Thursday, December 17, 2015

West by Northwest

Two days and two very large states later, we arrived at my parents' house in southern Montana! What awaited us there was a whirlwind of catching up with friends and family, a wedding to attend, parties, and lots of "farm stuff." We began by branding all 600ish head of calves that my collective family owns. This is always an exciting time, as I love working with the animals, and everyone gets a good, close-up look at this year's calf crop. Who could not totally be in love with these cuties?

Montana is incredibly beautiful in the spring, and it's splash-and-dash storms always keep you on your toes whenever you plan to be outside. A few of these storms occurred while we were there. Once, we were outside of Bozeman at a nearby lake, called Hyalite Reservoir, fishing. A few times throughout the day, we scurried off of the lake, out of our boats, and into our nearby parked cars to wait out the rain flurries. When the weather cleared, it was a beautiful, fruitful day. Plus, I got to spend time with my sweet doggie-niece and nephew, Daisy and Kype.


The other storm we experienced worth mentioning is one that hit my parents' house, with force! A big black cloud rolled in out of the west, lightning and thunder crashed, seemingly only a few feet from the house, and rain fell by the bucket full. For twenty minutes, this went on, and then nickel-sized hail began pelting the house and ground. What a ruckus! When the storm passed, two inches of rain had fallen in half an hour, and my parents drive way was now a raging river. But, mother nature heard us crying mercy and offered a double rainbow in apology!

Festivities and my friend Michaela's beautiful wedding followed, and soon it was time to say goodbye to our family and the farm and continue our National Parks tour. We couldn't bear to leave southern Montana without seeing Yellowstone National Park, and there we enjoyed abundant wildlife, spectacular geysers, and beautiful scenery.

A long, hot drive from West Yellowstone took us through southern Idaho, and landed us just outside of Portland in a sweet little town along the oh-so-grand Columbia River Gorge. Here, we met up with John's family, enjoyed swapping stories, shared a delicious meal, and took an afternoon to explore the Sandy River.

From there, we caravan-ed westward to the coast with a somewhat smaller group. We gorged on Tillamook ice cream, and enjoyed the quiet, scenic farmland of western Oregon. Landing just outside of Lincoln City at a beautiful house directly on the beach, we raced down to the sand to enjoy the sunset.

Our week of fun in the sun, boogie-boarding, and metal-detecting went by all too fast, but we were able to get some fun photos during our stay!

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Three National Parks in Three Weeks: Saguaro, Grand Canyon, & Zion

The Sonoran Desert that surrounds the city of Tucson is yet another extremely unique and beautiful environment of Arizona. It is here you will find the most famous and iconic cactus of them all: the saguaro. However, even though I have seen photographs, drawings, illustrations, cartoons, etc. of these incredible plants all my life, seeing one in person blew me away! They are massive! We were surprised to learn that these incredible plants can live to be 200+ years old. In fact, the vast majority of saguaros we saw during our stay were much, much older than us. These cacti reach 70 years old before they first flower, and won't begin producing arms until around 100 years. So when I looked out over this desert landscape, I couldn't help but wonder what these cacti had seen during their lifetime. 

We were really fortunate to be traveling in the springtime, because it seemed wherever we went, blooms and wildflowers surrounded us. In the Sonoran desert, April brought out the creosote bush flowers. The entire desert seemed to be solid yellow. 

 We were able to get out on a few trails through Saguaro National Park and get up close and personal with these graceful giants. Of course, you never want to get too close to desert plants, as they all seem to be adorned with massive thorns or some sort of nasty skin irritant. Even with keeping a safe distance, the cacti shared some of their wonderful details with me.

As with any other ecosystem, life cycles can be seen everywhere. In the northern hemisphere, spring brings the majority of new life. However, the passing of these giants happens as well. In my opinion, they are just as interesting in their decaying form as in the prime of their lives!


Spending a few days in the hot and arid desert environment left us ready for cooler weather. From the land of the saguaros, we headed north--to one of the seven natural wonders of the world. With our home in tow, we climbed to 7,000 ft above sea level and found the most beautiful campsite waiting for us.

The next morning, we left our forest paradise and traveled into Grand Canyon National Park for the first time. As we parked and headed for Mather Point overlook, I could feel a ton of excitement welling up in anticipation. As we neared the edge, we navigated a massive crowd, and all of a sudden, there it was. Of all the photographs and films I have seen of the Grand Canyon, none have ever done it justice. There is no feeling in the world like standing three feet from a 1,000ft+ cliff, looking out into the sheer vastness of this canyon. It honestly took my breath away. For quite some time, John and I didn't talk, but instead tried to digest the incredible scene before us. 


We spent a few days exploring this amazing place, and even took a small hike down into the canyon. We started down the south Kaibab trailhead, knowing that every step we took down would be a lot harder coming back up! We passed two mule trains and quite a few rock squirrels along the way who all came to greet us and collect their "toll" for passing their stretch of trail. To the dismay of the squirrels, we decided to keep all our peanuts for ourselves to aid as energy boosts on the journey back up to the rim. We had quite a view for our mid-hike picnic that day.

With massive crowds at all the popular overlooks, John and I tried to get a bit off the beaten path for a more exclusive experience. Really, in the whole park, there isn't a single bad view. Here, John is taking in an extra-exhilarating perspective. If you look closely, you can see the Colorado River in the bottom of the canyon continuing in its mission to sculpt this landscape.  If you ever have a chance to experience this natural wonder, I would suggest not to hesitate. There is a reason this park gets five million visitors each year!

