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.


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. . .

New Mexico

There is a certain loneliness to traveling, though it isn’t malignant. Perhaps it’s even necessary. The road is an experienced and talented seductress, and traveler’s momentum is real. A certain amount of loneliness is a healthy tether that keeps one connected to the rest of the human race in the face of the overwhelmingly attractive but ultimately empty vacuum of solitary adventure. It’s the feeling of being on your own out here, far from home and disconnected from your tribe. It’s long intervals of silence, sometimes so that the sound of your own voice surprises you. It never really goes away, but to me it’s most obvious the first night after leaving a person or group. It creeps up on you at nightfall when even the sun can no longer stay, and leaves you to reap your just reward under the paradoxically empty embrace of darkness. At moments like those, all the logic and reason in the world can be brought to bear to no avail against the tide of emotion that wells up into the gap left by recently departed, or more often departed-from, companions. And so it should be – not to care about people and not to miss people you care about would be inhuman. All that can and should be done at those times is to allow the waves to build and reshape the shore; to let reason and emotion ebb and surge until the cliffs and pinnacles of the sand are once more smoothed out, and enriched by new inroads to the heart and purposed by the singularity of the mind, the journey can begin anew.

Such are the musings which occurred after spending a little over a week at an off grid homestead in New Mexico as a guest of a couple from Texas who were building a cob cottage on their property. Cob is a cousin to adobe, one of the most enduring building materials known to man. Basically it’s clay, sand, and straw combined to form a mixture that when dry is stronger than concrete, releases no harmful gases, and is much cheaper. Unlike adobe, cob is sculpted from small hand-sized pieces (the word cob is an Old English word for lump) into monolithic architecture – a building that is sculpted as one fluid piece rather built of bricks.

I became interested in cob the summer before leaving for AmeriCorps. I don’t remember why. However, after spending hundreds of hours tearing apart and rebuilding modern homes as a disaster relief worker the idea of cob, and building with natural materials in general, took on new meaning. I’d volunteered with Habitat for Humanity years ago, and spent my high school and first couple college summers doing odd jobs for my parents, family, friends and neighbors on their houses: spackling, insulating, dry-wall, endless hours of painting, stud-framing, building rock walls. I’d learned how to build or fix most non-specialized items in a house at an amateur level, and was well versed in how much it cost homeowners in time and capital to maintain the modern McMansion. In Louisiana, after the great floods of 2016, I witnessed entire city streets piled high with the sodden garbage that was once people’s homes: fiberglass insulation, clothes, rotted wood studs, mountains of moldy drywall. All of it headed for the landfill. The principal emotion of the time was the loss of the homeowners, of course. But the image of all that waste stuck with me. We spent two months building homes in West Virginia after another flood (the fourth in the same town in one resident’s lifetime. This time, we finally put houses on stilts). The modern building process and materials are arranged around economic and temporal expediency – there is no less waste in the building process as we scrap large portions of standardized materials, trading waste of material for efficiency of time. And most of the materials are designed and destined to degrade relatively quickly during their use, but very slowly once discarded. Whereas the houses of older cultures would stand for hundreds of years with an expected amount of maintenance, our own degrade quickly, in fifty to one hundred years, and what materials avoided waste in the building process find their final resting place in a landfill anyway.

When a studframe house floods, we throw it all away and spend a small fortune to cut down a small forest to make a new one. When an earthen house floods, we turn it back into mud and use it again.
The idea of natural building is a relatively radical one in today’s society, though there are many who are working to make it less so. I’d read, watched, and listened to lots of material, but never actually touched the process myself. So I went to New Mexico, the heartland of historical adobe usage, to see how real people were using clay and sand and straw to build a real home today.

Unfortunately, the homeowners had severely underestimated the amount of time required for completion of their current step in the building process, which was raising a stem wall about 2 feet off their rubble trench foundation using scavenged basalt and mortar. When I realized I would probably be spending almost the entirety of my planned three weeks there hauling lava rocks, I decided it was time to move on.

