technically, i suppose that the endless roadtrip began with our departure from florence, ma. poetically, however, our westward trek did truly not begin until we had reached the eastern limit of the continent and said our farewell to the great atlantic ocean. this happened in late march of 2009, when we traveled the coast of maine for a few absolutely frigid days, stopping here, here, and here, before turning our eyes towards the mighty pacific. who could have guessed that it would be just over 1.5 years until we would find ourselves on the shores of the atlantic once again.
when i lived in western massachusetts, acadia national park seemed so very far away. prohibitively so. it was only after a few months spent driving the spectacular distances that mark the american west that i realized how erroneous that perception was. the drive from northampton, ma to bar harbor, me takes approximately seven hours and passes through at least 3 states: massachusetts, new hampshire, and maine. try and make it through three of the western states and it’ll take you at least twice that. hell, i’ve driven for 14 hours straight without making it out of texas!
so thanks to our time out west, when we finally returned to new england, the modest drive from keene to acadia was hardly daunting. however, also thanks to our time out west, my expectations for acadia were quite low. after all, we had spent the last half of 2009 visiting some of the most gorgeous and overwhelming landscapes that our country has to offer: rocky mountain national park, glacier-waterton international peace park, the cascades, crater lake, bryce canyon, the gila national forest, death valley. after the stunning displays provided by these entries in our national park service, what could tiny, well-trampled acadia offer? after the remote wonders of the canyonlands, what magic could a national park that hosts the voracious tourism of 2-4 cruise ships per day possibly hold?
so as we drove towards mt. desert island (it’s pronounced dessert, just so you know), i was prepared for pretty, but i was not prepared for amazing. and once again, my perceptions were proven to be hopelessly incorrect. for although acadia is well traveled and cruise ships do disgorge hundreds of clueless tourists into its wilds on a daily basis, it is also one of the jewels of our national park system. if you live in new england and you haven’t been yet, you should stop with the excuses and go. it’s worth it.
(caveat: we visited acadia in late september/early october, at the very tail end of the tourist season. if we had visited during the height of the summer season, i might have a very different take on the whole place. even as things stood, we did our best to stay out of bar harbor and away from the most visited sights on the island.)
originally, we had intended to camp for 4-5 days at the acadia’s seawall campground, just about as far away as you could get from the hubbub of bar harbor. but with the end of the tourist season, seawall was closing down for the year and we were forced to stay at a nearby private campground in the tiny town of bass harbor. it cost about the same amount as the campsites within the national park, plus it had the added bonuses of a) hot showers and b) free wifi. these bonuses barely made up for the industrial site (possibly the town recycling center/dump) somewhere within earshot. just about every morning, tim and i were greeted not with chirping birds or the gentle tap of deer hooves on moss-covered rocks, but with the echoing booms of dumpsters being tossed around like dice and the pernicious beep-beep-beep of a big truck in reverse.
the weather forecast for our time in acadia was pretty bleak. rain followed by more rain, followed by intense periods of rain, followed by the possibility of flooding, followed by partly cloudy skies and then a cold front and then some more rain. we put up a tarp over our picnic table and swore to make the best of a rough situation. the above video, shot on the network of carriage roads that criss-cross the non-quiet side of the island, reveals the rather bleak and inhospitable weather that greeted us. the few tourists that crossed our paths offered such cheery and upbeat sentiments as, “pretty miserable day for a bike ride!” and “i thought there were supposed to be some beautiful views out here!” and while it was not the picture postcard “ideal,” the low rolling clouds and creeping banks of fog gave the landscape a dark majesty that i found completely compelling. we spent the entire afternoon on our bikes, pumping our way up mountainsides and then enjoying the long, winding downhills that waited on the other side. i’m pretty sure that despite the bad weather, tim and i were sporting cheesy grins for the entire day.
for one stand-out day, the weather broke and gave us a perfect, sun-strewn day at acadia. tim and i made the most of it by taking mazy on a truly magnificent hike: along the shore of long pond, up the granite steps of the perpendicular trail (tim believes it must have been built by the ccc), traversing the peaks of both mount mansell and bernard mountain as well as the sheltered hollow of the great notch, before completing the loop that would bring us back to our starting point at gilley field.
