Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

I’ve now gotten to spend time this summer in all four of Colorado’s National Parks. And let me tell you: the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is absolutely — and quite literally — jaw-dropping. It’s so deep and steep, with dark shadows and gray rock faces that really make the canyon feel almost (but not quite) monochromatic. Pictures cannot do the scene justice (though that certainly didn’t stop me from taking a bunch of pictures), but I’m really glad that Marci, Cor, and I made the extra effort to visit this out-of-the-way park on the Western Slope of Colorado.

Even though I’ve already admitted that ranking national parks is an exercise in futility, I’d say that I now rank the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park second-best in Colorado: after Rocky Mountain, ahead of Mesa Verde and Great Sand Dunes. Probably somewhere between the 60th and 65th percentile of all national parks. Not quite as good as my experiences earlier this summer with Canyonlands or Wind Cave, but better than Capitol Reef and the aforementioned, more southerly, Colorado parks.

One of the interesting features of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is that it’s so steep that there really aren’t a lot of hiking trails down into the canyon. In fact, I think I actually ended up hiking a majority of the trails that were open to the general public, just because there are so few of them (at least on the South Rim). Marci, Cor, and I did a 1.5-mile hike to Warner Point together and then a 0.5-mile jaunt out to Devil’s Overlook. And then, after Marci and Cor had gotten their fill of hiking, I did another 3-mile hike by myself that actually combined three trails: the Rim Rock Trail, the Uplands Trail, and the Oak Flat Trail.

It really was some awe-inspiring scenery, though, packed into those few miles of trail.

After we got our fill of hiking, we decided to drive down to the East Portal, where we could actually dip our feet in the freezing waters of the Gunnison River (the sensation was remarkably similar to the days when I’d ice my ankles after high school football practice). It was pretty cool — in more ways than one. I’m really glad that we got the chance to visit the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

I’ll probably still get to do a few final adventures into Rocky Mountain National Park. But otherwise, my summer of national park adventures is drawing to a close. Seven parks in one summer is pretty amazing, though, honestly. My heart is as full as the sticker-covered journals I’ve been using to record all the experiences. And you’d better believe I’m glad to be taking that with me.

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An American Tourist in America

Marci, Cor, and I drove two hours to the West to see a famous stretch of highway through a famous stretch of the desert between Utah and Arizona — featured in old Westerns from the middle part of the 20th Century and 1994’s Forrest Gump — and then we drove another two hours to get back to where we’d started.

In the afternoon, we watched sports on television from our air-conditioned AirBnB.

And then, in the evening, we drove an hour to the East to get dinner in Durango. As we circled the block of downtown Durango, looking for a parking spot, we FaceTimed with Olivia and eventually idled in the parking spot — engine running, air conditioner going full-blast — until we were finished with our call and ready to go get some pizza for dinner.

It all felt so American.

I hold an American passport. I’ve lived eighty percent of my life on American soil. And the entirety of this summer’s family vacation is happening within the United States of America (so even if we were going by the “When in Rome, do as the Romans” axiom, we should by all rights be acting like Americans!). Strangely, though, acting “so American” felt somewhat shameful (at least for me, personally).

I’ve had a funny relationship with my Americanness ever since the Spring of 2003, when I still remember being shamed for wearing a baseball cap in Amsterdam. The tone and look of contempt that went along with the phrase, “That’s so American” stained my soul. Never mind the fact that the shaming came at the hands of another American who’d maybe been living in Amsterdam two months longer than I had. Never mind the fact that the incident happened in a small conference room, at the front end of a private meeting with just four or five of us (the majority of whom were Americans). Ever since that point, I’ve regularly recoiled from anything that could be construed as “so American” — almost as if such an association would make me functionally indistinguishable from the pasty-white, floral-print wearing, overweight retirees waddling off of the tour buses to look at the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde from the parking lot.

What’s crazy is that I actually really like the United States of America! The things we’re seeing on this family vacation are incredible! The country is so vast that it really does require the use of an automobile to get to remote locations like Monument Valley. Air conditioning is a valuable tool in the American Southwest (where temperatures hover around the normal human body temperature at this time of the year, causing sweat even without exercise). And I like the fact that the technological infrastructure of the United States means I can stay connected with my favorite sports teams and favorite people even while traveling, on vacation.

