Thursday, August 31, 2017

Camping - or Sightseeing?

Finding time for a nap on Two Jack Lake - Banff
I think I've figured out the difference between camping and sightseeing. Either one is fine with me - how they meld together into one ten day trip is harder to pin down.

Banff - Glacier - Yellowstone National Parks. That was the plan and it was way too late for me to change the timing of these trips when I realized that August was the worst possible month to put that trip into action. I was calling it a camping trip; however, it ended up being a strategically planned sightseeing trip where we had to plot out our choices and arrive at particular spots by 7 am in order to go enjoy the national park's beauty - but sleeping in a teardrop trailer every night.

Best campground south of West Yellowstone:
Upper Coffee Pot Campground
As empty-nester's - as people who can travel to these locations any time of the year - why were we there in August? That epiphany came months too late.

The good news is that each of these iconic places are worth sightseeing in. We plotted out what was important to us and got to those locations early enough to enjoy the vistas and glaciers and waterfalls without the hordes of people that would clog the trails and roads by 9 am. We hiked and took too many pictures.

Two Jack Lakeside Campground - Banff

But this didn't feel like camping.

Sure, we used our wonderful little T@b trailer - which everyone everywhere wants to talk about - but it wasn't easy to actually enjoy the camping experience when rangers will literally come and take your stuff left laying out around a campsite due to the inordinate amount of bear activity they have had. I respect the policy but part of camping is setting up your campsite - and leaving it set up to enjoy your outdoor living space.

And that was part of the price to enjoy these particular locales - and perhaps always will be. When you build at campsite in a berry patch - in bear country - chances are likely that if humans are careless they will find their belongings torn into itty-bitty pieces - perhaps while you cower in the depths of your trailer. No, that has never happened to us but the warnings were clear and ruthlessly enforced.

The other issue this summer was smoke. Perhaps it will be wildfires that mark a true summer spent in the west as fire seasons become longer and more devastating due to a warming climate. I thought about all the communities, homes and businesses that have been destroyed, the folks evacuated, the firefighters battling the many fires here in the west. I thought about those tragedies while I tried to catch my breath, my throat sore, eyes stinging, nose bleeding. I thought about all the devastation as I didn't bother taking a picture of Glacier summits or Grand Tetons mountains made hazy with hazardous air quality ratings. There was no way I could measure my annoyance against the painful devastation around us. Two days after we enjoyed a lovely meal at the Lake McDonald Lodge in Glacier - the lodge was closed due to fires. The iconic Sperry Chalet lost the battle.

So there was all that going on...

We certainly had our camping moments. Playing cards after dinner. Paddle boarding on the lake next to our campground; sitting around campfires down in Idaho where the fire restrictions finally allowed us to have said campfire - all worthy camping experiences.

Yellowstone - Midway geyser basin
Many Glaciers - beautiful morning hike ...
and only saw one mama grizzly

There were wonderful hikes and new places to see. Bear encounters to be had...

It was our own inability to relax and slow down that made this camping experience feel like it wasn't quite meeting expectations. We felt bound to the sightseeing within each national park - the must see locations - but did we actually sit in the awesome beauty and majesty and breathe it in? I can't say that we did. And with the smoke being so thick and permeating most of our travels - breathing in deeply was the last possible thing we could do.

Fountain Flats - Yellowstone... around 7 am...
Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House

No, somehow this trip was wonderfully hard. Perhaps it was packed too tightly, bound up in campground reservations fought over at 7 am on a cold January morning. And yet, we did get to places that were stunningly beautiful; we had our encounters with bears on trails and elks bugling into the night. We watched geysers erupt and gazed on vanishing glaciers. Each of these places is a national park for a reason and millions of people from around the world come to see the same things that I found wondrous as well.

Tea House Hikes in Banff

Tea House resident...

Its a balancing act - this whole notion of preservation and conservation - and the National park system has done what it can to mitigate the desires of the human horde. Having just been a couple clicks on the visitor counter at all three parks, I'll plan future trips very differently in order to balance my needs with those of everyone else.

This was a sightseeing trip masquerading as camping. Holding that thought puts my expectations in perspective.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Klaloch in June

June is turning out to be a great camping month in Washington State.
When I first moved up here from California, I was continually caught unprepared for the rainy cool days of June and there was no way you could count on good weather for long holiday weekends like Memorial Day or Fourth of July. And the coast? Forget about it - unless you had a warm, dry trailer to hang out in.

Heck that was often true in August.

Two years in a row, I've made the trek over to the Olympic coast in June for camping - and the weather has been fantastic.

The thing with camping at Klaloch in Olympic National Park is that you have to make your reservations 6 months in advance and even then it's near impossible to get one of the campsites that back up to the beach.

It's worth the hassle.

The other factor to note for June in Washington is that there are very low daytime tides later in the month.

