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Posts Tagged ‘Outdoors’

When I get the urge to go hiking, I have plenty of options close to home. The Chattahoochee National Forest, which takes up a big chunk of North Georgia, is loaded with great trails.

Notable among them is the mighty Appalachian Trail. The AT begins at Springer Mountain, 60 miles from my doorstep, and proceeds northeast up the spine of the Appalachian chain for 2,200 miles.

The Georgia section of the AT is 79 miles long, and over that stretch, five roads intersect it. That breaks the trail into convenient segments that are easily accessible. Very nice for a day-hiker.

At one of those five crossings, U.S. Highway 129 at Neels Gap, stands the famous Walasi-Yi Interpretive Center. It was first built of wood 100 years ago by a logging company, then, in the 1930s, rebuilt of stone by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Boots-1

For a long time, the building was an inn and restaurant. It was abandoned in 1965, and, by the mid-1970s, was scheduled for demolition.

But a group of local conservationists protested, and began lobbying, and in 1977, the building was given the protection of the National Register of Historic Places.

The word “Walasi-Yi” is a serious mouthful. It’s pronounced Wa La See Yee, which in Cherokee means “place of the great frog.”

There are other froggy tie-ins. Frogtown Creek flows nearby, and Neels Gap itself originally was known as Frogtown Gap.

So, the Walasi-Yi Center is a certified historic place. It’s famous for three reasons.

First, a few years after the building was saved, it was reborn as Mountain Crossings at Walasi-Yi, a full-service, high-quality outdoor gear retailer that is still in operation today. The store (which includes a hiker hostel) provides clothing, packs, boots, stoves, food, maps, souvenirs, and expert advice.

The store is especially important for hikers making the long journey north to Maine. Located 30 trail miles from Springer Mountain, it’s the first chance for through-hikers to make adjustments to their gear and supplies. All the staff members at Mountain Crossings are seasoned backpackers and experts on all things AT.

The second reason Walasi-Yi is famous: the AT itself passes through a breezeway on the side of the building, making it the only place on the entire trail where hikers pass under a roof. Bridges and railroad trestles don’t count.

Boots-2

Third, there are the boots. All those dangling boots.

When you walk into the store and look up, this is what you see:

Boots-3

Hanging from the rafters throughout the store are hundreds of pairs of used hiking boots, proudly donated over the years by veteran hikers who have walked at least 500 miles of the AT.

Usually, the boots arrive by mail. A note will identify the owner and the dates of the hike and will ask that the boots be added to the lofty collection. Many hikers describe their experience at length and express great pride in the achievement.

But wait, there’s more. Another collection of boots dangles from the trees outside the building.

Boots-4

Whereas the boots inside the store are celebratory, the boots in the trees tell tales of disillusionment, disappointment, and blisters.

Looking up, you can see that the boots range from well-worn to brand new.

Some of them didn’t fit properly. Some blew out due to a manufacturing defect. Some belonged to hikers who, a few days into the journey, decided that hiking the AT was not their thing after all.

Sometimes, the hikers purchased new boots and continued northward. Sometimes, they went home. Either way, the collection of boots in the trees is growing steadily.

As for the boots inside the store, the 500-mile rule is arbitrary. And, when a pair of boots arrives in the mail, the staff admits they have no way to determine the veracity of the hiker’s claim.

But they don’t question it. There is no erring on the side of caution. The boots are hung from the rafters anyway.

Boots-5

 

 

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In the eyes of family and friends, I am that fellow who is obsessed with going hiking. The one who, for years, has spent most of his weekends and vacations on a trail somewhere, either locally or on the other side of the country. The guy who has been to Grand Canyon 23 times, for Pete’s sake.

To them, I am an eccentric — slightly unbalanced, but in a harmless way. The family reputation is in no real jeopardy.

That’s how they think of me. What they probably don’t think about is how I came to be the fanatic that I am — how the obsession started.

I know exactly how and when it started.

In the summer of 1979, frustrated by boss problems at work, I quit my job in Fort Lauderdale. We sold the house, packed up the family, and moved back to Georgia. I was 36, married with two kids.

For two months, the four of us lived in my parents’ basement in the little town of Suwanee, population 400, located 35 miles northeast of Atlanta. As happens in a decent economy, things quickly fell into place. I found a job, and we bought a house, and life settled into a routine again.

One Saturday morning during that two months in the basement, I woke up with an urge I didn’t experience often: the desire to go for a solitary walk in the woods. The woods, in that place and time, went for miles in every direction.

The morning was sunny and pleasant, and job-hunting wasn’t done on Saturdays, so I announced to the household my intentions to disappear for a while and go for a stroll. I would follow one of the old dirt roads that meandered through the piney woods, just to see where it went.

No one seemed to care one way or the other. I got comments like, “Well, that’s nice” and “You have fun” and “Be careful” and stuff like that.

Fortunately, nobody wanted to go with me. That meant I could get away alone and have time to think my own thoughts.

The towns in that part of Georgia — Norcross, Duluth, Suwanee, Buford — grew up along the Seaboard Coast Line railroad, which runs through Atlanta and northeast into South Carolina and points beyond.

(Each town had a small railway station, but the trains rarely stopped. They did, however, deliver the U.S. Mail. That was accomplished when the stationmaster put out “the hook” each day to snag the mail pouch as the train zoomed through. I know this because my grandfather was the Suwanee Postmaster. As a kid, I never tired of watching that ritual.)

The main road in those parts was, and still is, Buford Highway, which runs parallel to the railroad tracks. The few other roads in the area were small county roads, some paved and some dirt, dotted with occasional houses like Mom and Dad’s.

For the most part, it was blips of civilization surrounded by undeveloped woods. Between Mom and Dad’s house, on the edge of Suwanee, and Duluth, five miles south, there was little but oak and pine forest and a few small creeks.

That changed in a hurry. Starting in the 1980s, land developers descended on Gwinnett County. All that territory was turned into housing subdivisions, industrial parks, and shopping centers. Here is a Google Earth map of the area today:

Suwanee to Duluth

The red dot at the top shows where Mom and Dad lived on the outskirts of Suwanee, on a bluff near the Chattahoochee River (the green line). The north edge of Duluth is at lower left. The black line is the railroad, and the single yellow line on the right side is Buford Highway.

In 1979, nothing was between the river and the railroad tracks except forest. No divided four-lane highway, no subdivisions, no nothing.

