I have developed a bad habit of trying to make time on the road, trying to get camp pitched before dark. A road trip or a long weekend away in nature is supposed to banish anxiety, but I have a habit of channeling all of mine into timing. It’s been beaten into me.
And yet, I never pack on time, so I never get out the door on time. Not even for a three-day weekend in Yosemite. Already feeling the guilt of taking one day off, paralyzed with unspent exhaustion and unable to pack the car in advance, I hit the road an hour later than planned.
It was the fourth day in April, and the campgrounds had just opened. I had not been there since I was eight years old, and we spent most of that trip outside of the valley. Coming up from Fresno, I was so proud of myself for making it to the park entrance just after five, blissfully ignorant, as my GPS ran aground, of how much further I had to go on this one winding road.
The silky velvet blacktop twisted, tangled, ahead of me, and only me. No ranger manned the station, no one was on the road. The road glistened, wet, and the higher I climbed the higher the snowbanks tunneling my route grew. And the trees… I miss them more than anything else, living in Southern California. I will never understand what the appeal of a hike in Santa Monica mountains could be, without a forest that turns dark as night in the right shade of the full sun.
Whenever I passed a clearing, I saw only clouds. They were large, menacing, and ahead of me. I prepared every moment to meet a thunderstorm, but it never came. It was apparently heralding my arrival. I drove at the speed of the swift-moving rain giant ahead of me, right in its clear, sunny wake.
The tall, tall evergreens and the low angle of a triumphant evening sun, so proud to get one last word in on this day over the clouds, made magic through the forest floor. The sun only broke through in spheres of all sizes, like driving through floating bubbles of light, as it wove through the canopy. I dodged the light and shadows, swerving left and right and left in rhythm with the S-turns and switchbacks, through a sieve of dappled sun.
I felt like King Midas, but that with every touch of gold I had more gold to give out to the world. I gathered as many of the brilliant spots of light as I could.
It went on impossibly long for an early April evening. I must have been driving an hour-and-a-half, past magical Mairiposa Grove, snowed under. Past an old timey Victorian hotel, abandoned. The sequoia groves blanketed my dogs and I safely as we embarked on a first for us: solo camping - one human to handle two Central Asian Homefront Defenders. I made a note that we should camp in the redwood groves next time, just as we had when I was a kid, making stew out of acorns, leaves, pine needles, and bright red bark with our cousins while our dads set a gas lantern hanging on a redwood bough up in flames. This was something familiar, something cozy and comfortable in an uncertain life, yet still an adventure.
Then, a tunnel. I snapped back through reality’s portal, back to executing our time-stopped plan. Sunglasses off, confirmed. Headlights on, confirmed. Right lane, here we go. The sudden darkness was enough to jolt me out of my flowing, dreamy ride right back into action. I approached the exit. Sunglasses accessible, confirmed. Headlights off, confirmed.
Then my breath ceased completely. All thoughts ceased. What plan? What timing? What reservation? I had to force myself to focus enough to check my rear view mirror, slow, blinker, and turn off across traffic to the left. I didn’t even bother with my camera, but I will never forget the sight as we entered the mythic valley at dusk.
We left at 5:30 a.m., passing a bobcat before sunrise in Mojave Trails National Monument, to make it to Escalante’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Inter-agency Visitor Center before closing. We made it, and, still shaking from nine hours on the highway, I rehearsed my planned series of micro-actions that would settle me into this vast landscape I’d wanted to explore since I first saw it miles beyond the Bryce amphitheater.
I’d heard that the rangers at the visitor center were crusty and unhelpful. Ever since the national monument’s boundaries were nominally reduced, along with most of the park staff, rangers allegedly took a “figure it out for yourself” attitude toward the many hidden gems in the park. I prepared to negotiate.
Happily, my designated forest service employee was a kindly, talkative older gentleman with the bearing of a slightly svelter Kris Kringle. I mentioned that I planned to camp in Lower Calf Creek Falls, but he advised that Escalante’s Petrified Forest State Park would be warmer, with more amenities. Lower Calf Creek Falls was already winterized, with no water, meaning no flush toilets. Always one to plan the dive and dive the plan, with unparalleled pit toilet experience and utmost faith in my Accuweather research, I brushed that suggestion off, and moved on to my gem-hunting itinerary. What hoodoos and slot canyons could I get to with dogs?
Long Canyon slot. It’s 11.2 miles on Burr Trail in Long Canyon. Right off the road. There’s a turn-out right there, at 11.2 miles. Set your odometer. I confirmed this, cross-referenced it with the numbers on my map, and saw that Burr Trail appeared to be the natural extension of Scenic Route 12, which instead twisted 90 degrees up through Boulder. Long Canyon slot was many things - beautiful, accessible, and 11.2 miles in, but not marked. I found myself listening to people saying things like “it’s easy, just…” so I asked for clarification. Were there any other markers that would let me know I was in the right place?
“It’s where the rocks turn red,” another ranger piped in. I could not tell if she was being serious or dismissive, but it didn’t matter. Those were directions I could work with.
We pitched camp at the bottom of a canyon around dusk, and soaked up the surrounding orange as the sun set far above us. The ground turned from pasty to coral to the color of blazing hot coals, creating deeply phthalo blue shadows. I checked the forecast on the campground’s bulletin board, and it was chillier than expected by about 20 degrees. So much for my research. Curled up for bed, I lasted 45 minutes before the frigid air seeped through, and it was only 9 p.m. We bailed to the car, where my 43-lb dog woke me up to curl inside my mummy sleeping bag. The inside of the windshield froze with ¼ inch of ice, but we stayed surprisingly comfortable.
The next morning we set off on our mission to find Long Canyon Slot, up out of the frozen canyon and back onto the ridge that marks a spectacular scenic byway sponsored through the Adopt-a-Highway program by the Human Rights Campaign. Over Hogsback ridge we went, a rainbow of buttes and mountains to our left, and pastoral ranch land punctuated by otherworldly boulders from a giant’s castle on our right. Where the road bent left at the tiny town of Boulder, we continued straight. Straight into the largest, fastest, wooliest ram I have ever seen, barreling straight for us. A girl in an open flannel shirt sprinted 50 yards after him to no avail, losing ground as her oversized shirt tails flew behind her in the wind, like a living, moving statue of Artemis.
My two Central Asian shepherds seized their moment. Sasha, teeth baring, barked as loud as she could, snarling as the sheep approached. The ram caught her glaring eyes and sheepishly slowed, looking away like he got caught with his hand in the cookie jar, and turned 180 degrees to trot right on into his yard, then into his pen.
As a city-dwelling dog owner, 50 percent of my anxiety comes from fearing what people will say about my barking dogs, and I was mortified that this nice girl whose God-fearing ranch people permitted my California plates onto their backroads would judge me. As we slowly drove past her, she had stopped, panting, with her hands on her heart, elated, thanking me and my dogs for sending her petulant sheep home. I was reminded that my backwoods shepherd dogs were built for this environment - this is the type of place they belonged, the type of work they were meant to do, and they, along with the ranchers, knew it.
She was the last person I’d see for four hours. The Burr Trail canyons were white, with striations that looked like someone doodled all over them in an office meeting, punctuated by an occasional conflagration of red hoodoos. Reading the designs was like reading shapes in clouds, a bird here, an arrow there, and royal crown of hoodoos. Old mesquite trees guarded the jewels like sentries. As we neared a winding creek, golden trees arced over the road to greet us in a precious colonnade of splendor. The brush along the road glowed neon green. Nine miles, 10 miles, then after a blind descent into a canyon we turned to the right to face spectacularly pure red walls. Long Canyon Slot, where the rocks turned red.
I watched my odometer while keeping an eye out for a turn-off, and imagined what a short 20-yard trail to a slot canyon might look like. Nothing at all was marked on any of my three maps - one topo that I’d purchased myself, and two from the Visitor’s Center. Yet, here was a pull-out, leading to a cattle trail into the creek, with orange banks of clay abutting the steep outer face of a canyon. If there were an entrance into those walls, it may be our slot canyon. I left a howling dog in the car while I investigated, walking what was actually a very well-maintained hiking trail along the creek. The scenery was so beautiful, but pastorally lush rather than stark and rocky. I continued a few hundred yards, checking every nook and cranny in the orange bank of 12-foot high clay, to no avail. Returning to the car, I decided to continue another mile or two, then backtrack.
Not a quarter mile later, a sliver of light bust through the solid wall of redrock on our left, illuminating a turn-out. I pulled over, grabbed my camera equipment, and ran into it. The angle of the sun had just begun streaming into the narrow slit of rock, and it illuminated the walls, ground, and two or three bushes through a prism, so that everything glowed in an otherworldly kind of way that you can usually only find in artificial stage lighting. This, however, was full-spectrum. My footsteps echoed on the soft floor as I stepped gingerly, reminded of the hallowed entrance to the Batu Cave temples near Kuala Lumpur. I wondered whom I should worship, and I supposed it would be the light. Looking up at it, I felt as though nothing were between me and the face of the sun. I felt compelled to speak to the canyon, which was warm and welcoming, bidding me to sit and stay a while to notice the way the light shifted.
It was shifting fast. I walked in, I walked out, using different lenses to capture the magic, checking my voice to hear an echo, pausing gratefully in wonder. And in minutes, upon egressing, thinking I had what I needed, but wondering if I should try another lens, I turned back at the entrance and the scene was flat. The light had risen beyond the canyon’s tiny portal, and Long Canyon Slot was again hidden from the road, blending flatly into the uniformly red, swirling rock.
Growing up in Wisconsin, I suffered terribly from lack of sunlight for several months out of the year. Only a good white snow could pick me up out of that funk. It reflected what little light there was from above, and most often I was out in it doing something that got my heart rate up. I’m pretty sure those snow-fueled endorphins powered me through so many midwestern winters. It’s the prospect of easy access to playing in the snow that allows me to consider going back.
