There is Unrest in the Forest

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Actually there isn’t.  There is no trouble with the trees.  Sequoia National Park suffers from zero maple v. oak issues — the sequoias dominate, unopposed.  The unrest is probably limited to Canadian forests.

While you cringe and attempt to recover from that severely nerdy reference, let me describe the drive to Three Rivers, just outside of the park, where we spent the next few days.  As it happens, I was correct to be concerned about the grade in our escape from Death Valley.  Here’s the picture of our route.

 

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The section in purple is a long, steep upslope.  It takes you from -200’ to just about 5000’ in about 20 miles.  That was tough, but manageable at 20-30 mph or so and in low gear.  The section in yellow is a very steep downslope.  In about 12 miles you lose a good bit of that elevation again, at a 9% grade.  For some perspective, 6% is the highest grade allowed on interstate highways.  So if you think about infamous stretches of highway with runaway truck ramps and the smell of angry brakes, you’re likely thinking of 6%.  There are small sections of steeper grades on tiny roads in hilly urban or mountainous areas, but this was my first brush with 12 miles straight of 9%.  It was not enjoyable.  Not at all.  You want to stay in the lowest gear you can manage in order to let your engine tackle as much of the slowing down as possible, but with this kind of slope I had no choice but to get on the brakes repeatedly.  Once brakes heat up enough they start to “fade,” i.e. lose effectiveness, until they have no ability to do their job at all.  I don’t know at what temperature this happens, but I was in no mood to perform experiments.  I did learn that Davista will in fact upshift automatically when the RPMs get so high that engine/transmission damage becomes a possibility.  This happens at about 5500 RPM (= a screaming engine), and causes a very abrupt and uncomfortable speed increase.  Sweating profusely about halfway down the hill, the brakes smell hit us strongly.  A few seconds of wondering what it would feel like to push the pedal and NOT SLOW DOWN convinced me to urgently seek and subsequently spot a turnoff on the opposite side of the road, into which I guided us to let the brakes cool.  In an A320 we have brake fans and a brake temperature gauge to help with such things – not so in Davista.  We sat there on the side of the desert road, me with my fancy IR thermometer taking readings I wasn’t sure I understood, for a good half hour before I was satisfied that they had cooled enough to take us the last 5 miles or so.  Luckily by that point it was more or less a straight shot – if nothing else I could scream into the valley at 100 mph and let the next uphill section dissipate our energy.  (Not really… I think Davista would shake and shudder herself into oblivion at about 85)

Disaster averted and lesson learned, we pressed on through the desert past some really rough little near-ghost-towns and then over the Tehachapi Pass into California’s fertile Central Valley again.  Though we stopped in Bakersfield for the night, it was a short and non-noteworthy, so I’m considering this just a two day drive to Sequoia.

Sequoia is the southernmost of California’s three national parks in the Sierras, and shares a border (and a Junior Ranger badge) with Kings Canyon national park.  It is, of course, most famous for its trees, but it also contains some of California’s most remote wilderness and extreme terrain, to include Mt. Whitney, the continental US’s highest point.  We stayed at a relatively low elevation just outside the park, along a stream feeding the Kaweah River.  Great call, as not only was it one of the best private campgrounds we’ve visited, but here’s the road up into Sequoia.

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Davista would not have liked that at all.  Even our Subaru didn’t like it.  Our campsite, however, was right on the stream and hammock friendly, as well as spacious and populated with enough kids to allow our own to throw together a nerf gun battle or two.

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Our original plan was to drive up to Sequoia and do a bit of hiking the first day and then do a second drive on day two past the sequoia groves and into Kings Canyon.  Nixing that plan became very easy after that first day of driving.  Though technically not very far, driving through Sequoia into Kings Canyon would have entailed a solid 4 hours on the road, through torturous switchbacks.  Nah.  Fortunately the girls were able to bag their Junior Ranger badge for both parks while only visiting one.

The hike through the sequoias was predictably spectacular.  Though not quite as tall as the giant redwoods, sequoias are more girthy and therefore massive.

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We’ve found that as a family we have some of our best conversations while hiking; this time some of our more interesting conversational meanderings took us to the things that were happening in the world when these trees were young.  One feature I found especially interesting about sequoias is the degree to which they’re scarred.  Every one of the older trees sports heavily blackened areas, from forest fires and/or lightning strikes.  Evidently they are able to survive forest fires quite well, and when you’re around a few thousand years, you’re going to see a few of those.

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That idea of extreme longevity spurred me to take Keeper with me on a conversational tangent about this interesting podcast I heard in which they were discussing how, if all diseases were curable and aging effects were stoppable, we would essentially all die of accidents, and what the graph of age vs number of people alive would look like.  He may have found it less interesting than I.  He stuck with me though.

The reverent vibe that we had previously sensed in among the redwoods was definitely present here among the sequoias as well, though there are significant differences between the biomes – redwoods are low in elevation, sequoias are high, and redwood forests felt more lush and dense, whereas the sequoias seem to be more or less the only vegetation within their groves.

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IMG_0165It proved an ideal place to sit and answer Junior Ranger questions.

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We rounded the General Sherman tree at the last bit of our hike; it’s the largest (by volume) living single stem tree on Earth, and looks it.

Tree hike complete, we braved the curvy road again, but opted to stop at Moro Rock just before sunset.  Moro Rock sits like a sentinel at the top of the Kaweah River canyon and commands stunning 360 degree views.  Great place for a sunset.  Unfortunately that translates to crowds, which don’t mix well with precarious trails that cling to steep rocks.  On top of that, these crowds were speaking very little English and seemed to have different ideas than we did about what constitutes personal space, making the whole endeavor a little dicey.

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Keeper was not amused – first Angel’s Landing and then this?  “You do know I’m not kidding about the agoraphobia thing right??” Sorry man…

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The views though!

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Having decided not to make the drive up the mountain again the following day, we spent it relaxing in the campground, followed by a short drive down to Slick Rock Recreation Area, at the eastern/upstream side of Lake Kaweah, where the river empties into the reservoir over a series of smooth rocks.  With the lake level quite low, there were quite a few rocks on which to play, though visiting just before Thanksgiving was a mixed blessing – no crowds, but no crowds because the air and that water is cold!  Fortunately our kids, especially Keeper, don’t mind cold water.  Check him out being the great big brother and carrying his sisters out to the middle of the river…

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IMG_0204Later he opted for some full immersion swimming on the condition that I videoed him doing so.  “Pics or it didn’t happen” indeed.

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One of the more interesting occurrences on that day was meeting, for the first time this trip, another family doing more or less the same thing as we were.  (!!)  Leave it to Firebolt to make the introduction.  She still sees herself as “shy,” but will find and introduce herself to just about any kid her age and will be playing as if they’ve been friends for years within 15 minutes.  I don’t think she realizes what “shy” means.

The family hailed from North Carolina, and had settled for the winter right there at Slick Rock Recreation Area as “camp hosts.”  This is an amazingly good deal which I wish we had previously researched and considered.  Essentially you stay for free at the nicest spot in the camp (and may even get a small stipend?) in exchange for minimal duties.  For them it was collecting the fee envelopes from the box each day and ensuring things were reasonably clean and that people weren’t doing prohibited things.  Not taxing during the very slow winter season.  What was interesting about this particular gig was that Slick Rock wasn’t even a campground… in fact theirs was the only site, and was well-appointed.  So essentially they had the entire park to themselves, and they told us about how they had dialed themselves in with the Three Rivers community, and had been brought into the town’s fold immediately.

While this was no longer any sort of option for us, I did note it for future reference, and scold myself slightly for not researching such options prior to our trip.  They seemed to be a fun family; I wish we could’ve hung around a bit more, but alas, the sun was setting and we were leaving the following morning, so we said our goodbyes.  The following day would bring a drive up to Grass Valley in the northern Sierra foothills to park in my sister’s in-laws’ driveway in preparation for a full on extended family Thanksgiving, which was something we had been able to do last year (minus the motorhome) and were greatly looking forward to.

We set our park-Davista-and-return-to-Maryland day as December 7th (a day that will live in infamy).  We’ve got strongly mixed feelings about bringing this period of travel to a close.  The sense of not wanting to stop is deepening.  We still don’t have a destination, but the itinerant lifestyle, or at least this version of it, has become very easy and almost natural.  Breaking that rhythm doesn’t feel like the right thing to do, yet we haven’t come up with a viable alternative.

In the meantime some Big Family time will do us good.

A Motivational 94 in Late November

I guess seeing Death Valley immediately after Zion was hardly setting the stage favorably for this, our 6th, National Park experience.  On the plus side, it was unexpectedly toasty when we rolled into Death Valley.  Yes, I recognize that this place is touted as being the hottest on the planet and temperatures will routinely soar into the high 110os Fahrenheit in July and August, but I wasn’t expecting that just before Thanksgiving. Summer, yes, but almost winter? In fact, there is a reason the campground and Visitor’s Center is called Furnace Creek as records hold it reached 134oF there in July 2013.  I can’t even imagine how that searing air might have felt on inspiration.  Fortunately, on our short visit in late November, the temperature peaked at reasonable 94oF.  I tried to catch that in pixels, but just as I shot, the temperature dropped to a tepid 94-1oF. Dang it.

