To my mother's lifelong chagrin I'm not and never was a religious person. I was a skeptic at a ridiculously early age. Of course, over the years, one would hope we evolve. While I'm still fiercely skeptical I allow for, and try to be open to, new insights and experiences - call them religious or spiritual, or what you will.
In my life I've had two of, I guess, what one would call "out of body" experiences. Not surprisingly they were both in nature and both in the great Southwest and, no, I wasn't drinking at the time. The first was in Arches National Park in 1994 and the other in Southeastern Arizona just a few years ago. In both instances, as I drove into Arches National Park and Chiricahua National Monument I had to pull over to the side of the road because I felt light headed. Then, after taking a deep breath, I actually felt as if something deep inside of me was rising out of my body and expanding into the outdoors. Weird, huh? Here's the thing though - it was a deeply "connected" spiritual experience.
The great playwright (and my favorite) Eugene O'Neill described this much more poetically and eloquently than I can when he wrote in, "Long day's Journey into Night" the following:
"You've just told me some high spots in your memories. Want to hear mine? They're all connected with the sea. Here's one. When I was on the Squarehead square rigger, bound for Buenos Aires. Full moon in the Trades. The old hooker driving fourteen knots. I lay on the bowsprit, facing astern, with the water foaming into spume under me, the masts with every sail white in the moonlight, towering high above me. I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself -- actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to Life itself! To God, if you want to put it that way."
O'Neill gets it precisely right. I felt as if I was dissolving for a few minutes. Of course, both times, after I felt myself come back into myself, I was overwhelmed and tearful and grateful and full of humility and love for having this gift of life bestowed on me. What a literal mind-blower.
You know, of course, I've tried to get that to happen again and it hasn't and I doubt it will. It's not something I can will to happen - it is organic and ethereal and can't be manufactured.
It's so weird, of course, that I seldom, if ever, discuss this with anyone. Yet, here I am writing a blog post about it! Old age has clearly corrupted me and now I'm probably oversharing and it's TMI and all but I don't give a damn. It happened.
The irony is that one of my worst Ranger interactions happened in Chiricahua the very next time I went to visit. In fact, if my first visit was a "peak" experience let's call this one a "valley". I'd planned on camping and pulled into a site and began unloading my camp stove when a Ranger walked up and said, "You can't leave any of that stuff outside your truck". I was momentarily confused and the Ranger said, "We have a strict policy. Nothing left outside - either in your vehicle or tent". I explained that I had to remove some things because I slept in the back of my truck and couldn't fit all my gear in the cab of my truck. Ranger said, "Well, then, I don't know what to tell you but it doesn't look like you can camp here".
I understood why Edward Abbey called them the "Tree Fuzz" (despite being one himself for a couple of years). I've camped all over the West and never met a more obnoxious and unhelpful Ranger. In fact, I love most of them I meet. They're underpaid and under appreciated and protectors of our most cherished places.
Still, it was apparent that this particular Ranger hadn't gotten the customer service memo. So, I thought, to Hell with it. I'll just drive back to Cochise Stronghold in the Dragoons. Of course, before I did I wanted to drive up the road and go to the Visitor Center to express my dismay. As I pulled out of the campground, at say, 15 mph, another Ranger with his window rolled down, gave me the universal "slow down" sign by moving his hand up and down. I couldn't believe it. I could only go slower by stopping. Two fools in one 15 minute period. I drove to the Visitor Center and they said the "Head Ranger" would call me.
He did call the next day. He left two messages. The first was actually to me when he said that, "while we have no bears we follow best practices for camping" and the second, was when he apparently, dialed the wrong number, and was all about personal information that I had no business knowing. Honestly. Talk about weird and inept and disheartening.
So there you have it. Life in a nutshell - lots of weirdness, banality, oddities and a few moments of existential bliss.
Of course, I've been back to Chiricahua. I took Lupe and then actually made reservations to camp there with the Casita. One week before my arrival date I received an email telling me that, due to construction issues, the campground would be closed despite my reservations. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised.
