NATIONAL PARKS GUIDES: WHITE SANDS

This was one of our favorite campsites. The star gazing was some of the best ever, and because of the valley's alignment, you get a fantastic view of both sunset and sunrise. The cost of access is almost ludicrously low, and we were more than happy to spring for a sled and some wax at the gift shop and spend a few hours careening down the dunes.

END OF A ROAD; UNRAVELING THE MYTH

With so many highs it was difficult to choose favorites. On a different day we might name another place. How does one judge descending into the New River Gorge against wading in the Colorado's frigid waters on a Glen Canyon beach? What makes learning about the one-armed, explorer, cartographer and general badass John Wesley Powell any less intriguing then witnessing Native American dance? Is the culture of the Puebloan people preserved at Bandelier National Monument any less important than the sculpture gardens at the Nasher Center? Is anything more beautiful than stumbling upon the expansive crater of Valles Caldera at sunset, or watching J look upon the Pacific Ocean for the first time, or having a cool lake to ourselves on a sweltering Texas day?

END OF A ROAD; UPPING THE ANTE

The first time I saw Pittsburgh I knew I would leave her. She could be cold, nebby, and casually racist, but really, it was me. With so much out there to see in this world, I've never entertained the idea of being tied down to any one city. I've never had a car note, a mortgage, or a desire to settle down. While I appreciate the homes others have fashioned for themselves, I'm not quite ready for a long-term commitment. I have an ongoing joke of a New Year's resolution: all new mistakes. It's a way to remind myself to take chances, explore new territory, learn to dig deeper. It's a call to say yes to opportunities and have a sense of humor when things go awry.

A SPECIFIC OCEAN

Most everyone, even those who haven't been to a beach, understand that it's a good thing. Even as a child living next to Lake Erie, I would leap at the chance to go to Huntington Beach, or even Rocky River Park, just to be on the sand and hear the waves. While I am certainly no expert, having only recently upped my ocean count by one, the Southern California coast was a truly luxurious experience. Being able to take advantage of an October heatwave and play in the Pacific Ocean is something that would make a younger J's head explode. The impossible made possible by the mere passage of time.

LANDS OF MANY USES

We followed the curving road out, in hopes of setting camp with plenty of time to enjoy a leisurely afternoon. The road had become more congested, littered with families in rented RVs and little experience handling them. We hoped they were at least earning the gratitude of their loved ones, so their terrible driving would be to some end. Suddenly, we heard a thwack on the front of the car, amid a flurry of fleeing birds. We sat silently, for what seemed like a long time. Finally I spoke, "I killed a bird in the Grand Canyon."

LIFE ELEVATED

We fashioned a simple meal of sandwiches and whiskey, adding another layer to our ensembles to keep out the cold. Bryce Canyon National Park is a leader in dark sky protection, and on clear nights up to 10,000 stars can be seen from as far as the Andromeda Galaxy. We surveyed the Milky Way, stretched out over the horizon, our view unimpeded by our campfire. The campsites that had earlier felt so close, now barely visible, their fires, satellites, piercing the darkness.

CREATION MYTHS, CANYON LANDS AND ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGHS

The rocks of the cliff side whistled and jeered, both mocking and celebrating our presence. The towering spires, remnants of ancient red sand dunes, looked as if an alien forest had left its eulogy in the land itself. The crushing scope was like nothing I'd ever seen; the red spikes climbing up from the valley floor towards us, the vicious gash carved by the Colorado River, the stretch of scrubby grasses and shrubs flowing out past the Six Shooter Mesa in the distance, the slow roll of the sparse clouds on an azure backdrop, all of it incredible.