Time Capsules

Since Stacey has been writing so much I figured I should write another post.  One every 3 to 4 months may seem relatively pathetic, but I have Congress to thank for setting the productivity bar so low that my pace makes me look like a superstar blogger.  I also have Congress to thank for finally opening the National Parks again so I could write about Joshua Tree National Park.

I’m not going to write about Joshua Tree the way Stacey would.  She can write a more extensive narrative of the park if she wants but what I am going to write about is time capsules.  Not the grade school projects where you stuff a box with notes to yourself, lists of ambitions, newspaper clippings, et cetera.  Rather, the type of time capsules that serve as reminders for me and everyone reading this blog of the importance of being mindful of how we live our lives and why we protect public spaces for future enjoyment and education.

Time Capsule #1: A Mountain Dew Can

The first time capsule is a very old Mountain Dew can I found at our campsite at Jumbo Rock.  To give some background, when we got to Joshua Tree the wind was whipping at 40-60 mph and given the elevation and time of year, that meant we would be facing brutal wind chills and sleepless nights with an angry 2 1/2 year old.  In order to make our stay more hospitable (really to make it even possible) we had to find a site that would protect our tent from the wind on all sides.  Given how the sites were positioned, this was not an easy task and we ended up putting the tent in a space so far back from the road, so squeezed in between giant boulders and bush that it was not remotely close to the normal tent space/picnic table area established for the campground.  In other words, no one had probably been back there for years.

I happened upon the can (pop where I’m from, soda for Stacey) as I was setting up the tent.  It was wedged deep between two very tall and skinny boulders.


At first I thought it was just normal litter as we’ve been enough places and seen enough abuse of campsites in one form or another that I was about to pick it up and throw it in the recycling.  As I am a sucker for noticing details, immediately I could tell this can had a very old design (the diameter of the aluminum top was much larger than cans of today, and the size of the spout was much smaller than today, not a wide-mouth) and I estimated the Mountain Dew logo was something I had not seen since my early childhood.  Given that the color was somewhat faded but in relatively good condition, and given the area where it was sitting received almost no direct sunlight, I was struck by the fact that most likely what I was staring at was a pop can that had been tossed aside by some camper 25-30 years ago never to be disturbed until I visited the park in late October 2013.


Rather than move the can I decided that it had been there so long and had been preserved so well that I would rather not disturb it.  It had become part of the park, a time capsule that illustrates how much damage can be done by such routine and unconscious actions as tossing a can aside.  I will not forget that can for the rest of my life; how it is still there, will still be there tomorrow, the next day, and probably until I die.

I hope that everyone reading this blog will remember that can, as well, and carry it with them when they are making decisions that if made without thinking could have serious long-term consequences even though on the surface they seem innocuous.  Because so many of that can’s brethren are invisibly living a similar life below ground; they are still there, will still be there tomorrow, and the next day…

Time Capsule #2: The Disneyfication of Ancient Petroglyphs

My little joke at the beginning of this post was in part driven by the fact that what has been politically dividing D.C. and dividing this country has been ideologically driven by people’s views about private versus public functions.  I do not want to take up an exhaustive debate of the issue here because I think it would be inappropriate given the tone and subject matter of Stacey’s blog to date (yes, I consider it her blog, I’m just along for the ride).  But, I think examining the question of public space (specifically parks and recreation space) and whether the private sector could improve upon it is best answered through the lens of Joshua Tree and what Disney did to it in the 1960s.

Simple question – can Disney enhance a National Park?   Joshua Tree National Park has proven that to be a resounding no.

As the story goes, as explained to us by a ranger at the park, Disney wanted to shoot a movie, and they wanted to specifically feature the petroglyphs that make up part of the Barker Dam trail in Hidden Valley in Joshua Tree.  However, Disney being Disney, didn’t think the natural petroglyphs were appealing/photogenic enough for their audience so they wanted to paint over them with washable paint.  After filming, the paint would be removed and, of course, everything would go back to normal.

I didn’t live in the 1960s so I am only speculating here, but I imagine things must have been a bit different in the National Parks Service then to even consider such a proposal, and I assume Disney was offering to pay quite a large bit of money to film.  From Disney’s perspective I imagine the impetus for painting was the same bit of “magic” that makes things like “Pleasantville” appealing to some people.  But, this of course is what Disney does.

