A Strange Walk into an Alternate Reality… Petroglyphs in Zion National Park

Photo of geologic structure above petroglyphs in Zion National Park taken by Curt Mekemson.
Peggy and I found this interesting rock formation looming above the petroglyphs that we located in the eastern section of Zion National Park. It was only the beginning of unusual rock structures that defined the area.

I quickly learned when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa that my reality was substantially different from that of the tribal students I was teaching. It was a lesson that has served me all of my life. The human mind is incredibly flexible and our reality, to a large extent, depends upon what we are taught. Given my 1965-67 experience in Liberia, I can’t even start to imagine what people believed 7,000 years ago.  

That’s when humans first started wandering the area now known as Zion National Park. They started with Archaic peoples, moved on to the Anasazi and Fremont cultural groups, and, in turn, were followed by the ancestors of modern day Native American Paiutes. Any or all of these groups may have left petroglyphs in the slot canyon Peggy and I explored in the eastern section of the Park. And all of them reflect thinking that we can only guess at. 

Peggy and I are fascinated by petroglyphs, both from the connection it gives us to people from hundreds or even thousands of years ago, and from the unique look of rock art. We have visited sites throughout the Southwest. There is a certain commonality to the rock art depending on the culture represented. We have also found a similarity to sites selected by the ancients to leave their messages. Not surprisingly, they tend to be near water, which is where the people lived. But there was also an inclination to select locations that stood out from the surroundings. Possibly it gave a sense of sacredness to the area. 

The site we visited was an excellent example of this, as our photos show. The strangeness, however, started with the directions to find the site. As I remember them: “Go down into the canyon and find a sand wash. Follow the wash up the canyon until it comes to the tunnel under the road. Go through the tunnel and follow the wash until you come to a trail to your left.” There was as much room for interpretation in following the directions as there was for interpreting what the petroglyphs meant! 

Our photos start with the tunnel.

Photo of tunnel under road in Zion national Park that leads to petroglyphs taken by Peggy Mekemson.
It was appropriately hidden by trees and bushes.The sandy wash led right to it, however. The light we could see on the right suggested that the tunnel was a few feet long. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Photo of tunnel to petroglyphs in East Zion National Park taken by Curt Mekemson.
Reality was different. It was much longer than it appeared to be. Fortunately, there was a light at the end of the tunnel.
Disappearing into the light at the end of the tunnel that led to petroglyphs in Zion National Park. Photo by Curt Mekemson.
Peggy walked toward the light and disappeared. She boldly went forth where numerous others had obviously travelled, judging from the foot prints in the sand. But did they ever return? Maybe a little Sci-Fi/Horror movie music is called for here.
Photo of sand was leading to petroglyphs in the eastern section of Zion national Park taken by Curt Mekemson.
She was waiting for me in the sandy wash that led onward, supposedly toward a trail that would lead off to the left and petroglyphs. We quickly learned that there were several trails leading off to the left where people had gone in futile searches! Fortunately, Peggy and I had an advantage…
Photo of rocks near petroglyphs in east Zion National Park by Curt Mekemson.
We were looking for an area that suggested the presence of petroglyphs. This rock structure seemed a likely candidate. We started looking for a trail to the left, and found even more interesting rocks.
Photo of cliff near petroglyphs in Zion National Park by Peggy Mekemson.
Peggy caught this photo and the following one.
Photo of petroglyph site in Zion National Park by Peggy Mekemson.
Photo by Peggy Mekemson.
Strange rocks found near petroglyphs in the eastern section of Zion National Park taken by Curt Mekemson.
How’s this for unusual? If I were a shaman, I’d think this would be a great location for petroglyphs.
Photograph of rock face near petroglyphs in the eastern section of Zion national Park by Peggy Mekemson.
This fellow was not a petroglyph but part of the rock face, so to speak. I’ve learned a new word, BTW: pareidolia, the tendency to read into patterns and interpret visual stimuli, even when there is no intentional meaning present. A lot of that happens in my blogs. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Photo along the Petroglyph Trail in the eastern section of Zion National Park taken by Peggy Mekemson.
There was something surreal about the beauty of the area. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Photo of colorful rocks found along Petroglyph Trail in the easter section of Zion National Park taken by Curt Mekemson.
I looked up and caught this colorful view.
Photo of Zion National Park petroglyph site taken by Curt Mekemson.
And then we reached the site. It was just beyond the green shrubs if my memory serves me correctly. It’s hard to imagine a more stunning location. We were prepared to enter the alternate reality suggested by petroglyphs.
The petroglyphs were waiting. This is obviously a human like figure, probably a woman, but what’s with the strange diagram underneath? Does it represent power lines reaching out to the universe from the individual. I stared at it for a while and wondered if it didn’t represent a reflection in water. Or a moon shadow. Remember the song by Cat Stevens? (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Photo of petroglyph in Zion National Park by Curt Mekemson.
Another reflection shot? A selfie? Or possibly a mating couple. Such images are not uncommon in petroglyphs.
Photograph of origin petroglyph in the eastern section of Zion National Park taken by Curt Mekemson.
This is frequently thought of as being an origin petroglyph, representing the entry into this world from another world.
Photo of petroglyph panel in East Zion National Park taken by Peggy Mekemson.
This panel clearly represents petroglyphs created in different times with the figures in the upper right being of more recent origin. Are they hiking with packs? Or are they paddling a boat? The wavy line may represent a lake and a stream. Or a snake? The lower guy on the right seems to be asking the question while the guy on the left seems to be running like crazy to escape. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Photo of animal with antlers in Zion National Park by Curt Mekemson.
I labeled this guy as a moose. Why not— even though there is no record of moose in the Park area except in 2013 when one showed up. 🙂 Tourists were told to keep their distance.

