Monday, December 22, 2014

Amtrak Adventuring

I've very much enjoyed my time at home, but it's also been difficult to adjust to a more stationary life after nearly half a year of action packed traveling. So I decided to extend my Thanksgiving holiday and visit a number of friends and family on the East Coast using the train and rides from generous souls.

My first stop was Valley Forge National Historic Park with my Uncle Chris. We got to see Washington's headquarters, artillery fortifications, and replica huts the soldiers themselves constructed in which to spend the winter. If I thought my Northwest cabin was small, they crammed 12 guys into less than 200 square feet! There were great exhibits on camp life, winter hardships, and the training implemented by Baron Von Steuben. It's humbling to realize how tenuous the Revolutionary War was in the early years - utter defeat for Washington seemed to loom around the corner of every campaign.

Valley Forge camp life for the enlisted guys
Valley Forge life for Washington

Back at Chris' house I engaged in the most epic Nerf battle of my life. Oh how Nerf technology has improved since I was a kid. Nerf guns these day can fire in full automatic and had 20 dart detachable magazines. My cousins and I blacked out the entire basement, raided all the furniture in the house for cushions to make forts, and shot it out with flashlights taped to our Nerf guns!

I continued my tour of early American history by visiting Independence National Historic Park in downtown Philadelphia. Some folks might not readily know that Philly, vice Washington DC, is the true birthplace of our country. It was awesome to stand in the same chamber that Jefferson, Washington*, and Franklin first declared independance and then drafted the US Constitution (more on that later). I can't remember a time before when I've felt such a connection to such a substantial historical event.

*Washington didn't actually sign the Declaration of Independence. He was too busy preparing an ambush for the British in New York. #welcometoMurica!

Let freedom ring!
Aside from great history, Philadelphia is also known for cheesesteaks! Jonas Miller and I ate at each of the four top spots in just two days. My clogged arteries recommend, in order, Jim's, Pat's, Tony Luke's, and Geno's. All were good but the caramelized onions on a "whizwhit" put Jim's head and shoulders above the competition. We walked off the heart stopping goodness to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. They have a terrific medieval armor collection that illustrates a perfect blend of masterful and artistic craftsmanship with practical utility on the battlefield or tournament grounds.

Armor collection at Philadelphia Museum of Art
Armor for an elite unit of midget knights
Jonas was also kind enough to take a side trip with me to Lewes, Delaware. Somehow I had previously neglected Delaware in my East Coast travels and had a glaring asterix in my quest for 50 states. After our tour of Cape Henlopen State Park and its cool towers used to sight German subs waiting for American shipping leaving Delaware Bay during WWII, I now only have 10 states left to go and definitive plans to see them all this coming summer. #50before30

Cape Henlopen, Delaware
I really enjoy riding trains. Yeah it takes longer and often costs more than you think it should, but it's a fun way to travel. You can get up and walk to the cafe car, you actually have legroom, and you can see another side of America. Plus it's hard to beat those old grandiose train stations like Philadelphia's 30th Street Station - a shrine to the days of yore with immense gilded ceilings, imposing columns, vintage waiting benches, and the ticking of the information board. SO much better than getting groped by TSA to wait in a sterile, personality-less airport while paying $5 for a straight up cup of coffee on the other side of security. And speaking of coffee, it's real nice to be back in the land of Dunkin Donuts.

A train south from Philly brought me to Baltimore, Maryland, home of Under Armour, the Orioles, and my sister. I had a good visit with her and her friends and a night on the town in Fells Point, a cool cobblestone historic area along the harbor, rife with seafood restaurants and pubs. I recommend trying a burger topped with bacon and crab dip, served with potato chips seasoned with Old Bay.

It's a short hop from Baltimore to DC. I enjoyed navigating the city via Metro and by the end of my four days in town I'd like to think that, excepting my enormous backpack, I didn't look like a bumbling tourist while trying to buy a fare card. I got to visit some old Coast Guard buddies fighting the good fight against the bureaucracy and ineptitude of headquarters! Keep up the battle gentlemen! Tim Ozimek and I got to do a little hiking at Great Falls National Park. The Billy Goat Trail was a fun scrambly treadway along the Potomac River that I'd recommend to anyone in the area; just be prepared for some crowds. Whilst at Great Falls we learned a lot about the C&O canal and I immediately started plotting a future pedaling and paddling adventure along the towpath.

