This is a re-post of my very first blog post, written in July 2016. I’ve been thinking recently about solitude and the precise way my soul feels when I’m outside in these wide open spaces, and it seemed timely to share this piece again.
My life in Utah really began in Wyoming. As I’d driven across the country from Vermont westward, I passed through a lot of familiar territory. The densely forested mountains of New England, the flat lakes and streams of the Great Lakes states, and the endless farm fields of the Plains.
I was headed west toward a new kind of adventure: to make a life with a man I’d been dating. I’d moved across the country before, made my home in towns across oceans, spoken foreign languages, and started new jobs. That kind of change I was used to. Cohabitation was a new sort of challenge.
Around 10am on my third day on the road, I crossed the border from Nebraska into Wyoming, and the fog lifted, literally. (I’d been driving through dense fog on I-90 for going on two hours).
Something was different. The green fields had disappeared and given way to browns and oranges, dust and rock. There was space, but also dimension. Jagged patterns zigzagged up cliff sides. Meandering washes ran in opposition to the horizontal power lines marching clear across the land; man trying to make order among chaotic wildness.
I had no prior experience with Wyoming except what I’d read in Gretel Ehrlich’s “The Solace of Open Spaces” in my junior year AP Language class. Even then, 13 years earlier, the landscape had spoken to me. Hazy memories of passages I’d admired as a teenager rose to the surface as I rolled along at 80 miles per hour.
Wyoming seems to be the doing of a mad architect—tumbled and twisted, ribboned with faded, deathbed colors, thrust up and pulled down as if the place had been startled out of a deep sleep and thrown into a pure light.” – Ehrlich
These words had imprinted themselves inside of me over the years; the images that they conjured became sacred. Wyoming felt like familiar territory before I ever arrived.
After stopping for gas at a rest stop, a curious urge made me check the deep pocket behind my passenger seat. By something I can only call fate, the book was there, every dog-eared, highlighted, and notated page. I’d loaned it to my boyfriend a year earlier and must have never gotten around to re-shelving it. The fact that it happened to be in my car as I was moving all of my belongings across the country felt like a small miracle.
I sat in the car and thumbed through the slim volume, my eyes landing on passages I’d highlighted simply for the elegance of the prose. I perused descriptions of the Wyoming landscape and confirmed with my own eyes that they were, indeed, exactly as portrayed. I re-read cultural criticisms, contemplating them while looking out onto the biggest blue sky I’d ever seen.
We Americans are great on fillers, as if what we have, what we are, is not enough. We have a cultural tendency toward denial, but, being affluent, we strangle ourselves with what we can buy. We have only to look at the houses we build to see how we build against space, the way we drink against pain and loneliness. We fill up space as if it were a pie shell, with things whose opacity further obstructs our ability to see what is already there.” – Ehrlich
After a time, I knew I had to get moving. As much as I wanted to sit and read all morning, the gas station parking lot was neither the time nor the place. I had a destination, and a man was waiting for me in Utah that evening.
I made my way across the state, past oil rigs and soaring cliffs and miles of sagebrush. I entered Utah and continued over mountain passes, past pines and reservoirs and open ranch land. This wild west was to be my new home. I wasn’t sure what I’d discover there, but with all of the open space laid out before me, I had an inkling it’d be good.
In the four years since I moved to Utah, every so often my dad would mention, “I’d really like to go camping in the Uinta mountains. We should do a backpacking trip there.”
At first I thought it was one of those comments akin to “I’d like to visit Antarctica someday” or “Gosh, it’d be great to hike the PCT.” It’s a big trip you aspire to but never really get around to actually planning and executing.
At some point I concluded that this wasn’t just a passing interest, and my dad really did want to go backpacking in the Uintas. After looking at calendars and guessing on the best weather window, we decided on the first week of August.
I was going backpacking with my dad.
If you think I’m some sort of backpacking expert, you’d be wrong. I’d only been backpacking for two nights total (on two separate occasions) prior to this adventure. Now, in some weird way, I felt like I was in charge of my dad’s safety and well-being. What if he got lost, contracted giardia, or was mauled by a bear? How would I explain that to my mom?
Luckily, there’s almost nothing you can’t resolve with a list, so I started planning.
First thing’s first: Gear
I had my own backpacking stuff, but what about gear for my dad? Luckily our local REI rents just about anything you can imagine, so I put down a deposit on a lightweight sleeping bag and an Osprey pack. We borrowed other items like a sleeping pad and trekking poles from my boyfriend, and we were all set with the basics.
Instead of two single person tents, we opted to split the weight of the North Face Stormbreak 3tent that I already own. While I don’t think I’ve slept that close to my dad since I was a youngster, it was roomy enough that we didn’t feel cramped.
Finding the Perfect Site
I was a little worried about the trail difficulty in the Uintas, considering many trails are around 10,000 feet elevation and we’d both have heavy packs on our backs. I wanted a trail that was long enough that we couldn’t run back to the car if we forgot something, but it also needed to be flat enough that my flatlander dad could handle it.
A few weeks before our trip, I happened upon the trail to Notch Lake, a nice 2-mile walk on mostly flat terrain to a beautiful alpine lake. There were plenty of campsites around the lake and a trail that continued on to Bench Lake and beyond. It seemed to check all of the boxes, so I quickly decided it would be our destination.
Getting the Timing Right
I’d already advised my dad to come in August, thinking this would be our best weather window to avoid both snow and mosquitoes. It rains fairly often in the Uintas, so I figured we couldn’t avoid that, but we got lucky and it was dry the entire time we were there.
We also planned to do our trip on a Sunday through Tuesday to try and avoid weekend campers. In this respect, it was the right move, and we only saw two other parties during our 48 hours in the backcountry. As we hiked in on Sunday, we passed multiple large parties of people hiking out, which makes me think that Notch Lake is a pretty bumpin’ camping spot on summer weekends.
Let’s Go Camping Already!
After all the planning, packing, and praying to the weather gods, we headed out from the trailhead in good spirits. It took us about an hour to get to the lake, where we busied ourselves setting up camp.
