All the Little Things

Most of what I’ve shared so far are a selection of the bigger events that have occurred – some of the exciting events, interesting stories and relatable lessons I think are worth sharing. One of the stories worth sharing today isn’t really a story at all – more like an impression, an idea of what extended traveling on the cheap actually looks like aside from the highlight reel. A lot of people imagine traveling the country, or the world, as a nearly non-stop adrenaline rush, an endless parade of exotic people, foreign places, fantastic experiences. And sometimes, for an hour, or a day or two, it can be that, depending on what you’re doing. But most of the time, it’s not.

My friend, the original glob trotter in my personal circle, described travel to me as a slow burn. I’ve found that to be very true. An extended trip from which one hopes to extract any lasting value must have time built in to breathe, to recuperate, and to reflect on events. There are often long distances crossed, especially on a road trip, which take time. And fantastic experiences and exotic people don’t suddenly bombard the traveler just because they’ve set foot in a foreign place. These things take a lot of planning beforehand and require lots of exploring in the moment. Great reward requires great effort. The combination of disrupted routines, generally worse nutrition (who actually eats healthier when in a new place? That deep fried sushi burrito isn’t going to taste itself), and the exhaustion of being continually estranged from your comfort zone can take a toll.

But it’s totally worth it.

The experience of travel is as much the little things, the meantimes and betweentimes, as it is the big destinations. As old saying goes, it’s as much the journey as the destination. So what does it really look like? What does it really feel like? It’s different for everybody, but for me. . .

It’s eating microwave fried chicken in a dingy hotel room room with my brother, which may as well be a fourcourse meal served in an electrified, shower equipped wi-fi saturated palace, even if there’s only one bed.

It’s the exhilaration of the open road. It’s passing tractor trailers on the Utah freeway and playing pedal-to-the-metal chicken with the oncoming traffic at 105 mph.

It’s laughing at my giant brother sipping mango juice and dancing like an animated thrashing beanpod in a hammock made for people of normal proportions – because there’s actually not much else to do at Grand Canyon village.

It’s driving hard to some destination a full eight hours away, only to find yourself spending four days on a whim exploring an unforeseen gem on the way instead.

It’s not knowing whether to laugh, cry, or puke when Johnny unleashes without warning his allotted one-per-one-thousand-mile car fart in the already somewhat fetid cabin with the windows up.

It’s completely giving up on keeping an organized living space and observing with growing apathy as your gear, food and clothing escapes the trunk and explodes over every convient surface in the cabin. It’s attacking that no-shower-streak record with gusto. It’s smelling like an animal and not giving a damn for a week in the woods until the first pretty girl walks by in the next town.

It’s skinny dipping in wild rivers and floating a log out into a deserted mountain pond in a bid to conquer fears of monsters in the deep, and utterly faily, but the pride of having tried at all keeping your heart warm as your body shivers on the shore. It’s slamming on the brakes to spend an hour swimming in a beautiful blue lake whose existence was entirely unknown to you six seconds earlier.

It’s also taking bird baths in laundromat restrooms and feet that smell bad enough to kill a small buffalo, if only you could catch one.

It’s watching the sun go down beside a fire on an exposed ridge at seven thousand feet, cooking angel guts with your brother alone on the top of the world. It’s making a pact to tend the fire til the strawberry moon rises with the milkyway, but being defeated by the wind and putting out the coals like men – with our own personal extinguishers.

It’s watching the world of songs and literature come to life: realizing why that sweet Mojave rain made such an impression on Brandon Flowers; why the urban California skyline so haunted a jaded traveler; why the scent of juniper is so ingrained in the spirit of the West. It’s wandering through Wyoming mountain meadows and singing hymns to the wind and the thunder as the rain blankets the very rolling seas of grain which so inspired America’s greatest psalmists.

It’s also the exquisitely perfect timing of the travelers trots calling on you as you carve psalms in a walking stick beside a suddenly no longer peaceful brook.

It’s missing home but knowing you’ve got to obey the urge to be movin’ on. It’s your emotional soundtrack jumping from Boulevard of Broken Dreams and Whitesnake to lullabies and childhood sing-alongs to death metal – often in proportion to the proximity of the gas pedal to the floor.

