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Zion National Park

We had heard great things about Zion National Park and it delivered! Prior to visiting, I thought it was over-hyped and wasn’t expecting too much but I sure was wowed. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been and near the top of the best experiences of our trip so far.  We spent almost all our time hiking so I decided to rank the hikes we did from least exciting to my new favorite hike.

Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.

5.) Riverside Walk

We had really been hoping to backpack the Narrows – a hike through a very narrow canyon which is considered the best hike at Zion and one of the best hikes in the whole country. Back in March, when the permits became available, we stopped at a McDonalds somewhere between Houston and San Antonio to ensure we got one of the limited number of overnight permits.

Found this on the internet since I didn’t see it in person

Unfortunately, the snow fall was extra high this year, resulting in a large spring run-off, leaving the Narrows closed until weeks after we visited Zion.  We settled for the Riverside Walk – a path that leads to the mouth of the Canyon, so I could at least see the start of the legendary trail (Zach had done a day hike in the Narrows when he came to Zion a few years ago with his family).

 I didn’t take any pictures of  the Riverside Walk but here’s our really cool campsite

Not that I was expecting much, but the Riverside Walk was a letdown.  Being the easiest trail in Zion, the path was full of strollers, elderly tourists and people blocking the way to take pictures of every squirrel.  I would avoid this hike unless you’re continuing onto the Narrows (which I plan on returning to the park to do).

And here’s the really cool coffee shop we worked from

4.) Emerald Pools

We fell a bit behind on blogging.  It’s been over a month since we were in Zion and it that time I’ve forgotten all but a few distinguishing details about the Emerald Pools.  It’s one of those hikes that would be amazing if it was in Ohio but gets overshadowed in a place like Zion.  There were some waterfalls, an emerald pool and, most excitingly, a rattlesnake!

The ranger said it might be a gopher snake, but I’m going with rattler

If you’re looking for a shorter, family friendly hike lacking scary cliff edges, this is the one for you.  Otherwise hit it up if you have an hour or two to kill (we fit it in between work and dinner on Friday).

3.) Angels’ Landing

You know a park has some great trails when Angel’s Landing is ranked third on your list of best hikes. The five-mile hike starts off modestly enough, but after reaching Scout’s Landing, which itself has spectacular views, it quickly becomes very strenuous.  Narrow, steep, with thousand feet drop offs on each side, it is not for those frightening of heights.

Heading up the spine of the landing

Neither Zach nor I are fans of heights but after turning around on a hike in Mount St Helens two summers ago due to the fear, I vowed to never again quit a hike because of heights.  But multiple people have died from failing off the trail, including someone a few weeks before our visit, so I was nervous but determined.

Zach getting close to the edge

The trail was more crowded than I would have preferred, especially given its narrowness. In the upper section, there are chains to hold on to in the more treacherous sections.  But with people moving both ways, someone must let go of the chains to get around the other.  Usually I opted to stand there and let them go around.

 Using the chains

All in all, it wasn’t as frightening as I expected and the views were amazing from the top.  There were some over friendly chipmunks which climbed into my lap to get the almonds I was eating and even went as far as biting my hand.  I, as a rule-abider and a believer that wild animals should find their own food, followed the signs saying not to feed the animals, and refused to share.

Vulturous chipmunk

I would strongly recommend Angels Landing to anyone visiting the park. I think any relative fit person without a debilitating fear of heights can do it. The hike is challenging without requiring any special skills and the views from the top are first class.

 Angels Landing!

 

2.) Observation Point/Hidden Canyon

 Observation Point is an 8-mile roundtrip hike with quite a bit of elevation gain.  The trail winds its way up the canyon before reaching a spectacular observation point.  You have a great view of Angels Landing, nearly a thousand feet below.

Angels Landing is the rock formation in the middle of the canyon

At the top, I talked to a guy that had done the previous year’s Ohio 70.3, which I had also raced.  While it’s by no means a small race, it was crazy to see a fellow compactor on the other side of the country.  We took the long way down, detouring into Hidden Canyon.  Along the way there were more chains, steep drop offs and great views.

So many cool rock formations

I deliberated for a while rather to rank Angels Landing or Observation Point higher on the list, but in the end, I went with this hike.  Angels Landing is very-hyped, rightfully so, but Observation Point has more stunning views and is longer with more elevation gain. It’s a leg-burner but I would highly recommend hiking it if you have the time.

