When I was nine-years-old my dad had a lot of work in Washington D.C. and he would occasionally bring the family along on his trips. We would take a robber baron-dated Amtrak from New York to D.C. and stay at the pinnacle of luxury for a nine-year-old known as The Embassy Suites in Bethesda, Maryland. There were few things better in life as a nine-year-old than staying at the Embassy Suites.
When I stayed in the kind of tropical resort known as the Bethesda, Maryland Embassy Suites, there were few things I ever needed in life after that magical experience. I would say that Embassy Suites was a close second to Six Flags in terms of the potential for greatness that the human experience had to offer. Whether I was jumping on a bed covered in starchy sheets, revealing room service chicken tenders from beneath a metal saucer of a heat cover or sprinting laps around the perimeter hallways, I’m pretty sure it was the happiest I ever possible reached as a child. Forget about everything else, if I was nine and staying at an Embassy Suites I don’t think life got much better.
Twenty years later and my family’s annual roller coaster pilgrimages have been replaced by hunt to visit all 59 national parks in the country. When I realized that traveling to Northern California to see friends, family and Pinnacles National Park had the potential for an Embassy Suites stay, my life had gone full circle.
Pinnacles is located around two hours south of the San Jose airport and on first glance – like an Embassy Suites – it doesn’t seem all that special when you get your first glance from the parking lot. You have to really dive beneath the surface and explore both locations to find their truest majesty. Pinnacles looks like a bunch of really cool rock formations jutting out of a chaparral forest. The history behind the place has something to do with being the leftovers of an ancient volcano that moved a few hundred miles into the Central Valley because of the San Andreas Fault that will kill us all someday. But when you first look at the thing, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be as special as it is. You might be misled by the bland glass exterior of the Embassy Suites, but you really have to step inside to see what you’re missing.
There are two roads that lead to Pinnacles, one from the west off the 101 and one from the east that isn’t close to anything, except maybe San Jose, California, but I don’t think that counts. The roads don’t intersect within the park so you need a really trusty Uber driver who will go 60 miles out of his way if you want to do a one-way hike. The highlight on the drive was driving through Gilroy, California, which is the garlic capital of the country. In the same way that diabetics seize up in Hershey, Pennsylvania, Gilroy’s garlic-scented air can proudly proclaim itself vampire-free. We entered Pinnacles from the east, parked at the Bear Gulch Day Use Area and set out on the 5.3-mile loop along the High Peaks and Condor Gulch Trails.
Pinnacles National Park was one of those trips that was excellent because of the day we saw it. We went on an empty Wednesday in March with 60-degree weather, no crowds, green hills and rare wildlife sightings. We could’ve gone to the exact same place at the height of the drought and been miserable. Instead, we climbed along staircases carved out of the Pinnacles with nothing but a thin railing separating us from a vertical drop-off hundreds of feet below. We had to duck our heads to squeeze between boulders on the trail. We switchbacked up the rocks and had expansive views of both sides of the park with the snowcapped Sierras in the extreme distance. And that would’ve been cool enough but then we saw the condors.
We were at around 2700 feet of elevation when we crested another one of the staircase-carved boulders and saw four of the last-remaining California Condors in the world sitting sentry atop the mountain. Listed as extinct in 1987 (there were only 22 alive in the world at the time), the last handful were captured, nurtured and slowly reintroduced back into the wild. Today there are 128 California Condors flying over the state, each of them tagged and tracked like a kid with anxious parents, and we were lucky enough to see four of them. And then we got even more fortunate to see a glimpse into the future. We stumbled upon two soft-soften birdwatchers who were camped out all day to spot the birds. Basically, me in five years. They invited us to use their binoculars to see the birds up close.
These things were huge and vulture-like. They looked like they were wearing giant trench coats and when they flew overhead their nine-foot wing span let you know you were in trouble. California Condors are the largest North American land-birds. They are scavengers without any fur on their faces making them some of the least-attractive creatures in the animal kingdom but also some of the coolest. Their appearance is the last thing on your mind when you see them circling and you’re low on water. Seeing Pinnacles National Park was good. Hiking across the park and spotting the four condors was amazing. Seeing Pinnacles, spotting condors and then two nights later traveling up to Northern California for a stay at the Embassy Suites was everything I could ever want in life.
We extended the trip a couple extra days to see family and friends in the area. This involved a day trip to the Marin Headlands over the Golden Gate Bridge and Muir Woods a little further north. The views were amazing and redwoods spectacular but both of them paled in comparison to coming full-circle in life with our stay at the Embassy Suites.
I was happy to report that nothing has changed since my residency as a nine-year-old connoisseur of the Embassy Suites. You still walk inside and get hit with the overpowering odor of chlorine from the swimming pool and fountains. The depressing koi still call the atrium pools home. The diluted sunlight filters through the greenhouse ceiling. The breakfast buffet is still all-you-can eat with a line of sticky children pushing their way to the hot chocolate machine. You can get the signature Embassy Suites headache from forgetting what actual sunlight feels like. Annoying kids continue sprinting laps around the atrium while the hum of the ice machine keeps you up all night.
