Wednesday, June 4, 2014

There's no place like home

Tonight, for the first time since March 17, Rex and I will sleep in Kansas. We parked at a sad but perfectly serviceable RV park in Goodland for the evening. The high-plains breeze is pleasantly cool--with a slight hint of cattle yard in the air. Even so, it feels very good to be here.

By my post title I don't mean to imply that the Sunflower State ranks above all others. But our interstate travels have reminded us that there are remarkable, completely original things here, and Rex and I are resolved to take advantage of them in the coming months. Extended travel works well for us because we like to drink life in big gulps, but we also know that it is healthy to take short, more frequent breaks from everyday life. I also am convinced that curiosity about and connection to the places we live make for richer people and communities. That's why I love the Kansas Sampler Foundation and its work.

Ironically, as we took in the amazing scenery in Utah, several people we met from around the country reminded us of a few things that are special about Kansas:
  • A young man behind the desk at a Moab RV park sung the praises of US Highway 36. Not exclusively a Kansas phenomenon, its long stretch through the state does cover beautiful terrain and important U.S. history with almost no traffic.
  • Fellow birders Tom and Peggy from the Louisville, KY, metro area spoke fondly of their stops at  Cheyenne Bottoms and Cimarron National Grassland. Both are important bird habitats that offer unparalleled viewing opportunities--the former for migratory species and the latter for prairie chickens and others that require large stretches of healthy grassland.
  • A young architect and park service employee told us of her time consulting at the William Allen White House in Emporia, a site administered by the Kansas Historical Society. Here, the KHS conveys important national history as well as preserving the famous publisher's home.
 As one septuagenarian said to us, "I've been in 42 states, and I have yet to see one that did not have something beautiful to offer." Well said. Now go see some of it.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Road Report

 Greetings from Gypsum, Colorado! Here are some tidbits from the road back to Kansas:

  • Photos of Rex's hike to Angel's Landing in Zion National Park are now up.
  • We caught some ZZZs last night at a rest area at the junction of Hwy 191 and Interstate I-70, 30 miles north of Moab.
  • We were on the road again today by 6 a.m.
  • Saw a golden eagle not far down the road.
  • Found the Colorado River to be VERY high from at least Fruita to Dotsero, where the interstate follows the big red river. Photos below.
  • The amazing Glenwood Springs bike trail is closed from No Name to Dotsero. We could see that the path is under at least five feet of water in places. I don't know how much higher the river must be to warrant closing the equally amazing I-70 in this area, but it certainly looks like a possibility to my untrained eyes. 

Saturday, May 31, 2014


Have you ever noticed that, once you’ve become aware of a new thing or phenomenon, you are more likely to encounter it? Case in point: some friends of ours recently bought a Ford Escape. Now I see the SUV everywhere whereas a few months ago I noticed none. Psychologists probably have a name for this tendency to notice things that have meaning for us, but I call it RIB, short for Recently Introduced Bird.

I concocted this moniker based on our experience with the yellow-breasted chat. Rex and I have much to learn about birds, but even so we should have identified this large, common warbler long ago. During the summer it resides in almost every state, including Texas and Kansas. And yet it was only this month, on an organized bird walk in Capitol Reef, that we learned about the secretive chat. On Thursday, we found the bird again--this time along the North Fork of the Virgin River here in Zion National Park, not far from the lodge.

For your information, three characteristics set the chat apart: 1) an amazingly bright, almost iridescent yellow breast; 2) very loud and varied vocalizations and 3) elusiveness. Chats almost always move about in dense vegetation at water's edge. Several times on Thursday we could not have been more than 10 feet away from the noisy bird, but we could only find it in our glasses when it was 20 yards or more away. Almost as if it was teasing us, the bird seemed to throw its voice within the brush. That's just anthropomorphism, of course. In reality, there were probably several chats in the vicinity who were much more preoccupied with each other than with us.

In spite of the bird’s stealthy tendencies, it does sometimes sit high on a perch to sing. In both instances when we have seen the bird, we first recognized its sound then waited as its call moved around within the thick willows. After about ten minutes—perhaps because the birds no longer were concerned for their safety—a chat took up a very visible positions and loudly announced its presence. The bird (or birds?) continued to move to different promontories and allowed us excellent views--so good we could see the bird's throat protrude with each vocalization. You can see see the same thing in this short video.

If you did not already know about chats, now you might have a case of RIB, too. Good luck!

Friday, May 30, 2014

House Divided

Rex and I went separate ways in Zion this morning then met later for some birding and an evening tour. I'll explain our respective adventures below and say more about the ranger-led excursion in another post.

This morning the king of our castle completed Angel's Landing, the most infamous and perhaps most popular hike in the park. It's second only to the Narrows, which Rex walked earlier in the week. Neither of these hikes appeal to me because they are so heavily traveled. In fact, walking in Wal-Mart comes to mind. But Angel's Landing also includes a 1/4-mile of narrow "path" (really a slick rock with some cables) and a 1,400-foot drop on either side. I could have done it, but I would not have enjoyed it so why do it? Rex at least had the right idea: be on Angel's Landing by 7:30 a.m., before 80 percent of Landing hikers are out of bed. Rex promises photos at a later date, and he claims to have been the first one to the top today--save one German half his age.

