Category Archives: Travels

Groves And Dunes

Bev and I were reluctant to leave Utah a couple of weeks ago. The southern part of that state has so many interesting places, but the weather was becoming onerously chill and the relative warmth of southeast Arizona beckoned.

We decided to camp for one more night before heading south. Near Kanab there is a BLM campground which we had visited last spring called Ponderosa Grove. This site is appealing to us because off-road vehicles are prohibited, unlike that reputedly cacaphonous site a few miles farther south, Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park.

Ponderosa Grove is located next to a wildlife study area, possibly one reason the BLM forbids off-road traveling. The campground is surrounded by BLM land with more relaxed standards, as the agency’s maps show over one thousand miles of trails open to rec vehicles.

I should mention that I have nothing but contempt for off-road vehicles and their devotees. They tend to be noisy and tear up the ground. The vehicles too! Recovery from an onslaught of such machines can take hundreds of years.

The Ponderosa Grove site lies in an area with finger-ridges of sand dunes interlaced with areas of typical Utah desert. Sagebrush, piñon pines, and alligator juniper even ventured into the dunes along with the ubiquitous scrubby oaks.

Groves of tall Ponderosa Pines graced the lower areas which presumably collected more run-off moisture. These groves could be seen from some distance away, being the tallest organisms in the district, and I think they helped me find the camp-site when I had wandered off into the brush.

Ponderosas are the commonest pines in the West and I enjoy being in their company. These trees have richly-colored thick bark which resists all but the most intense fires. Here’s a shot of one of them, a Utah inhabitant not included in the census:

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The night we stayed at the Ponderosa Grove campground was a cold one. I woke up just after dawn and hurriedly put some coffee water on the propane stove to boil. I needed to walk, and walk quickly, in order to get warm. Accompanied by the collie Sage, I walked through the pine grove towards the nearest dune, hoping to catch the first rays of the sun.

The view from the high dune was more than adequate compensation for the frigid air:

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In the distance the cliffs at the edge of the Bryce Canyon park were visible:

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The low rays of dawn side-lit the numerous tracks of nocturnal rodents and other small creatures. One species of little plant seemed to have an unusual affinity for frost. These modest sand-dwellers were just four inches tall and had long since gone to seed, but they seemed to be the only plants exhibiting bladed frost crystals. Before the sun caused that ephemeral ice to sublimate in the dry atmosphere I snapped a few photos while Sage bounded up and down the dunes:

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As I descended a dune slope I noticed some Utah Junipers with some sort of colored pendulous growths attached to the foliage. When I got closer I recognized the growths. They were parasitic clumps of mistletoe, and the white berries were ripe. Birds will feed on those berries over the winter. I had never seen mistletoe growing on junipers before, but at this site half the trees were afflicted, if that’s the right word. Though the mistletoe is parasitic, the plant does attract birds which also feed on the juniper’s berries. The association might be more mutualistic than parasitic.

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Sage and I returned to the campsite and I warmed and stimulated myself with hot coffee. While the light was still so favorable I thought I’d photograph some ancient sage shrubs which had been protected from the trampling of cattle. These gnarled plants continue to put out new growth even when most of the trunk is dead. The twisted contortions of their trunks are truly a marvel to see; here’s one which had captured snow in one of its gnarly crotches:

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I wonder how old these sage plants might be? Has anyone ever taken core-drill samples?

Larry

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Rain Kettles, Sky Mirrors

It was the middle of November, just a couple of weeks ago, when southern Utah began to feel a bit wintry. Bev and I were van-camping, mostly at BLM dispersed sites, when the sky clouded over. Scenes like this one in the Valley of the Gods were intriguing but also ominous:

A theme began to take shape in my photographic forays. Eroded cavities in sandstone surfaces began to fill with rain and melted pellets of snow. These ephemeral pools soon became a favorite subject and I shot many photos of the reflective pools.

One morning following an evening of showers and brief snow squalls was sunny, if not very warm. I enjoyed seeing distant water-filled pockmarks in the tops of mesas:

This sign at a trail-head amused me:

The top of a natural sandstone bridge offered some unusual views, speckled arrays of reflective pools:

I’m guessing that within a few days the sun dried these kettles, but for a few days the creatures of the rocks had plentiful water!

Larry

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Rock Emulsion

There are so many vastly grand places to visit in Southern Utah that sometimes an observer’s eyes and sensibilities can become surfeited with enormous reddish-orange sandstone formations towering above. Modest landscapes are the answer, though to tell the truth Utah’s less spectacular scenes would be the crown jewels of many states’ parks if they could be magically exported.

