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.

A ‘Ghost Mill’ at the Southern Entrance to Death Valley

Old, abandoned towns of the West are given the name of ghost towns. While Ashford Mill hardly meets the requirements of being a town, I decided we could at least think of it as a ‘ghost mill.’

Abandoned mines litter Death Valley’s history. In my last post, I featured one of the most successful mines in the area, the Harmony Borax Works. It was so successful that the twenty-mule team responsible for hauling its ore across the desert served as a logo for the long running TV show, Death Valley Days. The show was hosted by none other than Ronald Reagan in the 1964/65 season when I was a student at Berkeley. It’s possible I even watched an episode or two while avoiding the baton-wielding police sent to campus by Edwin Meese, Oakland’s District Attorney at the time— and Reagan’s future Attorney General.

Mercury, talc, gold, silver, sodium chloride, Epson salts, tungsten, and copper were some of the other minerals that miners pursued with visions of wealth dancing in their heads. Few were successful. Some 2000 mine ruins were left behind as their legacy. Ashford Mill is one such ruin. It was built by the Ashford brothers to process ore from their Golden Treasure Mine located 5 miles to the east in the Armargosa Range. The brothers alternated working the mine and leasing it out to various companies for over 30 years until they finally gave up in the early 40s. A lot of money, work and heartache was devoted to the effort, but the ‘golden treasure’ was not to be found. Today, all that remains of the mill are the cement walls of what was the office and a few remnants.

A view of the office as it now looks. I decided in would be fun to photograph the surrounding desert using the various openings as frames.
Looking out toward the Panamint Range.
The Golden Treasure Mine is located up in the mountains.
While there was little left of the old mill, I found this timber beam rather impressive.
Here’s Peggy looking cool in her shades while standing next to our red Toyota Tacoma. The Amargosa Range is in the background.

For all of our trips into Death Valley over the years, Peggy and I have never entered from the south end of the park. We remedied that this time by heading over to Pahrump from Las Vegas following Highway 160 and then cutting over to the remote town of Shoshone on 178 and on into Death Valley. Following are some of the photos that Peggy and I took illustrating this route.

Looking east from the southern entrance to Death Valley, Mt. Charleston dominates the view. A ski area for Las Vegas is located up in the mountains. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
The road worked its way around this rock. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Climbing up toward the pass into Death Valley provided views like this. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
And this.
Once over the top we began to make our way down into Death Valley.
The Panamint Range can be seen stretching across the horizon. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
I liked the contrast here.
Rocks made up of different minerals and laid down under differing geological conditions provide the color for which Death Valley is famous. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Check out this mountain as an example.
I’ll wrap up our trip into Death Valley with this photo that demonstrates just how flat things can get. I loved the perspective of the road disappearing into the distance. It seems like everything was converging.

NEXT POST: A bit of Las Vegas and the road north to Reno.

The Devil’s Golf Course in Death Valley… An Interlude

The sun beats down on the Devil’s Golf Course in Death Valley.

Only the Devil could play golf here.” 1934 National Park guide book.

Peggy and I are playing hooky, extending our seemingly endless time away from home. One would think that backpacking the PCT, visiting Puerto Vallarta, and spending over a month with our kids in Florida and North Carolina would satisfy our wandering needs for a while. But no, here we are in Las Vegas, or Lost Wages, as I like to call it, ensconced in a comfortable suite at the very southern tip of Las Vegas Boulevard, the infamous Strip. Or is that famous?

Few people who visit this city venture outside of its mecca of gambling and entertainment pleasure palaces. Peggy and I always do. There is much to see and do. There is a desert on its doorstep, and it is a desert of rare beauty. Death Valley National Park is a prime example. It is a mere two hours away and Peggy and I drove out there on Sunday. To us, it’s like seeing an old friend; we have been there many times.

