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.

The Hottest, the Driest, the Lowest… Death Valley: Featuring Zabriskie Point

Today’s post marks the beginning of Peggy’s and my journey around North America. We will be sharing our insights into what it’s like to live full time on the road plus our adventures along the way. A special focus of the blog will be visiting some of the most spectacular wildlands remaining on our continent. Death Valley is up first, starting with an overview and featuring Zabriskie Point.

Peggy and I were greeted with this sign when we stopped at Death Valley National Park Visitor at Furnace Creek on our recent visit. As noted, Death Valley is a land of superlatives. The word I use is extremes. I reserve superlatives for the scenery. It’s why we have returned to Death Valley over and over again. 

Photo by Peggy Mekemson

I doubt that the Death Valley people included the price of gas as either an extreme or superlative, but we found it amusing. And we weren’t the only people taking photos of the sign. We made sure that we filled our tank in Bodie, a small Nevada town just outside of the park. Adding serious injury to insult, the price of a six pack of beer was $20 at the Furnace Creek store! Now that’s something worth whining about. 

But let’s get back to the hottest, driest, and lowest. By hottest, they mean the hottest place on earth. It holds the world record at 134° F (57° C). Death Valley is not a place you want to visit in the summer if you can help it. Here’s the bad news. It’s getting hotter. We can thank global warming. The following chart sums it up.

The impact of global warming can be seen clearly on the National Park graph that shows average summer temperatures.

The normal definition for a desert is a place that gets under ten inches of rain a year and has an evaporation rate that exceeds its rainfall. Death Valley averages under two inches and has an evaporation rate that is 75 times its rainfall.  Sit in the shade doing nothing for a day and you can lose up to two gallons of water. The Valley holds the record for being the driest place in the United Sates. There is a reason why the Park Service always warns people to carry and drink lots of water when they are visiting. 

And finally, the lowest. At its lowest point, Death Valley is 282 feet below sea level, which just happens to be the lowest spot in North America. On an earlier trip, Bone was proud to pose on the Bad Water Basin Sign announcing the low point. 

Bone was feeling a little low that day…

I’m going to add another extreme. Wind. Death Valley doesn’t hold any records here as far as I know, but when I bicycled across the Valley on my 10,000 mile solo trip around North America, I remember being out of the saddle in low gear, and working my tail off— pedaling downhill. When I got back to camp, I discovered my tent had been blown a half mile away and was totally trashed. This time the wind was blowing so hard Peggy couldn’t get her door open on our truck! It took all my strength to force mine. Back at camp, I took a photo of “Cousin It.’

The wind gave Peggy a new hairdo. We decided to call her ‘do’ the Cousin It look. It’s the latest fashion in Death Valley.

As I noted earlier, Peggy and I have returned to Death Valley many times, always in the fall, winter or spring. Each time we try to include something we haven’t done before. This time it was going in search of the rare and endangered, but not so elusive pup fish, and hiking up Mosaic Canyon. We also returned to some of our favorites: 20 Mule Canyon, Zabriskie Point, and the Artist’s Palette. Peggy and I were busy with our cameras the whole time. I’ll let our photos speak to the beauty of the park. 

I’ll start with Zabriskie Point, a quick 15 minute drive away from Furnace Creek and the Park Visitor Center. Named after Christian Zabriskie, an early manager of the Pacific Coast Borax Company, it is probably the most photographed site in Death Valley. For good reason. It was once the site of an ancient lake where various sediments sank to the lake bed, giving the area its rich colors today. Early ancestors of both modern day horses and camels left their tracks along the shorelines. Tectonic plates moving beneath the valley lifted the mountains and dropped the valley, giving rise to the erosion which has done such an impressive job of carving out the ‘badlands’ shown in the photos below.