Photo of woman petroglyph by Peggy Mekemson.
We’ve found women portrayed like this throughout the Southwest. The circular figure may be the sun. I wondered if the wiggly lines represented counting, or a snake, or a river. Or…
Person on a warpath petroglyph in the eastern section of Zion National Park. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
My imagination placed this woman on the warpath! 🙂 (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

There were many other petroglyphs. At the end of the panels, Peggy and I found steps carved into the canyon wall leading up to a ledge.

Steps carved into cliff along petroglyph trail in the eastern section of Zion National Park. Photo by Curt Mekemson.
I thought it might be interesting to climb up them and explore the ledge. Peggy felt it best that her 79 year old husband be grounded. Grin.

Wandering up the trail in search of more petroglyphs, we found a dead big horn sheep that may have slipped while climbing the walls. Or been taken out by a cougar.

It did not look very happy. Peggy wondered why I wanted to photograph it and decided it was a sign that we should turn around. Admittedly, it did look a bit Satanic…

Shortly afterward we came to what was obviously the end of the trail unless we wanted to scramble over rocks. We turned around leaving the sheep, the petroglyphs, the beautiful canyon and the tunnel behind. It had been quite an adventure. In my next post we will explore more of the unique beauty of East Zion National Park.

Kolob Canyons… “Zion National Park’s Best Kept Secret”

I couldn’t help but think of William Least Heat-Moon’s book, Blue Highways, this morning. If you have read his classic travel adventure, you will remember that he would go out of his way to find small towns with unusual names, like Dime Box, Texas. We are in Accident, Maryland today and I’m pretty sure it meets Heat-Moon’s classification of an unusual name. I was also amused to learn that people from the town are called Accidentals. I feel a connection. My parents always told me that I was an accident.

This is the last stop on the first segment of our full time travels. Tomorrow we will arrive at our daughter Tasha, her husband Clay and our grandsons Ethan and Cody’s home in Waterford, Virginia outside of Washington DC. They have an attached efficiency apartment that they are insisting that we use as our base. It’s Tasha’s way of assuring that we will be around on occasion. It will take a few weeks to set up the apartment, but first we will be dashing off on our Rhine River Cruise.

In the meantime, I will keep the posts from our national park and monument visits in the Southwest rolling out. After Zion there is Bryce, Escalante, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and Mesa Verde plus our other adventures along the way. I have enough to produce posts until we are once again on the road. More than enough! On the small chance I run out, there is the Rhine River Cruise. 🙂

Scenic road leading into the Kolob Canyons's section of Zion National Park. Photo taken by Peggy Mekemson.
We were driving into the Kolob Canyons when Peggy snapped this photo. We knew we were in for a treat. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Zion National Park promotes Kolob Canyons as its best kept secret. Other web sites follow a similar theme. It’s not surprising considering that the canyons are located in the remote northwestern section of the Park, 45 miles away from Zion’s main attraction.

Given the distance, many people ask is whether it’s worth taking half a day to visit. (This assumes they are even aware that this section of the Park exists.) Peggy and I would like to answer with a resounding yes! It meets our three criteria: It’s unique, beautiful, and not crowded. There are also a number of hikes visitors can take that we couldn’t squeeze in. A fairly challenging one provides hikers with a view of the world’s second longest arch. Next time.

The curvy five-mile drive climbs a thousand feet. It can be accomplished in a relatively short amount of time, but— if you are like us— you will want to linger and admire the fantastic views of towering Navajo Sandstone cliffs and deep finger canyons created by runoff from the plateau above. There are a number of pullouts along the way. Each one provides a different view or perspective and each is worth a stop. The following photos reflect what Peggy and I saw.

Photo of Timber Top Mountain and Shuntavi Butte in the Kolob Canyons in Zion national Park taken by Curt Mekemson.
Timber Top Mountain cuts off to the left in this photo and wraps around a hanging valley that has been created by runoff. The Shuntavi Butte stretches out from Timber Top on the right. The area was a favorite of ours.
Side photo of Shuntavi Butte in Zion national Park taken by Peggy Mekemson.
Remember what I said about different perspectives. Peggy took this side shot of Shuntavi Butte. Is that baby Shuntavi on the left? (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
I opted for for a close up which gave the Shuntavi Butte a massive, toothed look.
This seasonal stream that runs between the two arms of Timber Top Mountain was close to dry when we saw it. But the minerals it carried had left a black stain where it tumbled off of the hanging canyon. Eventually it will finish carving the canyon down to the lower level. (Give or take a few million years.) The erosive power of water is amazing. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Nagunt Mesa is located next to the western arm of Timber Top Mountain.
Photo of the western arm of Table Top Mountain and Nagunt Playa by Peggy Mekemson.
Here’s a closer view. Note the beginning of a possible arch on Nagunt Mesa. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Close up of Timber Top Mountain and Nagunt Mesa in the Kolob Canyon's section of Zion National Park by Curtis Mekemson.
I added an even closer view of the would-be arch. Note that Nagunt Mesa is also covered with timber. That led me to wonder what type of wildlife lived there. Had Native Americans found a way to make it their home?

Some other views of the Kolob Canyons from our visit:

Photo of mesa in the Kolob Canyons section of Zion National Park by Curt Mekemson.
Another Mesa (I think). I like the foreground effect of the trees on the photo. We were high enough and it was early enough that the trees were just beginning to leaf out.
Photo of pyramid from to a mesa in Kolob Canyons by Peggy Mekemson.
A more frontal shot, i.e. different perspective, gave the mesa an almost pyramid look. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
I found an old friend from the Sierra Nevada Mountains growing at a high point along the road: a wall flower (Erysimum capitatum). It’s always reminded me of a brief phase I went through in high school where girls scared the heck out of me.
This peak was even more impressive than the pyramid. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
I’ll conclude today with this side view of Nagunt Mesa. I liked the way the tree framed the photo. Our next post will take readers over the east side of Zion Canyon. Once again, I will feature unique rocks. This post will also include petroglyphs located in a magical canyon.

