Home at last

February 6, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Friday, January 8, 2010

After a long day’s driving, I finally made it home. I didn’t get off to such a good start though. It was still snowing a bit in the roads were messy when I set out in the morning. Worse, when I got to the freeways of Indianapolis, I realized that my washer fluid wasn’t working properly. Turns out the washer fluid I bought further south that was supposedly rated for down to -30 Fahrenheit actually froze in the tubes. Trucks kept spraying me, and there was nowhere to pull off, so I had to keep my wipers on at the fastest speed to clear the windows enough that I could barely see. It was very scary, and it was a relief when I finally got to a place I could get off the road and get some better washer fluid.

I headed north to Fort Wayne and then cut across smaller roads to Toledo and then up to Detroit where I crossed to Windsor on the Ambassador bridge. I’d bought gas before getting to Detroit not realizing that they have a duty-free gas station before the bridge.

It was a relief to be back in Canada, and highway 401 was very clear until I hit the rush-hour traffic of Toronto. Only when I got near Trenton did I start hitting slippery roads again, but after Kingston it was fine.

It was great to be back knowing I had a few days to rest before returning to work and the long drive was over.

Black ice and snow in the south

February 6, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Thursday, January 7, 2010

I had originally planned to drive across Tennessee through Nashville and Knoxville, but my new plan was to drive directly north as quickly as I could get. The satellite images confirmed that this made sense. Much of the precipitation had already moved east of the route I plan to take, even though there was now snow everywhere around on the ground. The woman in the motel said they rarely get snow there, and when they do, it doesn’t last.

I began driving north, but soon I realized that the roads were covered in black ice. I drove slowly as did other traffic, and at several points it was so bad that I put on my flashing lights and slowed right down. There were many cars in the ditch, and I even passed a few overturned trucks, including one oil truck that had overturned right on the highway. This continued for all while, but the road gradually improved as I got into Missouri. At one rest stop there was an information booth and the woman there had a computer with full weather map information. The sky was blue, but you could see from the map that it was snowing hard just east of there. She said the snow had been falling there up until about an hour earlier. It seemed that by taking the route I did I’d managed to go around the back of the storm.

When I reached Effingham, Illinois, I had to turn eastward, and it didn’t take long until I had driven into the storm. The snow got heavier and heavier, and the roads got worse. When it started to get dark, I thought I’d better stop for the night rather than continue through the storm in the dark. So I got a motel at Cloverdale, Indiana, to the west of Indianapolis.

Toward the approaching storm

February 6, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

I was getting concerned by weather reports that showed a winter storm on its way that would move cold weather and snow right down to the Deep South. There didn’t seem to be any route I could take that would avoid the storm. The weather reports seem to suggest however, that Wednesday would be too bad and the worst would hit overnight Wednesday night and Thursday.

At breakfast, at the counter in Denny’s, I got talking to an older man, Frank, who was also heading in roughly the same direction as me. He too was at a loss as to which route to take. He lives in Las Vegas but was taking stuff up to his girlfriend in Pennsylvania in the back of his horse trailer. He asked me where I was from, and when I told him to Canada, he had some of the usual questions that Americans have about Canada, even though he had been to Canada. He wondered if Canada is still part of the British Empire, and I explained in simplified terms are peculiar relationship with the British Crown. The subject then turned to guns, and he wondered if Canada was like Britain in that guns were (according to him) illegal everywhere. I explained as tactfully as I could about Canada’s gun laws and the debate between rural and urban, and pro and con. He asked whether our laws really made any difference to crime, and he expressed the view that if someone was going to invade his house he’d rather be armed to defend himself. I just told him I knew the arguments very well on both sides, and I resisted getting drawn into a debate. He was fine and friendly about it.

I was now just trying to make time with the driving and get as far as I could before the storm hit. I aimed to get to Memphis, and I actually did make it to West Memphis, Arkansas. The weather was clear and the drive pretty uneventful as I drove through New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and finally Arkansas.

