February 28, 2011

2/27/11 – The Alamo, San Antonio, TX

San Antonio and the Alamo and the River Walk…
We’re staying at a 1000 Trails campground in Lakehills, TX, about 40 miles from San Antonio.  The day started out cloudy and humid—100% humidity but not rain.  The Texans called it “drizzle”, but it’s sure not like Seattle drizzle!  When enough moisture had gathered in the trees above the trailer, and a little bit of wind blew, a lot of big drops would plop down on the roof.  It sounded like rain, but it really wasn’t. 
We hung around until it warmed up and cleared up, then headed to the big city.  This year is the 175th anniversary of the siege of the Alamo.  We’ve all seen the movies where Jim Bowie, Colonel Wm. Travis and Davy Crockett all died for the cause of Texas independence.  I’ve been there before, but it always surprises me how small it actually is.  The Daughters of the Republic of Texas have been responsible for the care and maintenance of it since 1905.  You can’t take pictures inside, but it was a beautiful day and we wandered the museum and courtyard.

We then headed across the street to cut through the Hyatt’s Atrium Lobby and it’s water features to the River Walk.  Lining both sides of a bend of the San Antonio River are shops, restaurants and bars, one level down from the street.  It started as a method of flood control during 1930s and has since become a major tourist attraction. 

The River Walk winds and loops under bridges on each side of the river bank.  There are little canal boats that travel the length of the “Paseo del Rio” and you get the history spiel from the guides.  Each little section is unique.  There are restaurants all over, and you can sit on the patios or just stroll.  You can cross by going up to street level and back down on the other side.  I loved that all the bridges are different.  There are a lot of hotels, and a lot of people who had obviously come from conferences.  Lots of tourists, too—just like us.   The plantings took a hard hit from cold temperatures a few weeks ago, but it looks like it’s already starting to come back.  One of the signs by a bridge says “Other cities have rivers, but only San Antonio has the River Walk…” 

We walked the “Bend” section, and then had Margaritas and Nachos at a Tex-Mex restaurant, watching people and just relaxing.

When we headed back to the truck, we cut through the hotel again.  The Alamo was lit, and all the people were gone.
 Along Alamo Plaza were horse drawn carriages, decorated with lights to look like Cinderella carriages.  George, the non-romantic, thought they were silly.  YOU decide!

February 20, 2011

2/18/11 – Carlsbad Caverns NP

I’d been to Carlsbad when I was maybe 14, but didn’t think it would have changed much in 50 years.  It was summer when we were there, and weren’t dressed for the 56 degree temperatures in the caverns.  My cousin Charlotte told me we only went on part of the tour, then took the elevator back up because we were cold.  I’m blaming my brother!  (Isn’t that what brothers are for? J ) 

We got to the park about 10:30 because George is retired and sees no need to get up early for anything.  That didn’t give us enough time to go on the Natural Entrance hike, then the self-guided Big Room tour, and still be able to go on the ranger-led tour of the King’s Palace.  We decided to skip the Natural Entrance hike, and had no problems getting onto the 2:00 ranger tour, although I’d read you should make reservations in advance.   This is a really good time of year to visit because there were so few people, and we didn’t need reservations at all. 
The elevator goes down 750’ in 3 minutes, with only 8 people at a time, plus elevator operator.    They’re doing routine maintenance on the 2nd elevator and the 4 bigger elevators are being repaired,  including removing the original steel beams used as guide rails which have corroded, removing the original lead-based paint and repainting them.  One of the rangers told us they won’t be completed on schedule for summertime and tourist season!  At least they didn’t send us down in the old guano bucket!
We rented audio guides, which look like really giant TV remotes.  When you get to a numbered sign, you try to see the numbers on the remote-thingie so you can key them in and listen.   I especially liked the ones where they talked about the early history of those who first explored the caverns. 
They tell you to take as many pictures of the caverns as you want; they don’t tell you that they probably won’t turn out.  It’s a cave—it’s dark.  Although there’s lighting on many of the decorations, you can’t hold still long enough to keep the camera from jiggling.  If you use a flash, then you light up stuff you didn’t care about, and if you don’t, then that’s another problem.  We didn’t have tripods...

