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 | 5 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

Salt Lake Spirals

The Great Salt Lake. I had no idea it's so PINK!

The Great Salt Lake. I had no idea it’s so PINK!

I’ve met all five Great Lakes, but had yet to see the Great Salt Lake so after a weekend in the High Unitas Mountains in northeast Utah, I skirted around Salt Lake City and approached America’s Dead Sea from the north. My original plan was to drive down Promontory Point, but a park ranger at the Golden Spike National Historic Site (where the Transcontinental Railroad bridged the gap between East and West in 1869) informed me that the road down Promontory Point is private, gated and locked.

Mares and foals grazing in front of the Prominatory Mountains.

Mares and foals grazing in front of the Promontory Mountains.

“Besides, there’s not much to see down there,” he said. “But isn’t the Great Salt Lake down there?” And he said, “Oh yeah, that. The better place to see the lake is at the Spiral Jetty“. I had no idea what the Spiral Jetty was, but I didn’t ask the ranger any questions about it; I rather like encountering new places without having a picture already in mind. It’s an uncommon experience these days: to go some place you’ve never seen a photo of, or heard a story about. That quickening of surprise, that tickling of the mind, that flashes upon you when you open your eyes to something new in the world. Even after nine years on the road, going new places never ceases to thrill me.

The first jetty we hiked down, remnants of an oil-drilling operation.

The first jetty we hiked down from Rozel Point, remnants of an oil-drilling operation.

Salt Lake

Jetty Death

Salt Lake Bowie. I think he thought it was snow, but it didn't taste like snow and the water didn't smell like water. Dogs confused!

Salt Lake Bowie. I think he thought it was snow, but it didn’t taste like snow and the water didn’t smell like water. Dogs confused!

Lots of white foam. This place was like being on the beach on Venus!

Lots of white foam, dead bugs and sand fleas.

Even though it was too stormy, shallow and stinky to wade in and float, the Great Salt Lake did not disappoint. I had no idea it’s so PINK! Between the pink water and the salty white, foamy shore I felt like we were on the beach on Venus. The dogs were thoroughly confused by the sights and smells. They love to swim, but they wouldn’t go anywhere near the water and they both sampled some foam in their mouths and spit it out in disgust.

The Spiral Jetty!

The Spiral Jetty!

A little farther down the road, I found the Spiral Jetty. I had no idea who had built it or why, but it was clearly a monumental work: thousands of tons of rock dropped into a massive counter clockwise spiral leading out into the lake. I had the place to myself for a few hours and I decided to set up camp for the night to catch sunset and sunrise over the lake.

Home sweet home at the Spiral Jetty

Home sweet home at the Spiral Jetty

Spiral Jetty from above

Spiral Jetty from above. This place was lousy with spirals!  Notice the Rover & Rattler down below.

After awhile, a truck with Florida plates pulled up and the driver got out and took a tripod down to the Jetty. His far-off figure appeared animated and excited and I kept catching snippets of his commentary as he spoke into the camera. When he came back up the parking lot, I went over to ask if he knew anything about the spiral and he said, “Well how long do you have? I’m writing a book about this place!”

We ended up hanging out for most of the evening, while Joey told me about his pilgrimage from Miami across the West, seeking obscure “land art” installations in Utah, Nevada and Texas and all about Robert Smithson, the sculptor who created the Spiral Jetty in 1970 before dying in a place crash in 1973 while surveying a site in Texas for another installation.

Walking the Spiral Jetty. The spiral is only visible at low lake levels. It was hidden for decades after it was built, emerging only in the early 2000's, encrusted in salt. I'd love to come back someday when the water is higher.

Walking the Spiral Jetty. The spiral is only visible at low lake levels. It was hidden for decades after it was built, emerging only in the early 2000’s, encrusted in white salt. I’d love to come back someday when the water is higher.

I often find myself in the right place at the right time and it was just my luck to run into an art historian at the Spiral Jetty! “If you like this place, you should come to the Sun Tunnels this weekend for the Solstice Party,” he said. Sounds like an opportunity to me… stay tuned for a Solstice post!

