RIP Rover: On Walking Away

Me and my dream car in Cathedral Valley, Utah

Me and my dream car in Cathedral Valley, Utah

Two summers ago, stuck in Crested Butte, Colorado with my trailer, two dogs and a dying Subaru, I searched Craigslist on a whim for my dream car: an older Land Rover Discovery. A rare 5-speed manual popped up for sale in Colorado Springs, and I limped my rig over the mountains to buy it outright, in cash. My ’96 Disco was not without flaws – it stranded me three times in the first month I owned it – but over the last two years and 60,000 miles it took extraordinarily good care of me, my dogs and my trailer, with a good chunk of those miles over the kind of terrain Land Rovers are made to drive.

If your Rover's clean, your doing it wrong

If your Rover’s clean, you’re doing it wrong

A week ago, I was driving down the mountain – without the trailer – when the Rover’s back right tire blew, sending us careening out of control and then rolling roof over wheels down the mountain. After three rotations we came to rest on our wheels right next to some electrical boxes, engine still running, music still playing. I shut the Rover off, shouldered my way out of the rig and got the dogs clear of the wreck. Miraculously, save for a small scratch under Dio’s left eye, we were all completely unscathed. In the end, the Rover took all the hits for us.

This makes for a better story.

This makes for a better story.

I’ve been moving through the stages of grief ever since, missing my rolling home on the road, but mostly I feel incredibly, unbelievably fortunate that my dogs and I walked away. It was the perfect wreck. All those rocks and dinosaurs and that solid brass owl flying around inside with us – nothing hit me. The medicine bag an Oglala Lakota woman had given me “to keep me company and keep me safe” on my travels was still dangling from the rear view mirror stem, though the mirror lay broken on the side of the road.

Dashboard altar to the gods of winter road tripping

Dashboard altar to the gods of winter road tripping

I’m not sure yet what my next ride will be. A huge part of me wants to get another Land Rover. But the rest knows I should move forward, on to the next dream. Onward and upward, thanks to the Rover. It will always be my dream car.

Our last road trip through Utah's 9-mile canyon. The tire could have blown here, hitched up, in the middle of nowhere, but it didn't. It blew in the best possible circumstances. Thanks, Rover.

Our last road trip in April through Utah’s 9-mile canyon. The tire could have blown here, hitched up, in the middle of nowhere, but it didn’t. It blew in the best possible circumstances. Thanks, Rover.

In honor of the Rover, reread some of the adventures we had: Rover Love, Wheeler Geologic Area, and Between a Rover and a Hard Place.

Posted in Bowie & D.O.G., Road tripping!, Teardrop Trailer, Uncategorized | Tagged | 36 Comments

Skiing Is Believing

Lone Peak, Big Sky, Montana

Lone Peak & Fan Mountain, Big Sky, Montana

In October, I climbed Mount Saint Helens by moonlight and when I stood on the summit at sunrise, I felt the mountain rumble beneath my feet. On the way back down, sliding freely down the loose scree slope on the soles of my well-worn hiking boots, I said, “I want to learn to ski.” I believe in the wishes I make on mountains: it’s now mid-April and after around 100 days spent sliding down the slopes of Lone Peak in Big Sky, Montana, I’m well on my way to being an expert skier.



Driving east to Montana after Helens, I wasn’t thinking about skiing. I was thinking about Clydesdales. I had been offered a gig ranch-sitting a horse farm in southwest Montana for the winter and I was in love with the idea of having horses back in my life. After a week on the ranch, working side by side with the resident ranch woman, getting to know her animals and forming what I thought were trusting partnerships, I shook her hand and told her I’d be back in a few weeks, well before she left for winter in Hawaii. Then I headed south for Zion.

Overlooking Zion from the Eagle Crags

Overlooking Zion from the Eagle Crags

But my winter with horses was not meant to be. One morning I woke up to a sharply-worded email of demands, all of which should have come up much sooner: no friends or family could visit me at the ranch, my dogs needed to be kept penned up and I was to live in the tiny bunkhouse and use an unheated outhouse all winter, instead of the main house. Most disturbing was the uncompromising tone of the email and the implication that I would be watched; it was clear this woman had some serious trust and control issues. Red flags were flapping feverishly… this was not somebody I wanted to work for.

Pretty dreamy but you gotta know when to walk away.

Pretty dreamy but you gotta know when to walk away.

When I told Dan, a friend from Big Sky and my co-pilot for the Zion trip, about the ranch woman’s email he said, “Well, how about you spend the winter skiing instead.” What a perfect Plan B: if I couldn’t spend the winter with my first love – horses – I would spend it with my next great love: Mountains. And so I closed the barn door and climbed out the window to Big Sky.

Our big backyard

Everything is big in Big Sky

And so here I am, wintering at one of the the most epic ski resorts in the world, on the most beautiful mountain in Montana (which in Montana is saying something), surrounded by skiers – people who live to ski, for whom skiing is being – learning new lessons outside in the mountains, everyday.