It is a geologist’s dream— there are rocks everywhere, and the rocks all have stories to tell. It’s a story of ancient seas and lakes and volcanic activities and clashing, mountain-building plates. Death Valley is a rift valley, or a graben in technical terms, formed along a fault zone between two mountain ranges. As the mountains were thrust up by tectonic forces, the valley dropped between them, several thousand feet. The two mountain ranges have since filled the valley up with eroded debris.

The shallow Lake Manly filled the basin a few thousand years ago. As the climate of the area changed and became more desert like, the lake dried up. Its briny waters left a deep deposit of salt behind, which brings us to today’s post. The Devil’s Golf Course is located a short 10 miles away from Bad Water Basin, which, at 282 feet below sea level, is the lowest point on the North American continent. Water that drains into the Basin melts the salt and becomes undrinkable, thus the name. The Devil’s Golf Course is several feet higher and avoids the melting water. Instead, capillary action pulls salty subsurface water up creating the crystalline structures that the area is famous for.

Peggy and I caught the area at a particularly good time for photography, which surprised me, given the location of the overhead sun. Anyway, here are the results.

This close up provides a view of the crystalline structures developed by the capillary action. BTW, they are composed of 95% table salt. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
I took this photo looking east toward the Amargosa Range.
Looking southwest along the Panamint Range.
Peggy photographing the Devil’s Golf Course provides a perspective on the size of the crystalline structures.
A final shot of the Devil’s Golf Course backed up by the Panamint Range. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

NEXT POST: A ghostly reminder of Death Valley’s past, and more.

Grand Canyon Odyssey, Part I… The Wilderness Cure

The Grand Canyon is a world treasure. I've backpacked into it several times and rafted the Colorado River through it. Once I even rode a mule into the Canyon.

The Grand Canyon is a world treasure. I’ve backpacked into it several times and rafted the Colorado River through it. Once, I even rode a mule into the Canyon. The mule carried me over the trail you can see right front center.

I followed Highway 50 east out of Sacramento, cut off at Pollock Pines and picked up the Mormon-Emigrant Trail. Soon I was on Highway 88 climbing up and over Carson Pass. Newly dressed aspens, snow-covered mountains and frothy creeks reminded me that summer was still two months away.

Kit Carson came through here in February of 1844 along with John C. Fremont. The snow was deep and food was limited. They ended up dining off of their horses, mules and the camp dog. The dog apparently went quite well with pea soup. Later, the trail they discovered would become a major entry point for the 49ers and run through the foothill town of Diamond Springs where I was raised.

By evening I had driven down the east side of the Sierras and made my way into Death Valley. I was setting up my tent under a convenient Mesquite tree when the sun sank behind the Panamint Range. Coyotes howling in the distance lulled me to sleep.

I walked out from my campsite in Death Valley as the sun set and listened to coyotes howl in the distance.

I walked out from my campsite in Death Valley as the sun set and listened to coyotes howl in the distance.

By ten thirty the next morning I was in another world, investing quarters in a video poker machine at Circus Circus on the Las Vegas Strip. Luck was with me. Two hours later found me crossing over Hoover Dam with an extra hundred dollars in my wallet. It represented two weeks of backpacking food. I zipped across the desert, picked up Interstate 40 at Kingman and cut off toward the Grand Canyon at Williams.

Circus Circus Clown.

A little treat for those of you with Coulrophobia, the Circus Circus Clown. No wonder people fear clowns.

I wasted little time checking in at Mather Campground. The Canyon was waiting. An unoccupied rock off the trail near Yavapai Point provided a convenient spot for dangling my legs over the edge. Nothing but several hundred feet of vacant space existed beneath my hiking shoes. A slight breeze on my back reminded me of my mortality.

Sitting on the edge of the Canyon isn't for the faint-hearted. One can fall hundreds of feet.

Sitting on the edge of the Canyon isn’t for the faint-hearted. One can fall hundreds of feet.

