Camping

The Coast of California

Aaaaah, Blue! Beaming from the horizon is blue. We are high on the last of the beautiful California hills. Grass and forest pastures mingle and role several thousand feet down towards the coast. This is the first time we see the Pacific all year. So exciting, so beautiful, I work the breaks so as to not lose control of our trusted minivan, as an impatient car screams around us and downward toward the coast.

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Cambria. We sleep without the tent fly able to gaze at the stars on the pleasant night. Michelle wakes me up in the middle of the quiet night… “I think there is something getting into the cooler – must be a raccoon.” She peaks up out of her sleeping bag and is face to face with a skunk! “Ahhhh” I hear. “Duck she wispers hoarsly!” She tucks back into her sleeping bag protecting Ila. What is ducking going to do I wonder? A bit later we look again, the skunk backed away and for some reason it is my job to quietly sneak out of the tent without stirring the skunk and put our cooler in the minivan. It is a standoff skunk vs. man. With a raccoon I would make a bunch of noise to scare the critter but the skunk is a much more delicate situation. In the morning we learn about the destruction…the dexterious skunk somehow, opened the cooler and made off with Michelle, Elias and Ila the eggs, the turkey jerkey and a really good bar of chocolate. Jacob celebrated the miracle that the bacon was still there.

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We pack up and drive north on Route 1 with its mysterious curves and spectacular views. We see an unexpected sign for “Elephant Seal Viewing”. Our curiosity is peaked and we pull over park and head to a boardwalk overlooking a beach completely covered with huge Elephant Seals. Loud thunderous growls, they are hilarious from our comfortable distance. We watch and we learn little Ms. I giggling imitating the seals. What’s next? Wildlife viewing was not on my radar. We head north.

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The hills that our coastal highway is following steepen, as the clouds thicken ahead. “Is there really a road that continues along that coast?” The ocean gives birth to increasingly steeper and more other worldly hills as we enter the fog and I begin to yawn. Yes it has been very busy and very active as of late and I am beginning to feel tired. It’s no longer sunny out as we wind in and out of mountain ravines and ridge lines, why am I so tired? “Whale!” Jacob yells out, we pull over with more excitement of viewing exotic wild life. Three maybe four-hundred feet below there are whales out at sea. We witness one blowing water into the air, haha so cool. Finally we file back into the car and the dizzying ride continues.
Lime Kiln state park is on a creek in a deep ravine with Redwoods that opens up to a cove on the Pacific. We play by a stream from the forest making its way to the ocean, Michelle’s favorite type of confluence, freshwater meeting the sea. Waves splash and happy kids disperse. Camp is set but it’s still early, why are we so tired? Michelle yawns. “Let’s go to the beach, it’s only yards away”. I lie down and drift away to the sound of waves, sea gulls and Jacob and Elias wrestling, running, building with rocks and sand. Now I’m driving in the desert again, driving towards Los Angeles, but now it’s on fire, why am I driving there if it’s on fire? I notice that my wheels aren’t touching the ground but I’m speeding way above the desert and there are piles of animals, they have teeth, they’re like huge crocodiles covering the entire horizon and the snapping noises they make are frightening.

“Daddy, check it out there are Sea Otters out there.”

“What?” I pop up. “Sea Otters?”, “Weird dream” I brush it off when I understand what Elias is yelling and eagerly look through the binocs. Sure enough there are a few Sea Otters floating around on their backs in the waves. “Wow, they’re big.” I concede to make it clear that I’m excited. After awhile I stop watching, I notice Michelle is at camp cooking dinner. “It’s cloudy here.” I think to myself and lie back down. Drifting waves, drifting sounds I am now on the top of a huge cliff. I’m above the clouds. “So this is what it looks like above the clouds”. I think about jumping but then the back of some really big animal surfaces. “I can’t float like that” I think, “I’ll just sink to the bottom.”

“Dinner!” Michelle yells. I realize I was snoring and again work to shake off the sleep.

We stayed at Lime Kiln another full day and night enjoying the otters and the occasional Harbor Seal that popped it’s head out of the water as curious about us as we about it. The spell of the Big Sur coast was impossible to escape as we drifted in and out of different stages of our dreams. Even when I was awake I had to pinch myself, was I really awake? It was probably somewhere between dreaming and awake now that I reflect back on it. On day three the clouds still thick as if they are always there, the noise of sea birds, waves and the rushing creek mingle with the sleepiness. We pack up and drive onward, winding north on Route 1. Slowly, the clouds intermittently give way to the sun. The spell is broken like Rip Van Winkle waking from his sleep we start remembering where we’re heading and began thinking about our itinerary again. That’s right, my cousins in Menlo Park, Michelle’s brother Simon is meeting us in San Francisco after that, our trip is only weeks from over. But it is certainly not over. Today we’re headed to The Monterey Bay Aquarium.

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The aquarium is an absolute treat for all of us. The mysteries of both the deep ocean and coastal life are beautifully explained throughout with jelly fish of all sorts, big, amazing and bizarre fish and answers to our questions about the cool local wildlife we had been seeing.
The Elephant Seal is not only humorous and entertaining to watch but they are incredible. Sometimes weighing as much as 6,000 pounds they can spend more time without air than any other non Cetacean mammal (whales and Dolpins). They have been recorded ad depths at over 7,000 feet deep in the Ocean.

It turns out the whales we saw were most likely the Blue Whales. They are the largest living thing to have ever existed weighing up towards 170 tons. What we probably saw was a mom and her calves, being only a month and a half from peak viewing season it was not an uncommon viewing.

