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Dispatches from the Road

A selection of travel logs from both near and far.

YELLOWSTONE | Fall

Laurel Dailey

Human for scale at Mammoth Hot Springs.

The first time I visited Yellowstone National Park as an adult some years ago, it was on July 4th, stultifyingly hot, choked with fellow tourists. The steam was steamier, the dust, dustier. It was more peopled than it had any right to be, terra firma buckling under the weight of tour busses. It was also a case study in how relative solitude influences a person’s experience of the landscape. Is a geyser more or less stunning if you bear witness among hundreds?

The land atop this massive caldera in the western United States has borne witness to its fair share of human confluence. It’s said that when American explorers caught their first glimpses of Yellowstone, their accounts were largely disbelieved. Fraught with inconsistencies, their claims of subterranean upheaval—hissing fumaroles, gurgling mudpots, spitting geysers—were the stuff of biblical hellscapes, certainly at odds with the (perceived) natural world. 

But the land was far from mythic, and far from uninhabited. Twenty-six tribes have ancestral connections to Yellowstone National Park, dating back 11,000 years. The Crow refer to the area as “land of vapors,” the Kiowa, “the place of hot water.” It is home to a dazzling array of flora and fauna, down to the microbial life found in its boiling pools. It is also a study in contrasts, which were blunted by the crowds when I visited so many Julys ago. 

Mammoth Hot Springs area.

A transitional season like fall is a fitting bracket within which to experience Yellowstone (the park also happens to be far less crowded in October than it is in July). It’s restless earth—a roiling, shifting dreamscape—disquietingly active, every moment marked by change. In the fall, as below, so above: the weather shifts on a dime. For example, my sister visited Yellowstone just two days after I did under a sunny, cloudless sky. Yet my time there was observed by brooding cloud cover and fitful bursts of rain and snow. 

To that end, I was delighted to observe that while summer’s warm colors gradually leach from the grounds surrounding, Yellowstone’s springs remain unwaveringly radiant in contrast—with shades ranging from pale aquamarine to deep emerald to vivid azure. The effect of this juxtaposition only heightened Yellowstone’s otherworldliness. (I’ll note here the singular exception at Midway Geyser Basin. Ever superlative, Grand Prismatic Spring wore a crown of steam so dense one could only perceive its colors from their reflection on the skyborn water droplets. It was a grand, prismatic disappointment.)

As though fall needs further endorsement, Yellowstone’s animals are known to be more present as the weather cools, coming down from the higher elevations to graze or prepare for hibernation. We drove along Grand Loop Road, vigilantly inspecting wide plains and phalanxes of lodgepole pine for signs of wildlife. Our endeavor was ultimately redundant as we approached a lone bison on the road’s shoulder, indifferent to our passing. At Mammoth Hot Springs, elk mingled with wayfinding signage, further blurring the boundary between nature and infrastructure. 

Blue Pool at West Thumb Geyser Basin.

Blue Pool at West Thumb Geyser Basin.

To be present in Yellowstone is to observe the startling fragility of our status quo. If that supervolcano should decide to blow, the United States would effectively be obliterated. While the chances of that happening anytime soon are comfortingly slim, wandering among the steam vents certainly brings the possibility to mind.

CHANNEL ISLANDS | Summer

Laurel Dailey

The view from the pier at Bechers Bay.

The view from the pier at Bechers Bay.

Of California’s nine national parks, Channel Islands is one of the least visited. Receiving just 366,250 visitors across all five islands in 2018, Channel Islands feels remote, removed, and isolated. By comparison, consider that Yosemite National Park welcomed 4,009,436 guests in 2018. Four million.

Statistics are one thing, but being in the presence of pristine land is quite another. Especially when that reclaimed wilderness is off a portion of the coastline that straddles central and southern California.

I’ve begun, then erased, then tried again several portions of this dispatch. Mainly I’m grasping at the filaments of recent memory, hoping to weave them into something sturdy, informative, and guide book-ish. Part of the reason so many of these facts glitter just under the surface is because when I heard them, I was distracted. I was in a fugue brought on by buffeting wind; hypnotized by water; lulled by the rhythmic shush of grasses.

So I’m beginning again—erasing the facts, leaving them as the ephemera of recent memory. They, too, will be swept away and dissolved into the past. And anyway, a cursory web search will unearth hundreds more of these tidbits than I could ever hope to remember. You didn’t come here for a research paper, after all, and I’m not here to write one.

The view from our tent at Water Canyon Campground, with Santa Cruz Island in the distance.

The view from our tent at Water Canyon Campground, with Santa Cruz Island in the distance.

