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.

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.

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.

California Trip, Part I: San Francisco

Recently Matt and I went on our first vacation together in several years. You could argue that our “weekend warrior” trips are vacations too, but somehow weekends never quite fill that void in my heart that’s only really addressed by day drinking, eating a crazy array of foods at all hours of the day, exploring new places, wearing out the soles of my shoes, and sitting on a beach (under an umbrella, and a hat, and a pair of sunglasses, and while basically still clothed- gotta protect that pale skin, folks!). So, in line with that argument, our trip to California fits the bill.

Beautiful San Francisco Bay

Beautiful San Francisco Bay

Since Matt was still on summer break from graduate school, he drove down to San Francisco, and I flew in several days later from Denver. Matt’s brother Michael lives in the city, and after I got embarrassingly lost at the airport (this is not a one-time occurrence, sadly), Michael picked me up and we went into town.

I’d always heard that San Francisco is at its most moody during the summer- foggy, overcast, damp, and chilly- but the weather was pleasant for us. Admittedly, it helps that I love fog. It always reminds me of Carl Sandburg’s poem: “The fog comes/ on little cat feet.” And one of my favorite morning drinks is a London Fog: earl grey tea, foamed milk, and vanilla. It was only foggy the morning we went whale watching- but I’m getting ahead of myself.

On Saturday morning we awoke bright and early (a.k.a. after Michael had already gone for his morning run) to get to Chinatown for a walking tour. Chinatown was one of my must-sees for San Francisco, especially since I’ve yet to find a good Chinese restaurant in all of Wyoming. I was very excited to drink boba or bubble tea again.

One of many murals in San Francisco's Chinatown

One of many murals in San Francisco’s Chinatown

Due to the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires, almost all of the downtown architecture in San Francisco is relatively new. In a way, this reminded me of Hamburg, Germany, which was completely destroyed by bombings in World War II. The entire city is glass and sharp corners, not unlike San Francisco. After the fires, hardworking Chinese immigrants insisted on keeping Chinatown in the city despite reluctance from white Americans, so the Chinese paid for the rebuilding of Chinatown on their own.

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Mostly our tour guide spoke about how hard life has been for Chinese immigrants in San Francisco, how they’ve fought for recognition and for the freedom to practice their traditions, both religious and cultural, in America.

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We visited a Buddhist/Confuscius temple, walked down several alleys, saw a 93-year-old man sing and play a traditional Chinese instrument known as the erhu, and passed by the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory.

Erhu player

Erhu player, who was going deaf and played his mic’d instrument so loudly it drowned out the voice of our tour guide

After our tour, we grabbed some clam and herb pizza on the way to Coit Tower.

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I was impressed by how hilly the city truly is (I’ve been to San Francisco once before, but I was maybe 3 or 4 years old and don’t remember most of the trip).

Just a little hilly

Just a little hilly

Upon finally reaching the base of the tower, which is atop a large hill and staircase, we groaned when we saw the line of tourists waiting for their turn to take the stairs to the tower’s top, so we just enjoyed the view of the bay from the park below.

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Michael and Matt

Michael and Matt

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We walked around the city some more, then took an Uber to Mission Dolores Park to meet up with my Uncle Tom, Aunt Morgan, and two little cousins Catalina and Maxime. Lina and I ruled the playground, no big deal. Actually, cops do patrol the playground to ensure that every adult is “accompanied by a child,” as a sign proclaims. I don’t blame them; it’s a pretty awesome playground. Lina and I climbed to the top of a genuine boulder and had a small picnic up there.

Tom took this one of Lina & me atop the boulder

Tom took this one of Lina & me atop the boulder

I told her, “Hey, that policeman was making sure your dad was here with a kid.” She looked up at me, half-bitten sugar snap pea in hand, and replied, “What kid?”

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After the playground, we headed to Dosa, an Indian restaurant in the Mission, for a mid-afternoon snack. We ordered everything off their small bites menu, and it was all delicious. Think spicy kale chips, fried chickpeas and chicken, sweet and savory chutneys. I also had a pretty spectacular beet cocktail.

