Thursday, May 27, 2010


“When I entered this sublime wilderness the day was nearly done. The trees with rosy, glowing countenances seemed to be hushed and thoughtful, as if waiting in conscious religious dependence on the sun, and one naturally walked softly and awestricken among them.” - John Muir

Getting to Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks was not easy. Not only because we had to go out of our way, but because we had to drive through a lot of California traffic to get there. We have always wanted to see these two parks when we traveled through California in the past, but there were always too many obstacles. This time we didn’t let that stop us. Dick gets very uptight driving on expressways and through cities. Being blind in one eye, he has no depth perception and depends on me to help with changing lanes, backing up, etc... I keep telling him to let me drive but that rarely happens. He loves to yell and call people names. The problem is, I’m the one who has to listen to him. Once we arrive and get parked, he is a happy camper - most of the time. I know how much he needs solitude and he is the happiest in the backcountry.
The big trees are amazing. In all the world sequoias grow naturally only on the West slope of the Sierra Nevada, most often between 5,000 and 7,000 feet of elevation. We took several pictures, but it’s hard to capture their immenseness. Kings Canyon is where the Grant Tree (the nation’s Christmas tree) is located. Sequoia National Park has the General Sherman Tree which is the largest living tree in the world, estimated at 2,300 years old. Of course we did several day hikes, exploring the canyons among the big trees. Dick wanted to do an overnight hike but there was too much snow in the high country. As you will see in the pictures there is still quite a bit of snow because of the high elevation, but the springtime weather was beautiful. I will keep this short because a picture is worth a thousand words. 
(the background music for the video is printed below the video)

The Mummers' Dance by Loreena McKinnett

When in the springtime of the year
When the trees are crowned with leaves
When the ash and oak, and the birch and yew
Are dressed in ribbons fair
When owls call the breathless moon
In the blue veil of the night
The shadows of the trees appear
Amidst the lantern light
We've been rambling all the night
And some time of this day
Now returning back again
we bring a garland gay
Who will go down to those shady groves
And summon the shadows there
And tie a ribbon on those sheltering arms
In the springtime of the year
The songs of birds seem to fill the wood
That when the fiddler plays
All their voices can be heard
Long past their woodland days
And so they linked their hands and danced
Round in circles and in rows
And so the journey of the night descends
When all the shades are gone
"A garland gay we bring you here
And at your door we stand
It is a sprout well budded out
The work of Our Lord's hand" 

Monday, May 17, 2010


Zion National Park is an incredible place. We loved Zion when we visited 30 years ago and enjoyed it just as much this time. It has changed a bit because of the increase in the number of visitors, but the natural beauty is still the same. I read the journal from our May 1979 visit, and I noted there were only a few people camping in the campground. Not so this time. They closed one of the canyon roads to vehicles and now have a shuttle bus system in that area because of the increasing numbers of visitors each year. A great idea and many of the busier parks are doing this. The campground was full of Summer Tanagers and Yellow Warblers. You could spot them easily by their bright colors and beautiful song, and the black-chinned hummingbirds were out in full force. It was a very relaxing six days. We hiked and biked and attended all the evening programs at the outdoor amphitheater under the stars. 
Several of you have asked how the cats are doing. They are both still with us and great travelers. Funny Face never goes near the door when it is open. After escaping a couple of times, it scared her enough to tell her that is not where she wants to go. She doesn’t want to lose her happy home. We have definitely bonded on this trip. Sheba does real well on a leash and even knows how to untangle herself sometimes. She’s been traveling since she was a kitten. (The ravens do intimidate her). We tried putting Funny Face on a leash but she freaked out. It was like having a fish on the end of your line, running out the real. 
We left Zion and headed for Death Valley, but not before checking the temps first. We timed it perfectly, arriving in the late afternoon when it was around 82 degrees and it cooled off through the night. We hiked around dusk watching the bats and poor-wills swooping around us. We left the next morning around 6 a.m., beginning at 190 feet below sea level, we slowly climbed to 4,000 ft, stopping along the way to take in the views. We hit this area at a good time. Along the road, as we drove to higher elevations, the wildflowers were beautiful. All colors of the rainbow. We did have one problem along the way. Our refrigerator wouldn’t start and everything thawed. We had to buy an ice chest and put everything on ice to save our food. The next morning it started up again and everything is working great. Interestingly enough, when we were in Death Valley in 1981 our refrigerator quit working then too. We were pulling a 1963, 28 foot Avion Travel Trailer with a 1964 Chevy Suburban. That time we weren’t so lucky. Dick had to drag the refrigerator outside and roll it three times. It worked! Then if that wasn’t bad enough, the carrier bearing went out on the suburban. So this time it was not so bad compared to all that. John Denver had it right when he said, “Some days are diamonds, some days are stones.”

