Archive: observatory

Hawaii Volcanoes and Haleakala National Parks (#26 and #27 out of 59)

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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.


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Carlsbad, Guadalupe and Big Bend National Parks

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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.

 

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