Great Falls of the Potomac. Whitewater rafting anyone?
While everyone was at work during the weekdays I headed to the National Mall to check out the various museums. At the Air and Space Museum I got to touch the second moon rock of my life (I'm pretty much an Apollo astronaut by now) and got to have a closer look inside a Mercury space capsule than the one I viewed in Texas. The American Indian Museum had a fantastic exhibit on Native American spirituality and religion. Each region definitely has unique beliefs but I noticed common themes of sun, seasons, moon, winds, harvest, migrations, and respect for ancestors and elders that indicated a far greater harmony with and understand of the natural world that I think would go a long way towards respecting the earth, our resources, and each other today.

Air and Space Museum 

The Natural History Museum had a great mammalian exhibit that would make a taxidermist proud and PETA cringe. As an unexpected bonus, they had a temporary gallery for the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Wilderness Act that contained beautiful photographs of landscapes and wildlife across the country's best wilderness areas. I was happy to observe that I had the privilege to see many of them in person and was also served a large dose of inspiration for future endeavors in wild places.

My favorite of the Smithsonian Museums (all free by the way!) was the Museum of American History. They had an impressive transportation exhibit; everything from 250 years of maritime history, the expansion of and by railroads, and the uniquely American relationship with the automobile. The Museum houses the original "Star Spangled Banner" - the flag that flew over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 and the siege of Baltimore. I saw the table upon which General Lee surrendered to General Grant in Appomattox, Virginia to end the Civil War. And a particularly moving display of items left behind at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.

However, by far the best experience I had in Washington DC was my trip to the National Archives. There you can see the most hallowed documents in America, the holy writ of freedom! I stood in solemn awe before the Declaration of Independence, the original US Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. No photos were permitted, but I completely understand. The intervening 250 years haven't been kind to the parchments and it was sad to see that the ink has faded to the point of being barely legible. Now they are preserved in titanium armor cases, filled with inert argon gas so that nothing will chemically react with the paper or ink. Woe unto the unknowing tourist who pulls out a camera and takes a flash photo cheap shot at democracy; armed security guards were standing next to each display to prevent further UV destruction.

I spent an evening with more of my large extended family in Maryland, assembling a model train around the Christmas tree with my cousins, before embarking on the final leg of my own train journey from Washington to West Virginia. Done in the summer with a longer span of daylight, it's a scenic ride through the Virginia countryside and deep in the New River Gorge. In the winter it gets dark too soon to see much of anything. I was seated next to a pretty Australian girl on "summer" break from university. She had a jam packed itinerary of most major American cities and I felt like I had finally "arrived" as an accomplished domestic traveller, as I was able to recommend a number of things to see and do in all her stops except for LA. I really don't care to ever go to LA.

Thanks to all the friends and family that hosted me along the way and helped out with my logistics. Getting back out on the road was just what I needed! I'm looking forward to spending more time with family for the remainder of the holidays and wish all of my readers a very Merry Christmas.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Favorite Gear and Food

Below I'll detail some behind the scenes information on gear and food gained from 5 months and 13,000 miles on the road.

Matt's Favorite Backcountry Gear

I could go on and on about everything from tents, packs, hardware, sleeping bags, and every article of clothing. But these are the things that really shined this summer:

Helinox Chair One - This. Thing. Rocks. I've never before cared to carry the extra weight of a chair, preferring to use a log, rock, or where required, my bear can. I thought about getting one of those contraptions that converts your sleeping pad into a chair, but was worried about popping my pad with the extra wear. I also looked into "crazy creek" style chairs, but figured that the extra weight wasn't worth it to just sit on the ground. Then I found the Helinox Chair One (REI makes their own version).  Total game changer. Full size camp chair comfort at just over a pound. I don't bring it on hardcore mountaineering trips when every ounce counts, but it's my new best friend on more leisurely backpacking trips.

Olympus TG-2 camera - I appreciate all the positive comments on many of my photos from the summer. I feel that I didn't do a whole lot more than show up in some awesome places with a decent camera - nature did the rest. But you need a camera that you're willing to take up to the summit or across the river. I've always said "the camera you have with you is worth more than the $2,000 DSLR in the car." Enter the TG-2. Waterproof and shockproof, I'm not concerned to take it anywhere and it always rides in my hip belt pocket, thru rain, snow, and scrambles.

