Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The way home, part 2

See the previous entry for part 1. Continuing...

We woke up early at Rio Penasco, Katie's tent and my sleeping bag (I had slept under the stars) so covered in dew we might as well have slept under a sprinkler system. But we stuffed the wet items into the trunk anyway and headed to the campground office to see about getting some money back.

No one was in. There were hummingbirds everywhere. I watched them as Katie scribbled a note describing our situation to the owners and asked for any excess fee to be sent to me. She signed it with my name. (I would have written it, but my handwriting is atrocious, especially when my hands are cold.) I stuffed it in the payment drop box. Something sticky touched my hand.

We were happy to move on, and soon drove out of the forest into a less tropically humid environment. It became dryer and hotter as we headed down past Artesia and Carlsbad, then up the long road through Carlsbad National Park, with yucca and cacti lining the road.

We paid the $6 each for the self-guided tour of the caverns and headed out to the natural entrance. Apparently, some of the population touring the caverns is unsuited for this hike, prompting the sign below:

And here's the trail in:

I took a bunch of pictures in the cavern, balancing my camera on the railings to try to get sharp photos in the darkness, but the stabilization wasn't quite enough as most of the shots came out blurry. This one, however, was sharp:

This is the doll's theater, which is a cavern some 300 feet high.

Actually, it's more like 4 feet high. But you can't tell from the photo, can you?

This sign was a favorite of mine. It put the stamp of approval on my unkempt camperness.

It took a couple hours to go through the caverns, but by the end, I saw all the speleothems I wanted to see. I don't know what it is about caves; I always expect to enjoy them more than I do. But there I was, thinking, "Another stalactite, boy." My favorite aspects are the exploration aspect and the peace and quiet and dark, but those aren't easy to come across in caves frequented by the public.

After we finished up there, we drove north, back through congested Carlsbad, north to Roswell, where we were certain we would find a cheesy alien-themed diner to eat at. However, the main street of Roswell does not live up to the imagination. It could have been anywhere. It's true that most of the businesses downtown--from lawyers' offices to hair salons--had random alien cutouts and decals in their windows, but cheesy alien-themed diners were sadly lacking. Instead, we visited an antique shop, where I picked up an antique brass key that I later made into a necklace.

We headed for Oasis State Park outside of Portales. The park was a small oasis around a man-made pond stocked with fish, one of only a few such places in that dry country. It would be our last night in the southwest. Figuring it was our last chance to get good Mexican food, we picked a Mexican joint and ordered supper. My food was very similar to Taco Bell fare in presentation and quality, and Katie's might have been the same. I don't know; we never discussed the meal. We ate without talking about it and left without talking about it. It was like some tragedy too immediate and raw to be spoken of.

When we pulled off the highway for the state park, we finally rolled down our windows, and were greeted with a familar aroma. Katie identified it as the gentle smell of cow dung. I said it was more like an aggressive smell. Like it physically grabbed you and forced itself into your nostrils. There were some fields and trees, but nothing to explain this sign once we reached the park gates:

This stymied me, until I turned and saw the other sign:

Pond closed! Whoever heard of a pond being closed?

We set up at a campsite that was nice and quiet but found that the whole park was (perhaps unsurprisingly) swarming with flies. I mean the kind of flies that lay their eggs on cow dung. And so I set up my tent for that night. We took a brief bike ride and I had a shower. I walked back to the site in the dark to find Katie reading under a tree taken over by full-throated cicadas. I set up the stove and we had terrible s'mores with withered, stale marshmallows, two of our remaining beers, and melty chocolate that had to be scooped out of the wrapper with a knife. And then we leaned back against the picnic table and talked for a long time. I don't remember about what. It was probably something dorky.

Sometime in the night it started to rain. I felt the fine spray on my face from drops hitting the mesh of my tent. I hadn't put the fly on. I got up and stumbled to the car and dragged it out of the trunk, and then stood there staring for a while, hoping the rain would stop. By the time Katie had put her fly on a couple minutes later, the rain did stop, so I dropped mine on the ground, stopped staring and went back to sleep.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The way home, part 1

We chucked our stuff in the car on the morning of Wednesday the 6th. This included approximately ten bags of glass jars and bottles, as they don't recycle glass most places in Arizona and we're part of the environmental generation. This is something like being raised Catholic, in that it involves lots of guilt and regular ceremonies in dimly-lit places that smell strange. We had a wistful parting with Kate, who would have been in favor of us staying another five weeks (her remaining tenure at the park, which she is now spending alone in the apartment) and headed for Gallup and the recycling center. With our summer's harvest of glass deposited in the fusty black barrel provided, we were free to begin our journey home in earnest.

