Necks straight out with feet trailing, hundreds of sandhill cranes took to the sky as they began their early morning launch in search of food in the middle Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico. Later in November, their numbers will be climbing to the thousands at the Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Reserve just south of Socorro. We had watched long lines of the cranes flying back to the reserve the night before, burbling away in long lines, and were eager to witness the phenomena.
The owner of the RV campground that sits on the edge of the reserve told us we should be at the observation point about a mile from our campground by 6:30 a.m. to witness the early morning action. Peggy and I made it, barely, and jumped out of the RV into the icy air without coats, hats, or gloves to witness one of nature’s greatest shows. Numerous much smaller Ross’s geese joined the party while shoveler ducks ignored all of the hullaballoo and went about their business of eating breakfast.
NEXT POST: Peggy and I will visit Taos where Georgia O’Keefe began her long association with New Mexico.
Peggy and I are sitting in our van on the edge of the Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Reserve on the Rio Grande River in central New Mexico. It’s supposed to be a major winter gathering place for numerous species of waterfowl, even the close to extinct whooping crane. We are watching as sandhill cranes return to the reserve in long lines after a day feeding along the river. At least a thousand have flown by so far.
We were greeted by a road runner when we came into the campground. The owner told us to watch out for wild pigs. I wonder if he meant peccaries. They are nastier than pigs and come with razor sharp tusks, great for rooting up food— or doing serious damage to pesky tourists. Here piggy, piggy, piggy. We saw lots of fresh tracks this morning when we were hiking up a desert wash near Los Lunas looking for petroglyphs, but there were no peccaries.
Other than the train that just roared by and the sound of sandhill cranes settling in for the night, it seems extraordinarily quiet here. If you travel 30 miles due east from where we are, however, you come on the Trinity site where the first atomic bomb was blown up on July 16, 1945, forever changing the world. A bit farther east, Smokey the Bear was discovered in a tree hiding out from a wildfire in 1950, and Billy the Kid practiced his fast-gun draws in the Lincoln County War of 1878. Continue on and you come to Roswell where UFO fans will forever declare that flying saucers crashed in 1947 and the government hid the fact. Traveling the opposite direction into the Rockies some 60 miles, the Very Large Array of radio telescopes searches the skies for alien life and other astronomical wonders. Lots has happened in this quiet place.
I rode my bike through here in 1989 as part of my 10,000-mile bike trek around North America. I crossed the Rockies in one day, bicycling 100 miles. If that seems a bit daunting, like it did to me at the time, the second 50-miles were all downhill. Woohoo!
We have just completed a delightful few days of exploring Taos, Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch following in the footsteps of Georgia O’Keefe and her friend Ansel Adams. It should make a fun blog. But that is all in the future. Today I want to share a few of the photos we took at the Hubble Trading Post, Canyon De Chelly and at Monument Valley. (Written a few days ago.)
NEXT POST: The New Mexico world of Georgia O’Keefe and Ansel Adams.
Note: I wrote this post over several days as we wander through the Southwest. We are now between Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico— and the temperatures are still freezing!
It’s snowing outside and icy cold. The windchill factor is pushing the temperature to around O degrees F (17.7 C). Quivera the Van is not happy. I bought chains for her yesterday with the fervent hope that I won’t have to use them. I’ll do almost anything to avoid that nasty chore. Right now, that suggests heading south, even if it means skipping Mesa Verde National Park where we were going today. Getting there involves climbing up steep mountain roads that are now obscured by dark, threatening clouds. We aren’t terribly disappointed. We’ve already been there twice and we’ve seen a number of Anasazi ruins perched on cliffs over the past week (although not as impressive as Mesa Verde).
Even heading south from Colorado into New Mexico won’t avoid the freezing temperatures. A record-breaking blast of arctic air reaches all the way to the Mexican Border.
In my last post I shared a few of Peggy’s Grand Canyon photos. From there we went to Flagstaff, Arizona where we bought a new iPhone for Peggy and house battery for Quivera. Peggy was holding her warped, 6-year-old iPhone together with a plastic clip. The house battery was refusing to last longer than a few hours. While Peggy was busy playing with her new toy, I was left out in the cold changing the battery. It wasn’t hard. I just had to make sure that the positive and negative cables were hooked up to the right posts. But I tend to regard fixing things mechanical right up there with putting chains on in a freezing snowstorm. The good news is that I didn’t electrocute myself or burn up Quivera. More to the point, we now have power when we aren’t hooked up to electricity. I was quite proud of myself. Peggy was amazed.
Flagstaff is a pleasant town with good restaurants and bookstores. It is nestled at the base of the San Francisco Mountains that are regarded as sacred by a number of Native American tribes in the area. Kachinas (Navajo spirits) are said to wander the mountains and do bad things to folks who find themselves lost up there, especially in snowstorms. I once spent a week by myself camping and hiking on the 12,000-foot Humphreys peak which is part of the range. I was quite careful. It isn’t smart to irritate a Kachina.
