Starting a trip with an event of cultural or historical significance is ALWAYS a good thing for us.
Thus it was very fulfilling to have a two-fer (cultural AND historic) in Memphis, TN at the beginning of this adventure. January 20 and 21, 2018 were the days for anniversary events celebrating the Women’s March of 2017, and they did not disappoint. Millions of women again marched and met up in all of the major US cities, many smaller cities and towns, even rural areas. Our Memphis event was the fifth or sixth city chosen by us, mostly because we had to rearrange our departure date many times over. Initially we’d planned to march in Nashville, then plans changed and we targeted Austin; then Lansing, then Indianapolis, then Carbondale, IL, and finally Memphis – whew!!
As it turned out, the Memphis event was 100% indoors, as the city (a solidly blue-collar working town) doesn’t turn out for these protest marches in large numbers like other metros. Too many people working on Saturday or tired from a full week’s work, or holding down two jobs….so 1,000 of us met in a huge First Congregational Church and made a lot of noise!!!! Great speakers, great energy, great momentum! Get to the Polls in May, August, November, people, change is COMING!!!!
As a follow-on, we went to the Memphis National Civil Rights Museum, housed in the old Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King stayed during his last days, and where he was assassinated. Powerful, well developed and staged exhibits showing 300 years of slavery and struggle for equality and justice. Museums such as this one are simultaneously enriching and exhausting, and this was no exception. The display of MLK’s hotel room and the wreath on the balcony where he was struck down were especially poignant, as was the recreated slave ship where the audio track simulates the screams of slaves being whipped, the wrenching coughs of those who sickened and died during the journey, the cruelty of the slavers. Artifacts and pictures that one might see at the new Smithsonian African American History Museum in DC are here, as well as the stories of ordinary Americans in the Deep South, risking and in many cases giving their lives so that small steps of progress could be made. It is an amazing retrospective that harkens forward to our time, as so much ground is now being lost in the struggle. This April will be the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination. It was good to be here.
Our first real warm weather came outside of Austin, TX, in McKinney Falls State Park. The first hike of the adventure, 3.4 miles through the hill country, was glorious, even if not too physically challenging. A good thing, too, as we have had ZERO hiking time since the last adventure through Ontario!
We took in the LBJ Presidential Library while in Austin, especially significant to us as children of the ‘60’s who remember well the anguish of the Vietnam War, the War on Poverty, first stirrings of the environmental movement, protest marches against the draft and war, Johnson’s Landmark Voting Rights Act and Medicare/Medicaid Acts, all passed by Congress. Perhaps the last of our presidents with a true long-term vision for the country. No matter how one regards Johnson, it’s still a tragedy that the intractable war took such a toll on him that he died of a heart attack, five years after leaving office.
We also drove through Austin’s newest night spot, Rainey Street, to see the fancy food trucks, bars and restaurants in rehabbed small houses from Austin’s 1900’s history. Then off to Lady Bird Johnson’s Wildflower Garden, a 260-acre restorative work to cultivate Texas’ incredible profusion of wildflowers, bushes, trees and plants. January is hardly prime time to go for the view of blooms, but we really enjoyed the live oak arboretum, the hothouses and well-architected beds of medicinal, culinary and aromatic plants. Lady Bird did a lot for this country in terms of replanting native plants along highways, in cities, and pushing LBJ to recognize 36 new national parks and monuments.
From Austin, we returned to San Antonio, one of our favorite stops from last winter’s journey to Big Bend National Park. We again walked three miles of the glorious Riverwalk, after stopping for pie (!) at Bird Bakery in north San Antonio. The Riverwalk has been so lovingly and artfully laid out with plant, flower and tree landscaping, murals, mosaics, ironwork, sculptures, fountains and stone scapes – like nowhere else in the US.
On our last day there, we took in the Institute of Texas Cultures, affiliated with UT San Antonio. The exhibits were the main draw, and of all things the Center hosts the city’s naturalization ceremonies for new American citizens there – just on the day we visited!! So we witnessed 224 new Americans from 47 different countries. Put a lump in our throats, the perfect antidote for so much immigrant-hating in the US at this moment.
A small but significant art museum, the McNay, was our next stop. Such an intimate setting in which to view French impressionists, Picasso’s very first works, Rauschenberg, O’Keefe, Hopper, Indiana, Giacometti, Goya and hundreds more. So much looking, thinking and walking works up an appetite, and since it was Restaurant Week in SA, we feasted at Bliss in a lovely semi-industrial neighborhood and then went to a small theatre downtown to see Tango Fire from Buenos Aires. Talk about HOT!!! Tango like you’ve never seen!!
It was time to start working our way westward, since this trip is really about New Mexico and Arizona. Found an exquisite pie bakery in Fredericksburg, the appropriately named Texas Pie bakery, where we picked up Buttermilk and Chocolate Crème pie slices, as well as Peach Praline and Blueberry Peach. Wowsers. Why can’t we get pies like this up north??? Or more frequently on our travels? Sigh.