I still want to promote “The Revolution” and avoid using the car when I can avoid using the car. When I do drive, I still typically want to turn off the engine when I’m not going anywhere to save on gas and pollution (I still remember a posted notice from the National Park Service in Yellowstone National Park, back in 2018, that said it’s worth turning off the engine for stops as short as ten seconds!). When visiting a national park, I want to interact with the space in many different ways, not just from the climate-controlled comfort of my car (I’ve heard from multiple sources that something like ninety-eight percent of all visitors to the National Parks of the United States never get any further than 50 feet away from their vehicle). But sometimes, on special occasions, it’s fine to use the car and let it run and hop out for a picture before hopping back in to keep driving.

Truth be told, our “so American” day did include a one-mile run through Monument Valley, in addition to the pictures from Forrest Gump Point (you can even see Cor and me, as tiny specks of orange, at the bottom of the Valley in the picture posted above). The sport that we watched on television in the afternoon was the Dutch National Soccer Team’s participation in the semi-finals of the European Cup. And amazingly, we’ve gotten to speak Dutch with strangers for each of the last three days (proving that Europeans like to come this way just as much as we do!)! Maybe we’re not “so American” after all. Or maybe we are. Who cares, really?!?

Posted in Culture, Culture Shock, Europe, Family, Introspection, Nederlands, Photography, Recreation, The Netherlands, The United States of America, Travel | Leave a comment

Mesa Verde National Park

I’m on pace to visit all four of Colorado’s National Parks this summer. First and foremost, I’ve been able to visit Rocky Mountain National Park: by myself, with various configurations of my friends, and with various configurations of my family — making it an especially rich, multi-layered space for me. I also got to spend one day visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park by myself, a couple of weeks ago, and I liked it — though I’m not sure I’ll be in any great hurry to go back. And earlier today, Marci and Cor were able to join me in exploring a third national park within the state of Colorado: Mesa Verde National Park.

The area around Mesa Verde is different from what I expected. It’s not quite as arid as I expected, judging from my experiences in Utah or Arizona. And it’s also not quite as mountainous as I expected, judging from my experiences in other parts of Colorado. Still, Southwest Colorado definitely has elements of the high desert and the Rocky Mountains, with mesas and mountains, cacti and canyons. It’s an interesting in-between space that defies easy categorization. And honestly, I like it (at least what I’ve seen of it so far).

We drove to Mesa Verde in the cool of the morning, hoping to do a little hiking before the hottest part of the day. We picked a three-mile loop to a place called Petroglyph Point, where one can still see art that was created by the native peoples who lived in this area until about 700 years ago. The route that we chose allowed us to stay in shade for the parts that were most physically-demanding and walk in dappled sunlight for the parts that were not so hard to hike — so that worked out perfectly.

Even with our best planning, however, we were still plenty hot and tired when we got to Petroglyph Point! Our fatigue was convenient, though, in that it gave us an excuse to sit down and look at the art on the stone walls of the canyon.

One of the things that’s most distinctive about Mesa Verde National Park is that it features anthropological sites just as much as (if not more than) natural sites. And while the geological feature of Mesa Verde is way bigger than I had imagined it to be, the remnants of the Anasazi people who lived on this chunk of rock were also way more intricate and numerous than I had imagined them to be.

The cliff dwellings (including houses and plazas and places of worship) were also amazing to see. And I’m really glad that we got to experience it all for ourselves. But we got to see just about everything that we wanted to see — even hiking a pretty substantial portion of the trails that the park has available — in one morning at the park. Mesa Verde National Park is worth a visit, but I think it would be pretty hard to make a week of it — whereas many of the other national parks I’ve visited feel like they would take a lot longer to exhaust all the points of interest that I’d wish to see. It’s probably on the level with Great Sand Dunes and Capitol Reef. A step below Canyonlands and Wind Cave, at least from what I’ve experienced this summer. Still, I count it a great privilege to have been able to see Mesa Verde with Marci and Cor. And we’re all looking forward to seeing what comes next, with our upcoming visit to the fourth of Colorado’s national parks: Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

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5, 4, 3…

Utah was the place where we had our first vacation without one of the five people in the little nuclear family that’s descended from Marci and me. Back in 2019, after five weeks of living and working at the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, Colorado, our family wanted to swing a little bit further West for some time off before heading back East to Ohio. Elliot, however, was eager to get back to Ohio so he could join his school marching band in their preparation for the fall season of his senior year of high school. So, we ended up deciding to buy him a ticket from Denver to Cleveland — knowing that he was going to need to become more and more independent in young adulthood, anyway — and then Marci, Olivia, Cor, and I drove west to Moab, Utah. Just the four of us.