Our son Tony and his wife Cammie spent some time living in Flagstaff while he was flying tourists by helicopter over the Grand Canyon and into the Havasupai Indian Reservation down inside the Canyon. He flew Peggy and me into the reservation like the former multi-tour Marine pilot he was and put on the theme to Star Wars for inspiration. Imagination runs wild in this family.
Most of the areas we have visited so far on our Southwest journey deserve blogs on their own and will get them. For now, here is a sample of the photos Peggy and I have taken over the last few days of the incredibly beautiful and often intriguing Southwest. For example, have you ever sat on a hundred foot petrified tree? Think of these pictures as hors d’oeuvres. The main course and dessert will come later. Today I am going to feature Walnut Canyon National Monument, the Painted Desert, and the Petrified Forest National Park.
Walnut Canyon National Monument is a few miles east of Flagstaff, Arizona just off of Interstate 40. I’ve passed by it a dozen times over the years on my way somewhere else and never stopped. I was always curious, however. Peggy and I made it a priority, this time.
A hundred miles east of Walnut Canyon on I-40 we came to the Petrified Forest National Park. The road takes you through the Painted Desert, which is part of the Park. As we drove in, we were greeted by a raven. They seemed to be following us around. We’d met several up at the Grand Canyon. Actually, they gather where there are tourists, hoping for a hand out.
NEXT POST: I will feature photos from our trips into Canyon De Chelly and Monument Valley. And since I am finishing this post on Halloween, I decided to post this photo I took in Monument Valley.
Peggy and I are now finishing up the first week of our Southwest tour and I decided it was time to give you a taste of things to come. Today, I am featuring photos by Peggy that she took on Saturday. All of these are from overlooks along the West Rim Drive between the Grand Canyon Village and Hermit’s Rest. Peggy is using our EOS Rebel T6i with its 16-300 Tamron telephoto lens.
We arrived at our campground in the park around one pm on Saturday and immediately set off to catch the shuttle bus out to Hermit’s rest. The West Rim drive is closed to autos. The bus makes several stops at key overlooks. Visitors are free to get off the bus, hang around as long as they want, and then catch another bus. They run every 10-15 minutes. We took the bus out to Powell Point and then hiked the Rim Trail to Mojave Point. There, we caught another bus out to Hermit’s Rest. After that we took a bus back to Mojave Point for sunset.
NEXT POSTS: As you might imagine, we have much more on the Canyon and will be doing future posts as part of our National Park series. For now, we will provide snippets of our journey as we move along.
“To find a petrified man, or break a stranger’s leg, or cave an imaginary mine, or discover some dead Indians in a Gold Hill tunnel, or massacre a family at Dutch Nick’s, were feats and calamities that we never hesitated about devising when the public needed matters of thrilling interest for breakfast. The seemingly tranquil Enterprise office was a ghastly factory of slaughter, mutilation and general destruction in those days.” Mark Twain on his creative days of writing “fake news” as a reporter for the “Territorial Enterprise” in Virginia City during the 1860s.
Quivera, our 21 foot RV, was whining again as I drove her up the curvy, steep Geiger Grade to Virginia City from Highway 395. “Stop complaining,” I told her, “or we will go explore more four-wheel drive dirt roads.” She piped down immediately.
The town is perched on the edge of Mt. Davidson at an elevation of 6, 140 feet, providing dramatic views of the surrounding country.
It all started with a gold rush in 1859. There was a lot, but it was mixed in with a chunky black rock that resisted being separated from the gold. As it turns out, the dark rock was silver ore and it was much more plentiful than the gold. The ore was part of the famed Comstock Lode, the first major silver strike in the US. It was a strike that would create several millionaires, help fund the building of San Francisco, provide the North with much needed cash during the Civil War, serve as an impetus for creating the state of Nevada, and lead to the founding of Virginia City.
Samuel Clemens arrived in Carson City, Nevada by stage coach in 1861 with his brother Orion who had been awarded a plum position as secretary to the Territorial Governor of Nevada. Orion had earned his appointment by working in Abe Lincoln’s campaign for President. He invited his brother along to serve as his own secretary. Samuel found the job a bit tame for his creative imagination, however, especially given all the ‘get rich quick’ schemes that were floating around in the West. His first effort was to run a logging operation at the still wild Lake Tahoe. Lumber was in high demand. That adventure ended with his campfire escaping and burning down the trees he planned to log— plus a substantial part of the surrounding forests. He then decided he would try his luck mining for gold and silver, an effort that had similar results for him, except he didn’t burn down any more forests.
