Temple of Giants

IMG_4651.JPGYosemite Valley is full of superlatives – the world’s largest exposed granite monolith, some of its highest cliffs, the continent’s tallest series of waterfalls – but these remarkable things are only there because of what isn’t. Billions (if not trillions) of tons of the valley’s granite were ground away more than 1 million years ago. A river started the job before glaciers took over, scouring off Half Dome’s other half, carving El Capitan’s 3,000-foot heights and leaving cliffs tall enough to scrape the clouds. Granite’s a tough rock, and this specific granite is as ancient as the dinosaurs. But sculpting it into some of the biggest and most recognizable formations on the planet took the strength of water.

Yosemite National Park now is defined more by rivers of liquid water rather than frozen, with spring snowmelt tumbling down falls that fill every valley with mist and sound. Some are huge and iconic – Bridalveil Fall accents the image of Yosemite Valley every visitor sees, and Yosemite Falls drops almost half a mile altogether. Countless smaller falls are tucked away in hidden corners of the valley, glistening threads running down distant ravines or vanishing into vapor high above the valley floor.

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IMG_4593.JPGOur first taste of Yosemite Valley’s scale was the football-field-size cliff that breaks through the forest across the valley near its entrance, streaked black from lichen and water. Tiny cars drove along the road at its base. On our side of the valley, another smooth granite outcropping sloped toward the floor at a gentle angle. Still, standing on it, seeing the earth drop away and looking out over a valley thousands of feet across was enough to get my heart pumping. The feeling didn’t go away during my four-day stay in one of our first national parks.  “No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite,” famed naturalist John Muir wrote a century ago. “Every rock in its wall seems to glow with life.”

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IMG_4638.JPGBefore seeing what Muir meant, we had to actually get there, with a stop in Arizona to pick up my mom. That meant a whole lot of driving, passing through Roswell (and stopping at the International UFO Museum, obviously), across the Rockies and a dust-blown desert in bloom, and between stands of wind turbines that often stretched to the horizon. In California’s Central Valley the turbine groves were replaced with miles upon miles of tree orchards and vineyards. Occasionally a semi drove past hauling trailers filled to the brim with garlic or oranges.

Then it was back up the mountains to Yosemite’s Wawona Campground.

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IMG_4929.JPGMore than 4 million people pile into Yosemite every year, and nearly all of them head to Yosemite Valley, which stretches across a paltry 1 percent of the park’s 1,200 square miles. I couldn’t blame them. I also couldn’t wait to see parts of the park many of them don’t visit. Wawona, which sits 30 winding miles south of the valley and was home base for four days, was the first of three non-valley stops.

We were mostly alone when we hiked partway up the nearby Chilnualna Falls trail one morning. The steep and rugged path wove between house-sized boulders and precarious trees up into some of the park’s official wilderness. The air was sweet from ponderosa pines and cinnamon-colored incense cedars that towered more than 100 feet overhead – even the trees are oversized in Yosemite. Chilnualna Creek’s rapids were never out of earshot. On the way back down, a group of a couple dozen seniors passed us looking as if they did this every day.

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IMG_4736.JPGNext we swung back around to Yosemite Valley; though the valley visitor area is packed with thousands of people during the warmer months, a nearby, little-used trail runs 5 or 6 miles past Mirror Lake into the valley’s quieter upper end. Almost no hikers went further than the crowded lake shore. Half Dome soared almost a mile overhead, the occasional cloud hiding its peak. The sun was bright and the breeze was soft. An hour or so passed, the stream flowing quietly nearby. The path seemed to keep turning away from the rest of the valley as it passed stands of aspen and pine. We started to wonder if the trail was still actually going anywhere. Eventually we joined a family of four wondering the same thing. We kept going.

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IMG_4778.JPGNear where the valley transitions into the smaller and steeper Tenaya Canyon, a sturdy bridge over gushing rapids came into view. Egg-sized granite stones formed little islands in the stream where more pines and cedars grew. Mosquitoes wouldn’t let us enjoy the scene for long. As we finally turned back toward the rest of the valley, we came across a few more hikers. Each asked us if the trail was actually going anywhere.

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IMG_4867.JPGLast came the giant sequoias, relatives of the coastal redwoods. Of the two, redwoods are the giants in terms of height, soaring to almost 380 stunning feet in some cases and holding the record as the tallest trees in the world. Giant sequoias are their heftier cousins, slightly shorter than coastal redwoods but making up for it with their colossal trunks. They’re one of the largest known single organisms and can weigh in at more than 6,000 tons – that’s 40 blue whales to you. They can also be prodigiously old, living up to around 3,000 years. They’re so well adapted to forest fires that they actually need them to reproduce. In the meantime, they can get so big that their own tremendous girth is often what brings them down.

