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It’s Better Outside

Firmly standing after strong winds. Passed the test!
Firmly standing after strong winds. Passed the test!

Still believing that the storm had been blown away; after all everyone kept around me kept saying that “the weather changes rather quickly here”, I drove to Amarillo to hang out at a coffee shop. Later on that evening I heard some loud noises coming from outside and I asked what was that? The wind! – replied Dan. The first thing that came to mind was the cliff-side meandering road in the canyon. I must admit that I got weary about driving back to my campsite. Then it dawned to me that this was the first test for the tent and to my tent pitching skills; I had no idea if it would be still standing when I arrived at the site. I drove back to the canyon with the reassurance that if the windy conditions on the road turned out to be threatening and I wanted to turn around or if my tent had been blown away, I had a place to spend the night in Amarillo. The good thing about driving by a cliff at night is that you can’t see how far down would you fall. As I was the only driver on the road from beginning to end of the trip that night, which pretty much told me that I should not be on the road, I was able to go as slow as I wanted. I made it safely and to my relief the tent was firmly standing! It had passed the test!

I went to sleep that night at the sound of the whistling wind thinking how cool this was. I woke up a couple of hours later chocking in a dust filled tent. The thin sand dust had filtered through my “breathable” tent and had made breathing quite difficult. Just in case a rattlesnake was hanging out by the tent with her buddies, with my headlights on I sat on the table outside for a while. It was better outside! The storm seemed to have passed. With the tent open to circulate the sand dust out, I kept an eye in the surroundings just to make sure no reptile or other creatures would invite themselves in for the night. I went back to sleep and woke up in the morning to a beautiful, sunny day. I was ready to hike to the highlight of the park: the must-see Lighthouse.

 

Designated a National Natural Landmark, the 310 feet high Lighthouse formation was created by erosion
Designated a National Natural Landmark, the 310 feet high Lighthouse formation was created by erosion

 

Sighting of the Lighthouse from the trail leading to the formation
Sighting of the Lighthouse from the trail leading to the formation
Portion of the Lighthouse Trail on the final climbing up section
Portion of the Lighthouse Trail on the final climbing up section

The Lighthouse Trail is classified as moderate according to the park’s brochures. And it is! Except for some sections mainly at the end when you reach the formation. I noticed that most of the tourists who made it to the base were just snapping pictures from there before turning around to head back to the trailhead. The trail from that point on, if you want to climb up onto the formation is quite difficult. The other thing about this trail is that although it is moderate for most part, depending on the temperature and wind conditions can become difficult. It certainly was the case that day as the strong winds from the storm weren’t completely gone yet.

Others, the majority on that particular day, just read the trail information and warning signs posted at the trailhead from their cars and drove away. At the same time that one of the park’s brochures describing the the trails invites visitors to not “miss the park’s most popular trail to the iconic Lighthouse formation”, it also warns that “most heat-related injuries and deaths to people and pets occur on this trail”.

Under the bright sun at the Lighthouse Trail
Under the bright sun at the Lighthouse Trail

The Lighthouse is the “prima donna” of the Palo Duro Canyon State Park. However, one cannot see her before hiking a considerable portion of the trail. And yes, when it comes to sight, it looks just like a majestic lighthouse in the horizon.

After resting at the base of the formation for a few minutes, where I chatted with a couple from Utah who told me that that was as far as they would go because of their age and physical preparedness, I resumed my hike to the top. Only a young couple sat up on the second and highest plateau. The views from there were magnificent, while the wind was treacherously strong. I remained laying on the mesa for a while watching the fast moving white clouds rolling above me. My feet hurt and I knew I had 2.72 miles to hike back to the trailhead. For now I was just going to enjoy the view, hoping that the wind would not throw me down the canyon.

