4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the tag “Camping”

Hurting for a Yurting (by Carmen)

It was still a cold, blustery spring when our friend Taylor suggested a summer camping trip. As extra enticement, the campsite she had in mind came equipped with the most fun to say accommodation on earth – a yurt. The heat of summer was still just a glimmer in our eyes but we could already taste the campfire s’mores. We replied with an enthusiastic yes.

Yurt sweet yurt

Yurt sweet yurt

It was months later, in the dog days of summer that Taylor, Andrew, Nathan and I piled into our rental car for the drive to the Belleplain Forest in New Jersey. But NJ didn’t want us. Or so it seemed from the massive effort it took to get into and through the Holland Tunnel. When we finally emerged on the other side we all felt extraordinarily grateful for leading car-free lifestyles exempt from the daily traffic grind. We still had a ways to go since our destination was in the southern end of the state. We passed the time with upbeat music, good conversation and entertaining roadsigns, like the community of Cheesequake. I think NJ just wants to be made fun of sometimes. When hunger got the better of us, we made a quick pit stop for decent Chinese food in a random little town along the way. Thanks Yelp!

Building our fire

Building our fire

After a few hours on the road, we pulled into the campsite after dark and found that friend Megan and Andy had built a lovely campfire for us. What a welcome sight after a long drive.

Lake Nummy (photo source: Megan)

Lake Nummy (photo source: Megan)

Woodsy stroll (photo source: Megan)

Woodsy stroll (photo source: Megan)

The next morning I awoke to the most perfect weather ever. It was not too hot, not too cold; not too humid, not too dry; just right. To get a taste of the surrounding woods we did a quick stroll around Lake Nummy (rhymes with yummy :) before jumping in. While the lake was rather small, the designated swimming area was even smaller. And of course it was watched over by two lifeguards, just in case. Thankfully, we all survived.

Andrew after he successfully hung the hammock

Andrew after he successfully hung the hammock

Hammock views

Hammock views

Improvised hummus wrap (photo source: Taylor)

Improvised hummus wrap (photo source: Taylor)

We ate a crunchy lunch of veggie and hummus wraps and hung around until it was swim time again. While the group headed back to the lakeside, I opted to rest in Taylor and Andrew’s deliciously comfortable hammock while reading my beloved Alexander McCall Smith writing about my favorite city, London. Felt like care-free days of summer camp.

Cooking on the campfire

Cooking on the campfire

Campfire gathering

Campfire gathering

In the evening we gathered around the campfire to assemble some kabobs for dinner. Though by the end of it we were incredibly full on charred veggies and spicy rice we still had s’more room for dessert. Now I’m going to let you in on a little secret about s’mores – the best method for a perfect ooey-gooey s’more is to warm the chocolate. Because lets face it, chocolate tastes better in melted form. To do this simply place your square of chocolate on a graham cracker and place on a grate near the fire. It only takes a minute and your s’mores may forever be changed.

Sea Isle City Beach (photo source: Sea Isle City)

Sea Isle City Beach (photo source: Sea Isle City)

On our final New Jersey day we couldn’t pass up the a chance to visit the Jersey shore. Yes the shore of MTV infamy. Indeed there were the dense looking guys who spent way too much time at the gym and sunning themselves. But this simply gave the beach some NJ credibility. With good waves and decent sand even this California girl has to admit, this was a nice beach overall.

Thanks to Taylor, Andrew, Megan and Andy for a great weekend! Let’s do it again next year :)

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Solstice on Fire Island (by Carmen)

Sunset on the solstice

Sunset on the solstice

Yes, the solstice was a few months ago – we’re catching up a bit. After a strenuous hike on the AT, we decided to take it easy this time and head to the beach. The summer solstice seemed like the perfect time to get to the shore and soak in as much light as possible.

Wide open expanse of beach

Wide open expanse of beach

Fire Island is a skinny spit of land spread along the south shore of Long Island. While it only has 300 year-round residents, thousands of fair-weather visitors descend in the summer. Indeed Fire Island has reputation as a party zone, which explains why I got a few puzzled looks when I told people that I was backpacking there. The general lack of knowledge about the island’s wilderness zone worked in our favor as we encountered beautiful stretches of beach to enjoy all to ourselves.

