In 1967 my father bought a Pontiac Catalina and a dingy old travel trailer and took his girlfriend, my brother and me on a road trip. Over the next 8 weeks we drove 13,498 miles, visited 51 parks, and saw wonders like geysers, redwoods, grizzlies, and the Summer of Love in San Francisco. The trip made an indelible impression, cementing my appreciation for the natural world and the American landscape. This summer Pamela and I hope to repeat the experience for our family.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Dave: Can you have a good conversation in Telluride?

After creeping through a slashing thunderstorm, we descended into Telluride.

Pamela and I have always liked it there, so we thought the girls would appreciate the stop.

Before we got out of the car, the girls, especially Lark, were perking up. The town is pretty. The streets were full of people. "This place reminds me of home," said Lark.

We walked around looking for a place to eat lunch. Rain kept falling off and on.

During the first hour we were there, we starting discussing a change in trip plans. Maybe we could spend the day in Telluride and then blast all the way to Niwot the next day?

But the longer we stayed, an interesting thing happened. As we poked around, it seemed like there was less and less to the place. We had a long discussion about cosmetic surgery. There was plenty of it in evidence, and I started nudging Lark every time I saw a woman who looked like she'd had some facial re-sculpting. We tried to arrange for Lark to get her hair trimmed, but the woman said the price for a youth was $45. We decided to wait until Boulder. We looked into a number of interesting shops, but everything was outrageously expensive.

Eventually we decided it was time to move on. Telluride was pretty and lively, but maybe there wasn't really as much there as we had thought at first.

It kind of reminded me of my short move to Aspen when I was 21. When I first arrived, I thought, "Wow! Cool place, full of good looking people. Lots of things to do." But the longer I stayed, the more I started thinking, "It's hard to get a good conversation going in this place. Everyone just wants to talk about skiing." I left Aspen after a couple months.

We left Telluride after three hours.

Of course, it was raining the whole time. We might have thought differently about Telluride if the sun had been shining.


Thursday, July 8

9:50 Leave Morefield Campground at Mesa Verde. Got a bit of a late start because we had to clean up from having the Kalinskis over for dinner. The night before we just threw the dirty dishes in the van. Too hard trying to wash up in the dark.

9:55 The usual construction delays. Our recovery dollars at work! Math class for the kids begins.

10:05 Leave Mesa Verde NP.

10:19 Stopped in Cortez to buy Colorado map because we evidently recycled our other map accidentally.

10:50 Passed Circle K dude ranch where Pamela stayed when she was 14

11:45 Stopped to take photo of Mt. Wilson. Encountered heavy mountain thunderstorm. Quite a change from the dry desert climate we’ve been dealing with for the last 12 days.

12:30 Stopped in Telluride for lunch and touring.

3:30 Stopped in Montrose for gas. Also stopped at a roadside stand to buy a string of dried chiles.

The last time I passed through Montrose, in 1982, I was struck by what a pleasant town it was. This time it looked like just a big suburban sprawl surrounding a Walmart and a Target.

Earlier in the day we passed through Ridgeway. We didn’t stop but it seemed like a rather cool little town. That’s how Montrose felt 20 years earlier.

5:10 Pass road to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Don’t bother to go there. If it had been earlier, I would consider making the drive so I could snag another national park patch. Instead, we just had a memorial singing of “Patches.”

7:00 Crossed Monarch Pass. It wasn’t snowing, thank goodness. When Pamela and I drove this road in August of 1992, it was snowing hard. That was a scary drive. This time there was fresh snow on the roadside, but nothing in the air.

7:30 Checked into Silver Ridge Lodge in Salida, CO.

8:00 Dinner at Amica’s, a cool brew pub. Thurday night and a crowd on the street waiting to get in.

Dave: Mesa Verde

We didn’t get to our campsite, 67 Zuni Loop, at Mesa Verde until fairly late in the afternoon. The road into Mesa Verde is under construction and there were many traffic stops.

