trail followed a stream, then broke away up a long, dusty incline. We had the trail practically to ourselves. At the top, we were greeted by yet another dazzling overlook.

This photo sponsored by well-positioned rocks and a self-timer

This photo made possible by well-positioned rocks and a self-timer

The morning mist hadn’t quite cleared from the coast.

Matt on the trail

Matt on the trail

Matt and I attempted to make this hike a sort of trial run for the more intense hikes and climbs we anticipated doing in Yosemite National Park, so we rushed back down the trail toward the car to make time. On the way down, I managed to lose my footing (a theme, now?) and scraped up my left knee and the palm of my left hand pretty badly. I’m sure the other tourists in their sundresses and flip-flops were at least mildly alarmed at the sight (and smell) of me dashing down the trail, covered in dust and knee dripping with blood.

Admiring the coastal scenery

Admiring the coastal scenery

I took fewer photos on our Yosemite leg of the trip since bringing my camera along on the long hikes and climbs wasn’t practical, so many of the following photos are from Matt’s phone instead.

We continued our drive to Groveland, a small town outside of Yosemite National Park, to stay at the historic Hotel Charlotte, which was built in 1921. Each of the rooms has its own bathroom, which includes an adorable clawfoot bathtub. The owners were very kind and helpful, providing us with maps and advice for our trip to Yosemite. I was a disappointed that the adjoining restaurant was closed on Mondays, especially since the reviews are so stellar. The owners just completed renovations on the restaurant and bar, and it looked beautiful- lots of soft metals and reclaimed wood.

Our plan for Tuesday was to wake up super early, book it toward the Tuolumne Meadows area of Yosemite, and climb Cathedral Peak. Matt had reserved a campsite for us for that night in Tuolumne Meadows, which is at a higher elevation than the famed valley area of Yosemite, so it stays cooler in the summer and has more of an alpine feel.

In reality, we woke up semi-early, in time to swing by the local coffee shop in Groveland and pick up breakfast, drove the steep and winding (and slightly terrifying) road up into Tuolumne Meadows, and arrived at the Cathedral Lakes trailhead at about 9:30AM. We stored all the food we wouldn’t be eating that day inside big, metal, locking bear-proof boxes that sat on the ground at the trailhead, and embarked with our packs full of climbing gear, food, water, and sunscreen- the essentials.

Matt & my helmet hair at the base of Cathedral Peak (behind us)

Matt & my helmet hair at the base of Cathedral Peak (behind us)

Relatively early in our trek we diverged from the main trail onto the climber’s approach trail, which was less traveled and hard to discern at points, especially when it meandered on top of some very large, flat granite features. Cairns lit the way like lanterns. The trail eventually evolved into step after granite step. I felt exhausted from the combination of uphill and heavy pack, uncertain about our success. When we reached the bottom of the peak itself, the start of the climb, we stopped for some water and a snack.

One of my favorite pictures of the trip- Matt took this of me hiking back down from Cathedral Peak, the setting sun coloring the granite peaks pink in the distance

One of my favorite pictures of the trip- Matt took this of me hiking back down from Cathedral Peak, the setting sun coloring the granite peaks pink in the distance

We climbed the Southeast Buttress of Cathedral Peak, which is a 5-pitch trad (short for traditional) climb rated at 5.6. Matt led each pitch, placing gear, and I followed, cleaning it. We deviated a little from the main route in order to follow a really fun hand-size crack section up the face of the peak. There were a couple of parties ahead of us, and a party of three behind us, so we had company the whole climb, but we didn’t feel rushed.

Our matching helmets make us look pretty cute, eh?

Our matching helmets make us look pretty cute, eh?

The summit of Cathedral Peak was quite small, maybe the size of a large dining room table.

Almost at the top!

Almost at the top!