Ferry that took us across Great South Bay

Ferry that took us across Great South Bay

Wooden walkways become the “roads” of the car-free sections of Fire Island

Wooden walkways become the “roads” of the car-free sections of Fire Island

Like the Appalachian Trail we had hiked earlier, the Fire Island trails had the great benefit of being transit accessible. We boarded a Long Island Rail Road train to Patchogue (pronounced PATCH-og) and walked a little ways to the Davis Ferry landing. (If you go, note that there are two ferry landings in Patchogue. You want the one further north, closest to the station.) The 30 minute ferry across the calm Great South Bay was packed with families, coolers, barbeques, dogs, and us with our backpacks. There are no cars allowed on most of the island and the only access is by boat.

Our secluded campsite among the dunes

Our secluded campsite among the dunes

After checking in with the visitors center, we filled our water bottles to the brim. There would be no amenities once we walked into the wilderness zone, not even a water spigot. This seems to be enough of a detraction that within 20 minutes of walking the crowds dispersed. The incredibly bright sun beat down on us as we crossed wide swathes of empty sand, though because it was only June, the cool breeze meant we welcomed the suns warmth. When we felt we had lost sight of all other backpackers, we nestled our tent against a sand dune and devoured our all-time favorite hiking lunch, a PB&J.

Near the tip of Old Inlet which was breached by Hurricane Sandy

Near the tip of Old Inlet which was breached by Hurricane Sandy

There was more walking to do, however, as Nathan convinced me to join him in hiking to the Old Inlet 4 miles away. The name Old Inlet is a bit of a misnomer. While it was once a dwindling waterway connecting the bay and the ocean, Hurricane Sandy increased its size tenfold. The Reborn Inlet, as they should call it, now creates a swift tide rapidly pulling water in and out of the Great South Bay.

The man can cook

The man can cook

Mmmmmm

Mmmmmm

Nathan and I sauteed a light dinner of vegetables and couscous while perched on a large piece of driftwood. It felt so exhilarating to be in such a empty, idyllic setting, breathing the salt-scented air, absorbing the sound of waves crashing. We toasted our good fortune with a few sips from the flask, then carefully climbed a nearby dune to watch the sunset on the solstice.
Once the last bit of sun was gone, we bid a hasty retreat into the tent to escape from gigantic mosquitos that found us irresistible.

Tequila!

Tequila!

Sea shells by the sea shore

Sea shells by the sea shore

In the morning, we milked our beach time with some sun salutations and splashing around. As we headed westward, the families with coolers at the beach set again surrounded us again. While waiting for the next train, we shared a delicious meatball sandwich from Delfiore Italian Deli and marveled at the fact that such natural beauty could be found so close to NYC. In the end, we retained three souvenirs from our solstice on Fire Island: sea shells, sunburn, and a new respect for east coast beaches.

Tribal Villages and Foraged Food of the Nam Ha Jungle (by Nathan)

Riverside canoe at Sopsine village

Riverside canoe at Sopsine village

Real Laos is in the jungle, deep within the banana trees and bamboo forests. Eighty percent of the population of Laos lives in rural communities. Many people live in tiny sleepy valley towns, but some communities are tucked deep into the mountains. Tiny muddy trails meander through the forests connecting the stilt villages of the mountain. We wanted to visit this more rugged Laos, we wanted to learn more about the bountiful food source of the jungle and learn about traditional Laos people. I was getting a little restless and a hike in the mountains was just what I needed. So we packed bare essential packs and loaded into a tuk tuk to bring us to the base of the Nam Ha national protected area.

Sweet jelly and bean soup

Sweet jelly and bean soup

Tiny colorful river fish

Tiny colorful river fish

Our first stop was the local market in the city of Luang Namtha. Carmen and I had visited this market a day earlier so we went for our favorites. Some sweet soup with a mix of jellies, beans and sweet milk was first on the menu. On the other side of the market there were these tiny fish that shined with iridescent greens and blues as we passed as well as the usual chopping blocks stacked with meat, blankets mounded with vegetables and a few caged rodents, chicken and ducks for sale at the perimeter. I had been eyeing some local lao lao, a rice liquor similar to what we had in Vietnam.  But this moonshine was more raw and burning, a toxically good late night sipper. It sold in re-used plastic water bottles that often have caps or plastic wrap and a rubber band. I bought one thinking it would be fun to share with the guide and other people in our trekking group.

