Archive for February, 2009

on the road to arizona   14 comments

Posted at 3:27 pm in birds,california

Note: I’ve moved this blog to a new location as it suddenly started to have problems with navigation and the comment feature (comments no longer displaying). Please visit the new location to read this and more recent posts. Sorry for the inconvenience. – Bev

After spending the previous day resting and exploring in the Ridgecrest area, it was time to move on. My goal was to arrive at our final destination in southeast Arizona on November 15th, so two more days of travel ahead of us. I can probably speak for Sabrina in saying that we were both tired of being on the road.

Before departing from Ridgecrest, we stopped to eat breakfast in a park on the east side of town. Almost as soon as we sat down in a tree-shaded area, we were accosted by an unkindness of ravens. In fact, all of the trees in the parks were filled with similar groups that croaked and kraaked at us. The boldest dropped down onto the nearby pedestal barbecues, or to the ground to march up to make their demands known. Clearly, they expected some form of tribute. Sabrina was slightly intimidated by their aggressive behaviour. She would turn her head to look elsewhere as they cocked their heads and ogled her from a few feet away. Unfortunately, that just encouraged them to move in closer. She would then quickly turn her head back to see how far they had advanced. The closest might hop back a step or two, but soon marched forward a few more paces.

I came across several references to Common Ravens in the Mojave region. Apparently, there has been a great increase in their numbers over the past couple of decades, with large numbers of birds hanging out in urban areas or around dump sites. There is concern over risk of raven predation on desert tortoises in the western Mojave Desert. They do seem both plentiful and aggressive, so I would think they could pose a threat to any small creature.

After breakfast, we packed up and headed south to catch 395, where we promptly hit a patch of road construction and sat in the van long enough to experience how quickly it could be transformed into a Mojave-style easy-bake oven. Continuing south, we passed through the village of Red Mountain, which seems to be home to an eclectic mix of found-art creatives. About the middle of town stands what I’m guessing to be a Yucca bearifolia.

Leaving Red Mountain behind, we continued south towards Kramer Junction where we would pick up Hwy 58 to head east toward Barstow. Just before that junction, there is a massive solar concentrator installation. It can’t really be photographed from the ground, so refer to the above link, or google “Kramer Junction solar concentrator”. As in my last two posts about the Searles Valley with its mineral extraction, and the military weapons ranges, etc.. at China Lake near Ridgecrest, it’s impossible to ignore how the deserts of the southwest are becoming a hotbed of industrial activity — without doubt, to the detriment of the considerable flora and fauna. For a more complete background on this topic, do check out this and other related posts on Chris Clarke’s Coyote Crossing.

To an outsider such as myself, it was somewhat jarring to find the ubiquitous assortment of service vehicles, filled with survey or work crews, scattered almost everywhere as I crossed the Mojave. I can’t help but wonder if all of this activity is flying under the radar screens of the many as….well….the common perception of the desert is that it is “just a big empty space, isn’t it?” I admit to having experienced a brief twinge of that notion during the first day of my first visit to Arizona about thirteen years ago. However, that illusion soon melted away as I began to appreciate the incredible biodiversity of the desert. In fact, after visiting the desert several times over the years, I can say without hesitation, that deserts are among the most fascinating and active places on earth — this from someone who has done quite a few surveys of flora and fauna, and a good deal of nature photography, in a wide range of vastly different habitats.

On this day, my plan was to drive through to stay at a motel in Lake Havasu. I would have preferred to camp the last leg of our trip to southeast Arizona, but Sabrina and I were really hitting the wall as far as energy was concerned. We were now reduced to just driving, sleeping and trying to find some kind of edibles to see us through to our final destination. Also, I was beginning to experience a lot of fatigue – both physical and psychological. One of the most difficult things to deal with was the growing sense of isolation that I felt while traveling. I have touched on this a bit in previous posts. Traveling alone with my dog, I couldn’t help but notice that almost everywhere I went, others traveled as pairs, or with friends. At rest stops, they would get out and wander around, picnic, switch drivers, and then carry on. The only solitary travelers seemed to be the long haul truckers, and even many of them were traveling with their spouses. At the above rest stop along I-40, a trucker climbed out of his cab, gave his wife a hand down, and then lifted their white toy poodle to the ground. Such was actually a fairly common sight throughout this trip.