And what Disney does is Orlando, not National Parks.  They do semi-real, sanitized, cushy versions of the real world (and charge quite a premium for taking the edge off).  That is all well and good and I am not being critical of that market, but Joshua Tree proves quite definitively in my opinion that Disney should not do National Parks.  Because, and you’ve already guessed it, the washable paint was not what it was cracked up to be.  Although it could be “washed off” in some fashion, what also happened was that the petroglyphs were being completely destroyed at the same time.

So, what we are now left with is a Barker Dam trail with petroglyphs that have Disney paint on them.  In some cases you can actually see where Disney began to wash off the paint and where they stopped once it was determined that this historical site was being destroyed.  From top to bottom the color goes from full to faded/semi-washed to absent with the exposed petroglyphs almost totally removed from the face of the rock.




These Disneyfied Petroglyphs, like the Mountain Dew can, have become part of the park now.  Another time capsule that illustrates how much damage can be done when action is not directed with a view to the long term.

Thank you John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, et al who decided creating and preserving public space was a good idea.  Now next time Disney or anybody else decides it wants to mess around with what I believe is one of the most successful government functions of all time, the National Park System, one that has been replicated throughout the world; or next time someone spouts off about how the private sector could do it better, I have only one piece of advice.  Politely, but sternly, directly them to the Disneyfication time capsule when you are showing them out the door.

The Noble Giant – Mount Rainier

Our First View of the Sleeping Giant

Our First View of the Sleeping Giant

Wildflowers, alpine meadows, gigantic old-growth trees, glaciers, deep canyons, waterfalls, snapped trees piled up to look like twigs for a giant’s bonfire, lush green forest floors, and I could go on and on.  Mount Rainier was awesome!  If someone told me that they were visiting Washington State and only had three days, I’d tell them to spend all three days at Mount Rainier – it was that amazing.

We spent our mornings hiking amongst wildflowers and through snow and our afternoons hiking amongst ferns and dripping old-growth trees.  We relaxed on the porch of a lodge in awe of the giant before us, and counted our lucky stars we were able to find a great campsite in the popular park.  Although this park doesn’t seem to suffer from the incessant traffic jams that others do (I’m thinking of you, Yellowstone), available campsites were hard to come by.  Fortunately, we found a fantastic site under towering evergreens.  The campground was filled with families on one last hurrah for the summer.

We ran into many experienced campers at the park, but two families stuck out.  The first was a family camped a few sites away, between us and the bathroom.  Each time I walked by, I marveled at the kitchen set-up that these folks had.  Somehow, out of the back of a small pick-up truck, they managed to create a luxurious compound, replete with a massive tent and intricately overhanging tarp (necessary in these wet woods), chairs for the whole fam, a regular-sized sink complete with two 5-gallon collapsible buckets to serve as a water source and a graywater tank, a waist-high drying rack, a table for other important kitchen items, cords running all over the site with kitchen implements hanging within reach over the kitchen area, and a propane stove powered by a tank the size you’d have on your backyard grill.  They win the prize for the most intricate campsite we’ve come across on this trip.

The second family outdid us all.  While were out hiking for the day, Alan came across a backpacker with an eight month-old strapped to her chest.  She had just arrived at a trailhead and was talking with other hikers.  Curious about her story, Alan overheard her explaining that she had just been out backpacking for twelve days with the wee one.  TWELVE DAYS!  Backpacking!  And it wasn’t clear that the backpacking was over for the happy family – they may have just been refueling.  Sometimes people tell us that it’s impressive that we’ve been on the road camping with a two-year old for over five months.  Do not be impressed!  We have not attempted backpacking, we haven’t even camped for twelve straight days – we always tend to take a one night break (or sometimes more) every week or so.  And we’re not camping with an eight month old!  Our little guy can walk, can tell us what he needs, and can even help out quite a bit around camp.  Twelve days.  Backpacking.  Amazing!

And so, amongst the backdrop of these extraordinary campers, we explored many nooks and crannies of this intensely beautiful park.  The glaciered peak was as imposing as it was beautiful, and hiking up its flank amongst the wildflowers was a lesson in gratitude.  Gratitude that we were able to see the peak on multiple days (a treat not granted to all park-goers given the common cloud cover), that we chose a time to visit when nature was showing off her finest colors, and that we were healthy enough to hike up, up, and up to see the massive glaciers that blanket the peak.

I’m not sure what was more beautiful, each individual wildflower or the mass of wildflowers dotting a slope.  Regardless, lupines will always be my favorite.

The massive, wet trees were a significant change from our forays through the Rockies and the Utah canyons.  Although the trees were impressive, Van’s favorite thing was to point out the ferns (which he calls “F F Terns”) and then turn over the fronds to let us know whether or not there are spores.  He can barely walk by a fern without checking for spores, which made for lengthy forest walks given the abundance of ferns in the lower elevations of the park.

