This is our bugout kit. From back to front of our SUV: two 50-gallon plastic bins with lids―the left has our mobile kitchen with two-burner front country stove, stainless steel half-sheet baking sheet, cutting board, mixing bowl, 12-inch steep-walled stainless steel pan, 10-inch cast iron frying pan, sieve, small plates, grater, measuring cup, tongs, metal spatula, immersion blender, french press, single-mantle propane lamp, food scale, various food storage containers, one roll of parchment paper and one roll of heavy-duty aluminum foil, and a smaller container with lid opener, knife sharpener, ruler, chef’s knife, bread knife, utensils, chopsticks, silicon spatula, bartender’s tool, various nozzles, and other small tools; the right is our mobile pantry with various oils, vinegars, and other seasoning liquids, a few pounds of white rice and brown rice, various (mostly Asian) noodles, a few packs of different heirloom beans, sugars, two medium tupperwares and two gallon ziplock bags full of spices and herbs, different canned vegetables and some prepared dry foods (like mac-n-cheese), and, especially, several pounds of various dals. Wedged between the two bins are two camping chairs. Atop them we keep three duffle bags, one shared containing technical outdoor clothing and a personal bag each for our street clothes. Here, too, we’ve been wedging our front country tent. Immediately in front of the large bins is a foldable pullup bar, then a roto-molded cooler (a generous gift from our very good friends), a canvas-and-cardboard box full of shoes, and my wife’s backpacking backpack with most of our backpacking gear (inflatable pads, foam sit pad, tech bag (med kit, trowel, flashlight, extra batteries, patches, head nets, bug spray, sanitizer, compass, cord, swiss army knife, pocket bellow), bear can (inside the bear can are smell-proof bags (and my stash), bear spray, various small containers), water filter, and mess kit (one 2L pot, one 1L pot, stove, two small bowls, two small utensils, a spatula head for cleaning, two small pack towels, aluminum windscreens). In front of my wife’s backpack, two large ditty sacks, one with our front country bedding (2 older thermarest inflatable pads, 2 closed-cell foam pads, and a bedsheet) and one with our front country and assorted other camping gear (this includes our beloved two-person down quilt (used for both front- and backcountry camping), one synthetic blanket, one Costco down quilt modified (with Kam snaps and shock cord) into a one-person either top or bottom quilt (for hammocks), lightweight tarp and bug net with cordage and stakes (our backcountry shelter), a packraft, a solar shower, a 1 gallon ziplock of assorted extra cordage, stakes, bug spray, etc., microspikes, gaiters, solar-powered inflatable light, and assorted ditty sacks. In front of the box of shoes is a canvas bag (purchased at the STAX museum and branded as such) with games (Dominion plus three expansion packs, Race for the Galaxy, Morels, Sushi Go, Llama, Tiny Epic Western, and Star Realm; plus ultralight backpacking games that include Cosmic Wimpout, a paper version of Hive, and Love Letter (Adventure Time version)), two lightweight beach wraps/towels, a double-walled growler, various koozies, backpacking hammock with ultralight straps and bugnet, and two (wonderful) double-walled titanium cups. In front of that is a canvas bag full of dehydrated backpacking food, atop which we keep another canvas bag full of snacks and lunch items. There is is often a third canvas bag full of other groceries we’ve recently purchased. In front of the cooler we have one tupperware full of bath items (shampoo, conditioner, Dr. Bronner’s soap, body sponge, toothpaste, toothbrushes, floss, scissors, razor, comb, deodorant, a few oils and fragrances, various lotions and body products (from our good friend’s business, Little Herbal Apothecary), med kit with ibuprofen, antihistamines, bandages, a roll of Leukotape, and tiger balm) and another full of electronics and household miscellany (miscellaneous cables, two portable power cells (one of them solar powered), rechargeable nickle metal hydride and lithium ion batteries with a charger, scissors, screwdrivers, two padlocks, a small sewing kit, E6000 adhesive, gorilla tape, twine, and binder clips (one of the most useful things on earth). On top of and in front of these are my wife’s and my personal messenger bags with our computers, tablets, (for her) important documents, notebooks, postcards, satellite communication/SOS device, (for me) a mechanical keyboard and USB mouse, bluetooth speaker, my DAP (a Fiio M9), balanced IEMs, external hard drive, extra notebooks, and any associated charging cables and transformers. Floating variously atop