Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Expectations and Joshua Trees

Experiencing the Joshua Tree forest was, for me, a huge highlight of our recent Death Valley megavacation.
When Matt said, "What if we went to Death Valley in January?" I didn't really know anything Death Valley.  I mean the name itself conjured up some barren, desolate, parched and sandy mental landscapes--mostly derived from old Roadrunner cartoons and images of the Sahara filed away in my mind, I'd bet.  I knew it had a really low spot, but wouldn't have been able to say if it was the lowest in the US, or North America, or what.  [The answer is:  It is the lowest point in the western hemisphere.]  Since I had such a blank slate I thought I'd endeavor to keep it that way.
I was thinking about how different the traveling experience must have been in generations past.  To be surprised by nature as you encountered it with your own eyes, rather than through Planet Earth videos and dazzling Instagram photos.  I mean, people coming to Yellowstone today know what to expect (even if the real deal is always better).  We have abundant access to photos and videos of Old Faithful erupting, bison trotting, elk bugling, Grand Prismatic being dazzling, and on and on.  This is largely true of most places people visit.  I know that I, for one,  Google-Earthed Cabo San Lucas before I went last year.  "Ooooh, that rock arch looks neat, we should try to see that."  We arrive on the scene with visual and experiential expectations unparalleled by earlier generations of tourists.
So, I thought it was pretty unique in this digital day and age that I didn't know what Death Valley would look or feel like.  I thought that was cool.  I wanted to cultivate that void of knowledge just long enough that the Universe could floor me in person, just like the old days.  "Oh!  So THIS is Death Valley!  THIS right in front of me!  The sand in my boots and the wind in my hair!  What a world!"  Like I said, photos never do nature justice anyways.  Matt is our trip planner so he had some ideas for hikes and sites to see and places to camp.  I was perfectly at my ease to remain in the dark until we got there.
And I never would have expected a Joshua Tree forest.  Never.
Joshua Trees are from the lily family and are related to yuccas.  They are each one of-a-kind creatures--so uncommon and special, demonstrating individual personalities in the configuration of their bushy, pointy branches.  They reminded us of saguaros in that regard.  Their uniqueness shines like a beacon.  Matt and I took a sunset stroll in the trees pointing out favorite specimens to each other.  "Ooooh, look at that ginormous one!  Awww, what a cute little guy over there.  And that one is all droopy!  Do you see the branch that looked like a bird face?"
Such distinctive, outstanding personalities.  If you want to say that about a tree.  Which I do.
Like the Saguaros the Joshua Trees were fascinating in all stage of life.  They begin the journey up to the sun as a bushy little shrub that truly does look reminiscent of a yucca.  As it matures the trunk is revealed, fronds growing ever higher toward that scorching desert sun.  If conditions are right they become true trees with huggable trunks and very unusual configurations of branches extending overhead.  The burros clearly hang in the shade cast by these pointy umbrellas, too, based on all the droppings.  The largest--and presumably oldest--Joshua Tree we saw was so substantial it would have taken both of us to encircle the trunk with our arms.  When the Joshua Trees die they slowly peel apart revealing their inner workings which are almost as remarkable as the living version.  They droop and eventually fall to the earth to decay ever so slowly in the dry conditions.  Life forms that have adapted to the desert so brilliantly are just astonishing to me.  So dry, so cold, so windy, so hot in a perpetual cycle.  Over and over and over again.   What a world!
A dead fallen Joshua Tree makes a lovely bench though, just like any other fallen tree in the forest.  We sat and watched the sunset recede away from us toward the distant mountains.
It was the coldest night of our trip, that night in the backcountry with the Joshua Trees.  We actually felt this coming as we ate dinner in the deepening twilight and so we rearranged things to permit our sleeping in the back of our (rented) SUV instead of pitching the tent.  The water in our partial gallon jug outside froze overnight.  The windows were layered with frost.  Matt did sleep poorly being about two inches too tall for the sleeping arrangements, but otherwise we were very keen on the idea.  We went to bed early and rose early to a thickly grey and overcast morning.
The trees, like so many natural wonders, really looked their best in stronger light.  Even still, they were impressive company.  We followed a burro trail through the forest until we stumbled upon an antique garbage dump where we poked around a while.  It was pretty interesting, you know, for garbage.
It is not an exaggeration to say there were thousands of rusted cans.  Thousands.  Including some of those rollback lidded sardine cans, which I'd never personally seen before.  There was also broken crockery, bed springs, a tin teapot, rusted auto parts, and hundreds of glass jugs, jars, and bottles ranging in size from teeny-tiny to several gallons.  It was a fairly crazy big pile of garbage to find in a national park.  In fact, Matt initially perceived the dump as an outcropping of the red/brick colored rocks we'd seen elsewhere.  But no!  It was a pile of rusty discards!!  It was rather interesting in its way and much less distressing than seeing modern folks litter in the parks.  Matt and I had a fabulous discussion over our find as we walked back to camp--debating at what point litter becomes historic, archaeology digs in garbage dumps in other locations, the pros and cons of leaving such antique trash sites intact versus returning the landscape to a more natural aesthetic, and so on.
[Note:  Death Valley was only a national monument from 1933-1994.  It was expanded by more than a million acres and upgraded to national park status in 1994.  This dump likely predates it even being a national park and our cultural values about waste management and landscape management have certainly evolved during that time.]
After returning to camp for breakfast, we climbed to the top of a nearby rise for a broader view of the forest as it sprawled out around us.
It was an impressive view of an impressive place.  I couldn't have imagined it.  Photos fail to fully capture it.  And I felt so delighted, so blessed, to be there basking in the majesty of it all.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Storytime With Beth: Snipes

