GRAND STAIRCASE ESCALANTE – FOR THE LOVE OF HOODOOS

“Our parents and grandparents saved the Grand Canyon for us; today, we will save the Grand Escalante Canyons and the Kaiparowits Plateau Of Utah for our children.” President Bill Clinton

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On a cloudy January morning, the Perfect Stranger and I left Vermilion Cliffs bound for Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Remote and extremely rugged, it’s 1.9 million acres was the last area to be mapped in the continental United States.

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Driving north on Highway 89a, we doubled our altitude in less than forty minutes. At 9000 feet, we were greeted by a snowy Kaibab Plateau.

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Two days earlier, the Perfect Stranger had driven this stretch of road. In the early morning darkness, the Perfect Stranger negotiated hairpin corners on a highway without guard rails and navigated a terrain that offered no cell phone cell service. Love tends to inspire drastic acts of madness when you miss someone. It had been ten days since our yurt adventure. We both missed each other. No rain, snow, sleet, or ice storm was going to stop the Perfect Stranger from coming to see me.

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After a brief stop in Jacob Lake, we rapidly descended the west side of the Kaibab Plateau. Views of Fredonia, Kanab, and St.George, quickly came into view.

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Forty miles east of Kanab and twelve miles west of Big Water, lies the unmarked trailhead for Paria Rimrock Toadstools. With no official entrances to the monument; it’s a small parking area on the north side of Highway 89 that identifies the trail.

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The Toadstool trail is a 1.7-mile hike through rimrock sandstone, toadstool terraces, and sun-baked eroded badlands.

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Differential weathering has created these mushroom-shaped columns, also known as hoodoos.

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For the love of hoodoos; the perfect stranger and I spent the afternoon exploring and capturing the magic of  Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Many tourists focus on visiting Utah’s Mighty Five: Zion, Bryce, Canyonlands, Arches, and Capitol Reef. There are many lesser known national monuments and state parks that are overlooked. Grand Staircase-Escalante is a monument not to be missed!

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As the Perfect Stranger and I explored off-trail, we were mindful of the cryptobiotic crusts that are prevalent in the area. These crusts often go unnoticed; however, they are vital to the stability of eroded soils and in dry regions that receive minimal precipitation.

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In 1996, President Bill Clinton declared Grand Staircase-Escalante a national monument. At the time, it was a very controversial decision; preserving 1.9 million acres versus mining the largest coal field in the country. With an estimated value of one trillion dollars, the debate remains open as to whether the monument has hurt or helped southern Utah’s economy.

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After a final glance back at the Paria Rimrock Toadstools, the Perfect Stranger and I headed back to the parking lot. The desert no longer felt mysterious to me; I felt at home. Remote desert landscapes were now a geological postcard that symbolized a friendship that organically morphed into love.

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Update: U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, is urging President Donald Trump to abolish national monuments created by Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. The action would be unprecedented. No president in U.S. history has undone the creation of a national monument by a predecessor. Grand Staircase-Escalante is one of the monuments that could lose its protection.

MY FAVORITE GEAR PURCHASES OF 2016

This year was dedicated to buying gear that was affordable, lightweight, high quality, and to making my backpacking experience more comfortable. Comfortable in my world means staying warm. As a hiker living with Raynaud’s Syndrome, the air temperature feels 20 degrees cooler to my inner thermostat. Being so sensitive to the cold means beanie hats in the summer, wearing a down jacket to the movies, and keeping extra layers and gloves in the car.

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I wear wetsuits to swim, neoprene socks when kayaking, and I understand that a sleeping bag with a 20-degree temperature rating is really a 50-degree sleep sack.

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In 2016, I slept comfortably on the back seat of my car, discovered a new outdoor gear company, found a sleeping bag that keeps me warm, and experimented with two new lightweight tents. Listed below are my top six gear purchases.