On Santa Rosa Island, lacking the trappings of civilization—reception, WiFi, paved roads, vehicles, trash cans, power lines, leaf blowers—presence is something else entirely. For one thing, what most people tend to associate with wilderness is silence. But Santa Rosa is far from silent—from the warning caw of a nesting falcon in Lobo Canyon to the syncopated slapping of wind against my tent.

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Neither is it very peaceful. After a surprisingly grueling trek to Lobo Canyon (grueling only insofar as my lack of preparedness left me with a quartet of blisters and one very bruised ego), with sweat pooling and muscles aching, I finally collapsed into my tent and the thought—fleeting, a whisper—came to me: Was it worth it? But the body remembers beauty, even if, in the moment, it was hedging itself against the elements.

What I kept returning to, time and again, was that spending time in such a place felt like a privilege. What an immense honor to spy the endemic island fox with his intentions set on some unknowable goal. What a privilege to observe so many wildflowers—lupine, poppy, yarrow, thistle, seaside daisy, dudleya, buckwheat, red paintbrush, morning glory, et al. It felt both fleeting and ancient, fragile and sure-footed. California’s lousy with national parks (for which I am grateful!), but next time you’re looking to go off grid, consider taking refuge on one of the Channel Islands.

CARRIZO PLAIN | Super Bloom

Laurel Dailey

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It starts in February.

In the last days of the month, you have a pretty good indication of the kind of winter it’s been. Mild, sure, that’s a given for much of California. But specifically: how much rain has there been? The bulk of our rains soak the grounds in January and February, so by the end of the second month, you start asking the inevitable question: What about the wildflowers?

And what about them? They’re finicky, to be sure—prone to fits and starts like any delicate thing. It can neither be too hot or too cold, and timing is everything. But the most important element is rain. The best blooms happen when there’s a whole lotta rain—buckets of it.

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The winter of 2018-19 produced just such a scenario wherein a super bloom was likely. Beginning in February, I was checking the DesertUSA report daily, monitoring the bloom along with thousands of other flower nerds. By late march, Carrizo Plain National Monument was nearing its peak.

It was worth the 4.5-hour trek to the grasslands east of San Luis Obispo to see these hills awash in vibrant yellow—bursting with it, oozing with it. Positively resplendent.

Come February 2020, you’ll know where to find me: feverishly hitting refresh on my browser and asking that crucial question: What about the wildflowers?

The view of Soda Lake

The view of Soda Lake

MALIBU CREEK | After the Fire

Laurel Dailey

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The Woolsey Fire swept through the Malibu hills in November 2018, decimating nearly everything in its path. There’s a curious result of the destruction, though: the fire actually cultivated a scenario in which wildflowers flourished the following spring. The heat above ground melted the protective casings surrounding flower seeds buried deep in the soil, and the following winter rains prompted those seeds to germinate. The charred hillsides are now covered in abundant new life. The images you see today were taken at dawn in Malibu Creek State Park in March.

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There are times—usually every six months or so—where I’ll feel intensely claustrophobic living in Southern California. The sprawl, like a creeping dread. People stacked on top of one another, cars woven into the unending plait of traffic, space a premium whose cost only ever rises. It’s a lot to take sometimes.

The first time I discovered it was in college. Feeling stir-crazy, I set out to drive until I was the only car on roads winding through lonely countryside, just like I’d done growing up. Except it never ended, the sprawl. The houses never thinned. The grid flexed itself tighter as I crept along a busy avenue, feeling panicked.

So every few months, the feeling materializes, and with it, all the resignation and revulsion one might feel about a latent sore throat or the first stomach-dropping flip of the flu. Except that now, I have better coping skills.

Now, I know that one of the ways to fight That Old Feeling is to wake before the sun and sacrifice sleep for that breathless hush of dawn. It means I plan ahead and do some research before I set out for an adventure. A certain kind of wandering spontaneity is lost, sure, but it matters less when what’s gained is a view like this one, barely removed from the grind, yet still miles away from That Old Feeling.

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“Wow,” I said to my hiking companion. Wow, to the sunrise. Wow, to the lupine-blanketed hillsides. Wow, to the bare trees, limbs still charred. Wow, to the golden creek wending its way through the valley below. Wow to all of it, wow because no other words came close.

EASTERN SIERRA | Winter

Laurel Dailey

Round Valley, California

Round Valley, California

Visiting the Sierra in winter is a study in patience and preparation. Sections of the road were open and dry, with only the mountains cloaked in snow to indicate winter’s true conditions. But other times, that snow marched right down the mountain, clambering right up to the windows of our car as it inched through a canyon formed by ice.

Sometimes, the skies were blue, wide open and optimistic. Other times, the clouds closed in, pressing closer and closer to the ground until blurring into the horizon. Visibility was fine and then visibility was zero, then okay, then not okay.

Dawn in the Alabama Hills

Dawn in the Alabama Hills

We might’ve spent a good portion of the crawling drive reciting the Lord’s Prayer while ice formed on the windshield. We made it through, though, out of the pass and into the Round Valley, where we took a random turnout onto a random road just grateful to be able to see again.

Other pre-dawn adventures were frigid—waiting for the sun to light up the Sierra, wind slicing straight to the bone. And even then, only the faintest blush of alpenglow bloomed on those mountains, the ones closest to us, as their towering brethren waited behind a murky cloud cover.

The best early morning adventures, however, occurred in the steam of the hot springs. 140 degree water at its source, it flows (and cools) on its serpentine path till it meets several campsites and tiled or redwood tubs at a perfect 100-ish degrees. They say it’s some of the purest water in the world, and who am I to argue?

It was worth the planning, worth the plotting, worth the preparation.

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RED HILL | On HWY 395

Laurel Dailey

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I’ve driven the beloved highway 395 many a-time, and each time as I head north, a bald cinder mound signals the end of the Mojave and the beginning of mountains. In reality, the transition happens further south, before ever hopping on the 395. But the Fossil Falls and Red Hill area always signals to me that I can finally breathe a little deeper, and that adventure is just around the next bend in the road.

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So why cruise on by when a worthy exploration can be found right here, right now? Red Hill’s pumice and lava rock terrain (and distinctive hue) feel miles away from anywhere familiar. With the snow-dusted Sierra as a backdrop, this pit stop might just become a must-stop.

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BIG SUR | New Years

Laurel Dailey

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Here’s a fun fact about New Years in the U.S.: Wherever the hotel or Airbnb, you’re guaranteed to pay an arm and a leg booking a spot to sing “Auld Lang Syne” with your kin. Things get booked months in advance, and it’s generally a lot more difficult to wrangle your wiliest friends to commit to ringing in the new year when it’s barely months into the current one.

Faint sunbeams have me thinking about the early weeks of every new year. You find yourself wondering, “Is this how the year will be?” Squinting into the future, as ever, in futility.

Faint sunbeams have me thinking about the early weeks of every new year. You find yourself wondering, “Is this how the year will be?” Squinting into the future, as ever, in futility.

But here’s another fun fact: New Years is, of course, in the dead of winter. Which means that campsites aren’t nearly as packed and plans don’t have to be decided upon eight months out. In California, where the winters (at least in certain areas) tend to be milder, taking advantage of a few extra days off means there are even more campsites to choose from.

In kind, I celebrated the advent of 2019 in Big Sur, waking up under the trees with my nearest and dearest. It isn’t a bad way to ring in the new year, and I’m making good on my forever resolution to #getouttadodge.

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Opal Creek Wilderness | Fall

Laurel Dailey

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With trails like this, who needs the sidewalk (ever)? Despite growing up an hour from here, I didn’t discover this hidden gem until embarrassingly recently. And while there are plenty of hikes you could take, but my favorite begins at the Opal Creek/Jawbone Flats trailhead. You’ll easily put ten miles under your feet by the end of the day, but along the way you’ll see waterfalls, emerald pools, ancient forests, rusted mining equipment, abandoned WWII-era vehicles, and plenty of labradors (this is Oregon, after all). 

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Confession: When I go on hikes, I often end up stumbling over my own feet because I’m spending all my time looking up. But can you blame me, when the primeval Douglas firs in the Opal Creek Wilderness avail themselves like this? There are forests, and then there are old-growth forests. Turns out, Oregon’s lousy with ‘em. With moss underfoot, overhead, and covering every surface in between, the forest here feels as though it’s breathing. 

If you’re the type to power through a hike, dogged step by determined step, you might miss Sawmill Falls. But listen closely. Follow the sound, off the trail, under a mossy tunnel and onto a basalt outcropping. There are times when the sound of rushing water is a better wayfinder than the marked trail. Speaking of water, even as colder fall temperatures draw a boundary around the day, it’s hard not to want to strip off everything and jump in at Three Pools (at the north fork of the Santiam River).

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WHITE SANDS | Sunset in New Mexico

Laurel Dailey

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In the summer of 2013 took a trip to Texas—my first, unless you count the many times I've ridden the tram at the Dallas/Ft. Worth airport from one terminal to another, which, for the record, I don't. It was delightfully ironic, then, that my first trip to Texas was to El Paso, a city wedged between New Mexico to the north and Original Mexico to the south.

El Paso is a city flickering on the border of international cellular coverage and two time zones, its mountains emblazoned with an illuminated star to remind us that, yes, we're still technically in the Nation of Texas. Flung to the westernmost reaches of the state and underlined by the Rio Grande, El Paso is primarily forgetful, and secondarily familiar—a midsize city strewn with Circle Ks and strip malls and gyms and Chevrons, as American as it gets. I didn't take any pictures in El Paso; the bulk of my adventures with Dustin took place in New Mexico. 

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White Sands National Monument is a 275-sq mile gypsum crystal dune field—the largest in the world. Even after a day baking in triple-digit temps, the sand was cool enough for bare feet. Miles and miles of undulating dunes surrounded us, suspended over the horizon like a sheet flung over a mattress. As the sun sank further to the west, the effect was unlike anything I've ever seen: austere minimalism with a Lisa Frank color palette, both soothing and savage. 

The photos in this dispatch have not been manipulated beyond light contrast/exposure adjustments. Those colors exist, people, and you can find them at sunset in New Mexico. 

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BRYCE CANYON | Spring

Laurel Dailey

It wasn’t the first canyon I’d fought to see by the first light of day, and it wasn’t the first time clouds had thwarted my efforts (I [don’t] see you, Waimea Canyon).

And, to be fair, it was early spring in southern Utah. In planning the trip, we knew that weather could be a variable. But still, I was unfamiliar with the terrain—more specifically, the elevation changes in our itinerary. So it was with great surprise when we set our sights on Bryce Canyon, only to be met with a blanket of freshly fallen snow.

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In Kanab, we woke before dawn to a crack of thunder. The storm was relentless, bringing with it driving rain, hail, and snow. We crept along the highway, our tires finding a single track of pavement in the snow, white knuckles the entire way. Bryce was soupy with fog at first light, and the snow plows had barely begun clearing a path. So we waited. And then, just after 8:30 and well after sunrise, the fog lifted and we finally saw Bryce Canyon with clear eyes.

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HONESTY TIME: Sometimes [ed. note: often] I have trouble adjusting my expectations. Reality zigs where my plan zags and I struggle to merge my expectations with the newly unfolding reality. It’s a thing. I’m aware of it, I’m doing my best [ed. note: HA!], but there are times when I am slow to recalibrate.

Like this snowy morning in Bryce Canyon, for example. It’s beautiful, right? [right.] But I spent all morning struggling to adjust to the curve balls the weather kept tossing our way. From driving rain that delayed our start time to roads impassable with snow to a canyon soupy with fog, I just could. Not. Recalculate.

Which is why I’m so glad Mikey was with me. He was beyond thrilled by the snow, the views, the adventure of it all. When I stopped spiraling long enough to see Bryce through his eyes, I saw what was clearly there the entire time.

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PAGE, ARIZONA | Tiny Town, Big Views

Laurel Dailey

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As far as towns go, there isn’t much to see: gas stations, diners, tour outfits, a smattering of two star motels. But what Page lacks in a lively downtown scene, it more than makes up for in its proximity to sandstone.

There’s a lot I could say about the influx of tourism or departure of industry in Page (or about Indigenous land). A lot has been said about hoards of people and permanent damage. My observations were fleeting, barely two days’ worth. Instead, I’m going to talk about what it’s like to see the sun touch the curvature of Horseshoe Bend at first light, and about the way the walls of a slot canyon breathe around you, swallowing you whole.

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First, the Bend.

You wake in the bone-cold predawn hours and pick your way along a wide, sandy path. In the distance, you’ll see several dozen silhouetted figures perpendicular to the horizontal planes of the tableland. With toes at the very edge of the sandstone ledge and 800 feet beneath, you wait for the sun to warm your shoulders as its glow gradually melts over the mesa ahead. Below, the Colorado River meanders around Horseshoe Bend while those several dozen visitors angle their devices at unnatural degrees. All the photos will be similar, but here she is, nevertheless: Horseshoe Bend, March 24, 2018, 6:45AM.

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Second, the Canyon.

Here’s another example of how research pays off. Antelope Canyon is a wonder to behold: a sinuous slot canyon cut deep into the earth. The light folds along its sandstone walls and slips gently to the canyon floor. To fit yourself into its grooves and walk its line is a breathtaking experience. Also, because I’m no more original than most of you, a number of folks also feel that way. Quite a lot of them. So the canyon is also notoriously crowded. Silence is replaced with selfies and the journey through the sandstone cathedral is more of a crawl.

For the trip, I decided to eschew the iconic stone ribbons of Upper or Lower Antelope, and instead chose a smaller tour outfit who guided us into a secret slot only called X. For hours, we threaded noiselessly through the canyon, marveling at its undulating curves and filtered light. The real crux of it, though, is that we were also in relative solitude. That aloneness was a gift I gratefully received.

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