On Belay? Belay On. Climbing! Climb On! Getting Vertical at the International Climbers’ Festival!

Try. Hard.

Try. Hard.

As a life-long lover of rocks, it surprises me that it took me so long to start climbing them. I first got into climbing in grad school in Baltimore, where daily sessions at the indoor climbing gym kept me fit and sane in the midst of too much concrete. Six years later, I have yet to find a climbing partner as reliable as my friend Sarah, who traded belays with me almost everyday in those months I spent in the city. Sarah and I bonded on an absurd descent of a big volcano in Ecuador and we still meet up for adventures, despite living on opposite sides of the country.

Two-fingered pull up

Two-fingered one-armed pull up

On the road, finding trustworthy climbing partners can be tricky. When you climb with somebody, you’re literally putting your life in their hands and taking theirs in yours. It’s not an exchange to be taken lightly. Fortunately, it takes at least two to climb (unless you’re a free soloist like Alex Honnold) and climbers tend to be friendly folk, open to making new connections. This summer I’ve had a few fantastic climbing days, thanks to the generosity of complete strangers who invited me onto their ropes. Every time I climb, I want more; it’s addicting. After a fantastic session at Idaho’s legendary granite crag City of Rocks, I decided to head back east to the International Climbing Festival in Lander, Wyoming, in hopes of getting a thorough vertical fix.

Me on the wall at Wild Iris

Me on the wall at Wild Iris

The Wild Iris crag near Lander is an ancient coral reef riddled with zillions of pockets for hands, fingers and toes, making for some of the most diverse and most challenging climbing routes in the world. I’m a pretty good climber, but Lander attracts some of the best. At the 4-day festival, I met a lot of fantastic people – including some of my climbing heroes like Lynn Hill, Alex Honnnold and Conrad Anker – and made it up quite a few routes, but the highlight was definitely watching these two brothers, Cameron and Jonathan Hörst, ages 13 and 11, who are climbing at the very top levels of the sport. They also happen to be from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, not far from where I grew up in Strasburg.

These boys have been nicknamed the Send Brothers for their incredible abilities to "send" i.e. climb almost any rock face.

These boys have been nicknamed the Send Brothers for their incredible abilities to “send” i.e. climb almost any rock face. They are both sponsored athletes and spend the summers on the road with their parents, traveling to world-class climbing crags.

Cameron ties in

Cameron ties in. Raised by two climbing parents, these boys have been climbing since they could walk.

Boots on

Rock shoes on

Cameron chalks up.

Cameron chalks up. Chalk helps improve fingertip grip on the rock.

And shakes out

And shakes out. The tattoo on his arm is a temporary tattoo that served as our “ticket” to the festival events. Much better than wearing a wrist band!

And starts up the rock with his dad belaying

Starting up the rock with his dad belaying. This is a 5.14 route, an insanely hard grade.

The holds are so tiny that he's all but levitating up this rock face

The holds are so tiny that he’s all but levitating up this rock face

Clipping into the the first bolt

Clipping into the a bolt while holding on with two fingers and just the tips of his toes.

Jonathan discussing the route with his dad

Father & Son. Jonathan discussing the route with his dad

Jonathan gets ready

Jonathan getting ready

Jonathan on "Young Rider" a 5.13a route at Wild Iris

Jonathan on “Young Rider” a 5.13a route at Wild Iris

Pulling a move only an 11 year old with an insane strength to weight ratio could make

Pulling a move only an 11 year old with a superhuman strength-to-weight ratio could make

Fingertips

Two fingertips on the coral reef. Nothing like climbing at the bottom of the ocean on top of a mountain!

Kids these days! :) Now back to Idaho and then on to Oregon!

Posted in Photography, Road tripping!, Uncategorized, Vagabonding 101 | 8 Comments

Into the Wind Rivers: Part 2

Granite Wonderland D.O.G.

Granite Wonderland D.O.G.

The Wind River range in west central Wyoming has long been one of my fantasy places. It seems like every time I see a stunning photograph in a magazine and wonder “where is that?!” it’s always the Winds.

The Photographer at Photographer's Point

The Photographer at Photographer’s Point

The Winds were so spectacular, I’ve already forgotten the swarm of mosquitoes that escorted me along this 12-mile day hike to Photographer’s Point from the Elkhart Basin trailhead near Pinedale. Fortunately, for whatever reason, the pesks weren’t really biting, just swirling. The only thing I hate more than bug bites is bug spray so my mosquito remedy is just to keep moving. Those little bastards top out around 2 miles per hour so I swing along at 3 and call it a truce. :)

Into the Winds

Into the Winds

Roots & Rock

Roots & Rock

The Tree Abides

The Tree Abides

Spring in the Winds

Spring in the Winds

Wind Rivers Cabin Ruins

Wind Rivers Cabin Ruins

Dio in his happy place

Dio in his happy place

Sky Lake D.O.G.

Sky Lake D.O.G.

Our first glimpse of the granite wonderland

Our first glimpse of the granite wonderland

Self Portrait at Photographer's Point

Self Portrait at Photographer’s Point

The Wind Rivers from Photographer's Point

The Wind Rivers from Photographer’s Point

For part 1 on the Wind Rivers click here. Stay tuned for a post from the International Climbers’ Festival in Lander, Wyoming!

 

Posted in Bowie & D.O.G., Hiking!, Photography, Road tripping!, Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Into the Wind Rivers: Part 1

Granite Wonderland D.O.G.

Granite Wonderland D.O.G.

The Wind River range in west central Wyoming has long been one of my fantasy places. It seems like every time I see a stunning photograph in a magazine and wonder “where is that?!” it’s always the Winds.

The Photographer at Photographer's Point

The Photographer at Photographer’s Point

The Wind Rivers did not disappoint but the visit was somewhat bittersweet; I so longed to shoulder my backpack and disappear into those mountains for a few days, but my older dog Bowie just isn’t up to long hikes anymore. For his age, he’s in great health, excellent shape and high spirits. He has almost no grey and you’d never guess he’s 11 – he’s certainly not counting – but he’s slow and gets sore after a few miles and is easily dehydrated. At a burly 85 pounds, he’s 2/3 of my weight and I’d have a hell of a time evacuating him if he had some sort of geriatric crisis.