We had expected a rappel station at the summit to assist in the descent (the climb up is just half the battle), but there was none. We searched around for several minutes, and found evidence of chopped webbing, maybe some chopped bolts, but nothing else. So I began to place my FIRST TRAD GEAR EVER ON LEAD while gingerly down-climbing from the summit of Cathedral Peak. Eventually the angle backed off and we were able to hike down.

On the descent. Cathedral Peak in the background, as well as a controlled burn in the forest

On the descent. Cathedral Peak in the background, as well as a controlled burn in the valley forest

John Muir completed the first ascent of Cathedral Peak via the Mountaineer’s Route (which we used to descend), about which he famously said, “This I may say is the first time I have been at church in California, led here at last, every door graciously opened for the poor lonely worshiper.” Thus the name- Cathedral Peak.

By the time we got to camp, set up the tent, and made dinner (ground beef, instant rice, taco seasoning, water, diced tomato, and cheese), the idea of waking up at 3AM to climb Half Dome seemed ridiculous. We decided to take Wednesday as a rest day, camp in the valley as planned on Wednesday night, and then climb Half Dome on Thursday instead. Our friends, University of Wyoming geology students, happened to be doing field work in Yosemite National Park at the same time we were there, so they met up with us at our campsite in Tuolumne Meadows to share a couple drinks before bed.

We had a leisurely breakfast at the picnic table, then parted ways. Matt and I went to a resupply/gift shop to stock up, then drove to our next campground to get set up early. It was considerably warmer in the valley than it had been up in the alpine meadows. We made lunch- mostly salami, cheese, crackers, and local beer- sat around, tried to jump start a fellow camper’s minivan (no luck; he called AAA), and reviewed our various pamphlets and maps. A little too buzzed to safely drive (hey, this was our vacation, after all!), we decided to hop on the park’s free shuttle to see some low-key (read: NO REAL HIKING) sites. We stopped at another store, hit up the Ansel Adams Art Gallery and gift shop, and did a slow-paced, relaxing one-mile loop hike on a paved “trail” to see Yosemite Falls which, at 2,425 feet, is one of the tallest waterfalls in the world. Unfortunately, on the shuttle ride to the trail, the bus driver informed us that, due to the drought conditions in California, there was no water to supply the Falls, and thus no real waterfall to see. It was kind of eery to watch tourists take photographs at the base of this nonexistent waterfall, pretending there was still something to see.

We went back to our campsite, made a quick dinner, and were in our sleeping bags before 9PM. Matt’s alarm went off at around 3:45AM. We broke down camp, packed up all of our gear, drove to the parking lot nearest the Half Dome trailhead, filled up another bear box, and began hiking at about 4:30AM. This was a little later than we had anticipated, but we had plenty of company on the trail.

Nevada Falls, one of the waterfalls (with water still flowing) we passed on the way up to and down from Half Dome

Nevada Falls, one of the waterfalls (with water still flowing) we passed on the way up to and down from Half Dome

A word about the trail- it was MOSTLY STAIRS. And not nice, carpeted stairs- but granite ones, with steps designed for a 6-foot-tall man with appropriately long legs. In a series of several moments (of which I am not proud), I *allowed* Matt to take some of the weight, in the form of water and climbing gear, from my backpack, which added weight to his. Something about getting moving that quickly and that intensely before sunrise made me want to vomit. I am sure I’m not alone in knowing this sensation, no?

Gotta love those redwoods!

Gotta love those redwoods!

Eventually the climbers’ trail deviated from the main Cables Route hike, so Matt and I split off left from the pack of hikers who had accompanied us thus far. After hiking about six miles with several thousand feet of elevation gain, I was tired, but there was still scrambling to do before the roped climbing could begin. As Matt can attest, I am the slowest at scrambling up rocks- not climbing, which is different, but scrambling, especially if the rocks are large, wobbly, and nerve-wracking. I believe that this was the point at which Matt seriously doubted whether we’d successfully complete the climb.

