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Walk Around the World

IMG_0184Since I can’t do much of anything myself right now, I am living vicariously through others to get my adventure fix.  I recently read a months-old issue of National Geographic magazine, and found this article on one man’s plan to walk around the world, following the path of human expansion out of Africa and eventually into the Americas.  I find it fascinating on many levels!

For one, I have long had an interest in walking across the country.  This will never happen, largely because I think my weak joints would fall apart if I attempted it, but it is fun to think about.  In 2000, while hiking and walking regularly along Rattlesnake Creek in Missoula, Montana, I concocted a plan.  At the time, I imagined asking random strangers along my route for lodging – a spot to pitch a tent in a yard, or a couch to sleep on.  I would let word of mouth follow me ahead, and I would build a network of generous folks willing to help out their fellow travelers.  I would maintain a list of those willing to offer a couch, and screen potential travelers.  There might even be a place in all this for the internet, I thought.  Remember, this was at a time when we had just begun making our own plane reservations via online sites, before craigslist had spread out of the Bay Area, before Facebook (Friendster, now that’s a different story…).  Most people did not have cell phones, there wasn’t even decent infrastructure for cell phones and internet across the nation.  It is both humorous and overwhelming how much things have changed in such a short time!

In his around-the world trip, Paul Salopek seems to be doing an excellent job of integrating 21st-century technology into his primitive mode of transport.  The website for the project includes a wonderful array of information: “dispatches from the field,” “milestones,” and “map room” showcase these remarkable well.

 

Top 10 Places I Want to Go Next

It has come to my attention that what started as a “travel” blog has morphed into a “nature” blog.  This is because I have been traveling primarily locally – to those who don’t live here, it is probably just as interesting as anything else, but for me it has lost the zing! of “something new.”  Rather than focusing on the specifics of my routes, my campsites, the novelties witnessed, I’ve been looking a little more closely – at the flowers in bloom, the curious insects that cross my path, the riffles of water babbling over bedrock.  Now that the flush of spring and the annual “newness” of nature is fading into the laziness of summer, I’m going to turn over a new leaf (so to speak), and profile my travels a little more.  To kick it off, on this rainy day,  I’m going to do a little dreaming about my next vacations – some shoe-ins (I already have the plans in place), some a bit more of a stretch (might be years down the road).   I heartily welcome tips for travel to these locales, features not-to-be-missed, and ideas for great road food along the way!

1. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore – Upper Penninsula of Michigan.  Natural wonders, backpacking trails, and if it’s timed right, swimming in Lake Superior!  I hope to get there in mid- to late-August of this year, when the water is as warm as it’ll get (though it still takes my breath away)!

2.  The Everglades, Florida.  I wanted to see it before the wetlands were consumed by the rising sea levels, but it appears that the Burmese Pythons have beat climate change to the destruction of this global treasure.  The sooner the better, to see the amazing flora and fauna of these swamps.  I hope to schedule a trip this winter for a 7-10-day exploration of the area – at a time when the heat is at a minimum!

3.  Central America.  At this point I’m thinking of the Dominican Republic, to combine some eco-tourism with Caribbean beaches and tasty Latin food, plus exercising my Spanish a little bit.  Can I do the Everglades and the Caribbean in one winter?  I doubt it, but we’ll see!

4.  Sawtooth Mountains and Salmon River, Idaho.  I loved this place from the first moment I saw it – and I got to see it for a full 24 hours, because my car broke down and needed some new electronics installed in Ketchum (in 2001!).  I’ve been working on finding the time to head back there, plus a partner for a wilderness backpacking trip, ever since.  I’m ready to actually put some energy into it now, and am hoping to get something in place for next summer.Challis Stream

5.  The Carolinas.  North or South, it doesn’t much matter at this point, because I’ve never been to either… working on that quest to hit All 50 States.  Plus I have heard they are beautiful.  Suggestions very welcome for this one!

6.  Ashland, Wisconsin and the Bayfield Peninsula.  Until a year ago, I had never been to this cool town and awesome natural areas surrounding it and jutting out into Lake Superior.  Then I went for a day for work, and whetted my appetite.  I hope to get back this summer or fall for a long weekend, maybe to take in some music at the Big Top Chautauqua or just camp, hike,  swim, and check out the historical and cultural attractions in the area.

7.  Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Milwaukee?  Yes!  Every time I go there, I have fun and get to see something new.  I want to spend a good 2-3 days there and have some a couple nights on the town.  It has all the culture, history, and charm of an old industrial Midwestern city, but it isn’t quite as big and bustling as Chicago!  Great food, great beer, lovely lakeshore, good music, museums, and baseball!.  I already have plans to head there in July, so keep watching for updates!  Recommendations on favorite restaurants are particularly welcome here – I have loved the Comet Cafe every time I’ve been (you should try their bacon pancakes -delish!), but want to try something new!

