“Don’t do it. You’re going to end up as one of those people we read about in the book.”
I had just finished telling Dom about a book called Death, Daring, and Disaster: Search and Rescue in the National Parks, and now I was about to do something a bit daring myself.
I had hiked across a very narrow peninsula in the air, standing above Bryce Canyon. It couldn’t have been more than three feet wide. I wanted a picture from atop. At one point there was a giant step. I had to place my arms on the higher ground and push the rest of my body up. While I was successful at reaching the plateau, my trekking pole scraped against the ground and came loose. Gravity snatched it from me. I saw it plummeting and somersaulting down the canyon, bouncing off the rocks and echoing around me.
“I’m going to go get it!” is what I proclaimed, and that is when Dom pointed out the ridiculousness of the idea. I was telling him about the book I had been reading and all the stupid and ridiculous things people do in National Parks which put them in danger. He was clearly listening well to me, because his pointing out of the parallel between the present situation and the book was well stated. He made an appealing case to not pursue my run away trekking pole, but regardless, I didn’t listen to him.
This trekking pole and me have been on way too many adventures together for it to end like this. Can one truly get sentimental about his trekking pole? Well this adventurer can. My cousin Jonathan bought it for me when we both went to Yosemite National Park for the first time. This was my first major hiking and camping trip, and it was an amazing life experience. This trekking pole was with me the whole time. Also, the pole could adjust easily to varying heights. I could jab it into the ground and unscrew its handle to fasten on my camera and have a sturdy monopod. It was so practical, so useful. It was a gift. I didn’t know how much something like this cost. I’m frugal. I was going to go retrieve it.
…Or at least I was going to thoroughly assess the situation. So the canyon wasn’t very deep at this point. It was probably thirty feet down. It wasn’t a straight drop. There was a very steep diagonal slope of crumbled rock. There was the possibility that I could sort of surf my way down the crumbling rock. I turned around to Dom. “Make sure the camera is recording,” I instructed. This had to be properly documented.
Recounting this experience, I’m not sure if the next event was a part of the plan, or if gravity took me by surprise, but next thing I know I’m sliding down into the canyon, uncontrollably. I couldn’t stay standing. I’m falling. My feet are pushing and digging into crumbles of red rock before me, but it’s not enough to break the fall. The rocks are crudely climbing up into my pants. I look down and I don’t know how this is going to end. Dom is right. I’m going to end up in that book, I’m thinking to myself. Then in all the excitement and distress, it comes to a screeching halt with my rear planted on a cactus.
I stood up. Thankfully this cactus was wimpy so no real damage was done, but very fine cactus needles were clinging to the back of my gym shorts and it was not comfortable. I grabbed my trekking pole and we were reunited. Mission accomplished. Now, to get back up! It looked daunting. This was not going to be easy if possible at all. I scouted the perimeter of penisular rock formation I fell from. The only chance of getting back up would be from the way I came down. With that thought in mind, panic set in. I could be stuck down here, and what concerned me is I didn’t even know this place. I only got here a few hours ago. I did know that mountain lions live here. I’m going to be stuck in a canyon all night with mountain lions. Perilous thoughts started to snowball out of control. Okay, I’ve got to get out of here, I told myself.
I began my ascend. It was so steep that I realized once I began, there was no backing down. There was no grip to successfully back down. It would entail another fall, and perhaps not as merciful as the initial fall. Gripping onto the crumbling rock was of course useless, and I started to slide backwards, so I grabbed onto part of the canyon wall jutting out. This had to be my route up. I found cracks and rock shelves to place my feet on, and when possible I balanced one foot on the crumbling rock and the other on the canyon wall. At this point my heart was racing, feeling as if it’s going to jump right out of my chest and take off on a marathon. I realized this was not safe, but there was no other way. I could only go upward, and I was not entirely sure I believed in my ability to bring myself to safety. In this moment I remembered bouldering with my brother at a climbing gym the month before in Louisville, Kentucky. It was only my second time bouldering, and I didn’t do so bad. This canyon wall in Bryce Canyon required the same skills, the same focus and determination. I stretched my arms and legs to their widest extent, said a quick prayer, and started pulling myself up, unsure if my efforts would prove fruitful, but it worked! I eventually made it to the plateau.
I was so thankful and excited to be safe and on a trail, and ready to make a commitment to never do anything so careless like that again.
I raced back over the Dom, who had taken a seat to relax during my daring shenanigan.
“What an experience!” I exclaimed.
“Was it worth it?” he nonchalantly questioned.
Definitely worth it if you captured it all on video, I’m thought to myself. Come to find out, none of it was recorded except that last piece of dialogue. With disappointment, but a riveting adventure tale now in my pocket and sturdy loyal trekking pole, we continued on our journey around the Fairyland Loop.