One of the best decisions we made was to pack in two ENO hammocks, even though they added to our pack weight.We spent a good chunk of time each day laying in the hammocks, just enjoying the silence (and lack of cell phone reception).
I’d been worried about how we’d fill our time during the second day at the lake, but I really don’t remember having any moment where I was bored. We went on a short hike to Bench Lake after breakfast and explored the cliffs near our camp site. We also spent more time that I expected filtering water. (The Sawyer Mini filter is small and light, but doesn’t filter a ton of water quickly.) We sat on the lake shore and watched the sun come up and later go down, sharing stories and memories and recounting past outdoor adventures.
What’s for Dinner?
Remember how I said it was really dry? As we drove into the park, the sign listed the fire danger as “Extreme”. Not wanting to be forever known as those jerks who burned down the Uintas, we decided to skip the campfires and use our Jetboil stove for cooking. To make things even easier, we picked up a bunch of dehydrated meals at REI before heading out.
Things I learned: Mountain House beats Backpacker’s Pantry, hands down. The Backpacker’s Pantry meals often ended up watery (even after letting them sit double the time listed on the package, which was recommended for campers at 10,000 feet). Mountain House was reliably tasty every time. Even things like biscuits and gravy, which you wouldn’t expect to be good rehydrated ever, were surprisingly flavorful and filling.
The freeze-dried meals made cooking and cleanup really easy, and while I was definitely looking forward to real food once we got back to the car, it was just fine for two days.
Don’t Forget the Wildlife.
Our first morning at the lake I woke up earlier than my dad, and after puttering about camp making some coffee, I walked toward the long spit of land that jutted out into the middle of the lake. I then started walking in the other direction along the shoreline, toward a large rocky cliff band at the end of the lake.
At some point, a small noise made me turn my head, and I instantly noticed a large, white mammal following in my footsteps. I took a quick photo before I realized this mountain goat was not on a leisurely walk; in fact, it was picking up speed as it headed in my direction.
I was able to scramble away from the shore and watch in awe as it galloped past me. One reaching the cliff, it turned and made its way up the scree slope, headed back up to its rocky refuge.
The next morning I kept my eyes glued to that spot, hopeful the mountain goat would make an encore appearance so my dad could also get a glimpse. Alas, it must have decided to go elsewhere that day for its morning stroll.
So instead we watched the sun rise over the lake, illuminating the cliffs and warming the chilly air. We drank tea and savored the silence and soaked up the final hours of our trip. Life that morning was good.
Do One Thing is an occasional series based on the well-known idea: “do one thing everyday that scares you”. These posts will explore fear and the subsequent outcome of trying something new.
On day two of ski lessons, my instructor took us up the Becker lift to ski down one of the resort’s few green runs. It dropped us off halfway up the mountain, and at that moment, 1,300 vertical feet stood between me and the bunny hill I’d been practicing on that morning.
To help matters, another girl in my group told me a story about how she’d broken her leg during a ski lesson the year before. What was I doing up here? I could glide down the 200 foot tall bunny hill with my skis pointed together in a pizza shape, but the steep and narrow path before me was overwhelming.
As I made my way down the run, snowboarders whizzed past. One clipped me from behind and I lost my balance, falling to the ground. Later I skied straight into a snowbank on the side of the path, unable to stop myself. The run alternated between hard, icy snow and sharp, narrow turns with steep drop offs. Eventually, the bunny hill appeared in front of me. I’d made it down without breaking my leg, crashing into someone else, or dying. Success?
When I met my boyfriend in the lodge for lunch, he asked how my lesson was going. I burst into tears.
Several months earlier, I’d decided I wanted to learn how to ski. I’d lived for three years in one of the country’s top ski destinations and many of my friends here adore the sport. Since coming to Utah, I’d learned how to rock climb, go on backpacking trips, and run half marathons. Each of these endeavors was challenging but enjoyable, and I assumed skiing would be no different.
After doing some research, I decided on a package for beginner skiers at Snowbasin resort. For around $450, I’d get three group lessons, my own rental equipment for the season, and a season pass to the resort once I finished my lessons. Considering a day pass to most resorts costs upwards of $100, it sounded like a pretty good deal.
My lessons progressed slowly, and while I was able to get myself down the bunny hill, mastering any sort of technique was not happening. My instructors tried their best, but in the end I simply needed way more practice time than three days allowed.
By the time I finished my three lessons, I still didn’t feel comfortable going down Becker again. I felt defeated.
But it was only January, and the ski season stretched out before me. My boyfriend had picked it up quickly and was already enjoying more difficult terrain. Meanwhile, I was getting sick of forcing myself to take laps on the tiny bunny hill. During the week, my skis sat at the door of our apartment, a constant reminder that I needed to keep practicing if I wanted to get better.
While voicing my frustration to a friend who regularly skis steep backcountry peaks, she told me about a deal at Alta ski resort. For just $30, I could ski all season on the beginner runs after 3pm. She invited me to join her the next day for a change of scenery.
We headed up the Sunnyside lift into Albion basin. From the top of the lift, only the mountains were visible. No parking lots, no lodges, just snow-covered, jagged peaks. There are several green runs from the top of the lift, so we chose one and started down.
Even though my technique hadn’t improved much since that first terrifying run down Becker, the whole experience felt completely different. The runs were wide and flat, with only small hill sections and no drop offs. I felt in control, and there was enough space to correct my mistakes without causing damage to myself or anyone else. Plus, it was beautiful up there.
I started going to Alta as much as I could. Yes, there were still days when I left after just one run because of hard snow conditions. Yes, I still fell over sometimes, and the steep parts were still a bit unnerving.
But overall, it didn’t feel as daunting. I became familiar with all the runs, and I even started to turn my skis parallel every once in awhile. Ever so slowly, my technique was beginning to improve.
One of the last days up on the mountain turned into an unexpected powder day. It had been snowing all day and it kept coming down, making each run better than the last. It was like my skis were gliding through butter, and everything felt how I imagined skiing was supposed to feel.
