States Visited

June 10, 2021 – Land of the Sleeping Rainbow

About 18 miles of Utah’s state road 24 passes through the northern edge of Capitol Reef National Park This was our introduction to the park as we had to drive it to get to our campground in Torrey, our home for one week.

The Earth is old and wrinkled, and those wrinkles are spectacular. The most spectacular of them is in Utah. Earth’s crust has many “geologic wrinkles” where movement along a fault caused one side of the fault to shift vertically upward, creating a monocline or “step-up” in rock layers. Before all that happened though, sedimentary rock accumulated for hundreds of millions of years, forming distinctive layers that give evidence to time periods when rivers and swamps, deserts, and shallow oceans with tidal flats existed. Along the way, great tectonic forces uplifted these rock layers.

A view of Capitol Reef NP, looking east from scenic highway 12.
Gooseneck views are common here in Utah. This is Capitol Reef’s Goosenecks overlook, where Sulphur Creek runs below. This was our first stop on our first day in Capitol Reef.
A view of Capitol Reef with our campground location to the west and the routes to the Capitol Gorge and Grand Wash hiking trails.

The Colorado Plateau is a quarter million square-mile region contained in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado that was uplifted relatively evenly. This maintained the sedimentary layers in a horizontal position, such as what you see in the Grand Canyon. Those eye-catching buttes that make the American southwest so iconic are “erosional islands” among the once continuous plateau of horizontal rock layers. I’ll get back to the phenomenon of erosion later because it is the secret sauce of the southwest landscape that we come to admire, and it plays a large role in earth’s wrinkles.

Hiking through a Capitol Reef rock canyon, I felt as humbled as I do paddling through the Everglades’ cathedral of mangrove trees.
Petroglyph from the Fremont Culture.
One early morning, I seemed to have the canyon to myself and it was magical.

Somewhere in the Colorado Plateau is a grand exception to the horizontal layers of rocks. It is the Waterpocket Fold, a “100-mile-long warp in Earth’s crust”, and what the Navajo referred to as “Land of the Sleeping Rainbow”. About 50-70 million years ago, an ancient fault was reactivated causing movement in the earth’s crust. The west side of the fault shifted upward about 7,000 feet higher than the east side. Basically, the layer cake was tipped severely. It is a classic monocline, and this one is the largest of its kind on earth.

So many strange and wonderful landscapes to explore in Capitol Reef.
I was enchanted.
I wandered off into this intriguing volcanic canyon area and could not keep myself from wandering further and further. Every view was a new one.

That wrinkle is what eventually caused the creation of Capitol Reef National Park. Remember what I said about erosion? If only one thing is learned from our time spent exploring New Mexico and Utah is that erosion is what makes this landscape stand out among all others. And we owe it all to water. Of course, deposition of sedimentary rocks over hundreds of millions of years and great shifts in tectonic plates are the basic ingredients, but erosion is the spice.

The Fremont River. Water is everything that is Capitol Reef.

Capitol Reef National Park centers around the Waterpocket Fold. Waterpocket is the name given to the ongoing erosion of rock layers in the monocline, the small depressions in the sandstone layers formed by water. Those eroding tilted rock layers provide us “colorful cliffs, massive domes, soaring spires, stark monoliths, twisting canyons and graceful arches” to view in total amazement and wonder. It is erosion that inspires artists and explorers, and it is what inspires the creation of national parks.

After a hike through Capitol Gorge, we stopped in Fruita, where apples, apricot, cherry, peach, pear, and plum trees grow.

Water attracted farmers to the Waterpocket Fold, beginning with the ancestral Puebloan and Fremont people. Petroglyph panels provide beautiful evidence of the Fremont Culture, named from the river that flows through the park. Looking east, Mormon (Latter Day Saints) settlers exploring the high plateau west of what is now Capitol Reef saw water snaking through the cliffs and domes of the Waterpocket Fold. The original community called it Fremont River and where the river joined Sulphur Creek, established “the Eden of Wayne County”. In 1902, the name of the self-sufficient settlement was changed to Fruita, in recognition of the fruit orchards cultivated by the 10 or so families that made it their home. While much of the settlement is gone (a few buildings have been preserved), the orchards remain and visitors can pick fruit when in season or more easily purchase tasty fruit pies.

And where remnants of the Eden of Wayne County can be found.
The white-tailed deer love Fruita.
What’s not to love. Very close to this orchard is Capitol Reef’s campground.

The Fruita residents were so proud of their little piece of heaven that in 1921 they organized a booster club to promote it. Local Ephraim Portman Pectol organized a nation-wide campaign to get the word out that he and his neighbors lived in paradise, many referred to as Wayne Wonderland. Pectol got elected to Utah’s legislature in 1933. He immediately contacted President Franklin D. Roosevelt and asked him to create “Wayne Wonderland National Monument”.

The Mormon Registry, a more modern petroglyph.
Coming into the park from the west side, on my way to Grand Wash.

He must have been quite convincing and perhaps Roosevelt himself visited the Waterpocket Fold and did not require convincing because in 1938, he signed a proclamation to create Capitol Reef National Monument. The original name did not stick and for that I am relieved (does a Chevy Chase movie or a Mike Meyers character come to mind?). The name ‘Capitol Reef’ by the way came from the many large white Navajo sandstone domes that resemble many capitol buildings in the U.S. including the one in Washington D.C., and for the fact the ridge crust of the Waterpocket Fold presents a barrier to travelers, much like a reef in the ocean.

“Whereas certain public lands in the State of Utah contain narrow canyons displaying evidence of ancient sand dune deposits of unusual scientific value, and have situated thereon various other objects of geological and scientific interest; and Whereas it appears that it would be in the public interest to reserve such lands as a national monument, to be known as the Capitol Reef National Monument…”

-Proclamation No. 2246 on August 2, 1937, Page 136 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt

In 1971, Congress legislated an act to establish Capitol Reef National Park, signed into law on December 18, 1971 by President Nixon. And that is the story of how a wrinkle on earth became a 254,000-acre national park. Well played Earth.

Enjoy this slideshow from my time spent in one of Capitol Reef’s canyons, the Grand Wash.

While staying in Torrey, we spent most of our time in Capitol Reef, but we did take one day to make a long scenic loop drive to continue exploring Utah.

We headed south on scenic route 12 through Grand Staircase-Escalante and visited two state parks, Escalante Petrified Forest and Kodachrome before topping the day off with Bryce Canyon NP.

Enjoy this slideshow from our day trip.

And we also took another day to explore the Fishlake area, northeast of Capitol Reef. It is there where we saw “The Trembling Giant”, also known as the “Pando”. And we saw our first marmot!

A beautiful day trip through Fishlake National Forest on the western edge of the Colorado Plateau.
The Pando is a clonal colony of individual aspen trees, known to be a single living organism by identical genetic markers. These trees have one massive underground root system!
We did see nesting white pelicans and black-crowned night herons, but all I have to show for it is a lone marmot. Can you find it?
Overlooking one of the many creeks in Fishlake National Forest.

June 3, 2021 – Ode to a National Park

Our routine was to enter the park before sunrise before the crowds and heat, and get out by noon. Always when exiting the park, a long trail of vehicles were lined up at the entrance gate heading into the park.

Famed author and anarchist Edward Abbey wrote in his 1968 book “Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness” the following: “No more cars in national parks. Let the people walk. Or ride horses, bicycles, mules, wild pigs – anything – but keep the automobiles and the motorcycles and all their motorized relatives out.”

One way to see Utah’s wilderness is with a 4wd jeep. We considered renting one in Moab, but didn’t pursue it after two rental places we contacted were booked. So we stayed (mostly) on the paved scenic roads.
Meanwhile, next to the jeep rental in Moab is the tire place where our truck’s tires were being checked for alignment and abnormal wear. Our highway tires are perfect for towing the fifth wheel, but not so much for 4-wheeling on Utah’s rugged back roads.

Bringing Abbey into this blog is apropos given that his book is written from the stacks of notes and sketches made while working as a ranger for Arches National Monument in 1956-57. Back then, the monument was mostly inaccessible to the casual tourist, it was pure rock wilderness filled with arches yet to be discovered. Abbey, whose fictional book ‘The Monkeywrench Gang” inspired the radical EarthFirst! movement, first fell on my radar screen when I lived in Tucson, during which time Abbey passed away in his home in Tucson on March 14, 1989 at the age of 62. I’ll come back to Abbey later.

Arches National Park, 60 years after Abbey explored it. If you were to zoom in on this photo, you would see a hundred or so people standing along the edge of the rock near the sun burst. On the right side of the image, notice the narrow rock standing out to the left of a flattop rock. That is a side view of Delicate Arch
If you stood in front of Delicate Arch and pointed toward the right side of the image frame, you would be pointing toward me when I shot the image above, from afar.

