Archive for September, 2011


September 22, 2011 2 comments

For those (including me) who weren’t able to follow the description of Black Rock City in my blog entry titled “Plain Geometry”  here’s a satellite photo, courtesy of the European Space Agency, that was shot at 11:49 a.m. on Friday, September 2, 2011:

Black Rock City, a.k.a. Burning Man

And now an aerial view that helps provide a sense of scale (click it):

Black Rock City, 2011

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September 22, 2011 1 comment

September 20/Day 65. Only 400 miles to go. I roll out onto IH-10, another concession to the interstate since Hwy 90 swings too far south and, like an old horse, I can smell the barn. The most direct route will serve my purpose best.

I’ve driven this highway so many times over the past 45 years I’ve practically got it memorized. One thing that’s changed is the speed limit, now 80 mph, which puts me in the slow lane at about 65 mph. Everyone passes me; I pass no one, which for some reason I find mildly amusing.

The closer I get to home, the worse the landscape looks. Even before Ft. Stockton, the green desert scrub, creosote bush and sage, are brown and desiccated by drought, something I’ve never seen before in this area. It’s the same all the way to Comfort.

About 20 miles west of Junction, the dreaded wrench icon on my dash lights up. A few minutes later, I watch the engine temperature needle rise into the red and a warning flashes on the dash: “Check Engine Temperature.”


I pull off the highway as far as I dare and let the engine idle until the temperature drops to normal, about 10 minutes. Then I switch the engine off and restart. Good. The wrench light is off.

I lumber back onto the highway, keeping my speed down to 55 mph, which is like standing still at Daytona. Sure enough, the needle starts to rise again after a few minutes.

It seems I still have one more adventure left in this trip. I pull off the road again and wait at idle for the needle to drop. Then I shut off the air conditioner (something I never did even in Death Valley, where there are large caution signs warning you to do so to take the extra load off the engine) and merge back into the traffic lane, this time going only 45 mph with my 4-way flashers on.

It happens that there are some substantial uphill grades through Junction and the Kerrville area. I play an off and on game, sometimes driving off the traffic lane on the shoulder because I’m so slow, other times pulling into the lane as I coast back down a hill. I am determined that one way or another I will make it home under my own power.

Finally I exit the interstate at Comfort and feel more easy driving ridiculously slow on the back roads. The last gasp is a steep hill leading up to my house. The needle is in the red, but screw it! I’m here! Jane opens the gate as I make the last few hundred yards, practically wheezing all the way.

To paraphrase T.S. Elliot: This is the way my journey ends, not with a bang but a whimper.

NOTE: To all who’ve followed this blog, thank you. I’m gratified and humbled that you took the time to read it. I hope in some small way I’ve given you the chance to ride shotgun.

Happy trails….



Total miles: 6,649.6, including side excursions
Total days: 65
Number of camps: 19
Cost of fuel $3.61-$4.99/gal.
Weight of trailer, wet 11,460 lbs.
Weight of truck, wet 8629 lbs.
Total weight 20,089 lbs.
Avg. mpg 10.4
Total cost $$$$ and counting
Experience priceless
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Birthday behind the wheel

September 22, 2011 Leave a comment

September 19/Day 64. My 65th birthday. It seems odd that I’m not spending it with my family, but also appropriate that I’ll be on the road. Thoughtful as always, before I left home Jane gave me a slice of my favorite cake—carrot—to freeze and save for today. I let it thaw overnight and eat it for breakfast.

I’m on the road early, soon crossing into the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. A string of small towns—Luna, Reserve, Alma, Glenwood—line the highway as it parallels the Gila Wilderness, the first wilderness area declared by Congress a hundred years ago. This is “getaway” country, the kind of place you want to head for Armageddon, so remote is it from people’s consciousness.

Then comes Silver City, in my mind one of the last remaining true frontier towns, followed by Deming, then the destruction derby that is El Paso.  By now dusk is setting in and I’m ready for a break. I pull into a rest stop east of El Paso near Fabens, only four miles from Mexico. There are four or five 18-wheelers already parked here, their diesels rumbling at idle, comforting companions in the dark Chihuahua desert.

By the time I eat my dinner, however, they’re gone and I’m the only vehicle in the rest stop, feeling exposed and vulnerable within walking distance of the border in an area notorious for its drug violence. I lie on top of the covers, fully clothed, eyes wide open, but in spite of myself I’m soon asleep. When I wake up at dawn, the rest area is filled with the reassuring sound of idling trucks.

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Headed home

September 22, 2011 Leave a comment

September 18/Day 63. The trip off North Rim up through Jacob Lake is one I’ve made a number of times before. This time is different though; the beautiful pine forest, dotted with meadows, was extensively burned several years ago and all that remains are the gaunt blackened daggers of bare tree trunks pointed skyward. Perhaps it’s this depressing sight that’s helped prompt my decision to leave my beloved North Rim early.

