Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Warm Desert

Our first Arizona morning as we hopped out of our tents, the Catalina Mountains loomed 7,000 feet above.  The North West side of the range that we were nestled up to is heavily decorated with big granite walls and long meandering ridge lines that spread out like an octopus guarding deep mysterious ravines.  The morning was very cold, unlike the mid 40s that Tucson was promised, we were 400 feet higher in elevation and it was more like low 20s.  The camp ground we were in was in the middle of a cold air sink that drained all night from the high mountains.  Hands were cold as I prepared coffee for Michelle which we enjoyed in the tent as we did in the Chihuahua.  But we were no longer in the windy desert and we knew that once the sun popped up above the mountain it would be warm.  We were now in the Sonoran Desert, the warm desert.

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If anyone has spent quality time in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert they know that it’s not just the warm winters, or the endless panorama of mountain landscapes or the stellar sunsets that make it so alluring, granted, those are big selling points, but one of the most interesting details lie with the crazy flora and fauna.  The biggest and coolest is the Saguaro.  You’ve seen Saguaros in cartoons or in pop culture featured typically in Monument Valley landscapes (which is in the Great Basin Desert and not where they actually exist).  Usually they are portrayed with only a few Saguaros standing around with a couple of arms sticking up.  They’re not like that though, they are much crazier and a lot of the time bigger with anywhere from no arms to lots of arms sticking out in every which way.  Unlike a tree they seem to have drastically different characters from one another.  Actually all cactus are a bit like that.  The Sonoran Desert has a literal forest of different types of cactus.  Prickly Pear are everywhere of course but then there are Barrel Cactus, Hedge Hog Cactus, Organ Pipe Cactus and then Cholla.

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Cholla (pronounced choy-a) and what Ila calls “Cholla O-boya” after a few unfortunate run-ins, are constructed with a main trunk that comes up out of the ground and then branches out; each individual subspecies takes on a different way of branching out to survive in the extreme heat and lack of water.  There are the Chollas that look like a tinker toy project gone crazy, such as the Staghorn and the Buckhorn Cholla,  there are the Cholla that resemble the structure of trees a little bit more such as Chain Fruit Cholla, then there’s the skinny links and sparse needles of the Pencil Cholla, the Teddy Bear Cholla with so many needles it looks soft and fuzzy.  But the craziest Cholla of all is the Jumping Cholla.  Jacob, Elias and Ila decided to test the rumor that the links actually jump off of the main body.  At one point in camp I heard Jacob yell, “Dad help.”  And there they were, all three of them looking dumbfounded with Cholla links stuck all over them after an unfortunate soccer ball rescue.  It was almost funny but pulling it out of Ila’s foot was nasty as they are definitely barbed.  They seemed to have learned their lesson as I have not seen anyone get stuck by a cactus again.

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The desert is not just choked full of cool variations in Cactus, the plants that have adapted here to cope with the extremes are fascinating.  Agaves, Yuccas and Ocotillos are like nothing you see anywhere else.  The Yuccas and Agaves are both in the Agave family with the Yuccas usually possessing softer flexible leaves, although they still cut your skin if you don’t watch yourself.  Most Yuccas are on the ground but there’s the Soap Tree Yucca which grows tall with it’s sprout of spiky Yucca leaves at the top and a strange single branch coming out of the top.  It would look like a palm tree except for the fact it looks nothing like a palm tree.  More like a Truffula tree from the Lorax.

The Agave, with its sphere of spikes that protrude from the ground provide the desert visitor with one of the most lethal pointy sharp things out there.  Actually, not much isn’t spiked here in the warm desert including many of the trees, and there are quite a few trees.  They average 10 to 15 feet tall and they’re spread out usually just enough to remind the visitor that, yes they are in the desert.  There is the Cat Claw Acacia with its nasty spikes and the Arizona Mesquite, which makes for some great carving wood and fire wood for that matter.  Then there’s Iron Wood,  which is illegal to harvest on any scale because it is so coveted for it’s “iron” like wood.  You actually need diamond tipped blades to carve it and is suppose to last forever.  All of these trees have sharp spikes but my favorite tree of all does not.

