Category Archives: Unique Rock Formations

The Best of Southeast Utah

Monument Valley from 2 miles south

Monument Valley is the quintessential image associated with The American West. Perhaps because of how frequently it has appeared in films, particularly westerns, it is quite difficult to look at this grouping of red rock formations without imagining cowboys riding horses across the landscape.

Despite the fact that the natural processes associated with its formation are culturally agnostic, and the fact that the monument sits on the Navajo Indian Reservation, these rocks have become forever associated with the culture of the American West. The fact that the first music video that pops into my head when I think of Monument Valley is by a German Band, the Scorpions, does not even seem to temper that association. Every American hard rock song feels like it fits in perfectly with this landscape.

Speaking of the landscape, Monument Valley is one of those places with a command of the landscape for miles away. Particularly approaching from the north (or northeast as that is where the highways are), it can be seen from some 50 miles away.

The interesting thing about Monument Valley is how different it can appear on either side of the monument. In the afternoon, the north (northeast) side has a much different appearance than the view from the south, which represents the standard iconic view of the feature, with the sun shining on it.

How this specific iconic set of rocks became associate with 19th century American pioneers on horseback, and the enduring culture and ethos of the Interior American West is probably a challenging question to answer. Yet, it is most certainly the repetition of this association throughout culture and media that makes people living some half a century or more after all of these films were produced continue to feel a certain feeling when they gaze upon this monument. It is hard to imagine a better example of how repetition creates and perpetuates and association than this one. I am truly curious about what the Navajo Nation thinks of it.

The strange thing is that this association has lead me to think of gold prospectors, cowboys on horseback, shootouts and such at other places with a similar feel. Like most naturally occurring features, Monument Valley is not the only place where the natural processes that created these features occured.

The rock formations about 160 miles to the Northeast, outside of Moab, Utah, take on a very similar feel. It almost feels as if any movie or music video filmed at Monument Valley could have just as easily been filmed here to the same effect.

It would be a huge missed opportunity to visit Monument Valley without also visiting Goosenecks State Park, only about 30 miles away.

This is another spot that is photographed quite frequently. Unlike Monument Valley, it seems to have a stronger association with that which is current about the American West; tourism, outdoor adventures, and, of course, the search for the perfect instagram photo.

Visitors to the park can also see Monument Valley from a distance.

I had previously visited Arches National Park, traveling to the most iconic of the arches.

On that trip, I had failed to realize that just a half an hour south on highway 191, it is possible to see one of these arches without ever leaving the highway.

Like any other place in the West, Southeast Utah has places that are underrated, not trying to be noticed.

And places trying to get people to stop that don’t make much sense.

It’s unique natural features connect the past to the present, activate the imagination and provide experiences that are indicative of Western North America as a whole, yet unique to the specific location.

A Mid-September Backpacking Trip to the Flat Tops Wilderness: Day 3 Sunrise on Devil’s Causeway

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“It’s gonna be so cold leaving the tent before sunrise.”

“The sunrise will look just as nice from the comfort of my tent.”

“We already saw the Devil’s Causeway on Friday.”

“Look at all the distance we’ve already covered.”

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These are all the things my inner dialogue told myself, to stop me from going the extra mile Sunday morning. And, it literally was an extra mile (two round trip).

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We all experience this from time to time. That voice in our heads is most often referred to as the inner dialogue or inner chatterbox. Its goal is to protect us from discomfort, failure, embarrassment and the like. It is the voice that once told an 11-year-old version of me that nobody wanted to talk to the new kid in town and subsequently told a 15-year-old version of me to avoid the embarrassment of asking anyone out. In both situations, that voice was dead wrong. Yet, it continues to plead its case in situations like these, pushing for its own version of comfortable stagnant mediocrity.

Perhaps the best decision I made on this trip was to ignore that voice, which actually took some mental energy given how exhausting Saturday was. That extra hour of rest in the morning was quite enticing.

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These photos don’t do justice to the gradual turning of the sky in anticipation of a new day, or the still lit full moon on the other horizon at dawn.

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Unlike in previous days where we were camping at lower elevations, when the sun kissed the sky, we were among the first to be struck by its golden rays.

It was a feeling that is hard to describe. I felt like I was receiving some kind of gift. I was recieving an infusion of energy, spirit and liveliness from some kind of abstract source. It felt almost spiritual. Regardless of what was actually behind this wonderful feeling, I was certainly glad to have ignored that inner dialogue.

The final day was the shortest of the three. We only had 6.2 miles to go to get back to the trailhead. It started out with a bit more traversing across open grassland.

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We got a couple more great overlooks before the main descent.

It was perhaps the fastest day of the three. The miles went by quickly for backpacking standards.

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We made only one significant stop, for a mid-morning snack.

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A little before 11 A.M., we saw the Summit Reservoir, the place where the journey had begun, indicating that we were already approaching the trailhead!

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There was an advantage to getting back to the car just before noon, as we all had to work in some capacity the next day. The amazing thing about this trip is that nobody involved had to take more than one day off of work.

However, to achieve this, we had to set up camp in the dark the Thursday night and felt somewhat hurried at times.  Before we even got back to Kremmling to have our first regular meal after the trip, we were all already checking our phones, checking back in with work and our day-to-day lives.

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We truly got the most out of the 74 hour period we were away. However, we didn’t really escape for too long. From the standpoint of making the most of our time it was ideal.

