Dedicated to Mara's travel and hiking adventure journals as well as her words of wisdom and suggested resources for hikers and travelers.
New Mexico and Arizona - March, 2004
Here are my journal entries from my march 2004 New Mexico and eastern Arizona trip. AS of yet, they are largely what I posted to my yahoo! mailing list. Eventually, I hope to clean them up further. In the meantime, it's already easier to read than the emailed version. Stay tuned...
Wednesday, March 10 – Boston to Albuquerque, Sandia Hostel
Cold in Boston but with obvious signs of impending spring.
Up at 6:00a after only 3.5 hours of sleep. Remarkably, I remembered the three items to pack that I thought of only after I had turned the lights out. Thermometer, plastic measuring cup, and Ziploc bags.
As flights on America West do not include meals, I grabbed some food, finished packing, and was out of the house by 6:45. A perfect start.
My trip to the airport was uneventful and thankfully, I was able to get seats with extra leg room on both of my flights. I mostly dozed or at least sat with my eyes closed on my first flight, taking time to munch and read when the feeling struck.
The Pheonix airport had tempting food but I resisted and stuck to the stuff I had brought with me.
On my second flight, I had a window seat and spent most of my time gazing at the scenery unfolding below me. I spotted aqueducts, holding pools, a large reservoir, a wildfire on the flanks of a far off mesa, and an interesting effect when the sun, to the west reflected off the streamers of clouds back to me as I gazed to the east. The desert landscape has such thin vegetation that the effects of time and weather are so much more apparent in the western “brown” hills than in most places in the densely forested east.
During times when we were flying between cloud layers, I took time to read a bit from the “Climb, Stories of survival from Rock, Snow, and Ice” edited by Clint Willis. Having recently completed “Perils… 150 years in the Presidentials”, this books seems to fall into a the same or similar mold.
When I got to ABQ, I got my rental car, a Sebring, and took a bit of a tour along historic route 66, Old Town with wonderful adobe architecture, and finally headed for the Sandias where I checked into a hostel I had been told about by a number of people. It was dark so I didn’t get a chance to see the burros which wander the property. Perhaps tomorrow., Judging by the ribbons, they are a prize winning bunch.
Most of the other people here are living here for a while and are a curious bunch. Curious to my but totally incurious themselves. I’ve tried striking up conversations but thy go nowhere.
The hostel itself is a beautiful, wood framed building with wood beamed ceiling, hand stripped log supports and a central wood stove on a beautiful brick platform with a decorative and functional brick reflective wall complete with wagon wheel inset.
Thursday, March 11 – Sandia Hostel to Bandelier National Monument, Juniper Campground50s but very windy, hot in car with the bright sun though.
Even though I went to sleep at 10:30, I managed to stay asleep until 7:30 with one break at 5:00 to take some Excedrin for a headache. It sort of felt like a dehydration headache but I was drinking plenty of water as I traveled. Elevation was ~6,000 feet so shouldn’t be an issue. Migraine – maybe, just beginning but the meds worked and the headache went away. I reorganized, showered, loaded the car, didn’t find the burros, and was off. With the clouds capping all the peaks, I skipped the Crest Drive and drive to Madrid, a once ghost town, revitalized the artsy crowd and now a wonderful collection of galleries, mining museum, and more.
I thought to bring my little digital voice recorder and will try to make use of it in the car so I don’t forget some points of interest when I write my journal entries.
The drive along route 14 was beautiful. I passed miles and miles of scrub desert with lots of juniper. The more southerly reaches had what looked like named subdivisions, an extension of ABQ, way out here. The fenced ranch lands had tires placed on occasional fence posts with “Posted Keep Out” or “Keep out No Hunt”. There are no trees here on which to place the plastic or paper ones I see on lands in the east.
I stopped in only one gallery in Madrid (pronounced like he two words “mad” and “rid”), not like the city in Spain. I skipped Cerillos and continued on the road also called the “Turquoise Trail”. This alternate route, a scenic byway, was recommended to me by a couple of people as a nice alternative to the I-25 interstate. I’ll just have to keep talking to strangers to continue getting tips like this one and the hostel, both excellent options. This route is really quite the scenic byway. It’s got open views of mountains, then valleys. The locals keep apologizing for the weather with today’s forecast of rains and snow. Looks more like it’s clearing to me.
My next stops were “administrative”. As usual, the primary alternative route into town ends up being the major thoroughfare replete with big box stores, chains, fast food joints, gas stations, etc. I stopped at a Walgreen’s for some batteries and got some beverages to keep in the car, a thrift store for a small cooler, Bed Bath and Beyond for a towel, KFC for lunch and a bunch of ice for the cooler. I finally made my way to the Wheelwright museum for some background on primarily Navajo silver, beaded dolls, and rugs, not to mention a fantastic gift shop a.k.a. trading post. I skipped the other museums on Museum Hill and made my way to the Roundhouse as the NM statehouse is affectionately known. The statehouse has some wonderful artwork but my favorite by far was a wonderful bison head done in a similar style as the “Gamefish” in the Renwick Gallery in D.C. It was made out of an interesting array of materials, many symbolic. One eye was from an oil lantern to shine bright, the other a fishing caster in a horseshoe (the horseshoe representing the demise of the herds by settlers on horseback. The horns were papered with headlines referencing buffalo. There were curls of film, mag tape, wire, fabric, and so much more comprising the shaggy “hair” of the bison.
I stopped at a supermarket on my way out of town to stock up my cooler. I bought sandwich fixings good for a few days of lunches, fruit, a couple of Ramen for just in case, etc.
I bypassed Los Alamos and went straight for Bandelier National Monument. My Golden Eagle pass from last year’s road trip is still valid and I feel like I’m on yet another continuation of the road trip. I got to the Bandelier Visitor’s Center just in time to get a backcountry permit but found they weren’t charging for the campground because their fee machine wasn’t in place yet. So, I would save myself a bit of a walk and car camp tonight.
I toured the ancient ruins and even clambered up a few ladders to check them out. With caves carved into the cliffs, painted figures, and petroglyphs, I felt like I was closer to the aboriginal culture of Australia then the other cultures I had seen in other southwestern areas. The sun was setting as I walked around so OI hope to have gotten some good pictures of the cliffs but pictures of the lower town, already in shadow, may turn out dark.
On the way back to the campground, I stopped at an overlook and saw sundogs (little rainbows forming parenthesis around the sun). As is wont to happen in dry climates, it got cold fast when the sun set so I changed into warm clothes, set up camp, made dinner, took a walk, admired, the stars, talked with the campground host, wrote this entry, and now it’s time to read and sleep.
Friday, March 12 – Bandelier50s and mostly sunny
I got a bit tired yesterday so neglected to write about a dream I had yesterday. The other woman in the hostel had woken me around 5:00a to ask me to turn over in the hopes of reducing my snoring. With a headache, I had gotten up to take some Excedrin, blow my nose, and went back to sleep. The dream was that when I finally woke up, we talked about her sleep apnea as she was getting dressed in this strange combination of a shirt with two dresses on top of it. Plus, she was younger (20s) than in actuality and had shorter dark hair. It was weird and nothing like the reality of when I finally did wake up in the hostel.