Below is a photo of our home on wheels (our Avion), taken in 1979 when we last visited the Utah canyonlands.

Friday, May 7, 2010


Because I had no reservation, I was expecting a long and frustrating wait for a permit to hike into the Grand Canyon. The National Park System is beginning to implode on itself from the impact of over visitation, lack of funding (they do not keep all the revenue they generate), and increasing attitude degradation on the part of park rangers who become fed up with visitors earlier and earlier in the season. I have always said, “Multiply Numbers/Divide Resources.” That little Dick E. Bird wisdom becomes more profound every year from my perspective. The problem with becoming an old fart is that your hard drive is full of the memories of “How it used to be.”
To my surprise, I was allowed into “The Canyon” on my fourth day in the park. We arrived on a Sunday afternoon and I immediately scooted over to the backcountry office. I was fortunate enough to get a peach of a ranger. She was knowledgeable, personable, friendly and helpful. I’m to a point now where I am grading rangers. Only about 50% make the grade, and I’m grading on a curve.
I told her I didn’t have a reservation and that I would like to spend about four days in the backcountry (which would give Gaila a much needed sabbatical from me). I added that I would take whatever I could get. Beggars can’t be choosers. I said I would go to any areas that she could find openings. She did her magic on the computer and in five minutes I had an awesome permit. 
It had me going half way down the Kaibab Trail then east along the Tonto Plateau for 6 miles, back the next day to Kaibab and descending to Bright Angel campground near Phantom Ranch. The next day up the Bright Angel Trail to Indian Gardens and the fourth day out. I’m still finding that amazing as this is the Primo time to be hiking in the Grand Canyon and yet I snared a decent permit. 
Actually, I was a little suspect when I noticed my first night campsite was “Cremation Canyon.” Maybe they’ve heard of me. Maybe they know I’ve become “Oscar the Grouch” of park service policy. I was warned, “No water on the Kaibab and no water in Cremation.” No problem, I’m part camel. I just drank until my hump was swollen and headed down into the Big Amazing Ditch. 
I don’t know how people do this in July. At least I don’t know how they can enjoy it. I left the rim on a day they were calling for snow, high winds and a high of 41 degrees. I never carry more than 2 quarts of water, but on this trip I carried a gallon. Yes, I have read the book, Death in the Canyon.
The switchback Kaibab trail and the incredible landscape it traverses seemed limitless. The morning light changing the shading every second. A half hour down the steep trail I was shedding layers. I like to hike fast and hard and long. I found myself stopping to take pictures every five minutes. I’m no photographer, blind in one eye and have no depth perception, but what the heck, film is history. This isn’t costing me a dime and I might even get lucky and take a decent picture. It’s more to show Gaila where I have been. I don’t give a rip about pictures. I keep all of mine on my hard drive, the one whirling around between my ears. 
I get bored easily. I made it to Cremation Canyon by late morning. I could have stayed. I had a couple quarts of water left for dinner, breakfast and the next leg of the hike to Bright Angel campground. My map showed it was only a few more miles to another canyon called Lone Tree. My permit allowed me anywhere along this section of the plateau. I was cozy in a nice little “Man Cave” rock overhang with plenty of shade. Beyond that blazed full sun and temps in the mid-eighties. The trail was faint in many areas. It seemed to hug the South Rim Canyon wall and drop in and out of dry side canyons. I was told I would still find water in Lone Tree canyon. I decided to hike there. Sure enough there was still water pooled in canyon pockets, shade in rock overhangs, and the canyon floor was alive with spring. Wildflowers, blooming cactus, singing frogs, busy hummingbirds, and my favorite, aerial acrobatic ravens, gliding along the canyon thermals, creating drag by raising and lowering their feet, like small aircraft landing gear. 
I usually do not filter water. Gaila says one day it will kill me. My theory is that I am building immunity to water borne disease. If you drink water in Mexico you get the screamers, but do you ever see Mexicans with the screamers? Anyway, I have not yet picked up giardia or any other nasty water borne bug, and I have consumed some nasty water. If I do, I’ve saved myself 50 years of filtering water so far. I still had several hours of daylight so I explored the canyon and decided to filter water using my “filter bulb.” I’ve been carrying it for years and have never tried it. It’s about the size of a fishing bobber and has a small charcoal filter as it’s core. I always wondered how fast it would work. It’s a gravity flow procedure. The Canyon Tree Frogs were loving the pools. It was like dying and going to heaven for them. They had been patiently waiting all winter for this bath. To me the water smelled a bit foul, contained a lot of algae, and well populated by pollywogs and the next generation of Canyon Tree Frog song, which sounds like bleating sheep. 
I thought I was going to set up an IV and go hiking, thinking this water filter bulb was going to be a slow drip. To my pleasant surprise, it worked faster than a fancy, heavy, expensive filter pump. I filled my platypus water bladder, hung it upside-down from a tree branch and it filled my quart Gator Aid bottles in less than five minutes.
I didn’t have a watch. I just go to bed when it gets dark and get up and hike when it gets light. How simple is that?
In the morning I hiked five miles back toward the Kaibab before eating breakfast. It was raining pretty hard and cold. I had my poncho and down mittens (doubles as my pillow) on. My poncho is also the ground cloth for my tent. I have a big one that covers me and my pack. To keep it from blowing wildly in the fierce wind, I used a long pack strap as a poncho belt. Works great. My goal was to get back to the rock outcropping (Man Cave) I settled into near Cremation. I knew I could get out of the rain, fire up my Zip Ztove and enjoy my freeze dried bacon and eggs. The rain soon stopped, sun was shinning, birds were singing, flowers were growing. I sat looking across the Grand Canyon at the snow covered, 8,000 ft. North rim. I was nursing a hot cup of coffee. This is “Sucking the Juice out of Life.”
By noon I had crossed the Colorado and set up camp in Bright Angel Campground. It was a great site bordered by the canyon wall on one side and loud, rushing Phantom Creek on the other.
This is a little utopia just downstream from the Phantom Ranch. You will hear me in later blogs grousing about National Park Ranger attitudes, but here at Phantom Ranch and Bright Angel Campground I found some of the best. They were young with the ranger quality of old. It’s all about attitude. Even though the place was filled to capacity, the water pipe that supplies the valley was broken and the weather turned windy and rainy, the two rangers managing the area were cheerful, knowledgeable, instructive, interesting and interested. 
I’m still waiting to hear if I have secured a backcountry job in North Cascades, but if it happens, I’m taking my lead from these two. 
We were all conserving water, but by law, the Park Service has to provide water, even if it means flying it into the canyon. Plus, it’s probably cheaper than flying dried up bodies out. I left at first light the next morning to try my hand (feet) at conquering the switchbacks of Bright Angel trail. It was promising to be a hot day but by leaving early you enjoy a shaded trail until almost noon. I had less than five miles to Indian Garden. I decided I would wait and have breakfast there. It is a beautiful little oasis half way up the Bright Angel. The Ranger there was suspiciously looking at my Zip Ztove as I cooked breakfast. It burns ground litter so it could be considered an open fire, which is not permitted in the Canyon. The stove, which requires carrying no fuel, is approved by the National Park and Forest Service. Unfortunately, few Rangers are familiar with that fact. Gaila says I just love conflict and debate, but I feel it is my duty to educate the less enlightened. The Park Service has a manual full of rules as thick as the postal service's “Domestic Mail Manual.” And like similar government tomes, few have ever read them--besides me.  And, like the Bible, those who have done the reading interpret differently the convoluted doublespeak they contain and are all of a different religion. 
I was bored again. I decided it was only nine o’clock in the morning. I lifted my pack and started up the trail. I took my time and ended up my trip a day early. I called Gaila from the rim at noon and said, “I’m Baaaccck!” I just wanted to give her some warning in case she had a Ranger in the motorhome. I think she rates them differently than I do.  --Keep Smilin’


