Posts Tagged ‘travel’

It seems like we’d taken every road available to cross southern California—all four interstates (yes we’ve even gone through Vegas on I-15) as well as backroads like State Route 62 through Twenty Nine Palms which we got to by driving through Joshua Tree National Park. While they’ve added distance as well as time to the journeys, the detours have provided ways to see backcountry SoCal that many people never experience.

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The Salton Sea © SR Euston

This trip we chose to return from LA via I-10 through Palm Springs and then head south at Indio. Looking for lunch we ended up at Mecca, a crossing of the roads where we continued south around the eastern side of the Salton Sea on State Route 111.

I’m not sure what I expected but it definitely wasn’t this: a beautifully glistening enormous lake, 228 feet below sea level, the largest in California with a 380 square mile surface compared to Lake Tahoe’s 193. This particular iteration of this inland sea, a sink which has been alternating between flooded and dry for thousands of years, was created by Colorado River overflow flooding which began in 1905 and was finally blocked off in1907.  Since being closed off from the river, the sea now receives water only from a few small rivers; its major source is runoff from the adjacent farmland in the Imperial and Coachella Valleys.  Consequently, salinity rises each year and is now 25% higher than the Pacific Ocean. In 1930 a National Wildlife Refuge was established; in 1955 a state park.

The ecosystem is a study in contrasts and conflicts. On the one hand, the fish, introduced tilapia especially, continue to thrive and the Salton Sea is considered by some to be the most productive fishery in the world. On the other hand, it’s so productive that periodically there are massive die offs, probably the result of overpopulation leading to oxygen depletion. The blazing summer temperatures don’t help either. Evaporation increases the Sea’s salinity and reduces the ability of the water to hold oxygen.

On the third hand, the Salton Sea with its mix of marine, freshwater, desert, wetland and agricultural lands, is considered California’s “Crown Jewel of Avian Biodiversity”, with over 400 species sighted, second only to the Texas Gulf Coast. Several million birds migrate through annually relying on its ready supply of food. On the other (fourth?) hand, major bird die offs have happened periodically, particularly in the 1990s when 170,000 eared grebes, as well as 1000 endangered brown pelicans and 15 to 20% of the white pelican’s western population died, probably from an deadly mix of avian viruses and bacteria.

From the crusty shoreline (which looks a little like Yellowstone’s mineral hot springs) we easily spot white pelicans and black necked stilts. Rather than sand, the beach is made up of millions of fan shaped translucent fish scales and a lot of dead fish.

Shoreline, Salton Sea © AME

Shoreline, Salton Sea © AME

An eerie feeling of abandonment hangs in the air.  Forlorn, almost abandoned.

What’s happening to the Salton Sea?

Next: Salton Sea past, Salton Sea future

For general park information see: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=639 and http://seaanddesert.org/facts.html.

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Of course desert wildflowers aren’t the only showy displays in the Mojave. There are the Joshua trees themselves.

Generally described in terms like bizarre, twisted, strange and gangly (the plant specialist in the park brochure even uses the term “grotesque”), we find vast Joshua tree forests along the loop trip through the park’s northern portion anything but. Different or unique for sure, but hardly worthy of John Fremont’s description, “the most repulsive tree in the vegetable kingdom.”

Maybe the problem is that Joshua trees aren’t, in fact, trees at all. They’re members of the Lily family—a monocot and subspecies of flowering plants that include grasses and orchids, as well as Fan Palms which we discovered years ago at the end of the park’s Lost Oasis Trail.

Below is a slide show of Joshua trees and their environs so you can judge for yourself. We even unearthed a photo of Fan Palms taken in the early 90s. I guess if you’re looking for a sugar maple or a doug fir you might be disappointed. But if you’re looking for another desert denizen (like that other desert “tree” the Saguaro) then, like us, you may find these fibrous giants rare, fascinating, maybe even closer to something from a fairy tale than a horror story.


All Photos © SR Euston

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One of the most exciting denizens of the Sonoran Desert is the Saguaro—spiny, grey green sentinels towering above the palo verde, mesquite and cholla desert. Last week we took a stroll up the Bajada Wash Trail in Saguaro National Park’s Tucson Mountain West District, just north of the Red Hills Visitor Center.

