Chaco

Sun dagger

 

Hearing the echoes of tens of thousands of ancient trail trekkers and home seekers, we returned, after 20 years, to a point of light that became a supernova in the culture of the Southwest.

The road to our destination opened on Highway 550—formerly the ominous 666, the “Devil’s Road”—one of the most infamous corridors in North America. This highway overflows with tales of grisly deaths, mysterious hitchhikers that vanish in the night, eerie lights, skinwalkers, “Satan’s sedan” that speeds up on your bumper during night driving, time loss, and the Hounds of Hell that some say cause numerous accidents, ripping into tires with their razor sharp teeth. This four-lane road rolls along as if teeter-tottering through troughs of ocean waves. Momentarily, your view of the way ahead is blocked by an endless series of hogback hills. You must trust blindly in the skills of oncoming drivers, and that trust drops in proportion to the rollercoaster rise to the highway’s pinnacle: then you catch your breath in the revealing streak of oncoming traffic.

We keep a wary eye out for the ubiquitous brown highway sign informing us of the turn to Chaco Culture National Historical Park, and embark onto a devil’s highway of the very real kind. Now begins a series of road quality diminishments from two miles of narrow 45-mph asphalt, to eight miles of 20-mph rough gravel, then the bone-jarring final seven miles at slower than walking speed, over washboard rough as the frozen tops of the ocean. Stray vehicle parts compete with road perimeter tire tracks of drivers who futilely sought to avoid shaking their cars to pieces.

 

 

 

 

 

At times, we can almost reach out our windows to scratch the chins of wandering cows, standing in the road, mindlessly chewing. Suddenly a road mirage appears before our rig: a half-foot-high chasm separates the rocky red scree of our travails from the smooth asphalt entrance into the National Park Service official—flawlessly paved—road. Our four sets of wheels ease up onto it, and we feel the wind fill our sails. Arriving at the campground, we assess the damage. Our inspection reveals ripped-out door latches, loose screws, and objects transported across the floor like those mysterious sliding rocks in the desert. Our microwave, apparently longing to escape its cabinet confines, sits half-balanced on the precipice of the shelf, contemplating a jump to freedom.

Chaco isn’t an easy place to camp in this harsh, barren, and remote region. Potable water is available only in the visitors center, a mile or so away from the campground. RV parking is limited but rarely full, as there are no electrical hookups—but honestly, it’s the road in: it just sucks! There is a dump station; restrooms have flush toilets. Ice is nice in the 100+-degree heat, and can be had at the visitors center for $5—for a bag the size of a small Chihuahua. In daytime, flies and gnats masterfully and relentlessly avoid our swatting hands, seeking the moisture of our eyes, and bite into our skin, accessing fresh blood. At night, the onslaught creeps to a halt. But as the sun descends behind the mesa tops and pleasant breezes cool the earth, night wraps her cloak around the land and a new wave of night crawling creatures seeks out passages through our hair, up our legs, and into our clothing.

I awoke one night to the sound of Ruth’s incessant sneezing. It seemed to pass, and I fell asleep again. But the next morning, she was in her chair, still sneezing and blowing her nose. Suddenly, she looked at the tissue she’d just pulled away from her face and blanched. Are you squeamish? You might want to skip the rest of this paragraph. Several hard nose blows revealed a long black object. Upon closer inspection, we identified it as the carcass of an insect with multiple grasping legs seeking out a moist dark home to . . . you fill in the blank! This was Ruth’s Chaco freakout moment (and, I admit, my own as well). Flashlight inspection appeared to find no further evidence of body parts or reproduction. We proceeded to perform a military-style inspection of our entire living space, and eliminated close to a dozen similar interlopers. Could the thought of sleep be entertained after this event?! [Note from Ruth: I slept—if you can call it that—with tissues stuffed in my nose and earplugs for several nights.]

So where’s the gem in this story?

Chaco Canyon sits in the northwest corner of New Mexico in high desert, 6,200 feet on the edge of what was once a vast inland sea that rose and fell over the millennia—picture the American continent split into two separate halves.

Evidence of that ocean exists today as you hike up on the mesa tops above the vast settlement of Chaco Canyon. Fossilized ocean sea shells litter the sedimentation layers and iron stains the tubes of ancient sea worms that once lived in the primordial ooze.

Sandstone sea worm or sea shrimp fossil casings
“Ironized” sea worm tube
Fossilized sea shell

Ice ages came and went, water entered and receded. Oxygen levels rose and fell. Our continent drifted north from near the equator, and land masses lifted. The Appalachian mountains once stood as tall as the Himalayas. In this unique terrain in the center of the continent, the most ancient rock foundations of North America are found. The earliest known humans that migrated into this region found a special sense of place rooted in the depths of time. There is a confluence of life force here through the synergy of evolution. Dinosaur bones are layered in proximity with areas of geologic distinctiveness;

Dinosaur imprint

 

 

 

 

 

above and around them are ancestral Puebloan habitations, their sacred kivas, and concentrations of extraordinary social intercourse. The ancient ones seemed to understand the feng shui, or harmony, of environment and capitalized on developing this in the spread of their settlements, building extended roads of communication in all directions.

Approximately 1,200 years ago, a spark of synergy brought people to this place. Human creativity and engineering exploded a rapidly-evolving community to life. Huge living complexes were built, grinding stone upon stone. Detailed brickwork elevated these multi-story buildings with hundreds of rooms along the canyon mesa top and bottom, extending for miles.

News of these creations spread like wildfire throughout the region, luring seekers like moths to flame. These immigrants brought gifts to bestow, as well, upon the genius of this creation: the upwelling of cultural evolution. Macaws from deep in Mesoamerica adorned the growing clan gatherings in color and texture, huge collections of mined turquoise, competing and eclectic pottery designs, copper bells, shells from the Pacific—all contributed to the accelerated blending of clan traditions and social organization.

We climbed up a narrow crack in the wall of the canyon, up 300 feet inside an escarpment just wide enough for a human to squeeze through, over rocks and boulders to the mesa top, in the footsteps of countless Chacoan people before us.

Beneath us a spectacular view of the Great Houses below and the beginning of a 5–6 mile, 4-hour hike in near 100-degree heat.

 

 

 

 

 

Soon we trod upon excavated sections of the Chacoan Road, the remains of which stretch due north hundreds of miles into distant trade communities. The workers carved steps into the sandstone rock faces to facilitate the movement of goods and people. Along our hike, evidence of stone ceremony circles

Corn grinding metate

 

 

 

 

 

and signaling stations appeared, as well as pecked-out circular cairns for collecting water and grinding corn.

The Chacoan elite were very aware of the movements of the sun, moon, and stars, and this often amazes our modern sensibilities, though if you think about it for just a minute, it shouldn’t: without artificial light, these people lived in close connection with the sky in all its moods. Every year during summer solstice, the sunlight splits through a crack in the rock on the top of the distant Fajada Butte, beaming a light, called the Sun Dagger, onto a petroglyph spiral pecked into the cliff face of giant slabs of rock.

Other such examples exist in other regions around Chaco depicting other major solar events. These people understood perfectly, as so many other ancient societies demonstrated, the movements of the cosmos. Much of the building in this region centers around cosmological placement. Recently excavated sky viewing stations have been discovered throughout the region. How did this technology arise? Many excavations in Mesoamerica postdating Chaco by a hundred years remarkably resemble, if not directly copy, its architectural design and construction, including construction along astronomical ley lines.

I set out on a long, hot hike to a remote Great House at the far end of the Chaco Canyon wash from the primary building complex, to find pictographic evidence of an astronomical event. (Pictographs are created by spreading pigment onto the rock, as opposed to petroglyphs, which are pecked into the rock.) Tucked in the ceiling below an overhang, protected from the elements, are paintings believed to depict the supernova in the Crab Nebula that occurred in CE 1054, and was observed and recorded around the world.