Oh land of Chiricahua - how I love thee.
The humans? Not so much.
Of course, I'll be back. And soon.
So there you have it. As the great Jeffrey Lebowski said, "Strikes and gutters, my friends, strikes and gutters."
If you follow these pages, at all, you know I am a passionate lover of the public lands and National Parks in the West. I haven't been to all of them but I've been to the most popular and well known and some of them several times. I am not a "Park Counter". It's more important to me to freely explore and revisit the places I've found that I love than to check them off a list to say, "I've been there". No offense to those who do that- it's a fine goal but it's inconsistent with my "process not product" beliefs...life is about quality not quantity.
Moreover, the National Parks are certainly not the be all and end all of the best places to visit and explore in the United States. Each of these places were around before they got this "status". I encourage you all to find other public lands to investigate and you could start with visiting the National Monuments and Wildlife Refuges as well as typically serene Bureau of Land Management areas.
I have thought about this blog post for awhile. In particular, what would be the criteria for choosing my favorites? This personal criteria, like the Parks themselves, has definitely changed in the last 40 years. The Parks are now being overrun and it's not easy to find the peace many of us associate with wild settings. For years of my life Arches National Park was my "home away from home". No longer...
The following are my criteria for an ideal National Park:
1. Scenic splendor
2. Places for solitude and reflection
3. Flora and fauna
4. Regional setting
Scenic splendor is MY idea of what is visually pleasing. Only wildlife, I suppose, is mildly objective in terms of numbers. (My next blog will probably be favorite animals and that is certainly a matter of personal taste). Regional setting is simply what I think of the surrounding area. "Feeling" is the most wildly subjective and personal and combines several factors but, in the end, is what we beatniks used to refer to as "vibes" back in the day.
I will preface my list by reiterating this list is evolving. So, in order, these are my favorite five (or six) National Parks:
Number 1. Big Bend Big Bend is remote and still feels wild. Three distinct topographies are found here; desert, mountains and river which create seemingly endless possibilities for exploration. Miles and miles of trails and dirt roads allow for more solitude and reflection. Big Bend, because it's so damn far away from urban centers, is relatively uncrowded and it's easy to lose yourself here both literally and figuratively.
Mountains your thing? The Chisos are beautiful and imposing. Of course, prior to National Park status the mountains were abused by loggers and some areas, nearly 80 years later, are still recovering. Nevertheless, the mountains are picturesque and sharply rise up off the desert floor to provide an alpine oasis for camping, hiking and photography.
Desert Rat? Then you will find the heart of the Chihuahua delightfully all around. When I visited in March 2015 the desert was alive. Yuccas were blooming crazily, creosote and mesquite was everywhere and the desert wildflowers were blooming. Magnificent.
The Rio Grande makes a "big bend" here in southern Texas and is the namesake of the Park itself. Even though, thanks to the water hoarder engineers in the USA, the river is now often dry in Las Cruces and El Paso it flows here year around thanks to the Mexican River, the Rio Conchos. I've spent a few hours on the river banks - completely alone - and the serenity is as good as it gets in today's National Parks. River lovers rejoice...
The flora in Big Bend is, as you might expect, extraordinarily diverse. With mountain, desert and riparian areas well over 1000 species of plants are found here. Trees like the Texas Madrone, Juniper, Mesquite, Cottonwoods, Oak and Ash dot the park. Cacti is, of course, abundant (46 species!) and for a cactus lover like me it's a paradise. Wildflowers are typically found in Spring and Fall. If you have Southwest tastes here are the Sotol, Lechuguilla, Ocotillo, Salt Cedar, Creosote, and magnificent Yuccas.
Wildlife thrives here and spending your days here birdwatching would easily fill your hours. One of my the best mornings I've spent in recent years was while watching a mother and father Gray Hawk feeding their young in a large Cottonwood tree by the Rio Grande. Roadrunners are ubiquitous. Coyotes, javelinas, mule deer, and jackrabbits are easily seen. Bears, badgers and foxes are also here but a bit more reclusive. While not for everyone I suppose, the desert reptiles are here but best seen at night.
