Morning

A sweetgum is silhouetted
        against the east cream-sky, leaves like
                star-shaped kids’ cereal sogging
In forgotten milk.

Weathered, brittle plastic toys lie
        scattered in the backyard glowing
                in faint beatific rose light
For a little while.

The house sits quiet and languid
        as the summer air outside feels
                like a held breath, waiting to burst
Out, then in again.

When the kids wake, the spell will be
        broken, but for the time being,
                the world itself seems possible,
Open, blank, watching.

Maybe today’s news won’t happen,
        and all is cream and roses and
                God is standing back of it all
                        Breathing, “It is good.”

Image: Appalachian Sunrise, Watauga County, N.C., July 2018.

Into the Woods: Southern California

If you read much here, you know that I really like to go hiking, mostly within my context of the Southern Appalachians and the Cumberland Plateau (TN, NC, GA). Sometimes I get to go farther afield, though.

A few years ago, I got the idea to do a big daddy-daughter trip with each of my kids (4 girls) when they turned 10. I set the parameters pretty widely—anywhere within the continental U.S.—and figured I’d let each of the girls’ ingenuity and personality be expressed by their choice of destination. Did that ever come through on our first try!

My oldest turned 10 in July, and stretching the outer limits of my boundaries, chose to visit Channel Islands National Park. You see, she’d read Island of the Blue Dolphins, and was quite captivated with Scott O’Dell’s rich description of place. But still, her answer to “anywhere in the continental U.S.” was “an island off the coast of California!” You get extra points for audacity, though, so we set out West for six days in mid-June.

To make the most of our time and travel expenses—for the record, flights from ATL-LAX on Delta are typically affordable—we spread the net a bit wider to catch several other national parks (Joshua Tree, Sequoia, and King’s Canyon) to get a feel for many of Californias wildly divergent eco-regions. This was made possible in part by the generous  “Every Kid in a Park” program from the NPS. In each place, we did several short hikes, but I’ll highlight the best ones below.

Channel Islands: Scorpion Cove to Smuggler’s Cove
You have to want to get to the Channel Islands. Arriving as we did, in the midst of “June Gloom” (when the slowly warming Pacific coats the coast with a “marine layer” of clouds and drizzle for much of the day), there’s no indication, standing on the wharf in Ventura, that there are islands out there in the mist. In faith, you pile into a small-ish boat for the 20+ mile cruise to Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island. After an hour and a half or so of bobbing and splashing (and, if you’re lucky, some friends along the way), you make debark onto a small metal pier and into a new world.

We took gear and in order to camp, which provided its own set of adventures. The Scorpion Cove campground (in a valley reclaimed from the headquarters of a cattle ranch from pre-national park days), is small, holding 20 or so sites, with limited sources for drinking water, no plumbing, no electricity, and no fires allowed. All well-traveled campgrounds have animal visitors (people mean food, as all good critters know), but I’ve never seen the level of boldness we experienced from the island foxes, scrub jays, and ravens in seeking a morsel.

After a couple of trips up to Cavern Point (<1 mile walk to the cliffs above the campground) to take in the plant life and sunset, we settled in for the darkest, quietest night of camping I’ve experienced in a while. The next day was cool and cloudy, but as the sun poked through, we broke camp and set out for the Smugglers Cove Trail.

Santa Cruz is a large, long, mountainous island, and the main NPS property is confined to the northeastern tip. Our trail cut across that section, going from sea level on one side of that promontory, up to roughly 700′ in the foothills, then back down to sea level on the southeast coast. The trail is good—wide and well kept, probably an old ranch road—but steep in several places. Word to the wise, we also learned that, once the clouds break up, there is no shade along the route, and these two tree-accustomed Easterners got deeply sunburned.