We Are in Kansas, Toto… But Our Blog Is Still in Zion

Photo of Aspens on top of Kolob Terrace in Zion National Park by Curt Mekemson.
At 8,100 feet, the aspens on Kolob Terrace in Zion National Park were convinced it was still early spring. Or maybe late winter. We had climbed 4,500 feet since leaving our campground on the Virgin River of Utah.

The thunder rolled in with an unending rumble and the wind shook our trailer until I thought it might tip us over. We are in Kansas and I couldn’t help but think of Dorothy and her faithful dog, Toto. I half expected to hear the tornado sirens go off or see a wicked witch fly by on her broom. It was not conducive to sleep. Instead, I watched the lightning dance across our skylight while Peggy slept soundly. Maybe she thought I could worry enough for both of us. “Oh, was the wind blowing last night?” she asked me the next morning.

We’ve now left the backroads, mountains and mesas of the Southwest behind. It will be mainly freeway from here on out as we dash across the country to catch our Icelandic Air trip to Amsterdam— except it isn’t that much of a dash. We’ve simply eliminated our 5-7 day layovers between travel days. We still only plan to travel around 200 miles a day with every other day a layover. I’ve never had a sense of humor about driving 4-5 hundred miles straight. And it certainly hasn’t improved with age.

I may change my mind if this weather continues, however. We are under severe thunderstorm watch again tonight. We could be at our daughter’s in Virginia in four days instead of the two weeks I am planning. I have even less tolerance for tornados and golfball size hail than I do driving long distances. Tempting…

Meanwhile, my blog is still in Zion. I have at least three more posts on it, maybe more! 🙂 And then there is Bryce and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and Mesa Verde, and the Rockies, and dinosaur tracks, desert wildflowers and petroglyphs. Will it ever end? 🙂 Peggy and I have taken at least a thousand photos. I’m afraid to count them. But don’t worry, we won’t subject you to all of them.

Today, my focus continues to be on the Kolob Terrace section of Zion National Park. After some very winding roads we made it to the top of the Terrace. The views continued to be spectacular.

It’s important to know that the road up to Kolob Terrace is steep and curvy. If you decide to drive up to it, and we highly recommend you do, I wouldn’t take a large RV on the road.
Photo of aspen grove in Kolob Terrace by Curt Mekemson.
Another view of the aspen grove on Kolob Terrace in Zion National Park. There were no leaves to quake in the wind!
View of Kolob Terrace in Zion National Park by Curt Mekemson.
This was a road view of what we might see once we reached the top of the terrace. As always, the conifers didn’t worry about the snow and cold.
Lone pine tree stands out on Kolob Terrace in Zion national Park. Photo by Curt Mekemson.
I was impressed with this lone pine tree.
Photo of mountain on top of Kolob Terrace by Curt Mekemson.
As Peggy and I were with this peak. We stopped to admire it.
Photo of Pine Valley Peak on Kolob Terrace in Zion National Park by Curt Mekemson
And were rewarded with this view.
View of valley from Kolob Terrace taken by Curt Mekemson.
And a view of the valley 4000 feet below.
Colorful monument on Kolob Terrace photo by Curt Mekemson.
We also spotted this attractive rock monument.
Kolob Terrace view by Curt Mekemson.
And felt it was worth a closer look.
Photo of Indian Paint Brush in Kolob National Park.
While I was staring off into the distance, Peggy looked down and spotted this colorful Indian paintbrush. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Following are several more photos of the scenery that Peggy and I saw up on Kolob Terrace and on our drive back down.

Photo of a mesa on top of Kolob Terrace by Curt Mekemson.
Another road shot.
Photo on Kolob Terrace of Zion Canyon by Peggy Mekemson.
Peggy caught this photo. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Photo of kite flying on the Kolob Terrace section of Zion National Park by Peggy Mekemson.
“Pull over, Curt,” Peggy insisted, “I have to take a photo of this.” It was the most streamlined kite we had ever seen.
Photo of colorful rocks on Kolob Terrace taken by Peggy Mekemson.
And, of course, she had to photograph the colorful background behind the kite. I’ll conclude today’s post here. In my next post, we will be moving on to Kolob Canyon. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Kolob Terrace, Zion National Park, Part 2… A Mormon Concept of Heaven?

Road in to Kolob Terrace just before it begins its climb onto the terrace. Photo by Peggy Mekemson.
The road had been gradually climbing since we started our exploration of Kolob Terrace in Zion National Park. It was about to get serious as it made its way up to the terrace above the cliffs. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

We are continuing our exploration of the Kolob Terrace section of Zion National Park as part of our full-time experience of living on the road.

I am always curious about how things get their names. I wasn’t familiar with Kolob. Was it a Native American name? Was it the name of an early explorer or pioneer? Turns out it comes directly out of the Book of Abraham, a sacred text of the Mormons that Joseph Smith supposedly translated from an Egyptian papyrus scroll. I wonder if he used his rose colored glasses. I should have guessed the Mormon connection. Utah is Mormon country and has been ever since Brigham Young brought his band of followers into the state in 1847 to escape religious persecution in the east. Kolob is either a star or a large planet in the center of the Milky Way Galaxy close to the throne of God. Some Mormons believe that is where they go when they die. It shows up in the Musical, The Book of Mormon where the lyrics proclaim “I believe that plan involves me getting my own planet.” The modern church has challenged the assumption.

Imagining Kolob to be a rather pleasant place from a Mormon perspective, I can understand why the early pioneers gave its name to the terrace. Peggy and I also found it pleasant. Actually, I’d much prefer to go there when I die rather than the biblical Heaven where the ‘streets are paved with gold.’

