Saturday, June 22, 2019

He's Literally On Fire

I've continued to amble through my Steam backlog, making some gradual progress. I abandoned my second playthrough of Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines. I was having a lot of fun, playing as a Malkavian with the Clan Quest Mod it felt like a new game. I eventually ran into a game-breaking glitch in Romero's cemetery mission; that's just a side-quest so I could easily have skipped it, but I'd already done my favorite parts of the game and decided it was a good time to set it down.


I also spent some time with Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, and can immediately see why it got such fantastic reviews. The sound design of the game is incredibly strong, both on its own technical terms and in how well it integrates with the story. You're playing as a Norse woman apparently afflicted with psychosis, and throughout the game you hear all these voices regularly whispering to you and commenting on your progress. It's actually very similar to a Malkavian playthrough, but these voices are a lot more helpful! The art design is also amazing, very raw and impressive, where you feel like you're on the threshold between a grim realistic world and a supernatural one. I gave up after getting frustrated with the combat; the early fights were fun, but I just couldn't adapt to the bigger fights where multiple enemies gang up on you, and the in-game punishments for failure were stressing me out.


So I moved on to something considerably lighter: Pyre! This is the latest game by Supergiant, the San Francisco studio that also made Bastion and (one of my all-time favorites) Transistor. Right off the bat I was struck by the gorgeous graphics: cartoony, hyper-saturated backgrounds, full of life and movement. The characters are all wonderful too, there are a ton of them and they're deeply varied, from the unbelievably cute drive imp to the hulking and glowering demon to the mesmerizing Scribe who lives in the orb. And, just as I'd suspected, the music is terrific, perfectly matching and driving the mood of the game, and often dipping into more vocally-focused pieces that seem like they belong on an album but work perfectly to drive the game forward.


MINI SPOILERS

The structure of the game reminds me a bit of The Banner Saga, yet another impressive game that I didn't finish because my failures were depressing me. You're going on a journey, with a large collection of people coming with you. Along the way you make various choices, in dialogues and by choosing destinations; these have consequences, but in Pyre those consequences are more like "You found a shiny rock!" or "Person X feels less hopefuly" than "Everyone you care about dies and it's all your fault."


The main gameplay element in Pyre, though, is three-on-three basketball games. Yeah, I know, I'm surprised too! I was not a fan at first; I picked up Pyre specifically because I was hoping for a tactical combat game, and was nonplussed at this real-time game of tossing around a ball and dunking it into the opponent's goal. As I've gotten more into it, though, I'm loving it more and more. It's backed by a solid character progression system, where you earn XP, level up, learn new abilities and can equip and upgrade items. Party composition is important, with many strategies viable but offering solid traditional approaches like a slow and powerful defender alongside fast offensive strikers. You can synergize strategies and builds between characters, building on each others' strengths and weaknesses. And the series of fights are incredibly dynamic: each opposing team has their own special abilities and strategies, and each "court" you play on has its own distinct features, whether holes or rocks or whatever. All that leads to a lot of strategy for each fight: you can have your own go-to approaches, but you don't just repeat the same techniques over and over again. Instead you'll study the ground, who you're up against, and think through the best folks on your roster to see you through.


It's looking like this might be a very long game; there's an in-game book you read, and I'm currently still in Chapter 1 of that, out of what look like around 10 chapters altogether. I'm pretty hooked by now, though, and I imagine I'll see it all the way through to the end. If so, I'll write up a full review post at the end. In the meantime, a quick summary of my current approach:

I now have about 8 potential party members. When choosing a lineup, I'll disqualify anyone with a temporary penalty. If possible, I'll try to select three people who have green inspiration/resting XP pending, which helps me shuffle everyone from match to match. Within that group, I'll generally choose my two highest-level people (not necessarily highest XP, but with the most abilities), and also my character with the lowest total XP; that gives me a strong core to win the match, while ensuring I'm leveling up my bench as well.

