Run the Texas Panhandle!

I grew up in the Texas Panhandle, a large section of Texas loosely identified as the northernmost 26 counties of the state. The region is bordered to the west by New Mexico, to the north and east by Oklahoma, and to the south, hundreds of miles from the northern border, by the Big Bend and Hill Country regions. For the most part, the topography consists of grass and shrub covered plains, occasionally interspersed with arroyos and shallow canyons. It is a vast level swath of land, some 25,000 square miles total, featuring open views in all directions. With a vantage allowing line of sight through fences, power lines, wind farms, and oil field machinery, one may note the slight curvature of the earth along the distant horizon.

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From: smilingglobe.com

It is a windy place, much of the time, with a widely varying range of temperatures, each exacerbated by the blustery weather. It can be well over a hundred and blowing hair dryer hot in the summer, and snowing sideways with wind chills well into the negatives on the worst of winter days. With the winds come tumbleweeds and trash, blowing from fence to fence across rural landscapes, and yard to yard in towns and cities.

Driving the backroads, one moves steadily from one small community to the next, each in varying states of disrepair. The boom and bust cycles of agriculture, ranching, and oil are evident throughout, though when passing by boarded storefronts, broken windows, and empty brick hollows, it is difficult to imagine these main streets ever lived up to their full potential. Scattered signs of life may be observed as well: hamburger shacks with hand-lettered signs, dilapidated beauty salons with clever names, a Dairy Queen, competing convenience stores, shoe-polished slogans supporting high-school football teams—Go Eagles! On the outskirts lie weedy trailer homes and the rusted carcasses of American muscle cars—dreams left to die. The larger cities in the region prove no more stimulating—the standard repetition of box stores, fast food chains, franchised restaurants, and mega-Walmarts. Sprawl and squalor, obvious separation of wealth. The whole place exudes a certain one paycheck behind quality, a feeling of uninspired existence perhaps, though food, fuel, and other fundamentals are produced here, a concept not to be taken lightly. I confess a proclivity for criticism, having endured an adolescence stifled by an inflexible status-quo.

In short, if you ever find yourself in the Panhandle, your first thought might be of running—running away that is. At least that’s been my experience since leaving here many years ago. I have discovered, however, there is beauty to be found everywhere, and though one may have to search a little harder here, it does exist in many forms—in the open skies, those boundless horizon lines, in the wildlife, the rugged vegetation, the thrill of a multi-story dust devil, the sight of a refrigerator-sized tumbleweed bouncing along the freeway at 40 mph. There are also a few geographical gems in the region which provide opportunities for outdoor recreation, for running and camping and wildlife viewing, etc. Places worth getting to know, worth going back to time and again should you find yourself just passing through or stuck here for a while.

My family still lives in the Panhandle, and as such, I try to visit when possible. This usually occurs once or twice a year as I’m driving from one place to another. Amarillo, the biggest city near where I grew up, is a long ways from most of the places I’m interested in getting to—an eight hour drive even from Terlingua and the Big Bend—but as it’s transected by major interstates, planning a route which detours through there isn’t all that difficult. I’ll general stay for a week or so, a couple days in the city with my mom, and a few days hanging out with my dad, who lives in one of the neighboring towns about 45 minutes away. The past several months, however, I’ve ended up spending an inordinate amount of time here. As such, I thought I’d do a little something about a few of the best places to spend time outdoors in the region, just in case one of my fictitious, running obsessed readers finds themselves in the area. Not to mention, this may well be the last bit on running I do in a while, as it’s going to be treadmills, ice spikes, and cross country skis for long months to come once I make it up to Alaska next week.