Carmen being taxied across the river

Carmen being taxied across the river

Dense banana leaves provided constant shade

Dense banana leaves provided constant shade

Interwoven bamboo forests

Interwoven bamboo forests

Our hiking began when the tuk tuk stopped at a tiny hut alongside a dirt road. We wobbled onto a tiny canoe to the other side of the river, our trail head. Our guide, Singh, was immediately resourceful in hacking away at the bamboo to create us all walking poles. We stopped to dig up some fresh galangal and to look at the funny local potato. There was almost no visible sunlight as the banana trees and bamboo forests were extremely thick filtering everything in bright greens. The hike was steep and damp. We clambered up the slippery hillside along tiny foot holes dug into the trail. It was wonderful to be walking again, Carmen quickly fell into Camino-like meditations and I enjoyed powering up the hillside.

Bamboo water bottle

Bamboo water bottle

Lunch on banana leaves below a rattan hut

Lunch on banana leaves below a rattan hut

The pace was slow and steady with many breaks. We would stop to discuss local plant life, or try on banana leaf hats, sip fresh bamboo water or test our skills on a crafted bamboo flute. The trail leveled and we pulled off our packs at a rattan hut in the forest. With some banana leaves as our table we consumed our first lunch in the jungle. The food was bought from the market that morning and consisted of a cold pork laab salad with mint and chilies  There was mashed rattan and banana flower salad and a heaping mound of the Laos staple, sticky rice. Re-fueled, we continued through the thicket back to the river Nam Thong.

Animals sharing a feed bowl

Animals sharing a feed bowl

Khmmu food storage at Sopsine

Khmmu food storage at Sopsine

Our first night in the jungle was a home stay with the Khmmu people in Sopsine. There was a dirt road connecting the village from a few years ago, but only a few traveled to town each day. The people mostly survive on subsistence foraging and farming. The whole village was active with fifty or so playing children and hundreds of dogs, pigs, chickens and ducks. At feed time, one of the teenage boys pours some grainy slop in a tire and all his animals attack it with ferocity. It was fun watching piglets of just a few pounds try to fill themselves along roosters and comparably sized puppies. The buildings were fascinating to me of course.  Everyone built their one-story, one bedroom homes on stilts. The kitchens were outside and elevated as well. There was one water faucet in town that was active with hundreds of people that evening. Everyone bathed (fully clothed) at the faucet or the river, and the townspeople were just as intrigued to watch and observe us at we were at them.

Carmen jungle creek crossing

Carmen jungle creek crossing

It was a sad decision for Carmen and I to get rid of our hiking boots after the Camino when we knew that we would be doing more trekking. But it was more important to save weight on our backs than protect our feet. Carmen was cursing that decision after our first day of trekking. The path was slippery and all of us tripped at some point of the hike. Carmen took the trophy.  She typically is more careful and precise in her walking than me, so when she falls the yell and crash is heard throughout the forest. I turned back to see Carmen arms spread out from her sides, mud caked onto her hips and elbows and her right leg twisted behind her. We get her up, we rub some tiger balm onto her sprained ankle and knee and we hobbled down the hillside. In the village that night we were impressed to learn the genuine concern and sympathy that the local women had for Carmen. One insisted that she create a local medicine to apply to Carmen’s ankle; looking at the ingredients of ginger and salt, Carmen decides to proceed. The woman’s face is thick-skinned and weathered, the room is dimly lit by candles, she bends over to more closely examine Carmen’s foot. She looks at it with deep intensity, so close her nose is almost touching the skin, then “wchieu!” The woman begins spitting all over Carmen’s foot. Apparently the proper procedure to make the paste was in the mouth. The she rubs the foot vigorously with her hands and begins blowing on it. Carmen puts her sock on and we look at each other a little confused and desperately trying to restrain ourselves from the unpredictable laughter.