I don't think I'm great at the game, but so far I haven't lost a match (hopefully this post won't jinx that!). I'll either keep my biggest-aura person, like Jodi, near my own pyre to defend, or else have them sprint to the center, grab the orb, and immediately toss it to one of the faster folks; the latter approach can be nice on maps with lots of obstacles, since a big aura can make a chokepoint.


My faster guys will usually walk as far as they can to the east, then sprint or fly their way to the pyre. Each does relatively low damage, but I equip them with an item that does a flat-value damage boost, so e.g. Rukey is now doing 24 damage per dive instead of 10. I have been mulling that strategy, though. If things are going well, I'm usually constantly outnumbered 2-3. If I was focusing on my bigger players, I think it's more likely that my opponent and I would trade scores back and forth, but I would be taking more points each time and would have a 3-2 advantage for each score.


In recent matches I've started to experiment more with casting my aura to help clear the field of opponents, as well as tossing the orb around when a striker is under pressure instead of risking a dash. There are a lot of special mechanics, too, with many characters having completely different moves and behavior. I'm digging the game, but I also feel like it's the sort of thing I need to play daily, otherwise, I'll lose track of how everybody works.

END SPOILERS

I am enjoying the time to dig into this game. Like lots of folks, I'm looking at Q1 of 2020 with a huge degree of anticipation and dread. Between VtMB2, Baldur's Gate 3 and Cyberpunk 2077 all dropping, it'll be an overwhelming time. For now, I'm grateful for the chance to hang out in the Downside, getting to know these colorful characters and help them win basketball games.

Friday, June 21, 2019

A Four Course Meal

The other book I read during my vacation was A Moveable Feast. As with Death Comes for the Archbishop, I've read the author before but not this particular book. Unlike the other Hemingway fiction I've read before, this is more of a memoir, focusing on Hemingway's life in Paris in the post-WWI years.


Probably the single most surprising thing to be about this book is just how gossipy it is. He writes a lot about the other famous expats he knew in the city, like James Joyce and Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. One early chapter recounts a lengthy conversation between him and Stein wherein she addresses his homophobia, including a run-down of various homosexual writers and what they think of each. Stein herself has some rather shocking opinions on the relative merits of lesbian encounters versus gay encounters.

Stein recurs in multiple chapters, and you get a sense for the role she played as a locus of literary life in the city: she knows many people and meets with them and spreads her opinions. As presented by Hemingway, she and many other real-life people come across as likeable but flawed. He ultimately comes down on her for being overly obsessed with her own career, noting that she would praise people who supported her and disdain those who did not, regardless of the quality of their own work. Over the course of the book it becomes clear that Hemingway values skill above all else: he's willing to forgive all sorts of slights and eccentricities if someone is (in his view) a very good writer, and he will cruelly attack even people who are kind to him if he dislikes their work. Hemingway seems to view this as a noble and good way to live life, and as presented in the book it feels more honest, but... I dunno. Personally, I'd rather spend my time with people who are personally fun and nice, and not judge people primarily by their output. Maybe that's why I'm not a famous author!

The most amazing section of the book recounts his friendship with Scott Fitzgerald. These passages are really, really funny: Fitzgerald himself is a charming but helpless man, and the scenarios they get into are bizarre comedies. A lot of the humor revolves around automobiles. Fitzgerald is convinced that cars don't need oil, and that all the French mechanics who are desperately trying to get him to add oil to his car are all trying to cheat him. He has bought a nice Peugeot, but Zelda convinced him to remove the top, and so every time it starts to rain he needs to pull over and park it somewhere dry. On their epic road trip, he and Hemingway thus end up downing bottle after bottle of wine while waiting for the rain to clear, then continue their journey, only to have it start to rain again an hour later and repeat the process. Hemingway also points out his own foibles, noting in retrospect his ridiculous belief that the best way to handle Fitzgerald's alcoholism was to serve him white wine, rather than abstain from alcohol altogether. There's a sadness that hangs over these sections of the book, and you can sense the larger tragedy of Scott and Zelda's lives, but sentence by sentence it can be really funny. After finishing this, I'm now curious to read The Crack-Up and see things from Scott's perspective.

