Every place has a story. The story of every place is shaped not only by its Physical Geography (mountains, rivers, climate, vegetation, etc.), but also by the people that live there. Human Geography (culture, economics, demographics, politics) is intrinsically interwoven with the Physical landscape, as both affect one another.
Out of the way places interest me, as there is something to learn from every place and something to learn about ourselves and our place in this world. Describing the cultural meaning of PLACE is an interest of mine. Most of the places that I will write about are known to some, but not necessarily popular tourist locations. If there are pristine and undiscovered places that I may write about, I may take editorial license to give them different names to keep them protected. How places change over time or how we perceive them differently as time passes is also an interest of mine.
I am continuing to travel and explore our world. Posts are categorized by location or topic. There are a wide variety of locations to choose from, including Alaska, Oregon, International (which includes trips to Spain, Norway, Bolivia, Uzbekistan, New Zealand, Canada, and Morocco, just to name a few). Topics include nature, travel, and memoir. I invite all of you to come explore and take a geographical journey with us. We hope that you will not only experience new places with us, but also gain new insights about your place in this world.
I can honestly say I’ve never set foot on Russian soil. But I have been right on the border and close enough to spit on it. FIVE different times!
Russia, the largest country by land area in the world, has many interesting landforms that I would like to see. It is difficult to get a tourist visa to go there, and almost impossible to get one as an independent tourist. U.S. and European visitors from the Schengen area must have a Russian based sponsor inviting them to visit the country. It remains pretty closed off to the rest of the world.
I’ll likely never see the grandeur of Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world which holds 1/5 of the world’s fresh water. Likewise, I’ll probably never experience the wilds of the Kamchatka Peninsula, with towering active volcanoes, a large population of Grizzly Bears, and Native Siberian culture. But when I got close to the side of Russia that borders Europe, I felt the temptation of forbidden fruit and went right up to the border to have a peek.
The first three times I’ve never been to Russia happened a decade and a half ago. A friend and I had driven to Nordkapp, the northernmost point in Europe, in Northern Norway. From there, we headed east to the town of Kirkenes, which is in Finnmark province.
The border between Russia and Norway was fixed in a border agreement in 1826. About 2/3 of that border follows rivers, where the middle of the channel is the actual border. East of Kirkenes, we came upon the King Oscar II Chapel, near the village of Grense Jakobslev, which is only about 1,600 feet away from the border. But since we were still 1,600 feet away, this does NOT count as the first time I’ve never been to Russia.
We headed south toward Pasvik National Park, which straddles the border. There is a tri-country marker at the edge of the park where Russia, Finland, and Norway all meet at one point. On the way down, we stopped at a stream. Different color posts were placed on each side of the stream, denoting the sovereignty of the country of the soil that they were placed on. Signs in several languages admonished the reader not to cross to the other side. Guard towers on the Russian side were sometimes visible. Video cameras were often deployed.
I walked out into the stream, but made sure that I was less than halfway across, so that technically I was still in Norway. Then, I arched my neck back and spit as far as I could. Although the spittle didn’t reach the bank on the Russian side of the river, it did nearly reach it. I just spit on Mother Russia. I hope Putin saw that on video tape. Then, I retreated back to the riverbank and we got back in the car and drove on. That was the FIRST time that I’ve never been to Russia!
We drove to the end of the road in Pasvik National Park. From there we started walking towards the tri-country border marker (Treriksroysa). A swath had been cut through the forest for a trail and a chain link fence on our left was the actual border. Since it was summer time, the mosquitos were out in force. We should’ve brought a head net!
About 1/2 hour into the hike, we ran across two older Norwegian gentlemen who were portaging their canoe from one stream to another. One of the men was named Od. We thought that Od was kind of an odd name for a person to have, but his English was pretty good and we talked a while. He told us that the three country marker was much further away than we thought. In between swatting at hungry mosquitos, he advised us to turn back. Besides, Russia was already just on the other side of this chain link fence. And we would be going into Finland tomorrow. How much closer could you get?
When we were out of view of Od and his friend, I relieved myself through the chain link fence. Now, I had pissed on Mother Russia too! I looked around to see if there were any surveillance cameras in the area. If there were, I hope Putin would see that too! That was the SECOND time I’ve never been to Russia.
Driving back toward Kirkenes, a Norwegian border patrol car started to follow us. Later, we found out that many Russians illegally cross because life in a Norwegian jail often is better than a life of poverty in Russia. After a few miles, they broke off the chase. After checking the car plates, they probably found out that it was just two American tourists in a rental car.
The THIRD time that I’ve never been to Russia was at an actual designated border crossing at a highway from Finland to Russia. The road leads to Murmansk, where there is a Russian Naval Base with Nuclear submarines. Permission to enter….Denied!
Several years after that trip, my wife and I were conducting a bicycle trip around the Baltic Sea. We started in Copenhagen, Denmark and planned to circumnavigate the Baltic, passing through several countries. There was only one problem. One small remnant of the Soviet Union decided to remain with Russia after the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania gained their independence. The old Soviet oblast (state) of Kaliningrad decided that it was too small to be a viable independent nation. It also had a lot of Ethnic Russians living there. When the vote came down, Kaliningrad decided to stay as part of Russia even though it was not physically attached to the mother country. Similarly, Alaska is part of the USA but has no border with any other US state.
Without a proper visa, we would have to peddle hundreds of miles out of our way to avoid Kaliningrad. Rather than do that, we decided to bypass both Poland and Kaliningrad by taking a ferry from Germany to Lithuania.
The city of Klaipeda where we disembarked the ferry was close to the Russian border at Kaliningrad. Klaipeda lays at the head of the Curonian Spit, a barrier island that has a national park and is famous for the amber that is found there. Eurovelo route 10, a designated bicycle route, traversed the spit. Even if Russia had not been so close, we would have opted for a bike ride here, as it is a worthy destination in itself. A quick local ferry ride across the lagoon brought us to the spit, where we cycled south towards the town of Nida and the Russian border. We camped in a campground just outside of Nida.
-The Curonian Spit is a 98 km long sand dune ridge that was formed from a glacial moraine and shaped by winds and sea currents. It is the home of the highest sand dunes in Europe, some reaching up to 200 feet in height. It used to be covered in forest, but logging back in the 16th and 17th centuries caused a lot of erosion by removing the vegetation. The dunes began to move and settlements were lost. In the 19th and 20th centuries, reforestation projects were performed to re-stabilize the landscape. The Spit is also the location of the biggest amber producing area in the world. Now, there are national parks on both sides of the border to protect this UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a magical place to ride a bike through.
From Nida, we cycled on a path across the dunes to the lagoon. From there, I walked south towards the border, until I came up to a split rail fence with barbed wire on top. I looked around and saw no one. Like I did several years ago in Pasvik, I relieved myself through the fence and hit Russian soil. Take that Vladimir! That was the fourth time I’ve never been to Russia…
Back on the paved road again, we pedaled south on the road to the gate at the border. Beyond the gate lay Russia, and a place called the “Dancing Forest”, so named due to the gnarled, twisted trunks of the trees there. I sure would have liked to have seen it in person. This is the FIFTH time I’ve never been to Russia….
I hear that the sixth time is the charm. A few years ago, while biking through the Baltic republic of Estonia, I heard about a ferry from the capital city of Tallinn to St. Petersburg, Russia, where one could get a three day tourist visa without much problem. I was stoked! I bought a book on St. Petersburg and planned out my three days. Saint Petersburg, the second largest city in Russia, and the world’s most northerly city of over 1 million residents, was the capital of Russia from 1713 until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. It is named after Tsar Peter the Great. It is often described as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Often it is referred to as “The Venice of the North”. I was giddy with anticipation on my upcoming visit. However, when I got to the dock at Tallinn harbor, I found out that they had recently discontinued the Tallinn-St. Petersburg ferry. If I wanted to visit Russia, I would have to go first fly Helsinki, Finland and take that ferry instead. Sadly, that wasn’t possible with the time and budget that I had at the time. I guess that technically, I’ve never been to Russia SIX times now.
One last parting thought. If I am ever found dead from some unknown poison, I suspect that Vladimir had read this post and took some revenge. But if he does ever read it, I hope that instead he will open up his country so that the rest of us can see Kamchatka, Lake Baikal, or the Dancing Forest!
I just returned from another night of camping alone, my fourth in the last month. The trips spanned the time from one full moon to the next one. The first couple of nights were filled with sadness about having to camp by myself. I’ve recently lost a couple of camping buddies. However, this latest camp-out revealed a change in mood away from the sadness. The forest spoke to me and it revealed the true value of our public lands.
The two camping buddies I lost are not dead. I just won’t have the opportunity to share a tent with them any more. One is a long-time friend of 40 years, the other is my wife. Their situations are much different from one another.
A recent excursion to Western Colorado took my wife and I to Fruita, Colorado, where we had a wonderful base camp at a local B&B. We enjoyed biking paved pathways following the Colorado River, hiking through the beautiful sandstone cliffs of Colorado National Monument, biking the back roads through wine country, and visiting Arches National Monument in Utah. We enjoyed nature to the fullest.
It was such a wonderful trip……UNTIL we camped in Northern Nevada! She was uncomfortable and miserable, and thus declared that her camping days are over! She has been a trooper over the years, and has endured many hardships while camping. When we were younger, we were more adventurous and easily shrugged off any discomfort. But this is now. No more would she endure the discomfort of sleeping on the ground or having to endure the cold. And there wasn’t even a proper bathroom around!
Over the years, we’ve had such wonderful memorable moments camping together. At least I thought it was for the both of us. I remember holding tight to each other in a thunderstorm with howling winds in the Canadian Arctic; gasping in awe at the Milky Way in the night sky in the Nevada desert; making sweet love on a deserted beach on the North Island of New Zealand on the shore of the Tasman Sea; dipping in hot springs in Oregon under a full moon; and putting up the tent with no rainfly one Arctic summer evening, so that we could look through the tent netting to see the sun set and rise again 20 minutes later! We also shared one sleepless, terrifying night on Chichagof Island in SE Alaska with a Grizzly sow and cubs right outside of our tent for most of the night. But that episode is a whole other story in itself.
On my first night after our trip, I thought about these times as I camped alone. Knowing that we will never have the opportunity to share a tent together again filled me with sadness. But we still have each other! Now it is time to find new ways to share adventures together.
But I still have a need to get away in nature…to explore new places…and yes, to do it sleeping on the ground, even if it is sometimes uncomfortable for my aging body. Lots of my friends don’t understand it, but a few of them still do. But where can you go to do this? For me, I am grateful for the amount of public lands and open spaces we have here in Oregon.
Everyone needs their own special place to “escape” to and recharge their batteries. A place of solitude; a place for contemplation; a place for mental, physical and spiritual renewal. For me, one of those places is Road 7713.
I have several favorite camping places that I visit in Deschutes National Forest. I prefer dispersed camping, so I bring a 6 gallon jug of water, park my car on a seldom used road, and take 6 liters in my backpack and head off to one of my secret places. My car can then act as “Base Camp”, where I can resupply and head off in another direction. One of my favorite roads is a dead end, abandoned spur road that we’ll call “Road 7713“. Now, you didn’t really think I was going to reveal the exact location of my hiding places, did you?