No doubt, the following observations have to do with my overly sensitized state, but I seemed to encounter signs of “couple-dom” in every direction that I looked. At Trona Pinnacles, it was the message in stones. At this rest stop, it was a debarked tree trunk (above) upon which were scribbled countless proclamations of so-and-so loves so-and-so. Further along from this rest stop, there were many big cupid’s hearts and initials, formed of arrangements of black volcanic rock, on every little hillside facing the highway. Recently, I’ve read the writings of other bereaved men and women who have described much the same feeling — that after the death of a partner, it appears as though the world is the territory of couples and families, and not so much for those who must, or choose to, journey through life alone. Such does seem to be the case. I suppose that those of us who are forced to carry on alone, must search for our own icons and messages. Among all the tree graffiti, there was one that seemed meant to speak to every traveler.

From Lake Havasu, I traveled to Tucson, and then on to the southeast region of Arizona, where I have been spending the winter. My next few posts will be about some of the places I have hiked and photographed nature. In a few weeks, I’ll be leaving to gradually make my way back north to Ontario and then probably on to Nova Scotia. I’m hoping that the weather will be a little more cooperative. After a winter of good food and plenty of hiking, Sabrina is in much better condition and should be up to doing more hiking than on the trip south. More about southeast Arizona and my rather nebulous trip plans coming up very soon.

Written by bev on February 21st, 2009

strangers in a strange land – part 2   3 comments

Posted at 12:55 pm in california,geology,memory

Note: I’ve moved this blog to a new location as it suddenly started to have problems with navigation and the comment feature (comments no longer displaying). Please visit the new location to read this and more recent posts. Sorry for the inconvenience. – Bev

After our aborted attempt to visit to Trona Pinnacles, I turned the van north up Hwy 178 to continue our explorations. Just a little up the road, I could see the most amazing rock formation — massive gray plates of rock thrust vertically as they swarmed over a great lump of a hill, putting me in mind the dorsal plates of a Stegosaurus. I cruised slowly by, searching for a safe place to park so that I could photograph the formation. However, as happens so often when you find something of great interest, there was no turnout or even a slice of shoulder to pull onto. In fact, there were “no parking” signs all along the road for some distance. I never mind walking a mile or two for a photo, but with it being so hot, I didn’t want to leave Sabrina in the van while I hiked back, and felt the roadway was too dangerous to bring her along. I might have tried a “drive-by shooting” if I could have poked along and braked for a second or two, but the traffic along this stretch of road was, to put it mildly, a little nuts — big transport trucks and squads of fat white pick-ups zooming back and forth from points on the Searle Dry Lake flats (seen above), and one of a couple of plant installations (see below — click on images for larger views). Perhaps some day I’ll have a chance to revisit and photograph the formation on a quiet Sunday morning. In the meantime, you’ll have to imagine a rocky hill that resembles a great sleeping Stegosaurus.

I continued along the highway which skirts the west side of the lake bed, past processing plants, and the towns of Argus and Trona. At a rest area across from the above installation, I found a pavillion displaying a number of posters explaining the geology and extraction methods employed at the lake bed, and others of the mineral products processed at the plants. I can only say that the scale of these operations is huge, and yet my guess is that similar and probably much larger operations must exist in such deserts around the world. In any case, I found myself feeling like an alien life form, emerging from my land roving vehicle, into some place where I seemed invisible to the ant-like residents who tore back and forth between the colony and their food source.

While in the pavillion, I studied a large map of the Panamint Valley, thinking to continue north to explore further, but decided to turn back and take care of a few things back in Ridgecrest as Sabrina and I would be pushing onward to Arizona in the morning. On the way back south along 178, we passed areas of sculptured blue hills that resembled scaled-down versions of Blue Basin in John Day Fossil Beds. Once again, I was reminded of how all places, all thoughts, all objects, are connected, to one degree or another.