Now in Las Cruces, NM, we’re kicking the hiking muscles into high gear. Two great hikes today, Aguirre Falls’ Pinetree Trail and Soledad Canyon Trail, are in the Eastern Organ Mountains National Monument, run by the BLM. Splendid hikes that gave us almost 7.5 miles of good workout and 1500 feet of elevation. Tall Ponderosa pine trees and junipers abound, scarred by forest fires and still thriving. The views northeast showed White Sands National Park 35 miles away, and the NASA research base with seemingly thousands of solar arrays. Thank goodness someone in national government gets the need for solar power.
We headed northeast next day for the Northwestern Organ Mountains tract, where we hiked Robledo Mountain and 3 miles of the Prehistoric Trackways Trail. Thousands of shells and early invertebrate creatures embedded in the slate flats at the bottoms of washes – fantastic to observe! We are reminded of the Permian Reef that covered this area 250 million years ago. Bald mountains are a stark difference from yesterday’s wooded slopes. We made it to the top of Presidential Peak and took in a 270-degree vista over the Rio Grande floodplain, all of Las Cruces and the hundreds of pecan orchards in this area. Thank goodness for pure blue skies here!
Fun fact: New Mexico produces more pecans by value than Georgia. We picked up five pounds, just shelled last week and harvested in early January. NM pecans are THE best!
Last night we made sourdough garlic naan from scratch in the convection oven, not too difficult because we brought our sourdough starter from home. Yums!!
The road led next to Deming, NM, where the City of Rocks and Rock Hound State Parks beckoned. Believe it or not, Rock Hound Park ENCOURAGES hikers to pick up specimens and keep them! Also, the official paths are just access paths to enable hikers to go anywhere they want to go. So, if the main trails are picked clean, just strike a new path and look for agates, thunder eggs, jasper, chalcedony, pearlite, flint, and the odd chunk of petrified wood! We got some lovely specimens during a 3-mile hike, which is feasible for most people. Lots of dedicated rock hunters with picks, shovels, gloves, hiking boots and specimen bags, and lots of novices with plastic bags hiking in tennis shoes. Take your pick (pun intended)!
After Rock Hound, we drove the 41 miles to City of Rocks State Park. Otherworldly is one description, a crowded US Stonehenge is another. 35 million years ago, a volcano blew in the area, many times larger than Mt St. Helens, and spewed lava and pumice all over. The pumice/potassium feldspar clumps fell in elevator-shaft sized columns, strangest thing we’ve seen in a while, and formed ridges over a one square mile area. Over the millennia, wind and water erosion wore down the columns to look more like Stonehenge, some are tilted and there are sizeable (20 – 50 feet) spaces between the columns. The stone looks like fine-grained concrete with diamond chips in it. And the park allows campers to park right next to the columns. Like I said, otherworldly!
On to Gila Hot Springs and the Cliff Dwellings National Monument. It’s a slow drive here, over very winding roads, but the forested mountains are spectacular to see. The Gila river flows through a massive caldera (80 miles across), with high walls along the sides where the cliff dwellings were built into caves that have eroded into the walls.
We have come across many cliff dwellings, from last year’s trip to Mesa Verde and the Ute Mountains Tribal Park, to Canyon de Chelly several decades ago, but these dwellings are unique in terms of geology and their thermal qualities: warming in winter, cool in summer. They were inhabited by the archaic Mogollan (Moh-goy-OWN) Tribes in the 13th century, and all the way back to 12,000 years ago, Mogollan were living here in pit houses. Then came the Chiricahuan Apache Tribes, after the Mogollan vacated the cliffs.
I am very taken with the Mimbres pottery developed by the Mogollan. We hope to see more of it if/when we get to the Albuquerque Pueblo Cultures Museum.
Today we hiked an incomparable path, Trail 729, aka Little Bear Canyon to the Gila River. It’s 8.5 miles round trip, and the bulk of the hike is along a gentle ridge line at 6000 – 6800 feet (1100 ft elevation from the trailhead at JT Corral). The last mile to the river is spectacular. You descend into a canyon and follow the streambed through its meanders, realizing that at one time, millions of years ago, it was a slot canyon much like Antelope Canyon in Arizona (walls so close together you could touch both with your arms extended). This canyon is wider (maybe 50 – 100 feet) than the Arizona canyons, and cuts through conglomerate, petrified pumice, sedimentary rock and rhyolite, so its colors and textures vary dramatically from one bend to the next. Canyon walls are 250 – 300 feet tall. The air is cool in the canyon, next to running springs which feed the Gila, and the hiking path crisscrosses the brook like one of the braids of a stream. This hike was a peak experience for us. Simply stunning.
Both yesterday and today, we enjoyed an hour-long soak in the hot spring pools of the camping village up here in the mountains. Water was 102 degrees, just right for sore muscles. This community, called Gila Hot Springs, is only four miles from the National Park, and was settled about 80 years ago by Doc Campbell’s family. Still today, the Campbell family owns most of the commercial property up here, they are very friendly and not particularly interested in maximizing their profit, so everything has a simple, down-home, approachable, non-chichi appeal to it. What a nice change from places that have made vacation spots too expensive for just normal folks. We will be sorry to leave Gila tomorrow, but have to press on to Tucson as we have some minor repairs to make to the motor home.