I mainly want to give a brief description of the three best places to trail run in the entire Panhandle, from my own experience, limited as it may be and more specific to the Amarillo zone. But those three should be enough for anyone driving along I-40 or I-27 to detour to for a couple of hours of exploration, or to camp out for the evening if passing through the region. Truth be told, these three places probably cover it for the most part anyway, as outside of the Big Bend finding opportunities to recreate on land open to the public is depressingly difficult. Over 95% of Texas land is privately owned, leaving a minute amount of accessible open space for the common folk. The rest of it sits sanctioned off by boundless miles of fence posts, barbed wire, and closed gates. As such, options for running outside of city parks or municipal streets are limited to underfunded and overused state parks, or the couple parcels of federal land in Texas—one of which happens to be a few miles from where I’m typing this.

Before moving on to the descriptions, however, one running anecdote from my time in the Panhandle: As I’ve mentioned before on this site, running hasn’t played a part in my life for all that long, at least not an enjoyable one. Some years prior to the shift in attitude, however, I found myself signed up for the annual Amarillo Thanksgiving Turkey Trot. I knew that I was going to run the 5K a couple months beforehand, but couldn’t really bring myself to do any sort of training for the event, mostly because I really didn’t like running, so figured I’d save it for when I had to do it and not spend any extra effort in working up to it. I also lived in Leadville, Colorado at the time, at an elevation of 10,000’, which made running even less enticing, and also made for a convincing excuse that the drop in altitude should be enough to compensate for my lack of preparation. The inevitable Thursday morning arrived as cold and breezy as one might expect for November in the Panhandle. I showed up just as the event started, and found myself scrambling to attach bib and shoelace timing chip as the gun went off. From the back of the pack I eventually found my pace and place, ahead of the walkers, but a long ways behind the real runners, who I could see well on the other side of the lake the course circuited around. I wasn’t dying, but I certainly wasn’t having much fun. It was cold; I was out of shape and underdressed and hadn’t run three miles consecutively in many years.

About a quarter mile from the finish I caught up to a 12-year-old boy giving it his all while dressed in what would, in most parts of the country, be considered a decidedly non-PC Indian outfit, feathered headdress, war paint and all (“It’s my culture, not a costume!” read the posters around university campuses last year…). I didn’t intentionally pass him, simply labored by hoping for the experience to be over. He shot me a death glance as I overtook him. Around the corner the finish line was finally in sight, and I heard much yelling and cheering from the awaiting crowd as the kid was now high-kicking it behind me in an all-out sprint for the end. Even if I would have felt like humiliating a small child in a public setting, I wouldn’t have been able to muster the extra energy, and he bounded past to beat me by a couple seconds. I’d like to imagine that I could smoke him these days, but that’s probably not true, as he’s now about 19 and certainly quite a bit faster if he kept with the running. The most humiliating part came the next day, however, when the holiday copy of the Amarillo Globe-News arrived at my dad’s house. There it was, on the front page of the paper for all the Panhandle to see—the young brave whooping across the finish line with a panting old guy, his/my face plainly visible in the photo, struggling for breath several steps behind.

On to the rest of it then. Over the past months I’ve been able to revisit a few of my favorite spots in the Panhandle, and even discover a couple of new trails. I’ve also been running around the east side of Amarillo a fair amount (might as well grow an extra head the way people gawk from their truck windows at a pedestrian), and have come to the conclusion that winter may well be the best time to run here. The wind can be a deterrent, especially the colder it gets, but there are significantly fewer weeds, pokey things, and stickers in general, along with greatly reduced chances of seeing snakes. Slanted lighting softens the landscape. Long shadows and golden glows abound.

The three places I’d like to endorse are as follows: Caprock Canyon State Park, Palo Duro State Park, and the Lake Meredith National Recreation Area. All offer many miles of trails and excellent options for runs of any distance. There are a few other smaller state parks along the southern extension of the region, (such as Copper Breaks, which does have a few good trails), worth checking out if you’re in the area, but these are the top three if you’re looking for extended runs across inspiring terrain.