Big Bend is my number one favorite National Park. My hunch is, if you asked people, they have probably not heard of it (unless they are Texans!) and it does not crack their list of best National Parks even if they do...That's one of the main reasons it's number one.
If you love the Southwest it doesn't get better anywhere else.
On a scale of 1-5:
Scenic Splendor 4
Flora and Fauna 4
Regional Setting 5
Number 2. Yellowstone. The Granddaddy of them all. There really is no place else like Yellowstone.
Sometimes referred to as the "American Serengeti" the wildlife here is unsurpassed and in higher concentration than anywhere else in the continental USA. I've been fortunate to have spent 3 weeks in the Teton and Yellowstone wildernesses and in one trip alone I saw beavers, eagles, bears, moose, grouse, osprey, falcon, geese, badger, bats, bobcat, coyote, chipmunk, rabbit, bison and elk. It is a wildlife lover's nirvana.
Lots of folks think that the thermal features are the biggest attraction. Iconic "Old Faithful" is found here as well as literally hundreds of other geysers, mudpots, fumaroles, hot springs and even travertine terraces. On a trip there in 2013 I hung out with several "Geyser Gazers" who make an annual pilgrimage to the thermal basins and wait, sometimes for days and weeks, for an eruption. That actually doesn't sound like such a bad life does it?
The scenery? Well, come on... Let's start with the Grand Canyon of the mighty Yellowstone River. There is also the "Falls District" and Hayden Valley and Yellowstone lake and well, forget me trying to describe it- you just gotta go. It is sublime.
Ok- so...if Yellowstone is so great why isn't it number one? You guessed it. People. People everywhere unless you get off the roads. It seems that some of the biggest fools of America like to visit the park. Cars simply stop when they spot a bison and there are hundreds of bison everywhere. I've seen cars stop, doors fly open, and people run, camera in hand, right at the bison (or elk, or moose or anything that moves). It's maddening. Fortunately, Yellowstone is massive and getting out on the trails can get you away- really away - from people.
The area? It's adjacent to stunning Grand Teton National Park and a day's drive to splendid Glacier National Park. Enough said.
Scenic Splendor 5
Flora and Fauna 5
Regional Setting 5
Number 3. Grand Canyon. I'm sure some will think I've rated this too highly but that's because; a. haven't been there or b. don't remember their first glimpse of it or c. they're clueless (which could be common- have you seen the presidential polls lately?).
Arriving at Grand Canyon NP, say at the ever popular South Rim, is pretty but does not prepare you for your first glimpse into the Canyon. My favorite experience in any National Park is to take someone to the Grand Canyon for the first time and listen to them audibly gasp and then see their facial expressions when they view it. It is so large and complex and beautiful it boggles the mind. Think of how many places you could sit for weeks on end and never get bored...the GC is one, for sure.
The mighty Colorado River - red in spring (hence its name) and green in the late summer and fall runs the length of the canyon of course. It rumbles, meanders, courses and slides through the canyon. The opportunities for hiking or playing on the river here are literally endless.
It is crowded. The South Rim can be overrun and feel like an amusement park. The North Rim is not open year around but offers better choices for solitude. The best idea though is to find spots away from the popular places and explore on your own. So finding privacy is possible but demands a bit of planning and work (like most of the parks).
The GC is its' own environment and there are some species that can only be found here. Several fish are native but the number, sadly, has significantly decreased over the years. Bird watching is a great treat and there is tremendous diversity in the bird population. The Kaibab squirrel is seen here and is rare. Of course, coyotes, mountain lions and other southwest mammals make their home here.
I love this part of the country. Southwest and Colorado Plateau beauty surrounds the Grand Canyon. Four Corners is within a day's drive. Often on my trips coming back from Colorado or New Mexico or even Utah I find a way to stop by- if only for a day or so. It's always worth it.
