Here we go again. Trying to cram some insanely ridiculous experience into a digital format. This time around, it’s backpacking in the Grand Canyon.
Yeah, you read that right.
I finally had a chance to use my EMS Habitat 65 pack for its intended use. I’d used it all summer for going out on hitch at ACE, but I honestly could have gotten away with a duffel (and did occasionally) as all my projects were front-country. I’ve never been backpacking, and minus a 4 day cycling tour after Bike & Build, I’ve never had to carry every thing I need for survival on me. You can imagine my excitement when my colleague and good friend from ACE, Tony, managed to get a backcountry pass to the Grand Canyon from one of his friends-in-high-places there. Here was my chance to go backpacking, finally go more than a quarter mile into the canyon despite working there two hitches and visiting two other times, and see those of my cronies still left in Flagstaff. Our group was to be Dave (Atlanta, GA), Sam (New Zealand), Tim (Champaign, IL), Tony (Akron, OH) and myself (Schenectady, NY). All of us had or were currently working for ACE.
Planning came in fits and starts until I actually arrived in Arizona, and met up with Dave and Sam to nail down food and supplies. Three 2-person tents for the five of us, two filtration systems, and two stoves. Miscellaneous pots and pans, my insulated measuring cup from Stanley, small bottle of Dr. Bronner’s soap and a whole heck of a lot of dehydrated food. Being on a budget, we opted for PastaSides and RiceSides from Knorr and ramen to be the bulk of our nutrition. I had taken advantage of my employee discount back at EMS and sprang for a few meals from Backpackers’ Pantry.
We leisurely made our way to the Canyon on Friday morning; we couldn’t start hiking until we picked up Tony with the backcountry pass and he didn’t finish being a supervisor for revegetation work until noon. One last meal at Wendy’s (yay!) and we went to go meet Tony at the revegetation office in the park. On our way there we passed some controlled burns of slash piles; between the grey sky, the scattered fires, bare trees and dank snow, it looked like a scene from a war movie. Nope, just the Grand Canyon.
Once at the trailhead, we reorganized a few things, distributed crampons and took dorky pictures of our packs. While it’s no surprise that the only girl on the trip would end up bringing the heaviest pack, it still boggles my mind how I managed to achieve that. I wasn’t carrying stove or filtration, my tent was the lightest (EMS’s rental Star 2 for the win!), and just 5 liters of water. I had indulged and brought two shirts, and had an extra jacket, but I still don’t understand how they would add more weight, especially with one guy having brought two (two!) books and canned food. I really didn’t bring much: sleeping bag, sleeping pad, minimal clothing, tent, dehydrated food, journal and pen, minor toiletries, capacity for 5 liters of water… I didn’t even bring my camera! If you know me that’s saying something. Instead I took advantage of the airplane mode on my new iPhone to conserve battery and used it’s fantastic camera the whole trip. But my pack was the smallest, so points for me for efficient packing.
Our pass was for Grandview Trail, which wholeheartedly deserves its name. The views are epic, stunning, incredible: every synonym for grand would work. But the trail itself is, well, rough. Unmaintained, relentless switchbacks, slick rip rap (think wet cobbles), severe drop-offs. It’s in remarkably great shape considering that last fact, but I think if I were to pick my first-back-packing-trip-ever trail and it had to be at the Grand Canyon, I’d go with South Kaibab or Bright Angel, one of those interstate highways we call trails there. Not to diminish their difficulty, but I can guarantee they’re in better shape. Fit right in with the theme of this past summer: what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.
In my opinion, the worst part of the trail was after it drops off from Horseshoe Mesa en route to the Miners’ Spring (water! year-round! yay!) and down to where it meets up with the Tonto Trail. In fact, it was the worst part of the trip, and I seriously questioned what I had gotten myself into this time: percariously picking and scuttling my way down an unmaintained trail in November in the Grand Canyon, out of shape and unexperienced. But I made it down to the blessedly flat Tonto Trail and soon we were home for the night: Hance Creek (water! year-round! yay!).
A little sliver of paradise in the midst of such a rocky and cactus-y place: Hance Creek. A flat area underneath a majestic cottonwood tree next to the gurgling kill was our campsite of choice. I did an embarrassingly poor job setting up my tent while the boys got water into the pots immediately and set up stoves to get dinner going. After an endless rotation of lasagna for the 2.5 months of Bike & Build, I am happy to report I actually looked forward to eating its re-hydrated cousin from Backpackers’ Pantry. Post dinner journaling, a tiny sip of whisky each from Tim’s nearly empty flask and some quiet conversation to wind down the day.