8.  Louisiana.  I went to New Orleans for the first time a few years ago, to visit my sister and explore the town.  It was great fun, but I want to explore some of the natural areas in the vicinity a bit more.  I’ve always wanted to go to Tab Benoit-sponsored  Voice of the Wetlands concert – blues all-stars uniting for the preservation of Louisiana’s bayous and traditional culture.  I’d love to rock out to great blues music, dine on oysters, and explore the amazing natural treasures on our southern coast!  If not this year, then next!

9.  Is it #9 already? Man, what to choose?  Or, more specifically, what not to choose?  Can I cop out, and make this spot into a whole category?  Well, sure I can – it’s my blog, I make the rules!  So I’m going to choose “Places I want to revisit” – and include Berlin, Germany; south-central Alaska; and the southwest desert all in one!  Since I don’t have any of these vacations even mentally in the works yet, they’ll have to get separated out more once a few more of the destinations above get knocked off.  I’m looking forward to it, though!

10. A new continent. Yes, another cop-out.  Technically, I have never been to most continents.  But if I can get to one new one in the next 5 years, it’ll make me happy.  Asia and Antarctica top my list of potentials, but I wouldn’t sneer at a free trip to Africa or Australia, either!  It appears that I only have “A” continents left in my never-visitied category…

How about you ? Where to next?  Or must-see places that I left off my list?

Wildlife Abounds

Agave, Century Plant, and Big Bluestem - where the desert meets the prairie

Although this wasn’t a safari, and it wasn’t the best time of year for “botanizing,” my innate interests in plants and wildlife made for some memorable experiences.  I looked at plants every day, and learned many new ones as I traveled to new regions and climates.  It was hard to narrow the list down to just a few, but I did my best, and the list wound up reflecting the iconic species that I encountered, rather than the delicate wildflowers I might have seen in the springtime.  The same is somewhat true of wildlife, though I did not have memorable encounters daily.  In fact, I saw relatively few animals  – but what I saw stuck with me.  I had to decide between the wildlife-viewing events that occurred, and those animals that I got to see for the first time, or that intrigued me without learning in-depth about them.  Here’s the result:

Top 10 Flora and Fauna

10. Rabbitbrush and Pelicans

What do low-growing shrubs and fish-netting birds have in common?  Rabbitbrush was ubiquitous in the North Dakota badlands… but also in the Guadalupe Mountains of West Texas!  Pelicans, with their large windspan, were one of the few species aloft during my windy day of birdwatching in the North Dakota plains… and two months later I saw them be buffeted by the breeze on the Texas coast.  Their presence tied together two of the primary destinations of my trip – the most northerly and most southerly.  Rabbitbrush and White Pelicans helped me to realize that our country has similarities not only by latitude, but by longitude as well.  Sure, the climate is similar across the far south, from LA to Houston, and across the far north from Montana to Maine.  But geological commonalities, along with rainfall patterns, create “The Great Plains,” “The Rockies,” and “The Pacific (or Atlantic) Coast” – comparable across temperature climes.  Some of our most iconic species show this quite clearly!

9. Antelope in MT

Since the mountained West was not on my destination list, but simply conveniently between stops, I had forgotten all about its wildlife.  I was therefore surprised to see antelopes on the plains of eastern Montana.  Watching them run when I rolled down my car window to take a photo, I was reminded of Cpt. Merriweather Lewis’s description of attempting to sneak up on them in nearly the same location.  They are quick, with a striking appearance, and for a couple days they were frequent appearances in the meadows along the road – but only in Montana, and then they were gone again.

8. Agave

It was tough to decide which of the desert species was my “favorite,” because they have some amazing adaptations and unique forms.  I settled on the agave species because they were so varied, but were consistently present throughout the deserts in my travels.   I watched bats veer around them at Carlsbad Caverns, swung from their limbs at Joshua Tree, and saw them growing in the prairie in the Guadalupe Mountains.

7. Fungi

Well, fungi are technically neither plants nor animals, but in a kingdom of their own.  Until I write a “top ten fungi” list, though, they should be honored to be included here.  I saw some awesome fungi on my trip, primarily in the colder and wetter climates – northern Minnesota, the west side of the Rockies in Idaho, and the Cascades in Oregon.  Very cool, and an inspiration to learn more about the mushrooms around me!