Arches National Monument was established in 1929 and became a national park in 1971. 202,100 people visited Arches during its first year of National Park status. Compare that to 1,659,702 in 2019. Granted, that’s almost 50 years in passing, but look at it this way – from 1999 to 2009, visitor numbers increased from 869,980 to 996,312, a modest 14.5%. From 2009 to 2019, the park saw a 66% increase. Not far from Arches, the much larger Canyonlands National Park experienced a 68% between 2009 and 2019.

As early as 7 am, a train of visitors are climbing up to see Delicate Arch.

In addition to the exponential rise in visitation to these parks, something else struck me as interesting. With respect to visitor numbers in national parks, Arches doesn’t make the top 10 list. The second most visited national park is Yellowstone (a relatively low 4.26 million visitors in 2019 compared to previous years), which is a far second from Great Smoky Mountains that had over 12.5 million visitors in the same year. Yellowstone National Park is a whopping 3471 square miles compared to Arches National Park’s measly 119. Therefore, visitors per square mile in Arches is 242 compared to Yellowstone’s one! And I will go as far as to suggest that the most concentrated number of visitors within Arches at any given time is at the famed Delicate Arch. And I will say the same about Canyonland’s famous Mesa Arch.

The early morning sun blazed and temperatures rose on the 1.5 mile trail to Delicate Arch.

On its website, the National Park Service describes Arches as a ‘red-rock wonderland’. “Visit Arches to discover a landscape of contrasting colors, land forms, and textures unlike any other in the world. The park has over 2,000 natural stone arches and hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive rock fins, and giant balanced rocks.” Oh my gosh, what could possibly be more appealing to a nature photographer than that? Indeed, photographers from all over the world come to Arches and Canyonlands to photograph the icons – Delicate Arch and Mesa Arch, respectively. Google Mesa Arch images and see hundreds of photographs of the exquisite rock formation with sun rays peaking behind it.

On my way back down from Delicate Arch where late comers take the time to play on the rocks for photo opps.
The number of visitors making the climb to Delicate Arch steadily increases as the morning wears on.

Both Arches and Canyonlands popularity can be attributed partially to social media. In 2010, Canyonlands Mesa Arch became #Instafamous when Microsoft used a picture of it at sunrise as one of its default backgrounds for its Windows 7 operating system. As of July 10, 2021, Mesa Arch (#mesaarch) has 371,000 Instagram posts, and the slightly less popular Delicate Arch (#delicatearch) has about 1/3 that amount at 127,000 posts.

The view as seen coming down from Delicate Arch.
A scene at dusk in Arches National Park.

We left our RV at 5:30 am and made a beeline to Delicate Arch trailhead only to find a ¾ full parking lot at 6:15 am. When we drove out of the park at about 10:30 am, the entrance gates were closed, due to full parking lots, a regular occurrence this year. On some days, the gates are closed for up to five hours. This is the “post” covid park visitation explosion. Even without the dependable Europeans, Arches has experienced record visitation this summer. The last nine months have been Arches’ busiest season since becoming a national park. Several parks are experiencing the same thing and most challenging is that there are a lot more first-time visitors who are unfamiliar with national parks and the mission to preserve their resources.

Mesa Arch about 2 hours past sunrise. Amazingly, this arch looks bigger in photos than in reality.

For 10 years or so, Utah photographers have lamented the demise of Delicate Arch and Mesa Arch as unique photo opportunities. For years, many had enjoyed relatively unknown locations within the national parks with few other photographers muscling in on “their territory”. Not so anymore. No one can keep a secret on Instagram. Mesa Arch in Canyonlands is probably the most photographed rock formation in Utah and if you want to capture “THE shot”, you better know the protocol, and there are plenty of photographers willing to share that information. The protocol is to arrive at Mesa Arch several hours before sunrise and claim your premium tripod real estate before the crowd of 5-legged photographers show up to line up elbow to elbow, tripod leg to tripod leg in front of the arch waiting for it to present a light show of glowing red rock. Each photo taken only slightly different from the other, and every morning, several new images of Mesa Arch are created and posted to social media.

Not “THE shot” but it is a splendid sight.
About 30 minutes or so before we arrived at Mesa Arch trailhead, I am certain the parking lot was filled with vehicles for the iconic sunrise shot so many photographers come here for.
Vivian’s sister Laura, standing at 5′ in front of Mesa Arch.

As a photographer wandering freely across the U.S., I had no desire to stand in a line of 5-legged photographers shooting the same scene. Don’t get me wrong, there is a perfectly good reason to photograph Mesa Arch at sunrise. It is a genuinely spectacular scene. But frankly, it looked spectacular two hours after sunrise when I was there with the iPhone selfie group. I am a drive-by tourist believing that our RV travel strategy to “see it all first, then go back to specific locations for quality time” might one day allow me to really explore the exquisite wilderness of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. In fact, Vivian and I would love to paddle a few days through the canyons on the Green River or take our tent into remote backcountry areas within the Colorado Plateau. And we will one day. But for now, we are experiencing the park like 1.6 million others.

From one of the many overlooks in Island in the Sky, behold the canyons of Canyonlands National Park.
The Green and Colorado Rivers run through Canyonlands National Park. Difficult to see from afar, but there are vehicle and mountain bike trails that run along the edge of those deep canyons.

Which brings me back to Edward Abbey, who despite his curmudgeon ways (which frequently came off as sexist or racist) was passionate about preserving Arches and all that is southwestern wilderness. Abbey resided in a rundown trailer far away from anyone while working in Arches. He wrote about his solitary time in the red-rock wonderland as well as his personal musings on the bureaucratic nightmare of the national park service, the evils of government, tourism gone bad, and of course, the church of the wilderness. He absolutely loved the wilderness. Completing the quote above, Abbey wrote: “We have agreed not to drive our automobiles into cathedrals, concert halls, art museums, legislative assemblies, private bedrooms, and the other sanctums of our culture; we should treat our national parks with the same deference, for they, too, are holy places.

Early morning in Canyonlands National Park.

Indeed, Vivian and I hold a special reverence to these public lands we call national parks. We have also lamented on the increased numbers of visitors to Everglades National Park (our winter home), the new online system for primitive camping reservations, the lack of funds to maintain the pristine beauty of the glades and the overall management goal that appears to be nothing more than increase visitation. I get it, these are public land. We are glad to have seen Delicate Arch and Mesa Arch along with a million other visitors. But we also know there is far more to Arches or Canyonlands National Parks than iconic images and Instagram selfie shots. And there is more to Everglades National Park than an alligator lying next to a boardwalk. There is much more than meets the eye, as there must be.

And yes, I did take a shot of Delicate Arch, with unknown person for scale.

May 27, 2021 – A Bird Could Not Fly Over the Route

At first sight, Utah as seen from New Mexico left everything to our imagination. That would soon change.

From New Mexico, we entered southeastern Utah, by-passing the famous Four Corners Monument which at the time was closed. Entering Utah meant something special to us. If New Mexico is the “Land of Enchantment”, Utah is the “Land of Spectacular” and what awaited us was beyond expectations.

Highway 191 out of Bluff, Utah which got its name for obvious reasons.
Bluff was built in the shadows of the Navajo Twin Peaks, seen here. Directly below them is the Twin Rocks Trading Post.

The four weeks spent in the state was one long continuous view of changing colors that swiped valleys, canyons, bluffs, buttes, mesas and arches like a painter’s brush dipped in a wide sampling of earthy tones and pastels of purple, pink, rusty red, orange and yellow.

A view from under the Owachomo Bridge within Natural Bridges National Monument, only 60 miles from Bluff.
The Goosenecks as seen from an overlook at Goosenecks State Park, where the San Juan River runs through. Only 24 miles from Bluff and on our way to Valley of the Gods.
A view of Rooster Butte (left) and Sitting Hen Butte (right), in Valley of the Gods where we spent the night in our tent.

Our consciousness was filled with geologic stories of how these rocks formed over millions of years and what our short time on earth allows us to witness at this miniscule point in time. If one ever desires to feel most insignificant, simply come to Utah. The land is overwhelming and at every corner, it presents itself in new ways. It is no wonder that Utah contains five National Parks and seven National Monuments.

Ancient Ruins, like this one named ‘House on Fire’ can be seen up close if you are willing to traverse some of the challenging Utah terrain. This one is in Bears Ears National Monument. Read more about these ancient ruins from our previous blog.

Much of our time was spent in the southeast region of Utah which is known for its diverse rock formations and colors, dramatic canyons and spectacular rock arches and spires. We were in the center of the Colorado Plateau where the most jaw dropping scenery is concentrated around the Green, San Juan and Colorado Rivers and their tributaries, all of which have been eroding away for millions of years. Some of the landscape has been altered from the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam and creation of Lake Powell as well as the mining industry. But that portion of Utah’s story is for another time.