Tucson is as nice as ever, but the downtown is pressing out to the periphery and the old “adobe house plus 3 acres of horse pasture” on the outskirts is giving way to suburbs. Too bad that. We have spent time in Tucson several times in the past twenty years, one time taking a hot air balloon over the east side and seeing how many Tucsonans had horses. Times are changing. Happy to see SO many vegetarian tamale options!! Yum!!
We’d planned to visit a friend who is a master gem cutter, stone-setter and jewelry maker at the Tucson Gem and Rock Show this weekend. It was great to finally meet him in person, and his work is simply gorgeous. Even bought a small pendant made of Montana Yogo Gulch sapphire and pink tourmaline (you didn’t know sapphire is mined in the US? ONLY in one spot, east of Helena, on Blackfoot Indian land). The show itself was so immense, it completely overwhelmed us. Acres and acres of raw, cut, polished, faceted, carved and set stones of ALL types. Just for some comparison, we are also stopping at the Quartzsite, AZ show in a week or so, much smaller and really only for those in the industry. I can only consider myself “in the industry” as an amateur geologist, not a jewelry maker or lapidary expert. I just love rocks, is all.
Our RV “Resort” featured an evening entertainment of four high-school musicians from Phoenix suburbs who play violin and standing cello together. They’re going on the road to give concerts, and were really on point with their talent and spirited celtic music!
We’d heard about the vast storehouses/graveyards of military aircraft in the Arizona desert, but until now had not seen them. South of Tucson is an Air Force Logistics Camp, where thousands of small, medium and very large transport planes and other craft are warehoused. Some appear fairly new, others look as if WWII vintage. The USAF needs to hold a garage sale.
Today’s hike went to the east side of the Saguaro National Park, where there are many rolling hills, foothills and peaks of the Santa Catalina mountains. At the ranger’s suggestion (to avoid the weekend crowds), we took in parts of the Douglas Springs Trail, just enough to get us 4.7 miles of length and 734 feet of elevation. In temperatures ranging from 75 at the peak to probably 80 on the canyon floor, we couldn’t have gone much farther in the midday sun. Our schedule would not allow getting out at a decent morning hour, so we paid the price in sweat and fatigue. But the geology, the workout and the view were magnificent.
The Santa Catalina Mountains are a most unusual combination of rocks, including a rare mylonitic gneiss (a metamorphic rock with unusually long striations, slabby textures and contrasting colors). Geologists come from all over the world to study this rock. We also saw an unusual amount of mica, marble chunks and what looked like flint, all created by the severe folding and pressure the mountains underwent during metamorphosis. Beautiful colors everywhere. Good that it was a national park hike, otherwise my pockets would have come back full.
The stately Saguaro cacti, for which the park was named were a joy to behold, from baby specimens to multi-armed colonies over 20 feet high and 200 years old. The park also holds millions of cholla, barrel, organ pipe and prickly pear cacti, Palo Verde (AZ state tree), mesquite and creosote bushes, ocotillo, jojoba, yucca and Arizona desert thorn, to name just a few. All told, there are thousands of ways to impale oneself on spiny, thorny plants, should one fall on or off the trail!!
Turns out that you can become addicted to hot springs! We had two lovely nights of muscle-healing therapy in Gila Hot Springs and are now enjoying multiple nights of hot-tubbing in Tucson. It’s critical to wait until the heat of the day dissipates, but 102 degrees of swirling water can make one forget all about sore shin muscles, cramped quadriceps and ground-to-a-pulp toe pads. Sweet!
Today was a day for the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum. The drive out, 15 miles west of downtown Tucson, took us over the Santa Catalinas into the Avra Valley to visit the museum for its morning Raptor Free Flight demonstration. Loved it so much, we stayed for the afternoon event and spent five hours in-between touring the various cactus gardens and wildlife displays on site. Even saw the mineral exposition, which showed all of the gorgeous minerals found in the Sonoran desert (AZ and Mexico included).
So the raptors free flight demonstration…wow. This museum has trainers and bird biology experts who condition these birds, mostly rescue/rehab patients or orphans, to fly for quail, mouse and rabbit meat, just as you would see them in the wild. They are not shackled, they wear no jesses (leg straps), and they are given the choice of whether to participate in flight on any given day. From all appearances they LOVE their “enrichment activity.” We saw Great Horned and Barn owls, Ravens, Grey, Ferruginous, Coopers and Harris hawks, and a CaraCara falcon. The Coopers are not even part of the museum community, they just live in the area and one was defending its territory from the other birds. When brought out, the Ferruginous and Harris swooped and dove so low, you could almost feel the wind from their wings. The display is breathtaking, and you leave with so much respect for the birds as athletes and survivors, as well as a determination to help preserve their habitats. A sweet little bonus was the plethora of cactus wrens who feel so safe among the well-fed raptors that they can afford to harass and tease them. The chatter is fun to hear.