I so want to keep walking thataway!

I so want to keep hiking thataway!

Entering the Fitz Wilderness near Dubois

Entering the Fitzpatrick Wilderness

Wind Rivers Bouquet

Wind Rivers Bouquet

A beautiful cairn. Pink limestone and orange lichen

A beautiful cairn. Pink limestone and orange lichen

Trail marker on the way up Whiskey Peak

Trail marker on the way up Whiskey Peak

When I adopted Bowie ten years ago, the summer before my senior year of college, he was a yearling ball of manic energy and draining his bottomless reservoir is what got me into hiking and backpacking. In a decade of daily walks, Bowie and I have traveled thousands of miles together in 49 states (he missed out on Hawaii) and the thought of not having him panting at my heels is heart wrenching.

D.O.G. on the summit of Whiskey Peak- 11,157 feet

D.O.G. on the summit of Whiskey Peak- 11,157 feet

Tumbledown

Tumbledown

Ahh the Winds!

Ahh the Winds!

It’s hard watching him slow down, but I’m determined to give him a graceful retirement. He’s not up for long hikes, but he loves a good mosey where he can stay in the shade and wade in the water and follow his nose, usually towards something disgusting. At least once a day, he likes a thorough roll in long grass, something he’s enjoyed since his wild puppy days. After all these years, his antics still make me laugh and before he somersaults onto his back, he always checks to make sure I’m watching.

At Lake Louise

At Lake Louise

Tricky finding a route down to the water with all the steep granite walls!

Tricky finding a route down to the water with all the steep granite walls!

Nice Gneiss!

Nice Gneiss!

Bowie’s declining but I’m as strong as I’ve ever been and my mountain legs love a lot of miles. As does my 6 year old former wild dog Dio; we’re hiking junkies, he and I. Anything under five miles and 1,500 feet of elevation gain is a tease, a warm-up. So I’ve been leaving Bowie in his climate controlled, memory-foam equipped, rolling dog house while Dio and I set off on epic day hikes, powering through double-digit miles.

Torrey Creek.Only in Wyoming would this raging torrent be called a mere creek.

Torrey Creek.Only in Wyoming would this raging torrent be called a mere creek.

Self Portrait with Torrey Creek

Self Portrait with Torrey Creek

In three day-long hikes, we hiked nearly 30 miles in the Winds to Lake Louise and Whiskey Mountain from the Torrey Creek trailhead near Dubois and to Photographer’s Point from the Elkhart trailhead near Pinedale. All those miles and we barely scratched the surface of that glacially-carved granite wonderland. Oh well, there’s a time and place for everything. Someday, I’ll be back! Too many photos for one post. Stay tuned for part two from Photographer’s Point…

Granite Basin, Lake Louise

Granite Basin, Lake Louise

Posted in Uncategorized | 18 Comments

The Blonde Coyote in the Guardian: Top Ten Parks in Oregon!

Old Growth Trees at Mary's Peak in the Oregon Coast Range

Old Growth Trees at Mary’s Peak in the Oregon Coast Range

Hey everybody, my latest state-by-state roundup of the top ten parks for the Guardian just went live! This month I’m featuring one of my favorite states: Oregon! Oregon was the first place I lived after college and it will always hold a special place in my heart. Check out my top 10 list here.

Also check out my previous top ten lists for CaliforniaNevadaArizona and Utah. It’s a tough gig, but somebody’s gotta do it. ;)

Feeling Lucky

Feeling Lucky

Posted in Hiking!, New Mexico, Photography, Road tripping!, Science Writing, Uncategorized, Vagabonding 101 | 4 Comments

Behold, the Tetons!

Tetons Sunset

Tetons Sunset

On a road trip, the pull to keep rolling down the road is strong, but sometimes when you find yourself in a stunningly perfect place, at just the right time, it’s best to keep still for awhile. A few days before the 4th of July I rolled through the zoo of Jackson, Wyoming, up past the Elk Refuge to a sweet free campsite overlooking Jackson Hole and the Tetons and decided to call it home for the week. It was the perfect spot to ride out the 4th: my dog Dio is petrified of fireworks and from my vantage I could see the exploding stars across the valley at Teton Village, but they were far enough away that the sounds didn’t turn Dio into a quivering gun shy mess.

Another Tetons Sunset

The fireworks were nice and all, but no man-made display could ever compare with the light show put on by sunset over the Tetons every evening.

Teardrop Sunset with the Tetons

Teardrop Sunset with the Tetons

A week's worth of Tetons sunsets is priceless

A week’s worth of Tetons sunsets is priceless

Dogs hanging out at the paragliding launch site

Dogs hanging out at the paragliding launch site

I hiked up to this plateau every day, sometimes twice a day.

I hiked up to this grassy plateau every day, sometimes twice a day.

What a skyline!

What a skyline!

Of course, I didn’t just sit around all week, watching the sky. I also did a fair bit of exploring on forest roads east of the Tetons, often driving to the end of the track (I’ve always wanted a vehicle that can take me all the way to the end of any road) and setting off on foot into the Gros Ventre Wilderness. I also made it most of the way up Jackson Peak, the 10,741-foot mountain overlooking the town of Jackson, but the spring snow was too deep and slippery to go for the summit. Oh well, someday I’ll have to return for another week and another try!

Exploring national forest roads east of the Tetons

Exploring national forest roads east of the Tetons. If your Land Rover is clean, you’re doing it wrong.

Red, White & Blue on the 4th of July

Red, White & Blue on the 4th of July

This slippery snow made for hard going up Jackson.

This slippery snow made for hard going up Jackson.