the sheer range of terrain — from stairs hewn out of a rock face to mountaintop wetlands, from fern forests to granite outcroppings overlooking the ocean– made this hike memorable. we crossed paths with just four people during our hike. three were locals who made sure to tell us that we had found the best hike on the whole island. we didn’t hike many other trails on the island, but i’m fairly confident that they were telling the truth. mazy, who is at least 12 years old, was as spry as a young pup, despite the very challenging terrain. the only time she slowed was when she realized we were heading back to the truck. i have a very distinct memory of a look she gave me that could have been interpreted by a 10-year old: “we’re done already? oh, man you guys are sooooo lame!”
for all of our desire to stay on the so-called “quiet side” of the island, we did dip our toe into bar harbor long enough to join a group of folks on a guided kayaking trip. beginning in western bay, we followed the northwestern shore of the island, threading our way between islands and shallows, seaweed beds and seal colonies. in all honesty, i could have done without the new yorkers chattering endlessly about the price of real estate and making ridiculous comparisons between their second/third homes in upstate new york and the isolated estates that dot mt. desert island. but the cloudy afternoon gave way to a glorious sunset, and the chorus of water, light, and sound managed to still even these tightly wound souls. we paddled along, listening to the calls of osprey and catching a fleeting glimpse of a pair of harbor porpoises bounding towards some unknowable destination.
when we returned to the campsite that night, we were exhausted and satisfied, as content as we had been in a long time. we slept an unbroken, happy sleep; a sleep that stretched across an entire continent, connecting oceans.
the music used in the above videos:
in hiking with mazy: shipping out with sunrise, by the messenger & day of the weird beginning, by b6
“Shipping Out with Sunrise” (mp3)
from “The Best of Night Drive Music Vol. 3”
(Night Drive Music)
LET THEM EAT PANCAKES!
the endless road trip isn’t all applesauce and roses. there are moments — days even — when all i want is a sink in which i might leave my dirty dishes and a clean bathroom in which i might take a hot shower. why, just a few weeks ago, in the middle of the night, mazy threw up in the tent, not once, but three, count-em three times. and while i can complain about how annoying it might be to do dishes or do without a bath or sleep in a tent that smells like dog barf, there’s not much i can do but deal with it.
one of the things that makes the vagaries of life on the road more bearable is a good, home-cooked meal. cleaning up dog vomit in the middle of the night is terrible; cleaning up dog vomit in the middle of the night after you’ve had a delicious meal is still terrible, but it’s not as terrible as doing it on an empty stomach. or on a stomach filled with schwazzy food.
this is why, whenever we can, tim and i make the time to make good food for ourselves. there’s an awful lot that we do without (sinks and showers are at the top of a very long list), but one of the things that we absolutely do NOT do without is tasty food. i’ve learned how to make a lot of my favorite dishes using nothing but a whisperlite camp stove and, occasionally, an open fire. it takes a little adaptability and ingenuity, but in the end, the effort is worth it. when you don’t have a lot of comfort, comfort food goes a long, long way.
here’s the first in what may become a series of cooking videos. in it, i make one of our recurring campground breakfasts: spelt/yogurt (in this case, spelt/kefir) pancakes and scrambled eggs with extra sharp cheddar cheese chunks. if that sounds good, well rest assured that it is. this is, without a doubt, the best pancake recipe that i’ve come across and it’s easy to make in the most inhospitable of circumstances. i hope you give it it a try. they might not taste as good as they do after a cold, rainy night spent huddled in a tent on the flank of the white mountains, but i’m willing to bet you’ll still love them. bom apetite!
so it’s been almost nine weeks since we visited the amazing, the awesome, the unbelievable bryce canyon national park, and i still haven’t gotten around to posting anything about our time there. why? well because really, what can you say? i mean, it really is beautiful; truly and profoundly beautiful. if you’ve been there, you don’t really need me to remind you of how insane the landscape is because you probably have a million photographs of your own. if you haven’t been there, then no amount of adjectives, no matter how artfully arranged, will provide even the tiniest glimpse of the beauty that this place tosses about with such wild abandon.
