Saturday, May 6, 2017

Canyon de Chelley

My first visit to Canyon de Chelley (pronounced "de shay") in Arizona was in 1986. It was a passing view, barely remembered, except I was impressed that this canyon was more beautiful than the Grand Canyon precisely because it's not so immense. It is intimate and inviting.

Looking down from an overlook.
Spring and fall are the best times to see this gouge through ancient deep red sandstone. But even late April didn't guarantee we would have great weather. It snowed lightly, rained, sleeted, and hailed those little snow balls that always remind me of Dippin Dots ice cream.

During the intervening years I had acquired more knowledge about geology, history, and archeology that enhanced my later experience. If you want to feel the power of the tragedies that permeate the walls of Canyon de Chelley, read Hampton Side's book - Blood and Thunder. It is a biography of the famous Kit Carson, frontiersman and army scout, who, in his later years led the round up of the Navajo people and forced them on a death march to Fort Sumner and a reservation called the Bosque Redondo: Navajo Trail of Tears

On Friday afternoon, in the rain and sleet, my friend Becky and I drove along the edges of the canyon to all the overlook points. We had planned to take a tour into the canyon, available only with Navajo guides in jeeps. But we cancelled it, hoping the weather reports would prove true and we'd have a better experience on Saturday. Unfortunately, in spite of great technological advances, weather reports aren't always accurate.

Saturday morning was bleak. My car was covered by pebbles of snow on top of a frozen skin of ice. We were the only tour participants and were given pink blankets and army rain slickers. Both of us wore every warm thing we'd brought on the trip, and still we were freezing. The 'jeep' was an Austrian army Pinzgaur, a six-wheeled all terrain vehicle designed for moving troops. Our Navajo driver, Harold, was excellent and we never got stuck, though we passed others who were. The river was running high, but not high enough to stop that machine from plowing through. We were peppered by rain in spite of the tarp overhead, and the pink blankets were caked with red mud by the end of the trip.

The tower in the middle of this photo has three
intact levels. Two skeletons were found in the
highest room, which gave the canyon it's name
Canyon del Muerto, Canyon of Death.
Ours was only the half day tour so we went into the north branch called Canyon del Muerto, as far as the Standing Cow ruin. It was named after a blue-faced cow painted by a Navajo artist on the canyon wall. Other ruins in that canyon included the Antelope ruins and the First Ruin, all buildings left behind by the Anasazi (a Navajo word for ancient ones) or as they are called by archeologists - the Ancestral Puebloans. The buildings were constructed of carefully fashioned sandstone blocks, fitted together so well that little clay was used to hold them together. Abandoned in the 1200s they still stand, some even have roofs supported by wooden beams. There are other ruins further up the canyon that can be seen on the full day tour, or from the overlooks. Canyon del Muerto (of Death) is so named because two women's skeletons were found in a tower-ruin and further upstream there is a cave where over 100 Navajo women and children were massacred by Spanish soldiers in 1805.

On the second half of our tour, the weather improved and the sun peeked out of the clouds on occasion. We drove upriver, sometimes in the river, to the White House, the most famous of Canyon de Chelley's ruins. It is accessible by foot from the rim of the canyon, and is the only one the public can visit without a Navajo guide. A huge ruin, it consists of a building on the ground and many in a cave above. At the height of life there, the lower building was three to four stories and reached up the wall to the cave buildings. The lowest walls are as thick as any castle wall in Europe, built specifically to support an enormous structure.

White House ruin

It was thrilling for me to come back to Canyon de Chelley after all those years, to experience it from the inside as well. The tours are a bit pricy, but worth every penny. The Navajo Nation also runs horseback and guided hiking tours and they allow backpacking and overnights in the canyon with a guide. During the summer months, many Navajos live in the canyon and farm. The sound of tractors and animals is all part of the experience.


The road into the canyon.


After rain and snow, little ponds form on the mesa tops.

Ancient red sandstone cliffs

The intimate canyon


Monday, March 20, 2017

White Sands for the Full Moon

My bucket list gets longer and longer as I age, and the items get knocked off the list at a slower rate than ever before. I am no longer able to travel freely and go where ever the winds blow me. So it was with great pleasure that I was able to head down to southern New Mexico to see the White Sands under a full moon.