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Our visit was short and sweet (sort of), aside from the clown show put on by our fellow campers. As Flight alluded to in his post, we slept often throughout the night with periods of slumber punctuated by obnoxious neighbors, a roaring desert wind easily batting our house about, and a nearby yip yip dog protecting I’m not sure what exactly.  I was most disappointed by our lack of seeing a starry night as we were driven in by the aforementioned cacophony before the clouds dissipated.  Sigh…

Our afternoon arrival allowed for the Junior Rangers in our clan to pursue yet another badge, which they successfully accomplished at the nearby Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center.

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Flight and I evaluated all that we could see within Death Valley based on our very limited timeline.  I had heard about the rocks that move on their own, leaving a carved groove in their wake to indicate their unexplained travels.

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Picture is from ABC News

While some scientists have proposed and demonstrated a plausible mechanism for their unique existence, I prefer to embrace the mystery.  Although I was keen on seeing the Sliding Rocks, when I learned they were located a scant 3.5-hour drive from our campsite, one that should require a sat-phone and a high-clearance 4×4, I became far less interested and was happy to rely on images I found online.  Maybe next time…

Instead, we chose to see the Devil’s Golf Course, which was covered with jumbled, low-lying salt formations almost as far as the eye could see.

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We saw only one other car on our way out to the fairway and its occupants scuttled away shortly after we arrived to leave us truly alone on the expansive salt flat. Very eerie and certainly not where I’d want to skin a knee.  Here’s a close up view of all that dirty salt:

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Although I lined it off the list for possible summer cottage locations, I’m glad we saw it.

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We drove back to the campsite, all a little subdued, maybe a little perplexed by what we had seen.  We broke camp and bid Furnace Creek adieu. On our way out of the Park, we drove through Artists Drive and stopped to take in Artist’s Palette where the hills are alive with the patina of aged minerals.

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I know, that doesn’t have the same lyrical ring to it, but the mounds of muted colors were indeed awe-inspiring.  Although they didn’t exude same siren’s call for me as my red rocks, I was glad we made the opportunity to see them as well.

While seeing the lowest point in the US was one to check off the bucket list, the highlight of the trip was our brush with a runaway vehicle.

Ours.

In all my years of commuting up and down Parley’s Canyon to take me from Park City to teach at the U and back home again, I had always wondered about the highway’s offshoots labeled, “Runaway Truck Ramp,” as I had never seen one in use. Apparently they’re pretty handy when a massive hunk of metal achieves an inertial state that can no longer be overcome by its braking system.   Especially on steep grades (9% in this particular case, although I’ve heard it may be more), the scale often tips to inertia because the frictional load on the brakes heats them past their functioning temperature window.  In Utah, these well-placed ramps allow gravity to take over and bring a barreling mass back under control.  Despite looking in earnest, especially once our brakes started smelling hot, I didn’t locate any on the steep slope.  Hmm…

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So here we sat for a stretch to allow our hot brakes to cool enough to gently nudge them back into the safe range of temperature operation.  As Flight likes to say, it wasn’t yet an emergent situation but we could easily see disaster from our parking spot at the side of the road, IR thermometer in hand.

I have since done some more research on that stretch of road and learned that RV brake failure and/or brake fires are not uncommon, so much so that State Troopers refer to late spring and summer as “Towing Season.”  !!!  The RV-capable towing companies based near Death Valley must be nearly as lucrative as those in Pismo Beach, and I, for one, am most thankful that we didn’t provide an additional data point to stretch the season into November.  Onto the cooler climes and greener (and maybe less steep?) slopes awaiting us in Sequoia National Park…

The Valley of the Shadow…

This makes no sense, but turning around and backtracking to the west along the same road we had traveled a few days prior rubbed me wrong.  It felt vaguely counter-productive, as if we’d already gained that ground and were giving it back up, even though we were headed to new destinations.  Like I said, no sense.

Possibly though, it’s related to this tiny, deep-seated sense of relief I experience each time we complete a leg of our journey, with nothing having broken down or disabling us in some way.  I used to get the same feeling back when we had a boat in the San Juan Islands – I loved going out, but every time we pulled back into the dock having cheated maritime disaster once again (never a given; we got into some pretty sketchy situations in that boat), I would feel this tension release.

So here we were driving back through the Virgin River Gorge and around Vegas toward California, not sure of what to expect in Death Valley.

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As we turned northwest out of Las Vegas and left civilization behind, I was struck once again how massive and remote Nevada is.  We only saw a small corner of it, but the entire state is mini mountain range after mini mountain range, wide valley after wide valley, rocky, dry, and empty, forever.  And by “mini” I don’t mean that they are small mountains.  They’re huge.  But the ranges themselves only stretch for 50-100 miles, and there are so many of them that you wouldn’t even know their names unless you lived in Nevada.  Maybe even then you wouldn’t.

There’s truly a “you could find anything out here” feel to the area, which helps to explain Burning Man, Area 51, legalized gambling and prostitution, and the little town we drove into just prior to turning west back into California.  There were only a few scattered semi-decrepit buildings, but evidently one of them was a brothel run by Mr. Dennis Hof, of HBO/Cathouse infamy. How did we know?  Well, the town, if you could even call it that, is full of billboards with his enormous face on them.  I’m not a fan of the man and can’t fathom how he managed to build his fortune on brothels situated literally in the middle of nowhere, but he’s nothing if not an expert self-promoter.  I wish I had a picture to share.

The weather, as it has for most of our journey, cooperated.  Winter is of course high season in Death Valley, and the forecast called for low 80s and sunny, but with a good bit of wind.

I’ve previously mentioned Davista’s, and therefore my, severe sensitivity to grades.  Highway grades I mean.  Slope.  I nixed an entire leg of the journey due to not wanting to crest a few 8000’ passes (ok, and also because of the snow), and here we were about to descend steeply into a valley, the bottom of which sits at -282’.  It’s also bordered by a range of snow-capped mountains to the west, which would be the direction of our egress in a day or two.  Point being, as the engine shifted into low gear and began to whine once again as it tried to prevent us from reaching warp speed, I gritted my teeth a bit and hoped she was up to the task.

Semi-interesting side note here:  Many people know that Death Valley has the lowest elevation in the US.  What fewer people seem to know is that Mt. Whitney, the highest elevation in the Continental US (get outta here Alaska!), is only 85 miles away as the crow flies.  In fact, the two points are in the same county.  What’s more, there’s an endurance footrace called the Badwater Ultramarathon that starts at the bottom of Death Valley and ends at the Mt. Whitney trailhead.  California’s got a lot going on.

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The scenery was interesting in an extreme desert sort of way.  Though Tacco and I were fascinated, we’ve long since given up on demanding that the kids put down their screens / books and look out the window though, at least for any extended period of time, by which I mean more than it takes for Firebolt to say “cooooooolllll.”  We figure that if Yellowstone, the Tetons, and the rugged Pacific coast failed to provide enough visual stimulation to hold their attention, then nothing will.  At least they’re not fighting with each other.

We arrived at our campground without incident, but discovered fairly quickly that “play it by ear” wasn’t going to be a viable tactic here.  The official National Park campground was ok, if a bit shrubby and windswept, but the other options (if you recall, we were only able to get reservations here for one night but planned to stay two) were full-on Lunar Base Delta.  Zero vegetation, zero hookups, not even close to level, and, well… ugly.  There’s a time to be hard core; this was not it.

So The Plan morphed, as it’s wont to do.  One night in Death Valley.  We’d check out the Ranger Center in the evening, drive around to see a few sights in the morning, and then continue west.

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The wind really kicked up as we walked over to the Ranger Center to see whether it would be feasible for the girls to bag another Junior Ranger badge (it was).  One of the surprising things we learned about Death Valley from the exhibits was the fact that there’s a Native American tribe that has made their home at the bottom of the valley for, well pretty much forever.  So many questions about that…

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I also discovered to my consternation that the path out of the valley to the west wasn’t nearly as forgiving as it had looked on the map.  Though it avoided the 7000’+ pass through the highest mountain range, it didn’t avoid passes altogether, and in fact would take us up about 5000’ and down pretty quickly.  I filed that away for later.

It wasn’t our best night.  We slept ok all things considered, but on top of the incessant wind making noise and shaking our home, there was not only a loudly partying group nearby (who I noticed were being evicted by the NP staff the following morning) and a dog next door that decided it was important everyone knew he existed most of the night.  It’s safe to say that none of us was complaining about breaking camp and moving out in the morning.

