Sunday, April 29, 2007

Navajo Lands II-Monument Valley

This land has the largest collection of wild rocks I’ve ever seen. If the sediments of the old oceans and lakes had stayed still, we would see the bands of different colors all horizontal and orderly in the road cuts, or where the water had worn down through the layers as in the Grand Canyon. That’s how it was in the Badlands in SD too.

Here in Navajo land, there have been sinkings and upheavals and volcanic sputterings and ash falls and every kind of geological excitement you can image. I try to make sense of it when I hit an educational display, I really do. Geologist have a habit of naming layers and types of rock and rock events with a secret code. I suppose that they need to be precise about the names, like the Latin names for plants and animals which are the same no matter what the local folks call them. But it makes it really hard to understand what I am seeing, as though the geologist’s terminology is put up there like a fence to keep out the ignorant tourist like myself. All I really want to know right here is why some of these rocks stay sticking up in impossible shapes while the rest of its rocky friends are just red dust far away.

Monument Valley is the site of the most famous and preposterous of the shapes. And all in red, red red. Big chunky mesas like convoluted loaves of bread. The “mittens”, east and west, that have one single tower of stone to the side. The Three Sisters, the Hen sitting on her nest, the eternal flame, distant Disneyland castles, totem poles, and lone fingers. Although it is almost ridiculously picturesque, and has formed the back drop for so many western movies that it is a living cliché, the place is a little scary. I know that what I am seeing is the result of ages of water and wind erosion, but it looks as though some terrible cataclysm has occurred here. Some of the towers remind me of the wreckage of the World Trade Center after 9/11, or of the charred bones of European cathedrals after the bombings of WWII. And for all it is a cliché, it is riveting to look at, and more so because the whole thing changes so dramatically as you move around them.

Harry Goulding set up a trading post here back in 1924 which became a magnet for any white person visiting here and now it has grown into a town. There is a big motel, the campground, museum trading post (by far the best selection of silver yet !) gas station, large grocery store, even a fire dept and a health clinic. This whole village is tucked up into a canyon across the highway from the actual celebrity rocks. It is the only place to stay and shop unless you drive 25 miles away, and even then there isn’t much.

Like Canyon de Chelly, we are limited in where we can go by ourselves. There is a visitor center and a 17 mile rough dirt loop that you can do in your own car for $10 a head. We chose yet another 4WD tour truck ride which lasted the whole day and included hamburgers cooked on a fire under the red rocks.

The first part of the trip went into what is called the Mystery Valley. We churned our way through sand and over rocks into a number of canyons and arroyos to see ruins of ancient dwellings up under overhangs in the rocks, and some petroglyphs. In this area, an enormous volcanic extrusion sticks up like the Chrysler building in the distance, but we only get glimpses of the strange finger rocks. The other things we drive off to see are natural arches. While these are mildly interesting, for some reason we have to see every single one that can be reached. This obsession with natural bridges or arches is pretty widespread, there is a whole national monument about them, which we will see, and more arches scattered around the area. Utah even has one on its license plateThere are a lot of good and interesting things that these rocks can do, but I am lukewarm about them already.

The second part is out in the strange finger rocks. As we drive, the cast of characters changes, one pointy thing disappearing while another materializes. Since it is partly cloudy, the sun lights one up and then it goes dark, only to hit something else. Cue the western theme music and have them drive the stage coach through.

Our guide here has a loudspeaker to educate us. He spends a lot of time talking about the Navajo people whose homes are scattered through this dramatic valley. What the Hogan is for, who has electricity or running water, who raises goats and so on. His information on the ancient inhabitants of the ruins is not in line with the standard fare that the NPS hands, out, with some of them 7 feet tall and the really early ones having webbed fingers and toes. I just let it go. Actually, even the NPS periodically changes their story.

Next day, we move on. Across Comb Ridge, with teeth and bumps that have been kicked up by some upheaval, and then down into the bottom of a canyon and up again. In the distance to the north we see the Abajo Mountains, with snow on them. The tallest, Abajo (which means below.. ) is 11,360 feet. This is the first real mountain range that we have seen. As we travel north, off to the east we can see the San Juan mountains in CO, old friends from two summers ago. We are dodging some rain and suddenly there is a lot of hail. It is soft and sort of spats on the windshield, we pass some construction that has the road down to one lane and the cars coming at us must have waited in the hail, as they are pretty white. Soon it all clears and melts, and the peaks of Abajo are gleaming. The hail has battered the sagebrush and the air smells strongly of it, pungent, piney, sort of like cooking sage with a bit of fresh rosemary too. A very evocative smell which reminds me of my happy western times.

The rocks begin to get rambunctious again above Monticello and the La Sal mountains rise up to the east, their peaks at over 12,000 feet covered with snow. We drop down into Moab, UT where the Colorado River canyons its way through higher and higher cliffs with red and pale and rumpled and wind carved rocks. At Moab, there is a huge fault, so right next to the Colorado’s canyon, there is a great slippage that creates another one, with the rocks all topsy turvey and swirly. An impossible landscape.

We get into a small space in a crowded campground that is right on the Main Drag. It was recommended, but I think the recommender has different ideas about a perfect campground. I’m thinking he likes the microbrewery that is right across the street. It is a clean and tidy place, but with all the natural glory just outside of town, it seems a little silly to be parked so close that there is no point in opening the shades, all we see is the side of RV’s or the bathhouse. But I can see the La Sals through the trees, and red rocks all around, plus it has WIFI, so no more whining.

We have allowed a week here, because this is a mecca for people who like to do off road 4 wheel driving. Some of the most classic and difficult trails of the US are here and we are going to play on them. And go see some more gorgeous and strange rocks!

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Navajo Lands I

We are driving through the Navajo reservation, through Window Rock, the capital city. Just before Gallup, NM a long band of red rocks appears on the north side of the road. They are big and bulge in and out, and are cut by water and wind into sinuous vertical shapes. We first saw them after our day in El Malpais, coming up to I 40 as the sun was going down and they were practically glowing. They are still a presence in the morning.

They are not fire engine red, of course, in the language of paint colors they are burnt sienna or red oxide, but there are enough yellow and white touches to make the red shimmer. My experience with the concept of rock is pretty limited to gray, which is the color of the elderly granite of the NE mountains, with some quartz white. The rocks of the north Atlantic sometimes have a brown color to them, or even black when they are wet, and only rarely tan streaks. The limestone rocks in MT and WY and even in TX range from pure white through various tans, and khakis and beige’s to pale yellows. So brick red rocks are pretty exciting.