It’s walking into a bar in a city you’ve never seen just to tell a bartender you’ve never met that an old friend of theirs who’s now a new friend of yours would like her to drop him a line. It’s encountering someone from your high school in the Denver Goodwill store while wearing the same shirt you were when you first met eight years ago. It’s orchestrating travel plans to meet friends from AmeriCorps all over the country and bumping into another at random in a Washington Walmart, six thousand miles and three months from where you’d last seen each other.

It’s attending a church service in the morning where you are the only one over sixteen and under sixty, and a rock show at a motorcycle rally the same evening.

It’s steaming about the pop-culture duo of Carly Rae Jepsen and Lady Gaga becoming the de facto karaoke soundtrack to Arizona and the Grand Canyon, but buying the songs later because you know it’ll remind you of you and your brothers’ epic road trip together for the rest of your life, regardless of the songwriting quality.

It’s actually feeling good about getting kicked out what you didn’t know was the teenager’s section in a small town library because for once in your nearly twenty-three years of life someone thought you were over eighteen by looking at you, only to find the library is closing and you’re forced to earn your wi-fi instead by purchasing an enormous thickburger at Hardees, and thoroughly milking that milkshake for the next three hours.

It’s shaving in the rearview mirror with just the head of a disposable razor because that’s all Johnny bought at the store and after a month you’re still too lazy and cheap to buy a handle. There’s usually blood.

It’s straddling the yellow line on the Utah interstate for a set of pushups, because ain’t nobody coming for miles and you’ve always wanted to give that beautiful line a kiss, or forty.

It’s tying up your splash guards with wire you found in the New Mexico desert and the rattling of your exhaust heatshield manifold, whose fastening bolts, like your splash guard’s, have rusted out in winter wind and salt somewhere in the last four years between Vermont and Portland.

It’s finding out with relief that your transmission isn’t leaking – it’s just your power steering – but being secretly bummed cause that means you don’t have an excuse to ditch your car, buy a motorcycle, and enjoy the look on your mother’s face when you pull safe and sound on two wheels into your driveway come Fall.

It’s getting stuck in the mud and walking three miles in the rain through the sage with a new appreciation for the community waiting for you at the end of the road, and the stable you’re looking forward to sleeping in that night.

It’s incredible hospitality that lets you explore a place you’ve always dreamed of going in a fantastic way you never imagined you would.

It’s the unspoken understanding exchanged in a handshake or hug between travelers that says it was great to meet you, but we’ll likely never see each other again, and that’s ok.

It’s picking up hitchhikers and talking to well-traveled tramps. It’s crossing through a herd of cattle in a forest and being invited by their cowboys at the end of the trail for a burger and a beer.

And it’s eating Chef Boyardee cold from the can in supermarket parking lots. Wearing your favorite shirt for a week in the blazing desert sun until sweat turns it as dark as the skin on your neck and it sprouts as many holes as the pants you let get too close to the fire back in Oregon.

It’s long, long hours listening to songs, podcasts, and the silent, thoughtful music of the road as your little red ship winds its way along America’s asphalt rivers as they run through some of the most spectacular sights in the world.

It’s spending all day writing in town after four days in the woods and appreciating the bustling wonders of civilization before heading back up the mountain at dusk to your stalwart, smelly little twenty dollar tent nestled at the edge of a pitch-pine grove. It’s the defiant, jubilant triumph when after working for hours to start a fire after a pouring rain the flames jump almost as high as you do. It’s missing home but feeling fine as you warm your hands over the dying coals. And it’s experiencing nothing but gratitude and the familiar warmth of last night’s beans saying goodnight as you lay yourself down in peace beneath the silent stars.

Solo

The morning sun is slowly burning off the clouds keeping its warmth from reaching me, shivering and scribbling at a warped brown plastic table beside a pristine rushing creek here in a secluded campground at Bighorn National Forest, Wyoming. I cracked open a Hot-Hands body warmer my friend Regina sent in one of her signature care packages to my teammate David and I last April while we were working in Kentucky. It took four months to find its glory, but found it it has. My chest is warming nicely.

