Ouray Badlands

Badlands, so-called because you supposedly can’t grow anything on them, are characterized by their eroded, bare-looking, rounded slopes showing a lot of colorful striations. I’ve been intrigued with them since learning about them at work, enchanted by aerial views of land forms I couldn’t quite figure out but was eager to get a closer look at.

I finally got a much closer look when we went to Ouray National Wildlife Refuge, a place known for its wetlands and migratory birds, to hike on the badlandy hills there. (Yes, badlandy is a word. At least it is now.) It was a steep and rugged climb getting to the top of the hills, but once we were there it was just magical.

Soon after we arrived at the top Chad picked up a piece of something I assumed was a rock, had me look at it, and told me it was a piece of fossilized turtle shell. I’m enough of a nerd that fossils in the wild really bowl me over – in this case I was in disbelief. As we looked, we kept finding more and more pieces of turtle shell. We took photos but left the fossils there, as you should if you find fossils on public land. I still find it just amazing that we were able to go hiking on ground that was probably under water millions of years ago, and discover traces of the former inhabitants, just lying on the ground. Moments like these really help put things into perspective for me.

Walking on the ridges and running up and down the slopes of the hills was a ton of fun. Hiking on terrain like this just might be one of my favorite things to do. The vistas are beautiful, the ground is beautiful, and those hills are actually not as barren as they look. We saw plenty of plants growing here and there.

The only thing that marred the experience for me was that beyond the edge of the refuge, the horizon was littered with the tell-tale shapes of oil wells. Alas, the refuge is literally surrounded by them. That is what drives the economy in this neck of the woods. I can’t help dreaming of an alternative though, where eco-tourism is the force that gives people their paychecks instead of the polluting, depleting oil and gas industry. I imagine some of you out there may think I’m exaggerating, always harping on environmental issues. But I think whatever your stance on the environment, for someone who is an outsider to this region of the country, it is just shocking to see how much of the landscape is marked by oil and gas. Which is one of the reasons Chad and I want to show you the beautiful landscapes that need protection from the spread of industry.

We will return to Ouray for more hikes, no doubt, but I will always have a lump in my throat as we drive past the oil wells to get there.

Yellow Flower Desert

It’s really amazing how spending some time outside can make you feel so good. Spending time outside in an amazing new location is even more invigorating, refreshing and revitalizing.

We decided to take a late afternoon hike the other day and couldn’t quite find the right place. One place we tried was surrounded by massive power lines, another place led straight to a cell phone tower, and yet another was polluted by the constant racket of an oil well. We kept looking.

We finally found a place that looked pretty decent and decided to give it a go. Chad let me lead the way, and I have to say, I did a good job. We had fun walking over badland-like hills, taking pictures of all the yellow flowers everywhere, and discovering all the vegetation that had come to life in the desert.

It was just that time of day where the lighting makes everything look magical: golden hour. And then we came to a stunning overlook that opened out onto wild open land. It was so exciting that I had to do a little dance. Having grown up in the thick temperate forests of the SE United States, I am still thrilled by the exoticness of the wide open desert. The expansiveness seems to lift your entire being up into the air, and make you feel that you can fly.

You can tell by the number of photos we took that we were enchanted. The extreme close-ups are mostly mine and the beautifully composed landscapes are mostly Chad – especially the clouds. Chad is a specialist in cloud portraiture!

Discovering this place was exhilarating too because it was just off the road, was an easy hike and was very rewarding for very little effort. What a sweet interlude from spring into summer.

 

 

 

 

 

Skiing in the desest

Now that winter seems to be over I can finally write about it. I’m not one of those people who loves winter (and that’s putting it nicely). Chad on the other hand, IS one of those people. And he loves to go out cross-country skiing, and yes, I admit, I have come to love it too because it means I can be outside in midwinter and be warm. At its best it feels like a heightened form of walking to me, which I also dig. Here are a few pics from our first big cross-country outing this winter, skiing in the desert. We saw cottontails, weird vegetation, the stark beauty of canyon cliffs meeting the snowy ground… And Chad played around with the panorama mode on his camera.

Thanksgiving on the Beach

As we start this new year I’ve been thinking about the past year. 2016 was a big year for Kristina and I as we got married and started our new life together. It was a year of a lot of firsts, including our first Thanksgiving together as a married couple. We decided that rather than celebrating with either of our families it would be fun to celebrate a Thanksgiving with just the two of us – or almost just the two of us, since we were including our three dogs – Leo, Charlie, and Harley. We rented a cozy little cabin from some people who were kind enough to let us bring the dogs.