all of this cargo is a small wool blanket (mostly used beneath our front country sleeping pads) and our tennis bag (with two tennis rackets, four cans of balls, old hammock straps with attached handles (for suspending from the pullup bar or anything else), two resistance bands, and a ukulele), and my fanny pack (with flashlight, knife, watch, and a lighter). Wedged between the folded down rear seats and the front seats are: a camera bag with Nikon D5000 with kit lens plus a 35mm prime lens and a 75mm-300mm macro/telephoto lens; a canvas bag of books; a canvas bag of liquor; a canvas bag of cleaning supplies (paper towel, disinfectant wipes, laundry detergent pods, rubbing alcohol) and propane cans, and a foldable solar shield. On our roof we have a roof box that contains: my empty backpacking backpack, a day pack (empty save for the Mardi Gras beads we’ve kept), two sets of hiking poles, collapsible raft paddle, two 5 gallon collapsible water jugs, my outback-style cowboy hat, a foam roller, an EVA foam mat, a five-tray food dehydrator, and two pillows (now lovingly cinched up in a large (and surprisingly durable) plastic bag from the Mardi Gras Supply Depot). Up front we have a road atlas, water bottles, coffee thermos, small garbage bag, assorted small decorations (an alligator bead, a red-headed bean fetish from the Dead Beans Mardi Gras parade, a small crystal, a small fake flower, a small mountain hemlock cone, and a plastic alien skateboarder my wife and I got out of a quarter machine from a China Buffet in central Illinois in the earliest months of our courtship in college and which we have always kept hanging from the review mirror of whatever car we’ve had at the time), often our phones, wallet, small notebook, our sunglasses, my wife, myself.
Needless to say, it has been a very surreal couple of weeks. The coronavirus response has been so breakneck, and in the past few days we’ve been talking with friends and family and trying to think about everyone we know in their homes, taking care of their children, trying to work, cook food, and take the occasional walk―everyone canceling pretty much all of their plans, learning new home routines, and wondering how we are doing, out here (we are so grateful that so many people have been checking in with us). We are good, thinking carefully about how to be responsible during this time, considering the fact that we have no home to shelter in. Luckily we have had vast wilderness―social distancing built in, as it were―and that’s where we’ve been.
We left New Orleans (that sounds so long ago) on the last day of February, our car packed and our hangovers stabilized. We spent a few days in the Sam Houston National Forest, arriving on Saturday to a relatively busy camp full of families from the Houston area, but then spending the next few days almost completely alone, save the campground host (and on Sunday, two large family BBQs on the other side of the lake). We read, lounged in the hammock, hiked about eight miles of the Lonestar Trail, and cooked some good meals. From there we headed to Austin for a few days―a city neither of us had been to―and enjoyed taco after taco and a fantastic set from The Barfields at The Continental Club, as well as joyful voyeurism over a blues dance night at the White Horse (community dance classes seem always at my wife and mine’s periphery). Overall, though, we found Austin to be almost too familiar, young professionals in urban exuberance, sparkling new but blasé condominiums shooting up out of the rhizomes of cool old school dive bars. We were there when they canceled SXSW because of the virus, but hardly anyone seemed to know (maybe we got the news quickly because were looking it up, thinking that all the plastic wrap they wrapped on every surface near the convention center was some prophylactic against it (it turns out it’s against sticker bombs)).
Leaving Austin, we drove across the hill country on a long, bright, and windy day, arriving late afternoon at the Stillwell RV Ranch (friendliest staff!) just outside of Big Bend National Park. Our trip in Big Bend is one of the core highlights of this period, and I’ll say more about it in a moment, but let me just deposit two surrounding memories here: listening to Purple Rain on a very scenic drive, in the rain, to cache water at the Homer Wilson Ranch (the creosote bush activated by the moisture, so stepping out of the car was stepping into a wonderful charcoal aroma, clean and deep smelling); and then listening to Truckin’ after our backpack, on the way out of the Chisos mountains and into the desert, feeling each mile of that vast terrain flow beneath us―I want to say it was the first time I really felt on the road (Houston? Too close to New Orleans).