Where I intended to go that morning, I didn’t know. I took a bottle of water, a package of cheese crackers, my shades, and a bandana. I wore a baseball cap and ordinary tennis shoes. Back then, I didn’t own hiking boots.

For a time, I walked south, following an abandoned dirt road that was cut off from civilization and probably hadn’t seen a vehicle since the horse and buggy days.

The area was former farmland. I passed the ruins of a few old homesteads that had collapsed into piles of rotted boards. In most cases, the pine trees, undergrowth, and kudzu had grown up and swallowed them, covering everything except the chimneys.

Sometimes, the road disappeared, and I had to make my way across a field. But progress was easy. I kept going in the same southerly direction with no destination in mind.

I encountered a lot of wildlife that morning. Deer, rabbits, and quail were everywhere. They weren’t accustomed to seeing people in so remote a spot.

The deer and rabbits were startled to see me, but the quail always gave ME a scare. They have a way of waiting until you’re within three feet of their hiding place, then taking flight in a mad frenzy.

Eventually, the old road intersected the right-of-way of a row of mammoth electrical power lines and disappeared for good. I continued south, following the power lines.

Then I reached the edge of a large swamp formed by Brushy Creek, which flows west into the Chattahoochee River. I faced an impassable bog from horizon to horizon.

Well, not completely impassable. Crossing the swamp near the transmission lines was a pipeline — carrying water, natural gas, or whatever — elevated on six-foot pilings.

The pipe was huge, about three or four feet in diameter, painted an unpleasant shade of milky turquoise green. The pipe emerged from the ground, crossed the swamp on the pilings, and went back underground again.

I hopped onto the pipe, walked across the swamp, and resumed my journey.

A short time later, I spotted the railroad tracks in the distance and abandoned the power lines. I began walking south along the tracks. For the first time, I had a goal: going all the way to Duluth.

At that point, I figured I was about halfway there. I had progressed a couple of miles in a couple of hours. Shortly before noon, I sat down on a crosstie and ate the cheese crackers for lunch.

I also picked up and placed in my back pocket a memento of the hike: a rusty railroad spike that I found discarded next to the tracks.

Walking along the tracks was easy. I crossed Suwanee Creek, a fairly large stream, via railroad trestle. I crossed a second creek by trestle, and then I was back in civilization again — houses and traffic at the edge of Duluth.

Almost immediately, I attracted the attention of some local dogs. It was time to turn around and go home.

Late that afternoon, having retraced my steps and arrived back at Mom and Dad’s house at last, I walked into a hornet’s nest.

My lovely wife was furious.

How could you just disappear like that and leave us wondering whether you were alive or dead?

Do you realize we were on the verge of calling the police? Nobody knew what happened to you! Do you understand how worried we all were, how inconsiderate it was to do that to us?

My dad was indignant.

Son, your mother was worried sick. You were gone way too long. She thought you might be hurt or something. I’m really disappointed. You should know better.

Mom didn’t say much, which meant she was angry, too.

That was, quite literally, my first formal hike. And, yes, I did learn a valuable lesson vis-à-vis loved ones waiting back home.

However, except for the unpleasantness that ensued in the aftermath, I enjoyed the experience thoroughly. I decided I would do it more often.

Since then, I have hit the trail hundreds of times. How many hundreds, I don’t know, because for years, I kept no record of my hikes. At some point, I began to document them — by date, location, distance hiked, and the dog, if any, who accompanied me.

These days, I don’t go hiking as often as before, and I don’t hike as far as I once did. But Paco and I are still at it. I still have a blast, still love the whole experience.

It’s true, I’m a fanatic. Obsessed, even.

Eccentric, but in a harmless way.

Spike

 

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Web of Life

This is my second post in two weeks about wolves and the balance of nature. Go figure.

—————

“Sustainable Man” is an online movement that promotes peace, empathy, equity, justice, and environmental protection — as opposed to, you know, fear, greed, and consumption. The goal is to leave future generations a sustainable planet.

The idea originated with brothers Chris and Steve Agnos, who produce videos for their website to get their messages across. The brothers are environmentalists of particular intelligence and compassion; they probably don’t vote Republican.

If you have a scintilla of respect for Planet Earth, and if, like me, you despair about our future, then you may be encouraged by one especially excellent Sustainable Man video, “How Wolves Change Rivers.”

A link to the video and a transcript of the narration are below.

Please note that when the British narrator refers to the “deer” of Yellowstone National Park, he means, in fact, American elk. In Europe, “deer” often is an umbrella term for deer, reindeer, elk, and moose.

Wolves howlng

How Wolves Change Rivers

A video by Sustainable Man, narrated by George Monbiot

One of the most exciting scientific findings of the past half century has been the discovery of widespread trophic cascades. A trophic cascade is an ecological process which starts at the top of the food chain and tumbles all the way down to the bottom.

And the classic example is what happened in the Yellowstone National Park in the United States when wolves were reintroduced in 1995.

Wolf stalking

Now, we all know that wolves kill various species of animals. But perhaps we’re slightly less aware that they give life to many others.

Before the wolves turned up -– they’d been absent for 70 years -– the numbers of deer (because there had been nothing to hunt them) had built up and built up in the Yellowstone Park, and despite efforts by humans to control them, they’d managed to reduce much the vegetation there to almost nothing. They had just grazed it away.

But as soon as the wolves arrived, even though they were few in number, they started to have the most remarkable effects.

First, of course, they killed some of the deer. But that wasn’t the major thing.

Much more significantly, they radically changed the behavior of the deer. The deer started avoiding certain parts of the park -– the places where they could be trapped most easily, particularly the valleys and the gorges.

And immediately, those places started to regenerate. In some areas, the height of the trees quintupled in just six years. Bare valley sides quickly became forests of aspen and willow and cottonwood.

And as soon as that happened, the birds started moving in. The number of songbirds and migratory birds started to increase greatly.

The number of beavers started to increase, because beavers like to eat the trees. And beavers, like wolves, are ecosystem engineers. They create niches for other species. And the dams they built in the rivers provided habitats for otters and muskrats and ducks and fish and reptiles and amphibians.

Wolves

The wolves killed coyotes, and as a result of that, the number of rabbits and mice began to rise — which meant more hawks, more weasels, more foxes, more badgers.

Ravens and bald eagles came down to feed on the carrion that the wolves had left.

