4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the category “Southwest”

It Is Much Less Stress Going Car-Less (by Nathan)

Sunset over Donner Lake, made possible with my car.

Freedom.  Finally I was free, sixteen years old and I had a driver’s license and a car.  I could go anywhere and do anything.  It took hard work, but after two years of dishwashing I had saved enough to buy a used pickup truck and the insurance and gas to keep it going.  I did not realize it then, but this first purchase, this first attempt at freedom meant that I would be constrained and obligated to maintain, insure, fuel and protect my investment.   Owning a car comes with baggage, too much baggage.  I just sold my car and I am now more free than I ever was!

Owning and driving a car in the United States has become more than a privilege, but a right and a necessity.  “I love public transit (for other people), but don’t take away my parking space” is a phrase that echoes in thousands of forms across the urban areas of the United States.  With subsidized gasoline and smooth highways, GPS and music at your fingertips, who wouldn’t want to drive?  For many, that act of driving is essential to their lives, maybe it is freedom, maybe it is easy, but I wish that everyone knew just how expensive driving a car can be.                                  

  • American drivers                        Nathan                  Nat’l Average
  • Average miles per year:                 6,700 mi                13,500 mi
  • Average cost per mile:                   $0.37                      $0.64
  • Average cost per year:                   $2,500                   $8,500
  • Average cost per day:                    $6.90                      $24.20
  • Average hours per year:                192 hrs                   386 hrs
  • *Sources AAA Driving Costs & FWHA Annual  Driving Averages

Owning the same little pickup truck for twelve years has its perks.  With my one and only car, my vehicle costs were almost a quarter of the national average.  And I still spent almost $7 a day to keep my wheels ready to move when I wanted them.  How did I keep the costs low?  I bought a cheap truck for cash, insured it with bare minimums, I performed my own maintenance and a rarely drove.  Over twelve years my vehicle related costs were over $30,000.  Not anymore.

These are just personal costs; no one realizes the stress of just driving, the necessity to focus on the road, the anxiety from unpredictable traffic and the road rage that flows to and from all the drivers on the road.  The infrastructure costs to create and maintain roadways and the environmental impact from personal car use is also not considered in these numbers, if people knew these numbers would they still be petitioning against that new train, BRT or subway line?

I will miss my little truck.  We had some great memories together.  My truck and I initiated my love of travel with trips to the mountains and canyons of the western United States.  We camped under the stars, blasted our favorite tunes and for over a decade we had a life that was entwined and dependent on each other.

My last day with my truck

Dear little black truck:

I am breaking up with you.  As you know, I am no longer working.  I will be traveling for the next year and I cannot give you the attention you deserve.  I find that I am much happier when I am on a subway train or bus.  I think we would both be better if we had someone/something else in our lives.

This does not mean that I did not enjoy grabbing onto your hard steering wheel, pushing your gas pedal and driving you crazy through the day and night.  Thank you for all those good times.   I remember all of our wonderful hours together, the miles upon miles of open road and how you kept me safe.  You will be missed.

To my four-banger, the little-truck-that-could and the Nissan Hardbody (oh wait that was your real name), I wish you the best life romping through the grassy hills of the Marin headlands.




Lake Powell and Layover Las Vegas (by Nathan)

Stepping away from the Grand Canyon was a difficult task for me.  I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of the Grand Canyon.  We enjoyed brutal heat and shaded strolls; we camped in the valley and on the cliff’s edge; and in total we covered over fifty miles of beautiful canyon lands.  We packed up our tent and sleeping bags, we gazed one final time out from Cape Final Point and we walked away from the Grand Canyon.  Of course there will be a next time, but our tour of the Southwest went in search of another thing- water.

Green sage and coral sands of Page Arizona

We drove north and descended four thousand feet into the desert.  We cruised through the canyons and sand fields admiring all the beauty around us.  The pastel green sage brush flourishes on the coral colored sand that stretches forever into the desert.

