An American Adventure: Part Four

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

I was 9 years old and seeing the mountains of Colorado for the first time the last time I was here. Frankly, the only thing I remember of it from back then is the name. It kind of scared me.


It is a National Park, a deep gorge, a wild river, a cross-section of geography, and a wilderness where humans are temporary visitors at best. From the Visitor Center parking lot, a glimpse of the scale of  its depth is merely a tease. 


After a good night’s sleep, we walked the canyon rim from the campgrounds to the Visitor Center and got a closer look. 

The early morning silence, the delicate frost in the shadows, the warm fragrance of juniper and sage, the glimmer of rushing water at the canyon floor…I had stepped into a holy sanctuary that Sunday morning and wept with awe and joy…and sadness.I feel the threat to wild land as a pain deep in my gut. The river that carved this place is running high this year and being “managed” and diverted and manipulated to provide irrigation and recreation and serve a host of human needs. I don’t know how all the demands are weighed on this issue. My desire is to listen to the place itself, to let it simply Be, and to learn what I can with my brain, my heart, and my soul. 

A volunteer guided us on a wildflower walk later that afternoon and introduced us to Western species new to us. Many of the Gambel oaks had just budded when that late snowstorm hit, and their tiny, crisp, shriveled leaves looked woefully sad. They are a hardy bunch and will hopefully recover, but the acorn yield in the fall will likely be diminished. The colorful blooms along the trail seemed to be not at all harmed. 

This plant tour proved very useful. We saw a lot of Oregon grape, which is quite common and looks a lot like poison oak when it shows up as just three leaves with a reddish tinge. However, it does get additional leaves and yellow flowers which make it obviously distinct.

The campsite we found later in the Manti-La Sal National Forest was covered with it. I was glad to know I wasn’t risking a poison oak rash every time I went in the brush to pee!

An American Adventure: Part Three

Watershed and Finally…Bed. 

Since Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument had no campground, we were still looking for a place to stretch out horizontally and get some serious sleep. We decided to press on to the Gunnison National Forest. This meant crossing the Continental Divide.

I work for a land trust that focuses on the watershed of the Cedar Lakes, which includes a Sub-continental divide. Up on Washington Street, Highway 33, about two miles from my home, there is a brass plaque denoting this spot. From that hilltop, the water in the east flows down the Milwaukee River to Lake Michigan and out to the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence seaway. The water to the west of that divide flows to the Mississippi River and down to the Gulf of Mexico.  That divides the Eastern portion of the continent of North America. It is, therefore, the sub-continental divide. It’s on a hilltop. In Wisconsin. At an elevation of about 1,180 feet above sea level.

This is the Continental Divide that we drove over in Colorado. 

At 11,312 feet above sea level, it looks nothing like Wisconsin. 

So, after reaching this high point in our motor trip, we figured it was time to look for a campground. We followed the Gunnison River down the mountain at a steep decline. Every time we saw the road signs indicating a grade of 6% or more, Steve would call out “Truck on a wedge”. It sounded to me like short order diner slang, so I’d respond with “Truck on a wedge, hold the pickle!” This is what happens when you’re punchy.

After cruising the recreational areas through this canyon and downshifting to lower gears to avoid wearing down the brake pads too much, Steve noticed that the engine light on the dashboard of my 2005 Honda Accord (with 172K miles on it already) was lit up. Whaaaaat?

Decision point.  Do we press on into the early evening looking for a campground on the mountain or do we get the car into town before 5 p.m. on this Saturday night to see what that engine failure light is about? This is when I learn that I am the person who would rather have as much information as I can get before making longer term choices.

We learned at an auto parts store that the light was telling us that only the oxygen sensor has failed. The car was not going to die and leave us stranded on a mountain. The part was available (at another store). The labor wasn’t, at least not until Monday morning.  We bought the part and headed back into the mountains towards Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. We didn’t have the daylight or stamina to search for free dispersed camping in the forest this time. So we made camp in the park at a developed camp site. 

Steve was exhausted and hadn’t had dinner. Further decision-making would have to wait. 

An American Adventure: Part Two

“National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”  ― Wallace Stegner

The American landscape is spectacular. While other aspects of my country have deeply disappointed me lately, the land itself stands with timeless dignity. Preserving and respecting it is perhaps the best insurance we have against even more desperately dismal times. Experiencing our natural history firsthand teaches a kind of wisdom that is inimitable. In the face of sweeping geology, teeming biology, mysterious archaeology and the interconnection of every aspect of life, how can we not be humbled and fascinated?