Three of the gnarliest bros I know... aka my roommates

Keeping up with three of the gnarliest bros I know… aka my roommates

Before this winter, I’d skied a handful of times, but I was in no way a skier. Now I have an Unlimited Gold Season Pass to the biggest ski resort in America and I go skiing just about every day: on sunny days, snowy days, and on negative 20 degree days. I’ve skied all over this mountain: from greens to blues to blacks to double blacks to the backcountry. Now I can look at Lone Peak from any angle and say, yeah I skied down that face.

Lone Peak, yeah I skied that

Lone Peak from Porcupine Ridge…Liberty, Lenin, Marx, the Gullies, the North Snowfield, the A to Z’s and the Headwaters: check. Still to go: the Big Couloir!

The most important lesson I’ve learned this winter is that Skiing is Believing. Skiing is purely physics and metaphysics, both of which the body and mind speak fluently, if you can keep your doubts, your fears – your ego – out of the way. I’ve been working on my balancing act for years, living on the razor’s edge, believing. Now I stand on my skis, these erstwhile awkward clown shoes, at the top of a steep snowy slope and I push over the edge and behold: my skis ski, my body balances and my mind is free. I believe in the wishes I make on mountains.

Hiking out the Headwaters ridge to ski my first chute

Hiking out the Headwaters ridge to ski my first double black diamond chute

Skiing down the North side of Lone Peak... double blacks all the way!

Skiing down the North side of Lone Peak… double blacks all the way!

Getting out of bounds, into the backcountry

Getting out of bounds, into the backcountry

Dio's quite the powder hound! Skiing Beehive Basin with Lone Peak in the background

Dio’s quite the powder hound! Skiing Beehive Basin with Lone Peak in the background

Posted in Bowie & D.O.G., Hiking!, Photography, Road tripping!, Sustainable Living, Uncategorized, Vagabonding 101 | Tagged , , | 14 Comments

Where Warm Waters Halt…On the Trail of Treasure in the Rocky Mountains!

A "blaze" I found in the Rio Grande Gorge in northern New Mexico last spring.

A “blaze” I found in the Rio Grande Gorge in northern New Mexico last spring.

“Where warm waters halt… where warm waters halt… where warm waters halt.” For two summers, I’ve been exploring the Rocky Mountains with those words on my mind. Why those four words in particular? Because I believe they lead to a modern-day treasure chest.

In 2010, Forrest Fenn, a retired antiquities dealer based in Santa Fe, N.M., set about creating his own legend: He bought an antique bronze chest and filled it with valuables and artifacts including gold dust, coins and nuggets, Chinese jade carvings, a 17th-century gold-and-emerald ring, an ancient turquoise bracelet — together worth between $1 million and $2 million — and then lugged all 19 kilograms of it to a mysterious hiding place somewhere “in the Rocky Mountains north of Santa Fe.” He then released a poem containing nine clues as to the treasure’s whereabouts. More than four years later, nobody has yet found Fenn’s treasure, and he maintains that if it goes undiscovered, the chest will stay safely in place for hundreds of years.

The Fenn treasure has been valued between  million and $2 million and the chest itself — a 12th-century Roman lockbox made of sculpted bronze — has been said to be worth about $35,000. Credit: Forrest Fenn.

The Fenn treasure has been valued between $1 million and $2 million and the chest itself — a 12th-century Roman lockbox made of sculpted bronze — has been said to be worth about $35,000. Credit: Forrest Fenn.

Thousands of people from all walks of life have gone searching for Fenn’s treasure in New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana (Fenn has eliminated Utah and Idaho). When I heard about the treasure, I couldn’t help thinking about it from a geologist’s point of view: The poem implies that the treasure is hidden near water, but the courses of waterways can change drastically over time, even from season to season, let alone over centuries. And as someone interested in archaeology and paleontology, I’m well aware that if you find something interesting on public land, it’s not always “finders, keepers.” I was intrigued. Could I put my background in geology and my hiker’s knowledge of landscapes to work searching for a treasure chest?

Posted in Hiking!, New Mexico, Photography, Road tripping!, Science Writing, Sustainable Living, Vagabonding 101 | 12 Comments

In Hollywood they say, “Mush You Huskies!” In Montana we say, “Hike You Mutts!”

The Sheer Surging of Life

The Sheer Surging of Life…

“He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy

of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew in that it was everything that was not death,

that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars.”

-Jack London, The Call of the Wild


Husky Chariots: Dog truck and sleds


Alaskan Husky. All of these dogs are actually husky mixes, crossed with running breeds for health and stamina.


Greeting the dogs. There were over 60 dogs here – five teams of ten, plus extras – and we petted each and every one of them at least twice. Most were super sweet, a few were shy and none were unfriendly.


The dogs were mostly quiet until we started hooking them up to the lines, then they went berserk. Complete pandemonium.


Our lead dogs Mars and Moon, litter-mates


And we’re off! Flying past Fan Mountain.


No shortage of scenery here in Big Sky. That’s Lone Peak, our ski mountain.


After about five miles we stopped the teams for a hot chocolate break. These metal cleats helped hold the sleds in place. If it were up to the dogs, they’d never stop.