The museum’s extensive cactus gardens have been beautifully landscaped and cultivated to astound and educate visitors. Cacti are important pollinators and protectors of desert bees and birds, and they number into the hundreds and hundreds of species and subspecies. Slow-growing and spiny, they give color and water retention to the desert. Arizonans treasure their cacti, state law protects 350 of their species, and you’ll see nary a conventional lawn here in Tucson. Strictly xeriscapes – we love it.
Today we moved to the far west side of Tucson metro, driving through beautiful Gates Pass to enjoy the western zone of the Saguaro National Park. Due to heat we took in only two short hikes, the Valley View and Signal Hill Petroglyphs Trails. More and more saguaro to be seen, the further you get from the city. It’s clear that a lot of people lifted cacti from the desert before they were protected. Only now are we seeing the appropriately-termed cactus forests. More rugged hills on this side, more blue, green and turquoise colors threaded or washed through the rocks. The petroglyphs here are numerous and date from 200 AD up to 1450 AD. Very similar to the symbolism in use by the Tohono O’Odham tribe of southern Arizona today in their baskets, pottery and jewelry.
We’ve looked forward to tonight’s event ever since our first Star Party at MacDonald Observatory in Texas last year. Southwest of Tucson is Kitt Peak National Observatory on a 7,000-foot mountain in the desert, and we are booked for a two-hour intensive stargaze. The drive was spectacular up to the 26-telescope site. Twenty of us gathered to observe planets, galaxies, nebulae, stars, red giants and stellar nurseries. Excellent and informative leadership from observatory staff taught us much about the significance, location and history of what we were viewing. Photos can be seen at www.kittpeak.wordpress.com.
About a third of the way into our observations, a number of us saw and wondered about a round object moving through the sky, throwing a barbell-shaped spray out of its opposing sides. Our leader explained that sometimes one can see military aircraft at night which can never be identified. But then she remarked, “No, I don’t think that’s one of them. What could that be??” Several of us commented that SpaceX had just launched the Falcon Heavy this afternoon, and wondered if we were seeing it in orbit, when suddenly the object exploded from one side, throwing a gigantic V of dust and vapor across its trailing end. The V grew into a huge ball of light grey debris, while the moving object appeared much smaller. There were loud oohs and ahhs from the whole group – this was an historic moment, completely unanticipated by all, and a great thrill to behold. We learned the following morning that indeed, Falcon Heavy had fired its final (third) stage rockets seven hours after launch, to pull itself out of Earth orbit and toward Mars. So that is precisely what the phenomenon was. Indescribably exciting.
Today we crossed the large tract of land where the Tohono O’odham reservation is, between Tucson and Ajo, AZ. A vast expanse of cactus, mountains and mostly bare ground, it is inhabited by 11,000 tribal members. This is meagre agrarian territory with one small casino, but the tribe is helped by rent from the Kitt Peak Observatory because the research facilities sit on tribal land. Long after the rest of the land around here is “developed,” this area will stay wilderness desert.
On to Ajo, where we’d heard from friends of a drive/hike to Marble Mountain on BLM land, where a specific hill is littered with Moqui Marbles (sandstone balls that have been coated by iron oxide and rounded by wind erosion into hard pellet, symmetrically round). Similar to our drive across Big Bend Ranch State Park, this 20-mile trek was a bone-rattler all the way across dozens of washes, up rocky and uneven slopes and through sand pits. Regrettably we did not start out early enough for time to search in depth for the marbles, so although we had a wonderful desert hike, we returned to base sans marbles. No worries, we’ll get some at the Rock Show in Quartzsite. The vast views were enough to justify the trip. And we saw the elusive, charming and petite Acuña cactus, found only here in the Sauceda Mountains.
It is hard to overstate the fragility of this land. Cacti, spare grasses, palo verde trees and mesquite bushes grow exceedingly slowly and do not regenerate easily, especially if there are no rains. The first waves of settlers through the territory shortsightedly allowed their animals to graze down the grasses, and over the century since then, nature has still not fully rebounded. The dust blows continuously and the washes erode mercilessly. What the sheep and cattle could not do, Freeport MacMoran has accomplished with its mining operations, laying open whole mountains in search of copper. The colors on display in the enormous tailing piles are vivid, but there is NO vegetation for miles around them. Except for one lone roadrunner and a tiny lizard, we saw no wildlife on our hike.
We did hear the Air Force launching flights and going supersonic every ten minutes, especially in the late afternoon. And in a surreal moment, two smallish radio-controlled desert-camo “jets” flew low overhead, looking for all the world like they were in a dog fight. No RC operators in sight. Were they military drone operators in training? You never know what you’re going to see in the remote and desolate Southwest.