From another standpoint, it was less than ideal. It is not too uncommon for Americans to plan trips like this, possibly because we do not value time away as much as we should. Although there are many pointing out the follies of these too many people not taking time off, the prominent culture in this country still seems to value work over all else and expects others to as well.

Whenever I find myself shifting my priorities to match the ones of our current culture, my inner dialogue is behind it. That inner dialogue tells me to be concerned about how I will be perceived, and what negative consequences I might face if I were to act in accordance with what I value as opposed to what is expected of me.

Ignoring my inner dialogue’s demands that I stay in my sleeping bag an extra hour on a cold morning is good practice for what I know I must do in the coming years to create a life that is truly authentic and fulfilling. I need to ignore my inner dialogue’s demands that, in order to be safe, I sacrifice the individual autonomy that comes with adhering to my own set of values in favor of what is often referred to as “herd mentality“.

The Great Ocean Road Day 3: Final Day

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The iconic 12 apostles is not the only intriguing coastal rock structure in the Port Campbell area. Continuing westward along the Great Ocean Road for the next several kilometers, spectacular oceanic limestone rock structures continue to appear.

First there’s The Arch, the only place I have ever seen a mini waterfall in an ocean.

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Then there is London Bridge. The name London Bridge was given to this structure back when it was attached to the mainland. In 2005, London Bridge literally fell down, due to waves and erosion.

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The South Ocean is quite turbulent. Everywhere along the Great Ocean Road, particularly in winter, there is a steady barrage of strong waves. There is a reason so many shipwrecks occurred here. As a result, this section of the coast is in a constant state of change. Watching the waves come onshore inundating the limestone rock, gradually eroding it and paving the way for the next structural change, is like watching science in action.

At the grotto, visitors can walk down to an arch-like structure where waves periodically crash in.

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Some of the larger waves can lead to mist on the other side of the arch.

After these structures, the Great Ocean Road once again ventures inland, transitioning to farmland.

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It would make sense that the Allansford Cheese World is in an area surrounded by farms, right near the end point of The Great Ocean Road.

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The Allansford Cheese World produces far more varieties of cheddar than I ever would have thought to be possible. I had always thought of cheddar as one of many types of cheese, which would include Swiss, Pepperjack, Havarti, etc. Visitors to the Allansford Cheese World can sample a dozen different types of cheddar, some of which are really innovative.

It was here I noticed myself slipping back into an American-like stand-offishness when it comes to dealing with people. For the entire trip, I felt Australians to be generally more friendly than Americans. In conversations with Australians, I did not experience the need for the conversation to provide some kind of value, or the assumption that everyone was in a rush to get to their next activity that is characteristic of many conversations I have with Americans. On my final day on the Great Ocean Road, as if trained by years of cultural experience I found myself starting to engage in conversation without being fully engaged, with the time and my next activity on my mind. I could not believe I was doing this.

Although the Great Ocean Road ends here, but most tourists continue on, at least to the town of Warrnambool, where visitors can supposedly see whales. A 30 minute visit to the pier, where one sign promised us “A Whale of a Time”, turned out to be a bust.

I guess there is a danger in trying to fit an activity like this, dependent on complicated natural forces and animal behavior, into any kind of schedule. However, I wanted to continue west, to the Tower Hill Nature preserve, a set of volcanic lakes where koalas often hang out. It would be a shame to visit Australia and not see at least one of those, and at this time of year daylight in Australia is limited.

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I made a major mistake here as well. Based on our life experiences, we often internalize assumptions and operate based on them without thinking. Being from Colorado, I have a base assumption that all “hikes” involve a climb, to some sort of peak or cool looking overlook.

After two such hikes, in hopes of seeing koalas, an employee at the visitor information center informed us that koalas need trees with moisture and would likely be found down by the lakes. This walk needed to be flat, not up a big hill.

For some reason, despite their actual demeanor, koalas feel like a picture of innocence. A small, furry, cuddly creature constantly hanging onto a tree and sleeping 20 hours per day. I actually wanted to pet them.

Port Fairy would be our final destination.

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We’d have one last adventure here, a short walk onto Griffiths Island.

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Where we would have one final wildlife encounter, fairly up close with the wallabies!

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A trip that many would consider “once in a lifetime” was coming to an end. I sat on a rock gazing out at the Ocean as the sun gradually faded behind me. It felt like a real life version of the fade outs often used at the end of movies and videos. Looking straight outward, I was amazed at how vast the Ocean is. I began to imagine what is on the other side, pondering more adventures. Uncertain as to the exact direction I was facing, I imagined multiple possibilities of what laid straight in front of me.

I imagined the jungles of Madagascar, with monkeys and other forms of wildlife roaming around in the trees and a lone explorer with a knife trying to trudge through the trees and mud.

I imagined the vast expansive ice sheets of Antarctica.

I imagined the far more nearby mountains of Tasmania, quiet for the winter season, but coming to life with young adult hikers and adventurers in the Springtime.

Despite the fact that my adventure would slowly be ending, the reflection of the orange light on the ocean surface felt like an invitation and promise of more to come.

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The Great Ocean Road Day 2: The Twelve Apostles

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Just like that the weather turned. A couple of hours after the sun went down After our first day on the Great Ocean Road, the wind started howling and the rain started falling. It was weird to be on top of a van while a storm was coming through. At first I was scared that the van would tip over, but I reminded myself of the amount of wind needed to actually do that, at least 85 miles per hour (135 km/hour). As much as I lament the amount of places in the world, particularly at work, where emotions are expected to ignored, it is still great to overcome an irrational fear with knowledge and logic.