We pulled off the road frequently to take photos on our way up and down.

Peggy uses the cab of our truck to photograph the cliffs below the terrace.
An F-150 parked in the Kolob terrace section of Zion Canyon. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.
Where our F-150 was parked when Peggy took the photo…
Photo by Peggy Mekemson taken from the road into Kolob Terrace, a section of Zion National Park.
Peggy’s photo. If you have ever wondered how the impressive rock bridges of the Southwest are formed, this is potentially one in progress.

More photos that I took on our way up to the terrace…

Photo of Kolob Terrace by Curtis Mekemson.
Photo of towering cliffs in Zion National Parks Kolob Terrace by Curt Mekemson.
She brush and pines provide striking foreground in the Kolob Terrace section of Zion National Park.Photo by Curt Mekemson.
Photo by Curt Mekemson on the way up to Kolob Terrace, Zion National Park.
View along Kolob Terrace Road taken by Curt Mekemson
Private road below towering cliffs and interesting rock formations in the Kolob Terrace section of Zion National Park.
I’ll conclude with this photo of a private road winding its way below the cliffs. I was intrigued as to where it went and could easily imagine Peggy and me living there. My next post will feature photos we took up on the terrace.

The Questionable Tastes of Bighorn Sheep… Plus Mosaic Canyon, Death Valley

Our house is in the final stages of being sold. We signed off on it today. The buyers will complete their part by the end of the month. “We’re homeless,” Peggy declared. “No,” I suggested. “our home is wherever we happen to be.” So what if it happens to be 22 feet long and is pulled by a F-150 pickup.

Right now we are in Flagstaff, Arizona. It’s a lovely community filled with friendly people, great restaurants, a fascinating culture, and bookstores. The Grand Canyon is an hour’s drive north. Sedona is an hour’s drive south. A five minute trip out of town yesterday found us scrambling up and down steep canyon walls searching for thousand year old petroglyphs left behind by the Anasazi, ancestors of our modern Southwestern Native Americans. There are certainly worse places we could be.

But as delightful as this area is, we will be out of here this week. We are modern day gypsies, full-timers as they say in the RV world. The freedom of the open road is ours. We aren’t rookies at this. Once Peggy and I wandered around North America for a year. Another time it was for three years. We don’t know how long we will be this time. Our goal is something like ‘as long as we can get away with it.’ Given our combined age of 151, who knows...

Our focus will be on the wild areas of North America. Once again this will include the National Parks of the US and Canada. We’ve been to most of them, but this time we want to explore places we haven’t been, places where the vast majority of tourists aren’t. Today’s post on Mosaic Canyon is an example.

Mosaic Canyon is easy to get to. It’s just above Stove Pipe Wells, one of Death Valley’s main tourist watering holes. And it’s quite beautiful, as this photo by Peggy shows. But it isn’t advertised as one of the “must see tourists sites,” like Zabriskie Point for example. When Peggy and I visited Zabriskie, there must have been a hundred people there. We ran into a half dozen or so at Mosaic Canyon. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
On our way over to Mosaic Canyon, we passed by the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, which are always worth a photo. The sand dunes are located next to Stove Pipe Wells and are easily accessible for a hike. Note the person on top. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Here is the road up to Mosaic Canyon. It’s gravel and dirt and a bit bumpy but short. (photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
The entrance to the canyon is a wide wash. It quickly narrows down! You can see two of the six people we shared the canyon with. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
I captured this shot of the narrows.
Another example. The smooth walls on the left are marble made from Noonday Dolomite.
The national park site recommended walking carefully when crossing the marble because of its slickness. Peggy solved the problem by sliding down. Her shadow makes it looks like she was levitating. “I’m Mary Poppins,” she declared when she saw the photo. But where’s the umbrella?
This breccia is another common rock found in Mosaic Canyon. You can see why it gives the canyon its name.
We were excited to find these flowers growing in the canyon. We had missed the profusion of flowers that sometimes appear in Death Valley after a rare spring rainstorm. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

I took a close up. As you can see it’s pretty. But what’s with the hairy leaves. Turns out that this is a desert rock nettle, eucnide urens. If you have ever had a close encounter with nettles, you’ll know that means: ‘don’t touch!’
It’s a message that bighorn sheep ignore. Apparently they love the flowers. I caught this statue of a bighorn at the visitors’ center. I could see where its metal mouth might come in handy!
Eventually, we returned to the exit. Death Valley stretched out before us. We had lunch at Stove Pipe Wells and then returned to our parking lot campsite.

I’m not a huge fan of Sunset Campground at Furnace Creek. It’s a huge parking lot. The advantage is that it rarely fills up, which is not the case for the more desirable sites in the valley. I’ve used it three times over the years, mainly because my trips are never planned months in advance when registration opens up. When Peggy and I arrived, I expected that most of its 270 sites would be full. It was Easter weekend. What we quickly learned was that the campground closed for the season in four days. There were a half a dozen other vehicles in the huge area. When we left, there were two. In addition to normally being available, there are two other plusses: its close proximity to all of the services at Furnace Creek— and the views.

This was the view from our campsite.
Peggy took a close up.
One night we sat outside and watched the sun set in the west…
…and the moon rise. I’ll end my Death Valley posts with this photo. Next, we are off to Zion National Park.

What Color Would a Death Valley Artist Paint a Pupfish in Love?

The rocks at Death Valley’s Artist’s Palette are world famous for their color.

Geology is up close and personal at Death Valley. The Valley floor and sides, stripped free of most vegetation, can’t help but show their true colors. The most colorful place to check out these colors is along the paved one-way Artist’s Palette’s drive, which is near the Devil’s Golf Course, Gold Canyon, and Bad Water basin, other treasures of the Valley.

