The other side of the arch

A recent trip to Utah had me standing in the shadows of giant sandstone arches, their curves the places where the brush which painted the deserts left canvas, lifting oranges and reds up into clear blue skies. Nature needs no input in these places but merely to be left alone. Perfection without input is a concept humans struggle to understand.

I went on this trip to Arches National Park during fall, when school was in session to avoid major crowds. As with most of the major National Parks (Yosemite, Zion, Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, etc.), the parking lots were still nearly filled. Hiking trails filled with people moving to and from main attractions closely resembled ants going to and from crumbs, bumping into each other and communicating "almost there, it's worth it!". I was one of the ants heading to Delicate Arch, named so I'm guessing due to it's position at the top of a massive rock hill which funnels down to a small sandy area dotted with desert flora. The rim to Delicate Arch was crowded with hundres of people enjoying the view. A line of about 30-40 people long led to a photo op below the arch. I knew I wasn't going to get any shot I wanted, so I hiked around to see the arch from the other side.

 

Over 40 bottles and other pieces of trash fell down below Delicate Arch in Arches National Park

Over 40 bottles and other pieces of trash fell down below Delicate Arch in Arches National Park

Let me pause here to first admit something which is true and should be obvious of every one of us, yet still needs to be said - none of us are the perfect outdoors person. Heck, none of us are the perfect indoors person. We spill, forget to put coasters down, and let the dishes pile up. I have bagged a lot of peaks, camped in snow, cleaned up areas to be more enjoyable for the next person, and don't use "but it's biodegradable" as an excusable reason to leave land littered with orange/banana peels, dog poo, or anything else I have brought in. This being said, outside is more and more unfamiliar territory for most and brings greater opportunity for human error. I still make stupid, ignorant, and unobservant errors (flashback to me, earlier this month, cutting a switchback short and bringing my dog on a no dogs trail by honest mistake). The only thing I have going for me is that I am outside more often than not, enough at least to notice my own shortcomings and those of my fellow outdoors person.

A mistake people often make outside is the same we make in any relationship or endeavor - we become critical of others for their shortcomings while defending our own. The key I've found to enjoy the outdoors in an increasingly responsible way is to be open to the fact that I don't know everything and never will. Even becoming an expert in one area does not mean there is nothing left to learn or that I need to make excuses when someone points out opportunity to improve. We are all at some point or another the newest and thus least knowledgeable person in the room on a subject. There is no better way to learn than to become aware of our ignorance with the aim to understand. There is no better way to teach than to remember being this person.

My visit to Delicate Arch brought me to better understand the ideal of learning and educating with the aim to protect. The lesson started when I heard the "plink, plink, plink" of a plastic bottle rolling down the steep rock face below the arch. The bottle came to a rest at the sand pit a hundred feet down. No one was making moves to retrieve the bottle, so I decided to go down to retrieve it myself. Walking down only took about five minutes or so, but as soon as I got to the bottom I heard it again "plink, plink, plink", this time a Gatorade bottle still half full of blue liquid tumbled down and landed next to a water bottle. After about ten minutes of searching in and around the brush I found over 40 plastic bottles, handfuls of wrappers, and a camera lens cap. I put all of it into a pile, stuffed the wrappers into a pocket, crushed the bottles down to the smallest size I could, and emptied my pack of all camera gear so I could hike the it all out out.

 

May be cute when it comes up to your feet looking for a snack, but will likely die after becoming dependent on human food.

May be cute when it comes up to your feet looking for a snack, but will likely die after becoming dependent on human food.

This is the other side of the arch, the other side of the successful push to get people outside. My hope for more friends to go outdoors also brings about worry to what our excitement about natural beauty will do to the land through gross negligence and innocent ignorance alike. Those whose lifestyle heavily involves the outdoors have felt a bit of panic and chagrin towards those who look to use nature rather than be a part of it. This comes from watching the effect the recent spike of human presence is having on the experience and ecology of nature. Seeing landscapes as quickly as they have in recent years is alarming. Photographers fear sharing beautiful locations of their photos lest those places become another one of the exploited, overrun, and sometimes shut down places no longer allowed to be enjoyed. Many who feel a relationship to these lands worry those who come in the future will not care enough to learn how to protect it well, leaving it different than they came and less of the experience which attracted them in the first place. I've felt this in the plastic bottles in Arches, in the toilet paper all around Big Sur, with each chipmunk being fed in peak season at Zion and Yosemite which will die when Nature Valley bars become short in supply in the off season. Frustration builds with every orange peel left on a rock in Joshua tree, initials carved into ancient redwoods or sprayed onto rocks in Utah, rock formations knocked over, and cigarette butts flung into the dirt after someone adds the last hashtag to their post.