The animal that had our attention the longest was the incredible Sea Otter. The Sea Otter has the thickest fur of any animal in the world. They live in the kelp forests and are sustained by the life within the forest. It is also no surprise that we watched them floating around on their backs because they spend a majority of their lives doing exactly that, floating on their backs. They are one of the only animals in the animal kingdom to use tools, such as their use of rocks to pry open shell fish. They are also a keystone species keeping populations of Sea Urchins in check so they do not destroy the kelp forest. What I think is amazing is how big they are, the males can way close to 100 Ibs. That means that they were surely further than we thought while we watched them at the beach. That’s the same as the Blue Whales. Had they been a different species of whale we probably would never had seen them.

Here at the Monterey Aquarium there was one fish that caught our interest. We never saw the Great White Shark in the wild but we did watch a presentation that was fascinating. First of all they are not a coastal species like previously thought; they only come to the coasts to feed. From there they go out into the open ocean and do things that nobody quite understands as of yet. What we do know is almost all of them travel out to an area between Hawaii and Baja California referred to as the Great White Café. On their way out there they will dive as deep as 3,500 feet below sea level. Once they get there they never dive below 300 feet. It could be that they are mating, or perhaps that they are fishing but the fact remains that nobody knows.

Now back in the car we continue on to see family again and experience a bit of city life.

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Categories: Blue Whales, California, Camping, Car camping, Coast of California, Driving cross country, Ecosystems, Elephant seals, family, Family camping, Great White Shark, Monterey Aquarium, Sea Otters, Uncategorized, Wildlife | Leave a comment

Breakfast in the Sierras

“Hey Jacob you ready?” Elias yells enthusiastically

“Yea, let’s go!” Jacob answers.

Through the sound of a rushing creek I slowly awoke realizing the boys were off again on another adventure. My mind stirred and I remembered drifting to sleep the night before while watching Ila and Michelle’s eyes reflecting the bright white light of infinite stars above. I stretch big but not to disturb the girls since they’re still dreaming of stars, put on my blue shorts my blue T-shirt and greet the big sloping sage brush plain and the Sierra’s, aaaah, heaven.

“Coffee is ready hun!” I say after I hear Michelle starting to stir.
Both burners on the trusted Coleman stove are frying breakfast now. Michelle and I sip coffee together and deeply enjoy discussing nothing important.

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“I guess Ben is down in Prescott by now” I say. I am reflecting on the first day we arrived here – four days ago. We met up with Ben and Ruth, our friends who recently moved from Prescott to Mammoth Lakes, two hours to the North. Together we went on a hike after connecting that morning, up sage brush slopes with snow capped peaks towering way above. Big horn sheep ran on distant hillsides and wild flowers were in bloom as we hiked up a trail with no goal other than catching up. Ila attached their dogs leash to Ben coaxing him down the trail. We shared dinner, drinks, stories and soccer that night.

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“Pancakes and eggs are ready” I yell loud enough to make sure the boys can hear  as they play out in the sage near the creek. Do they really need to come now? No, Michelle and I can enjoy breakfast quietly, they’ll eat later.  They pretend they didn’t hear me regardless and keep playing.

This is more or less how we greeted the last five days, completely surrendered to the comfortable and spectacular scenery. Every morning soaking it up, letting it inspire us all over again and then diving into the next adventure.

On our third day here, we went up to the great craggy and snowy mountains that stand high above camp. Mount Whitney is the tallest of these peaks. It sits at just around fourteen and a half thousand feet in elevation higher than all of the mountain in the contiguous US. Although the mountains are high and craggy, this year they remained snow free for over 2,000 feet of our hike taking us to over 10,000 feet of elevation into the snow. Jacob and Elias were entranced by the seriousness of the mountains as they ran way ahead up the dry trails, telling each other stories. Michelle and I tried to keep up with Ila. Living in the desert for weeks without big mountain strolles made this hike all the more appealing.

“What a beautiful hike that was” I say while flipping one of the classic pancakes I’ve been making on a regular basis since we left Bellingham last year – about 4 inches in diameter and cooked deeply in butter. Not complete without eggs and really nothing is better when you’re hungry.

“Super fun,” Michelle agrees. “Still not enough to wear out the boys though,”  she adds.

It’s true that over the last month we’ve noticed a big jump in their fitness.  The way they were jogging up those switch backs was an incredible affirmation that this year of athletic family adventure is above and beyond what they would ever receive during a conventional year at home.  The mental and physical health benefits will reverberate through their entire lives.

 

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On the second morning I woke up to Jacob and Elias going on their morning adventure but this time it sounded like the adventure was taking place closer by.   A rush of panic hit me as I remembered it was Easter Sunday. “Darn – did the Easter Bunny do its job” I thought to myself.  Ahhh… I remembered that yes indeed, the Easter Bunny did do its job….almost. In the end it mistakenly gave Ila, Jacob’s treats and Jacob, Ila’s treat but I decide to forgive the bunny this time. I imagine the delivery rabbit was a cousin of the Easter Bunny anyway, the Desert Long Eared Jack Rabbit. Regardless, the boys found chocolates eggs, rabbits and other delights throughout the sage brush that morning. They also woke up to a basket stuffed full of treasures and dutifully helped their sister discover the magic as well.

“I wish we could stay here forever.” I say

Michelle knowing what I loved most of all agreed, “We should just load up one of those rocks in to our roof rack and take it with us.” She was talking about yesterday when we went rock climbing!

