Southwest Roadtrip

 

Zane started kindergarten this year, and I’ve been worried that his school schedule would put a dent in our travel plans.  Until recently, the limiting factor has always been Jasmine’s vacation time, and we haven’t had to plan around school.  I hate dealing with crowds, and all of the national parks in the vicinity of Southern California become positively mobbed during the summer, when kids are on break.  Places like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon are spectacular, but only if you go during the off season, or if you hike into the back country and away from all the people.  Otherwise, it’s like spending your vacation at an outdoor theme park, which is the antithesis of a trip into nature.  Luckily, Zane’s school schedule is a bit unconventional, and we had two full weeks of “fall break” to take advantage of.  So, we put together a fun road trip across the American Southwest, to check out a bunch of areas we’d never been to before.

In what seems to be turning into tradition, we began our journey by driving up to Los Angeles, to spend the day with my sister’s family.  I don’t think there is anything our kids would rather do, than play with their cousins.  It’s become a great way to kick things off and get the boys in a positive mood, because all the driving we had planned would certainly chip away at their sanity.  We watched Levi play a soccer match and then ate at Din Tai Fung, my favorite restaurant in the world.  Is there any better way to start a long drive, than stuffing yourself full of xiao long bao?  For the uninitiated, these are juicy pork soup dumplings, a staple of Shanghai cuisine.

The basket arrives

Steaming hot delicate skins

I just burnt my mouth

I love DTF.  You think I am kidding?  I’m writing poetry about these delicious little satchels of pork. This is serious stuff.  Tomorrow is Halloween, so it seems appropriate to share a photo of the costume that Jasmine made for Kalani, a couple of years ago.

Kalani at 6 months

Just look at that!  Such perfect, flawless skin.  So lovely and fresh.  Innocent, even.  Can you imagine the warm juices inside, which will inevitably spill out as you pierce the delicate skin with your teeth?  The kid?  Yeah, he is pretty cute, but let’s stick to the important stuff here, ok?  We’re talking about juicy pork dumplings.

I suppose I am getting off topic, so back to the trip.  We ate lunch, returned to my sister’s house and celebrated her 40th! birthday and my niece’s almost-5th birthday, and packed into the car to head for Utah.

Kaja is almost 5

Just as we did on our last trip to Zion, we drove out to Mesquite, Nevada in the evening and spent the night, so that the kids would sleep during the majority of the drive.  I was slightly appalled when I saw that our hotel was across the street from one of the gun stores that supplied the weapons used in the recent Vegas massacre, but I guess I shouldn’t hold that against the town.  I will admit that, after the recent events, I was happy to leave Mesquite the next morning, for no other reason than out of a sense of respect for the victims of that horrible crime.  You don’t have to drive very far outside of California to see the subtle hints of gun culture, which I have never become fully comfortable with.  In fact, when we were driving through Colorado a few days later, we actually passed someone who had stopped their pickup in the middle of the road (which was deserted), and was apparently hunting from his driver’s side window!  I pulled up behind this truck, which was blocking the road, and started to pass when I realized I was looking at the end of a rifle barrel that was protruding a good 12″ out of his window.  I slammed the brakes, in disbelief, and he pulled the firearm back into his vehicle and waved me past.  It was kinda funny, really, and I have no idea if this is something that hunters frequently do?  Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against hunters who do so legally and sustainably.  I honestly wish I had more opportunity/desire to do so myself, because eating wild elk and venison is unquestionably more ethical than buying farmed beef.  But gun culture itself, and all the 2nd amendment stuff – well I suppose that should be the subject of its own blog post.  This website is about getting outdoors and finding some peace and adventure in nature, so don’t count on me revisiting this topic anytime soon.

Getting back to the trip.  We stayed at the Best Western since they allowed dogs, and we met our friends The Dents at the Holiday Inn for breakfast.  Zane and Devin were classmates in preschool last year, and are together again in kindergarten.  They have formed quite a friendship, sharing a love for bike riding and Minecraft, among other things.  Having just been to Zion, I think that Zane got a kick out of showing his best friend around his favorite spots.