There’s a small state park in southern Utah called Kodachrome Basin. The park is surrounded by its spectacular but overcrowded Federal peers, and the place can easily be overlooked by a traveler anxious to see such famous sites such as Arches, Bryce Canyon, and Zion.

The name “Kodachrome Basin” sounds a bit antiquated to me, a throwback to the days of film photography. Is Kodachrome film even manufactured these days? I can imagine a time far in the future, perhaps a period following a recovery from a dystopian era of lost knowledge. The park is still open but nobody remembers the source of the name. A belief has arisen that the park was named after an ancient Ute chief called Ko-Da-Krom, a mighty warrior who lived in the basin, way back in the dim mists of the past.

The park is in a small valley, perhaps just a few miles across. It is bordered on three sides by steep and jagged sandstone mountains which rise about one thousand feet from the valley floor, which is covered by sagebrush interspersed with pinon pine and juniper trees. Surreal phallic pillars of red and white sandstone tower over the valley like sentinels or watchtowers. The cliffs ringing the valley look like they were frozen while oozing from the depths. These cliffs look like
miniature alps. Weirdly fanciful shapes abound, and it is difficult to
see them without being reminded of goblin faces and mutant hybrid
animals.

The valley is sprinkled with narrow stone towers which remind people variously of sentinels, pipes, or stony generative organs. There are several theories which attempt to explain the origin of these curious structures. Erosion of surrounding soft sediments seems to be the likely culprit.

Between the valley floor and the surrounding peaks sculpted sandstone oddities brood silently over the campgrounds:

The basin contains one stone arch:

Two more scenes from a chilly morning walk:

We encountered just one other hardy camper the morning after a seventeen-degree F. night. She said, “I read about this place in a hiking guidebook; it was described as a national park in miniature, and I figured that it wouldn’t be too crowded this time of year!”

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A Traditional Place To Write

… at least until 1906, when Teddy Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act, making it a crime to “write on a wall” located on federally-owned lands such as National Monuments.

Up in the northwest corner of New Mexico the landscape is mostly rangeland dominated by scattered Piñon Pine and One-seeded Juniper trees.

An aside: I think it’s a peculiarly human trait to characterize a landscape by the economic use made of it by newcomers such as beef ranchers, though this landscape was once “rangeland” for bison, I hear. The grazing pressure is more intense these days as the grass becomes more scanty.

Cibola County is named for the legendary “cities of gold” sought by deluded Spaniards, once upon a time. Miles-long mesas can be seen jutting from the rolling plain, most of them tilted like vast launching ramps for the spacecraft of a long-vanished race of cosmic travelers. Here’s a morning view of a typical Cibola County mesa:

One of these mesas has been made a National Monument, as much for historical as for aesthetic reasons. El Morro (Spanish for “the headland”) angles up at about a ten degree angle, from a slight rise on the southern end to a 200-foot bluff on the northern end, an imposing landmark which can be seen on the horizon from many miles away.

Somehow I managed to visit the park without taking a photo showing an overall view of El Morro, but luckily Bev did, and she kindly e-mailed me a copy from across the motel room:

This bluff was also a source of dependable water for thirsty travelers over the millennia, from wandering bands of aboriginal “ancient ones”, to Spanish colonists and exploiters, and finally to Northern European travelers and settlers. A twelve-foot-deep pool nestles against the base of the bluff, a pool fed by rainwater sluicing over the top of the bluff which I presume forms dramatic waterfalls during the wet seasons:

On several vertical north faces of the Zuni sandstone headland the smooth expanses of stone invited people over the years to write something recording their presence. They came for water and stayed a while to write. The earliest inscriptions are ancient aboriginal petroglyphs, such as this one:

Later Spanish travelers and adventurers stopped by and left inscriptions such as this one:

This Anglo inscription I found to be of particular interest, an inscription by the commander of the Camel Corps. This was an unsuccessful US Army experiment during which bewildered camels from Arabia Deserta were introduced to the deserts of the American Southwest:

Notice how a later visitor from Michigan overwrote Breckenridge’s inscription with a rather crudely incised one.

Bev and I hiked up to the top of the promontory and found some interesting sights, such as this pueblo ruin:

The ancient Anasazi seemed to have a knack for siting their dwellings in very scenic places!

Back in the 1930s a well-meaning park ranger obliterated several inscriptions which had been incised after the Antiquity Act had been passed. That’s really too bad, as from a 21st Century perspective those inscriptions from the early decades of the 20th Century would have been interesting to see!

