GUMO

For Spring Break, my friend Dileep and I decided to do a quick backpacking trip out in Guadalupe Mountains National Park! After driving out into remote West Texas, we caught sight of the mountains standing tall against the vast desert floor. We made it to the park, packed our bags, and headed out to the trails! As you can tell, we were pretty excited to get going! 

We hiked around a few mountins, climbing up and up the ridge. Thankfully, the weather was great (except for a little wind) and the trails were easy to follow, so we really enjoyed roaming around the desert. 

4.2 miles later, we made it to our campsite! At Pine Top, we set up our tent, ate some food, and relaxed, gazing upon the vast desert valley below us. It was quiet and cool up there with incredible views in every direction! 

Rinse and repeat. The next morning, we woke up with the sun, packed our stuff, and headed back down. We were lucky enough to catch the sunrise as we began hiking down. Both of us stood in awe as the orange and red light painted the landscape below us, pushing shadows back into the ground as the sun steadily crept over us. A few hours later, we were back at the bottom, tired by the hike but energized by the opportunity to spend time in the wilderness, the quiet musings of nature, and get in touch with our inner mountain man if only for a few hours! GUMO, we will be back!

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Backpacking the Grand Canyon

When I told people that I was hiking the Grand Canyon, I got the same response from everyone who had been before: It’s big. Really big. Really, really big. If you have already been before, you have an idea about the size of the Grand Canyon; and if you haven’t, at least you know that pictures probably don’t do it justice because it is so big. And if you have hiked it, even a small part, you have a better idea of how massive the canyon is.

Well, after backpacking for four days in the Grand Canyon, I think I can say that it is huge, enormous, gigantic, and bigger than most people can even fathom.  It is also amazing, a beautiful geological structure filled with life that has adapted to the harsh terrain and dry desert climate.
On day 1, we met our guide from Just Roughin’ It (an amazing company for this stuff, highly recommend) and packed our big backpacks with tents, sleeping bags, snacks, clothes, and water, in all totaling about 35-40 pounds. We then started down Hermit Trail, an unmaintained path that was named after a hermit who used to use it. It was rough and tough, very rocky and very steep. We had to traverse rock slides and cliff faces, walk down switchbacks and boulders, and avoid cactuses and unstable rocks. It was hard but loads of fun, and the views got better and better. 8 miles later, sore and exhausted, we made it to our camp at Hermit Creek.

On day 2, we woke up with the sun at about 5 am, ate breakfast, took down our tents, and headed out. We hiked up onto the Tonto trail for about 6 miles, passing over a plateau region in the inner canyon. The vast spaces revealed breathtaking vistas and the enormous size of the canyon. We passed by Monument, a big hoodoo standing below a canyon drainage point before scrambling down to Granite Rapids, our campsite on the Colorado River. We made it! After two days and 14 miles, we got to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and we couldn’t see the top from the bottom. We relaxed at this sandy campsite, watching rafters pass over the whitewater rapids and playing cards while the sunset.

Day 3: the Inferno. Another early start before we hiked 9 miles over more canyon plateau. Still on the Tonto, we passed through a section with almost no shade deep in the canyon. It was hot, but we had enough water and snacks to keep us going. And again, the views were spectacular. By this time, we only saw two or three people with us on the trails. These sections are both remote and solitary, away from the people and beholden by few human eyes. Seven hours later, we got to Horn Creek, a dry campsite we had to bring water too. Here I reveled about how far I’ve come, how close the end is, and how amazing the trip had been.

And then came day 4, our last day up the infamous Bright Angel Trail. This trail was easy compared to what we had been on, since it was wide and well maintained. But, it was uphill, with big steps and lots of switchbacks. It was also very crowded, full of experienced hikers and many more casual tourists trying to get closer to the Grand Canyon. 6.5 miles of uphill requires stamina and endurance, and after about 5 hours, we took our last step out of this amazing canyon!