Ruby Beach is a wonder to be explored at low tide.


 And it was nice to see some ocher sea stars among the rocks

And then there was the Hoh rainforest...

Monday, May 29, 2017

Italia - musings on culture

Along the Cinque Terre - Manarola
It surprises me how much I will miss Italy. While I'm glad not to be living out of a suitcase, I felt a certain sadness as we boarded our last flight. Yes, we were on an extended vacation, a trip many years in the making and certainly we were headed back into our routines, work, schedules - but I caught the scent of something beautiful in Italy that I simply didn't have time to fully savor.

People have been waxing practically poetic over different parts of Italy forever. I may actually have to do some reading to see if any of these writers capture what I'm still trying to put into words. I also wouldn't want to simply highlight all the wonders without acknowledging the problems that continue to nip at Italy the Country's heels. Italy, like the U.S., is a country of contrasts. Governing bodies and local communities struggle with social and economic issues. People there are grappling with a changing world, natural disasters, violence, and cultural identity - in ways that feel very familiar to my own social and political landscape back here in the states.

Here are some of my musings...

Italy is more than castles, wineries, cathedrals and archaeological ruins. One of the things I savored the most was the language. I don't speak Italian, perhaps someday I will, but it is a language that seems to favor the expression of emotion. To speak even the most basic greeting requires an emphasis on syllables that immediately proclaim engagement - certainly whether or not you are truly glad to see someone. You can't be shy with Italian - its the difference between diving in or simply sticking your toe in the water. I was shy with my Italian. Andy could speak Italian like he had spent years there - it suits his personality perfectly. He's not shy, certainly not timid. Acknowledging my internal struggle to give myself over to this expressive language had me wondering about my own reticence and who I am trying to be in the world - as opposed to just being in the world.
We wandered through Tuscany - literally wandering through the countryside on foot - and what I kept coming back to was a sense of place and community. I am a mutt of European origins whose family - say, the past 5 generations - have moved from one state to another until finally landing in the Northwest. I am well aware that the generations after me will continue to move as well. In talking to our guide, her cultural identity was based in Seina. What does it feel like to grow up and live in a region where your family has lived for all the past generations you can think of? What differences in perception and values are crafted out of those very different familial ties to place?
We meandered from ancient Etruscan burial chambers to the high end shopping district in Florence. From trains and wifi and modern wine-making operations to narrow, cobblestone roads, stone terraces and nazi bunkers. Old ways and new innovations melding together. And the communities that call these towns, villages and cities home have continued - sometimes thriving, sometimes struggling. Famine, war, plague, occupation, corruption, natural disasters, attrition - more than a couple millennium's worth of human history at its worst (and best) and still, these communities pull together and embrace their own, unique cultural identity. Look at Seina with its Palio race held in the main plaza of the city. Talk to anyone from Seina about their Contrada - or neighborhood team. It makes football fandom in the U.S. look like child's play. Look deeper and you see a city that has embraced a way for its citizens to take pride in their city and neighborhood; it's provided a venue where emotions can run high and be acted upon via a horse race that is all about luck and fortune. What a way to keep volatility focused - to channel potential civic unrest into a shared experience for the whole city.

I'm going to go out on a limb here but I tend to think of Americans as pretty idealistic. Here's another generalization - we spend more time and attention reading about national politics (with much gnashing of teeth if you are opposed to who is in charge) than we do in our local communities. I have yet to live in a community that is not filled with transplants from some other part of the world. I've lived in 9 different cities/towns, each a suburb filled with folks who lived there because of a local industry. Suburbs. I know there are folks here in the U.S. who live in the same towns that their great-grandparents lived in and there are some who can trace back even farther than that. The west coast isn't like that for descendants of white settlers like me. And so, in some ways, my sense of community is very different. My sense of cultural identity is as muddied as my heritage. It is easier, perhaps, to try to identify with a national character then a local community. "I'm American" as opposed to "I'm a Northwesterner, a Californian, a Seattle-ite, an Anacortian" (take your pick).

Yet, what I noted in Italy, and in other parts of Europe, was that the local communities are first and foremost the foundation stones of living before the sense of national identity. External conditions (like who is President or Prime Minister) change but the connections of family and community are constants. Rulers come and go, rulers shake things up, cause a little trouble, maybe do some good, but the people are going to rely on their families and local communities to see them through.

I picked up Iris Origo's War in the Val d'Orcia, a memoir written about living through the Nazi retreat in Italy by the author and her family in the province of Siena. What struck me about this particular war journal was the author's ability to share her impressions about what was happening on the national level but also the nuanced way she - and her neighbors - managed the influx of refugees, partisans, allied prisoners of war and the Nazi troops retreating before the allied front.