It was kind of weird without Elliot. But we also had a lot of fun together visiting a really unique region that felt remarkably different from either Ohio or Colorado. We went to Arches National Park and hiked to Delicate Arch at sunset. We ate at the world’s dirtiest Wendy’s (or so we joked at the time). And then, after just two days in Utah, we continued further South and West to Northern Arizona for some time at the Grand Canyon and visiting our friend Linda in the Flagstaff area. The four of us filled out the space inside our Honda Odyssey and inside our Hampton Inn hotel room in different ways — as compared to how we had so frequently practiced things with the five of us. But it was a good experience, a growing experience (or shrinking experience, depending on one’s perspective).

Bonneville Salt Flats

In 2022, our family experienced an echo of the same phenomenon — also with the clearest reverberations being heard in Utah. Like her brother before her, Olivia practiced the independence of her young adulthood by spending the majority of the summer in Northeast Ohio, getting extra time with her closest friends who had just graduated from high school together and wanted to make the most of “one last summer” together before scattering. Elliot also happened to travel to Colorado that summer as a college student participating in the Leadership Training program — but that felt pretty different from him being there as a part of our Staff family. So even after my job assignment in Estes Park was completed that summer — allowing Marci, Cor, and me to get some time off — Elliot stayed in Colorado while Marci, Cor, and I drove west to the Salt Lake area of Utah.

Golden Spike National Historic Park in Promontory Point, Utah

It was kind of weird without Elliot and Olivia. But we also had a lot of fun together visiting this different part of Utah that felt remarkably different from the Utah we’d experienced three years earlier, as well as being different from Ohio or Colorado. We went to the historical site where the transcontinental railroad was completed and encountered the Great Salt Lake at the place where Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty intersected the coast. We discovered the Mormon Country’s fascination for mixed-soda drinks (where most parts of the United States have mixed-alcohol and/or mixed espresso drinks). And then, after five days in Utah, we continued further West to Nevada. Once again, the three of us filled out the space inside our Honda Odyssey and inside our AirBnB accommodations in different ways — as compared to how we had so frequently practiced things with four or five of us. But it was a good experience, a growing experience (or shrinking experience, depending on one’s perspective).

And now, this year, our family dynamics are changing further still. Elliot now has a “big boy job” way back East, in Pittsburgh. Olivia is now the college student who has chosen to participate in the Leadership Training program in Estes Park, Colorado. Marci is now operating a small business that cannot easily be mothballed for five whole weeks. And Cor is now going into his senior year with the Cross Country team, and as team captain he wants to help his team train for the fall season. Consequently, I am now spending the majority of this summer’s five-week stint directing the Collegiate Mentoring Program out west by myself, without Marci and Cor. But we’ve still arranged for them to fly from Cleveland to Denver to get two weeks out West: one week in Estes Park (getting to be together with Olivia and allowing me to continue my work) and then one week of time off further South and West, in the opposite corner of Colorado.

And even though we aren’t planning to spend any appreciable time in Utah with the three of us, we did discover that to get to Cortez, Colorado, from Estes Park, Colorado — there’s one route that only added twenty minutes while simultaneously allowing us to drive through a portion of eastern Utah and get mixed-soda drinks at a place called Lop’s Pop Shop in Moab! It seemed like such a lovely callback to our 2022 vacation with the three of us — and it allowed us to find another echo in Utah. This time, we’re driving our smaller Honda Civic (a sedan) instead of our larger Honda Odyssey (a mini-van). And we’re limiting our geography and our itinerary because of the aforementioned family dynamics for this summer. Still, I’m glad we’re figuring out ways to be family together as things shift and change. Even when things continue shifting, from five, to four, to three, to two… I think we’re going to be all right.