That’s one of the fun little things about travel: how when one places oneself in a hundred different situations, or variations on a theme for a long while, all the little gifts and treats, or words of advice given and gathered from a myriad of people gain special significance. The body warmer mailed from Mississippi to Kentucky by a friend and opened in Wyoming. A swiss army knife given to me by another friend in gradeschool which has opened cans and carved walking sticks across the continental U.S. this year. A toiletries bag my uncle gave me when I graduated high school which I have used nearly every day for six years and which has seen over thirty five states with me. A cooking stove my mother gave me which has grudgingly but faithfully prepared my limited trailside culinary repertoire of angel guts (navy beans, sweet corn, instant white rice and lite spam) and oatmeal from Tennessee to Oregon. An old beat up watch my dad gave me which kept four different time zones organized en route to New Zealand and which has not left my wrist for more than a day in nearly two years. A dehydrated backpacking meal (Thai curry), part of a larger gift from my aunt that was mostly consumed somewhere north of Queenstown, NZ, and that godwilling has kept since the end of 2015 so as to become a welcome departure from my cooking tonight. I learned how to make a fire with sopping wet wood from friends I met on the trails in Tennessee last summer, and it saved last nights dinner a year and thousands of miles later. And all these I record with my favorite Pilot needlepoint pen – a gift from my brother.

I sat down to write about the experience of traveling alone, but it seems I have been appropriately ambushed by the understanding that I am never really alone; every adventure I’ve ever had, I carried with me the support, friendship, and love of too many people to count, manifest in ways I am probably mostly unaware of. If you are one of those people upon whose shoulders I stand, thank you! I enjoy a nearly unparalleled freedom, mostly thanks to the merit, love, and sacrifice of others. I am young, healthy, and well-educated. I have been well loved by my family and friends who have raised me up strong and given me the support and confidence I need to explore one of the greatest countries in the world, made so and kept safe by millions in uniform who risk fates worse than death to keep it that way.
I have a lot to be grateful for, and I figure one way to give back the blessings that allow me to undertake a trip like this is to share what parts of it I can. So thanks for following along, and I hope you enjoy reading about the places I’ve been. Chances are, if you know me, you helped me get there.

~

I’ve been compiling an ever growing list of interesting names so far encountered on my travels: names of towns, cities, roads, lakes, boats, people, institutions, etc. It started last summer as I was traveling with my team through the Southeast, and has grown ever since. I’ve already posted the AmeriCorps list on my first blog, so this list only includes names from a camping trip my friend Sean organized this summer just before I left in June up until the time of this writing.

There’s a lot in a name. They can give you clues to the geographical and cultural history of a place. They can be the result of a kitschy town planner laying in a new upscale suburb near a tourist town. Sometimes I honestly think they’re the result of lonely explorers who haven’t seen a female that walked on two legs in a few too many weeks. Often its the placement of a series of names together that follow a theme which is particularly chuckleworthy, whether the connection is intentional or not. Often it’s the geographical context that makes a name exotic but fitting to its locale, like Tierra del Mar Rd in the pacific northwest. Sometimes they’re only funny if you pronounce them wrong. This list might be more of an insight into what I consider interesting than anything else. Anyway, here it is.

All of the names on this list I and/or my brothers have personally seen on America’s roads this summer. I still think some of them are too good to be true.

Coxsackie NY
Poughkeepsie NY
Wemple Road NY
Nippletop Mountain, part of the Dix mountains in the Adirondacks, NY
Schenectady NY
Watervliet NY
Cohoes NY
Halfmoon NY
Krumsville PA
Foul rift road PA
Good Ole lane PA
Letterkenny army Depot pa
Balls creek NC
Double Dee Lane NC
Loviee Rd NC
Murder creek Alabama
Little lizard creek Alabama
Cibola (city of gold) wilderness, not to be confused with nearby cebolla (onion) wilderness, El Malpais NM
Skull Valley AZ
Peeples valley AZ
Buttock Road AZ
Long Jim Loop, AZ
Ghost Town RD AZ
El Rocko AZ
El Cajon CA
Fort Dick, CA, just south of Yontocket.
Whiskeytown lake CA
Brandy creek CA
Yolo county CA
Truckee Creek CA
Skunk point picnic area, CA (who did this?!)
Hardscrabble Creek, CA
Seawood  (?) OR
Smoke jumper base, OR
Rough and ready creek, OR
The Good Way, OR
Butcherknife Creek, OR
George creek OR
Starvation Heights, OR
Rouge river Oregon
Valley of the Rogue Or
Dick Creek OR
Johnny creek OR
Bone Creek OR
Armsworthy st Oregon
Tierra del Mar road Oregon
Ebb Ave or
Jetty Ave or
D river “world’s shortest” Oregon
Singing tree Oregon
Walking wood Oregon
Cape Foul Weather Oregon
Devils Punch Bowl state park Oregon
Schmeer Rd WA
Vader WA
Tumwater WA
The Puff yacht in seattle
Peregrinations yacht Seattle
Buena WA
Horse heaven WA
Idahome Idaho
Helper UT
Loudermilk ranch UT
Spud Hill Road Colorado
Ridgway Colorado (not ridgEway. Named for chief engineer of railroad going through town)
Uncompahgre mountain, Colorado
24 1/2 and 25 3/4 roads, Grand Junction Co
Mcstiffs Plaza moab utah
Tangle leg drive, Eagles nest nm
Tierra dorada ranch nm
Little Arsenic Campground, NM
The town of Pueblo, (nm? Co?)
Uintah, Colorado
Happy Canyon Road, Colorado
My Brothers Bar, Denver
Rd 34y Goshen cty Wyoming
Happy Jack Rd, WY
Missile Drive WY
Stardust trail WY
Chugwater, WY
Crazy Woman Creek, WY
Belle Rousche river, WY
Rawhide Creek, SD
Lame Johnny Lane, SD
Old Woman Creek, SD
Shorb RD, SD
Broken Spoke Pl., SD