I was surprised to awaken and find that I had slept in, until about 8:30 A.M. Given how early I had gone to sleep, due to the sun setting at 5:10 P.M., this meant that I had slept nearly 11 hours! While I had hoped to get an earlier start that day, I could not believe how refreshed I felt. Lately it feels like there are multiple competing theories about sleep, in particular related to whether or not lost sleep can be made up for. Based on my experiences, it feels like it can. The experience reminded me of coming home from college and immediately sleeping 12 hours at my parents house after stressing out about finals and final projects for weeks (as well as living in the dorms). After sleeping 11 hours, for the first time in what feels like years, I did not feel any sleepiness or need for caffeine!

No matter how much people plan, changes in weather create the need for some adjustments. The wind and rain made it feel not exactly pleasant outside. The beaches, as well as some of the walking trails, were empty that day. The town of Apollo Bay is bigger than Torquay and Lorne, and where the Great Ocean Walk, a 104 km trail that leads to the Twelve Apostles, begins.

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About 3 km West of Apollo Bay, is the first place along the Great Ocean Road, nearly halfway through the drive, deviates from the coastline.

Map of Great Ocean Road

Even here, the ocean is still always kind of in sight, but the inland traverse into the hills provides some variety in the scenery.

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It is this section of the coast, near Cape Otway, conditions felt at their windiest. Sort of like a peninsula jutting out into the Southern Ocean, the area is often referred to as “shipwreck coast”. 19th Century historical events here include a number of documented shipwrecks, but also the construction of the Cape Otway Lighthouse, Australia’s oldest. This lighthouse established the first connection between mainland Australia and the island of Tasmania, via both shipping routes and telegraph messages.

In the afternoon the rain stopped, but the wind continued to howl. The sun even gradually started to return. However, the cold wind straight off the coast would still make it a less than pleasant day for any kind of long walks or hikes. It ended up, however, becoming the perfect conditions for a once in a lifetime experience. A helicopter ride over one of Australia’s most iconic destinations; The Twelve Apostles.

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At AUS $145 ($110 US) per person, the cost of this epic journey is quite reasonable! The ride itself lasts about 15 minutes, and quickly soars over some iconic images, including The Great Ocean Road.

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Of course, the Twelve Apostles.

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And, many of the similar limestone structures further West.

While the helicopter ride provided an arial view of these beautiful oceanside structures, the Gibson Steps, located just a couple of kilometers to the East of the Twelve Apostles, provides a view at beach level.

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The Gibson Steps are exactly what one would expect, a staircase that leads down from the overlooking cliffs to the beach. Walking down and up the steps requires being outside for only about 10 minutes, so the less than pleasant weather was not too much of a factor.

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We camped that evening in Port Campbell, a town of barely 600 permanent full time residents with a beautiful beachfront. In the summer, this place is a lot more crowded. In the winter, it was quite empty.

This was the evening that having traveled to the Southern Hemisphere in June messed with my mind the most. Port Campbell in winter has a clasic quiet small town feel. The Main Street bar with a faded neon light outside it. The three block stretch of lit roads surrounded by darkness in all directions. The quiet street with a few people walking around but most inside the restaurants or their own homes.

We are accustomed to the relatively gradual changes in daylight patterns as the seasons progress. Even in periods like April and October, the amount of daylight, at most changes by a couple of minutes each day. Having experienced the daylight expansion in the Northern Hemisphere from April to June, I’d inured to sunset being sometime around 8 P.M. and complete darkness onsetting closer to 9. Being in complete darkness in a quiet small town made 6:30 P.M. feel almost like 10. Without seeing too many people out and about, it is easy to feel like we had arrived at everyone’s bad time.

 

Nebraska Out of the Way Attractions

Smith Falls

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Smith Falls is pretty well hidden from most travelers. It is located in a very sparsely populated section of North Central Nebraska, far away from any heavily traveled interstate highway. It is also in a section of the country where few would expect to see a magnificent waterfall like this one.

Unless you are one of Valentine, Nebraska’s 2,820 residents, getting there is a long drive on empty roads, that even requires four miles on a gravel road off of State Highway 12.

Being so far out of the way of where people live and travel, the Niobrara Canyon, where Smith Falls is located, is quite secluded. The river itself looks nothing like the surrounding areas. The dense tree coverage feels reminiscent of places further East. It feels like the perfect destination for a private group experience; a float trip, family reunion, or some other group bonding experience.

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There does tend to be a few more people at the Falls themselves, as it is the main attraction at the State Park.

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Unlike some trails, visitors can freely walk right into Smith Falls without breaking any kind of rule. Many visitors bring swimsuits, and wear water shoes, as the trail to get from the parking to the falls is not vigorous at all, although it is about half a mile.

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Carhenge

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Carhenge, just north of Alliance, Nebraska, several hours west of Smith Falls is also quite far from any metropolitan area or heavily traveled highway. This image of an open two-lane highway with nobody else on it, wide open skies and small subtle sand hills in the background sums up the entire three hour drive between Smith Falls and Carhenge.

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While both attractions are out of the way, a few miles outside a small town (Alliance has a population closer to 8,000), in a way they could not be any more different. Smith Falls and the Niobrara Canyon is all about natural beauty, an attraction carved out of a glaciation event that occurred about 17,000 years ago. Carhenge is a homage to all things manmade, a recreation of Stonehenge, a mysterious pre-historic manmade structure, using a more modern human invention, cars.