The basin that we are camped above is not just a sage brush plain but just below us there is a series of craggy broken hills called the Alabama Hills. The famous granite outcrops with a spell binding mountain back drop has been viewed by millions of people throughout the world as a classic western scene for dozens of big Hollywood productions. The gritty granite usually tops out on super cool 40 to 100 foot block of granite. The landscape of rocky climbs has no defined end to it.

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“Not even two months left on our trip.” Michelle says in a solemn tone.

“Ya”, I answer. “I miss it already.” We both know what I’ll miss, the same thing we’ll both miss, the mystery, the adventure, all of the excitement when planning the next stage, the endless time together just enjoying each others company. I wonder if we’ll do this back home. I wonder if the boys will continue to be so excited to see each other in the morning and go off to play indefinitely like they are now. I wonder if I’ll get the time and if they’ll get the time to go on one of these big adventures. We’ll still do this stuff I know, but not like this. Not every day.

“I wonder where we’ll live back in Bellingham.” She questions the universe out loud.

I shudder at the idea of going back to the day to day, but shoo the glimpse of it and my mind takes me back to the sage blowing on the breeze, the sound of rushing water and the two brothers out there absorbed in a close friendship. Then my mind moves on to where we are going.

“Can you believe that there are over 30 million people on the other side of that mountain range?” I inquire. It was hard to fathom considering how absolutely barren our current landscape was, but in that still moment it hit me. That single mountain barrier is holding back one of the most densely populated regions of our country.

“I’m excited about tomorrow.” I say

“Me too” Michelle answers with a mutual understanding. We are referring to something other than lots of people that lies on the other side of that mighty ridge line. Something else that we haven’t seen very much of for quite some time and I know we all miss quite dearly:

TREES!

Categories: Adventure, adventure geology, adventure travel, California, Camping, Family camping, Family Climbing, Homeschooling, Mt. Whitney, Rock Climbing, Rock climbing kids, Sierra Nevada Mountains | 1 Comment

Natural Building in the Four Corners by Jacob Anderson

After driving through the night we came to daddy’s friend Andrew’s house. It was really late and we drove for a long time down a driveway. We went inside and went to sleep. We stayed at his house for three days but he was not there. When he came in on the third night he told daddy “you have a plethora of Piñatas” in referring to us kids. He was really funny and entertaining.

Andrew lives in Dolores, CO in the middle of nowhere on 6 acres of ponderosa forest in a 2 story straw bale house. The outside walls of the house are plastered to look like waves and you could see the grains of straw in the coating. We got to stay with Andrew for about 2 weeks in early spring. In between great waffles and super fun stories, I asked him why he started working with natural building materials; he told me that when he used to work with conventional materials he would come home sick. He said this happens to other builders as well and is called “sick building syndrome.” When he started working with natural materials instead he felt great. Therefore he learned the art of straw bale building and started “Natural Dwelling” his building company. Andrew invited us to visit a house that he was building on the border of Utah and Colorado, this time in the ABSOLUTE middle of nowhere. The funny thing was the homeowners just moved from Bellingham.

It was neat to see the stages of building a straw bale house. The exterior walls were unfinished when we pulled up to the house and you could see the straw bales under the 1st layer of earth plaster that is referred to as “mud”. Andrew was waiting for warmer weather to finish these walls. The inside on the other hand was just about finished being mudded and although it was freezing outside the inside was toasty warm. I learned a bunch about earth building during our time we stayed with Andrew. Here is an overview.

Foundation:

Many straw bale homes have a concrete foundation with radiant heat inside the cement. To build the radiant heat system you lay down a metal grid and on top of that lay the pipes that will hold the water. Attach the pipes with plastic ties and then pour the concrete. When the concrete dries the pipes are set and the hot water flows through the pipes. This heats the floor and the heat rises to heat the house.

Straw bale design and Insulation:

Straw bales are used to form the walls. First you make a frame out of wood and then place straw bales within the frame creating thick insulating walls. It is the combination of this insulation, a south facing house design and the radiant heat that keeps the house at a pretty consistent temperature, cool in the summer and warm in the winter. I noticed that in both Andrew’s house and in the house that he was building all of the wall edges, doors and window frames where curved and quite thick. It is important to note that they use straw bales not hay bales because hay has seeds which (1) can germinate and (2) attract rodents. In Andrew’s case he is able to speak to the farmer before he buys the straw bales to make sure that the straw isn’t moldy, didn’t have seeds and that the bales were a consistent predetermined size. When designing the straw bale home it is helpful to build the roofs overhanging with the ability for water catchment. You would want to build the roof with metal materials so the water is safe to use.

Earth Plaster:

Earth Plaster is made from a mix of sand, straw pigment and water. Together it makes a great plaster for drier climates although it withstands the snow. The pigments that I saw were made from crushed minerals and different types and colors of clay. There are also synthetic pigments used for less natural colors. The plaster is then “coated” onto the interior and exterior walls at a consistent thickness and left to dry. When I attempted to coat a wall at a consistent thickness, I failed in utter misery. One needs to eat much spinach and have years of experience to master the art. It’s all in the Popeye arm strength!

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Although these were modern homes, Andrew was not the first person to build with straw in the four corners region. It turns out that the Ancient Ancestral Peubloans built their homes called Pueblos out of straw, mud and stones in the same region as Andrew’s houses starting as early as 1,200 BC. When we went to visit Crow Canyon Archeological Center and were given a tour by the awesome Shawn Collins we visited th Center’s replica Pueblo and learned about the Ancient Peoples culture and lives. She explained that before this completed Ancient Publoan replica visitors would ask, “Why did they live in these ruins instead of a finished structure.” Although this may seem obvious to many of us, the special thing about the replica is that nobody ever gets the opportunity to see what an actual completed ancient Puebloan structure looks like, or make the mistake that they lived in it looking like it does today…in a state of ruin. All of the thousands of structures that remain in the four corners region are only preserved ruins of the past. I noticed that the windows of the short thick walled Pueblo structure were facing south and the doors were roughly 4 ½ feet tall. The attached rooms that were used for living, weaving, sleeping and grinding corn were cool inside even on a mild day. I imagine on a hot day the Puebloans would feel comfortable.