And more to come. . .

Moab

I had a precious half hour to myself one sunny afternoon in Utah, spent strolling through a little valley in Arches National Park called Park Avenue, named so by early Western visitors because it resembled the main street of a large city. The multilayered sandstone walls towered overhead, concealing the dry creek wash within their protected enclosure. There was a a narrow cairned path that winds down from the hill which conceals the valley from the road. It meanders through scrubby desert oak and juniper, and islands of knee-high plants sporting blue flowers blooming atop beds of stubby round leaves. I don’t know the names of the smaller plants, though they account for as much of if not more of the greenery defying the surrounding moonscape as do the scrubby trees. Typical. I don’t often take enough time to look below eye level and discover whats in the sprawling underbrush; what’s the less obvious lesson; what’s just beneath the skin.

The path led shortly to an exposed rock wash, bare solid sandstone cut deep through the valley, punctuated by water-logged potholes and fascinatingly textured deposits of dark brown sand. Much of the rock that formed Arches National Park began as ancient sand dunes compressed by siltation, repetitive ocean flooding and evaporation, the erosion of other more elevated strata or other geological phenomena. I’ve developed an amateur’s interest in the relationship between biology and historical geology on this trip, since much of the wonder of the American West – its strange animals, unique plant life, and varied climates – can be traced back to the geology that formed and influenced and was influenced by the climate, waters, and life cycles of any given place.

I wanted to know the history and significance of every place I would visit this summer so I could appreciate the many lives and eons and immesurable amounts of energy that participated in the shaping of each place and culture enough to feel connected to it and become a part of its story myself. However, the geological, biological and anthropological history of a continent is not so easily digested whole, no matter how eager the student. I think its fair to say I researched enough about each place so as to have the context within which to continue learning in person. The end result is almost no knowledge at all, relatively speaking, but enough to wonder at the complexity and beauty of a country no one mind will ever understand in its entirety.

For my part, I understand that sand, compressed over millions of years by more sand, or volcano juice, or lots and lots of dead things, becomes sandstone, until such time as wind and water return it to its previous state. I’ve seen spectacular sandstone arches before while working in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge with AmeriCorps. What I don’t understand and what I haven’t before seen is how sand dunes – ephemeral, airy, every-changing – can be captured and frozen whole and sound in rock. Inside that canyon, the bare rock floor was adorned with swirls and eddies, beautifully flowing, graceful patterns. Some spanned thirty feet and presumably continued under the cover of the thin topsoil, perpetuating their undulating gradient to the base of the canyon walls. Others were miniscule, less than a foot across, so that I could imagine both violent sand storms consuming the sky over vast red dunes coexisting with tiny little twisters kicking up fallen leaves and dust, like the ones I used to chase in the barnyard as a kid. I could swear I found a snake track, a tight little curl left from the impression of its body and frozen in time, transported across millennia to find itself unperturbed beneath my dusty leather boots. I wonder what happened to the snake.