Lao Hai tasting

Lao Hai tasting

That night we also had a healing elixir that we could all enjoy. Our guide Singh learned my interest to try any local concoction of fermented liquor and was excited to share a real Lao specialty. Lao hai is made from rice and husks sealed with yeast and water in a clay jar. It ferments for several weeks, the the two foot clay pot is muscled to some party location. The earth seal is broken and long bamboo straws are inserted into the fermented mash. They then add many cup filled of water which causes the swollen rice kernels to replace the alcohol with water. After a few minutes the bottom of the jar is filled with a delicious alcoholic juice. The taste was extremely sour, sweet with a touch of fermented funk; most specifically like a starburst candy rubbed around in the sediment of an unfiltered beer. After each series of gulps, the liquid would be replaced with additional water until the liquid at the bottom no longer tasted alcoholic. Unfortunately just sipping was not allowed, at first I was encouraged to drink one cup full, then two, then three, then…we acquired another lao hai clay pot…then four more cups of liquor. Then I stopped. It was just a little shy of the apex, but I did good; unfortunately the girl with a sensitive stomach did not fair so well that night and our guide was hungover the next day. Me, well I woke up fresh as a daisy to nearly fifty roosters causing a commotion over tussling a few chicken feathers, if you know what I mean?

Fire in the jungle to cook our lunch

Fire in the jungle to cook our lunch

Heart of rattan and banana flower stew

Heart of rattan and banana flower stew

Our second day of hiking would be about 13 miles (20 km) up and down the jungle ridges and following a creek through the forest. The water flow was mild, but we crossed some thirty times on our way to the lunch locations. For lunch, or local guides from Sopsine foraged for several stocks of rattan, we stripped them of their spiny bark and separated the crisp pearly heart. The banana flower was also deconstructed and the most tender pedals and filaments were kept and the bitter tougher sections discarded. They chopped a four inch diameter section of bamboo into a two foot vessel. In goes the rattan, banana flower and water; then stuff from the packs: onion, chili peppers, pre-cooked beef. This bubbled and stewed over the fire for 45 minutes when it was drained into a bamboo boat serving dish. A handful of sticky rice on a banana leaf plate and we feasted.

Our local guide cutting down banana tree

Our local guide cutting down banana tree

Butterfly in the forest

Butterfly in the forest

At the time it felt so easy and resourceful to use the jungle in this manner. We were able to feed and use the everything around us. I followed our fourteen-year-old guide into the forest. He was wearing flip flops that I saw him repairing earlier, I had my sneakers. He moved so fluid through the jungle that my loud trampling run could barely keep up. We make it to a grove of banana trees and he points at the leaf above. I think he is going to climb the fifteen foot stalk for a flower or leaf, instead I dive for cover as he slices through the eight inch trunk with four on-target whacks with his machete. He cuts off two of the six-foot leaves and we drag them to serve as a table-cloth. The area of our hike is a national protected area, but it felt like the local people and the tour groups do little to actually protect it. As a tourist, and outsider to the area, regretfully I am also a contributor.

Ants diligently and resourcefully traversing a log

Ants diligently and resourcefully traversing a log

Creek mushroom

Creek mushroom

Shortly after this I started noticing the heaps of rattan and banana scraps that have been left in the river, the forests of banana trees decimated and the enormous teak trees felled and milled into timber. I also noticed the beauty in the small creatures of the forest: a handful of ants, a butterfly and a mushroom. We passed three hunters that were illegally (but hungrily) searching for monkeys and birds on our trail. We did not see any animal wildlife during the three days. Singh, was really empowering as a guide, he literally picked up every piece of plastic he saw during our trek. Nevertheless, he still lit the fire with plastic bags as the starter. I think the people generally care about their environment and jungle, but their people have been surviving here for hundreds of years despite the imaginary protection zone that encroaches near their village. I have mixed feelings- I thoroughly enjoyed learning about surviving on the jungle, but I was uncomfortable seeing the effects of tourists like me to the jungle. The jungle is bountiful and I am happy that we had a chance to experience it.

Carmen under our "hut" next to the fire

Carmen under our “hut” next to the fire

Cheers! Real bamboo cups

Cheers! Real bamboo cups

That night we were roughing it. We laid out our cheap borrowed polyester sleeping bags on banana leaves beneath a tiny bamboo and banana leaf shack. We had a fire that I turned into a bonfire and I was later scolded for using up all the wood (that I gathered). We cooked again over the fire, but the night was short. We were all tired, a little cold and eager for the deep sleep that accompanies a long day of hiking.

