Island in the Desert: Great Basin National Park

The Great Basin wildernessI haven’t been able to get my mind off of a recent long weekend trip we made to Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada. Haven’t heard of it? You’re not alone. It’s one of the least-visited parks in the country, mainly because it is so incredibly remote. The people who work at the park or at the few small service stops outside the park entrance must drive almost 70 miles just to visit a grocery store. The 85-mile drive from Delta, Utah to the park was completely devoid of civilization – not a gas station, farm, or rural shack in sight. Joseph and I both remarked that we had probably never been anywhere so remote in our lives.

Which is why we panicked a little bit when we arrived at the park and all the campgrounds were full. We had driven 4 hours to get there – where to go? Sleep in the car? Pitch a tent on the side of the road? Our hopes of breathing cool mountain air in the evenings were dashed. We were ornery from being stuck in the car, hungry, and in a hurry to find a place to settle down so we could make it to our reserved tour of Lehman Cave.

Wheeler PeakWe found our way back down to the desert valley to investigate a private campground we had heard about. It was dusty and hot, there was no fire ring, we were sleeping next to a lot filled with metal scraps and rubble. But at least we had a place to sleep. On the up side, the campground had showers, and the small administrative building had a place to buy ice and beer, and even had a little bar with draft beer.

We went off, with considerably more peace of mind, to attend our tour of Lehman Cave. It was an incredibly cool experience, led by a charming park ranger from eastern Tennessee. It was the first real cave I had ever experienced, and it was well worth the visit.

When we returned to the campground, we found some stones and built ourselves a fire ring right on the dusty ground. We set up our tent and prepared our meal for the night – a delicious chili verde cooked in our Dutch oven using actual wood coals. We had a couple of beers, begrudgingly agreeing that this wasn’t so bad. We decided to check out the little bar at the campground and be a little sociable.

Whispering Elms CampgroundYou can probably imagine the sort of colorful characters a place like this might attract. The locals – what sort of person decides to live in a tiny village of 58 people, 70 miles from a grocery store? The out-of-town adventurers who make it to a place like this are also interesting – a mountain climber, a single woman off on her own hiking adventure. So many interesting conversations, and probably one too many beers. When we finally made our way back to the campsite, we were happy as clams, and noted the incredible starscape. This area is known to have the best stargazing in the lower 48 states – the Milky Way was painted across the sky.

The next day, we went hiking up at the park’s main attraction, Wheeler Peak. Great Basin National Park was designated as such because it is considered a “superb example of a desert mountain island.” Down at the base, life is harsh, dry, and hot. As you climb in elevation, though, life is Joseph with a bristle cone pinecooler, it rains more, and a great abundance of life can survive. We drove straight up to about 10,000 feet, a climb of over 5,000 feet from our campsite, to begin our hiking. We saw beautiful alpine lakes, a unique rock glacier, and a grove of bristlecone pines containing some of the oldest living organisms in the world – over 4000 years old. I also gained some confidence – at a breath-stealing altitude of almost 11,000 feet, I could climb steep hills and technical terrain without feeling wiped out. We hiked about 7 miles that day.

We returned to our dusty little campsite, exhausted and happy. We planned a simple meal of roasted hot dogs and went to visit our bartender friend for one beer. He was a nice guy, exiled from his home of Las Vegas to this tiny village for the summer. He did everything -tended bar, registered campers, cleaned the showers, solved problems. While we sat at the bar drinking our well-earned beer, chatting with our new friend, I watched the hummingbirds fight over the feeders right outside the window, mountains in the background.

Katie on Wheeler PeakI guess the reason I can’t stop thinking about this trip is because everything about it was so unexpected. We were astonished at how remote it was. Despite my best efforts at planning, we were stuck without a campsite in the park. We thought our experience at the dusty campground would be mediocre and disappointing; instead, it was downright pleasurable and beautiful in its own way. And I surprised myself with my own strength and endurance, and got to see remote natural beauty that many people will never find.