John Muir said it best, “Of all the fire mountains which like beacons, once blazed along the Pacific Coast, Mount Rainier is the noblest.”

Confronting Fears in Glacier National Park

I may have mentioned this before, but I have two fears that I’m trying to conquer, flying in planes and bears.  This is a bummer since I love to travel and to spend time outdoors, often in bear country.  I’ve come a long, long way since the beginning of this trip, frequently camping in black bear territory without a second thought.  Although I loved spending time hiking and camping in the past, it was seldom that my enjoyment wasn’t tempered with thoughts in the back of my mind about what large, furry creature might be around the corner or over the ridge.  I’m happy to say that I now have a healthy fear of black bears that all humans should have and no longer obsess over every breaking twig or food smells that may remain around camp.  Well, Alan would probably say I still obsess a little about food smells, but I think that’s healthy for both us and the bears.

Grizzlies, my friend, are another thing entirely.  When our Eurovan came to its tragic end in Memphis, and we decided to camp with only a tent to call home, we made the agreement that when in grizzly territory, we’d stay somewhere with four walls.  Not knowing when we’d be somewhere made this all the more difficult.  You see, we were in grizzly country during high tourist season, which only lasts a couple of months.  If I were a hotel owner in an area that only sees frequent tourists during one season out of the year, you better bet that prices would be significantly higher during that season.  Not only were prices insane, most places were already booked!  So, we opted for the least expensive option that would give us four walls and a roof and stayed in Motel 6s (or as Van says, Motel Number Six) in Missoula and then in Kalispell, outside of Glacier National Park.  I could spend all day telling you our thoughts of Kalispell, but instead I’ll turn to more positive topics – our visit to Glacier.

Glacier smelled amazing!  Seriously and phenomenally amazing.  It was beautiful, no doubt, but the smells took top honors.  While we enjoyed our time in the park, it was clear that to really appreciate the park, you need to spend more than a couple of days and you need to stay within the park.  We’ve already added this to our mental list of places to which we’d like to return when Van gets older.  While there, however, we enjoyed every minute.  The views were astounding, we ate lunch in incredible settings, Van continued his routine of rock throwing to great effect, we went on several stunning and rewarding hikes, and saw wildlife aplenty – including bears!  My proudest moment was when Van hiked the farthest he’d ever hiked without assistance, a full mile and three-quarters.  He spent most of the rest of the hike enjoying his perch on Alan’s back, but hopped out again for the last half mile of the hike.  And this wasn’t a flat path – it was a serious uphill hike with plenty of obstacles for him to maneuver.  My other proud moment was hiking without obsessing over bears, even though the first sign at every trailhead encouraged hikers to carry bear spray, and we did, in fact, see three bears.

To set your mind at ease (or maybe just mine), we didn’t come across the bears while we were out hiking.  Instead, we came across gaggles of people along the side of the road with binoculars and large lenses.  Piquing our curiosity each time, we stopped and joined the fray.  On our first stop we were witness to a black bear (who was blonde – go figure) and a grizzly in different directions up a fairly steep hill.  Neither was close and I loved having the opportunity to watch them amble about.  On our second stop, we got out and quickly realized that we were only twenty-five yards from a grizzly.  Twenty-five yards!  Too close for comfort for both us and for the ranger.  We watched the bear for a few minutes before consciously realizing we were too close.  As we returned to the car, the ranger had the same idea and ordered everyone back in their cars immediately.  It’s not a good thing for bears to become habituated to people, and this sort of bear-watching at close range is just the sort of thing that can do that.




Are we bear watching or people watching?

If you’re contemplating a trip to Glacier and are interested in seeing glaciers, I recommend that you travel here sooner rather than later.  There are far fewer glaciers in the park than there were just over a decade ago when I first visited the park.  Although the signs of glaciers are everywhere, from the steep, glacier-carved mountains to the glacier-fed lakes, the glaciers themselves are becoming smaller and smaller each year.  Although the disappearance of glaciers in this park is all but inevitable in our lifetime, the landscape that owes its beauty to these icy beasts is well worth a trek to northern Montana.