The edition of the book I read is apparently a bit different from what was originally published. The initial book was never finished and didn't have a title, and was posthumously published by Hemingway's final wife. His heirs later re-examined Hemingway's last edits and work on the book and came out with this new version. Based on the introduction, it sounds like it's a bit kinder to Scott and has a different focus on Ernest's relationship with his first wife Hadley. Some chapters and passages have been cut entirely, which at first glance seems like the opposite of what you would want from an updated edition, but do reflect the last guidance we have from Hemingway. This seems very appropriate for this particular author; this isn't a book about writing, but he does write about writing in it, especially in the later chapters, and he continually emphasizes just how important cutting is. In Hemingway's opinion, the quality of a novel can be judged by the quality of the content you cut from it. If you're cutting out very good stuff, then it's going to be a very good book. Because of this, the subtractions do seem like a positive addition to the originally-published manuscript.

Of course, that also means there's a lot of stuff that I'd like to know more about. I'm particularly curious about "The Rich," who make a late and sinister entry in the book, ruining the skiing refuge of the Hemingways and somehow associated with, though not responsible for, the dissolving of his first marriage. There are a lot of specific things that I'm sure I could find out through Wikipedia, but stuff like that is probably lost forever.

Overall, this book didn't resonate with my surroundings in the same way Death Comes for the Archbishop did - cosmopolitan Paris isn't exactly the same as wilderness in the Colorado Plateau. But it was fascinating in its own right, humanizing many of the literary giants from my high-school English classes and making them relatable: poor, happy, passionate people looking for love and trying to create something good.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Arches

I read two novels while on vacation. I'd planned on bringing some from home, but none of my library holds arrived in time, and I failed to visit any bookstores out here, so I ended up visiting the Back of Beyond bookstore in Moab. It was a really good spot, larger than I expected, with a great collection of new and used books. I found two used paperbacks for pretty cheap, perfect for tossing into a backpack where they were likely to get beat up and/or damp, and also grabbed some really pretty post cards.



Both of the books came from the "Classics" section, and the first I finished was Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather. I think I might have read My Antonia at some point in high school, and I'm pretty sure I've read some of her short stories, so she seemed like a good candidate to read more of. I'd heard the title before but had absolutely no idea what it was about; in my mind I'd vaguely assumed it referred to the assassination of Thomas Beckett. It turns out it's much more contemporary than that, and it proved to be the perfect companion for my first visit to the Southwest.

MINI SPOILERS

The book is set in nineteenth-century America, and focuses on the efforts of two French priests to establish and strengthen a new Catholic diocese in the Southwest. America has seized this territory from Mexico, and as the new country continues to expand into it this will be an important area of influence.

We learn very early on that the historical situation here has been complex and turbulent. This area has been Catholicized before, during the original Spanish conquest of the New World, when Spanish Padres initially established missions and converted the native tribes, through persuasion or force. In the centuries since then, though, there had been a massive and bloody uprising of the indigenous people, and all of the foreign priests had been killed. There's now a situation where many families have been maintaining their Christian traditions, but they have no priests to hear confession or churches to visit, and are usually illiterate as well, so many people in the Church hierarchy are eager to bring them back into the fold.

At a more political level, there are broadly three sorts of people in the area. The native Americans have lived here by far the longest, and have their own religious traditions and culture, which can seem baffling to others. There are the Mexicans, who controlled the region until recently and still make up most of the population; they are usually nominally Catholic, although the level of observance and devotion can vary significantly. And there are the anglo Americans, who are a minority, but are extremely active, especially the Yankee traders coming to buy and sell goods and the military scouts seeking to map this frontier.