Whereas Smith Falls is serious, Carhenge is has a goofy vibe. There is also more to Carhenge than just rusty old cars arranged like Stonehenge. This one vehicle apparently has a time capsule in it. In the year 2053, someone will open up memories of 2003, the last year before social media. That should be an interesting experience, especially for someone not old enough to remember such a world.

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There is also a car where people can write on.

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A few of these random structures that are made out of car parts, whose relation to the rest of the exhibit is not aparent.

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And, a car hood with a vaguely political sounding message on it.

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Chimney Rock

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Not too far from Carhenge is an attraction of both natural beauty and historical significance: Chimney Rock.

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Although this structure served as a landmark for Native Americans and fur trappers, its significance was heightened when South Pass (in Western Wyoming) was discovered to be the easiest passage across the Rocky Mountains. This lead to most major trails, including the famed Oregon Trail, being routed along the North Platte River, passing by Chimney Rock.

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Chimney Rock is a National Historical Site with a museum containing artifacts, primarily about the pioneers who traveled this route, including journals and letters written by those who made the journey.

It is hard to appreciate in the current era, where anyone with means can get on a plane and fly to some of the most beautiful places on Earth, but when pioneers in the mid-19th Century came across Chimney Rock, they were often in awe of its beauty. Many accounts went to great lengths to describe the structure that is Chimney Rock.

It was also recognized by those making the journey at the time as the point where the flat portion of the journey ended and the uphill part began. The journey ahead would become more rigorous, but also more beautiful.

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Nebraska is not always known as a place with a lot of natural beauty. However, it is not without its places to be appreciated. The truth is that beauty can be found pretty much anywhere, because, it is often not a specific place or a specific person. It is often an experience. A major part of the travel experience is driving. Nebraska offers open roads that pass by subtle features like the sand hills or the rock features further west. The key is to go a little bit out of the way, and to notice, be looking for what is around you. Then, with the right music on in the right vehicle (I personally found both classic rock and EDM to match this situation, you may find something different), the experience becomes a thing of beauty itself.

North Dakota’s Role in the History of the West

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In my childhood, I never knew what to think of North Dakota. Like most people living in metropolitan areas, I never gave the place much thought. I do recall hearing, at some point in the late 1990s, that North Dakota was the least visited state in the country. However, a more recently published list indicates that the state sees far more visitors now due to the recent oil boom. Apparently, Alaska, the hardest state to get to, is now the least visited state in the country, which makes sense.

My ideas about North Dakota were just kind of hazy. I’d wonder if the culture was just like that South Dakota and Nebraska. Or, if the proximity to Minnesota or Canada made it kind of different.

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A drive across North Dakota along Interstate 94 will confirm what most people think. It is a Great Plains State with a Great Plains feel. If anything, there are even less trees and fewer towns than the rest of the Great Plains.

However, there are some surprising encounters, with both natural beauty and history to be found, without going more than a mile off the Interstate.

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One of the most amazing parts of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the Painted Canyon,  can be viewed just by going to a rest stop right off the highway.

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This is pretty amazing, considering that adjacent to the park in all directions is nothing but endless wide open prairie.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s significance to the history of the west is, as expected, related to the president the park was named after. Theodore Roosevelt first encountered this land on a train trip to Montana. He fell in love with the wide open spaces, colorful valley, and quiet seclusion the area offered. He would later buy a ranch here, and it is said that experiences like these influenced the conservationist policies he would pursue as president, including a major expansion of the National Park System.

Halfway across the State, I encountered another scenic area, or, at least the sign indicated it as such.

In both North and South Dakota, the Missouri River Valley, and the surrounding bluffs provide some variance in what is otherwise a fairly homogenous drive.

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This river crossing is also where explorers Lewis and Clark met Sakakawea, a 17-year-old Native American who would play an important role in helping the explorers complete their journey. The Shoshone were the predominant tribe in areas of what is now Idaho and Montana, where Lewis and Clark were headed to cross the Rockies. Sakakawea, a Shoshone who was captured by the Hidasta tribe and brought to present-day North Dakota, had the language experience Lewis and Clark needed for much of the remainder of the journey. She was even reunited with her brother, who turned out to be one of the tribe chiefs Lewis and Clark needed to trade with.

It was here in Bismarck I encountered a sizable North Dakota town, as well as a State Capitol building with a very unique shape.

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I was not sure how to feel. As I prepared to interact with people, my mind wandered to every pre-concieved notion I had about North Dakota. I wondered what people here do on a day-to-day basis. I wondered if, despite the fact that it was only the second day of August, people who live here are already dreading the winter to come.

I overheard some conversations from people who sounded like they were locals. What I heard was not complaints about excessive boredom, fear about a sub-zero temperatures four months in the future, or some foreign sounding discussion about fracking I cannot follow. I heard people with a lot of the same concerns I often have: How to help that one friend or family member going through some hard times. People’s concerns over changes being made at their workplace. Health concerns and other day-to-day topics that are common amongst almost all the people of all the world.

I thought to myself “Have I become this disconnected from really?” Do I now struggle to relate to people when they aren’t discussing some major global issue, an invention at a setting like start-up week or some grand adventure?

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Even in the most innovative cities in the world, more people would prefer to discuss their day than a diagram like this one.

It would be easy for anyone to say that, right now, North Dakota’s only really significance is in the world of energy production. However, that would be ignorant to history. For, if it weren’t for Lewis and Clark meeting a friendly tribe to camp with for the winter (Fort Mandan), and get the help they needed from Sakakawea, it may have taken several more decades for the West to be opened up. And, if it weren’t for a young future president finding picturesque Badlands he desperately wanted to preserve, the National Park system, which has a much larger presence in the West than the East, could look significantly different than it does right now.