If that sounds like a miserable night in a hotel, you’d be sorely mistaken. It was everything I hoped it would be. It was the anti-AirBnB. It was the absolute peak of mediocrity and you can’t manufacture that kind of comfort. It was like drinking the perfect glass of milk. Just like their counterpart – the California Condor – there are only hundreds of Embassy Suites left in the world. They were added to the endangered species list only a few years ago but we all have to do our part to nurture them back to the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet, nacho cheese plate happy hour and fax machine business center greatness that we all know they can be. And that is what makes the National Park Service the bastion of protection that we are all thankful to have, both as Americans and as Ambassadors to the Embassy Suites and California Condors in the world. It was truly a majestic trip.
Part of what makes Yosemite and Sequoia so beautiful is that you have to drive through Fresno on the way. It turns out the exact opposite holds true for the national parks of Hawaii. Both Hawaii Volcanoes and Haleakala National Parks are less beautiful in context because they are surrounded by the most gorgeous place on Earth. So when you actually drive to the main attractions you’re underwhelmed because you’ve seen and explored nothing but spectacular scenery along the way. After driving two hours to get to the national parks you calculate the obligatory time to show interest in geology until you can get back to the beach.
While my career and job prospects appear to be nonexistent, I take a little bit of solace in the fact that I’ve poured all my energy, time and money into traveling the world with a girl I somehow tricked into marrying me. By last count I’ve been to five continents, 20 countries (more if you go by FIFA’s count), 27 national parks and 40-something states depending on how much you count drive-throughs. It’s possible that Hawaii could be the best trip I’ve ever taken anywhere, which I hate to admit because so many people have been to Hawaii. There is nothing pretentious about my favorite vacation which sucks because I’m a very pretentious person.
I’m going to have the same favorite place as Barb in accounting who went to Honolulu on her honeymoon 20 years ago, which is such a waste of all the other trips I’ve taken. I could’ve saved a boatload of cash from the Australia trip if I knew I could go half the distance without exchanging currency or having to deal with all the spiders that will murder you. Yeah, Thailand was beautiful but they also have plenty of Thai food in Hawaii without the underage prostitutes (this might be a minus for some). Food costs a lot more money in Hawaii but you can choose any country’s cuisine and it usually includes American-sized portions.
Every beach I’ve visited in Hawaii has been the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen. I snorkeled with enormous green sea turtles that looked at me and threw me a head nods like we’re old buddies. I swam with an aquarium’s amount of fish, laid out in the softest sand in front of the most picturesque palm trees and snuck into the bathrooms of the fanciest hotels in the country. And it’s all the little things make Hawaii incredible. All the free parking next to these perfect beaches, the fact that – somehow – this is still part of the United States even though you’re half an ocean away. The food, people, weather, rainforests, sea turtles, laid back vibe and abundance of banana bread, and I really, really, really enjoy banana bread to the point where my last blood work showed a spike in potassium. And Hawaii is like the capital of banana bread.
Now somewhere along this paradise, the national park service designated a couple stretches to officially join the ranks of the 59 United States National Parks. And they do this because – like all national parks – these two places offer one feature better than anywhere else in the country. Driving up the Jagger Museum of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (even though all of Hawaii are volcanoes) we saw real, bubbling, red hot lava belching out of a crater into a huge undulating sea of magma. That was amazing. You know what else was amazing? Walking out of the hotel in flip flops to the Corona-quality beach while we were handed cold pineapple slices. Nothing against the national park but we didn’t have to drive several hours away from the beach for the latter and the rangers were short on pineapple.
Haleakala National Park suffered from the same problem as Hawaii Volcanoes, which is that it’s a really strong team in the league’s best division. They might be in first place if they played in the Midwest Division, but because they’re in the Pacific League they’re mired in fourth. We drove the entire Road to Hana to scope out the park’s Seven Sacred Pools and hike through a bamboo forest. We switchbacked up 10,000 feet to overlook the island’s crater and see the Big Island popping out of the clouds. But national park standards are so overwhelmed by the beauty along the way. They could have said any slice of the Road to Hana was a national park or any coral reef filled with sea turtles and you’d get the same beauty while remaining much closer to the minibar.
It’s not just that you’re driving past gorgeous viewpoints, it’s that you also get to be a part of it along the way. You can hop into hidden pools beneath thunderous waterfalls, you can hike through rainforests and swim with turtles. I tried as hard as possible to care about volcanoes when I was standing on a crater. But I could continue caring about the geology while charging a piña colada to a random room at the Grand Wailea because, technically, that’s on a volcano as well.
