After some early morning hiking across the lava flows and a trip into town to pick up fresh batteries I returned to Junction Cave to do some exploring. The cave isn’t particularly long, but it was tough going and took nearly two hours for the round-trip. To reach the end of the cave required squirming through a tunnel less than three feet high that was so damp that my breath caused the air to begin filling with fog. On the return trip I stopped, shut off my flashlight, and sat down to experience the complete lack of light and see what tricks my mind might play on me. After a few minutes I started seeing really bright flashes that would pulse in and out, but after about five minutes of enjoying this trippy display I finally realized my brain was fine and that someone else was in the cave and I was seeing reflected light from their flashlight.
A late afternoon visit to El Morro National Monument completed the day. That park was created to preserve what is basically four hundred years worth of graffiti on the sandstone cliffs, but the hike to the top of the cliffs was more to my liking. I’ve committed the sin of getting a hotel room for the night, and can only justify the decision by stating that a shower makes the breach of road trip protocol so very worthwhile.
Self-portrait in Junction Cave.
New Mexico’s Finest refrained from pressing vagrancy charges last night, so it was sweet dreams until the sun came up. El Malpais (“Badlands”) National Monument was a short distance from my sleeping spot, and I arrived fairly early. The park sits in the midst of several ancient volcanic cones and lava flows and has an extensive network of caves created from lava tubes, the largest of which is supposedly seventeen miles long. Hiking through one of these tubes was a dicey affair as the floor of the cave was covered with boulders and difficult to navigate, and the batteries of my tiny flashlight were fading fast. Sadly, just as it was becoming dark enough that I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face common sense prevailed and I turned around; a return trip tomorrow, with fresh batteries, is likely.
Most of the afternoon was spent in the east side of the park taking photos. In the midst of my Ansel Adams impersonations I ran into two guys standing on a cliff’s edge, with one guy educating his friend on everything from lava formations to tsunamis to photographic equipment. What made this conversation interesting was that the guy spoke with utter conviction, but was wrong on nearly every subject. From a lava flow’s ability to mummify people (rock and metal are toast in the face of a lava flow, but apparently organic tissue is special) to the fact that one hundred years ago all cameras took three hours to snap a photo (imagine portrait photographers: “now hold really still”) the entertainment value of this conversation made it hugely difficult not to eavesdrop. The only downside of the encounter was the fact that his poor friend will no doubt be passing along a newfound wealth of misinformation.
Yesterday’s winds topped out between sixty and seventy miles per hour, so it wasn’t such a bad idea to spend most of it inside of the car reading. With the weather calmer today the camera and I roamed about Petrified Forest National Park from sunrise until sunset, during which time the scalp was quite cooked in the desert sun. After leaving the park I crossed into New Mexico, and have spent the last hour trying to find a place to sleep — the need for a shower and the fact that the dome has gone from being bald and badass to fuzzy and not nearly so badass was almost enough of an excuse to pay for a hotel, but the call of the road prevailed and I’m instead parked alongside a highway onramp; trucks park on these things all the time, so hopefully the New Mexico Highway Patrol won’t feel the need to interrupt my slumber.
Petrified log in Blue Mesa.
Insane winds were blowing so strongly that I felt the need to always set the emergency brake when parking today, and any attempts at hiking became survival exercises due to the dust and sand whipping in the winds. As a result the day was mostly a non-event, and the Subaru is spending the night next to the park gate with the hope that things will calm tomorrow and allow some exploring.
As is the norm there was much eating while visiting Caitlin, and in between meals we also squeezed in a showing of Sin City, which was a completely watchable flick. I think I’m now headed up towards Petrified Forest National Park, although I tend to get easily sidetracked so the next stop could just as easily be in Manitoba or Delaware. On a side note, with no moon the stargazing from these mountains is awesome.
Woke up near Palm Springs and then headed off towards Tucson, and I continued to be a magnet for police activity along the way — outside of Phoenix two highway patrol cars had pulled over a truck, with one officer using his gun to cover the driver. The driver decided to take off, causing the officers to rush back to their cruisers. The fact that the two-lane highway was bumper-to-bumper was apparently not conducive to the driver’s escape plans, so he abruptly ended the chase before I had to take evasive maneuvers with the Subaru.