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What occurred to me as I continued Eastward from Bismarck was that, whether the number of annual visitors is closer to 2 or 20 Million, most North Dakotans probably do not care about the relatively small number of annual visitors. It reminds me of some of the people I interact with in Colorado that were born there decades ago. Many of them actually did not want this gigantic influx of people and visitors that fundamentally transformed the state. Many of them just wanted to enjoy their state the way it was, and that is what North Dakotans get to do.

Chasing Records- Spearfish, SD

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At 7:30 A.M. on January 22, 1943, the temperature in Spearfish, South Dakota was -4ºF. A mere two minutes later, the temperature had suddenly jumped to +45ºF, a swing of nearly 50 degrees in a manner of two minutes. The Great Plains is known to be a region with extremely volatile weather. However, with respect to volatility on this short of a time scale, this one event is still in the record books.

75 years later, locals, as well as those interested in weather, still talk about the event. In fact, the event is mentioned in the Wikipedia entry on Spearfish.

But, why so much volatility? Why here? The answer to that question lays in the geography of the region.

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Spearfish sits just north of the region known as the Black Hills. The Black Hills, although detached from the Rocky Mountains, are actually quite mountainous, with peaks rising several thousand feet above the river valleys. The manner in which peaks rise up in either direction while rock formations are carved out by small creeks is quite reminiscent of the Rockies.

Just over the border, in Northeastern Wyoming, Buttes of varying colors pop out of the more open, but still hilly landscape.

Only ten miles south of Spearfish is one of what feels like 500 different waterfalls that goes by the name “Bridal Veil Falls“.

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It is, nonetheless, breathtaking, but, what is it about this name? Did the wedding industry  somehow collaborate with the outdoor industry to try to convince tourists looking at waterfalls to be thinking about fancy weddings through this common nomenclature? Was there an early 20th Century conversation that went something like this…

“Okay, we’ll name every other waterfall ‘Bridal Veil Falls’. In exchange, you will encourage every newlywed couple to take something referred to as a ‘honeymoon’.”
“A honeymoon.. what is that?”
“A vacation that everyone is expected to take right after getting married. Think about it, both of our industries can make a ton of money off of this. We’ll get people thinking about getting married and specifically doing so with a fancy dress, likely to cost a lot of money, and then you make sure that when they wed, they are spending money on another vacation.”
“Sounds like a win-win.”

Okay, maybe it was not exactly like that, but it does seem pecular.

As far as Spearfish is concerned, traveling in the other direction, North, from town, could not be a more opposite experience.

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It is the Great Plains, and specifically the Dakotas, the way most people picture it.

It is this contrast, and specifically the North-South orientation of this contrast, in Spearfish that created this record breaking temperature change. When air travels from high elevation to low elevation, it warms. It is this exact reason that Denver, Colorado, just east of the Rocky Mountains, has frequent warm spells in the middle of the winter. In fact, January 16th is the only calendar date in which Denver’s record high is lower than 65ºF (it’s 64).

With the flat, wide-open, treeless land to the North, it could not be easier for bitter cold air straight from the North Pole to reach Spearfish. However, when warmer air does come from the South, it is further warmed by its trip over the Black Hills.

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But, why all the fuss about setting records? Specifically, why do people care so much about bizarre records? In 1943, the news about the wild temperature swings in Spearfish provided a war-weary American public with some lighter news. And while the impact was only a bunch of broken windows, people can learn from these records.

The wild temperature ride in Spearfish demonstrates how the atmosphere works. Is there something similar to be learned by the man who broke 46 toilet seats with his head in one minute? Do people who have watched that video avoid breaking their own toilet seat at home?

Or, is there something other than intellectual curiosity at work? Records like this one are interesting to people regardless of whether or not they care about the ins-and-outs of how the atmosphere works. They are just entertaining. They also provide people with one of the main things we are all searching for in the modern world; significance.

The people of Spearfish can always bring up this wild temperature swing as something that makes their town stand out among all of the towns of roughly 10,000 people out there. It is the same for the man who bloodied his head breaking toilet seats, or that one person in everyone’s social circle that did something bizarre, like stop at every Arby’s between Chicago and Saint Louis (there are 13). They have this way of making the world just a bit more interesting.

 

Greyrock Mountain- An Ideal Hike for May

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For the majority of people who like to hike on weekends, or in their spare time, hiking anywhere in the American West in the month of May requires two additional considerations.

  1.  There is typically still a residual snowpack at higher elevations.  While this can vary quite a bit from year to year and even day to day, even on a warm, sunny day, those that don’t want to encounter slippery conditions or deep snow covering the trails should generally stick to lower elevations.  In Colorado, that generally means below 9500 feet in elevation.
  2. Although everyone’s body behaves differently, most people still respect the seasonality of the activities they take part in, hiking less frequently in winter than in summer.  Therefore, most people still need to, in some way, work up to the most challenging hikes they will take on later in the summer.

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Tucked away in the Poudre Canyon 15 miles West of Fort Collins, Colorado (which is an hour north of Denver), the Greyrock Trailhead starts at an elevation of roughly 5600 feet.

