Shallow Thoughts : tags : travel

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Mon, 13 Nov 2023

Clayton Lake Dinosaur Tracks, Raton and the K-T Boundary

[Clayton Lake dinosaur tracks] We've been taking some little 2- and 3-day trips to explore parts of New Mexico we haven't seen much. Last week, we visited Clayton and Raton, in the northeast corner of the state.

We'd been through Wagon Mound and Raton before but hadn't stopped. We'd never been to Clayton. Our goals were to see the dinosaur tracks at Clayton Lake, to try to find the Folsom site or the museum in Folsom, and to see what else the area had to offer. You don't know 'til you go.

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[ 18:30 Nov 13, 2023    More travel | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 11 Jun 2020

O is for Overlook Park -- and Other Great City Parks

[Rainbow over Shumo from Overlook Park] "Ho hum, it's just our local city park", we say, walking back to the parking area from the overlook at Overlook Park here in White Rock.

We're joking, of course. The Overlook has stunning views of White Rock Canyon that change as the light changes. It's maybe three miles from home, and we visit it fairly often and never get tired of the view.

It's amazing to have a place like this so close to home. And sometimes we get to thinking: how many other towns have a city park that compares?

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[ 14:55 Jun 11, 2020    More travel | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 05 Apr 2018

Cave Creek Hiking and Birding Trip

A week ago I got back from a trip to the Chiricahua mountains of southern Arizona, specifically Cave Creek on the eastern side of the range. The trip was theoretically a hiking trip, but it was also for birding and wildlife watching -- southern Arizona is near the Mexican border and gets a lot of birds and other animals not seen in the rest of the US -- and an excuse to visit a friend who lives near there.

Although it's close enough that it could be driven in one fairly long day, we took a roundabout 2-day route so we could explore some other areas along the way that we'd been curious about.

First, we wanted to take a look at the White Mesa Bike Trails northwest of Albuquerque, near the Ojito Wilderness. We'll be back at some point with bikes, but we wanted to get a general idea of the country and terrain. The Ojito, too, looks like it might be worth a hiking trip, though it's rather poorly signed: we saw several kiosks with maps where the "YOU ARE HERE" was clearly completely misplaced. Still, how can you not want to go back to a place where the two main trails are named Seismosaurus and Hoodoo?

[Cabezon] The route past the Ojito also led past Cabezon Peak, a volcanic neck we've seen from a long distance away and wanted to see closer. It's apparently possible to climb it but we're told the top part is fairly technical, more than just a hike.

Finally, we went up and over Mt Taylor, something we've been meaning to do for many years. You can drive fairly close to the top, but this being late spring, there was still snow on the upper part of the road and our Rav4's tires weren't up to the challenge. We'll go back some time and hike all the way to the top.

We spent the night in Grants, then the following day, headed down through El Malpais, stopping briefly at the beautiful Sandstone Overlook, then down through the Datil and Mogollon area. We wanted to take a look at a trail called the Catwalk, but when we got there, it was cold, blustery, and starting to rain and sleet. So we didn't hike the Catwalk this time, but at least we got a look at the beginning of it, then continued down through Silver City and thence to I-10, where just short of the Arizona border we were amused by the Burma Shave dust storm signs about which I already wrote.

At Cave Creek

[Beautiful rocks at Cave Creek] Cave Creek Ranch, in Portal, AZ, turned out to be a lovely place to stay, especially for anyone interested in wildlife. I saw several "life birds" and mammals, plus quite a few more that I'd seen at some point but had never had the opportunity to photograph. Even had we not been hiking, just hanging around the ranch watching the critters was a lot of fun. They charge $5 for people who aren't staying there to come and sit in the feeder area; I'm not sure how strictly they enforce it, but given how much they must spend on feed, it would be nice to help support them.

The bird everyone was looking for was the Elegant Trogon. Supposedly one had been seen recently along the creekbed, and we all wanted to see it.

They also had a nifty suspension bridge for pedestrians crossing a dry (this year) arroyo over on another part of the property. I guess I was so busy watching the critters that I never went wandering around, and I would have missed the bridge entirely had Dave not pointed it out to me on the last day.

The only big hike I did was the Burro Trail to Horseshoe Pass, about 10 miles and maybe 1800 feet of climbing. It started with a long hike up the creek, during which everybody had eyes and ears trained on the sycamores (we were told the trogon favored sycamores). No trogon. But it was a pretty hike, and once we finally started climbing out of the creekbed there were great views of the soaring cliffs above Cave Creek Canyon. Dave opted to skip the upper part of the trail to the saddle; I went, but have to admit that it was mostly just more of the same, with a lot of scrambling and a few difficult and exposed traverses. At the time I thought it was worth it, but by the time we'd slogged all the way back to the cars I was doubting that.

[ Organ Pipe Formation at Chiricahua National Monument ] On the second day the group went over the Chiricahuas to Chiricahua National Monument, on the other side. Forest road 42 is closed in winter, but we'd been told that it was open now since the winter had been such a dry one, and it wasn't a particularly technical road, certainly easy in the Rav4. But we had plans to visit our friend over at the base of the next mountain range west, so we just made a quick visit to the monument, did a quick hike around the nature trail and headed on.

Back with the group at Cave Creek on Thursday, we opted for a shorter, more relaxed hike in the canyon to Ash Spring rather than the brutal ascent to Silver Peak. In the canyon, maybe we'd see the trogon! Nope, no trogon. But it was a very pleasant hike, with our first horned lizard ("horny toad") spotting of the year, a couple of other lizards, and some lovely views.


We'd been making a lot of trogon jokes over the past few days, as we saw visitor after visitor trudging away muttering about not having seen one. "They should rename the town of Portal to Trogon, AZ." "They should rename that B&B Trogon's Roost Bed and Breakfast." Finally, at the end of Thursday's hike, we stopped in at the local ranger station, where among other things (like admiring their caged gila monster) we asked about trogon sightings. Turns out the last one to be seen had been in November. A local thought maybe she'd heard one in January. Whoever had relayed the rumor that one had been seen recently was being wildly optimistic.

[ Northern Cardinal ] [ Coati ] [ Javalina ] [ white-tailed buck ]
Fortunately, I'm not a die-hard birder and I didn't go there specifically for the trogon. I saw lots of good birds and some mammals I'd never seen before (full list), like a coatimundi (I didn't realize those ever came up to the US) and a herd (pack? flock?) of javalinas. And white-tailed deer -- easterners will laugh, but those aren't common anywhere I've lived (mule deer are the rule in California and Northern New Mexico). Plus some good hikes with great views, and a nice visit with our friend. It was a good trip.

On the way home, again we took two days for the opportunity to visit some places we hadn't seen. First, Cloudcroft, NM: a place we'd heard a lot about because a lot of astronomers retire there. It's high in the mountains and quite lovely, with lots of hiking trails in the surrounding national forest. Worth a visit some time.

From Cloudcroft we traveled through the Mescalero Apache reservation, which was unexpectedly beautiful, mountainous and wooded and dotted with nicely kept houses and ranches, to Ruidoso, a nice little town where we spent the night.


[ Lincoln, NM ] Our last stop, Saturday morning, was Lincoln, site of the Lincoln County War (think Billy the Kid). The whole tiny town is set up as a tourist attraction, with old historic buildings ... that were all closed. Because why would any tourists be about on a beautiful Saturday in spring? There were two tiny museums, one at each end of town, which were open, and one of them tried to entice us into paying the entrance fee by assuring us that the ticket was good for all the sites in town. Might have worked, if we hadn't already walked the length of the town peering into windows of all the closed sites. Too bad -- some of them looked interesting, particularly the general store. But we enjoyed our stroll through the town, and we got a giggle out of the tourist town being closed on Saturday -- their approach to tourism seems about as effective as Los Alamos'.

Photos from the trip are at Cave Creek and the Chiricahuas.

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[ 10:04 Apr 05, 2018    More travel | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 26 Mar 2018

Dust Storm Burma Shave Signs

I just got back from a trip to the Chiricahuas, specifically Cave Creek. More on that later, after I've done some more photo triaging. But first, a story from the road.

[NM Burma Shave dust storm signs]

Driving on I-10 in New Mexico near the Arizona border, we saw several signs about dust storms. The first one said,


Dave commented, "I prefer the ones that say, 'may exist'." And as if the highway department heard him, a minute or two later we passed a much more typical New Mexico road sign:

New Mexico, the existential state.

But then things got more fun. We drove for a few more miles, then we passed a sign that obviously wasn't meant to stand alone:


"It's a Burma Shave!" we said simultaneously. (I'm not old enough to remember Burma Shave signs in real life, but I've heard stories and love the concept.) The next sign came quickly:


"What on earth are they going to find to rhyme with 'roadway'?" I wondered. I racked my brains but couldn't come up with anything. As it turns out, neither could NMDOT. There were three more signs:


"Hmph", I thought. "What an opportunity missed." But I still couldn't come up with a rhyme for "roadway". Since we were on Interstate 10, and there's not much to do on a long freeway drive, I penned an alternative:


Much better, isn't it? But one thing bothered me: you're not really supposed to pull all the way off Interstate 10, just onto the shoulder. How about:


I wasn't quite happy with it. I thought my next attempt was an improvement:

but Dave said I should stick with "GET MUCH OLDER".

Oh, well. Even if I'm not old enough to remember real Burma Shave signs, and even if NMDOT doesn't have the vision to make their own signs rhyme, I can still have fun with the idea.

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[ 16:05 Mar 26, 2018    More travel | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 20 Apr 2017

Comb Ridge and Cedar Mesa Trip

[House on Fire ruin, Mule Canyon UT] Last week, my hiking group had its annual trip, which this year was Bluff, Utah, near Comb Ridge and Cedar Mesa, an area particular known for its Anasazi ruins and petroglyphs.

(I'm aware that "Anasazi" is considered a politically incorrect term these days, though it still seems to be in common use in Utah; it isn't in New Mexico. My view is that I can understand why Pueblo people dislike hearing their ancestors referred to by a term that means something like "ancient enemies" in Navajo; but if they want everyone to switch from using a mellifluous and easy to pronounce word like "Anasazi", they ought to come up with a better, and shorter, replacement than "Ancestral Puebloans." I mean, really.)

The photo at right is probably the most photogenic of the ruins I saw. It's in Mule Canyon, on Cedar Mesa, and it's called "House on Fire" because of the colors in the rock when the light is right.

The light was not right when we encountered it, in late morning around 10 am; but fortunately, we were doing an out-and-back hike. Someone in our group had said that the best light came when sunlight reflected off the red rock below the ruin up onto the rock above it, an effect I've seen in other places, most notably Bryce Canyon, where the hoodoos look positively radiant when seen backlit, because that's when the most reflected light adds to the reds and oranges in the rock.

Sure enough, when we got back to House on Fire at 1:30 pm, the light was much better. It wasn't completely obvious to the eye, but comparing the photos afterward, the difference is impressive: Changing light on House on Fire Ruin.

[Brain main? petroglyph at Sand Island] The weather was almost perfect for our trip, except for one overly hot afternoon on Wednesday. And the hikes were fairly perfect, too -- fantastic ruins you can see up close, huge petroglyph panels with hundreds of different creatures and patterns (and some that could only have been science fiction, like brain-man at left), sweeping views of canyons and slickrock, and the geology of Comb Ridge and the Monument Upwarp.

And in case you read my last article, on translucent windows, and are wondering how those generated waypoints worked: they were terrific, and in some cases made the difference between finding a ruin and wandering lost on the slickrock. I wish I'd had that years ago.

Most of what I have to say about the trip are already in the comments to the photos, so I'll just link to the photo page:

Photos: Bluff trip, 2017.

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[ 19:28 Apr 20, 2017    More travel | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 03 Jul 2016

Midsummer Nature Notes from Traveling

A few unusual nature observations noticed over the last few weeks ...

First, on a trip to Washington DC a week ago (my first time there). For me, the big highlight of the trip was my first view of fireflies -- bright green ones, lighting once or twice then flying away, congregating over every park, lawn or patch of damp grass. What fun!

Predatory grackle


But the unusual observation was around mid-day, on the lawn near the Lincoln Memorial. A grackle caught my attention as it flashed by me -- a male common grackle, I think (at least, it was glossy black, relatively small and with only a moderately long tail).

It turned out it was chasing a sparrow, which was dodging and trying to evade, but unsuccessfully. The grackle made contact, and the sparrow faltered, started to flutter to the ground. But the sparrow recovered and took off in another direction, the grackle still hot on its tail. The grackle made contact again, and again the sparrow recovered and kept flying. But the third hit was harder than the other two, and the sparrow went down maybe fifteen or twenty feet away from me, with the grackle on top of it.

The grackle mantled over its prey like a hawk and looked like it was ready to begin eating. I still couldn't quite believe what I'd seen, so I stepped out toward the spot, figuring I'd scare the grackle away and I'd see if the sparrow was really dead. But the grackle had its eye on me, and before I'd taken three steps, it picked up the sparrow in its bill and flew off with it.

I never knew grackles were predatory, much less capable of killing other birds on the wing and flying off with them. But a web search on grackles killing birds got quite a few hits about grackles killing and eating house sparrows, so apparently it's not uncommon.

Daytime swarm of nighthawks

Then, on a road trip to visit friends in Colorado, we had to drive carefully past the eastern slope of San Antonio Mountain as a flock of birds wheeled and dove across the road. From a distance it looked like a flock of swallows, but as we got closer we realized they were far larger. They turned out to be nighthawks -- at least fifty of them, probably considerably more. I've heard of flocks of nighthawks swarming around the bugs attracted to parking lot streetlights. And I've seen a single nighthawk, or occasionally two, hawking in the evenings from my window at home. But I've never seen a flock of nighthawks during the day like this. An amazing sight as they swoop past, just feet from the car's windshield.

Flying ants

[Flying ant courtesy of Jen Macke]

Finally, the flying ants. The stuff of a bad science fiction movie! Well, maybe if the ants were 100 times larger. For now, just an interesting view of the natural world.

Just a few days ago, Jennifer Macke wrote a fascinating article in the PEEC Blog, "Ants Take Wing!" letting everyone know that this is the time of year for ants to grow wings and fly. (Jen also showed me some winged lawn ants in the PEEC ant colony when I was there the day before the article came out.) Both males and females grow wings; they mate in the air, and then the newly impregnated females fly off, find a location, shed their wings (leaving a wing scar you can see if you have a strong enough magnifying glass) and become the queen of a new ant colony.

And yesterday morning, as Dave and I looked out the window, we saw something swarming right below the garden. I grabbed a magnifying lens and rushed out to take a look at the ones emerging from the ground, and sure enough, they were ants. I saw only black ants. Our native harvester ants -- which I know to be common in our yard, since I've seen the telltale anthills surrounded by a large bare area where they clear out all vegetation -- have sexes of different colors (at least when they're flying): females are red, males are black. These flying ants were about the size of harvester ants but all the ants I saw were black. I retreated to the house and watched the flights with binoculars, hoping to see mating, but all the flyers I saw seemed intent on dispersing. Either these were not harvester ants, or the females come out at a different time from the males. Alas, we had an appointment and had to leave so I wasn't able to monitor them to check for red ants. But in a few days I'll be watching for ants that have lost their wings ... and if I find any, I'll try to identify queens.

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[ 09:28 Jul 03, 2016    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 29 Apr 2016

Vermillion Cliffs trip, and other distractions

[Red Toadstool, in the Paria Rimrocks] [Cobra Arch, in the Vermillion Cliffs] I haven't posted in a while. Partly I was busy preparing for, enjoying, then recovering from, a hiking trip to the Vermillion Cliffs, on the Colorado River near the Arizona/Utah border. We had no internet access there (no wi-fi at the hotel, and no data on the cellphone). But we had some great hikes, and I saw my first California Condors (they have a site where they release captive-bred birds). Photos (from the hikes, not the condors, which were too far away): Vermillion Cliffs trip.

I've also been having fun welding more critters, including a roadrunner, a puppy and a rattlesnake. I'm learning how to weld small items, like nail legs on spark plug dragonflies and scorpions, which tend to melt at the MIG welder's lowest setting.

[ Welded puppy \ [ Welded Roadrunner ] [ Welded rattlesnake ]

New Mexico's weather is being charmingly erratic (which is fairly usual): we went for a hike exploring some unmapped cavate ruins, shivering in the cold wind and occasionally getting lightly snowed upon. Then the next day was a gloriously sunny hike out Deer Trap Mesa with clear long-distance views of the mountains and mesas in all directions. Today we had graupel -- someone recently introduced me to that term for what Dave and I have been calling "snail" or "how" since it's a combination of snow and hail, soft balls of hail like tiny snowballs. They turned the back yard white for ten or fifteen minutes, but then the sun came out for a bit and melted all the little snowballs.

But since it looks like much of today will be cloudy, it's a perfect day to use up that leftover pork roast and fill the house with good smells by making a batch of slow-cooker green chile posole.

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[ 12:28 Apr 29, 2016    More travel | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 15 Dec 2013

Hi-Fi Internet

On way home from a trip last week, one of the hotels we stayed at had an unexpected bonus:

Hi-Fi Internet!

[Hi-fi internet]

You may wonder, was it mono or stereo? They had two accesspoints visible (with different essids), so I guess it was supposed to be stereo. Except one of the accesspoints never worked, so it turned out to be mono after all.

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[ 19:35 Dec 15, 2013    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 02 Oct 2013

Disgruntled by Grackles

On a trip last month, Mesquite, NV gave us couple of avian delights.

First the roadrunner, strutting around a side street poking its head into bushes, hunting as we watched from the car.

[Huge flock of grackles] Then, in the evening, a convocation of grackles -- several hundred of them -- in the tree just across from the third-floor balcony at our casino hotel. All chattering with each other, making an amazing variety of noises as they flew from branch to branch, occasionally bickering or feeding each other or landing on a branch too weak to support them.