At one point, I started down an ungroomed hill, got bogged down in a foot of loose snow, and lost my ski. As I sat in the snow laughing and searching for my ski, I realized this was the most fun I’d had skiing all season. Maybe it could be fun. Maybe all those people who wake up at 5am for dawn patrol were on to something after all.
As the season wrapped up, I realized that if I hadn’t joined a program that gave me all-season access to lifts and gear, I probably wouldn’t have kept trying. After that second lesson, I’m sure I would have given up and headed inside. Yet walking past my skis every day, and knowing I could continue practicing without paying a dime, made me keep driving to the lifts, putting on my skis, and heading up the mountain.
I ended this ski season with mixed feelings, but mostly I’m grateful for the opportunity to have learned something new. Do I feel totally comfortable on skis after 15 days on the mountain? Not a bit. But I’ve gotten a taste for what it could be like if I keep at it, and maybe that’s enough.
I’d already done a few short hikes around Yellowstone with my parents before my mom asked, “So what do you keep in that backpack, anyway?”
She was referring to my little black daypack (the REI Flash 22 Pack), which comes along with me on any hike I take, from a couple miles to long day treks.
It was a good question. Before I started hiking in the mountains and the desert, I didn’t bring along much at all. Maybe some water or a snack, or an extra layer if we were going to be out for awhile.
But after moving to Utah, I learned that hiking in remote and rugged spaces was a bit different than the short walks I’d gone on through the woods in Wisconsin. Weather can change in an instant, with storms rolling in unannounced. Elevation change creates big enough temperature differences that I can start out hiking in a tank top and need a warm jacket an hour later.
Not to mention that many of these spaces are pretty remote, and getting off trail might mean not finding another trail, road, or person for quite some time. It most definitely pays to be prepared.
The Ten Essentials
Most outdoor organizations have some variation on The Ten Essentials, the things you need — at a minimum — to safely hike in the wilderness. REI has a great post explaining what each of these essentials are, why they’re important, and some examples from each category. I’ve definitely used lists like these in the past when deciding what to bring on my own hikes.
So what’s in my pack? These days, I keep my bag ready for a hike, so I only have to throw in a few extras any time I hit the trail. I’ve divided out what I bring under each of the “essential” categories, with a few extras that don’t really fall under any category.
Map or guidebook
Learn how to use a compass if you’re going to bring one! I took a REI class on how to use a compass, and while it was just an overview, it helped me feel confident in reading a map and getting myself back to civilization if needed.
Sun (and bug) protection
Chapstick (SPF 15)
Insect repellent (when necessary)
These things are essential at higher elevations! It’s easy to get burned when you’re hiking at 10,000 feet, so make sure to apply your sunscreen before hitting the trail.
Puffy coat or extra layer
Hat + gloves (depending on the temperature)
Rain coat (again, depending on weather)
Weather can change quickly, and there’s nothing worse than hiking in the cold without proper apparel. Make sure you have a warm layer available in case the temperature drops.
I also love my buff, which is so versatile. It can be used as a head covering or a neck gaiter in the cold, a headband when it’s warm, or it can be soaked in water and then worn to cool off on a hot day.
You never know when you’ll be finishing a hike in the dark and need to see the trail. Also, don’t forget the extra batteries! A dying headlamp is just as bad as not having one at all.
First Aid Supplies
First aid kit
Tissues or toilet paper
Ankle wrap and/or ACE bandage (optional)
I have a little pre-assembled first aid kit, but you can easily put one together yourself, too. I don’t always carry an ACE bandage, but I will throw one into my pack if I’m going on an extra long hike or hitting a remote trail. (Note: I wouldn’t have even thought of bringing this before I did my NOLS Wilderness First Aid course, which taught me how to properly tape an ankle.)
I recommend getting some windproof and waterproof matches. They’re pricey, but if you’ve ever tried to light a fire in windy conditions, they’re totally worth it.
Repair Kit and Tools
Admittedly this section is a bit lean, but a knife and duct tape can fix most problems, right?
I love trail snacks. I always pack way more than I eat, but I figure if I get lost and end up spending a night somewhere, I’d rather have extras than go hungry. I try to bring a combination of snack bars (Clif bars and Honeystinger waffles), energy chews, nuts, dried or fresh fruit, and jerky.
Water (bottle or Camelbak bladder)
For a long time I didn’t trust hydration bladders not to leak, but I’ve since been converted. There’s nothing like easy access to water to make sure you stay hydrated, and it’s so nice to not have to stop and take off your pack every time you need a drink. That said, my distrust lingers a bit, and on longer hikes I’ll usually bring a smaller bottle too, just in case.
Space blanket (sometimes)
I usually only bring this on longer hikes or in remote areas where it’s possible I might not see anyone if I have to spend the night. Hopefully it’ll never be used, but it’s small and light enough to carry along just in case.
DeLorme inReach SE+
YakTrax (or another traction device for winter trails)
After moving here, my boyfriend and I decided to purchase an InReach device. (It was made by DeLorme when we purchased it, but the company has since been acquired by Garmin.) We waited until it went on sale, as they are not cheap, but I feel so much better adventuring with it.
Aside from providing access to emergency services if needed, it’s also a two-way communication device that can text with anyone you’d like – even when there’s no cell service. Not only does it give my boyfriend piece of mind when I’m backpacking, it also makes me feel better knowing I can reach help if there’s a major problem while out of cell range.
So that’s it! Everything that’s in my bag. While the list looks quite long, I’m able to fit everything into my 22 liter pack, and it’s not too bad to carry around. While I may not win any awards for ultra-light hiking, I feel better knowing that I’m prepared for the worst and have the gear needed in case I run into problems on the trail.
What do you bring when you go out hiking? Has this post made you reconsider what you throw into your pack? Let me know in the comments!
When I was growing up, I never really gave much thought to who owned land or what the implications of that ownership might be. In Wisconsin, only 5.1% of the state’s land is owned by the U.S. government, making nearly all of it owned by private parties. Public lands weren’t ever a topic of discussion, mostly because they didn’t really exist anywhere nearby.
I spent my childhood camping in state parks and walking on trails maintained by public trusts or nature preserves. My family got outside and hiked fairly often, but I never really experienced the feeling of knowing I could walk for miles or days and never hit a “no trespassing” sign. In a way, nature felt boxed in, meted out in small doses for daily excursions.
The limits of nature got even smaller when I moved to Chicago, and aside from a narrow strip of green land that lined Lake Michigan, there wasn’t even a direction I could look in without staring down yet another block of apartments buildings.
At that point, I still thought of myself as a city person. I’d left my small town at 18 to attend college in Minneapolis and had lived in large cities ever since. I commuted on public transit and spent my days walking on crowded sidewalks. I didn’t own a car. Whenever I looked out the window, I saw more windows, belonging to other apartments and office buildings.
Eventually, an underlying sense of unease made me question what was missing from my urban lifestyle. I had vague notions of feeling trapped in the city. The constant noise began to wear on me, the train I took to work started to feel extra crowded, and the little park near my house simply wasn’t enough to fill the growing yearning for green space.
For reasons completely unrelated to the outdoors, I eventually accepted a job in rural Vermont. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I cried the day I moved into my apartment, asking myself what the hell I was doing in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere on the other side of the country.
As it turned out, moving to the Green Mountain State was just what I needed.
I reconnected with the land almost immediately. I paddled down rivers in the sunshine with new friends and watched wide-eyed as great blue herons sailed right over our heads. I spent time pulling weeds at an acquaintance’s farm, feeling utterly accomplished when I returned home with a bag full of produce and black dirt under my nails. I swam in ice cold rivers on my lunch break and bumped down unmarked dirt roads that I eventually learned to navigate on my own, without a map.
Life suddenly felt smaller and more manageable in my little New England town. Opportunities seemed to fall from the sky, and I tried out things I’d never imaged before: cross country skiing, hoop dancing, trail running, and rock climbing. I started seeking out trails on my own, trained for longer runs, and embraced being outside. I started to appreciate my body more, using it as a tool to gather new experiences in the outdoors. The ever-present green mountains breathed life into me in a way I didn’t even know I’d been missing.
Eventually, circumstances conspired for me to consider moving out west. I had barely spent any time west of the Mississippi, but I figured if I could make a home in Vermont, I could probably do it somewhere else, too. I first set foot in Utah for a job interview, and six weeks later, I returned as its newest resident.
Before I left Vermont, a co-worker confided in me that he’d once lived in Wyoming and that he was envious of my move. “The West is best,” I remember him telling me, and while I liked the ring to it, I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant.
What I discovered was a region with countless wild places, many that I never even knew existed. (True story: I didn’t even realize that Utah was half desert until after I’d already moved here.) There were national forest lands steps from my apartment, jagged red rock canyons that slice through the earth for hundreds of miles, and peaks so tall that trees don’t grow on the top. I had so much to learn about my new home.
As I began to explore the landscape around me, I also learned about land designations. Approximately 65% of the land in Utah is owned by the federal government, and this public land goes by many names. There are national parks, national forests, BLM land, national monuments, wilderness areas, and national recreation areas. All of these lands are public, but the designation determines what one is allowed to do within their boundaries.
In the course of my research, I discovered the term “dispersed camping”, which is allowed on most BLM and Forest Service land. I’d grown up camping in campgrounds, and I thought that’s how camping worked. You selected a site, paid for it, and hoped the people in the spot next to yours weren’t too loud. The idea that I could drive down a dirt road and call it home for the night – for free – was incredible.
In my twenties, I traveled internationally so much I had extra pages added to my passport. So far in my thirties, I haven’t stepped foot outside of North America. Not that there aren’t a lifetime of places to explore abroad, but there’s still so much to see here I can’t tear myself away.
My mom once told me a friend of hers said that she had no interest in traveling abroad until she’d seen all the wonders of the United States. At the time, I thought that was crazy talk. But in a way, I now understand where she’s coming from. I am not the same person now that I’ve seen fog dissipate off the jagged peaks of the Tetons, watched furry marmots scurry around alpine meadows, and stood before ancient dwellings that have remained staunchly in place for over 800 years.
With so much of Utah’s land being public, I’ve recreated nearly exclusively on land that is owned by us, the American people. I feel lucky to be able to use this land, to be a steward of our country’s landscapes and heritage.
I don’t know how many days and nights I’ve spent hiking, camping, running, and climbing since moving to Utah, but these public lands have changed me. They’ve turned me from a city girl into a trail walker, a solitude seeker, a mountain climber, and an amateur naturalist. I’m stronger both physically and mentally. I worry less, breathe more deeply, and feel less stressed overall.
Maybe I was never really a city girl, and coming to Utah was a return to who I really am. Either way, public lands have played a critical role in nearly every lesson I’ve learned and memory I’ve made since moving out west. Recent political acts, like Trump’s decision to shrink two of Utah’s national monuments, have felt like a personal blow to me, impacting the lands I’ve come to know and love.
If you haven’t been out west, plan a trip! Visit these places and I guarantee you’ll understand why so many of us love these lands so deeply. They belong to us, they move us, and they change us in ways we often can’t fully express in words. Public lands are our lands, and I hope you’ll join me in the fight to keep them for everyone, for now and into the future.
Contact your representatives and tell them you support keeping the monuments as they are. On social media, reach out using #SaveGrandStaircase and #StandwithBearsEars.
Give to The Access Fund, a climbing advocacy organization. Some of the world’s greatest rock climbing areas sit inside Bears Ears National Monument and would be impacted by oil and mineral extraction if the monument is reduced.
Support companies that are fighting for our public lands, like REIand Patagonia.
Finally, get outside. It’ll calm your mind, focus your attention, and make you healthier. For real.
In 2015, I made a brief visit to Mesa Verde National Park at the tail end of a Four Corners road trip. I didn’t know much about the park in southwestern Colorado, but since it was in the area, we decided to check it out.