My friend Evan came along and we shared the driving and the gas. On the way we stopped for lunch at the Valley of Fires, a fairly recent lava flow across the brown desert, now just barely covered with enough blown in sand and dirt to establish a bit of flora.

Another hour and a half drive, we entered the White Sands National Park and spent four hours hiking around, taking pictures under an overcast sky and waiting for the moon to rise over the eastern mountains. When it finally came up, the sunset cast a brilliant orange light on the thin overcast and the pics were quite spectacular. Clouds cleared in the east just enough for the moon to show up unfazed.

After dark we headed to Las Cruces to eat with Evan's son and spend the night. Arising at 4am we headed back for the sunrise and moonset. The park opens at 7:00 which was just right, it was dark enough for us to settle in on top of a dune before the sunrise. The moon was brilliant against a navy sky until the day got too bright. Hard pressed to decide which made for better pictures, we switched positions back and forth, east and west, trying to capture the essence of both before the sun made an eastern view impossible.

Here are the best of several hundred photos. Enjoy.


Moonrise over cliffs in the sunset glow.

Moon rising over dunes

Sunset with virga clouds
Moonset

Moon in the last vestiges of the sunrise.

The dunes during sunrise



Thursday, July 7, 2016

Traveling to the Past

Even though it was 57 years ago, I remember it vividly.  The layout of the school. The long hall that went from the cafeteria on the north to the large gymnasium on the south. Three large classrooms lined each side of  the hall, one for each grade.
Long before my time in 1959, the school had been the entire school system for the town of Atoka, New Mexico. By 1959 there was nothing left of the town except the school, a few teachers' homes and a little store at the corner of the school road and the highway to Roswell. The store was owned by an old couple, so old that the wife had gone senile. They never had children and when children came into the store she would scream and throw canned goods at them. At least that's what the parents told us. 
Ruined classroom.
I went to first, second and third grades in that school. It had turquoise walls above cream tiles in every room. There were cabinets where everything was stored and each of us had our own cupboard with a door. 
The cafeteria was run by two women who wore white uniforms and black hair nets. One of them had long whiskers growing out of two moles on her chin. They would bake the rolls and cupcakes every morning for our lunches. They would make tamales from scratch, fry up the corn tortillas for soft tacos, trim the ends off fresh green beans when in season, and often we had pork. Because all the food we didn't eat, we scraped into a large bucket at the beginning of the line where we left our trays and dishes. When lunch ended, the bucket was toted across the street to one of the teachers' homes where they fed two hogs. All the ham in our sandwiches and bacon in our burritos came from those hogs. 
The school had other buildings but they were used only for music classes and art. The principal's office was in that building, too, along with other mystery rooms from which kids were banned. We rarely had music or art because the crawlspace under that building was crawling with skunks and the smell was usually so bad nobody could go in there. 
A couple of years ago, I went to the school. It was abandoned decades ago. Some commercial company used it for a while to repair trucks. They had installed roll-up doors in the giant gymnasium but the entire complex was in ruins. The windows were smashed. The trees were all dead. Anything that wasn't nailed down had been taken or busted up. A ring-tailed cat carcass was lying in the doorway of the principal's office. 
It is a school that no longer is. In a town that hasn't existed in half a century. But that school is where I learned to read, to write, and where I learned about recycling leftover food by feeding an animal I would also eat eventually. Schools don't dare teach those lessons any more.