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Getting out of Dodge (and into Nevada).

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Wendover Will

The end of winter is approaching. We haven’t traveled in months, and my legs have been visibly twitching, antsy to take off and go somewhere. For the most part, the weather has been lovely and mild for weeks now – there’s really no good reason not to hit the road.

As of Saturday morning, we had zero plans for the weekend. We slept in, made some coffee, ate a leisurely breakfast. We looked at each other and said, “So. What are we going to do this weekend?” And I spit it out, a result of weeks and weeks of not leaving Salt Lake City: “Let’s go to Nevada.” The Nevada border is less than two hours away from Salt Lake City. We’d heard about the little town of Wendover, a border town full of casinos to satisfy the needs of Utahns who aren’t allowed to gamble in Utah. Just a few miles away from Wendover are the famous Bonneville Salt Flats, where every year someone tries to break the land speed record (currently, the record is 763 mph maintained for one mile, faster than the speed of sound). Besides being a landmark site for technology and progress, the salt flats are otherworldly and bizarrely beautiful.

We booked a hotel, packed up our pup and a backpack, and drove. We drove along the southern edge of the Great Salt Lake, through miles and miles of ranch land, and even more miles of salt flats. The salt flats are huge. From the road they look sandy, flat, and desolate. They were once the bottom of the ancient Lake Bonneville, which has shrunk considerably into what is now the Great Salt Lake.

ImageWe made it to Wendover, and discovered that it was indeed a very tiny town straddling the Utah/Nevada border. It was also full of casinos, as expected. During the daylight hours, it seemed like sort of a sad, forgotten little place – no good restaurants, people who looked like the world had left them behind. We ate at a little casino diner (with surprisingly good break fast food) and checked into our quiet little hotel. We were worried that maybe the trip was going to be a bust.

But night fell, heralded in by one of the more beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen, and the whole town lit up in bright neon. Like Vegas, you can carry your open containers outside, and we visited a few casinos for some people-watching. We played the slots to get a few free drinks, and won 100 bucks in the process. Lucky us! It was a fun night, and the casinos were surprisingly lively and interesting.

The next morning, we searched in vain for a good hike in the area, but the area clearly doesn’t cater to the outdoorsy type. We gave up and drove out to the Bonneville Salt Flats viewing point, which was totally cool. Most of the flats were covered in a thin layer of water, but we could plainly see that the ground we stood on was made largely of salt. The place was lovely, great for taking photos and very much worth the stop. 

About 24 hours after we left Salt Lake, we pulled back into our driveway. It was just the sort of getaway we needed, and we got to check out some cool local landmarks!

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Honeymoon in Hawaii.

If you’re like us, you’re an adventure traveler. You want to feel like you accomplished something on your trip. Slept in a tent? Bring it on! Visited every great restaurant and beer bar in the city? Yes! Saw every famous natural landmark in a 50-mile radius? Woohoo! I have to fight this impulse every single time I travel somewhere, and I’d be a liar if I claimed anything otherwise.

All that being said, I want to tell you about a different sort of travel that I experienced for the first time in my adult life. This sort of travel means not ever really having any plans, because being in THE MOST BEAUTIFUL PLACE IN THE WORLD is good enough. You wake up to a turquoise ocean expanding out in front of you. You eat tropical fruit and eggs from up the road, watch the green turtles swimming around in the ocean below you. Volcanic islands dot the horizon in front of you, and occasionally rainbows appear in the sky. For a week, you focus on ingesting the many forms of beauty and wonder that surround you.

This is a real place. This can actually happen. It’s called Hawaii.

Among the amazing experiences we had:

Enjoying the pleasant company of the man I promised to love forever.

Enjoying the pleasant company of the man I promised to love forever.

Touring an organic fruit and coffee farm in the middle of the rainforest.

Touring an organic fruit and coffee farm in the middle of the rainforest.

Rainbow-watching from our balcony.

Rainbow-watching from our balcony.

Driving the harrowing Road to Hana along Maui's rugged, lush north coast.