6.  Armadillos and Roadrunners and Alligators

Okay, maybe it is cheating to include these all together – but this item is a tribute to all of those animals that I’d never seen before in the wild, and got to see pretty much by accident on this trip.  I saw one armadillo, a couple roadrunners, and a whole lot of alligators… all pretty interesting to watch go about their business.

5. Prairie Grasses

I could pass this ranking off as another case of a suite of plants tying together diverse locations… but that wouldn’t be telling the whole story.  I made sure to spend a full day playing in the prairies along the Upper Mississippi as I started my journey, because I knew that I would enjoy that adventure, if nothing else for the next few months.  When I got to western North Dakota, I was pleased to find those same grasses growing among the petrified wood, rainbow-colored cliffs, and cottonwood-lined chalky rivers – it made me feel comfortably “at home” after a few cold and dreary days on the plains.  When I hit the Guadalupe Mountains, I thought that I was still in the desert, and was astonished to see those grasses at my feet as I made my way up the trail – believe it or not, I nearly jumped for joy!  Sure, I liked these plants a lot before leaving home, but going away helped me to see that they could hold their own among all of the other awesome species out there!

4. Oak Trees

Oak trees are pretty awesome, and I’m not the first to think so.  Nearly every culture that has survived where oaks thrive has adopted them as a symbol.  They are revered as a food source, for their longevity, for their beauty, and for being a definitive species in their ecosystems.  “The mighty oak” grows in some places, but in others, like the high desert, oaks are nothing more than shrubs.  This very diversity is amazing, and I enjoyed all the oaks I saw, from the mighty Burr Oak to the Live Oaks of California, to the tiny Gray Oaks in the mountains.  But maybe the best one was when I found the Chinquapin Oak in the mountains of West Texas – I squealed with excitement at the time, and I still like re-telling the story today!

3. Large Ungulates: Roosevelt Elk, California and Moose, Isle Royale

I won’t re-tell the stories of these encounters, because I’ve already devoted full posts in my blog to them (click links above if you missed them).  However, these chance encounters with very large (and frustrated) male animals will definitely stick in my memory for a long time to come.  Definitely not the kind of adventure I could have had sitting on my couch!

Roosevelt Elk among the Redwoods

2. Redwoods

A lot of other items made it onto this list by surprising me – either by their presence or by their significance.  I knew the Coast Redwoods were there in northern California, and I knew that they would be impressive.  They were.  ‘Nuff said!

1. Waterfowl at Brazos Bend

I was going to put this item a little lower on the list, until the experience I had earlier this evening.  I realized that, had I not swung into Brazos Bend State Park, had I not taken the hike that I did, I would not be where I am today – in every sense of the phrase.  For the first time in my life, I was captivated by birds, and wanted to keep watching them and learning about them.  It convinced me that a career in natural resources was worth struggling for, and if I hadn’t made that decision, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be in the position I am now.  Even if I were, though, I wouldn’t have opted to spend my evening watching returning migrants splash into the flowages and sedge meadows of northwest Wisconsin, if I hadn’t found out how cool they would be.  More about that adventure coming soon!

Favorites

Shortly after returning from my big trip a year and a half ago, I took a new job and moved to the northeast corner of Wisconsin – a land of tall pine trees, clear waters, and primal predators.  Living in the land of wolves, Wild Rivers, and old-growth hemlock has its perks, but I alternated between exploring my new territory and missing the cows, prairies, and delectable local brews (and cheeses) of the southern portion of the state.  I’ve had a lot of questions about what I’ve been doing up here (and, from the skeptics, what there is to do up here), but new friends have also been asking me about the trip I took, and one of the first questions out of everyone’s mouth is, “So, what was your favorite part?”  In light of that, before I jump into my “new” adventures, I thought that I would present a post on my “Favorites” from the cross-country travels that inspired this blog.

That proved to be a little more difficult than I thought.  There are a few places that stand out as #1 or #2 on my list, but when I try to expand that to a Top 5 or Top 10, I find myself asking, “Well, Favorite what?”  Places, people, and things might be highly memorable for only one reason, but not qualify for the overall “Favorite” distinction.  Since they say that people today like easily-digestible, prescriptive information, I thought that I would provide a few different summaries of such things as my favorite foods and beverages, wildlife and plant experiences, music and radio stations, and of course the overall cream of the crop.

