The Oregon Trail

To complement the narratives I posted over the fall on my political site, Transformational Citizenship, I selected 63 photos from my drive east from Portland to Independence, Missouri, more or less following the Oregon Trail, in reverse. The Trail begins at Independence and ends a few miles south of my home, in Oregon City, gateway to the Willamette Valley. Its fertile soil was the target for most Overlanders in the years following the Panic of 1837, when many White Americans sought a fresh start beyond the Great Plains, then the home of mostly nomadic Indian tribes and 25 million bison. Within a decade, the Trail branched into routes to California and Salt Lake, but all three continued over the same ground through present-day Wyoming. The “discovery” of South Pass over the Rockies was the key to westward migration, transforming an unknown wilderness into an American empire from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

The Oregon Trail in photos

I’ve used Flickr for years. It’s not terribly intuitive. To see the pics, you have to click on the image of the Gorge, which opens the Flickr page. To see the captions, you have to scroll below each pic. But Flickr includes all the data from the photos, including a mapped location. My iPhone knows everything.

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An Oregon coincidence

Ed was studying my bike, which was leaned against a post outside Rhodes Store in Ukiah. I was at the counter waiting for a call back from a towing company in Pendleton. So we began a chat about the bike’s intricacies, and then about how my vehicle was marooned in the snow at about 5000 feet, 20 miles away. He jumped at the chance to serve in its recovery. “I’m always up for adventure.” As I learned over the next 24 hours.

He’s about my age, a native of Cumberland, where he grew up hiking and biking in the mountains of western Maryland. After a second life of wife and children in Arizona, Ed moved to Portland (about a mile from where we now live). Working construction, he commuted by bicycle as much as 25 miles, arousing the suspicion of fellow workers. After the California invasion of the city in the ’90s and ’00s, he cashed out and moved to Ukiah. He lives in a garage big enough for a semi, in which he has partly dissembled several motorcycles, none of which has killed him but come close (one of his bicycles survived an encounter with a commuter train much better than he did). He explained that after he starts breaking down a motorcycle, he realizes it’s a complex project, but then another project – building a friend’s house or rescuing a traveler with poor judgment – interrupts it. “I’m living my dream.”

I was on day three of my own adventure of indeterminate days and vague direction toward Hell’s Canyon. The day before I had driven up a valley, noting a little snow on mountains in the distance. At what I assumed was the ridge, I tumbled into a bowl of sticky, melting slush. When I gave up trying to drive out (having dug out of one spot with a trowel), I settled in for the night in as beautiful a spot as Oregon and the Forest Service offer. By the time it got dark seven hours later, not another car had passed.

The next morning in lightly falling snow, I walked my bike three miles through white before hitting black pavement. Within an hour I’d met Ed. Within another hour we’d headed back up the mountain, where Ed drove his Jeep into a snowy ditch within sight of the pavement. After a couple hours of trying to winch it out, we walked three miles before guys in a pickup delivered us to Ed’s. With a break to eat dinner and collect more tools, we headed back in his pickup. A little before midnight, we were back at Ed’s with the Jeep.

Sunday morning, before he drove me to Pendleton where Laurie was waiting with lunch, Ed stopped at Paula’s. She’s a Forest Service ranger, and it seemed best to let her know I’d left my camper minivan on the pavement of her road. We talked over recovery options, and she suggested I leave the key with my new friend in Ukiah. Knowing Ed as I do, he’ll try again to get the car at least off the road before I get back to Ukiah when a little more snow has melted. And then I’ll continue the adventure, having met these and other characters in a tiny town in the Blue Mountains.

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A notable anniversary


Forty years ago this morning (May 18), I was crossing Puget Sound when Mount St. Helens exploded.

After spending the night in Portland, I had driven by the volcano the day before, gazing at it from a gas station off I-5 in Washington. The store was selling T-shirts boasting “I survived Mount St. Helens 1980.” I didn’t buy one. I drove on to hike on Mt. Rainier and spent the night in Olympic National Park, about 50 miles south of Port Townsend. On a ferry across the Sound, I felt nothing and heard nothing of the blast, 140 miles away. But when I got back in the car, the news was on the radio.

I drove north into British Columbia, spending the second night in Yoho National Park. The next morning, two days after the eruption, was chilly and foggy, as I continued my whirlwind, three-week camping trip from Oakland to D.C. by way of the Canadian Rockies and the Grand Canyon. As I drove south, the weather warmed, but the fog remained. Odd. By the time I neared the Idaho border, whisps of dust were blowing across the road. I was driving into a cloud of ash.