Also, last night in the campground, there were coyotes yipping nearby and an owl hooting.
This morning, after not sleeping too well, I finally got up at 8:30 and made my way to the bathroom. There, I met Sue, a 2001 PCT (Washington and Oregon) who hiked with Pat, her husband, as Salt and Pepper. After yacking a while in the bathroom, we finally went out so I could meet Pat. Our quick introduction ended up taking a good three hours as we all enjoyed each others company. While we had some similar plans to visit Chaco and Canyon de Chelly, we only talked vaguely of perhaps meeting up again.
Finally, I made my way to Los Alamos, visited the Bradbury Science Museum, and the history museum. It was fascinating to hear how the towns existence was kept secret during the height of World War II as the bomb was being developed.
I did some more shopping to among other things, buy sunscreen. Even though it’s not hot, the sun is bright and with the high elevation, it’s strong.
On the way to town, I had missed a turn and passed a “Danger Weapons Testing” sign. I also passed the Anderson Accelerator facility. There were elk crossing signs all over but, though watching, I never saw any. I stopped at the library and sent a message to my mailing list, TravelsAndTrails as Hotmail seemed to be down and I couldn’t read my email.
Finally done in town, I went to the White Rock overlook. It’s a high overlook with a spectacular view of the mighty, though some say “muddy”, Rio Grande. With mesas and mountains in the distance, it was well worth the detour.
It was 5:00 when I finally got back to Bendelier. Salt and Pepper weren’t in the campground so I made my way down the visitor’s Center and did a quick hike to the Ceremonial Cave. It was an easy 1.1-mile hike followed by a 140-foot climb on ladders. Once up in the cave, there was a short climb down into a kiva.
The hike was beautiful; and followed a burbling stream, the type that would have been a dream on the PCT last year.
I met another couple o on this walk. They’re from Maine and it turns out she works in Canaan, a town where my good friend Walking Home, lives. Small world.
We walked together and saw two Mule dear. By the time I drove back to the campground, I was tired and hungry. Too tired to set up camp, I just made a quick dinner and ate in the car. Then it was time to write this entry as I had already figured out that it would be much easier to just camp out under the stars and that would take almost no time to set up once I was ready to go to sleep.
While I was writing this entry, I noticed another vehicle come into the campground but they never made it as far along the loop as where I was camping. I’m guessing it’s Salt and Pepper who also indicated they might end up back here if they don’t get everything done they wanted to do. I’m headed out for a walk and will stop to say ‘hi’ if it’s them.
I spent the rest of the evening in the warm and cozy, well appointed van with Salt and Pepper. We talked about all of those “safe” topics that strangers are supposed to talk about. Then we talked about all of those topics you aren’t supposed to talk about with strangers. They are interesting people who have traveled extensively and lived in quite a few different areas, too.
While we were all primarily interested in Bandelier, we also took in the Bradbury Museum. It’s a museum mostly dedicated to the Los Alamos National Lab and is quite propagandistic. But, we all know how to think for ourselves and draw our own conclusions.
Saturday, March 13 – Bandelier to Chaco Culture
I’m starting to get back on backpacker’s time. I got up early this morning and made some tentative plans in the comfort of Salt and Peppers van. With any luck, we’ll all end up at Chaco Culture National Historic Park tonight.
We had some more fun talking about some of the humorous stories I’m reading in “Climb” and then we started talking a bout reading out loud to each other, then recording, and then Salt comes up with a very enthusiastic endorsement that I should be on radio. A silly morning was had by all.
Passing yet another sign: “Danger Explosives Area” on the way back to White Rock.
Then still on the way to White Rock, I passed a rockslide blocking the westbound lane. This is one of those things that proves there may, in fact, be worth to all those “Falling Rock” signs along the nations roadways. The visibility in the area was good so I continued on to town and stopped at the first open store to report the slide.
I continued through town to the Tsankawi Trail in the smaller, discontiguous section of Bandelier NM. There, I climbed to the top of the mesa on a ladder and over tuff rock with steps worn as deep as 8-12” in most places and even deeper every now and then. I can just imagine the number of bare and sandaled feet is would have taken to wear down that much rock.
On the top, there were great views of the mountains all around. There is also and unexcavated area. I comment those principle scientists interested in such areas for being willing to put off personal gratification to leave the work to future generations who will, hopefully, have better and less destructive mechanisms to excavate and come up with answers long awaited by modern scientists.
There were a couple of times when the path was worn so deep, I felt like I was going through the Lemon Squeezer at Harriman State Park in NY,. It’s a strange juxtaposition to think of similarities between any type of trail conditions here in the southwest and in the temperate northeast.
I saw my first squirrel today but without seeing the ears, I wasn’t able to identify it. It was a fairly large squirrel, as large as, or slightly bigger than, a gray squirrel. If rock Squirrels get that big, then it was probably a rock squirrel based on the coloration.
At one point, yet again today, I felt more like I was in Australia than in the desert southwest. I had a very distinct recollection of the hike I did on the tour in a canyon area to a swimming hole. Speaking of differences between here and Australia, the skies here are just filled with airplanes. They are both constantly visible and audible. It’s very different than the skies over Australia where very few planes criss-crossed the skies.
The stars here are brilliant with Jupiter and Venus both putting on a show in the evening sky. Even people who aren’t stargazers are wondering about the two bright “stars”. Orion, Pleaides, Cassiopeia, satellites, meteors, the Milky Way, Cepheus, the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper and the north star all keep me company on clear nights.
The town of Los Alamos, though small, has a nice feel to it. I suspect it’s the scientific and collegiate atmosphere. LANL notwithstanding, I have no problems with the theoretical research, just some of the applications that come from the lab.
The road from Bandelier to the Valles Caldera on route 4 is also called the Jemez Trail. The area was hard hit by the fire a couple of years ago. It’s now a forest of standing snags. The crown fire had been so intense that there’s no hope any of these trees will recover as they do after ground fires. There are trails nearby that would be extremely hazardous to walk through during high winds or precipitation. There would be very limited safe camping in these areas without worry of widowmakers coming down. This area is the Sante Fe National Forest. At a trailhead, I realized that it hadn’t taken very long to get here from Bandelier and that parking at the trailhead and walking into the forest to use LNT camping practices would also be a good, free camping alternative in the area.
Approaching Valles Caldera, I noticed a coyote limping in a nearby snow covered field. Knowing that rangers in the east pay attention to reports of injured wildlife, I stopped at a small shack with a lot of cars only to find that nobody was particularly interested in an injured coyote. The shack, however, was a base for nearby skiing, snowshoeing, and sleigh rides in this huge Caldera.