After a while I climbed a boulder in a sunny spot and lay down, which once the scorching surface finished cooking my bare back, was quite comfortable. For a while I was aware of nothing but the voluminous flat bottomed clouds billowing out into the vault of the sky. You can see so far out here that the clouds, always so unruly and free to my mind, obey the laws of linear perspective. They shrank and converged toward a point whose secret celestial location they refused to give up, and so hid behind a fluffy white mountain range sculpted of the mass of their boldest and biggest citizens; a brave few willing to descend from the heavens and meld with the earth in order to protect the secret of their nation’s origin. High above them in their motherland the clouds danced their ever shifting dance, striving to be worthy of of their brethren’s sacrifice. For an instant a gargantuan spaceship loomed above the La Sal mountains, headed straight for a fluffy roadrunner launching itself off a nimbus with such force as to blow itself away. I closed my eyes for a moment, lids growing heavy and drowsy in the afternoon sun, and when I reopened them the road runner had run off and the spaceship had been swallowed up by a dragon of incredible scale, swooping out of the North with a grin toward some urgently joyous cause which I will never know. It was a silent scene, surreal, and serene.

As I began the short, pleasant hike back to the road at the conclusion of my siesta, I saw a little brush jay perched atop a juniper tree on the banks of our sandy wash. We watched each other for a moment, until he cocked his head and said with certainty, “Peep!”

He sounded so sure that he was right, what about I didn’t know. But this tiny bird perched on his twig, and the clouds ephemerally floating by, and the mountains stoically living out their eons, are all so sure of their place in the cosmic symphony, and secure in their surety they sing loud and bold and long, perfectly in tune with the hymn of creation. Why must so very many of mankind search so far and wide, for so many long years, to find the certainty of the clouds, the mountains, and the scrub jay?

“Peep!” My feathered companion offered, as though he’d heard my musings.

You’re right my friend, I thought back to him with a smile. If we always knew just why we were right where we are and why to do just what we’re doing – then there’d be no fun at all in the journey, would there?

Grand Canyon

For whatever reason, I was not awed or overcome by the scale and natural beauty of the Grand Canyon upon first seeing it. Maybe I was too saturated by all the other wonders we’d encountered so quickly during the 3,000 mile journey that brought us to what is considered one of the preeminent wonders of the natural world. It could certainly have had something to do with the fact that Carly Rae had slept well at the hooghan the night before, and was joined by Lady Gaga during the drive to the South Rim. The pair even heckled us, or rather me, at intervals down the canyon footpath, and my hopes that the both had died on the journey back up were dashed after we recovered at the top. Alas, the power pop duo had only been conserving their breath.

I like pop music as much as anyone – alright that’s not true, but I’ve been known to sing along to Lady Gaga, Aqua, even Cascada at somewhat more appropriate times. Pardon my harsh critical judgment, but I hardly think any of today’s pop music is a fitting sound track for a backcountry hike into a place like the Grand Canyon, where to one willing to listen and look the power and beauty of nature is on display in nearly unparalleled scale in every direction. Mike and Johnny could have at least chosen a hard rock anthem. Death metal screaming would have been preferable.

But anyway, the quiet moments were great, particularly late at night when we made camp and early the next morning. The Grand Canyon is not something that can be grasped from a photo, or even from looking out at it in person. You don’t get it until you go in. We walked about four and a half miles to Indian Garden campground, a little less than two miles from Phantom Ranch beside the river at the very bottom. Even had we made it to the bottom, we would have traversed only a very narrow cross section of the winding 277 mile course cut through the Arizona highlands over millions of years chiefly by the Colorado River, among other forces.

The vertical one mile elevation change from rim to bottom combined with the presence and absence of water in so extreme an environment produces several distinct ecosystems throughout the canyon, each with their own average temperatures, flora and fauna. Even the rock layers distinctly change color and substance as a traveler winds his way down to the river. Ninety-seven percent of this massive park is managed as wilderness, preserving a rugged and lethal beauty that few ever really experience.

I slept under the stars on my inflatable sleeping pad, having swiftly abandoned my attempt to sleep directly on the hardpack at the campsite in a bid to have some kind of idiomatic empathy with the natives and cowboys who once farmed and watered at the aptly named Indian Garden oasis. It took a long time for darkness to fully fall, as the canyon walls block the setting sun’s direct light long before the invisible horizon obscures the last refracted rays reaching the canyon floor. Every so often in the evening a strong gust of wind would blow through the canyon for only a few seconds, kicking up clouds of fast-moving dust and bending tree limbs before receding as quickly as it arrived, leaving silence and stillness in its wake. The wind also left dried salt, dust and blood from an earlier nosebleed – a welcoming gift from the arid Southwestern climate – on my chest while my back sweated a small pond onto the perfectly unbreathable air mattress.