However, the experience was not at all wasted time. I’d been reading Thoreau’s Walden during the trip (kind of an ironic setting for encountering a hermit’s homage to simple living), and though the famous author’s often impassioned speech is sometimes contradictory in his simultaneous love and disdain for society as we know it, many of his arguments spoke to me. The experience of spending a week sweating in the desert sun, sleeping in a half finished stable, using a creepily half open-air outhouse and helping haul water from pumps far away helped give me some valuable perspective as to how difficult homesteading actually is. And these people weren’t even growing their own food. It doesn’t mean I don’t still like the idea of escaping somewhere to live simply off the land for a while – but I’ll think a lot harder about it first.

The land out there defies description, though I will try. It is beautiful in a way previously unknown to me, a way which cannot be understood from photographs, movies, stories or anything short of an extended experience. New Mexico, or at least Sunshine Valley, nestled in the enclave of the sacred Ute mountain to the North, the Sangre de Cristos to the East, the Guadalupes to the South, and the Rio Grande gorge to the West is truly a land of enchantment. The sky, vast and omnipresent, is dynamic and constantly evolving. The air is clear and pure. I could see for miles and miles around, between fifty and a hundred miles between the mountains across the sagebrush. The clouds change every minute, a new visual drama unfolding fluidly every quarter hour. It was monsoon season, and so it seemed always to be raining somewhere, though the unique geography of the place usually caused the storms to visibly horseshoe around the edges of the mountains, leaving the desert valley in the rainshadow of the lush mountains. Though it would be bright, sunny and hot on our particular plot of sage, somewhere off miles in the distance a massive stratus column would be dumping a curtain of grey rain onto the land, strafing the surface of the Earth with a violent life-giving downpour that appeared to stretch unbroken from the heavens to the scrub. I have never seen a cloud isolated like that, never been able to see so far in the absence of hills and trees, buildings and haze as to watch the lifecycle of a cloud unfold from the far away safety of a sunnier spot. Sometimes there were two or three of these individual systems spread out across the valley, blessing their own chosen fiefdoms with cool, liquid sustenance.

The evening and night sky evolves even faster, changing colors and geometry minute by minute. I was privileged to share with my hosts and fellow guests a new and different sunset every night, each more beautiful than the last. The dome of the sky would illuminate from west to East with vivid oranges, rosy pinks and dusky yellows. Patches of vibran red would begin to glow through the clouds, the telltale signs that the last dying rays of the day were heating up their vapory blankets before brilliant sunbeams burst through their cover in every which direction and ignited the clouds, expending in one or two glorious moments the last jubilant energy of a day well lived. For another half hour after, the western sky smoldered in orange and purple until the creeping blue blanket of twilight smothered the embers.

Meanwhile the moon would have stealthily begn its rise to power in the new nocturnal order, casting such a brilliant light at its zenith as to drown out all but the most determined stars. For a weary guest, it provided ample light to navigate from a sputtering campfire through meandering sage paths to their bed in a brightly painted trailer, an ancient wood-paneled campervan, or a leaky-roofed but cozy stable. But to a determined nocturnal observer the moon’s celestial boast issued a challenge to outlast its short tenure in the valley’s sky as its arc passed up from under the Sangre de Cristos to its bed beneath the Rio Grande. Absent the overpowering light of the moon, the silky black night came alive with the visual symphony of the cosmos: the milky way billowed up over the mountains in a dense bluish-white cloud, surrounded by the faint light of the strongest individual stars in much more distant galaxies. Every few minutes one of their restless cousins rocketed across the sky, celestial sojourners meeting a fiery end to their travels at the hands of Earth’s unforgiving atmospheric shield. In the valley, coyotes mourned their passing, or perhaps, merely the escape of tonight’s prairie dog breakfast. Some nights, spectacular lightning storms raged across the valley, electrical blooms flickering impossibly bright only instants but miles apart, like bombs exploding across the horizon above some unfortunate city. Deep, visceral waves of thunder boomed and split the air. I could almost feel the glass of my little kerosene lamp rattling as the sonic shockwaves rolled into my little stable.

Though fatigue and the cold desert night would defeat an observer, he or she could go to bed satisfied in the knowledge that sunrise would be no less spectacular. The return of the valley’s namesake heralded instantly renewed warmth as the first rays of morning vaulted the mountains and pierced the clouds to cast the dark woody stalks of the sage in deeper shadow while in eery contrast setting their leafy turquoise tops aglow. Morning casts shadows long and dark, and as one walks through the glowing desert one cannot help but feel they have encountered an enchanted place. Every day I felt I had participated in one of God’s most sweeping dramas intoned in the oldest and most enduring dialect of the language of the divine.

As beautiful as the land was, the people were the real gems. My hosts were world travelers, having collectively spent three years on America’s roads, time in Ireland, Thailand, England, the Nordic countries, and Europe. One was an environmental chemist and musician, another a non-profit director, entrepreneurial adviser, and former Apple employee. They were both excellent cooks and had worked in the catering business for years. They’d worn a lot of hats before leaving the hedonistic utopia of the big city in a bid to get back to basics in the desert. My fellow workawayers were a navy submarine veteran who left suburbia after his father passed to spend three years in the wilderness of Maine; a prolific world traveler who currently teaches college English as a civilian aboard navy ships on active deployment; and a young woman from Botswana who spent two months motorcycling across India and has been in the US since April conducting research for a community center she wants to build on her land in Africa. One can imagine I heard some incredible stories.

I made some great new friends out there. It’s the kind of thing that’s very difficult to write about, because although I want to preserve and share the experience, the most valuable part of the relationships are inexplicable. A literal description or overview of a new friend’s story can certainly be interesting but falls pitifully short of describing their depth of character: who they are, how it feels to know them in a specific context. I can record gourmet dinners painstakingly crafted and served to an unlikely group huddled around a square camper table sitting in the middle of the desert. Candlelit meals beneath the deepening evening sky. Listening to incredible stories stowed away in the back of a camper van bumping very, very slowly down rutted dirt roads. Sweating over boulders in the punishing New Mexico sun, slowly but surely orchestrating together the rise of a wall out of the dust. But I can’t record how it feels to get to know a person in extraordinary circumstances from extraordinary origins, a group of people far flung and far fetched who form a bond at a brief confluence of their lives all under the context of transitory presence: the knowledge that what is now will not soon be, and so every inside joke, each philosophical conversance, every cursing fit, each unlikely campfire tale and dream quietly shared takes on significance particular to the specific people experiencing them in as unique, singular context. It’s a beautiful, complicatedly simple phenomenon transpiring in different but essentially similar ways all over the world referred to simply as community. For me it served to reinforce one of the core lessons this trip has offered to me, namely that it really doesn’t matter where you live. Beauty to surmount any mountain panorama, any morning bird-song symphony, any soaring city skyline can be found anywhere there is meaningful work to be done and a community you can love and be loved by. Interestingly enough, for so many of us, something within us whispers it will be so much easier to spend thousands of dollars on “dream” vacations, or slave our way up the corporate ladder, or run to the farthest corner of the undeveloped earth in search of the fulfillment that can be found anywhere in the world simply by starting a conversation.

Death Beach

The slow, rhythmic crash and retreat of waves on the stony gray beach. Fog rolling in off the Pacific ocean. Entranced by the scene set by nature in this foreign, harsh region, I wandered up the shoreline, loosely following my brother’s tracks through the mist. We could see perhaps half a mile or less before the smoky bubble surrounding us thickened into a wall. The veil seemed to travel with us, as though receding at our advance and snapping at our heels, creating a dichotomous aura of eerie captivity and comforting envelopment.
We’d long since passed the last human presence on the beach. Not another soul had graced the shoreline at Elk Prairie National Park during the last hour of our trek. That afternoon we’d hiked four miles through a gigantic coastal Redwood forest, the first leg in a planned twelve mile loop. After our exodus from the forest, a wonderland and enclosure of an entirely different kind, the plan was to walk two miles up the mineral beach before turning inland again. But as yet unbeknownst to us, we’d missed our turn. We’d gotten too caught up in the search for an ever more perfectly round stone on the beach, or perhaps the ocean, the most ancient siren, was trying to lull our senses long enough to ensnare us in her long, foggy tendrils, to bog us down until high tide or a crashing sneaker wave could drag us, entranced and unaware, to a watery grave.