We only had a chance to tour one ruin, Spruce Tree House, before we met the Kalinskis for dinner. Then we all went to Cliff Palace, where we had arranged to take a special guided tour. A young man playing the character of a 1930s CCC worker took us on a tour of the ruin while telling us about life in the Civilian Conservation Corps. The tour was small, about 20 people, and dusk was settling in. It was a great time to be there in the ruins.

The next morning we had to get up early to beat the construction jams to get to the meeting point for our next hike, another ranger-led hike, to a ruin called Spring House.

Our ranger was Kim Accardy, a seasonal ranger from Louisville, Colorado. We began at Chapin Museum near Spruce Tree House, descended into Navajo Canyon and walked about four miles, finally climbing onto another mesa. After we left the museum we never saw another person. It was great. Along the way we saw a number of small cliff dwellings on the walls of the canyon.

We had to climb down a few ladders and do some boulder hopping to get to Spring House. It is still in its original state, having never been excavated at all. It was interesting, but because we had been able to climb right into River House on our rafting trip, this experience paled a little. They wouldn't let us actually step into the ruin. We had to stay on a viewing platform. When the kids tried to sit on some nearby rocks, the ranger told them to stand, as these rocks might have been part of the structure at one time.

On the trip back we were all worried a bit about Pamela. She was struggling a bit with the heat and the altitude. But she had her own personal retinue of three rangers (Kim, a volunteer ranger named Sharon, and Jessica, a third ranger who has to accompany every back country hike to make sure we don’t violate the country’s patrimony and to deal with any medical emergencies. Jessica agreed with us that it was a crazy use of ranger time, but as she said, “Hey, they’re paying me to hike.” They took good care of Pamela up the last climb, making sure she rested and was properly hydrated. We all made it.

It felt good to sit on benches in the shade, knowing we had completed a pretty strenuous hike.

We stopped to take showers. (Free at Mesa Verde!) Then Pamela swung into action preparing dinner because we were having the Kalinskis over to our home at 67 Zuni Loop. Not sure how Pamela did it. I was lapsing into catatonia about then, but she was able to whip up some potatoes and grill steaks and hot dogs.

Once the K’s roused themselves from their own stupor and fought their way through the traffic, the kids played Frisbee. We drank some beers, had some good steaks, and later Jim told us the famous “cardboard box in the middle of the road” story.

It was a good time.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Dave: Down the San Juan

We are taking a one day raft trip down the San Juan River with an outfit called Wild River Expeditions. The trip leaves from their headquarters, next to the Recapture Lodge in Bluff, Utah.

In addition to the Wicinas and Kalinski families, there are two more people joining us, for a total of ten. Two rafts.

We meet our guides, Jim and Marcus. Jim is kind of what you'd expect for a river guide. Tall, lean, sun-burned. Splits his time between being a carpenter, a micro-brewer, and a river guide. Very articulate. Seems like the kind of guy who, if he hadn't chosen the western outdoors for a career, would have been a Wall Street guy or a professor or some other high-functioning career. The other guide practically made the whole cost of the trip worthwhile. His name is Marcus. He is a Navajo (Bitterwater clan).

Meeting Marcus is a good exercise in judging books by covers. He's bare-chested, has a giant tattoo of a tomahawk on one arm, and wears impenetrable black sun glasses. I have to admit, my first reaction is, Who's this agent?

But, as we proceed, we realize, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the river. Marcus has been guiding raft tours for 11 years. Before that he worked for a lot of petroleum exploration trips down the San Juan for seven years. (There's oil in this area.) So he knows just about everything about the river. His knowledge of the region's geology is vast. Besides all his acquired knowledge, we're basically rafting through his neighborhood. So he tells us things like, "My friend was walking her dog over on that cliff. The dog chased a squirrel and fell off the cliff. Fell two hundred feet. But the dog lived. Kind of limped but he lived. So then we called him 'the flying res dog.'"