We parted ways with my aunt and uncle and my sleepy cousins, and went for a short hike up to Mount Davidson to get a good view of the bay.

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That night we went out to a fancy bar that purportedly had a live jazz band, which ended up being a sort of wedding band specializing in soul music and love songs from the 60’s. The bouncer wore a buttoned-up vest over his collared shirt, and the bartender had a mustache like that of the Robin Williams/wax museum version of Teddy Roosevelt, but more steampunk, and more curly at the edges. Lots of wax, or whatever it is hipster guys are putting in their facial hair these days.

The next morning was our whale-watching tour, which was expensive, but ended up being totally worth it. I highly recommend signing up for one if you ever go to San Francisco. The special up-close view of the Golden Gate Bridge was an added bonus.

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

Unfortunately for me, my propensity toward motion sickness has seemed to increase over the past several years, and being on a boat, even a nice, flat catamaran like the Kitty Kat (yes, that is the name of their boat), reminded me of such. I felt fine for the first couple hours, and was even impressed with how normal I felt, for a while. By the time we got to the Farallone Islands, I was popping ginger candy like it was, well, candy.

So many sea birds!

So many sea birds!

The first notable animal we came across was, sadly, a dead, discolored, and very bloated bottlenose dolphin. Actually, the person who had originally spotted it had thought it was a leatherback sea turtle due to the yellow tint of the dolphin’s skin. The naturalist warned us, over the microphone, that children and those of the squeamish persuasion would be better suited looking in the opposite direction.

At about fifteen minutes into our boat ride we saw our first whale, not even out of the bay yet.

A faraway humpback whale, still in the bay

A faraway humpback whale, still in the bay

Most of the whales we saw on our tour were humpbacks, who arc out of the water’s glassy surface so beautifully, spray their misty spout, and plunge back down, but not before waving with that mermaid-esque split tail.

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They also like to alternate lifting their fins out of the water, like waving hands.

"Heeellllooooooooooooo"

“Heeellllooooooooooooo”

The naturalist said this behavior had something to do with the bacteria and barnacles growing on their skin. I like to think they were just saying hello, but I don’t speak whale.

They were so close to the boat!

They were so close to the boat!

I was also impressed with the amount of sea birds we saw, especially on the Farallone Islands, which are actually just a few big rocky caves covered in bird poo and a couple of research buildings. The stench did not allay my nausea, in case you were wondering.

Fish poo-scented Farallone Islands

Fish poo-scented Farallone Islands

On the trip back, we passed under the Golden Gate Bridge.The clouds had lifted so that the whole of the bay was sunny and clear.

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Thanks for the photoshoot, Michael!

Thanks for the photoshoot, Michael!

After disembarking, Matt and I shared an obligatory order of fish tacos on the pier.

Mmm fresh fish tacos

Mmm fresh fish tacos

I tried my best to balance out my nausea by concentrating on my hunger, and we headed back to Michael’s house to change into land-appropriate attire. For dinner, we ate at a delicious Chinese restaurant that specialized in dumplings, appropriately called Shanghai Dumpling King. I insisted we order a bok choy dish so that I could say I ate at least one vegetable in San Francisco. (Oh, sushi’s not a vegetable?)

On Monday morning, Matt and I got an early, pre-sunrise start on our drive to Big Sur, and then Groveland, California, just outside Yosemite National Park. Stay tuned for Part II of my blog post for gorgeous pictures of Big Sur, and harrowing tales from Yosemite.

Up next, glorious Big Sur

Up next, glorious Big Sur. Yes, I actually took this photograph.

Love to all.

A Beach Meditation

Though my response to the question “beach or mountains?” has invariably been “mountains” since I can remember, (sand is my nemesis – it has no respect for personal space) I must admit that spending several days at Figure Eight Island in North Carolina recently was a much-needed break from the dry, thin air of the Mountain West.

