Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Long Awaited Guadalupe Mountains National Park

After two incredible months wandering throughout several beautiful parks and forests of Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, these past two weeks on Texas soil have made for a wonderful coming home party.  A picture perfect week at Davis Mountains State Park only got better when followed by 5 nights at South Llano River State Park.  Davis Mountains is one of the rick-man’s favorite places; South Llano River is one of mine.  These two weeks have made for great camping, but the absence of cell coverage and wifi was a reminder of the remoteness of these two beautiful west Texas parks.

Before arriving at the Davis Mountains, our first two nights under west Texas starry skies found us roadside at a KOA in Van Horn, Texas.  This two night stay provided the convenient base camp for a long awaited visit to Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park has been at the top of my “wish list, but never been list” of Texas Parks.  Ever since I started acquiring Mickey Little’s wonderful park guides for Texas, I have wondered about this national park’s 80 miles of trails that explore desert, canyons and highlands of the Guadalupe Mountains.  My research of this locale confirmed that it is not an easy reach for any west Texan, much less an Upper Gulf Coastie resident.  And I knew that this park, by reputation and infrastructure, is mainly a backpacker’s paradise.  The convenience of a campground is constrained by no hookups and camping slots (visualize a small parking lot) for rigs much shorter than the Airstream’s and Suburban’s almost fifty feet. 
I realize that those who know this park well would be embarrassed by the idea of a simple day trip as a way of claiming an experience in Guadalupe Mountains National Park.  But this long awaited visit is my beginning, and I have every intention of going back and spending much more time exploring the trails and the habitat of this rugged, remote and beautiful place.  Oh, wouldn’t it be nice if I still had my Sportsmobile; and if only I had those twenty-something backpacker legs and knees of long ago…

The Guadalupe Mountains span an elevation range from 3,650 to 8,749 feet, with Guadalupe Peak being the highest point in Texas.  I learned that this Permian basin includes the Capitan Reef, the most extensive fossil reef from the Permian age on record. 
The early morning drive, headed north on TX 54 out of Van Horn, was a beautiful drive--remote with few signs of human habitation.  The early morning light and cloud cover provided playful lighting on the mountain range:

And this morning’s eastside view of the White Mountains accentuated the reason for their name:

This one day trip was more about scouting several areas of the park and less about experiencing long hikes in any one area.  But partial hikes around Hunter Peak and McKittrick Canyon provided beautiful views:

The McKittrick Canyon trail provided opportunities for viewing a variety of plants and wildlife, with the textures of tree bark again drawing my attention:

A last stop at the GMNP's Frijole Ranch site provided a perfect ending to a perfect day: adding the Sage Thrasher to my life list.  I have chased after habitats throughout the Texas valley longing for truly good views of this thrasher, only to get BVDs (better views desired) that did not warrant life list status.  And here two Sage Thrashers were, in perfect habitat, dancing and prancing alongside the trail in open brush.  “Look at me; look at me; look at me.”  I will, when I come back and stay a little longer.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Grand Canyon: Postcards from the Rim

Today is the rick-man’s and my last full day in Arizona.  Almost three glorious weeks in Northern Arizona will not be followed by an intended multi-week adventure to the Tucson and south border area.  It is just too hot down south.   And so tomorrow morning we head off in a different direction, continuing our chase for good weather.

This last day will not find me on any trail.  Today is mostly about making preparations to move this condo-on-wheels to more remote locales with a good supply of house-hold provisions, groceries and clean clothes.  The rick-man is out and about running errands.  And so I find myself with an interlude of mid-day alone time inside the Airstream.

The want of precious alone time is no complaint directed toward the rick-man.  Nor is it a pronouncement of weariness with this lifestyle where our condo-on-wheels provides a mobile homestead of approximately 180 ft2 of living space for two people.  It simply is what it is: time alone indoors is a precious commodity when traveling with an RVing partner.

And what is my first action as the rick-man starts up the Suburban and drives into town?  I am nothing if not consistent:  I plug my iphone into the Airstream’s speaker system, turn up the volume, and select “Shuffle” for four of my favorite Joni Mitchell “albums” in my playlist.

Ms. Mitchell has kept me company during most of my therapeutic alone interludes for some forty-plus years.  But my consistency for love of her unique voice and melodic arrangements also comes with a kindness to those less appreciative—I save listening to J.M. until no one else is about.  “Good” grief from roommates and life partners in “the early years” did not present a mission for redemption of my musical tastes or theirs.  It just made any alone time all the more precious.  
Sometime around the age of fourteen I sat alone in my childhood home’s bedroom, and listened to “Blue” with the angst and introspection common to that age’s archetype.  And although I wrote many a stilted poem as part of my routine when alone with J.M., it was my shortest poem that has stayed with my memories and my life-personality all these years later:  Sometimes I Wonder, Sometimes I Wander.

