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How to be a Tour Guide: Pros and Cons of a Dream Job

Group at Grand Canyon

When you live in DC (I lived there for over five years), anyone can tell you that the first “getting to know you” question is “What do you do?” This is code for a) do I make more money that you? b) do I work for a more recognized company than you? c) Do I live in a better apartment than yours? Usually, when I tell people what I do for a living, the honest response I get is a tad bit of confusion followed by a pinch of snark and then a lightbulb realization: “Oh wow. Your job is awesome.” This prompts me to take a little smug moment to myself. Once that’s over, I kindly agree and move on.

The thing is, being a tour guide–or as I much prefer, local expert–kind of is the best job in the world. I get to travel! I get to meet people from all over the world! I get to geek out in front of historically and culturally significant places all over the United States and share my knowledge with thousands of travelers! I get to eat! A lot! And I make money while doing all of it! Then, I get to take my “off season” and head overseas!

BUT.

Please don’t be fooled. It’s not all sunshines and rainbows.

I would, however, like to highlight the pros first. Because I am a positive person. And I don’t want to scare anyone.

What are the pros of being a tour guide?

Running at Monument Valley
A typical photo opp after visiting Monument Valley on tour

Its hard to put a finger on what exactly the best part of being a tour guide is (and to clarify, when I say tour guide here, I am also including tour manger/director/leader/etc into that phrase and though some would argue that each of those titles is a different position–they’re not). So, here’s what I think:

  • You are an independent contractor: This means that you aren’t really an employee of any one company. There are a small number of tour operators in the industry that hire their guides as full time employees with benefits/401k but even these companies usually only require 100 days of work out of the year. With most others, you are on a contract-by-contract basis. This could mean that you’ve said yes (read: contracted) to lead a two hour city tour one time, or that you’ve actually signed a hard copy sheet of paper stating that you will take on a 30 day cross-country itinerary five times a year. The beauty here is that you can create your own schedule without worrying about a dwindling number of vacation days that some corporation allots you annually. If you want to take the entire month of January off to go explore Fiji, go for it because no one will be stopping you. Most guides typically work their tails off anywhere between mid February through Thanksgiving, but a lot work continuously throughout the entire year. Others work a lot less. As an independent contractor you truly are in charge of your own schedule.
  • You get to travel. A lot: I had barely been west of the Mississippi River when I got my first gig in the industry with Contiki Holidays. After I finally led my last (maybe) tour for them in 2015 I had been to 45 US states, nearly 30 other countries and had lived in Australia for a short time. Not all of this travel was on the job. Most of the state visits were thanks to the job. But, most of the international travel came during long breaks I scheduled to travel abroad. I was able to do this because I was an independent contractor (see above).
  • You meet people from all over the globe: Over the years, I have guided thousands of people around the United States. My clients have come from every inhabited continent. I’ve met people from all sorts of places–Iran, Namibia, Finland, Ukraine and India. The job is a two-way street. As I was showing off my country to paying travelers, I was also learning about dozens of other cultures.
  • You are very rarely in an office: I learned from the ripe age of 21 that cubicle life was not for me. Being a tour guide means you are constantly out and about, talking to large groups and mingling with guests all while leaving behind a very small paper trail. Tour operators always have some sort of admin paperwork for you to finish that goes along with the tour but it is very minimal compared to what you would face in an office.

What are the cons of being a tour guide?

Tour Guide in San Francisco
A candid shot by one of my guests. I was gathering maps and headed to UPS as the group enjoyed lunch at Fisherman’s Wharf

Like most things in life, traveling all of the time has its pitfalls:

