I Do Love to Plan a Trip

Mandy has the doctors’ blessings to keep playing; she’s learning how to protect her back and mitigate her pain. And so we’re launching ourselves, without the usual time to plan, into our summer adventures. Our friend Britt had planned to go with her on a two-week train-and-bike trip to northern New York, but they decided they weren’t up to the back-to-back 70-mile days that it would require. They’ve put their heads together and decided to go on a two-week rambling road trip to the Badlands, Corn Palace, Mount Rushmore, Glacier, and Arches. She’s gone to Tulsa for her three-week visit, leaving the rest of us to plan their trip. Britt’s planning the route and the side trips and the car campgrounds and the dayhikes they’ll do. Earlier this week, Britt tucked three pages of notes under my windshield wiper in the office parking lot.

2013 07 12 Britts Trip Notes for Blog Continue reading “I Do Love to Plan a Trip”

Inlaw Inspection 2010

Bryan’s mom is off work for Spring Break, and his dad took a week’s vacation to match. They came up to visit for part of the week, and asked for a good long weekend of camping near the Buffalo River.

On Saturday, on the way to Jasper, we showed them some of our favorite near-the-road waterfalls. At Falling Water Falls we got an extra treat — kayakers dropping off the falls into the water below.

Kayakers going off Falling Water Fall

Due to recent local rain, the water was up in Falling Water Creek. Six Finger Falls was flowing hard. We’ve spent lots of time in the creek here, playing in the clear water and sitting in the little hot-tub pockets that form at the edges of the six fingers, and downstream from here. Not today, though; the water’s rushing so hard I’m not sure we could even have waded across, much less relaxed in a quiet pool.

We tried to camp at Kyle’s Landing but the sign said it was full so we headed down the road to Steel Creek and set up camp for the night.

HDR photo of Six Finger Falls

On Sunday we rented canoes from Buffalo Outdoor Center in Ponca, AR and floated the Buffalo, from Steel Creek to Kyle’s Landing. Bryan and I are in a canoe together exactly often enough to be bad at it, so we always take a few minutes to remember how to pilot the thing. This time, though, we didn’t get that chance. Within ten feet of starting our trip, we went off some sort of stupid ledge and tipped our canoe RIGHT IN FRONT OF about ten other people who hadn’t pushed into the water yet. It was completely ridiculous. We were soaked all day, and I never warmed up.

Apart from that, the day was great. As a surprise for Mandy, Bryan rented her a kayak, and she adores having her own kayak. She happily paddled along with us most of the time, and traded spots with me only when her arms tired out. Bryan’s parents declined the trip up Big Bluff but did take the short hike to see Hemmed-In-Hollow waterfall (his dad is staring up at the 200+ foot waterfall in the photo below). We ate supper at the Ozark Cafe for the second night in a row, and Mandy and I headed back to Little Rock.

Bryan stayed another night at Steel Creek with his parents, and on Monday they went to see the Pedestal Rocks. His dad can’t hike a lot because of issues with his feet, so this trail was my pick for them — short and easy, with a great payoff.

I love the Pedestal Rocks. They don’t look like something that should be in Arkansas; they belong out west, or in Mexico, or as part of some alien landscape. And underneath, they’re like caves that aren’t.

HDR image of the underside of a pedestal

A little touring

Bike touring is essentially backpacking, on roads, with wheels. Touring bikes have a different frame geometry than road bikes do, they’re geared differently, and there are more attachments for racks and extra bottle cages. Everybody has a different setup for touring: John refuses to buy a touring bike at all, so he doesn’t have any way to carry bags; he just has a really nice light trailer with a big drybag on top. Brad rides a Bike Friday with yellow Ortliebs. Some people carry tons of stuff. I carry a lot less. Everybody’s a little bit different.

The venerable Voyageur began its life as a touring bike. At some point in its history I’ve swapped the touring gears for a more road-bike-like setup, so that needs to be switched back at some point. We’ve spent the last couple of weeks upgrading brakes and adding doodads and getting it ready for a trip.