Check back for my account of hiking the Fairyland Loop in Bryce Canyon.
“It dried up 3 million years ago,” the campground host replied.
I lay in my tent laughing to myself. This is what I woke up to this morning. I knew Jacob Lake was just the name of the campground and no lake existed. I think this other camper was a bit surprised though. If he was planning a vacation on the lake, I’m sure he was disappointed.
Once again I quickly began packing up camp. The goal was to make it to Bryce Canyon National Park and secure a campsite since nothing could be reserved. I wanted a spot specifically at the North Campground. I had a backup plan if the campground was full and that was to camp at King Creek in the Dixie National Forest. But while packing up camp early at Jacob Lake, I was determined to get there and find a site. One of the many great things about this area of the West is that the sun rises so early, between four and five this time of the year, so it’s easy to get an early start.
Dom was not at camp when I awoke, but this was expected. He planned to take an early excursion to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon 44 miles away. I opted out of this, because I was tired and wanted to sleep just a bit longer. I had already seen the Grand Canyon, although only the southern rim. Numerous people I encounter brag about the northern rim, but after trekking through the wilderness of the Petrified Forest and navigating all the way across the Navajo Nation, I was exhausted, and didn’t want to get up any earlier than what I had already planned. When Dom returned to camp, he told me he spotted and took pictures of bison along the way. His bison photos, just like all his photos, are amazing.
Leaving Jacob Lake, Dom followed me in his mom’s SUV that he had borrowed for the summer. The drive was beautiful, through green and mountainous regions of Utah. We stopped at a Family Dollar in Kanab. I had been here the year before en route to Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, and I knew this was a last stop opportunity for food and supplies for a long distance. I told Dom to get what he wanted because this was it. I found it odd that he chose to buy rice and a tin container and utensil to cook it over the fire. However, I bought pizza pockets because I figured I could cook them over the fire on marshmallow sticks, so who am I to judge? I also bought some Gatorade. I first discovered lime and cucumber Gatorade here the previous year, before it was available anywhere in middle America.
With our odd food choices packed away in our vehicles we proceeded to Bryce Canyon. Approaching the park, there were a number of hotels, obviously catering to park visitors, but it was not excessive nor tacky, and the road was still wide open. Bryce Canyon National Park has a gated entrance like a number of the National Parks in the West. At the entrance booth I showed my NPS pass and ID in exchange for a park map and newspaper. I asked the employee if he thought I could find a campsite. He checked the time. “Oh, nine o’clock. I think you’ll find one.”
By this point I had lost Dom somewhere on the road, but I didn’t mind. We talked about this. I’d find a campsite and call him, if cell service was available, if not i’d meet him in the visitor center. The North Campground was close to the park entrance, and when I got there it was filling up fast. I had to drive deep into the campground and up a hill. I settled for the second site I found open. It just so happened to be perfect. It was right next to the slope of a hill which rolled down into pine forest, and there was enough space for both of use to pitch a tent. I felt relieved.
Trying to get a hold of Dom was tricky, because cell service was spotty, but we managed to communicate. He found me and we both set up our tents. We then went down to place the camping fee in an envelope at the collection post and proceed to the visitor center, as it is customary for me to watch the park films. I learned how the landscape within Bryce Canyon changes every winter season as the snow and ice causes hoodoos to fall. Apart from the theater the visitor center was very busy. The line to talk to an employee at the desk to inquire about hikes and plans was very long, stretching through the expanse of the whole center to the front door.
After our brief stop in the visitor center we prematurely embarked on one of my most challenging hikes ever. The high elevation combined with running out of water and forgetting sunscreen made for some difficult times, and falling off the trail down a rock slide into the canyon onto a cactus just added to the challenges. One can rightfully say I was grossly unprepared this time.
The sun quietly rested for a moment on the desert horizon, sending a warm glow across the red rock expanse. It was careful and gracious enough to leave space for a cooler nighttime air to soothe the sun scorched land and let my lungs breathe deep and at ease.
Time froze as I peered over into the most miraculous sculpture- a carving deep into the land, rounded to a perfect horseshoe, capturing light in the most intricate and intimate ways, housing the famous Colorado River.
Something like this just doesn’t happen. It is crafted, for it is beautiful, engaging, capturing the spectator in awe. Canyons like this dig into the soul, carving into you the realization that there is beauty that exists beyond what you can imagine, beyond the surface, and this is only a sliver of it. It takes you by surprise and you are stunned.
I think rivers, canyons, mountains, prairies, everything we find in nature is rich in meaning and designed to draw us back to the creator, if we stop and listen. Mountains help us put our lives in perspective. Canyons show us there is so much more below the surface of life. Sometimes these things are just a testament to the beauty and wonder of God.
