HAPPY INTERNATIONAL DOG DAY

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Happy International Dog Day! August 26th has been declared as the day to celebrate human’s best friend. By honoring our past and present four-legged companions, we recognize the friendship, loyalty, and unconditional love dogs bring into our lives.

On this International Dog Day, I wanted to share some of the adventures I shared with my dog Shadow. Born on the streets of Fresno and raised in Northern Arizona, Shadow experienced the extremes of desert living.

https://remoteleigh.com/2015/09/18/a-dogs-year-in-the-desert-unleashed/

Capturing his world through my camera lens, served as a personal reminder that home is a world without walls, windows, and doors.

Happy Dog Day, Shadow!

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JUNE IS NATIONAL CAMPING MONTH

” I don’t need therapy. I just need to go camping.”

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June is National Camping Month, a four-week celebration of reconnecting with mother nature and ourselves. In honor of National Camping Month, I decided to share some of my favorite camp spots.

1. QUAKING ASPEN CAMPGROUND

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Situated in the Giant Sequoia National Monument, this seasonal campground provides an escape from the summer heat. At 7,000 feet, Quaking Aspen serves as a base camp to explore the Sequoia groves.

2. ARIZONA HOT SPRINGS, ARIZONA

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Located on the Colorado River, this campground can be accessed by kayak or by hiking a three-mile trail down from Arizona State Highway 93.

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Hidden away in a colorful slot canyon, the spring forms several soaking pools averaging 112 degrees Fahrenheit. With endless opportunities to soak, swim, and camp, Arizona Hot Springs remains one of my favorite winter camping spots.

3. LOCUST POINT,  ARIZONA

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In the North Kaibab Ranger District, the remote Rainbow Rim Trail hugs the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The trail connects five overlooks: Timp, Parissawampitts, Fence, Locust, and North Timp. If you are looking for a remote camping experience with sensational views, Locust Point is your destination.

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4. LOST COAST TRAIL, CALIFORNIA

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Stretching twenty miles through the Kings Range National Conservation Area, the Lost Coast Trail is a premier coastal backpacking trail.

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Sea Lion Gulch is my favorite camp spot on the trail. Consider the views, imagine the coastal breeze, and expect to be serenaded by sea lions throughout the night.

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5. MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE, CALIFORNIA

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There are so may different shelters to use when camping. A hammock between two trees, the simplicity of a tarp, a two-pound ultra-light tent, a backpacking tent, the bomb proof four- season tent, or even the traditional bulky Coleman car camping tent. At the end of the day, I prefer cowboy camping.

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The Mojave National Preserve is one of my favorite places to sleep under the stars. Located between Los Angeles and Vegas, the Mojave’s 1.6 million acres guarantees sand and solitude.

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6. BACKCOUNTRY YURTS, ARIZONA

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Yurting is backcountry winter glamping at it’s best. Yurt’s bridge the gap between roughing it and camping in comfort. These portable round tent type structures offer the security and warmth of being protected from the elements while still preserving one’s connection to the environment.

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The ultimate winter yurt experience can be found at the Arizona Nordic Village for $50 a night.

https://www.arizonanordicvillage.com/back-country-small-yurts-winter/

7.  SHADOW CREEK, JOHN MUIR TRAIL

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In 2013, I hiked the John Muir Trail. A torrential four-day rainstorm was the highlight of my first week.

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Wet, cold, and desperately looking for a place to set up camp, I threw my pack off and claimed Shadow Creek as home for the night. Little did I know, there was a masterpiece waiting to my discovered behind camp.

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8. BUCKSKIN GULCH, ARIZONA

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Considered to one of the longest slot canyons in the world, Buckskin Gulch lies within the Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area. In 2011, I spent five days exploring Buckskin Gulch before following the Paria River to Lees Ferry.

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This camp spot felt like a raised platform bed within an amphitheater of ever-changing light.

9. SANTA CRUZ ISLAND, CALIFORNIA

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California’s archipelago, the Channel Islands, is considered to be one of America’s most remote national parks. Campers arrive by boat, then explore the islands by foot or kayak.

