My Travel Map

My Travel Map

21 August 2011

Southwest USA

So when three coworkers and I were presented with the opportunity to take a road trip out to Santa Fe, New Mexico for a conference, we jumped at it. The plan: take 3 days to drive out from Los Angeles, the week in Santa Fe for the meeting, and then 4 days to drive back. We all agreed that the only way to do so was to camp along the way, the more remote the site, the better.

First stop after an epic 9 hour haul was Saguaro National Park, just outside of Tuscon, Arizona. We arrived late at night, with little sense for the landscape around us. We knew that the area was desolate and harsh, and we were surrounded by cacti (which made wandering off to go to the bathroom at night a bit challenging). Bolstered by competitive machismo, three of us decided to spend the night out on the sand, under the stars, with only our sleeping bags and pads between us and the desert. I say machismo, because the three of us kept going back and forth on the decision to do so and ultimately, none of us was willing to admit defeat to our fears of tarantulas, diamondback rattlesnakes, scorpions, coyotes, bats, bugs, and other desert creatures. So we laid our sleeping pads out under the epic night sky, starring a quarter moon, Jupiter, Venus, and a brilliant Milky Way. I slept like a baby.

I called this one "Put 'em up, put 'em up"

We woke up and were immediately in awe of the scenery around us. The drive through the park just got better and better too as we ventured deeper into the concentrated heart of Saguaro cactus land. Saguaro's namesake are these behemoth cacti, which can grow up to 15 feet high, weigh several tons, and live up to 200 years. We were there in the flowering season, which was fortunate as the cacti were all in bloom, with the white flowers and bright fruit.

This one just wants to give everyone a great big and very prickly hug...

Seriously though, Saguaro was absolutely bizarre and quite breathtaking. It was quite extraordinary how there were hundreds and thousands of these massive and otherworldly plants as far as the eye could see. After standing next to one of the towering giants, it becomes even more impressive. This photo really gives a sense for just how many of these cacti there are there. It literally is a forest of them.

Next stop: Tombstone, Arizona for some true Wild West history.

After all the Hollywood skew, I had no idea that the shootout at the OK Corral was actually more of a Republican/Democrat quarrel and feud between two groups of criminals. So apparently, the Earp's and their good friend Doc Holliday were in tight with the local Republicans, who (of course) represented the social elite and wealthy in the area. The Clanton's were a Democratic group that were more in line with the average person in town. The Clanton's were popular with the locals in Tombstone, since they raided Mexican ranches and provided cheaper than market-price beef. The Earp's supposedly tried to bully their way in on such a lucrative (and criminal) business. The tension reached a boiling point when both groups allegedly worked together on a stage coach robbery that went wrong, leaving several innocents dead and driving a wedge between the Earp's and the Clanton's. The not-well-known story goes that each group then tried incriminating the other for the murders, and (of course) the Earp's, being more connected to those with money and power, ended up with the upper hand in the eyes of the local law. The whole feud climaxed at the OK Corral in Tombstone, where the heavily armed Earp's and Holliday essentially ambushed and slaughtered the McLaury's and Billy Clanton, who were mostly unarmed at the time. The Clanton's struck back a few nights later, gravely wounding Virgil Earp and killing Morgan. Wyatt and Holliday returned the favor by using their connection with the law (Wyatt was a sworn in Marshall) to hunt down and kill the remaining Clanton's. For this wanton slaughter, Wyatt was finally held accountable for murder and was made a wanted man in the territory. He, being wily and connected, managed to escape to Los Angeles, California. There he befriended some powerful and wealthy producers and directors and was immortalized as a hero in Hollywood films. It goes to show how much Hollywood and pop culture can skew reality.

Nowadays, they still have cowboys and gunfights in Tombstone, but now it is all done with actors that work for the town. It is pretty neat though, and the guys are right into the character. I even got called a cow patty by one of them.

This was a great little shop selling sasparilla, the original root beer. It was delicious and refreshing on the +100 deg F day.

