Sunday, October 11, 2015

Southwest Adventure

In September, Paul was in Las Cruces, New Mexico for a month long research position studying biological soil crusts in the desert. So I was on my own in Eugene all month, and actually did well! I made some awesome new friends, found a new TV show to obsess over (everyone should watch Mr. Robot), and went to go visit Sam in North Bend. But once his job ended, I flew out to meet him in Albuquerque for a week long vacation/road trip/camping/epic adventure. I flew out on Saturday, got to Albuquerque in the evening, met Paul and several of his coworkers who were going to be joining us on our trip, and we all went out for vegan sushi. Paul and I stayed the night in an adorable Route 66 hostel, and then woke up early Sunday morning, at 4 am, to go to Balloon Fiesta.

Balloon Fiesta is the international hot air balloon festival held in Albuquerque every year, and it just so happened to be going on the week Paul's work ended, so that was a lovely serendipitous surprise. The idea was to get there before sunrise and experience what they call Balloon Glow, where all the hot air balloons set off into the sky while it's still dark. These few balloons started to glow, but then it barely started to sprinkle, so, because it's the southwest, they almost cancelled the entire event. The balloons deflated, and the whole event was on hold for a few hours. All because of a few tiny drops of rain. Paul and I kinda cracked up about that. People were in full on rain parkas, for about three minutes of minor sprinkling.

Eventually, the "rain" stopped, and the balloons were allowed to inflate again. So we missed the Balloon Glow during the sunrise, but the event was still magical. There were thousands of balloons, and not just traditional ones, but ones in the shape of bees, frogs, whales, clocks, zebras, giant heads, and Darth Vader.

After Paul and I got back from Balloon Fiesta at about 9 am, we met up with the rest of the group, ate a lovely New Mexican breakfast, and started driving to the Grand Canyon, which was about a six or seven hour drive. We stopped at Petrified National Forest along the way, and I'm so glad we did. As a group, we were all like "sure, I guess" when we passed by and decided to stop, but we all agreed afterward that it was amazing. We drove through and jumped out at every viewpoint to take pictures. It rained a bit, but there were lots of rainbows, and it totally added to how alien the landscape looked. There were a few boulders with petroglyphs carved into the stone, and I actually found that quite emotionally moving.

And then of course, the Petrified National Forest also contained lots of petrified wood! This blew my mind! The wood was fossilized and has turned to stone, and it was insanely beautiful and colorful. Paul and his coworkers are a bunch of botanists and ecologists so we spent a lot of time squatting and looking really closely at everything, and that was really fun.

After the Petrified National Forest, we drove through the night until we arrived at the Grand Canyon at around 10 pm. We quickly set up camp in the dark, and then woke up in the morning, ready to hike! The Grand Canyon was amazing, really, truly amazing. For some reason, I thought that maybe the Grand Canyon would be a little over hyped. I was more excited to see the other National Parks we were going to visit afterward on the rest of the road trip. But I shouldn't have been so cynical, it was breathtaking.

We were on the South Rim, and hiked the Bright Angel Trail. It rained quite a bit. A lot of our southwest adventure it was rainy. I was alright with it, because we had a very long hike ahead of us, and I would rather it be rainy than hot outside. And again, the rain meant rainbows, and rainbows in the Grand Canyon was the coolest thing I'd ever seen.

Here's our group! From the left, we have Jennifer, Francisco, and Shelby. They worked with Paul the whole month of September in Las Cruces. They all lived in a house together, worked together outside in the desert all day, and then watched the sunset together every night. It was very cute, and I felt welcomed into their little botanist crew.

So, we hiked the Grand Canyon. It was intense. I wore jeans, which was a mistake. I literally don't even know why I did that. And we chose one of the hardest hikes: it was 9 miles, was supposed to take 9-12 hours, and was listed as "very difficult." We hiked all the way down to where the arrow is, in that little lush glade of trees, called Indian Garden. Then there was a thunderstorm. It was so loud! And we were so naive, kept saying things like "that wasn't so bad!" But then we had to hike 4.5 miles back up the Grand Canyon. Paul was saying how it was the opposite, mentally, of hiking a mountain. With a mountain, you hike up and it's so hard. Then you're at the top, you did it, you get to rest, and hiking down is the easy part. With a canyon, you hike down, it's easy, you rest but don't really need to, but then you have to hike back up and you want to die.