This event was bright enough to be visible in daytime for a month and dominated the night sky, enthralling wondering observers. Hopi oral traditions state that this event precipitated a convergence of clans at Chaco, hence the presence of the hand in the pictograph. In further travels, I encountered another pictograph of four hands at the Betatakin cliff dwelling in Arizona, and was informed by my Native American guide that it represented the departure of the four Hopi clans from that sanctuary.

Ruth and I spent glorious nights recuperating from our daily explorations, sitting outside staring up at the wonders above us. A more perfect star gazing environment could not exist. The Milky Way revealed itself above us in a serape of billions of lights. The moon came up full, the following night rising a half hour later, and a half hour later again the ensuing nights. Patterns of stars and planets commanded our attention and moved across the sky as time passed. As the moon waned, its time of rising soon matched that of the sunrise and was quickly overtaken. We noted that the sun’s daily track across the sky in summer was high enough to not require raising our solar panels. What would the ancient ones think to see us pull into our campsite, reach for a strange rectangular tablet, and open up a compass app to delineate East–West for solar panel alignment and maximum power production? If we, in just 3–4 days could observe simple changes in the heavenly bodies, how much could a people so in tune with their physical world to navigate, operate, design, and build by its presence, learn, comprehend, and plot the signs of the seasons?!

With the assistance of 21st century technology, and the reality that most of our life on the road is outdoors, we recognized that greater awareness of our surroundings was demanding our attention. The Chaco visitors center, deducing the answer to the questions asked by countless others like us—many who had never seen the heavens like this before—provided the solution. The excellent Field Guide to the Constellations, by Jonathan Poppele, provides a comprehensive means of recognizing planets, stars, and constellations, and their seasonal movements. This invaluable resource helps us join our ancient forebears in taming the beast of questioning wonder.

Research into the history of the Puebloan people of the Southwest always brings up their mysterious disappearance around the end of the 1200s and 1300s. They developed a stunning civilization, built great structures that embraced the advancement and elevation of progress, and then they all just walked away? Struggling for answers, some ill-informed folks claimed that these tribal cultures left us in alien ships. But archaeologists, studying the changing weather patterns, noticed a period of sustained draught. Probably the development and over population simply outgrew the resources of the region.

Archaeological evidence shows that the Puebloan people had been migrating for centuries. We observe this in the vast amount of pottery left behind when their dwellings are excavated, and in the evolution of how their pottery designs morphed as they transferred in trading from one tribe to the next. A new artistic vision expressed on ceramic ware spread like wildfire through the regions much like it does today: think Impressionism, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Pop Art, to name a few. It has been said that we see history as a static frame, missing the moving pictures around it. In the case of Chaco, the people didn’t just walk away. Excepting for alien abduction, elements of the aforementioned theories hold truths. The transformation back from an agrarian to a hunter-gatherer existence in deep canyons and cliff dwellings indicates that warfare was rampant, and this, coupled with the changing environment, led people to seek safety elsewhere.

The populace had been here before, and now returned to build anew on top of old structures, or simply tore down and rebuilt with newer technologies. In reality, it was a pattern of migration seeking optimal conditions that stimulated human migration across the world, and the Americas in particular. Ancestral Puebloans followed the path of least resistance across the landscape of the Southwest and northern Mexico, leaving traces of their villages and culture to be discovered in time.

The eventual border between America and Mexico created an artificial and political boundary that resisted broad archaeological exploration into the vast cross-tribal trade. Huge areas of northern Mexico remain unexplored and cataloged. Mesoamerican native culture, carrying the vestiges of ancient Aztec and Mayan civilizations, migrated north, mixing with the southerly movement of Puebloan peoples along the Sierra Madre mountains in Mexico. This movement created pockets of amalgamated dwellings. The largest of these settlements was centered in the Chihuahuan region of Mexico, called Paquimé, or Casas Grandes, which survived until the mid-1500s. It was said that war scattered its inhabitants into smaller communities throughout the region. The populace sought asylum in remote sheltered and camouflaged geographic regions. It was rediscovered by Spanish explorers around one hundred years later during the time of the new world Spanish exploration and “conquest.”

Again we return to the question of the disappearance of the pinnacles of population throughout the Southwest. The Spanish conquerors, and the Jesuit priests that followed them seeking to convert the so-called heathens, brought with them a devastating horror unknowingly wrapped in the garb of advancement and civilization: disease. This would be the unexpected contribution of the Old World to thriving New World communities, where populations of one hundred people were reduced to a few lone survivors. The plague of western civilization’s diseases, from which westerners had immunity, devastated the native population, perhaps providing clarity to the mystery of the great disappearance.

Technological context

A question kept popping up in my mind as we traveled and studied the history and civilization in this amazing region of America. What was the state of technology in the Eurasian and Puebloan cultures around the time of Spanish exploration? Was there disparity? If so, why?

The sight of the Spanish explorers snaking north along the mountainous terrain of northern Mexico must have been an astonishing sight to the local population, who had no knowledge of horses. Strange hairy man-beasts clad in armor and leather, glittering with lances and swords in the sunlight. Remarkable four-legged beasts carrying the loads of three men shook the ground and sweating support contingents, clad in clinking chain mail, snaked out along the trail into the endless expanse of the twisted canyon walls.

It was an imposing sight. The native population was perceived in equal respect by the trooping soldiers, witnessing power structures centered upon chiefs adorned in turquoise and colored feathers, being carried in palanquins. The Spanish passed through hundreds, if not thousands, of highly organized villages throughout the region, actively engaging in elaborate trade centering in grand marketplaces; and slave markets, buying and selling. Despite their imposing countenances, however, they were hugely outnumbered in the tens of thousands by organized armies. But for the mighty force of the musket, powerful crossbow, and armor, the Spanish invaders might have been turned away.

The Puebloans were no strangers to warfare, and soon realized the vulnerabilities of these new interlopers: unlike gods, they bled like humans. Why the disparity in technology?

Let’s look at a sampling of the state of technology in Eurasia around the period from 800 to 1200 CE.

  • Construction of many of the great cathedrals in Europe such as Durham in England and Chartres in Paris
  • The movement of goods, inventions, and ideas along the Silk Road from China to Europe
  • Invention of gunpowder
  • Intercontinental navigation, the compass
  • Development and production of iron, blast furnaces, the plow
  • Development of weaponry and armor
  • Invention of paper-codifying ideas and technology
  • Clocks, cranks-the wheel
  • Algebra, discovered by the Muslims

When the Spanish explorers arrived in North America, they introduced horses, cows, sheep, goats, and pigs. The native population had only dogs, turkeys, and chickens. The author, Jared Diamond, who wrote the book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The fates of human societies, postulates that:

  • Farming and domesticating animals provide social stability that is lacking in hunter-gatherer societies. Labor specialization enables certain groups to develop weapons.
  • Major portions of Eurasia had a natural advantage in developing agriculture and domesticating animals because of geography and the presence of plants and animals that could be easily domesticated.
  • The landmass of Eurasia, laid out on an east-west axis, allowed for the sharing of crops, animals, and ideas. The Americas, stretched out on a north-south axis, traverse climate zones and geographic boundaries that discourage trade.
  • The diversity and density of Eurasian populations created an immunity to germs and pathogens, such as the plague, that would later wipe out the more isolated populations of the Americas.

Diamond also postulates, and I strongly agree, that the power of the written word plays a major role in the development and spread of technology. The Puebloan people shared a petro-pictographic communication system that may have been lost in translation across regions, as well as speaking multiple dialects that inhibited cross-tribal sharing of ideas. Cultural and historical retention depends upon storytelling and oral traditions.

