Summer Vacation to the Southwest

As we did last year, my girlfriend and I took a trip this mid-August. Seizing the opportunity presented by a friend’s wedding in Denver, we decided on a week-long road-and-camping trip, working our way south to the Grand Canyon with stops at Gunnison National Forest, Mesa Verde, and Page, AZ along the way.

Before we begin, a tip of the cap to Megan, whose tolerance for and skill in trip-planning greatly exceed my own. Some brief descriptions and reflections follow — but I’ll try to let the pictures do most of the talking. Enjoy!

*

Gunnison National Forest

Our trip began with a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Denver to Gunnison National Forest. After failing to secure a Fiat for Italy, I was adamant about renting an on-theme car. And so we navigated the serpentine Route 285 in a Jeep Sahara (admittedly a car with more amenities than I had pictured).

The drive was scenic, thanks to the Rocky Mountain Range. The Rockies are immense, way bigger than anything we have in Massachusetts. At one point, 10,000 feet up, we were craning our necks to view still-higher peaks. The valleys between the mountains were dotted by ranches and yellowing rolls of hay.

When we arrived at Gunnison, we set up the tent and went for a hike. The cool thing about this particular location was that, aside from the presence of small, sparse clearings and a dirt trail, we were basically alone in the woods. We didn’t register or pay anyone; we just drove into the forest and set up camp. Sadly, we didn’t have the fortitude to fully enjoy the free-wheeling atmosphere. After hearing a mountain lion (or something) roar at dusk, we retreated to the car for the night.

One last thing I’ll say is that I was struck by how much trust this kind of camping requires: campers leave their gear unattended; the state doesn’t try to absolve itself of liability with a waiver; no one is monitored to enforce rules. The imperfect analogue that comes to mind is ski resorts, where people leave expensive gear unlocked and unattended, yet theft doesn’t really seem to be a problem. In both cases, I suspect a kind of sub-cultural solidarity is at play.

Mesa Verde

“Technically, it’s not a mesa, it’s a cuesta.” This seeming piece of pedantry was reiterated to us a couple of times by park staff. It is significant, though, because the south-facing slope of Mesa Verde’s plateau was responsible for the agricultural fertility that, for a while, allowed the Pueblo Indians to thrive there.

Mesa Verde is covered in cedar trees, including many that were burnt in one of the wild fires to which the site is apparently prone. Their white husks cover the mesa, creating an ethereal scene made more so by the prevalence of large, unflinching crows.

The most famous site at Mesa Verde is Cliff Palace, a 700-year-old, 150-room compound built under a rock shelf. Barring some minor restoration by the National Park Service, it’s held up remarkably well to its mysterious abandonment — unfinished building projects on site suggest the Puebloans left in a hurry, and may have intended to return.

Cliff Palace is unquestionably wonderful, a fitting monument to one of America’s oldest cultures. I get the sense that at the time of its abandonment, the Cliff Palace dwelling would have represented the pinnacle of regional architectural and technological development. At the same time, you have to remember that it was finished around 1,300 AD — not that long ago, in the grand scheme of things.

Page, AZ (Lake Powell and Antelope Canyon)

Even though they border each other, Arizona and Colorado have very different terrains. While Colorado is mountains, plateaus, and ranches, Arizona looks like someone did an OK job of terraforming Mars. It’s red and dry, the occasional outcropping rising from the expanse.

We found Antelope Canyon by Googling “things to do in Arizona.” It looked pretty, and besides, we needed something to break up the drive from Mesa Verde to the Grand Canyon. Antelope Canyon was carved by floods that, over time, eroded the sandstone into a narrow, winding series of passages. It still floods every once in a while, according to our tour guide.

We found Wahweap Campground, and thus Lake Powell, by necessity, the result of another Google search. But it should have been a destination in its own right. Situated on the border with Utah, Lake Powell is what you might call the Southwest’s answer to the beach. The water was fresh, clear, and warm.

The Grand Canyon

After years of wanting to go to the Grand Canyon, I was not disappointed. Everything you’ve heard about the Grand Canyon is true. In fact, it’s understated. Its beauty is freakish, prehistoric. From the top, it dominates the landscape — it is the landscape. But looking down on the Canyon only gives you a feel for its magnitude. To really appreciate it, you have to venture down.

