Saturday, May 26, 2018

Thanks and Hueco Tanks

[Early April]

Hueco Tanks Ranchero
From 95 degree desert heat we drive across AZ to climb the backside of Mt Lemon to a chilly overnight camp at the top.  On the way up a motorcycle passes us.  The road is bumpy and Q handles it well, but two wheels are easier than four on this road.  It is that rough.  As we begin seeing a nice mix of manzanita and ponderosa pine, something in the middle of the road grabs our attention.  It looks like the biker lost a case.  A heavy case.  

Before we travel much further we see the bike heading back downhill.  After more than adequate thanks and assurance that he is okay, he describes the tumble he took.  The case fell without notice, but a few miles thereafter his jacket fell and caught, stopping the bike and sending him flying.

From Mt Lemon we head for a fav spot from last year's trip, the Chiricahua Mtns, near Chiricahua Peak.  It is another chilly camp at >8,000 feet of elevation.  It is a site that shows evidence of appreciation by other campers: a terrific fire ring with shelter, a nice store of fire wood, and no litter.

Camp at Hueco Tanks
We exit the Chiricahuas by way of Portal and are soon in New Mexico.  We drive Highway 9 across NM to TX often hugging the border with Mexico.  From El Paso it is a short drive to Hueco Tanks.  We pass a grocery store to which we will return, the Vista Market.

Hueco Tanks is a state park with possibly reactionary rule formation.  The park road locks at 6pm and all campers must be set up in assigned campsites by 8 pm.  Hiking permits are issued daily - the day of use - at 8 am. 

We somehow earn ranger trust and obtain hiking permits – and the map to a secret cave, Cave Kiva. The instructions are hilariously misleading, From picnic shelter #10 climb the boulders to the crest.  As you come over the crest find the duck.  Look over the duck's shoulder to locate the alligator.  Staying level with the duck work your way across the boulders around the valley to stand under the alligator's nose.  Follow the alligator's gaze to climb over the ridge to the cave entrance.  As a caveat at the bottom of the page it states that the duck and alligator are not actually green.

After hiking to the top of the hill, we return mid-way down where Alex spots the duck. Minutes later we locate the cave entrance and scoot inside on our backs to view the beautiful art work inside.

Once inside the cave, there is ample room to sit and even stand.  The stone floor is worn smooth. Inside the cave it does feel magical - or spirit friendly - or peaceful. Or all of the above.

It is also much cooler inside the cave than outside in the hot desert sunshine.

Hueco Tanks has been a stopping off place for people for thousands of years. Huecos are large and small rounded out bowls in the rock that hold water - some hold water year around.

We return the secret cave hike instructions and retrieve the hostage drivers license at the ranger station.  As we are again settling in under the ramada to admire brilliant sunset colors, our neighbors walk by with Izzy, their furry child. It turns out that Izzy and I share a fondness for Trader Joe's triple ginger cookies.  His people, Ella and Knapp Hudson, allow me to share a few nibbles.  

We share a few travel stories and in the process discover that they are photographers by avocation.  Ella is retired from professional forensic photography.  You owe it to yourself to visit their website and take a look at their work.

Other valuable info we gain from Ella and Knapp is that the Vista Market we passed on the way to Hueco Tanks, is worth a visit. And so it is! It is our new favorite grocery store.  While i wait at the bakery counter, a friendly local customer teaches me to request ginger pigs in Spanish: Marranitas, por favor.  

In the morning we take the official guided hike with two New York special ed teachers, Tish and Dar. They (have temporarily) left teaching, but their  teaching skills make them wonderful hiking guides.

They mention software called D-Stretch. We heard about it from Ben at the Desert Tower. It is a collection of light & color filters which makes it easier to see and photograph pictographs – even if graffiti obscures ancient art work. We bought the book from Ben, but didn’t know until now that the software is a free download.
Volunteer Ranger Dar tells the story behind the dancers

This cave is not so difficult to enter and holds many pictographs and petroglyphs as well as more recent graffiti.

D-Stretch enhanced pictograph mask

D-stretch enhanced cave wall showing layers of artwork and graffiti
As we leave Hueco Tanks early morning we see the long line of hikers waiting outside the ranger station - waiting for the door to open at 8 am so the hiking day can begin.  

We are headed for Big Bend Ranch State Park and Big Bend National Park, but on the way we will camp at Davis Mt State Park with a visit to admire the McDonald Observatory.

A VIP donor event cancels the star party – a night-time event for viewing stars and planets, but the campground has flushing toilets and showers. Deluxe.  We will catch the star party next trip!