Nam Khone farmland

Nam Khone farmland

Village street of Nam Khone

Village street of Nam Khone

Traditional Lentan fabric-making

Traditional Lentan fabric-making

The next morning we woke early with hot chocolate from bamboo mugs and fried rice our of banana leaf bowls. About a half hour walk into the jungle and the trees disappeared to make way for the Lentan village of Nam Khone. Many of the people of these communities have heritage from from Tibet and southern China as they were once refugees that settled in Laos two hundred years ago during Chinese civil war. The houses were mostly built on stilts with tangled alleyways confused with roaming farm animals and children. We hung out at the new school that the E.U. had built as well as watching a group of women unwind and prepare to weave a traditional fabric. The women tie their hair in a tall bun above their head that is decorated with silver coins, a thick indigo fabric is wrapped around their body and white wool angle-warmers finish the traditional outfit. We crossed through the village to rejoin the trail that climbed into the bamboo forest.

Three farmers carry their daily harvest across the river

Three farmers carry their daily harvest across the river

We hiked for several more hours that day. We cooked again using rattan, banana flowers and bamboo. It was so nice to be hiking again, up and down the mountains and through the forest is always an exhilarating experience that I enjoy. The end of our trek was met with a quick swim in the River Nam Thong and walk through the roadside village of Bom Pieam. We loaded into the tuk tuk and bounced our way to Luang Namtha. The jungle was a wonderful opportunity. We were able to gain insight about the people and their environment as well as forage for some of our own food. The impacts of our presence was not fully positive, but I value the experience enough that I would probably do it again.

Rice noodles with red sauce

Rice noodles with red sauce

That night we again slept like babies, exhausted from our trek. Our morning was rushed, we packed, checked-out and scurried around town in search of breakfast. We settled on someone’s front yard turned into a restaurant. We were given steaming bowls of rice noodles with some mysterious red sauce. I do not know if this was intended, but the end product was a delicious pasta bolognaise. Spicy and thick with tomatoes and herbs, we shoved in chop stick full after chop stick full. What luck for us to find a delicious local dish that could please our nostalgic appetites.

Nam Ha Jungle trekking map

Nam Ha Jungle trekking map

Walking 500 Miles Across Spain (by Carmen)

Map of Routes to Santiago de Compostela, we’re walking the red route

I first heard about the Camino de Santiago through an offhand remark in National Geographic Traveler.  The Camino is an old pilgramage route that is over 1000 years old.  People have been coming for centuries in order to visit the relics of St. James (Santiago in Spanish).  It has many points of origin spread throughout Europe.  Today, most people, including us, start in the town of St. Jean Pied-de-Port at the French-Spanish border and follow the red route on the map.  From there it’s up and over the Pyranees on our way westward towards the town of Santiago de Compostela.  We will be hiking between small villages and a few cities alternating between staying the night in cheap dorms tended by ancient monestaries and sleeping under the stars in our tent.  From the moment I heard about it I’ve wanted to walk the trail.

But reality sets in a bit as the actual hike comes closer and closer.  How am I preparing for the strenuous parts of the hike? I wish I could say it was by working out each day, getting in tip top shape.  The real answer is I try not to think about it.  Some may construe this as laziness. However, I would argue that my actions go hand in hand with my personal goal for the trek – living in the moment.  I’m a planner.  I’m always thinking in the future, preparing, making lists (see packing post), considering how to improve things, coming up with plans and then back up plans.  It sometimes takes a lot for me to turn my brain “off” and just be still.  While trekking 500 miles inherently involves constant movement, it is also an opportunity for me to meditate and reach a state of mental stillness. Ok, I admit I have made a plan for the Camino de Santiago – just take it one day at a time. And keep that Proclaimers song on replay: “I would walk 500 miles and I would walk 500 more…”

Reflection is a key part of the trek for me but so are the people I will meet.  I’m expecting a fair bit of commoraderie to be generated by the tired feet and large dorms.  And maybe we’ll even share a few good Spanish meals on our way.

During the four weeks of our trek, we’ve scheduled some new posts for your enjoyment.  We’ll be back in early October as we make our way (by train) from Santiago de Compostela to Madrid.  Wish us luck!  Hasta luego.

