Fort Jefferson occupies two-thirds of Garden Island, one of the archipelago called the Dry Tortugas which lie 68 miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico. You can’t drive or hike here; your only access is by sea or air.
The old fort is a massive structure of 16 million bricks, and was never fired upon or engaged in battle of any kind except for an outbreak of yellow fever. Famous as the prison that held the famous Dr. Mudd who was implicated in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln — the doctor having set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth — the fort is now operated as a very isolated national park museum.
Its arches and vaults are today echoing the whispers of awed visitors and the marching feet of re-enactors and museum staff.
The campground next to the old fort is very small, so reservations are essential. There are no provisions other than restrooms, so campers must carry with them everything that they will need for their stay.
After exploring the fort, my favorite activity while at the Dry Tortugas was the snorkeling on the reefs that surround the island, populated by colorful sun fish, angel fish, reef sharks, nurse sharks, spotted rays, barracuda and a fair-size enclave of lobsters.
How to get there: From the southern tip of Florida, drive 175 miles west on the Florida Keys highway – Florida State Road A1A – to Key West. At the harbor board either the fast catamaran shuttle boats — which make the trip out in about 2 hours one way – or book the seaplane flight. Tickets and campsites should all be reserved in advance along with hotels or campground sites in Key West or nearby.
The Dry Tortugas are a national park and are managed by the National Park Service.
I have been active on YouTube for several years, posting an occasional rare video of my adventures, but until now I really haven’t developed that aspect of my travel expression. Last spring I started ramping up my documentation of my outdoor experiences on video and I am having a lot of fun with it. For one thing, video conveys a much richer dimension of my reality. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth ten thousand. You can hear my voice, see my mannerisms and get to know me a lot more than you could with a still photograph. It’s not always pretty, as I make a lot of mistakes and you get to see a much less polished “me”. It is more like a reality show, because you have to take the bad with the good. I can’t edit out my crooked teeth or my slow speech.
Anyway, the result is a richer expression of my travel experiences. I am able to share more about my adventures and throw in a bit of sage advice, some camping hacks that I have picked up along the way. And I am sharing my campfire cooking, something that is hard to do without video.
When I was 16 years old and expected to choose a direction for my life, I was a bit nervous about making a bad choice and ruining my life. By high school graduation day everyone is supposed to have made up their minds and be heading off to college, the military, or “entering the workforce” – which meant going and getting a job right away.
Young people are expected to make most of their epic life-directing decisions between 16 and 21 years old: Picking a career, choosing a life-mate, finding the right home, etc. It’s down-right frightening. No wonder many choose to put off those decisions as long as possible.
I chose to get a four-year education degree and headed off for college. Four years later, right on schedule, I married my college sweetheart and we both applied for teaching positions in her home town and were both hired on the spot.
I went into teaching not even knowing if I liked kids. Fortunately, my long-term worries – about going the wrong direction and ruining my life – were resolved: I loved my new career (Kaye says I am just a big kid anyway, so working with students was a lot like playing with my friends) and stuck with it for 27 years until I could take an early buy-out and switch careers.
That was when I started a log home construction company, hired a crew of carpenters, and started building log homes all around the state of Michigan. I was now self-employed and working with my hands as opposed to sitting in a classroom every weekday.
And the change was wonderful. I found that I loved the flexible schedule and working outdoors much of the time. I was the boss.
My approach to the journey of life has relaxed over time. Looking back, I realize that if during my first teaching assignment I had discovered that I hated working with children, my life would not have been ruined. I would have changed directions and tried something else.
And as a youth mentor for most of my adult life, I have often shared this sage advice: How will you really know who you are and what you like to do unless you try stuff out? If something doesn’t work for you, you simply chalk it up to experience, make a shift and head somewhere else.
Really, the biggest hindrance to this philosophy is when you become embedded in a job and a routine that you grow to hate and you are so much in debt that you can’t afford to make a change.
Okay, maybe your life is miserable for now, but you are not really stuck there. It may seem like it takes forever, but you can dig yourself out and move on.
When Kaye and I got the travel bug, we owned too much property and owed too much money to even consider a change. Debt is like a ball-and-chain that anchors you to one spot. But with careful and determined effort we were able to shed our burdens and free ourselves. We sold some acreage, put renters in the house and hit the road. Two years later we sold the place and went full time in the RV. Our former fetters shrank and vanished in the rearview mirror.
Then we applied the same principles to our gypsy life: How to decide where to go? Try stuff out. Don’t like the big cities? Take the backroads. Don’t like driving? Take the plane. Don’t like air travel? Take the train. Don’t like the over-populated RV parks? Try the state and national forest campgrounds. And so on and so on.
And finally, don’t like being away from the grandkids for so long? Head back home and park in their backyard!
And what’s the end product? In the middle of a lifetime of trying things out, you end up knowing what you like and mostly doing what you want. And that’s the best way to live.
One nice thing about the late summer and early fall is that summer vacation has ended and the kids are back in school so the parks are virtually empty and it’s easier to find a campsite. Traffic is thinning out at the popular attractions and the pace is relaxed.
The second blessing is that the lakes are still warm enough for a refreshing dip. The water of the Great Lakes cools down more slowly than the air temperature in the fall, so though the days are cool and comfortable and nights are getting chilly, the water is still enjoyable.