Written by bev on February 13th, 2009

strangers in a strange land – part 1   11 comments

Posted at 5:06 pm in california,geology,loss,sabrina

Sabrina at the entrance area to Trona Pinnacles

Note: I’ve moved this blog to a new location as it suddenly started to have problems with navigation and the comment feature (comments no longer displaying). Please visit the new location to read this and more recent posts. Sorry for the inconvenience. – Bev

After the previous day of very hard driving, Sabrina and I slept far beyond our normal rising time. Fumbling in the darkness of the motel room, I pulled back the heavy curtains just a little, then swiftly recoiled, practically blinded by sunlight reflecting off every hard surface in the courtyard. Later, as Sabrina and I emerged from our room for a morning walk, we must have resembled a pair of moles, squinting and stumbling about for the first minute or so after stepping outdoors. The air felt hot and the light searing, and yet the temperature was probably not exceptionally warm for that location. The problem was “us”. Such are the perils of moving across several climate zones in the space of a few weeks.

Today’s game plan was to get some rest and perhaps play at being tourists for a few hours. The previous morning, I had it in the back of my mind that we might make a detour into Death Valley at some point along our route. However, after several recent experiences with gross miscalculations in time and distance, I had enough good sense not to make such an attempt. Instead, after studying my maps, I decided to drive east into the Searles Valley with the intention of visiting the Trona Pinnacles. After loading up the van with water and food, I attempted to convince Sabrina that this was a worthy adventure. She ignored my words and gazed toward the motel room door. Torn between a shady, air-conditioned room, or the alternative of hopping into our sun-drenched van, it was fairly clear that she wasn’t feeling too enthusiastic about my plan. But, being the good sport that she is, she finally decided to come along for the ride.

Desert Holly (Atriplex hymenelytra) in the Searle Valley region

The trip east from Ridgecrest is short and easy. You pass by some part of the China Lake Naval Weapons Center. Don’t ask what goes on there for I have no idea. The installation seems to consist of several compact buildings baking in a parched valley with a hazy backdrop of mountains beyond.

We soon arrived at the entrance lane to Trona Pinnacles. Sabrina hopped out of the van and immediately began to inspect the rocks and plants while I read the interpretive sign boards. For an explanation of the geology of the pinnacles, see here and here. Turning from the sign, I caught sight of Sabrina carefully sniffing a white-leaved Desert Holly (Atriplex hymenelytra). She has her very own way inspecting plants — tilting her head to one side while studiously running her nose along the edges of leaves. This is a slow and tedious procedure. Her methodology causes me to wonder if she might have been a botanist in a past life. Once finished with her inspection, Sabrina gave me a sidelong “what the heck is this?” glance. I could see she wasn’t impressed with this place. I’m gradually coming to the conclusion that it’s probably not all that surprising that a predominantly black Rough Collie from Canada shouldn’t be enamoured with life on the desert. However, back to the Desert Holly. A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert (Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Press), states that Atriplex, often referred to as saltbush, appears grayish “because they cope with saline soils by secreting excess salt into tiny hairs on the leaf surfaces. The hairs die from high salt concentration, leaving a deposit of salt crystals on the surface that reflects some of the intense light that would otherwise overload the photosynthetic system.” Further, “if water is available, these plants can photosynthesize on the hottest days, when most other plants are stressed and forced to shut down.” (pg 219-220).

Trona Pinnacles, as seen from a distance of about 4 miles

From the interpretive signboard, I could see the vague outline of the Trona Pinnacles wavering mirage-like in the light reflected by the saline sands of the dry lake bed (see above, click on all images for larger views). I felt both an attraction to, and a little uneasiness with, this place. While I had some desire to see the pinnacles up close, at the same time, I was acutely conscious of the intensity of the heat and dryness on this open plain. I scouted the area with my binoculars and saw no other vehicles. Although apprehensive, I decided to start down the road to see how it looked. The signs at the entrance mentioned that the road was passable by two-wheel drive vehicles most times, but could be impassable at others. Soon, the van was banging along over washboard. After the previous day’s expedition to Bodie, Sabrina was quicker and much more insistent with her nudging of my right arm in an attempt to convince me to abandon this mission. I pressed on a little longer, but the road grew increasingly worse.