I can remember my eldest sister, Lisa, telling me about snipe hunting.  As I recall we were at Seven Sisters, sitting in the shade of the cottonwoods that grow along the Yellowstone River.  I think it was the time she took me camping, just her and me.  I don't remember how it came up, but she explained that it was a trick to play on inexperienced people--sending them off into the trees in search of The Snipe, a mythical, non-existent critter.  I'd never heard of such a thing.

[Side bar:  When I worked as McDonald's we would send newbies to the storage room looking for "ice mix" and then, when they returned to say they couldn't find any, we'd tell them "Eh, just use water then."  And we'd laugh with evil glee.]

Back to the snipes.  So, imagine my surprise when a decade or so later I got into bird watching and soon discovered that a snipe is totally a real animal.  Matt and I saw our first snipe at the Lee Metcalf Wildlife Refuge and I was flabbergasted as I ID'd it with our trusty field guide!  "Say, what?!?!?  I thought those were pretend!!!"

In addition to being a rather fantastic and imaginary beast a snipe is also a rotund, discreet, and well-camouflaged wading bird.  I couldn't wait to tell my sister, which I promptly did.

This all leads me to share an article I spotted today while checking in magazines at the library.  I do so love linguistics, finding the history and evolution of words and phrases just fascinating!

From The Christian Science Monitor Weekly, January 21, 2019 
(You should be able to enlarge the text by clicking on the image.)
It seems to me that whoever invented this Snipe-Hunting ruse should have come up with a better name for their imaginary animal.  You know, something that doesn't already exist.  Though I suppose it might be harder to trick novice woodsmen into hunting for, oh, a Snargalack or a Spotted Wiskpisker or a creature with some other name more in line with a Dr. Seuss character.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Everyday (a.k.a. The Art of Homemaking) - Inspiration Thursday

"She loved beauty and she was creative, but her creativeness found its joy in the shaping of everyday life to a form of comeliness, so that it became not just something that one put up with, but something that was enjoyable and lovely in itself."
   -From The Heart of the Family by Elizabeth Goudge

