Visit to Big Bend National Park

This trip took place in November 2009, I memorialised it in a series of blog posts at the time.  This is an attempt to bring it all together and make it cohesive.  I hope to do the same to my 2010 Everglades trip soon.

I had recently returned from canoeing the Missouri River and re-assimilating into daily life was hard.  As October wound down I decided that trying to mesh into my old life was futile and that I was better off hitting the road.  Since Autumn was ending and Winter was about to begin, my options for camping travel were limited.  Brief pondering led me to decide on Big Bend National Park in West Texas, just over 1600 miles away to the Southwest.  After only a couple of days to plan and stock up on supplies I was nearly ready to hit the highway, but first I spent some time trolling Craigslist for riders heading that way.
Going near the Mexican border is always a gamble as it has become a militarized police state. With check points and areas of the country “closed”, armed paramilitary patrols and the works.  It has been almost 15 years since I have been down there.  It was bad then and that was before all the hoopla of 9/11 and the following of tightened border security, minute men, etc… I think it will be good to see what we are up against…since we let it happen there, how can it be stopped here?  My hope was to not end up in a third world jail cell in Texas or Arizona.  How does the Hell’s Half Acre song go… “If you’ve got long hair and hippy beads don’t get off the interstate.”
I know the local areas down there thrive on making examples of folks like me…let’s hope we come through unscathed.

A New Mexico Mountain Pass        From 2009 Big Bend NP

My flaky riders caused me to leave 2 hours late, but finally got rolling with 3 riders (found via Craigslist). Out I-580 then South on I-5 to CA58 East then East on I-40. Out of California into Arizona. I dropped 2 riders in Flagstaff (I hope they did not freeze on the mountain where I dropped them off). Then further East on I-40 into New Mexico and South to Ramah where I dropped off my other rider at a wolf sanctuary. Smokey, never having met a wolf before, got them all stirred up. The sound of 20 excited wolves is something to hear…unbelievably beautiful. Then secondary roads across New Mexico to Alamogordo where we got a motel and had a chill evening.
Got up early in the morning and did a quick visit to White Sands National Monument which was really nice although not as grand as I had expected.  The entire visit only took about 4 hours.

They plow the sand like snow.     From 2009 Big Bend NP

Then East out of Alamogordo into the mountains where we took time to play in the snow (photo above, some of us played harder than others). Two hours later we were in Artesia and it was 85 degrees and getting hotter.
We headed down to Carlsbad Caverns but it was too hot to leave the dogs in the car so we skipped it.
When we got to the Texas border we found the road closed due to an accident, the police said it would be hours and offered up a 120 mile detour We decided to wait it out, but after an hour and a half the police said the equipment to clear the road was still at least 2 hours away…so we set off on the 120 mile detour which brought us to Pecos Texas. Since we were worn out from playing and driving all day we got another hotel.  Motel 6‘s policy on allowing dogs really makes traveling with the four footed companions convenient.  Of course they only allow one dog, but it isn’t hard to get the second dog in.
Hit the road early the next morning and headed South toward Mexico.  Coming in to Big Bend you are struck by the vastness of it all.  A vast and stark landscape, reminiscent of some of the best scenery in Death Valley.  My intent was to stay a week and explore everything possible with two dogs in tow.

Big land, big sky         From 2009 Big Bend NP

We first stopped at Panther Junction, the central visitor center and hub of the park, where we got a permit to camp at Rattlesnake Mountain, a back country campsite.  Then we went West to Rattlesnake  Mountain and set up camp.  As it got dark the sky lit up with the Milky Way like I have never seen it (although I seem to recall that the sky was like this as a child).  The first night we caught about 6 shooting stars, peek viewing of the Taurids were in the early morning after moon rise, so we were happy with seeing any.  I could clearly see the space station as it made its periodic passage over head.  There were more stars than I have ever seen, even with no moon the desert was lit below us.  I spread a blanket on the ground and just stared (gaped) up at the sky.  We went to bed at 7 and were up at 3 AM, a pattern that would repeat itself our entire stay.  The biggest problem with Winter camping is the short days.  Getting up, the moon was bright and it was easy to see to make coffee.  Hunched over the stove with a steaming mug in my hand, I wanted nothing more.

St. Elana Canyon     From 2009 Big Bend NP

After it was light we headed down to the Rio Grande where I hiked into Santa Elana Canyon and a refreshing hike it was.  After this we simply drove a big loop and took in the scenery.  We spent the rest of the day in the shade of the van reading The Inner Citadel by Pierre Hadot (an analysis of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.)
The next day we drove up into the Chisos Mountains , where we drove and took in the sights (much of the trip was sight seeing from the car–dogs are not allowed on the trails).  After this we went up a four wheel drive trail as far as our trusty steed could take us, then got out to hike further up.

Shadow with the Chisos Mountains       From 2009 Big Bend NP

Almost immediately I realized I had locked the keys in the car.  I was in disbelief.  Miles from the road, no cell coverage and all of our water in the car.  I felt like banging my head on the car.  Instead I judged the back drivers wing window to be the cheapest to replace.  I took a rock in hand, turned my head, and bam……bam…bam…bambam…bam.  Nothing, just small chips in the glass.  I got a bigger rock and stood back 5 feet and lobbed it at the window…bang, it bounced off leaving a larger chip.  Angry, I picked up the rock and winged it at the window…bang…the rock bounced off…and…the window popped open.  It had busted free from the motor that controlled it and allowed me access to the car.  I still had to tape it closed but it beat the hell out of covering a hole with plastic.  I felt like the luckiest man alive.