Spent the afternoon hiking in Saguaro National Park, although most of the time was spent attempting not to spontaneously combust in the heat. How anyone lives here without bursting into flame is truly a mystery. I’m off to dinner with a friend, and the plan is to do a lot less driving over the next few days while visiting some of the sights down here.
Most of December, January and February went by with little of note occurring, and then today I rambled all over Pinnacles National Monument, witnessed a bank robbery, hung out with elephant seals, and then navigated the Humvee jungle that is Los Angeles; in one day I may have burned up my quota of excitement for the next few months.
The day tried to start at 4:30, but the snooze button was too great of a temptation and I wasn’t on the road until 5:30. Luckily I was still the first car to arrive at Pinnacles, and had the High Peaks trail all to myself. After leaving the park and heading back towards the highway I decided to stop and check the map, and while pulling into a parking lot noticed a police officer with a semiautomatic rifle doing his best Platoon imitation as he ran behind a sign and then took aim at a nearby bank. My brain was operating in slow mode (as usual) and it was only after driving past that it occurred to me that something wasn’t right about what I had just seen. Making a loop around the lot, I returned in time to see two other officers handcuffing two men in suits, with two large gym bags sitting incongruously next to them. Rambo continued to cover the scene with his hand cannon while the folks inside of the bank watched the proceedings with an understandably varied array of facial expressions.
I called Aaron to tell him my little Bonnie and Clyde tale, but he of course trumped it with the stories of a horrific motorcycle pileup that he oversaw during his paramedic rotation last night. Following several more hours of driving I ended up in Piedras Blancas with the elephant seals, although seeing them arrayed on the beach a “safe” distance from the many inquisitive tourists was a much different experience than having them try to eat me while in St. Andrew’s Bay on South Georgia. The night is finishing up in a Starbucks in Los Angeles, and more than likely I’ll end up asleep in a rest stop somewhere between here and Arizona.
Despite my lack of photographic mojo I’ve put a handful of photos from the last couple of weeks online in the American West gallery. Only the first dozen or so are new, the rest are from past trips. If you have tons of free time and want to see lots of bad photos, there is also a larger gallery available.
An inch of snow on the ground, winds so strong that standing up was difficult, and occasional hail and snow skuttled the idea of hiking today. Instead the Subaru ambled along from the South Rim through the Navajo Reservation and up into southwestern Utah. I actually got caught in a sandstorm at one point along the route, which was a first for me (who knew that clouds turn pink during a sandstorm?).
Despite the fact that a large part of my brain really wants to spend some time in New Mexico and perhaps continue across the country, I’m now on my way back to the Bay Area to join friends and family for Easter. Being away always makes it more clear how important it is to spend time with the people who matter, and with a bunch of folks coming into town for the weekend the right choice is to make sure I’m there as well. I’ve got a friend in Tucson who I’ve promised to visit, so I’ll be back on the road before long, although tomorrow will likely be the last full day of this portion of the trip.
U2’s “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” seems to be the theme for this trip, and I had it on repeat for about four hours while driving through the desert east of Joshua Tree. I decided to take the secondary roads instead of the interstate, and it was a good choice — the desert out there is the type of place where time and distance blur, such that you don’t know if you’ve been traveling for one hour or six, and it was a good time to think.
By the time I reached the Grand Canyon clouds had set in, but I still managed a bit of hiking. I’m hoping to hike the Kaibab trail tomorrow, although the forecast is for rain, which wouldn’t be ideal. My eating habits have been abysmal thus far on the trip, but tonight I decided that the possibility of a tough hike warranted a good dinner. Stopping at a cafeteria I discovered that the old Mexican woman manning the “South of the Border” station was totally hooking people up with the portions — plates were literally overflowing when she handed them back. The drool was probably evident by the time I got to the front of the line, at which point a Thai girl stepped in to take my order and made me a burrito the size of an egg roll; the Gods continue to mock me.
In other news, I shaved the dome again today. In the span of four days I’ve gone from being a guy whose hair was thinning at a young age to being a badass who inspires mothers to stand protectively over their children; I’m digging the change.