Our hike in and out of the Grand Canyon is a tale of unforced error and dogged perseverance. We started our descent at 10:00 am, beginning at the Southern Rim and heading to Bright Angel, a campsite ten horizontal miles and some 7,000 vertical feet away, with about 20 pounds each of camping gear. We’d planned for a three-day voyage: 10 miles the first day, halfway back the second, and the final leg very early in the morning on the third day.

Things didn’t really go as planned, due to a combination of errors and bad luck. The play-by-play is pretty funny, but this post is already too long. So to summarize:

  1. We started way too late the first day. Ten sounds like an early start. It’s not. It’s not recommended that you hike between 11 am and 4 pm because of the mid-day heat. We didn’t arrive at Bright Angel until 7:00 at night.
  2. We didn’t pack right. We brought too much we didn’t need and virtually nothing in the way of snacks (just eight apples). All the food we did bring was dehydrated, and needed to be boiled to eat.
  3. Our cooking fuel spilled in my backpack. This caused us to have to make the trip back in a single day. A ten-mile uphill hike motivated by necessity wasn’t quite what we’d bargained for.

We made it back to the trailhead at night, guided by flashlight. Per Meg’s Fitbit, we climbed the equivalent of 408 flights of stairs that day. There were definitely points along the way when I thought we might not make it. I’ll never forget eating our last two apples while we struggled to hide from the sun on the edge of a switchback.

“IRL Impressions”

I have, perhaps belatedly, entered the point in life at which I no longer have standing weekend plans to drink with friends. Not coincidentally, I’ve been doing more in the way the contemplative and outdoors-y. A few weekends ago, my girlfriend and I went for a hike on Monument Mountain in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. (Credit where it’s due: we got the idea from MassLive’s list of the best hikes in Massachusetts. We’ve tepidly declared our intention to hit them all this spring and summer.)

We opted for the mountain’s most direct root, looking for a challenge. But despite being advertised as strenuous, the trail was mostly tame, its steepest segments obviated by the installation of stone steps. We had a pleasant, if not effortless, ascent, punctuated by this or that detour to examine our surroundings.

After an hour or so, we reached the summit. Monument Mountain isn’t very tall. At a little over 500 meters, it’s about half the height of Massachusetts’ tallest peak, Mount Greylock. But that bit of relativity is less salient when you’re looking down on soaring hawks and the slow-motion lives of the humans below.

It was a beautiful day, and we weren’t the only ones out. In the background, two young women were taking turns photographing each other for the ‘Gram, the perfect receipt of an afternoon well spent. “I’m gonna do some sunglasses on, then do some sunglasses off,” one said. I immediately wrote down the quote in a text to Megan, who laughed.

Every now and again, something like this makes me think about the growing importance of online media — in business, culture, love, politics, and other areas of life. Social media is a mixed bag, but the advantages of scale it offers are pretty much uncontested. I wonder if we’ll reach a point at which the significance of online life — where 10 million can attend a concert and content can be redistributed in perpetuity at low marginal costs — eclipses that of our offline lives. If awareness is a necessary component of significance, it’s hard to see how it wouldn’t.

A few months ago, my company hired a consultant to help us attract sponsorship for an event. As part of their information-gathering, the consultant asked us what the “IRL impressions” of the event would be — a term that mimics social media analytics and that both parties eventually decided probably meant “attendance.” This struck me as at once amusing and depressing: the internet’s centrality is such that it must now be specified when we’re talking about the real — no, physical — world.

Summer Vacation to Italy

We’re going to try something a little different with today’s post. Instead of a research piece, I’m just going to tell you about my and my girlfriend’s trip to Italy.

This idea was partly born of my growing distaste for social media—the blog post, that is, not the trip to Italy. Standard operating procedure when someone my age takes a trip is to upload photos to Facebook or its increasingly popular appendage, Instagram (filters and ironic captions appreciated but not required). High on endorphins, dehydrated, and possibly a little drunk somewhere in southern Italy, I hatched this quixotic act of rebellion: to post—no, upload—my photos to my own site, thereby subverting one of the day’s most powerful and opaque companies.

It’s stupid, but I’m sticking to it.

It also so happens that a few people have asked me for more detail about the trip than I care to provide in a comment or photo description. I’ll try my best to cover it all without going overboard.