The elevation of road 7713 is a little higher than some of the other roads in the area, so I usually have to wait until late April, or sometimes early May before I can use it as a campsite. Earlier this Spring, my car made the first tracks in the dirt on the more heavily used road that takes you to 7713. When I got there this year, it looked as if nobody had visited the area in decades, even though I had camped there twice last Fall. Enough pine cones and pine straw had fallen to cover up the bare ground where I had last erected my tent.
A small tree had fallen over the road since I last camped there. I got out, moved it out of the way and drove a few feet past where it lay. Then, I dutifully placed it back across the road. Naturally! A hundred yards later, I came to the clearing where I would pitch my tent. I pulled out my folding chair, grabbed a good book, and then opened up the cooler and grabbed a cold beer. The troubles of city life quickly faded, as the cool breeze swept them away. I am so grateful for road 7713!
On the way back out, I used a branch of sagebrush to erase my tire marks and placed a few pine cones across the road to make it look like nobody had been down that route. Then, I placed a long limb across the path and spread some pine straw to cover up my footprints. I always look forward to when the weather turns cooler to camp there. Dear readers, I hope you have a place to escape to that is similar to road 7713!
On my first night of camping alone after Nevada, I naturally headed back to road 7713 again. A light snow had recently fallen and the air was clean and crisp. I planned to walk as far as I could down the road which road 7713 branches off of. The full moon would be rising at twilight, so I planned on starting the hike in the daylight and returning under the full moon. I also brought a book I wanted to finish reading.
In the daylight, I sat down under a pine tree and finished reading “An African in Greenland”, written by Tete Michel Kpomassie, a man from Togoland in West Africa who read about Greenland in his youth and yearned to go there someday. I first heard about this book from a blogger in the United Kingdom, who has a blog called “A Year of Reading the World”. Her name is Ann Morgan. If you are interested in good reads from other countries and cultures, I recommend following her website. http://ayearofreadingtheworld
Being alone in the quiet forest allowed me to travel to Greenland virtually. The book was so well written, I feel like I was on the ground there. I also can relate to the author who sometimes feels out of place as an African living among the Inuit people. I sometimes feel that way back in town….but not out here in the woods!
I put down the book and listened…..Silence in the forest does have a sound. It resembles a buzzing sound…Is it the sound of the Forest speaking to me? The sound is similar to tinnitus. How do I know? Well, I have tinnitus in my right ear. How do I know that it is the Forest speaking to me and not just tinnitus I hear? It is because the buzzing has a slightly different pitch to it. I heard that same sound in the forests of my youth, long before I ever had tinnitus. The difference between the two sounds are akin to the difference between a flute and a piccolo. Both come from the woodwind family and have similar, yet different sounds. Or the nuances between the languages of Slovenian and Croatian…both are similar, but different enough to be distinguished from one another to a trained ear.
What are the tree saying to me? Since the sound is the same pitch as the sounds of the forests of my youth, but only louder now, does that mean that the trees are yelling at me? I imagine that they are shouting, “Help Me!” This has been another brutal summer with continued drought and smoke from forest fires. The climate is changing and they dealt with the smoke that was the ashes of their brethren from neighboring forests. They tried to absorb as much CO2 as possible via photosynthesis, but couldn’t keep up and were choking in the process. I imagine them saying, “Hey, we’re rooted here and can’t just migrate away like you can. So, please DO something!”
As I was pondering this, a pair of black-capped chickadees landed on a nearby branch and stared at me for a moment, before flittering away. Their brief gaze seemed to suggest, “Did you hear what they said?”
I got up and started walking down to the road that 7713 branches off of. I’ve never traveled more than a mile on it. I started walking to explore it further.
The road continued deeper into the forest and then turned uphill a bit. The amount of snow increased in relation to the elevation and the direction of the slope orientation. Finally, the road abruptly stopped. I was expecting this road to go somewhere. I sat in the snow at the end of another dead end road and thought about where my life was going; where we are all going as a society. I’m grateful for this solitude to ruminate on these things. They say that change is the only constant in life. How will the forest and I, reinvent ourselves in, and adapt to a changing world without fundamentally giving up who we are?
The second night I camped alone, in a new location, I lamented the loss of another tent buddy. A friend who I’ve shared many wilderness experiences with over the years, has spiraled deep into Trump world and its conspiracy theories. While I can respect various points of view, I can’t go where he is going. I’ve tried to maintain the friendship by concentrating on what we have in common and not engaging in any toxic political rhetoric. But he simply cannot refrain from constantly going on political rants and diatribes. In a way, my old friend has died and has been replaced by someone I do not know…
I cogitate on this as I sit and stare at a lone Juniper tree, more than 60 miles away from my home. It seems that with the increase in population in Bend, I have to go further and further afield to get away from it all.
My old friend and I shared multiple trips to Alaska, trips to Canada, Iceland, Norway, and the desert Southwest. I love him for sharing those wonderful moments with me. But never having the opportunity to share new moments in the future makes me sad.
The lonely place I am at is culturally in Greater Idaho, but geographically still in Eastern Oregon. Citizens in this area want to secede from Oregon and join Idaho for political reasons. As I sit in my camp chair munching on potato chips, I wonder…”By eating chips and enriching potato farmers in Idaho, am I in essence somehow aiding and abetting the loss of Oregon’s land to Idaho?”
I hear pecking on a nearby tree. Is it a woodpecker or a common flicker? If only I were an ornithologist, I would know. But alas, I am but a geographer, a generalist who knows a little about most things. Although I know what general type of bird made that sound, I admire those specialists who know the exact species just by hearing a sound in the woods.
This time, I veered off the road to Nowhere to take a cattle trail into the forest. The sun was getting lower in the sky. The nearly full moon would be rising just before the sun set. The skies were clear and it would be cold tonight!
I walked deeper into the forest on the trail. There were signs that a motorcycle must have come through here sometime this year. But with the amount of pine cones and pine needles in the trail, nobody had come through here in quite some time. I looked for a suitable tree to lean against or a stump to sit on to work out some things that were on my mind.
I found a pine tree about the same age as I was and sat down next to it. The sturdy tree braced my back and the five inches of duff and pine straw cushioned my bottom. A light, northerly breeze wafted against my right cheek as I stared through the forest toward the low-lying sun near the western horizon. In the next hour, I came to many conclusions as to how I was going to teach an upcoming class I am preparing for in Winter term on Sustainability. Ideas I get out here are so much more clear.
I know that people in cities come up with great ideas. There are many other good places for contemplation in urban areas (libraries, community gardens, meditative spaces, etc.). I value all of them, but none are as valuable to me as a quiet place in the woods. I write my thoughts in my notebook, which I will translate into my syllabus and assignments on the computer once I get back to my suburban home. But the sun will soon set, so I need to walk back to an open space and take some photos.
As I come to a clearing in the woods, I see that the nearly full moon is already high above the horizon. As the sun sets in one cardinal direction, a quick turn and a glance reveals the rising moon. What a beautiful experience to have them both at the same time!
A song from the play “Fiddler on the Roof” comes to mind. I substitute the lyrics of “Moonrise, Sunset”, for the actual words from that song.
Sunrise, sunset (x2), Swiftly fly the years, One season following another, Laiden with happiness and tears.
(tevye) What words of wisdom can I give them, How can I help to ease their way?
(golde) Now they must learn from one another, Day by day.
As I walk back to camp in the moonlight, I speculate on the value of the lands I am walking through. It is impossible to put a dollar value on them…they are PRICELESS!
Although someone had previously built a fire ring where I was camping, I did not make a fire, even though it got very cold that night. I switched from drinking beer to boiling water for hot tea. I sat in the chair until the moon was overhead, not wanting to go to sleep and miss any secrets that nature might whisper in my ear. After a long while, just to keep warm, I walked down a dirt road in the other direction for a few more miles in the moonlight before finally crawling into the sleeping bag on the ground next to the car.
The following morning the temperature read 25F. After boiling any water that was still in liquid form, I made a strong cup of coffee and set out to re-create my moonlight excursion. A low, light veil of semi-transparent fog artfully decorated the landscape. The low, rising sun backlit a few high clouds and painted them shades of red and orange. With fingers frozen, I tried to snap some pictures. I was alone, but feeling lonely no more. The same forest that was freezing my fingers was also warming my heart and soul.
By the time I got back to camp, the fog was starting to lift. Time to pack up and head back to syphillization (civilization).
My time left on this planet is but a short time; maybe two more decades at best. The forest, by contrast, seems timeless. But even that is not true. In her book “Timefulness”, author Marcia Bjornerud discusses how “thinking like a geologist can help save the world.” The book discusses how knowing the rhythms of the Earth’s deep past and conceiving of time as a geologist does (and as some geographers also do), can give us the perspective we need for a more sustainable future.
Spending time alone in nature can give us the spiritual and intellectual nourishment to allow us to go back and function in our broken human world. However, we must be still…and be opening to listen to her. If we do, we have a glimmer of hope. May each of you find peace in and strive to protect those special places!
With that, I decided to take the long route of slow dirt roads back home. I stopped only long enough to either take pictures or remove someone else’s trash.
The Mojave Desert. The name evokes images of heat, thirst, discomfort or death. But all of that changes when you bring your chair, a cooler of drinks, a jug of water, and camp down a deserted road. The mood changes to peace, solitude, wonder and awe. And when the sun goes down, you’ve never knew there were so many stars in the heavens above!
Two weeks before, I was backpacking through the desert while carrying 6 liters of water. At the end of the day, I simply collapsed and cowboy camped wherever I found a suitable place. Too tired to star gaze and enjoy my surroundings, my thoughts were taken up as to finding where the next possible water source might be. That desert became my adversary.
This time, the desert experience would be different. After recovering from the backpacking trip at a friend’s house in the L.A. area, I set off again for the the quiet solitude of the Mojave. It took a few hours to drive out of the megalopolis to get to Hwy. 395. That road hugs the base of the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains, with the desert to the east in the rainshadow of the the Sierras. On the drive north, I listened to game 5 of the NBA finals. Satisfied with an exciting Bucks win over the Suns, I set out to find a dirt road in which to drive out into the desert and find a suitable spot to relax.
I found one just a few hundred yards off of the highway. A strong katabatic wind blew down off of the mountains and across the dry, flat plains where I was camped. I faced my camp chair to the east and let the wind blow on my back. I planned to journal here, but the wind was strong enough to blow paper out of a spiral notebook, so I put away the notebook and instead took notes with my eyes, ears and nose. The air was pungent with the smell of creosote bush and sage. High cirrus clouds moved high overhead from the southwest; a different direction than the katabatic wind at my back. The sun was low in the sky and I watched the shadows creep ever eastward. A waxing half moon was already high overhead. Occasionally, I could hear the roar of a semi truck speeding north on the highway.