Visiting and exploring Chaco Canyon has opened multiple doors into the richness of this region we travel in: geography, geology, culture, astronomy, rock art, the history of pottery in the Americas, the development of technology in the post-classical period. We’ve traveled a long road since our first visit years ago. That beam of sunlight, our Sun Dagger, crosses our spiral of time once again, revealing answers, posing more, and rekindling the wanderlust of living and exploring on the road.

 

Arizona Cataclysm!

You and fellow members of your tribe are foraging and hunting across cool, moist, partly-grass, partly-forested terrain. Your clan has successfully completed that rarest-of-rare hunts: a 12-foot tall, hairy, curved-tusked creature that will provide food for all your families and those throughout the region for weeks. Your salt supply in the near hills guarantees your provisions’ sustainability.

As you set about the long task of cutting meat and stripping hide for clothing, a bright light appears in the sky to rival the sun warming your back as you toil. Within the blink of an eye, an even brighter flash and streak across the sky is followed by sound louder than any thunder you have ever heard. You are pushed back onto the ground, now shaking under you, and fear precedes a powerful heated wind muffling the cries of your fellow hunters. A huge cloud of smoke rises before you, spreading out and up into the sky obscuring the sun and turning day into night. Rocks fall around you and burn your skin. You pull your animal hide covering around your head and join your comrades running to escape the nightmare dreams come to life before you. An overhang in the rocks provides temporary shelter as a premature cold darkness falls upon you all…

Driving along the two-lane blacktop, we leave the interstate and proceed six miles south along barren, scrub-lined, mostly flat terrain and up a rise like the outside of an anthill, to claim parking outside the Meteor Crater visitors center. Paying our admission, we trek up a number of flights of stairs and soon the prospect of an unearthly crater comes into view before us.

Awesome but VERY large image file: view on large screen. Humans in upper right.

It’s as if we’ve been transported to the moon. Statistics for this giant hole in the earth state that it is was created 50,000 years ago. Blasted out by a meteor approximately 160 feet across, and weighing 300,000 tons, it mostly vaporized during impact with a force of 10 megatons. A giant crater was created, three-fourths of a mile across and almost two-and-a-half miles in circumference. The most powerful nuclear weapon ever exploded was 50 megatons and Russian in origin. The bomb that exploded over Hiroshima was 15 kilotons, considerably smaller in force.

Entering the atmosphere, the meteor was traveling eight miles per second, or almost 29,000 miles per hour. At almost 38 times the speed of sound, this blast through the atmosphere would have created a monstrous sonic boom! In the visitors center rests a residual artifact of the meteorite—constructed of mostly iron and many trace minerals and weighing 1,409 pounds—that was discovered several miles away. Standing on the rim of the crater, I felt the sense of falling into its maw, which rose 560 feet from base to rim, approximately equivalent to a 52-story building. If you are not full of statistics by now, let me point out that it has been calculated that the crater bowl can hold 20 football fields and the equivalent of two million spectators seated around its sides.

Let us return back to our fictitious presumed Paleolithic traumatized tribe. If the timeline of the meteor strike was skewed forward in time from 50,000 years to between 13,000–16,000 years, the coexistence of tribe and event would have been likely. As of 2017, there is a hotly contested revision of human history on the North American continent, claiming some form of pre-modern human, perhaps Neanderthals, extending back 130,000 years.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/26/science/prehistoric-humans-north-america-california-nature-study.html

This is based on crushed Mastodon bones found in San Diego, with nearby stones resembling smashing implements. Currently it is understood that humans did not range out of Africa until about 50,000–80,000 years ago. There is a good probability that Mastodons did coexist with our ancient North American native population at the close of their extinction between 10,000–11,000 years ago. It is conjectured that human predation was the cause or at least the hastening of their extinction. The last known evidence of Mastodon habitation was on Wrangel Island off the coast of Alaska between the years 2,500 and 2,000 BCE, approximately simultaneous to the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Whether it was human, mastodon, or both that witnessed this cataclysmic event, the effects have sounded and resounded on through time.

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Scary Roads We Love to Hate

Have I already mentioned to you that we don’t like to travel on interstates? Oh yes, when necessity dictates, a timely run, or the interstate is the only road option—but the interstate is to the destination as back roads are to the journey. We’ve been on some doozy roads, and I’ll share some of them with you here.

NOTE: This post contains many images and video best viewed on a screen larger than your phone!

Highway 550 in Colorado is called the Million-Dollar Highway for the amount of precious metals that passed down that road to spark the fevers of fortune hunters; or perhaps it was the cost of a million dollars a mile to construct in the 1920s, or that its fill dirt contained a million dollars in gold ore. Needless to say, it twists twenty-five miles along the Animas river from the lovely old town of Silverton to Ouray, Colorado, along switchbacks and precipitous drop-offs—with no guardrails—over three mountain passes, each over 11,000 feet.

If you are not short of breath from the white-knuckle drive, you will be when you arrive in Ouray, not just from the simple beauty of a town nestled in the folds of the surrounding 13,000-foot mountains, but in the rarified 9,000-feet-above-sea-level air.

We drove this route on one of our travel expeditions and after that ordeal, chose more recently to experience it looking out from the windows of a 19th century steam-driven train. Add huge layers of adrenaline from sheer dropoffs outside the train car hundreds of feet down the canyon, to the raging rapids below.

7 Minute high speed drive from Ouray to Silverton Colorado

Moki Dugway, Rte. 261 Utah

This is a road, if you can call it such, not for the faint-hearted, constructed in the late 1950s by a uranium mining company to shorten the distance of ore transport. Unsuspecting drivers arrive at the precipice of a mesa, and the asphalt abruptly—and unexpectedly—morphs to graded dirt. They peer out and down 11,000 feet to the valley below, and the approximately 14-foot-wide road, while the 11% downgrade beckons them to death. There are no guardrails to provide psychological safety, and trucks and RVs are informed in large-lettered signage to avoid traveling along the snake-like grade cut into the cliff face. We sucked in our breath and proceeded down, our truck in four-wheel-drive, realizing too late that some clown thought he could drive up pulling a large trailer. We weren’t about to play chicken. White knuckle cannot describe the timing of our encounter midway. We both had passed the point of no return. Luckily we found a slight pull-off on a potential hang glider launching site, and Ruth leaned out her window to slowly guide me, to inch our wheels within a foot of the dropoff. The rig passed us with inches to spare with both our mirrors pulled in. Why do vows to never do this again fade into time? “Well…” you may say to yourself, “why do I even bother to travel on the Moki Dugway?” If you’re interested in visiting the breathtaking Valley of the Gods, or the beautiful Four Corners region, you have a choice of driving the Dugway, or adding another 80 or so miles to your journey. Is that a rock and a hard place? Perhaps it would be better to say, “Between rocks and wide open space.”

Whitney Portal Road

Nearby Highway 395 in central California provides a staging area for those who seek to hike up to the lower 48 states’ highest mountain, Mt. Whitney. It, too, tests the temerity of drivers climbing up to the clouds along guardrail-less switchbacks. You watch the land fall away below, grip the wheel tightly, and in spring and autumn, hope that your tires grip equally as well over potential ice patches as you ascend 8,000 feet along 13 miles of switchbacks. There are frequent rock falls onto the road and if you should be unfortunate enough to drive off the road, the local bears get first pickings of human prime cuts.

The last five miles of this serpentine roadway has a grade of 9%. Once you settle your heart rate, the views from on top, down into the Owens Valley, are spectacular and the jagged peaks of Whitney beckon you to break through any residual fear of heights.

