Cuyahoga National Park, OH

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACuyahoga is a small park whose boundaries are mixed in with the Cleveland Metroparks system.  Located a few miles outside the city, the park features a dense deciduous forest with trees towering a hundred feet high.  An unusually helpful staffer at Metroparks gave me detailed and flawless directions to the one free campsite in the area.

Blue Hen Falls. Click to enlarge.

Blue Hen Falls. Click to enlarge.

Campers are typically cyclists touring the Towpath Trail that runs through the Cleveland metro area.  The tiny campground was full with only 3 tents on the ground including mine.  I went to bed early.  Two other campers woke me up when they walked in two hours later.  I thought I heard them checking out my tent.  Not knowing who I was dealing with, I kept my light off and quietly picked up my knife.  “Hello,” I called out.  A petite girl in her early twenties and her boyfriend returned the greeting.  They were merely getting into their own tent, and quarters were close.  The next morning the young man ripped a loud fart, and the girl voiced her displeasure.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

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Shiloh National Military Park, Tennessee

Original Shiloh Church, Shiloh National Military Park, TN: Click to enlarge.

Original Shiloh Church, Shiloh National Military Park, TN: Click to enlarge.

The historical signs in the photos below tell the story pretty well.  This was a major battle on the land surrounding a quiet old church, named Shiloh Meeting House, dating back to the early 1800’s.  Across a two-lane road from the church is a cemetery that is used to this day.  One must be a member of the local church (a modern building that lies across a parking lot from the historic Shiloh) to be eligible for burial in the cemetery.

Original Shiloh Church, Shiloh National Military Park, TN: Click to enlarge.

Original Shiloh Church, Shiloh National Military Park, TN: Click to enlarge.

The most popular attraction at the battlefield was a combination of golden and bald eagles nesting in a large tree (crude photo below).  A mass of senior citizens was encamped on lawn chairs 200 yards from the tree, armed with formidable looking cameras and binoculars.  This was the one day on the road this year that I used my binoculars.

Original Shiloh Church, Shiloh National Military Park, TN: Click to enlarge.

Original Shiloh Church, Shiloh National Military Park, TN: Click to enlarge.

Shiloh National Military Park, TN: Click to enlarge.

Shiloh National Military Park, TN: Click to enlarge.

Shiloh National Military Park, TN: Click to enlarge.

Shiloh National Military Park, TN: Click to enlarge.

Shiloh National Military Park, TN: Click to enlarge.

Shiloh National Military Park, TN: Click to enlarge.

Golden and bald eagles, Shiloh National Military Park, TN: Click to enlarge.

Golden and bald eagles, Shiloh National Military Park, TN: Click to enlarge.

Hiking the Old Trace, Mississippi

Hiking the Old Trace, Southern Mississippi. Click to enlarge.

Hiking the Old Trace, Southern Mississippi. Click to enlarge.

Hiking the Old Trace, Southern Mississippi. Click to enlarge.

Hiking the Old Trace, Southern Mississippi. Click to enlarge.

I hiked a 3-mile section of the Old Trace, the actual foot trail used by merchants in the 1700’s and 1800’s, starting at the Potkopinu Trailhead in southern Mississippi.  At this point the path is un-maintained and strewn with deadfalls and other forest debris throughout its length.  Round trip, it is one of the toughest 6-mile hikes I’ve ever completed.  The experience is really one of bushwhacking overland rather than trail hiking.

Route finding is easy because the old trace has sunk an 8- to 20-foot depression through the forest over the years in the Mississippi mud.  For those who like reassurance, the Park Service has painted hand-sized strips of orange and yellow blaze every half mile or so on the trees.  It was a hot, humid walk through a dense green canopy with one stream crossing.  Observed wildlife included a palm-sized green and brown spotted frog, several tadpoles, and a mystery animal that ran into the brush in a blur of speed.  It was most likely an armadillo, opossum, or a cross between the two.  A local told me that the two species interbreed, and some strange looking animals can be found in the area.

Hiking the Old Trace, Southern Mississippi. Click to enlarge.

Hiking the Old Trace, Southern Mississippi. Click to enlarge.

I never saw any other hikers during the 4+ hours that I was out there.  It took me 2 hours to reach the turnaround point at 3 miles, the northern trailhead.  The walk back to the car was somewhat faster.  I picked up several ticks on my knee and torso, the first time I have ever gotten ticks anywhere.  I respect the old Kaintucks who used to walk this trail for over 400 miles.

Death Valley: The Racetrack and Ubehebe Crater

The Racetrack, Death Valley, taken from The Grandstand.  Double-click photo to enlarge.

The Racetrack, Death Valley, taken from The Grandstand. Double-click photo to enlarge.

