Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Trek America Day 14 & 15: Betty & Rusty's Cowboy Camp and Monument Valley

The last two days have been an experience that's for sure.  It began, as all good days should do, with a stop at In and Out Burger for lunch.  I have heard a lot about this burger chain and it has a sort of cult status, much like Five Guys and Shake Shack, but as far as I'm aware there's no In and Out in the UK.  The menu is very simple, either a hamburger, cheese burger or double burger, plus fries and drink.  I ordered a cheeseburger "animal style" which comes with onions on top, with fries and an iced tea.  Note: iced tea doesn't come out of the machine iced, you have to add ice and lemon and sugar yourself otherwise you'll end up with a cup of luke warm tea like I did. Numpty.
The burger was very good, much jucier than McDonalds and more filling. I do prefer maccy d fries though. The burger was also much less plasticy than a maccy d.  Review over.
We arrived at Betty and Rusty's in the early afternoon.  It was very hot so we didn't bother putting up tents, we had a quick scoot round our new home (portaloo toilet, picnic benches and a ramshackle wooden hut for cover) then got ready for the horse trek.  I had to change horses because they couldn't find a saddle with stirrups that went short enough for me, but it worked in my favour as the horse I ended up on was gorgeous and very well behaved, unlike some of the others who kept stopping to eat every bush we rode past.  The stirrups were still a bit long still though and at the end of the ride I had very sore knees to accompany my sore arse.
The ride was beautiful, up through desert hills surrounded by Saguaro cacti, some of which were hundreds of years old and were heights of 15-20 metres.   It was very peaceful and relaxing and a really nice way to take in the surroundings. My only complaint was that we went at a very slow pace and it would have been nice to go a little bit faster for the people who'd ridden before.  One of the cowboys we were out with wasn't particularly sympathetic to the first time riders either which was a shame as it probably made their experience less fun.
The trek was around 2 hours and we returned hungry, hot and sweaty.  Betty had cooked up a huge feast of the massivest steak I'd seen in my life, with bread, salad, potato and salsa, and a ridiculously hot but tasty home made sauce.  We ate steak, drank beer, sang by the fire and fell asleep. We hadn't bothered putting up the tents as it was so hot. There was some debate as to where to lay our heads and some opted for outside but I'd seen frogs and ants as big as my little finger (maybe some exaggeration) so I decided to sleep in the wooden hut, others slept by the fire and some in an old wagon.  We fell asleep to the sounds of coyotes and horses.
In the morning I woke up to "shit, where's my shoe".  The dogs had stolen Sun and Simon's trainers and Sun had to wander about with odd shoes on looking for the lost trainers which was amusing.  He found them eventually, smelly with dog drool. 
Betty had made us a huge cowboy breakfast, scrambled eggs (I liked these ones!), potato hash, biscuits and gravy, and of course the home made spicy sauce to go with the eggs.  These biscuits were much less salty than the Cracker Barrel ones and I much preferred them.  The gravy was made of milk, flour and sausages and was delicious, perfect for the morning after a night of beer.  
The beauty of sleeping under the stars/in a shed means no packing down of tents so we were ready to leave nice and quickly ready for our drive to Monument Valley.
We left at 8ish and arrived at 4ish with a couple of rest stops in between. 
Monument Valley is a reservation owned by the Navajo tribe.  They have a fairly tumultuous history and due to past wars tjat I don't know enough about now own and govern the land that Monument Valley can be found in.