...and stumbled upon by me over on my friend Lisa's post "The Shaping of Everyday Life," on her blog Searching for Balance.  I immediately loved it.  Life is made richer by focusing on the simple, little things and finding and inserting beauty and joy into every day life wherever possible.  This, I've found, to be a meaningful goal, a beneficial style of living.
A colorful t-shirt rag rug I finished last fall.
Yummy lentil loaf with balsamic glaze.
Morningtime cuddles with Ginger.
The in-process greenhouse last summer.
One of our gorgeous and delicious 2018 strawberries.
Applesauce sauce day in the Fall.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

This Shutdown Will Not Stop My Good Times

The entire duration of our Death Valley experience was during the current (and still ongoing) government shutdown.  It was interesting.  I guess I'll say that.  In most ways the effect of the shutdown on our journey was sort of disheartening, but there were rays of humanity that shone through, too.  The shutdown certainly didn't rain on our parade or anything, though it is a filter that overlays the whole thing.  Overall we lucked out with timing and access and had an unreasonably cheap time to boot since there were no fees for the park or for camping.
Near the Artist's Palette - Death Valley National Park
We were only prevented from seeing one site we wanted to visit--a thirteen mile drive to Dante's View for a sweeping view of the park's varied landscape.  The road was barred in order to "protect resources" and so we were unable to go.  [By "protecting resources" they mean, preventing knuckleheads from stealing rocks and driving off road, that sort of thing.]  We lucked out in that roads to both the Natural Bridge and the Artist's Palette were closed the day after we basked in their glory.
Golden Canyon - Death Valley National Park
The "Friends of Death Valley" are footing the bill to keep the visitors center and museum up and running.  That was very heartwarming.  I am glad Death Valley has such dedicated friends to fill in the gap.  The museum taught us a lot about the geology and history we were encountering.  It was tremendously helpful to get a park map and newspaper and talk over some backcountry options with the Rangers.  They're the experts and we'd prepared ourselves to fly blind, as it were.  Instead, the Rangers talked with us about various road conditions, what camping options were still available during the shutdown, and other details that helped along the way.
Natural Bridge - Death Valley National Park
Before I go one step further though I have an important proclamation:

I failed to comprehend the importance of national park staff when it comes to waste management.

Crowd management.  Education and Information.  Sure, I thought about how the shutdown would affect those things, but, holy shit [pardon the pun], it was astonishing.  Human beings are filthy, disgusting animals.  

There was garbage everywhere, as in:  If there was a garbage can it became a small garbage mound as people piled stuff on top and around the can once capacity had been reached.  All outhouses became repositories for heaps of trash.  I couldn't believe it.

I have a pretty wide range of tolerance for outhouses in remote and scenic places. And yet, we came across some of the nastiest outhouses I've ever seen outside of a music festival.  Possibly ever.  I'm lucky the women's bathroom at the Stovepipe Wells campground never sunk to the overflowing depths Matt reported about the men's room.  We carried our own roll of toilet paper with us to all bathrooms/outhouses because it was absolutely shocking to find some in there, especially later in the day.  The only "nice" outhouse we found was a mile+ walk from the road...so the knuckleheads hadn't found it yet.  And even that one ran out of TP.
Badwater Basin salt flats - Death Valley National Park
We paid $4 each to shower and use the bathrooms at the Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel which was across the road from the (unsupervised) National Park campground.  The Hotel was trying to maintain a basic level of operation for the campground's bathrooms, too.  I thought that was pretty dang nice of them.  I know they were financially motivated, at least to some extent.  They want people to camp there so they come over and eat at the restaurant, drink at the bar, and shop the gift store.  But still, they were not obligated to do anything for that campground.  And it was most certainly a thankless job since it was just bathroom and trash maintenance.

We make so much trash, primarily in the form of food packaging.  It was depressing.  And gross.  And the mountains of it were like, well, the exact opposite of all the natural beauty surrounding me.
Sunset in the backcountry - Death Valley National Park
The camping was a little, shall we say, different.  There were fewer campgrounds open than usual due to the shutdown.  Some still allowed you to camp there, but without providing any bathroom facilities so that really only appealed to the RV crowd.  The last night of the trip we had to backtrack 20 miles because a campground that was open when we passed by on January 1st was closed when we tried to check in on January 6th. 