As the temperature gradually cooled to just below eighty degrees, I watched the stars slowly appear. The big dipper was perfectly framed between the eastern canyon wall and the gently rustling cottonwood tree reaching over my head before I drifted off to sleep. Awakening in the middle of the night, perhaps to another gust of wind, I found the big dipper had been swallowed up by armies of stars billowing across the night sky as though part of a mass of intergalactic clouds. I remember thinking I had no idea what this place was like. I had only scratched the surface of the substance of the vast cradle of life which for a single night was content to suffer my presence, and even to tease me in my drowsy delirium with a small taste of its secrets on display in the night sky.

Red Rock

To the tune of Carly Rae Jepsen, we rattled up the last stretch of the fifty plus miles of poorly maintained dirt roads that had abused my 17-year-old Volkswagen’s ailing struts on and off that day since the turn-off to El Chaco in New Mexico. As incredible Arizona red rock monoliths loomed and disappeared in our dust trail I cringed in the back seat, seething inwardly until the last karaoke stanza of “Call Me Maybe” trailed off and relative silence returned. Unwilling to let go of my indignation just yet, I suppressed a smile. This wasn’t what I imagined Arizona would sound like. Suddenly Gwen Stefani steps into the spotlight, then any trace of a smile vanished as Akon’s in-house backups began yodeling, “WEEHOO . . . WEEYOO!”

My contemplative idiom entirely shattered, an eyelid twitched as I shrank into myself and prayed for strength. Eventually, we arrived.

After driving on the Trail of the Ancients through western New Mexico from El Malpais, visiting El Chaco National Historic Park on the way to the Four Corners Monument, we were staying the night on the Arizona Navajo reservation in a hooghan whose hospitable owner has put up for rental on AirBnB. After passing a white gelding and a few mares grazing on the unfenced hill bordering the dusty road, we pulled into the ranch. We met our friendly host (and his friendlier dogs), who suggested we take a hike around his land after settling in. With the red-rock Chuska mountains looming on the horizon, and a few solitary mesas standing guard at their middling outposts, Johnny and I set out to see what we could see.

The nearest scrubby ridge concealed a rocky red gulch that appeared to be a dry stream bed, which became our path. The soil in this part of Arizona feels much more like loose, dry dirt than the sandy floors of New Mexico. All the rocks have fluid shapes, as though softly formed by wind and water over a longer period of time than I can comprehend. We crossed ridges, rock shelves, and tiny canyons, following the streambed. Lola and Miller, our host’s dogs, stayed with us, ranging about, chasing lizards and digging at prairie dog holes. We passed a horse skeleton, scattered by water or scavengers over hundreds of feed down the streambed – huge, dry bones bleaching in the sun. The dogs sniff them but seem to prefer consuming bones with some bit of stinking black flesh still attached instead.

Disappointed at not finding the cliff he’d been searching for over the latest hill, Johnny turned back to the ranch. His ambling form quickly disappeared, swallowed up by the vast expanse of land our Navajo host was kind enough to share with us. We’d traveled too quickly. Our minds hadn’t caught up with our bodies speeding down the interstate, and we were still relying on our outdated North-Eastern sense of scale and geography. We’re not used to spaces like this. A cliff or canyon can look like it’s just over the next ridge when really it’s miles away, only appearing so close because we could see so much farther in the dry atmosphere, and the cliff is massive. Even the lighting on the geography played tricks on me; I couldn’t seem to spot the depressions between ridgetops until we were upon them, or Johnny reappeared, a tiny white dot emerging straight out of the earth.

I continued on alone with the dogs as the sun crept lower on the horizon. Spying a rock shelter in the distance that reminded me of the amphitheaters in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, I weighed the risk of being trapped in a strange new land riddled with prairie dog holes after nightfall against the reward of reaching the rock formation. I looked at the dogs and the dogs looked at me, and we took off for the eastern horizon.