The park was established in 1906 to preserve archaeological sites and artifacts, primarily those left behind by the Ancestral Pueblo people, who lived in the area from 600 AD to 1300 AD. However, there is evidence that humans have lived in the area as far back as 7500 BCE. Nearly 5,000 sites have been identified within the park, including nearly 600 cliff dwellings.
Despite the biting November wind and the fact that half of the park was closed for the winter, something drew me to the vast mesas. Covered in pinyon pine and juniper trees, speckled with prickly pear cacti and broad-leafed yucca, the vast stillness urged me to explore further.
This quiet glimpse of the park inspired my boyfriend and I to return in the summer, when all the park roads are open and tours of several ruins are offered by park staff. We ended up visiting again in July 2016 and were able to participate in all three ranger-led tours as well as a couple of hikes.
The Lay of the Land
Mesa Verde is located just outside the town of Cortez, in southwestern Colorado. While the park entrance is close to town, keep in mind that all of the sites are a bit of a drive, so plan for extra time after arriving at the Visitor’s Center. The steep, winding roads to Chapin Mesa and Wetherill Mesa, the two main areas in the park, are 20 and 27 miles long, respectively.
In order to tour the sites, you will need to purchase tickets. They aren’t expensive (at the time I visited, each tour was $8 per person), but they can sell out, so I’d recommend getting to the visitor center early to reserve your spot. Tickets can be purchased up to three days in advance but the purchase must be done in person.
This park’s primary purpose is preservation, so there isn’t a ton of hiking to do here. A couple short trails depart from the campground, and there are one or two walking-tour type trails that wind around various archaeological sites, but don’t arrive expecting to do miles of trekking. This visit is more about history than communing with nature on long hikes.
Chapin Mesa: Cliff Palace and Balcony House
This mesa is open year-round and is the most popular spot for visitors. It features a small visitor center with a museum and two loop roads that contain various sites along the way. It also serves as access to Cliff Palace and Balcony House.
One other large cliff dwelling site, Spruce Tree House, is visible from the visitor center and used to be open to the public. However, rockfall in 2015 led to an assessment which determined the alcove above the site is unstable, and the site has remained closed due to safety concerns.
Along the loop roads, there are opportunities for you to stop and view the remains of various sites, from pit houses to kivas to overlooks that reveal far-off cliff dwellings. Each site has informational placards that teach you more about the purpose of each area.
We first toured Cliff Palace, which you can also view from an overlook. This is the most accessible tour, as it doesn’t require any climbing or walking long distances. As we walked among the ruins, from kiva to kiva, our guide provided information about what each room was likely used for and how the native peoples survived in this harsh environment.
As a climber, I was amazed to learn that the Ancestral Puebloans seemed to climb the steep cliffs with ease, though sometimes they’d chip small indentations into the rock for their hands and feet at the steepest parts. I suppose when you’re raised climbing these steps, it’s more natural, but I was quite impressed!
After our tour of Cliff Palace, we headed down the road for our Balcony House tour. While Cliff Palace was impressive for its sheer size, Balcony House had a bit more adventure thrown in, and we got to climb ladders and squeeze through tunnels while exploring the ruin.
This was my favorite tour of the day, due to the outstanding views from the balcony as well as the well-preserved nature of the site: the wooden beams present in the structure had survived over 700 years! (The area is so dry that dead trees can hang around for quite a long time before decomposing.) There’s a great video of the tour here if you want to experience it for yourself.
Wetherill Mesa: Long House and Step House
After visiting Chapin Mesa, we drove over to Wetherill Mesa, which is much quieter than its neighbor and is closed during the winter. This remote mesa holds Long House, Step House, and a number of paved and unpaved trails. There are no services here aside from bathrooms and a small waiting area for the Long House tour, so make sure you have plenty of food and water for your visit.
Step House is visited through a self-guided tour and is just a short walk from the main parking area. The mesa also has several covered sites that you can stop at along paved walking paths. Make sure you bring a hat if you’re visiting in the summer, as the sun is brutal at over 6,000 feet and there is no shade. (I forgot mine and was so desperate I bought a new one at the campground store!)
Long House is the only cliff dwelling tour that requires some walking to get to, and the structure is at the end of a trail just over a mile long. For those who don’t mind the mellow hike, this site is great because it feels a bit more remote than the others yet is just as large as Cliff Palace.
On this tour, you’re allowed to walk around the ruins, climb some ladders, and glimpse the seep spring at the back of the cave. The natives used this water source to their full advantage, diverting water from the moss-covered rock into tiny channels to be more easily collected.
The three tours can easily be done within a day if you plan properly, but keep in mind the time it takes to drive from one mesa to another. While each dwelling is incredible in varying ways, I think touring just one or two would be sufficient if you’re pressed for time or want a more relaxing day. I recommend checking out the video tours of each site (linked to throughout this page) if you’re debating which one to visit.
If you’re already planning to be in the Four Corners area, visit Mesa Verde! While there are many hikes in the region that take you to smaller ruins, the size and number of Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings is impressive. I also really appreciated the guided tours and the guides were all extremely knowledgeable. While it can be great to visit smaller ruins on your own, getting the story behind these crumbling walls gives new meaning to what you’re seeing.
Have you been to Mesa Verde National Park? Do you have any other tips for prospective visitors?
When I created my website a year ago, one of the primary purposes of my writing was to encourage women to get outside and try new things . Being independent and expanding my own comfort zone has done so much to improve my life, and I wanted to inspire others to do the same.
Lately, I’ve noticed that many others, from companies to websites to non-profits, have had the same idea, which I think is fantastic. Last month REI launched a campaign called Force of Nature, which aims to make outside “the biggest level playing field on earth”. As I watched the promo video, which echoed all of the things women are told throughout their lives – be cute, be quiet, be dependent – I silently thought, “Yes, yes, yes!”
We need to break these stereotypes and these barriers, and I think it’s primarily going to happen on a woman to woman basis.
I have heard some negative responses to this campaign: that REI isn’t being inclusive enough, that it’s not addressing the roots of misogyny, that its primary purpose is to sell merchandise so the message doesn’t really matter because it’s just a marketing ploy.
While all of these criticisms have some valid points, I’m still quite happy to see women’s involvement in the outdoors get more exposure. Before moving to Utah and meeting so many women who were doing amazing things outside, I wasn’t exposed to a lot of the activities I enjoy now. The thought of backpacking into the wildernesswould have never crossed my mind as something I personally could do, nor the thought of scaling mountain faces with friends, totally competent in our own abilities, no guide required!
I’ve encountered many different women’s groups along the way, offering classes, group events, and forums for women to meet and share experiences. I went ice climbingwith a group called SheJumps, which has chapters all over the country and works to get women outside who wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to do so. (Plus they have a pretty sweet mascot!)
The Outdoor Women’s Alliance just met their fundraising goal to begin creating an online platform for women to meet and mentor each other in various outdoor disciplines, and I’m excited to see the finished product. In the meantime, they’re working hard to get images of strong women out into the media in the hopes of inspiring others.
Recently I volunteered at a 5k race for Girls on the Run, an after-school program that teaches girls to appreciate their own uniqueness and strengths through physical activity, while also showing them how to push back against societal pressures of how girls “should” act. This is a program that I wish had been around when I was younger, and I’ve heard many friends echo these same feelings. There are chapters all around the country and they’re always looking for coaches if you’re interested in volunteering with them.
In addition to these organizations, there are hundreds of other groups across the country that want to help you try new things and push your limits.
But, you may ask, what if signing up for a course or going to a meet-up group by myself is the scary part? I get it, I’ve been there. I used to be the shy girl who never wanted to try anything new on my own. But it comes to a point where the interest in whatever you want to do overwhelms the fear of going it alone.
In high school, I really loved French. If going to a language camp by myself was what it took to learn more, I did it. Sure, sometimes it was awkward, but the experience made me better at more than just French.
It also taught me that I could survive those awkward silences and boring small talk, and in the end I’d come out of the experience with new skills and new acquaintances. This one experience eventually lead me to study abroad for a summer in high school, move to new countries and cities, and ultimately, gave me a pretty great feeling of independence.
I realize that getting dirty, having a willingness to suffer, and going out of cell phone range isn’t for everyone (though you should try it out: 85% of women say getting outside boosts their overall well-being!). Luckily there are other ways for women to be independent and gain self-confidence than slogging along trails and enduring soggy camping trips.
One group I’ve recently discovered, Wanderful, gives advice to women travelers and has recently set up a Couchsurfing-esque hosting service just for women. They also hold an annual conference for women travel writers. Members run the gamut from adventure-loving outdoorsy types to city girls and everyone in between.
And if you’re raising a little one and want to begin imparting all of this guidance at an early age, I love the website A Mighty Girl. They have gift ideas for girls of all ages and offer daily inspiration by profiling influential women on their Facebook page. This articlefrom Outside magazine also gives some good guidance on raising courageous girls, and I think we can all take a lesson from it!
Since moving to Utah and gaining so much access to the outdoors, I feel like I’ve become a stronger, more confident, and – dare I say it – happier person. It’s true that there is less pressure to look pretty, be skinny, or act meek and mild when you’re fighting your way through a hard trail run or finishing a scary climb.
So try something new. Mix up your routine, add something to your calendar that feels a little scary. Check out organizations that are willing to help you step out of your comfort zone or talk with other women in your life and see what you can teach each other.
If you know of any other organizations that might help others try new things, feel free to add them in the comments!
Politics isn’t my usual blog fare, but after receiving a big response on Facebook to a post about my own lobbying experience, I thought you all might be interested in some more info. Enjoy!
I recently participated in an Advocacy Day organized by NAFSA, the professional association for international educators. This event brought together international educators of all types (international student professionals, study abroad advocates, ESL teachers, and more) and taught us how to advocate for ourselves and our profession with our Senators and Representatives.
It was a great experience and my main take away was: anybody can do this! Seriously. It’s not as hard as you’d think, and I’m going to show you how.
1) Think about what issue you want to address.
This one is crucial. It’s important not to go in with too many varied topics or demands. Deciding on one main issue will make your meeting more impactful and will clearly convey your message. For our group, we were there on behalf of NAFSA, so they’d already picked out a couple topics for us to speak about, but they all centered on international education. Keep it simple.
2) Do some research and develop your “ask”
Once you’ve decided what’s most important to you, think about how your Congressperson can help. This is called “the ask”. What are you going to ask them to do at the end of the meeting? This can vary depending on what you’re there to discuss.
If there’s a bill already on the docket and you’d like your representative to vote for it, that’s an easy ask. You can say, “I’d like my Senator to consider co-sponsoring Bill XXX” or “I’d like my Senator to consider supporting this bill.” For example, we asked our Senators to consider supporting the Paul Simon Study Abroad Act, which was recently proposed in the Senate.
You can find all bills that have been proposed at congress.gov. By clicking on your representative’s name, you can find out which bills they’ve sponsored or co-sponsored.
If there isn’t a bill already proposed, that’s ok. You can ask for other ways for your congressperson to support your issue. For certain topics, asking them to make a floor statement in support of your issue is appropriate. We asked our congresspeople to consider making a floor statement in support of international students, considering the current political climate and the recent travel ban executive order.
Maybe there’s something else you’d like them to do. In any case, having a goal for your meeting and a specific action for the Senator or Representative to take will make your meeting more effective.
3) Set Up Your Meeting
While I skipped this part (NAFSA set up all of our meetings for us), any constituent can set up a meeting, and you don’t have to come to Washington do it! Call your representative’s office (local office or DC office, depending on where you’d like to meet), let them know you are a constituent, and ask to set up a meeting to talk about your issue.
Your Congressperson is likely very busy, and the person on the phone will probably tell you as much. But don’t give up hope! You don’t need to meet directly with your rep to get his or her ear. Ask if there is a staffer you can speak with who handles policy issues related to your topic (ie: education, energy, immigration, etc.) Ask if it’d be possible to meet with that person instead. Likely they will be able to set you up with a meeting, and then you’re ready to go!