We got permits for the Outer Mountain Loop, a roughly 35-mile hike typically (and as we did it) starting in the Chisos basin, heading clockwise down some 3000 feet through Juniper Canyon onto the Dodson Trail (camp 1), which then heads west for 11 miles across the Chihuahuan desert and Chisos foothills to the Homer Wilson Ranch and Blue Creek Canyon (camp 2), then north climbing 2500 feet back into the mountains and into the Laguna Meadows and western hills (camp 3), then back down into the northern basin. It was a challenging hike, a bit of a boot camp for us for our Grand Canyon trip, and it introduced us to elements we aren’t very familiar with from our time in the Cascades, mostly heat and the lack of water. It is advised that you carry in and/or cache all of your water, but we also noted a creek in the middle of the Dodson Trail (Fresno Creek), and asking the ranger she confirmed that it was flowing and that we could filter there. The advice is to carry a gallon of water per person, per day, which when you add it up gets pretty heavy. We carried pretty much that (8 liters), with the intention of stretching it for a half a day the second day to get us to Fresno Creek. That ended up being a bad, though not completely dangerous, miscalculation.
By the time we woke up (in a beautiful camp) on the second day, we were already feeling a little dehydrated. Two miles into the hike we were feeling zapped, the 85 degree heat (which I know is not blistering hot, but it is when you are hiking 11 miles in it), exposure, exertion of the hike (it looks flatish on the topo map, but it is nonstop up and down in and out of washes and over passes and foothills) and our water conservation (only about 2 liters for 5 miles for the both of us) adding up. Up and down we hiked. My shirt was already completely salt stained. We stopped at every top-out, having handfuls of snack and sips of water. By the time we reached Fresno Creek, we had half a liter left. Fresno Creek was little more than a slushy trickle, but hiking down twenty feet we found some small pools (just big enough to dunk your head―our a 4 liter water bag―into), and we luxuriated in them. We immediately drank probably 2 liters each. We washed up, and I did the full circuit―face, neck, armpits, crotch, and bidet―lounging around naked in the sun and on the rocks afterward, letting my sweaty clothes dry out while we ate lunch. We filtered and drank more water, then, after about an hour and half stop there, carried on. The remaining half was still difficult and tiring and very long, but we weren’t quite so delirious, and when we arrived the Homer Wilson Ranch was just clearing out of its day visitors, so we had the shaded porch to ourselves while I retrieved our water cache. We relaxed, then found a camp nearby in a wash.
The next day was a slow 1000 foot climb up a wash through beautiful Blue Creek Canyon, then a more aggressive 1500 foot ascent up the canyon headwall and back into the mountains. By the time we topped out, we were already nearly at our camp, and we enjoyed long hours with a big lunch and naps and games and whisky. Our hike out the next morning was a swift descent back down into the basin, and, after a lunch and some fooling around in the front country, we decided to drive to Marathon, where my wife got us a room at the Marathon Motel and RV park. Marathon is a real West Texas treat, small but with a few choice luxuries (like the quaint motel, or the nearby bar, the White Buffalo)―we enjoyed it more than Marfa, where we did laundry the next day, which was a bit surprising given Marfa’s art and literary importance. But just passing through, it felt too LA-ified indeed, the overrun new real estate almost mocking the Chihuahuan landscape and West Texas culture with its adoption. It’s an unfair assessment, and I’d like to spend more time there, maybe to write poems!
From Texas we headed north into New Mexico, which began a robust couple of days characterized by rapid changes in landscape and the quick escalation of the coronavirus response. We arrived at Guadalupe Mountains National Park to find the camp full (not surprising to us), but then made our way to a comfortable RV camp just outside of the Carlsbad Caverns, where we sat in the car in front of our camp waiting out heavy rains, getting pretty drunk finishing Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, Slow Burn’s season one (on Watergate), and an episode of Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. The next day was a marvel of national parks and monuments―we went to three: Carlsbad Caverns for a stroll of the Big Room Trail, a quick couple of dunes at White Sands National Park, and then an elegant camp in the beautiful highlands of Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument, waking the next morning to numerous doves cooing and landing in dusty proclamations within the junipers that surrounded us.
Then we headed north deep into the Gila National Forest, spending most of the day trying to find a good camp (we got a decent one). The next day we hiked up into the Gila Cliff Dwellings, extraordinarily well-preserved dwelling sites in the beautiful and dry norther Gilas, then drove all the way back south into Silver City for groceries and some coffeeshop internet, where we learned that many states had ordered restaurants and bars to close their dine-in services. That’s when the virus news really hit us. People were nervous in the co-op where we shopped. We ate a solemn lunch sitting on a park bench, and the town (which struck us as a hidden gem, a small college-town hippy enclave) felt especially empty. We started to rethink our plans, but we knew we had at least two more nights camping, so proceeded up to the Cosmic Campground in the western Gilas, a dark sky site where my wife, at least, was able to stay up and view some deep galaxy textures before the moon rose. The next day we talked with many friends and family as we made our way into Arizona, where we ended up doing an offtrail backpack in the Painted Desert. This was quickly one of our favorite trips, a beautiful, fun, and accessible romp through deep washes and among badlands and copious deposits of petrified wood, fossilized old growth from the Triassic period (about 210 millions years old). We camped out of the high winds in a low wash and enjoyed the stars there, too. We felt far away from every person, and oddly, that that was a good thing.
