#1 The Snowbirds Take Flight, Again  (September-October 2014)  

Catching-Up On The Home Front
We touched base at home in September, after 3 months in the Alps, long enough to experience what was topical there. We enjoyed the tail end of the unusually long, hot, and dry summer in the Pacific NW. The exceptional conditions were especially welcomed by us because our summer in the Alps had been atypically cool and wet. The down side of the local heat was evident in the tinged skies resulting from the many wildfires and the parched lawns that were everywhere. 

Horsetail Falls in the Columbia River Gorge, OR.
Out of town we spotted the new and incredibly long trains of oil cars along the Columbia River Gorge making their way from the Upper Midwest to the Pacific Ocean seaports—loads that were creating chaos by literally side-lining the usual grain cars.

We enjoyed several hikes in the Gorge and only spied a few slugs on the trails normally kept damp by the combination of frequent rain and the heavy tree canopy. Our feet ached a bit from the spare protection of our minimalist shoes against the jumbled basalt fragments embedded in many of the Gorge's trail surfaces. The basalt too readily forms chisel-like faces that seem unresponsive to the persistent weathering that quickly rounds the edges of lesser rocks. 

And a little farther east along the Columbia River, we felt the battering from this year's unusually strong winds in the Gorge at Hood River--the robust, persistent winds that delighted the windsurfers but had the other local residents thinking about moving on. We certainly were sympathetic--constantly being buffeted by wind is so tedious.

And I applauded every time I saw one of those new left turn lane traffic signals that now had a long yellow blinking cycle instead of spending most of their time stuck on red. I'd love to hear the traffic engineer’s analysis of motorist’s time and fuel saving from making that simple change which keeps vehicles moving instead of idling. The new convention didn't have much effect on our driving ease while in Oregon and Washington but my love of efficiency had me cheering every time I saw one.

Our short, almost 3 week stay at home was over in a flash but we were thrilled with all that we experienced and accomplished. We were there less time than usual but got more done, thanks to our new ketogenic diet. Our ultra-low carb diet unexpectedly released us from the grips of the cruel jet lag from which we both have suffered twice a year for 14 years. It was almost like jet lag didn’t happened. We were on a compressed time schedule to turn around from cyclotouring in Europe to a US road trip in our camper and yet we managed to do significant preparation for next summer’s trip to Europe as well—amazing!

Old Faithful Inn, the largest log structure in the world.
"There Is No Place for Bison In 21st Century Montana!"
I enjoyed our first drive east on I-90 through Montana and the other slice of the state that we  traversed going south to Yellowstone National Park. The scenery was a pleasant blend of the cut fields on the rolling hills of the Midwest and the forested mountains of the NW. What we were seeing changed often enough to keep the drive interesting and it lacked the shocking starkness of the SW. The snow poles were in place in addition to the "Icy Spots" warning signs, so we knew we were pushing our luck with our early October trip. 

"Pleasant" was our roadside experience of Montana and likewise, our visit to the Missoula Costco. The Costco stores we've visited in the west are all pretty much the same except that the layouts are sometimes  a mirror image of the previous one. But Missoula's Costco was remarkably different because it was so quiet--busy, but  quiet. 

The guy demo'ing the smoothie-making blender was the only real source of noise at Missoula’s Costco. He had a folksy tone, with phrases like "It just knows when to shut-off" and quoted the RPM's and miles/hour that that thing could do. He held the dead-panned old cowboy's attention who stood a safe distance away with an affect that looked like it was left over from the last cattle auction.

Two days later we were in Yellowstone National Park making a reconnaissance tour of the historic Old Faithful Inn when we were engaged by Michael Leach while analyzing his poster comparing grizzly bears and black bears. He had a strikingly different story to tell about the Costco store that we visited, a story from his book signing. 

Michael's tale quickly became a rant about the ugly side of the Montana/Wyoming mountain culture. He was practically frothing while he recounted the interaction with a customer who challenged his views at the signing. Author, activist, basketball coach, and former park service ranger naturalist, Michael was on a mission.