The beach was vastly different from anything I’ve seen out East. The water at low tide was calm, sending long, shallow waves yards up the shore. Instead of smashed shells, the dark gray sand was littered with smooth stones in varying shades of blue, white, pink and green. Rock monoliths protruded out of the water off the shore in the distance. The ocean, like the air, was cold, despite the diffused sunshine.

The place was one of the few special areas in the world where the forest extends almost to the beach with a short transition of thick, six-foot grass, smaller trees and dense shrubs standing between the ancient arboreal Redwood giants and the ocean. For a while, the peaceful scene stood in stark contrast to signs passed earlier warning us of tsunamis and sneaker waves, the serenity of the place in the present belying the seismic violence sometimes visited upon it.

However, as we traveled farther and farther north we began to see fewer signs of life. The already sparse stands of beachgoers and seagulls disappeared in the mist, replaced on the empty beach by piles of desiccated, dissected crab carcasses. They lay at intervals in clusters, both shattered and intact carapaces from a few inches to eight or nine across – the remains of young and old alike surrounded by limbs and joints, broken claws and mandibles scattered about the bodies. Every now and then we’d pass a fresh carcass, its limbs still articulated and limber enough to pose, but its body eaten or rotted out from the bottom as though some worm had colonized the thing and chewed away at it from the inside out until with the last of its failing strength it had crawled out of the dunes toward the ancestral burial grounds of its brethren and, utterly spent, collapsed beside the sea. We passed many of these solitary sentinels intact amongst fields of older fractured skeletons, their bodies slumped forward in the sand, resignedly awaiting their own disarticulation by time, or scavengers, or the tide.

Soon after the crabs appeared, we began to find the bodies of seagulls, equally stiff and dry, the flesh long gone from their bones, leaving only a mass of feathers, tiny skulls and scaly feet. Gradually the numbers of dead seagulls and crabs increased, littering the beach with their remains to the point where the place was robbed of its former peace and the aura replaced with an eerie desolation – until we came upon the largest deposit of all.
Here avian and crustacean alike lay dead side by side. Several intact members of each species rose like islands amid the wreckage of their comrades’ bodies, only recently begun to degrade themselves into the field of mouldy feathers, claws, skulls and thinning chitin. I could imagine a monumental battle taking place: legions of crabs rising out of the surf, claws clacking ominously in a staccato war-marshall as they marched to meet their avian foes. An alliance of seagulls, having quit their usual squabbles to address this revolutionary threat, circled at the ready above the crustacean advance, calling out their ranks and orders from the mist above the chosen killing field.
A reef of sand crabs lay dead in the tidewash, perhaps the ill-fated vanguard of the invertebrate advance. At least a hundred perished and were swept ignobly into a gulley below the main graveyard, sacrificed for the cause of freedom from predation heralded by the union of their once populous nation with the armies of their larger cousins. What heroism and villainy must have transpired on that rocky beach; what incredible struggle and destruction from the collision of haughty predator and rebellious prey on such a brutal, primal mustering grounds where met the forces of revolution and of status.

But in the end, what tragedy. It would seem that none of the many participants understood that their world, so harsh and terrifying for the fearful, scuttling crab, so spare and lonely for the circling, hungry gull, had always been at balance and fair. Mother nature is indiscriminate in the giving and taking of life. All creatures, whether they make their home in the dunes and the waves or circle the ocean of the sky must die and become nourishment for the next generation of life. In their rebellion and retribution the two warring nations seemed to have accomplished nothing but the untimely hastening of the inevitable. No crabs scurried across the dunes or bubbled beneath the surf here. No gulls cried out for joy to the hunt or for loneliness to the waves any longer. The beach was quiet, and still. The fractured warriors, revolutionary and overlord alike, had as one given up their ghosts.
I, a transient observer, took in the scene quietly, and moved on. Not long after, I passed a solitary crab on a smooth patch of beach, slumped face-forward in the sand. Johnny, walking ahead of me, had stood up a single gullfeather beside it – a fittingly sanitized and solemn monument to the tragic destruction of the CrustAvian War.