My brother Will woke up early one morning to see the sunrise

My brother Will woke up early one morning to see the sunrise

I live for the moment when, exiting the airport, two automatic sliding glass doors swish out of your way like curtains, parting to deliver you to the realm of humid, hazy summer air. Most travelers at the Raleigh-Durham airport were either walking very quickly to their intended destinations or waiting inside, getting all chummy with baggage claim, while I stood outside on the sidewalk, dreaming of a Cook Out milkshake.

Last year I went to the North Carolina coast to remember my Oma, my grandmother. Her four sons – my dad and three uncles – and my Opa spread her ashes in the ocean. It has been over a year since she passed away. She never met my cousin, who would’ve been her newest grandchild, baby Maxime, who is not yet a year old. We think she bears a strong resemblance to Oma.

Will took this adorable photo of Maxime on the beach

Will took this adorable photo of Maxime on the beach

A house filled to the brim with seventeen family members, all salt-crusted, tanned and sandy and sunscreened, sucking on sweaty soda cans, is a joy.

Beach hair & family

Beach hair & family

Figure Eight Island doesn’t have any public access beaches, so the strand stays relatively empty, dotted by the occasional sand castle, umbrella, swimmer, or fisher. On a few days, I went for walks barefoot in that small strip of land close enough to the tide that the sand stays compact, and footprints wash away behind you.

Photo credit to Libby

Photo credit to Libby

After a few minutes of step after step, I realized how empty the beach truly was. Once I turned around to head back, the wind threw itself at the front of my wide-brimmed straw hat. If I lifted my chin, the wind would catch the brim and toss the whole hat clear off my head and toward the dunes. If I tucked my chin down, the wind pushed up against the brim, pressing it into my nose and almost entirely obscuring my vision. It was like this when I realized I could simply walk forward with my eyes closed for minutes at a time. I can’t think of any other setting in the world in which this would be possible.

Occasionally I’d step on a shattered shell or a larger wave would catch my ankles by cold surprise, but mostly it was full minutes of waves, ocean rush, wind, sand beneath my feet, and nothing else. How peaceful to walk, completely trusting in the landscape and the strength of my legs, no background noise but breeze and sea. One dark step after another, the inner ear pulsing with breath and heartbeat, a walking meditation.

Libby took this photo of Ben on one of his walks

Libby took this photo of Ben on one of his walks

I admire our planet’s ability to hold a singular space for destruction and messy life alongside such transcendent calm- a flat, clean emptiness.

Rainy Weekend at Shelf Road, Colorado

For Memorial Day weekend, Matt and I drove down to Shelf Road, Colorado, which is an area of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land outside of Cañon City. We met up with some friends we knew from UNC (that’s North Carolina, not Northern Colorado), John- who is doing a multi-week road trip out west from Asheville, NC with his friend Stephanie- and Kevin, an adventure videographer and photographer now living in Boulder, CO. We knew it would be a little crowded at the campgrounds since it was a long weekend, and we ended up sharing a campsite with a very kind and obliging group of parents and small children, which ended up being fine since we didn’t stay up very late anyway.

The drive to Shelf Road from Laramie takes us through Fort Collins, Denver, and Colorado Springs, so we hit a lot of traffic on the way, despite leaving Laramie before 5PM.

A view of Colorado Springs from the highway. Photo by yours truly

A view of Colorado Springs from the highway. Photo by yours truly

We didn’t get to Shelf Road until about 11, and it rained a little as we set up the tent and chatted. Poor Kevin tried to come in from Boulder down Shelf Road itself, which was closed because of flooding. Colorado normally gets a large amount of precipitation this time of year, and this spring has been no exception. Kevin drove his Subaru up to a bonafide stream running across Shelf Road, and decided to test the current. He picked up a rock which he described as weighing about 30 pounds, tossed it in, and watched with shock as it barely bounced off the road underwater before being swept downstream quickly enough to dissuade him from fording it Oregon Trail-style.