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

My Green Friend

We head west again to see the Gigi.  Joshua Tree National Monument is a favorite, but we find every campsite filled and end up camping just outside the park boundary - along with another hundred or so campers.  Camping near Gigi is easy as we return to the Lake Jennings campground.  No key limes this time, but still pretty and friendly, and a mere 10 minutes from Gigi’s place.  

The first night we find ourselves in a campsite that invites other campers to stroll through on their way to the bathroom and showers.  It is almost as if we are invisible so close to Q do they stroll. The staff graciously move us to a secluded site well off the unofficial trail to the bathroom.

We leave the Gigi knowing we are heading homeward.  But won't be a straight line (or even an interstate highway route). Our first stop will be to check out the hot springs at Jacumba [ha-KOOM-ba].  If there are not archaic ruins, there is at least a lot of history to explore.
Jacumba Hot Springs
Though they may not have called it Jacumba, the first people must have had reasons to appreciate the hot springs just as do we.  The first known residents were Kumeyaay.  In the twenties, this was the hot spot for movie stars and celebs before Murietta and Palm Springs were developed as spa resorts.

All that remains of the original hotel is the fireplace.  The hotel we occupy is one built in the 1980s and renovated after the turn of the century.  It is quaint. This is the first non-Quiggy overnight of our 3 month journey! 

Jacumba is right on the border with Mexico.  And there is a massive fence.   The fence went up in the 1990s with the result that the small community was cut in half. Devastating to both halves.

We hike looking for vortexes and possible petroglyphs, but instead find a defunct railroad museum.  This seems to fit with the Road to Ruins theme for our road trip.

The vortexes are behind locked gates, and petroglyphs well hidden. The return to Q brings appreciation for great mattress and pillows.  One should not expect those in a quaint hotel i suppose. As we head for Yuma, Alex suggests breakfast in Old Yuma. Note this recommendation for you: The Twisted Kitchen in Old Town Yuma is a terrific place for brunch. It is packed - and yet we dine outside at a peaceful sidewalk table.  The only traffic on the main street of Old Town Yuma seems to be cars and bicycles bringing twisted diners.

A few more miles of road and we opt for a stop at the Painted Rocks State Park in AZ.  The campground that was nearly full when we visited in February is empty except for the camp host and a couple from Alberta who we meet when they drop by to talk a bit. They are vegetable farmers, they say.  It is not yet planting season in Alberta.

Palo verde tree
Is the campground empty because people just don’t care to camp in 95 degree weather?    We shelter in Q’s shade when we’re outside - or under the palo verde tree.  The palo verde tree is a marvelous desert adaptation. When it is too dry to support leaves, it can photosynthesize through its green bark.
Adjacent to our campsite - an opportunity for a horseshoe tossing rematch. Ringer!

For the first time this trip we open all windows and doors to allow fresh desert breezes to circulate through Q all night long. The night sky view is incredible so far from city lights.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Stay out, stay alive

[Late March 2018]

From Death Valley we head southeast towards the water of Lake Mead. Lake Mead National Rec Area includes lots of shoreline above and below Hoover Dam and along the Colorado River.  We get conflicting info from rangers on the Nevada side, the AZ side, and in a phone call to park HQ.  We stop asking after we get the answer we like - yes, dispersed camping is fine on park roads #42-47, and no, we don't need a boat permit for our canoe.  

At the exit from 95 onto the El Dorado Canyon Rd we see the remains of a semi-truck-trailer fire.  The clean-up crew is there with a loader scooping up burned remains of snacks and beer. From the way the load is scattered there were a few miles between fire start and the driver's awareness of it.

We drive each of the 4W drive dirt roads just because they are pretty and wild.  We eliminate one for camping because the sign warns of unpleasant consequences. Danger: abandoned mines and quick sand.  We approach the sign just to get a photo.  Danger! Stay Out - Stay Alive!

We return to park road #44, driving the two-track up and down the kind of hills that don’t give a clue about where the road is until you crest. From our campsite we have an unobstructed view of the Colorado River - no other humans within view.

In the morning we drive as close as we can to the water's edge.  We promise ourselves that we'll launch the canoe from the Willow Beach camp on the east side tomorrow - when the weather forecast is for merely a little wind.

As we return along El Dorado Canyon Rd to head north on 95, there is little evidence of the big truck fire.  There is just a bit of charred roadside litter.

The drive north takes us through Boulder City - altogether too close to Las Vegas for traffic averse van dwellers.  But here we find a grocery store with plenty of variety and portions acceptable to Q's pantry & refrigerator.