Here are some quiet spots where you will likely find the crowds thinning out after Labor Day.
There is a world-class Shipwreck Museum that’s part of the complex at Whitefish Point Lighthouse north of Paradise. The state forest campgrounds are still open into October, and there are abundant vacation rentals and cabins in the area.
Crisp Point Lighthouse
It’s best not to attempt the road to Crisp Point with a low-slung sedan. You’ll be bottoming out several times on the one-lane 19-mile logging road that is rough and sandy and takes an hour to drive one way.
Your reward for the tedious drive is a remote lighthouse on a mostly deserted stony beach. The site is tended by volunteers who stay in their campers next to the beach.
Au Sable Point Lighthouse
The trailhead to the isolated lighthouse is at the Hurricane River Campground that is part of the large Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The 1.5-mile hiking trail hugs the shore just above the rock ledges and stony beach. The road through the national lakeshore is nicely paved but winding, so your average speed will be about 35 mph getting there. Don’t rush.
AuTrain Bay, AuTrain
This tranquil shoreline is super easy to reach as highway 28 runs right along the lake here just a few miles west of the little village of Christmas. Pull off at one of the beautiful roadside parks where there are restrooms and running water.
The sandy beach is walkable for nearly a mile and the water is shallow enough for wading and swimming. Rocky outcroppings bookend the beach at both ends.
Scott Falls is visible from the highway, but pull into the roadside park at the east end of the bay for an easy walk across the road to this personable little falls where you can walk right up to it… or behind it. On a warm day it may seem to invite a shower, but you are in for a bit of a shock, as the water is not as warm as the lake.
This is a great time of year to explore the wilderness of northern Michigan, but the window of opportunity is short. By October 1st the lake will likely cool beyond the tolerable range and a tranquil dip in Lake Superior will be out of the question. Snow isn’t unheard of in this part of the world during the month of October, and the warm pasties will warm body and soul at the local restaurants in Munising.
Not everybody likes to be alone. Extroverts and socialites have a hard time understanding why anyone would go out of their way to be by themselves. But introverts and loners get it. Sometimes it requires solitude to refuel the emotional tank, and there is nothing lonely about it.
I have lived in urban locations where the only place I could be alone was sitting on the toilet. But that’s doesn’t satisfy if you are anxious in small spaces.
These are some locations where I have been able to find solitude outside of the bathroom. Some of these take a lot of effort to get to, while others just take some strategic planning and/or timing.
The Alaska Highway
Okay, this is a big challenge. You will have to block out a couple of weeks to make this drive… and that’s just one way. Double that if you are driving it both out and back.
The aloneness that I sensed in the middle of the Yukon was so intense that it made me nervous. Hundreds of miles to the nearest mechanic. But if you want to be alone, you will have your way out here. Sometimes, when I would pull back onto the highway after a fuel stop or overnight camp, I would look both directions for traffic and not see another vehicle. Not one, as far as the eye could see.
I think your solitude quota will be satisfied easily while you travel the Alaska Highway.
For more on the Alaska Highway, read my related post here.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan
This is a popular northwest lower Michigan destination for families with kids. Try hiking, beach combing, dunes climbing, and a 27-mile-long bike path that runs through deep forests and dunes.
You will be with crowds at the popular Dune Climb and the Scenic Drive which lands you at the top of the dunes 400 feet overlooking Lake Michigan. What a view!
But there is a solitary spot at the top of Sleeping Bear Point, although at sunset there will be a few folks who will trek out to see the million dollar sunset over Lake Michigan. From Glen Haven, take the blacktop road west to the end and then drive down the gravel lane to the trailhead parking lot where there are restrooms. You might want flip flops for about a hundred yards until you reach the foot of the dunes, then go barefoot.
The national lakeshore also includes two large islands, South Manitou Island (seen in the distance in the photo above) and North Manitou Island that have many miles of deserted beaches and unspoiled forests. Take the boat from Leland, Michigan; advance reservations are necessary.
The Channel Islands, California
Call ahead or go online for reservations on the passenger ferry from Ventura Harbor, Ventura. You may be accompanied by dolphins on the cruise over. Cool.
Once you disembark there will be a short orientation talk from the ranger, then you are free to wander about the island without distraction from crowds of hikers. The trails on the high cliffs are impressive and the drop-offs intimidating, so mind the edge.
Valley of the Gods, Utah
During the day, an occasional SUV will pass by as you settle in at your free campsite in the desert just about 30 miles from the famous Monument Valley Tribal Park where there are bus loads of visitors swarming the overlooks. At Valley of the Gods, you will be alone most of the time and at night the quiet and solitude can be almost unnerving.
Once the sun sets over the cliffs nearby, the wind will completely stop – along with that awful moaning sound in the top of the butte that towers over the campsite – and you’ll be in the dark. If you ever wanted to film the Milky Way above, this will be the spot without any interfering light from the nearest city over a hundred miles away.
Bryce Canyon National Park
This one calls for some strategy. Bryce is second only to Zion National Park for the number of visitors in the desert southwest. That means you’ll have to find the more remote hiking trails to find solitude.
Or go at night. This was my strategy when I was looking for those trails with the tunnels cut through the rock; I was looking for a certain photo setting, sort of an Indiana Jones theme.