Grackles make some amazing sounds. We don't have them at home, so I only hear them on trips, but they always want to make me look for the amplifier and speakers -- it seems impossible that a medium-sized bird could be making all that sound, and such a variety of noise, all by itself.

We stood there for maybe 20 minutes, watching them and listening, shooting photos and video, before the heat (over 100 even after sunset) got to us and we had to go back into the room.

[Don't park under a grackle tree] Unfortunately, in all that time, one thing that never occurred to us was that our car was parked right under that tree. We realized that the next morning.

And we had thought we were so clever, finding the one shady spot in that parking lot!

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[ 14:38 Oct 02, 2013    More travel | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 02 Sep 2013

Waking up to Balloons

We recently returned from a quick whirlwind trip through a series of towns in the Four Corners area: the place where Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah come together.

[Hot-air balloon landing in the road in Cortez, CO] One highlight: watching hot-air balloons floating across the sky against the backdrop of Mesa Verde in Cortez, CO ... and watching one accidentally land in the middle of the highway in front of our motel (the White Eagle Inn, a charming little place with super nice owners).

Cars stopped on the highway while someone jumped out of the basket and pushed the balloon toward the side of the road. The truck on the left is the chase crew.

(And yes, that's a powerline in the foreground, very close to where the balloon came down.)

[Hot-air balloons in Cortez, CO] The sky was full of balloons, and the hotel was as good a place as any to watch them. Quite a way to start the morning!

Other highlights:

The view of the Rio Grande from the White Rock Overlook with lightning flashing in the background.

[Rio Grande panorama from White Rock, NM Overlook Park] (No lightning in the photo, just a 13-image panorama. Click for a bigger version.)

Dinner at Rancho de Chimayo. I had their famous carne adovada, Dave had a stuffed sopaipilla with green chile, and we shared. And sopaipillas with honey on the side, of course. They're just as good as they were the first time I was there ... was that really a quarter century ago?

All the motels that are using WPA passwords for their wi-fi, instead of stupid browser pages that you have to re-authenticate every time the connection drops. Things are looking up, gradually, for motel wi-fi.

[The working Ivanpah solar collector] Heading back into California, driving past Primm, NV, we checked out the progress on the new solar tower collector being built at old Ivanpah. It's changed a lot since we were there last. It looks like one tower is operational (though its mirror array doesn't appear to extend all the way around yet), while two more towers have mirror arrays but still have covers over the central tower. [All three Ivanpah solar collectors]

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[ 21:15 Sep 02, 2013    More travel | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 07 Jul 2012

Strange wildlife in San Luis Obispo

On a brief and visit to San Luis Obispo, an unexpected bonus was the unusual wildlife about town.

We walked from our hotel on Monterey St. to downtown to stretch our legs, explore the mission and river walk and then get dinner. (Mo's Smokehouse has excellent barbecue.)

On the way back, I noticed a small figure in the gutter just below the curb, scratching and nosing around in the litter there. It was the size and shape of a chipmunk, but its coloration showed it to be a California ground squirrel -- a baby, probably on one of its first forays out of the burrow.

Burrow? Well, as I pulled my camera out of a pocket, suddenly the youngster vanished. I stepped into the street to see where it had gone -- and discovered that SLO has gutter drain holes in their concrete curbs that are exactly the size and shape of a typical ground squirrel's burrow entryway.

[Grossly fat California ground squirrel at Morro Rock] The size of these tiny ground squirrels was especially amazing because just a few miles northwest, at Morro Rock, we'd encountered the most humungous, gihugicle California ground squirrels known to man -- animals so swollen from tourist handouts that at first I took them for prairie dogs. (I wasn't able to photograph the tiny and quick SLO squirrels, but the sluggish Morro Rock squirrels were a much easier target ... as you see.)

Back in SLO, we walked on, marvelling at the little squirrel -- and half a block later, another squirreling the same size as the other one dashed out from under a car, ran to the curb and disappeared. Yep -- another of those round gutter holes. They must have a whole colony of these cuties!

Then just a few blocks later, I noticed motion out of the corner of my eye ... and turned in time to watch a pair of scarlet macaws fly across the street, up an adjacent street and into a tree.

I read an article once from a biologist who visited South America and thrilled to the sight of these huge, bright red, long-tailed parrots flying free ... but I never expected to see the same thing on the street of a California city.

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[ 13:42 Jul 07, 2012    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Tue, 22 May 2012

Saw the "Ring of Fire" 2012 annular eclipse

[Annular eclipse 2012] I've just seen the annular eclipse, and what a lovely sight it was!

This was only my second significant solar eclipse, the first being a partial when I was a teenager. So I was pretty excited about an annular so nearby -- the centerline was only about a 4-hour drive from home.

We'd made arrangements to join the Shasta astronomy club's eclipse party at Whiskeytown Lake, up in the Trinity Alps. Sounded like a lovely spot, and we'd be able to trade views with the members of the local astronomy club as well as showing off the eclipse to the public. As astronomers bringing telescopes, we'd get reserved parking and didn't even have to pay the park fee. Sounded good!

Not knowing whether we might hit traffic, we left home first thing in the morning, hours earlier than we figured was really necessary. A good thing, as it turned out. Not because we hit any traffic -- but because when we got to the site, it was a zoo. There were cars idling everywhere, milling up and down every road looking for parking spots. We waited in the queue at the formal site, and finally got to the front of the line, where we told the ranger we were bringing telescopes for the event. He said well, um, we could drive in and unload, but there was no parking so we'd just have to drive out after unloading, hope to find a parking spot on the road somewhere, and walk back.

What a fiasco!

After taking a long look at the constant stream of cars inching along in both directions and the chaotic crowd at the site, we decided the better part of valor was to leave this vale of tears and high-tail it back to our motel in Red Bluff, only little farther south of the centerline and still well within the path of annularity. Fortunately we'd left plenty of extra time, so we made it back with time to spare.

The Annular Eclipse itself

[early stage of annular eclipse 2012, showing sunspots] One striking thing about watching the eclipse through a telescope was how fast the moon moves. The sun was well decorated with several excellent large sunspot groups, so we were able to watch the moon swallow them bit by bit.

Some of the darker sunspot umbras even showed something like a black drop effect as they disappeared behind the moon. We couldn't see the same effect on the smaller sunspot groups, or on the penumbras. [black drop at end of annularity] There was also a pronounced black drop effect at the onset and end of annularity.

The seeing was surprisingly good, as solar observing goes. Not only could we see good detail on the sunspot groups and solar faculae, but we could easily see irregularities in the shape of the moon's surface -- in particular one small sharp mountain peak on the leading edge, and what looked like a raised crater wall farther south on that leading edge. We never did get a satisfactory identification on either feature.

[pinhole eclipse viewing] After writing and speaking about eclipse viewing, I felt honor bound to try viewing with pinholes of several sizes. I found that during early stages of the eclipse, the pinholes had to be both small (under about 5 mm) and fairly round to show much. Later in the eclipse, nearly anything worked to show the crescent or the annular ring, including interlaced fingers or the shadow of a pine tree on the wall. I wish I'd remembered to take an actual hole punch, which would have been just about perfect.

[binocular projection for eclipse] I also tried projection through binoculars, and convinced myself that it would probably work as a means of viewing next month's Venus transit -- but only with the binoculars on a tripod. Hand-holding them is fiddly and difficult. (Of course, never look through binoculars at the sun without a solar filter.) Look for an upcoming article with more details on binocular projection.

The cast of characters

For us, the motel parking lot worked out great. We were staying at the Crystal Motel in Red Bluff, an unassuming little motel that proved to be clean and quiet, with friendly, helpful staff and the fastest motel wi-fi connection I've ever seen. Maybe not the most scenic of locations, but that was balanced by the convenience of having the car and room so close by.

And we were able to show the eclipse to locals and motel guests who wouldn't have been able to see it otherwise. Many of these people, living right in the eclipse path, didn't even know there was an eclipse happening, so poor had the media coverage been. (That was true in the bay area too -- most people I talked to last week didn't know there was an eclipse coming up, let alone how or where to view it.)

We showed the eclipse to quite a cast of characters --

In between visitors, we had plenty of time to fiddle with equipment, take photos, and take breaks sitting in the shade to cool down. (Annularity was pleasantly cool, but the rest of the eclipse stayed hot on an over 90 degree central valley day.)

There's a lot to be said for sidewalk astronomy! Overall, I'm glad we ended up where we did rather than in that Whiskeytown chaos.

Here's my collection of Images from the "Ring of Fire" Annular Eclipse, May 2012, from Red Bluff, CA.

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[ 11:42 May 22, 2012    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 02 Feb 2012

Watch out, or you'll end up in Pleasant Valley

[Pleasant Valley State Prison sign] I love this sign, along Interstate 5 near Coalinga. Pleasant Valley State Prison.

I guess if you have to be locked away, Pleasant Valley doesn't sound like the worst place to be.

Do Pleasant Valley ex-cons have a hard time getting respect when people find out where they did their hard time?

I love picturing the local parents trying to strike fear into their kids' hearts. "If you don't straighten up, Junior, you're going to end up in ... PLEASANT VALLEY!"

Or the local judges -- "You're not getting off this time. No, I'm giving you ten years in ... PLEASANT VALLEY!"

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[ 18:07 Feb 02, 2012    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 06 Apr 2011

Slanted signs on dirt roads -- what do they mean?

I like to travel in out-of-the-way places. On desert back roads, one often encounters mysteries of one sort or another. And the mystery under consideration today is a prosaic one: road signs.

[slanted dirt-road sign] Dirt roads, especially in the desert, seldom have much in the way of signage. You're lucky if you get an occasional signpost with a BLM route number (which invariably isn't marked on any of your maps anyway).

And yet, quite often out on deserted dirt roads, you'll see odd, slanted signs painted yellow with black stripes. No numbers or letters, and not every road has them. What do they mean?

They don't always seem to slant the same way. I've wondered if they might point to underground cables or other hazards -- but there are usually much clearer signs for such things. Sometimes they run along a fence ... but not always.

I've seen them a lot in California, but I'm pretty sure I've seen them in Nevada and maybe in Arizona. I don't think I've seen any in New Mexico.

[slanted dirt-road sign] [slanted dirt-road sign] Sometimes they come in pairs -- and sometimes the pairs are at right angles to one another, or at some other angle entirely.

Sometimes they seem to be aimed primarily at traffic coming from one direction; sometimes they're posted on opposite sides of the same post and clearly meant to be viewed both ways.

Try as I might, I haven't been able to detect any regularly in where the signs appear or which direction they slant.

And I can't figure out how to search the web. How do you search for "slanted sign with strips on dirt roads"? I've tried, but I haven't had much luck. I've found lots of compendia of standard signs for paved roads and construction areas, but nothing that covers off-road symbolism.

[slanted dirt-road sign] I've seen them in the Mojave, in deserts in other states like Arizona and Utah, and even a few along I-5 through the California central valley. They're clearly a widespread phenomenon, not a regional thing.

Of course, there are lots of mysterious dirt road signs besides the slanted ones: I don't know what the little round ones mean either, nor the little houses on thick posts.

Can anyone decode the signs and solve the mystery?

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[ 11:19 Apr 06, 2011    More misc | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 01 Apr 2011

Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary and the Tasmanian Devil

[Tasmanian Devil] The LA Times had a great article last weekend about Tasmanian devils, the mysterious facial cancer which is threatening to wipe them out, and the Bonorong wildlife preserve in Hobart which is involved in trying to rescue them.

The disease, called devil facial tumour disease, is terrible. It causes tumours on the devils' face and mouth, which eventually grow so large and painful that the animal starves to death. It's a cancer, but a very unusual one: it's transmissible and can pass from one devil to another, one of only three such cancers known. That means that unlike most cancers, tumour cells aren't from the infected animal itself; they're usually contracted from a bite from another devil.

Almost no Tasmanian devils are immune to DFTD. Being isolated for so long on such a small island, devils have little genetic diversity, so a disease that affects one devil is likely to affect all of them. It can wipe out a regional population within a year. A few individuals seem to have partial immunity, and scientists are desperately hunting for the secret before the disease wipes out the rest of the devil population. Organizations like Bonorong are breeding Tasmanian devils in captivity in case the answer comes too late to save the wild population.

When I was in Hobart in 2009 for (which, aside from being a great Linux conference, also raised over $35,000 to help save the devils), I had the chance to visit Bonorong. I was glad I did: it's fabulous. You can wander around and feed kangaroos, wallabees and the ever-greedy emus, see all sorts of rarer Australian wildlife like echidnas, quolls and sugar gliders, and pet a koala (not as soft as they look).

[Greg Irons and devil] But surprisingly, the best part was the tour. I'm usually not much for guided tours, and Dave normally hates 'em. But this one was given by Greg Irons, the director of the park who's featured in the Times article, and he's fantastic. He obviously loves the animals and he knows everything about them -- Dave called him an "animal nerd" (that's a compliment, really!) And he's a great showman, with a lively and fact-filled presentation that shows each animal at its best while keping all ages entertained. If you didn't love marsupials, and particularly devils and wombats, before you come to Bonorong, I guarantee you will by the time you leave.

[Tasmanian devil tug-o-war]

A lot of the accounts of devil facial tumour disease talk about devils fighting with each other and spreading the disease, but watching them feed at Bonorong showed that fighting isn't necessary. Tasmanian devils feed in groups, helping each other tear apart the carcass by all latching onto it at once and pulling. With this style of feeding, it's easy to get bitten in the mouth accidentally.

[ferocious killer Tasmanian devil] Of course, I have a lot more photos from Bonorong: Bonorong Wildlife Park photos.

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[ 10:48 Apr 01, 2011    More travel/tasmania | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 28 Jul 2010

The Case of the Missing Gooseberry

Traveling always comes with risks. Aside from the risks you may encounter along the way, there are the worries of what you left behind. Will the house burn down? Will the mail pile up, signalling to thieves that the home is empty? Will the server stay up? On a more prosaic note ... Will the plants in the garden all die from lack of water?

Shortly before traveling to Oregon for OSCON, I acquired a cute little Cape Gooseberry seedling (courtesy of Mark Terranova at the south bay Geeknic). That's a new plant to me -- I'd never seen one before. But it was a cute little thing, and seemed to be flourishing. I had it in a pot on a little shelf where it would get morning sun but wouldn't get too hot in the afternoon, and was looking forward to planting it when it got big enough to withstand our marauding local seedling-loving snails.

[ Missing Cape Gooseberry ] To get it through my planned week-and-a-half absence, I had one of those glass watering bulbs they sell in drugstores. They're supposed to last several weeks, though they don't work that reliably in practice. Still, I saturated the soil with water the morning I left, then filled the bulb and crossed my fingers for no long heat waves.

I wasn't prepared for what I saw when I got back. Something had dug out my little gooseberry and taken it!

I still have no idea what got it. We certainly have some local squirrels who love to dig, and young squirrels (still learning their digging skills) love potted plants. But I wouldn't think a squirrel would have much use for a gooseberry seedling -- they just like the act of digging.

I wonder if cape gooseberry leaves are particularly tasty to rodents?

Ironically, the soil was still quite damp. The little plant probably would have made it through just fine.

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[ 14:17 Jul 28, 2010    More travel | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 18 Jun 2010

Use "date" to show time abroad

While I was in Europe, Dave stumbled on a handy alias on his Mac to check the time where I was: date -v +10 (+10 is the offset from the current time). But when he tried to translate this to Linux, he found that the -v flag from FreeBSD's date program wasn't available on the GNU date on Linux.

But I suggested he could do the same thing with the TZ environment variable. It's not documented well anywhere I could find, but if you set TZ to the name of a time zone, date will print out the time for that zone rather than your current one.

So, for bash:

$ TZ=Europe/Paris date  # time in Paris
$ TZ=GB date            # time in Great Britain
$ TZ=GMT-02 date        # time two timezones east of GMT
or for csh:
% ( setenv TZ Europe/Paris; date)
% ( setenv TZ GB; date)
% ( setenv TZ GMT-02; date)

That's all very well. But when I tried

% ( setenv TZ UK; date)
% ( setenv TZ FR; date)
they gave the wrong time, even though Wikipedia's list of time zones seemed to indicate that those abbreviations were okay.

The trick seems to be that setting TZ only works for abbreviations in /usr/share/zoneinfo/, or maybe in /usr/share/zoneinfo/posix/. If you give an abbreviation, like UK or FR or America/San_Francisco, it won't give you an error, it'll just print GMT as if that was what you had asked for.

So this trick is useful for printing times abroad -- but if you want to be safe, either stick to syntaxes like GMT-2, or make a script that checks whether your abbreviation exists in the directory before calling date, and warns you rather than just printing the wrong time.

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[ 14:04 Jun 18, 2010    More linux/cmdline | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 11 Feb 2009

Bruny Island night life: penguins and shearwaters

After a week in Tasmania, supposedly the most wildlife-packed state in Australia, without seeing anything besides ducks (mostly mallards) and songbirds (mostly sparrows and starlings), I was getting desperate.

I had one last hope: Bruny Island, touted as the wild and unspoiled place to see wildlife ... though the wildlife touted in the tourist brochures mostly seems to involve paying for a boat ride to see sea birds and fur seals. Nobody ever talks about marsupials wandering around -- are there any? Since it's an island, how would they get there? Nobody ever mentions the intriguing spot marked "penguin rookery" on "The Neck" between North and South Bruny. After last year's tremendous experience at the Philip Island Penguin Parade, I thought it might be worth booking a room on Bruny in the hope of seeing (a) penguins and (b) other nocturnal wildlife.

We booked into the "Bruny Island Hotel", a tiny pub with two lodging units billing itself as "Australia's Southernmost Hotel" (a claim dubious claim -- we saw plenty of lodging farther south, though their actual names didn't include the word "hotel"). We were a little taken aback when we saw the place but it turned out to be clean and comfortable, and right on the bay. And the pub had some wonderful aromas from the daily curry special (which, we found that night, tasted as good as it smelled).