Driving the harrowing Road to Hana along Maui’s rugged, lush north coast.

Sailing to a volcanic crater for snorkeling and seeing humpback whales breach out of the water right next to our boat.

Sailing to a volcanic crater for snorkeling and seeing humpback whales breach out of the water right next to our boat.

Hiking into the crater of a volcano.

Hiking into the crater of a volcano.

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Incredible Wyoming.

IMGP0010At the beginning of August, we took a three-day weekend trip up to Grand Teton National Park in northwestern Wyoming. Off the bat, I was amazed and pleased at how beautiful the drive was – two-lane roads, almost completely empty of cars. Driving through places like “Star Valley” and “Cokeville Meadows.” By the time we actually arrived at our destination, I had come to the conclusion that Wyoming must be the wildest place left in the lower 48 states.

At this point, I have a confession to make: I was terrified of encountering a grizzly bear on our trip. We would be sleeping in the woods, in a puny tent, in one of the most active IMGP0020bear areas in the country. Furthermore, a pesky grizzly bear had just been removed from the very campsite where we were planning to stay. So I was a little scared. It didn’t help that, once we arrived, there were signs EVERYWHERE warning people about bears. Our campsite had a bear box.

I’ll end the suspense: we never saw a bear. We did, however, have the good fortune of getting a campsite about 100 yards away from Jackson Lake. We weren’t able to do much hiking on this trip because dogs aren’t allowed on national park hiking trails, so we had to take joy in the simple pleasures of the trip. One of the loveliest moments we shared: IMGP0037we woke up early, to a penetrating chill (up in the Tetons, it gets very cold at night even at the height of summer). We made some coffee over our camp stove and brought it down to the lake, where we watched the morning sun light up some of the most magnificent mountains on earth.

On a different afternoon, we took a walk along the rocky shoreline of Jackson Lake, throwing sticks for Pepe to fetch out in the water. Despite the chilly nights, it was warm enough to visit the beach in a bathing suit and even wade out into the water. On a deserted stretch of beach, we found some striking evidence of the volcanic activity in the area (Yellowstone National Park being just a few miles to the north) – a spring was bubbling up from the sand, and the water coming out was HOT. It felt great on our chilly toes.

After a couple of days of gawking at the beauty all around us, we drove in to Jackson Hole for a few hours before heading home. We visited the Snake River Brewing Company, which had some fine food and even better beverages. Then we enjoyed the scenic trip home, and bid our goodbyes to the Cowboy State.

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Southern Utah: as good as I remember.

Joe getting the shotA few years ago, Joseph and I visited Moab, Utah on our way to Wisconsin, and I wrote about it here. Well, here I am again, to tell you about our second trip to Moab, complete with visits to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. 

We left Salt Lake on Thursday morning and enjoyed a leisurely 4-hour drive through the mountains to Moab. The drive is incredible – you start by winding through the Wasatch Mountain range, and eventually descend into the scrubby deserts of the Colorado Plateau. The mountains are green and alive, and the deserts are red and brown – such contrast!

We started our trip off with lunch and 90-minute massages – the perfect way to start a relaxing vacation. We checked into our favorite little hotel, the Kokopelli Lodge, for a night in town. We had a private little patio and jacuzzi right outside our room. I love that place! We spent the night out on the town, visiting the hopping Moab Brewery first, then chatted up some interesting fellows at Eddie McStiff’s who were in town for a skydiving convention. Moab is home to so many interesting people – people who live for adventure and thrills, and people who don’t want to lead a regular, traditional life. While we were in town, Moab was hosting Gay Adventure Week (Moab’s version of Gay Pride Week) and a huge skydiving convention.

DSCF1579Next day, bright and early, we dropped Pepe off at doggie daycare and set off in search of a campsite. I had a place in mind, but none of the sites in the area are reservable, so we crossed our fingers that we would find something good (or anything at all). We found ourselves winding along a narrow gravel road in a canyon just off the Colorado River, and then we found a beautiful campsite. The site was at the bottom of the canyon, and we had to cross Kane Creek to get to it. Hauling camping gear across a freezing cold creek is fun! 😉 But the site was gorgeous, with a big cottonwood tree for shade and towering red cliffs on either side.