Picturesque, statuesque, these saguaro are among the “old ones” of the desert forest. Up to 150 years old and weighing in at 16,000 pounds or more (that’s 8 tons!), they rise 50 feet above the dirt and broken rock. Here’s a slide show of some of the grandest:


© SR Euston

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With a depth of nearly 2,000 feet Crater Lake in the Oregon Cascades is one of the deepest lakes in the world. In terms of average depth, it is fourth.  After a earth rumbling explosion and then collapse of 12,000 foot Mt. Mazama some 7,000 years ago, the lake filled with prodigious snow melt. It is now in a state of hydrologic balance.

Crater is also one of the most pristine of lakes, with remarkable clarity. Established in 1902 as one of the earliest national parks, it’s pretty much pollution free. And thankfully  the Park Service intends to keep it that way.

A lot of natural wonders are called jewels of this or that. But Crater Lake is surely the jewel of jewels. Like an opal, the color of its waters migrate as the sun and atmosphere change, all set in a deep facet of whitish volcanic cliffs streaked with black igneous rock, some rising over 2,000 feet above the lake surface. Sun rise, high noon, late in the day, clouds or clear skies, the colors are what? Sky blue azure, deepest cerulean blue, palest magenta, dark agate, silver in rippling and glinting reflections, even a bland gray under high clouds, red and gold at sunrise and sunset, mild rose to purple blue as evening falls across a mysterious void 6,000 feet above the world.

Crater Lake presents exhilarating mountain beauty at its most intense. Millions of photos have been taken over many years, years of depression and prosperity, war and peace, hope and fear, and the lake has survived intact. The record below spans some seventy-five years and three generations, from film to digital photography. Hopefully little will change in the next  seventy-five. But Crater Lake, because of its purity and uniqueness, is a frightfully good place to watch the growing impacts of climate change.

Whitebark Pine, the picturesque icon of the higher altitudes of Crater Lake National Park, is being decimated. A major factor is the mountain pine beetle, which proliferates as winter low temperatures rise and which, over time, can kill a tree. The Whitebark Pine is a “foundational species”, on which many other species, plant and animal, depend. Together with an onslaught of white pine blister rust, Whitebark Pine is on the way to extinction. Tiny carbon atoms may be the destruction of Crater Lake’s ecosystem, and thereby the lake itself as we know it.  And in truth, we all know where those atoms come from.


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After our Amtrak eastbound, seven hours late, 26 hour total coach trip (think steerage) we decided to change our return reservations to  “roomette.” No matter how much it cost. At least it sounded restful.

Shelby Ice Cream Stop © AME

Amtrak’s westbound Empire Builder pulled into the Shelby MT station around 7:30 pm, a mere two hours late.

Empire Builder Arrives in Shelby © AME

In contrast to our coach experience, we were greeted by a helpful and friendly porter, Patricia, who escorted us to our very own private, albeit very tiny, space. Two seats faced each other with a drop-down-from-the-roof bunk lashed to the ceiling above. The door slid shut. Ta-da! private room!

Two trains make up the eastbound Empire Builder. One originates in Seattle, the other in Portland. They connect in Spokane for the remainder of the trip to Chicago. Westbound is the reverse. One of Amtrak’s selling points for choosing sleepers over coach is that meals are included. But because the dining car is attached to the Seattle train, heading east dining isn’t a white table cloth affair: we heard dinner had come in a plastic box. But westbound, the dining car was six cars ahead. Dinner was served!

The menus arrived. “Choose anything!” the waitress encouraged. I went for the “Signature Steak.” Not only was it excellent (it came rare), it ended with a flourish the few days I’d spent as a vegetarian in Canada. I even had cheesecake for dessert.

Yes, Amtrak does serve a delicious dinner.

In Our Roomette © AME

Later, Pat came to prepare our room for sleeping. With the door closed and the beds made, our roomette now offered exactly one standing-room-only space. No turning allowed. I drew the top bunk: Only a few inches from the ceiling I could not sit upright. A “seat belt” hooked to the roof, presumably to protect restless sleepers from falling out. Midnight or so, I needed to get up. It required some finesse. First I jiggled free the safety belt and then crouching, with legs dangling over the side, I hunted with my foot in the darkness for the ladder’s first step, many inches below. Although I effected a safe dismount, the adventure left me wondering just how many other passengers over the age of 12 had ever ventured into the upper bunk.

Still that night I caught a glimpse of the bygone romance I had imagined. No whispering silk down the passageway, no muffled screams, no Poirot….just being lulled to sleep by the rhythmic rocking of the Empire Builder hurtling through the velvet night.

