Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Thursday, July 24, 2008

My Sedona

We had thought about going to Arches and Canyonlands NPs for the weekend, but it was just too much driving, and Kate couldn't come with us. So, realizing that we hadn't used our bikes hardly at all since the first week we got here, Katie and I settled on a day of mountain biking in Sedona. This decision occurred regardless of the fact that neither of us had ever been mountain biking before. We meticulously researched trails on the internet, looking for ones that were suitable for beginners but still fun.

We had lunch at Martanne's in Flagstaff and then headed to the Cathedral Rock trail outside Sedona. This had been advertised as mostly easy. Apparently, "mostly easy" for seasoned mountain bikers means "like riding up a set of stairs on a bike" for beginners. I don't know how mountain bikers climb up successions of sheer 10-inch-high ledges on bikes, but apparently they do. We, however, were required to walk our bikes up to Cathedral Rock. Here our trail intersected with the Templeton trail, which was slightly more possible. It was a mix of slickrock (naked sandstone) and gravel with some rocky sections, and a little bit of up and down where gullies crossed the trail.

It was certainly beautiful, but it was a bit of a crash course for beginners. I found it difficult to retain balance on the rocky, foot-wide trail while traveling a rocketlike speed downhill or snail-like speed uphill. I rattled down jagged sandstone cuttings sure that I was going to vault over my handlebars and die at any moment. But I couldn't stop. I mean, when else was I going to get the chance to do this? To add to the incentive to stay on, there were prickly pear cacti lining the trail. Shortly after Katie nearly ran her bike into one, we decided to park the bikes between a couple of junipers and continue on foot. (Coincidentally, at this time, a pack of young male mountain bikers passed by as if they were out for a cruise on the smoothest pavement in the county.)

We walked down a set of switchbacks that led into Oak Creek Canyon. As we descended, the air got more humid and the vegetation more lush, until we were padding over sand in a jungle-like forest. Above us on the trail, someone was yelling something incoherent. I said I felt like I was in Vietnam. Katie asserted her belief that when we got to the creek, I should rise from the water with my eyes open and a knife in my mouth.

We came to Buddha Beach and changed into our bathing suits and had a very nice swim in the creek, which was cold and had little blue crayfish hiding in the rocks on the bottom.

We hiked back up and recovered our bikes, where we took them on a death-defying spin back along the trail. At one point I was trying to cycle up a steep rock slope when my horse reared, so to speak, and I pulled the bike to the side in an attempt to keep my balance. It turned and set off down an equally steep slope, at which point, in my attempts to put the breaks on, I managed to fall sideways and pull the bike over with me. I landed on my left knee. It didn't hurt much, but later I noticed I had blood washing down my knee and shin like a waterfall.

After we got back to the car we decided to tackle another trail our visitor guide described as easy, and pulled up at the head of the Bell Rock Pathway. This trail was certainly a good bit less rocky, but there was still a lot of up and down. Halfway into it my legs were dying. Then it began to get stormy.

As we reached the end of the trail and turned around, it began to rain, and it wasn't long before the trail got muddy. Soon it was impossible to ride without feeling clods of mud smacking against my shins and calves as the tires spun. And an occasional glob would land on my shirt, arms or face. One went in my eye. The bike was caked with it.

But if this messy race weren't reward enough in itself, the sun peeked out long enough to form a spectacular double rainbow over Courthouse Butte. It was the most vivid I've ever seen in my life, and the near end came right down to touch the ground at our feet. (Of course, it moved when we did.)

There was water gushing past us in gullies that had been bone dry half an hour ago. We were exhausted, wet and covered in mud but that only enhanced the impact of the moment. Sedona is known for its National-Park-quality, breathtaking beauty and for the "psychic vortexes" that supposedly dot the area, adding power to the prayers or meditations of anyone who chooses to practice there. I am personally skeptical about the vortexes, of course… and after visiting, I don't know why anyone should need a psychic vortex there to feel awe or a profound sense of being alive. It seems a bit irrelevant.

We made it back to the car as the sun was setting and documented our muddiness.