Since we'd caught an early ferry, we spent the day exploring Bruny, including a bushwalk up to Mt. Mangana. The narrow and overgrown trail climbs steadily through thick forest, but the adventurous part of the hike came in one of the few sunny, rocky clearings, where a quite large black snake (something between a meter and a meter and a half long and as thick around as Dave's wrist) slithered off the trail right in front of me. Then right after that, Dave spotted a much smaller snake, the size of a large garter snake, a bit off the trail. Should I mention that all Tasmanian snakes are venomous? (Checking the books later, the large one was a black tiger snake -- quite dangerous -- while the smaller one was probably a white-lipped snake, considered only moderately dangerous.)

After that our appreciation of the scenery declined a bit as we kept our eyes glued to the trail ahead of us, but we saw no more snakes and eventually emerged into a clearing that gave us great views of a radio tower but no views of much of anything else. On Mt Mangana, the journey is the point, not the destination.

On the way back down, when we got to the rocky clearing, both of our colubrid friends were there to meet us. Dave, in the lead, stamped a bit and the larger snake slithered off ahead of us on the trail -- not quite the reaction we'd been hoping for -- while the smaller snake coiled into a ball but remained off the trail. Eventually the large snake left the trail and Dave quickly passed it while I snapped a shot of its disappearing tail. Now it was my turn to pass -- but the snake was no longer visible. Where was it now? I was searching the trailside where it had disappeared when I heard a rustling in the bush beside and behind me and saw the snake's head appearing -- it had circled around behind me! (I'm sure this wasn't a strategic move, merely some sort of coincidence: I used to keep snakes and though they're fascinating and beautiful, intelligence isn't really their strong point.) I high-tailed it down the trail and we finished the walk safely.

That evening, we headed over to the penguin rookery, where it turned out that we had happened to choose the one night when there was a ranger talk and program there. I wasn't sure whether that was a good or a bad thing, since it meant a crowd, but it turned out all to the good, partly because it meant a lot more high-powered red-masked flashlights to point out the penguins, but mostly because the real show there isn't penguins at all.

The Bruny Island penguin rookery is also a rookery for short-tailed shearwaters -- known as "muttonbirds" because they're "harvested" for their meat, said to taste like mutton. Their life cycle is fascinating. They spend the nothern hemisphere summer up in the Bering Sea near Alaska, but around September they migrate down to southern Australia, a trip that takes about a week and a half including stopping to feed. They breed and lay a single egg, which both parents incubate until it hatches in mid-January. Then the parents feed the chick until it grows to twice the size of its parents (some 10 kg! while still unable to fly). Then the parents leave the chicks and fly back north. This is the stage at which the overgrown chicks are "harvested" for meat. The chicks who don't get picked off (they're protected in Tasmania) live off their fat deposits until their flight feathers come in, at which point they fly north to join the adults.

We were there about a week after hatching, while the parents were feeding the chicks. The adult shearwaters spend all day fishing while the chick sleeps in a burrow in the sand. At sunset, the adults come flying back, where they use both voice and vision to locate the right burrow. The catch: a bird that migrates from Alaska to Tasmania, and takes casual flights to Antarctica for food, is designed to fly fast. Shearwaters aren't especially good at landing in confined spaces, especially when loaded with fish. The other catch is that there are many thousands of them (the ranger said there were 14,000 nesting at that rookery alone).

So, come dusk, the air is filled with thousands of fast-flying shearwaters circling and looking for their burrows and working up the nerve to land, which they eventually do with a resounding thump. They crash into bushes, the boardwalk, or, uncommonly, people who are there to watch the show. It's kind of like watching the bats fly out of Carlsbad caverns ... if the bats weighed five kilos each and flew at 20-30mph. The night fills with the eerie cries of shearwaters calling to each other, the growling of shearwaters fighting over burrows, and the thumps of shearwaters making bad landings.

Penguins? We saw a few, mostly chicks coming out of their burrows to await a food-carrying parent, and late in the evening a handful came out of the water and climbed the beach. Penguins normally find each other by sound, and at Philip Island they were quite noisy, but at Bruny most of the penguins we saw were silent (we did hear a few penguin calls mixed in with the cacophony of shearwaters). But we didn't really miss the penguins with the amazing shearwater show.

When we finally drove back to the hotel, we drove slowly, hoping to see nocturnal wildlife. We knew by then that Bruny does have mammals (however they might have gotten there) because of the universal sign: roadkill. And we did see wildlife: three penguins, two small red wallabies, three smaller red animals with fuzzy tails (ringtailed and brushtailed possums?) and one barely-glimpsed small sand-colored animal the size and shape of a weasel (I wonder if it could have been a brown bandicoot? It didn't look mouselike and didn't have spots like a quoll).

Success! A spectacular evening.

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[ 12:24 Feb 11, 2009    More travel/tasmania | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 04 Feb 2009

Tasmania Photos

I still haven't finished writing up a couple of blog entries from bumming around Tasmania after LCA2009, but I did get some photos uploaded: Tasmania photos. Way too many photos of cute Tassie devils and other animals at the Bonorong wildlife park, as well as the usual collection of scenics and silly travel photos.

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[ 15:49 Feb 04, 2009    More travel/tasmania | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 04 Aug 2008

Back from OSCON

No postings for a while -- I was too tied up with getting ready for OSCON, and now that it's over, too tied up with catching up with stuff that gotten behind.

A few notes about OSCON:

It was a good conference -- lots of good speakers, interesting topics and interesting people. Best talks: anything by Paul Fenwick, anything by Damian Conway.

The Arduino tutorial was fun too. It's a little embedded processor with a breadboard and sockets to control arbitrary electronic devices, all programmed over a USB plug using a Java app. I'm not a hardware person at all (what do those resistor color codes mean again?) but even I, even after coming in late, managed to catch up and build the basic circuits they demonstrated, including programming them with my laptop. Very cool! I'm looking forward to playing more with the Arduino when I get a spare few moments.

The conference's wi-fi network was slow and sometimes flaky (what else is new?) but they had a nice touch I haven't seen at any other conference: Wired connections, lots of them, on tables and sofas scattered around the lounge area (and more in rooms like the speakers' lounge). The wired net was very fast and very reliable. I'm always surprised I don't see more wired connections at hotels and conferences, and it sure came in handy at OSCON.

The AV staff was great, very professional and helpful. I was speaking first thing Monday morning (ulp!) so I wanted to check the room Sunday night and make sure my laptop could talk to the projector and so forth. Everything worked fine.

Portland is a nice place to hold a convention -- the light rail is great, the convention center is very accessible, and street parking isn't bad either if you have a car there.

Dave went with me, so it made more sense for us to drive. The drive was interesting because the central valley was so thick with smoke from all the fires (including the terrible Paradise fire that burned for so long, plus a new one that had just started up near Yosemite) that we couldn't see Mt Shasta when driving right by it. It didn't get any better until just outside of Sacramento. It must have been tough for Sacramento valley residents, living in that for weeks! I hope they've gotten cleared out now.

[Redding Sundial bridge] I finally saw that Redding Sundial bridge I've been hearing so much about. We got there just before sunset, so we didn't get to check the sundial, but we did get an impressive deep red smoky sun vanishing into the gloom. Photos here.

End of my little blog-break, and time to get back to scrambling to get caught up on writing and prep for the GetSET Javascript class for high school girls. Every year we try to make it more relevant and less boring, with more thinking and playing and less rote typing. I think we're making progress, but we'll see how it goes next week.

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[ 23:00 Aug 04, 2008    More conferences | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 10 Feb 2008

The Grampians

The Great Ocean Rd drive had been lovely, but now my plans took me away from the coast and north, to the national park known as the Grampians.

I didn't know much about the Grampians -- going there was a whim. My Australian wildlife book said it was a good place to see kangaroos, emus, and koalas, and that as an island of old sandstone sticking up out of a sea of younger basalt terrain, they had a lot of relict species which aren't seen much in other parts of Western Victoria. Beyond that, I knew nothing.

I didn't have much of a road map, either. Although the Grampians are more or less straight north from Warrnambool, the maps I had weren't entirely clear about how to find the highway going north to Hall's Gap. But it looked like it should be easy -- just find the highway going to Dunkeld (one of the maps even had the highway number) and if I kept going past Dunkeld, eventually I'd end up in Hall's Gap. Easy!

So I headed west out of Warrnambool, keeping an eye open for the highway numbers. Nothing for a while, then a sign for a highway heading toward Caramut. I stopped and checked the map; Caramut was the next town east of Dunkeld, so I figured the next highway would likely be my turn-off.

A few miles later, I saw another highway sign ... but it was for Hamilton, the next town west of Dunkeld. Hey, wait a minute! What happened to that highway on the map that went straight to Dunkeld?

So that's how I found myself sailing along on one-lane unmarked country roads in the pleasant farming country north of Warrnambool. It's all bucolic green rolling hills and fields dotted with big hay rolls, crisscrossed with relatively straight roads. The roads reminded me enough of California's central valley (though the Victoria terrain here was much greener and prettier) that I felt relatively sure I'd be able to find my way in the right direction eventually. (We'll just ignore for the moment my skewed sense of direction caused by the sun being in the wrong part of the sky.)

After the road narrowed to a single lane, I quickly learned the protocol for oncoming cars: slow down barely at all, edge over onto the wide, smooth left shoulder and keep driving. The other car does the same, and everything works out fine.

Gradually, I saw the tips of the rocky crags that must be the Grampians looming out of the haze far ahead. I started seeing Dunkeld signs, and after a few twists and jogs, I arrived at Dunkeld itself, a tiny but picturesque looking town in the Grampian foothills, one just large enough to have a cafe where I was able to get a latte for the road.

North of Dunkeld the terrain becomes more winding and wooded, with vaguely exotic looking trees just different enough from the eucalypts we're used to in California that it looked a bit exotic. I'd been keeping my eyes peeled for roadside kangaroos all along, without seeing one, but I did see some road wildlife -- something that looked like a big stick lying on the road, until I realized the big stick was moving -- rather rapidly -- across the road. I slowed enough to make sure I avoided the blue-tongue lizard and watched it disappear in the roadside brush. Besides the one blue-tongue and the constant presence of sulfur-crested cockatoos in the trees above, the woods were remarkably quiet.

The last part of the road to Hall's Gap follows the valley between two high ridges of upturned sandstone. In a way it's reminiscent of the drive from Banff to Jasper in the Canadian Rockies -- of course the elevation and climate are totally different, but there's the same striking sense of following the trough between two adjacent up-tilted hogbacks. You can see that in aerial photographs (my wildlife book had one illustrating the Grampians) but I didn't expect it to be so obvious from the road. (I later had excellent looks from the other end, from some of the park lookouts north of Hall's Gap.)

And before long, I arrived at Hall's Gap. I checked in to the apartment I'd booked; then since it was still quite early in the day, plenty of time for a hike, I backtracked to the park visitor's center to inquire about trails.

On the ranger's advice, I made the hike to "The Pinnacle", a relatively hike over sloping and pitted black sandstone, winding through a slot canyon and up onto a clifftop. There were lots of other hikers on this popular trail despite the steep climb and the hot weather, and everyone exchanged cheerful words of encouragement and tips ("There's a nice cool spot to rest just a little way ahead", "You're almost to the top!"). The view at the end was spectacular and well worth the climb, with panoramic views of Hall's gap, the long valley between the two upraised ridges, and the farmland stretching for miles to the east.

Happy but thoroughly overheated from the hike, I took a quick shower then whiled away the time before dinner exploring some of the park's scenic overviews, during which time the weather clouded up and began to sprinkle. By the time I got back to my room it was raining buckets. This seemed to set off a black cockatoo outside my window, who flew from tree to tree screeching incessantly.

For dinner I'd already bought a ticket to the Australia Day BBQ and aboriginal dance at the Brambuk Aboriginal Cultural Centre. The festivities had be hastily re-arranged due to the rain, so we were treated to a prevew of the evening's digeridoo while they moved the BBQ to somewhere sheltered from the rain.

The BBQ was excellent ('roo, beef and sausage) and the digeridoo I heard impressed me. I'd heard recordings, of course, and Americans blowing into 'doos they'd brought from Australia, but I'd never listened live to someone who really knew how to play. It's a whole different experience: the 'doo is very directional, and the effects of the changing sound as the player moves the instrument around gives the experience much more presence than you can ever hear in a recording. I wish I could have stayed longer ... but I had too much to do before hitting the road in the morning. On the short trip back to my room I was treated to views of herds of kangaroos grazing in the fields on the outskirts of town.

I headed out fairly early Sunday morning. I didn't have much of a plan: just drive back to Melbourne in time to check in at the college and drop off the rental car. I didn't expect to start the morning with one of the trip's great sights: herds of emu grazing in fields by the side of the road below the sandstone knobs of the Grampians peeking through the morning fog. Lovely!

Halfway back to Melbourne, I stopped to check out the town of Ballarat, but it was disappointing. Somehow I'd gotten the impression of it as a scenic and remote mining town, akin to the California desert town of the same name. But it was just an ordinary little Victoria town, with some old buildings and a main street full of pricy cafes and shops. I arrived back at Melbourne a bit earlier than planned, which was just as well since it took four or five circuits of the university before I finally found a way to sneak in to Trinity college (as another car came out). I checked in to my room, dropped off the Elantra, and joined a group of fellow conference-goers in the search for registration.

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[ 13:33 Feb 10, 2008    More travel/melbourne08 | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 28 Jan 2008

The Great Ocean Road

Geelong's great claim to fame is the Wool Museum. That gives you an idea of what a happenin' place this is.

Its chief attractions were that it was (1) fairly close to the beginning of the Great Ocean Road, that famous drive that everyone tells you you have to see when venturing out from Melbourne, and (2) I was able to book a reasonably priced room there online (via the very handy Wotif).

I somehow managed to get through my stay without visiting the Wool Museum, though, so someone else will have to report on that.

I wasn't originally planning to take the GOR. Not that I doubted its beauty ... but the descriptions and photos sounded an awful lot like Highway 1, the coastal road in Northern California. Not that there's anything wrong with Highway 1 -- it's a great drive -- but after going halfway around the globe, I'd like to do stuff that's significantly different from what you have at home.

But the recommendations seemed so universal, I gave in and decided to try it. Gotta follow local knowledge, right?

So is the GOR similar to Highway 1? Yes. The ocean is a different color, a shimmering aquamarine versus California's steely olive green; and the plants are different (California has lots of imported Eucalypts, but generally not on the coastal road. I did wonder whether the trees in Victoria that look so much like the Monterey Cypress of California's coast were native, or imports).

And those big white birds sailing overhead aren't egrets -- they're cockatoos.

And the sea stacks are better: I won't claim that California has anything that quite rivals the limestone majesty of the Twelve Apostles, or the even more impressive London Bridge.

It's a nice driving road; while it would have been a lot more fun in my X1/9, it was even fun in a rented automatic Hyundai Elantra. There's a section in the middle where it goes inland for a while (with an optional spur going off to a lighthouse) that reminded me of some of the great driving roads in the Santa Cruz mountains. Some of the ocean parts are less fun, mostly because they're so narrow, yet so choked with tour buses and trucks pulling trailers, none of which seem able to stay in their own lane.

All in all,, a fun but not not entirely exotic drive. Do I regret it? Not at all. I had a lot of fun driving it and admiring the scenery. I ended the drive in the pleasant town of Warrnambool, a fun name to say even if I seem incapable of remembering the spelling.

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[ 04:04 Jan 28, 2008    More travel/melbourne08 | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 25 Jan 2008

No Worms at the Giant Worm

Of course I had to stop. How could you drive by a roadside stand advertising the Giant Earthworms of South Gippsland and not stop?

Besides, Bill Bryson had written about it.

But the Giant Worm museum was a disappointment. They had a sign up apologizing for not having any actual live giant worms on display (it's an endangered species), so all they had was models and one yucky preserved specimen in a jar.

It still was a fun stop, though. They have a little wildlife center -- not nearly as nice as the one on Phillip Island, but they had a very tame and sweet baby wombat, and a shy but very cute baby wallaby. Plus a variety of other animals like dingos, full sized adult wombats, an assortment of kangaroos, cockatoos, pythons, etc. And ... alpacas? Not something I normally think of as a native Australian animal, but they were cute.

The worm stuff was fairly pedestrian in comparison. If you want to learn about the Giant Earthworm of South Gippsland, either read Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country or, better yet, rent the appropriate episode of Life in the Undergrowth and let David Attenborough fill you in on the details.

After leaving the worm museum, I headed over to the Mornington peninsula (I'll let Bryson tell you about that, too, since I didn't stop there) to take the car ferry across to Queenscliff.

I'd never been on a car ferry before, and was a bit shocked when I found out it would cost me $57 to cross. Yikes! I probably would have taken the long way round, had I known. But it's just as well I didn't know, because then I would have missed the dolphins -- four of them, escorting the ferry and playing in its wake. I'm sure it's nothing unusual, but it my first time ever seeing dolphins in the wild. When we landed at Queenscliff I found out that it's the place where you go if you want to pay to "swim with the dolphins", so I guess they're unusually tame there. I didn't stop to swim with them (nor was I much tempted to take a dip, on a chilly overcast day); I was on my way to Geelong to drive the Great Ocean Road.

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[ 14:18 Jan 25, 2008    More travel/melbourne08 | permalink to this entry | ]

What's hot in South Gippsland

One of the joys of travel is checking out regional newspapers to see what the locals care about. The morning after the Penguin Parade, that meant the South Gippsland Sentinel-Times.

The Sentinel-Times features regular items like a page of fishing news (some local kids caught a Mako shark) and a page of farming news (an unusually high demand for heifers). The week's editorial concerns a "former doubter" who has his picnic/camping trip disrupted by a huge black feline, three times the size of a normal house cat, skulking in the bushes near the picnic tables. The writer elects not to leave the safety of the car, and drives away. Now he no longer doubts people's stories of huge black cats (apparently an ongoing issue in South Gippsland). He still doesn't believe in UFOs, though.

