Monday, December 28, 2009
I was up early before the sun to take a drive on a circular route through the desert. Unfortunately the sky was still very overcast and the light was flat, so I didn’t get any great pictures, but I did admire the desert scenery and cacti.
This was the closest to Mexico that I got — so close in fact that my cell phone thought I was in Mexico, while in fact I was a few kilometres north of the border. From there I began a long drive north into colder parts of Arizona. Soon I was leaving the warm desert behind me and climbing up into snow-covered forests of Ponderosa pines north of Phoenix, as I reached Flagstaff for the night. Flagstaff was the closest thing to winter I’d experienced since the snowstorm on the journey south.
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
The weather forecasts were for calling for several days of cloudy snowy crappy weather, so I wasn’t sure what to do. I decided to take my chances and go to Grand Canyon anyway, knowing that the option remained of returning if I didn’t see it at its best.
I caught bits of sun here and there, and the clouds even had a bit of drama, but on the whole it was pretty cloudy and dull. The canyon itself though is still amazing — much more vast than I ever could’ve imagined.
Even at this time of year, it was jammed with tourists, and finding a place to park was no easier than West Edmonton Mall on Boxing Day. I would hate to see it at peak season. Sometimes I have to laugh at the antics and behavior of some of the tourists. Classic case in point, some bratty children who would rather be playing video games were running around near the edge of the canyon and driving their poor mother crazy. Her retort: “I brought you into this world, and I can just as easily take you out of it.” I frankly hoped she would push them over the edge.
Fortunately, you only have to walk a short distance to get away from the crowds. It seems most people won’t walk more than 100 feet from their cars, so there were very few people on the trail that ran along by the edge of the canyon. I admired the many views staring down into the depths of the canyon and miles across it.
That evening I drove to Page in northern Arizona and bought a ticket for the next day to take a photography tour of Antelope Canyon.
Sunday, December 27, 2009
I drove to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument where I camped for the night. I had a bad headache and the sky became quite overcast so I didn’t appreciate it at its best. Still, it’s a wonderful desert setting surrounded by beautiful mountains and many desert plants. The Saguaro cactus of course dominate as they are so tall, but this park is known for its organ pipe cactus, which are common in Mexico, but this is the only part of the United States where they grow. The organ pipes are smaller than the Saguaros, and they grow in clusters from a base on the ground. Unlike the saguaros, they don’t have branches.
It was cool and windy in my tent that night, but I’m not sure that even went below freezing.
Saturday, December 26, 2009 (Boxing Day)
I drove on back roads down close to Nogales, but didn’t see any point in putting up with the hassle of crossing into Mexico. At one state park (Patagonia Lake) I went for a hike through all kinds of desert scenery. It was so peaceful being out in the desert alone with occasional deer or hares, etc. I returned along a desert river that was an oasis of green attracting many birds. I recognized a pair of cardinals, but people come there from all over the world to see hundreds of different species. It’s apparently a birders paradise.
Then I took the very rough twisty dirt Ruby Road through the mountains and some incredible scenery. It was quiet, but there were other travellers going through, and many, many border patrols in the area looking for illegal immigrants and smugglers. Ruby itself is a ghost town. I didn’t stop to visit due to shortage of time and an admission fee. The scenery around it for me was the main attraction.
Back in Tucson for the night, I ate much better than Christmas, finding one of the many wonderful Mexican restaurants in town.
Friday, December 25, 2009 (Christmas Day)
I was up early to drive the more normal route to Chiricahua, getting close to it as the sun came up. It was very quiet, but I was able to drive into the national monument and go as far as the camping grounds, which had a fair bit of snow in large patches. There was a gate closing the roadway beyond the campgrounds, so I parked and walked in.
It was a lovely walk along the roadway with no cars and no other people, with bright sun shining off the tall rocks, and with trees and rocks towering overhead. The rocks seem to be like giant figures, reminding me a little of the rock formations at Montserrat outside of Barcelona. I took many pictures, and walked the gently climbing road, enjoying the solitude.