I’ll start with a list of places that may or may not have made my overall favorite list, but that might have if I’d given them a better fighting chance.  I call it:

Top 5 Places I Want to Go Back to and Explore More

1. Salmon River/Idaho Rockies

Some of the other places on this list might think that it isn’t fair to include this, since I’ve been hoping to plan a trip out here ever since I first saw the area in 2001, moving between Alaska and California.  I made a conscious choice not to spend time in the Rockies on this last advenure, because I felt like a week-long backpacking trip needed more specific planning.  I wasn’t even planning to go to Idaho, until I made the spur-of-the-moment decision to follow Louis and Clark’s tracks over Lemhi Pass.  My one night on the Salmon River was not only a breath of cool air between the heat of central Montana and that of the coastal Central Valley, but the babble of the blue river was a relaxing break between two long and winding days of driving.  I’m hoping to get back to the general vicinity sometime in the next two years for a more in-depth experience.

2. Sonoran Desert/Tucson, AZ/Saguaro National Park

I also decided not to spend a significant amount of time in the desert Southwest, since I had spent over a week there in 2003, moving back from California.  I did, however, take a more southern route, and the plants of the desert astounded me more than the red rocks of northern AZ and NM had years before.  I dragged my feet a little bit through Arizona, trying to take it all in, but I never had a chance to spend much time in any one place.  Specifically, I would have liked to spend more than 18 hours in Tucson, visiting family and getting to see some of the artistic side of the town.  I would also get slightly out of town to get to see the more wild and undisturbed portion of Saguaro National Park, and to get a better understanding of desert ecology and plant life.  I hope to get back there sometime in the next five years, maybe for a springtime blooming of the desert.

3.  Gulf Coast

When planning my travels in Texas, I didn’t even think of the ocean and beaches, so the time I spent there was short, but enjoyable.  I wouldn’t mind spending a couple days lounging on a beach, eating oysters on the half-shell, and learning about the coastal ecology that is so valuable to the healthy function of our hemisphere.  A couple years back I went to New Orleans for a weekend, and I remember thinking that, if I had scheduled it better, I would have saved some time for the coastal bayous, as well.  I’ll probably get down to somewhere along the Gulf coast in the next few years for an informative, tasty, and relaxing few days!

4. Oregon

Unlike every other place on this list, Oregon was an integral part of the planning for this cross-country journey.  I had never been there, and wanted to see what all the fuss was about.  During my week there, I had the opportunity to look at most of the more exciting parts of the state, but each portion only briefly.  I could spend a lot more time in the mountains of the Cascades and the Coast Range, exploring the neighborhoods of Portland, and dipping my feet in the Pacific.  It would be fascinating to give myself a rigorous course in volcanic geology while driving around the state.  Most of all, however, I’d like to do a focused survey of the fresh-hop beers that are tapped late every summer.  I got a small sampling when I was there, but I was a little late for the peak season, and I hadn’t planned on touring brew houses.  Next time I go back, I’ll make sure to be better organized and have a clearer direction to my visit.  It might be a good idea to trek the mountains before I start the beer tour, though!

5.  Big Thicket

If you recall my recent post on the Big Thicket National Park, you’ll remember that I was very excited about this ecological melting pot, but didn’t even have time to enter the park proper.  I’d like to spend several days in this north Texas/north-western Louisiana area with a few good field guides and maybe even a local naturalist to lead the way.  Not sure when I’ll get back there, but there’ll be some good botanizing when I do!

To all my fellow adventurers out there – have you been to any of these places or done any of these things?  Do you have suggestions for off-the-beaten-path exploration when I finally get a chance to return?

Not a Snorin’ Desert After All

Arizona and the Sonoran Desert

Eastern California

 

Joshua Tree, CA – Tucson, AZ

Mile 5949 – 6493

October 15 – October 17, 2010

Immediately upon leaving Joshua Tree National Park, the desert around me took on a starker appearance.  I saw almost none of the “megaflora” characteristic of the Mojave Desert in the park – no Joshua Trees, no mesquite, none of the larger cacti.  In fact, the desert that had seemed so full of life in the park now looked like the vast wasteland I had always imagined it to be.  For the most part, this continued to be the case as I headed straight east into Arizona, soon crossing back into the Sonoran Desert.

A wink at desolation

The towns I passed through on my way, few and far between, looked equally bleak.  I think that it was the lack of water, combined with generally mild temperatures, that made the buildings and their landscaping somehow less “civilized”-looking than what I am used to.  There was, of course, dust everywhere, buildings didn’t need to have the sturdy roofs and walls that northern snow and cold require, and there wasn’t the water to spare for elaborate gardens, let alone lawns (though some homes, apparently to show off their good wells, had palm trees planted in the yard).  That said, there isn’t much of an economy in the area, aside from ranching and whatever is needed to serve the immediate needs of those ranchers, fifty miles or more from the nearest town of 1,000.  I’m not sure what keeps people out there – though, to be honest, I’m still not completely sure why people tried to settle there in the first place, unless it was the strangely beautiful, otherworldly appearance of the desert.