FFB view

National Parks and Monuments provide opportunities to camp out at a living history museum. Steve and I prefer to spend several days in one spot and explore in depth…but this time, we didn’t do that. By the end of our two weeks, we had gone through eight national sites. The Memorial Day weekend crowds were one factor. The start of the summer season also influenced the Park Service staff resources.  Park Service rangers are the best. I love having these enthusiastic and well-informed guides on hand — they are so much better than Google! Walking through the park and asking them questions gets my inner four-year-old awake and engaged. It’s more difficult to get this kind of ranger time when they are new to their post and in training or helping out a crowd of Junior Ranger visitors. Still, each one we met was friendly, intelligent and helpful. I wish there were more of them.

FFB exhibit

Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument was the first park we visited, so I bought my inter-agency Annual Pass there. The site exhibits petrified sequoia trees and fossils from the Ecocene. My new word for that day was permineralization. Walking the trails, groggy and cramped from 30 hours in the car, was a sweet liberation.  


An American Adventure: Part One

We set out Friday, May 19 from Wisconsin at 5:00 a.m., sunrise behind us, tornadoes ahead. Crossing Kansas, the sky sat heavy and dark all around; the radio announced storm details for counties we couldn’t identify on our general road map. We drove perpendicular to them, it turns out, and emerged awed and unscathed into nighttime in Colorado. After two brief naps in the car at the side of the road, we met the sunshine in Pueblo and stopped for breakfast in Cañon City. The tourist attractions don’t impress us. We choose our town stops based on U.S. Forest Service offices. Picking up maps and asking questions is right up there with filling the gas tank and eating a meal. Although the office was not yet open, the kiosk outside was full of helpful information. After breakfast, we made our way up through Royal Gorge into the mountains toward Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. A late spring storm had dumped record-breaking inches of snow throughout the Rockies just two days before, and some roads were still impassable. We would see more consequences of that storm in the days to come. 

I try to be mindful of the adventure of traveling. It is so much more than the preparation and packing, the sights out the window and the passage of time. How do I respond to discomfort? To contrast? To expectations and disappointment? What am I looking for? What is important to me? What do I feel?

And then…how do I turn away from my ego and discover what this place is? What is its pace? Its scale? Its history? Its character?

Getting out of the car is a big step. Leaving a computer screen, a phone screen, and a windscreen behind opens up a new world. The Earth smells amazing. Heat and cold feel amazing. Being surrounded by living things is truly amazing. And that’s a good place to begin. I am amazed, humbled, ready to open up to new experience. 

Weekly Photo Challenge: Wanderlust

Ya know what I like about blogging? I get to travel the globe vicariously with some of the most adventurous. Truth is, I am not one of those. I’m over 50. I don’t have a lot of money. I have four grown children and spent my younger adult life being a stay-at-home mom. I have never done the exotic traveling that so many of my blogging friends are doing. But I’m not complaining! Next month, I am taking 3 weeks off to go on a road trip to the Canyonlands of Utah. This will be my fourth cross-country trek in nine years. I can satisfy a lot of my wanderlust just by getting into my car and camping my way across the U.S. of A. 


Weekly Photo Challenge: The Road Taken

These photo challenge subjects so often coincide with an experience I just had! I’ve just driven a rather harrowing 5.5 miles from my office back home in a white-out blizzard of Wisconsin spring snow. The county road goes up a steep incline of glacial terrain, and the snowplows hadn’t gotten to it when I and 4 others began the ascent. I was slipping sideways and barely able to get to the top in first gear with my 11-year old Honda Accord with front wheel drive. Needless to say, I wasn’t taking any photos during this journey!

Now that I’m safely home at my laptop, I’m thinking back to another wild road experience. I was so excited to travel through the Jemez mountains in New Mexico in October…the bright yellow of the cottonwood leaves, the blue sky and the red rock were absolutely stunning! The next day, we traveled the same route and were caught in a hailstorm that almost stranded us at the summit under two inches of icy pellets. Of course, I don’t have photos of that part of the trip, only the sunny splendor of the initial journey. 


scilla in NM
The Road Taken

Weekly Photo Challenge: Path

I can totally relate to Cheri’s picture of taking a boardwalk path through a fragile eco-system. 

