For those who seek the lonely places of the earth

Posts tagged ‘Travel’

Paths of Glass

The new year has arrived, and the days have been growing longer for a few weeks now. The season of retail madness is over, as well as finishing my first college degree; this past semester I completed a Bachelor’s in Psychology, and this upcoming year I plan to finish a second degree that has been sitting on hold for the better part of ten years. So yes, I’ve been busy, but it still shocked me to realize how much time has passed since I last wrote. It doesn’t help matters that the day after school let out for the semester- the day that I hoped to finally get back outdoors after the constant grind of work and school- I tripped on the stairs on the way out to the car and whether I broke my tailbone or just intensely bruised it, it still hurts now, weeks later.

Schedules finally aligned on the last Sunday of the year so we decided to do something awesome and headed to Kentucky to visit the Newport Aquarium. It’s about a two hour drive from Indianapolis, right outside of Cincinnati, and though not far, it doesn’t fall on one of our common travel paths. I hadn’t been there since elementary school, but was excited to get a chance to go back.

Ohio River

We arrived early and spent about an hour walking along the Ohio River Levee before we went in and perused the tanks with the other early-morning people. In steps, we traversed continents and dove deep into the oceans; wonders awaited us throughout. At one point, an enormous loggerhead turtle arose from the depths, pausing to peer at us briefly through the glass before swimming on with unhurried strokes. Loggerheads are endangered, with only about a .1% rate of survival from egg to adulthood in the wild; therefore, aquariums such as Newport have begun fostering some of these turtles for their first year of life and then releasing them. The picture below is their current resident, Denver, and some of his neighbors.

Loggerhead Turtle and Shark Ray

Elsewhere we found the jellyfish. They’re beautifully surreal, both to the eye and the anatomist: they drift, dragging tendrils like lace, and assuredly they have no cares, with no brain to house them. The humble jellyfish has been floating along for over six hundred million years, and bioluminescent proteins in one particular species have been used as biomarkers for medical research, while other research has focused on the apparent paradox of a living creature with no central nervous system.

Jellyfish

The arapaima is another fascinating inhabitant of the aquarium, monstrous and prehistoric. It is sometimes referred to as a dinosaur fish, due to having existed in the fossil records for millions of years with minimal changes. Even with such extensive history, though, we know relatively little about this fish; their conservation status is listed as data deficient, although scientists such as the one in the article above are working on learning more about them. What we do know, however, is that they are massive, similar in size to the sand tiger sharks discussed below, and that these predators’ tough scales are impervious even to the teeth of their better-known Amazon River companion, the piranha.

Arapaima

Finally, what is an aquarium without sharks? I’ve always had a soft spot for them, between their ominous reputations and their many contradictions. The first dream I remember as a child- more a nightmare, to be accurate- featured one, along with my own apparent demise in a setting oddly similar to the one in which I found myself at Newport. In the dream, I was deep underwater, walking a path enclosed with glass not unlike an aquarium tunnel. It was very dark, with only the weak light that dreams always thoughtfully provide when a doom approaches that must be witnessed. A shark lazily glides by, and as it pauses for another look, the glass begins to crack.

That is all, as the dream itself goes; but the freshly minted psychologist in me wants to break down the concepts and draw parallels that may or may not be accurate. What I do know is that those were the first stirrings of a love for the ocean and what I would like to consider a healthy appreciation for its power over a simple human. Or maybe it’s the desire to shed light on the secrets of the deep sea and its varied inhabitants; whatever the case, the effortless power of the shark has always held some fascination for me.

When this shark swam above me it was like a cloud passing over the sun. The sand tiger shark is another creature found in the aquarium, a shark that can reach up to ten feet long and whose vicious-looking teeth belie its personality. This nocturnal predator is much more interested in having fish for dinner than humans, and it is particularly notable as the only species of shark known to surface and gulp air, which is then stored in their stomachs to help them maintain neutral buoyancy. As a fledgling SCUBA diver, I totally understand the need.

Sand Tiger Shark

While I try to find myself outdoors for adventures as much as possible, this was one exception that was incredibly worthwhile. Here we could avoid the December chill and see amazing things that would not be accessible on a hike, not to mention the fact that it was a short trip to spend a fantastic day with the family and the denizens of the seas.

Seeing Stars

A jaunt in the mountains teaches a six-year-old about the sky she thought she knew.