Only a short 5-mile drive from Bluff, I could easily access the Butler Wash area, on the east side of Comb Ridge and explore the interesting rock terrain. Utah, like much of the western U.S. is experiencing a severe drought. In this image, I stand in a bone-dry wash.
A Bluff west of Bluff, Utah, along Highway 163.

We began our explorations of Utah in Bluff, hardly a spit of a town on the San Juan River. Not far from the Four Corners, Bluff is east of the more popular Glen Canyon and Lake Powell. Making Bluff our home base for one week gave us time to explore Valley of the Gods, Bears Ears Monument, and Natural Bridges Monument. The famous Monument Valley was nearby but not accessible as the Navajo Nation remained shutdown due to COVID. Despite the famous Forrest Gump Point, we were in the most unassuming portion of Utah; pushed into the shadows of Bryce & Zion, Grand Escalante, Canyonlands and Arches. Yet, it is here where we learned of an extraordinary story that began our education into Utah’s history of pioneers.

Panoramic view of Valley of the Gods with ‘Lady in the Bathtub” Butte on the right at the end of the middle ridge.

By 1879, a large concentration of Mormon communities existed in the Utah territory – mostly in the Salt Lake region. With the mission of expanding their presence in Utah’s country, Latter Day Saints (LDS) leaders urged families to migrate to other regions and set up communities. One of those leaders, LDS Church President John Taylor convinced 70 families (250 men, women and children) comfortably settled in southwestern Utah to form a wagon train, travel east and settle near the San Juan River. “Answering the call from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints”, the San Juan Expedition began in early fall of 1879 with the expectation of arriving at the destination in three months. The goal was to create a more direct route to the largely unknown territory, cutting out several hundred miles of travel.

The 180 mile ‘Hole-in-the-rock trail was created to make a shorter path between southwest and southeast Utah.

By December of 1879, the expedition consisting of about 80 wagons and teams had made its way to Escalante, following a well-traveled route. About 40 miles east of Escalante, the party stood on the edge of the unknown territory that lay ahead. On December 2, scouts returned with a report. One described the potential route as follows “A bird couldn’t fly over the route, to say nothing of getting wagons through.” Council was held and one leader promised the party that if they continued the journey, a road would be built and crops raised the next season. That’s all it took. With strong faith and supplies for a 6-week journey, the party began blazing an eastern trail.

An original wagon, used by the San Juan Expedition in 1879-80. The story of how Bluff, Utah came to be is wonderfully told at Bluff Fort Historic Site located in the center of the tiny town of Bluff.

What the 250 (+2) men, women and children subsequently encountered paled in comparison to the 1300-mile handcart migration to Salt Lake City from Missouri that many of the party members had experienced prior to this move. And it took twice as long as originally planned.

Replicas of the handcarts pulled from Missouri to Salt Lake during the 1300-mile Mormon Migration of 1847 as seen at Bluff Fort Historic Site.

About one third of the way into the journey, the wagon train arrived at a natural crevice on the 1000-ft cliff above the Colorado River gorge. The company prepared to blast a passageway through what is now called the “Hole-in-the-Rock”. A raft was built to carry the wagons, people and horses across the Colorado River. Among the party were two brothers, coal miners from Wales having expertise in blasting powder. They were among several men who were lowered over the cliff and dangled midair to drill holes in the rock and fill them with blasting powder. This went on during winter storms.

A member of the expedition, Kumen Jones, wrote the following: “After about six weeks work and waiting for powder, etc., a start was made to move the wagons down the hold. Long ropes were provided and about 20 men and boys held on to the wagons to make sure that there would be no accidents, through brakes giving way (brakes created with chains), or horses cutting up their long lay off, but all went smooth and safe. And by the 28th (of January), most of the wagons were across the river and work had commenced again on the Cottonwood Canyon another very rough proposition”.

The Hole-in-the-rock as it is today after the creation of Lake Powell.
From the Bluff Fort Historic Site. If you visit Bluff, I highly recommend you visit the well maintained exhibit. And while there, you will most likely hear the story from one of the expedition’s ancestors.

Ahead of them were some of the most desolate and rough country imaginable (as described by party members). They encountered more deep canyons and high rock formations standing in the way of a direct path. Near the end of their expedition, they came onto Comb Ridge, another rock formation that impeded their route. By now, the anticipated 6-week journey had turned into 6 months. The group was hungry and worn out.

The west side of Comb Ridge, as the pioneers would have seen them at first encounter.

The pioneers came to the south end of Comb Ridge where they built a road over what they called the “San Juan Hill”. Charles Redd wrote the following: “Aside from the Hole-in-the-Rock, itself, this was the steepest crossing on the journey. Here again seven span of horses were used, so that when some of the horses were on their knees, fighting to get up to find a foothold, the still-erect horses could plunge upward against the sharp grade. On the worst slopes the men were forced to beat their jaded animals into giving all they had. After several pulls, rests, and pulls, many of the horses took to spasms and near-convulsions, so exhausted were they.”

An artist’s rendition of the San Juan Expedition.
Butler Wash awaits the expedition after traversing up and over the Comb Ridge.

At last, off the Comb Ridge and across Butler Wash, the settlers reached the Bluff area on April 6, 1880. Seven miles short of the original destination on Montezuma Creek, the exhausted travelers could go no further. Hence, the town of ‘Bluff’ came into existence. Except for one horse, no lives were lost, and two babies were born during the grueling 6-mon journey. To acquire supplies in Escalante, the newly blazed 180-mile route continued to be used as a means of getting in and out of the San Juan area for about one year.

The San Juan River and the reason for settling Bluff, Utah.

We travel with a full-ton pickup that pulls our home, a 33-ft fifth wheel. A truck and an RV – that’s all we have. The Mormon settlers lived in wagons pulled by horses– all they had. Of course, little comparison can be made, yet I could not help think about those wagon trains in Utah’s unknown territory as we drove our truck down wash-board, narrow and bumpy gravel roads just to get to spectacular lands discovered and preserved long ago.

Our home for the week, surrounded by Bluffs in Bluff, Utah.
A current day Valley of the Gods Expedition.

Our good fortune allows us to settle our very comfortable home in Bluff for a week so that we could venture out on our mini-expeditions into Utah’s wild frontier that is Bears Ears National Monument, Natural Bridges National Monument, Valley of the Gods and Monument Valley. And if we must drive our GPS-guided and air-conditioned truck on a gravel road or two, so be it. I guess we’ll just have to suck it up for the next several weeks as we continue to blaze our trail through Utah. Onward we go.

Away from the RV for the night, we awoke to Valley of the Gods.

By the way, fear of destroying our road tires (attached to the truck that pulls our home), we avoided driving up the Moki Dugway which rewards you with a grand view from Muley Point. But we did see a similar view from Goosenecks State Park, accessed via maintained paved roads. We learn as we go, so stay tuned as the truck tire story continues in Moab.

Enjoy a few more images from our time in Bluff, Utah.

May 20, 2021 – Our Visit to Northern New Mexico was Ruined

The road to Chaco Cultural National Historical Park is a long one. We learned the road is not maintained to help ward off looters and vandals.
On a well maintained paved road is a lookout where you can view Frijoles Canyon, location of the Bandelier National Monument and a large number of ancient cliff dwellings.
Among all the ruins we visited, Mesa Verde enjoys the highest status of National Park. It’s obvious from their Visitor Center, much grander than the modest buildings of Chaco Cultural, Aztec NM and Bandelier NM.

Up until the construction of steel girder skyscrapers in Chicago during the 1880s, the largest and tallest buildings erected in North America were constructed in stone in America’s southwest by the Ancient Pueblos (formally known as the Anasazi). The ruins of these buildings can be seen at Chaco Cultural National Historical Park. While parked in Northern New Mexico for a couple weeks, we had time to explore Chaco Canyon ruins as well as those of Mesa Verde National Park, Aztec National Monument and Bandelier National Monument.

An impressive sculpture and an artist’s rendition of a Mesa Verde cliff dweller.

Within the four corners region of the country, these Ancient Pueblo ruins offer a glimpse into a collapsed civilization steeped in mystery. They do not, however indicate a single culture and one single collapse, but instead a whole series of them, all before Columbus set foot on the New World in 1492. Still, the Ancient Puebloans did not completely vanish – remaining are modern descendants – Zuni and Hopi for example. But wrapped in theories and conjectures intertwined with archeological evidence is the question that is foremost on people’s minds when visiting Chaco or Mesa Verde and that is “Why would anyone build such an advanced city in that wasteland or on the side of a cliff, and why having gone through so much trouble to build it, abandon it?”

Archeology has uncovered much of Chaco Canyon pueblos, but it was an archeological blunder in 1942 that caused an avalanche of boulders to tumble off the cliff onto much of the ruins. It was too costly to attempt to recover what was lost, so a trail was built over the rocks for visitors to walk around the ruins.

