Archive for February, 2013

The Back Country Guide to the Dirt Roads of Big Bend National Park tells us that lead, zinc, and silver ore were hauled from near Boquillas Canyon, where Larry hiked yesterday, to the town of Marathon in the early 1900s. Most of the road has been paved for a very long time and became US 385 but the southern portion of it remains unpaved and unimproved. The same book says it is passable to high clearance vehicles and that 4WD may or may not be needed. It is 26.4 miles long, passes a number of historic sites, and will be today’s adventure.

The book gives mileages to each of the points of interest and begins its tale with “The early morning sun bathes the view in a magnificent oblique light creating a scene that is as good for the soul as it is for photographs.” What more could we ask for??

We packed a light lunch with plenty to drink, the guidebook and park map, cameras and binoculars, sturdy shoes and layers of clothing against the strong winds.  Our first side trio was to Ernst Tinaja, a catch basin in a rock formation at the upper end of a wash. There were two holes there, both containing water. The larger one is deep and steep-sided and the book warns that many animals have fallen in and drowned. The geology on the way up the wash, which turned into a narrow canyon, was fascinating. The layers of rock were not just tilted and uplifted, but actually folded, even bands that were six to eight inches thick.

We were ready to ride again for a while after that scramble and we found the area overlooking an old WWI army camp set up near this tinaja. There is little sign now of all of the activity which must have taken place here.

On we went, down into washes, along the braided streams of several washes, back up the other side, out onto ridge tops with magnificent views, then back into the bottom lands. On and on. And on and on. Up and down, narrow, rocky, rough, bone-jarring. Not. Much. Fun.

By now we have a fair amount of experience with desert roads but this was by far the most challenging, most uncomfortable, and most unending road yet. The side trips made it 30 miles or more and that’s not counting what we covered on foot. At no time did the road get better. The most enjoyable part of the road were the speed limit signs posted at either end. They both said 25 mph and I don’t think we ever reached half of that.

We did find the remains of an old ranch, even the hand-dug well and fallen-over windmill, but that was only after a scramble through almost impenetrable desert brush. Remember that if it doesn’t sting, poke, stink, or pierce, it ain’t a desert plant!

The last half-dozen miles took an hour to cover. By then we were so tired of bouncing we were punchy. I tried composing this blog in my head and the only thing that’s printable is Dang, that’s a rough road! I was wishing my PT friend was nearby. Everything from T-12 to the base of my skull was in serious need of a thorough massage. Either every vertebra has been worn smooth and I should be pain free for the foreseeable future or else every muscle fiber is going to seize up about midnight.

We finally made it back to the trailer…forty five miles from where we hit a paved road…and managed to have a light supper. We decided that Grampa’s Cold Cure was also a pretty decent muscle relaxant so we each sipped one and went to bed.


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The winds finally calmed enough that we could leave Davis Mountain State Park and continue our trip to Big Bend. Southeast of Fort Davis, the road goes through a few more mountains to the town of Alpine…a strange name for a town in Texas. But it is over a mile high and the peaks around it are in the 6000’ range. The mountains and mesas lasted for at least fifty miles past Alpine, then there was a long stretch with little scenery other than typical Chihuahuan desert. As we approached Big Bend, we found ourselves in the Christmas Mountains and the scenery went from ho-hum to “whoa-check-that-out”. In the park the mountains become higher and more impressive. This is definitely a park for scenery!

We entered the park on the western edge, through a tiny town known as Study Butte, pronounced “stoody bute”. A butte is a high, often flat-topped mountain and Study was an early settler. Going east through the park, we arrived at park headquarters and the visitor station half-way across. Their suggestion as the best place to camp is at Rio Grande Village, all the way to the southeast, down by the river, another 20-some miles. Not until we were within a few miles of the river did we start dropping in elevation. There are a few campsites here with full hookups but they are all in a row, not very “camp-ground-looking” and a bit pricey, so we are staying in a lovely, shaded campground and “dry camping”. Back to being very careful with water and with electricity, back to charging the computer in the truck, back to waiting until we find wifi to get online. But oh, ‘tis worth it!

After setting up and fixing a quick lunch, we took off for the river. Four miles east of here is a river overlook giving a good view of Boquillas del Carmen, Coahuila, Mexico, a tiny farming community just above the flood plain. At the overlook were several men on horses, selling trinkets to tourists. One man’s English was quite passable and he told me there were about thirty families living in Boquillas. We were the last to leave the overlook and had already declined to buy anything, so they mounted their horses and rode back across the river. The Rio Grande must at one time have been indeed a Great River, but no more. Much of the water is diverted before it ever reaches this point, much as the Colorado is but a shadow of its former self.