I slept terribly; too many snorers in too small of a vicinity. I forgot to steal a packet of ear pro when we were at the ACE office to borrow crampons, and paid for it dearly. That and I didn’t put enough tension on the tent so my 5’10″ self was hitting both ends. But being up for sunrise into our little side canyon may have been worth it, and having a chance to explore a bit on my own was welcomed. Gradually those who did have a good night of sleep groggily poked their heads out of the their tents when it got too bright and we made breakfast. To arise with the sun and to go to sleep with the darkness, without a clock, is the best way to spend a vacation.
Our little babbling brook went around a corner a bit down from our campsite; the allure of the unknown got the better of us and we decided to explore the kill through its canyon as a morning trail-less hike. The sun was beating down, and I was too warm in pants and boots… shorts and five-fingers would have been perfect. Hindsight is 20/20! We made our way through the willows, cattails and the occasional tamarisk (die!), exploring a little side canyon of the side canyon along the way, until we hit what looked a bowl of rock. I haven’t experienced that since Washington Pass in the North Cascades on Bike & Build: being completely surrounded by mountains/canyon walls. Obviously the creek came from somewhere and it went all the way to the Colorado River, but for this moment, I couldn’t see it. Just amazing!
It was after lunch time by the time the last of our little band hiked back to camp. Our nutrition plan dictated three hot meals a day (genius, all days should be like this), so we fixed ourselves some ramen or noodles for lunch. After lunch, we broke down camp and reluctantly shouldered our packs to start hiking back up. Our goal was to make it to Horseshoe Mesa and make camp there. To do this, we had to go up yesterday’s scary bits of trail. While still compellingly difficult, it wasn’t nearly as bad as going down it. You have a lot more control going this way. I actually lifted my head and looked around! My strategy for getting through long climbs on the bicycle/trail is to sing one of my sorority’s recruitment songs over and over again; after a while it’s the auditory version of wallpaper and I stop thinking about how hard I’m working. “With a D and an E and L-T-A, G-A-M-M-A, oh Delta Gamma, that’s what I am-a…” I can only recall a handful of songs to mind, else I would have picked something with more verses.
The cloudless sky of the morning was slowly being covered by clouds, and the wind was picking up by the time we got to Horseshoe Mesa. We discovered the ruins of an old stone mining house and were preparing to set up camp in there when we realized there’s an establishing camping area down a path. Probably for the best; while the four low walls of the structure would have provided the best protection from the wind, I felt bad about staying in a historic site and plus it threatened to rain. No roof on it anymore! After checking to see if Santa was in the chimney – no dice, bummer – we set up our real camp behind a crappy windbreak of piled rocks under a juniper. It cleared up a bit as the sun went down and we enjoyed some stargazing after dinner before turning in. Today the tent was set up much better, and foiled properly to the wind. With a single Tylenol PM in my system I drifted off to a sleep filled with unexplainably bizarre dreams. Good thing I didn’t take two.
It was much colder up here at Horseshoe Mesa: the higher elevation, wind and no protection from canyon walls made for a chilly Sunday morning. Sam and Dave were up early; they needed to be back to Flagstaff by midday to get ready to head out on hitches in New Mexico as supervisors on Monday. After some tea and good-byes, the two strongest hikers of the group headed up. Tony, Tim and I took our sweet time getting ready. Finally we had to suck it up and head out, back to society and reality and the slushy trail at the top. I was definitely tired from two nights of weird sleep and all this exercise at high elevations and whatnot, so I was happy to plod slowly up. We leap-frogged with a few other hiking groups on the trail, and I stopped to drink in the view many times. I had many of those “oh-em-gee-I’m-hiking-in-the-seventh-natural-wonder-of-the-world” moments, gazing over the rocky landscape. The last half mile was tough mentally: I was hating the rip rap at this point, and craving Nerds candy. A cloud was covering the top bit of the canyon, so after a while you couldn’t see out into the canyon. It was just a grey featureless abyss. But knowing the steep drop-offs were there made for an unnerving hike. I guess I’d rather know what I could potentially fall into. Of course my crampons weren’t cooperating and I kept having to fix them. And arriving at the trailhead hungry, thirsty, filthy and tired only to look behind me and realize I couldn’t see what I’d just hiked up – what I’d just accomplished – was a weird experience. Strangely enough there were still a lot of tourists there. For what? A grey picture? I admire their fortitude, and hope some of them were there for more than one day so that they could actually see it.
Ensconsed in the Toyota Tundra with the heat on full blast, we made a beeline for the Market. As much as I go on about industrial tourism, this palace of commercial glory was exactly what the doctor ordered: endless shelves of fatty, salty, sugary junk food. I’m sure there’s health food in there somewhere, probably even organic green things that are good for you, but I’ve never arrived at this place in a state to look for things like that. So, armed with a raspberry canned ice tea, a box of glazed donuts, a package of Nerds (finally!), packet of Dorito’s and two hot dogs, I tucked into the spread while Tony and Tim indulged their junk food desires as well. It remains one of the top 10 junk food binges of my life.