Posted in Adolescence, Children, Family, Health, Introspection, Middle Age, Nostalgia, Recreation, Transition, Travel, Young Adulthood | Leave a comment

Summited

I hiked with seven friends to seven lakes in the Rocky Mountain National Park today. Cor Asp, A.J. Ozanich, Ben Fetters, Stephen Campbell, Hillary Campbell, Hope Leimbach, Lauren Woolum, and I hiked to Bear Lake, Two Rivers Lake, Lake Helene, Odessa Lake, Fern Lake, Spruce Lake, and Loomis Lake. And it was a much more beautiful hike than I expected, with many miles of trails that I’d never hiked before (which is extra-enjoyable because I really like to color in the dotted lines on my maps). I especially enjoyed the gorge between Lake Helene and Odessa Lake, over Fern Creek, and we generally kept a pretty leisurely pace through the first five lakes, while our group of eight hung together. But for those last two lakes and the hike back out to the Fern Lake trailhead — basically the second half of the hike — we split into two groups so Cor could get back to civilization in time to see the Dutch National Soccer Team play its European Cup quarterfinal match against Türkiye (which he’d asked A.J. to prioritize in the planning for the hike). So it was A.J., Ben, Cor, and me for that part, and it really ended up being a challenge for me.

The trail from Fern Lake to Spruce Lake and Loomis Lake involved a pretty steep incline over “Unimproved Trails” with a lot of downed trees and scrambling over rocks and snowfields, so that was certainly part of the challenge. I also feel like it’s been a slow creep from 90 percent health up to 100 percent health since a mid-week illness, so I’m guessing that was part of the challenge, too (with some gastro-intestinal distress along the way). But mostly, that last half of the hike was challenging because I was hiking with the “Big Boys,” and I’m not so sure that I belong with them any more.

Every summer I’ve been here in Colorado, there’s been an informal sort of stratification of hikers, ranging from the totally uninitiated to the super-stud “Big Boy” hikers (though this upper echelon is not exclusive to men, since I’d certainly place LT greats such as Rachel Mayes and Annie Jenkins in this class). Most years, I’ve been able to hang with the Big Boys. And even this year, I suppose, I’ve technically been able to hang with them (at least I did today). But as I’ve rounded into my late-40s, I’ve noticed some slippage.

Desolation Peaks with Tim Yancy

In 2022, when I was 45 years old, I reached a point where I realized that in spite of whatever mental toughness I might have acquired (which is certainly not nothing), I simply could not physically keep pace with Tim Yancy (though he is perhaps the super-stud of all super-studs). I just did not have that extra gear I’d previously known (on some level) that I’d possessed. My abilities had peaked, and I would never be able to reach such heights again, this side of eternity.

Road Trip to Utah with Jay

This summer, at age 47, I’m noticing it more. I got heat exhaustion in Utah. My feet hurt more and more towards the end of every hike over ten miles. And I felt like crap on that slog from Fern Lake back to the trailhead. I just don’t have the physical capacity that my brother Jay or my son Cor still have; I just cannot match up with the power of A.J. and Ben, as men in their early-30s (though on any given day, I might be able to outperform them if conditions are just right).

I’m not saying that I cannot or will not ever be able to do long hikes or hard hikes again. Still, I think that I might need to start taking my physical limitations into account more meaningfully when planning for these bigger hikes. More time, more rest, more water and calorie replenishment. And I just don’t know if I’ll ever want or need to take on the riskier stuff again. I’m feeling more and more like I’ve got nothing left to prove to myself, or to others, if I ever did in the first place.

I’m a mortal man. I am finite, flimsy and flaky in the face of God’s glorious infinitude. And I think I’m fine with that now. Or at least I am in the process of becoming fine with that.

Fortunately, in the context of our seven lakes hike, I was able to finish without any extra accommodations. Cor and I were able to watch the Dutch beat the Turks, 2-1, getting the crowd at Smokin’ Dave’s to cheer for Oranje along with us. And over the rest of the day, my body has been able to recover from the stresses of the hike. So I’m thankful for that.

