Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Final leg of the Grand Circle tour

From Moab we travelled south, making good time. This tempted us into detouring to Hovenweep National Monument, home to some ancestral Puebloan ruins. Ancestral Puebloan being the politically correct version of Anasazi, a word that some found offensive because due to its origin as a Navajo word meaning 'ancestors of the aliens', the Navajo having settled the area in the late 1500s, long after the zenith of the ancestral Puebloan society and the building of the now-ruined buildings.
The short walk round the canyon upon which the ruins are perched was extremely mellow, as was the nearby campsite. An unexpected gem and a complete contrast to the high octane atmosphere of Moab.
The original plan had been to camp in further down the road in Monument Valley and I'm glad we didn't. Not that Monument Valley wasn't spectacular; its red sandstone towers are a sight to behold. We've all seen it before though, in books and on TV, and there isn't much more to it than can be conveyed through a photo. It is also very much the tourist trap with a hotel and gift shop complex built on a low ridge to act as a barricade, hiding the classic view until the appropriate admission charge has been paid to the Navajo owners.
Genuinely spectacular was our next stop, the Navajo National Monument, a large collection of ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings dating from the same period as Hovenweep, the 1200s. Amusingly enough we saw a couple pushing a small dog in a specifically designed canine pushchair.
In the course of visiting these Puebloan sites I've had a misconception corrected. I'd been under the impression that North America was settled comparatively recently, but it was actually at least 11,500 years ago that the first humans crossed the land bridge from Siberia, the sea levels being lower due to the quantity of water locked up in the ice sheets. I assume that what is now the sea bed around Scotland was also well and truly settled during the last ice age, when the ice sheet receded there were probably people waiting to colonise the land from all directions.
This was the biggest day of driving of the trip, thankfully we gained an hour when we crossed from Utah into Arizona. The highlight of the drive was the surreal Painted Desert, like driving through a council grit depot hundreds of square miles in size. The van was lashed by windblown sand throughout. I can't blame the Navajo for cashing in on Monument Valley because a lot of the rest of their reservation is harsh and inhospitable to say the least.
Tomorrow we'll be spending the last full day of the trip on the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Should be a fitting climax to what has been an outstanding and inspiring introduction to the American Southwest.