We toddled our way back out to the truck and headed over to the labor cabins, where they are putting up the ACE reveg crews these days. We enjoyed some bluegrass, Tiger Balm and the space heater before it was time to head back to Flagstaff. More on that later! This whole trip was an amazing experience, but there’s so much more of the canyon to see. For a place I was so underwhelmed with the first time I laid eyes upon it, I am now overwhelmed with how much there’s left to see. Heck, I didn’t even see the Colorado on this trip! Of course, this how I feel with Zion, Glacier, North Cascades, Teddy Roosevelt, Yosemite, Coconino National Forest, Adirondacks, America…
Major Lessons Learned About Backpacking/Hiking in the Grand Canyon During Shoulder Season:
Only you can prevent forest fires,
I have finished my 900 hours to satisfy my contractual agreements for AmeriCorps. My service at American Conservation Experience is over.
Shall I? I shall, and let’s start with the bad. The absolute worst part of ACE was that everyone leaves on you. All the volunteers are here only for three months; it was especially hard when the group with whom I arrived began to leave. But conversely, my friends were the best part of ACE. I especially loved working with the international volunteers; to learn about their culture while working alongside them. To realize that laughter and smiles are the universal language here, not English. To be inspired by how hard some of them would work to conserve the lands of a country not their own.
To work with my hands, and better yet, outdoors, has been a dream of mine. I do not sit still well, and I have always enjoyed the arts. While conservation is not an art project, it is also not an exact science, requiring creativity. And who says there is no beauty in a well-tied anchor on a fencing brace? Or the mundane rock wall which holds together the trail? I firmly believe that the best field of study before conservation work would be sculpture. To chisel rock, to twist wire, to build strength and capacity in one’s hands. Environmental studies degrees (or non-related degrees) are honorable, yes, but the study of policy does not translate as directly. I will confirm that even my study of parks for work and school was of no help when I needed to service the pionjar drill to fence up a park. Everyone should learn a manual trade: It’s never too late to become an honest person.
These past six months have tried my resolve and patience at times, as Bike & Build did, as graduate school did, as competitive swimming did. It seems an unavoidable part of life. I have always been an endurance athlete, much better suited to the long slog than the quick bursts of anaerobic activity that is rock work. On a project at 8500 feet, I struggled with symptoms of altitude sickness, most especially lassitude. I’ve had crews that don’t bond or were lazy, and I’ve had guys on my projects take tools out of my hand because I was female. There were times when I just couldn’t take communal living any longer; pray, tell me, just exactly how hard is it to do your own dishes?
But without the struggles, how can one appreciate the good? The glowing review on the work from a project partner; the cheesecake your roommate bought for you after an off-hand remark you’d wished you had some on project. Sleeping with 23 crew-mates outside on a hill just to see the sunrise. Learning to sleep in a tent, to sleep outside, seeing the stars, the sunset, the moon. Their home was the tent, and the tent was always moving. Shopping with your girl-friends at all the funky boutiques downtown or even Kohl’s, the Biff’s bagels and laundromat routine, lingering over prickly pear margaritas at crew dinner at Cafe Ole. Two-step at the Lumberyard, reunions at the Green Room. Learning funny phrases in foreign languages, road trips to Zion NP and Yosemite NP. Being in charge of a pionjar crew that drilled 89 holes in 5 days without a single stuck drill bit (beat that one!).
I cannot leave out the true main character here: the Southwestern landscape. In a land where survival is not certain, one cannot help but have the most utmost respect for Mother Nature. This is a harsh land, where the plants, animals and weather all seem to be teaming up at times, or all the time, to kill you. If that seems a bit dramatic, please join me for a 10-hour work day in 100 degree heat where nothing is taller than your knee, and probably spiky at that. You’ll see. But the rattlers, the cacti spikes, the heat- they cannot hold a candle to cedar gnats. Nothing will drive you mad faster than tiny insects aiming for your nose, ears, eyes, mouth: any place with a hint of moisture. When using two kinds of insect repellent at once will not cut it, you know you’re in for it.
The scariness and intensity of the desert here intimidated me at first. I was pretty ambivalent about the whole lack-of-water-and-shade situation. With time, I became more comfortable, even to the point of thinking it beautiful. The delicate blooms of the prickly pear, the scent of sagebrush, the elegance of the yucca, all set amongst rocks so dramatic as to outshine the flowers. The next step up, the pinyon-juniper woodland, its twisted boughs surviving fires and lightning strikes. And I cannot leave out the mighty Ponderosa, with its vanilla scent and orange bark, and the aspens and oaks nestled among them. When deciding between mountains and oceans, I might, as my literary hero Abbey would, choose desert. Maybe.