The climbing route we took up Half Dome is called Snake Dike which, according to Mountain Project, is 8 pitches of 5.7R. Matt again led each pitch, and options for placing gear grew fewer and farther between as we climbed. Toward the top, we chose to simul-climb. Instead of belaying Matt from a static stance like normal, in order to simul-climb, I climbed at the rate Matt did, keeping the rope relatively taut between us as Matt placed gear and I cleaned it. Simul-climbing is risky, but the climbing itself was easy (the angle was low), so we felt pretty comfortable with our choice.

Tiny me, big Half Dome

Tiny me, big Half Dome, lots to climb

The place at which the climbers summit is kind of on the opposite side of Half Dome from the hikers. After taking pictures, eating lots of beef jerky, and reapplying sunscreen, Matt asked a hiker, “Where is the Cables Route?” She looked at us like we were insane (we’d already taken off our harnesses and switched back into our hiking shoes) and pointed down at the way she’d come up.

HALF DOME SUMMIT.

HALF DOME SUMMIT.

The cables assist hikers up the last 400 feet of their ascent of Half Dome. Gloves are, understandably, recommended. After coming down the cables, I was so thankful we’d climbed the thing instead.

Yay for gloves! Cables to the summit of Half Dome in the background

Yay for (pink) gloves! Cables to the summit of Half Dome (and shirtless British gents) in the background

It was a 9.5-mile hike back to the car. The trail felt like it went on forever, especially the last couple of miles. Your knees grow numb from the incessant pounding. The fact that the last bit of the trail is paved, and packed with fellow hikers, didn’t really help. As an encouraging mantra, and looking forward to the end of our vacation, we kept saying to each other, “Beach and margaritas. Beach and margaritas.” We got back to the car at about 6:30PM, approximately 14 hours after we’d begun.

The plan from there was to drive to Santa Barbara, but we only made it to Fresno before stopping at a Holiday Inn Express and taking advantage of both their nice showers and their free-pancakes-until-midnight promotion. Upon walking in the front door, the man at the front desk immediately said to me, “Yosemite?” That obvious? Yep.

The next morning we woke up very slowly and painfully, sore and sunburned. After breakfast, Matt drove us down to Santa Barbara in time for some low-key surfing lessons with his cousin Kelsey. There is no photographic evidence of my first attempt at surfing, which is as it should be, to spare all parties of unnecessary pain.

A picture of me on the beach- NOT surfing

A picture of me on Santa Claus beach in Santa Barbara- NOT surfing

Eventually Matt and I made up for lost calories with plenty of blood orange margaritas, ice cream, and seafood- a good way to end a vacation, I think. We met up with Matt’s family and caught up on sleep. We even squeezed in some climbing at a local crag called Gibraltar Rock with Kelsey, despite our very sore muscles. On Sunday I made my way back to Laramie via the Phoenix and Denver airports, but not without flight delays and missed connections, of course.

Many, many thanks to Matt, who not only planned the vast majority of this trip, but also did all the driving and most of the motivating. Thanks also to Matt’s family for putting up with us as well as putting us up. We can only hope we were coherent and presentable for the majority of the time you spent with us.

And, finally, what a way to say goodbye to summer! Today is the first day of autumn here in Wyoming- no snow in Laramie yet, thanks for asking. Until that day, I’ll just keep remembering that California sand and sunshine.

Love to all.

Awesome Outdoorsy Women to Follow on Social Media

I love being outside, but sometimes you have to spend a little time inside, whether it’s due to an injury, a job, a commitment, the weather, or- you know- the fact that it’s nighttime. Whatever the reason, many of us outdoor fiends end up on social media, and occasionally seeing other people’s adventures can inspire us to take on our own.

In addition, yesterday (March 8th) was International Women’s Day, so when better to present to you a list of a few of my favorite outdoorsy women to follow on social media? I share these ladies’ adventures with you in hopes that their bold prowess may encourage you to get out there, try something new, and maybe even get a little dirty.