Garmin Oregon 600 GPS - Learn to use a map and compass, period. But once you do, I think it's worthwhile to invest in a top quality GPS. I upgraded from an older Garmin this summer and was blown away. Touchscreen and integrated maps, which is probably the biggest benefit. A lot of GPS units will give your your position, but the ability to immediately reference that on the screen plotted against a topo map makes navigation a snap. It saved my bacon by helping me find a safe pass to cross in whiteout conditions in Denali. Save your money on the "t" versions and just get free topos from

MSR Windpro II - I have a number of stoves. For economical cooking on my tailgate I used an MSR Dragonfly & white gas. For super fast and easy "boil water" type cooking I use a Jetboil. But if I had to keep only one stove, the Windpro would be it. It uses isobutane canisters for ease and convenience - I prefer to light it with a firesteel instead of a lighter. But it solves a couple of the weaknesses of canister stoves, namely poor cold weather performance and stability problems, by using a remote fuel line. You can flip the canister over in cold weather to supply the stove with liquid fuel and it has a lower center of gravity. However, if I was in the market for a new stove I'd look at the MSR Universal. It combines features of the Windpro with the ability to switch parts and burn white gas. Just don't lose the accessory kit.

Arcteryx Squamish Hoodie - Yep, it's expensive. And when you get it in the mail you think "I paid all that money for this flimsy little thing?" But it's worth it. Every penny. I probably wear this jacket 8 out of 10 days. It's the perfect outer layer to cut the wind or shed a light sprinkle. It's not a hardshell, but how often do you wish you just had something to make a cool breeze feel a little more tolerable, protect from the sun or bugs over a t-shirt, and not overheat while doing something hard. Just throw this on over your base layer and you are good to go. I like the version with the hood - if you don't want to wear the hood, flip it to the inside of the collar and down your back. It'll disappear and you won't even feel it's there. The jacket is super thin, but I had no durability issues at all.

Platypus Hydration System - I prefer Platypus hydration bladders over Camelbak for a few reasons. One is simplicity - no complicated connectors or valves to freeze or jam up. In camp you can swap the hose for a standard cap to easily pour water for cooking and cleaning; and you can put the bladder in your sleeping bag to keep it from freezing at night without worrying that the hose will leak. But best of all, Platypus also makes their own filters, I have the Gravityworks 2.0, turning the bladder into a true "system." I can fill up the dirty reservoir, plug the filter outlet straight into my drink tube, and refill my bladder without removing it from my pack - and no pumping is required. Check it out.

Trekking Poles - If Noah and Flan read this I'm sure they'll call me a pansy. But I'm a trekking pole evangelical, spreading the word of improved stability and reduced joint pain to the hiking masses. They give me confidence on sketchy terrain, snowfields, and loose rock. And they are worth their weight in gold for crossing streams. I probably would have drowned in Denali without them. Take your pick on brand or style, doesn't really matter. I prefer cork grips for comfort and I think "antishock" is a bunch of marketing hype.

Salomon Quest 4D GTX Boots - my trusty hiking boots gave up the ghost somewhere in the North Cascades. After 7 years of dedicated service, I gave them a proper burial in an NPS trashcan. Needing some new boots pronto, I headed to REI and got the Salomon Quests. Man they feel good. Right out of the box, with zero break in I took them on a 47 mile backpacking trip with no issues. I don't know of a better endorsement than that. I waded an ankle deep stream in Utah for 4 days with no leaks in the Goretex. They'll make you feel like a wilderness ninja, ready to sprint up mountains and leap raging rivers.

Matt's Road Trip Essentials 

I really enjoyed driving around in my little pickup and parking next to RVs for the night. While they are busy getting 3mpg, I'm cruising around at 26mpg and have pretty much the same comforts. Bed - check. Shower - check. Laundry - check. Cooking - check. Toilet - no, but public restrooms are easily come by and you also have the woods. Below are some of the gear that made my truck feel more homey and help me sustain months of travel without becoming totally gross.

Helios Pressure Shower - Fill 'er up and set 'er in the sun and you have 5 gallons or so of luxuriously warm water for showering. The best part of the Helios is that is is powered by a foot pump instead of gravity. You aren't dependent upon finding the perfect tree in a private area (shower in your swimsuit if you can't find privacy). And you have better control over the flow from the nozzle, so your water lasts far longer - I'd have enough for 2 quick showers and some dishes.

Scrubba Wash Bag - This guy is expensive and I'll admit that I haven't fully recouped my investment quite yet. There are probably cheaper ways to do laundry. But the Scrubba is pretty genius; it's a dry bag with a flexible washboard built in. Just fill it with clothes, campsuds, and water then go to town. Dump the dirty water and refill to scrub again for "rinse cycle." Out come clean clothes with no mess and efficient water use. Line dry. No laundromat required.