Conservation and preservation are and always will be an ongoing movement. We must understand with how we struggle maintaining something perfect, allowing it to function absent of human fetters, and must do this by constantly being student-teachers when we pursue a relationship with nature. Pretentious more-outdoorsy-than-thou attitudes and online arguments are not the answer. What will help is loving the land enough to turn the other cheek, using as much energy to pack out someone elses garbage as we do to talk to those around us in a way helping them to realize why something has stayed beautiful, and thus how to be in relation in a way where the beauty stays intact.

Graffiti, sadly, feels routine. This photo was taken January, 19th. Notice 2018 already carved into the formation.

Graffiti, sadly, feels routine. This photo was taken January, 19th. Notice 2018 already carved into the formation.

We can do this by being a little more open to how we communicate about the outdoors (save the mocking and pretentious talk for conversations over #vanlife buildouts, please). What I'm asking us to talk about is the giant influx of people into nature, the balance of being free and respecting what allows us to feel that freedom, and along the way how to stay open to learning without becoming defensive. People should be getting outside, I'm a huge believer in that, but we need to learn how to handle it without getting in a fight over how to do so. We must, because it's what will prevent trampling down popular areas, neglecting to preserve that which makes the shot special in the first place solely to get a shot for Instagram.

We've got people getting healthy, enjoying the natural world, and being aware of places like Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument which needs to be protected from irreversible damage. This also means we have thousands of us who would sign petitions to save land coming to the very places we want to protect without realizing we are also causing damage. The sheer volume of visitors is bound to leave an impact. Even my small mistakes left repeatedly unchecked have the potential to ravish not only the aesthetic beauty of a land but also the base functionality of an ecosystem.

Looking from other side of the arch can be disheartening, but I believe it can stay beautiful. This starts with understanding I can sometimes be part of the problem, but I aim to be a student-teacher of the solution. By having a mentality of humility, to be educators and educated, we should be able to stop the widening of the crack in these places we love.

Why "Grown Up" is the Worst and Most Misleading Term

Most of the time we grow up from children, to teens, and then become adults. The first two transitions are huge. We grow taller, bigger, stronger, our bodies change, and we move away from home. Being an adult however comes with the misconception that we are grown up. It's a done deal. You take care of yourself and you've made it.

I thought about this last week after sitting around a table as I have many times before talking about children's behavior. Issues come up such as one child hitting another, stealing, lying, and being mean. We were there because the kids need help. This is nothing new to me, but I started wondering if 60 or 80 year old people could get around a table and talk about all the 25 and 30 year olds. What would they say? Oh, they've had it together ever since they were 18?

Probably not.

However, we're all adults here. We do what we want. We walk around taking emotional and sometimes physical swings at each other. We lie, cheat, and steal - and I'm not talking about criminals - we all know someone personally, or are someone personally, who does this stuff.

But again, we're grown ups, we pay our bills and live our lives.

At the root of all this interesting stuff is fear and commitment. As a child, we fear things like the monster under the bed. This fear eventually dissolves by looking under the bed, seeing there is nothing there, and seeing it was irrational. However, as adults we solidify fear in a lot of ways. We fear people different from us, opinions, that the opposite political parties candidate might win, or getting close to another person. We live like there is actually a monster under the bed, out to get us.

I just wonder when the last time I checked for my monsters was? Have I tricked myself into thinking that, because I'm an adult, my fears are valid. Or do I just have a more grown up and developed version of irrational fears?

I am realizing that yes, I do. The fears do carry weight sometimes, but most of the time it's all going to be okay very soon. Fear comes from opinions. Fear comes from bad news. Fear comes from someone different from us. Fear comes from being hurt relationally. Most often what causes worry is not end of the world material, and if it was, well I don't have to worry about that thing because the world is ending anyways.

This is not to say it's not all valid. It's just all about what areas need a good old "peek under the bed for a second look" and then not over react no matter what is found. This is the only way to move on and care well about what is going on in the world. We know we're just growing up, making progress, and mindfully moving through our life rather than thinking we've done good enough because we can hold down a job.

The best way to do this is to push the comfort zone in areas you're okay with and apply what you learn to the rest of your life. A lot of people find this in nature, some find it socially, others find it through books, faith, music, sports, or changing what they do or how they do it. Whatever it is, however you do it, find a way to keep changing. Find adventure, make your heart race, find and accept the people who treat you well, actually pushing you to where you want to go, during this process. Perhaps then when the sixty year olds get around the table, they'd be proud of us, we're really trying.