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Monday, 26 April 2010

Canyonlands NP, Utah

Canyonlands truly is a land of canyons. The first photo was taken from the Island in the Sky, the most accessible region of the park. This is a section of table land connected to the 'mainland' by a narrow neck. At the foot of the Island's cliffs lies another plateau, the White Rim, and into this are cut the great canyons of the mighty Colorado and Green Rivers, the confluence of which lies to the south. Two weeks into this trip through the red rocks of the south west you might think that I would have become hardened, difficult to impress. Yet each of Utah's parks has been completely different in character and scale and my first peak over the rim into the great wilds of Canyonlands was mindblowing, or perhaps it has merely stretched my mind in preparation for the Grand Canyon?
We'd settled into an easy rhythm of parking up in a national park campground, picking off the easy walks with toddler in tow then sampling some more demanding routes individually, but this approach wouldn't cut the mustard here. We hired a Jeep and used it to explore the park and some of the surrounding backcountry.
The second picture shows the Schafer trail, a road built to aid uranium mining activity, descending via torturous switchbacks to the White Rim. We drove this and many other similar trails, Long Canyon, Gemini Bridges (picture 3) and the Horsethief road to the Green River, returning at night to our tent and campfire at the Cowboy Camp.
I thoroughly enjoyed this mode of travel and would love to use a jeep to access the more remote regions of the park , but before we returned the jeep we crossed a line. Rather than use the vehicle as a mode of transportation we set out on a specific 4WD route, off-roading purely for the sake of it. This is a very common form of outdoor recreation hereabouts and many trails are multi-use with cyclists, 4 wheelers, dirt bikes and ATVs sharing the same trails. The reason I like mountain biking in Scotland is that it gets me away from motorists. Having a steady stream of buffoons and oafs blasting past would spoil the experience somewhat. When we climbed the 1000 ft from the Green River yesterday after an al fresco riverside dinner I drove past lots of cyclists who had been waiting for the cool shade of evening before starting their ascents. I felt a bit of a Clarkson-esque spoiler as I shot past them, coating their sweaty bald heads with red dust.
This feeling of having descended into a pit of depravity intensified as we revved and roared our way round the 4WD route in the Sand Flats Recreation Area (picture 4), just down the road from the famous Slickrock bike trail. I was surprised to learn that the Slickrock trail was originally a dirtbike route and is still used by them.
I have always viewed those who indulge in offroad driving as their main leisure pursuit with suspicion and disdain. My own dabbling today served to confirm and cement these views. I won't pretend that I didn't enjoy pointing my modified jeep up and down seemingly impossible gradients. That is, gradients that would have seemed impossible were it not for the trail markers and the wide strip of rock that had been blackened by the passage of thousands of tyres. This type off off-roading represents all that is worst in modern manufactured 'extreme' sports. When one stands back and looks at the big picture I spent fully 3 or 4 hours and covering just over 9 miles. Less than walking pace despite using tens of thousands of pounds worth of machinery a few gallons of unleaded. While the steep slickrock and the fast sandy sections were amusing, there was a lot of unpleasant, bone-jarring bumping over rough ground. I got my fill of that driving tractors in my youth. As paid employment it is tolerable, but as an expensive leisure pursuit?
The jeep has been handed back and we have readied the RV for the return journey to Las Vegas. Tomorrow we head to Monument Valley.

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Great Toilets of the World Part 2: Cowboy Camp

Living it up in the luxury of a house sized RV was getting too much. We needed a weekend off to get back to basics and reconnect with nature, so we threw the tent and an esky in the back of a hired jeep and made a break for the backcountry.
I found the toilet above at Cowboy Camp, just outside Canyonlands NP. We saw real cowboys nearby, with chaps and lassoos. One demonstrated his mastery of the equestrian arts by munching his way through a jumbo sized bag of Lays crisps without dismounting.
The toilet appealed to me as a study in minimalism, an exercise in adequacy. Both door and roof have been deemed unnecessarily luxurious and dispensed with, walls alone being enough to protect the decency of the occupant. The toilet paper was, however, permitted the shelter of a small roof, like that on a bird table, to protect it from occasional desert storms.
The Bureau of Land Management, who administer this and many other similar installations around Moab, do as fine job of keeping stray toleys in check as the cowboys do for steers. Before issuing permits for campsites without doorless dunnies like that discussed above they ensure that campers are packing their own sanitaryware. Paddlers on the Colorado and Green Rivers are obliged to accommodate their turds in their boats, like brown stowaways, for the duration of their trip. Perhaps they have to present them to the rangers at the end as evidence of their compliance in a smelly, twisted kit inspection, laying them out on a sheet as a fisherman would his catch at a village market on the Mekong. A shit inspection even.
Such bountiful provision of outdoor crapperies meant that I was deprived of the opportunity to practise the little known excrement disposal method of smearing, despite finding myself in precisely the unpeopled, arid desert environment for which its use is endorsed. I read of this method in a handbook of alpinism; one simply smears one's output onto a rock in as thin a layer as possible. The sun then dessicates the jobby into thousands of feacal flakes, very much like goldfish food, which are dispersed to the four winds, leaving the rock clean enough, in principle at least, to eat your dinner off of.

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Sunday, 25 April 2010

Arches NP, Utah

Drinking the Polygamy Porter beer featured in the last post set me wondering about modern Mormons and their views on the practise. As is often the case, no sooner had the question been formed than the answer fell from the book I was reading.