For this weekend, the local bike club planned a “beginners tour” of three days and two nights. Scheduling issues meant our family was only going to do half of the ride, but that was okay. Then, Friday around lunchtime, Mandy suddenly came down with some bug and I had to pick her up from school; her fever meant that she couldn’t go on the ride at all. Bryan suggested that he could stay with her so that I could join the group. I hung around home until her fever broke and she was resting comfortably, so I didn’t arrive at the Toad Suck Campground until well after dark. Saturday morning, I packed up my bike with fourteen other riders and we left the campground.

Our route took us through Bigelow, over Wye Mountain (with its acres of daffodils), through Little Italy and Roland, and past Pinnacle Mountain.

We pulled into Maumelle Park at about five, still ahead of the rain. Under towering pine trees, the group worked together to set up their little tents. Since I wasn’t spending the night, I took some pictures and helped Diane set up her camp.

Bryan and Mandy arrived just in time to say hello to all the riders before it began to rain. The first drops splashed on the Voyageur as I loaded it into the truck. The bike performed flawlessly on its first packing trip. The new racks and panniers and lights worked well, and the company was good, and I think we both enjoyed the day.

(Thanks to Jenny Blue Sky for the group photo and the picture of Diane and her tent.)

Sometimes you just need to camp

It’s been a long, icky sort of week, so we decided this weekend to camp at Lake Ouachita State Park. We planned to stay in the campground and go for a couple of bike rides from there. Mandy’s had a bad cold, though, so the 25-mile route Bryan had planned for Saturday was scrapped in favor of just exploring the state park.

Since the park’s mostly oriented toward fishing and watersports, it’s very quiet in the wintertime. It was nearly deserted on Super Bowl weekend. We took the outermost walk in tent site, on a little peninsula, and had the whole place to ourselves. The water was glass-smooth and the woods were completely silent. It was almost like backpacking, but with a lot less work, and a warm bathhouse.

We call this ‘Still Life with Camp Shoes and Kleenex.’

Mandy spent a pleasant, chilly evening sniffling and poking at her campfire. We had grilled brats and chips and beer and cream soda, which felt like a special treat compared to our usual fare of freeze dried backpacking dinners.

The low overnight was around freezing, and the morning didn’t warm up as expected. This, combined with Mandy’s persistent cold, meant that we cancelled our Sunday ride and rested after breakfast instead.

It wasn’t a weekend of high adventure, but we enjoyed the quiet lake and the winter woods.

Tucson Honeymoon: Day 10

This is a multi-part trip report… if you haven’t already, you should start with Day 1.

Start: Monahans Sandhills State Park
End: Home!

Daily Mileage: 679
Total Mileage: 2870
(I know that doesn’t add up but that’s what the final odometer reading said)

We wake up amid sand dunes but far from a beach. Monahans is a weird place. I take down the tent and pack up while Bryan sets up the tripod for photos. The visitors center rents discs for a dollar and sandboards for two. I take the last picture of our gnome, walking up a dune toward the sunshine. Tonight we’ll sleep in our own bed, at home.

There’s nothing out here: the speed limit’s 80 and that seems like a good idea. Dairy Queen has supplanted McDonald’s as the fast food chain of choice. We drive past miles and miles of scruffy, ugly pasture land and oil rigs. Odessa is dirty and sad-looking and Midland, while surprisingly large, isn’t much better. The businesses along the highway are all drill-rig and tank and pipeline suppliers. The sky is big, though, and blue.

Texas is interminable, never-ending. They’re proud of being the “Lone Star State” but don’t realize that this is nothing to be proud of: one star means BAD service. I drove a lot today but I don’t think it helped much. We pull out all our long-trip tricks: Gogol Bordello, They Might Be Giants, Shel Silverstein. And we’re not even in Arkansas yet.