No one is grown up.

Everyone is growing up.

Being entitled to our opinions, fears, and set ways is no different than being entitled to the "fact" that there is a beast living in a hole under the mattress waiting to drag us away the second we step off the bed. The one thing we have going for us as adults is the ability to be self aware. Using that in a kind way is what being an adult seems to be mostly about, but also seems to be what many are missing out on.

Camp for free (or at least cheap)

ONE OF THE BIGGEST FRUSTRATIONS OF TRAVELING, CAMPING, AND GETTING OUT INTO NATURE THE COST AND AVAILABILITY. STATE PARK CAMPGROUNDS ARE CHARGING $15-$50 TO CAMP OUT ON THE GROUND FOR A NIGHT WHICH ISN'T A GUARANTEE WITH SOME CAMPGROUNDS BOOKING UP MONTHS IN ADVANCE. THIS SEEMS LIKE AN INJUSTICE TO THOSE OF US JUST LOOKING TO GET OUT AND AWAY, ESPECIALLY WHEN THERE ARE REGULATIONS WHICH MAKE IT ILLEGAL TO CAMP ON THE LAND AROUND.

This frustration comes to groups of every size, but usually peaks for those of us traveling alone and having to foot the bill solo. Even worse is paying for a spot where street lights are shining in your tent and car engines go by when the point was to get out to enjoy the outdoors. Good thing is there are ways around this. Here are 3 tips for free (or at least closer to free) camping experiences.

1 - Bureau of Land Management (The BLM)

When it comes to your desire to get out and get away, the Bureau of Land Management is actually on your side. They aren't just another park ranger's office. They actually manage and protect the public land which you have a right to use. There is such a thing as free- the key is finding it. The easiest way is to go to a BLM office and ask. The workers are usually very nice, nature loving, all around helpful people. The other way is to go old school and get an Atlas or find a map explaining the Public Land Survey System (a way of subdividing and describing land in the United States which is mapped out in most of the states excluding Texas and the East coast). On an Atlas, the land will simply be outlined in a faint yellow color. Once you've located that the land is BLM land, you know it's free to camp there. As long as you are hiking through or finding a legal place to put your car on the side of the road, the camping and use of land is free (obviously obey the fire laws and any other notices). Most BLM land will have plenty of service roads jutting off into the wilderness which you can drive up and park off of without another soul for miles. This is especially useful when near busy national parks and areas with high camper volume (such as Zion National Park) where it may not only be expensive, but impossible to find a campground to pitch your tent. Just a five minute drive in one direction from many national parks is BLM land where you can find peace, quiet, and free camp sites.

2 - Rustic Campgrounds

Another option for not-free but not-so-expensive camping are rustic campgrounds. These are the not-so-advertised and not-so-managed sites with less amenities. Pretty much, you're not going to find campers here. There are no hook-ups, water services, or electrical outlets, which is actually nice because, you know, you're camping and not staying in a hotel for a reason. At around $5-$10 a night they come it at a much more manageable price and there are usually a lot more available since there aren't defined spots and they exist a little bit further off the grid. Just double check your water stock and make sure you have a car capable of getting to the site.

3 - Buddy Camping - the last ditch effort.

So you just packed the car and drove, but the problem is there is no BLM land or rustic sites. This is often the case in developed coastal towns such as Southern California. There is no choice but to head to the paved state park cut out camp sites. The downside of having to camp in a parking lot can be easy access to surf and a cool atmosphere filled with friendly camping companions. The biggest issue here is how these sites, especially during peak season, are reserved months in advance. The best thing to do in these situations is to find a parking spot nearby and walk in with your pack/tent. It may seem weird, and it might be, but buddy camping requires you to throw on your social butterfly pants and schmooz the socks off of some more-responsible soul. The most important thing is to realize the power of asking and be blunt. It also helps to have a friend with you as to appear not so creepy, but if you scope out a group of people around your age you'd be surprised how many are willing to let you hop in on their camp site (given they have the physical real estate to accommodate you). The biggest thing here is to remember they are helping you out and you should make their experience of camping awesome, so respect them, and do whatever you can to make your stay a memorably good one. I have had some of my least favorite I don't even want to camp in this cookie cutter non-nature site moments change by meeting good people to share good times with. You'll need to bust out all your best jokes and lay the charisma on thick to get in, but things usually mellow out quickly. A gifted of a bottle of wine or case of beer is always in order, but it usually ends up being shared as people actually enjoy meeting good company... go figure. Make sure to pay your share (or above) for the campground, which is usually still a good price when splitting. More often than not you'll end up exchanging a fair amount of campfire stories at night and phone numbers in the morning. Buddy camping presents it's own adventure of meeting strangers and making friends. Go in with low expectations, but don't be surprised when you have a great time.