After the battlegrounds we encountered a tidepool nestled under a ten foot sand ridge, but upon approaching found it dried up. We could tell just where the last pockets of water had pooled because hundreds of tiny fish lay stacked and stinking on top of each other atop the cracked silt. We weren’t even surprised anymore at that point. After walking for an hour and a half, the last hour or so in total isolation, and encountering many more dead things, we began to look in earnest for our point of exodus from that God-forsaken beach. We had exited the redwoods earlier onto a gravel road traveling north to south between the beachside scrub and the forest, then taken a short path through a cleared beachside campground toward the ocean and turned north. The trail we planned to take is rather poorly documented, and the only guide I could find instructed us to walk two miles along the shore before taking a right turn back toward the road, marked only by a “notch” in the wooded bluffs backed up the old growth forest. That should have been a red flag in the planning stage, but for better or worse it went undetected.
We’d been walking on the harder packed wet sand by the water’s edge for most of the trip, which was a gamble because the tide had deposited a sand bank between the ocean and the main expanse of the beach tall enough to obscure our view to the scrub and potentially to our turn-off. After making the decision to brave the more punishing dunes above, we rested a moment on a massive, gnarled bleached-white tree trunk upended in the sand bank before turning inland. About fifty meters of dry sand stretched between the scrubline and the tide ridge, dotted with bleached driftwood and small tufts of hardy grass. As we crossed over and walked along the dunes beside the scrub, the fog lifted enough to see farther down the beach – too far. There was nothing but emptiness for a mile or more in either direction.
We were getting worried. The afternoon was wearing on, and if we didn’t find the path soon we’d have to admit defeat, turn around and once again slog across the interminable expanse of what we’d by that point dubbed Death Beach – or risk stubbornly overextending our hike and getting caught on the cold, windy dunes at nightfall in sneaker-wave territory with no equipment and dwindling supplies of water and food.
Neither option sounded particularly attractive. The earlier trance of the place thoroughly broken, we grumbled and stumbled stubbornly on, unwilling to make a decision.

Eventually we spotted signs of life – two actual, factual human beings far off in the distance. They had to have come from somewhere, and maybe, just maybe, they’d know where our trail was. Elated, we picked up our pace. But after about ten minutes of speedwalking through sand, our quarry was hardly getting closer, and we were burning precious calories and daylight. We made the decision to split up. Johnny would make a scouting run through the scrub to try and find the gravel road, which in theory should have been just a couple hundred yards away, while I doggedly continued to chase the mysterious figures ahead.

Elk Prairie National Park, one of several public lands that make up Redwood National Park, is so named because of the large elk herd that roams the beaches, meadows, and forests of the protected land reserve. We’d first encountered elk on the rim of the Grand Canyon the week before when an enormous cow sauntered across our path outside the campground. It was taller than me at the shoulder, and the bulls are even bigger. We’d seen some grazing around the park entrance here, and we’d been warned that there was a very territorial part of the herd that liked to hang out around the entrance to Fern Canyon, which happened to be the next stop for which we were searching on our ill-fated trek. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t the best idea to send my fifteen year old brother thrashing through the scrub alone in elk country with a high probability of surprising a group of aggressive, twelve hundred pound animals. But I mean, I’d have done it if I were alone, so I figured what the heck. Neither of us wanted to spend the night on that beach.

After a few minutes, Johnny came running out of the scrub, frantically waving his arms. He hadn’t found the road, but he had found the herd.

Luckily he’d managed to sneak off undetected and decidedly untrampled, gored, or otherwise irresponsibly damaged in a manner that would be difficult to explain to the parental units, but either way, we hadn’t found a path out and the distraction had cost us much of the precious little ground we’d gained on our human quarry. At the end of our rope, despairing of catching up, and running demoralizingly low on trailmix, we decided to walk a little farther north of the herd and launch a last ditch effort to bushwhack to the road, path or no path.

Up to this point Johnny had been periodically groaning about what had originally been planned as a two overnight, three day backpacking trip in the park but which had been compromised down to our ill-fated twelve mile day hike instead. Our current predicament would seem to validate his complaints. But after the elk incident, I’d noticed a change in his attitude. This was a real adventure now. If we didn’t play our cards right, there was a very real chance that we wouldn’t make it. This was an unforgiving region that claimed lives nearly every year. In reality, the chance was very small, but still there, and we both knew it. Our search began to take on a new sense of excitement.