Bears fed on it, too. And their population began to rise, as well, partly also because there were more berries growing on the regenerating shrubs. And the bears reinforced the impact of the wolves by killing some of the calves of the deer.

But here’s where it gets really interesting.

The wolves changed the behavior of the rivers. They began to meander less. There was less erosion. The channels narrowed. More pools formed. More riffle sections. All of which were great for wildlife habitats.

The rivers changed in response to the wolves. And the reason was that the regenerating forests stabilized the banks so that they collapsed less often. So the rivers became more fixed in their course.

Similarly, by driving the deer out of some places, and the vegetation recovering on the valley side, there was less soil erosion, because the vegetation stabilized that, as well.

So the wolves, small in number, transformed not just the ecosystem of the Yellowstone National Park -– this huge area of land — but also its physical geography.

Wolf howling

——————

Don’t give up. Don’t lose hope. Don’t sell out.

— Christopher Reeve

 

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In March 2007, I hiked the dusty eight-mile trail to the village of Supai, Arizona, located in western Grand Canyon, truly in the middle of nowhere.

Supai is the home of the Havasupai tribe. The village is located in Havasu Canyon, which leads down to the Colorado River and is famous for the spectacular waterfalls along Havasu Creek.

It’s also famous for being isolated and  remote. No roads lead to Supai. You get there by foot, mule, or helicopter. You visit by reservation only.

The trailhead and the helipad are at Hualapai Hilltop, a desolate parking area 60 miles from the nearest town. No services are at the trailhead — only a few trailers and a couple of tribal officials who check permits.

For a fee of $85, you can helicopter down to Supai. For another $85, you can helicopter back out. Otherwise, you hit the trail, which winds down to the village on the floor of the canyon. Park Service campgrounds are located two miles beyond Supai along Havasu Creek.

For my trip in 2007, in order to avoid the weight of camping gear, I made reservations at the tribal motel in the village. The motel is a small, bare-bones place, but clean and adequate.

The trip was a blast. The weather was ideal, the scenery astounding. I got plenty of good photos — although I discovered that the season was wrong for photography; in the spring, when you face the waterfalls, you’re facing the sun.

In 2009, I twice wrote about that trip on this blog.

One story was about the tribe’s long struggle to maintain its homeland and identity.

The other focused on something I didn’t expect to find down there: a healthy population of mongrel dogs living at large in the village.

But neither story got around to documenting one of the most indelible memories of that trip: the harrowing finale, when a sobering realization brought everything to a proverbial screeching halt.

Let me begin at the beginning.

After flying into Las Vegas, I picked up my rental car at the Budget office, drove east into Arizona, and stopped for the night in Kingman. The next morning, I got up early and drove the 100-odd miles to Hualapai Hilltop.

Bird's-eye view of Hualapai Hilltop. The trail to Supai drops into the canyon in the upper left.

Bird’s-eye view of Hualapai Hilltop. The trail to Supai drops into the canyon in the upper left.

The state-of-the-art helipad at Hualapai Hilltop.

The state-of-the-art helipad at Hualapai Hilltop.

On arrival, I parked, got out my gear, locked the car, obtained my entry permit from the tribal guy, and set off down the trail.

For the next two days, I explored the village and the waterfalls at my leisure. Meals were at the Supai Cafe, the only place in town that serves hot food.

How was the food? Expensive and awful. The cheeseburgers were served on sandwich bread. The lettuce was wilted, the tomatoes overripe. Tater tots came with everything. The breakfast burritos were frozen.

Some of the tourists were unhappy and vocal about it. My attitude: you shouldn’t go to a place like Supai expecting an Outback Steakhouse.

On the third morning, in a heartbeat, my trip unraveled.

I awoke, showered, and dressed. My plan was to grab a bad breakfast and hike down to the waterfalls for more photos.

Then, as I puttered around the motel room, a strange sensation came over me. A voice inside my head spoke to me.

It asked if I had seen the keys to my rental car lately.

Hmmm… Let me think… After I locked the car, I undoubtedly put the keys in my waist pack. Actually, I haven’t seen the keys lately, but what of it?

Well, you carry all your personal stuff in the waist pack — wallet, loose change, penknife. You empty the contents onto the dresser every night. Where are the keys?

Where, indeed. After calmly checking the waist pack, I calmly searched the motel room. Then I calmly went through all my clothes and possessions thoroughly. Twice. The keys were not there.

My blood ran cold as I realized the implications of that turn of events.

The keys could be anywhere. I could have dropped them during the initial hike. Or at the waterfalls. Or somewhere in the village. At that very moment, one of the town mutts could be gnawing on the transponder.

Fighting back the panic, I methodically covered all the appropriate bases. I asked the motel manager if anyone had turned in a set of car keys. I did the same at the restaurant, the general store, the post office, and the tribal office. No luck.

Back at the motel, I made the decision to call the car rental office in Las Vegas. Surely, they would know what to do about lost car keys.

Supai had no cell phone service then, and probably still doesn’t. But several places had land-line phones. They’re for official use, of course, but the motel manager graciously allowed me to call the Budget office in Las Vegas.

The Budget lady seemed a bit surprised about my situation, but was quite sympathetic. She gave me the phone number of a locksmith in Kingman and said to call him. He could meet me at Hualapai Hilltop and set me up with a duplicate key.

I asked what sort of spectacular bill his service call might incur. She couldn’t say.

I sat there for a few minutes, weighing my options and bemoaning my situation. Just as I was concluding that calling the locksmith was my only solution, the motel manager spoke up.

“Did anyone call Hualapai Hilltop?” she asked. “Somebody could have turned in the keys up there.”

I was incredulous. Call Hualapai Hilltop? Hualapai Hilltop has phone service?

Well, sort of. As the manager explained, the people on duty at Hualapai Hilltop carry two-way radios.

The manager called the tribal office. Minutes later, the tribal office called back. Yes, my keys had been turned in at Hualapai Hilltop.

I was so delirious with joy, I nearly swooned.

To celebrate, and to get my hands on those keys as soon as possible, I promptly checked out of the motel, gave the manager a lavish tip, and treated myself to an $85 helicopter ride out of Supai.

When I climbed out of the helicopter at the trailhead, a Havasupai man was standing nearby, smiling and dangling my keys.

Two hikers, a man and a woman, had turned in the keys earlier that morning. They found them on the ground next to my locked car. Apparently, when I dropped the keys into the zipper pocket of my waist pack, I missed.