As I was awestruck by Horseshoe Bend, I also was energized to find the perfect view-spot to capture what I could in pictures. There were many people around, some laying on the ground with their eyes looking over the canyon rim and some seated and poised so majestically with the canyon and sunset before them. Many photographers congregated with their tripods at just the right angle, and mothers scolded their children for getting to close to the edge. And there was me, alone at peace, yet jumping and fluttering inside, excited to take in such an iconic view.
I suppose it all sort of overtook me in three phases: the peaceful awe, the restless excitement, and the deep inspiration.
I looked down at the low-lying peninsula in the canyon with the Colorado rushing around it. What a peculiar place, trapped inside a canyon yet surrounded by immense beauty and a mighty river. What would it be like to be down there, perhaps live down there at where the lands meets the very turning point of the river, to wake up and fall asleep to the rush of the river? These thoughts in this very moment inspired me to the creation of a character who now plays a large role in a novel I am writing. He lives in such a place. At this point the novel was a year in the making at about fifty pages. The entire novel is inspired by my experiences in nature and will be a raw opening into my thoughts and experiences when I am alone in the wild.
As I left Horseshoe Bend after a brief stay, I was certainly assured that it was worth the stop. Although technically a part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, it is not tucked away in a park. Right off the highway there is a large dirt parking lot and a .63 mile hike up a hill and down to the canyon rim.
When I left Horseshoe Bend it was time to restock a bit on food and supplies in Page, Arizona. I was to meet a friend of mine, Dom, at Jacob Lake Campground in Kaibab National Forest, and we were planning to have dinner over a fire. I also needed to think ahead and get food and water for our stay at Bryce Canyon National Park, which would commence the following day. So, good ol’ loyal Wal-Mart once again provided what I needed. Here I also bought a heavier green sleeping bag, having learned it gets cold in the desert at these high altitudes. At the store, I noticed quite a few people I had seen at Horseshoe Bend. They were also restocking for their own adventures. The spirit of natural recreation was in the air.
Fifteen miles removed from Wal-Mart on my way to Jacob Lake, I discovered that I was running out of gas. I was in the middle of nowhere, so regretfully I had to turn around and drive back into Page for gas to avoid getting stranded.
As I was approaching Jacob Lake Campground I was no longer in desert but in a ponderosa pine forest. I had passed around a dozen deer hanging out along the side of the road. I had been in contact with Dom about the campsite. He had arrived before me. When I got there I was excited to see a familiar face that I hadn’t seen for a few years, but I was also quick to get down to business and set up my tent in the dark. I broke out True Blue, because it was cold and I wanted my better insulated tent. I also blew up my air mattress (which I do by the power of my own lungs) because I wanted to get a good night’s sleep.
I built a fire, cooked chicken sausages, and talked with Dom about our adventures thus far. I shared with him my amazement with the Petrified Forest. As we were talking, we heard strange animal yelping sounds in the distance. We speculated if they were coyotes or turkeys- but I don’t think either. It was a group of some wild animals, making the most unusual noise. With the strange sounds in the background, we coordinated a plan for the following day and then went to sleep.
It had been a long and full day. I had begun the day waking up in the Wilderness Area of the Petrified Forest. I hiked back to my car and drove all the way through the Navajo Nation, visiting the Hubell Trading Post National Historic Site, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Monument Valley Navajo National Park, and Horseshoe Bend.
Tomorrow Dom and I would venture into the wonders of Bryce Canyon National Park and altitude and desert heat would get to me.
Check back for my account of Bryce Canyon National Park.
The term “wilderness” to me typically evoked images of dense forest growth, tall conifers, meandering rivers, and abundance of wildlife. I had not associated wilderness with mounds of petrified wood chips, a dried up wash, and a maze of peculiar rock formations looking as if they has been painted every shade of orange and pink. This was my experience in the Wilderness Area of the Petrified Forest National Park, and although it was not what I had expected, it topped my list of favorite experiences in nature.
My first order of business when I arrived at the park was securing a wilderness permit. Once I was able to do that, I had nearly a full day ahead of me to see the sites of the park before descending into the Wilderness Area. With my Star Wars soundtrack playing, to accompany the otherworld environment, I drove from one site to another, taking in the traditional tourist features of the park.
First, I walked the Giant Logs Interpretive Trail behind the Rainbow Forest Visitor Center. A small pathway meandered around many large pieces of petrified wood in the beating wind. The main feature was the largest piece of intact petrified trunk called “Old Faithful” named by Jane Mather, wife of the National Park Service’s first director Stephen Mather. She thought this piece of petrified wood was to the Petrified Forest National Park as the Old Faithful geyser was to Yellowstone. I’ve never been to Yellowstone, but surely it’s Old Faithful surpases this one in beauty and grandeur. I discovered throughout my exploring of the park that there are many things far more intriguing than this piece of petrified wood.