If Hawaii Volcanoes and Haleakala National Parks were located in Oklahoma, they would be the greatest gems in the national park system. Because they comprised two out of 10 of my favorite days of travel in my life, they were memorable stops on a perfect vacation. They might have been victims of the weather as well. Haleakala will join the ranks of Machu Picchu and Denali as places I traveled very far only to see them on cloudy days. Hawaii Volcanoes required an eight-mile hike to get a closer view of the lava that we opted against. If it had been raining at the shore and the parks saved the trip, maybe it would be another story. I just really liked snorkeling and I feel guilty reporting that to the National Park Service.
Even though this sounds like a critique of the parks themselves, in truth it’s nothing but a rave for the state in which they’re located. And if I’m focusing on the negative it’s only out of my own bitterness that I have to leave. All those previously mentioned lack of job, career and financial prospects are waiting for me back home. Hawaii is a place you can just disappear. You can swim, snorkel and surf every day. You are a world away from news and politics and rather than facing reality, you can stuff your face with mahimahi fish and chips and enough banana bread to induce kidney issues. And I have the national parks and this crazy, stupid adventure of visiting every single one of them to thank for taking me to the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. And if that sounds like a roller coaster of emotions it’s only due to the sudden drop in blood sugar until my next slice of banana bread.
Three years ago, on the cusp of starting my first grown-up, full-time, real, corporate adult job, we threw a bunch of friends in a car and camped near Big Bear for two nights. It was billed The End of Freedom Camping Party, and has since become an annual tradition whether the other campers know it or not. This year had the even better occasion of an imminent lay-off, and got to mark The Return to Freedom Party. I booked a mid-sized group campground five hours north of L.A. and invited people who will be beneficial to job hunting.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are on the southern end of the Sierra Nevadas, about an hour south of Yosemite. They were founded 126 years ago in order to protect a bunch of really big trees. Basically, a bunch of loggers and prospectors chopped down some of the oldest and largest sequoias in the world to prove to East Coasters that they were real. This is what it took before Instagram. Everyone thought the enormous trunks were a hoax, so the loggers got back on the Oregon Trail, battled dysentery, chopped down a few more barks and lugged them back across the country. The cycle continued until the government asked people to knock it off with the tree chopping and proving that they were real so that I could celebrate my unemployment.
We booked a group campsite near General Grant Grove, home to the world’s second-largest tree, and hosted varying degrees of first-timers and seasoned campers to spend the weekend. After going through all the options for food, cooking, activities and attractions, Jen and I reasoned the easiest choice would be if we bought and cooked everything and planned the full weekend for the entire group. The other options with a group of eight people were to assign meals, have everyone fend for themselves, or open up the park to hunting. Seeing as deer traps are forbidden in the national park system, we opted to become the camp parents for all our friends.
There is a huge amount of responsibility that comes with being camp parents. It means that the entire weekend falls on your shoulders. The whole three days of rest and relaxation comes with the looming pressure that any mistake is entirely your fault. Burned the corn on the cobb? That’s on you. Three hours of driving for nothing? There’s only Camp Dad to blame. Any crankiness, screw-up and disappointment feels like it’s your burden that needs to be fixed. Like a defender in soccer, you can have a perfect match, but one giant mistake is your responsibility.
On top of being camp parents, we also had to deal with Camp Aunt and Uncle on our trip to apply some pressure as well. While we had to be the killjoys in the name of logistics, they got to load up their car with cornhole, a hammock, gadgets, devices, solar powered phone chargers, a football and booze so that they got to be the fun ones. And then when the other campers got hungry and tired after all the fun games, it was our responsibility again. And Camp Aunt and Uncle got to be like, “Not our problem, we were just kicking back,” while we’re stirring chili with one hand and yanking out splinters with the other while keeping temper tantrums at bay.
Being Camp Parents also means learning and embracing a tremendous amount of patience that doesn’t exist on solo trips. When you’re backpacking alone, you can do exactly what you want at any time of day. But being camp dad means you have to be perfectly fine with being ready to leave and then having someone say, “I have to go to the bathroom.” Then when that person gets back, someone else says, “Y’know what? I have to go to the bathroom too.” And so on, until everyone in the group has individually gone to the bathroom. By this point, you really have to go as well, but you need to hold it in the name of a fictional schedule on which you triangulated coordinates with your Garmin watch.
Day two was a two-mile drive down a dirt road to Redwood Mountain Grove. We made it a mile or so up the Sugar Bowl Trail, which was one of the best finds in the park. The trees in this part of Kings Canyon didn’t have the same reverence as their larger brethren, but the hidden turn-off and dirt road kept the tour buses away. If I’ve learned anything from this aimless goal of seeing every national park it’s that I’ll sacrifice beauty in the name of avoiding crowds. One foot of a giant sequoia is worth ten selfie sticks.
Any fantasies I had of being on the trail by eight to complete the six-mile loop before lunch were altered in the name of being the stupid, happy-go-lucky camp dad. One person has to stop at a tree to take a picture, and then everyone wants the same picture, and then, yeah, I kind of want the picture too. So eight pictures on eight cameras later, it was time to turn around because I wanted to show everyone Kings Canyon.