The Queen’s Garden Trail was busy with hikers as I headed down off the rim into the canyon in the late afternoon, but as dusk fell they disappeared. I was totally alone for my evening photo shoot… and for the entire climb back to the rim after dark.
The White Rim Road, Utah
Again, Canyonlands National Park is heavily visited, though not quite as much as Arches National Park nearby. But there are hiking trails off the rim that are only sparsely traveled.
And if you drive below the rim, you will find even more isolation. The park service puts a quota on the number of visitors on the White Rim Trail, so you will have to plan ahead. You can make campsite reservations as much as 4 months in advance on their website.
Be advised, this drive is not for the faint of heart. The drop-offs are hundreds of feet. A Jeep or SUV with four-wheel-drive will work the best and they can be rented by the day from the outfitters in Moab nearby.
If you really want to be alone, take the Potash Road from Moab and, once you leave the pavement onto the gravel, you will be able to get to the White Rim without meeting another vehicle. Stop anywhere along the way for a solitary view of the Colorado River a thousand feet below or the massive cliffs and dry creek beds through which you will be driving. (See my 11-minute scary video of the White Rim Road here.)
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan
Again, this is a hikers’ mecca and the trails that skirt the cliffs 200 feet above Lake Superior will be busy with adventurers.
But, if you drive east from the town of Munising along the shoreline, you will find the less traveled county road H-58 that wanders through the forests above the lake connecting scenic overlooks with rustic campgrounds. Hike to Au Sable Point Lighthouse and see a scant few other wanderers, and linger at Sable Falls on your way to a campsite at the little village of Grand Marais or one of several national forest campgrounds that are carved out of the deep woods.
So, there are lots of locations where one can be alone, but sometimes they are difficult to find. These are just a few of the sites I have found… and now you know about them too.
There are many ways to approach the journey of life and we have explored a bunch of them. This is about the different beaches where we have lived for a time.
One of Kaye’s favorite activities in the whole world is beach walking. I love sitting and soaking up the sun and synthesizing vitamin D. So beaches work for both of us.
It seems that the ultimate destination in the Caribbean is the beach and we have had the experience of enjoying many of them, mostly in the Dominican Republic, one of our favorite island winter respites.
Playa Rincón, Samana Peninsula, Dominican Republic.
Because of it’s remoteness, this beach is still largely undeveloped. It is possible to be alone and unbothered. We first visited this beach in 1990, camping in a tent in the coconut grove. Our last visit there -via a rented quad runner – was in the winter of 2016 and it was still unspoiled and beautiful.
La Playita, Las Galeras, Dominican Republic.
The Little Beach offers snorkeling on the reef just offshore, and there is a beach restaurant and masseuse on hand. It was a 15-minute walk from our last vacation rental in the little fishing village.
Las Galeras Municipal Beach, Las Galeras, Dominican Republic
A short walk from our vacation rental, the “town beach” offered beach bars and “tipico” restaurants and shuttle boats to other beaches nearby.
The Cove, Samana Peninsula, Dominican Republic
This beach is smack in front of the resort by the same name and is shared with the local fishermen who store their boats on shore every night. The local kids love to get attention from the tourists and will put on a show whenever there is a camera around. We stayed here for the winter of 2013.
West Coast Beaches
Santa Barbara Beach, California.
This large beach is nicely maintained by the city of Santa Barbara. There is a bike path, volleyball courts, an art show every Sunday, and a wharf with restaurants on stilts. We visited several times when we were doing the work-camping thing at nearby Fillmore, California, in the winter and spring of 2014.
While in California for the winter, we also explored Mugu Point Beach and had lunch at the famous beach diner, Neptune’s Net pictured in movies and TV shows.
We also enjoyed camping at the beach at the linear park at Seacliff where the beach was walkable for miles. Boon docking at its best (no hookups).
The Gulf Coast and East Coast
Dauphin Island Beach, Dauphin Island, Alabama
In the winter of 2015 we set out to spend the entire winter on island beaches. Dauphin Island was our home for January where the beaches are white sand. They are walkable for many miles.
St. Augustine Beach, St. Augustine, Florida
We spent the month of February in this historical town where driving on the beach is permitted. Bonus!
Emerald Isle Beach, Emerald Isle, North Carolina
In March, our RV site was a short dune walk from this beautiful white sand beach.
The Great Lakes
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Empire, Michigan
Being Michiganders most of our lives, this is probably one of our most frequent beach destinations. Of course, Lake Michigan is too cold for swimming except in the late summer and early fall.
Port Crescent State Park, Port Austin, Michigan.
The closest beach to our house for over 40 years, this beach and several others along the east shore of Michigan were our favorite sun-and-sand destinations in the summertime.
So this is a sampling of the many beaches where we have spent some time.
This is the first in the Life’s A Trip series featuring different ways we are approaching this journey of life.
Life’s a journey – whether you are on the road to adventure or parked in one spot for a while. There are many different stops along the way.
This is about the places we have discovered while venturing around the U.S. in a four-wheel-drive pickup truck for the last couple of years.
We had lived in the same place for over 40 years when we looked around one day and saw that our kids were grown up and moved away and exploring distant horizons. We looked at each other and decided we could do that too. Selling the 30-acre homestead, we downsized our stuff, upgraded the RV and took off. We spread a map on the kitchen table, closed our eyes and jabbed a finger at… Alaska. (It wasn’t quite that random; we had a daughter living and working in Alaska every summer and had been wanting to go there for a long time.)