This post is a throw-back to one of my earliest trips with Alison, about a year before meeting Carl; I wrote this shortly after we returned home from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but then I set it aside and never ended up doing anything with it, since As We Wander did not yet exist. As I re-read this now, I’m amazed by the differences in my point of view. Tennessee no longer seems so far away, and the fragile-seeming six-year-old who accompanied me there is now an adventurer of her own right. The fears that plagued me on that trip have turned out to be irrelevant- meltdowns have definitely occurred and surely will again, but the travel bug has taken firm hold; as long as there are places to explore, we will be there to explore them.

October 2015- Cosby, Tennessee
We weren’t far from camp, where we had spent a terrible night before. It wasn’t a problem with the campsite; it was clean, the trails were close, and the neighbors were friendly. Problem was, we’d lingered too long in Gatlinburg. As we walked down the crowded sidewalk of the Parkway, I was caught in a memory of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where a sixteen-year-old me landed half a lifetime ago to go backpacking in the Rockies. The first night we’d spent in the open air. It was awful, too, and the problem was the same one that we ran into in mid-October Tennessee: the cold bit and I was woefully unprepared for it. As I lay on my back in the sleeping bag that had seemed so warm at home, I stared at the sky, shivering and dreading the long night ahead; but suddenly I understood why we hadn’t put the tents up. Above me stretched vistas that I’d never before seen. In my hometown, the night sky consisted of the Big Dipper, a handful of other scattered stars, and the moon. But here was the entire Milky Way, laid out for my analysis and my leisure on that long cold night.

Hanging out at the Gatlinburg aquarium

We finally left Gatlinburg and headed toward our campsite in Cosby, Tennessee. It was late, and camp still needed to be set up. With my six-year-old asleep in the car, I set up the tent using my headlamp. Alison woke up in the car, crying, and I couldn’t find the front of the rain fly, so finally I haphazardly threw it on the tent and secured it as it lay, intending to fix it in the morning. I grabbed the sleeping bags and a couple of blankets out of the car and we both fell asleep fast, tired after our full day. This trip was a first, of sorts. We had gone on a camping trip at Mammoth Cave earlier that year, which was a closer to home location and a much more forgiving itinerary (see Returning to the Wild, the website’s very first post), but otherwise, Alison had not traveled since visiting my sister in Colorado by air in her infancy and had never spent so long in the car, especially as we would have to make it a round trip in only two more days and drive the eight hours back again. We were also on a strict budget, mostly allotted to gas, as I explained to her: we were going to do things, not buy things. If she could get through those, then we’d be able to travel often – even as a working single mom with a first grader.

I found myself suddenly awake at about two o’clock that morning. The chilly evening had turned downright cold, and I could now see that the fly I’d struggled with was on the tent backwards, leaving several inches of window mesh uncovered. I got the extra blankets out of the car, threw one over Alison, and one over myself. It was another hour or so later that I awoke again to the sound of crying: my daughter, still mostly asleep, had rolled out of her sleeping bag and blankets and was shivering in her nightgown against the tent floor and the cold ground. I gathered up the blankets, pulled her close to me, and fought back the idea that I’d taken her too far from home.

When we awoke again, sore and chilled, it was daylight. Alison looked tired, but cheerful. It was forty-six degrees that morning, the trees just beginning to shed their green and expose their flamboyant alter egos. The mountains towered around us, clouds hanging from their peaks. This was our only full day in town; the next morning we would be back on the road toward home, rounding out a thousand miles with the round trip, and then back to work the next morning. Hypothermia was now a non-issue, but another anxiety hung over me: What if she refused to sleep in the tent again? The hard ground in the cold woods admittedly didn’t have much draw. Or if she wanted a toy left back at home, or her friend, or a tablet, or any of a plethora of things that can make a tired six-year-old go nuclear? What if she wanted to go home, right now?

Hiking in Cosby

It was afternoon. We’d gone into town for breakfast, but had soon found ourselves back in the woods. One reason I’d picked the Cosby campground was the fact that it abutted the Appalachian Trail; I looked forward to possibly hiking a piece of it, although I had already accepted the fact that we would not get particularly far. We set out from camp down the connecting trail. It went steadily uphill, and after only half a mile or so we both were tiring. Alison was becoming voluble, so we took a break; she sat on my lap, and instantly fell asleep on my shoulder. Part of me wanted to march on to the scenic overpass that was only about a mile ahead but my heart went out to the sleeping child and we headed back to camp, where we stayed at the fire in our camp chairs until evening. She sat coloring, with a barbecue fork holding a hot dog balanced over the fire, then staring dreamily into the distance. Again the thought came to me. What if, at the end, she decided she didn’t like to travel- How would I relate, when I rarely dream of anything else? If I had to decide between the road, and the little girl with the big brown eyes whose forgotten hot dog I rescued from the flames, I would forever regret the loss of whichever one ended up left behind.