Mom and Dad, this pic is for you!

After another epic drive across to rolling scrub- and grass-lands southern Arizona and New Mexico, we arrived at White Sands National Monument just in time for our hike into the backcountry to set up camp and catch sunset.

White Sands may have been my favorite stop of the trip. It was such an amazing landscape and so entirely unique. Dunes are one thing and quite incredible in their own right, but brilliantly pure white dunes are on another level. Adding to the foreign feel of it, the "sand" is really gypsum. It is coarser grained than sand and has a smooth, chalky feeling to it, not at all gritty and penetrating like normal sand. It was even more bizarre and trippy at night, when it seems as though you are floating in an empty and featureless whiteness. The stars were incredible and you just have this wild and seemingly endless landscape around you. The scrub bushes and grassy areas looked like dark patches, like small and large black seas, and dark blobs, potentially hiding packs of vicious coyotes, zombie-alien hordes, or whatever else your imagination can conjure up in such an otherworldly and empty place. Camping overnight in the backcountry (i.e., pick a random dune in the middle of the massive park) at White Sands was beyond-words great. Oh yea, and night two of camping out and exposed to the wilderness of the desert. It was awesome, especially since the gypsum was nice and soft.

In the morning, the lighting was just perfect....contrasting the brilliant white dunes from the bright blue desert sky.

This place was really photogenic, but nothing is like seeing it in person and being surrounded by this incredible landscape.

I hope to get back to White Sands...I really loved it there.

Hatch, New Mexico...known for growing the best tasting chiles in the world! We had brunch here at a great little restaurant...obviously heavily themed around the famous chile. They even had green chile and chile and mango milkshakes (which were really good by the way). As mentioned in previous posts, New Mexican food is one of my favorite cuisines in the world, and I was looking forward to indulging in it all week long!

Just a few hours after the start of the Las Conchas Fire in New Mexico. The fire raged throughout the week of the conference and for quite some time after we left. This turned out to be the largest fire in state history, burning almost 160,000 acres of forest. It started from a downed power line. This is now the second time I've witnessed states' largest fires in history, having seen the equivalent in Colorado as well 2 summers ago. That fire also resulted from humanity and our continued infringement on wilderness that we don't truly understand or appreciate. It honestly disgusts me how much of an impact we have on this planet, and these fires are a very visible reminder of that.

On the way back to California now, our first stop was in Bisti Badlands...a barren wasteland of bizzare rock formations and pocketed terrain. The hike in was a little daunting, psychologically mostly. I'd never seen a place so totally devoid of life...there was practically no vegetation.

Bisti has one of the greatest concentrations of hoodoos in the world. This is a hoodoo...a hard rock balanced on a pillar of sandstone or dried mud. They form naturally due to erosion.

An "alien egg" rock. We camped out by a large group of these. Night three of sleeping under the stars. This one was probably the most terrifying and awesome of all since we were the most remote we had been yet. There was no discernible light from any city or town on the horizon, and we had just walked 2.5 miles into this wasteland from the road. All that and we were on a flat, cracked sand/dried mud plain surrounded by all these crazy rocks and hoodoos.

Some of the formations thrust out of the terrain like the bones of some long dead colossus. The place threatened death, and we were happy to be blessed with modern technology like GPS, otherwise venturing into the badlands would have been much more daunting. We also had the benefit of a very large wash that ran through the center of the badlands, which was a dominant feature. If we followed the wash "downstream" (weird to use that term when there was no water to be seen), it would lead us right to the car. Other creatures aren't so lucky though; we came across a dead cow on our walk in. The poor beast had apparently wandered into the badlands from a nearby ranch and become lost in the labyrinthine features of the landscape, where it probably died of exposure and thirst. It was a good reminder of us to respect the desert.

The landscape we wandered into and back out of... great experience overall.

Adding to the terror of the place, a lot of the land around Bisti is not so solid underneath due to water carving out underground channels and deep gouges. Some of the pits went very, very deep. So be warned: if you go to Bisti, step lightly and watch your way.

