Small talk in Big Sky, Montana goes like that: The third time I hear the admiration in my interlocutor voice my curiosity is piqued: which aspect of Ted Turner biography grants him such notoriety in the Treasure State? Is it his marriage to Jane Fonda? The third one for both of them and neither remarried after their divorce in 2001. She is a famous actress, who looks more striking with each passing year but I doubt her fame is what distinguishes Ted Turner in the Big Sky Country.
We all strive to accomplish something. Something to be proud of. Something to casually mention in a mixed company and register a gleam of admiration, or a nod of respect. Something, anything. Those are my thoughts as I sit on top of Mount Katahdin contemplating the sign marking the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. It’s just a nice moment on a day hike for me, but for some it’s the end of 2,200 miles journey. As curious as I am about this almost mystical accomplishment alas, there aren’t any thru-hikers in sight so I don’t get the chance to ask.
Sometimes I just don’t get people. Take kids for example. In theory I know why people have them, care about them, even love them. Or, at least, I think I know. It has something to do with an iron grip our genes have on us. Ancestors of a more kid-relaxed persuasion have unfortunate tendency of disappearing from the gene pool. Regardless of the real reason, kids are valued in our society - like cars, or houses, or iPads - and one is supposed to look after them. Well, in any case, that has been my working hypothesis.
It looked for a moment as if the long winter of our discontent ended in May with the last fresh tracks we left in Arapahoe Basin skiing area. We drove south and spent some time in New Mexico and Arizona getting progressively warmer. It quickly got too hot for pretty much anything unless we stayed at high altitudes. Also we ran out of states to visit to the point we had to cross the border. When we got to South California endless summer was in full swing and we trashed our carefully prepared packing system fishing for shorts and flip-flops. After a while we decided it’s time to move back to temperate climes and started driving north.
Just to be clear: I am not a big fan of the representational art. I feel that the era of cameras requires a painter to look beynd the obvious. The same applies to sculptures even if the sculpture in question is the size of a small mountain. Even if the mountain is not so small. That said Mt. Rushmore was not supposed to be an art piece. Or at least not just an art piece. It became an altar of secular religion of americanism. And an allegory of everything good and bad about America. It was conceived as a marketing stunt: to attract visitors to the unquestioningly beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota. It was designed by a Ku Klux Klan member and it occupies a land that happened to fall under American control in less than savory circumstances. It was financed largely by federal tax dollars in a good old tradition of senators syphoning money to their states to reduce the waste on federal level. It was constructed with typically American combination of ingenuity and brute force: precision tools and dynamite. There were obstacles that were overcome: when Jefferson’s visage cracked and had to be blasted off, it was aptly recreated behind Washington’s left ear. And as any popular idea the Mt. Rushmore spurred the healthy competition. Works are under way on Crazy Horse Memorial nearby, which is way bigger and probably will turn out no less ugly than its rival.
We’ve conquered our first fourteener in Colorado. Or anywhere for that matter. 1 down (or rather up), and only 53 more to go. You have to love the imperial system. 14 thousand feet sounds so much more impressive than mere 4300 meters. SI is of course just a failed French conspiracy to make American mountains appear smaller. The trail description promises imagining oneself at the base camp on Everest. And sure enough we’ve met two older ladies (sixty five and seventy four years old - that’s older, right?) preparing for trekking in Nepal. Looks like we still have a little time to conquer remaining fourteeners. And to go to Nepal.
I am reading a sci-fi book about Mars. Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson is a trilogy about terraforming Mars and transforming a population of colonists into an independent society. The book resonates deeply with our recent excursions. Hiking the red rocks of Utah parks reminds me of the Martian landscape. When driving a dirt road in a deep canyon with little plant life I feel the environment is as strange and hostile to life as on Mars. I almost expect to find a Mars rover around the corner. The abundant biosphere of our planet turns out to have clear and surprisingly close boundaries.
This really should not be about trees. Nor about beetles. I should write about Rockies tundra extending above 11000ft (3500m). Because tundra at this latitude is unique. And trees are everywhere. At least for now. Normally it takes some effort to get to the tundra layer. You have to either hike for a couple of hours or travel way up north. But not in Rocky Mountain park. There is a road that will take you up there. And then you can take a paved trail to have an even closer look. The trail is not steep but you will run out of breath. Only 2/3 of oxygen that your body is used to is now entering your lungs. So to compensate you breathe harder and more often. Even if you are otherwise in a pretty good shape. It’s hard to believe that anything can live here. But it does. And it’s colorful and fragile and very alien. It’s September but the cold wind tries to knock you down and slam your car doors. Chances are you are not dressed properly. After all you just drove up in comfort of a car from a warm autumn town below.
Out of all the states we visited so far we liked Colorado best. May be because of the mountains: lots of very dramatic peaks in the western part. May be because the people are not so interested in our story: they seem to ignore our accents even more than folks in Massachusetts. Or may be because the food is OK here and they know how to make beer. Seems like each and every town sports its own microbrewery.
Americans celebrate mourn the end of summer a.k.a. the Labor Day weekend by driving away to vacation destinations. Like Breckenridge, Colorado. With all the energy spent on securing a lodging in an attractive place they neglect to devise an interesting activity to fill 3 days. They wander aimlessly down the street looking for any diversion. Eventually they fall back onto familiar pastime: shopping. Only they don’t buy much as the looming recession put an end to guiltless spending.
The common opinion is that American tourists abroad are a bunch of insufferable ignorants. Supposedly they take their prosaic habits, funny packs, running shoes and a desire to find a McDonald in France and proceed to trample all over the world’s treasures. Well, that may be. But if you hope that European tourists behave better in US you are seriously mistaken. Visiting Utah deservedly famous Canyonlands and Arches National Parks we are being unwillingly subjected to an invasion of German, French and Russian touring groups. Compete with one another in a strangely seductive game of let’s confirm the worst national stereotypes.
Kindness of strangers. Beware of that. It will get you to do things you never intended to do. They just cannot help themselves. They are everywhere pointing, advising, probing. Like when I try to keep up with Natalia hiking to the Ice Lake. I am clearly having a bad hiking day. Huffing and puffing I am dragging my body up. And up. These are real mountains. Not like Green Mountains in Vermont. Or Catskills. Or Adirondacks.
San Juan Mountains are treaded lightly once more. Where the Utes used to hunt game, tourists are chasing ghosts. And while in Europe ghosts inhabit castles and are result of unhappy aristocratic marriages, American ghosts are signs of a once new era reminding us of failed capitalist ventures. Remnants of towns and mines mark brief interlude of commercial exploitation of these beautiful but harsh mountains.
We’ve learned a new verb: jeeping. Well, in our case it’s probably nissaning and we are obviously not doing it right. As far as I can tell it involves taking your unsuspecting car on a deadly, narrow, mountain road in search of breathtaking views and an adrenaline rush. Our truck is more than happy to oblige, but the driver and the pilot (otherwise known as I and Natalia) not so much. One problem is you never know what awaits around the corner. We wonder if the road marked in a guide as moderate jeeping is easy enough for us? (It isn’t). Once you commit to a road there is usually no turning back. And I don’t mean it in a metaphorical sense. The road is literally too narrow to turn. I suppose one could just back off all the way down.
Anasazi or Ancestral Pueblans as modern Pueblo Indians prefer to call them lived in the Mesa Verde for hundreds of years until late 1200s. And then they disappeared. More exactly they stopped building. Quite abruptly as testified by an unfinished Sun Temple. And similarly they abandoned the Chaco Canyon about hundred years earlier. What happened to them? Why did they leave? Where did they go? Professional and amateur archeologists have been attempting to answer those questions for 120 years now. No theory is entirely satisfying. For various reasons including political. Overpopulation and depletion of resources, advocated by Jared Diamond, doesn’t gel with the myth of Indians as good stewards following Mother Earth principles. When it is presented to Mesa Verde visitors it’s qualified by the occurrence of an ice age at that time. Drop in temperature is strangely at odds with artists’ renderings of mostly naked Indians peppering the park sites. But naked means savage and we, the descendants of the European settlers, are used to this excuse of the atrocities committed in the name of civilizing the indigenous population. Scholars disagree if it was great drought or ice age that explains the worsening of climate and forced the natives out. But you’d never know there is a controversy by reading literature provided by National Park Service.
Today we were dehydrated. We took only one bottle of water for what we thought was going to be an easy short hike. But in pursue of an elusive silver mine site the hike turned out longer and more strenuous then planned. It went surprisingly high up a slope drenched in the unforgiving sun light. And to our dismay instead of looping back to the parking lot it veered onto the other side of the mesa: we had to retrace our steps to get back. Park service advises to drink at least a gallon per person per day when outdoor in arid climate and they have it right - we drank about that amount upon return to the car after several hours of hiking the Catwalk followed by the Gold Dust trail in Gila Forest.
We rarely stay in a bed-and-breakfast type of lodging. You never know if the owner is a sweet lady who is going to serve you fried eggs in the morning or a mis-employed prison guard who will track your every step with an evil glance and start vacuuming at 8am without bothering to switch off the deafening TV. On the subject of lodging: our friends suggested we try a place with magic fingers, but they are not easy to find. Nowadays even the oldest dump advertises its free broadband. At least this is what we prefer to think after seeing a sign proclaiming availability of a highspeed breakfast. These has to mean two separate and familiar things, right?
We decide to spend couple of nights in the Chisos Basin in the Big Bend National Park. It takes us almost 2 days to get here and we are not leaving without having a closer look. The park stretches from Rio Grande north. There is a desert here, but there are also very picturesque mountains. Chisos Range is the highest and the most beautiful. And since the park was created by the CCC it’s all about public access: there is a road leading to the basin, a hotel and some cabins. The lack of the Internet is more than made up by the sunsets views and night sky full of blinking stars. We try to sleep with our windows open but unfortunately some people insist on using AC despite the fact that we are over 5500 feet above the sea level and temperature drops comfortably at night. I suspect many guests have absolutely no idea that one can open a window.
Grandfather Mountain trails are marked permit required on the map. I thought: finally, someone protects over billion years old (one of the oldest on the planet) mountain from destruction. It turns out it’s only profit that’s protected. The mountain is privately owned and, as such ventures do, offers numerous attractions including road access to the summit, swinging bridge over a gorge and local animals’ habitats. Seemingly in transition toward a more discerning public as selling food to people to feed bears begging for it is being replaced by educational programs called enrichments. It’s not clear who’s being enriched as the entry fee leaves you undeniably $15 poorer while animals, with the exception of overfed bears, don’t look particularly happy.
Americans practically live in their cars. Or at least they eat and drink in them, besides commuting over ridiculously large distance (half an hour one way being on the short side). The number of cup holders often exceeds the number of passengers (2010 Honda Odyssey has 13 cup holders for 8 passengers). It’s no wonder that the most visited national park is Blue Ridge Parkway where one can commune with nature not leaving one’s car.