The storm has still not hit by the time I got to West Memphis, but I watched the forecasts, and checked the weather maps carefully, trying to come up with a plan. The forecasts suggested that arctic air was going to bring it very cold weather and snow to parts of the South that almost never experienced it. I dreaded the idea of trying to drive in snow around people unfamiliar with winter driving and with a winter tires in areas that were not equipped with snow plows. The best plan, I thought, would be to drive straight north toward St. Louis, getting to areas familiar with winter as quickly as I could.

Through the Petrified Forest to New Mexico

February 6, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Most of the drive from Flagstaff to Tucumcari was along Interstate 40, which roughly follows Route 66, the now defunct, historic highway from Chicago to Los Angeles. Parts of Route 66 still exist as the business route through many communities along the way. The old Route 66 saw its heyday during the Depression, and through the 1940s and 1950s when it was a main route of migration to California. Some of the old 1950s motels and billboards still exist. The interstate though is just like any other interstate, but it passes through some nice desert scenery.

I took a detour to drive to the south end of Petrified Forest National Park and back to the interstate through the park. It’s not as spectacular a park scenically as some of the others, but the petrified remnants of trees, mostly lying on the ground, are quite amazing. As the name suggests, these are former trees from the dinosaur age that have turned to stone as a result of being covered in volcanic ash that then eroded away. The petrified wood is often many colors and very beautiful when smooth. The trees lie scattered over the ground, and in some places large trunks and small pieces both exist. Unfortunately, despite warnings and fines and possible jail, many people feel the need to pick up and steal the petrified wood. According to an orientation film I saw, people steal a ton of petrified wood from the park every month. In some of the more popular areas only the larger trunks still remain. When I drove out, I was asked if I picked up any wood, but was not subjected to any kind of search. I guess they do search some people, but obviously a lot get away with it. Needless to say, I respected the need to protect the park and took none. Outside the part, some stores sold petrified wood that’s supposedly harvested on private land, but I really have no need to own any. I took some photos though.

My only other side trip was to go up the Tijeras Canyon to the east of Albuquerque. I had stayed here a few days in 1971 in a hippie house while hitchhiking through. I was curious to see if the area was as beautiful as I remembered, and if I could find where I stayed. Obviously the area has been built up a lot more than it was when I visited some 38 years earlier, but it wasn’t changed as much as I expected, and the hills were still beautiful. I found the area where the house had been, and it’s now got some semi rural newer houses, but it hasn’t been completely ruined with development as I had feared.

I stayed the night at Tucumcari, whose name seems to be the epitome of the old Route 66 days. Remnants of the historic route are there, but it’s a modern American town like so many others.

As I ate in a fast food restaurant, a man came in and asked me: “Is this the right route to Ottawa?” I was kind of stunned, and asked him to repeat it as I wasn’t sure I had heard it right. It turned out he was from Ottawa, and had seen my Ontario plate and recognized the Bytek license plate holder as being from Ottawa, so he was messing with me. Small world though.

Hike to The Wave

February 6, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

Monday, January 4, 2010

I didn’t leave quite as early as normal because I wanted to arrive at The Wave around noon when the light would be the best. I drove along the main highway 89 to the turnoff for House Rock Road. It’s less than 10 miles along the House Rock Road to the trailhead, but the woman in the permit office warned us it wouldn’t be easy driving. In the morning, the road is bumpy and rough with frozen tire ridges. In the afternoon it turns into a quagmire of mud and snow and many people get stuck. The best advice, she said, was that if you get stuck you should wait until after dark when the road freezes again and you can drive out. A tow truck, she warned, would cost hundreds of dollars.

I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but nothing prepared me for how bad it would be. Even creeping along in first gear to drive in was extremely bumpy and I’m sure I did it damage to my car. Later in the day, when I drove out again through the mud, I didn’t have the option of going slowly, or I would’ve gotten stuck. I definitely damaged my car, but I did make it both ways. Driving out I had to gun it through mud patches fishtailing back-and-forth as mud sprayed up like on those TV four-wheel-drive commercials. But my car was only two-wheel drive. The easiest part was on the higher ground where the road stayed constantly frozen and you are only driving on packed snow and ice.