so let me just encourage you to find your way to bryce canyon at least once in your lifetime. not only for the nature, which let me repeat, is sublime, but also because witnessing the cross-cultural chaos that occurs when thousands of foreign visitors — from india, germany, japan, france, the uk, the middle east, australia, spain, mexico, brazil, china, russia and yup, even canada — collide with southern utah mormonism and the good old american tourist. imagine a table of parisians at an all you can eat buffet offering classic american items such as: chicken fried steak, pot roast, canned corn, baked beans, and dinner rolls more like giant marshmallows than actual bread. imagine overhearing an interaction between a red-faced german couple and their teenaged waitress that begins with a heavily accented, “vat exactly iz a pickle pie?” it’s an awkward, hilarious and touching parade of all the absurd variety that human culture has to offer.
fortunately, we did not camp at the park itself, or i’m sure that the aforementioned parade of humanity would have driven me absolutely batty. we stayed here , about 14 miles away from the park. (i’ll get around to posting some photos of this place sometime soon because it, too, is outrageously gorgeous.)
so if i were to summarize this post in three bullet points, they would go something like this:
WALKING ON WATER
one of the most surprising, beautiful and surreal places that we’ve visited on this endless trip is right here , tucked into the southern edge of colorado, right where the rockies begin to descend into new mexico. the first time we laid eyes upon this bizarre landscape was in june of 2009, relatively early on in our journey. by that time we had logged a lot of road miles, but because of a lingering rocky mountain winter and a couple of long-ish house sitting gigs, we hadn’t yet done a lot of actual camping. as we pulled off of US160, heading north towards the great sand dunes, we somewhat naively believed that the place would be mostly empty and that we would have our pick of the park’s campsites. i mean, we’re talking about an extremely isolated, sparsely populated stretch of high plains desert…the veritable middle of nowhere.
and yet, as we pulled in, we couldn’t help but notice the line of heavily laden suvs, pickup trucks, and rvs. the place was a madhouse! when we finally reached the entry gate, we were greeted by a sign — campground full — and a speech that the park ranger seemed to be reciting from memory: “i’m sorry folks, but our campground is all full up. you might try san luis lakes state park, about 10 miles away, but i’m not sure if there’s any space there either. there’s also a privately owned campground just outside the park boundary…don’t bother asking about tomorrow, because we’re going to be all full up then too.”
the dunes themselves are magnificent. this is one of the few national parks that allow dogs anywhere past the parking lot and so the three of us dragged our way up a series of undulating, collapsing ridge lines, attempting to get a glimpse of the vast interior of the the dune field. every time we crested another dune, some subtle magic lured us onward, promising us a greater revelation if we managed to reach the next peak, the next vista. we hiked until all we could see, from horizon to horizon, were dunes. it felt like we were on another planet, like we could have walked on forever.
as remarkable as the dunes were, it was the medano creek and the surge flow that captured my imagination. there was something so entrancing, so completely compelling about the endless combinations of wind, sand, water and sunlight, that i fell into a post of fugue state, utterly transfixed. patterns emerged and retreated in the water’s surface; a strange and half remembered calligraphy. within the space of a few windswept minutes, the water would take the form of delicate herringbone lace, a single standing wave, a string of tiny suns.
my communion with this place brought one of the first and most persistent revelations of our journey. standing ankle deep in snowmelt, held in the distant embrace of sun, sky, mountain, dune, forest and cloud, the connection between all of these physical forms became manifest and wholly evident. the only thing separating smoke and creek, sand dune and pine tree were the relative scale of time and size. beyond that, there is no distinction. everything exists only for a moment, every form is transient. all that holds us together is vibration; we are simply standing waves in the profound medium of universal energy. we arise and subside as quickly as a pattern in sand, as unexpectedly as a tree growing on the shoulder of a mountain, as beautifully as a forest fire. all is one.
words are as inadequate a tool as a cell phone camera in the attempt to capture the depth and reach of a landscape like this. better not to dwell too long on these ineffable concerns. better to simply surrender to the call of whimsy, of play, released from the bounds of eternity. let the mountains grind themselves to bits, let the sand scatter, let the snow dissolve into the desert. the sun is shining, the breeze is cool, and the whole world, even the forest exploding into flame, trembles with beauty.
if you want to skip ahead, there is a slideshow and an audio recording of tim talking about why he loves the needles district of canyonlands national park with such intensity. however, if you are willing to wait, and you want to read the story of how tim and i almost lost our lives in this unbelievably beautiful corner of the world, continue on.