In a perfect touch of pathetic fallacy, it has rained quite a bit since I arrived back in upstate New York, my lay-over until my next adventure. I am sitting here, in the excess that is the 21st century, longing for the times when I lived out of a small duffel, or the panniers on my bicycle, or my rucksack. The simplicity that is living outdoors. I cannot help but to again resolve to do everything I can to preserve what I love – this beautiful world we have been given – for everyone else. Be it as a neighborhood planner, a park designer, a land steward or a conservation worker, the goal is the same: to protect for conservation, recreation and education.
I hope I have been able to convey what I’ve experienced this summer in this blog, and thank you for reading. In this post, I snuck in two quotes from the two authors who inspired me the most this summer: Edward Abbey and Gretel Ehrlich. Do read their work. I hope that you, too, have fallen a little bit in love with the Southwest, or even better, the concept of conservation. I don’t know where I’m going next, but let us wish for some place just as grand so I have lots about which to write and photograph.
Until next time,
What a way to end ACE.
As of the Wednesday we left for this project, I had 899 out of 900 hours completed for AmeriCorps, all with the stipulation that it was within the bounds of Arizona. I offered to do another project, but only if I could leave the state, and if it was a cool project. Zion Revegetation fit the bill: one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, great supervisor and revegetation is pretty laid-back work. It turned out to be even better than expected: the NPS staff we worked with were so fun and friendly, and took great care of us. Combine that with a fun crew and the stunning backdrop of the rust-streaked canyon walls and well, you’ve got one for the books.
Our work involved collecting seeds out in the wild and in the increase field (basically a garden of natural grasses), scattering seeds in the campgrounds and in prescribed burn sites, transplanting prickly pear cacti pads (with BBQ tongs, natch), planting grasses at Cedar Breaks National Monument, and other miscellaneous tasks. I spent my last day of work directing traffic for the Park Service invasive species crew so that they could spray for cheat grass along the road in Zion Canyon. Far cry from my first day of work: hauling t-posts for a fence across the Mojave desert. Or not. Things always come full circle.
I really enjoyed the work on this project. Like my other revegetation project, it’s the only time I really feel like a conservation worker. It was really inspiring when one of the NPS workers showed me a field ACE had seeded just two years ago at Cedar Breaks and it was so verdant and lush. The barren fields we seeded will be like that soon, and I will be back to check in on them.
I know I’ve written about Zion before, but I just can’t get over it. It really is the beauty of the west – those rugged rocks – with my favorite things about the east – the lush green. The river forges its course through sheer walls of red-streaked rock, and each night the wind cycles through the warm air on the canyon floor to the cold air above. The mule deer wander about, foraging to try to nourish their emaciated frames. Turkeys trot about, and stop traffic every time. A silver fox dots across the road, and pay attention! there’s a shuttle bus coming, and you need to avoid a crash by the invasive species crew’s spray truck. Radio a message to Brian to confirm its clear, wave it through, and its back to admiring the flora and fauna.
With one last check to see we’ve got all the cooking utensils and food we’ll need to make our dinner, we load into the van and head over to the NPS residential area. At the last house on the left, we park and tumble out, excited to share our dinner with two of the rangers with whom we’ve worked. Inside, we marvel at the couches inside this dormitory built by the CCC in the ’30s, and enjoy nachos while we cook our grilled cheese and tomato soup. After eating our fill, we wander out to their back patio to roast marshmallows and jam on harmonicas and laugh. At 10p, we reluctantly head back to our campsite, but 7a comes around far too quickly to stay out any later.
Another highlight was having Sunday afternoon off. After anxiously checking our watches too many times to count, 12:30 rolled around and we were free for the afternoon! One of the most famous hikes at Zion is the Narrows: wading through the Virgin River north of the main canyon road through a slot canyon. As the hike is in a river, you have to pack really light, and I wore my Vibram fivefinger shoes. I stuffed a waterbottle into our team’s medical kit and we headed out in the van, using our awesome upcanyon parking pass to drive straight there. After a mile stroll down a paved path along the river, we began the real hike. Wading upstream for two hours is tiring work, but insanely fun. At one point we had to traverse a section chest-deep of water! I hiked sweep with the slower group, and we had a grand time exploring. It was by far one of the most fun hikes I’ve ever gone on, and I hope to come back someday to do a backcountry hike of the entire Narrows (you get to camp on sand bars!).
An enormous thank you goes out to all who made this my favorite project at ACE.
