In a somewhat shocking development, I am, in fact, alive. For the past couple of weeks I've been blissfully out of e-mail contact, and truth be told, for the past week or so I've been meaning to blog and having trouble figuring out how to encapsulate my month without writing a Russian novel. (The Russian novel form was out once I realized no one I know has had consumption. Yet.) It has been a terrific trip on many levels, from the simple awe of natural beauty to more internal experiences. My initial draft of this blog post read as follows: "Writing one of my long-winded trip accounts would be highly problematic due to the similarity of much of my time (hiked to X, X was beautiful. legs hurt) and the mental health of my readers, so I've opted for a more streamlined version. I'll break this post down into a few sections, and you can read whatever interests you." Turns out that was just a tease, because what follows is a long-winded, rambling trip account that jumps back and forth like Mexican beans. Best of luck. For the impatient, here is a link to 20 pictures.
Since my last post, I've been to 6 national parks, 4 state parks, 2 national monuments, 2 national recreation areas, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. I've also eaten rattlesnake. I'm currently in LA house/dog sitting for my cousins who are down in San Diego. Sarah comes out tomorrow and, after a week of much needed nothingness, I restart the cross country extravaganza on Monday. (Extravaganza, for some reason, brings to mind sequins and fireworks) I pretty much collapsed once I got to Santa Monica, I think the whole moving out/rotator cuffs/3 weeks of hiking finally caught up with me. In addition to spending a bunch of time with Frank, a very good friend from forever, (and one who appreciates the quiet glory of sitting on a boat in the middle of a lake drinking mojitos out of plastic tubing) I've been seeing a good deal of Kevin, Alisa and their two boys Max and Ezra. (3 and 10 months, respectively) Max is pretty outrageously cute, and, as always, the attention of a child is the world's best ego trip. It's hard not to feel pompous when Max asks his mother why I can't live with them always. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, this absentee "Uncle" thing is really a good gig. Now, lest my mind wander like my Armenian ancestors, we return to the beginning.
Those of you who read my South America trip e-mails are probably sick of me fawning over pretty rocks, glaciers, waterfalls, and what have you, but I really am perpetually amazed by the amount of beauty in the world. The scale of the Southwest is also shocking--as someone who has very little experience with domestic travel, this trip made me realize that it is quite possible to spend a lifetime traveling without a passport and still not run out of things to see. The pictures tell the story better than words, and even the pictures fail in attempts to capture the odd mixture of raw power and serenity that is the National Parks of Utah. Of course, the serenity is somewhat hampered by the crowds, but venturing out on the longer, less popular day hikes usual affords you relative calm. My favorite stereotypical moment: after hiking to breathtaking Delicate Arch, the following conversation occurred:
New Yorker: Hey buddy, how about you move from under the Arch so the rest of us can take pictures?
Texan: I drove 2000 miles to put my hand on this damn slab of rock, and I'm not going anywhere
New Yorker: Listen [expletive], you aren't the only one who came a long to see that thing.
Texan: Then its a good thing I got here first. (evil belly laugh)
By about the midpoint of the trip, I was certainly pretty damn sick of clambering over slick rock, but overall I was actually pleasantly surprised by the geographic variety in the parks I visited. I'm already making plans to return. "Favorites" are impossible to distinguish, as each experience is colored by those before and after, but a few moments stand out. The hike out to the waterfall at Calf Creek (In between Capitol Reef and Bryce) was terrific. Seeing all that water, and its impact on the surrounding foliage, after two weeks in a desert climate was almost surreal, and the hike itself was a pleasant, easy jaunt. I also fell in love with Kodachrome Basin State Park, about 30 minutes from Bryce. (Bryce was another favorite, the "hoodoos" are otherworldly, majestic, captivating, etc. It was snowing [in May] when I was there, along with a bitter whipping wind, but it is a place I must get back to.) Not only was Kodachrome Basin blissfully uncrowded, but the rocks formations are this beautiful pink hue, and jut out in a wide variety of gorgeous, yet disturbingly phallic forms. The campground was also far and away the most pleasant I encountered, and I ended up staying there 3 nights. Of course, it was so windy that after returning to my tent one night the inside was literally caked in sand. Everything--clothes, sleeping bag, air mattress---it looked like Pompeii. That night, it dipped to about 25, a touch cold to be sleeping outside, although a dram of Balvenie warmed my spirits. The next day I returned from hiking to find that the wind was so fierce it had ripped my tent stakes out and suspended my tent in a tree. At this point, I realized that the camping portion of my trip was over.