Horseshoe Bend

Then we met up with a seemingly impossible and striking section of the Colorado River called Horseshoe Bend.  The meandering of the river has slowly carved out these drastic curves into the rock.  Eventually the two ends of the horseshoe will meet and only a column of rock will remain.  This section just above the Grand Canyon is the last remaining visible portion of Glen Canyon.

Red rocks of Upper Antelope Canyon

Glen canyon has all sorts of controversy around it.  The upstream section of the Colorado River carved out numerous fingers into the bright red Navajo sandstone.  The beauty and richness of the colors was supposedly unmatched by even the Grand Canyon.  John Powell fought to conserve the canyons, but a dam was built, the lake filled and it was named after the man that tried to prevent it.  The beauty of the canyons was transformed into a vast, but narrow lake of crystal blue waters.  The lake intertwines in and out of ancient canyons leaving just a hint of the red and white rock exposed on the surface.  The lake is beautiful in its own way, but different from the natural canyons that remain beneath the surface.

Sunset camping on Lake Powell

When we finally arrived into Page, Arizona the only thing on my mind was to find a way to go swimming.  The temperatures teased around one hundred degrees and the locals kept telling us that it does not get really hot until September. Nevertheless we found a spot for our tent that doubled as a place to swim.  We could sit with our feet in the water next to our campfire and only a few short steps away from tent. 

Rainbow of canyon colors

A trip to Arizona and Utah would never be complete without a slot canyon.  Slot canyons are narrow sections of rock where the water has carved out a passageway three to five feet wide.  One of the most beautiful is the Antelope Canyon.  The area is controlled by the Navajo Nation, and the tourists have arrived in hoards.  The immense beauty is worth the shoulder to shoulder grappling for the perfect picture.

Illuminating light rays

Light and shadow of Antelope Canyon

The Upper Antelope Canyon is roughly 100ft deep and entirely navajo sandstone.  The light of the sun reflects of the red rock creating a rainbow of textures and colors.  The formations communicate an ever-present flow of time and erosion.   The most spectacular phenomenon occurs when the sun aligns perfectly into the depth of the canyon.  A little dust in the air creates a magical light beam that illuminates and intensifies the beauty.   There was only enough time for a few quick photos before we were rushed out of the canyon into the sun.

Four boots and Lake Powell

Carmen in route to a swimming hole

There was another great location to swim in Lake Powell just to the northeast of the dam.  A short walk along the striped rock, boots removed and we were diving and jumping into the cool waters.

Glorious grilled cheeses

In ten days we had camped on cliffs, under trees and in the desert heat.  Our legs were tired and our clothes dirty, but that was no reason to stop us from having a little fun.  A key tradition of any road trip is a visit to In-N-Out.  A read of Fast Food Nation and a taste of their legendary sandwich and anyone would agree that it is the perfect conclusion to a rigorous vacation.  Carmen and I do not even order the burger; the grilled cheese with extra veggies is amazing.

Las Vegas Strip

The fun continued with a layover in Las Vegas.  When given the choice of driving eleven hours straight to southern California or spending a night in Vegas, the decision was easy.  We plopped our dusty packs into the air-conditioned room and we were on the streets taking in all the craziness.  Stepping into casinos and the commotion of so many tourists was a shocker after spending so many hours isolated in the wilderness, but there were so many ways to be entertained!

Feaux Eiffel Tower

Inside the Venetian

We decided to see a Cirque du Soleil show and we found ourselves at the box office ten minutes before show start.  Lesson learned, smile and always ask for a discount!  The kind woman worked with us, found us great seats and we saved $50 each.  In seconds we were running up the stairs and watching the wonderfully done LOVE acrobatic show.

Stripes and weathered sandstone of Lake Powell

Our thrilling trip to the Grand Canyon, Lake Powell and Las Vegas came and went in a rush of excitement.  I was constantly stunned by the detail and intricacy of every rock formation and I am amazed that Carmen and I were able to explore so much of it in so little time.  These areas are a unique portion of the world with a beauty that is rich, vibrant and essential to any world traveler.