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IMG_4877.JPGIt’s difficult to describe the feeling of being among a group of sequoias, even one as relatively small as Yosemite’s Tuolumne Grove. I could only crane my neck all the way back and try to take in how immense these living towers are. Even the young, “small” ones stand out from the surrounding full-grown pines, imposing and powerful. Yet their bark is spongy and soft, well suited to keeping out flames and the bugs that have decimated conifers throughout the Rockies (thanks partly to climate change, some researchers have found). Strength through softness, my mom said. Like the water that shapes the valley.

We took one last drive through Yosemite Valley before leaving. Long before Muir and others like me walked here, indigenous Miwok people and other tribes lived within the valley’s walls for some eight millennia. Settlers violently took it from them, with the last village removed around when my parents were born. Those people’s descendants are still around. I hope I at least honor their home well.

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IMG_4806.JPGOn the way home from this crazy road trip, New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument was the final major stop. Dust rose from the dune field like steam in the wind on the way to Yosemite. It seemed fitting, in a way, to venture into the field on the way home, almost a sequel to last year’s trek to the Great Sand Dunes. The two places shared the same odd, muffled quietness, though White Sands’ dunes are much smaller. The missile range where the first nuclear weapon was detonated is next door, and an occasional jet broke the silence. The wind-sculpted gypsum sand, pure white and soft as sugar, radiated heat in the sun but stayed cool to the touch. Shadows of puffy clouds sailed across sand waves.

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IMG_4998.JPGA brief stop there, then it was back in the car. All in all, it was a trip full of beauty and bigness and way too much driving.

Thanks for looking.

Dan

Woolaroc

_C1_0470On a secluded, 3,600-acre patch of land within northeast Oklahoma’s Osage Reservation sits Woolaroc, an oil magnate’s estate-turned-museum and wildlife area. Deer there let humans approach without fleeing, bison lazily chew in the shade and ostriches and other exotic animals peer through fences 7 or 8 feet tall.

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_C1_0474It’s a beautiful and complicated place.

On one hand, it’s a museum about Native American cultures built by a white man almost a century ago in the middle of a reservation the Osage Nation was forced onto. The reservation is itself part of a state the United States used to contain several other tribes after violently removing them from their traditional lands as well; later, the U.S. said never mind, we actually want this land, too. Not exactly cheery.

On the other hand, that white man, Frank Phillips (co-founder of the company that eventually became Phillips 66) is the only non-Osage person to be adopted into the nation and honored as a chief. Oil extraction for Phillips and others brought a lot of wealth to the area, and they talk about him in nearby Bartlesville as something of a hero.

And on the other other hand, that oil wealth brought some staggering evil to the Osage in the 1920s. So it’s a nice-looking place, but it’s complicated.

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_C1_0544_C1_0560Bartlesville, home of around 37,000 people, is just down the highway from Woolaroc. One of its main draws is its retro architecture — in particular, the 60-year-old Price Tower, a tall structure of cold blades and triangles designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The community performing arts center is largely the opposite with its warm curves.

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_C1_0581Not a bad little day trip. I’ll end with a few snapshots of an Arkansas summer, including a nasty-looking grove of kudzu, an invasive vine that’s a real problem throughout the South, near Lake Wedington. Researchers say we’re at the very edge of kudzu’s range and it can’t take over as in the deep South, but man, it looks bad when it takes hold.

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IMG_9281Thanks for looking!

Dan

The Dunes: Homebound

IMG_1787We left San Luis Valley as the sunrise splashed the mountains with orange heading for the plains, but before all of that, we stopped at the Raton-Clayton volcanic field in the northeast corner of New Mexico. Lava flows, lava domes like the one above and extinct volcanoes cover about 8,000 square miles there, according to the National Park Service’s helpful pamphlet. Capulin Volcano, a nicely symmetrical cinder cone that’s designated a national monument, is just a couple miles off the highway. Capulin last erupted about 60,000 years ago, or around the time humans first ventured past the edge of Africa, for anyone keeping track. We walked down into its crater.