Our stop in Quartzsite, AZ was solely intended to be able to stop by the US rock cutters’ and gem-setters’ wholesale open air market. This event occurs every year, November to February, and 3,000 rock vendors come here to sell raw rock chunks and slabs to those who polish, tumble and set stones for a living. I’ve bought many a slab or cabochon from those who buy here, and I wanted to come to see what it’s like. Answer: like every other flea market you ever went to, some good stuff, lots of junk stuff and questionable stones…. But we did find a couple of moqui marbles and a lovely small slab of bumblebee jasper, one of my very favorite rock types. Now I think we’re done with rock shows!
A couple of hours from Quartzite, we arrived at the Lake Mead Recreational Area in Nevada for the night. I have always wondered why, around such a large body of water, there are NO green plants at all. It must be the rock basin that doesn’t allow the moisture to travel out beyond the lake. A 7.4-mile hike over the old train bed that had delivered supplies to the Hoover Dam construction crew brought us to the edge of the dam and under the new giant arch bridge high over the Colorado River. Gorgeous geology along the way, with igneous and sedimentary rock in all colors of the rainbow on display.
Helicopters whup-whupped overhead every 3 minutes to take tourists on an aerial tour of the Grand Canyon. Little did we know that this very day one crashed in the canyon, killing three people. I’d rather go on foot. We got back just in time, beating sunset by mere minutes and setting a new race-walking record of 3.1 miles/hour (for us, that’s fast!).
You who love venison backstrap meat should try it sometime, grilled to medium rare, sliced thinly and served with warm flour tortillas, mango salsa, chopped tomatoes, guacamole and shredded Mexican soft cheese. Perfection.
As John MacPhee wrote in Annals of a Former World, most of the geography west of the Rockies consists of basin and range, basin and range, repeated seemingly forever. And so it is in Arizona, Utah, Nevada and a good bit of California. Driving through the Mojave Valley, past the New York Mountains, through the Ivanpah Valley and up the Amargosa Mountains, we see so many single-file ranges and so many desert plains. One will have piñon pines and Juniper bushes, the next only Joshua Trees, the next only Teddy Bear Cholla cactus, the next only Creosote bushes. The desert seems to specialize in what it will support at each different altitude, and even if it seems like there is no life here, wait until dark.
The textures in Death Valley are endlessly varying. Some ranges look like sawdust, some like jagged daggers, others like drip castles, elephant hide or playdoh. Some have impossibly thin layers stacked like crepes atop one another, with ultrathin fillings of borax sandwiched in between them. Some are awash with minerals like chlorite, manganese, titanium, hematite and iron. The resulting blues, greens, purples, reds and oranges seem too bright to be natural, but their pigments have also been enhanced by boiling springs, steam and the heat of lava. The stark white that appears can alternatively be borax, talc, salt or marble. An organic chemist would have a field day here.
So many worthwhile hikes in Death Valley National Park. We did Desolation Canyon yesterday, our first slot canyon. Today we did the (seemingly) lifeless Badwater Salt Flats, Artists’ Palette and the Natural Arch Canyon. Of the three, we were just awed by the end of the Natural Arch Canyon, which we had all to ourselves. It consists of what appears to be green, blue and grey marble, washed smooth and shiny by millions of years of rushing flood waters. There are three distinct waterfall points (all dry) that hikers scramble up, then you come to a fourth which you cannot climb without pitons, rope and/or a grappling hook (about an 18 feet high hanging valley). The travertine-like stone was so beautiful and so unexpected. We love scrambling up rock walls, as long as they’re not too treacherous. All in, we hiked 4 miles today and are up for 7 miles tomorrow in Fall Canyon, then the 600-foot deep volcanic crater at Ubehebe, followed up by Indian tacos from the Timbisha Shoshone Village. This park is the Timisha Shoshone people’s ancestral home, proving that a resilient people can survive and thrive, working with nature and the seasonal cycles at their most severe.
Fall Canyon was an epic hike, leading 3.5 miles through a deep gravel and rock-strewn wash into canyon switchback after switchback. The walls towering overhead were at least 300 feet high, and of every conceivable composition of rock. Elevation gain was 1200 feet, no wonder we were a little tired at the end. What really kept us going throughout the trek were the amazing rocks underfoot – striated black and white gneiss, deeply colored sandstones and quartzite, sparkling diorite, rose quartz, agate imbedded in walls of rock, chert, bloodstone, marble, jasper, even what we guessed might be alabaster or onyx. And as we’d experienced yesterday at Natural Arch Canyon, the navigable trail ended at a high (20’) dry waterfall, where water had scoured the rock to a polished sheen. This “roadblock” could not be scrambled over or around, so we just turned around and headed back to the car. But two hikers going ahead of us managed to shimmy up a somewhat perilous detour, so they were the lucky ones to see the final (to us inaccessible) 7 miles. Next time maybe we’ll use chalk to enable us to chimney up safely.
The day ended at Ubehebe Volcanic Crater, a stunning phenomenon to stand atop. The crater was produced by a gigantic steam and lava explosion which blew millions of tons of cinder out the west side of the crater and left beautiful orange rock exposed on the east side. It is possible to hike down into the crater’s 600-foot pit as well as around its circumference. We chose to go ¼ of the way around at the top elevation, also viewing one of 6 adjacent craters. Seems quite a few volcanos blew their tops 2,000 years ago on this spot! This park never fails to amaze us, and it has become one of our favorites for impressive artifacts of natural history.