An Enchanted Desert Place
The stress of driving on crowded Southern California roads was now behind me, and the strong breeze blew away any angst that I had earlier in the day. The sun would be setting behind the mountains soon. I awaited with anticipation for what secrets the desert night sky would reveal. I wanted this feeling to last for a long time, so I lit the stove and made a cup of strong tea, even though it was still hot outside. It was too windy to set up the tent, so I just sipped tea while relaxing in my camp chair while waiting for the stars.
Time to sit and just be….be alone to take in the sights, smells, and noises of the wind rushing through the desert vegetation and appreciate being alive in the moment. Time to process all of the myriad of things that are swimming around in my head. With no agenda to get somewhere or fear of dying of thirst, the desert can be a wonderful place of discovery. And for taking inventory of one’s life….
The sun set behind the mountains and a few of the bright stars and the planet Venus started to appear in the twilight of the sky. I had just downloaded an app called Starwalk on my mobile phone, so I opened it up to study the night sky. When pointing it toward the heavens, it would not only reveal the name of the stars, but connect the stars to show pictures of animals. I sat in the chair for a long time, just looking up at the stars and thinking about how the light that I was seeing from them was emanated long ago in the past. The desert night sky can sure make one feel insignificant in relation to the cosmos!
Centuries before, the place that I am sitting was part of Alta California and was claimed by the Spanish colonial empire. Now, as it is part of the United States, those who live in the Chihuahua and Sonora deserts on the other side of the border in Mexico, refer to anything on this side of the border as “El Norte” (the North). El Norte offers the hope of a better life, even though environmental conditions may still be bleak. Peoples in Central America and Mexico dream of coming to “El Norte”.
Being here in El Norte allows me to dream of other deserts around the world that I have visited. I realized that many, but not all, of the magical moments I have experienced in this life occurred in a desert landscape. As I looked up again at the stars, I imagined other desert dwellers looking up at the same time and wondered what they were feeling. Immediately I thought first of the deserts in the Western Hemisphere, where it would also be dark at this time.
Just then, a meteorite flew across the heavens and died out in a blaze of glory! Too early to the one of the Persieds, which come in August. I always thought that my preferred method to leave this planet would be to be somewhere wonderful and looking up at the sky and be hit by a meteor. No suffering, and enjoyment of life up until the last minute. But how likely is that to happen?
That jolted me to remember my first visit to Joshua Tree National Park in southern California. The unique trees contrasted with matchless rock formations and interspersed with teddy bear cholla made for quite an interesting and unforgettable landscape!
Los Desiertos de Sud America
My mind wandered to the Dali Desert in the Altiplano of Bolivia that I visited 14 years ago, with four French tourists and a Bolivian guide and a cook. I remember that trip fondly. My thoughts drifted to each of those six people. I hoped that each of their lives have taken them on an enriching path!
From the Bolivian desert, my mind wandered in a Southeasterly direction to the Patagonia desert east of the Andes Mountains in Southern Argentina. I remembered seeing Penguins next to Guanacos at Punta Tombo in 2009. That really blew my mind the first time I saw that! If you had taken these two animals out of the photo, you might be able to convince yourself that you were in the deserts of Southeastern Oregon. But with them together, you must be on the coast of Patagonia!
I recalled my first night in the republic of Chile on the fringes of the Atacama desert, the driest desert in the world. I was at first disappointed that I could not go all the way to Arica or Antofagasta on the Pacific coast, but then treasured my night on the Altiplano in Lauca National Park near the Bolivian border. The lack of oxygen at that altitude left my mind in a perpetual dreamlike state!
North American Deserts
That thought took me to Southeastern Oregon and Northern Nevada….to the Black Rock Desert and to the Alvord Desert. In this same chair that I am now sitting, I had previously gazed across the Nevada desert near the Oregon border just last year! I closed my eyes and could almost feel the warm waters of Bog Hot Spring soaking my tired muscles. For wildlife, I exchanged a guanaco for a pronghorn antelope.
The Desert Takes me to Other Places
I stopped and remembered how the stillness of the desert allowed me to focus on the important people in my life. In my mind, I traveled to the many places that I assume they are at this moment. My thoughts took me to Connecticut, Georgia, and Alabama as I thought of family. Remembering good friends took me to Missouri, Indiana, Maine, Washington state, New Jersey, Alaska, New York, Kentucky, California, and my home state of Oregon. Then, my thoughts drifted to people I know in Barcelona, France, Portugal, Bolivia, Australia, United Kingdom, Panama, Nicaragua, and Canada, to name a few. Wow! I really did pile up some frequent flyer miles while sitting in this chair in the desert!
When I contemplated the therapeutic properties that a desert can have on a person, my mind drifted back to the year 1978, when I spent my first summer abroad living in Mexico. Aguascalientes was a city sitting smack dab in the middle of Mexico, on the Altiplano at 6,800′ in elevation. It was desert-like there, and I think it only rained once the whole summer of 1978. That same summer, I dreamed in Spanish for the first time in my life. It was an experience that helped shape the rest of my life, and it happened in a desert! Now, I’m in an American desert daydreaming in two languages of places where Spanish is spoken….
The Deserts of Africa
Now my mind began to wander to other deserts I have visited. Namibia, in Southwest Africa is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, mostly because of its desert landscapes. Namibia is home to two deserts, the Namib and the Kalahari. The picture below is of the Dead Vlei (A Dutch word for swamp), in Namib-Naukluft National Park. What was once a swamp in the desert was cut off from its ephemeral streams by shifting sand dunes hundreds of years ago. The trees died and are now somewhat petrified in the dry desert air. It is one of the most iconic images I have ever photographed and witnessed! And considering all the things I’ve had the privilege of seeing in my lifetime, that is saying a LOT!
Below, is a map of the deserts of the world. Notice that many of them lie near 23.5 degrees North and South of the Equator, where sinking air inhibits cloud formation (Great Australian Desert; Sahara Desert; Arabian Desert). The deserts that trend more in a north-south direction are usually on the leeward side of a mountain range that is perpendicular to wind flow, such as the Andes Mountains in South America. A few others are just far inland, a LONG way from a major source of water (Gobi, Turkestan). A cold ocean current on the west coast of continents also helps to stabilize the atmosphere and inhibit the formation of rain clouds.
Further into Namibia, we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, at 23.5 degrees south latitude. Both of the tropical lines, Capricorn and Cancer, lie 23.5 degrees away from the equator and are places where rising air at the equator sinks and compresses, inhibiting cloud development and rain. Usually, you will find deserts at these latitudes. We were happy to check this off of our life list and share a moment of love beneath the sign…
One of our other stops in the Namibian desert was Spitzkoppe, a group of granite peaks rising above the low desert. Namibia used to be a German colony, and the native Damara people lived in the area. There are paintings of bushmen art on some of the rock walls.
Further north in Namibia will take you to Etosha National Park. It is under the influence of the subtropical high pressure system most of the year, but has a brief rainy season when the Inter-tropical Convergence Zone moves into the area seasonally from the equatorial latitudes. The shallow lakes dry up in the dry season and are still home to abundant wildlife, with many species present. The picture below shows Wildebeest, Impala, and an Oryx (Gemsbok).
Besides all of the ungulates and predators in Etosha, Ostriches also wander the desert there. The Khoisan name for the bird is Nandu, which is now a word in Spanish. The Spanish had never seen an ostrich, and they adopted the Khoisan word into their language once they saw them in southern Africa.
Dreams and Memories of Asia
From Africa, my mind wandered to the East, where I spent a couple of days in Dubai, UAE a few years ago. Seeing such a modern city in the middle of a desert wasteland was quite an experience. Beth and I went up to the 125th floor of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. We could have gone to the top at the 150th floor, but we were already high enough. You know you are high up when you look down and see planes flying at a lower altitude than where you are standing!
WHOA! Another meteor flew low across the sky. The flaming streak seemed like it was barely overhead. I waited to hear a crashing thud against the desert floor, but I heard nothing…I re-think my earlier statement; I still wouldn’t mind being taken out by a meteor, but please Lord….NOT TONIGHT! I have too many things I still want to do before that happens to me!
The only other desert I’ve been to on the Asian continent is the Kyzylkum desert in Western Uzbekistan. Kizil Kum means “Red Sand” in Uzbek and other Turkic languages. We spent a couple of nights in Sentyab, a rural village in the mountains.
Another impressive sight in the deserts of Western Uzbekistan is the Registan. The Registan was the heart of the ancient city of Samarkand and the capital of Amir Timur’s empire. The name comes from Arabic and Persian, meaning “Sandy Place”.
Deserts and Places Yet to Come
Since I have had so many fond memories of deserts in my lifetime, I thought about a couple more that I haven’t seen yet that are on my bucket list. One is the Takla Makan desert in Western China. The Takla Makan is a deep depression, ringed on three sides by high mountains. It is too far inland to have any moisture come from the east, and the westerly winds which are already dry, have all of the rest of their moisture squeezed out by the high mountains. The Takla Makan lies on the path of the ancient Silk Road and was a barrier to East-West travel. The other Asian desert I would like to see is the Gobi. I did read Helen Thayer’s book “Walking the Gobi” last summer, but I wouldn’t want to recreate her epic journey. One or two weeks there should be enough to satisfy my curiosity.
I ended up drinking more cups of strong tea and staying up until almost three o’clock in the morning virtually traveling the deserts of the world from my chair in El Norte. I didn’t want this magical night to ever end. How ironic that many people in other deserts of the world are dreaming about coming to America and here I was sitting here dreaming about being where they were. Finally, I rolled out a sleeping bag onto the soft sand. I didn’t even need to put a pad down, but burrowed into the sand and made a contour that would fit my body.
Before I drifted off to sleep, I again thought of many of my friends and many of the people I have met. As I looked up to the heavens full of stars, I hoped that some of them were looking up too. The Milky Way stretched across the sky. It was like the heavens invited a bunch of stars to gather for a concert! A feeling of contentment washed over me. I pondered the idea that I had to come to a desert to quench my spiritual thirst. With my soul refreshed, I allowed my body to drift off into sleep, in contact with the earth around me. When your thirst is quenched, how wonderful a place the desert can be!
Estoy aqui descansando en El Norte….
Viajando virtualmente a otros lugares de nuestro mundo…
Pensando en amigos, familia, y colegos…
Disfrutando de la naturaleza…
Me siento muy contento, y llena de tranquilidad………
It’s always fun to see your own hometown through the eyes of a visitor. Recently, we took our newfound friend, Flat Simon, on a tour of our city of Bend, Oregon. How he got here is an interesting story in itself!
Before he arrived at our house, he was known as Sellincourt Sid back home in London. Sellincourt was the school that he went to. Sid always wanted to travel to see the world. He was especially interested in visiting America.
How Sellincourt Sid became Flat Simon and how he got to our house in Bend, Oregon
We met one of his teachers five years ago on a trip to Namibia, Africa. Sid must have seen our address as a return address on one of the letters that we sent to correspond with her. He didn’t have enough money to buy a plane ticket all the way over here and he didn’t even know which airlines to fly to get here. Heck, I’m not sure he even knew what part of the USA Oregon was in. But it sounded good to him, so he devised a plan to get here. He had enough money to buy postage, so he decided to wrap himself up in a package and mail himself to us.