We are in Hillerman country. Tony Hillerman writes a wonderful series of murder mysteries set here, so when I pass through Window Rock and Gallup and see Standing Rock and Tuba City on the map, it feels like I am in his books.

We climb up onto the pine trees and parklands of the Defiance plateau, and then back down to the sagebrush flats and deep arroyos.

In Ganado we stop at the Hubbell Trading post. This post was founded in 1876, Mr. Hubbell and his sons had a string of trading posts over the Southwest. This one has been restored and includes his home. They are all adobe buildings, and the store is still a real trading post. Here you can buy the beautiful Navajo rugs which can take years to make and their prices are accordingly high, and a good selection of jewelry (I have to have a ring…). They also sell some modern supplies and groceries.

Mr. Hubbell’s home was an outpost of semi civilization and anyone who was anyone stayed here, including a lot of artists whose work hangs in the house. He was here when the Navajo people were released from their confinement in Fort Sumner, NM in.1868, and sent to their reservation and told to stay put and out of trouble. Among others, Mr. Hubbell encouraged the weaving of wool rugs, and helped market both the rugs and the wool from the Navajo sheep. A number of Navajo men had learned silver and iron working from Mexican metalworkers while in the fort, and Hubbell helped to develop this art and to market it.

We continue along the Ganado plateau. There are a lot of horses everywhere in the Navajo Reservation. Some are out on the endless pastures making a romantic sight, and some are in small corrals in the villages. Many more horses than cattle. Nearly every ranch has a hogan, the 6 sided small building that is the ceremonial home of the Navajo. Out in the range, they are an older style, logs with a packed earth roof. The town version looks as though it comes as a kit. The door always faces east, and properly is never closed.

To the east below us is the Beautiful Valley, and it is. Wide and flat with soft mountains beyond it. I can see fields, going all green, and strips of dried grass and then more green. Up against the distant hills it is purple and pink.

Chinle, pronounced chin leh with almost no breath or accent on the last syllable, means the opening, for this is the outlet of Canyon De Chelly. (De Shay)

The canyon is actually three canyons, each at least 25 miles long. The walls vary from 100 to 1000 feet high, all of sandstone that varies from pale tan to brick, but not the astonishing red. The depth of cut is from the creeks that run through it, but the swirling rounded shapes, and lines are from the wind, blowing the sand against the walls. Manganese and gypsum streak the sides where water falls from above, and in places the minerals and some micro-fauna form what is called varnish. This is very black and often has a blue reflection in it, like a raku glaze on pottery.

Because we are still on the Navajo reservation we cannot go into the canyon without a guide and a 4wheel drive. I had heard that this was a big old army truck with wooden bench seats in the back, but ours had cushioned seats and a sort of greenhouse over the top which we needed as it was cold and windy. The truck is a 1952 Korean War vintage Army 6X6, that’s three axles. It runs on CNG (Compressed Natural Gas) now because they are unable to get parts for the carburetor. Fortunately, the engine still growls in a convincing manner. Our Navajo guide has a Masters in Archeology and has been driving these tours for 15 years.

The floor of the canyon is lush and grassy and has been cultivated for thousands of years. There are ancient cliff dwellings where the residents spent the winter, warmed by the sloping sun rays and up off the canyon floor. Then in spring they came down and lived on the canyon floor for the summer. Today, the canyon floor is still farmed and used as pasture, although they live outside the canyon and use their canyon place as a weekend retreat.

The soft green of the new leaves, the new grass and the blossoms on the many fruit trees are an amazing contrast with the high rock walls and the dry sage plains outside of the canyon. The next day we do the south rim drive and look down on spring in the canyon which looks just as much a Garden of Eden from above.

The actual trip in is better than a carnival ride. The road has sand, mud, rocks and water, which we charge through in our mighty truck. Sometimes we drive right up the bed of the stream, which thanks to a thunderstorm yesterday is full of water. The truck lurches and growls and splashes its way along, which would be fun even without the spectacular views that keep unfolding as we go. We stop at various points to look at ruins and petroglyphs and for a bag lunch while our driver explains well and with humor what we are seeing.

The woman who sat behind me said she came from MT, and as I have spent much time there, I asked where in MT. We traded locations and finally she said “What is the name of your friend that lives near Hardin? “ when I said Ellen, she told me she was the sister of one of Ellen’s oldest friends. We then embarked on a 3 hour reminiscence of who what where when. My summer trips out in WY and MT were a very happy time for me, sparking a life long love affair with the west, and it was wonderful to relive it. I think the other people on the tour thought we were nuts, but we enjoyed every moment of it. I confess that I missed a lot of the tour, but had a splendid time visiting.

Canyon De Chelly is a remarkable place. There are plenty of spectacular canyons around here, and lots of places to see wilder rocks that you could imagine. There are also a number of places that you can see the ruins of cliff dwellings, and petroglyphs (meaning arved images)and pictographs (meaning painted images). At Mesa Verde, you can walk through the ruins. But at Canyon De Chelly the presence on the canyon floor of folks farming and living, and their animals there makes the whole story much more alive. At Bandelier, we had to imagine the crops on the valley floor, but here they are real. There is a visitor center with lots of good NPS information on every aspect of the canyon, but inside the canyon itself no signs at all.

The canyon is also the scene of yet another act of treachery against the Native Americans. Here, in 1863 Col. Kit Carson trapped the remains of the Navajo nation, destroyed all the hogans, livestock and fruit trees and took the surviving people prisoner. He forced them to walk 300 miles to Fort Sumner NM, The Long Walk, and many died. They were held prisoner for four years in very poor conditions, and finally sent home with nothing. I’m glad they had the canyon to come home to at least, and glad they still have control over it. Well, mostly. The road into the south leg of the canyon was washed out last August too badly even for the mighty trucks. We are told that the National Park Service Superintendent of the canyon is off somewhere and no one is allowed to fix it until he returns. A disappointment for the tourists, but how are the folks who have farms up there supposed to get in? And whose canyon is it anyway?