The Palo Verde is a beautiful tree.  It grows tiny leaves so that it does not have to use water for the costly leaf building process.  Instead the branches all the way down through the trunk are a beautiful shiny green.  This green is due to a layer of chlorophyll throughout the entire tree.  This allows it to photosynthesis without traditional leaves.  On these very green trees there are curious bushes of another plant that you see occasionally growing out from its branches called Mistletoe.  I don’t know the story of how mistletoe become the fabled kissing plant but I do know that it is planted by a bird’s behind.  The Phainopepla, a smallish black perching bird with a crest above it’s head, eats the plant’s fruit.  When the bird has to poop the digested seeds cause the birds butt to itch so it lands on the branches of the Palo Verde for a much needed scratch and presto, it plants and fertilizes the seed.

Elias is the ultimate dude for noticing all of the little things the desert is up to.  In a home schooling assignment where we asked him to write about and research what he saw  in the desert near our camp site, he writes  “The Saguaro cactus had holes made by Gila Woodpeckers. Then Elf Owls and Cactus Wrens live in the holes.”  His skill has already helped keep him out of trouble in this land of prickly things.  One night as he was going to bed he called out to me nonchalantly and said “um dad, there’s a scorpion on my shoe and it’s now crawling up the side of the tent.  What should I do?”  Sure enough there was a scorpion right on the zipper.  He was the best of our 3 kids to have spotted it…he did not grab it or freak out (Ila may have grabbed it, Jacob may have freaked out). He and I shooed it away and he was off to sleep. He drew this picture and wrote a story about it to mail to his class in Bellingham.

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After a few days of hiking and rock climbing in the Catalinas and at Mt Lemmon as well as taking advantage of the close proximity to Tucson for laundry and the things that are boring to talk about but feel so good when you finally get them done, we picked up camp and moved to another campground next to the Sonoran Desert Museum.  Here we could finally sooth our overwhelming curiosities over our new environment.  We were met with one of the most fun and enriching learning environments I’ve experienced from any museum.  We held pieces of rock from asteroids, watched Harris Hawks duke it out together and hunt for food and learned about the desert around us on a deeper level than we expected.  Jacob and Elias learned to identify the difference in skull structure between the Javalina, Coyote and Cougar and what identifies one as a carnivore or omnivore and not as an herbivore.  We learned how the world’s lushest desert, with only 10 inches of rain a year has developed so many fascinating plants that are able to make the most out of every drop of water that falls which in turn allows for life to flourish beyond what most deserts would allow.

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Here in the Sonoran Desert the wildlife is abundant and especially well, wild.  The animals are rambunctious.  I know coyotes live everywhere but did you know that they will not attack people?   We need to remind ourselves of this when we hear them going crazy every night, all night, crazier than you think they can get.  A few nights ago a bunch of them traveled right through our camp.  You could hear them on either side of our tent. There are more than just coyotes roaming around. Big cats are at their best in the USA down here in this cactus jungle.  Bobcats for sure and Mountain Lions….the lion just may eat you by the way.  But the beautiful and shy Occilot lives here as well and the biggest secret of all is the Jaguar who lives in southern Arizona…..they’ll eat you for sure.

Every dusk the desert landscape hands the show over to a heaven full of stars.  Brilliant skies.  When we “learn” we think of storing information between our ears, here all the input easily and quickly travels down our spines and into our solar plexus allowing the world to be relevant on a more personal level.  The mixing of the desert and the stars, learning and living has made every day a constant flow of contextual and experiential learning. What we learn next just may blow our mind all over again.  Our neighbor and campground host invited us one night to watch the Universe through one of his powerful telescopes.  We saw Orion’s Nebula, the most heavily studied and scrutinized nebula in the sky which is an intense sea of celestial matter making up Orion’s Scabbard just below Orion’s Belt.  We saw Jupiter and it’s four moons:  Europa, Io, Ganymede and Callisto.  We looked at the moon and all of it’s craters for a long time. Even Ila got a peak. We walked back to our tent, all of us quiet and in wonder…