We did a lot of our cooking in advance, so we would have more time for other activities on Thanksgiving Day, and we decided a fun activity would be driving to nearby Moon Lake and spending some time there.

We drove through the Moon Lake Campground and took a little road down to the beach, where we got out with our dogs and walked, and ran, through the snow to the edge of the lake. As we made our way along the shore I spotted an old torn tennis ball and picked it up. Leo loves tennis balls and was ready to play with this one, so we took his leash off and started throwing the ball for him. We were grateful for that ball, because we had much fun playing fetch with Leo there on the beach, and it gave us a chance to work on Leo’s training at being off-leash (we knew the game would keep him with us). Running around on a snowy beach must not be everybody’s idea of fun, because we had the whole place to ourselves. The quiet and solitude were great!

We left the beach and drove down to an old side-road, no longer open to vehicles, that I was familiar with. Kristina and I and the three dogs hiked up the road a ways, enjoying the spectacular mountain scenery as we went. It felt so good to be out in the fresh mountain air. We returned to the car and headed back for the cabin, ready for a feast and some relaxation.

We had a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner, complete with all kinds of healthy organic foods – including beets from our own garden. I was amazed at how sweet and delicious our apple pie was, with not a bit of sugar added – just the natural sweet-tart flavor of Granny Smith apples.

After dinner we played some intense rounds of a board game called Octi. It’s a great strategy game that my family discovered years ago, but that I hadn’t played for a long time. Kristina had never played it before but quickly caught on, and we each had our share of wins and losses.

Kristina and I both see the importance of spending time without the distraction and interference of electronic devices – and, other than a quick call to each of our families, we didn’t spend any time on our phones. And we didn’t watch any television or connect to the internet. Electronics seem to take over people’s lives so much! The Monday after Thanksgiving one of my students told me that her family was together on Thanksgiving weekend and that they were all doing things separately on their phones – when suddenly the wi-fi went down. She said that with no wi-fi they started socializing with each other… but then the wi-fi came back on they each went back to their phone. What a shame that the wi-fi had to come back on!

I’m so thankful to have married a wonderful woman who sees the importance of spending quality time together – and who enjoys running with dogs, and her husband, on a snowy mountain beach.

   

Coyote Canyon

I’m so lucky to have found and married somebody who shares my love of hiking in wild desert places. I’d been wanting to take Kristina to a little canyon in the area I call “the land between” and we went there for our most recent hike. It’s a place I remembered fondly even though it had been a few years since I’d been there. I told Kristina that the place didn’t have a name and that I was calling it “Chad Canyon,” and I asked her if it would be too narcissistic to call it that. I wouldn’t really name a place after myself – even if it’s a place that’s special to me and even if, as is the case with so many of the places I hike, I never see anybody else there.

We hiked down an old road and came to a place where there used to be a bridge. There’s a well-built structure on either side of the wash that it crossed, but the bridge itself has long-since vanished. I told Kristina that I like seeing things like that – things that show a lack of permanence of human-made structures – and she responded by saying “wabi sabi.” “What’s that?” I asked, and she told me it’s a Japanese term for something impermanent. For example, in Japanese culture it could refer to a cup with a chip in it. The old roadway we were walking on was a good example of that because it showed signs of once having been covered with pavement but was now just a two-track with desert vegetation growing in it.

After a while we left the old road and headed east toward the canyon, and as we approached it we saw some pronghorn antelope in the distance – at least five of them. We watched them as we walked down a gentle slope to a flat sandstone area at the rim of the canyon. We’d been waiting for a good place to eat the snacks we’d brought with us (earlier we’d joked about staying in our car to eat them instead of hiking, but this was much nicer). It felt so good sitting on the slickrock in the warm sun. The temperature was great, and so was the view around us. We seemed to be at the point of transition from shallow wash to canyon.

After eating our snacks and relaxing on the rim we hiked down into the little canyon, which gradually got deeper and deeper, with a series of steep drops. In some places the canyon dropped over sandstone bedrock that had been eroded to form interesting holes and pockets by the action of the occasional water that flows through the area when there’s a big enough storm. There were also huge chunks of sandstone that appeared to have fallen from the cliffs on the sides of the canyon. They made a great place for doing wild yoga, and we enjoyed doing some poses there.