My favorite picture from the weekend

1.) The Subway

This was our consolation prize for not being able to do the Narrows.  And it is my new favorite hike.  Only eighty permits are given a day, and we were luckily enough to get two.  There isn’t a trail but rather you follow a river upstream, crossing it uncountable times, navigating through boulders and climbing waterfalls.

Hiking up a waterfall

I love water, climbing over rocks and trail blazing and this hike had it all!

Writing super short paragraphs so I can fit more pictures

The titular subway is difficult to describe so here’s a picture:

The Subway!

There were pools of water at the end which extended the trail by about 100 feet so they weren’t necessary to swim in but we wanted to do it all.  They were very cold but we sat in the sun afterward to dry off and eat some snacks.

Swimming Pools (of chilly water)

Because the Subway requires a permit, it requires so planning ahead but I would highly recommend anyone traveling to Zion to at least attempt to get one.  They become available a few months ahead of time so be proactive!

Zach’s trail name is ‘The Trashman’

Since this blog took a really long time to write, I’ve created our Utah video in the meantime

Medford

There are a few things I miss about Columbus – the free lunches at work, the ability to drive home for the weekend, and Hounddog’s Pizza. But my favorite thing to do in Columbus, hanging out with Tyler and Whitney, wouldn’t have been possible even if we had stayed in C-Bus.  Zach’s brother Tyler and his family moved out to Medford, Oregon in December and we went from seeing them almost weekly, to not seeing them for months.  Since our springtime travels in the southwest weren’t taking us near Oregon, we left Lucy in the Las Vegas airport oversized parking lot and flew up to Oregon.

Oregon has so many waterfalls!

It was great to see Tyler, Whitney, Sage and June again.  Our first weekend, we explored the town of Medford, stopping by the local Comic-Con and eating at a local brewery.  After lunch, Zach, Tyler, and I biked up the local mountain, Roxyann Butte.  As a cautious rider, I enjoyed the way up, on a wide gradual road, much more than the way down, on a narrow, steep, rocky trail.  I rode my brakes the entire time and the guys spent most of their time waiting for me.

Biking up the mountain

On Sunday, we travelled south to hike Pilot Rock.  Our driver missed the turn and we ended up in California for a few minutes before turning around (our 13th state of the trip!).  The hike started out easily enough but soon became difficult due to steep, icy sections of trail.  Considering we had a baby and a four-year-old with us, things went relatively well.  The trail ended at the actual Pilot Rock, a very steep volcano plug.  Whitney and I headed down with the kids while Zach and Tyler made the treacherous climb to the top.

Zach and Tyler made it to the top of Pilot Rock

Unfortunately, we all had to work during the week but still managed to find time for fun.  Their house had the perfect backyard for croquet.  We got a little creative with the course setup which made an antiquated English game relevant again.  We also went to multiple wineries, including one within walking distance from their house.

Great wine, food, and company!

Nearly every night we played a game after the kids went to bed.  I love board games but there’s not a ton of great options for two players.  Luckily, Tyler likes games almost as much as me and we could usually convince Zach and Whitney to play with us. Euchre, Super Smash Brothers, Mario Party, Pirate’s Cove and my favorite, Agricola were all played multiple times throughout the week.

No picture of us playing games, so one of me and the Rogue River instead

My imagination and creativity were stretched playing Superhero Princesses with Sage. We both fought girl-eating giants and made macaroni-and-cheese soup for the prince.  I liked to think I was one of June’s favorites back in Ohio but she always seemed to cry when I was around.  Even though she may not like me, she’s still one of my favorites.

June liked Zach a lot more than me

The second weekend in Medford, we headed north.  Unfortunately, all the hikes we had planned were still closed due to snow so we headed to Crater Lake National Park. There was so much snow there – I was surprised it was open!

SO MUCH SNOW

The lake was breathtakingly beautiful and we didn’t let the piles of snow keep us from hiking.  There were obviously no trails visible so we followed the general rim of the lake, throwing snow balls, climbing up snow mounds and trying to jump as deep as possible into the snow.  Since we spent the past few months in the south, we hadn’t seen any snow.  I love winter so I was very happy to finally be surrounded by snow.

Crater Lake National Park

Before we knew it, Monday had arrived and it was time to fly back.  We had a great time visiting in Medford and are already trying to fit another visit in this fall. Thanks for hosting us Tyler and Whitney!

The Grand Canyon

For months, my brother Matt had been planning, preparing and convincing others to join him for a Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim in the Grand Canyon.  The R3, as the experts call it, entails starting at one rim of the canyon, running down to the river, up the other rim and then turning around and running back.  It ends up being about 48 miles with over 10,000 feet of climbing.  He talked my dad and our two friends, Will and Geoff, to join him.  They picked a weekend in April, late enough that the water spigots along the trail were turned on but before it got too hot, and we planned our trip around meeting them at the park and hanging out with my mom while the guys went on their adventure.

