Wednesday, December 5, 2007

More Canyons & Dunes

The past few weeks have become something of a blur. Moab seems like a very long time ago. I've visited so many places I'm having trouble keeping track of them all.

Since my last entry I've taken two additioal backpacking trips. The first one was along the bottom of a canyon. The canyon started out as a river bed which gradually dropped down, until the walls became fairly high. Besides the typical rock formations I came across a couple of abandoned cliff dwellings (with old corn cobs still lying about), and encountered pools of water big enough to swim in.

My next backpacking trip was into the Grand Canyon. I started out at the north rim and gradually made my way down a subsidiary canyon to the Colorado River. The trip involved a lot of elevation loss, something like 6000 ft. This trip was quite memorable. Topography-wise, the canyon I dropped into reminded me of the deep valleys I saw during my Ptarmigan traverse trip in the North Cascades. From a vantage point within the canyon, the rim, which is actually flat on top, can't be distinguished from a mountain range. Of course, there are no glaciers, but it's much colder at the top of the rim than at the bottom of the canyon. The bottom is a desert, while the rim top is a pine forest reminiscent of some of Oregon's mountain forests. There were traces of snow on the rim, and overnight temperatures on the rim were around 10 F. On the way to the bottom I passed through layers of rock which spanned most of the Earth's existence. The canyon bottom was initially dry but about a quarter of the way down a spring rushed right out of the bottom of a rock face. The lowest point was the wide, muddy Colorado River, which was spanned by a suspension bridge. Certainly, there's good reason for the Grand Canyon's popularity. My trip had been undertaken during what must have been the north rim's off season. Everything on the north rim was shut down for the year. Although it meant tolerating low temperatures, I had the north part of the park to myself. I didn't encounter anyone else until I got near the bottom, where people had hiked in from the south rim. The weather was mostly clear, with occasional high, wispy clouds.

More recently, Ann flew into Las Vegas for a visit. We went to Death Valley and Zion National Park. As most people probably know, Death Valley is the lowest point in the western hemisphere. It's extremely dry. The weather report I saw indicated less than one inch of rain year to date. Death Valley is another place with some impressive topography. Although the bottom sits below sea level, it's surrounded by peaks, some of which reach 11,000 ft. There is a good sized sand dune, many canyons, and the dry lake bed itself. As with the Grand Canyon, temperature and plant life depends mostly on elevation.

Sometime during the past few weeks I ran into a kindred spirit named Mr. Kim. I was taking photos at a park lot when I met Mr. Kim. He was walking towards me from a small group of vehicles. Mr. Kim was wearing what looked like army fatigues, including a cap. His fatigues seemed a bit too large for him. I started wondering what I had done to upset the authorities this time. Whatever it was, it must have been bad if they were sending the military after me. Mr. Kim came up to me and asked if the Westfalia (referring to my van) belonged to me. Mr. Kim had a heavy accent. I guessed he was of Korean ancestry. I noticed that the fatigues appeared to be genuine government issue. His jacket was embroidered with "U. S. Air Force" on the left and the name "Choi" on the right. The authentic looking uniform made it seem more plausible that I was in some kind of trouble. Unsure of whether I should admit to it, I told Mr. Kim that the van was mine. I was a bit relieved when he said that he also owned a VW Westfalia camper van, then proceeded to ask questions about my van.

Eventually introducing ourselves, we talked for a few hours. It turns out Mr. Kim and I had a lot in common. Mr. Kim had bought a van, left his job, and was on a road trip. He'd been on the road for three months and was now on his way home to southern California. Like me, he was doing most of the trip solo. At his wife's insistence he had bought a new van for the trip. We showed our vans to each other, exchanged stories from our trips, and shared "best practices" (good places to park your van overnight, where to get cheap food, etc.) I showed Mr. Kim photos from my trip. He was fascinated by them. Although we were both on road trips, it was clear that what I'd been doing during my trip was different than what Mr. Kim had been doing during his. At one point I said something that produced a strong reaction in Mr. Kim. It was like he had suddenly realized something. He tried to explain it to me, but I didn't fully understand what had happened. Later, bowing his head, he gave me his remaining food. I took it only because he insisted. He then requested a photo of the two of us. I accepted, but asked for a photo in exchange. After taking the photos we said our goodbyes. Mr. Kim thanked me, then bowed again, this time more formally, before returning to his van.

I've kept trying to deduce what it was I said that caused Mr. Kim's reaction and why he had reacted so strongly. I'm still bewildered as to what it was. Oh well.

Another memorable experience was spending a few days in a Navajo reservation. I guess I've never been in a large reservation. It was like visiting a foreign country, which is not what I had expected. It reminded me of trips to Mexico when I was a kid. Many of the Navajo continue to use their native language as their primary language. There were few non-Navajos in most of the reservation, so I stood out. The reservation looked more impoverished than most places I've visited in the US. I saw many street and parking lot vendors. I remember stopping at a parking lot early in the morning. Shortly after my arrival a beat up truck deposited an old Navajo woman, her grandson, a small folding table, and a folding chair. She set a bunch of jewelry out on the table and sat down, waiting for someone to purchase her wares. I assume she sits there all day most days.

I'm in Las Vegas at the moment. I'll be flying out from here in a week and a half to visit family and friends near Houston over Christmas. Between now and then I'll be exploring the wilds near the city. After returning from Texas I plan on starting my trip into Mexico.

The weather's been pretty nice in Vegas. Today was the warmest day they've had in a while. I heard that the northwest has experienced some nasty storms lately. Hopefully everyone's doing okay.

Happy holidays!

Photos from the past few weeks are here.

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