Descent into the Deep: A Daring Four-Wheel Drive in Canyonlands National Park

Most people still choose the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona when looking for breathtaking canyon views. But around 300 miles north in Utah lies another national park that will equally make your jaw drop, without having to be shared with as many tourists. Canyonlands is a mouthwatering mezze of proud mesas, deep canyons, awesome arches, and exciting drives.

There are four districts of Canyonlands National Park: Island of the Sky; The Maze; The Needles; and The Rivers. Separated by the Colorado and Green rivers,  it takes many hours of driving via the highway to get to each section. My boyfriend and I opted for the former for its easy access. About 40 minutes drive from Moab, the 191 north leads you past Arches National Park before you take a left down the 313 onto Grand View Point Road. With possession of an annual national park pass costing $80, our entry to the park was free.

It doesn’t take long after entering the park before the sweeping views from the Island of the Sky mesa take you by surprise. A remarkable vista of sprawling red ravines and flat sandy basins with jagged buttes and plateaus of sandstone rock sketched into the bare desert landscape, it is easy to see why this section of the park received its name. 1000 feet below the cliff edges, a narrow track was pencilled into the dry terrain. We knew little about this park before arrival, but soon discovered that it offers the opportunity for a drive of a lifetime.

10658989_10154678114465495_2095451475297347720_o1553181_10154759244155495_4363344312135668701_o10628644_10154759244150495_7660603461100371412_o

The 100-mile White Rim road begins with the Shafer Trail. No permit is required to drive along this section (however from 2015, those planning to continue along the White Rim road do require one). With our Land Cruiser we met the requirements of a 4WD vehicle to travel the route. It seemed foolish to refuse the chance for such an adventure. Those who get caught out by the rain can expect to pay up to $2000 for a tow. Confident that the puffy clouds above wouldn’t turn nasty, we took a deep breath and set off on an epic journey. (You can catch a short video of it here.)

Daft Punk’s ‘Disc Wars’ was the soundtrack of choice to our descent. Its rumbling first bars built up the tension perfectly as we began navigating the dirt track, careful to avoid potholes but also wary of driving off the edge in the process. The outburst of a higher tune began pertinently as we started a steeper descent towards a string of switchbacks that left me sucking in my stomach for the next 30 minutes as the edges of the steep cliffs repeatedly loomed closer before us.

If you see a car approaching, even if a few minutes drive away, it’s best to perch in the nearest space available rather than face a nerve-racking reverse back along the narrow track. Stay in low gear and use the engine brake rather than relying on the foot pedal. It’s important to keep a cool head – any loss of control and you could be doing a Thelma and Louise!

Finally we reached flat lands and could breathe normally again after our intense descent. All was quiet in our surroundings as we stopped at Gooseneck Overlook to explore the bottom of this dry ocean below the island. Lizards posed in a frozen state of camouflage against the rock painted with natural black bacteria, before darting through tiny cracks which, when peered through on all fours, might sometimes reveal a stomach-churning drop to the base of the canyon far below where rivers of sandstone snaked their way through the valley. Further on towards Musselman Arch,  giant statues of stone with bold faces stood closely together, looking like ruins from an ancient temple of the underworld. With nobody else around, it was the perfect playtime for young adults.

10648817_10154759271565495_4321413545502407778_o10431371_10154759248395495_1854863569167849998_o10697138_10154759247495495_5033123031137437678_o10688450_10154759248875495_7155862088096017695_o

The hairpin bends were just as hair-raising on the way back up the trail, however we were now more comfortable with the road. Reaching the top of the mesa and looking back down into the canyon where we had come from brought a huge sense of fulfillment. How many people could say they had conquered a road like this?! (Props to Andrew for driving it!)

Further into the park,  Mesa Arch attracts more tourists, becoming more reminiscent of the neighbouring Arches National Park. After our experience of tranquility in the canyon, the noise of clicking cameras and giddy children became a little irritating and so we drove north-east towards Whale Rock. The trail here was marked with piles of stone which gave it a more rustic feel. From the top of the rock you can see Upheaval Dome, an enormous block of rock with jagged peaks that looks very out of place in the canyon. The question on geologists’ minds is, is it simply an excessive sandstone deposit or a meteorite..?

After an adrenaline-pumping afternoon, the remainder of our day was spent basking in the evening calm at the Grand View Point Overlook. Looking out over Monument Basin, the way the canyons were carved into the plateau reminded me of the shape of bronchi from Biology lessons in school. On the other side of the road looking out over the Green River, a gang of hairy Aussie bikers on Harley Davidsons asked, “What’s for tea?” as we cooked sausages. We sat and admired the sunset beaming down on the basin below, the colours changing from intense reds to hot pinks and warm oranges. It was definitely a pinch-worthy moment. I remember seeing the tiny outline of a plane soaring overhead and suddenly feeling a flood of heartbreak because I knew I would have to be on a plane back to England in a few weeks’ time. We watched a spectacular show of shooting stars up above in an indigo sky where the Milky Way was the clearest I’ve ever seen it. Sat safely in serenity, I counted 50 flashes of lightning in the space of two minutes appearing hundreds of miles away to the west.

10608706_10154759254040495_2078405952642570329_o1487941_10154759271480495_7494707066978202250_o10450239_10154759273000495_6517941561778442377_o10688187_10154759271875495_1649106227841627308_o

Canyonlands is a place that could so easily be missed off someone’s list in favour of the more famed Arches National Park. This is a shame because it is a place quiet enough in popularity to make you feel like a local once having arrived, but crazy enough in auto-touring opportunities to make you feel like a VIP once having left! If you have a 4WD vehicle that you are confident using, definitely make sure to drive the Shafer Trail for an experience that you won’t forget in a hurry. I visited Canyonlands in August 2014, and it remains my favourite national park to date.