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A few days later mom and dad took us to a National Park called Mesa Verde. Mesa Verde is the most intact and largest ancient Puebloan group of villages and they put their villages in cliffs. We walked down a paved trail to the bottom of a canyon to where the most intact cliff dwellings were located. You could walk right up to the walls, you could see the living areas. You could go into this hole in the ground called a Kiva by a wooden ladder into a round room with log ceilings. On the way out we saw this maze that was not a cliff dwelling. It turned out it was another shrine to some god but people lived in it. From a distance we could see many more cliff dwellings. The biggest one could fit 150 people. Another interesting thing is that back when the Ancient Peubloans lived here over 30,000 people lived in the 4 corners regions where nowadays only 25,000 people live in this region.

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It is a good thing to note that even though we have all of these modern building more and more people are using older and more traditional ways of building that have obviously worked well for thousands of years, like straw bale because the materials are healthier and better for the environment.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this unabridged version of Natural Building by Jacob S. Anderson narrated by you, the reader, and brought to you by 5andaRoofRack.com Thank you.

Categories: Adventure, adventure travel, Ancient Pueblos, Camping, Crow Canyon Archealogical Center, Durango, family, Family camping, Homeschooling, Mesa Verde, Natural Building, Strawbale construction | 6 Comments

EE’s Canyoneering Adventure

Driving from Sedona to Flagstaff is a treat. The road that leads directly up the mountain is one of the classics of the Arizona Highways. The climb takes you up, up, up for three thousand feet until finally it stops winding and you’re driving amidst Ponderosa Pine forests to Flagstaff. Through the trees you see the views – The San Francisco Peaks, the highest point in Arizona stand 12,600 feet tall just above and to the north of town making a pretty backdrop to the area.

We arrived at the home of my old Prescott College roommate, Scott and his wife Lindsay in Flagstaff and the mood was festive. When I saw Lindsay I knew she was pregnant but I didn’t want to say anything. They shared the news and the time to celebrate was on – they were going to have a baby! We soaked up our friends for a bit but things were different. In the past Scott would have played hooky from work to go climbing or exploring but not this time. Nesting was their game so we enjoyed small adventures to some of the fun rock climbing venues, shared some great meals and moved on to the north – Grand Canyon bound. Both Michelle and I have been to the canyon before so it was with excitement that we showed it to the kids. Through their eyes the canyon was new and full of wonder.

Elias tells us about his experience in the Grand Canyon below…

Dad, Jacob and I started our adventure hiking down the Bright Angel Trail on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. We stopped at Indian Gardens, refilled our water and cut off the trail to another trail that went around the hill. We traveled down a wash and had lunch and put on our harnesses. We then started down a canyon mouth that was shaped like the pouring part of a water pitcher. Daddy set up an anchor (which we had to leave with 2 carabineers) and we began our first big rappel. I went first and then Jacob went. We descended down in front of this huge cave and so we weren’t touching anything just lowering into open space for almost 200 feet. Finally we got to the lip of the rock and pushed off and swung way out and rappelled some more to get to the bottom. I jumped so I didn’t land in a bush. It felt really awesome to go down into the canyon. It felt like I was flying! Everything was before me like I was in the middle of a 3D movie.

Daddy came down and while he was packing up the ropes Jacob and I went down canyon. Suddenly there was a big drop. I stayed near the stream while Jacob checked it out and then we followed a small route that went to the bottom of the drop where there was a small pool of water with tiny tadpoles and water bugs. We kept going down canyon and there was another drop with a little waterfall. I tried to un-dam part of the stream and when I picked up a rock it jumped out of my hand! I shouted in surprise and Jacob came over to see what the ruckus was about. We checked out the critter and it was a toad the color of dark pine needles. It had pimply things all over its body. Initially it was squished between two rocks and I thought it was a slim rock but really it was about the size of my fist.

Daddy got back so we went up and over the water fall. Then there was a beach on the right side and a bit later a slot canyon that seemed to go all the way down. The right side of the canyon was kind of rocky lifting up on a slant so we walked until there were little sand and rock islands in the shallow water. Then we jumped onto land and walked for about ½ mile until there was a sheer drop with a waterfall going down it. I heard Jacob say, “come here come here” and daddy and I ran over and there were five Big Horn Sheep climbing up the cliff. They were tan with two babies, one with little stub horns and the other without any horns. It looked like the mama didn’t have horns but her ears looked like small horns. The other adults had curly horns. We kept going talking about the sheep when we saw rocks falling and five more sheep climbing up another cliff wall with no problem. Once in a while we heard “braaaaa” or “crash” or rock falls, but I felt safe because they were way up there.