We did decide to go check out Devil’s Golf Course, which sums up Death Valley nicely.  It’s otherworldly and worth checking out, but after a few pictures and comments about how alone we were out there, it was time to move on.

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We took one more side jaunt through an area called Artist’s Palette, and then departed.

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It wouldn’t be fair to call our Death Valley detour a swing and a miss, as it’s undoubtedly extraordinary, and something to check off The List.  But one night was plenty.  Back to the mountains!

Another Hallelujah Morning

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How is it that my image of Zion before we went was so far from reality?  I really have no excuse – I’ve been there.  It was long ago, and I don’t think I even spent the night, but still… my general thoughts about it went something like this:

  • It’s one of the many National Parks in that area of the country and similar to them
  • There’s a canyon, but it’s not as striking as Bryce Canyon or as massive as the Grand Canyon
  • It’s isolated, so sparsely visited and primitive
  • It’s worth a day’s visit, maybe an overnight, but that’s about it

Though the broad lines of those statements have a kernel of truth in them, not a single one of them is correct.

Zion is mind-blowing; I could spend months there.  Though it is indeed somewhat isolated in an area of Utah known more for renegade polygamists than any of the actual nearby towns, it’s actually the fifth most visited National Park, ahead of even Yellowstone [late edit:  The 2017 numbers are in, and it was actually third, ahead of both Yosemite and Rocky Mountain].  And the town of Springdale, which abuts the southern (and main) park entrance, is nicer than any “gateway to xx park!” town I’ve seen, with good eats, cool shops, almost zero touristy chintz, and stunning 360 degree view houses perched on various rock outcroppings.  I know when I glance to my right while driving and see Tacco browsing the local Zillow listings that we’re equally impressed with the real estate.

To say “there’s a canyon” is akin to visiting the Norwegian fjords and saying “there are cliffs.”  Technically true, but wholly inadequate.  It’s also technically true that it’s much smaller than the Grand Canyon, but in seeing it you realize how beside the point a size comparison is.  I spent three days overwhelmed.

And no, it’s not really similar to any of the other National Parks in that area.  It’s more like a “greatest hits” compilation of all of them.  It’s now unfathomable that I was waffling on whether to bring the family to Zion.

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Our drive took us northeast out of Las Vegas, through mostly uninspiring desert scenery until we reached the Virgin River Gorge in the far northwest corner of Arizona.  Crossing into Utah on the upper end of the Gorge, the rocks became redder and the plateaus and peaks more dramatic.  Turning off the interstate near St. George, we rejoined the Virgin River (the north fork of which is responsible for carving Zion Canyon) and followed it through the eye-popping vistas into the park.

Fall is a slow time in Zion, but it really shouldn’t be.  The weather was mild, it was uncrowded, and though the Fall colors had long since peaked, plenty of color remained.

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A few deer greeted us as we pulled into our campsite, and Keeper was thrilled to find that we had not only full hookups, but as solid a cellphone / internet signal as we had seen anywhere thus far.  As it was a bit too late for any serious hiking, we did some low grade exploring of the area, had some dinner, and turned in fairly early after planning our upcoming few days.

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Much like Yosemite, the main attraction in Zion is the canyon through the center of the park, but the expansive backcountry is riddled with rewards for the more adventurous.  Unfortunately we were limited on several axes in our ability to be adventurous this visit (time, kids’ abilities, accommodations, conveyance, etc.).  But also like Yosemite, the hikes within the valley/canyon are famous for good reason.  The two most well-known in Zion are Angel’s Landing and The Narrows.  The former is a switchback intensive climb 1500′ up the canyon wall through widely varying mini-biomes, culminating in a knife edge clifftop walk to what seems like an unreachable point of rock when you see it from a distance.  The last bit of trail drops off very steeply on both sides and is only as wide as two people or so in places. There are metal posts driven into the rock with chains hung between them that give you something to hold onto.  Everywhere we read about it advised “CHILDREN NOT RECOMMENDED.”  As it turns out we have three of those.  That could be problematic.

The Narrows is sort of the opposite of Angel’s Landing, and is essentially a mostly flat hike up the river.  The catch, though, is that the canyon becomes narrower and narrower, until the only way to keep hiking is IN the river.  It continues this way (and becomes even narrower!  Wait, I think I just realized how they came up with the name…) for more than 10 miles, and the standard way to do it is with semi-dry suits that look something like fishing waders and a long wooden walking pole for balance in the water.  Needless to say, this is not something you would attempt with rain either in the sky or in the forecast, nor is it something you should put your six-year-old through.  Which isn’t to say we didn’t make our best effort to do so; unfortunately you could fit two Woodsprites simultaneously into the smallest sized dry suits they had available for rent.

Nevertheless undaunted, and invigorated by the scenery, we decided we would try semi-abbreviated versions of both hikes, reasoning that we could get up to the point on Angel’s Landing at which the chains/knife edge started and stop there if it didn’t look reasonable, and that we could hike the Narrows just up to the point where you had to get your feet wet, and then maybe wade a bit further if we were feeling it.  We also decided to do another hike on a side canyon which was short but led to more stunning views.  It was a good compromise, we thought.  Have I mentioned Keeper is agoraphobic though?  Yes, spiders and heights, and in the last week we had climbed more steep rocks and seen more tarantulas than in his previous 11 years combined.  Nothing wrong with terrifying your kids, right?

The girls were excited to tear through their Junior Ranger challenges once we woke up the following morning, and we took a walk up the river to the Ranger Station to get that process rolling.  More deer, more scenery, more fresh air.

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As our visit fell on all weekdays, we did have homeschooling tasks to accomplish prior to “playing.”  That’s tough.  Especially in a place like this.  While I know that we are not on vacation and that we can’t just run around on a rock or in a river and call it “school,” sometimes I really, really want to.  Fortunately Tacco keeps me honest.

Angel’s Landing was, in a word, amazing.  Yet again, I’ll defer to the pictures.

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Version 2Even the lower part of the hike was better than most any hike I’ve taken, anywhere.  But the top was simply beyond description.  There was enough flat area for everybody to safely loll around and take in the view, but Keeper opted to lay down to get his fear of heights in check.  A sign warning of the entirely obvious danger informed us that six hikers had lost their lives due to falls over the last few years, and though this was clearly meant to alarm us, all Tacco and I could think was “that’s all?!?”  I was speculating that more than that had died from bee sting allergies or having a tree branch fall on their head – this place looked like people would be sliding off of it daily at a minimum.

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I so wanted to keep going.  Tacco, rightly concerned about her issues with vertigo, did not, but I sat and contorted my brain into about a dozen different rationalizations for taking one or more kids up to the top with me, all of which failed even the most basic risk vs. reward analyses.  So in the end I took Firebolt and Woodsprite, separately, up to the part where the chains begin.  It was cool.  We got some pics.  Next time we’ll conquer it.

And I have to give a special shout-out to Firebolt here, because she continues to surprise us.  As a self-proclaimed non-risk-taker, she was the first to join me at the chains, and would’ve definitely gone to the top with me had I not reluctantly eliminated that option.  She even laid down on the rock and put her head over the edge of the 1300’ cliff, and then asked me to take a video of her looking down, then looking at me with an “are you kidding me right now?” face.  It seems like everything she tells us she can’t do, she then tries, and excels at it.

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Later in the day we did the short Canyon Overlook Hike, which turned out to be almost as vertigo-inducing as Angel’s Landing.  Keeper was not amused, particularly at this section of rickety wooden pathway bolted into the rock.  He might think we’re trying to kill him.

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Again though, views forever.

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IMG_0037-hIMG_0052Our last day started with somewhat more threatening weather, which did not bode well for a hike up The Narrows.  Fortunately though, the ominous clouds below dissipated before homeschooling was complete for the day, and we were able to enjoy a pre-hike riverside picnic lunch in sunshine, if not exactly warm temperatures (it was November after all).

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The trail up the river to The Narrows’ beginning delivered yet another palette of Utah river/rock/trees for us to gawk at, as well as several rocks to scramble upon.  This has become a favorite activity of the kids’ since Joshua Tree.

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IMG_9993Though we easily reached the point at which wet feet (or a dry suit) became mandatory for those continuing, we opted to stop there rather than risk ruining the rest of the day by having one of the kids misstep and convert wet feet into wet everything.  Did I mention it was a little chilly?  Both the water and the air.

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IMG_0010-hAs it turned out, however, Keeper managed to check that particular block anyway on the way back.  Shortly after turning around to hike back downstream, he ventured off-trail to scramble on some rocks down by the river.  What 11-year-old wouldn’t, right?  I know I would’ve.  I could see that he was getting himself into increasingly tricky situations with smaller margins for error.  Mentally noting that the current wasn’t particularly strong and there were several potential egress points, however, I didn’t bother to keep too close an eye on him.  I did manage to snag a suitable “before” pic though.