The Cooler Side of Grand Canyon on the North Rim (by Carmen)

The open road

Rim to rim, the Grand Cayon is eight to ten miles wide as the crow flies.  But as our car drives, it is a 200 mile route that takes 4.5 hours.  That’s because you have to drive to the very beginning of the canyon, where it becomes narrow enough to create a simple bridge over it.

Striped hillside along the route to the North Rim

But it is a beautiful drive.  We were making our way at sunset which gave the landscape a golden glow.  I couldn’t help but think that this what American road trips are all about.

View of the mighty Colorado River from the bridge

We eventually crossed the bridge and headed just a few miles north of it, to Lee’s Ferry.  This is a historical site that marks the first ferry crossing in the area.  It was created in 1871 by a mormon family to help other mormons settle what is now Arizona.  These days it is the launching point for the thousands of adventurous souls that raft down the canyon each summer.  We took advantage of a small campground there to take refuge for the night.

Historical fruit orchard

The next morning we explored the area where there are still some cabins built by the original settlers.  They even have a small graveyard for all those that perished in the settlement or while crossing.  Another one of their legacies is a beautiful fruit orchard that stands out like an oasis in the red desert.

Nathan with a rock formation

There are also these funky rock formations that are the result of a rock slide thousands of years ago.  As the softer ground erodes away around the boulder, it forms a sort of tree shape.  It was a reminder that this area of the southwest is truely a geologist’s dream.

View from the North

As we made our way to the north rim, the landscape changed dramatically.  Tall pines and aspens took over the red dusty earth.  There were grassy meadows and small ponds.  The North Rim is actually closed October to May due to snow.  It was amazing what 1500 feet in elevation could do.  This limited access also meant that fewer people visited the North Rim, which made for a calmer, more tranquil visit.  If I could only visit one side, I’d opt for the north.

Aspens above our camp in the Kaibab National Forest

The aspens were particularly pretty.  They were particularly prevalent because of a massive fire that swept through the area 20 years ago.  The aspens are the first to recover and provide shade so that the baby pines can grow.  Eventually the pines will become taller than the aspens, which will die out from too much shade.

Picnic table at Tiyo Point

View from Tiyo Point

After our arduous hikes on the south side of the Grand Canyon, I was ready to take it easy.  But, of course, Nathan had other ideas.  He was already ready for more hikes and backpacking.  So we compromised with an overnight backpack trip that was 12 miles out and back to Tiyo Point.  The hike did not dip into the canyon and instead remained on the rim.  Therefore, it differed from inner canyon hike in three glorious ways: it was flat, shady and cool.

Clouds over Cape Final

Tent on the edge

On our last night in the canyon, we made our way to Cape Final.  This was a special campsite, only 4 miles out and back.  It’s a popular day hike but for an even better experience it has just one little campsite sitting on the rim.

Nathan cooking up some din-din

We cooked our dinner (indian curried veggies with couscous) right on the point.  Meanwhile, we struck up a conversation with a day hiker who told us his inspiring stories of hiking in Nepal.  Someday…

Me doing a morning stretch with my oatmeal

Our last morning we woke up with the sun and watched it rise over the canyon with no one else around.  Spending a full week in the canyon was a wonderful opportunity, but it was time to move on north for more adventures.

Nathan couldn’t get enough of the Grand Canyon

Getting Down Deep In Grand Canyon’s South Rim (by Nathan)

Hiking shadows on South Kaibab Trail

The best way to describe the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in summer is HOT. The heat that collects in the valley billows over the rim in waves of hot air. The dryness creates a landscape that is seemingly bleak and lifeless. But then I when we peer down into the deep abyss, into the alternating colors of red, orange and white, we see the Colorado River. In total this artery to the region channels water for 1,500 miles acting as the lifeblood of a complex ecosystem. Thick pine forests meet the rims edge, and desert cacti cling to the valley sands. The waters were once colored red with silt, but are now blue and cold from dams upstream.