Past this overlook is a small parking area and a half-mile trail to the entrance of Boquillas Canyon, one of three steep, narrow canyons the river has cut through the mountains. I stayed behind to identify some of the desert plants, then hiked up the steepest part of the trail to a marvelous rock outcrop overlooking the river. Carved into the rock are deep, round holes where ancient inhabitants ground their meal. We have seen a very similar rock in a similar location in Sequoia National Park (I think) where it was easy to imagine the women gathering to grind their meal, gossip among themselves, and keep an eye on their children playing in the water below. I’m sure that those sites were chosen primarily for their proximity to food sources…acorns in Sequoia, perhaps mesquite beans here…rather than for their scenic beauty, but I’m also pretty sure that the ancient people were no less appreciative of a beautiful location than we.

From my vantage point, I could see where the entrance of the canyon had to be and could see Larry returning from it. I could also see the same men on horseback, coming to collect whatever moneys might have been left at several spots along the trail where their trinkets were displayed. Then I saw the familiar white and green vehicle coming up the road and called out to the riders that the Border Patrol was coming. They waved their thanks and went back across the river.

In the visitor center we found two slim books, one on the paved roads of the park, the other on the dirt roads. A short dirt road leads to a hot spring which for many years was the center of a small settlement before and even after this area became a park, so we wriggled our way through the narrow stretches of road and hiked down to the pool. We enjoyed the petroglyphs and pictographs on the cliffs along the short trail, then found plenty of folks our age enjoying the very warm pool. As we had no suits or towels with us, we declined to join them, but enjoyed visiting with them and teasing one husband who complained about the estrogen level in the pool and had chosen the river instead. He’d found a nice pool that may have been a little past the half-way mark and was reminded by one of the few men in the pool, who claimed to be a surveyor, that he probably really did not want to cross the mid-point of the river.

In the night the high winds returned and rocked the trailer all night long. I don’t know if the winds are local, along the river, or if we will find them in the mountains as well, but we are about to find out. Otherwise it looks like a beautiful day for adventure.


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The winds rocked our trailer all night and there are wind warnings posted all day today with gusts to as much as 70 mph. This is not good weather for towing a trailer! Most everybody else in the campground seems to feel the same way. We did go into town for an hour or so but the wind is so strong and the temperaturs so much lower than it’s been we decided it was a good day to hang out in the trailer, put something on to cook slowly, and just hang out.

A friend took her first trip out west last year and asked if I had any suggestions on what to take. My first suggestion to her was to get a decent pair of binoculars, something compact and easy to carry, then take them with her everywhere. The first time I saw her after her return, the first thing she mentioned was how much more she saw because of those binoculars. I have a pair I’ve had for more than 20 years. They adjust to my glasses. I don’t know how, I just know I love those “nocklers” and can’t use anyone else’s.

A camera is high on the list to take, as well. Take the best you can afford/know how to use. If you’re like me and the technicalities of photography elude you, get something that will do most of the work for you and just worry about composing your picture.

If you expect to visit any national parks, get whatever pass you are eligible for. Seniors 62 and over can now get a Senior Pass for $10 that will get you into any national park or monument. These passes are also recognized by the Forest Service, BLM, and other federal agencies. Check out www.nps.gov for more information about passes that are available.

Don’t succumb to what I call the “covered wagon” mentality when you pack. You DON’T have to take everything with you that you might ever possibly need. There are stores everywhere…probably the same stores you shop in at home. If it turns out you’ve forgotten to pack a jacket or a sweatshirt, buy one. The best souvenirs for kids are sometimes things you buy at a special place, things they need anyway. One year our daughter forgot to take any shoes other than the flip-flops she was wearing. So we bought her school shoes at Grandma’s and she got to remember Iowa every morning when she put her shoes on.

Do you really need souvenirs? Make it something you already collect…like mugs or bells or whatever. Or pick my favorite…earrings. Another favorite for a long time, until they threatened to overwhelm us, was books. I have wildflower field guides for the Pacific Coast, the Rockies, the prairies, the Mojave desert, and then I started on the east. We also have books on life in Hell’s Canyon, the mines of Grand Canyon, Camp Rock Springs on the old Mojave Road…you get the picture. Field guides, whether for flowers or birds or butterflies, can do double duty. I have about twenty years’ worth of notations in my Pacific Coast wildflower guide. At random I can see that we saw white fawn lilies at Mt. Lassen on 7-10-86 and glacier fawn lilies at Mt. Ranier on 6-24-86. Those dates tell me we were on the way home from Expo 86 in Vancouver, BC.