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IMG_1784The rest of the field started forming 9 million years ago, or several million years before mammoths and saber-tooth tigers first appeared. I keep coming back to the ages of these places because they’re astounding. That volcano is about five times as old as human agriculture but could be just one-seventh as old as the Great Sand Dunes. The dunes, meanwhile, could be several times the age of the human species yet are essentially the age of kindergartners when compared to this lava field, which is itself an afterthought in the entire Rocky Mountain range.

Anyway, much was the same in Oklahoma’s flatness: the oddly abandoned towns, the enormous piles of hay, the bridges over creeks running dry. But unlike the first drive, we passed about a dozen stationary trains alongside the road; early in them orning I’d heard something about a train-truck collision along U.S. 25 on the radio and figured that was the reason, but it must have been a minor accident, because I can’t find a single news story on it.

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IMG_1790Later, a massive cloud of smoke appeared like a haze along the horizon, coming from near Woodward, Oklahoma. Here it is from the west, looming over some wind turbines for scale:

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IMG_1805I could still see the smoke 100 miles east of the grass fire responsible, blasted northeast by Oklahoma wind. The fire had burned about 35 square miles by Thursday, and the cause was still unclear. No one was hurt, though.

The last landmark we passed in sunlight was Tulsa. We were back in northwest Arkansas around 9 p.m.

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IMG_1811Being back home felt strange; driving across the panhandle, I had to make sure I had enough gas between towns, especially since some were empty, while in the dunes, I had to make sure I had enough food and water in case of delays and that I stayed hydrated. I realized in Fayetteville I didn’t have to do either anymore.

As a side-note, if you have a tight budget and don’t mind a long drive, road trips to national parks or anywhere else can be worth it. Hotel, food and gas for this trip cost about the same as one plane ticket. And just think of everything I would have missed if I had flown. It was all worth it.

Thanks for looking and reading, everybody.

 

The Dunes: Road Trip

IMG_1230Oklahoma is beautiful in the morning.

My best friend Ryan and I had been driving for a few hours across the state before the photo above. Tulsa’s pre-dawn skyline glimmered under clouds low enough to touch the tops of the skyscrapers, and wispy clouds brightened in the sunrise, glowing like a moonstone before clearing away in the mid-morning.

IMG_1228We were heading for the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, home to a 30-square-mile field of the highest dunes on the continent piled against a mountain range in south-central Colorado. I have a vague plan to see and photograph all of our national parks, taking advantage of the United States’ supply of old, natural wonders. My parents took me to a few parks when I was a kid; the dunes seemed like a good place to get started in adulthood. I got Friday and Monday off and went. This trip brought a lot of photos, so I’m splitting them up for each day.

The most direct path to the park goes straight across Oklahoma’s northern edge, where scissor-tailed flycatchers darted and squeaked on fence posts around herds of cattle as we drove by.

We got an early taste of the Rockies at the state’s Glass Mountains, a handful of red-dirt mesas topped with a crust of sparkly selenite crystals that look a bit like petrified wood chips. It’s a cool little state park right off the highway, and it gave us a warm-up for the weekend’s hiking.

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IMG_1276From there it was on to the panhandle. The Dust Bowl blasted through this area in the 1930s; today fields stretch for miles upon miles, almost completely flat and freckled with oil pump jacks, tumbleweeds and a handful of trees. Often I could see just one other car from horizon to horizon — at one point just two radio stations played, both Christian. The wind that propelled mountains of dust 80 years ago still blew strong, now harnessed by the occasional clusters of wind turbines that poked up from the horizon.

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IMG_1329Signs with just one word – Cemetery – stood every few miles, almost always pointing left. Other signs pointed out prisons and told drivers not to pick up hitchhikers. Tiny towns came along every few minutes, some just a few buildings scattered around a single intersection. And they looked abandoned. Slapout, Elmwood, Hardesty, Felt; one after another appeared to be nothing but broken windows and empty, run-down buildings. Outside the towns, more farmhouses and barns were in the same shape. Where did these people go? Can a town empty without the rest of us noticing?

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IMG_1361(These dogs weren’t in one of the empty towns, don’t worry.)

We eventually crossed through the northeast corner of New Mexico, bringing the mountains in earnest. It was chilly and damp until we drove through a mountain pass, when it became chillier and snowy. Mountaintops faded to white above us on either side, and aspens fenced us in.

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IMG_1388Nothing to worry about, though – soon we were through, the Sun shone out over San Luis Valley and we drove a straight line to Alamosa in time for some good burgers at the San Luis Valley Brewery on Main Street. Twelve hours of driving done. In the morning, the dunes.

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