Advertisements

Angels & Canyons: The Supernatural Wonders of Zion National Park

The noble faces of ancient towering cliffs gaze down with dignity over a desert kingdom of cottonwood trees, sandstone boulders and winding rivers where 12,000 years ago, mammoths and sloths would roam and pioneers would admire a land deemed “too stunning for mere mortals.” This was a destination to behold, a place of refuge for angels and saints who deserved a never-ending life that would invite them into a prestigious realm of supernatural wonders.

Your own eyes will tell you that Zion National Park is an example of the extraordinary, especially when it comes to hiking opportunities. Of the many routes available, there are two which stand out as unique in allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the natural environment and experience its mystical vibes. One takes you deep into a canyon in which you are enclosed by huge sheets of rock; another takes you high up a cliff where you are exposed to the wider world. The first national park to be established in the geological heaven of Utah, Zion is a blessed part of the world for hiking lovers who aren’t afraid of water and heights!

10648282_10154759303845495_900203673974293383_o

The Narrows

Zion comes across as one of the more “untouched” national parks and one of the great things about it is its free shuttle bus system which prohibits cars from travelling on the Scenic Drive from spring to autumn, hence preventing congestion and promoting a cleaner environment. Grazing deer blend in against the creamy cliffs as the bus winds its way gently through the canyon, passing sacred natural landmarks such as the Three Patriarchs. Hop off at the final stop of Temple of Sinawava and let the adventure into the Narrows begin!

The easy 1-mile Riverside Walk will lead you to the river’s edge where the wading commences. At first it feels bizarre to be walking through water with shoes on, but you’ll soon get used to the temperature and texture as you make your way further down the gorge. It’s essential to wear sturdy shoes on this walk. Many walkers use sticks to help them navigate over the rocky river floor, but I preferred to test my natural balance, precarious as this was at first. I gradually gained more faith in my feet and was able to traverse the uneven ground without looking down so often. The miracle of walking on water came to mind…although I didn’t quite get that far! Parents would tow their little ones along in blow-up dinghies. I left my muddy hand print on the glistening wet walls decorated by visitors thousands of years after the first settlers made their mark.

10680090_10154759288480495_3377996869462916471_o10644440_10154759289015495_550584997081195909_o10688234_10154759289460495_6481501945033609135_o

Stains of iron oxide on the canyon walls form varied patterns throughout the route, almost looking like they have been painted by former inhabitants of the land. When you reach the Narrows half a mile into the walk, this is where you really don’t want a flash flood to start! As the canyon walls begin to close in, the air turns colder and echoes grow louder. The atmosphere becomes slightly eerie, as if you are in the presence of ghosts whispering your name as you enter their domain. Perhaps it is their chiselled faces that jut out into your path.

10452903_10154759289985495_1853125030300665671_o10608697_10154759290750495_4494803590655043721_o

There are points when you might be waist deep in the water, so it’s advisable not to bring valuables with you on this walk. Do bear in mind however that you may be chilly after leaving the water. Nevertheless make the most of the water on your skin as the park only receives 15 cm of rainfall a year!

Angel’s Landing

This striking monolith gained its title in 1916 after the explorer Frederick Fisher claimed that”only an angel could land on it”.

1276915_10154759301230495_8715380845477574145_o

Starting from the Grotto shuttle stop on the Scenic Drive, the West Rim Trail up to the monolith is a 2 mile thigh-burning, zig-zagging route that hugs mountains of bronzed sandstone. Lizards dart between cracks in the rock only to become camouflaged against the dried leaves. A plentiful supply of sunscreen and water is essential! After a mile you’ll find shade in Refridgerator Canyon before you have to “squiggle the wiggles” and tackle a series of steep switchbacks. My partner and I foolishly decided it would be a good idea to start running up the first one, without realising how many were left…

10708508_10154759302140495_8321705842315675871_o

Many gasps for air and gulps of water later, you’ll reach the flat sandy area of Scout Lookout where you’ll see the ridged runway for Angel’s Landing begin ahead of you. Some people won’t even make it onto the trail because they are so fatigued after their sweaty uphill trek. From the start of the trail to the end point is only half a mile, but the path is steep, complex and takes time to maneuver. But for those who get a thrill from challenging routes, it’s great fun!

10694439_10154759357175495_3546547946842140435_o

At the time we did the hike (in August 2014), six people had died within the last 10 years on this trail. In a way this doesn’t seem like much when you consider the height and width of this monolith combined with the threat of heatstroke causing hikers to keel over. This hike is not for the faint-hearted. At times you will be walking along a very narrow path with a stomach-churning drop of over 1000 feet off the side, the Virgin River looking only a millimetre wide far below. Chains regularly have to be used to ascend steep slabs of rock and there are narrow crevices which you must hoist yourself up through. One of my strongest memories is the sight and smell of sweat-stained shorts as a (rather large) man’s buttocks loomed alarmingly close to my face while he struggled to squeeze through one of the thin gaps in front of me. I would not be offering to give him a push…

10380838_10154759319025495_5572660501029750572_o10428382_10154759349815495_1751464797134551421_o

Courtesy is definitely a requirement on this hike, as many times there will be not space for more than one person to pass through a certain part of the route. Those heading back from the end would offer support to approaching hikers with calls of “Not far to go!” We finally reached the summit with stunning views of the valley of Zion sprawled out before our eyes. We, the angels, had landed and it was easily one of my most fulfilling travel moments. Man-made rock piles stand proud near the cliff edge, showcasing the hiker’s achievement to the world in front. It may not have involved the elevation of Everest, but this hike had brought its own unique challenges. Gazing out at the view ahead, you can’t help but feel superhuman after this remarkable feat.

