When the Stars Line Up

November 6, 2016

We drive through the barren landscape of Death Valley, past towering cliffs, stunted plants, and nothingness. Shortly after turning into Artist’s Drive, we see a car parked and a small group of people waiting atop a little hillock. Not wanting to share their space, we drive on, in search of our own till spot. Crazily enough, instead of going higher up, we found we were descending lower and lower. Panic starts to set in. We are going to miss the sunset.  The roads a narrow, windy and go up and down and the husband is determined to make an amusement park ride out of it. We hurtle past the painted cliffs, pausing momentarily at the Artist’s palette to sigh dreamily at its myriad hues. Once we are back on the main road to Badwater Basin, we race towards its. We get there just in time to catch the last rosy streaks across the sky.

dsc_0297-001Badwater Basin is 282 ft (86 m) below below sea level and is the lowest point in North America. It holds a small spring-fed pool of “bad water”. The accumulated salts of the surrounding basin make the water undrinkable, and give it a “bad” name.  Adjacent to the pool, where water is not always present at the surface, repeated freeze–thaw and evaporation cycles gradually push the thin salt crust into hexagonal honeycomb shapes. The salt flats extend as far as the eye can see. You would think that miles and miles of unbroken white expanse would create a sense of liberation, but what you get is a mild feeling of claustrophobic. I thought it was just me*, but the husband acknowledged it too. Badwater basin lies at the foot of the Black Mountains (a southern range of the Amargosa Range System) and when you turn to look at the imposing cliffs they seem to bear down on you. I have been in deeper gorges and looked up at bigger mountains, but never have I felt their weight like this.

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long long ago.. in a galaxy far far away

As we drove back, velvety black blanket covered our tiny planet. Another planet shone brightly in the distance. Venus, perhaps? Slowly the sky filled up. At first there were a few, and then there were a million gazillion stars overhead. I saw my first ever shooting star.  I would have made a wish, but I was so awestruck that I forgot. As I ponder on what I could have or should have wished for, I realize beyond health and happiness for all I love, I couldn’t think of much. Camping in Death Valley has been a big thing on my bucket list, and I guess checking that off had momentarily overwhelmed me. The husband breaks my thoughts, “Do you want to go straight to the Mesquite Dunes for star gazing? It is too early for dinner, anyway.”

On we drive, till we reach the parking lot for the Mesquite Dunes. The road is fairly simple, but try doing it in pitch darkness. The signs are few and far in between and it is hard to tell if you missed them. There are not too many cars/people in the parking lot. We pick a spot and start setting up our cameras. For some reason, it never occurs to us to step out into the wilderness beyond. It doesn’t matter. We saw the most gorgeous sight ever, right there – a glimpse of the Milky Way. We may have seen more, but we have no idea.  Now the core, the brightest part of our galaxy is visible in the northern hemisphere only between June and September, so that was not visible but this was our first tryst with this wonder and we were not going to let anything spoil it.

 

*there are enough people who will vouch for my need to open windows in rooms because I feel boxed in.

Death Valley – Setting Camp

November 6, 2016

Our flight reached Vegas an hour early, but we reached our campsite a hour later than we planned. On the way from Vegas to Death Valley, we first stopped for surprisingly good lunch at I am Thai.They gave me  glass noodles, when I asked for pad thai, but it was spicy and well made, so I didn’t bother even pointing it out. We then stopped at a drugstore to fill up on drinking water and to buy the husband a toothbrush. Next stop Walmart, to stock up on bread cheese and instant foods. We went from there to Home Depot, to get portable lights ( a hand held lamp or lanterns, a flashlight and glowsticks). Last stop – Visitor’s Center to get, well information. We reached our campsite at around 3 p.m.

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We got campsite 100. Every campsite had a little tree, to give it some shade. Our’s was sadly dead and gone. After pondering for fifteen minutes or so, we asked our neighbours and set up tent at the back of their tree. We have our tent up in less than ten minutes.It is simply crazy how tightly packed the campsites are! You can reach over and touch your neighbour’s tent (almost).  With everyone there, it truly felt like a camp. People, tents, cooking, laughing, singing, drinking, brawling. Okay, so that last part is not true, but you get the picture.