At Coeur d’Alene, 275 miles east of St. Helens, I turned east onto I-90. The left lane was thick in ash, the right a narrow ribbon of black. It was exciting for about five minutes. Very few cars were on the road, but every time one plowed past me in the left lane, I was blinded – I couldn’t see the hood. I had no idea whether a car was about to crash into me from behind as I slowed, and I no longer knew where the road was. I’d coast to a stop, wait for the ash to settle, then start back up. It was 200 miles of treachery to Missoula. The town was closed, much like the country was in March: By emergency declaration, only gas stations, hospitals, groceries and motels were open. In my room, the TV news reported ash already in the Appalachians.

The next morning was clearer. The eruption was spent, the cloud to the east. I wasted no time heading south, passing out of the residue on my way toward Ogden.

The car, my new stepmother Phyllis’s 1973 Datsun 510, survived. As it should have: For years Datsun (now Nissan, for you youngsters) had sold the 510 as the champion of the 1970 East Africa Safari Rally and other races. Fun to drive. I was its last owner, from ’84 to ’86, when it sputtered into a used car lot and from there, I assume, the crusher. But it served me well through that ash cloud, and the rest of a 6000-mile, coast-to-coast rally.

Where I live now, the 40th anniversary of St. Helens is a big deal. In Oregon the media regularly report on our “active” Mt. Hood, visible from our house and which last had a major eruption in the 1790s. St. Helens, also visible from my neighborhood, is active. Today is another day closer to the next explosion.

Four decades on, trees creep up the south slope, far side of the blast.

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One year into a new life


Summer at the Portland State Farmers Market

The most remarkable element of this latest birthday (on the summer solstice) is how new and different so much of my life is.

One year ago I had just returned to Arlington sooner than expected, truncating a two-month driving loop to the west coast to mark my 60th solar return, having resolved to move to Portland after a lifetime on the east coast. Other than a few weeks there to prep the old house and a three-week trip in September to drive Laurie’s car back here (and complete my intended loop), I’ve now been in Oregon for a year.

New governments to watch (and roll my eyes over). New neighborhoods to explore. An entirely different vibe. I don’t think it’s the weed, which is not only legal but actively promoted as an industry (it is not my cup of tea). I moved from a city that’s all about career to one about biking and hiking and breathing. And food. And coffee. And beer.

Our daily needs are in walking distance. The grocery store is two blocks, though I prefer to bike to my co-op, less than two miles. I still haven’t tried many of the breweries within a mile, because three of them I really like. The restaurants are varied and generally very inexpensive – dinner for 9 or 10 bucks. Occasionally we stray – we might even drive to one. Most importantly, the Rebuilding Center, a non-profit dedicated to keeping stuff out of the waste stream, is a five-minute walk. I go there several days a week.

Because, frankly, building is how I’ve spent most of my time since September 29, when I moved in to our 1915 bungalow, a week before Laurie flew in from India. I did the usual paint-the-rooms thing, which I’ve done with nearly every house I’ve ever lived in. But this place needed infrastructure. Sewer lateral. Asbestos removal. Duct work. Fireplace insert. New furnace and gas-line repair. Electrical rewiring. Lighting. Garden engineering. Sidewalk replacement. My obsession for six months has been creating a guest suite in the otherwise unfinished basement. I suppose I could write a book, but I’ll spare us, save to say it’s been rewarding to create something out of nothing, the combination of vision and art and math. It isn’t finished because I skipped some steps in the city approval process and now I get to figure out how to solve issues of my own making. But from appearances, we can host people (illegally).

Because of my projects, I’ve barely left town (except for my one-hour drives to Salem a few times in the winter/spring): a Christmas excursion to the ocean, another this month to St. Helens and Seattle. Maybe in our second year we’ll start to stretch out. Laurie’s spending the summer doing weekend hikes with a women’s group, and I’m aiming to bike the Columbia Gorge (repeating part of the hundred-mile day I did nine years ago). Meantime I can do training rides up the Tualatin Range that hugs the west side of the Willamette, or ride east to Mt. Tabor, a butte that I rode up with my Warmshowers host, Darren, the day I arrived here Memorial Day a year ago.