Traveling to the Past

Even though it was 57 years ago, I remember it vividly.  The layout of the school. The long hall that went from the cafeteria on the north to the large gymnasium on the south. Three large classrooms lined each side of  the hall, one for each grade.
Long before my time in 1959, the school had been the entire school system for the town of Atoka, New Mexico. By 1959 there was nothing left of the town except the school, a few teachers' homes and a little store at the corner of the school road and the highway to Roswell. The store was owned by an old couple, so old that the wife had gone senile. They never had children and when children came into the store she would scream and throw canned goods at them. At least that's what the parents told us. 
Ruined classroom.
I went to first, second and third grades in that school. It had turquoise walls above cream tiles in every room. There were cabinets where everything was stored and each of us had our own cupboard with a door. 
The cafeteria was run by two women who wore white uniforms and black hair nets. One of them had long whiskers growing out of two moles on her chin. They would bake the rolls and cupcakes every morning for our lunches. They would make tamales from scratch, fry up the corn tortillas for soft tacos, trim the ends off fresh green beans when in season, and often we had pork. Because all the food we didn't eat, we scraped into a large bucket at the beginning of the line where we left our trays and dishes. When lunch ended, the bucket was toted across the street to one of the teachers' homes where they fed two hogs. All the ham in our sandwiches and bacon in our burritos came from those hogs. 
The school had other buildings but they were used only for music classes and art. The principal's office was in that building, too, along with other mystery rooms from which kids were banned. We rarely had music or art because the crawlspace under that building was crawling with skunks and the smell was usually so bad nobody could go in there. 
A couple of years ago, I went to the school. It was abandoned decades ago. Some commercial company used it for a while to repair trucks. They had installed roll-up doors in the giant gymnasium but the entire complex was in ruins. The windows were smashed. The trees were all dead. Anything that wasn't nailed down had been taken or busted up. A ring-tailed cat carcass was lying in the doorway of the principal's office. 
It is a school that no longer is. In a town that hasn't existed in half a century. But that school is where I learned to read, to write, and where I learned about recycling leftover food by feeding an animal I would also eat eventually. Schools don't dare teach those lessons any more.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Some Invasive Species

Axis deer, an invasive species in the Texas Hill Country. Brought from India in the 1930s for exotic trophy hunters, they are now as prolific as rabbits. So it is open season on them all the time. They are terrified of anyone on foot.

On a recent trip to the Texas Hill Country I was impressed at the number of invasive species. Maybe that was because there is so much natural landscape, the people don't stand out as much. 

I had done some reading on the proliferation of wild hogs and European boars throughout Texas. They've been feral for several hundred years and have reverted to an older body-style; quite hairy, short, heavy, and with bigger tusks.  There are 2.7 million of them concentrated in south Texas. Some wildlife managers refer to them as four-legged fire ants. They cause millions of dollars in damage to property every year.

I took my mother on this trip to Texas to visit relatives. She likes to walk a mile or more every day, so one morning we drove into Bandera and parked at the very interesting historical museum where we walked the streets for a while. 

A portly woman whose house was on the edge of a ravine was more than happy to strike up a conversation about the fifty or so Axis deer that had just wandered through her yard. The family owns 17 acres of wooded land behind the house, where they hunt with bows and arrows. Bow hunting is safer, you don't have to worry about a bullet straying off and hitting someone in town. They have a pig trap and get a wild pig about twice a month. I asked what they do with it. She looked at me as if I was an alien from Mars. "We kill it and eat it," she said quite matter-of-factly. "And we have dogs." As if that answered the question I hadn't asked, about how a single family eats two pigs a month, plus whatever other animals they manage to kill with a bow and arrow. 

The conversation gave me a "hankering" for some wild pig meat. I finally ran across wild boar sausage on the menu at a German Restaurant in Boerne (pronounced Bernie.) Buffalo was also on the menu so I had both. Quite delicious and no more greasy than a regular pork sausage. 

Aunt Judy and Uncle Bob have been living in Bandera County since 2000. The Hill Country is their giant backyard. As we drove around, I spotted all kinds of road kill; the usual rabbits and skunks, and one large creature I thought was a bear! It was a wild hog; solid black and hairy with its feet in the air, tossed off the road onto the grass. Bob said it would be unlikely that we would see one since they're nocturnal. They're out tearing up fences, corrals, cattle feeders, and stock ponds at night when the people, dogs and horses are asleep. 

On a drive west to Tarpley, Utopia, Vanderpool, and Leaky (pronounced Lakey), the landscape is a bit drier and there were herds of black buck antelope. These wild herds were brought in like the Axis deer for trophy hunters. There are a number of ranches in Texas with self-sustaining herds of African grazers. On the WWR ranch you can hunt for African Trophies. And in fact, as herds have diminished in Africa, several species would be in danger of extinction but for the herds still thriving in Texas. 

Native Bison, no longer free to roam, as they once did in herds numbering in the millions, are raised for their meat. 