Keep a journal. It doesn’t have to be fancy. It can be just a listing of where you went, what you saw, what your mileage was, etc. Or you can get as detailed as you want. For years, I wrote something most every night and our kids will probably fight over who gets those two falling-apart notebooks I used.

Pay attention to what’s out the window. The more you see, the more you will see. Look for that which is different. Somewhere in New Mexico I realized we weren’t in the Sonoran desert anymore. The plants were much more sparse, most were unfamiliar, and the landscape looked really boring to me. Now that I know it is Chihuahuan desert and what some of its indicator plants are, I’ll watch for this plant community until it disappears and we are somewhere else.

Years ago I noticed that many towns in the Midwest have “Center” as part of their name. Dallas Center, Guthrie Center, etc. When I moved to California, I thought it strange that one of the major east-west roads in southern California was named Baseline. At some point as an adult, I had a couple of friends who were surveyors and what I learned from them explained both the “centers” and the baseline. Wikipedia has a good article on public land surveying if you’re interested.

If you’ve done any genealogy research in your family, apply that knowledge to your travels. I found a small county in Kansas with the names of two or three of my ancestors, all of whom were clustered in coastal New Hampshire in the late 18th century. I’m guessing that some ever-so-distant cousins from there picked up and moved to Kansas together long ago…why else would those same names be found together so far away? Of course, if you are doing genealogy research and traveling, you can go see where ancestors lived. That can open up all sorts of adventures. I found a house in rural Illinois that proudly displayed a Century Farm sign in the yard. It turns out that it had been in that family for 100 years AFTER my great-grandfather built it and sold it to them!

If travel for you is just a way to get from where you are to where you want or need to go, then fer gosh sakes, fly and be done with it. But if you drive, get comfortable, take your time, don’t try to see everything, but do see what is there. You might discover that getting there is the whole point of the trip. I hope so…there really is so much to see.

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February 24, 2013

Last night was a welcome relief from the below-freezing temperatures of the past few nights. By sometime in the wee hours of the morning, I was so warm I turned off the electric blanket. My gosh, the night has warmed up! The blanket isn’t even cooling off. In my cozy cocoon, with my sleep-fogged brain, I just pushed back some of the blanket, hung one leg out, and slept on. After Larry got up, I spread out onto his side of the bed where it was much cooler. The fog hadn’t cleared enough for me to figure it out, but I was vaguely aware something was wrong with the blanket. My mutterings over breakfast about the incredible warming trend in the middle of the night made him laugh. Larry got up because he could not get warm. Turning up the blanket didn’t help at all. Our laundry day the other day was cold and we hurriedly made the bed, inadvertently switching sides on the blanket. No wonder I nearly melted down! It’s all fixed now.

With that squared away, we decided to go see the historic Fort Davis in the little town nearby of the same name, then take the 75 mile scenic drive through these far west Texas mountains. The first Fort Davis was built in 1849 to protect the newly surveyed San Antonio to El Paso road which was already filled with immigrants heading for the gold fields of California. It was quickly and poorly constructed and promptly fell into disrepair before it was reactivated for the Civil War. It was used until 1891, when the railroads went through elsewhere and the local Indian population had been reduced to near extinction.

As we wandered over the grounds of a fort that housed several hundred soldiers for nearly half a century, I was struck by the fact that both Larry’s and my grandfathers were born in the 1880s. The way of life represented by this fort was still the way of life of their childhoods. A “National Historic Monument” to the life and time familiar to a man I knew and loved. Somehow, that puts history into a different perspective.

We had lunch at a tiny Mexican restaurant and began our wanderings through what was touted to be one of the most beautiful drives in the country. Maybe we’ve seen more of the country than whoever wrote that. It was beautiful. It was remote. It was Far West Texas at its best. It reminded me a lot of the ranch country in the coastal mountains of northern San Luis Obispo and southern Monterey County in California, for those of you who know that area. We stopped at McDonald Observatory, still a very active telescope complex on a mountain with very little light pollution. There are numerous telescopes there, operated by the University of Texas at Austin.

As we drove around the campground, we found another wild animal we had not seen before. Not just one, but four javelinas, rooting around near a dry creek, probably scarfing up bits of food left by previous campers. About the size of wild boars and looking quite pig-like, the signs say they are not related to swine at all. For my money, they are just as ugly as wild boars and don’t look any friendlier.