Outback Oven - I did all of my cooking on the same stoves and cookware that I use in the backcountry. I didn't see the sense in investing in a separate set of gear - keep it simple. The Outback Oven is light enough to bring along on a leisurely backpacking trip and turns any camp stove (white gas models with external fuel tanks work best) into a baking machine. I'd make corn bread, chocolate chip cookies, cinnamon rolls, and brownies; the options are nearly limitless. The smell of brownies wafting thru camp or hot cinnamon rolls to go with my morning coffee really blur the lines of "roughing it."

Reliance Aquatainer - At 7 gallon capacity, this guy was essential for desert road tripping. I could fill up at a campsite and then be set for 3-4 days, giving me more freedom. It's not a flashy cool piece of gear but I used it multiple times a day.

Favorite Camp Food

I invested a lot of time before the trip dehydrating a variety of foods for the backcountry. But I quickly realized that I may have gone overboard on some things and too little on others. In the future I think I'll focus on drying a smaller variety but larger quantities, picking ingredients that are more flexible across a number of dishes. I strongly recommend a dehydrator for anyone interested in liberating themselves from the misery and expense of a complete freeze-dry existence. 

Most all of my recipes follow an easy formula, just requiring me to pick and choose a few things out of each category for a variety of tasty and nutritious meals. 

Starch - quick cooking carbs that won't use too much stove fuel like couscous, instant potatoes, minute rice, ramen, or pasta. Angel hair cooks fastest. Real rice takes FOREVER. 

Protein - dried beans or ground beef, a pouch of chicken, salmon, or tuna. I tired to dry ground sausage for more flavor but it was difficult to dry because of the extra oils

Vegetables - dried mushrooms, peas, carrots, and bell peppers became my go-tos. Dried onions are readily available in the store. My experiment with dried kale had mixed results; I should have completely separated the leaves from the stalks. The stalks never fully rehydrated, remaining has hard little twigs in the final dish. But the leaves were crispy and pulverized easily into a highly nutritious powder. 

Flavor - salt, pepper, olive oil (carry in a small bottle), parmesan cheese, hot sauce, soup mix, any number of premade spice packets from the grocery store, dried tomato sauce (it becomes like leather)

Smoked Salmon Pesto - couscous, smoked salmon packet, Knorr's pesto spice mix, olive oil, dried mushrooms, dried tomato sauce (optional)

Chicken Alfredo - angel hair or linguine pasta, Knorr's alfredo spice mix, olive oil, dried mushrooms, chicken packet, parmesan cheese

Matt's Classic - couscous, dried tomato sauce, olive oil, parmesan cheese, dried ground beef, dried peas, dried carrots, dried onions, dried mushrooms, kale powder

TexMex - minute rice, dehydrated beans, hot sauce, Knorr's fajita spice mix, dried bell peppers, dried onion, chicken pouch (optional), crushed taco shells (optional)

Shepard's Pie - instant potatoes, dried ground beef, split pea  or onion soup mix, dried peas, dried carrots, parmesan cheese, kale powder

Belize Rice and Beans - After a trip to Belize in 2008 I became enamored with this staple of the local cuisine. I recreated it using minute rice, dried beans, dried onions, and coconut milk (canned or powder)

Dried fruit - Store bought stuff usually has too much sugar and chemicals. I had my best success with home dried apples, pears, pineapple, and banana. Kiwi and strawberries are tasty, but less tolerant of any mistakes in the dehydrator and seemed like less bang for my buck when it came to comparing final product to prep work. Dried blueberries were a welcome addition to oatmeal and pancakes, but trying to make my own raisins, cranberries, and dried apricots was not worth it. 

Don't forget a cooler to pick up a 6 pack of all the unique microbrews from across the county. 

And tortillas are awesome. Might be my new favorite way to eat PB&J. 

Saturday, October 25, 2014


Louisiana is pretty much all swamps. Whilst driving thru the state I got the feeling that I-10 was more bridge than real roadway. I-10 was also fairly boring, but upbeat crazy cajun music called zydeco was playing on the radio and kept things interesting. Chris Marquis was bacheloring it for the month with the Mrs TDY, so he offered to put me up.

First night in town we went into the city. New Orleans is an interesting place. I really enjoyed the music and got to see an impromptu jam session near Jackson Square and one of those jazz parades for a wedding. I also enjoyed the food: beignets, po'boys, crawfish, gumbo, and jambalaya. But I hated Bourbon Street. It was like an even seedier version of the Vegas Strip and it smelled like the gutters were full of vomit and urine. No thanks. We got dinner at a quieter place on Magazine Street. Afterwards I quite literally bumped into CGA classmates Eric Turner and Brian Conrad playing chess on the sidewalk outside of a coffee shop. Small world.