Finally forsaking our quarry ahead, we turned inland. This was my first foray into the no-man’s land between the sea and the forest, and as usual, tough it may have looked like a straightforward passage from the beach to the road on the hazily remembered map, the reality was much different. Perhaps fifty meters of bushes and sparse greenery quickly gave way to towering tufts of tough, tawny grass. My first step into the thicket fell about a foot below previous ground level and I found myself consumed by a dense sea of grass, sharp blade edges at once proclaiming the displeasure of the residents of this unlikely wet-land savannah at our passing. As I followed Johnny’s head, bobbing through the top of the grass on its six foot five perch, I suppressed the image of a giraffe with a snicker and gratefully followed my much taller brother toward the distant wall of trees.

Just as I was beginning to feel somewhat claustrophobic and running out of patience with the mega-prairie’s angry protest against the integrity of my epidermis, we burst through the grass into a grove of small trees, whose understory, much to my chagrin, was populated by somewhat shorter – about hip-height – grass. At least I could see again.

Johnny leveled a look at me as if to say, “Great idea. Now what?”. There was no road in sight. I shrugged and said, “Lead on.”

We began picking our way through the forest’s underbrush, feeling very much like explorers in a foreign land. There is very little left in the geography of our world that has not been discovered by humans, and what remains is probably better off that way. But as others have done before and will do again – when desiring adventure but left without an unexplored place, the solution is simple: throw out the map. Our knowledge of this place amounted to the cumulative research conducted in about half an hour in a cricket-infested hotel room somewhere the central California valley a few days before and what we’d gleaned from reading exhibits at a visitor center earlier that morning. This environment was the furthest thing from what we’d expected to encounter in Redwood National Park. We knew our way around forests and the typical dangers thereof, but this was something entirely different. Who knew what could be lurking in the grass or crawling through the mud, just waiting to pounce?

A string of expletives interrupted my thoughts as something stung my leg, and continued stinging it as I crashed through the vegetation in an ineffectual attempt to distance myself from my attacker. I caught up to Johnny in a clearing, skin burning and stinging still in several places. “What the hell was that!?” It had gotten him too. Stinging nettle is not so vicious as that in New Jersey, but then again, our resident members of the deer family are not twelve hundred pounds either. It probably takes more venom to deter an elk’s appetite.

It was obvious at this point that we weren’t going to find the road quickly, and if we continued searching we risked wasting precious time as the hour marched toward our temporal point of no return, when it would be too late to make it out of the forest before sundown even if we turned back the way we came. A steep wall of rock sloped up beyond the clearing, blanketed in small trees that kept us from seeing how high it climbed. We were in the heart of elk territory now, not far from where Johnny had spotted the herd, and we were wasting daylight. We needed to move.

A few months before, toward the tail end of my service year with AmeriCorps, a friend had given me a gook about the psychology of survival – a look into the minds of those who make it out of desperate situations, those who don’t, and those who understand how to stay out of bad situations in the first place. Predictably, most people who avoided life or death situations in the same context as others who hadn’t, such as hikers on the same trail, climbers on the same mountain, or sailors on the same seas, were successful because they were much better prepared far in advance. They studied the maps, they knew the dangers, they avoided predictable bad weather or dangerous routes. They learned what they needed to in order to avoid a desperate situation long in advance. In other words, survivors of Everest, or solo ocean voyagers, or deep backcountry adventurers dared greatly, but thought hard first.

These were the ones who by the combination of their own preparation and chance or God’s good graces never encountered a life or death scenario for most of their careers, until one day something went wrong. The book presented a number of case studies where adventurers on another expedition of a type that had always completed successfully before, or just hikers on a mundane trip, made a small, usually irrational mistake that had the chance to snowball into a catastrophe if not checked quickly.

An experienced, fit, veteran hiker, climber seaman or other adventurer would go out on what seemed like a routine trip to them, something they had accomplished many times before in similar context. Then, something small would go wrong: they would realize they had used more water than planned, or the temperature was sightly higher than expected. Maybe they sustained a minor injury, or realized they took a wrong turn and that backtracking to the right path would leave them with too little time to reach their planned destination safely. What would often happen would be that the person had planned their trip so meticulously and for so long that they wouldn’t or couldn’t bring themselves to see their view of the future, their well-laid plan, change. To turn around, to re-evaluate, to admit the possibility that completion of their goal was no longer safely possible, was emotionally painful and rationally distasteful in light of the relative sacrifices undertaken to bring the person to the execution of their plan.