Snowy D.O.G. resting below Jackson Peak

Snowy D.O.G. resting below Jackson Peak

Sitting below the too-snowy-to-summit of Jackson Peak and yet feeling totally accomplished. In the wise words of Pam Houston: "Success has less to do with the accumulation of things and more to do with an accumulation of moments and creating a successful life might be as simple as determining which moments are the most valuable and seeing how many of those I can string together in a line."

Sitting below the too-snowy-to-summit of Jackson Peak and yet feeling totally accomplished. In the wise words of Pam Houston: “Success has less to do with the accumulation of things and more to do with an accumulation of moments and creating a successful life might be as simple as determining which moments are the most valuable and seeing how many of those I can string together in a line.”

My trusty ice axe came in handy for dragging myself out of deep post holes on the way up Jackson.

My trusty ice axe came in handy for dragging myself out of hip-deep post holes on the way up Jackson.

Self Portrait with Jackson Peak. I fear it's time for new boots. My feet were soaked by the end of this hike, even with the gaiters.

Self Portrait with Jackson Peak. I fear it’s time for new mountain boots. My feet were soaked by the end of this hike, even with the gaiters.

I stayed put through the holiday weekend and then headed north, closer to the Tetons I’d been studying all week. One of these days I’d love to take a crack at the Grand, but on this trip I settled for hiking around Jenny Lake and up Cascade Canyon.

Tetons Teardrop

Tetons Teardrop

The Tetons: the Grand on the left, Mount Owen on the right

The Tetons: the Grand on the left, Mount Owen on the right

One of my most beloved possessions: my Tetons belt buckle!

One of my most beloved possessions: my Tetons belt buckle!

I left the dogs in the trailer for a few hours while hiking in the National Park. It doesn't get hot the way a car does and they're quite safe and comfortable in their rolling dog house.

I left the dogs in the trailer for a few hours while hiking in the National Park. It doesn’t get hot the way a car does and they’re quite safe and comfortable in their rolling dog house. Check out the ride parked behind me! A vintage stretch limo from Yellowstone!

To avoid the crowds at Jenny Lake, I took the horse trail, which runs parallel to the main trail and didn't see anybody until I got around the other side to where the ferry drops people off to hike to Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point.

To avoid the crowds at Jenny Lake, I took the horse trail, which runs parallel to the main trail and didn’t see anybody until I got around the other side to where the ferry drops people off at the trailhead to Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point.

Ahhhh Jenny Lake. I was heading for the canyon hidden behind the green mountain in the middle.

Ahhhh Jenny Lake. I was heading for the canyon hidden behind the green mountain in the middle. Mount Owen on the left.

Self Portrait with Mount Owen in Cataract Canyon

Self Portrait with Mount Owen in Cataract Canyon

Stay tuned for more from Wyoming! For more on graciously sharing crowded trails in National Parks check out my previous post: (Not So) Delicate Arch

On the trail, my mountain legs carried me past dozens of people, families, singles, couples, kids, geezers, all wheezing their way up the slightly sloped trail. People in flip-flops, heeled boots; no water, no supplies. Where do they think they are? At the very least, carry water and wear proper footwear! Show some respect to the sun and the snakes! I have to remind myself to smile, be nice and share. At least they’re out here, out of the car. This might be the only hike they take all year and I can always go hiking alone elsewhere…

Posted in Bowie & D.O.G., Hiking!, Photography, Road tripping!, Teardrop Trailer, Uncategorized, Vagabonding 101 | 20 Comments

Ask the Blonde Coyote: Facing the Fear Factor

Home sweet home at a trailhead in Idaho

Home sweet home at a trailhead in Idaho.

I’ve been getting so many lovely, thoughtful, inquisitive emails from people and I’m sorry to say it’s become impossible for me to answer all of them. Most of you want to hit the road – for a long weekend, for a few weeks or months and some of you want to go full nomad. I’d love to help each and every one of you set yourselves free, but if I spent that much time at the keyboard answering emails, I wouldn’t be living the kind of life I want to be living. Selfish, yes, but therein lies part of the secret to my free living success.

Teardrop Self Portrait

Teardrop Self Portrait

My solution to this ridiculously flattering conundrum is to start answering some of these queries on the Blonde Coyote: I have been wanting to travel the U.S. with my medium size dog. Of course, the first thing is that I’m nervous about traveling alone (besides my dog) and I also just don’t know if I could do what you do by tenting it or should I get a van/little trailer. So many things I’m worried about: traveling alone, meeting up with weirdos (safety concerns), bathroom situation, wild animals to name a few. Rereading these worries doesn’t seem all that scary but they’re holding me back. 

A wild animal!

A wild animal!

And this one:

It seems like you’ve never encountered any problems with other people, and personally, I’m not too worried about it myself, but my family is scared that I’m going to encounter trouble from other people, presumably because I am female.  My friend of the family thought I should bring a shotgun with me (uh, no) and I’ll have a knife for practical purposes but I really don’t want to try it out for defense.  I’ll have pepper spray, too, but I know that’s not ideal either.  I was thinking of bringing a baseball bat (?), but do you have any suggestions?  Like I said, I highly doubt that we’ll find anyone looking to give us trouble; we’re both pretty good at reading people and won’t likely find ourselves running into the wrong crowd.  But I thought I’d ask you since I’m sure you have plenty of experience. :)

Hiking up Paris Peak in southeast Idaho

Hiking up Paris Peak in southeast Idaho

Ah yes, the fear factor. If you’re going to enjoy traveling, especially solo, you need to get a handle on all those anxieties that can paralyze you during the day and keep you awake at night. Honestly, the most dangerous part of road tripping is driving. I’ve met some weird people and some creepy people, but never once in all my travels have I ever been threatened by anybody. Maybe it’s because I travel with two large dogs (though I’ve been to South America twice and Europe thrice and plenty of places around the US without them) or maybe it’s in the way I carry myself, or maybe I’ve just been lucky, but after nine psycho-free years, I’d like to think I’m doing something right.
Southern Idaho from the Highline Trail

Southern Idaho from the Highline Trail

The key, of course, is confidence. There are predators in this world, but they are generally looking to prey on the weak and unaware. Everywhere I go, I pay attention and everybody I cross paths with I meet with a level gaze. Making eye contact says “I see you too” and that’s often enough to stop a predator in its tracks. Just recently I ran into five drunk dudes at Bloomington Lake in Idaho who wanted me to come swimming with them. They were rowdy and leering and too friendly but I kept calm and said no thank you and made eye contact with each of them and when they saw I was not afraid they went on their way and left me alone.
At Bloomington Lake.

