Saturday, June 28, 2014

Working Girls; Woolies? Columbia River; Our 18th; A Swinging Chick

Sometimes My Lovely Bride has a Minimal Sense of Humor. We had just arrived at our new campground near Pendleton, Oregon, and were driving around town. It is a cute town, home of Pendleton Woolen Mills, an American icon. I will get to that in a few minutes... Anyway, as we passed a very interesting sign, I said to MLB, "Hey, Sweetheart, I think I should go for a walk and get some human interest inputs for the blog." Ever supportive, she replied, "Of course, My Darling. Where are you going?" My error was saying, "Well, I thought I'd go in that building right there and meet some of the locals." She looked up, frowned, and ..... Smack, smack... 

Our next stop was at Pendleton Woolen Mills. Unfortunately, we arrived just 20 minutes too late for the tour, but the outlet and store were still open, and in spite of my bruises and swollen eye, I did appreciate the excellent craftsmanship of the clothes and blankets offered therein. Pendleton started out as a manufacturer of blankets for many Indian tribes in the western US. Since eastern Oregon is sheep country, having the source of raw materials nearby cut their costs considerably, and Pendleton became the primary producer of Indian blankets in the US. (This beauty was in their historic collection.)

This beauty is contemporary rather than historical, but was observed admiring the Pendleton stock; fortunately, she decided that we were lacking storage room in The Coach for the several beautiful woolen blankets and winter sweaters that otherwise may have made it into her inventory...

The only problem with our arrival in Oregon, other than that unfortunate event mentioned in this blog's initial paragraph, was that it rained for the first 24 hours we were here. I guess that's fairly normal for Oregon from October 1 to July 1; their dry season (dry being a relative term) runs from July through September. We had set up camp in Emigrant Springs State Park, on the crest of the Blue Mountains near Meacham. The scenery was quite a change from Utah and Idaho, with spruce trees replacing the pines and red diggers (Columbian ground squirrels, Urocitellus columbianus) replacing the gophers that Rudy and Gretchen had come to love (and chase) in Salt Lake City, Zion and Sedona.

On the drive down from the Blue Mountains, this ominous "Last Warning" sign gave us pause for a moment, along with the apparent drop-off just ahead... 

A 6% downgrade doesn't sound that bad; until you look out the window and see what's ahead... sweeping curves with those attention-getting tilting truck signs and 35-45 mph speed limits for trucks, buses and coaches like us. If you didn't use the brakes, you'd quickly accelerate to 70-75 mph and go out of control, what we call in the Navy "N.G.: Not Good". Fortunately, we have an engine exhaust brake (like Jake brakes on semis) that allows you to take your foot off the brake pedal and let engine compression slow your vehicle to a safe speed.

But just in case your brakes fail, the well-designed Runaway Truck Ramp awaits. This one is filled with sand and gravel to dissipate the momentum of big trucks and buses, but they can also be made with stainless steel arresting wires and nets... either way, hitting it at 75 or 80 would be exciting, even better than the old E ticket rides at Disney!

The terrain changed quickly as we came alongside the Columbia is one of the prettiest drives in America. This was the final leg of the route Lewis and Clark made in 1805 from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean, and that pioneers followed along the Oregon Trail later that century.

What has changed since 1805 is the series of dams and spillways with massive hydroelectric power generation capacity. This is the Bonneville Dam, which was built during the Depression by 3,000 men from the welfare rolls; they were paid 50 cents per hour in non-stop 8 hour shifts to complete the project in 4 years. The dam's two powerhouses produce over 1,000 megawatts of electricity, the equivalent of an average nuclear power plant.

More recently, wind power has become viable here, since the Columbia Gorge is one of the windiest places in North America. We stopped for lunch at a rest stop along the river with a wind farm on the cliffs above. These are only a few of hundreds of wind turbines placed on ridges and hilltops on both the Washington and Oregon sides of the Columbia River. Back in 1998, Suzanne and I did a duathlon here, with a 10K run and a 42K bike ride. The bike portion was a killer, going up from the river to the scenic overlook via switchbacks, then down toward Portland. It was so windy that you had to pedal hard going downhill!

As you approach Portland, the slopes along the Columbia River get greener. Every now and then you get a shot at Mount Hood's snowbanks in the far distance, although the peak remains tantalizingly draped in clouds.

Finally, June 29th is a special day here in The Coach. It's our 18th anniversary. Lest any cynical reader think that My Lovely Bride must be pretty bored by being married to an Old Coot for the past 18 years, I have photographic proof that she actually is a Happy, Swinging Chick...

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Salt Lake City; Two Mediums; Antelope Island; Bison Bison; Famous Last Words...

The spiritual highlight of our stay in Salt Lake City was Suzanne's Making the Connection talk Monday evening at the Center for Spiritual Living in South Salt Lake, which followed her visit to both Sunday services to get to know the community. Suzanne's good friend and fellow medium Rebecca Arndt also pulled out all the stops with her friends in the area, and we had a full house.

It was an incredible evening, with many people lining up for the book signing. Suzanne was both energized and exhausted by the end of the evening, Unfortunately, Chick-fil-A had just closed, so we missed our traditional cookies and cream milkshake, darned the bad luck.

We were invited over to Rebecca and Jerry Arndt's beautiful new house in South Salt Lake for drinks. Rebecca had grown up only a couple of blocks away, and she was happy to be back in her old neighborhood. Jerry owned a precision tool company that made high tech parts for the space industry. They now travel around the country in an RV, and in fact we met them at an RV campground in Santa Fe a few years ago. After a tour of the house, which is spectacular, Suzanne and Rebecca traded medium stories while Jerry and I had a glass of wine and talked about our favorite hikes. Then we went out for sushi, and returned for a delicious tiramisu ice cream dessert. Thank you, Rebecca and Jerry, for making our time in Salt Lake City so special.

After some poor decision-making, I had some bike repair work to do; nothing serious, just two flat tires from riding cross-country through some nasty, spiky grass with needle-sharp stickers. After replacing the tubes, we headed for Antelope Island, the largest of ten islands in the Great Salt Lake. This was the view from the 7 mile long causeway that accesses the island.  Is that beautiful, or what?

The island is 15 miles long and 5 miles wide, and parts of it are some of the oldest rocks in the United States, Precambrian deposits older than those at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. We were lucky to have a flat calm when we took this photo near the end of the causeway. Salt flats surrounding the island are the result of the evaporation of water that enters the Great Salt Lake; since it has no outlets, salt deposits four feet deep cover the bottom of the lake.

Antelope Island hosts a variety of animals, including the pronghorns (Antilocapra americana) from which its name derives, but even more famous are the American bison (Bison bison). A large herd roams the island, and is used as cross-breeding stock for other herds in Yellowstone, the Black Hills, and other sites. Our first sign of these amazing animals on our 15 mile mountain bike ride were buffalo chips, which are not the same as potato chips. Early settlers collected buffalo chips for fueling their campfires; they had the unique advantage of not throwing sparks into bedding or clothing. Dried (as this one was, thank goodness), they are very light, maybe weighing a couple of ounces. My Lovely Bride wants me to comment about the mentality of someone who would pick up such a thing.  I don't know what she's talking about.

We discovered two large herds, one of about 60 and the second of about 100 bison. These were both about 500 yards away, but since the bike trail didn't get close, we had to use our camera's telephoto lens to get the shot.

We encountered more bison on our 15 mile mountain biking adventure. They are magnificent animals, and because of all of my reading about them as a youngster, I hold them in high regard and awe. This shot of a big bull caused My Lovely Bride some chagrin, but the worst was yet to come...

He was standing about 50 feet off the trail... after I took a couple of photos, we looked at one another for a couple of minutes, sizing each other up.

My Lovely Bride was concerned for my safety; she wanted to ride cross-country to make a big semi-circle around him. I opted for the direct route past the bull, figuring that the heat had made him torporous. I said to Suzanne, "There's nothing to worry about until he puts his head down and stomps his front hooves... I'm going ahead..." Later, she told me that my choice of words was not the best thing to say to a medium, when I pedaled off towards the bison announcing, "I'll see you on the other side." 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

German Friends; Four Foot Trail to 12 Lane Traffic; Snowbasin; Where's Starbucks?

One of the things we've noticed during our campground stays is that out west, many visitors from foreign countries are often traveling in rental RVs, enjoying the spectacular scenery of America's mountains, deserts, forests and national parks. We met one such couple recently, Wolfgang and Renate from Hamburg, Germany, who were camped next to us. Wolfgang ran a factory that made gas pump equipment that we use so often to fuel our cars. They were a charming and delightful couple, and commented that their trip had been much fun. They were traveling with another German couple, Manfred and Elizabeth, in a second RV. We often hear criticisms of Americans abroad not speaking the language or acting silly, but we haven't noticed that quality among any of the many foreign tourists we've met. (Perhaps because they don't watch American sitcoms???) 