10604561_10154759326150495_1861884877953901420_o10658746_10154759328730495_1711122682242761551_o

I saw the large man produce his camera to take a photo as proof of his achievement. Whilst reaching the summit of a hike alone is very rewarding, I was grateful to be able to experience the physical and at times mental challenges of this hike with someone else, and share the subsequent sense of success. I now wish I had offered to take the man’s photo so that he is able to look back in later years at himself against this incredible backdrop and feel a great sense of pride. I did however compensate by asking a German couple if they’d like their photo taken. I particularly loved how much they appreciated me speaking their language.

It would be easy to get slightly complacent about safety on your way back along the ridge, but in your rush to finish the hike after having seen the best bit, it’s important to remain cautious and take your time. On the way back down the West Rim Trail we passed many tourists panting as they hiked up towards the monolith under the sweltering heat of the midday sun. It was definitely a good idea to set off on this hike early, to avoid both the peak sunshine and the greater numbers on the trail. When you’re back on ground level, dive into the Virgin River to cool off. You won’t even care that you’re not wearing swimsuits as your body will be so grateful for the refreshing water! It was here that we chatted with a family on vacation from Minnesota, and I began to understand better why some Americans might be so ignorant about other areas of the world, because they have so many amazing places to discover within their own huge country.

10648474_10154759320770495_5262165209614831208_o

10631110_10154759358345495_5993132536551496037_o

With the amount of calories that you’ll burn off completing this tough 5-mile hike, you’re bound to feel hungry later. We drove into the village of Springdale to fill up on gas and my partner asked inside for a recommendation for lunch. We were advised to visit a Mexican restaurant around the corner called Oscar’s Cafe…and it was an excellent recommendation. This was an occasion where American food portions no longer seemed outrageous. Served by a friendly waitress, we shared a scrumptious meal of fish tacos, beef burgers and sweet potato fries. Then came dessert. We dived into the mountain of ice cream-smothered chocolate brownie devilishly, only to be distracted by the sound of a young girl on another table exclaiming to her red-faced mother: “They’re gonna get fat!” Andrew conceded defeat after a few mouthfuls, but the pudding-lover in me ploughed on until the end before I sank into a food coma all afternoon, exhausted by this final exertion of my recently acquired superhuman powers.

616633_10154759362420495_5032847865241136265_o

If you love the idea of pushing your boundaries to out-of-this-world levels, definitely visit Zion National Park and chase the Angel. If you’ve been to Zion before or have any questions, please comment below!

*

More information on the Angel’s Landing trail can be found here.

If walking to the Narrows, be sure to check forecasts for flash flooding beforehand.

Afternoon Adventures through Arches

Arches National Park is located just outside Moab in Utah, USA. For a state that has such strong religious communities, it seems ironic that it is also home to many national parks that stun visitors with their complex geological formations. Whether a higher power made them or not, the sights in Arches are magnificent enough to make you bow your head in respect. Covering all the areas and 2000 recorded arches in this 76,519 acre park would make an even longer post than my usual ones (‘is that even possible?’ I hear you say) so below are some highlights from the sections I visited during my afternoon in Arches.

A winding uphill entrance leads you into the park, which was originally classed as a National Monument in 1929 before being upgraded to national park status in 1971. In the ‘Windows Section’, Balanced Rock stands out like a defiant fist punching for freedom amidst gloomy clouds. A random collection of fins in the distance is common as you drive on, quickly losing the desire to take photos in favour of just absorbing what you are seeing.

449

478

The Cove of Caves looks like it would have been a suitable ‘home’ area for the humans who occupied this park 10,000 years ago. Don’t judge people pulling an inevitable “Stayin’ Alive” pose at the Turret Arch – it’s rude to point a finger. In this section you also have the North and South Windows, popular with climbers (experience being optional…)

595 600 603 613

 

Driving on further, Delicate Arch is the most photographed in the whole park, as you can see by the dots of people surrounding it. Its name perhaps comes from its rather delicate-looking placement down the side of a slope. The weather wasn’t too cheerful and having to compete with fellow tourists for a photo is never fun, so it was skipped. *Gasps of horror from other Arches-lovers*

582

Upon arrival in the Devils Garden section in the north of the park, the sun decided to come out. First up was Tunnel arch, with the hole’s shape so seemingly symmetrical that it’s easy to imagine someone coming out at night to sand down its edges.

487

See that tiny green figure to the right underneath Pine Tree arch? That’s me, not a tree. Try not to step on a cactus or make the ants angry as you tread the sandy paths after it. There’s a great place for sand jumps nearby.

493 498

501

506 505

508 509

The most popular arch in the Devils Garden section is Landscape Arch, which boasts the title of longest recorded arch in the park (if not the world?) with a measurement of 93m across. Its thin frame has formed from three separate occasions since 1991 of sandstone falling away. Who knows how long it will hold together?

519 578

Partition Arch follows shortly after, but thankfully fewer tourists do too, so there’s more space for shameless poses…

546

As you carry on along the fins of the Devils Garden Trailhead, you could be forgiven for forgetting that you’re still on planet Earth. With the park located on the Colorado River, its bewildering landscape has been formed by a continual geological process taking place over millions of years. Beginning as a salt bed caused by an evaporated sea, eroded rock sediments have been carried by a sea current and crushed together to make sandstone, before being layered and re-layered on the salty sea bed. Some layers were thrust up above the surface as salt domes, with a continuous process of erosion breaking off segments of these to give the rocks their distinctive arch-like shape.

564 554 568 575

You’ll often stumble across random arches here and there. I’m still not sure of the names of all the ones I saw, such as the one below. But it’s the sights – not the names – that are important. Soaked in a sea of red, you’ll also sometimes encounter an animal with a colour distinct from the sandstone.