  1. From dirtbagdarling.com

    From dirtbagdarling.com

    Johnie Gall, aka Dirtbag Darling: Johnie left her full-time office job for a life of freelance writing and roaming the country with her fiancee in their renovated Sprinter van, stopping for all kinds of adventures like kayaking, climbing, mountain biking, snorkeling, hiking, skiing, camping- you name it. Her blog, which you can read here (and which I read religiously) features interviews with many different outdoorsy women, from professional athletes to weekend warriors, as well as product reviews, outdoor tourism recommendations, and inspirational anecdotes. Her Instagram is as beautiful as it is motivational.

  2. From snowqueenandscout.com

    From snowqueenandscout.com

    Liz Song Mandell, aka Snowqueen & Scout: Originally a city girl from LA, Liz hesitantly began her first backpacking trip after graduating from college, and hasn’t been able to stop since. It’s never too late to begin a new hobby! She is now a backpacking aficionado, and her website has some great resources for women interested in dabbling in the sport, including this sample meal plan for a four-day trip, as well as her standard packing list for an overnight trip. Her journal covers some other helpful information, from how to read maps to how to dry sweaty clothing on a hike.

  3. From dirtbagdarling.com

    From dirtbagdarling.com

    Brooke Gaynes grew up in Utah and now lives in Salt Lake City, working as a genetic researcher. As a new mom, she, her husband, and her infant son enjoy both hiking and skiing to get outside. When she’s not carting around her baby boy, she also enjoys mountain biking, rock climbing, and trail running. Her interesting interviews and articles are spread across the world wide web, but you can always find pictures of her stunning adventures on her Instagram. Recently she’s posted some photos of her son accompanying her on their outdoor escapades – so cute!

  4. From emilyaharrington.com

    From emilyaharrington.com

    Emily Harrington is a professional climber, sponsored by companies like The North Face and La Sportiva. In 2013, she traveled to rural Morocco to scale a 3,000-foot wall with British professional climber Hazel Findlay, about which you can read more on the National Geographic blog here. In late 2014, Emily joined a team of climbers and mountaineers in Myanmar, also known as Burma, to attempt summits of some of the tallest and most remote peaks of the Himalayas. You can read more about their attempt as narrated by climber (and Laramie-dweller!) Mark Jenkins here. Emily has proved her chops in technical climbing as a five-time National Champion, but her latest adventures into rural areas with other awesome women have been really inspiring to witness. Be sure to check out her website as well as her Instagram page.

  5. From carolinegleich.com

    From carolinegleich.com

    Caroline Gleich is a professional big mountain skier, competitive SUPer (that’s short for stand-up paddleboard), writer, and model. Living in ski capitol of the world Salt Lake City, Caroline recently graduated from the University of Utah with a BS in Anthropology- with honors, no less. Check out her blog for recent posts about ski mountaineering and videos of her cruising down mountains through deep powder, and her Instagram for some gorgeous photos of her adventures.

  6. From oliviahsu.com

    From oliviahsu.com

    Olivia Hsu is a yoga teacher trained in the ashtanga tradition as well as a professional climber, sponsored by companies like PrAna. She began climbing first, and then took up yoga after sustaining a finger injury from climbing. She calls Boulder, Colorado home, while traveling all around the world to get her climbing fix. You can watch some breathtaking footage here of Olivia practicing yoga and climbing hard sport routes in Brazil with fellow professional climber Daila Ojeda. Check out her website and her Instagram for more!

  7. Tina LaRocque, aka SLCbikergirl: As her Instagram username implies, Tina calls Salt Lake City, Utah home, where she pursues mountain biking, backpacking, trail running, and yoga in the great outdoors. Some of her most jaw-dropping pictures are from her recent trip to Patagonia, but her captures from around home- places like the Great Salt Lake and the Wasatch mountain range- are equally inspiring.

If you were in any doubt before reading this post, women can in fact be badass outdoor adventurers. That means you too can get out there, dust off your old sneakers, and get moving. See the world, and have fun!