This got me thinking about Jared Diamond’s book “Guns, Germs and Steel” which I read way too long ago to remember much of anything substantial. But what I do remember is that embedded deeply in Diamond’s book are very convincing answers to the $1,000,000 question, “Why did some civilizations collapse while others did not?” To that end, how would Diamond address the mysteries behind the Ancient Pueblo ruins of the Southwest?

It is difficult to imagine a large city where thousands once lived in this now barren land.

No longer having the book I read years ago, I searched online and was able to access Chapter 4 of Diamond’s book, which is devoted to the Ancient Pueblos. So, to answer the question as to why these Pueblo cities were abandoned, here is my condensed answer from Diamond’s lengthy explanation – lack of resources and all the nasty things that come with that. Consider, for example the Puebloans in Chaco Canyon. Remember, they are the ones that built the largest city in North America before Chicago’s skyscrapers.

How did Ancient Pueblos get over the mesas? They built steps, that’s how!

Around 500 AD, people began building underground pithouses in the canyon. Over time, construction increased into multi-story and multi-room buildings, and large cirular kivas. This meant that Chaco was experiencing a population growth (thought to be in the thousands at any given time), which meant they had sustainable water and food. Evidence also indicates there was trading going on with maintained roads connecting various Pueblos to the larger Chaco Pueblo. Chaco Pueblo may very well have been a city surrounded by smaller communities, much like a modern-day civilization.

(Enjoy this slideshow of Chaco Cultural National Historical Park)

This went on for hundreds of years, but over time, Chaco Pueblo became more dependent upon imports because they simply no longer had adequate resources. As we all know too well, population growth increases demand, which puts stress on the environment. Eventually, the environmental impact from water management parallel with reoccurring droughts as well as deforestation (pinyon and juniper) created significant environmental problems. With that comes a host of problems, starvation, social unrest, and violence. However long it took to get so bad, it appears that the evacuation of Chaco was planned and happened very quickly as few items were left behind.

(Enjoy this slideshow of views from the road to Mesa Verde National Park).

But here is the other thing that came to my mind during our visit to the ancient ruins. While the Ancient Pueblos were cutting stones to perfection using rudimentary tools (not metal) and appeared to have no written language, Eurasia was experiencing the High and Late Middle Ages that led up to the Renaissance period, including the invention of the printing press. Why such a difference? Again, I turn to Jared Diamond’s book. He explains it this way -significant food surpluses appeared earlier in Eurasia than in America. Eventually, farming became so successful in Eurasia that communities grew more crops than they needed. Since it was not necessary for everyone to farm – specialized trades popped up everywhere. People could indulge in intellectual, scientific, or artistic pursuits. Communities grew bigger and cities arose – the source of civilization. As people became more specialized, communities reaped the rewards of intellectual and technical advances.

(Enjoy this slideshow from Mesa Verde National Park)

And trade was big across Eurasia and eventually expanded across the seas. Diamond indicates that Eurasia’s east-west orientation gave it a less varied climate across its land mass, thus allowing domesticated crops and animals to migrate more easily. East-west Trade routes including the Silk Road were great in number. That’s not to say Eurasia didn’t have its own set of issues, i.e., warring tribes, feudalism, violence, slavery, religious persecution, and not the least of which was the Justinianic and bubonic plagues. Nevertheless, the region of the world thrived.

(Enjoy this slideshow from Bandelier National Monument & please note the pictographs, not petroglyphs in some of the images. In one image, you will see a preserved pictograph, maintained behind plexiglass. Pictographs are painted on the walls, whereas petroglyphs are carved.)

While so many advances were happening across Eurasia from 500 to 1500 AD, the Ancient Puebloans were essentially stuck in a vacuum of sorts. Given the harsh and unforgiving environment they were in, there were far fewer people, and that alone might explain the disparities across the globe. Trade, exchange of ideas, innovation, and specialization outside of self-sustained farming come with increased populations over the land. While some of the Ancient Puebloans enjoyed a robust population for hundreds of years, it was all they had. Simply put, how many people are going to venture over badlands, mesas and canyons and provide a physical connection between communities?

That’s it, that’s my two cents worth. I hope my armchair analyses of ancient southwestern pueblo history did not ruin your day!

One last thing. While admiring the ancient architecture of the Ancient Pueblo, we also took the time to admire the impressive Rio Grande Gorge Bridge while parked near Taos. Spanning 1280 feet, it’s construction began in 1963 and ended in 1965. Depending on the source, it’s height is 650′, one of the highest in the U.S. Enjoy the slideshow of the bridge and the view from it. And think about those Ancient Pueblos that were unable to cross it.

May 12, 2021 – O’Keeffe’s Faraway Place

Interest is the most important thing in life; happiness is temporary, but interest is continuous.” Georgia O’Keeffe

In the summer of 1929, a 32-yr-old artist well known by that time as an influential and successful modernist painter, drove her Model T automobile cross country from New York to a “faraway place” in northern New Mexico. By invitation of friends, Georgia O’Keeffe came there for a short visit, but ended up staying for almost three months. She may not have known she was looking for a spiritual home, but she knew it when she found it.

Ghost Ranch Landscape

“You know, I never feel at home in the East like I do out here. I feel like myself and I like it.” Georgia O’Keeffe

When O’Keeffe took her cross-country trip, she was living in New York with her husband Alfred Stieglitz. Both famed artists at the time, the two often left the city to spend summers at Lake George. And it was there she wrote the following to a friend, “Here at Lake George, everything is very green. I look around and wonder what one might paint.” O’Keeffe was feeling stifled. And for good reasons that went well beyond the green monotones surrounding her.

Her husband was a great photographer that had elevated his medium to a modernistic art form. Owner of the legendary 291 Art Gallery in New York City, the influential Stieglitz exhibited and promoted avant-garde artists, such as Georgia O’Keeffe. Excited by her originality, he exhibited some of her abstract charcoal drawings in 1916. Soon after, the couple fell in love, they married in 1924, and O’Keeffe came to New York to live with Stieglitz. There, both continued their work supported by mutual encouragement.

“You hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower. You write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower – and I don’t.” Georgia O’Keeffe

During that time, Stieglitz created several photographic images of O’Keeffe. Meanwhile, O’Keeffe was creating some of her most significant abstract modernism paintings, mostly flowers. She was painting her joy. But then something happened that changed her direction dramatically. In 1921, Stieglitz exhibited 45 of his prints of O’Keeffe, including several intimate nudes. And he wrote about her work. Consequently, this created a persona that caused critics to depict O’Keeffe as a sensual and sexual creature. When her work of joy was finally exhibited, critiques fraught with Freudian analyses of which Stieglitz contributed described it as ‘expressions of her sexuality’. Devastated, the acclaimed painter went back to realism. But not for long.

“As soon as I saw it, that was my country. I had never seen anything like it before, but it fitted to me exactly. There’s something that’s in the air, it’s just different. The sky is different, the stars are different, the wind is different.” Georgia O’Keeffe

And then, O’Keeffe met New Mexico which transformed her art and in which she felt at home. It was in the high desert where O’Keeffe redefined herself on her own terms and became an iconic mythic figure. After her first visit to New Mexico in 1929, O’Keeffe followed an established pattern for several years, staying on for longer periods each time. Eventually, she acquired a house at Ghost Ranch and shortly after a second one in the nearby town of Abiquiu. In 1949, three years after Stieglitz’s death, she came to live permanently and for the next 37 years, lived and worked at Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu. Georgia O’Keeffe, born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin on November 15, 1887, died in Abiquiu, New Mexico on March 6, 1986.

Both Vivian and I had a fervent desire to experience O’Keeffe’s faraway place and I was thrilled to do it through the camera’s lens. Like me, Vivian admires O’Keeffe’s work immensely and to see her source of inspiration was as exciting to her as it was for me. This was the focal point of our 4-week visit to New Mexico. But especially as a landscape photographer, my admiration and intrigue for O’Keeffe rose exponentially as I prepared for our visit. I attribute this to three reasons.

First, O’Keeffe was greatly influenced by photographers, which is no stretch of the imagination given her husband was Alfred Stieglitz. Concerning her large flower paintings, O’Keeffe said, “If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small. So I said to myself – I’ll paint what I see – what the flower is to me but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it – I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.”

Her flower observations are strikingly similar to what a macro photographer might say – “If I photograph the flowers at 35mm or as my eyes see them, no one will see what I see because the flowers would appear too small. But if I use a macro lens, I can get within an inch of the flower and fill the frame with all its details, as I see it”.

Check out this slideshow of a couple images I shot of the Chama River overlook. In 1961, O’Keeffe stood in the same spot with a camera and took photographs.

“Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.” Georgia O’Keeffe

Second, O’Keeffe was an artist of nature, as a nature photographer might be. Her paintings are more than abstract, they are intriguing studies of simplicity with details carefully added. One of her biggest influences was Arthur Wesley Dow, a painter who mentored O’Keeffe early in her art studies. His teachings of composition and design were based on the principles of Japanese art, which in my mind, is a study in simplicity. From Dow’s teachings, O’Keeffe learned to “Fill a space in a beautiful way”. Photographers learn to do the same through the frame of a lens. As O’Keeffe injects realism into her abstracts, a photographer learns to add abstraction through simple compositions that utilize negative space, single elements, and muted or monotone colors. All from nature.

“I found I could say things with colors and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for.” Georgia O’Keeffe

Third, O’Keeffe’s profound connection to New Mexico’s landscapes resonates powerfully as I have also felt a strong connection to places; first in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert where I lived for four years, and later in the Everglades that I have called home for the past 17 years. Photographing these places requires more than simply being there, you must explore it and learn it. O’Keeffe was drawn to the mystical wonders and beauty of the high desert and spent so much time exploring it. Consequently, her abstract paintings became her vocabulary – her visual language to describe her experiences in these places. As a photographer, I feel an urge to create my own visual language when I take my camera into the Everglades – a means of describing how it feels to be in such a place.

“God told me if I painted that mountain enough, I could have it.” O’Keefe said this about the Cerro Pedernal, a flat-topped, strong-shouldered mountain that she viewed from her backyard and painted several times. When Vivian and stayed in the area for a several days, the mountain seemed to watch us where ever we were, including our campsite on Pedernal loop. Check out this slide show and see what I mean.

Vivian and I walked on O’Keeffe’s land; Ghost Ranch, the White Place, the Black Place, and observed firsthand what she painted over 80 years ago. As I stood in one place framing one image after another, I thought about O’Keeffe’s numerous paintings of the same scene. Her visual description of a place is not through just one painting, but several. I wonder if O’Keeffe were alive today at the miraculous age of 134 and without losing her central vision from macular degeneration, how many more paintings of the Black Place or the Cerro Pedernal would she have created? Afterall, God had already given her the land.

Check out the next three slideshows, photographs taken from O’Keeffe’s 1) Ghost Ranch, 2) White Place and 3) Black Place.

May 8, 2021 – Gateway to the Southwest

Downtown Santa Fe with its pueblo-style architecture and the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi at the end of the street.

All told, we came to Santa Fe to see one thing – the Georgia O’Keeffe museum. My determination was mostly driven by the fact that I had visited Santa Fe twice many years ago – and both times, the museum was closed for some reason or another, blocking me from entering a museum dedicated to one of my favorite artists. Unfortunately before we arrived and in the time of Covid, the museum required advanced reservations which I failed to acquire. Once again, O’Keeffe’s inspiring canyon art eluded me. But I was fine with that and found peace from two things; first our visit to Santa Fe and its surrounding areas proved to be more interesting than one artist’s work, and second, the ghost of O’Keeffe would come back to us on our trip through New Mexico in a more awesome way.

Typical Santa Fe adobe architecture.
Lots of colors and adobe found in Santa Fe.
In Santa Fe, art galleries seem to out number people.
Viewing the ‘miraculous staircase’ inside the historic Loretto Chapel.

But for now, forget modern day Santa Fe and all its art galleries and its Pueblo-inspired adobe architecture; instead, enjoy a casual version from a casual tourist’s blog of New Mexico’s interesting history that came to light during our 3-day stay near the state’s capital. This is when we discovered the ‘Land of Enchantment’ has a rich past, more colorful than its exquisite landscape. During our stay, we had time to hike the Galisteo Preserve near town and to visit Pecos National Historical Park. And it is here where we go back in time, way back in time. (Enjoy the slideshow of some images from our hike in the beautiful Galisteo Preserve).

Once upon a time thousands of years before AD 1100, Ancestral Pueblo people hunted and gathered in the Upper Pecos Valley that is between the Sangre de Cristo mountains and the Glorieta Mesa, east of Santa Fe. Over time, people gravitated to locations with water sources and began farming and building above ground villages or pueblos. Eventually, the many pueblos that dotted the landscape consolidated into one larger settlement known as Pecos Pueblo. Containing five-story complexes, the sophisticated pueblo with its innovative architecture had grown to over 2000 people by 1400.

Remains of the Pecos Pueblo.
The Pecos Pueblo is an active archeology site.

By the time the Spaniards arrived in the mid-1500s, Pecos Pueblo was the largest and most powerful Pueblo in the area. Known as the Cicuye or the ‘village of 500 warriors”, the Pecos Pueblo became a successful trade center that connected the people to the Plains cultures such as the Comanche and to the Spanish explorers.

The park allows you to climb inside what was once a pueblo family’s dwelling.

From its first contact with the Pueblos, Spain began to colonize and aggressively establish Franciscan missions within the largest pueblo communities. This was Spain’s attempt to control every aspect of the Pueblo world, from economics to belief systems.

A Spanish mission church overlooks the Pecos Valley.

In 1680, an inevitable turn of events occurred – the Pecos Pueblo revolted. Rumblings of a revolt had been going on for a while. Five years prior, several Pueblo holy men were publicly flogged (or executed) for sorcery. One of the flogged men was Po’Pay, a religious leader of the OhKay Owingeh or San Juan Pueblo. Not to be messed with, Po’Pay organized and led the revolt which caused the Spanish to turn tail and run back to Mexico. Po’Pay called upon his people to eradicate Spanish language, customs, and beliefs. Today, a statue of Po’Pay stands in the capital of New Mexico.

Remains of the Mission Nuestra Senora de los Angeles de Porciuncula de los Pecos, built in 1619 can be seen at Pecos National Historical Park.

But, like a bad penny, the Spanish came back 12 years later, led by Don Diego de Vargas and proceeded to forcibly take over New Mexico and re-establish its missions at many of the pueblos, including Pecos Pueblo. The new group of colonists and a few displaced settlers risked their lives to make new homes and reclaim what they lost. This time however, they came back as a ‘kinder and gentler’ lot by removing forced labor and providing the Pueblos justification for remaining on friendly terms with them.

In front of the church, a traditional kiva had been built during the Pueblo Revolt in 1680

Nothing is perfect and it would be nice if we could all get along, right? Through the 1700s, the Pecos People slowly dwindled in number, largely from diseases introduced by the Comanche who came raiding on their horses from the plains and brought with them the European-introduced diseases. The site was abandoned in 1838 and the survivors moved to Jemez Pueblo.

Meanwhile, Mexico was leading a 10-yr violent revolt against Spain and in 1821, became independent. The revolutionary government made three promises to its people – independence from Spain, Catholicism would be Mexico’s only religion, and equality for all Mexicans. Territory of New Mexico was now part of Mexico.

During the Pueblo Revolt in 1680, 21 friars were killed and later martyred.

Meanwhile, the Santa Fe trail that connected Missouri to New Mexico was pioneered around the time of Mexico’s declared independence and until 1880 (pre-railroad), served as a significant commercial highway. Santa Fe was at the center of it all, as a part of a trade route from Mexico City as well as the United States to the east. Lots of interesting things happened along that trail, not the least of which was because it crossed through Comanche territory.

The Pueblo people built large subterranean circular structures as large as 40 ft in diameter and 10 ft deep. These are known as kivas, well-recognized structures distinct to the southwestern pueblo cultures and thought to be locations for ceremony.

Along comes 1846 at which time the American army was using the Santa Fe trail to invade New Mexico during the Mexican-American war, as well as killing off the bison to remove power from the Comanche and other Plains Indians. The war that began in 1846 and ended in 1848 did not have bipartisan support in the U.S. government. Democrats, most especially the southern types, were riled up by President Polk’s ‘Manifest Destiny’ and wanted to add slave-owning territory to the south to avoid being outnumbered by the faster growing North. Others, especially Republicans were not keen on the war. Yet it happened and ended with a treaty that gave U.S. control over Texas, established the US-Mexican border along the Rio Grande, and ceded several states including New Mexico. In return, Mexico received $15 million less than half the amount offered before the war began.

A typical view that the Pecos Pueblos would have had.

And let’s be clear on the Manifest Destiny because this was at the heart of the Mexican-American war, the westward expansion of the United States, and the American Civil War – “the idea that the people of US would inevitably settle the continent from Atlantic to Pacific ocean. The concept centered around the belief that Anglo-Saxons were a special race and rightfully the superiors of other peoples. Their expansion would also spread the blessings of Protestant faiths and democracy. Fulfilling the destiny was important and could be accomplished by force if needed.

An artist’s depiction of the ‘Manifest Destiny’.