Acoma and El Malpais

El Malpais, the badlands. The black river of lava is the defining characteristic of this national monument. The lava flow is 30-40 miles long and 10 to 20 miles wide. Not much is growing on it, and walking on it is perilous and odd. It would shred most animal’s feet very quickly. At the edges of it, there is good ranch land, and to the east the Acoma Reservation, and to the west the Ramah Navajo Reservation have some fine grazing areas. The area is full of old cinder cones, splatter cones where lava makes a fountain and then congeals, and lava tubes that are hollow subways where the molten lava ran off leaving the surrounding cooler lava. I can’t quite get over the sense of all this black rock just sleeping.

We drive up in fitful rain and as we get higher, we can see that the rain of last night was snow up here. It is melting but still shows under trees and on the north side of the roofs. It is nice to see the pine trees again, and the open meadows of the higher altitudes. First stop is a private commercial operation that has a captive cinder caldera and a lava tube that holds a miniature glacier deep under ground. This operation began as a logging camp, with a store and cabins. They still have many of the older log buildings and rusting machinery, and the store sells the usual but also some good trinkets and crafts. We pay our money and climb maybe 300 feet up to the lip of the caldera, looking down into a great funnel of red and gray ash. The path is well done but we are now at 8,000 feet , our bodies are reluctant to go very fast and we have to stop a lot and catch our breath. The rain starts up and then turns to snow, which is very dramatic against the dark wet volcanic material.

On another path, we descend a cobbled together staircase into the lava tube. At the bottom is a pool of yellowing ice, protected from the summer heat by the superior insulation of the lava. The store used to harvest the ice , leaving a partial wall in the back. I guess the ice is interesting, but the weird sharp shapes of the lava all around it are much more so.

15 miles to the west, stands El Morro, also a national monument. This is an imposing prow of a rock wall of golden limestone, softly eroded into vertical columns, and streaked with pastels. It would be a notable landmark on its own, but at its feet lies a pool of water, run off from the rocks above, that is a reliable source of water at all seasons. In this dry land, a miracle. For thousands of years humans have come here, used the water and then felt they needed to record their visit. On the soft limestone we see ancient petro-glyphs of mountain sheep, lizards, shaman figures put there by the ancient Puebloan people. These were the ancestors of the Zuni, who now live to the east and south. Then the Spaniards came and left short descriptions of their missions, and their names in ornate Spanish script. Finally, soldiers and homesteaders carved their names too. In some cases, their names are so well carved that one wonders if the authors studied with a sculptor or at least someone who did the lettering on tombstones. We walk along the base of the cliffs, peering at the inscriptions which dodge in and out of the centuries. A sort of western Rosetta Stone that carries the stories of this area.

It is one of those places that gives me psychic waves, probably because the pool under the great palisade seems like such a precious gift to this near desert. God put the water here, and made sure that people could find it with the golden fence above it. Perhaps the people who needed to record their presence felt this too.

We spent the next day doing a geocaching stint in the area. Some in the downtown area of Grants, where we found sections of nice houses and drove up into the hills to the north of town. Most of our caches were along a road that tuns through Zuni Canyon, a winding series of striped, banded eroded rocks that follow a creek up into the higher terrain. There is a sort of self guided tour, with signs to read about the lumbering operations that used this canyon to bring the pines down and put them on the train for Albuquerque. There are also some defunct saw mills back in town. We leave the main dirt road to venture further into the woods and rough roads. We are high enough to have rain up here, and there is a lot of grass and much evidence of cattle. Twice we came around corners and faced a mudhole that we didn’t dare try without 4 wheel drive, and had to give up on that cache. Another cache we couldn’t find was in a cave made by a lava tube. We crawled in, wondering about other critters in there, and tried to find it, but did not have a good enough flashlight to succeed.

Our big event here is to visit the Acoma Pueblo. This pueblo was built up on the top of a mesa, and very nearly protected its residents from the raiding Spanish. Now there is a road up, but once only a rather tricky path. Like most things on the reservation, we must be guided by a member of the tribe in their vehicle. I remember visiting the Taos Pueblo several years ago and feeling uncomfortable and dispirited by the shabbiness, and by the feeling that they were being a zoo for us for the money. I wanted to see Acoma because it was on the mesa, and hoped that it would be a better experience than Taos.

The road in winds through the villages of Acomita and McCartys where most of the Acoma live. Perhaps I saw an unscientific sample, but they seemed more likely to be houses than shacks or trailers and to have less stuff lying around. The road climbs up over a wide mesa and then down into a big flat grassy plain. In the distance we can see the big, tall mesa of Acoma, other big mesas and a sort of stone henge of yellow rock sentinels. We drive up through these to the new and handsome visitor’s center. The architecture would have stood up well on the Mall in Washington DC or in any city. Elegant, and dignified, it echoed the colors of the mesas and of the traditional buildings of the Acoma. It was certainly a modern building but it is warm and inviting and every detail is a tribute to the culture of the Acoma. Even the sink in the restroom, a slanted piece of limestone that drains into a slot is well done. The architect, from Santa Fee, is good.

We wander the museum, the gift shop and then board a van for the top. The road was actually put in for a movie that was made, forget the title, it is steep but paved and railed in stone. On the top, the houses are almost all a khaki family of colors. Some are the old adobe bricks, with the smoothed layer of mud and straw, the classic southwestern style. Some are stone, and some are clearly made of cement block and stuccoed to resemble the adobe. Some are a little run down and others are new and nice.

The view is impressive. We are 300 feet up in the air with pretty sheer cliffs on all sides. When you are among the buildings, only the rocky uneven streets and walks betray where you are. Near the edge is another matter. The only thing that spoils the view a little is the ring of outhouses and porta potties along the edge. No where else to put them, really. I wonder how the ancient Acoma handled that. Down below we can see the square fields where they grow the standard corn, squash, pumpkins, all dependant on the rain alone. The guide tells us that their beef herds win prizes for meat quality every year.

There are about 100 people who live up here, the council members have to live up here. There is no running water or electricity, and many of the residents are elderly people who prefer the old ways. Unlike the Taos pueblo, there is no trash lying around, although the wind is cleaning up pretty well up here.