There were a couple of things Sid didn’t count on. First, the flights were very long and he was VERY hungry when he got here. Also, he didn’t count on the mail sorting machines squeezing him so hard that it made him flat. But once we opened the package and he saw us, he was very relieved! We gave him a snack and cleaned him up. When he realized that he was now a flat boy, he wanted us to call him by his middle name, which was Simon. After a good night’s rest, Simon said he was ready to explore our town.
One of the first places we took him was to visit Pilot Butte State Park. Pilot Butte is a cinder cone inside the city limits, on the East side of town. Simon had never seen volcanoes before, so he was intrigued by our unique landscape. Usually, we hike the one mile up the Butte, but since he had such a tough trip, we decided to take him up the road to the top in the car.
Simon saw different trees and vegetation than he was used to back home. There were mostly sagebrush on the south side of the butte, but lots of Juniper on the other sides. Some hikers were walking up the road. His eyes were wide with excitement as we neared the top.
At the summit, we walked around the top of the butte to get a different view in each direction. Simon really liked looking at the Three Sisters, a group of composite volcanoes in the Cascade Range. Those mountains block much of the moisture of the westerly winds, making Bend, Oregon a steppe ecosystem, which is just a tiny bit wetter than a true desert. Many people call Bend part of the “High Desert”, but a true desert has to have less than 10 inches of rain per year, and we have almost 12. Simon wasn’t used to calculating in inches, so we told him that 12 inches of rain was about 300 millimeters. He understood that better. He also asked us how high the mountains were. I told him that South Sister was the highest one of the three and that it was 10,300 feet high. He looked perplexed. Then, I remembered that he is used to measuring in meters, so I converted that number to about 3,140. Boy, was he impressed! The highest elevation in his home country of England was only 978 meters.
Next, we went over to the other side of the butte to view what lay to the East. We showed him the hospital and then when our house was located beyond that. He saw Powell Butte in the foreground and then the Ochoco Mountains in the distance.
I started to explain a lot of the Geography of the area to him, but then I thought he might remember it better if he read it for himself, so we visited the informational plaques on top of the butte. There, he read about the Geology, History, and Ecology of the region. He seemed to be a good student!
After that, we decided to take him downtown. Our town had only 24,000 residents when we moved here many years ago. Now it has grown into a large town of about 100,000 people and is a center for tourism. As we drove down Wall Street in the downtown business district, Simon noticed that a lot of cars had license plates from other states than Oregon.
One of the historical buildings we passed by was the Tower Theater. It was refurbished several years ago and special events are hosted there.
From there, we parked behind downtown and walked to Mirror Pond, which is a man-made lake by damming up the Deschutes River which flows through town. We explained to Simon that the town is named Bend because that’s where the Deschutes River makes a wide Bend. Deschutes means “Of the Falls” in French, as the first white men to come through here were French fur trappers. Now, Mirror Pond is surrounded by Drake Park, a great place to enjoy nature in the middle of the city!
Simon was getting hungry. He asked if we could get some bangers and mash. We told him that he wasn’t in London anymore. We had something more healthy in mind, so we took him to Active Culture, a restaurant near the river.
We ordered a Bend Bowl with greens, nuts, cheeses, raisins, prosciutto, dates, apples, rice, basil and a special sauce! Simon liked it, but Beth ate most of it. So, I offered him some of my quesadilla. He enjoyed that too!
Active Culture is located on Riverside Avenue, at the corner of McCann Avenue. Simon asked if the road was named after us. I’d like to take credit for it, but it was actually named for another McCann who was a manager of the mill in town many years ago.
After lunch, we visited the Old Mill District. Bend used to be a lumber town a long time ago. Now, the Old Mill is a shopping district with an REI (Recreational Equipment Incorporated), several stores and lots of restaurants. The Old Mill District is right next to the river, and lots of people float down the river here. There is an amphitheater for concerts at the river’s edge.
Bend has some of their Winterfest activities going on in the Old Mill District. Simon sat in the throne of the Fire King and pretended that he ruled over the whole Old Mill District!
Just after that, we walked out onto the Flag Bridge and watched people enjoying the river on a hot day.
One of the stores had a metal sculpture of an elk and Simon just had to ride it! Bend has a lot of art in town, and is a town full of art lovers.
We decided to grab a coffee because we were planning on driving up the Cascade Lakes highway and it is a long, but very scenic drive. Mick’s friends Richard and Rhonda own the Strictly Organic Coffee Company, and there are two locations in Bend. One is on Arizona Street and the other one is in the Old Mill. They buy coffee from employee owned cooperatives around the world and the quality is great. I drank a cup from Sumatra, while Simon tried one from Nicaragua. Now, we were ready to take a scenic drive!
First we drove all the way to La Pine, a town 30 miles to the south. Then we took the back way up to the Cascade Lakes Highway. Beth wanted to show him the route of a relay race she will be in next weekend. It is the Cascade Lakes Relay, a 132 mile (212.4 Km) race for walking teams that will take place over 2 days.
We stopped near Sparks Lake and took some pictures of the Cascade Mountains, which are the snowiest range in the lower 48 states. Part of Sparks Lake has already turned into a meadow. Mt. Bachelor Ski resort is in the background.
In the other direction, we got a close up of South Sister volcano, a peak that Mick has climbed several times. It takes all day to hike it, so we continued on after we took the photo.
Simon wanted to take picture of his own, so I loaned him the camera and he took this close up of Mt. Bachelor. Notice the ski runs on the west side of the mountain.
We drove up the highway to the entrance to the ski area. The East village is closed for the summer. We used to be able to snow ski until July 4th, but now the skiing stops at the end of May.
After a long day, we were ready to eat again. I suggested Tacos. There is a lot of Mexican influence in our cuisine and I thought it might be a treat for Simon to try it. We went to one of our favorite Taco stands, “El Sancho”, between DeKalb and Clay avenues just off of Third Street. Beth knows Joel, the owner. Joel started the business as a small food cart, but the food is so good, that now he has restaurants in two locations in town.
Not only does El Sancho have great Tacos, but they serve tasty locally brewed craft beers. Bend is famous for its craft brew culture. I like Vicious Mosquito or Hop Venom. Both are very tasty! They were serving Hop Venom today, so I got one. Many of the hops that are used in beer making are grown east of the Cascade Mountains. Simon wanted to taste it, but he was still in primary school and not old enough to drink alcohol. You have to be age 21 before you can drink beer, so I ordered him an iced tea.
Simon thought it was strange to drink tea cold, instead of hot, but he didn’t complain one bit!
We ordered two kinds of Tacos; Carnitas (Pork) and Barbacoa (Beef). I liked the Barbacoa the best, but Simon liked the Carnitas. Everybody was happy!
That was a big day for all of us. Time to go home and relax….We had a good time showing our town to a new friend and we hoped you readers liked traveling with us too. Simon’s school mates will be learning about lots of new places in the future!
I saw a rainbow bridge in the desert while walking section C of the Pacific Crest Trail in July. It crossed a stream far below the trail which ran near the top of the deep canyon. Could it be a mirage? My dehydrated and sun-baked brain was telling me what I was seeing was real, but could I trust myself that it was true?
The past few days of hiking had been brutal. There must have been a good reason that I was the only backpacker on the trail for 90 miles. The water report that I had which was updated in June told of creeks still running, but by the time I was hiking in July, almost all of them were bone dry.
It was hot….REALLY HOT! The heat in the Western USA the past few weeks was the headline on the nightly news. I needed water and I needed shade. I had seen traces of water in the bottom of the canyon far below for miles. It was the first real stream I had seen in more than 40 miles of hiking. There is nothing more frustrating and annoying than being in sight of what you most need, but with no way to get there. The trail cut into the side of the canyon way too far above the only stream in the desert for one to safely descend to it. Deep Creek wasn’t all that deep, but the canyon it ran through certainly was….
The trail switch-backed several times as it descended deeper into the gorge. The mirage of the rainbow bridge came closer and closer. Finally, I was at the edge of the canyon, with the bridge in front of me. Time to take a step. If it was real, it would hold me up. If I was dreaming, I would fall through the air to the rocks below. If the fall didn’t injure me too badly, maybe I could crawl to the little creek that flowed under the middle of the bridge.
I didn’t fall. The bridge was not a mirage. It was reality. A thought flashed through my mind. I heard the voice of my dead grandfather. He whispered in my ear something he told me more than 50 years ago on the Wye River in the Eastern Shore of Maryland. “Don’t leave a good fishing hole to go find more fish.” My eyebrows raised. Then, as if he was concerned that my sun-baked brain didn’t process what he had just said, he whispered it again. Then, I got it! This place had all of things I needed. Time to stop, relax, enjoy it and cherish it. No need to travel on at the moment. Now, to climb down just a little bit to reach the shade of a cottonwood tree and get out of this sun!
I dipped my water bottle into the stream and then put some water purification tablets into the bottle. It would be drinkable in 20 minutes. Then, I rolled out my sleeping pad onto the soft sand and laid down to rest. Even though it was several degrees cooler in the shade, it was still hot. I took off my shoes and put on my crocs, took off my filthy shorts, and strolled across the sandbar to the water’s edge. The water was cool and refreshing!
Some small fish scampered away from the water’s edge and headed out to a deep pool. Sorry guys, but that pool has my name on it! I squatted down until the water was covering my whole body up to my neck. Then, I took this picture of the rainbow bridge.
The past few days of suffering melted away in the coolness of the stream. I had forgotten what it felt like to be cold. Although the feeling was welcome, I didn’t want to trade hyperthermia for hypothermia, so I quickly exited the stream and went back into the shade to lay down. The wet, nylon shirt that I was wearing kept me cool until all of the water had evaporated in the dry desert air. As soon as I started feeling hot again, it was time to take another dip. Wash, Rinse, Dry, Repeat……I must have completed this cycle a dozen times while I squandered the rest of the day there!
It must have been the umpteenth time that I walked out to take another dip, that I saw an osprey perched on the Rainbow Bridge. I went back to get my camera. I kept shooting pictures as I eased slowly closer. He never did get spooked, but we did have a stare off. Neither of us blinked, but I did see him shake his head. He was probably wondering what a backpacker was doing here so late into the summer!
As the sun lowered in the sky and the afternoon heat abated, I thought to pack up and continue on the hike. After all, my destination of Cajon Pass was still a few days hike away. I scrambled back up onto the trail, crossed the bridge and took a couple more pictures to remember this special place.
Had I known what was to lay ahead of me on the trail in the coming days, I would have stayed the night under the rainbow bridge. I shouldn’t have ever left it. But that is a story for another day. The moral of this story is that whenever you come upon a beautiful bridge in your life, don’t be in a hurry to cross it!
And, for goodness sake, don’t backpack the California desert in July!
We all have bad days. Some more than others. However, have you ever thought of how different a bad day might look, if you only change your Geography?OR, maybe just your perspective on that day?