The remoteness of the park, difficulty of the trail, and the fact that it was a weekday meant that we encountered few other hikers. The terrain shifts made it feel like going from a tropical paradise to the middle of nowhere in Nebraska to a Mediterranean coastal village. There were plenty of interesting flowers and grasses, and an assortment of animals ranging from birds to butterflies to ground bees to harbor seals. Sweeping views of the island (and neighboring islands and the mountains on the mainland) and having a huge gravel beach all to oneself were well worth the walk, though I don’t think my daughter was any too happy with the climb on the return trip. Still this was one of the most interesting hikes I’ve done, and we both boarded our return boat scheming plans to come back someday.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Joshua Tree: Hidden Valley Nature Trail
Back on the mainland, we treated ourselves to fish tacos, and then made the trek across the L.A. metro to Palm Springs for the next leg of the trip, this time opting for a hotel with a pool instead of camping. In contrast to the cool, moist coastal air, it was 95 degrees in the desert…when we arrived at 10 p.m.! This, plus the sunburns we were already nursing made the prospect of hiking less attractive, so we opted to lay low until late afternoon.

Fortunately, the bulk of Joshua Tree National Park sits on a plateau, 4-5,000 feet above the sea-level-and-below terrain of the Coachella Valley. While the lowlands baked at nearly 110 degrees, it was only 88 or so in the park. Still without much tree cover, it was hot, so we kept our hike short, opting for the Hidden Valley Nature Trail, a 1-mile loop along the park’s main road. There were more people afoot here, but Joshua Tree is more of a winter destination, so still not crowded by any stretch. The loop didn’t present any hiking challenge, but it was a fine spot to marinate in an otherworldly landscape of cacti, jackrabbits, lizards galore, the park’s eponymous “trees” (really a woody species of yucca), and climbable rock formations that could’ve been deposited from the moon.

After this, we drove to another spot for more intense climbing while we waited nighttime and cool temps and stars. As the day drew down, we joined a small crowd of others (and one slightly perturbed sidewinder) at Key’s Point on the west rim of the plateau to watch an unfettered, 180-degree sunset that seemed to last forever. Then, on the way back to our hotel we stopped beside the road to soak in the wealth of stars afforded by the desert and marvel at the nearly instantaneous 30-degree temperature drop.IMG_4453

Of all the places we visited, I was initially least enthusiastic about Joshua tree, but that just means it was the place that surprised me most.

Sequoia: Tokopah Falls Trail
Nothing makes one long for the cool woods of high mountains like a couple of days in the desert, so to close out our trip, we headed north through the central valley and up to the high Sierras and Sequoia National Park. The trees are the stuff of legend, and it’s easy to understand the universal appeal, but that also means that this gave us our first taste on this trip of the standard NPS rigmarole of crowded trails, not finding parking spaces, and people from every corner of the world vying for photos with General Sherman. Still, we had plenty of peace and quiet wandering the meadows and groves of big trees in the main section of the park. If you’ve been there, you know that being in the presence of these giants defies description. If you haven’t, just go sometime, and we’ll smile and nod about it together.IMG_4601

For our last night out west, we opted again for camping (I’m nothing if not cheap), and after exploring all day, we set up the tent at Lodgepole (N.B. – I booked this site 6 months in advance—for a Monday night!). From the campsite, we decided to add one more hike up to Tokopah Falls, a moderate 4-mile round trip following a fork of the Kaweah River up to the very edge of alpine tundra. The river was very full, and we were duly warned from any attempts at getting too close. IMG_4624

Most of the trail was well forested, but at 7,000 + feet, more with spruce, fir, pine, and cedar than sequoias. Here, in the shade, there was still ample snow, and the runoff from higher-altitude melting occasionally made the trail itself into a tributary of the river. About 3/4 of the way in, hikers coming the opposite direction warned us of a bear feeding on grubs in a trailside stump up ahead, but we never made his acquaintance. We did, however see some striking lizards and Steller’s jays and had a near-handshake with a yellow-bellied marmot.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

At the end of the trail, in wide granite basin, is the falls, pouring out from the snowpack along the rim of the Sierra Nevada. Beautiful doesn’t begin to describe it, but it felt somehow as majestic as parts of nearby Yosemite, but more intimate somehow, closer. The wind falling into the valley from the snow above was reminiscent of standing below a glacier, and the sunset painted the rocks shades of pink that my camera couldn’t touch. The trip back in the rapidly chilling dusk was so quiet, you could, for a moment, forget you were in one of the most visited national parks and imagine it as it was first encountered.