With Joni Mitchell as my mid-day companion this last day in Northern Arizona, I would like to be able to share that I walked the South Rim Trail of the Grand Canyon this week and was overwhelmed with a depth of introspection that warranted a written journal of cascading thoughts and spiritual relevance.  But my 4+ mile leisurely stroll along the south rim was accompanied by only one repeating thought:  It is too big—it is just too big for me to personally understand.  I cannot relate to its vastness from the rim trail.  A baptism into the Grand Canyon’s meaning would, for me, require a trek to the canyon floor.  I am fairly certain of one life destiny:  I will never make that trek, at least not during this lifetime.  The Grand Canyon will remain for me a place too big and too distant to impact my life’s journey.  All I can give it is my respect.  All I can take from it is the photographs of a casual tourist.

And so I relegated my role to that of a pedestrian tourist, attempting to create photographic postcards that family and friends would probably view with ennui.  But I needed to feel some small purpose when in the presence of a place so grand.  I stood at rim’s edge (as close as my fear of heights would allow) and took digital snapshots.

The late morning’s full-ball sun gave my eyes a natural overexposure that would make capturing the vibrant canyon colors a challenge.  The rim’s angle of attack for viewing the canyon walls would make framing the extremes of depth and perspective a greater challenge.  I fought off a feeling of smallness; a sense of futility for my accepted mission.  But I turned and framed and shuttered my camera.  Again; and again.

I share with you my postcards from the rim.  I kind of like them.  But they only model a reality that is too big for me to understand.  Sometime I’ll wonder about this grand place.  Tomorrow I’m going to wander to another corner of Mother Nature’s homestead.  But today I wanted to share my Grand Canyon postcards with you.


Sunday, October 14, 2012

The West Fork of Oak Creek Canyon

Just north of Sedona (off of route 89A) is one of the loveliest hikes that you will ever find.  My first experience hiking the West Fork of Oak Creek Canyon was in late May of 2007.  That almost-summer hike offered multiple sightings of the beautiful Red-faced Warbler.  This week’s mid-October hike brought beautiful fall colors and cool temperatures, few bird sightings, and multiple musical calls of well-hidden tanagers.

The rick-man and I arrived at the trailhead midweek at 8:30 a.m.  The parking lot was mostly empty but enough cars to confirm that this popular hike, during perfect fall weather, would not be a solo adventure.  A $9 fee is required to enter the parking lot.  A bathroom building with pit toilets is available near the trailhead.

My photo of the trailhead sign was not meant to be an abstract self-portrait of myself clad in binocular and blue jean attire:

I took a photo of the trailhead sign to document the 13 stream crossings that would be required of this hike (translate to a total of 26 water crossings for the out and back 6.6 miles).  You see, I am fairly graceful on a tennis court.  And I am fairly surefooted over rough and rocky trails.  But when it comes to crossing creeks I’m as clumsy as I would be attempting to walk a gymnast’s balance beam. 

I’ve watched my friend Mary quickly and gracefully skip and jump from rock to rock over streams in Arkansas campgrounds.  I will follow her at a snail’s pace, with multiple teetering of balance to avoid wet boots. She will encourage me to move faster, urging that I never pause from step to skip to step.  I will playfully accuse her of unfair advantage due to her somewhat petite stature.  And this teasing always results in an energetic reply, with her ever upbeat and feisty spirit, that she is “The Naaational Aaaaverage” in height (5’4”).  I admit to teasing her just to hear her own rendition of national average. 
Put me on a tennis court, and I’ll quickly and athletically move from baseline to net and in-between.  Put me at a stream crossing, and I will not be graceful; but I will have fun.  Slowly.  Really slowly.  And true confession, I would not have crossed one of the 13 streams without my faithful walking stick. But with it, all 26 were crossed with a joyful smile and a dry pair of boots.  This photo shows one of the easier stream crossings with lots of closely placed stones:

The trail leads the hiker through the Oak Creek Canyon, with canyon walls closing in on the trail.  The first mile of the hike offers stunning vista views of the canyon walls:

The further the hike, the more stream crossings and the closer the canyon walls come to touching the trail:

The 3.3 mile hike dead-ends at a beautiful canyon pool:

I would like to say that I spent time at this pool, in solitude, giving Mother Nature my ears and eyes to hear and watch the beauty of this amazing corner of Creation.  But I was not alone, not nearly; what appeared to be an extended family of about ten people were pool-side, greeting the rick-man and me with their light-spirited chatter and laughter. 