The grandest of all canyons

Apparently, the way we hang out in my family is by going on 18 mile hikes.  Not wanting to seem too lazy compared to the others, we decided to hike down to the river and back (a Rim-to-River-to-Rim if you want).  Although there were many signs warning against doing the hike in a day, we felt fairly confident we could make it, especially considering it was well under half of what the rest of the group was doing.

One of many signs warning us against going to the river in a day

We woke at 4 the morning of the hike and headed to the South Kaibab trailhead.  The guys needed an early start to beat the heat and the mules and, with nothing better to do, we took to the trail then as well.  The first hour was dark; we stumbled along with our headlamps before we were blessed with an amazing sunrise.  Zach and I had arrived after dark the night before so this was our first sighting of the canyon (excluding the previous times we had been to the park.)

The first glimpse of sun

The way down was so pleasant that we even decided to run some of it.  The canyon itself is the major draw for the park but seeing the Colorado River was amazing.  It was absolutely beautiful and I felt very accomplished for getting myself there (and soon to be back up) on my own two legs. Millions upon millions of people have seen the Grand Canyon but not many have crossed the Colorado River within. 

Crossing the Colorado!

After getting some coffee from Phantom Ranch and filling up on water, we headed back up via Bright Angel Trail.  As expected, the way up was much more exhausting than the way down.  It was also much more crowded, as it was now a reasonable time for hiking.  We took lots of breaks, ate plenty of snacks and tried to keep a lively conversation going.  It got pretty rough near the end but we all made it up in a decent state of mind.

Looking back at how far we’ve come

We had just enough time to take the shuttle to our car, shower and eat some food before we headed back to the trailhead to wait for the guys to finish.  At just about the time I was starting to worry, they made it back.  All were in great spirits considering what they had just accomplished.   We celebrated the successful day with eating pizza, watching basketball, and going to sleep early.

Happy to be done!

The next day, as my family headed back to Phoenix to fly out, we headed to Coconino National Forest.  On the way, we stopped to pick up the essentials for our camper – some plates, bowls, cups, a broom, a trashcan and some beer.  We spent the week at a campsite smack dab between Sedona and Flagstaff.  Although it had no electricity or water, it was a beautiful, secluded site that allowed us to become acquainted with our new home.

The road between Sedona and Flagstaff

Zach succeeded in backing it into the spot in less than ten attempts and we managed to set it up without it rolling away or breaking anything.  We took the next few nights to move our things from the car to the camper and figure out how everything worked.

Our first campsite with our camper!

While we weren’t working, organizing or sleeping, we were able to fit in a hike and try some of the world’s best chile relleno (as recommended by Zach’s mom).  Before we knew it, we were heading to the Las Vegas airport.  Staying in Sedona had been a spontaneous decision (we were originally supposed to spend the week in Las Vegas) and we look forward to returning to enjoy more time among the beautiful red rocks of Sedona.

 

Phoenix

After wrapping up our two-week stint in Tucson, it was off to Phoenix. And, to be honest, I was looking forward to this stop least of our first months on the road. “What is there to do in Phoenix?” I prodded Liz. “Tons” she replied. And, as it turned out, we found enough to keep entertained. In retrospect, I shouldn’t be surprised, having grown up on Ohio entertainment for years.

A Phoenix sunset

It helped that our stay was broken into two pieces – a sandwich – with Phoenix serving as the sourdough bread around a hearty helping of Las Vegas roast beef and old commune mustard. The bottom slice was thin – a Tuesday thru Thursday in which we played bar trivia and recouped from our past weekend in the Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns.

Eating an actual sandwich

On Thursday, my 26th birthday, Liz and I headed up to Las Vegas to catch Bon Iver at the Hard Rock Café and Casino. It was Liz’s first time in Nevada, and, by extension, Las Vegas. In a city known for its entertainment – I didn’t expect we would be part of the show. However, leaving the casino hotel the next morning, we gave a man, self-proclaimed to have “traveled millions of miles” a good laugh. I guess I didn’t think anything of lugging our milk crate clothes cartons through the casino floor – but he claimed it was a first and insisted on a picture.