Saguaro National Park's star attraction

The charismatic cactus of the Sonoran Desert is the saguaro, which can grow up to 50 feet tall.  Sometimes called the giant saguaro, they are the largest cactus species in the United States.  Like the Joshua Trees, large populations of saguaros look like forests, with the other cacti, shrubs, and even small trees serving as the “underbrush.”  I, however, saw only a few saguaros scattered here and there along the hundreds of miles I traveled through eastern California and western Arizona.  This was particularly true in central Arizona, south and west of Phoenix, where ranching and (what passed for) cropland were clearly widespread.  Just outside of Tucson, though, lies Saguaro National Park, set aside to preserve some of the great “saguaro forests” and the rest of the ecological community of the Sonoran Desert.

Western AZ

Why are these giants of the desert – the saguaro and the Joshua tree – nearly invisible outside of the preserves named for them?  I’m not completely sure, but it seems pretty clear that humans are responsible, at some level.   The saguaros in Saguaro N.P. are actually at the edge of their range – in a terrain too steep and cold to support agriculture as reliably as the flats (and in Arizona, that’s really saying something).  Joshua Tree N.P. is in one little corner of the Mojave Desert, yet even in the adjacent town named for that giant agave, there were few Joshua trees around.   Both plants, but especially the saguaro, have had human uses for as long as people have inhabited the desert.  The Tohono O’odham, and the ancient Hohokam before them, ate and preserved the juicy fruits and used the woody stems for building.  It seems likely that early Europeans in the area would have done the same, as a substitute for non-existent trees.  In addition, grazing animals compact the soil and trample young seedlings.

Saguaro "savannah" in Saguaro National Park

While some use of these plants is part of the balance of life and death in the desert, they are a very delicate species and cannot withstand the heavier impacts resulting from white settlement.  According to the national park brochure, a saguaro may grow only ¼ inch tall in its first year, reaching a foot after 15 years, and up to seven feet in 50 years.  It does not begin to flower and produce fruit until around 30 years old.   When one of these cacti it cut down, then, it may take well over a hundred years to replace it, and damaging the surrounding soil and vegetation ecology, or

Prickly pear cactus in Saguaro NP

removing all of the remaining fruits and seeds, will clearly have a devastating effect on the population.

Saguaros and teddy bear cholla cover the hills in Saguaro NP

Enough depressing talk, though – there are places where the desert ecology is well-preserved and maintained, and they are awesome.  I didn’t have enough time to really explore Saguaro National Park, nor did I get to the Sonoran Desert Museum in its west unit, which I have heard from several sources is wonderful.  I did get to drive the loop road in the east unit, though, and get out for a couple short walks.  It would be great to get back and see more sometime – two thirds of the park is designated wilderness, and in the Rincon Mountains on

Saguaro, prickly pear, and barrel cacti share space with creosote bush, palo verde, and others

the eastern side, one can hike up to scrub oak and even Ponderosa pine forests.  Tucson itself, which lies between the two parks, is a beautiful desert city, with towering cacti in front yards and mountains surrounding the town.  My own (great-) aunt’s garden, in the foothills north of downtown, was as beautiful as the National Parks, if slightly less wild.

Joshua Tree National Park

October 15, 2010

Joshua Tree National Park

Cottonwood Springs Road to Twenty-nine Palms, CA

I arrived at Joshua Tree National Park late at night, turning in off the deserted (no pun intended) highway unto a narrow, but paved, road.  The turn was poorly-lit and barely signed, and I wondered for a moment if I was in the right place.  I-10 carries all of the freight and high-speed traffic through the desert Southwest, but not a lot of pleasure-seekers.  The main entrance to the park is in the north, near Twenty-nine Palms, and this southern access via Cottonwood Springs Road does not see much traffic, certainly not at 11 pm in the off season!

The campground was similarly quiet, and it gave me the opportunity to enjoy the desert stars.  I had an excellent view of the night sky, clear nearly down to the horizon – and I had some trouble finding the Big Dipper.  It was almost completely below the hills, and Polaris hovered not far above them.  The last time I’d had such a wide-open and unclouded view of the heavens had been in North Dakota – and it should be no surprise that a thousand miles or so farther south, so close to Mexico, the North Star would have “sunk” significantly lower.  I wasn’t sure yet how I felt about that situation, though.  When I had arrived in Alaska ten years ago and saw Ursa Major high in the sky all night long, with Polaris almost at the apex of the firmament, it had been exhilarating.  From my northerner’s perspective, it’s a little disconcerting to see them disappear below trees or fog.