Petrified wood in and of itself is interesting though, and the park has a fascinating history. Through the visitor center information and interpretive trails, I learned that it is believed that Arizona and Panama used to be connected and were a dense jungle. Then a enormous sudden flood separated the land mass and took out the entire forest. The trees were buried under mineral rich sediment and volcanic ash where they were protected and crystallized. As the rock and land eroded over time, the petrified wood became exposed. I found two things very fascinating about this. First, I’ve been to the jungles of Panama, and it’s astounding to think that this land was shared with Panama. The pictographs even showed dinosaurs roaming the landscape- how cool. Secondly, this massive and immediate flood is totally accounted for in the book of Genesis in the Bible. It’s what we refer to as Noah’s flood. This was the first time I’d heard of a giant flood in a National Park, but throughout the course of the trip I’m going to encounter in park after park a massive flood being presented as the cause and formation of many things.
My exploration of the park took me across from the visitor center to Long Logs loop- a very “Star Wars-esque” trail. It’s true that I ran part of the trail, pretending I was wielding a lightsaber and being chased by an inquisitor, and I did try and imagine an Imperial ship descending upon me. No one else was out there, so I could indulge in my imagination.
Connected to the Long Logs loop was a short trail leading to the Agate House- a log cabin made of petrified wood. The natives that lived in this land would build shelters out of the petrified forest wood. The National Park Service reconstructed one of such shelters. Here I dropped the Star Wars pretending and imagined what it would be like long ago to call this place home, gazing out the window of my petrified house into the endless expanse of wispy grass and petrified wood with a sky so large and expansive. It was a quiet and desolate world. I love how the National Parks are not only rich in beauty but also in history. When I read something in the parks about how the inhabitants once lived, I like to do more than simply collect that knowledge. I like to imagine and picture that existence for myself.
Back in my car I drove deeper into the park and stopped to hike the short Blue Mesa loop. Here rock formations were the main attraction. They appeared as giant colorful mounds composed of grey, blue, purple, and green mudstone. The path descended and slithered around these rock formations making the tourist seem very punitive in relation.
From here I proceeded to the remains of old Route 66 where an abandoned vehicle pays tribute to the once roadway. I then stopped at Pintado Point overlook where I could look down into the canyon of the wilderness area. Here the colors were rich red and pink. Apart from the wilderness area I was looking into, most of the park was on largely flat and level ground and the wind was remarkably strong and ever present. Apart from the dark color of the petrified wood, both the grass and the rock formations, although full of color, were all sort of pale. This dull pale sort of filter covers my memory. But here, looking into the wilderness area, things were different. A diverse landscape of warm color invited me in. It was time!
I drove to the Painted Desert Inn, which is no longer in service, but is an adobe style building preserved as a national landmark. Here I would leave my car and descend into the wilderness. In the parking lot I had dinner which consisted of beef jerky, almonds, an apple, and a Cliff bar. I then packed my backpack for the backcountry. I document exactly what I packed- Grand Trunk pillow, lightweight sleeping bag, Kelty, 2 flashlights, camera, phone, e-trek 10 gps, long underwear, contacts, glasses, miniature toothbrush, 3 liters of water, electrolyte gummies, and a Cliff Bar. There was a nice bathroom accessible from the outside at the Painted Desert Inn. I took advantage of it and made sure I brushed my teeth really well, since I wouldn’t have quite the opportunity in the wild.
I then began my descent from the plateau on foot on a small steep path that rounded some switchbacks and then dumped me into the canyon to explore. I felt so small, and so free. I was truly ecstatic. The beauty of it all was astounding, the freedom–incredible, and the possibilities for exploration–inspiring. I had never felt so free in my life. The girl who issued me the permit told me there was only one other permit she had issued that day, so I knew I was largely alone, that this whole endless canyon was my own world to explore. I had plugged into my etrek gps the coordinates for the Onyx bridge, where it was suggested I camp. As I was following my gps, the route took me past the camp of the beholders of the one other wilderness pass. They had found an astounding place to set up camp. The sun was setting between two rock formations and their tent was situated perfectly in front of the majestic scene
“Oh, guys. It looks like we have another hiker.” I was spotted. The soccer-mom type of a gal jubilantly approached me. She reached out to shake my hand. “What’s your name?”
“Josh is here, kids,” she turned back to announce to her family.
This was very peculiar. I knew her kids had no clue who I was. They were unfazed.
“You found a great place to set up camp,” I said, even though I looked down at my gps and they were not a mile from the entrance. They were not following the proximity rules. I am a stickler for rules.