Stay on Trail: Craters of the Moon National Monument

Craters of the Moon, Idaho

Craters of the Moon, Idaho

During law school, aspiring biglaw attorneys usually spend their second summer interning at a law firm they hope to call home.  Although they’re not attorneys, they’re called summer associates and treated quite well.  There are activities aplenty, along with the usual work.  One of the activities during my summer was a family feud-style game for which we had to answer questions beforehand to populate the answers.  One of the questions was, if you could be something other than an attorney, what would you be.  My answer?  A park ranger.   I realize that for many reasons this is not a good fit for me at this point in my life – what with no science degree and no desire to move around frequently during the start of a new career.  Instead, I simply enjoy my time outdoors and in parks, doing and learning as much as possible.  Craters of the Moon National Monument was the perfect place to do this.

Though a National Monument and not a National Park, we found that the facilities, ranger-led activities, maintenance, and services offered at this park were fantastic, the best we’ve seen on this trip.  We stayed for three nights and took advantage of this time to go on a number of great hikes, attend three evening ranger programs (at least I did, while Alan stayed back at the site to watch the sleeping babe), attend a ranger-led walk, and attend a junior ranger program.  We had thought that Van was too young to attend this program, as most of the junior ranger programming in parks is geared to children at least four to six years old.  The traditional junior ranger program (receive a packet, complete a bunch of activities through exploration in the park, and present the packet to a ranger for inspection) at Craters of the Moon is for older children, but a ranger came by our site and invited Van to the evening program, saying that he’d enjoy it even though he’s younger than most who attend.  And enjoy it he did!  He had a blast, sitting up front and raising his hands for lots of activities.  His favorite part was using the magnifying glass to examine items found around the amphitheater.  My favorite part was the induction ceremony for all the junior rangers at the close of the program.  Alan says that using the term “induction ceremony” is a bit too formal, but it was a ceremony and he was inducted as a junior ranger at the park, so I think that’s precisely what it was.  All the children stood up on stage and had to raise their right hand and repeat an oath.  Van didn’t do so well on the repeating, but the ranger made sure that his right hand was raised the entire time.

At the close, each child received a badge, which Van continues to wear.  Whenever we ask him what a junior ranger says, he says proudly: “Stay on Trail.”  He’s now super vigilant about keeping us on trail and often lets us know his motto whenever we’re out hiking – or frankly, even when we’re not out hiking.  Sadly, I didn’t bring my camera to capture the magic, but you can just imagine a squirmy Van on stage, his hand in the ranger’s, beaming proudly amongst a line of older children.  The only thing that would have made it better is if Van’s Uncle Jack was there to see it.  My brother had an infamous experience becoming a junior ranger at Devil’s Tower, showing up to turn in his completed packet with a massively bloody leg that resulted from a top-speed run in the park.  As we were reading aloud the junior ranger rules with the park ranger in hopes that we both qualified for our badges, we quickly learned that one of the important rules was that “Junior Rangers Don’t Run.”  Luckily, they didn’t hold Jack’s accident against him, and we were both sworn in as junior rangers.  Van has illustrious company!

This way.  Stay on trail!

This way. Stay on trail!

No, this way!

No, this way!

All this talk of “ranger this” and “junior ranger that,” and I haven’t said much about the park.  We loved it – absolutely loved it.  It’s not every day that you get to visit massively large lava fields and volcanoes aplenty.  We even slept on lava.  Basically, for three straight days, we were constantly standing, walking, sitting, sleeping, and eating on lava.  The park has two main kinds of lava: áa and pahoehoe.   The áa lava is larger, rockier, and more jagged and the pahoehoe is smoother and looks more like what I think of as a stereotypical lava flow.  In addition, there were large cinder cones in the park, essentially large mountains of cinders, and spatter cones.  These were my favorites, both to see and to hike to and around.  Walking on cinders is a completely different sensation.  They’re pieces of volcanic rock, but they’re fragile and they crunch beneath your feet.  Weirdly, I loved the sound and feel of walking on the cinders and can’t relate it to anything else I’ve ever walked upon.   Luckily, the parks has many great trails, because without well maintained trails (almost all surfaced with cinders), your shoes would quickly get eaten up by the lava.  The lava, which looks black at first glance, has a thin glass coating on the outside, which both makes it sharp and colorful.  Good thing we also had the little guy eager to repeat his new mantra, Stay on Trail!  Most intriguing to me was the various textures and surprising colors in this charcoal-looking landscape.  I tried to capture a few examples in the photos below.  I like to refer to the photo of brightly colored lichen as nature’s graffiti.