Over 60 % of Utah's population are Mormons. Polygamy is illegal in Utah, yet there are an estimated 20,000 or so discreet polygamists. They have been excommunicated by the Mormon Church who no longer condone such activities. This amounts to less than 1 % of the state's population, roughly the same as the proportion of injecting drugs users in Scotland.

Shortly after leaving Capitol Reef we passed near Robbers Roost, the hideout of Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch. It is easy to see how he was able to evade the law, for this is remote country even now. We've had little contact with civilisation since leaving Las Vegas. So it was something of a shock to arrive in the town of Moab, gateway to Arches and Canyonlands NPs. The town dates back to the days of the old west but and was an important uranium mining centre, a legacy which has left the desert criss crossed with roads and trails that are now used for recreational purposes. Moab is now a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts, kind of the Fort William of Utah. Actually that is a ludicrous comparison.

The presence of so many enthusiasts has led to a tightening of camping regulations. This, combined with the introduction of an online reservation system for most but not all campsites, meant that in order to secure the plum campsite in Devils Garden pictured above we had to get up very early and wade through a deep mire of misinformation. It was well worth the effort, it is easy to escape the crowds even in the hugely popular Arches NP and the country, consisting of red sandstone that has been eroded into magnificent fins, spires and arches with spans of up to 100 m. It reminds me of the Olgas, a companion of Ayers Rock who hasn't aged so gracefully, but much more of it and with a better view.

Canyonlands next, watch this space.

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Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Capitol Reef NP, Utah

Prior to travelling I always try to minimise my exposure to pictures of my destination. If one has already seen a place through image and video the actual act of visiting can become a mechanical and rather soulless experience, a mere checking off of preconceived activities from a list. It is preferable to travel with an clean mind, open to fresh experiences.
Capitol Reef NP was not a place I knew anything about. Indeed it was only when it became clear that the drive from Bryce to Moab was longer than could be comfortably motorcaravanned in a single day that we decided to break the journey there. I am heartily glad that we did for it may well prove to be the highlight of this trip.
I have never seen colour so vivid. Just as blue light permeates from the bowels of a glacier, it is as if a deep red light illuminates the rocks of the reef from within, like a candle in a turnip lantern. The attraction is not just the utterly clean, sterile rock, laid out in licquorice allsort stripes of white, red and yellow; the lush canyon floors act as a counter balance, not just the vivid springtime green of the cottonwood and willow leaves, only a few days out the bud, but also that which is a lingering remnant of Mormon sweat. Fruita, which nestles below red cliff and grey mesa in the valley of the Fremont River, is one of many corners of this fantastic state that was settled and transformed by Mormon pioneers in the late 1800s. They levelled, tilled and irrigated fields and orchards that are still productive today.
It is in one such orchard, enclosed by fences of juniper wood, that the park campground is located. Pink and white blossom adorned the pioneers' fruit trees. The wind, hot from exposure to the baking rock, scattered it like confetti across the spacious riverside pitches. Green grass, like US Open semi-rough, provides running space for toddlers. For parents there are world class walks through surreal canyons and washes, onto the slickrock of the reef itself and through the orchards to view petroglyphs, marmots, mule deer and hummingbirds. All are accessed directly from the campground, making our three day stay relaxing and invigorating.
Evenings round the campfire were spent reading up on the geology of the reef and the settlement of Utah by the Mormon pioneers. I'd forgotten that they were hounded from a couple of locations in the east before embarking on their exodus to the valley of the Great Salt Lake. It's fascinating to think that as recently as 160 years ago it was possible to find sufficient space to settle a population of 14,000 persecuted polygamists. It's also humbling to think how hardy and self-reliant they must have been to create these oases in the desert - perhaps because they had no choice but to make new lives for themselves?
The only place that I can compare Fruita to is Muktinath, high in the Nepali Himilaya. It lies in the rain shadow of the range, yet the people catch the meltwater and grow crops in terraced fields, green jewels in otherwise barren desert country.
Note the amusing beer from the Wasatch Brewery - Polygamy Porter 'Why have just one?'