And speaking of accomplishing by force, New Mexico played a significant role during the civil war. If you do visit Pecos Historical National Park, you can learn about an important battle on the Glorieta Pass where the Union forces ended the Confederate’s drive to cut off the West from the Union in 1862. The Union won that battle by the way.

We never realized before that our travels through the American southwest would be, among others a continuation of our Civil War lessons. But one thing is certain – before 1848 and to its present day, New Mexico has it going on and our immersion had only just begun.

People were not the first inhabitants of New Mexico and this working archeology lab is proof of that. We visited the lab while at the Ghost Ranch (more on that later).
Meet Coelophysis, a common little dinosaur in these parts back in the day. In 2006, it received the name Effigia Okeeffeae, in honor of Georgia O’Keeffe, and literally means “O’Keeffe’s ghost”. See, I told you O’Keeffe’s ghost would come back into the picture!
The archeologist was kind enough to point to the bones of the feet of a coleophysis. See if you can make them out.
And the resident archeologist took the time to talk about excavations of ancient pueblo sites from where pottery pieces are found and reconstructed to put on display.

May 5, 2021 – Fire and Sand

Quite a change from our alligator warning signs in Florida. I am still waiting to see a sign warning visitors to “Don’t feed the rattlesnakes”.

Traveling America’s southwest makes one want to be a geologist. While researching and preparing for our 2021 travels, we found Google’s satellite imagery of the areas of Utah and New Mexico most intriguing. Our desire to explore certain areas was heightened by aerial views of abstract terrains made of colors and contrasts. These strange lands piqued our imaginations. Our introduction to these mysterious lands of the southwest began in southern New Mexico where white sand and black basalt lava meet.

An aerial view of the Tularosa Basin where two of the most extreme landscapes exist. And no, that black area is not water.

Much of the planning was done by me and not Vivian. While White Sands National Park was at the top of my list when I made reservations for a campsite in Alamogordo, I also made time between visits to White Sands to explore two other locations far removed from the dunes, at least by appearances. But first, White Sands. A satellite image gives you a good idea as to how massive the white sand dunes are and NASA’s imagery provides details of this 275 square-foot landscape anomaly, the largest gypsum dune field on Earth.

Waves of sand with the San Andres Mountains in the background.

As we continued to explore national monuments and parks, we learn what is common among many of them is preservation began with one person’s foresight. To be considered by the National Park Service as a prospective site, it required “economic worthlessness and monumentalism”. More importantly, it requires someone to lead the way with enthusiastic support for the idea. The economic worthlessness was an easy sell given that mining the gypsum sand dunes proved unsuccessful due to low market value of unprocessed gypsum sand. In the 1920’s, people began to see the value of the dunes for its uniqueness and this view was brought forth by Tom Charles of Alamogordo to the park service. His efforts paid off.

Plants in the dunes have adapted by growing very quickly before being buried by sand.
A surreal landscape, 360 degrees.

On January 18, 1933, President Herbert Hoover established White Sands as a National Monument to preserve “the white sands and additional features of scenic, scientific, and educational interest.” As you may know, national monuments can come and go depending on who resides in the White House, but national parks are created (or removed) by a majority vote by Congress. In other words, once a monument becomes a national park, it is pretty much there to stay to eternity. On December 20, 2019, White Sands was designated as a National Park in recognition of its added significance of the park for its natural and cultural resources. It receives over 600,000 visitors each year and is the most visited NPS site in New Mexico (even before becoming a national park).

A pristine dune without evidence of human footprints.

White Sands Dune Field was formed when sea levels that once covered the area dropped, leaving behind gypsum sand, a soft mineral that dissolves in water. This process began as water washed down from the newly formed San Andres and Sacramento Mountains into the Tularosa Basin forming a shallow sea. With nowhere to go, the water evaporated over time leaving behind massive quantities of gypsum crystal deposits that eventually broke down into tiny grains that formed dunes as high as 60 feet. This is what is now 145,762 acres of national park.

Evening sky over the dunes.

Given the amount of sand included in our itinerary, I knew our stay here would not be a fishing location for Vivian. And therefore, I never discussed the details of my planned itinerary except to say I wanted to spend lots of quality time photographing White Sands. Because sand is Vivian’s least favorite thing in the world, she visited White Sands one time with me only to say she saw it, and happily stayed back when I returned to the dunes a couple more times. But we had other places to visit during our short stay. So, while I photographed dunes, Vivian began researching the other locations on our itinerary. Upon looking at a Google satellite image, she noticed a large dark area just north of White Sand and got excited at the prospects of a body of water.

The park from which the Carrizozo Malpais lava flow can be accessed is called Valley of Fires and managed by BLM. The paved path winds down into the lava basin.

Unfortunately for Vivian, that body of water was not water at all, in fact it is quite the opposite. Seeing the disappointment on her face as I told her to put away her fishing gear for now, I explained that the large black area on the satellite map was something extraordinary because I knew her disappointment would be replaced by curiosity and a fascination for exploring the unknown. Only fifteen miles north of the brilliant white gypsum deposit is a 47 mile-long charcoal scar in the arid landscape of southern New Mexico. The Carrizozo Malpais, a huge lava flow resulting from the eruption of Little Black Peak, is 4-6 miles wide, 160 ft deep and covers 125 square miles. The uniform dark appearance comes from the basalt content, which tended to flow easily, thus creating an elongated lava landscape within the Tularosa Basin. Geologists believe the Carrizozo was created in a single episode lasting 20 to 30 years about 5200 years ago, making it one of the youngest lava flows in the U.S. It is also about 5000 years younger than the White Sands Dunes.

Amazing how such a black mass can be covered so densely with vegetation.

The lava flow is called Valley of Fires and is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. A campground overlooks the lava flow and a well-maintained walking path winds through the lava flow. Surprisingly, the Valley of Fires is full of life. The black basalt is practically covered with plant life and is inhabited by many animals including bats, mule deer and cottontail. Bird watchers come here to see the great horned owl, burrowing owl, sparrows and the golden eagle among others.

Teddy bear cholla growing from the lava flow.
Lots of caves and mini-mountains like this one (maybe 20-ft tall) were formed by the lava flow.

White Sands National Park and Valley of Fires represent the two extremes of the Tularosa Basin. Nevertheless, the basin has been inhabited by people for thousands of years. And a short distance south of the Valley of Fires is another interesting area managed by BLM where you can see evidence of people who lived there between 900 and 1400 AD. Three Rivers Petroglyphs is an amazing display of ancient rock art, containing over 21,000 petroglyphs. It is one of the largest rock art sites in the southwest. Visitors can see many of these petroglyphs on a 1/2mile long trail along a ridge where large rocks carved with faces, animals, handprints and sunbursts can be viewed up close.

Petroglyphs are drawings carved in stone, and seem to be an ancient form of recording history.
Petroglyphs are an ancient form of blogging. “Today, I caught a bighorn sheep with three arrows and brought it home for dinner”.
I am sure there are people who study the petroglyph and create theories explaining designs like this one.

All in one day, we explored two extremes of landscapes of the Tularosa Basin and an area where three rivers came together to provide people a hospitable environment to live. All this thanks to Google Maps.

Enjoy this slideshow of more images from the three amazing locations we visited (and an additional photo from the mountain town of Riudoso) while staying in Alamogordo.

Apr 27, 2021 – Water and Dust

Caddo Lake State Park campground.

If Vivian were writing our blog, this entry would not exist. In her mind, Texas was a fleeting moment that she was all too eager to put behind her and was not worthy of a blog. But, in all fairness a state that required 814 miles of driving to get through deserves some recognition. And not only did we spend eight nights in Texas, but the fact we began our time in Texas at Caddo Lake State Park makes it more deserving. And that’s because Caddo Lake stands out in our travels as the place we drove out of our way to get to on our way out west. In short, we both were eager to visit this piece of cypress swamp heaven that so many fishermen and photographers devote their passions to.

Not a bad view when you have to spend much of your time indoors.
Driving west from Caddo Lake, we see blue skies for the first time in five days.

Storms had been following us ever since leaving Chokoloskee and when we arrived at Caddo Lake, more storms were gearing up to make our five night stay a wet one. As it were, we witnessed a piece of blue sky over a span of one minute and never once did the sun appear. Wetness and bleak gray skies prevailed during our time in this lovely cypress forest (slide show below). While the fishing and photography did not pan out as we planned, we did get to continue our history lesson of the United States.

Natural disasters and man’s desire to control nature for the sake of commerce and land grabbing come together in the Red River Valley, in which Caddo Lake is located. In the time of Thomas Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase (1803), exploration was the government’s top priority. The Red River north of Natchitoches was high on the priority list as it was hoped the river would lead to Santa Fe. Upon exploring the river, a log jam at least 100 miles wide and 130 miles long was discovered. Many settlers found a good life in the Red River Valley upstream of that log jam in western Louisiana and eastern Texas. And downstream of that log jam, to be referred to as the “Great Raft”, French planters settled around Natchitoches along the Red River (see previous blog) and were doing quite well.

