Monday, October 27, 2014

Iowa October

Iowa is at its best in October I believe.  My past two trips there have been in October, and the rolling farmlands are in autumn-glow finery during this time, the weather whispers of coming winter, the temperature begs for a coat but doesn't leave your fingers numb, and the trees are an explosion of so-good-you-want-to-drink-them-up warm-colored hues.

But I digress.

The real reason for the trip was to celebrate my grandfather's 90th birthday.  Unfortunately, I could only get away for 3 days but those three days were filled with an overflow of treasured time with family and the gift of several outdoor experiences in a true autumn (something most of California lacks).

I arrived late afternoon on Friday.  Our first stop was a drive past the old family farm that my dad grew up on.  After that, we had a short walk around Iowa Lake and then continued on to my grandparents' home town to help set up for the birthday party.  It was a late night of party set-up, but the entire evening was also spent with my grandparents + two aunts so I couldn't have thought of anywhere I'd rather be or anything I'd rather be doing.

Past Family farm (now owned by others)
Iowa Lake

Saturday I had an early morning run out on the gravel roads leading away from my parents' friends' "farm house"... see the picture below, not what you expected of a farmstead, huh?  Besides running a very successful farm, they also are the owners of a very successful winery.  They were most kind to put us up...and honestly it felt like staying in a bed & breakfast resort.

Iowa "Farm House"

Evidence of my white-tailed deer siting that morning :)

My parents and I even got a taste of the daily farm life during harvest time with a ride in the corn combine and auger wagon...both (but the former especially are quite the impressive bit of machinery).  It was sincerely quite a thrill to be able to ride in one, and I know if any farmer reads this they would chuckle at my enthusiasm when it's all in a day's work for them.  However, for anyone, the realization of how quickly this machine gets the job done compared to de-kerneling by hand is awe-inspiring.  We had a mountain of kernels within mere minutes.

The rest of the afternoon and evening was spent with the family finishing the set-up for and then helping with the running of the birthday party event.  The attendance was quite impressive, a true testament to the man my grandfather is and has always been and to so many.  I felt quite proud to stand by and call myself his kin.  And...once handsome always handsome I say (see the pictures below).  When the evening came to a close, he gave me a picture of himself as a young chap, about the age I am now, and told me to tell others that "this is my boyfriend." I plan to do just that Grandpa and make all the other girls jealous of my good fortune.

My aunt put together an impressive display of photos of my grandfather over the years, memorabilia of his life and hobbies, and also a collection of things he had of which was a poem he wrote for me shortly after I was born (he wrote a poem for each of his grandchildren in such a fashion), so couldn't help but share that as well:

Sunday was spent with my mom's side of the family in another town close by.  We met one of my aunts and she took us to a prairie restoration site.  This is an area where volunteers have collected native prairie grass seed form elsewhere, rescattered it in this area, and helped the land return to what it was before Iowa became a sea of corn and soybean fields.  The autumn light made it even more beautiful and it was great fun to walk through native grasses that towered over our heads at points.  This area also has a great selection of hiking trails through a small forest...if I had more time I would have spent hours here.

Our next few stops were a walk down memory lane for my mom past her old house, high school, and junior high.  We stopped at a few other parks - one of which was the location of my parents' second date back when they were courting.

Ellis Park  

Location of parents' 2nd date
All too soon, it was time for me to return to the airport and fly back home.  Still: I savored the time with family and the time I was able to wrap myself in a true autumn.  

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Utah - Red Rock Repository

Three days, three national parks, and one half-marathon?


My friend and I had signed up for the "The Other Half - Moab Half Marathon" several months ago, without making many plans for what the rest of the weekend would hold.  She had recruited a few other friends to join in the endeavor, which turned the half-marathon weekend into quite the exploration of Utah's incredible landscape.

While the rest of the race-day crew drove out, I had to fly (due to personal time limitations).  I was to meet them in Zion National Park.

