Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Long Strange Trip: Through The Southwest

This is the second part of a 4 part series about our trip from California to Chicago over winter break. In the last part, we were just leaving southern Utah, and heading into northern Arizona. We crossed the border near Lake Powell. Some of the areas that Lake Powell flooded looked kind of eerie and surreal. I remember seeing Monument Valley-like red rock towers coming out of water. And the strangeness of desert dry red rocks next to abundant blue water was weird too. On top of all that, a huge dam and lots of power line towers in the back ground. We were kind of content at keeping on driving, so we quickly drove through the small town of Page. We did pull a few U-turns in front of a AZ cop to get a picture of us and the bus in front of the AZ sign. He was occupied with actual speeders though and likely was amused at the bus from IL taking pictures by state signs. After our photo-happyness, we continued on. We didn't know it at the time, but there is a really cool slot canyon near Page, Arizona. Its on Navajo land and its called Antelope Canyon. Hopefully one day we'll return to Page and go see the slot canyon. As we had no idea, we kept driving. Suddenly it seemed we came up to the edge of a huge mesa. A huge huge mesa we didn't even realize we were on! This drop must have been at least 1000 ft!

Arizona Mesa
A huge Arizona mesa.

The rest of the drive down to Flagstaff was kind of a nonevent-full drive through landscape that was reminiscent of the badlands of South Dakota. It was mainly Indian reservation, and seemed kind of sad and lonely, and very poor, but the scenery was pretty. We rolled into Flagstaff as the sun was setting and had dinner (and a few beers) and slept in a motel that night. OMG, I know, we actually slept at a motel instead of in the bus! But let me explain. Again, it's winter so all of the campgrounds were closed, and there aren't that many operating RV parks. But we did find one, a KOA again. So we pulled into it and hoped that maybe they would allow more than 3 RVs to camp there that night. This time we were lucky, and there were plenty of spots. The owners of the KOA were VW bus owners too, surprisingly. When they saw that we arrived in a bus ourselves, they offered us 10% off the camping fees. Well, we were all about it until they told us how much the fee was, including the 10% discount. It was $39.00! Holy shit, just to park our bus!? We told the lady that we weren't sure if we wanted to stay just yet. We told her we'd go out for a beer first, at the local brewery, and then we might come back. Kind of a strange plan to tell her, but that's what we really were going to do, but we would also stop along the way to check prices at other places (including motels), which might of been a better deal. A few blocks down the main road that went towards the brewery, we spotted a motel with a really cool old fashioned multi-lightbulb sign (I don't know what they are really called). And it also said that there would be a European hostess! The three of us feeling kind of silly, decided we had to try and see how much they charged. Mark went in and told the guy, "I have $43 in my wallet. How much do you charge for 3 people tonight?" or something like that. The European hostess (who was actually a Greek MAN!) told us he would take it. So for only $4 more than a KOA "parking spot", we stayed at a motel and showered and spread out. At some point in the night (about 11pm) while we were still out, the European hostess cut the power to the cool multi-lightbulb sign. This made finding the motel on the way back from the brewery kind of difficult. We thought we could just look for the sign, but apparently he had shut down business for the night! At 11pm? A motel?

New Mexico Sky
Entering New Mexico, where the sky was so high!