Larry

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Glyph Riff

Bev and I have visited many parks and sites throughout the Southwest this winter. Ancient Indian petroglyphs are common in the region, but when thinking about their creators I come to a full stop. Nobody really knows who made these cryptic incised drawings or what the motivation(s) might have been. Were the artists the same mysterious people who built and presumably occupied the ubiquitous pueblo ruins? Were the glyphs drawn casually by bored hunters or travelers, perhaps to while away a few hours while seeking shelter from the rain under a rock overhang?

Recurrent themes and symbols abound. Grotesque humanoid figures are common, as are geometrical designs such as zig-zags and spirals. Perhaps there were symbolic and/or religious impulses involved, but we will never know. The present-day Navajo and Hopi tribes-people presumably are descendants of the glyph-incisors, but lack of a written record and the mutability of vocal recollections passed down from past generations are factors which prevent us from ever knowing much, although speculation is rampant (and easy).

Here are a few petroglyphs which caught my eye. The first two can easily be seen near one of the parking lots at Petrified Forest National Monument, located in northern Arizona.

This one is one of my favorites. Is the subject a giant bird holding a thrashing human in its beak, or (more likely) a crane with a captured frog?

Just a few yards away is this crowded panel, probably a collaborative effort; various parts might have been incised over a period of hundreds of years:

A few days later we walked down a steep trail into Butler Wash, a canyon in Southeast Utah which is one of many canyons emanating from Comb Ridge. The Mormons seemed to have had a rough time settling that wondrously contorted region. On the trail I was impressed by this five-foot-long sandstone formation, which looked like some weird hybrid of a toilet and an anvil to me:

The petroglyphs at the Butler Wash site were among the clearest I’ve encountered, doubtless due to their relative inaccessibility. Here’s Bev looking like her glyph-ish thoughts are visible above her head:

Another crane-like bird with outstretched wings accompanies a weird human figure:

Notice that some thoughtless idiot with a rifle has used the circular motif towards the right as a target:

Tonight Bev and I are in a motel room in Kanab, Utah. The temperature tonight is supposed to get down to seventeen degrees F., and it will certainly be pleasant tomorrow morning NOT having to cook breakfast at a camp-site picnic table!

Larry

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Ancient Bridges, Little Traffic

A bit of a hurried post, but that can’t be helped. Bev is off filling the van’s gas tank and buying some food, while I’m using the Page, Arizona McDonalds wi-fi for a few minutes.

These photos are from two walks at Natural Bridges National Monument in southern Utah. The weather turned on our way to the remote park and the temperature dropped until finally there was spitting pelleted snow. This made the mornings rather frigid and encouraged speedy cooking.

There was one advantage of the inclement weather, though. Rain filled the numerous dish-shaped cavities in the sandstone which led to many splendid views. Unfortunately the best photos showing this ephemeral phenomenon are in limbo until Bev and I resolve a few issues. I really don’t think the NPS will seek me out and fine me if I post certain photos on the blog, but who knows…

The natural bridges in the park are among the finest examples of erosional architecture I’ve ever seen. I could easily spend a week there taking photographs.

Here are a few that I shot during the past two days:

The shrieking of Navajo children is beginning to get on my nerves, especially after a few days in quiet and remote places! We’re headed back into the canyons!

Larry

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Sandstony

The past few days Bev, Sage, and I have been wandering around northwestern New Mexico and northeastern Arizona. We’ve been surrounded by sandstone, mostly sofy Zuni sandstone which erodes easily and lends itself to human incisions, petroglyphs and such. Ancient Anasazi ruins can be encountered in the most unlikely spots, such as this one atop a massive two-hundred-foot tall mesa at El Morro National Monument:

Some of the formations resemble fortifications or castles due to their vertical sides; I enjoyed seeing this one in New Mexico:

La Ventana, a sandstone arch near extensive black lava fields, is quite beautiful. I had to hop a fence and climb a steep and rocky slope to get a half-way decent photo:

Perhaps due to my nearsightedness, in general I tend to favor closer macro views and the sandstone in this part of the world offers as many weird and wonderful sights as I have the time to regard. This eroded boulder is about six feet long and offered me scenes of fever-dream architecture millions of years in the making:

We camped near Petrified Wood National Park last night, and this morning we’re off to photograph ancient mineralized conifers, odd objects to encounter in such a drab, dry, and treeless landscape. Then on to the red sandstone formations of SE Utah!

Larry

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