Cartons of clothes and this is what he wears

Friday night, we moved up The Strip to the iconic Mirage. After indulging in the unlimited beer and wine buffet, we took part in the cities most well know tradition – throwing our money at the casino fat cats. The next morning, not feeling I had done my part, I laid down two hundred clams on the Toronto Raptors to win the finals.

The Mirage

On the way out of town, we swung by the best dam site of our trip yet – the Hoover Dam. We didn’t have time to dilly-dally though as we had strict reservations that night at a run-down commune, Arcosanti. The ‘village’ didn’t disappoint. I booked the night because, after all, the goal of the trip was to not only see as much of the good ol’ US of A as possible, but to also experience its cultural breadth. The experimental town has about 60 permanent residents who live in and around a small complex of buildings designed by architect Paolo Soleri. The night we stayed, a surprisingly enjoyable drum show – a combination of both Japanese and Native American performers – pounded through the towns amphitheater.

Arcosanti

The next morning, Easter Sunday, we headed back to Phoenix, driving directly to the Musical Instrument Museum. I think both Liz and I were thoroughly impressed with the museum’s collection – over 16,000 different instruments from around the world. Accompanying the instruments was a unique audio tour which played clips of music, native to the country’s exhibit you were standing near, into your headset.

An Octobass

Later that week we saw the XX, one of Liz’s favorite bands, perform is Mesa. The next day we met up with Matt and Will – who had just flown into town to run the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim that weekend. And, after grabbing dinner with the two, met up with Liz’s parents who had just arrived in town.

~musical interlude~

 

The Sunday we got back to Phoenix, our laundry had been piling up and it was time to finally break down and run a few loads through the wash. While this had never been an issue in past accommodations – and the listing indicated a washer/dryer were available – we were in for a rude surprise when later that evening our ‘host’ lectured us for several minutes, repeating that we were to ‘not touch his stuff.’ It’s kind of hard not to touch someone’s stuff when you’re living in their house.

After that incident, we circled back on a conversation we had discussed for weeks prior to setting off on our journey, and ultimately decided it was time to buy a travel trailer. The past few spare bedroom’s we stayed in were off-putting. And, while we enjoyed the full-units we had occupied, we couldn’t afford to stay in one all the time.

So, most of our second week in Phoenix was spent discussing, planning and eventually purchasing a camper trailer. Up to this point we had been living in Airbnb’s. For those unfamiliar with the concept – Airbnb is a platform that allows folks with spare rooms, or even houses, to rent them out on a nightly basis to others. While the cost of renting an entire house or even hotel room can be very high – we had been able to afford the much lower rate usually charged by renting a spare bedroom (often around $50 a night.)

Once we made up our mind to buy a trailer, we hit the gas, checking out a few used trailers the first night, and buying a new one the next day. This sudden change of plans flipped the table on our months of planning. We had Airbnb’s reserved through the better part of the next three months. Luckily, most Airbnb’s have a pretty lax cancelation policy and we received almost all our deposits back.

Our new home!

Time will tell, but up to this point I haven’t regretted the purchase yet. That is, barring a few fleeting moments after I managed to shave its side on a gas station pump barrier the day we got it.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Leaving Tucson, we headed back to Texas for our third weekend of backpacking in a row.  We originally planned on hitting up Guadalupe Mountains National Park on our way to Tucson but we hurried over to Arizona to meet up with our parents.  Although this added a bit of driving, we both like car rides and had a lot of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to listen to. 

An accidental selfie on the way to Texas

We spent Thursday night in El Paso and woke up early on Friday to drive the remaining ninety minutes to Guadalupe Mountains. After stopping by the visitor’s center to pick up our backpacking permits, we started hiking up McKittrick Canyon.  The first four miles were relatively flat and the trail was more of a path.  We stopped by Pratt Cabin, built in the 1920’s, and the Grotto, an interesting rock formation.

Hiking up McKittrick Canyon

After the Grotto the trail drastically increased in difficulty and we quickly gained a lot of elevation.  The coolest part of the hike was a spot called the Notch.  We had been climbing switchbacks, only able to see the mountain ahead and then all of sudden it opened up into a beautiful canyon.

The Notch

From the Notch to the campsite the trail continued to be narrow and steep.  At one point my feet got tangled up in a plant and I tripped hard.  Luckily, I fell straight forward, otherwise I could have rolled right off the cliff side.

Happy I didn’t fall off the trail

We spent the night at a campsite near the top of the mountain. We played some cribbage and saw a skunk which inspired us to move campsites.  The next morning we woke early and hiked the eight miles back down to our car.  After a quick lunch and refilling of water, we headed up Guadalupe Peak.  Although only four miles to the top, it climbed nearly 3,000 feet and we had tired legs from climbing the equivalent amount the day before.