The state government is utterly different. In Virginia, localities can’t do anything without permission from the all-powerful legislature. In Oregon, the legislature can’t do anything without permission from “the people.” Ballot initiatives, always manipulated by the 1 percent, leave leaders weak, unable to address pressing crises, like a school system on par with Mississippi’s and a tax system that is utterly irrational because of voter notions piled one on another in the state constitution. My energy not devoted to the house has gone, as is my wont, into politics. I’ve been to a bunch of town halls, organized for the 2018 elections with Indivisible Oregon, and worked with the fantastic Tax Fairness Oregon (people whose idea of a good time is reading bills). TFO has been my platform for testifying before the legislature and penning a couple op-eds for the state’s biggest (and rather feeble) newspaper.

The most remarkable difference is the climate and latitude. Winter is very dark, and summer is very light. At the 45th parallel, it’s an hour between sunset and dark (and dawn and sunrise). I wake up when it starts to get light, making for a long day in these months. In the dark period, we kinda hibernate, have a fire, read. The summer will eventually get hot, but in my experience not till afternoon. Because humidity is low, it cools off quickly in the evening, and cloud cover most mornings, like today, keeps me in long sleeves. I love the contrast.

As Laurie writes me this morning: “I know you’ll worry today about the basement, but maybe for today enjoy this city you chose and welcoming home and your loving wife, knowing you have created all of this.”


Steel Bridge at the winter solstice, 3:30 p.m.


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Going west as an older man


Something like our new neighborhood

We are moving to Portland, Oregon.

For Laurie, it’s been 20 years coming (she may speak for her experience). For me, by one narrative, 11 years. So that’s where I’ll start.

As I have noted along my path, life shifted in 2007 when I took an Adventure Cycling Association tour of northwest Montana and then rode up to Logan Pass in Glacier with Harry Campbell, whom I had met on the trip. During an expense-account lunch with my colleagues Ryan Donmoyer and Tom Mullins a few weeks later, one of them observed, “You don’t give a shit about this [ups and downs of tax politics] anymore, do you?”

No. It no longer had any meaning for me. Being near the wilds in the west (and east) did. And I spent the next six years biking thousands of miles every year and making multi-day tours near and far (one from Portland to Jackson, Wyoming), thanks to the inspiration of Crista Borras and Chuck Wood.

Beginning in 2013, I engaged for three years with the Gratitude Training community in south Florida. The voice in my head grew to a roar: This is not how you want to spend “your one precious life.” But I had responsibilities – two kids approaching independence at the peak of expense. I told my boss, whom I had served as loyally as he had served me: I’m giving you my two years’ notice. When he retired a year later, I did too, certain only that my career as a handsomely paid congressional interpreter for well-heeled clients was done.

Approaching my 60th solar return, I sketched a two-month drive/bike/camp/hike tour of the West, essentially starting in Big Bend and ending in the Badlands national parks, a route I expected would have minor deviations. My intention was to follow my heart, engage in conversation, and be open to a greater awareness and understanding of my place in the world.

On the second day of the drive, I arrived in Tulsa to see my friend and adviser Arthur Curtis. Arthur had been a catalyst for me quitting my job in July 2014, and in turn I had inspired him to fulfill his promise to lead a group of friends to Peru in June 2015. In Tulsa, he advised me to let the past fall away, to understand that I had completed all of my karmic obligations, and to watch for new commitment and possibility when Laurie arrived in Seattle for our scheduled rendezvous six weeks hence.

From Tulsa, I eased my grip on the wheel. In Texas I drove to Denton, the town of my birth, for an evening with stepmom Phyllis, moving on the next morning to breakfast in Decatur with my Aunt Mary Louise and Uncle W.B., my mother’s oldest brother. I arrived to find my cousins gathering around the body of their father, who had died in his sleep. They were doing what my sibs and John and I had done 12 years earlier, the morning after W.B. and Mary Louise had paid their final visit to Mom in Austin: grieving, hugging, calling friends. We had missed breakfast, but a more perfect moment to show up for them and me could not have been. After a few hours together, I had lunch at my mother’s grave and headed toward Big Bend.

A week later, in Santa Fe, I canceled my camping reservations at the Grand Canyon. Walking by the Colorado was the priority of the trip, but my schedule was getting too crazy, so I let it go. After a week in Utah’s Grand Staircase, I changed direction again and headed for the South Rim. When I arrived at the backcountry office to ask about first-come camping space on the bottom the following night, the ranger reported: We have no camping space but there’s an opening tonight at Phantom Ranch, the century-old hostel next to the campground. I burst into tears. Later that day I plunged my hand into the Colorado, fulfilling a 38-year dream.