Riding bikes below The Watchman, Zion National Park

Chloe, Kalani, and Scuti

Instead of camping, we stayed at the Ponderosa Ranch Resort, just outside the eastern boundary of the park.  We got two “mini cabins” with running water and electricity, and had a great time.  The kids occupied themselves by mining for gold and geodes, in some sort of Minecraft-themed role play.  On our second day, I volunteered to watch all four kids while Jasmine, Jeff, and Nicolle spent a few hours hiking The Narrows.  I’ve been there a few times before, and wanted to give everyone else a chance to experience the magic of that amazing canyon.  The minute their car pulled away from our cabin, I started to shake with fear.  Would these kids get the better of me?  Would I survive?

Enjoying an elk head.  Voice supplied by yours truly.

I am joking, of course.  Kids used to freak me out, but I am a seasoned warrior by now, having lived in the trenches, so to speak.  I’ve spent enough time around Chloe and Devin to know that they wouldn’t give me too many problems.  Having the four kids together went just fine, and we spent some time playing miniature golf, ate ice cream, and stared at a talking elk head, whose voice reminded me of a creepy version of Elmo.  After a few hours, I began to suspect that the novelty of “Zane’s dad the authority figure” was starting to wear off on Chloe, but as luck would have it, the other parents returned, just in time, and I was saved!  The Dents grilled up some delicious chicken kabobs for dinner and we let the kids play Hotwheels all night.  The trip was off to a good start.

Hiking around Checkerboard Mesa

Stacking rocks

Zane and Devin

The next day, we left the Ponderosa Ranch and drove north to Bryce Canyon National Park, not far away.  I’d seen photos of the famous viewpoints, but didn’t really expect much, to be honest.  In fact, Bryce turned out to be surprisingly beautiful, and well worth a visit.  We parked close to the visitor’s center and hiked the the Navajo Trail Loop, which took us past some interesting sights like Thor’s Hammer, and into a fantastic canyon filled with hoodoos and other oddly-shaped features.  Scuti wasn’t allowed on the trail, and Jasmine stayed up on the canyon rim to keep him company.  She said that he was very popular with the tourists, which is no surprise.

Zane and Devin on the Navajo Trail, Bryce Canyon National Park

Thor’s Hammer

Sunset Point, Bryce Canyon National Park

After exploring Bryce for a few hours, we ate some lunch and said our goodbyes to the Dents, and headed off towards Moab, at the eastern edge of Utah.  The kids were handling the long car rides pretty well, save for some minor hiccups here and there.  Copious amounts of Doritos and Gatorade certainly helped in this department.  I make some effort to provide my kids with nutritious foods, but on camping trips, I guess you can say that all bets are off.  I just want them to have a good time, so that they will cheerfully accompany us on our adventures.

About 4 hours later, we were getting close to Moab and decided to test our luck to see if we could snag a campsite near Dead Horse Point, an area I wanted to photograph in the morning.  It was late in the night and the sky was as clear as I’ve ever seen it, being so far from any big city lights.  We scored the last available site at the campground, quickly set up our tent in the chilly wind, and transferred the groggy kids to their sleeping bags.  Unfortunately, Kalani decided to use my face as a pillow, so I did not get the best sleep that night.  He had developed a stuffy nose due to the cold mountain air, and it wasn’t easy to sleep through the sound of snot bubbles percolating mere inches from my ears.  As I have written on this blog before, it is during times like these that I try and savor the realities of being a dad, because there will come a day when I will miss the craziness that it entails.

The next morning, we drove out to Dead Horse Point, a popular overlook at the edge of Canyonlands National Park.  It was a bit of a letdown, but it could be that I was sleep deprived and in the wrong mood to appreciate the scenery. We took some photos and let the kids scramble around on the rocks, and then packed into the car and made the short drive to see Mesa Arch, in Canyonlands.