the first big trip that tim and i took was in 2006. we caught amtrak’s lakeshore limited from springfield to chicago. we got off the train long enough to have a quick lunch with my chicago besties, wenner, freddie and m, and then we boarded the southwest chief and headed down towards albuquerque.
anyway, it was a long trip and very eventful. (ask tim about his relationship with our traincar attendant and why it was so awkward…seriously it’s worth it). after many adventures involving a tiny hyundai that we got from alamo rental and my first introduction to tim’s sister katja, we found ourselves entering canyonlands national park . what with all of our dilly-dallying in moab, we got a much later start than we had intended. still, it was a beautiful day, sunny and brisk, and we were very excited to be out on the trail.
you should know that it was march, and that winter still had a firm grip on the canyonlands. with the full sun pouring down on us, it was very comfortable for hiking, but in the slot canyons or in the shade, the air was brisk, edged with cold. we hiked up through the first pass and entered elephant canyon. a barely believable landscape passed around us; red sandstone spires giving way to wide sage-dotted plains, twisted bodies of junipers, and bright porcelain sky. we followed the dry bed of elephant creek, stair-stepping on god-sized risers of perfectly formed granite. and then we arrived at druid arch . for those of you who followed that link, i know, right? it’s beautiful! supposedly, it’s called druid arch because it looks like a celtic rune.
tim and i hung out at the arch for a good long while, taking photos and exploring the nooks and crannies along the canyon. then we continued on, making our way slowly to chesler park. we stopped at a grand overlook and ate our meager picnic lunch. we watched the sun began to settle towards the horizon. when we consulted the map, a slow horror began to creep into our consciousness. we had an 8-mile hike back to the parking lot and about 2 hours of sunlight to do it. this, through fairly demanding terrain, the path trailing up and around sandstone spires, disappearing into slot canyons, and climbing from the desert floor up through layers of geologic time. we checked our daypack and discovered that we only had one headlamp. the layers that we had brought along, which had felt so substantial in the noonday sun, began to feel meager and thin. we had no emergency blanket, no more food, and not a whole lot of water.
our pace quickened. the sun’s rays began to diffuse behind a layer of purple clouds crowding the horizon. darkness spread, swallowing the shadows like a rising tide. we decided to hike as long as possible without the aid of the headlamp. we had no idea how long the batteries would last and once we started relying on its light, we would be fully dependent on it. in the azure light of dusk, the path remained barely visible in our sensitized retinae; a pale ribbon twisting between the variegated darkness of plant life and cryptobiotic soil.
as if toying with us, the sky began to spit down a cold rain. lightning played on the horizon, illuminating what looked like a massive storm front heading towards us. my adrenaline addled mind began to frantically pursue possible outcomes. would we survive if we were forced to spend the night out in the wilds? would hypothermia claim us? would sharing body heat be sufficient? would anyone know we were still out here, scared and rushing heedlessly through the darkness?
eventually, the trail led us onto an undulating rock floor and then disappeared in its constant, monochrome surface. from here, our only guides were tiny, widely spaced cairns that stitched their way through a landscape made treacherous by sudden dropoffs and unexpected chasms. in the failing light, the cairns were all but invisible. we stumbled on, terrified of losing our way. the cold rain intensified. we turned on the headlamp and began casting about in the darkness, searching for the trail markers. when one of us couldn’t find the next one, the other would take the lead. slowly, in this staggering, frightened way, we continued on.
my memory began playing tricks on me. were we going in circles? had we rejoined the path that first led us into elephant canyon? finally, just as i was about to suggest that we stop and try to find a place to shelter for the night, we crested a low rise. tim shone the headlamp into the blankness ahead and uttered a cry of relief. he had seen the hyundai’s reflectors shining in the lamp’s pale beam. we had made it back to the parking lot!
giddy with relief, we hurried to the car and got in. somehow, the simple act of closing the doors made us feel safer. we hugged and high-fived, congratulating ourselves on surviving the ordeal. the awareness of how tenuous our situation had been came crashing down. if we had begun to bicker or lay blame, if we had taken one wrong step, one of us could have twisted an ankle or fallen and broken a leg. or worse. we could have lost the path and ended up wandering aimlessly, searching for a path that wasn’t there. we could have been soaked by the coming rain and succumbed to exposure or hypothermia. giddiness was replaced by wonder. how had we escaped unscathed?