  • You are an independent contractor: Wait a minute…wasn’t this a pro of being a tour guide? Yes. And no. Being an independent contractor means that if you are not working, you are not being paid. So the hustle is real. For most of us, that’s ok, it’s the right fit for our personality. But, for many, not having a salaried income is too much of a risk.
  • You provide your own health insurance and 401k: Most (there are a few exceptions) tour operators in America do not provide their independent contractors with health benefits or a 401k. The bright side to funding your own is that there are some tax benefits that will come back to you.
  • You are “on” all the time: Even during your downtime–whether that be tucked away in a cafe for lunch or in your hotel room for a few hours before a group dinner–you are kind of working. For example, let’s say you have to go to the hotel’s front desk for something and you see one of your guests in the lobby who has a problem or question. You’re on! Or how about if you see one of your guests at the airport after you’ve just spent a 20 day tour with them? You certainly can’t ignore them. As the face of a company, you just always have to be on your “A” game.
  • It gets lonely: Sure, you’re surrounded by interesting people all the time. But they’re not your people. Even for the biggest extroverts, I would say that there are bouts of loneliness living on the road away from your family and friends. Being a tour guide sure *can* be a glamorous life but you will eventually miss out on a lot of life events. I’ve personally missed weddings, funerals, showers, graduations and other events that I’ve wanted to attend. When you are on a tour, you don’t have the options to just leave and come back in a few days. You either lead the whole tour or you don’t. You have to ask yourself if attending a wedding is worth giving up what could be a large chunk of income. After a while, that and not having your own shower/coffee maker/bed can take its toll.

 

On the next “How to be a Tour Guide,” I’ll talk about what it takes to actually get there. It’s not just a job application.

Did I miss some pros/cons? Comment here or email us at scuttabout@gmail.com

 

 

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Tour the Southwest in a Hot Air Balloon

Albuquerque Hot Air Balloon Festival

The romanticism of a hot air balloon flight is alluring to many and while you can probably take a ride in nearly all 50 states, there’s something special about the Southwest. This post will highlight rides in both Phoenix, Arizona and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

What Should I know about a Hot Air Balloon Flight?

 

Albuquerque Hot Air Balloon Festival
Balloons flying at the annual Albuquerque Hot Air Balloon Festival

So the basics are that hot air balloon flights typically take place during sunrise and/or sunset as that’s when the air is the stillest. I have experience with very early (yawn) sunrise rides. The way it works is that you book with a company and they will send one of their chase vehicles to your hotel to pick you up pre-ride. This is usually at the crack of dawn, say 5-5:30am. Yeah, early. Next, you’ll drive out to their launching site which could differ depending on the day and the direction of the wind but it is usually an open field. Once there, you’ll watch the crew—for lack more industry specific terms here—unfold and blow up the balloons. This is honestly an incredible sight to see, as it really puts into perspective how big these machines are. For the ambitious, the crew will often let you help with set up if you ask nicely.

The whole set up time might take 30-45 minutes or so. Then, you get in! Now if you’re thinking of a rickety old basket hanging from the balloon, think again, as the baskets in real life could not be more different. They typically fit anywhere from 6-12 people (depending on their size) comfortably. That’s a huge basket! And the baskets are broken up into compartments so there might be 2-3 people in each compartment rather than all of the riders together in one area. This is so the weight is evenly distributed and if something really cool is seen from one side of the basket not everyone tries to rush over there at once to see it beacause that could easily be a recipe for disaster.

Your pilot (yes, in America hot air balloon pilots are FAA certified with the same airman’s certificate you’d have to get to fly any other aircraft) shoots up a few good bursts of hot air and the crew lets go of the holding ropes and you’re off!

So what does this feel like for the flyer? This is by far the most common question I ever got from travelers who were weary of going up in a balloon—especially for those who get motion sickness. Let me be the one to tell you, it feels like nothing. Truly, being in a hot air balloon is completely motionless. If you were to close your eyes while you were taking off, I doubt you’d even realize when you were one hundred feet off the ground–it’s that still. And for those afraid of heights it naturally depends on the severity of your phobia but if you keep your eyes trained on the horizon it shouldn’t be much of a problem.

Hot Air Expeditions
Hot Air Expeditions gets ready to fly in Phoenix, AZ

While in air, you’re able to view the incredible mountains around you and don’t be surprised if your experienced pilot takes you up and down in elevation. I personally enjoy being closer to the ground to see what’s happening on the desert floor. On some of my flights, I’ve seen jack rabbits and coyotes running around which has been a cool experience from a birds-eye view. I’ve also had my pilot talk extensively about operating balloons and show off a few gravity tricks (involving water) mid-air. Of course, not every pilot is chatty but most are willing to answer any questions and speak about their positions as pilots.

Landing can be adventurous. A still, soft landing can be as easy as touching the ground, lightly bouncing a couple of times and then touching the ground again. A rough landing might mean that the basket touches the ground, drags a few yards and topples over on its side. Before you land, your pilot will instruct you with the landing brace position you’re to be in while landing as to not incur injury and believe it or not, the rough landings are usually more fun.