Dead Horse Point State Park

You’ve definitely seen a photo of Mesa Arch before – it’s probably the most photographed natural stone arch in the world.  To get a truly fantastic photo, you must arrive in the middle of the night, at the right time of year (so that the sun hits it from the best angle), and fight the other, arguably crazy, photographers for a spot.  I have made trips like this, and I have fought the hordes for tripod space in an effort to get “the shot.”  I don’t miss it, to be honest.  I definitely miss nature photography, something I spent a lot of time pursuing prior to having kids, but my time away from the endeavor gives me some perspective on things, and this aspect of photography seems patently absurd.  I suppose that most photographers go through a growth stage, where they feel compelled to shoot the classic scenes, to get their version of all the major icons.  I have been guilty of this.  In fact, it was for this very reason that we were visiting Mesa Arch in the first place!  It really makes no sense.  We’ve driven hundreds of miles to the vast emptiness of sparsely populated Utah, whose landscape is loaded with interesting features and areas, and we are fighting for parking space at a trail head, and forced to get in line to grab a photo of a stone arch.  Ugh.  Well, here are the photos, for better or worse.  I briefly considered getting up in the middle of the night to get a bonafide sunrise shot, but I am glad that I didn’t.  A Google image search will reveal what that might have looked like.

The Family

Mesa Arch

 

Don’t be fooled, there were no fewer than 30 people milling around the base of this impressive arch of rock.  I can only imagine how cool it would have been to stumble across this natural feature, alone and unexpected.  But when you have to wait for people to leave the parking lot, then hike a well-worn trail with dozens of people all around you, it definitely steals some of the appeal.

We still hadn’t made it to Moab, and I was starting to feel antsy.  I was getting sick of the tourist hordes and if all went as planned, I would be climbing with a complete stranger in Indian Creek the next morning.  It was time to move on.

We drove south and stopped in Moab for lunch, at a surprisingly good pizza joint called Zax.  The kids fed, a full tank of gas, and stocked up on wood and water, we drove another hour south to a climbing area known as Indian Creek, on the outskirts of Canyonlands National Park.  The Creek is world-renowned for it’s superb crack climbing, a unique type of climbing that I really enjoy.  We have cracks in California – Tahquitz and Joshua Tree are loaded with them.  But our cracks are, for the most part, misshapen and convoluted as compared to the perfect splitters at The Creek.  I’ve been wanting to visit the area for years, but it’s a solid 14 hour drive from San Diego, so this would be my first chance.

Petroglyphs on the drive in to the campground

Jason on Naked Edge in Indian Creek

Crack climbing feels wildly difficult, at first.  It’s not very intuitive, and you can’t just muscle your way up to the top, like a typical climb that has actual holds.  It requires technique and skill, which can be learned relatively quickly, with some practice.  I learned on the cracks in my gym a few years ago.  It was very tough going at first, and I would flail up the wall, sweating, cursing, and bleeding.  And then, almost as if by magic, it suddenly clicked and what seemed impossible became doable, and then even became easy.  A solid hand ham – this is where you stuff your hand deep into a crack and tense the meat of your thumb against the rock, feels as secure as the grip on a ladder rung, if not more so.  I came to Indian Creek in search of perfect hand splitters, those cracks that would accept my hands and feet perfectly.

Leading up The Naked and Dead

The boys watching dad while Scuti enjoys the shade

I was lucky to be climbing at all, frankly.  I met a guy (David) online earlier in the week, who was visiting from the Bay Area and looking for potential partners.  We chatted via text and set up a potential meeting point, but I really didn’t know if it was going to pan out.  No phone service, and all I had was a photo of his car and a rough idea of where he would be camping.  We would tentatively meet at 8 am, on either Wednesday or Thursday, and go from there.

Indian Creek

When we arrived, I didn’t see any signs of David and I basically gave up.  I was already feeling a little guilty about dragging Jasmine and the kids up to the climbing area, knowing that these things always end up taking more time than planned.  Even if I found someone to give me a belay, I wouldn’t have much time to do more than a single route, maybe two at most.  I wasn’t sure it was worth the hassle.  We set up our tent at Hamburger Rock and the kids and Scuti had a blast as they explored the interesting rocks around the campground.  As the sun eventually set and we settled into the tent, I felt relieved that the drive was worth it, regardless if I climbed the next day or not.  The campground was secluded (relative to California standards) and spectacular, right in the middle of an open canyon system.  The night was black and clear, and we saw shooting stars and the Milky Way, splashed across the sky.