Love & rockets,
The American West is big. And there’s a lot of big things there. I realize this a bit asinine but bear with me. For example, the Grand Canyon. Let’s just say you need to work on the opposite side of it from where you are right now. You know, about 4-5 hours as the crow flies. Well, get ready for a road trip, because it’s going to take you seven hours and twice crossing the Arizona & Utah state lines each in order to get to St. George, let alone the nearly three hours completing the last 80 miles because it’s what they call primitive roads: dirt/gravel roads infrequently maintained. Oh my. Oh and I just got van training and four wheel drive training the day before, and still never driven with a trailer, so, um, okay? I’ll drive? Luckily my colleague and friend Paul was my driving buddy in the “VIP” Chevy Suburban with trailer #5 combination, so we were able to switch off every few hours.
Incidentally, we barely left Coconino County. I feel like an entire state could fit in the space of our county. I don’t know, maybe Delware? Can someone confirm this? It’s nuts, to have driven six hours already from Flagstaff, and still see Coconino County police cars.
Grand Canyon Parashant National Monument: interesting to go to work for what sounds like a National Park Service project and find out you’re working for the Bureau of Land Management, and to not see the Grand Canyon at all despite its presence in the formal title of this million plus acre site. All around a hitch full of surprises.
Like the pionjar, Parashant often gets a bad reputation. It’s so remote, the job isn’t the most exciting and the drive is endless. But there is something about projects/tools/etc that no one else likes that makes me want to enjoy it. Maybe I just like toe be difficult. I don’t know. Regardless, I rather enjoyed this hitch: it’s absolutely beautiful in Parashant. We spent a lot of time in the usual pinyon-juniper environment to which I’ve become accustomed, and there were groves of both oak trees and ponderosa pines scattered about. The best part was the day it rained. Scent is a powerful driver of memory and emotion, and it’s hard to think back on this project without remembering the spice of the sagebrush after the rain. Like the day we cycled Glacier National Park last summer, I spent more time sniffing the air than I care to admit. Is there some way to bottle that intoxicating pine scent of Going-to-the-Sun Road or the snappy spice of the sagebrush along our fence line?
Most of my work this week was actually pro-bono for our project partner. A previous crew hadn’t completed a fence correctly, and so we were following up and adjusting the heights of the wires to the right spots. I ran a little crew composed of two T-post adjusters with measuring sticks with two more following behind adjusting the stays on the fence to be parallel. The last day of work was quite hectic, as we had a lot to do in a short time, but we got it done, with some extra help!
Our crew this week represented Colorado, Illinois, upstate New York (me!), England, Spain, Netherlands, Denmark, Korea, Belgium, France and Iceland. It was 12 very hungry guys, and a tiny Danish girl and myself. A bit tight around dinner time – most of the time there’s a ton left over – but no one went hungry. The last night we finished work an hour early and drove the 3 hours out to St. George for dinner at Five Guys and camping alongside the road on a hill overlooking the city:
Next hitch will be my last, and as I finished my 900 hours of service early, I will be able to leave the state and go on a fun project! I will be collecting seeds and planting at Zion National Park and Cedar Breaks National Park up in Utah – I am quite excited.
Remember that one time we didn’t do anything? Yeah, that was Monday, on project at Walnut Canyon National Monument. As the swamper for Jenny Lynn and Tony, I sat around for, well, nearly the entire day while they dealt with their broken chainsaw named Stetson. Stetson’s faceplate wouldn’t fit back on because the chain brake was broken. Our saw lady picked us up from our work site and drove us back into town to go to the chainsaw store to get new parts for Stetson to finish our day.
Stetson was back up and running the next day, and so was our little team. We were tasked with removing fallen trees from the fence, and then re-tightening the wire. To re-tighten the wire, you have to cut it, then you use a stretching tool to pull it taut, and then wrap the two ends of wire around each other to hold the tension. Unfortunately, with the theme of this week being broken tools for us, the stretcher broke on the third day half way through the day. After spending nearly 45 minutes trying to fit a pin back into its spot, we gave up and hiked out. Luckily, the broken stretcher meant we left for the van at just the right time, as we walked up to it only a minute or two before the rest of the crew.
I would not hesitate to say I did far more hiking than actual work. But I did learn how to make a mean looking splice, and a lot about how stretchers work. Funny how it takes something breaking to learn the most about how it works. And the hiking was nothing to sneeze at either. We went through rather steep ravines: up and down, up and down, and some more up and down. Think scrambling and lowering your pack up and down, not just some amble up a hill.
I spent yesterday working a token extra day on the Flagstaff Loop Trail project with 3 others to finish a rock wall there. We were working on what is called a climbing turn, where the trail continues to build up grade while going through a corner instead of a flat platform at the corner, which is a switchback. I learned quite a bit in one day about trail construction, especially about turns, slopes, grades, etc. It’s pretty amazing how much thought, planning and effort it takes to construct a proper trail, yet social trails get developed all the time and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.