Being in New Mexico, I recognized a few town names as towns that Continental Divide Trail thruhikers use to resupply. Cuba is one of them and on my way to Chaco Culture. Being mid-March, it was too early for thruhikers to be in town.
I stopped at the library to use their Internet access and was sorry I hadn’t stopped in Los Alamos to use their much faster connection. The hostel in town was closed until May but I only found out after having driven 6 miles off the main road to the ranch. Why they didn’t post the closed sign on the main road, I’ll never know. Then it was an easy drive, crossing the Continental Divide on a four-lane road before turning off for the 20 miles of dirt road to get to Chaco Culture.
Even for day hikes in Chaco, permits are necessary. I took a guess and asked for a permit for three hikers for the longest and “hardest” trail they had with the best ruins. Even though I hadn’t yet met up with Salt and Pepper, it seemed like they, too might enjoy a walk the next day and as early risers, might not want to have to wait until the Visitor’s Center opens at 8:00a to get a permit. Having needed to go back to Sante Fe to stock up on groceries, they had planned to join me later. They pulled up well after dark and joined me at the campsite I selected to be easily visible no matter when they got there.
Sunday, March 14 – Chaco Canyon50s but hot in the sun and cold in the wind
I woke up with frost on my sleeping bag having slept out under the copious stars. I was the last up, made use of the pleasantly heated bathroom to change, and had breakfast in Salt and Pepper’s van. We finally piled into my car and drove to the end of the road for the trailhead for the Pueblo Alto hike, a 5.4 mile hike to the top of the mesa with visits to pueblos long abandoned, Chacoan roads, well worn steps, potsherds, bone fragments, and more.
The climb up the mesa was quite an affair, squeezing between two rocks a la the Lemonsqueezer. We started early but with the high elevation and the sun blazing on this clear day, it got quite hot and soon little lizards were scurrying about.
We visited ruins both below and on top of the mesa. Some were partially excavated, some not. There was quite the range of architectural building methods. Some walls had primarily large sandstones, others small. Some had beautiful layered patterns of large and small stones, others were more checkerboarded. The patterns were quite often beautiful but keeping in mind the walls were fully plastered, it is only those of us visiting now that time has worn most of the plaster off that we can enjoy the previously hidden patterns gracing the walls. Some ruins had potsherds all over, some not. Some wall junctions were interjoined, strengthening the corners, others were not. Staircases built into stone mesa walls seemed impossibly steep. Stone and earthen ramps built against the mesa walls seemed like innovations beyond the time period. But then, their knowledge of celestial events was also amazing given that they had no written language.
Their great houses were aligned not only with yearly solar events such as equinoxes and solstices, but with an 18+ year lunar cycle as well. With trade extending to central America, I wonder if the Maya could have had some influence on their knowledge of celestial cycles but if so, as Pepper asked, why wouldn’t their influence have extended into other areas of their culture, whether with language or artifacts. The Maya, with a great understanding of the sun had a calendar that was even more accurate than our present day calendar. They also had a written language, a concept of which, if not symbols, could have been passed along by example.
The three of us had a great time. We had the guidebooks for the area and I read out loud as we got to the areas of interest covered by the books. We ended up getting quite silly because invariably, we would either figure something out by observing something ourselves only to have the guidebooks confirm it later, or someone would pose a question immediately before I started the next paragraph which would, invariably, answer the question. This occurred so frequently that it became a joke. In any case, these small guides, available for a small fee in the Visitor’s Centers or parking areas, were quite useful.
Our 5.4 mile hike this morning took over 4 hours with all the stops along the way. We commented on occasion that this was the slowest, easy 5.4 miles we probably ever hiked. We returned to the campground after the hike for lunch. The sun was hot but the wind and shade were cold. Having gotten fried this morning, even after slathering on the 45spf sunscreen, I was happy to bundle up and sit in the shade of the van’s awning.
A short visit to the Visitor’s Center ended up taking over an hour with a patient and knowledgeable Ranger answering many questions and encouraging us to watch a video. The video was about the fascinating mysteries of the Chaco culture. Not only were the walls of the great houses aligned with the rising and setting of the sun at the equinoxes and solstices, but the lunar minimum and maximum cycles that occur over a period of about 18.5 years. The Great houses themselves, built great distances apart and certainly with no easy line of sight, are also aligned with each other along those same solar and lunar lines. Even the roads, perhaps ceremonial in nature, were built along precise angles from these great houses. One petroglyph marking both the solar and lunar cycles is ingeniously placed so that a shadow falls on it at the appropriate moment in the respective cycles.
Finally, with only an hour or so left before sunset and the closure of the ruins for the day, we visited Pueblo Bonito, the largest and most prominent feature of Chaco. It was there where we saw how the floors were supported for buildings up to five stories high, doors that went diagonally between rooms, kivas both large and small. It’s also just one week from the equinox so we could see how the sun set nearly in line with the primary east/west wall.
Back at camp, we had sinner and made plans to travel together for the next couple of days – at least through Canyon de Chelly. I’m excited and happy to have Salt and Pepper as travel partners. It’s always so nice to share experiences with friends. Monday, 15 – Chaco Culture NHP to Canyon de Chelly National Monument 50s to 60s. Getting warmer and less windy.
At Susan’s very astute suggestion, I was up early this morning to make my way to the Visitor Center handicapped bathroom to clean up a bit with the warm water available there but not at the campground. Susan and pat soon followed for their own turn. We then made plans to meet at Crownpoint, a town on the way to Canyon de Chelly. I went ahead to give myself time to buy some groceries and a replacement pair of sunglasses, mine having inexplicably broken in four places the day before. S&P stayed on a bit at Chaco to eat breakfast. While there, I took the opportunity to get a picture of a road sign still referencing route 666, now renamed due to popular demand and misguided fear to route 491. I got gas and though we had no way of specifying a specific meeting place, I had no problem up with S&P. There was, after all, just one shopping center in the small town.
We were all ready for lunch but as we caravaned towards Canyon de Chelly, we had ascended into the pine tree covered mountains and all of the roadside picnic areas were still snowed in. We finally found a place to pull both vehicles off the road and laid down our tarps to sit on for a picnic lunch. After eating, S&P did an amazing job of cleaning up not just from our picnic, but the entire area, which was rather covered in trash.
Continuing on from lunch, we stopped at a couple of Canyon overlooks for views of Massacre Cave where the Spanish killed many and Mummy Cave where a pair of mummies were found in an Anasazi tower.
After a short stop at the Visitor’s Center, we dropped my car off at the campground to hold a spot and piled into the van to go straight for the White House trail, the only trail leading into the canyon where visitors are allowed to go without a guide. On the way down, we stopped to talk to an ancient woman on her way up the canyon wall. She spoke almost no English but was very friendly. With some difficulty, we finally ascertained that she had sheep down in the canyon but was headed to the rim to spend the night with her son. It was only after our visit, on the way up the canyon wall, that we met some Navajo who told us that she is a 98 year old shepherd who descends the 600 feet to the canyon bottom to tend her sheep each day and returns to the rim each evening where she lives with her son.