“You are welcome to camp with us,” she invited.
“Thanks, but I’m actually looking for this bridge. I pulled out the paper my crush in the visitor center had given me. It showed a small picture of the petrified wood bridge.
“Josh is going to a bridge, kids!” She exclaimed back to her family.
I didn’t understand her referencing me by name to her kids who hadn’t even met me. It was very odd. I also found it peculiar she would invite me to camp with her family without knowing anything about me except for my name.
“You want to camp with us?” She invited me again.
“No thanks. I’m going to find this bridge,” I politely responded.
“Can I take a picture of you?” I am not accustomed to strangers wanting to take my picture, but I didn’t see there being any problem with this. So, she took two pictures of me with her smartphone and thanked me. I was on my way. I was baffled, and I still am to this day. She seemed completely sober and with it, yet her actions were so strange, and I wonder why she wanted a picture of me.
I also wonder what her husband was thinking. I assume that’s who the man setting up camp with the kids was. He said nothing and was just as unfazed as the children. If I had a wife and she was taking pictures of a stranger and inviting him to camp with us, I might have a bit of a problem with that.
However, I carried on. Most of my hike was at an even lower level, as I trekked through the ravine of a wide wash. I had heard on the radio in the morning, while approaching the park, that there was a 0% chance of rain, so I figured I’d be safe in the wash. At times the wash was as deep as my height, other times a little bit taller or shorter. It felt like I was on some large avenue leading to somewhere, but really I was headed nowhere, not even the Onyx Bridge, because I couldn’t find it. The sun was setting and my gps was sending me around in circles. It was clear that the Onyx Bridge was simply not there. Perhaps it had been washed away or buried when water did flow through this area.
At 8:00p.m. I set up Kelty within the wash on a sand bar jutting off at one side. The sand was very soft like that of a beach, and I knew this would be a great place to camp since I would not have much to sleep on except the bottom of my tent and a thin sleeping bag.
I set my tent up to face a very large rock formation, almost appearing as a mountain by which the moon appeared. It was stunningly beautiful, but as much as I tried to photograph it, I simply could not capture the scene. The desert air was cooling off very fast, so I changed into my long underwear. I ate my electrolyte gummies, drank some water, and gave into complete relaxation. I opened my tent door flap, rested my head against my pillow in my tent, buried my feet in the sand just outside my tent, and took in the incredible view before me. I felt at peace and had no concerns. Everything I needed was with me and nothing extra. It was a special moment- one of those extremely rare moments that you know are gifts. I looked at the stars, breathed the cool desert air, and drifted to sleep.
I slept very well next to the bright glow of the moon, and I woke up with the warm sun. It was an incredible feeling to wake up in a world of my own, where I was free to go anywhere. Although the possibilities were endless, I felt determined in the morning to find the Onyx Bridge. After an hour of searching, I still had no luck. I did however have a great and rather thrilling time climbing to the top of a giant mound sticking up in the desert. The views from atop were amazing, and I could see for miles around in all directions. The bad part was, I had not taken into account how I would come down from this thing. I searched all perimeters of this island. No route looked easy. Every possible route looked like it would involve a falling component. It was rather scary, but I chose a route. I slide down on sharp jagged pieces of petrified wood, surfing my way down the crystals. My heart was rapidly beating in exhilaration and fear. This would be the first of many times in this adventure I would climb up somewhere high not knowing how to get down. This time I descended unscathed. I wouldn’t be so lucky next time.
Another mistake I made was that I had not marked a waypoint of where I began my descent from the Painted Desert Inn into the canyon the day before. I had to rely on pure instinct to guide me back. I did though, not a problem. After a few miles of hiking, I could see the Painted Desert Inn way up on the edge of of the canyon rim. It was a relief.
Back on the high ground of the park, I turned in my wilderness permit at the Painted Desert Visitor Center, said goodbye to the lovely Jaquacia who had issued me the permit, and I considered how, although brief, this had been perhaps my favorite experience in nature thus far. The Wilderness Area of the Petrified Forest National Park definitely rests towards the top of my list.
In my car I programed my gps to take me to the next leg of my adventure into the Navajo Nation.
Check back for my account of the Navajo Nation and Monument Valley.
“Do you have any experience in the backcountry?” asked the ranger.
“Yes,” I replied, even though I’d only once stayed overnight in backcountry.
“Do you have the proper gear?”
“Yes.” I was pretty sure I was prepared. I’d gone camping at campgrounds countless times, and I was well read on venturing into the backcountry.