I used up all my GCSE English creative writing skills in the Big Bend post so I am at a loss as to how to describe Monument Valley. (You'd never have guessed I have a degree in English Language would you) Instead here are some words to describe it: breathtaking, surreal, orange, red, sandy, alien, a geologists dream. 
We were staying the night in the middle of the park, down dirt tracks so we couldn't take the trailer.  We packed an overnight bag and hopped into an open backed Jeep ready for our tour of the valley.
Our guide, Jasper, was brilliant. Witty and knowledgeable and a crazy driver, he pointed out all of the rocks (buttes) and the stories behind them.  Every now and then he'd floor the Jeep down hills and round bends making everyone whoop.  We stopped to play on rocks, race down sand dunes and observe ancient cave drawings. 
We clambered out the jeep at the Big Hogan, so called because it's a large cave with a hole in the top, resembling a hogan (a mud/wood igloo type hut where the Navajo would sleep).  The rock at the base was slanted so we lay on it, dug our feet in the sand and Jasper played his flute, which sounded beautiful as it echoed round the cave.  Trippy.  Another stop was at the ledge where John Wayne rode his horse.  There's a man with a horse there now and you can pay him 5 bucks to sit on the horse and have your photo taken.
The place is really magical and fascinating.  Millions of years ago it was all under water but the tectonic plates it lies on moved and clashed together, forcing one plate up and onto the other, so the area moved up above sea level.  Over hundreds of years the sandstone rock has been eroded by the wind and rain to create the shapes we see now.  My particular favourite was the one called the sleeping giant, it reminded me of my stepdad Tim!
The tour probably lasted around 3 hours then we headed back to camp for a hearty dinner of Navajo Tacos.  These are different to your usual taco and I think I prefer them.  The taco is a plate shaped piece of fried dough which is topped with chili, cheese and salad.  It was filling and delicious and even beat our resident vulture Jisu, who nearly always has seconds and sometimes thirds and will happily polish off everyone's leftovers.  He is also skinny!
Pudding was smores round the campfire.  I felt like I was in a Judy Bloom novel, it was great.  I kept setting fire to my marshmallows, oops. We chilled round the fire for a few hours before heading to bed, a sleepover in the hogan.  Probably the coolest place I've ever slept, a dome shaped wood structure covered in compacted red mud, with a stove in the middle and a sky light in the top.  We were warned of the skin walkers, an ancient Navajo belief that shape shifters will steal your soul and put it into an animal.  If this happens you only have 4 days to live.  This horror story combined with the large centpiede I saw in the hogan before bed meant I didn't get the greatest sleep, plus the stove kept the hogan VERY toasty and I was sweating buckets in my sleeping bag which was done up to the top to save me from skin walkers and centipedes.  Such a baby.  This was the first time in the trip we'd all slept in the same room and Sarah ended up sleeping outside, describing our combined noises as a "symphony of hippos".  This made me laugh and considering we hadn't showered in a few days we probably smelt like a bunch of hippos too!! I've been purposefully standing as close to the fire as possible to make myself smell of smoke.
Ben woke us up in the morning in time for the sunrise.  We've become accustomed to early starts and operate a slick camp pack up machine.  We ate a breakfast of cereal as we watched the sun make its slow ascent over the giant rocks.  It was stunning and the rocks glow a beautiful orange when the sun hits it.
We had one last crazy drive up to the visitor centre which definitely woke us up, before heading back on the road.
We made a quick pit stop at the point where Forrest Gump stops his running (I'm going to rewatch this when I get home. I haven't seen it in yonks) and now we're on our way to the Grand Canyon.  This has been on my bucket list for years so I am VERY excited to cross it off!