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We have the sunset (today) and sunrise(tomorrow) timings from the ranger at the check-in station. He suggests Artist’s Drive  for the sunset. I am really keen on catching the sunset at Badwater Basin for two reasons – 1.  it is a shiney white salt flat, so the heat and glare there is going to be really bad during the day, making early mornings and evenings the ideal times to visit. 2. pamphotography has a lovely tutorial blog on photographing sunsets at the Badwater Basin. We decide to go to Artist’s Drive first and the head down to Badwater to catch the last light. Later at night, we plan to go the the Mesquite sand dunes for some star gazing.

Death Valley and Zion

October 2016

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Death Valley National Park

How did this happen? How did it come to be?  I need to pinch myself to be sure.  It all started with being too late plan a Thanksgiving and/or Christmas vacation for which we wouldn’t have to sell our house. Then came the school holidays for the elections. The timing was perfect. The husband is not particularly keen on either camping or Death Valley (blazing hot in summer and below freezing in winters), but he is keen on using up his leave. When I suggest Death Valley, he quickly  runs a fact/weather/temperature check ( I’m sure he did) and agrees.  Since the temperatures are extreme in summer and winter, the transition seasons are a great time to be there. We got the last campsite available at the Furnace Creek campground ( the only shaded  = most desireable campground), and I think that’s what sealed the two night camping deal. The husband hates letting a deal pass + he knows how badly I’ve been wanting to do this. Also, we didn’t camp or barbeque all summer, so we kind of made a big deal ( deal again) of fall camping a little earlier.

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Death Valley National Park

The husband has the logistics sorted. He’s booked us on Southwest Airlines, so we get to check-in 2 bags each. This means we can carry out tent and comforter. We threw away our old mattress topper,  our tent bed, or we could have taken that too. He’s rented a car to drive down from Vegas to Death Valley and back. He’s also squeezed in a day at Zion.

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Zion National Park

I call the parks department and find out that to hike the Wave – the coolest and most famous formation in Zion, we need to apply through an online lottery four months in advance. There is a walk-in lottery as well, but you need to be there one day in advance. Not happening. Next, check with friends and find out that the Narrows are super cool too. I’m super kicked about it, but it’s an eight hour hike and needs river sandals and sticks (can be rented).  The husband is sure we don’t have that kind of time either, so we decide to wing it.

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Death Valley National Park

We’ve packed a little pan to cook in and burger patties and buns. I have steel plates, spoons and glasses for us, so as not to increase landfill (lol). In a ziplock bag, I even have a sponge with some dishwashing liquid on it (the environmental conundrum!). We’ve packed layers of clothing.GPS – check. Camera+ charged batteries – check. Phones and chargers – check. We are all set to go!

 

Buttermilk Falls State Park

Memorial Day 2016

It’s the first weekend of summer; that beautiful time of the year again. How quickly time flies! This time, last year we were in Maine, torn between the majesty of the mountains and the ocean. This year, the husband has been hustled into another camping trip. He somehow convinces the universe that there is no way he can spend two days in a tent and we get the last spot in the campground, but for only one night.

Buttermilk Falls State Park and Binghamton ZooThe hike up Buttermilk falls is a more like a pleasant walk uphill. The day is hot and I am sorely tempted to drench my body and soul under the falling waters.I almost give in, going as far as the edge of the waterfall, but am scared away by the slippery rocks under it.

When we get to the top of the gorge trail, we have two options – we could either go back down via the rim trail or we could go further up, along the bear trail. A few steps into the bear trail and we spot a wood pecker, hard at work. A few more steps and we are joined unexpectedly by rain. We shelter under a tree for a few long minutes before deciding that if we have to get wet, we may as well walk. We shelter again in a shed at the Rim Trail parking lot. Then the sun comes out and we slip and slither our way down.

 

Buttermilk Falls State Park and Binghamton Zoo1

Halki phulki si hai zindagi, bojh to khwahishon ka hai

Camping in the rain comes with it’s own challenges. In a small window between the showers we struggle to set up our tent. No matter how hard we try, we just couldn’t get it to stand. Once we had ours up, setting up the second tent is a breeze. While the others feel that the rain is ruining everything, I am the sort who can see the rain dragons.  Remember those days when you loved to run barefoot, mud squelching between your toes? It does make it harder though, to cook outdoors or set up camp or even just stay dry, and it sure helps if you have a way to clean up before you get into your tent.