In contrast, our protagonists are outsiders, Frenchmen by birth and Ohioans by recent assignment. Father Latour is scholarly and thoughtful, a man who keeps his eye on the big picture and tries to move towards the ideal outcome. He can be ambitious, but his ambitions are always on behalf of the Church, or at least appear so. His companion is Father Vaillant, a more down-to-earth man of strong personal faith and passions; unlike Latour, who is very constant over the years, Vaillant can be much more excitable, pursuing one goal and then another, always most interested in whatever he has most recently heard. Latour seems to be the superior of the two men: better looking, more intelligent, wiser. But by the end of the book I'd come to like Vaillant more; he's deeply genuine and selfless, pouring all of himself into his work, and happily works alongside others as equals, whereas Latour might be more admired but tends to be more cerebral and aloof.

I'm pretty sure that Cather was Catholic, and she shows many instances of the positive aspects of faith: securing justice for a wronged woman, or peacefully resolving disputes, or producing a beautiful building. But it's also filled with examples of wicked priests who abused their position, and they are probably the main antagonists of the novel. This corner of the New World is far removed from the watchful eye of the Vatican, and priests often run their parishes as their own fiefdoms: in extreme examples, they extract slave labor from the natives, collect heavy tithes from the villagers, charge exorbitant fees to perform sacraments like baptism or marriage, and openly father children with multiple women. While Latour's official purpose is to establish a new diocese, his real goal is to rein in this terrible behavior, and he uses every tool to try and do so: persuasion, forceful diplomacy, threats, and, eventually, excommunication.

It's impossible now to read a book about the clergy and not think about the rampant sexual abuse within the church. I was reminded of this in a roundabout way, during one particularly affecting scene where Latour meets a native woman who has been enslaved by a wealthy Protestant family. They left Georgia when they were unable to produce documents proving that they "owned" her, and now prevent her from socializing with anyone lest she escape. Anyways, she was raised Catholic but hasn't attended Mass for decades, and one night she sneaks out to visit the church but finds it locked. Latour lets her in and speaks with her, giving her physical comfort (lending his coat) and spiritual comfort. She's utterly terrified of being found out but derives great solace from his words. He tries to give her his coat, but she reacts in horror, knowing she will be badly abused by her mistress. So instead he gives her... hm, I don't remember, I think maybe a small crucifix or picture or something, that she had admired. She tries to refuse it, and he admonishes her, saying something like "Please do as your priest asks and keep it." So she does, and treasures it.

And... it's interesting. That whole kind of paternalistic sense of "I have your best interests at heart, and when I ask you to do something, please do it." This book shows a very positive version of what that can look like, when it gives us permission to ignore our personal fears or insecurities and do what's best for us. But, of course, it's that very same attitude or orientation that has been abused for a very long time as priests and others in position of authority take advantage of their positions and the conditioning of their flock to gratify themselves and hurt others. Ultimately, is it worth salvaging this by getting rid of the bad priests and making sure that only good men (and, please oh please, women) fill that role? Or is that role itself improper and/or dangerous, would we be better off getting rid of it and training people to care for themselves? Of course, as someone who grew up Protestant I lean towards the latter idea of direct intercession, but reading books like this makes me see at least some value that may be missed.

The overall structure of the book is interesting and discursive; you're generally following Latour, Vaillant and the growing Church, but there are long digressions where people tell stories from the old Missions or about events elsewhere in the world. It's interesting how little mention the Civil War gets, although it's probably true that New Mexico saw very little of that conflict. There's a lot more attention paid to Native Americans; this story reminded me slightly of the novel Silence and the overall idea that Western conceptions of Christianity can't be directly transferred to other cultures. Some natives are, understandably, very hostile towards the Church based on their past actions; others participate in the church, but bring their own culture with them while they do so, making a sort of syncretic faith. Both protagonists look very fondly at the natives, who come off much better than the Americans do, but they also seem skeptical that their faith will truly set root here. Near the very end of the novel, Latour is cheered by the news that the federal government has returned the Navajo lands to the tribe, viewing it as one of the two great injustices righted in his lifetime, together with the abolition of slavery.