But the top story in the Sentinel-Times is the new desalinization plant being built against the protests of residents. There were at least five different stories about it. But isn't desalinization a good thing, in a region which is under severe water restrictions already? Most of the articles assumed that readers already knew the issues, but finally I found the answer: the plant is far larger than needed for the region, it's feared that it will have (unspecified) environmental impact upon the local ecology and no environmental studies have been done, and, finally, the most telling fact: the plant will be owned by an Israeli firm which will own rights to the water.

Anyone remember Bolivia's water riots, when the peasants rose up against foreign companies overcharging them for their own water? Handing over local control of the water supply sounds like a bad plan. I'd be against it too. Good luck to the folk of South Gippy in their fight.

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[ 14:17 Jan 25, 2008    More travel/melbourne08 | permalink to this entry | ]

The Penguin Parade

I'll just start with the summary: the Penguin Parade is completely amazing.

Phillips Island, a couple hours' drive south of Melbourne, is home to a colony of little penguins. (That's the species name, not just a descriptive adjective, though it does describe them: they're only about a foot tall.)

Little penguins nest in burrows in the rolling dune terrain above the beach. They swim many miles out into the ocean on hunting trips, but when they've eaten their fill, they come back to their burrows on the island. They prefer to do this at dusk, to avoid diurnal predators like hawks. So every night just after sunset, the penguins who have been out hunting need to cross the beach and walk/run/waddle to their burrows.

They're so regular about this that it has become a major tourist attraction: there's a permanent viewing area where hordes of tourists can watch the penguins on their daily journey. Wooden boardwalks over the dunes. Floodlights so people can see the penguins better (the penguins don't seem to mind). Tickets are sold, and there are scads of bus tours from Melbourne. I mean, there are a lot of bus tours; you can throw your back out just hefting a stack of all the brochures from all the tour companies.

I was tempted to go the tour route. They take care of all that driving-on-the-left stuff and figuring out where to go, and the price isn't all that high when you compare it to car rental and gas and ticket prices. But ... reading about the Parade I kept seeing comments like "Stay a bit later and you'll get to see more" ... if the Parade actually turned out to be something cool, I didn't want to be shooed out early because the bus driver wanted to leave. Better to have my own transportation and a room on the island.

So there I was, sitting on a concrete step at sunset in the chill ocean wind. (The smarter folk stayed in the comfy warm visitor center until past sunset.) Silver gulls showed off their soaring skills inches above our heads, buzzing the crowd looking for dropped bits of food. Kids jostled and fiddled. (The little boy from the family in front of me on the steps wanted to play with the little foam Tux Linux penguin hanging on my backpack.)

(I imagined the penguins, swimming around there in the ocean before us, chatting with each other: "Every night, you can see thousands of humans gathered on this beach. No penguin knows why they all gather here and not at other beaches. But it's an amazing show, seeing all those humans together. You just have to walk a little way up the beach to see them.")

As the sky darkned and stars started to appear, a ranger stepped forward and told us a little about the penguins and what we'd be seeing. Then they played recorded messages in Japanese and Chinese (though I heard more European languages than Asiatic in the crowd that night). I didn't try to estimate the crowd. I heard an estimate of two thousand, but I doubt it was anywhere near that high.

We were there at a good time, the ranger told us. There were lots of chicks in the burrows, old enough that the parents were kept busy foraging. That means lots of penguins crossing the beach.

But crossing the beach is a dangerous trip for a foot-tall penguin, even if they wait until after sunset. So penguins hang out in the shallows until there are enough of them; then they all land together and make their way inland as a group.

The floodlights came on, but it was another ten minutes or so before we saw the first penguins. A group of maybe ten tiny figures stood on the rocks, obviously trying to work up the courage to proceed. They'd move a few feet, to the next rock, then stop for a while, working up the nerve for the next move.

Before long there was another, larger group assembling off to the left, and then a third group. Group one finally made it off the rocks and started heading for the dunes -- toward the special boardwalk for the people who bought the $60 "Penguin Plus" tickets. We proles in the cheap seats still had plenty to watch, though, as a fourth and fifth group began to assemble. Pretty soon there were groups of tiny penguins all over the beach making their waddling way toward the dunes.

In the pre-parade talk, the ranger had told us that a lot of the action is up in the dunes, the wooden boardwalks we'd taken on our way down from the visitors center. Watch several groups cross the beach, he said, but then go back up to the boardwalks and you'll see plenty of action up there too. Indeed: now I understood the point of the raised boardwalks, as we watched determined penguins following trails right beneath our feet. Burrows were everywhere: a lot of the burrows were just a few feet from a floodlit boardwalk filled with people.

The night filled with the warbling cries of little penguins searching for a partner, chick or parent. A reunited pair would sing a duet, caressing each other with their flippers and bills. Other times, a penguin would climb to the wrong burrow, to be driven off by the penguin already waiting there. Some penguins preferred mansions in the hills, climbing determinedly up near-vertical gully walls to reach a high burrow; others stayed down in the easier-to-reach lowland slums.

There were other animals active besides penguins. As soon as darkness fell, dark long-winged birds began flying by: short-tailed shearwaters, the ranger told me. And in the darkness of the dunes, penguins weren't the only animals moving between burrows: quite a few rabbits (two or three times the size of the penguins) were there as well.

And the penguins kept coming. An hour passed, and still the waves of ten, twelve, fifteen penguins at a time struggled their way up the dunes. Sometimes a straggler would collapse, exhausted, and just lie there in the sand until the next group came along. Sometimes a penguin would get a burst of energy and run to catch up to the group ahead of them. A second hour passed, with no letup in the supply of penguins. There must be thousands of them.

By about 11:15, the rangers started turning off the floodlights and gently nudging people up the boardwalks. They weren't pushy about it, but you could tell they wished we'd leave so they could go home. There were only a few dozen of us spectators left by then, and a kangaroo had wandered in from somewhere to watch the show. (I'd had to stop for another kangaroo on the road on the way up to the show. Very cool.)

A ranger answered a few last questions as we clustered on the concrete pad next to the visitor's center. Another ranger nudged two dawdling spectators to move to one side: "Those penguins there are waiting for you to get out of the way so they can cross." Indeed, as soon as the two gents moved aside, one penguin left the group and waddled decisively across the tarmac and into the dunes across the way.

Did I mention that the whole experience was completely amazing?

I was one of the last to leave, but I could easily have stayed for yet another hour, watching soap opera stories of partners reunited, chicks found and fed, wanderers lost and then found.

The next morning I drove out to "The Nobbies", the trail at the end of the road past the Penguin Parade. Looking with new eyes, I realized that the hill where the lookout stood, maybe 1500 feet above the water, was peppered with penguin burrows. Indeed, as I started down the trail I could see that some of the burrows were occupied.

The Penguin Parade was a magical experience. But the most amazing thing about it is that it isn't anything unusual. This happens every night. It's not the same penguins from one night to the next: they'll go hunting for several days or a week, come back to land, then stay that long in the burrow before going out again. But the thousands of penguins I saw ... there wasn't anything special about the night I was there. You can go out there any night of the year and see thousands of penguins swimming up out of the water, landing on the beach and marching past you to their burrows. Nothing special ... happens every night.

Completely amazing.

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[ 14:16 Jan 25, 2008    More travel/melbourne08 | permalink to this entry | ]

Phillip Island

I'm in Melbourne, for But I'm spending the week before the conference exploring greater Melbourne ... beginning with Phillip Island.

After a couple of days in Melbourne to recover from the flight, I checked out of my hotel and faced the scariest task of the day: schlepping across town to the rental car place carrying all my luggage, fearing that when I got there they'd take one look at my driver's license and say "Are you crazy? We don't give out cars to people who only know how to drive on the right!"

But as sensible as that would have been, in fact they gave me the keys to a Hyundai Elantra and directions out of town. I was on my way to Phillip Island.

It took me a couple of hours to get there, being very mellow and repeating "left, left, left" to myself. But in fact, it turns out to be surprisingly easy to stay on the correct side of the road, and Victoria's ubiquitous roundabouts actually make it easier, oddly enough. The only hard part is keeping from wearing out the windshield wipers, which stubbornly persist in coming on when I flip the stalk where the turn signals ought to be.

Anyway, Phillip Island. The point of going there is the island's famous Penguin Parade, a huge tourist attraction involving watching penguins come up out of the water and trek across the beach to their nests. This happens at sunset, which was still many hours away, so I decided to while away some of the time checking out the wild animal park.

The wildlife park is down a short dusty driveway. There were only a couple of cars parked there, which surprised me since Melbourne is full of brochures from at least ten different companies that run bus tours to what sounded like the same place ("See koalas! hand-feed kangaroos and emus!") It looked like the kind of place you'd expect to find one tiny corral with a couple of sad, moth-eaten animals enduring the hordes of tourists. But there I was -- might as well give it a chance.

I'm glad I did. The place is huge and has a very good selection of Australian animals, kept in large pens and apparently well cared for. I saw koalas, all right -- four of them, snoozing on branches in the afternoon sun, barely more than an arm's length away from the elevated boardwalk. I lost count of the different species of kangaroos and wallabies, some of them in large pens and some just wandering around at large, begging food from passing visitors. (A wallaby's facial fur is very soft as it snuffles your hand; its back and neck fur are coarser.)

The emus found out early on that I was an easy target. I fed the two adults and two youngsters through a fence, only discovering later that their enclosure also houses red kangaroos and you can walk in. But when I tried, the emus recognized me and came running, to surround me and peck at my pocket where the food was; eventually I gave up and made my escape from the emu compound.

There were a few animals that remained hidden. Their two or three Tasmanian devils were all in hiding, alas. But I got some close looks at several animals I think of as fairly exotic: the echidna obligingly came out and stood in a patch of sun to get his picture taken, and the quolls were snoozing in a hollow log that was fortunately quite easy to see from where I was standing (though too dark for photos).

All in all a very fun experience, made better by the lack of crowds (I was very glad to have arrived at a time when no tour buses were around, so I shared the place with three or four families). I spent an enjoyable hour or so, leaving me plenty of time to wash the wallaby spit off my hands, have dinner and drive out to the Penguin Parade (which deserves a separate article).

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[ 14:14 Jan 25, 2008    More travel/melbourne08 | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 06 Apr 2007

Palominos, Punctuation and Bull Berries

Dave and I just got back from another road trip. We saw some fabulous stuff, but today's entry is on ways to amuse yourself during long hours on the road.

[Puma, by Palomino] One way to start is to make fun of the grandiose names on RVs, as well as the mandatory swoopy graphics (we saw only one swoopless RV on the whole trip -- it had plain straight stripes on the side).

RVs almost always have several names, and there are so many different models you can get through a whole road trip without ever seeing a repeat. One of our favorites from this trip was "Puma, by Palomino", a rather odd combination. I wouldn't expect a puma and a palomino to get along very well or have much in common. I guess they're both sort of golden in color (which the RV in question was not). The graphic was of a puma, not a palomino.

[HOLE N"THE ROCK] Small-town roadside signs can be fun, too. Of course, they tend to be riddled with spelling and punctuation errors, which is half the fun. We couldn't figure out what they were aiming at with the punctuation on the sign for HOLE N"THE ROCK, a few miles south of Moab. Why a double quote rather than an apostrophe? Or is it supposed to be two apostrophes together? And what is it doing there after the N? An apostrophe before the N could stand for the letter I, but after it ... it's hard to tell what it's standing for, except the missing space before the next word, THE. We spent a while trying to come up with three-letter words beginning with N which would make sense between HOLE and THE ROCK, but then some more amazing Moab scenery appeared and we lost interest in the punctuation game.

But small towns can have a lot to offer, too. Sometimes you can learn all sorts of things that might not be available in the big city. We saw a sign on a roadside church in Bakersfield advertising their upcoming Creation Seminar. Wow! I didn't know mere mortals could learn how to do that stuff too! I wish I'd had time to stick around for the seminar.

Other times small towns are just scary. The Bullberry Inn Bed & Breakfast in Tropic, UT has a sign out front proclaiming that it's the "Home of Granny's Bullberry Jelly". I've heard of horse apples, but I'm not sure I want to know what a bull berry is, let alone spread it on my toast. We opted to stay in one of the other hotels instead.

[ 22:40 Apr 06, 2007    More travel | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 02 Feb 2007

Sydney Photos

Too many pictures! Choosing a subset to put on the web is always a daunting task, and no doubt I don't narrow down the selection quite enough and still upload too many photos. But there was so much interesting and scenic stuff to see around Sydney!

So here they are, my Sydney photos, with some annotations which were previously intended to be blog entries. (Though I'm sure I'll have more to say about Australia once I sort through the notes I made at the time.)

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[ 20:31 Feb 02, 2007    More travel/sydney | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 03 Apr 2005

Rainbow Basin: the Barstow Syncline

We started the day at Zzyzx, south of Baker. I'd been told that there were lots of geologically interesting things to see there.

If so, we couldn't find them. There's a little cluster of buildings marking the Desert Research Center, but it doesn't seem to be open to casual visitors; rather, they do classes and tours by appointment. Zzyzx abuts the southwest end of Soda Dry Lake, so you can get good views of the dry lakebed (with a little water on it here and there, thanks to the very wet winter) and across it to Mojave Rd and the Kelso Dunes. Worth the 5 mile detour off the freeway? Well, no, not really. But Dave was happy to find a relatively windless place where we could fly model airplanes for a few minutes.

Fortunately, Zzyxz wasn't the target of the day; that honor fell to Rainbow Basin, a few miles north of Barstow on the road to Fort Irwin. We'd actually tried to go to Rainbow Basin once before while passing through Barstow, but got lost. This time we had a more detailed map, since Rainbow Basin occupies a whole chapter in Geology Underfoot, Southern California.

Except it turned out that map wasn't any better than the wide-scale auto club map. The problem is that when you're coming in from the northeast, there's an exit off I-15 for "Fort Irwin Rd", even though no such exit shows on any of the maps. Fort Irwin Rd. is the road all the maps show as leading to Rainbow Basin. So that's the road to take, right?

Well, it turns out that Fort Irwin Rd and the more westward Irwin Rd angle together to meet at a point well north of the Rainbow Basin turnoff, which is on Irwin Rd. Irwin Rd. is the road all the maps label as Fort Irwin Rd, while Fort Irwin Rd. doesn't exist on the maps at all. Confused yet?

Here's the secret: if you exit I-15 at Fort Irwin Rd, make a left when you get to Irwin Rd. and angle back toward Barstow. Drive for longer than you think you should, and Look for a dirt road going off to the right called Fossil Beds Rd, which has no signs whatsoever related to Rainbow Basin even though supposedly there's a sign for it if you're coming in the other direction. Once you find Fossil Beds Rd, you're on track, and there are signs for the rest of the way.

Is it worth bothering with all this? Absolutely! Geology Underfoot rightly recommends starting with the "scenic loop drive", a short, one lane, one way dirt road that looks a little rough but really shouldn't be a problem for any car (at least when dry). It winds down through narrow canyons composed of colorful highly tilted layers of mudstone and tuff, then up a little hill to a parking area which offers a panoramic view of the Barstow Syncline, where the rock layers have been warped by fault compression into a striking U-shaped depression in an action mimicking the larger scale raising of the Transverse Ranges north of the Los Angeles basin by the San Andreas fault.

Curiously, on an intensely crowded weekend, Rainbow Basin was almost deserted. At the Syncline parking area we joined one other vehicle, a white van belonging to the "Loma Linda Department of Natural Sciences (Geology and Biology)". We never did spot the Loma Lindans; presumably they were down in the syncline measuring strike and dip. I hope my class field trips turn out to be this interesting.

Geology Underfoot recommends following the scenic drive with a hike of Owl Canyon, from Rainbow Basin's camping area, so we did so. The Owl Canyon trail offers a chance to walk through the axis of the syncline, up a mostly-dry creekbed to a dry waterfall. The colors aren't as impressive as the layers visible from the scenic loop, but the more subtle colors are interesting: the book mentions the green mudstone all along the wash (green from weathering of volcanic ash, not from copper) but doesn't mention the strikingly colorful granites washed down into the canyon, reds and bright greens as well as greys and blacks.

Along the way, there's a short cave in the side of the canyon marking a tributary which runs in wet weather. The book recommends bringing flashlights if one wishes to explore the cave. Since we had only bought the book a day earlier, we weren't well prepared for that; fortunately, I had my little blue LED keychain flashlight clipped to my water bottle, which turned out to be fine since the cave was so short.

Rainbow Basin was an excellent conclusion to our Mojave desert trip. This well hidden pocket park is well worth a side trip if you're anywhere near Barstow and have any interest in geology, or just in a short scenic drive among colorful desert rocks. Assuming, of course, that you can find the road in.

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[ 22:31 Apr 03, 2005    More travel/mojave | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 01 Apr 2005


The East Mojave National Reserve is the nation's newest member of the national park system, signed into law as one of President Clinton's final acts. Growing up in LA, I'd driven through various parts of the Mojave desert since I was old enough to drive, but I hadn't been there since the park was created, and I didn't have much idea what specific interesting places might be there, except for Kelso Dunes, distantly visible from the interstate near Baker and always intriguing on our previous trips.

But where to go? I had no information about what was where, just an auto club road map and the topographic map collection I've been using to work on my pytopo program. The road map had ranger hat symbols at the town of Baker, at Mitchell Caverns down at the south end of the preserve, and at an obscure intersection of two minor roads in the south-central part of the reserve.

Dave didn't want to go to Baker -- it's a tacky little town whose two claims to fame are the World's Tallest Thermometer and a restaurant called the Bun Boy, though I have fond memories of our stay at Baker on the first night of our first trip together. Mitchell Caverns was too far and likely to be too crowded during spring break week. So we decided on the third option, which followed a road that led toward Kelso Dunes. Even if we didn't find a ranger station, at least we'd see the dunes; and there was an intriguing place somewhere along the road called "Hole in the Wall" which sounded worth checking out.