Talking to our city guide in Siena, she shared just how culturally embedded it is for the city - and the people - to bend like reeds under the heavy foot of invaders (even if that's the Medici family) and continue to do what it takes to live and manage their lives. Nationhood is relatively new to Italy but dealing with would-be emperors or despots is not.

For me, personally, family and community are essential in my life and yet, I haven't used those - in my own head - as cultural identifiers. With a country larger than all of Europe combined, how is it even possible to culturally identify as American? Sure, there's language, shared historical markers, social and cultural norms that come with living in what is called a first world country - but I am more aware than I ever was as to how incredibly different my world view is from people who live in other corners of this country. There is no language or shared experience that is going to change that. So why not localize my sense of identity to region, to family, to my community? In doing so, can I release some of the angst and rage I feel for the political machine that masquerades as national government? Do I begin to understand that perhaps States should have more rights in the governance of their regions? And in wondering about this, does that mean I have to give up my passionate care for the lands and issues of other states?

No. How I see my cultural identity doesn't mean I am not a citizen of this country and that the national government shouldn't function in the best interests (as I define those interests of course) for the people and the natural habitat within the boundaries of this land. I am citizen of a large federation with my cultural identity anchored on the west coast. My values and beliefs (and ideals) are shaped by both of those factors.
And - thinking about this helps me bring my idealism home to roost. Home home, as in my local region and community. It's here where those idealistic notions need to be tested and explored.

Travel out of my region and learn other ways of knowing and being.
Travel abroad and see the multitude of other values, beliefs, and ideals.
Learn, savor, and realize that my perspective on the world is limited to my own experience.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Planning for Summer

Grand Tetons
We decided that this coming summer needs to include a major camping trip. It also needs to include some National Parks - since I am hell bent on seeing each and every one of them.

2017 is going to be a Glacier-Yellowstone-Grand Teton year. With Banff included, of course. Road-tripping from Washington state makes this grouping a straightforward loop. Pulling a trailer, however, means that we can tackle this one of two ways - with reservations or not.

When it comes to National Parks - I'll go with what reservations I can make and fudge if I need to when I get there.

I started with Banff.

2017 is the year of free park entrance to all of the Canadian parks. With the popularity of Banff for summer recreation, I don't really know if the free entry had all that much to do with the sheer craziness of opening day (January 11th) on campground reservations. I was at my computer, poised over the campsite I wanted on the day I wanted and as the clocked ticked over to 7am... I literally watched the whole reservation system bog down. There I am, furiously clicking on my site and watching as other campsites turn red and unavailable. And then my site was gone. I clicked on my back-up site - and YES! - I got it. It took the system about ten minutes to put through my request but it did go through.

Canada Camping Reservations

On to Glacier and Yellowstone...

Reservations in the U.S. are handled a little differently - we have two online reservation systems - and ReserveAmerica BUT some parks - like Yellowstone - have their interior park campgrounds managed through Xanterra.. See Yellowstone Reservations here.

Good news - with Xanterra you can make the reservations in January for a trip in August. Bad news is twofold: make sure you know the exact length of your trailer and don't fudge it on your reservation and, two, in some of the campgrounds - like Bridge Bay campground - you don't get to pick your site. I'm a little nervous about that.

With and Reserve America there is a six month window that you have to use for whatever your date is. I have to wait until the end of February to pick up a couple campground reservations that takes us along the eastern side of Glacier National Park and back out the other side of the Grand Tetons.

Can't we just jump in our truck with trailer in tow and head out on a grand adventure?

Of course we could! That was how it was when I was growing up - but here's the thing: there are a lot more people pulling trailers or driving RVs now than 'way back then'. If you have a tent and a sleeping bag, you're golden for spots because there are so many areas in the west that you can find your own camp nirvana; however, with a trailer, we've got different needs that have to be met.

So many campgrounds don't take any reservations and they are often in the most beautiful locations. We check them out as we travel and if a spot is open, we grab it and cancel our other reservations. In this day and age, its not hard to find wifi somewhere and handle reservations online. Sure there is a cancellation fee - but it's not usually all that much.  The point is - I like having a plan and then putting it on the back burner, pulling it forward if needed.

It eases my mind to know that I've got a spot waiting for me - especially when heading to Yellowstone in late August. It's going to be packed with tourists and I know I'll want to high tail it out of there pretty quick - or at least down into Grand Teton where I can find a quieter campground. National Park campgrounds are usually huge, crowded and cramped. Cougar Rock at Rainer or Fruita @ Capital Reef are a couple examples (see my post on Capital Reef). There are some exceptions that I've found so far - like Arches - but I'm prepared for some crazy this coming summer. With Banff - its a matter of limited spots near the areas that I want to explore - so the reservations help me get where I want to go.

The point of a good camping trip is to get outdoors, relax and have fun. Putting a little time and energy upfront into some planning helps me do all three of those things.