The Territorial Enterprise newspaper out of Virginia City saved Clemens from his life of toil in 1862. It also provided him with his life-long calling. The editor had been impressed with several ‘letters to the editor’ he had written and invited him to write for the paper and serve as city editor in Virginia City. He was soon earning an impressive forty dollars a week and had taken on a pen name, Mark Twain. As he notes in Roughing It, his delightful book about his adventures in the West, he rarely took his pay. He didn’t need to. Reporting was a profitable business. There were hundreds of wildcat mines that stood little chance of making a profit. Not to worry. Miners would select a snazzy name and then print up fancy stock. A favorable article in the newspaper would almost guarantee that the stock could then be sold for hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. Miners lined up eagerly at Twain’s door hoping for positive articles and paying him in stock to assure that the article was written. Forty dollars a week was chump change.
Twain remained in Virginia City from 1862 to 1864 before heading west into California. Virginia City continued to grow and prosper into the late 1870s reaching a population of some 25,000 people. A massive fire wiped out the town in 1875 but it was rebuilt within a year. Most of the historical buildings found in Virginia City today are from the post-fire era. There are some beauties!
NEXT POST: We will journey up to Reno and visit one of the world’s most impressive auto museums— and see some really classy autos.
It’s time for a quick break from my Highway 395 series to bring you up to date on current events in our never-boring life such as a logging operation in our backyard. I’ll be back to Highway 395 and Virginia City in my next post.A note on photos: Peggy and I shared photographer’s duties on this post.
Removing 43 Douglas firs from our five acres was not anything Peggy and I looked forward to, either from an aesthetic or financial perspective. Global warming didn’t give us a choice. Severe drought weakened a number of our trees and voracious pine beetles took quick advantage of the situation. We decided to be proactive in hopes of slowing down or stopping the beetles.
I am no stranger to logging operations. My father was the electrician for a lumber mill when I was growing up. We considered the mill with its logging pond as part of our extended play area, much to the dismay of the nighttime and weekend watchman. He had an extensive vocabulary of swear words that he liked to share with us. We even had a logger with his logging truck living next door. He’d wake us up at 5:00 a.m. on summer mornings as he dashed off to collect his first load of logs. Since then, my backpacking trips have occasionally taken me through areas that were being logged.
None of this is anything like having a logging operation in your backyard, however. I didn’t actually hear anyone shouting “Timber!” but the buzzing sound of chainsaws accompanied by the crashing sounds of large Douglas firs (some over a hundred feet in length) was our constant companion for a week.
And Other Events…
NEXT POST: I return to my Highway 395 series and visit Virginia City where silver was king and Samuel Clemens adopted the name of Mark Twain.
We can thank James Stuart Cain for the fact that the ghost town of Bodie, located 13 miles off of California’s Highway 395, is something more than a few derelict buildings sinking into the ground. Cain arrived in Bodie in 1879 as a young man of 25 with a new wife and towering ambitions. He began his rise to being Bodie’s number one citizen by importing lumber across Mono Lake to build the town’s mines, businesses and homes. He would go on to own the town’s bank and the Standard Mill. Eventually he would own most of the town, which he and his family would love and take care of— an effort that included hiring on-site security. When he passed away in the late 1930s, his family continued to maintain the vacant town and security right up until the time they passed it over to California in 1962 for a state park.
I featured Bodie’s ghostly homes in my first post. Today I will feature other buildings that remain standing in the town, vehicles in various stages of ‘arrested decay’ and mining machinery.
NEXT POST: Timber! A one post break from Highway 395. Never-ever did I expect to see logging trucks using my driveway. Plus some other recent happenings at the Mekemson household. After that we will journey back to my road trip and the silver town of Virginia City.
The history of the gold and silver strikes in the Old West of the mid 1800s is one of boom and bust. Large towns of several thousand people would spring up overnight in remote locations and be abandoned almost as fast as veins ran out and other strikes fired the imagination of miners driven by dreams of instant wealth.
Some of the towns have lingered on into modern times. Diamond Springs, where I grew up in the heart of California’s gold country, is one. A 25-pound gold nugget found nearby in the early 1850s assured Diamond of its boomtown status. It was a sleepy, ‘one-horse-town,’ in my youth. Today, it is more like a sprawling suburb. Virginia City, Nevada, which we will visit next on my Highway 395 series, not only survived but worked to maintain its historical look and has become a successful tourist attraction.
Bodie is another tourist attraction. It has survived as a ghost town, however— in arrested decay as the California State Park staff describes it. Only three people were living there in 1943, the year I was born. That number had plummeted to zero by 1950. (Plummeted being relative, of course.) Gold was first found in 1859 but it was in 1876 when the Standard Company found a profitable gold vein that turned the small camp of a few hard-core miners into a rollicking boomtown of 5-7 thousand people with over 2000 buildings. Sixty-five saloons dominated its mile-long main street. I have learned over the years that the number of saloons is always a mark of pride for Old West towns. (A substantial red-light district is another.)