“Well then, she’ll take care of you.” The ranger pointed me to the young lady working the register in the visitor center gift shop. She was beautiful. She had a contagious smile and was naturally friendly, asking me where I was from and where I was going. She shared with me how it was her dream to visit Acadia National Park in Maine. She turned over the back of one of the calendars being sold and pointed to Bass Harbor Lighthouse. “Isn’t that just beautiful?” she said. I shared with her that I would be going to Acadia in July. “I’m jealous,” she said in a playful way.
She proceeded to take out a large white binder that had been hidden behind the desk. It was full of wilderness information and forms for backcountry permits. She showed me a map of the wilderness area which was separated into five zones. She made a recommendation on where to go and told me it would be great to visit the Onyx Bridge- a nearly complete tree, fallen and petrified, forming a bridge over a wash. The paper she gave me had a picture of the bridge and the GPS coordinates.
I filled out the paperwork and she gave me instructions. I was to take the wilderness permit with me at all times and return it to the visitor center when I return the following morning. If I were to return before the Visitor Center opened I could hang my permit on the door. The piece of paper had a sort of wire string so that it could hang- most intentionally to hang from a backpack. She told me to park at the Painted Desert Inn, and from there descend a steep trail into the canyon wilderness area. There would be no trails nor markings, and I would be free to camp anywhere at least one mile into the wilderness area. I also had to set up camp before 8:00pm.
This moment was exciting. Just the thought of having an official wilderness permit from the National Park service was super cool. It made me feel like big stuff. I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep the permit forever, so I took a picture to document the momentous occasion. I then, of course, bought a pin, and left.
I sat out in my car thinking about the young lady who issued me the permit. She intrigued me. She did not fit the stereotype of someone I would expect to find working for the National Park Service. My limited experience and ignorance sort of led me to this idea that most young ladies who work for the National Park Service are tall, blond, thin, athletic, and rather stern. There’s nothing wrong about that. It’s attractive in its own way, but this young lady seemed more like a city girl who one day fell in love with nature and never turned back. She was short, African American, and had a personality that ran free. I felt like in our interaction there was something- chemistry, an instant connection. I had to do something about this.
Typically I am very passive in my interactions with people. This approach probably naturally formed out of low self-esteem in my younger years. The thought passing through the back of my mind is: If someone cares about me enough to talk to me, let them instigate the conversation, otherwise keep to myself. It’s certainly not the best approach, and I had been working on becoming more bold and proactive in forming relationships. And so I thought, what can I do? It would be too forward to give her my number since we just met and she lived in Arizona and I in Kentucky, but there had to be some way to stay in contact. I had an idea! I just started a travel blog while utilizing the free wi-fi on the airplane. I would give her the link to my blog, and therefore she would have a way to stay connected with me. I tore a piece of paper out of my journal, wrote down the link, and went back into the visitor center.
“I just wanted to give you the link to my travel blog, because I am going to upload pictures from Acadia later this summer.”
It all seemed like a good idea, but unfortunately the summer came and went, and I never added a single thing to that blog. I left the solitary entry about Death Valley remain. Now I don’t even remember how to access it. So this fanciful connection with this National Park gal is gone, but I’ll always remember her. She was very unique.
The previous summer when I was in Zion National Park, I remember sitting somewhere at the trailhead to the Narrows after completing my journey. There were two guys, probably college age, sitting nearby.
“There are so many hot girls on the trail,” one said.
The other confirmed it.
“I need to have like a card or something with my number on it to pass out.”
I’ll never forget this, because it truly and comically resonated with me. There’s something really attractive about a woman who embraces nature and adventure. Part of it is simply the thought of having not only a companion but a companion to adventure with. Physically, a lot of the young ladies out on the trails are very fit, and fitness is such an attractive thing as it displays health, vitality, and says something about self-worth. Also anyone seriously adventuring into the parks has to have a certain level of intellect- because intellect is needed to brave the wild. Although nature can be a place of peace, it requires alertness, planning, and constant decision making. Lastly, most people who venture into the wild know themselves, because they must know their limits and know how far they can stretch those limits. There is something very attractive about people who really are in tune with themselves and know who they are.
Maybe one day I will have an adventure babe, but for now I venture alone. And here I was with my wilderness pass in hand, on the brink of a new adventure, and ready to explore the Petrified Forest (and perhaps evade any inquisitor or Imperial raid I might encounter).
Check back for my account of exploring the wilderness area of the Petrified Forest.
As I approached Petrified Forest National Park, I started playing one of the Star Wars soundtracks. I was half expecting to find an Imperial craft flying above me, a Lothal cat roaming the landscape, or an inquisitor with a bright red lightsaber emerging onto the scene. When I had seen pictures of this park, it reminded me entirely of the planet Lothal from Star Wars Rebels. Lothal is the home planet of Ezra Bridger, and a unique landscape with a combination of prairie and desert with striped and rounded rock formations standing solidarily in fields.