This photo captures the rich colors of Zabriskie Point. You are looking out on the Valley floor. The Panamint Range forms the background. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
A popular photograph of the ‘badlands” at Zabriskie Point. The peak on the left is known as Manley Beacon. The cliff behind it is known as Red Castle.
This provides a close up of Manley Beacon. Manley is the person who rescued the prospectors who were crossing the desert in hope of finding gold in California in 1849. They were lucky. It was the miners who gave the valley its name, Death Valley.
I caught this picture of Red Castle at Zabriskie Point. Had we been there at sunset it would have been much more reddish.
One of many of the geological features of Death Valley are volcanoes and lava flows. The black lava here was part of a lava flow. Being a harder rock it provided a cap to the eroded rock below. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
This provides a broader perspective.
This picture is particularly good at showing the various terrains, textures, and colors at Zabriskie Point. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
I ‘ll conclude with one of my favorite views at Zabriskie Point.

NEXT POST: We will visit Artist’s Palette at Death Valley and then go in search of the rare pup fish at Salt Creek.

MacKerricher State Park… and Moving On

Peggy and I were ‘getting the look’ when she snapped this photo at MacKerricher State Park just north of Fort Brag, California. The concern the seal had was whether we would come closer and disturb his snooze in the warm sun, i.e. would he have to get up and jump in the icy ocean? The answer was ‘of course not.’ I’m not happy when someone disturbs my afternoon siesta. So why should I disturb his. You know, “do unto others…”

This is the last post from our not-so-recent trip to the North Coast of California last November. Tempus Fugit. Indeed. My posts have been so rare lately they are close to being put on the endangered species list. But more on that later. MacKerricher State Park begins 3 miles north of Fort Bragg, California and continues for 9 miles up the coast. It features a wide variety of habitats ranging from sandy beaches to rocky headlands. There are tide pools, wetlands, a fresh water lake, and even a sea-glass beach. The ocean took an ugly dump and ground the glass up into attractive baubles that people like to collect. Our daughter-in-law Cammie used to turn sea glass she gathered in Alaska into beautiful jewelry.

We were at the park for a couple of hours and only walked a mile or two along the 9 mile beach. We were impressed, however. The area deserves much more of our time. I’ll let the photos that Peggy and I took speak for it. I included some of the these in an earlier post.

Looking south and capturing the sun reflecting off of the incoming tide.
There was plenty of action as the waves rolled in.
The bright green moss captured our attention…
As did this tide pool outlined in green
The ever-present ice plants continued the green-theme as they climbed up the ancient sand dunes in their unceasing effort to replace native plants. And be pretty.
Plus there was seaweed to admire and wonder about. I’m thinking that this would make a great whip for the Devil.
I wondered why someone had trimmed the roots off of this gorgeous driftwood.
All too soon, it was time for us to leave. For a brief moment, my footprints were captured by the sand before the next wave rolled in. I was amused to see how they wandered, never traveling in a straight line, always willing to detour toward anything that was of interest, always ready for a new adventure— wherever it might lead. Like Peggy and I are. And that’s my next subject.

MOVING ON

As you may recall, Peggy and I are preparing to hit the road full-time in mid to late March. That’s one reason why my posts have been so few and far between. But there is more. We are also selling our house and moving East. Our daughter has an empty apartment in Virginia that we will be using for our base as we travel North America. She and her husband Clay have been lobbying for years that we should move closer to them. The apartment is small, however. We are using it as a reason to seriously downsize. It’s called donate, give away and toss. If we haven’t touched something in a couple of years, it goes. (Books and heirlooms are the exception— and even they are subject to scrutiny.) A moving pod sits outside our backdoor to collect what remains. In a few weeks it will arrive on our kid’s doorstep. We’ll take three months to get there.

We will miss our cozy home with its great views and entertaining wildlife. No doubt about it. Living out in the woods had always been a dream of mine. But it is time to move on. I turn 79 in a couple of weeks. While not necessarily old (from my perspective), it is definitely not young. My sense of humor on doing all of the work involved in maintaining five acres isn’t what it once was. And, there are more serious reminders of our age: the passing of family members and friends.

My sister died a couple of weeks ago, leaving me with a thousand happy memories and a large blank spot. She was my first baby sitter and forever friend. While we didn’t see each other often, we were always close. You may recall the posts I did on our annual pumpkin carving contests. They started in the late 90s and went on for 15 years. And you may also remember my blog on Nancy Jo and the Attack of the Graveyard Ghost, a prank my brother Marshall and I played on her when we were kids. Marsh passed away couple of years ago while staying in his RV at our house. I was with him when he died. I am now the last living member of our family. It’s a strange feeling.