Not a fake smile:

Don't ask me how the mud got this high:

We should be visiting Canyon de Chelly this weekend, and it's hard to take a bad picture there. Stay tuned!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Creature feature

There are many creatures here in the park. A list of the particularly deserty ones that I have seen:

Common lesser earless lizard
Common side-blotched lizard
Plateau lizard
Greater short-horned lizard
Plateau striped whiptail
Eastern collared lizard
Mule deer
Desert cottontail
Prairie dog
Antelope ground squirrel
Dung beetle

No rattlesnakes or scorpions so far. Some pictures of the creatures…

Plateau lizard:

We got one of these in the apartment once. It couldn't run on the linoleum very well. It looked like it was swimming in place. Here is a movie of Katie trying to catch it:

Greater short-horned lizard (AKA horny toad):


Antelope ground squirrels:


For those of you screaming horrified questions at your computer screen right now, a solfugid is an arthropod that is not a scorpion or a spider, though it has some things in common with those. They are also known as solpugids, and are sometimes called "wind scorpions" or, in barely-true emails that have been forwarded all over the web, "camel spiders," though they don't get as big here as they do in Iraq. They are fast runners and they run after their prey and catch it. We get one running in under the screen doors every other night here in the apartment.

This brings us to the most notable desert dweller out here, which is the humble ant. There are ants EVERYWHERE here. Billions of them. Small black ants, small brown ants, big black ants, big red ants, et cetera. I don't know what on earth they eat. This is sort of a spare ecosystem, there is not a lot of biomass compared to a forest. But I probably step on a hundred of them on my 5 minute walk from the apartment to the office each morning. And when I step on them their buddies come surround their corpses. Maybe that's what they eat. They have trails everywhere around the complex here. If you look close you can see the ants in this trail, which has been active for a couple months:

Here is an industrious ant carrying away a piece of potato chip from my lunch:

And it was probably ants that cleaned up this piece of creature that we found today:

It may be a bobcat skull, we took it back to the lab for comparative anatomy purposes, so we can study the bones.
Still haven't decided where we'll go this weekend... maybe Utah!

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Weekend adventure

We had a wonderful time this weekend. On the Fourth of July, we drove up to Flagstaff and went for a hike in a lava tube. There was no lava in the tube.

A lava tube can form when a stream of lava runs out from a volcano. The outside of the lava is in contact with the air so it cools and solidifies, making a tube through which the still-hot lava inside continues to flow. Sometimes that solidifies too, but sometimes the source of lava is cut off at the top, and so the remaining lava flows out and goes on with its business, leaving the solidified tube empty. The empty tube may get filled with something else, it may collapse, or it may remain empty.

This lava tube made a cave about ¾ of a mile long in which the temperature was in the 40s. The inside was made of homogenous brown rock and the floor was quite uneven most places. But it was cool and it turned out to be a very good hike to do, since this awaited us when we got back to the entrance:

It was hailing with lightning striking close by. We ran for the car and drove out through cold, foggy forests, where in some places there was four inches or so of hail. It scraped the bottom of the car as I drove over it. It was the Fourth of July but it looked like the middle of winter.

We made it back to town and enjoyed some of Flagstaff's fine cuisine, and stayed in an overpriced motel for the night. The next day we drove up to Tusayan and took the free shuttle into the Grand Canyon. We walked up to Mather Point to take in the scene. In front of us was the north wall of the canyon, blue with distance, looking like a giant temple of terraces built by some unhuman consiousness. It didn't look quite real. We walked along the rim trail and Kate, our new roommate, took a picture of Katie and I:

Kate is another paleontology intern here for the summer. She bought the book Death in Grand Canyon and could not put it down. Here she reads it while standing up on the shuttle:

She had just finished the chapter on falls by the time we got to the canyon. Many of the fatal falls in the book occurred when visitors decided to hop the guardrails and walk right up to the edge, then lost their balance. When I read the book myself I imagined somebody would only try to hop the guardrails, oh, every once in a while. But as we walked we saw hundreds of people walk right up to the edge. Here a group of tourists wanders around above a drop of several hundred feet. Kate could not turn away.

When we got to the general store we bought some hot dogs and had a tiny cookout on my tiny backpacking stove.

We made some s'mores too, and then took the shuttle east for a brief hike down the South Kaibab trail. This trail is one of the few in the canyon that follows a ridge instead of a gully, making for some very nice views. Here are the switchbacks in the beginning part of the trail:

And some of the views from "Ooh Ah Point," ¾ of a mile down:

I'm including that second one because it's funny. It looks like a model shoot, especially with the strap to Kate's shirt falling down. We pose for a (less candid) picture before the hike back up:

There were very cute squirrels in the canyon.

The administration at the canyon is very keen on people not dying from heat stroke. Unfortunately, the only way to educate the large crowds is through intimidating signs. This sign about knowing your limits found us just in time.

Actually, we had a very moderate hike in beautiful weather and were not suffering in the least. It was one of the nicest days I've had in a long time. Here is a final picture as the sun starts to sink:

On a less upbeat note, my network card on my laptop has stopped working. There is a community computer, but it's rarely free when I am, and anyway the network seems to have been getting slower and slower throughout the summer. It's taken me about 3 hours over the past week to get all the photos for this entry uploaded. Understandably, this is somewhat de-motivating in terms of getting new posts up. But I would like to continue, so keep looking for new entries!

