Hitting the Road Instead of the Books (p3)

11 06 2018

(See Part 1 & Part 2)

The early days of the big road trip required a bit of adjusting, as I learned how to live (not just camp out for a couple of days) inside my Volkswagen Bus with another human being. We spent a lot of time strategizing how to maximize our storage in ever nook and cranny, while leaving enough space to not feel claustrophobic. The original Westfalia conversion was designed with some smart features, like a dining table that folds down flat against the wall, a narrow closet and pantry along the opposite wall, and a cargo net above the mattress for pillows and blankets. Most importantly, the rear bench seat folds out into the bed, and is surprisingly comfortable and functional!

At night, when I parked the bus in the campsite, we developed a fairly quick process to migrate stuff from the back of the bus to the driver’s seat, to make room for preparing dinner. I was a lousy cook, but thankfully Jamie was far more experienced than I. Still, given our limited space for food storage, and few kitchen tools- a single burner, one pot, and one pan- our repertoire was pretty limited. We ate a lot of boxed mac n’ cheese. A LOT. I’m surprised my skin didn’t turn orange, given the high quality of ingredients we were consuming.

mac-and-cheese

One night, we pulled into a campground on a chilly evening just as dusk settled. Jamie stepped out to the picnic table and got to work boiling water for another riveting round of mac n’ cheese while I rearranged the bus for sleeping. When I poked my head out to check on dinner, I was greeted by an unexpected stranger!

A rustling the dark preceded a flash of orange, as he lept onto the picnic table to greet us. This incredibly friendly orange cat began brushing his giant head against my outstretched hand,  and quickly warmed his way into our hearts. As the frost began to settle, we worried about this cat being left out in the cold. I debated letting him sleep in the bus with us, but was concerned about fleas. Our bleeding hearts got the best of us, so we decided on a compromise. I opened up the door and called out, “Here kitty, kitty!” He bounded onto the wooden table like he already knew what I was about to do. As I set down the bowl of leftover mac and cheese, our new friend wasted no time lapping up his hard earned treat.

(Note: In order to protect their identity, images of the cat and the KOA are portrayed by actors)

Good deed done for the day, I snuggled into my puffy Kmart sleeping bag, grateful for a warm meal in my belly and residual heat from the engine compartment below our feet. I dozed off into dreaming about what great adventures lie ahead.

 

[Thump-THUMP]

I woke from my slumber, confused and sleepy.

[Tap.. tap… tap] A tinny sound appeared to move over my head.

Now I knew I wasn’t dreaming. Wide awake, I wrestled my arms from my sleeping bag to poke Jamie from his sleep. “Did you hear that??” I whispered.

“Hrmm?” he came to.

“There was a sound outside. I think something is on top of the bus!” I whispered more urgently. My heart was bounding. Here we are, in a strange state, in a strange campground, with just a handful of other campers. What kind of Fargo nightmare was out there?!?

We both paused and listened intensely. I heard another loud thump, but this time it sounded heavier, more like wood. I sat up and lifted the curtain up 2 inches, and peaked out the side window. There, on the picnic table, stood our little friend. He sat there, staring at me. “I think he wants more food!” I hissed. Then he leaped up onto the roof of the bus, pacing from front to back.

cat

I’m not sure how long that cat was up there, but he was pretty persistent. I think he worked for the mafia. Eventually, sometime before sunrise, he gave up and left us alone. I definitely did not sleep well that night, and I decided that maybe feeding feral animals outside our vehicle was not the smartest idea. This trip was already fulfilling its destiny by teaching me valuable life lessons!

 

 

 

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How to Choose Your Own Adventure: 6 Valuable Tips!

7 11 2017

It’s true, we love to travel. A LOT. But we would still love to travel even more than we do. Which begs the question we get asked often, “What’s your next trip?”

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Believe it or not, we actually have SO many places that we want to visit, we need a spreadsheet to keep track of it all. And we are also armed with some very key strategies to help us choose, “Where to?”

 

 

For most people, planning vacation can be pretty easy. Pick a sunny beach in Florida and book a week in January. Done. Rinse and repeat. This is swell for those people, but this just doesn’t cut it for those of us with the insatiable Wanderlust bug. It can sometimes feel overwhelming, knowing that I won’t live long enough to see ALL the places I want to see before I die. So how do we choose?

 

We’re Not Getting Any Younger

Although I’m only 37 1/2, I’m very aware of the reality that, the older I get, the harder it’s going to be to travel. Some of the most vigorous hikes will become too challenging for my aching bones. Long flights will wreak havoc with my veins. It will take me longer to recover from the energy spent simply getting there.

Tip #1: Do the most difficult hiking now. Push your boundaries while your body is at its physical peak, before it declines too far. The older I get, the more I recognize my own mortality, which can cause doubt, and make you shy away from something you wouldn’t have thought twice about in your twenties.

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I can tell you know that I’ve enjoyed several life-changing hikes, and some of them were so physically intense, I doubt that I will ever attempt them again. Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park in Utah, USA is one not for the faint-hearted! At least that hike is only a couple of miles from the starting point. Havasupai in Arizona, USA was not just scary at one point, but also tested our endurance, with 34 miles logged in a 2-night trip.