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Wild

I recently finished reading Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. I gather that it’s a pretty popular title, especially after appearing in Oprah’s Book Club, but I picked out the title from my local library because it was available and because it was about hiking. I was at the beginning of a summer where I anticipated a lot of hiking while visiting a number of the United States’ National Parks, even though I wasn’t going all the way out west, to the Pacific Crest Trail. It just felt like it would be a fun, easy read. To my surprise, however, this memoir actually packs in a lot of deep soul-searching and processing of family dysfunction and grief. So, it wasn’t exactly the book that I thought I was getting myself into. Still, I’m glad I got the chance to give it a read.

What’s interesting to me is that the author of this book chose to hike the Pacific Crest Trail for many of the same reasons that I chose to read the book. She saw a book about it on a shelf, thought it would be a fun experience, and grabbed onto the trek as a sort of escape. In the case of Cheryl Strayed, her mother had died just a couple of years previously, she had gone through a divorce, and she was slipping in and out of addiction to heroin. She latched onto an 1,100-mile stretch of the Pacific Crest as an alternative adventure — and maybe also (subconsciously) as a pilgrimage.

She tells the story in a way that involves plenty of the trail-side adventures and misadventures that I had come to expect, like learning to deal with the staggering weight of her backpack and evading bears and snakes and such. But she also weaves in a lot of her own personal processing about the loss of her mother and her marriage. It’s really kind of beautiful — and relatable — how she weaves it all together in the story of a geographical journey and an emotional journey.

I appreciated the story as a way to help process my own struggles with caring for my aging parents and all the other day-to-day pressures of marriage, parenthood, and the pastorate. And I felt inspired by the story to start looking more meaningfully into the possibility of doing a long-distance trek of my own at some point: maybe the Pacific Crest Trail… maybe the Appalachian Trail… maybe the Camino de Santiago… or, most likely, the Buckeye Trail. Perhaps I’ll get a chance to do this on my next sabbatical; perhaps it will be something that I pursue when I reach retirement. But either way, I found this book to be stimulating and enjoyable.

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More Brother Adventures (and Misadventures) in Canyonlands National Park

Conditions could hardly have been better for Part Two of our Brother Adventures (and Misadventures) in Canyonlands National Park. The sun was shining, but in the early morning it wasn’t nearly as hot as it was for Part One, when we hiked to Druid Arch and I came down with a nasty case of heat exhaustion. We stopped at a local donut shop for breakfast, and then we sipped our coffee and ate our donuts as we drove from Moab to the Island in the Sky District of the park. The donuts were delicious, but crumbly — so we made a bit of a mess along the way. But we were happy to have the opportunity to visit a different section of the Canyonlands, especially on such a beautiful morning.

We made it to the park entrance and sailed through the checkpoint without having to wait in line at all. We arrived at the Visitors Center just as they were opening up, so we were able to consult with the rangers on our hiking ambitions (a 5-mile hike from the rim of the Canyon down to a second level of the canyon called the White Rim, via the Gooseberry Trail) and fill up our water reserves. We were excited to hit the trail.

But first, we decided to make use of the pit toilets near the Visitors Center. As we walked up to these glorified outhouses, I noticed the sign next to the door that showed a symbol of a person squatting over a pit toilet, just above the more standard symbol for “RESTROOM” — and I wondered out loud if all of the facilities were going to be “squatty potties” instead of toilets. But I was relieved (in more ways than one!) to get inside of one and discover that both options — squatting and sitting — were available in each unit.

In his unit, next to mine, my brother decided to opt for squatting. I don’t know if it was in order to try something different or just to make me laugh. But when he finished with his business, he started standing up until he heard the sound of his car keys jingling out of the back pocket of his running shorts, hitting the side of the hole leading down to the pit, and then plopping into the sludge.

We figured this wasn’t the first time that something like this had happened, so we went to the rangers inside the Visitors Center and told them what had happened. They said they’d call Maintenance, but that it might be a while before they would respond — given that it was early on a Sunday morning, meaning that their staffing was minimal. So after waiting for 15-20 minutes to hear if Maintenance might be coming to the rescue, we decided to start troubleshooting the problem ourselves. Some helpful workers in the Visitors Center Gift Shop showed us their most powerful magnet, on the back of a souvenir Canyonlands bottle opener. So we bought the bottle opener and then affixed it to a string from the drawstring bag in my backpack, giving us about seven feet of good, strong cord. So we could go fishing in the pit toilets of the Visitors Center.