Our trip down was easy on the well-maintained path. At the very base of the canyon wall, we immediately found the penned sheep that the old lady tends during the day. From there, it was a short, easy walk to the base of the cliff where the White House ruins stood. We marveled at the culture that could and did build such amazing structures. There were ruins both at the base of the cliff, now fenced off to keep the curious fingers and footfalls of visitors like us from causing further damage and erosion. There are also cave dwelling in a cavern up on the cliff. They are high enough that ladders of some sort would have been necessary to climb up to them.
It turns out that there were, in fact, ladders from the roofs of the structures at the base to the edge of the cavern. We could here the water running from the nearby creek as if it were above us in the cavern and also realized that the echoes off the sloping cavern roof would have made communication between those in the cave and those at the river possible. The probably wouldn’t have had to speak much louder than the typical spoken voice.
On the way back up the canyon walls, we started passing hoards of Navajo. We stopped to talk to one woman and found that entire family groups come to the rim to run (or walk) down and back up one or more times just to get back to nature, their culture (though they rarely visit the ruins), and to get some exercise.
We asked a couple of the younger Navajo if they knew how to pronounce the Navajo name for the area which we had seen written down a few times but they didn’t. Up at the rim though, we were surprised to be approached by a woman who spoke the name for us and even kindly repeated it when I asked it I could record it. Our conversation progressed and we had an impromptu Navajo lesson, much of which I caught on my recorder.
It turns out one of the people we had asked was her daughter. The Navajo language was a spoken language until only recently. After a generation or two of the US government actively trying to discourage the use and teaching of the language, Navajo is now taught in all schools and I believe all of the children are required to take it.
Salt, Pepper, and I were all delighted to find that the Navajo are extremely friendly and helpful, not only when it’s their job, but in any random setting where we encountered them.
Earlier in the day, in the Basha’s Dine (Dine = Navajo for “the people”) Supermarket Parking lot, I didn’t buy a burrito out of a car circling the parking lot. After I had met up with S&P, I was waiting in the car with Salt while Pepper was in the store. The car approached again and Salt asked about the contents of the burrito. The meat was SPAM. She, being a vegetarian, declined. Then, a man approached asking for money for Aspirin. He was pretty beat up – literally. I gave him a bunch of Excedrin and Salt, had Pat who had just returned give him some money.
Salt is one of those people who can and does engage anyone in conversation. It turns out this man had been in a fight the previous evening and at least one guy had been flown to Albuquerque in critical condition. The guy also said something about there having been a murder the night before. I could only hope that this man wasn’t the perpetrator. We didn’t stay to talk long enough to find out.
Some other observations… There are a lot of older cars here. They are inexpensive vehicles and without the rust from the salt damage we tend to get in the northeast, they last a long time. I saw a llama and a goat farm. At the picnic area at milepost 64 on route 491 (I think), there were horses roaming freely. Less than a mile north of there along the same road, was passed a shepherd and I have to wonder if he was Indian or of Basque descent. There are Basque shepherds that move to the southwest some generations ago and though apparently few and few between, there are still some in the area. This man somehow didn’t remind me of the Navajo I had been coming in contact with but at 45 mph, I really couldn’t tell much about him.
This also reminded me that the first livestock I had seen on this entire trip were bison. I was also somewhat surprised that I hadn’t seen much on the way of cattle on this trip.
I’m also wondering what the difference between a mesa and a butte is. Is it merely size? Could rock strata have something to do with it? I’ve noticed the mesas I’ve been on have had horizontal strata whereas the buttes I’ve seen have had vertical strata. I’ve got to wonder if there’s anything to that.
I stopped at a convenience store just before lunch today to get some ice for the cooler only to find that they didn’t have ice. But, they did have some interesting potato chips. I ended up buying a bag of kosher dill chips and another of roasted garlic potato chips. Both were quite good.
The Arizona State line is in the middle of the Indian reservation. As such, there is no state line marker. I only noticed the line when I saw a route marker with a change of number and style.
Back at the campground, we discovered that they had opened up the second loop so we quickly moved our cars to the further, quieter, more tree covered loop. It would be a longer trip to the bathroom but it was worth it to get away from the potentially generator running RVs in the first loop.
Tuesday, March 16 – Canyon de Chelly60s to 70s and sunny
The Canyon de Chelly campground is free. The entire monument is on Navajo land and is administered under special arrangement with the National Park Service. Other than the overlooks on the north rim of Canyon del Muerto and the south rim of Canyon de Chelly, as well as the one hike down to the White House site, visitors may only go into the canyon with a certified guide as there are Navajo who still live and work in the canyon.
Pat, ever eager to make use of the 4wd capability of the van, looked forward to driving into the canyon. The NPS service plays a roll in the guiding by hooking up those of us looking for guides with appropriate guides. At the Visitor’s Center, we were hooked up with Calvin, a 20 or maybe 30 something guide. We planned a six-hour trip to the Mummy Cave, far into the northern, Canyon del Muerto branch of Canyon de Chelly.
The dimensions of the van made it necessary to stop frequently so Susan and I , in the back of the van and mostly out of earshot of Calvin and Pat, could hear what Calvin had to say. It was absolutely necessary for Calvin to site up front as he very actively needed to point out the best route for Pat.
We also stopped frequently, getting in and out of the van, so Calvin could point out numerous petroglyphs (carved or pecked into the rock), pictographs (painted onto the rock), some combination rock art, and numerous cliff dwelling sites. We saw Kokopelli quite a few times including once on his back, unusual given that he he’s usually standing or seated. We saw the triangle figures of people, spirals, handprints. Snakes, goats, antelope, and too many more images to relate. Colors used in the pictographs and combination rock art included yellow, black, red, white, and gray, all colors derived from the natural elements surrounding this homeland of the ancient peoples.
We learned the differences between the Anasazi, Hopi, and Navajo rock art. While we can only wonder what the Anasazi and Hopi were trying to convey with their art, the meaning of the more recent Navajo rock art was much clearer. The art somewhat accurately depicts the coming of the Spanish on horseback, looking for gold, and the massacre that followed. The rest of the story of European and US colonization is incredibly sad. Forced removal and marches to places where they could not maintain their lifestyles. Introduce illnesses to people with no resistance. The effects continue to day. An entire generation never learned the Navajo language. Today, schools teach Navajo, children are encouraged or required to learn, and a written language has been formed where historically Navajo was only a spoken language.
Even today, there are mixed emotions amongst the Navajo. They recognize the benefits of modern society but in many ways long for the simplicity that existed long ago. Of course, at this point, even they recognize that none of them would be willing to give up their 4WDs, TVs, and access to supermarkets and hospitals.
There are still a few who maintain and teach the lifestyles of the 98-year-old shepherdess that we met. Even Calvin, our guide, was brought up by his grandmother, a practice once common that is now increasingly rare.