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Trek America Day 12 & 13: White Sands & Tombstone

Another long drive to White Sands National Monument in New Mexico.  A monument is a bit like a state park however for an area to be a state park, it must be passed through congress, whereas a monument can ve passed by a President. 
We set up our tents in a lovely campground called Oliver Lee Memorial, then headed off to Walmart for a supermarket sweep for lunch and dinner ingredients. 
Afterwards we drove to the White Sands which was SO MUCH FUN.  At the visitor centre you can buy shallow buckets that you can then use to slide down the sand dunes.  It's funny the ability that sand has to turn us into big kids!!
There were miles and miles of bright white sand dunes, it was pretty spectacular.   We found a big hill and had some races, and generally messed about in the sand, taking silly photos and doing yoga and gymnastics.  Surprisingly the sand is very cool so luckily there's no hot footing it across the dunes like you get on the beach. 
After a couple of hours the sun set and we headed back to camp, via Domino's, nom.
The following morning we packed up (we've become a slick tent packing up machine) and headed onto our next destination, Tombstone in Arizona. 
This place is very weird.  A small town from a bygone era, it's a huge tourist trap but it is very cool.  Wide streets lined with a boardwalk and authentic saloons and shops selling wild wild west tat.  People wander round dressed up as cowboys and saloon girls.  We bought tickets to the OK Corral gun show at $10 each, which was so bad it was good.  A half hour reenactment of the famous Tombstone gun fight where 3 men were killed in 30 seconds.  There was a lot of gunfire and each time they went off I would curse as it was very loud and never failed to make me jump.
We wandered the town a bit but to be honest apart from getting your photo taken dressed as a cowboy or drinking in a saloon there's not much to do, and we had plenty of beer back at camp so we sat in the sun and drank beer for a few hours. 
After dinner we headed out to one of the saloon bars for a drink.  In America they don't measure spirits so my G&T was mostly G.  Fine by me!  I got hit on by a 40 year old truck driver who lived in a trailer park.  Nice to know I've still got it.  
We headed onto a karaoke bar we'd spotted earlier which was filled with old men and women pretending to be cowboys.  They were also all really good at karaoke.  However they were no match for Daniel and I's rendition of Roxanne.  We murdered it.  
This morning we had a bit of a lie in then stopped by the Boothill cemetery, where all the town's cowboys are buried.
We're now on our way to Betty and Rusty's cowboy camp in North Arizona, and after that Monument Valley to stay with the Navajo.  There's no showers or proper toilets for two days, no power and no WiFi. Back to basics! It's also 35° outside, balmy!

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Trek America Day 10 & 11: Big Bend National Park, Texas

Day 9 was mainly spent in the van, driving from San Antonio to Big Bend National Park.  It was a 414 mile drive taking over 7 hours, with a few pit stops thrown in.  We also had to go through border control, where we were all made to get out of the van and show our passports and answer a few questions about where we landed etc.  Ben said this was quite unusual and usually they take a brief glimpse at the passports and let him on his merry way.  We must look like a motley crue!

The park is beautiful, mainly long flat roads flanked either side by vibrant purple, white and yellow desert flowers, cacti and green shrubs, and in the distance rising up before you is a huge never ending horizon of rocky mountains.  As we neared the campsite we climbed elevation and my ears popped, the rocky mountains suddenly weren't in the horizon any longer and we were within the belly of them, reminding me of a much yellower and hotter and less jagged Llanberis Pass. 

Big Bend is over 800,000 acres of massive canyons, desert, forested mountains and river scapes in the bottom of Texas, on the border of Mexico.  Early explorers called the area El Despoblado, the uninhabited land, as it was so remote and wild.  It is called Big Bend as it is along the curve of the Rio Grande river, which provides a natural border between Mexico and the US.  The area rises up over 7000 feet in the Chisos Mountains from the Rio Grande at 1,800 feet. 

We arrived eager to put up our tents and get settled in to our camp grounds.  The tents are simple enough to put up, little A frame 2 man tents.  We were camping on rocks and stones so I was super happy I had decided to borrow Kim's self inflatable mattress, as the sleeping mats that Trek provide aren't the thickest.  Thanks Kim!! After tent construction we cooked a spaghetti bolognaise dinner and chilled out, watching the sun set and the stars come out.  Big Bend has one of the darkest skies in the country due to low levels of light and air pollution, and I don't think I've ever seen so many stars, the sky was glittering with them.  We spent some time spotting constellations (my offering was Orion's belt, knowledge I acquired from Men In Black. Who says Hollywood isn't educational!), bear proofed the camp ground (everything scented, including food and toiletries, goes into a locker) and went to bed. 

I sleep on my side so it isn't the most comfortable even with two sleeping mats, but I managed to get some sleep until the wind woke us all up at 3 am.  I almost thought a hurricane had hit but logic told me Ben would have evacuated us by this point so I just shoved my earplugs in further and tried to ignore the tent sides flapping in my face and the gusts of wind blowing through the tent. 