We turned south at Albuquerque to head toward Las Cruces. After a couple hours, the landscape changed from the beige sandstone mesa-and-butte terrain we'd been seeing all morning and became green and mountainous.

We passed the exit for the Very Large Array, but didn't have time to visit it. Past Las Cruces, we turned east and descended into the Tularosa Basin. The long road downward from the San Andres mountains was the longest downhill stretch I've ever coasted in a car. At the bottom, the land was flat and boring, except for an army of yellow caterpillars crossing the road. After a few minutes these abruptly disappeared. One moment there were caterpillars; the next there simply weren't.

Near the White Sands missle base we were diverted off the highway for a border patrol checkpoint. The officer asked us whether we were citizens (yes) and where we were headed (Rhode Island), then let us go. We drove a couple minutes further to our evening stop, White Sands National Monument.

This attraction is one of the only gypsum dune fields in the world. Ages ago, when this part of the U.S. was under a shallow sea, evaporating water left minerals behind, including calcium sulfate, or gypsum. The gypsum layer was buried beneath subsequent layers, and much later, rifting and faults lifted the San Andre and Sacramento mountains above the Tularosa Basin. As the nearby mountains were exposed to erosion, the gypsum began to wash out of their sides and into a lake in the basin. Here it forms large crystals, or dries and blows into the dune field.

This park is only $3 a person to enter. When we arrived at the end of the park's Dunes Drive, we saw families sporting in the sand, just like at the beach--complete with loud and obnoxious music.

We hiked out on the Alkali Flats trail to escape them. Soon we were surrounded by white dunes. The air was warm and humid and there was a strange smell, like a salty beach with no organic component, no decaying seaweed or dead crabs. I'm not sure I would call it pleasant but it wasn't unpleasant. And it was certainly beautiful.

I made a sand angel.

Here is the sand that stuck to my arm. Click on the picture to see the shape of the grains close-up.


Katie and her friends had a tradition dating back to her undergraduate days; it involved a large round stuffed bat. This bat must be brought to unique places and have its photo taken. After we'd been visiting unique and lovely places all around the southwest for two and a half months, Katie's friend finally managed to get the bat in the mail to her. Here is Katie and the bat, rolling down the hill. (The bat is rolling down the hill, not Katie.)

Here is Katie of the Post-Apocalyptic Dune Planet, with bat, camera and water bottle in arms.

It was lovely out, you understand, with balmy air and gorgeous scenery. It was quiet and we were having great fun. The park was open until 10. Unfortunately, we were on a schedule and had to go. With the sun setting, we packed ourselves into the car and drove off east. We entered the Sacramento mountains after dark, and began a twisty climb that lasted an hour and would certainly have been great fun if we could see where we were going. In the dark it was slightly hair-raising, with cars and motorcycles whizzing past in the opposite direction, and reflectored guardrails close on either side.

It wasn't until after nine that we arrived at our first camping place, Rio Penasco RV Park. I had chosen this particular destination because it was the only place on our route that advertised tent sites. All the other camgrounds I could find with my sole resource (the internet) listed only RV hookups. We didn't want to pay $20 for a night in a tent. But when we got to Rio Penasco, no one was in the office. We read the placard outside with dismay: $20 a night for an RV space, plus assorted other fees. The map showed no tent sites. We drove disconsolately around the park, retirees watching us from lawn chairs in their haloes of lantern light. Finally we decided to pay the fee and set up the tent on a unused grassy area. In the morning we would check in at the office and try to reclaim some of our money.

The air was thick with humidity and the ground already wet with dew, and cows made strange noises in the distance. We made ramen noodles hunched over my stove in the gravel parking spot, then turned in.

Later... part 2!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Loyal readers

I'm back! But I will probably wait on a new post until I get my computer up, so it could be a few more days. We took a leisurely trip home, about a week and a half, and of course there were adventures. Soon.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008


We should be heading home tomorrow. First, a picture of me at Canyon de Chelly:

There are, of course, many things that I never got around to talking about in the blog. One is all the idiosyncrasies of our apartment. The microwave that stymied us for three days until we figured out the arcane series of buttons to push to get it to cook anything. The toaster that required continuously applied physical force to get it to toast bread. The metal courtyard door, which always swelled in the heat of midday so that we were unable to pull it open, leaving us trapped in our own home.

There were other odd and wonderful things around the housing complex, too. The washing machine that took only 50 cents to use, and which only accepted one of my coins last night, happily washing the load for only 25 cents. The pool table that came equipped with ten pool cues, all of which had had their tips broken off—save one, which finally joined the others when Kate raised it a bit too high and the ceiling fan took a bite out of it. The bathroom in the office building that had only one stall, but did come equipped with a couch. The fact that grilling anything on the community barbecues inevitably meant the rest of the community descending around you and making mindless chit-chat, their eyes fixed solidly on your burgers. The eccentricities of our coworkers, which were many but which will not be mentioned here.