Bodie was named a National Historic Landmark in 1961and a California State Historical Park in 1962. Today, just over a hundred of its original two thousand buildings remain. I arrived around 1:00 p.m. on my drive down Highway 395 and spent three rather warm hours wandering around checking out the buildings and other historical remnants left behind— and dodging fresh cow pies. There were so many tourists it was hard to get photos without them. But who wants photos of tourists in a ghost town?! I did photograph the free-range cattle, however. Now if only a ghost or two had made an appearance…
NEXT POST: We will continue our exploration of Bodie by checking out some of the commercial buildings that still stand including a ghostly old mortuary with caskets. There are also several abandoned vehicles in various states of decay and some interesting mining machinery left behind.
You’re stuck if you are a raindrop falling into Mono Lake— or anywhere else in the Great Basin. There are no convenient rivers to whisk you away to the sea. Evaporation is your only escape. Water tends to become a little grouchy under these conditions, or make that salty. In fact, Mono Lake is 2.5 times as salty as the ocean, and 100 times as alkaline. The good news here is it is really hard to drown. You can float to your heart’s content. Even sea gulls have a hard time keeping their feet in the water to paddle. The bad news is a minor cut or scrape will send you screaming for the shore.
There is magic in the water, however. Springs flowing underground from the surrounding mountains are rich in dissolved calcium. When they bubble up into the lake, the calcium bonds with the carbonates in the lake and together they make rocks, or what are known as tufa towers. In the past, when the lake was full, these towers hid out under the surface and happily continued to grow. There were few or no tufa towers to see. Mark Twain camped out on the lake in the 1860s when he was searching for a lost gold mine and noted in Roughing It,“This solemn, silent, sailess sea— this lonely tenant of the loneliest spot on the earth—is little graced with the picturesque.”
Obviously, the tufa towers weren’t there to greet him. We can thank Los Angeles’s formidable Department of Power and Water for their presence. Back about 1913, DPW had the challenge of supplying more water to the ever-thirsty Los Angeles with its desert environment and burgeoning population. It decided that there was plenty of water up in Owens Valley along the eastern side of Sierras. DPW didn’t bother to ask the local residents, farmers and ranchers whether they wanted their water to go to LA. It didn’t have to. It had the power to grab what it wanted. Things got nasty. Water wars in the West aren’t pretty. “Greed of City Ruins the Owens Valley” the headlines in the Inyo Register screamed. And it wasn’t far from wrong. Every stream of consequence flowing into the valley was tapped to meet LA’s water needs. What lakes that existed started drying up, including Mono Lake. Starting in 1941, DPW began taking water from the lake’s major tributaries, dropping the lake some 40 feet.
Environmentalists mounted a major effort starting in the 70s to save the lake. Fish can’t survive in the highly saline/alkaline water, but some four trillion brine shrimp, innumerable small alkali flies, and algae find the conditions perfect. The shrimp and flies, in turn, serve as a major food source for the two million birds that stop off to dine in the lake. The lowering water levels threatened to kill off the algae, shrimp and flies. The birds were in danger of losing their handy fast food restaurant. In 1994, The California Department of Water Resources stepped in to resolve the issue by requiring DPW to reduce the amount of water it was taking from the lake’s streams and repair some of the damage it had done to the riparian habitats along the streams. While the lake won’t return to the levels that existed when Mark Twain visited, the ecosystem is now being protected. Birds will be able to continue to stuff themselves while visitors can continue to enjoy the unique beauty of the tufa towers.
It was late in the afternoon when I visited the south end of the lake where the most impressive tufa towers are found so I was able to photograph the towers at sunset. The warm tones added to the beauty. I took lots of pictures. (Grin) To get here look for the signs that direct you to the South Tufa Towers south of Lee Vining off of Highway 395.
There is a lot to see along California’s Highway 395, and I am bringing much of it to you in this series. We’ve already visited the Alabama Hills with its fascinating relationship with Hollywood. In my last post, I took you to the World War II Japanese internment camp of Manzanar with its tragic history and relevance for our modern world. You have patiently made your way through lots of words! Thank you. It’s time for another photo blog, heavy on pictures and light on verbiage. (grin) What better opportunity than admiring the views of John Muir’s Range of Light: the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It’s one of my major reasons for visiting the area. These are some of my favorite photos from the trip.
The Bush Devil Ate Sam is an important record and a serious story, yet told easily, and with delightful humor. This is one of the most satisfying books I have ever read, because it entertained me thoroughly AND made me feel better informed. —Hilary Custance Green: British Author... Click on the image to learn more about my book, the Bush Devil Ate Sam, and find out where it can be ordered.
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