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Italian Alps

After that acclamation that I gave Julia Mancuso in my previous post, you would expect this to be about my experience seeing her race in the 2006 Olympics in Torino (or Turin), Italy.  It’s disappointing, but I didn’t actually get to see her ski.  I indeed had tickets to the Women’s Giant Slalom, but… on the day of the race, I took the train up to Sestriere from the city of Turin – and realized that I had left the ticket behind!  It was a foggy/snowy day, so I couldn’t see the course from outside the barriers.  [The photos here were taken during the men’s GS, on another day.]

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Concessions in the ski village at Sestriere, with the mountains and Olympic course in the background.  I didn't get in to watch the races close up, but I had some tasty chocolate-and-red-wine that is a signature of the Italian Alps, and some polenta stirred in a big vat by authentic Piedmontese.

Concessions in the ski village at Sestriere, with the mountains and Olympic course in the background. I didn’t get in to watch the races close up, but I had some tasty chocolate-and-red-wine that is a signature of the Italian Alps, and some polenta stirred in a big vat by authentic Piedmontese.

I didn’t want to waste my train trip up there, though, so I bought a lift pass at a local resort, rented some gear, and spent the day skiing in the Alps!  It was pretty amazing – at the bottom of one run, I found myself on the border of France and Italy.  I didn’t really understand the whole lift system, though, and in the ever-thickening fog and sleet I took a wrong turn on one of my last runs of the day.  I wound up at the bottom of a lift that had closed for the evening, with no idea how to get back where I belonged!  A few minutes later, a couple of ski patrollers came along, looking for stragglers (i.e., me).  They could tell that I was a “dumb American,” and told me in English, “This lift is closed.”  Well, gee, thanks for pointing that out!  I asked them, in Italian, if they could suggest how I might get out of there.  They barely refrained from rolling their eyes as they glanced at each other, then asked, “Can you ski?”  “Yes,” I said, and they motioned for me to follow them down the hill.  They took me down an un-groomed trail through trees and steep drops, not-so-patiently waiting every few hundred yards for me to catch up.  When we got close to the end, they pointed the way for me to get back to the lodge to return my rental equipment,

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?

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?

Hot Springs

…continued from previous post:

One of my motivations for this extended roadtrip had been hot springs… I suddenly felt an urge to take a dip in some hot springs, but, finding myself in Wisconsin, it seemed impossible.  I did some research and determined that my two closest hot springs were in western South Dakota and central Arkansas.  I did a little bit of research before hopping in the car for 20 hours, though, and found out that both of those sites were very developed and not likely to fulfill my yearning.  So, I made sure to stop by a couple hot springs when I was out west in October.

Still, I thought I might as well swing through Hot Springs, since it was on my way, and Clinton had gone to high school there, and anyway it had been on my mind for well over six months and it deserved a look.  It was nothing like I’d expected.View from overlook on Hot Springs Mountain

The town was fairly large, but didn’t seem to offer much of interest, except on the main tourist strip.  In fact, one side of the street along that strip has been pretty much the same for over a hundred years; the other side was full of kitschy stores selling t-shirts and fudge.  The National Park Service has taken over most of the bathhouses lining that street, though the facilities are operated by private concessions.  In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these bathhouses were the main attraction for wealthier visitors who wanted to experience the curative powers of the springs.  However, even those without the means to pay for fancy treatments could bathe in the springs that bubbled up all over Hot Springs Mountain, or in the creek that carried the water through town.  While that practice was ultimately stopped due to concerns about hygiene, and the creek was channeled under the road in the late 19th century, free drinking water from the hot springs is still available at several “jug fountains” around the area.

Drinking water? From hot springs?  Well that’s the thing of it… these aren’t “hot springs” like we find in volcanic regions, so much as springs that are hot.  The water comes out of the ground at 142°F on average, but it lacks sulfur and most iron, and is therefore clear and nearly tasteless.  It is safe for drinking as it comes out of the ground, and I can personally attest that it’s pretty good.

Hot Springs National Park has a long history –  the area was first set aside by the federal government in 1832, less than 30 years after the Louisiana Purchase added the territory to the United States.   Due to conflicting land claims, the government didn’t take active control of the springs until 1877, and it became a National Park in 1921.  It was around this time that the park had become a popular location for those seeking cures to medical ailments, and the large bathhouses were built.  The only one still operating in the traditional way today is the Buckstaff (since 1912), but the Park Service has renovated the Fordyce to its original (1915) condition, including museum displays and captions describing the various remedies offered at the time.

I didn’t have a long time to spend there, and I didn’t do any “bathing,” but I definitely learned something in Hot Springs!  I was a little overwhelmed by the very commercial atmosphere of it at the time, and quickly escaped to the driving loop and overlook trail on Hot Springs Mountains.  In retrospect, though, it is a rather interesting place and I would like to go back sometime and experience it for what it is… now that I know.

Memories

While no match for the torrents of the Cascades, LaSalle Falls is the highest waterfall in Florence County, at 14 ft. Here, it is a torrent of its own, after 4 inches of rainfall in just over 24 hours!

A year ago today, I was in the Cascade Mountains in central Oregon.  Tall trees, snowy bowls, swiftly-flowing streams, crisp mornings, lava beds.  In some ways, that landscape was radically different from the one I’m in now, but I’ve been reminded of my time there recently.  In fact, over the last several weeks I have thought back on most of last fall’s journey.  Depending on the stage of the season and the weather conditions, I have been reminded daily of everywhere from Isle Royale to the Rocky Mountains, down to West Texas and back up through the Ozarks.