We kept walking down the canyon for another while when we stopped and daddy said “here it is”. The canyon all the sudden became like stairs going down towards the canyon floor. I started to unblock the little dam of rocks that slowed down the water heading down the falls while daddy set up the anchor of rope and locker carabineers. Then Jacob started to go down and he said ”Elias, your making the water flow faster”! (It flowed right next to you as you descended the canyon.) Then he called up to tell us that there was another big anchor down there. Then he said “ok, off rappel” as he was at the bottom. I started next and I got down past the first stair and there was a big pond of water because I made it flow so fast. I started going down the second stair and there was a waterfall going right in front of me below my shoes. I asked Jacob how to continue so I didn’t get wet and he told me that I was going to get wet anyway so just do it. I started going and he said “you’re going to swing to the right“ so I flicked the rope under an overhang and swung perfectly to the water beside me without getting wet. Then I jumped over the waterfall and into the pool on the bottom and dipped the front of my sneakers in but the water didn’t harm them. Daddy rappelled down, changed into shorts and we walked further down canyon. In about 20 steps there were big rocks as big as a couch. When I got to the bottom I saw the falling water that turned into a stream and disappeared under a rock. I tried to dam up the stream with dirt and rocks so it would go the other way but the water was really strong and it just busted through the dirt and went around the rocks. We went on a little bit and the stream was back. Here we discovered this seaweed stuff that looked like a splattered out brain but when you picked it up it felt like a carpet and it came up in big sheets. We couldn’t rip it and it seemed water resistant totally dry on the inside.

We made our all the way down and hiked for a ways and finally got to the trail on the bottom o f the canyon. After two exhausting hours hiking back up the canyon, daddy and I looked and there was a purple throated, green faced, blue/grey hummingbird chasing a bee around a blooming yucca stalk. They both wanted the nectar. The hummingbird knew that the bee could sting it and the bee knew that the bird could eat it so they chased each other at a fair distance. Finally both of them settled down on flowers equally distant from each other to drink.

Up the trail, I spotted a tree that I remembered at Indian Gardens right where we filled up water on the way down and rested. We continued up, up, up the trail and finally got to the first tunnel which made its way a short distance through the Grand Canyon rock and spotted a lizard about as long as my forearm with a purple head, white belly and legs and blue, green, red and orange back. I knew we were very close. We got to the second tunnel and a guy asked daddy how far the canyon floor was. Daddy said it would probably take him about 10 hours to hike there and back. We then finished the hike and met Mommy and Ila on the Canyon Rim.

What a trip, we went down the Bright Angel trail, down through Indian Gardens to Pipe Canyon, up the Grand Canyon trail again to Indian Gardens and back up the Bright Angel trail. Our 15 mile adventure was over!

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Categories: Adventure, adventure geology, adventure travel, Arizona, Bright Angel Trail, Camping, Family camping, Family Climbing, Grand Canyon, Hiking, Homeschooling, Rappelling | 3 Comments

The Superstitions

There is a legend of an old Dutchman who on his dying bed in 1892 in Phoenix Arizona revealed that he had endless riches stored within a secret gold mine deep in the Superstition Mountains.  Since that time countless hopefuls have searched and searched throughout this impossibly rugged desert mountain range.  Many have devoted a lifetime to this confusing landscape searching for the gold, emptying life savings, life dreams year after year hopeful and then hopelessly being alluded by the legend.  People have murdered, people have died and people continue to look for it and it has never been found.  This lost Dutchman’s mine is only one and perhaps the most popular tale spun as a result of these mountains.  There are also stories of shape shifting natives, haunting ghosts and even extra terrestrial activity within these hills.  It’s all, in my opinion, inspired by the landscape.  This is a place where the imaginative part of ones mind is deeply stimulated.  Every corner that you peak around you are rewarded with another unlikely landscape that pulls your curiosity in for an adventure.   That’s why we came here, the climbing, hiking, canyoneering, the fun and the adventure.

This mountain range became possible when 20 Million years ago a giant caldera that occupied a good portion of central Arizona blew its lid spewing volcanic debris causing an epic heated mud flow and ash deposit that occupied a region 80 miles in diameter.  Over time the forces of nature, wind and water, have chiseled away at this country carving a confusing landscape of deep canyons, large mountain walls, crooked spires and mazes of jumbled rocky variations on landscapes.   We began our journey here at Lost Dutchman State Park on the very North Western edge of the mountain range where the flat populated plains of central Arizona meet an abrupt mountain wall.

Apache Junction, one of the nations larger retirement meccas and the most eastern suburb of Phoenix was literally minutes away from our camp.  As much of a paradox as these two places are it actually made things quite easy for us as home schooling and office facilities were accessible at the Apache Junction Library.  We could have stayed forever.  Except eventually the water would surely run out.  Almost all of the original water sources for this region are mostly dried up.  The Salt and the Gila rivers rarely run anymore except for much higher in the mountain where they are stored in reservoirs.  Most of the water that hydrates this area comes from the Colorado River.  It comes from hundreds of miles away, evaporating in the hot and dry desert air in a series of canals called the Central Arizona Project.

Every evening here at our camp the big mountain walls and spires above us dominate and turn blood red with the sun set.  These wildly exposed spires have earned names such as Vertigo Spire, The Tower, Los Banditos, and the Hobgoblin Spires.  Jacob, Elias and I got our start with The Praying Hands.  This 200 foot high spire put Jacob over the edge so to speak of his tolerance for heights.  I think at some point he was thinking that he’d get to a ledge of some sort or there would be some kind of break but the exposure was always there.

Two days later we climbed one of the Hob Goblin Spires.  Spiderwalk, this time a 600 foot climb with unrelenting exposure.  I was quite proud of Jacob and Elias on that one.  That was by far the biggest thing they’d ever climbed.

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 Fish Creek is at the bottom of a large and abrupt canyon that defines the northern boarder of the Superstitions.  Jacob, Elias and I explored a few of the technical canyons that empty into Fish creek.  Some had fun caves you had to crawl through and rappel through.  One of them had 500 foot cliff that needed to be rappelled.