There is a myth that snow is just a fluffy white medium through which to glide on various sports equipment, that it unfailingly packs to make snowmen and snowball fight ammunition, that anyone can build igloos, and that snowshoes let you walk on top of it. These are simply not true. In fact, there are many kinds of snow, and knowing them makes the difference between recreating on top of it or under it.
Posthole Snow: Crusty snowbanks are perfect for a higher vantage point, right? Think again! You can clamor happily along them like Paul Bunyan over the Appalachians, then all of a sudden, thunk! One foot goes through and half of you is up to your hips in snow. Here the only agility that will serve you is your brain, as you quickly work out which method will most swiftly and gracefully extract your buried half from its sink hole before your friends notice. You may be lucky to find a solid, icy patch on which to plant your other foot. If not, can you fold forward and drag yourself out on hands and knees? A cool second-best. Last month, in Yellowstone, my right leg sank so deep that options one and two were out. I had to sit on my rear end, slide backwards, and roll my entire body back to the parking lot. Key takeaway: Maximize your surface area on top of snowbanks.
Dense Pine Forest Snow: My first snowshoeing experience was at Trees for Tomorrow, in the North Woods. As the name implies, we were there for the trees. Although it was spring, several feet of dense snow remained in the forest, and with snowshoes we could avoid Postholing and literally run anywhere, trail or no trail. It was important not to get too close to the tree trunks, though, which warmed the snow enough to create soft and melty sink spots.
Mountain Ridge Snow: My next substantial snowshoeing experience was in Tajikistan, on a guided mountain snowshoeing hike north of Varzob. I intended to strap right into the snowshoes at the outset, only to gaze up from the trailhead at an entirely bare mountain face. Borrowing a friend’s caribeeners, I strapped the snowshoes to my daypack, and we hiked to the top of the ridge where we found all of the missing snow blanketing the other side. There was so much snow, in fact, that descending without snowshoes would have been impossible. We followed our seasoned Russian guide through switchbacks to get back below the tree line, on the knife’s edge of a steep mountainside that had spent all winter hoarding the snow meant for our ascent. There was so much of it, and the pitch was so steep, that at one point my Australian friend and I realized that the 6-10 feet of accumulated snow, on this angle, meant that if we fell through it we would easily sink several stories straight down until we met solid ground again. It was very literally like walking on a cloud. And it held us.
Ice Masquerading as Snow: Take the above, shrink the elevation and decrease the regular temperature 40 degrees, and you have perfect skiing conditions in Northern Michigan. I still do not understand what people from the Mountain time zone mean when they talk about powder. I learned to ski black diamonds on ice. We would leave hours before dawn to be first in line for a full day of skiing, and the cold never stopped us, even at 15 below. By the middle of the afternoon, the wind and ice-cold temperature set the bare runs completely to ice. My mom would casually suggest one, then Christie beautifully down the slope. Encouraged, I would follow, only to realize she was turning on vertical sheets of ice. I figured it out, too, and am still far more comfortable on ice than in this thing they call powder. I do not understand what to do when snow gets on top of my skis. What snow?
Faux Powder: Have you ever tried to ski in Virginia? They have this thing called powder there, in their mountains, and it is wet. It, too, is completely unskiable. After not falling for seven years skiing in Michigan, I found that I could not make it down a run without taking a dive at Masanutten. The snow looked like powder, but acted like melted soft cooler packs that wedged your skis onto the sticky surface. It was like skiing with 10 lb stationary weights. I still am not convinced this is not the elusive “powder,” but I’ll give anyone bragging about East Coast powder a very quizzical look.
The White Fluffy Stuff: For all my love of downhill, I was born cross-country skiing. A cheaper and more accessible sport, my dad would ski us to school in the winter, and take me through the nature preserve when I got home, to do a loop alongside the deer as the sun set. Once I could drive, I even went alone. Cross-country skiing looks like an amiable way to go from point A to Point B in the snow. However, someone has to set the trail, otherwise, depending on conditions, you may be slogging through some pretty dense precipitation. Without a trail, you want that elusive powder layer to add some grease to the skids, and you really want it on snow that has frozen to ice. Under two inches and you will fly. Over two inches and you will go less far and get more of a workout, but you’ll enjoy the day. Any wetter snow and you will be hosed without a groomed trail, but it can be done. The proof will stay with you for some time.
Beer Fridge Snow: After a day of cross-country skiing in virgin beer fridge snow, your muscles sore and aching, you will be thankful that the white fluffy stuff only comes 10 percent of the time when you open your back door to a fully stocked beer fridge, bottles packed into the wall of your back patio’s shoveled-out snow fort. This is the stuff that packs well enough to win the Giant Pumpkin Contest of Snowmen. This is what Frosty is made of. This is not “trek across the neighborhood on skis” snow. This is “have fun in your own backyard” snow, after some back-breaking shoveling sessions.
Even after living in Southern California for years, knowing how to spot these diverse ground-coverings comes as second nature. Equally important as the lexicon, though, no matter your level of expertise, will always be a sufficiently puffy outer layer to cushion any misfires.