Tales from the Road: Journey of a Chilly Kind

Original posting from RumBum.com’s Dirtbagger Diaries

How Low Can You Go?


© Patricia Poulin / RumBum.com
© Patricia Poulin / RumBum.com

The car was packed, dog loaded and tentative plans mapped out yet the reality of my newfound vagabond lifestyle had still not sunk in. Headed for Phoenix, I was making a brief stop to pick up Doug, my partner in adventure for the next couple of weeks. As I pulled up to the front door, nerves sank in. Not only was I headed into the unknown and open road, but I was about to embark upon it with the added pressure of being with another person 24 hours a day. Being a fiercely independent person, I began to wonder what the next two weeks would bring; I wondered if I would be able to break through, or at least muffle, the stubborn streak that plagues much of my life. I even pictured one of us ending up on the side of the road with bags in hand and thumb high in the air. Yet before I could give it another thought, we were loaded up, dog crammed in with our ridiculous amounts of camping gear, and headed to New Mexico.


Outside in the “Arctic Blast”


Welcome to Gila! / Patricia Poulin / RumBum.com© Patricia Poulin / RumBum.com

After spending our first night in the warmth of southeast Arizona, we arrived in the Gila Wilderness after  driving 40 miles down a winding, desolate, two-lane road dodging ice patches and hurried drivers. The sun had set hours before our arrival and temperatures quickly began to drop into the teens. When we originally started this tour, we accepted that the temperatures would be cold, but the aptly deemed “Arctic Blast” that was sweeping the nation had never been a consideration. It felt as if my body froze instantaneously after arriving at our campsite for the evening.

Starving, we quickly set up camp and I proudly pulled out my hand-me-down Coleman stove, deemed my “super stove.” I was anxious to cook my first meal on this single burner and grill combo. As I fumbled to assemble the stove with frozen fingers I began to realize something was missing. Taking inventory once more, I began to realize the connection from propane to stove was missing. Both in denial, Doug and I scoured the box it came in; we checked the car and after much frustration, finally accepted the fact that we were relegated to using our less powerful backpacking stoves.

Shaking off my frustration, I went back to preparing dinner and grabbed a bottle of water only to realize that it had already began to freeze after pouring it into the pot. Hungry, cold, and tired, I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into; maybe I should have listened to the smarter people in my life and waited for spring. Dinner was devoured quicker than it was made and I was off to bed in hopes of sleeping off the evening’s events. I curled up in the tent with Sienna; she shivered through the night and my face began to freeze as temperatures dipped into single digits. Morning light could not come soon enough and even as the sun rose over the surrounding cliffs, the little doubtful voice continued to fill my thoughts.


Our New Years Eve


Hiking into the New Year / Patricia Poulin / RumBum.com© Patricia Poulin / RumBum.com

It’s difficult to get up before the sun when you lose all feeling in your face overnight. After Doug slept in much later than expected, he got up and prepared coffee. The campground was relatively empty of campers, and day-use visitors drove by us in their warm minivans and sedans looking at us as if we were sideshow freaks, crazy for camping in the bitter cold. Yet even with the brisk evening, we remained hopeful that our plan to bring in the New Year from the backcountry of the Gila Wilderness next to Jordan Hot Spring was within reach.

As we prepared our bags, my spirits lifted, or maybe it was just the coffee buzz. Either way, we were on the trail and headed out around noon on New Years Eve. It was not until close to four miles in that we once again faced with a challenge. A challenge that made me realize why the visitor’s center attendant at the Gila cliff dwellings looked at us as if we were crazy when we mentioned that we were heading to the hot spring for the night. Sure, six miles into the backcountry is not so bad; 15 river crossings are also not so bad; but when it’s 20 degrees outside, and the river is too wide to cross without getting your feet wet, it gets to be pretty bad.

We had a mere two miles left after already traveling a solid four miles; how badly did we really want to spend New Year’s Eve by this elusive hot spring? Not wanting to be the one to give up, we egged each other on like two grade school children, about how far we would actually go.

