Technology and 21st-Century Camping

Photo by Teemu R on Pexels.com

Spring is here and summer is just around the corner. The weather is getting great for camping, and there’s nothing like the great outdoors. Forests, mountains, and lakes have the same ability to awe and calm today that they have always had, but in this Digital Age of constant connection, it’s even more imperative (and often necessary) to seek temporary solace and solitaire in nature.

For better or worse, modern technology has changed camping quite a bit. The tents, knives, and equipment we carry are lighter, sharper, and more durable than ever before. On the digital side of things, cell phones, GPS, and the Internet provide a wealth of information even out in the boonies, information that you could never pack out in years past.

Some campers and outdoorsmen shun technology altogether and stick to old-fashioned maps, compasses, and backcountry knowledge. Others willingly embrace technology on their trips because they can carry a small library of outdoors guides on a tablet, for example.

I fall somewhere in the middle. When I go camping or do anything outdoors, I carry my phone and maybe a tablet or e-reader with me, but use them minimally.

Regardless, we live in the 21st century, and if you’re planning a camping trip or outdoor excursion, you should consider taking advantage of technology to improve your trip. Below are some things you can do to make sure you and your devices make it into and out of the backcountry safely. If you click on a product link in this article and purchase something, I get a small tip at no cost to you. Much appreciated!

Turn devices off when not in use. Enjoy nature and leave the ‘Gram behind. Besides, if you’re lucky, you’ll be out of cell range anyway. If you want to take pictures, consider taking a camera specifically for the purpose, and share the pictures to social media when your trip is done. This will also help you re-enjoy the trip as you sift through your shots.

Portable chargers, also known as power bricks or power banks, are essential when heading out into the wild without a way to charge your devices. The Anker PowerCore+ 10050 shown here is a great option that I used on a recent trip to Utah. Just make sure you charge your charger before leaving!

Take backup power. Regardless of how much or how little you use your devices, their batteries will drain. I carry at least two power banks when I travel, one dedicated to charging devices and another that can jump-start a car (because there’s nothing worse than a car that won’t start when you’re miles away from civilization). I recommend the Anker PowerCore+ 10050 portable charger for phones and tablets and the DBPOWER 2000A 19200mAh jump-starter for vehicles (which will also charge phones and other devices).

Solar chargers are also an option but you should be aware that solar power charges devices considerably slower than a battery bank will. Solar is also dependent on whether the sun is out, so if it’s a cloudy day, you won’t be able to charge your gear.

Consider buying a satellite phone. While I personally have no experience with this, if you know you’re going to be really out there (good for you!), you should consider acquiring a sat phone for your trip, as you will likely have no cell service. This would have been great on my recent trip through the Navajo Nation in northeast Arizona, as my brother and I had no cell service for over twenty-four hours as we more or less traversed the entire upper-right quarter of the state. Get one in case of emergency.

At the very minimum, carry an old phone if you have one. Even if it no longer has a SIM card (meaning it’s not on a phone plan), you can still use it to dial 911 in case of an emergency. The caveat is that you still have to have service in order to call 911. That aside, it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.

Use GPS, but take a map or atlas anyway. A couple years ago, my family took a trip to Fredericksburg, TX. We got as far as Cleburne (not very far) before the route went down to one lane under construction and traffic was backed up for miles. Both Google Maps and Apple Maps provided no alternate routes. Fortunately, I whipped out my trusty Texas map and cobbled together a new route that got us out of traffic and safely to Fredericksburg, where beer and brats awaited. It just goes to show that technology is not infallible.

You can buy a Rand McNally road atlas at Wal-Mart for under $10 that covers all states in the U.S. and all provinces in Canada, with an overview map of Mexico to boot. Also helpful are the Wal-Mart locations indexed in the front of the atlas. If you’re a AAA member, stop by your local office and pick up maps for the states you’ll be traveling through. And, when you get to wherever you’re going to stay, acquire local maps so you know your way around the surrounding area and trail or park maps so you don’t get lost while hiking.

If you have a tablet, load it up with outdoors books and guides. How do you know whether that berry is poisonous? How do you treat that kind of insect bite? What are you supposed to do, again, if you encounter a bear or mountain lion? With the right books at hand, the answers are just a few page swipes away.

If you have a tablet, such as an iPad, Samsung Galaxy, or Kindle Fire, you can easily and cheaply load your digital library up with great outdoor reference works. Yes, I agree that there is still no substitute for a real, tangible book, but when weight is an issue and you can’t feasibly pack out your entire library of outdoors guides, digital editions on your device of choice are a great alternative.

I suggest you download the free Amazon Kindle app and check out the following titles:

  1. 100 Deadly Skills: Survival Edition by Clint Emerson
  2. Bushcraft 101 by Dave Canterbury
  3. Boy Scout Handbook (currently in its 13th edition, although you can also buy the highly-revered 1st edition from 1911)
Bushcraft 101 is comprehensive and inexpensive: only $1.99 for Kindle!

Also consider stocking up on some good, adventurous reads in case your hiking plans get washed out by a day of heavy rain. Again, nothing beats a hard copy, but a tablet loaded with e-books lightens your load considerably. Here are some of my favorites to get you started:

  1. The Call of the Wild by Jack London (though anything by London is fair game)
  2. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
  3. Hatchet by Gary Paulsen (part of the five-book series called Brian’s Saga, aimed at young men but entertaining for adults as well)

Finally, keep your gadgets clean and dry! Dust, dirt, sand, water, and bugs are just a few things you might encounter out there, and while you are washable, your tech probably isn’t. Keep phones and tablets in water-resistant or waterproof pockets or containers, as these will also protect against dirt. I bought my brother and I each a Pelican 1060 Micro Case for keeping our phones dry while kayaking the Colorado River in Austin. It’s not a bad idea to use these whether you’re on the water or not.

The Pelican 1060 Micro Case is excellent for storing phones, keys, wallets, and more when in wet or dusty environments. Clipping it to your person, a backpack, or kayak with the included carabiner ensures that it doesn’t get lost or end up in Davy Jones’ locker.

With these tips in mind, you’ll be able to enjoy your trip and stay connected as need be. Just remember to take nothing but pictures and leaving nothing but footprints—and enjoy being outdoors, away from the Internet and social media!

So, who’s going where and what are you taking?


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American Southwest Bro-Trip, Part 6: Day-Trippers

On Wednesday morning, the morning after we conquered Angel’s Landing, we quickly made breakfast and then made tracks. Our destination for the day was Valley of Fire State Park near Overton, Nevada, just over two hours away (and one hour from Vegas, if we got the inkling!). I’d read good reviews about the place, with lots of incredible rock formations quite different from those in Zion or elsewhere in Utah.

I-15 in Arizona.

We drove through the scenic towns along Utah Highway 9 before picking up Interstate 15 in St. George, traveling southwest towards the Arizona border. And let me tell you, I-15 through Arizona into Nevada may be one of the coolest highways I’ve ever traveled on. Canyon walls rise up on every side as the road winds among them, the strata coming out of the earth at odd angles. And, going south, it’s a fairly decent decline.

Somebody planted some grass off the side of the road!

Coming out on the Nevada side, the terrain changes dramatically again. Green, wide-open plains are barriered by ridges of mountains. Somehow, it’s exactly how I pictured Nevada, at least this part.

And then we crossed the state line and saw the big casino. That was actually how we pictured Nevada.

After driving through several small, sunny Nevada communities, we arrived in Valley of Fire. I deposited our fee at the unmanned entrance and we drove in, not quite sure where to start.

Welcome to the Valley of Fire! Mwah-hah-hah-hah! (Not really; there’s nothing scary out here.)

We visited the visitor’s center (as visitors do) and were disappointed to find that park maps were only available for sale, and for more than we wanted to pay. So, we did what any twenty-first century tourists would do and took a picture of the map on display outside the gift shop, then headed back out to the truck. Along the way, a young German family held the door open for us as we exited. “Danke schön,” I said as we passed through. They laughed in surprise and looked at us. “Wir sprechen ein bisschen Deutsch,” I explained. We speak a little German. Always good to bolster our international relations.

That rock looked eerily like a skull. (Maybe that “mwah-hah-hah-hah” is indeed called for!)

Our first hike was called Mouse’s Tank, short and in-and-out. At fifty degrees and sunny, it felt great and we shed our unnecessary layers before starting out. The hike itself was all on sand between large rock formations on either side, and along the way we saw a fair amount of pictographs from times and people long gone. The trail terminated at a fairly large (for a desert) body of water, the Mouse’s Tank that gives the trail its namesake. We took some pictures and then hiked back, and I noticed one of the pictographs looked like ripples of the sea, perhaps an indicator to ancient passers-by that there was water nearby. It’s amazing how that sign has lasted so long, and how its meaning is still interpreted all these years later.

If you can’t tell by my hair, it’s windy.
Daniel puts his back to the wind! He’s barely able to keep his balance against the gusts.

After Mouse’s Tank, we drove around the park a bit, marveling at the different colors of rocks, extensive sand dunes, and the like. We made it to the White Domes hike, a loop trail just a mile or so long but promising some excellent views. It did not disappoint. We also passed the remains of a hacienda used in the film The Professionals with Burt Lancaster. I later learned that other movies have been filmed in the park, including Elvis’s Viva Las Vegas and the original Total Recall for all the Mars scenes. It is indeed like Mars; it’s also a lot like Tatooine.

The start of the White Domes Trail.
We had some really good, unplanned “album photos” like this one.

We still felt worn out after Angel’s Landing the previous day, so we took it easy in Valley of Fire and did more driving and observing than actual hiking. Plus, being that we had to drive over two hours to get back to our camp in Zion, we were limited on time. The park is definitely something to check out, if only for its otherworldly terrain, if you find yourself in Vegas or the surrounding area; Lake Mead is also close by.

La hacienda ya no existe.
The road back to the interstate.

When we got back to camp, we ate dinner and then cracked open the Uinta Golden Spike (to put an end to our delayed gratification) while roasting s’mores by the campfire. We sat out until we ran out of chocolate and marshmallows and the weather started getting chilly. I crawled into my sleeping bag and journaled while Daniel played “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” by John Denver through his phone. Then it got too cold for us to sit up, so we nestled ourselves inside our cocoons and turned the lights out.

It rained that night with strong winds and the temperature dropped to 29º F, the lowest it had been during our stay. Listening to the wind and rain outside while you’re warm and dry inside a tent is a very cool thing.

The next morning, we ate quickly again and packed up our camping gear. We decided to leave a day early and hit Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park on the way out, then re-enter Zion from the now-open east entrance on Highway 9 if we had time.

Let me tell you, packing up wet camping gear at 32º F with a fair morning wind is not a very cool thing.

Thankfully (perhaps miraculously), we got the tent zipped up with no problems. I lost my patience trying to fit one sleeping bag into its storage bag, so I threw it in the back of the cab with all the other gear. “We’ll sort it out when we get home,” I said, somewhat breaking my rule of keeping a neat and tidy backseat. “Let’s go.”

We drove into Springdale and intended to eat breakfast at Oscar’s Cafe, apparently one of the best places in town, but unfortunately they weren’t serving breakfast. We talked to the owner, a cool guy who recommended we try a place called MeMe’s across the street. We thanked him and told him we’d be sure to visit Oscar’s the next time we found ourselves in Springdale. (And, Lord willing, there will be a next time.)

MeMe’s turned out to be an excellent recommendation. We each ordered a breakfast crêpe with hollandaise sauce drizzled on top, and man was it good! For those who like a hearty, fancy, French-infused breakfast and gourmet coffee, this is the place. (Neither of us are coffee-drinkers, so I can’t speak to how great the coffee was. The water was, though!)

Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park near Kanab, UT.

We said good-bye to Springdale, good-bye to Zion, and retraced our route to Highway 59 into Arizona. A couple hours later, we had driven completely around the large mass of rock that encapsulates Zion and the area around it, and found ourselves north of Kanab, UT on U.S. 89, looking for an entrance to Coral Pink Sand Dunes. The first one we came to was closed, but we drove on and found a second one further north, then drove many miles back south to actually get to the park.

“Someone was in the pod. The tracks go off in this direction.”

Coral Pink Sand Dunes is not a very big park, but it’s something to see. Due to the area’s geography, many grains of sand from the desert (remember, we are technically in a desert, even though there are trees and such) accumulate in this one place. The signs at the park explain how this works; I can’t remember it all, but I found the topographical views of the terrain and explanations of how the grains are moved fascinating.

Saltating sand. Bet you never learned about that in science class.

But, enough scientific stuff. We hiked out onto the sand and found ourselves again on Tatooine, or in a small Sahara. There weren’t too many other people out there, and it was incredibly quiet even despite the wind. We hiked up a dune, ran down (that was the easiest way to prevent our feet from sinking deep into the sand), and did it again. Daniel had me time him running to the top of a dune, and I think he misjudged how difficult it would be. For one thing, it was steep; for another, it required extra effort because sand moves and shifts when you stamp down on it with great force, like he was. If you want to get fit, start running up dunes.

“Yeah, runnin’ down a dune / I’ll be at the bottom soon” (alternate lyrics to Tom Petty’s classic)
All I can say about this picture is that I don’t remember who or what I was looking at. But I look pretty cool doing it, if I do say so myself.

After an hour or so, maybe even less (time becomes irrelevant in a desolate desert), we hiked back to Vader. It would have been more fun had we had some motorized vehicles with which to tear into the sand. Unfortunately, neither of us were old enough to rent them for a day (darn you, insurance!), so we merely talked about how great it would be to drive ATVs around in the sand. “Next time,” we said.

From there, we picked up Highway 9 again in the “town” of Mt. Carmel Junction and drove into Zion from the east side. This afforded a much different view of the park because, unlike the south entrance where you come in at the bottom of the canyon, the east entrance brings you in on top of everything, winding among the tall rocks.

Hiking underneath an overhang in Zion.

We drove through the two old, narrow tunnels for the heck of it before parking and hiking the Canyon Overlook Trail, our last one in Zion. It is accurately labeled as a moderate trail, and didn’t seem to take as long as we thought it would. At the end, we were treated to a breathtaking view down into the canyon, another different perspective on the park.

The terminus of the aptly-named Canyon Overlook Trail. Pictures do not do this view justice.

On the hike back, a fellow hiker pointed out a family of bighorn sheep on the rocks far above us. I pulled out my long-range camera lens and zoomed in to get some shots, then offered it to others so they could see the young sheep close-up.

A happy family outing on the rocks.

On the drive out of the park, we encountered something even better: bighorn sheep right alongside the road. We parked and Danger Dan jumped out with the camera to get all the best shots. And I would say that he did.

A young bighorn sheep. (Does that make it a littlehorn sheep?)
The thousand-dollar shot.

With one final stop for Daniel to play in the snow off the road, we left Zion for good and drove to Page, AZ for the night. We checked in at the Red Rock Inn, a wonderful, family-owned motel that more than exceeded our expectations: two separate rooms, each with a twin bed, for only $70. (I’m all about bang for my buck!) Our hostess provided us plenty of literature for things to do in and around Page; sadly, we would only be there overnight and wouldn’t have time to do much of anything. I didn’t realize there was as much to do there as there really is. Add this city to the list of places to return to!

Vader the truck parked outside the Red Rock Inn in Page, AZ.

We each showered—something we hadn’t done in five days—and, feeling cleaned up like cowboys might after many days on the trail, we moseyed on into town to rustle up some grub. We dined at the State 48 Tavern that night, a burger-and-beer kind of place that suited us just fine. We each ate the Cowboy Burger (because we’re cowboys, baby!—not really, but maybe), which more than sated us. Instead of drinking and hitting on the gals, we went back to our motel room and crashed for the night (because we’re Christian cowboys, baby!—yes, really, to that one).

American Southwest Bro-Trip, Part 5: Zion National Park

We checked in with the park ranger at the campsite and quickly found our spot, just near the entrance and a short walk from the restroom. Before setting up our tent, we looked around at the rock formations around us and marveled. “We get to camp here?!”

The little green Coleman. Just big enough—just.

We chose a (small) two-person Coleman tent that Daniel previously took to Big Bend National Park with some of his friends. On previous trips, we had used a Walrus tent that was at least twenty-five years old, and though it was a good tent, we found it was prone to leaking even after I resealed it. Since we expected rain and potentially snow during our stay, I decided we should use the newer, albeit smaller, tent that I hoped would keep us dry.

Our base station, complete with food and water.

After pitching the tent and positioning the truck to act as a wind block, we started on supper. We brought an abundance of canned goods, from soup to chowder to green beans to refried beans to spinach. I did most of the cooking, and my methodology was simple: open can, pour into pan, heat, and eat. Remember, I’m a Baker, not a Cook.

As evening approached and the air cooled down, we tried building a fire with some wood we brought from home. Daniel took charge and I gave tips as best I could, but we were unable to get a blaze going. I started bundling up in the cold evening air and thought of the Jack London short story “To Build a Fire”. Even the protagonist in that story had better success than we did! Did this bode ill for the rest of our trip?

Finally, dismayed but not distraught, we prepared for bed and quickly realized how small the tent was. There was enough room for each of us to lie stretched-out on either long end of the tent, and just enough room between us for our clothes bags. Otherwise, we were quite cramped.

Mule deer in our campsite.

That night was our first night sleeping in sub-freezing temperatures. We crawled into our mummy bags and zipped up. Daniel’s advice, since he’d done something similar in Big Bend, was to sleep in his day clothes. I’ll just say this: Don’t do that. Strip down completely, or do like I did and wear a base layer inside the mummy bag. You’ll stay much warmer and far more comfortable that way.

That first night’s sleep was rough. I slept like a rock, but also felt like I was sleeping on rocks. The old Therm-a-Rests we brought offered nil in the way of lower back support, and sleeping on the side wasn’t much better. I managed. Daniel didn’t.

At 5:30 AM the next morning, Daniel woke me up saying he had to go to the bathroom. I groaned as he climbed over me and outside to do his business. “Whoa!” he said in his half-wakened state as he exited the tent. “Look at the stars!”

I groggily leaned my head out of the tent and looked up. There were, indeed, innumerable stars in the early morning sky. We could even see part of the Milky Way.

So began our stay in Zion National Park. We camped four nights, three in the tent and one in my truck. The second night we decided to try truck-camping in the cab, since neither of us slept incredibly well the night before. It was warmer than the tent, for sure, but still not very comfortable. I think I slept a grand total of two hours that night; Daniel slept more like six because he’d been the one who slept two the night before.

Two hours of sleep on the Watchman Trail.

On our first morning in Zion, we woke up, made breakfast in the crisp, brisk morning air, and then geared up to go hiking. First, we visited the visitor’s center to grab maps and other park literature, as well as to speak to a ranger about trail conditions and recommended hikes. She steered us clear of the Archaeology Trail, the first trail we intended to hike, saying it was too easy and pretty boring. She also pointed us to some other nearby state parks we could check out during our four-day stay, and advised us on conditions on Angel’s Landing, which is possibly Zion’s most popular hike (for good reason, as you’ll soon see).

We were down there, once.

Our first hike was on the Watchman Trail, which wound up into the rocks overlooking the campgrounds and provided some great views of the valley and the town of Springdale to the south. It was not a hard hike, but did take about two hours to complete. The hardest part for us was having to gradually de-layer as we hiked; it was about forty-five Fahrenheit when we started and felt like sixty by the time we reached the overlook.

The view looking northwest.
The view looking southwest over the town of Springdale.

After completing the first hike, we decided to ride a shuttle bus around the park to see everything there was. This proved to be a good decision, because we learned quite a bit about the park from the pre-recorded narrations onboard the shuttle.

The waterfalls at the Lower Emerald Pools.

We stopped at Zion Lodge, which books up thirteen months in advance(!), too hike the Lower Emerald Pool trail, approximately one mile total, and paved the whole way. The trail keeps going, but due to winter weather and rockfall, the Upper Emerald Pool was off-limits. Still, Lower Emerald Pool was completely worth it.

We’re smiling because one of the prettiest girls in the world asked if we wanted our picture with the falls. Two of the handsomest guys in the world returned the favor a minute later.

We then decided to do the short Grotto Trail that walked along the bus route for about a mile from the Lodge at Stop #5 to Stop #6 [check numbers]. Daniel started getting bored during this hike, but that quickly changed once we saw two mule deer foraging just off the trail. I let him take the camera and get some close-ups, though I think the deer were a little annoyed because they showed him only their derrières.

Daniel and the deer. He’s a regular Jack Hanna.

We hopped back on the shuttle and rode the rest of the way around the park, stopping briefly at Stop #8, called Big Bend, to look around and take photos. We sat in the shadow of Angel’s Landing, looking up at the colossus that we intended to conquer the next day. As we snacked on trail mix, we heard a victorious whoop come from far above. “Someone made it to the top,” I said, explaining the trail to a couple from Pittsburgh nearby.

The Big Bend along the Zion shuttle road.

Angel’s Landing is a four-hour, five-mile trail with a fifteen-hundred-foot ascent. The first half involves climbing up a steep trail that switchbacks up the side of the rock; the second half consists primarily of scrabbling along the “backbone” of the rock formation holding on to heavy-duty chains. Seven people have fallen to their deaths since 2004. And once you get started on the last half, there aren’t too many places where you can decide to go back.

Daniel enjoying Chef Bubba’s gourmet meal after day one of adventuring.

So, the next morning, we grabbed our crampons, just in case, and boarded the shuttle for Angel’s Landing in spite of the severe weather warnings posted at the shuttle stop. Clouds covered the park and it did look a little foreboding, but we (and others) went ahead anyway.

The switchbacks at the first part of Angel’s Landing.

The hike up was indeed intense. For the first time, I felt winded at the higher elevation than I was used to. We stopped frequently to catch our breath and let the burning in our legs subside, but the easiest thing was to simply keep hiking on. Stopping too long, we felt like staying stagnant. We had to keep pressing on.

Looking down the Angel’s Landing trail, just before another switchback carried us up to the chains. We had to put the camera up for that part.

The second half, with the chains, was even more intense. In certain areas, there was only a foot or two between us and empty space, and a thousand-foot drop. It was the equivalent of a one-lane road in that we had to stop and coordinate climbing up with the folks that were climbing down; there were only so many chains to go around. It was also made worse by the wet sand, which caused many slips as our boots lost their grip and became caked with dirt. In many cases, I found it easiest to hold onto the chain and use my upper-body strength to propel myself forward and upward.

Two hours of sleep and still trucking!
The view from 1500 feet up. Note the shuttles on the road.

Finally, we reached the end of the trail, and were rewarded with one of the best views I’ve ever seen in my life. We stopped for at least a half hour just to take it all in, snack, and talk to fellow hikers.

She’s braver than I am.

We encountered a group of Texas A&M Aggies (not to be confused with the Utah State Aggies, whom we also saw plenty of), and they were in the process of “impressing” some midwesterners with their Texas accents. “Do you guys really speak like that?” one girl laughed. “Why, yes ma’am, we do,” an Aggie replied.

“Boy, I tell you hwhat, Bubba,” Daniel said to me in his Big Tex impersonation. That elicited laughter from some other folks nearby.

Achievement unlocked: Angel’s Landing.

After taking pictures, having other people take our picture, and taking pictures of other people, we descended Angel’s Landing. In my opinion, the descent with chains was far tougher than the ascent. With gravity propelling your body forward, it’s tough to maintain your balance, and one misstep could send you dangerously close to the edge. Nevertheless, we made it, and lived to tell the tale.

The red rocks looking towards The Narrows Trail, which we did not hike due to extremely cold water.

Exhausted in a good way, we climbed back onto the shuttle to ride to our campsite. Behind us sat a family speaking in German. Daniel elbowed me: “You should say something to them in German.” So, I turned around, smiled, and did: “Kommen Sie aus Deutschland?” Do you come from Germany?

Their faces lit up and we began a conversation in a mix of German and English, before eventually defaulting to English (because Germans like to practice their English when traveling in English-speaking countries). They were taking an extended family vacation around the world, which was culminating in some RV-ing across the American Southwest. We told them we were from Texas and then learned that one of the ladies lived in San Antonio for a while during an internship in college, and she loved Texas. We talked about the differences in culture, travel, and work between our two countries and concluded that white-collar Germans have it better than we white-collar Americans do: Over a month of paid vacation every year, often with the ability to take more with job security. Man.

Clouds rolling in on us in the late afternoon. Storm’s a-comin’.

After hiking Angel’s Landing, we were tired and famished. We knew that sleeping in the truck again was not a good option, and we needed to do something to make sleeping in the tent more comfortable. We drove into Springdale and hit up one of the sporting goods stores for new Therm-a-Rests, which promised comfort and insulation for only $50 apiece. We then stopped at Sol Foods and bought a six-pack of Uinta Golden Spike to reward ourselves for conquering Angel’s Landing, and some real firewood, before heading back to our campsite.

I prepared dinner while Daniel got the fire roaring. We planned to eat, then sip beers and make s’mores. As we finished eating supper, we saw the German lady, Julia, we met on the shuttle walking with her young son. She waved and came over, then told us that her son, Jahale (whose name I hope I spelled correctly—pronounced ya-ha-la, Nordic in origin), wanted to help us build a fire. We gave him some small sticks and helped him throw them on the blaze. I asked him in German if he wanted some s’mores, but Julia told us that he didn’t like marshmallows. He then looked at his mother in surprise: “Mama, sie sprechen Deutsch?” Yes, she told him, they do speak German.

A campfire I dub “the Pard special,” even though I had a lot of input in architecting the thing.

Jahale was one of the cutest, most well-behaved three-year-olds I’d ever seen. He had light blond hair, blue eyes, and high German cheekbones. He stood safely away from the fire and was very careful when pitching sticks into the blaze. He noticed me and Daniel standing with our hands in our jean pockets (as Texans do), and he wanted to stand with his hands in his pockets, too—so Julia showed him how. I told Julia he’d be walking with a little cowboy swagger if he hung around us too long. When she told him it was time to go, he didn’t want to, and insisted on staying. “Bis fünf Minuten?” Julia asked him. Five more minutes? “Nein!” he replied in his high-pitched voice, wearing a contagious smile. “Bis hundert!” One hundred minutes!

Finally, he did get tired and wanted to go back to their RV. We wished them a good night and safe travels—they were heading down to the Grand Canyon, then on to Las Vegas—and hoped we’d see them later on. The fire was reduced to ashes by this point, and the air began to get chillier. We still hadn’t popped open the beer. “We’ll drink ’em tomorrow,” I told Daniel. “I’m ready to bed down for the night.” He agreed. We put the last of the cookware away and hit the hay. Nothing like delayed gratification.

Lying on the new Therm-a-Rest, I could already tell that it was going to be a much better night’s sleep. I replayed the hike of Angel’s Landing and the other events of the day before drifting into dreamland, only occasionally interrupted by the wind and rain that battered our tent as I stayed snug inside the mummy bag.

Bro-Trip Report: Zion National Park and the American Southwest

The view from the top of Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park. Very strenuous, 4 miles long, and an elevation change to 1,500 feet, but completely worth it!

With spring break around the corner and no plans, Daniel and I put our heads together. Where could we go that would be exciting, affordable, and something that we’d never done before?

The beach was an option, but everyone does that over spring break. So was skiing, but that’s expensive.

Looking at the map and using my rudimentary knowledge of the American West and National Parks, I put together an itinerary and proposed a trip.

With approximately a week and a day to work with, I determined that we could drive to Zion National Park (near Springdale, UT), camp there, and use that as a base from which to explore the park and the surrounding area. Both on the way there and coming back we would be able to stop and do things along the way to break up long stretches of driving.

I ran the plan by Dan the Man, and he liked it. We would spend spring break in the American Southwest, specifically in Zion National Park.

Daniel enjoying a dinner of beef ravioli, green beans, and Ritz crackers in the South Campground.

It would be a trip unlike any we’d ever done before. We’d be camping five nights in Zion, cooking our own meals every morning and evening, and over a thousand miles away from our family, or really anyone who could help us if something went awry.

Initially, the plan was to drive about eight hours a day to get to Zion and camp every night during the whole trip to save money. Mom and Dad (thankfully) steered us away from that option due to the sheer amount of time and effort required to set up and break camp. It would quickly get old. Instead, we opted to stay at motels and AirBNBs along the way, and set up camp only once when we arrived in Zion.

We left DFW on Friday the 8th and drove to Santa Rosa, NM, and then from Santa Rosa to Monument Valley, UT on the 9th. On the 10th, we drove to Zion, and then stayed there through the morning of the 14th. From there, we started back home, stopping overnight in Page, AZ and then in Albuquerque, NM. We arrived back home on Saturday the 16th.

Sunrise in Monument Valley, viewed from our motel balcony at Goulding’s Lodge.

During our trip, we did the following:

  • Ate steaks at The Big Texan in Amarillo (no, we didn’t try the 72 oz. steak challenge)
  • Visited Walter White’s (Breaking Bad) house in Albuquerque
  • Hiked the White House Ruins trail in Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Chinle, AZ
  • Drove through Monument Valley, AZ/UT
  • Took lots of dam photos in Page, AZ
  • Tent-camped four nights in Zion National Park and weathered wind, rain, and frost
  • Conquered Angel’s Landing (1500 foot ascent with chains)
  • Walked through Valley of Fire State Park in Overton, NV
  • Climbed dunes in Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park in Kanab, UT
  • Saw mule deer and bighorn sheep in Zion
  • Checked out Horseshoe Bend outside Page, AZ
  • Walked around the rim of Meteor Crater near Winslow, AZ
  • Took the obligatory “standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona” photos
  • Successfully resolved a check engine light in Albuquerque on the way back
  • Built three campfires
  • Made numerous s’mores
  • Drove almost 3,000 miles in Vader the truck
  • Made memories we’ll never forget!
Looking out over Canyon de Chelly (Chinle, AZ).

Every evening before bed, I journaled the day’s events. Over the coming weeks, I’ll use that journal to help retell this epic trip, day by day, and all our escapades along the way. I’ll share the adventures (and some misadventures) that we got ourselves into, what we learned, and travel tips for those who wish to visit the amazing places that we did. I’ll also share plenty of the amazing photos that Daniel and I took along the way, because we all know that a picture is worth a thousand words (and, in some cases, ten-thousand words).

Stay tuned!

Trip Report: Petit Jean State Park

Nothing like big rocks to make you feel small.

As far back as June, my family was already thinking about a Christmas vacation. Our last vacation was to the Texas Hill Country in August 2017, and for reasons I won’t get into our last vacation prior to that was in June 2013. As I mentioned in 2018: The Year in Review, 2018 was transitory not only for me but also for my whole family, so we didn’t have an opportunity to travel at all until after Christmas.

A few ideas were tossed out: Washington, D.C. Memphis, TN. Head south to a beach somewhere. (Being Texans, we didn’t really want to go north into the cold!)

We quickly decided that D.C. would make a better spring or summer trip, and also that most everyone else would be heading to a beach this time of year. With those narrowed down, it sounded like we were going to Memphis.

One of the main drivers for going to Memphis was Graceland, Elvis’s home there. Mom’s a big Elvis fan and wants to tour the house someday, and the fact that it would be decorated for Christmas made it more tantalizing to visit. Instead of listening to Elvis along the way (something we did on another family road trip!), Daniel and I joked about annoying Mom and Dad by playing Paul Simon’s Graceland album the whole way there.

Unfortunately, Mom decided that, aside from Graceland, there wasn’t much else we’d want to do in Memphis. Visiting a few blues bars and checking out Sun Records (Elvis’s record label) would be cool, but that was about it.

So, since we would be driving through the state or Arkansas to get to Tennessee, Mom started researching what we could do in The Natural State. She found Petit Jean State Park, booked two rooms in the park lodge (one for her and Dad, one for me and Daniel), and then told us about it.

Thankfully, we were all on board with the idea. A few days of hiking through the mountains and warming up by the lodge fire sounded pretty sweet. (Way to be proactive, Mom!)

Cedar Creek running through Petit Jean State Park.

Petit Jean is about an hour northwest of Little Rock, two hours east of Fort Smith, and just under six hours northeast of DFW. It’s also just north of the Ouachita National Forest, which we drove through to get there. The nearest “big” town is Morrilton, about twenty minutes away. It has both a Kroger and a Wal-Mart. (You’re never too far away from twenty-first century necessities when you need them.)

After opening presents on Christmas morning, we packed our bags that afternoon and left the following day. The drive, with stops, took about six-and-a-half hours, and would have taken longer had we stopped more than twice. We arrived just before sundown, so we had enough light to see where we were going on the winding two-lane roads up the mountain to the park.

We checked in at the Mather Lodge lobby, stopped by our cozy log cabin-style rooms to drop our gear off, and then ate dinner in the lodge dining room. We had the best seat in the house: Our table sat right before a panoramic window that looked out over the canyon and towards other mountains in the distance. We watched the sun set and twilight diminish as we noshed on hamburgers and quesadillas while marveling at the Canadian ponderosa pine fittings of the lodge.

The view from Mather Lodge in the daytime.

The dinner menu also explained to me (the ever curious one) the origin of the name Petit Jean. Legend has it that a French explorer was going to leave his young fiancée to explore the Louisiana Territory (then called New France or La Louisiane française) in the eighteenth century. His fiancée didn’t want him to leave her, so she cut her hair short, disguised herself as a boy, and joined the voyage. The other voyagers nicknamed her “Petit Jean,” or “Little John” in English. Unfortunately, as they explored the Arkansas River Valley and established relations with the Native American tribe in the area, Petit Jean fell ill. As the explorer and his crew tried to aid her, they quickly discovered who she really was. She knew she would die soon, so she wanted to be buried atop one of the nearby high points where they had stood and looked out over the New World. When she passed away, her fiancé, his crew, and the tribe honored her request, and now, over two-hundred years later, the park bears her nickname.

It’s a tragic story, for sure, but is it true? I don’t know, but there is an overlook where you can view what people believe to be Petit Jean’s gravesite. Apparently a later explorer found a marker-like cluster of rocks that could only have been made by human hands, and appeared to corroborate the story. I’d like to believe that the tale is true, and that Petit Jean was the best little déguisuse this side of the Mississippi.

Petit Jean’s grave, now gated.

We spent the next three days hiking Petit Jean and exploring the vicinity nearby. Daniel and I hiked ten miles in three days, while Mom and Dad hiked just over eight. (There was a two-mile trail Daniel and I wanted to do that our parents didn’t, which accounts for the difference.) All the trails were excellent, but by far the most rewarding, and most popular, was the Cedar Falls trail to, well, Cedar Falls.

Cedar Falls from above…
…and below.

We also visited the nearby Museum of Automobiles, which housed a cool collection of classic cars, including one of Elvis’s Fords, one of JFK’s presidential Lincolns, and a DeLorean with under two-thousand miles on the odometer. This museum was not something I’d expect to find in rural Arkansas, but there it was, and it was totally worth visiting!

The King’s Ford…
…the President’s Lincoln…
…and the DeLorean.

One evening, we ventured into Morrilton to try something different for dinner, rather than eating the lodge food again (which, don’t get me wrong, was excellent). We stopped at the highly-recommended Ortega’s for Mexican food, where I had the best and biggest portion of carne asada ever. Since we were there at night, though, we didn’t get to see much else of the town, but I hear it has some pretty, antiquated churches there that are worth checking out.

After hiking up and down hills and clambering over rocks all day, we enjoyed our evenings by the communal fireplace. We met people from all over the place: Arkansans (obviously), Missourians, Marylanders, Wisconsinites, and quite a few fellow Texans. I spent my time reading No Traveller Returns by Louis L’Amour, a book Mom gave me for Christmas, and one published posthumously by L’Amour’s son, Beau. Daniel and I also finished a five-hundred-piece puzzle of a country church in New England that someone had started before us. (When I say “finished,” I mean we put together all the pieces we had. There were about ten missing, but we called it a victory regardless.)

Despite temperatures in the thirties and forties, the cold didn’t really bother us. We came prepared, and found that we all enjoyed hiking in colder conditions than we do in warmer ones (because you don’t sweat as much in the cold!). Your body learns to adapt to the conditions and, as long as you keep moving, generates its own heat to keep you warm. It’s still crucial to stay hydrated, obviously.

The Natural Bridge, and Daniel climbing up.

We played in the mountains in Petit Jean for three days and all agreed that it was the perfect amount of time for everything we wanted to do. Even though we were ready to do something else, we hated to pack up and return home.

A small waterfall in The Grotto, something you have to deviate from the standard trail to get to. It was a detour that was completely worth it.

We will never forget our experiences in Petit Jean and hope to return one day. We found a handful of other places in the Arkansas River Valley and in the Ozarks that we hope to visit in the near future, including Mount Magazine, Mount Nebo, Devil’s Den, and the Buffalo River Valley.

Most importantly, we spent time together as a family, away from home, and in the great outdoors. We made great memories that we’ll never forget. That’s what travel should be all about: having unique experiences with those you love that you can cherish forever.

Big rocks and small passageways make for a grand adventure.