Roads in the preserve are mostly dirt, but are well graded and very well signed, and finding our way was no problem. Wonder of wonders, Hole in the Wall is the ranger station and campground marked on the auto club roadmap, and they have a very nice visitor's center and bookshop. Although they didn't have any books on the geology of the area (not their fault: no one has written one and they wish someone would!) they did have another in the "Geology Underfoot" series which covered, among other places, Rainbow Basin, tomorrow's target.

Newly armed with books and maps, we headed down the Rings Trail, Hole in the Wall's showpiece. It's short (though it connects to several much longer trails), fun and interesting: you scramble down over blocks of the colorful local tuff until you get to a steep slot, where metal rings have been bolted into the rock to provide handholds. Two such ring ladders and a bit more rock scrambling get you to the bottom of the slot canyon, where you can admire the fabulous colorful tuff towers above you, inspect the interesting tuff and volcanic breccia comprising the rocks, with their inclusions of hornblende, obsidian and other interesting minerals, and walk out to where the canyon emerges into normal Mojave desert with a view of the Providence Mountains and Mid Hills.

A very rewarding stop, and a fascinating place.

One curiosity about the Hole in the Wall Ring Trail: the sign at the trailhead makes a big deal about how strenuous the hike is. It's not really all that strenuous (the two ring climbs are short) but it could be unnerving for someone with poor balance or a fear of heights, too narrow for very overweight people, and of course it's not at all wheelchair accessible. But what they don't mention: if you drive south a few hundred feet on the road and turn west onto Wild Horse Canyon loop, in a very short distance you're more or less at the bottom of the Ring Trail. It's not as fun as climbing down the ring ladders, but would be well worthwhile for someone who couldn't see the canyon any other way.

With time left in the day, we took another route to Kelso Dunes, going back the way we came but by way of Wild Horse Canyon Rd, which the ranger recommended. I'm not sure why; there wasn't much on that road which we hadn't already seen from other roads. But taking the seemingly more direct route to Kelso, it turned out, involved quite a lot of slow jeep trail and probably would have taken quite a bit longer, so no harm done.

The highest of the Kelso Dunes rises to 600 feet, dwarfing the 140 foot rise of the famous Mesquite Dunes in Death Valley. Since I'd missed yet another chance to explore and photograph the Mesquite dunes a few days earlier, I was happy to be at Kelso.

The parking area was packed, but there's plenty of room on the sand: it wasn't crowded away from the parking lot. Getting to the dunes involves fighting for some portion of a mile along a deep sandy trail, then scrabbling your way up the side of the dunes.

The dunes are covered with wind ripples and tracks of all sorts of animals (mostly lizards, insects, hikers, and their dogs and children) and plants (the dune grass bends in the wind, and the tips of each blade make an arc in the sand.)

Near the top, you start feeling like an Everest trekker: you eye the cornice of sand along the ridge to the north, and watch the turbulent eddies of sand blowing off the tip of the peak above you as the wind howls past and threatens to blow you off the mountain. Well, okay, admittedly it's a bit warmer and you don't need oxygen tanks.

We went as high as the Hillary Step, but Dave's eyes were protesting from too much sand under his contact lenses, and the wind got worse with every foot ascended, so we stopped there. Our sherpas had long since deserted us.

Descending is much quicker than ascending. For one thing, you can take giant moon leaps, or "ski" down the sides of steep slopes, if you don't mind getting your shoes full of sand. Alas, the long level slog from the base of the dunes back to the parking lot is no easier in the return direction.

We drove out via Kelbaker Rd, past perhaps the most perfect collection of cinder cones I've ever seen together in one area. The map says they have a lava tube there, too. We'll have to come back and check it out some time.

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[ 09:26 Apr 01, 2005    More travel/mojave | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 31 Mar 2005

Fires of the Aztecs, Fires of the Earth

Valley of Fire State Park, in Nevada, is in the Lake Mead National Recreational Area near the northeast end of Lake Mead.

It's an auspicious location, because the Valley of Fire exit from interstate 15 is at the trading post run by our favorite local Indian tribe, the Moapa. In addition to not-completely-unreasonable gas prices and a huge assortment of fireworks, they sometimes have a trailer outside the store from which they sell "Really Good Beef Jerky" (it says so right on the sign). It really is "really good", the best I've had anywhere, even though it turns out to be imported from Wyoming and not made locally by the Moapa. Dave and I always look for the jerky trailer when we're passing through.

We had some idea what to expect from the Valley of Fire, because on a recent trip we stumbled upon an excellent little rest area north of Lake Mead called "Redstone", which included well made interpretive signs explaining that the deep red rock was Aztec Sandstone.

Indeed, the Valley of Fire is Aztec Sandstone, whose fiery color inspires the name; but the park turned out to be sizeable and varied, full of color changes and scenic vistas, excellent petroglyphs, and, oh, yes, a wildflower assortment that puts Death Valley's celebrated wildflowers to shame.

We expected a quick drive-through, but had no trouble whiling away the entire day in the park, including three short hikes and a lot of happy scrambling over rocks. It's comparable to the excellent Arches national park near Moab, in size, variety, and character. The Aztec even forms arches like the Entrada above Moab, though it tends toward lots of small arches rather than the big sweeping spans of the Entrada.

Unlike Arches, though, it isn't terribly informative (Arches being surprising good about explanations compared to most national parks). The Valley of Fire's signs and visitor's center are rather light on details. Why is the sandstone so deeply red in some places (well, iron, sure, but why so much more iron than other places?) and white or bright yellow in others? Why is it called Aztec? What makes the seams/dikes which are so prominent in the white formations near White Domes area? Is it just coincidence that Aztec and Entrada sandstone, both so intensely red compared to most sandstone, also share the unusual property of forming arches?

The visitor's center has a decent geology timeline with stratigraphic columns and a diagram of the fault as a fixed exhibit, plus kiosks with photos of common flora and fauna, but nothing you can take away with you, and they sell no books beyond lightweight coffee table fluff. "Sorry -- we keep telling them they should make something like that," apologized the lady at the gift shop counter.

We had just enough light left after leaving the park to make a quick trip down a dirt road to a ledge overlooking the north end of Lake Mead. The lake level was quite low; the ingress of the lake was far downstream of the location given on the map. Last summer, the LA Times reported that Mead was at record low levels, and the lost town of St. Thomas, submerged since the reservoir was first filled, had reappeared, delighting archaeologists and historians. I'd assumed that this was long past, after this year's unusually wet winter, but the lake level was still quite low: and at the St. Thomas overlook, several objects looking like the tops of buildings peeked out from beneath the water's surface. Further research will be required to find out whether we actually spotted St. Thomas.

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[ 09:55 Mar 31, 2005    More travel/mojave | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 30 Mar 2005

A Mosaic of Flowers

Passing through Death Valley wasn't the point of our Mojave trip, but it seemed like a nice bonus. Everyone's been talking about how due to the unprecedented southern California rains, this spring is a record year for wildflowers in Death Valley.

Of course, what that really meant was that everyone in the western half of the US decided to spend their spring break week there. Stovepipe Wells was a zoo.

But I wanted to see Mosaic Canyon, rumored to be a good slot canyon, and favored in "Geology Underfoot: Owens Valley and Death Valley" for breccia containing fragments of the precambrian Noonday dolomite.

It's a fabulous canyon. The book got so involved in talking about the breccia and stream undercutting that it didn't mention the gorgeous, smooth, veined, water-cut dolomite comprising a long and narrow slot canyon for the first half mile or so of the hike. Farther upcanyon, warping caused by the Mosaic Canyon fault creates impressive exposures in the walls.

After reluctantly leaving Mosaic Canyon, our route led us down the Badwater road, where the fabled wildflowers were impressive in number, if not in color (almost all yellow, with a few small whites and pale purples). The photographers, too, were impressive in number if not in intelligence, tending to back into the roadway in front of traffic at unpredictable times. The fields were full of people looking for just the perfect flower for their shot.

I'd heard rumours that Badwater was flooded, to the point where people were kayaking there. Not true: the water wasn't deep enough for kayaking, but the shallows were full of families and couples wading barefoot in the brine. We didn't wade, just walked to the water's edge and admired the new incarnation of ancient Lake Manly, the huge lake which once filled all of Death Valley, sparkling in the sun.

South of Badwater the flowers were a little denser, but didn't change very much in character until we left the park, where yellow coreopsis gave way to bushes covered with bright orange dodder, a parasitic plant that I think of as "silly string plant" because it covers other plants with a thin, bright orange string that looks like "silly string" sprayed out of cans.

Our last stop was just a few miles east of the town of Shoshone: a roadcut highly recommended by the Geology Underfoot book, which devoted a whole chapter to it. Rightly so! A strikingly weird black stripe which appears to be a coal seam is clearly, upon closer inspection, a layer of obsidian sandwiched between red rhyolite layers with interesting inclusions. Both the obsidian and the rhyolite includes bits of quartz. A little farther up the roadcut, past the obsidian, are two striking vertical faults. Quite amazing, and I'm glad we made a point of taking that route.

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[ 23:30 Mar 30, 2005    More travel/mojave | permalink to this entry | ]

Tue, 04 Jan 2005

Snowy Grapevine, Rainy Central Valley, Unappetizing Sagebrush

The Grapevine, the pass through which Interstate 5 crosses the mountains north of LA, was covered in snow today. Gorman, near the highest point of the pass, was blanketed in white, not even bushes or grass poking through.

We'd hesitated before coming this way -- the Caltrans web site had listed the pass as closed until a scant half hour before we left. Signs on the highway at Castaic still said the pass was closed, but we put our trust in the web, and forged on. Happily, the road was open, clean of snow, and barely even wet, giving a lovely view of the snowy Transverse Ranges as we passed through this unexpected white christmas. Also fun was seeing a double semi trailer full of oranges passing through this wintry landscape.

Descending into the central valley, we saw the first "Food grows where water flows" sign at Buttonwillow, pinned to a trailer in a field of sagebrush and tumbleweed. Perhaps a goat would have found some food there. At least sage (which I do like in cooking) is closer to culinary than the cotton that all the farms here were growing for the last two years (presumably due to subsidies) the remnants of which still litter most of the empty fields along the I-5 corridor.

"Farm water feeds the nation", fifty miles farther north, also stood in a field of tumbleweed, but the California Aqueduct was nearby, so it was at least somewhat topical. The next "Food grows where water flows" adjoined a vinyard. Does wine count as food? Maybe they were table grapes.

The Buttonwillow rest stop features lovely woven hanging birds' nests, visible now when the trees are bare of leaves and looking like something out of an African weaverbird documentary. I didn't get a good look at the birds occupying those trees now; usually those I-5 rest stops are populated mostly by blackbirds and ravens, but I'll have to keep a sharp eye out next time I pass through in spring.

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[ 19:33 Jan 04, 2005    More misc | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 27 Oct 2004

Pictures from the trip

Photos from the trip are up (except for panoramas which still need to be stitched).

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[ 11:18 Oct 27, 2004    More travel/anasazi | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 25 Oct 2004

Red Stone and Redstone

Yesterday and today were travel days -- supposedly nothing much to report. But it turned out otherwise.

Nothing much yesterday except the herd of bighorn sheep grazing by the side of the road as we left Moab. (We had planned to stay in Moab for a few days, but the weather turned sour.) The drive through the San Rafael Swell is always impressive, but I've written about that already.

Today, first, a quick stop by Kolob Canyons, a small branch of Zion National Park accessed right off I-15. It's marvelous: a very short road loop with stunning views, and three hikes of varying lengths. We didn't do any hikes due to weather and health issues, but we'll be back!

After leaving St George and Utah and before entering Nevada, I-15 briefly passes through Arizona in the impressive Virgin River Gorge. Arizona doesn't bother with trivialities like nice roadside view areas like Utah and Colorado do.

But there's a BLM area flaking the north side of the gorge, with a dirt road: the Beaver Dam Mountains Wilderness Area. We went a little way up the road; we didn't find views of the gorge from there, either (perhaps farther up?) but the rocks were quite interesting, evidently a mixture of rhyolite and basalt with some bits of tuff and river cobbles (did the Virgin make it up this high before the area was uplifted, or are the cobblers from streams which used to run from higher still?) We'll be back to explore further (with a BLM map, I hope).

Returning to I-15 and crossing into Nevada, we chose a detour: instead of following the interstate through the rush-hour traffic of Las Vegas, we swung left onto a little highway that cuts down by Lake Mead, marked as "scenic" on the map?

Getting through the tiny town of Overton took longer than we expected; its "so ridiculously excessively low as to be obviously a speed trap" speed limit zone went on forever. But we finally emerged out the other side, passing the Lost City Museum (curiously, just last week we'd read an article in the LA Times about an old town near there which had been buried for most of last century by Lake Mead, but which had re-emerged in the last few weeks due to record low water levels, creating great interest among historians). The scenery began to get interesting right away. It offers very little in the way of views of the lake (unless you drive down the side roads leading to the lake itself), but the area is "painted desert" of bentonite or a similar ash, punctuated by jagged peaks of volcanic rock. Most of the land is part of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Numerous parking areas are located at small oases named This-or-that Spring. Some of the springs are visible from some distance as a grove of palm trees. Are any palm trees actually native to the American southwest, or were they all introduced by settlers?

Update: Apparently the origin of these palms is a point of dispute, but there's quite a bit of evidence arguing for their being native to the area. William Spencer sent me a link to a page discussing the issue and the fight to save the palms.

This goes on for miles, and then gradually bits of brighter color begin to appear, in the shape of red sandstone. We stopped at a parking area on the left, and found a true jewel: Redstone, a little rest stop with a trail of maybe a mile which goes out around the vividly red rocks, with occasional interpretive signs which are interesting and not patronizing. The rock is Aztec Sandstone, formed from dunes which covered the area some 130 million years ago, with wonderful cross-bedding and weathered textures, and nearby mountains of black basalt to provide contrasting color.

After taking the Redstone hike, we continued on the highway, stopping at some of the pullouts, including one which included an interpretive sign describing the "bowl of fire", resulting from a layer of Aztec sandstone which swelled into a domed shape, then eroded from the top, leaving an outer ring. The fiery red ring is easy to see among the darker layers surrounding it.

Presumably the nearby Valley of Fire state park is also Aztec sandstone sculptures; it looks like it from a distance. We wished we'd taken that route, and will next time.

The scenic highway ends in Henderson, leaving us to fight our way through yet more heavy traffic (no matter which way you approach Las Vegas, or at what hour, or how hard you try to bypass the center of town, somehow you always end up in a traffic jam!) to return to I-15 and head down to our destination of Primm, musing on the long, gradual talus slopes so typical of the Mojave desert, and how superficially similar they look to a shield volcano like Mauna Koa. I wonder how the angles of repose compare? (Alas, there's no internet in Primm, so that's a question for a later time.)

Photos of Kolob and Redstone.

Tomorrow: home!

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[ 21:23 Oct 25, 2004    More travel/anasazi | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 23 Oct 2004

The Confluence

I've wanted for years to see the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers: the place where the west's two biggest rivers meet, mingling their different colored waters into the larger river which is the lower Colorado, flowing down to become Cataract Canyon.

The Confluence is hard to get to, though. The only viewpoint above river level is located in the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park. Sounds easy enough; but the only road that goes near it is a technical jeep trail called "Elephant Hill", involving tricks like five-foot rock drop-offs. A bit beyond our skills or vehicle. So instead, we drove to the beginning of Elephant Hill, then mountain biked from there. It's about 9 miles to the confluence overlook (then a half-mile hike from there), and about 6 miles back (it's a loop trail with one-way sections).

First we had to get to Canyonlands. We took the scenic route from Monticello over the Abajo mountains, offering great views of the lacolith triangle: the Abajo, Henry, and La Sal mountain ranges are all rock which has been warped upward by subterranean magma, without actually being made of volcanic rock themselves.

On the Saturday of Utah's week-long deer hunting season, the Abajo route was crawling with trucks filled with blaze orange clad passengers, pulling trailers laden with ATVs. Every pullout, every campground, was full of hunters. Ironically, twice during the day we had to slow down (and once, stop) for large groups of does wandering near or across the road. We never saw any bucks, but I guess the number of does on the road suggests that the deer population isn't in any serious threat from the hunters. But we nevertheless were glad we were going to be doing our riding in a national park today.

Elephant Hill is as technical as we remembered it from our last visit to Needles. We tried to ride up the hill, but gave up fairly early and walked the steep sections. The trail alternates between short, impossibly steep and technical rock sections (which we walked), moderately steep and technical rock sections (which we mostly rode, and enjoyed immensely) and long near-level stretches of deep fine red sand (fun if you don't mind sliding sideways).

Dave rode more of the rocky uphills than I did, and I rode more of the rocky downhills. I biffed on one downhill, coming off a rock ledge into deep sand and landing hard on one hand. No permanent damage.

No bikes are allowed on the half-mile section of trail from the end of the road to the overlook, so we had to stash our bikes in the bushes and continue on foot.

The confluence overlook is fabulous! It's just like the pictures: you can see the boundary where the two differently colored rivers mix to form one larger river. Apparently the colors vary depending on what's been going on upstream; every picture is a little different. Today, both rivers were muddy green, but different shades, with the Colorado being darker and clearer than the Green. On the horizon, you can see the three districts of Canyonlands: Island in the Sky (between the two upper rivers), the Maze (along the west bank of the Green) and Needles (where we stood, on the east bank of the Colorado).

The ride back was surprisingly easy, though going uphill through the sandy stretches was a workout. We got back to Elephant Hill just as a couple in a rented jeep began the first descent, so we had a chance to see how it was done. The Jeep handled the tough descent easily. I bet it didn't seem as easy from the driver's seat as it looked from the outside.