15492141_1392043570878263_2220117331010704962_nTip #2: Fly as Far Away as Possible! While these longer flights can be tougher to afford when you are younger, your body will thank you for sticking closer to home in later decades. Recently, I spent over 50 hours traveling to Sri Lanka, and when I arrived, both of my ankles were noticably swollen! This has never happened to me before, and I didn’t realize that I wasn’t moving enough while flying. The swelling lasted for 24 hours, and was a bit scary and uncomfortable. This can also be a symptom of another serious risk, Deep Vein Thrombosis. The risk of thrombosis increases on longer flights, and gets worse with age, as well as many other factors (including birth control pills!). This may seem like a weird thing to think about when you are young, but, believe me, blood clots are a serious and deadly risk. This is why you see airline passengers standing and walking around for long periods of time on flights over 4 hours.

So, next on my long-distance list? New Zealand!

The Climate IS Changing… Faster Than You Think

When we add a new destination to our travel spreadsheet, a critical factor is climate change. There are some amazing places on this planet that I may not get to before they are irreversibly changed as a result of climate change. We prioritize these destinations based on the estimated risks.

Tip #3: Prioritize Places at Risk from Climate Change. This is not a hoax. In 2014 I decided to cross off Glacier National Park because I had read about the melting glaciers. I wanted to make it there before Glacier has no glaciers left to see. It was a last minute, 4 day trip, and was not nearly enough to explore all of the amazing sights and experiences to be had there. Now my goal is to make it back before 2020 for some back-country thru-hiking. 10426120_681178748631419_2884749765749576765_n

Here’s my own list of climate-change destinations that I’ve managed to check off:

  • Glacier National Park in Montana, USA. This is one of the most stunning, expansive parks in our country, with an incredible variety of visual decadence to explore! Experts believe we have until 2020 before the last of the monumental glaciers are gone forever.
  • Everglades National Park in Florida, USA. Sea levels are slowly rising, at different speeds across the globe. As the ocean starts to take back Florida and other coastal areas, the unique biodiversity harbored in the freshwater/seawater interchange will be devastated, causing extinction of numerous creatures.
  • The Maldives.  This chain of over 2,000 islands makes up a paradise country located closest to India.  The former president of the Maldives recognized the harsh reality that their entire country- no more than 4 feet above sea level- would eventually be completely lost to climate change. He fought to take the country to being Net Zero Energy to slow climate change, but was since removed from office after a coo. There’s a great documentary called The Island President that can catch you up on their plight.

baros-maldives

Travel is Getting Riskier

Turkey, Istanbul, Haghia Sophia Mosque interiorIt’s a scary time in our world right now. The number of terror attacks had rapidly risen compared to just 10 years ago. I’ll be honest- it’s terrifying to think about. I don’t want to let terrorists win by becoming a fetal position shut-in, but I also take this risk seriously. When we booked our flight to Sri Lanka last year, I debated about whether or not to take the cheapest fare, which took us through Turkey, with an 8 hour layover in Istanbul. I researched heavily before deciding whether or not we would leave the airport to see some of the city while there. The day we flew out of Chicago, we were delayed 4 hours in a snowstorm, and my phone started blowing up with messages from friends on Facebook asking if we were okay. There had been a bombing in Istanbul that we had just missed.

While the optimist in me wants to hope that we will win the ‘war on terrorism’ globally, my gut tells me otherwise. I see such a rapid increase in radicalized groups and violent attacks, that I fear it will never be safe again to travel to some parts of the world. Would I love to see Pakistan? Sure! Do I think I will ever feel safe enough in my lifetime to go there? Nope. 2E81B6E900000578-0-This_table_documenting_the_increase_in_terror_attacks_in_recent_-a-67_14477001334622E893C6400000578-0-image-m-13_1447774752237

Tip #4: Don’t Ignore Political Shifts. If a country that is on your list appears to be getting less safe, pay attention! I wish I had gone to Egypt a decade ago, and don’t know if I’ll ever get to go now. I’m incredibly grateful that I got to visit Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, however briefly, but I don’t think I’ll ever go back. I’m actually flying through that same airport again next April, and have zero interest in leaving the airport next time, due to safety concerns. Before you book your flight, do your homework and know your risks. 

There are many amazing, world-renowned world heritage sites, but some of them are at risk due to wars. UNESCO catalogs all of the official World Heritage Sites, and color codes them to highlight ones at risk of being destroyed. If it’s safe to go there, don’t wait.

travel warning

Make a Plan, But Don’t Stick to It!

I’m all about research, spreadsheets, and lists, but I do not recommend you treat this as a commitment. In my Wanderlust spreadsheet, I collect links and jot down places I’ve never heard of when I read an article about someplace new. For those that I’m serious about, I actually put in a target year for traveling there, and sometimes I actually get there that year. Other times, it may get pushed back, or some new destination takes higher priority. And that’s okay. When my friend Raina moved to Sweden 7 years ago, it got added to my list, but I’m just now finally making it over there to see her!

spreadsheet

Tip #5: Be Flexible, and Jump at New Opportunities! When your high school friend joins the Peace Corp and moves to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso for 2-3 years… don’t be caught kicking yourself at her welcome back party because you never made it to visit her while she was there! Knowing someone in a foreign country is a perfect excuse to travel, and a great way to get a local experience!

Tip #6: Make Your Own Opportunities! If you have the travel bug, and you know this will be a lifelong need, don’t waste time wishing you could travel more… build the life you want! Do you have a dream job that would help you to travel? Apply relentlessly!

While I love my job, my travel is limited to the state of Indiana, so I only get to travel on my own time. But, I chose to combine career advancement and my love of travel, and started applying to present at international conferences. This strategy has taken me to Split, Croatia, Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Kandy, Sri Lanka! I go on my own dime, using vacation time, but now I can proudly list on my resume “International Speaker” for 3 very prestigious conferences in my field of expertise. Win-Win!