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Within a few minutes, I noticed several other hikers staring and pointing toward his vicinity.  Quickly climbing up to get a better vantage point, I caught the tail end of his jump-gone-wrong, which was him completely submerged in the cold river and swimming toward a calm spot from which he could climb out.  When a quick “are you ok?” netted a thumbs up, I smiled and watched for a few seconds before scrambling down to take pictures help my son.

Evidently what happened, a common river-rock-jumping failure mode, is that he jumped from a higher rock to a lower rock without fully strategizing how to get back to the higher rock.  His attempted jump back up plastered him on the rock’s steep side without enough purchase, and he had a solid few seconds of slow backwards sliding to think about the water temperature and the fact that he’d found his not-previously-considered path of least resistance back to dry ground.

Not that he was especially hurt other than a few rock scrapes, but Keeper’s a tough kid, which is one of the many, many things I love about him.  He doesn’t make a big deal out of things that aren’t.  And if you see him wincing in pain or God-forbid, crying, you know he has some serious hurt going on and isn’t just embarrassed or wanting some attention.  He took the whole thing in stride, even laughing about it and posing for some “after” pics.

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The hike back in his soaked clothing got a little bracing when the wind kicked up or we got in the shadows, but he never complained.  Good man.

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So what are we taking away from Zion?  Primarily a desire to come back.  There’s so much to see there, particularly in the back country.  More confirmation that that high desert/mountain climate very much suits us.  And a deepening sense of not wanting this phase of travel to end I think.

One thing I touched on tangentially with my comment about needing to push myself (or be pushed) to get the kids to actually sit down and do their school tasks — the larger point there is this sense we’re discovering that every day is a Big Day.  There are no throwaway days, they’re all huge ones, ones that we want to wring every last moment out of.  And while that sounds in many ways ideal and exhilarating, which it absolutely is, we’re finding it to be a double-edged sword in that it’s a difficult pace to maintain.  We find ourselves far more physically and mentally exhausted than we feel like we ought to be at times, with decreased desire to take care of the mundane life tasks (education being only one of them) that need to get accomplished, and this seems to be one of the root causes.  It’s tempting to blow off math and writing and reading entirely, because holy cow, kids, look around!  Zion!  But when you’re doing that every day, hmm…  While we know our kids are logging countless amazing experiences as we wander, we don’t want to do them a disservice by neglecting the things their peers are learning.  And they need us to maintain high energy as well.

I suspect it’s something we could and likely will adapt to with more time, but in the meantime it’s a bit of a surprise.  And I do wonder how the process will work in reverse when we settle back down.

Zion, though… incredible.  Definitely in at least the top five of my favorite national parks, probably more like top three.  Even without the benefit of distance, the kids are all saying the same.

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IMG_0005-hIMG_9983We now turn back west and head toward Death Valley, which I’m not so sure about (then again, I wasn’t so sure about Zion either).  Like Zion, I’ve been there before and my recollections tell me that it’s unique and worth seeing, but maybe not mind-blowing.  We also couldn’t get a reservation at the National Park’s RV campground there for both nights we’re staying, so we’re playing it a bit by ear.  Maybe not the best thing to be doing in, you know, Death Valley.

But nah, we’ve got this.  Where have I heard that before?

 

 

 

 

The Meadows

Driving your family from a blissed-out zen retreat to arguably the most in-your-face city in the world entails some adjustment.  Though we’ve been attempting to inject variety into our destinations and campsite types, this was an especially drastic jump.

I was somewhat surprised to discover how limited the Las Vegas RV accommodation choices were, given how tourist oriented it is.  It wasn’t lack of space as much as it was lack of varying types of spots to park.  At the low end of the scale (disregarding the Breaking Bad tumbleweed-strewn RV parks out on the fringes of town) was the Circus Circus parking lot, where they gleefully advertise RV camping Right On the Strip!  My skepticism of that setup was confirmed by a quick skim of its online reviews.  It does sound like a great place to inadvertently donate anything you leave outside to whomever may wander by (there’s no security whatsoever evidently).  And sure, who doesn’t want to brush elbows with the local color three steps and a thin door from where you and your kids are sleeping?  But not a good fit for us.

The best option would likely have been the RV park at nearby Nellis Air Force Base, but that opinion seems to have been popular as I found it booked essentially solid for several months.  That left the string of KOA and KOA-esque campgrounds on the east side of town and one of two “upscale” options just south of the Strip that promote themselves with glossy brochures and websites to match.  Still skittish from our Mission Bay “splurge” but not especially comfortable with either the location or the look of the KOAs, I opted for the Las Vegas Motorcoach Resort.  New Class A motorhomes only, palm trees, sparkling pools, and “Celebrating the Las Vegas Lifestyle” as their tagline.  I had to think about that last bit.  Still do.  But neither my questions about what’s being celebrated nor the price tag dissuaded me, and it turned out to be a decent call.

First though, the drive up.  It was surprisingly enjoyable.  I hesitated slightly when looking at the two lane roads through the desert, but I needn’t have.  They were better maintained than most of what we’d heretofore dealt with, and offered gorgeous scenery and unlimited visibility.  What I realized as we turned off of the interstate was that while I’d criss-crossed the California desert multiple times in my childhood, it was almost always both as a means to an end with no stops en route and on the main roads only.  There was much I hadn’t seen!  We made a stop in the small town of Kelso, where there is a mini ghost town and a restored railroad depot.  We then drove up the grade (more Joshua Trees!) through the Mojave National Preserve, where the scenery is almost as otherworldly as what we had just left behind in Joshua Tree.  Lots of little campgrounds and dirt roads to explore too.  Who knew?

Drive to Vegas

Our arrival at the LVMR was met with much fanfare.  Seriously, it was.  Heavy black and gold iron gates, an involved check-in process, and a 10-minute-or-so wait for an escort to show us to our site.  Show us to our site??  Huh, OK.  Seemed excessive, but if the “Las Vegas Lifestyle” is about anything, it’s about excess I suppose.

What we discovered is that this is not so much a campground as it’s overwintering grounds for motorhome-owning folks who reside in colder climes.  Lots of Alberta license plates.  Evidently the sites are privately owned and then, as a service to the owners when they’re not present, rented out to transient folks like us.  Some of the sites, actually most of them, were elaborately built out with outdoor kitchens, bars, cabanas, and festive rope lighting.  It took me a day to warm to the idea, but after I did, it struck me as a ridiculously pleasant way to spend your winters if your lifestyle lends itself to such a thing.  We’re not remotely there yet, but I filed it away for reference – call it a data point.

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Despite our presence bringing the average age of the park’s residents down by several years, we enjoyed it, as did the kiddos.  Keeper gave the showers multiple thumbs up, and we had a hot tub and pool about a hundred yards away.

I’ve finally learned that west of the Rockies (with the exception of WA/OR west of the Cascades), if you see healthy, green grass in your RV site, you should not leave anything on that grass overnight that you don’t want to find soaked in the morning.  Sprinklers.

I had to chuckle on day two when I answered a call from a Las Vegas number I didn’t recognize and was solemnly advised that it was Las Vegas Motorhome Management and they had been informed that we had a [dramatic pause…] TENT on our site.  We had set up the Clam, as we normally do, and nowhere in the rules/guidelines were tents mentioned, so I guess this was one of those rules that Just Goes Without Saying.  I mean, what were we thinking?!?  Las Vegas Lifestyle, People!

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Ok, kidding mostly… they were very courteous and I quickly and happily broke down the Clam and managed not to run afoul of the LVMR authorities for the rest of our stay.

We had plenty of activities to choose from in Vegas, but opted to focus primarily on the outdoorsy options after a drive on night one down The Strip failed to generate the fascination and enthusiasm in the kids that we were expecting.  Keeper, looking up from his phone, somewhere near the Stratosphere: “How long are we going to keep doing this?”  This is actually a good thing, as I’m of the opinion that Vegas’ outdoor recreation activities are sorely underrated.  There’s Lake Mead to the east, Red Rock Canyon to the west, snow skiing within an hour to the northwest, and a whole slew of State and National Parks within striking distance.

Having heard good things about Valley of Fire State Park, we headed up there for an afternoon of hiking immediately after swooping me from the airport at the end of my trip.  Great call.  We only had time for a fairly short hike, but it was another stunner.

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The kids will now climb pretty much any rock you put in front of them, and they know their barrel cacti from their jumping cholla.

Once again, I’ll let pictures tell the story here.

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While we were happy not to spend most of our time on The Strip, we did want to at least do an evening there, as it’s a unique part of the landscape and worth seeing.  We were curious what our kids’ take on it would be upon seeing the insides of the casinos and the sidewalk craziness.