The Grand Canyon from the South Rim.
I spent last night and the full day today in Joshua Tree National Park, which is a place where I usually manage at least one odd experience per visit. The first time I came here was while driving cross-country back in 1997, and at an out-of-the-way trail deep in the park I ran into one of my teammates from the school track team who just happened to be on his way to the Rose Bowl. On a more recent visit I was drifting off to sleep but looked up just in time to see a bobcat perfectly outlined in the moonlight. The strangest experience I’ve had here was on yet another visit while out for a run — during the run two coyotes decided to trot along with me, and kept pace with me about twenty feet to my left for a short time.
Today I roamed all over the park, and on one remote trail noticed what looked like an abandoned mine up on a hill. While scrambling up the rocks towards the entrance I heard a rattling noise that few people will ever hear, but most people would immediately recognize; the snake was only about four feet long, but he was stretched across the trail perhaps six feet ahead of me. Being the genius that I am I took a step closer, at which point his rattle went into overdrive while he slowly slithered off into some nearby rocks. Yet another memorable moment to add to the list.
As expected, the Salton Sea is one of the oddest places I’ve ever visited. For those unfamiliar with the history of the place, it goes something like this: a long time ago an engineer added two plus two and got five, and then smacked his head and yelled “DOH!” as a series of levees burst and the Colorado River spent from 1905 until 1907 flooding a desert valley. Since the average elevation of the valley was more than two hundred feet below sea level the water had no where to drain to, and the resulting lake was about thirty miles long and ten miles wide; all in all this was one of the more noticeable engineering failures in U.S. history.
People, being people, thought the idea of a giant freshwater lake in the desert was a pretty cool idea, so the area quickly became a popular recreation spot. Farmers, being farmers, thought having a huge water source available was a pretty cool idea, so farms started springing up around the lake. Between the detritus of tourism and the runoff from agriculture, the freshwater lake became not so fresh. Eventually the lake reached a point where the adjective “pungent” became appropriate, something that does not normally jive with tourism. As a result, what had been a booming vacation spot was suddenly not-so-booming, and today Salton City is a ghost-town wannabe on the shore of a lake of yellow-brownish saltwater.
From the summary it wouldn’t seem like this is a spot worth visiting, but I’ve kind of been curious about it for a long time now. Arriving this morning the first thing I thought is that the lake is huge, and the second is that the lake is nasty. I wouldn’t set foot in the water even if well-paid, and was even nervous about getting mud on my boots while hiking. The flip side is that migratory birds have no idea that this place should be declared a Superfund site, and tons of different species spend time here.
Another worthwhile part of this visit was the feeling while driving around Salton City. The place is eerie enough to be well worth experiencing; roads have been built with hopeful names like “Pelican Bay Rd” and “Flamingo Ave”, yet they have obviously not seen any repair work in decades, and most lead to nowhere. Large areas have been parceled out for homes, streets are neatly divided into blocks, but while there are a few fabulous vacation homes, most lots are empty with aging real estate signs posted in them. Since no one is buying in Salton City, once the current residents either leave or die then all that will be left is the ghost of what was once a booming vacation town.
A very good day, despite the fact that by the end of it my hair had gone missing.
Audra, me, and my bald head.
Thus far today I’ve been asked for money twice, once in a gas station by a girl wearing clothes that were nicer than mine, and once outside of the grocery store by a guy who already had a handful of quarters. At the laundromat a bum was cursing at each person who walked in while he rolled joints from a beef jerky bag filled with pot and occasionally (incoherently) threatened a tiny dog who was wrestling with a stale piece of pita bread. I’m now in a Starbucks with no less than two tables of people having some sort of organized counseling session, while the girl at the table next to me is writing something that makes numerous references to the “Dark Lord” — I hope it’s just a screenplay. The evening promises at least a small improvement, although I’ve already been warned that the friend I’m going to dinner with may have a stalker following her.
Whatever else you might say about it, at least Los Angeles is never dull. Also, apologies for not visiting everyone here, but since the trip route is sort of spur-of-the-moment I didn’t know I was coming until late last night, and didn’t want to make a lot of rushed plans. Next time.