Summer was months away, so I got a work-camp assignment at an old campground in Fillmore California for the winter and spring.
Michigan to California
We had family nearby at Santa Barbara and accompanied them to the beaches and eateries in the area.
California to Alaska
Summer came and leaving our work-camp assignment, we headed north up the Pacific Coast Highway toward the Canadian border.
We drove 1900 miles before reaching the beginning of the Alaska Highway at Dawson Creek, British Columbia.
After 15 days of driving we arrived at Denali Park where our daughter was working and living for the summer. We stayed through the middle of the summer.
Our trek back to Michigan in the late summer took 11 days returning over the same mountain passes and open prairie.
Michigan to the Gulf of Mexico.
After spending the late summer and fall in Michigan, we set our sights on the south, again hoping to escape the harsh northern winter. Leaving at the end of December, we arrived in Memphis on New Years Eve for dinner and a party at B.B. King’s Blues Club.
The local Mardi Gras parade marched right by our campground. We also visited New Orleans on a day trip.
Alabama to Florida
I was delighted to arrive in St. Augustine, Florida and discover that driving on the beach is a thing there, four-wheel-drive required.
At low tide the beach is 100 yards wide and allows plenty of room for drivers, bikers, and walkers.
Up the East Coast
In the spring, we wandered up the east coast through Georgia and South Carolina, staying for a month at Emerald Isle, North Carolina, then stopping for a few days in Virginia from where we made day trips to Washington D.C. visiting the major sites by means of the double-decker bus.
Arriving back in Michigan, we spent the summer at a campground with a bike trail and a small lake.
At the end of the year, we parked the rig for a while and flew to the tropics for the winter. That’s another story.
In the spring we decided to take a break from the gypsy life for a while. We moved into a small apartment in a small town in Michigan.
West again to Utah – the Pickup Camper
We were enjoying staying put for a while, but for some time I had been planning a return to the southwest for a photo shoot in the canyons of Utah. Rather than haul the RV, I switched to a pickup camper that was just big enough for one person.
These are isolated locations where lone wolf campers can be alone and most of these sites are free. All of these are legal camping sites.
First, a reminder that boondocking is rustic camping without hookups. Some of these sites don’t even have a toilet, so you have to be comfortable with alternatives. Fortunately for me, I was hauling a pickup camper which was entirely self-contained and I could store my compost in a holding tank until reaching a dump site.
Pleasant Creek National Forest Campground
The first of the rustic campsites on my recent photography trip to the American Southwest was at a deserted forest campground along highway 12 in the mountains between Capitol Reef National Park and Escalante, Utah. At about 7000 feet elevation, this spot was a cool island of pine and poplar woods surrounded by lower deserts of bare rock.
The campground had pit toilets and delicious well water. All alone for the night, my campsite cost $6 which is half the usual rate because of my senior pass which also gets me into all national parks for free.
There were two other national forest campgrounds within a half mile and there were a couple of campers there for the night. This was in September.
Hole-In-The-Rock Road, Escalante, Utah
After exploring the intriguing rock formations at Devil’s Garden off Hole-in-the-Rock Road, I found an isolated pull-off a couple of miles south and west across from the access track to the dinosaur tracks site (I didn’t cross the dry wash into dinosaur tracks because the steep sideways slope threatened to roll my camper over).
This spot was essentially nothing more than a level field where I could pull off the road. The sound of the light rain on the roof of the camper during the night lulled me to sleep.
Paria Contact Station
East of Kanab, Utah, there is a ranger station with some helpful volunteers on staff. After driving through heavy rain coming down from Escalante all day, I was leery of crossing the gully at Buckskin Wash even with four wheel drive. I figured a flashflood was coming that could prevent me from returning to the highway for several days. Their solution for me was a gravel pit on the top of the mountain behind the station. I had a free campsite with no neighbors.
The next morning I looked down on a raging Paria River rushing at 30 miles an hour. I decided to change my itinerary and stay out of the slot canyons where the water level rose from ankle deep to 30 feet deep overnight. Deadly!
Valley of the Gods
This was my favorite campsite for pure desert grandeur. I chose a spot at the foot of a huge stone butte where I could see for twenty miles toward the distant towers of Monument Valley. The camping is free for a limit of 14 days at each spot.
One word of caution here. If you approach Valley of the Gods from the south off highway 163 you can reach the campsites with a medium-sized motor home or trailer. If you come in from the west on 261 as I did, you will cross no less than 20 dry washes with steep grades that will test the fortitude of your four wheel drive rig. Don’t take your 40-foot coach in here from either direction.
Five miles west of Bluff, Utah, on highway 163, open the cattle gate and drive through, then close it behind you. You are on Butler Wash Road at the south end of a broad valley flanked by rocky cliffs on both sides. Among those cliffs there are many hidden Navajo cliff dwellings. Camping is free at any of the side tracks on this 25-mile long four wheel drive road. Yes, again, you must not take a long wheel-base vehicle in here; you’ll get hung up in a step ravine trying to climb out the other side.
You are sure to be alone with only the night wind to keep you company. (Read about my adventure at Pedestal Rock Ruin here.)