Our trip down the San Juan is spectacular. Virtually no signs of human habitation except for a few traces of Navajo ranching. One side of the river is reservation land.

The first half of the trip we pass down a broad river valley. Unfortunately, the river banks are largely choked with invasive Russian olive and tamarisk. They have introduced a beetle that attacks the tamarisk, and most of them seem to be dying, but the olive still forms a nearly impenetrable jungle. In one stretch they have manually cleared the invasives, leaving only the native willow and cottonwood. It is pleasant and makes me sad the river's ecology has changed so dramatically.

The river guides make a stop and we take a short hike up to a blackened cliff face where there are a couple hundred yards of pictographs. It's an incredible "panel," as the archeologists call them. You see carved feet and spirals and six-fingered hands and lots of human-like shapes of people with antennas or strange horizontal markings over their heads. Jim gives us a big explanation of what the drawings might mean, but it's clear to me that these are portraits of the aliens who visited this area thousands of years ago.

At another stop Marcus leads us on a hike to an overlook to give us a geology lecture. He moves so fast on his short legs we can barely keep up with him. Then we move on to River House, a cliff dwelling in an alcove facing the river. We are allowed to walk up into the dwelling. (In Mesa Verde this would be punishable with banishment or arrest.) After we look at this ancient site, Marcus hops up into a corner out of sight and starts playing his Indian flute. Really well. Suddenly we are transported through the eons and find ourselves pondering the lives of the people who came through this canyon before us. It was magical.

Later in the day the canyon walls close in on us. Nearly sheer cliffs rise 1400 feet. We see desert bighorn sheep on the banks 30 feet away.

We stop at a sight to look at some fossils, and we all enjoy jumping in the river, drifting downstream in our life jackets, hauling ourselves out, and repeating.

There are some minor rapids on trip. They make things interesting, but nothing heart-stopping. The guides could probably handle this kind of water in their sleep.

I rode on the kid boat with Jim all day. At one point we plotted a pirate attack. We were equipped with a giant squirt gun and a baling pump that could shoot water. Jim faked engine trouble and when Marcus approached, Lark raised a black flag, we shouted, "Arrrrrr," and we tossed as much water as we could at the adult boat. Unfortunately, we were downwind, so I think we got as wet as they did.

All in all, this raft trip was a fantastic experience.

Dave: Are You My Friend?

We are supposed to rendezvous with my friend Jim Kalinski in Bluff, Utah.

Jim and I were good friends in college, and we shared a house off an on for a few years afterwards. When I lived in Boulder (actually Niwot), I was sharing Jim's place there and we worked together too.

Now it's been 28 years since I've seen him. We keep in touch with Christmas cards.

At the Recapture Lodge in Bluff (a slightly shabby but very pleasant place, by the way), I find myself studying the face of each middle aged man who passes and thinking, Are you my friend?

I'm pretty sure I'll recognize Jim, even though I've only seen a couple pictures during those 28 years.

Finally I see a red haired kid walk by. Jim has red hair. Then someone drives by in an SUV with Colorado plates. Gotta be Jim.

I get out to meet the driver. We say hello, and it sounds exactly like Jim. Only the voice is coming out of Jim's father's face. It's a little dizzying.

We're doing a tricky melding of the families. Of course, no one in my family has met Jim, his wife Kim, or their twins Amy and Quinn. The kids are the same age as Lark. But who knows how well this will go? In April I asked Jim if we could stop by their place in Niwot. Then he suggested we meet in Mesa Verde for this cool hike he knew about. Then we suggested they meet us for this interesting raft trip in Utah. Suddenly we're spending six days off and on with these people.

Just in case things don't click we decide to build in some apartness to counter the sudden bout of enforced togetherness.

Dave: Patches

My father was (is?) notoriously cheap.

As kids, when we went out with him and he parked at a meter, he'd tell us to stay in the car, hand us a nickel, and say, "If a cop comes, put the nickel in the meter."