Grand Canyon from Monument Creek vista

We arrived just after dusk and pulled into a car camping spot just outside of the park. We woke at sunrise to go and see our first views of the canyon. We were immediately awestruck by the beauty of the canyon. The colors are bright and omnipresent; slowly the light brightens, our faces become visible and the glow fills the valley. We picked up our first set of permits at the back-country office and we were ready to begin our hike the following morning.

Carmen hiking on the South Kaibab Trail

Skeleton Point on the South Kaibab Trail

We had the afternoon free so we grabbed our water bottles and made our way to the South Kaibab trail. We traversed down the steep switchbacks and made our way deep into the canyon. This trail is exciting with steep cliffs on both sides and stunning views throughout its length. We walked along the ridge line soaking in the afternoon sun. Our final stopping area and snack break was at Skeleton Point, a saddle at the tip of the ridge before the trail breaks off into more switchbacks to the Colorado River. Rejuvenated from a short rest, we turned around and ascended the 2,000ft (600m) back to the trail head. As we climbed our way back up the mountain the sun began to disappear beyond the cliffs. Slowly the grey shadows began to darken and the blackness crept its way up the canyon.  We setup our tent and cooked dinner that night in the darkness of the South Kaibab National Forest.

Nathan making his way to Salt Creek

The sunsets in the Grand Canyon are beautiful, but it is at sunrise that the park becomes a scene of magic and changing light. Our hike into the canyon began early at 5am. We hiked down the switchbacks in the usable twilight of dawn. Slowly the canyon changed shape and color as the planar greys disappeared with a new day’s sun. The sunlight first touches the upper limestone of the rim in every direction. Slowly this bright golden light drips down the cliffs illuminating the entire canyon.

Carmen the morning hiker on Hermit Trail

Perfectly shaped yucca

The shadows disappear, the heat engulfs us and we continue our walk in the full sun. The hike planned was a three day, two night, 30mi (48km) loop starting at Hermit’s Rest and returning from Indian Garden up the Bright Angle Trail. It was going to be very hot in the valley so we tried to get a jump on it. Water was also scarce so we carried one gallon each to safely get to our backcountry campsite with a natural spring.

Monument rock pillar

By 11am we had made it to the campsite at Monument Creek. No one else was there (because it was too hot) so we got the pick of the campground. Our camp overlooked intricate cliffs of vertical red rock. One column of rock, the “monument” of our camp, stood prominently 150ft (45m) in the air in the creek bed.

Granite rapids of the Colorado River

We took a siesta in the shadows of the vertical rock. After 3pm the canyon began to cool down and it was safer to explore and hike around the area. Our camp was on the Tonto formation which is an enormous ledge that wraps around the entire canyon. The Colorado river sits another 600ft below. We walked along the dried out Monument Creek until our voices were drowned out by the roaring Granite Rapids. A small hike upstream and the water was still and frigid enough to make me yelp when I plunged in head first. Refreshed, we made our way back into the depths of the canyon.

Red rock cliffs

Walking from the river out of the canyon is a powerful experience. The dark black gneiss at the water’s edge is two billion years old; the age of the earth is five billion. The history of the world was everywhere around us.  We climbed over boulders and river rock to return to our camp, but we were also climbing back to the future. We walked from a time when volcanoes created the base of the canyon, and then alternating layers of sandstone and limestone as the landscape was created under large oceans hundreds of millions of years ago. Magnificent cliffs towered above us as we walked, but we remained careful of every step spending most of our time watching where we were going.

Three rattlesnakes and a lizard

We encountered three rattle snakes in the first three days of visiting the Grand Canyon. In all cases the snakes were curled up in defense as they had heard us coming. To our benefit we walked with hiking poles that led us along the trails and river banks. With each discovery of a snake, it was fascinating how the colors varied and each was so remarkably camouflaged into its surroundings. A rainbow colored lizard insisted on hanging around our camp, he was plump and bold. He’d stare at us, and, when he knew we were watching he’d start a series of pushups then move a few inches and begin another set of pushups.