A few miles northwest of the town of Moab, Utah, on highway 191 there is a privately owned parking lot with nicely leveled gravel lots and porta-johns. There are no other perks except its strategic location near the entrances of Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. I found it almost impossible to get a campsite at the national parks so this little spot was a real blessing to me and I stayed several consecutive nights paying the measly $5 per night. What a great staging area for rafting the Colorado River, dirt biking the slick rock at Behind the Rocks, or four wheeling the epic off-road challenges around the area. Moab has provisions of all kinds. You can even rent a Jeep or ORV there.
These are a few of the great boondocking campsites of southern Utah. I passed up many others. Much of the desert southwest is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) where free – or almost free – camping is permitted with only a few restrictions.
Read about my adventure near 7-Mile Parking on the White Rim Road:
This is the 5th in a series on the Southwest. Find the others in the left sidebar or at the bottom of this post.
Sometimes I can’t believe how I get into such scary spots… and then I remember exactly how it happens: I am always looking for the obscure sites where there is nobody else around. I don’t like crowds, but for a photographer, they usually come with the job.
Not so with the obscure Navajo ruins of the southwest. Three of these four sites are not even on a map; I found them through some meandering research, and some of them I had completely to myself. Now that’s what I’m talking about.
There is a reason why the hundreds of ancient ruins are not publicized and it has to do with preservation. Heavy traffic can destroy irreplaceable artifacts in a short time. Most of these locations are protected by conservation laws, but that doesn’t stop some folks from picking up a curious arrowhead here or a stone tool there… and soon there is no way for archaeologists to piece together the true history of the place when they eventually get to study the site. Obscurity is their best protection.
Pedestal Rock Ruin
I don’t think there is anything to worry about when it comes to the long-term preservation of this amazing location. Not only is it difficult to reach by road, it is perched on a high ledge that can’t be reached without risk to life and limb. It’s just not worth taking the chance.
Further, though it is in plain sight, it blends in with the background cliff so well that it is all but impossible to spot without knowing where to look.
When I finally reached Pedestal Rock after several miles of off-roading (yes, four-wheel-drive was absolutely necessary) and a hike on foot across the desert, I still had to scramble 150 feet up a loose talus slope to get within 100 feet – and still 30 feet below the ledge – to photograph the stone ruin. No way was I climbing any farther!
Nobody is going to bother Pedestal Rock ruin for a long time. It’s a thousand years old now and will continue to last undisturbed until… well, a major earthquake or something.
This site was another well camouflaged structure. I drove right up to it on a ranch access road and when I got out of my truck I still couldn’t see it. It’s perfect blend with the huge alcove in which it sits also made it hard to photograph.
Again, I was in for a challenging climb on a boulder-strewn slope. Man, these guys knew how to pick their sites to ward off attackers!
Many of these ruins were abandoned 700 years ago, but they date back to hundreds of years before that. Just think, Columbus hadn’t even arrived yet in North America by the time these installations were vacated. Historians say they moved southeast to more fertile locations, but I think it was because somebody had to carry water and firewood up that slope everyday and they just got tired of it.
My hike to False Kiva and back had me focused intently on my own survival. The site is located in a high alcove overlooking the expansive views of Canyonlands National Park but it requires a sketchy climb across the face of a loose rocky slope on a rather obscure pathway where one wrong move can mean a disastrous tumble and certain death. The drop to the Green River is over 2000 feet!
Long before I reached the ancient site, I was dizzy with vertigo. Finally, the enormous alcove offered a secure place to rest… and grab the photos for which I had just risked by life. Wow! What a view!
I still had to climb back out of here. My original plan to stay for some night sky shots now seemed rather foolhardy and an invitation to trouble on the dangerous slope after dark. A quick change of plans had me gulping Gatorade and trail mix and resting for a few minutes before initiating an immediate return to the canyon rim before darkness would set in.
Hovenweap National Monument
This place is actually on the map and gets a light flow of visitors even though it is a long way from anywhere. It’s location near the Four Corners area makes it accessible on mostly nice paved roads, but it is still not really on the way to anywhere. There is a rustic campground where I stayed the night.
Though you have to be a bit intentional about getting here, at least you will not be challenged by strenuous climbs. The only real danger is that, just like every other ancient Anasazi installation, the buildings are perched on the edges of drop-offs. Make the kids hold your hand.
Some of these remarkable buildings are three and four stories high and really impressive. The stonework is nothing short of amazing.
Every building is contoured to the ledge that it sits on. And apparently, the rock didn’t need to be level to be a desirable construction site. It just had to be on a dangerous edge. Amazing.
Anyway, it was a relief for me to be able to wander around pretty much on the level and wonder about the way of life that the ancients experienced. How deep must have been their fear of their adversaries to feel they had to protect themselves by building and living their lives on the edge every day.
My visit to four ancient sites afforded only a brief glimpse of the historical installations. There are hundreds of them, and I was amazed that most of them sit unprotected on their original ledges with nary a visit from anybody. Hopefully, they stay that way, because they are a real treasure to all of us, not only to the native descendants.
I came away from all of my cliff dwelling adventures without a scratch, just some achy leg muscles from all the scrambling up and down steep rock-strewn slopes. For that I am really thankful.
