“Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien
Far off the major highways, in deep woods and high mountain forests, lie some of my favorite back country roads.
Paved roads in remote places in the American West lead to canyons and deserts where the human population is minimal and natural landscapes stand out.
Sometimes a back country road is a little more than your vehicle can handle. Use caution!
My very favorite back country road is the gravel lane where my mailbox stands. I’m grateful to have a home far from the heavy thoroughfares where noise and stress oppress the environment.
Thank you to the Lens-Artists guest hosts this week, Wandering Dawgs, for inviting us to share our back road adventures. Happy travelling, all, and safe home again!
“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, 1983
For this week’s photo challenge, Ann-Christine invites us to pick our own theme. I am pleased to show my enthusiasm for the National Park system here in the United States and choose “Pick a Park” as my theme. I have visited many of them across the nation, from Acadia National Park in Maine when I was a preschooler to Pinnacles National Park in California, which was designated a National Park rather than a National Monument in January 2013, the year before I visited. I have also visited a number of other nationally preserved sites – monuments, shores, riverways, caves…but not battlefields. I have participated in citizen science finding fossils at Badlands National Park; gone spelunking at Mammoth Cave, Carlsbad Caverns, and Wind Cave; witnessed geothermal activity at Yellowstone and Hawaii Volcanoes; rode a horse through Bryce Canyon; sailed around the Apostle Islands; camped in the Canyon of the Ancients; picnicked at Capital Reefs; hiked around the Grand Canyon and the Rocky Mountains; and taken pictures at all those sites. And that’s just a small sampling of ways to interact with these astonishing Earth displays. Perhaps you may be planning a visit to one of our Parks yourself to do an activity I’ve never even tried!
“The American way of life consists of something that goes greatly beyond the mere obtaining of the necessities of existence. If it means anything, it means that America presents to its citizens an opportunity to grow mentally and spiritually, as well as physically. The National Park System and the work of the National Park Service constitute one of the Federal Government’s important contributions to that opportunity. Together they make it possible for all Americans–millions of them at first-hand–to enjoy unspoiled the great scenic places of the Nation…. The National Park System also provides, through areas that are significant in history and prehistory, a physical as well as spiritual linking of present-day Americans with the past of their country.”
Newton B. Drury, NPS Director, 1940-1951
The southern portion of Badlands National Park is jointly managed by the National Park and by the Oglala Lakota. The hope was that one day this section of the park would be the first Tribal National Park in the country. Those plans have not yet become a reality. The northern unit of the park hosts the scientific interpretation of the land and holds all of the associated resources you’d expect at a National Park.
The southern unit is entirely within the Pine Ridge Reservation. At the White River Visitor Center, you can hear the historical interpretation of the people of this area, from paleo-Indians to European settlers to US Army Air Force troops in WWII who used the reservation land for a gunnery range and bombing practice. Just under 350,000 acres were acquired by eminent domain from the Oglala Lakota in 1942 on the pretext that it was “unused, unoccupied, and blighted”.
Wounded Knee is not within the boundaries of the Park. Its history is told in signs, tombstones, graffiti and the living words of people who live in extreme poverty, mistrustful of neighbors and governments and directly impacted by changes in climate and habitat for the animals that provide their sustenance. I am grateful to Mr. Apple (age 25) and Mr. Fast Horse (age 13) for sharing their story.
My heart aches for these people, for their wounded dignity, for their invisibility, for their spoiled livelihood. That “living off the land” was ever possible for humans in this place year-round is doubtful, especially after the buffalo herds were decimated by European immigrants. This is an area of seasonal extremes, a place to which you’d make a sacred pilgrimage, spend a time in awe, and respectfully vacate.
To see the land as sacred, wild, and autonomous allows an attitude of humility to flourish and banishes thoughts of domination, extraction and exploitation. It brings truer balance and harmony to the relationship. Perhaps from this new understanding, a more sustainable future will develop for our species.