We left southeastern Utah heading for Hill Air Force Base, between Salt Lake City and Ogden, Utah. Our first indication that we were no longer in the wilderness was when the Interstate went to 12 lanes, during rush hour to boot. My request of, "Pardon me, My Darling, but could you bring me back to Zion?" was met with a guffaw and a "Suck it up and keep driving, Sailor."

Yesterday My Lovely Bride took me on The Bike Ride From Hell. Actually, it wasn't the real Hell, because the temperatures were mild, but the bike trail's setting was a ski resort whose snow had migrated north for the summer. She claims to have looked up "Best Mountain Bike Trails Near Ogden, Utah" on the Internet. I think she really looked up "Mountain Bike Trails to Kill Your Husband for His Life Insurance". (She isn't aware of it yet, but I cashed out my life insurance policy to buy a new tent and sleeping bag.) The trail started in parking lot #2 of the Snowbasin ski area. This should have been my first indication that it was not going to be an easy ride. (Note to self: ski areas are generally located in the mountains, and are rarely flat.)


The trail description is "1,500 feet of elevation gain and advanced beginner to intermediate technical sections makes this a moderately challenging ride." Yeah, if you're 25 years old! Here we see Wonder Woman laughing hysterically at my hyperventilating after only 20 minutes of uphill climbing... "Ty, you're such a wuss!"

This was the only (relatively) flat area of the entire trail. MLB is scooting along through a field of wildflowers. I have sensibly taken the opportunity to catch my breath and hope for the miraculous appearance of a Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts for a caffeine and sugar fix. My hopes, alas, were dashed. 

Other than several pairs of twenty-somethings who zoomed past us (and a few that we actually passed), the only people we met were a couple of hikers and this trail crew, volunteers all, who spend their weekends making hiking and biking trails safer for us loafers. Two of the guys were serious ultra trail runners, in training for one of several 100 mile endurance runs through the Wasatch Mountains. We gave them our thanks and appreciation. Suzanne wanted me to sign up for the Wasatch Front 100 (up and down hardly describes this event with 26,951 feet of elevation gain and 26,450 feet of elevation loss), but I demurred... I think I have a no-anesthesia, triple root canal appointment that weekend that would be a walk in the park compared to a 100 mile mountain run.

The downhill section was much easier physically, but the hairpin turns were often a challenge... why? Because you're toodling along at 15 mph and all of a sudden have to drop four feet and turn 180 degrees in the space of 10 feet. Trust me, this ain't easy! I don't have any photos of this part of the ride, mainly because I was screaming in panic and using "Sailor words" which might offend some readers. Okay, that may be an exaggeration, knowing many of our readers personally... Of note, we were the oldest couple on the trail by two decades each. This doesn't say much for our judgment, does it?

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Zion; West Rim Trail; A Night with Big Agnes; Angels Landing

From our stop in northern Arizona, we drove another couple of hundred miles to our destination, Zion National Park. Zion is one of my favorite places on Planet Earth. In Hebrew, Zion was a place name used as a synonym for Jerusalem. In Kabbalah, Zion refers to the spiritual point from which reality emerges.  Zion was named by a Mormon farmer, Isaac Behunin, who lived and worked the land here for decades in the 19th Century; his meaning of the word was taken from the Bible as a place of peace. Whichever definition you prefer, Zion is a place that once you have visited, you will want to return again and again. This was my fifth trip, Suzanne's fourth, and I would be happy to have my ashes scattered here one day.

Zion would also be the location for another overnight solo backpacking trip for Your Faithful Correspondent, and on our second morning here, My Lovely Bride drove me for an hour on a bumpy dirt road (DANGER: Road may be impassable in wet conditions!") to the Lava Point trailhead, the start of the iconic Zion West Rim Trail. She hiked with me for about an hour, and then we had a quick lunch together before she returned to the car for the drive back to Rudy and Gretchen and The Coach in a campground in Springdale, Utah.

The West Rim is an extremely popular trail, and I had to reserve a campsite (one of only 8 on this trail). Because it is early summer, many springs are already dry, and I had to carry 5 liters of water for the two day trip. This added 10 lbs to the weight of my backpack, which ran to about 36 lbs for this trip. At 7,890 feet, the going can be a bit tough, the trail traversing a rocky and occasionally sandy path through high alpine terrain, but the beautiful scenery made it all worthwhile.