Smokey with the Chisos     From 2009 Big Bend NP

We spent another afternoon lounging and reading.  The next day we did the same drives that we had done previously but did them at different times of the day to get a new view of things.  Big Bend is full of wildlife…we saw road runners, numerous birds, javalina (collared pecaries), mule deer, hawks, and a coyote that I mistook for a wolf (a ranger set me straight later on).
The next day we moved camp to the other side of the park (Candellila camp) and did more driving and sight seeing.
Big Bend was my first introduction to the Chihuahuan Desert.  I have spent much time in both the Colorado and Mojave deserts and once spent 3 weeks camped in the Sonoran desert (these are the four desert types in the US).  That was the main thing that had brought me to Texas, to finally get the chance to engulf myself in this alien terrain.  The dominant plants were creosote, ocatilla, yucca (agave and sotol), and various cacti that were new to me and I didn’t bother to learn the names of.  The Chihuanhuan has more cactus species than any other desert and I saw and noted maybe 15 of the 65 that reside there.  The main cactus was like beaver tail but it grew much larger and the spines were red, this gave the plant the appearance of having a red halo in the sunlight…a pleasing chimeric quality.  The rocks and mountains are a mix of sedimentary and volcanic…they are very old and much worn down.  The Rio Grande cuts a canyon that is the Southern boundary of the park.  The river is a quarter mile wide oasis in the desert.  This time of year (Winter) that is where most of the action is with the park having two major installations near the river (stores, campgrounds, visitor centers, and interpretive trails.)  During the Summer the action moves to the Chisos Mountains where the park maintains a restaurant (pretty decent breakfast buffet at $8.50) and a lodge as well as the customary store, campground, visitor center, and interpretive trail.
That night I am reading by lantern light when I feel something brush my hand…i glance down…it is the biggest tarantula that I have ever seen, easily 2x the next biggest one that I have seen.  I scream and jump up, throwing my book…I am watching the spider and at the same time dancing and brushing at the imaginary spiders that I conjured up.  Shadow got behind me and Smokey went to investigate the spider.  I don’t know what the tarantula did but Smokey jumped and moved away.  I stomped my foot and told the spider to git and it ran under a rock about 10 feet from where I was sitting when I first spied it.  Well I had the heeby jeebies and was pretty much done sitting on the desert floor in the dark for that night.  So I stepped out of the lantern light to stand and gape a while at the sky.  As my eyes adjusted to the night, the path to the road became visible and I decided to go for a walk.  The dogs trailing behind, I left the lantern burning in camp and walked out the trail about 100 yards to the four wheel drive trail and then started up hill (whenever hiking I will always go uphill…when I get tired it is an easy saunter back to my starting place.)  We followed the road up and around to the left where it passed above camp.  And right there, running with its lights off, is a park service truck.  WTF?  As I approach I see the word volunteer on the side of the truck and leaning out the window the driver is scanning my camp site with binoculars.  I am walking toward the front of his truck and he doesn’t see me until I ask, “Is there something I can help you with?”  He starts like I had caught him beating off, and says, “No, no…I was just doing the final road check.”  He continued, “You need to get them dogs on leashes.”  “Yeah, I’ll do that”, I said just as sternly as I could and then stepped back.  He turned on his lights and left.
Even though he had left, I couldn’t shake him.  What was he doing?  Was it that I had made an illegal crossing into Mexico earlier?  Was it that I am a chronic pot head and pretty much commit a walking felony every time I leave California?  Was it the dogs and the leash thing?  Was he just curious?  A pervert?  A thief?
I got in the tent and read by flashlight, what with tarantulas patrolling the desert floor there would be no rest outside.  The next morning I got up and broke camp, things were weird and I don’t do weird.

West from the park.       From 2009 Big Bend NP

I drove across the park and out the West side along the Rio Grande on Farm Road 170 toward Presidio.  The road follows the river for about 40 miles and it is beautiful.  It is curvy and mountainy with many short 15% or better grades and all the while the green oasis of the Rio Grande is off to the left in a picturesque canyon with a beautiful South Western back drop that leaves you stunned…like some one had punched you in the stomach.  The dogs got to wade and frolic in the river and there were lots of turn outs.  I sat upon a huge boulder high above the river with ravens cawing in the background and smoked a number and counted my blessings which are many.  We visited an old movie set, a fake ghost town now…overrun and abandoned and a picture perfect day to enjoy it in.  We went to Presidio a border town with a legal crossing.