 

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The Grandest Canyon in Texas

Breakfast at the English Field House, Amarillo, TX
Breakfast at the English Field House, Amarillo, TX

After arriving in Amarillo, Texas and stopping at the local visitor center in the morning of April 4th., I was on my way to a local restaurant to have breakfast. According to a smiley and welcoming lady at the visitor center who recommended the restaurant and gave me directions, it was a little “tricky and hard to find” the English Field House. I was about to turn around and look for something else when I spotted the blue roof. I was told to keep driving and make a left turn when seeing a “hard-to-miss blue roof”. For some reason, I just know it’s going to be hard to find when I hear that it is “hard-to-miss”. Persistence paid off! It turned out to be a little farther away from the visitor center than she had made me believe, but the food was just perfect for what I was looking for. I wanted a family-style local restaurant, and I got it! The service was on point, the food was simply delicious, and the serving was larger than the State of Texas! The restaurant is very simple and decorated with air force insignia and other mementos.

 

Buena Vista
Buena Vista viewing point

I had come to Amarillo to visit the Palo Duro Canyon; a recommendation made by my new friend in Little Rock, Arkansas. Just a few camping sites were available and I was able to secure a spot for a couple of nights, giving me almost three full days to hike some of the trails in the park. Located in the Texas Panhandle Plains, the second-largest canyon in America has a wide variety of wildlife, history, and trails. In a rough terrain, loose rocks, steep slopes, heat, and occasional sand storms, Palo Duro has hiking, biking and equestrian trails. As I was checking in, I was informed that strong winds and consequently a sand storm was expected later on in the evening with lingering wind blowing sand for the next day.

 

On my first day in the canyon I set up the tent and went on to my first hike. I was marveled by the rugged beauty of the formations around me. In a place where four bioregions intersect, erosion that began with the formation of the canyon less than a million years ago exposes a geologic story of approximately 250 million years. Some of the oldest layers in the canyon are from the Quartermaster Formation, located at the bottom of the canyon, they are bright red claystone and white gypsum. The yellow, gray and lavender mudstone is from the Tecovas Formation. Ascending further up in canyon the sandstone and coarse gravel that are seen belong to the Trujillo Formation. The layer of rocks with sand, silt, clay and limestone are from the Ogallala Formation. The 120 miles long and 800 feet deep canyon displays dramatic views with astounding colors, becoming even more spectacular at sunset contrasting with intense blue skies.

 

View from the Givens, Spicer & Lowry Running Trail. This trail is moderately difficult with steep climbs and a total round trip distance of 11 miles.
View from the Givens, Spicer & Lowry Running Trail. This trail is moderately difficult with steep climbs and a total round trip distance of 11 miles.

 

Covered in a thin layer of a goldish dust
Covered in a thin layer of a goldish dust

Not knowing what the weather was going to be the next day, I decided to do my longest hike in the park on my first day; the Givens, Spicer and Lowry eleven miles round trip trail. I completed my first day hike in the canyon in just under five hours. The sun was setting by time I finished hiking the GSL Trail and the wind was now a lot stronger than when I began hiking the trail five hours earlier. I was covered in a layer of red sand mixed with sweat and could bite the grains of sand in my mouth. All I could think of at that moment was a hot shower before heading to Amarillo to have coffee with a friend and download my pictures from the day. I was thrilled to have found the canyon and excited in anticipation of my second day at Palo Duro.

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Romance at Petit Jean

Cedar Creek
Cedar Creek alongside Cedar Falls Trail

Cedar Creek

Driving up the mountain to the visitor center of Petit Jean State Park, I had already decided that I would camp for two or three days if spots were available. I knew that the odds of finding availability were against me on a beautiful Saturday morning in early April. Early that morning I had learned that the romantic legend of Petit Jean, tells the story of a young French girl who disguised herself as a cabin boy so she could travel with her fiance to the new world. Falling fatally ill, Petit Jean asked to be buried in the mountain that now carries her name. It was hard not to fall in love with the place!

Cedar Falls Trail
Cedar Falls Trail

It was my lucky day! There were two camp sites available and one of them was open for two nights. The customer service at the visitor center was excellent. Armed with maps and park brochures I quickly set up my tent and went on to my first hike. With no time to waste I chose to do a short hike; the Cedar Creek Trail which is only 1.25 miles in length. It does follow the scenic winding Cedar Creek above Cedar Falls. The trail is listed as “moderate” and only in a few sections rock steps and bluffs may pose challenges depending on the hiker’s skills and physical conditions.