Let’s Go! Let’s Go! Let’s Go!


More! More! More! The energy, drive and enthusiasm of these dogs was incredible.


The Sled Hitch. Lots of redundancy in those knots so there’s no way the team can come loose from the sled.


Most of the dogs were very sweet and personable. It was clear they’re very well treated and cared for.


“Jaws” here is the matriarch of this team. She’s 11 and still loves to pull.


Driving the sled! We each got a turn to drive. It wasn’t difficult, but you sure have to hold on tight! If you fall off, the dogs don’t stop. To slow down you stepped on the center rubber mat with one foot. To stop (eventually, not immediately) you stood with both feet on the curved metal bar, which drove two spikes down into the snow.


This dog ran the Yukon Quest, a 1,000 mile race. Most of these dogs are older and retired from racing. These 10-mile jaunts are just enough to get their yayas out.


Turning for home past the Spanish Peaks


Dan driving the sled with Tristan riding along


Hike you Mutts! Heading for home towards Lone Peak.

Tired, for now.

Tired, for now.


Rusty & Ginger in their kennel

Thanks to Spirit of the North Dog Sledding in Big Sky! I’ll be back for more!

Posted in Bowie & D.O.G., Photography, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Finding D.O.G.

First Sight

First Sight

Six years ago today, I took a road trip to Monument Valley, near the Arizona – Utah border, and crossed paths with a spirit animal in the shape of a bedraggled dog. Keeping a skinny, filthy, half-wild mutt could have been a complete disaster, but it was meant to be, and we both knew it at first sight.

On January 14th, 2009, after a long drive from New Mexico, I pulled off the highway onto a random dirt road, parked, and set off across the open desert with my dog Bowie to hike around a distant, unnamed butte.

No place for a puppy.

No place for a puppy.

Rounding the far side, I saw movement under a sage. Crouched in a sliver of shade was a dog, wagging his tail. Something about him made my heart skip a beat. I held onto Bowie, in case the stray was hurt or sick, and talked sweetly to the dog, who cautiously emerged. Then I saw: He was in terrible shape, but filth and ribs aside, he was the spitting image of Bowie.

Kaymoor Steps Dogs, WV

Kaymoor Steps Dogs, West Virginia

He was young, six months at the most. I could see the bony points of his hips and the line of his backbone through the matts tangled in his all-black coat. No collar. Clods of dirt were matted between his toes. I coaxed him, but he wouldn’t come closer so I poured some water in a dish and stepped back. He shot forward, desperate for a drink.

You've come a long way, baby. Lake Tahoe Dogs!

You’ve come a long way, baby. Lake Tahoe Dogs! Nevada

Monument Valley was an improbable place to find a dog. We were surrounded by nothing but desert. The only manmade things in sight were a barbed wire fence and my car glinting in the distance, parked on the side of a rarely traveled dirt road. No water, no shade, no people, no houses. Nothing.

Return to Monument Valley, two years later. Dio didn't show any inclination to return to his wild ways.

Return to Monument Valley, two years later. Dio didn’t show any inclination to return to his wild ways.

I didn’t have any dog food with me. There was nothing else I could do out there for him, but walk and hope he followed. He looked like hell, but I was relieved to see he still had enough energy to be rambunctious. Over the next hour, the three of us circled that nameless, stunning butte, with Bowie and the puppy playing together like long-lost brothers. It was the youngest Bowie, then six, had acted in years.

Dio keeping Bowie young! West Virginia

The puppy was curious about me, but wary, and he was downright afraid of my camera. Every time I pointed it at him, he shied away and so I put it in my backpack and showed him my empty hands. Eventually, the puppy would follow Bowie within a few feet of me, but he always remained just beyond my outstretched hand, his tail wagging and eyes bright, wanting to be friends, but unsure.

Bowie & Dio on the Appalachian Trail, Vermont

Between he and Bowie, it was true love. I’ve never seen two dogs so happy to have made a friend. The two of them romped the whole way back to the car. When we got to the road, I put Bowie in the car and gave the stray more water and a small handful of dog food, not wanting to upset his neglected stomach.

I watched him eat, surprisingly daintily, for a starving dog. Where had he come from? How long had he been out here? Most importantly: What should I do with him? When he finished eating I opened the car door again, and he made the decision for me, jumping in next to Bowie, who outright grinned: Can we keep him?!

Summiting Quartz Peak- 13,300 feet!

Summiting Quartz Peak- 13,300 feet! Colorado

Living on the road, housesitting different places every few months, having a second dog – a wild one no less – was totally impractical. But this bedraggled, sweet-eyed creature had crossed my path and chosen to follow me. I wanted to trust him the way he was willing to trust me. I sat in the car for 15 minutes, coming to terms with what I already knew: this dog was mine, then I abandoned my plans to camp out that night, pulled a U-turn and drove straight back to New Mexico with that stinky, wild dog curled up in the backseat.

He slept the entire trip, only occasionally sitting up to look out the window, a road trip natural. I was afraid to let him out of the car. If he ran off it would break my heart and I didn’t want to scare him with a leash. Somewhere along the way, I named him D.O.G.