Spring hailstorm at Bloomington Lake

I am not fearful and I am not fearless; fear is an asset and I pay attention to it. I pay attention to my dogs, to my surroundings, to my exits, to my gut. I don’t waste my energy worrying about all the scary scenarios that might happen; I pay attention to what is happening in front of me and deal with situations as they unfold.
Storm descending on Bloomington Lake. Good thing I pack rain gear in the mountains!

Storm descending on Bloomington Lake. Good thing I pack rain gear in the mountains!

I think one of the best things I have going for me in the fear department is that I don’t watch television. I didn’t have a TV for most of my childhood and I’ve never lived with one as an adult. Every time I catch a glimpse or see a show, I am disgusted and often downright appalled. Whether it’s the news or the newest must-see TV or the incessant commercials, to my eyes it’s all ugly and violent and invasive and absurd and I can’t understand how anybody functions with all that terrible shit in their heads. I quit watching scary movies while I was living in a cabin in the Oregon woods by myself with no neighbors and no phone to call for help. If you don’t want to be thinking about all the terribly dramatic ways things can go wrong, don’t fill your head with torrid plots for the sake of entertainment.
My kind of Mountain Dew

My kind of Mountain Dew

In general, I try not to worry until I have to. Of course, sometimes things do go wrong. I’ve never had anybody threaten to physically harm me, but I’ve had a few unsettling encounters. Dealing with creeps is kind of like dealing with wild animals: there’s no one right way to handle meeting a bear or a moose. Every situation is different. As a general rule, always try to diffuse, rather than escalate and the best recourse is almost always to physically remove yourself from the situation.
White Buffalo chasing Dio

White snow buffalo chasing Dio through spring wildflowers

And now we come to weapons. I’ve thought hard about getting a firearm or at least a realistic BB gun that I could brandish. I’m not attracted to guns but I know how to handle one and I’m a pretty good shot. But after all this time of never encountering a situation where a gun was even remotely necessary, I can’t help but think that by getting one, I’ll be inviting that kind of darkness into my life. I am not unarmed, however. My trusty ice axe hangs on the door of the trailer, as a subtle warning to passersby. It looks intimidating as hell and I can wield it as if my life depends on it (sometimes, in the mountains, it does). My trailer door locks from the inside and if anybody ever tries to force their way in, they’ll meet the two-foot long razor sharp machete I keep handy, not to mention my two beastly dogs. Personally, I sleep very well at night.
My ferocious hounds! They're sweet dogs but they look out for me and if they don't like somebody, I pay attention.

What ferocity!  Look at those teeth! Seriously, they’re good, sweet dogs but they look out for me.

So, to Cathy: can you sleep safely in a tent? Sure, I did for years before I got the Teardrop. But if you’re skittish, you’ll probably sleep much more soundly if you have a door you can lock at night. Also, stop worrying about whether you’ll like traveling and go traveling. Take a few solo day trips and then work your way up to overnights, then weekends, and see how far you get. You don’t have to go full nomad to find out if there’s a road warrior in you. And Cassie: can a baseball bat work for self-defense? Sure, but if you only get one swing, wouldn’t you rather be wielding a machete? ;)
Home sweet home at the Spiral Jetty. Ice axe on the door.

Home sweet home at the Spiral Jetty. Ice axe on the door.

Got a question for me? You can email me at theblondecoyote@gmail.com.
Posted in Bowie & D.O.G., Hiking!, Photography, Road tripping!, Sustainable Living, Teardrop Trailer, Uncategorized, Vagabonding 101 | 20 Comments

Gone Fishin’ At Fossil Butte

50 million year old meal, interrupted

50 million year old meal, interrupted. Knightia eocaena, the state fossil of Wyoming, being eaten by Phareodus encaustus.

My Uncle Frank always gave us kids the best Christmas gifts, like kites and gyroscopes and one year, a fossilized fish. That unidentified ichthyous slab still sits on a shelf at my parents’ house in Pennsylvania and I’ll bet any money that it’s from the Green River Formation in Wyoming. Southwestern Wyoming is the source of zillions of fossils from the Eocene epoch, back when mammals were first evolving hooves and placentas and the planet was much warmer and wetter and all the landmasses from pole to pole were covered by trees.

Not just fish: plants too, like this massive palm frond.

A massive palm frond found at Fossil Butte

Around 50 million years ago, the region around Kemmerer, Wyoming was covered by a lake known today as Fossil Lake. The quiet water, fine-grained sediments and water chemistry were ideal for preserving dead organisms as they sank to the bottom of the basin and the many layers of shale that were formed over several million years of deposition contain one of the most complete and most detailed fossilized records found anywhere on Earth. We’re not just talking fish, but also alligators, bats, snakes, turtles, early horses, insects; a whole ecosystem of plants and animals. The record is so complete that paleontologists can piece together the lake’s food web: fish are found in the act of eating other fish and bite marks on fossilized leaves match up with the mouth parts of fossilized insects.

Snakes are my favorite skeletons.

Snakes are my favorite skeletons.

A stingray!

A stingray! The lake was likely freshwater, but may have had pockets of  saltier water.

The Green River Formation is massive and less than 1.5 percent is protected within the bounds of Fossil Butte National Monument. Commercial digging outside the monument yields hundreds of thousands of fossilized fish and other specimens each year. Fish from Green River are the most common fossilized vertebrates offered for sale and the small herring-like fish Knightia eocaena is the most abundant vertebrate fossil in the world.