My musings were interrupted when a fat Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel poked his furry head up next to me and demanded payment for my front row seat. I recited the Park’s rule on feeding animals and told him to go eat grass. He flipped his tail at me and squeaked an obscenity as he scrambled off in search of more gullible victims.

Twilight was painting the Canyon with a purplish tinge but I could still make out the distinctive colors and shapes of the rocks. While my right-brain admired the beauty, my left-brain was busy considering eons upon eons of earth history. The dark, tortured walls of the inner canyon, now obscured by evening shadows, reached back over a billion years to the very beginnings of life on earth when our ancient ancestors had frolicked in even more ancient seas.

While the sun still touched the rim of the Canyon, the inner walls turned a dark purple. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

While the sun still touched the rim of the Canyon, the inner walls turned a dark purple. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Erosion had given these Precambrian rocks a flat top, shaving off some 500 million years of earth’s history and creating what is known as the Great Unconformity.  Since then vast seas, Saharan size deserts, lakes and rivers had patiently supplanted one another as they marched through Paleozoic time depositing layer upon layer of the canyons walls.

My present perch was made of Kaibab limestone created by an inland sea some 250 million years ago. Dusk slipped into dark and my thoughts turned to my impending backpack trip.

I had backpacked into the Canyon several times. My objective this time was to explore the Tanner Trail on the eastern end of the South Rim road.

The next day was devoted to careful preparation. Seventeen years of backpacking in all kinds of terrain and climate had taught me that there was no such thing as being too careful. I approach compulsive when it comes to backpacking alone. Had I resupplied my first aid kit? Was my stove still working? Did I have adequate fuel? Did I have my flashlight, signaling mirror, whistle, compass and maps? Did I have enough but not too much food, water, reading material, etc. etc. etc.?

Safety, comfort and even entertainment are important but weight is always an issue.

Having satisfied myself that I could survive seven to nine days in the Canyon, I headed off to the backcountry permit office. The more environmentally inclined within the Park Service are seriously into minimizing impact and promoting safety. Requiring wilderness use permits is their primary tool in achieving these goals.

I patiently waited behind six other would-be canyon explorers and had memorized the minimum impact lecture by the time my turn was up. The ranger frowned when I mentioned the Tanner Trail.

“The trail is poorly maintained, rarely used, 10-12 miles long and arduous,” she cautioned strongly.

“And that,” I replied, “is exactly what I want.”  I was especially enamored with the ‘rarely used’ part.  I had no desire to share my experience with dozens of other people, much less armies of cantankerous mules that leave lakes of fowl smelling pee on the trail. If I had to face a particularly tough physical challenge and be extra careful to avoid a tumble into the Canyon, it was a price I was happily willing to pay.

I was leaving the office when a skinny guy wearing a short-sleeved khaki shirt, blue shorts and hiking boots stopped me.

“Excuse me,” he announced, “I am with the Sierra Club and I couldn’t help but hear you are headed down the Tanner Trail. Given your condition, I would strongly advise against it. You should hike down the Bright Angel Trail. It’s a lot easier and there are lots of other people hiking it in case you get in trouble.”

Now I confess that having just emerged from nine months of hibernating in Alaska I was pasty white and pudgy. I will also allow that the guy was operating under good intentions.

But his arrogance, especially in announcing his Sierra Club membership as somehow making him a wilderness expert, irritated me. Over the years I had known and worked with lots of Sierra Club folks. I am a strong supporter of their efforts to protect the wilderness. I have even run into some who have had more wilderness experience than I. John Muir, the Sierra Club founder, is one of my all time heroes.

Had my unofficial advisor started off with something like, “I have been up and down the Tanner Trail several times, would you like some suggestions?” I would have been quite willing, even eager, to hear what he had to say. But his uneducated assumptions about my lack of knowledge absolutely turned me off. It was everything I could do to maintain a civil tone of voice as I thanked him for his advice and politely told him to screw off.