We’re torn between not wanting to end a great trip, and the realization that a hot bath in our own tub sounds wonderful. Both of us have very sore calves, odd since we felt good for the whole hike: maybe that long downhill at the end is what hurt us. (I’m pleased and surprised that my shins and knees (which are often a problem) are perfectly fine; the combination of trekking poles, good boots, and insoles saved me.) We must look funny, each time we stop to get gasoline, lurching and hobbling around the truck on our sore legs.

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Click to see the panorama larger!

We arrive home before midnight. The house is fine, and so are the cats, in spite of our worry, or perhaps because of it. We unload the truck, close the garage, and go to sleep in our own bed.

Bryan told me the other day about a photographer who had assembled in one place a collection of his life’s best work, a hundred great shots. Averaging 1/100 of a second each, the whole set represented one second of his life. One second.

Is this the way all our lives work? Is it the tiny details that are important, rather than the big story? At the end of my life, will there be a hundred little bits of beauty, shifts in perspective, pieces of kindness and truth and love and joy, that will represent my life? Could there be a book of a hundred pictures that will let me say “Look at these: this is what was important about the person I tried to be?”

Here are the photographs I would include from this trip: The feeling of a pack on my back as walk into the desert. The sound of Mandy’s voice on the phone, eager and curious. The smell of bacon frying in a tent doorway. The sound of the snow falling on the trail past Juniper Basin. The way Bryan’s hand felt in mine as we looked out together at the purple mountains.

Thanks for reading!

Bryan taking photos and Aly warming her feet in the bathroom at Monahans Sandhills State Park.

Don’t forget to check out our Flickr page for more photos from our trip.

Also, let us know if you liked the “blog” format of our trip-report. If it goes over well, look for future adventures to be posted here at http://summerwood.blogspot.com.


Tucson Honeymoon: Day 9

This is a multi-part trip report… if you haven’t already, you should start with Day 1.

Start: Tucson, AZ
End: Monahans Sandhills State Park

Daily Mileage: 565
Total Mileage: 1984

Our hotel room smells awful and looks like an REI explosion, but we’re clean and fed and rested and all our gear is dry now. It’s worth noting that the Fairfield Marriott has an excellent free breakfast, complete with good coffee, lots of pastry choices, a self serve Belgian waffle maker, and all the peanut butter packets you can sneak into your tote bag.

Our gnome likes his morning coffee, and he likes Belgian waffles too

We head east on I-10, a little sad to begin the end of our trip. We take an almost immediate detour and spend a lot of time finding a good spot to take panographic pictures of Tanque Verde Ridge. We hop a curb at an office building and Bryan uses his new pano tripod head, and I take pictures of him taking pictures, and of cholla in the snow.

Bryan and his tripod, camera, and pano head

In places, the towns are an hour apart, which makes for a miserable McDonald’s line on a big travel weekend. We sit in an interminable drive thru; I attempt to use the bathroom but abort the mission when I count 34 other women in line. We listen to “Jesus Don’t Want Me For A Sunbeam” (by Nirvana) on the iPod and then give up on McDonald’s, getting back on the interstate. We’ll get some nuggets somewhere else.

Here is a quote from my travel journal, written while flying down I-10 at 75 miles per hour:

Soaptree yuccas are stupid looking plants, like wandering midgets with bad hair, drunken and lost, lurching through the pasture grass. Some of them wave toilet brushes above their heads. Are they trying to hail cabs, out here in the weird, lonely west? Do they know how ridiculous they look?

We wander through an outlet mall, then eat supper at Chili’s in El Paso, a generic choice but we’re grumpy and tired. We talk to Mandy and enjoy hearing her cheerful voice, a bright spot in the evening. She is interested in our trip and glad to tell us that she’s impressed her friends in Oklahoma by doing 168 sit ups.

For awhile we parallel the Mexican border, and after dark we enjoy the idea that we’re looking miles away to the south at the lights from another country. About nine o’clock we pull off the interstate with all the other traffic to drive through a border patrol checkpoint. It is unexpectedly scary but after our truck is dog-sniffed and we tell the officers that we’re American citizens, we’re on our way again. The truck stop in Pecos is nasty, and we’re tired and ready to stop long before bedtime.