When you stop to think about it, every continent but Africa is overrun by an invasive species of ape: us. Few species have caused more damage to nature. But it was a pleasure to this particular human to spend two weeks in the Texas Hill Country - where the animals outnumber the people and the natural world is more natural than most places even if many of the animals don't really belong there.  






Saturday, April 9, 2016

Hill Country of Texas

Bluebonnets on a ranch near Kerrville, Texas
In the hill country of Texas bluebonnets, white poppies, daisies, and several other flower species all bloom around the end of March and into April. This year, 2016, has been an especially great spring for the flowers as the winter was mild with plenty of rain.

My mother's sister lives near Bandera, the Cowboy Capital of the World. It's hard to believe as the only "cowboy" I've seen so far was a dude in shorts, a cowboy hat and painted cowboy boots, probably bought that very day at the Western Warehouse in San Antonio.

We flew into San Antonio on Tuesday and spent a sunny Wednesday traveling all through the hill country stopping often to photograph the rolling limestone hills, red granite cliffs, clear streams, and wildflowers. Because it was a weekday there were no traffic jams at the more scenic spots, though there were certainly a lot of people out doing the same thing.

The Hill Country is an area bounded by San Antonio in the south, Austin in the East, and the Llano red granite uplift in the north and west. West of Kerrville the hills seem like small mountains, the roads narrow and twisty, the views from hilltops spectacular.

Larger towns have common national brand-name hotels, but the smaller towns feature B&B's, cabins, cottages, and furnished apartments available from local internet sites and others like AirBnB and HomeStay. The streams and rivers are fairly shallow but wide, and navigable by flat bottomed canoes that are available to rent. Cypress trees line many of the creeks with spaghetti-piles of convoluted roots.

This year it is green, so green as to seem like a miracle to most of us westerners who've grown accustomed to the decade long drought.

The local food is phenomenal: BBQ (Coopers in Llano) and chicken fried steak (Hill Country Cafe in Kerrville). Mashed potatoes with cream gravy, fried okra, crispy green beans, fresh salads, coleslaw, potato salad, black and pinto beans, cobblers with local blackberries and cherries, even homemade apple ice cream in Medina.

So far it's been a fantastic trip; visiting relatives, seeing friends in Austin, and adding one more checkmark on my bucket - photographing the bluebonnets at high season in Texas.

Ranch decor with bluebonnets.





Cypress roots holding trees to the riverbanks.
Remnant of a long ago Cypress along the Median River



Sunday, March 20, 2016

Staying home: El Cabezon near San Isidro, NM

View to the SW from the flanks of the Cabezon

I've not posted on this blog for about 9 months. The reason is that during my last trip to Mexico, my mother suffered from a stroke. My sisters were around to get her through the hospital stay and rehab process, but it fell to me, as the only one of us who is retired, to move in with her full time and take over all the details of her life like paying bills and driving.

She has made a remarkable recovery, but will never drive again. She can no longer see well enough to pay bills, use a computer, or even read. So my travel-life has shrunk down to day trips here and there, with an occasional longer trip if I can take her with me.

Recently, I met my friend Tyler in San Isidro, NM and we took his 4WD vehicle out into the Rio Puerco valley. The area is full of volcanic plugs, the largest of which is called El Cabezón, "big head" in Spanish. They are all what is left of extinct volcanos that weathered away, leaving only the hardest rock, the solidified throat or neck.

It was still wintery, though a nice day. Even with the jeep, we couldn't go that last mile to the trailhead parking lot, it was too muddy. So we slogged in on foot, ate a nice lunch on a slope protected from the constant cold wind, and then hiked up to the 'shoulder' of the mountain. Further up the rocks require ropes and pitons. The views were outstanding. I counted about 24 volcanic necks in the area of varying sizes, and that was just looking to the south. From the shoulder we could see east to the Sandias and southeast to the Manzanos. Due south was a series of volcanic mesas, valleys, desert, and blue blue sky.

El Cabezón, southwest of San Isidro, NM




Tyler, in a plaid shirt and beige pants is almost perfectly camouflaged. 

The long tubular structures happen when lava cools very slowly over time, called columnar jointing.
This entire mountain is all that is left of a once large volcano.