We have had our share of cold and damp in northeastern Wisconsin this fall, with our first frost over Labor Day weekend, 3 hard freezes in September, and two nearly straight weeks of rain and drizzle.  The last couple weeks, however, have made up for my disappointment with the failed garden, as we’ve had nearly constantly clear skies.  This, along with the natural senescing of vegetation, has resulted in low humidity, near-record daytime temperatures (81 today!), and chilly evenings (except for this weekend, when I sat around the campfire in shorts and didn’t feel a chill until after midnight).  It feels like waking up in the mountains.  Specifically, it feels like waking up in the Rogue-Umpqua National Forest south of Crater Lake, where I was on October 4th of 2010.

The Pine River at Meyers Falls in northern Florence County, WI

What exactly does that forest have in common with the Chequamegon-Nicolet, other than the hyphen?  They both have Wild Rivers flowing swiftly over bedrock.  Chilly, dewy October mornings with warm, sunny afternoons. Sandy soils supporting conifers and heath species, with an understory including wintergreen and the always-popular pipsissewa.  In that respect, really, it’s not too different from, say, the Superior National Forest that I hiked through on my way to Isle Royale, at the beginning of my trip.  Or the Chippewa that I crossed in drizzle through northern Minnesota, watching the beginning of the brilliant fall foliage.  It’s easy to be reminded of those places from here in Florence County.

Heading north on WI-55 in northern Forest County, WI

Fallen leaves and drooping Wild Rice characterize the "north country" in the fall, here at Glidden Lake in Iron County, MI

Though one of the smallest counties in the state of Wisconsin, Florence Cty. actually has two distinct ecoregions in it – the “northern forests” that I cited above, and a bracken grassland/jack pine barrens that is an open, hilly

Jack Pines dot the bracken grassland at Spread Eagle Barrens State Natural Area in northeastern WI

landscape of sparse vegetation, growing on sandy glacial outwash.   When I’m over in the eastern half of the county, I’m no longer reminded of the wilds of Oregon or the headwaters of the Mississippi.   Instead, I feel as though I never left the glacial hills and aspen parkland of northwestern Minnesota.  As the colors turn to browns and reds, it even looks a little like eastern and central Montana, or the hills of West Texas.

Ferns, heath, and trees changing color at Lake Mary Plains in Iron County, MI

Blueberries and other heath species have colors as brilliant as the scrub oak around them

Which reminds me… I still have some catching up to do!  The long-awaited story of my travels through Texas is coming up soon, and I hope to be caught up on all of last year’s adventures before a year has passed.  After that, I’ll fill in more of what I’ve been seeing since my return!

Carlsbad Caverns

Carlsbad Caverns

October 18, 2010

Mile 6954

Carlsbad, NM

Twenty-four hours after strolling in shorts and a tank top in the hills of Tucson, I woke to a chilly morning in Cloudcroft, New Mexico, the crisp, near-freezing air and pine trees around me a welcome break from the hot deserts.  [Thanks Gordons!]  Within hours, however, I was back down in the dusty towns east of the mountains, on the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert.

In the far southeastern corner of the state, on the edge of the Guadalupe Mountains, lies Carlsbad Caverns National Park.  First explored by Native American Indians over millennia ago, white settlers discovered a portion of the cavern in the 1800s, and investigated it in the early 20th century.  It became a National Monument in 1924 and a National Park in 1930.  I don’t have specific statistics on it, but I would bet that it is one of the most-visited parks, over time.  This is particularly impressive, given that the cave is largely in pretty good condition.  Visitors used to enter on a long, long staircase, but there are now elevators to the cave level, and hand-held tour narratives for the “Big Room.”  The alternative is to walk down a concrete ramp from the gaping “natural entrance” to the cave, which closes a few hours before sunset so as not to interfere with the bats that use it to enter and exit the cave.   I got lucky and arrived just in time to go through the Natural Entrance.  Since I was the last one in for the day, and mid-week October is a low season for tourism, I had the cave to myself for most of my descent from daylight to the dimly-lit formations of the caverns below.  As far as what I saw there, I’ll let the photos do the talking, even though my point-and-shoot camera can’t do justice to the sights! 



The National Park isn’t only about the below-ground attractions, and I was able to see some pretty interesting things even with my limited time on-site.  I was able to note where a flash flood had flattened vegetation and torn up brush, and beyond that was an overhang used as a rockshelter by Native Americans.  I wish I’d had more time to spend in the park, as the late Carlsbad Caverns National Park in the Chihuahuan Desertfall flowers were in bloom and it would have been nice to explore the longer hiking trails and wilderness areas.

After touring the cave, though, I only had about 45 minutes to kill before the evening Bat Flight program began.  We visitors gathered in the outdoor amphitheater just above the Natural Entrance, and an interpretive ranger discussed bat facts and answered questions until the spectacle started: Mexican (sometimes known as Brazilian) Free-Tailed Bats began to pour from the cave and fly toward the valley and plains to the south.  I stuck around and watched for just under an hour – we were told that it might take hours for the million-plus bats to empty from the cave for their evening meal of flying insects from the fields below.  It was impressive to watch: at first glance, it seemed like a disorderly exodus, but, as I watched, order took shape in the flight patterns.  The bats flew out of the cave and turned to the right, circling counter-clockwise around the “roundabout” in front of the Entrance until there was a “lane” free to head up and over the lip of the mountain that separated the cave entrance from the vast plains of southeast New Mexico (and Texas beyond).  I was thoroughly impressed by the capabilities of bat sonar, as the Mexican Free-Tails consistently avoided even the thinnest grass and agave stems despite being crowded into a narrow area. Photography isn’t allowed in the amphitheater, but if you check out the links above, they have some photo and video of the Carlsbad bat flight.

Bats are truly amazing and unique creatures!  That is why the recent spread of White Nose Syndrome (WNS) among hibernating bats is such a devastating issue.  Check a future post for more information on this disease!

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!