Flying with the Falcon

Begin the New Year with More Than Resolutions

*Photo taken near Ely, NV. 

Social media is full of New Year’s resolutions right now, an infinite number of promises people will probably break in less than a week. Why are we so willing to give up on taking care of ourselves? The layers of suffering we inflict on our own bodies, minds, and spirits are incredibly heavy. In the last several months, I’ve been getting very serious about getting my mental and emotional house in order—even though I have actually been working at the problem for a long, long time. Like since I was a teenager. And I’m middle-aged now. Interestingly, something about traveling had a lot to do with it. Ever since Michael and I hopped into our truck and drove to Casey, Illinois to pick up our Airstream, my life has been drastically altered. Obviously, traveling across the country is going to change anyone’s life, but when we traveled, we stayed away from our hometown for a long time. Years. Throwing miles and miles in our rear-view mirror became so much more than just a fun adventure: it became an opportunity to realize the mirror would force me to see myself in stark relief, and the dark places in my head finally got yanked out into the bright Nevada sun.

I’ve made arguments on this blog on plenty of occasions that travel will benefit anyone who gets out there to see beautiful things in our wondrous world. What I don’t think I’ve explained very clearly is how the world changes you when you make yourself a part of it with fresh eyes. Staying rooted in one place your whole life isn’t a bad thing—lots of people happily live in the same town their whole lives—but if you want to really explore who you are and what you want out of life, the road will show you. Countless movies and books and songs and poems have been created to describe the experiences of people who went on life-changing road trips. It’s not just to give us all a sappy night out or a cutesie song to sing at school events; it’s to send out a message that the road will change you if you allow it, and if you don’t, it might just wreck you. When Michael and I first came out to New Hampshire for his first travel job, we loved it here. But our travel adventure had just begun, and we were itching to get out and see where else we could go. We never really intended to go across the country right away because we weren’t sure how much we would like the travel life, but then the jobs Michael found on the East Coast weren’t paying as well as those out West. It became necessary to follow the money, so we ended up in Ely, Nevada. Holy cow, was that strange.

Our first month of living in Ely came as a rude awakening. Both of us struggled with normal, everyday things like making the bed or walking up a slight incline because the altitude is 6,500 feet. When you’re coming from about 1,000 feet or less, that’s a lot of height to gain. We struggled with everything for a while because we weren’t used to the thinner air, and then it wasn’t very warm. Like many East Coasters, we had absolutely no idea that Nevada is the state with the most mountain ranges in the contiguous US (only ranked behind Alaska for the most peaks), nor did we realize that much of the West is high elevation and quite cold. Living in our Airstream in what amounted to winter right away was not easy, but we managed. We’re resourceful. What really made the trip to Ely hard, though, wasn’t the elevation or the weather, but the fact that the town was so isolated it took three and a half hours to get to the next town. The local grocery store was always out of things, even staple items like bread, milk, and eggs. Sometimes it would be a week, sometimes longer before shelves would be restocked. We only found one restaurant—a pizza joint—that had food either of us was willing to eat. In general, the town had little to offer in terms of entertainment, either. While we were there, I generally went out and explored the wild places near town. If nothing else, Ely had lots of hiking. It’s the only thing I miss, and surprisingly I miss those wild places now. They grew on me while I lived in that lonely, forgotten place.

After Ely, we next ended up in the Carson Valley near Lake Tahoe, very fortunately stationed just below the chain of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and every morning when we woke up we pinched ourselves over the view. Even in Ely I would pinch myself to see the mountains across the road from our RV park, and I studied the odd cloud formations that formed around the mountains, creating strange patterns of rainfall, wind, and visibility. While living in the Carson Valley, we were introduced to wildfires, even occasionally seeing them up close. It’s an eerie sight to see the hills glowing red at night while the fires burn through the brush on the mountainsides. Once a set of fires were started alongside the road near our RV park, and on each side of the park the fires were burning close to the gas station and propane tanks. The firefighters were hasty about getting those fires extinguished rapidly, and we were thankful. Meanwhile, Michael worked his hours at all these hospitals, and I worked hard on my writing, and after a while I got lonely. Even though I loved the road, loved the places we were exploring, and truly felt amazed by how much I began to feel a part of all these places, I realized I took for granted the relationships I had when we were rooted in one place. And yet, at the same time I began to change. I became more of who I always was meant to be.