The following day in Saguaro National Park Jacob wrote a Saguaro inspired Haiku as part of his main lesson work:

In Blistering Heat

The Sonoran Sentinel

Desert Mastery

Categories: Adventure, adventure geology, Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum, Cactus, Camping, Car camping, Catalina Mountains, Family camping, Family Climbing, Harris Halk, Hiking, Homeschooling, Rock Climbing, Rock climbing kids, Saguaro National Park, Sonoran Desert, Tucson | 11 Comments

Chihuahua

Beaumont, a city in East Texas, close to the boarder of Louisiana is among the wetter cities in our country.  With an average annual precip of close to 70 inches a year and surrounded by lake and bayou country, it is amazing that it shares a state with El Paso.  El Paso, one of the driest cities in the country receives on average 9 inches of rain a year.  What happens in the 830 miles between these two cities is the product of this fairly abrupt transition in climates:  Severe thunderstorms with dangerously big hail and a high frequency of tornadoes.  In fact the highest number of tornadoes of any region in the country is found in Texas.  So it really should come as no surprise that when a mountain range is pushed up in the western part of this meteorological shear zone there is a high likelihood of wind, especially on the leeward side of a range where the dry winter air mass sinks and descends rapidly back down the mountain range to the other side, pulled eastward towards the humid Gulf air.  It was such a mountain that we were headed to.

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On January 2nd we drove southwest across the border into Texas and about 45 minutes away to the Guadalupe Mountains National Park.  The mountains that make up this park were visible the whole time we were at the Whites campground.  It looked like an abrupt mountain range flanked by what seemed to be almost thousand foot tall lime stone cliffs.  We set up our camp nestled at about 5,500 feet elevation at a very cool campground at the mouth of one of the ranges intriguing valleys.  Once camp was set we were off to hike up and into the mountains.

Everyone was quite pleased to be walking.  Having spent a bit of time in the flattest landscapes of our country the towering walls that guarded the valley while we were hiking up was like medicine.  Jacob remarked that he enjoyed the hiking because it gave him time to think. Funny because we were in the car for days but it is the movement of our bodies, coupled with the openness that seems to let the thinking happen.

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There are the flat dreadfully barren expanses of landscape that appear in perhaps everyone’s subconscious when the word desert is used and then there is what happens to the desert when the landscape is not flat.  This desert mountain range acts like an expert water catcher and the strange and interesting plants that are able to make the most efficient use of this water are the norm here.  The mountain range acts like a sponge mostly because any moisture that does sneak into this area is pushed upwards by the landscape into to higher and thinner air until the air can’t hold that water anymore and it condenses.  Even though the Guadalupe’s are essentially in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert the highest elevations are completely forested.  Much of the high country is sloped northward which keeps the sun from beating down on it just that much more.  We didn’t make it that high on our hike though.  We made it up into the upper Chihuahuan life zones where plants were abundant and especially those designed to catch any water that fell.  Yuccas and cactus were all over. As we hiked higher we began reaching Junipers and Madrones which were cool to see because they are all over the place on the coast of Western Washington.  But there the Madrones are always on some south facing hill right on the coast poised to get the sunniest driest places in Western Washington.  Here they’re seeking out shade, small drainage bottoms, sort of showing a sign that more moisture is present here and not less.

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The following day we were reminded that we had gotten lucky, our hike had been warm and there was no wind at all.  That morning was very windy and cold. I made coffee and oatmeal on the little whisper light stove on the ground near some rocks instead of using our double burner Coleman stove on the comfortably arranged table. The kids and Michelle snuggled in the tent as long as they could before they needed to emerge into the wind blasts. We had to hold onto Ila! As we were packing up the wind grabbed the top of the roof rack out of my hand and flung it back aggressively.  Crack! The roof rack split and I yelled some colorful language.  That was when everyone knew I was not happy because we are one of those old school families that don’t cuss.  Somehow I put it back together and we got out of there.  Well, that was the expected norm there… wind.

