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Creatures and Caves – Hiking Canyon Vista and Walnut Canyon

An old jeep track leads into a dark, wooded area near Canyon Vista Campground.
An old jeep track leads into a dark, wooded area near Canyon Vista Campground.

In July, I was off to Flagstaff for more a bit of fun. For my wife, it was hard work – she was competing in the Mountain Man Half-Ironman Triathlon around Upper Lake Mary.

I woke up at 4:30 a.m. right along with her after a fairly fitful night of sleep at the Travelodge on Butler Street (thanks, trains, for blaring those horns!). The Travelodge isn’t too bad if you can manage to get a room on the side of the hotel that doesn’t face the tracks.

Anyway, my plan was to get her on her way, cruise out somewhere for a hike, then return by the time she was switching from the bike portion to the running. I grabbed a ranger at Lake Mary, who told me to head to Canyon Vista Campground. I did as he said, including following the path to the back where there was parking for a trailhead. There was also a map, but it actually didn’t seem very up-to-date.

I stepped into my La Sportiva Trango Trek boots (just in case it was a rocky trail), fired up the GPS, double-checked my water and headed off. For those who wonder about such things, I was also carrying my Pentax K100D-Super, an assortment of lenses, some energy bars, a Leatherman and a sturdy knife. My mistake was not packing my headlamp. More on that later.

A biker pedals past the canyon walls.
A biker pedals past the canyon walls.

If you bear left, the path first goes past a cool rubble field (you can also veer right if you want to go rock climbing). I’m not sure what its origins are, but I’d bet on volcanic. From there, I wound through the forest before descending down into the canyon. Up to this point, you’ll get some nice canyon views. The path starts getting rocky on the downhill, which made me happy I’d picked my more rugged set of boots. Yeah, you could get away with light low-top hiking boots or running shows, but why bother?

During this early portion, you can hear traffic from nearby I40. But that soon fades away, especially early in the morning. I went about two miles before seeing another person – a mountain biker right near a rock outcrop with a small cave (see photo). From there, I went into the Walnut Canyon Wilderness Area. Bikes and any sort of motorized contraptions are not allowed in here. It’s incredibly verdant – unfortunately, that also meant a lot of bugs, which I didn’t count on! No repellant for me. Oddly enough, I only wound up with one bug bite.

This is where I found a really cool cave, and where I also regretted not having my trust Petzl Tikka headlamp. That meant I could only go about 100 feet into the cave before losing too much visibility. I’m not sure how this cave formed, but I’m not betting it’s limestone. It seemed like a crack in the surrounding rock. It was very solid and damp, with lots of bugs standing sentinel at the mouth.

Another cool thing about Walnut Canyon is how many creatures you’ll see – huge wasps, hummingbirds, even eagles (I think that’s what they were). Find a nice place, preferably near some bright-colored flowers. Be quiet. Just listen. You won’t believe the awesome racket of all these animals. The hummingbirds are my favorite, especially when they chase each other around.

An industrious hummingbird takes a break.
An industrious hummingbird takes a break.

I knew it was getting time to head back. So I snapped a few more photos and retraced my steps, but with a little extra speed to get me back in time. A few miles later, I started encountering more people on their way out. Obviously, an early start is the way to go. That way, you’ll enjoy the solitude and then be enjoying some espresso from one of Flag’s fly baristas when everyone else is just showing up.

Total trip: 6.5 miles
Check the Maps & More Page for a map!

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Possums and Parks – A Quick Visit to St. Louis

 Back in the old days before I began keeping my blog, I had to visit St. Louis. My sister-in-law was graduating from Washington University (a beautiful campus – the sort that would feature in a Revenge of the Nerds-style movie) and the wife and I were off to see her into the professional world.

I should preface the rest by saying my brother J.D. also live near St. Louis. He says Missouri’s state motto is "Missouri: Love it or Leave It -- hey, come back here!"

Well, our Southwest Airlines flight landed well into the nighttime hours. And I was famished since peanuts just don’t satisfy for that long. Once we got a cab from the airport to our near the university, our main objective was to find somewhere decent to eat in the Italian-flavored area known as "The Hill."

So Sarah and I began walking. As we were walking past some homes, I saw the eyes of a little creature poking out from a hedge. I guessed it was a cat from its somewhat furtive movement.

Being a cat-friendly guy, I immediately "kittykittykitty"d in hopes of making a new furry friend. The creature advanced slightly, giving me a better look.

