Wednesday, August 18, 2010

8 Ways on How NOT to Die in the Southern Utah Desert

There are two remarkably simple yet easily prevented ways to die in the desert during the hot summer months. (Check out Craig Childs' fascinating book on this subject for more in-depth analysis and tales.)

1) Thirst
2) Drowning

The first one seems obvious, of course. Deserts = dry, godforsaken places in most minds. But are you remotely surprised by #2? Then read on.

My desert home rests at almost 7,000 feet, making it a "high desert." We have the usual four seasons, although spring is sometimes lamentably short. We also have a fifth season, monsoon, which this year seemed to overtake our summer. Midsummer thunderstorms, part of the wild southern Utah monsoon season, are commonplace in mountains. Here, they usually happen in the afternoon, or so my creaky memory attests. This year, for about two weeks they happened morning, noon, and night, lasted all day, lasted all night, brought not only torrential rain but the drifting clouds and fog that made me think we were in Scotland instead of southern Utah.

(the very fierce heart of a summer monsoon)

The result was much greenery (and, frankly, much bitching from many residents during lawnmowing time) and much, much water. In a desert environment such as this one (high clay content in the soil, low saturation levels), water from the sky doesn't absorb into the ground very quickly or much. If it did, we'd be Oregon.

What does unsaturated water do? It flows above ground. During or soon after a big storm, it flows damn fast. Flash floods are awesome, gorgeous, terrifying, oddly smelly, loud, powerful, and often quite unexpected to the hikers they overtake. Or so I'm told. I've never been close to a major one. Part of me wants to. Part of me says, thank god. Don't wanna see one after some of the stories I've heard. Watching a small one and allowing my imagination to grow it exponentially is enough for me.
Point is, during the summer you can get really, really thirsty in the desert (seems duh, but it can happen), or you can get really, really wet and cold, and even swept away by a raging wall of water. Most people never think about the second possibility, especially not when they're hiking on a hot August day.

So without further ado, here's how you go about avoiding these demises should you choose to go adventuring in the southern Utah desert during a scorching summer month.

4 Ways to Not Die of Thirst in the Desert

1) Drink water. I'm serious! Bring it, drink it, pee it out, drink it more. If you're not peeing clear, you're dehydrated. People come from lower elevations, they never drink water at home, they survive on sugary caffeinated drinks, yadda yadda yadda. I don't care. A gallon of water per person per day is the rule of thumb, if you're out all day. Bonus tip: add an electrolyte to your water, such as Camelbak Elixir or Emergen-C. Keep those electrolytes flowing, baby. All water and no salts in your body (hyponatremia) can also make for a very unhappy day.

2) Know where you're going. You can drink all the water you have on you, but if you get lost on the way to wherever you're heading, that might not be enough to help you survive. Especially because deserts, as we know, are deserts because they don't have a lot of water hanging around in the form of streams or lakes to drink from. Know the trail, take a guide, be familiar with map and compass skills, use your GPS (don't rely on those things, though--yes, I'm a skeptic), use your noggin. Not sure if you veered off trail? Stop. Backtrack following your actual tracks until you're positive of your whereabouts. Then either keep going if you're sure, or go back to your car.

3) Wear proper clothing. Light colors, light weave, loose fit. Synthetics good, cotton bad. Hiking in tight, dark, heavy clothes (yes, that means jeans) traps your sweat, makes you feel icky, and can actually help you reach a state of hyperthermia. (Also known by the pleasant names of heat stroke, heat exhaustion, etc.)
4) Pay attention to your body. Got any of this going on? Breathing heavily, rapid pulse (feel your wrist or the side of your neck--gently on the neck, though!), light-headed, tired, flushed skin. These can all be signs of impending dehydration. Sit down, drink up, and recover. Think about heading back if you don't feel better.