Craters of the Moon may be out-of-the-way in south-central Idaho, but it is well worth a visit.  Though many folks come through for the day, if you have the time, spend a few days there to explore all the different types of volcanic formations, including the lava tubes.  Unfortunately, we weren’t able to go inside any of the lava tubes because we were wearing the same hiking shoes we had worn on our visit to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky earlier this year.  Given the rapid spread of white nose syndrome, which has a very high fatality rate for bats, you could only explore the lava tubes if you were wearing clothing and shoes that had not been in any caves since 2005 or if these clothes or shoes were properly decontaminated.  I never did get a full understanding of what proper decontamination would entail, but we knew that whatever it was, we certainly didn’t meet the standard.

Two More Stops on the European Tour: Bryce and Zion National Parks

No, we didn’t hop a jet across to Europe.  No passport was needed to find ourselves surrounded by Europeans on holiday during our tour of the national parks in southern Utah.  While it’s common to see non-US visitors when visiting national parks, this was a whole different ballgame, especially in Arches and Bryce.  Many visitors seemed to be on an extended holiday, touring a circuit of parks in their rental RV or with their tents and kids in tow.  I completely understand why someone may be possessed to fly so far to see some of the US’s more remote parks.  Each of the parks we visited in southern Utah – Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce, and Zion, as well as our drive through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument – was wacky and different and is the closest I’ll ever come to stepping foot on an alien planet.

Bryce Amphitheater

Bryce Amphitheater

Making our home base to visit Bryce and Zion in one of Bryce’s forested campgrounds, we felt like we’d escaped our alien abductors and returned to a more normal landscape, that is until we got our first glimpse of what makes Bryce so famous.  It was like a fairyland, Dr. Seuss’s version of Disneyworld, and a hot, dry Mars, all rolled into one.  In short, it was crazy beautiful!

Because we had several days in the park, we were able to check out all the different parts of the park and go on our longest hike yet with the little guy.  Just over eight miles down into the amphitheater and up and down and around the hoodoos, and up and down some more.   Huge props to Alan who carried the little guy on his back during the entire sunshiny hike.  Even more credit is due given the significant number of climbs and descents we had to do during those eight miles.  For those looking to replicate our fantastic hike, we hiked from the North Campground to the Rim Trail, along the Rim Trail to the Queens Garden Trail and down into the canyons, then around the Peekaboo Loop Trail (our favorite part) before heading  up and out of the canyons along the Navajo Trail, back to the Rim Trail, and onwards to our campsite.

The first few miles of the hike were on a popular trail.  The views were beautiful, but we were never alone.  Once we headed further down into the canyon, we were able to escape the crowds and see the most incredible views.  Around each corner we’d keep exclaiming that these were the best views yet, until we turned the next corner and repeated ourselves, and on and on.  Walking down amongst the hoodoos was something I’ll never forget.  There was something magical about being down there.  It was almost unbelievable that a landscape like this even exists – I kept reminding myself that I wasn’t dreaming and that the earth is full of wondrous surprises.  After seeing this, there is probably nothing I wouldn’t believe that the earth could dream up.  It’s true, unicorns live in Crested Butte and fairies live in Bryce.

Given the heat in neighboring Zion National Park (despite their proximity, Bryce is at a much higher altitude than Zion, making the weather much more tolerable for camping), we decided to head to Zion for a day trip and continue camping at Bryce.  For many reasons, this was definitely the right decision.  Zion is absolutely beautiful and it seems as if everyone has already caught on to this fact.  The place was a zoo!  Even with most of the park outlawing cars and requiring that you take a shuttle, each hike we did was not all that dissimilar to being at the mall on a Saturday afternoon.  And it was hot.  It was beautiful, but it was hardly a wilderness experience.  I’m sure that if you embarked on some of the longer or more challenging hikes, you’d find some semblance of solitude (or at least it’d feel like a mall on a Tuesday evening instead of Saturday afternoon), but given that the temperatures were above 100 degrees much of the day and we’d been hiking every single day for the past week, we did not attempt any of the more strenuous hikes.  This would be a great place to come in the off-season, but one day was plenty for us during the heat and crowds of the summer.  All that being said, I’d love to return when Van is a bit older and take on the Narrows trail, a sixteen-mile long trail through a slot canyon, at least 60% of which involves walking, wading, or swimming through water.

The strangest part for me was that I had been to Zion once before during the summer of 1991.  This was absolutely nothing like I remembered.  It’s almost as if I’d been somewhere else and convinced myself that it was Zion.  It was very strange returning somewhere I know that I’ve been and where I hold, what I thought were, pretty clear memories of what I had seen.  It felt as if I were peering through a looking-glass much of the day, and it re-emphasized the importance of journaling and photographing the many places that we see during this journey.

Views on our Drive into Zion

Views on our Drive into Zion

Quintessential Zion

Quintessential Zion