New Orleans D.O.G.

New Orleans D.O.G., Louisiana

We got back to the Earthship well after dark and I opened the car door and let him loose. The other two dogs at my place pounced on him, but he sorted himself out like a good-natured dog and soon everybody was running around the driveway together. I took all four on a get-acquainted hike down my long dirt road. The moon was new and the stars were epic; I couldn’t see all black Dio in the dark, but I was no longer worried about him running away. He had found friends and I knew he’d follow us forever.

Mount Rundle D.O.G.

Mount Rundle D.O.G., Alberta

It took another day for Dio to let me touch him and a month before he’d roll over for a belly rub. He was especially afraid of men and it was a year until he would willingly go up to strangers. Gradually, he got over his fears of brooms and sticks, running water, bridges and quick movements, though he’s still wary of children and terrified of gun fire.

Desert Dog Meets the Pacific

Desert Dog Meets the Pacific, California

Six years later, you’d never know Dio had a rough start. He’s sleek and handsome, obedient, unflinchingly friendly and more worldly than most people. I believe that Dio followed me out of that desert because he wanted to see more of the world. By last count, Dio has been hiking with me in 47 states. (He’s missing Hawaii, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Bowie has been to 49; he’s only missing Hawaii.) Not bad for a wild dog! He and Bowie are inseparable and people regularly ask me if they’re related. Now eleven years old, Bowie has no grey and only a little arthritis and still hikes many miles with me. Dio is keeping both of us young!

Dogs running in dog-deep snow, Maine

When people hear Dio’s story, they usually say he’s a lucky dog, but luck implies chance and I know I was meant to find Dio. Across all the Southwest’s open, rugged space, I pulled my car over at that nondescript spot, went for a trail-less hike to a nameless butte in the middle of nowhere and found a perfect dog. That’s not luck, that’s love.

Dio on Day 2

Happy dog Dio on day two of the rest of his life…

Check out Travels with Bowie & D.O.G. under Archives A to Z for lots of photos from our travels all over North America. These dogs have seen more of the world than most people.

Chaco Canyon D.O.G.

Chaco Canyon D.O.G., New Mexico

Pemaquid Point D.O.G., Maine

Pemaquid Point D.O.G., Maine

Las Vegas D.O.G.

Las Vegas D.O.G., Nevada

Athabasca Glacier D.O.G. British Columbia

Athabasca Glacier D.O.G. Alberta

Emerald Lake D.O.G.

Emerald Lake D.O.G., Colorado

Posted in Appalachian Trail, Bowie & D.O.G., Hiking!, New Mexico, Photography, Road tripping!, Vagabonding 101 | Tagged , , | 23 Comments

Winter in the Mountains

Beehive Basin D.O.G.

Beehive Basin D.O.G.

Hey everybody! I’ve been getting emails from readers over the past few weeks, asking if I’m ok since I haven’t posted in awhile. Thanks for the concern. I’m just fine. In fact, I’m fantastic! Sorry for the lack of posts lately. I’ve been busying living this crazy life, paddling madly through a swirling maelstrom of opportunities. For a few weeks, I thought I had a sweet ranch-sitting gig lined up in southwest Montana, but it fell through. Then, right as the barn door closed, a window opened onto Big Sky, Montana.


Big Sky, Lone Peak

I’ve historically spent summers in the mountains and winters in the desert, but it seems this is the year to experience the mountains in winter. I’ve been wanting to dedicate a season to learning how to travel in the mountains when they’re covered in snow. I’ve loved skiing since childhood, but I’ve never been able to go more than a few times a season. It’s clear to me that the right time and place for me to get passionate about skiing is now, here at Big Sky, under the wing of an old friend who is proving a tremendous partner in the mountains.


Winter Wonderland

To be honest, I’m not sure how much posting I’ll be doing this winter. I think this blog could really use some serious reorganizing to make the 500+ articles I’ve already written more accessible, whether you’re looking for information about a certain place or inspiration on how to hit the road. I’ve written so many words in the last five years, it’s time to herd them into some semblance of order. That’s where my creative time and energy is going these days: towards a collection of stories – ultimately a book… a few books – about this swirling, whirling, wonderful life. Thanks for reading, everybody! I feel so blessed to have so many people out there rooting for me. :)

Next adventure!

Onto the next adventure!

P.S. I did get to take one last final victory lap through southern Utah, before storing the Teardrop for the winter. Check out my photos from backpacking across Zion National Park. Here’s a sweet Zion-area tip for you: check out the Eagle Crags!

Flying up and over the Eagle Crags, looking towards Zion

After flying up and over the Eagle Crags, looking towards Zion

Posted in Bowie & D.O.G., Hiking!, Photography, Uncategorized, Vagabonding 101 | 15 Comments

Black Friday: You Save Even More When You Don’t Buy Anything At All…

Home sweet home, overlooking the Pacific

In honor of Black Friday, here’s my aconsumerism post Conquering IKEA. Enjoy! And remember kids, you save even more when you don’t buy anything at all!