The author makes a very convincing case for the answer to the mystery of how experienced, intelligent people continually make simple but lethal mistakes, backed by studies conducted by similarly puzzled researchers. A combination of rational cost analysis given urgency by a powerful subconscious, emotional force which resists the reconfiguration of a preconceived plan that points toward the emotional gratification promised by summiting the mountain, completing the voyage, or successfully navigating through a storm to a destination pushes people to shortcut the trail, continue into weather threatening a storm, or push on toward the end of a wilderness trail with a rolled ankle.

The book delves into the role of the subconscious as a primal survival mechanism and its influence on rational thought in dangerous situations, with the goal of making the point that though modern man supposes himself so far removed from the visceral world of nature, we would do well to understand how the vestiges of our own emotional survival mechanisms influence us to this day. It’s an exploration of a very complex system and makes for a fascinating read. I finished the book, called “The Science of Survival” a couple months before this trip and had given it to Johnny, who was reading it concurrently.

In that clearing, we were at the pivotal point in our own case study. We had the benefit of youthful fitness which can absorb a lot of physical punishment resulting from blunders in the wild, but other than that we were unprepared. We had little useful knowledge of the flora and fauna in this region, nor its weather patterns. We had no map. Our supplies of food and water, prepared only for a day hike, were dwindling. We had no wet or cold weather gear and no camping supplies. Basically, we had researched, prepared, and equipped ourselves only for a moderately ruged day hike through marked trails in a relatively familiar arboreal ecosystem – but that wasn’t what we encountered.

Perhaps, if we subscribe for a moment to the arguments of the aforementioned author and of my college psychology professors, I had made an irrational connection in the planning process when reading through the part of the trail guide that said the turn off the beach would be hard to see, as it was marked only by two notches in a cliff. I’d found the trail in what at the time seemed like worse places with more ambiguous instructions before and no negative consequences, so why should I be worried now? However, the part of my brain that instantly bypassed thought and emotionally connected ambiguous trail-markings with ultimate success at a rewarding challenge failed to synchronize with the rational part that would have told me that in every one of those instances I lost a significant amount of time mucking about the woods, or the basalt lava flow, or the mountain bald trying to find the trail – but I was fully equipped with gear and supplies which allowed me to camp wherever I wanted in a warm tent and eat and drink my fill with a minimal amount of added discomfort when I could no longer reach my pre-planned destination in time, thereby absorbing the negative connotation of that lost time with a more powerful sense of success and adventure.

Here, on the fringes of Death Beach, three thousand miles from home in a foreign ecosystem, we did not have the luxury of gear and supplies, and so learned a valuable lesson in the importance of contingency planning.

That clearing was the point in the case study where the outcome could go several ways – we could have stubbornly persisted in our belief that the road was right over the ridge where it “should” be according to my likely faulty mental image of the map and overconfidently muscled our way into the forest, traveling farther and farther off the beaten path. We could’ve easily gotten lost, injured, dehydrated, disoriented and stranded in the dark, damp, and increasingly cold forest. We were off the trail and no one knew exactly where we were. Or we could have said to hell with the road to hell with going back, and walked on down the beach in search of wherever the people we’d seen earlier had come from, though they could’ve been as lost as us – and just as easily been caught on the beach at nightfall, and high tide.

Right there, we were in very little real danger. But as I considered our options I had to wonder at how easy it is to misstep; how we are only ever moments from death, and one seemingly small choice can tip the scale between adventure and catastrophe.

Luckily, when you have an active imagination and someone else’s skin beside your own to worry about, a little danger goes far enough. We bit the bullet and turned around.