The following day Chris and I took a swamp tour. Our Creole guide Jason was a wealth of knowledge both useful and arcane. I learned that gators cannot be sexed by an external observation and their pronounced epiglottis keeps them from drowning. Best of all I got to hold a baby alligator!

Unless Jurassic Park becomes real, this is pretty much as close as you can come to a dinosaur
My last stop in New Orleans was the exceptionally well done World War II museum. It started out years ago as a "D-Day" museum as a tribute to the amphibious landing craft designed and built in New Orleans that won the day in Normandy and across the Pacific. It has now expanded into the nation's preeminent World War II museum, complete with all sorts of weapons, uniforms, tanks, aircraft, boats, and first hand accounts from numerous veterans. I highly recommend the museum.

Germany 0, America 2. #backtobackworldwarchamps

From New Orleans I drove north, linking up with the Natchez Trace Parkway. While it's a much slower way to get to Nashville, the road is a true "parkway" - lined with trees, grass, cotton fields, and historic waysides. There's not a billboard advertisement or tractor trailer in sight for 440 miles. The only catch is that the speed limit (strictly enforced) is 50mph, but that helps you avoid collisions with the 4.3 million deer along the road.

Nahsville was a great stop. I don't know if I'll ever get a hankering to return to Las Vegas, Austin, or New Orleans. But for live music, good food, and a fun time, I think I'll be back to Nashville. I had dinner at Monell's, a southern style restaurant where the food is served family style, ten to a table. Listened to the three country bands playing on each floor of Tooties, one of the more famous honky-tonks. Breakfast at Loveless Cafe, known for their biscuits, of which they make 7,000 per day (I had 5). I toured the Country Music Hall of Fame but to be honest I didn't know 90% of the artists featured in the exhibits. And I got a milkshake at Elliston's Soda Shop, in business since 1937, before leaving town.

Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky, is a short drive from Nashville. I arrived in the afternoon, bought my ticket for a tour the following morning, and then hit the trail to stretch my legs. It's real nice to be back in Appalachia. Don't get me wrong, I LOVED Alaska and the Northwest, but there's something about the smell of the crisp fall air and the crunch of leaves underfoot that makes me feel more at home in these mountains. A loop thru the NPS property on the surface above Mammoth Cave takes you up and down some hills and hollows, along the Green River, and to the origins of the "River Styx" - the place where one of the waterways that has formed Mammoth Cave pops out from underground and empties into the Green River.

Appalachian fall afternoon
River Styx. I wanted to swim in it and become immortal but it was cold and I probably would have forgotten to immerse some critically important body part, like my heel or appendix or something
In the morning I joined my group for a "lantern tour" of Mammoth Cave. What a cool experience! We entered the cave with nothing but a dozen kerosene lanterns and got to see all the cave features by feeble, flickering flame light. Which may sound lame if you are more interested in the scenery but Mammoth has a very rich history and the lantern light really brings it all to life, seeing the cave as the early explorers and visitors did 200 years ago.

Before it became a National Park, the tour guides (often slaves), would allow visitors to sign the cave roof with the sooty smoke from tallow candles
Continuing from Mammoth Cave I stopped in Louisville for a "hot brown," a famous sandwich invented in the city in 1924. It's an open faced turkey sandwich with a rich cream sauce poured overtop, created to satiate late night revelers at the swing dances hosted by the Brown Hotel. I also tried a unique beer - Kentucky Bourbon Ale. The ale is allowed to ferment inside used bourbon barrels, imparting a bit of flavor (and increased alcohol content!). After dinner I found a campsite across the Ohio River in Indiana.

The grand finale of my road trip was a morning in Madison, Indiana. Madison is billed as "the best small town in America" and I think you'd be hard pressed to disagree. Madison was a boomtown in the mid 1850s, building steamboats and ferries for use on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. That business went bust, but Madison has somehow managed to keep it's historic charm (instead of a whole bunch of meth). Practically the entire city is now registered as a National Historic District comprised of well preserved Victorian style buildings. The little shops, restaurants, theaters, and the courthouse along flag-draped Main Street look like they've been time machined to 2014 from 1920. And all I could think about is how awesome it would have been to be a kid and go trick-or-treating along the quiet tree lined streets and alleys of the pretty neighborhoods.

Main Street, Madison, Indiana
It was only 4 hours from Madison to my home in West Virginia. I gave a little whoop crossing the "Wild and Wonderful" state line. It's nice to be back in the Mountain State. I'm a little past peak fall colors, but autumn has always been my favorite season. Chel surprised Mom and Dad with a visit from Baltimore, marking the first time the whole family has been together in Cross Lanes since 2009.

So that's it. Five months. 13,000 miles. Eyes on the Arctic, Pacific, and Atlantic Oceans. Glaciers, deserts, redwoods, canyons, mountains, cacti, and caves. It's somewhat difficult to allow myself to unpack after such a long time on the road. I became rather fond of the traveling lifestyle. I sincerely appreciate all the terrific hospitality of friends and family along the way. I thank everyone for keeping tabs on the blog.

I've come to really enjoy capturing my travels in this format, as much for my own sake as a tool to help share with others. You can expect a couple more posts: I was thinking about writing up a bit of an "after action report" to cover how I lived on the road with tips for any fellow minded adventurers  on gear, food, logistics, and living on the cheap. And between family time and hunting trips with the old man (if I shoot anything cool I'll put up a picture) I've got some travels to the DC area and Florida planned for the winter. Keep in touch.

5 months and 13,000 miles of home (things are a bit more organized now than they were in May) 

Sunday, October 19, 2014


I didn't think Texas had any real mountains at all, but right there across the border from Carlsbad Caverns was Guadalupe Mountains National Park, dominated by Guadalupe Peak at almost 9000 ft. I probably should have climbed Guadalupe Peak like everyone else in the park and thus been able to say I've reached the highest place in Texas, but instead I took a solitary, low key backpacking trip up along McKitrick Ridge to explore more of the backcountry. Again I found myself surprised (which I shouldn't by now) of the drastically increased forest cover as one climbs in elevation. There was a nice oak and maple forest at 8000 ft, populated by tree species found no where else for hundreds of miles around. Migrating birds visited McKitrick Canyon for the perennial water source and pooped out the seeds along the way. Cool.

McKitrick Canyon
Horny lizard
South of the Guadalupe Mountains lies Big Bend National Park, a place I've wanted to see for quite some time. I even ended up staying an extra unplanned night so I could fit everything in. I started my Big Bend experience by taking advantage of their "primitive roadside camping" policy. There are a number of dirt roads you can drive along and just pull off and camp. Which is similar to what you can do in any National Forest or on BLM land, but its pretty rare to be able to so in a National Park. Of course you do need a permit to do so, and the pullouts are designated on the map (it still is NPS after all). But it's cheaper than their developed campgrounds. #winning #quitmy80Kjob #onabudget

My second day in Big Bend I backpacked the famous South Rim loop. The South Rim of the Chisos Mountain Basin drops 2000 ft down sheer cliffs teeming with peregrine falcons to the desert floor and the Rio Grande River below. The best backpacking campsites are perched along the rim - great views but also great amounts of wind. Luckily my bivy sack has a low profile and no loose fabric. A flapping tent is one of the few things that can actually keep me up - to me it's the mountain man equivalent of nails on a chalkboard.

The Chisos Mountains
The South Rim
Sunset from South Rim
Day three found me finishing the South Rim Loop with a detour up Emory Peak, the highest in Big Bend. There is a radio tower on the summit that detracts a little from the wilderness experience, but the side hike finishes with a very fun 40ft rock scramble to the top. I met a nice couple from Austin: they gave me numerous recommendations for my planned stop and in return I helped show them the easiest route back down. Apparently not everyone thought the scrambling was as fun as I did.

Chisos Basin from Emory Peak
Mule deer use the trail too
On my final day in Big Bend I got an early morning start to climb Casa Grande. There's no trail, nor did I have any real information on the peak, but it looms impressively over the Chisos Basin Campground and I thought I'd give it a shot. Many of my mountain climbing adventures have begun that way - I see a peak that looks appealing on another hike or climb and decide to go for it later on. Well, I did not feel very welcome at "The Big House." The mesas got too steep for me to comfortable climb without a rope and I lost count after getting stabbed in the leg half a dozen times by prickly pear cactus as I crossed the trail less desert terrain. Bleeding from the big thick cactus spines and itching from those tiny hairlike ones that are hard to see and remove, I returned to my truck. Luna Peak was still worse though...