There were about twenty tent sites at the Stovepipe Wells campground, but there were certainly more than twenty tenters using them.  One night our neighbors put out their fire and retired to their tent only to have a second (huge) group show up and take over the campsite and set up their own tents, restarting the fire.  It was like a tent-site timeshare.  Except it was all free.  It was a little like the wild west, but with a mostly community attitude.  I was worried that the RVers wouldn't shut off their generators at 8pm as posted since there was no one around the make them...but they were civil and abided the quiet hours.
Joshua Tree forest - Death Valley National Park
I saw quite a bit of rock theft.  This is a problem for Death Valley even with staff oversight, but I imagine worse without the Rangers around.  Some of the campers at Stovepipe Wells weren't even being discreet about it.  Again, I guess they figured, who was going to stop them.  This was disheartening to me--that so many humans are willing to follow the rules only as long as there is someone around to require it.  I mean, there are reasons why it is illegal to collect in the park--ecological, historical, geological, seventh-generational.  I guess I like to think people will do the right thing, even if no one makes them and I was discouraged when presented with reality.

[Note: Even if it weren't illegal I do not condone collecting rocks in National Parks in any way, shape, or form.]
20 Mule Team Borax Co. historic site - Death Valley National Park
All in all though, our trip went off swell, especially given the shutdown.  No complaints.  Except about the fact that our politicians cannot get their own shit in order and get the parks--and so, so, so much more--up and running again.  I have a fairly major complaint about that.  My heart goes out to all those unexpectedly without income for so long.  Or who need services they can't get at the moment because offices are shuttered.  Or who don't get to visit places they'd been looking forward to because the gates are closed and locked.  Etc, etc, etc.
Near Desolation Canyon - Death Valley National Park
At least it didn't spoil our much anticipated vacation though, and, you know me, I try to find the silver linings.  

Brushing the Tent's Teeth

As I recently moaned on about, we had to replace our tent prior to the Death Valley trip that kicked off the new year.
Desolation Canyon - Death Valley National Park
Boy.  We took our new tent to some pretty sandy, dusty places straight out of the gate, too, let me tell ya!  Since we attribute sand as a factor in the demise of our previous tent (multiple zipper failures) we opted to take a more proactive approach this time.
Roadside backcountry camping - Death Valley National Park
Years back our buddy, Josh, had told us that after Burning Man festival-goers had would clean their zippers with a toothbrush to get all the sand out and prevent damage.  When we got home from Death Valley Matt did some research which confirmed what Josh had mentioned all those years ago.  Going at the zipper teeth with a toothbrush is a good way to dislodge grains of sand that might choke up the zipper mechanism causing it to malfunction.
With Memo and Jess at the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes - Death Valley National Park
I took a fresh, clean, new toothbrush and, after opening the zippers all the way, brushed along the teeth of the zipper with the toothbrush bristles.  I did see several grains of sand ping off into space when I was watching closely and thought, hey, there might actually be something to this idea.  (I was dubious.)
Stovepipe Wells Campground
Since we'd laid the sleeping bag directly on the sand dunes I also opened the sleeping bag zipper and brushed those teeth out, too.  We are really, really keen on our sleeping bag (is a double so we can cuddle away from home, too) and want to do our best to keep it working well.
Roadside backcountry camping - Death Valley National Park
Maybe both bits of gear would have been fine without this precautionary brushing.  Maybe it didn't really make a big difference.  But, perhaps it did and it  certainly didn't hurt anything and was super easy...so why not?!
Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes - Death Valley National Park
I am also happy to report that after daily use for a week in the beautiful desert country Matt and I are both pleased with the redesign of the tent.  We especially like how wide the doors open and that the roof is more mesh than the previous model--hooray for better stargazing in the tent!
Stovepipe Wells Campground
May this new one serve us as many years or more than its predecessor did.  Hip, hip, hooray for our new home away from home!