The Joys of Packing (by Carmen)

We often get asked how we handle packing up our stuff so frequently and carting it around the world.  The answer has two parts – 1) Packing cubes!  These are essential to for quick organization and way easier than any rolling method. 2) Take as little as possible.  Easier said than done.  But the benefits of being able to pack in under 15 minutes and have less weight on your back are very rewarding.

In order to make do with less I like to plan ahead.  For the typical travel stuff I have a list I always turn to when I start packing.  As for clothing, I have given a lot of thought to what I will bring for the next 6 months.  I have to be ready for everything: hot and cold, tough hikes and long urban walks, casual bars and nice dinners out.  To cope I’ve created what I call The Ultimate Packing List. I’ve even illustrated parts of it (yes, Nathan teases me about this).  I enjoy making the list because it makes me feel more prepared and ready to take on the world.

So I’ve decided to share The List with you.  I consider the list to be pretty minimal despite the fact that it looks long. But after reading blogs on no baggage travelers, maybe not!  At first it seems like a lot but the quantities of each thing are small so it does pack down to less than 15 pounds each (excluding the trekking gear).  And the packing cubes are essential for keeping all the small things together.  During our Camino de Santiago trek, we will be carrying the bare minimum while leaving much of the list in storage.  Afterwards, we will send back the trekking gear relieving a fair bit of weight.   Without further ado, I present…

8 Months of gear (camping stuff to be mailed back)

THE ULTIMATE PACKING LIST

  • Clothing
    • Carmen
      • Top
        • 2 tanks
        • 2 short sleeve
        • 3 long sleeve
        • 1 cardigan
      • Bottom
        • 2 pants (including one zip off pair)
        • 2 shorts (one of them for running/sleeping)
        • 1 skirt (turns into halter top)
      • Dresses
        • 1 simple black dress
      • Outer
        • 1 fleece
        • 1 rain jacket
      • Accessories/Other
        • 1 scarf
        • 1 thin belt
        • 2 bras
        • 7 pairs underwear
        • 5 pairs of socks
      • Shoes
        • flip flops
        • sandals
        • sneakers
        • hiking boots
    • Nathan
      • Top
        • 3 short sleeve shirts
        • 2 long sleeve
        • 1 tank
      • Bottom
        • 2 pants (both zip off into shorts)
        • 1 runningshorts
      • Outer
        • 1 rain jacket
      • Accessories/Other
        • 3 pairs underwear
        • 5 pairs socks
      • Shoes
        • flip flops
        • sandals
        • sneakers
        • hiking boots
  • Toiletries
    • Shower/Bathroom
      • Shampoo, conditioner, body wash & sponge
      • Face wash
      • Razor & shaving foam
      • Toothbrushes, floss & toothpaste
      • Toilet paper
    • In Room
      • Microfiber towels
      • Brush, comb, flat clips, headband & hair ties
      • Chap stick
      • Deodorant
      • Lotion
      • Sunscreen
      • Bug repellent
      • Contacts, liquid, extra contacts & case
      • Glasses
      • Band-aids & blister block
      • Hand sanitizer
      • Make-up & remover
      • Medicines & prescriptions
  • Electronics
    • Camera, charger, case, guerilla pod & extra battery
    • iPod, splitter, charger & ear buds
    • iPad & cover
    • Nook loaded with guidebooks
    • Flip video camera
    • Outlet expander
    • Adaptors
  • Travel gear
    • Passports
    • Eye patches & ear plugs
    • Inflatable neck pillow
    • Money belt
    • Waterbottles & steripen
    • Headlamps
    • Small notebook & pen
    • Cards
    • Locks (small, large)
    • First aid kit
    • Sewing kit
    • Ziplocks in a variety of sizes
    • Laundry soap, travel clothesline & sink stopper
  • Trekking gear (just for Camino de Santiago)
    • Tent (mailed home early after 10 days)
    • Sleeping bags (mailed home early after 10 days)
    • Sleeping pads (mailed home early after 10 days)
    • Trekking poles
    • Ponchos
    • Platypus 2L water bag
    • Knife
    • Dirt shovel
    • Matches
    • Hats

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.

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