The colors you see are the result of oxidation of various metals. One example of oxidation that everyone is familiar with is the formation of rust on iron. Along Artist’s Drive, iron compounds create the red, pink and yellow you see. Mica derived from tuff, produces the green. Manganese produces the purple. (Tuff is a light, porous rock created from volcanic ash.)

A close up of the rocks at Artist’s Palette.

While visiting the Artist’s Palette overlook is the objective, the drive itself is worth the trip. I took the following photos while Peggy was driving. (It was her turn.) In addition to the scenery, there were fun curves and roller coaster ups and downs!

Road shot one.
Road shot two.
Road shot number three featuring the nose of Iorek the truck.

Of course the fun road also has beautiful scenery along it. Artist’s Palate has hardly cornered the market on color, as Peggy’s photos demonstrate.

Photo by Peggy Mekemson.
Photo by Peggy Mekemson.
Photo by Peggy Mekemson.

Now, let’s get back to the question raised in the Headline: Assuming an artist is in Death Valley has a full palette of colors, which one would he choose to paint a pupfish in love? Enquiring minds want to know.

But first, some background. You’ve probably heard of pupfish. There are several species scattered in locations around the National Park. Once upon a time they were happy residents of a huge lake that filled Death Valley. Lake Manly was a result of the Glacial Age. When the glaciers retreated to the far north and mountain tops 10,000 years ago, the lake was left to dry up and the pupfish were left scrambling for any remaining bits of water left, like individual springs. Lack of any contact created a number of subspecies.

The ones I will feature today live in Salt Creek. Their much more famous cousins live outside of the the Valley proper in what is known as Devil’s Hole, a 430 foot deep hole in the ground filled with water. What makes them so famous is that they are a critically endangered species. Today, there are less than 100 left. There were more in the 1960s but even then they were rare enough to be declared an endangered species, one of the first species to be so, seven years before the bipartisan passage of the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

Environmentalists the world over were ecstatic. The business people not so much. Nearby ranchers were limited in how much water they could pump out of the ground and developers in what land they could sell. Profits would be reduced. All that to save a tiny fish from extinction. A “Kill the Pupfish,” “Save the Pupfish” bumper sticker war ensued. National headlines were created and people across the country became aware of the pupfish. It is still a symbol of the ongoing battle between those who see objects primarily in terms of money and those who see them primarily in terms of inherent value. Being a lifelong environmentalist, I come down on the side of the pupfish, but I feel empathy for those whose livelihood was impacted.

Now join Peggy and me as we go in search of the ‘illusive’ pupfish of salt creek, whose males turn bright blue when they are in love, or is that lust. Either way, I’m glad that isn’t an infliction of human males.

A road sign some 15 minutes west of the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center points you down a short, but bumpy dirt road to Salt Creek. The first thing you notice is that there is indeed a creek, which is a rare site in Death Valley. We were lucky to be there in April when it was still flowing. The second thing we noticed was that a well-built board walk followed along the creek.We eagerly set out with our eyes pealed on the water, searching. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

No fish here. But I enjoyed the dapples of bright sunlight…

Again, no fish. I was stuck with admiring the ripple patterns caught by the sun. But where were the pupfish?

Again, nice riparian habitat, but for what. And then…
There they were. Busy male pupfish protecting their territory and looking for love! They didn’t appear blue to us, however. Maybe they weren’t ready for prime time. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Right next to it was a pool absolutely teeming with the little fellows. Apparently they hadn’t received the message about being endangered. We learned that the word prolific hardly fit when describing the baby producing capacity of the females. And the males were more than willing to do their share. The literature used the word ‘millions’ when describing a season’s production. Unfortunately, when the creek dries up most of these offspring are lost. Only those that live near the spring in year around water survive— and wait for the next year so they can one again start their frenzy of propagating. (Photo buy Peggy Mekemson.)
An information panel gave an artist’s rendition of a happy couple. “But where’s the blue?” went dashing through my head. Remember the old “Where’s the beef?” commercials. Okay, I admit that there is some blue, and it is on the male. The panel described the mating process. And it isn’t even R-rated. A female arrives in the males territory, swims over to him, and snuggles up to his side. They start shivering in anticipation, and zoom, she’s pregnant. Just like that. I’d say something about being premature but apparently, that’s how it’s done. “Was it good for you, honey?”

When you watch pupfish for a while they appear to be playful, dashing around, chasing each other, and plowing up the dirt with their noses. That’s where they get the name pupfish. We wished this year’s crop good luck and I took a final photo of the creek as we headed off for out next adventure: exploring Mosaic Canyon, which will be our next post.

Water is precious in the desert and the pupfish is only one of a number of animals and birds that take advantage of Salt Creek as is makes its way out into the desert to disappear into the sand.

Who’s Smarter: A Mule Or a Horse? Plus Death Valley’s Beautiful 20 Mule Team Canyon

Who’s smarter? This girl with her wild eyes and gorgeous eyelids…
Or this fellow with a large nose and impressive nose hairs?

Or, the question going through your mind might be, “Why in the heck is Curt asking this question when his post is on Death Valley?”

Well, it started when I was doing research on Death Valley’s well-know, historic 20 Mule Team. Given that I am featuring the 20 Mule Canyon on my post today, I wanted to provide some background information, which I will. But the first thing I learned (or relearned) was that it wasn’t a 20 mule team that was used to haul borax out of Death Valley from 1893-96. It actually consisted of 18 mules and 2 horses. All of the animals had very specific tasks. Some required more intelligence than others.

Luckily for me, the town just up the road from where we camped near Bryce Canyon (Tropic) had a Mules Days event going on and there was a horse corral just across the road from us in Cannonville. I was able to persuade a mule and a horse to pose for me.