4 Ways to Not Drown in the Desert

1) Avoid slot canyons when it's cloudy, raining locally (as in, on your head), raining nonlocally (as in, as many as 40 miles away from you, which might still be close enough to send nonsaturating water roaring down your canyon while you're in it), local officials (say, those park rangers who know the area better than you do) tell you they don't advise canyon travel, or you just don't have a good feeling about it. It can rain miles away and the water can still collect and rush right over your beautiful, enclosed, inescapable trail. Be safe, not dead.
(yes, I'm in a slot canyon, there's water in it, and I'm smiling. Slot canyons can be great fun, of course! Didn't actually go much farther in this one because the water got over our heads and I was too nervous about not being able to see what the sky was doing overhead. A storm had boomed through the area the night before.)

2) Don't drive your car across a wash, dry or running, if the weather threatens a storm. Even low levels of water can suck your tires into the mud, or quickly rise to levels that don't allow for escape. And if it's dry now, I can guarantee that it won't be shortly after if it starts to rain hard on you.

3) Stay high and dry. Stay away from low areas. Need I say more? *Note: but watch out for high areas if it's actively storming and lightning is striking. Oh, mama nature...

4) Keep your ears open if you are in a canyon, even on  bluebird day. If there's a storm far away or if it builds while you're in the canyon and you can't see it, flash floods will announce themselves with a sound akin to a freight train barreling down, or a jet plane passing about, oh, ten feet overhead. Floods are loud. You hear a sound like that where no such sounds should be, move. Fast. *Check out this video to see flash floods in action. Notice the deceptive blue sky above in many of the shots!*

Pretty basic stuff, but don't forget it. But also don't let all this scare you away either! Come visit, marvel at the gorgeous landscapes, explore. Just be safe when it's monsoon season in southern Utah's canyon country.


Friday, July 30, 2010

It's Thundering...Must be Summer

I love the midsummer thunderstorms we get here. They're huge, awesome, loud, rolling, drenching, dark, kind of scary sometimes. Looks like another great one is building right up this afternoon over the Boulder. If I get any good pictures I'll post them. I almost got out the other day during a big storm to see if anything was flashing that I might photograph, but that didn't pan out. It would be interesting to see a flash flood...from a very, very safe distance.

In the meantime, cruise over and check out my latest blog post for NileGuide, on the Top 5 Hidden Gems at Zion National Park. Any disagreements? Suggestions? Better local hidden gems? Shoot them my way. I'm always open to new things! (Well, within reason. Ha.)

Monday, April 05, 2010

and the seasons, they go round n' round...

Ah. So much, recently. Too much for here. But a few things in my life are as thus:

My Babcia, my grandmother, died on Good Friday. I think she would have been highly pleased by the fact that Pope John Paul II also died on Good Friday, five years ago. I'm not as happy at the moment. Of course, I want more time with her. Have recriminations. Wish some things had gone differently. Want to hug her one more time, take away the pain she had to endure during the last year or so, and see those magnificently blue eyes once again as she smiles at me with so much love. But what can I do? Not much except honor her memory, cherish her in my heart, remember her always, and see her lifeblood in my own hands and skin and body. And that's kind of cool. And that's also all I have to say about it right now.

My new blog has 9 posts on it now. Yowza! Much more than here, though those are very specific and not quite as, ah, rambling as some of my posts on here tend toward. Cruise over there if so inclined, leave a comment, and let me know what you think.

It is snowing here again today. Really! Complete whiteout earlier. A bit mind-boggling, really. Ah, springtime. In like a lion, etc. etc. Indeed. Matches my moods and situations from the past few months. Am I ever ready for some settling down and smoothing of the cruel, rough edges.

Peace, Babcia. Hope things are going well where you are. I know you're seeing Ronan now. And I definitely feel you with me.

Hug your grandmas, all. Really. Even if it's just from afar.

Friday, March 19, 2010

introducing a new blog!

I mentioned in another post that I would soon be sharing another blog with the world. (To be more precise, with all 14 of you faithful readers out there. Hee.) Anyway...drumroll please....