When you are having a bad day, it might help to compare your crappy day with someone else’s bad day in another part of the world. Do you live in Yemen? Are you in the midst of a civil war like they are there? Do you live in the Gaza Strip? Have your relatives perished from their building collapsing after being bombed by the Israeli Air Force? Are you poor and unable to get vaccinated against Covid in India or Brazil? Or, are your children dying of malnutrition like they are in many parts of Africa? Was your home destroyed by either a flood or a volcanic eruption? It always helps to put your problems into perspective.
Recently, I’ve been lamenting the rapid change in my community of Bend, Oregon. People are flocking from everywhere on the planet and moving here. The traffic is getting bad. Housing prices are going through the roof. Graffiti and litter are much more prevalent than ever. The culture of the town is changing, and most would agree that it is not for the better.
I needed some nature on the way to work, so I stopped by Drake Park near downtown Bend to take a walk next to Mirror Pond. There was goose poop everywhere, which made me pay close attention to where I was walking. So much for relaxation in the park!
After fighting the traffic to get to the college on the West side of town, I parked my car and walked towards my office in Modoc Hall. I stopped when I saw a deer.
“How wonderful!” I thought to myself. I was just enjoying the fact that I get to experience some nature inside the city limits. What a breath of fresh air seeing wildlife here at work! Then, taking a few more steps, I saw what the deer left as a calling card. My day was just beginning to get a little more shitty!
After work, I really needed to get away! I decided to get out of town and take a hike.
I used to go just a couple of miles outside of town for some peace and quiet. Now I have to travel further and further; sometimes as much as 30 miles. I usually head East toward the desert, as there are just too many people on the West side of town and around the Cascade Lakes Highway. At first I tried walking one of the irrigation canals just outside of the city limits. However, a new homeowner just put up a sign, incorrectly claiming that it was HIS property, when in fact it belongs to the irrigation district. Annoyed, I decided to go further East into the real desert to get away from people.
Finally, I got to a dirt path far from town! I was beginning to feel more at peace, UNTIL I found something I didn’t expect to see out here.
I saw evidence of mankind….trash left behind by thoughtless people.
Luckily, I brought my backpack with me and I picked up the trash left behind by careless people. Being that I live in Oregon, I will be rewarded 10 cents for each aluminum can I pick up. I’d be happier not find any at all, however. With the uncontrolled growth in Central Oregon, once pristine places are starting to become trashed. On the road on the way out to my hiking place, I found a “Twisted Tea” can on the side of the road. Must be a twisted person to discard this in a beautiful place!
I think it would be an interesting demographic study, to study where what type of trash is left in which places. Documenting it and mapping it are the easy parts. Getting consumer demographic data from companies is the hard part. The corporations who manufacture these products keep the demographics of their consumers pretty close to the vest. I can say, however, that I find very few bottles from craft breweries strewn about the landscape!
I encountered more forensic evidence of humans littering the landscape. Several casings from shotgun shells littered the roadside. I’ve been seeing these in places that I never used to in the past. I decided to hike out of the desert and into another nearby ecosystem to get away from all of this.
I hiked uphill, where the desert transitions into forest. I walked along a lonely abandoned road. Finally, no signs of humans! Then, I found some fresh bear scat in the roadway. I put my cup next to it to take a picture and show the scale of it. Bears are omnivores, and although I have great respect of them, I don’t fear being in their territory. Cougars however, are another story.
Bears have a very poor digestive system and more than 1/2 of what they consume is easily identifiable when it comes out the other end. It easily shows what they have been foraging on. This was now turning into a pretty shitty day!
Further down the same road, I came across tracks of another animal. The footprints were canine. Not seeing any signs of human tracks, I expected that these tracks were made by a coyote and not a dog who was a house pet. Sure enough, a little further down the road, I found another calling card! Yep, it was from a coyote! The scat had the hair of its prey in it, probably that of a chipmunk or ground squirrel.
Hiking back downhill towards the car, I came out of the pine forest and back to the juniper forest, which is a transition zone between the wetter, cooler forest and the hotter, drier, low sagebrush desert. This area was BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land. The acronym often is referred to by locals as meaning Bulls, Lambs, and Mines, which are the activities of mining and grazing that are overseen by this Federal Agency. I came to a clearing next to a large Juniper tree. The large mine field of cow patties around the tree was evidence of bovines seeking the shade of the tree. Can this day get any more shitty than this?
I paused here for a moment, and kicked some of the dried patties out of the way. I made myself enough room to sit in the shade of the tree. Then, I reflected on the day. I’m sitting in a space surrounded by a bunch of crap. But, I’m also sitting in the shade and have a place to myself. I’ve been dealing with crap from others all day long, but in retrospect, it wasn’t that bad! Even though things are changing rapidly in my area, I took time to be thankful for the opportunity to walk in nature and to de-compress. I took time to think about people I know who are dealing with much worse crap than I am currently surrounded by and send positive thoughts their way. I find that I do more of this when out in nature and not as much of that when I am in town.
I think the moral of this story is to not to focus on the crap that you encounter on a daily basis. Our world is filled with beauty, as well as some crap to deal with. One can’t live in a world free of dung! Just keep walking and kick it out of the way when you come across it. And be able to find a place of rest with it all around you. You have a choice either to focus on the dung or focus on the beautiful world that it is found in.
As I compare my shitty day with other places around the world, I feel blessed! Dear readers, the next time you are having a shitty day, I hope you can find a shade tree to sit down in the midst of it all, and to be able to focus on the beauty in this world and not the crap that is in it! Embrace the fact that we live in a world filled with dung without fearing that you will constantly step in it. And I hope your shitty day ends up being equally as good as mine was….
If everyone in the world treated each other like they do while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the whole world would be in a much better place. A special culture exists among those who walk the trail and those who support their endeavors.
I’ve been hiking sections of the trail off and on for 20 years. Many are what you call thru-hikers; people who attempt to walk all 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada in one year. Others, myself included, prefer to do shorter sections of 100 miles or less at a time and then call it good until the next year. Whichever the method, meeting someone else on the trail brings an instant bond with that person.
People who hike the trail do so for a number of different reasons. Many are younger, and want to take advantage of the time to take a long journey just after completing school. Some folks are in a transition period in their lives. Others seek the simplicity and freedom of the hiking lifestyle. And there are those who do it just for the challenge. I do it for the sake of Geography….just to see what’s around the next bend in the trail, or to see what lies on the other side of that mountain ahead.
My most recent hike took me to the Southern California desert, an area that I was previously unfamiliar with. I was supposed to hike the 702 mile portion of the trail that crosses the desert regions last Spring, but Covid cancelled those plans. Since I am still working part-time, I could only take a week off this Spring, so I chose to hike most of Section A, which is the part that is closest to the border with Mexico.
First I flew from Bend, Oregon to San Diego, California to spend some time with an old high school friend. Another friend from Orange County came down to meet us and we all went to a baseball game at PetCo park to see the Padres vs. the St. Louis Cardinals. It was the 20th MLB team I’ve seen play in their home park. With proof of Covid-19 vaccine, we got to sit together in preferential seating, close behind the Cardinal dugout.
On Sunday, May 16, my buddy drove me to Lake Morena County Park to start my PCT hike. Lake Morena is 20 miles from the Mexican border. If I am fortunate enough to complete the rest of the trail in a few years, I will save this last 20 mile section as a day hike to the terminus of the trail. There is a road crossing the trail only 1.6 miles from the border. I plan to invite family and friends to meet me at the road crossing to walk the 1.6 miles together, after which I will throw a BIG party for everyone.
As it was a weekend, there were lots of day hikers out on the trail. Most were enjoying the cooler than normal temperatures and taking in the colors of the wildflowers in bloom. Several stopped to ask me about what it was like to backpack the PCT. I told them I only planned to go about 90 miles on this hike.
“ONLY 90 miles”, they would exclaim, like that seemed like a LONG way to them. I told them that most of the younger backpackers they would see are attempting to walk the whole trail in one season….a trip of 2,650 miles.
Everyone I met were nice people. But they all had regular names, not trail names. Even the few long distance hikers I met did not have trail names yet. Trail culture has it that people who hike the trail get pseudonyms and have an identity linked to a trail name. That name should be given to you by someone else. Many times the name has something to do with the food the hiker likes. Over the years I’ve met hikers with the names of Wasabi, Mustard, Horchata, Basil, Sprout, Chili Pepper, and the Ginger Ninja. Others take names from a mishap on the trail (Blisters, Feet, Toes, Underwear, Scarface, etc.) Still others have animal names or plant names (Otter, Bear, Oso, Coyote, Bird, Songbird, Tortoise, Bunny, Forget-me-Not, Sage, Willow, Spruce). On past hikes, I’ve met Chilly Willy, Indiana Jones, Dumpster Fire, Game Boy, The Jesus, Spaceman, Windchime, Low and Slow, One-Pole, So Far, Sunshine, Shade, Tree Monkey, Red, E-Walk, Cool Breeze, and Jackrabbit, just to name a few. My own trail name happens to be “Ouch!“
I got my name as a section hiker. I’ve been walking roughly 100 miles per year and now have just over 1,700 miles of trail completed. Thru-hikers always comment on how much easier it would be to be a section hiker, as you get to pick the best weather for whatever section you decide to hike that year. While that might be true, I usually ask them about their experience of their first two weeks on the trail, while they are breaking their bodies into trail shape. The first couple of weeks are usually remembered as painful ones. When I reply that EVERY YEAR I hike I am always in the first two weeks of the hike and it is ALWAYS painful, they think for a moment, wince and say “OUCH!”. That is the etymology of my trail name.
This year, starting so far south, almost all of the thru-hikers had the names their parents gave to them. I met Alison, Megan, John, Dustin, Kevin, Owen, another John, Johnny, Emily, Dave, Bryan, Sarah, Daniel, Kathy, Javier, Jennifer, Olivia, Alex, Rebecca, and Devin… to name a few. I hiked a couple of miles with Tejas, a Tamil boy from India. Only two hikers I met already had trail names; a guy from Maine named Haystack, and an attractive brunette from Switzerland called “Cowbell”, due to the clanging of a water bottle she had hanging from her pack. With so many people using their given names, it is difficult to remember who is who.
I was having a discussion with a friendly couple, when a lone hiker in a black shirt walked by. About 1/2 hour later, he was walking back in my direction. He asked if I knew where Kitchen Creek Falls was. “I’m not from around here”, I said. “I’m from Oregon and this is my first time down here.”
He said that it was also his first time. I asked where he was from. He replied “Spain.”
“Pues, de que parte o provincia de Espana viene Usted?”, I asked.
“Soy de Pais Vasco!”, he replied. His name was Javier. From there we had a long conversation, 90% of which was in Spanish. Although I didn’t know much of his first language of Basque, I threw out a phrase such as Eskerrik Asko, and pronounced his hometown of San Sebastian as “Donostia, Bizkaia” in his home language. His jaw dropped and his eyes opened wide! Shared knowledge of one’s geography as well as talking to someone in one of their home languages is a great way to break the ice and instantly bond with another. Rather than try to explain my trail name of “Ouch!”, I became Mick again, even if just for a moment.