 The lighting is LED and highlights (ha!) what they consider the best stalactites, stalagmites, columns and whatever else gets built up in caves—popcorn and soda straws and draperies and other really cool stuff. 
The “Big Room” is huge, of course, and the paved trail takes you all around and through it.  It’s about a mile and a quarter.  They say it takes 1½ hours, but it took us longer, taking all those pictures that didn’t turn out.  Then we had to hustle to get to the next tour of the King’s Palace.
We were surrounded by rangers.  Well, actually there were two—one leading us (Ranger Lee), and one at the end of the line (Ranger Jeremy) making sure no one got left behind.  Both were extremely knowledgeable and both were cute and friendly.  We actually saw a lot more than just the King’s Palace--there was the Queen’s Chamber, Green Lake, the Papoose Room and more.  
At one point they sat us down on a (very cold) rock wall and turned off the lights so we were in total darkness!!!   Because we were sitting down, it’s wasn’t frightening, just weird.  If you move your hand across in front of your eyes, your brain expects it to make a shadow, so it appears blacker but it’s not; you can’t get blacker than the total absence of light.  There’s NO WAY I’d be able to do some of the other tours where you have to crawl around on your knees in the dark with a  headlight (“bring 4 new batteries”).  Uh uh!!!!  I’m definitely not cut out to be a spelunker!
For what they’re worth—here are pictures.  My favorite was the Doll’s Theater, although the Rock of Ages is pretty cool too.   Carlsbad Caverns NM

2/17/11 – Guadalupe Mountains NP

Never heard of this park?  We hadn’t either!  It’s right off the highway when you’re travelling from El Paso to Carlsbad, and it’s worth a short detour (if only to get the park stamp in your National Park Passport!)
El Capitan was used for years as a guide post for pioneers because it’s visible for so far.  The Butterfield stage stopped nearby to change their pooped horses.  At 8,749’, Guadalupe Peak is the highest mountain in Texas (they call it “the top of Texas”).
The park protects a range of mountains that were actually a fossil reef on the bottom of the sea a long, long, long time ago.  Most of it’s wilderness, and there are trails all over, but for a change, we didn’t take any.  We did watch the movie at the Visitor’s Center.  Then it was back to the truck and on the road to Carlsbad, NM.

A few pictures of Guadalupe Mtns NP

2/16/11 – White Sands NM

We crossed the Continental Divide on I-10 in New Mexico yesterday with nary a mountain in sight.

White Sands NM is adjacent to the White Sands Missile Range—and the Army was practicing the morning we planned to visit.  The park was closed until 7:30 am, which certainly wasn’t a problem for us since George rarely gets up that early anyway.  I did read someplace that occasionally pieces of missiles fall into the dunes, but you shouldn’t touch them…
The Visitor’s Center is adobe and pretty neat.  I didn’t realize fully until I went to the restroom there how totally insulating and cooling (read “COLD!”) adobe can be.  It was in the 80s outside, and felt like 45 in the restroom.  The museum at the Visitor’s Center is being remodeled, so it was closed.  We watched the park slide show on a little TV monitor in the corner. 
The gift shop was a nice one, and we picked up a couple of sandstone coasters with Hopi fetishes on them.  George gets the bear claw one; mine is the bear.   
There was no one at the entrance station, so we had to go back to the Visitor’s Center for maps.  George started chatting with a ranger and a volunteer out in the parking lot—surprise, surprise…
White Sands is another park we visited on one of the summer trips back and forth between Las Vegas and Oklahoma with my cousin Charlotte, Aunt Dot and my brother & sister.  What I remembered were HUGE white dunes that people would climb and write out the name of the state they were from.  As we drove through the dunes, we’d try to find the names of all the states.  (Ohio would have been easier to do than Washington.)  People don’t do that anymore, and I missed it.  I don’t think the dunes seemed as high either, but it’s been a long, long time and I might be taller.
We hiked the Dune Life Nature Trail out into the dunes.  It was windy and I had to hang onto my hat.  Sometimes I had no idea what I was taking pictures of because of the glare of the sun on the white dunes.  It was fascinating to see the yucca and cottonwood trees that were covered by dunes and just kept on growing, waiting for the dunes to move on.
We had lunch at one of the picnic tables at “Heart of the Sands”, designed by the same architect who did the Visitor’s Center.  They’re built on big slabs of concrete with a sunshade that looks more modern than 1930-something, and can be moved when the dunes shift. 
The ranger had told us to try to leave before the expected 35-50 mph winds picked up mid-afternoon.  Look in the mirror and you can see the sandstorm beginning. 
Here are more pictures.

