Frozen Desert

Frozen Desert

The contents of my pack lay scattered across the sidewalk. There’s a slit of sun cutting across the path and I’ve strategically placed myself onto this thin slice of warmth. I’m shifting items around into various piles, taking moments to enjoy feeling the sun creeping into the sky, slowly warming the frigid air around me. A park service truck pulls up behind Sanchez’s Sprinter, a man steps out, eyeing us, and he doesn’t seem to be pleased that we’ve decided to take over the entrance to the seasonally closed visitors’ center. He approaches us, and his look of discontent does not fade until after he gestures for a handshake, placing cookies into Sanchez’s palm while saying, “Merry Christmas.” It is indeed Xmas morning, and I’m starting off the day with the best gift- my recent tradition of camping and hiking on a day that I would otherwise dread.

Besides the cookies, the ranger also leaves us with a local map, safety tips, confidence that the Sprinter can handle the gravel road to the trailhead and his personal approval of our decision to hike and camp in the Needles region of the Canyonlands National Park in the winter. We flip through the charts for backcountry permit reservations, the boxes are all empty for the weeks shown; we mark off December 25 and 26. Soon after, we are on the trail- it’s a short climb in the beginning, the snow is packed down on the rocks forming a nice slick surface in all the wrong places. Moments later we are hiking across a large flat rock surface that must bathe in the sun for hours each day because the snow is absent and we’re throwing our packs down and peeling off our layers. After a couple of miles, we arrive to our campsite region and scout out a sunny spot with the least amount of snow, only to realize the next day that the sun wouldn’t hit this spot until the late morning.

canyonlands

Camp is set and we hike a few miles to Druid Arch and back. The path mostly follows the frozen creek and Sanchez finds joy in breaking the ice that has formed between the rocks. He searches to find a large patch that will have the perfect shatter as he jumps onto it, the sound of the crash echoing into the quietness around us. We become aware that we are close to Druid Arch when the trail starts to quickly gain in elevation. I over analyze each icy step as I make my way up the pile of boulders that tower in front of me. We are in the shadows, but gazing upward I can see sunlight at the top. Upon reaching this cast of light, I am also struck with the intensity of the arch. The sun is beginning to set and I’m placed between the arch and its shadow that is transcending upon the rock wall behind me.

Druid Arch Trail

shadow

Druid Arch

We return to our tent in the dark, the cold is quickly filling the night air around us as if the sun had never existed. I immediately add my layers back on before my body begins to feel the cold. Some tea and soup keep me warm for a bit longer, but then all I can think about is burrowing into my sleeping bag. My feet are already freezing by this point, and I realize there is no hope for them – forever doomed with my poor circulation. But let’s pretend that I slept great and I was warm all through the night. Nevermind that it was in the single digits, what mattered was that I was surrounded by the vastness of the Canyonlands and I would climb out of the tent the next morning to find a patch of sun to warm me once again.

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Keeping With New Tradition

The smell of adventure still lingers, as I let down my hair I catch the fragrance of a campfire- the smell of smoke tangled in my curls.  The smell is faint, as I returned to Braddock this afternoon and stood under the hot shower rinsing away the scents of my last 24 hours, the humidity and smell of smoke mixing together, filling the room.

Two years ago, I found myself at Caddo Lake State Park in Texas with Matt.  My knee destroyed, we spent 3 nights there, overlapping xmas and realizing how wonderful it is to avoid the mass consumerism of the holidays, the stress of families, the guilt of not doing (“buying”) enough-  all of that is forgotten when you are camping and on a bike tour.  It didn’t matter that the temperature ranged from 20-40F and that it sleeted on us- we had a camp fire, delicious hot dinners and nature surrounding us.  I promised myself that I would spend every xmas after this one camping.

Last year I failed to camp, and I felt disappointed in myself.  This year was different.  I needed to camp.  I needed to hike in the forest.  I needed to breath in the crisp cold air and eat a hot meal perched next to a fire.  Most people tell you that it’s too cold or that you are crazy but Alex was thrilled on the idea of winter camping with me, as was I that she would join me on this adventure.

Arriving in Raccoon Creek State Park, sleet steadily falling, we expressed excitement that a thin layer of snow blanketed the area- a coat of white with bits of greens and browns bursting through.  We caught glimpses of icicles hanging over the edges of moss covered rocks and as the pavement turned to gravel we noted that we were the only ones camping in the park.  We wouldn’t see anyone else until the next morning, driving out of the park.

Armed with waterproof jackets and layers of warmth, we assembled the tent as quickly as possible to keep the rain out.  Before the sun set we were able to go on a quick hike and assemble our fortress against the rain that would allow us to keep dry on the picnic table and enjoy dinner and conversation next to the fire during the rain/sleet/snow.  With my hatchet we chopped apart a small downed tree- tying the parts to the picnic table after scraping off the snow we draped a tarp over the logs to create our shelter.  We felt accomplished and satisfied with our work, minus the few times when the wind would shift blowing the smoke directly into our little fortress.

It took more time that I had hoped it would, but soon enough we had a fire to keep us warm (in the 30F night) and it would also provide us with our dinner for the evening:  hobo pie pizzas (pizza sauce, daiya “cheese”, onions, garlic and fresh basil) followed by vegan s’mores.  A few steps away from the fire and within seconds you’d realize just how cold your surroundings were, so we spent the evening hovered around the fire snacking and enjoying being away from the city.  Around 10pm the rain had given up, leaving behind a fog covered forest- the moon was shrouded in this fog but its light illuminated, reflecting off the moisture, creating light in the evening that made us question if we had just stayed up all night until it was 6am.  We checked our watches doubting the time of day, I stood up away from the fire, mesmerized that I could see everything around me without my headlamp when earlier I had to use my light to reach for something a few feet away- the outlines of trees, the tent, even the trail head off in the distance was visible.  It was beautiful and gave me a sudden burst of energy-  I wanted to go for a hike, yet the chance of more rain and the comfort of the fire brought me back to a mode of relaxation.

In the tent and burrowed into our sleeping bags, we could see our breath, hear a barred owl calling,  and struggled to find ways to keep our feet warm.  Tying our jackets around the foot of the sleeping bags offered a bit of a shield but with my poor circulation, it’s never enough.  We awoke around 3am to our bladders screaming at us to brave the cold, dashing outside kept us awake for another hour or so before we drifted into our second sleep.  Waking up in a tent, bundled against the cold on any morning brings a smile to my face.  We had tea, oatmeal and a hike to look forward to before departing the forest.  Opening the rain fly of my tent and entering the forest is better than any present that I could open under an xmas tree.