At one point, a ranger drove up to me just to check on me. He said it was no problem for me to be walking there, but had seen my car and wanted to make sure it didn’t belong to some hiker who had had a mishap.
It was too far to walk to the end of the road where there is apparently a nice overlook, but I walk several kilometers and enjoy the scenery.
My other excursion on that beautiful sunny Christmas Day was to visit Saguaro National Park outside of Tucson. Its purpose is to show off the Saguaro cactus and its desert environment. There’s a short ring road that you can drive making regular stops and pull offs to explore and admire the desert. The tall Saguaro cactus make dramatic shapes pointed up to the sky, and many other desert plants grow in these hills and valleys at the base of some brown mountains. Here too, I did a lot of walking but no major hikes, and stayed until the sun set behind the cacti.
Finding a motel was not a problem, but finding a place to eat on Christmas day always is. I ended up going to that old standby, the only place I’ve ever found open for meals on Christmas day in the US, the Waffle House. There I had a nice Christmasy cheeseburger cooked on the open grill.
Here are a few notes and photos of my travels last week:
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
I left the interstate system finally at Midland, Texas, to take smaller roads up to Carlsbad, New Mexico. My sister jokingly suggested I should look up George Dubya Bush while passing through Texas. The best I could do was to snap a shot of a sign at the edge of Midland proclaiming the city’s claim to fame – the hometown of George W. and Laura Bush. The sign was surrounded by tossed beer bottles, stubbly cacti, and there were a few oil wells in the distance. I wonder what kind of impact this sparse environment had on the former president.
Even the smaller roads I took were mostly four lanes with nice straight, flat lines and comfortable speed limits of 75 mph (120 km/h). No need to speed, even though there were few places cops could hide. This is certainly oil country and you can smell the crude as you drive through.
Crossing into New Mexico, the communities seemed poor with small, ramshackle houses, even though they were surrounded by oil wealth.
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
It was a crappy cool rainy day, which made it a perfect day to visit the caverns at Carlsbad. Outside, it was a cool wet 6°C with blowing winds. In the caves, it was comfortable and closer to 16°C. I’ve visited a number of caves around the world in places like Belize, Guatemala, Mexico and Slovenia. These caves were very impressive for their immense size and huge rooms. Although some rooms contained quite a number of “decorations” of stalactites and stalagmites, these caves were probably not as impressive in that regard as some others I’ve seen. They were tastefully lit with plain lighting, and there was an elaborate network of walkways that made much of the caves wheelchair accessible. There were no toilets underground, and had I known that I might as consumed less coffee that morning, but fortunately there was an elevator at the midway point back to the surface. I walked a couple miles underground and took a number of photos with a tripod.
Desert communities aren’t designed to handle volumes of rain, and when I drove back into Carlsbad, a number of the intersections were flooded and vehicles drove through streets like rivers. I carried on north to Roswell, which is repeated to be the site of a UFO crash in 1947. They’ve exploited this for tourism, and there are shops with pictures of little green men with big heads. There is an interesting museum documenting the incident and exploring the UFO phenomenon in general. It has newspaper clippings from the time, photographs of people involved, and affidavits signed by people who were either direction or in direct witnesses to events. I maintain an open mind but healthy skepticism about various UFO claims. In the time I spent there, I didn’t see anything that absolutely convinced me this was a UFO and not some other incident, for example the failure of the weapons test. I was convinced however, that the official explanation that it was simply a weather balloon was a hoax, and there was an official cover-up of what did actually happen.
When I left the museum it was snowing hard and the roads were slushy. I had planned to continue on to Alamogordo, but that would have entailed driving a couple hours in the dark on a mountain road in the snow. So instead, I got a motel in Roswell. That meant I would not be able to see White Sands National Monument at sunrise the next morning as I had hoped.
Thursday, December 24, 2009 (Christmas Eve)
There was still snow and ice on the ground when I left Roswell. The motel woman said snow that stays on the ground is very rare there. After crossing the scenic mountains, I arrived at White Sands National Monument. The sand dunes are fine gypsum sometimes packed quite hard, and sometimes soft. I took a couple trails over the dunes looking at the small scraggly vegetation that survived among them, and reading plaques about how animals survive there on little moisture. The glaring white in the sun often looked like snow, except it was much warmer.
