Upstate New York

Last November I took a long-overdue trip back east. My stated goal was to re-connect with old friends and relatives, many of whom I had not seen since the 70’s or 80’s. While I accomplished that, I also managed to take some time along the way to explore, and to take in a little local color. I spent a couple of wonderful days visiting my cousin Ellen outside of Albany, NY, and got to meet her family. She introduced me to a fine museum in the downtown area, took me to lunch at a great restaurant, and pointed me towards a few other things to see. Not far from her house is a remnant of the Erie Canal, once the artery that tied the East Coast to the Great Lakes a hundred and fifty years ago. The bridge in the photo is a restoration, but it seems to embody the spirit of the times.

Across the bridge, only a hundred yards or so down the path, the view opened onto this beautiful pond. It was a chilly morning (especially for someone like me, who has called Phoenix home for the past two decades), but I enjoyed it all. The waterfowl and other animals were going about their lives, just as they always had, long before we came along. They are certainly inconvenience by – and perhaps puzzled by – our exploits and our achievements, but this does not stop them from from foraging in our gardens and nesting in our eaves.

An hour away is Cohoes Falls, on the Mohawk River. Even though I am a bit of a geography geek, I had never heard of the place. It may not be as famous as its cross-state rival, Niagara, but it is every bit as grand. The best thing about it, from my perspective, was that it was not swarming with tourists. I could enjoy it at my leisure. I parked in a public lot and walked over to where I had a good look at the thundering spectacle.

Owl Canyon

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I had passed through Barstow, CA several times, and had long been meaning to check out Owl Canyon. It looked like a good economical place to camp, amid spectacular desert scenery. I paused in town for fuel and a few groceries, and eventually found the right road. The dirt tracks leading to the campground got progressively poorer, but not so bad that I wasn’t able to make it through while towing my little trailer behind me (I did bottom out once or twice – I’ll have to adjust the height of the hitch).
The campground was nice, with enough plants scattered around to make it interesting. It was also unexpectedly deserted. True, it was a weekday, but this was late October, and I had anticipated that the place would be occupied by several other rv’ers at the very least. I drove slowly through the loops a couple of times, then selected a site near the entrance. I levelled my trailer, set up my tiny solar panel to top off the battery, and went for a walk.
I followed my long-standing practice of building a pyramid pf charcoal briquets in the fire ring itself, then placing a small cooking grill atop the coals once they were ready, propped up on relatively flat-topped rocks. After dinner, the embers provided the base for a small campfire. Another group of campers had come in before dusk and set up in one of the other loops, out of sight. It was a pretty good deal for only $6.
I did have thoughts of exploring adjacent Rainbow Basin, but that road looked even rougher than the ones I’d driven on the way in. Next time, perhaps. So long, Owl Canyon. Rather, hasta la vista – I plan to be back.

Tonto National Monument

It’s only a hundred miles from my winter home, and yet this was my first visit to the place. I checked in at the visitor center, then popped snacks and drinks into my day-pack before following the moderately-steep trail up the hill. The trail switchbacks several times, allowing views of the surrounding landscape, including nearby Roosevelt Lake. It also reminds you at every turn just how high above the parking lot you already are. I took it slow, pausing momentarily between every step and breathing deeply. Ancient Americans, clearly in much better condition than I am, probably made this trip every day. The desert vegetation was thick and lush, an indicator of plentiful water. Native peoples learned how to use all the local plants, eating them and fashioning clothes and other items from their leaves and fibers. img_20161026_132832020. At last the habitat, beneath a sheltering and shadowed overhang, comes into view. The stone walls have deteriorated over the centuries since the place was abandoned. The rooms are small, the overhead clearance tight; perhaps easier to defend, but difficult to enjoy. Did they have leisure time, or was every waking moment engaged in a ceaseless struggle for survival?

Ah, Wilderness!

I was in the area, so I went to visit Zion National Park yesterday. It seemed that everybody else west of the Mississippi River was there. The roads were busy, parking was at a premium, and both campgrounds were full. Driving in from the east entrance, I got stuck for a few minutes in an Animal Jam: not one but 2 vehicles had stopped in the roadway – on a blind curve, no less – in order to gaze at and photograph a family of bighorn sheep on a rocky shelf a short distance uphill.
I resorted to my usual remedy for crowded conditions: ignoring my natural tendency to scream irrationally, I found a good (legal) place to park, ate my sandwich, and then moseyed off into the backcountry for photo ops and solitude.

