Traveling Cross Country, the 'Easy' Hikes
When we made our cross country drive, Jenni was only three weeks post-surgery. We couldn’t afford more co-pays so we knew we would be looking for low-impact hikes at all the national parks and other places we were visiting.
It’s encouraging to know that less-than-athletic people can enjoy themselves in the national parks without hiking all day. We purposely asked about easy trails, often looking for ones that were paved or very level. We saw amazingly beautiful landscapes in Petrified Forest, Monument Valley, Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree, and Saguaro without doing any hiking more strenuous than the roads in our own neighborhood. In Joshua Tree NP we stopped at Skull Rock and did climb over some boulders but that was more about focusing on good footing than anything else.
By the time we reached White Sands National Monument (and now our nation’s 62nd National Park), Jenni was another 10 days into her recovery and we were ready to push the boundaries a little. First we hiked a loop trail that showed us how easy it was to get disoriented in “white out” conditions. We were supposed to follow blue marker stakes on this trail and quite often you could only see the next one, trusting you would find the next when you got there. A quarter of the way in I realized we were doing the loop in reverse which did affect how you saw some of the signage but we were committed at that point. About then we spotted the next blue marker up a high sand dune but Jenni spotted the one following that across the flat sand. Instead of making a triangle involving a 30ft sandy climb, she broke the rules, circumvented the climb up the dune, and went directly from A to C skipping B! Being one to follow the rules, once I caught up to her I warned her the hiking police were watching.
When we completed that trail, we drove farther into the park where the asphalt road turns to gypsum that gets smoothed over by park service machinery each day. They do this because the shifting sands have been known to swallow a road in a 24 hour period. We knew the Alkali trail was too long (5-7 miles) for us to conquer so we agreed to go a little way and then turn back. We hiked in, collapsed on the first dune we climbed, and hiked out. But we had photographic proof! Throw a little sand dune sledding into the visit and we were exhausted that night.
Our last park of the trip was Big Bend National Park in West Texas. As we stood in line at the visitor center our first morning, I noted there were two volunteers—a middle aged woman with great customer service skills and then the one we were destined to get. He was pleasant, but when we inquired about easy trails I think he told us to just DRIVE the whole park! But consulting the official literature, we chose a trail classified as “easy” by park officials. I would say once you climbed up 90 feet and then back down on the other side to reach the Rio Grande River it was easy. While on the trail, Jenni spotted a roadrunner having a tarantula for breakfast only 8-10 feet from us. We were entertained for several minutes before we continued. With Mexico just on the other side of the water, there was a man with a boat offering to take us across, another man offering to sing for us, and lots of handmade trinkets on our side to pay for using the honor system. Eventually the trail hit an impasse at a cliff and the river so we turned back. This was one of those times I wanted a car that could have the air conditioning blasting when I got back to it. As we collapsed in the car and guzzled some water, I noticed a couple “older than us” about to start the same hike. Her hair would probably do just fine because it looked very stiff and able to withstand the elements. We did more short walks before returning to the lodge for a beer, a nap, swatting a few flies, and eventually a great meal in the lodge. The plan for the morning was to rise before the sun, drive a few miles to a nice vantage point, and enjoy the sunrise. A flat tire altered those plans but thanks to divine intervention and some very nice people we didn’t lose too much hiking time. (see my previous blog)
We did a couple pull-overs and a short trail once back in Big Bend but we had our sights on the Santa Elena Canyon trail which was pretty much at the end of the park. This was another trail classified as Easy so we assumed we could handle it as well as we did the day before. The ranger/volunteer informed us that Terlingua Creek was much higher than normal and discouraged us from trying the hike. (I’m wondering, did we REALLY look that out of shape?) He mentioned there was another crossing 100 yards up the creek but it wasn’t worth the effort through the underbrush at that point. I’m going to suggest the park service have a talk with their volunteers since we hadn’t traveled 5,000 miles for disappointment. We parked at the trailhead and realized what he was talking about but of course that didn’t stop us from going upstream. At the point you could cross the stream, you then had to climb (scramble) up a 20-30ft cliff trail and then bushwhack through undergrowth before joining the original Santa Elena trail. After speaking with two women who had attempted the first assent with their husbands but turned back, Jenni volunteered to keep them company and told me to go on.
I scrambled up the cliff only to then have to pick my way back down through cactus and ocotillo on the side away from the creek. As I then pushed through the undergrowth I knew coming back could be tricky so I would periodically turn around to see what the trail would look like when I returned. That one hour credit in my college Orienteering class was going to pay off 38 years later! Eventually I reached the river bank and could begin following the original trail. It’s easy they had said; there are steps and a rail they said. True, but there was nothing easy about them. I climbed, switching back and forth. As I descended I entered a canebrake, not realizing the river was just on the other side of it. I caught up with the husbands of the ladies Jenni was getting to know. They had reached the end, started back, and were now on a break. I pushed on and the trail eventually led me to a boulder the size of a house at the river’s edge. There was a young couple there practicing yoga. No lie. I heard him say ‘now let’s practice some deep breathing’ as I was mouth-breathing! I backed away as quietly as I could. I did find a path to the actual river that wasn’t blocked by aggressive yoga instructors and was able to sit and appreciate the view of the canyon and reflection on the Rio Grande River. I played nice guy and pointed out the good views to a couple people who seemed as lost as I was and then I started back. On the summit of the trail I met a family of five who were letting their 4 or 5 year old “set the pace”. My pride hurt a wee bit at that.
I also caught up but stayed behind the two husbands at the summit. When they reached the heavy undergrowth I knew they didn’t have a clue where to go. They took a trail that I knew would lead to a dead end with thick thorny bushes. But I guess that’s the difference between men and women. While Jenni was becoming Facebook friends with the wives, I was telling myself ‘survival of the fittest’ and taking the trail I had carefully memorized. Besides, I had seen the snacks they were eating on their break and I knew they weren’t in danger of starving. I, on the other hand, was down to my last swallow of water and a couple almond husks in my pocket. I made it back to my original cliff trail only to see a toddler making the climb followed by a mother with an infant strapped to her chest. I realized then that a classification of Easy meant the trail was easy for a twenty-something, not a fifty-something. What was described to take 60 minutes took me 90 and I was pushing myself.
We said our goodbyes to the other couples and I poured myself into the passenger seat. I popped the top on a beer that had tasted blah the day before only to find it was now the best I ever had (to that point). We stopped at the temporary visitor center to buy me a clean t-shirt, drove about 30 minutes, did one more short hike, and then headed to the hotel. That night we had burned crust pizza (don’t ask) and the most amazing Shiner Bock draft beer I ever had (to that point). My body was exhausted.
Over the course of the 6,000 mile trip we were pleased with the physical activity we were able to enjoy without visiting any emergency rooms. We even bounced around a few potential book titles like “National Parks for the Decrepit”, “How to see the National Parks from your Car”, or “It looked Easier from the Parking Lot”. Hey, we’ve got 56 national parks to go!