as we left the park, a strange, almost surreal series of events taught us the price of our survival. in the few miles separating our parking space from a generous bed and a comfortable night waiting for us in bluff, ut a total of 14 desert hares streaked out of the darkness and sacrificed themselves to the hyundai. by way of comparison, in the entire 1 year and 4 months of this endless road trip, we have killed exactly zero animals. that night, we killed 14; the last of which lay down in front of us just as we turned into the sleeping town of bluff; just as tim uttered the words, “well at least we aren’t going to kill any more rabbits.”
in this sad way, we learned how much the canyonlands required in order to spare our puny human lives.
our latest visit to the canyonlands was much less eventful. we enjoyed a beautiful day with pati and andy, marveled at the incredible beauty of this sublime landscape, and made it back to our campsite without injury or loss of animal life. the canyonlands had accepted our sacrifice.
BURNING BRIDGES IN MORMON COUNTRY
in this audio clip, tim and i attempt to relate some of our experiences at the national bridges national monument. on listening, i realize that i can’t stop using the words “beautiful,” “amazing,” and “unbelievable.” sigh. before i record any more stories about our time in southern utah, i will have to consult a thesaurus. attempting to describe the sights and sounds at bryce canyon, kodachrome state park, and canyonlands will surely require the usage of similar concepts.
arriving in new mexico felt wonderful. arizona’s springtime temperatures were starting to edge towards summer and as we climbed the western slopes of the mogollon mountains, we were welcomed by a cool breeze, a pine forest, and a blue, new mexican sky. our tentative game plan was to find a place to camp near the gila cliff dwellings. it being easter weekend, we knew we were taking our chances, but we acted boldly and with confidence. the universe, i am told, responds favorably to those who do.
despite our general tardiness and the amber sunlight of late afternoon, we made a quick detour through silver city to give mazy a walk and refill on coffee. immediately, it became apparent that we were no longer in arizona. people were craggier, rougher; nary a spray tan in sight. the town seemed poorer yet more vibrant. there was a co-op selling locally crafted herbal remedies and several of the many bakeries and restaurants were touting local, organic ingredients. it even had a beautiful old abandoned rollerskating rink tucked into the corner of downtown. looking at the handlettered signs and careful muralwork, i could almost hear the laughter and music that must have echoed from these cinder block walls. olivia newton john’s thin voice hovered in the air and i fell into my own private xanadu fantasy. the things this old place has seen!
as the sun began to duck behind a high mountain ridge, we found an open campsite along the banks of the cherry creek, on the edge of the gila national forest. there were several other groups in the small campground, including one that was broadcasting an r and b oldies station. we set up our tent and cooked dinner while listening to the soulful sounds of the jackson 5, rick james, and teena marie.
after spending so many nights sealed off from the starry sky, it was wonderful to sleep outside again. the three of us bundled up in our tent, as thick as thieves, reclaiming each other as pack.
the next day we drove 35 miles of beautiful, winding roads into the gila in order to visit the cliff dwellings hidden in the wilds of the mogollon. as at mesa verde, hovenweep and chaco canyon, the structures were beautiful, mysterious and strangely comforting. outside, the air shimmered hot and dry; in the cliff’s hollows, a cool breeze blew. something about their scale and setting gave there ancient structures an air of safety and comfort. we wandered silently through the ruins, marveling. these folks built and inhabited this compound (we are told) in the 1100s! what will the ruins of our civilization look like in the year 2900?
while there, we had a short, satisfying conversation with one of the park rangers. we talked about religious bigotry and racism, president obama and the teabaggers. she told us about the vandal fires that destroyed the intact roofs sometime in the 1800s. after a couple of weeks spent in mccain country, it was wonderful to meet a kindred spirit. “sometimes you just can’t understand what people are thinking,” she said resignedly. “you would not believe,” she continued, “how many people ask me why the native americans built their dwellings so far from the highway!”
i opened my mouth to let loose another diatribe against arizona’s willfully malicious ignorance and the hypocrisy that runs rampant through the current political discourse, but something stopped me. here we were, on a beautiful, early spring day, passing a few moments with a lovely woman in the shade of an ancient cliff dwelling. why continue to dwell on the imperfections of a transient world?
we thanked her for sharing her stories and continued our hike back down the canyon and to the shady dirt lot where our truck and our dog sat waiting.