Spending so much time away from where we had lived for so long really drove me to be more open and vibrant. Without expectations of the familiar people in our lives, it’s easier to just be who you want to be. No one is going to walk up to you and ask why you’re acting so strangely, because they have no idea what you used to be like. They only know you in that moment, and then you may never see those people again. It’s both delicious freedom and terrifying loneliness. And in that loneliness lies your lack of self-love, your willingness to accept less than you deserve, all the promises you ever broke to yourself, all the opportunities wasted. You both free yourself and have to face what you have allowed to happen over the years of your life. All the crud you allowed to be heaped upon your heart, it all rises to the surface. My poor, wonderful husband had to listen to me rant about the misery of my soul on many occasions over our time on the road, and he was mostly very patient. What I came to realize is that I had work I needed to do to clean house so I could start living the life I was meant to live, instead of the life everyone else expected of me.

Now that we’re sort of full circle and back in New Hampshire, it’s a good time to get my house in order. We have plans to build our tiny house in the woods as soon as we save enough to buy land. The plans for the house are hanging on the wall, a constant reminder of where we want to go. I’m meditating my brains out so I can clear my mental clutter. Recently I decided to go on a news diet so I could stop hearing constant negative streams of information, and instead I listen to either music or audio tracks of inspiring thought leaders like Tony Robbins, Jim Rohn, and a wonderful Instagram account called Her Namaste Life. I don’t always agree with everything they say, but they reinforce the positive thought processes that are instilling in me a new sense of purpose, a means for letting go of the past, living in the present, and enjoying my life instead of always wishing for the future to hurry up and get here. No matter how old you are, it’s never too late to start really living your life. What I love most about what I learned from the road is the fact that I fell in love with this country in a way I never expected, and now I feel as though Nevada mountains are as much a part of me as Western New York hills and New Hampshire forests. My heart grabbed onto those beautiful places, the endless miles of empty desert, the caves, the rock formations, the rivers, and especially all the animals we saw roaming through all of it. I loved every minute of looking out the window of our truck to take in the open spaces still left, smiling to see our Airstream coming along behind us. I am so ready to do it again. This time, I might even be ready to do it with my head on straight.

Listen, if you’re in a place in your life that allows for you to travel, don’t hesitate. Get out there and see the world. I think about how so many astronauts have come back from their trips to outer space and felt a new sense of awe and responsibility for the planet and all its peoples. Their hearts were ripped open by seeing the earth from space. When you get on the road and roam the countryside, travel to new places, have to contend with new situations and people, and you’re totally out of your comfort zone…it changes you. The air you breathe will smell different, the weather will surprise you, the plant life will make you wonder, and you’ll be uncomfortable in the best possible way. Nothing will be the same after you step onto the dirt of a new place. It gets under your skin and becomes a part of you. Because it’s part of you, your heart will want to take better care of it. While you stay rooted, we forget to look at the beauty of where we live. We forget to see the things we see every day, but even if you’re good about paying attention, the familiar allows us to take things for granted. Getting out into the world once in a while can give you a sense of both how big and small the world is, and how very important it is to treat it with love. Step gently in the desert to avoid killing the biomes in the sand. Keep hands off the ancient trees so they might stay healthy and live another thousand years. Only slip your canoes and kayaks into the clear lakes so they can be free of the oil and gas of motors. Pack out your trash in the woods. These little loving gestures make such a huge impact to save the wild places of our world, and if you see these places, you won’t want to spoil them. They become part of you, and you are part of them. We are one. We give and take. Oxygen and carbon dioxide. Water and air. Rain and soil. Ocean and land. Humans and plants. We rely on each other, and it becomes so clear when it’s you and a ribbon of road that leads into distant mountains capped with snow.

Instead of a new year’s resolution, maybe try new things, or maybe jump into a love affair with finding out who you really are. Forget the gym membership and that stupid diet. Eat your vegetables, drink your water, and go for the road trip. You only live once, and you never know when your time will end. The world is here for you. Really, it’s all for you. Go enjoy it.

Flying with the Falcon

Remembering Great Basin National Park

*photo taken from the road through Snake Valley at Great Basin.

A year ago, my husband, Michael, and I were living in Ely, Nevada, a small mining town on Route 50, which is fondly known as the “loneliest highway in the world.” I doubt that it’s really the loneliest, since we saw plenty of traffic on the highway when we traveled it (all things considered—it was remote—it takes over three hours to get to the nearest town in any direction). The town of Ely truly tested our endurance for keeping ourselves entertained. While we lived there, we found only one restaurant we could tolerate—a pizza joint which had just reopened under new management—and little other than hiking or driving for fun. A local grocery store regularly ran out of staples like bread, eggs, or milk, and could be out of these basics for weeks at a time. All the prices in stores were jacked up madly, as if the place were some sort of high-roller escape, instead of the forgotten town everyone neglected to remodel after the 70s. Apparently all these issues have to do with the fact that Ely is now, and has been for most of its life, a mining town. Nevada has a lot of mining operations, whether it be precious metals, gem stones, or even uranium. Ely also happens to be home to a rather large prison for some of the most dangerous criminals on the coast, and at night we could see the lights atop the watchtowers from our RV park.

On the flip side, Ely did offer up a lot of hiking options, and while we lived there we explored the outdoors as often as possible. Mountain weather often whipped up in a hurry out there, so we had to take our trips between storms which often drove in with a lot of high winds. Still, I absolutely loved hiking on the Egan Crest Trail system which was on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land, a place I often took the dogs. One could enjoy miles of trails in the desert, and some of the crests in the park deliver lovely views. Nearby Garnet Hill Recreation Area, also on BLM land, had some of the best views of the surrounding valleys, and had some leg-burning hikes that really got me in shape. Several times while I was hiking I ran into rock hunters who could be found digging for garnets, an activity which is something of a hobby for a surprising number of people out West. Cave Lake State Park was probably my favorite place to hike around Ely. The beautiful rock-studded mountains, the lush stream full of fish, the sapphire water of the lake, and the plentiful wildlife frequently left me speechless. Honestly, I never expected to find such gorgeous, colorful flowers all over the desert, nor did I expect to see antelope and wild horses as readily as I might see deer.

In its way, the high desert is a wily, untamed wilderness with more diversity than I ever realized existed until I saw it with my own eyes. I suspect few people realize how much beauty there is to appreciate in a place like Ely, which I why I believe if you care to trek out into the high desert of Nevada, you might be just as surprised as I was by the sheer impossibility of it all. This is what awaits you if you dare to take the drive to Great Basin National Park. Be aware that a trip to this park must be carefully planned. If you are an East Coaster, the amount of time you will drive without seeing ANYTHING will astonish you. Never leave any town without a full tank of gas, snacks, and drinks. It may be hours before you see another town. No kidding. If you are a West Coaster, the long drives between towns may be normal to you, but if you live in the lower regions away from the mountains…prepare thyself, cricket. The weather is a beast, and it’s no joke. High winds sustained at 60 mph are not unusual, blizzards kick up out of nowhere, and thunderstorms descend with rapid and erratic rain and cloud cover. But please don’t let that scare you away. Rather, be aware it is a possibility and be prepared for it, but also be prepared to experience a wide array of life secreted away in caves, bristlecone pines (some of the oldest trees in the world), and at the zenith of mountains which rival the Rockies in height. One of the most incredible aspects of the high desert wilderness to me is the fact that every thousand feet of elevation gain rewards the hiker with a new ecosystem of plants and animals. If you travel to this park, please stop at the visitor center to learn about it before you go out into the park. Besides, this park is quite remote and if you are unfamiliar with the high desert, you would be wise to speak with a park ranger before you wander onto the trails and go driving on the roads.

Great Basin is a newer addition to the National Parks, so it doesn’t have the amenities of other parks which are so well-traveled, such as Yosemite or Yellowstone. Instead, Great Basin is largely made up of a system of dirt roads which take you to trail heads or specific points of interest. Michael and I were disappointed to learn that the cave requires advance notice to set up a tour, so we did not get to enjoy that. If you wish to visit Lehman Cave, call ahead and reserve your spot on a tour. Also disappointing for us was the fact that Wheeler Peak still remained closed when we arrived so early in the park’s season. If you plan a trip and want to get up there, wait until late June or even better, July or August. The snow on the high peaks of Nevada can last well into summer, and some years it may not even melt completely. We didn’t realize any of this when we got there in early May, so we missed out on some of the good stuff as a result. At least we’d already had over a month of time to acclimate to the elevation—a factor any visitor would be wise to consider when heading out there from a lower elevation, particularly folks who live close to sea level. Even at the lowest point of the park, you will still be at a relatively high elevation over 6,000 feet. When we first moved to Ely, it took Michael and I a month or so to acclimate to the 6,500-foot elevation of the town, which was then surrounded by mountains jutting up in every direction. We huffed and puffed everywhere we went.

The day we headed out to the park, it was sunny and warm, a beautiful day to be outside. Since both Michael and I are pale and pasty, we went armed with our hats and sunscreen to keep the burn away. Part of the drive was already familiar, as the road to get there was the road we drove into Ely when we traveled from Moab, at the time so unfamiliar and stark-looking. Now that I have hiked in the foothills and along the valley floor, I know that the sparseness of green in the desert there is full of life. My mind took it in differently with the familiarity of the landscape. This new perspective excites me to think about how I might feel about the entire country one day; after lots of travel to places I have never seen, how will it change my perspective? I imagine I will feel connected to all the places we live, as we gain familiarity with a region whilst living there for a few months. The mountains we passed on the way to the park tell me a different story than they did when we first passed them, and I feel as if they are now a part of me, no longer alien. Such connection to the wildlife and land is humbling and sweet all at once.

Having to drive only an hour from Ely, it felt like the time flew. After you travel ten or twelve hours in a day to cross the country, an hour is nothing. When we first arrived at the park, we stopped at the visitor’s office to pick up a park map, and we chatted with the ranger on duty at the front desk to get updates on what parts of the park are dog-friendly (not many), and what parts were open. We learned that the one place we would actually be allowed to take our dogs on a trail (this is a dumb policy of National Parks, in my opinion, as they bar all dogs from most trails unless they are service dogs) has a road which was washed out from recent creek rise. Michael and I take a few minutes to peruse the exhibit of what types of plants and animals we might see in the park, and then we try to head out to the Lexington Arch, despite the issues with the road. The way the ranger made it sound, if one has a four-wheel drive vehicle, we should have been able to make it through and hike to the arch. Off we went to locate the dirt road which leads to the trail. Reading the map to locate the road did not give a good indication of where it will be, so I found a road using a wash as a landmark on the map, hoping this was the road we wanted. [As an aside here, in general, the National Park maps are not very detailed. Thus far, every park we have visited has been frustrating to negotiate using the maps they provide, so try using Google or find another means to print a map prior to your trip to any National Park.] The road was terrible, rocky, rutted, and we had to drive down into a small canyon and through a creek before we came to the road which was better maintained by the park service. Most dismaying, we rammed the bumper of the truck into rocks in the canyon while crossing the creek, bending the bumper. Sad face. Don’t do what we did. In all fairness, there were no signs indicating where to go—again, this is a new park which is still a work in progress.

After we drove over the creek twice more, we finally came to a wide swath of water running over the road. End of the line. Michael determined we should not drive through the water, since it was too muddy and probably too deep, and there would be no getting ourselves out if we got stuck. Wise choice. We fooled around with some fallen trees for a few minutes to see if we could make a bridge to walk across, and then we could hike the rest of the way to the arch, but no dice there, either. The water was just too wide, and we didn’t have the proper gear to wade. In snake country, I had no intention of taking off my shoes and going barefoot—besides, it wasn’t that warm. Disappointed, we went back to the more well-traveled parts of the park where the dogs would only be allowed on the road. Sigh. Still, we drove through Snake Valley, where one can enjoy the sight of bright green along the creek, where trees and plants grow almost jungle-like in the desert, an oasis of color against the more muted tones elsewhere. We stopped and walked along the road for a ways along the creek, taking in the scenery. Seeing trees lightens my spirit, a sight I missed from the Northeast. I love the forests up North, and the lack of greenery was hard for me to live without. Regardless, we snapped a few photos of the lovely mountains, the trees, and some of the plants. Then we got back in the car to head over to Wheeler Peak. On our way out of Snake Valley, Michael suddenly said from the driver’s seat, “I think I just hit a snake.” I craned my neck to look behind us, but couldn’t see anything.