A number of friends have passed on as well over the past few years. I attended a memorial/life celebration in Sacramento last weekend for one of my early backpacking Trekkers, Don Augustine. I first met Don in 1981 when he went on a hundred mile trek I was leading through the Sierras. It was a tough year with lots of snow still on the ground. I was kicking footsteps in it over a steep pass leading into the Granite Chief Wilderness when he hustled up to where I was working and offered to help. He would continue to offer a hand whenever needed for the next 40 years as both a trekker and as a volunteer. His generosity was close to legendary. His specialty was encouraging newbies as they struggled to meet the challenges of long distance backpacking and bicycling. I told a story about it to the some 200 people who had gathered to wish Don goodbye.

At the time, I had gone to Alaska as the Executive Director of the Alaska Lung Association. Don and a couple of other good friends had come up to join me on a backpacking trek I was leading across the Alaska Range. We had a particularly difficult young woman along who was always last getting into camp and whined a lot. It was the unpleasant job of our trail sweep/rear guard to walk with her and bring her in. I took my turn and by the end of the day my patience was running thin. That’s when she threw her pack on the ground and declared, “I am not going another step. I am camping right here!” I responded, “Do you see that hill crest? “Yes,” she pouted. It was maybe a quarter of a mile away. “The Trekkers are setting up camp on the other side. We can be there in 15 minutes.” “I don’t care,” she answered. “Okay,” I said, “pull out your whistle.” (We required that all of our trekkers carry one.) “I have to hike over the hill and check on the group. I saw a grizzly bear about a mile back. If you see him heading your way, blow loudly on your whistle three times and I’ll come back.” She was up in a flash, had thrown her pack on, and was leading me over the hill at a hefty pace.

I took Don aside in camp and asked if he couldn’t use a bit of his magic on the young woman. “I’ve got you covered, Curt,” he said. “I’ve got candy.” He reached into his pack and pulled out a gallon ziplock filled to the brim. (There were reasons why Don always had the heaviest pack in the group.) And Don was right. On being introduced to Don’s ziplock and his charm, the girl’s attitude improved immensely and she started hiking faster to keep up with him and his candy. It was a much better solution than my making up grizzly bear stories.

Don playing his guitar on one of our Sierra Treks. He often carried his guitar and the camp chair he is seated in. And Pop Tarts. Nancy Pape, lying down and listening, was also at the memorial.

It’s always hard to lose a family member or friend, and even more so when he or she has been close. It is like closing a chapter in your life— the laughter and good times, the tears, the adventures and so much more. But it is also an important reminder that life is short, whether you are 79 or 29. Life should be lived to the fullest whatever your age. Peggy and I believe this totally. That’s why we moved to Oregon and that’s why we are now moving on now, doing what we love to do, wandering to our hearts content. Until it is time to do something else.

We will be sharing our adventures on this blog. As always, you are invited to join us. We hope you do.

My next post on Friday will be different: It will serve as a detailed description of our house, property and the surrounding region for those who may be interested in having their own ‘home in the woods.’ –Curt and Peggy

The Point Cabrillo Lighthouse, a Poet, and a Bookstore Cat

Most people love lighthouses. And what’s not to love? They are usually found in beautiful locations, feature attractive buildings, and include an element of romance. Their location is part of the romance, but even more so, I find the life of lighthouse keepers romantic. I picture them living on the edge of the ocean, facing ferocious storms with towering waves, and working heroically to save lives in areas that are often remote, far removed from the lives most of us lead. While such a life might not seem attractive to most, I like remote. I’m not so sure about the long hours, repetitious work, and being tethered to a 24/7 job.

I’ll never have the opportunity to find out, however.

The possibility of being a lighthouse keeper in the US today is close to zero. Of the 700 lighthouses presently functioning in the country, only one has a lighthouse keeper. It is located on Little Brewster Island overlooking Boston Harbor and has been in operation since being repaired after the British blew it up during the Revolutionary War. It had originally been built in 1716 on a pile of rubble stone with candles providing the light.