Zane demonstrates his homemade parachute jump

UY Scuti

Campsite

In a fortunate turn of events, I ran into David as we were both headed to use the lone pit toilet near the campground, the next morning.  He introduced me to a couple of other climbers he had met days earlier, and we all headed off to one of the popular cliffs, with a few different options in mind.  Jasmine brought the boys and Scuti along, and we hiked up to the climbing area.  The route that I wanted to get on was mobbed with a group, but we settled on something nearby that looked fun, and I racked up for the lead.

The route, quite frankly, kicked my ass.  This was no perfect hands splitter.  It was also long and sustained; nearly 120 feet from the bottom to the top.  There were certainly sections that offered a glimpse of that Indian Creek goodness that I so desperately wanted to experience, but as I got higher, the hand jams withered away and it morphed into an awkward off-width (wide) crack, which involves an entirely different set of skills to climb (ones that I don’t necessarily possess).  It was also getting harder, the higher I got, and I was starting to get really, really tired.  I was 100% committed, though, and desperately wanted the onsight (to climb a new route on the first attempt, without falling).

So, there I was, 100 feet off the ground, with a very solid piece of protection a few feet below.  There’s falling, and then there’s falling.  I’ve taken some whips on bolts before.  These are anchors that are already placed in the rock, which you clip as you climb.  I’ve taken some very short falls on trad gear, too.  This is gear that you carry and place yourself, as protection.  Prior to this day, though, I had never taken a real, legit, whipper on trad gear.  Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later.

Totally and completely wasted, but I made it to the top

I was a couple of feet above my last piece, a #2 Camalot.  That’s a solid piece – nice and big, no reason to fail.  It was placed perfectly, in a parallel crack.  I had confidence in that piece.  I was exhausted, shaking, and really struggling to catch my breath.  I had sand and grit in my mouth, because I had planted the side of my face against the rock in an effort to better paste myself into this awkward, flaring corner.  I must have stuck my mouth against the wall, though I have no recollection of doing so.  There wasn’t much holding me on, at that point.  I was stemming my right leg out onto the face, my toe catching a little nub.  The piece below me is good, I told myself, and even if it fails, there is another one below that.  I am 100 feet off the ground – there’s nothing to hit.  So I committed to the next series of moves, which involved switching from this awkward body wedge (which wasn’t working) to a lie back on the finger crack to my right.  Less secure and more sustained, but really the only way I could envision moving upward.  I transitioned to the finger crack, committed to it, and started lie backing up the corner.  Now I’m a good 7-8 feet above my last piece, and the only thing holding me to the rock is the counter pressure between the tips of my fingers and my feet, which are pushing in opposite directions to each other.  There is a pod above me, and I struggle to get another gold Camalot off my harness, and I set it.  I’m holding on with one hand now, and trying to pull the rope with the other, to clip the piece that is above my head.  I come to the profoundly uncomfortable realization that I don’t have the strength to both hold on to the rock, and pull the rope to make the clip.  I get both hands back into the crack, and I yell down to David, “I’m coming off!!”

The fall was nice and soft – a great catch.  It lasted long enough that I had time to think to myself, “yep this is a legit fall!”  Fifteen feet?  Maybe more?  Far enough that I knew I didn’t want to do it again.

Without going into any more detail, the story ends well.  I made it back to my high point and, having rested on the rope and regained some strength, was able to clip the piece that had thwarted my earlier attempts.  That gave me the confidence to run it up to the anchor, another 10 feet higher.  It took a few tries, I think I took another two or three short falls before pulling it off, and I had to rest for at least a minute before I was able to pull the rope and anchor in, I was so exhausted.  It was a fine experience, and one that I will never forget.