Scenic Splendor 5
Flora and Fauna 3
Regional Setting 5
Number 4. Yosemite. Yosemite is, arguably, the prettiest place on the planet and if scenery was the ONLY criterion I was looking at then Yosemite is number one. The granite walls and rock formations and the waterfalls are spellbinding, mesmerizing and leave one speechless. This is the heart of John Muir's "Range of Light". To the best of my fading recollection this was the first National Park in which I camped (Redwood National Park was the first I actually visited). This is a rock climber's mecca and the legends and the ghosts of the legends are everywhere here...
The grizzly that once roamed this magnificent park have long ago vanished. The Yosemite black bears are around and used to be quite the nuisance before measures were taken to limit their opportunities for food. Of course, deer and coyotes are ubiquitous as are small varmints of many kinds. Still, the wildlife viewing is limited compared to Yellowstone or Glacier.
Unless you get very far off trail there is little solitude to be found here.
It's in California, of course and it's proximity to Sequoia and King's Canyon is a good feature but it's too close and too well known to the major population centers.
The feeling here? Stand beneath El Capitan or Half Dome and tell me how you feel. It's a religious experience.
Just writing this has spurred me into considering an early spring camping trip on the valley in my little trailer. March looks good- chilly but good...
Scenic Splendor 5
Flora and Fauna 4
Regional Setting 4
Here is a link to a Yosemite Guide.
Number 5(Tie). Arches For many years Arches National Park was my favorite place on the planet. I literally had an out of body experience when first I visited and I've never quite recovered (nor hope to...). After that visit I read Edward Abbey's masterpiece, "Desert Solitaire" in my thirst for more information about the place and, of course, my world, (literary and otherwise!) was altered completely. I'd found a kindred soul who understood that place and had the skill to explain its' sublimity. That was nearly 35 years ago.
The last 35 years have not been good to Arches just as Abbey dourly predicted. I don't fully understand the reasons for the denigration of Arches - It could be the stupid promotions like "Find Your Park" by the NPS or the state of Utah's ubiquitous and tawdry advertisements for the "Big 5" National Parks but the place has damn near been ruined.
Delicate Arch, the icon of the Southwest was, in the 80's, a popular hike. You might see 20-30 people as you walked the 3 miles there. When you arrived about the same number would be hanging out and having lunch or taking photos. Those days are long gone, vanished, history, forget it...Delicate Arch is a zoo. It's a citified experience. I was there in October 2014 and there was a SOLID 3 mile line to the Arch. When you got there? Dozens of people were crowded around the arch, pushing, yelling, arguing, and jockeying for position to photograph it. If you want to compound your misanthropic tendencies (or create some!) just hike to Delicate Arch at dusk.
The one campground (Devil's Garden) is always full and the entrance road to the park, Highway 191, gets backed up for miles on long weekends. In short, it's a mess and it breaks my heart. Words cannot adequately describe my despair about this, for me, deeply spiritual and sacred place.
Given what I've said above is it even worth visiting? Well, if you haven't been there, it is an unequivocal YES. It is, after all, still amazing Arches and it's not the fault of the land that it's being overrun. The red, desert varnished, geologic formations are, if you can imagine it without the hordes, remarkable and delightful and simply stunning. So, go, go, go. If you happen to be there on some frigid December or March morning you might run into some bespectacled bearded older fella huffing and puffing with a Nikon around his neck on a walk in the Fiery Furnace. Go ahead and say hello but you might just get a grunt in return...
The surrounding area is, of course, crazy beautiful and the great Canyonlands National Park is only a few miles down the road. If you're looking for quiet and solitude- go to the Maze district there. Moab, the town, next door to the park is one of the coolest in the West. Your proximity to the entire Four Corners region and the Colorado and Green Rivers also makes it a gem and a wonderful spot for river activity.
One typically doesn't go to Arches for the wildlife, per se, but it's there if you get away from the people. Look for it. Deer, coyote, fox, bobcat, mountain lion and lots of rabbits and smaller creatures abound.
Scenic Splendor 5
Flora and Fauna 2
Regional Setting 5
Number 5 (Tie). Olympic. Given my predilection for the desert it may be surprising that I list this glorious spot but it's too wonderful and diverse to leave off the list.