Smokey with the Rio Grande       From 2009 Big Bend NP

I browsed a few clothes stores and discovered, much to my delight, that they stocked clothes that fit me…they even had clothes 2 and 3 sizes too small for me.  It was a joy to shop for clothes and be able to buy what you happen to like as opposed to scrounging for stuff that fits.  I bought a couple of pairs of jeans that I really didn’t need just to experience the joy of it all.  And I realized that they had my size because they were catering to wealthy Mexicans who are regular sized people too.
Then we drove the two and a half hours up to Van Horn across the rolling Texas hills and got a room to shower and prepare for the next leg of our trip.  It wasn’t until I was back in civilization that I noticed that I had not seen an airplane in five days, no contrails, no annoying buzz, nothing.
After a rest and a shower in Van Horn, we headed West on I-10 up through El Paso, through New Mexico, and finally to Tucson AZ. We got a room for two days near downtown, with our plan being to spend a day at Saguaro NP and Ironwood Forest NM. But those plans were changed when we discovered that Tucson is a major shit hole.
The worst urban sprawl that I have seen, poor traffic management, and a stench hanging over it all. On top of that our room was a dump. I drove 8 miles to a park to let the dogs play and it took half an hour to get there. The town is like 40 miles across with stop and go traffic all the way. It seemed as if a 4 year old had laid the city out, but more probably nobody laid it out–and that is the problem. The city tries to present an environmentally caring attitude–but there is no city in the desert that can pull that off. Building a city in the desert is the anti-thesis to caring. And to allow it to sprawl to all ends of the earth only adds to the perception. There were bill boards displaying all the things that Tucson is doing to conserve water and they erected them right next to golf courses. The city had a physical stench and it left a mental stench in my mind. I decided I did not want to stay there. I asked for and received a refund on my second night in the hotel.
I spent that evening on Craigslist trying to drum up a rider or two, I was trolling both Phoenix and Tucson. I had a few responses, one wanting me to pick her up in Yuma and go to Southern California (I declined as I wanted to get away from the border area), another wanting me to wait a few days (I declined as I wanted out of the shit hole of Tucson), another wanting a ride to Reno (I declined as there was no direct way to get there).
The next morning I checked out of my room and headed North toward Phoenix. As I drove I decided I would offer a ride to the guy going to Reno as I was ahead of schedule, he seemed like he needed it, and I felt like doing a good deed. Going through Reno only added 120 miles to the trip but it added about 6 hours as the most direct way to get there was all secondary roads. So I phoned him up and told him if he could be ready in an hour I would take him to Reno.
The rider didn’t know how to give directions and it took about an hour and a half to go the 30 miles out of my way to pick him up, but he turned out to be a good rider–a good driver, ok conversationalist, and we had similar musical tastes. So we set off out of Phoenix for Reno. All secondary roads…the whole way. North on route 60 to route 93, up through Kingman AZ and across the Hoover dam into Nevada, get on route 95 in Las Vegas and up to Alt 95 to 395 and into Southern Reno. I dropped him off at two thirty in the morning and headed up to I-80 to go up over Donner summit for the 200 mile shot home. As I dropped him off it started to rain…and I knew that rain in Reno meant snow on the mountain. I got to Boomtown near the NV/CA border and decided to nap a couple of hours, I did not want to get tired on the mountain and have to sleep in the cold.
I awoke at six thirty to the sound of a steady rain. I jumped up and hit the traffic station only to hear that the chain requirement had went into effect for I-80. I drove the 60+ miles down to route 50 and got there just in time for the announcement that chains were required there too. I have never used chains, I have no intention of using them as my owner’s manual says not to. So I settled in to wait it out. Fortunately that was only 4 hours and we were on our way.

Dashing through the snow       From 2009 Big Bend NP

When we got up around 7000 feet I went up toward Wright’s Lake to find a place to let the dogs play.. After an hour of playing and romping, we shot across 50 to Sacramento, got on I-80 and went home.
It is always good to arrive home…it’s a good feeling (almost as good as leaving home). Since I am a few days early I don’t have anything pressing to do and can do an easy decompression before getting back into the swing of things.