At Jacob Lake, 40 miles from the North Rim, the road turns east and begins a winding descent from the Kaibab Plateau, past the fortress-like Vermillion Cliffs, which stand up to 2,000 feet high parallel to the highway for 30-odd miles. The high bridge over the Colorado River at the upper reaches of the Grand Canyon marks the highway’s southerly bend past the Navajo Reservation. Here ancient diminutive Navajo women, who seem even tinier in their voluminous skirts and billowing shawls, sell jewelry and amulets at rickety tables beside the road. Each untidy homesite, scattered sparingly across the desert at distance from the highway, includes an octagonal or round traditional hogan, used for ritual purposes by every Navajo family.

In an uncharacteristic departure from the blue highways, I catch IH-40, passing through Winslow, a place as bereft of any natural enticements as any I’ve ever seen, to Holbrook, where I leave the interstate in favor of a route pointed more directly toward home. My day ends at dusk outside St. Johns, AZ at Lyman Lake State Park.

As I drive my mind is a mass of thoughts and feelings. First, of course, I look forward to seeing Jane, who’s been a stalwart on the homefront, including managing the installation of a complete new air conditioning system for the house while working three jobs: her day job, her Miche Bag business, and her Votre Vu business. Oh, and feeding two horses, two dogs, two cats, three birds, and seeing Hannah off to college for her second year. All in 103 degree temperatures. Without her support, my dream could never have come true. I love you Jane.

I also feel a sense of satisfaction in having accomplished a number of personal goals, some seemingly trivial, others more expansive. I’ve tried to drive to the top of Pike’s Peak several times but have always been stymied by weather conditions at the summit that forced me to turn back. This time, I made it. I’ve always wanted to drive over Trail Ridge Pass, but it’s been closed by snow before. Glacier National Park has been on my to do list as long as I can remember; it was worth the wait. I could go on. Suffice it to say that every stop along my path, whether planned or otherwise, has fulfilled a purpose.

I can still easily conjure the heart-stopping fear I felt stranded in the middle of the desert at 1:00 a.m. with no cell phone service, in a dangerous predicament, completely helpless.  Those were my bleakest hours.

Then, knowing the number of fatalities that have occurred, there was the psychological conflict I had to overcome before I commenced the hike to Angels Landing. I confess to a feeling of satisfaction in conquering the mental struggle that’s at least as great as my pride climbing the actual trail.

There are fleeting friendships that grew out of chance encounters. On the shuttle bus in Glacier, I happened to sit by an architect from St. George, UT, who was vacationing with his large family (he must have been Mormon….) After a pleasant conversation while riding up the Going to the Sun Road, he offered his home as well a guide services in Zion, where he had been countless times since he was a teenager.

In Death Valley several weeks later, I struck up a conversation with two young women, sisters from Belgium, who in turn introduced me to their father. After half an hour of chatting, the three said good-bye and left to continue their journey to Las Vegas. A couple of minutes later, the father returned and offered me his card. “I’m not in the habit of doing this,” he said, “but if you’re ever in Brussels, please consider that you have a place to stay.” It turns out he’s the medical director at a large research hospital.

I fall asleep with a welter of images flashing across my mind. I’ll have a lot of post-processing to do….

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Into the canyon

September 18, 2011 3 comments

Shirley Belle

September 17/Day 62. This morning I wake to my alarm, early. I meet in front of the visitor center, along with 14 others, to join a mule train down into the canyon. It’s a four-hour trip down about 2,000 feet below the rim and back. My mule is Shirley Belle, the prettiest thing you ever saw. By 8:00 a.m. we’re all mounted up and start down the Kaibab Trail, which is a quagmire due to rain the last three days. Since I’m from Texas, the wrangler calls me “Cowboy” and tells me I’m the caboose—last person in the train.

It’s a wonderful thing to watch the mules carefully, flawlessly pick their way through six-inch deep mud and slippery rocks with nary a misstep. Shirley Belle, I’m convinced, is a little smarter than the rest because she chooses her own slightly drier path, whereas the others mostly step into the same mud-hole the mule in front of them does.

The Caboose

In spite of the hairpin turns and steep drop-offs, I feel perfectly safe, for two reasons: one, the mule’s reputation for surefootedness and two, I climbed Angels Landing and that was just plain scarier. Gee, I discover, it’s nice to be able to watch the scenery while someone else does the work. One woman, slightly apprehensive, asks the wrangler if they’ve ever lost anyone. The wrangler answers with a drawl, “Yes, ma’am, we did. But we found ‘em.”

After the ride, I take a drive to several viewpoints along the canyon rim: Vista Encantada, Walhalla, Roosevelt Point and Cape Royal, the only place you can actually see the Colorado River from the North Rim.  I’m reminded that the last time I was here, with the family, we couldn’t see into the canyon at all because of the snow. A little nostalgia sets in.

Tomorrow my Dad turns 91, bless him. He and Mom are still hale and hearty, still running around town doing errands, going to the symphony,meeting friends, still loving life. Why, my Dad just retired last month; that ought to say something! And day after tomorrow, on the 19th, I’ll turn 65—me, the little boy in the Buster Brown shoes and bib-top shorts you see over to the side there, yes, that’s me. On Medicare.