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Do you have a natural ‘break’ in life, like going back to school or moving across the country? Take advantage of it! I actually delayed starting college after high school so that I could travel the U.S. for 3 months, and it’s the best thing I could have ever done. I made that choice when I was a sophomore in high school, and started saving up for my epic graduation road trip.

Are there volunteer opportunities that you can get involved with and get to travel? Do it! There are a number of ways to give back while sharing another culture. Build a school with a community, dig a well in Africa, or raise money for a good cause through travel sports! My first trip to Hawaii was done for ‘free,’ by fundraising $4,500 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society by running my first Marathon in Honolulu!

Bottom line, if you want to travel, there are a myriad of ways to achieve your goals. 

Don’t wait until it’s too late. Go grab the world by the mountaintops!

Remember, not all those who wander are lost.

 

 

 

 





Disappearing Countries (and what you can do about it)

3 12 2016

This December, I will be standing in a country that is expected to disappear. Why? It is at severe risk due to climate change. The entire country of the Maldives– a chain of 1,200 islands no more than 4 feet above sea level- is expected to vanish beneath the ocean in my lifetime. One of the most photographed places in the world, I want to see it before it’s literally gone.

baros-maldives

As a sustainability specialist, I’ve been reading about ‘global warming’ since the 1990s, in middle school science class (when it was still a highly debated topic). Today 97% of all scientists are in agreement that climate change IS happening, and IS caused by human actions (according to NASA, and every renowned expert). The effects are evident in the steep rise of extreme weather events, acidification of the oceans, melting glaciers, and globally rising ocean temperatures, which are leading to higher sea levels. NOAA tracks and records the weather events each year, and in 2015 alone, we can see how the weather events are increasingly dramatic, with records being broken all over the globe. And this is only a partial list.

extreme-weather

 

350-maldives-cabinet-thumb-436x292-3236The Maldives aren’t alone in this risk. While sea level rise does not increase uniformly around the world, changes are happening everywhere at varying rates. It’s not just about melting glaciers, either. If you think back to middle school science class, you learned how temperature can cause molecules to either shrink together or expand. When the oceans heat up, they expand. The only place to expand is up, and onto land.

 

Everything close to the water is at risk. This includes Micronesia. And the sensitive Florida Everglades. And NYC. Basically the entire eastern coast of the U.S. (National Geographic has an interactive map but you have to have a paid subscription of $1/month). Will they disappear next year? No. But governments are already working on climate change mitigation plans to deal with the harsh reality that is clearly heading their way. The Maldives have been on my radar for about 8 years, and seeing this beautiful country in person- before doing so requires scuba gear-  will be checked off my bucket list in 2016. By 2050, it’s expected that the entire population of the Maldives will have been relocated to either Sri Lanka or Australia, which will certainly be a very different experience. sea level rise map.png

 

So, what’s the point here? Go travel? No. Well, yes, if that’s your thing, but be sure to purchase carbon offsets for that jet plane.

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The point is that there are THOUSANDS of treasured places at risk due to climate change. Sea level is just ONE example of how climate change negatively impacts millions of people. But the solutions are plentiful.

  1. Talk to Trump. Of course, tell Trump that the head of the EPA should not be a person who chooses to ignore scientific facts, and an overwhelming consensus on this extensively researched topic. A climate change denier has no place heading the EPA.
  2. Paris Climate Treaty. This decades-long culmination resulted from extensive negotiations between 196 countries to try to find a way to slow down this globally destructive process. If Trump pulls out of this treaty, it will have a domino effect, and the whole thing will fall apart. This means things will only get worse even faster.Sign the petition to voice your concerns.
  3. Do Something Different! Every single day, we make choices and take actions that emit greenhouse gases (GHG). Even the most saintly environmentalist has a carbon footprint, so don’t feel guilty and throw your hands up in despair. Learn more about where GHG comes from. Any action will make a difference. Choose to avoid styrofoam by carrying your own reusable container to the restaurant for leftovers. Walk or bike instead of driving. When you do drive, plan your trips to run errands as efficiently as possible, and invite a friend to join you for a fun carpool! Insulate your house and buy LED bulbs to save money and reduce coal burning. Learn to cook plant-based meals, or start growing your own herbs or veggies. Buy secondhand whenever possible, saving money and giving new life to a product instead of extracting raw materials to manufacture more stuff!
  4. Spread the Word. Talk about it. Make it fun! Invite friends to a challenge together, to learn new behaviors, to become informed. Being an active part of saving our planet is a rewarding feeling, and particularly powerful today.

 

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75 and Sunny

31 03 2016

It’s a cold, dreary evening – dark and lonely. I’m sitting here downloading photos from my camera onto the computer, and this song came on called, “75 and Sunny” by Ryan Montbleau. I think it was on a compilation CD, or maybe it was a free weekly download from itunes. Regardless of where it came from, it’s a song that truly resonates with me. He sings about wanting to not waste away our days drinking and obscuring reality, but to fill them with intention and purpose and full awareness.

At this moment, My heart is filling up with love! It’s overwhelming and wonderful! In less than a minute, listening to the chorus of this folk song, all these feelings well up inside of me, and I can’t help but burst out crying. I feel so lucky to be here, to have so many amazing people in my life!

 

i’d rather be 75 and sunny

than acting like i was 17 and freezing again

i rather be up early in the morning

than up late at night erasing memories of where i have been

or to be thru at 52, someday, stone faced and bleary eyed

you better believe i’m lookin for the moment, but my moment’s growin bigger by and by

 

river2Maybe it’s this song, or these beautiful memories before me, I don’t know why I suddenly feel this way. I just have so much love in my marrow! There’s no word to describe it. This wave of emotion just pours over me, like I’m sitting by a roaring river in the West Virginia mountains, feeling flooded with life. I have this strong connection, this energy radiating through me, coursing through my veins into my fingertips and the ends of my toes! I cannot say where it is coming from. I’m not immersed in nature. I’m nowhere special. There’s no energy vortex here. There’s no awesome beauty in my bedroom. There’s just me, this song, and these images of people I love.