Caprock Canyon State Park

Caprock has around 90 miles of trails open to hiking and biking. It’s definitely somewhere one could spend several days exploring. For those looking to stay a while, the campsites are a highlight as they are arranged to offer privacy and great views. The trails provide lots of variety and untold options for connecting different routes. I would have stayed a few more days the last time I was there, but had to depart due to reservations made by incoming attendees of the annual Bob Wills Days in nearby Turkey, Texas. Be aware of that detail if you’re there at the end of April. Another highlight is the ‘Texas State Bison Herd,’ which roams freely throughout the park. Tatanka. Get your Kevin Costner on.

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Palo Duro Canyon State Park

Touted in park literature as the ‘Grand Canyon of Texas,’ Palo Duro is reported to be the ‘second largest canyon in the US,’ though when I searched for substantiation of this claim I could only come up with Texas based media outlets as sources. Such is life in the Lone Star State. Regardless, it is an incredible place to visit, and an iconic landmark. Captivating landscapes, lots of wildlife and wildflowers, plenty of opportunities for camping, and great trails. You can also see the outdoor musical TEXAS if you’re there in season. I try to spend at least a day here each time I pass through, and any time of the year is a good time to visit. My favorite trail combines the Givens, Spicer, Lowry (named for three local runners) with the Lighthouse trail to make a six or so mile loop with opportunities to take spurs to the Lighthouse formation and/or Little Fox Canyon.

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Lake Meredith National Recreation Area

While the first two might be somewhat obvious choices if visiting the Panhandle, Lake Meredith is fairly unknown outside the local area. When I was growing up, the lake was popular for boating, fishing, beer drinking, and cliff jumping. As the years passed, however, the lake (actually a reservoir capturing the flow of the dinky Canadian River) began to recede considerably, reaching a record low in 2013. As the lake dropped, marinas and boat ramps were left high and dry, and visitor use plummeted. In an effort to increase recreation opportunities in the area, the NPS decided to begin constructing trails, and several were seen to completion. Since then, however, the lake has experienced an astonishing recovery, with current water levels actually covering sections of trail where a few years ago the lake wasn’t even visible in the distance. What this all means is there are presently miles of really sweet trails with great views of the lake along the way.

Along with NRA’s eponymous lake, the region also features Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument, a site recognized for its importance to the “survival, commerce and culture of the High Plains.” In past visits, I spent a fair amount of time here with my dad, who did a lot of volunteer work at the monument, including conducting interpretive tours of the quarries. Visiting the sites requires having a guide and a good imagination. The main sites, which sit on top of a mesa, consist of nothing more than small pits in the ground where high grade flint was extracted by prehistoric cultures to be used in trading and the construction of tools. If you’re ever in the area, it’s worth a stop by the visitor’s center, and nearby dirt roads allow access to the lake and some easy running opportunities. My dad no longer volunteers for the park service, having since moved on to other projects, but does spend a lot of time hiking around the entire area taking photographs and identifying flora and fauna. As such, anytime I’m back we spend at least a couple of days out by the lake, both on trail and off, and it’s become one of my favorite parts of spending time in the Panhandle.

There are several different areas of the recreation area with access to trails, but two of the best trailheads can be accessed at the same basic location, which is the Harbor Bay boat ramp just outside the town of Fritch. The first trailhead will be on the left as soon as you spot the lake. This is the South Turkey Creek Trail, which parallels the lakeshore for around six miles before dropping down into Turkey Creek itself, where it joins up with a four mile loop up the creek—making a 16-mile round trip route for anyone looking to do some distance. The loop can also be accessed, by an unofficial but apparent trail, from Dolomite Point, which is a short drive from the Alibates Visitor’s Center.

The second trail is the Harbor Bay Trail, which can be reached by continuing to the Harbor Bay boat ramp. From here the trail climbs for a short ways, then traverses a side canyon before crossing a creek and heading up to a mesa loop trail. From the trailhead to around the loop and back is around 6 miles. An earlier loop goes up to a mesa overlooking Harbor Bay itself. The terrain is a nice mix of up and down, the views are outstanding, and you are likely to have the place to yourself.