What I thought was a 30 minute drive to a beautiful and lush meadow stretched into a 90-minute winding slog through the barren and drought-stricken Sierras. With everyone ready for lunch, a more lenient camp dad would’ve stopped at the idyllic Hume Lake. Families were playing in the water, there was a well-stocked store and tables that overlooked the reflecting water on a warm mountain day. Instead I gunned it past the beautiful water because we had a schedule that needed adhering. I watched the temperature climb into the triple-digits as we descended the inferno of Kings Canyon and heard stomachs rumble as it ticked into the afternoon.
And as much as it looked like it was going to be a disaster, the best part about being camp dad is the stuff that doesn’t get planned. The meadow was too far away and the trails were too hot to hike, so we made our way into the river that runs through Kings Canyon and that was the afternoon. That was it. No plans, itinerary, schedule, maps. It was throw everyone in the water, and it was absolutely perfect. Obviously I’ll take all the credit for how well it went even though I never would’ve just sat in a river for two hours if it were a solo trip. And the best part was that it tuckered everyone out so that, being the camp parents, we could get some sleep that night.
We loaded back into cars and climbed three thousand feet of elevation back to the campground. We then tore each other to shreds and undid any feelings of goodwill by playing a round of a game called Avalon. This mafia-type exercise in lying and accusations generates all the nice feelings of a witch hunt, while also allowing you to destroy all your friendships. We declared a truce in a two-mile evening walk to the General Grant tree. A family of deer pranced along our route to pose for a couple of pictures before camp mom knocked some chili out of the park. Everyone passed out because I dragged them up and down some mountains in order to snap some pictures.
Our way out of the park took us along all the touristy sites through Sequoia National Park, which are great for a first visit and should be avoided thereafter. The General Sherman tree (largest in the world), Giant Forest and Moro Rock were swarmed with crowds who were shuttled along the excellent and free bus system the park set up. It’s a little surprising to find that one of the best public transportation systems I’ve ever seen is in Sequoia National Park. Everyone held their lunch together as we drove down the switchbacks from 7,000 feet of elevation down to the 108-degree foothills that are going to go up in flames any minute now. Four hours later, we were back in Los Angeles doing everything we could to remember the idyllic river from the previous day.
As terrified as I am about being an actual camp dad to real-life, tiny human beings at some point in the future, it’s nice to know that all I have to do is constantly worry about an army of people having a good time while dealing with any issue, injury, problem or surprise that’s going to spring up at any second. There is little reward, satisfaction and payoff that comes with the job. And compared to the freedom that comes with grabbing a backpack and heading off on a giant trail on your own schedule, it’s a completely different trip. So enjoy that leisurely bathroom break, refill the water bottle a few more times, sleep in a little late, and snap as many extra pictures as you want. But if I hear one more word of complaint, I am turning this car right around. Thanks for a great trip, everyone, and get off my lawn.
There’s an outside shot I’ll need a second knee surgery because of a series of hikes that will amount to nothing more than a blog post. This is all because my favorite outdoors retail store, Adventure 16, offered a couple raffle tickets if you summited the three tallest mountains in Southern California. I enjoy hiking and am notoriously cheap, so in the name of the chance to win free gear, I talked my buddy Jeremy into a series of three murderous day hikes that we now regret.
The challenge consists of hiking San Gorgonio near Big Bear, San Jacinto near Palm Springs, and San Antonio near the Azusa senior center, in either three months, three weeks, three days or, for a handful of psychopaths, 24 hours. Seriously, a couple of masochists start hiking before dawn and do all three in a day. We put the three hikes on the calendar over the span of June, July and August so that we would have something to say on Fridays when coworkers asked us about our weekends.
The thing I like about hiking is that it’s a discernible goal that’s easy to quantify. If you get to the top of the mountain, you win. If you don’t, you lose. That’s much simpler than most goals that involve nebulous measures like happiness and wealth and living life to its fullest and accomplishments and accolades. Not with hiking. If you get to the top you achieve your goal. Also, it costs nothing. Compared to hockey gear, you pretty much just have to walk uphill for a really long time.
I didn’t even have a good emotional hurdle to overcome, along the lines of Wild and Into The Wild. Those books were so popular because they weren’t really about hiking. They were about something else that was being worked through while the main character was on a trail. I would’ve loved to have had a mental block, or an emotional breakthrough on my drive through San Bernardino County, but the strongest emotional pull I felt was when we pulled into the West Covina In-N-Out. And that Into The Wild dude was kind of an idiot. I mean he walked into Alaska and died, that’s pretty much the book. Spoiler alert.
We knocked the best hike out of the way first, because apparently we didn’t want anything to look forward to on this stupid adventure. Mount San Jacinto was the most spectacular of the bunch, which would’ve been a lot more enjoyable were it not for the blood seeping through our socks. When you drive from L.A. to Palm Springs, it towers to the south of the 10 freeway. It can be hiked as a 10-mile trail from the Palm Springs tramway, 15-20 miles from a few trails starting in the town of Idyllwild, or the Skyline Trail (also known as Cactus to Clouds), which, at 36 miles at 10,000 feet uphill, is the highest vertically-climbing hike in America. We did not do that one.