 

Note to self – unless there’s gale and you’re pitching at the end of a cliff, forget the stakes, just lock the pins into the frame and the tent will stand. Easy-Peasy!

Second note to self – carry two bags of coal. We always run short of coal for breakfast.

Watkins Glen

September 25, 2015DSC_0895We bought our tent 3 months ago, right after our first camping experience, promising ourselves that we would go camping often this summer. It’s after summer and here we are, loading our new tent, packaging unopened in our car. We are going camping with B and J,  and between the 4 of us we have so many bags that it’s like fitting together a 3-D jigsaw in the car. Almost as soon as we pull out of the apartment complex, we realize we left the cooler behind. When we go back, we find out we had left the cooler and a bag of grillables behind. We drive a little more before we remember we forgot the crackers for s’mores. This time we simply pick it up from a drug store. Further on, we turn back again because we never brought the mattress topper along. We have delayed enough that it makes sense to have lunch and then proceed.

 At the campsite, it still feels like summer. No camping experience can be considered complete without a fire and some songs!  Our *antakshari  continues well into the night. When we finally turn in, all of us are very comfortable in our tents. My sleeping bag is super comfortable too. I do have a recommendation though – there should be some way to roll up the head and tie it to make a pillow.

September 26, 2015

*Lonavle mein chikki khayenge, waterfall pe jaayenge Khandala ke ghaat ke upar photu kheech ke aayenge

**Lonavle mein chikki khayenge, waterfall pe jaayenge
Khandala ke ghaat ke upar photu kheech ke aayenge

We are all excited about the Watkins Glen hike. B & J have done it before, but it’s our first time. I always imagined doing it in fall. Well, we are doing it in fall only not like I imagined with all the colours out. As advised by the man-at-the-campground-visitor-centre-who-just-wouldn’t-let-us-go, we took the Gorge trail up and the Indian trail down. The Gorge trail is like walking through a series of postcards. Shady gorges carved out by running water, spanned by bridges; little cascades, dark pools, curtain falls – it was completely worth every step. Our fellow hikers are quiet and respectful of nature, almost like worshipers in a gorgeous cathedral. Now imagine how much more tranquil it would have been to be absolutely alone in a place like this! Or would the silence be too overbearing?

Watkins Glenn2The Indian trail overlooks the Gorge trail, so it affords you a whole new perspective of the gorge but is just not as charming or serene. At one point the Indian trail becomes a narrow road alongside a cemetery. It’s hard to walk by and not wonder, how do they bring the deceased up here? The trail is no proper road for a hearse. Perhaps there is another road on the other side. Watkins Glen is also the home of the famous  Watkins Glen International racetrack, and the historic Watkins Glen Grand Prix.

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Photo Courtesy Ganesh Sankaran

At the trailhead, or end depending on which way you look at it, there is an ice-cream shop that seems to be very popular. We finish our ice-creams before the sun can get as much as a lick of them and go to Seneca Lake. Once upon a time, five Indian tribes lived in this region – the Seneca, Cayuga,  Tuscarora,  Onondaga and Oneida . The land around the Seneca Lake was the home of the Senecas. Is the lake named after the tribe, or does the tribe take its name from the lake, I don’t know.

No trip to the Finger Lakes region is complete without wine tasting, so we drive up the wine trail  and end our trip with some average wines and a fabulous view.

*antakshari – example 

**Lonavala mein chikki khayenge … – 2:35 to 2:45 here. Don’t forget to turn the subtitles on.

P.S :

Lunar Eclipse (clockwise from top left)

Lunar Eclipse (clockwise from top left)

On the way back we saw the blood moon +  lunar eclipse while on the road. Most of it atleast. When the Earth’s shadow covered 80% of the moon, the clouds decided to play spoiltsport. We witnessed the end of the show from our balcony.