We arrive at Monahans Sandhills State Park around midnight. The camping spots are all surrounded by dunes of soft, light sand. It’s already below freezing but it’s not windy. We quickly realize that the sand won’t hold tent stakes, so we pull out the North Face 4-season tent Britt and Debbie sent with us. We’ve never set it up but it’s simple and before long I’m sitting up inside it, a luxury after hunching over in the little backpacking tent. Bryan takes some photos while I pop a flash inside the tent.

The stars at night, are big and bright, deep in the heart of Texas!

It’s funny how we get accustomed to chill, and how much more comfortable good gear makes things. I think about the friends who’d never consider tent camping in winter, but I’m cheerfully ensconced in a cozy tent, snug and warm in my sleeping bag, dry socks, down booties and vest.

We all have strange little quirks, and I find one of mine: I can’t sleep with a cold nose. I find a handwarmer and open it, put it on my nose, and quickly fall asleep again. The stars are clear and bright on this last night of our trip.

A selection of additional photos appears below, for more photos from the trip checkout our Flickr page.

Bryan taking a set of photos of Tanque Verde Ridge

An old train in front of the mountains

Teddy bear cholla

New Mexican sign: Their road map spells “Flying” and “Missile” wrong, too

Some of the overpasses in New Mexico were really neat.

Yes, that’s a truck, in a truck, pulling a truck

Worst name for a car dealership? Ever?

West Texas’ answer to the Chik-Fil-A advertising campaign; at least the ranchers can spell.

Day 8 – Day 9 – Day 10

Tucson Honeymoon: Day 8

This is a multi-part trip report… if you haven’t already, you should start with Day 1.

Start: Saguaro National Park (Juniper Basin)
End: Tucson, AZ

Daily Mileage: 14
Total Mileage: 1419

Miles Hiked Today: 7
Miles Hiked Total: 25

I wake early this morning, no doubt a result of our lion-induced super-early bedtime. We both slept better than we expected, I think, and the night passed without incident. It’s been raining for a couple of hours, and gusty. I listen to the iPod in the safe orange cocoon of our tent and wait for Bryan to stir.

Breakfast in bed, sort of.

The rain gives us a little break, so we get up and begin cooking breakfast. I move the packs inside the tent as it starts to rain again, and we finish cooking and eating our meal sitting in the doorway under the little awning. As we eat toasted bagels and oatmeal and bacon, we watch the light winter rain turn to sleet and then to snow.

Our faithful traveling gnome serves as a tent stake, replacing the one lost in the windstorm, while our tent collects snow.

We pump water and pack up camp in the falling snow, then head down the ridge. I like hiking in the snow, and Bryan begins by enjoying it but after several hours the novelty wears off; his feet hurt and he doesn’t like the falling snow in his eyes. The fact is, though, that the snow is beautiful stuff: puffy, Christmassy flakes covering the trail and softening the edges of the world. As we descend we see, again, ocotillo, then more and more yucca and cholla, and finally the first saguaros signaling our much lower elevation.

An uncommon photo opportunity

The lone hiker we’d encountered is gone by the time we get to the Javelina picnic area, and we have three miles of road hiking before getting to the truck. We could both walk the road with our packs, but since his feet are starting to hurt, Bryan volunteers to wait in the damp cold with my bag. I’m grateful to be rid of my heavy pack and enjoy the soggy walk on Cactus Forest Loop Drive. Not a single tourist offers me a ride, but I’m warm in spite of the rain. The far-off mountains are still shrouded in clouds, but the closer, lower peaks are snowy.

I hold Bryan’s pack while he takes a few quick photos and then I snap a picture of his silly grin. Spirits were still high!