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

A typical day

6:00 Alarm goes off. Hit the snooze button.
6:30 Get up. Get dressed.

My field outfit:

Broad-brimmed hat, sunglasses (which I only wear if we are in an area with lots of white rocks, which reflect the light terribly), white button-down cotton shirt (much cooler than a knit shirt, plus it has a collar I can turn up), rip-stop nylon hiking pants, hiking boots. What goes in my pockets:

Knife (can scratch calcite, but will be scratched by quartz), compass, cloth to wipe glasses, chap stick, hand lens on lanyard.

Make lunch (always peanut butter & jelly, potato chips, and a piece of fruit). Have breakfast (almost always cereal).

The kitchen (note: photo not actually taken at breakfast):

7:00 Go to lab. Work on gluing fossils together.
8:00 Check in with supervisor to see if he needs me for the day. If not, head back to apartment and get ready to go out with Katie. Some of the gear that comes with me:

Rain jacket, nalgene bottle and hydration bladder with 2 liters of ice water, a bandana, lunch, sunscreen, ziplock bags for putting rock samples in, a pen, pencil and marker, a notebook for writing non-research-related thoughts in, reading material, a first aid kit, a small duffel bag for carring around equipment and samples in the field, a rock hammer, an awl and paintbrush for excavating fossils, extra pencil leads, eye moisturizing drops, extra bootlaces, and my field notebook.

8:30 Head out to work with Katie. Drive six miles through the park, open a locked gate, drive a ways on a dirt road then hike in to the site.
9:15 Start working. Hold the other end of the tape measure for Katie, or dig trenches while Katie relaxes.

10:00 It starts to get really hot. No breeze. A little bit humid since it's monsoon season. Everything begins to get hot. It's hard to even sit down since the rocks burn me through my pants. I have to be careful picking up my rock hammer or anything else metal. I don't find it draining… I can still climb hillsides and swing the big rock pick to dig trenches… but it is very uncomfortable. Sometimes we bring an extra cooler of ice water.

11:00 Snack. Back to work.
12:00 (sharp) Lunch. Find shade if shade is available, perhaps beneath an undercut sandstone ledge. Today we wedged ourselves into a small patch of shade; my feet were up by Katie's head, and her back was hunched so her head fit into the little cave. Eat sandwich, chips, fruit. Drink water.
12:30 Back to work, perhaps a bit refreshed though it's still very hot. Clouds have begun gathering on the horizon in all directions, but the sky above is still crystal blue.
1:30 Clouds finally begin to form overhead, and we have a chance of getting some shade. A breeze starts.
2:00 The monsoon storms begin to form, and we can watch them moving over the badlands.

The storms are patchy, but today one of them traveled directly over us. It began with a few drops, but within a couple minutes it was pouring—big, cold drops that quickly had us soaked.
We even had a little bit of hail. The worst was over after 15 minutes. I found it very refreshing, but it was cold enough that Katie got quite chilly and didn't really recover until the sun came out later. We had mostly cloudy skies for the rest of the work day.

4:00 Pack up and hike out.
4:30 Snack time again. A cold drink and some cookies or baby carrots.
5:00 I go back to work in the lab to clean and glue some more fossils. This "outside of work hours" arrangement allows me to get in my quota of lab work and have another full day per week in the field.
6:00 Come home, get changed and help make dinner. If we're grilling, we head out with a sports item like a frisbee to toss around while the meat cooks. It often becomes sunny again in the evenings, which is nice.

Last night, my birthday dinner was grilled steaks. These amazing steaks were $0.99 a pound at the local Safeway. We bought a seven-pound package and marinated them in what we had lying around, which included pickle juice and jalapeno juice. They were very good.

The woman on the right is our new roommate, who hails from England. We all get along very well.

8:00 Catch up on projects like reading, sketching or writing blog entries.
9:00 Play Diablo II with Katie. I brought this classic computer game in case I had lots of empty time (in reality, I'm busy almost every hour of the day) and got Katie sucked into the wonderful computer-game world of killing things and taking their stuff. So most nights we play for an hour and get a little bit further in the game. We are about halfway through it now (and halfway through my internship)!

10:00 Bedtime. It is usually cool enough in my room to sleep… we haven't used the air conditioning yet, the brick buildings are well-insulated… but I can always open a window. I can hear I-40 in the distance. I try to get 8 hours of sleep for the next gruelling day.

For the weekend of the 4th, we are planning to see fireworks in Flagstaff and maybe some of northwestern AZ's geological wonders. I will be sure to let everyone know how it goes!