We woke in the morning to find the tents still in place and everyone accounted for, but with no sunrise yet the place is freezing and the wind still howling.  I put my shorts on and then pull my leggings over the top as it's pretty nippy compared to yesterday's balmy 30 degrees. We had a hearty breakfast (2 nutella covered bagels for me.... and I wonder where my spare tyre is coming from) and set off for our activity of the day - hiking Mt Emory Peak.  This is the highest mountain in the Chisos range and stands at 7,832 feet.  Our campground is already quite high up so we are actually only climbing 2,400ft which is still pretty good going.  It's a beautiful 10.5 mile round trip that takes us just over 5 hours to complete, including breaks and a half hour lunch stop at the top.  The first mile is the hardest as we're all pretty sleepy and our bodies cold, but once we warm up it gets easier.  Pretty sure I'm the only one panting like I'm having an asthma attack though!! 

The trail up is well marked and mainly rocky pathways and some steps where it's particularly steep.  All around is rock and cactus and more rock and cactus and as we climb higher and turn corners the views get more and more spectacular.  We spot a few deer and some beautiful Mexican Jays, crow sized birds with a gorgeous chalky blue colour and an inquisitive face.

The last part of the trail is a 100mtr scramble that involves some light rock climbing, something that petrifies and thrills me in equal measure.   The adage of "don't look down" was never truer here and I made the mistake of looking and then feeling immediately sick at what looks like a vertical drop to my right. 

However we all made it to the top safe and sound, and once I'd stopped feeling sick at the height, began to eat lunch.  Not a bad lunch spot! You can see a 360° view of the Chisos Basin and it's endless.  Lunch on top of the world! 

As usually happens the trek down was much easier and faster and we headed back to the campsite tired but happy.  I really enjoyed the scramble at the top of the mountain and it reminded me of the one me and Amy did in Thailand.  I want to do more scrambling when I get back to the UK if anyone wants to join me!!

We rested at camp for a while then cooked an early dinner, it was mine, Simon and Sun's turn and we had decided to do a chili con carne which turned out pretty well considering it was all cooked on camping stoves.  This trip has been a bit of a camping revelation for me!
After dinner, Ben knew of some hot springs about an hours drive away so we elected to go there (this campsite has no showers so a dip in a hot spring sounded like bliss.  As a side note, given than none of us had showered in 2 days and had just done a 10 mile hike in 20° heat, we didn't smell that bad considering).

The springs were magical.  Located by the side of the Rio Grande river, the walk from the car park to the spring led you down a sandy pathway, flanked one side by a huge layered sandstone cliff, formed in such a way it would please anyone who loves geometrics, all lines and jutting out triangles.  On the other side was bright green grass and reeds, and beyond that the river.  I felt like I was walking in Egypt beside the Nile rather than in Texas.  

There is an opening to the right and you stumble upon an infinity pool of warm water, sitting above the river. The spring was discovered years ago and some enterprising individual had built a brick pool to separate it from the main river but it went out of business a long time ago, and is now a free for all.  A foot below the pool was the rushing Rio Grande, and half way across the river was the Mexican border.

There were 2 couples in the spring when we arrived, who both looked slightly crestfallen at having to share the pool with a bunch of youths, but we were very nice to them and struck up conversations with them.  One of the best things about travel is meeting new people and they all seem to have interesting stories to tell.  One of the couples was drinking wine from water bottles which seemed a fabulous idea.  They'd retired and were working their way around all of America's National Parks.  The male of the other couple looked and sounded Mexican and I had a romantic theory that he swam across the river every evening to meet his American partner every night in the hot spring. 

You can climb over the ledge and lower yourself into the cold water of the Rio Grande, so you can almost get the full spa experience.  We wallowed in the warm sandy water for an hour or so until dusk, then headed back to camp, warm and clean and very much ready for bed.  We collapsed in our tents and I think we all got a good and well deserved sleep!

I took billions of photos but WiFi is patchy so will only upload a few. Check out my Instagram for more pics (if I can get them to upload!)