In other news, I am currently halfway through a Wildnerness First Aid course, learning how to apply tourniquets and improvise backboards with cache haulers. Between the extra day of work this week, this medical course and the fact that I only took 4 days of vacation time, I am only 10 working days away from completing my 900 hours of Americorps service. Can you believe it? 900 felt like an impossibly large number back in April, and here I am, 10 working days left and nearly a month within which to complete them. Yippie!
I really need to get into mountain biking. I got the whole cycle touring thing down, and even did a triathlon. Done a lot of bike commuting in my day, and long road rides. Still, my tires have never been wider than 25s, and after a week of building a mountain bike trail, I think it’s time to give it a go.
We had a 4 day project working on the Flagstaff Loop Trail this past week. I started a day later because one of my Bike & Build teammates came into town to visit! Plus we saw the Maine to Santa Barbara route as they came through Flagstaff, and went to see the Grand Canyon after.
On Tuesday, Jess and I were sitting on my back porch, planning on heading to the climbing gym to go bouldering when one of the senior staff came outside and asked me if I could be ready for project in 45 minutes because our director was going to drive me to the project. Gulp. I threw my things into my pack rather haphazardly and was waiting in the living room in 40 minutes. Go me!
After bouncing down some rutted roads in the backseat of my boss’ truck, we arrived at the work site. A crew of 14 was swarming all over the work site, busily making tread, adjusting backslope, moving rocks. Our goal was to complete 1,000 feet of this mountain bike trail in four days.
We just about completed our goal but for a few turns (can’t make them too narrow/steep/etc. as bikes can only turn so close without falling over) and a rock wall. I got some more time in with my beloved pionjar, this time chiseling instead of drilling. Let’s just say that chiseling is way tougher on the body than drilling, but far more exciting: breaking rocks into pieces!
On our last day of work, my fellow AmeriCorps member brought her dog to work! She was really sweet and well-behaved, never getting in the way, but always sitting nearby. Most impressively, she didn’t seem fazed by the pionjar. I hope she gets to join us at work more often!
3:40a comes mighty quickly. Didn’t I just lay down? I wince, turn off my mobile phone’s alarm, and crawl out of my sleeping bag. The zipper would be too much work anyways. Stunted by the shallow roof of the tent, I get my grease- and dirt-stained work clothes on and fumble to find the iPod speakers and my headlamp. It’s nearly 3:54 now and only a few minutes until I need to wake up my crew-mates.
Here begins another day at Wupatki National Monument for our ACE crew; my second week here. I play something guitar-y and gentle while walking past the tents, shining my headlamp on them. Unintentionally, I played songs with depressing titles in the beginning of the hitch, and just decided to carry on with the theme:
Everyone stumbles out of their tents while I finish setting up the breakfast fixings and the wash basins. A few hushed good mornings are exchanged while shoveling down our bowls of cereal but mostly it’s quiet. The supervisor starts the van at 4:55 and we load up and head down to the Wupatki visitor center.
We fill our 6-8 liters worth of water bottles at the visitor center with the warm and slightly greasy tasting well water and scoop a bit of Gatorade powder in to help cover the taste. Next it’s safety circle time; yes, we sit in a circle and talk about safety. Wear sunscreen, wear your PPE, drink water, carry your tools properly, don’t lift the post pounder above the white safety mark. It’s a bit rote after the first day, but safety is our number one priority at ACE. We stay in our circle for stretching and warm-up exercises after that. With so many international volunteers, there are many entertaining stretches. Sometimes we have a question of the day: a silly question to lighten the mood.
Back in the van and off to the worksite, bouncing down a corduroy road. The hike in isn’t all that long, but we’re required to stay single file on a flagged trail approved by archaeologists. Trudging into the desert, loaded down with tools and packs and posts, a line of matching workers in need of a shower- we must be a sight.
The work day starts, and I assemble my pionjar crew. Yes, more drilling this week. We check the drill’s spark plug and fuel needle and clean the air filter. Shake the gas can and fill the tank with the 12:1 mixture. It’s go time: I teach them how the pionjar works and how to use it. The first hole, and most of the rest, goes smoothly; if you do the pionjar boogie and clear the hole every 15 seconds, you drill clean holes with little chance of getting the drill bit stuck. This continues all day, with my crew rotating every 1-3 holes. We break at 9a, 11:30a, and 1p- that is, if I remember to check my watch in time. What can I say, you get in the zone.
2p tulip/tool-up time rolls around, and we cache our little pioneer, the pionjar drill. We bundle him up in a tarp with his drill bits and tool envelope and leave a few t-posts on top for good measure. Tuck the gas can under a ledge, find our packs and head back out in our single file line. The van appears in the distance; shimmering in the heat. So close, yet so far, but we make it, and crawl into the van and crank the air conditioning as high as it will go. The radio crackles in and out, and every day we end up listening to the Hopi station. It’s unpredictable – you might hear some AC/DC followed by a traditional song followed by the news and maybe some reggae. Hard to fight over the radio station when you never know what’s going to come next.