Welp, guess that’s about it pard. Not necessarily suggesting anyone make the Panhandle a destination, but if you happen to find yourself in these parts hankerin’ for some fresh Texas air, now you know where to go. Later y’all!

Photos below provided courtesy of Glendon Jett.

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Bájate

20191211_152741Sometime this past summer I started thinking about Baja. Not sure why I hadn’t considered traveling there before, but I began dreaming up a couple of bigger trips I’d like to do in the region, both on water and on land. Before I ended up in Spain I’d been considering the possibility of driving on down and staying for a while. That hasn’t happened yet, but when I found myself with a couple additional weeks of Kafkaesque frustration in waiting on a future dependent on government paperwork and faceless inefficiency, I decided to go for a visit, some recon, a vacation, something sunny and somewhat productive to do in the meantime—call it what you will. No matter what, it seems like Mexico is always a good idea. 

Sold the van and then took a bus down from Albuquerque, crossed the border in El Paso, stayed a night in Ciudad Juarez. Powered up on some huevos rancheros in the morning, and spent a day of air travel over to the peninsula. It was one night in a cool little hotel in San Jose del Cabo, and then on to the beach. Didn’t have any plans whatsoever, so bumped across town in a local bus the next morning, hopped in a shuttle headed to the Pacific side, and got off when I saw a dirt road heading down to the ocean.IMGP0828Ended up in the sleepy town of Cerritos ten years too late, but still enjoyed spending a few days in what was once a quintessential Mexican fishing village turned surf spot. The area is currently being hammered by development and habitat destruction, with a vibe trending hard to gringo tourist, but it was a good place to flail around with a surfboard for a few days. The afternoons were hot and humid, and the nights crisp and cool on an empty beach. It was fish tacos and a couple of Indios each evening, and in bed with a book around 8 p.m. listening to the exploding surf through the frond walls of a palapa. A couple good runs, lots of walking around, a few decent waves, and color filled skies at dusk. Super tranquilo.  

It was a final Sunday morning surf session, and from there it was a long hot walk back up that dirt road, a back-of-the-pickup ride from some locals, and a bus to Todos Santos where I spent a couple hours poking around town and taking photos.20191208_153342

That evening I arrived at the malecón in La Paz, capital of Baja California Sur, just in time for a stellar sunset and a Christmas concert. I stayed a full week in a little apartment just outside of the central district, and spent my mornings brushing up on grammar at a Spanish school, and afternoons checking out the city and the local beaches.

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I probably could have repeated the schedule for a couple more weeks without getting bored. It was great to speak Spanish for a few hours each morning, and then head off on my own around lunchtime. Would have been amazing to have had someone to cruise around with, but between studying and exploring I kept pretty busy. Highlights of the week were runs down to the malecón in the early a.m., getting exactly what I’d hoped from the classes, lots of great food, a couple of sweet hikes, an art walk with local guide Amelie, visits to the local beaches, bike riding on the boardwalk, and basking in lots of sunshine and sunsets—which there may soon be a dearth of in my life. The scenery is amazing down there, the juxtaposition of desert and sea something special.20191212_164003

20191209_164101Check out: Colectivo Tomate

20191211_163001My last day in town was Saturday, and I joined an all-day tour out to Isla Espiritu Santo. I rarely sign up for group tours, but when I do it’s always fun to watch the guides in action, to experience the day from the other side, to hear the same tired guide jokes I’ve personally repeated hundreds of times. And the tour itself was awesome: a morning boat ride out to the island, checking out a frigate rookery, swimming around with sea lions, a ceviche lunch, a lucky encounter with a pod of playful dolphins, and snorkeling with whale sharks to end the day. The activities/ecosystems also seemed to be responsibly managed and protected, which was uplifting to see. That evening there was a big holiday affair on the malecón, complete with loads of food vendors, a night boat parade, and fireworks. An entertaining end to the week.IMGP0961 (2)

IMGP1041From there it was up early in the morning and out of La Paz. On to Guadalajara, Juarez, and over an hour of standing in a barely moving line with hundreds of people on the international bridge waiting to process though customs. Once across, it was a couple hours in downtown El Paso, vibrant and lit up for the holidays, and then back to the hyper-depressed reality of bus travel in the US. It was up to Albuquerque again, and over to Amarillo, and into low clouds and gray skies and cold wind and dreams of deserts and oceans and sunshine. It was smiles from thinking about conversations with locals, and all the tacos consumed, and simply knowing that it’s all down there, whether I ever make it back or not.20191210_172542

Hold What You Love with an Open Hand

Non-attachment. Often a difficult concept to practice, it would be gauche to exclude mention of the idea on a site purportedly inspired by one western whitey’s trifling interest in ancient eastern teachings. Non-attachment represents the core of the Buddhist path, the Buddha having identified desire as the nexus of all suffering. It is only our longing for permanence in an ever-fluctuating environment which causes anguish and emotional turmoil when the inevitable occurs. Things change. Loss is imminent. Shit happens. We are all aware of such universal laws, yet often unprepared to accept their consequences, choosing instead to cling desperately to ideas of ownership and injustice.

When it comes to non-attachment and people, I fail considerably. That’s probably what these musings should be about, but I’m loathe to expose personal weakness in detail. When it comes to detachment and belongings, however, I usually do alright. The shedding of possessions can be equated with liberation, and the greater emotional satisfaction found in giving vs. receiving holds true. While I will recognize that material goods may provide access to liberating experiences—as in the case of vehicles, musical instruments, appropriately incorporated technologies, adventure gear, etc.—it is easy to lose sight of the end goal in the acquisition of more and more things. Needs, needs, and wants. Falling into this consumeristic mindset inevitably requires compromising one’s original values, and often free time and freedom, in order to acquire ever more equipment ostensibly needed to experience certain environments, or the world as a whole. And most of these technologies and goods are designed to make those experiences safer, easier, faster, warmer, drier, more sterile and less wild and not nearly as redemptive as a consequence. And once you have the things, of course, you have to hold on to them, and find space for them, and secure them, and fret about losing them somehow. In the end, I suppose, the point is determining what is essential to one’s fulfillment, and reevaluating the excess. As revered river guru Larry Firman once noted, “You don’t need much in this life.”

Truth told, I don’t own much in this life, and I’m pretty happy about that most of the time. This valuation, of course, being a relative assessment as there are billions of people on this planet with less than many of us would consider necessary for basic existence. I’m typing on a personal computer, I’ve almost always owned a vehicle. I have an abundance of clothes, and an excess of outdoor gear. But it’s good to reexamine with frequency, to keep the ever multiplying things in check. It’s important to cull the accessories from the fundamentals in a concentrated effort to simplify our worlds, to minimalize extraneous distractions from those things that truly do bring us alive. Every now and again it may also be healthy to release something you may have become too attached to. A practice in moving on and letting go.

On a less foofy note—it’s also kinda exciting to get rid of a bunch of junk so you can buy some more of the same. Anticipating an upcoming move, and also hoping to hit a reset button of sorts, I’ve been doing a lot of shuffling, selling, tossing, and donating lately. Loads of barely worn, ill-fitting clothes to the thrift stores; another boat paddled and gone; stacks of novels destined for library book sales; old photos and letters solemnly shredded; and the van, faithful companion and facilitator of adventures for the last several years, hesitantly transferred to more of the same without me. May it live to triple the miles it has now, and travel a Mobius loop of backroads till its wheels fall off. Thanks for all the good times. The rest of these words and photos are a dedication to our journeys together, as many of the stories on this site were made possible through its diligent service.

