Saturday, July 31, 2010

Summer Escape Part 2 - The Desert

We'd come to the high mountain, in part, to escape the summer heat. But the sky was promising cooler, wetter weather. We drove off the mountain as early afternoon clouds puffed proudly over the wide spaces. Away from the high tundra, dense mountain forests, and shiny little lakes. Downward toward sandstone canyons and towers, where trees gather space around them, where water fills murky potholes carved into solid rock.

The desert, 5000-or-more feel below our mountain perch, should have been too hot for comfortable travel in July. But the clouds fulfilled their promise. Rain slashed down on us as we drove, turning the dirt road to snot. We skittered slowly out from under the storm into a cool cloudiness. Other storms surrounded us, trailing grey tentacles of rain over the sphere of the earth.

We found our way to a lonely swath of desert and called it home for the night. The sphere of the sun emerged from beneath the clouds to highlight the stone mountains surrounding us. Darkness brought the sphere of the moon to prominence, and the bright spheres of planets and stars sounded their distant points from the scattered clouds of the sky. Surrounded by these spheres, their silent music in our ears, we slept.

During the night, or tens of thousands of years before, other spheres had poured into the desert. Scattered on low sandstone islands surrounding us were thousands of ironstone spheroids, filling cracks, spilling from bowls. Pea sized to apple sized, their deep rusted colors contrasted with the buff sandstone where they lay.

Why they fill this part of the desert and in such astounding numbers remains a mystery. Some say they fell from the sky. Or that they rose from deep in the earth. Or that each grew as the byproduct of a living, expanding biofilm in an ancient seabed. The mystery of their origin only adds to the intrigue of their presence. We even saw fresh fungi furiously mimicking the spherocity on dainty stalks.

We hiked into a sandstone canyon where walls of white and red favored either our white dog or our red dog. They explored ahead, behind, and all around us as we hiked. Sprocket cooled off in a shallow pool of water. And Zeek, usually a pinnacle of agility, slipped on the edge of a pothole and fell into the deep pollywog frog-water with a kerplunk and couldn't get himself back out onto the steep sides. I had to hold onto Trina's legs as she reached down in to pull him out.

We hiked until the sun came out and began to wilt us and the desert flowers. Then we drove to a small town for a quick taste of civilization in the form of lunch. After, we headed down the road toward Bryce Canyon.

Not TO Bryce Canyon, but TOWARD. As dog owners, mountain bike riders, and self-proclaimed rugged individualists, we don't have much use for National Parks and the long lists of restrictions and long lines of industrial tourists that plague them. But the jagged pink cliffs, spires and canyons extend beyond the boundaries of the Park, and we found our own slice of heaven nearby.

We camped near the mouth of a Bryce-like canyon and took a twilight stroll through spires and hoo doos, WITH our dogs. (Off leash!) And in a cloak of solitude.

In the morning we parked the dogs in the truck in the shade and took a fun, zippy ride (which promised to be too fast for the dogs) through the open forest and spectacular red canyon scenery of Thunder Mountain. This popular bike trail plunges through open forest, bare ridges, and winds through stone pillars and spines and towers. All the grandeur of the nearby National Park, but with the added joy (in our book) of experiencing it from our bikes on an interesting and challenging trail.

As day warmed up, our thoughts turned back toward cooler elevations, and soon our truck tires turned that way as well.


Thursday, July 29, 2010

Summer Escape Part 1 - The Mountain

We drove hours and hours away from home to find ourselves on top of a huge, flat-topped, cliff-edged mountain in Utah. A bit strange that we would do that, since there's a huge, flat-topped, cliff-edged mountain right on the edge of our town in Western Colorado. Like our local mountain, this one was sprinkled with small lakes stirred into a mix of forest and prairie-like meadows, and generally rocky and rough all over.

We found our first camp on a bright evening and strolled with the dogs over clumpy tundra grass to a small, shallow lake half bridged with stepping-stones, the high-water mark scored with white pollen on the dark rocks. Frilly freshwater shrimp in water that was also busy with underwater larvae and beetles. The air was vibrant with mosquitoes. The blue sky and white clouds faded toward darkness and we warmed away the night's chill by a fire, then slept under a quarter moon, the light filtered by the mosquito mesh of our tent.