We fished for about twenty or thirty minutes, trying to plumb the depths of the pit in hopes of latching onto the keys. Unfortunately, our fishing expedition was unsuccessful. During one stretch where I was fishing, Jay took my phone into the Visitors Center (where they had free WiFi) to research options for obtaining a new key for his Honda Pilot — and he discovered that there wasn’t a single Honda dealership in all of Utah that was open on Sunday. During another stretch when Jay was fishing, I went back to the rangers’ station to see if there had been any further contact with Maintenance — and they said that Maintenance concluded they would not get involved, citing concerns about the biohazards of the situation (though I could imagine they were also not very keen to prioritize this job on a day when they had their hands full with other Maintenance projects). So we really were on our own.

But then the National Park Service rangers came in clutch for us. They had found an old broom handle and another, stronger magnet which they secured to the broom handle with something resembling a sock. They gave us the new fishing gear along with some masks, gloves, trash bags, and a wastebasket filled with a bleach solution, wishing us luck. But after another ten or fifteen minutes, now down on our knees reaching our arms down into the empty space at the top of the pit to make sure we could search every square inch of the sludge, we still hadn’t gotten any further…

Until, in a quiet moment, without any shout of triumph or anything, Jay pulled up the keys on the end of the pole. And all of a sudden, we couldn’t stop laughing and smiling from ear to ear. The relief and the hilarity of the whole experience were heightened by their stark contrast to the depths of despair we had been feeling for the last hour and a half. It was, honestly, an amazing feeling.

After we cleaned everything up and thanked the rangers for their help, we got back into the car to carry out our plans for hiking. As Jay reached down to buckle his seatbelt, he recoiled immediately and made a kind of gagging sound — pulling up his thumb to reveal a streak of brown along the side. But then, in wiping off the brown, he realized that it wasn’t sludge from the pit toilet but chocolate frosting from the Reese’s Peanut Butter Chocolate Donut that he’d been eating earlier that morning. Again, we cracked up and just couldn’t stop laughing as we drove out onto the Island in the Sky (which is really more like a Peninsula in the Sky). We talked about the way that misadventures are often more memorable than standard-issue adventures, and we rejoiced in the fact that we got to experience it all together.

The hike down the canyon wall was incredible. No major incidents there (for better and for worse). We had some super-meaningful conversation as we hiked, and I hope that I will always remember the things that we talked about on Gooseberry Trail. But I feel quite confident that I will always remember the misadventures in the pit toilets by the Visitors Center. And the way that we got to experience it all together, as brothers.

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Capitol Reef National Park

How does one compare a national park on the Pacific Coast with a national park in the Great Plains? A park full of total shade created by Giant Sequoias with a park full of sunshine interspersed with Joshua Trees? It’s an impossible exercise to rank the national parks of the United States of America in any objective way! It’s highly subjective, tied in with personal experience (which is why Cuyahoga Valley National Park and the Rocky Mountain National Park will always be near the top of my list — because they’re wrapped up in all kinds of meaningful memories of time alone, time with friends, time with family). Even so, I find myself regularly thinking about the National Parks in these terms. Especially in summers like this one, where I’m making a point to visit so many within a relatively short time period.

This inclination to rate and rank the U.S. National Parks is further complicated by the fact that I’ve realistically only experienced perhaps one percent of each park (with the CVNP and RMNP being notable exceptions). They’re just so massive, with so many different trails. And they’re so spread out across the country that I usually only get the chance to do a trail or two, with some driving to connect the dots.

Canyonlands National Park and Capitol Reef National Park, however, provide an interesting exception to the exquisite diversity of the National Park system. They’re only 2.5 hours apart from each other, by car, and they both feature a lot of the same colors, canyons, and climates. After our hike of (heat) exhaustion in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, my brother and I decided to drive out to Capitol Reef with the goal of doing a smaller, slower hike with more time and space for contemplation and creativity.