February 14, 2011

2/13/11 – Chiricahua NM

Chiricahua is Apache for “Wild Turkeys”.  We didn’t see any at the park—or on the way to or from the park.  I did see a javelina though.  It was inside a barbed wire fence next to the road about 10 miles from the park.  I got so excited about seeing it that I didn’t tell George in time for him to see it too.  It really does look like a wild pig.  Kinda ugly, actually…
Chiricahua NM is located in a “sky island”—an isolated mountain range rising above the surrounding land.   It’s nickname is the “Wonderland of Rocks”.  The Chiricahua Apaches (yep, it’s Cochise and Geronimo country) called the pinnacles “standing up rocks”.  I rather like that.  Most of the rock columns are standing up, although some have fallen over and some have eroded to become balanced rocks on top of the tall spires.  Sometimes you wonder what keeps them up on top when they look like gravity should pull them down into the canyon.
When we stopped at the entrance station, the ranger suggested we take the tour of the Faraway Ranch.  It was going to start in about 20 minutes, so we decided to do it.  Swedish emigrants settled here in 1888, and their ranch house was turned into a guest ranch by one of their daughters in the ‘20s.  After the death of their children, it became part of the park.  Everything was left inside, just like it had been while people were living in it.  You see things in it that a family would have kept—plus newer (up to the ‘70s).  I’d had a lot of these things myself, so it was like a trip down memory lane.
We stopped at the Visitor’s Center so George could get the stamp for his Passport book.  I asked the ranger for hiking recommendations—she suggested driving up Bonita Canyon to the end at Massai Point, then coming back down to Echo Canyon.  She told us to take a triangular route—the Echo Canyon Trail through the Echo Canyon Grotto to the Hailstone Trail, then on to the Ed Riggs Trail and back to the parking lot.  Total distance a little over 3 miles.  George did his standard reminders about the altitude and the distance and going slow—but it wasn’t a problem.

First segment was through absolutely spectacular rock formations downhill to the woods.  The next one was looking out to the south and was fairly level although hot and sunny.  The last one was through pine trees (alligator pines with really odd trunks), but the climb wasn’t bad. 
We were going to detour to the Fort Bowie National Historic Site on the way back to Benson, but I read in the park newspaper that after driving the 8 mile gravel road to the Visitor’s Center, you then have to hike another mile-and-a-half to the ruins of the fort.  It was getting late, and we voted to skip it.
However…we did make a detour just before we got back to the dying town of Willcox, AZ.  A ranger at Saguaro NP had told us about the sandhill cranes that winter there.  He gave us photocopies of maps he’d used and marked exactly where to see them.  We drove past the golf course, following signs to the “Birding Area”.  The road didn’t go very close to them out in the fields, but we climbed up on the cover of the truck bed and could see hundreds, probably thousands, of them.  We could see them dancing around, and could really hear them whooping (maybe sandhill cranes don’t whoop…they were really noisy though!)  Apparently they are a very impressive sight when they move from roosting sites to feeding grounds at sunrise, and reverse it at sunset.  Maybe another time—when we’ve got telephoto lenses!
More pictures of rocks if you’re interested…

2/12/11 – Titan Missile Museum (Natl Landmark)

Going to the Titan Missile Museum was my trade-off with George for going to Biosphere 2.  It ended up being more interesting than I’d expected.
If you’re not old enough to remember the Cold War, fallout shelters and the Berlin Wall, it probably wouldn’t make as big an impression as it did on those of us who grew up with the possibility of nuclear war. 
 This museum is an actual Titan II missile site—completely disarmed, of course.  The docent who guided us around had been a commander at a similar missile site in Wichita.  Dwight was able to explain everything from the perspective of someone who had actual knowledge, rather than someone who’d just learned from a book—plus he had over 2,000 hours as a volunteer at the museum!
He first took us around outside the top-secret Complex 571-7; we stood on top of the launch duct looking down at the ICBM itself.  Then we went down into the underground silo (down the steps with the sign cautioning us to “Watch for rattlesnakes”) where we actually went into the launch control center.  He explained the equipment, and simulated an actual launch of the missile.  There were some servicemen from a Tucson AFB, and one of them volunteered to “push the button”.   All the equipment is really dated now, but it was state-of-the-art when it was in use.