From the Grand Canyon, we continued north to another spectacular canyon: Zion. The way we experienced Zion National Park was almost exactly the opposite of the Grand Canyon. Zion is much smaller in size, but that doesn't make it any less incredible. It rained almost the entire two and a half days we were there, which actually was a welcomed change of pace. It had been quite some time since we had seen rain. Zion is a hiker's paradise, with short, easy trails navigable to anyone, all the way to routes that persuade you to walk through slot canyons in knee to waist-deep water. Or you can climb multiple miles up to the rim and see stunning views below you. 

The majority of our time in Zion was spent gawking at the sheer cliffs looming all around us. They seemed to rise forever, their tips shrouded in clouds. We also saw small pools the color of emeralds, massive "weeping" walls that leaked waterfalls through their porous stone, and vibrant greenery that contrasted so nicely with the bountiful red rock. The Virgin River, which is the force that carved the marvelous canyon, is gorgeous and peaceful all on its own.  


With all the attractions being fairly close to each other, we were able to spend much more time enjoying nature than shuttling ourselves around. We made a few rock towers, enjoyed the presence of wild turkeys and deer, and sipped hot chocolate on a bench while taking in the magnificent scenery.

We could have easily spent an entire week or more at Zion National Park, but it was time for us to continue our journey northward to Montana. Familiar territory, friendly faces, and branding season were all waiting for us just a few hundred miles away!

Friday, July 24, 2015

How Many Rocks Can One Jeep Grand Cherokee Hold?

If you've been following our adventure from the beginning, you will remember when John and I first became addicted to rockhounding. Yes, that fateful day at the Oceanview mine in California where we pulled so many wonderful, sparkling gems out of the earth. One of the reasons we were so excited to explore Arizona was for the fact that so many beautiful rocks, minerals, and gemstones are found there. Among the selection are turquoise, peridot, amethyst, opal, fire agate, and Payson diamonds (really a high-quality quartz, not diamond). Most of these gems and minerals are mined on private or tribal lands, or are in extremely remote areas. So unfortunately, most of these beauties were out of our reach, but of those that were findable, we took full advantage! 

Payson, Arizona was our first rockhounding spot, as well as the beginning of our longest boondocking stretch (dry camping: no hookups, only the water we brought with us and the electricity held in our deep cycle battery).  With limited showers and more hot dogs and potatoes than ever, we were not so much RVing anymore as truly camping. All the "hardships" were well worth it, however, because there were treasures to be found everywhere!

In this particular area, the conditions were just right to form very high quality, usually double terminated, quartz crystals. They are so clear and hard that they resemble diamonds, hence their nickname. The crystals form on the abundant limestone found in the area, and then are eventually chipped off and fall to the ground. Some get mixed up in the bed of pine needles, while others are washed down into gullies and seasonal creeks, or covered in years of collected erosion. So as the rockhound, all you have to do is walk around, scraping off the surface layer, and look for the tiniest glint amongst the dull debris. Many times, that glint is a precious jewel signaling its position to you! At first, finding the crystals proved difficult. But after we had found a few and had trained our eyes to what we were looking for, voila! They were everywhere!  

This area of Arizona was vastly different from the areas we had visited previously. First of all, we were at almost 7,000ft above sea level, so we were surrounded by pine forests and a much colder climate. Strangely enough, it was here that we had our first rattlesnake encounters. We would have expected to come across them down in the deserts, but they were quite a surprise to us in the mountains. No harm done, however (thankfully!), and we continued our collecting with more careful hands and watchful eyes--and longer walking sticks to poke around with!

In the evenings, we enjoyed our secluded campsite while inspecting our day's bounty. It was almost as exciting looking through the crystals a second time as it was finding them to begin with! We would fall asleep to the gentle swaying of the trees and the occasional hair-raising howl or banter of coyotes. We definitely weren't in Southern California anymore!

Our next rockhounding spot proved to be even more remote than the last. We drove southeast, out of the mountains and onto the sprawling desert plains. Puffy clouds, no cell phone service, and the sweetest roadrunner ever welcomed us to round mountain. Which really, was not a mountain at all, but more of a tiny hill... The directions we had found online said we were technically in Arizona, although we had to cross into New Mexico on the highway before following winding dirt roads to the collecting area. As the sun was about to set on us, we pulled just off the dirt track road to an easily found flat spot.

The beautiful stone we were after here is called fire agate. Found only a few places in the world, we were lucky to be able to collect them on public land. Below is a photograph I took with my cell phone of a fire agate rough we found. To create a gemstone from the rough, one has to grind and polish a large percentage of the material away. Below the rough is an image I grabbed off the internet of a finished gemstone. Unlike in Payson, here the gems we were after were so abundant, we had to become choosy of which to take with us. Over the week we spent at round mountain, we collected six or seven gallons of fire agate rough. Plenty to keep us busy grinding a polishing for years!

Building a massive collection of fire agate rough was not the only joy we found there. Being so secluded was a great opportunity to unwind from the busy places we had recently visited and to relish what nature has to offer. Besides the few scattered cows that belonged to the local farmer, I don't think any of the animals here had interacted with humans very much. We had a roadrunner return to our camp each evening to hang out and "chat" with us. He would call, we would call back, he would call... on and on. I think we confused the poor guy as he came within three feet of us multiple times and never saw another roadrunner. Unobstructed by trees or light pollution, the night sky at round mountain was magical. We had an almost 180 degree view, as there were only flat plains as far as we could see.

After about a week, we were running low on food, water, and electricity, and decided to head towards civilization. Massive Saguaro cacti and the promise of good Mexican food led us to the big city of Tucson!