And so we paused for a short time, to remember this place and this day, before retracing our steps along one of the loveliest hikes that you will ever find.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Humphey's Peak Trail

It rained most of last night; an expected rain that would accompany the first fall storm to the southwest.  Rain on the Airstream’s roof is one of my favorite sounds. 
This week’s weather forecast for Northern Arizona alerted rain and colder weather for today, with some snow and potential hail at higher elevations.  After a week of perfect fall weather, with full-ball sun each day and high temperatures trying to reach 70 degrees, I looked forward to spending today inside the Airstream listening to the rain.

A trip to the grocery store yesterday brought home fresh produce and fixings to make a chicken and vegetable crockpot soup today.  I’ve discovered the easy secret to most soups:  add about 1 tablespoon of chili powder and one can of stewed tomatoes to my favorite mix, whether fresh chicken and frozen vegetables or three beans and corn.  A weekly use of a small crockpot and rice steamer provides this condo-on-wheels lifestyle with easy dinners after a day outdoors.  And thrown into these “home-cooked” (on-wheels) meals, I’ve influenced the rick-man to adjust his healthy eating habits to support my almost weekly need for a dinner out—for a really big hamburger and plateful of fries; or pancakes, bacon and eggs.  My mother regularly served scrambled eggs, bacon and biscuits or pancakes for dinner.  It is my happy meal.
And so I am a happy camper this morning.  In sweatpants and comfy shirt, I’ve put the rice steamer and crockpot to work.  And now I’m enjoying my Airstream home office, with Willie Nelson, Norah Jones and Greg Trooper keeping me company as I catch up on developing a week’s worth of raw images in Photoshop Elements.  

The Airstream has an excellent four-speaker stereo system that supports a USB plug-in of my iPhone’s music.  My pre-retirement camping trips of past years were a one or two week “get away from it all” break from work and routine--and music and TV were not a part of these trips.  But a multi-month condo-on-wheels traveling lifestyle is just that:  a lifestyle.  And so last night I watched the VP debate on the Airstream’s small flat-panel TV, and this morning I’m listening to the much more pleasant sounds of Willie, Norah and Greg.

My first photos developed this morning are of a fabulous multi-hour trek on the Humphrey’s Peak trail. This trailhead is reached via a beautiful drive to the end of the Arizona Snowbowl road.  The trail begins alongside a blazing grove of Aspens with vista views of other San Francisco Peaks, a volcanic mountain range that includes Humphrey’s Peak, the highest point in Arizona at an elevation of 12,633 ft.
The trail begins with a fairly easy elevation climb on a well-maintained trail that enters a canopy of Aspens:

At higher elevations the trail becomes steeper and rockier, and the forest canopy begins a mix of Aspen and Ponderosa Pine, providing a beautiful setting to pause, to listen and to watch.  My thoughts and senses are overwhelmed by the handiwork of Mother Nature’s creation:

The trail steepens, the rocks become a mainstay of the trail, and the switchbacks tighten toward the portion of the trail above the tree line.  The below photo shows the trail itself, defined by rocks and roots that demand a watchful eye and well placed boot.  Continuing upward is both challenging and rewarding:

After a career that demanded much, including a chronic proving of abilities in a man’s world, my half-century-plus ego needs no stroking in the category of proving my tenacity for bumps in the road.  The rick-man and I share this time in our lives where we hike when we enjoy it, and we stop when we don’t.  Two hours of climbing over rocks and mini-boulders, and stepping over and around the massive roots of this forested habitat began taking its toll on our feet and knees and lower back.  The rick-man uses the expression “my knees are talking to me.”  And so we listened to our bodies, turned around and began our downward descent, a continued challenge to knees and toes. 
For me a perfect hike needs no specified point of conclusion other than a safe return to the beginning.  My feet and lower back were talking, but my mind was listening to the sounds that Mother Nature gently shared during my half-day on this very special trail.
The rain is pattering harder on the Airstream’s roof; the chicken vegetable soup smells lovely; the rick-man just came back inside from taking out the trash to report a dusting of snow on the surrounding peaks.  It is a good day to be at home.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Mesa Verde

I don’t like to constrain my future—especially when it comes to wandering the back roads in our beloved condo-on-wheels.  But I’m not sure I’ll ever return to Mesa Verde National Park.  Don’t get me wrong—it is an amazing place to visit; a place that will stay actively in my pondering of great experiences; a place that echoes of an extraordinary people from a time before.  But I’m pretty sure that this first visit to Mesa Verde will fall into that special category of “once-in-a-lifetime” great events.

My probable non-return is based on my own shortcomings:  my overpowering fear of heights.  From Mesa Verde’s park entrance and pay booth, a twenty-three mile road must be navigated to visit this country’s best-preserved cliff dwellings.  Without question it is a great road; a beautiful drive; and I, in particular, paid special attention to the brilliant yellow stripe that ran smack dab in the middle of it, snaking those twenty-three miles of switchbacks and grades. 