We entered Canyonlands National Park in The Needles district on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend and sought to get ourselves acquainted with the short trails along the main road before heavier traffic arrived. There is a self-guided nature trail showing typical flora & fauna and a Native granary and a trail to a cowboy campground just off the paved road. All around are the beautiful layered and eroded rock formations that give this section of the park its name.
All of these seemed to serve as an introduction to the landscape, but every long view we got that day made us eager to leave the paved road and the congested trail loops and get out further and deeper into this tremendous terrain.
So we decided to head up to our cooler campground for the afternoon and get a very early start the next day on a longer hike.
Steve has been telling me about Hovenweep National Monument for as long as I’ve known him. It’s his favorite. He hadn’t seen it for 26 years, though, and was anxious to know how “progress” had changed it. What he remembered was a sort of shack out in the middle of “nowhere” staffed by a few Park Service rangers and visiting archaeologists. The roads were unpaved, and the ruin sites widely spread apart. We discovered that the roads were updated, because our map dates from 1990. Signs clearly mark the way, but it is still far from any town. The rural school bus was just ahead of us, and free-grazing livestock lined the roadway.
The Visitor Center is new. And the rangers are young and have no memory or pictures of what it used to be like.
The roads connecting the ruin sites are still dirt roads, though. We elected to walk the trails instead, and set off on an 8-mile (round trip) desert walk…which ended up to be a 10-mile one because we veered off the path down a wash and ended up at a barbed wire fence and then retraced our steps. That was an interesting part of the journey of awareness as well. How do you feel when you suspect you’re off the trail? How does your mental state effect your pace, your energy? What does a well-traveled path offer you psychologically and physically? When we had completed this hike, which was the longest of our trip, I felt truly exhilarated. My face was pretty red, I had gnat bites on my calves (that haven’t faded yet), and my knees and hips were a bit sore, but I was thrilled! This desert is a vibrant ecosystem, hosting many interesting plants and animals…including around 2500 human animals at one point, about 750 years ago. Have a look:
Canyons of the Ancients
Initially, when I proposed this trip to Steve, I said I wanted to see “Canyonlands”. I had just finished reading another Ed Abbey novel, The Fool’s Progress, after having submerged myself in Desert Solitaire late last summer. What I began to realize as our journey went on is that the American West is full of canyons of many descriptions. The rock type, the elevation, the water speed and volume – lots of things effect how a canyon is formed and what kind of environment is created around it.
Our campsite in the Black Canyon was visited by mule deer (just as we were setting about making dinner – obviously they were not shy!) foraging for vegetation and shaded by pinyon pines and serviceberry bushes at an elevation of about 9,000 feet. Our next campsite was on B.L.M. (Bureau of Land Management) land near Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, one canyon west of Sand Canyon. We were on a rock outcropping surrounded by juniper and yucca at an elevation of about 6,500 feet.
Oh, but before we got down to that level, we drove through Telluride. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, it’s a swanky ski resort town. The storm the week before had left the mountaintops covered in white, while the spring green aspen leaves were bright in the sunlight. It was a truly spectacular drive!
Descending to drier, warmer temperatures near the Four Corners region brought a dramatic change in the landscape. Steve started getting really excited; this is the country of his heart – the high desert of the Colorado Plateau. He became enamored of this place more than 25 years ago while volunteering on archaeology projects. He seems to thrive in the heat, both physically and emotionally.
We scouted through BLM roads and discovered a campsite on the rim of this little canyon. This is public land. There is no fee for camping here. Cattle were grazing in the area, but this side of the dirt road didn’t have much grass. There were some trails for ATVs and dirt bikes in the area, too, but not near the rim. It was Monday, so weekend recreation was over; we saw only three vehicles in three days. There’s no running water and no latrine, but someone had already made a fire circle and there was plenty of juniper and Gambel oak to gather for firewood. This is just what we look for in dispersed camping.