After 20 minutes or so of Speaking Spanish, we parted and hiked in opposite directions. I made my first camp about 1/2 mile off of the trail on the way to Mt. Laguna. It was cold and drizzling that evening.
The next morning was still cool, but the sun was starting to peek out. About midday, I came to a dirt road with a sign warning about live ordinance in the area. I stuck close to the trail here. It seems a military plane on a training mission crashed near here long ago and not all of the live munitions were recovered!
At the end of the second night, I crested the high elevation point of this week’s hike, at Mt. Laguna. Being in the forest made you feel that you were far away from the Southern California desert.
The trail started its long descent toward the fiery Colorado desert. It followed a ridge line that paralleled a road, but still stayed high enough to have a view over the desert below. Trees began to thin out, being replaced by chaparral vegetation. Continuing north past the old Pioneer Mail Trail-head brings you to a shrine overlooking the desert. The shrine is to remember the lives of many motorcyclists who passed away.
One plaque was to remember a beloved pet, a dog named Solo. What read on the plaque would be a great epitaph for any human’s headstone!
The trail cut into the side of the mountain with outstanding views of the desert below. The sun was baking down and I was sure to fully cover my arms and face. I even wore a mask to keep the sun from cracking my lips.
A couple of clouds materialized in the sky. I kept singing an old Judy Collins song, titled “Send in the Clowns”. Except that I editorialized the song and replaced the word “clowns” with “CLOUDS”.
The New Song Lyrics went something like this.
My Face is burnt, my lips are chapped….
Send in the Clouds… Send inthe Clouds!
The trail continued its long sinuous journey downward. At a spur trail to the Sunrise Trail-head, I saw another hiker texting on her phone. With limited cell service, I pulled out my phone to text my wife. No service for my burner phone.
Another hiker who did have service on his phone, offered his phone to me. I called my friend Allan in San Diego to give him an update on my progress and asked him to call Beth for me. It is another example of how people on the trail help each other.
Since it was near the end of the day, the two hikers invited me to camp with them at a campsite about 1/4 mile away. When I arrived, most of their group had already set up their tents. Their ages ranged from early twenties to mid thirties. I was the grandpa of the group. They came from many different places and had just met on the trail and had formed a hiking group. They came from a wide range of places such as Western New York state, Chicago, St. Louis, Washington state, Switzerland, Minnesota, and North Carolina. We spent the twilight sharing stories about the trail. Everyone shared why they were attempting to hike the whole trail in one year. We all opened up and shared some personal experiences. Where else could a group of strangers from different places and of different ages be so open with one another? Only on the trail….
I didn’t even bother to erect a tent, but simply rolled out the bag and gazed at the myriad of stars in the sky. I stared up at a waxing half moon above me in a cloudless sky. Contentment quickly led to restful sleep.
I heard the sounds of zippers being zipped and packs being packed at about 5:30 in the morning. I awoke and wished my newfound friends a safe journey northward. Just after they departed, I took this picture of our newly abandoned campsite. What seems like just an ordinary clearing in the chaparral became a vibrant meeting place that came to life the previous night. It was a place that offered not only rest and relaxation, but fostered connection between varied individuals. Long distance trails like the PCT are places that can make these kind of things happen!
Once down in the valley, the trail runs through the hot, dry San Felipe Valley until it crosses Hwy 78 at Scissors Crossing. From there it is another 24 miles without a natural water source. I was carrying 7 liters of water, which made the pack extremely heavy.
On the other side of the highway, some trail angels left a few bottles of water and some Gatorade. Trail angels are volunteers who support hikers in many ways; either by stashing water caches in dry places, giving hikers rides into town to resupply, or by offering food or any other type of support. Hiking the trail may seem like a solo challenge, but it would be impossible without the help of kind strangers. Many trail angels are hikers themselves.
From Scissors Crossing, the trail steeply climbed up a ridge, from where it appeared to side-hill for a long way. I took one of the Gatorade bottles and planned to drink it once I finished the climb out of the valley. It was just after noon, and the sun was high in the sky. Shade was nowhere to be found. I ended up guzzling the orange drink well before I finished the climb out of the valley.
A strong wind howled on that ridge the entire day. Walking was difficult and the narrow trail was eroded in sections. A misstep could result in tumbling off the side of the cliff to a possible death. Each year, a few hikers perish on the trail. Some are older folks my age who suffer heart attacks; others are younger hikers who suffer a fall or drown crossing swollen rivers once they are out of the desert. I was careful not to become a statistic for this year.
Even though the temperature was cooler than normal for this time of year, the unrelenting sun took its toll. Shade was almost non-existent. During the rare times that I found some, I took a break to take advantage of it.
There are quite a few snakes in this part of the world. Most scampered off of the trail before I could get my camera out. This guy was a little slower than most, so I got to snap his picture!
I knew that trail angels had stashed a large cache of water at mile 91 of the PCT. I was running out of water before that, but Johnny, a fellow hiker, topped me off with almost another liter. I thanked him by giving him some beef jerky. We both felt like we got a good deal! Another instance of folks helping each other on the trail. Does this kind of stuff still happen back in town? It used to a long time ago!
I was just approaching mile 91 when I heard Haystack coming up behind me. We were both glad to see a sign for water. The cache was about 1/4 mile downhill. I dropped my pack and took my empty water bottles down to the cache.
There was a small dirt road from the back side of the mountain that let the trail angels be able to stash a couple of pallets of water for the hikers. Without this, it would be almost impossible to hike section A of the desert.
The trail angels pay for all of the water out of their own pockets and of the goodness of their hearts. We gladly put some cash in the kitty for their efforts. They constructed a place to put the empty plastic bottles to be recycled.
Haystack told me that he had run into Kevin and that Kevin now had a trail name. He would now be known as “Rudolph”. Rudolf got his name from the group that he was hiking with. Even though he did not have a GPS, he was always the first one out of the gate and leading the rest of the group. Recently he forgot to lather up on the sunscreen and his nose got burnt. So, for always being out in front and with a red nose, Kevin became “Rudolph”!
The next morning, the wind was still howling. The trail finally crossed over from the west side of the ridge to the east side, where the mountains did act as somewhat of a windbreak. Then, I felt comfortable enough to take some pictures of cactus flowers.
After a LONG descent, I reached the Barrel Spring near the highway. The water needed to be treated, but at last there was some trees for shade and I got cell service next to the highway. So, I took a long break and called Beth and Allan. Then I took time to journal in the shade.
Just after crossing the highway, the scenery changed dramatically. The trail went through some private land, much of which had been cleared for cattle grazing. There is no camping allowed for the next several miles.
It seemed strange to walk over flat meadows after so much side-hill trail in the mountains. The few cows in the field stared at me incredulously, as if they had never seen a hiker before. They stopped grazing and chewing their cuds while they cautiously followed my walk along the path. Only when I was nearly out of sight did they relax enough to continue to graze. Seriously! They must have seen dozens of hikers like me every day this time of year, and they still act like it was the very first time they’d seen one!
Finally leaving private land, I came to San Ysidro Creek, a welcome sight after such a waterless stretch of hiking. I decided to pitch the tent here. The gurgling creek was such a wonderful sound to fall asleep to!
After breaking camp the next morning, there were only about 6 more miles to go to get to the road which leads into Warner Springs. Climbing out of the ravine where the creek lay brought me to another stretch of open pasture-like land. A group of resistant rocks poked up out of the plateau.
One of those protruding rocks was worth a side trip down a short trail. The landform is called Eagle Rock. I wonder why they called it that! See the picture below…
Nearing the end of section A of the PCT, I ran into several day-hikers headed to Eagle Rock. Once off the trail, I walked the road into Warner Springs and stayed at a picnic area next to the gas station, where my friend Allan would be coming in a few hours to take me back to civilization. Now, with a little over 1,700 miles on the PCT under my belt, I will have only about 945 miles left to complete it. Planning on doing another 260 this summer and another 500 or so the following Spring. But first, time for a hot shower!
It is nearly summer and the academic year and the term are almost over. It has been a tough year on all of us due to Covid. You all persevered and weathered the storm of coming to class, wearing masks, and social distancing, while working and studying. Although the focus of our class was to study landforms, much of what we learned can be applied as life lessons we can use everyday. This also may be the last time I teach this particular class, as I transition into semi-retirement. Our lives will bifurcate after this week, so I wanted to take this one last opportunity to share something important with you all. Here are some parting words of wisdom for each of you.
After your academic career is over, you will be going out into the world, the same world that we studied about landforms. In your life you will encounter obstacles that you will have to climb. Some of them might seem like the Himalayas to you. Others might seem less imposing, like the foothills of the Appalachians.
Sometimes, you will make it to the top of the mountain. If so, then congratulations! Enjoy the view if you are fortunate enough to make it there. Don’t get too cocky when you do get up there, for we are not meant to live there, but to use that experience to help us after we come back down and live among the people in the rest of the world. And yes, there is always another mountain to climb! But realize, that life is a journey and you might not make it to the top on your first attempt. That’s okay….just keep on trying!
Like all of the rest of us, you will be facing many pressures in life. These come at you from all sides. Like metamorphic rock, these pressures may change you a little. But how you react to these pressures make all the difference. Remember, diamonds are made under pressure!
People, like rocks, can react to the same pressures in different ways. Sometimes the pressure breaks the rocks apart. Sometimes they just fold a little. Learn to bend, but not break, like the folded rocks of the Appalachian Mountain ranges.
Whenever you get frustrated, angry and hot from all of the pressures in life, make sure to try and stay cool. Don’t blow your top like a composite volcano. It won’t solve the problem and will probably only tick off the people around you! Don’t shower others with your pyroclastics!
Try your best to stay out of really hot water. It might look pretty or even inviting at first, but it can scald you!
Who you choose to surround yourself with will have a big effect on the choices that you make in life. Try to avoid tectonic relationships. Choose partners and friends wisely!
Remember that most Earth processes are slow processes. We studied the principle of uniformitarianism and learned that the present is the key to the past. Well, it is also the key to your future! Economic stability and social stability are processes that we all have to keep working towards the goal of every day. Live each day in the present while still keeping one eye on the future! Given enough time and all of us working together, it is achievable, albeit not overnight. Be in it for the long run!
Be like soil. Remember the formula of CL,O,R,P,T (Climate, Organic Material, Relief, Parent Material, and Time). Study the climate of the people around you (family, workplace, community, country, region) to determine what type of weathering you will experience. Make sure you get enough nutrients for both your body and soul to make a productive soil (Organics). Work on what type of parent material you would like to be made of. And give enough time for the soil to form…it is a slow process. Finally, remember that good soil is there to grow things to help not only yourself, but to benefit others too. Try to shoot for being a loam, a good mixture of both porosity and permeability. Hold onto just enough water to meet your needs, but let some of it infiltrate into deeper parts of the soil, so that you don’t end up being waterlogged.