When you land whether it be in the middle of a desert field or off the side of the highway, your chase team will fetch you and take you back to your hotel.

Often times, balloon companies will take landing one step further in creating a special moment for the flier.

My personal favorite, Hot Air Expeditions, will set up picnic tables for you wherever you land and set out breakfast (usually a small quiche, apple slices, cheese, and a croissant of some variety) and champagne. They will toast you with The Balloonist’s Prayer before giving you your flight certificate and sending you on your way. It’s a magical experience in the desert.

Rainbow Ryders Hot Air Balloons
Rainbow Riders flying over the Rio Grande River in Albuquerque, NM

In Albuquerque, New Mexico I’ve flown with Rainbow Ryders who fly in multiple locations. One of the perks of the flight scenery there is flying over the absolutely gorgeous Rio Grande River. And if you happen to be in ABQ for the annual Hot Air Balloon Fiesta—an outstanding event that I’ve been lucky enough to attend twice while on tour—it’s great to couple a flight with your time at the event. Rainbow Ryders will also toast you with champagne post ride and present you with a flight certificate to commemorate your ride. They too provide post flight refreshments but it’s more of a selection of juices and granola bars—not a full picnic breakfast.

While preparing for your flight you should plan to wear closed toed shoes (for the possible rough landing) and I would always suggest a baseball cap or other hat to men especially who might be lacking thick hair. The closer you are to the flame, the hotter it will feel on your head. Now, this warmth is welcome in the winter months, as even the desert is cold at dawn during winter but the flame can be quite hot during summer months so take precaution. It is a hot air balloon after all!

In my experience, the average time spent in the air is roughly 45 minutes to an hour and the whole excursion usually lasts about three or so hours. So, if you’re choosing to do a sunrise flight you’ll be done and ready to carpe diem by the time you’d normally wake up.

What others are saying about Hot Air Expeditions:

Trip Advisor

Yelp

Experience Scottsdale

What others are saying about Rainbow Ryders:

Trip Advisor

Yelp

Balloon Fiesta

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Taking a Tour at the Neon Museum in Las Vegas

Neon Museum

Naturally, when you think of Las Vegas the first thing that pops into your head is not taking a tour the Neon Museum. And if it is then you and I would get along fabulously. But I am here to tell you that if time allows and you have a general interest in Vegas/Americana history and a little kitsch, a guided tour at the Neon Museum is well worth your time (hint: a guided tour is the only way to experience the museum).

Neon Museum
Casino signs in the boneyard of the Neon Museum

I’ve already talked about my time at the Neon Museum in Las Vegas (with a larger photo gallery) here but wanted to write a post that was more descriptive of the tour itself. Since opening in 2012, the Neon Museum “boneyard” is gaining steam quickly with a over a record breaking 100k visitors in 2016 alone. Here’s what you’ll need to know if you plan to go on a tour.

What Should I know about Touring the Neon Museum?

The museum is located pretty far north on Las Vegas boulevard—even further north than (old) downtown Vegas and Fremont Street. They have a free parking lot but if you are traveling without a car (as most do in Vegas) you can take the double decker Deuce bus to get there as well. This is the mode of transportation I chose and it took me a little over an hour to get there from Caesars Palace which is about half way up the strip—so plan accordingly if this is how you choose to travel to the museum. Of course, there’s always Lyft/Uber/cabs.

You must book your timed tickets ahead online (and they will sell out quickly) as space is limited and tickets are not transferable meaning if you arrive early you will still have to wait for your designated tour time and if you arrive more than 20 minutes late you may forfeit your spot on tour. You’ll check in at the La Concha which is a very Space Age, mid-century former motel lobby. They have a small gift shop to check out while you wait.

Neon Museum
The old Stardust casino sign in the boneyard of the museum

From there, your guide will gather your group (small, I would say under 20 people) and you’ll head into what they call the neon boneyard. And this is where it gets cool. Your tour around the boneyard will last roughly an hour and your guide will tell all kinds of stories about the old neon signs you see—casino/restaurant/mob/Vegas strip history go hand in hand with these signs and you really get a feeling that you’re strolling through the golden age of Las Vegas—like the rat pack may be right around the corner. Still photos on tour are welcomed and encouraged, however, audio and video recording is prohibited. The museum does not let you wander the boneyard after the tour concludes so make sure you are getting those pictures in as you go along.

I chose a daytime tour in September and it was HOT. Vegas is the desert after all and you are outside in the open air for the tour so come prepared with a bottle of water (they also sell these in the lobby). The Neon Museum also offers night tours and a limited number of signs still light up (restoration is a lengthy and costly process) so it really depends on your time schedule and what you’re in the mood for.

Adult ticket prices are $19 for day and $25 for night tours (current February 2017). For other FAQs of the museum click here.

 

What others are saying:

Trip Advisor

Yelp

Have time for a video? Check out this story about the lights at the museum from CBS Sunday Morning

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Japanese Cherry Blossoms in Washington DC

Cherry Blossom Jefferson Memorial

On our first podcast, we chatted about the history of the famous Japanese cherry blossoms in Washington, DC. We wanted to share a small photo gallery with you that highlights Eliza Scidmore (without her influence the cherry blossom tree gift may have never happened), the resistant women from the 1938 Cherry Blossom Rebellion, and bathers enjoying the Tidal Basin in 1922. Some of the history we referenced about the cherry blossom rebellion came from the National Park Service. The NPS also has an excellent timeline (with more photos) of the history of the Washington, DC Japanese cherry blossoms here.

 

We hope you enjoyed the podcast. Questions? Email us at scuttabout@gmail.com

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Sh**ters Full

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I have a left shoe and sock soaked in human piss…and it’s not mine. Well actually one-sixth of it is mine. There’s also some poop on it, but it’s not human.

That’s just the way the weekend had to end.

Don’t get me wrong, it was an excellent weekend (aside from the loss). A weekend so good, it can only be told in pictures (the poop story comes at the end):

It starts with the loneliest croissant. It looks so sad and lonely…and plain.

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Another perspective of the greatest tailgate photo ever taken… (oh, you don’t know about that photo?? Well, here you go!)
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The long shadows cast early in the morning late in the autumn. Officially known as Tailgate Shadow:

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The aerial footage of our tailgate as shot from that missing Aberdeen blimp:

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It’s a rooftop conference and clearly a highly engaging story:

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Truly nothing else needs to be said about this:

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We are 107,000 strong…and about to lose. At this point Lauren was just yelling “khakis!” over and over and over:

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I suppose it’s how you look at things…at least Lauren was happy with the outcome of the game:

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I took a picture from this same spot of this same tree when it was full of orange and red autumn glory…now it’s full-on winter time.

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Central PA was full of beautiful skies this weekend. If only I had something more than my iPhone:

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Had to give it a try…not too bad. I think the 409 is for the calorie count:

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This Uber had purple running lights. It was amazing. By the way, taking an Uber in State College is way different than in D.C.

Most of the time it was like getting picked up by your mom after a prom party. Seriously, I think there’s a racket of mothers who dominate the Uber driver pool in Central PA. This guy…was not a mom, he was the cool uncle jamming out to Macklemore.

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The breakfast of restoration: coffee/OJ/Bloody.

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By midday the snow squalls were blowing across Old Main lawn…that’s the kind of cold we were dealing with.

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Just in case you don’t believe me:

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Last RV standing, that’s how we roll…or not roll. Megan’s Marauders made a surprise football appearance on this very field as all the RV’s left town.

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One last shot from the top of the tailgate world…the clouds were terrific:

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And now the payoff for sticking with this photo essay, the story below the moneyshot:

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So, when you rent an RV you also have to take care of all the little things…like dumping the sewage. My friend Mike was oddly excited for this chore. He just kept saying “Hey Clark, the shitter’s full!” over and over.

It took us a bit of research before we found a dump site at a truck stop. Then we had to figure out the engineering. It’s actually pretty simple:

  1. open the flap to the poop valve.
  2. pull out a hose covered in poop.
  3. attach the poop hose to a the poop valve on the RV and then to a poop valve in the ground.
  4. open poop valves.
  5. listen to a suckling/gurgling sound as poop moves from RV to ground.
  6. wait until empty, unfasten poop hose and put back in RV.
  7. wash hands like you were just sneezed on by someone with the bird flu.