BACK SEAT INFLATABLE MATTRESS  $40

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In less than three minutes, this inflatable mattress turns the back seat of your car into a rather comfortable bed. Great for long road trips, especially when you’re tired and need to pull over for a nap.

http://www.ebay.com/itm/Car-Air-Bed-Inflatable-Mattress-Back-Seat-Cushion-2-Pillows-For-Travel-Camping-/172373321601?var=&hash=item2822402781:m:mrOopXO3RGbXBw-lDOOKrZw

NATUREHIKE EIDERDOWN SLEEPING BAG  $138

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A dream sleeping bag for a cold sleeper like myself. At just under three pounds, this sleeping bag’s is 90% eiderdown with a waterproof exterior.

http://www.ebay.com/itm/191584217207?var=490995443676

MOUNTAIN WAREHOUSE BIVY BAG  $30

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Weighing 11.9 ounces, I have been using this bivy bag as a protective cover and as an extra layer of insulation for my down sleeping bag.

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01B8GEXIO/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o06_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1

NATUREHIKE WILD WING TWO PERSON TENT  $74

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Less than $80, will get you a silicon coated two person waterproof tent. Yes, that’s right! Why pay two to three hundred dollars for a tent, when you can purchase the Wind Wing. This tent has two side entry doors and offers enough vestibule space for your backpacking gear. I had the opportunity to test drive this tent during my backpacking trip in Zion National Park. The tent provided great ventilation and protection from the elements.

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When you order this tent from GearBest, they also include the official tent footprint.

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http://www.gearbest.com/tent/pp_487875.html

NATUREHIKE CLOUD UP 2 PERSON TENT  $80

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Weighing in at 3.4lbs, the Cloud Up 2 was my first NatureHike tent purchase. It’s high-density mesh and silicon coated fly make this tent breathable and waterproof.

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I had the chance to test this tent over the summer on Santa Cruz Island. Snug for two people, however very spacious for a single camper.

https://www.amazon.com/Naturehike-Ultralight-Waterproof-Groundsheet-Backpacking/dp/B01N2H4VXN/ref=pd_sbs_468_1?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=PTZFG7EKWT925323C1J0

NEOPRENE WATER SOCK  $12

Having Raynaud’s Syndrome, I am constantly managing cold feet. These 3mm anti-slip bottom socks have made my kayaking experience far more enjoyable.

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2016 – The Year Of Adventure

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2016 has been an adventurous year both professionally and personally. Waterfall hikes in Yosemite, kayaking and hiking on Santa Cruz Island, backpacking The Lost Coast Trail, day tripping in the Redwoods, a quite weekend getaway to Sequoia National Forest, paddling a 24-mile section of Black Canyon, and a two-day backpacking trip down “The Narrows.”

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When not on trail, I found myself committed to what seemed like a dream job. The honeymoon is over! I’m not sure what lies in my future, but I do know it’s time to catch up on my blog. I have so many adventures to share!

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LOVE IS WHERE THE YURT IS – PART 2

“It is the passion that is in a kiss that gives to it its sweetness; it is the affection in a kiss that sanctifies it.” Christian Nestell Bovee

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Have you ever tried to regulate the room temperature of a yurt on a cold winter’s night? Finding the perfect temperature creates a delicate dance between yourself and the wood stove.

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With the wood stove burning, the yurt felt like a Swedish sauna.Without it, the yurt turned into a cold icy cave. The compromise: a fire with the yurt door open.

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After a late morning sleep in, the Perfect Stranger and I headed out for an afternoon hike.

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With an elevation gain of 1500ft, we followed the Nordic Center’s Trail system until the San Francisco Peaks came into view.

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At just under 9,000ft, the pine forest gave way to a meadow and the “Morning Glory” yurt.

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Yurting is backcountry winter glamping at its best. Yurts 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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Inspired by the yurt’s empty trash can, the perfect stranger grabbed the lid and went in search of sled-worthy snow.

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This was a moment when I realized there were so many leisure activities and life events we had yet to share. Even though this was our second adventure together, it didn’t stop me from creating a lifetime of planned trips in my mind. It seemed that anything short of sharing adventures together would feel like emotional and elemental cheating. I couldn’t imagine sharing life’s awe-struck moments with anyone else but her.

