Nebraska to Wyoming, Climbing in Vedauwoo

Looking down from Turtle Rock, Vedauwoo, Wyoming.

Day one of our annual summer road trip to the west coast begins with excitement and anticipation. We’ve got wallets, purses, phones, chargers, snacks, water, books, paper, pencils, and pillows. Bags are loaded, bladders are empty. We are clear for departure. Engage turbo boosters.

[The kids think our minivan has turbo boosters, and that they’re reserved for special occasions, like on road trips and when we’re late for church.]

Lincoln is small enough that we’re soon out of the city in light traffic, flowing west on highway 80, the contiguous asphalt artery that will carry us like an oxygenated blood cell from the Nebraska heartland to the congested extremity of our trip, California.

Everyone is pumped.

The freedom of the open road, the anticipation of seeing new sights and old faces, of camping, hiking, swimming, fishing, restaurants, parties, together we’re bound for a good time, and we’re bonding on the energy and excitement. Parents have visions of free babysitting, and sleeping in while the kids watch Fox News with grandparents. The kids can almost taste the bottomless smorgasbord of pizza, soda, treats, and all-out gluttony that awaits them. Each day, they’ll consume before lunch more sugar than they’ve had in the past month.

This is going to be an epic trip.

Fast forward eight minutes and the magnitude of 1,500 miles has sunk in. The good times are so, so far away. Too much asphalt artery separates us from vacation glory. A steady stream of questions is projected from the back of the van. Hey, are the turbo boosters still on? Why not? Wait, isn’t Nebraska a city? What is a state? Can we have a snack? Now are we there?

Vedauwoo sunrise over a quiet and dry camp, last summer.

One kid mentions Wyoming, and the rest convince themselves instantly that we must have just crossed the vast expanse of Nebraska. Phew, I thought we’d never get there! Wait, we’re not there yet? Then why did someone say Wyoming? Six more hours? The positive vibes and bonding give way to irritability and then hopelessness. The blood cell has lost all its oxygen.

For the remainder of Nebraska, everyone is holding out for Vedauwoo, where we’ll stop to breath, at least for an hour or two, possibly for the night.

[Recommended reading: Annual Overnighter at Vedauwoo: Climbing, Hiking, not Sleeping]

Vedauwoo is an unassuming US Forest Service camping area just off highway 80 between Cheyenne and Laramie. If you’re ever passing through, I highly recommend a visit. Exit the freeway and faster than you can say, “Stop pinching your sister or I’ll tie your fingers and toes together, you just watch me, oh, you think this is funny,” you’ll find yourself on a mesmerizing hike through enormous, globular granite formations, stacks of rounded, misshapen bricks that glow orange and pink in the evening sunlight.

Camping is ten dollars, day passes for the paved areas are five. There’s also a dirt road to an unofficial looking parking area past the main entrance where you can stop, and possibly camp, for free. Take a look.

When the weather is right, you’ll see rock climbers doing their things, flaking ropes, sorting through piles of cams, some as wide as your head, in preparation for a distinctive climbing experience. Note that the bulbous bricks that characterize Vedauwoo have no mortar between them. The gaps have been flossed clean, leaving cracks and chimneys of every shape and size, some just large enough for a fingertip, bicep, thigh, or twisted foot, wedged in for stability and then upward leverage. After much squeezing, contorting, and grimacing, all while mummified in roles of athletic tape to preserve skin against abrasive granite, people are able to shimmy their way to the top. Vedauwoo is famous for this off-width style of climbing.

Some spring-loaded cams, up to size 3, for anchoring into small to medium cracks and gaps.

This summer, my oldest son and I roped up for our first climb on Vedauwoo’s iconic turtle rock, which resembles a mountainous, scraggly old tortoise resting on its belly. Having trounced around on the crag’s scree every summer since he was five, bouldering on petrified turtle droppings, it seemed fitting that my son’s first lead belay and first climb on traditional gear would be a scratch on the turtle’s shell.

Most of my son’s belay experience comes from playing on our tiny basement wall. We’ve also practiced at the local gym. One of us will climb on the auto belay, a mechanized self-tightening safety rope, while mock lead climbing on a second rope, as the other mock belays. This seemed like adequate preparation. Looking up at the route, I did pause for a moment to make sure everything felt right. It did. Harnesses, helmets, knots, and belay were all triple checked. We were ready.

First time following lead on Walt’s Wall, making his father proud.

We made it up the first pitch of Walt’s Wall, a gentle meandering ascent with ample protection (more at Mountain Project). Rated 5.4, Walt’s is mostly a steep scramble, perfect for a dad helping his 11-year-old navigate climbing on real rock. Unfortunately, after hugs and high fives at the first set of bolted anchors, a thunderstorm rolled in from the north. With lightening approaching, we decided to call it off, before getting the full body experience of off-width. Next time.

Leaving no trace at Vedauwoo after getting rained out, Turtle Rock relaxing in the background.

Rain meant an immediate departure. Tents and gear, soaked within minutes, were crammed into the roof rack, sleeping bags were strewn about the cabin, as kids clamored into boosters and car seats. An hour after arriving, we were back on the road, with 400 miles and another state to go before our next stop, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Happy Birthday to Thoreau

Today is the 200th birthday of minimalist, naturalist, transcendentalist, carpe-diem-ist, and American author Henry David Thoreau, whose writings and simple, sometimes disobedient lifestyle have influenced greats such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. while also inspiring generations of self-righteous teens to free themselves from the oppressive demands and unhealthy expectations of a consumerist society.

Let’s reflect on a few of Thoreau’s more meme-ified quotes. The first is a poignant and depressing observation that, come to think of it, I’ve never actually seen in meme form.

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.

According to Thoreau, simplicity and down-to-earthness, less buying of things and less nose grinding, would go a long way to alleviate our quiet desperation.

Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.

These ideals are captured in the hopeful, adventurous statement of purpose that motivated Thoreau’s experiment at Walden.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Finally, a pithy and pretty accurate rule of thumb to guide us on the Thoreaudian path to less is more.

All good things are wild and free.

Saying Goodbye to Echo

Echo on his second and last winter campout, making tracks across the lake.

This post is in memory of our dog Echo, who died this spring.

I’ve dreaded writing about it, hence the spacious gap since I last posted here. But he deserves the tribute. I’m hoping that what I share will be comforting or inspiring to someone out there in the vast expanse of the internet who has experienced something similar, or who just needs to hear it.

The Dying Part

April 18 started out like any other day. The kids were off to school, my wife was at the gym, and I was rushing to gear up for my bike ride to work. As usual, I had given myself 30 minutes for a commute that requires on the best of days about 28 minutes, and on the worst of days about 40.

This was not the best of days. On my way out, I noticed Echo in the back yard, not being his usual spunky self. Instead of bouncing around, chasing birds, squirrels, falling leaves, any moving object, or the mere thought of any moving object, he was curled up by the door with his head in his paws. Confused, I went out to check on him.

I knew it was serious when he didn’t jump up to greet me with tongue and tail wagging. He could barely lift his head in my direction. “What’s up buddy?” I asked, as I knelt beside him. His dark brown eyes were heavy and sad like only a dog’s eyes can be. He was clearly in pain. Then I saw blood around his mouth, and my heart dropped. “No, no, no…” I remember saying, over and over. “What’s happening? What’s happening?” I was scared and worried.

Already late for work, I texted my wife to ask if she could take him to the vet. I gave Echo a hug and was off on my bike.

The ride to work was a blur, a swirl of wind, tears, and prayers. After some meetings, I haphazardly prepped for class, while checking in constantly with my wife, who was at the vet. Just before class started we were notified that Echo had eaten something indigestible and it was stuck in his intestines. Surgery could help, but would cost between $2,200 and $4,500. We needed to decide as soon as possible.

First time on grass.

I taught my class in a fog, ended early, and raced home, praying all the way that this would somehow work out. It didn’t, and we chose that afternoon, with much tears and gut-wrenching, to put Echo to sleep. I held his head in my arms and sobbed as the vet injected a lethal blue liquid into an IV in his wrist.

What a terrible decision, having to price out the life of a friend. My staunch frugality was brought to its knees in shame. But, it won in the end. Given our financial circumstances and the less than strong confidence from the vet that surgery would be successful, we decided that the cost wasn’t feasible or justified.

For consolation, I’ve reflected on stories from friends who grew up on farms, where animals were always living and dying, where the human circle of life spreads its wide orbit around countless smaller ones. Although sad, death is natural and normal. Mostly, I’ve reflected on people who’ve lost children, family members, and friends, people whose grief dwarfs my own in comparison, like the moon dwarfs an artificial satellite passing between it an earth.

That evening, we buried our friend in the woods. The brief ceremony focused on what we loved about Echo, and the lessons he taught us. Under my breath, I asked him to forgive me, for this and for all the times I lost my temper and got frustrated with him. I resolved to do better, to pay forward what he gave me with his short life.

The Living Part

We brought Echo into our home as a tiny puppy just over two years ago, during one of the few snowstorms of a mild Nebraska winter. The farmer we bought him from told us he had never been outside. His paws had only ever tread soft carpet, his face and fur had only ever felt indoor, conditioned air. It was a pleasure to introduce him to the world.

Echo’s first snow, at about 10 weeks old.

His first steps into the snowy grass of our back yard were cautious, and preceded by lots of curious sniffing. I wondered if snow had a smell, a thin, crisp, subtle smell that’s really the frozen absence of other smells, the richer, deeper ones that proliferate in heat and life.

To a dog, it must be more than that. Snow, like the other ingredients that make up wintertime, must contribute to the season in a way that only an animal can sense. It must have a variety of smells, from dry to melting, light and fresh to hard and old, and I’m sure Echo learned them all in his first winter.

Fetching in some icy creek water.

After the thaw, Echo experienced grass, mud, wood, rocks, and trash, followed by flowers, bugs, and, finally, water. Wet, wonderful, water. To Echo, everything outdoors was the best ever, but water was supreme. Water was his favorite medium, and he was the paintbrush, swirling and splashing and absorbing, then emerging in a flurry to paint his canvas of earth in all directions.

Echo loved life completely, down to the last drop. His unashamed enthusiasm turned the drabbest and dreariest of days into colorful celebrations of existence. His energy was contagious, and it will be sorely missed.

A rare moment of pause.

Equally as important as his love of life was Echo’s unconditional love of every walking thing. That love was sometimes manifest in a canine instinct to stalk and hunt. Otherwise, Echo wouldn’t hurt a fly, except in his reckless play. This made him the worst watch dog, but also the most gentile, forgiving friend to all he met. Echo was instantly your bestie, without judgment or qualifications. His example is one we can all learn from.

Twenty Days, Twenty Ways: Prepping for Earth Day

Earth Day is coming up on April 22. That’s only twenty planetary rotations away. In preparation I’ll be sharing twenty ways to make the world a better place.

Here’s a sneak peak at the first five. Check the Facebook page daily for more info on each one.

  1. Plant a tree.
  2. Shower colder and faster.
  3. Eat fresh and local.
  4. Carry a spork.
  5. Turn off the dry cycle.

Many of these will be simple, but some may push us out of our comfort zone. It might hurt a little, or cost a little, or slow us down a little, but we’ll be OK. We’ll abandon some of the habits and conveniences that simplify our lives in the short term, in exchange for ways of life that ultimately enrich us and our planet for the long term.

This feels really gimmicky, but the cause is just, so let’s do it.

St Patrick’s Day Overnighter

The earliest morning rays warming up the iron bridge.

We celebrated St Patrick’s Day this year with a campout at Wildwood, a reservoir and wildlife management area about 20 miles north of the city.

Our neighbors on both sides ended up being noisy and remarkably potty-mouthed, partying late into the night, but good times prevailed overall thanks to reasonable winter weather, epic skyscapes, and kids who mostly kept it together.

[Last time at Wildwood, my first campout alone with all our 72 kids]

We left the house Friday around 5PM, with five kids, two adults, seven backpacks, food, water, the dog, and kitchen sink all crammed into the minivan like toys in a closet or books on a bookshelf after the kids have “put them away.” The trunk and doors of our now lowrider would only close after the unwieldy mass of gear was piled, squished, and finagled into place. Upon opening the trunk and doors at our destination, the gear would then spill out like water into the gravel parking lot, with the kids surfing out on top of it, and dispersing in all directions.

Open camping on the lake.

Wildwood has zero amenities, aside from the dumpster and outhouse. No fire rings, tables, tent pads, or hookups. It’s free range, libertarian camping, without regulations to speak of, and no rangers to enforce them anyway. Camping is open, in the sense that you stake a claim, spread your camp chair legs, and then hope in vain that the crowds congregating around you aren’t too rowdy.

We snagged a nice lakefront spot and pitched our accommodations, a three-person backpacking tent for the four youngest kids, a two-person tent for the adults, and the hammock for our oldest. Next, we went to work scavenging wood from the nearby cedars, and building a fire to boil water for dinner.

Each kid was responsible for planning and preparing some portion of a meal. For dinner, we ended up with Maruchan Ramen noodles over shredded carrots and cucumber. For dessert, we had foil-wrapped s’moritos, tortillas besmeared with peanut butter, folded around chocolate chips and mini marshmallows, and baked on the coals.

Thick, low clouds temporarily absorb the blow of Nebraska’s pounding wind.

The kids, exhausted from three hours of uninhibited outdoorsing, running, jumping, shouting, rock throwing, and exploring, started putting themselves to bed around 9:30PM. The adults weren’t far behind.

As the clouds dissipated in sync with the fading twilight, the stars found their places in a big, dark night sky. The quiet serenity was only disturbed by the distant honky-tonk song of migrating geese, and the uninhibited reveling of our neighboring campers, who drank and yelled and trolled around the lake cat-fishing until 3AM.

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.John Burroughs

The kids slept soundly all night, as oblivious to the noise as were the stars. I slept more like a catfish, I imagine, restless in the dark shallow waters next to camp, with a rusty old jon boat buzzing around me.

Fortunately, there’s more to camping than sleeping. In the morning, there’s breakfast, homemade honey muffins and hot chocolate next to a warm fire, followed by a radiant sunrise.

Sunrise over Wildwood Lake, Nebraska.