Love to all.

Valentine’s Day Excursion

On some winter days in Laramie, you just feel like this:

Abe, longing for summer

Abe, longing for summer

So that’s why I take advantage of the warmer winter days we are given. On Valentine’s Day this year, Matt had to be in Colorado for a portion of the avalanche safety course he was taking through the University of Wyoming, so I defiantly set off with (aka was kindly invited by) climbers and UWyo students Andrew and Phil to climb at Guernsey State Park. Normally climbing in February at Guernsey wouldn’t be an option, but due to the relatively warm weather we’ve had as of late, the drive was snow-free and being outside, so long as it was in the sun, was comfortable. Phil wrote about this trip among other excursions on his climbing blog, which you can read here.

The view of Guernsey Reservoir from our climbing spot

The view of Guernsey Reservoir from our climbing spot

Guernsey State Park features Guernsey Reservoir, and attracts many boaters, fishers, swimmers, campers, and picnickers during the summer months. Matt and I actually drove through the park on our move out to Laramie from North Carolina, as it lies just west of Nebraska and north of Cheyenne, though still in southeastern Wyoming. As I recall, we simply stretched our legs, found some bolts in a sandstone cliff (indicators of the existence of sport climbing routes), avoided cacti and rattlesnakes, remarked on how it was a little hot, and got going again.

The relatively short cliffs at Guernsey can be both sandstone and limestone, depending on where you are in the park. The area in which we climbed, which I believe is officially named the Red Clove Wall, was mostly sandstone with a little band of limestone at the top of some of the climbing routes. Cliff swallows have built their nests along the less climbed areas of the rock walls. These bird nests resemble giant wasps’ nests, assembled with mud in a corner of a cliff face with a sizable hole for entry and exit – you can see pictures of their nests in Yellowstone National Park here.

The approach, with Guernsey Reservoir in the distance

The approach, with Guernsey Reservoir in the distance

We seemed to be the only people enjoying the park on Valentine’s Day, so the climbing area was nice and quiet, and we had our pick of routes. There isn’t a guidebook for the area; a guidebook is a book containing helpful and essential information on climbing areas such as any rules that may exist (for example, Rocky Mountain National Park doesn’t allow dogs), how to get there (driving and hiking), where to park, how difficult certain routes are, their location, how much sun they get and what time of year or day is optimal for climbing them, what gear certain routes require, etc. Without a guidebook, we relied on Andrew’s expertise, which he gleaned from a previous trip to the area. We climbed several moderate routes, maybe some 5.9s and 5.10s, and then got on some harder routes, 5.11 to possible 5.12.

Some of the first bolts, rather than having a hanger through which to clip your quickdraw, consisted of a bolt and a couple of rusty chain links. This resulted in some sketchy happenings…

Yeah, don't fall on that.

Yeah, don’t fall on that.

For reference, this is what a quickdraw through a normal bolt and hanger looks like:

From theartoflifeandclimbing.com

From theartoflifeandclimbing.com

Though the rock itself was not great quality and the climbing required constant awareness of the possibility of loose rock (yay for helmets!), all the routes we did were actually quite fun, not to mention scenic.

Phil taking a little rest while leading

Phil taking a little rest while leading a route

Andrew being too strong for his own good

Andrew being too strong for his own good while pulling a roof

Phil on the same route, chalking up his hands before pulling the roof move

Phil on the same route, chalking up his hands before pulling the roof move

We ate some CLIF bars and trail mix, got a little lost trying to find the car, stepped on some cacti (no? just me?), and drove back home to Laramie, all the while remaining vigilant for road obstacles such as pronghorn and deer.

The moral of the story: climbing > boyfriends. Okay, okay – I’m only slightly kidding.

Phil, thinking about how awesome climbing is, and how much dating sucks

Phil, thinking about how awesome climbing is, and how much dating sucks

Love to all!