Cedar Falls Trail
Cedar Falls Trail

After camping for the first night almost a week after I got on the road, the following morning I chose to hike the 4.5 miles long trail (9 miles round trip) Seven Hollows Trail. For my last day I had reserved to hike to short but strenuous Cedar Falls Trail. This trail is quite challenging from beginning to end. It does not matter if it is going up or down. The trail begins behind the Mather Lodge through the breezeway and takes you to the 95-foot Cedar Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls in Arkansas. The longest trail in the park is the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Boy Scout Trail which is 12 miles long. This trail connects and follows portions of almost all other trails at Petit Jean State Park.

Cedar Falls Trail
Cedar Falls Trail

I had finally done what the trip was supposed to be about: camping and hiking! After almost a week in which I had spent most of the time driving, camping at the park for a couple of nights was quite relaxing. On my third day after hiking to Cedar Falls, I checked out from Petit Jean and headed to Texas.

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Big Surprise in The Natural State

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After reserving a hotel for the night in Little Rock, Arkansas, I left Memphis, Tennessee with the only thing I knew about Arkansas: that’s where the Clintons come from! The only reason I chose to stay overnight in Little Rock was its location and because I thought I would visit the Hot Springs nearby. My plans thereafter were to stop in Dallas, Texas to visit a friend I had not seen in years. From there head on to New Mexico where I had one National Park on my list; literally, Arkansas was on my way, so to speak.

As I checked in to my hotel in Little Rock just a few blocks from the State Capitol, I got the recommendation to go to The Big Whiskey’s as it was one of the few places that would still serve food at that hour. The place was full of life and packed with a diverse crowd, which were both good news being that it was past eleven. So far on this trip most of the places I had been through had long ceased to live after nine o’clock in the evening. Certainly, diversity was not something I had seen since I left New York. Yep! I was already happily surprised in Little Rock.

A couple of days into the trip I had changed my profile on all social media apps to reflect what I was doing. That way I would curb the enthusiasm of people who just wanted a date. So, while I sat at the bar waiting for my food and enjoying my beer, a message came through from someone asking me where had I been hiking in Arkansas? My response was “I haven’t and won’t hike in Arkansas”. He then told me that it was a shame because Arkansas, as The Natural State, has about 50 state parks. I later ran a search and found out that The Natural State actually has fifty-two state parks. Wow! I had no idea! Nobody ever talks about Arkansas in the Northeast! I might be wrong as I am not a TV type of person, so for me to say that I have never seen an ad on TV featuring the State of Arkansas as a hiking destination would just not be right and fair.

My new friend in Little Rock, David, turned out to be an avid hiker and biker who convinced me to not visit the Hot Springs on my way to Texas. Instead he told me to at least visit one park: Petit Jean State Park just about one hour northwest of Little Rock. He also was surprised when I told him that I was not going to do anything in Texas other than visit a friend in Dallas. Again, he was shocked that I seemed to be “bypassing” the wonders of the South. So, I tried to justify by saying that my eyes were on the Southwest and the Pacific Coast. But my heart is soft and one of the purposes of a road trip is to discover things one never heard of. I had no schedule and no commitment other than trying to stay out of bad weather. We met and chatted for a couple of hours or so and by the time we said good-bye he had twisted my arm. I was headed to Petit Jean the next morning hoping to get a camping spot for at least one night! And did promise I would at least drive through Palo Duro Canyon State Park in the Lone Star State.

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Call me Crazy

IMAG0069I think that the most encouraging thing that I heard on my fifth day on the road, which coincided with Fools Day (no pun intended here!), was that “if you haven’t been called crazy yet, you’re not trying hard enough”. On that account, call me crazy! And I must confess that I came close to call-it-quits and head back home because the weather was not on my side!

I’d now have been on the road for five days and all I’d seen was rain, cloudy skies and indoors. The purpose of this trip is hiking and camping and registering awesome scenery; all I’m getting are comments of my now noticeable growing facial hair. After years holding corporate jobs all my friends and family have seem in over a decade were images of a clean cut guy. But two days before getting on the road I decided that shaving while camping wouldn’t work.

Another decision I’d made was that I would try to avoid cities and urban routes. I live in the Hudson Valley, just about one and a half hour north of Manhattan and I have always had a passion for the outdoors, as long as I live close enough to a metropolis. But, on this trip I wanted to stay away from the so-called “civilization”.