Warm hiking boots removed, pant legs rolled up, we finished the last two miles in flip-flops, walking across packed snow and through freezing water. By the sixth crossing my feet began to turn bright red. All I though about was the hot spring, and hoped that it actually existed. Each step sent pins and needles up on my legs. I stumbled over algae-covered rocks in the river as Sienna bounded past me with ease. After what felt like a number of miles, the evening’s darkness began to fall, and that not-so-sweet smell of Sulfur filled the air. I wondered if I was starting to hallucinate, or if we really made it. I could see Doug smiling up ahead and I began to believe it was going to be a great New Year’s Eve after all.

Not only had we made it to our destination, we somehow did so while working as a team and without too much complaining in the process. I wearily threw my backpack to the ground and we pitched our shelter in record time. Stillness blanketed the valley and cliff walls around us. The cold set in, yet somehow the sweet victory of our trek made it not so bitter. (Or it could have been the celebratory champagne flowing into our classy enamel ware cups.) We made it in one piece with smiles and humor still intact. Now all we had to do was hike back.

Tales from the Road: Smell Ya Later!

Original posting from RumBum.com’s Dirtbagger Diaries

“Been Camping, Have You?”

© Patti Poulin / RumBum.com

© Patti Poulin / RumBum.com

With the rolling green hills and overcrowded freeways now behind me, I found myself driving in the early morning hours along an empty two-lane highway with the sun barely peaking over the distant mountains. The landscape was vast, like that of the moon, and I had packed up my tent only hours earlier.

Having just spent four more days along the eastern Sierra in efforts to be reacquainted with my own company I was now feeling like the king of the road. I was living off pasta, eggs and soup, and my clothes were beginning to smell. My hair was turning dark from dirt and grime. My last shower was four, maybe five, days ago. The smell of campfire lingered on my clothes and I had a stupid smile upon my face. I was back in my element and the comfort of my own company came around quicker and easier than I thought it would. I had room to stretch out in my car with only my own gear stashed in the back and Sienna was riding shotgun with her head out the window.

I was headed toward the southwest, as California was being slammed with storm after storm. I’d had enough of the rain and was ready to get back into the desert during the best time of the year, spring. Avoiding the main thoroughfares and in need of gas, I drove for miles through open eastern California high desert before finally stumbling upon a lone service station surrounded by abandoned buildings.

Suddenly feeling transported into a terrible B-rated horror movie, I pulled off the highway and onto the shoulder of the road before pulling up to the gas pump. I can spend days on end out in the wilderness without a problem, but now I was afraid to pull into a decrepit gas station. Looking back at Sienna for reassurance, she was snoozing in the backseat and completely oblivious. I must have sat on the side of the road for ten minutes and not a single car drove by; my gas light flickered on and I was really in need of caffeine. The decision was obvious, I was going to face my (ridiculous) fears and pull into the gas station.

Slowly pulling up to one of only two gas pumps on site I scanned the area for signs of life. Starting to wonder if the station was even open, I crawled out of my car and walked towards the glass door that sat ajar. I peaked in looking for an attendant, the station was dusty and the shelves were stocked with supplies that looked as if they had been sitting there for centuries. As I made my way toward the cold drink section, the sound of a deep, raspy voice made my heart stop and my entire body lunge forward.

“Can I help you?”

Now stopped dead in my tracks and no longer focused on the Coca-Cola that was within grasping range I turned my head towards the counter to see a large man with a scraggly beard now standing behind the cash register.

As I opened my mouth, a squeaky voice I had never heard before came rushing out.

“Good morning, just need to get some gas and a cold drink.”

I awaited a response but all that I got from the man was a grunt. Grabbing my drink, I hurried to the counter and slid some cash in his direction. I attempted to make small talk as he rung up my purchase but all that I received in return was a glare. That was until he handed me my change and receipt. As I put out my hand to pick up the five-dollar bill that he slid across the counter I once again heard that deep raspy voice that had stopped me dead in my tracks moments earlier.

“Been camping have you?”

I lifted my eyes to look at his face that now had an impish smirk.

All I could utter was “uh huh.”

As I turned to scurry out the door, I could hear him utter only a few more words:

“Well, it certainly smells like it!”

Tales From the Road: Storming Interstate 5

I can’t say Interstate 5 is anywhere near my idea of backcountry, but it can certainly be an adventure (to say the least). Meetings located within Washington state beckon and a quick travel time takes precedent.