The hike itself was incredibly beautiful. There is something magical about walking out through desert surrounded by amazing sandstone formations and rocks and navigating through the solitude. Occasionally I saw other hikers, but mostly I was alone. There was some snow in parts, but most of it wasn’t difficult hiking, despite a few climbs. Slightly more difficult was navigating. The permit office issued us with instructions on finding The Wave and these included photographs of what the route should look like at various marker points along the way. It was relatively easy navigating the way there, though returning was harder as the pictures of the route in did no good with features photographed from the opposite side. The woman had warned us that a lot of buttes can look the same, and following footprints are reliable because the people might be doing side trips or might be lost. That’s exactly what happened on the way back. I followed the footprints to what I thought were the two buttes I had to go around, but I ended up at the top of a cliff that would’ve been dangerous to climb down. Fortunately, I was carrying my car GPS with me and had a topo map loaded into it. Although I had to shut it off during the hike as the battery was running down, I was able to locate where I was in relation to the route I took in, and to hike back to the correct trail. Getting lost could have been very unpleasant with limited water (despite the snow), and with the nights getting very cold. Fortunately I made it in and out with no real problems.

The Wave itself is an amazing formation of rock that looks like rolling waves sculpted into the sandstone. It has large curves and colorful lines. There was a number of German tourists taking pictures there when I arrived, and unfortunately they didn’t move out of the way for me to get a clear shot until after the sun had passed to the point where part of the area was in shadow. Some of the area was also snow covered with heavy footprints, so it probably wasn’t as attractive as it can be at other times of year. I still managed to get many close-up pictures of the curvy rocks and abstract formations. It truly is a wonderful place.

The Wave, Coyote Buttes, Arizona

The Wave, Coyote Buttes, Arizona - © Richard McGuire

Once I got back to my car and drove out, I continued along the main highway 89 through Page and then carried on for several hours to Flagstaff where I spent the night. The exploring part of my journey was now pretty much over, and other than a few stopovers, I would now be heading directly home.

Zion National Park

February 6, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Zion National Park is quite different from Arches and Canyonlands, but it’s just as spectacular. Maybe more so. It has more trees because the west of the mountains it catches more rain, and it sits in a steep valley with mountains on both sides and a river running through it.

When I arrived, much of the valley was still in shadow because it takes a while for the sun to climb over the top of the steep mountains. I took a modest hike up the base of one of the mountains, the Watchman, as the sunlight gradually moved down the valley.

Later, driving up the valley, I took some pictures of a wonderful cluster of mountains called Court of the Patriarchs. On a couple hikes I saw such animals as wild turkeys and mule deer. It was quite mild at Zion, reaching around 10°C (50°F) during the day. A lot of the trails were quite icy due to the following and freezing.

Court of the Patriarchs, Zion National Park, Utah

Court of the Patriarchs, Zion National Park, Utah - Richard McGuire

Later in the afternoon as the sun was going down I took through winding road to the east through a series of long narrow tunnels through the mountains. At last I made it to Kanab, where the previous Thursday I picked up my permit for The Wave. I got a motel, and prepared to set out the next morning for The Wave.

Across the mountains to Bryce Canyon

February 6, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Saturday, January 2, 2010

I set out from Moab to drive through the mountains to the parks in southwest Utah. Highway 12 in particular is reputed to be very beautiful for its mountain scenery, but I took other smaller highways and byways as well.

It was another bright blue day, this time with less fog. The route went through many different elevations and so the amount of snow changed quite a bit from almost none to quite snowy. The scenery itself varied from fairly flat desert to amazing rock formations of sandstone, to high mountains covered in pines.

I took an interesting side trip at Capitol Reef National Park. The so-called reef is a long very steep cliff formed by a massive geological shift that pushed it up as a barrier making it very hard for early settlers to cross. The road follows one of the few breaks in the reef along a river where Mormons settled and planted numerous fruit trees.

