Chicago: a love story

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I was fourteen years old the first time I visited a major city, and within hours I fell hard and fast for Chicago. That week is when I began a life-long relationship with urban architecture, my heart beat with the thrum of an enormous city, and a love of travel lodged in my bones. They say you never truly get over your first love, and for me that seems to be true.

A few years ago my sister moved to downtown Chicago (the Loop and now the South Loop), and the combination of two darling nieces and my first urban crush is too much to resist; I cannot stay away. Every time I visit the Windy City I fall in love all over again. I love the soaring buildings, the glass and steel, the streets and trains, the river through her heart, lake at her back, constant movement on her streets. I seem to soak it up and store it for later.

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I spent almost an entire day wandering the city, logging mile after mile, meandering through city blocks and around the parks, the biting wind and gray skies didn’t deter me, I knew my love would keep me warm.

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Walking on and on seemed to clear my head, the cold brought me clarity, and the sense of being anonymous in a place so crowded helped me remember parts of myself I had forgotten.

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In the almost twenty years (!!!) since my first visit I have continued to fiercely love Chicago, while the outlying neighborhoods are nice and all, I am completely smitten with her core. The architecture, the food (THE FOOD!), the art, the urban-ness and the hustle combined with this Midwestern sensibility and down-to-earth-ness that makes me completely knock-kneed.

Chicago, my love, I’ll never quit you.

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Petrified Forest National Park

Once upon a time, in the middle of a very long drive from Salt Lake to Phoenix, I took myself on a little detour to Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. It was a park I’d never visited, was literally right off my route (which was already a detour to include stops at Four Corners and Shiprock, NM), and I figured a quick stop to check it out would be a good way to stretch my legs. It was….well, it as nothing like I expected, and not in a very good way. I mean, the stripey desert was gorgeous, with layers of red and white and purple and green on the dunes and hills glowing in the late afternoon sun. It was too warm for me to really enjoy a little hike (when I’d left that morning it was in the low 30’s, the weather in Petrified Forest NP was in the 80’s with no shade and very few substantial clouds), and I had been subsisting off gas station snacks for a day and a half already.

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So, instead of hiking down among the hills, I wandered around the look out places, and then drove to the next, and the next, and the next. Petrified Forest NP isn’t large, and there is a 20-ish mile loop that takes you through the most popular parts of the park. After an hour of driving and wandering and driving and wandering I still hadn’t seen any actual trees petrified into rocks, I’m not sure what I was expecting, but, I don’t know, maybe a few rocky stumps here or there?

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Nope, just more striped hills. Pretty, stunning even, but for me this part was not As Advertised, and that usually leads to disappointment.

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Towards the end of my drive through the park I pulled over to view Newspaper Rock, which is best seen with binoculars (or the zoom function of your best camera lens), humans aren’t allowed anywhere near the engravings, probably with good reason; time and time again humans in the general public have shown they are the worst for taking care of ancient spaces. That being said, I do wish I would have been able to get a closer look at these drawings, don’t they look so cool!?

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As I headed out of the park the red striped hills gave way to gray and blue and green striped hills, they look a lot more like The Badlands in South Dakota than anything I’ve seen in Red Rock Country. And then, my camera battery died. I did see a few rocky stumps and sections of fallen trees before I exited the park, but most of my little adventure was striped and petrified desert. Again, that kind of geology is pretty cool, but it wasn’t what I was expecting.

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The town of Holbrook, Arizona is just a few miles from Petrified Forest National Park (population: 5,000), they have petrified logs lined up like vehicles at a car lot, hundreds of them for sale, giant ones, medium-sized ones, smaller ones. So, if petrified logs is what you are hoping to see, you will probably have a better shot of seeing them in town than in the park–although it kills me a little to actually type those words out.

Have you been to the Petrified Forest? Have you ever been disappointed in a National Park? Do you pack extra camera batteries, prepared like a girl scout, to avoid lack-of-battery predicaments!?

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Tsé Bit'a'í, or, Shiprock, New Mexico

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I have made the drive from Salt Lake City to Phoenix and back more times than I can count. There are only a few ways you can go: the shortest distance, the shortest time, and the one with the least chance of bad weather in high mountain passes. On my drive back to Arizona a few weeks ago I decided I wanted to take a little different route because I really wanted to see the hardened and weathered insides of a volcano so ancient that it’s insides are now on the outside, the only remnants left of what was once an angry, molten-lava mountain.

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Called Tsé Bit’a’í by the Navajo, meaning “Rock with Wings” this formation is the giant bird that brought the Navajo safely to northwestern New Mexico. When white frontiersmen arrived they thought it looked like a clipper ship and renamed it (and everything else). Located on tribal lands and still held sacred by the Navajo you can walk around it, but you cannot climb it.

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Scientifically, this is the core of an ancient volcano with enormous fins of volcanic rock, up to 150 feet tall, radiating out in three directions. There are very few signs to lead you to the bumpy dirt road that will take you closer to the formation. Shiprock is quite literally in the middle of nowhere, the closest other landmark is Four Corners National Monument, which if you’ve ever visited is miles and miles from anything else. I did stop at Four Corners on my drive, it was a not-really-quick detour on my way to see this giant rock. Frankly, Tsé Bit’a’í is much more interesting without any tourist trap things to hijack your experience. Literally: no signs, no historical marker with the Navajo legend, nothing. There was one spray-painted sign half-propped up along main highway, but that was it.

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That big wall on the left is the most prominent fin stretching for several miles. I didn’t climb the wall itself (hello, respect), but I did walk up a little trail to the base to see what I could see. The drop off on the other side was considerably steeper than the slope on my side, I’m not afraid of heights, but it did make me gulp a bit. The scale of the wall is massive, I can only imagine what it would be like to stand at the base of Shiprock and try and see the top.