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The hike to the top of Greyrock Mountain, on the most direct path is 3.1 miles, with an elevation gain right around 2000 feet.  For those who spent their winters either sedentary or on unrelated activities, and maybe have done two or three hikes thus far in the spring, it is strenuous enough to help get the body back into summer mode.  And, topping out at 7600 feet, it remains well below the elevations where residual snowpack and large amounts of mud would still be present on a sunny day in May.

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Of course, many people are aware of these seasonal considerations.  Therefore, the area does get busier than usual, particularly if it is a nice day and/or on the weekend.

Still, there is plenty of quiet to be found on this appropriately named mountain, just not the level of solitude one would expect on, say, a remote backpacking trip.

On the 13th of May 2017, a dry day in which Fort Collins reached a high temperature of 85F (and was preceded by two dry days) nearly all of the trail was dry.  It was only in certain sections, close to streams, where mud would appear.  These sections got interesting, as groups of butterflies, both red and blue, would loop around the sky, periodically congregating in and around areas of standing water.

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The blue butterflies are actually extremely well camouflaged, only showing their color when the wings are flapped open.

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A closer look at the muddy surface reveals dozens of these butterflies nearly completely blended into the muddy surface, something many hikers don’t even notice!

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Roughly 2/3 of the way up, the first real scenic overlook is reached.  This is the point just before the two trails merge back together, at an elevation of roughly 7000 feet.

The final 600 feet of ascent looks, well, far more daunting than a typical 600 foot climb.  And, well, it is.  After a short flat area, following the scenic overlook, the trail begins to climb up a series of rocky areas, often referred to as “scrambles” by hikers.

These parts require some strategizing, both on the way up and on the way down.

The final section of the trail is the one area where it is possible to get lost.

On top of rocks, the trail passes by several lakes, where the sound of frogs can be heard, and is marked only by periodic signs 2-3 feet tall and the occasional standard rock pile (referred to as a Cairn).

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The summit is also just kind of a series of rocks, that need to be climbed over to reach the best lookout point.  Being at the top of Greyrock Mountain is somewhat of an unique experience.  In some ways, it feels just like being on top of the world, as noting in the immediate vicinity is at a higher elevation.

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However, out on the horizon to the West and Southwest reveals mountains whose peaks dwarf this one by over 5,000 feet.

It feels like a metaphor for a certain life situation that nearly every human being will find themselves in at one point.  The mountain has been climbed, a goal has been achieved, and there is reason to celebrate… temporarily.  But, there is still a lot that must be done, and much higher aspirations.  It is finishing a degree and moving on to start a new job.  It is successfully navigating nine months of pregnancy now knowing that it is hard work to raise another human being.  It is knowing that one has achieved as much as is possible in a current endeavor, and that there is something more meaningful, a higher calling, awaiting that requires a pivot, a new strategy, and renewed effort.

 

Moab- An Active Destination

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Some trips are restful, while others are more active.  There are some destinations that lend themselves to more restful trips; cottages in the woods near quaint towns, tropical beaches, and resorts.  Moab, is a place where it is nearly impossible to imagine anything other than an active itinerary, with a variety of activities, and a lot of places to see.  Situated in East Central Utah, several hours from the nearest major city, this popular tourist destination is surrounded by too much natural beauty to picture anyone coming here and spending large amounts of time sitting in one place.

First of all, Moab is surrounded by two National Parks, Arches and Canyonlands.

Both National Parks are, as National Parks tend to be, filled with tons of natural beauty and unique places.  At both National Parks, while it is possible to see a lot of interesting natural features without straying too far from the road, the best features at both parks require hiking.

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Getting to the signature feature of Arches National Park, Delicate Arch, requires a 1.5 mile hike from the Delicate Arch Trailhead.  Interestingly enough, this trail starts near the historic Wolfe Ranch, and traverses by some other unique features including some Ute Indian Rock art.

It is also quite difficult to imagine making a trip to Arches National Park and not viewing some of the other arches (Yes, it’s Arches National Park, not Arch National Park).  There is a section of the park known as Devil’s Garden, with somewhat of a network of trails taking visitors to all kinds of other arches.

The most famous of these arches is Landscape Arch, a long and wide arch whose name provides a clear recommendation as to how to orient any photograph of this particular feature (for those familiar with landscape vs. portrait  ).

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To get to most of the remaining arches requires a bit of a steep climb, which starts pretty much right after Landscape Arch.

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The hiking in the entire Moab area, not just at Arches National Park, is considerably different from the typical hiking experience.  Much of the hiking I’ve experienced, is on trails covered in dirt, gravel, and sometimes small to medium sized rocks at places such as the top of Quandry Peak.  All around Moab, I found myself on surfaces such as this one, on top of solid rock, sometimes for nearly the entire duration of the trail.  Traversing these trails required me to use my upper body more, and even do a little bit of jumping, from one rock to another.

At the top of this Mesa, there are arches with multiple partitions, arches people can hike under, and even one arch with an opening that lends itself to laying inside it to soak up the sun, the surroundings, and the experience!

The entire loop, including all the side trips in the trail network, is a total of 7.2 miles.  So, if a visitor desires to see all of these features, as well as Delicate Arch, a total of 10.2 miles of hiking is required.

And some people decide to add even more activities to their day.  In a shaded off-shoot of the Devil’s Garden Trail, I witnessed a sizable group of people playing a game of Frisbee, using the walls of this tiny canyon to make trick shots.

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Since immersing oneself in the here and now, and contributing to the local culture of a place creates a more enriching travel experience, I decided to play my part.

First, I decided to bring my own arches into the park..