Saline Valley Road is not far from Mt. Whitney and makes up for what it lacks in scary precipitous dropoffs by providing about 25 miles of rocky, sometimes 10-12% grade four-wheel-drive slogging. The country around this rarely traveled “road” is stunning in beauty, and we bounced slowly along for almost three hours, imaging ourselves traveling back in time without worrying about our horse losing its footing on the rocky surface.

On the road to Saline Valley
Descendants of prospectors’ burros
Glutton-for-punishment winter driver on Saline Hot Springs Road

We were jolted back to the moment in the sudden blast of a low flying F18 from the nearby Air Force base. There is a reward for the traveler of this tire- and transmission-testing trackway: Saline Valley Hot Springs. Small-plane pilots in the know fly into this desert oasis on the edge of Death Valley, California—avoiding dogfighting jets—that is overseen by the National Park Service and manned by serious hardcore hot springs aficionados.

Saline hot springs oasis

There is, by the way, some very high-temperature water boiling out of the ground, so care testing of toe placement is in order. We camped for about a week and learned that stays for up to a month are possible with careful provisioning.

Burr Trail was one of our discoveries on an early road trip in the Southwest. We crossed Bullfrog Bay in Lake Powell on the ferry, and drove a stunning scenic dirt road about 30 miles into Burr Canyon. Before us lay a zigzag road cut into the canyon rock face, 800 feet high with extremely tight switchbacks and, of course, no guardrails.

Yes, this is nearly a vertical canyon wall

Intestinal fortitude is necessary to drive this scary mountain goat climb. Our first foray up the Trail was in our Toyota Tacoma stick shift, and I quickly learned to manage 4WD and careful speed management to prevent back creep on sharp switchbacks. Sliding backwards wasn’t an option, with the canyon below lying in wait. I became aware of a peculiar optical effect while rounding each bend going up, where the front of the hood prevented my view of the turn radius. This forced me to have to roll down the window and lean out to judge the truck’s position and not miss the road center. Ruth couldn’t take the white-knuckle scariness of the journey and opted for walking the duration of the way up. Afterwards she stated that the view from inside the cab of the truck was deceiving, that walking changed one’s perspective of drivability. I intellectually agreed but somehow the truck, by blocking road judgement, multiplied the fear factor. This is where you ponder the voice of Obi Wan Kenobi in your head to, “Use the Force.”

Drone view of Burr Trail switchbacks

Pine Creek Canyon Road (Route 2)

We serendipitously discovered this off-the-beaten-path dirt mountain road on the edge of the California–Oregon border while looking for a camping spot next to a mountain lake. All went well and a number of years later while camped at Goose Lake State Park, we decided to reprise our visit and reclaim our memories. We just couldn’t believe we drove on the same road. Perhaps it was changed by trolls, gnomes, or tectonic plate movement? Our route reprise seemed much more narrow, twisty, rocky, inclined, and compounded by many camping vehicles trying to pass each other with few pullouts. Nevertheless, add this one to a way-off-the-road-camping-with-no-limits area.

Gates Pass Road runs east–west between Tucson and Saguaro National Park, and I’ll call this one a pink-knuckle drive on a narrow road, particularly near the top of the pass to and from Tucson.

Gates Pass to Tucson
Below Gates Pass near Saguaro State Park

The road drops with no guardrail protection steeply down into the Saguaro National Park region and some spectacular camping at the Gilbert Ray Campground. DO NOT THINK ABOUT driving an RV on this road or you will have nightmares that will require coaching to alleviate, and the next destination leads us to night terror sweats…Near the Gilbert Ray Campground is the famous Old Tucson former Old West film set, now tourist western reenactment amusement park. Expect stunt shows, train rides, saloon “family tame” burlesque entertainment, pony rides, shoot outs, sundry shlock, and much, much more. (Read Ruth’s review of it here.)

Gunfight in Old Tuscon mission

Doherty Rim, Oregon Hwy. 140

Traveling east–west in Nevada reveals the consistent “basin and range” topography. You drive up a 5,000–6,000 foot pass and down 5–10 miles into a barren, sage brush-inhabited basin, then up the next pass, and repeat, over and over. Traveling north, we decided to break free from this monotony and take the road less traveled into a region so sparse of population and lacking of any cell communications, that if you broke down, your bleached bones would warn the next intrepid traveler. We spent the night in the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, where birds come to seek freedom from harassment, wild burros and horses range free, and hot springs run twenty-four hours a day through volunteer-built bathhouse showers. Can it be a strange coincidence that as you near the crossing from one state to another out West, the landscape changes and you can state clearly that now you are in Idaho, or Colorado, or Oregon? It seems as though the surveyors looked out, saw a geological change in the land, and drove a stake into the ground delineating one state from the next. We had barely crossed into Oregon when, on the road, the warning signs appeared. The ubiquitous image of a truck facing down a grade appeared with the 8% grade notification. Okay, this one was going to be steep. Mostly we see 6%ers. The next sign read, “Warning. Steep Grade Ahead. 25 mph. Trucks Use Low Gear.” Then, “Take Your Time, Don’t Rush, And You’ll Get There Alive.” With no apparent change in the prospect around us, we speculated what could all the fuss be about? A final large yellow sign read, “This Is Your Final Warning! Turn Back Now If You Have A Heart Condition!” Well…perhaps I embellished the last sign’s admonishment slightly.

We crossed the crest of the hill before us and I swear it was just like that roller-coaster moment when you arrive at the pinnacle of no return and you anticipate the terror of a dead drop…only this drop was 1,000 feet and a three-mile-long scream in duration. We dropped into walking speed, and sure enough, as is always the case, cars stacked up behind our 50 feet of truck/trailer in what I imagined was impatient rage. No one passed us though. What a surprise. Maybe they thought I would jerk the steering wheel over into their path to ease them of their need to get to the bottom two minutes ahead of us? In ten minutes we reached the bottom and vowed to never drive Highway 140 again, even if it meant driving around the entire West Coast to achieve a 100-mile trip.

Short high speed video clip of the drive down Doherty Rim Road

Wheeler Peak, Great Basin, Nevada

If it’s summer and if you swelter from 100+ degree heat crossing the Loneliest Road in America, Highway 50, just set your compass on a half-hour drive up to Wheeler Peak, and watch your vehicle thermometer drop quickly to around a cool 60. This drive lacks most of those barrier-less roadways. I said “most.” You’ll get a lot of practice though, twisting your steering wheel around a 360-degree arc on your way up to the staging area for a four-mile hike in rarified air, to pay tribute to the Bristlecone Pine grove. If you are pulling a trailer or driving a large RV, don’t put yourself through the mental anguish. The Bristlecones won’t mind, though; they’ve seen it all, having lived 4,000 years or more—they are some of the oldest living things on Earth. See my earlier blog post on this subject here. One short side note: If you pull a rig, a trailer, or Class A, or even just tent camp, be wary of aggressive mice that have been habituated to human presence, and are known to suicidally stow away and end their lives on a road trip with you!

Hell’s Backbone, Box–Death Hollow, Hog’s Back Ridge

All three of these scary, off-putting, and dangerous-sounding locations are to be found in the same general area in Utah: Highway 12, between Escalante and Boulder. Hog’s Back Ridge is one of those roads that commences in gently undulating curves, lulling you into submission until it’s too late, and you find yourself on a narrow two-lane road, with no shoulder, and sheer dropoffs on each side. It’s incredible how your imagination can create a hell for you when none exists. You can walk a two-by-four plank on the ground without skipping a beat. Raise it 500 feet and all bets are off. So it is with Hog’s Back. Sometimes it’s just best to keep your eyes on the road, for a number of reasons.