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This was the third van I’ve owned in my life, and as someone with a very transient lifestyle, I’ve spent a lot of years living out of (not in) a vehicle. Perhaps I’ll write more about all that at some point, but I had been thinking about buying another van for several years before I auspiciously found this one in Anchorage a week or so before I was scheduled to fly up to Alaska for the summer. This was 2016. It was exactly what I had been looking for off and on for a long while, a stealthy cargo van with low miles and a good engine and lots of empty space in the back for conversion. Luck and faith allowed me to sell my Civic a day before flying out, and two days later I was spending my first night on the Alaskan highway, a stellar view of the Chugach out the window. I bought some lumber and built a hasty bed to get me through the summer. My mama sent me some custom sewn blackout curtains to cover the windows against the never setting Arctic sun. At the end of the season I drove it through Canada, and then down through the PNW to California and eventually over to Texas. I spent a week at my dad’s house where we put on the roof rack and customized the inside—sturdy but simple, function with no frills other than varying shades of blue throughout. From there it was south to the Big Bend and on and on and on.

Around this time I was gifted a new road atlas, which I greatly prefer to google maps and GPS. I love the byways, the backroads, the out-of-the-way and little known attractions. While there are no more blank spots left on any maps, there’s almost always something new to see. For fun, I started highlighting all the roads and rivers traveled. It’s now been three-and-a-half years and 50,000 miles and 30+ states, many of them several times over. It’s been three times from Alaska to Texas or vice-versa, two times driving, once on the ferry. The Cassiar, the AlCan, the Top-of-the World ‘Highway’, the Inside Passage, the Yukon, British Columbia, Alberta. It’s been on a couple grocery runs into Mexico, and out to the East Coast and down to Florida and up through the North Country and across the Midwest. It’s been three canoes, three windshields, untold oil changes, new brakes, and a new set of tires. It’s been mud, snow, sand, and a few places it probably never should have ended up. It’s been good times and goodbyes and a lot of memories. It’s hard to believe it’s only been a little over three years, and it’s a bit hard to accept that it’s time to move on. But such is life, and personified vehicles may serve as sought after metaphors.

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Toledo

“La peor forma de extrañar a alguien es estar sentado a su lado y saber que nunca lo podrás tener.” Gabriel García Márquez

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A veces es difícil enfocarnos en las personas que nos cuidan y que nos apoyan, en vez de obsesionarnos en las que pensamos deberían haber hecho lo mismo, pero nunca lo hicieron. Por esto, tengo que dar gracias etorno a Laura—anfitriona demasiado generosa, persona increíble amable, y un alma lleno de energía positiva. Me ha mostrado lo mejor de tu ciudad, y algunos lugares encantadores de tu país. Gracias por todas las comidas—típicas y ricas, y por invitarme a visitar después de tantos años. Ojalá que tenga la oportunidad para hacer lo mismo para ti en el futuro próximo. Ha sido un placer pasar tiempo contigo y con tu familia. Nunca dejes de sonreír.

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Lo Inesperado

Vivir no es sólo existir, sino existir y crear, saber gozar y sufrir y no dormir sin soñar. Descansar, es empezar a morir. –Gregorio Marañón

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Toledo, España

Hay veces cuando uno tiene que preguntarse si usar agua como metáfora por cómo se debe vivir es pragmático. El agua, después de todo, no planea su futuro. No piensa en dos movimientos adelante. No le importa las repercusiones de no dirigir su destino en avance. Solo se mueve—a veces rápido, a veces casi indistinguible. Solo sabe comportarse como agua, no importa si es líquido, solido, o gas. No importa si está bajando un rio, o formando una ola, o pudriéndose en una planta de tratamiento de aguas. Solo reacciona sin reaccionarse. Sin tener reacciones que sean negativas o positivas. No tiene emociones ni pensamientos en lo bueno ni en lo malo.