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Disclaimer: I did properly dispose of that cup

Then, when the opportunity presented itself, I decided it was time that we started making our own arches, contributing to the park’s plethora of natural beauty.

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Canyonlands National Park is even bigger than Arches, broken up into three sections by the Colorado and Green rivers, whose confluence is right in the center of the park.  Without any bridges connecting over either river, and with the entrances to each section over an hour apart, it is all but impossible to visit more than one section in a day.

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The most common image of Canyonlands National Park is an almost Grand Canyon-like overlook into a deep river valley, sometimes with one of the two isolated mountain ranges in the background.  However, at the scenic overlooks in the parks’ Island In The Sky region, it is actually quite difficult to see the rivers themselves.  The canyons that make up Canyonlands National Park are quite expansive, with multiple tiers.  To see these canyons from the best vantage points requires a bit of hiking.  The hike to the Confluence Overlook (an overlook of the confluence between the Green and Colorado Rivers) is 10 miles round trip, something that could require the better part of a day!

Canyons are not the only interesting feature to Canyonlands National Park.  Being only roughly 20 miles away from Arches (as the crow flies), Canyonlands has some arches of its’ own.  The most interesting one is an arch called Mesa Arch, where one can see both the peaks of the nearby La Sal Mountain range, and actually another arch by looking through the arch at the right angle!

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And some features are random, like Upheaval Dome.

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Scientists still do not know whether or not this particular salt deposit is a remanat of a meteorite that would have theoretically collided with the earth roughly 20 million years ago.

The two National Parks are not even close to all that Moab has to offer, all of which is “active” in one way or another.  Dead Horse Point State Park, located between the two National Parks, is a place where one can hike to one of Moab’s most picturesque locations: Goose Neck.

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The entire region, regardless of what any spot is named, or whether it contains a state or federal distinction, is rich with abundant natural beauty, and places to hike, bike, jeep, climb, or even just explore.

Anyone driving into Moab from the East (from Colorado), would be well advised to take the additional time it takes to follow the windy State Highway 128 through Professor Valley, essentially following the Colorado River into town.

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We set up camp at a place called Hunter Canyon.

Twenty minutes from town, Hunter Canyon is a place where each part of the day, from sunrise to sunset, lights up a different rock formation.  It felt almost as if nature was putting on a show, with lighting, stage props, and characters coming on and off the stage for different scenes.

I also saw bike trails nearly everywhere I went.  Moab is known as a mecca for mountain biking, an activity we did not get around to (is is… really… impossible to do EVERYTHING in Moab without something like two weeks).  But, with trails like these, Moab is also a phenomenal place for road biking.

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And, everywhere I went red rock formations, each one distinct from the next, would pop up, in and out of view.

It was next to impossible not to imagine these rock formations as something else.  While driving around, I would often point out to the rest of the group what each individual rock formation looked like, or what I perceived it to look like.  Some, I said looked like specific animals, some looked like people, others, still, looked like various specific objects, such as hammers, cooking utensils, or even a turkey wishbone (by the way, the following image is an arch, residing in neither National Park, they really are everywhere)!

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And, what amazed me was how often others in my group would actually see the exact same thing when they look at a rock formation and say, yes, I also saw an octopus.  This means that either my imagination is quite accurate, or, I have managed to surround myself only with similar minded people.  Both are very much a possibility!

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But, the analogy I came to in my head most frequently, throughout the trip, is between the rock formations and the ruins of an ancient city.  Every time I saw a structure such as this one, I would imagine what is would be like if, for some unknown reason, there actually was a civilization here, many thousands of years ago.  And each one of these rock formation was actually the remnant of an ancient skyscraper, or even a larger building like Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, weathered down by thousands of years of natural erosion.  I imagined what this ancient city would have been like, in an Atlantis-like scene that would play through my mind.

Since Samantha Brown’s presentation at last month’s Travel and Adventure Show, I had been trying to live in the here and now, and experience the current culture of a place, as she had advised.

For me, this included another new activity (for me)- Jeeping!

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And, I got to experience some crazy roads and some crazy places.

But, as I find in many of my travels, there is no way to truly avoid thinking about the past, and imagining another setting.  A video at the Canyonlands Visitors Center explained the actual process in which these rocks came to be formed, which took place over the course of 200 million years, back to a time when much of Utah and Colorado were near sea level, with some sections underwater and others above.  In fact, that is part of the reason why there is so much small scale variance in the color of the rocks throughout this region.

Everywhere I went, everywhere I looked, there were echoes of the past, both real and imaginary, and both ancient and more recent.

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The experience of visiting Moab for a long weekend is as jam-packed as I have made this aritcle.  Around every corner, something new, something exciting, and something unique.  While there are some travel destinations, like Miami, one can make as active or as restful as they would desire, Moab is one destination that requires one to be active, at least in some way, to truly experience.  To come to Moab, and not wander, not explore, not do a little bit of hiking, biking, or jeeping, one would miss out on so much of what is around every corner in this region.

 

 

 

Backpacking in the Weminuche Wilderness: Day 2

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Before moving to Colorado, I experienced seasons in a completely different way.  While there would be some anomalies, for the most part, winter was winter and summer was summer.  Snow was something I experienced starting in November, through the winter, probably one last time in early April, and then not again for 6-9 months.  Likewise, heat would be primarily confined to the summer months.  In other words, I experienced being cold and being warm in two separate parts of the year.  The experience would generally only mix during the in between seasons; mid-spring and mid-fall.