Meanwhile, I went for a run then strolled the two miles out and back to the Narrows. The path I took, at the end of Zion Canyon scenic drive, leads hikers to a spot where they must walk in the river to continue--and many, many do so that they can see the cliff walls narrow to about 20 feet apart and nearly 2,000 feet high. The crowds erased any interest I might have had in the Narrows, but only wild horses would keep me from seeing an American dipper and that is why I walked, very slowly, the first paved mile this morning.

 Beginning of the Narrows hike up Zion Canyon, in the North Fork of the Virgin River

According to park literature, American dippers are common in Zion. Even so, I've only see them three times in my life and each was thrilling. This morning was no different. Despite assurances from a ranger that the bird frequents the river above the Temple of Sinawava, after 90 minutes of walking and looking I saw none. Finally I spotted one and was rewarded with a long look at a dipper foraging in the middle of the river. Only when a small child ran by on the path, screaming, did the dipper disappear. So much for wilderness.

Anyway, seeing the bird was euphoria. If you've ever watched this creature, which looks like a chunky robin but is actually a wren, you might understand my excitement. It has the most unusual habit of walking on the stream bed while chasing down insects. In deeper waters it runs along the bank and dives in, disappearing for several seconds at a time.

I appreciate that Rex loves a scary, challenging hike, and I am thankful that he also gets a kick from waiting out a beautiful bird, as we did yesterday. More on that, the chat, tomorrow.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Strange Noises

Cable Mountain along the Observation Point Trail where the route follows Echo Canyon
CORRECTION: We hiked to Observation Point, not Observation Peak as I incorrectly stated below. FYI.

Our first serious hike in Zion National Park--Observation Peak--lived up to its billing. At four miles up and four miles back and 2,000 feet of elevation gain in-between, it gave us plenty of challenge. But it offered even greater panoramas, majestic sandstone, and enough birding to satisfy. We recorded one new feathered friend, that being the Virginia's warbler. Even more special were the desert bighorn sheep that surprised us about 1.5 miles into the hike.

But our most bizarre encounter was with something that sounded like a cross between bleating sheep and an underwater jackhammer. We were sitting near the edge of Echo Canyon, which is a slot about 10 feet deep at this location with several pools in the bottom. We suspected frogs, but the noise sounded unlike any frog we had ever heard. Today, while reading a placard somewhere in the park, we put two and two together: canyon tree frog. Apparently the amphibian thrives in the Southwest, and we were somewhat lucky to hear it since it's usually nocturnal.
Canyon tree frog. Photo from the NPS website.
I recorded of the frogs we heard, but here is a link to a higher-quality recording:

For the record, we also encountered singing frogs on a Capitol Reef hike, while coming down from Navajo Knobs, just before the junction with the Hickman Bridge trail. We never thought to ask a ranger what kind of frogs they might have been. I can say with certainty that they were not canyon tree frogs.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Best for Last?

The Watchman, guarding Pa'rus Trail, Zion Canyon National Park.

As we made our way to Zion, the fifth and our last Utah national park, fellow travelers told us of the canyon’s beauty. You’ll love it, they encouraged. In spite of the positive reviews I’ve been dreading the crowds and the hikes, which are notoriously crowded, too. 

We have now arrived, and we can say that it is indeed stunning. Rex said it reminds him of a desert version of Yosemite Valley. That does not fully capture the place but it is a good comparison. Most to its credit there are birds everywhere in the park, especially along the river and near our campground.

By 9 am this morning we had secured a spot in South Campground.  You can find the place on this map of the canyon area of the park. Close to the river, the visitor’s center, and the shuttle buses, we could not ask for more in a campsite. Then again, perhaps we could ask for a few more trees: It was 96 degrees today, and will be at least that tomorrow and Wednesday. Thankfully, we have a very nifty fan to pull outside air inside the TI; here’s hoping we can cool it down enough to sleep well tonight.

We’re off on another bird walk tomorrow and have several short and moderate-length hikes planned for later in the week. With the town of Springdale literally just outside the park gates, we have all the groceries, beer, and lattes that we could want--way more of the lattes than we would ever want, actually. But with civilization comes phone service and internet, so please call or text if you need us. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Nice Run

Last photo I took of Bryce Canyon, taken from Paria View.
Status update: We drove away from Bryce Canyon National Park at 11:00 a.m. today.  

Tonight, we are at the corner of Hwys. 9 and 89. The place has a name--Mount Carmel--but it's not an incorporated town. It's really just a junction with several restaurants, a couple hotels, a golf course, and 12 RV spots backed up to the river. Perfect.

We break for Zion National Park tomorrow. We're now only 13 miles west of the park, but before we come to the campground we must negotiate the 1.1-mile Zion-Mount Carmel tunnel. Rigs of our size may only pass through with an escort. Then we must secure a spot in one the busiest parks in the country. Stay tuned for details.

In the interim, here are two photos taken from my afternoon run. I went up and down Muddy Creek Road, and I highly recommend it to other runners. But please know that pedestrians must pass through someone's cow-calf yard as they run the road, so be alert for aggressive stock. I encountered no such animals and only loveliness.