Hell’s Backbone follows the same rules as above, though not quite as steering wheel-grippingly tense.  Consistent curves lull you into a hypnotic trance until around a corner, a fine ribbon of asphalt leads you over a one-lane bridge. This bridge has a three-foot-high guardrail on each side, though I surmise its only function is to provide structural support as you cross over a 1,500-foot canyon. We stopped our truck on an earlier trailer-less road trip at the entrance to the bridge, and walked our dog across. No one came or passed us in either direction. Devilishly strange?

Box–Death Hollow. I just threw this in for the name…as far as I know! We discovered an awesome campground there one year with unlimited firewood left for us, no fee at that time, no other campers, and a creek tinkling around our tent site to lull us to sleep. I suppose this was payback for the harrowing drive to discover it. Thinking back on it, I must again say, “Devilishly strange.”

Bodie & Bodie Masonic Roads

We’ve sought out and visited the magical old ghost mining town of Bodie, nestled in the hills off California 395 on Highway 270. The drive is 10 miles on pavement and, depending on the season and state of the road, three more miles on the edge of 4WD. The altitude in town is nearly 8,500 feet, so expect very changeable weather. There are two ways into Bodie, and the Masonic Road is much rockier and somewhat longer. In a fit of adventure-seeking insanity, we attempted to reach the ghost town one winter day, despite warnings that the road “may be impassible due to snow.” Adventure always comes to those who are willing to cross the fence into lunatic land. We were lucky to get away from there before the spirits of the miners claimed our souls. The town of Bodie lies in situ, frozen in time, and it is worth the visit to walk streets that carried the feet of 100,000 aspirants of fortune, and stare into windows revealing stories of their lives. Smoke seems to emanate from chimneys, the sounds of laughter and music blend with the wind’s passage across rooftops. All about you the streets give the impression that just before you rounded the corner, they were there.

This is an eerie spot, and many claim the often troubled winds echo the insatiable cries of condemned spectral seekers of their always-elusive gold.

Drive-a-haulic, 5-minute high-speed dizzying video of the drive into Bodie Ghost Town

California SR 99 & Highway 108: Sonora Pass

There are a number of routes across the Sierras, and Highway 108, a southern east–west transit point, lies between Modesto, at the intersection of State Road 99, and Bridgeport, Highway 395. SR 99, incidentally, runs vertically down the center of California, and, despite its wide, flat, straight layout, is listed as the most deadly highway in America. Over the past five years there have been over 62 fatal accidents per 100 miles of the 400-mile stretch of highway. We try to avoid this route at all costs, which is not a good lead-in to Highway 108.

20-car crash on Highway 99

In a narrow band of seasons, driving a car on 108 presents no problems other than exercising steering wheel spinning like a Las Vegas roulette wheel. The highway takes you up to an elevation of 9,624 feet, one of the highest mountain roads in California. Switchbacks and hairpin turns are extremely numerous. There are up to 26% grades in some sections! Signs post warning restrictions on trucks and RVs to avoid traveling this highway. Each time we’ve taken this route, we’ve seen those warned vehicles trapped in hairpin turns, traffic stuck behind or being routed around them—warning signs are for others, after all. It’s messy when the center of a long vehicle sits on the pinnacle of a curve, seesawing and preventing the front and rear of the rig from moving. It can take hours to jack up the mass and clear the intersection.

RV pinned on a sharp curve

If this is your rig, it will go down into the nightmare log book. If you plan on traveling on this gem of a road, weather often closes it down from November to May. If you exit the highway near Bridgeport, do a Google search for hot springs and take a free soak of a lifetime. One hot spring sits directly above the town with stunning views out across the valley. We enjoyed a winter snow camp adjacent to the springs one year, attaining such core body heat from lengthy soaks that we walked naked in the moonlight through snowdrifts, steam billowing around our bodies, blocking out starlight around us.

Travertine Hot Springs

 

Artifacts, Hulks, Ruins, Relics, Rubble, Remains, Remnants….

 

Arizona Route 66

Route 66, the “Mother Road,” as it is affectionately named, was officially decommissioned in 1984, but still clings to life in fits and starts across eight states and three time zones. What once was a major transportation artery across America from Chicago to Los Angeles, providing fuel and sustenance to travelers in oasis stops, now harbors ghosts of its past. Ruth and I simply can’t resist the magnetic pull of abandoned kitscheterias, trinket shops, gas stations, and cafes, providing a fresh marquee for graffiti and social commentary.

Meteor City Trading Post
Twin Arrows Cafe and Trading Post

When we cross fenced barriers, open broken doors, and step across rubble-strewn entranceways, we hear voices echoing in time.

Abandoned Twin Arrows interior

Around us are the artifacts of a not-too-distant past, once discarded in the American dream of rapid interstate transportation, that stimulate reflective awakening and pining for a simpler time. The adventure of discovering unique food, lodging, and inhabitants exclusive to the region faded away from the Mother Road like upstart children grown out and away from the old ways.

There is a move afoot to restore much of this once grand road, and it is all not driven by commerce. Two-lane Route 66 traverses barren country, connecting small towns and historical, geographical, and geological points of interest. We hunger to escape the highway of mundane, ordinariness, mediocrity of chain stores and restaurants—mind-numbing mall uniformity—exchanging comfort for quirky, off-base stimulation.

 

 

While ruin-spelunking we discovered some elegant graffiti conceived by a poetic peripatetic traveler with the moniker of Boots, who states on her Instagram page, “I write poetry while traveling, photographing, and spray painting my poems in abandoned places.” She, like many others, has left her mark on the canvas of remnants and ruins, to breathe art and awakening form to ephemeral spirits within deserted places.

 

Our stopping point along a multi-week progress along the Little Colorado River brings us to Homolovi State Park, where we continue our exploration of a chain of archaic indigenous peoples’ habitations. Petroglyphs, relics, rubble, and remnants of primeval lives lay scattered about partially excavated mounds of former thriving communities.

Homolovi II excavation of two rooms that were two floors high. 1200 rooms in total. Pottery shards left by visitors on room divider wall
Homolovi I partial excavation site. Previously two stories with 700 rooms. Unexcavated rooms behind.
Homolovi petroglyphs
Eagle or thunderbird
Hopi hide stripping/cleaning stone
Hopi loom weaving stick hole
Visitor collected and NOT TAKEN pottery shards

Messages—graffiti, if you will—abound from the past telling stories we strive to decipher. New American immigrants, explorers, and trailblazers “discovered” the ancient petroglyphs and, in kind, added their own “tags,” memorializing the primordial urge to proclaim, “We were here!”

European rock art 1880 or ’90
European immigrant rock art tag
Modern terra-ephemeral petroglyph

It appears quite clear that images of animals, humans, and nature, so carefully pecked into ancient desert varnish-baked rock faces, are not all about life’s essentials, or to simply make our mark, but an enduring expression of passionate art. For this reason, I am drawn to these symbolic voices from the past, for they are OUR declaration: “We were here, we are here, and we will be here.”

 

Campground Characters

 

When you nose into any campground you pass through a veil of probability. There are multiple layers of consideration: location; privacy; facilities; feng shui of view; positioning of solar if necessary; proximity to hiking, biking, entertainment, re-provisioning; ease of ingress and egress; and—high on the list if you are full-timing—what characters will you encounter? Will people sequester themselves in front of flat screens and closed doors, or will there be an atmosphere of welcoming inquisitiveness and interest? Let’s consider the latter!

A few days before Christmas, we returned to a spot in Arizona that we discovered a few years ago on a summer trip. At that time we had arrived late in the afternoon and the earlier temperatures in the triple digits were quickly easing back, leaving only pesky flies to linger until they disappeared into obscurity with the night breezes. Scores of campsites spread out across the desert around us were bookmarked by several volcanic rock piles inscribed with glyphs scratched by ancient desert dwellers. No water, electricity, or tank dumping was available, though spotless pit toilets and sun shelter provided some civil relief in this remote spot. No human habitation was present. The silence was eerie.