I was now driving south of the eye of the tornado through Tennessee still under heavy rain left behind by the storm. The rain seemed to be tapering off as I drove south on I-65 and around ten in the evening, I decided to pull off the road in Nashville. I was famished and all I could think of was a hamburger with fries and a cold beer. After a quick search I was headed to a pub that was still open and serving food and that was casual enough for someone who had been on the road for a while and not quite dressed for the night. By the time I heard the friendly announcement that “your destination is on the left”, the rain had returned with full force. The storm was so bad that I could barely see the other side of the street and the water running down the street looked more like the rapids I was looking forward to see in the wild. Not being able to get out of the car, I sat for about thirty minutes hoping that by the time it would stop raining the kitchen would still be open. At that point, under heavy rain and windy conditions, a homeless knocked on the window in my car’s passenger side. Apparently, Nashville has a huge homeless problem and they don’t give you a break; not even during a storm! So, at that I decided that I would get back on the road and just keep going.

I drove the three hours trip from Nashville to Memphis that night and stopped at the Tennessee State Welcome Center on North Riverside Drive. I thought I was just going to take a brief nap and decide what next. At this point I had already figured out that couch surfing wasn’t going to work and I couldn’t wait to start camping and doing what I had in mind from the beginning: hike! Surprisingly, I woke up around nine in the morning to the brightest sunlight I had seen in days! No, it was not a short nap! I had slept for over seven hours. After having breakfast and strolling around Beale and Main Streets, enjoying a warm, sunny day at the sound of blues coming from every corner, I got back on the road headed south to Little Rock, Arkansas. I think it was the first on the trip that I actually began to smile. My road trip had finally begun!

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When the Sun Goes Out!

A storm rolls in
When the Sun Goes Out

By early morning on Wednesday, March 30th, I had reached Columbus, OH. My Facebook entry of that morning reads “…beautiful, sunny day” and although I was tired I wanted to keep moving forward it was time for a quick stop for breakfast. A bad selfie at a Cracker Barrel is a reminder of how little sleep I had. It also reminds me that it was the last day I would see the sun bright and shiny above me for a while! The waitress kindly greeted me with a “Howdy! Are you ready for the storm?” What??? Storm??? I really thought it was just small talk and all she was doing was starting a conversation. I forgot all about her weather forecast as fast as she moved to pour coffee at the next table.

After breakfast I got back on the road headed to Louisville, KY where I would spend the night. Driving down the Ohio Valley with the sun still shinning above, the landscape gradually turned from brown to greener and blooming bushes along the road announced that the Spring had arrived. However, gusts of wind were now more and more frequent and stronger. Never mind, I thought: it must be because I am in the valley! A message came through my phone from my couch surfing host in Louisville letting me know that he could no longer host me due to unexpected family issues. Time to reroute! I reset my GPS to take me to the Mammoth Cave National Park. Although that was not in my tentative places to visit, it was a place where I could potentially camp and hike.

Along with the increasingly strong winds that forced me to drive below the speed limit, the bright sun gave way to cloudy skies which continued to grow darker and darker. Before crossing the state line into Kentucky the rain settled in with thunder and lightning. By the time I arrived at Mammoth Cave, KY, it was dark and I had to search for a hotel for the night as I knew that camping was no longer an option. I reserved a hotel through Booking.com which was located out in the country. Getting there in the rain and in the dark on a dirt road was not the worst part, as I would come to find out. In the hotel’s description it advertised a full-service restaurant with breakfast, lunch and dinner. All I could think of was a hot shower and food!

I was greeted … well, in fact I wasn’t! The young lady behind the desk was a thrilled to be there as I was. After attempting to talk to her it became clear that conversation and human interaction was not on her agenda for the day. When I asked until when the restaurant was open for dinner, she informed me that “oh, we don’t open for dinner at this time of the year! But it will be open for breakfast!” Great! That meant I only had to wait some ten hours to see some food on the table. Braving the storm I headed back to the car to retrieve some snacks.