Cozy at camp

Dark was falling, then. This was my last chance to make an impression. In the morning we’d be packing up and headed home- there would be no more time for exploring. I put everything away, then spoke to her.

“Put your shoes on, kiddo,” I said, “we’ve got one more thing to see.”

I went to a good school, but the finer points of my education came from the road. Some skills, like patience and perseverance, aren’t things that can be learned well in a classroom; they require uncomfortable situations. And one starlit night in the Rockies, I learned to love the journey, with all its discomforts, for the mysteries it can reveal.

We walked in silence. Alison trotted along next to me with her own headlamp bobbing with every step, her small hand clutching mine. She had asked where we were going, and I responded, a night hike; looking up, I could see the diamonds we sought, peeking out from the negative space between the branches of the trees around us.

We reached a clearing, away from camp and cars and lights, and sat on a rock in the center. “Turn off your headlamp,” I told her, “and look up.”

There was a moment of fumbling as she tried to find the switch. I turned mine off too. I heard a gasp.

“It’s beautiful,” she breathed. Her arms stole around me and we watched the sky together. As I hugged her back, I knew that all my worries had been unfounded- she was in as much awe as I. We drove a thousand miles to see the stars, and it was worth every foot.

Junior Ranger Ali

We returned the next day, as planned, and in the car, she colored, watched videos, then we sang along to the radio together. We were both belting out Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild,” one thousand miles under us, as we pulled up to the house. She ran to put on pajamas while I unpacked the essentials, and as I put her to bed, I couldn’t help but smile.

The world calls to us, and we will answer.

Beautiful Views and Bad Attitudes

Montana, July 30-31, 2018

We drove 1600 miles cross-country to Helena, Montana, ostensibly for a convention, but once we realized what wonders were in the area, we went rogue and skipped out entirely, setting out to explore the mountains instead.

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A bit of housekeeping before we get started on the post: due to some scheduling changes, new content will now be available on Wednesdays instead of Mondays. Also, if I have not clarified the posting schedule in regards to free content versus the subscription content on Patreon, these will alternate weekly. For example- this is the second of three posts regarding our Montana trip. The first, Martian Turbines and Monumental Middle Fingers, appeared on Patreon last week, and next week the third installment will be posted there. The following week, we return here with a different adventure. If you have not yet looked into the Patreon page, it’s only $2 a month to gain access to the exclusives; that said, though, the rest will remain right here. And now, to the road.

We’d spent the last few days sightseeing through the Great Plains on our way out, and once we reached western Montana we were enthused to see the multitude of peaks towering around us, though we were painfully sick of driving.

A friend of mine who lived in Montana for several years commented once about how going anywhere required at least an hour or two of driving. There were things to do in town, I suppose, at least where we were- his location was more rural, but our home base for the week was right in the state capitol of Helena. Hanging out in town isn’t our idea of fun, though; if that were all there was to do, we wouldn’t have skipped the convention. Regardless, his words ring true. After three days of driving, tantrums from both of the kids (and perhaps the adults), and vehement insistence that we want nowhere near the Jeep ever again, we found ourselves back on the road, two hours out from town, exploring the aptly nicknamed Big Sky Country.

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We had a lucky encounter from a perspective point of view at one of our hotels on the way out- namely, in Rapid City, we headed downstairs in the morning to take advantage of the included breakfast before hitting the road. We walked into a much more crowded dining room than I had expected, and the reason soon became clear. Carl privately nicknamed them the Silver Fox Tour Group- we were sharing breakfast with a busload of elderly people trying to check items off their bucket lists in the twilight of their lives. Away from the bustling hotel dining room, I tried to explain to the kids the reason I consider this to have been significant: maybe it could help them understand why we would make this frantic trip West, clocking a total of over five thousand miles in the course of a week, instead of letting time ambush us before we could get it accomplished.

Of course, after breakfast, we headed to the Jeep.