After setting up our tent, we hauled out of there and set off for Arches National Park, where we had a 7.5 mile hike planned. We didn’t make it quite the whole way (about 6.3 miles), but we saw six incredible arches and breathtaking scenery. We scrambled up slickrock and strolled across narrow sandstone fins with steep drop-offs on both sides. We climbed into stone arches and constantly searched for the next stone cairn. It was quite an experience.

IMGP0182So, we were exhausted the next day. It was the perfect day to take the considerably longer drive to Canyonlands National Park and do a shorter, 2-mile hike to Grandview Point. More mind-blowing scenery here – I adored Canyonlands. You feel like you’re on top of the world, looking down at the wildest place on earth.

We headed back into Moab to catch the second half of the Clemson football game (go Tigers!). I enjoyed a well-deserved margarita. We spent one more night at our campsite, enjoying the burbling creek and the incredible view of the Milky Way. We started a roaring fire and melted some beer cans. It was a relaxing end to a great trip.

Our campsite.

Our campsite.

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Hello, Utah.

Hi, Utah. It’s good to be back.

For West is where we all plan to go some day. It is where you go when the land gives out and the old-field pines encroach. It is where you go when you get the letter saying: Flee, all is discovered. It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and the blood on it. It is where you go when you are told that you are a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go when you hear that thar’s gold in them-thar hills. It is where you go to grow up with the country. It is where you go to spend your old age. Or it is just where you go. -Robert Penn Warren

Canyon Rim Park

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The brandy Old Fashioned.

I can’t think of one single thing – a food, a drink, a tradition – that encapsulates Wisconsin more than the brandy Old Fashioned. The Old Fashioned is a very traditional American drink, and in the earliest recorded recipe (from 1895) it contains “a small lump of sugar with a little water in a whiskey-glass; add two dashes Angostura bitters, a small piece ice, a piece lemon-peel, one jigger whiskey.” In this country today, anywhere you order an Old Fashioned, you’ll likely get either rye whiskey or bourbon. But amazingly, cross over the Wisconsin border, and ordering that same drink will get you a very sweet cocktail made with Korbel brandy. This is almost universally true.

I wanted to know how this happened. How did Wisconsinites become so hooked on brandy?  Korbel exports fully 40% of all brandy it produces to Wisconsin. Why is this? Is there some historical significance to this love of brandy?

Why, yes! At the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, the Korbel brothers of California debuted their wine and brandy. Many German-American immigrants visited the World’s Fair that year, and, as you learned in my previous post, Germans were quite numerous in Wisconsin. The story goes that the popularity of Korbel brandy among Germans led to the rise in popularity of brandy in Wisconsin.

Not only did this event lead to Wisconsinites’ deep love of brandy, but it made the brandy Old Fashioned the single most popular cocktail in Wisconsin. As New York Times blogger Toby Cecchini puts it in his post Case Study: The Old Fashioned, Wisconsin Style, “It was what people drank before and after football games or ice fishing…It’s a Wisconsin artifact that still holds pride of place in old-time timberline culture, alongside muskie fishing, deer hunting and the Friday-night fish fry at the supper club.”

Wisconsin Brandy Old Fashioned (Sweet)

Muddle a bar spoon full of sugar, 2-3 dashes of Angostura bitters, an orange wedge, and a maraschino cherry at the bottom of an old fashioned glass. Add 1.5-2 ounces of (preferably Korbel) brandy. Fill the glass with ice and top with lemon-lime soda.

Variations:

  • For a brandy old fashioned sour, replace lemon-lime soda with sour mix.
  • For a brandy old fashioned press (short for Presbyterian), top with half lemon-lime soda and half seltzer.
  • For a brandy old fashioned soda, top with only seltzer.
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