There is a ton of information on the twenty mule teams. This may seem like a lot until you take into consideration that the 18 mules and 2 horses were actually hauling close to 9 tons of Borax at a time out of Death Valley in temperatures that sometimes exceeded a 100 degrees F. (Operations were halted over the hot summer months.) They started their epic journey from the Harmony Borax Works near Furnace Creek and traveled for 165 miles over primitive roads to the railhead near Mohave. As you might imagine, it was quite the challenge. It required close to a heroic effort on the part of the mules, the horses and the muleskinners. Millions of dollars could be made if the venture was successful, however, and it was. Borax has lots of uses.

Still, all of this would be a mere note in the history books except for a couple of factors. One, Borax Soap featured the mules in a very extensive advertising campaign. The second was the radio and TV program, Death Valley Days. For those of you who are old enough to remember the 50s and 60s TV show, you may also remember that Ronald Reagan hosted the show in the mid 60s just before he jumped into his campaign for California Governor.

I think this 20 mule team traveling through 20 Mule Canyon is a team that Borax Soap used to promote its product. The photo is from the US Borax’s Visitor Center in Boron, which is well worth a stop. The two large wagons were for hauling the borax. The last wagon contained water for the mules since water holes were few and far between on the long, dry 10-day journey— and it was very thirsty work. The man at the back of the line is riding one of the two horses. The two lead mules, both female, have bells.
This historic photo provides a good perspective on just how big the wagons were. The large wheel is seven feet tall. The man on the left is the muleskinner who was in charge. On his right was his swamper who carried out a number of supportive jobs including handling a back up brake to be used if the wagon decided to run away going down hill.The muleskinner earned $4 per day, his swamper, $2, and the Chinese laborers who did the hardest work of digging out the borax, $1.25

I found a rather amusing, imaginary discussion with a muleskinner on the Death Valley National Park site. The greatest challenge he noted was in getting around corners. He used a diagram to describe the operation. An 80 foot chain connects the lead mules to the wagon.

Here’s what he had to say about the process: “Now I’ll tell you just how smart my mules is: it’s one thing drivin’ along a straight road; it’s a whole nother thing turnin’ corners on a mountain pass. My 2 lead mules, both mares, are about 80 feet ahead of me–so far away I can’t even begin to use my 9-foot long whip on ‘em. I’ve been known to throw pebbles at ‘em to get their attention. Aim’s good too. Back to gettin’ around corners. The next 5 pairs of mules are my “swing teams”, they ain’t real smart, they just know their names and what ‘pull’ and ‘stop’ means. Now the next 3 sets of mules behind the swings are my “pointers”. These mules are trained special to jump over that 80-foot chain and side-step away from the curve to keep that chain tight and my wagons goin’ ‘round that corner right. Next comes the 2 big horses. They’re strong enough to start my wagons rollin’, but that’s all they’re good for. A dumb mule (and I ain’t seen one yet) is a whole lot smarter than a smart horse.”

So, there you have it— which animal is smarter. At least from the perspective of a muleskinner. I’ll allow that a horse lover might have a different point of view. Grin. And now, it’s time to get away from all of the words and take you through 20 Mule Canyon in photos. The canyon starts no more than a mile above Zabriskie Point. And even though the road is dirt, cars with two wheel drive seem to handle it easily.

The dirt road.
Photo by Peggy Mekemson.
Photo by Peggy Mekemson.
Photo by Peggy Mekemson.
Peggy caught a photo of me hiking up a trail. There are a number of stops along the road where you can get out, stretch your legs and take photos, if you want.
I captured this photo of Peggy Woohoo! And the next two photos.
I’ll conclude today with this photo of a very colorful place along the road. The colors are created by the oxidation of minerals/metals. I cover which metals cause which colors in my next post. It will be on the even more colorful drive to the Artists Palette. I am going to feature pup fish as well. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

To bring you up to date, Peggy and I have now spent a week in Zion Canyon National Park and a week in Bryce. We are now in the small, but fun community of Kanab, perched on the border between Utah and Arizona. Here’s a photo we took last week to give you a view of things to come.

A pair of hoodoos we found near Bryce Canyon. The name hoodoo is derived from a Paiute Indian name meaning scary. I think I can see why.

Going on a -.-. — .– Walk at Pt. Reyes… Plus: Peggy Snuggles up to a Police Horse

The cows had a hungry look in their eyes. We were thankful they were vegetarians.

Peggy and I had decided to revisit an old favorite of ours, the Palomarin Trail that enters Pt. Reyes National Seashore from the south. We had driven down to Bolinas and were on our way out the narrow, pothole-filled road that leads to the trailhead when we saw a series of poles, lined up like they were standing at attention in ranks. I knew immediately what they were. 

The poles were part of the historic Marconi wireless radio station near Bolinas. At one point, they had been connected by wires.

In 1914, decades before the likes of Elon Musk and his techie cohorts started working on worldwide wireless technology, Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of the wireless radio, had built a huge, wireless radio station near Bolinas to send Morse Code messages flying across the Pacific Ocean, setting up the first-ever communication system between ships at sea and land. A small parking lot was connected to a walking trail that wound its way past the historic poles and toward the ocean. We were easily diverted from our original intent of hiking the Palomarin Trail.  

The pole-filled field was doing double-duty as a cow pasture and a herd of cattle insisted on checking us out— up close and personal. It was lunch time and they may have thought we were sneaking alfalfa past them. The Morse Code in the title, BTW, spells C -.-. O —, W .–, in case you were wondering. And boy, that takes me back to my Boy Scout days in the 50s when memorizing Morse Code was essential to working your way up through the ranks.

We checked out the poles, talked with the cattle, and had a pleasant walk out to the coast with both Peggy and me taking photos. 