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[ 23:20 Oct 23, 2004    More travel/anasazi | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 22 Oct 2004

Goosenecks of the Gods

Our scenic loop to the Valley of the Gods began with cold, windy, overcast, drizzly skies. But as if to make up for the weather, we were greeted with a rainbow almost as soon as we hit highway 95. Or maybe that was to make up for the snow flurries we encountered a few miles later. Whatever.

We headed down highway 261, eschewing Natural Bridges National Monument. Been there, done that. We were headed for Muley Point, which turned out to be an unmarked dirt road turnoff just before the Moqui Dugway. Four miles of relatively good dirt road led us to two stunning viewpoints overlooking the sinuous San Juan river and points beyond, such as Monument Valley, Alhambra Peak, and Valley of the Gods. The wind was icy, but the view was worth it.

Returning to the highway, we headed down the Moqui Dugway (variously spelled Moki or Mokee, depending on which map you use; everyone seems to spell Dugway the same). This is a steep (11%) grade, gravel except on a few turns where pavement returns, winding 1100' down the side of Cedar Mesa to the bottom. Why it's gravel when the rest of the highway is paved isn't clear. But it's fun.

At the bottom of the Dugway, a BLM dirt road goes left into Valley of the Gods. But we decided to see the Goosenecks of the San Juan first.

At Goosenecks, the San Juan river travels over six river miles in the space of only a mile and a half. It's held up as one of the best examples anywhere of an entrenched meander, where a lazily meandering river on nearly-level terrain cuts a shallow channel, then rapid uplift of the area (in this case, the Colorado Plateau) causes the river to cut a deep canyon.

There are entrenched meanders all over the area -- such as Bowtie Bend and Dead Horse Point -- but nowhere are there so many, in such a short space. It's very impressive.

And that's all there is to Goosenecks of the San Juan State Park -- one amazing overlook. There's a trail somewhere (the Honaker Trail, namesake for the rocks comprising the upper two-thirds of the San Juan's canyon; the bottom third is the Paradox Formation, both Pennsylvanian layers of limestone and shale) but it's accessed from outside the park, and there's no information about it at the park.

We backtracked to the west end of Valley of the Gods Road and began our divine journey, following a guide we'd picked up at the visitor's center in Blanding. The first rock on the list was Balanced Rock -- I pointed it out. "No," said Dave, "that's got to be Lady in a Tub. That's exactly what it looks like." "Um, I don't see that on the list here." It turned out that this was an alternate name for the same rock, listed on the map but not in the guide. And indeed, it was a good name -- except that as we proceeded down the road, it became a Man in a Tub.

It's a while before the next Named Rock on the guide, but that's okay; there are fascinating rock formations everywhere. The light was difficult for photography, since it was still mostly overcast, but that made for dramatic light when the sun did come out.

And a few miles in, I spotted an even more interesting formation: a tarantula making its way across the road. We go tarantula spotting every year, but the season when the males go wandering aboveground in search of females is so short that we often miss it. This year we were sure we'd missed the season at home; so finding one here was serendipitous. This one appeared to have no inclination to get off the road, so we had plenty of time to shoot photos (including "tarantula walks over the camera" and "real tarantula completely ignores our rubber tarantula") while we gently tried to persuade him to walk by the side of the road and not in the middle.

We invented names for unnamed rock formations, like "Mohawk with Squirrel on Head" and the nearby "Organ Grinder's Monkey, with Drum". Rooster Butte should have been Senorita Butte -- a Spanish dancer with full flowing skirts. Occasionally the road became mildly technical, with rocks or gully crossings. "Chacoan speed bumps!" exclaimed Dave. Two painters had set up camp right in the middle of a wash, with their easels right by the road -- maybe dust is part of the art, and a flash flood just gives an artist more inspiration. Setting Hen Butte (its official name) has giant sandstone eggs all around it.

Too soon, we found ourselves at the other end of the road, and the highway. But before heading back to Blanding, we took a detour to Sand Island, near Bluff, to see what was there. What was there was petroglyphs -- a whole wall of them, comparable to the much more famous Newspaper Rock to the north near Monticello. Excellent rams and elk, snakes, and other figures. But what interested me most was all the Kokopelli-like figures. Kokopelli (the dancing flute-playing trickster) shows up in nearly every gift shop in the southwest. He's so prevalent that a mapmaker in Moab (Cheap is Real) comments on the back of each map that it is a "100% Kokopelli-free product"). Yet in the rock art I've seen, I have yet to see an actual Kokopelli -- until Sand Island. Sand Island is definitely not a Kokopelli-free zone. But it's a great set of petroglyphs.

Photos of Goosenecks, Valley of the Gods, the tarantula, and Sand Island Petroglyphs.

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Thu, 21 Oct 2004

Aztec Ruins

Driving around Farmington, NM is a little different from driving around California.

Heading out of town, we passed the Permian Power Tong building. I guess you'd better be careful when complaining about your electricity bill in Farmington! Especially if you want to assert that it comes from the Mesozoic, or something. Not long after that, we passed Jimmy's Swabbing Service. I don't think I want to know too many details about that, nor about the Four Corners Bull Test Station we saw later.

Update 11/8/2006: Someone from the Permian Power Tong wrote to let me know that they're an oilfield service company, not an electric company.

We stopped at the Aztec Ruins, so misnamed because early white settlers apparently thought these Anasazi ruins were left by the Aztecs (?). It's a small park, with one trail, but the ruins are excellent and the guide is full of information about the architecture. The structures were originally built by Chacoans and most of the lower masonry is similar to what we saw in Chaco Canyon, but was later modified (for repairs and additions) in a style more similar to Mesa Verde. Then, much later, some of the masonry was re-done by the park service in a well meaning but misguided attempt to stabilize the fragile structures, with the result that there's a lot of modern concrete, metal drains, and other anachronisms and apparently it's sometimes hard for modern researchers to be sure what came from which era.

The Chacoan work is the most beautiful. They liked to alternate layers of large bricks with small, or red with other colors, whereas the Mesa Verdeans used fairly uniform large bricks everywhere. Someone who came along later (perhaps the Mesa Verde group, perhaps a later tribe) added rounded river rocks in places, from the nearby Animas river. The Animas may also have been used to float the hundreds or thousands of logs needed for the roofs of the structures; the wood apparently came from the mountains, near Durango, since it's wood which wasn't available locally.

Although the park service tries to be much more careful now, we saw some modern repairs on the structure while we took the self-guided tour: Navajo bricklayers pounded sandstone with a hammer, chipping flakes off to make it the right shape to fit into the spot being repaired.

Outside of the park, we explored the town of Aztec, which has a nice little suburban downtown area surrounded by miles of scrubland with residential trailers. We noticed that the downtown area had a predominance of Kerry signs, unlike Farmington and the rural areas outside Aztec where Bush signs prevailed.

We took back roads from Aztec, eventually passing through Mancos (the Mancos Motocross, Now Serving Elk Burgers -- what more could you want? -- and the Reptile Reserve of Southwest Colorado) and the poshest highway rest stop we've seen anywhere, at Sleeping Ute Mountain, which offered its own hiking and pet exercise trails.

Our plan was to stay tonight in Monticello, UT, which is close to Canyonlands' Needles district and lots of other interesting places. The first hotel we tried should have given us a clue as to what was coming: the sign proclaimed "Big Buck Display!" A big dollar bill? wondered Dave. But it turned out this is the beginning of Utah's week-long deer hunting season, and that Monticello is the deer hunting capital of southeastern Utah (for some reason). We pushed on to Blanding instead.

Blanding looked like a bigger town in the AAA guide (more hotels) but isn't really. Fortunately, the Best Western has wi-fi (the only place in town, unlike Monticello which has two hotels and a cafe). The router gives the wrong address for the DNS server, but we guessed at the right address and edited /etc/resolv.conf, and things work okay as long as you remember to do that before making any net connections (otherwise the wrong DNS info gets cached by some proxy server somewhere).

Dave went to the office to see if anyone knew about this. He was told: "They just fired up the system two weeks ago, and it has been slow," but no one knew any more detail than that.


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[ 21:08 Oct 21, 2004    More travel/anasazi | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 20 Oct 2004

Chaco Canyon

I've been curious about Chaco Canyon ever since as a kid I read an article in Sky & Telescope about the Anasazi Sun Dagger, a rock structure whereby at the solstices and equinoxes the sun creates a narrow sliver of light projected onto a spiral petroglyph.

Unfortunately, it turns out that the Sun Dagger is not open to visitation (by the public or even by most researchers). In the 1980's it was deemed too fragile for visitors, and the site was closed down. There are some other astronomically oriented petroglyphs, but no one seems to know exactly where, or to have a complete list.

Getting information on Chaco is a bit difficult. There's not much useful information on the web, the park doesn't have specialized handouts like a lot of other parks (many parks have one-page handouts available for the asking on subjects such as geology, astronomy, petroglyphs, etc) except for one giving a brief listing of the available hiking trails. The ranger at the visitor's station was somewhat reticent: he recommended a couple of hiking trails, and told us that the Sun Dagger was located high on Fajada Butte, but not much more. I noticed a picture of some petroglyphs thought to depict a supernova, and asked where they were, but he apologized "Sorry, I don't go out that trail much".

Nothing to do but go try some stuff and see what's cool. We visited all the ruins along the park road, then headed up the steep trail to Pueblo Alto and the Pueblo Bonito overlook, which begins by a scramble through switchbacks over broken rocks, followed by a steep ascent through a narrow gap in the rock wall. Fun! And daunting: but it turns out that once you squeeze through the gap, you're up on top of the mesa and mostly finished with climbing.

The mesa top is interesting rock: white, layered mudstone, full of interesting embedded objects (presumably plant fossils, though some of them actually look like bone). The Fajada Butte interpretive sign, the only mention we found of park geology, says of the butte: Cliff House Sandstone forms the upper layer with deposits of fossil shells, clams, shark teeth, and marine sand. None of these fossils seem to correspond with what we saw embedded in the rock along the Pueblo Alto trail. More research is required.

The view of Pueblo Bonito from above is marvelous and well worth the short and interesting hike. The semicircular shape of the great house, not obvious from below, is striking when viewed from above.

The hike up to Pueblo Alto was pretty, and enjoyable as a hike, but Pueblo Alto itself is much less interesting than the ruins down in the canyon. We wished we'd gone the other way on the loop trail for more birds-eye views of the canyon houses.

Another interesting aspect of Chaco: their astronomy program. They have a fixed observatory (a dome housing a truss-tube dobsonian of about 18") and something outside on a tripod (probably a big Schmidt-Cassegrain). The visitor's center was full of photos of astronomical objects, as well as some information about light pollution. It's nice to see a park so interested in astronomy, especially with the sort of skies they must get at Chaco. Alas, we weren't able to stay the night.

But Chaco's big mystery is the "roads". The park literature talks about the amazing roads the Chacoans built, stretching for hundreds of miles between Chaco and neighboring settlements in many directions, used for trade between tribes. On the Pueblo Alto hike, a short segment of one such "road" is roped off and signed: a wide rectangle of more or less bare rock, perhaps ten or fifteen feet on a side, lined generously with rocks on two sides. With a lot of imagination, you could imagine a boulevard continuing in this fashion, rocks lining the left and right sides of the "road" like a huge version of some national park trails.

Dave smelled a rat, and dug further. These "roads", apparently, were originally detected as unexplained straight lines appearing in infra-red images, using NASA's TIMS system. Archaeologists subsequently searched the ground and found some short segments which looked vaguely road-like, and drew maps connecting the segments. Here's one such map of the Chaco road system. Notice anything unusual? Like the fact that the ground map doesn't actually match the lines in the IR image? Note also how straight the "roads" are in both theories.

It gets even weirder. One of the park's roadside pullouts points to a "Chacoan stairway" high on a mesa, and comments that the stairway was part of one of the roadways. The stairway is there, and it's neat. There are other stairways elsewhere in the park -- we saw photos (though the one section we saw up close, on the Pueblo Alto hike, was a bit too subtle for either of us to find the "stairway" on the indicated rock).

Why would the Chacoans build roads like this? It makes no sense. Why would a prehistoric people with no wagons or pack animals need rock-lined ten foot wide "roads", arrow straight and made without respect to the local topography?

Let's look at this practically. You're a Chacoan heading out to trade with someone in a pueblo to the south, or a southern resident travelling to Chaco. You have a choice between following a straight road, which requires you to climb up onto an 800 foot mesa, then down a precipitous set of rock stairs which lead to a steep scramble back down to the canyon bottom; or you can walk a quarter mile west and stroll through the huge gap between two mesas, without having to climb or descend at all. You're travelling on foot, carrying your pottery or baskets or whatever it is you're bringing to trade. Perhaps you have your family and kids along. Which route would you choose?

The stairways are there; and the "road" segments are there, too. But that doesn't mean that they connected to form hundred-mile long roads between communities. The stairways are useful for locals who want access to the mesa tops -- perhaps for defense, or religious purposes, or just for sightseeing. The short "road" segments on the ground -- who knows? Perhaps parade grounds. Or maybe they were malls, where vendors lined up to spread their wares out for customers to view. There are lots of possible explanations!


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Tue, 19 Oct 2004

White House to Ship Rock

The weather wasn't really much better this morning, but we decided to hike the White House trail down into the canyon anyway.

Good move! It's a beautiful trail which definitely belongs on a top-ten list of park trails (along with trails such as Hummocks at Mount St. Helens). And as a bonus, it's not even particularly strenuous -- the canyon is only 600 feet deep at that point, and the trail is fairly gradual. It descends from the cross-bedded riverine rock of the Shinarump member of the Chinle formation, down into the thick de Chelly sandstone, where it winds through little tunnels and around switchbacks, past shrieking squirrels and soaring ravens, giving ever-changing views of the canyon floor.

At the bottom, the trail skirts a Navajo ranch (no photography please) then follows the stream bed, lined with cottonwoods in glorious fall foliage, to the eponymous ruin, surrounded by fences to keep out vandals and well-meaning but overly enthusiastic tourists. Nearby, an unattended horse grazed, and a local rancher followed his sheep herd as they browsed along the riverbed.

Impressive ruins. Lovely trail. Go see it.

After climbing back up to the trailhead, we went off to explore the north rim (which is technically a different canyon, del Muerto rather than de Chelly). The north rim viewpoints are sparse, but well chosen; they show more ruins, from shorter distances, than the south rim viewpoints.

After leaving the park, we debated whether to go south to Gallup, or north to Shiprock and Farmington. Shiprock won. But after turning onto highway 13 to cross the Chuska mountains, we questioned the choice. Large signs warned of upcoming highway construction, road closure, and seasonal (winter) road closures over Buffalo Pass. This not being winter yet, we proceeded with trepidation. Our fears (and the warning signs) were unfounded: although the road is narrow and twisty, the pavement is excellent and the views outstanding.

Just past the summit, we got our first view of the immensity of northwestern New Mexico spread out before us -- and immediately realized that Shiprock was not what we had seen yesterday from Spider Rock overlook. Shiprock is unmistakable and striking. It sails on an immense flat plain, tossed on waves of sage, trailing a wake of basalt behind it. It dominates the landscape for many miles in any direction.

Shiprock is a giant volcanic neck: lava which sat in the neck of a volcano, and hardened there. Later, the volcano and its surroundings eroded away, leaving only the neck. But there's more: in addition to the neck, Shiprock's lava also squeezed through a dike, a vertical seam stretching for many miles on either side of the volcano. After the surroundings eroded, what was left was an immense wall of lava, only a few feet thick but some fifty feet high and miles long.

The triple-A map showed a dirt road just east of where the highway crosses the dike, leading up alongside the rock. Sure enough, the promised road appeared just where the map said it would. Woohoo! It turned out to be an unmaintained jeep trail, a nice challenge for our little RAV4 (which had no trouble with it). The road parallels the dike up to the neck itself, giving wonderful views from any angle. Unfortunately the area right next to the neck is spoiled by grafiti, but the rest of the area is fabulous.

We pulled into Farmington later than expected, after stopping to help a Navajo family whose truck had broken down. Unfortunately we didn't have any mechanical insights they hadn't already tried, but we gave one to the nearest store to call for backup. I hope everything worked out all right.

Farmington is the Big Gorilla of the four corners area, by far the biggest town around. Happily for us, it's also fairly well wired, and nearly every motel sports wi-fi that actually works (the only catch being that they fill up surprisingly early on weeknights; we're still not sure why). It's a deceptively large town, with a small college and the usual assortment of restaurants and businesses, several rivers, and plenty of farmland on the outskirts, befitting its name.

Photos of de Chelly and Shiprock.

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[ 23:29 Oct 19, 2004    More travel/anasazi | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 18 Oct 2004

The Dogs of Tseyi

I managed to wheedle Dave into taking the back roads from Winslow to Chinle, crossing more of the Navajo nation rather than staying on the interstate we've seen before.

Good move! The roads are fine (if a bit slower than an interstate highway) and the scenery is terrific. Dave reciprocated by making an impulse turn into the Little Painted Desert county park's overlook -- empty except for us, the vista across striped layers of bentonite (is that Moenkopi, or Morrison?) rivals its namesake to the southeast in everything but size.

Near Castle Butte, a striking wall of basalt curves gracefully across a plain, an obvious remnant of a vertical dike from which the surrounding, softer rock has long since worn away. This is what created Shiprock, a larger and more famous formation of the same type which I'm hoping to get a chance to see later on this trip; but the thin, curving walls near Castle Butte, with their spiky towers, are marvellous examples.

The roads through this part of the Navajo reservation (perhaps it's true everywhere) are open range. Cattle grazed near the road, and at one point I had to stop suddenly when a horse decided to trot across the road in front of us.

Canyon de Chelly sits right on the edge of Chinle, closer than we'd realized from the map. In fact, Chinle, "where the water flows out", is located right at the mouth of the canyon, where the surrounding mesas drop to the level of the river at the canyon's bottom.