Dusty and grimy, we pull up to the visitor center and take over the bathrooms to wash our faces. Next stop is buying out the vending machine of all its cold bottles of Gatorade. Trust me, its the sweetest nectar after our day. Today we go pay our respects to the largest of the ruins, located just behind the building: one of the over 100 reasons to fence this place up good and tight. To our delight, we discover there’s a blow hole there. It’s a hole in the ground with the cool air of caverns below gusting up. I lay down over it, rejoicing in the chance to cool down my body a few degrees.
The drive back to camp goes quickly; the Loop Road through Sunset Crater and Wupatki National Monuments has to be one of the most scenic roads I’ve ever been on. I lean back in my seat, remind myself to come back here with my bicycle and try to spot cows grazing on the CO Ranch lands. Once back at camp, I grab my packet of baby wipes and have a little bath in my tent while resisting the urge to just go to sleep. Put on some shorts and a t-shirt and go join the others on the tarp that acts as our beach blanket. Some reggae drifts from the iPod speakers and we relax. The smell of dinner wafts over, and we hungrily await our meal.
We’re short a fork at dinner, and I eat my dinner out of a bowl with a spoon. It’s not glamorous, but nothing could taste better right now. Some cookies for dessert and hey! the sun is setting. Can I go to bed yet? My watch confirms my suspicions that I still have half hour until the acceptable 8 o’clock hour. We idly chit chat and eventually one by one drift off to our tents. Cue up the iPod for next morning’s wake up, unzip my sleeping bag and it’s off to dreamland. Good night, Wupatki. I’ll see you again in oh-so-few hours…
I finally learned how to spell the name of the National Monument at which I’ve been fixing fence for the last 8 days: Wupatki. Still pronounced Woo-pocky, but Wupatki looks way more exciting so that is what is going to be from here on out. I also learned what Wupatki means – it’s a Native American term for either “big house” or “long time cut short.” We had a ranger talk while on hitch this week, and Ranger Holly taught us about the Native American ruins that the National Park Service protects and studies here. It was at a major travel and trade cross-roads of two waterways, and they built huge houses here (big house). It was also (I think I remember this correctly) quite suddenly abandoned (long time cut short). I never made it to the ruins unfortunately, as I got quite distracted by a traditional Three Sisters demonstration garden – you know, the squash, corn and beans combo. It is so fascinating that the Three Sisters were grown from upstate New York all the way to Arizona. Can’t argue with success!
For work this hitch, we were strengthening the fence surrounding the park. It was in pretty good shape, but it was older and they wanted twice as many posts for strength, and new wire and new metal braces every quarter mile. Fixing fence is quite a bit faster than starting from scratch; heck, you only have to pound in half of the posts! Still have to do quite a bit of hauling, and as we were fencing on the perimeter away from trails and roads, quite a bit of driving and hiking for our commute. The park is surrounded by reservation land and a ranch, so it is important to build this fence to protect the ruins as well as the ability to do long-term grass studies from cattle.
The most overwhelming theme of the trip was the heat. Despite 4a wake-ups daily, with a 5a start to the work day, you still work a few hours in what was 99 degree Fahrenheit heat in the shade at the visitor center. Oh, and there’s only one tree anywhere near our fence line, with most vegetation being shorter than knee height. My journal entries were often only three words, two of those being “Hot.” I’m not a hot weather person at all, but I know this was coming. It was overdue in a way, I suppose – you can’t work on a conservation corps in Arizona over the summertime months and expect cool weather. Regardless, it’s hard to cope with that heat. All our breaks were pushed towards the latter part of the day to take advantage of milder weather in the early hours. We “tuliped” – tooled up – at 2p, with breaks at 9a, 11:30p and 1p. The amount of water you have to drink in that kind of weather is ridiculous. I probably drank 4-5 liters during the work day, one liter before, and I strove for two more liters after work. This also means you have to carry at least 6 liters of water and that ain’t light. Again, with the theme of my experience at ACE being what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger, it’s good training to carry that water and learn to drink that much. The water we were drinking was quite strange tasting, and not in a good way. Almost a greasy feeling but obviously not greasy, if that makes any sense. So: gatorade to the rescue. Yeah, about 4 liters a day. We got a trip into town Saturday night to visit a supermarket and I picked up some lemonade powder which also helped. But goodness gracious, I was consuming a lot of sugar, so hopefully my teeth did not suffer too much.