 

snowflakes-in-the-night-sky-lisa-jayne-konopkaOutside, despite the early blanket of darkness, I can see that there are giant snowflakes falling. I notice them more than usual, perhaps because it’s early in the season, or maybe my senses are heightened at the moment. Sometimes I get this ‘high’ inspired by nature, and it feels a lot like this. Is it possible that I have found a way to manifest this same euphoria at will? Have I elevated my senses to some new dimension? What a joy it would be to find beauty and positive energy in every place, not just from natural marvels hours from my home! My chest aches with happiness, and all I can think is, “I love life!” I love LOVE! This feeling is so much more intense than ever before, and just makes me want to go shout it to the world, to share with everyone I know!

  I think I may have one particular person to thank for this unexpected rush of love.

Finding people who appreciate life is rare, but when I do, their energy bounces off my own in harmonic resonance, getting amplified, growing, radiating farther than ever before. Yesterday I had the great pleasure of spending many hours with my new friend, Bethany. It was our first time hanging out together, but it lasted for nearly eight hours of nonstop conversation and cooking together.

 

10400912_26605094757_3588_nI wouldn’t want to scare her off by telling her this so soon after we met, but I totally love her. How could you not??? She embodies love. Even if I’m the 27th person in line, I really hope that I get to spend more time with her someday. She elevates my own lust for life, and makes me want to be a better person. She inspires me!

 

One thing I’ve learned is that life is too short to waste time. It took me 8 years to tell another dear friend how truly important she is to me, and it elevated our friendship when I finally did share. I don’t want to make the same mistake twice, of waiting too long to be honest. I suspect that my new friend can handle the intensity of love that I am capable of dispensing, but I’m going to play it safe for a while. She’s already started making plans for us this summer to go on a road trip, so maybe she feels a fraction as much appreciation for my company as I feel for hers. I can be patient. She’s an amazing soul and worth waiting for. But, if she decides she’s sick of me in a month and never wants to talk to me again, I won’t regret a thing.

Just one day with her has enriched my life, and given me new perspective, which is more than I can say about 90% of the people I meet.

In fact, this experience tonight inspired me to write several poems. This one poured out of my pen like an April rainstorm in Austin:

“harmonic resonance”aura


my bountiful heart beats.
rings of oscillations
drift outward softly
as in a still lake
broken by a pebble’s weight.

lost in the middle,
they converge with another’s.
the two waves unite
in harmonic resonance,
growing stronger,
merging into one.

the rogue wave of our hearts,
the amplified rhythm
of our individual beats,
the coalescing surge of energy
could raise the titanic.

-krw
12.28.09

Today I want to share some of my writing from the year I met my soulmate.

This entry is from December 27, 2009. I had just met her a couple weeks earlier, and we met intentionally for the very first time the day before I wrote this.

It’s amazing for me to look back and see just how early I knew, although it took me nearly two months to admit it to myself.

She still inspires me today.

Namaste, Bethany. I love you more than words can ever tell.





Heaven in Havasupai

18 10 2014

Canyon hiking in the desert is not like other hiking. It means that you are prone to unique weather patterns, and while significant rainfall is rare, flash flood potential is very real. Before we enter into any slot canyons or wash hikes, we seek updates on flash flood warnings. Up until this point on our trip, we have been extremely lucky with blue skies and dry trails. This morning, however, I awoke in our motel room to the soothing sounds of rumbling thunder. This is not a good thing when you are about to embark on a 10 mile hike down into, and through, a rural canyon, with nothing around but a remote tribal village at the end of the 10 mile hike.

 

We still have a 2 hour drive ahead of us to get to the Havasupai Hilltop, where the trail head starts. grand canyon sunset 1We barely made it this far last night, after leaving Antelope Canyon and following the detour around the major road closure. The detour led us past the Grand Canyon, where we paused briefly at sunset for a quick kiss goodnight. We drove on. Through the inky blackness of the desert sky, we finally found the neon glow of our charmingly renovated Route 66 motel.

 

Information about today’s hike is sparse. The Supai tribe is very negligent when it comes to providing useful information for visitors, so I still didn’t REALLY know what to expect. My mom kept asking me about the hike, and whether there were going to be any more steep, narrow cliffs. I couldn’t exactly answer, and I was hesitant to look too hard, for fear that the answer would be yes.

 

We packed up before dawn and hit the road, stopping for coffee along the way. I searched on my phone for more details. I found another online review, and learned that we had to hike down 2,000 feet in the first mile. Is that too steep? Hmmm. My mom was getting nervous about whether or not she would be willing to do this hike. We agreed that, if she felt uneasy once we got there, she could take the rental car and drive back to civilization, picking us up two days later.

 

As we eat breakfast, the rain pours against the diner’s wavy glass windows. I pull up the radar map on my phone, between bites of potatoes and sparse cell phone reception. I gulp. The system is HUGE, and extends all the way up from Route 66 to the Havasupai canyon and over the entire Grand Canyon, down to Flagstaff. I begin to get nervous about whether or not we will even be able to start our hike down into the canyon, let alone make it safely to the Supai village.