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“As you set out…hope the voyage is a long one.” C.P. Cavafy

Union Station, Portland OR © SR Euston

When we booked our first overnight Amtrak ride recently, I envisioned an Orient Express experience: mysterious women in flowing silk dressing gowns disappearing into sleek sleeping cabins; fine dinners served on elegantly appointed tables by men in dinner jackets; the train’s rhythmic sway lulling me to sleep as we slipped through the velvet summer night. I imagined Romance! Luxury! Intrigue!

The trip began auspiciously enough. We left Portland’s Union Station on Amtrak’s Empire Builder headed for Chicago precisely on time at 4:45 pm, anticipating our scheduled arrival in Shelby, MT at 11:43 am the next day.

Along the Columbia River © SR Euston

Behind Bonneville Dam © SR Euston

Remembering the tart online discussions about the Empire Builder’s difficulties—one blogger even admonished “Get over it!”—I realized on-time arrival was unusual.

In the Lounge Car © SR Euston

Still I never dreamed we would spend five hours stopped dead on a siding near the Dalles and another two (I don’t even remember where) languishing. Granted a series of brushfires near the tracks stalled us up. Even so.

Out the Window: Grain Elevators © AME

Seven additional hours spent in a semi-upright position in a not-so-comfortable-for-sleeping coach seat with no dining car until Spokane did not make for the relaxed, re-vitalizing journey I had envisioned. By morning even the train staff were as cranky as the trapped passengers.

Yet, in retrospect, delay had its advantages. We saw sunrise over the Eastern Washington wheat fields. We could wander from car to car and get off at stations to stretch.

At Whitefish Station © SR Euston

We passed through some of the very best scenery in daylight, along the Kootenai River and later skirting Glacier National Park. We had two volunteer ranger/naturalists join us to point out the sights—a rare chance for them to describe locations mostly passed through in darkness. Even if (bedraggled, tired and hungry) we didn’t make Shelby until past 7:00 pm, it truly was an opportunity to slow down and look around. On balance, we had, not your standard high-anxiety airplane trip, but rather more a Cavafy-style voyage.

And we learned two important Amtrak lessons. Don’t expect to be (even remotely) on time. And always book a sleeper car.

(Part 2: The Return: Romance, Sleep and Dinner too!)

Greeting the Dawn © AME

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Llano Estacado: An Island in the Sky edited by Stephen Bogener and William Tydeman. Texas Tech Press, Lubbock, TX. 2011.

No matter where we go, one of our very first stops is the local library. Here at the Joyner-Green Valley branch of Arizona’s Pima County library system, I picked up a very slick publication called southwest BOOKS of the year 2011, an annual culling and “best of” list—22 in 2011—chosen by a distinguished panel of regional writers and readers and awarded by the Pima County Library. One of the award books, Llano Estacado, from Lubbock’s Texas Tech, had this description: “ this stunning coffee table book is a compendium of photography commissioned to record the Llano, with complementary essays by authors knowledgeable about the region.”

As a New Mexico llano lover I was anxious to take a look.

It certainly is a coffee table book: large format, black and white photos accompanied by appropriately long essays. The library’s award description points out that neither the photographers nor the essayists were given much direction. True enough. Some of the essayists tried to link to the photos; others used only one. For others just the thought of the llano served as a launch pad to say whatever he or she wanted to say about: Lubbock, conservative cowboy culture, old friends, childhood memories, or aquifer depletion in an arid area where cotton and cattle join oil as extractive industries.

New Mexico is rarely mentioned; the Llano seems a West Texas phenomenon. Interestingly, of the fifty-plus photos only two show the Llano as it intrigues me—without humanity and our desolating impacts, glorying in its sheer raw nature. Both are from eastern New Mexico.

Many of the essays hit literary high notes and maybe that’s what the nature part of nature writing inspires. Still, I often was left wondering “huh?” or “why?”

The final essay which takes the book’s second title “An Island in the Sky” is a great introduction to the history of the llano.  I wonder if it might have served better as the first essay to set the stage. And I really could have used a clear simple map. The book’s map which spreads across the cover, front inner to back outer, is overly detailed and very difficult to read, especially for anyone who sees it library-style, with its dust jacket tightly taped down.

I have included an extended excerpt from the Rick Bass’ essay “Waiting.” For me it crystallizes being human on the llano. And as a life-long wanderer, I really resonated with this idea from Sandra Scofield’s essay “Readings”: “Home…isn’t where I live. Home is what feels familiar even if I’m out of place.”