We had rested Sunday night and when we set out on Monday morning, we planned to spend the day at Mt. Helena City Park. It seemed to fulfill our requirements well enough: good hiking close to town was what we hoped for, but that plan quickly got scrapped due to a road closure and frustration with GPS issues and Helena’s awkwardly situated roads. After a few irritating laps around town, we headed out on Highway 15 North instead and soon came across a sign for The Gates of the Mountains- it was too intriguing to not turn off. When we arrived, it was a sparkling lake in a valley, stretching out into the mountains, complete with boat tours; the boat had just left when we pulled into the lot, though, so instead we hiked up a nearby ridge to look out over the area. The view was stunning, worth every uphill step, although for the kids it was also an uphill battle.

 

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After we finished up at the lake, we continued north to see what else we could find. We explored by road for a while, and eventually saw signs for Great Falls, where the the Falls of the Missouri are found. The river seemed to have followed us ever since we first crossed it in South Dakota- we decided to follow it right back.

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The Ryan Dam is a hydroelectric dam perched atop the falls- rather than detracting from the site, though, its consistent (and constant) flow tames the wild river, as it pours out its burden. Near the parking area is a suspension bridge that leads to a small island, where maybe Lewis and Clark themselves stopped for lunch alongside the gorgeous falls.

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On the following day, we headed north again, this time aiming nearly for the Canadian border. The mountains around Glacier National Park dwarfed us and made us feel perfectly insignificant. The park was already packed when we got there around noon, after making the four hour drive up. It surprised me that there were so many people there on a Tuesday, although summer was still in full swing. Whatever the case, we entered by the St. Mary gate, whose visitor center was full to overflowing; Logan Pass was the same way. Unable to find parking, we followed Going to the Sun Road for its 50 mile length through the park, and exited via West Glacier. We lunched at West Glacier Restaurant which we found right outside the park gates, then re-entered and headed toward Apgar, now our nearest possibility for parking, to see what kind of hiking we could find there. We found a trailhead down a gravel road, said to lead to an old ranger station about four miles out, and we hit the trail.

It was about ninety degrees at that point, and the skeletal pines offered little shade, still decimated from wildfires as long ago as 2006. The kids, initially excited about escaping the Jeep and going on a hike, started dragging their feet pretty quickly, complaining that they were bored and hot. By this point, Carl and I were feeling pretty jaded as well, and having to defend every location we chose to stop from relentless criticism didn’t help our own perceptions much. Nonetheless, we dragged the kids along for about two hours before saying “to hell with it” and turning back. By this point, they were nearing mutiny and it took promises of Slushies after the hike to keep them moving- of course, with that motivation, the return trip only took us about an hour. With a dead battery on my Garmin watch that day, I had only a faint idea of how far we had gone before turning around; the pessimist in me likes to think that we were just right around the corner from the old ranger station, but that will remain a mystery. With some of the tension relieved, the trail seemed prettier on the way back: Indian Paintbrush nodded all around us, punctuated by ancient exposed rock, the same kind that loomed all around us, obscuring the horizon. Afterwards, I found very little information online on this trail, and although it remains in decent shape, it seems to no longer be maintained.

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We delivered on the promised Slushies, established a tentative truce with the children, and headed back toward Helena for the night. We planned to go to Yellowstone the next day and had no desire to get caught in the same traffic, so we would be retiring early and waking up at 4am to be there at open. Attitudes ended up cutting that one short as well, as Alison discovered a sudden crippling phobia of horseflies- but the day after, we would end up back at Glacier, and finally get a chance to take that perfect hike.

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Sinks and Stones

This week’s post is something a little different. It’s a write-up of Kentucky’s Sinks of the Roundstone cave, and it is available exclusively on As We Wander’s new Patreon page! I’d love for you to check it out. If you’d prefer to wait for free content, stay tuned and next Monday we will return with The Land of the Spiders, a hardwood forest that only looks empty.

Aladdin’s Cave

A journey through Aladdin’s Cave

Fellow wanderers- it’s been a while since we’ve spoken, so let me start by apologizing for my absence. In doing so, I can’t help but mention some of the projects that have claimed of my time, as 2018 has felt like a juggling act. While the corporate day job remains perpetually understaffed, I managed to carve out the time to re-enroll in college this spring in order to complete what has been sitting on hold for the last half-decade. As long as schedules continue to fit together, I will have not one, but two bachelor’s degrees by next spring. There’s commitment involved beyond just waiting out that time frame, though, so as I write this, I *might* be procrastinating on studying for an exam. The family seems to like attention, too, and those additional characters of Carl and Arwyn that I presented a couple of years ago didn’t run off to Siberia after all- in fact, Alison and I started the year by moving in together with them, so my previous roles of mom/ boss have expanded to mom/ stepmom/ girlfriend/ superhero/ budget keeper/ still the boss.