Our guide explains the life style and customs with a wry sense of humor. She has told this story too many times and speaks a little too fast and too flatly, but it is a good spiel. In the adobe church we hear about the attempts of the Franciscan priest to convert the Acoma, which really takes off after he manages to fall off the mesa and doesn’t get hurt. The massive church has the thick walls and the dead silence of most mission churches. A big colorful reredos of painted wood is over the altar, there are tired lithographs for the stations of the cross. The Acoma women have painted arched rainbows with corn plants underneath, and a bright pink band of paint along the base of the walls and around the doors.

Our guide explains that they practice both Catholicism and their Pueblo religion together, the best of both. She is clearly an important part of the community. There are ladies selling the Acoma pottery (white with black lines in many patterns), and our guide interacts with them all, asking after a child, arranging to exchange hand-me-downs. The youngest daughter inherits all property in this society, so women are in a position of power.

I don’t have any of the zoo feeling up here. We are allowed to come, and pay well for the chance, but even the pottery sellers don’t seem as needy as I remember the Taos vendors. It is windy and chilly up there in the sky, and I imagine it on a festival day, either Catholic or Acoma, with everyone up here in their festival houses, ready to celebrate. It would be a good place to live.

The Acoma, like most Native Americans, have a big casino with big fancy neon lights and a huge parking lot. I don’t know if that is where the money for the fancy visitor center came from. I think I remember reading that somehow the Acoma have adapted to the modern world better than some tribes. At any rate, it is a wonderful place to visit and see, even in the cold wind. We buy two small pots up on the mesa to remember it.

Now for Navajo country, Monument Valley.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Elephant Butte

We talked to several people who told us not to miss Elephant Butte. We didn’t think to ask WHY we shouldn’t miss it, and we are a little lukewarm about the place.

In 1916 a dam was built to control the Rio Grande, and an enormous lake is the result. It is 35 miles long, has 200 miles of convoluted shoreline, and is the biggest lake in NM. The original motive was to save up for irrigation, in 1940 a power plant was built, but water based recreation is the big deal here. The lake was not easy to get to until the CCC came and built access roads, inns, cabins, terraced picnic parks and so on in the 1930’s, but since then it has been booming. The nearby town of Truth of Consequences, named for the radio show, (I have no idea why), and the newer town of Elephant Butte seem a little seedy. They consist mostly of RV parks, boat storage (big cabin cruisers and up to 35 or 40’long sailboats), retirement parks, and the standard rundown housing and deserted stores.

I don’t get it. The lake is nice, and in parts of it the mountains are pretty spectacular with the lake at their feet. The Elephant Butte is a dramatic volcanic burp of rock that is wrinkled and swirly like an elephant’s skin, and from some sides I can sort of see it as an elephant. This butte is right at the dam, with the CCC park area snaking up a good hill. The view from there, with the Butte in the foreground and the lake and the mountains is pretty good. Even with all the water, the land around it is still northern Chihuahua Desert. Rock, sand, creosote bushes. I wonder why the plants at the edge don’t thrive ? all rock ? When there was a spring in the desert, there were trees and bushes and greenness, but here the water is just there, like a Photoshop trick. Up at the northern end of the lake, there are fewer people, and the most dramatic mountains are here, so that’s better. But I still wish we had asked the guy why we shouldn’t miss it. Maybe it is for people who have a boat, or fish or have a jet ski. It is sort of the reverse of White Sands, here the water has no beach, and there the beach has no water.

We did have a good time geocaching, found 13 in one day, a record for us. There was only one we didn’t do, it was a mile hike over rough country and it was the last one.

The next day was cloudy and chilly so we stayed in and then left the next morning.

Heading north again, following the Rio Grande. There is another leg of the Tularosa Basin on this side, called the Journada de la Muerte. It is as flat and as vast, but the Rio Grande runs through it. There are square green fields and several actual swamps that have been set aside as wildlife refuges. I wondered why this was the journey of the dead man.

Onate, an early Spanish conquistador, came north from El Paso, and instead of following the now tamed Rio Grande, they had to go up on the plains to the east of it. The arroyos running into the river were too steep, there was quicksand, and the river changed everything so no path could be relied on.. After 100 miles of hot waterless travel This first group were taken in near San Marcial. by Pueblo dwellers of the village Teipana. Onate renamed the town Soccoro, or succor.

In 1680, the Pueblo Indians revolted against Spanish rule, killing many foreigners and driving the rest out. More than two thousand refugees attempted the route to El Paso. Almost six hundred of the weak, ill or exhausted refugees died on the journey, earning this stretch of desert the name of Journada del Muerto.

The Journada was in the middle of Apache territory, and the Indians were always a threat to the safety of the caravans. Soldiers usually accompanied the traders and settlers. Caravans searching for temporary water sites made easy ambushes for the Apaches, another reason the treacherous route was given the label of death.

What a difference for us today, serenely cruising along the highway that has chopped grades through the mesas, and bridged the arroyos.

Just below Socorro, I suddenly realized that the desert had ended. Not that it was a green paradise, but the dark green creosote bushes have been replaced by the softer pale blue green sage brush, there is much more grass, although still dry. The actual shape of the hills and the rocks exposed on the mesas and the sides of the arroyos are not all that different, but the countryside seems softer without the almost polka dotted effect of the creosote bushes against pale rocks. The hills, where there is little rock showing look like they are covered in velvet. Along the river, of course there are trees, and as we get into this high plains landscape, the trees seem to live farther from the river.

It is still a windy desolate place, but just having the grasses and the soft colors make it seem a little less parched.

As we near Grants NM, we can see a whole river of black lava that looks as though it just happened. As though we were suddenly in Hawaii where volcanoes are still making new land. Black , crusty, I expected it to be still moving. Actually I didn’t believe it was lava at first, but a lot of old road tar dumped. It turns out it happened 2,000 to 3,000 years ago. In geological terms this is pretty much yesterday. This country is called the Malpais, spanish for Bad Lands, and I am expecting more lava and other unfriendly rocks, in exotic colors.

The town of Grants seems to have been left behind. There are some motels and a Walmart at one end by the interstate, and a travel center at the other exit. In between there are run down storefronts that are empty or not thriving. The main street is the old Route 66, but isn’t much anymore. I don’t know if the drought has made a difference, or if mining has stopped.