On the long drive back to LAX after a cold night’s sleep, a less-than-ideal coin-operated shower, and a quick detour to see King’s Canyon, all this started to feel like a blur. But my daughter’s wonder (if you’ve met her, you’ll know that “speechless” is rarely an apt descriptor), even still when she looks at pictures, holds each trail as a moment in time that will keep its place in the memory banks.

Sure, California is crowded, expensive, and over-hyped, but it is truly lovely and well worth a visit. Just take some time to get off the road and see it up close and personally, and reap the rewards.

Unpack That

Caravan was original, Chrysler
Trying to get us to buy the dodge,
Artfully labeled to imply transit
Of all the baggage of forty camels.
This we need, if our children are to be
Properly attired, prepared for all
Weather and all events required for fun.

Aerostar was Ford’s offer. Trapezoid
In motion, with endearing manual
Transmission perfect for those who need one
More thing to think about inside a box
Filled with children, hurtling through traffic,
Like the valkyrie or sprite evoked by
Its spectacularly ambitious name.

Not to be outdone, Chevrolet bestowed
An Astro, with all the aesthetics of
Houston’s eponymous dome and all the
Responsiveness of George Jetson’s Great Dane.
It was called after the stars, I presume,
Since it would not move outside a vacuum,
A high cube tossed about by every wind.

Japan wants us now to believe this act
Of folding entire households onto
Wheels for a routine trip to the ball-field,
Walmart, or grandma’s should be an epic—
An Odyssey or Quest. Heaven forbid
We suffer shame from traveling light or
Shell out for a cross-continental flight.

Chrysler now is at it again, duping
Into unceasing violence of packing
And unpacking a Pacifica the
Unsuspecting American with the
Great inconvenient convenience
Only a false sense of ownership can
Properly convey to one’s thinned billfold.

Life in these United States is a game,
A never-ending level of Tetris
Played in Conestogas made of steel.
When you’ve got all you need, you can’t bear to
Leave any bits behind. Our minivans,
Quaint and manifest density of hope,
Rattling around from sea to shining sea.

Into the Woods: Smith Springs Loop

Every hike has a story. Usually it’s fairly short: “I needed some rest and exercise, so I went for a hike.” Simple.

This is not one of those stories.

It started last fall, right after we found out that that we were expecting our fourth child (arriving in June). Taking a “babymoon” is harder when one has three older kids to arrange care for, so we came up with a wild idea. A crazy idea. What if we took a trip out west, all five of us?

After some research, we pieced it together. We’d go in February, before Rachel’s pregnancy was so far along she couldn’t sleep well. We’d stay south to avoid winter weather as much as possible. We’d keep driving days under 6-7 hours for the sake of everyone’s endurance. We’d camp some, and cash in hotel points from a credit card for other nights. It seemed within reach. Possible. Delightful even.

When the big day came to leave, we packed our minivan within an inch of its life and pulled toward the setting sun. Each of these stops entailed a lot of activities, and could be given a fine travelogue post in its own right, but for the purposes of this story, you’ll get the flyover view. Day 1: Memphis. Day 2: Oklahoma City. Day 3: Palo Duro Canyon. Day 4: Santa Fe.

All well and good, until one of the kids got sick on the way to Palo Duro. Spending 30 minutes cleaning mint-chocolate-chip ice cream vomit from the back of the car on the side of a dark Texas highway is fun. Realizing that the bathroom next to your camping cabin is out of order while your child continues to vomit is more so. Having raccoons pilfer the vomit-covered paper towels from a double-bagged, sealed trashcan and scatter them around the park is positively thrilling.

This still isn’t really a story about that, though. Because this was no ordinary stomach bug, our daughter continued throwing up for nearly a week. Our time in Santa Fe involved a visit to a very nice urgent care clinic and a joyful spell of throwing up on a hotel elevator (not to mention one of the other kids coming down with strep throat), but also some fine artarchitecture, and scenery. After a while, we realized it would be foolish to take the planned next leg of the trip to Big Bend (which is, to put it mildly, a good long drive from civilization and medical attention), so we stayed an extra day in Santa Fe and began to rework the rest of the trip.