Indian Garden on Bright Angel Trail

Textured cliffs of Indian Garden

Our second day of hiking was brutal. The hike itself was mostly flat as we traversed along the Tanto Trail that followed the steady, but exposed rock formation. The challenge was that by 6am we were already walking in the sun, temperatures quickly reached 100 degrees and we had six more miles to go. One step at a time we slowly and carefully made it to Indian Garden. This lush valley had been used for thousands of years for seasonal agriculture by the Havasupai tribes. Today it is filled with non-native cottonwood trees, water-filling stations and many back-country campsites.

View from Plateau Point

Dinner at Plateau Point

For dinner that night we decided to hike out onto the plateau point about a mile and a half from camp. From there we watched the sunset, and cooked up one of our standard back camping meals of sautéed tuna, onions, carrots and garlic over couscous with lemon. We could see the Colorado River from our little perch and quickly the sun faded away leaving us to walk in the dark back to our tarp.

View from Hermit’s Point

Ideally when we backpack, Carmen and I carry a tent. The lower elevations of the Grand Canyon were so hot that we left behind the extra weight and instead slept with only our silk sleeping sacks and the footprint of our tent. In the end it was well worth the 5lb savings, when we were also carrying 8lbs of water. That next morning we awoke again in the darkness to set out on our ascent out of the canyon. By 8am we had climbed 3,500ft (1,050m) and we sat at the Bright Angel trail head, catching our breath, finishing off our morning snacks, and gazing out into the morning sun lit canyon.

Native American building ruins

Indigenous tribes lived throughout the Grand Canyon for millennia. Evidence of their presence is well hidden, but everywhere. Only 5% of the national park has been surveyed and over 4,500 archeological sites have been discovered. It is estimated that there are over 50,000 sites in the park that contain, rock paintings, building ruins, burial sites and agricultural plots. Only the most elementary of this archeology is shown to tourists, but it is possible to bushwhack through the forest and come across, a circle of stones that once built a village, or hand painted pottery that is centuries old. Archeologists have found parrot bones in these areas, which proves that the Indians here traveled and traded with tribes in Central America. In the watchtower that was built on the eastern edge of the park there are some beautiful re-creations of Hopi Indian paintings.

Modern Hopi painting

Our first four days in the Grand Canyon took us to phenomenal vistas, dizzying temperatures and eye-opening history. The south rim is the most popular place to visit for tourists, many of the best lookouts are accessible only a few steps from the public tram. A ten minute walk along any trail and the canyon begins to engulf and encapsulate with spectacular colors and unimaginable verticality. We would hike for hours without seeing anyone and each shadow and niche, each boulder and ledge was only for us to see that day. Very quickly I felt alone, not in loneliness, but more so as an explorer seeing a magical place for the first time. During our hikes we descended into the depths of the canyon, touched the water, traversed the cliffs and climbed back out. We descended into a prehistoric era and climbed back into the present to realize that the Grand Canyon has been one of the most beautiful places on earth for the last five million years.

What Now? (by Nathan & Carmen)

Returning to San Francicso

Nathan’s favorite restaurant: Sol Food in San Rafael

When we initially thought of traveling for six months to a year the idea was more of a dream than a reality.  Traveling internationally becomes an addiction, some call it the travel bug, but our need to travel became a living necessity after our first trips to Europe.  The symptoms are rather subtle at first: excitement to review photos, enthusiasm when returning to our jobs and enjoyment to fall back into the routine of ordinary life.  Fast forward a couple months and the restlessness initiates the ideas of another big trip start forming.  We typically settle the anxiety through a scattering of weekend trips and hiking adventures.  Eventually the urge to travel becomes so intense that we busy ourselves planning the destinations of our next multi-week exploration.