We are at the KOA, which stands for Kampgrounds of America. It is a chain like Howard Johnson’s, so they may not be exceptional campgrounds, but you know what to expect. It also is known as Keep on Adding to RV’ers, because they are not cheap to begin with and everything seems to be extra. We normally avoid them, but they are the only WIFI campground in town. It is right in the middle of the lava field. Doesn’t feel quite safe, that lava.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

White Sands

Next stop, El Paso. We need to have a few minor repairs so we stay in a humungous camping parking lot behind a dealer ship/camping supply store. A sort of Home Depot for RVers. There are no trees, no potties, no other structures, but the sites are level and there are the wonderfully crude and peaky Franklin mountains that run down through the middle of El Paso and cause the Rio Grande to do a sudden loop. El Paso is a city, we are not fond of cities in general, and so we just keep going to the CG in Anthony, which straddles the TX NM line. Other than waiting for the repairs, we entertain ourselves by geocaching on a maze of dirt trails up on the mountains. There is an A (for Anthony High School) in white rocks on the flanks of the mountain and we huff puff up to the top of it. Pretty good for the over the hill team. We can do over the hill, just not very fast.

An amazing rig has pulled in here. It is a huge RV/truck built on a regular 18 wheeler cab with an extended frame, maybe 40 feet long and way high, too high for the usual mushroom of an air conditioner. I was painted a sort of desert color with western themed murals on it, and towed a car trailer that his pickup rode in, instead of just being towed behind. The car trailer was painted to match. And all polished and show ready. I was dying to see inside, so we sidled up while walking the dog and talked to the guy. He is a retired heavy equipment hauler. He and his wife built the inside part and had the rest done. $$$$$$$$. Peeking as casually as I could inside, the living quarters are way up in the air, maybe 4-5 feet up. There were no slides, but it looked pretty roomy. They had done the inside in rugged pine with cowboy related antiques hanging up. Under the bedroom in the rear was a hole that held two ATVS. I didn’t get to go in, probably I could have if I was bold enough to ask. Way too big for my taste, no good docking or camping in the woods, but it was a grand sight, and just goes to show you can make an attractive rig.

Heading north again, I finally got to see the wild pig, the javelina, by the side of the road. Short and full of black hair, I guess they are not really related to pigs. We have seen several road runners, who sort of lower their heads and run like hell, the cartoon version is not all that much an exaggeration.

We pass huge pens full of black and white Holstein cows, that go on and on, with no where that I can see to milk them. Thousands of them. Sometimes you will see an occasional retired diary beast in a feed lot, but in general it is the various beef cattle. The beef breeds are good at gaining weight and turning into steaks and burgers. Holsteins are the champions of the milk world, they give the most milk, that is their job. But their bodies are basically a skinny structure designed to carry an udder, so no one in their right mind would raise them for beef. A mystery.

After some research:

“Industrial milk, New Mexico style
Posted by Mark Winne at 12:17 PM on 21 Apr 2006

“New Mexico is the nation's seventh largest producer of milk. More importantly, it is the fastest growing dairy state, and, as of this year, home to North America's largest cheese plant, a facility that extrudes one truckload of processed cheese every hour.”

So they really are giant milk farms. In New Mexico. Elsie would have…a cow ? I grew up on a dairy farm, we only had 50 cows to milk at a time. The cow went out and ate grass and stood under trees. Vermont, Wisconsin. I guess it really doesn’t matter where. They don’t need a big barn to hide from the snow down here. We like to think that the cow up to her udder in alfalfa is “happier” than one in the mob scene in those dairy lots. Who knows. But it wasn’t the picture that Ben and Jerry’s would have chosen for an ad.

The other sight we see more and more as we go up the Rio Grande Valley is groves of pecans. Lots and lots of them. All the pecans in the world must grow here. I can’t imagine what kinds of machinery they use, the trees are pruned and trimmed and lined up in laser straight rows. An army of pecan trees standing at attention. Right now, they are leafless, brown-gray in neat rows.

“Harvesting pecans in Texas is a very difficult and demanding task. Pecans should be harvested, cleaned, dried, sacked, and sold before December 7 each year to maintain kernel quality and obtain a good price. This short seven week harvest season may have at least 14 days of delay because of rain. Some years rain and cold occur, making harvest difficult even for the strongest. Theft from man and animals, especially crows, can significantly reduce the pounds of pecans harvested, even when every effort is made to prevent it. Much of the Texas crop is harvested by machines such as trunk shakers, sweepers, and a number of other different types of harvesters. Some pecans are harvested by hand for cash sale to Accumulators.”

Harvesting appears to consist of using a mechanical tree shaker, which is a sort of clamp that attaches to a tractor. I don’t know how it actually shakes the tree, but I think of a Jack Russell grabbing and shaking. Very undignified. Then as sort of carpet sweeper thing drives around and picks them up. And one has to worry about the nuts being too wet or too cold , and they have to be processed immediately. Kind of like the great race to get the sugar beets in.

Working our way up to Las Cruces, the first big city in NM, we turn up into a mountain range, and climb a long stiff grade over the Organ mountains (which look like a pipe organ) They are part of the San Andres chain that rims the west side, and then we have a long down grade into the great flat wide basin of the Tularosa basin. This is the first serious climb for the new heavier trailer, but the truck has no problems.

The basin was under the great Inland Sea once, was kicked up by the upheavals, and then the central area sank, leaving mountains and hills all around it. The basin is about 150 miles long and about 50 wide, and the rain coming off the mountains has no where to go but some shallow intermittent lakes. The gypsum in the rocks of the mountains goes into suspension in the rainwater, you can see this all over the SW, a sort of frosty look to the dirt after the rain. Here in the basin, the captive water evaporates, leaving the gypsum as selenite crystals, and the wind breaks the crystals up into White Sands.

About halfway across to Alamogordo you can see the dunes. Just like at Crane’s Beach in Ipswich MA, with some tough and dauntless plants managing to grow on them. The dunes move in the wind, and now cover an area of 275 square miles. Now a National Monument, but still under a sort of grandfathered usage so people are allowed to slide down the dunes and bring in booze to drink. I guess the locals have been having huge family picnics here for years.

The sand is like sugar, pure white, and soft, but on the dunes a little rain will compact it to a harder shell. It is pretty odd to see this without the ocean right there. They cut half of the movie out, the park with the waves and the seagulls. We hiked out on an earnest educational talk, and watched the sun set. I was a little disappointed by this, maybe it is more fun for folks who don’t know the sea.