George had to wear a hard hat so he wouldn’t conk his head—the ceilings underground were really low and he had to walked stooped over. 
It was really weird to see things we had heard about for years—and know how it had affected the world we grew up in.  It was interesting and yet sort of spooky scary too. 
The door going back inside the museum is labeled “Re-Entry”. 

Titan Missile Museum NHS

February 12, 2011

2/11/11 – Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2 is just outside the town of Oracle, AZ…that’s as close to another Oracle project as I ever want to get.
In the early ‘90s eight people were sealed inside this huge greenhouse to conduct experiments for 2 years.  There was a lot of publicity at the time that the project was a failure because it wasn’t totally self-sustaining.  But they lived in it for 2 full years—and they learned a lot of different things.    
We went on the tour through the 5 biomes, down into the tunnels to see the pipes and technical setups, plus out to one of the “lungs”.   Our guide Steve explained a lot about the history of the facility and how it was built, as well as answered questions about the scientists on the Human Mission. 
Near the end of the tour someone asked what they learned during the mission—he said, “They learned that 4 single men and 4 single women cannot live together for 2 years.”   Apparently one of the biggest problems was scientific competition; almost from the beginning, they started choosing sides and it became very antagonistic.  Eventually, after the Mission was over 2 or 3 of them actually tried to sabotage a second Mission, and have been forever banned from the site.
It’s still being used as a big lab—just that no one lives in it now.  The University of Arizona manages it, and there’s a big conference center and hotel associated with it. 
Time Life Book called it “one of the 50 must-see wonders of the world”.  I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it was a pretty fantastic place.  Lots of plants—and lots and lots and lots of windows!
Check out some of these pictures and see what I mean.

February 11, 2011

2/9/11 – Saguaro NP

Saguaro--can you say it?  The G is pronounced like it’s a W, so it’s not “sah-GWA-row”, it’s “sah-WAH-row”.  I’ve tried, but at least half the time I forget and mispronounce it.  George always pronounces the G. 
This is another National Park that’s dedicated to cacti.  It’s unique (as far as I know) because it’s split into two separate districts, separated by the city of Tucson, which are about 30 miles apart.
We went to the “Tucson Mountain District (West)” and stopped at the Red Hills Visitor Center.  The ranger suggested we drive the Bajada Loop Drive, and take a couple hikes there:  the Valley View Overlook and the Signal Hill Trail.
The first one takes you through a couple of washes and then up some steps to a ridge overlooking the valley.  Kind of a fun hike with a very interesting view at the top.  You can definitely see where the park and “civilization” begins. 
By now I’ve seen so many saguaro cacti, I’m looking for the really funky ones.  Some really grow into strange shapes.

 There’s a picnic area near the Signal Hill Trail that was built by the CCC.  They built shelters and barbecues and the stone steps for the trail.  The steps climb up a hill to a rockpile with a lot of petroglyphs on them. 
PS.  The day we came back from the Biosphere, we drove right by the “Rincon Mountain District (East)” but all we did was stop at the Visitor Center so George could get a Passport stamp and we could look around….I really am tired of cactus.