This is the 4th in the series on the American Southwest. There are links to the others at the bottom… or click on the others in the left side bar.
There are no buses or safari trucks hauling tourists to this remote spot. In fact, if you don’t have a high clearance vehicle, you might not make it here yourself. The road is gravel and sand and if you are coming in from the west, it crosses no less than 20 dry washes. You descend steeply, cross the stream bed, and then climb just as quickly out the other side. If it’s raining, forget about it. Crossing streams here can get you stuck for hours or days – if you aren’t washed away entirely.
What this lack of accessibility adds up to is a lot of solitude… in the middle of a magnificent valley filled with rugged silent beauty. It is often described as a slightly less spectacular version of Monument Valley which is within sight, a few miles to the southwest. To me, it looks as though the two are just part of one larger geological area, with the San Jaun River gorge cutting across the middle.
The camping is free here, and that is one thing that attracted me to the spot; I saw it as an affordable overnight alternative to the expensive campgrounds and dude ranches that service Monument Valley. Of course, boon docking is for those who are self-sufficient. There are no restrooms or water pumps here; you are entirely on your own.
I had checked off a mental inventory of my provisions before turning off the highway just north of Mexican Hat, having already filled the fuel tank and eating a hearty fast food meal at Kayenta, Arizona earlier in the day.
The campsite I chose was at the valley’s northernmost point at the foot of a giant butte and across from its twin. There were cliffs both east and west of me and a view to the southwest that stretched almost to infinity where I could see the hazy buttes of Monument Valley in the distance.
There is no restriction on hiking and exploring here, so I scrambled around for a while with the camera, just enjoying the sights.
Of course, boon docking means there are no improvements to the campsites; there are no RV pads or leveled platforms. I soon realized that my site was sloping a bit and decided to make my own improvements – by backing the truck onto some slabs of rock for the night. Perfect.
After the sun went down, I became slowly aware of another spectacular scene: the Milky Way was brilliant in the dark sky above me. After all, the nearest town was 20 miles away and the nearest city was more than 100 miles south. Out came the camera and tripod for a few time exposures of the starry sky.
Though there had been a few tourists driving by in rented SUV’s during the day, the place became extremely quiet after dark, almost too quiet. There was not another soul nearby… or was there?
A light wind was causing a moaning in the highest crags of the stone tower near me. It seemed a little bit spooky, and I started wondering how this desolate place first got its name. Did the natives name it? Had they been conjuring spirits out here in the past? Were there still manifestations that were floating about in the dark?
Climbing into the comfort of my camper loft, my weariness caught up with my consciousness and put me under a blanket of sleep. There were no nightmares. Just peace and quiet.
I loved Valley of the Gods and if I ever return, I hope to stay longer.
It’s a lot of fun if you like traipsing about in the desert among the most fascinating of rock formations. Or if you just like quiet solitude. Beautiful.
This is the third in a series of posts from my photo safari to the American Southwest. Look for links to the others at the bottom.
Since I am the most frequent subject in my own photos, I often dress to fit the setting. For the southwest trip I bought a plaid shirt – red of course – and a cowboy hat and stepped into the picture at just about every site.
At Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park there is already a resident cowboy who poses on his horse for the tourists, making a few dollars in tips from each one. Being photo savvy, he wears a red shirt too. I don’t know this Navajo’s name but we spoke briefly at John Ford Point, the little mesa made famous by the namesake film director who first filmed John Wayne at the site for the movie Stagecoach in 1939. It has since been featured in a variety of flicks including The Searchers (1956), Easy Rider (1969) and others.
My tour of the dusty 17-mile valley loop took me past other popular scenes like the Totem Poles, West Mitten, East Mitten, and Merrick Butte.
Though there are lots of safari trucks and outfitters who offer tours through the famous valley, I like that it is still open to general visitors to drive and explore. However, hiking is not allowed in most areas and there are warnings about leaving the road, so it is closely controlled. You can get ticketed for wandering off… if anybody can find you.
My final signature site was Mile 13 on the north side of the valley where highway 163 makes a straight shot north out of the park. It’s the spot where Forrest Gump finally stopped running in the movie of the same name. The day I was there, the highway was being repaved.
Monument Valley is a long way from the nearest expressway and farther from a city, but if you go, you can get fuel and provisions at the Shell station in Mexican Hat coming in from the north or at Kayenta (AZ) to the south where there are several gas stations and even some fast-food joints.
Also, if you are boondocking, the camping is free at Valley of the Gods just 25 miles northeast (my next post will cover this remote location). No facilities.
You’re sure to have a monumental experience! And have fun.
Also, click the green Follow button in the left side bar if you want to get a notice of my next post. You won’t want to miss my final post in the series, Four Mountain Roads that Scared the Snot Out of Me!
This is the first in a series of posts from my photo safari to the American Southwest. Look for links to the others at the bottom.
I doubt if there is another place in the world with as many hoodoos as Bryce Canyon National Park. Red rocks, pink rocks, yellow rocks, white and orange rocks, a panorama of this landscape is a mind-boggling blast of color. It’s almost too much to comprehend from the canyon overview.
Fortunately, you can get right into this scene and touch and feel these fantastic natural features, because there is a network of hiking trails that takes you right into the heart of it.
I chose the Queen’s Garden trail first because I knew there were tunnels and I wanted to photograph them at dusk. Great fun.