Oh, and we managed to get our Indian Tacos tonight!! Taco meat with shredded lettuce, cheese, salsa and refried beans over Indian Fry Bread. And George had one more with cinnamon and sugar for dessert. For a simple meal, it fills the bill.
This morning started with overcast skies and wide, gravel-filled canyons. We set out to hike Sidewinder Canyon, but first had to hike across about a mile of 3”-deep fine sand-like gravel to get into the main wash of the canyon. There is more gravel in Death Valley than you can shake a stick at!!! And walking across it is not exactly fun. One foot forward, one foot down into the stones. It’s work. After about 2 miles came the slot canyons. And those are FUN!!! Still lots of gravel, but it’s mainly in the walls of the cemented slot canyons. And lots of rocks to scramble over.
Sidewinder is just as the name implies: it winds around, just as a sidewinder snake (which they have here) would do. Back and forth, around like a corkscrew and into very small spaces. With very tall walls. A wee tad of a claustrophobic experience, but mostly cool. The second of three canyons in this set was the best, going ever upward for about ¾ of a mile and up perhaps 500 feet, until we came to a 6’ boulder stuck in the middle of the space, with no alternate route. The end of the road for us.
More sheep droppings along the way in the canyon tell us that the bighorn rams and ewes are coming down into the canyons at night to nibble on spring greenery (actually, the NP ranger told us that). This hike finished out at 5.4 miles and 1340’ of elevation gain. And my legs finally feel like they’re getting into the shape I need for longer hikes. Yay!
It is a wonderful experience to camp in the National Parks, and Death Valley is no exception to the rule. You meet a very broad cross-section of friendly people in the NPs, camping in everything from a van, Jeep, SUV or Element, to a tent, pop-up camper, self-built rig, trailer or RV. Lots of campfires at night. Lots of folks walking and biking. And of course, you meet lots of people in the communal bathrooms! Most of the national and state parks have quite large spaces for each camper, and lots of greenery around each to provide privacy and sound buffer. Here, where greenery is almost non-existent, there is (unfortunately) an abundance of salt cedar trees (a nasty invasive), which steals the scarce ground moisture from indigenous mesquite bushes; however it makes a nice verdant privacy screen.
Today was an easy hiking day, up Gower Gulch, Badlands Loop, Zabriskie Point and Golden Canyon. 6.8 miles all told. Lots of ups and downs, but elevation gain was never that significant and the ground was firm, vs. the previous days’ sandy gravel washes. We learned that the top layer of Death Valley’s dusty, silty mounds is actually a living thing, called cryptobiotic crust. Such a shame that so many people forge their own path away from the main hiking trails. They do permanent damage to this park’s ecology, without even realizing that they are harming a living thing. A bit like someone playing with a baby dolphin, taking selfies and horsing around with it, until the poor thing dies. We all need to be more cognizant and caring, even when on vacation.
We drove twice through Artist’s Palette Drive, a special section in DVNP where the rocks are painted with pastel colors of all shades — just beautiful!
On the last leg of Golden Canyon, we came across a young woman I call Chanel Lady. Silk jumpsuit, designer leather street shoes, no hat, no water, no map, fancy sunglasses, just “strolling” down the canyon. I offered her one of my electrolyte drinks, I was so worried that she would expire before getting back to the parking lot. Wow. Time and again we see evidence that people just don’t read the warnings about having to carry drinking water on hikes. The rangers are not kidding. Take a drink along.
The night sky is quite dark in Death Valley, so tonight (while we’re in the new moon phase) we’re going to attempt some time-lapse photograph of our galaxy and its constellations. The sky is just gorgeous, Mercury and Mars are both visible at this time of year, as are Orion’s belt and sword. I can’t wait until our grandkids are old enough for us to share all of this with!!
Today was our last set of hikes in Death Valley National Park….for this trip. We know we’ll be back! Mosaic Canyon (3.95 mi, 930 ft elevation gain) and Keane Wonder gold mine were both memorable and impressive.
Mosaic is a dolomitic and marble canyon, with loads of other metamorphic and sedimentary rock thrown in for good measure. The pictures say it all: sinuous and shiny at the beginning, from millions of years of flood waters charged with gravel (the perfect polishing compound) racing over the rocks, miles of mosaic-like conglomerate and breccia which have also been buffed by the same waters and now undulate along the walls (thus the name Mosaic Canyon). Lots of rock scrambling and dry-fall detours, lots of worn-smooth chutes and sluices where the raging floods created perfect half-bores in the white rock. Of all our hikes, this path held the most surprises for beauty of the colors in the rock. I would do this hike yearly, it’s that eye-popping.