4) Prepare for your Meeting
At this point you can start to create an outline for how you want your meeting to look. Here’s the outline that we used for our meetings:
Introduce yourself. Tell the staffer who you are and why you’re there. Bring your business card and don’t be afraid to ask for theirs.
Transition to the issues. Give your talking points and some statistics that support them.
Tell a story. This is where you get personal. How does this issue affect you or people you know? Strong stories are always going to be the most powerful.
Make the ask. Tell them what you’d like them to do.
Keep in mind that you may only get five minutes to make your point (or you may get 30 minutes!). It’s difficult to say how much time your staffer will have, how interested they’ll be in your issue, or if some other pressing matter is distracting them. Prepare to say your piece in a very short amount of time, but come ready to give more information as needed.
Also, do some research to find out how your rep feels about the issue. For example, we knew that some of our reps weren’t so interested in international ed per se, but focused a lot on national security issues. So we tried to address why international ed is actually beneficial to national security, instead of focusing on the personal growth a semester in Thailand might offer a student. Appeal to their interests.
Prepare for push back. Consider reasons your Congressperson may not support your ask. Maybe they don’t want to fund new programs or have issues with the current immigration policy. Practice your rebuttals and prepare for questions.
Finally, if you have handouts that show statistics, overviews of bills, or other documents that you’d like the staffer to reference, you can bring these too. We left a folder at each of our meetings with more information about the value of international education, statistics about state participation, and information about our association.
5) Attend your Meeting
Once you’ve done all your research and prepared your talking points, it’s time to get ready. Make sure to dress professionally and arrive early to ensure you can find the correct building and go through security, if necessary.
Things are constantly changing in government, so it’s possible that the person you’d planned to meet with is busy and someone else will meet with you instead. Just go with it. If you end up meeting with an intern who looks too young for college, just go with it. Remember, these are the people who have your representative’s ear.
If you’re lucky, your staffer will be interested in what you have to say, will have follow up questions, and will give you some insight into what your rep is thinking or doing on your issue. It’s not likely that you’ll get a firm commitment from a staffer on your “ask”, so don’t despair if the meeting ends feeling unresolved.
In some cases, you might end up meeting with someone who’s glued to a cell phone, seems to be in a hurry, or isn’t very responsive to what you have to say. In this case, read the room and end the meeting quickly if it seems appropriate. You can’t win them all.
6) Say “thank you” and then follow up
Be sure to thank your staffer for his or her time, no matter how the meeting went. If you didn’t already get a business card, you can request one now. This meeting was the first step in the conversation, and if you’re so inclined, now’s the time to keep it going.
For example, we invited our Representative to an event on campus, and while our staffer said he’s unlikely to attend next month, they might consider sending a staffer and that we should continue to send invites. Another staffer seemed interested in hearing more about our international student population and we offered to send her more stats and stories.
A couple weeks after your meeting, reach out again and follow up. Ask if there’s anything you can do to support the issue. You’re no longer just an anonymous voice on the phone talking to an intern, so use that to your benefit.
As a note, one staffer specifically told us that she’s fine pushing off meetings with national organizations if needed, but she’ll always try to meet with constituents. While it may not seem like it matters, your vote does count and the staffers know this.
What are you waiting for?
If you’ve gotten through this guide, you have all the information you need to have a successful meeting with your rep’s office. I can guarantee it’ll be nerve-wracking the first time you do it, but once you’re finished, calling your rep’s office about other issues will feel easy.
(Speaking of calling your rep, here’s some insight from a staffer on the other end of the phone line. Keep calling!)
While this advice is based on my experience with federal representatives, you can use it to meet with state or local representatives too. While the process may be a bit different, your state and local reps also want to meet with constituents, so don’t be afraid to contact them.
Let me know in the comments if you do end up meeting anyone and how it went. Good luck!
“It’s too quiet out here, and I’m sleeping without the rainfly. The thin mesh netting seems a flimsy barrier to anything outside. But I feel a sense of independence and pride to have my own tent, to have carried all my things here, 9 miles, over the waterpocket fold and through winding canyons with tall, sheer walls hemming us in. Today I felt strong.” – Excerpt from my journal, May 21, 2016
It was bright and eerie in the stillness of the southern Utah desert as I wrote those words in my tent. Switching off my headlamp, I watched the full moon crest above the cliffs facing us, sending a column of white light across the floor of the cave.
This trip was the first step toward one of my goals, to go on a solo overnight camping trip. I’d organized the outing with some women I’d met through a local hiking group, and it was my first time backpacking. We decided on a one-night, 18-mile excursion deep in the heart of Capitol Reef National Park. The trail we chose to follow, Lower Muley Twist, climbs over a geologic formation called the waterpocket fold and then follows a deep canyon for seven miles before exiting out onto wash-filled flats.
The others in my group had backpacked before, and they were confident in our ability to complete the hike. Theoretically, I knew that I could do it with proper planning. Yet with this being my first backpacking trip, there were a few things that made me a bit nervous:
It was remote. The trailhead was 30 miles down a rarely-traveled and deeply-rutted dirt road, an hour’s drive from park services. Moreover, the trail was unmaintained and saw few visitors.
It was dry. There was no water available on trail, meaning we’d have to carry everything we needed for two days of hiking in the early-summer heat.
Finally, could I walk 18 miles in two days with a heavy backpack on my shoulders?
Weeks later, I snapped shut my rented REI backpack and hoisted it on my back. I wasn’t at all sure I’d be able to tote this monstrosity 18 miles across the desert, but as I looked out over the wild expanse of twisted rock and then back toward my eager friends, I knew I had to try.
Our first day brought a steep climb over the waterpocket fold, its white rock sloping upward toward the sky as we meandered past rock cairns and occasionally braved steep dropoffs. Two miles in, we dropped over the ridge and descended into Muley Twist Canyon, so named because it was narrow and crooked enough to “twist a mule”. Pioneers had used this path since the late 1800s, emigrating south with their wagons. Later, cowboys would use the canyon’s massive caves as a shadowy respite from the hot desert sun.