On Saturday, we woke up to sunshine, discovered Abe had made his way from the back of Matt’s car to the front passenger seat (fur everywhere!!), made breakfast, and decided to hit up the Sand Gulch area of Shelf Road since we could hike there directly from our campsite. Unfortunately, the recent rain thwarted us.

John and I, with the

John and I, with the “trail” between us. Photo by Kevin

The guide book describes the trail to the climbing area from our campsite as going down a hill, then following a dry creekbed for a while before a sign points you up a trail toward the near end of the cliff line, or you can keep going down the creedbed for the second trail, which takes you to the cliff’s far end. Unfortunately, as you can see above, the creekbed had turned into a stream. The picture makes it look worse than it really was; the water was actually quite shallow and manageable, but still deep enough to thoroughly soak your shoes and socks, and to scare Abe.

Abe hates water- he doesn’t seem to have inherited a love for water from any labrador ancestors he may have. Matt had to carry him across a couple times, and we were able to coax him across a few more narrow sections.

Stephanie crossing the treacherous trail. Photo by Kevin

Stephanie crossing the treacherous trail. Photo by Kevin

The worst part of this amended trail wasn’t actually crossing the stream, but then bushwhacking our way alongside it as we searched for the trail where it exited the water and took us to the climbing. Never a dull moment!

We did a couple of warm-up routes before rain and thunder loomed in the distance. Up on a cliff is not exactly the best place to be during a thunderstorm, so we cleaned our routes (climber-speak for “retrieved all of our gear”) and retreated back down toward camp. Abe hates thunder, so Matt and I vacated the climbing area before John, Stephanie, and Kevin. Because we couldn’t follow the trail due to the stream it had become, Matt and I (and Abe) got separated from the rest of the group. The storm passed fairly quickly (but lasted long enough to make the trail muddy and the rock damp) so, after it ended, Matt and I headed back up to the climbing area- crossing the creek again on the way- to catch up with everyone else. We hiked part of the length of the cliff and didn’t see them, so we sat down and had lunch. Finally, convinced they must have either gone back to camp or to a different climbing area (there isn’t reliable cell phone service near the actual climbing), we packed up and headed back down toward the menacing creek, crossed it several times to navigate the “trail,” and made it back to our tent. Everyone was down there waiting for us- oops.

The view from our campground. My photo

The view from our campground. My photo

When you’re in a canyon like you are in Shelf Road, the steep hills and cliffs block oncoming bad weather and make it almost impossible to anticipate storms. This is why hikers and climbers in the mountains get caught in surprise thunder- and snowstorms so often. By the time you see and hear the weather, it’s sometimes too late to act upon it.

In the meantime, after we reunited at camp, the weather had calmed down again and the sun was shining like nothing had ever happened. Since the rock was still too wet to climb, we took a break. Some opted for naps; John and I opted for a private yoga lesson! John took a great video from Saturday, including sped-up compilations of morning and afternoon climbing as well as our yoga session. Check it out!

While Matt was relaxing on the ground outside of the tent, and next to Abe, one of the little girls sharing the campsite wandered up and said to him, “Do you want to hear something embarrassing?”

Matt said, “Uh, okay.”

She responded, “I peed outside- over there,” and gestured to some bushes and cacti behind our tent.

Matt said, “Yeah, I think a lot of people do that.”

The little girl insisted, “No, I peed outside,” possibly referring to the pit toilet located inside a shelter about twenty yards away. After this heartfelt confession, she walked away and rejoined her family.

We decided it had been long enough for the rock to dry out, and got ready to do some more climbing. Literally as soon as we began buckling our packs, it started raining again. “I thought this was supposed to be a desert!” Someone said. The cacti everywhere had tricked us.

Cactus, the liar! My photo

Cactus, the liar! My photo

We went climbing anyway, this time hiking to a different area of Sand Gulch called the Freeform Wall, which involved precisely ZERO river crossings, to everyone’s relief.