Of course, every trail ends with a strenuous climb back to the canyon rim. Whoa. And at 8,000 feet elevation, the unseasoned hiker will be gasping for air before making it back to the top.
Rather than doing an out-and-back, I connected to the Navajo trail which is the most traveled pathway in the park. But after dark, I was the only one out there. Hah! those busloads of tourists were nowhere to be seen.
Photography was my first priority on my wandering tour of the southwest, but hiking was essential to get to the scenes I wanted to shoot. Queen’s Garden trail was a great way for me to get into the guts of Bryce Canyon and capture the essence of this gorgeous geological site.
Photographers often say it is all about the light. One of my favorite phenomena about the light at Bryce is that it bounces and reflects all over the place, making the rocks look as though they are glowing from within, creating a rather neon effect.
So this is the thing about Hoodoo Central. Make sure you get below the rim and into the heart of place. Feet on trail, firsthand experience, here we come.
And take lots of pictures. It is a one-of-a-kind place in all the world.
It is no secret to outdoor photographers that the color red is an eye-catcher, and they use it at just the right times (usually) to add pizzazz to their photos. I don’t know what aesthetic operative comes into play when I see a nature photo with red in it, but it gets my attention anyway. I have been using this natural phenomenon in my photos for a long time.
When I rented kayaks for a recent paddle along the rugged shoreline of Michigan’s Thumb, I chose red kayaks. The outfitter had yellow, blue, orange and green, but I knew what red would do in my photos of the event. Yes, yellow or orange would probably have provided a similar effect, but red delivered the classic look I was hoping for.
Sometimes, it’s not up to me to be intentional about using the color red. Sometimes, I get lucky and it is already there. Last weekend I was camping at Tawas Point State Park to test some new camping gear and when I hiked out to the historic lighthouse — Voila! — the lighthouse keeper’s dwelling had a red roof. Cool. That was easy. Somebody on the lighthouse restoration committee apparently knew the secret too.
This knowledge has cost me a small fortune. It didn’t cost any more money to rent a red kayak than a green one, but I have spent money on red shirts, jackets and sweaters to insert in my photos, and now, anticipating some upcoming road trips to the seacoast, I have bought a red convertible. No joke. I would not buy any other color than red, and I actually have been watching the online market for two years waiting for the right car and the right time.
Two years ago, when we were hauling the RV up the Pacific Coast Highway from southern California to Alaska, we had to bypass the California redwoods because we were pressed for time and we couldn’t invest the necessary extra day that it would take to handle that winding narrow road through the tall trees. At that moment we pledged to ourselves that we would return sometime later and approach it in the proper manner… in a red convertible.
So, you will be seeing this car on the blog a lot in the coming days.
For our first major road trip with it, we have chosen to take on an adventure we missed last year while heading up the east coast from Florida in the spring. We want to visit New England and pick up six states that we have never been to, bringing our tally from 43 states to 49. Not only that, the trip will coincide with our 45th wedding anniversary. We plan to be cruising the coast of Maine on our special day.
I can’t think of a more appropriate way to celebrate 45 years together than to cruise the seashore in a red convertible — with the top down, of course.
Maybe we will get back to the redwoods sometime – and now we have the right car for it – but for this time it will be the other end of the country and a place we have never been before.
It’s the appropriately color-coordinated adventure of a lifetime!
Watch for the red sports car in subsequent posts.
Unfortunately, not every photographic prop can be purchased in red. Part of the new inventory of camping gear that I was testing last weekend is a new tent. It’s yellow. But a red light stick inside changes the color for photos.
And anyway, it is possible to get too much of a good thing, so yellow will be fine for my photos of my tent in future camping pics. Any bright color will add visual punch to a photo.
Try it if you want to, and see what happens to your photos.
Milepost: 5-11-16 — Just moved into a small apartment
For many years it seemed like this day would never come — the day that we would be free to wander around the country in an RV and a pickup truck and choose our next destination with a random finger stab at the map lying in our laps. But the day did come, not by accident but by sheer determination and hard work. There were hard choices.
Six years ago we were living on a retired 30-acre Christmas tree farm with too much mowing to do… and a mortgage we could no longer afford. Our kids had all grown up and left our spacious rural estate and our large house, and our nearest grandchild now lived 80 miles away.
We had become weary of the upkeep on so much property and wanted to see the world — and our grandkids. But we couldn’t afford it. I had been running a full crew with my log home construction company when the housing bust arrived in Michigan — two years before the recession. It was 2006 and nobody else wanted a log home. Even the log home dealers were closing one by one — the people who had been referring their buyers to us to build their homes. I had to lay off the crew.
Our financial plan for retirement crashed and burned.
We had arrived at retirement age still owing a mortgage. Reality was brutal: We could afford to own and maintain this property OR we could afford to travel. But not both. We had to choose one or the other.
It looked as though our businesses had run their courses and we wouldn’t be needing so much space and so many resources — tools, machinery, etc. and the kids weren’t coming home to visit but once or twice a year. We were ready to downsize.
And so we did.
We spent the next few years cleaning out sheds and closets and selling stuff or giving it away. We put the property up for sale. But we were in the middle of the recession and nothing happened. Finally, a neighbor showed up at our door asking if we would sell him 10 acres. We did, and then used the money to buy a used RV. We put the rest of our stuff in storage, put renters in the big house, and we hit the road.