We wandered along the canyon floor, our path easy to follow as thousand-foot tall Kayenta sandstone walls soared above us. Occasional gusts of wind sent sand flying, scouring our limbs as we shielded our eyes. But mostly it was a pleasant walk under a heavy pack that felt more tolerable as the day wore on.
We covered ground quickly on flat, sandy paths and slowly picked our way across scattered pebbles in dry washes. Occasionally we’d encounter huge piles of boulders or soaring, curved ceilings of stone, undercut from the rock above.
Late in the day, we began looking for a spot to camp. Finally we arrived at the Cowboy cave, a massive bowl carved out from the rock. We marveled at the markings left by young cowboys nearly a hundred years ago and examined the artifacts amassed around a fire pit. Old tin cans of beans, cigarette cartons, and bits of tools had been preserved by fellow hikers, a testament to their respect and also the remoteness of this place.
While we relaxed and had dinner, two hikers passed by, making them the only other people we’d encounter during our journey. Soon after, the sun began to set and we set up our various sleeping systems: tents or bivvies or open air pads.
I snuggled up in my sleeping bag, looking out across the cave floor and into the sky above. I’d done it, I thought, at least halfway. Too exhausted to write more than a couple phrases about my journey, I was asleep by 9pm.
The next morning dawned with blue skies and bright sun, and we lingered over breakfast before hoisting our bags on our packs once more. Only another mile of canyon walking remained; the rest of the route was in open fields over sandy trail. After exiting the canyon, we decided to detour to Hamburger Rocks, a peculiar formation of round, red stone up on the waterpocket fold.
After several goofy photos and some trail finding confusion, we continued on under intense sun, finishing the final 5 miles over flat, red dirt with dreams of cold Apricot Hefeweizens dancing in our heads.
The cars became visible at least a mile out, becoming somewhat of a tease as we continued to walk and seemed to get no closer. Finally, finally we arrived. I’d done it. Survived my first backpacking trip, suffered very little, and experienced so much. I felt strong, I felt relaxed, I felt badass. I’d fallen even more in love with the desert, and I’d turned acquaintances into friends.
What’s funny is that once it was over, it didn’t feel like such a big deal anymore. The thought of carrying everything you need to survive off into a remote place sounds so daunting, but with a bit of planning and optimism, it felt easy. I suppose that can be true for many unknown projects, destinations, or ideas – it’s only in going for it that you wonder why you’d waited so long in the first place.
All in all, the trip was a success. And my new backpack (which I have since purchased) is ready for another adventure!
Do One Thing is an occasional series based on the well-known idea: “do one thing everyday that scares you”. These posts will explore fear and the subsequent outcome of trying something new.
I never considered myself strong or athletic while growing up. I wasn’t even really active until after college, when I started running along Lake Michigan a couple times a week.
So if you ask me how that girl turned into the woman finding her way up rock faces with a bunch of carabiners and slings attached to her harness, I’d have to tell you I’m not really sure.
After moving to Vermont, the man I’d just begun dating asked if I’d like to try rock climbing at the indoor gym near his place. He was afraid of heights and thought this might help him overcome his fear. I had no idea what climbing entailed, and I was certain my arms were far too weak, yet I accepted his invitation with a smile, as one is apt to do when newly in love.
At the gym, we learned how to tie a figure-eight knot and practiced belaying, trusting each other not to be dropped from 30 feet up. At the end of the night, I made it to the top of a 5.6 route (the easiest in the gym) and couldn’t have been happier, even though my forearms were throbbing from gripping the hard, plastic holds.
Somehow though, it was addicting.
We returned to the gym. There was a membership deal: commit to one year and receive a free harness, belay device, chalk bag, and climbing shoes. We signed up for a dual membership, putting full faith not only in our ability to remain interested in rock climbing for the next 12 months, but also each other.
The fascinating thing about climbing is that it requires both physical and mental strength. Sure, you need to be strong to climb hard, but you also have to think about technique, understand body position, and find the unique path upward that works for you. It’s creative and tiring at the same time, and also incredibly satisfying when everything comes together and you make it to the top.
We continued to climb at the gym and after relocating to Salt Lake City, our climbing gym membership was the first thing we set up after signing a lease.
Now there weren’t only plastic holds to pull on, but an entire mountain range that loomed over the city. Climbing outside was the next logical step, and so we hired a guide to try it out. We spent a weekend in Red Rock Canyon, inching up sandstone slabs on top rope under the warm February sun. It’s an understatement to say I liked it.
The following month, I took a course on learning to lead climb and build anchors. I continued to acquire gear, take classes, and try out routes on a half-dozen types of rock around the state. I discovered the sticky texture of standstone and granite, pulled up on slippery blocks of quartzite, and found perfectly round pockets in limestone faces. I can now make sense of photos like this one:
But as much as I love climbing, it can also be utterly terrifying.
I am nervous every single time I tie in and start up a route outside. I’ve learned that a) this is normal and b) the anxiety diminishes with experience, but that doesn’t make it easier when I’m risking a fifteen-foot fall onto a ledge and I’m worried about my foot popping off a tiny sliver-sized protrusion.
Last summer I participated in a two-day falling and commitment clinic in Colorado, practicing falling safely and getting comfortable climbing above my protection. While it’s helped a bit, fear in climbing is an ongoing battle for me, albeit one that’s common among many climbers.
Yet there’s something seductive about the combination of mental fortitude, body awareness, and beautiful landscapes that keeps me climbing past the fear.
I never thought I’d consider myself a “climber”, enjoy weight training at 6am before work, or find myself hanging from the top of a cliff by a thin tether as I set up for a fifty-foot rappel, but sometimes life has a funny way of giving you exactly what you need.
With all of the ups and downs of the past few years, climbing has been a constant presence and challenge, providing me with focus, persistence, and a sense of accomplishment.
It’s likely that climbing isn’t your thing, but if you’re interested in trying it out after reading my story, I encourage you to give it a go. Most indoor climbing gyms are welcoming and offer beginner courses regularly. Otherwise, let this be a reminder to be open to new experiences. You never know when a nonchalant invitiation might just become your newest passion.