Deciding what to climb. from left Stephanie, John, Matt, and me. Kevin is taking the picture

Deciding what to climb. from left Stephanie, John, Matt, and me. Kevin is taking the picture

We climbed another few routes and I got shut down by a height-dependent dynamic move to a small pocket on the start of a 5.11c. Afterwards, we hiked back to camp and cooked dinner under some intermittent rain showers.

The next morning, we drove up to a different campground to hike into a climbing area called, ironically, The Gym. We spent about 15 minutes in the car waiting for the rain to stop before beginning the approach, which involved a much smaller and more manageable stream crossing. Nonetheless, Abe didn’t appreciate it.

The rock at Shelf Road is limestone, which is essentially squished marine life from when this part of the country used to be underwater. Sometimes you can spot fossils in the limestone while climbing. Limestone is also heavily featured (meaning lots of great places to put your hands and feet), but has a tendency to be sharp, which is tough on one’s skin.

John on Head Cheese, a solid 5.12d, at The Gym. Photo by Kevin

John on Head Cheese, a solid 5.12d, at The Gym (also, helmets are cool!). Photo by Kevin

I top-roped (meaning we already put the rope up, so I didn’t have to) a pumpy 5.11+ with a roof called Pulley Mammoth (roofs are kind of my nemesis) and led a fun 5.10b called The Crack of Dawn which followed a very distinct flake up a sheer face. Matt got on a really challenging 5.12c called Gym Arete Direct, which joins up with Gym Arete, a 5.12a, but has a particularly tough start with very small holds.

Matt on the 5.12a part of Gym Arete. Photo by Kevin

Matt on the 5.12a part of Gym Arete. Photo by Kevin

Before the sun set, I wanted to get in a route we had passed on the hike up called The Raw and the Roasted. It was a beautiful 5.11c sheer face climb, and several people were climbing it as we’d hiked by. We climbed a fun 5.9 to the left of it called Ga-Stoned Again, so I’d heard a couple climbers fall at the top of the route.

We don't have any photos of this route, so here is a photo from MountainProject.com of The Raw and The Roasted 5.11c

We didn’t take any photos of this route, so here is a photo from MountainProject.com of The Raw and The Roasted 5.11c

The first three bolts of the climb are very easy, a 5.9 sort of warm-up, as you approach a ledge from which the clean limestone face emerges, and the real climbing begins.

Since we moved out to Wyoming, I’ve been working on my leading technique and all the little things leading a route entails, almost more than I’ve worked on my actual climbing technique. On a sport climb, every 5-15 feet or so, depending on the route, are bolts that have been drilled into the rock. The first climber to put up the route ties the rope to her harness and brings up as many quickdraws (essentially two carabiners connected by very strong fabric- see this post for what it looks like) as there are bolts. As she reaches a bolt, she clips one carabiner on her quickdraw to the bolt, and then clips her rope into the bottom carabiner of the quickdraw, which is now hanging from the bolt. This is purely a safety measure and essentially keeps sport climbers from hitting the ground or hitting any protruding rock feature (e.g. a ledge) below them should they fall. There are 13 bolts on The Raw and the Roasted, plus an anchor (made up of two bolts next to one another, marking the top of the climb), so it’s a pretty long route.

Face climbing, where the rock is almost exactly at a 90° angle, is probably my favorite type of climbing. It requires balance, body awareness, finger strength, and finesse. It’s beautiful to both do and see done.

In the picture above, you can see a small roof by the climber’s right knee. I kept climbing and clipping quickdraws methodically, pulling past a hard move around that little outcropping and continuing onto the face. I shut out any fear of but-what-if-I-fall-here-oh-wow-that-would-be-scary and kept going. The handholds were smaller and required more finger strength at the top, but I did it! I on-sighted (i.e. ascended a climbing route without falling, and with no prior practice or advice on how to successfully complete) a 5.11c on our first climbing trip of the summer season! I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the rest of the summer for us.

We plan on meeting up with John and Stephanie again as they continue their road trip, and we hope to climb with Kevin again soon, but he sure is a busy man. If you’ll be in the Colorado/Wyoming area this summer and want to spend some time outside, let me know!

To the summer! Love to all.