Not much farther along, I decided to abort our little expedition. Turning the van in an open area next to a set of railway tracks, I caught sight of a sizable fissure in the road, one that could not be seen from the angle we had been traveling. It was wide and deep enough to have easily swallowed one of the van’s tires if I had unwittingly driven into it. I felt a brief jolt of panic as I realized just how serious it could be to find us stranded a few miles into this place — with me thinking more of Sabrina’s safety than of my own. Yes, this was a *bad* idea. If I was doing this trip with Don, I would have little fear. He and I had occasionally had to push or dig our truck out of a hole or rut from time to time. But alone with Sabrina, and in such an unforgiving environment. No. Not on this day. I drove us back up the lane. We would find some other less risky adventure to occupy the remainder of the day.

message in the sand at Trona Pinnacles

Shortly before reaching the entrance, I noticed the above message written in stones arranged on the sand. We got out of the van while I shot a few photos from various angles and distances. The artist in me has always found such ephemeral messages to be of visual interest. However, now they affect me in a different way — one that I am at a loss to explain. Maybe it’s the feeling that I am alone now and such messages are no longer part of my realm. Stepping closer to photograph the stone heart filled with fragments of broken glass (below), I thought, “This is the part of the message meant for me.”

We got back into the van, drove on up the lane and back out onto the highway to continue our exploration of the Searles Valley.

Written by bev on February 7th, 2009

Tagged with , ,

scent of the desert   10 comments

Posted at 12:58 pm in being alone,california

road coming down from Bodie

Note: I’ve moved this blog to a new location as it suddenly started to have problems with navigation and the comment feature (comments no longer displaying). Please visit the new location to read this and more recent posts. Sorry for the inconvenience. – Bev

Upon leaving Bodie, I felt some mild apprehension over the weather. It was cold and the skies looked overcast and threatening. Conditions seemed ripe for at least a little snow. I wasn’t all that sure about the landscape I’d be driving through as I continued south. Looking at the map, it seemed that there might be more mountains ahead — and that turned out to be the case. However, I checked the clock in the van and made a few quick calculations that led me to believe that we’d probably roll up to the motel in Ridgecrest not much after dark. Wrong again. Between the mountainous terrain between here and there, and my eastward trajectory toward the Mountain time zone, my time and distance calculations went out the window.

As the afternoon progressed, I realized that we would be on the road well after dark. That prospect didn’t make me particularly happy as I don’t consider myself to be much of a nighttime driver. However, there wasn’t a lot to do about the situation short of canceling the motel reservation in Ridgecrest, and trying to find somewhere to bunk further north. However, checking my map, it looked like motels might be sparse along this route, especially ones that were “dog friendly”. The weather looked less threatening now, so I decided to try to push on to Ridgecrest.

Round Valley with Mount Tom looming beyond

Despite feeling the need to keep moving, I did stop to stretch my legs and eyes a couple of times. It was at a look-off over Round Valley, with Mount Tom looming beyond, that I caught the unmistakable scent of the desert. As I opened the van door, the familiar odor of dust and certain pollens filled the air, provoking a landslide of memories — of Don and I coming in from long days spent hiking, our hair and clothes dusted with fine red sand and smelling of the desert. The sensation was entirely unexpected and caught me off guard. For a moment, it was as though I was standing next to him once again. At the outset of this journey, I knew that the desert might bring us closer. The feeling was both difficult and welcome.

Soon, we were back on the road, descending into the Owens Valley, with the Inyo Mountains to the east (see below – click on all images for larger views). Now, the road flattened and became straight for long sections. However, as happened at so many other places along the way, there was road construction and lane closings to contend with. I drove onwards, into the dusk, with the setting sun casting a rosy hue over the clouds and mountains. It would be nice to say that the rest of the drive was so pleasant, but that would be stretching the truth. Things got a little hairy further south as the road became more twisted and hilly. Driving in total darkness now, I resorted to my old survival tactic of following a truck that seemed to know where it was going — last used as I tore up the Columbia Gorge in the dark just a few weeks before. Eventually, the truck led us into Ridgecrest. Feeling weary and overwhelmed with aloneness, I asked the motel desk clerk if I could extend my stay to two nights instead of one. In what was to be a rare moment on this journey, I truly felt that I could not push on. Luckily, the room was available, allowing me the chance to crash and burn for a day before resuming the trek onward to Arizona.

Reminder: While on the subject of the desert, be sure to visit the first edition of Carnival of the Arid at Chris Clarke’s Coyote Crossing.

Inyo Mountains east of Owens Valley

Written by bev on February 5th, 2009

a visit to bodie, california   10 comments

Posted at 12:24 pm in california,history

From the outset of this journey, there was never a true “plan” of where it might lead, or when it would end. As I sit here writing this post, I can’t tell you what comes next after I leave southeast Arizona in mid-march. The only certainty is that I have to cross back into Canada by mid-April — that’s the limit for visiting the U.S. without a visa allowing for a longer stay.

As you know from reading earlier posts on this blog, the route that I eventually decided upon was to try to beat the autumn snows by going west to British Columbia, then turning down to cross through Idaho and Washington. With the threat of snow out of the way, I slowed down to spend time along rivers in Oregon and California. By mid-November, the cool rainy weather on the California coast soon drove me east over the Trinity Alps into the central valley, and then further east over the Sierras to cut across the corner of Nevada before continuing onwards into the Mojave desert region of southern California.

Although my plans were always very fluid, there was one particular place that I had hoped to visit along the way and that was the abandoned mining town of Bodie. That choice required taking a route that was somewhat off the beaten path — but then, that was my general rule of thumb in any case — to travel roads where I would encounter very little traffic and few people. On the eleventh of November, I left Carson City, Nevada, taking highway 395, bound for Ridgecrest, California. My intention was to make a side trip up to Bodie, although I knew that would make for a long day of driving. As described in my last post, the weather along that route was looking somewhat chancy. At several points, there were signs denoting highway closures due to snow in the passes at higher elevations. The Bodie Road is seasonal, and subject to closure at the beginning of winter. However, I was in luck on this day. There had been light snow over that range, but not enough to close the road down for the season. Turning through the gates, we traveled the 13 or so miles up to the town which lies at an elevation of about 8,400 feet. The final three or four miles were pretty washboardy. Sabrina stood with her head pushed into the space between the front seats, lifting and dropping my right arm with her nose — her usual strategy to discourage me from driving on bumpy roads. I told her to try to hang on as it wasn’t much further.

Rounding the last bend in the steadily climbing road, I was surprised to find quite a number of buildings spread out across a large, gently dipping hollow between the surrounding rounded peaks. In the past, I’d seen photos shot at Bodie, but they were almost always of the same pair of buildings (see below – click on all images for larger views), or of a particular rusted car, the gas pumps in front of an old garage, and so on. I wasn’t expecting to find the standing remains of so many buildings, although the town is certainly just a shadow of its former self – as described in the above-linked wikipedia page.

It was windy and cold, and the ground was strewn with a thin layer of snow. Sabrina stuck her head out the sliding side door of the van, looked around for a few seconds, then turned and curled up on her warm, comfy sleeping bag. I took that to mean, “No, I don’t feel like walking around with you for a couple of hours while you shoot photos.” So, I pulled on a hat and an extra layer of clothes, grabbed my camera, and wandered off to explore the town. Although I’m not much for living by the clock, I gave myself ninety minutes to tour around before pushing on with our day’s journey. I found very few fellow visitors there that afternoon. Most that I encountered seemed to be part of a German-speaking group that arrived in several SUVs. As we dispersed down the various pathways leading between buildings, I found myself pretty much alone for most of my visit.

That day, I decided to try out a new camera that I’d bought while in Oregon. My regular camera had seemed to be acting up for a few days, so I decided to get a new back-up camera as “insurance” for the rest of my travels (a Canon G10). It made for some interesting and occasionally frustrating shooting, but I came away with a group of reasonably decent photos considering the dull weather. I’ve put most of them up in an online gallery. If you’re interested, just click on any image that you wish to see and it will bring up a larger version. There’s a small-medium-large-original choice of links below each image once it comes up. “Original” is the largest version. As you can see, I focussed mainly on rusty machinery and other objects, close-ups of wood and brick textures, doors, wheels, and a few other things that happen to interest me. However, I have put up some shots of whole buildings as well as images of objects displayed in store fronts.

As the afternoon ticked away, I kept one eye on the sky, watching for any change in the weather. In the end, I cut my stay a bit short as the odd snowflake spun by on the wind. It was just as well that we got on our way as it turned out that my time and distance calculations for that day’s travel were way off base — but more about that in my next post. Vowing to try to come back this way for a longer visit at some future date, I steered us back down the washboard road and, to Sabrina’s relief, onto smooth pavement to continue on our way south to that evening’s destination at Ridgecrest. More coming up soon…

Written by bev on February 1st, 2009