I learned a lot about myself on that hike back up. I am not a social hiker. I am very stubborn. Shelby went way ahead of all of us because she was such a beast, but Francisco, Jennifer, and Paul were all hiking back up in a group, chatting, going slowly and steadily. I couldn't deal with that. I found hiking like that more difficult, that it took more effort to go slowly. I could only go full force. I went as fast and as hard as I could, and kept going until I felt like my legs or lungs were going to give out, then I collapsed on a rock and rested until I could go on. Even with my many breaks, I ended up several switchbacks ahead of the rest of the group. So I did the most difficult part of the hike by myself, and I'm so stubborn, that I had to keep pushing. If I had been forced to be in the group, forced to be pleasant, forced to go any slower than my full effort, I think I would have emotionally broken down. At the end though, I took a long break, waited for the rest of the group, and then we finished together. At the very top, I cried, and then almost threw up. By then, it was getting dark, raining again, I went back to my tent, and passed out for about an hour. That was a physically and emotionally draining day, but I am so proud of myself.

We spent our second night in the Grand Canyon, and then woke up in the morning, packed up our camp, and drove to Zion. By the time we got there, there wasn't enough sunlight for the 4-5 hour hike we'd wanted to do, we hadn't actually reserved a campground, and the first come/first serve camping at Zion was filled up. So we drove through for an hour or two, took some pictures, but then had to go find somewhere to set up camp!

A lady working at a gas station nearby told us about the barracks, which was this dirt road off the highway, along a river, where people often did dispersed camping. Dispersed camping is essentially where you camp outside of any designated campground. So it's free, but there are zero amenities. We got to the barracks, and there were some other people camping further down the road. We found out that Paul's brother had camped near here when he went to Zion! We got to set up our hammock for the first time all trip, had a little drumming and ukulele jam session after it got dark, and then looked at the stars. It was a great night. In the morning, Paul and I parted from the group and went on to Yosemite, while the rest of them were going to on to Arches.

That day was a driving day. We drove until sundown, through Utah, Nevada, and California without air conditioning. It was difficult. I tend to get carsick, and it was really hot. In Utah, we stopped for coffee at The Rock Stop, and we stopped there because it was the cutest place we'd see in hours. It was so cool on the inside, the guy who owned it was so nice, we talked to him about the tourists he gets (mainly Danes and Germans), Oregon's landscape versus Utah's landscape, and then he gave us our coffee for half price. Then we drove and drove and drove. Our camping stove was out of fuel, so we had to stop at a gas station for dinner that didn't have to be heated (carrot sticks and sandwich ingredients). The sun started to go down and we were still an hour away from Yosemite, and again we hadn't reserved a campsite, so we pulled off on a side road, and slept in our car.

We woke up with the sunrise, and drove to Yosemite. It was distinctly more familiar looking than the rest of the National Parks we had been to. There were mountains, pine trees, lots of green. We sneaked into a campground, filled up our water bottles, and tried to clean ourselves in the sinks, our first "shower" in about five days.

We found this giant fungus in Yosemite! Shout out to Muhammad, do you know what this is? Chicken of the Woods?

After driving through Yosemite, we drove to San Francisco, and that was another several hours in the car. By that time, I was really sick of being in the car. We stayed the night with Paul's brother and his fiance, and went out to some amazing Indian food, the first non-camping food we'd had since our New Mexican breakfast after Balloon Fiesta. I don't have any pictures because my camera had died by that point, and while I had the charger with me somewhere, our car was an absolute disaster. We woke up in the morning and then drove home to Eugene, another 10 hours in the car. We had listened to our downloaded Spotify playlist too many times, we had gone through all of our downloaded podcasts, and so, to pass the time, I read Paul a book out loud. It actually helped with my carsickness, to read out loud and focus on something. I read him The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, which is a beautiful and heartbreaking book that I had finished myself a few days earlier. We stopped only for milkshakes in Yreka, on the California/Oregon border. We got home to Eugene right at sunset, and I took a bath, and fell asleep.  

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