The rest of America’s lighthouses have become automated. When our son, Tony, was flying helicopters for the Coast Guard off of Kodiak Island in Alaska, one of his jobs was servicing the lighthouse in Cordova. As I recall, the salmon fishing was great in the area. He loved the assignment. And we benefited at Christmas with yummy halibut and salmon. (BTW… this past week he was flying a helicopter over Antartica in his new job.)

Today, many of the original lighthouses have been turned into museums. That’s the situation with the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse which is now part of the California State Park system. The lighthouse got its official start with a party in 1909. The head lighthouse keeper invited all of the neighbors within a mile over for its official opening at midnight. It was a pea soup night with the fog so thick that the light couldn’t escape. That wasn’t a problem for the loud new fog horns that started blasting out their warning on the dot at 12, probably waking up everyone who lived further away and wasn’t invited to the party. The lighthouse operated happily until 1961 when one of the towering waves I mentioned above rolled over the top. The third order Fresnel lens wasn’t damaged, however, and the lighthouse was returned to working order until 1973 when the US Coast Guard replaced it with a rotating beacon on a metal stand and the original lens was covered.

It was volunteers that brought the lighthouse back to life. With permission from the state and approval from the Coast Guard, they rebuilt the lighthouse and other structures including the homes of the lighthouse keeper and the assistant back to their 1930 condition when electricity was brought in. The Fresnel lens was cleaned, updated, and returned to service, being one of 70 that still operate in the US.

An attractive trail leads from the right side of the parking lot to the Lighthouse. You can also hike the road, but why would you? This is a view of wind-sculpted brush along the way.
Our first view of the Lighthouse. A bit of morning fog still hung over it. The Fresnel lens was shining. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
It didn’t last long. A few minutes later the sun came out and burned the fog away. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
The trail took us over to the ocean on our way to the Lighthouse. Sun lit up the waves.
The Pacific Ocean crashed into an inlet. Can you spot the Cormorant?
It was hiding down among the rocks. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
We wandered around the lighthouse, admiring it.
A side view included the fog horns located on the back. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Peggy focused in on the lens. It can be seen 22 nautical miles out to sea. The third order Fresnel lens is made up of four panels which contain 90 lead glass prisms and weighs 6800 pounds. It is maintained by the volunteer Point Cabrillo Lighthouse Keepers’ Association. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

We entered the small store and museum at the lighthouse and found this. Do you know what it is? It is whale baleen that whales use to strain their food out of ocean water.
We followed the road out since it led by the attractively refurbished lighthouse keepers’ homes. One serves as a museum. Visitors can rent the other for an overnight stay.

And this brings us to the bookstore cat. The attractive, historic town of Mendocino is located a mile and a half south of Point Cabrillo. It is another one of our favorite coastal towns. One of the reasons is its excellent bookstore: The Gallery Bookshop. The store’s logo is a cat reading a book. We went there to buy books, meet friends, and visit with the cat.

Every nook and cranny of the bookstore is filled with quality books. We could spend hours there.
The owner’s philosophy was posted in the window…
We hadn’t seen our friend David McElroy for quite some time. David is an Alaska bush pilot and a talented poet, a combination that has always fascinated me. He was traveling with his friend Susan, who among her many accomplishments, had been the first director of the Nature Conservancy in Alaska. They originally met in 1979 when Susan had hired David to fly her while she filmed the Iditarod, the first film of the event to ever be televised nationally. They met again after David’s wife of many years (and one of Peggy’s best friends from high school, Edith Barrowclough) passed away from cancer. Susan and David were on their way to Paris and then Portugal for a few months.
This sign greeted us at the bookstore door.
Catsby was sitting on the counter next to the cash register when I snapped his photo.

As I have noted before when I have blogged about my favorite independent bookstores, many of them have cats. I think that they all should. Here’s what the Gallery Bookshop’s website has to say about Catsby:

“The Great Catsby joined Gallery Bookshop in the fall of 2012. He was seen wandering on the streets of a neighboring town, darting in and out of businesses. One day, he found a car with an open window and hitchhiked (without the driver’s knowledge) to the village of Mendocino. There, he was picked up by a friend of the bookshop and offered the job of bookstore cat. His duties include sleeping atop card racks, greeting dogs with a glare and a flick of his tail, and occasionally allowing customers to scratch him behind the ears. He can usually be found sitting in the window, warming himself in a patch of sunlight.”