Considering Capitol Reef’s location in the middle of an unpopulated area in central Utah, the Visitors Center and the parking lots around it were surprisingly full. People speaking French and German in the gift shop, families eating picnic lunches, a tour bus pulling up shortly after we arrived. Still, we were able to find a three-mile out-and-back hike through Cohab Canyon that didn’t feel too overcrowded. I took along (and made a point to drink) four liters of water, so I could reduce my risk of heat exhaustion. And indeed, the hiking itself was very manageable.

We hiked until we found something that Jay might be interested in painting. And once we figured out our spot, we settled in for the next three hours. Jay painted using oil paints (which I gather is a more nuanced, time-intensive medium), and I did some journaling and reading while sitting in the shade of a big rock.

It was a lovely afternoon in Capitol Reef National Park. But in all honesty, I’m going to go ahead and rank Capitol Reef National Park below Canyonlands National Park. It’s significantly smaller, in a less accessible location — yet somehow more populated with tourists (on the day we visited, at any rate) — and the scenery between the two parks is so similar that the other, more logistical, factors rule the day.

I’m still glad we got the opportunity to visit Capitol Reef — adding another sticker to my journal and another medallion to my hiking stick. But I’m not sure that I’ll ever go back again. Except for when I get a glimpse of the pictures that I took or the piece that Jay painted in Cohab Canyon.

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Canyonlands National Park

Jay and I drove into Moab (Utah) around two o’clock in the afternoon. We got some lunch at a place downtown and planned out our approach to Canyonlands National Park while eating cheeseburgers. It’s an enormous area, with four distinct districts — the Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze, and the Rivers — with drive times between the different districts ranging from two hours to six hours (!). We ultimately decided to drive straight to the Visitors Center for the Needles, about an hour and a half away from downtown Moab, arriving a little bit before 4:30 PM.

We were interested in hiking to a rock formation called Druid Arch. The ranger we talked to at the Visitors Center tried to dissuade us from this particular hike, given the heat, the approaching darkness, and the length of the hike (about ten and a half miles). Still, we felt confident we could handle the hike’s complexities, so we adapted our plans in light of the ranger’s concerns to take more water and take haste in getting to the trailhead. The ranger said that this hike usually takes five to seven hours, but we felt confident we could do it in four hours. It was only 1,500 feet of elevation gain over the course of 5.4 miles, between 5,000 and 6,000 feet above sea level. We felt like we had adequate experience and adequate equipment. So, we filled up our water bottles and water bladders at at the Visitors Center and then drove to the Elephant Hill trailhead to hike out to Druid Arch and back.

I definitely noticed the heat when we started hiking (90° F right around our targeted start time of 5:00 PM), but I didn’t think that I would fall victim to heat exhaustion.

We kept up a decent pace through the initial climb, over a ridge, into the heart of the Canyonlands. The scenery was absolutely breathtaking: beige and orange canyons and cliffs, a ridge of lumpy stone needles standing sentry over the landscape. It felt like we had the entire Needles District to ourselves. And it really did tap into the energy of so many brother adventures gone by: building clubhouses in the woods… car-surfing on the hood of my 1985 Chevette over the prairies of North Dakota… jumping naked into the lesser lochs of the Scottish Highlands. We shimmied through slots in the canyon walls that were the width of our bellies (sucked in!). We clambered up onto ridges that looked like the surface of the moon. We took pictures and videos of each other traversing the landscape. It was epic.

For a large part of the middle of the hike, we followed a wash that lay on the canyon floor. But somewhere around the 3.5-mile mark of the hike, we misinterpreted the stone cairns that marked the trail — and we ended up taking a detour that ultimately added an extra mile to our total before we figured out our mistake and backtracked to the correct trail. Even with the unintentional detour — or actually because of the detour — we got to see a lot of amazing variations in the Canyonlands on our way up. And we still managed to reach the awe-inspiring Druid Arch a little more than an hour before sunset.

At the arch, Jay set out to do a quick thirty-minute painting of the scene while I took some pictures, read the Canyonlands literature that we’d collected at the Visitors Center, started writing about the hike in my journal, and tried to enjoy a snack of some fig newtons and smoked almonds — even though I had no appetite at all. It felt good to rest and air out my sweaty back while trying to replenish my body with food and water — but in retrospect, I can see that this was probably the point where the first manifestations of my heat exhaustion started to show in this nausea and extreme fatigue.