The most notable and memorable thing about this place, though, will certainly be the insects and other arthropods that plagued us daily. (Precisely as I write this, Katie, who is rolling up her maps for the trip home, says sternly, "No, spider! Go over there.") Last night Katie felt a tickling while she lay trying to sleep, and eventually gave in to paranoia enough to turn the light on and discover a solfugid in her bed. She told me it must have had the wrong room. This was in reference to a poem I wrote earlier in the summer:

Ode to the Solfugid

Your arms are long. This pains me not;
I rather like the way you trot
With arms aloft, those prideful banes
Of insect foes who now are not.

Your jaws are sharp. They thrill me so;
You kiss your prey with killing woe.
Oh that those jaws would kiss me once!
I'd bleed red joy before I go.

Your trunk is fat. It is no sin;
All those are meek whose flanks are thin.
Were you but ninety times the size,
Our rightful passion could begin!

This was a poem commissioned by Kate and Katie, who were amused… or baffled… by the fact that I liked the solfugids. Well, I do (not as much as in the poem!), but then I have worked and studied in entomology and I find that the more I know the arthropods, the less horrifying they are.

As for our last days at work… there's a list of rules in the office which states that you always find the most interesting thing at the end of the last day in the field. I had my last day in the field with my supervisor on Friday, and though Katie and I have been out since then, I don't know if it counts—but I did find a skeleton.

You see, all of us have this fantasy that we'll find a bone going into the ground and we'll dig around it and see that it keeps on going… to finally discover that we have, at last, found an entire skeleton of an animal. I had found some bones coming out of a hill earlier in the summer but hadn't investigated them. We did so on Friday, and saw that, in fact, it was a skeleton.

Unfortunately, this particular skeleton looked like it had been left in the spin cycle a little too long, possibly after being sat on by a mastodon. It was clearly a skeleton, but other than that, there was almost nothing that could be identified. In fact, the only things that even let us know which was the head and which was the tail were a handful of relatively unbattered vertebrae and some teeth. Those were the only bones our supervisor, a working paleontologist for the past 7 years, was able to ID. No idea what kind of animal it is, though by the teeth it's some kind of reptile. But it was a skeleton, after all, so at the end of the day we covered it to protect it from the elements. Someone will return after I'm gone to finish excavating it. Unfortunately, we didn't have a tarp with us, so we covered the thing with the emergency space blanket I keep in my first aid kit. It flashed a brilliant silver in the sun as we covered the skeleton and then heaped dirt on it, to hide the silver, as I'm sure it would be seen by anyone in an aircraft and we didn't want somebody trying to rescue it. As it was, it looked like we were burying an astronaut. On the moon.

So there you go.

Among the other things I didn't get aroud to writing about is our game, "Trash or Artifact?" which began the day I discovered the spoon in the middle of nowhere. There is a certain amount of trash out here; not enough to make an impact on anything, including a wilderness hiker's enjoyment, but enough that working outdoors six days a week for ten weeks meant discovering a good deal of it. There's plenty of this kind of trash:

Here we have a probable midden pile left by Pueblo peoples hundreds of years ago. There's also this kind of trash:

…which is a pile of antique junk on old Route 66. And we have your modern, run-of-the-mill trash too. Including all the old, UV-decimated balloons we found that had arrived in the Arizona desert from who knows where. When, exactly, does it become an artifact?

Here is a significant piece of modern history. Katie and I went to Job Lot to shop for snacks before setting off. She insisted on purchasing this 1-quart jar of chopped garlic, insisting we would eat a lot of garlic. And I suppose we did, with meals like garlic pork chops with a side of garlic mashed potatoes and green beans with garlic. The picture shows how much was left as of last night. I guess we can finally go home.

No comment is necessary for these pictures:

We're leaving for home tomorrow morning and have adventures planned, so of course there will be more blog entries when I return. Once we get to Ohio we plan to dally with friends, so we might not be back in RI until around the 15th.

For now, I thought I would leave my devoted readers with what some of you (family!) have no doubt been wanting all along, which is more pictures of me. I grabbed these pictures off Katie's computer last night, so you can thank her for the opportunity to relive the summer through the art of the portrait…

In Amarillo, spray-painting the Cadillacs at Cadillac Ranch.

Me studying. How diligent I am!

Hanging out in the Painted Desert while Katie scales a hill to get data.

Relaxing at La Posada, an old hotel in Winslow.

Goofing off at Buddha Beach in Sedona.

In the field, waiting.