Dawn over the Great Salt Lake

Dawn over the Great Salt Lake

Posted in Bowie & D.O.G., Hiking!, Photography, Road tripping!, Teardrop Trailer, Uncategorized, Vagabonding 101 | 12 Comments

Writing on the Wall: Rochester Rock Art Panel

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A story pecked in stone

I uploaded these pictures a couple of weeks ago, but I’ve hesitated to share them. They’re very nice shots, but they pale in comparison to the subject matter – encountering this panel of finely pecked, richly detailed rock art, previously sight unseen (I had never laid eyes on a photo of the panel or read a description of this place) – was one of the most astonishing moments of my life.

I followed some brown BLM signs that simply said Rock Art, down a long washboarded dirt road that ended abruptly at a canyon. An obvious, ancient footpath cut down canyon, winding between big blocks of brown sandstone, out to a prominatory above two creeks, both running thick and muddy.

Hiking out to the Rochester Panel

Hiking out to the Rochester Panel, on the side of one of the big blocks  up ahead. We’re hiking across a peninsula of rock wedged between the confluences of Muddy and Rochester Creeks.

When I turned that corner and discovered this arcing rainbow of beastly, humanoid figures, swirling in a mad, mysterious atavistic story, the figures wholly captured me and I sat in their thrall for a long time, until swarming biting gnats drove me away. Rochester is the kind of place that stays with you; I barely slept that night, my ears uncomfortably itchy with bites, the ancient figures still dancing behind my restless eyelids.

Turn the corner...

Turning the corner…

Main Panel Detail

Main Panel Detail

 

Birth/ Bullet Detail. The curator at the Museum of the San Rafael told me the bullet holes are likely from  a cowboy's bullet in the early 1900's.

Birth/ Bullet Detail. The curator at the Museum of the San Rafael in Castle Dale told me the bullet holes were likely left by a target-shooting cowboy in the early 1900’s, although some Native Americans ritually desecrate panels to fend off malevolent spirits.

Phallic Hunt

Phallic Hunt

Anglo Graffiti

An Idiot Was Here

Bowie says, Whatcha lookin' at?

Bowie says, Whatcha lookin’ at?

More detail, main panel

More detail, main panel

People who mar rock art should be shot.

The bright, blank spots are scars left by collectors removing parts of the panel. People who mar rock art should be haunted by the ancients all night, every night for life.

So please accept my apologies for posting these and ruining your chance at stumbling upon this place, sight unseen, as I did. I hope that next time you drive by a brown sign that says simply Rock Art, that you make the turn and drive down the washboarded dirt road and park at the end and follow the trail down canyon to where it turns the corner around a big block of sandstone.

Shadow Self Portrait

Shadow Self Portrait

Rochester Rock Art Dogs. We approached through the canyon on the right.

Rochester Rock Art Dogs. We approached through the canyon on the right.

Love Rock Art? Me too! Check out some of my previous petroglyph and pictograph posts: Writing on the Wall: Sego Canyon, Utah Petroglyphs,  Urban Petroglyphs & Geologic Unrest and Writing on the Wall: Backyard Petroglyphs. I also recently hit two other famous collections at Parowan Gap and Buckhorn Wash.

I hope you all had a fantastic solstice! I celebrated with a hundred other Sun-loving art geeks in the middle of the Utah desert at an art installation called the Sun Tunnels, which line up with the sunset and sunrise on the longest and shortest days of the year. I heard of this place for the first time three days ago and happened to be in just the right place at the right time to catch the alignment. Gotta love that road trip serendipity! Stay tuned for a post!

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

EARTH Magazine: Spanish cave reveals new Neanderthal ancestor

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As many of you know, I don’t just write for fun. This is also how I make my living! If you’re curious about my science writing, my latest story for EARTH magazine just went live. This is one of my favorite pieces I’ve written for EARTH lately. I usually cover the geophysics beat – think earthquakes, plate tectonics and volcanoes – but every now and then I get to explore other loves, in this case, human evolution.