I was happy to arrive at camp 7 and set up my tent for the night. The site will accommodate four backpackers, but since my "party" was a total of one, I was alone for the night. That was fine with me, because that was what I was here for... that's my backpack hanging from a dead tree limb. It kept it out of the dirt and away from scavenging squirrels until I put it inside the tent with me when I retired.

Before dinner, I decided to recon (scout) Potato Hollow, the area of my campsite. I didn't find any potatoes, but the foliage was luxuriant, perfect for the several mule deer I saw browsing in the distance.

My gourmet dehydrated beef stew dinner, complete with table setting for one, is shown here. "Open package. Remove and discard oxygen absorber. Carefully add 2 cups of boiling water to pouch. Let stand 8-9 minutes. Stir and serve." In an effort to save weight, I had decided (foolishly) to abstain from a nice 8 oz. Platypus Cabernet on this trip. Sigh.

A postprandial walk led me to a lovely grove of aspens, including this tree with an all-seeing Big Brother watching me here in the woods?

After a good night's sleep with Big Agnes... oh, I guess I should explain that analogy... my air mattress is made by the Big Agnes company in Colorado, named after either (a) a rocky peak outside Steamboat Springs, or (b) a laid-back mountain town mama. In any case, I awoke with the sun and set off hiking the actual West Rim Trail, with views of nearby peaks and valleys that took my breath away.

After almost four hours of hiking, I was running a bit low on water, and stopped at the only reliable spring on the trail. For those of you who take visitors in Florida to Silver Springs, which produces about 550 million gallons of water daily, you may be surprised at the size of West Rim Spring, shown here with my sunglasses to compare for scale. I did obtain 3 liters of excellent water from this tiny spring, after purifying it. Only a handful of backpackers use this spring each day, but it sustains life for deer, elk, squirrels, coyotes, rabbits and birds in the high desert.

From the spring, the trail dropped down the side of a mountain rather precipitously. Merriam-Webster defines precipice as "a very steep side of a mountain or cliff"; also, "a point where danger, trouble, or difficulty begins".  The trail you see here is about 5 feet wide, and to the right of the photo is an 800 foot cliff. The trail switchbacked along the cliff face for about a mile to the canyon floor below.

This photo shows what the cliff looked like from below... the trail runs alongside the two trees at top center. I have never suffered from vertigo or fear of heights, but when I looked over the edge from the top, I wondered for a moment or two if this really was a good idea. But it all turned out okay, and the worst part of the way down was thinking about the consequences of a misstep. Needless to say, I did concentrate on where I was planting my feet.

Several hundred feet below the first photo, the trail moderated considerably; it ran along a "shelf" where you can see bushes along the rock face, about 2/3 of the way up the curved slope.

Near the bottom of the trail, I felt some unease... not from the steep trail, but from a sense of being watched...but there was no one around!

One of the unique aspects of Zion are the remarkable rock formations, like this checkerboard sandstone...

Near the intersection of the West Rim Trail and the Angels Landing Trail, I started to meet people. Remember, I hadn't spoken to anyone else in about 28 hours. When was the last time you went that long without speaking to a neighbor or friend, either on the sidewalk, at the store, or on the phone? I had to ask one lady to take my picture, again to prove to My Lovely Bride that I was indeed out in the boonies and not hanging out at the local Hooters...

A return to civilization has its benefits, but it was hard to leave the beauty of wilderness mountain scenery like Zion offers...

The Angels Landing Trail drops 1,488 feet from a dizzying viewpoint to the Virgin River valley below. It's not technical, but very, very steep in places...

This set of switchbacks with its crowd of hikers going up and down was a study in contrasts to what I had experienced over the past two days. (I think I prefer the solitude of the backcountry...) 

This final photo shows Angels Landing from the side. It is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the Southwest, and if you haven't been to Zion before, I recommend a visit here to experience this unique treasure. (To get a sense of scale, from valley floor to peak, it's higher than the Empire State Building, and in the photo, there is a 100 foot long, double shuttle bus in the lower center. It's so small you may need a magnifying glass to see it.)

For me, a humble hiker and backpacker, Zion achieved its meanings... a place of peace as well as a spiritual point from which reality emerges. But what is reality????