A Tree Grows in the Desert

It was a typical desert tree, it seemed to me. Maybe nothing special about it at first glance. A stout and sturdy little juniper, aged an indeterminate number of years; slightly shredded bark, steadfast needles, stubborn branches. I am tree, it seemed to say. Perhaps I will still be here, long after you yourself have crumbled into dry dust. Or perhaps I will die first, and you will utilize my wood for your evening campfire. Who can say? My name is not Ozymandias.
I considered the tree for a minute as I stood in its shadow. It was early May, but a warm day in Canyonlands National Park; a day to be cherished, savored, remembered. I swallowed some water, took a few deep breaths. The soil in which its roots were set was shallow, probably no more than an inch deep, with naught but solid rock below. Our fates were not linked in any mystical way. But I could not help but wonder how deep my own roots had penetrated, and how my bark compared with my bite.

Soda Lake

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From my archives: this is a photo I took of Soda Lake a few years back, on a trip to explore the Mojave Preserve and vicinity. The lake is adjacent to the community of Zzyzx (intentionally last, alphabetically). I enjoyed the solitude and the other gifts of the desert for a couple of days, camped out, and had a benevolent encounter with a tarantula.

Peace and Quiet

I just got back from a brief camping trip to Margie’s Cove. It’s a nice little place, just far enough out in the desert to be comfortable. It took me less than 2 hours to get there, via a roundabout route. And I had the spot virtually all to myself. I took 1 of the 3 campsites (the others were empty). The toilet paper roll in the simple restroom was also empty, but luckily I had some with me.
Margie’s Cove is in the Sonoran Desert National Monument, less than 35 miles from downtown Phoenix (although most Phoenicians may not be aware of its existence). There is sky-glow at night, and airplanes going to and fro overhead – but there are no barking dogs, screaming children, and constant traffic. I saw birds and lizards and rodents, and spied the tracks of deer and coyotes in the dry sandy washes.

It’s Turtles All the Way Down

I had finished taking my daily walk around the park, and had paused to watch the waterfowl exert their ownership of the lake.  I enjoy seeing the territorial dances of the various ducks and geese.  Surely the lake – at least 5 acres in size – was big enough for all of them.  But at times one group or another seemed to decide that there wasn’t enough to go around, and tried to force interlopers away, subtly or otherwise.

Today, however, an element had been added to the mix.  I spied a couple of small triangular heads poking above the surface here and there, with the remainder of the platter-shaped torsos and the legs beneath.  Of course there should be turtles here: it seemed such a natural thing.  Temperatures had been gradually increasing over the previous several days, and I suspected that until now these reptiles had been hibernating down in the mud.  Indeed a little while later I saw one turtle, smeared with dried mud, sunning itself atop a rock near water’s edge.

The ducks and geese didn’t seem to mind much, although some of them may not have known what to make of the situation.  This is new, they seemed to be thinking.  They probably viewed the turtles more as obstacles rather than competition: some weird kind of lily pad.  I observed one turtle in particular, who seemed to have found a spot in the lake that it liked.  A duck came over towards it, perhaps intending to peck at some unseen crumb.  Without appearing to move a muscle, the turtle submerged out of sight, not coming back into view until the duck had moved on.  This scene was repeated, almost exactly, two minutes later.  And then again just a minute after that.  And so on, in each case the turtle – calm as could be – disappearing under the surface just before the duck arrived, as if on a freight elevator.  Neither the duck nor the turtle made any attempt to find another spot, perhaps inclined to share.  The pas de deux continued, even as I headed for my car.

Solitude

The image seen at the top of this page is from a hike I took down Arches National Park’s “Park Avenue” two years ago.  It immediately became one of my favorite pictures, not so much for the content and composition but because there are no people in it.  And believe me, there were plenty of them out and about on that spring day.  I had to wait a few minutes for a certain amount of foot traffic to pass out of the frame in either direction.  As many of our best parks continue to be “loved to death,” peace and quiet are becoming more difficult to achieve.  If they were all talking about the natural wonders around them, that would be one thing.  But instead you get to overhear every detail of Aunt Edna’s most recent mole excision, accompanied perhaps by a blow-by-blow description of this morning’s breakfast.

And this is only in those rapidly-shrinking areas with inadequate cellphone.  There are plans afoot to “wire” every national park unit (despite the fact that – as others have so eloquently pointed out – all those funds could be better spend taking a chunk out of the NPS’ maintenance backlog).  All I can say is: yes, make some sections of each park electronically accessible, but leave broad swaths free of this sort of noise pollution, please!