Postscript, or My Border Experience and What it Means for Immigration Policy

The US can not stem the flow of undocumented migrants into this country, by some estimates the flow is almost one every minute…drip…drip…  All of our efforts in stemming this flow, have thus far, been largely ineffective.
My first intimation that things were not the same along the border as in the rest of the country was an impromptu stop by a Border Patrol checkpoint.  A friendly Hispanic male in a sharply creased uniform approached my window while 3 well armed white males stood back and watched.  “Where are you coming from,” the officer asked as I put down my window.  My hackles were raised by this invasion, but I held it in check and told him.  Next he wanted to know where I was going, which I told him.  Then he wanted to know my citizenship and what I planned to do at my destination.  I was mad, but I played along.  “Alright, you can go,” he told me.  Mad now that it was sinking in how invasive this experience had been, I told the officer that he should look for a new job.  When he asked why, I told him that “when the Constitution is restored he would be out of work.”  I held back on adding, “those of you not hanging from telephone poles, anyways” as I drove away.
I was angry.  This had obviously been a search of my vehicle, it had also been a detention of myself and my vehicle.  All with no probable cause.  Therefore extra-Constitutional.  It was a checkpoint in my country by my government to determine if I could freely travel…this is not a part of the America that I know and love.  This invasive behavior is one step away from requiring travel documents to move around.  And what if I wasn’t white?  What if I was brown and spoke broken English, like so many of my fellow American citizens, what would my experience have been then?
I went on down to Big Bend National Park.  Big Bend is a large desert park with the Southern boundary consisting of over 100 miles of Rio Grande River/Mexican border.  There is no border crossing anywhere near but there is an isolated Mexican village across the river.  The park’s newspaper is called the Paisano.  Paisano translates from the Spanish as countryman, loosely it means country folk.  What got me is the extent that the paper’s editors went through to make the reader fear those country folk from across the river.  Almost every page contained an admonition to fear those folks across the river.  And for humans, fear easily turns into hate.  And while avoiding explicit warnings to hate the brown people across the river, the paper’s editors still managed to evoke this message at every turn of the page.  Am I accusing the paper’s editors of being a bunch of racists?  No, but I am saying that their attitudes and words tend to increase–and are in fact indicative of–the racism already present in those who visit the park.  Fear the brown man, if not he will be arrested and deported to some place far away, your property will be seized, and you will be fined $5000.  It is this sort of incendiary writing that we refer to as fear mongering.  And, like Lou Dobbs, these folks will claim that they are not trying to incite hatred of the other, but the results are clear to anyone lucid enough to step back and critically view the situation.
When I left the park, I traveled along the border to the West about 75 miles to Presidio, TX.  This drive contained an estimated 70 miles of Rio Grande/border for a total of almost 200 miles of border.  Not a fence in site, the river is some places shallow enough to wade across.  Running in and out of canyons and weaving its way through the desert it showed to me that there is no way to “secure” this area, it is too open, too vast, too isolated, and too barren.  Terlinqua to Presidio was about 50 road miles, there is nothing in between.  Not a town, not a retail business, a couple of ranches near Presidio and that was it.
When I headed North out of Presidio, and then twice more as I paralleled the border on I-10, I ran into border patrol “inspection” stations.  Always it was either a woman or a Hispanic that approached my window and always armed white guys stood around watching in their para-military garb.  I did my best at these encounters to be both non-cooperative and non-antagonistic, not an easy fence to straddle and I was successful to varying degrees.  “Where are you coming from?”  I am coming from the South I would reply.  “No, where have you been?”  I have been in the South.  “Are you a US citizen?” Yes.  “Where are you going?”  I am going to the North.  “What, do you have a problem?”  “Am I being detained, am I free to go?”  With this last I would repeat, “Am I being detained, am I free to go?” to any question they asked.  At some point Smokey would start barking (her barking annoys me to no end but in this case I was glad to hear it) and they would eventually tell me to go ahead.
A couple of more observations to round out this account.  In Arizona on I-40, many miles from the border, I noted many SUVs of different colors with whip antenna patrolling the highway.  Sometimes two or three of these vehicles were parked together in the median.  I noted many Border Patrol vehicles sitting along both the highways and the secondary roads monitoring traffic, these vehicles were seen as far North as Kingman, AZ.
I made a similar trip to Glacier NP on the Canadian border.  I noted no such activity, no inspection stations,  no Park Service exhortations to fear our neighbors, nothing at all like the atmosphere created at our Southern border.  Despite the fact that terrorists have been caught trying to get in from Canada, but–to my knowledge–never from Mexico.  Still, the two borders of our neighbors are treated far differently…and the only difference that I can see is the color of their skin.
These events and observations illuminated two things for me.  First, the border is indefensible with anything but the most intensive and invasive measures.  And, two, the border area is a de-facto police state, essential liberties have already been surrendered in a no-win attempt to thwart these erstwhile migrants.
So the question becomes, how far are you willing to go to secure the border and which liberties are you willing to give up to do so?
For certainly, we have the means to secure the border, should that ever become our passion.  Here, for instance are some steps that would realistically secure the border:
Institute a national biometric based ID to be used for obtaining employment;
Make a stiff penalty for employing undocumented workers, say 5k for individuals and 50k for businesses;
Wall off the urban areas, perhaps a 20 foot wall separating the two nations;
Build a fence half a mile on our side in the rural areas and place land mines between the river and the fence;
Deport immediately any undocumented person who shows up at a school or a hospital;
Increase Border Patrol check points and patrols; and
Run ad campaigns offering rewards for any tips that lead to deportations.
The above is not very realistic, yet is, never-the-less, doable.  Still, I don’t know how you feel about it, but that is not the nation that I want to live in.
With that said, something needs to be done with the immigration issue.  Having 12-20,000,000 undocumented, unlicensed, uninsured, unprotected people in our midst is obviously not a good thing.
I would argue that far more benefits could be gained by abandoning our present course and adopting a course of investment in Mexico.  Jobs, education, and health care should be the objectives of these investments..  By raising the living standards of Mexicans living in Mexico we avoid having our living standards fall to their levels (Which present trends make seem inevitable).  With education, jobs, and opportunity, the pull of the North would decrease drastically and would eventually balance out with migration to the South.  As more balance is achieved we could give logistical and military support to help Mexico seal its Southern border.  As Mexico becomes more stable and secure in its borders we could begin dismantling the barriers between our countries.  After all, goods and services already flow freely across the border, is it not time for people to join in that?
I see no one in leadership with the political vision to give us real immigration reform.  Instead, incremental changes will be made that does nothing to stem the flow and leaves millions upon millions out in the cold while depriving the rest of us of our liberties, one at a time…drip…drip…
Disagree?  Got a better plan?  Leave it in the comments.  But remember, my idea requires that WE GIVE UP ZERO CIVIL LIBERTIES, be sure to list which liberties you are willing to give up to implement some other idea.  To state, “build a fence”, is jingoistic nonsense; anyone who spouts this has either never been to the border or is stupid.

There are a few more photos here.

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Summer Vacation 2010 (part the first)

I almost titled this post: The right trip at the wrong time.

Wanting to go to Missouri to see the Popster and then on to Michigan to the family reunion.  Yet tired of shooting across country on I-80…or I-70…or I-40; I decided to drive to Michigan (via Missouri) on secondary roads, thus avoiding the interstates.