We split the difference and picked the Devil’s Slide Trail from Humber Park in Idyllwild. This presented us with a 16-mile trek from a really nice town where we would’ve been better off spending the day. Idyllwild was a low-key Big Bear without the bling shops. The route took us along the Pacific Crest Trail for a few miles, a view of Palm Desert and Joshua Tree, and brief spells of flat terrain shaded with summer camp pine trees. For around three minutes out of our eight-hour adventure, it was paradise. The final mile was a grueling, rocky climb to the second-tallest mountain in Southern California.
On a clear day, you can see the ocean, Mount Whitney and even the curvature of the Earth from the summit of Mount San Jacinto. On the day we were hiking we could clearly discern the Morongo Casino. But views aside, our first hike was done which meant, unfortunately, we had to continue with the other two. If only one of us had broken our legs then we would’ve had the excuse we needed to quit.
Mount Baldy was the steepest and most fun (I use the word fun very loosely) of the three. Clocking in at 10.6 miles, Baldy starts at a packed parking lot and climbs straight uphill in a way that makes you question your life choices. The summit overlooks a huge bowl with a half-dozen peaks and a ski resort that global warming is putting out of business. The misery of hiking down a gravel ski trail is alleviated by the bar you encounter at the seven-mile mark. We snapped some photos of the lame zip line, questionable ski lift and battle of the beers before crossing the second hike off the list.
The three-peak challenge culminates in the final, worst, most unpleasant, brutal trek of the three: the 19 miles up the tallest mountain in Southern California, Mount San Gorgonio. In the same way I remember middle school bullies, I have nothing nice to say about this hike. There’s nothing redeeming and there’s no sense of accomplishment to justify the horrible pain this hike causes. The bottom of the trail and top of the mountain have vertical climbs determined to force your tibia to pierce through your kneecap. The trail spends most of its time in a forested valley so you don’t get any views. When it does become awe-inspiring, you’re already suffering from altitude sickness and sunstroke so you’re imagining all sorts of random stuff. You’re not sure if you have a great view of the endless high desert or if there are Pokemon everywhere.
You know when a dog is out for a long walk on a hot day and then before it gets home it just quits? Like it finds a spot in the shade on the sidewalk and lays down and that’s that? Right, so that’s our knees. With three miles remaining, we were limping like seniors using our hiking poles as walking canes as we took one ginger step at a time down the endless trail with the parking lot feeling like it was getting further away with each step. Until finally we descended with scores of hikers passing us along the way and finally we could proclaim that we never have to hike again.
The most insulting part was sitting in the car afterwards. After logging over 40,000 steps in a day, my fitness watch sensed that I was immobile for more than an hour and ordered me to, “Move!” Our enormous physical challenge amounted to topping the 29th-tallest summit in California, which barely fits on a bumper sticker. There was no emotional breakthrough, no real sense of accomplishment and nothing but pain to show for it (although the In-N-Out was nice). And I have a pretty solid hunch that I’m going to come up empty handed on the raffle.
I’ll never understand why people do iron mans and tough mudders, which is that race where you electrocute yourself for fun. But I guess there’s something good about setting goals and accomplishing them. It gives you a challenge to anticipate, it makes you push yourself, gives you something to do on the weekend, and you can conquer office small talk on Monday. You might even win a prize or two for your efforts. But the important thing to do before setting out on any endeavors is to make sure that the goals are easy. Because you actually have to work for the hard ones and there’s nothing fun about that.
I can’t tell if the Sierra Nevadas are the most beautiful place on Earth or if it just feels that way because you arrive there via Fresno. Either way, there is a decent collection of mountains, lakes, rivers and volcanoes a few hours from L.A. and it never hurts to spend a weekend camping when Southern California is on fire.
Everyone told us Lassen was better than Yosemite, which I refused to believe. If Lassen was better than Yosemite then I would’ve heard of Lassen. There aren’t many poems and works of art about flying into Sacramento. But after this trip I can unconfidently say, yes, Lassen is better than Yosemite. In fact, out of all the national parks on this silly adventure to see them all, Lassen might be the best of the bunch.
That’s not to say it’s the most beautiful or awe-inspiring, it doesn’t come close. Zion and Yellowstone can smite down Lassen like a freshman trying to sit at the senior table. But it has all the beauty, scenery and relaxation of the best parks in the system without the tour buses. Lassen isn’t the most jaw-dropping national park in the country, but in terms of getting out of town and camping in paradise for a weekend, it’s hard to beat. When we crossed the Canadian Rockies, traversed Yosemite and Zion, we were racing motorcades of tour buses and getting elbowed by tourists and poked by selfie sticks. Lassen is a few hours away with a tenth of the visitors (400K to 4 million), even though we make up the deficit by hitting the car alarm button the middle of the night.