Minus the heat I really enjoyed this project. It doesn’t have the best of reputations at ACE, compared to say, Grand Canyon trails but I still liked it. It’s really beautiful, and we had a pretty solid crew. I got to run a poinjar crew: Team Extreme we named ourselves. It was fun using a (working!) poinjar and realizing I’ve gotten stronger because I had a much easier time lifting it than I did back at Lake Mead. We drilled about 40 holes, and only got the drill bit stuck twice and the machine only acted up once. Success!! After that, got to run a little deadman crew – deadmans being the anchors to help hold the tension down through valleys in the fence line so the wire doesn’t either pop off or pull posts out of the ground. Rounded up the week with some wire stretching and then back to good ole Flag.
Camping was quite nice this week – we were just outside of Sunset Crater National Monument which is an old volcano that blew up 900 years ago. So it’s all lava rock and cinders and whatnot amongst a Ponderosa pine forest. It was all tiny gravel and quite soft to sleep on, so much so that I never re-inflated my mattress (usually do twice in a 8 day period, it doesn’t have a hole, don’t worry). This next week I’m back to Wupatki and looking forward to everything but the heat!
There’s something about an orange vest and a hard hat that gives some look of authority and knowledge. So it must be annoying for a tourist to ask the location of Parking Lot 3 and get a blank look back from us. I may have spent 10 days at the Grand Canyon National Park already but I’ve never been to the visitor center before, let alone parked there. Oh yeah and you can get respiratory problems from the mulch I’m spreading so would you mind backing up?
One of the most interesting aspects of being at ACE and working in a national park like the Grand Canyon is that you often miss the main areas for the tourists and instead see the areas that make those highly public spaces work. The rock dumps and the mulch piles and the trail operations sheds and the revegetation office – not so much the visitor centers. I’ve always secretly kind of preferred the alleys of cities and the backsides of buildings and the undersides of bridges. Everything is purely for function here and a little worn in looking; no pretension. So it was a bit of a disappointment to get to the visitor center and see it so glossy and pristine. Part of the outdoor experience is the grit; you need to get a little dirty and eat a little trail spice on your lunch. Get a little uncomfortable – work for the scenery you’re experiencing. I feel sorry for the Karens and Joes from Omaha or Dayton, driving up in their swollen RV to a parking lot, walking a paved path to the rim, taking their snapshots for the friends back home, buying a little tchotchke in the shop and then driving on. How can you say you’ve experienced one of the most dramatic places in the world when you’ve hardly put yourself out?
Enough on industrial tourism. The reason for being back the Grand Canyon was five days of revegetation work. Like the time I finally felt like a real urban planner when drawing on the map of Madison Ave for our Birdtown project, I finally felt like a real conservation worker this week. It’s hard to not feel that way when you’re planting baby pinyon pines on an old roadway being re-naturalized. Or when you’re pulling exotic invasive species – finally, I’m directly doing something of which I can immediately see the results. That being said, the work sometimes feel futile; when half the plants you plant are unlikely to survive and the invasive species you pull are likely to never actually be eradicated it can kill motivation a little. Like life, it’s a little bit grey.
Some notable moments from the past week: seeing a ton of live elk, seeing a dead elk (don’t EVER touch one, it puts you at risk for the bubonic plague. eek.), playing endless rounds of the preference game (oceans or mountains, Beatles or the Rolling Stones, etc.), meeting and working with Student Conservation Association volunteers, watching the sun set along Hermit’s Road, showers at the rec center, reading a book about icy Greenland while in the desert, daily visits to the supermarket for a cold bottle of green tea, oh, and how could I forget the most exciting thing of all?
I SAW BIKE & BUILD. Not my route/team from last summer, but a different group leaving from the canyon. On the drive there, I saw a cyclist along the road carrying only a Camelbak and sporting a red & blue jersey. Wow, he must be hardcore to be riding by himself in a remote place without panniers to carry supplies. But then another comes by, and another, and wait a second, that’s the Bike & Build jersey and they’re riding Giant brand bikes. To my crew-mates in the van: I’m sorry for freaking out. I never thought I’d be randomly on the road and see my people riding the other way. I saw the van pass by with it’s painted trailer, and later saw a large group of them at the park sign. I tried to shout out the window but I doubt they heard me. Seeing them brought back so many memories. Of life on the road, of seeing epic national parks, of the camaraderie, of the endless meals of lasagna and ramen salad, of sleeping on thermarests in the corner of a church, of the most epic summer of my life. ACE, you’re awesome, don’t get me wrong, but I firmly maintain the best way to see the country is by bicycle and the best way to meet people is by volunteering and it combined the two so neatly.
I’m off to Wupatki National Monument this Wednesday for an eight day fencing hitch. I’m really excited about it despite the rumors of intense heat; I liked fencing a lot, and we’re supposed to get really good stars and views of the San Francisco peaks behind Flagstaff.