The photo-happy visitors in Yellowstone loved the bison 'at home on the range'.
Michael had received death threats in response to his book's support of bison in a region where the battle cry of the opposition is “There is no place for bison in 21st century Montana." He recounted bumper stickers promoting "Smoke a pack a day" in reference to killing a pack of wolves every day. He told of the racial slurs that the only black player on the high school varsity team endured at an away game he coached in Montana. He is a passionate, 4th generation Wyomingite who spent his teens in Seattle, WA and who is now intent on doing battle with "the rednecks and hicks" of the Wyoming/Montana mountain region.

"So that's why…." I finally said to Michael. I had been shocked earlier in the day at our lovely RV park when a 40-ish woman said in a loud voice: "Is that a man or a woman?" I knew it wasn't a question, I knew it was a barb aimed at the nearby man about her age who had blonde hair touching his shoulders. 

There was no gender confusion: everything about the Nevadan indicated that he was male, so she clearly was on the attack. I was stunned at the unprovoked and dismissed assault.  There is a set decorum in RV parks and her behavior was way, way out of line in a place where conversation rarely strays much beyond the weather and “How do you like your rig?" Michael, the author, nodded. "Hippies, tree-huggers, and the government" were all the enemy for a significant segment of people in the region in his mind. Wow! It was quite an earful after standing in the midst of the reverent international crowd that had just quietly dispersed after Old Faithful geyser erupted.

Old Faithful geyser at Yellowstone wow'ed the crowds.
Grizzly Bears, The Dutch, & Bach in Montana
Ever the safety conscious ones, Bill began researching the grizzly bear issue at Yellowstone months before our arrival. Hiking in groups of 3 or more was the best defense from a grizzly attack according to the Yellowstone National Park rangers, which triggered emails to 2 couples that I hoped might join us there for hiking. Concurrently, Bill began what became a very frustrating process of online ordering bear spray--a product that seemed to always be on backorder. (As he said: "We could have procured a gun more quickly than the bear spray.") He persisted and eventually prevailed so at least we had the #2 strategy for repelling bears in place before we began our 8 month road trip. 

We arrived in Yellowstone with our new canister of bear spray, a bear bell from my inventory, and the knowledge that we'd always be hiking as a vulnerable duo. Once there, the rangers informed us that bear bells were ineffective and that instead be should talk continuously and clap our hands together, especially when making a blind turn on a trail. 

Less than confident with the new noise-making strategy, we added a recently purchased, large sheath knife to the outside of Bill's pack. If attacked, I'd grab the knife while Bill wielded the spray he carried on his hip. The knife was intended as a survival tool incase we became stranded in the bush in our truck but it added a modicum of reassurance as we visualized the last resort strategy of a grizzly attack, which is to fight back. We really wanted to avoid plumping-up the annual statistic of an average of 1 injury from a bear attack.

One of the endless permutations of thermal pools in the old volcano at Yellowstone.
We felt a bit silly with our maligned clattering bell, the very visible knife, and spray canister when at trailhead parking lots where virtually everyone else was popping out of their cars for a few minutes to admire the nearby thermal pools. Once out on the trails however, we felt pitifully unprepared to deal with a bear encounter, even with all of our kit.  However, it didn't take long to learn that our accouterment  immediately turned the heads of a Dutch couple when one day’s trail intersected a popular viewpoint. 

We had complimented the couple for having picked the best picnic spot from which to admire a distant waterfall at the parking lot viewpoint and a few minutes later they approached us about escorting them on the trail. We were through-hiking and they had been reluctant to leave the viewpoint for the trail without any bear deterrence. They had noticed the bear spray, the bell, and the knife and decided we were their ticket for safe passage through bear country. Ironically, shifting from being 2 separate pairs to a group of 4 was the very best deterrence. 

The Dutch couple promptly invited a young Hungarian couple to join us and suddenly we were 'riding shotgun' for our group of 6. We'd instantly gone from being the nervous bear country amateurs to being perceived as well-equipped guides on what was probably the safest trail of our weeklong stay in Yellowstone. We chuckled when the Dutch man took our photo on the sly and imagined what he would tell the folks back home….

Bears weren't our only concern while hiking in Yellowstone.
But it was at the end of our second day in Yellowstone when we tumbled to our most reassuring defense strategy as a hiking duo, which was being accompanied by Bach on the trails. We'd quickly determined that hand clapping wouldn't be heard by bears over the persistent wind and the other noise making strategy of talking wasn't sustainable. Maintaining constant chatter for 4-6 hours on the trails each day wasn't happening and continuous talking was impossible on the steep grades at 7500-8500' elevation.  That’s when it hit: play music instead.

Bill was horrified by the thought of me broadcasting music from my phone through the mesh of my belt bag while we walked because it was incredibly un-PC. One is suppose to be quiet on the trails so as to not spoil the nature experience of others, with which I agree. In Albuquerque's Sandia mountains the recommended unobtrusiveness extends to not wearing bright colors, with which I totally disagree. But in my mind when in grizzly bear country staying alive trumped accommodating others. And as far as we know, no one ever heard Bach, Beethoven, or Bruce Springsteen on our big hikes. Most days we saw no one else on the trail and the single backcountry encounter we had with another hiking pair occurred when we were conversing and I had the music turned off.

The massive canyon at Cedar Breaks National Monument.
We always hope that the insurance we buy won't ever be used and that was the case in Yellowstone. We'll never know if the bell or Bach triggered a route change for a grizzly but we were very, very pleased to have our bear spray and knife be strictly ornamental while in the park.

Cedar Breaks National Monument, UT
Conversations amongst experienced travelers to red rock national parks often turns to "Have you been to Cedar Breaks….You must go there." A quick drive through Cedar Breaks was all we had time for and the high wind alert made the 10,300’ pass especially harsh, so we only took a quick look. And luckily for us, it seemed like a brief visit was good enough. It's a single, dramatic, red rock canyon with little else to do but observe, so we felt like we could honorably respond the next time with "Yes, it's stunning to look into the canyon from the Cedar Breaks viewpoint.”  

The wheels in my brain started spinning as soon as our truck's wheels started making their way down from the pass: Cedar Breaks might be a grand location from which to altitude acclimate before a trip to a place like Machu Picchu. Whether in the US or the Alps, it’s hard to find lodging much over 5,000’ and the rule is to “Sleep high and exercise low” when acclimating. Further research would be needed but the high pass with nearby lodging for the ski season was a tantalizing possibility for acclimation. 

A hoo-doo flanked ravine.
Bryce Canyon National Park, UT
"Oh, Bryce…let me count the ways that we love you…." We weren't on the Bryce trails but a few minutes when I said to Bill "I bet this will be our top hike for the next 8 months in terms of the all-day "wow" factor.” The hoodoos at Bryce are like the peaks in the Dolomites: hardly a minute goes by when we aren't dazzled by what we are seeing. The eye candy went on and on and on and was often in a full 360° perspective. 

Like when at Yellowstone a few days earlier, we were delighted to get even a taste of summer weather at Bryce. To have blue skies and no rain in the middle of October in the mountains felt like at least partial payback for the summer weather we didn't have in the Alps this year. We indeed felt gifted by glorious fall conditions with which to enjoy the natural beauty when blustery and harsh weather could have been a major distraction.

Our first visit to Bryce was in April of 2012 and we were totally preoccupied with learning the minutia of its amazing geologic story. We were dazzled by the drama and subtleties of the hoodoos but our conversations were heavily peppered with applying what we'd learned to what we were seeing. This visit was different; during this visit we were content to merely enjoy what we were experiencing.

We wondered if the fall light  illuminated the hoodoos differently than the spring sun of our prior visit or if our shift in focus resulted in us noticing new things. On this visit we were transfixed by the look of the shaded sides of some hoodoos that were brightened by sunlight reflecting off nearby white grit. Some hoodoos appeared to be lit by the warm glow of candlelight. Once we started noticing the phenomena we became more methodical about locating the reflective surface of rock that was enhancing the color and emphasizing the surface details of the opposing hoodoos. 

Our hikes in Yellowstone had been on forest trails with few panoramas so we turned them into speed hikes during which we pushed the pace but not so when in Bryce. At the start of our first of 3 hiking days there I knew I wasn't to be rushed, that instead I wanted to stroll and pause often to take it all in. We powered up some of the steep grades in Bryce that were short on views but for the most part, we took our time on its trails. 

A long, less-traveled Bryce trail took us by the "Hat Shop".
Since we weren't focusing on conditioning our CV systems while in Bryce, we indulged our feet in the thinnest of our minimalist shoes. For much of this last year, speed had been the priority when hiking so we selected footwear to protect our feet. But our stroll on the endlessly up and down grit trails of Bryce were perfect for the lighter footwear needed to restore the mobility and strength in our feet that had vanished in shoes. While our feet were in rehab, our minds were transfixed by the beauty of the hoodoos.

Snow Canyon State Park, UT (near St. George)
Like Bryce Canyon, we love nearby Snow Canyon for a number of reasons but I will now also remember it for highlighting that English lacks a word for "I'm not lost but I'm not where I want to be." 

On our first full day in Snow Canyon this fall, Bill and I had headed out together for a jog, which included some fun scrambling on the lithified dunes along the way. After our 20 minute warm-up walk and about 20 minutes of interrupted jogging, Bill announced he was heading back in deference to his recent injuries. I would continue on alone to get my planned additional minutes of exercise. We had realized at that point that neither of us had enough water for the unfamiliar 80° heat but we were each confident we'd manage.

Having no handy map for the very open park, I was pleased to exit the maze of trails through the lava and lithified dunes to find the bike path, road, and upper park entrance gate at my 45 minute turn around point. I happily pressed on, jogging into a cooling headwind on a gentle downgrade. 

All was going well until I looked down; way, way down into the valley and realized that I was on the bike path 1000' above the bike path I wanted to be on. Luckily, we'd driven the road for the first time the day before. I knew where I was, but it wasn't where I wanted to be. I wasn't lost, but I wasn't pleased either.

Snow Canyon: checking out a lava tube opening on our running route.
"Time to make a decision" bellowed in my brain. "Do I turn around and correct my mistake or press-on hoping it works out?" I jogged on while I contemplated my options and "Bingo", a state park sign for the last trail I'd been on appeared and pointed to a sanctioned step-over place in the barbed wire fence. "Surely this will take me down to the valley floor, to the campground" I thought.

Mixing walking with jogging, I confidently followed the dirt trail but then started doubting that "down" was a part of its route. Under the scant shade of a juniper I brought up Google maps on my phone and the news wasn't good. My signed trail went on for miles--miles past the campground and the lower park entrance. And this was where the linguist challenge appeared: when I decided to call Bill to report that I wasn't anywhere close to where I said I'd be.

I pondered what to say before calling him: I wasn't lost because I knew exactly where I was, but I wasn't where I wanted to be and there wasn't a trail to take me to where I wanted to go. Instead of "lost" I was what??? "Misplaced" didn't sound right. "I had taken a wrong turn and was on another road" sounded clumsy. I was surprised that I couldn't recall a nice, concise word for what is such a common experience. So, lacking a precise word, Bill heard the paragraph-long explanation as to why I was going to be very late for lunch.

The lithified dunes are terrific for climbing up, over, and around.
Bill checked his hardcopy park map and agreed: we both knew where I was but there wasn't an easy way  to solve my problem. Disappointed but not surprised, I announced "Write down this last known position 'cause I'm going down now and I'll immediately lose cell reception."

I'd bypassed the previous long cliff face as a non-starter for bushwhacking and opted to call Bill at a broad, sloping, lava-faced ravine I thought I could navigate. Always one to wonder what's around the next corner, I pressed on a bit farther after talking to Bill and found an even more inviting, more shallow ravine that was almost entirely red rock. I knew I wanted to dodge the lava and brush, so I immediately began my descent hoping the lower, unseen reaches of this ravine weren’t cliff faces.

It was (sort of) my lucky day: I made the uncharted 1000' descent in a little more than an hour and completely avoided snagging my clothes or getting scuffed. A bit weary and thirsty, I arrived back at our rig feeling like I could have continued in the heat for another hour even after having been out for over 3 hours with only a half liter of water. A happy ending for taking a wrong turn but even with all that bonus thinking time in the midst of the event, I still couldn't find of a proper word to describe my non-lost situation--my unintentional, unmapped, detour.

Barb & Michelle in Orderville Canyon of the Narrows. The water was too deep last year.
Zion National Park, UT & The Tri-Guys
At nearby Zion National Park, “tri-guys” kept popping up in unexpected places, even more so than the ubiquitous mule deer. (Bill calls them “Disneyland deer.”) Usually when we say ‘tri-guys’ we are referring to tri-athletes who aren’t exclusively male but the female tri-athletes aren’t nearly as conspicuous. But in Zion this fall, ’tri-guy’ was co-opted for the far more visible photography zelots toting as many as 3 tripods. And at this place and time, they were all guys.