*

Our trip began in Rome. We spent three days in the capital doing the obligatory sightseeing: we went to the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, the Roman Forum, the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, the Spanish Steps (twice), the Capuchin Crypt, the Da Vinci Experience, and some lesser attractions.

This involved lots of waiting in line, fending off potential tour guides (both legitimate and otherwise, I suspect), and, above all, walking. All told, we walked almost 25 miles in just over three days.

miles walked
Data courtesy of my iPhone. Sedentarism courtesy of my office job and commute.

That kind of tourism, seeing major attractions and waiting in lines, really isn’t my style. But I have to admit, it was worth it. It really wouldn’t have been right to go to Rome and do otherwise. Plus, I kind of have a thing for architecture.

Volumes have been written about the beauties of ancient Rome, so I won’t wax poetic about the Colosseum or Michaelangelo’s greatest works. I will, however, say that the Capuchin Crypt, intricately decorated with the bones of thousands, including some children, is bananas. You should drop by if you’re in Rome. (They also don’t allow photos, but Megan was able to snag some while the attendant wasn’t looking.)

Beyond visiting the usual tourist attractions, we mostly ate and drank while in Rome. It’s a beautiful, humid city.

The next leg of our trip took us to Puglia. We used Lecce, a city of just under 100,000 people known for its baroque architecture, as a base from which we took day trips to towns on the Pugliese coast.

Instead, we spent our time in the south on the beach. We went to Otranto first, a white city with a beautiful port and precise geometric architecture. We ate raw fish (actually, we did that just about everywhere we went), drank wine, and tempted fate by falling asleep on the beach without sunscreen.

Our next stop took us to Castrignano del Campo, a small town on the very edge of the Italian “heel”. The view of the turquoise Adriatic Sea is the kind of beautiful scene you hope for when you buy a plane ticket. Italians, we noticed, have an interesting take on what constitutes a beach. We followed the crowds to a porous, jagged slab of what I believe was volcanic rock. As I gingerly climbed across the “beach”—on all fours after my flip flops broke—the Italians were pretty much treating it like sand, some laying directly on it. America has made us soft.

Heading north toward Bari, from which we would fly back to Boston, we stopped in Alberobello, a town tucked away in the mountains of Puglia. The town is famous for being full of trulli, medieval stone huts built collapsible and without mortar to aid in tax evasion. (Many of the ones we saw looked pretty permanent, though.)

Aside from Rome, Bari was the second largest city we visited. Unlike the capital, it doesn’t feel touristy—which I don’t mean in a particularly nice way. It was definitely safer and prettier than I was led to believe—neither the internet nor Italians from the region are hold much regard for it—but not quite memorable.

The surrounding town of Polignano a Mare was a different story. Of particular interest to me were the swimming spots, though we regrettably forgot to bring our suits. The town center is a beautiful labyrinth of whitewashed buildings, buzzing with amateur photographers, day-drinkers, and crowded gelato shops.

Oh, and while were there, we ate dinner in a cave. It was a little nicer than it sounds—and yes, that is my (vastly inferior) reprisal of Tom Haverford’s espresso shot.

*

Other scattered thoughts from my trip:

  • Language: If you know other Latin languages, which I happen to, Italian is really easy to get a hold of. I decided to learn some a few weeks before we took off, and it was actually pretty helpful, especially in the provincial south where multilingualism is rarer. More important, I think, is that it seemed appreciated by most Italians. For you travelers out there: I highly recommend learning at least the basics before you head somewhere. Counterpoint: if you’re not obviously foreign and get good enough at the beginnings of conversations (which are often rote), people will ask you for directions.
  • Getting away from American media was an unexpected blessing. My job is politics-adjacent, and that I managed to get away during the Manafort convictions is wonderful beyond description. A self-imposed Facebook moratorium, aided by a lack of overseas data, was key to this.
  • Trap music has definitely made it to Italy, as has Brazilian funk, oddly. I was also surprised to see—or hear, I guess—how much Italians seem to like reggaeton.
  • Driving in Italy is a rush. The roads, built centuries ago, are far narrower, and there’s basically no delineation between what areas belong to pedestrians and drivers.
  • Food: super expensive, super good.