The Racetrack is the world-famous playa upon which rocks move mysteriously.  Scientists believe that strong winds blow the rocks across the playa under icy, muddy, slippery soil conditions.  A playa is the most naturally flat geological surface on the planet.  The National Park Service asks visitors not to walk on the playa when it is wet, because the resulting footprints last for years.  Driving on the playa is prohibited at all times.  I saw a few footprints and tire tracks on the playa.

The Park Service warns visitors about the risk of flat tires on Racetrack Road at every possible opportunity.  The visitor centers feature dioramas showing how small rocks protrude from the washboard road surface.  The highly competent ranger I spoke with, Mr. Langford, advised me to limit my speed to 15-20 mph and my tires would be fine.  He was right.  I did, however, cross paths with a

Racetrack Playa, moving rock specimen.  Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Racetrack Playa, moving rock specimen. Double-click on photo to enlarge.

group in another SUV who sustained 2 flat tires.  “People try to drive 40 mph, and the rocks tear through tires at that speed,” Langford explained.

A few miles north of The Racetrack, I momentarily heard a deafening roar directly above my vehicle.  An F-16 at seemingly eye level streaked past heading east, perpendicular to my direction of travel, a 30-foot afterburner flame shooting from its engine.  It was turning hard right to avoid hitting the mountain directly in front of it.  Having rapidly turned itself south, it shot just over the top of another mountain and dived into a valley out of sight.  This entire set of maneuvers took less than 10 seconds.  Ranger Langford had explained, with his typical enthusiasm, that fighter pilots often practice bombed drivers on Racetrack Road.  I’m glad I got to experience it!

Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Racetrack Playa, moving rock specimen.  Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Racetrack Playa, moving rock specimen. Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Racetrack Playa, moving rock specimen.  Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Racetrack Playa, moving rock specimen. Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Racetrack Playa, moving rock specimen.  Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Racetrack Playa, moving rock specimen. Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Slab City, California (Traveled Feb. 2013)

Slab City is an abandoned Marine Corps base that has been taken over by squatters.  The demographic runs the gamut from hippies to meth addicts to a solar panel dealer and a Tiki bar proprietor.

I’m writing this from Slab City, my first night here.  I’ve been taken in by the East Jesus artist colony, which is 5 guys who appreciate guns, snakes, campfires, and “free” living.  The sculpture garden features a wide array of art made from all manner of junk.  Frank, the leader, gives me a tour in which he demonstrates an encyclopedic knowledge of each piece.  He says they “control” 5 acres to the west and I can camp anywhere in that area.  I set up near the center of the colony instead, behind an old shack and about 20 yards inside the EJ border fence made of old tires.  There is a “clothing optional” shooting range at the bottom of the 15-foot deep dry wash.  We all sat around a fire and ate dinner which was cooked in their kitchen stove — stir fry and focaccia bread.  They have a gas grill, electric, wifi, showers, and toilets here, unique in the slabs.  A sticker on the kitchen wall reads, “What would Jesus Bomb?”  A quote from dinner conversation was, “In rust we trust, and if it don’t rust, burn it” — which is what we did with our dinner plates.  The Chocolate Mountains Aerial Gunnery Range is close by, and we heard some jets earlier today.

Mopar, an older gentleman who specializes in “community relations” with the rest of the slabs, describes Slab City as “The Land of Misfit Toys” — meaning the people who live here. The youngest resident, Drew, is spending 2 hours daily learning to play the guitar by ear — no books or instructor.  The logic is that he will either learn to play it, or learn that he can’t.  When I mentioned it to Mopar, he agreed that an instructional book might be helpful, and said he would “put out a feeler” to the rest of the slabs.

The next morning I walked to the canal at 7 am just to stretch my legs, and it happened the Marine Harrier jets were starting bombing practice.  I climbed a hill and had a great view.  The jets flew in two at a time with a high decibel, low-pitch roar that made my ears feel as if they almost, not quite, needed earplugs. The Harriers came in low and fast, diving in to release their bombs and then pulling the nose level before making a series of hard turns left and right, practicing evasion of anti-aircraft defenses.  The second jet in the formation would often make these extreme evasive maneuvers before releasing his bombs, if I observed correctly — seemingly to provide a cover of distraction for the first jet as it released its bombs, then the first jet seemed to cover for the second.  All of this was done at high speed and apparent altitudes of a couple hundred to a thousand feet.  I could clearly see the nose, body, wings, and tail of the jets during the maneuvers.

After each bomb run came 6-9 ground- shaking explosions that made a low-pitched, raspy noise in the eardrums.  The explosions came in rapid succession similar to setting off a string of firecrackers.  Then there was a tall cloud of black, brown, and grey smoke.  I could not see the targets or the explosions because they were behind hills.  I believe I observed 4 separate sorties before heading back to East Jesus for breakfast.  This was an exciting, educational show.  Frank, the East Jesus leader, said such training exercises happen about once a week.