Calvin was a practiced guide and took even our most esoteric questions in stride. Our six hour tour took eight hours and none of us regretted the extra time. Even when Susan hemmed and hawed about buying a flute during our stop at Antelope House, there was plenty to look at and people to talk with. Susan ended up buying the flute and then kept us, ahem, “entertained” as she practiced in the van. Of course, even she recognized that those flutes have a special quality, best brought out by playing in places with the acoustics of the canyon.
Pat was pretty wiped out after driving off road for eight hours. Back at the campground, we switched cars, my car being a bit more social, as Susan pointed out, and then made for the south rim. We all wanted to see Spider Rock, a huge, towering monolith – or should I say “duolith” – of rock. It’s twin spires shoot up from the canyon floor. We stayed watching shadow play as the sun approached setting. We stayed quite some time and then managed one more overlook before our stomachs took over. I drove straight to town and found our best choice for restaurants seemed to be the one associated with the Best Western. An Indian frybread sandwich, while greasy, seemed in the spirit of the place.
It was a late dinner and we were exhausted when we got back to the campground. We all joked about the pot party that seemed to be happening somewhere in the campground but it seemed to be everywhere so we just figured the culprits must be wandering as they enjoyed.
Today was my last full day with Salt and Pepper. Tomorrow, they go north and west while I go south and east. I’m going to miss them.
Here are the guide specifics (I know a few of you are interested…) As of now, it’s $15/hour with a 3 hour minimum. Arrangements for longer and overnight trips can be made and a single guide can accompany up to quite a few people. You must provide your own method of locomotion, whether by foot, horseback, or 4WD vehicle. 4WD vehicles are an absolute necessity if driving in. Guides do not provide one so you can either pay extra if you find a guide with a vehicle, go with a “Shake and Bake”, open flatbed truck which speeds through at their own pace with limited opportunities to get out and up close to the areas of interest, or rent a vehicle yourself for the experience. At first we thought the guides were merely a reasonable way to get some cash moving through the Navajo society. In reality, guides are absolutely necessary to navigate through the rivers, sandy washes, and quicksand prevalent in the canyon. Without a guide knowledgeable with the area, one slightly wrong turn of the wheel could have had us stranded. We saw two other vehicles stranded that day. But the locals carry shovels and know how to extricate themselves if necessary. There are people who run horseback trips at the mouth of the canyon. I have no idea what the rates are, how long the trips are, what you get to see, and what your options are.
Wednesday, March 17 – Canyon de Chelly to Petrified Forest National ParkWarming up with highs in the 70s
Today is the five year anniversary of the start of my Appalachian Trail thruhike. Once again, for the third or fourth time in the five years since my hike, I find myself traveling during the anniversary. As much as I try not to define myself by any one aspect of my life, the thruhiker element in me seems to come to the forefront even more since I’ve been out of work and both traveling and hiking over the last year and a half. In retrospect, this might seem kind of funny given that I aborted my last thruhike attempt on the PCT and have no particular plans to return at this time. I have to wonder if I will continue to make travel a habit at this time of year or will the necessity to “get away” slowly diminish as my AT experience finds its place as a significant, but smaller part of my personal history.
For the last time, I joined S&P in the van for breakfast. They’ll be headed north and west while I head south and eventually back east into New Mexico. All of us took a slow morning, needing time to reorganize our respective vehicles.
I was sad to be saying good-bye to them and yet happy to have had the time we spent together. It was an unexpected pleasure to have such great company for such a significant portion of my trip.
Before I left the area, I went back to both the south and north rims – to those overlooks we had bypassed on the previous days. I managed to keep my mouth shut at the tourons (tourist/morons) who thought the birds must be crows or vultures and they were circling because there was something dead below. The birds were ravens, plentiful in the southwest, and they were circling because the thermals and updrafts at the canyon walls make that an efficient way to soar.
During the day, there were many more vendors in the overlook parking lots than we had seen during the evenings. I admired their wares but wasn’t buying. I was surprised when, as I was returning to my car at one overlook, an older Navajo woman sitting in the pickup next to my car asked if I had matches or a lighter. She was finishing some necklaces by melting the ends of the nylon string she was using. Being very traditional, she hadn’t looked directly at me so it took me an extra beat to realize she was speaking to me. I grabbed a lighter from my backpacking gear and gave her a hand. Then I gave her the lighter. It was an extra I had in my pack that I didn’t need and if she could use it, great.
We ended up talking for a bit. I tried to respect her culture by not looking directly at her and just glanced her way every now and then. I noticed she did the same of me. Her name was Ida Price and she’s the sister of the 98 year old Mary Jake, the shepherdess I had met during my descent to the White House site two days earlier. Already I was starting to believe that the Navajo Nation, certainly at Canyon de Chelly, is a small world.
While helping Ida with the necklaces, I remembered something Calvin had told us the day before. Juniper seeds contained something that birds enjoy eating. They peck a small hole in one side, leaving a perfect little hole. Beaders need only to push the needle through the other side.
I looked at the necklaces that I had played a small role in completing and realized they were likely juniper seed necklaces. A quick question confirmed that. For only $2, I really couldn’t resist buying one.
I eventually said Good-bye, went back to reorganize and close the trunk of my car, and was then headed for the driver’s side door when I noticed Ida, back in the truck, was holding a tiny little bag out the open door. It was for me and contained four juniper seeds with the bird holes in them but as yet unstrung. It is a gift that will always mean a tiny little connection with a little bit of the Navajo.
These overlooks all have great views but it seems my memories will be of the experiences at the rim. Even one of the dusty cars will be memorable. Written on the back window in the dust was not “Clean me”, but “Test dirt. Do not remove.” It was small and simple but left me chuckling.
At the last overlook I visited, I met another Navajo named Calvin. He was painting pictographs on sandstone slabs. Turns out, Ida Price is his grandmother. She along with Mary Jake had raised him. Once again, the small world syndrome strikes. Not only that, but I am continually amazed at how friendly everyone is. Some of it is definitely “small town” syndrome but there are so many tourists here, it can’t be just that. And it’s not just people that are selling something or seem to have anything to gain other than a friendly interchange. How wonderful.
As I was leaving the north rim, I noticed an interesting house. Many of the houses have hogans (small round houses) on their property. They are usually detached and built completely differently from the main structure. This particular house of interest had the hogan fully integrated into the primary structure of the house. It was a round segment, built onto a corner, sided with the same siding and roofed with the same roofing material, and as far as I could tell, was access from inside the house rather than a separate entrance.
I stopped for fast food lunch in Chinle and finally left the area headed south towards Petrified Forest National Park. Given that I was passing directly by the Hubble Trading Post National Historic Site, I decided to stop by. It’s the oldest operating business in the state of AZ. It was only taken over by the NPS in 1965 with the stipulation that it continues to run as a trading post. I stopped there at 2:30 intending to take just a few minutes there but after the self-guided tour of the property and the NPS ranger guided tour of the house, I stopped into the trading post itself. The trading post itself operates like a combination convenience store and gift shop with some more common staples as well. But, while they have quite a few baskets and pieces of pottery, they have an entire room devoted just to Navajo rugs, woven by local women.