We failed in step 6. While lifting the hose to get all the “waste” out of the RV and into the ground the hose detached from the poop valve. My left foot was conveniently under the valve in the perfect place for an R. Kelly-style shower. Thankfully, there was no poop thanks to some heads up rule making at the beginning of the trip. But my shoe was thoroughly soaked in human pee, and no replacement shoes were in sight.

After step 7 we were back off and running. We had a deadline, my buddy Gabe had a flight to catch. And it came down to a matter of moments…as always. Gabe and I have been in this situation more times than I can count…and I think I’ll dedicate another blog post to some of our greatest hits.

Nonetheless, we got back to the RV yard in Gaithersburg at 7:30, his flight was leaving at 8:58 from DCA. That translates into rushing to transfer everything from RV to car. Somewhere in the process I stepped in a huge, steaming-fresh pile of dog poop.

So, there you have it. My left shoe is covered in human pee and the sole is coated with dog poop. Perfect.

FWIW, Gabe made the flight. We pulled into Terminal B at 8:23. Standard operating procedure.

 

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The Greatest Tailgate Photo Ever

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With a noon kickoff we had to get up and going pretty early. It’s a process made all the easier when you wake up at the tailgate. It was a cold night for everyone…except me.  The RV only had a quarter tank of propane for the heat, so we had to ration it out by only using the heater intermittently. I was happily cocooned in my sleeping bag (rated down to zero degrees), but the commotion of everyone stirring woke me up to the cold, cold world. And within about five minutes I went from nested isolation to tailgating with 150,000 people.

Thanks to some Fireball apple cider Jell-O shots we got to know the guys in the RV next to us. And within a few minutes we were all on the rooftops of our respective vehicles. From there it was a pretty short logical leap to playing beer pong across the ten-foot gap between the RV’s. And that’s how this picture came to be. It was taken from the Michigan side. The ball is hurtling through the chilled late-autumn air, a perfect flick of the wrist sending the sphere of white plastic on a trajectory to one of six red solo cups. Beaver Stadium looms in the background as we collectively stand on the balls of our feet ready for whatever carum the ball may take at the mercy of wind and gravity and physics.

It’s the most perfect tailgate photo ever.

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Recreational Vehicle

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Lauren and I have a vision of our future selves, traversing the countryside in a big recreational vehicle on an endless journey. Maybe one day that’ll be a reality, but this weekend we’re taking a test drive.

With some good friends we’ve rented an RV for the full game day experience of Penn State v. Michigan. It’s the annual test of our marriage, except with the upped ante of being confined within an aluminum shell not much bigger than a closet. If you don’t read another post here, at least you’ll know why.

After a crash course in how not to crash an RV we hopped on the road moving at the molasses speed of Washington traffic. Driving an RV is more like driving a boat than a car. You have to be thinking constantly about inertia. Add in some wind and Maryland drivers and it’s a harrowing experience.

But it’s an experience worth having. Especially in the college football tradition. And especially for these two teams, with proud heritages and well-traveled fan bases.

Ultimately though, this isn’t about football. It never is. It’s about friendship and fellowship and adding entries to the index of experience. It’s the creation of new stories, even as we relive and retell the old stories.

And in this case the RV a becomes the connective tissue. So that as we add seven stops and two hours to our trip in a futile search for propane, we were also adding new pages to our friendships. New tales to be told over beers at another adventure a decade down the road.

We never found that propane…so there’s a distinct possibility we may freeze to death in the mountains of central Pennsylvania.

Been nice knowing you!

  
  
  

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Back in Time…lapse: Acadia

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Ok, here’s a new series for you. All time-lapse videos shot by me, mostly back in the day. But, who knows…maybe this will inspire some more updated versions.

A little background.

I’ve never been a terribly good photographer, but I love capturing the scene. So I started messing around with time-lapse photography once I bought a proper DSLR. I never really perfected the process, but I always had a lot of fun shooting.

When you’re standing by your camera as it shoots for minutes and hours you really start to notice the rhythm of life in that spot. I always thought that the stories of what happened during the shoot were always better than the final product. And here we are.