The vast sagebrush country around Fossil Butte

The vast sagebrush country around Fossil Butte. The ghost town of Fossil, Wyoming is barely visible down below.

I visited Fossil Butte for the first time in April 2009, on a road trip from New Mexico to Montana, but it was freezing cold and raining and I didn’t take a hike. This time, it was a blue bird day so the dogs and I hiked a three mile loop up to the historic quarry at the base of Fish Cliff.

Collecting fossils is prohibited on federal land. Big Brother is watching...

Collecting fossils is prohibited on federal land. Big Brother is watching…

David Haddenham's cabin, his home base in the summers for over 20 years while he worked the nearby quarry.

David Haddenham’s cabin, built in 1918, and his home base in the summers for over 20 years while he worked the nearby quarry, in the cliffs above.

Cozy, eh? Note the cardboard insulation.

Cozy, eh? Note the cardboard insulation.

Haddenham's quarry is still worked by paleontology students.

Haddenham’s quarry is still worked by paleontology students.

Layers of shale and sandstone with a little volcanic tuff thrown here and there. Tuff is used to radiocarbon date the layers.

Layers of shale and sandstone with a little volcanic tuff thrown here and there. Most of the fossils come from two layers nicknamed the “Split-fish” and “18-inch” layers.

Beautiful varves! Varves are seasonal layers

Beautiful varves! Varves are layers produced by seasonal  changes in water chemistry. Darker colors contain more organic matter and are usually laid down in the summer months, while lighter layers are associated with winter, when fewer plants are growing.

The bright orange layer here is volcanic tuff, deposited by a volcanic eruption sometime during the lake's existence.

The bright orange layer here is volcanic tuff, deposited by a volcanic eruption sometime during the lake’s existence. The tuff contains biotite and feldspar which can be used to radiocarbon date the rocks. These tuff layers are found throughout the Green River Formation and serve as marker beds to date the fossils found above and below the tuff.

A fish! Well two fish. Not a great specimen, but still fun to find. I left it where I found it.

A fish! Well two fish. Not a great specimen, but still fun to find. I’m holding it upside down, with the head pointing up and to the left. I left it where I found it.

Another fish (presumably) in situ.

Another fish (presumably) in situ. We’re looking at it end-on.

Quarry D.O.G.

Quarry D.O.G.

Layers & Lines

Layers & Lines

Love fossils? Check out my previous post Wonderful Life about my geo-pilgrimage to the Burgess Shale in British Columbia. I also wrote a feature about that trek for EARTH’s Travels in Geology column. Wait a minute, wasn’t I heading West before my SLC detour? Yep, but now Wyoming is calling me… stay tuned! :)

Posted in Bowie & D.O.G., Hiking!, Photography, Road tripping!, Science Writing, Teardrop Trailer, Uncategorized | 7 Comments

An Unexpected Urban Detour: SLC Punks Trump Space Jesus

Who wouldn't want to take a bike tour with this guy? Me & James in front of the Mormon Temple in SLC.

Who wouldn’t want to take a bike tour with this guy? Me & James in front of the Mormon Temple in SLC.

When I’m on the road, I usually avoid cities unless I have a very specific mission in mind (like finding all the Banksy’s in San Francisco) or I know somebody there who can show me around. Otherwise, I spend the whole time fighting traffic and looking for parking. On Saturday night at the Sun Tunnels Solstice celebration, I met a tall,
glittery-faced guy with two long braids named James who turned out to run a bicycle-tour company in Salt Lake City. When I admitted to skipping past SLC, he offered me a place to park my rig and a bike tour, which sounded like an opportunity to me. I do my best to yes to all opportunities.

James and friends at the Sun Tunnels

James and friends at the Sun Tunnels

When I left the Sun Tunnels on Sunday I was still on the fence about circling back east – the Ruby Mountains were calling me – but then the Universe gave me the push I needed: at the truck stop in Wendover where I stopped for gas, I ran into a woman I had met the night before at the Solstice party who was semi-stranded and in need of a ride to the airport in SLC. So I swooped her up and we headed east. Sherron wasn’t in a rush so we stopped at the Bonneville Salt Flats to check out the International Speedway. I only got up to 35 or so with the Rover and the Rattler, but the watery mirages on the bone dry salt flats were totally worth the detour.

On the two hour journey to SLC, Sherron and I talked a blue streak about freelancing. She had traveled extensively all over the world on what sounded like an impressively thin shoestring and was now working as a television producer for a French TV station in Washington DC. Intrigued by my lifestyle on the road, she suggested I shoot a pilot for a reality TV show. She’s not the first professional to suggest this to me – I’ve gotten a few audition emails – and my response is always the same: I hate TV, why would I want to be on it?  Thanks but no thanks. I’ll stick to writing words and taking pictures. Herself a traveler and a kindred spirit, she took no offense. We exchanged cards and I’m sure we’ll see each other again someday. You know what they say: paths that cross will cross again.

The Rover & the Rattler in repose on the International Speedway, where land speed records are routinely set.

The Rover & the Rattler in repose on the International Speedway, where land speed records are routinely set.

After dropping Sherron off at the airport, I spent the rest of the afternoon at a car wash and a laundromat cleaning the desert out of the Teardrop. Everything was thoroughly coated with fine white dust, even inside the cabinets. My rig was due for a good house cleaning anyway. I thought I might head to Antelope Island for the night, but a little research dashed that plan: the campground was full, the biting gnats were bad and dogs weren’t allowed on any of the trails. So I spent a rare night at a Walmart parking lot, reveling in the relative domesticity of camping on pavement after a long, hot weekend in the desert. My best advice for urban boondocking: I’ve never had any problems that two big dogs, a bedside machete and good earplugs couldn’t handle.

The next day I picked out the biggest, centrally-located chunk of green space on my map of SLC and headed to Liberty Park to set up shop for the day. I parked the Rover & the Rattler across three spaces and went to work at a nearby picnic table while the dogs rolled in the soft green grass and watched the seagulls and ducks beg for bread crumbs. I got in a good four hours of work before a cop on a bike rolled up and started circling my rig. I ran over and talked him out of giving me a ticket for parking sideways. “You can unhitch and only take up two spaces, but you can’t have three,” he told me. Right. Just then my phone buzzed: it was James giving me directions to his place, where he had cleared me a place to park. Perfect timing and perfect location; he turned out to live just a few blocks from Liberty.

James’ living situation was one of the draws that had pulled me east to Salt Lake City. At the Sun Tunnels he had described the place as an anarchists’ boarding house. Over a decade ago, a couple of punks had walked in the back door of an empty, derelict house, flipped a light switch and discovered that the place had electricity. They did some research, found the property had long been abandoned, moved themselves in and fixed the place up.

To this day, nobody has ever had any contact with the owner of the property and the house has passed from one set of caretakers to the next. James and his five roommates pay the power and water bills and the property taxes and take care of the place. Everybody is expected to chip in with food for the communal kitchen but nobody pays rent money. As somebody who lives outside the box and greatly admires resourcefulness, this arrangement intrigued me.

The house did look like a bunch of twenty-something dudes lived there – there was stuff everywhere, but when I looked closer I saw that just about everything was a treasure. The walls were covered with graffiti and art; the graffiti cute, clever or cutting and the art all original and framed. I found a few of my favorite “trunk library” books on the shelves – Desert Solitaire, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and the Botany of Desire – and unironically, a copy of SLC Punk in the DVD rack. Instruments included a cello, several guitars, some drums and a charango – a South American ukelele I know fondly from my adventures in Peru with my brother Paul. And all the fridge photos shone with bright-eyed people enjoying the hell out of life. More power to them, I say.

Self-portrait by James

Self-portrait by James

In the backyard, James showed me his treehouse, where he sleeps in the summer and his fleet of old, vintage cruiser bikes he uses for his business, all rescued and rebuilt piece by piece at a local bicycle collective. He picked out the right one for me: a white Schwinn, not too heavy, the seat just the right height and took me for a spin around town.

First we headed to the newly minted, flashy modern library and took a glass elevator up to the roof to get the lay of the valley – Salt Lake City is much bigger than I realized! – then we rode our bikes through the heart of downtown, deep into the Mormon stronghold, where we dismounted and walked around the outside of the off-limits Temple and went inside the more welcoming visitors center to marvel at Space Jesus — a towering stark white statue encircled by the wonders of the Universe. Then we rode upcity a short ways to wade away the summer heat in a clear, ice cold creek.

Space Jesus

Space Jesus

Along the way James told me all about the history of Salt Lake City, pre-Mormon, post-Mormon and non-Mormon, pointing out historical buildings and infamous places, proving himself a tremendous repository of local information. A SLC native, James knows his city inside and out. We also went to his favorite record shop, his favorite sculpture garden and his favorite coffee shop, where he filled the two five gallon buckets he’d been toting around in his bike basket with free used coffee grounds for his garden.

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Joseph Smith in Sphinx form at the Gilgal Sculpture Garden

James showed me around the city with the authority of a guide who cut his bike tour teeth in Alaska for two summers, and the enthusiasm of an adventurer who has lived on a bicycle for months at a time – he’s pedaled across the country more than once with his guitar strapped to the back, playing gigs in bars and busking in parks – all the while pedaling at the leisurely pace of somebody who is perfectly content everywhere he goes. I’m in no way experienced at riding a bike in city traffic, but I felt at ease following James.

Everywhere we went, everybody knew my tour guide: librarians, baristas, men and women, young and old. People didn’t just wave at James, they lit up, genuinely delighted to see him ride by. My first gut impression of James, on a pitch dark night way out in the desert, was of a genuinely good man. And judging by the open enthusiasm of people who see James cycle by everyday, my read was dead right. I can’t think of anybody I’d rather have show me around Salt Lake City, especially once that rich coffee smell was wafting in his wake.

The bike tour guide extraordinaire

The bike tour guide extraordinaire

James wasn’t done teaching me about his anarchist lifestyle: at the end of our ride, he asked if I’d like to go dumpstering with him that night. Of course, I said yes. After dark, after the stores had closed and even the shelf stockers had gone home, we pedaled to a very popular, very expensive grocery chain, scaled a 10-foot high wall (I’d call it a 5.9 climb) and dropped down into a dumpster among dozens of clear trash bags bulging with food. Ripping open a few bags, James filled a cardboard box with mangos, apples, shitake mushrooms, cilantro, lettuce, yogurt, several cartons of mostly uncracked eggs, a still-packaged t-bone steak, and a whole wrapped chicken.

Opening another bag, he hit unusual pay dirt: a half dozen bouquets of flowers and five live basil plants, still in pots. All in all, he declared it one of his best smelling hauls. I passed the boxes over the wall to him, and managed to climb back out, then we filled our bike baskets and saddlebags with the food, flowers and basil plants and pedaled slowly home.

Fresh dumpster flowers, only slightly wilted

Fresh dumpster flowers and basil plants, only slightly wilted

Some of the food went into the vegan communal kitchen and some went into James’ own non-vegan mini-fridge. The flowers we arranged in a menagerie of glass jars that we placed all over the house. The next morning, we planted the basil in the garden, mulched with a handful of coffee grounds, and then took the rest of the food to a Food Not Bombs distribution in a nearby park.

About two dozen people, many older, some younger, some shabby, some sheik, a few with thick accents and limited English lined up facing three folding tables loaded with boxes of donated food, good food like hard cheeses, yogurt, and fresh baked bread. One volunteer flipped a coin to determine which end of the line would start first and then everybody circled counterclockwise past the boxes, taking one item from each box until everything was gone.