At 8:30 the next morning my pasty white pudgy body was having an animated discussion with my mind over why I hadn’t listened more carefully to the Sierra Club ‘expert’ the day before. I had started my day by splurging for breakfast at the elegant El Tovar Hotel and then driven out to Lipan Point.

I was now poised to begin my descent into the Canyon. It looked like a long way down. I gritted my teeth and banned any insidious second thoughts.

They came rushing back as I struggled to hoist my 60 plus pound pack. It was filled with seven days of food, extra water and all of my equipment. I had cursed the day before as I struggled to find room for everything. Now I was cursing I hadn’t left half of it behind. I had the irrelevant thought that my journey down would either kill me or cure me.


Sorry to leave you hanging here as I begin my descent down into the Canyon, but I am going to take a break from blogging for a couple of months. It’s going to be tough. I love blogging and I enjoy keeping up with all of my Internet friends. It’s a special group. But five grandsons are descending on our house and I think Peggy and I will be a little busy (understatement). After that I am going to do some traveling— who knows where? (Peggy will be off in London with her sister Jane.) I also need to spend some time marketing my book. Time simply hasn’t allowed me to put in the effort I should.

And finally, I received two notices from Word Press this past week. One congratulated me on my fifth anniversary with Word Press. The second congratulated me on posting my 500th blog. I realized I hadn’t taken a break from blogging since the beginning. So it’s time I did. I will be off Word Press until the second week in September when I will once again be posting blogs, catching up with the folks I follow, and making comments. Have a great summer and thanks ever so much for following me. —Curt

A final view of the Canyon with its multiple layers that represent deposited from oceans, deserts, rivers and lakes.

A final view of the Canyon with its multiple layers that represent deposits from oceans, deserts, rivers and lakes over hundreds of millions of years..

Wandering the Far West in 2014… Interim 2

The cover: A tufa tower in Mono Lake with Sierra Nevada Mountains in Background. Eastern California.

The cover of our 2015 calendar: A tufa tower at Mono Lake with Sierra Nevada Mountains in background. Eastern California.

I am still working on my blog about Peg’s dad and his experience as a Hump pilot in World War II. In fact, Peggy’s brother, John Dallen Jr., is now helping. I’ve been learning a lot. For example, yesterday, I discovered the approximate location where the plane John Sr. was flying crashed in the Indian jungle. I find the new information fascinating, but the research is slowing down the post.

In the meantime, I decided to put up another interim post or two. Today is calendar day. Each year, Peggy and I create a calendar for our families using photos we have taken during the year. Family birthdays and anniversaries are included. This year we are mailing out 28 calendars, which include 80 birthdays and anniversaries.   It’s quite the production.

Since the photos we use on the calendar reflect this past year’s adventures and are among some of our favorites, I thought they would be fun to share on the blog. If you are a regular follower of Wandering through Time and Place, I am sure you will recognize several of them. All photos were taken by either Peggy or me. Enjoy.

January: Burney Falls. Northern California

January: Burney Falls. Northern California

February: Cactus flowers. Valley of Fire State Park, Southern Nevada.

February: Cactus flowers. Valley of Fire State Park, Southern Nevada.

March: Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area in southern Nevada.

March: Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area in southern Nevada.

April: Old road with April flowers in Death Valley National Park. Eastern California.

April: Old road with April flowers in Death Valley National Park. Eastern California.

May: Weathered buildings at Bodie State Historical Park, a ghost town in Eastern California.

May: Weathered buildings at Bodie State Historical Park, a ghost town in Eastern California.

June: Sierra Nevada Mountains form the East. Peggy and I have backpacked through these mountains numerous times.

June: Sierra Nevada Mountains from the East. Peggy and I have backpacked through these mountains numerous times.

July:: Mt. Rainier National Park. Washington State.

July:: Mt. Rainier National Park. Washington State.

August: Humpback whale dives when Peggy and I are on kayaking trip off Vancouver Island.

August: Humpback whale dives when Peggy and I are on kayaking trip off Vancouver Island.