Day 7: Brantley Lake State Park. Chosen because of the ridiculous price of hotels in Carlsbad; remembered because of the way our tent was ripped out of the ground by whimsical high-plains winds forcing us to fold it up and sleep in the van at 3 a.m.

Day 8: Breakfast at a McDonalds in Carlsbad, including the joy of being the only out-of-towners at the mayor’s campaign rally. Carlsbad Caverns is truly mind-blowing, a national treasure. Everyone should visit.

IMG_2795

Seriously. Go here.

At last we come to the hike in the subject of this post. Having been forced to scrap Big Bend, we veered southwestward from Carlsbad to Guadalupe Mountains National Park in far West Texas to try to catch a glimpse of a similar ecosystem.

You see Guadalupe coming for a while, as soon as you walk out of the visitor’s center at Carlsbad, for that matter. For someone used to the tangled woodlands of East Tennessee, having a line of sight to your destination from 50+ miles out is terrific anticipation (trees are a non-entity in the high Chihuahuan Desert). The limestone ridge of the Guadalupes shoots up, a wall in the desert, marking the space and creating its own weather.

GMNP has several entrances, short roads leading to a small parking areas with trailheads to explore the park on foot. It’s one of the least visited parks in the NPS system, and the great balance of its land is wilderness. We chose to enter at Frijole Ranch on the eastern side of the Park and take what little time we had to try the Smith Spring loop trail. After a quick picnic lunch (in the van again, because wind), the older two girls and I set out, letting the others rest.

Going around the loop clockwise from the ranch house, the trail starts by traversing the grasslands in the shadow of the ridge. The day we went, the scouring south wind was only broken by the trail’s periodic dips into gravelly arroyos waiting to catch and funnel away whatever rain might fall. As you drift closer to the mountains themselves, the trail winds to keep the ascent gentle, slowly gaining about 400 feet.

Rounding the last bend, a swath of green leaps to meet you in striking contrast to the yucca, agave, cacti, and scrub juniper. Even the wind stops, blocked by an arm of the ridge. Here are pines, maples, oaks, and madrones, and underbrush practically shouting, “water!”

IMG_2866

In the center of this micro-environment is the spring itself, a burbling hope in a forlorn land. Again, for someone so used to the thick forests and abundant rainfall of the East, it’s hard to fathom the volume of life one little trickle of water can call forth.

The downhill return side of the loop hugs the runoff from the spring to stay in the shade for a while. It seemed a bit better traveled; my hunch is that most people go to the spring this way and then retrace their steps. We spotted a couple of mule deer and several birds along this stretch before passing another water source (Manzanita Spring) and making it back to the ranch.

For a short hike in the middle of nowhere that I’ll likely never revisit (and that most readers will never see) it’s captured my imagination as the focal point of our whole family trip (Days 9-13 of which, for the record, included more sickness, but also many activities on the way back east through San Antonio, Galveston, and New Orleans).

This trip tested my patience in many ways, and reminded me multiple times of my selfishness, pride, and inability to control things. More than one outburst of anger at the comedy-of-errors series of disappointments shocked me with its intensity. I hope that in time, the kids will remember the good, and that the bad will fade to gut-busting bits of family lore. For me, it will always be tempered by a twinge of regret at the ways I held my family’s joy hostage to my own vision of a good vacation.

Smith Spring was a turning point, though; a moment to refresh my soul and attitude and relax my grip on the rest of our itinerary. It was a slice of the trip where things went more or less according to plan—where we richly enjoyed the scenery and activities we crossed rivers and plains for—and gave the turn back east an air of accomplishment instead of defeat. You never know how much can flow from springs in a desert place.

“When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue faileth for thirst, I the LORD will hear them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them. I will open rivers in high places, and fountains in the midst of the valleys: I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water. I will plant in the wilderness the cedar, the shittah tree, and the myrtle, and the oil tree; I will set in the desert the fir tree, and the pine, and the box tree together. That they may see, and know, and consider, and understand together, that the hand of the LORD hath done this, and the Holy One of Israel hath created it” (Isa. 41:17-20).