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As the Perfect Stranger and I explored off-trail, I wondered if my camera would ever be able to capture the free spirit that captivated me. Would my photos accurately depict the perfect stranger that I had come to love? Would she feel seen by me or was I expressing my emotional vulnerability through the guise of a camera? Would my love of photography reconcile the reality that I had fallen in love with a woman who lived 600 miles away?

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Around 4pm, the Perfect Stranger and I decided to head back to our base camp. It sounded so simple. If only I knew the way! Had I fallen victim to the emotional distractions plaguing my mind? I had lost all sense of direction. I couldn’t blame it on low blood sugar or possible dehydration. My brain felt overloaded. My memory card was full and my internal compass had failed me.

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Being lost is something no day hiker ever wants to admit to self, especially with dropping temperatures an hour before sunset. Stockpiling wood, building a shelter, compiling a water and food inventory, and preparing for a night in the cold start to take priority in your mind.

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How do you tell the love of your life that you have lost your sense of direction? Could my situational anxiety and fear be fueled by a sense of failure within? As a Cancerian, I am protective by nature. I felt like I had failed to protect the perfect stranger. This feeling did not sit well with my heart.

To my surprise, the Perfect Stranger remained calm. She considered being lost an added bonus to our adventure. Laughing at the situation, the perfect stranger went as far to suggest my lack of brain functioning was due to being twitterpated. Being unfamiliar with the term the perfect stranger asked if I had ever seen the movie “Bambi.”

Twitterpated: the term to use when you find yourself geographically challenged on trail.

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After a team pow-wow, the Perfect Stranger led the way back to camp. It was nice to follow for a change and not have the pressure of leading. I felt safe with her. The Perfect Stranger had my back, something I had never felt before with a woman.

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Just before sunset, we reached base camp. I was looking forward to getting the wood stove cranking and sharing a warm meal. Tonight would be our last night in the yurt and tomorrow I would be taking the Perfect Stranger home to the tiny outpost town of Vermilion Cliffs.

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Life in Vermilion Cliffs was very simple. There was no cable television, very limited internet, and the nearest supermarket was two hours away. Happiness was a roof over my head, clean water, electricity, and food in the fridge. By living remotely, I had become a minimalist. I had everything I needed. All I had to offer the Perfect Stranger was my heart. Hopefully, my love would be enough!

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The following morning the Perfect Stranger and I left Flagstaff bound for Vermilion Cliffs. Driving through the Navajo Indian Reservation we made a brief stop in Cameron. On this day, tank climbing became a new sport!

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Thirty miles from home we drove through a curtain of dense fog and a developing winter storm. I was hopeful we would get the opportunity to share a desert winter snow storm together.

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Pulling into Vermilion Cliffs I knew my life was about to change. I had brought the love of my life home to see how I live and to meet my boy Shadow.

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LOVE IS WHERE THE YURT IS

”I think that one of the things that you learn is that falling in love and being in love with someone is a rarity. That you don’t fall in love as many times as you think you’re going to. And when you do, it’s really special; it’s really important.” Julianne Moore

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Fifteen days. Fifteen very long, cold, snowy days, since my airport goodbye with the perfect stranger.

Even though we maintained constant communication via text, email, and phone, it wasn’t enough! I missed her and I wanted more than a friendship. Call me impulsive, may be even slightly pathetic. I didn’t care; I made my intentions known.

Regardless of the outcome, it felt like a win-win situation. I valued the sacredness of our friendship and I was committed to maintaining it. I knew romanticizing our friendship could complicate our lives. Somehow, I wasn’t worried; either way, friendship or relationship, it was a lifelong commitment.

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While many lesbians in my community joke about having U-Haul relationships, I wanted my friendship and potential romance to be different. I was invested; trading the U-Haul for the long haul!

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After receiving a positive response to my New Year’s video, the perfect stranger and I planned an immediate adventure. Consider it round two; no longer where we strangers, and we weren’t simply just friends.

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January 5, 2015 I left the snow melt of Vermilion Cliffs, bound for Prescott airport. Slightly panicked, as I had slept through my alarm, I could only hope the perfect stranger’s flight had been delayed; otherwise, I would be officially running late. 