This is my kind of area! It meets three of my criteria for a really awesome place: no stumps (easy because there are no trees), no ATV tracks (too rugged for them), and no sign of cows (evidence elsewhere but not down in the canyon). What we did see a lot of was rabbits and rabbit tracks.

We also saw a lot of coyote tracks. In one place there were a bunch of their tracks next to a little pool of water left from the most recent rain storm. It had been a few days since the storm but the canyon walls and rocks had sheltered the water from the sun and kept it from evaporating, and the coyotes were coming there to drink. Kristina noticed those tracks first, and as we looked at them she commented that with all of the tracks we were seeing maybe we would get to see a coyote, and I replied that I certainly would enjoy that.

We saw more cool rocks, did more yoga, and admired some cliff swallow nests built on one particular cliff. We also admired a beetle, and marveled at some vegetation that was barely hanging on despite the erosion around it. We got to the place where the little canyon joins a big wash and we stopped there for a break before continuing our journey. As we hiked up out of the wash I was busy taking pictures of the view of the below us when suddenly I heard Kristina say, “Look, a coyote!” I looked up just in time to see a beautiful coyote run up the slope above us and over the horizon. I was reminded that sometimes getting caught up taking photos of one thing can let you miss, or almost miss, another thing.

I was hoping for another view of the coyote as we came out onto flat a area above the wash but Kristina thought the coyote would be long gone – and she was right, because we didn’t see it again.

“I can understand the coyote taking off since it has fifty dollars hanging over its head,” I said and explained that in Utah taxpayer money goes to pay fifty dollars for each coyote a person kills. It’s done in the name of keeping deer numbers high, even though a brochure published by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources points out that coyotes don’t actually have any effect on the state’s deer population.

The coyote that we saw was the first one Kristina has ever seen and one of the few I’ve seen. It was a fleeting moment, but one neither of us will forget. In honor of the coyote, I’ve decided to give up my namesake. We both decided “Coyote Canyon” is the best name for our secluded little canyon.

     

Desert Wash in the Land Between

Why would you want to go out hiking in a place where there are no trails, no other hikers, and probably no signs of civilization at all? I never asked myself that question before meeting Chad, because going out hiking on trails was a rare enough treat and reprieve from my place in the noise and grit of a sprawling city.

But then I met Chad and not only was he an avid hiker, he explained to me that he likes hiking in places that don’t require you to stay on trail, better yet, in places that don’t have trails. One of the first places we explored off trail together was a certain desert wash.

I now call this wash my happy place; Chad calls it “the Land Between.” We have yet to see anyone else here (and as a plus there is no risk of running into any large, hungry carnivores). The only signs of civilization are from some markers for mountain bikers, who apparently cross through the area at some point, though not the part we hike through.

For those of you who live where water is abundant, you’ve probably never heard the term “wash” used in this way, as a noun. A wash is a creek bed that is usually empty, but can suddenly be filled with rapidly moving water during a rainstorm. The water drains into the river, leaving the wash empty and, incidentally, forming an easy trail to follow.

This time we decided to do a one-way hike, leaving a car at either end of the wash. We started hiking in the late afternoon, enjoying some unseasonably warm weather and lovely sunshine that surrounded the autumn foliage of the few trees and riparian scrub with golden light.

As we walked downstream we noticed some differences in the wash between upstream and downstream. Upstream (and at a slightly higher elevation) there were juniper and cottonwood trees, and the stones on the wash were mostly grey and gravely; downstream there were no trees and the rocks were bigger and much prettier in pinks, purples, and surprising stripes.

As we continued on our long hike, we saw the lighting and colors change as the day progressed and took a delight in knowing that we were marveling at landscapes that few others have seen.

Towards the end of the 8 mile hike my legs were aching in ways they haven’t ached in a long time, but mostly I was thinking about how amazing it felt to be out in untamed nature and to get more familiar with a place that was already dear to me.

Walking in places like this always makes me wonder how many other incredibly beautiful wild places are out there, unprotected, not part of any official wilderness area or park. And the answer to the question I asked at the beginning of this post? To know the world, to love it better.

Autumn outing

Getting out of the house and into nature, I notice a letting go of anything I’m preoccupied with. I feel like it is a sort of mental and spiritual deep cleaning, pushing out the superfluous, reconnecting to the essential.

Doing a yoga pose or two during these moments of re-connection is invigorating, somehow more special and meaningful than doing yoga at home or in a studio. Watching my sweetie strike a pose always makes me proud of him. On this lovely autumn outing, Chad held his crow pose – on an uneven rock, overlooking a slope going down to the river – for much longer than usual. Nature can sometimes be an amazing source of support. So can knowing that if you fall, it’s really going to hurt this time.