While soil formation takes a long time, be on the watch for creep; that imperceptible slow deformation of soil, due to gravity and water logged clay. Overwork and not paying enough attention to the little things in life might end up taking a toll on you. We tend to protect against big events like landslides, but creep is the most costly and destructive of all mass wasting events. It’s something you don’t usually notice, until it’s too late. Take inventory on yourself often!
Remember the power of running water. Running water does three important things in landscape development. It erodes, transports sediment, and deposits sediment. Water is one of the most powerful forces in landscape development, yet it does this all without being haughty. Water seeks its lowest level. It gives life to everything along its route, and the silt that it deposits at the mouths of rivers are fertile areas for other humans to grow crops. Be like a river and seek out the low places. Those are the places that need your water! By doing so, you will not only bring life to those you come in contact with, but you will also slowly shape the world that you live in!
Rivers can also move laterally in response to changes in flow and sediment load. Be sure not to be too rigid, but shift in response to changes in your life’s load and flow. And if it leaves you with a small meander scar, remember that in time, that will fill in too….
Be observant! When you see something that seems like it really doesn’t belong, it may not be a function of nature. Maybe mankind put it there!
Like walking on glaciers, sometimes you will come to a crevasse. If it is too big to jump over, then just find a way around it. Sometimes the best route in life doesn’t take a straight line.
And, if the crevasse is not that wide, then just jump over it…even if it is a little scary to do so.
Remember the Equilibrium Theory which states that the shape of landforms remains static if the uplift is equal to the erosion. With that in mind, be like the Torres del Paine in Southern Chile. When life erodes you at the top, keep pushing upward to maintain the shape of who you are.
Finally, remember some of Stan Schumm’s seven reasons for geologic uncertainty (Scale, Location, Convergence, Divergence, Singularity, Sensitivity, and Complexity. When something happens (either good or bad) in your life, remember to look at it at different time scales. A bad day seems more horrible when only looking at just that one day, but doesn’t seem so bad when you look at that same ONE day in the context of your whole life (Scale). Don’t be too quick to judge a landform (or other people) too quickly. Although they might have similarities with a group, people, like landforms are individuals too (concept of Singularity).
Be kind to others. What might seem like a small slight to you, could end up being something much larger to someone else. People, like landforms, have different sensitivities to stress. And, also like landforms, the study of people can be complex.
One last bit of advice. Keep studying Geography. The amount of stresses that a landform experiences is often a function of its location, whether that is in the headwaters of a drainage system or near the base level of a stream. Be mindful of the stresses that different peoples are experiencing due to their geographic location or zip code. Lots have folks have much greater challenges than you do, through no fault of their own!
Keep learning and growing! Thank you all for taking this class and I hope you can build on these concepts that you learned to become all you are capable of being. And best wishes in the future!
If anyone who reads this knows of someone who teaches or is a student in either Geography, Geology, or Earth Science, please feel free to pass this along to them!
Sometimes the story is the destination that you are traveling to. Other times, the story is in the journey getting you to the destination. This is one of those stories about the journey just to get somewhere.
On my first day after landing in my stopover city of Sydney, Nova Scotia I was walking around the city to orient myself to a new place. A police car pulled along side of me. “Can you come downtown to the station?”, he asked. “There’s a problem that we need your help with.”
I froze. Was there a problem with the way I entered the country? I didn’t exactly go through customs and immigration the way most travelers do. How could this policeman possibly know that? What kind of trouble could I possibly be in? And how did the local cops know that I was a passenger on a cargo jet and walked past customs and immigration alongside the two pilots with only a wink and a nod?
I was on my way to Newfoundland, where a friend would meet up with me in a few days. With two weeks of vacation from my job at Federal Express (now FedEx), I chose to jump-seat on a company jet, all the way from Atlanta to Memphis and then to Montreal, Quebec. From there, I took a commercial flight from Montreal to Deer Lake, Newfoundland, with a stopover in Sydney, Nova Scotia. I chose to lay over in Sydney for a few days until my friend could fly to Newfoundland.
Back in the day, FedEx employees had the benefit of “jump-seating” for personal travel. Each FedEx cargo jet had between 1 and 4 seats for employees to travel on. These were located inside of the cockpit. I had never before flown in a jet where I could look out windows in front of me. First I flew on a 727 Cargo Jet from Atlanta, GA to Memphis, TN, where the main FedEx Hub sorting facility was. After a couple of hours of waiting for all the packages to be sorted and loaded into their prospective planes, I boarded a Falcon Fan Jet to Montreal, Quebec. When FedEx was a startup company, most of the jets were Falcon Fan Jets, manufactured by the French company Dassault. Now that the company had grown, most of those were replaced by larger DC-10 and Boeing 727 jets, with containers for the cargo. My trip to Montreal, would be the last week that the company flew the Falcons, which had to be hand loaded.
For those of you interested in the history of the Falcon Fan Jet and its impact of the success of Federal Express (FedEx), here is a link to that story…
I sat on a small wooden bench in between the two pilots, Mike and Charlie. As the sun was rising and shining directly into our eyes, once we got to cruising altitude, Mike took a section of the morning paper and plastered them over the windshield to keep the sun out. The jet was on automatic pilot while the pilots were reading the morning paper. I didn’t want to disturb the pilots or accidentally touch anything, but I was pretty cramped in the jump seat. I also wondered about flying a jet without looking out the windows. I asked, “Is anybody paying attention to where we are in route?”
Charlie pulled back part of the newspaper. “Yep, that’s Cincinnati down there”, he remarked. Occasionally, an air traffic controller would bark out an order over the com and direct the pilots to alter their course heading. A quick turn of a dial, and the jet would bank and assume the new course heading.
The picture below is similar to what the cockpit looked like. The following photo is from Wikimedia commons of the cockpit of a Falcon Jet used by the Pakistani military. I had the same vantage point from my cramped jump seat.
We landed safely at Dorval International Airport and walked from the tarmac into a building. Since we were all dressed in our Federal Express uniforms, an airport official gave us a wink and a nod as we passed by. I never did get my passport stamped. It felt like I was getting away with something, even though I only had my camping equipment in my backpack.
From Dorval, I boarded a plane to Sydney, Nova Scotia. After checking into a local B & B, I decided to take a walk around the city and get a feel for the place. It was then that the policeman pulled up beside me and asked me to take a ride downtown with him.
I nervously asked what the problem was, thinking that they somehow knew I didn’t enter the country through the proper channels.
“We just need you to be in a lineup”, said the policeman.
“What happens if somebody mistakenly picks me out?”, I asked.
“Not likely. We caught the guy red-handed. We just need a few volunteers to make a lineup.”
There was no reason to say no, although I was still a little nervous. The officer opened the back door to the car, and I got in. Just a few minutes later, he pulled up next to another pedestrian and asked the same thing. The guy nervously got into the car, but wanted to keep his distance from me in the back seat. He must have thought that I was the guilty party.
We went down to the station and got in a lineup; five men abreast of each other. A lady walked in. She pointed to the guy standing next to me. He immediately lost it, screamed some obscenities and lunged at her. He had to be restrained. The rest of us were relieved. The constable thanked us and asked us each to sign our names and addresses into the ledger. When I did, the guy who was in the police car with me noticed I signed my hometown as Atlanta, Georgia.
“So, you’re here as a tourist!”, he exclaimed. “I was sure YOU were the guy they were looking for when I got into the car”, he said. We laughed. After exchanging some pleasantries, he invited me over to his house. I accepted. His name was Thomas. Sometimes, chance meetings like this turn out to be better than planned ones.
Thomas introduced me to his girlfriend, who lived with him in an old white house near one of the city parks. It was a warm weekend in May, and he was planning to go to the park to play football with his friends. We grabbed a quick bite to eat at his house and then headed over to the park. I was the only one playing football in hiking boots. A group of local girls watched from the sidelines. It was obvious that this was one of the first warm sunny days since last summer. The whiteness of their skin showed that their bodies had not been exposed to the sun for a very long Canadian winter. The glare from the sun shining off of their white bodies was enough for us to play with sun glasses on!
I thought that playing in boots would be a disadvantage, but it allowed me to make quick cuts on the slick grass and run for a couple of touchdowns. Also, I think that although the Canadian boys might have been great ice hockey players, they didn’t have much experience playing football. There weren’t even any Canadian league football teams anywhere east of Montreal. After playing for a couple of hours, we relaxed in the park. Thomas’ friendly dog seemed to eagerly accept Americans.
Afterwards, I headed back to the B &B. Thomas said to come on over tomorrow at about noon and we would hang out again.
After a good night’s sleep, it was time for breakfast, which was served from 7-10 AM at the B & B. It still wasn’t high season yet, so the inn was not at full capacity. I had the pleasure of having a good visit with the two sisters who were the owners of the establishment. One of them, Alice, commented that they felt bad that one of their guests just stayed in his room and never came out, not even for breakfast. They couldn’t communicate with him because he didn’t speak English. He had been at the inn for three days now and they were not sure he was getting any meals.
When I inquired as to where the guy was from, they stated that his passport was from Spain. When I told them that I used to live in Mexico and could speak Spanish, their eyes lit up. “Can you go knock on his door and invite him for breakfast?” they asked.
I went down the hall, with the two ladies accompanying me. We knocked on the door. A few seconds later, an older gentleman cracked the door halfway open. He looked at us quizzically.
As soon as I spoke to him in his native tongue, his countenance changed. He opened the door wide and smiled. I translated a conversation between the two ladies and himself. His name was Enrique and he was a fisherman from the north of Spain. Enrique was waiting for a ferry to take him to St. Pierre and Miquelon, a couple of French owned islands off the southern coast of Newfoundland, where he had a fishing job waiting for him. He had no idea that breakfast was included and he only had some bread and some liquor in his room. This was long before the cell phone era, so it must have been pretty lonely in there.
Alice had made a pot of coffee and offered it to Enrique, but he asked for instant instead. She brought a jar of granulated instant coffee over and watched while Enrique spooned 7 heaping teaspoons into the cup. When she went to pour the hot water into the cup, he raised his hand to have her stop. He only wanted about 1/4 cup of water. It ended up being the consistency of something almost as thick as pudding. When she asked if he takes anything else with his coffee, his answer was “Maybe a little bit of whiskey!” It certainly was a cultural experience for all of us….
Since Enrique had spent the last few days in isolation, I invited him to take a walk with me over to Thomas’ house.
It was the first time Enrique had any human contact since coming to Nova Scotia. He and Thomas’ dog quickly became best buddies. The dog reacted in the same friendly way to the Basque and Spanish languages that Enrique spoke to it as it did when we spoke English to it. Dogs have a keen sense of the emotions that humans feel, and he made Enrique’s loneliness fade away. Studies have shown that people with pets live 2 years longer on average than people who don’t have pets. While the rest of us did talk to him as I interpreted, Enrique was content to sit on the porch, play with the dog and be content that he could have human contact when he wanted to.