Being late was out of the norm for me. It was unfamiliar as falling in love with a perfect stranger. Growing up in Australia, there were only two excusable reasons for tardiness. Either your mother was in the hospital or you had been killed. That was it! Any other excuses, explanations, or reasons were deemed unacceptable.

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As I looked at my watch, I made peace with the reality of the situation. I was going to be late. I had 3 hours to complete a four hour drive. Outside of refraining from roadside photo opportunities and limiting my bathroom breaks; there was simply no way to make up the time.

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Note to self – I do not recommend holding your pee on a long drive. The bladder strain and fear of peeing yourself while driving is not enjoyable. Airport entrances are not attractive when your hands are dam walling your urethra.

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After a loving embrace and an apology for being late, the perfect stranger and I headed to the Flagstaff Nordic Center. For the next few days we would be yurting in the Coconino National forest. That’s right, I said yurting!

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Like two excited kids waking up on Christmas morning, the perfect stranger and I headed into the Nordic Center for check in. As the only overnight guests, we were given free reign picking our yurt location. Still struggling with her knee injury, I suggested to the perfect stranger we ease up on the miles and stay in a yurt close to the lodge.

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She wasn’t having it! Not in this lifetime anyway. The perfect stranger insisted we hike to our yurt. Who was I to tell her no? She said she could do it and I believed her.

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After a quick lunch, the perfect stranger and I put on your packs and hit the trail. With minimal snow, snowshoes weren’t necessary; however, they were still a Nordic Center requirement.

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Less than a mile into our hike, we decided the snowshoes were more a hindrance than a help. Without adequate snow, it felt like we were dry-landing it in flippers. They had to go!!

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Celebrating our foot freedom, the perfect stranger took a selfie shot that captured the spirit of our connection. There was no denying it; we were a dynamic duo, a perfect pair, a true team. This is what happiness looks like!

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With the yurt in plain sight, the perfect stranger and I made a bee-line for base camp. Neither one of us had been backcountry glamping before; it was another shared first.

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After unpacking our gear, the perfect stranger and I took a late afternoon stroll through the forest. With less than an hour until sunset, we didn’t venture too far away from camp. We were on a mission though, in search of a pink sunset!

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During our maiden voyage, the perfect stranger explained to me that pink was not only her favorite color, it was a lifestyle!

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Can one color really inspire a way of life? Can one color determine your choice of attire, kitchenware, and car accessories? Who knew one color could bring so much joy. What better way to honor the perfect stranger than be giving her a sky of pink.

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As we left the yurt, I offered my hand to the perfect stranger. She responded by holding mine. While some may consider hand holding  a simple gesture, I consider it sacred. Out of all the people on the planet, the perfect stranger chose to hold my hand. Now that’s special!

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Patiently waiting for our pink sky, the perfect stranger and I made ourselves comfortable in the snow.

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Life for me has never been about personal milestones, it has always come down to magic moments. This was one of them!

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With her beautiful brain resting in my lap, not even the frozen ground could stop my heart from melting. I had helplessly fallen in love with a woman I had yet to kiss. How is that even possible? Is this the way love is meant to be? Could getting to know someone without fast-tracking physical intimacy be key to a long-term love affair? Our pending first kiss felt inevitable; it was more of matter of when than if. For now, my focus was finding a pink sky for the love of my life.

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Less than ten minutes down the trail, a pink hue sky appeared through the trees.

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Captivated, the perfect stranger stared into the pink empyrean as if it offered some type of cosmic healing. Perhaps color psychologists are right: pink is seen as the color of hope. Pink inspires warm and comforting feelings, creating a sense that everything will be okay.

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Pink is a symbol of compassion, nurturing, and love. It’s a color that represents the sweetness and innocence of the child in all of us. Pink is also said to be the color of uncomplicated emotions.

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I feel color psychologists had exquisitely described the perfect stranger. Perhaps she is more a pink goddess than my perfect stranger. Either way, I knew pink defined her. It made her happy and brought her peace.

Pink and the perfect stranger are my package deal in the most uncomplicated way. Here’s to pink!