I did it. I can say that I’ve hiked the Grand Canyon! This was an incredible trip that pushed me physically and mentally but was incredibly rewarding! I am sore, but it is hard not to think about all the incredible things I saw and did for four days in the Grand Canyon. I took a lot of pictures so here are a few more, and for now, I’ll rest and recover from this knee knocking trek!

Zion and Bryce Canyon

Southwestern Utah is home to part of the Colorado Plateau, a massive chunk of land that has been pushed nearly 2 miles above its original altitude and slowly carved back down over millions of years. My friend Michael and I decided to take a hiking trip down here, to explore the purported beauty of these geological structures and work out our legs climbing up and down the Grand Staircase.
We got to Las Vegas and drove through the Nevada Desert. We followed highways that curved around mountains and through canyons, with the brown desert extending as far as we could see in the sunset. Even this rugged landscape had the beauty of the desert, as the mountain peaks stood picturesque next to long, flat, highways. 

Eventually, we got to Mt. Carmel Junction, a small town where our hotel is located. Turns out, it’s a hotel, gas station, restaurant, and golf course, one of three or four enterprises in this town. What we thought would be a Best Western turned out to be Thunderbird, a cool old diner straight out of a movie.

After getting settled, we went to Zion National Park, a hiker’s paradise on earth. My friend had been talking up this hike called Angel’s Landing, which was about 5 miles with a 1500 ft elevation gain. We went straight there, walking uphill for hours on winding switchbacks, until we got to the actual Angel’s Landing trailhead. This 1/2 a mile scramble is along the spine of a ridge, with sheer walls on both sides as you crawl along the etched out trail. A chain is there (but my friend and I agreed, largely unnecessary on the way up) and as long as you were smart, it’s a manageable but intense hike. So we did it, hugging the cliff face as we scooted along, climbing over ledges as we peered down to thousand foot drop offs on our left and right, and crab walking back down to keep our sanity. The view was spectacular since the Zion Valley was right there in all its glory for us to behold. A crazy cool hike to start off this trip!

The next day, we drove about an hour north to get to Bryce Canyon. Another friend (also Michael, who I went to Mammoth Cave with) told me that this was one of the coolest parks he had visited. And he was right! Before we started, we met up with Laura’s brother Ken (Laura who took me to Cleveland) who is on a cross-country road trip and happened to be in the area. Together, the three of us descended into the Bryce amphitheater, gazing at the towering hoodoos that covered the canyon walls. These hoodoos were formed from rainwater seeping into cracks in these rocks and freezing and melting over and over for millennia. The towers of red and white rocks constantly shifted as we moved, creating an illusion of a dynamic, fluid landscape that is both still and beautiful. Here are a bunch of panoramas I took, since each turn was a new perspective on the incredible scenery.

So far, we have visited two of the three National Parks in the Grand Staircase. More Zion to come, hopefully, and then down to the last park, the Grand Canyon, to complete our tour of this incredible geological wonderland.

CLE (aka Cleveland)

A few months ago, my friend Laura asked me if I would want to visit her hometown in Cleveland. Despite some (wrong) ideas about what Cleveland was like, I agreed to go, and learned that Cleveland is a real gem of a city, one that is coming back to life as we speak.


Laura and my roommate Danny (who is also from Cleveland) started me off with Cedar Point. They kept building and building it up, and it surpassed all my expectations! We had a blast flying 93 mph down the Millenium Force, taking a 95 degree drop on the Maverick, and hanging 200 feet in the air over the drop on the Valravn! The coasters were crazy and we had a blast speeding down the metal rails all day long.


The next day, Laura and I explored the cultural side of Cleveland. That meant we went down to the Cleveland art museum, Little Italy, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Danny met us later in the day, and the three of us ended up at Melt, where I got a deep fried grilled cheese sandwich with powdered sugar and a berry dipping sauce. What, who would eat that, you may ask? I would. Delicious. 