 570482 566

The Tower of Babel and the Organ have a domineering presence in the Courthouse Towers section near the entrance and exit of the park, especially on the morning after a stormy night. Their titles perfectly suit their tall, rigid structures.

625

628

Meanwhile, here I am eating breakfast whilst the Three Gossips have a chinwag behind me…
632

The Courthouse Towers Viewpoint looks exactly like its namesake – a row of judges standing up in a high courtroom, summoning the audience’s attention as they deliver their verdict on the tiny green men below them.

638 639

Being imprisoned on this planet wouldn’t be such a bad thing though. There are plenty of areas to run away to, and nooks and crannies to explore. Let yourself get lost in the red maze of arches and enjoy a brief escape from Earth.

*

Here is my latest Huff Post article on my experience of Arches

The Guilty Pleasures of ‘Jammy’ Travel

There’s something immensely satisfying about the tasty sensation of sweet strawberry jam on toasty-warm buttered bread melting in your mouth. Sugar and carbs are a crime to some people, but even if you look back later with regret,  deep down they make you feel great at the time. This leads me onto the term ‘jammy’. For those who aren’t familiar with this word, ‘jammy’ is another way of saying lucky…in a sneaky way. Things jam together favourably when they perhaps shouldn’t have. It’s something that many people experience, and normally relates to the issue of expense, or rather: a lack of it! Whether it’s being under-charged for the grocery shopping, or missing a fine from the parking attendant by seconds, a little part of us might feel bad about it, but a big part of us is also likely to feel chuffed about it.

Something about the travelling context makes jamminess even more of a guilty pleasure, probably because this is often an experience dictated by a strict financial budget. My best day of jamminess came in August 2014 when I was in Yellowstone National Park during a road trip.

The first incident involved the showers at Roosevelt Lodge. Eight days into the trip, washing had consisted of swimming in lakes. A sign at Tower Fall campground said that showers would be available at the lodge. Since there was no mention of price, it was naturally assumed (out of poor-student hopes) that usage would be free. Wash bags at the ready, my chum and I parked up and asked a guy in his early twenties where the showers were. “Are you two staying here?” he asked, looking us up and down uncertainly. Perhaps it was obvious it had been eight days. “We were told we could use the showers here,” I found myself saying confidently. It wasn’t a lie; this is what the sign had said. After his unconvinced nod and subsequent directions led us to a plush washroom, I realised that I had got here from unknowingly giving slightly false information. He was thinking I’d meant a member of staff at the lodge had granted permission, not a vague sign. As I enjoyed a long warm shower complete with free soap, shampoo and conditioner, I felt a little guilty knowing that I shouldn’t really be here. Then I spotted a large stack of sanitary towel disposal bags in the toilet cubicle, and all guilty thoughts evaporated into the surrounding mist from the shower as I stuffed a few of them into my bag before walking out fresh, clean and content with my free find (because when you’re on the road living in a car with a boyfriend, maintaining hygiene during that time can be quite difficult…)

Later that day after exploring the Norris Geysers, we drove down to see Old Faithful. This famous geyser erupts on a random time scale that is on average once every 60-90 minutes, and is so popular with tourists that a highway is in operation to facilitate the large flow of traffic. Managing to quickly find a space in the huge car park, we casually strolled over to the viewing area, unsure what to expect having not researched the estimated eruption time. The walk was interrupted by a bathroom stop. Then we finally made it to the viewing area where we were greeted by the sight of a huge crowd of at least 500 people pinned against the fence. Many had perhaps been sat waiting for 50 minutes. Five minutes after our laid-back arrival, the geyser’s big moment arrived as it shot steaming hot water high into the air, reaching an elevation between 30 and 60 metres. You can get an idea of how long the water keeps spurting out for and how big the crowds were here. As we walked away 10 minutes later and passed people with looks of frustrated disappointment on their face upon realising they had just missed the eruption, I again felt a flash of guilt. Considering we had not checked the predictions and took a risky pit-stop on the way, we were extremely lucky to have made perfect timing.

196 199  205

Next we had to find a place to sleep for the night. All the campgrounds south of Old Faithful were full, so we drove on into the Grand Teton National Park. While we searched hopelessly for campgrounds with space, dusk started creeping in. We procrastinated from our challenge by admiring the sunset over Jackson Lake.

I said I would drive on to Jackson in Wyoming if necessary, but it was still about 4o miles away and both of us were tired from a hot, busy day. Just as our destination-less driving began to turn increasingly stressful, a sign advertising a lodge came into view, tempting our desperate selves to flick the indicator right. But would we paying to sleep in a room at the lodge? Of course not! We were thinking about the prospect of available parking space. We’d slept in a hotel parking lot before, however it had been situated outside a national park. Sleeping here seemed a little too risky. What if our car’s licence plate was checked against guest records? Maybe we would simply be asked to leave, but maybe we would be fined too. We weren’t sure of the rules, and asking would only arouse suspicion.

Alas, after much debating, we agreed to stay and parked up near other cars so that we didn’t stand out more than we already did (being in a dirty 1986 Land Cruiser in the parking lot of a rather fancy lodge),  before closing the curtains and quietly settling down for the night. I didn’t sleep too well, worried about being caught. Butterflies would creep up my stomach when I heard approaching voices or a car door slam next to us. At one point I heard youths laughing outside our car, clearly recognising what we were doing. I silently pleaded that they would leave us in peace.