When it comes to camping you have a lot of options and even more loopholes. The typical google or state park search won't expose these secrets because they don't manage the free stuff, but this is America and we actually do still have honest-to-goodness free land, rustic reserves, or friendly people to make your best adventure possible.

Zion, Utah's increasingly popular yet still hidden gem.

When I think of National Parks out West images of Yosemite, Yellowstone, and California's Great Redwoods  are what come to mind. Then there is Zion, the place you've heard of and yet are not exactly sure what to expect, or where it is for that matter.

In my mind I knew Zion had to be great, but with it being so close to the Grand Canyon of Arizona and the slot canyons which make their way between two states, I had lost it in my minds map until it practically fell into my lap. I headed up to Lake Powell after a work trip in Glendale. I arrived some time after 9pm, paid the fees to camp ($15 to get into Glen Canyon and $10/night to camp), strapped on my headlamp, raised the tent, and made a camp fire under the stars and full moon which illuminated Lone Rock which sat just a few hundred yards off shore. It wasn't until talking with the Sheriff, who was driving along the beach as his dog ran Powell's shoreline, that I decided to go to Zion. I had come up to hike Antelope Canyon, but learned there was a hefty fee and you were required to hike with a tour guide and could only be there an hour and a half. The sheriff told me of the Toadstools, slot canyons you could hike for free, the wave (which I didn't go to of the near impossible to win lottery/permit). The next morning I woke up and drove to the nearest Bureau of Land Management office just a few miles up the road. From there I learned about Wire Pass, a trail/canyon you can hike for over 30 miles, but it slotted up pretty nicely about a mile in. The only trick was getting through the ten mile impassible-when-wet road. Luckily the conditions had been dry and my car is all wheel drive.

After a quick hike to the Toadstools I made the drive, paid the $6 hiking fee with quarters, nickels, and pennies (I only had $20's and no way to make change) and hiked on in. It was amazing, and all in all I spent about 2 hours playing around in the canyon. The hike only went a few miles in before it was flooded, but was still well worth it.

From there I made my way up to Kanab and then got into Zion for the sunset. The week long pass was only $25 and there is free camping within 5-10 miles of the entrance on BLM land (just get an atlas and search for the yellow outlined squares on the map... public land = free camping). I opted to car camp so I could get up and drive into Zion for an early morning hike.

It ended up working perfectly. After a quick coffee at the convenience store just outside of Zion I made my way in, waving my week pass at the Ranger as I passed through the entrance, and then drove straight to the trail head of Angel's Landing. After reading the warning sign that 4 hikers have fallen to their death on this hike since 2004, I ran up the path. The hike said it is a 2-3 hour out and back, but with a steady pace and no breaks I made the summit in 45 minutes. I was told the hike was going to be busy. "Zion has no off season" the lady told me the day before in the gear/coffee/bookstore I stopped by to get some replacement batteries for my headlamp, but to my happy surprise I had seen just 3 other hikers on my way up and no one was on top of Angel's Landing when I got to the top... even better yet no one was there the entire half hour I spent running around, leaning over the edge, looking thousands of feet down to the canyon floor. These are the perks of being able to go at 8am on a Wednesday in February.

So when you are planning a trip to Utah, or any other National Park for that matter, consider going in the off season, because they do still exist, and being out in nature is much better when it's just you or a couple of other friends (especially when the hike includes single wide paths holding onto chains with nothing to stop you from tumbling a quick 2,000 feet should you lose your handle and footing).

+All in all the trip cost me $56 and gas money

+Sheriff's in Utah are the coolest Sheriff's I have ever met.

+With the states sharing many similar geographic qualities, national parks, and beauty all within 10 miles, there is a definite Utah-Arizona rivalry... Many I talked to on the Utah side had never been to the Grand Canyon or Antelope Canyon, and many on the Arizona side had never made the hour long trip up to Zion, which all blew my mind, but they seemed to think the other state didn't know what was up when it came to natural beauty.

+What I would have done differently - Scheduled more time to be there! This is almost always the case, but I could spend two weeks in Utah/Arizona and not get tired of it. Everything was so different and if you talk to the right people, you'll find endless secret local hikes and pointers sure to keep you busy as long as you want. Also, consider hiking in minimalist or water shoes as to not get stopped by flooded areas, but since it's the off season be careful of hypothermia. I also would not have minded a hiking partner to bounce ideas off of. I know when to pack it out but there's always a risk to doing things alone in remote places.