The truck is a welcome sight and I drive it slowly back to pick up Bryan, who reports that all the old picnic shelters leak. (Apparently, actual rain shelter is not an important design feature in the desert.) We hurry to the visitors center to check in with the rangers before they close at five; it isn’t a requirement but we want to log our encounter with the mountain lion. They are interested in our story and tell us that a lion had been reported by someone else not long ago, on that part of the ridge. We also fill out a complaint form indicating that the bathrooms should be more conspicuous.

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Click the photo to see a larger version since it is stitched together from six images to form a 41 megapixel image.

I come up with a plausible reason for another hotel stay: our gear is all soaked, and we need to be dry and organized before starting home. The hot shower and clean socks feel good, and so does the prospect of a big supper.

Marriott provides whole-room gear-drying services

I love the fact that we have a favorite restaurant in Tucson. We wait for our table in El Charro’s bar, and when we’re finally sitting in the warm dining room we enjoy our enchiladas and tamales and tres leches cake. We’re tired but not miserable, at least as long as we don’t touch our calves, which were fine earlier today but are now suddenly very sore.

Day 7 – Day 8 – Day 9

Tucson Honeymoon: Day 7

This is a multi-part trip report… if you haven’t already, you should start with Day 1.

Start: Saguaro National Park (Douglas Spring)
End: Saguaro National Park (Juniper Basin)

Daily Mileage: 0
Total Mileage: 1405

Miles Hiked Today: 7
Miles Hiked Total: 18

We awake sometime after midnight to a blustery wind and a tent down around our faces. A gust has popped a guy line off a tent stake and part of our shelter has collapsed around us. After Bryan fixes it, the rain starts and it rains hard for awhile, the wind still pounding on the sides of our tent. Around dawn it lets up, giving us time to eat breakfast and pack up our things in a drizzle instead of a downpour.

Aly sleeps late at Douglas Spring

The trail from Douglas Spring to Cow Head Saddle goes up, up, up, with hardly a break. We look ponderous and heavy in our big packs, made even larger by their rain covers. We’ve left the desert plants behind; what’s here is a dense pack of short trees, almost like a miniature rain forest. We’ve had several creek crossings and even a little waterfall. We know that it rained an inch this week, after only eight inches in the past year. We can’t help but smile, thinking that our impression of the Sonoran desert is one of a rather lush and damp place.

The views are amazing from up here. The rugged purple mountains we’d been admiring from Tucson are all around us now. As we climb, we watch the clouds move in the peaks around us, intrigued by the patterns of rain and sunshine. We see two different rainbows today.

We turn right at Cow Head Saddle and head up Tanque Verde Ridge. Our thermometer reads 45 degrees but that’s hard to believe. The wind is vicious, sustained at probably 30 mph and gusting to 40 or so. There are a couple of times we’d each have fallen if we hadn’t been using poles, and once the wind shoved me into a big, prickly yucca.

Bryan finds a strange cluster of large rocks just off the ridge, and we use their shelter as a much-needed windbreak to eat our lunch. We can’t help but notice that the trail has a great deal of scat; apparently every large animal who makes it to the ridge poops on it. We note with some concern that a lot of what’s here is rather large, with a lot of berries. Will we hike with bears today?

On the ridge, we find a windbreak for our lunchtime stop

Finally, after a number of smaller “this must be it” peaks, we reach a sign for the REAL Tanque Verde Peak. We drop our packs and hike, much lighter, the few hundred yards up to the peak. It’s later than we thought but the view is amazing and the golden light near sunset makes for some lovely photos, and we don’t mind the prospect of hiking at night.

Finally, the sign for Tanque Verde Peak

We’ve been traveling through the low, damp woods, with little patches of untracked, old snow. Burned black skeletons of old pine trees rise above the heavy green foliage, for as far as we can see their separate shapes. By the time we reload our packs, it’s already dusky, with about two more miles to go before our backcountry campsite for tonight. The views from the ridge are amazing: eye level with the heavy, dark lower margins of the rainclouds, we look across at the dusky bulk of the next mountains. And, as hard as we’ve worked to get above the city, we still sometimes see the lights of Tucson spread out below us in the dusk.