And let me tell you, this was the ugliest cat I’ve ever seen. "This poor thing needs a lot of petting to help its self-esteem," I thought, running my gaze over its unusually beady eyes, it’s somewhat pointy snout and its disheveled, matted fur.

I heard Sarah yell at me "Justin, get away from that! It’s a possum!"

Well, jeez. How was I to know about possums? I’m from the Southwest! I don’t know from possums.

So what is there to St. Louis besides possums? Well, near our hotel was the absolutely wonderful Forest Park. It’s a great place to run, relax and recreate (though procreating might raise a few eyebrows, though I’m sure that happens at certain hours). I’m actually quite jealous of this resource: It covers nearly 1,300 acres. Yes, it has the obligatory golf course. But also an art museum, sports leagues, running paths galore, paddle boats, skating rinks, a zoo, an opera house and --

-- the St. Louis Science Center. It’s a nice place to pass a few hours, but it’s no Smithsonian. It’s still a nice complement to the Forest Park.

If you get hungry, as I often do, being close to a university can set you up right. There are chains for the unadventurous of palette – but you’ll find nice locally owned and ethnic sorts of places, too. I wasn’t taking such good notes since this trip occurred BWJ (Before Wandering Justin.com), but ask a student and you’ll find the good stuff. Or ask the staff at Forest Park.

I have to give St. Louis props for Forest Park – and for snaring me in a near-destructive possum-petting incident. I can’t say I was bored!

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My Best Zorbing Tips for Beginners

Sarah shakes off her Zorbing legs.
Sarah shakes off her Zorbing legs.

I’m kind of surprised by something: People are finding WanderingJustin.com while searching for Zorbing tips for beginners. I’m not surprised because people are looking here for Zorbing info, but about tips for beginners.

Alright, people … Zorbing is not exactly a skill. It’s not like skiing. There are no double black-diamond Zorbing hills (though that would be awesome). You don’t need a finely tuned sense of balance, powerful quads and awesome spatial awareness. Really, if you can fit in the hole, you can Zorb just as well your first time as any veteran can.

But you seem to want tips, so I’m gonna give ’em to ya:

1. Book a flight to New Zealand. This is where Zorbing was born, and thus is the ultimate place to Zorb. When you book, I recommend Air New Zealand since Qantas, unfortunately, seems to be experiencing a spiral into management wankery (the cabin staff and crews are still great, though). I’m hoping V Australia decides to start flying to New Zealand from the States, too.

2. Get a taxi from the airport to your hotel. Parnell is a nice neighborhood with good nightlife, decent hotels and a nice vibe. It’s also not far from bus and rail stations.

3. After spending a night in Auckland, take a bus to Rotorua. That’ll give you a chance to savor the countryside. Another option is to rent a Wicked Camper, if that’s more your bag. This also allows you to skip Step 4 and go directly to 5 .. along with flying your Freak Flag a bit!

4. When you get to Rotorua, rent a car.

5. Drive said car to The Agrodome. Sign yourself up for the Zydro, and make sure you have a friend -or mate, rather … when in Kiwiland, say as they Kiwis say, I guess- videotaping your roll down the hill.

6. Exit. Laugh. Repeat.

Congratulations. You are now an Olympic-caliber Zorbonaut.

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5 Reasons Why You’d Hate Traveling With Me

Often, when I describe my travels to people, they’re pretty jazzed. But then they go a step too far: “Oh, I’ll bet it would be fun to travel with you!”

I suppose for some. But I think most people would think saddling up with my wife and me is a circle of hell if they encountered the reality of it. Here’s why:

1. We can’t say no to adding mileage. One of us will see or hear of something cool. And it’s only a short hike away! There’s no way we can resist, even if we’re already in the middle of a death march. Onward!

2. We walk everywhere. Unless we’re just getting into an airport, we largely move by foot once we’re at our destination. Yeah, we’ll take a bus from city to city, but once we’re there, it’s all on foot. And god help you if we’re hunting down rumors of a good coffee house or craft brewery. We’ve marched ourselves into the ground on many a damn-fool idea.

3. We get up really early. And we’re going full-throttle the entire day. By the time 10 p.m. rolls around, we’re dead to the world.

4. We eat really weird stuff. If you don’t and you’re tagging along with us, we will verbally abuse you and ostracize you until you take a bite of fricaseed jellyfish. And I will eat haggis just to make you gag.

5. It’s very unusual for us to spend more than two nights anywhere. So our trips are often less than relaxing. Yes, they’re fun – but of a slightly brutal variety.