I stood in the shade nearby with the dogs, enjoying the feel of community: neighbors taking care of neighbors, no judgements or questions or hassles. If this is anarchy, count me in. At the last table, standing behind his box of rescued food, James greeted everybody with a wide smile, his musical fingers carefully combing the Solstice braids out of his long, wavy hair. Whatever you might think about anarchists, the way I see it, James cuts more of a Christ figure than Space Jesus.

You can check out James’ bike tour business at Saltlakebicycletours.com and his music at bramblemusic.com. I’m back on the road, heading north with the windows rolled down and James’ tremendously talented tunes pouring out of the stereo.

In case you’re wondering, I asked James how he felt about my writing about his unconventional lifestyle in connection with his bike tour business and this was his reply:

I don’t really mind if people know things about my life. I think it’s radical, in all senses of the word, and I love it to death. Professionalism has a spot at my table these days, to be sure, and I would like people to feel safe and comfortable with me on the tours, but I don’t think there’s anything you could print that would somehow keep that goal from being achieved. And don’t they say that any publicity is good publicity? 

James has a refreshingly unique perspective on the world

James has a refreshingly unique perspective on the world

Posted in Hiking!, Photography, Road tripping!, Sustainable Living, Teardrop Trailer, Vagabonding 101 | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Sun Tunnels Solstice

Sun Tunnel Sunset

Sun Tunnel Sunset

I spend most of my time outside and live by the Sun and so Solstices are kind of a big deal for me, more so than any other Hallmark-holiday. So when I was invited to a Solstice party way out in the northwestern Utah desert at an art installation called the Sun Tunnels, I changed my tentative travel plans. Instead of heading west into Nevada’s Ruby Mountains, I went north to City of Rocks, Idaho, where I spent a couple of days climbing 2-billion year old granite with my campground neighbors, who not only invited me to climb with them, but also made me lunch and cooked me dinner. The generosity of people I meet on the road never ceases to amaze me.

City of Rocks in southern Idaho boasts some of the oldest granite in the USA

City of Rocks in southern Idaho boasts some of the oldest granite in the USA

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On of our routes up Coyote Corner on Rabbit Rock (5.8) in the center up the corner crack. Find the two climbers!

On the Friday before the Solstice, I headed back south to the very edge of northwest Utah, about 15 washboarded miles off the pavement, past the ghost town of Lucien, to a dusty, desolate spot on the edge of my map. Four concrete tunnels and a handful of cars assured me I was in the right place. I tracked down my art historian friend Joey, who seemed a little incredulous that I had actually showed up. Funny how rare it is to meet somebody these days who says yes and means it.

The wide open landscape around the Sun Tunnels

The wide open landscape around the Sun Tunnels

One of the few inhabitants of this remote desert.

One of the few inhabitants of this remote desert.

The Sun Tunnels were created in 1976 by pioneering land artist Nancy Holt, who sought to capture this almost incomprehensibly huge Basin-and-Range landscape on a more human scale. The tunnels are 18 feet long and 9 feet high and viewing the wide open country through the aperture of the tunnels does make it easier to wrap your mind around the sheer scale of the landscape. Arranged in an open X formation, two of the tunnels line up with sunset and the other two with sunrise on the summer and winter solstices, events she hoped would lure people out to experience this beautiful, remote place at least twice a year.

Sunset on Friday Night. The alignment lines up for several days before and after the actual Solstice.

Sunset on Friday Night. The tunnels align with the setting Sun for several days before and after the actual Solstice.

The smaller holes are arranged to echo four different star constellations: Draco, Perseus, Columba, and Capricorn.

The smaller holes are arranged to echo four different star constellations: Draco, Perseus, Columba, and Capricorn. They don’t align with the stars, but simply serve as additional apertures onto the landscape.

Around 75 people made the journey out to the Sun Tunnels on Friday night, most from Salt Lake City, and several dozen camped overnight to catch the sunrise through the opposing set of tunnels the next morning.

Sun Tunnels Sunrise

Sun Tunnels Sunrise

Then, much to my initial surprise: everybody left. By noon on Saturday, only three of us remained at the site. I soon found out why: this was a hella harsh place to hang out. High in the sky, the Sun was relentless and repeated gusts of hot wind raked across the desert all day, stirring up towering dust devils that forced swirling grit into the tiniest crevasses. Even with the trailer to hide inside, the day was kind of an ordeal. But I was glad I stayed. After a day in the elements, the Sun Tunnels became more than a novel art installation: the cool, concrete tubes were a refuge.

The Teardrop through the Sun Tunnels

Sun Tunnels Teardrop

The black lines were made by people firing guns into the tunnels and the bullets spinning along the walls.

The black lines were made by people firing guns into the tunnels and the bullets spinning along the walls.

By evening, a whole new crowd of about 150 people showed up, their arrivals announced on the far horizon by the trails of dust kicked up under their wheels. Several people rolled up with flat tires and I found several dozen rusty nails scattered around my campsite. In the desert, the hazards never cease.

New arrivals getting a thorough dust bath

New arrivals getting a thorough dust bath

Bowie the party animal. The dogs both made the rounds. Pretty sure they greeted each and every person at the Tunnels more than once.

Bowie the party animal. The dogs both made the rounds. Pretty sure they got petted by each and every person at the Tunnels more than once.

Sunset on the Solstice. I didn't even try to get another alignment shot.

Crowded Sunset on the Solstice. I didn’t even try to get another alignment shot.

After dark, the party really got started. Many people had brought firewood and food and everybody was willing to share. Camped way out in the desert, a few bright fires surrounded by hundreds of miles of pitch darkness, we all pooled our resources and a hundred Sun-loving strangers became a tribe. Once again, I found myself in exactly the right place at the right time with the right people.

I connected with a cadre of anarchists from SLC

I connected with a cadre of anarchists from SLC.

Climbing on top of the tunnels was much easier than anything I scaled at City of Rocks!

Climbing on top of the tunnels was much easier than anything I scaled at City of Rocks! I’d call it a 5.5.

I originally planned to head west to the Ruby Mountains, but an irresistible offer from a charismatic anarchist enticed me back to Salt Lake City. Stay tuned for an unexpected, enlightening urban post!