We made it about halfway back from Druid Arch to the Elephant Hill trailhead and parking lot before the heat exhaustion really caught up with me, right around the same time that the darkness started catching up with us, too. We kept making progress by the light of my headlamp and Jay’s iPhone flashlight — but my legs started to feel really heavy, and the soles of my feet started to hurt really badly. We slowed down more and more to accommodate my increasing exhaustion. But then, we started to see flashes of lightning and hear rumblings of thunder. Still quite distant, but nevertheless disconcerting. It was honestly pretty scary — less that we were going to get electrocuted or soaked (in fact, a soaking might have even been advantageous), and not even that we would get caught in a flash flood (though this possibility loomed larger in our minds, knowing that something similar had just happened in Moab twenty-four hours earlier), but mostly because the lightning and thunder just added to the ominous, unfamiliar feeling that had us longing for a glimpse of the parking lot.

We did finally make it back to the parking lot around 11:00 PM, six hours after we started. It was a relief to get back to the car, but even while I was swapping out my hiking boots for my recovery sandals, I felt woozy. The adrenaline that pushed me through those last few miles quickly gave way to pure nausea and light-headedness. I kept myself together until we both got buckled into the car — but after driving perhaps a quarter of a mile, I had Jay stop the car because I was worried about throwing up. It turned out to be nothing by dry heaves. Another quarter of a mile further, however, I had Jay stop again. I did a couple more rounds of dry heaves — and then my stomach finally released its contents. It actually felt like a huge relief to finally throw up. Like, a 75% improvement. Jay had the brilliant idea for me to put the freezer packs from our cooler into my armpits and groin to help me cool down.

We stopped at the Visitors Center again on our way out, so I could use the bathroom and swish out my mouth with water. And when I came back out to the parking lot, Jay had turned off the car’s lights and engine so he could look up at the stars. Aside from the line of thunderstorms to the north, the skies above us were so dark and so clear that we could see the Milky Way. It was breathtaking. So cool. So cool, in fact, that I hardly even noticed my heat exhaustion.

Posted in Family, Health, Hiking, Recreation, Travel | Leave a comment

Collegiate Mentoring Program (2024)

If you’ve been following along with my posts in this space for the last several weeks, you’ve probably gathered that I’ve been doing a lot of traveling and visiting U.S. National Parks: Wind Cave National Park in southwest South Dakota… Great Sand Dunes National Park in south-central Colorado… and Rocky Mountain National Park (which is now a sort of base camp for the summer, though I haven’t written about any adventures in the park yet). I love North America’s Wild West so much, but I also feel the need to clarify that my summer has not just been about tourism! I’ve also settled into work responsibilities out here in Colorado. And there’s no less adventure with these work responsibilities than there is with the driving and hiking and picture-taking and story-telling.

This is now the fifth time I’ve gotten the chance to spent an extended stretch of the summer in Colorado, working to support the Collegiate Church Network’s programs to equip student-leaders and/or staff: the Leadership Training program (“LT” for short), and the Collegiate Mentoring Program, respectively. And I can think of dozens (if not hundreds) of stories of things God has done through these programs — both in my own life, and in the lives of the others with whom I’ve been able to share time and space and conversation out West.

We’re already about half-way through this summer’s edition of the Collegiate Mentoring Program, and it really does seem like we’re hitting a groove. My co-director Lauren and I work together to organize four group sessions per week and four individual sessions per week (one for each of the four participants in this year’s program). And the people participating in the Collegiate Mentoring Program are the key piece in it all. Jana is currently serving with a church in Youngstown, Ohio. Hillary works with a church in Denton, Texas. Hope is on staff with H2O Church in Toledo, Ohio. And Blake is a part of the team in Bowling Green, Ohio. The group is all women, except for me — which is an interesting contrast to the first year I helped with the Collegiate Mentoring Program, back in 2016, when the cohort was all men. I’m very thankful, though, that the women seem to welcome my involvement.

I look forward to seeing what God will do with the rest of our time together in Colorado.

Posted in Church, God, H2O Kent, Health, Introspection, Leadership, Ministry, Prayer, Small Groups, The Bible | Leave a comment