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Archive for April, 2009

We didn’t make it into Canyonlands. At the first sign of nice weather, everyone comes out here and the small campground in the park is full. Luckily there is a good campground right outside the park limits. Lucky, because the park is 34 miles from the main highway with no developed campgrounds (though there’s lots of undeveloped areas). It’s still hard to believe that certain government flacks were seriously looking at using this beautiful area as a spent nuclear fuel storage area. (Not that I approve of Yucca Mountain in Nevada, either.) Anyway, we tried again and failed to secure a campsite in the park Thursday morning, so we probably are ensconced here for the duration of our stay. We got out for a walk at Pothole Point in the late afternoon, and while the rocks didn’t completely wow me, the clouds were spectacular – from deep-gray cloud explosions to blinding-white fluffy sheep-shaped clouds. One way or another, it’s always amazing here, with crazy weather and ever-changing light.

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On Friday, we did the hike to Chesler Park, one of our very favorite hikes in the country. It started out with high clouds, but still was very nice. It’s fun to walk by rocks and trees that we remember photographing on past trips (that’s going back 25 years or so). Spring is beginning to spring here; there’s some Indian Paintbrush and locoweed blooming. The Needle rock formations are amazing, as usual. We enjoyed our lunch at Chesler, then hiked back and were back at our campground by 2:30. Later that afternoon, our friends, Don and Janet Curley, showed up with their Outfitter Pop-top Camper and a rented Jeep Rubicon (their Jeep is currently under the weather). We had a cozy dinner in our Lazy Daze, since the wind was blowing about 35 miles per hour and we didn’t want sand in our chicken.

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The next morning, bright and early we went off on our first real off-road experience. Don and Janet have been off-roading for years and I felt very comfortable riding in the back seat, where I couldn’t get a good look at the road ahead. The Elephant Hill Road is considered very difficult in places and it is frightening right at the beginning; a very steep incline with lots of boulders and rock ledges. There’s one spot where you go down a portion of road in reverse. Don had no problem with any of it and we eventually were going down the Devil’s Lane, a sandy track. There was a vehicle stopped in front of us, and as the driver got out and walked back to us, we thought he had broken down. Instead, he pointed out a fantastic panel of rock art that Don said he had never noticed before. The big benefit of off-roading in Southern Utah is that there are ancient ruins and rock art all over the place. We ended up east of Chesler Park, and a short hike through incredible fissured rocks got us into Chesler for lunch. After that, we drove out to the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers, a thousand feet below us. The two rivers are very different colors, so it’s obvious where they meet.

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The next day we headed up Salt Creek and Horse Canyon. Don told us that this should be an easier road, but when we went for a backcountry pass, the ranger told us to look out for lots of heavy sand, lots of spots with water, and quicksand here and there. As soon as we were on the narrow track, there was deep sand with deep pools of water. Don sped up so as not to get stuck. I don’t know how fast we were going, but it felt like Mister Toad’s Wild Ride. The jeep was flying through the water so fast that sheets of it kept getting thrown up and you couldn’t see through the windshield for about 5 seconds. There were quick hard turns going at the same time. I guess it lasted 7 or 8 minutes but it seemed like a really long time. Wow! My mouth was hanging open the entire time. Totally amazing – and exhilarating! The last time I got a thrill like that was on the old roller coaster at Santa Cruz. There are holes in the bottom of the Jeep, and we had to drain out water that had flown in. Don later said that he’s driven through water and heavy sand before, but never for that long a stretch. I’m now totally converted to off-roading – as long as Don is driving.

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Anyway, we saw some very good petroglyphs, pictographs and ruins that day, as well as Paul Bunyon’s Potty, a butt-shaped arch that lives up to its name. We went through the water on the way back, but because we were expecting it, it didn’t seem quite as drastic as the morning ride. Still, a great day. Don grilled steaks that night, and we celebrated the day. Unfortunately, they had to return the Jeep on Monday, so we parted ways until the next time.

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We made a fast escape from Chaco on Friday. The sky was leaden gray when we woke up, but it began to snow while we were showering, which did not bode well for the thirteen miles of dirt road. As we barreled along at 20 mph, the snow got pretty heavy, but was not melting on the road, which was the important part. Once on the highway, the snow immediately stopped and we drove up to Farmington unimpeded. We stayed in town at Mom and Pop’s Campground, pleasant enough, but surrounded by exceedingly ugly buildings. It was our first campground staring out at razor wire cyclone fences.

After stocking up, we headed to Hovenweep National Monument, another Anasazi ruins place that is out in the middle of nowhere. This group of people built houses on the edge of the canyon or on tall boulders sticking up out of the canyon. Some of these dwellings are amazing. We went on our first hike at 3:30 in the afternoon, when it was cooler (yes, suddenly it’s getting quite warm) and the light was better. We met a photographer at the end of the canyon where a lovely group of buildings are grouped. He photographed us photographing, telling us that he was shooting an article for National Parks Magazine and that it was hard to find people in good light doing stuff at the remote sites he was photographing. So our butts, bent over our cameras, may be in the summer issue of the magazine. It will cover Hovenweep, Chaco and Canyon de Chelly and his name is George Huey. Reminds me of our honeymoon, in 1989, when we spent ten days on a small boat in Alaska, and were videotaped as part of a production on Alaska. It’s only a moment, but it’s romantic, with us in silhouette, watching the sun set.

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The next day we sat around in Hovenweep, enjoying the nice weather. We were going to take a 2 mile hike, but a little walking in the hot sun convinced us to cut that short, and Dave bumped over a dirt road to the Holly Ruins instead of us walking it. We hear that it’s 91in San Francisco, and are happy to be in 75-80 degree weather here.

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After a short drive to Blanding, Utah, we are gearing up (shopping, filling up with water, dumping the grey and black tanks) to spend 5 or 6 days in the Needles area of Canyonlands. We will meet our friends, Don and Janet Curley there. They have a Jeep and will take us into the wilds on Saturday. We are looking forward to seeing them and the backcountry of Canyonlands.

In the meantime, tonight, we’ll see who got thrown off Dancing with the Stars and American Idol. We’ve also been able to watch HBO’s “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” series. It’s great. Alexander McCall has written 7 or 8 books about Precious Ramotswe, a Botswani female detective, and the TV production really follows the novels pretty well.

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The snow had melted at Bandelier but not in the Jemez Mountains! We couldn’t take our favorite route across the mountains; the RV isn’t meant for dirt roads covered with snow. So we took the long way around the mountains and passed the Jemez soda dam, a weird construction built over time by minerals in the water. We were debating going into Chaco; I was seeing a lot of puddles and when the red clay roads get wet, vehicles have no traction at all. We have slid into a couple of ditches over the years. But we decided to go and the sixteen miles of unpaved road was washboardy, but dry.

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Chaco Culture National Historical Park is an amazing broad canyon that contains six enormous “Great Houses” plus many smaller ones. Pueblo Bonito is the largest of these, with 600 rooms rising to four stories in some areas and 40 kivas (subterranean, round ceremonial chambers). These structures were created 800-1100 A.D. (By the 1300’s, like other pueblan communities in the Southwest, they were largely abandoned.) The great houses in Chaco Canyon were connected by roads to more than 150 great houses throughout the region. Some of the roads were used so heavily that the many feet traversing them have created channels in the rock. There are also “Chacoan staircases”, scary-looking, hand carved steps to help travelers climb vertical cliffs. It is believed by many that these roads were used primarily for trade and that Chaco was a major trade center. Perhaps local turquoise was traded for macaws, shells and copper items from distant lands. There are petroglyphs of parrots and sea turtles and other non-indigenous creatures. The National Park Service has excavated different great houses to differing degrees and has rebuilt certain walls to give a feeling for how the architecture looked long ago.

We went on a hike to Alto Pueblo, which is built on the mesa above Chaco Canyon. You begin by scrambling up 250 feet through a crevice in the cliff face. Then a mile of hiking brings you to Alto, which isn’t excavated much. I was thinking about finding the fossilized sheep teeth in the South Dakota Badlands, and began looking at all the rocks on the side of the trail. Something caught my eye: a fragment of black and white-striped pottery. A little later, Dave found three pieces. Having learned our lesson in the Badlands, we photographed them and let them be.