When I am planning my National Park adventures I do plan for the music that is going to accompany my arrival at each park. Last year I chose the Planes: Fire and Rescue soundtrack for driving into Yosemite, because I learned the creators of the movie were inspired by the park. The soundtrack accompanied the park just perfectly, and now when I play the music from Planes: Fire and Rescue, images and memories of Yosemite come back to me very vividly. Music in very powerful and a place in which to store memories.
Before arriving at the Petrified Forest, I traveled from Saguaro National Park and was captivated by the scenic drive to get there. I arrived via highways 77 and 60 which passed through the Tonto National Forest (“tonto” is the Spanish word for stupid -maybe not the best word choice). I also passed through the San Carlos and White Mountain Apache Tribe Reservations. I pulled over maybe five times to snap pictures and take it all in. The roads were curving around the edge of striking canyons and over majestic mountains. The views were just so stunning that at one particular spot I pulled my car over to the side of the road, stepped outside to the embracing heat, and just sat on the edge of the canyon overlooking the bend of a river and wept.
I cried. I cried in response to the beauty of it all. I had probably seen more beautiful vistas, but not for a long while, so this cut deep inside me. I also felt a sense of accomplishment in being able to arrive at such a beautiful and new vista. Being able to take these adventures is not easy. It follows a year of hard work. It follows a year of trying to take six-hundred students from point A to point B in the classroom. It follows a semester of grad school when I’m expected to work more hours than what exists. It follows my annual battle with my health insurance company which would rather have me dead. My summer vacation marks the end of all of these things. It’s a checkpoint and an opportunity to look and back and see that I survived. It’s a moment to really stop and take in the finish-line and release all the emotions that have been suppressed to stay afloat. It’s a moment to realize I don’t have any responsibilities, except to breath deeply.
It’s also in these beautiful vistas that I see a reflection. I see a reflection of God. I don’t see happenstance and chaos that create a beautiful vista, but I see something carefully designed, placed, and molded with time and weather by the Creator. And in such moments as this one, when I stop to really take in the beauty, it’s as if I lock eyes with the Creator. God is showing me something incredible he has created. As I am captivated in awe by the work of art around me, I realize the very same artist who constructs these amazing views with great depths, great heights, and abundant detail, is the same one who created and molded me. I’m overcome with thankfulness and humility as I am reminded where I come from. I come from the very same hands which crafted the beauty of this world.
As I connect with God in this moment, I also connect to the land, realizing I am but another piece on it’s beautiful canvas. Nothing is strange, nothing is too different nor invasive. The land and everything that grows and roams around on it is sourced by the very same artist. It’s such an incredible feeling to come to this understanding and truly embrace it. To me it’s part of what I would consider “becoming one with nature.”
Gaining my composure, and feeling one with the Force (or nature) I continued on my 275 mile drive to Petrified Forest National Park. I arrived with my Star Wars music playing loudly. I rolled into the visitor center, like pulling up to the Rebel base. First order of business- securing a wilderness permit.
The Africanized Honey Bees a.k.a. “killer bees” are found throughout Saguaro National Park. What makes them so dangerous is that even if you offend one bee, the insect releases a pheromone that attracts the rest of the colony in a swarm to assault the perpetrator, or so I’ve read. And if you end up finding yourself too close to a hive in the bees sacred “safe space,” you might as well consider yourself dead.
These bees are no joke. They are a cross-breed that were mixed to increase honey production in Brazil but later made their way into south Texas and now Southern Arizona. I was reading all about the Africanized Honey Bee after seeing the safety warning on the Saguaro National Park website.
Needless to say, I had no encounters with bees at Saguaro National Park. Everything about my time in the park was pleasant. It started at the Red Hills Visitor Center at the Saguaro West Tucson Mountain District. Something a bit peculiar about this National Park is that there are two distinct parts of the park separated by the city of Tucson.
When I got out of my car at the visitor center I noticed the National Park centennial flag flying high, a beautiful vista of Saguaro cacti all around me, and the mountains resting in the distance. Inside a park ranger, or perhaps just a visitor center employee, told me hiking is not recommended in the heat, but that I could drive the Bajada Scenic Loop. I appreciated the advice, but I knew she didn’t know that last summer I went hiking and camping in Death Valley and the Mohave Desert. I can handle the heat. While I had her attention I asked for the best directions to get to my campground at Catalina State Park. She was very friendly and helpful, giving me area maps and detailed directions. I have only ever had very positive experiences with everyone who works for the National Park Service. As tradition, before leaving the visitor center, I purchased a pin. I purchase a pin at every National Park I visit. It’s my one cost effective souvenir.