As I waited at the park entrance’s pay booth window for maps and receipt, I looked up at the ribbon of road (and sighted what looked like toy cars wrapping the edge of the mesa).  I wondered, with a bit of a catch in my throat:  what are we getting ourselves into?
But I did it.  I drove the twenty-three miles, several of which had no guard rail separating the trusty Suburban from the extreme (my story, my adjective) drop-off at road’s edge:

With a stop at the Visitor’s Center to purchase $3 tickets for the guided tour to Cliff Palace, I thought the only challenge ahead was the road behind.  I was wrong.

At the designated meeting place, the rick-man and I joined a small group of $3 ticket holders to participate in the Cliff Palace guided tour.  Our excellent tour guide began his story with the logistical information of the tour, emphasizing the descent and ascent required to visit the cliff dwelling.  He reminded the group of the altitude and of the exertion required, and provided clear advice to those with heart or other health-limiting conditions that this was the place to walk away. 

Our tour guide pointed down to two tour groups ahead of us; the most visible group in this photo is the circle of tourists currently experiencing the Cliff Palace tour:

Less visible in this photo (in the upper right corner) is a series of ladders attached to the side of the cliff.  As the tour guide began the story of the cliff dwellers, I was still processing his warning that these ladders were the required “exertion” for exiting the tour.  I looked around at my tourist companions.  My physical fitness appeared better than most in our group.  But I could feel my knees shaking and a weakness in my legs that had nothing to do with my physical fitness level.
The tour guide continued the preface to our tour, and I continued to fixate on the partly visible “path” down to the Palace.  I looked up and over to the distant, just visible, top of the ladder sequence.  At that moment a head appeared at the top of the ladder, pulling a body up over the edge of the mesa and walking away onto the table-top.  I noted that the successful ladder climber (a woman) appeared sans harness or other fool-proof safety equipment.  The weakness in my legs was making standing on level ground a bit of a challenge.

I looked over at the rick-man, my usual partner in height-related fears.  He looked way too relaxed and excited about the exploration ahead, hanging onto every word of the tour guide as tightly as I would cling to those ladders.  I knew I couldn’t walk away.  Even for me, that would be too selfish.

A once-in-a-lifetime visit to Cliff Palace provided a holy experience—a moment in time separate from this twenty-first century: 

I won’t ponder who these people were—I’ll wonder who these people are.  “Who are you—who, who.  Who, who.  (you know the tune)
Special thanks to an outstanding tour guide.  His enthusiasm for sharing the human and natural history of this special place gave witness to his heart-felt appreciation for what he so carefully showed us.

I will remember, as long as memory serves, this special day.  My life journey will have more to ponder from experiencing the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde—even if only this once.  But I really don’t like to constrain my future.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Fall Aspens and the Bird in the Tree

A week in northern New Mexico was more than enough time for me to explore the city life of Santa Fe and Taos.  A week in northern New Mexico was not nearly enough time for me to explore the hiking and birding of the diverse forested habitats.  A favorite hike was in Santa Fe National Forest, off the paved road that leads to the Santa Fe Ski basin, past Hyde State Park.  The multi-mile trail is an old dirt and gravel road, winding its way up elevation and providing beautiful vista views of the surrounding area:

For me, this hike was all about seeing the Aspen trees in their fall foliage, a spectacular yellowish-gold that matches New Mexico’s state flag.  The “quaking” Aspen, as they are called due to the dancing of their dainty leaves in the cool, dry breeze, provided spectacular ribbons of color against the dark green “Christmas Trees” that shared this forest habitat.   (The rick-man and I are formally educated by a grand total of one semester of college-level botany and are only beginning to learn tree-types as a supporting interest to our birding.  Any comments to clarify “Christmas Trees” (fir species?) will be accepted with thanks and a slightly embarrassed humility.)

My wonder at the Aspens quickly moved past their leaves to focus on their beautiful bark.  Textures have always fascinated me.  Whether produced by Mother Nature or human bi-products, I am awestruck by textures.  If I had any artistic talent I could spend a lifetime drawing and painting canvas representations of tree bark.  Many an afternoon I’ve sat with charcoal pencils and drawing pad, attempting to create a two dimensional representation of tree barks found in campsites across Texas state parks.  And many an evening I’ve thrown out the result, knowing no kindergarten teacher would select my picture for Open House display.

Mother Nature’s artistic talents with texture, light and shade are beautiful:


The rick-man birded as I photographed: 

My favorite keepsake conversation of the day was when the rick-man came up to me as I was looking down, busily manipulating my camera settings.  Quietly he said:  “What is that bird in the top of the tree?”  Looking up at a landscape painted with trees, I quietly responded:  “Which tree?”  And honest to goodness this was his reply, in absolute seriousness:  “The one with a bird in the top of it.”  I just stared at him and wondered at Mother Nature’s creation of male humans…