We started the trip with what’s becoming my latest national park pastime: dodging suicidal animals with an SUV in the dark. This time the West Texan bunnies were replaced by Northern California deer. The one-hour drive up the mountain at 9pm was spent slamming the brakes as antlers and eyes darted along the side of the road like an 80s arcade game. Sort of like a Grand Theft Auto version of the E.T. Ride.
Day two we lucked out with the Bumpass Hell trail by arriving on the first day it was open for the season due to snow and ice, which, I apologize for this, meant we got to throw snowballs in Hell. It was a three-mile hike to one of the largest thermal vents outside Yellowstone, which belched up steam like a Turkish bath. We took the King’s Falls trail along a creek that cut through some meadows. Then circled Manzanita Lake doing our best to hope that none of our tens of thousands of mosquito bites contained any Zika.
Per usual for any national park adventure, the largest group of visitors were from Germany. I have no idea why this is, but anywhere we go in the world – Vietnam, Australia, the furthest reaches of Texas and the Sierra Nevadas – we always encounter people on vacation from Bavaria. I have a feeling that if we were to spelunk down an ancient cave in Central America and push aside a hidden door to find Mayan ruins leading to an untouched palace, waiting for us would be a guy named Hans telling us about a great schnitzel place in Munich. I’m pretty sure there are no Germans in Germany, but rather roaming the world with a sensible supply of sunscreen and hiking poles.
On day three we took the long way back to the airport, driving north on the Volcanic Legacy trail with Mount Shasta 50 miles in front of us. It was a quarter-mile hike through the pitch black subway cave, which provided some excellent opportunities to scare the hell out of people (“What’s the date? No, the year. The year!!!”). Then one more hike at McArthur-Burney Falls State Park. The falls were around an hour north of Lassen and looked like someone took a small chunk of Brazil’s Iguazu falls, or the setting for a reality show date, and stuck it in Northern California.
But the best part of the morning was definitely admiring the small coalition of Pacific Crest Trail hikers we encountered. As they took down camp, filtered water and lifted 50 pounds on their backs in the midst of their 500-mile hike, I checked the tire pressure in my Avis rental and ensured we hadn’t lost our phone chargers. Pretty much equally badass.
All-in-all it’s way better to be underrated than overrated. You can do whatever you want, you’re never accused of selling out and you avoid the downfalls to fame and celebrity that comes with being overrated. The Grand Canyon is super sexy, but it’s dealing with the drug addiction, STDs and recklessness that accompanies fame. Meanwhile just a few hours away from L.A. and S.F. is a little indie rocker putting on an amazing show and couldn’t care less if you notice or not. Even if the only other people at the show are a group of loyal Germans who you see at every single show.
Ten months ago I took a job with a production company to get a crash course in the film business. The job is going pretty well, except for the thing that impedes me at every job I’ve ever had, which is that I don’t really like having a job very much.
I love earning a paycheck so that I can spend it traveling around the world, which – to my constant surprise – is not something employers desire. So whenever a gig offers the chance to go somewhere, especially if it contributes to my foolhardy national park adventure, I jump at the opportunity. Suddenly I become a model employee.
My boss needed a coffee table picked up from her cousin’s storage unit in the middle of Arizona. Google Maps had the storage unit two hours from Petrified Forest National Park, so I packed a backpack and took off to hang out in the Sonoran Desert just in time for a mid-June heat wave.
The first thing I noticed after my LAX to PHX flight was that every Arizona bathroom I entered – from the Phoenix Airport SkyTrain to the national park pit-stops – contained an insulin needle disposal bucket. It was kind of nice to know that if I picked up a light case of diabetes on my adventure that dropping off my copious accumulation of sharps would not be a problem. I picked up the coffee table in a pleasant mountain town called Payson. It was sort of like Phoenix’s answer to Big Bear, except there were a lot more places to buy assault rifles. So far my impression of the local experience is an insulin needle in one hand, AR-15 in the other while I ask the park ranger to kindly stamp my national park passport booklet.
Getting out of an air conditioned car so you can look at old tree fossils in the Arizona desert is one of those moments that makes you question your life choices. There’s no actual forest in the Petrified Forest, which I had to explain to a disappointed biker. He kept looking at the sparse shrubs and tumbleweeds asking if they were part of the forest. I was braced for my disappointment in advance.
Three hundred million years ago when Arizona was in a rainforest on Pangea, some trees fell into a river. The few trunks that didn’t disintegrate got wedged in the riverbed, where, over the course of few hundred million years, they filled with silt, copper, carbon, micah, quartz, crystals, iron and manganese. The river, rainforest and Pangea are long gone (never forget Pangea), but these tree fossils are now mutated into rocks that reflect beautiful colors in the relentless Arizona sunshine.
And that’s pretty much the main attraction. There’s a cool painted desert lookout, some old adobe houses and petroglyphs (Native American graffiti), but the park ranger assuaged my guilt when I arrived at the visitor center. I was deeply apologetic that I only had three hours for the park, but she couldn’t have been friendlier when she told me the average time that visitors spent was a two hour drive-through. She just seemed happy that I was there. It was like an old relative who I see once a year. “A short visit from you is better than nothing.”