In Colorado it’s all different.  In Denver I’ve seen temperatures reach the lower 70s (23 C) in the middle of February.  At higher elevations snow can fall nearly year round, and there are places where snowpack persists well into the summer.

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Saturday morning, the start of my second day in the Weminuche Wilderness, was a cold one.  The chill had awoken me at 3:00 in the morning, when I reached for my warm hat and for the zipper to zip my sleeping bag all the way shut.  At roughly 6:30 I woke up for good, and crawled out of the tent to find ice on the fly!  Frost was found on many of the items we left outside, including this bear cannister.

It warmed up fairly quickly at the campsite making me wonder why I did not simply stay inside the tent for another hour.  All the weather forecasts we had looked at prior to this backpacking trip had indicated that a wet period was coming to a slow end, and that each day would get progressively drier (lower probability of rain).  Yet, in the morning I saw something that would indicate differently; alto-cumulus clouds.  These are puffy clouds with a base somewhat higher up in the sky than the clouds we typically see.  On some storm chases, the presence of alto-cumulus clouds indicated the presence of moisture at higher levels of the atmosphere.  This was seen as a good sign on a storm chase, but, on a backpacking trip, is a bad sign.

The first few miles of the day took us by a lake we are glad we did not chose to camp at the prior evening, and then back into the woods, where once again the trail was muddy kind of on-and-off.

Headed farther up in elevation, towards the summit of the day, we approached the tree line, encountering several waterfalls.  This one, by far, was the most pictureqsue.

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I did not even know the name of any of these waterfalls.  In fact, I did not even verify that they even have a name.  It didn’t even seem important at the time.  We just liked what we saw.  At that time, most of the conversation within our group revolved around whether we would see marmots in the nearby rocks, and speculation as to what elevation the tree line was at at this latitude.

We followed the Rincon La Vaca (Cow Canyon) trail, which is also considered a section of the Continental Divide Scenic trail, above the tree line, and approached a rock formation we had been looking at since early the prior afternoon, “The Window”.

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This is where we decided to stop for lunch, at a lake where we could safely refill our water bottles.

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It was noon when we finished eating lunch and, four of us (out of a group of six) decided, despite the potentially ominous weather, to make a side excursion.  We dropped our packs and hiked the 500-ish feet (and half a mile) up to “The Window”

We got back to the lake, where our backpacks were, around 1:00.  As soon as we prepared to move, and catch up with the rest of the group, it started to rain.  A few minutes later, ice pellets began to fall from the sky.

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We briefly took shelter from the inclement weather, but eventually soldiered on through the not quite rain not quite ice, which would eventually change over to snow!

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I experienced a lot of this living in Chicago.  I called it “precipitation jambalaya”.  But, I never thought I would hike through it, and, well, am used to experiencing this in December, not late August!  Once again, that thing about the seasons!

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The precipitation stopped right before we turned off the Continental Divide/ Rincon la Vaca trail, and started looking for the trail we would take back towards the reservoir, the East Ute Creek Trail.

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The scene looked familiar.  The shape of the Ute Creek Valley where we were headed, with an open meadow surrounded by mostly dead forests on either side looked quite similar to the Weminuche Creek Valley we had hiked through the prior day.  The trail, though, was hard to find.

For the first mile we kept losing the trail, or we just saw it show up only as a barely visible line in the grass.  We actually speculated as to whether or not this trail was so infrequently used and/or maintained that mother nature was basically starting to take it back!

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We hiked until roughly 5:00 P.M., and by the time the day was over we hike a total of 10.2 miles (11.2 for those of us that took the side excursion to “the window”).  The last hour featured two crazy river crossings where we actually removed our socks and shoes.

We found a campground near a small lake called Black Lake, where, once again, the weather took a turn for the worse.

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The rain started shortly after 6 P.M., and did not let up until after sundown.  I rushed back into my tent!  With all of the experiences of the day, the mixed precipitation at over 12,000 feet elevation, wading through water, and now, once again, more icy rain, I was cold!  I was way colder than I wanted to be, and way colder than I ever imagined being in the month of August.  For the first 20-30 minutes, I had to lie sitting still inside my sleeping bag, otherwise I would start to shiver.

All I could think of were things that were HOT and DRY.  I wasn’t even thinking of warm, pleasant experiences, like drinking rum on a beach in Puerto Rico at sunset.  I was thinking about things that would immediately heat me up and dry me off; sheets that were pulled directly out of the drier, a sauna, Death Valley!

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With the hard hiking parts over with, I had originally hoped to have kind of a party with the group on Saturday night.  We had even brought flasks, filled with whiskey for such an occasion.  But, the weather changed my plans, as the rain continued and I continued to periodically hear thunder through the 7:00 and 8:00 hours.

I also did something I never do on group trips; read.  I joke I often bring a magazine or even a book, places, but never touch it.  This time I actually read.  It was the July edition of Adventure Cyclist.  Fitting for the mood, thinking about warm places while trying to stay warm, I read full stories about cycling journeys through Morocco and Hawaii, both warm places!

I guess regardless of whether you are in an urban setting or in the wilderness, life has a way of changing plans.  In the city, it is some merger, or a random change in commodities prices.  In nature, it is the weather.  But, when it comes to rain, and anytime rain changes my plans, I always do my best not to complain.  Even while I was bummed that I was not partying with my friends and hating how cold I was in my tent, I was mindful to remember that rain is necessary for the food we eat, the water we drink, as well as everything that made this trip possible in the first place.  I do not want to be one of those people that fails to realize this, and cannot put up with a little bit of rain.