Introducing my NileGuide Blog! I am super stoked about this. The folks over at Nile Guide have been nothing but enthusiastic, helpful, fun, and supportive of their Local  Experts. (Such as moi. Hey, that's very cool, I just realized...I can put the word "expert" on my resume in an official capacity. Sweet!) My first post on it, Rollin' Through Bryce Canyon on a Fat Tire, just went live today. Again, very excited.

(photo courtesy of Tim Brink)

This blog, my Red  Rock Writer blog, of course is my much more personal one, the one of my heart and soul and angst and hope and despair and wondrous wide-eyed innocent in the world persona, and all that juicy human stuff. Love it! Hope you do, at times. Or at least find it mildly intriguing, inspiring, whatever comes to mind at the moment.

Ah, back to the grind now. I will be in an intensive course all next week and am anticipating much time spent studying. As opposed to blogging, writing, tweeting, facebooking, deadlining, and other life-y things. Sigh.

Happy Almost Spring, everyone! (That officially lands tomorrow. Wah-hoo!)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

when things fall apart...

...I feel like dogshit.

Sigh. This is going to be one of those personal posts, a revelation that I am indeed a human being, complete with warts, histrionics, bad temper, evil thoughts, tears, fears, helpless anger, and ridiculously faithful hope.

Beware: ramble ahead!

When I consider everything that I do, want to do, and set to myself as a goal, it occasionally crashes over me with an intensity that steals my breath and paralyzes my mind. I've been thinking lately about time management and quality of life. For me, much of my goal-setting revolves around my laptop and the world to be found online.

That artificial yet remarkably, achingly human and real place captures more and more of us. I don't think that's a bad thing, necessarily. But like anything, it can be used as a balm, an escape, a refuge from the present moment and place in which we actually live and take up physical space. Many, many people feel an overwhelming need to escape from life, to run and hide, duck and cover. Life can be horrifically brutal, cruel, unfair, and just terrifying. (And this comes from someone who has never lived in a war zone, never experienced true poverty, never been violated or brutalized.) Escape is something we often seek mindlessly.

Lately, I've been reading When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön. I'd heard her name for years, had friends who read her, had met her, aspired to Buddhist ideals and beliefs themselves. Months ago, I found this particular book in a used store and picked it up, knowing that someday, I would read it.

Now is that time.

When do things fall apart for us? In a universal sense, it is when we cannot cope or even assimilate, let alone accept, what is happening around us, “to” us, through us, from us, within us, from those we thought were our closest confidants and champions but who then seemed to betray us in the most soul-ripping manner possible.

According to Chödrön (thereby, according to Buddhism), when things fall apart is the most amazing, real, authentic time of our lives.

Much as it is very difficult for me to admit on occasion, she's quite right. Every time my life as I know it has fallen apart, the most shining truths have made themselves known to me with a sharp clarity that at first blinds, and then illuminates. And those were truths I no way could have seen or believed without the jaggedly painful experience of having my heart gouged and yanked right out of my chest, my soul attacked and battered, and my ego destroyed by a single uncaring glance.

Pain in the neck, that sort of thing, isn't it? But it's the way it is.

Partially in reaction to my recent falling apart, I have, of late, used my online communities as methods of escape, release, validation, liberation, commerce, time-sucks, focus, drive. None of these things are inherently “bad,” I don't think. But they don't necessarily always allow me to live my life out loud, in the moment, exuberant and free and HERE. Sure, often enough they do. People are real online! They are intimate and emotional. They invite us into their lives, reveal to us the microscopic details that create them and their days. I have experienced many genuine moments interacting, or merely “lurking,” in and with my communities.

And then, I shut off the laptop, turn off the ringer on the cell phone, walk out the door and right into my right here, right now life. Weather, smells, sounds, sights...the glorious, amazing, shocking, gorgeous physical world. And although that life is what I often tweet, chat, blog, talk about, it's also real life, which I believe can never be truly explained online. Real life: gritty, dirty, full of mistakes and recriminations, exposing the real me, not the me I present myself as being in my online universe. I like to think these two me's are the same, of course, but anyone who spends enough time in the online world knows that, as with all else, it's about presenting a face of you that does not always include the base realities.