Paleoanthropologists are often forced to glean information about early human evolution from mere fragments of bone, but a trove of thousands of hominin fossils unearthed from a prolific cave in northern Spain is proving a boon for scientists studying the early ancestors of Neanderthals . But the plethora of fossils isn’t falling neatly into any established species, leaving some to wonder if a new category of hominin is needed. 

Since its discovery in 1984 the Sima de los Huesos site near Atapuerca, Spain has been vigorously excavated, revealing more than 7,000 fossils, including 17 skulls, from at least 28 individuals.  “What makes the Sima de los Huesos site unique is the extraordinary and unprecedented accumulation of hominin fossils there. Nothing quite so big has ever been discovered for any extinct hominin species—including Neanderthals,” says Juan-Luis Arsuaga, a paleontologist at the Complutensis University in Madrid and lead author of the new study, published this week in Science. 

To read the rest, click over to EARTH’s website.

 

 

Posted in Science Writing, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Hey Blonde Coyote, Will You Plan My Road Trip?

My sweet free campsite near Cedar Breaks in southwest Utah. I stayed here for six days.

My sweet free campsite near Cedar Breaks in southwest Utah. I stayed here for six days.

Hello! I’m planning a cross country trip soon and have been looking into boondocking and places to camp.  I found your site and have been reading it the past few days.  Awesome to say the least.

I’m traveling from the Philadelphia area of Pennsylvania to Denver and then on to Los Angeles.  Everything in between is fair game. I’ve done quite a bit of research but the potential number of destinations is mind blowing.  I’m wondering if you had any guidance?  Some places along the way to camp and spend a night or three?
I’m trying to keep my expenditures to a minimum but I also want to have a memorable, dare I say life changing experience.  At 30 this may well be the last time I can pull off an unencumbered cross country expedition.

I appreciate any help and apologize if I’m being presumptuous in my communication.  I would buy a photo but money is tight…part of the reason for my voyage to sunnier climes.

Happy travels!

Thanks for the email, JB. Always nice to hear from people hitting the road in search of a life-changing experience. The truth is, I don’t even plan my own road trips these days. I just go. Each morning I look at my Adventure Atlas and decide where I’m going to go that day. A lot of days, I don’t go anywhere. I seldom know where I’ll sleep each night, but something always seems to work out. After nine years on the road, my camp-radar (“campdar”) is finely honed and I’m totally comfortable not having any real plan for days, weeks and months at a time.

Another free campsite near Cedar Breaks

Another free campsite near Cedar Breaks

I’m not going to plan your road trip for you, but I’ll give you some must see suggestions along your route:

• The New River Gorge in southern West Virginia is one of the greatest natural playgrounds in the country, boasting world-class climbing, mountain biking, rafting, kayaking, hiking and BASE jumping, not to mention one of the coolest small towns in America: Fayetteville.

Big Basin Prairie Preserve near Ashland, Kansas. Don’t believe what anybody says about the Midwest: the Great Plains are absolutely beautiful.

Crested Butte, Colorado- I spent all last summer exploring mountains and mountain towns in Colorado and this place was my favorite, both for the backcountry and the town itself.

• Southern Utah- Pick a few parks out of a hat and get to know them on your own two feet. I’ve been exploring Utah every spring for years and the wonders never cease. I’m not sure when you’ll be traveling but keep in mind that summers are HOT! Spring, fall and winter are the best times to explore the desert. Summers are for mountains: check out the Henry’s, Uintas and Cedar Breaks.

• The Grand Canyon- If I’m pressed to pick one favorite place, I usually say the Grand Canyon. All the superlatives in the world pale in comparison.

• The La Brea Tar Pits in LA. I haven’t been here yet but I’ve written a few stories on the tar pits and it’s at the top of my must see list next time I’m in LA.

Climbing Notch Mountain in the High Uintas in northeast Utah in June.

Climbing Notch Mountain in the High Uintas in northeast Utah in June.

The first step to planning any road trip, be it a leisurely weekend loop around your home state or a cross-country epic is to buy a National Geographic Adventure Atlas. Accept no substitutes and never leave home without it!