September: Burning Man in remote northern Nevada desert.

September: Burning Man in remote northern Nevada desert.

October: Rainbow caught in waves on Oregon Coast.

October: Rainbow caught in waves on Oregon Coast.

November: Sunset in Sedona, Arizona.

November: Sunset in Sedona, Arizona.

December: Bell Rock in Sedona, Arizona.

December: Bell Rock in Sedona, Arizona.



Death Valley Part II: We Are At Zabriskie Point but Where Is R2-D2… The Desert Series

Erosion of rocks created in an ancient lake bed gives Zabriskie Point its unique look.

Erosion of rocks gives Zabriskie Point its unique look.

Zabriskie Point is one of the most photographed spots in Death Valley. Tour busses stop here and disgorge thousands of passengers annually. Everyone comes armed with a camera, or at least a cell phone camera. Twenty shots or so later they are on their way, scurrying back to the bus and Death Valley’s next must-see sight. We are more leisurely in our approach, but we also take a more photos. Erosion is king here, wearing away rocks that were deposited in a lakebed some five million years ago– back before tectonic forces created Death Valley and back before the region became a desert.

Zabriskie Point Death Valley.

As in other parts of Death Valley, the rocks of Zabriskie Point are multi-hued. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Manly Beacon in Death Valley.

Manly Beacon or Point, is another popular view from Zabriskie Point. Justifiably so.

Peggy and I were at Zabriskie Point in the late afternoon. The rocks above Manly Beacon seemed to take on an inner glow.

Peggy and I were at Zabriskie Point in the late afternoon. The rocks above Manly Beacon seemed to take on an inner glow.

The volcanic caprock provides an interesting contrast. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

The volcanic caprock provides an interesting contrast. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

A three-mile trail leads down to the Valley floor from Zabriskie Point and passes through Golden Canyon on the way. For fans of Star Wars IV, segments of the movie were filmed in Golden Canyon. The diminutive, eye glowing Jawas captured R2-D2 and C-3PO there.  So you can think of Death Valley as Tatooine, the home planet of Luke Skywalker. (Tunisia was also used for scenes on Tatooine.)

Golden Canyon looking out toward Death Valley

Golden Canyon looking out toward Death Valley. This photo and the one below were taken from an earlier trip. R2-D2 and C-3PO were captured in the canyon by the Jawas.

Golden Canyon in Death Valley

Golden Canyon looking up toward Zabriskie Point. I am on the trail. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Here’s some Star Wars trivia I picked up when doing research for this blog that you can use to wow your friends: sounds made by dogs, bears, lions, tigers and walruses were combined to create Chewbacca’s voice.

The Twenty Mule Team Canyon that I blogged about in my last post starts a mile or so above Zabriskie Point. A few miles farther, a road jogs off to the right that leads to Dante’s View, which towers some 5000 feet above the valley floor. The last part of the road is steep and narrow but the view is worth it.

Looking down into Death Valley from Dante's View.

Looking down into Death Valley from Dante’s View.

Dante's View provides a spectacular view of Death Valley.

Another perspective.

Given the higher elevation at Dante's View, Spring Flowers were still blooming.

Given the higher elevation at Dante’s View, spring flowers were still blooming.

Indian Paintbrush at Dante's View in Death Valley National Park.

This is an Indian Paintbrush.

I took this photo to capture the very impressive alluvial fan spreading out on the Death Valley floor far below Dante's View. Debris coming down off the mountain had built this fan up over thousands of year.

I took this final photo from Dante’s View to capture the very impressive alluvial fan spreading out on the Death Valley floor far below. Debris coming down off the mountain had built this fan up over thousands of year.

NEXT BLOG: Traveling into the Panamint Range of Death Valley: wild flowers, huge charcoal kilns, and one very large, irritated rattlesnake.

Death Valley: Part I: The Twenty Mule Team Canyon… The Desert Series

Prepare to be dazzled with a kalaidiscope of color on a drive through Twenty Mule Team canyon in Death Valley.