Towards the late afternoon I arrived at Bryce Canyon National Park, a fairly high park known for its amphitheater of amazing hoodoos, which at this time of year are dusted with patches of snow. I walked along a snowy trail by the edge of the rim photographing the hoodoos as the sunset.

A late winter afternoon, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

A late winter afternoon, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah - © Richard McGuire

Bryce Canyon, Utah, at sunset

Bryce Canyon, Utah, at sunset - © Richard McGuire

I wanted to end the day in a good location to visit Zion National Park the following day, but there was no cheap accommodation in the immediate area, so I drove across the mountains to Cedar City to spend the night.

Canyonlands and Arches national parks, Utah

February 6, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Friday, January 1, 2010 (New Year’s Day)

On New Year’s Day, I set out to visit two wonderful national parks near Moab — Canyonlands National Park and Arches National Park. I drove to Canyonlands first and as I approached it, I drove into pockets of fog alternating with clear areas of sunshine. The hoarfrost clung to the bushes and trees. It was still dark as I drove to the park, but the sky began to get lighter. It was a cold crisp day, eventually with blue sky, and it turned out to be one of the best days of my trip for photography.

One of the classic photo spots in Canyonlands is Mesa Arch, a stone arch on the edge of the cliff that catches the sunlight at sunrise. It’s about a half-mile hike over a hill, and I trudged up with my tripod and camera along the well trodden path through the snow. When I arrived there were about five or six other photographers already there with their cameras and tripods set up. The sun was just starting to rise, but the valley below was full of fog. It was a beautiful sight. On the one hand, it was disappointing that you could not see any details in the valley, but on the other the fog gave it a wonderful mood in the warm sunlight. For a few minutes I shot some great pictures of the arch and the nearby cliffs in the sunlight and surrounded by fog. Before very long though, the fog rose and we were engulfed in it. A few other photographers straggled up later and were disappointed to see nothing. Some hung around, and others left. I stayed a while and got a few more shots when the fog cleared, but none as good as those first few. I then returned to my car through thick fog with an eerie sun trying to burst through.

Near Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Near Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Utah - © Richard McGuire

Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Utah - © Richard McGuire

I drove to several other lookout points and trails to the number of pictures of the fog, the snow and the cliffs. It was cold and crisp, but incredibly beautiful.

The fog hung around well into the afternoon, so I decided to forgo a visit to Dead Horse State Park, which has a beautiful view of the river, but it would have been completely fogged in. Instead I returned to Moab and then set out for Arches National Park, which is quite near.

I had learned that it’s possible to buy an $80 annual pass for all the national parks and monuments, which would have been a better deal than paying individually at each park. This is especially true since many of the more expensive parks are $25 or $20 each. Fortunately, I also learned that if I had kept my receipts I could trade them in towards an annual pass. Being the pack rat is one, I had of course kept my receipts, and that Arches I traded them in for about $55 towards the $80 pass. It was a smart move because the individual admissions by the time I finished my trip would have been well over $100, and now I have an annual pass that the good for any visit I might do to the US in the next year.

Arches National Park had many more people than Canyonlands, but it still wasn’t overly crowded. Its land formations in sandstone were incredible — not just arches, but hoodoos, protruding rocks, and many various shapes. In fact, it was certainly among the more spectacular parks of my trip. It’s quite high up, so there was a fair bit of snow. I didn’t do any long hikes, given the time, but I did some short walks and drove between various pull off spots to photograph the great vistas.

One of the more popular arches is called Delicate Arch, but it involves a steep hike of a couple hours return to get close to it. It was by now past 3 PM, so I opted instead to take a shorter hike to a viewpoint where you can see the arch in the distance from below. This provided some great views, and still left me time to see other parts of the park.

The Fiery Furnace is a spectacular area of rock formations with canyons and fins. You need a hiking permit to visit it, or you can book ahead to take a ranger guided tour. As I had neither, I had to be content to look down on it from the parking area. It was still spectacular with snow scattered across the red sandstone fins.