Many days after that (the calendar is a blur), I arrived at Yosemite and stood in line to register at Camp 4, the first-come campground that puts six people on each of a hundred walk-in sites under Yosemite Falls. Traffic was light that morning, and I got a spot. The following mornings had many fewer vacancies and many more hopeful campers. I got to climb up the falls from their base. Serendipity was becoming routine.

I rolled up the coast of California, where I witnessed on my left a crash, into the minivan ahead of me, of the BMW of the inattentive, impatient driver behind me, trying to pass us both. I was untouched. I gave the crashee my card – “I saw what happened” – and refrained from scolding the girl who’d crossed the double line in the rain, wrecking all their holiday weekend plans.

On Memorial Day in Portland, our friends Traci and Des couldn’t put me up in their overwhelmed household, so I went on Warmshowers and requested a room from hosts closer to downtown. Sure, we’ve got space, replied Tanja and Darren, who turned out to be siblings from another mother. When I arrived, Darren led me on a bike tour of Mt. Tabor, the Springwater Trail and downtown. I spent the following two days biking all over Portland:

Portland has pretty views, and I took a few pictures. But what captures me is the vibe, and I have no images for that. A warehouse in town that sells reclaimed wood. Bike shops that offer you coffee when you walk in. Blocks with clusters of parked food trucks. A forest park on the edge of the city I could get lost in. Neighborhoods with modest frame houses enveloped in gardens. Bicyclists everywhere. I take a trail north to the Columbia, and there’s Mt. Hood to the east.

I’ve been here three times over four decades, in May and June, and it’s never rained. I have no idea what I’d do for a living, but I have no idea at home either. I meet a friend for dinner who left Washington 16 years ago. He hasn’t aged a day. Laurie almost moved here, before life took her to DC. So it’s a thought.

IMG_1458 (1)After a hike up Mount St. Helens, I drove on to Seattle, where Laurie would arrive overnight. We spent Friday walking the downtown. In a shop, I gazed at a map of the Pacific Northwest and felt my throat tighten and my chest expand. This is where, in this moment of my life, I am to be. Walking in the mountains. Camping in the Columbia Gorge. Climbing to the St. Helens caldera. Standing in the bracing wind off the Pacific. Hiking Rainier and Hood and Adams. Returning to Yosemite and Tahoe and Yellowstone. And most of all, absorbing the vibe of Portland in its walking/biking/Powell’s-browsing/coffee-drinking/beer-quaffing/brunch-loving glory.

We had planned to spend four nights in a city neither of us had visited, but at dinner Laurie said, Well, if we want to move to Portland, what are we doing in Seattle? Saturday morning we drove south. I texted Tanja: Would you house us for two nights? She wrote back “of course,” with the name of her realtor. Sunday night we wrote an offer on a dream house.

We didn’t get it – which makes the process of moving less stressful. We will focus first on selling our home in Arlington. I’ve flown home to attend to it, leaving my car at Tanja’s. And then I’ll finish something like the sketched route east, in reverse, in Laurie’s car.

I’ve lived in Washington and Virginia for five of my six decades. I love the city – its vibrancy, seasons, nearby mountains. The museums, neighborhoods, Rock Creek Park. I love Arlington. I love our home, a bungalow and gardens typical of Portland.

My deepest thanks to my comrades in grassroots politics: Brian Cannon and my friends across the region in OneVirginia2021, WofA’s executive committee and membership, Indivisible Arlington, Arlington Democrats. The friends with whom I served the Unitarian Universal Church of Arlington, where Laurie and I met 16 years ago. All have been richly rewarding.

I will miss it all. But as John Muir wrote of Yosemite’s mountains: Oregon is calling, and I must go.

Screen Shot 2018-06-11 at 9.53.56 PM

My route, from April 23 to June 3, ended earlier than planned.



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Return to St. Helens


The Grand Canyon evoked tears. Yosemite a gasp. Mount St. Helens: Holy shit.

I ascended the south side of the 8300-foot peak, reduced by 1,300 on May 18, 1980 – a day after I had driven by, stopping at a gas station where I did not purchase one of the “I survived St. Helens” T-shirts on display. Fifty-seven people died in its volcanic eruption. I didn’t feel it, because I was on a ferry on Puget Sound that Sunday morning. But I did have a harrowing drive through the ash the following day on I-90 east of Spokane, hundreds of miles away.

The north side is where the real damage occurred, the blowout of a bulge that had been growing for weeks before the eruption, leading to the largest landslide ever recorded.