Not quite Mt. Everest, but I was still willing to pose for Peggy. We found large cement blocks throughout the area. At first, I though they might have been part of the coastal fortifications the US built along the Pacific Coast in WW II. Then we decided they were used to anchor the poles and wires. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
A whole herd of cattle was lined up along the road. They remained on the road, not budging as we walked by.
I thought this young fellow munching on grass was quite handsome.
Peggy stopped to admire a lone tree on our walk. The brush had a soft, welcoming look to it. But looks can be deceiving!
It was close to impenetrable.
As we approached the coast, the Pacific Ocean stretched off into the distance. The Farallon Islands can be seen as bumps on the horizon. They were once known at ‘The Devil’s Teeth’ for their ability to rip the bottoms out of sailing ships. In the 1800s, millions of birds’ eggs were taken from the islands to feed San Francisco’s growing population. Today the islands are a designated wilderness area and are part of a marine sanctuary. The birds no longer have to worry about their babies being stolen.
Looking north, we saw some of the towering cliffs found along the Pt. Reyes National Seashore. Sir Frances Drake, the renowned English hero and buccaneer (fancy name for pirate), apparently admired these cliffs on his visit to the area in 1579. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Looking south we could see the giant Sutro Tower that dominates the San Francisco skyline. Herb Caen, the well known and beloved columnist of the San Francisco Chronicle, once described the tower as a “giant erector” that was stalking and planning to eat the Golden Gate Bridge. I read Caen religiously when I was growing up. It was back when newspapers still had a sense of humor, before they adopted their Doomsday, Penny Henny view of the world. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Afterwards, we stopped off in Bolinas for lunch. It’s another favorite coastal town of mine. One reason is the fact that the locals refuse to have signs leading into the town from Highway 1 for tourists to follow. Whenever Cal Trans puts one up, it’s torn down. I think that Cal Trans has finally given up. At least I didn’t see any signs. It has always been a fun, quirky town with its own unique cast of characters. Last time when Peggy and I visited with our friends Ken and Leslie Lake, we came on a bookstore without staff. A sign said “Take any book you want and leave whatever you think the book is worth to you in the cash box.” It was a very Bolinas type of thing.

While I’m on Bolinas stories, I’ll mention that it was also the site of my first ‘Hippie’ experience. I’d stopped in the town in 1968/69 and decided to do a little sunbathing on its infamous nude beach, which I had read about in the San Francisco Chronicle. It was a time before Google listed “The Best Nude Beaches in Marin County,” a time when the Protestant ethic still reigned supreme among America’s middle class. I confess I was a little nervous about getting naked, but it was the sunburn that left a lasting memory!

A sign of the times in Bolinas. As we were walking through the town in search of lunch, we came across a car with a ladder on top that included a sign that set me to laughing. I could identify with it.

Having featured cattle today, it is only right that I should feature a horse as well. It’s a requirement of the Old West. The day after our Bolinas walk found Peggy and I hoofing it along the Bear Valley Trail. It connects the Visitor’s Center with the ocean in an 8-mile round trip. We were feeling our oats, so to speak, when we came across a pair of real hoofers, i.e. horses. A woman was walking one and stopped to chat. As it turns out the horses were part of ‘San Francisco’s Finest.’ It was a police horse, a proud member of the mounted patrol that can often be found patrolling Golden Gate Park. They’ve been at it continuously since 1864. The horses were out for a play day on the Bear Valley Trail. 

Peggy, who likes horses, insisted on snuggling up to it and I dutifully snapped a photo on our iPhone. I, on the other hand, am not a horse person. It isn’t their size, their looks, or their personality, all of which I find pleasing. It’s their smell, and the fact that they often leave prodigious piles of poop along hiking trails. Have you ever seen a sign that says “Clean up after your horse?” I’m not sure what it is about their smell, but it clings to you. I wonder if cowgirls and cowboys think of it as perfume? 

Peggy snuggles up with the horse along the Bear Valley trail.

That does it for today. I’ll wrap up our recent visit to Pt. Reyes in my next post. Then it will be off to Fort Bragg and Mendocino.

When the Big One Strikes… A Hike Along Earthquake Trail: Pt. Reyes

At 7.9 on the Richter scale, the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake wreaked massive damage both in structures destroyed and lives lost. This photo is from the National Archives.

I was wrapping up my day at the Lung Association in Sacramento when the building started moving shortly after 5 p.m. on October 17th, 1989. Peggy and I were at the very beginning of our relationship. You might say, it was off to a shaky start. “Is this the big one?” leapt into my mind as I ran outside. But buildings weren’t falling or people screaming. “Not this time,” we thought, relieved. 

Had you been one of 62,000 baseball fans crammed into Candlestick Park for the World Series, or worse, commuting home from work in the Bay Area, your perspective would have been substantially different. A major 6.9 earthquake had ripped into the Santa Cruz Mountains along the San Andreas Fault south of the stadium. Nearby freeways collapsed including a section of the Bay Bridge, numerous buildings were destroyed or damaged, 63 people were killed and 3,757 injured by what became known as the Loma Prieta Earthquake.

A number of faults are located under the Bay Area. The next big earthquake is projected to be along the Hayward Fault. The Pt. Reyes National Seashore is the land jutting out to the left of the San Andreas fault at the top of the diagram.

Eighty-three years before the Loma Prieta earthquake, an even greater one shook the Bay Area. Blame plate tectonics. The San Andreas Fault, marks a distinct boundary as the Pacific Plate grinds its way north past the North American Plate, building pressure until an earthquake erupts.  At 7.9 on the Richter Scale, the energy released from the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake equaled blowing up an estimated 6,270,000 tons of TNT! 