My college apartment was amazing. Over the course of my three years there I furnished and decorated the whole place, floor to ceiling, with stuff from IKEA. I had couches, tables, chairs, curtains, bookshelves, framed art. The works. I have no idea how much money I spent at IKEA, but it must have been a lot. I remember giving myself a $100 budget every time I went to IKEA and I went often.

Then when I graduated, I gave it all away. I was hitting the road west, to Oregon, and every single thing I owned that wouldn’t fit in my 2-door VW had to go. I could have sold it. I could have stored it all in the big red barn at my parents’ house, but I didn’t. I gave it all to friends, friends of friends and total strangers. To this day, when I go back to Pennsylvania I’m forever asking people, much to my delight, “aren’t those my plates/ curtains/ chairs?”

Last summer, hanging around the Bay Area, I paid my first visit to IKEA in many years. I didn’t set myself a $100 budget, but I did intend to buy something, something cute and useful to go in the Teardrop, for old time’s sake. I spent all afternoon walking around that store and didn’t find a single thing.

When you live in a 5X10 foot trailer, whole sections of consumer culture no longer apply. Furniture? Nah. My bed and table are built-in and I have a nice folding camp chair with two cup holders. Kitchen supplies? I have everything I need, except for a grapefruit spoon, which IKEA didn’t have. Lighting? LED lights are built into the Teardrop. Carpet? I already have a carpet, which velcros in and out for easy cleaning. No vacuum necessary. Bedding? I sleep in my sleeping bag. Framed art? I make my own art.

On and on. I walked around and around, looking at everything, in full nostaligia-mode, finding many things I used to own. But I didn’t find anything I needed. Moreover, I didn’t find anything I wanted. I have no place in my life for any of that stuff. I spent $3.50 on a hot dog and soda for my date and an ice cream cone for myself and walked out of IKEA empty handed. After over 20,000 miles on the open road in the Teardrop, I’ve never felt so free.

Camping with my brother and sister in Redwood Country, California

Posted in Road tripping!, Sustainable Living, Teardrop Trailer, Uncategorized, Vagabonding 101 | Tagged , , | 12 Comments

Washington Cascades: Mount Saint Helens by Moonlight

Sunrise on Mount Saint Helens

Sunrise on Mount Saint Helens

When I was a kid, my Uncle Frank gave me a jar of ash from the 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helens. I wasn’t born yet when the mountain blew its top, but that jar of fine grey powder – scooped off a car hood in Oregon, hundreds of miles away from the mountain – kickstarted my lifelong fascination with volcanoes. That jar still sits on a shelf at my parents’ house and Mount Saint Helens has long been on my wish list of mountains to climb.

Looking up towards the summit through the endless class-3 boulder field

Looking up towards the summit through the endless class-3 boulder field

I tried several times this summer to get a permit to climb Helens, but the park service only gives out permits online (not in person) and they tend to sell out months ahead of the summer climbing season. This kind of system really annoys me. I feel like if you show up at a mountain, ready to climb, you should be able to get a permit. You can also buy permits from people who are backing out of their climb through, but you have to go meet them in person to pick up a piece of paper before heading to the mountain. Those logistics are ridiculous.

Yeah, yeah we got 'em

Yeah, yeah we got ’em

Another annoyance about the Mount Saint Helens permit system: you can only pick up your permit the day before your climb. This means that my friend Joe, whom I met earlier this summer on the way up South Sister in Oregon, couldn’t hike the 3-day, 28-mile Loowit trail around the mountain and then summit it. He would have to do the Loowit trail, drive into town, pick up his permit and then return to the mountain to climb it. Again, ridiculous!

My permit on my backpack at the summit

My permit on my backpack on the summit.

Joe’s solution was to hike the Loowit trail, have me pick up his permit in Cougar, Washington and meet him at the trailhead the night before our climb. Fortunately, the permit limits are only for the busy summer months and after October 1st, you still need a permit, but they don’t sell out so I didn’t have a problem getting two. On the way to the mountain, I noted a full moon was due that night and I wondered if Joe would be up for moonlit summit. Sure enough, he was wondering the same thing about me. The best place to meet real fellow mountain people is in the mountains.

First light

First light over Mount Adams

Our alarms went off at 3:30am and we were on the trail by 4. Joe said he thought he heard another group get out before us and sure enough, we caught a few glimpses of headlamps higher up on the mountain. With the full moon, our flashlights weren’t all that necessary, but the going was rough – a class 3 boulder scramble – and the extra light helped a lot in finding the most efficient route up the mountain.

Good Morning!

Good Morning! Sunbeam across the Shoestring Glacier.

Climbing a mountain in the dark reduces the task to a more manageable size. You can’t see the route above you; you can only focus on your next few steps. Helens has a reputation for being a tedious slog, but in the dark the seemingly endless boulder field felt delightfully gymnastic. We climbed fast and caught the group ahead of us on the final approach to the crater rim, just as the sun rose over Mount Adams to the east.