Las Vegas’ ability to re-invent itself every decade or so has always fascinated me.  The Vegas of my childhood was a dismal place indeed – other than the whole mob thing, of which I had no awareness at all, the two overarching images I have from that time, whether fair or not:

  • Casinos foggy with cigarette smoke, and old… very old actually… folks sitting immobile in front of ding-ding-dinging slot machines, puffing away and pulling the handles, glassy-eyed.
  • Preposterously cheap food that was worth exactly what you paid for it. Though I wasn’t concerned about such things at the time, you couldn’t get a decent meal there.  They just didn’t exist.  I remember seemingly endless buffet tables (“$3.95 — all you can eat!”) with rows of red heat lamps, under which were plates of desiccated morsels which had probably been semi-edible at some point that week but were now only marginally distinguishable from each other.

After that came the Treasure Island / Mirage / Excalibur phase, in which there seemed to be a dedicated push to make it fun for the whole family rather than the busloads of aforementioned folks from LA.  Pirates!  Volcanoes!  Cirque du Soleil!

Then the “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas” phase – the genius who came up with that marketing campaign has hopefully never needed to work again (but is anyway).  I guess Vegas is still in that phase, technically, but my impression whenever I’m in town now is that it’s more about “high end” than anything.  Before, it was gaudy and over the top, but in a tongue-in-cheek way because ultimately it knew it was cheesy.  Now, it’s still over the top, but legitimately so.  Finding cheap eats is just as difficult as finding good eats used to be.  I like it actually, though only in somewhat small doses.  But it seems that gambling, which used to be pretty much everything in Vegas, has now taken a back seat to the insane variety of other things you can see and do there, and there truly is something for everyone.

At any rate, the Las Vegas Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon happened to be taking place during our stay, so we opted to take advantage of The Strip being closed to vehicular traffic (and full of running folks, laser shows, and live bands) to introduce our kids to a stroll through Vegas’ beating heart.  Parking was brutal, but the atmosphere was even more lively than usual.

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We did a loop that took us through the Bellagio, Caesar’s, Treasure Island, and The Venetian, then had dinner at a decent-bordering-on-outstanding pizza place, where we sat outside and enjoyed the mild weather and views of the new-ish giant ferris wheel.

Predictably, our kids reacted differently to the Strip’s excesses.  Woodsprite was wide-eyed and bouncy as usual.  Firebolt was enthralled, and couldn’t wait to return.

IMG_9943Keeper was unimpressed and at least mildly annoyed, and spent much of his walking time with his shirt pulled up over his nose in a futile attempt to block out some of the cigarette smoke, of which there really wasn’t much compared to back in the day… I think he’s glad he saw it, but doesn’t need to go back.

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Our desire to take the kids to a show was dampened by our inability to do it inexpensively (without sitting through a timeshare presentation the following morning that is) and the kids’ relative lack of enthusiasm for it.  The girls just didn’t want to sit still I think, and Keeper’s fun-meter had peaked much earlier in the evening and was headed steadily southward.  So… back to our cushy RV resort, and on we go.

 

The next phase of the trip was something about which we had deliberated quite a bit.  Our initial plan had been to be en route to Florida and the Southeast, but once we resigned ourselves to returning to Maryland, several options presented themselves.  I covered most of our thought process in my Coronado post, and despite looking at some other options since then which could’ve allowed us to travel a bit longer and/or store Davista somewhere other than Southern Cal, we ultimately checked the weather forecast and decided that Seal Beach would be Davista’s overwintering site after all, and Zion, Death Valley, and Sequoia / Kings Canyon would get our patronage prior to the drive up to Grass Valley to meet the extended family for Thanksgiving.  All three of those National Parks I’ve seen before, but briefly and long ago, which makes me eager to return.  There will be no more Las Vegas Motorcoach Resorts for awhile, but that’s fine – who needs a faux-gold-plated shower anyway?

The Strip * **

* With Kids     **and the Flagrant Improper Use of Apostrophes

Las Vegas has quite a reputation, one that varies as much as the individuals who add to it with their own impressions of what may or may not have happened in the original Sin City.  Those who do visit will neither confirm nor deny what happens there because that goes against the city’s (relatively) recently established mores.  Since its inception, Las Vegas has been made no less notorious because most of its morphing reputation, however outlandishly you define it, is at least partially true.

Permit me a little history of The Meadows…  Once Salt Lake City and Los Angeles were connected by railroad, Las Vegas evolved from a respectable watering hole into a solid Mormon farming community before it took a moral nosedive.  Advertising to all the puddlers, muckers, and nippers building Hoover the Dam, the city’s local business owners partnered with a few Mafia crime bosses to provide the construction workers places to puddle, muck, and nip off the clock in such fine establishments as initially illegal casinos and disreputable showgirl theaters. Once the hydroelectric monstrosity was complete, tourists seeking recreation on newly created Lake Mead replaced the more ribald clientele and the first upscale hotels broke ground.  Only decades later, in the heyday of the Rat Pack, Las Vegas shared a fallout radius (!!!) with government nuclear warhead testing sites until majorly upping the ante to become its glitzy contemporary self.  Seriously, what other town could get away with offering Atomic Cocktails to sip while watching rising mushroom clouds from nearby nuclear blasts?  (These explosions are best described here by Stephen Colbert)

My last two visits to Vegas were without kids (WOO HOO!).  The first of these excursions was BC (before children) with a group of girlfriends with whom I went to college and was more in line with what I might associate with time on the Strip, to include time at a spa, followed by a Varsity Pub Crawl and then dancing the night away.  My most recent Vegas escapade was with Flight as we celebrated our 6thAnniversary, complete with a helicopter flight into the Grand Canyon for a champagne snack, a Cirque de Soleil show, and plenty of great meals.

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Neither trip afforded an appropriate template for kid-friendly activities and I had no idea of what to do there as a family now that nuclear blast observations are no longer an option.

In fact, I was rather befuddled by images I had conjured on what Keeper’s puritan reaction would be to seeing men handing out pictures of mostly naked women on baseball cards, first snapping them against their hands to call attention to their wares before pushing them on the sometimes unsuspecting public.  Not to mention his environmentally conscious self observing the two-block radius from card distribution ground zero that is littered with these images failing to capture a would-be mark’s attention.  Come to think of it, I’m not sure I want my children anywhere near The Strip, certainly not before they reach 21, and probably not even then.

Fortunately, I did not have to rely on my own devices.  Google offered up some excellent recommendations on G-rated activities for our clan to check out. Flight also got some great information from a fellow pilot who lives in the area and I from our cousins who recently moved from Sin City.  Surprisingly, there are plenty of things to do for those uninterested in drinking and gambling.  Who knew?! CNN put together a pretty good list well after our visit and I was glad to see that we saw most of their Top 15 suggestions.  Vegas was hosting the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon on our window of opportunity, which maybe helped to offset the standard menu of debauchery.

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After a morning of laying low and soaking in the amenities offered at our swanky RV resort (showers and laundry for all my friends!), we made a general scaffold for our night’s entertainment and trundled into town to enjoy a modified evening on the Strip.  The first hurdle was to find parking, made especially challenging by the redirection of traffic due to the marathon.  No kidding, we entered a parking garage through labyrinthian passages typically reserved for employees.  Or maybe Mafia contract killers.  No kidding, it was not until we popped out in a more official-looking casino parking garage that I thought our night on the Strip might not be going horribly wrong after all.

Shaking off that odd (although maybe perfectly Vegas) introduction to our evening, we got moving and steps into our stroll, we wandered into the Wynn to see their latest floral display.

I’m still not quite quite sure what the theme was, maybe Peacocks Meet the Hobbit in Autumn, but all I could think was “’Curiouser and Curiouser’ said Alice.”  I suppose that’s par for the course for Vegas where over-the-top is the norm.

Not to be outdone by the Wynn, we meandered through the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace (shouldn’t there by an apostrophe in there somewhere?) and paused for a photo op in front of the knock off Trevi Fountain.

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Flight and I concur that we prefer the original in Roma, but it’s not bad for a copy in a relatively newly populated desert.  We then bolted through the casino to get to the other side.  Despite our moving at a fast clip, Firebolt especially was captivated by the whirring and flashing lights associated with the ding-ding-ding of the slot machines and had to be led by hand to keep up. Yikes.  That’s all I have to say about that…

Although we didn’t make it all the way down to the Bellagio to see the water fountains dancing, we did catch this more modest display before we went into the Grand Canal Shops on our way to the Venetian.

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The highlight for our kids was IT’SUGAR (again with a jacked up apostrophe – Vegas, what gives?!).

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Don’t let their expressions fool you, our kids wanted to drop a load of cash in that store.  There were plenty of unusual treats to catch one’s attention, good or bad.

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However, as we hadn’t played Craps, Blackjack, or even hit the slots successfully or otherwise, we told the kids they had to rely on their own funds, which maybe that explains their above dour faces.