“You were lucky those two were honest,” the man told me. “They could have taken your car. Some folks would do that.”

So, my trip ended happily, not in utter disaster. I drove back to civilization and spent the next week at Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, slowly calming down from the experience.

How sweet it is to dodge a bullet thanks to the kindness of strangers.

Incomparable Havasu Falls.

Incomparable Havasu Falls.

 

The village of Supai.

The village of Supai.

 

The mail arrives by mule, not helicopter.

The mail arrives by mule, not helicopter.

 

Village mutts lounging outside the cafe.

Village mutts lounging outside the cafe.

 

Havasupai Lodge.

Havasupai Lodge.

Supai-8

Supai-9

 

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The two best American nature writers in my lifetime are Craig Childs and David Quammen.

Both men write as passionately as Edward Abbey, but are more articulate. More insightful. More willing to edit their stuff.

The website of Craig Childs describes him thusly:

“Childs is an Arizona native, and he grew up back and forth between there and Colorado, son of a mother hooked on outdoor adventure, and a dad who liked whiskey, guns, and Thoreau. He has worked as a gas station attendant, wilderness guide, professional musician, and a beer bottler, though now he is primarily a writer. He lives off the grid with his wife and two young sons at the foot of the West Elk Mountains in Colorado.”

You would expect such a man to hike into Grand Canyon in January, during a storm, to experience and reflect upon “the full weight of winter.”

Those reflections became a superb essay in the January issue of Arizona Highways Magazine. Here is a small excerpt.

—————

The winds this morning are of a different nature. They are winter-storm winds, built of turbulence from a large system dragging itself over the Canyon. Vortices are set up behind cliff faces, great swirling eddies inscribed in the clouds. I stop at one of the long points of land under the Coconino. I’ve seen ravens here in better weather. I’ve sat on this point in the fall and watched them play in the rising air, banking and swimming around one another. Now, I stop and look into the bottomless Canyon, wondering where ravens go. This peninsula of Hermit formation just hangs here. I feel as if I’m being held out for sacrifice and that the Grand Canyon is this gulping infinity beneath my feet. No sign of solid ground anywhere. Occasionally, I will see something, some tip of land suspended out there. Then it is gone.

Now I see the ravens. They rise out of the abyss, taking form where there should be nothing. Two of them look like black shreds of fabric hurled against the storm. They spin up, pausing over my head to take account of this figure standing in the clouds. This close, I can see the curve of their armored toes, tucked under as if holding a marble or a stone. (Damn ravens, coming here without parkas or backpacks or extra food. Swirling through this storm as if it were a playground.) I have to protect my eyes with a hand. The wind takes snow down my neck, against my skin. Once the ravens get a good look at me, they continue up and are absorbed. And I’m standing here alone.

I turn back down the trail. Within a couple of minutes, I see someone coming up. He moves slowly, working his boots through the snow. Head down. Shoulders humped forward. He must have started walking from the desert during the night, or slept in the snow, which is not too uncomfortable if a person has the right gear and the proper mind-set. As he approaches, I can see he looks like he’s just been rolled from a Dumpster. Plastic garbage bags cover his body. He’s torn a hole in the bottom of one in order to breathe and see ahead. The clothes underneath are insufficient. Maybe he’s got a sweater and a coat. In both hands are walking sticks, their tops splintered as if they were hastily broken for this purpose.

He doesn’t notice me until I am about 4 feet away. When he sees my legs in the snow, he inches his head up a notch. His face looks like the result of a trying night. Dull, vacant eyes. He can’t hold eye contact. Late 20s, maybe 30s. “Be careful down there,” he says, with more of a groan than an actual voice.

Down there. As if he had just climbed out of a monster’s stomach — the empty space that gave birth to the ravens. I ask whether he needs help. In the same ponderous tone, with a touch of anger, he says, “That Canyon almost killed me.”

As he passes, I turn and ask again, offering food or water. He does not stop, does not ask how far to the rim. In fact, his pace has not altered at all. “I’ll make it,” he says. I look for a limp or some sign of injury. There seems to be nothing but fatigue. He’s close enough to the top that he’ll be out within an hour. Like the ravens, he is taken in by the storm above me. Is he delirious? Has he fallen? I imagine him sledding down, arms flailing, and catching a piñon trunk just at the edge of a chasm, snow spraying all around him. His comment about the Canyon made it sound as if it were malevolent down there, as if he had narrowly escaped and the Canyon still had his hair in its teeth.

So I follow his tracks. They keep to the trail down to Cedar Ridge, a clearing of hitching posts for mules and three outhouses. The outhouses are sturdy structures with a deck and solid wood doors. His tracks begin here. I open the middle door and am confronted with a nest. My first thought is that some large animal burrowed here. It look like a mouse nest on a huge scale. Wood chips, used for the composting toilets, are a foot deep all over the floor. Food wrappers lie unfolded. A bag of bread. A candy bar. A flashlight is propped on the toilet-paper dispenser. He slept here, using the chips as insulation. A locked storage closet joins the back of one of the toilets. Its door hangs off its hinges, ripped from the wall. He had found the plastic bags and wood chips in there, as well as the broom handle he’d busted for walking sticks. A box of screws and various small tools he had examined and rejected.

I would later discover that he had hiked to Phantom Ranch, down at the river, with the intention of returning to the rim that night. It was a day hike. Backpackers had tried to talk him into staying. He had refused, mentioning that he needed to catch  a plane. He accepted their offerings of a flashlight, bread and candy, setting off for the South Rim in the late afternoon. When he reached the only emergency phone on the trail — at some outhouses 2,000 feet below here — he was desperate. Night had come. A storm has set in, bringing rain and wind. He had no idea that it would turn to snow above him. He made a call to the Ranger at Phantom Ranch, and he sounded panicked. He wasn’t asking for anything, just wanted to hear a human voice, said he had to catch a plane. The ranger patched him through to someone closer, but in the transfer, he dropped the phone and continued up the Canyon. The phone dangled off the hook, draining its solar battery.

He arrived at Cedar Ridge in a blizzard. Ice had formed on his clothing, and he probably was suffering from hypothermia. When he found these outhouses, he found plastic bags and wood chips, enough to keep him alive. If he had not reached Cedar Ridge, I probably would have come across his body below O’Neill Butte, curled in the mud in one of the sheltered alcoves. No one at the Canyon knew his name or ever saw him again. There are only a few trails with outhouses and emergency phones. He was lucky.