Lucky for us (Sienna and I) after a brief layover among a sea of giants somewhere near the Siskiyous, the weather decided to back off and the sun even followed us up into the depths of the Pacific North Wet.

Recollections and postings of a more vagabond kind will resume after tomorrow, please standby.

Neither of us all too anxious to crawl out of bed on a wet Northern California morning.

Civilized Adventure: Tucson’s Barrio Viejo

As we all know, quite well, this winter has managed to elude us for the first couple of months; at least until a few days ago! As summer disappeared and fall rolled around I had grand plans of being back in my beloved Rocky Mountains this time to spend endless days skiing powder and climbing “hero” ice (one can dream, right?).

Well, the ice has been pretty darn good from what I hear but the snowpack, slightly less than desirable. Due to the very un-winter trend, something in my gut kept my wandering soles pointed south after leaving the Pacific Northwest. I passed up Utah; I avoided Colorado for fear I just would not leave, and ended up in the land of wide open spaces, Sky Islands, and warm granite. Instead of bundling up in several layers of clothing and attempting to ward off the screaming barfies while swinging my tools into brittle ice, I have found myself in a tank top and sun visor surrounded by gritty granite as far as the eye could see.

After spending an undetermined number of days basking in the glow of a winter sun, riding cactus lined single track,and hiking to high points I decided to take a break to reconnect with the rest of the civilized population. That said I can usually stand two (maybe three) days of being “civilized” before yearning for open sky, towering mountains, and only the wildlife crossing my path. After all, this site wasn’t named Backcountry Vagabond due to my love of martinis and late nights at at trendy club.

While I tend to only write about my latest adventure in the great outdoors, I have grown to realize that a great adventure can unfold when walking down a city street or walking into a bookstore (yes, I have had a great adventure (or four) getting lost in Powell’s Bookstore in Portland or Tattered Cover in Denver). Today’s adventure consisted of a spontaneous walking tour of Barrio Viejo located near downtown Tucson, Arizona.

Barrio Viejo has undergone a revival over the past decade or more and the restoration of the historical architecture is spectacular. Something draws me the Southwest’s turbulently rich history and if large glaciated mountains were not thousands of miles away, I could see myself (and my French Press) living happily within the walls of one of these historic beauties.

Historia del Barrio Viejo

Established in the 1800s, Barrio Viejo is one of Tucson’s oldest neighborhoods and is best known for adobe row style homes. Home to El Tiradito, the Wishing Shrine, and El Parque de Mendoza y Orlando Barrio Viejo is flooded with Hispanic culture. The presence of this culture is visible on almost every corner.

In the 1960s this once largely populated neighborhood located just south of Congress Street was on the verge of being completely demolished. According to Tucson Weekly’s article published back in 2002 “The city of Tucson’s original 1961 urban renewal plan proposed demolishing almost all of the buildings in a 416-acre area bounded by Stone Avenue, Congress Street, I-10 and 22nd Street. More than 1,200 structures were to be bulldozed and 5,000 people relocated to make way for new residential, commercial and civic improvements.”

After walking through this neighborhood on a sunny January day (temperatures reaching the mid-70s), the thought nearly shuttered my heart.

Unfortunately not all was saved though. A smaller (but still quite damaging) project ended up demolishing 80 acres of historic buildings and uprooted around 1,200 people; all in the name of the Tucson Convention Center. Since the 70s families and small businesses have moved back into this quiet downtown neighborhood. Residents have gracefully revived the area’s charm while retaining its rich cultural history.

As I walked the narrow streets of Barrio Viejo today I felt as if I had been thrown back in time. Residents sat on their porch gossiping and turning each corner felt as if I was turning a page in history. I was reminded that it doesn’t always take a snow-covered peak to strike a chord within my soul.

Travel Ready

A few months ago, when I was still coming home to a bedroom and toasty bed of my own after a long day of work or play, it dawned on me that I could feel my soul being drawn towards another winter filled with activity specific travels that would carry me across the west.