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After a week we took a four day break from the Superstitions and moved camp to the McDowell mountains.  This is a beautiful desert Mountain range sandwiched between two affluent suburbs of Phoenix.  The craggy 1.4 billion year old granite mountain range was fun to explore and rock climb in but what was most memorable was the Suburban town of Fountain Hills.  This place could be the closest thing I have ever seen to a real live Truman Show.  The center of the town is marked by a large rolling green park that wraps around a big lake with THE FOUNTAIN in the middle of the lake.  Every hour on the hour it shoots a spray of water several hundred feet into the air, visible from the top of the Hobgoblin spire, an hour drive away.

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Now back to the subject of the lost Dutchman and treasure hunters in general, geologists say that there is no natural gold deposit anywhere in the area.  The only riches found in the form of precious metal are 7,000 feet below and underneath the eastern part of the range in an older granitic rock layer.  Just outside of Superior Arizona in the eastern Superstitions lies the last and largest vein of copper ore remaining in the United States.  This copper deposit is worth billions and is quickly and efficiently being mined by Resolution Copper.   As an assortment of fascinating characters faithfully apply their heart and soul to finding the Lost Dutchman’s mine, Resolution rakes in profits worth billions with the real treasure.

Queen Creek, one of the finest, most extensive winter sport climbing venues in the country is located right there above all that copper.  When mining operations were proposed over a decade ago the climbers and the Resolution Copper mine squabbled at first over whether this precious rock climbing venue would stay open or not, but eventually the climbers proved to be organized while Resolution Copper stayed faithful to their namesake when realizing how important the climbing access is to so many people.  Almost all of Queen Creek rock climbing venues are safely and legally accessible adjacent to the mine.

We stayed at Queen Creek for four days climbing on the countless bizarre formations.  Every day was met with warm blue skies and a playground of pocketed volcanic rock.  We were delighted to curiously work our way around this extraterrestrial landscape exercising our fingers, toes and nerves, the first bolt was always quite far off the ground.  Everyone climbed here, even Ila and for some reason we saw almost nobody else.

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From Queen Creek we moved to the Southern end of the Superstitions a region that has invoked yet other controversies in the world of rock climbing: The ban on bolting in Wilderness Areas.  This has been a nationwide debate on whether the placement of protective bolts on rock climbs should be allowed to any sort of degree in legally designated Wilderness areas.  It started in this region of the Southern Superstition Wilderness 30 years ago when a remote hiker stumbled upon a solo climber blasting music from his ghetto blaster* while setting bolts.  The hiker complained to the powers that be and since that time the dilemma has escalated to engulf the entire country.  Should the use of protective bolts be legal in Wilderness areas?  And if so to what degree?  Logic and emotions have been slowly searching for common ground throughout the United States for over 30 years now.  Just last year the Department of the Interior released a final statement allowing the use of bolts with prior authorization.  Although resolution is leaning towards common sense, the debate rages on.  The rules are open to wide interpretation and some park management plans remain anti bolting at any cost.  Fringe environmental groups have threatened to sue making their view clear that climbing “is not a reasonable activity.”  Where and if the debate will ever end I do not know but it started here.

We hiked into yet another completely new landscape of craggy labyrinths of rock spires and walls.  A playground, yes, but on a much larger scale than Queen Creek.  Tolkien’s Mordor is what came to mind as we climbed steep switchbacks and unlikely ridge lines working our way to the Bark Canyon Wall a sweeping wilderness buttress deep in the heart of Superstitions.  This was the coolest part of the mountain range giving us yet another big athletic adventure.  The climb followed interesting and varied cracks up the 300 foot wall.  Although the climb was mostly devoid of bolts the descent from the top was made possible due to a two bolted rappel anchor……only visible to climbers and birds.

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This place has absorbed our attention, our imagination and has become our home for a total of almost four weeks.  As we were winding down our time here our friends Amy, Soleina and Auriah came to visit from rainy Bellingham here at the Lost Dutchman state Park.  It was only three days but is was a sweet three days of playing, imagination, storytelling over campfires, hiking, ice-cream and sweet memories of Bellingham. Ila woke up for days after asking for “the girls”. What a treat to give our friends a glimpse of our life on our year of adventure.

*Ghetto Blaster:  A large, portable, radio cassette player, from the 1980s. It is played especially outdoors, in public places at loud volume.

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Categories: Adventure, adventure geology, adventure travel, Arizona, Camping, Family camping, Family Climbing, Homeschooling, Lost Dutchman State Park, Queen Creek, Rock Climbing, Rock climbing kids, Superstition Mountains, The Lost Dutchman | 1 Comment

Incidents and Accidents: Traveling with a toddler Part 1

As I write this we are perched atop a mountain in a friends beautiful straw bale home outside of Dolores, CO very close to where Jacob was born over 12 years ago.  Here I find myself flooded with reflections and perspective.  The life stages of our children are so different right now.  One teetering on the brink of adolescents; one finding himself in the land of imagination and discovery; and the third, a wild toddling ball of wonder and spontaneity. Just today as she nearly pushed her 8 year old brother out of the shopping cart that they were sharing and howling at the top of her lungs because she wanted “privacy” a passerby said “oh, she must be two.” He was on the money!

Of all of the kids, she was the biggest unknown when considering such a big adventure.  Traveling for a year with a two year old is not your average undertaking after all.  Now, 7 months into our trip she is by far in the lead for giving us many, many moments of both comic relief and tears of near disaster. Here is a glimpse into life on the road with a toddler…

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Tools for the task:

Headlamp, tweezers, a multi-tool and of course duck tape. 