Much more fun, the White Sands Missile Range has a museum and a whole herd of rockets and missiles and other things that can go flying off with a whoosh. The gumment bought up all the marginal goat and cattle ranches in the basin, and way on the north end at the Trinity site, assembled the first A bomb in the back room of an old ranch house. And blew it up. The museum has photos and models of this and the subsequent missile testing that still takes place at the southern end. In fact, about every two weeks they close the highway to traffic for a few hours so they can go bang with something. I learn that Robert Goddard, the father of rocketry who began with small bangs in Worcester MA, wrote about rockets, and the NYTimes ridiculed his ideas as hooey. He shrugged and went off to Roswell NM to keep at it, and was soon working for the gumment at White Sands.

The missiles stand up in their park with the big San Andres all rocky and dangerous behind them. I imagine what it was like for those pioneering missile engineers. Don tells me some stories about his experiences with the men and the missiles, and I realize that they were pretty much doing this seat of the pants. Lots of slide rules of course, but when it was time to actually push the button, anything might have happened. Good thing they had so much room to try things out.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Fort Davis

I broke down and bought a Texas Wild flower book earlier, but the desert is a whole nother matter, so I had to get a book on the Northern Chihuahua Desert wild flowers too. Now I have a better chance of knowing who is who. I guess I owe my Landscape Architect and mad gardener mother this obsession. Among gardening folks, knowing the Latin name of every plant is pretty much your gardening credentials. When I worked at Lowes and Home Depot, there were often folks who would grill me on the name of everything before asking my opinion about what plant to buy. I am in no way an expert, but I can’t seem to stop trying. It does mean I am looking at the ground around me almost constantly for who might be growing there (We are constantly being warned to watch out for snakes and scorpions, but I have seen none of either). There are a few that are still a mystery.

We headed up north to Fort Davis, which is tucked under the Davis Mountains. The main attraction here is the McDonald Observatory, three really big telescopes high in the clear dry TX sky. In the daytime, there is a tour, you get to go into two of the three monsters and hear about them. They truly are huge, and move around inside their domes every which way, the dome rotates too. Not to many astronomers actually look at the sky with their eyes anymore, it is all radio waves and spectrometers. They have to sign up months in advance for a time slot at night, and in many cases, it is all done over the Internet. Seems like cheating that they don’t have to stay up all night ruining their eyes.

Best part of the daytime show, a live shot of the sun through one of the telescopes brought into the auditorium. We can see the surface bubbling, and burping out protrusions. Not the same as the much bigger solar flares, these are swirling loops of hydrogen that are reacting to electro-magnetic things going on. We get to see sunspots too, another solar skin problem caused by magnetic fields being upset. Mixed in are short videos and still shots from Hubbell and other outer space telescopes that have color added. These are absolutely fantastic. One shot of the sun’s surface makes it look like a pot of molten metal bubbling and spitting, and the white-hot internal fires look dangerous. Some of the shots of the protrusions look like fine streamers of gold billowing up and swooping back down.

We get a tour of the night sky with more Hubbell colorized shots that look like something Bierstadt might have painted or maybe Turner. Breathtaking. We are told that the colors are just science, coded for the elements and chemicals that we are seeing (which they tell with spectrometer readings, I guess). That may be, but they are stunning visuals on their own. God’s Art?

Back down in Fort Davis, we visit the Fort. It is a National Park, and done up properly, so we can see how the soldiers lived, and the officers in the restored and furnished quarters, and some gristly instruments in the hospital. Only one lonely horse in sight. This fort is not fortified, no walls only some earthworks just in case, but there were no fights here. It was a base for cavalry troops that kept the main El Paso to San Antonio road safe for silver, ores, and other traffic. The fort is tucked under a red box canyon, and the buildings are arranged in an orderly way around a vast parade ground. There is a taped sound show, you can hear the bugles, the band, the officer’s yells, and the stomping of human and horse feet as the company assembles for Retreat. Which makes no sense, I would call it Inspection, because that’s what is really happening..

In the evening after dark, we return to the Observatory for a Star Party. More talks on the constellations which are a little faded out by a nearly full moon, then we get to see Saturn, the moon, Orion’s Eagle Nebula, The Pleiades etc through smaller telescopes. The real guys are using the big ones now. And yet another show in the auditorium. This was supposed to be a live shot of an asteroid, but was more clips and pictures instead. It was excellent, informative and beautiful.

The Davis Mountains are nice and rocky and majestic, once again a little altitude helps them to be a little greener. There is a lot of grass for out here, and we see more, fatter cattle on the ranges and glimpses of (more) prosperous ranches up in the lower vales of the mountains. The town of Fort Davis is tidy, and charming. I don’t know what they did with the usual collection of shacks and decrepit trailers, and rusting broken motor vehicles, but it’s nice. The campground is fairly new and very tidy and nice, too. The bathrooms are fancy and palatial, and they have spend money and energy (himself built most of it). We toyed for a moment with working here next winter, but then realized that we had already seen all the sights. We might still, it is lovely here.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Big Bend II

The last leg of the Jeep trip takes us up to the Mariscal mine. Perched high on a hill, the buildings of stone and concrete are spread on down the mountainside and to the bottom where the worker’s homes are slowly falling in. This was a mercury or quicksilver mine. The ore is called cinnabar, and is a plummy red color, and so the mine tailings are very venetian red against the tan stones of the buildings and the hillside. Right in the middle is what looks like the insides of a giant brick toaster. The vivid red ore is pulverized and heated until the mercury vaporizes and then the vapor is cooled and the silvery stuff is poured into 3 quart flasks which weigh 76 pounds. The bricks of the oven are saturated with mercury, so we are told not to touch.

As the storm clouds thicken, we hurry back out to the pavement. The violence that flash floods can cause is evident at every turn when we are in a low area, and so we are taking no chances.

Next day we do another drive on rough roads, this time in the truck. We have enough clearance, and barring mud, not a problem. They have to exaggerate the state of the roads or they would be rescuing people in motor homes and sports cars all the time, and the park is huge so it would require an army. We are following the old ore road, where silver, lead and mercury ore was driven up to the RR at Marathon, 75 miles to the north. It is here that we see the tinajas up close, and pass the remains of ranches. And the grave of Mr Leon, murdered. We know who, he did not hang for it, but not why.