De Chelly itself is really Tseyi, meaning "in the rock" in the language of the Diné (i.e the Navajo). The Spaniards had difficulty pronouncing this (sometimes spelling it "Chegui"), and when early American settlers moved in, they mis-heard it again and assumed they were hearing "cañon de chelly", Spanish for "canyon of rock", pronounced, more or less, "dee shay". But the Tseyi name is still prominent in town and in park literature, this still being Navajo land. The park literature says it's pronounced "say-yee", but a Diné woman in town pronounced it for us more like "tsay-yeh".

The park literature mentions that there may be some stray dogs wandering in the park, and warns not to feed them. The town of Chinle has a problem with too many stray dogs; feeding them "only makes the problem worse." It doesn't mention stray horses, though quite a few wander the mesas above de Chelly and occasionally cross the roads.

We followed Dave's Rule of Parks: go to the end of the road first, because that's where the really good stuff is. The end of the road for Canyon de Chelly is the end of the south rim road, or Spider Rock Overlook. Spider Rock itself is an impressive spire of sandstone (de Chelly sandstone, in fact: a thick desert dune deposit like Navajo sandstone, only much older, at 230-260 million years, and also much redder) standing in a wide, flat canyon of green and autumn gold.

On the horizon far beyond Spider Rock stood a striking dark butte. Our first view of Shiprock? (No, as it turned out.)

The other attraction of Canyon de Chelly is the Indian ruins. Anasazi cliff dwellings pepper the cracks in the canyon walls, and are visible across the canyon from many of the overlooks. Bring binoculars (and a good zoom lens, if photographing).

The star ruin of the park is called White House, and it's accessible via a trail which climbs down from the south rim and crosses the canyon. It was beginning to rain as we arrived there, as well as nearing twilight; we hope for good weather tomorrow morning. We had to drive around a tired looking black dog lying on the (presumably warmer) roadway, seeming unperturbed by the cars going by and disinclined to move. Another dog followed tourists around with a hopeful expression.

And Dave's Rule of Parks? It doesn't work as well at Canyon de Chelly as at most parks. White House is far better than any of the ruins visible from the farther overlooks; and in fact, the very first overlook (last for us, since we were visiting them in reverse order), called Tunnel Canyon, gave a lovely view down a narrow canyon to the riparian zone below. Maybe we were just lucky with the light, arriving at Tunnel as the setting sun pierced through a hole in the otherwise unbroken cloud layer. There's a trail going down from Tunnel, too, but it's only open for guided tours. (Access into Canyon de Chelly requires a guide, except for White House trail, because some 40 Navajo families still live and farm inside the canyon.) After appreciating the lovely light, we chatted with a Diné woman selling jewelry, and watched a couple of puppies trot in, search for food, and then run off toward home.

The town of Chinle is neither depressing, like Tuba City or the area around Monument Valley, nor modernized, like Kayenta. It's small and sparse, with only two hotels (plus the one inside Canyon de Chelly) and few restaurants besides the two associated with the hotels -- a few fast food eateries and a pizza parlor. Yet at night, lights (mostly low-pressure sodium, I was happy to see) twinkle from a wide area, hinting that there's quite a bit more to the town. We tried to explore, but couldn't find our way to the pockets of light we could see from the main part of town. So we reluctantly settled for a dinner at the Holiday Inn's restaurant, which was surprisingly good. Native American towns don't seem to succumb to chain-hotel-itis quite so much as other towns do.

And the dogs! Everywhere you go in Chinle, a few dogs appear out of nowhere to follow you. Dogs fade in and out of the plants along the roadside, and haunt every park overlook and restaurant parking lot. Most of them look quite young -- which may bespeak a short lifespan -- though most of them also look fairly healthy and friendly. They wag, and play, and appreciate a head scratch, and otherwise behave pretty much like pet dogs everywhere.


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Sun, 17 Oct 2004

Vignettes from a road trip

I-15 follows the San Andreas fault as it cuts through the San Bernardino mountains. The spectacular exposed hogbacks, reminiscent of the Devil's Punchbowl a few miles north along the same fault, or perhaps of Colorado Springs' Garden of the Gods, leave no doubt that massive geologic forces are at work.

Around Victorville, the power towers stand like four-footed animals with huge wings outspread -- power pegasi. But beyond Newberry Springs, at the western edge of the Pisgah Crater lava fields, they change to the broad-shouldered power kachinas seen in parts of Utah. Nearby, a raven practices no-flap take-offs, presenting outspread wings to the constant gale, lifting smoothly a few feet off the ground, then floating gently back to earth to try again.

A commercial on the hotel TV advertised a laser level using "refractive lens technology". Wow! What a breakthrough!

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Mon, 27 Sep 2004

Biking the Flume Trail

We joined Bill and Benita over the weekend for some mountain biking. Saturday, we sampled their fabulous trail system (all hand-built technical singletrack on their own property) and Sunday we joined up with six other riders (and two Australian shepherds) for a ride on the famous Flume Trail at Tahoe (photos here).

Dave actually liked Bill & Benita's trails better than the Flume -- the trails themselves are a lot more fun and technical, even if the view isn't quite as good. Me, I'm not going to choose. I had fun both days.

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Thu, 23 Sep 2004

South Park trip pictures are up

I haven't yet finished the panoramas, or linkifying the blog entries, but I've posted a basic collection of South Park trip photos.

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Thu, 16 Sep 2004

Swell and Primm

Leaving Green River, Interstate 70 cuts through the middle of the San Rafael Reef, a 40 mile long spine of sandstone layers. The reef is the edge of the sandstone layers exposed when the San Rafael Swell arose.

There's a terrific handout on the San Rafael swell area which shows up at some of the restaurants and motel racks in Green River, which includes a map of the swell's area and a geologic cross section of the exposed rocks, which confirmed our suspicion that the white sandstone exposed on the eastern side of the Reef is Navajo sandstone, just like the Slickrock Trail at Moab.

The highway has numerous pullouts marked "View Area", with fanciful names such as Spotted Wolf or Black Dragon, and fairly useful interpretive signs to go along with the views. We had to laugh at some of the "View Area" signs, with arrows pointing at spectacular rock formations, wondering: Could anyone drive by that and not view it?

After leaving the San Rafael Swell, the highway moves into the Fishlake National Forest -- fairly standard mountainous terrain -- then eventually south along the Sevier (pronounced "severe") river. Eventually we turned southwest on I-15 and headed down toward Vegas.

We did make a stop at our favorite Indian truck stop on the Moapa reservation in Nevada. In addition to a general store and fairly reasonable gas prices, they used to have a big sign advertising "Really Good Jerky", of both beef and buffalo. The jerky seller in the little trailer outside the general store gave samples (which he cut off with scissors), and it was indeed Really Good, so we've made a point of stopping for jerky every time we pass this way.

Alas, the jerky seller is no more, and we went jerkyless. The Moapa are now specializing in fireworks, and there was no sign of Really Good Jerky.

(Fortunately, the next day, Alien Fresh Jerky in Baker, CA, saved me from a totally jerkyless trip. I'm not sure it's *quite* as good as the Moapa Really Good Jerky; but it's really quite good (they have buffalo, turkey, salmon and alligator as well as beef, but free samples only for the beef), and the store, heavily decorated in an alien motif, makes an excellent kitchy stopover. Plus you can check out the World's Tallest Thermometer while you're in Baker. Dave and I stayed at the Baker Bun Boy Motel on our first night of our first-ever trip together, so there's a bit of romance to stopping in Baker. Do we know how to have a good time, or what?)

We passed through Vegas without a backward glance, and instead of staying in Jean as we have before, decided to try Primm, a few miles farther south near the California border. Primm sports three casino/hotels: we picked Whisky Pete's because it was on the right side of the road and had a sign offering $5.95 prime rib, though it turns out they're all owned by the same person and all probably offer the same deals. (The room rates at Whiskey Pete's are very reasonable, the room is nice, and the prime rib was excellent. The only downside is that there's no wifi, phone calls aren't free, and it's not clear whether a Vegas access number would be a local call or not. So no internet connection tonight.)

Primm is a bit of an enigma. I'm typing this in a room high in a tower surrounded by crenellated turrets, each topped with a Disney- style party hat with a little flag, and surrounded by blinking white christmas lights. We're having trouble figuring out what a Disney Sleeping Beauty castle has to do with the "Whiskey Pete" theme embodied by the western mining motif in the casino downstairs. The pool twelve floors below our window has a neat looking mini waterslide that goes through a fake little mountain (Disneyesque again) on the way down, but it appears to be closed (maybe if I went down and asked, someone would open it; I didn't try).

There's a sign in the casino for "Monorail to Primm Valley Resort". The "monorail" is a bus with rubber tires which run on two concrete tracks. The tracks go high up over I-15, from which you get a nice view of the pass to the south and the surrounding desert, not to mention the lovely crescent moon setting over the hills. It's free. It runs fairly often. It's really pretty neat. But I still haven't figured out what's "mono" about it. Maybe no one would be willing to ride a "birail".

Primm Valley Resort Casino tries to look a bit more upscale than Pete's. The buffet restaurant is decorated like they're trying to be the Butterfly room at the Bellagio in Vegas, but failing. The staff at the coffee shop is a little more dressy. The security guards all look glum (where the ones at Pete's look officious). The dinner menus are very similar. We tried to take the "monorail" (two rails again) down to Buffalo Bill's, which has a rollercoaster (which we've never seen in motion), but got tired of waiting for it and headed back to the Whiskey Pete's tra^H^H^Hmonorail. (We didn't check out the outlet mall next door to the resort.)

On the way back over the freeway, the monorail operator asked us why we were back so soon. We said we decided we liked Whiskey Pete's better. He said he did, too -- it was more casual. We chatted a bit (he's originally from the Navajo reservation in Arizona) and when he asked where we'd been, we mentioned that we'd been visiting relatives in Colorado, and Dave added that they lived at about 10,000 feet. The operator said "Sounds like Fairplay." We were stunned -- that's the next town over from where Kerry & Pam live. Turns out he lived there for a year or so, ranching. It's a small world.

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Wed, 15 Sep 2004

Goblins beat the Maze

On quite a few trips to Canyonlands national park, we've visited two of the park's three districts: Island in the Sky (several times) and Needles (once); but we'd never been to the third district, the Maze. The Maze is extremely remote, with no paved roads going anywhere nearby. None of the park brochures are clear about what's in the Maze, even; there are few photos, and no guides or descriptions for the dirt roads and trails. Naturally, we've been curious about it.

There are basically two ways in: via a dirt road coming off highway Utah 24 from Green River, or via a dirt road coming from from near Hite marina at the northern end of Lake Powell. The Green River end looks a bit more accessible, so we chose that option.

One advantage of the U-24 option is that it passes right by Goblin Valley state park, said by everyone to be worth seeing. And indeed it is. "Goblins", also known as hoodoos or "stone babies", are vertical pillars with a harder capstone on top, which protects the softer stone of the pillar from erosion. In the case of Goblin Valley, the two components are made from two different members of the Entrada formation, the same sandstone which comprises the arches and walls of Arches national park. So both parts of the goblins are deep, dark red, and the capstones erode into rounded shapes which do look like heads. (They might also evoke other shapes to some eyes, but we won't discuss that too much on a family-rated blog.)

Attitudes are relaxed at Goblin Valley. We paid the entry fee ($5) and the ranger apologized for not having maps -- they're printing a new set -- but told us to go to the end of the road, park, and "just walk anywhere. There aren't any trails, go anywhere you want." And so we did, spending a happy hour or so wandering among the goblins and enjoying the nearby scenery (including the spectacular San Rafael Reef, a many mile long spine of uptilted sandstone -- Navajo? -- at the edge of the peculiar San Rafael Swell).

But eventually we had to leave, and continue our Maze quest. We turned onto the dirt road a mile or so down highway 24 and proceeded on our way.

This was the RAV4's first long dirt outing (though we've had it on nontechnical dirt roads before) and it did fine on the dirt road, which wasn't bad as such roads go. There are signs at all important intersections, not too much washboard, and only a few rocky or sandy sections. It took maybe an hour and a half to get to Hans Flat, which was the least flat place we'd seen since leaving Goblin Valley. Was Hans a joker, or did he get a flat once when driving there?

The ranger at Hans Flat was very friendly and helpful, but unfortunately discouraging about the roads. We'd already been warned by the ranger at Island in the Sky that the roads are very technical and aren't suitable for many street SUVs; we had hoped to be able to get to Panorama Point for a view of the Maze, but the Hans Flat ranger told us that yesterday someone in a Grand Cherokee had tried for several hours to get up that trail, and had finally given up. The issue is mostly ground clearance, though the rangers at both locations stressed the importance of having a low-range gearbox. (We remain somewhat skeptical about that, based on our admittedly scant off-roading experience in the 4Runner, which did have a 4-low; the RAV4 has quite a low first gear, and we both suspect that any road which requires lower gearing than that would stop us for other reasons, like ground clearance or traction, before gearing became an issue.)

The ranger did make her point, though, asking whether we'd been to Needles (yes) and seen the road called Elephant Hill (yes, and hadn't been willing to try it in the 4Runner). "All our roads have sections worse than that. We recommend that people drive around Needles a bit first, then come here if you decide that isn't challenging enough." Point made.

So she suggested we try driving out to the first switchback of the Flint Trail and check out the view from there, and get an idea what the Flint (a steep descent down a mesa wall, rather like the Shafer Trail which descends from Island in the Sky to the White Rim, or the Horsethief Trail we'd taken to get down to the bottom of Upheaval Dome) was like. Her opinion was that our RAV4 could probably drive down the Flint, though our brakes would be fairly hot by the bottom, but that we wouldn't be able to drive back up it and would have to go out via Hite.

The road out to the Flint was fun driving -- rocky and occasionally sandy, mildly technical, but nothing the RAV had any trouble handling. We stopped at a couple of viewpoints, but found them disappointing: really all we could see was the Nevada-like scrubland below the Orange Cliffs, and the scrubland of the Elaterite Basin below that, plus a few buttes. Nothing nearly as interesting as the view from paved highway 24 before we turned onto the dirt, let alone the panoramic vistas of Island or Needles.

The Flint Trail itself was interesting to see, though. We could immediately see why she'd said it was more difficult than the Shafer or Horsethief: it's a bit narrower (only one car width through a lot of its descent), a lot steeper at least in some places, more technical (rocks and ruts), and the traction was quite poor. We hiked from the first switchback halfway down to the second, and our hiking shoes kept slipping in the dust when we tried to stop and take pictures. The dropoff isn't quite as scary in itself as the other two trails (most turns have sizeable berms on the outsides) but sliding down a steep slope over rocks and deep dust could change the scariness in a hurry.

And the view? Well, alas, it isn't really any better from there. We still couldn't see much of the Maze, or much else besides scrubland and a few buttes.

We're left wondering: what does the Maze look like if you can actually get inside? Is its attraction simply its inaccessibility (we saw only one other couple the whole time we were there -- you're not going to get overwhelmed with crowds here) or is there stuff hidden in the Maze that compares with Island and Needles? Do we care enough to find a way to set up a multi-day biking or backpacking trip?

A disappointment. But at least we saw the Goblins.

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Tue, 14 Sep 2004

(Part Way) Around Upheaval Dome

Upheaval Dome is a star feature of Canyonlands National Park -- certainly the best example of a complex impact crater I've seen.

The better known Barringer Crater in Arizona is an excellent example of a simple crater, while Upheaval has multiple shock rings and the apparent remnants of a central peak, perhaps even a central ring mountain. It's comparable to large lunar impact structures such as Tycho, Copernicus, or even Mare Nectaris or Mare Orientale, while its Arizona sibling is more like a small crater such as Linne.

So why is it called Upheaval Dome, you ask? Well, originally it was thought to be a huge collapsed salt dome: a pocket of subterranean salt swells from the effects of water, warping the rocks around it, then the salt leaks out and the dome collapses under its own weight. There are lots of salt valleys in the Canyonlands area, and the mophology of impact craters wasn't understood until fairly recently, so this explanation made some sense at one time. However, it turns out that there isn't any salt under Upheaval, and there are traces of shattercones and other heat-shocked rock, as well as chemical traces consistent with an impacting body. Gene Shoemaker and others have studied Upheaval extensively, and the results all point fairly convincingly to an impact. The national park service, however, hasn't quite come around, and still presents the salt-dome theory alongside the impact crater theory, and the name remains "Upheaval Dome". Sigh.

Dave and I have visited Upheaval several times -- it's one of the places we keep coming back to, and it's spectacular every time. We've been inside once, when we hiked up from the Green River on our honeymoon, and have walked the short trail to the two overlooks on top several times. The last time, however, we noted that the overlook trail continues (though no park documents mention this -- they all show the trail stopping at the second overlook), and this time we wanted to see how far it goes.

We didn't find out. It continues for miles past the overlooks, marked by cairns (ever notice how park brochures and signs never mention cairns? Do they figure that anyone silly enough to want to go for a hike in a national park already knows they're trail markers?), giving one spectacular view after another, of Upheaval, or its runoff canyon leading to the Green River, or the Navajo sandstone domes comprising the southern end of Upheaval's second shock ring. We puttered around for several hours, hunting cairns up and down steep slickrock surfaces and along sandy washes, trying to scope out connections between this upper trail and the "Syncline Loop" trail, which circumnavigates Upheaval farther out, beyond the first shock ring, and connects with the lower trail that goes into its center.

But all good things must come to an end, so eventually we found our way back (via the Syncline Loop), paid a quick visit to the Green River Overlook and the spectacular Grandview Point (perhaps the most scenic spot in any national park), watched a minivan essay the torturous turns of the Schaefer trail (riding the brakes the whole way; understandable, when you look at the several thousand foot sheer dropoff on the outer edge of this narrow dirt road) then headed north to the town of Green River to set up for our assault on the Maze. Green River may not have a list of dining establishments to rival Moab, but it has a central location under the scenic Book Cliffs, plus one thing Moab lacks: cheap motels with wi-fi access.