The drive from Salt Lake City (the airport I flew into), although long, was hardly a burden given the stunning landscape traversed to get there.  It was a challenge not to pull over every 15 minutes to take a photo.  The fall light made everything glow, caused all the colors to pop.  Forests, grasslands, sporadic aspen stands in the process of dressing themselves in their golden finery - it was rather grand.

As you get closer to Zion the landscape becomes more desert-like with incredible rock formations.  Sedimentation visible everywhere and the red is so red you feel you might have departed earth some time ago and gone onto Mars.

The group I was meeting had arrived at the park earlier that day (Friday) and was doing the Narrows.  So I asked the ranger at the park pay station what day hike she'd recommend.

The Watchman Trail is a easily accomplished in 2 hours (more likely 1.5 hours or less really) and you can start straight from the visitor center (signs to the trail are easy to follow without a map).  It is only 2 miles round trip, and the way up is mostly incline : short switchbacks and stairs.  Although not too rigorous, you'll still find yourself pleasantly breathing a bit harder.

It was a bit overcast the day I hiked it, but the site of the canyon and panoramic views from the top of the trail were still spectacular.

After I met up with the rest of the group, we set off to find a camping site.  The Zion National Park camping sights were all full, so we camped on BLM land (free!) instead.  Apparently this was "the spot" as we had several neighbors.

The next morning (Saturday) my friend and I parted ways from the rest of the group for the day (who was headed back to Zion for a hike) to go to Arches National Park (about 4-5 hours from Zion depending on how fast you drive).

Again it was overcast, but the reds of the rock were still so hue-intense it was hard to believe they weren't colored artificially.  We drove around and did short hikes (hardly 'hikes' really, but nice walks around the rock structures).  You truly feel you are on an alien planet due to the strangeness of the architecture.

To me the most impressive thing is that the arches are so delicate, held so precariously in balance, and were created to be such all by natural forces (wind, rain, natural erosion, the type of rock they are made from, etc.).  It is a sort of engineering genius as all the arches over on the cusp of self-destruction : their inevitable conclusion one day in the future.

Our last stop in the park for the day was Delicate Arch and when we realized that we might miss the sunset, my friend suggested we run up...which we did.  And good thing too because we only just made it. 

I couldn't think of a better way to see Delicate Arch nor a better way to end the day.

After meeting up with the rest of the group in Moab (about 15 minutes from Arches National Park) for dinner, we got to bed early in a hotel in town with anticipation of an early rise for the half marathon the next morning (Sunday).

The Other Half - Moab Half Marathon is one of the best organized races I've participated in.  We had shuttle buses that took us out to the start from a hotel near our own that left around 0645.  It was about a 45 minute drive to start line, and we arrived just after the sun rose.  They had fire pits all around for racers to stay warm while waiting to start the run and the started promptly at 0830.

The course is gorgeous.  Much of it is run along the Colorado River shaded by the high canyon walls surrounding.  You feel as if you are running through an old western movie: flat desert land to your immediate right and left, but impressive mesa-top rock formations in the distance and on the far horizon are mountains, blue with distance.  If I would have had a camera, I would have been hard pressed not to stop several times to take a picture, but it was good I did not - sometimes even the addicted-to-documenting (*cough) among us simply need to be in a place.

The course is pretty forgiving, mostly flat but with some steady hills of a not-unnoticeable grade.  At the end you get a medal (to go with your long sleeve race shirt - complete with thumb holes - that you got at the expo the day before), a beer class (which you can get up to 3 free beers with), and watermelon (among other post-race food they provide).

After catching the bus back to the area near our hotel, my friend and I again parted ways with the group (who were staying in Moab to do some swimming) to go to Canyonlands National Park.

We had pretty low expectation of the park, neither of us having heard much about it previous, but once we got there we were rather blown away.  It is certainly an undersold park, but you certainly should not pass it up.

It's been a long while since I've been to the Grand Canyon, but I think Canyonlands is a good rival for breathtaking views.  

After a too-short hour in the park, we had to leave and drive back to Salt Lake City as I had a flight that night to catch.

Conclusion - Utah is an incredible place to visit, and a repository of red rock riches, and an excellent place to explore.