February 8, 2011

2/6/11 – Tombstone, AZ

Tombstone—The Town Too Tough To Die!  However…on Superbowl Sunday, it was as close to dead as a 21st century tourist attraction can get.
First stop was the Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park.  The old Cochise County Courthouse is now a museum—and the smallest county park in Arizona!  We parked across the street, and at the stop sign on the corner was an old biker-dude—jeans, grizzled beard, cowboy hat, sunglasses—with a parrot on his shoulder!
The museum was pretty interesting.  The sheriff’s office and courtroom were exactly as they had been 75 years ago.  There was a section on the mining history, lots of stuff on Wyatt Earp and the OK Corral, of course, but also the biggest collection of barbed wire I’ve ever seen (or want to see again.)
This is real old west stuff—there’s  a reproduction of a gallows in the sideyard where 5 men were lynched after a robbery in 1883.  Another man who was involved was sentenced to life imprisonment, but a mob forced the jailer to release him, and they hanged him from a telegraph pole.   The coroner’s report said “I find that the deceased died of emphysima of the lungs which might have been caused by strangulation, self-inflicted or otherwise.”   Who’d have guessed there’d be this kind of irony about something like this???
After that we headed downtown, which is blocked off except for stagecoach traffic and pedestrians.  Usually there are lots of people dressed in like the Earp brothers & Doc Holiday, but for some reason there weren’t a lot of people around that day…do you think the football game had anything to do with it? 
We wandered around through some of the stores.  George bought me an early Valentine’s present—a Hopi fetish bear necklace, silver inlaid with colored stones, genuine Indian-made. 
When he found a cowboy hat he wanted, I couldn’t say no, could I?  Even if it’s out of character for the good guy to wear black??? 
We missed the gunfight, but we heard from several people later that it was really cheesy.  By the time we had a late lunch, there were literally nobody left in town.  Stores and even the bars were closing down early for the game.  Even the stagecoach drivers were gone.
We did stop at Boothill on the way out of town.  The graves are still there covered with stones—the Historical Society has set up wooden markers.  They’re labeled with names, dates and sometimes cause of death.  There’s a brochure that has additional comments about some of them that’s really interesting.  It was a hard time in a hard place—lots of shootings, stabbings, accidental death, but also a lot of suicides too.  A lot of graves marked “Unknown”.  I think that’s sad.
So we saddled up and headed back to Benson and our own camp. 

Link to Tombstone pictures

February 5, 2011

2/2/11 - Organ Pipe Cactus NM

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (another one I’d never heard of!) is in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, right down on the Mexican border.  George had talked to some people and they said it was safe to go there, so we moved house from Mesa (think Phoenix) down to Casa Grande, about 50 miles south.  To get there you go west on I-8 to Gila Bend, then south on UA 85 through the Barry Goldwater Air Force Bombing Range, which seems like a really good idea to me, considering how close to the Mexican border it is, to Why.  Why not?  (You know I couldn’t resist that!  Sorry.)
Why’s another old Arizona mining town, mostly dead and dying, with billboards and signs all over advertising insurance for driving into Mexico.  We didn't check, but I'll bet the price has gone up lately...
We stopped at the Kris Eggle Visitor Center for suggestions on where to go.  The ranger suggested we take the Ajo Mountain Drive loop first, and then suggested a couple of trails (which we never went on because it was really cold and very windy that day.)  Even on the drive, when we’d stop to look at something, we’d jump out of the truck, take a couple of pictures, then rush back to the truck.
The ranger had given us a guide for the 21-mile drive, and it’s supposed to take 2 hours—as usual it took us a lot longer!  The loop is a graded, one-way dirt road (which is partly paved???), which winds and dips up through the Diablo mountains to Arch Canyon, then back down into the desert.  The road is supposedly okay for passenger cars, but in some sections, we wished the truck had 4WD. 
There are 18 markers along the way.  George would stop at the numbered stake, I’d read the paragraph from the guide, sometimes we’d get out and take pictures. 
Organ Pipe cacti look like they should be related to Saguaro cacti because they’re both big tall columnar plants.  Saguaro are the archetypical desert cacti with a tall center column and “arms” that split off like branches.  Organ Pipes grow in a clump from the base like a candelabra.

The Ocotillo looks like it’s starting to bloom, with little red blossoms at the end of the seemingly dead branches. 
Besides the Teddy Bear and Pencil Cholla we’ve seen before, there was also Chainfruit Cholla.  Yes, I know, it doesn’t take a lot of Cholla-viewing to hit your limit.  
Marker 7 just above the Diablo Wash with a view across the border to the Mexican national park (let me check the guide book on this) Reserva de la Biosfera El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar.  They call it “El Pinacate” for short.  It’s a sister park to Organ Pipe Cactus NM.  And that’s probably as close to Mexico as we’re going on this trip. 
After we’d finished the drive, we stopped back at the Visitor Center for a pit stop before we headed back north.  We saw more Border Patrol guys that day than we’ve seen before.  As usual, they just waved us through the checkpoint.  We definitely don’t fit the profile!  (Interested in my opinion about that whole issue?  Send me a separate e-mail.  J )