Death Valley: Hottest, Driest, Lowest?

Not in our case. Death Valley is famous as the hottest place in the world with a record temperature of 134F, and driest and lowest in North America with an average of less than 2 inches of rain a year and Badwater being 282ft below sea level. In our week there, temperatures were chilly and we got an inch of rain. So instead of the hottest, driest place in America, we saw storms and clouds and the power of water. (Don’t worry, it’s still the lowest point in America.)

Water in the desert is a powerful thing.  A day of rain in a mountain valley devoid of trees and roots to hold down earth, and without soil to absorb the excess water means that all that water is washed down the hillside in a river of gravel and mud.  It creates rivers where roads had been and shut down almost all of the side roads in Death Valley with the gravel and debris. 
Continue reading “Death Valley: Hottest, Driest, Lowest?”

Joshua Tree: You say Mojave, I say Sonoran

The most iconic part of Joshua Tree National Park are, of course, the Joshua Trees.  These distinctive trees are the lifeblood of the Mojave desert, providing food and shelter for many animals and early native Americans. These trees thrive in the Mojave desert – and Joshua Tree lays half in the Mojave… but the remote, southern half climbs over a mountain ridge, drops suddenly in elevation, and we have the Sonoran desert.  Who knew?

Teddy bear cholla. So fuzzy you want to hug them.

Continue reading “Joshua Tree: You say Mojave, I say Sonoran”

Joshua Tree: Unexpected Stories of Desert Living and Dying

One thing I found interesting about Joshua Tree National Park was its proximity to cities, its associations with people. Driving up to the gates, there are communities and houses right up to the National Park boundary.  I started this year thinking of the NPs as wilderness sanctuaries where humans play fourth fiddle as visitors who are not to disturb the wilderness… but the parks also have their own stories of how they came to be protected, and that story inevitably involves people who fell in love with the land and fought for its designation as a NP.In the case of Joshua Tree, its first champion was a wealthy socialite who lost her husband and son, and found solace and peace in the desert – creating in her a strong advocate for the preservation of this place as a sanctuary for us all.  But part of Joshua Tree’s human story – and a longer part of its history – are the people who lived and worked in this desert, at a time when this land was farmed and mined, a source for human livelihood not a temple. Continue reading “Joshua Tree: Unexpected Stories of Desert Living and Dying”

Vanilla Ponderosas and bum laptops

In a sunny hike today swathed in the brilliance of Sedona’s red rocks, I smelled my first Ponderosa pine. It smelled of a rich vanilla, and in the warmth of today’s sunshine I was so happy to be in the beauty of these woods I just about hugged these gorgeous old pines. They age for over a hundred years before they shed their black outer bark, and the warm yellows smell of vanilla, cinnamon, butterscotch… basically all the best smells in the kitchen surfacing in the old forests. Continue reading “Vanilla Ponderosas and bum laptops”

24 Hours in Sin City and Chiang Mai

Between Death Valley and the Grand Canyon, two places that inspire hyperbole and conjure up visions of the West, lays another spot that looms large in American tales of the desert: Las Vegas.  I’d never been, but countless movies and TV shows told me what to expect – neon lights, seas of slots, endless shrimp cocktail, and Celine Dion. What I did not know was that one of America’s best Thai (actually, Northern Thai) restaurants would be tucked away in an Asian strip mall behind downtown Las Vegas, far from the lights of the Strip.  Continue reading “24 Hours in Sin City and Chiang Mai”


All this time,

the life you were

supposed to live

has been rising around you

like the walls of a house

designed with warm

harmonious lines.

As if you had actually

planned it that way.

As if you had

stacked up bricks

at random,

and built by mistake

a lucky star.

“Lucky” by Kirsten Dierking from Northern Oracle.

Channel Islands: Backcountry camping in the clouds

Three days is too short to spend in these islands, and in off season there were fewer ferries and kayak tours available, but we got lucky and had the chance to camp overnight at Del Norte on Santa Cruz Island and sea kayak for a day.  The kayak trip was fun and stormy, but it was the hike up to our backcountry site that took my breath away.  Literally and figuratively.

Continue reading “Channel Islands: Backcountry camping in the clouds”

Channel Islands: Dolphins, dolphins, dolphins (and some whales)

One amazing thing about Channel Islands National Park, is that despite the beauty abounding on the chain of four islands that make up the land mass of this park, the majority of the wildlife and preserve are underwater.  The Santa Barbara Sound (the channel between the seaside towns of Santa Barbara/Ventura and the islands) is teaming with marine life and the weird and wonderful kelp forests.   Continue reading “Channel Islands: Dolphins, dolphins, dolphins (and some whales)”

Pinnacles, CA: Starting out the Year of the Rooster with Condors

On the first day of the Year of the Chicken, we started our road trip with the last National Park to be added to the register, Pinnacles, which only became a National Park in 2013. It’s a two hour drive from our starting point in the Bay Area, and given it’s small size and quiet/new reputation, we hadn’t been expecting much. I’m learning it’s nice to be wrong. Continue reading “Pinnacles, CA: Starting out the Year of the Rooster with Condors”

The roadtrip before The Roadtrip

Before we even picked up the Grey Whale in Portland, S and I took a hunting/gathering road trip to pick up the pick-up, not to mention all the gear and supplies stashed in our family homes from the Midwest to the coast. Rather than rush as we originally planned, we decided to hit some parts of middle America that we’ll miss this year just because there are no National Parks present.

Sculpture garden in Kansas City

We followed the Mississippi downstream from Wisconsin, then crossed the plains of Kansas and climbed the Rockies via Denver, cut across Wyoming and Idaho and finally Oregon to Portland.  We saw that there is beauty everywhere – even without a National Park Service designation, even in the dead of winter during unforeseen blizzards, hail storms, and bitter cold snaps.  We also learned a lot. Continue reading “The roadtrip before The Roadtrip”