Sunrise over Mount Adams from the flank of Mount Saint Helens

Sunrise over Mount Adams from the flank of Mount Saint Helens

The final thousand feet of elevation were up loose, ashy rock – here was the slog we’d heard about – but then we topped out on the crater rim to an incredible sight. We were on the south side of the crater, looking across to the north wall, or what used to be the north wall, now known as “The Breach”. The entire side of the mountain was gone, blasted away, the debris field scattered downslope into Spirit Lake, the murky waters still choked with downed trees. Smoke rose from the dome of loose rock on the crater floor and the smell of sulfur was strong. This was no inanimate pile of rock we were climbing; this was a living, fire-breathing volcano!

It's Alive!

It’s Alive! Looking north through the Breach towards Spirit Lake and Mount Rainier.

We tightroped to the west along the narrow catwalk of the crater rim, the loose rock dropping off vertiginously on either side; this is where people get into trouble on Helens. The path dipped down then climbed a few hundred feet back up to the summit, marked by a pile of rocks. There we rested, the entire crater to ourselves. Joe told me all about his three-day trek around the mountain, stumbling through the blast zone, still fresh with loose, barely weathered rock; thirty-four years is not long in geologic time. What a feat to circle a mountain and then climb it! I’ll have to put that on my to do list.

Joe approaching the summit

Joe approaching the summit on the rim

Joe on the Crater Rim

Joe on the Crater Rim

Sitting there on the rim, I felt a faint rumble. Did you hear that?! – Joe and I asked each other, wide-eyed. Sure enough, the mountain was muttering, murmuring, reinventing itself right under our feet. Never in all my summits have I heard a mountain make noise like that! At 8,366 feet, Mount Saint Helens isn’t all that tall, but it’s a living, breathing beast of a mountain.

Self portrait at Mount Saint Helens

Self portrait at Mount Saint Helens

When I was home in September, I saw that jar on the shelf and I thought about bringing it out west with me, taking it up the mountain and returning the ash to the crater. Now I’m glad I left that magic bottled on the shelf. I wonder if I uncork the jar and hold it up to my ear, if I’ll hear those mountain mutterings, like hearing the sea in a seashell…

Happy Hiker

Happy Helens Hiker

Skiing down the loose scree slope

Skiing down the loose scree slope

A seismic station on the south flank of Helens

A seismic station on the south flank of Helens

One of the trail markers up Helens. The way was a little hard to follow in the dark but we stayed mostly on track.

One of the trail markers up Helens. The route was a little hard to follow in the dark but we stayed mostly on track.

The way up

The way up, on our way down

My summer of mountains is wrapping up, and now I’m heading back to the desert! Stay tuned for a few dispatches from Utah! Check out my other Cascades posts here: South Sister, Mount Thielsen, Mount Adams, Smith Rock.

Posted in Hiking!, Photography, Road tripping!, Uncategorized, Vagabonding 101 | 11 Comments

Ask the Blonde Coyote: What do I need to hit the road?

On the road to Mount Adams in Washington

On the road to Mount Adams in Washington

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. My solution to this ridiculously flattering conundrum is to start answering some of these queries on the Blonde Coyote.

Self portrait in post-fore woods

Self portrait in post-fire woods

Hi, My name is Kody and I’m putting things in motion to live on the road. I currently live in a house that I turned into a little Urban Homestead. I recently gave just about everything I owned to my friend and his wife when they bought their organic farm. I’m trying to sell my house and find a trailer at the same time. Once I get my trailer I was start building what I think I need to survive on the road. Once all is built I’m going to do a test and live out of it with my dogs on my brothers property. Figured that would be smart before driving out to the west coast.

I am reaching out to you because I’m wondering if there is anything you think I should get and/or install in my trailer? Something that you didn’t realize you needed but learned that you did once you were on the road? I’m hoping to find the trailer I want within the next two weeks and start adding modifications to it so any input would be greatly appreciated! Thanks in advance for taking the time to read this. Safe travels!

Antone, WA: My kind of town.

Anatone, WA: My kind of town.

Thanks for the email, Kody and congrats! After I bought my trailer the first big investment I made was in a solar panel and a battery. In my first month on the road in the trailer, I spent around $250 at RV parks and coffee shops, seeking power for my laptop so I could work. It made a lot of financial sense for me to invest in my own source of power.

With the help of solar mastermind Lawrence Jenkins at Front Range Renewable Energy in Frederick, Colorado I had a 135-watt, 28-pound  Kyocera panel, mounted to the roof with two aluminum brackets. The wires run down through the sunroof to a 10-amp charge controller and then to a 55 amp-hour sealed battery. A 400-watt inverter then converts the DC power to AC, giving me more than enough power to run my laptop, charge my phone and camera and run the Teardrop’s interior LED lights. The whole system, including installation cost me around $1,100 (in 2012). You can read more about the installation in my original post: The Power of the Sun In My Teardrop!

My rig in Utah, showing the solar panel and the awning.

My rig in Utah, showing the solar panel and the awning. The climbing crash pad is my couch.