This is what’s needed to fix the tape deck (yes, you heard that correctly -we play tapes) when blueberries, barrettes and batteries are jammed into it.  It is true that the car is an extension of our home and is sometimes the best place for the Little Miss to hang out when we are breaking down or setting up camp. This said, if she is in there quietly focused on something there will surely be a price to pay.   Unfortunately now that many, many CD’s have been jammed into our CD player the tape deck must be defended at all costs!

Hand sanitizer, warm soap and water, Scissors.

Quiet and tranquil family moments are only possible when Little I is occupied.  This was true when she was quietly playing next to a tree in 2 Medicine Campgrounds of Glacier National Park.  I’m not sure why we didn’t answer to the big red flag of Ila shooing everyone away when they wondered what she was up.  Lesson learned and managed –  as long as you have all of these four tools you will be able to, with great effort, extract VERY thick tree sap out of toddler eyebrows, eyelashes and hair.  It’s actually only a 4 part process;

Step one:  Apply hand sani. very carefully trying desperately not to get in eyes

Step two:  Warm soap and water on the area helps a tiny bit

Step three: There is always the first hair cut…

Step four:  Encouraging crying rather than discouraging it over the ensuing days helps dislodge the eyelash sap…

Socks (preferably clean and not from dad); reusable swim diapers and duck tape.

That is what’s needed when backpacking in the Tetons or elsewhere for 4 days and run out of diapers on day 3 because you are traveling “light”.  Note to the wise disposable swim diapers DO NOT hold in pee.

Some other Tips and Insights:

Never shop when hungry:

When looking for the toddler at a small food coop in Montana make sure to scan the lower cereal isles for she may be snug in between the granola and the O’s ripping open a box for a snack only bare feet sticking out to give you a hint as shoes and socks where carelessly thrown off on the way….which leads us to our next subject.

Clothing Optional:

On this subject keeping clothes on the toddler at any point during the trip regardless if the weather is below freezing and everyone else in the family is wearing their down jacket and a hat is futile.  Ila is a nudist.  Regardless of her age and the temperature it is near impossible to keep her clothes on.

Narcissistic Parents at the beach:

When passerby’s look with smiles and giggles at your toddler in the stroller as you are walking down the boardwalk, do not for one moment think they are amused at her cuteness rather question to yourself what could be happening inside the stroller at that very moment…the toddler may be smearing and eating the sun block. (Side note…if you ever see a toddler in a stroller being pushed by her parents; tell the parents that she is indeed EATING the sun block please!)

Managing the inevitable:

Laundry:

When doing laundry at a laundromat in North Dakota or anywhere for that matter always keep an eye on the toddler because if you turn around for a second it is possible that when you turn back you may only see the feet of the kid sticking out of the triple dryer!

Night at the Museum:

Museum exhibits are often fascinating giving one an understanding about the area. This is especially true when reading an exhibit to the boys about the first arrowheads found in the eastern part of AZ near Apache Junction. Not all of us get a sense of place from the written word…sometimes individuals especially the 2 yr. old type develop this understanding by climbing under the fence and into the animal exhibit so that she can snuggle up nice and close to the javelina trying to avoid the prickly pair and the  lurking mountain lion.

Pet Names:

Although she grew out of her cute pet names for the boys – “Bebop” for Jacob and “Yiyis” for Elias, she grew into pet names for me…You know that you have been spending 24/7 with your daughter and the family when she starts calling you your husband’s pet names. Ila has been calling me “Honey” and “Chell” and sometimes the funny combo of “Honey Mama” for the last month!

Odds and ends:

Wipe on wipe off markers are good for car windows bad for tent flaps.

 Jumping Cholla cactuses are true to their name and are especially attracted to cute 2 year old girls.

 When staying with cousins, make sure to remove all infant suppositories from the area as they apparently taste good. (Side note have the Poison Control phone number on your cell phone and feel relieved when infant suppositories when eaten will only cause diarrhea).

Under NO circumstances let said toddler play in a pool of water in Yellowstone Park even if she is giggling…there just may be LEECHES! Ahhhhh

String wax that older children may enjoy playing with does not taste good.

And finally just like in the Movie Elf, ABC gum especially in shades of blue, found on the ground in the dessert apparently does taste good.

More to come:

Although you may be wondering at this point if Miss Toddler is intact and well,  the answer is a resounding yes! She is currently running circles around the boys, stealing their dinner, pens, pencil sharpeners and hats and squealing with delight.  She is growing quickly and hilariously. With that said, I imagine that this is only part one of her adventures!

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Side note: All photos on this page were taken by big brother Mr. E during a “photo shoot” at our campsite in southern AZ.

Categories: Adventure, adventure travel, Camping, Car camping, Family camping, Toddler development, toddlers | 9 Comments

Cochise Stronghold

It could be that there is a spirit world, a world that exists on a different frequency than we are use to acknowledging in our day to day lives.  In this place if you lie, steel, or are untrue and you don’t stick up for what you believe in or if you don’t stick to your word, than your spirit person becomes less and suffers.  This is what the Apache believe, they believe that if you are always true and unflinching and if you make the hard but right choices, than you die free and you will be soaked into the universe allowing your spirit to live forever, giving power to all.  We are told that this happened to the great Apache Chief Cochise.  During a time in American history known as the Apache Wars, Cochise was a hero for keeping his faith to his people, a champion and devotee to the truth and to his word, and in so doing honored his spirit body.  Cochise defended his lands from the bloody Mexicans to the South and the lying Americans to the North.  His physical body was and is still buried deep within his spiritual home in the Dragoon Mountains of southeast Arizona.  Cochise’s spirit was never captured and is alive and well at Cochise Stronghold.