Tonight as I write this, the wind is rocking the trailer as if we were in an earthquake. The weather service is predicting extreme winds tomorrow. If winds this strong persist, we will stay put another day and not try to tow this “high profile vehicle” on a narrow, winding highway. There is plenty to see locally, so we won’t be twiddling our thumbs.

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February 23, 2013

Oh, the places you can find when you’re on your way to somewhere else! Somewhere else, this time, is Big Bend National Park, the last of the major National Parks west of the Mississippi for us to visit. Since the 1990s, many more sites have become national parks or monuments and I don’t think we’ve hit nearly all of those, but of the traditional ones, I think this is it. Maybe I should check a list before saying that. I will when somebody across the room isn’t sucking up the wifi and I’ll report next time.

Anyhoo…as my beloved aunt used to say…we decided to take I-10 as far as Kent, Texas (look hard…it’s there) then take a winding road marked as a scenic highway down to Alpine where the campground directory assured us there was a place to stay. But the navigator was driving and the erstwhile driver wasn’t navigating and we missed the turn. So on we went another thirty miles to an equally forgettable wide spot in the road and turned off on another scenic highway. Immediately we began going through black mountains with tall columns of rock jutting up most everywhere. I’m assuming these are very old volcanoes, worn down to their cores or else vast fields of lava badly eroded. Will I ever learn enough geology to know even a little of what I’m looking at??

We drove some 30 miles on this road and decided to see what the state park campground near Fort Davis looked like. Aha! A lovely wooded canyon, a high peak with impressive switchbacks with a sign proclaiming it “skyline drive”, and hookups for a reasonable price. The incredible, unexpected, most wonderful feature was wifi at the tiny interpretive center which happens to be no more than 100 yards from our campsite. What more could we ask for? No cell service, but who cares? (For my eastern readers, “canyon” out here doesn’t necessarily mean something of grand proportions. This particular “canyon” would probably be a “hollow” in Virginia.)

We set up the trailer and jumped back in the truck to make it to the top of skyline drive for the sunset. We have crossed the line into the Central Time Zone and we are farther south than we were in Arizona and New Mexico, so sunset isn’t until almost 7 pm here. But dusk doesn’t linger as it does farther north. One thing we’ve noticed in traveling is that people are usually aware that in Alaska and the far north, the sun doesn’t set in the middle of summer. But those same people don’t seem to realize that the phenomenon doesn’t just suddenly appear in Alaska. It is a gradual progression. Darkness comes quickly after sunset in the south; it lingers longer the farther north you go. And of course the time zones really mess you up going east or west. They are an arbitrary arrangement for convenience sake. On this trip we’ve become more aware of the time of sunset since every few minutes’ increase in daylight gives us more time to explore. Knowing the time of local sunset is important when you’re driving desert roads of uncertain condition. But I digress.

We watched the sunset, were intrigued by the little town of Fort Davis in the near distance at the bottom of the hill, and decided we’d have to do some local exploring with the light of a new day.

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We didn’t quite find the fountain of youth today but we came close.

After giving up on exploring the mountains of western New Mexico because of snow and cold weather, we went east and a little north to White Sands National Monument. The Monument sits in a basin between two mountain ranges, both of which have a considerable amount of gypsum in their rock formations. Gypsum is the white, chalky material found in drywall and other products. Gypsum is washed out of those mountain deposits and down into the basin, which has no outlet. There is a small permanent lake at the lowest point which swells during the infrequent rains. As that water evaporates, crystals of gypsum are left and the strong winds begin eroding the soft material. As it tumbles the crystals, they become smaller and smaller until they are piled into pure white dunes that stretch for miles.

Unlike so many National Park sites, this one encourages visitors to enjoy the dunes, up close and personally. There are plenty of interpretive signs and a lovely boardwalk, but farther out into the dune complex, you are free to climb, slide down, and enjoy the dunes as the spirit moves you. There is little point in wearing shoes which will just be filled with the fine sand very quickly. So I took mine off and enjoyed the dunes. There are no masses of rotting seaweed with their attendant hordes of flies, no broken bottles or piles of dog-doo. No gravel, not even any sticks to poke at you. Just giant dunes to climb, to run down, to roll down if you wish, or to climb sedately as befits your age. Heaven help me if I ever get that sedate! A free benefit is a gentle dermabrasion, almost a pedicure if you hike around barefoot long enough.