Camping 101

7 and 8 June 2015

IMG_0552I’ve wanted to go camping since I was 10, or maybe even younger. It would be more accurate to say I’ve wanted to go ever since I devoured stories of the Famous Five and their camping adventures.  The last two years have seen the husband put it off saying, let it get warmer, then it’s too hot now! and then we’ll freeze at night. Now no more! We’ve gathered our friends, and picked a fine spring day. Unfortunately, when the D – day comes, L has a toothache and the skies are overcast. We push it out by 2 weeks, only to have overcast skies and a twenty percent chance of precipitation on the planned weekend. We push it out by another week. Weather forecasts look bleak, but suddenly it all changes and forecasts say we are going to have a great time.

DSC_0563While I dream of setting up our tent on soft springy heather and sleeping under the stars, the husband insists on carrying bedding and a comforter.  He reasons that since we are going car camping, we may as well carry all that we need to be comfortable. I see no point in arguing. All I want is for us to go, if it means our bedroom goes with us so be it! If we got our bedroom along, F1 and F2 have brought with them their kitchen. Between the four of us, we are all set to put up a house! Our tiny two person tent perfectly sleeps two. There is not much spare space. We leave our stuff in the car, which is parked right outside our tents. In comparison their 4 person tent is cavernous. While we completely recommend a four person tent for two, especially if you are tall since this has more headroom and will allow you to sit up comfortably, a larger tent means more cold air. It’s going to be less cosy.

DSC_0560We pick a campsite right by the Delaware River. It’s a pretty spot. The Five would have loved it! We cannot cool our food by putting it on a rocky shelf in the water or drink straight from the river, but we have coolers filled with ice for just that. Ginger beer is replaced with, well BEER. Both tents are fairly simply to set up. Our next task is to get the fire going for food. We are going to be grilling tonight. I have my veggies, and there’s plenty of meat for everyone else. We start with corn on the cob – *masala maar ke; Bombay style. There are no barbeques grills here. We have improvised the fire pit by putting a metal grill over it. The veggies are grilled in a foil basket. Not wanting the smoky flavour wood imparts to food, we grill over coal.  To avoid using as much coal and still give it the required elevation, we build a stack of stones at the bottom and then set the coal over it.

The adjoining sites are empty. We borrow another fire pit ring from one of them and soon have a wood fire going for marshmallows. Famous Five come to America. Turns out, toasting marshmallows is one of the husband’s hidden talents. We all want him to toast marshmallows for our s’mores. Could s’more be a contraction of some more? It sure is hard to stop at one.

DSC_0571We are having the perfect night. Slowly the stars start to show up. At first a sprinkling on the inky blackness, steadily growing in numbers and then boldly taking over the skies. Just when we thought it could not get prettier, the moon starts to make an appearance.  I manage to stumble over one of the fire pits and narrow escape falling into the other. I scrap my knee but it’s still better than burning my butt.

F2 who had retired for the night long before, steps out of the tent to say she’s freezing. Suddenly the comforter seems rather comforting. As the fires die out, F1 and F2 head into Milford to buy a blanket. God bless 24 x 7 Walmarts! We crawl into our tents.Since we have our mattress topper doubled over, pillows and comforter, it makes no sense taking the sleeping bags out.The night is cold, but in the morning it starts to get stifling inside the tent. In retrospect,  we should have tried out the sleeping bags. If they didn’t meet our needs, we could return them.

DSC_0585The campsite is fully equipped with toilets and showers. After performing our morning ablutions we all sit down to breakfast. We’ve used up all the wood we bought, so we forage for wood to grill veggie skewers and some wieners. Seeing us gathering firewood, our neighbours very sweetly offered us theirs. They were leaving and had no use for the excess wood. The husband decides to forego meat.  Looks like, he wants to give his tummy a break. We wind up our camp and set forth for our activity for the day –river kayaking.