The view from my tent…

In the morning, though, all my uncertainties about the place disappeared.  The desert was awesome!  The little noises I had heard in the night turned out not to be rodents or insects, but lizards of various kinds scurrying about in the agaves and cacti.  The bugs that had pestered me upon my arrival, flying into my tent and my face without warning, dissipated in the heat of the day.  My first little hike in the morning was around Cottonwood Springs itself, an area of greater moisture where a few trees could thrive – early miners and ranchers had planted palms, and I toured the desert, the palm grove, and some old surface mine remnants.

After that, I began my drive northward on the park road.  The southern portion of Joshua Tree N. P. is in the Colorado Desert, a sub-region of the Sonoran desert.  With the exception of that one oasis of palms and cottonwoods, it is hotter and drier than the northern portion of the park.  Early on this mid-October day, I didn’t

Ocotillo (left) and Yucca (right) against the desert sky

particularly notice a climatic difference, but the vegetation was markedly distinct.  Very little grew there, and I was soon able to identify most of the low-growing cacti and shrubs that I saw: teddy-bear and jumping cholla, yucca, ocotillo, creosote bush, mesquite, and saltbush were regularly spaced

Teddy Bear Cholla looks soft and cuddly, but it’s spines are VERY sharp and difficult to remove!

throughout the gravelly sand.

Mesquite seeds germinating in the desert sand

The southern portion of the park is ringed with mountains and eventually, if you follow the park road north, you will go slightly uphill and through a pass onto a higher plateau.  It is not a huge change in elevation, but apparently it is enough, when combined with other climatic factors, to put you in the Mojave Desert, which supports a little bit more life than the Colorado.  Along the mountain trails, there is juniper and pinyon (and ostensibly scrub oak, though not on the trail I hiked).  Of course, as soon as I got up into that northern plateau, I could see the Joshua Trees everywhere, too.  They are not really trees, but just a very large species of agave that grows like a tree – each “branch” is the plant’s reaction to damage at that location.

An enormous Joshua Tree near the roadside

Desert shrubs and flowers amid the Joshua Trees

On the trail to Ryan Mountain

View from Ryan Mountain to the north and east

Me on Ryan Mountain

The Joshua Trees were certainly impressive!  While I found them lovely, I could see why early European settlers to the area referred to them as Devil Trees before the Mormons applied the current name, recalling the upstretched arms of a praying Joshua.  The very fact that they look like misshapen trees is, in a way, misleading – not only do they not provide the same products that real trees do, but they don’t even have the same “meaning” to travelers.  Usually, trees are a good indication that water is nearby, but, while the Joshua Trees require slightly more moisture than the Sonoran yucca, that water is not easily found or utilized by humans.  Furthermore, trees have long been regarded as evidence of “civilization” by Europeans, especially in their conquest of the American West.  By that standard, this plain looks civilized, especially from a distance.  It is not.  There are many references in the park to gold miners and even ranchers and homesteaders who lived in the park in the 1800s.  I’m not sure I could have made it through the eighteen mild hours that I spent in that desert without the tap at the campground yielding water to my plastic bottle…

 

Dear Readers: This is one of the most often-viewed posts on this site, and readers seem to often get to it based on internet search results.  So I’m curious:  Did you find what you were looking for here?  What information would be more helpful?  What was the most useful or entertaining?  Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Wandering the Desert

Wandering the Desert

A "river" in the Sonoran Desert of western Arizona. This channel is flooded with water when it storms, and an ORV trail in dry weather.

Mile 5359 – 6999

October  14 – 20, 2010

Oakland, CA – Guadalupe Mountains National Park, TX

I spent a week getting from the San Francisco Bay to the Texas Hill Country, passing through three deserts and four states.  For a good representation of how arid this country is, even in the agricultural areas, check out the Trip-Tick page of my journey, and note the river crossings.  I crossed a total of ten (10) rivers in the two thousand (2,000) miles of this leg, and most of those were dry.  The Colorado River (at the AZ/CA border) and the Rio Grande (where I met it in central New Mexico) were the only ones with significant water in them, until arriving in eastern Texas.  I crossed more water-bearing aqueducts than natural flowages.

That’s not to say that there isn’t life in the desert, though.  In fact, when I arrived at Joshua Tree National Park a few hours after sunset, I had been expecting silence and stillness – instead I was assaulted by the chirping of crickets, flying and crawling insects, and the noises of little lizards crawling around in the bushes.   Well, not exactly bushes – mostly in the cactus and agave.

I’m getting ahead of myself a little bit, though.  Between Oakland and Joshua Tree are 500 miles of Central California.  It looks a lot like what you might expect: very flat, very brown, lots of irrigation systems watering the vegetable crops and orchards.  In the morning, I could see workers driving the dusty roads between fields, and watering the trees individually with a small ladder truck.