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Santa Cruz Island is a sixty-minute boat ride from Ventura, California. Nature lovers should allow a few days to explore the sea caves, snorkel the kelp beds, and hike the island trails.

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10.  YOSEMITE PERMIT OFFICE

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In 2013, I made numerous attempts to obtain a John Muir Trail permit via the advanced lottery system. Unsuccessful, I decided to apply for a walk-up permit. To ensure I was first in line,  I cowboy camped on the backcountry permit’s office front porch. The highlight of my night was a fellow hiker applauding my dedication as he walked by.

DRIVING THE MOKI DUGWAY

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A serpentine of switchbacks, a remote red rollercoaster, and a hairpin hell track; are just a few of the terms used by road trippers to describe southern Utah’s, Moki Dugway.

Built during the uranium frenzy of the 1950’s, the Moki Dugway transported uranium ore from the Cedar Mesa mines to the processing mills in Mexican Hat. Over two million tons of ore were extracted from local mines, leaving a toxic environmental legacy for generations to come.

No longer used as a mining road, Utah incorporated the Moki into its highway system. Every year, forty thousand road trippers take the plunge and drive the Moki. Today, it would be our turn.

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Exercising caution, the Perfect Stranger, Shadow, and I made our way onto the unpaved gravel dugway.  Over the next three miles, we would ascend 1,100 feet on switchbacks that had been blasted into the cliff’s edge. Considering it was late winter, we were prepared for road conditions of snow, slush, ice, mud, and rock slides.

Regardless of the season, expect the unexpected on the Moki, and keep your eyes on the road at all times.

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After traversing our first set of switchbacks, the Valley of Gods came into view.

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Winding seventeen miles through isolated buttes and towering pinnacles, the Valley Of The Gods is a dusty backcountry road that guarantees an escape from civilization.

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The Valley Of The Gods

Backcountry escapes had been the foundation of our desert winter love story. What started as a friendly eight-day road trip evolved into a never-ending honeymoon of adventures.

https://remoteleigh.com/2015/01/25/the-perfect-stranger-part-1/

In a few weeks, I would be returning to my seasonal job in Vermilion Cliffs, Arizona, and the Perfect Stranger would be completing her thesis and managing her foundation in Long Beach, California. How would we manage the distance? Being together was now more familiar than being apart!

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Continuing our Moki ascent, the road started to narrow; leaving minimal room for oncoming traffic.

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Driving the Moki is a master class in blind faith and mindfulness. Without guardrails, the Moki leaves no room for human error or driver negligence. One can only hope that drivers respect the speed limit without the temptation of treating the Moki like an off-road race track.

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Our final set of switchbacks left me with a new-found respect for the civil engineers who deemed the Moki’s construction possible. Eighty tons of explosives transformed a mountain into a uranium ore thoroughfare; convincing courageous Cold War truck drivers that this human-sculpted road was drivable.

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Despite our numerous stops for photos and honoring the five miles an hour speed limit; we completed the dugway drive in two hours.

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On the Moki’s summit,  a five-mile access road leads to an overlook and camping area, known as Muley Point. Originally, our plan was to spend the night there. Unfortunately, after noticing the road was covered in slushy snow and soft mud, we decided otherwise. Without a four-wheel drive, we were not willing to risk a potential bogging in the middle of nowhere.

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Muley Point access road

After a family conference, the Perfect Stranger and I decided to drive an additional fifty miles to Blanding, Utah. Having spent the last few nights camping at Goosenecks State Park, a hot shower and a warm bed sounded very appealing.

https://remoteleigh.com/2017/05/11/goosenecks-state-park/

The Moki Dugway serves as a living testament to the Cold War and our nation’s urgency for nuclear superiority. Forgotten, is the government’s sacrifice of rural Utah’s health and environmental safety. Thousands of uranium miners, mill workers, local residents, and Native Americans died or were sickened from toxic exposure. Contaminated soil and water supplies have been left for generations to come. Millions of tons of radioactive tailings continue to cost American taxpayers billions of dollars to remove and safely bury.

GOOSENECKS STATE PARK

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At the end of Utah’s Highway 316, lies three hundred million years of geological activity and an opportunity to stand on the edge of the world.

Eroded by wind, water, frost, and gravity, the Goosenecks of the San Juan River are a living testament to the earth’s skeleton.

The Goosenecks are a series of tight loops that geologists refer to as entrenched meanders. Weaving back and forth for over five miles, the San Juan’s meanders measure one linear mile.

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Beyond the visible Goosenecks, the San Juan River continues to twist and turn before spilling into Lake Powell.

In my opinion, the Goosenecks are Utah’s answer to Arizona’s Horseshoe Bend, but without the crowds.

After setting up camp, the Perfect Stranger, Shadow, and I cautiously walked along the canyon’s rim towards the Goosenecks observation point.

The one thousand foot drop of geological madness to the silty San Juan River left me awestruck. Feeling awestruck has as much to do with how we look at the world as it does with the world we are looking at. Could being in love cause mother nature’s metamorphosis to appear more magical? Does sharing awestruck moments reveal a couple’s capacity for wonder and surprise? Can awestruck moments serve as markers to the sacredness of time and life? Sharing awestruck moments with the Perfect Stranger reminded me of our beginning and mother nature’s role in the ever-developing story of us.

MOTHER NATURE

On a personal level, mother nature feels like the family I never had. She has been present for every adult birthday, seasonal holiday, personal milestone, heartaches, heartbreaks, and professional achievements. Mother Nature fills the void of not having family. Having no direct experience of going home for the holidays or sharing holidays with family members leaves me feeling awkward, out-of-place, and downright uncomfortable. Celebrating seasonal holidays in a traditional way feels very foreign. I do not feel the same happiness or joy that others seem to be experiencing. It’s no wonder I have opted to spend holidays backpacking or camping. I’m with family and it’s familiar. For this reason, sharing adventure trips with the Perfect Stranger is sacred to me. I’m taking her home to meet the family!

Under the watchful eye of Shadow, the Perfect Stranger carefully navigated her way down to a rocky outcropping.

Standing guard, Shadow disapprovingly watched as the Perfect Stranger ventured down the canyon wall towards the precipice.

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Standing on the edge of the world, the Perfect Stranger, the love of my life, found herself in an awestruck moment. Captured in her natural habitat, these moments bridged the distance between the remoteness of the landscape and the connection I felt to her.

Awestruck moments require connection with mother nature as opposed to the conquering narrative we have manifested in our minds. Does this sense of conquer originate from within? Mountain climbers frequently describe the physical and mental struggles endured in summit attempts.  Does the internalized sense of struggle and the intense feeling of accomplishment evolve into a conquering state of mind? Is it ignorance or arrogance that fuels our sense of conquer? Perhaps a connection to the planet reveals one’s vulnerability to self and others.

Returning to camp, the Perfect Stranger, Shadow, and I ate a light dinner while patiently waiting for the sun to set. Outside of the gentle breeze, the world felt remarkably still.

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For the next hour,  the Perfect Stranger and I bathed in the pink, orange, and purple hues that painted the Monument Valley skyline. There was no one here, it was the off-season; a time when solitude can be found.

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In the final twilight minutes before darkness, mother nature saturated the sky with brush strokes of pink and purple. Mother nature’s canvas was complete, signaling the end of our day.

After surviving a cold windy night, I was happy to get up and share my morning coffee with the sandstone buttes in the distance.

Twenty-four hours ago, the Perfect Stranger, Shadow, and I were exploring the dirt back roads of Monument Valley. This morning, I had a base camp with a view.

In a few hours, we would be leaving a state park that possesses the greatest example of an entrenched meander in North America. A state park that resides at the end of a highway. A state park that many a road tripper has unknowingly and unwillingly driven by. A state park without hiking trails, shade, or water. A state park that allows you to dance on the edge of the world.

WindMills, Water Tanks, & Walks In Monument Valley

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Monument Valley: Is it a valley? A wide flat plateau? Or a desolate landscape that remains a living testament to the sandstone layers that once covered the region? Known to the Navajo as Tsé Biiʼ Ndzisgaii, Monument Valley exemplifies the images that generations of moviegoers identify as the American West.