Casa Grande. Su casa es no mi casa. 
With the rest of the day at hand I made the scenic drive out the Ross Maxwell Road to see more of the park. I hiked along the Santa Elena Canyon of the Rio Grande. Try as I might, I couldn't get any of the ten American rocks I threw to commit an illegal border crossing into Mexico. It's a big river.

Santa Elena Canyon of the Rio Grande
It took every bit of my manly courage to take this photo
Roadrunner. Beep-beep! 
Big Bend was my last big wilderness adventure of the road trip. After Big Bend my plans mostly included urban adventures with some day trips thrown in. First of the cities to see was San Antonio and the infamous Alamo.

The Alamo is TINY and appears even smaller in its urban setting surrounded by skyscrapers. However, during the tour you learn that only the chapel building - what everyone thinks of when they think "Alamo" - of the historic mission is still standing. The original mission was a large walled complex with additional buildings and barracks to house first the monks, then the heroes of Texas liberty. The battle for the Alamo was pretty much "300" with cowboy hats and Bowie knives. Brave men all.

San Antonio is also home to a number of less famous, but better preserved Spanish missions, protected in a National Park currently in the running for UNESCO World Heritage Site recognition. My favorite was Mission San Jose. I was the first person to visit for the day and enjoyed the peace and quiet of the mission in the early morning hours. Until a bus showed up about 15 minutes later.

For dinner I went down to the San Antonio Riverwalk, a very forward thinking public works project of the Depression Era. The San Antonio River kept flooding the town; when they decided to put in dams and levees upstream they also decided to landscape and develop the new river course thru town. Today the Riverwalk is like an American Venice-  home to a quaint waterway lined with cafes and restaurants, crossed by pedestrian bridges, and traveled by small motor barges filled with tourists. I enjoyed fresh guacamole (prepared tableside) and a prickly pear margarita (it was purple). I much prefer my prickly pear in my stomach instead of in my leg.

Austin was up next. Armed with the recommendations from the top of Emory Peak I set off to explore the city. The Capitol building is pretty, but I didn't like the color. It's supposed to be a nice red granite, but in the light I had that evening it looked poop-brown. I tried Texas chili. Meh. I'll probably catch some flak from any Texas friends (hi Andi!) but I prefer beans in my chili. I did enjoy my brisket from the Iron Works BBQ. And when there are signed pictures of the wall of President Obama, President Bush, Neil Patrick Harris, and the 7 foot tall guy who played Chewbacca, you know you are in the right place! I also saw the Whiskey Sisters, a local country band, at one of the great Austin live music venues.

My last day in Texas was spent in the Houston area. I am a total space dork and filled my day with activities at the Johnson Space Center for the entire 7 hours they were open from 10-5. The pictures below will illustrate the awesomeness that is the JSC.

An actual Project Mercury capsule flown in space and recovered from the Pacific Ocean. About half the size of a smart car. 
The actual Apollo 17 capsule, recovered from the Pacific Ocean. 3 guys, 8 days, about the size of my pickup. Damn. 

Apollo 17 EVA (extravehicular activity) suit brought back from the moon
Apollo 17 lunar rover recovered from the surface of the moon. 
Where the magic happened - Mission Control for Apollo Project. Now a National Historic Landmark. Current space missions are directed from elsewhere in the building. 
A Saturn V launch vehicle. I can't convey the size without setting myself up for a "that's what she said" joke of the century. But it's really big. 
Space toilet! (from the shuttle). Space toilets use vacuum suction to keep turds from floating away in zero g. 
Any of my Coastie friends recognize the man, second from right, with the exquisite mustache?
Get a room you guys! The space shuttle transportation system and a future JSC exhibit. 
That evening I continued east to Galveston and spent the night on the Gulf Coast. I enjoyed reflecting on the road trip thus far, realizing that I have gone from the rivers of the Arctic Circle to the mountains of the Northwest to the forests of California to the canyons of Utah and across the desert of Texas to see my third ocean in five months! On to NOLA!

** UPDATE: the Apollo moon rover wasn't really recovered. That's a training one used on Earth. It was an attempt at a super space dork joke that nobody got but me. They had to leave a lot of gear on the moon to make room for the moon rocks they brought back. I don't want to be blamed for misinformation

Monday, October 13, 2014

New Mexico

Leaving the Grand Canyon, I made a quick stop at Petrified Forest National Park. Cool, but rock solid wood can only captivate for so long. The big bummer came when I realized that camping was not allowed in Petrified Forest NP - they lock the roads down at night to keep wood thieves away. So my foray into New Mexico happened a day earlier than planned - there were no camping options until Gallup.