There are ghost ranches scattered throughout the park. Looking at the land now, raising lizards would be about the only possibility. There is only something called chino grass (yes, the color of chino pants) in a few spots. There isn’t even any dirt. The brochure tells us that there once was grass, but it was over grazed to the point that other species have now taken over, and without the grass to catch stuff, any plant debris that might become top soil is blown away by the never ending dry wind.

Our last stop is the SE end of the park. Here the Rio Grande charges into the Boquillas canyon, though a nearly invisible slit in the towering rock face of the Sierra Del Carmen. This is lighter colored rock, and pinker and crenellated at the top. The orange light of the sunset sets it all aflame. This range is high and dramatic, and is especially interesting because the colors vary with the light. There is also a hot spring near here, where a small tourist village existed in the 40-50’s to encourage people to come and have a soak and drink the mineral laden water. Only the stone store and the “motel”( which looks more like horse stalls) remain. The bathhouse, a substantial 2 story stone building, was swept away entirely by a flood in 1932. I wore my bathing suit all day hoping for a chance to sit in the spring, but the river is high and rushing right over it. The river is so solid with dirt, and moving so fast that it doesn’t look quite like water.

Across the river is a small Mexican village. There are several of these along the length of the park’s river edge. Before the recent unpleasantness of 9-11, these were wading or boat crossings and people from both sides went back and forth, coming to work and sell crafts, going to visit and buy crafts and eat Mexican food. Locals tell of several excellent tiny cantinas where they would go after a day of hiking or rafting. Much mutual benefit and now, no more.

Directly across the river from one place we stopped, we could see a sort of open shelter and some laundry, with a well trodden path to the water. In another place, a blue boat waited on the Mexican side. I asked the locals if there was anyway that people could be stopped from crossing, and they allowed as how folks came and went pretty regularly with an eye on the border cops. I never saw any except at the immigration stops.

Being here, and stomping about by the banks of the river, I don’t see how anyone expects this border to be controlled. You can’t take a truck of goods or a car to get to work across the river except at the remaining policed border stations where there can be hours of waiting, but I’m sure that people come and go regularly. There are plenty of back roads to go around the immigration stops. As far as I can see, pretending to close the border has only hurt the local economy on both sides and had little effect on the rest of the immigration problem. When I think if the miles of back woods in northern New England where there is no real deterrent to crossing into Canada, or the endless lands of open lands of ND, and MT, closing the borders seems a pretty silly thought. A nice political noise to lull us into believing the gumment has done something to protect us. And besides, the Hispanic peoples were here long before us noisy Anglos.

Our last drive was all the way to Presidio. Along the Rio Grande, seeing canyons and cliffs. The road climbs and swoops and charges around corners and drops into washes where we can see the leftovers of last night’s thunderstorm across the pavement. We stopped at Closed Canyon, where a creek in its rush to get to the river has made a 100’ deep but hardly 20’wide slot in the rocks. The floor of this corridor is smoothed by the water, and has pockets of fine gravel. Where the water hits harder layers, we have to climb down, and maybe scrabble down, until we get to a drop that would require a rope to be sure to we could get back up. It is shady and cool, and there are acacias and rock nettle blossoming with bees busy at them. We have been severely warned not to go in here if there is ANY rain even possible. There would be no where to climb up, nothing to hold onto and certainly some deeper drops ahead. The water slide of death. Just thinking about the wall of water makes us walk faster, even though there isn’t a cloud for miles.

We stop to climb up “the Big Hill” a long steep grade, diesels roaring up it, and a rocky knob on the river side. There is a cache at the top. It is rocky and steep and not 100% good footing, but the oldsters climb on up anyway. I was doing fine until I happened to glance to the east and see the 1000’ drop from the rocky knob to the river below. The drop to the road was OK, but not that. My brain just said no. Don, who usually is worse at heights than I am, went on up to the top and got the cache, and we both came down slowly and carefully. Most geocachers are younger than we are and if not, they are all mad hikers and bikers and built like whipcord. We like our ice cream too much.

Presidio is busy with the border crossing, but looks kind of bleak, a lot of deserted houses and businesses. It is named for an old Mexican fort across the river that guarded the trade route up out of Mexico from Chihuahua to El Paso and on. There were many fortunes made and lost moving freight along here, and many banditos and rascals. One of them, Benjamin Leaton, built himself a typical Mexican fortified house, of adobe with huge thick walls, even the corrals are within the walls. It is now a museum, run by the State park system. Inside it was cool and kind of dark, just what you need in the desert, and we saw history exhibits of the area. My favorite Spanish explorer, Cabeza de Vaca ( Mr. Cowhead to you) came through here and converted the natives. The fields along the river have been under cultivation for 1000’s of years, each new wave of outsiders bringing new crops, new technology, new religion. This is also one of the places where vaqueros came north with the Spanish cattle and taught the gringo cowboys how to ride and rope and wrangle and herd.

Our last night is a fine dinner at the Starlight Theater. The town of Terlingua has a sort of business center down at the highway intersection, with the post office, gas station and assorted shops, and then there is what is called the Ghost Town. It was here that we visited the cemetery. Tonight we went on up the hill. I’m not sure why it is a ghost town, most of the old buildings seem to be inhabited. What was a theater and dance hall (I imagine the girls, not all that pretty, a bit leathery from the heat) is now a very funky but good restaurant. The walls are thick, the plaster is falling in some places. On the stage there is a big back drop of cowboys around a fire, there are fat faux adobe benches on the side and murals of the wild colors of the hills. Tonight, there’s a guitar playing singer doing folksongs who was pretty good until the second set when his two boys joined him, the older one should have sat down.

Next door is a shop and a gallery, and all look our on the distant Chisos that stir my heart. The moon rose and made everything silvery as we left, with the mountains going to deep indigo blue as the day light died.

Although I have no real interest in stopping my roaming ways, having 20 acres out here, with a metal roof to shade the Airstream and a view of the Chisos would be very close to heaven, at least in the cooler months. There are a lot of similar set ups around here, and also a lot of unfinished houses. There is really nothing to do out here besides helping the tourists eat, sleep, shop, take a raft trip, a jeep tour or a trail ride. I wonder if the great white hot nothing of the desert eventually stops being an antidote to the rat race, and starts to bleach your eyes and roughen your skin until you leave for grass and trees and water. Like those who can live on an island for any length of time, people who can live in the desert are different from the rest of us. I think the lack of people all around is key, more important than the actual climate or location. I wonder if I really could go off like a hermit and be OK.