I definitely perked up at that, as I'd spent a fair amount of time in the Navajo Nation on this trip and had seen and read a lot about the Navajo in my various parks. Even though I never made it to New Mexico during my vacation, so much of the physical description in this book lined up with my own experiences: the red rocks, the blue sky, the steep canyons, the long expanse of desert, the precious water, the high mesas. Early in the book I was somewhat bemused at the story of an earlier priest who had successfully navigated between two canyons and was nominated for canonization. "What's so special about that?" I wondered. "You walk down one side, you walk back up the other: boom, you've navigated a canyon. How is that a miracle?" My attitude changed after I finished my Canyonlands hike, descending into and ascending from Lost Spring Canyon, Elephant Canyon, Chesler Park and The Joint. "Phew, that guy found a way to navigate a canyon?! That's amazing! They should make him the pope!!"

END SPOILERS

I'm sure I would have enjoyed this book in any setting: it's well-written, personal but political, humanistic, thought-provoking. But I'm really glad that I got to read it now, on this particular trip, reading about these men viewing the landscape for the first time, just as I was doing the same. It's nice to read a fairly positive portrayal of religion that doesn't minimize the harm it has caused, and see the profound ways it can reach people's hearts.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

My Southwest Vacation: By The Numbers

Parks Visited: 8
National Parks Visited: 6
Bags Packed: 4
Total Miles Driven: 3526
Top Speed (Passing): 98 MPH
Top Speed (Cruising): 90 MPH
Speeding Tickets Received: 0
Warnings: 1
Trails Hiked*: 27
Total Miles Hiked**: 168.2
Mean Backpacking Speed: 2MPH
Median Non-Backpacking Hiking Speed: 3MPH
Injuries: 0
Blisters: 0
Moleskin Patches Applied: 6
Nights Camping: 5
Other Lodgings Visited: 8
Days with Rain: 5
Ranger Programs Attended: 4
Photos Taken: 3126
Photos Kept: 1077
Flowers Photographed: 38
Selfies: 6
Blog Posts Written***: 10
Gifts Purchased: 5
Novels Read: 2
Smiles: Countless

* Trailhead-to-trailhead. So all of Canyonlands is counted as a single trail, even though I technically was on like 7 different named trails, and my first day at Arches was 5 trails, most of which were less than a mile long.
** Only counting distance on the aforementioned trails, not in park facilities or wandering canyon rims in stupefied awe.
*** Including this one.















Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Red Rock and Red Roll

I had a longish drive from Zion to Red Rock, though not nearly as long as the following day's drive would be. I reflected that this was probably why Zion is one of the most overcrowded national parks: it's one of the very few top-tier national parks within a few hours' drive of a major metro area. If you live in Vegas, you could wake up at 6AM on a Saturday and be in Zion shortly after 8AM. Folks flying into the airport can easily make a day trip out of it, unlike more remote parks that require more of a commitment to travel and establish lodging closer to the park.


I gradually left the mountains behind as I drove, moving into the desert. Traffic moved quickly, now that I was back on an Interstate highway for the first time in over a week, and very few people were headed in my direction.

Following the GPS instructions, I skirted along the northern perimeter of Vegas, then headed into my next and final recreational destination, Red Rock. Unlike most of my parks on this trip, this one is run by the Bureau of Land Management. Most of the BLM properties I'm familiar with are relatively bare-bones affairs, but Red Rock is pretty thoroughly (and nicely) developed: a very well-maintained scenic drive with a day-use charge, a large visitor's center with many exhibits and a gift shop, good restroom facilities and water, and many hiking trails.