Near L.A., however, the terrain got a lot more interesting, even if the vegetation maintained its end-of-summer dormancy.  Skirting the city through the hills of Pasadena and the eastern suburbs might even have been beautiful, if the smog hadn’t reduced visibility as extremely as it did.  There was almost no view into the distance, and even on the nearby hills, any green that might have remained was fogged over by the gray-brown air.  The traffic was also about what I expected for down there: horrible.  In fact, the only thing about the Los Angeles area that did not live up to my expectations was the light drizzle I got in the early evening.  Imagine that: after a week of unheard-of solid sunshine in Oregon and northern California, to get rained on in “Sunny” Southern California!  Now, I will admit that I have assurances from locals that there are really nice things about L.A., and that both the traffic and smog were uncommonly bad that day, but I’m just writing what I see…

Most of the way from the hills of Los Angeles to the Colorado Desert of southeast California was driven in darkness, but the monotony of the flat, dry landscape was still apparent.  I could clearly see why Palm Springs is both literally and figuratively an oasis on that route.  It was a little bit surreal to all of a sudden emerge from the total darkness to tastefully lit resorts and subdivisions surrounded by enormous palms.  Large lighted signs for impending concerts by famous pop stars (and once-famous pop stars) lined the road, and casinos and golf courses beckoned.   I’m not on a luxury vacation, however, so I stopped only long enough for gas before plunging again into the dark night, heading east into the heart of the desert.  After crossing a set of small mountains, it wasn’t too much longer before I got to Joshua Tree NP.

Colorado Desert in Joshua Tree National Park

I spent a night and a day there, exploring a little bit of the Colorado Desert and the Mojave to the north.   The Colorado Desert is part of the Sonoran Desert, which makes up most of southern Arizona and southeastern California, along with large portions of Sonora and Baja California in Mexico.   The Colorado (named after the river, not the state) portion of the Sonoran Desert is hotter and drier than the rest of it, however, which became apparent as I moved eastward.  In Joshua Tree, the Sonoran Desert consisted mostly of small cactus and low shrubs, but as I moved into Arizona I saw more and more large saguaro cacti, taller bushes, and plenty of lechugilla agave.  All of it looked like desert,

Just beyond Hope, AZ

however, with little grass growing between the brush or cactus, and dust blowing up at each breath of wind.

Here’s something silly that I hadn’t really realized about the desert sand, and those of you who have lived in the desert (or who have even given it a moment’s more thought than I have) will probably laugh at me: It’s really more “little rocks” than what those of us who come from wet regions see on our beaches.  Of course, that makes sense: the desert lacks not only the constant movement of water to break down its rocks, but also dense roots of vegetation, burrowing insects

Mesquite tree germinating in the desert sand

and animals, decaying organic material, and all of the other things that make sand or soil elsewhere.  And I imagine that the desert winds, which blow unchecked by trees across vast stretches of land, blows away the finer particles more quickly.

One of the interesting things about Joshua Tree NP is that it is on the border between the Colorado and Mohave Deserts, so I went north and west, which was also uphill, and found myself in a slightly cooler, slightly damper ecosystem.  I was told that it was less hot and dry, at least on the scale of yearly averages, but didn’t notice a difference myself on a sunny fall day.  The vegetation, however, was denser and taller, and the Joshua Tree (really an enormous species of agave that proliferates in those conditions) was everywhere.  Check out my next post for more pictures of the park!

Joshua Tree, Mojave Desert

After leaving Joshua Tree and driving east towards Arizona, I was struck by how much more barren the landscape became.  I didn’t have an opportunity to look into it, but I assume that human land use practices have affected the diversity of vegetation and viability of natural plant communities.  Certainly much of that area, as well as western Arizona, was fenced for grazing, though I didn’t really see much grass in there, let alone cattle.  There was more grass than I had seen in either desert in the park, however.  I’m not sure if the grass is planted or if there is just more moisture in certain locales.   In either case, though, if it’s grazed, I can imagine that the cacti would be removed to prevent harm to the animals.  Anyone with knowledge on this is welcome to inform me!