The Grand Canyon is not the thing that almost killed him, as he had said. The Canyon is here, with its winds and sunshine at random intervals. There is no pretense. The rocks do not bear ill will, nor will they offer to save you. The personalities of storms deal with updrafts, moisture content and temperature, not with grudges or malice. A person must learn how to move inside of this place. Like the ravens. I close the door and continue into the Canyon.

Winter hiking at Grand Canyon.

Winter hiking at Grand Canyon.

Refuge -- the composting toilets at Cedar Ridge.

Refuge — the composting toilets at Cedar Ridge.

Ravens

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My previous post was about a boat tour I took earlier this month into the beautiful and fascinating Atchafalaya Basin, a sprawling wetland in southern Louisiana. The trip was a mere two hours long, but it was enough to give me the flavor of the place and make me resolve to go back another time and explore further.

My tour guide that day was Captain Don, a jovial Cajun fellow who regaled us passengers with (1) fascinating facts about the history and inhabitants of the Atchafalaya and (2) Cajun jokes.

Specifically, Captain Don introduced us to Boudreaux and Thibodeaux, the central characters of much Cajun humor. Boudreaux and Thibodeaux are a disreputable, but lovable duo whose antics get them into constant trouble.

The jokes, of course, are universal. But, when told by a Cajun about Cajuns, they have an undeniable panache.

Every time Captain Don reeled off a joke, I quietly made a note, so I could reconstruct the tale later. As it turned out, he told quite a few. That’s why I felt obliged to make this report a two-parter.

Here are the jokes Captain Don told us…

AB-6

Boudreau is drivin’ in da city one day, all in a sweat. He got a very important meetin’, and he can’t find a parking place.

Lookin’ up to Heaven he says, “Lord, take pity on me! If you find me a parkin’ place, ah will go to Mass every Sunday for the rest of ma life, and ah’ll never take another drink as long as ah live!”

Like a miracle, a parkin’ place appears around de next corner.

Boudreau looks up at Heaven again and says, “Never mind, Lord, ah found one.”

AB-7

Thibodeaux is layin’ on his deathbed with only a few days to live. He calls his wife Clotile to his side and says, “Make me a promise, Clotile. Swear to me dat after ah’m dead and gone, you will marry Boudreaux.”

“Boudreaux?” she exclaims. “You always say you hate Boudreaux, ’cause he’s low down and no good, and you wish nuttin’ but BAD on him!”

Thibodeaux says, “Yeah, ah do.”

AB-8

One day, Boudreaux and Thibodeaux fly north to Yankee country on vacation. As dey come in for a landin’, Boudreaux yells at Thibodeaux, “Pull up! Pull up! We’re at de end of de runway!”

So Thibodeaux pulls up and goes around for another try. As he attempts another landin’, Boudreaux yells at him again. “Pull up! Pull up! We’re at de end of de runway already!”

Thibodeaux pulls back on da stick and goes around again. As he comes in for a third try, he says to Boudreaux, “You know, dese Yankees is pretty stupid! Dey made dis runway way too short, but look at how wide it is!”

AB-9

Pierre is drinkin’ at de bar, when Thibodeaux comes in. “Pierre, you heard the news?” says Thibodeaux. “Boudreaux is dead!”

“That’s terrible!” says Pierre. “What happened to him?”

“Well, Boudreaux was on his way over to my house the other day, and when he arrived, his foot missed da brake pedal, and BOOM — he hit da curb! He crash troo da windshield, go flying troo de air, and smash troo my upstairs bedroom window!”

“What a horrible way to die!” says Pierre.

“No no, dat didn’t kill him! He survived dat!

“So, he’s lyin’ on the floor, all covered in broken glass, and he tries to pull hisself up on dat big old antique chifferrobe we got, and BANG — da chifferrobe comes crashing down on top of him!”

“Mais, that’s terrible!”

“No no, dat didn’t kill him! He survived dat!

“So, he gets de chifferrobe off him, and he crawls out onto da landin’, and he tries to pull hisself up on de han’rail! But de han’rail breaks, and BAM — Boudreaux fall down da stairs to da first floor!”

“Dat’s sure an awful way to go!”

“No no, dat didn’t kill him! Boudreaux, he even survived dat!

“So, he’s downstairs, and he crawls into de kitchen and tries to pull hisself up on de stove! But he tips over a big pot of hot gumbo, and whoosh — da whole thing come down on him and burn him real bad!”

“Thibodeaux, dat’s an awful way to die!”

“No no, he survived dat too!”

“Wait — hold on now! Just how did Boudreaux die?”

“Ah shot him!”

“You shot him? Why you shoot him?”

“Mais, he was wreckin’ mah house!”

AB-10

Boudreaux is workin’ on his cabane, which is what we call a cabin in dese parts, when his little grandson runs in.

“Papaw,” says da boy, “How far away is California? How far is California, Papaw?”

Boudreaux answers, “Boy, ah don’t know! Go away, now, ’cause ah’m busy!”

A few minutes later, here comes de boy again. “Papaw! Make a noise like a frog! Make a noise like a frog, Papaw!”

Boudreaux yells, “Boy can’t you see ah’m workin’? Get on outta here, like ah tol‘ ya!”

Da boy goes outside, but he stays near de door, lookin’ in at Boudreaux.

Finally, Boudreaux stops what he’s doin’ and says, “Boy, why you wanna know all dat?”

Da boy says, “‘Cause Mamaw told us — when Papaw finally croaks, we goin’ to California!”

AB-11

One mornin’, Boudreaux goes fishin’, and he’s doin’ real fine until da game warden pops up. Da game warden been watchin’ from the bushes, and he waits ’till Boudreaux catches a mess of fish. Den he steps out and says, “Ok, boy, lemme see dat fishin’ license!”

Well, Boudreaux, he ain’t GOT no fishin’ license, so da game warden arrest him and take him to court.

Da judge looks at da charges, and says, “Boudreaux, you got a clean record, son. You ain’t never been in dis court before.”

“Das right, Judge,” Boudreaux says. “Ah ain’t never been caught till now.”

“How ’bout dis?” says the judge. “If you promise to get a fishin’ license and not break the law no more, ah’ll let you go.”

Da game warden lets out a howl of protest. “Dat ain’t fair, Judge!” he yells. “Boudreaux, he do dis all da time, but he always get away! I finally catch him, and you lettin’ him go?”