However, there was still the matter of digging ourselves out of the current mess and reaching the beach again. To the west, the way we’d came and the most direct route back to relative safety for the night, lay the fields of six foot razor sharp grass and stinging nettle. Neither of us relished the thought of revisting that, so in a bid to bypass the certain discomfort of the pseudo-jungle we turned south – toward the elk herd. We’d been told earlier at the ranger station that the herd patrolling this particular section of the park was especially territorial, and had recently treed a pair of bikers who had raised their ire for some time. As we were effectively babes lost in the bush in this environment (say what you will about James Cameron’s Avatar, aka Pocahontas in Space – the scene where Jake Sully is rather angrily rescued in the jungle at nightfall by his blue alien crush is a good depiction of the wilderness intelligence of the average modern American) and presented an even less daunting target on foot to a large angry mammal, this news was understandably the source of our trepidation about the herd.

I could see now, as the grass was still shorter in the section of no-man’s land, so I took the lead this time. We soon found traces of the elk’s passing: flattened grass where they’d bedded, hoof prints in a path and voluminous piles of crap. It was clear from the direction the grass bent along their path that they’d been going the same direction as us, south, which made sense considering where Johnny had spotted them earlier. The huge animals had flattened a relatively small game trail, a narrow swath perhaps a foot wide at ground level but nearly completely filled in at the top by neighboring tufts of grass. Still, it was the clearest way through, so we followed it into the ever thickening sea. It was just like tracking deer in New Jersey, only the deer were five times the size, aggressive, and this wasn’t a New Jersey hay field. As I pushed wave after wave of dry grass out of my face, suddenly over my head again, I felt very much like I was bushwhacking through some preternatural prairie harboring beasts of a scale proportionate to their browsing material, lurking just out of sight.

After a couple minutes of this, we were getting anxious. We could only see a few yards at a time, and we were utterly trapped should we stumble on an elk calf and its mother, or a bull. I’d catch my breath around every turn, half expecting to be gored the next instant, but we pressed on. Finally the grass thinned, and we stumbled out of the sucking mud onto terra firma, back in the scrublands. Immediately Johnny’s head snapped to the left and he started forward, long legs crossing yards in a second before I registered what was going on. But he stopped as quickly as he started and said sheepishly, “thought I heard something.”

I laughed at him, but I really couldn’t say anything. I hadn’t heard anything. It’s a silver lining of hearing loss, though also a curse. Most of the frightening unknown things that go bump in the night, or in a super-meadow, are both harmless and beyond my range of hearing, and so don’t disturb my peace when they keep others awake. But then, some things are most certainly not harmless, and I miss them all the same. I’d have to have a dog with sharp ears if I ever lived in some post-apocalyptic wilderness. Or a little brother. Same difference.

We quickly crossed the scrublands, noting with no small sense of relief as the elk prints, which had swelled since the single file path to reveal the size of the herd, turned away and continued south as we headed back toward the beach. Upon finally reaching the sand, we allowed ourselves a brief moment of celebration before beginning the long, slow slog back to the beach trailhead.

It was every bit as awful and interminable as we’d imagined it would be. But we were hyped up now with the thrill of adventure, and the fact that the sun was still declining on its arc. We weren’t out of the woods yet. Figuratively anyway. But we marched on across the dunes, together this time. The sand seemed to roll by both faster and slower as we retraced our steps , entertaining ourselves with conversation and by skipping the beautiful round stones found in abundance there across the dunes. After an interminable expanse of time and beach, we encountered signs of life, or rather, past life – we’d hit the dried up tidepool filled with piles of dead fish, and the site of the CrustAvian wars followed soon after. Eventually, we made it back to the campground where we’d turned off that damned road onto the beach.

After briefly considering hiding in the showers at the crowded pay campground that night, or God forbid, asking a ranger for a ride back to the visitor center trailhead, we eyed the position of the sun, or rather the brightest spot in the ever-present fog, and decided to take our chances and hoof it back through the forest for the reward of unaided success, a meal, and a good night’s sleep.

We half walked, half jogged the four remaining miles back under the towering redwood canopy over a trail much darker than we remembered it being over six hours ago, and finally burst out of the forest alive, sweaty, and with time to spare. The sun was setting over a meadow where several elk were grazing peacefully beside the road. We ate our dinner of canned soup and cold kidney beans in the car and basked in gasoline-powered heat and the wi-fi emanating from the locked visitor center. As I watched the herd and opened a fresh sleeve of saltines I could swear I saw one of them wink.

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…