Prepare to be dazzled with a kaleidoscope of color on a drive through Twenty Mule Team Canyon in Death Valley. Various minerals are responsible for the colors.

Death Valley is a land of superlatives. Think hottest, lowest, and driest place in North America. It holds the world record for heat at 134 ˚ F (57˚ C). Ground temperatures have actually been measured at 201˚ F. As for rainfall, there are years without any and the annual average is 2.36 inches (60 mm). Finally, a trip into Badwater Basin, easily reachable by car, will drop you down to 282 feet below sea level.

Given these extremes, a person might wish to travel to Death Valley for the sole purpose of saying he or she has been there. (Or conversely avoid Death Valley passionately.) But from my perspective, the reason for visiting Death Valley is its exotic beauty. Over the past three weeks, I’ve taken you to the Valley of Fire and Red Rock Canyon. Not bad on scenery, eh? Consider it a warm up.

I’ve been to Death Valley numerous times and have blogged about it in the past. On our recent trip, we climbed out of the valley and explored other parts of the National Park including Twenty Mule Team Canyon, Dante’s View, Zabriskie Point and the unusual Charcoal Kilns high up in the Panamint Mountains.

Today, we will begin our journey with a drive through the colorful badlands of Twenty Mule Team Canyon. Imagine for the moment, taking 18 mules and two horses, hitching them to a huge wagon, and hauling 10 tons of borax over desert terrain for 160 miles. That is how borax was hauled out of Death Valley between 1883-1889 and it has become part of the local lore and legend. Francis Smith, the founder of Pacific Borax was also a first class promoter and sent his mule teams out to major cities across the US to push his soap products.  At one point, they paraded down Broadway in New York City.

This early, unattributed photo in the public domain, provides a view of the team with its Death Valley backdrop.

This early, unattributed photo in the public domain, provides a view of the 20 mule team with its Death Valley backdrop. The driver had a very long bullwhip to encourage his mules along the way.

Old Dinah steam tractor in Death Valley National Park.

The mules were eventually replaced by a steam tractor. “Old Dinah” is featured at Furnace Creek. Dinah, in turn, was replaced by a railroad.

Twenty Mule Team Canyon was never part of the route the mules followed. So why the name? It could have been to honor the teams but I suspect it was the bright idea of a tour agent. Whatever, no harm was done. Twenty Mule Team Canyon provides a kaleidoscope of color, a laboratory of erosion, and a fun drive.

Road through Twenty Mule Team Canyon in Death Valley.

The 2.8 mile road through Twenty Mule Team Canyon is a fun drive but it isn’t made for large RVs or fifth wheels. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Scene on Twenty Mule Team Canyon road in Death Valley. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

Every corner you turn brings a new view and most are quite dramatic…

Dramatic view along Twenty Mule Team Canyon road in Death Valley.

Case in point.

Road shot traveling through Twenty Mule Team Canyon in Death Valley National Park.

Another road shot. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

View along the Twenty Mule Team Canyon road in Death Valley.

I liked the effect of these contrasting light and dark colors.

Photo of blue skies with puffy clouds provides backdrop for Twenty Mule Team Canyon in Death Valley.

Blue skies, light clouds provide a backdrop for gold, reddish-brown and tan rocks.

Trail in Twenty Mule Team Canyon, Death Valley.

A number of trails wander off into the rocks, inviting visitors to stay for a while and explore. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Funeral Mountains provide a dramatic backdrop in Twenty Mule Team Canyon, Death Valley.

Mountains provide the backdrop here. These, BTW, are the Funeral Mountains.

Distant mountains appear purple in Twenty Mule Team Canyon, Death Valley.

More distant mountains appear almost purple. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Peggy Mekemson checks out the view at Twenty Mule Team Canyon in Death Valley.

Peggy admires the view.