IMG_1509I’ve hiked up many kinds of hills. Granite worn smooth in the Appalachians, sandstone washing away in Utah’s Grand Staircase. Climbing over igneous rock as sharp as broken glass and tossed over the landscape was a new experience. The boulders had stopped tumbling when they reached what Wallace Stegner called the angle of repose.

Thirty-eight years isn’t much time for nature to do its recovery thing, but it’s trying. The tree line is ambiguous. (The Forest Service forbids climbing above it without a permit, and I didn’t have one.) Lone trees dot the moonscape here and there into the clouds, so I climbed as far as seemed reasonable. I’d long since lost the Worm Flows Trail, following the dusted footprints of other misguided hikers past the point of any soil, until I reached the top of a spine. Having spied what appeared to be a distant trail marker, I trekked sideways over parallel spines between valleys of snow and loose gravel, thinking of Stegner.

The wind and ice were coming at me sideways too. A bracing, beautiful hike to witness the violence of nature. Someday I’ll get a permit (sold out till October) and make it to the caldera.


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Standing agape in an undivided current


Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life – John Muir

In our time, Ansel Adams gave us images of Yosemite that re-imagined America. In an earlier time, John Muir gave us words that did the same. Before that, Congress and Abraham Lincoln gave us the Yosemite Grant, an act that enlarged our political imagination – what’s possible when We the People are inspired to form a more perfect union.

When I caught first glimpse of Yosemite Valley, I gasped. The images, words and deeds are no match for the view, which Lincoln and the members of the 38th Congress never saw. But were it not for them, we might not be free to see it, and perhaps we wouldn’t own it.

In May and June of 1864, Ulysses S. Grant executed the Wilderness Campaign, the bloodiest chapter of the Civil War, which his boss had redefined a few months earlier at Gettysburg. On June 30, Lincoln signed a bill granting the Yosemite Valley (and the Mariposa Grove of sequoias) to California, stipulating “that the premises shall be held for public use, resort, and recreation; shall be inalienable for all time.” Thus was born the concept of a national park.

The Yosemite Grant was the basis for the 1872 act President Grant signed designating the first national park, Yellowstone. Because it was located in the Wyoming Territory – not yet a state – Congress handed its jurisdiction to the Department of the Interior. On that precedent, Congress in 1890 created Yosemite National Park, though the law did not provide the protection we now consider the norm.

Since his first walk into the Sierras in 1868, Muir had been writing about Yosemite. In the 1890s, his articles about the destruction of its mountain meadows by sheep and cattle ranching operations caught public attention. When Theodore Roosevelt camped with Muir in the park in 1903, it set the stage for the retrocession of the Yosemite Valley to the federal government in 1906 and for creation of the Park Service in 1916.

You don’t have to know any of that to stand agape on the banks of the Merced in Yosemite Valley, or at Yosemite Point across from Half Dome, or at Olmsted Point above Tenaya Creek flowing below Clouds Rest and into the valley.

Still, on my mind is the warring of North and South that allowed Lincoln and Congress the unfettered room to remake the powers of the Union while they faced its destruction. I have written before of the progress achieved under a unified government in the 37th Congress. More followed in the 38th, including the Yosemite Grant. All of it was based on a larger vision of the Constitution’s preamble than had been possible when our forebears were focused on whether we would be, as Lincoln said in 1858, half slave and half free.

Every generation faces new struggles to protect what is held in trust for us, or to envision a greater sense of oneness. In 1892 John Muir founded the Sierra Club, which lost the battle to prevent the damming of the park’s Hetch Hetchy Valley in 1913. A couple weeks ago, I spied the Superfund site that was a uranium mine just below the Grand Canyon’s South Rim into the 1960s. This year, litigants are challenging Donald Trump’s decision to shrink the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, partly to promote mining interests in southern Utah. Muir’s vision is not obvious, unless you are here, agape:

We all flow from one fountain Soul. All are expressions of one Love. God does not appear, and flow out, only from narrow chinks and round bored wells here and there in favored races and places, but He flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless over creeds and forms and all kinds of civilizations and peoples and beasts, saturating all and fountainizing all.



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Loving a hole in the ground

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe morning I would drive to the Grand Canyon, I dreamt I would get a permit to sleep by the Colorado, though the nature of the permit was vague. I awakened at 4, too excited to drift back to sleep. At the backcountry permit office four hours later, I was told the canyon campground had no space, but Phantom Ranch, the rustic hostel with bunks and meal service, did. For the third time that morning (after passing the park entry sign and catching first glimpse), my eyes started leaking. Dipping my hand in the river had been on my mind since my first trip here 38 years ago, and I was about to do it.