In the midst of it all, though, we’ve still found time for adventure. Last weekend, Carl rappelled into a pit here in good ol’ Indiana (a trip that I was sorry to miss!) and at the end of the month we head to Montana for the National Speleological Society’s annual convention. Despite my restrictive schedule, I’ve been able to sneak in some hikes and the occasional caving trip, not to mention working on SCUBA training, too- more on that in a future post. You could say that I’ve spent this last year doing field research on the adventurous family, and there are stories that want told from over the course of it, and before. Today we look at an environment, nestled in the American South, that seems straight out of a fairy tale.

 

Aladdin’s Cave*

Georgia, November 2017

It was just days after Thanksgiving and here we were in Georgia, amid herds of cattle that eyed us suspiciously as they stepped between their calves and our vehicles. Miles of unprepossessing farmland surrounded us in the land of cotton and cattle, where brilliantly white scraps litter the roadsides after harvest time. But that was not what we were here to see. In a farm field guarded by bovines we found the fenced-in area we sought, and within, a culvert that looked no more extraordinary than the rest of the land surrounding it.

Georgia
Georgia Cotton Fields

We had left late the day before and driven twelve hours for this adventure, arriving in Georgia shortly before dawn on the same day that we were supposed to meet up with the local grotto member who would lead us on the trip. Carl was beaming when he first told me about the invitation.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said. This cave, *whose name I have withheld at the request of the conservancy who manages it, is exquisitely beautiful, but equally fragile; very few people are allowed to explore its passages in any given year, and most who do enter are engaged in restoration efforts, due to previous vandalism and the damage that even well-intentioned but poorly informed people could cause.

We slept for a couple of hours in the Jeep in a Wal-Mart parking lot, met up with some friends from Kentucky who had also made the drive down, and our trip leader, who apparently was not quite local either- she hailed from Tallahassee, Florida. After the typical greetings and gear checks and gas station coffee, we made the forty-five minute drive to the cave.

A blast of air made the dead leaves dance and threw grit in everyone’s eyes as we opened the culvert. A ladder stretched down within, and one by one, we began to descend into the darkness.

The ladder led into a corkscrew canyon, wallpapered with densely packed helictites. They were sand-daubed and gritty, and brought two distinct images to mind: the extravagance of an aged coral reef, or piles of wriggling earthworms, fruitlessly attempting to burrow into the rock. Helictites are the troublesome siblings of soda straws, ignoring such burdens as gravity; instead, the path of least resistance is their way, and fantastic growths ensue. In the heavy airflow of this entrance, the detritus nearly obscured the gorgeous calcite.

Helictites

The canyon led into a passage named the Hall of High Hopes. There’s a clear double meaning to the name. It winds and it’s cramped and ironic, but for many the high hopes in this cave are sincere: this is Aladdin’s Cave, or so it seems, and just around the corner are the glittering diamonds and jewels. Coming out of the muddy passage that bears the illustrious name, we headed into the Sand Room. This name seems ironic as well- much more salient than any sand were the gorgeous formations of clean calcite, almost transparent in places. Though the air was warm, around seventy degrees, the entire room looked full of ice sculptures.

Angel Wings

Further on, we reached the Crystal Pools, another one of the cave’s otherworldly features. Here, the floor was a mass of calcite crystals, thousands of them, growing in the pool that stretched wall-to-wall. It would be easy to get carried away in description, just as I got carried away with photography, shooting nearly 700 frames that day; it seems only reasonable to let some of the pictures of this glorious place speak for themselves.

Calcite Creations

We exited after dusk, the setting sun no more than a red smear on the horizon. The culvert was easier to exit than to enter, as this way we were able to avoid looking into the blowing grit that had complicated the journey down; it was difficult to say goodbye, though, to the rare beauty that lay under Georgia fields. We upgraded the previous night’s accommodations to actual beds in a hotel, then spent the next day en route back to Indianapolis, ready to plan the next adventure.

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