That does it for today. My next post will be on MacKerricher State Park, which is located just north of Fort Bragg. I should note: When I find time to do it. Our life continues to be insane as we rush into creating a new lifestyle for ourselves. More on that after the post on MacKerricher.

Is It Pomo Bluff— or Chicken Point… Fort Bragg, California

I see a massive wave like this and I remember the wise advice of old sailors: Never turn your back to the ocean. Even now when I look at this photo, I think, run! Fortunately, I was happily ensconced on a high cliff at Pomo Bluff when this big fellow came rolling in.

I laughed when I read the information sign posted up on Pomo Bluff in Fort Bragg. Sailors, fisherman, and other boaters of yore making their way out of Noyo Harbor would go out on the overlook to check how the Pacific Ocean was behaving. It could be calm and welcoming or it could be ferocious and dangerous. Checking was an opportunity to chicken out, to remember there was a cold beer that required quaffing at the local pub. Thus the name. Modern technology and weather forecasting have reduced the need to do a visual check.

We wandered around on the Bluff, admiring the ocean, checking out ice plants, watching rowdy crows, and wondering who owned the mansion hidden behind a tall fence.

In spite of the big waves, it was a beautiful day on the ocean. We watched as the charter boat, the Telstar, made its way back into Noyo Harbor. It’s available for sport fishing and whale watching. Apparently some folks had been out to try their luck. We didn’t wonder about what they caught or saw, we wondered how their stomachs had tolerated the rolling sea. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Looking back toward the entry into the protected Noyo Harbor.
A close up of the sea stack seen above.
Looking out to sea from Pomo Bluff. Go far enough and you will end up in Asia.
Peggy captures a photo.
And then goes in search of another. The sign is a common one along the coast, warning of the dire consequences of getting too close to a cliff’s sheer drop. But does this woman casually strolling along seem worried?
How can one resist when the best photos are often on the edge?
Such as this. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Ice plants provide an attractive foreground for photos on the coast. But there is a problem. It is an invasive species that replaces native plants.
I was surprised to find that the ice plant had adopted fall colors, something that I had never noticed before.
This crow took a break from its aerial display of chasing other crows to steal their food, to rest among the ice plants.
Peggy captured one carrying something delectable, like a long dead snail. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
From her perch out on the point, Peggy was also able to catch a photo of this mansion. Otherwise, it was hidden behind a tall fence.
So I took a photo of it through a knothole.
A seagull showed us the way. I liked its feet. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
And finally we came to the end. It was time to head on to our next adventure and my next post: The Point Cabrillo Lighthouse.

Escapism: Or Is the Word— Balance… Happy New Year

This cormorant at MacKerricher State Park near Fort Bragg, California seems to be saying, “Bring it on! Show me what you’ve got!” It’s a New Year’s type of message. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

When Peggy and I were seeking an escape in 2021, we headed for the Oregon and Northern California Coast. It seemed like a reasonable answer to what was happening in the world. There is something calming about the ocean, a balance if you will— a reminder of the past, a welcome to the present, and a glimpse of the future. The waves continue to roll in. Worries tend to fade away under such circumstances and the spirit is renewed. Bring it on. Show us what you’ve got.

With this in mind, I decided to dedicate my first post of 2022 to the beauty and the wildness of the ocean using photos that Peggy and I took in 2021.

The sheer power of the ocean can make you stop, and say “ahhh.”

The ocean is much more than crashing waves, however. There is incredible beauty…

And an abundance of plants and animals uniquely adapted to life on and in the ocean.

I’ll conclude this first day of 2022 with a photo of the Cabrillo Point Light House, which has a beauty of its own. I rendered the lighthouse in black and white to reflect historical photos found in the lighthouse museum.

HAPPY NEW YEAR— Curt and Peggy

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.