Skyline Arch, Arches National Park, Utah

Skyline Arch, Arches National Park, Utah - © Richard McGuire

Lastly, as the sun went down, I took a short hike to the base of Skyline Arch, a massive arch in a cliff. In the dusk, the light was blue and it looked great with the snow, the red land formations and silhouetted trees. Here I also shot several nice pictures, as I struggled to keep my hands warm.

Into Utah

February 1, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

Thursday, December 31, 2009 (New Year’s Eve)  

When I first saw pictures of The Wave, I was impressed by the curvy shapes of sandstone carved by erosion, the smooth lines, and the blend of warm colours. The Wave is located in Coyote Buttes in Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, in northern Arizona right on the Utah border. It involves a 10 km return hike through the desert without clearly marked trails. The tricky part is that they limit the number of people that can go by issuing permits with only 10 groups allowed to obtain permits four months in advance, and another 10 the day before. The permits are issued by lottery as usually there are more people wanting to go than permits available.

And so, or early in the morning I set out from Page to drive to Kanab, Utah, a couple hours away to be there at 9 AM when the lottery for permits occurred. I had phoned the day before and learned that on Thursday they would be releasing permits for Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday because of the New Year’s holiday. This meant there would be 40 permits available, and that the woman told me that if I was flexible on days I had a reasonably good chance of getting one.

As I drove, it was still dark, and I could see a big around the full moon right ahead of me setting behind some buttes, so I stopped my car and shot some long exposures. There was a lot of snow on the ground in many places hanging to the few trees, and a hoar frost clung to many of the plants. When the sun came up the sky was blue, but Kanab itself sat in a thick fog.      

Setting full moon, southern Utah - © Richard McGuire

I found the office that issues the permits, and there were already about a dozen people there. We all selected the days we would prefer, and were told we could switch dates immediately before the draw, if it looked like certain days were full and others were not. I chose the Monday, knowing this would give me a little time to visit other parts of Utah, visiting The Wave on the way back. We counted down to 9 a.m. when the lottery would occur. Although more people trickled in, by luck none of the dates were completely full, and so everybody got their pick without a lottery happening. At 8:59, I joked that there was a bus arriving in the lot, which cost a few chuckles, but fortunately didn’t happen. In fact, the woman said this was one of the few days when everybody got what they wanted without a lottery.       

After breakfast of huevos rancheros at a local diner, I continued to drive back to Page via the scenic route to the south. This cross through mountains and there was some packed snow on the roads, but the driving wasn’t bad and the snow glistened on the pines. Descending the mountain, you could see the bold outline of Vermilion Cliffs rising from the desert as a big massive body of sandstone.       

Closer to Page, I came to the turnoff for the walk in to Horseshoe Bend, which I had tried to photograph the previous day. It was much sunnier, so I tried again, hiking the half-mile to the cliff’s edge. This time the view of the river 1,000 feet below was very clear. There were numerous Japanese tourists taking pictures of the view and some went right to the edge of the cliff and leaned over for their shots. I suffer far too much from vertigo to try that, so I edged closer to the cliff on hands and knees and got on my belly. Even then, the only way to see the bend in the river, is to actually lean over the edge. Even on my belly, I felt dizzy even attempting this and was unable to shoot a picture this way. At last I attached the camera to my tripod, lay down with the tripod and extended it out over the edge as though it were a long pole with the camera aimed at the right few with a super wide lens. I triggered multiple exposures with a cable release, and got some shots without actually hanging over the edge myself.       