During the night I woke up several times with the wind pounding the windows and the whistling trees. The tornado has landed … or, so I thought! Judging by the age of the TVs in the room I figured that the building was tornado proof and had been through many of them along the obvious decades of existence. The next morning when I mentioned the tornado to the breakfast server she replied with a “Oh no honey! That was just a storm with gusts! The tornado should be passing by here early this evening!” Now it was time to scrape the plans for camping and hiking at the Mammoth Cave National Park. But I was already there so I should at least tour the caves which I believe to be tornado safe. As I arrived at the visitor center the electronic boards announced that all open tours were sold out for the next week or so.

At that point it was time to sit down and figure out all the conflicting weather forecasts; different weather forecasters had a different route for the tornado which had originated somewhere in the gulf in Mississippi a few days earlier. I figured that I had to drive eastbound and around the eye of the storm. Driving through country roads under cloudy skies, listening to country music and enjoying the sight of horse farms and the peculiar scent of wet grass and manure was a welcomed upgrade to the past 24 hours events. But that would not last for too much longer. By the time I reached Campbellsvile in south central Kentucky around 5PM on March 31st, so had the epicenter of the storm. The town of Campbellsville has a few signs indicating that it is a college town and when I googled for a Starbucks, it sent me to the Campbellsville University, which is a Christian college. I sought refuge from the storm in the college students’ hall where I stayed dry, drank coffee and had internet service. It was clear to them that I was not from Kentucky and had never been to a campus of a Christian college before. But I must admit that everyone was kind and polite and for the first time since I had left New York, I chatted with quite a few people for a while. I think that at that point I craved for human interaction as much as they wanted to find out who I was. Do not lose faith, brother! The sun will return!

From the Shores to the Mountains

Crater Lake: Winter Wonderland and Beyond

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The Road Ahead – Excitement and Surprises

DSC04453On March 28, 2016 after I finished packing I headed to bed around ten in the evening and set the alarm for 6AM. Filled with excitement and with my mind racing with imaginable scenarios about the road ahead, I could not fall asleep. It occurred to me that in the morning I would be just too exhausted to get on the road. “That’s it!” – I told myself that I’d rather get on the road there and then.

On Tuesday, March 28, 2016,  at 1:11 in the morning I set the GPS to my first destination: arrival time 8:43AM at Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio. Based on my tentative road trip route research and readings about the Cuyahoga Valley, I was looking forward to my first stop. According to “Your Guide to National Parks” by Michael Joseph Oswald, 2012, the When To Go tab informs that the park is open all year.

Crossing Pennsylvania in the middle of the night turned out to be a good decision. If I got tired, I figured I would just pullout at a rest area and take a nap. Clear skies, a bit windy, low traffic with just a few trucks here and there, it was smooth sailing.

Having been with Couchsurfing and hosted travelers, I thought that I would use it on my route as much as possible. I had a confirmed host in Cleveland, Ohio for that evening as a fall back plan in case I could not get a camping site at Cuyahoga Valley.

Arriving at the park turned out to be a bit challenging as a number of road constructions and detours proved to be difficult for the GPS instructions. I drove in circles for a few minutes and at which point I was tired and falling asleep. No problem! I thought I would set up the tent and take a nap. Maybe I will rest and pick a trail for my first road trip hike.

By the time I finally arrived at the visitor center I already knew that I was the only traveler there. What made it more bizarre was the unwelcoming attitude of the National Parks Service ranger. He did not seem to be thrilled to be there that morning and he did not seem to be happy to see me there either.

The trails were closed! Excessive rain and subsequently trails repairs proved to be my first obstacles. With no chance to stay and camp there I headed to Cleveland where I stopped to have breakfast. As I arrived early, I contacted my host and we agreed that I could come by around noon. He was very friendly and let me know that he was studying for an exam and was up all night. Perfect! I was exhausted myself and was ready to close my eyes for a few hours.

I woke up around eight that evening and feeling rejuvenated I decided that it was best to get back on the road instead of being awake all night. Next stop was Louisville, Kentucky, where I also had a confirmed host through Couchsurfing. I thanked my host and left Cleveland with a positive attitude of not letting the Cuyahoga Valley disappointment to bring me down. After all, road trips come with surprises!