I think I have 40-50 separate shoots stored on my hard drive. Some haven’t even been processed. Some desperately need to be processed again, and what better reason. I’m not going to make this a day-themed thing (like #timelapsetuesday (although that’s kinda good)). I’ll try to throw at least one a week up, maybe even two! I’m really trying to stick to this whole no rules thing.

So, onto today’s edition.

I shot this from a cabin that Lauren and I rented up in Acadia National Park in Maine. It was while we were still on the road and we took some time off together in the autumn to check out the park (which may be the most beautiful place in the world during that time of year, and yes we’ll get to that in another post).

One of the nights we were there my friend Rhyan and her boyfriend Seth stopped by with many beers. I had set up the camera to track the stars, but I didn’t anticipate the tide. Honestly, I think I drank a bit much and completely forgot that my camera was set up outside, which is really what makes this time-lapse.

I love how the clouds zoom across the sky. They give a gorgeous sky an additional depth. In the background Orion rises to the top of the frame and disappears. Clearly we spent a lot of time on that dock, and rightfully so. It was a gorgeous evening. But the neatest thing to watch is the tide. It looks as though someone punched a hole in the earth’s crust and started draining the ocean. The batteries in the camera died, otherwise I would’ve loved to watch the tide continue in recession. There’s another version from this cabin that I shot the night before, I’ll have to find that and post it as well.

 

 

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The Badwater Waters

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It’s one of the driest places in the world. A spot so devoid of moisture that if measured rainfall filled your coffee mug over the course of a year, it would be remembered for decades.

Yet, in an instant, Mother Nature can change her mind. And what seems so permanent to a man is wiped away with the ease of lead to eraser.

In October more rain fell on Death Valley National Park than any person had ever witnessed. Much of it coming in the flash of a monsoonal thunderstorm so common to other deserts of the American Southwest, but not to this one.

The LA Times has a gallery that is both heartbreaking and awesome showing the destruction after the October storm dropped three inches of rain in five hours. Death Valley typically sees four inches in an entire YEAR.

This quote from Death Valley District Ranger Paul Forward paints an otherworldly picture:

“It started with heavy hail,” he recalled. “Three hours later, the dry wash was transformed into floodwaters 100 feet wide with 20-foot waves. The air was filled with the sounds of massive boulders grinding against each other as they rolled down the canyon.”

According to the article one of the washes (desert speak for dry creek) saw the floodwaters flow at 93,000 cubic feet per second. To put that in perspective, the Colorado River flows at a max 25,000 cubic feet per second through the Grand Canyon. And before the river was dammed up it would flow at about 100,000 cubic feet per second at the peak of each high water season. This means the floodwaters that pushed through Death Valley last month were the equivalent to that which carved out the biggest canyon in the world.

Gizmodo has an interesting slider from USGS showing the difference in visible moisture at the park between this year and last year. This could just the beginning as we stumble forward into what may be the largest El Nino in history.

I’ve been to Death Valley a few times. It’s a place I love for it’s beauty and isolation. But, most of all I love it because it makes me feel dreadfully small and insignificant. The scale of time is bluntly apparent. The spaces are vast during the day, and the stars infinite at night. It’s a gigantic national park of a reminder that as large as our ego may swell it’s still but a pinprick on the face of the planet. Much less the universe. And remarkably our collective actions are radically changing this and other landscapes.

Neatly said: it’s a place of perspective. It’s what I sought when I packed up my life to head west so many years ago.

Once I was lucky enough to pass through during what would typically be considered a wet spell at the park. The pools in Badwater Basin were more expansive than usual. The salt flats were mushy instead of crunchy. That, according to a park ranger at the time, was remarkable.

This was when I worked with Contiki and I’d spend much of the offseason camping around the Southwest. In this case I was on a month-long grand circuit of Nevada, California and Arizona. I thought I was lucky to see Badwater with as much water as was there…and then I saw them. Leaving Lake Meade it was like the end of Field of Dreams, but instead of headlights the cars were wearing kayaks.

Just a few days after pulling up the stakes in Death Valley they had been hit with an even bigger stretch of rain. Something that would fill Badwater Basin with enough water to allow for kayaking. Had I been smart I would have doubled back up 15 past Vegas and to the park. I had other pressing matters that kept me from kayaking in Death Valley…it’s OK, it’s not like I missed a once-in-a-decade wildflower bloom after that (I did).

 

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