My grandmother, my Babcia, of whom I'm written about here before, is back in the hospital. She has been in and out of them for years, but most especially the last 16 months. She just got home from another hospital stay the other night, and then scared my mom and aunt badly enough again that the doctors said to take her back to the ER. My grandmother has gone back and forth from basically unresponsive, to aware, to unresponsive again. Will she be awake and aware and alert again, "permanently," whatever that might mean? I really don't know. Is the whole situation around her, is she, a part of my real life that doesn't make it into my public persona, my public face? Yes. Because it is gritty, and sad, and not what people necessarily want to hear. And it is terribly personal, and a story that I cannot claim as my own; it's her story, even though it affects me also. But it's also a very human story, no?

Then there is my life here, at home in Utah. My gritty, sometimes ugly, sometimes cruel, sometimes painful, always real life here. In one of the most beautiful spots on Earth, no less! This past year has been one of tremendous learning for me. Things I believed to be real and true turned out to be false, full of lies and anger and indifference that covers a pain so deep I don't know if it will ever be realized and embraced and thereby broken free of. And this was from someone else, not from me, yet it affected me so strongly that I am reeling still. Things did indeed fall apart for me! Am I grateful? In some ways, yes, I honestly am. I like the fact that I am more involved in my online world. I like the fact that I am committed more to my writing now. I like the fact that this latest falling apart of my life here has caused me to go deeper, to read things like the Pema Chödrön book. This latest instance of when things fall apart forced me to become just that little bit more real and compassionate. Just a bit, but I'll take it.

And in some ways, I still seek escape. Of course, I will ultimately soldier on and all that. I refuse to hide forever. I refuse to shirk the world, my life, my loved ones, my goals, myself. Even when it seems much easier to simply yank that old wool right back over my eyes.

I guess all I'm saying is, I'm still here. And I am grateful for that, no matter what it means.


Monday, March 08, 2010

holy snowfall, batman

Wow. We are getting hammered here in southern Utah! I woke up yesterday morning to five fresh inches...which mostly melted by afternoon, leaving a soupy, muddy bentonite mess out there. Went on a walk with Pip and we slogged through much muck. My NEOs are still in my truck, wrapped in plastic and by-now-hardened red mud.

So imagine my, ah, surprise when I got up this morning, staggered out into the living room, and beheld outside--yet another winter wonderland. Totally amazing. Gorgeous. Breathtaking. Very photo-worthy! The branches of the trees are dripping with snow loads, all the mud is again covered in white, and the sun rising over the Henry Mountains is shooting lovely angles of light over it all.

Must say, it is somewhat unusual for this area, in my admittedly short experience here. (I mean, I've only been here ten years. Can't compete with the old, old-timers who croak, "Why, the winter of '55 was just huge, I tell you!") But apparently this is an effect of the La Niña weather pattern. I'll take it, for sure. Our water tables will be very full, our wildflowers will be utterly astounding this spring, no water shortages to worry about this year. me more time to get out skiing at one of the southern resorts.

Ah, pretty pretty out there. About to head into Capitol Reef to snap some pics with my photographer neighbor. If I get any good ones I'll post them later.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

get out into the snow

Winter Hiking Tips & Tricks 101

Hiking in the winter? In snow? In cold? Can you even find the trail?

Yes, yes, yes, and (sometimes) yes. Really! And you don't even have to be Davy Crockett. The key, however, is to do it the old-fashioned way: using your two personal sherpas, otherwise known as your legs. Wintertime exploration on foot is a sublime experience. Why?

1) Unlike a ski resort, you won't get plowed down by an out-of-control novice snowboarder or pay an exorbitant amount for lift tickets.

2) Snowmobiling may take you farther into the backcountry, but its noise pollution can ruin the experience not only for you but others, including Bambi and Thumper.