After dark, our trail crosses several patches of bare rock, and is difficult to follow in spots. At each of these, I stop at the edge of the trail until Bryan finds the route off the rock; this keeps us from getting turned around in the dark and backtracking. We find that, while I like to hike in front for part of the day, I prefer that Bryan lead after dark, since he sees better at night.

About a half mile before camp, Bryan sees two eyes in the woods to our left. They hop hurriedly away and he’s excited to have seen another jackrabbit. Another pair of eyes peers out at him from a bush right near the trail, and he walks forward, turning his headlamp on high to get a better look. He stops, still in the path, with one arm out to block me: “Aly, it’s a cat.” We both take a step backward.

After a moment to collect our wits, we do all the right things: we wave our arms and yell, we throw rocks, and we don’t panic. One of Bryan’s rocks causes the lion to retreat enough that we can continue down the trail past where it was sitting, but after moving off just a few feet, it stops and watches us. Another rock makes little difference: the big cat is just watching.

Bryan walks slowly and I walk backward, just behind him, yelling “We are PEOPLE! We are BIG AND SCARY! Also, we are NOT AT ALL TASTY!” As silly as our words sound, we’re terrified. I move my headlamp from my neck to my forehead, in case appearing just a little taller might help. Bryan walks faster forward than I can walk backward, and I stumble and nearly fall. He slows down, then, and I pay a little more attention to the trail, but still, each time we look back, there are eyes behind us, following.

Sometimes the cat moves off to our left a bit, and sometimes it drops behind us, but always its wide-set eyes are the same distance away, not more than a hundred feet from us. Fortunately, the trail is crossing a rather flat area and we can see some distance. We continue our awkward retreat, still yelling, still moving slowly but moving away. But we don’t lose the cat. We realize, with alarm, that we’re being stalked.

We cross a little stream and the trail dips; we can still see behind and to our right, but the trail runs next to a cut to the left. We lose the lion; he could have stopped following us but he could just as well have climbed up the little hill to our left; he could be fifteen feet from us before we see him again. We hold our flimsy hiking poles and we yell and we know that, if the lion wants to catch up with us here, he can.

We want so badly to walk into the Juniper Basin backcountry site. We start to worry that in our preoccupation with being hunted, we’ve actually walked past it in the dark. But after a few more minutes of loud conversation and awkward backward lurching in the dark, we find a sign that says “Juniper Basin – Campsite and Comfort Station” and we follow its arrow.

The backcountry sites at Saguaro National Park have prefab toilet structures, and we’d used one just this morning at Douglas Spring. We’ve been talking about that bathroom for quite awhile, discussing how nice it will be to have a door to shut behind us, trying to figure out whether or not we can actually cook and eat supper in a pit toilet, puzzling over whether we could both somehow sleep on its floor with the door shut behind us. I’m not sure I’ve ever looked forward to seeing a bathroom quite as much as I was looking forward to seeing the bathroom at Juniper Basin.

We follow the arrow, and we find the first, and second, and third tent sites tucked into the folds of the wooded basin. But we can’t find the bathroom anywhere. We retrace our steps in the windy dark, still watching for eyes, still talking loudly, and still can’t find the structure.

Neither of us is hungry, so we opt to skip cooking supper tonight. We get out our plastic-coated guide and Bryan looks at the animal pictures: yes, he says, the face of the mountain lion on the page is the face he’d seen in the woods. We still feel vulnerable and worried, but we decide that we look less like food if we’re in a big orange tent. We set up camp, looking around us all the time, and we are very careful to put everything else in the metal bear box. We crawl inside the tent eat a “supper” of dried fruit, chocolate and water, and after a time, we fall asleep.

A selection of additional photos appears below, for more photos from the trip checkout our Flickr page.

There’s a bug in Aly’s peanut butter. You can’t see it, but it’s there

Near sunset, near the peak

Photos of both of us are rare, with no one to hold the camera; the peak logbook stands in

Day 6 – Day 7 – Day 8