And the next year, while we were wandering around Alaska with our rig, the rest of our property sold. Our once impossible dream was becoming our new reality.
Over the last couple of years, we have explored three corners of our country, from Florida to California to Alaska and a thousand points in between, and have moved offshore for a couple of winters living in the tropics in vacation rentals.
New England (the fourth corner of our country) will have to wait for us, because we have decided to take a vacation from traveling (that sounds odd, maybe?) and move into a small apartment for a while.
And we can finally afford to do BOTH. We can have a Michigan home base again AND continue to travel. Our new apartment is only 13 miles from our kids and grandkids, and the rent is less than half of what our old mortgage was!
Somebody else mows the lawns, shovels the walks, and repairs the leaks… while I head down the rail trail with my bike or visit the local farm market or ice cream shop (One of the bike paths here ends at the local Dairy Queen).
If I have one regret, it is that we didn’t start downsizing sooner. Fortunately, Kaye and I are still physically fit and able to pursue our travel goals, and we really do appreciate and take advantage of our good fortune. Lots of folks run out of good health before they ever get to realize their dreams.
Anyway, I was doing a bit of reminiscing today and thinking about how far we have come in the face of a lot of challenges, and decided to write about it here. I am so happy that our present circumstance is so far different than where we were just a few years ago.
If you, my reader, find yourself in a similar almost impossible scenario, take heart; there is much that can happen to improve your outlook and bring your dreams within reach.
I suspect that your journey will begin with some difficult decisions and will be followed by a lot of hard work. That’s okay, isn’t it?
The struggle makes the reward all the more satisfying.
On the other hand, if you are in upsizing mode right now, it might be smart for you to stop and think about what you really want in 10 years or 20 years from now. Maybe you should quit bringing more stuff into your garage and basement and attic. It might turn into a ball and chain later and keep you planted at a time when you want to be free.
Milepost 2-26-16 -at a vacation rental in the Dominican Republic
“Introvert, Know Thyself”. This is my most recent note-to-self. I am experiencing a bit of emotional discomfort in my current setting, and I’m realizing that I over-estimated my ability to find solitude in a highly social culture. For an introvert like me, solitude is essential to a balanced life and healthy emotional equilibrium.
Everybody is different, and it would be easy to assume that the majority of travelers and adventurers are extroverts, loving the excitement and the challenges of far-away places and exotic cultures. I don’t know if that is the case, and I am not about to launch a study to find out.
What I do know is what an introvert like me needs when it comes to adventure – and life in general:
I can enjoy crowds and parties and parades and other highly social settings, but only for a short time, and those experiences need to be followed by a season of hibernation, of being alone so that I can refuel my emotional tank.
On the other hand, if I am inactive for very long, I will get restless and need to get outside and satisfy my adventure quotient.
The best balance of these two factors – of solitude and adventure – is to find adventures in sparsely populated locations. Or to follow my crowded adventures with solo adventures in solitary places.
I don’t like cold weather for very long. I can handle Michigan through Christmas every year with just the right allocation of snow and brisk clear air, but after that, the winter is far too long. This is a third factor that complicates my search for the right balance. There aren’t that many southern destinations that offer solitude. RV parks are notorious for noise and overcrowding. For the solitary soul, they are tolerable when and if there are quiet areas nearby.
Where I ran into trouble this winter was that I chose a tropical setting in the middle of a highly social open-air culture for too long a period of time. 10 weeks of noise, bustling streets, merengue music blasting until after midnight every night… well, I just can’t seem to get away from it long enough to refill my emotional tank. Of course, even the beaches are crowded with bodies this time of year.
I find myself avoiding the interaction with the locals that I love so much – for short periods. I just want to stay home and be alone.
Fortunately, Kaye and I are very much alike in most of these ways, only she likes the northern winters and doesn’t need as much adventure as I do.
We solve this by scheduling what we call Bob-alone times. I can head off on a solo adventure, thus satisfying my appetite for adventure, while both of us get to refresh by being alone for a while.
Most of my solo adventures are short, lasting only a few hours. A bike ride down the nearest rail trail works just fine, and I don’t have to talk to anyone along the way, simply nodding to other cyclists that I meet on the trail. I do this several times a week during the fair weather seasons.
Longer alone times usually involve a tent, a sleeping bag and a cooler full of goodies… and my camera, of course. Last summer, I celebrated my birthday by heading up north to the woods with my bike to pedal for miles on end at a beautiful paved bike trail through the woods and dunes of the national lakeshore in northern Michigan. I camped at a state forest campground by a quiet stream where there was hardly anyone else around. Ah, solitary bliss.
I always feel that when I am alone with myself… I am in good company. If you are an introvert, you likely know what I am saying.
Anyway, I am sharing this side of myself for the benefit of other would-be adventures who may not entirely understand what happens to them when they feel stressed while living in a foreign culture for an extended period of time. Maybe you are an introvert. Maybe you need to study yourself a bit more and find ways to hibernate from time to time for the sake of your own well-being… and the well-being of those who are traveling with you.
I really do write notes-to-myself that I refer to before scheduling the next outing. It is good to know yourself. The thing is, you can’t always know how you will feel or react in a given situation until you try it out.