Most of the next day we were busily doing almost nothing. We strolled. We lounged. We read. We napped. We looked at passing birds with our binoculars. And we slapped a lot of mosquitoes.

The mosquitoes were not nearly as vigorous during the warm part of the day. But at 11,000 feet, the warm part of the day had a pleasant chill to it if we stepped out of the sun or a passing cloud blocked the warm sunlight from above. I slapped one particular mosquito and noticed that its dead body seemed to be exuding two tiny droplets of blood. My blood? I looked closer and then closer yet. (Did you know that binoculars turned backwards make something not unlike a microscope?)

The tiny red spheres clinging to the sides of the mosquitoes were not my (sacred) blood. But were instead the plump bodies of tiny red mites. Egad! Fascinated, I called Trina over and showed her the scene. Her reaction: "Ha! I hope those mites make the little suckers ITCH!" Then, with tweezers to help, we photographed them (backwards, through the binoculars) and witnessed one of the red mites fleeing its now-dead host.

Afternoon clouds began to build into thunderheads. We moved our camp from our exposed plain to a scooped pocket of a meadow beneath low cliffs by another small lake surrounded by thicker forest. And then embarked upon another Stroll of Discovery.

We found tiny wild strawberries, sun-dried fungi, and an abundance of wildflowers. The dogs failed to notice a bird's nest hidden beneath a pine bough on the ground. But they did manage to corner a marmot in its own mid-meadow rocky lair, and then became confused by the marmot's whistle and their own barks echoing off the surrounding forest.

As afternoon slid toward evening, the sky broke into a patchwork of darkened gunmetal blue clouds and shimmering sunlight. But the weather held. We saddled up our bikes and rode down a jeep road and onto a piece of trail we'd seen on the map. We didn't know what to expect, but were pleasantly surprised by the rough texture of the narrow trail.

Definitely not a made-for-biking trail. Filled with both embedded, loose, and generally, awkward babyhead rocks. (Trail-smothering rocks up to the size of, well, a baby head.) Lots of stopper rocks. (Able to bring a front wheel to a sudden and unexpected stop.) And even some hippo-head rocks. (Apt to knock one off one's bike and stomp one to death.) So the trail-flow we found was of our own making. And the challenge of finding it was enough to make us grimace and grin.

We swooped and scuffed and rolled along the grassy edges of lakes, through pine needle forest, up short punchy climbs, past wildflowers. The trail vanished and reappeared occasionally. The rocks steadily grew into boulders that squeezed the trail so tightly we could no longer ride. We were walking our bikes over and through a boulder-filled forest, but could see empty space beyond the trees.

We left our bikes and hopped boulders out onto the rim of cliff that defined the upper tier of the mountain. A blue storm was passing to the north of us. Sunlight showered weakly onto our airy perch. Below us was another layer of mountain that slid downward toward bare-stone steps of rock desert plateaus that disappeared into a hazy horizon.

Then we left the view behind and turned and churned our way back toward darkness and our dinner at the truck. The night wind blew in lightning flashes, rumbles of thunder and spattered rain on our tent.


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Backroads and Ghost Towns

Hot July in our end of the state. Time for a road trip? Our problem is that we don't do the "road" part of a trip very well. Instead of reeling off vast miles on fast highways, we stutter off onto small roads, dilly dally around little towns, and wander off in odd directions to see what there might be to see in places that slip unnoticed past those with more destination-oriented agendas.

Since we both like it this way, the problem isn't really a problem. Together we accumulate a small store of quirky oddities and second-rate scenic memories. We indulge our common interest in the visual effects of decay on past human glory. We fill the truck with dust as we rattle down dirt roads that lead to almost nowhere.

Some of the scenes fit only into our grit-filled eyes. Others become photos like you see here. And here. And here. And here.

Not just regular night crawlers.


Monday, July 26, 2010