On our 1967 trip, we determined that the Wicinas coat of arms was a "clenched fist holding penny."

Back then you could buy decals from every national park. People stuck them in their car windows or on the backs of their trailers. My brother and I quickly realized we could amass an impressive collection of decals, considering our route ahead. So we asked my father to buy us a decal of one park. They were cheap. Less than a buck, as I recall.

He refused.

We pleaded.

He adamantly refused.

We steamed and steamed over this.

I guess I'm still annoyed by it because a few years back I decided, "Damn it, I'm going to collect my own decals.

Except they don't sell them any more. Instead I decided to collect embroidered patches all the parks seem to sell. Pamela says eventually she'll sew them all together into some sort of fabric art.

So there.

A little aside: I introduced Lark and Linden to the sappy 60's song, "Patches," so now, whenever the subject of national park patches comes up, we all break into a rendition of:

Patches, I'm depending on you son
To pull the family through.
My son, it's all left up to you.

We're almost as bad as the Von Trapp family.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Linden: How Many Miles

Wednesday, July 7th

I’m tired. A while ago my mother asked if I could do a 6-mile hike? I said, “Sure, I can do a 6-mile hike.” It was to be an all day hike. When we got there in the morning the ranger said, I hope you guys are all ready for this 8-mile hike. We were all confused until the ranger explained that someone had brought their GSP and told them it was an 8-mile hike. I was a little annoyed because an 8-mile hike is quite different from a 6-mile hike. So when another ranger came by and said are you ready for your 8.8-mile hike I was starting to get frustrated. But since we were about 2 minutes from going I had to go. And now I’m tired.

The hike turned out to be pretty good even though it was much longer than I expected. We hiked up the canyons. Then we hiked down the canyons. And then we hiked up the canyons. And then we stopped for lunch and saw a cool lizard. After we climbed down two ladders we saw Spring House Ruins. They were crumbly and old. It was a ruin. And then we climbed up the ladders and saw some smaller cliff dwellings. Then we hiked down the canyons. Then we hiked up the canyons. And after many miles of vigorous hiking, 8.8 miles to be exact, we reached the place where we started. It wasn’t actually that hard for me especially because I got Quinn to carry my backpack in exchange for gummy bears.


Sunday, July 4th

9:04 Broke camp Grand Canyon. Beat our Bryce time. Good riddance Mather Campground.

10:25 Exited Grand Canyon National Park as we listen to john Phillip Sousa music in honor of the holiday. Lark asks, “Can I walk?”

12:45 Stopped in Tuba City. Not much there.

1:38 Pulled over on approach to Monument Valley and picnicked in car.

3:05 Went to Goulding’s Trading Post in Monument Valley. This is where John Ford headquartered when making his westerns. Lots of John Wayne memorabilia.

3:36 Drove through Mexican Hat. And yes, the rock looks just like a big sombrero.

4:05 Entered Bluff, UT, starting point for tomorrow’s raft trip down the San Juan River.

4:09 Checked in Recapture Lodge, friendly mom & pop motel next door to the river outfitters. Heard in Goulding’s that this motel is owned by local fire chief and all the employees are either fire fighters or EMTs. Know we’ll be safe here. Now just waiting for the arrival of the Kalinski family.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Lark: The Swinging of the Western Sun

Patterns are beginning to form. They form mannerisms, habits, unavoidable things that come along with time passing. As the days swing by with the slow moving western sun we camp night and day, over and over, despite the persistent throbbing of altitude headaches. We have steadily lost track of the day and frequently of the time. Living in Arizona can confuse a foreigner. I believe it is Sunday the 4th of July but I could be mistaken. As we widdle our way across the country those patterns become more present. The tent goes up. The tent comes down. Mamma cooks, daddy cleans. Linden configures all the chairs while I fold and unfold all sleeping material. This goes on and on, back and forth to the campground sink. By now clothes are not clean and we all home the peculiar smell of sweat, tent, and fire smoke. We eat to gain nutrients and energy to survive, not to enjoy any meal. Arizona does not understand the concept of fresh vegetables. The car is always a tetras game, trying to work the puzzle of the trunk.