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Wednesday, we got up at dawn and went to photograph Pueblo Bonito. Dave and I both have our favorite areas. Mine is a wall that is unfinished and is far from straight. Both of us were feeling worn out, and the high winds gave us a valid excuse to relax inside during the afternoon. Dave went out to catch some sunset light, but clouds were not cooperating.

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We woke up to a layer of snow on everything on Thursday. It was chilly, but the winds had stopped, so we went on another hike to see Pueblo Chiquita. (I keep wanting to call it Chiquita Banana.) The big attraction to us was the petroglyphs near the Pueblo. They were extensive and interesting. In addition to the Anasazi petroglyphs, the Navajo’s have etched some wonderful horses and war scenes, and surveyors and sheepherders have left messages as well. Near another Pueblo ruin, archeologists surmise that a pictograph (painted, as opposed to being pecked into rock) of what looks like a star, may be an image of a supernova star that occurred during the time the Anasazi were in Chaco.

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We packed up everything and headed 50 miles to Bandelier National Monument. The busy US-84/285 Highway had quite a few pilgrims walking along the side, headed for El Sanctuario de Chimayo. Each highway exit had a sign, pointing the pilgrims off the highway, but quite a few just trudged along.

Bandelier is one of our favorite places. The ancestral Pueblo people built some large villages in the mid-1200’s. Bandelier has two sites exceeding 600 rooms. What adds to the experience is that they also built many cliff dwellings, enhancing and building in front of natural caves in the cliff. There is also the attractive Frijoles Creek, a small stream that created Frijoles Canyon. We went for a walk along the main loop trail, enjoying the late afternoon sun on the incredible cliffs. On Friday, we got a fairly early start on the trail down Frijoles Creek that goes to the Rio Grande. There was a warning posted that dead feral cows would be found along the trail from last November. (I didn’t realize that feral cows existed.) When they herded most of them out of the canyon, a few were too weak to go and were abandoned. We could smell them as we approached; it detracted from the hike quite a bit.

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We listened to rain and snow on the roof during night and woke up to snow on Saturday morning. The sky would lighten and darken, the snow would be heavy or light, the flakes would be big or small or sleety. For Californians, it is fascinating to watch it snow. We didn’t do much all day; just went into Los Alamos to catch up with email.

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Today we woke up to sparkling, ice- and snow-covered terrain, but it was already melting away by the time we got outside for a hike. There’s still not much sun, but the weather isn’t particularly cold. We did enjoy seeing a Red-naped Sapsucker outside the RV window as we ate lunch. The weather cleared up and we had a nice afternoon hike along Frijoles Creek to Alcove House and beyond. Alcove House is a high cliff dwelling and people with heart conditions are advised not to climb the four very steep ladders leading up to it. I was thinking of Mary P. as I labored my way up those ladders. The view is spectacular once you get to the top. It was a nice way to end our stay in Bandelier.

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Monday called for another drive, this time the “High Road to Taos”. The focus was going to be on churches in the small towns along the way. Our first stop was El Sanctuario de Chimayo, a quiet peaceful church surrounded by hills. The Sanctuary is famous for a small hole, filled with dirt that is credited with power to miraculously cure the ill. During Holy Week, before Easter, there is a yearly pilgrimage of thousands of believers to this Sanctuary. Some walk as far as 90 miles. The small room is attached to the church, which has wonderful paintings inside. We wandered around in the warm sun, followed by dogs, silently begging for food. Even the local horse, was looking pensively at the people going by, and was getting fed now and then.

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The small villages on the “High Road” are dusty and peaceful. When we got to Taos, as in past visits, we again experienced terrible traffic and confusing directions. This time, perseverance got us a lot further than previous visits. We actually drove through the town plaza, although we didn’t find a place to park. Then we managed to find the Blumenschein Home and Museum, where I hoped to see some of this interesting artist’s work. Mais non, closed for restoration. So after a short walk down the narrow street, we got back in the car, departed Taos and found Ranchos de Taos, a separate town down the road that contains the monumental San Francisco de Asis Church. This is the church that Georgia O’Keeffe painted several times. The simplicity of the lines and the warm adobe color are so appealing.