Eastern California

Sonoran Desert, western Arizona

I crossed the Colorado River at Parker, AZ, just below the dam that forms Lake Havasu.  Even in the dark, when I got out of my car, I could tell that there was moisture in the air.  It is amazing how different things smell when they are wet!  I had not particularly noticed the scent of the desert – primarily because it doesn’t smell like much at all, I think.  Of course, the vegetation by the river was also much greener, denser, and more varied, which would account for smelling more like green plants and the more humid air, but I had a similar experience in northwest Texas, as well.  There, I spent a couple days in the Guadalupe Mountains, which is on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert.  Despite the higher rainfall and warmer average temperatures in that area, which bring about greater diversity and density of plant and animal species, there still wasn’t much scent in the air this time of year.  On my last morning there, however, a light drizzle fell, and it brought out that dry-damp smell that comes even up north after long periods without rain.  However, it was stronger than I ever remember it being.  I assume it is because the rain is dampening and washing away greater accumulated amounts of pollen, dust, decay, etc.  Either that, or the daily variety of scents in a temperate climate cause me not to notice them as much individually.  In the relative absence of odor, maybe anything that is giving off water smells more strongly.

Again, though, I’m jumping ahead.  I spent a day crossing Arizona, through more of the same desert ranch-land.  Here and there, I saw heavily irrigated hay-fields, which stood out as bright green against the beige desert.  Quite a bit of cotton was also grown there.  In fact, I don’t think I have ever seen a cotton field, and it took me a while to figure out what it was.  There were also fields of sweet sorghum, which is used not only as a feed crop but also, apparently, as a source of ethanol in the Southwest.  It was larger than the sorghum I’d seen growing in the upper Midwest, and I actually had to look it up before deciding if it was that or some odd variety of corn.

All of these crops, all the grazing, all the watering of the many homes in Arizona (the area including Tucson and Phoenix is the 5th-fastest growing region in the country) does not come without a price.  While visiting Casa Grande National Monument in south central AZ, I read a statistic from 1988 that the water level in the aquifer had dropped over a hundred feet in fifty years.  Casa Grande, which I’ll cover in more detail in a later post, is the ruins of a Native American village, complete with four-story buildings, from almost a thousand years ago.  They were primarily an agricultural community, drawing water not only from a complicated system of canals and aqueducts, but also allowing the roots of hardy plants to draw their own water from the aquifer.  Today, the park noted, many of the mesquite trees were dying, as the water level had dropped from an average of twelve feet below the ground to over 120 feet deep, and the roots could no longer reach it.

View of Tucson

Of course, I also came to understand why people might want to live in the desert, when I spent the night with my Aunt Peggy in Tucson.  Her beautiful home in the foothills, with a lovely cactus garden and sun almost every day of the year is certainly inviting!  I did not spend long there, but hope to return again soon for some hiking and exploring, both of the town itself, and the surrounding areas.  Saguaro National Park, in particular, piqued my interest, but I only took a quick drive through the park’s scenic loop road.  This is an example of the Sonoran Desert at its finest: lots of saguaro cacti, plus plenty of prickly pear, barrel cactus, and various agaves and brush species.

Saguaro cacti in Saguaro National Park, outside of Tucson, AZ

I left Tucson for New Mexico, and drove east on I-10 through many, many miles of unvarying terrain.  In Las Cruces, New Mexico, I crossed the Rio Grande River, carrying a little water on its way down to form the southern border of the United States.  It wasn’t quite as “Grande” yet as it would become later.  I continued east in the dark, so I can’t tell you a thing about White Sands except for this: Alamogordo is 70 miles from Las Cruces, and I could see its lights as clearly from one end of that desert as from the other.  It is completely flat and clearly dry.  East of Alamogordo, I began to climb into the mountains – the southern continuation of the Rockies, though much lower in height and the breadth of the range does not extend as far as it does to the north.  Despite the darkness, I could imagine how beautiful the view must be, and I sensed the changing climate around me.  I spent a night in the company of friends near Cloudcroft, in a pine forest – the very high desert, I might call it, and the chill of that mountain night was refreshing after all the warm weather I’d had; it felt good to put on a sweatshirt!

The following day led me to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, in far southeastern NM, and thence to

Guadalupe Mountains

Guadalupe Mountains NP in northwest Texas.  These parks fall within the Chihuahuan Desert, in the Guadalupe Mountain range, which formed as a reef on the edge of a prehistoric inland sea.  The mountains are beautiful, and the variety of vegetation in the low desert, the relatively moist canyons, and the oak-and-pine-covered peaks was amazing.  I definitely liked this place the best of all my desert travels, so you can expect plenty of photos in future posts on the Guadalupes and the Caverns.

Lechugilla agave in the Guadalupe Mountains

Miles and miles of Texas

Guadalupe Peak is the highest point in Texas, and with over five hundred miles to go to Austin, I’m tempted to say it was all downhill from there.  Not true!  I will go into more detail on the mountains of West Texas, the central plains, and the Hill Country, not to mention Austin itself, after the next few posts that will flesh out these desert adventures.  You’ll have to keep tuned for all that excitement!