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The 1969 movie “Easy Rider”, suggested that an unapologetic sense of individualism and dirt covered freedom could be found exploring the southwest on a motorcycle. Twenty-five years later, Forrest Gump’s three-year, coast to coast, cathartic run, found an unexpected finish line in Monument Valley.

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For me, the most poignant film that features and defines Monument Valley is the documentary “The Return Of The Navajo Boy.” This internationally acclaimed documentary reunites a Navajo family and triggered a federal investigation into uranium contamination on Navajo lands.

In the 1940’s, government surveyors discovered large deposits of uranium in Monument Valley. Between 1944 and 1986, nearly four million tons of ore were extracted from Navajo lands, in an attempt to fuel the Cold War nuclear arms race. At the end of the war, the mining companies moved out and the highly toxic contaminated sites remained. Over time, the ore pits filled with water, providing a contaminated community water source to unsuspecting Navajos.

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Twenty-first century Monument Valley remains an overwhelming landscape that offers a master class in surreal geometry, impeccable architecture, and human resilience. As a visitor, it’s a place I wanted to explore in the off-season, away from the crowds, tourists, and the tour buses. It’s a place where I wanted to taste the dirt!

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Just after sunrise, the Perfect Stranger, Shadow, and I left Vermilion Cliffs bound for GooseNecks State Park, Utah. Our five-hour drive had no set agenda, outside of trying to capture the spirit of Monument Valley.

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After crossing the Navajo Bridge, we followed Highway 89 before heading east on Highway 160. The Arizona section of this highway lies entirely within the Navajo Nation.

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On the outskirts of Tuba City, a roadside water tank and windmill caught our eye. Without hesitation, we pulled over and the Perfect Stranger scaled the Aermotor windmill.

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Climbing and photographing water tanks had become an official past time for us both.

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Leaving Tuba City, we continued along Highway 160 towards Kayenta.

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A few miles south of town, a rock formation stood out in the distance.

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In order to get a closer look, the Perfect Stranger and I impulsively followed a dirt road that branched off the main highway. This is one of the many attributes I appreciate about the Perfect Stranger, her spontaneity and her willingness to explore undeveloped back roads.

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The dusty dirt road was littered with abandoned car tires, mattresses, sheet metal, glass bottles, and household appliances.

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Trash collection is an ongoing problem on tribal lands. The Navajo Nation does not have landfills or recycling plants; instead, they have overflowing waste transfer stations. In theory, the Navajo pay to have their trash picked up and transported to transfer stations, where it’s then hauled away to landfills in bordering towns. In practice, garbage trucks won’t drive on the unmaintained reservation dirt roads, making trash dumping an unsustainable option to an unsolved problem. I think many people would be shocked to know that many tribes still lack the basic services of running water and electricity.

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Despite the trash, we walked across the barren desert floor towards the volcanic rock formation.

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It was during this walk that I noticed Shadow’s bond with the Perfect Stranger. Like his mama, Shadow had fallen for her. Capturing their relationship through my camera lens made it even more magical.The pictures clearly demonstrated his adoration and willingness to follow her direction.

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Realizing that we were still seventy miles from camp, the Perfect Stranger and I made our way back to the car. Seventy miles seems like a minimal distance to cover; however, between our impromptu stops and my pet peeve of setting up camp in the dark, we were mindful of the remaining daylight hours.

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Leaving highway 160, we headed north on Highway 163. Twenty-three miles separated us from Monument Valley and the nation’s fastest growing county, San Juan County.

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Gaining over a thousand residents between 2015 and 2016, this remote southeastern portion of Utah grew 7.6%. What inspired the migration to  San Juan county? With an unemployment rate of almost 10%, it’s safe to say, people are not moving to the county for job opportunities.

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Could tribal members be moving back to the Navajo Nation reservation due to oil field jobs drying up in other states? Is the affordability of the county attracting retirees? Has tourism impacted the county’s growth? Will Bears Ears National Monument create further growth due to tourism and employment opportunities? Only time will tell if the population growth will improve the living conditions and employment opportunities for the residents of the state’s poorest county.

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Crossing the state line, we were greeted by a “Welcome to Utah, Life Elevated” billboard. Upon closer inspection, the sign had been covered in various unrelated stickers.  It made me wonder, how did this sticker phenomenon happen? Who’s idea was it? Are stickers the new form of sign tagging for tourists? With no stickers in our possession, we were content to focus on desert scape that stood before us.

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On the other side of the highway, a hitchhiker heading south caught my attention.

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Being off-season, there was very little traffic; I wondered how many miles he would have to walk before getting a ride. Based on his gear, I could tell he wasn’t a thru- hiker; I regret not crossing the highway and saying “HI”.

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The remaining thirty-two-mile drive from Monument Valley to GooseNecks State Park was eventful as it was scenic.

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On road trips, the Perfect Stranger and I are in a constant search for the ‘the shot’. To us, the shot that captures the personality of the landscape. The shot that elicits a feeling of awestruck. The shot that makes a creative’s empty stomach feel full. The shot that’s a once in a lifetime time, never to be repeated.

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The Perfect Stranger caught a glimpse of ‘the Monument Valley shot’ in our rearview mirror. We immediately pulled over on the outskirts of Halchita, grabbing our cameras, to hike up the gully and along the plateau to our destination.

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Before we could even start taking pictures, miraculously the Perfect Stranger spotted a ravenous pack of rez dogs three plateaus over. Rez dogs are feral dogs that roam tribal lands left to fend for themselves. Rez dogs must compete for food, shelter, and water. Killing livestock and attacking humans occurs with alarming regularity on the reservation.

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We saw them before they smelled us. Were we standing down wind preventing our human scent from traveling to their sensitive noses? A quick mental calculation told the Perfect Stranger we had had three gullies between us and five sets of rez dog teeth. Behind us lay a 200 yard sprint to the safety of the car. Could we make it back the car before the rez dogs fanned out, circling us and cutting off our retreat? Would Shadow follow our direction and sprint to the car? We knew in our heads if Shadow noticed the rez dogs he would instinctively try to protect us from the pack resulting in his death. The Perfect Stranger and I shared a glance in that moment, silently communicating that it was time to run for our lives. Every year, over three thousand dog bites and attacks are treated on Navajo Nation. We had no intention of becoming another statistic!

With a two gully headstart, the Perfect Stranger, Shadow, and I hightailed it to the car. Five rez dogs who looked like Benji but possessed the temperant of Kujo, fanned out in pursuit.  Still recovering from bruised ribs, I was the slowest runner of the group. The Perfect Stranger kept Shadow engaged to prevent him from realizing that a pack of rez dogs was chasing us. With one gully to spare, we reached the safety of our car. For the rez dogs, the pursuit was not over until the last car door slammed shut. With our adrenaline in overdrive, we breathed a sigh of relief, silently acknowledging just how close we had come. We never did get “the shot”!

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Addressing and resolving the plight of rez dogs is a very complex issue. There are no immediate fix-its or long term solutions. How does the Navajo Nation preserve it’s traditional culture while managing the modern realities of dog overpopulation? An estimated 445,000 stray dogs live within the Navajo Nation. Over three thousand people are treated every year for dog bites and attacks. From an animal control perspective: there are only six animal control officers and four active shelters, serving 25,000 square miles within the Navajo Nation. In addition to the lack of animal control enforcement, there is also a lack of veterinary care. Considering the high levels of poverty on the reservation, vaccinating and spay/neutering services are unaffordable. Cultural barriers and government mistrust have impeded efforts by rescue groups to offer spay/neuter programs on tribal lands. The documentary, “Rez Dogs”, takes an honest look at the problem from within. To watch the movie click here –

http://www.ya-native.com/Culture_SouthWest/video/rezdogs.html

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Leaving the eroded mesas of Monument Valley, we crossed the San Juan River and made a brief stop in Mexican Hat, Utah. This small town is named after the rock formation that resembles a sombrero.

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With two hours left before sunset, the Perfect Stranger, Shadow, and I arrived at Goosenecks State Park. Our day had been one of windmills, water tanks, monumental walks, and a near death experience with rez dogs.

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Before setting up camp, the Perfect Stranger and I inhaled three hundred million years of geological activity and caught our breath to one of the most impressive examples of an entrenched river meander.

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For the next two days, this would be our playground. I was confident we would get another chance at the shot!

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