“Go back and look,” I said. “At the very least we should check to see if it’s injured.” I also added that we should do the kind thing if it was injured, since I don’t believe in leaving an animal to suffer if it’s been hit by a car. Sounds horrid, probably, but I think it’s more horrid to leave an animal to suffer after it sustains injuries it can’t survive. So we went back, and there in the road was a snake, curled into a loose coil. Fortunately, it appeared to be fine, and I was relieved that Michael had not run it over after all. I got excited that it might be a rattler, as the coloration was right, but then I could see its head wasn’t big enough to be venomous (a venomous snake will have a large, triangular head, while non-venomous snakes have slender heads closer to the size of the rest of the body). Still, I took pictures. I mean, seeing a snake in Snake Valley is pretty cool. Michael leaned over me to peer at the snake, and then when it started to slither under the truck, I told him to start driving so it wouldn’t end up under the vehicle. The snake turned away, and as it stretched out I could see its full length of at least three feet. Cool.

After Snake Valley lived up to its name, we went up the mountain toward Wheeler Peak. Right away we got a gorgeous view of the basin below as we skirted the mountain on a road which has rather sheer drops to one side. We got to an overlook at about 10,000 feet, and that’s as far as the road would take us. Wheeler Peak (at over 13,000 feet) was still closed due to snow. Michael and I got out and looked at the view, and I snapped a bunch of photos while I climbed around on the rocks where I probably shouldn’t be climbing, but I got a great view of the summit. After getting our fill of the sights, we got back in the truck and went down to Upper Lehman Creek, where we walked the dogs once again on the roads in the campground. If you happen to hit this park, these campsites look very nice. Lots of privacy between sites, newly freshened up with landscaping, and a great view of Wheeler Peak from the campground. The sound of rushing water will put you right to sleep at night. If you have a trailer or RV, you might need to find room at a different site in the park, as there is a length restriction—those roads are fairly curvy and tight to navigate with a large vehicle. Still, it would be a lovely spot to camp by tent or small camper, and there’s a nice trail off the campground there, too, for a little woodsy exploration.

I should say that both Michael and I were underwhelmed by this National Park at the time, mostly because we were already living in a place similar to the park and were already familiar with its features. Though the scenery is lovely, there is abundant animal activity, there is no entry fee (they accept donations at the visitor center), and there is a wide range of bio-diversity, this park is still so young in its establishment that much of the park is undeveloped. The park does not have a lot to offer in terms of interesting things to see, unless you geek out on seeing the diversity of plant life in the desert terrain and are prepared for backwoods camping (which is very well worth it, if you ask me, but not everyone is an outdoor geek). You do get to enjoy the range of high desert diversity in all its glory, but if you want to see rock arches, go to Arches National Park in Utah. If you want to see high peaks, go to Yosemite or the Rockies. Caves to explore can be found across the country, and Mammoth Caves is one of many parks dedicated to subterranean fun. Do not expect the same types of fancy amenities as other National Parks. You will not find restaurants in or around the park. There are few places to purchase supplies, so come stocked with whatever you will need for the entirety of your stay. However, if you do stay at this park, you will get to enjoy some of the darkest skies in the country, which means lots and lots of stars. You can be mystified by the incredulity of flowers blooming in green grass above one of the driest places in the US. If you’re lucky, you might see antelope, great horned owls, bears, mountain lions, or jackrabbits. You will definitely hear coyotes at night. Best of all, this park is remote enough to keep away the big crowds you will find at other, more popular parks. Our trip to Yosemite was surprisingly frustrating due to the volume of people absolutely everywhere in the park, even the more remote places. At Great Basin, you can enjoy the wilderness with less competition. If high desert wilderness sounds like an adventure, you will be forever changed if you make the choice to brave one of the wildest places I have ever lived.