Our new visit awakened this remembered lay of the land, but with a much altered attendance. RVs and tents were sparsely scattered across the landscape and we trolled to an appropriate site that would meet our above-mentioned criteria. No sooner had I deployed the telescoping ladder to raise our solar panels—capturing the maximum winter sun—than a request emanated from the far side of the Airstream, asking about our solar capability. Standing before me, a tall, lanky, bright-eyed, white-haired, and pony-tailed “Russell” welcomed us to the campground, and we ambled over to the concrete picnic bench to spend the next hour free-flow chatting. We discovered he had led an eclectic life. To name a few of his pasts: construction work, National Park ranger, sheriff’s deputy, and custom trailer manufacturer, coupled with a long-standing love of photography, which produces stunning visuals. He mentioned an attribute that we have encountered continually on the road: a desire to be free from the rat race of society, and a need to discover a contemplative lifestyle in solitude. It was during hiking with Russell that we observed another characteristic: he had an uncanny ability to trail walk with the “nose” of a bloodhound, picking out obscure landmarks and signs like a skilled Native American tracker. This was very handy later when we all hiked out to an open-secret quartz field. In the desert, the plethora of saguaro and rocky features can delude—or perhaps entice—you to follow a path of their choosing. One native remarked that, “If you are not respectful, you will be led to your doom!” I smiled at the time…

During a conversation that amalgamated strangers into new friends, another voice requested, “Permission to come aboard!” Michael introduced himself as the owner of an Airstream parked in the nether regions of camp, and quickly we became a party of four, chatting as in a Sunday social. After long hours of conversation, hikes, and adventures with Michael, we discovered in him an extremely thoughtful, kind, and inquisitive nature, questioning the roots of philosophy, history, language, and engagement across a wide spectrum of academic, scholarly, literary, and scientific subjects. We would later self-initiate into our newly created club with the moniker “Boulder Brothers,” having climbed strenuous peaks, as you will see shortly.

It is engaging when polymath conversationalists come to the table with a wealth of life force and history, introducing eclectic topics as flitting moths (real moths, we soon discovered, emerged in force at the moment of sunset to harass us in the crepuscular light). Russell had spent quite some time here and familiarized us with the lay of the land and local flora and fauna. He mentioned that he had climbed the nearby mountain with a tiny hut on its crest, which for reference I will call Painted Rock Mountain. Michael and I seized upon the possibility that we could challenge ourselves to this initiation and immediately made a climb date three days hence.

The following morning, upon opening the door to greet the day, we immediately took stock of a gift left by night visitors on our door mat: kit fox poop. The gauntlet of retaliation was held high, but restraint stayed our hands to allow forgiveness to seize the moment. The next day, I went out to put on my hiking boots and quickly noted that one shoe had the laces carefully chewed off down to the boot tongue, leaving laces in situ on the door mat.

There was no doubt as to the perpetrator. We were warned that the resident kit foxes had divided up the campsites into fiefdoms, and after split-second mental conflict it seemed appropriate that a token of receipt of their mischievous presence was in order. I asked Michael if he had any rodent sticky traps, and true to what we learned was very careful foresight, he pulled a pair out of the recesses of a well-stocked-and-stowed hatch. I made a mental note to randomly put him to the test with requests for obscure items and see if in turn, they could be produced: perhaps a venetian blind duster, maybe a breech loader musket, or more practically, a hands-free automatic, electric, vertical, nonstick, easy, quick, egg cooker.

Night fell, and a 6-inch by 3-inch radically adhesive tray lay in the exact spot where the fox left its calling card. The following morning, the tray was gone. Somewhere, either a three-legged fox or one with monocular vision returned to its den in a sticky situation. Another night passed, and the intrepid fox saw our hand and raised it, leaving a little brown gift on top of our tiny one-inch by three-inch outdoor light controller that we’d balanced on the edge of the three-by-six-foot camp table: this was no mislaid aberration. I decided to call the hand, leaving another sticky rectangle, and in the dark, forgetting its presence, proceeded to step on it myself! Humbled, after an hour of scraping and wiping with the help of Goof Off cleaner (thanks again to Michael’s cornucopia of seemingly endless supplies), I was not daunted. The trap was re-laid and this time, location duly noted. The following morning…trap was gone and no more attacks ensued. Fox and human: all in.

Speaking of daunting, that tiny mountain crest hut awaited the earlier promises that we, the intrepid hikers, had made. It’s funny how you can look at an object—our mountain in this case—and distance seems to smooth out the intended path of travel.

In this case, a seemingly easier diagonal route morphed into a volcanic rock-and-boulder slog of epic proportions. An hour and a half migrated into two hours, and our vision of skipping along the crest to our destination receded into the distance like a trick movie shot. Hiking acumen was superseded by perseverance though, and we were able to maneuver rock by careful rock, circuitously up and down to avoid having to crawl on all fours, and—having reached a point 50 feet below our target tin hut—scrambled up to the ridge top vista.

A half-closed door covered the maw of an empty ten-by-ten tin building that at one time held electrical equipment supporting the remains of a metal tower, downed and disassembled, covered in ground wire.

Graffitoed names and dates covered the shack’s exterior and interior dating back a least to the time of its active use, in the 1940s and 50s. Hooked to the wall, a torn plastic bag held yellowing notebooks containing the logged names and places of origin of all those daring to make the climb. We felt like eagles returning to our aerie, drank copious amounts of water, and plotted our return route, which would be a more direct immediately downhill attack that had, from a distance, looked impossibly difficult from below.

The peripatetic lifestyle often attracts those who have fallen down as well as away from rooted living, and down the road from us, it was pointed out by more than a few, “those tent campers” were in a long-term bivouac. They stabled at least two dogs tied to their concrete table that lived in continual whining and barking discontent, and kept their vehicle hood open to run wiring from their ever-draining battery to various electronic devices. During much of the day they would sit in the front seat and listen to music amidst clouds of sweet-smelling spirit-inspiring smoke. Our campground hosts nodded knowingly in their direction to describe their comings and goings in coordination, they assumed, with the monthly receipt of welfare checks. It is easy to categorize people through superficial observations, but I have experienced, at times, engagements with remarkable people and have heard it said that we may encounter “angels disguised as man.” Charity and civility is a watchword in our world.

Across a creosote scrabble, through sandy and rocky terrain, a 1960s “old school” trailer with vintage wooden ceilings and walls, and original period draperies, marked the campsite of Lisa and Kris, two lovely women from a town listed by the Smithsonian as, “One the best small towns to visit in 2016”: Mancos, Colorado. A sort of unspoken rule here, in the wilds of wanderlust, is that an open door is an invitation to request a conversation. We ambled over and announced our presence. Chairs and upturned buckets were commandeered as seats, and several hours of spirited mutual discovery ensued. Both Kris and Lisa had spent their lifetimes in the search for, and dance with, joie de vivre through rafting, animal husbandry, hiking, ranching, adventuring, and shared, as we sat, a mutual love of moving south with the winter. Both women appeared to be in their mid-to-late 60s, and wore the natural beauty of a lifetime of outdoor life, creased, well-weathered features falling naturally into long-laid smile and laugh lines, eyes sparkling with the wisdom of dancing to the music of following their own calling.

Later, a convocation of three previous Painted Rock Mountain climbers gathered, looking out and up, a devilish plan brewing. Since climbing punishment was clearly not sufficient, torture would be the action plan of the near future. We wondered, in a tornado of increasing lack of sensibility and growing mischievousness, how it would look from below to plant solar-powered lighting on the top of our prized peak to frustrate the wonder of future observers and lead them to ask, “What the heck is up there?!”