On a poster in the backcountry permit office:

After your first experience backpacking in the Grand Canyon you will be left with one of two reactions: either you will never hike again in your life, or you will find that your life up to this moment has been meaningless, and you be forever enslaved by thoughts of returning to this torturous paradise.

The prose is overblown but the message apt. (The meaning of my life turned when I biked up Logan Pass in Glacier 11 years ago.) I zipped through the North and South Rims in May 1980 on a whirlwind cross-continent drive, taking time for a short afternoon hike on the South Kaibab Trail. Laurie and I were here five years ago in January, when the short day, icy trails and a less obsessive itinerary allowed only for a repeat trek to Skeleton Point on South Kaibab.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter packing an overnight (food, clothing layers, toothbrush), I walked off the rim onto Bright Angel Trail about noon for the 9.7-mile descent. For the first couple hours, traffic was busy in both directions. By Indian Garden – the half-way oasis with water, toilets, campground, ranger station, medic (and helipad) and corral – the numbers had thinned, and the terrain leveled a bit. For a while. The bottom half of the walk has three distinct sections: along Pipe Creek starting at Indian Garden, another steep section in the desert, and then along and above the river until the trail crosses and meanders up Bright Angel Creek. I arrived at Phantom Ranch just as the 5 p.m. diners were being seated for steak and potatoes.

After settling into my dorm bunk and cleaning up, I returned to the canteen for the 6:30 dinner of beef stew, salad, corn bread and chocolate cake, served family style. Then Danny, the host, hustled us out so that staff could prep for store/social hour, 8 to 10: beer, next-day snacks, souvenirs, postcards (to be packed out in leather satchel by mule). Very efficient operation. So how does it work, I asked.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA 14-member team does it: cleaning, bed-making, dinner and breakfast for 44 hikers. Work schedule is 10 days at Phantom, four days off (non-shift housing in Grand Canyon Village). Staff members room together. They commute the same way we do: by foot. All jobs rotate. One day you’re making coffee for the early hikers at 3:30 a.m., the next you’re running the post-dinner canteen. The dinner menu never varies: steak and potatoes (and the vegetarian selection, whatever that is) for the early service; beef stew (delicious) for the second. Breakfast is early but I don’t know; I headed out at 4.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe cliffs in the gorge frame the starlight, which is (mostly) sufficient to see the trail. I passed a couple after less than a mile; they had stepped off the South Rim about midnight to beat the heat on their return climb. I stopped for breakfast at Pipe Creek Beach, the last spot for viewing the river. My gaze turned to the receding shadows as the sunshine moved down the cliffs. I’d been walking for two hours before the sun’s rays reached me. By the time I arrived at Indian Garden, a half-hour later, nine hikers had passed me heading down.

Now came the steep section. One foot in front of the other, a couple of stops for snacks,  breathers to take in the views. About 10 a.m., as the trail influx really picks up, I’m on the rim.

In the afternoon I’m having an ice cream cone and a conversation with John from Birmingham AL, a soft-spoken, 75-year-old who had made the trek to Phantom Ranch the night before I did, for the sixth time. After his wife last week released him for a solo voyage, he’d gone online, found an opening in the dorm, bought a plane ticket to Las Vegas and made the drive in a rental to the South Rim. His is the character to whom the backcountry poster resonates. This was his last trip, he told me. It was getting harder with age, and he’d slowed since the last one.

It wasn’t as hard as I’d anticipated. I’m in good shape, still something of an endurance athlete, and I’d practiced walking in Big Bend, Arches and Bryce Canyon over two weeks. I’d like to think it’s not my last pilgrimage. My friend Arthur wrote to me: “I hope you feel at home and welcome there, and come out knowing something about yourself you never knew.”

I do feel at home here – I cry at the thought of approaching the Rim. I mulled: Dear Laurie, I could die happy now. But then I thought about Arizona’s John McCain, who’s spending his last days in Sedona, telling friends he loves them and hearing he is loved by them, without any need to run around completing a bucket list. Or his list is simple. Mine is more complicated because I don’t have a date certain. At 59.9, I feel the effects of age, but I assume I will give over to the life of reading and thinking and being, less to doing.

What I do know: I love this hole in the ground.


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Fiery Furnace is a mind game


The crazy Entrada sandstone fins of Arches National Park, in front of the La Sal Mountains

In every national park I can recall, hiking trails are well marked. In Arches, one trail is not.