“Well,” says da judge, “Maybe he done learned his lesson. Have ya, Boudreaux?”

“You bet ah have, Judge,” says Boudreaux.

So da judge slams down his gavel and tells Boudreaux he’s free to go. Da game warden turns to de judge and says, “Judge, what about dis? One time, ah came up on Boudreaux in de swamp, and he done cooked and eat a brown pelican, da Louisiana state bird!”

“Is dat true, Boudreaux?” says da judge.

Boudreaux stops at de courtroom door and turns back and says, “Yes, Judge, ah done what he said, but de bird was already dead, and ah hated to see de meat go to waste!”

Da judge thought for a minute and den says, “Ah’m curious, Boudreaux. What do brown pelican taste like?”

“Funny thing, Judge,” says Boudreaux. “It taste a lot like bald eagle!”

AB-12

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Earlier this month, on the way home from my ill-fated trip to Grand Canyon, I took the southern route, along the Gulf coast. When I stopped for the night in Lafayette, Louisiana, I went online, found an outfit that runs boat tours into the Atchafalaya swamp, and made a reservation for the following day.

You probably know that much of southern Louisiana is swamp and wetland, created most famously by the Mississippi River and its delta. But there is another river there, and another delta, that is nearly equal to the Mississippi in regional impact: the Atchafalaya.

Just below Natchez, the Atchafalaya River peels off from the Mississippi and flows south to the Gulf of Mexico. The Atchafalaya delta is 50 miles or so west of New Orleans.

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The river corridor and its associated wetland is known as the Atchafalaya Basin. It constitutes the largest river swamp in the United States — about 20 miles wide and 150 miles long.

The Basin is largely unpopulated. The few roads there follow the tops of levees, which were built over the years to corral the river and minimize flooding in adjacent areas.

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Interstate 10 crosses the Basin on a massive, 18-mile-long bridge, the 2nd longest in the United States. The longest is its neighbor, the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway north of New Orleans, which is 46 miles long.

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The Atchafalaya Basin is a rich combination of marshes, bayous, islands, and forests. Its waters range from fresh in the north to brackish closer to the coast. It is prime habitat for numerous species of waterfowl, fish, crawfish, shrimp, and crab.

It is home to deer, black bear, alligators, beaver, mink, otter, nutria, and foxes. Not to mention turtles, snakes, raccoons, armadillos, and opossums. It is incredibly beautiful and serene. Which is why I was shopping for a boat tour.

The Basin is in the heart of Cajun Country, and most of the fish camps, marinas, and tour companies around its edges are Cajun-run. As you soon discover, the natives are a naturally exuberant, energetic, and entertaining folk.

For the record, Cajuns are the descendants of French-speaking people from the Acadia region of Eastern Canada. They settled in Louisiana in the late 1700s after being booted from their homeland by the British. The Louisiana Cajuns have developed a rich and unique culture, with its own dialect, traditions, music, and food.

The next morning at the levee in Henderson, Louisiana, I boarded the Katherine Grace, a flat-bottom tour boat under the command of Captain Don, a friendly fellow of the Cajun persuasion who knows the swamp as thoroughly as do the herons and the gators.

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Captain Don.

That day, I was one of a dozen-plus tourists aboard. Captain Don took us on a leisurely cruise into a small corner of the Basin, pointing out the flora and fauna and informing us about the history of the place. But as soon as we left the dock, Captain Don took us passengers to Cajun school.

“First of all,” he said, “Y’all gotta learn to say da name of dis place proper! Dis is de Bay-SEEN Uh-CHAF-uh-LIE-uh! Now y’all say it.”

“Bay-SEEN Uh-CHAF-uh-LIE-uh,” we repeated in unison.

“Das real good,” he said. “And, man, we got us a beautiful day here in de Bay-SEEN Uh-CHAF-uh-LIE-uh!”

And it was, indeed, a beautiful day — mild, calm, and sunny. For the next two hours, we cruised slowly among the islands. Captain Don showed us the remains of old bridge pilings and abandoned oil platforms. He told us which plants were native and which were invasive.

He pointed out the numerous shorebirds and informed us that the Great White Egret has black legs and black feet, whereas a Snowy Egret has black legs and yellow feet.

Captain Don would inch the boat slowly around a bend so we could get a quick look at a massive alligator sunning on the bank before the gator got spooked and slipped away into the water.

And, in addition to dishing up factual information, he told us Cajun jokes.

I knew at the time that I would write about my swamp tour with Captain Don. So, resourceful fellow that I am, I made notes so I could reconstruct his jokes when I got home.

More about which in my next post.

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Rocky Raccoon

At the moment, I’m on a road trip. I’m heading west to do some hiking at Grand Canyon, and I’ll drive back to Georgia along the Gulf Coast — maybe go swimming and get some seafood and what-not.

This trip is unique, and quite memorable, because I’m driving an RV. It’s a Dodge van, specially tricked out with all the amenities one needs on the road: refrigerator, microwave, sink, shower, toilet, stove, heat, A/C, TV, and DVD player.

So, at the end of the day’s drive, I’m obliged to find an RV park instead of a motel. So far, things have worked out fine. I haven’t been forced to settle for a Walmart parking lot.

A couple of days into the trip, I rolled into a state park in central New Mexico. The facility looked clean, the rates were low, the weather was nice. So far, so good.

Shortly after hooking up the power, I decided to check out the bath house. If it turned out to be dirty or otherwise inadequate, I would shower the next morning in the RV.

The bath house was about 50 yards or so from my campsite, on the far side of a playground. Next to it were three large dumpsters, the kind made of heavy steel with plastic lids. In this case, the plastic lids were missing.

Judging from the scratching sounds coming from one of the dumpsters, a critter of some kind was inside having a meal.

The dumpsters were about five feet tall, and I had no idea what sort of critter was inside. As quietly as possible, I approached the dumpster so I could find out.

But I wasn’t quiet enough. When I got to within 10 feet, the scratching stopped.

Holding my breath, I veeeeery slowly moved forward and peered over the edge.

Inside, a large raccoon was looking back at me.

As I hastily retreated, the banging inside the dumpster resumed. This time, it sounded less like a raccoon rummaging through bags of garbage and more like a raccoon trying unsuccessfully to climb out.

This, I thought, is the park’s problem, not mine. After checking out the bath house — which was in A-1 shape — I walked over to the park office to tell them about the marooned raccoon.