A note: I just found out there is a similar formation in north-eastern Arizona, the remains of an ancient volcano, complete with radiating walls of volcanic rock, about 1500 feet high. On my next trek through this part of the country I’ll probably have to stop and check it out too. I certainly have a thing for the leftovers of ancient volcanoes. Devil’s Tower in Wyoming is another example of an eroded volcanic plug, totally loved that as well.

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I am still completely haunted and mesmerized by this formation, I don’t entirely know why. As a white girl from Utah I have ZERO claim on it, not culturally, or geographically, or anything else. But I love it, all the same. I suppose, in some ways this rocky monolith reminds me of the rocky mountains that hold my secrets, the scariest and sweetest secrets that you whisper to the wind knowing she will take your words up to the highest peaks, and carefully hide them among the shadows and the deep places, safe from prying eyes and people digging around for answers. I honestly think part of my heart is formed from the peaks and caves and cirque’s of the highest, rocky mountains, part of me always feels safer with them soaring above me.

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Horseshoe Bend and Highway 89

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For the first part of March I was lucky enough to be back in Salt Lake for some work-stuff, but also to spend some much needed time with my mountains, the city that holds my heart, and dear friends and family. The road to my northern home is approximately 700 miles long, and it’s primarily desert. But, the desert is, in ways both figurative and literal, my other home. I was driving by myself, which meant I could stop as often as I wanted to for pictures and little hikes. Frankly, I don’t know why I don’t do that EVERY time I make this drive!

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There are several places in Utah and Arizona with these stripey hills and cliffs. Most are red, but the ones here are a greenish-gray with purple-y stripes and I have always loved them. They kind of look like enormous elephants taking a nap, and you know how much I like elephants. As you near Page on the Utah-Arizona border you wind your way to the top of the plateau that towers over Lake Powell and instead of looking up at the cliffs and formations you have the somewhat-stomach-dropping opportunity to (lay flat on your belly, inch towards the edge and) look down into the beginnings of the Grand Canyon at the famous Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River.

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I really wish that I had a lens to capture the enormity of this view, a major wide-angle or something so you can comprehend the vastness of the space, but also, comparatively how this tremendous bend doesn’t seem enormous when compared to the horizon and the knowledge that this is the northern end of the Grand Canyon plateau.

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I mean, yes, it’s huge. Those are scrubby trees down there on the shore, not sage brush. But to think about how small this one particular place is on a river almost 1,500 miles long. This water started as snow in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and winds it’s way through the deserts of Utah and Arizona, supplying power for Las Vegas and Southern California, before emptying into the Baja and on to the Pacific. And this is just one, tiny little bend of that river.

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You can see a tiny smidge of white on the river, that is the wake of a pretty massive speed boat, the kind that could easily hold a party of water skiers without feeling crowded.

Goodness, this earth is gorgeous. I realize I’m biased, but I just cannot imagine how anywhere else can give you the thrill of redrock country. The cliffs, the scale, the colors, and the knowledge that a river of melted snow created hundreds and hundreds of miles of stuff like this. It’s the kind of thought that makes you feel incredibly small and unimportant, yet also determined to protect these spaces.

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Bryce Canyon National Park in the fog

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On one of my trips between Salt Lake and Phoenix I decided to make a slight detour and stop at Bryce Canyon National Park. I was hoping for some gorgeous photos of soaring ruddy cliffs and orangey spires in the setting sun. The weather had very different ideas. The entire canyon was smothered in fog, from the rim you could hardly see anything below.

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On a whim I decided to hike down into the canyon, hoping for a few awesome shots. I was absolutely unprepared for such a hike, I was wearing sandals, no water, and no real rain protection. But, the Navajo Loop trail is just a little more than a mile, descending down the canyon walls, through Wall Street, wandering along the bottom of the canyon with the creek and the pine trees, and then back up again. I figured it couldn’t be that bad.

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This is Wall Street, it’s easy to imagine these soaring cliffs as enormous sky scrapers, right? The trail was wet and pretty slick, I carefully picked my way down the switchbacks, big camera in hand. It’s hard to imagine how enormous these cliffs are, how tiny the hikers seem. But, lawsy, those views!!!

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From the bottom of the canyon looking back towards the rim, I felt like I was in a completely different world from the one at the surface. There weren’t may people there, and it only added to the creepy-beautiful feeling, eerie and other-worldly and heart-breakingly quiet.

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The weather cleared up as I made my way out of Wall Street and onto the rest of the Loop trail, there were cedar trees and sherberty colored stripes and outcropping hoodoos everywhere.

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As I began to ascend the canyon wall, the weather began to make me a little nervous. The drizzle of rain turned much more sleety, it got colder and the wind whistled through the formations. The trail was slick and muddy, my sandals slapped and slipped on the rocks. I carefully picked my way upwards, trying to shield my camera from the rain and simultaneously keep my balance with my very inappropriate footwear. It got foggier and foggier, I could really only see about 20 feet ahead of me when I came across Thor’s Hammer, one of the more photographed formations in Bryce Canyon.

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Within 30 seconds, the fog had swallowed this formation completely. I hurried as quickly as I could back to the rim, picking my way, slipping and sliding on the now completely empty trail. The fog topside was thicker and heavier than before, I was relieved to get back in my dry car and crank up the heat. Even though this was a very quick stop, I really loved my short hike and these images.

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Have you been to Bryce Canyon? Have you ever hiked in the fog? Tell me your stories!

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