Our alarm woke us at 6 a.m for a quick getaway. But having survived the night, we were feeling a little more complacent, so we stepped outside to have a look around. The lodge was right on the edge of Jackson Lake. We followed the path down to the water’s edge, boats sitting silently on the serene surface. Moon still beaming brightly, the warm sky cast a soft pink glow over the Tetons painted with streams of snow. Candyfloss and ice cream. The only sound to hear was the faint bobbing of the boats and gentle lap of the water against the shore. There was a cold snap in the air, but something about this sight made me feel cosy inside. After waking up to this view, I was glad that we had taken the risk of sleeping here. Most people would have to pay a minimum of $269/£179 per night for the view at this time of the morning, but we had got it for free. Soon after, we remembered not to risk our chances too much and left the car park with frost on the windows still clearing, feeling both extremely lucky and extremely sneaky.

217

Whilst this was the most jam-packed day of jamminess on the trip, there would be further jammy moments to come, including sleeping in a viewing area inside a national park. Campgrounds were full, and nowhere did we explicitly read or hear that sleeping in cars outside a designated camp area was prohibited. Camping in a tent would of course have been much too extreme, and if the park had contained bears, we wouldn’t have made the decision to sleep there, in case they were able to break into our car for food. We were very careful and respectful towards the environment, leaving no rubbish behind and causing no damage. Our decision was partly influenced by the stormy evening weather and concern about how good our brakes would be descending the wet roads leaving the park. But really there was also the question: “how often am I be able to wake up to a view like this?” It was a once-in-a-lifetime free opportunity. If we hadn’t done it, we’d have definitely lived to regret it. As we left another national park the next day and noticed a ranger taking notes and talking to a sheepish-looking man with a trailer parked in a viewing area (who we had also happened to see settle down in another national park previously), we realised how fortunate we had been to dodge a fine. But the risk had been worth it.

Young and carefree – that’s what the elderly fondly recall being when they were younger. Reading my dad’s memoirs, I’ve been amazed by some of the things he and my mother got away with as young travellers, such as sleeping in a graveyard somewhere in New Zealand, or on someone’s porch steps in the States. Today, such activities would be condemned and they would probably be classed as poor, dangerous vagrants, when in fact they went on to lead successful lives in the medical profession.

Is it wrong to be a jammy traveller?

When you’re young, money is tight. This restriction doesn’t combine too greatly with youthful curiosity, especially since this is realistically the time when you’re in the best shape to explore and take physical risks. Humans have been able to survive and evolve over time by choosing options that enhance their chances of survival without involving significant  physical harm and exertion. Hunters and food-gatherers would happily take berries from a tree in a rival tribe’s territory if their access was not threatened and the food would help prolong their lives. It makes sense that in today’s age of consumerism, the importance of minimising physical harm has adapted into an importance of minimising financial expense. It’s ingrained into our human instinct that we should do anything that makes our life easier and more enjoyable with as little cost involved as possible.

There are certain things I would never do, like not pay the entrance fee to a national park. My moral conscience would be unable to allow that. These parks protect outstanding areas of natural beauty and they should be supported in doing so. Regarding smaller issues though, it is easy to say “I will always abide by the rules”, but when it comes to the moment, you might be surprised by how tempting it is to take an opportunity and run with it. I am of course not encouraging illegal acts, so please don’t rob a bank after reading. But sometimes being a little jammy leads to the most memorable travel moments. In the corny words of Luther Vandross and Janet Jackson, the best things in life are free!

 

The Rise of Techno-Travellers

During my American road trip over summer, I encountered a lot of amazing sights that had a lasting impact and stayed in my mind. But one thing I didn’t expect to have encountered so regularly on this predominantly rural-based trip was the overbearing presence of social technology amongst what I now call ‘techno-travellers’.

One day, my friend and I were walking the popular ‘Hidden Lake Overlook’ Trail in Glacier National Park.  I couldn’t believe the number of ipads I saw being wapped out. As we turned back from the end point, no longer able to tolerate the constant sounds of clicking and sights of crowding, a man said to his friend: “You know you’re too close to civilisation when you see an ipad.” I couldn’t agree with him more. The travel paparazzi had arrived and were relentless in their pursuit of taking a thousand photos of the same image. Thankfully, we were able to escape the tourists after noticing a steep rocky path to the left. From its clear formation, the path must have been trodden a few times before, but few tourists were ascending it then. A few people would look over at us as curiously as we made our way over to it, but they did not follow. Perhaps their sense of adventure was restricted to only those areas photographed and written about online and in magazines. We scrambled to the top on all fours, only to be greeted to our complete surprise by the sight of a snow kingdom on the other side of the hill. Finally we were alone, in peace, and the techno-travellers had no idea what they were missing.

395

387

394

404

Of course there is nothing wrong with wanting to take a photo of something beautiful and unique. But when one is surrounded by electronic devices so capable of connecting with a million others around the world near a natural wonder that is so far away from these millions, it feels a little intrusive. People are so snap-happy that one wonders whether they have really taken the time to appreciate what they are seeing. There is a difference between looking/seeing and observing/appreciating. Are these people simply just wanting to take pretty pictures that will earn them an extra follower on Pinterest or ‘like’ on Facebook? The rush to upload their photos straight onto social media makes you think so.

It’s because of my irritation by the growing social media-habits of travellers that I will probably never make a living as a travel blogger. For starters, I like food too much to withhold eating it until I’ve taken a zillion photos of it beforehand.  I also don’t believe I fit in with the blogging ‘game’. I find that the ‘competition’ for publicity between travel bloggers makes it quite an unfriendly world. I can’t stand it when I follow a travel blogger on Twitter (after they’ve followed me) and they then unfollow me, simply because they were just looking to boost their stats with extra followers. And then there’s the messages requesting that I now follow someone’s Facebook/Pinterest/Instagram accounts. If I want to look at your photos or read your blog, I will find it myself when I wish. In fairness, most of these messages are automated, but if anything that just makes it worse. The whole ‘Thanks for following, you’re awesome! Let’s share more stories together’ is completely fake. There are some really kind and helpful travel bloggers out there who are also successful, but many are so pre-occupied with their own success that they let this stop them acting like genuine human beings with a soul.