Willow Beach
The manager of the campground and dock at Willow Beach is sympathetic to our collection of conflicting answers to questions about camping and boating.  She sets us straight as a long time employee at Willow Beach.  The park straddles the NV-AZ border and the park entrances are miles apart.  We enjoy campground showers and remote camping; and take the Pakboat for its first paddle.

The PakBoat is a terrific solution to having a boat without pulling a trailer. It stores in two duffel bags that ride on top of Q without bumping against the solar panels.  Our first practice put-together took hours.  Alex is now really adept, and we're on the water early morning, paddling south since the forecast says there will be a south wind in the afternoon.

It is work to paddle this canoe, but it is beautiful to be on the water.
Rest stop - turn around point

The mallard duck pair that escorted us to the beach wait for us to get back in the boat.  How do they know that i have a snack in my PFD?

We get glimpses of catfish and trout in the clear water as we paddle.  And there is a beautiful birdsong with clear descending notes that we don't identify until we visit Seminole Canyon.  Thanks to blog time warp, i can tell you now that the song belongs to the Canyon Wren.

As naturalist Ralph Hoffman wrote, “The Canyon Wren pours out a cascade of sweet liquid notes, like the spray of a waterfall in sunshine.” - from Bird Notes, where you can hear the audio file. Or see this sweet YouTube. The stony canyons around the water provide excellent acoustics for the wren concert.

Desert Bighorn Sheep

As we return to Willow Beach we sight Bighorn sheep high on the ridge above the water.  

The desert is starting to bloom in incredible colors.  (More desert wildflowers on FB.)

We step cautiously around the tiny flowers, and keep some distance from the spiny sort.

Sunset brings a bit of cloud cuteness.  It looks like a shadowy hand supporting the pinkish-orange.

In the morning we drive north again to hike to Arizona Hot Springs (6 miles with a soak in the middle).  This photo looks west into the mountain climb.

As we approach the springs, the canyon reminds us of our Titus Canyon drive.

Near the hot springs water seeps from seams in the rocks and along the trail. This hot spring feeds three pools constructed by bathers over years.  If you enter the pools from the river side, there is a ladder up into the lowest pool, the coolest temperature pool. We remove boots to wade into the first pool on the canyon side - and step into nearly scalding water.  A brisk walk through takes us to nicely hot water soothing for tired muscles.

We find the pools full of mostly young adults - including those attending a bachelor party that began with a river float trip to the springs; and then camping, beer, and a lot of laughing.  One of the bachelor's party tells us that we are putting them to shame by hiking in - and offer hands to assist us back through the scalding pool to our boots.

AZ Hot Springs is a hike labeled strenuous in the park brochure.  Yes, there is some climbing/descending - and a little smugness at completion. It is as we complete the hike that we see signs warning of Naegleria fowleri, an amoeba that is potentially present in the hot springs. The sign cautions us to plug noses if we put our heads underwater.  Hmmm, perhaps another sign nearer the water?  It is not at all tempting to dunk in the hot pools.

At the parking lot we encounter a group of kids who intend to hike to the hot springs.  We suggest studying the kiosk map and a cell phone photo of the map to guide their way.  

As we are driving away we notice that they are heading away from the trail to the hot springs and into disappointment in the opposite direction leading to the mountains.  We do a quick course correction for them and see them on the way towards the springs, wondering if there is anyway that they will make it there and back before dark.

We complete our visit to Lake Mead Natl Rec Area with a visit to Grapevine Canyon and Spirit Mountain at the south end of the park.

This is a sacred place holding hundreds of petroglyphs on nearly every boulder.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Conspicuous Monuments to Disappointment


On our way south seeking warmth we snag the opportunity to drive a favorite but often closed entry into Death Valley.  Titus Canyon is a deep, winding, one-way dirt road that closes when rain turns parts of the road to mud sufficient to block the canyon.

Titus Canyon became a favorite entrance ~10 years ago.  We traveled into Death Valley in a rented yellow jeep (video below).  

Quiggy takes it slowly.
About mid-way through the canyon widens a bit and shows off lush green.  Lush green shows off bird song.  Here there are petroglyphs that we missed our first trip through Titus Canyon.  

There is a spring here that the kiosk tells us produces 20 gal/minute.  The Titus canyon fault far underground brings the water to the surface.  The petroglyphs grew around the water source.  Or, perhaps the petroglyphs drew the water?

While it is tempting to linger in Death Valley, the camping options are limited to congested organized campgrounds.  We meander towards the southeast exit finding old mining ruins labeled by the writer of the info on the kiosk as a “conspicuous monument to disappointment”.  