We crossed ridge after ridge. Scaling rockbalds and tiny canyons, vaulting over prairie dog warrens and praying I wouldn’t suffer a broken ankle for my zeal. Eventually, all of us panting, and the sky behind us turning a deepening shade of dusky purple, I realized I’d made another error in scale. The rock shelter was too far away.

I called the dogs and we turned back to the west. Eyes stinging from the wind, ears deafened by the same, alone in the middle of one of mother nature’s harshly beautiful and equally dangerous playgrounds, I suddenly realized where mankind’s love for dogs began. Indefatigable, obedient, and eager, Lola and Miller were my traveling companions in our little slice of wilderness, my eyes, ears, and nose. Where they looked, I looked. When they froze, I froze. A pang of fear struck me when Miller shot off like a bullet after a jackrabbit, crossing two hills and a narrow ravine in seconds, Lola in hot pursuit, the both of them leaving me far behind. But their owner trained them remarkably well; they returned when I shouted after them, albeit reluctantly. Still far from home but reunited and reassured of our companionship, we turned again to chase the sunset.

The High Desert

Juniper spice and pinyon. A tree whose bark smells like vanilla and sugar warming in the sun. Scents mixed on a dry desert breeze suddenly bring a world I’d read about to life. My brothers and I made camp at Joe Skeen campground on the outskirts of El Malpais National Monument, a protected portion of a chain of both ancient and rather recently erupted New Mexico volcanoes that so littered the surrounding plains with jagged volcanic rock, cinders and hardened black lava flows that the Spaniards named it “the bad land”.

That morning we’d driven west from Albuquerque to visit Junction Cave at El Malpais. A number of lava tubes remain underground in the area, formed when the outside of lava flows hardened and insulated the lava within, allowing it to remain molten long enough to flow out of the larger mass and leave a cavity behind. Some of these have collapsed in a couple spots, revealing the tunnel to aboveground explorers. Junction Cave is the NPS’s advertised easiest cave, requiring no special equipment besides headlights. After slipping through the bars of a narrow iron fence at the entrance (probably made so narrow as a warning: if you have trouble fitting through this opening, you don’t belong here) and after a pair of bobbing lights materialized into an older couple coming the other way near the mouth of the cave, we had the place all to ourselves. Inside we couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces. It got so narrow and low before the end that we were only able to slide on our stomachs, using our toes to push ourselves forward through the silent dark. It was pretty cool.

That evening our campground was at the base of a small mesa that wrapped around the area to the north and east, providing some shelter from the wind that passes through the flat, open plains elsewhere in New Mexico. We had nothing but time, so I went exploring.

I scrambled over sandy slopes and boulders to reach the top of the mesa overlooking our campground, taking care to search the rock ledges for rattlesnakes before trusting them with any appendages. There are ants anywhere one cares to look out here, including to my dismay patrolling the sticky vertical highways of my treasured vanilla tree, which I later learned is the famous Ponderosa Pine. Having mostly escaped the gnats swarming the campground below where Johnny was coking rice and beans, I took a moment to soak in the sun washing over me.

Then, jumping from rock to rock where I could, stepping gingerly around rabbit warrens, snake holes and ant hills when the sand overcame the natural pavement, I wandered alone over the sandy plateau. I passed and wondered at red cactus flowers, rock mortars and shallow dry pools in the sandstone boulders. Piles of desiccated scat from an animal much larger than me lay scattered under scrubby twisting bushes and tufts of coarse grass. I lost a staring contest with a tiny desert rabbit and as a consolation prize took the time to memorize the shape of its tracks in the sand. There were bigger paw prints too. This was cougar country, and I didn’t know how long it takes for wind and rain to obliterate tracks up here. I was a little more alert after that.

I’ve never seen anything like the high desert. It stretches for hundreds of miles around the Sandia mountains and Albuquerque, the largest of the few urban oases out here. The tan and brown and ocre-stuccoed architecture of the region blends into the environment, and the few scattered homesteads we pass on the interstate sprawl haphazardly across the plain – 1 story ranch houses, old SUVs and ramshackle sheds arranged like man-made compliments to the natural décor. Every now and then a massive string of railroad cars breaks the emptiness. I tried to count one and gave up after the 105th car. Property values within an hour of Albuquerque drop to as low as $300.00 an acre for small parcels. Anyone with a little bit of know-how and an adventurous spirit could build a homestead out here for almost nothing. Maybe someday…