Fall colors

Zane and Scuti

After climbing, we raced back to the campsite and broke everything down, so that we could make it back up to Moab and over to Arches National Park, before sunset.  Arches turned out to be a really interesting area.  The sandstone rock formations were as wild and strange as anything I’ve ever seen.  It reminded me of Joshua Tree, in a way.   We hiked out to Landscape Arch, but the kids were getting tired and I could tell that their moods were about to turn sour.  It was getting late, anyway, and we returned to the car and made our way back to Moab for some more of Zax’s pizza.  The kids fed, the sun setting fast, we began the drive out to Colorado.

Arches National Park

Landscape Arch (the largest in the world)

Balanced rock

By far the scariest part of our trip was the drive to Telluride.  We left Moab at 8 pm, which meant that I was driving the car and trailer over a windy mountain road in the middle of the night.  It didn’t take long at all to see our first deer (family of deer, actually) and this began a series of heart-stopping “slam the brakes!” moments over the course of the next few hours.  Deer are apparently REALLY stupid, and I probably averaged 30 mph for most of the way, to avoid colliding with one of the dumb beasts. Or, worse, I was afraid of jack knifing the trailer and careening off the side of the mountain road, in an effort to avoid a collision.  We made it to the Hotel Telluride a bit past midnight.  Of course, I was wearing shorts and my only jacket was packed inside the trailer, and I had to carry the kids a couple of blocks to the hotel since we couldn’t find parking and the trailer wouldn’t fit in their garage.  At almost 9,000 feet elevation, it was COLD.  It was a long night.

 

Welcome to Telluride

We only had one full day to explore the town, which was an interesting mix of an upscale ski resort/mining town.  Not that there appeared to be any actual mining going on, but you could get a sense of the history of the place through the architecture along the main street and the old structures on the outskirts of town.  We ate some good food, shopped at fancy shops, and rode our bikes down a nice path through the mountain valley.  Our hotel was particularly nice, and I can only guess what they must charge during ski season.   The aspens had already lost their leaves a few weeks earlier, which was disappointing (but expected).  I spent a week in this area back in 2008, photographing the fall colors, and the difference was striking.

An aspen grove, barren of leaves

From the warm deserts of Utah to snow in Colorado

Zane on a small dirt bike track

San Miguel River

If I am being honest, we were all getting tired when it was time to leave Telluride.  We had been on the road for 9 days, and still had a lot of driving ahead of us, to make it home.  The back end of our trip was flexible, and we had a campsite reserved in the Grand Canyon, but no real agenda.  I thought we might stay there a couple nights, but the kids were starting to get what Jasmine calls “cabin fever” and they were pushing each other’s buttons more and more frequently.  I guess it should be expected, since we had been in such close proximity to each other (either in a car or tent) for over a week.

Scuti

Leaving Colorado was bittersweet, as I love the mountains.  But we had to start heading west, if we were ever going to make it back to Encinitas.  The drive southwest to the Grand Canyon was pretty boring, not much to see at all.  We broke out all the stops, relying on Doritos and iPads to keep the car ride smooth.  It was amazing to see how much vast, open land there is out there in eastern Arizona and New Mexico.

The Grand Canyon

Zane likes rocks, but has no interest in geology

South Rim of the Grand Canyon

I’d been to the Grand Canyon once before.  I’m shocked to report that it was almost 15 years ago, if the dates on these photos are to be trusted.  That is mind boggling!  On that trip, we hiked down from the North Rim and spent one night on the river, and it wasn’t terribly interesting or fun, as I recall.  This time, we were camped at Mather along the South Rim, right near the visitor’s center and village, where all the amenities are.  It was actually pretty nice, and I would definitely like to go back with the kids for a few days.  The park seems like it is set up great for camping and bike rides, and it was quite pretty.  A couple of elk walked right through our campsite as we were getting ready to leave.  Definitely need to come back, and hopefully before another 15 years goes by.

Our last day, time to head home

When we finally pulled up to the house, 9 hours after leaving Grand Canyon, Kalani started crying.  “Don’t like this one! Don’t like this one!” He exclaimed in tears, as I unbuckled him from his carseat.  I was certain the kids would be so happy to be home, but they both started crying.  I guess they really love camping.

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