Downtown Jefferson, Texas.

But, the Great Raft, as natural as it was, kept the settlements north of it from growing as large as they wanted. So, the federal government ordered the Army Corp of Engineers (founded by Jefferson) to remove it. Which they did. As with any “for the greater good” project, there are losers and there are winners. Natchitoches was one of the losers as it found itself a least a mile further removed from the Red River. This does not seem like much by today’s standards, but back then, it meant land transport was necessary to get their cotton and indigo to market.

On the other hand, Jefferson, Texas faired much better by the removal. Jefferson was located on a deep water lake called the Big Cypress Bayou. With the removal of the Great Raft, the bayou became navigable turning Jefferson into one of Texas’ most important port cities. But, following in Natchitoches’ footsteps, the booming town of Jefferson became a bust. Seems the Army Corps didn’t do quite as good of a job removing the raft as expected. Reoccurring log jams and flooding continued to be problems for folks in the Red River Valley area. So, in 1873, the Army Corps began again in earnest to open the Red River. This time they weren’t fooling around – they used nitroglycerin, a fairly new explosive made less than 30 years prior. Finally opened, steamships could navigate the Red River north into Arkansas. Consequently, Jefferson found itself on the losing end as the removal of the Great Raft drained the Big Cypress Bayou and all that was left was Caddo Lake.

Jefferson had its quirks, being the Bigfoot Capital of Texas.
It’s quirkiness even included this museum, one man’s passion I believe. Too bad we couldn’t spend time there, it was closed at the time. Next time!

On our last morning at Caddo Lake, we prepared to hitch and leave in the pouring rain. Steam rising from the valley forest where we called home for the past five days reminded us that we were in low country. Our climb to higher elevations would begin immediately as we drove out of the park on a very steep incline. Soon we would drive west on I-20, past Dallas and to Abilene, 360 miles from the start.

Abilene State Park campground. We aren’t in East Texas anymore, Juniper and pinyon trees dominate.

Not much to say about Abilene except that we spend two days in a state park with the same name. The Texas Frontier splayed out around us and the landscape differed dramatically from the bayou swamps we had called home for the past couple weeks. Trees look scruffy and dry, shrubs look shrubbier and the ground is hard. Texas is a land of dichotomy from swamps to desert and Abilene represented a transition zone from one to the other.

Heading west after a long drive through Texas.

Two days after leaving the steam of Caddo Lake, we saw mountains in the far distance become larger. The rain was behind us, continuing to soak east Texas and Louisiana. Yet, as we stayed over one last night in Texas, a few miles east of El Paso, it did not yet feel like we were out west. Not the west I was envisioning. Not yet were we in the Land of Enchantment, the epic beginning of our epic travels through several western states. Having inserted two more states onto our map, it was the next state we entered that would at last transport us to another land. Texas was big, but we are passed it. At least for now.

The opposite of Caddo Lake, our last campsite before leaving Texas, near El Paso.

Apr 25, 2021 – The Southern Renaissance

For our visit to Natchitoches, we stayed at the new Grand Ecore RV Park on the Red River. Sites were concrete with much space between them. And laundry was free!
Google Maps cannot keep up with the new RV parks that seem to be popping up everywhere, including here on the Red River.

As we travel across the country, most striking to us are the stories of the extraordinary persons that come out of the locations we visit. These are often stories of individuals who endured or overcame unthinkable hardships or horrible circumstances. And here in the deep south of Louisiana, there are plenty of stories to go around.

While in Natchitoches, we visited a couple plantations, including Oakwood at the Cane River Creole National Historic Park. This was the home of the planters, the Prud’hommes. Spanning several generations, the family lived in the home from 1821 until 1998.
From the Prud’homme house, one can overlook the plantation, including the tiny cabin on the left. This was the home of the Helaire family who lived on the plantation for several generations as slaves and eventually sharecroppers for the Prud’hommes until 1952.
Within the homes of the Prud’hommes on the left and the Helaires on the right.

Case in point, meet Marie Therese CoinCoin (‘CoinCoin’ means second daughter), born a slave in 1742 into the household of Natchitoches’ founder, Louis Juchereau de St Denis. We were introduced to Marie’s story from our tour of Melrose Plantation located in the Cane River region within Natchitoches Parish.

Downtown Natchitoches on a Monday morning. We drove through here on Sunday and the place was crowded with tourists.

But before I introduce you to Marie Therese CoinCoin, allow me to get Natchitoches out of the way. Natchitoches is Louisiana’s oldest settlement (not to be confused by Texas’s Nacogdoches) and I’ll tell you more about this quaint historical town at the end of this blog through photos. But first, how DO you pronounce Natchitoches? From what we learned, it depends on who you speak to, – it could be ‘Nack-i-tish’, might by ‘Nag-i-dish’ or possibly ‘Nack-i-tosh’. And how quickly it rolls off the tongue also depends on who is speaking. Hearing a few Louisiana-born residents say it reminded me of my visit to Baltimore and hearing the 3-syllable word ‘Bal-ti-more’ become a 2-syllable word – ‘ball-mer’.

The Melrose Plantation house where CoinCoin’s family lived and eventually where Cammie Henry lived from 1899 to the time she died in 1948.

Back to Marie Therese CoinCoin. At the young age of 25, Marie was leased as a housekeeper to Frenchman, Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer. By this time, Marie had given birth to five children (all slaves). The father was believed to have been a Native Indian by the name of Chatta. Young Marie began her time at Metoyer’s home and thus began an open 19-yr relationship that resulted in 10 children. At the time, a strict Spanish priest held harsh reign over the Parish and he did not like CoinCoin and Metoyer’s relationship. To appease the priest and maintain his status as a planter, Metoyer had to end the relationship and continue his life in a proper way; that is to acquire a European-born wife – which he did. Out of love or obligation or who knows why, Metoyer purchased Marie, emancipated her and their 10 children. And he gave her some land.

The St Augustine Church was established in 1829, by CoinCoin’s eldest son, Nicolas Augustin Metoyer. It is the first church in Louisiana to be built by and for free people of color. It is also the location for the wedding scene in the film Steel Magnolias.

Marie Therese CoinCoin, a free woman with children to support became a farmer. Think about this for a moment. By now, she is over 40 yrs old and has given birth to 15 children in a time when the life expectancy was at best 36 and for women, death by pregnancy was all too common. Beating the odds, CoinCoin began a new life by raising tobacco, cattle and harvesting bear grease. Over time, her fortunes grew as she and her sons received land grants and purchased slaves including her first five children. It was likely necessary for freed slaves to acquire their own slaves to sustain and grow a farm, but it may also have been to protect them from others in the parish who would purchase them. CoinCoin herself labored alongside her slaves until her health began to fail and she eventually died in 1816. Her children and their children became the leading family of Isle Brevelle, a population of free people of color thriving as business owners.

Nicholas Augustin Metoyer or Grandpere as he was called by his grandchildren, is buried behind the church he founded.

Through poor business dealings, an heir of the Metoyer’s plantation was forced to sell it in 1848 for a pittance of what it was once worth, thus ending generations of Metoyer’s plantation ownership that began with CoinCoin. Over time and following the reconstruction era, the plantation became known as Melrose and eventually owned by Joseph and Cammie Henry. After her husband’s death in 1918, Cammie continued to maintain and renovate Melrose, and turned it into a well known retreat for artists, contributing greatly to the Southern Renaissance. And it is for this reason yet another remarkable story comes our way.

The home of Clementine Hunter as an artist.

To Melrose, a 12-yr old field hand came with her family from a nearby plantation. For decades, Clementine Hunter, born to sharecroppers in 1887, worked at Melrose, and among her many jobs was one she enjoyed most – and that was picking cotton. It is written that 5-ft tall Clementine went into labor after picking 78 lb of cotton, left to find a midwife, gave birth and within two days was back out picking again.

Clementine Hunter the artist. A forger of Hunter’s work was caught partly because Hunter’s paintings had paint smudges on the back because she never used an easel, while the forger’s paintings did not.

One day, she discovered some discarded paints left by one of the visiting artists. Clementine never had a formal education and she never learned to read or write. Yet, she became a self-taught artist. Over the years, she created thousands of work and when her husband died in the 1940s, she began making income by selling her work. Her best friend at Melrose, Francois Mignon helped supply her with art materials and widely promoted her work.

Inside Hunter’s cottage where she created much of her art.
Regarding one of her paintings, Hunter was asked why she made the chicken so large. Her answer, “so it could pull the wagon”.
Funerals were a common theme among Hunter’s paintings. She made her funeral paintings bright and colorful because to her, a funeral meant happiness or the end of misery.