 

If the trail is flooded, I know, we will be totally out of luck. Our reservation at the Supai ‘lodge’ had been made months earlier, and they were absolutely unwilling to allow changes or cancellations. I had no idea what to do. Bethany pulled up the phone number for the Supai lodge and called. Nobody answered (which is normal). I began to imagine the worst case scenario- we drive another 2 hours only to find the canyon flooded, with no way to cancel our 2 night reservation at the remote village, and no idea what to do. As we sit there in the diner, sipping coffee refills, Bethany keeps calling, and finally gets through. The woman who answered the phone in the village said, “It’s only light rain here. There’s no problem with flooding.” I look down at the radar on my phone again and, although I am still doubtful, I chirp, “okay, let’s go do this!” Off we went.

 

HIKING DOWN INTO THE VILLAGE

supai hilltop 2Remarkably, after driving over an hour through the downpour, we got to the hilltop and the rain had stopped. The skies were still dark and impending, but mostly off to the east. The hilltop is about 2,000 feet up, with an amazing panoramic view of the canyon. Before we do anything else, we walk over to the edge so my mom can peer down and make her decision.  The trail is a good 6 feet in width- wide enough to accommodate two passing strings of horses and pack mules. It switches back and forth above itself, so that even if you fell over, you would only fall down one layer. My mom agrees to go down.

 

We load everything we needed on our backs for 3 days, extend our hiking poles, and begin hiking down. The path is rocky, but mostly worn down to a thick layer of sand that drifts between my toes. (Yes, I hike in Chacos). It is a beautiful hike, with the same view seeming like countless new views with every leg of the switchback. We slowly dip deep into the canyon over the first hour. The landscape continually transforms as we hike further, unfolding around us with each bend in the dry wash floor. The first five miles felt pretty good, and I am grateful for the cloudy skies. We stop occasionally to take photos, but I’m surprised we don’t see more hikers. Maybe 10 others? By mile 9, my shoulders are aching from the weight of my backpack (my mom’s backpack, actually), my back is sweaty, and my feet are pale with dust. Eventually, the canyon comes to an end. I walk up to the first sign I’ve seen so far, which reads “Supai Village,” with a hand painted arrow pointing left down the intersecting canyon. We have been hiking for 5 hours, and we are all ready to be done.

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Inside the village, the roads are still sandy, meandering, and mostly used by horses carrying down the packs of visitors. There are no cars, or bikes, but there is a helicopter pad used by locals and tourists. Buildings here are a mix of trailers, shacks, and some wood framed homes with multiple, custom additions. Things are dusty, and in disrepair, with dogs running wild throughout  the canyon. It is about what I expected. Despite the $35 per person daily charge to just BE on their land, and the expensive cost of the motel room, there are no signs of the Supai people getting rich off of tourism.

 

As my mom and Bethany putz behind me, I walk ahead to try to figure out where the lodge is in the tangle of unnamed roads and paths, I’m afraid that we missed a turn. I ask a villager for directions, only to turn around and discover that I have lost my two companions. After waiting a few minutes for them to appear, I walk past the store, the school, the church, and see the lodge. There’s a white guy sitting at a table on the front porch. He looks even more tired than I feel. “Checking in?” I ask of his large pack. “Yep. They said she went to the store and will be back soon,” he says, pointing at the closed door and teasingly lit up ‘open’ sign. I laugh, and sit down to wait.

 

Once we get checked in, we walk through the courtyard to our second floor room. The three of us collapse on the two full beds, shoes and all. Laying down for 10 minutes felt amazing! I recover quickly, and, although my hiking mates are done for the day, I decide to go out to explore. I want to see what the big waterfall hike will look like for the next day, since getting to the village was only the beginning! The real reason we are here is to hike even further down the canyon to see some of the amazing waterfalls. Most people don’t see all four, but I am hopeful we will have time.

 

In the pale, waning light of dusk, I make it out to the second falls- Havasu Falls- and am pleased to find that the visitor reviews of this portion are fairly accurate. I don’t go any further, knowing that it will be dark soon. When I return to the hotel room, I share my snapshots of inspiration to get Bethany and my mom excited about what we get to see tomorrow. Even after turning my 10 mile day into a 14 mile day, I can hardly wait!!

 

navajo fallsThe next morning, after a restful night of sleep, we pack plenty of chia bars and soy jerky, water, and band-aids, and head out for a fun day of exploration. The named falls, in order of distance from the village, are Navajo Falls, Havasu Falls, Mooney Falls, and Beaver Falls. I suspect that my mom might not make it to Beaver Falls. I have heard that the last one was hard to get to, involving some wooden ladders and some steep climbs, but it’s a little unclear exactly where those are, or how many miles it really is to Beaver Falls. Some people have complained that the hand-drawn map was not correct, and it’s an additional 1-2 miles more than the map leads you to believe. We will see!

 

Our game plan is to head to the farthest falls first, then slowly make our way back and enjoy each spot with the time we have left. It’s supposed to be 5 miles out to Beaver Falls, so we expect to make it there in a couple hours. The elevation of the canyon floor continued to fall lower as we head out from the village, with a pretty gradual grade the first 2 miles. The trail meanders past Navajo Falls, a multi-tier cascading set of falls, the highest at 15 feet.

 

havasu fallsHavasu Falls is just a bit further, and as we crest over the hill, it suddenly appears off to the right, a roaring mirage below us. The trail splits in two, and we can either wander down to the bottom of Havasu Falls, where the flowing, turquoise pools are speckled with people in colorful swimsuits, or we can continue on toward the campground. We march on.