Hay mucho que aprender pensando en ella, pero también uno tiene que ser el ser humano que es. Uno tiene que vivir evitando consecuencias que puedan parecer más duras que las piedras que hay en los arroyos. La vida nómada suele tener etapas muy altas y también muy bajas. Experimentar los momentos más altos, los momentos de pura alegría y libertad, es lo que ánima a los que la viven, a hacerlo. Pero los momentos bajos también pueden ser extremos, y duros, y pueden durar hasta que uno no puede más. Ya he conocido a algunos que no tenían lo que hay que tener para soportarlos, pero tampoco no podían pensar en cómo cambiarlos, ni cómo vivirían sin esta libertad. Pero si alguien puede mantener la fe—aunque cada vez pueda ser más difícil—las cosas sí cambiarán. Solo hay que tener esperanza y enfocarse en salir adelante otra vez.

Entonces, cuando desde la oscuridad, alguien te dice ‘ven a España…’ tal vez tienes que pensar que no solo habla la persona, sino el universo. (Pero a este pensamiento, este alguien me respondió: ‘Eso es! Pero la persona también quiere que vengas…’) Hay que ser como agua, y no preguntarse para que estas siguiendo una ruta sin saber el destino. Hay que evaporarse desde el charco estancado, ir al aire, y bajar el rio otra vez. Sobre todo, y por lo menos, tienes que intentarlo. A veces la vida puede ser como un sueño. Hay que vivirla así.

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Barrancas de Burujón

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Nerja, Costa del Sol

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Backroads

Bit more time in Canyonlands and then back to the backroads. South and east. Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas. Piñons and junipers, cactus and sage. Ruin sites and petroglyphs. Desert running, big-sky walking, beveled horizon lines and distances without end.

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Needles District, Canyonlands NP

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Newspaper Rock

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Spider Rock, Canyon de Chelley

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White House, Canyon de Chelley

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El Morro and El Malpais National Monuments

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Labyrinth & Stillwater

Solo canoe trip through Labyrinth and Stillwater Canyons. Late September. 100 miles down the Green River to confluence with the Colorado. Canyonlands, Utah. Intermittent stretches of silence and solitude, amazing side hikes, beach camps, sunshine and flowers in bloom. Feels good to be back in the desert.

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Inside Upheaval Dome

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River Still Life. Please share sketches, paintings, inspired raps or interpretive dance.

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Almost stepped on pink rattlesnake while approaching slot canyon below.

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Searing hike across surreal terrain to confluence overlook. Worth the effort.

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Idaho

Idaho for the summer. Three months of guiding six-day trips, back-to-back-to-back…, on the Middle Fork and Main Salmon. Living on the river, in the canyons, on the beaches. Its water flowing through arteries and dreams. Nights with moons and without. Current and wind, sun and rain. Shivering from cold, searing in the heat. Rapids, shoals, long flat pools. Ponderosas and Douglas firs. Rattlesnakes, black bears, eagles, and big horn sheep. Woodpeckers and kingfishers. Ouzels and canyon wrens. Grouse exploding from the sage. Shadows of trout in the sunlit depths. Wilderness and people.

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Camas Creek Overlook

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Loon Creek Hot Springs

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Cove Creek

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Ohio

Ohio gets a bad rap in my opinion. When I first told people I was going to be living here for a while, most all had a snarky reply. “Oh, I’m sorry,” or “oh God, why?” were common repeats. Most of these comments were made by people who, like myself, had probably never been to Ohio. It just has that kind of reputation. The worst part is, even lifelong Ohio residents, once they find out you’re not from here, are also quick to apologize that you’re spending time in the state—especially if they discover you’re from out West anywhere. While there is some regional pride apparent in the state silhouette stickers, shirts, and even tattoos prominently displayed by Ohioans, a very high percentage of them having lived here their whole lives, there’s still a prevailing attitude of inadequacy somehow. I think they should get over it.

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Spring on the Ohio University campus

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The Ridges Trails in Athens. Run here and you’ll know Ohio’s not all flat.