Not wanting to have a rider along for a slow drive cross country, I found a Craigslist rider heading over to the Sierras, I figured I could stand anyone for half a day.  I ended up enjoying my rider’s company, Alex is a self professed backpacking bum, something that I can certainly respect.  He wanted to go over to Sonora pass (CA 108) to drop off his re-supply can and then go on over the Sierras so that he could hike back.  Never having taken 108 over the Sierras, I was game for taking him where he needed to go.  So I picked up Alex and we headed out to Antioch and got on Hwy 4 to head across the central valley where we got on Hwy 108 and headed up into the Sierras.  Sonora Pass is just under 10000 feet and I dropped Alex off on top.  Then it was East and down out of the Sierras.  Winding down out of the mountains there were 25% grades, the first that I have ever seen and the prime reason that trucks are not advised on this route.  Then 395 South to 120 East and out into Nevada on Hwy 6.  I was going to stop in Brighton and get gas but the cheapest I saw was $4.09/gallon; this made the $3.74 I paid in Lee Vining seem reasonable.  I slept along the road that night and the next morning found us in Eastern Nevada where we made a quick stop at the Great Basin National Park.

Great Basin’s main area is a 20 mile road that leads up to about 11000 feet on Mt. Wheeler.  At the top are numerous sub-Alpine and Alpine hiking trails.  The fact that it was hot and that dogs are not allowed on the trails led us to take a quick look around and head back down the hill.  I don’t really see how Great Basin makes it as a national park, perhaps it rises to the level of national monument, but even that is up for debate.  I assume that it was made a park as a favor to Nevada, a sort of handout (the Feds are big on welfare for the red states, they are universally the states that receive the most in Federal handouts).

Then it was back down the mountain and Hwy 6 into Utah.  Our entry into Utah was through the worst part of the state (driving up to Nephi it was a lot like Nevada).  From Nephi onward things were stark and beautiful.  We drove up Mt. Nebo loop Road looking for a nice place to camp.  There were lots of pretty spots but they were all over run by cattle and their droppings.  This led to a fly problem, so we ended up not staying there.  At one point we stopped along the road and found a skeleton of a cow, Smokey was ecstatic.  She dismantled the skeleton one bone at a time hiding the pieces in every direction.  I guess she figures that she will get back there again someday, as for me, I have my doubts.  We criss crossed the mountains in central Utah, enjoying the sights and the stark beauty of it all.  The highlights of this was Rt. 31 from Fairview to Huntington, a fifty mile drive through a canyon with a rushing river off to the right, it was comparatively cool and quite refreshing.  We stopped at a dry lake but the dogs wouldn’t get out of the van, it was that hot.  Then it was North to catch Hwy 40 and head East.

We entered Colorado near Dinosaur National Monument.  Due to the heat we skipped the monument (much more deserving of park status than Great Basin).  We headed South out of Dinosaur and into a waste land created and maintained by Chevron.  I did not know that Chevron owned or leased such large swaths of Colorado.  There were wells and roads everywhere you looked for over a hundred miles.  I believe this is natural gas exploration, drilling, and pumping land.  I also think this is the area that has had the water table fractured to such a point that tap water has become flammable.  Imagine being able to set fire to the water coming out of your kitchen sink, and then having the government and Chevron try to claim that the water is fine…even though they would never drink it.  If you can imagine that then you can imagine the hell that Chevron has made of this swath of paradise.

After swimming for a while in the Rio Blanco Reservoir, we headed up into the White River National Forest where we found a place to camp near Ripple Creek Pass.  A prettier campsite will seldom be found, at an elevation of 10300 feet in a small copse of trees surrounded by sub-Alpine meadows.  We saw signs indicating that there were moose in the area so we spent some time looking for them, but with no luck.  Back in camp at dusk I was scanning the tree line for the elusive moose when I heard a gun shot near by.  The shot was followed by someone yelling, “I told you to get your black ass out of here!”  I looked quickly around wondering what I had stumbled into.  Then I saw a horseman and dogs pushing a dozen head of black angus out of the brush.  It was interesting to watch the cowboy and the dogs working together.  There was a border collie and a red heeler and they were dashing and nipping and keeping the herd together while the cowboy pushed them forward.  I enjoyed watching them and followed them for a ways just to watch.

Saturday afternoon found us entering Rocky Mountain National Park.  The park was crowded and traffic was lined up into the distance.  I was dehydrated and woozy from the altitude so we headed straight through the park and out to Ft. Collins where we got a motel to rest, recuperate, and rehydrate.  The next morning we were up before the sun and headed up into the park to take in the sites before the masses were out of bed.  We had the park to our selves till almost noon and we enjoyed driving around taking in the sights.  Two things of import regarding the park are that it is over run by elk to the point that they are destroying it and that most of the trees are dying.

We must have seen 30 different elk.  There are so many of them that they are a nuisance destroying the riparian areas.  A common sense solution to this would be to cull the herd, but that isn’t the Interior Department’s way.  Instead they put up fences to keep the elk away from the fragile areas.  To each their own way of doing things, but if they won’t re-introduce wolves to the ecosystem, then they really need to cull the herd.

Throughout Colorado, pretty much everywhere we went, between a third and half the pine trees are dead and dying.  The culprit is the Rocky Mountain Pine Beetle.  A natural pest whose damage has been exacerbated by global climate change.  Generally, early freezes control the population.  But now, the frost comes later and later and the beetles are proliferating.  With this amount of dead wood standing, it is just a matter of time until a catastrophic fire occurs.  With more and more people moving into more and more marginal areas, there are sure to be deaths amongst both those who settle into the forests and the fire fighters who have sworn to protect them and their property.  There is really no mitigation for this pest, all we can do is hope for an early frost and keep brush cleared far from the homes.  If a catastrophic fire does not occur this year, then it will happen next year, or the year after…but it will happen.