From there I drove directly westward, through Deming, and into Arizona. My plan was to make it to Chiricahua National Monument. Here I experienced the folly of blindly following a route suggested by the GPS. Had I noted more carefully on one of my maps, I would have seen that the route to GPS was trying to take beyond was marked “closed in winter”. At first I was on a nice flat paved road heading through open rangeland and crossing periodic cattle guards, or “Texas gates” as they’re called in Alberta. Soon the road turned to gravel and I began to climb higher into the mountains. The road got narrower and narrower and rougher and rougher and I passed through a semi-ghost town called Paradise and noticed there was a lot more snow around. The road got steeper and steeper, the snow got deeper and deeper, and the mud got thicker and thicker. On one particularly steep stretch, my wheels spun and I realized it would be stupid to continue further. The road was too narrow to turn around, so I had to descend about a half a kilometer in reverse before I found a safe place to turn around. I retraced my route, and as it got dark, I realized my best bet would be to find accommodation in the town of Willcox and head for Chiricahua early the next morning.
The Southwest United States is renowned for its spectacular desert landscapes and mountains, and is a favourite location for landscape photographers. Over the years, I’ve seen beautiful images from this region in some of the photography magazines that I read such as Outdoor Photographer.
And so I decided to drive to this region over the Christmas break instead of traveling to a more distant tropical location. It’s a lot of driving from Ottawa — four days straight driving just to get there — then more time driving between locations that tend to be quite distant from each other. People asked me whether it would not be more economical just to fly. Perhaps. But I am carrying camera equipment and camping equipment that would be a nightmare to take on any plane. Then, once I got here, I would still have to rent a car, and it’s extremely difficult to rent a standard, and it’s even harder to rent a car with snow tires. Both of those are necessities for traveling to some of the rugged places I wanted to go. I’d rather have my own car – which goes 1,000km on a $40 diesel fill up.
Added to that, I despise air travel, especially in the United States. The aborted bombing threat over Christmas, and the resulting security nightmares, remind me just how unpleasant air travel has become. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time until a terrorist smuggles explosives in a body cavity, and from that day onward, security will be checking all air passengers’ body cavities before they board the plane. I hate air travel.
Driving has its own challenges, not the least of which is weather. I delayed my departure by a couple of days thinking the weather would still be okay when I left, which was. What I didn’t notice until it was too late, was that a massive snowstorm was heading for Washington DC just as I reached that area. I had to stop early the first day at Hagerstown, Maryland, when the highway became virtually impassable. There were thousands of cars in the ditch in the area. The next day, the snow had stopped, but the roads were still covered, and I had to take smaller roads to get out of the mountains and choose a more southerly route through the Deep South. Instead of going through Tennessee and Arkansas, I went through Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and met up with my original route in Dallas.
You don’t experience the United States in any great depth when you’re simply driving all day on the interstate. Yet you get glimpses when you stop your meals, gas, rests, or pull into small towns in search of some forgotten or needed item. This trip, I’m using a GPS, which is wonderful for telling me when I need to turn and what lane to be in. It makes navigating the freeways easier, especially going through cities. It even detects traffic congestion and chooses detours for me. Sometimes the detours are even fun as when I was led through some of the more upscale neighborhoods of Montgomery, Alabama, or through some small towns to bypass shut-down traffic on a freeway.
I brought camping gear, and though I have camped, it’s not the best for taking advantage of the short daylight hours. It’s often dark by five, but some days on the road I preferred to drive till nine or 10 at night and then grab a motel. Fortunately, this being off-season, cheap motels are available. The Motel 6 chain is very adequate and their rooms range in price from $27 up to about $40. Clean and basic, but all the necessities such as clean sheets, hot showers, and wireless Internet — not necessarily prioritized in that order.
At last, after four long days of driving, and numerous meals at Waffle House or sandwiches at roadside rest stops, I arrived in Carlsbad New Mexico, ready to begin exploring the Southwest.