A final view of the riotous colors found in Twenty Mule Team Canyon.

A final view of the riotous colors found in Twenty Mule Team Canyon.

NEXT BLOG: We check out what is probably the most photographed area of Death Valley, Zabriskie Point, and climb 5000 feet above the valley to Dante’s View floor for a bird’s eye perspective.

Death Valley… A Photographic Journey through America’s National Parks

Sand dunes in Death Valley. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

Tall sand dunes with their graceful curves loom up near Stove Pipe Wells in Death Valley National Park. It is quite an experience to walk out and climb to the top of the dunes.

I rode through Death Valley on my bicycle once. It was part of the six-month 10,000-mile solo trip I made around the US and Canada in 1989.

I had started my adventure in the small town of Diamond Springs near Sacramento, California, bicycled down the Central Valley, climbed up and over the Sierra Nevada Mountains from Bakersfield and, dropped down into Panamint Valley.  The climb from Panamint Valley to Death Valley was the toughest of my whole trip. I was out of the saddle, standing on the pedals, and travelling at 2-3 miles per hour under a relentless sun.

Halfway up there was a large water tank for cars that overheated and couldn’t make it. There was nothing for bicyclists. I was on my own. The climb was burned into my memory banks. But I made it, crossed the valley, and biked on to Maine, where I turned around and started back.

I had been to Death Valley several times before I made the bike trip and have been back several times since. The National Park’s solitude, stark beauty, history and geology have brought me back, time and time again.

Photo of sand dunes and mountains near Stove Pipe Wells in Death Valley by Curtis Mekemson.

I like this photo because of the contrast between the golden dunes and purple mountains in evening sunlight.

Devil's Golf Course, Death Valley. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

They call this section of Death Valley the Devil’s Golf Course. It’s easy to see why. Salt deposits left behind by an evaporated lake go down several thousand feet. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

It is difficult to imagine the variety of landscapes in Death Valley unless you have been there. This photo was taken looking down from Zabriskie Point.

Photo of Zabriskie Point, Death Valley taken by Curtis Mekemson.

Another photo taken from Zabriskie Point. This one looks out across Death Valley.

Golden Canyon, Death Valley. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

You can hike up to Zabriskie Point following an old road that goes up through Golden Canyon. Part of the original Star Wars movie was filmed in this canyon. I kept a sharp lookout for Luke.

Here, Peggy caught a shot of me following the trail toward Zabriskie Point. The hiking was ever so much easier than my bicycling experience. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Here, Peggy caught a shot of me following the trail toward Zabriskie Point. The hiking was ever so much easier than my bicycling experience. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Golden Canyon, Death Valley. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

Our view on the way down Golden Canyon.

Artist's Palette, Death Valley. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

The colors here are created by different minerals in the rocks. Because of the color, this site is known as Artist’s Palette.

Traveling north, we come to Ubehebe Volcanic Crater, another of Death Valley's geological wonders. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Traveling north, we come to Ubehebe Volcanic Crater, another of Death Valley’s geological wonders. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Warning sign at Ubehebe Crater, Death Valley. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

You are welcome to walk into the crater. Falling is not recommended, as demonstrated by Peggy.

Small crater next to Ubehebe Crater in Death Valley. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

A smaller crater next to Ubehebe.

Erosion patterns near Ubehebe crater. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

I think the erosion patterns near Ubehebe are fascinating.

Scotty's Castle, Death Valley. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

Scotty’s Castle. The history of Death Valley is filled with characters and none was greater than Scotty. Born Walter Scott, Scotty was a first class con-man who persuaded Albert Johnson to build the castle and then claimed it was built with money from his own gold mine. Albert, who loved Death Valley and liked Scotty, went along with the tale.

Scotty's Castle at Death Valley. Photograph by Curtis Mekemson.

The clock tower at Scotty’s Castle.

NEXT BLOG: We will journey east to the Everglades and I will introduce you to my all-time favorite buzzard.