Monument Valley, an essential stop on any road trip of the American Southwest. To see these gargantuan rocks rising 300 meters (1000 feet) out of the base plane is awe inspiring.

Classic road trip shot...

Monument Valley has also been featured in many, many Hollywood western films and even Cruisin' USA, the video game!

It was nice of the dust devil to show up for this shot.

Camping again, this time in Page, Arizona, famous for Lake Powell...a reservoir filling a massive canyon. It was a beautiful landscape, but we were there on 4th of July, which made me really loathe the more popular form of camping involving RVs and 4x4 all-terrain vehicles and drunken idiots with no respect for nature. This night out under the stars was not so pleasant thanks to the constant drone of generators, powering those awful spotlights, water heaters, stoves, and refrigerators on all those RVs.

Oh well, we were in Page to explore Antelope Canyon...which, despite the hordes of tourists, was still an amazing experience. This is a picture through our guides' truck window. We had to drive up the wash to get to the slot canyon's entrance. The wash was deep sand, as it hadn't rained in several weeks. Our guide exhibited some impressive talent at navigating such a difficult path for a wheeled vehicle to take.

The entrance to the Upper Antelope Canyon...a classic example of a slot canyon.

We were there at just the right time of the year, midsummer, when the sun lines up just right in the sky around noon to bring in these awesome shafts of light down to the canyon's sandy floor.

The narrow, wavy slot in the sandstone is carved out by rushing water, which entirely fills the canyon during heavy rains. Incredibly, each flood ultimately reshapes the canyon, leaving it an entirely new place with different features! Slot canyons are incredibly dangerous, though, despite this beauty. Rains from miles away can cause a slot to fill in only a matter of moments with rushing water, even though the sky overhead of the canyon is blue and clear. People die horrible deaths in such places...imagine choking to death in raging whitewater that is slamming and rubbing you against the sandstone walls... you are quite literally wet-sanded and pulverized while drowning to death... not a pretty way to go.

When it is safe to go inside, the canyon is incredible. It is ever-changing in every sense, wide/thin, bright/dark, colorful/drab, crowded/empty, noisy/quiet, peaceful/unsettling.

This is looking straight up, which explains why the light only comes in in beams when the sun is just in the right place in the sky. It also explains why someone trapped inside during a flood has practically no chance of rising to the top unscathed.

When I was able to find a few precious moments alone in my own little area, it was very peaceful and inspiring. However, that was quickly shattered. There were SO many tourists in was really quite frustrating. Access to the place is controlled by the Navajo Nation, but they don't seem to really limit the amount of people in the canyon. Tourists are litterally brought in by the truckload. We were lucky to find a guide that did "private" photo-tours for just a little extra than those on the trucks paid. We were still in the canyon with everyone else, but at least we had a lot more freedom to take our time and venture ahead or lag behind. Those on the trucks were led quickly along like herded cattle.

This place was truly incredible. The neat thing is there are many of these scattered around the West, and the location of many are kept secret for good reason.

On the way between Page and the Grand Canyon, we came down this escarpment to this incredible view, 1000's of feet down to this big basin, which itself was cut by a smaller canyon. The pictures do no justice.

The Mother of all canyons...the Grand Canyon. Carved out by the Colorado River, seen above.

It is epic, and like my first time there, I was just floored by it's size. I found myself appreciating it much more this time round. Maybe it was because if was a pleasant temperature for just sitting and staring (the first time we were there was in winter and very cold).

The Inner Canyon...the lager, Outer Canyon is 20 miles across. It is thought that it might have formed when a massive inland sea burst its walls and flash flooded to the sea. The Inner Canyon then formed in the more traditional way as the river gouged its way through the rock over millions of years.

The clouds started clearing and we got some very nice lighting.

The Southwest USA is such an incredible place, great to visit and perfect for a road trip, though I was happy to get back to more heavily vegetated places and especially back to the sea. I appreciate and respect the desert, but it isn't a place that I ever want to live.

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