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For the past nine-months I’ve been living in Athens, down in the southeastern part of the state. Often, Ohioans will say that Athens is different from the rest of the Ohio, hence tolerable to an extent, but I’ve done a bit a driving around and cannot attest to have seen much of a distinction other than the rolling geography—which one can find all along the eastern border of the state as it cuts through the Appalachian foothills. I won’t speak for Ohio’s major cities, which seem to be following the national trend of downtown revitalization complete with local food and beverage culture and increased recreation opportunities, or the sprawling suburban strip mall excrescences at their outskirts. And the small towns look like small towns anywhere, of course, with the same repetition of box stores and fast-food places. But rural Ohio as a whole seems like a pretty decent place to live for anyone simply looking to have a place, raise a family, etc. Positives are: green lush landscapes, productive growing conditions, decent year-round weather, an excellent system of state parks, and significant biodiversity. Negatives: roads in dire need of repair, substantial poverty in many parts of the state, and intense levels of allergens.

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Bikeway along the Hocking River

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Fall colors and brick buildings

Athens itself is home to Ohio University, founded in 1804, the year after statehood. The campus, streets, walkways, and buildings, are made of red brick, much of it locally produced at the time of construction. It’s a beautiful campus replete with numerous species of towering trees and flowering plants. Downtown Athens consists of several blocks of local businesses and bars, collectively referred to as Court Street. The best parts of Athens, for me, however, have of course been the opportunities for being outside. One of my favorite features of Athens is the Adena-Hockhocking bike path, a 20+ mile paved trail running from the east side of town all the way to neighboring Nelsonville. Prospects for trail running, hiking, and mountain biking are also abundant, with several options beginning within the town limits. Most notable is the Ridges trail system accessible from campus, and Sells Park on the east side, with connector trails extending into Stroud’s Run State Park. Numerous areas for running, hiking, canoeing, and kayaking can also be reached within a half-hour drive: Lake Hope and Burr Oak state parks, and the Zaleski State Forest. And within an hour one has access to one of the more famous regions in Ohio, the Hocking Hills, an area full of shaded canyons and waterfalls.

 

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Rock work and scenery combined on the Hocking Hills trails

My time here has been busy, but I’ve still managed to check out a fair amount of this part of the Buckeye State. Not wanting to leave without seeing a few other parts of Ohio, however, a couple of weeks ago Erin came up and we set out for a few days of exploring. From Athens we made our way up north, stopping off for a run on the Buckeye Trail, a 1,444 mile loop trail marked by ‘blue blazes’ which circumnavigates the state. From there we cruised up to Akron and camped out at the southern end of Cuyahoga National Park. The park comprises a strip of greenbelt along the Cuyahoga River and remnants of the Ohio & Erie Canal. The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad also runs along the river, and one of the more popular activities is bike riding along the old tow-path of the canal. It’s a nice place, to be certain, but the experience is decidedly more urban than wild. I doubt there’s a square foot of the park where you can stand and not hear some attention deprived Harley owner revving up his ego. We spent most of the day in the park, first biking the path several miles into downtown Akron early in the morning, then loading up on the train. The ‘bike aboard’ pass is only $5, and we rode an hour-and-a-half north to the last stop in Rockside, disembarking there and riding many miles back to our starting point. From there we headed up to Lake Erie, finding our way to East Harbor State Park and an awesome sunset. The next day was a stop at the Marblehead Lighthouse, and a ferry over to Kelley’s Island, where we spent the night. This little area of Ohio was really cool, with a distinctly beachy vibe. I got a kick out of the travel ‘Coastal Ohio’ signs along the roads. The next morning we caught the ferry back, and headed south through central Ohio and lots of scenic farmland. That afternoon we checked out a few gems of the Hocking Hills, camped a final night, and got in a hilly run at Lake Hope before returning to Athens.

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Van life on Kelley’s Island

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Lake Erie

So yeah, nine months in Ohio. It was a pleasure to be here long enough to witness the four seasons, and to feel like I got to know the area a bit. Headed to Dayton this afternoon for a few days, then westward bound. Time to move on.