We didn’t end up stopping at Hueco Tanks State Park like we had planned.  I have heard about this famous bouldering area for years and we made reservations to camp there.  When I got there I felt like it was just all wrong.  It was like if you were really craving vanilla ice cream, perhaps this has never happened to you, but you just want vanilla ice cream.  When it comes out it wasn’t ice cream at all it was like one of those weird Indian deserts…..sweet meats.  Ever try sweet meats?  Terrible.  If they bring out chocolate ice cream than it’s like, OK, that sucks, but I’ll eat it any way.  But no chocolate, it was like Indian sweet meats.  I hate that stuff.  I wanted my vanilla ice cream! Well, not only were you suppose to have reservations for camping, we were suppose to have reservations for bouldering and we were suppose to have a guide….for bouldering!  Just like I have never understood why I would ever want to eat sweet meats we weren’t even close to understanding why we would want to stay and deal with how convoluted and not relaxing the whole thing felt….so we left.

We drove on, almost directly North to a spectacular state Park called Oliver Lee State Park, which was nestled at the base of the San Andreas Mountains across the valley from the famous White Sand Dunes in New Mexico.  Here we had arrived exactly where we wanted to be and we never knew we wanted to be there.  We loved Oliver Lee State Park, we stayed there the next day and night and hiked up the fossil filled limestone canyon.  It was just us, it was great, it was better than ice cream.

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On January 5th we got up on another chilly morning and went to the largest expanse of white sand dunes on earth.  Two hundred and seventy some odd expansive square miles of desert are all made of grains of white gypsum that comes from several thousand feet higher in the mountain range directly west of the dunes.  It’s a case of the right geology and the right dry and windy climate that come together to create this very cool place.  Fortunately much of it is protected within a national monument because an enormous amount of the land between these two desert mountain ranges belongs to the US Airforce, warnings of missile testing north and south of the Monument is everywhere.

The Dunes were a sublime experience and Elias wrote about them in his Main Lesson book:

“White Sands was huge.  We went to White Sands, N.M.  It was totally not what I expected.  I thought there would be little mounds of sand, but there were huge sand dunes.  The dunes were very soft, cold, and about 60 to 100 feet tall.  When we left New Mexico we went to Arizona but that’s just another story.”

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After the sand dunes and many days of literally freezing mornings, I promised everyone we were headed to warmer places.  We kept lucking out with a warm day here and there in this windy desert but the weather was about to get quite a bit colder.  The last mission in Chihuahuan Desert was to go find an authentic Mexican restaurant in Las Cruces.  On the drive in we settled on a brew pub that looked like it would take care of business.  When we shuffled in to find our seats all of the locals were starring hard especially as Michelle attempted to nurse Ila.  Most of them looked like they had never smiled in their lives.  No way.  I got everyone up and even though everyone was getting hungry and cranky we piled back in the car and resorted back to plan A:  authentic Mexican.  Since it was Sunday in Las Cruces it took awhile but we found it and it was sooooo good – the real deal.   Back in the car and off seeking the sun.

Categories: Adventure, adventure geology, Camping, Car camping, Chihuahua Desert, Family camping, Family Climbing, Guadalupe Mountain National Park, Hiking, Homeschooling, Hueco Tanks State Park, Oliver Lee State Park, Rock Climbing, Rock climbing kids, San Andreas Mountains, White Sands New Mexico | Leave a comment

Caves

We promised Elias that we would take him to visit a cave for his birthday.  When we made that promise we had no idea how easy it would be to keep and that we would be able to visit two cave systems instead of just one.  The morning of the 28th of December we drove into swampy east Texas and onward, through humid Houston, the 4th largest city in the country and onward into rolling Texas ranch country watching the deciduous forests slowly widen and prickly pear start appearing.  We drove into San Antonio where we stopped for groceries; here the forests were made up of 15 – 20 foot tall Pinion Pine, Gambles Oak, Juniper, and some sort of short Cedar.

During the drive Michelle found a wonderful camp ground only 40 minutes beyond San Antonio called Cascade Caverns Campground.  When we arrived we stepped out of the car, set up our tents and quickly signed up for 2 nights instead of one. The kids tramped out of the car after 2 days of driving and quick as a wink geared up with bow and arrows, backpacks, pocket knives and trowel heading like the lost boys (and lost girl) of Neverland into the woods for adventure.

