Archive

National Parks

Somewhere in my US travel research I came across a little snippet about this supposedly beautiful valley covered with petroglyphs and within a stone’s throw of Las Vegas. The place was Valley of Fire State Park. The land was used regularly by the Anazai Pueblo Indians until the 12th century AD and in 1935 became Nevada’s first state park. Needless to say, I was intrigued and had to see it.

We ventured off of highway 15, into a nice but fairly standard looking desert landscape. Up and down miles of hills and dips, around a few turns, and there it was, the Valley of Fire. Seemingly painted terracotta red rocks began jutting out of the sand, curved and striated by centuries of erosion. The whole landscape changed into something that seemed a little more inviting than it should have been. Perhaps because I knew going into the valley that people had lived and hunted in this area for over two thousand years, I had the sense that I could leave the car, wander around for days, and be fine – I didn’t try it.

I’ve concluded that the most intimidating sounding places are actually the most likely to have amazing camping with beautiful sunsets, a bright Milky Way, and millions of stars. Plus, it just sounds kind of cool to say, “I slept in Death Valley and lived to tell about it”.

Death Valley has craggily mountains, expansive salt flats, sand dunes, canyons galore, the lowest point in the North America (Badwater Basin at -282 ft below sea level) and average summer temperatures of 120 degrees in the shade. The summer is so hot that the park’s lower campgrounds don’t even open until mid October.

We rolled into the valley shortly after the camping season opened. Passing a tent-only campground, still completely empty, we eventually ended up at the larger RV/tent campsite. To picture the campground, you’d have to imagine a large unpaved parking lot with only four RV’s (one of which was flanked by three 20 something guys watching the sunset while sitting topless in their folding chairs). Luckily, the tent sites were at the back where you could walk 20 yards into the small dunes and bushes and completely forget that any other living thing was around.

Above Death Valley, the air space is used by the Air Force and Navy for flight trainings. Once the sun went down, that translated into flashing lights amongst the stars making perfect 90 degree turns, sudden stops, and what appeared to be impossible forward and backward movements. It’s no wonder UFO sighting are rampant in this part of the country. In the morning while hiking in a slot canyon lined with marble walls as smooth as the floor of Saint Peter’s Basilica, two sparring fighter jets flew overhead, twirling and jolting, seemingly trying to come down and land on the canyon walls. The whole canyon was ringing with the sound of their jet engines. If “Top Gun” is your favorite movie, put Death Valley on your list of must sees.

For the last 200 years, the Yosemite Valley has been the inspiration point for such famous Americans as John Muir and Ansel Adams. Today it is a rock climbing mecca, drawing people from all over the world into its valley for weeks and months at a time.

I only had two days to spend in Yosemite. Maybe it was the overwhelming beauty and ruggedness, the feeling that everyone in this park was way more hard core than I am, or maybe it was just the beautiful sunshine and 70 degree afternoon, whatever the case, my inspiration was to just spend the afternoon laying on the sand beach by the river and drinking a lemonade. I’ll save the infamous Mt. Hood climb for next time!

My inspiration point - right below El Capitain

I think we all have moments, stories, images from our childhood that leave an indelible mark on our personality. These experiences, either consciously or subconsciously, become part of how we define our life’s path as an adult. For me, one of those moments was listening to my mother talk about driving through the Redwoods with my father. The image of these huge trees seemed magical, a forest Camelot hidden away somewhere on the California coast.

Now 20 years later, here I am standing, in the rain and the fog, amongst these huge trees that part of me didn’t actually believe existed. They are so huge that it is hard to even conceive of their grandeur. With the older trees at over 300 feet tall, it seems as though you must stand at least a football field’s distance away from them to even begin to get a sense of the whole tree in one glance. Any closer and you have three separate images in your head – trunk – body – canopy – that then have to be pieced together like a mosaic to form an idea of the whole tree.

In the rain the trees take on a life of their own. I get the sense that I am intruding on their turf, trespassing on the land they have claimed for hundreds or for some, thousands of years. How could pioneers have come here 150 years ago and not been intimidated by these huge beings?

Obviously, they weren’t intimidated. Within 100 years of the arrival of the first white pioneers, 95% of the original old growth redwood forest had been logged. The state was booming and lumber was needed for housing, railroads, and other infrastructure. If it had not been for a small group of concerned citizens, the remaining 5% would have been lost and the majestic redwoods would have only been nothing more than an idea to my generation.

That realization, that this experience could have been taken from me in the name of profits and economic necessity, makes those “crazy people” that chain themselves to and live in trees seem not quite so crazy. If I had grown up with these trees and then had to watch them being destroyed, I think I’d be pulling out my chains as well. That is why travel is so vital. It creates the context, the interconnectedness, and the self-realization that is so important in so many parts of life.

– Somewhere between the “crazy tree huggers” and “money hungry companies”, are a vast number of people, organizations, and companies working to preserve the forests while looking for ways to sustainably maximize profits. For a great overview on the redwoods and to learn more about the latest ideas on sustainable logging, check out National Geographic Magazine from October 2009.