This was particularly evident in Yellowstone. At the Lower Canyon Falls, a group of what I would describe as either ‘serious tourists’ or ‘travel bloggers’ clustered against a fence with their huge cameras, leaning out a far as they could to get a shot of a nesting bird. They looked like addicted bank-robbers desperately reaching out to grab at notes of money flying away from them. Occasionally the photographers would step back to add an extra part to their camera, clinking on various pieces so that it looked like they were loading a machine-gun. They would scowl at those who tried to take their place or briefly blocked their view to have one quick look, and hogged the area with a snobby air that made one feel almost intimidated to go over and have a look themselves. I wonder how they would have reacted if someone in a wheelchair had approached the viewpoint…Travel should be accessible to everyone and not a competition, but some people add a hierarchy of entitlement through their behaviour, and it’s often related to the use of technology – ‘I write a blog and have a big fancy camera, therefore I must have priority viewing.’

‘We played with marbles and climbed tall trees; now kids can’t play without batteries’. This message was written on signs approaching a town called Panguitch in Utah. It perfectly addressed the problem of society’s obsession with digital technology and social media. People are losing their adventurous spirit in favour of an online social life and evening of inactive escapism with the gang of ‘Game of Thrones’. Meanwhile, travellers might say “Oh I didn’t go inside that building or climb that mountain…but I got a photo of it so it’s okay!” They’ll say that they’ve ‘done’ a country when they’ve only seen an eighth of it. By sticking to the guidebook and always photographing what they think will be most popular, travellers and bloggers threaten the unique charm and untouched beauty of an area, and miss out on other surprises or less conventional sights that are just as stunning.

Travel bloggers are in danger of becoming too concerned with the stats that they start to alienate the real reason they started a blog in the first place: to talk about travel. Occasionally my spam folder will have comments from scammers with dodgy web addresses, talking about SEO services and saying that I don’t have enough key words highlighted in my post and that because I don’t use so-and-so here and this-and-that there, my ranking on Google will be lower. Frankly, I couldn’t care less about these picky details. I started a blog because I love to travel and I love to write and wanted to share my experiences with friends. The fact that strangers from all over the world find and read and follow my blog is humbling. However, I don’t intend to spend my life in front of my computer, downloading various plug-ins and spending money on various schemes to make my followers grow even more. I read an article where a guy said he’d got in $36,000 of debt just so he could make his blog a huge hit and never have to work in an office again…Where was his  logic? I’ve also read that some bloggers actually pay for followers, not caring whether they read their blog or not, but just wanting to boost their chances of being sponsored by a travel company so that they can travel the world for less. Where is their integrity?

Too much mixing with technology threatens the traditional elements we associate with travel: the temporary isolation from others we know; the subsequent engagement with others we meet; the requirement for map-reading skills; the use of our brains to make decisions when something goes wrong; the anticipation of seeing all of someone’s photos a few weeks later when they return (rather than a few everyday that leave you wondering why they made a huge thing of saying good-bye before going away to a foreign land, when they’ve practically never left). We don’t even see a photo of a place in its genuine form anymore; instead it’s photo-shopped to the max in order to make it as perfect as possible and what it is assumed people want to see. But ‘perfection’ doesn’t mean the same to everyone. What’s wrong with simply seeing something in its true form and avoiding the creation of high expectations that may very well end up being disappointed?

Wi-fi was used once during the whole three weeks of our trip, simply to look up a ferry schedule (and create a birthday event to take place three days after the trip ended). The escapism was wonderful and not once was it wondered what gossip was being missed out on from Facebook.  If people spend their whole life staring at their phone or through their camera lens, they’ll miss what’s on the other side of their screen and that ‘most-recommended’ area that it looks at. And as the photos show, the other side can be pretty cool.

*

Some other travellers agree with me – hurrah!

‘Why I’ll never be a Professional Travel Blogger’ by Theodora

‘Confessions: Sunday Social Reflection Talk’ by we12travel

Harming Nature Through Human Nature

In the past couple of weeks as I write this post in November 2014, a rogue artist from New York has been in the news for vandalising some of America’s national parks with artistic graffiti. As expected, this activity has been condemned by both national park rangers and the public. Type ‘lady defacing national parks’ into Google and the top searches begin with the terms ‘awful person’ and ‘terrible human’. The perpetrator has been slammed for drawing these images and uploading them to Instagram, i.e. for seeking fame and attention at the expense of nature.

I of course was also appalled when I heard about these acts , especially as I have many special memories of the magnificent topography in some of the victimised parks – including Canyonlands and Zion – that were formed only weeks before these images were drawn. But then I thought about this issue some more and asked myself: regardless of spray-paint, are tourists not already defacing the nature of the parks? Through our own desires to find fame from capturing the best photo of a wild animal, are we camera-crazy (albeit well-meaning) humans not causing harm too? Harm that is subtle and unintended in nature, but still damaging to nature’s routine.

The other day I read the George Orwell classic ‘Animal Farm’. Published in 1945 and banned in the USSR for its anti-Stalin sentiment, the beginning of the story involves the animals of a farm rising up in rebellion against their greedy human owner and establishing control of the farm themselves. As I read the (highly-recommended) novel, I thought back to the encounters I had with wildlife during my American road trip this past summer.

I thought about the Rocky Mountain goats in Glacier National Park being woken from their afternoon naps by invading tourists trying to take a photo of their babies. Often the mother goat would nudge her kid to its feet and they would trot off to find a new secret place – something hard to find on the particularly popular Hidden Lake Overlook trail. People would watch them go almost offended, as if it was an insult for an animal to reject human advances.