We almost skipped the gold mine, but I wanted George to be able to do something he declared at the outset was of interest to him. As it turned out, we both loved it. The mine was closed in 2009 for safety reasons, then rehabbed to close off the dangerous bits and reopened late last year. We walked up the short, steep hike to the tramway that sent smashed, vibrated and washed the ore-bearing rock fragments down to transport out of the mine area. Everywhere there was evidence of the old (1907) equipment, wooden building fragments….and lots and lots of galena. This is a high-sheen rock which glints like silver metal, is very pretty, dense, and toxic because of its high lead content. It beckons to be admired and touched, but stay away — mines are often so dangerous because they bring up other minerals along with the targeted treasure, some of which are very bad substances. At least there were no uranium tailings at this site….that we know of!
Leaving Death Valley this morning, we stopped at the Visitor Center to check one last time for the more obscure and worthwhile hikes, in order to know whether the next trip back should be for one week or two. The very knowledgeable hikers’ guide behind the counter assured us he could keep us busy for months, as there are at least 200 more hikes plotted by GPS coordinates in the mountains. So, next time it will be two weeks, at a minimum!
We’re now in Phoenix for a couple days, to stock up on hiking tools, hike a bit in the Fort McDowell Mountain Park and take in museums and a concert.
Hiking is great, just entirely too windy (25 mph gusts are a pain to hike in). Took in the Wells Fargo Stagecoach Museum and Museum of the West, both pretty impressive. Hard to truly appreciate the primitive nature of travel back in the mid-to-late 1800s until you see the conditions. And in the Museum of the West, OMG, the bronze sculptures of John Coleman and Joe Beeler are just breathtaking in detail and in the stories they tell about indigenous life. To say nothing of the priceless Hopi pottery collection, dating from the 1500s to modern day and including a vast array of Nampeyo family vessels – we were left speechless by their beauty, symbolism, intricate geometries and innovative techniques. If people could just comprehend what it takes to build works of art like this entirely from hand, mix the colors from ground minerals, hand-buff the surfaces to a warm patina….stunning.
Next up: a lecture/demonstration of Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata at the Phoenix Musical Instrument Museum (MIM). Enlightening, amusing, always a reinforcement of how art presents “The Shock of the New” to its contemporaneous audience, and then becomes mainstream over the following decades and centuries. Fabulous performance by Korean pianist Hye-Jin Kim and exposition by Rob Kapilow. This piece of music is captivating.
Today we drove to the Meteor Crater west of Winslow. On Navajo land and operated by the tribe, it’s well done and impressive. Have not previously been in a 50,000-year-old crater created by a 150-foot diameter metallic meteor that drove a hole 300-feet deep and nearly one mile across into the earth. It was interesting to see how this crater differed from the Ubehebe volcanic crater we’d just seen in Death Valley. In the latter (Ubehebe), we saw a tremendous amount of volcanic ash ejecta in and around the crater, and an uneven depression caused by uneven direction of the volcanic explosion. Here, there was obviously no ash, a much larger hole, a very even depression and no ridge lines in the crater’s sides. This crater was studied exhaustively to help scientists in the 20th century understand and differentiate between volcanic and meteor-caused craters. Fascinating.
Also saw an area museum with lots of artifacts from the Pony Express era. Amazing that the Pony Express only operated for 18 months, before it was made obsolete by the stagecoaches of Wells Fargo. What a lot of folklore came out of that period.
Tomorrow: Petrified Forest National Park (PFNP) and Painted Desert 25 miles east of Holbrook. We’ll need our strength, so for the first time, we baked sourdough in the moho!
PFNP is even better than the first time we were here 25 years ago. George and I know a lot more about silicated rocks now, and seeing the wood turned into agate is just spellbinding. Turns out that 225 million years ago, flooding brought thousands of dead trees to the NE corner of Arizona, where they were then covered by blowing sands and loam, which prevented them from decomposing very much. Then the Yellowstone volcanic explosion happened, the one that caused a great extinction in what was then North America, and the ash cloud drifted over the Four Corners area (where CO, UT, AZ and NM meet) and settled down through the soils and into the trees’ tissues. It took 18 million years for this to occur, and a lot longer for the crystalline structure to form in the wood.
This is the same effect we saw last year in Alibates Flint Quarry in Texas (near Amarillo), and the colors are every bit as beautiful! The park has quite a number of hills and mesas where you can see the ash that has been cemented together down through the ages, and they are colorful, as well. Crossing over I-40 from Petrified Forest to the Painted Desert, you see some of the most beautiful red and maroon hills and mesas anywhere. The skies were so clear today (because it was only 28 degrees and snow was on the ground!), that we could see 108 miles in the distance, spying the snow-covered San Francisco mountains near Flagstaff! Several beautiful murals depicting the area’s Pueblo Indians was a perfect complement to the scenery.