Carmen on Barcelona steps (2006)

Returning to California meant some big choices.  While there were seemingly endless possibilities of what to do next, for us, it really came down to two.  Option 1 is to settle down somewhere and start job hunting.  “Somewhere” is still to be determined which is both scary and exciting.  Option 2 is to keep going and take the full year off to travel, explore, meet new people, hike, and eat delicious foods.  After much thought, financial analysis and discussion, we decided there was really only one responsible choice.  We simply had to find out what was behind door number 2.

Carmen enjoying a rosé and a perfect lunch at Prune in NYC (2011)

New York street art and bicycle (2011)

So we finally committed to a full year off.  Woo hoo!  Then the challenge was to figure out what the rest of the year includes.  First we made a fantasy list of all the places we would ever like to go if money and time were no object (i.e. the fun part). Next we cut down that list to what we could realistically do (i.e. the less fun part). Now we are in the midst of doing all the planning required to make the dream come true.  The rough itinerary for the rest of the year is as follows:

  • Summer 2012 :: USA
  • September – October 2012 :: Europe
  • November 2012 :: India
  • December 2012 :: Southeast Asia
  • January 2013 :: China

The blog continues! And we will be sharing and documenting the details right here for everyone to enjoy.  Here is a teaser of the things to come:

Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park (2010)

In 2010 we hiked embarked on a week-long expedition into the canyons of Southern Utah.  We discovered majestic scenery and seemingly painted landscapes.  Our enjoyment of the canyons of Cafayate and the beautiful rocks of our Salar de Uyuni adventure enticed us to go and see one thing – The Grand Canyon.  There will be more hikes, more food and more red canyons.

New York density (2011)

Chicago highrises (2011)

Our United States tour will continue from vertical cliffs to vertigo skyscrapers as we explore New York City and Chicago with friends and family.  From there we trade in the tallest buildings for the tallest rows of corn, Nebraska here we come!

Hiking with Manish in Muir Woods (2010)

Having a laugh outside Bouchon Bakery

We return for the best of California summer where we will be posting about the best spots in San Francisco and Los Angeles.  You can expect hiking and all of our favorite restaurants.

Gaudí’s Casa Batlló (2006)

The real excursion happens in September.  With our passports in hand, clothes freshly laundered we will be climbing aboard another jet plane for another five months of adventure.  First stop Spain.  There are just some activities that would never happen unless we took a year off to travel.  Thus, let’s put a our four feet to the test as we will be walking 500 miles across northern Spain on the Santiago de Compostela trail.

Nathan on the Thames (2010)

London’s historic architecture (2006)

Spain is not the only European place we want to see.  We’ll tie in our favorite city, London, France, Germany and some great wine excursions along the way.

Indian lunch while in Singapore (2009)

But nothing will be as bustling and exciting as what we expect to find in our next country.  We are both excited and almost giddy to begin our exploration of India.  We can’t wait to experience the intense flavors, markets and crowds that are unlike anything we have ever seen.

Thai cooking by 4FEET2MOUTHS (2011)

Our love of Thai food and our love of our Thai friend brings us to this beautiful country.  From boat-side street food to dancing octopus we will be trying to stay cool while eating chilies in Thailand.  Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam will conclude our exploration of the Indochinese peninsula.

Shanghai nightscape (2009)

Pan-fried Soup Dumplings at Yang’s in Shanghai (2009)

Asia would not be complete without seeing more of the wonders of China.  Carmen and I fell in love with the authentic and varied cuisines during a vacation in 2009.  From then on we have been obsessed with Sichuan cuisine.  We are looking forward to hardcore negotiating at the markets, mouth numbing delights from street side vendors and, of course, much hand waving and pointing.

Hong Kong density (2009)

Dim sum craziness in Hong Kong (2009)

We could not forget Hong Kong!  This city packs a punch with more fifty story buildings than anywhere else, delicious food and a perfect blend of East and West.

The Great wall of China (2009)

How about that for a year of travel?  We will explore four continents, over sixteen countries, all the while creating profound memories.  As much as possible we are going to try to meet up with friends along the way.  We will walk, we will eat and 4FEET2MOUTHS travels on – see you on the road!

Forbidden city cauldron handle (2009)

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