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Yesterday, we spent some time traipsing around Santa Fe. It’s full of old and new adobe or adobe-looking buildings and galleries. There’s art everywhere, from the ridiculous to the sublime. Canyon Road is especially fun to photograph. The walk primed our appetite for an anniversary celebration at Coyote Café. We’ll be married 20 years on May 13, but it’s unlikely we’ll be near a really nice place to celebrate on that date (Tonopah, Nevada, anyone?). We both had fantastic meals. I had Potato soup with white truffles; Dave had a crab BLT sandwich. Dave had Elk Tenderloin with brandied mushroom sauce; I had chicken with port wine Bing cherries and sweet potato flan. I was too full for dessert. Luckily, Dave squeezed in a chocolate ganache almond cake with expresso orange panna cotta. I managed a taste or two of that. We staggered out of the restaurant and took a turn around the Plaza before heading home.

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After a windy night near Albuquerque, we drove up the Turquoise Trail to Santa Fe. We then spent a very cold, blustery afternoon, visiting the Saturday Santa Fe Farmers Market and finding some galleries that Dave wanted to check out. We ate lunch at the O’Keeffe Café. What a pleasure! The restaurant is in a small house, with tables in several small rooms. The adobe walls were painted a soft tan; the tables were covered with snow white linen and the banquettes and chairs were bright red. Red roses on each table added to the splashes of color. It was warm and cozy and full of people in bright, Santa Fe-style clothing. Our hamburger and fish sandwiches were very good.

After lunch, we went to the Museum of Fine Art and saw a surprisingly small display of Georgia O’Keeffe paintings (about 8). Thanks to Mary P., who was entranced with Gustave Baumann on her recent Santa Fe visit, we wanted to see his woodblock prints. Amazing. In his spare time, Baumann carved detailed marionettes. There was also a steel wool piece of art that looked like a spider weaving a web up and down two floors of stairs. We then retreated to the Lazy Daze and turned on the heater.

Today, we woke up to snow and a frozen water hose. But it got warmer and the winds died down. We drove north to Abiquiu, the tiny village where Georgia O’Keeffe lived during her later years. Villagers request that photographs not be taken, so we sat in front of the lovely church and ate our lunch. A kind lady came over to us and told us which turn to take to take a peek at the O’Keeffe property. (Actually, it’s behind high walls and visitors can’t just go onto the grounds and look around.) Beyond the house is a Penitente morada, that O’Keeffe painted with a great view of the Sangre de Christo mountains behind it.

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We continued north and a few miles off the highway, found Plaza Blanca, an area of strangely eroded white and gray sandstone cliffs. Georgia O’Keeffe painted this location, and titled her painting “The White Place”. We wandered around and followed one canyon until it narrowed down and required climbing. We dawdled so long there, it was 5 p.m. before we got to Ghost Ranch, a large beautiful property used for education and retreats by the Presbyterian Church. It was getting late, so we didn’t have time to take any hikes there. Maybe next time.

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Happy Belated Birthday, Kevin. (You know who you are!) It’s a big one this year and I’m not far behind you.

White Sands is a difficult place, weather-wise. Monday, we got there at 7 a.m. and the light was golden and luscious, but the wind was a bear. It hissed through the dried Yucca plants. When I knelt down to get a better photographic angle, I’d get a handful of sand in my face. So there was no hiking, but nobody would know our images were captured within 100 yards of the road. It’s so empty out there that composing pictures is wonderful. There are dunes, sky, clouds and Yucca plants. You are free to make of it what you will. We made photographs for about 2 hours, plus time out for sitting in the car and watching the dunes, snacking on our favorite cookes (Dare chocolate fudge) and coffee and listening to Sirius/XM radio. Life is good.

Yesterday, we drove the Lazy Daze to White Sands for the day. That way, we could hike in the early morning, then take showers and laze around in the hot afternoon, eat dinner early and photograph during sunset. It worked well. The wind was down, so we did the 4.5-mile Alkali Flats trail. The Alkali Flats were totally unimpressive, but the hike was great. The white sand looks so much like snow, it’s uncanny. Wind creates diverse patterns on the sand and erases most of old footprints. It’s a magical place.

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