I can also relate to my personal path changing dramatically in 2016. I, too, moved to a new place – to be closer to my job – and then experienced an abrupt twist in the path when my boss resigned.  Paths can always lead to the unexpected, even a path you’ve traveled many times before. 

Humans have a strong tendency to try to control and predict, to make crooked paths straight, to eliminate as much random chaos as possible. And that means we can often be frustrated, disappointed, or anxious on the path we’re traveling.  But we don’t have to be. We can be delighted, wonder-filled and accepting. The path is what it is. How you travel and with what baggage is up to you. 

PG hiking

Weekly Photo Challenge: Signs Along the Way

Today’s challenge is to photograph scenes that are not your destination, but are the ‘mundane moments’ in between.  This is a bit tricky, as I try very hard not to see any moment as mundane and not to focus on a destination and forget that the journey and process are very important.  I have lots of photos of the flowers along the way as well.  So, I thought I’d do something a bit different.  I’m going to show you wayside signs.  This first one is one of my favorites, located just beyond the security checkpoint at the Milwaukee airport:

RecombobIt makes you consider: what is recombobulation?  How discombobulated do you feel when you have relinquished your shoes, purse, backpack, laptop and phone and had your body scanned by electronic devices?  How about this one:

poisonHow considerate to warn cars passing on the highway that poisonous gas has leaked from these oil refineries!  But once you are passing, how do you heed the ‘Do Not Enter’ warning?  Do not enter what?  The surrounding airspace? Then there’s this:

handling batsI wonder at the necessity of this sign.  Who would manhandle a bat if they happened to come upon one in a cave?  I hate to think.  If not afraid, I would hope they’d be respectful.  And finally, consider this proposition:picnicHow would you set the table in this picnic area?  I hope you brought plenty of duct tape and napkins!

On the Way

Prepare Ye: The Way and The Wilderness

There are many different definitions of the word ‘prepare’, and all of them are about acting decisively, with a will. Make, create, be willing…take responsibility. And there are as many ways of doing that as there are people on earth, I’m sure. The ‘how’ of preparation can be accompanied by a range of attitudes.

The Boy Scout metaphor describes one point on the spectrum. “Be Prepared” is their well-known motto. What that looks like conjures an exact check list of supplies – a camping list designed to meet any foreseeable outcome. Snake bite kit? Check. Flotation device? Check. Sunscreen and thermal underwear? Check and double check. This preparation is fueled by a desire to be in control, it seems. The responses are prescribed, preferred outcomes already decided upon. “I do not want to be cold, wet, sunburned or in pain, and I am taking action now to ensure that.” That is one attitude of preparation.

room tentAnother attitude might be illustrated by The Dancer metaphor. A dancer prepares for a pirouette by checking her starting position, aligning her hips and shoulders in a grounded plié  – but not staying in that position so long that it causes her to lose momentum. What really prepares her to execute a graceful turn is years and years of practice leading up to the moment of action. That seems to me to be a distinctly different attitude of preparation.

Of course, we can embody more than one attitude of preparation at a time. We can be both Boy Scouts and Dancers, among other things, and this helps us be better prepared for the unforeseen, mysterious, dynamic journey that is Life and better prepared for ventures in the Wilderness.

I recently attended a conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act into law in the U.S. These preserved areas of natural lands and waters maintain a special character, “untrammeled” by man and distinctly autonomous. The wilderness is what it is. You cannot predict what will happen there, and you must rely on your own preparation when you visit. By law, there will not be any man-made structures, services, or systems that will provide for you or take responsibility for you. And the experience that you have as solitary and self-reliant can change your life. It is a deeply spiritual endeavor to go into the wilderness and learn from it.

wilderness threshold

Wilderness asks you two important questions: Are you willing to go there? Are you prepared? I think that the Way – whether that be Christian, Buddhist, or any other spiritual path – asks you the same questions. May your willing preparation and practice be a life-giving process, bringing you much happiness. Peace! – Priscilla

© 2014, essay and photographs, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved

Photography 101: Mystery

I can think of no better icon of mystery than the sky.  The heavens in “Big Sky Country”, the American West, give plenty of fodder for pondering mysteries of all magnitudes, from “Do you think it’s going to rain?” to “Are there other life forms on those twinkly planets?”  I wish that I had the proper equipment to photograph the night sky in New Mexico.  The number of stars visible to the naked eye is astounding.  We had a new moon night with a view of the Milky Way that was indeed mystical.  It put my own life into a different perspective.  Here’s a gallery of some mysterious skies: