Subscribe to far-flung places
Sign up here
and receive email alerts when this blog is updated.

 Add to your RSS reader

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Hoodoo you think you are?

As water and ice eroded the sandstone cliffs of the Colorado Plateau, hoodoos were formed. Named by the Spaniards and derived from the same source as the word voodoo, these free-standing rock formations were considered sacred by Native Americans. You'll find these unique natural structures all around Bryce Canyon in southern Utah.

They come in many shapes and sizes. One night, we camped at Kodachrome Basin State Park, where "Big Stony" — a phallus-shaped "sand pipe" — overlooks the campground. Others look like humans; take the Queen's Garden Trail from Sunrise Point in Bryce Canyon down through what is known as the amphitheater (although I think of it more like a giant sculpture garden) and you'll come across a portly Queen Victoria overlooking the landscape.

During our first attempt to take the aforementioned trail, a lightning storm rolled in and we stayed safely in our car, due to a lightning risk. Afternoon storms are common in the summer months, and the risk of being struck by lightning is highest at Bryce--three people have lost their lives and 18 have been injured in the last 15 or so years.

The weather was much better the next day, when we hiked from Sunrise Point down to the bottom of the canyon. At each turn the sculptured sandstone cliffs and hoodoos elicited excitement from the many tourists along the path. At the bottom, the trail ended and another took its place. The Navajo loop trail went through a pine forest and then ended with an 800-foot climb out of the amphitheater along a switchback trail that left me out of breath, but the breathtaking views were worth it.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Going over the edge

"Just sit back over the ledge," says my guide Greg Istock. 

I've put my trust in this man, who refers to himself as Mr. Greg, to lead me into a narrow slot canyon in Dixie National Forest near Zion National Park, but the urge to go over the edge of a steep cliff goes against the natural laws that aid human survival. My brain is screaming at me to stop, but my fearless, adventurous side signals green.

"This is your last chance to back out," says Mr. Greg, who guides for Zion Rock and Mountain Guides based in Springdale, Utah. "There's no going back once we're in the canyon."

I gingerly step backwards, held by the rope that would be my lifeline as I lower myself into a shallow entrance to Yankee Doodle Canyon. After a few steps in, the rock wall disappears and I'm free hanging above the ground, which is only 15 feet below. I lower myself down. The next rappel, a drop of nearly 200 feet, came next.

For the next four hours, Istock and I navigate what he calls a technical slot canyon, which means it has several obstacles that require rope for rappels and down climbs, in addition to some knowledge of bouldering maneuvers. In some spots, I must wedge myself between the two walls of the canyon shimmying down until I reach the ground.

In one spot, as my legs dangle freely, I reach under a rock to find something to hold onto. I think of that guy who had to cut off his hand when a rock shifted and rolled onto it. He survived, but only after he sawed his own arm off with a dull pocket knife (I brought a sharp one with me just in case!). Greg had already pointed out a few small loose boulders loosely wedged under an even bigger rock that could easily cause a similar incident. Lucky for me, the only injuries were scrapes and bruises caused by friction burn as bare flesh rubbed against the sandstone.

The last obstacle to get through was a keeper hole. "It's usually full of water and rounded like a bowl," Mr Greg explains. "Worst-case scenario is that we would get into that water and realize we couldn't climb out because it's too slippery on the sides. We'd risk hypothermia because the water is pretty cold and we'd be stuck in there."

Once in the thigh-deep water, I tried in vain many times to flop myself onto the rounded mound separating me from my freedom. I can get out of a swimming pool with no problem, but I kept slipping off the tiny toe hold. Threatening to give me a shove from behind, I made a last-ditch effort to hoist myself over the wall and made it, although Greg assisted by pressing my foot on the toe hold.

I walked confidently out of the canyon into the sunlight, proud of my achievement. It wasn't that hard, I thought. Then I looked up and saw the greatest challenge of all — the steep climb out of the canyon to get back to the car. Huffing and puffing, I dragged myself up the canyon walls, using footholds (called moqui steps) carved out of the sandstone by ancient puebloan people, who called this canyon home more than 500 years ago.

I may not have been the first person to navigate this beautiful canyon, but I felt like an explorer, discovering Utah's underworld for myself.

Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Getting a bit campy

It was the March issue of National Geographic Adventure that inspired this current camping trip with my dad and stepmom. When I pulled the magazine out of the mailbox, the cover photo showing a red rock slot canyon piqued my interest. The more I read, the more I wanted to be in the southwest again, exploring the landscape with camera and tripod in tow.

I posed the idea of a camping trip to my dad, who had just begun the process of buying a new camper. The old 1982 VW Westfalia always had something wrong with it, got 20 miles to the gallon on a good day with a tailwind going downhill and could only inch along at a snail's pace.

We decided on a camping adventure that would take us through Diné (Navajo) tribal lands, then into the major national parks of Utah. And now here we are, in the newer 2002 VW Eurovan on its inaugural trip over a rainy Memorial Day weekend.

The setting sun broke out briefly as we made our way along the south rim of Canyon de Chelly on our way to the Spider Rock campground. The glowing rocks stood out against the bluish-gray sky filled with clouds in the distance. Standing at the rim, the smell of juniper wafted in the air and the sound of our voices echoed on the canyon walls.

When it began to sprinkle, we hopped back into the car to complete our day's journey. The campground was muddy, the fine water-logged red sand caked our shoes and made a mess inside our shelter. With no possibility for an evening hike, the bottle of red wine was passed around and we toasted our journey together by the light of my headlamp.

Fast forward 11 hours later, and what sounds like a a decent trip so far had turned quite ugly. Bobbie, my stepmom, had only gotten two hours of sleep because the rear-seat fold-down bed left much to be desired, and the overflowing porta-potties and lack of any running water put her over the edge.

Running for the nearest grocery store at first light, the Seattle's Best coffee cheered her up. However, the out-of-order women's restroom and the "disgusting" men's room soured her yet again. It was only after breakfast overlooking Canyon de Chelly's Mummy Cave that things started to look up again.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Amazing Race champion signs on with Competitours

Amazing Race Season 14 may have ended, but Competitours will keep the excitement going this summer with its European travel competition that anyone can do. No lengthy application process is required; just the willingness to go head to head with a bonafide Amazing Race champion — Tyler MacNiven from the show's ninth season. 

Along with other teams of two, he and a partner will be competing for the grand prize during the July 27 to August 5 trip, one of five offered this summer. All teams will travel to secret destinations in Western and Central Europe and perform a series of fun and quirky challenges that they will document with their own portable video cameras. Those videos will be evaluated by a panel of judges that will award a special grand-prize, consisting airfare, hotel and prize money.

The best part about Competitours, though, is that the challenges are not about speed or physical strength. Instead, teams that employ creativity, resourcefulness and originality will be rewarded. Furthermore, the game emphasizes "sight-doing," not merely sightseeing, so participants can enjoy their time abroad. 

“I’m a big fan of the 'sight-doing' motto,” says MacNiven. “I'm looking forward to being a part of this great competitourition. There is deep resonance on my end.” 

Long before he crossed the Amazing Race finish line, MacNiven and his then partner, B.J. Averell, had become that season's fan favorites and were dubbed “the hippies.” Their laid-back style rose above drama that has plagued many of the more infamous teams in the past. And they always stopped to enjoy the moment.

Check out a few videos from a previous competition on the Competitours YouTube page. or check out a few sample challenges on the Competitours sample Google Map.

View Competitours Sample Day in a larger map

Monday, May 11, 2009

Travel and tourism is a $1.7 trillion industry in the United States

This week marks the 26th annual National Travel and Tourism week. So what better way to celebrate than to announce an upcoming domestic trip to the Southwest!

I will be heading to New Mexico for a week-long camping adventure with my dad and stepmother in Arizona and Utah that will kick off on Friday, May 23. It will be the inaugural trip for dad's new (older) VW Eurovan that he bought back in March to replace his 28-year-old VW vanagon. Coincidentally, it's been about 28 years since I've camped with dad, so it should be interesting!

Stay tuned for more updates from various locations along our route, which includes the Navajo Nation, Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park and hopefully many more scenic destinations I've marked on my Google map.

View Utah in a larger map

More about National Travel and Tourism Week:
The week was established in 1983 when the U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution designating the week to be celebrated in May 1984. In a White House ceremony, President Ronald Reagan signed a Presidential Proclamation urging citizens to observe the week with "the appropriate ceremonies and activities." Industry leaders and public relations professionals from the major travel and tourism trade associations were the first volunteers to manage the annual event. By January 1986, industry leaders had formed a permanent full-time office at the U.S. Travel Association to sponsor the event and expand tourism awareness into year-round programs.

Next year's events will take place May 8-16, 2010.