Thursday, August 13, 2009

Go West (Part II): Mother Nature…and Dairy Queen

“Vagabonding is about gaining the courage to loosen your grip on the so-called certainties of this world. Vagabonding is about refusing to exile travel to some other, seemingly more appropriate time of your life. Vagabonding is about taking control of your circumstances instead of passively waiting for them to decide your fate.” –Rolf Potts

It’s highly possible that we didn’t qualify as bona-fide vagabonds, but it was about as close as we could get in five-day’s worth of a road trip through a fraction of the southwest, lugging our bags in and out of a different motel each night, spending our days exhaustively exploring the stunning surroundings on foot.

Everywhere we went, my eyes drank in natural beauty that my mind could never put to words. A simple walk to a nondescript Mexican restaurant outside of Hurricane, UT had me staring at a backdrop of deep red bluffs and a mountain range basically sitting at the intersection of the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Plateau. As the cars zipped by us on a road that drivers made clear was not often frequented by pedestrians, I wondered if all these people saw what I saw, or have they been here so long that they don’t even see it anymore? Or perhaps, for some, it’s all they’ve ever seen?

We had inadvertently chosen some of the hottest days of the year to spend entirely outside. Despite our best efforts, morning running followed by coffee, breakfast, packing lunch for the day’s hikes, and driving to the next destination usually resulted in beginning each trek at just about noon. Brilliant. By then, temperatures were usually reaching more than 100 degrees—I’m fairly certain that we left about 95 percent of ourselves in sweat on some of the most scenic trails in Utah. I was also convinced that my water bottle was going to have to be surgically removed from my right hand in order to pass through airport security on the way home.

At Zion, we took on a trail that led to Observation Point—a round trip of 8 miles, including a steep ascent of 2,000 feet to the top of Mount Baldy, where you could see most of the attractions of the canyon and beyond. At Bryce, we fashioned a 6-mile route out of the Navajo Loop and Peekaboo Trail, through Queens Garden and up to Sunset Point. At Lake Powell, we cooled off in the water at Lone Rock, after touring Antelope Canyon, on the Navajo Reservation in Page, and visiting Horseshoe Bend, where a short hike ends on a cliff nearly 1,000 feet above the emerald-green Colorado River, just where it makes an astounding turn around yet another enormous sandstone-rock formation.

What we saw was, of course, amazing. At some points I was convinced we landed on a different planet. The mysterious hoodoos jutting straight up in the air at Bryce, the creams and pinks and reds of the sandstone cliffs against the brilliant blue skies at Zion, and the smooth, spiraling rock in the narrow slot Antelope Canyon were all equally breathtaking in surprisingly unique ways. And when I stopped to remind myself that they are all natural formations, it made them all that much more awe-inspiring. Reading a brief bit of Navajo history later on, it said that entering a place like Antelope Canyon was akin to going into a cathedral, where Native Americans could “leave with an uplifted feeling of what Mother Nature has to offer, and to be in harmony with something greater than themselves.”

Yes, that about sums it up.

When all was said and done each night—when we were finally settled in for some hard-earned sleep—I couldn’t help but think that the parts of the journey that will forever stay with me will include everything I couldn’t capture with my camera: The talks the three of us had on every trail, from silly to serious, to thought-provoking, to laughter-inducing (“Would you rather have to marry [insert name of the most horrible ex-boyfriend on the planet here] and spend the rest of your life with him, or be forced to eat four circus peanuts every day until you die?”); the spontaneous Aretha Franklin sing-a-long in the car driving out of Bryce; the rare moments of quiet when each of us seemed deep in our own heads (or, um, tagging photos on Facebook...); the daily peanut butter-and-jelly lunch breaks on the trails; my solo early morning runs, when I discovered serene parts of the world I convinced myself that nobody else has ever seen; the sweet, sweet relief of sitting in that cold stream at Zion after the hottest, sweatiest hike ever; finally finding that perfectly tart lemonade I had been fantasizing about for days; parking lot yoga; and two words that the three of us will never be able to utter again without laughing: Dairy Queen (ever notice that the one time you’re actually craving it, you can’t find one to save your life, further proving the theory that we always want what we can’t have…?).

Before it was time to head to Flagstaff and bid farewell to Alissa, we had one last night to celebrate it all, in the metropolis of Page. What happens when you combine three exhausted women, iTunes, a couple of bottles of wine, and a motel called…ready?...Debbie’s Hideaway? Yeah. Stay tuned.

(To be continued…)

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Go West (Part I): Three Girls, a Prius, and a Running Retreat

I was ready to lose myself. On the trails. In the mountains. Through the canyons. Running. Hiking. Walking. Swimming. Sitting. Giggling. Talking. Listening. Watching. Contemplating. Learning. Loving. I just wanted to lose myself. In all of it. In an adventure.

The plane touched down in 107-degree Las Vegas that Wednesday afternoon, and as I patiently waited for my bag to make its way back to me, the inevitable fogginess of airplane travel quickly lifted, replaced by giddy excitement for the 10 days ahead. I’d see things I never saw. I’d meet people I never knew. I’d think about things I never considered. I’d be challenged and humbled. I’d be amused and awed. I’d be tired and rejuvenated. I’d be completely grossed out by more than one hotel-room comforter.

I couldn’t wait.

Part One of this expedition was a journey across the Nevada border, into southern Utah to explore Zion, Bryce, and then northern Arizona’s Lake Powell, before two of us planted ourselves in Flagstaff for Part Two: a week-long running retreat. Alissa pulled up to the airport curb, KC and I loaded our bags into the back of the trusty Prius, and we took off down the Strip, toward the highway east. We were on our way, already engrossed in about 15 different conversations before we even hit the fountains in front of the Bellagio.

It didn’t take long until we lost track of time. Literally. Three cell phones, a watch, and the car clock couldn’t agree on a time zone. One was still on Eastern. Another on Pacific. And yet another declared Mountain. And if you’ve ever experienced a trek across the Nevada-Utah-Arizona region, you can commiserate. It took three women with a plethora of higher-education degrees among them, a Google search, and one comical call home to a confused brother back in New York to figure it out.

Not that it mattered. It seemed we really had nothing but time on our hands—the way vacation always feels in the beginning. It’s liberating, being off the clock and out of touch for a little while.

And there is something about heading west that instantly relaxes my mind and puts me at an ease I rarely achieve in my everyday eastern existence. Maybe it’s the mountains. My eyes can never get enough of them. I stare and admire and gawk and I never tire of their majesty. They make me feel so small, in every good way possible—in a way that the concrete and steel monstrosities of the city never could. I look at the peaks and want to run to the top of every one of them in search of whatever’s up there, and to look through clouds at the towns below, making up stories in my mind about what’s going on down there. Mountains give me fresh perspective and imagination and curiosity. I can’t get enough.

And so we began on our journey unaware of what it would become. What conversations would be had, what mysteries we'd solve, which sites would be seen, what characters we’d encounter, which stories we’d tell when it was all over, and which ones would remain our little secrets.

It was the perfect summer excursion: Three Girls, a Prius, and a Running Retreat. Enjoy the ride.

(To be continued...)