Having spent a very similar winter in 2009/2010, the countless bitter cold mornings are still fresh in my mind. The stinging sensation which radiated across  my face is still fresh in my mind. I can still see the rather large ice chunks that spilling into my percolator as I sat in the vestibule of my tent impatiently awaiting the first cup of warm coffee. That winter I spent a significant portion of my time high in the Rocky Mountains and Eastern Sierra, now two years later I have a slightly warmer plan of attack.

After spending nearly two weeks climbing and unwinding in Joshua Tree, California, I finally made my way further south into for a family visit and hopeful execution of my dream to turn the trusty 4Runner into a mobile climbing/sleeping super vehicle. Thanks to the architectural genius of my mother and some dirty grunt work on my part, the dream of an organized and warmer “mobile” home was actualized. Well, it wasn’t exactly THAT easy. I do believe there was some struggles with plywood, splinters were acquired, blood was shed, and a few choice words may (or may not) have slipped out of my mouth in frustration with the new Yakima roof rack.

The end product though has turned out more extraordinary, functional, and aesthetically pleasing than expected.

While the bulk of the project is now complete, I anticipate modifications to occur after I hit the road. Speaking of road, I have spent three full nights in the comfort of a cozy house and I feel the new toy must be tested….pronto!

National Parks Off the Beaten Path

In celebration of National Park, happening April 16-24, 2011, free admission will be extended to all visitors. This year’s focus, Healthy Parks, Healthy People, highlights the connection between human and environmental health and the vital role America’s national parks play in both.

Considering we have 394 National Parks to choose from, the option are endless and quite difficult! While I strongly agree, everyone should visit the Grand Canyon, Yosemite National Park, Glacier National Park and Mt. Rainier at least once in their lifetime, why not travel off the beaten path this spring and discover some of America’s greatest hidden gems.

Channel Islands National Park – California

Although established as a national park in 1980, the Channel Islands located off the Ventura coastline north of Los Angeles, this area of ecological diversity was first recognized as a national monument in 1938. Encompassing five islands, Santa Rosa, Anacapa, Santa Cruz, San Miguel and Santa Barbara, this scenic park is accessible by ferry from the Oxnard, Ventura and Santa Barbara harbors. In addition to one of the largest kelp forests along the west coast, visitors may encounter large marine mammals and be carried back in time as the coastline of these islands represents what coastal California may have looked like before large-scale development. In addition to the popular water sports of kayaking and scuba diving, visitors can take a multi-day trek through the park’s largest island, Anacapa. The islands are mountainous and hiking trails traverse across each one. A fantastic spot for whale watching as the islands are located along the migration routes.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park – Colorado

Move over Grand Canyon there is a (not so) new canyon in town. After years of being recognized as a national monument, the Black Canyon of Gunnison was officially named a national park in 1999. With canyon walls carved out of Precambrian schist and gneiss that is nearly 2 million years old, the depths of the magnificent canyon reach almost 2,500 sheer feet and are 1,100 feet across at the narrowest point.

Located miles from a major city, the Black Canyon offers visitors a feeling of solitude. Just a few of the local residents include red fox, mule deer, yellow-bellied marmot, American black bear, big horn sheep and American badgers.

The canyon rims stand at about 8,000 feet above sea level and within view of the high Rocky Mountain Peaks. The Black Canyon is known for crumbling rock, dizzying heights, and a lack of places to place protective equipment. Rock climbing is a challenge limited to highly experienced, expert climbers only. There are a number of hikes that originate from the North and South Rim and experienced hikers can obtain a wilderness permit for day hiking or backpacking into the inner canyon.

North Cascades National Park – Washington

Fondly referred to as the American Alps, the North Cascades National Park is surrounding by glacier-clad peaks that encompass expansive forests and lush meadows. In fact, this park has the most glaciers within the United States outside of Alaska. Access into the park is limited and the footpath remains the best means of getting around. Established in 1968, this 1,069 square mile park is home to moose, lynx, wolves, black bear and wolverine, yes, wolverine. Occasionally a grizzly bear may also be sighted.

If your time is limited Heather Meadows, which is not actually in the park boundaries, has spectacular views of Mount Shuksan (9,127′) said to be one of the most photographed mountains in the United States.

Visit the National Park Service website for a calendar of events and more information on National Park Week.