355

I thought about the bison in Yellowstone demanding that traffic come to a standstill while they marched across the road to new pastures. For all I know, their deep grunts were a sign of resentment towards the cars that clogged the man-made partition of their resources. I was surprised at how gentle they were; they were more than capable of causing damage to the monstrous RV that obstructed their path, by bashing their huge heads against its artificial walls in a determined declaration of  “We were here first.”

079

I thought about the regular signs on the roads of Yosemite that reminded tourists to drive carefully, citing recent bear fatalities (reports state that so far this year, the figure is at 25). How ironic that in our quest to see a bear, we actually end up killing them? We contradict the whole purpose of a national park to conserve a species. It is in Yosemite’s campgrounds that keeping food in cars is prohibited, since recently a few bears learned how to open doors. These bears were then destroyed to prevent the trait being learned by others and to avoid human casualties. But is it not humans that are invading the bears’ space, rather than vice versa?

Finally, I thought about the large group of elk on Highway 101 just outside Redwood National Park, who caused a traffic jam when they decided to block part of the road. I remembered a man with long hair who drove a VW campervan videoing the scene and asking out-loud, “What does this mean, animals blocking a man-made road?” At first I had smiled to myself at this apparent hippy-expressionism, then I realised that he actually raised an interesting question. Was this group behaviour a form of defiance against man’s interference in nature?

1466

Does our greed as humans for viewings of rare wildlife touch on the verge of exploitation? Are we not slightly reminiscent of the white man colonising sparse lands in order to generate revenue, killing native inhabitants in the process? It should be mentioned that it is because bison were brought under conservation in Yellowstone that the species was protected from poaching and was subsequently able to grow in numbers within the last century. But back when the park was established in 1872, who was to know that these animals would eventually become the target of the tourist paparazzi? For it has become human nature to stalk the world’s rarest wildlife through a lens.

Obviously tourists, including myself, want to get a close look at wildlife; it’s only human nature. Personally however, I try to respect animals’ privacy in doing so and not disturb them from their natural state. It’s the same way that I would attempt to be discreet if taking a photo of a human stranger doing something interesting, if it was a situation where asking for permission would ruin the moment. Animals have no voice to give consent and therefore cannot be ‘asked’ in the way we humans are familiar with, but that doesn’t mean they condone the behaviour.

After reading ‘Animal Farm’ and thinking about these issues, it almost seems plausible to imagine these animals calling for a revolution against us human tourists.

But then there is the issue of squirrels. At first, it’s cute and endearing when the tame, chubby ones in Zion scamper over to your feet and look up expectantly for food with their tiny paws out like Oliver Twist. Even my friend and I were at first caught in the trap of taking photos and ‘awwww’ing at them. However, you then see them picking on the skinnier squirrels, consequently depriving them of food. Like in ‘Animal Farm’, those animals that interact with humans benefit, and it becomes the case that ‘all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’. If humans weren’t feeding these squirrels, the inequality within the species would be smaller. Like the British Raj in India, it seems that human tourists have cemented power through a policy of ‘divide and rule’. Perhaps if the intrusive human presence left, the animal kingdoms would disintegrate into a state of instability and corruption.

1135
Of course, I expect many people reading to view the idea of an animal rebellion as an eccentric, far-fetched vision. But it is easy to imagine innocent things, just like it is easy to harm innocent beings. As history has shown, both are only human nature.

 

 

 

 

Bear in Mind: Preparing for a Scare in Glacier National Park

‘Failure to prepare means preparation to fail’: that’s something we’re told growing up, whether in school or before competitions. You would think the same motto applied to travel, and in most cases it does. However, the most memorable experiences from travelling do not necessarily arise from preparation, but pure unpredictable chance.

When I started my road trip through the USA, I didn’t consider the possibility of seeing a grizzly bear to be very high. Having not seen one in the Canadian Rockies three years earlier (a black bear from inside a bus doesn’t count), I assumed history would repeat itself, regardless of the breed’s higher population in Montana. Only when my travel buddy and I were walking along the interestingly-named Thunder Knob trail in Washington’s North Cascades one morning,  did the prospect of coming across a bear seem greater. A clanging noise grew louder through the trees and we passed a couple in expert hiking gear walking their dog with a bell attached to its collar. My friend looked down at his outfit and said, “Okay, now I feel unprepared.”

Views of Diablo Lake from the Thunder Knob trail

Views of Diablo Lake from the Thunder Knob trail

In Glacier National Park in Montana, tourists are briefed to prepare themselves for seeing a bear. On arrival at the park’s entry stations, drivers are handed leaflets explaining what to do in the event that they encounter one. (Interestingly, this leaflet recommended making occasional bursts of noise, rather than a constant sound.) Bears were described as more likely to avoid human contact than pursue it, but that didn’t make a backcountry hike seem any less risky.

We drove on to Bowman Lake, the secluded ‘primitive’ campground (‘primitive’ meaning there were pit toilets and no showers, hence a subsequent cheaper price of $15 per night). From the park’s west entrance to the campground in the north-west, it’s a 32 mile drive which mostly involves dusty gravel roads, switchbacks and plenty of potholes. Some cars turned back, fed up with the slow-driving conditions. At six miles, Polebridge is the closest ‘village’ to the campground for stocking up on supplies. A small female ranger at the entry station greeted us and we asked her for clarification of what to do upon coming face to face with a grizzly. “Oh well…you know… you just want to show the bear that is has plenty of space to pass,” the lady began slowly in a cute high-pitched voice, tucking some hair behind her ear. “Just stand still and be nice and calm, you know – ‘hey bear’,” the lady’s tone piped higher as she mimed a shy tiny wave that stemmed from her wrist. “Let him know you’re not a threat, you know, just relax…and back off slowly.” We nodded at her and I bit my lip to stop myself laughing at the thought of this little lady waving up a grizzly saying “hey bear”.