Rocky Mountain is a great park, almost a third of the park is above tree line (11400 feet at that latitude).  While there are other national parks in the Rockies, this is the only one that is not specific to any one feature, this park celebrates the Rockies in their entirety.  The main road through the park goes up to around 12500 feet and gives great access to tundra that would ordinarily require a hard day’s hike to enjoy.  By early afternoon the park was getting crowded and we had seen what one can see on a hot day with dogs in tow so we headed back down the mountain to Ft. Collins.

The next morning we were headed out into the great plains.  At first it was shortgrass prairie, but that soon gave way to hay and corn and lots and lots of cows.  Sheep farming also seems to be a booming business in Eastern Colorado.  We continued East into Nebraska and eventually dropped down into Kansas and kept heading East.

I found that with the cruise control on 55 we got an easy 30 mpg, at 60 we got just under 28 (at my usual 70-75 I get 25).  This knowledge will make it hard to justify the higher speeds in the future.

The whole great plains have undergone a huge de-population.  I had heard that this was happening but had no idea how much it was already complete.  All along the rural routes there are abandoned houses in varying states of decay.  Most of the small towns downtown areas were off the main road.  While there were businesses that were doing fine on the main road, if you went downtown you would find half the businesses abandoned or dying.  It appears that there is just not enough energy to sustain life in this area anymore.  It may be time to return the buffalo to large swaths of the American prairie.

As the afternoon was winding down, the dogs became lethargic with heavy breathing.  While it was no hotter here than the other states, there also was no place for them to swim (well, that and the humidity).  In Utah and Colorado they were able to jump in some water 3 or 4 times a day.  Here in the plains, that opportunity was lacking and it showed in their behavior.  They pretty much just lay on the ground and panted, refusing to get out of the van when we stopped.  I decided it wasn’t fair to them to take a few more days to get to Missouri.  With this in mind I drove non stop through the night to get to Columbia early the following morning.  I was a couple of days early, but the dogs were appreciative and it is always good to get some extra visit time with Mike and the Popster.

They have a new 4 month old puppy, Fido.  Fido is a scrappy little fellow, half springer spaniel and half bichon frise.  Very cute and very scrappy.  Smoke and Shadow don’t know what to make of him and give him plenty of space.

The visit has been pleasant so far.  Laid back, which I enjoy much.  Tonight Mike and I went out to dinner and went to see the Old 97s.  I am going to spend the next few days hanging out with the Popster.  Then I’m going to Lake of the Ozarks on Saturday with Mike and on Sunday we are going to canoe the Missouri.

Then early Monday morning we are headed up to Michigan.  So far we are up to 2600 interstate free miles, that should be 3200 by the time we get to Michigan.  That shows that we have done a bit of sight seeing as it is only about a 2500 mile trip.

More to come….  I’ve posted a few pictures here.

Edit: A note on the alternative title of this post:  “The right trip at the wrong time”

It was the right trip because I got to drive nearly 2000 miles on new roads, seeing things that I have never seen before and may never see again.  It was the right trip because I got insights into areas of the country that I haven’t thought much about.  Seeing the de-population of the plains was an education all in itself.  It was the wrong time because it is hot, the trip  would have been much better had I been able to adopt a more leisurely pace.

Vacation Bound

Tomorrow I take off on vacation.  As previously posted my trip is about traveling  cross country via secondary roads.   2700 miles, no freeways.

I have a rider lined up for the first half a day, then it is just me and the dogs for a 10 day cross country excursion.  Tentatively I plan to spend the first night in the Inyo NF over near Mono Lake.  After driving through the heat of Nevada, we plan to spend the second night over at Great Basin NP.  Night 3 should find us in the mountains of central Utah.  Then it gets a little ambiguous.  Another day or two to Rocky Mountain NP where we hope to spend a few days.  Then another few days over to Columbia Missouri, arriving on July 30.  Spend a few days there then head up to Michigan to arrive on August 4.  The trip’s route can be found on google docs, here.  Should I not arrive somewhere, the route can be used to back track.

In Michigan I plan to visit with friends and do the Trapp Family Reunion.  I think I did the family reunion 10 years ago, and previous to that was another 10 or 15 years.  I will be lucky if I know half the people there.

On the night of the 8th I pick a rider up in Toledo, jump on I-80 West and bee line straight back home to arrive on the 11th.  Two weeks to get there, 3 days to get home.  I have to be in the office on the 12th (so I can start getting ready for my fall vacation to Oregon.)

I don’t expect to have much phone/internet coverage this trip, so posting to Tumblr will be sporadic, but I will still do it when possible.  You can follow me on Tumblr here.

It all sounds like fun times…but first I have to get through the 10 hour workday today, load my van tonight, and hit the road tomorrow right after the dog park.

The van is running good, thanks to Rich.  I replaced the battery last week and Rich put a new starter in over the weekend…a $200 part…ouch.

I don’t have the cash that I thought I would have for the trip, but it should be a fairly low budget affair if I stay out of restaurants and hotels.

But first…I have to get through the work day…

Edit: The beauty of this trip is that 70% or so of the east bound leg is on roads that I have never traveled (and I will be visiting each small town along the way).  Add to that the fact that I will visit four National Parks, two of them for the first time, and you get a great summer road trip.

12 Days Till Vacation

Having decided to take a 3 week vacation earlier this week, today I figured out how I would spend that time.  The whole trip is based on the fact that I need to be in Michigan for a few days in early August.  Since I was wanting to spend a couple of days in Missouri on the way, and since I didn’t have time to save much money for the trip, Colorado was the logical place to spend some quality camping time.  But I was hesitant to commit to that because I just spent 3 weeks in Southwestern Colorado two years ago.  Plus I’ve done the Northern half of the state numerous times.  It is beautiful and all of that (especially the San Gabriels), but I didn’t have a strong pull to go there to hole up.