And if I’m going to tie this whole thing together, it would be that not every national park has a spectacular vista or jaw-dropping attraction. They’re not all Yosemite. But they tend to offer one specific thing better than anywhere else. And if I’m going to go for one hell of a stretch, it would be that I might not be the most inspired employee at every company I’ve worked for, but maybe if I can do one thing really well I’ll actually find some success. I’m the tree-rock mutant fossil of employees, and that is sitting proudly on my resume as I begin my next job hunt.
And sometimes the best part of going to the smaller national parks is knowing I don’t have to go back. That was the best part of West Texas, was that I never have to return to West Texas. And now there is another excellent national park with a niche and unique attraction notched on the belt. With many more national parks to look forward to visiting that, someday, I’ll never have to see again.
Telling people about our road trip across West Texas and New Mexico earned the most, “Why are you going there?” responses of all our adventures. This isn’t the kind of place you go by choice. You’re usually stuck traveling through West Texas on your way to someplace better. Or you’re stationed in the military. Or you got on the mob’s bad side. No one really chooses to spend a long weekend in the Chihuahuan Desert. But that just meant we’d have more space to ourselves!
Sure enough, there was really nothing there except for three very dry national parks, a bunch of suicidal rabbits and a Prada (I’ll get to all that later). I also might have insisted we do this trip instead of spending four days at a condo on Lake Tahoe. On top of that, the first day was the kind of disaster that made me rethink this whole see every national park life plan in the first place.
El Paso is closer to the California border than it is to Austin, Texas, but that didn’t stop me from having that be the jumping off point for a romantic vacation that started with a supply run to Walmart. They didn’t have the gas canister our camping stove required, so we found the city’s largest outdoors store, which was also out of stock on the fuel we needed. Our nature adventure took us into an El Paso Target to buy a new camping stove with fuel included before we peeled out into the desert three hours behind schedule where we got pulled over by our first border patrol officer. So far we were off to a roaring start.
The drug-sniffing dog cleared the rear tires of the rental and the officer was satisfied with our answer when he asked, “Are you American citizens?” This didn’t seem the time to discuss Jen’s Canadian heritage, so we continued east into Texas backcountry. A few hours later and with the sun starting to set, we got to our first national park, Guadalupe Mountains, which would be great if you’re assembling a fossil record of West Texas, and a major disappointment if you could’ve been at Tahoe. It’s home to the largest peak in Texas and a post office from the 1800s that is now a pile of rocks. The first-come camp site was full, so we drove another hour to an RV park in Carlsbad, New Mexico, a town that made El Paso look like Vail.
I can’t think of a lot of scenic places with “Bad” in the name. Islamabad isn’t near the top of my list, and Carlsbad was populated with a highway of chain hotels serving the Caverns (to the South) and alien-seeking conspiracy theorists in Roswell (to the North). We expected the worst from the RV park, but it turned out to be a great find and the trip took a turn for the better. Like every camping trip, Jen soon picked up the gossip of every female camper drama from the ladies’ room, and then we downed a pan-fried Walmart steak deep in the heart of a Roswell, New Mexico K.O.A.
Carlsbad Caverns elbowed its way into the top ten places I’ve ever seen. It was a huge relief that the trip was justified the minute we descended the thousand-foot-deep cave (roughly the height of the Empire State Building, or 12,000 Empire State Building souvenirs). The first thing you hear is a soundtrack of a few thousand bats reminding us that the elevator was out of service, along with an additional thousand children shouting, “Stalagmites,” and “Stalactites.” We get it. You know which one is which. Our exhaustion scurrying to the bottom of the cave, taking a tour and hiking out was relieved by judging whether other people would be able to make it out.
There isn’t much to check out between Carlsbad and Big Bend – McDonald Observatory, Fort Davis, and a lot more nothing – but we stopped in Marfa, Texas, which is sort of like a Texas Ojai. It’s an artist outpost in the middle of nowhere part of the middle of nowhere where Matthew McConnonaughey and a few other celebs call their second home. It has 20+ art galleries and the kind of stores where you can drop a few hundred bucks on astrologically-embroidered denim jackets while you pregame for Burning Man and get your photo taken at the Marfa Prada (not a real Prada – art is tough to explain). It was a perfectly fine place to eat a falafel for lunch.
We didn’t know what to expect in Big Bend National Park. We knew it’s where the Rio Grande curves to the north and there’s a border crossing where you can take a boat and ride a donkey to a Mexican village. We drove out of the desert up into some mountains where we saw trees for the first time in four days. We dropped into a grove where our campsite was surrounded by a forest and mountains being hit by the sunset. We were also instantly befriended by the camp host, who raised her glass of wine and said things have been great with her since she had gallbladder surgery.