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Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

When sitting in one's everyday rut it's tempting to think that everything would be better if one could be transported to a tropical beach or some faraway, exotic city. I'm fortunate enough to have visited enough of each to realise that travel isn't a silver bullet guaranteed to bring contentment or happiness; it's possible to be euphoric on a rainy day in Slough and jaded and grumpy while watching lions in the Serengheti. In principle at least, I've never actually heard of anything approaching euphoria being experienced in Slough. The point is that we project our inner landscapes onto our surroundings.
And so it was with Bryce Canyon. We arrived on Wednesday from Zion after what the presence of a grumpy toddler made seem like quite a long drive. The colours of the famous hoodoo rock formations were washed out by the afternoon sun, the campground was littered with dirty piles of melting snow, when we visited a viewpoint we were crowded by hordes of tourists. I couldn't muster any enthusiasm for a place that I had flown halfway round the world to see. All I saw was a reflection of my own tiredness and irritability.
Early next morning I made the short climb from the campground onto the rim of the canyon, panting in the thin mountain air. The place captivated me even before I had plunged my cafetiere or seen the first rays to light up the hoodoos, the eroded limestone formations for which Bryce Canyon is famous.
It is difficult to adequately describe the hoodoo without resorting to a technical description of their mechanism of formation, retreating into geological jargon. Nonetheless I will try.
The word describes a rock spire which, rather than tapering to a point or maintaining a uniform girth, has an uneven thickness, bulging in and out like a chess piece or the rear spars of a wooden dining chair. That such geometry is pleasing to the eye is evident from its widespread application in ornamental woodturning. To find oneself within a landscape that is entirely composed of such features is both exhilarating and intoxicating. This description of the hoodoo, though adequate, creates the false impression of the order and symmetry that results from precision lathe work. The hoodoos are organic structures, more akin to a patch of mushrooms than to banisters railings. It is this subtle variation within a repetitive framework that makes them as sublime to the eye as is a perfectly crafted house music track to the ear.
The same satisfying variation is evident in their colouring. A hoodoo that is white at its tip may merge to red in its middle portion and to purple near its base. They rise from aprons of hoodoo fragments, ridges of multicoloured cat litter. The subtle variations of earth tones are as exquisite as those found in the aboriginal rock art of Australia's Northern Territory. In both cases the framing is as important as the subject matter. In Bryce Canyon the hoodoos are framed between a deep blue high altitude sky and patches of leftover snow. They are garnished with the vivid springtime green of bristlecone pines and bathed in the clear clean light of the southwest. I am glad that I visited in the age of digital photography, I took so many pictures that the developing costs would bankrupt me.
Since leaving Las Vegas I have had no mobile network coverage. This post will be issued when I can scavenge sufficient wifi to unleash it. I'm now in Capitol Reef NP which promises to be even more spectacular that Zion or Bryce!

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Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Zion National Park, Utah