The Adventure Atlas is a road tripper’s dream: easy to read, virtually indestructible and chock full of information about what to see and do off America’s beaten paths. In addition to charting the best scenic routes (always take the scenic route!) the Adventure Atlas has detailed National Park maps and marks trails, campgrounds, stop-worthy roadside attractions like the National Coonhound Cemetery in Cherokee, Alabama and quirky museums like the Prairie Windmill Museum in Shattuck, Oklahoma.

Once you have your Atlas, sit down with a highlighter, pick a state or a region and start marking all the places you’d like to see someday. All those little red squares marking geologic wondershistorical spotsfamous residencesgeographical oddities, museums and attractions are sure to whet your appetite for the open road. (Just now I highlighted the site of the first US Train Robbery in Adair, Iowa and Legend Rocks Petroglyph Site near Hamilton Dome, Wyoming, for future road tripping reference).

Also take note of the thousands of state parks, state forests, recreation and scenic areas, BLM lands, National Forests, National Monuments, and National Parks marked in green. Roads through these areas are usually jaw-droppingly scenic and they’re also great places to stop for picnics, hiking and camping (look for the little green tents!).

Now, with your highlighter, start connecting your dots using as many of the scenic routes and back roads as possible and voila: a killer road trip route! Of course, where you’ll go and how far you’ll drive will depend on how much time and money you have to spend on the road. If at all possible, aim to drive no more than 4 hours a day and plan on making several stops every day. Remember: on a proper road trip you should spend almost as much time out of the car as behind the wheel!

For more tips on planning your own life-changing trip, check out my previous road trip posts:

How To Plan A Killer Road Trip!

How To Plan A Kiler Road Trip! Part 2: $$$

How To Plan A Killer Road Trip! Part 3: Copilots

How To Plan A Killer Road Trip! Part 4: Packing

How To Plan A Killer Road Trip! Part 5: Tips & Tricks

Boondocking 101: How To Camp For Free In Beautiful Places

Boondocking Part 2: Finding A Sweet Free Campsite

Boondocking Part 3: Leave No Trace!

And if you really want to experience a Blonde Coyote road trip, abide by the Rules of the Road Trip. Best of luck and happy trails!

Rovering through Black Dragon Canyon, Utah

Rovering through Black Dragon Canyon, Utah. It’s nice to unhitch  to remind myself why I bought this fool contraption: any road, anywhere!

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

Following My Father

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Into the Scottish Highlands

For a time when I was younger, I thought I should grow up to be a doctor, like my Dad. Instead, I’ve become a hiker, like my Dad. A born West Virginian Mountain Man, his adventures on foot make mine look mild. To wit: in May, he hiked all the way from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, down to the Colorado River and back in one day. That’s 19 miles, over 12,000 feet of elevation change, in one go.

We’ve taken quite a few epic hikes together over the past few years: here are a few of my favorite pix from the Scottish Highlands, the Canadian Rockies and Old Rag Mountain in Virginia, which we climbed last year for my 31st birthday. Happy Father’s Day, Dad!

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Overlooking the Lairig Ghru in the Scottish Highlands. The next day we hiked through that glacially-carved valley.

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Into the Lairig Ghru

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Crossing King Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh, Scotland with my Dad (in blue) sister and brother in law

Crossing King Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, Scotland with my Dad (in blue) sister and brother in law

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Family portrait on the summit of King Arthur’s Sear in Edinburgh

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On the summit of Old Rag on my 31st birthday

 

On the Iceline Trail in Canada's Yoho National Park

On the Iceline Trail in Canada’s Yoho National Park

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Apparently, taste in hats is genetic.

Apparently, taste in hats is genetic.

Go here to read my original posts on the Scottish Highlands, the Lairig Ghru and the Burgess Shale. Also check out my previous Father’s Day post: Fathers And Authors.


Posted in Beyond the USA, Hiking!, Photography, Uncategorized | 9 Comments

What Does the Blonde Coyote Eat & Drink On the Road?

I should eat more of this

I should eat more of this- wild garden salad from my Aunt & Uncle’s farm in Oregon.

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.
How I spend my free time.

How I spend my free time.