3) Amazing exercise. You thought just hiking was tough? Try hiking through snowdrifts. As someone I knew once put it, that's a major ass-blaster. (Snowshoeing is a fabulous way to go, as I've recently rediscovered.)

4) Best bonus? Seeing the landscape in a way few will.

Safety considerations are paramount, of course. We all like to come back alive and whole from our adventures. Here are a few of my favorite pieces of wintertime hiking advice.

1) Dress warmly, but don't go for overkill. Layering is key. Too many layers, however, and you'll head out feeling like that Stay Puft Marshmallow dude. Which means you'll quickly get too warm, which means sweat, which means ultimately really cold when it dries on your skin! I like to wear a synthetic (remember, “cotton kills”) long john top as my first layer, then a fleece pullover, then a down vest, then a waterproof outer layer. For the lower half, I again go for synthetic long john bottoms, then jeans, usually Carhartts. (Yes, I know I just said cotton kills, and wet jeans will definitely make you an unhappy hiker. I'm used to it and can take care of myself. If you're not an experienced winter hiker, don't do it!) If, however, I'm snowshoeing and likely to fall down in deep drifts (yes, I am that coordinated) or it's actively snowing, I'll wear waterproof outer pants instead. Note: if it's sunny and warmish, those are already too many layers! Layer down just a bit in that circumstance. But keep those layers with you if you suspect the weather may change during your trip.

(Notice my NEOs--New England Overshoes--which keep my tootsies and boots inside dry and warm. Also, my très excellent snowshoes)

2) Water. Yeah, on a cold day you think you won't want water. Sorry, your body needs it no matter what. And when you're hiking through snow, you're working out, which means you'll eventually dehydrate if you don't replenish. Your best bet in chilly outdoor conditions is a hydration system that includes an insulated drinking tube. Camelbak, which makes a lot of stuff I use, has some good cold-weather options. Such a hydration system also often comes pack-style, which means places for you to stash those pesky extra layers when you start to get your heart pumping.

3) Ye olde trail mix. For some, good old gorp is outdated. But you can make your own yummy & instantly fueling mix from just about anything, as long as it gives you a bit of energy just at that moment when you're about to bonk (not that kind of bonking, folks. I mean the kind where your blood sugar is hurtling straight down to your toes). And of course there are dozens of energy bar brands on the market, as well as various energy goos and gels (this concept makes some, such as yours truly, a bit ill). My current energy boost of choice? Shot Bloks by Clifbar. (Beware, however, if they harden a bit from the cold and you have dental work in your mouth! Could be asking for trouble unless you let them warm up in your pocket first.)

4) Map. Compass. GPS. Directions. Companion who knows where the heck s/he is. Frankly, I wouldn't rely solely on any sort of GPS...satellites aren't necessarily receptive right when you need them to be, and batteries can and do die. Having map & compass skills is still a great thing for outdoor messing around, even in our highly technological age.

5) Pace yourself. Slogging through snow can be way tougher than you're used to. Trust me, you'll get wiped out much sooner than you'd expect. Usually can hike four miles no problem? Aim for two in the snow, and don't be surprised if it takes you as long as or even longer than a snowless excursion with more mileage.

6) Um, tell someone where you're going! If nothing else, scribble a note to put on the dash of your car. Last-minute itinerary changes have been the downfall of many, even experienced outdoorsy types. You may feel silly, but better silly than frozen and undiscovered out in the wilderness for months. Seriously. There are also cool little devices on the market that can help searchers find you should you fail to return at a pre-designated time.

7) Favorite tip: take a dog. Your own, or borrow one. They love it so much, they make snow hikes that much more fun. (Just make sure your dog is at least as fit as you are. Hiking in snow is tough on them too.) And who knows, maybe they'll play Lassie for you if you make a mistake and end up wandering in circles.

Have at your snowy adventure, be safe, and enjoy your winter wonderland adventuring. I know I sure do.