And now we’ve been holed up in a hotel in Flagstaff, trying to keep distant from others while we wait out some weather (it snowed about 10 inches when we arrived) before our trip to the Grand Canyon, which starts tomorrow. I want to say so much about the places we’ve been―how lush the Chihuahuan desert is (my love for the whimsical sotol, the elegant play of ocotillo, yucca, prickly pear, and agave in elaborate desert gardens, and then the uniqueness of the isolated Chisos mountains with their juniper and pinyon pine), the interplay of sky (aliens, missile testing) and earth (gypsum white sands, stalagtites, stalagmites, curtains, popcorn―all the depositional sculptures of the caverns) of New Mexico, or the extraordinary erosional structures of the painted desert and how apparent the forces of time are (in erosion, unearthing of fossils, the uncanny feeling of being around huge timber in a desert landscape, knowing the terrain you are walking in is literally hundreds of millions of years old), but our trip, and the world, has changed so rapidly, and it’s all I can do to just recount this itinerary. Pictures, anyway, probably tell it better (just a few below, with the promise of more).
So we have been decided to change some plans. We are going to proceed to the Grand Canyon, though it has shut many of its services. We talked to a ranger about our trip, and he was welcoming and optimistic. We expect the park to be mostly empty, but we’ll see. We might not complete the rim-to-rim-to-rim (maybe more because of weather), and that’s fine. We are hesitant to keep traveling, but we don’t have a home, and the bottom of the Grand Canyon feels appropriately socially distant. We did change our April plans though, which was a month in Echo Park in Los Angeles. That seems like a bad idea. We were able to cancel our accommodations and have gotten new ones for a few weeks in the homestead area (every property is surrounded by 5 acres) outside of Joshua Tree, where we are going to hunker down. Looking forward to that time, actually. But first, a bit more wilderness.
We’ve met a few lovely people this month. Pete (a later post will include the “Three Petes”), a school bus driver originally from Paradise, CA, who drove busloads of children (and recounted it so nonchalantly) to safety during the devastating fires there (he drove literally until the tires melted). A group of brothers/friends in Sam Houston National Forest who offered us their Korean BBQ (we still cringe at having to decline, being vegetarians). An extremely nice park ranger at Petrified Forest National Park. But mostly we’ve been to ourselves. I figured I’d close with one specific person we met, though, Harris, a gentle young man (early twenties?) stationed at Fort Bliss outside El Paso, whom we met in the Organ Mountains Desert Peaks. He was scheduled for his first deployment, a 19-month tour in Afghanistan where he was going to drive convoys. The deployment was canceled because of the virus outbreak. I am an unashamed pacifist and have disagreed all of my adult life with most of our military actions. But I couldn’t help but feel for Harris. He had spent months and months and months mentally and logistically preparing for his deployment, and I could see the evacuation of that energy clearly within his eyes. He had already hiked all the high trails at Organ Mountains, and yet he still, after our long conversation, was pacing around the camp restlessly in long loops. What he knew and was planning for was suddenly interrupted, forcefully, chaotically, with little leadership or communication. He didn’t know what to do, how to be. It was the most outward expression of how everyone must be feeling, if they are affected financially or not, if they are closed up in their homes or, like us, in a tightly packed car and then empty-of-people landscapes. I bristle at the term “social distancing”―apart from the pandemic, this is exactly what we don’t need and what part of our trip was trying to break through―isolation, estrangement, and mediatized interaction. It’s now the remedy, the order, and I accept that―we will hunker down and make the best use of the time we can. But I worry about its effects, our stamina, our energy. Standing above the “bottomless pit” in Carlsbad Caverns, I jokingly noted that it triggered like five different phobias, of heights, the dark, the unknown, of closed in spaces, and wide open ones. I still sort of feel like that.
―Flagstaff, AZ, March 20, 2020,
I’ll upload a million more photos once I’ve got them edited; for now, a smattering of media: