Whalechaser's Musings

No Matter Where You Go...
There You Are
Make the Best of It

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Death Valley National Park, California

Death Valley National Park is more than just sand. This was the driving force behind my Fall 2011 trip to the Southwest.  Of all the National Parks, this one has always held a seductive attraction for me; maybe it was the desolation or the danger, maybe it was the heat or the shear fearsomeness of it  I am not sure exactly what it was, but I knew deep down in my bones that this was the year...no, had to be the year, that I go and do...in this land of extremes.

It got off to a bad start right from the beginning.  I originally signed up for a Road Scholar program that was to take place in early October and counted the days until I got the OK that the program was a go.  It was an ambitious program which was to include a flat water float on the Colorado, tours of Antelope Canyon in Page, Arizona, a pontoon boat ride on  Lake Powell, a brief stay in Henderson, Nevada (so I could get my Vegas fix) and then four days in Death Valley, actually staying at the Flint Creek Ranch Inn.  It sure was plenty to look forward to! It was cancelled very near to the start date due to lack of interest.  What a bummer!  So, I had to reshuffle.  Check out other programs and make one work for me.  I did, I made my own fun for a week getting out to Death Valley and got a full week of hiking in Death Valley while staying in the nearby town of Beatty, Nevada.  So I managed to get almost everything in my original program (plus a little more) but under very different circumstances.  I went the first week of November, which meant the weather would be very different.  In retrospect, that was a good thing, it was brisk at night and delightful during the day, which allowed for pure enjoyment without worry of sunburn, dehydration or a host of other nasties one could encounter closer to summer.

Several years ago a film called "The Bucket List" was popular and I for one really enjoyed it.  The story line was a bit far-fetched, but the spirit was solid.  Two guys who were both diagnosed with terminal illnesses got together and used the rich guys money to do outlandish things, a pre-composed list of stuff to do before you die. While some of the activities were adventurous and fulfilling in a way,  it was the relationship that developed between the two men that seemed to be the most rewarding.  It became very popular to say, "well, that's another thing I can scratch off my bucket list." It always struck me as a little cavalier...if I can do everything on my list, then I will have, sort of, cheated death.  Presumably, there would be nothing worthwhile left to do, so dying might be the better alternative.  So the idea of a bucket list, played in my mind and I fought it.  Just the idea of a list, that might have an end and then of course, the end...well it just didn't sit well with me.  Nevertheless, I knew, IF I had a bucket list, Death Valley would be on it. Little did I know I may have been flirting with my last hurrah.  For two years I have been monitoring what my pulmonologist calls a black fuzzy mass in my chest, it has been dormant...no changes, until this year.  Now it is morphing.  Taking more drastic steps, I had a bronchoscope  (go inside the lung and get biopsies) done hoping to finally determine what it is.  But still no answer.  At the end of this trip, I am going to have most of my lung removed.  My last hurrah indeed.

The first day of hiking was spent at the Mesquite Flat Dunes section of the park.  This is what I had envisioned the entire park to be composed of before my arrival; desert as far as the eye could see, dry, desolate and forbidding.  Well, yes, there is that but there is a whole lot more than just sand.  Having already been to Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, I already knew what it takes to get to the top of a dune and what it looks like from that vantage point.  I decided to stay on the lower dunes and get some shots of the weather-beaten sand and the starkness of the landscape.
I was not the only one to opt for the lower, less-traveled road in the group
Another day was spent getting up close and personal with the salt flats, located at Badwater which is 282 feet below sea level, the lowest elevation point in North America.  It is actually the remnants of a prehistoric salt lake that has been drying up at a dizzying pace.  Here I am holding a chunk of the salt that makes up the flats.  It is very hard, sharp and salty!

Another day was spent hiking through and around an area called Artists Pallette, the interplay of the sun on the multicolored surfaces can keep your imagination busy for hours.
Never let it be said that girls don't know how to have fun!  The three banditos were getting ready for their next heist while riding in the group van...
We took a walk on the boardwalk leading along Salt Creek Springs, then beyond and into the hills above the meandering salty creek that winds its way through the park.  Lots of water, but all salty.
Up in the hills the the Salt Creek seems tiny and the views were pretty remarkable
Another day we spent hiking in Mosaic Canyon, the beauty and awesomeness is really hard to describe.
On one particular hike we had to scale a wall to be able to continue the hike, it was called the Horse because it had foot stirrups and one had to straddle it, like a horse, to get over...
Ok, here I am, Death Valley.  It was all I thought it was and more.
Just a little curiosity for me...a fire plug, in the middle of the desert?  I just thought it was odd.
Another day was spent hiking Ubehebe Crater, some went down and up and around.  I went up and around, that was enough for me.
They don't put up any barriers to prevent you from taking the big dip into the crater, they put warning signs in universal language that even non-English speaking folks can understand!
This is an aerial view of the infamous Scotty's Castle.  There are so many stories about this place that it seems to take on a life of its own.  It was established during the gold rush and several people were taking advantage of each other during this opportune time.  I won't spoil the story but I will tell you, the tour is well worth your time, should you find yourself in Death Valley.  Fascinating!
In a ghost town outside of Death Valley, bicycle ghost riders in the sky...

Strolling the grounds of the Furnace Creek Ranch Inn, this is the only lush green you are likely to find in Death Valley.  The Inn was established by the old 20Mule Team Borax Company during the turn of the century, here is a delightful woman who also took the program.
Another canyon and another hike...it seems endless here.

Fitting, I think, to end the program with a shot of a beautiful full moon.  As the group was disbanding for the last time, several of the program leaders asked if I would like to come back next year and participate as a leader in any of the programs.  Would I?  You bet!  But answer had to be, we will have to wait and see what they find in my chest next week...this may be my last hurrah.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Vegas, Baby!

Anyone who knows me, knows I couldn't come all this way and not spend some time in Las Vegas.  I actually tried to get a hotel on the strip but the prices were just crazy, I don't know what was going on in town that week but I was not about to pay those crazy prices.  They forced me to go elsewhere and I am really glad they did, because I never would have tried the Suncoast Hotel and Casino if I wasn't pushed into it!

I am a little surprised that I spent three days there and did not get any food pictures, nor casino pictures, I barely got a decent shot of my room. I may have to go back and make amends for my shortcomings!

I did eat at almost all the restaurants there and was very pleasantly surprised with the excellent quality and reasonable pricing; the Mexican restaurant, in particular, served Carne Asade that was exceptionally good and less than $10.00, pretty amazing.

This is looking out of my room, right to the golf course and beyond to  the mountains.  The view is much better than anything on the strip in my opinion!

It was a suite with a King bed, a huge TV and a separate living room area...way more than was needed for little ol' me.
I took one of the beautiful days to see the Red Rock Canyon,  and discovered that you really need more than a day or two here.  So many beautiful trails...some pretty strenuous, others not too much.  Definitely on my to do list next time...
So here is the REAL reason I stayed at the Suncoast, it was only a few miles from Trader Joes!  So I went in and got my fix of coffee, two buck chuck (which is now three bucks!) dunkers and a few other essentials

All in all, I have to say my visit to Vegas was very enjoyable!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon, Page, Arizona

I would have to say that this stop was one of the highlights of my trip.  It was actually one of the main reasons that I decided to go West this year.  I had seen so many photos of the canyon and I decided that it was something that I had to experience...in the flesh.  So I went and I have to say I was not disappointed.

Going during the first week of November had the positive that there was virtually no one there.  It was easy to get a picture without 15 other tourists in it!  The downside that I kept hearing about was that one could not get a photo with the sunlight streaming down just so...because the earth had already tilted so that the sunlight did not shine through the canyon wall the way it does in the summer.  A small trade off in my opinion; I am not the worlds greatest photographer anyway!

My tour guide Nate was nice enough to take this shot for me, and it looks like he got a little of that sunlight that everyone talks about! This is the Upper Antelope Canyon which one enters by walking in at ground level.  The distance has been compared to the length of a football field, of winding gorgeous canyon walls interrupted by openings to the sky occasionally.  Every bend offers a new wow vision...

this shot, without people, would likely be impossible in the summer!

This is the entry to the Lower Antelope Canyon, one enters from the top and gradually steps down some 70 to 80 feet, to walk through equally beautiful canyons.  The big difference here is that you
get to walk up a series of metal stairs in order to exit the canyon. It is difficult to say which is more beautiful the Upper or the Lower.  I like to say they are both beautiful and each offers a uniqueness worth seeing

After completing my walk throughs of the canyons, I took a short hike called Horseshoe Trail just outside of the city limits of Page.  The hike is not very strenuous and when you reach the lookout you must be extra careful since there are no barriers in place to prevent you from taking the big plunge.  If you have fear of falling or of heights, I caution you not to get to close to the edge.

I took this photo standing back a pretty good distance from the edge and held the camera way above my head and hoped for the best.  Not too bad, considering I could not see what I was doing!

On the hike out of Horseshoe overlook I came across this most interesting little Indian boy hopping from rock to rock.  He was having such a good time; I asked if I could take his picture and he posed for me!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

No drive through the southwest is complete without a cruise through the Petrified Forest.  This is an ancient fossilized tropical forest that existed 225 million years ago in a shallow tropical ocean.  If you are silly enough to stay in your car and just drive the entire park, you will have missed everything.  There are many paved hiking loops that will allow you to easily get up close and personal with the many artifacts and petrified wood objects...which are still in their original positions after all these years.

At my first stop I thought it was interesting that they had a resident raven to enforce the "don't take anything "rule

in the background one can see the chunks of petrified wood scattered about the landscape as though someone tossed a handful of pebbles on the ground

Each piece of wood hardens and is colorized in a unique way.  Some of the surfaces have been polished smooth over the many years and are as reflective as a mirror would be.  I found the whole experience mesmerizing.

Below are somber beds of mudstone that were formed many years ago during the Chinle formation
here it appears that an entire tree had fallen and broken into a series of chunks, each hardened and beautiful.

Another unique advantage of this park is that there is a visitor center at each end, you can see the very informative film in either location; so if you miss the first one, you can catch the second!  I only allotted a few hours here, but I saw enough to make a mental note to stop again on my next southwest sojourn...there are so many places to hike here and all are unique.  If you are here in the summer bring tons of water and sunscreen!  Another advantage of traveling off-season!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Palo Duro Canyon, Texas

This is the beginning of my long awaited southwestern trip that should take me through a minimum of six states and quite a variety of landscapes and vistas.  I deliberately selected Amarillo to be my first stop because I recently discovered Palo Duro State Park which is located just 25 miles south.

I got up early on day two to be one of the first at the entrance gate.  I wanted to see as much as possible in the few hours that were allotted before I had to continue my journey.  The ranger spotted my bike and asked if I was planning on doing some mountain biking, yes I said and quickly added a request for the least challenging trail in the park.  I was told that would be Lighthouse trail and how to get there.  Jazzed for a good ride on a glorious day I hurried along to find the parking lot.  Along the way I was mesmerized by the canyons, red rocks and abundance of trees and other greenery.  This is a pretty well-kept secret...a beautiful canyon on par with the the Grand Canyon but on a much smaller scale and I had to do quite a bit of research before stumbling upon it.  I think I will be back in the not too distant future it is just too beautiful to see only once.
 I rode just a short distance and had to stop and get a couple of pictures.  The place is just so beautiful.  The trail started off nice and easy and shortly thereafter offered steep climbs, sharp turns and challenging drops.
I guess my lack of riding this year was very apparent when I approached a two foot drop and quickly looked for a way around.  Fortunately, there was a channel alongside for the chicken-hearted.  To my dismay, I somehow jammed my brakes mid-channel and went right over the handle-bars landing on my feet in a forward motion...if I had only kept running I would not have taken a front dive as if reaching for second base in a tight baseball play! So after only a few miles I decided that this was way too "risky behavior" for this early in the trip and decided to turn around and do a little walking instead.  It seemed the safest activity.  There is so much to see and do here that I will have to come back and spend four days or so to really be able to enjoy all it has to offer.