Sunscreen on.

Sunscreen off.

Snap, snap, argue, argue, beautiful landscapes one after another.

First it’s hot. Then it’s cold. Then it’s windy. Then it’s raining. We fight on through all of this, trying to absorb everything. We fight on. And on. A battle against time and nature.

Chairs up, down, pack, clean, wash, see, write, think, sleep, cereal. Over and over. There are many more cycles ahead. Many more sunburns and dishes to wash. Today is just one unit in the cycle.

And we have miles to go before we sleep.

Lark: Curious Lack of Narwhales

There are no narwhales here in the desert. Not even the common orange one. Plenty of cows, llamas and bison but no whales. Huh. I wonder how an ecosystem can survive without narwhales. Being orange, narwhales would blend in perfectly amongst the orange rocks. So it is silly that they do not live here in the desert. They could make friends with all the tarantulas and snakes and when it ventured down from the mountains it could chat with all the cows, llamas, and bison. I am surprised I have not seen an orange narwhale yet I know they must be here. Peering out of the cracks in the canyons. They watch us tourists walk by, greasy with sunscreen and taking pictures of everything. They wait till we have walked passed to frolic with the cactuses.

I know you are here.

I will find you orange narwhale.

So watch out.

Dave: Car camping and car alarms

Mather Campground, Grand Canyon National Park

At 5:59 the first car alarm goes off, reminding me how much I like car camping.

When I was a young man, I disdained car camping. If you didn’t have the nerve and energy to strap on a pack and head into the back country, why pretend you’re getting close to nature?

By necessity on this trip we are car camping. We can’t afford lodgings at every stop on the way. And besides, camping, we thought, will probably make for some interesting memories.

We’ve just finished our fourth straight night of car camping (two at Bryce Canyon and two at the Grand Canyon). A decent air mattress seems to have solved one big problem: sleeping. When I was young I could sleep on a foam pad. Now I have trouble sleeping in any conditions, even if I’m floating on a cloud. But an air mattress helps.

Back when I was forming my prejudices against car camping, car alarms had not been invented. These days, when you bed down with 75 other families, virtually all of them have cars fortified with alarm systems.

Perhaps car alarms are too technologically complex for many people. Last night we had dinner at the El Tovar. By nightfall it was quite cold so we went to bed early—around 9:30. From then until the time I drifted off a few hours later, at least half a dozen car alarms went off. To say nothing of countless single or double honks from automobiles reassuring their owners that yes, I’m locked or unlocked. (Did I mention I’m a light sleeper?) Confirmation honks are the bane of the camping world.

As I waited for sleep last night I considered how to approach the problem of car alarms constructively. Could they be disabled temporarily when you register at the campground? Probably not. Could the rangers hold a sensitivity session, reminding people how to use their alarms? One click means it’s locked. Two means it’s locked, idiot.

If only these other car campers could lead the saintly lives we do.

All in all, camping at the Grand Canyon has been trying. The canyon itself, of course, is spectacular. But the camping, I don’t know… Both days the wind howled endlessly. The first night our neighbors had pitched a tent then left the site for the night. Their tent came loose except for one peg and for the next 24 hours their huge tent spiraled and flapped.

Another neighbor built a fire despite the howling winds. Then he decided to go to a neighboring site to party, leaving his fire unattended. Maybe the wind fanned the fire because Pamela and I opened our eyes to see our tent illuminated with orange flickers. We got to ponder how big and how close the flames were. Something about being in a tent at night makes your imagination run wild.

Another neighbor had two little dogs that kept yelping. For hours he kept shouting at them, “Settle! Settle!”

I hate to say it, but I’m rather glad to be leaving the Grand Canyon. When I get home, I might see if I can find my backpack.