But what an option it turned out to be! The USA RV Park was just about the most patriotic place I've ever been. The proprietor, John, was super helpful and friendly, even more so when he found out I was a vet. John kept the RV Park spotless, I probably could have ran my toothbrush around the toilet bowl and used it with no ill effect. Anyways, USA RV Park in Gallup - if you are in the area, check it out. Active Duty Military stays for free if any of y'all have a cross country PCS in the future.

In the morning, on John's recommendation, I had breakfast at the El Rancho Hotel, my first big stop in my quest for Historic Route 66 authenticity. El Rancho has served the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, and Ronald Regan (before he was President). They've been serving up their "Bunkhouse Special" - 2 hotcakes, 1 egg, meat, biscuit, and coffee - since 1937.

El Rancho lobby
Interstate 40 has supplanted Historic Route 66. Except that I-40 bypasses all the towns in the name of saving 3.2 minutes of your precious time, and therefore only along the main streets of the nearby towns can you really drive on the old Route 66. For a complete history of this phenomenon, please watch the movie "Cars."

I got my kicks...
Albuquerque's "Central Avenue" is still in the style of old 66. 18 miles of diners, neon, motels, and tacky signs. I particularly liked the Frontier Restaurant's burritos and the 66 Diner's "pileup." Come to think of it, I really enjoyed all the food in New Mexico, especially the tendency to cover everything from eggs to burgers to burritos to pizza to ice cream (not kidding - in delicious green chili sauce. I even took to making my PB&Js with tortillas, the better to appear like a local.

I purposely timed my arrival in Albuquerque to coincide with the International Balloon Fiesta. And what a spectacle that was. Despite my 0400 reveille, I missed the "mass ascension" of 500+ balloons in the morning when it was cancelled due to high winds. But I made up for my disappointment later that evening when I returned for a "balloon glow." They keep the balloons tethered to the ground, but the fill them up and use their giant propane torches like hundreds of oversized candles in the night. It's really beautiful.


Just outside of Albuquerque, and totally unexpected, I came across Petroglyph National Monument. This little gem is quite literally in the suburbs of town (don't come here for the solitude!) but preserves over 800 images on the rock. I figure myself to be pretty knowledgable on our National Park System, yet I was blown away by the fact that Petroglyph National Monument even existed, especially when contrasted with the quantity and the quality of the glyphs. Some of my favorites below:

I called this one "turtle man." Turtles play an important role in Native American creation stories
Heading south out of Albuquerque I stopped in Roswell. The town is much bigger than I thought it was going to be. And the UFO museum was much lamer than I thought it was going to be. The International UFO Museum is big on conspiracy and government coverups but light on hard facts and evidence. Sensational newspaper articles and signed "witness testimony" make up all of the exhibits. Some of the arguments for the UFOs are compelling, but c'mon, give me a piece of a spaceship or an alien skull recovered from the desert and preserved in formaldehyde or something! Is that too much to ask?

However, in the interest of fairness, I would like to point out that I had my own UFO encounter shortly after leaving Roswell. So maybe there is something to be said for all that...

Look 1/3 to 2/5 the way into the sky above the telephone pole
UFO or Government weather balloon coverup? You decide 
Carlsbad Caverns was my final stop in New Mexico. The caverns were awesome, preserving some of the largest limestone features in the western hemisphere. Most impressive were the bats. Each night 400,000 bats fly out of the cave entrance. NPS doesn't permit any cameras or electronic devices during the flights (they would disturb the bats) so I don't have any photos, but it was a memorable experience nonetheless. The bats came out just after sunset, spiraling upwards in a helix and then making their way across the desert to the south, backlit by a full moon. Just as cool, I woke up early the following morning to catch the last bats return to the cave for the day. They would tuck their wings and dive-bomb into the cave at 30mph, making little whizzing sounds as they did so. And in the morning I had the place to myself, as opposed to the nightly show which attracts a hundred people or so.

I lucked out and was able to tag along on an "adventure tour" of the cave, taking the place of someone who had dropped out they day before. It was fun to do some real spelunking; I've not gotten the chance to do any since Boy Scouts. We had to pass obstacles such as "The Pinch" and "Castration Rock." I'm happy to report that I didn't get stuck and I brought back everything I started with.

The "pinch"

The Devil's Pipe-organ
The Great Phallus
Dr Evil and Mini Me
Jabba the Hut
The Predator
*All the names of the cave features I made up myself. I have no idea what they are called.