Olympic, like Big Bend, has three distinct and marvelous topographies. First are the Olympic Mountains with Mt. Olympus towering over the entire area. The mountain hiking here is, in my opinion, is equal to the Rockies and Sierra. Lakes, rivers, peaks, lush and healthy forests, and simply water everywhere makes time and worry fall away when you visit.
Then, there are the Hoh and Quinault Rain Forests. These are certainly not, given the latitude, tropical rain forests. Instead, they are "temperate" rain forests and trees and moss and huge ferns are everywhere. I've never seen any place like it. Just writing this has me planning my next trip. It's been too long.
Then, if you love the sea, you've found your shangri la. Huge sections of beaches - with no one on them- stretch for miles. Trees and rock formations are adjacent and then there are the sandy beaches with an ocean smell that will send you instantly into the present moment. Having lived within a few hours of the beach my entire life I can report that, on the west coast, this is, I believe, the best beach walking, wandering and combing I have experienced.
I haven't been to Olympic in a number of years but I note from the interwebs data that Olympic is the number 6 on the most visited parks with 3 million visitors annually. Since there are no roads across the park from west to east unless you travel the northern edge of the park the people will be found concentrated in certain places. Here is the map. That means, of course, crowds. It also means miles of space for backpacking and like all these parks getting out of your car is a must. Still, it sounds too damn crowded. October might be the right month to go although it will be getting cold in the mountains.
Like other mountain ranges in the West the grizzly is long gone from the area but it is still rife with wildlife- deer, elk, black bears, cougars, otters and the snowshoe hare are here among many others. On the ocean side you'll find harbor seals, river otters and sea lions. At various times of the year you can also see porpoises and whales from the shoreline.
Scenic Splendor 5
Flora and Fauna 3
Regional Setting 4
So, there you go. My top 5 (or 6) National Parks. There are probably dozens of legitimate reasons to call this list bogus. First and foremost is its' subjectivity but, I suppose, when you're comparing these places, in the end, after reviewing all the data - it still comes down to which park appeals to you at a highly personal level. For example, here are a only a few of the wonders I left OFF the list:
Note these don't even include Alaska or the eastern parks!
I look forward, in about 5 years or so, to reviewing modifying and adding to the list after I visit other parks and get to Alaska. In the meantime, I offer you these places to consider as a traveling man and a lover of the natural world.
Lastly, it would be remiss of me not to express at least some gratitude to the National Park Service, on their 100th Anniversary, for doing a damn fine job of keeping these places as pristine as possible. I'm not a fan of authority and armed Rangers with nasty attitudes but, fortunately, I've only run into a few of those types. In general park personnel has been helpful and smart and they must have to exercise tremendous patience to deal with some of the idiots who grace our national treasures with their presence. They do this on an absurdly tiny budget. To me this is everything wrong about America - spend trillions on weapons, defense and billions on putting people in jail while we decimate the budgets for our National Parks. The NPS budget is a national disgrace.
When it comes to the future of the parks I'm glad the Park Service has stopped feeding the Grizzly among other not too smart ideas. I hope that they dump the "Find Your Park" promotional garbage and soon. The parks are slowly being ruined by the number of visitors that descend upon them annually and these promotions are, in my opinion, destructive. Limits must be placed on the number of visitors NOW.
I understand that from a political perspective the Park Service needs the population to support them but at what cost? More and more visitors? There is tragic irony in trying to save them by ruining them.
I hope you enjoyed reading about a few of our precious national gems.
Go on now! Get out there!
(In the off season.)
I've been home almost a week and, funny enough, I'm itching to get back on the road. I know that the good weather months are dwindling and that soon it will be cold- my traveling and camping nemesis. I have a trip planned to Utah in less than two weeks and then the wait for the twins begins in earnest and I'll probably stay pretty close to home.