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Mon, 13 Sep 2004

Glenwood Canyon's Hanging Lake

When we finally reluctantly bid adios to South Park, we pointed north over the Continental Divide to join interstate 70. Our hosts had given us a tip on a short but beautiful hike in Glenwood Canyon, to a "hanging lake" perched on a ledge high in the cliff walls. Sounded like a lovely way to break up a day's driving.

Getting to the trailhead turns out to be easier said than done. Our hosts had assured us the exit was marked, but the exit for Hanging Lake has since been closed. It turns out you now have to go two exits farther, turn around and get back on the freeway going the other direction, and remember the exit number to get off at the right place. Don't get off early, or you can't get back on and have to cycle all the way around again.

Once there, you walk a quarter mile along the river on a paved bike path, and then the real trail begins, climbing steeply along rock stairsteps. The steepness of the climb doesn't ever let up significantly. Groups of people (this is a popular trail) rest by the trailside. Groups coming down mutter encouraging words to tired climbers. We asked one descender, "Is it worth it?" His answer: "Oh, god, yes."

And indeed it was. The hanging lake is spectacular and beautiful, a shallow pond of clear azure waters. And fish. How did the fish get there? Interpretive signs discuss black swifts (nowhere to be seen) and oil shale columbine (which I'm sure are lovely if you're there in season, which we weren't) but nothing about the fish.

Every descending hiker, as well as the trail description down at the trailhead, urged us not to miss the short side trip to Spouting Rock, so of course we checked it out. A stream of water gushes mysteriously out of a hole in the otherwise solid rock of the cliff face, becoming a waterfall which feeds the lake. Fabulous!

I've driven through Glenwood Canyon several times before, always impressed at the beauty of the canyon (I-70 through eastern Utah and western Colorado has got to be the prettiest interstate highway anywhere) but I had no idea I had been missing the best part. It's well worth the couple of hours' stopover when travelling through that area.

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Sun, 12 Sep 2004

ATV thumb throttle design

We had the chance to spend a few hours riding 4-wheeled ATVs with Kerry and Pam. Great fun! And it's easy to see why anyone living in a rural area would want one, especially anyone who needs to carry supplies from one place to another (dirt bikes are great fun and can go anywhere, but it's a lot harder to carry a big spool of wire, a toolbox, and an Australian shepherd puppy on a dirt bike).

The only disappointment was that they sported the same thumb-push-button throttles as snowmobiles and jet-skis use, which makes my thumb ache after only a few minutes of riding. I knew Kerry & Pam had been motorcyclists, so I jumped at the chance to ask: why thumb throttles, rather than a twist throttle like a motorcycle?

Kerry's answer was prompt (it was obvious he had thought about this before): because they're awful, everybody hates them, and that way everyone will spend more money buying an upgrade kit (which costs another $100 or so) from the manufacturer since nobody makes aftermarket kits.

I'm not sure I believe that. If it's true that everybody hates thumb throttles, then wouldn't a company which bucked the trend and offered an ATV or snowmobile with a twist throttle have an instant market advantage? And why hasn't some enterprising aftermarket company come out with a kit if they're in such demand?

But I don't have an alternate explanation. It's some consolation, at least, to hear that I'm not the only one who hates thumb throttles, and that it is possible to buy a twist-throttle kit (perhaps it's even possible to fabricate one out of motorcycle parts).

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The Altiplano!

After brunch in Golden, we headed up into the mountains to our destination (and the real purpose for this trip), the house of Dave's brother Kerry, and his wife, Pam. We didn't know much about the location, besides that it was just under 10,000 feet in elevation and very near the continental divide.

The terrain visible from the highway up to the pass was typical Colorado mountain scenery, in fine form: rocky cliffs, aspens just starting to turn, a river meandering beside the highway (which proved to be the North Fork of the South Platte -- I guess they were running out of names for rivers), pines. So when we crossed the pass, we weren't prepared for the sight on the other side: a huge flat grassy plain stretching for dozens of miles, pocked with ranches. A huge plain at 9500 feet. It was like Colorado's answer to the Altiplano of the Andes!

We later learned that this feature is known as a "park", and that this one is called "South Park". Yes, that South Park -- supposedly the animated TV show is named after this plain, or the ghost town on the western edge of it.

We found the dirt road leading to K&P's place, and we were there. They sit on the edge of the altiplano -- er, park -- at the foot of a couple of spectacular "fourteener" mountain peaks astride the continental divide, surrounded by aspens ablaze, with two creeks running through the property, horses and cows, ATVs, several parrots, and a cheerful red merle Australian shepherd puppy named Ben. Plus elk (invisible on this trip -- it's hunting season, so they're hiding), pronghorns, mountain bluebirds, coyotes, and a host of other wild animals.

In other words, paradise. At least if you don't mind fairly harsh winter weather, and can function at over 9000 feet of altitude, which not everyone can. The couple of days we spent there wasn't really long enough to adapt.

One of the two creeks is actually a culvert, and a constant source of problems. It seems that beavers have been damming up the culvert, creating lakes that overflow the driveway and make it impossible to leave the house. We went along on one walk of the culvert and see the latest beaver dams (and, of course, try to catch a glimpse of the beavers themselves, but we never got a definitive look).

We passed two idyllic days hiking the property, riding ATVs, playing with Ben, listening to the parrots practice whistles and phrases, looking for beavers, watching blue herons and bluebirds, and just gaping at the amazing views. On the way out, we saw a pronghorn wandering right next to the road.

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Sat, 11 Sep 2004

The Mitten Fault

Vernal, UT to Golden, CO

The eastern end of Dinosaur National Monument seemed a bit of a let-down, at first. The road stretches about 30 miles from highway 50, and along most of that length there's very little to see, as the road winds along the scrubby mesa top. Only the last six miles are in the park, and those include a sparse handful of viewpoint pullouts, none of which give much of a chance to see the rivers. So our hopes rested on North's Rule of National Parks: The end of the road is where the Good Stuff is.

We got to the end of the road, parked ... and still couldn't see much. The parking lot is surrounded by trees and doesn't come very close to the edge of the mesa on either side. You really have to walk the one mile trail to the end of the mesa in order to see anything.

And at first, it seems like the trail isn't any better, and the trail guide (25 cents at the trailhead) is full of the usual mind-numbing Park Service platitudes (Look around you ... even though there's a river down at the bottom of the canyon, it's dry up here. So the trees have to survive on not much water). But hang in there, for a fairly spectacular view at trail's end of the tilted, twisted Mitten fault, as well as the joining of the Yampa and Green rivers (the confluence itself isn't visible, hidden by a formation known as Steamboat Rock). The fault cuts across the river (or, rather, the river sliced through the already-formed fault when the Uinta uplift raised this area above its surroundings) and you can trace it back along the terrain to the cliff on which you stand. Downstream, Whirlpool Canyon (so named by John Wesley Powell) cuts through sediment of a very different nature from the sandstone cliffs upstream of the fault. The park's trail map offers a diagram showing this, making up for the smarmy nature-trail points earlier in the hike.

After leaving the park, we headed east, across Rabbit Ears Pass. Dave had been there once as a young child, and said I'd understand the name when I got there ... and indeed I did. But which two of the three projections are the rabbit's ears? We passed lovely high meadow scenery most of the way, with the aspens just beginning to turn, and eventually arrived in Golden to meet Dave's family.

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Thu, 09 Sep 2004

The Dinosaur Bone Quarry: Evanston, WY to Vernal, UT

After stopping to admire Wyoming's nice passive solar rest stop on I-80 (complete with diagrams for how the passive solar setup worked in summer and winter), we took a byway through rolling hills of Morrison bentonite and Mancos shale to Manila, UT, where we got our first (and nearly our only) view of Flaming Gorge, which staggered us.

Not because of the red gorge, which by all accounts used to be spectacular before the dam was built and the canyon flooded with a reservoir; and not because of the reservoir itself, which seemed nothing special. The interesting part of the view from Manila is two huge, parallel curving ridges with what looked like a lowered flat area in between. Imagine a freeway offramp leading from a high rocky cliff down to the reservoir, with a wall of sharp red sandstone on either flank ... then scale it up by an order of magnitude ... and you have some idea of what this odd formation looked like.

There's a forest service office in Manila, so we stopped to ask, "What the heck IS that thing?" We suspected successive glacial moraines, since the valley in which Manila sits looks very glacial (U-shaped, and all that) but we wanted to talk to someone who knew more.

Unfortunately, the geologist on staff was out. The ranger (new in town and not yet fully versed on the area) also thought moraines were a likely answer, but he and the helpful lady at the counter suggested I check back with the geologist, which I will certainly do.

Then we headed south to Vernal, and hit some nice surprises. First, someone involved with Utah road signs actually got the silly notion that travellers might have some interest in geology. Every mile or so, we'd pass a sign saying something like "Jurassic Morrison Formation: graveyard of dinosaurs", keeping us posted as we crossed each geologic layer boundary. It was almost like driving with "Roadside Geology of Utah", without having to check mile markers all the time. What a great idea! I'm sure it's appreciated by lots of travellers along that road, not just amateur geology wonks like us.

After a few miles of that, a pullout announced "Sheep Creek Geologic Loop". The AAA guide and a few other references I'd seen mention this loop as being near Flaming Gorge somewhere, but nobody actually says where it is or anything about it. What a nice surprise to stumble upon it accidentally!

So of course we took it. Unfortunately we lacked any guide to the road, and the Sheep Creek route doesn't have the frequent labelling of the highway leading to it. But the rocks were spectactular, varied, majestic, and warped, and the creek and surrounding aspen meadows (with the leaves just starting to turn) made for a fantastically scenic and interesting drive.

In due course we re-attained the highway, continued on to Vernal, secured a room, then proceeded to the main attraction: Dinosaur National Monument's famous Quarry.

I say "famous", but in fact, few people seem to know about this park. We'd learned through the web that the southwest end of the park, nearest Vernal, contains a visitor's center building built around an existing rock wall containing a large collection of dinosaur bones. What a neat idea! But reading about it, or photos on the web, doesn't prepare you for being there and seeing the wall, still connected to the rest of its sandstone cliff, with hundreds of dinosaur bones -- real ones, not plastic casts -- there to be seen, touched, and cataloged. It's so far beyond any fossil exhibit I'd seen anywhere else that it's not worth comparing. Even the excellent Burgess Shale exhibit at Yoho in British Columbia pales. It's fabulous. If you like dinosaurs, see it.

Afterward, we drove to the end of the road, admired the spectacular rock formations and the Green River, hiked a short way into a box canyon (to admire more twisted and tilted rock formations), then headed back to town.

Tomorrow: More dinosaurs, then on to Denver.

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Wed, 08 Sep 2004

The Salt Flats: Elko to Evanston

The salt flats of Utah are a much more interesting drive than Nevada.

They begin at Wendover, a typical Nevada "border town", full of good deals on motels and food (financed, of course, by the casino action). Wendover straddles the Nevada/Utah border, and thus West Wendover, NV is in a different time zone from Wendover, UT. There isn't much to Wendover, UT, though, besides the Air Force base.

A few miles east of Wendover is the first of the excellent Utah rest stops, featuring a tall platform which offers a view of the flats, including a glimpse of Bonneville Raceway, where land speed records are set. The picnic table shelters feature graceful, swept roofs which look like they're in the process of setting land speed records themselves.

Beyond the rest stop, the salt flats continue to interest. First is the surprising amount of water. Even in late summer, somehow these remnants of ancient Lake Bonneville, which once covered most of northwestern Utah, hold standing water a few inches deep, and small waterbirds flit around, somehow scratching a living out of this salty desert.

The horizon shimmers with mirages. Distant mountain ranges seem to float on a glittering watery carpet; the road ahead disappears into an oil slick which never gets any closer.

The salt roadsides are crisscrossed with tire tracks, from travellers who pulled off the road to drive donuts in the salt, and with phrases and pictures drawn as rock mosaics. Then the ball tree looms on the horizon -- a huge metal tree fruiting with athletic balls the size of box trucks. One tennis ball has fallen, and its slices lie beside the tree. On the eastbound interstate, not even a pullout is offered to explain this vision. (Westbound travellers can stop and read information about the artist who designed the sculpture.)

Eventually the glittering white salt gives way to more conventional desert sand and sagebrush, and the second rest stop appears. This one is even better than the first: the traveller who braves the "Beware of snakes and scorpions" sign can climb a narrow trail up the crest of a hogback (originally volcanic? or metamorphic? Whatever they are, they also contain interesting intrusions of broken geodes and chunks of limestone) to a panoramic view of the Cedar Mountain Wild Horse Range. A horned lark perches on the highest point of the hogback, perhaps enjoying the view as much as we were. We saw no scorpions, snakes, nor wild horses.

Coming closer to Salt Lake City, billboards reappear, some with intriguing advertisements like "Missionary Mall". Irony? Or serious? We may never know. The huge (but low, in late summer) Great Salt Lake appears, followed by the Morton Salt plant (tall glistening piles of whiter-than-white, and the intriguing girl-with-umbrella logo -- "When it rains, it pours". What does raining have to do with salt, anyway?) Then Saltaire! The odd abandoned resort on the shore of the Salt Lake, with its gold onion domed top still shiny, but the rest of the building decrepit. I think it's been made into a park now.

(On Morton's motto: a friend, Bill Arnett, explained it to me: "When it rains, it pours" refers to the fact that Morton (and probably all other modern table salt) has additives that keep it from absorbing water and becoming a sticky mess in humid weather. . In fact, here's the explanation on Morton's FAQ page.)

I found Salt Lake a rather nicely laid out city the few times I've been there. We didn't stop this time, though, but headed up into the mountain passes toward Wyoming. Just short of the border is the last of the great Utah I-80 rest stops, in a breathtaking canyon of red pillars, and again, offering a trail (steep and paved) up to a high vantage point.

Then across the border into Wyoming (including a stop at a nice viewpoint above a small reservoir) and Evanston. Like Elko, Evanston is a nicer town than I expected, with a decent selection of motels (it's even possible to find wireless internet, at a few of the motels or for pay via the "Flying J" truck stop's very strong signal (which even my wimpy Prism 1 and orinoco driver picked up from our motel a block away, beating my previous wi-fi distance record by about a factor of eight). Assuming, of course, that you don't mind sending your credit card information over a wi-fi signal. SSL should protect it ... I guess. But it makes me more nervous than the same operation over a land line. Besides, wouldn't it be fairly easy for some guest in the room below me to spoof the Flying J signal?

(I discussed this a few days later on IRC, when I got a better connection. We came to the conclusion that it would be possible to make such a man-in-the-middle spoof, assuming that you just accept every certificate in your browser: the spoofer could get a valid cert which was different from Flying-J's, and if you don't look at the domain when you accept the cert, then the spoof would work. But we couldn't come up with any way to make the spoof work if you do examine the cert. Moral: if you're on a questionable network, like a wireless one, and you need to send important info like credit card numbers, be sure to examine every cert for SSL sites.)

Evanston does not appear to have any restaurants to rival the Basque wealth of Elko, or the prime rib of Nevada in general. But it's a nice little town with a nice town square (we walked around after dinner).

Tomorrow: Dinosaurs! (Flaming Gorge to Dinosaur National Monument.)

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[ 23:33 Sep 08, 2004    More travel/southpark | permalink to this entry | ]

Home to Elko, Nevada

Driving through Nevada is boring.

The scenery isn't that bad; the problem is that it isn't that good, either, and it goes on for way too long.

Interstate 80 is the flattest route through the state, the preferred route of truckers, RV drivers, and pioneer wagon trains. Rather than cresting each of the myriad north-south mountain ranges comprising Nevada's "Basin and Range" geography, as highway 50 does, it follows the Humboldt river nearly all the way across the state as it skirts around the edges of each range.

Sometimes the billboards are funny. There was one proclaiming "Jesus Lives!", with an attribution underneath for Then in Winnemucca, a billboard advertised the smaller town of Battle Mountain:

Battle Mountain
Voted the armpit of America
by the Washington Post
"We didn't know you were looking!"

A bit before Battle Mountain, we passed the Thunder Mountain (something) Historical Site, which seemed to be a shack built up haphazardly of sticks and odd pieces of wood, decorated with whatever tschotchkes were handy. I weren't able to get a good look, driving by on the Interstate. I think I've found a picture on the web, though.

Elko is a nice place to stop, though. To begin with, it's full of Basque restaurants. I can only report on one, the excellent Nevada Dinner House.

Basque food is funny. Every Basque restaurant I've experienced has been very different; the only common element is that they all involve large quantities, especially the bottomless soup tureen. The Basque Cultural Center in south San Francisco approaches a fancy french restaurant, with appetizers like esgargot and entrees heavy on nicely done sauces. The severely overrated Woolgrowers, in Los Baños, serves uninspired mass-produced cafeteria food.

Elko's Nevada Dinner House has a simple, but varied, menu, heavy on steaks but with a good selection of seafood, pasta and other options. This is the second time we've eaten there, and both times we've been very impressed. My prime rib was about the best I've ever had; Dave's pork chops looked tempting too, with a nice herb crust on it (but nothing too foofy) and applesauce on the side. Salad, green beans, spaghetti in meat sauce, and french fries (er, "pommes frittes") accompanied the meal, along with the obligatory bottomless soup tureen (a moderately thick and tasty concoction involving barley, beans, carrots, and, I think, ham).

After dinner we went looking for a place to buy some soft drinks, and stumbled on a dollar store called "Honks" with a well-stocked sunglasses rack.

Then we retired to our motel room to bask.

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[ 00:41 Sep 08, 2004    More travel/southpark | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 26 Jul 2004

Kayaking Tahoe

Sand Point, on the northeast side of Lake Tahoe, is a lovely place to kayak, with dazzlingly clear water and great weather. It's also a pain in the butt, with no parking available even after you've paid the $8 entrance fee. Still, it was a fun trip. I wrote a longer article about it.

[ 23:11 Jul 26, 2004    More travel | permalink to this entry | ]