Not intending to buy, I looked around as I’ve always appreciated the artistry of the rugs but never wanted to afford one. The big rugs were beautiful but I gravitated to a small table stacked with wonderful small rugs. Even most of these were prohibitively expensive but as I flipped through, I spotted a great rug. For some reason, it was considerably less expensive than rugs of similar size and yet it was at least, if not more, elaborate. Even many of the smaller rugs were more expensive.
The usual discount is 20% but today, they were giving a 25% discount. The manger looked at the rug and said “$125”. I still hemmed and hawed. At one point, I put it back on the table and went to look at some of the baskets and pottery. Back in the rug room, I noticed others were also taking a particular interest, they probably have noticed the same value I had noticed. I asked why this rug seemed so much less expensive than the others. The artist is older and has poor eyesight that may lead to more unintentional flubs. She is also only making rugs as an interest, rather than a living. It is the artists that set the price, not the trading post.
The manager saw me continuing to hem and haw over the rug some time later and said “$120,” knocking another $5 off the price. I bought it. OK, so I’m a sucker. But, I’m a happy sucker.
It’s a good size for the top of a coffee table or to hang on a wall. It’s a Ganado Red rug with white, black, and gray in a traditional symmetric pattern. I’m looking forward to displaying it somewhere in my living room with other travel mementos, many of which are also of a similar color combination.
For those, who are as curious as I was, the Hubble of trading post fame is a distant cousin of Edwin Hubble of space telescope fame.
I made it to the Petrified Forest too late to get a backcountry permit but the ranger was helpful in pointing me to some free camping available at the southern end of the park at the gift shops there. I had just enough time to drive into the park so I could drive through to the southern end, but was too late to do much stopping at overlooks. I drove through slowly and did take the time, just before 6:00pm, to stop at an overlook for a wonderful view of the Painted Desert with the sun setting over it.
Even just driving by, I could get enough of a view of the landscape to begin to appreciate the amazing natural wonders of the Petrified Forest. Even at 35mph, the logs and segments of petrified trees strewn over the landscape were a wonder. I can’t wait until tomorrow to explore them up close and personal.
I stopped at the one open gift shop, took a look around, gathered my free sample and checked out the camping facilities. The “free” camping available at the gift shops cater to self-sufficient RVs and offers no facilities (read “bathrooms”) for those of us who car camp. Were this in a living forest, it would be no problem. Out here in the middle of the desert on fenced in property, there’s no place to go to dig a cathole. Needing some supplies, I drove to the town of Holbrook and made a few stops. At a supermarket, I bought a salad to supplement my dinner, got some ice for my cooler, filled the gas tank, made use of the facilities there, and then drove back out to the gift shop campground.
On the way back, I stopped along the little trafficked and extremely dark road and did some star gazing. Knowing I was getting back to the campground when many others might be asleep, I changed there at the roadside, and rearranged my car so I would be able to set up camp, as it were, with a minimum of fussing. Finally, I continued on to the gift shop campground and settled in.
Thursday, March 18 – Petrified Forest to El Morro National Monument70s during the day and 20s at night
I’ve heard that the northeast has once again had a snowstorm though is seems that the hardest hit parts, like so many storms this year, have hit south of Boston, sparing my house, and more importantly, street, the heavy stuff. While home is dealing with the last vestiges of winter, I’ve had the good fortune to be basking in the sun of an early heat wave here in the southwest. Highs are now continually forecast in the 70s and 80s, though my destinations, usually at elevation, mean I luck out with the lower end of that range. Still, it has been great to get into shorts and T-shirts during the day though like many desert environs, the temperature still drops precipitously as soon as the sun sets.
I woke up this morning, an hour earlier than I had hoped and fought off natural urges until the park opened at 7:00. I made beeline for the first available public toilet. So much for camping in a facility free area.
Having seen the Painted Desert at sunset the previous day, I mostly concentrated on visiting areas with petrified wood. I had seen pieces of it elsewhere and seen others pictures of the area, but I was still amazed at how the “wood” seemed to litter the landscape. There were places where entire trunks petrified intact and were then exposed mostly intact with large pieces aligned, but separated into chunks a few feet long. Even though the bark didn’t petrify, the wood still looked like it had bark. Many chunks had identifiable concentric rings. Some had cracks, some had places where you could tell branches had once been attached. The colors were amazing due to the different types of chemicals that had mixed with the silica that infused the logs and eventually petrified them.
Mt. St. Helens may be the current rendition of a future petrified forest. It has the downed trees, some of which may be buried deep enough in oxygen defying silt. It also has the silica rich ash from the 1980 eruption that may be filtering through that wood, eventually creating yet more petrified wood.
During the afternoon, I drove to El Morro National Monument by way of the back roads through the Zuni Pueblo. For the most part, the current pueblos seem much the same as any small town. There are schools, libraries, convenience stores, places to rent videos, etc. They do get more than their share of tourists however and generally keep some areas off-limits to visitors. Most or all have restrictions on photography, sketching, video, and or sound recording. I drove through, just observing, and went on my way.
I arrived at El Morro in time to do the two-mile walk in the afternoon. El Morro was a watering hole for all sorts of travelers over the years. The headlands with a quenching pool of water below are still there though modern rail and roads have made their former purpose superfluous. The most incredible part of El Morro isn’t the fact that there is a lot of rock art representing the ages from the ancient peoples through the Spanish and U.S. exploration, but the extent to which those visits are so well documented. The Spanish, especially, not only documented who passed through and when, but in beautiful script, engraved both poems and their own impressions of the area. Just one or two would have been impressive, but there are much more than that.
I hooked up with a German couple from Stuttgart as we meandered through. They, knowing Spanish, could read the engravings. I had to rely on the translations in the tour pamphlet I had borrowed at the Visitor’s Center. We marveled at the dates and how they may or may not have reflected the political situation at the time. Especially from the European perspective and even from a northeast U.S. perspective, in many ways it’s amazing how much this can seem to be recent history.
Once again, I’ve lucked out with the El Morro campground. The campground hasn’t had it’s water turned on so they aren’t charging the usual fee. I carry plenty of water with me in the car so I’m happy to be situated in primarily deserted campgrounds.
There was one other couple in the campground. I broke the ice by borrowing a can opener from them figuring that most people with an RV would have one. They invited me to a campfire at their site, a bit later when it started to get dark. Back at my site, I startled a rabbit, ate dinner, cleaned up, and then brought over all the burnables I had with me to use for kindling for the fire.
I spent the rest of the evening with Bob and Kay Cvrk. Based on the spelling of their last name, I think I surprised them when I correctly surmised, that it was a Czeck name.
Friday, March 19 – El Morro to El Malpais National Monument and National Conservation Area
I woke up to a bit of frost on the top of the car but there was none on the windows. Without the cozy comfort of Susan and Pat’s van to crawl into for breakfast, and having seen all there was to see at El Morro the previous day, I warmed up by loading up the car and hitting the road. It was a short jaunt, passing cinder cones, to El Malpais where I took a short nap in the sun warmed car until the NPS Visitor’s Center opened.
There, I found out about the attractions of the area and organized the rest of my day.
I first stopped at Junction Cave, a lava tube. This reminded me of being back in the Pacific Northwest and visiting similar sites there. Here, there’s a long lava tube. At the first trail junction, you can see a collapsed section heading off in one direction. Following signs to the other end of the cave, you can see the collapsed tube continuing in the opposite direction. In between, there was a long stretch of tube available to wander through. So, I did just that and emerged at the first trail junction. It’s possible to safely do this section without lights and helmets. Also of interest to me at this point, were the trail markings for the Continental Divide Trail that parallel the road through the area and soon branch off to correspond with the Zuni-Acoma Trail. Once again, I was just wishing that it were a bit later in the season so I could have a bit of fun and make some CDT thruhiker’s day with some trail magic. But, it’s too early in the year so that’ll have to wait for some other time.
I then went to Acoma Pueblo, where for $10, I got a tour of the pueblo. Dale, out guide, was very funny. She’s also one of only 30 people who still live full time on the mesa. She, being the youngest female and therefore likely to live the longest, is the matriarch through which the family property is passed.
Even though there are only 30 full time residents on the top of the mesa, there are many houses being maintained on the mesa. Families keep their properties for use during festivities. Many of the artisans selling their pots use their mesa-top homes as bases of operation even if they do not live there on a day to day basis.
It was kind of disturbing to realize the only Acoma we saw on the mesa top were those selling crafts. Other than that there was very little movement. It turns out most of the residents who aren’t selling anything prefer to stay indoors and away from the tourists. But, we heard some funny stories of how we tourists get watched and if we go where we aren’t supposed to go, well, sometimes the residents know how to innocuously express their displeasure. :-) The last tour is at 3:00 so at 4:00 or so, the Acoma emerge and enjoy their privacy on the mesa.
Once again, I got sucked in and bought a small piece of Acoma pottery. This time, the $25 pot cost just $20, I bought direct from the potter, and from what I had seen at gift shops I had already been to, this is also a good deal. Of course, getting it home in one piece will be the biggest challenge. It’ll join both my sister’s pottery and my Tarahumara pottery on display at home.
I bought a couple of postcards here as well as visual reminders. Taking photographs for personal use is permitted in the pueblo as long as you buy a $10 permit. I declined figuring the postcards would be better than anything I could take, anyway.
Making my way back to El Malpais, I stopped at the BLM Ranger station. With just 30 minutes before closing, I had just enough time to look around their displays and learn something about the local area. As usual, talking with the rangers and volunteers is almost always interesting, especially if you can ask some questions that aren’t amongst their ten most commonly asked questions.
From there, I headed south, first stopping at the Sandstone Bluffs Overlook for a wonderful view of the bluffs with the sun full on but low in the sky. Then I stopped at La Ventana Natural Arch, also magnificent with the colors of the setting sun on it. Continuing on to the Narrows Picnic area and campground, I ran into Bob and Kay again who invited me over for the evening. I however, got too caught up with my journal writing and it got a bit too late to visit.
I had some wonderful trail (or should that be road) magic today but I feel a need to be vague about it on the off chance it could get someone into trouble. I mentioned to someone that I was hoping the bathroom had hot water as I really needed to wash up a bit. They knew I was just talking about face and hands. We started talking and I mentioned not having had a shower in a week’s time. They quickly suggested I make use of a larger sink they had and wash my hair, too. Then, they looked at each other, conferred a bit, and I was soon invited to use their shower. They can’t imagine how good it felt to be clean. On the chance they read this, I’m sure they’ll recognize themselves so I’m sending a hearty “THANK YOU” out to you. As with all of the people I’ve met on this trip, I would love to hear from you.
Saturday, March 20 – El Malpais to Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
Once again, the cold morning is a good excuse to get in the car and on the road. Hoping it’ll be worth the long detour, I decided to head south, through Gila National Forest to Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. The Gila and Ansel Adams National Forests combine to make the largest wilderness area in the United States. I have to wonder if that includes wilderness areas in Alaska. There is no direct route to the Monument so I drove south, eventually going through Silver City with its quaint, though slightly yuppified, Historic Downtown.
During the morning drive, I saw a herd of deer, a herd of pronghorn, and my first ever roadrunner. The roadrunner ran across the road, directly in front of my car. With no traffic nearby, I swerved to avoid hitting it. There were also two pair of ravens cavorting by the road at one point. They seemed to be having fun, not fighting, not interacting between the two pairs, but just cavorting. A prelude to… well, it is spring after all.
One of the roadside picnic areas I stopped in for a quick nap had an interesting sign posted. It read “Do not put dead animal parts in trash barrels. Leave in woods for predators.” I guess were not in Kansas, err Boston, anymore. I’m guess that sign is mostly meant for hunters though it was equally apt for road kill. It’s just not a sign I’ve ever seen anywhere else in my travels.
I was glad I decided to do the long drive. Previously, I had driven through pine forest here in New Mexico, but only on mountain ranges that separated the areas I was visiting. Here, the pine forest is all around and extends into the valleys and low points. Once again, I am reminded how much I like the cool green forests and know that for me, the desert is a wonderful place to visit, but not a place to live for long periods.
I grabbed a “Ghirardelli” brownie from a café in Silver City to eat after a salad I bought on my way out of town. I then drove up (quite literally) out of town onto the Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument access road. It was 2:00pm as I passed a sign saying to leave two hours to get there from that point and the park closes at 4:00. Umm, what’s wrong with this picture? Stuck behind a large pickup pulling a trailer that likely exceeded the 20’ limit, I could see exactly why it would take two hours to cover the distance on the twisty, windy road. But, the driver of the pickup was considerate and soon pulled over to let me pass.
With that, the two hours drive along this fun road took only one hour. A stop in the Visitor’s Center yielded a whole bunch of options for free camping. Also (attention long-distance hikers), it was brought to my attention that there are 1,490 miles of hiking trails in the Gila Wilderness National Forest, alone.
The National Monument, like El Morro, is a small area. Though they only let you in until 4:00, they allow you to stay until 5:00. With about an hour and a half, I had plenty of time to visit the cliff dwellings.
Walking in, I followed the stream in the lush, narrow, canyon. From the stream bed, there are wonderful views of the dwellings. Once again, the light in the late afternoon was magical. I stopped to talk with Charlotte, another solo traveler. We were admiring the view and talking about some of the information we were reading in our respective guides. I swatted an insect buzzing my ear twice before it dawned on me, just too late, that it was no insect, but a hummingbird. I never hit it, but I did chase it off before I could draw Charlotte’s attention to it. I was wearing a bandana that had a bit of red in it. Perhaps it was attracted to that.