Fiery Furnace has 12 directional arrows on a tiny white-on-brown plaque stuck to rocks over a distance that can’t be conventionally measured, and maybe three or four blink-and-you’ll-miss “dead end” signs. I find a dead end within minutes, having missed the sign. I miss many of the arrows the first time around, forcing me back to find my way again. And again.

Pretty soon, this know-it-all control freak is annoyed. My powers of observation suck. And then I notice my annoyance and laugh that the joke is on me. You can’t really get lost in Fiery Furnace. But it’s a great opportunity to observe how you react to veering off the path.

At Arches, there are a ton of people on the path in early May. The cars are pouring in before the visitor center opens at 7:30 a.m., and by mid-morning the parking lots are full for nearly every hike along the 18-mile main road and its branches. I was enraptured by Arches when I visited in December three decades ago and we had the place to ourselves. Since then, Moab has mushroomed from a uranium mining town with a few diners to a tourist hub (and a Superfund site) between two of Utah’s Big Five national parks. (Canyonlands, to the west, is where the Green joins the Colorado to gouge what becomes the Grand Canyon.) As the season warms up, the town is mobbed.

This must create a dilemma for the Park Service. Its mission is to serve us, but it is also to educate us and prevent its domain from being overrun. I wonder if Fiery Furnace could be a model. Seventy-five permits a day are dispensed ($6) to hikers eager to stumble through the maze. Before you get the permit, you get a video and a lecture emphasizing the delicate environment and how not to damage it: walk on paths and boulders, and not on the “biological sand” that is its own micro-environment; don’t leave so much as an orange peel, much less your poop.

In all the parks I’ve visited on this trip, the main message (contrary to what comes out the Trump administration) is preservation – reducing pollution (including light) and finding clean energy. I observe that a lot of people don’t get it, and I pick up their trash – and then I find myself walking on biological sand. In our numbers, we can’t help but wreck the place. After all, that’s what we humans do: leave footprints.


John Ford’s West, plus Utah Route 95, east of Glen Canyon

Some parks have fewer visitors. After two glorious days roaming among the eroding fins in Arches, I drive away at dawn. A hundred miles southwest I have breakfast at Theodore Roosevelt’s Natural Bridges National Monument, three arches in a tributary canyon of the Colorado. From here I have a good view to the east of Bears Ears, an area sacred to the Navajo. After years of lobbying by Native American groups, Barack Obama designated the surrounding area as a national monument of 1.4 million acres. In December Donald Trump shrank it to 200,000 acres. Whether a president can undo a predecessor’s conservation under the Antiquities Act is a question in litigation.


The shrinking Colorado at Hite, behind Glen Canyon Dam

Farther along, I cross the Colorado at Hite, a former mining village and now a modest resort in the Park Service’s Glen Canyon Recreation Area. The dam submerged the original settlement in 1964 but it has reappeared, as flow in the watershed has shrunk Lake Powell.

Grazing pasture at Fruita, settled in 1880

It’s mid-morning, and I’ve been almost alone on the road until I hit the middle jewel in the crown. Capitol Reef’s unique geological feature is the Waterpocket Fold, a monocline in which the west side of a fault lifted 7000 feet and then folded over the fault. From the oasis at Fruita, where Mormon pioneers planted orchards along the Fremont River, the Waterpocket Fold runs south a hundred miles to Lake Powell. It is a dramatic spot for lunch, but there’s no room at the campground.

I continue south, by now decided that I’ll pitch my tent beside some Forest Service dirt road. I stop on Boulder Mountain for a nap. Utah Route 12, linking the towns of Torrey and Boulder, was paved over a 9600-foot summit only 33 years ago. Beyond the mountain to the west is the Grand Staircase-Escalante, a Bill Clinton national monument. Now that I’ve driven through it, I understand its name: up and down through many rifts of many colors in the earth’s crust, an astonishing array of microclimates and flora developed over 300 million years. Explains the Bureau of Land Management, consistent with the Interior Department’s mission under every other president:

Spanning nearly 1.9 million acres of America’s public lands, GSENM is a fantastic outdoor laboratory offering scientists . . . insight into what sustains, maintains and explains our world.


A speck of the Grand Staircase-Escalante

Trump’s other Interior-related order, which also is in litigation, would shrink the designated area to 1 million acres and break it up into three areas.

West of the town of Escalante and up against the edge of Bryce Canyon, the land has been stable long enough for grassland and pine forests to take root. Here I drive up a steep red-dirt road to a plateau with a 360-degree view, the sun setting over the varied landscape.