Around the corner we found a chocolatier, ROYCE’ (sic).  While the confections were divine (after sampling, we bought some to take with us), I still don’t get what the superfluous apostrophe is all about. It’s true, I do own this t-shirt:

I Am Silently Correcting Your Grammar

Our rumbling bellies determined our next course of action and we found ourselves down the Linq Promenade in search of dinner.  As soon as the kids saw “Pizza” on the menu at Barley and Flour, they proclaimed being near starvation and intended to move no farther.  Fortunately, that restaurant was a good call and we were entertained by the Promenade’s light and music show while we awaited our order.  After refueling we headed back the other direction in search of the Subaru.

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Satisfied we had checked all the necessary boxes of appropriately seeing the Strip with kids and fresh with watching the first marathoners cross the finish line, Flight and I mused about running a race together.  I surprised both of us when I was the one who suggested the crazy notion.  I haven’t run a race since completing the Marine Corps Marathon in 1992 and Flight’s most recent was the Vancouver Half-Marathon in 2008. Even as the tentative words were emerging from my mouth, my body screamed at me to stop the nonsense.  Or maybe that response was owed to the cupcake sampling at Sprinkles after our solid dose of flour and barley at dinner. Either way, it looks like we’re thinking about possibly training for a race (see how noncommittal I made that sound), almost certainly a short one at that, but who knows…

And yet I keep coming back to the understanding that what crazy notions spring forth in Vegas should probably stay in Vegas…

Veterans in the Valley of Fire

Veterans Day always resurrects an interesting mix of emotions in me, which is pretty much par for my staying (sort of) the Navy course.  Upon watching me struggle with getting off of active duty for maybe the third time, Flight observed to me, “You really have this weird love/hate relationship with the Navy,” with the implication that I probably should devote some time to getting to the bottom of whatever that is and put it to rest.  I have since gone through that emotional turmoil again to earn my fourth DD-214 (proof of active duty service) and haven’t yet made the opportunity to deconstruct that relationship, but until further exploring in a future post….

On the tip of the iceberg, I am very thankful to have served my nation (and still do wear the cloth of the nation, but only part time as a Reservist), yet I know that my Navy career has not been riddled with the challenges of many of my fellow active duty service members.  Although I am honored when people thank me for my service, I’m also a little embarrassed because I know their thanks come with an assumption of the many sacrifices that come with serving, and, as I have had such a great ride and (mostly) on my own terms, I haven’t really experienced many of those assumed challenges, which means it feels vaguely disingenuous to graciously accept such words of appreciation.  So wow, if that’s just the tip of the iceberg, Flight’s dead on (as per norm) and I’ve got some processing to do.  Sigh…

I guess it was fitting that on Veteran’s Day we were in the Valley of Fire State Park.  All the yin and yang of earth and fire gently sculpted into outcroppings as if to showcase their beautiful juxtaposition:

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I have come to see my last active duty tour teaching at the Naval Academy as the epitome of a balanced, yet nearly bipolar, yin-yang existence.  You can’t get much more yang than teaching tomorrow’s warfighters the engineering behind modern weapons, all while serving them as a healer and so manifesting yin. What an incredible chapter that was, but back to the journey at hand…

As repellant as Joshua Tree appeared to find me, the red rocks within the Valley of Fire instead called to me as though I was coming home.  I was graciously invited to stretch my limbs and explore the valley’s chromatically striated nooks and crannies and, maaaaaaan, was I very happy to be welcomed among my rocks.

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Because our timeline was anchored by when we could collect Flight at the airport, we made it to the Valley of Fire Visitor’s Center mid-afternoon, which turned out to provide the landscape perfect lighting for our exploration.  We spent about half an hour in the modest Visitor’s Center to learn a little of the transformation of the native nomadic peoples who settled into the first agrarian societies, thus curbing their wandering for at least for part of the year.  As their dependence on crop-tending grew, the Anasazi, as they have come to be known, relocated from low-lying caves to shelters offered by the higher rock outcroppings.  Aside from the crops they grew, the native population relied on the big horn sheep, and we were fortunate to see some of their offspring, a few generations removed:

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Our trek started by skirting some varsity-sized rocks.

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The hike was pretty easy going and maybe half a mile from the trailhead brought us to these glorious sights:

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To quote Keeper, “Because, why not?”

Although I was happy with how the rocks framed themselves in the above images (kind of them to line up so, no?), my favorite picture from that day was the one Flight took of WoodSprite skipping atop the formations looking not unlike Kokopelli dancing.

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Regardless of where we find ourselves that child has the gift of a chameleon and subtly shifts to embody the energy of the local environment.

We made our way back to the Subaru and the monkeys posed for a picture with a sizable specimen of their favorite cactus.

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As the afternoon waned into nightfall, we were favored with a beautiful sunset before we returned from the Valley of Fire to the energetic chaos that is Las Vegas.

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After an afternoon spent among my rocks, my soul was in a much better space to resist the city’s relentless onslaught, although, frankly, no better prepared to dig into the 27+ years of my relationship with the Navy.  Fortunately (and I am observing my reluctance to do so as I type this) that process will have to go to the back burner as we’re going for full immersion tomorrow in Las Vegas’ tireless throng, which means I’ll need all my strength to withstand the energetically tumultuous Strip.

Hoover the Dam

At last I saw a Joshua Tree – on our transit through the high desert to Sin City.

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Upon our arrival at the Las Vegas Motorcoach Resort, it felt as though we were let in on a little secret. Or that we got to peek behind the RV first class curtain. As Flight described, this particular RV resort boasted hundreds of campsites that were built up with variations of permanent outdoor kitchens and/or cabanas/bars, mostly catering to overwintering snowbirds. Our site was one without any of the additional trappings, but a strangely lush and most welcome change (for me) from the haunting and subtly vituperative silence of Joshua Tree.

Somehow as I was saying grace before our first dinner in our fancy new digs, giving thanks for our blessings and asking God to watch over both Flight as he travelled and came home safely to us and the remainder of our clan as we explored locally, I lamely finished by blurting out “as we head to Hoover the Dam tomorrow.” There was a collective pause as we each silently questioned my never-before-heard turn of phrase and then choked out a borderline irreverent “Amen” before rather unceremoniously dissolving into giggles. Flight assures me he and Keeper only chuckled.

Hoover the Dam? Where on Earth did that come from? Hoover THE Dam – who even says that?! No idea, but I guess I do. And I would say I’m by myself, but my entire family has now adopted the new title of this behemoth structure. I think it may catch on…

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I called to check in with my parents to let them know we’d relocated to Vegas and I mentioned the kids and I would be checking out Hoover the Dam the next day after we dropping Flight off at the airport for his next trip. My father reminded me of a project he had given his students while teaching architecture at the University of Utah. He tasked them with converting the unused space on the face of the dam into a hotel with killer views and easy access to Lake Mead above for watersport recreation.

Pretty interesting assignment. However, as I am trained as an engineer and not an architect, my awe at (read puzzled by) being required to come up with the appropriate allocation of space on/within such a beastly structure stayed with me and steadily grew throughout our visit.

I (and hopefully the kids) learned a ton, not just how the structure was built (and I’ll show just how deep my enginerdiness runs shortly) but what necessitated its development. The electricity provided by the proposed hydroelectric plant was certainly a draw, but management of the water flow was probably even more critical. Not having grown up in the Southwest US, I had only a basic intellectual understanding that water shortage was a constant concern for Arizona, Nevada, and Southern California. What I hadn’t realized was that it was more so the unpredictable flooding of the Colorado River that made agricultural endeavors in that region extremely challenging. The dam served to regulate and manage the river’s surging tendencies in addition to providing electricity. Win-win (except maybe for the last 80+ years of restructuring the downstream ecosystems…).

Before construction on the dam could even begin, four tunnels had to be cored out of the surrounding canyon rock walls to redirect the river while the massive structure was being built. Once the river was diverted, the critical foundation had to be laid. All the squishy mud and silt at the river’s bottom had to be removed all the way down to bedrock, located up to 40’ below the muck’s surface. !!!

Now this is what gets me… The dam had to be poured in concrete bricks, with each one using pipes of river water running through it, supplemented by an on-site refrigeration unit, to cool it safely through its curing process (concrete releases heat while it cures). If they had poured the whole dam at once, the concrete would still be curing through 2070 or so. By using these bricks, the concrete (enough to pave a two-lane highway from NYC to San Francisco – !!!) could be safely in place and cured in just under two years. This gargantuan structure required the skill sets of many able-bodied men (and it was all men) and they were paid quite handsomely for their efforts:

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You would have to pay me a heck of a lot more than 70¢ an hour to be a high scaler…

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Um, no.  No, thank you.

Check out the aerial cableway in the background of this photo:

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This network of cables (actually it was ten interwoven cable networks) was required to move equipment and materials across the chasm during construction. The largest of these cables (3.5” in diameter) was capable of supporting up to 150 tons (or, um, 19 school buses – !!!). These were used to lift supplies at 120 ft/s and zip them to where they needed to be at twice that fast. I’m not making this up, it said so on a posted placard.