From Rick Bass, Waiting, an essay in Llano Estacado. An Island in the Sky, edited by Stephen Bogener and William Tydeman. Volume 6 in the series, Voices in the American West published by Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas. 2011:

“Again and again (maybe we don’t always see what we want to see; maybe we can be instructed, or re-instructed, yet, to see things differently), I witness in these photos not the scrappy pride of yore nor the calm content of relative (or perceived) self-sufficiency in the subjects, but instead the outer edges of despair. I do not want to see despair or confusion, nor passivity or waiting, but there it is, again and again….

Doubt is a bitter, weakening thing, as debilitating, I think, as regret. I want to believe I am not seeing what I think I am seeing….

About those landscape photos: they strip away my childhood memories of a more spacious and vibrant and resilient relationship—the town and communities of the Llano, at the healthy edge of further, farther, less-managed landscapes—and reveal, like a surprising glance in the mirror for the first time at a lined face and graybeard stubble—how can this be?—a land stretched very very thin. And upon that living canvas, that fabric, our species has made mistakes; unremarkable, uncomplicated mistakes, generally involving overreaching, often but not always tinged with greed, or at the very least a lack of respect for anything beyond ourselves, and then, fairly quickly, as things sagged or went away, a lack of respect even for ourselves. Simple mistakes and assumptions made on a large canvas repeatedly across time, out in the wide-open, in a land not of bounty but, more often than not, relative paucity. Mistakes made not in the remote backcountry of the West, nor paved and chromed over by the glitter of urban dreams and desires, nor masked by the vegetative uproar and foliated disguise and clamor of either the Northeast or the deep South, but instead mistakes made out in the clear wide-open, illuminated by a brilliant aridity that is, in the end, less forgiving than other landscapes, and I fear, less resilient….

I am not judging. Maybe there wasn’t time. I am not suggesting any of us would have done any differently. I am just looking at the evidence, or what seems like evidence, in these photos….

I am not by nature a pessimist, but the further and farther we go on this journey, the more irritated I become with false or reflexive hope, as opposed to the more difficult brand of earned hope. I hope that someone, somewhere, somehow, will rescue us from this jackpot we seem to have suddenly gotten into. But it seems disrespectful, as well as foolish, to bank on it, and to simply wait. If my heart knows anything, it is that the road does not necessarily go on forever, and that some parties do finally end.”

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The border crossing is ominous—a monolithic multi-story oddly curved building. Cars inch beneath it in multiple lanes, like the entrance to the Holland Tunnel. We park at the Nogales, AZ McDonald’s and walk the two blocks toward the crossing. All the signs are in Spanish and there’s an impressive sidewalk selection: dirt cheap shoes, auto parts, restaurantes, pesos to dollars converted at narrow walk-up windows.

We skirt a maze of orange waist-high barriers, through one of those subway-style spinning double door exits and down a long, covered open-air corridor. A blind man plays a portable organ. A knot of men wait as we come out into the sunshine. “Taxi?”

Plaza, Nogales, Sonora

We’ve chosen a dentist who advertises in the local phone book and promises to be only feet from the crossing. It’s true. We need only to walk around a long, low building housing a variety of farmacias, hair salons, public restrooms and food stands before entering a leafy plaza. The dentist is directly across the way.

The Wall, Plaza

At this end of the plaza is The Wall, at the other a roundabout, a statue in its center. It’s impossible to see what the statue is of, as the cars speed around the circle, honking and cutting each other off. Although the Nogales, AZ Burger King is clearly visible it’s obvious we’re in another country. Livelier. Brighter. More colorful. Dirtier.

We end up having to make five visits. On our first trip we’re directed about three blocks away toward a big downtown hotel for lunch. That’s about as far as we venture and it appears it’s near the edge of the decidedly tourist zone.

Plaza Nogales

The Wall

On another visit, after looking at the blocks-long line, we decide to brave the roundabout traffic to reach a nearby second crossing just down a grimy side street. We wait in a slightly shorter but still long, long line. A man is selling food he’s grilled on a brazier in the open bed of his pick up. A woman sits at his truck’s makeshift counter, eating a burrito. The wind picks up. All at once it rains, washing trash and oil down the street. I’m glad I have a sweater and that the waiting line is covered. The Wall marches up the steep hill on our right.

Crossing back takes almost an hour. Our Border Patrol officers are mostly gruff, sometimes unpleasant. Each time there is that brief frisson of fear: What if my passport isn’t enough? I glance at the barred room they’re leading the young woman ahead of me toward.

The rain and the crossing has turned this May day very cold.

Battlement on the Border

Old Downtown Nogales, AZ

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