Earthquake Trail, found next to the Visitors’ Center at Pt. Reyes National Seashore, commemorates the event. Peggy and I were there last week and went for a walk along the trail. Like San Francisco, Pt. Reyes felt the full fury of the earthquake as portions of the land moved north as much as 20 feet.

With arms stretched out, Peggy points to two sections of a fence that were separated during the San Francisco Earthquake. They have been rebuilt to demonstrate the power of the earthquake. The lower fence had moved 16 feet north. The San Andreas Fault is located directly under Peggy’s feet.

The trail is easy to hike and is well marked with information signs. Its bucolic, serene beauty makes the damage done by the 1906 earthquake hard to imagine, however. 

A bridge along Earthquake Trail at Pt. Reyes National Seashore. Photo by Curt Mekemson.
The peaceful beauty found along the Earthquake Trail at Pt. Reyes belies the potentially destructive force that lies just beneath it. Fall leaves added color.
While the trail is short and easy to hike, it provides a variety of scenery, like this meadow…
Interesting trees are perfect for little people to explore… (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
A fun stump found along the trail.
Peggy took an interesting closeup. She saw a dragon, a monster, and more….oh, my.
Birch.
Moss
Various Conifers…
And in conclusion, a bit of sunshine.

NEXT POST: More photos from around Pt. Reyes National Seashore and our maiden three week voyage with Iorek the Truck and Serafina the trailer.

Abbots Lagoon and Pt. Reyes Station… A Trail Hike Plus a Favorite Small Town

Abbot’s Lagoon is a great place for bird watchers. Or people watchers. This great blue heron with its neck stretched out like a rubber band had a wary eye on Peggy. Wisely so. She was stalking it with her camera. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

It’s a wrap on my Pt. Reyes series today. Peggy and I will take you for a hike out to Abbot’s Lagoon and a visit to Pt. Reyes Station, a favorite town of mine.

The hike is suitable for almost anyone. We even watched a mom and dad pushing their baby along in a stroller. How much easier can it get? The baby seemed quite happy as did the parents. Visitors can turn around whenever they want, hike out to the Lagoon, or go on a leisurely stroll all the way to the ocean. We chose the latter.

The Abbot’s Lagoon trailhead leading out from the parking lot. The Lagoon can be seen in the distance. The Pacific Ocean is out beyond the Lagoon. The narrow strip you can see on the left is the continuation of the trail.
The red marker shows the location of Abbot’s Lagoon on the Google map. Down to the right you can see Pt. Reyes Station next to the Highway 1 marker. Highway 1, BTW, follows the San Andreas fault through this area. The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake shot what is now the National Seashore over 20 feet northward. San Francisco is 30 miles to the south.
Another photo of Peggy’s great blue heron. This time he was back at work catching fish. I liked the slight hint of a reflection. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
I was impressed with the red eye on this coot. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
We crossed a small bridge and looked back up the Lagoon toward the parking lot.
There was a drift wood structure along the trail on the beach out near the ocean. It had been cleverly woven together with kelp.
Finally we arrived at the Pacific Ocean.

The North Pacific Coast Railroad had arrived in the area 146 years earlier in 1875 and let passengers off in a cow pasture to make their way to nearby Olema and dairy ranches out on the peninsula. The cow pasture soon added a hotel and the town of Pt. Reyes station was born. It’s a story told over and over in the West. The railroad arrives and a community springs up, making land barons/developers happy and rich. This time it was a dentist in San Francisco. The railroad was making its way north to retrieve redwoods that were being cut down to build the city. Many a giant redwood gave its life to the cause.

I first arrived at Pt. Reyes Station in the late 1960s and I’ve returned again and again. The town has become somewhat yuppified and more expensive since then due to its close vicinity to San Francisco, but it still retains much of its charm. The following photos reflect some of what makes it charming.

The Pt. Reyes Book Store is one of the best small, independent bookstores we have ever been in, and we’ve been in a lot. Peggy told me to go in and spend $200 for my birthday. Boy, does she know me…
The Bovine Bakery is on one side of the book store. The buttermilk scones are to die for! I never leave town without one, or two, or three, or four.
Feeling Horsey? A saddlery is on the other side of the bookstore.
If your horse is hungry, Toby’s Feed Barn is across the street.
But what feed barn do you know that also serves gourmet coffee and freshly baked, large chocolate chip cookies. Now, that’s what I call charm!
A walk behind the the bookstore building brought us to the Cowgirl Creamery, famous for its cheeses, and I might add, its grilled cheese sandwiches. I’ve never been a fan of grilled cheese, but one bite of its aged white cheddar on sourdough bread and I was hooked. Peggy and I were back for another one the next day, which we took out and ate at the Abbot’s Lagoon parking lot.
Our view from where we chowed down on our grilled cheese sandwiches in the Abbot’s Lagoon parking lot.
A bit of living history. Cheda’s Garage is the oldest contract Triple A garage in the nation.
This was the view inside Cheda’s Garage. Putting two and two together and thinking roadside pickup of wrecked cars, I couldn’t help but irreverently think “Roadkill.” Just kidding. Old Cheda must have been one heck of a hunter.
A photo of early Pt. Reyes Station…
The building today.
The mural on the front of the building capturing some of the activities and wildlife of the area.
Just around the corner we found a sign that made us smile. A No Parking Sign had been cleverly modified to become a No Barking sign. Several cars were lined up in the no parking zone. Not one had a barking dog. A law-abiding town, for sure.
I’ll conclude my Pt. Reyes series with a historic photo of the train that gave the town its name. Join me next Friday on my travel blog as I take you on a spring walk around our property.

MONDAY’s BLOG-A-BOOK POST from Its 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me: I decide that doing an inventory of the local skunk population is ever so much better than being conked on the head by a Little League hardball. But have you ever faced a skunk standing on its front legs with its tail pointed toward you— ready to spray?