Posted in Bowie & D.O.G., Hiking!, Photography, Road tripping!, Science Writing, Teardrop Trailer, Uncategorized, Vagabonding 101 | 9 Comments

The Lost & Found Coast

Lost Coast Labryinth

I just heard that the cabin I visited two years ago on the Lost Coast of California burned down. My condolences to John, who built the place himself from driftwood and lived there for 35 years. The hour I spent in his company in that cabin was one of the highlights of a golden summer. 

Look at a map of California and you’ll see highways 1 and 101 run along the entire coast. Look closer; the pavers missed a 30-mile section between Eureka and Rockport. This roadless, rugged stretch of beach is known as the Lost Coast.

My first night camping at the Lost Coast was probably the most dangerous night of my entire trip. No, I wasn’t threatened by psychos or attacked by wild animals. A couple of idiots almost burned down the beach. I came back from watching the sunset to find my neighbors had erected a giant driftwood bonfire with full sized logs, leaned upright into a precarious teepee. Much to my alarm, there was nobody around. The idiots had set the teepee ablaze and then walked away. It was windy and dry as hell and I hated to think what might happen if the whole thing collapsed and flames spread to the tall grass that ran up and down the dunes.

Lost Coast campsite- trying out the awning!

Not one to fret idly, I walked down to their campsite and put out the bonfire, then rebuilt a more reasonable blaze and enjoyed its company until the pyros returned. They were a young couple from Missouri, their first time in California. I explained their fire had been dangerously high for such a dry place and that they should never leave a fire unattended. They seemed only a little annoyed and invited me to stay for a s’more. Of course, I accepted and we had a nice chat.

“Do you guys know about the lighthouse?” I asked them. They did not. The hike to the Punta Gorda lighthouse ranks in my top ten hikes of all time. Between the waves, the cliffs, the tide pools, the seals, the whales, the tall dune grass, the wildflowers, the solitude, the shipwreck and the small but elegant lighthouse, this might be the one of the most beautiful beach walks in the world.

The Punta Gorda Lighthouse

I stumbled onto the Lost Coast seven years ago, on my very first road trip from Pennsylvania to Oregon. My brother, Bowie and I set out for a three day hike but our first night out, with no trees in sight, I tried to cache our food supply on top of a large rock only to find it ripped to shreds by morning. The damned seagulls had eaten all of our food! We had no choice but to abort the trek and return to the trailhead. These days, the park service requires all overnight Lost Coast hikers to carry bear canisters. Fortunately, bear canisters are also raccoon and seagull proof! Some trail lessons are learned the hard way…

Punta Gorga Lighthouse Remnants. The lighthouse was built in 1910 and decommisioned in 1951.

View from the lighthouse. Notice the shipwreck ruins on the beach.

A small village of wooden houses once stood on Punta Gorda, but in the 60’s a group of hippies took up residence and the BLM elected to burn down all the buildings to keep them out for good.

No idea what this is, but it looks like it has been here for awhile. A number of ships wrecked offshore here due to the combination of shallow reefs and high winds whipping around the bluffs.

This trip was just an all day hike. On the way back from the lighthouse, I nosed a bit too close to what I thought was an empty cabin on the beach, only to be startled by a white-haired man waving at me through a window. He came outside and I apologized for being nosy, but he waved me closer, shook my hand, introduced himself as John and invited me in for coffee.

John’s place- a hand built, walk-in only cabin

The interior of John’s cabin was sparse, but homey, with a large wood stove, a bed, a worktable by the window and two wooden chairs. John told me he’s lived in this place for 35 years. He built the cabin himself, mainly from scrap-wood collected on the beach. It’s off the road – his Subaru is parked on the bluffs high above, reachable by a steep trail – and off the grid. A solar panel runs a few lightbulbs and a radio but John has no phone or internet.

“I don’t have much, but I’m the richest man on earth,” he told me. John is rich in time, the most priceless of all commodities, and he spends his bounty creating art. On the table by the window was a sculpture, rough- hewn but magnificent. I’d never seen a block of wood curl around itself quite so beautifully. Then John set a dried strip of seaweed in front of the block. It was twisted in exactly the same way as the wood. “This is my model,” he said proudly. The man is a master.

John’s model & creation, in progress.

When he’s finished sanding down this sculpture to a mere fraction of an inch thick, it’ll be smooth as silk and weigh only a few ounces. His final products are nearly as delicate as the wisps of seaweed that inspire them and he breaks more than a few in the process. Not a man to hang on to mistakes, broken works go into the wood stove, lessons learned. Finished pieces sell for several thousand dollars, his main source of income.

John and I spent most of the afternoon talking about Art and the Ocean, which crashes right outside his window and sometimes washes up under the cabin. When he’s not carving, he’s out exploring the coast, picking up new sea life models and several tons of trash, which he hauls up the bluff one backpack full at a time. He drives to the closest town once a week for groceries and to Eureka three times a year. He hasn’t gone further away from home in over a decade.

John McAbery, master woodworker and keeper of the Lost Coast

An avid traveler once, John asked me all about my life on the road and I asked him all about what it’s like to find a place that inspires for 35 years. Someday, I hope to be as rich as John McAbery.

To read more about John, check out this lovely artist profile piece in the San Francisco Chronicle. To see more of his creations, visit his website at www.johnmcaberywoodsculptures.com.

Lost Coast, Low Tide: Starfish & Urchin

Lost Coast, Low Tide: Crab & Gull

Beach Dogs, giving their feet a break from the course sand.

Windy Point Road- I made a loop back to the campsite by climbing a trail up and over the bluffs.

Mattola Beach Overlook- Where the Mattola River Meets the Pacific

Best wishes, John, whether you plan to rebuild or move on. Thanks again for inviting me in.

Posted in Bowie & D.O.G., Hiking!, Photography, Road tripping!, Uncategorized, Vagabonding 101 | 11 Comments