The mining and processing operation changed hands multiple times - including a sale to a Hungarian count. The mine didn’t produce nearly as much money as invested by various owners.

So satisfying at the end of a day of exploring to find a fine remote and scenic place to camp.  No disappointment here.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

On the Edge of Basin and Range

[Mid-March 2018]
On the western edge of Grand Canyon National Park - just outside of the park border - is the Pearce Ferry campground.  In ~1876 the Pearce family operated a ferry crossing here.  The shore  must have been very different before the Hoover Dam.  

The awesome cliffs on the north side may look much the same as before the dam, but the water is now a lake rather than a free running Colorado River.  Above our campsite is Grand Canyon and about 280 miles of cliffs like these on both sides of the river. We contemplate launching our canoe and paddling up river, but a sign tells us that it is illegal to launch here. Raft tours of the canyon end here, but otherwise there isn’t an explanation.

The campground is totally empty and beautiful. 

Storm clouds change the light on the cliffs moment by moment. Previous campers have left the campground clean - except for abundant fire wood.  We’ll drive out the chill with campfire and ukulele strumming as the sun sets.

In the morning we find a cave carved into the cliff, part of what remains of CCC construction anticipating a resort here on the edge of the water.  A companion kiosk explains that this is storage for dynamite.  It puts us in mind of Johnny Cash singing “Nobody”.

From the edge of Grand Canyon Q takes us to Death Valley and Saline Valley’s Palm Springs.  This is one of those places that bad roads protect.  However, lowering the tire pressure saves us the trauma of 50 miles of washboard roads to arrive in a fine mood at the free campgrounds surrounding hot springs.  

Saline Valley was once BLM land where young hippies came to camp by the hot springs.  They aren't as young now, but they continue to return and do volunteer maintenance work.  

There is an unwritten understanding that visitors will contribute to scrubbing the tiled hot tubs, cleaning the bathrooms, and dismantling fire rings that aren't up to standard.  This is a repeat visit for us, but this time we add a hike to  the upper spring which is still mostly natural.  

Tiled and palm tree shaded lower spring fed hot tub.

Wild upper hot spring

Here is a habit hard to break - putting some curl and body into naturally mostly straight hair that is weirdly curly in some random places on my head.  Q is capable of running a curling iron with stored solar power, but it almost seems like some rebellion against traditional grooming is appropriate for a van dweller.  

I recall a cute photo of the Gigi as a little girl with very curly hair, and her account of having it braided wet to produce the curls.  It works!  After a good soak in the hot springs (which also adds a mild sulfur fragrance), I attempt to duplicate my grandmother’s curling method.  

The next morning another camper follows me from the bathroom to ask if she can borrow a stove and pot in order to prepare breakfast; and she admits that she followed me because my hair is so beautiful.  I suspect that she had another word in mind, but made a word choice that might facilitate solving a cooking problem. Braided curls may be as close as I’ll ever get to dreadlocks.

Now you need to know that this fellow camper of ours in Saline Valley was wearing LL Bean and REI, so there has to be more back story.  They drove a larger RV into Death Valley and parked it.  Their truck has a small camper on the back, and they can also backpack into the most remote areas.  He brought the wrong kind of fuel for their backpacking stove.  At least partly because my hair is so beautiful, i decide against a discussion about HFE and the design of gas tank regulators that aren't interoperable - and have no fuel level gauge.

When we left Saline Valley last year, the exit to the north was impassable because of packed snow and ice.  Being here a bit later on in the spring brings that new option. It is a shorter drive on still rough roads, but new views too.  

When we come up out of the valley it is a visual surprise treat to see the snowy Sierra Mountains with a bend in the road to the west.

Q’s hungry gas tank means a brief visit to the Owens River Valley, the site of the California Water War. It is sad to think of this beautiful valley drained to allow LA to grow massively.  We find adequate fuel and  groceries and head east again up into the Dolomite White Mountains and the Ancient Bristlecone Pine (Pinus longaevaForest.

This campsite wins the most beautiful site so far for mountain views and a picnic table.  There are no other campers in this incredibly beautiful campground. We wonder if it has anything to do with below freezing temperatures.  

Secrets of Old Age

Perhaps what works for the Bristlecone Pines will work for us?

"The slope is steep, exposed, and the soil is dry.  Yet this is where we find the old majestic weathered trees."
Bristlecone Pine - Pinus longaeva

The visitor's center is closed for the season - no competition for the views.

Looking west across the Owens Valley towards the Sierra Madre range.