Clementine Hunter became renowned for her colorful and primitive paintings that provide the viewer an insider’s look into plantation life and tells stories from the community of workers. In 1986 at the age of 99 and 2 years before her death, Hunter received an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from Northwestern State University of Louisiana; the same university that in the 1960s, did not allow Hunter on campus to see her own exhibit because of segregation laws at the time.

Clementine Hunter, not having learned to read or write, considered her signature to be as significant as her painting.
Also buried at St Augustine Church is Clementine Hunter and her friend Francois Mignon. Her funeral was the event of the century in Natchitoches.

Traveling has presented some of the most fascinating stories from America, each of which contribute to its authenticity. And it is these stories that will continue to shape our travel itineraries. Soon, we will visit a place where another one of America’s famed artists found inspiration in its rocks. But first, we got Texas to get through!

Below are several more photos from our short time in Natchitoches. Enjoy!

A magnolia in downtown Natchitoches, location for the filming of, you guessed it, Steel Magnolias.
The American Cemetery, oldest in the Louisiana Purchase is in Natchitoches and is the location of yet another scene from Steel Magnolias.
Steel Magnolias tour or the Christmas lights festival are two reasons that bring tourists to Natchitoches, but it is also famous for its meat pies which is basically Louisiana’s version of Michigan’s pasty or Florida’s empanada.
Sunrise at our campground, Grand Ecore.

Apr 20, 2021 – The Best City in Louisiana

In one day, we crossed 3 state borders pulling the RV on I-10 for a total of 470 miles. It didn’t help that the I-10 and I-12 sections in Louisiana are among the worst roads encountered. But compared to Louisiana’s backroads, the interstate feels smooth. This is Baton Rouge around 3:30 pm.

No matter where Vivian and I travel, no matter how horrible the road conditions or bleak the communities we encounter, we somehow always discover a bright shiny penny. In southern Louisiana, not far south of Lafayette, we found that shiny penny in the form of a story from Avery Island.

Avery Island is privately owned and is where the Tabasco factory is located. In addition to the factory tours (which are closed for Covid), you can take a tour around Jungle Gardens, basically the entire estate of the McIlhenny family. The live oaks are quite beautiful.
As part of the Jungle Gardens is the Buddha, which Edward McIlhenny received as a gift in 1936.
From a plaque – “This buddha was built for the Shonfa Temple located northeast of Peking, by the order of Emperor Hui-Tsung 1101-1125. It’s builder was Chon-Ha-Chin, most noted of ancient Buddha makers. The temple was looted by a rebel general who took the statue as part of his loot and sent it to New Your to be sold.” The statue was purchased by two friends of McIlhenny and sent it to him.

The story begins with Edward Avery McIlhenny who was born on Avery Island in 1872. Edward was the son of Edmund McIlhenny who began Tabasco brand products and became the heir to the business. One day, Edmund heard a story about an Indian king who kept birds in large flying cages. As the king grew old the cages were left abandoned and fell apart. Yet, the freed birds continued to raise their young year after year at the same spot they themselves were raised.

The McIlhenny home on Avery Island. The island is actually a salt dome thought to be as deep as Mt Everest is high. Nevertheless, it was a perfect location for making Tabasco sauce.

This story inspired McIlhenny to build his own flying cages. This was in 1895 and by that time, five million birds were being slaughtered each year to fuel a fashion. That fashion, feathers and sometimes entire taxidermied birds in women’s hats began in the 1870s. Among the most popular of feathers were those of the white snowy egrets and great white egrets, particularly the more extravagant plumage that is grown during mating season.

Heir to the Tabasco company, Edward McIlhenny was a good businessman who expanded the company internationally. The factory is the only one in existence, producing over $700,000 worth of product each day.

During the fashion craze, plume hunting was extraordinarily lucrative as an ounce of feathers became worth more than an ounce of gold. Being quite conscience of the Florida Everglades, both Vivian and I understand that plume hunting was a severe and dark stain on its history and is included among many of the stories that come out of the Everglades. It is no surprise to us that Louisiana, being ecologically similar to Florida, has its own dark history when it comes to the decimation of bird populations.

So many ways to burn your tongue!

Here is where the shiny penny comes in. McIlhenny, being a conservationist was despondent about the declining bird populations and wanted to save the Snowy Egret. So, using a wet area on Avery Island known as Willow Pond, he built a dam and increased the pond’s size to 35 acres. He then built large flying cages of poultry netting suspended over the water. He did so because he knew birds preferred nesting over water where the alligators could discourage other predators from stealing eggs or chicks. He found eight snowy egrets and began to hand-raise them. The birds thrived and seemed content. In the fall, he set them free to migrate south. In the spring, as he had hoped, 6 of the 8 returned, paired off and hatched several more chicks. This pattern continued and 16 years later in 1911, McIlhenny estimated about 100,000 birds occupied the rookery.

The road to Bird City.

And that is how ‘Bird City’ came to be and what Theodore Roosevelt referred to as “the most noteworthy reserve in the country”. From southern Florida, we have the tragic story of Guy Bradley, the warden hired to protect rookeries in the Everglades and was consequently murdered in 1907 by plume hunters. While Guy Bradley was put out there to protect birds in the middle of the Everglades swamp, a wealthy heir of the Tabasco Company was rebuilding the bird population in a most unconventional way and doing it from his own backyard. And in 2021, we stood overlooking the pond watching hundreds of adult egrets tend to their nests, many with 2 or 3 chicks soon to fledge and take to the sky. They too will one day come back to the ‘flying cages’ and continue the cycle. All because of one man.

A overlook gives you a panoramic view of Bird City
Birds are indicators of the environment. If they are in trouble, we know we’ll soon be in trouble.” Roger Tory Peterson

Avery Island was a pleasant diversion but what we really wanted to do was immerse ourselves in the deep south’s melting pot. In this regard, we got ourselves a couple of history lessons, first from Vermilionville Historic Village in Lafayette and then the Bayou Teche Museum in New Iberia.

One of the many historical homes on display at Vermilionville Historic Village.
Joseph Broussard was a leader of the Acadians and eventually led them to Louisiana from Nova Scotia in 1765. The Broussard family integrated into the slave-owning upper classes of the colony.

Louisiana’s history is a complicated and long one woven in and out of periods of French, Spanish and U.S. rule. And as far as a melting pot goes, it is a spicey one. First, there are the natives of several tribes including the Avoyel (one of which we met on our tour) and Chitimacha. Then you have the immigrants from France, Spain, and Germany, the Anglo-Americans and the free and enslaved Africans. And then you have the native Americans that were pushed out of the east and moved into or through the area. Mixed in with all that were the French-speaking Catholics from Acadia, having been expelled from Canada in 1755 by the British, later to be known as the Cajuns. And then there were the refugees from the French Revolution, Creoles from the Mississippi River Valley and the Spaniards from the Canary Islands and the Island of Majorca. And don’t forget the immigrant refugees from Saint Domingue coming in after the Haitian Revolution in 1809.

At the Hilliard Museum on the UL campus of Lafayette, we learned about the art and history of handwoven Acadian brown cotton fabric.
In 1910, Louisiana banned the French language from its schools.

Despite all the melting pot ingredients, Louisiana was a slave state and indeed, in 1810-20, almost half the population in Louisiana were enslaved people of color. Which brings me to the stark reality that Louisiana is the second poorest state in the country. And what does that have to do with its 1820 demographics? I’m not sure, but as we drove over the worst roads ever encountered in one state (and yes, we have been to Indiana), or passed one dilapidated or abandoned building after another, we couldn’t help but think there is a connection there somehow. Evidence of poverty is relentless throughout the areas we explored.

Downtown New Iberia, where the historic Evangeline theatre is now the Bayou Teche Museum. You’ll see the name ‘Evangeline’ a lot down here, it is the title of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem. The poem tells a story of a young Acadian woman during the Grand Derangement, which was the expulsion of French Acadians from Canada by the British.

Both Vivian and I really wanted to take in southern Louisiana’s culture, but it left us feeling underwhelmed. And a bit perplexed, especially upon meeting many Louisianians who are among the friendliest and politest we’ve met throughout our travels, and after receiving valuable history lessons from tour guides who present it with an enthusiastic personal touch.

Our Louisiana history lesson continues however, as we travel a little further north. And with that, I will leave you the following question, “How do you pronounce Natchitoches?”

Here is southern Louisiana’s favorite dish, boiled crawfish. We learned that crawfish are farmed in rice fields where they burrow in the mud; hence the nickname ‘mud bug’. Sounds delicious doesn’t it?
Southern Louisiana’s favorite pork dish is boudin, basically seasoned pork sausage with rice. We stood in line at Billy’s Boudin and Cracklin’ so Vivian could sample more Louisiana cuisine. Not one to eat pork, I settled on a crawfish ball, a deep fried ball of crawfish meat, spices and rice.