Today I hit upon an idea that satisfies most of my needs and seems like it will be a lot of fun.  I am going to leave here on the 20th after a 10 hour work day and then drive till I get tired.  Then I am going to take all secondary roads across Nevada, Utah, Colorado (spending about 3 days in Rocky Mountain NP), Kansas and Missouri.  Then after spending a few days there, I will continue on secondary roads across Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and finally to Michigan; arriving there about August 4th.  I will visit with family until the night of the 8th when I will bee line across I-80 to the Pacific’s embrace where I have to be to work on the 12th.

I have about a week to drive to Columbia (excluding the 3 days at Rocky Mntn NP).  That is only about 300 miles a day…I have a good feeling about this trip.  Driving across country without using freeways has been something that I’ve wanted to do for quite some time…it will be nice to see if the novelty can live up to the hype.

For those wanting to follow along:  West through Stockton and out across Yosemite.  6 across Nevada, through Tonopah and merge with 50 in Ely.  Continue 6 across Utah, onto 191 and finally to 40 and into Colorado.  Then across 40, through Steamboat Springs, onto 34 and into Rocky Mntn NP.  Across 34 till I catch the tip of Nebraska and then drop down and follow the northern most road in Kansas all the way across the state to St Joseph Missouri.  Then on to Macon and finally into Columbia.  Leaving there, it goes something like this:  Quincy, Champagne, Ft Worth, Toledo and into Michigan.

Florida: Final Leg Home

This past Tuesday, after Lost, I loaded the dogs up in the van and left Missouri. As I pulled away from the curb, I noted the big beautiful moon and thought it brought warm bodings for the trip. Leaving Columbia I dropped down 63 to 58 West.
When I got down to 58 I started seeing dogs crossing the road. This was about midnight and they were crossing in twos and threes. We had just watched Stephen King’s Desperation a few nights earlier and it was weird…I must have seen 15 dogs in a 70 mile stretch. The rest of Missouri was hilly, curvy, and dark. We followed 58 through the night and napped about 100 miles East of Wichita Kansas. The next day we drove across Kansas endlessly…it did finally end at Oklahoma. We only caught about 30 miles of Oklahoma, still I managed to get pulled over for speeding.
Leaving a small town, I accelerated too fast out of town and was pulled over doing 44 in a 35. It was one of the better experiences I have had with a cop. He was friendly, we chatted about life the economy and everything, and he let me go with a warning. Luckily the state takes all of the ticket money so there is no pressure on the local cops to write more tickets to help with the budget. We ended up shaking hands before I drove off and surprisingly it felt very genuine. I guess I have to take back all the bad things I thought about the Oklahoma police, of course the outcome would have been very different had I been burning when he pulled me over.
In Texas, still on 58, we passed the largest feed lot I have ever seen. It went on for miles and miles. As I drove past I saw a sign saying “Bio secure area”, thinking that strange I went back to take a picture of it and the feed lot. I jumped out of the van with my camera, then stopped to read the rest of the sign: BIO SECURE AREA, NO ADMITTANCE, NO PHOTOGRAPHS. Oops… I jumped back in the van and left. We made it to Tucumcari New Mexico and got a motel.
The next day I took it easy. I stopped and browsed the roadside stores, took in the sites and followed some of Old Route 66. Often 66 would be just the business loop off of I-40…other times it would be a 100 mile loop that paralleled the freeway. In Gallup, I stopped to look at some pottery (starting price $1000), as I got back on the freeway I stopped for a hitch hiker. It was a young (18 or 20 year old) Navajo. He had hitch hiked into Gallup to see a relative in the hospital. I drove him into Arizona about 30 miles off the freeway to get him home. We had some interesting conversation, the most notable thing was his absolute faith in nothing positive happening in his life. He had recently lost his job and had no prospects or hope of getting another…hunting antelope and worrying about mountain lions seemed to be his main joys.
In Arizona I stopped at Ofelia’s knife store, where I met Ofilia and discussed the finer points of various switch blades (I bought a set of pairing knives). Ofilia used to run her business out of Modesto California, but the tightening restrictions and stress caused by further prospective restrictions caused her to pack up and move it to Arizona. It was interesting finding an educated person in the desert selling knives at the end of 100 miles of bill boards. Between Albuquerque and Flagstaff it was cloudy, cool, and snow flurries. I liked it as I could leave the dogs in the car without guilt. I did a lot of stopping along the way. Flagstaff was cold with a lot of snow on the ground, I found a warm motel and snuggled in early.
The next day we played in the snow for a while in the Kaibab National Forest, the dogs loved the snow and I loved the trees, the first since Missouri. Then we did a large loop (130 miles) of historic route 66 between Seligman and Kingman. It was beautiful high plains, complete with Burma Shave signs. In Kingman I picked up another hitch hiker, this one a 50’ish ne’er-do-well. I ended up giving him $25 for a pair of work boots that I really didn’t need, and with his attitude he really had no use for either. The boots are actually pretty nice, new, and just a bit wide for my foot. I dropped him off in Needles where he no doubt found a liquour store to trade his cash for something more useful.
Then we were into California. Needles to Barstow used to be the long stretch of desert, at least 100 miles of dry hot road without water or gas. Now, you don’t need to travel further than 40 miles to find gas and the stretch is not much different from any other stretch of highway. I remember when I was a kid and saw this stretch of highway for the first time. My father had been talking about the upcoming desert, and I had child-like ideas of what a desert should be…sand dunes, oases with palms, maybe a camel…I was disappointed that it was scrub and had no blowing drifting sand.
We made a short day of it and got a room in Mojave about half way up Tehachepi Pass.
Early the next morning, Saturday, we took off for the final 6 hours home. Driving down the hill into Bakersfield I noted the moon off to the West…a quarter moon descending to the West, it really helped to put the 4 day jaunt into perspective. Driving North in the central valley the coastal range off to the left was as pretty as I have ever seen it. Green with the recent rains and colored with vast patches of orange (poppies) and yellow (mustard?), I am sure I have seen prettier landscapes, I just don’t remember when. We pulled into our home driveway early in the afternoon still relatively fresh. Of course the dogs were happy to be home and Star greeted us at the door with tales of her recent diagnosis of heart problems and the rigors of having a stent in place to drain the water from her chest cavity. Vacation is always a pleasure, and this one was particularly so…but the pleasures of returning home after a long trip are also to be treasured.