Moonlight over Painted Rock is much stronger than L.E.D.

A lonely flickering light at mountain’s top here would not necessarily be an aberration, as this is strange country. Much has been written about UFOs and mysterious lights in the sky in this region, compounded by close proximity to an Air Force base. Nightly, bright yellow flares illuminate the sky to light up the landscape for miles, and planes circle continuously at all altitudes, their blinking lights competing with the Milky Way and bright star canopy. We speculate the reason for it all: Are they references for targeting? No sound of gunnery can be heard. Perhaps these lights illuminate a hunting border patrol as we are so close to Mexico? If that was the case, the flares would be appropriately located and they are often off near the direction of Phoenix, whose light can be seen bleeding over the tops of the mountains to the northeast. We hope our pinpoint of light can stand the test of the contrast of curiosity. The planning is stayed by the influx of high winds, dark clouds and rain on the horizon.

After the purchase of some cheap solar-powered lights at Harbor Freight, we tested their visibility across the easy-to-test campground distance and came to the realization that our plan of placing a light or lights on our Painted Rock mountaintop, two miles away as the crow flies, was, alas, too advanced for the technology at hand.

There are other characters here, yes! Circ (“as in ‘circus,’” he says) and Cindi roll in, and all heads follow their large fifth wheel trailer pulled not by a heavy duty pickup, or by a four-wheel rear-axle “dually,” but a full blown Volvo tractor trailer cab that is normally seen hauling freight along our highways. As we soon discover, they have big plans, both being avid outdoors people, particularly mountain bikers: they are in the process of custom-building a trailer to match the magnitude of their automatic transmission, two 250-gallon diesel fuel tank behemoth. Their design plans are no holds, no weight, no amenity barred (including a wine cellar!), with such a vehicle to pull it. They invited us up into the driver’s seat to get the “lay of the land,” and I must say, the view was better in most ways than our truck. I always thought semi-trucks were daunting, but sitting in their cab changed my opinion…but…Ruth and I smiled at the thought of pulling our relatively tiny Airstream with such a rig. In a truck like this, you find your best fuel price, and drive 5,000 miles before refilling (we thought 450 miles in ours is great!).

So if you think Circ and Cindi are great alliterative sounding words, the story that travels with them develops the character. Circ was not his birth name, but when he fell in love with a woman of the circus he acquired it by fiat of physical acumen, particularly among his colleagues as a contractor, as he could climb ceiling joists like a tightrope walker. The term head-over-heels would be very appropriate in this case. His paramour was a high-wire walker and Circ, driven by love (the best and fastest way to learn), jumped up on the wire and learned to walk it in amazingly fast time, graduating to riding a bike along the thin strand. Soon his rapidly developing skills began to be noticed by other performers that had acquired their abilities through a much more laborious pathway. When one of them got in his face to demand that he never use their act, followed by finding the love of his life in bed with a performer (I’d like to think it was the clown), Circ left the circus for good, taking only his moniker as a reminder. He met Cindi, who complements his passion like figure skaters’ synchronous ballet movements. She holds numerous mountain biking championships to include 6X Xterra World Champion, and 11X Xterra National Champion, and is well known in the circuits.

Circ on front left

Circ and Cindi are riding the road to everywhere, and their love for adventure, biking—and did I mention fine wine?—lay ahead of them. Two more examples of the wanderlust inhaling and exhaling in our tiny magic campground kingdom here.

Marshall pulled up in his pickup beside our Airstream with five(!) cute kids, to say that he and his wife admired our rig. A brief conversation revealed that they had been on the road for a year, leaving the rat race of office and corporate politics in Kentucky. It seems they were showing pictures of the wonders of America to their children and quickly realized the shallowness of that one-dimensional experience. Selling home and most possessions, they purchased an old Airstream to restore it but the time factor just didn’t match their desire to be free and on the road. They then purchased a fifth wheel and are immersed in non-virtual reality, home schooling their kids as they follow the seasons. We are seeing more and more young people who are chucking the restraints of daily commutes, nine-to-five or, more likely these days, ten- to twelve-hour days, pushing papers or electrons across an office intranet. Accessibility of the internet across the country is beginning to blast into America and the world’s mindset that it is not necessary to sit in a cubicle with a supervisor to verify completion of work. Like Ruth, Marshall’s wife is successfully employed and also maintains as much integrity of office interface and communication as any of their colleagues. Work is required: work is completed with excellence, maybe not with as much “office watercooler” social time but social media being what is, thanks to the strong remaining tether of internet, equally engaged.

As I write, a vehicle pulls in next to us that I have never seen before, and I’m heading out to get the scoop…it’s a vehicle a little larger than a camper van, made by the company Hymer out of Germany.

We now share neighbors from Holland, Johan and Loes, who shipped their camper van to Canada, crossed into the U.S. to travel each year during their “dark time,” and store it in California’s Central Valley when they are away. They benefit not only from the warm sunshine and dryness of the Southwest but also the friendly euro-to-dollar exchange rate. We spent several hours learning of their travels each year and sharing cultural exchanges. Holland has much to speak for it in cultural and social support systems, things sadly lacking in America and diminishing every day.

I’m pulling the plug on this conversation for now, as it would be so easy to explore the daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly tide, cycle, and stories of those who live, love, and wander the roads, discovering joy and adventure. Let there be no doubt, wanderlust is alive and well, and the richness of life is humbling. So much to be thankful for!

Ajo, Sonoran Desert, and The Border Patrol

We barreled down the long desert highway, wipers straining against wind and rain gusts, holding tight to the center of the road against the onslaught of semis streaming from Mexico, our 8-foot wide trailer on a 12-foot wide road meeting oncoming truck blasts with unwavering tenacity. Through rain-streaked windows we perceived millions of Saguaros jutting up from the verdant landscape, their protuberant arms poised in an anthropomorphic interpretive stance.

Saguaro National Park East, ca. 1935.
Saguaro vista

 

 

 

 

 

 

Your mind plays tricks on you in the desert. You begin to see Saguaro (for the neophyte, pronounced: “soo are o”) speaking to you, telling stories; faces appear; dances and cactus orgies beguile and seduce you with flimflam…wait…your head swivels against the gyroscopic need to stay in the lane-lines…the desert speaks to you.

Howdy Folks…nyuck, nyuck!
Rock Climbing Saguaro
Saguaro dragon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Waltzing Saguaros

This is no barren habitat, for your mind hears the call to join in symbiotic dance. Saguaro, so abundant here, live in balance with the earth through a lifeline much longer than ours. Single 15- to 20-foot high stems don’t grow their recognizable arms until they reach the age of around 95-100, and those with five arms have developed until at least the age of 200, and stand up to 45-70 feet tall. The Saguaro is not only a master of disguise and trickery but also of water engineering and conservation, saving liquid deep inside its core during rainy periods and expanding and contracting as needed.

 

White knuckles ease up on the steering wheel and change in color to a flushed blush as the speed limit signs signal our entry into the small town of Ajo, just a short distance from the Mexican border. We suck in the sights at 25 mph: Chevron gas station, colorfully adorned adobe homes brightly painted and many with unique bas-relief art, Mexican Insurance, sheriff’s SUV, closed gas station, Mexican Insurance, closed restaurant, Border Patrol SUV, Mexican Insurance, laundromat, Border Patrol SUV, Mexican insurance, large grocery—probably the only one in town—Border Patrol again; okay, two open restaurants, Shell gas station next to our RV park destination. Something is different about the town despite the high percentage of law and border enforcement, and it will become clear upon the ensuing day’s adventures. The mysteriousness of this town will be revealed in an upcoming blog post.