The big change I’ve made this year is the addition of a fridge. I always hated dealing with a cooler and buying ice so when a friend offered to lend me his portable fridge, I was really grateful – they’re very expensive. The model I have is similar to this one. Right now it lives in the trunk of the Rover and runs off the engine while the car is running (I have an inverter that plugs into the cigarette outlet), but I’d love to invest in a separate battery system for it so it can stay cooler while I’m parked. That might be my big upgrade next spring.

Rural Washington ruins

Rural Washington ruins

It’s a good idea to camp out for a little while at your brother’s place while you get organized, but the best way to figure out what you need to live on the road is to live on the road. Being mobile comes with its own quirks and requirements and you’ll find that what you need to be comfortable and self-sufficient while you’re stationary will change when you start moving. You also don’t need to have everything before you leave home. They sell stuff everywhere. Better to start rolling and figure out what you need along the way rather than delay your departure buying a bunch of potentially extraneous stuff.

Home Sweet Home

Home Sweet Home

I’d say stay at your brother’s for a few weeks and then hit the road for a trial run. Maybe you’ll circle back around to your brother’s or maybe you’ll head for the next big town where you’ll have access to hardware stores, etc where you can make repairs, upgrades and pick up a few things. The sooner you start rolling, the better!

Visiting my friend Camilla, a writer who lives in an Airstream with two big dogs.

Visiting my friend Camilla, a writer who lives in a stationary Airstream with two big dogs.

Feel free to contact me if you have any more questions and best of luck hitting the road! Got a query for the Blonde Coyote? Email me at Check out some of my past Ask the Blonde Coyote posts on: traveling with dogs, boondocking bathrooms, food and safety.

Posted in Road tripping!, Science Writing, Sustainable Living, Teardrop Trailer, Vagabonding 101 | 2 Comments

Wonderful Life: Hike to the Burgess Shale!

Trilobite Fossil at the Burgess Shale

Hey everybody, today is National Fossil Day! In celebration, here’s a repost of one of my favorite stories, Wonderful Life, about my hike to the Burgess Shale fossil beds in British Columbia. Enjoy! 

When I was young, my dad took me on a trek through the mountains of his childhood: a range of unnamed summits above the tiny town of White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia. We parked on the side of the road and went straight up the mountain, following deer trails and my dad’s childhood memories of mountaintop seashells.

Earlier that summer, searching for salamanders in a West Virginian stream, I had overturned a large rock and was astonished to find it covered with seashells. I knew something about fossils then and had a vague understanding about the age of the Earth, but finding a 350 million year old slice of an ancient ocean floor on a mountaintop forever changed the way I thought about the world.

Self Portrait at the Burgess Shale Quarry, looking towards Mount Wapta

Eons ago, those shelled creatures had lived in masses, died in piles and were buried, the sediment sheltering their resting place from both the inexorable wastes of time and violent uplift of the seafloor into the once mighty, now majestic, Appalachian Mountains.

At some point, my rock was broken from its stratum and displaced by water and gravity to that one serendipitous spot where, across all space and time and what I thought fantastic chance – I happened to find it. I was a slight eleven year old and that rock must have weighed half as much as I did, but it was my treasure and I lugged it home, grateful that I lived downhill.

Treasure: A golden trilobite! Pyrite preservation. So cool.

When I showed my dad my fossil rock, it brought back memories from his youth, of finding seashells high in the mountains. A few weeks later, up we went. The climb was grueling, as hard as anything I’d done in my young active life, but I loved it. My muscles ached and my lungs burned and I felt alive and free.

My dad’s memory served him well and we found many rocks full of fossils that day. I filled my backpack and dad carried down several large slabs for me. I remember returning to our car at sunset, feeling like I had discovered one of the Earth’s great secrets: Time is infinite and we are here by fantastic chance. The best we can do, as tiny sparks in the vast vacuum of geologic time, is burn bright and illuminate the world around us.

Dad searching for treasure at the Burgess Shale

My love of fossils – and mountains – was not fleeting. I went back many times to West Virginia, to that unnamed place my family came to call Mary’s Mountain and many of the fossil rocks I found there now line the walkways of my mother’s gardens. In college, I studied geology and biology as a self designed Evolution major. When I was 20, I got a Darwin fish tattooed on my wrist. Now 30, every time I look at “Charlie”, I smile.

Charlie & Mount Stephen’s Trilobites

Last week, my dad and I climbed another mountain on a quest to another ancient seafloor: the Burgess Shale. Paleontologists are a contentious bunch, but most would agree that the Burgess Shale is the single most important fossil quarry in the world. It also happens to lie in one of the most beautiful places on Earth: on a ridge at nearly 8,000 feet, between Mount Wapta and Mount Field in Canada’s Yoho National Park.

The setting of the Burgess Shale, located in the middle of the ridge, to the right of the cloud, between Mount Wapta (center) and Mount Field (right).

To visit the Burgess Shale, you must go with a guide and promise not to take any fossils. We hiked up to the quarry with Hugh, a geologist with the Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation and eight other fossil enthusiasts, three of them children, ages 6,7 and 8. The kids were so familiar with the Burgess fossils that when Hugh asked us to go around and introduce ourselves and name our favorite fossil, they each had one in mind: Anomalocaris, Opabina and Marrella. My favorite? Wiwaxia!