The first confab of tripod-toting men we encountered in Zion was when we were Doing the Narrows with our friends Randal and Michelle who were spending a long weekend in the park. Doing the Narrows a year after our first experience was different in so many ways: the water was much lower, which made it easier going; the water was clear, so not every step was blind; we were doing it with friends; and then there were all those tri-guys.

Fifty men with tripods in The Narrows was our guess and one man was using individual sheets of 4"x5” film on his camera while staying in the water. Randal was familiar with the technic and chatted with him a bit. To me, he was just another obsessed tri-guy.

A few days later we did the much hyped Subway hike in the backcountry of Zion—a destination which requires a permit to restrict the number of daily visitors. We were stunned when we finally arrived at the water-carved Subway formation because of the swarms of tri-guys there. Many were casually standing in knee deep water in front of their tripods waiting for the sun to illuminate the wet rocks just-so. They’d all been there long before we arrived, which happened to be about 5 minutes before the “ahhh-haa” moment.

The interval for the perfect shot was measured in minutes and when it passed, the photographers dispersed to begin the nearly 3 hour trek back to the trailhead. Two tri-guys finished the return minutes behind us and I pressed them for the weights of their packs. One estimated his was about 20 lbs now that his water was consumed and his buddy’s was about 35 lbs. I noticed several tri-guys filling their water bags at the Subway, some using filters, others not. If they didn’t carry a filter, resupplying with water at the turn-around probably allowed them to haul about 2 lbs more photographic gear in their packs.

Bill traversing the Subway as THE photo-op moment approched.
And a few days after the Subway experience, we were driving back from a long hike at dusk and there was a swarm of people standing on a bridge with no reflective clothing or lights. “What the…..” was our response. We’d both been straining to watch for the too-tame mule deer on the road in the dim light and of course initially thought it was a herd of deer on the bridge. Nope. It was yet another pack of tri-guys plus a couple of tri-girls. They were positioned on both sides of the bridge. They clearly had been taking sunset shots of the mountains with the river being a central element in their compositions.

I engaged a ranger before our last night in Zion hoping for a camp site that was more level than our latest assigned spot.  I shared my surprise when he said that the campground was still full, especially given the overnight lows of 60° were plummeting into the low 30’s. He commented that they were still fully booked until mid-November and only a few openings showed on the calendar at that time.

I pressed a little more and the ranger said it had been a crazy year and that the campground had been fully booked since mid-February. “Facebook. I blame it on Facebook.” was his comment. Visitors sharing their stunning photos on social media was his best explanation for the sudden popularity of Zion this year. We had thought the tri-guys were out in force because we were visiting the park when it was a bit warmer than before but his social media theory made a lot of sense, especially for attracting the previously unseen mobs of tripod laden photographers.

This dedicated tri-guy almost went under when he rushed through the next pool.
Our 12 night stay in Zion will be remembered for the best weather we ever have had in the park; the great first-time hikes to the Subway and Cable Mountain; discovering the handy Watchman Trail as a great place to run; the fun of sharing Zion with first-time visitors Randal and Michelle; and all of those tri-guys showing up in the most unexpected places.

Heading South
We had 3 more major destinations marked on our calendar for our 8 month road trip and beyond that, our itinerary would be weather-driven. The entire month of October exceeded our expectations and it was dry everywhere we were, right down to the last day of the month. We then were hit with a wet, cold storm that covered much of the west coast. The drop in the temperature and snow on nearby mountains were only 2 days ahead of our Zion departure date so the pressure was suddenly on Bill’s trip planning. We couldn’t just drift about given the sudden change in the weather. 

Planning had taken a backseat but now he was counting travel days until our arrival in Death Valley for Thanksgiving, checking mileage, checking the weather, and reviewing our short list of missed opportunities for other possible venues in the red rock country.

The view from Cable Mtn. A 15.6 mile hike with 3400' elevation gain.
Planning was complicated by discovering that our Trader Joe's chocolate bar inventory was low. We’d either have to make do with more expensive and possibly lessor products or make a beeline to the nearest Trader Joe’s, which was in Las Vegas. Adventure won out over chocolate, which isn’t always the case. We’d head east to Kanab and hoped to procure a coveted, last minute permit to hike “The Wave”. Then we’d restock in Las Vegas and enter another food supply wasteland—Death Valley.