We travel south toward the heart of the Sonoran Desert, unique in the Americas for its flora and fauna, into Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument to a secret spot recommended by an old woman in the Ajo Chamber of Commerce who, once upon a time, worked in the monument as a tour guide. We followed her instructions: “Go to mile marker X, past a wire fence, turn left, drive three miles on a rough dirt road, and prepare for a two-mile hike along a seasonal wash into a 19th century cattle homestead in the middle of a stunningly endless Saguaro vista.” Bumping along the dirt trackway, a strange break in the natural perspective caught our eye, a twenty-foot-high pole with a 360-degree infrared camera, long-range telecommunication capability, and a sign below beseeching those “in need” to push the button to report  “assistance” or observation of those who need Border Patrol ministration and deliverance. We took this to mean identifying illegal immigrants passing through, in need of Border Patrol rescue to find their way across the desolate desert into the “safety” of America’s arms.

Our hike brought us to the ruins of the homestead, and through this and immediately adjacent to it was the obscure, unpublished spot in the middle of the seasonal wash. We discovered metates formed in pre-history by Native Americans who ground the pods of mesquite trees for food with manos, or grinding stones, that left circular impressions over great periods of time.

Metates in wash circa 1000+ years
Metate as would be seen by native American using mano

 

 

 

 

 

Metate with a quarter for size reference.

 

 

 

 

 

I found one such grind hole and felt myself transported in time to a moment where the heavy weight of a child burdened my back, sun beating down on my thick work-burdened body, a daydream to be shucked off to return thankfully to the present. These people, however, knew no borders. The land was theirs to be worked for survival and sustenance.

Driving to and from our magic hidden-in-plain-view destination, we passed though the Border Patrol check station on the lonely road between the town of Ajo and Mexico. A warning one mile before arriving prepares drivers for the eventual examination ahead. 65, 55, 45, 35, 25, 15, and 10 mph speed warnings across speed bumps into a narrow “cattle chute” to the waiting officer was enough to scare any would-be illegal alien into admitting guilt before the officer’s interrogation.

US Border Patrol check point near Ajo, Arizona

It was, we assumed, a racial profile interrogation in stages. Ruth’s blonde hair and blue eyes and my Anglo looks passed the superficial examination we presumed, but those outside these standards would have to face other more stringent tests such as vehicle searches, papers, visas, and other arcane standards. We surmised these Border Patrol officers differentiated those seeking the “Give me your tired, your poor…” Statue of Liberty covenant that drew millions seeking safety and promise in freedom, from those south-of-the-border illegal miscreants, crossing on foot, lacking the price of a ship steerage ticket. How many in our great country can claim with pride our family’s immigration story? What made them legal other than a desire to find freedom and opportunity on our shores?

We drove through the nexus of the dark side of the line between perdition and promise. Ruth rolled down the window to greet the twenty-something Border Patrol officer who asked us, “How it was going?” We responded with a flippant colloquial quip to certify our command of the English language, hence “probable citizenship” and were on our way, through false trial to an unknown uncertain security ahead.

It certainly is funny how a routine Border Patrol stop can make you feel like a suspect, because you are. It is a fine line of insecurity that gets challenged. We all take our “American way” of freedom for granted. I’m reminded of the time I worked as a contractor for the US Embassy refugee program in Thailand during the Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese diaspora. I participated in countless refugee examinations, culminating in the final INS interview that determined “go or no-go” to America. Not only were those interviewed stressed and bewildered, but it felt as if I was on a roller coaster ride out of control. Many of the “grand inquisitors” were kindly and supportive, but a very few exhibited the megalomania, ego, and power-hungry sadism that is raising its head in government these days. One person in particular took great pride in breaking down the interviewed with his appearance in cowboy hat, fancy boots, and cute young refugee women who hung on his arm like remoras on a shark. He would examine families’ ear lobes for differentiation and look for cracks in their stories to exploit. He was greatly feared, and he played on it. Memories of these moments cross my mind every time I am confronted by those who walk the razor’s edge with their given power.

Now with these thoughts resounding in my head, we drove on past the check point and soon, looming ahead, breaking the stunning beauty of our desert panorama, a giant edifice appeared on the horizon like the black monolith in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. We slowed down to identify what could be placed in such an unlikely spot, like dropping a Manhattan office building in the middle of nowhere. The United States Border Patrol moniker shone back at us in huge imposing letters framed by shiny steel and glass, and a backdrop of a hundred or more official vehicles ready for action.

US Border Patrol Station 3 near Ajo, Arizona

This was a giant middle finger on the landscape, paid for by the US taxpayer, probably under the auspices of George W. Bush. Every few minutes a Border Patrol vehicle would pass us at great speed—who in power needs to follow the rules of the masses? We looked at each other in wonder. How could this desolate place have such an overwhelming border enforcement presence? Okay, yes, there are the illegals, drug dealers, opportunists, and such seeking to suck the nourishing life force and deprive the opportunities of everyday you and me but—whoa! This was huge. And very soon, as we traveled on to our next destination, we quickly discovered more of these fortress-like structures within close proximity to each other…and they want to build a wall along 2,000 miles of the US/Mexico border..? As Pogo once spoke in the comic strip of yesteryear, “We have found the enemy, and it is us!”

Oh! Did I mention the Sonoran Desert in the title of this blog? This place is truly one of the wonders of North America, supporting flora and fauna unique to this region. If you look up the definition of desert, you will find a completely different meaning than imagined of this place. As I write, the sweet scent of creosote bush (not asphalt) wafts through the air. Bird sounds are everywhere. A brilliant red cardinal, overwintering here, just landed on a nearby cactus, building sustenance for the long flight north in spring. Yesterday’s dog walk put us close in proximity to a pack of yipping coyotes, and that of a day earlier to large family of javelinas (or more properly, peccaries) that look like small pigs.

Wild Javalinas foraging for food

Colorful butterflies flutter near branches of desert willow, near shaded hummingbirds sipping nectar from cactus flowers. Bees are abundant. The occasional kit fox crosses sandy trackways created by countless animal foraging. Evidence of crawling creatures is found in the tarantula and snake holes under shaded desert marigold, globe mallow, and brittlebush. Life is abundant and lives in the scale and scope of evolution from a much earlier geologic time when this region transformed from sea to savanna, to ice cap, to forest, and eventual desert. The timeline is unimaginable to us, who view life in the perspective of around 100 years. North America formed between 1.5 and 1 billion years ago from a planet that is around six billion, so let’s do the math, eh? That’s 15 million lifetimes. If we could speed up time like that simulated in the movie The Time Machine, change would boggle our minds, as matter materialized and dematerialized in a vertigo of imagination. Nothing is as it was, yet all share the same common materials recycled again and again, infinitely.

We had the opportunity to touch a meteorite displayed at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum just outside of Tucson, predating the formation of our sun and solar system, long before the earth was just a mass of glowing gases not yet congealed. It was composed of known elements, of course. I started to ask so many questions. Where did the water that sustains life come from on a planet originally composed of fiery gasses? And on and on. More about one of the most amazing museums I have ever visited in a later blog. I am asking a new question now: Will there ever come a time when borders and politics no longer separate people and opportunities from each other? Will we ever come to recognize that we all come from the same “stuff?” That when we view our earth from space, all matter is equally bound together in symbiotic embrace: viewed from the stars, are we not all conjoined elements?

Needless to say, we are in love with this place, rich in diversity and living wonder. Life is both abundant and endangered, some species are only to be found here in remote and protected areas. As Ruth quoted in an earlier blog post from Marshal South: “The Desert! Either you will love it, or you will hate it. If you hate it, you will fly from it, and never wish to see its face again. If you love it, it will hold you and draw you as will no other land on earth.”

Come join us!

 

 

 

 

For more photos, check out our Instagram posts: @LyfsArt and @BenMacri52