I'd considered doing the Grand Circle Loop, a collection of trails leading from the Visitor's Center that would take you to many of the park's destinations, but decided instead to focus my time on the Turtlehead Peak trail, and otherwise take advantage of the road.


I did have a lot of fun at the very first stop, Calico Hills. This is a really picturesque collection of, uh, red rocks that form a rambling, interesting slope. This is a very popular climbing area. A lot of people like me just scrambled around and climbed up as far as we felt like going, but I think some more serious people use this area for more intense climbs.


I continued slightly farther and then started my main hike at Sandstone Quarry; a few trails lead from here, but I had my eye set on Turtlehead Peak, yet another trail that advertises a worrying ration between a long trip time and a short distance traveled. You start off crossing several broad washes through the canyon, then make a gentle ascent through the scrubby desert. I peered at the mountain ahead and to my right. "Is that Turtlehead Peak?" I wondered. "I guess it kind of looks like a turtle's head."


Yes: as I would learn, it was Turtlehead. The face you see while approaching looks extremely forbidding, but I anticipated that the trail would wrap around and find a more reasonable purchase up some slope that I couldn't see.


There were a good number of people on the trail at first, but it thinned out dramatically once it reached the foot of Turtlehead and began climbing. The trail became a lot more obscure, too. This was the one time on my vacation when I got significantly lost: not terribly lost, I doubt I was ever further than 1000 feet from the trail, but 1000 feet can be a long way on a rocky, steep, scree-filled mountain.

Looking back, I think my main problem was unfamiliarity with local trail-marking procedure. Throughout all my hikes in the desert, and in other Western parks over rocky or sandy terrain, I'd gotten used to having cairns as trail markers. You look for the pile of rocks, walk towards it, look for the next pile of rocks, walk towards that, and so on. I'd been thrown off because there were some cairns early on in the rocky portion of the hike, but they almost immediately vanished. Instead I should have been looking for blazes: small daubs of white paint on rocks that mark the way. Though even this wasn't foolproof: many of the rocks around here are naturally white, and I suspect that in other cases the markings have been covered up by rockfall or other debris.

As it was, I was inching my way up a precarious slope, thinking "This is probably not a trail," when I suddenly saw two people walking up the hill a ways to my right. "Oh," I thought, "That is the trail!". I carefully moved laterally along the slope in their direction, found their trail... and went "Oh, crap, this isn't a trail, either."

Still, you can only get so lost when walking up a mountain. I mean, it's Turtlehead Peak, so I'm going to end up on top no matter what: just keep going higher up! And with all the rock I was less concerned than I would have been otherwise about messing up the resources by continuing off trail. I kept my eye on the ridge and carefully chose a route over the most solid surface I could see, favoring long and gentle curves over short steep scrambles.

I finally emerged at the top and rediscovered the trail. The blazes were a lot more visible up here, and there's a lot less loose rock, so the route was really clear from here on out. I greeted a man coming down, who would be the last human being I would see for the next several hours. I was pleasantly surprised at just how deserted the peak was after seeing the large number of people down below. (Again: Not a misanthrope!)


Now that I could recognize the blazes, I had a lot of fun following the trail. There were a few spots where it seemed a little cheeky, breaking out oversized arrows or other overly-explicit directions. The steep part of the ascent was mostly done now, with just a few short scrambles necessary along the generally-gentle slope towards the top.


For almost the entire time, I'd been looking back and down at Red Rock Canyon, marveling at how its distinctive, uh, red rocks shrank and became a single discrete object. Once over the ridge, though, the entire area opened up and revealed new vistas. Once I reached the top I finally saw Las Vegas itself, as promised. There was a bit of a haze that day, but it was clear enough that I could make out the Strip and the overall sprawl of the city. I wandered the crest, marveling at the panoramic view, and also noticed an interesting device of mysterious origin and purpose perched against the ledge.