We opted to forego the additional tour of the plant spaces deep in the bowels of the structure. Truthfully, I have not gained significantly more interest in Electrical Engineering since I performed very poorly in those classes in college, but I was happy the museum spelled out the workings of the hydroelectric plants housed in the dam’s structure so that even I was the kids were able to break it down to: higher water above moves lower and the controlled flow of water turns a turbine whose shaft is connected to a rotor whose magnets spin by surrounding wires to generate electricity. And, if you do that on a large enough scale, you can energize all of Nevada, Arizona, and Southern California.

Duuuuude. That’s all I have to say about that.

Beyond the engineering feat of safely constructing the dam and the follow on magic of generating electricity, I was impressed by how the people-aspect of the project was managed. By contract, 80% of the workers were promised nearby housing, so “Boulder City” (a town of 5000 workers and their families) was developed out of the unforgiving desert. At the height of construction, Boulder City was the most populous town in Nevada at 7000 peeps and boasted churches, schools, and recreation facilities – WHOA!

Okay, okay, the last nerdly tidbit I found fascinating was that regardless of their size, dams are rated based on their “head,” or the height difference between the forebay (the reservoir above) and the tailrace (the river emerging below the dam) and that Hoover the Dam is only a medium head dam. That’s it.  Great googlie mooglie!

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Overall, we had an awesome field trip to get our STEM on. A bonus was that Flight’s trip would be bringing him right back to layover in Vegas, which meant we could plan our next local exploration to include him before he needs to crew rest (nap) to fly the redeye back to Boston tomorrow night. After we collect him, we’ll check out The Valley of Fire…

Get Out

Probably my favorite gear is that put out by “Life is Good.” I have likely referenced my standard summer uniform several times, namely that of Tranquility skort ($9.99 each at CosctoCo – WOO HOO!) paired with a Life is Good t-shirt and flip flops or hiking shoes, depending on the day’s activities. One of my favorite Life is Good hats is shown below and mine was worn to being unpresentable.

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This witty, outdoorsy “Get Out” is not at all the one to which I am referring.

If I could boil my Joshua Tree experience down to two words, it would be “otherworldly” and “unsettling.” The former descriptor is hardly a new assessment of the random boulder formations creeping out of the dry desert floor. I’m typically one who likes to scope out and perfectly frame any images I can capture, but I was so blown away by my initial impressions, I started shooting from a moving Davista before we even got to our campsite. I’ll do my best to capture the unsettling aspect in what follows.

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After attempting to check in with the Ranger Station (a stickie note advised of their impending return), we moved on to snug into our Indian Cove site where we were surrounded by what looked to be haphazardly strewn smooth boulders. Instead these enormous drip-castle worthy rocks proved to be of ideal traction for bouldering, which, after a cursory set-up, Flight spearheaded with the kids. While they explored the immediately local rock formations, I was happy to just settle in and be present in our surroundings, so I claimed a camp chair and took off my shoes to soak in the energy.

And I couldn’t.

It was as though my skin was strangely insulated from earthing in Joshua Tree.  ???!?  For as much as I have traveled, there are some places where I have felt entirely at home (e.g. the Scottish Border Country) where others have rendered me mildly uninspired (apathetic even?). Furthermore, I know that this connection, or lack thereof, is entirely unique to the individual. For example, I know the Badlands wholly resonate with my cousin, whereas, even after taking my shoes off and standing solidly on the Earth there, I felt nothing, no movement in my being, not even a tremor. I find there’s something primal about our wiring that really ties us to some places and not so much others, but what is that really about?

Curious as to whether there is any scientific evidence that might demonstrate the why behind our being linked to specific places, I did a little research. I was intrigued to learn that there actually is a “wanderlust” gene that has been tied to feeling the restless urge to travel. Perhaps a cousin to R2D2, the DRD4-7R gene is only present in 20% of the population and linked to a need to move. It would appear that this gene has manifested strongly in both me and Flight (and hopefully our kids!). While I was delighted to learn that my biannual itch to relocate goes beyond being inculcated by the Navy’s demands to do so ever few years, I could find no scientific references to shed light on humanity’s connections to specific places.  I guess I’ll just continue to wonder as I wander…

A sense of belonging or no, never have I felt an outright, “This is not your place,” that is until I got to Joshua Tree. Hidden deep within the roots of the ubiquitous cholla and beavertail cacti seemed to pulse a low-frequency, uneasy buzz as if to say, “Leave. You are unwelcome here. Disperse. You do not belong here. Go away. Leave…” Fortunately, I didn’t hear the sentiment formed into the actual words, “Get out,” or I would have gladly listened and obeyed.  Nonetheless, Joshua Tree’s unvoiced repulsive chant was incredibly disconcerting.

And I was not the only one who heard its silence so speak.

While Flight found great solace in Joshua Tree’s quiet, Firebolt, WoodSprite and I all had wicked nightmares peppering our first night’s sleep in the Park. I awoke feeling edgy and not at all rested. However, since we were only going to be in Joshua Tree for two nights, we had to rally to make the most of our only full day in the National Park.

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As the girls have become keen to earn as many Junior Ranges badges as they can on our travels, our first stop was at the Visitor’s Center where they collected their Junior Ranger books and we attended a Ranger-led talk about Search and Rescue (SAR). Since four of my five best ever P-3C flights involved SAR operations (you can read my post-mission summary of these events here), I was captivated by the Ranger’s discussion on how desert SAR is necessarily similar and different from similar evolutions in the water. Firebolt, our growing survivalist, was equally inspired by the talk.

A quick tour through the Visitor’s Center shed some light on the Park’s namesake.  In case you were wondering, Joshua Trees are not even trees – they are a type of yucca.

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Nor are they found within the boundaries of the Joshua Tree National Park as the elevation is too low.  I have to say I felt a little bamboozled.  It reminded me of a stretch of the Oregon coastline that was similarly riddled with misnomers

The Visitor’s Center also houses the history of the Park. Although given that the Marine Corps oasis (HA!), Twenty-Nine Palms, is just outside the park, I was still surprised to learn that the surrounding desert hosted more than one million service members as they trained for deployment to North Africa in WWII. Also a surprise was how much WWI gear has been found throughout the Park, meaning perhaps military training may have occasionally encroached upon the Park property. Apparently, the older gear served to outfit the WWII warfighters of the day for training purposes. We in the VP Navy fly a variant of the 1953 Lockheed Electra and are fond (proud?) of saying that we’re all about “Protecting Tomorrow With Yesterday.” Glad to see not much has changed…

In addition to learning about the varied history of the area (e.g. local mining was largely unsuccessful with only two of 300 mines proving to be profitable – !!!, military training operations in preparation first for North Africa deployments then to the Middle East decades later, Hollywood’s filming efforts necessitate the management of over 100 filming permits every year, etc), we became acquainted with the area’s cacti.

Check out the kind and unassuming Beavertail (notice there are no spines), survivalist’s desert BFF Barrel Cactus (great source of water!), versatile Prickly Pear (good for managing blood sugar levels, high cholesterol, and wayward felines), and vicious Jumping Cholla (whose barbed spines are extremely difficult to remove).

Armed with our new cacti knowledge, we headed out into the park for a hike or two. But first we had to stop to check on our stinky clutch. All seemed fine, but the Outback is not to be trusted…

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Our first hike was a short amble from parking to “Skull Rock.”

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The kids had a great time climbing all over the “skull” and insisted on taking pictures from every perch.

We moved on to another trail, this one a “nature trail” with placards explaining some of the geological and botanical finds we might see. Some days my vertigo can easily be overcome with the mindful placement of (and thus anchoring) my limbs. Other days, especially in the wake of a poor night’s sleep, even the most attentive grounding can’t keep my world from spinning, which means being atop great heights on rocks haphazardly strewn with deep crevices gaping beneath seems to be entirely unwise. As such, I was happy to keep a low profile and capture the experience in pixels.

Keeper especially took advantage of scaling every sizable rock he could find, but my favorite place on the hike was through a carved canyon where he struck an unusual pose.

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This stroll through the canyon inspired a discussion about flash floods and how to best get to high ground should it start raining.  And, on that positive note, we rounded out our hike and headed back to camp for a grilled dinner.

That night there were fewer nightmares in Davista, but I still awoke eager to depart Joshua Tree (as requested) and, unbelievably, to seek refuge in Las Vegas.

We stopped by the Visitor’s Center on our way out to swear in the family’s newest (repeat) Junior Rangers before making our way to the original Sin City.

Running to Stand Still

If I were to design an escape destination — not so much a Rupert Holmes thing, more of a place where you could go and it’s so different from everything that you’re used to, you’re compelled to turn inward and just pay attention… it would likely look very much like Joshua Tree.  It’s not so much quiet as it’s silent.  The scenery is otherworldly.  It’s warm and dry.  And the enormous piles of rocks are composed of a coarse gneiss that just begs you to climb them.