Horse Shoe Bend, Arizona -- the obligatory shot

Horse Shoe Bend, Arizona - © Richard McGuire

By now it was getting later in the afternoon, and I had a long drive ahead of me as I planned to drive all the way to Moab, Utah for the night, and hoped to drive through Monument Valley during the day. It was a long drive through the desert on a fairly rough paved road, but traffic was not too heavy, and even though it was getting late I made a reasonably good time. That is, until I came to Kayenta. Here, the road ran right through the town, and speed limit dropped drastically. I slowed down, but not enough. Suddenly there was a cop car behind me flashing his blue and red lights. He ticketed me for speeding, taking a long time to issue the ticket. By the time I finally got going again, it was starting to get dark.
Monument Valley had some attractive buttes and mesas sticking up from the flat desert. But from the main road there were few places to stop and so the photo opportunities were very limited. I understand that to really see the best views you must visit the Navajo Tribal Park, but as it was getting dark this was no longer an option. I stopped and took a few photos of the sun setting behind the buttes and the full moon rising ahead, but I don’t think I did the area justice.   

It was quite cold as I set up my tripod for some long exposures in a few of the pull offs. At one, a car stopped right in the area I was photographing. I waited a while, and it still stayed, so I picked up my tripod and walked past it to photograph with a clear view. Behind the car a young Navajo man was pissing a big stream. He greeted me as I walked past and struck up a conversation. He’d obviously had a few drinks. He asked me about my photographing, and in where I was from, and I told him I was admiring the beauty of the land. He said he was always from this area, and the land was very special to him and his ancestors.       


Monument Valley, Arizona, at sunset
Monument Valley, Arizona, at sunset – © Richard McGuire


It was a long drive the rest of the way to Moab, and I got the feeling I was missing some spectacular scenery in the darkness. I arrived and checked into the local Motel 6. I was tired, and then sat up for a while going through my pictures and sending e-mails, but didn’t pay attention to the new year and decade.  



Antelope Canyon and Horse Shoe Bend (obscurred by fog and snow)

January 30, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

It was a cold grey day and threatened snow. That didn’t matter for the morning because I had booked a tour with a small group and a Navajo guide for a photography trip to Upper Antelope Canyon. Antelope Canyon is a slot canyon carved by water over the years into the desert sandstone. Its swirls and shapes have impressed many photographers, who make it a destination, as do many tourists. 

Our guide was good, and quickly led us to the far end of the canyon to work backwards, and sometimes managed to hold back crowds when we photographed. But it was simply too crowded to do serious photography. I dread to think how much worse it would be in peak season. As the canyon is quite dark you need to take very long exposures using a tripod. For each shot, I took either five or seven separate exposures because the range from light to dark was so huge I knew that the only way to capture all the detail would be by combining separate images on a computer afterwards (HDR or high-dynamic range photography). Unfortunately taking that many long shots meant the odds of being disturbed were huge. Tourists often walked by, sometimes accidentally kicking the tripod. Sometimes their guides shone laser pointers onto the rocks leaving red squiggles on my images. For certain scenes, photographers lined up taking turns moving their tripods into place, sometimes lining up the tripods in a row with the legs woven in and out of each other. 

That doesn’t take away from the beauty of the canyon, but it did make it hard to photograph it. In hindsight, I think I should’ve gone to one of the lesser-known slot canyons in the area, including perhaps even Lower Antelope Canyon across the road, which apparently is just as beautiful but much less crowded. 

Upper Antelope Canyon, Arizona

Upper Antelope Canyon, Arizona - © Richard McGuire


I wanted to photograph Horse Shoe Bend, a dramatic river bend below a steep cliff south of Page. It was now foggy and starting to snow, but as I didn’t have many alternative destinations, I set out anyway. It’s a walk of about a half a mile from the parking area on a trail through the desert to the edge of the cliff. In what must have been the understatement of the year, one Chinese tourist told me: “The visibility is not very high.” That didn’t stop a number of tour groups from making the walk anyway. Only occasionally did the fog lift just enough that you could see the faint outline of the river more than 1000 feet below. At other times it was just old white of fog and falling snow. Some of the tourists went right to the edge of the cliff and took pictures of the fog. I took a picture of one Chinese tourist woman standing about 2 feet from the edge of the precipice and snapping a picture of the fog. 

Horse Shoe Bend in the fog

Horse Shoe Bend in the fog - © Richard McGuire

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