IMG_0553We have signed up for a two and a half our trip. We expect to do an hour or an hour and a half. River kayaking, however does not work that way. Unlike kayaking in a lake, where you row to your heart’s content and then simply return to the starting point to return your rentals, here you start at a pre-determined point and end at another. You cannot just pull up anywhere in between.This is F1 and F2’s first kayaking adventure and they are nervous. We decide we will stick together and they will follow us. The husband is an excellent rower. When he rows, the boat just goes.  Every now and then I am tempted to kick back and simply enjoy the ride, but am soon overcome with guilt for not pulling my weight. As we cruise along the river, we keep an eye for F2 and F1. We pull under our first landmark, a bridge over the river. F2 and F1 are well in sight. Right after the bridge, we encounter a class 1 rapid.  The current picks up and takes us around the bend. We stop here and wait for F2 and F1. Ten minutes later, there is still no sign of them. Anxious to make sure that they didn’t topple over in the rapids, I suggest we try rowing upstream a little. The husband assures me, the rapids are not that strong, plus they can’t exactly drown in three feet of water. We wait; another ten minutes pass.The husband, bored of waiting,concedes that it might not be such a bad idea to back up a little, but no matter how hard we row we seem to be making very little progress. After ten minutes or so of rowing the husband agrees to call the emergency number listed on the back of our life jackets. We would have called F2 and F1 but they don’t have a cell phone on them.The conversation went something like this –

the husband :  We are on the 2.5 hour kayaking trip. It’s been 30 mins and there’s no sign of our friends.

Emergency : Could you give me your location?

the husband :  We last saw them before the first bridge. We are approaching the second bridge.

Emergency : There is no second bridge on your route.

the husband :  Yes there is, and we are approaching it.

(skipping ahead a little)

EmergencyThe best thing for you to do would be to continue to the finish line and wait.

the husband :  What about my friends?

EmergencyThey have until 5:30 (p.m.) to get there.

(skip skip)

the husband :  Will you send someone to look for them?

EmergencyIf they don’t get to the finish by 7:30 (p.m.) we’ll send someone.

Luckily at this point we see F2 and F1 coming valiantly around the corner. Turns out they got stuck on the rocks just before the first bridge. After making futile efforts to paddle their way out, N finally got out of the boat and pushed it out, only to find themselves in the same situation after the bridge. Added woes, F2 had injured her foot two days ago and injured it again earlier this morning. The poor girl was in quite a predicament – to step off and wet her bandaged toe or stay in and risk being carried away by the current while F1 yelled and waved helplessly or even worse toppled the kayak as he tried to jump in. All is well. We continue our river expedition.Since the husband is putting too much distance between the kayaks, I ask him to soak some sun while I row. He takes over only in the slow parts. As we pull up at the finish, F1 and F2 conclude their adventure by learning to paddle in reverse.

*masala maar ke; Bombay style. – corn on the cob, roasted over coal and seasoned with chili powder, salt and lime juice

Desert Camping with the Bedouins in Wadi Rum

*Photo Courtesy Flickr

*Photo Courtesy Flickr

Camping is high on my list of things to do. The Husband is not too keen, but when he saw how disappointed I was about not being able to camp on our up-coming road trip, specially in Death Valley, he were sweetly came up came up with a plan to do some local camping.

Oh! There’s something super romantic about camping in the desert. The vast emptiness.The silences. The night sky shimmering with thousands of tiny diamante like stars, clear and unaffected by pollution. The spectacular sunrises. The people! The people of the desert, I imagine would be different from the people of the city. They would be roughed and harsh, but fiercely loyal. Their faces would be weathered yet so beautiful. They would independent and free spirited people. Perhaps I read too much.

Real Bedouins,the ones who live in deserts (with no water to bathe for days or months), in close proximity to their camels are probably a stinky lot, and highly irritable because of the weather. The ones I will actually meet would probably be neither. They might be regular people, just like you and me, who will hopefully will not be putting on theatrical airs and gushing, “Khushamdeed!! Khushamdeed!!” In addition to reading a lot, I also watch a lot of crappy Hindi movies.

My apologies if that offended anyone. I am sure the Bedouin are wonderful people and I look forward to their hspitality.

Now if I could convert a desert camping trip to include a camel safari through some stunning landscape and add a trip to the Dead Sea wouldn’t that be just perfect? That is where Wadi Rum comes in. Wadi Rum! Doesn’t it sound exotic? The Dead Sea is a 4 hour drive from Wadi Rum. They are both in Jordan, so you need just one visa.

While in Jordan, Petra-a UNESCO World Heritage site is not to be missed and Aqaba would be a great place to experience the Red Sea.

* Original Photo here.If this photo belongs to you and you have any objection to my using it, please let me know and I will take it down. If not, thank you for letting me use it.

 

** edited to add- Anthea of antheaschronicles tells me that Indian nationals do not require a visa to go to Jordan. Read about her adventures in Jordan here.