My solution to this ridiculously flattering conundrum is to start answering some of these queries on the Blonde Coyote:
What do you eat?  Being a solo traveler (with your dogs of course) it’s probably a bummer to cook very often.  I’m just curious, what do you like to eat?  What is a favorite recipe?  I ask because I hate to cook.  In fact, I’m pretty interested in all of the liquid diets I’ve heard about.  If I could get a healthy ‘meal replacement’ shake that satisfied me, I’d probably drink it two times a day.
I hear you, Todd. I’d love to drink a shake or take a pill twice a day and call it a meal. My favorite recipe? PB&J. Seriously. I’ve never blogged about what I eat because I am the most boring cook. I really have very little interest in food, other than what I need to eat to fuel my hiking.
Moonrise over my kitchen. People sometimes ask me what I do when it rains. Either I get wet or I don't eat. Actually, I usually just make a PB&J.

Moonrise over my kitchen. People sometimes ask me what I do when it rains. Either I get wet or I don’t eat. Actually, I usually just make a PB&J.

Here is my grocery list: bread, pb, jam, oatmeal, granola bars, eggs, cheese, crackers, pasta/ sauce, black beans, tortillas, lots of fruits and veggies. That’s really about it. Nothing fancy and all relatively inexpensive, though I do try to buy organic, which can get pricey, especially in small towns. I love shopping at little Ma and Pa grocers, the older the better; it’s amazing how much you can learn about a place by seeing what the locals eat! on average, I spend about $50 a week on food and only eat out once or twice a week. I’m mostly vegetarian, unless somebody else cooks me a tasty meaty meal. In fact, I like to say I’m a recovering vegetarian. I was a full on strict hard core vegetarian for about 19 years from the time I was 6 (I loved animals too much to eat them) until I was 25 and I’m still not much for meat.  Every now and then I’ll have a victory burger when I’ve earned it, but I never cook meat myself or keep it in my camper.
My little red oven at Joshua Tree

My little red oven at Joshua Tree

Despite all my ambivalence about food, the Teardrop is pretty well set up for cooking. The kitchen slides out the back and has a single propane burner and more counter space than I’ve had in most apartments. A couple of years ago for Christmas, my dear mother gave me a propane camping oven, which can bake a cake and has two top burners. It mostly lives under the bed inside the camper and comes out for special occasions when I make the world’s best cookie or when somebody else is joining me for a meal. I have a standing offer to several friends to copilot if they do all the cooking!
I bake a mean cookie

I bake a mean cookie

My latest food innovation is a portable fridge, which I keep in the trunk of the Rover and run off the car battery while it’s running. If I’m parked for a few days, I can plug it into the solar system in my Teardrop, but I have it stocked with cold packs and a jug of water that help keep the temperature cool. I always hated buying ice and dealing with wet and spoiled food so this is a fantastic upgrade for me. It didn’t stop me from getting food poisoning this week though. No fault of the fridge, I just think I got a bad egg. :(
Not a terrible place to have food poisoning. Ugh.

Not a terrible place to have food poisoning. Ugh.

Speaking of food, this might be a good time to address what I do for water, which is a far more important question than food, if you ask me (though nobody has asked it yet!). I carry about 12 gallons with me in several containers: a 6 gallon, a 3 gallon and three 1 gallon BPA-free refillables, all of which sit on the backseat floorboards. I try to fill up at visitor centers and rest stops for free, otherwise I pay around 30 cents a gallon at grocery stores. Without a stream nearby for the dogs to drink out of, 12 gallons can last the three of us between 4 and 6 days. If the dogs have their own source I can stretch it well over a week. Those boys drink a lot of water! I pretty much drink water all the time, occasionally flavored with crystal light or more often, brewed into tea. I’ve never had a taste for soda, coffee or alcohol, which has probably saved me thousands of dollars over the years. :)
Got a question about life on the road? You can email me at theblondecoyote@gmail.com.
Posted in Hiking!, Photography, Road tripping!, Sustainable Living, Teardrop Trailer, Uncategorized, Vagabonding 101 | 13 Comments