Sunrise on the mountainside

We set up camp a mile from the top and tried to take a nap but it was so windy we spent the whole time worrying our tent was going to blow away with us in it!  After turning it 90 degrees and tying it down better, we left and headed to the peak.  Although it was no Big Bend, the top had some pretty good views – after all, it’s the highest point in Texas.

Very windy on the top

I was proud of our tent for making it through a windy night.  At some points I wasn’t sure it would but we brought it down the mountain in one piece.  From Guadalupe, across the New Mexico border to Carlsbad Caverns, our second National Park of the weekend.

Aliens all over the place in New Mexico

There are two options at Carlsbad Caverns, either take the elevator to the Big Room, one of the largest cave chambers in the country, or enter through the natural entrance and walk about a mile to the Big Room.  We opted for taking the long way through the natural entrance.  It was nice to see more of the cave but I was very hungry by the time we made it out, as snacks are not allowed in the cave.

I call this the Cauliflower Tree Formation

After eating a much anticipated meal, we drove a scenic drive that wasn’t too scenic and then headed back towards El Paso.  We had a great weekend but were ready for a week of relaxing.  If you’re into caves or have never been to one, Carlsbad Caverns is a cool place.  And although Guadalupe Mountains was more beautiful than I was expecting, if you’re in the area and looking for an outdoor experience, it’s worth the 4 hr drive to get to Big Bend.

Austin

We drove into the Austin city limits Friday morning with a mixed sense of excitement and tension. For months now, Liz and I had poured over the schedule, searching and researching for the best bands, the most captivating talks, and the markedly interesting films. In the months leading up to SXSW (South By Southwest) new events were added nearly daily – making combing through a single day’s schedule take well over an hour. With so many events going on, spread across dozens of venues downtown, I knew I would have a constant fear of missing out on the best event at any one time.

SXSW

The fear of missing out probably peaked Friday morning, as we waited, first in the badge pickup line, and then in the Express pass line to get guaranteed seats for an upcoming film starring Sam Eliot and Nick Offerman. It was in this time I also planned on attending my first session – a talk on machine learning and how artificial intelligence would change the world. Luckily –  as I would learn over the next week – discussions on artificial intelligence were not in short supply.

Ron Swanson!

Both Liz and I were afforded the opportunity to attend SXSW thanks to the generosity of our employer, CoverMyMeds, who footed the bill for our registration. And, thanks to their contribution and the fact that the rest of our co-workers were carrying on with their daily tasks, we felt obligated to attend industry-relevant talks during work hours. However, as I quickly learned, not a whole lot can be gained from an hour long talk. If you’re able to give a several sentence descriptions on the matter beforehand – it’s likely you won’t be getting much out of the talk. Instead, I found, by attending sessions only very loosely related to my daily work routine I was able to expand my horizons and get surface exposure to new topics like legal discourse when growing a technology company.

Lots of free food if you knew where to look

SXSW had more to offer than countless talks on artificial intelligence and healthcare meetups though. Over 1200 bands flocked to the city in the course of the festival – meaning every bar on 6th street had a full lineup. In the months leading up to SXSW, both Liz and I listened to countless new bands – trying to figure out what shows to attend. Unfortunately, many of the acts we already knew like Langhorn Slim, Spoon, and Sylvan Esso seemed to play at midnight or later. However, we were able to find plenty of new favorites that played at reasonable times – my favorite being Temples. We did make it to one big name – Garth Brooks. While I wouldn’t classify myself as a boot scootin’ cowboy, Garth playing nothing but his hits for nearly two hours was undoubtedly my favorite part of SXSW. Who knew I had the words to so many of his songs memorized?

Front row for Lewis Del Mar

After the conclusion of SXSW, we still had nearly a week to check out the area beyond the few square miles the conference covered. While we spent some of the time recouping, we still kept busy. Sunday, for example, we took a tour of Lyndon B Johnson’s family ranch, hiked Pedernales State Park, and met up with my cousin, Michael, who treated us to mucho Mexican food at Chuys.

River crossing in Pedernales State Park

To anyone thinking about visiting Austin, I’d highly recommend it! Be sure to hit up Zilker, a picturesque park next to downtown that boasts hiking trails, running paths, and a unique swimming pool built into the nearby creek. After you’ve built up an appetite, fill up with the bar-b-que Austin is known for or Chilatro – a mouth water Korean bar-b-que option.

Barton Springs

My only regret is not being in town for Austin City Limits. I guess we’ll just have to make our way back to Austin again sometime (on our way back to Big Bend).

Tucson

Although sad to leave Big Bend, we had a lot to look forward to in Tucson! Both my mom and Zach’s parents would be there for our first week in the city.  My mom was in town for a triathlon camp put on by Dimond (the company my brother works for) and the Serafini’s came out to Arizona to check out the desert (and see us).

The Cymanski-Serafini gang

We got a very nice house for all of us to stay in.  It had a large yard and a swimming pool which was a bit too cold to swim in.  We each did our own things during the day and then spent the evenings together.  Zach and I spent our days working.  Don and Lori spent their days sightseeing.  My mom spent her days swimming, biking and running.  I was lucky enough to take an extra-long lunch break and swim with her one day.  My mom will forever be my favorite swimming partner.

My first time swimming in 7+ months

Although Arizona is in the mountain time zone, it doesn’t observe daylight’s saving so we were three hours behind the east coast.  That meant waking up before 6 am and as anyone who knows me knows, I’m not a morning person.  The upside to getting an early start is that we were done working around 2 pm, leaving us plenty of daylight for exploring.

Hiking in Saguaro National Park after work

Our first week in Tucson went by way too quickly and before I knew it, my mom was heading back to Ohio.  Luckily I knew I would be seeing her in a month so goodbye wasn’t too bad.  Don and Lori stuck around for the weekend and we all went backpacking in Saguaro National Park.

A big (and old) saguaro!

It was nice to backpack with people.  As much as I like Zach, it was fun to have others to talk to and play Euchre with.  Excluding a minor mishap where the water filter wasn’t working (we luckily had brought enough water with us that we didn’t need to filter any) it was a very successful trip.  The saguaro’s really are magnificent.

It got chilly up on the mountain

We took advantage of the next week in Tucson to relax.  We had backpacked the past two weekends and were planning on backing the next weekend as well, so we needed some down time.  We still managed to explore Tucson – visiting the Sonora Desert Museum, driving up Mt. Lemmon and going on a few trail runs.  We got dinner with Vasanth, a CoverMyMeds co-worker who recently moved to Tucson, and his fiancé.

It was tough driving up Mt. Lemmon – I can’t believe my mom rode her bike up it!

Since before we started the trip, the background on my phone has been a picture very similar to the header photo for this post.   I was super excited for the Southwest and Tucson delivered.  It’s a beautiful city, surrounded by mountains and countless varieties of cacti.  We had a relaxing, nature-filled two weeks and were able to spend quality time with family.  What more could you ask for?

Big Bend National Park

Big Bend left me speechless so it’s going to be difficult to find the words to describe both the beauty and vastness of its endless rocky desert.  I loved loved loved Big Bend.  I already miss it and am trying to think of ways to fit another visit into our schedule.  Beforehand, I hadn’t put much thought into the park and, although excited, was more looking forward to the bigger name parks further west. But Big Bend blew me away and I think that everyone should make the trek to southwest Texas to experience it for themselves.

Welcome to Big Bend National Park!

We took Friday off of work to give us more time in the very remote park.  It’s about a 7 hour drive from Austin so we drove most of the way on Thursday night and woke early on Friday to travel the remaining hours into the park. We got there just as the visitor’s center was opening in order to get one of the limited numbers of backpacking permits.

Chisos Mountains in the distance

With permit in hand and national park passport stamped, we headed out to the trailhead.  Our backpacking site was only about 7 miles in so we did a 5 mile warm up hike.  The Lost Mines trail had some amazing panoramas (even if they were nothing compared to what we would see later).  It seemed like around every corner was an even better view than before.

Top of the Lost Mines trail

After a quick lunch, we loaded up our packs and headed into the Chisos Mountains.  Between a good bit of elevation gain and the mid-day desert sun beating down, the route was pretty challenging.  But the surroundings made thoughts of complaining evaporate.   At the time, I knew the pictures wouldn’t do it justice, but looking at them afterwards, they don’t even come close.  Just imagine something hundreds of times more amazing than these pictures.

Taking a break at the south rim of Boot Canyon

We spent the night at a windy, secluded campsite at around 7400 ft (not too high by Rocky Mt. standards but it was by far the highest I’ve ever slept outside).  We left our cards in the car and with the temperature quickly dropping we went to bed around 7pm, a not uncommon practice for us while backpacking.

Amazing views around every corner

The next morning, we got moving early and climbed up Mount Emery, the highest point in the park. The peak was a bit harrowing. Both Zach and I have acrophobia, and there was not much wiggle room at the top.  I was glad we got an early start (I think we were the first people to make it up) because we saw a lot of people heading up the mountain as we were heading down.  The peak seemed like too small of a space for just Zach and I; I can’t imagine being up there with a crowd.

Scaring Zach by sitting at the edge of Emory Peak

Once we made it back to the car, we were ready to be done with hiking for the day so we headed out to the dirt roads of Big Bend.  Zach was excited to take the 4Runner on some roads that would require 4-wheel drive.  We drove for hours and saw only one other car.  It was bumpy, beautiful ride.

The 4Runner was in desperate need of a wash by the end of the weekend

We headed south to the Rio Grande Village (which is not a village at all, just a campground).  The Rio Grande is not very grand.  Just considering the river and not the surroundings, I think the Cuyahoga is just as deserving of the adjective.  But I was able to throw a rock into Mexico which was pretty cool!

Just an average looking river (and Mexico on the other side)

We had read that the hot springs were a good place to watch the sunset so we headed there next.  The springs were by far the most crowded area of the weekend and you couldn’t see the sunset but it was a fun time and we got to talk to some interesting people.  The spring were … hot so we ended up spending more time in the river than the springs.

Can you find Zach?

It took an hour and a half to drive the 13 miles of dirt roads back to our campsite.  This was a blessing in disguise because it made us stay up well past sunset.  The stars at Big Bend were out of this world (literally).  My phone’s camera was not able to capture their magnificence (I tried unsuccessfully) but the cover photo for this blog is an accurate depiction of what we saw.

Our very remote campsite – we were the only people for miles

The next day we took the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to the far southwest corner of the park.  While the views weren’t as breathtaking as the ones day before, they weren’t too shabby.

Our final destination was the Santa Elena Canyon.  The canyon is kind of like a wider version of the Narrows at Zion.  You’re not hiking up the river but the walls rise up on both side for hundreds and hundreds of feet.  They only have one short hike here but I was glad as my legs were feeling quite tired from the backpacking.

Even closer to Mexico than yesterday!

Like every time I am outside, I was hoping for a bear sighting, but once again, no luck.  We did see some javelinas (they look like pigs but are not that closely related), jackrabbits, a coyote (from the car), and lots of birds and lizards.

Some javelinas – also known as skunk pigs or peccaries

As I stated in the opening paragraph, I absolutely loved Big Bend.  But Trump’s wall could soon be the newest addition to the park.  Because the federal government already owns the land, it would be one of the first places construction would start.  I oppose the wall for a litany of reasons but I don’t know how anyone, no matter their political beliefs, could think that a wall should be built along the southern border of the park.  In addition to ruining the amazing views, it would have a harsh impact on tourism in the area and, most importantly,  could harm the hundred of plant and animal species who call the region (both the US and Mexico sides) home. Here is a well written and interesting article, if you want to read more.

San Antonio

Friday afternoon we headed west from New Orleans.  The original plan for the weekend was to go backpacking at Big Thicket National Preserve but there were some problems logistically and I read some disturbing stats on venomous snakes in the area.  I grew up a very nervous child, afraid of snakes, spiders, house fires, burglars, the dark, etc.  I’ve mostly outgrown those fears, mainly by forcing myself into uncomfortable situations, but the Houston Space Center provided a good excuse for skipping the snake infested thicket of Eastern Texas.

Space Center Houston

Being an astronaut had been a pipe dream of mine until I watched Gravity and swore off space travel.  After visiting the Space Center, I had a change of heart; if NASA came to me and said they needed me to go to Mars, I would.  From Saturn V, the tallest, heaviest, and most powerful rocket ever to operate to the Boeing 747 that flew  space shuttles across the country on its back, there were some pretty awe-inspiring artifacts at the center.

Saturn V – 363 feet tall, 3.5 million pounds

In addition to visiting all 59 National Parks, we’re trying to stop by other areas owned by the National Park Service. So, on Sunday, we headed to the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park (NPS manages 417 pieces of land so we won’t be getting to all of them any time soon).  The Spanish built 5 missions in the San Antonio area in the early 1700’s to keep the French, English, and hostile Native Americans out of their territory.   We went on an informative, ranger-led tour of Mission San Jose but I felt a little deceived because only one small building is an original.  The rest are reconstructed based on what archeologists think it looked like.  I don’t understand how Europe has so many ancient buildings but we can’t even preserve buildings from the 1700’s.

The reconstructed San Jose Mission

We spent less than 5 days in San Antonio and a majority of the hours were spent working or sleeping so I didn’t get a great feel for the city.  We hit up the obvious attractions – the Alamo, the River Walk, Tower of the Americas but didn’t have time for much else.

San Antonio at night

The Alamo was okay but having already visited a mission, which I thought more interesting, it didn’t seem like something to nickname the city after.  I understand that it’s the spirit of the Alamo that is celebrated more so than the physical location.  But between the giant gift shop, the decrepit, empty church and the museum that was way too wordy, it was kind of a letdown.  It feels wrong to say less than positive things about a ‘Shrine to Texas Liberty’ but the Alamo wasn’t anything to write home about.

Unimpressed by the Alamo

The River Walk is a cool concept but there’s not much to it other than lots of restaurants and lots of tourists.  We got dinner at a TexMex restaurant which was nice enough. I was told I needed to take a boat tour to really get a feel for it, but I didn’t, so maybe that’s what I was missing.

The River Walk packed with tourists 

Tower of the Americas is San Antonio’s less iconic version of the Space Needle.  You can pay $12 for a ride to the observation deck or visit the restaurant at the top which has great views and allows you to go to the observation deck for free.  The Chart House Restaurant is a bit pricy for our budget but has some great happy hour deals that we took advantage of.   It’s no Sears Willis Tower (it’s the 27th tallest building in Texas; I saw it advertised as the tallest building in Texas outside of Dallas and Houston (only if you include its antenna)) but the views were good enough for me.

Not a bad view

If you’ve gotten to this point in the blog, it probably sounds like I have a pretty negative view of San Antonio.  And while I didn’t love the Alamo or the River Walk, I overall had a good time in the city, mostly thanks to our lodging.  All of our previous Airbnb’s had been a room in someone’s house, but here we had our own carriage house in the owner’s backyard.  The hardest part of the trip has been not having our own space, other than a bedroom, so it was really nice to have some room to spread out.

Homemade chicken and asparagus

Like I said earlier, we didn’t spend much time in San Antonio and I think that was a big contributor to my indifference to the city.  Luckily in our next three cities, Austin, Tucson, and Phoenix, we’ll be staying for two weeks each.

Mardi Gras

Well it’s been nearly three weeks since we’ve left New Orleans. I’ve found it a lot harder to keep pace with these updates than I thought it would be. Even though I’m writing half or less of em’, there’s just always so many other things to do. When you’re in a city for a week, sometimes less, every night not out absorbing as much as possible feels wasted. Yet, at the same time, without taking the time to stop and reflect it can easily become a blur. What were we doing a month ago? Heck, what did we do last night? Be warned – the rest of this post has been written almost three weeks and three cities ago, so its contents may be altered, misremembered, or flat out made up.

To say I didn’t plan part of the first few months of our trip around being in New Orleans over Mardi Gras would be a lie. After all, the goal of this trip, at least for myself, is to absorb the culture, beauty, and diversity of the United States from every angle and there aren’t many cultural events more iconic than Mardi Gras.

However, an unexpected pit-stop for an appendectomy in Mississippi left me ill equipped to handle the Bourbon Street crowds. Luckily, there’s more to the festival than the late night stupor. For weeks, parades close down streets and command throngs of tailgaters, much like an OSU game day in Columbus. Liz and I attended one of the parades, a several hour long stream of floats, each dedicated to a pop culture celebrity of the past, including Marilyn Monroe, Abe Lincoln, and Elvis. All faux celebrities threw beaded plastic necklaces in lieu of candy. Half way through, I had enough necklaces to cause a slight pain in the shoulders under their weight.

Beyond the parades, walking the French Quarter offered an unmatched opportunity for people watching. Coffee and beignets at Café Du Monde gave us a great vantage point to observe the hordes. Being new to town, Liz and I went plain-clothed, unaware most attend dressed head to toe in colorful and unique costumes (although given Liz’s aversions to Halloween, I doubt knowing would have made a difference in her dress.)

We tried to spend as much time as possible outside the confines of our rented room. Not only because we wanted to absorb as much of NOLA as possible, but also because the house made us a little uneasy. From the wheezing, homely, lap dog that stared us down while we ate, to the disheveled counters, it was hard to feel settled.

Looking back, I’m glad we included New Orleans in our itinerary, although I don’t feel a need to head back any time soon. To those looking to make the trip themselves, I’d recommend hitting up the NOLA classics; grabbing a coffee at Café Du Monde and strolling down Bourbon Street.