Many more potholes and tight pull-overs later, we were rewarded for our patience by views of Bowman Lake with its scenic mountainous backdrop, before we found a spot in the rustic campground. Accompanying the descriptions of each 12 mile-return hike was a warning about bears. All these warnings, understandable as they were, made me a little nervous. As we set off on a hike along the Lower Quartz Lake trail, I found myself constantly looking over my shoulder, occasionally calling out “hey bear!” in a voice that sounded way too wimpy. Blood flowed to the tips of my toes and fingers. I was in flight-mode and instructions saying to stay still and not run away upon meeting a bear did not seem realistically achievable. I certainly wasn’t going to stand there saying hello with a wave…

An anxious walk along the Lower Quartz Trail

An anxious walk along the Lower Quartz Trail

Why was I so worried? This wasn’t like me. Was it because I was with (male) company that I felt a greater excuse to be scared? Or was it because all these warnings increased the expectation of being confronted by a huge animal? It probably didn’t help that my friend, walking behind me, began telling me a story he’d read about a mountain lion leaping from a tree onto a man’s neck in Washington. I laughed sarcastically to suggest I didn’t believe him, all the while glad he was behind so he couldn’t see me scan the trees suspiciously. “I doubt we’ll see one to be honest…” he then said reassuringly, and I felt a little better. “…But if we do and it comes for us, I want you to run away while I distract it.”

I wheeled round and cried for him to stop it, unable to bear the thought (ha). ‘I am never going travelling with a boy again,’ I thought as we carried on up the path, with him now singing a made-up song to a bear in a baritone voice. “Can we turn around now?” I asked a few minutes later. “Are you really that worried?” he asked in surprise. I don’t think I was; I too was starting to believe we wouldn’t see a bear. But the anticipation of doing so was making me skittish, frustrated with the boring trail. “Okay, okay, 10 more ‘hey bears’ and then we’ll head back,” my friend promised. When we got to 10 I turned around and took off running for home, side-stepping tree trunks and skipping roots in the ground. The potential danger had charged me with adrenaline and I felt a mixture of anxiety and excitement as I dashed back along the trail, blood pumping, not looking back. It was a feeling reminiscent of that I’d experienced in BC in 2011. We reached Bowman Lake breathless with fatigue, relief and laughter, and jumped into the glacial lake, fears forgotten in the freezing cold water.

After all the cautions and expectations, we had not seen a grizzly bear. ‘That’s how it always seems to go,’ I thought. Both of us agreed that we probably wouldn’t see one the whole time we were in the park.

Beautiful (but cold!) Bowman Lake - the 3rd largest in Glacier National Park

Beautiful (but cold!) Bowman Lake – the third largest in Glacier National Park

A day later, we had made our way along the incredible Going-to-the-Sun road and stopped to make sandwiches at the quiet picnic area in St. Mary. As I innocently opened the trunk to find the bread, a French lady nearby started gabbling excitedly to her husband and grabbed a camera. Intrigued, we followed her to the edge of the picnic area where a few other people had gathered, whispering giddily. 20 metres away, a small grizzly strolled casually out of a narrow path and ambled past the picnic benches, oblivious to the humans staring at him in fascination. “He looks pretty young…” my friend remarked pointedly, but still people crept out from the bush to take a closer shot as the bear wandered on absent-mindedly into another pathway. Two couples peeped out from the path the bear came from and called over “Has it gone?” French-couple waved them over. “I’m pretty sure it was a cub,” my friend said louder, but again, his hint wasn’t registered. However, it soon became clear the bear was alone, and people went back to eating their sandwiches, as if nothing had happened. Indeed, it was almost as if it was the thousandth one I’d seen; there was no overwhelming rush of fear or excitement as I had expected, perhaps because I had been bracing myself for this moment for a while, and because the sighting had occurred in a more populous area and with less drama than I had anticipated.

"hey bear"

“hey bear”

A few minutes later, we ourselves walked along the very path the bear had emerged from to sit at the edge of St. Mary Lake. Even though there was a fresh pile of bear dung feet away, decorated oh so prettily with huckleberries, I didn’t feel nervous at all, completely unfazed by the possibility that this bear might return the way it had come. Likewise, the first mile of a hike to Otokomi Lake later that afternoon featured bear droppings every 100 metres or so, but still I felt no fear. Finishing the 10 mile-return trail in one piece, I joked light-heartedly, “Calling out ‘hey bear’ probably wasn’t the most sensible phrase to use.” My anxious anticipation had reduced now that I had actually seen the talk-of-the-town for myself.

Definitely makes the 5-a-day of huckleberries...

With this huckleberry consumption, bears definitely makes one of their 5-a-day…

Our sighting was an experience that many tourists diligently prepare for, researching promising time periods of activity and driving themselves to the most recommended locations before spending hours waiting there, all just to catch a glimpse of a grizzly bear. And yet, like forcing oneself to struggle until a math problem is solved or dance routine learned, it seems that trying too hard at sightseeing might even threaten progress. Events happen when you least expect them and are least prepared. It’s easy to get drawn into the hype of potentially seeing a special wild animal in risky circumstances; it’s the expectation created by this hype that can make us more nervous than is perhaps necessary, and subsequently less successful. I feel really lucky to have seen that bear, knowing that many tourists will leave Glacier National Park feeling disappointed about missing out. It almost seems unfair that it happened so easily. Sometimes people simply find themselves in the right place at the right time, and there are no bear necessities when preparing for this type of experience.