I’ve thought about that day many times over the years. Had I not jump-seated, or had the cop not stopped me for a lineup, Enrique would have spent all of his time in Sydney locked up in his room in isolation. Had Thomas not also come to the police lineup, or had I stayed in another B&B, the same thing would have happened. It took fate working on several levels to bring a smile to Enrique’s face, through the love of a stranger’s dog, through a foreigner speaking his language, and for locals opening up their hearts and home to him.
Had I been in a hurry to get to the destination, instead of being open to discovering the journey, I would have bypassed Sydney, Nova Scotia altogether. I would have missed out meeting Enrique, Thomas, Alice, Mike and Charlie, an RCMP officer, and many other fine folks. The experience of flying in the cockpit with the pilots would also have been missed. I sincerely hope that all of those people I met long ago realize that they gave me much more than I ever gave them. Because of all of them, Sydney, NS will always have a special place in my heart. You see, they taught a geographer that a place is much more than a landscape. A place gives meaning to us through the relationships that we build with the people in that place. And casual encounters may end up being anything but casual. They might make memories for a lifetime, as well as changing your perspectives.
Dear readers, wherever you plan on traveling to, I hope your embrace the journey as well as the destination!
Popeye the Sailor man of cartoon fame, made the term “Well, Blow me Down!” a recognizable saying. It denotes a feeling of shock and surprise at something. A trip to the Canadian province of Newfoundland will give you both a figurative and literal meaning to this term.
The power of an image of a beautiful place in nature cannot be underestimated. I had not even considered a Newfoundland trip before I read the 1984 National Geographic Society’s publication of “Canada’s Wilderness Lands.” When I turned a page and saw a picture of a fjord in Gros Morne National Park, I instantly knew that I had to go there.
Just getting to Newfoundland was an adventure in itself. I’ll leave that story for a subsequent post, as that journey was a special story all by itself. We’ll start this story in the airport at Sydney, Nova Scotia, where I boarded a flight on Eastern Provincial Airways to Deer Lake, Newfoundland. A friend from Atlanta was on that plane, and we would be doing the Newfoundland trip together.
Many people, especially Canadians from mainland provinces, consider Newfoundland to be at the edge of the world. It is the easternmost province of Canada and consists of the island of Newfoundland and the barren region of Labrador, whose coastline juts out into the stormy North Atlantic Ocean. It’s not a place you would stumble upon by accident. One has to go out of his/her way to get there.
We rented a mini-van at the Deer Lake airport and locally purchased some fuel for the camp stove and set off from there to explore the western side of the island. We hoped to take a ferry across the Strait of Belle Isle later in the week to cross over to Labrador on the mainland to visit Red Bay, the site of where a Basque whaling ship sank before Columbus “discovered” the New World. But first we drove in the other direction. We visited the largest settlement on the west side of the island at Corner Brook, and then drove another 25 miles west to Blow-Me-Down Provincial Park. The name beckoned us to visit there.
Sparsely populated and rugged in topography, Newfoundlanders have their own twist on the creation story of their island. It states, “God made Newfoundland in six days. On the seventh day, He threw stones at it!” That certainly explains the rocky outcrops, rocky coastlines, and lack of vegetation, due to the harsh climate and thin soils.
Blow-Me-Down sits on the coast between York Harbour and Lark Harbour (Canadian spellings). The park is home to abundant wildlife such as caribou, moose, fox, lynx, beaver, muskrat and a multitude of bird species. Several hiking trails are available, including the governor’s staircase. The rocks are ophiolites, which are parts of the earth’s mantle that have been uplifted to the surface. Continental glaciation of the last ice age did the carving to make this landscape art.
So far, we were figuratively “blown away” by the rugged beauty of the island. After some obligatory photos however, we turned north toward Gros Morne and the Great Northern Peninsula—the attraction that drew us to this part of the world in the first place.
At a breakfast stop at a local restaurant the second day, a man sitting at the table next to us struck up a conversation. Four small girls, ages 2-8, were sitting at the table with him. He could tell by our accents that we were Americans.
“What are you boys doing here?”, he asked. “Canadians don’t even come here!” “There’s certainly NO work to be had,” he said.
We told him that we like exploring new, little known places and that Gros Morne had some beautiful scenery we’d like to discover for ourselves.
The year was 1984, and the economy of Newfoundland was in shambles back then. This was long before the discovery of offshore oil and gas which became the Hibernia project. There was a moratorium on Cod fishing (the only major industry at the time), due to over-fishing of the Grand Banks. The restaurant was packed with out of work fishermen.
“What do you do?”, we asked. He looked over at his four daughters.
“Nothing to do except make babies”, he replied. “The only work left is handing out government unemployment checks. But, we DO appreciate your visit to help stimulate what’s left of our economy”, he added.
Although we had rented a car and were buying food locally, we really weren’t the kind of tourists that would be much of a shot in the arm to the local economy. We brought our camping gear and would be staying in our tents most of the time. Our first hike would be an assault of Gros Morne Mountain (807 meters).
Even though it was just a few days shy of the 1st of June, there were still snowfields to cross, even though the elevation wasn’t all that high. The air temperature was warm enough not to have to wear a warm jacket. The hike was a pleasant one.
Afterwards, we drove to some other scenic spots in the park. During the last ice age, moving glaciers carved out deep U shaped valleys. Rising sea levels from the melting ice sheets drowned out the glacial valleys, leaving behind the deep fjords on the coastline. I’ve been drawn to the ends of the earth since that trip to see beautiful fjorded coasts around the world. Most are located at high latitudes on the western side of continents, such as Fiordland National Park in New Zealand, the West Fjords of Norway and Iceland, Southeast Alaska, and the Archipelago of Southern Chile. This one happens to be on Canada’s Eastern coast.
After checking in with the rangers at Gros Morne, we got our permits to camp on the coast using the Green Gardens trail.
Several kilometers of hiking from the trailhead brought us to the rocky cliffs above the coast. The tall green grass provided a soft cushion in which to place our tent. There were actually a few trees in the area. The sky was gray and it started to lightly drizzle. We set up camp, but still managed to take a stroll in our secluded environs. That night, it started to rain a bit harder….
For the next few days, a severe low pressure system migrated into our area. The winds picked up and it started raining sideways. We played a lot of card games in the tent, but you can only do that for so long. I put on my rain gear and went outside and tried to photograph some sheep on the cliffs.
Newfoundland is famous for its storms. The westerly winds bring in continental air from the large North American land mass. It doesn’t mix well with the marine air of the North Atlantic, and the two air masses have vastly different air pressures. The larger the pressure difference, the higher the wind speed. Blow-Me-Down, Newfoundland now had a literal meaning to it.
After three days of constant wind and rain, and with our tent and all of our belongings soaked, we packed up during the storm and headed back into civilization. It was one of the most intense hiking experiences I’ve had in my over 45 years of backpacking. The sideways rain was now mixed with sleet, which pelted our faces. We stumbled out, looking straight down at the trail and glancing up from time to time to make sure we were still on the path. Several miles later, we reached the car. We drove towards Deer Lake and got a hotel. I stood in the hot shower for a long time to try to abate the effects of mild hypothermia.
As luck would have it, the storm abated the next day. We went back to the ranger to let him know that we got out safely. “I was kind of worried about you boys”, he told us. “So were we”, we replied.
From there, we drove north up the Great Northern Peninsula to catch the ferry over to Blanc Sablon, Quebec. From there it would be a short drive into Labrador to visit Red Bay, the site of a sunken Basque whaling ship. The Norse Vikings “discovered” the New World centuries before Columbus could ever have claimed to. So did the Basques. Some say that the Irish made the trip in Curraghs in the seventy century. But forensic evidence does support the Vikings and the Basques getting there. Take that Columbus!
When we got to the ferry terminal, there was no boat in sight. We went in to check on the departure times and a lot of fishermen were sitting around the bar. Piles of long necked beer bottles were strewn all over the tables. We inquired as to when the ferry would leave.
“It was supposed to be here three weeks ago”, one burly fisherman said. “It left St. John’s, but the pack ice in the Strait of Belle Isle is keeping her from getting up here.” “We don’t know when it will arrive!”
Our hopes were dashed. We asked about air fares and car rentals in Blanc Sablon. There was one flight per day, but it was very expensive. Taking it would also require us to rent another car on the mainland, while still paying for the one we had here. We just couldn’t afford it! It was a bitter pill to swallow, but we would have to give up on this part of the dream.
Nowadays, there is a new ferry which is capable of cutting through the sea ice. The Marine Vessel “Qajaq”, part of the fleet owned by Labrador Marine, can hold 300 passengers and 120 vehicles. During the high season, it makes several crossings daily across the Strait of Belle Isle. The 36 km journey usually takes 1 hr. 45 minutes; longer when there is sea ice to navigate through. We were just 30 years too early on our trip!
We quickly formed a plan B. We headed to the northern most tip of the island of Newfoundland and explored the environs around the town of St. Anthony. We also stopped at L’Anse Aux Meadows, the site of where Viking relics were found. The archaeological site dates back to 1000 A.D. and is the only confirmed Norse settlement site in North America other than the ones in Greenland. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 1978. The English-French name means “Bay with Grasslands”.
Jared Diamond has a chapter in his NY Times best seller from 2005 “Collapse”, which documents the fall of the Greenland and Vinland (Newfoundland) Norse colonies, due to either conflict with Native societies or reluctance to learn from them due to cultural differences. I recommend the book as a good read into historical and cultural reasons for societal collapses. The lessons from studying mistakes from past societies should be applied to some of our present day struggles. Like the ancient Norse, we could miss out on some opportunities to find solutions to problems, simply because we refuse to view them through anything else than our own cultural lens.
After visiting L’anse Aux Meadows, we stopped at the northernmost town on the island for a Screech and Coke. “Newfie” Screech is a local liquor often drank with Coca-Cola. When in Newfoundland……
Fortified by the local elixir, we were emboldened to climb one of the cliffs in the area to get a look out over the water. Surprisingly, the pack ice was not evident near shore. The higher we climbed, we could eventually see pack ice far out in the channel. Birds flew over our heads, wondering what would entice humans to enter their cliffside domain. Far off in the distance, across the pack ice, we could barely glimpse the shoreline of Labrador. Labrador is an itch I’ve had for almost four decades now, that I haven’t had the chance to scratch yet. But just being that close to it, and being perched on a desolate cliff face at the far end of the island of Newfoundland, which is at the far end of Canada, was satisfying enough. At least it was at the time. I took in the peace and solitude of it all and thought to myself…”Well, Blow Me Down!” Newfoundland is a special place. If you can take some of the weather in stride, you will be rewarded with magical scenery.
For those of you who are considering a trip to Newfoundland today, the economy has bounced back, mostly due to the Hibernia Oil and Gas project. The marine life is making a comeback and humpback whales are prevalent, especially on the East side of the island. For an historical account of the fecundity of the sea life during the time of exploration, I recommend reading an account of Jacques Cartier’s voyages in the area in the 1530s.
Newfoundland has a lot of hidden treasures to discover. Bring your rain gear if you go. But whenever the sun does come out, be prepared to react like Popeye did. You too will likely exclaim, “Well…. Blow-Me Down!”