As our loaded down minivan raced the sun’s setting light to the Stronghold, we bounced down the road quiet and calm with the jagged spine of rock mountains before us.  Would we have enough time to use the last sun rays to find the perfect camp for the next 8 days?  Yes.  We pulled into camp at the base of a protective rock barrier with a big expansive view of the setting sun.  Stepping out of the van we could feel that this place was not preserved by strict laws, or museum like encasement.  Any stories or thoughts that were previously racing through our minds of things that may or may not be happening somewhere else dissipated.  We were quietly and peacefully engulfed into the present as we set up camp that first night.  We felt safe, welcome and invited to stay there.

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 It is said that the great Apache war shaman Geronimo passed freely between the physical and the spirit world.  That is how Geronimo could run 100 miles carrying only a spoonful of water in his mouth for nourishment.  That’s how he was able to help the passing of the Apache people from the physical world to the Spirit world.  Squeezed between pain and suffering Geronimo was known to be captured on purpose in order to achieve other means.  It was common knowledge that if in battle you were charging Geronimo or had him surrounded, it was so because that was what he wanted, all of your actions were a consequence of his larger plan, which was to free the spirit of the Apache.  The Dragoon Mountain Range, our home for the week, is considered a direct portal between the two worlds. It is where Geronimo brought 150 Apaches from the San Carlos starvation camp.  He led them into this maze of jagged granite towers and canyons, possibly passing though our camp, where they eluded the United States Army and made a pact with the spirit world.

When we awoke that following morning we turned our attention to the 100 foot tall cliff that was part of our camp.  Jacob and Elias put up a target on a nearby mesquite tree and began working on bow and arrow shooting.  I stacked a rope at the base of one of the routes and Michelle belayed me up as Ila played in the dirt.  We climbed 1, 2 3 climbs and moved on to breakfast.  Michelle began homeschooling with Elias.  Jacob and I climbed more.  The climbing was physical, thoughtful and low on stress.  This was just one rock in an immense rocky landscape but we had no desire or need to move on.  This spot was so intriguing and engaging that we made this our rhythm for several days.  Views to the west brought the Serengeti to mind and the rest of the landscape, a fortress of rocks.  Our imaginations and actions remained in the present yet life felt timeless.

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At the time of the Apache Wars the policies of the US government towards the Apache were set forth by such sentiments as this by the bureau of Indian Affairs:

“This race is destined to a speedy and final extinction, all that can be expected from an enlightened and Christian government, such as ours, is to graduate and smooth the passway of their final exit from the state of human existence.”

During the late 19th century this region saw the highest concentration of forts and military presence in Western US history in order to fight the Apache.  It was also at this time that the small mining towns of the region boomed.  The precious metals being excavated from the hill sides were in high demand as were whiskey and whores.  The most infamous of these towns was Tombstone, Arizona.  During its peak Tombstone not only saw a military and mining presence but there was the smuggling of cattle across the US/ Mexico boarder.  This brought to the region the “cowboy”, originally not to be confused with a cattleman or rancher but a slang term to describe “the worst kind of outlaw that there is”.  Gunfights were common in Tombstone, Arizona with the most famous of all to take place at The OK Corral, between  “law men” Doc Holiday, Wyatt Erp and his brothers versus “The Cowboys”, the McLaury brothers and Bill Clanton.  Tombstone and it’s legacy was so rowdy and so intense this is where the term Wild West was coined.  That Wild West is now gone.

On the forth day at our camp we needed two things, water and clean laundry.  Excited to see some of these infamous local sights  we drove the 10 miles of dirt road to Tombstone and found Tombstone in what is considered by the US Park Service to be in a preserved state.  It is true that you can legally carry a gun down the street in the state of Arizona but in Tombstone you won’t need one.  It most certainly is dwelling on the past with reenactments of the shootout at the OK Corral and plenty of Old West tourist activities.  But the streets are clean, calm and preserved.  The Wild West is definitely gone.

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We continued on to Bisbee, Arizona and found a strange big hole in the ground of a town that once boomed during the industrial revolution and many booms and busts thereafter.   Copper is no longer being mined there but the town is still going strong on it’s own right.  Artists, musicians and bohemian types have taken over the very quaint little town with tight hilly streets, restaurants, galleries, hotels and pedestrian life.

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For the remainder of the week we settled back into our own little stronghold allowing our souls and spirits to flourish.  We took hikes deeper in the mountains, we pushed ourselves rock climbing and everyday we felt increasingly better.  The good work is to push yourself without distractions.  We spent time with our neighbors Jodi and Mike.  Both of them perhaps 25 years older than us and kick ass climbers. They showed us first hand that taking care of your spirit year after year keeps you strong….and happy.  Thank you Mike and Jodi for your hospitality, for letting me try the belay glasses, for the blue lollipops, the wine, the yummy truffles and the camp fire.

It was a bit sad packing up our tents at the end of our time. We discussed coming back sans kids in a bunch of years to climb some more, enjoy the magnificent sunsets and sit under the huge starry sky together. For now, we are bound to move on.

Thank you Cochise Stronghold!

Cochise Camp Elias and Ilaserengeti 1 Stronghold

Categories: Adventure, Apache, Bisbee, Camping, Car camping, Chihuahua Desert, Cochise, Cochise Stronghold, Family camping, Family Climbing, Geronimo, Hiking, Homeschooling, Rock Climbing, Rock climbing kids, Tombstone | 1 Comment

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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