"You can see the way the whole world is put together, by looking at how it's been cut away millennium after millennium, and then you'd feel just like what you really are - a grain of sand in all this creation." - Katie Lee, Singer Songwriter

While Dick went backpacking for a few days, I stayed behind and enjoyed hiking along the Rim Trail each day. When he told me the route he was taking climbed 4500 ft in 9.3 miles one way, it did not sound like my idea of fun! A trip to this park can be a vacation or a challenge, a revelation or an ordeal. I opted for the revelation. Over 250 people are rescued from the canyon each year. One ranger said an average of six people a year fall into the canyon. While we were there a man drove his car off the south rim. 
The Mather Campground is within walking distance to just about everything. If I would rather ride, there is a shuttle bus system. I love reading the history of the area we’re visiting. I was thrilled that the library let me check out books and dvds on the honor system. Learning about the Kolb brothers, Mary Jane Colter, Fred Harvey and the Harvey Girls, John Wesley Powell, Edward Abbey etc..., made my visit more interesting. Reading a book on “Women of the Canyon” gave me some idea what it’s like to ride the Colorado River or hike in and out of the canyon. I also attended ranger programs and learned about the incredible geology of this area and the California Condor. I was lucky to see a condor in flight and then perch below the Lookout Studio. It was #89.
The Grand Canyon has over 4 million visitors a year. It is an amazing place - one of earth's most powerful inspiring landscapes and it overwhelms the senses. 

