...sang Norah Jones, just in front of me, on the blue and glowing stage of the Stagecoach country music festival on this hot evening in the Mojave Desert. This moment was a long time in coming. I've been eager to see her perform live since I first heard her smoky voice years ago. More importantly, it had been over a year and a half since I saw my sister, and to watch this show with Ellie was a great reunion, and the ultimate destination of a 3,150-mile road trip from Wyoming to California, via Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah. So here's a recap of some of the wonderful experiences along the way.
"Where the deer and the antelope play":
The weather was mostly fine the entire trip. I left south, driving through the Pinedale corridor with the colossal Wind River range out the driver side window. I was welcomed by some of the pronghorn that will arrive in the Tetons sometime this week. As I migrate south to escape the emotionally taxing dregs of winter, they begin their own migration back north.
The first planned stop was in Sinclair, Wyoming. Not a place where one normally expects to stop. It is a huge oil refinery in the middle of the high sage desert. I had it on good authority that the small community here boasted the best Mexican restaurant in Wyoming, so I had to stop in. Deep fried bean burrito covered in green chili sauce? Yes please. The products of this refinery may be slowly killing us all, but the products of this Mexican dive will certainly accomplish it much faster.
|(borrowed from somewhere on the interwebs)|
"Miner's gold and mountain men
is the best way for us to begin
to describe the greatest state we love so well.
Where rivers flow, huge pine trees,
and mountains as far as you can see..." - Paper Bird
First, Denver, to reconnect with a friend neck-deep in medical school. She is in the habit of working about 400 hours a week, and was having a hard time downshifting for her first two-week break in years. She has taken up fanatic knitting as her methadone, so I may have a new winter hat to look forward to.
Then it was on to Boulder, where myself and a few colleagues officially met the office royalty at our partnering company, Natural Habitat Adventures. This organization is a world-class eco-tour provider, and we operate their week-long Yellowstone expeditions. If I play my cards right, I may find myself back up in polar bear country under their flag this fall. Many cocktails were shared, much snow accumulated, and I left the next morning for warmer environs.
The drive was spectacular. This was a marked difference between this road trip and past ones. By avoiding the interstate, I found myself winding and twisting over many mountain passes and through the most beautiful country in the Rockies. Like Wolf Creek Pass, for example, coming down into southwest Colorado:
Day at the Beach
The destination tonight was Mesa Verde N.P., where a good friend was waiting for me at twilight with a fresh fire and a cold beer. Here's the thing about our National Parks: they are often ruined by their own popularity. To prevent the overuse of the natural and cultural resources, everything is paved and fenced. Recognizing this, we happily camped at Mesa Verde, but quickly went next door to the undeveloped and secluded Canyon of the Ancients. Here we could walk around all day without seeing a soul, and wander into alcoves with 1,000 year Anasazi cliff dwellings. We laid around on the hot sandstone like lizards, and while there is no beach in Colorado right now, this whole environment was once oceanfront property. So we enjoyed this petrified beach for all those who were too busy to visit about 50 million years ago.
"...Well there's nothing left to say to you.
See you later if you're passing through.
Have a good time as you're traveling on.
With wild forests and a golden sun,
you've left just enough time for us to have our fun."-Paper Bird
Onward through Arizona!
That town is rad!
This is what my friend, Maria, said of Jerome, Arizona, four years ago, when we were stranded in a lighthouse off the coast of Maine. She explained, over the cacophony of 6,000 terns and puffins squawking outside, that Jerome was the one place I had to check out if I was ever in the southwest. Somehow this out-of-the-way artists' retreat was conveniently located right along my route, so I was able to fulfill my long-standing quest to investigate this place. The entire community is perched precariously on the side of a mountain, with a winding road cutting fierce switchbacks east past front doors, and west by the roofs of the same houses. Every home was painted in bright colors, with ivy and marigolds growing over entrances, and murals adorning every side wall. Zoning seemed experimental, as if half these homes had fallen sideways or upside-down onto the homes beneath them, and their strange residents simply adapted by rotating the front door in its frame and planting a new herb garden.
I stayed long enough to have some bitchin' fish tacos at an offbeat Mexican place and walk past some antique shops and art galleries, then drove up the pass and camped near the top, right about here:
I continued on my way, stopping in Prescott, AZ for a coffee and croissant at the first coffee shop that caught my attention. Then I pressed on to California, with a fuel light indicator that was shining, unnoticed, until I was halfway into the Prescott National Forest, about 29 miles to the next gas station. Thank goodness for downhills and Neutral.
I recall listening to a podcast through this section recounting tales of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Running out of gas in the mountains of northern Arizona seemed trite compared to spending an entire unplanned winter holed up in Mandan tepees in the blustery Dakotas while trying to free frozen boats from crushing ice jams. Chief Sheheke's best reassurance to the Corps. of Discovery was "If we eat, you shall eat. If we starve, you too must also starve."
Well, I didn't starve. Instead, I rolled into an In-n-Out burger at the border of California. This chain is probably a more appropriate port-of-entry than the mandatory agricultural products checkpoint at every highway into the state. Being the first red meat consumed in over a month, this "animal-style" cheeseburger was a lovely indulgence that I validated by considering it a symbolic gesture.
"I hear them all, I hear them all, I hear them all"- Old Crow Medicine Show
I pulled into a gated, adobe-sided rental estate in Cochella Valley and met my sister who I hadn't seen in approximately forever. She informed me that her 15 friends that were also staying at this house this weekend were all female college seniors, and the guy friends I was expecting to see were not coming. I was definitely not prepared for this, but I suppose there are worse problems to have.
The reason for the season was the Stagecoach Festival, a 3-day country music festival featuring some of the industry's greatest: Toby Keith, Lady Antebellum, Trace Adkins, Dierks Bentley, Phil Vassar, Zac Brown Band, etc. No, I don't particularly love country music, but the point was to hang out with Ellie for a few days, not critique the frustratingly over-accessible lyrics and simplified musical structure of this genre. But Old Crow Medicine Show threw some fabulous musicianship into the mix, and Norah Jones' country outlet, The Little Willies, followed up OCMS.
My birthday coincided with the festival, and I was promptly thrown in a swimming pool by my sister and her friends at midnight. This is a sort of birthday tradition at her college.
The festival location was apparently chosen because it was the hottest place you could throw a party without the Solo cups physically melting. I was eager to move to a more moderate climate, so I re-packed my car and headed north.
"This is where Mylar balloons go to die."
Before leaving the Mojave desert completely, I had the opportunity to meet up with some biologist friends in Las Vegas. The Vegas Strip was probably the least comfortable place I had ever been, but the experience was tempered by an early bedtime and the company of these particularly quiet and relaxing friends. I wasted a dollar on a slot machine, drank a beer on the street (that is legal, you know?), and saw a free, cheesy, lusty stage performance about pirates and sirens outside of the Treasure Island casino.
We woke up at 4 am --which was fine, because the temperature of the apartment prohibited sleep anyway... I swear the heater was on-- and drove two hours away from Vegas into the middle of the desert on old BLM roads. We began the hunt for the threatened Desert Tortoise. Since they were all radio-tagged, doing so was not difficult. They don't move very fast. It was nevertheless fascinating to see a rare species going about its business in an extreme environment.
Andrew explained that the number of silver Mylar balloons draped over the cacti seems to be directly correlated with the survey point's distance to Las Vegas. After holidays like Valentine's day and graduation, the desert is decorated with the matching balloons. Nine so far collected at this one site this year, about 100 miles from the city. The record was 22 in one day at a site a bit closer. I know that sea turtles meet a terrible death when they confuse a drifting Mylar balloon husk for a jellyfish. How ironic that even our desert tortoises can't escape these things, even if they don't eat them.
It was a great experience to walk through the wild Mojave for a morning and enjoy its diversity and peculiarity. Edward Abbey wrote in his Desert Solitaire:
"It seems to me that the strangeness and wonder of existence are emphasized here, in the desert, by the comparative sparsity of the flora and fauna: life not crowded upon life as in other places but scattered abroad in spareness and simplicity, with a generous gift of space for each herb and bush and tree, each stem of grass, so that the living organism stands out bold and brave and vivid against the lifeless sand and barren rock. The extreme clarity of the desert light is equaled by the extreme individuation of desert life forms. Love flowers best in openness and freedom."
Then onward to Moab.
Red Desert Baptism
The wind roared outside the tent and went through fits and frenzies for an hour. I envisioned my tent stakes being ripped out and thrown across the campsite by the maelstrom, but I could not check. I buried myself under a blanket with a shirt across my face. Your eyes filled with blowing sand if you tried to peek. So I waited until morning, and unearthed myself from a quarter-inch of red desert deposited over everything in my tent. This is not the first or second time I have heard of this happening here in Moab, Utah, so perhaps it is a rite of passage. The morning was crisp and beautiful.
We shook sand from our ears and hair and headed for a coffee shop. Some travel the U.S. from diner to diner. John Steinbeck does this in "Travels with Charley" and finds the American condition dissatisfying and homogenized. I think coffee shops make for a better social barometer. Every town has a coffee shop. The care that goes into individualizing that shop is indicative of the town's commitment to their own culture. In Moab, Wake & Bake was frequented by at least a few jacked-up, sandy Jeeps and some VW vans. Healthy border collies and shepard mixes sat outside waiting for some adventure. At Wild Iris in Prescott, AZ, folks sat on couches, whittling away at early morning emails, and talking about their friends in the city marathon beginning outside. The barista was warm and friendly for 6:30 am, and woke us up more cheerfully and naturally than the caffeine. At the chain coffee shop,the only coffee shop, in Indio, California, a yappy terrier-thing barked at me from a golf cart parked in the handicap space. They didn't have ceramic mugs there, and refills cost 75 cents.
Mountain biking, hiking, eating, relaxing. Then the final stretch back to Jacksonia.
"Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam"
Reinvigorated and ready for an oil change or two, i'll be heading headfirst into a busy spring and summer starting this week. I'll relax mid-October if I'm lucky. Until then, may the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem bless us with many bears and wolves.