Hugh identifying fossils with three future paleontologists

The Burgess Shale owes much of its popular fame to a book called Wonderful Life by the eminently eloquent evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould. Published in 1989, the book was a best seller. The title is a reference to the scene in the movie It’s A Wonderful Life, where Jimmy Stewart’s guardian angel replays the tape of life without him, to drastic effect.

Gould argues that if the tape of life on Earth was rewound to the time of the Burgess Shale and played again, the history of the world would unfold completely differently. Catastrophic extinctions, like the meteor impact that took out the dinosaurs and opened the door to the rise of mammals – and eventually us – often come down to pure chance. The moral of the story: we are all here by fantastic fortune.

Dad on the hike to the Burgess Shale, Emerald Lake and the Presidential Range in the background

Even without the famous fossils, the Burgess Shale hike would be a contender for one of my top ten hikes of all time. After a few steep kilometers of switchbacks, the trail passes bright blue Yoho Lake and then emerges on the flank of Mount Wapta, in view of the dramatically glaciated Presidential Range and the jade au lait waters of Emerald Lake, far below.

Snow in late July!

The hike up to the quarry is a bit more strenuous than Gould’s description of a “pleasant stroll” in Wonderful Life. In fact, by the time Gould hiked the 11 uphill kilometers up to the quarry, he was so exhausted, he insisted his guides hail him a helicopter home. This juicy tidbit was imparted to me by Gee, my guide up Mount Stephen’s, a Burgess-era trilobite bed on a neighboring peak. Gould conveniently left his helicopter descent out of his book.

The hike to the Burgess Shale is a challenge, but for a fossil enthusiast, it’s worth every step. Overturn just a few slabs of shale and you’ll find treasure. Since the quarry’s discovery in 1909, tens of thousands of fossils have been removed from the site, the vast majority stored in drawers at the Smithsonian, and yet there are many more.

Trilobites! Everybody’s favorite fossil.

The Burgess fossils are small but exquisite, preserving vanishingly fine details of body structure and even last meals: tiny trilobites frozen in stone, deep in the visible guts of larger worm-like predators. As a rule, fossil records are dominated by hard parts: shells, teeth and bones. But the soft-bodied Burgess fossils reveal everything, giving us a unique look into the anatomy and physiology of some of our most ancient ancestors.

Marrella. By far the most common fossil found at the Burgess Shale – more than 15,000 specimens have been collected – the now extinct Marrella is not found fossilized anywhere else on Earth.

The Burgess quarry is famous not just for the sheer number of fossils or their rare and lovely preservation, but also for the window it opens to our past. Multicellular life evolved around 570 million years ago, about 65 million years before the Burgess assemblage, with a bang known as the Cambrian Explosion. Within a short geologic time span of a few million years, the ancestors of virtually all major groups of modern animals appeared on the scene.

A replica of Anomalocaris, the largest fossil ever recovered from the Burgess Shale

The Burgess fossils date to around 505 million years ago, at a time when a vast selection of life forms produced by the Cambrian Explosion were swimming through the ancient seas. And what forms they were! The Burgess animals are bizarre. Despite the fine details preserved in the fossils, in many cases paleontologists are still at a loss to tell tops from bottoms and heads from rear ends. One especially head scratchingly-weird specimen was even formerly named Hallucigenia.

Articulated jaws of Anomalocaris, the most fearsome predator of the Cambrian seas!

I could have spent days at the quarry. The fossils were prolific, beautiful and fascinating, and every time I looked up from the rocks, I was dazzled anew by the view. But all good things must come to an end and Hugh eventually herded us down the mountain. On the descent, the kids, coming down from their fossil high, turned tired and cranky. At some point, my dad snuck past our guide and disappeared ahead of the group down the trail.

Leaving the Burgess Shale, grinning like a kid!

A few switchbacks later, my patience with the kids wearing thin, I asked Hugh if I could run ahead and catch up with my dad. “If he beats me off this mountain, I’ll never hear the end of it,” I said. With a smile, he let me go. I ran down the trail, feeling light as a child, delighted to be alone for a few minutes on the mountain.

Downhill is one of my specialties. On the steepest, loosest slopes, I fly, trusting in my mountain legs to catch me. I didn’t want to beat my old man off the mountain; I wanted to walk with him. I caught him near the bottom and we returned to the tiny town of Field together, matching stride for stride, no fossils in hand but as triumphant as we had been at the base of Mary’s Mountain.

Descending from the Burgess Shale. I wish I could have bottled the smell of all those flowers. Magnificent!

Stay tuned for an upcoming Travels in Geology feature in EARTH magazine on the Burgess Shale! Also check out my more recent post on Fossil Butte, Wyoming.

Posted in Beyond the USA, Hiking!, Photography, Road tripping!, Sustainable Living, Uncategorized, Vagabonding 101 | 10 Comments