At this point, having visited so many other cliff dwelling sites, I can easily see similarities and differences between the cliff dwellings in various areas. Here, the rocks in the walls aren’t as neatly laid and mortared. There are also only three pictographs of which I saw two, a little red man and a red squiggle. Yet again, and not surprisingly, the echo from the stream to the cavern ceiling made communication between the dwelling and the stream easy.
By the end of the visit to the dwellings, Charlotte offered me the opportunity to go on a hike in Gila the next day. But, the seeds of another idea had already been planted in my mind. A thorough review of the appropriate brochure has me psyched for a completely different kind of park tomorrow.
Sunday, March 21 – Gila to Lincoln National Forest
After packing up and leaving a note for Charlotte declining her offer to accompany her on her hike, I got on the road early again. It was great to have the twisty roads all to myself. I passed a field with a flock of about 30 wild turkeys. Then I started thinking about the multitudes of cattle grates I’ve driven over in New Mexico. There seemed to be a great deal more grates there than in other places I’ve visited, yet, while I have seen a fair number of cattle, there just don’t seem to be nearly enough to warrant all of the grates I’ve seen. And while I know there was a recent “problem” in Gila with regard to cattle and grazing rights, my observations aren’t just limited to this are, but everywhere I’ve been in New Mexico to date.
Plus, I’ve come to the conclusion that either the cattle here are smarter than elsewhere, or the ranchers have more money. Unlike most other areas with cattle, I haven’t seen a single fake grate here. Elsewhere, just painting black and white stripes across the road can fool the cattle. I haven’t seen a single painted “grate” on this trip yet.
With just a few clouds in the sky, I once again observed a contrail with its shadow on a cloud. Cool!
I drove through Las Cruces stopping just long enough to buy my favorite fast food salad, a Southwest Chicken Salad at Jack-in-the-Box. Jack-in-the-Box, unfortunately, has no restaurants in the northeast.
From there, it was a quick jaunt up I-70, through the White Sands Missile Range. The border patrol was out, stopping all cars to question to occupants about their reasons for being there. They had set up shop just a few feet east of my intended destination, White Sands National Monument. So, I just pointed, told them I was on a two-week road trip around New Mexico and that the Monument was my immediate destination. With no further delay, I was on my way and entered the Monument.
A stop at the Visitor’s Center confirmed that though there was no car camping, they did have backcountry camping. Unlike almost everywhere else, the backcountry permits carry a fee. But, in talking with the rangers, an even better option came up. One that would not only be free, but would introduce me to yet another area, and get me on my way a bit earlier the next day. Now knowing what I would be doing that night, I had plenty of time to explore the dunes without worrying about finding a place to sleep.
I left the Visitor’s Center and couldn’t believe the line of cars waiting to pass though the Entrance. Imagining the crowds that must be inside, I considered turning around. The sheer number of cars made it obvious that I would be dealing with bigger crowds here than any other area I had visited on this trip. But, rather than give up, I used the time to my advantage and not only managed to change into my shorts, but I applied almost all of the sunscreen I needed to apply. Inside the park, I stopped at one of the first pullouts to finish applying my sunscreen.
Traffic was moving well and it didn’t take me long to realize where everyone was going. There were many huge parking areas cleared in the park. The dunes near these parking area were full of people. Entire families come out to fly kites and go sledding. I suppose it didn’t help that I was there on a weekend. But, I also surmised that the vast majority of these people never get out of site of their vehicles.
The longest marked trail is about 4.5 miles. I grabbed my poles and headed out. Once I got past the first couple of dunes, I didn’t see anyone else until I was returning and approached the parking area.
These dunes, here in the Tularosa basin, are the world’s largest gypsum dunes. Gypsum dunes are incredibly white and even with the cloud cover which was at its thickest since my second day in the state, it was still intensely bright. I wished my sunglasses provided better coverage but I managed.
I saw some of the incredible features of the dunes: Footprints showing the movement of the dunes; Yucca plants that grow fast enough to stay on top of the dunes only to collapse once the dune moves on and leaves a trunk too fragile to support the plant without the support of the sand; Grasses that stabilize small segments of dune that stay in place like seas stacks amongst the sand. Apparently cottonwoods also survive as long as some of their leaves remain exposed to sunlight. But, I unfortunately didn’t see or recognize) any examples of that.
This is the only park where I’ve ever seen speed traps. The police were out in force. But, give the number of children in the area and the temptation to drive a bit faster than the posted limits given the good road conditions, it was probably a good idea.
After leaving the area, I drove through Alamagordo to Cloudcroft where, according to the directions I got at White Sands, I passed the Post Office/Taxidermy shop and took a right onto Westside Road. As promised, it was a residential neighborhood that soon petered out as the pavement ended and I drove into Lincoln National Forest. Here, there were some marginal places to pull off the road to spend the night. I stopped at one of these pull-offs for dinner with a phenomenal view but more broken glass and toilet paper strewn about than I cared for. After dinner, I explored a bit more. I was glad I did. I found a huge flat area, obviously used by hunters on occasion, where I could pull my car completely off the road and camp under trees on good soft duff or pine needles.
Monday, March 22 – Lincoln National Forest to Albuquerque
After another few hours of sleep, I was up early taking back roads and scenic byways towards Albuquerque. I got one good laugh along the way. Near someone’s ranch entrance, there was a barrel. Nothing unusual about that as I’ve seen many barrels during my travels. This one was unusual in that a tire topped it. Coming out of the tire sticking up into the air, were a pair of jeans clad legs complete with cowboy boots as if a cowboy fell in headfirst. Sure seemed like the southwest equivalent of the old Garfield stuck in the trunk trick.
Tired of sightseeing, I bypassed Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument and drove to the top of Sandia Crest. I thought the drive up to 10,400 feet was worth it. I had hoped to take a back road to Bernalillo, but not knowing how this rental car would perform on a muddy, icy mountain road more suitable for 4WD vehicles, I took the long way around to go to the Range Café for lunch. Yum!
I stopped at the Visitor’s Center for Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque but, being tired of rock art and travel in general, I passed on the monument itself. I stopped at Coldstone for an ice cream on the way to the hostel.
Tuesday, March 23 – Albuquerque to Medford, Massachusetts
Breakfast at Java Joe’s, just a couple of blocks from the hostel, was great. Fresh squeezed orange juice and a blueberry, cream cheese, muffin.
From there, my travels back to Boston were completely straightforward. I tried to get bumped off either flight but was completely unsuccessful. Once again, however, I did manage to get extra legroom on both flights. What a relief. Plus, it was very nice to have my friend Reed pick me up at the airport rather than have to deal with the vagaries of public transportation or the prices of Boston cabbies, now amongst the highest in the nation.
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