“Excuse me,” I said to one of the two ladies at the front desk, “Are you folks good at rescuing wildlife in distress?” I told them about the raccoon.

The ladies gave each other a knowing look. “That’s Rocky,” said one of them wearily. “We have to rescue him from one dumpster or another practically every day.”

“Rocky can get inside a dumpster in a heartbeat,” said the other lady. “Our maintenance people have to drop everything and go get him out.”

“Well, it’s their own fault he keeps doing it,” said the first lady. “Rocky knows they’ll come and get him out!”

“What they do,” explained the second lady, “Is put a 2×4 into the dumpster at an angle. Rocky scampers up the 2×4, and off he runs.”

“It’s a real problem,” said the first lady. “A never-ending problem.”

“Just once, they ought to leave him in there for a good long time,” said the second lady. “Like, two days, maybe three!”

“Now, Helen, Rocky don’t mean no harm,” said the first lady. “We can’t treat him mean like that.”

“I know. But that would sure teach him a lesson!”

Five minutes later, I watched as one of the maintenance guys placed an eight-foot 2×4 into the dumpster at an angle and stepped back. In a split second, Rocky raced nimbly up the 2×4, hopped to the ground, and sped off through the underbrush.

That happened at about 4PM. The next morning, I arose, ate some breakfast, grabbed a towel and my toiletry kit, and walked across the playground to the bath house.

As I neared the building, I could hear Rocky inside the dumpster, scratching through the garbage.

Rocky Raccoon-2

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As you may know, the Gauley River in the mountains of West Virginia is home to some of the most challenging whitewater rafting and kayaking in the country.

During “Gauley Season” in early fall, when the Army Corps of Engineers releases water from Summerville Dam, the river attracts thrill-seekers by the thousands.

And the thrills are memorable. On the 10-mile Upper Gauley are dozens of rapids, including five rapids rated Class V — the top of the scale.

In southern West Virginia, notable whitewater is found on the Upper Gauley, the Lower Gauley, and the New River. Over the years, I’ve rafted those three a dozen times.

I’ve written twice about the experience on this blog. One story was about my first day on the Gauley. The other story recounted an incident on the bus ride after a day of rafting.

For years, in addition to the aforementioned hair-raising rapids, the Upper Gauley was famous for something else: the put-in at the base of Summersville Dam was itself legendary.

In the old days, the put-in was within a stone’s throw of three massive overflow tubes spewing 21,000 gallons of water per second into the river.

The Upper Gauley put-in, September 1997.

The Upper Gauley put-in, September 1997.

After carrying their rafts down a long gravel path from the parking lot, the rafters would lower their boats into a narrow eddie, climb aboard, and brace themselves.

Their senses would be under constant assault — from the deafening roar of the water tunnels, the random blasts of artificial wind, and river water blowing in all directions at once.

Straining to hear as their guide shouted instructions, the rafters would paddle forward furiously, slamming into solid waves of whitewater three and four feet high, trying to break through the eddie wall* and catch the main current.

If they were lucky, they generated enough momentum to penetrate the wall and enter the mainstream.

If not, the raft would be rejected and spun to the right, back into the eddie. The fatigued crew would have to start all over again.

Rafters waiting to challenge the eddie wall, September 1997.

Rafters waiting to challenge the eddie wall, September 1997.

Naturally, there’s a video on YouTube that documents it all.  

That scenario — a put-in almost as impressive as a major rapid — ended in 1999, when a new hydroelectric plant was constructed on the site. One of the overflow tunnels was re-routed to power the plant. The other tubes are still functional, but are rarely used.

A new put-in was created for the boaters 300 yards downstream, around the first bend, on a peaceful shelf. The roar and the challenge are gone.

One morning in the fall of 1998, before heading home to Georgia, I walked out onto the top of Summersville Dam and stood gazing at the put-in below. I was there to take photos for posterity.

In previous years, I had taken plenty of shots of the put-in. But all my photos were taken at long distance with compact and single-use cameras. I wanted serious, close-up, action shots. That day in 1998, I was ready with a real camera: a big Nikon with a zoom lens.

That was the era of film cameras, and my Nikon was loaded with 35mm slide film. For half an hour, I wandered around the top of the dam taking pictures of the rafting action below. In all, I shot three rolls of film, 36 exposures each. I just knew some of those shots would be terrific.

Satisfied, I dropped the three rolls of exposed film into my daypack and put a fresh roll in the camera. I wanted to make one last stop before starting the drive home.

That stop was the scenic overlook at the north end of the New River Gorge Bridge. The overlook is near the visitor center, halfway down the gorge, at the bottom of a steep wooden staircase. 

Staircase

From that spot, you get a spectacular view of the massive bridge.

New River Gorge Bridge

I took a series of photos, packed up, and started driving south on U.S. 19 in the direction of home.

But soon, I realized that my daypack wasn’t next to me on the passenger seat.

I knew immediately what happened: I had left the pack at the scenic overlook. I remembered taking it off and placing it on a bench while I took photos. Maybe, with luck, it was still there.

I turned around, drove the 15 minutes back to the bridge, and scampered down the staircase.

When I arrived at the overlook, no one was there. Neither was my backpack.

I checked at the visitor center. The pack had not been turned in. I left my contact information there, but never heard anything. My precious film simply was gone forever.

Fifteen years later, and I’m still smarting from it.

Many times, I’ve kicked myself for not driving back to the dam that day to take new photos. At most, it would have added a few hours to the trip. I didn’t do it, and that was a bad decision.

As for the black-hearted villain who stole my daypack, I’ve often wondered if he (or she, or they) had been curious enough to develop my film.

If so, I hope they got as much enjoyment from the photos as I surely would have.

Actually, no — I don’t wish that at all.

The hydroelectric plant that screwed up the put-in.

The hydroelectric plant that screwed up the put-in.

 

The present put-in for the Upper Gauley, located well downstream. Yawn.

The present put-in for the Upper Gauley, located well downstream. Yawn.

* On my first Gauley trip in 1994, when the videographer interviewed the rafters, my friend Chris grinned into the camera and said, “Hi! I’m Eddie Wall!”

 

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In December 2005, after Death Valley National Park had cooled off for the year, I drove to California and spent a fascinating four days exploring the place. Memories of that trip still pop into my head from time to time. Apparently, I was impressed.

