While National Parks are relatively few on the East Coast (only seven east of the Mississippi), there are three in Florida alone. The recent storms and devastation along the Florida coast highlight the high human habitation in the area, but in our weeks there we were amazed at the wildness and wildlife concentrated at America’s southern tip, so alive it felt like a fight against encroaching mankind.
The timing was just right for our week in the Great Smoky Mountains. It was the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage, a Smokies tradition almost 70 years in the making. We assumed it would be mostly amateur outdoor enthusiasts giving ranger talks similar to what we have seen in other national parks, just focused on flowers.
We vastly underestimated this Great Smoky Wildflower Extravaganza. The line to register was absurdly long, and people were nervous wrecks fretting over programs that filled up too fast (the Night Owl Prowl walk is the crowd favorite) and eager to snatch up the last few programs spots. I too, panicked and grabbed slots like a women possessed, if nothing else so as to keep pace with my fellow pilgrims.
Big Bend is massive. While not as large as Death Valley in acres, something about the variety of terrain (they claim it’s three parks in one), the 100+ miles of Rio Grande it borders, and the fact that the park contains one whole mountain range within it all make it a grand statement on nature and the beauties of West Texas.
But one human-scale question looms all of the nature that is on display here. Big Bend, on the South border of Texas, is a national park that shares a 110-mile border along the Rio Grande River with Mexico. The political overtones of this border are hard to avoid. There are signs everywhere noting that it is illegal to cross the Rio Grande anywhere except the official border crossings. In my mind, the Rio Grande was, well, Grand with a capital G, but in reality, much of the river here in the park is shallow and not more than 20-30 feet wide. Thus college boys on Spring Break seemed to take great pride violating the stated law by wading across the narrow strait to do a little dance on the Mexican shore. Continue reading “Big Bend: Big Walls?”
The most fun part (for me) of prepping for our Grand Canyon hike was thinking about food. Meal planning four days of camp food was a new challenge for a city girl like me. No sandwiches, as cold cuts won’t last out of the fridge and bread is easily squished. Canned goods are heavy, raw eggs are delicate, hard-boiled eggs go bad too fast, and don’t even think about fresh veg and fruit. Moose goo, S informed me, was the hard core hiker food of choice, but the idea of eating dry pellets of peanut butter and corn flour dough wasn’t too appealing.
Six months into our trip and we’ve already done a lap around the US, circling the country (and more) from Channel Islands to Key West, and from Acadia to Portland. Completing a circle usually calls for some kind of reflection, something that highlights lessons learned or nirvana(s) experienced. This is not that post. (Although you might want to check out this post for more details on where we’ve been.)
We have some serious thoughts that we’ll no doubt put on the interwebs in the coming months, but I thought it might be fun to highlight some significant insignificant observations that we’ve had on our trip. Some are observations that anyone might have had driving 25,000 miles around the country over six months, and some might be more conditioned by the fact that we haven’t lived in the US for about 10 years.
One: Why did anyone let us drive an RV without taking some sort of course first?
Summer’s in full swing here in South Dakota, and we’ve hit 25 National Parks out of 50, and put 25,000+ miles on the road with The Dude. With the Whale in tow, we’ve hit 10,000 miles since January and have managed to drive about 3/4 of the way around the United States.
It’s hard to believe that in 6 months we’ve managed to drive down the Californian coast to the Texan-Mexico borderlands and swing up along the wildflower-ridden Appalachians. Then it was down down down the length of Florida to the Southernmost tip of the US in Key West, and the up up up along the East Coast to the icy lobster-rich waters of Bar Harbor, Maine. From that easternmost point, we darted westward, exploring the Boundary Waters of the North Woods of Minnesota, and then across the Great Plains to the Badlands.
It’s been a dizzying, amazing ride so far. And now, there’s only 25 National Parks to go…
Month 2 of this adventure saw us in Arizona, zooming from Sedona to Saguaro to the Petrified Forest and then into the Grand Canyon. From there we made our move to Texas where we hung out in Guadalupe and Carlsbad Caverns and Walmart parking lots, found a home in Big Bend, and somehow also made pit stops in the artist haven of Marfa, Lockhart to eat meat in the home of Texas BBQ, and Austin to see bats and hipsters.
As summed up on a sign in the visitor center: “After your first experience backpacking in the Grand Canyon you will be left with one of two reactions: either you will never hike again in your life, or you will find your life up to this moment has been meaningless and you are forever enslaved by thoughts of returning to this tortuous paradise.” I laughed when I first saw this, but sometime during the 4 days of our hike into/out of the Grand Canyon, I felt both reactions…and at the same time. What can I say? It was Grand, and as promised, here’s our plan for a perfect first exploration of the Grand Canyon.
Saguaro (sah-WAH-roh) National Park has a simple raison de etre. It was basically founded to protect one species – the Saguaro, the largest cactus in America. These giants have long symbolized the American West, but in fact they are limited in geography to the Sonoran desert, and then to a relatively narrow band of Southern Arizona climate that suits a saguaro’s protracted adolescence. How did this one plant growing in a limited part of Arizona come to be so symbolic of the American West that it merits its own National Park? I think to see them up close is to better understand how they have become such an icon.
They are huge – some grow to be 50ft tall, and at 6 tons have trunks you can barely wrap your arms around. In the sparse desert landscape, this Big Friendly Giant dominates, and with a life span of 100-150 (some say 200) years, they are definitely the elder statemen of the desert. But there are many trees in the West that are taller, wider, flower more profusely, no? Redwoods are magnificent, but still don’t hold the same place in American iconography. Continue reading “Saguaro: On the Giant Human Cacti of the West”
In this year of living without in the National Parks, one goal was to learn how to boondock (aka dry camp) and live off the grid in the Whale. Our trials and tribulations with bad RV batteries and dodgy dish-washing techniques I’ll share later, but the reward of conservation and minimizing your resource usage is oh-so-amazing. Because this, my friends, is what dry camping can be like.
There’s nothing quite as amazing as waking up to this view, and feeling a little naughty (and a little guilty) that, for the time being at least, this vast awesomeness is your backyard.
When S and I were envisioning a place of peace to help us detox after years in China’s crowds and pollution, and a land of beauty to reinvigorate our souls, I believe this kind of magical stillness was exactly what I was dreaming of.