An astronomy professor from U.T. hosted a stargazing session that night with two high-powered telescopes. We got a good look at Jupiter’s moons and the Milky Way ripped across the Texas sky. But the best part was his love for astronomy was only matched by his disdain for astrology. He’d show some green neutron gas around a cluster of young star formations, but when someone asked him to point out Gemini, he shrugged them off with a, “That’s not really my thing,” to which another person asked, “What about Sagittarius?”
The next day we hiked three trails and around nine miles, the best was Santa Elena Canyon on the Rio Grande. It’s a 1,500-foot rock face dropping straight into the water. If anyone descends that cliff from the Mexican border and crosses the river, they deserve to stay. Immigration debate over. Although it was nice to visit a national park that wasn’t overrun by Germans for once. This was the first national park trip that didn’t have a slew of Berliners telling me they haven’t met any Americans in the national parks yet.
Our final morning we woke up at 3am Central Time. All the road kill we saw during the day was explained by hundreds, maybe thousands of jackrabbits lining the highway in the middle of the night. These bastards did everything possible to try and get hit. They darted into the road, jumped back in, darted in front again, and hopped away. If I were Elmer Fudd, I’d drop the gun and just do 80 through Big Bend. I’m proud to say that no rabbits were harmed in the making of this trip, but any time I saw road kill after that, I was like, “They were asking for it.”
Big Bend and Carlsbad Caverns were two of the best parks we’ve seen so far. You can skip Guadalupe and just eat rabbit stew instead. As much as we were warned of gun-totin’ Jew haters who want to make America great again, everyone we met couldn’t have been nicer. It seemed like an annual pilgrimage for people from Austin and we could’ve spent a week in the park with ease. Sure, one family’s picnic basket was emblazoned in red, white and blue with, “Faith, family, freedom,” which are three things I’m not big on (too much anxiety with freedom), but they wished us a great day when we saw them later on a hike, and thanked us when part of their picnic blew away (the dishes were gunning for freedom).
My biggest moment of being a total idiot was walking into a donut shop in Van Horn, Texas at 7am after dodging rabbits. Jen and I combined were less than a third shorter and smaller than the next person in there. I was going on zero sleep and video game driving when I asked for four donut holes. “Four?” She yelled at me. “It’s a dozen for a dollar.” My palm-to-forehead morning only continued when I asked if they had soy milk for my coffee. “No,” she stared at me.
And I only share that super-embarrassing story because I hope I could fulfill their stereotype of pompous city boys walking into their Texas donut shop and ordering four donut holes and asking about soy milk. And I hope I made their day because it’s the least I could offer in return after such a great trip to Texas.
I know we visit nature to escape the trappings of work and city life. We want to get away from crowds and people, have time to ourselves, rejuvenate and embrace the silence of a beaten trail. We take a day trip to spot wild animals, see the desert in bloom, photograph spectacular views and hike to distant waterfalls. But if you walk past me and don’t respond to my cheesy hiking greetings, I’m just saying… Watch your step.
I will settle for any kind of acknowledgement that you and I exist together on this dirt pathway. I have pulled out all the stops to welcome your arrival. I offered a high-five, said, “Good morning, super hiker friend,” and held up a sign that reads, Greetings Mountain Man! I expect nothing less in return. If you breeze past me as though I’m part of the shrubbery, you should be very aware that we’re traipsing along an extremely steep cliff.
You can’t be too cool for my warm welcomes because I have done everything in my power to make hiking uncool for everyone. My fanny pack is secured tightly, I have stood in the same place for an hour trying to refold my paper map, my hat was a Valentine’s Day present that says, I love you. And you think that you can walk past this kind of love and not reciprocate my hug?
It’s just you and me up there. I move to the side to let you pass and raise a hand in the air for a high-five. We’re in this together. We’re hiking, climbing, conquering and you leave me hanging? You’re doing to me exactly what the treasonous regiment of the Scottish Army in Braveheart did when they ditched William Wallace mid-battle.
Big Bear is located two-and-a-half hours East of Los Angeles and features some of the best – and only – skiing within two-and-a-half hours of Los Angeles.
Directions: Take the 210 until you go uphill. When you hit water, you’re there.
It is a nice mix of local restaurants and shops that are owned by people who live elsewhere and are staffed by minorities that the real locals hate. Throw in a whole lot of yuppies and you have yourself a vacation destination!
The Bridge to Nowhere is located in Azusa, California. In the 1930s, someone thought it would be a good idea to build a road in the middle of a mountain range that would forever be uninhabitable. This was before Sim City. When they hit a giant dip over a river, they built a beautiful arch suspension bridge despite the fact that they had not built the road on the other side yet. No blueprints, oversight nothing. When a flood washed out the road, they ran out of money to rebuild it, not that they should have put something in the middle of the San Gabriels in the first place.
What remains is a gorgeous arch bridge in the middle of the mountains. It is a seven-and-a-half mile hike in each direction and requires four river crossings plus a bunch of swimming holes. We saw mountain goats, snakes and bungee jumpers. It is the only place to bungee in Los Angeles county and is one of the best hikes in Southern California.