Saturday, May 1, 2010


The thoughts of the earth are my thoughts. The voice of the earth is my voice. All that belongs to the earth belongs to me. All that surrounds the earth surrounds me. It is lovely indeed, it is lovely indeed.    - Navajo Proverb

After several months exploring New Mexico we crossed over into northeastern Arizona to visit Canyon de Chelly and Navajo National Monuments on our way to the Grand Canyon.
One of the reasons we couldn’t go back to Michigan right now is because we wanted to visit places in the West that we had never seen before and places we hadn’t been to in over 30 years. We knew we had made the right decision when we saw the beauty surrounding us. Amazing colors and spectacular views - canyons, mesas, mountains and rivers. New Mexico is interesting and has its own beauty, but Arizona is awesome! This is what traveling is all about. 
I’m sure it helps that it’s spring and finally warming up and beginning to bud and turn green. The green desert floor against the red rock formations and blue skies brought many oohs and aahs, and I love the sweet aroma of the desert sage and the desert in bloom. The land of the Navajo is lovely indeed. 
We enjoyed hikes into areas at both monuments where you aren’t allowed unless with a guide. Our guides were Navajo (Dine’) which made it even better. We sometimes had to wade across rivers to visit the preserved cliff dwellings of the Anasazi (ancient ones).**
We also took a day trip to Utah to see Monument Valley. Huge rock formations jut up from the desert floor. A backdrop for many car commercials and many of the early westerns.  
We were in the Navajo Nation; 27,000 sq. miles extending into Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. It is a sovereign nation with its own tribal government established in 1923. Most have kept their traditional customs and values and most speak the Navajo language and it is taught in the schools. They make exquisite jewelry, rugs and pottery and often sell their artwork along the roads.

Many appear to not have much but they are richly blessed with the beauty surrounding them. It’s a whole different way of life. To get to the beautiful protected areas we drove through many communities where the living conditions are very poor, but everyone has a Hogan, a sacred shelter where the family can be together.
There are stray dogs everywhere. It was the same in New Mexico. Most of these dogs are homeless but very friendly. They hang around outside restaurants, gas stations and stores and beg. I fed some when I could. I saw one lift his paw to every person that passed by. It must be the norm here because people don’t even pay attention. It’s hard for me because I want to take all of them home. I was shocked when Dick asked me if I wanted to take a little puppy with us that I had stopped to pet. It was so sweet, and I was torn, but decided it would not be wise. It needed a bath and would need to see a vet before I brought it in with the cats. 
There were so many dead dogs along the roads and we even passed a dead horse. It’s open range for horses, as well as cattle. There is a shortage of water and we wondered how anyone or anything can live in some of these dry desert areas. Right now things are turning green but it must not last long.

We are now in Grand Canyon National Park and Dick just returned from a 3 day backpacking trip into the canyon. We will update you on our experiences soon. The adventure continues!

**History:  It is believed that the Navajo first migrated to the area from the north - possibly the area of Central Canada - around the year 1000 C.E. At that time, the area was occupied by the ancestors of today's Hopi, Tewa and other pueblo peoples.  The Navajo tended to be aggressive with their neighbors, stealing and raiding, and forced the Hopi into the tight, protective villages that still exist today.
Traditional Navajo society was very loosely organized, with little or no centralized governmental or religious structures.  With the arrival of first the Spanish and later European-American settlers, the Navajos began a period of violent clashes that eventually resulted in an incredibly violent campaign against the Navajo by the US Army.  Government forces killed or captured all of the Navajo they could find, including women and children.  The captives were transported to a desolate army base in Redondo Bosque, New Mexico, where many people starved or died of disease in the horrible conditions there.  As part of the campaign, the Army burned everything they could - hogans, crops, looms, and household belongings.  Over 8,000 men, women and children were marched the 400 miles from Navajoland to Bosque Redondo in the winter of 1864, in what is known as the Long Walk.After several years, even US government officials were appalled and embarrassed by the conditions in Bosque Redondo.  A treaty was concluded recognizing the sovereignty of the Navajo Nation and allowing the Navajo to return home to their ancestral land.  In exchange, the Navajo pledged not to take up arms against their neighbors. The Navajo are one of the few Native American groups who managed to hang on to a significant portion of their historical lands.