One of the most enjoyable activities of the winter months is planning the next year's travel. So far, I plan on two trips to Organ Pipe NM this winter. After 11 long years the monument is now fully open again which is exciting to say the least. I can now explore some places I've been itching to see for awhile but were closed due to the US Border Patrol's activities.
Have you read, "The Devil's Highway" by Luis Urrea? The setting is Organ Pipe- it's a tragic story and my views on immigration were only solidified by reading it. I know it's a complex issue but we MUST find a more humane way of dealing with those desperately poor people from Mexico who simply want a better life in the USA (as did all our relatives- except the indigenous). I have lots of deeply passionate thoughts about these issues and, perhaps, in future, I'll devote an entire blog to what I believe the problems are (and there are many - starting with the government of Mexico and US policy) and how we might go about creating a better world for our brothers and sisters from the south. If you have an interest in these matters please read Urrea, or "Border Patrol Nation" by Todd Miller. Or read anything that Charles Bowden has written on the Border problems.
If you know me, at all, you know I love all things Southwest- by extension- I love Mexico and the Mexican culture. It's everywhere you go in the Southwest and it's one of the major reasons I love it here.
Back to my plans for next year- so Organ Pipe is on big time. I'm also going to spend some time at Anza Borrego near Little Blair Valley doing some boondocking near a dry lake bed. Last year when I was there I was mesmerized by the solitude and stark beauty of the place. The problem was that it's at 3000 feet elevation, it was during a cold snap, and when I awoke it was 21 degrees F. WAY too cold. This fall/winter I'm hoping to go when it's a bit warmer. Of course, I'll also figure out a time to go to my beloved Joshua Tree NP.
In March I'm heading to Big Bend National Park in Southern Texas along the mighty Rio Grande. This is a trip that I've been wanting to do since my 20's and I'm finally going to make it happen. That trip will include stops in Arizona and New Mexico and may include a stop at Palo Duro Canyon and Guadalupe NP. April is a wonderful month to explore the coastal mountains near Santa Barbara and Big Sur and I'll backpack then. I love to travel in May because the weather is warming and the crowds are at a minimum. I will probably be in Taos and Santa Fe then. In June I'll head to the Sierras again. July is "Lupe and Lilly time" and we are still in the process of deciding. I'm considering two options for August - either Flathead Lake and Glacier NP in Montana or a Northern Cascades trip in Washington.
This last trip was really spectacular and I'm strongly considering heading back to the Four Corners in Utah and Colorado in September. I'm still, as I sit here at home, staggered by the scenery I saw in Colorado on this last trip.
My next trip, leaving on October 6, includes a visit with my very best friend from high school, Kevin D. , and still one of the best people I've ever known (or ever will know). He went to college in Utah and then got a job there and so our visits have been sporadic (at best) over the years. I'm hoping that changes in the next few years as we both move into the retirement phase of our lives. As I told him recently- one of us is still working (him) and one of us is a hobo (me) so his schedule will dictate things for awhile. Luckily he's free on the weekend of Oct. 11 and I get to hang with him on this trip. Knowing Kev he's explored most of that beautiful country up there and I'll be the beneficiary of his knowledge.
Here's my Utah tentative itinerary:
10/6 Navajo National Monument
10/7 Arches NP
10/8 Arches NP
10/9 Arches NP
10/10 Canyonlands NP
10/11 Visiting with Kevin near Vernal, UT
10/12 Goblin SP
10/13 Goblin SP
10/14 Capitol Reef NP
10/15 Kodachrome SP
Looks amazing doesn't it? Arches NP remains my favorite. Before I read Ed Abbey I visited it and had an OBE (out of body experience)- after I read, "Desert Solitaire" I understood why. I probably feel more "at home" in Arches than any other place on earth. There is no place like the Red Rock Country of the Colorado Plateau. Being there fulfills my heart's desire. I'll look forward to sharing pictures on my return as always.
Thanks for reading this. I hope all is well in your life and that you too are planning your next adventure. I'll look forward to writing again soon and sharing about another one of my new passions- playing guitar.
This will mostly be a journal of my travels. I may include other items that interest me. Feel free to join in.