The stars illuminate my footsteps. In the distance is the ambient light of the avenue approaching Bryce Canyon and more distant towns. I hear the trailing thrum of airliner, carrying more people than I have seen pass by since afternoon, and I am alone in my mind game.


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Glimpses of genius in the Permian Basin


Hobby-Eberly Telescope

Couple days of wonder at human ingenuity on my journey from the Davis Mountains to Santa Fe. I’ll return later to the extraction industries of the Permian Basin and elsewhere in the west. For now, I focus on our exploration of the stars and one of our deepest caves.

Two fun facts stuck out during my tour of the McDonald Observatory near Ft. Davis, Texas. One: The known universe contains more stars than the earth has grains of sand. Two: The Carrington Event, a solar flare in 1859, so disrupted the earth’s magnetic field that a similar event today would, among other things, cause all our satellites, including the International Space Station, to fall out of orbit, to say nothing of what it would do to our terrestrial devices. Flares of that magnitude happen about every 150 years, so we’re due. (A little Googling found that a Big One occurred in 2012 but its magnetic-wave disruption went wide of the earth.)

My tour guide, Kelly, a liberal arts grad inspired by Carl Sagan as an eight-year old, ran off these and other stories of the sun and stars during a one-hour lecture, before taking us on a tour of two of the complex’s telescopes. The Harlan J. Smith Telescope (photo at top) was the third-largest in the world when it was built in 1968. We got close enough to touch it, but not look through it, as the day was windy and dusty.

Then we peered at the 20-year-old Hobby-Eberly Telescope, which uses a web of interlocking hexagons 10 meters wide for spectroscopy, the decoding of light waves from stars and galaxies. Astronomers use it to search for planets, exploding stars and black holes. After a renovation now underway, the HET will be used to study dark energy, the force that’s thought to be behind the observation that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate.

Slide1The observatory originated as a bequest in 1926 from a bachelor banker from Paris, Texas, who thought what his state needed was a telescope. So W.J. McDonald willed $1.3 million to the University of Texas, which had no astronomy department. After a five-year legal battle with McDonald’s distant relatives, who argued that McDonald didn’t know the value of money and that astronomy was a waste of it, U.T. partnered with the University of Chicago to build and staff the observatory for the next 30 years, until U.T. was competent to take over. Astronomers travel from all over the world to work its eight telescopes for free.

During the lecture, Kelly asked us whether, with all those stars and planets out there, did we think any of them were home to intelligent life. Some of us raised our hands yes, others no. Some neither, a category into which Kelly said he fell, because, “that’s the only logical, scientific answer: we have no evidence.”

The next afternoon, I stopped in Roswell, New Mexico, home of all those little green space aliens, to see what I might learn. Dropping in at a used book store run by friends of the library, the guy at the front desk said he didn’t believe in aliens. Well, I scolded him, that doesn’t help the chamber of commerce. Fortunately, just then the director of the chamber walked through the door. She sent me off to a curios shop and the city museum.


Robert Goddard’s 1938 rocket lifted 3200 feet and returned via parachute he had designed

At the museum was the reconstructed workshop, with original tools, of scientist Robert Goddard, who began experimenting with rockets in the 1920s in the desert outside town. Charles Lindbergh helped him get a $200,000 grant from the Guggenheim Foundation (the U.S. military wasn’t interested), and Goddard worked there until 1941 perfecting rocket designs. The Nazis promptly appropriated them to terrorize London with the V-2. Goddard’s work wasn’t recognized until after his death in 1945, though he had been awarded 214 patents (the first in 1914) and is now considered the inventor of rocket propulsion.


In the morning I had benefited from another kind of visionary: those who mapped Carlsbad Caverns. After a National Geographic survey, Calvin Coolidge designated the cavern a national monument, and Congress made it a national park in 1930. On peak holidays, 5,000 people a day walk through its natural opening or ride the elevator more than 700 feet into the earth.

On my two-hour stroll from surface through a loop, I thought about all the people and all their labor to make my visit easy. As in many other parks, FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps was there at the start, hauling the cement and everything else to create a path that engineers had designed for us to experience. I pay a few pennies in federal taxes and an $80 annual pass to support the park system.

A banker in Texas, a physicist in New Mexico, bureaucrats in Washington. Nearly a century ago, visionaries pushed our boundaries, focused on benefits not only to fellow Americans but to the world. I like to think that, despite the smallness of our current political moment, individuals like McDonald and Goddard are dreaming of worlds unknown, seeking to expand our consciousness and that their efforts will be recognized in due time.

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