I started out on our hike getting wildly excited about the resin-loaded pinon pines, and keeping my eye out for medicinal plants. My excitement for fresh pine nuts was overtaken when I began to contemplate a dead ponderosa pine. I looked to it first as a support for a yoga pose, then became overwhelmed by emotion at the remains of this plant-being. Even though the tree was dead, it felt like its spirit was still there. I suppose that when you open yourself up for a conversation with nature, you can’t always know which part of it will speak.

Fantastical Fantasy Canyon

It started with Goblin Valley. The name caught my attention, of course, and when I looked it up to see what it was like, I was even more intrigued. Then Chad told me that there was a place not too far from here that was similar, with strange, fragile rock formations. Fantasy Canyon, the place was called.

He warned me it was in oil country, surrounded by oil wells. That did not prepare me for our drive, going past oil well after oil well, and apparently at least one hydraulic fracturing set up as well. About a mile or so from our destination we drove past incredibly beautiful and fascinating landforms – badlands and hoodoos – that were backdrops for pumpjacks and oil storage tanks. Just the beauty of the place could have easily qualified it to be a national park; alas, it would mostly be scenery to the oil and gas crews, and the 5000 visitors per year to the BLM site.

Once arrived at Fantasy Canyon the oil wells were only visible in the mid-distance. A path bordered by rocks led us through the site to admire the strange sandstone formations. Well it kind of did. In places the path was well designated, in other places it was hard to tell what was path and what was off-limits. We walked cautiously so as not to disturb these ancient deposits, some of which were named for animals (diving porpoise) or characters (flying witch).

Visiting this site made it even more clear to me why Chad is such a passionate defender of wilderness. When land is not protected, even land of extreme geological interest such as Fantasy Canyon, instead of remaining a resource of beauty, education and wildlife habitat, it can easily become an industrial casualty. Fantasy Canyon is still intact, but with deep rock fracturing fracking operations nearby, who knows how long it will remain so?

Mountain Yoga

It was time for another adventure, and since our previous hike had been in a desert location, I suggested we go to the mountains this time. On a previous trip we’d driven around Elk Horn Loop and I’d told Kristina that I wanted to come back to one particular part of the loop – the Pole Creek area. My first thought was to take her south of the road to the see the stream, but then I decided it would be fun to hike on the north side, where I hadn’t hiked before, so it would be a new place to explore for both of us.

Shortly after we started hiking we saw a couple of old dead pine trees, which we both found intriguing. Along with being pretty, dead trees are great wildlife habitat and are an important part of the ecosystem. Nearby were some curvy aspens, and Kristina mimicked their curves with curvy yoga poses.

Moving on I noticed an overturned rock and explained to Kristina that it was evidence of a foraging bear. Like dead old dead pines and curvy aspens, and Kristina doing yoga, evidence of bears makes me happy. As we hiked along, though, I also saw some things that make me unhappy – stumps, cow pies, and an unauthorized ATV trail that looked like it was never going to end (Kristina patiently listens when I grumble about things like that). The ATV’s had ridden on what appeared to be an old logging road – and the berms that were supposed to stop traffic seemed to be nothing more than fun-hills for the riders.

We stopped and did some yoga in an area dominated by aspens and then, when it was time to move on, I asked Kristina if it was okay with her if we left the draw we were in – to get away from the ATV trail – and hiked up onto the ridge to the east of us. She concurred, and up we went.

When we got to the top of the ridge there was a pretty little aspen stand surrounded by open sagebrush meadow, and I noticed old bear claw marks on one of the trees and showed Kristina. The view from the ridge was spectacular, and Kristina commented that the lighting and fall colors made the area look like New England.

As we hiked to the south I was amazed at the beautiful combination of the trees on the horizon silhouetted against a cloudy sky. I held back while Kristina hiked ahead and became part of the silhouette, and after taking some photos I hiked up and joined her at the point where the ridge drops off into the valley below. There’s a beautiful rock outcrop that makes a great vantage point from which to view the surrounding countryside, and is also a great place for wild yoga poses.

After enjoying the evening light from our vantage point we scrambled down the east side of the ridge to the Elkhorn Loop road. We paused for a tree-pose, and then enjoyed the view of aspens silhouetted in front of a beautiful sunset. We hiked the rest of the way back to the vehicle and drove away feeling happy and refreshed.

Read Kristina’s take on this adventure