Author Archives: Karen

Last Stop: Home

Now go home

Our trip is coming to an end, and our journey back to Wisconsin gave us the harsh message that winter is on its way. We left sunny Las Vegas on a comfortably warm morning, driving through Utah and ending in Grand Junction, Colorado. For every hour or so we drove, the temperature dropped. Eventually we came to a higher elevation mountain pass and hit a snowstorm. Our first storm in over 18 months. It was exciting, beautiful, and a bit scary, all at the same time.

Snowstorm rising

As we drove home, we reminisced about the past seven weeks, visiting our beloved national parks and seeing dear friends. The magic of the mountains and mystery of the red rocks lingering in our hearts. Grounding, peaceful, ancient, awe-inspiring. Plus Navajo Tacos in every restaurant. Milwaukee seems a little less inspiring than the Southwest. However, the constant movement made me itchy again for a home base, with a kitchen, ready for cooking. So we pressed on through Colorado, Nebraska, and Iowa.

No Name

The impending winter sent us into a melancholy mood as it signaled the end of our long-term travel. Once back in Milwaukee, we will have to start thinking about what’s next. A dream we had been saving and planning for for over ten years is coming to a close. A dream that didn’t go quite as planned. A dream that forever changed the way we look at the world and ourselves.

While we may not be jet-setting right now, we have more to share from our travels. There’s always a Next Stop.

Stay tuned.

Having a Me Party

After enjoying Halloween and a show with my friend Sallie in Salt Lake City, Ken made a last-minute decision to fly to Los Angeles to visit his friend David. That left me with a car and a drive across Nevada.

Fear and Loathing

Before you think I did some wild gambling and other crazy stuff, a la Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it was pretty much one of the most boring drives in my life.

Next gas 130 miles

I made my way toward Bishop, California, and over the next eight hours I saw almost nothing. A gas station here, an extinct volcano there, some slightly interesting mountain peaks. If you want to get lost, try the middle of Nevada.

I spent three days in Chalfant Valley, home to my friend Julie, her husband Bill, and the lovely two-and-a-half year old Violet. East of the Sierra Mountain range, nestled in the desert valley, the area is desolate and beautiful at the same time. We hiked to see the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest and visited the Owens Valley Radio Observatory, home to 10 large telescopes.

It was nice to play games, relax, and drink wine. Hope Ken is okay in that L.A. traffic!

Death Valley

Needing to make my way to Las Vegas to meet Ken at the airport, I left Bishop a day early to squeeze in a visit to Death Valley National Park, home to some of the hottest temperatures and lowest elevations on earth.

It was hot, it was low. And it was nice to have some me time.

Don’t Bust the Crust!

No, this has nothing to do with pie or creme brulee or anything tasty like that. Little signs dotting Utah’s national parks sported the phrase, “Don’t bust the crust.”

The crust they are referring to is this:

Blackened crust

What looks to be burnt soil is actually a colony of fantastic critters. The scientists call it cryptobiotic soil. Living crust is made up of algae, lichen, and bacteria and is the foundation of life in the desert. These crusts hold moisture for plants and nutrients for animals, providing a base for growth and keeping the dry sand from blowing away.

It's Alive!

While checking out the Visitor Center at Canyonlands National Park, we noticed that Junior Rangers (that is, kids), could earn a “Don’t Bust the Crust” button by answering a few questions about cryptobiotic soil. Noticing my disappointment that I was not age eligible for Junior Ranger status, the park ranger was happy to pass me a button. Yeah! I felt honored to have one and made sure to wear it as we hiked around.

Don't Bust the Crust!

Ken and I looked diligently for the black crust, treading carefully and furrowing our brows when we noticed other hikers who were not so caring. One misstep can wipe out ten years’ worth of growth.

If you are trekking about the desert southwest, watch your step and please, don’t bust the crust.

Desert crust

Playing the Lottery in Kanab

We were addicts, determined to win. Three days in a row we got up early to try our luck. It was a game of chance, watching the bingo numbers tumble inside their cage. Yet money was not the prize. Instead, we were hoping to win a permit to hike The Wave.

The Wave is a geological beauty in the Paria Wilderness area, just south of the Utah border, near Page, Arizona. Prior to 12 years ago, anyone could hike this area, known for its pink and orange rock formations that look like waves. Then someone realized the area was going to be destroyed without some regulation. And regulate they did. Only 20 people per day are allowed to hike this area. Lottery number one: ten spots are available online, four months before your desired hiking date. Over 400 people per day could be vying for those spots during the high season. Lottery number two: the other ten spots are available the day before you hike. Depending on the season, 50 to 120 people are praying for a lucky draw.

It’s a simple enough process. Show up to the BLM Visitor Center before 9am, fill out an application, and wait. At 9am, you are assigned a number.

Those numbers, etched onto bingo balls, are put into a hopper. Spin, spin, spin, draw, draw, draw, until the 10 permits are assigned. Everyone is friendly enough, yet there is a certain tension in the room, desperation over getting your number called.

The competition

While we wanted to do this hike, Ken and I were pretty Zen about the whole experience. Some foreign tourists wait five, six, seven days and still don’t get picked. There are plenty of other things to do in Kanab, so it was not hard for us to go three mornings in a row.

October is one of the more popular months for visitors to try their luck in the lottery. Temperatures are about 20 degrees cooler and crowds are smaller. That didn’t stop us from having large showings at our lottery mornings. 120, 83, and 77 people on our three days. Sadly, our number was never called. No bingo, no hike of The Wave for us.

Briefing the winners to keep them from, you know, dying out there

We drowned our sorrows at Lotsa Motsa Pizza’s $5 lunch buffet

Wow, Wow, Wow

Finally, I got to visit the Grand Canyon, just the second most visited park in the National Park system!

We worked through the busy crowds on the shuttle buses and trails, always enjoying the breathtaking scenery. Every turn made me say, “wow, wow, wow.” Yes, at least three wows.

Though we contemplated a rim to rim hike, we kept it easy on our visit inside the canyon. Soaking in about 60 degree temps, we hiked six miles total on the Bright Angel Trail and wondered how anyone would do such a hike in the boiling heat of summer? Tom Mortonson and Dee Braaksma… you kids are crazy.

It just so happens that Ken’s parents and Aunt Pat and Uncle Phil are also traveling in the Southwest, and our paths crossed on the South Rim. They treated us to an anniversary dinner, and we swapped road stories. Thanks, Schellins and DeCabooters!

I truly encourage you to visit the Grand Canyon at least once in your life. You too will wow, wow, wow.

Red Rocks Rock

Sedona. Many thoughts pop into my head upon hearing that name…..pricey, new age-y, pretty.

A tourist town like this would not usually be on our travel itinerary. Yet October 11, 2012 was no usual date: it happened to be our tenth wedding anniversary. Sedona seemed like the perfect place to celebrate an extra special day, and we covered it all: pricey, new age-y, pretty.

We booked a nice hotel room, received fancy massages, hiked a bit, watched a movie, and even soaked in the hottub.

This city is blessed to be surrounded by the amazing beauty of the red rock walls and canyons. Hiking trails are everywhere, and even a local may be hard pressed to hike them all.

We walked a couple trails, including stops at a Tibetean Buddhist stupa and some of the vortex sites. Vortex sites around Sedona are said to have extra energy emanating from them, including variants of masculine and feminine energy. Visitors come to these areas to mediate, dance, perform yoga, get married, leave offerings, or build cairns. Some come and wonder, what’s the big deal? We felt a wee something extra special when visiting these areas and expressed extra gratitude for the beauty surrounding us.

We were also very happy to make it to anniversary number ten. Let’s hope we can make it another ten years and keep traveling too!

The First Ever Ever Ever Albuquerque CouchCrash

We are CouchSurfing pros, having been members since 2007. What we had never done was join a CouchCrash. Albuquerque hosted their first ever on the same weekend as the Balloon Fiesta. It was time for our first crash.

A CouchCrash is hosted by the CS members in a specific city. They create extra activities for visiting CSers, a few days’ worth of awesome hospitality. The First Ever Ever Ever Albuquerque CouchCrash was no exception, with lots of meal gatherings, hiking, biking, and of course, meeting at the Balloon Fiesta.

Another highlight was a trolley tour of the city, which took us past some local landmarks. We even became honorary University of New Mexico Lobos.

Local eccentric Bart Prince’s spaceship house

We felt pity for Albuquerque’s decrepit railyard… until we were informed that it brings in millions as a movie location. If you’ve seen a movie set in post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, you’ve seen Albuquerque’s railyard.

Through the crash we met our lovely hostess, Annie. Newer to CS and eager to get involved, she even gave up her own bed so we had a place to sleep. Good thing she is comfy in a sleeping bag on a Thermarest. She gave us lots of great tips about exploring ABQ and understanding the vibe of the residents, including the Breaking Bad vibe right on her block (a location used in the show).

Breaking Sort Of OK

Some mornings we were busy with our balloon crew duties, yet one bad weather day allowed us to attend the Free Hugs event, hosted by CS. Signs had been made by the group, along with Big Brothers/Big Sisters kids. In a number of languages, the signs encouraged balloon passersby to accept a free hug. And hug we all did. It was a hoot.

We cannot thank enough all the volunteers who worked really hard on putting this successful event together. Lisa, Antonio, Greg, Bob, Jeannie, and all the other ABQers, great work!

The Springs to the Peak to the Garden

A weekend in Colorado Springs. I’ve never thought much of the city and was frankly a bit spooked by the large military presence and the largest Christian right-wing group, Focus on the Family, having its own ZIP code there. Colorado Springs is a political hotbed this week, with the presidential debate occurring here in a few days. Almost 1500 political ads a week on TV. Thankfully, I put all that behind me and focused on the natural beauty the area has to offer.

Garden of the Gods is a series of beautiful red rock formations, open for free to the public. I even spotted some long-horned sheep there.

Having already done a 10 mile hike (with Rahim and Elizabeth) in Breckenridge, I decided to give my legs a rest when visiting Pikes Peak. I booked a seat on the Pikes Peak Cog Railway, the longest (8 miles) and highest elevation (14,200 feet) cog railway in the world. Skip the corny jokes from the conductor and it was a beautiful ride. Skip the 32 degree temps and snow pelts at the top and it was a beautiful view.

Keeping my focus on the west side of the city, I enjoyed Colorado Springs a lot.

Mile-High Meetup

Once upon a time, a Couchsurfer named Rahim stayed at our house in Milwaukee. We kept in touch with him as we toured Asia and even met his sister in Malaysia. Now, we finally have the chance to see him again, meet his girlfriend Elizabeth, and crash at their place in Denver’s hip Berkeley neighborhood.

We sampled some microbrews, walked around downtown, and enjoyed lunch at Food Truck Thursday.

Hiking around Red Rocks Amphitheater, we were truly impressed with this music venue and the beautiful surroundings.

Catching up with friends makes traveling so much sweeter.

Rocky Mountain National Park

The first major stop on our trip was in Rocky Mountain National Park. We arrived at a very popular time, the elk rutting season, when males bugle to attract the females. The elks tend to bunch up in the open meadows and are not afraid of humans, so we got close to check out the action.

At the park we camped in our van for the first time. While it’s a snug fit to sleep inside there, it was perfect for the cold nights the Rocky Mountains threw at us.

The majestic mountains were a perfect start to our Southwest trip.