Laura and I finished off our trip with a few more food stops. We went to Laura’s favorite ice cream shop with her friend Taylor.  Honey Hur serves amazing ice cream made with real honey and real flavors that just melted over your tongue with every bite. Our last stop was the Cleveland market, where we got gyros and crepes and gawked over candies, breads, meats, and cheeses.  

Cleveland, contrary to popular opinion, is a crazy cool city. Yeah, it’s had a bit of a rough patch, but the new city center paired with the old CLE culture gives the place both a homey and a hip vibe. The foods awesome, the attractions are world class, and the city is open, waiting to transform its next visitor. And to top it off, I got to spend loads of time with some of my best friends, making my time in Cleveland one I won’t forget. 

The Abbey of Gethsemani

This past week was our spring break.  Most of my friends headed out of town immediately after their last class, but I hung around for a few days before driving down to Bardstown, Kentucky to spend a week at the Abbey of Gethsemani. After a 2.5 hour drive, I pulled into the huge monastery, situated among the beautiful, rolling Kentucky hills. 
  

I checked in, got settled in my room, and entered into the monastic silence. The abbey is run by the Trappist monks, also known as the Order of Cistercians of Strict Observance, who practice a very intense monasticism. Though they do not take vows of silence, they maintain silence throughout the day and night, in addition to regular fasting, vows of poverty and chastity, and lots of prayer.
So what did I do for four days in a silent abbey? I prayed the Liturgy of the Hours with the monks, a set of 7 prayer services a day that start at 3:15 am and continue regularly until 8 pm when the monks go to bed. I also read, enjoyed the good Trappist cheese and fudge, and spent time journaling, reflecting, praying alone, and enjoying the quiet time.
  

In addition to the huge, simple, church, the monks maintain some huge grounds where there are a bunch of hiking trails. So I hiked in the mornings alone, enjoying the solitude and peace in nature, then spent time alone in the afternoons between prayer services. 
   
   

These monks live incredible lives, totally dedicated to worshipping God all the days of their lives. The abbey is truly a place of worship.  As one’s thoughts settle in the permeating silence, you easily come to find God in the beauty of nature, worship, and solitude.
  

Mammoth Cave: Crawling, Climbing, and Sliding through the World’s Largest Cave

This weekend a friend and I headed down to Kentucky to Mammoth Cave National Park. We both had wanted to visit the park, which protects the largest cave system in the world, with over 400 miles mapped out! We had decided that we could do the “Wild Cave Tour,” billed as “extremely strenuous” (although reviews and the website said it was ok for people in decent shape who can walk a few miles and climb up some stairs). Not knowing what to expect, we headed out excited and a little nervous!


We got to the park, got on our tour, met the guides, and changed into our caving jumpsuits and helmet lanterns. Then, they took us down into the cave, where we hiked, crawled, slid, climbed, and wiggled our way through 5 miles of tunnels, canyons, crevices and paths.  As you might imagine, the cave is pitch black and our headlights were the only light, and cameras were not recommended anyway, so I don’t have any pictures of us in the cave. But, to give you an idea, here is one from the visitor center of ‘canyon walking,’ where you put one foot and one arm on one side of a canyon and the other foot and arm on the other side:
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Needless to say, my friend and I got dirty, and had an awesome time! We had a caving adventure, as we squeezed through holes just big enough for our shoulders, crawled through the “Cheese Grater” tunnel, bouldered up rocky vertical paths, and gazed at the beautiful caverns, canyons, pits, waterfalls, and rock formations that we passed in a wildly diverse geological formation.  To top it all off, we got to go into parts of the cave most people don’t see, and parts that the National Park Service doesn’t even put on their map! (See the arrow pointin into the darkness for the “Wild Cave Tour?!)

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As you can tell from the smiles  on our faces, we had an amazing time after 6 hours in the caves! A challenge, but not impossible, and full of awesome memories, unique experiences, and a couple of sore muscles.

*Note: Credit for these two photos goes to the National Park Service, taken solely to show family and friends some examples of how wild our trip was!