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Here’s our short drive from LA.  The LA basin is fairly arid, so the scenery really doesn’t change too dramatically as you get into the desert proper, and only once you’re inside the National Park do you find yourself surrounded by these rock formations and suddenly wonder how it’s possible that you’ve driven to another planet.

J TreeI would imagine that most people even outside of California are familiar with the eponymous trees thanks to U2.  They’re actually a cousin to the yucca plant and grow in just about any western US high desert within a certain elevation band – the interwebs tell me 2000’ to 6000’, but in California you really don’t see them until above 3000’.  In fact they make a pretty reliable altimeter when you’re driving up a desert grade and suddenly notice them first dotting and then swarming the landscape.  Interestingly, the cover photo of The Joshua Tree was taken in Death Valley, and if you remember, has no Joshua Trees at all.  Most of Death Valley is very, very low.  Inside the album was where the photo of the band with the actual, or I should say an actual Joshua Tree lived, and they found that particular one along Highway 395 between Death Valley and the Sierras.  I read that it’s long since dead, but the spot where it used to stand is littered with memorabilia, much like Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris.

We pulled into our campsite and I believe Tacco’s first words were “uh, wow.”  But much more emphatic than that looks in print.  More like UHHHHHH — WOW!  Which was really the only appropriate response.  It’s not a place that inspires wordiness – it’s more of a “Shut up and look around.  Breathe.  Listen.  Now look around some more” type of place.

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No hook ups, so we’d be relying on our generator for whatever electricity we needed/wanted, but one of my first thoughts was that I absolutely did not want to turn on a generator in this place.  It seemed sacrilegious.

After making quick work of setting up camp, the kids and I got straight to climbing; it would’ve been unthinkable not to.  Even Woodsprite couldn’t resist the pull of “ooh, let me just go a little higher,” and by the end of the afternoon we all sported patchworks of little scrapes and scratches on our arms and legs.  One of the first times I went rock climbing, my friend / youth group leader (the same one who had such a great experience with pulling his kids out of a year of school and got us thinking of doing it ourselves) informed me that they’re called “rock bites” the first time I drew a little blood.  I passed this tidbit onto the kiddos, and it seemed to take the edge off of any blood drawn, though the excitement and novelty of the climbing helped too.

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IMG_9846-bDeciding on a proper supervision level was another challenge.  Clearly this was something the kids hadn’t done before, and it wouldn’t be at all difficult to maneuver into a situation that could lead to broken bones or worse.  Yet pushing their boundaries was something we wanted to encourage.  What’s a skinned knee when you can tell your friends you scaled a two hundred foot rock in the desert?  My first few climbs with the kids (particularly the girls) had me hawking them intently, but as they got more comfortable we eased off.

Our campground was a no internet / no cell phone coverage zone, which I’ve mentioned tends to add a bit of tension to the kids’ lives, particularly Keeper’s, but what he found on the second day was that if he climbed all the way to the top of the ridge behind our site, he could see all the way out to (and well past) the town of Twenty-Nine Palms, and was rewarded with two or three bars of 4G.  Needless to say he went climbing up there as much as he could after that.  We weren’t about to discourage rock climbing, especially in a place like this, but something about scaling a mountain to get a cellular signal and internet seemed off to me.

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IMG_9848-bI found Joshua Tree to be a great place to think.  The silence is so total, it almost registers as loud background noise.  You perceive whatever tinnitus you’ve developed over the years as something bearing down on you, and only when it’s broken by the faint chirp of a bird two miles away or a kid pleading “but mommmm” inside a tent on the most distant corner of the campground do you realize how little sound there actually was previously.

Something Keeper said on our second morning got me meandering down a somewhat interesting mental path from my perch on the boulder-strewn ridgeline I’d climbed while the rest were going about their morning routines.  He asked when we were leaving Joshua Tree for Las Vegas tomorrow and I told him I wasn’t sure – whenever was comfortable.  He told me he preferred right now.

I had to suppress my immediate frustration and walk outside to avoid saying something.  This is a response I find I’ve had a good bit in the last few months – something about going through significant trouble to attempt to create meaningful experiences for your kids only to have them tell you essentially “this sucks.”  Of course as any parent will tell you, “this sucks” can change to “this is the best day of my life” within 15 minutes, and even if it doesn’t, any individual “this sucks” means exceedingly little in the grand scheme.

But I’ve been really affected by Joshua Tree – it’s getting into my soul in a way similar to how the Redwoods did, and I wanted my kids to open themselves to it too.  Realizing something, I paused and asked him whether it was about the lack of internet.  “Yes.”

Hm.

I’m digging through my memories for things I “couldn’t live without” in my childhood, things that I would viscerally miss while on camping trips.  TV would be the closest parallel, I suppose, but that wasn’t anywhere near what my kids feel about being off line today.  I’m trying to decide if it concerns me, and I think it does.

It might even fall somewhere on that spectrum of dependency that has addiction as an end point.  This is not something on which I can speak intelligently, as I’ve been fortunate not to have dealt with addiction significantly, either first or second hand.  But it is something I’ve devoted thought to, as I think just about anyone has things in their life that fall somewhere on that continuum, and I’m certainly no exception.  There are habits/routines I take comfort in – nothing that I physically couldn’t do without (though a morning without coffee turns into a grumpy, headachy afternoon pretty reliably), but certainly things that I don’t want to give up.  Are these dependencies?  Possibly.

What I’m starting to notice on this trip, likely as a by-product of it, is that we’re all clinging more tightly to our dependencies.  Something about the uncertainty and unfamiliarity of the lifestyle is leading us to crawl back toward familiarity and comfort.  There is no real home base to retreat to and reset, just constant motion.  I had hoped, during the “imagining the trip” phase, that it would take the opposite tack – that we would shake loose of pretty much everything habitual and try on some new stuff.  Early morning exercise.  Board games instead of screens.  Voracious reading.  New hairstyles.  Long solo bike rides.  Introducing ourselves to strangers.  Healthy smoothies for breakfast.

It might still go that direction of course, but not without effort.  It won’t “go there,” we’ll have to lead it there.  I was hoping to avoid the effort part.  Maybe that’s where my kids get it?

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Tacco had an interesting response to Joshua Tree on her first day, and I wouldn’t dream of trying to flesh it out as it was deeply personal, and I’m sure she’ll cover it when she writes.  I can only say that it was negative – as if there was a negative energy around or something very bad happening.  Having experienced exactly the opposite vibe and wanting to bring her with me, I tried to suggest that maybe it was just “one of those bad days,” similar to my San Elijo – Mission Bay downs, and I was quickly (and rightfully) fired the “I KNOW you’re not attempting to tell me how I feel, right?…” warning shot and I went to go climb another rock.  Fortunately by the next day it had passed.

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Keeper tried another “sleep out in the hammock” night, but the setup was significantly more challenging as we had no trees to tie to, so jury-rigged a system using webbing wrapped around rocks.  It worked, but he came in at 2AM-ish, having not gotten much sleep due to his side being pressed against a boulder.

We drove into the main area of the National Park the following morning, after a stop at the Ranger Station to pick up Junior Ranger materials and take in a lecture by one of the rangers about Search and Rescue.

Our hike was fairly short, but spectacular.  I’ll let the pictures do the talking here.  The kids absolutely loved it.

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IMG_9868-bOn our second and last night, all three kids decided they would like to sleep outside, though Keeper abandoned the hammock idea and attempted to set up a bug net-protected bivouac of sorts on a flat area in the rocks above our site. Evidently the thought of seeing all those stars overrode any concerns they had about critters or discomfort.  It turns out, however, that a concern about critters morphs into something entirely more pressing when it becomes an actual critter sighting, and in their cases, it can’t be overridden.  Just as they were heading toward their sleeping bags, I spotted a tarantula ambling around in the general area, looking for food and companionship likely.  I suppose I could’ve ignored him and hoped the kids didn’t notice, but a quick mental calculation led me to deem that option 1) cruel and 2) likely to lead to multiple knocks in the middle of the night from kids wanting back into their beds because they were cold/scared/uncomfortable/thirsty/etc.  So I shined the light on him with a “heeeey, check that out!”  Keeper, with his self-declared arachnophobia, had seen all he needed to, and made a beeline back to his bunk, accompanied by a quick but emphatic “NOPE!”  The girls followed a bit more hesitatingly, although they watched our tarantula friend do his thing with me, just out of curiosity.  Mostly he just walked around in a circle, then left.

It was a peaceful night.

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Tomorrow we head up to Las Vegas and an RV park that’s pretty much the polar opposite of this campground.  I wish we could stay longer, but I have a trip to fly.  Joshua Tree has been intense, and provoked strong reactions in all of us.  I have a feeling it will age well in our memories.

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