The lights and shadows and the patterns in the undisturbed dunes, are a constant delight for a photographer. Even for someone with my rudimentary “point and shoot” skills, it is easy to take dramatic pictures there.

It was late afternoon by the time we left. We wish that there was a developed campground in the Monument but there isn’t. So we drove on up the road to Alamogordo. As we have noticed in other military areas, there is little to explain what may be going on at White Sands Missile Range, just the obvious “warning” signs in English and Spanish at frequent intervals along the exceptionally well maintained perimeter fences. Two things did catch our attention: a gate proclaimed itself to be the entrance to HELSTF and a blimp we saw off in the distance, higher than any blimp we’d seen before, just didn’t look quite right. Not surprisingly, military reservations don’t come with interpretive centers!

The wifi-from-the-other-place tried our patience beyond its breaking point at the campground but in bits and pieces we figured a few things out. HELSTF is a testing site for high energy laser stuff (no, the STF doesn’t stand for stuff but I don’t remember exactly what it is. You can look it up if you’re interested.) Apparently high energy lasers are being used in many ways by the military. As for the blimp…it is unmanned, helium-filled, blimp-shaped, tethered, and can go as high as 10,000’. How you get that high on a tether is beyond me, but anyway. Google will give you more information than you want to know about these “blimps”. I searched on “blimp” and “White Sands”. Try it.

Maybe tonight I will dream of being a little kid again. Running barefoot through the sand was great!

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For all our friends back home, envying us our sojourn in the sunny southwest, throw another log in the stove, bake a pie, finish up the seed order, but don’t waste any time wishing you were here. Brrrrr. Grrrrr.

Here is Deming, New Mexico, just north of the Mexican border and just south of the mountains I’ve wanted to explore for years. We visited the VLA Radio Telescope several miles north of here back when we were such new ham radio operators we didn’t understand much of what we were seeing. I’ve always wanted to come back to see it again and to explore what looked like really beautiful mountains. We know now that there are old mines and lots of Indian sites in those mountains, but right now there is also snow, high winds, and cold temperatures. So today we did the usual lousy weather chores…laundry, grocery shopping, cleaning,  and making a pot of chili.

We also drove around this small town and found a better-than-usual museum in the old armory. There were the usual exhibits from small towns anywhere and an amazing collection of Mimbres pottery. The Mimbres river is nearby and was home to yet another group of native Americans about a thousand years ago. They made beautifully decorated pottery and local residents collected many pieces in the early part of the 20th century. As we were about to leave, we happened to look around a corner and found a real winner…an old ham radio.

Back in the early days of my ham radio explorations, I was listening to an elderly gentleman from Australia. He had been a radio engineer for many years and now that he was retired, he was getting back into the hobby. He was telling the younger man he was talking to about his early days as a teenaged ham. “You had to get a rack, about six feet tall, three feet wide, and three feet deep. You fill up that rack with <here he named all the tubes and good stuff he had back then> and then you put a long wire on it and you had a receiver. Then you got another rack, same size, filled it up with <all that good stuff again>, build yourself a good antenna, and then you had a transmitter.” What we saw today was about six feet tall, three feet wide, and two feet deep. All the good stuff was still there…stuff I can’t begin to identify…and it was labeled as somebody’s ham radio transmitter from 1936. We have any number of friends who would have loved to check that one out!

I wish we had not left Arizona so quickly, but the weather was scaring us. I realize now that very close to the Kartchner Cavern is the Amerind Museum. As you can guess, it is the museum of American Indians, from Alaska through South America. I’ve begun to realize in recent years that we tend to believe that American History begins with Jamestown and the Mayflower. But whole civilizations rose and fell a thousand years ago here and we know so little about those people. If only we had stopped at the museum, we could have learned a lot more. I’d love to hear from anyone who has been there.

As instructive as museums and visitor centers can be, it is obvious from time to time that not everybody is gaining quite as much as they might from the exhibits. I’ve been alternating between chuckling and shaking my head in disbelief over a conversation I heard in the cavern discovery center: Middle aged woman is reading interpretive plaque to her daughter and stumbles over the word “fauna”. Then she figures it out and explains that “fauna” means “plants n stuff”. Neither one of them can figure out why it’s used in a discussion of the animals found in the cavern. Then Mom finds several bone fragments which are identified as such and Mom says “How can they tell they’re bones? They just look like plain old wood to me.” Daughter answers, “Mom, the scientologists know stuff like that.”

I didn’t want to hear any more and hoped fervently they wouldn’t be in our tour group. They weren’t.

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