I ate, I drank, I descended. It was a calm and quiet return, though I very nearly got lost again once I reached the scree-filled middle portion of the hike, which oddly reassured me that I hadn't been uniquely dumb on my way up. I knew what to look for now, though, and while I suspect that some of the blazes were lost or invisible, I knew when to turn back and retrace my steps to try another potential route.


The valley floor was a lot quieter when I reached it, with only a few hikers on the trail and the parking lot nearly empty. I continued along the loop, stopping at a few more spots to see more sights. As with nearly every park I visited on this trip, I could have used another day or so at Red Rock to do all the hikes that looked interesting. I think I'd made the right choice for the one I'd done, though: the view and challenge of Turtlehead felt like a great cap to my two-week journey.



I bypassed the stops that only served as trailheads, hit up a view more with nearby viewpoints, and before long was headed into Vegas. I'd booked a room at the Hampton Inn & Suites in Summerlin, pretty close to the Red Rock area. I got to experiment with using their app as a key to my room, which was a neat experiment and makes me feel like I ought to deduct at least part of this trip as a business expense for research purposes. The hotel itself was great: corporate, like I'd expected, but super-comfortable and clean. The staff was incredibly friendly, too. It kind of pains me to say it, but I think that the best service I received in my entire trip was in Las Vegas: Every employee I met went out of their way to be friendly and helpful, which I greatly appreciated, even if it does make it harder for me to be snarky about Vegas.


Even if the people are great, the city of Vegas itself is definitely not for me: it absolutely demands a car to travel even the shortest distances. I'd hoped to walk to dinner from the hotel, but found pointless walls blocking my desired route, so I sighed and drove a half mile to get the 500 feet to my destination.

I had dinner at The Bar, a smallish and friendly establishment that was exactly what I expected. An enormous bar with four counters sits at the center; there are barstools all around it; and tables up against the walls. I had a pint of Newcastle and an enormous and delicious club sandwich. I took my time munching down while watching The Force Awakens silently play on the large TV as the bar slowly filled in. It sounded like a lot of the folks there were regulars, starting or ending their shifts at nearby casinos. Like almost every other building in Vegas, but unlike my hotel, there were slot machines all around the bar, but folks seemed happy to focus on the drinks, food, and conversation.

Back at the hotel I watched the sun set over the western mountains, slept soundly, and woke up early with the sun. There was yet another free breakfast in the morning, a step above the Continental breakfast I expected. Taking advantage of my early rising, I hit the road and had no traffic at all heading out of Vegas and back towards California.

My last day of driving was nearly as long as my first. Long ago I'd considered taking a route through Death Valley on my way back to squeeze in one more national park, but by now I was eager to get home, and hadn't heard many positive things about the park from other travelers on my trip. Following the GPS, I took I-15 to Barstow, CA-58 to Bakersfield, CA-99 up to Madera, then CA-152 all the way through Los Banos and into Gilroy. From here I was on familiar turf: US-101 up to San Jose, then I violated GPS by taking CA-85 to I-280 for the scenic route home. All in all, it was a little less than 9 hours of driving, broken up with some In-N-Out burger and fueled with a massive random shuffle of my entire Spotify library.

I swung by home to drop off all my gear and luggage, then brought the rental car back to the airport. It had served me very well, through rain and heat and days full of driving and days motionless by backcountry trailheads. I had picked it up with four digits on the odometer and was returning it with five, adding nearly 50% to its lifetime mileage. The return to Enterprise went really smoothly, just a quick scan and I was on my way home again, this time for good.

Vacation was wonderful, but as always it felt great to be home. I love being in nature, and it helps me appreciate civilization far more: for a week after I felt profound gratitude every time I could acquire clean drinking water just by turning a tap, or go to the bathroom without digging a hole in the ground. The memories of that beautiful land will continue to linger for years and years, aided by my excessive number of photos and this overly verbose blog.

That's the end of my journey, but not of this series! One more post to come, in which I will present the statistical quantities that can be derived from my trip.