Today Zuni Pueblo was on the schedule, so we drove to El Morro Federal Monument for our campsite and drove to Zuni village. It is hard to put into words how wonderful this visit was. Our guide, Kenny Bowekaty, is the tribe’s resident archaeology, trained at Stanford University, and he has been the driving force behind the cultural discovery, documentation and public access to the history of his people down through the ages. We sat with Kenny at the Visitors’ Center for 90 minutes while he related the creation story of the Zuni people, the migration of the tribe from 70,000 BCE to the present time, the incursions of Spanish and English military and cultural forces, and his team’s archaeological discoveries in the Middle Village. He explained how the Zunis are the oldest example of a people inhabiting a single dwelling place for the past 10,000 years, and how his tribe relates to the surrounding tribes of Ácoma, Isleta, Laguna, Hopi and Jemez.
Kenny then took us on a walking tour of Middle Village, explaining the 14 stories of buildings (three above ground, and 11 below ground built throughout the ages). He has documented the oldest sections, revealed through 70 feet of excavation, 25 additional feet of core drilling, and LIDAR remote imagery throughout the original village footprint. He and his contracted archaeologists and anthropologists have performed their work over the past 30 years to reveal great detail about the Zuni way of life, religious practices, art and artifacts. Everywhere in the village you can smell the sweetness of cedar wood burning on the hearths, needed to chase away the chill from the winter’s mid-30’s daytime temperatures.
Our tour had just concluded when, to our total astonishment, a religious parade of nearly 20 Kiva Circle dancers in amazing regalia came through the main square. This was not on the schedule, and not known to Kenny or Marla (responsible for tourist activities). We froze in place, not knowing whether we should retreat to our car or what. A young woman and her three-year-old child beckoned us to come stand with her as they quietly observed the procession. Then she asked if we wanted to follow her to the dancing square. Are you kidding?? You can’t make this kind of fortuitous event happen, it has to be on the personal initiative of the residents of the pueblo. We still can’t believe our luck, having such magic materialize then and there.
We followed Jessica through the village to an enclosed courtyard where at least 25 tribal members stood on rooftops and ground level, watching the ceremony unfold. The drummer and the head of the parade began to chant and drum, and the “White shirt” dance began. It would be unfair to describe it, as we do not know the steps, words or meaning of the two dances we were allowed to see, but the dancers were reverential and resplendent. Zuni headdresses were elaborate and showy with many symbols displayed, hand rattles were used, and every part of the dancers’ bodies was decorated with turkey and macaw feathers, ribbons, shields, skins and buckskin. These ceremonies are never allowed to be photographed, but we have them in our memories.
These models (Kachina dolls) and sketches are similar to the costumes worn by the dancers.
Today we observed and participated with Zuni ancient culinary experts to prepare an ancient Puebloan cuisine, parched corn. We also sampled their wheat pudding and pudding cakes, all intended to be highly portable foodstuffs to be carried in pockets or carry-bags. Even the ancestral Puebloans, thousands of years ago, cooked with chili peppers, and today, every table has chili sauce on hand to season foods to taste.
Following the culinary lesson we toured the studio of a beading artist and her stone-carving and jewelry maker husband, where George acquired a couple of Zuni fetishes and I bought a lovely turquoise buffalo pendant. We called it a day with those purchases, had wonderful conversation with beading artist Roxanne about other aspects of Zuni culture, and then wound our way back to the campground in El Morro.
For those interested, a non-scientific scan of dozens of residents walking the pueblo, engaged in commerce or social activities, eating or relaxing in the café or on their way to work or school showed significantly less obesity than in the US population at large. Virtually no drunkenness in the two days we spent in Zuni. This settlement of nearly 14,000 people appears to be healthy, engaged and positive about life, which is tragically not something one can say about many US Indian reservations.
The healthy, proud way is the way it should be. We can only hope our cultures find ways to validate and respect one another, so that more natives feel the strength of their heritage and the self-worth they deserve to have, rather than feeling denigrated and usurped of their rights, property and native pride.
Onward to Albuquerque (or the ‘Burque, as it’s known locally)! We took in the Old Town, an impressively preserved ten blocks of adobe homes, businesses, churches and squares that are surviving more successfully than San Antonio, TX’s old town. This city dates back to the 1600s, when the conquistadors and missions pushed into the region. But the settlement is in fact older than that, dating back to the Sandia and Aztec peoples’ habitation in the area from 1300 AD.
Each pueblo has its own creation story, language or language nuances, arts traditions, dances and feast days. With such rich cultural life and heritage, is it any wonder that the state flag and symbol for New Mexico derives from an indigenous symbol for the sun?
We topped off the first (and as it turns out, only) day in the ‘Burque with a concert at an area nightclub/concert venue known as El Rey. The theatre is a bit gritty, with no chairs for those not in the bar section, but no matter, the music and the mood of the audience was great. Since we were unable to get tickets for Austin City Limits while there, this was as good if not better, since we were on the rails right next to center stage. Three bands we’d never heard of before the night (Heart of, the National Parks, Ron Pope) gave it everything they had, and it was a great night of music. We need to do this a lot more often!
We are heading home today, two weeks short of the original plan. George’s mom is quite ill back home, and we need to be there. Much like our trip has been all along, we are called upon to be flexible and adjust plans as necessary. We’ll see you on the other side of Adventure 6, whenever the calendar and our hearts call us back to the road!