 

We walk through the area designated for camping, which is basically anywhere that isn’t riverbed. The pattern of water flow diverges, and weaves its way through in an army of little, babbling brooks. It is nearly 4 miles until we come upon the third waterfall, Mooney Falls. Much like Havasu Falls, the promenade is from above, and the falls plummet down from the clifftop on our right. Mooney falls is much taller, and we can hear the falls as they echo off the cliff walls. Unlike the last one, the trail does not split up, nor is there an obvious, easy path to continue on. We walk over to the edge, and I am in awe. The water falls a tremendous height, roaring with power as it carves out the rock at its base. This is the one where people used to cliff dive, because the pool below is deeper than you can ever imagine.

 

mooney falls b topThe cliff wraps around, and our easy path suddenly morphs into a rocky outcropping of steps. My mom bravely decides to try it, but warns me that she might have to turn back. Within the first 12 feet, the path folds back under itself, and there is barely a trepidatious foot of width left to the path. “Well, Mom,” I smile back at her, “I totally understand if you want to stop here.”

“Yeah…,” she laughs nervously, “I think I’ll head back. See you girls back at the hotel!”

 

Bethany and I continue, unsure of what to expect. I use my left hand to grip the rock wall, my right on my hiking pole. The trail begins to feel more like a multiple choice test, with spray painted arrows on rocks showing different ways you can climb down to the next level. In just 10 minutes, I snake my way back around to the point where I can once again see the falls, obscured now by the trees. The trail stops, with a sign that warns of the potential hazards. I turn to my right and see an orange arrow pointing at a large black hole in the wall. This is my only choice.

 

mooney falls descend riskThe second that I duck my head into the cave, the sound of the waterfall dulls to a dim echo. I pull out my cell phone to light my way, advancing down onto subtle steps that had been carved into the stone. I can see the light from the exit up ahead, and as I erupt back into daylight, I can clearly see the falls. The path is now framed with a heavy metal chain bolted into the rock wall, acting as a rail to prevent an accidental fall over the edge. There is nothing below me now but sheer cliff, and air.

 

In just a couple more strides, another tunnel immediately takes me back into the dark, but this time when I emerge, there is no trail. There is no guardrail. Instead, it goes down. Thick, heavily worn wood is formed into a ladder, likely a dozen years old, which is chained to the rock at my feet. Shit just got real. Mist from the falls, still  a few hundred feet away, settles lightly on the chains. I pull the straps for my poles over my wrists, letting them swing loosely at my sides. I take a deep breath, look back to be sure I haven’t lost Bethany, and I begin to climb.

 

kelly mooney falls climbAs I descend, I can’t see more than a few feet to anticipate what is coming up next. How far will it go on like this? My hands are wet from the cold metal, and my knuckles are pale from my tight grip. I find myself recalling my basic ladder safety tips. Three points of contact at all times! Release left hand- grab wooden rung- release right hand- grab- release left foot- feel for next secure footing- repeat.  I realize how tight my muscles are and try to tell myself to relax. Then I laugh at myself inside my head. “Relax?!?! Yeah, right!” The rungs are slippery, and I am climbing down blind. If I mis-step, it could be disastrous. I look up periodically to check on Bethany. She is slowly following me, and I can tell that she is equally fear-stricken.

 

It felt like forever for my legs to finally reach solid ground. My quads tremble with relief, and I take a minute to just look up at what I have accomplished. For a split second, I feel myself filling with dread, knowing that, “we still have to get out the same way.” It is like rock climbing, except we have no harnesses or safety gear.

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Bethany is still 30 feet above my head, moving very slowly and deliberately. A logjam of people have accrued behind her, waiting, because there is no place to pass. Her large backpack makes her top heavy, and the uneven load is definitely slowing her down. I am grateful she didn’t lean back too much and lose her balance.

 

When she finally reaches the canyon floor, we both sigh a breath of sweet relief. “Holy shit that was intense!!” “I can’t believe we just did that!” Had I known how treacherous the hike would become, I likely would have turned back too. Thankfully, I didn’t.

 

Money Falls is breathtaking, and worth the ‘hike.’ The force of the water is so strong, that groups of young men are taking turns swimming at full speed towards the frothy white rapids, only to be pushed right back to where they started. The group of adventurers who made it this far is small, and only gets smaller as we look on. Despite our plan to hike to the end and then make stops on the way back, we agree that we have totally just earned a break! We spot a picnic table sitting empty in the middle of the river, with a foot of clear blue water rushing beneath it. We sit down, resting, eating, in awe of what stands before us. It is so powerful!bk mooney picnic
The last leg of the hike is the part that remains least known. Most people never make it this far. The trail is easily an extra 1-2 miles further. When we get up to head out, I can’t even tell where the trail is, as water flows everywhere I look. A young woman guides me, “Just follow the river, you can’t get lost.” Great. Can’t get lost. That sounds like a challenge to me! And with that, we walk ahead, through the shallow river.

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Where the Antelope Roamed…

13 10 2014

We had pushed my mom’s boundaries with the Observation Point hike, which left her pressing her back against the cliffs and motioning others to pass on the cliff-side. The Narrows hike up the river was much more her speed, and left her with a calm wash of satisfaction and we drove out of Zion. Our road trip had some interesting, though brief, stops over the next 24 hours.

 

We left early in the morning, up the winding road and through the mile long tunnel that marks the eastern entrance to Zion National Park. I sat in the passenger’s seat, almond chai in hand, deleting blurry pictures from my camera while Bethany drove through the southern Utah desert. I occasionally looked up to navigate our next turn, beautiful scenery becoming a wavy blur against the recent memories of such grandeur. The colors became muted, and the dramatic elevations disappeared in the distance. To break up the day’s drive, I suggested we stop at a ‘ghost town” along the way. It was called Paria. It was a 6-mile road that made us grateful for renting something with 4-wheel drive. The dirt path was little more than a seldom-traveled wash, leading to a sign commemorating where the ghost town was burned down in 2006.

 

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Our destination for the day was Antelope Canyon- a much photographed natural wonder carved out of the red earth of tribal land near Page, AZ. I had been warned that this would be quite the opposite of our previous few days: with no hiking to speak of, and a crowded line of people being herded through the slot canyons by native guides who charged $35-55 per person for the one hour photographic free-for-all.

 

10636531_714576971958263_1171351300819935453_o1559495_714576315291662_384460193911045020_oOur guide was particularly gritty. When it was our turn to go, we were loaded onto an open truck bed, modified with two vinyl-padded benches, back to back. We rode 20 minutes through the city, then turned onto the dirt road that lead to the spot. In the distance we saw clouds of dust, spewn by a serpentine pattern of other vehicles, jostling through the desert without any direction, other than to get another load of tourists in and out as quickly as possible. Some were open like ours, others were enclosed Suburbans. None seemed to follow any identifiable roads, and each took their own favorite way to get there. I felt the dust hit my legs as we traveled, the seat belt pinching against my stomach with each bump. We were buckled in tightly, with 2-3 strangers per belt. When we arrived after another 15 minutes through the desert, our tour-mates were excited to get off, and unhooked themselves to step down from the truck. Our guide leered at them for not waiting for her to undo the metal clasp herself. She seemed to hold a grudge against all 20 of us after that, and spoke only to give us the standard tourist facts that she was obliged to share. She made me feel like we were not wanted there.

 

10494481_714576285291665_8775032588126890410_oAntelope Canyon is a powerful, beautiful space. I did manage to take some photographs that almost capture its essence, but in no way was this a peaceful commune with nature. I found myself feeling annoyed and frustrated by the crowds of oblivious and rude tourists. Yes, we all want our 30 seconds to take that money shot of the swirling, sun-licked, blood orange sandstone. But, honestly, I would have traded my wide angle lens for a chance to sit in this sacred space… alone. It felt dirty and pornographic to just be trudging through like everybody else, shoulder to shoulder, clicking away in hopes that one of my dimly lit shots would turn out.

 

After we left, I felt exhausted instead of invigorated, as I normally do when I spend time in nature. Antelope Canyons has been soiled by the commodification. Am I a part of that? Of course. I bought myself a couple of postcards from the gift shop, just in case my own photos didn’t turn out. I asked the woman behind the counter if they had any sweet-grass, and she told me that she sells out as soon as she gets it in. I had a nice conversation with her, but it still did not completely remove the sour taste in my mouth from the experience. I wondered if the native people ever get a chance to be alone with Antelope Canyon themselves. Do they still perform ceremonies there? Do young lovers lose themselves in the canyon during the full moon? It’s hard to know how to feel when you love nature so much, and want to see it, touch it, feel it, and yet doing so beyond your own community may be actually putting those elements at risk. It makes me feel like a junkie. I know that what I’m doing may not be right, but I just can’t stop. I want more. I’ll always want more.

 

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Grrrls in Zion

27 09 2014

emerald pools hike trio

About a year ago, Bethany & I were returning from our annual trip to Utah, where we had another whirlwind hiking tour with her dad. I was sharing photos of our 10 mile hikes with my mom and brothers, as we excitedly shared stories of the beauty we saw, and how we stopped in 4 national parks in 3 days. My mom said, “Well next time you girls go out west, I want to go.” I smiled, and said, “Sure!”

 

I was excited at the prospect of taking a ‘girls vacation’ with my mom and my wife. Our relationship has come a long way since I came out 5 years ago, and I loved the idea of bonding over a week of hard hikes and amazing scenery. Mom’s xmas gift was a plane ticket to join us for a fall trip out west, and we asked her what she wanted to see. We determined that we would fly into Vegas, then rent a car and drive a massive loop around the Grand Canyon, through Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. The hikes were going to be strenuous, and my mom took her training seriously over the summer, getting out walking 4-5 days a week to build up her stamina. She even started taking my brother with her and pushing him in his wheelchair for 3 miles. She was focused on her goal to get in shape and keep up with us ‘girls.’

ZION

observation cliff lumber

When we arrived, we drove to Zion National Park in southern Utah, then Page, AZ to see Antelope Canyon, do a drive by on the Grand Canyon at sunset (cuz, when you’re that close, how can you NOT stop by to see it??).Our trip culminated in a little known, hard to reach place called Havasu Falls (more on that later).

 

We arrived at Zion National Park mid-afternoon on a Sunday. It was Labor Day weekend, the last big hurrah before the kids all go back to school and summer is officially over. We weren’t sure how busy the park would be, considering, but hoped that it would taper off sharply on Monday.