Am I boring you, Shirley Belle?

I assess my situation. I had hoped to hike down into the canyon, but trails on the North Rim are muddy from three days of off and on rain, leaving me with few activities; even if the trails were in great shape, there’s always the plantar fasciitis to consider; no fresh groceries are available and I’m reduced to eating canned food, i.e., emergency rations; communications here suck and even text messages are time-delayed; and last but not least, I miss Jane.

I make the decision to head home, a long two-day drive.

Colorado River

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Leaving Zion

September 18, 2011 1 comment

September 16/Day 61. Travel day. This morning I ready the rig for the road, reluctantly pulling up stakes. I’ve enjoyed my stay at Zion. Each stop along my journey has had its own enticements, but Zion is uniquely beautiful. It’s emblematic of my love for southern Utah, the Colorado plateau, the Four Corners—no matter what name it’s called by. In a relatively small geographic area, God has seen fit to stash some of His most precious jewels.

Leaving Zion is a trip in itself. The road spirals up out of the canyon to a 1.1 mile long tunnel which, built in 1929 when most vehicles were far smaller than today’s, can no longer safely accommodate two-way traffic. Traffic is let through one way at a time, first east-bound, then west-bound, alternating all day.

Pink Cliffs near Kanab, Utah

Pink Cliffs near Kanab, Utah

Once through the tunnel heading east , the monolithic rocks assume more and more improbable shapes, like huge dollops of Dairy Queen ice cream or, less delectably, cow patties piled one on top of another, tilted at dizzying angles, seeming to ooze out onto the road almost. Their pinks and whites are dotted with pines, similar to Yosemite where the trees seem to grow out of solid bedrock. Unfortunately, there aren’t any pullouts along this section of highway, so I can’t get any pictures of the strange formations.

Before I know it, I’m through Kanab, Fredonia and Jacob Lake, plunging due south the last 40 miles to the North Rim. Once I check in at the ranger station and find my campsite, I realize it’s almost directly across the camp road from the site Jane, Hannah and I used years ago—probably about 1995—when we had our little popup camper. It was the first day the North Rim was open for the season, sometime in May, and it snowed a couple of inches on us. Now that was an adventure! The little camper had no heater, so the girls were in one bunk, cuddled together in one sleeping bag to stay warm, and I was in the other bunk wearing, I believe, every piece of clothing I’d brought with me, plus my sleeping bag. When sunrise came only Hannah wanted to stir; she’d never seen snow before and wanted to play in it. Oh, we had fun on that trip!

My little baby…seems like overnight she’s already a sophomore at A&M. So many memories of her growing up; I wish I’d known it would all flow by so fast, too fast to hold my arms around, too intangible. I’m feeling a little melancholy sneaking in. Life has to move through its proper stages and though sometimes it’s sad, it’s all good—and besides, there’s no stopping it.

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Narrowly missing The Narrows

September 18, 2011 Leave a comment

September 15/Day 60. I wake up to cloudless skies for a change. It’s rained every day I’ve been in the desert, including Death Valley. I hope it rains soon at home or that too will soon be a desert, with all the unpleasant attributes and none of the good.

I walk across the park boundary about 100 yards into Springdale, where there’s a small café called Sol Food that has an internet connection, and catch up on my blogs.

The mouth of The Narrows.

After a leisurely start, I decide to hike The Narrows in the upper reaches of Zion Canyon, where the Virgin River has cut down through 2000 feet of sandstone, in some places only 20-30 feet wide. I put my driver’s license and iPhone, to use as a camera, into a zip-loc bag and fill the Camelbak with water. Since much of the hike is actually in the Virgin River, I don an old castaway pair of hiking boots, knowing they could be ruined by the time it’s over.

I catch the shuttle and take the 40 minute ride to The Temple of Sinawava where the trail head is. By now it’s close to noon and I notice dark clouds starting to form upstream. Not a good sign. There are a lot of people at the end of the first mile of the trail, where it crosses the river. Previous hikers have leant their walking sticks against the canyon wall as they leave, for others to pick up and use. It’s a good idea to have a third leg to probe the river bottom because water is opaque as creamed coffee. I choose one and wade into the river.

The water is about knee deep, cold and running swiftly. The bottom is made up of loose, slippery, rounded boulders, some the size of basketballs mixed with many smaller stones. The river is only about 30 feet wide at this point and I make it across quickly. But it is starting. I hike the path 200 yards to the second crossing and by now the rain is heavier. Most everyone is turning back, a good decision. In fact, the only decision. We can’t see how threatening the storm is by looking up at the narrow slot of sky above us, and flash floods can occur from storms that are miles away.

I’m disappointed, but have to face the reality of the situation. So my old boots go squish-squishing all the way back to the bus stop. And what didn’t get wet in the river is now soaked from the rain. I’ll have to wait for another trip to hike The Narrows.

Tomorrow I leave for the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, the last official stop of my journey.

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