Overall, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed both camping out and doing this trip alone. I do think a trip like this, that is inherently more of an internal experience, is much more conducive to going solo than, say, a trip to New York. It was also greatly facilitated by the physical nature of the trip--when you spend six hours hiking, then pitch your tent and make dinner, by the time you crawl into your bag you are too tired to get overly ruminative. After I ended up spending a night at a Best Western I realized that sleeping on the ground with torn rotator cuffs may make my shoulders hurt, but being out in the parks and sleeping in a Best Western makes my soul hurt. I ended up not doing any of the back country stuff I wanted to do, instead making due with camping in the established campgrounds. This was both as a result of my shoulders (carrying the overnight pack around=not good) and simple bad luck. Driving out to the trail head for an overnight in the Needles district of Canyonlands, I noticed the storm clouds getting progressively more threatening, and congregating over my destination. By the time I got there the thunder was rolling, and when I got out to take a look I was promptly greeted by twin lightning strikes, more thunder, and a raven crossing my path. I settled for a couple of day hikes, and was proven correct when it began to pour in earnest. The raven ended up being a light motif actually---one of them tried to steal my license plate, and at the top of a mountain pass the wind was so strong that a raven literally couldn't fly. (This was more interesting than it sounds---Ravens are big birds and to see one get bossed around was really unusual.) Of course, people complain about how aggressive the birds are, yet proceed to feed them Fritos. One of the scarier moments on the trip was when, after an elderly, corpulent lady fed a raven half a Twinkie from her hand, she informed her friend "oh yeah, he takes it real nice. all sweet and gentle like." Umm, ew.
Being divorced from technology was really terrific, and definitely made me think a bit about what makes me happy. Spending the day hiking, making dinner and then sitting outside smoking a pipe and drinking scotch---that makes me happy. I'm such a high octane/stress producing person that putting myself in the polar opposite situation is tremendously beneficial. You also realize just how "plugged in" we are. When I got to the aforementioned Best Western I immediately checked my e-mail, turned on the TV, used my cell, etc. Being in situations where you are not so constantly bombarded with stimuli is remarkably, well, relaxing. Now, I'm not saying that I want to live in a yurt in southern Utah, but having a "simpler" existence, weeding out all the bullshit, does have its appeal. I'm doing a pretty poor job of recounting my time, but the truth is that it didn't yield that sort of stories that my trips to South America and Thailand did. Rather, it was just a stretch of constant wonder at the natural beauty of our world, mixed with anger at the way we treat it, and a wistful longing for a less complicated existence. (As in, a lobotomy) Don't worry, I'm not going to go all granola on you. In all seriousness, I can be a, ahem, large personality, and doing this trip by myself, being fairly self-contained, was just really nice. It was also pretty much the perfect length---by the end of it, I was quite ready to see people I care about and sleep in a bed.
What I wasn't ready for, however, was Vegas. It doesn't get much more jarring than going from quiet desert harmony to the ritz and glitz of Vegas, with only a quick detour to Hoover Dam in between. I had never been to Vegas before, and it really is another planet. Eight of the ten largest hotels in the world are in Vegas. It truly is Disney Land for adults. My mother (she met me there) and I ate at a restaurant, "Picasso" that derived its name from the collection of original Picasso's prominently displayed in the dining room. The value of money also changes in Vegas---in order to get anywhere you have to walk through the casinos, you practically can't take a piss without spending twenty bucks. We saw one guy lose a grand on blackjack in all of five minutes. You just have to give in and embrace the absurdity, but after two days your eyes are spinning like the slots and you need to get the hell out of dodge. We did see a terrific Cirque de Soleil show "KA", which aside from being obscenely visually compelling was a great lesson in storytelling. From Vegas my mom and I drove through Death Valley en route to L.A. Death Valley is a pretty fascinating place in its own right---it was a cool 112 when we were there, but hey, at least it was a dry heat. I could write for days about each of the individual parks, but that would bore you and exhaust me. I also think that a play by play of each hiking trail would be about as exciting as grits. That being said, you should all feel free to buy me a beer and I'll ramble on till my heart's content. I'll try and do another update when I get to Chicago. Until then, good night, and have a pleasant tomorrow.