 

We checked into our motel, then promptly headed in to the park. We emerald pools reflectionwanted to get my mom oriented, and discuss our plan for the next couple of days there. We also needed to check on the forecast for flash floods, to be sure that it was possible to hike the Narrows. All looked good, so we decided to get on the park shuttle and ride out to do an easy acclimation hike. But first, we bought my mom a pair of hiking poles at the park gift shop. Bethany and I had bought ours here a few years ago, and they were such a great buy, we waited to get my mom some here too. I adjusted the height on her collapsible poles to fit (which is easy, since we’re the same height), and off we went to test them out!emerald pools b mom

 

The first time I was here, we did Emerald Pools, but I only got to see the lower pool, as the trail to the upper was blocked off due to damage. I thought this would be a great hike for my mom to test her poles. Much like my first visit, the trickle of water was pretty small, and it was late enough in the day that the low volume of water in the pool appeared more murky than emerald colored, but it was still an enjoyable hike. We were able to keep going to the upper pools, and by the time we got to the top, my mom was starting to question how much further we had to slog uphill in the loose sand. I gave Bethany a look that said, “Uh-oh. I hope she can handle tomorrow!”emerald pools2

 

As we continued on, Bethany & I discussed strategy for our next hikes. I had never done Observation Point, which is the greatest ascent in the park. By the time you get to the top, you’ve climbed 2,000 feet, and risen to a point overlooking Angel’s Landing (which, by the way, is THE best hike I have ever done!). The other hike on our to-do list was the Narrows, a lovely hike up the river, in and out of the water. We decided that the Narrows was likely to be much more crowded with tourists, so we opted to save that as a recovery hike for the day after the holiday, and confirmed our decision to hike to Observation Point the next morning. My mom agreed with our logic, though she really had no clue what she was in for.

 

observation trailObservation Point starts out alongside the Weeping Rock and Hidden Canyon trailheads. It ascends pretty quickly on a zig-zag trail, winding up the cliff with numerous points to look back at the open canyon. My mom did pretty well, though there were points where she paused to catch her breath, and could only rest if her back was against the cliff, for fear of the path crumbling away at the edge. Her fear of heights meant that this was a much harder hike for her than us. She could not help but grip her hiking poles with tight fingers, while her shoulders tensed up beneath her backpack. Being scared means your muscles are tight, and she exerted more energy with every step.

 

observation water 1The trail got better, diving into a slot canyon, where we were safely between two cliffs, before starting up another cliffside. It was hot- 97 degrees by the end- though still pretty good for that time of year. We stopped often on the way up, but it was difficult to find a spot comfortable enough for my mom to actually rest. We hiked up for 3 hours, covering 4 miles to the top. Bethany and I both had to stop at various points to scout out a decent spot to get rid of the water we had been drinking (a good sign we were staying hydrated). My mom looked at us like we were ‘wild’ because we peed in the brush on a side of a cliff. We did pack TP for her, just in case.

 

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By the time we got to the top, we were all ready for a break, and lunch! Bethany and I sat in the prairie with my mom to eat, out of sight of the breathtaking views, so she could relax. Then we left my mom on her rock in the brush and ventured out to enjoy the reason we were there. I sat down on the edge of the cliff, my legs dangling  above soaring birds below. It was AMAZING. I could see the entire canyon of Zion- the winding river, the tiny specks that were shuttle buses below. I relished in using my new camera lenses to capture it all. The telephoto lens let me see the tiny people clinging to the chains along Angel’s Landing, while my new wide angle lense allowed me to photograph the entire vista in one fell swoop. I felt like I was in heaven.

 

I could have sat there for hours, just listening to the high desert winds, watching the utter stillness of the valley. Bethany and I share this appreciation for nature. Of course, much like when we hike with her dad, hiking with my mom meant that we had to keep moving. We said goodbye to our view, and turned around to head back down. Another two hours and 4 miles later, we had safely returned my mom’s feet to the canyon floor, and she breathed a big sigh of relief. “I could never have done that hike 20 years ago,” she shared, and I think she was glad she did it (though she was more glad to be done).

 

THE NARROWS

10646804_709296359152991_5079882996933369753_nMy mom’s reward for doing Observation Point with us was up next. Well, after we drank wine by the motel pool that evening. Tuesday morning we tried to sleep in, knowing that the water in the river would be cold and unpleasant if we headed out too early in the morning. My mom and I left Bethany sleeping and went across the road to a little coffee shop to buy coffee, chai, and homemade blueberry scones. The chai was real chai, and I could taste the individual spices carefully blended together with rich almond milk. Such simple pleasures!

 

Back at the room, we carefully selected what was coming with us on the river hike. Layers of clothing to be peeled off, waterproof bags for my nice camera gear. Last time I had hiked the narrows, I didn’t know what to expect, so I only brought Bethany’s iphone in its brand new waterproof case. I saw others with their SLR cameras, realized how low the water levels were, and regretted not getting better photographs. This time, I was prepared for anything!10593187_709756639106963_3842958024810662791_n

 

The Narrows hike did not disappoint. My mom had a smile on her face the instant we started hiking in the water, when 80% of the other hikers turned back. Water was even lower because it was September, which was just fine by me. Inside the narrow walls of the canyon, it is shady most of the time. While hiking in and out of the water constantly, it’s surprisingly easy to get a chill at 10am, despite the fact that the high still reached 98 degrees later that day! “Yesterday’s hike was nice, “ my mom politely shared, “but THIS is perfect! This is why I came here.”

My favorite part was when my mom saw a little niche carved out of the the rock wall, and started to hike through the water to climb up in it. As soon as she realized how deep the water was getting, she called out to me, “Hey Kelly, go climb in that carve-out so I can take your picture.” She thought she was being smart! As walking became wading, waist-deep in the cold waters, I took a deep breathe. I got to the wall, and started to climb up. I couldn’t. It was above my shoulders and I had nothing to step on to climb up out of the water. “I can’t get up there,” I called back, “you’ll have to come give me a leg up!” So, she waded out with me, and together we laughed and splashed until I finally managed to get up to her photo op, and then I jumped back down into the water to return. My mom and I were laughing and smiling ear to ear, while Bethany just stood in ankle deep water documenting everything.

 

What a great last day in Zion! Next up? Antelope Canyon and Havasu Falls! (More to come next time)

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