You probably know the basics about Death Valley, even if you haven’t been there: it’s the hottest, driest, lowest point in North America.

In July 1913, an all-time world record high of 134°F was recorded on the valley floor. In July of the year I was there, the temperature reached 129°F. Best to avoid Julys.

Rainfall-wise, the valley has averaged about two inches per year over the last 30 years. That’s an improvement. The historic yearly average is 1.6 inches.

Altitude-wise, the lowest point in the valley is the lowest point in North America: Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level.

Death Valley got the way it is because of its unique geography; the valley is a long, narrow basin walled in by mountains. On the west side, the Panamint Range blocks storms moving in from the Pacific Ocean. The western slopes get the rainfall, and almost none reaches the valley.

DV-1

Deprived of moisture, the desert air becomes steadily hotter and drier. The heated air rises, but is trapped by the mountains on both sides. It cools a bit, falls again, and compresses the air below it, heating the air further. You learned that in high school physics, right?

If you look at the daily high and low temperatures in Death Valley over the course of a year, you get an average high of 90°F and an average low of 62°F.

So, Death Valley is a hot, dry, low-lying desert. Those fundamentals, I knew. But when I finally got there, I wasn’t prepared for the diversity.

For one thing, I didn’t expect to find heavily-forested mountains that are snow-capped in winter. Telescope Peak, the tallest mountain in the Panamints, rises 11,049 feet above sea level. Badwater Basin is a mere 15 miles away.

The Park has plenty of other surprises…

A giant salt flat on the floor of the valley covers 200 square miles. The salt has accumulated over thousands of years, washed down out of the mountains by periodic floods. Because the valley is an enclosed basin, the water is trapped in temporary lakes. When they evaporate in the arid climate, another layer of salt is added to the crust.

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In the surrounding mountains, countless canyons and dry washes deliver a steady supply of sand to the valley floor. Most is dispersed by the constant wind. But in a few places, sand dunes accumulate. Death Valley has five sets of dunes, the largest standing over 700 feet tall. The sprawling dune field at Mesquite Flat is conveniently located next to the Park’s main road.

DV-3

Salt isn’t the only mineral buried in the valley floor. In 1881, large-scale borax mining began in Death Valley. The operation at Furnace Creek became famous for using teams of 20 mules to haul double wagons of borax 200 miles over the mountains to the nearest railroad. The site of the old Harmony Borax Works, closed since 1889, is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

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One of the most incongruous sights in Death Valley is “Scotty’s Castle,” a Spanish-style mansion built in the 1920s by Chicago millionaire Albert Johnson as a vacation getaway. When construction started, Johnson’s friend Walter Scott, a free-spirited prospector of questionable repute known as “Death Valley Scotty,” told the locals that he was building the mansion himself, using proceeds from a secret gold mine. Amused, Johnson let Scott have his fun, and the name “Scotty’s Castle” stuck. The mansion was turned into a hotel for a while, and now the Park owns it.

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Another odd sight: high in the Panamint Range are 10 masonry charcoal kilns, beehive-shaped and 25 feet tall. The kilns were built in 1877 by rich mining expert George Hearst (daddy of rich publisher William Randolph Hearst). The charcoal was used to fuel the smelters at Hearst’s nearby lead and silver mines. When the mines played out, the kilns were abandoned. You can go inside them, but mind the soot.

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Death Valley is home to eight ghost towns, most founded by miners or outlaws between the 1870s and the 1920s. The largest of the towns is (was) Rhyolite, located just outside the Park on BLM land. Rhyolite lasted from 1905 until 1916. In its heyday, the town had over 5,000 residents, two churches, and 50 saloons.

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The “Bottle House” in Rhyolite was constructed using 30,000 empty beer bottles. Except for the bottles, it’s just an ordinary building. The Bottle House was badly vandalized after Rhyolite was abandoned, but in 1925, Paramount Pictures restored the building as an investment; by then, the place was being used as a movie set.

Rhyolite Bottle House

There’s plenty more to see in Death Valley. Ubehebe Crater (pronounced YOO-bee-HEE-bee) is a volcanic crater, age uncertain, that is 600 feet deep and half a mile across. Ubehebe (a marvelous word that should be spoken with feeling) is a Shoshone word that means “big basket in the rock.”

Elsewhere, tucked away in a remote canyon, is a massive natural bridge. You are not surprised to find such a thing in this rocky, bone-dry country.

However, in another remote canyon is beautiful Darwin Falls, hidden in a fern-covered glen. Totally unexpected.

Then there is “The Racetrack,” where rocks mysteriously slide across a dry lake bed, leaving tell-tale tracks behind them. No one has seen it happen, but the speculation is that after a rain, the surface becomes slippery, and the wind is able to push the rocks slowly along.

And there is “Devil’s Hole,“ a hot water spring inside a limestone cavern, fed by a vast aquifer. The pool is known to be an indicator of seismic activity around the world. Earthquakes as far away as Japan have caused the water in Devil’s Hole to slosh like water in a bathtub.

All of the above is tourist stuff. Anyone can see it, photograph it, write about it, and plenty of people do.

But my trip to Death Valley that year had an added benefit that was private and personal and intimate.

Well, maybe someone else experienced it, but not from my vantage point. Let me explain.

The morning I left Death Valley to start the drive home, I was on the road before dawn. I left early because the motel dining room at Stovepipe Wells didn’t open for another two hours. Hungry and irritated, I drove off in hopes of finding breakfast somewhere else.

What I found was a spectacular sunrise.

I remember it vividly. I had just left the Park and was driving south through Panamint Valley, heading for the little town of Ridgecrest and civilization once again.

For miles, the road was arrow-straight. Beyond my headlights, everything was black. I knew from the absence of headlights and taillights that it was just me and the stars and the desert.

Then slowly, the predawn light began to reveal the landscape. I could make out a few mountain shapes in the distance. I could see faintly the outlines of ocotillo and saguaro cactuses. I became aware of a barely perceptible glow on the horizon, revealing where the sun would rise.

Soon, I came to a place where the highway climbed a small hill. On the right, at the top of the rise, was a large, level pullout. I coasted in and turned off the engine.

For the next 20 minutes, I sat on the hood of my car, waiting for the sunrise, enjoying the solitude, contemplating what a fortunate fellow I am.

When the sunrise came, it was glorious.

The photos I took that morning are among my all-time favorites. A 30” X 40” enlargement of this one has been on my living room wall ever since.

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