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 It turns out that just beyond San Antonio there lies the remains of ancient reef systems.  The sea receded leaving the limestone remains of what’s called the Texas Hill Country.  These hills harbor a very high concentration of caverns.  One such cavern was located right under our tent at the campground that we decided to call home for the next several nights.  We signed up for a tour the next morning which Jacob has taken the time to explain here:

Elias, Dad and I walked to the meeting place.  There were about 10 people.  The guide came and we all started to walk.  The guide started to tell us about the caves and this is what he told us:  “The caves were created by water 140 million years ago.  All of the land was under water and the silt and dead life was made into limestone.  Limestone has a slow dissolving point in water.  When the water receded and the land was uplifted, all of the rain water went to the lowest point.  So when that water sat on the stone it started to dissolve creating the caves.” 

An interesting thing is that in most cave systems the stalactites and the stalagmites grow and inch every 80 years or so, but in these caves the stalactites grow an inch every year.  But here, every few years the caves would flood and knock down the cave formations. 

Also because of the very wet nature of this cave there are two animals that live here, Bats and the Cascade Caverns Salamander which is endemic to this particular cave system.

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On December 30th we loaded up the car and once again headed west.  This time we drove 6 and half hours through landscapes becoming consistently less vegetated.  Slowly the trees where outnumbered by prickly pear.  Cat Claw Acacia, Creosote, and a few other very shrubby plants took over and finally a complete lack of moisture gave way to barren expanses of rock, dirt, sand and oil rigs.  The lofty rigs and big aggressive oil trucks were the only things we saw through the flat landscape until we crossed the border into New Mexico.  With  only 30 minutes of our drive remaining the view became hillier with soap tree yucca and prickly pear, while desert grasses became numerous and a grand desert mountain range loomed ahead with Carlsbad Caverns tucked somewhere in the landscape.  We drifted into White’s City Campground at the base of the Guadalupe Mountains.  We were the only tent campers there with the entire desert to ourselves.  This may be due to freezing evening and early morning temperatures in the 20’s…

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On December 31st we hopped in to the car and drove the several miles up the hill to the entrance of the Carlsbad Caverns National Park.  Carlsbad was huge.  The immensity of the Cavern chambers was not what any of us expected.  Our birthday boy, Elias explains the caverns as “fun….very fun”.  Elias goes on to explain.

“The Stalactites and the stalagmites going together were awesome, I loved them.  It was VERY big.  It felt like a different planet.  I’m still not believing it was real. I really liked the underground ponds and the curtains.  Like when you put your flashlight up to them it shined through them and you can see red.” 

We all learned the quick way to remember the difference between the cave formations from our guide, she said the stalactites hold “tight” to the ceiling and you need to be careful of the stalagmites as you “might” trip over them as you walk.

The enthusiasm Elias was showing made it all worthwhile for me.  I am not a cave person; my favorite parts of the caves are the entrances where all of the living things are found.  In Carlsbad Caverns for example the entrance is huge and hosts one of the coolest natural shows on earth.  Every sunset for half the year thousands of bats pour out of the entrance to this cave creating what looks like a sunset plume of smoke for miles in every direction.  Unfortunately we were not there for the show, but we were there for Elias’s birthday and he was very happy about that.  The actual birthday was on the first of the year and our plan for that day was to take it easy around camp, open presents and enjoy the day slowly.  The big party, the big birthday bash that Elias would remember forever was going to all of those cool caves.

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To end the day Elias and I hiked a trail from the visitor center about three miles all the way to our camp.  A great walk marked by a desert landscape he was just being introduced to.  We celebrated the New Year of 2014 around 8:30 pm which was about an hour past our family bedtime. We usually go into our tents when it gets dark and rise after dawn. This night we sat around a fire, watched the stars, reminisced about our crazy year to date, shared gratitude for our life, our family and friends and thought about the year to come.

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Categories: Adventure, adventure geology, Camping, Car camping, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Cascade Caverns, Family camping, Homeschooling | 4 Comments

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