After simply taking some pictures outside and around the visitor center I drove to the Desert Discovery Nature Trail, which is a short interpretive half-mile loop around various cacti. There were some impressive Saguaros to observe. I learned that the inside of the Saguaro cactus can be up to 20 degrees cooler than the air outside. Therefore birds, kangaroo rats, and even foxes find shelter within the cactus. I would have never known this and find it fascinating that there is much more to the cactus than what meets the eye. Walking around the trail loop was intriguing as simple and short as it was. I had been in deserts before but not a desert with so much cacti and plants. The ground itself was very barren and crusty but all over and placed, in such an impressive array, were all sort of cacti and rocks. It almost looked like it was designed purposely despite it being wild. Also looking up at the Saguaro evoked a feeling similar to that of looking upon the mighty Sequoia- both are iconic, stately, and extremely resilient plants. While the Sequoia is largely fire resistant, the Saguaro is heat and sun resistant, enduring extreme heat and sunlight. These plants just give off an inspiring essence of strength.
Here on the nature trail I took quite a few photos, not only of cacti and the mountains over to one side, but admittedly of myself. I wanted to get a picture of myself with the Saguaro. I have a walking stick that also doubles as a monopod for my camera. In many terrains it’s easy to shove the stick into the ground and set the timer on my camera. Here the desert floor was so hard I could not get my stick to stand upright, so taking photos was a bit more challenging.
There were many small lizards scurrying about this trail too. I did manage to get a few good lizard pictures.
After my peaceful trail walk, I embarked on the one-way Bajada Scenic Loop in my car. Since it is one-way, it was a commitment. There was no turning around- although at times I was concerned it was a little too rough on the car. But we managed without any problem at all. I pulled over at a few times to take pictures and took a short hike up Signal Hill to check out some petroglyphs- the first of many petroglyphs I would see on this trip.
I knew my time in Saguaro National Park would be brief. I wasn’t planning extensive hikes. I wasn’t planning to stay long. I mean after all- killer bees! But in all sincerity, I knew it was a small National Park. So, after a couple hours, I was done. That was it. I left just thinking, that it was very pleasant, and something new. I had never experienced this type of desert landscape and had never seen the Saguaro in its natural habitat.
I departed Saguaro National Park and made my way around the outskirts of Tucson to Catalina State Park where I had reserved a campsite in advance. When I made my reservation I did so online rather blindly. When I arrived I was surprised to find that my reserved campsite was probably the most scenic one in the whole place. From where I pitched my tent, I had an amazing view of the Catalina Mountains, which were golden with the warm glow of late evening sun resting upon them. There were a number of holes in the ground where rather large ants and beetles would run in and out of. I tried setting up my tent in the least obtrusive area. While I was setting up my tent, I saw a coyote trotting around just next to my campsite with the mountains behind him.
This campground was not remote. It was close to the entrance of the park and had newly laid blacktop all throughout. It was well developed, with trash receptacles and bathrooms with showers. However, I only saw one other campsite occupied, So I was pretty much alone. it was very peaceful.
I pitched my Kelty Salida 2, my new tent, one of two tents I brought on this trip. Kelty is very airy and intended for hot desert environments, while my other tent, more sturdy and insulated, which I call “True Blue,” is for colder and wetter environments.
After I set up camp I drove across the street from the state park to none other than Wal-Mart- very convenient. Now, camping in a park across the street from a Wal-Mart in say Kentucky sounds just very sketchy. But this Wal-Mart had to be the nicest fanciest Wal-Mart I have ever been to. The parking lot was immaculate with landscaped islands and classical music piped throughout. It did seem very fitting though, because surrounding this area were private, planned communities with very fancy and expensive desert oases.
I bought a sandwich, Greek yogurt, and an apple, which I later ate in my car for dinner, as well as food for the next couple days. I also had to buy lot of gear for the month ahead. Since I arrived to the West by plane, I could only bring so much, so I had to buy a sleeping bag, pillow, matches, batteries, and food storage containers. I also bough a $8 camping air mattress for those nights I would really need a good sleep.
This night I slept in my tent on the ground in just my sleeping bag. I brought my road atlas and driving GPS with me into the tent to work on my route for the following day. I wasn’t looking at the atlas very long before I fell asleep. I slept well, except remembering waking up a few times cold. I wasn’t expecting it to get cold at night. In the morning I woke up to a chorus of coyotes. I took advantage of the shower at the campground, knowing my next opportunity for a shower would be a number of days away, a few National Parks later, and on the other side of the Navajo Nation.
I got in my car ready to slide up the east side of Arizona to Petrified Forest National Park-or in my mind, planet Lothal from Star Wars. Here I would secure my first wilderness permit and backpack into the wilderness to spend the night.
Check back tomorrow for my account of the wilderness on planet Lothal.