Big Bend

Well, now I know where all the mountains that should be in TX are, they all got bulldozed down to Big Bend National Park. The biggest ones, the Chisos (7,000’+) appear suddenly, no foot hills, nothing but flat dry land with thin small brush scattered on the rock. Instead of the porous soft limestone, these are volcanic, hard rocks, and they have odd shapes and cliffs and bluffs and fingers. The colors range from reddish to dark, almost purple, through light orange, but mostly they are dark, even brown. Because they are above the searing heat of the desert floor, they actually have small trees and bushes clinging to their steep sides. There are mountains behind mountains so as you move along the road, what you see changes very dramatically in a short distance. We can see even bigger mountains across the Rio Grande in Mexico, which form the rain shadow that causes the desert. I can’t stop taking pictures.

It turns out that these mountains were pushed up by the same collision of continents that made the Appalachian chain. So you can see the sharp tilted planes where the flat sea bottom sedimentary rock was shoved. Volcanoes blew up here too, and the lava surged up out of cracks and colored ash fell down. The range that is the most dramatic and the most beautiful to me is the Chisos. Looking at satellite pictures, they are actually a ring, the remains of some huge volcano. I don’t know my geology very well, but they are un scraped by glaciers and seem very young and rough and new. There are plenty of limestone areas too, with lighter rocks that have been smoothed by rain and wind.

The brochure says to think of the Rio Grande as a giant belt sander, grinding away at the rocks. Where they are soft, there are rounded, amorphous shapes, and where the rocks are hard, we see huge ramparts and cliffs. In the usually dry creeks that flow down into the river, there are also canyons where they go through hard rock, and odd places called tinajas (water jars) where the water has worn a series of rounded holes that hold water long after the thunderstorm is over. Sometimes the creeks erode the limestone so fast that walls like road cuts are left, usually horizontal layers that look almost like stonework, and in places the ancient upheavals force the layers to bulge upward.

We drove through the park to get to our campground on the western side in Terlingua ( three tongues because the Commanches, Apaches and Spanish were all around ) This is an old mercury mining town, and now has only tourism. A little run down, and judging by the notices posted outside the PO, there are a number of old hippies (are they making new ones?) hiding up these draws. I saw 10 Airstreams here, parked off in the desert with all the windows silvered. There are a lot of sheds covering cars, trucks and RVs, the heat here in the summertime is frightful.

Big Bend Motor Inn and Campground has decent sites, full hookup and the all important WIFI. Out my kitchen window is a big craggy red mountain (Bee Mountain), and I can see some sort of mountain in every direction, along with various buildings. Behind the CG are some peculiar steep hills. I can’t tell if they are natural, they are very yellow, or the remains of mine works. They make a fine place to climb up and see if the sunset will be worth a photo as it lights up the mountains like a son et lumiere show.

It is kind of hazy the first day, and we can only see the palest blue shapes of the big mountain, so we head west for some geocaching. Up to an old cemetery of mine workers, the graves only piles of rocks in most cases, with weathered wooden crosses and some bleached out plastic flowers. Some of the caches are at marginal businesses where we have to be stealthy. By 4:00, we are hot and happy to come back to the AC in the trailer

More geocaching next day, crawling over the red rocks like two tarantulas looking for the little boxes, a long hike up through the desert into a cleft on the west side of the Chisos. There, a waterfall comes down off the convoluted rock cliffs and makes a big pool of water and then a series of smaller pools. The sound of the water on the rocks, and the shade of the cottonwood trees, and even the sound of the leaves of the trees was pretty magical after the hike through the rocks and spiny plants.

We decided to drive up into the Chisos basin after that, a steep and windy road with the rocky cliffs and mesas on all sides. Above a certain height the trees reappear, pines, oaks, cedars and other small shrubs. And a lot of grass. The rocky peaks surround it, there is a campground and a lodge. The air is cooler and seems damper, and through a window in the rim you can see out onto the desert below, pale blue in the distance, and even paler blue the far mountains in Mexico.

Sunday. We have treated ourselves to a rental Jeep so that we can go off on the dirt roads. We are like two little kids with a new toy. We get up early, because we have 43 miles to cover, over dirt roads that are fine for the Jeep ( or actually even our non 4X4 truck as we find out ) but have places where rocks or washouts mean we have to crawl along.

Our route takes us along the Rio Grande. At the west end of the park is Santa Elena Canyon, one of several places where the river gouged out the cliffs. We hike to the opening of the canyon and stand in awe of the height of the cliffs, watching the hot morning sun turn the rocks orange and the shadows of the canyon black.

The Rio Grande in the old days was full of water. Now, the western states have take ALL of the water from it, so that above Presidio it is dry. The only water (coffee with milk and very fast) comes from the Rio Concho up from Mexico. We drive along the desert, stopping to see plants, and trying to get to actually see the river. When the river floods, it takes everything, and opportunistic plants like the giant bamboo like grass called Cane grow up very fast. This means no roads go anywhere near it, and even hiking to its always changing banks is impossible. The best spot, a primitive camping area called the Loop, is perched on a bluff above a wide detour that the river takes. And to the north, the dark brown toothed Dominguez Mountains. Inside the loop (which is Mexico), there are bright green trees and the cane grass. Up here on the bluff, rocks and cactus and creosote bushes.

I see what are undoubtedly cow tracks in the sand, and then a dried cow plopper. The ghost of a longhorn ? No, both horses and cattle swim or actually wade the river frequently. The rangers round them up and deport them pretty quickly. No green card, and they don’t want them here eating up the grass (what grass?).

The last leg of the jeep day takes us up the southeast side of the central mountains to a spring for another cache. There are springs around in this desert, the flow doesn’t amount to much, but you can see them by the sudden appearance of green and of actual trees. This one is called Glen Spring. Here is a corral, the US Cavalry had a post here in the Comanche days, complete with a cement dipping tank to drive animals through and remove ticks, chiggers and other horrors. Only the crumbling shell of adobe brick houses. We are to count the number of graves and email it back to claim the cache. Small mounds of rocks, and weathered wooden crosses. No names. What a lonely dried out place to die.

Stay tuned.