Mobile blogging from Utah's Zion National Park, basking in the spring sunshine. As you'll be able to tell from the photo we have hired a modest 'standard' RV (recreational vehicle). It may seem obscenely large but most others are much, much bigger.
We flew into Las Vegas, not due to any urge for gambling or other vice, simply because it is the most convenient airport for the delights of the southwest of the USA. One night staying on the 'strip' was plenty. Jetlag meant that we retired early, before our hotel's volcano's second eruption of the night. A jatlagged 2 year old meant that we took advantage of the 24 hour facilities - we were up for breakfast at 0500 and wandering the quiet and surreal streets shortly after. Groundsmen tended the lavish surrounds of the casinos, leather-faced winos prowled round hoovering abandoned drinks from the street. A few dedicated revellers still wore 3 foot long margharita glasses slung round their necks.
In a seedy parody of Panini football stickers cards with naked ladies in provocative poses lay strewn on the pavement, advertising 'specials' for between $35 and $85. One lay half-folded in a pool of partially dried vomit, the top half her body standing free of the pavement, surveying the sordid scene of carrot and margharita residue that surrounded her.
After passing the morning enjoying our hotel's dolphin pool and big cat enclosure we high-tailed it out of town, careering along roads only just wide enough to take our RV, arriving in Zion after dark. The three days here have been fantastic, the fresh green leaves and wildflowers of spring contrasting with the red and white sandstone cliffs. No big wall action or multiday backpacking on this trip, the highlight has been Erin walking her first mile since her hip operation, from the trailhead at the top of the canyon to the beginning of Zion Narrows. She tells me that she wants to climb the cliffs on her next visit. Think I'll wait until she's old enough to lead the hard bits and pull the haul bag.
Tomorrow we'll be hitting the road to Bryce Canyon NP. 4000 ft of elevation gain will take us from spring back to winter.
The second photo was taken during an early morning raid on Angels Landing. The ridge was exposed enough to be invigorating. The addition of chains made an easy scramble into a hard hike a la Half Dome. I had the summit to myself (apart from a chipmunk) and was glad to be on my way down before the first faffers started to gibber their way up the chains.

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Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Great Toilets of the World Part 1: Is this Scotland's only squat toilet?

A preference for a hole in the ground style toilet is regarded by most British people as backward and downright uncivilised. I don't subscribe to this school of lavatorial snobbery however, having recognised the benefits of the squat toilet while travelling in Asia some years ago. It was during this time that I practised and perfected the art of the relaxed squat. It is a sad reflection on the health of our nation that many of us are simply incapable of squatting. This is the first benefit of the hole in the ground toilet; regular squatting promotes hip flexibility, and flexibility is a Good Thing. The second benefit is to the act of stool passage itself. I expect that an appropriate anatomical drawing would highlight the improved alignment of one's colon with the anus that squatting confers. Try for yourself, your output will slide out smoothly and continuously like a well-oiled piston. I have read that back pain was practically unknown in Thailand until the European chair was introduced. Perhaps a similar tale could be told about haemorroids and western toilets?
Despite my enthusiasm for the squat toilet I do have a regular unit installed in my own home. I have been quite tempted by the hybrid units that one can buy; effectively a standard western toilet but with footplates that permit squatting at seat level. A nasty injury could result were such an elevated squat to be attempted after a few refreshments, so I am inclined against such a compromise.
I occupied myself on saturday with a stroll up Glen Feshie in the Cairngorms and was surprised and delighted in equal measure to find a functional squat toilet in an outbuilding adjacent to the Ruigh-aiteachan bothy. To the best of my knowledge this is the only example in Scotland. As illustrated by the photo above, the simple hole has been complicated unnecessarily by the addition of a seat-less chair and a wooden toilet seat, no doubt to accommodate the inflexibility of the average user. The eagle-eyed amongst you may also have noticed that a misalignment between seat and hole has resulted in some nasty smearage.
It is the inevitability of this type of ad hoc customisation by houseguests and the attendant risk of smearage that puts me off discarding my white porcelain throne. Perhaps a hybrid is the way forward after all.

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Friday, 2 April 2010

Road Rage in Glen Feshie

A top up of fresh snow meant that we had to dig our way into the car park at the Red Burn, much to the consternation of a couple of innocent motorists who were trapped in the midst of our skitouring convoy. One was on his way to work and the other felt that his 4WD car would succeed where one of our party's Subaru had failed. Nothing could be done to relieve their frustration until sufficient trenching had been done to shuffle the cars off the road into the freshly cleared car park. We must have made an absurb spectacle, stooping low as we dug feverishly using our short-handled snow shovels, like a troupe of dwarves.
Car to car skiing and cutting fresh tracks on Sgor Gaoith in the sun amply repaid our efforts. A great end to the winter? Maybe not, it's only Friday!

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