Florida: Starting Home

Soon we were watching Big Cypress disappear in the review mirror. Back through Naples and North on 75 as far as Ft. Myers on the Gulf coast where we got a room. Early the next afternoon we we drove over to St. James on Pine Island to visit Jay and Cecie. They have a nice place right on a canal. They loaded us all up in their boat and we went putting around the canals. Even here there was much wildlife and we saw eagles, storks, numerous other birds, and even dolphins. When we stopped to fuel the boat, Smokey fell off and I had to fish her out of the canal. Then we took a quick spin out into the Gulf and around a small mangrove island. Back on dry land our hosts took us to check out an eagles nest. We watched the eagles fly from the nest making eagle calls…the first time I had heard them.
Bald Eagle
After this we went back to Jay and Cecie’s place where we were served a nice dinner and spent a while chatting it up before heading back to our room in Ft. myers.
The next day we drove up to Tallahassee in the pan handle and got another room. From there we dropped back South to drive along the coast. We found some beaches that were barren except for us and did some hiking and playing with the dogs. Having a nice sandy white beach to ourselves was extremely pleasant. We also did some hikes in the national forest, then we pointed the car north and west and drove on back to Columbia, mo, where we arrived early Thursday morning.
Spent most of Thursday lounging and napping. Then a long weekend eating good and catching up with the popster. This pretty much brings me up to this writing…next episode will conclude the trip and probably won’t be written before Easter.

Florida: The Everglades

The four days spent at Everglades National Park is really the heart of the trip. We entered the park near Coe Visitor Center and headed up the main park road toward Flamingo camp. The terrain was flat and featureless, there were saw grass (actually a sedge) seas stretching into the distance. Most of the elevation is less than 5 feet and it stretches 40 miles from Coe Visitor Center to the built up area of Flamingo (store, visitor center, marina, campground) which is located near the southerly tip of continental Florida.
As we drove in we saw a sign stating that the vultures would eat the rubber off of your car if given the opportunity. We stopped alongside a small lake and sure enough there were vultures eating the rubber coating off a SUVs luggage rack. We drove on into the heart of the park with the hope of seeing manatees, crocodiles, and whatever else we could see in our brief stay.
Flamingo campground was huge and we had no problem finding a spot to set up a couple of tents and tie up a couple of dogs. Since dogs are not allowed on trails we decided that we would do our hiking early in the morning and late in the afternoon when it is cool enough to leave the dogs in the car. During the day we would hang out in camp or do car touring of the park. Near Flamingo campground was a marina where we learned there were frequent sitings of both manatees and crocodiles. Daily, or sometimes more often, we would trek over to the marina to look for wildlife. On one of our early visits we saw an osprey fly by with a fish, it landed in a tree and we set and watch it eat the fish and interact with osprey. It was surely one of the most Wild Kingdom like experience I have ever experienced.
Osprey Eating Fish
We found that osprey were more than common around the marina and it was nothing to see 10 of them with half a dozen nesting sites easily found. There were also red-shouldered hawks, swallow-tailed kites, and other birds of prey which made regular appearances.
Added to the raptors, there were also numerous shore birds that would make regular appearances. A flock of ibis’s would regularly walk through camp looking for whatever it is that ibis’s eat in the grass. Black vultures would also come through camp looking for garbage to pick through.
Daily we would make a pilgrimage up to the marina to look for manatees and/or crocodiles. On our third day we were rewarded with a visit by a manatee (sea cow) and her calf. They are large gentle seeming creatures and we felt fortunate to experience them up close.
Manatee and Calf
We visited most of the boardwalk trails and even hiked a canal near bear lake, taking the dogs on an illegal hike into the swamp. At one point a ranger came and lectured me about the importance of keeping the dogs on leash, so their running free ended up being quite limited. I don’t know about Mike, but I felt that I got to see the vast majority of what there is to see before we left.
When we packed and left the Everglades we went back up to Big Cypress to spend a few hours checking out the alligators and hiking the loop road again.
By this time, there wasn’t much else to do but point the car north and begin our journey homeward, which is where the next post picks up.

Edit: Mike reminds me that when we were on the Loop Road there were two alligators sunning themselves on the side of the road. I went up to them with the dogs on leash to see how they would react. The dogs never saw them. I got as close I felt comfortable getting to wild alligators and the dogs totally ignored them, or rather just never saw them. I think that alligators are just so far removed from those dogs’s experience that they could not ever see them.