The next morning, we continued driving towards New Mexico. But on our way out, we had to make the usual coffee stop. We found one of those tiny huts that made coffee inside, so we pulled over. It was called "Wicked AZ Coffee." Me taking everything so literally mouthed it out loud, "Wicked 'Ayh' 'Zee' Coffee. . . " while at the same time, Mark shouted, "Wicked Ass Coffee!" He had no idea why the coffee shop misspelled the word 'ass' while I had no idea how Mark misread A.Z. as ass (sick mind or something?), and Romy got the pun and had no idea why we were both so confused. And then we looked at each other when we both realized the pun and what state we were in. A double entendre if I might say so myself! There was also an angry disgruntled hippy that came up to the coffee window while we were ordering and started doing stupid stuff, like ordering a fake drink and generally being an ass. Anyways, that morning it was kind of rainy. We drove south out of Flagstaff towards Phoenix but then veered east on hwy 260 (to 87, to 188) which progressed through mountainous terrain, but eroded type mountains, with lots of vegetation growing on them. The closer we got to the New Mexico border, the more desert-like the landscape started getting. Eventually, the storms cleared out and it became sunny for a little while. The road started climbing up a mountain, and got a lot smaller and narrower. Eventually we got so high up in the mountains that there was an actual forest of pine trees for a while. We almost missed the New Mexican border because there wasn't a sign since the road was small. Anyways, what goes up must come down, so there we went, coming down out of the mountains and into what looked like South Dakota (except it was New Mexico). Rolling grass lands and a beautiful open blue sky. I hadn't pictured this in my head when I thought of what New Mexico would look like.

So now we were in New Mexico, the state that we had intended to try and explore while making our way to Chicago. When we got gas, we began to look at the map more closely. On the map, we saw a place called the Gila Cliff Dwellings not too far off (pronounced "Hee-La," not "Gee-La"). That seemed like it might be really cool to see, plus there were some hot springs which our guide book said were located nearby. By the time we got to the main big city which was at the turn off which went into the Gila National Forest, it was totally dark. But in order to get to the campground, we had to keep on driving. The guidebook said that the hot springs were along the Gila River, and Mark and Romy interpreted the directions as if they were part of some Federal campground near the cliff dwellings. I didn't really agree, I thought they were part of a private campground, but since it was two against one, we were looking out for a Federal campground. We eventually found it after about an hour of driving down a single lane mountain road. There were two, actually, but we picked the one that was in line with the guys' interpretation (which ended up being wrong but that's okay because it was a nice campground and free!). As we pulled into the campground along the river, it started raining on us really hard. The land we were on looked like it could be flooded rather easily, so I was kind of nervous. But again, two against one so we stayed put after we found a level spot. We discovered a new leak in the side window on the sliding door. We fixed it by sacrificing a towel, to soak up the rain, draped over the outside of the sliding door. That night we gorged ourselves with a smorgasbord of little dinner items, cheese, pepperoni sausage, stale bread, barley wine, sour patch kids (SPK!), potato salad, and other items. We were the only ones in the entire campground, but there was a pick-up truck that did a drive through the campground twice. The next morning we found out that there were some teenagers missing that day, and it was the rangers looking for them.

Pottery at Gila Cliff Dwellings
Pottery shards at the Gila Cliff Dwellings.

When we woke up the next morning, we headed out in the cold and damp towards the cliff dwellings. It was a National Monument, so similar to a National Park but not as big. When we got there, we discovered the visitor center was being remodeled, so they had a trailer set up where we could go in and talk to the rangers and watch a video. We were the only people there (which seemed like a theme on this trip). The rangers also explained to us that the bridge across the Gila River that led to the cliffs where the dwellings were was washed out. So we couldn't see the cliff dwellings after all! Bummer! Instead, they offered us a personal tour of the TJ Ranch archeological site, which they had never before let the public see. The ranch was the site of the ancient Mogollon people's home, when they eventually moved out of the cliff dwellings to begin raising crops in the meadows. They also made wooden houses which they found evidence of in the meadow of the ranch, and there were a bunch of old pottery shards littered all over the place. The pieces of pottery get brought to the surface somehow (they are only very shallowly buried), and then they got trampled and broken by the grazing cows from when it used to be a ranch.

Gila Cliff Dwellings
This field is where the Mogollon people lived 700 years ago.

The volunteer rangers told us how to spot the evidence of the ancient home foundations. They told us to be observant of the grasses that grew in the field and to notice how more lush certain places in the field were compared to others. The places where the grass was growing very well were the spots where there were Mogollon houses. They grass was essentially fertilized from the organic material that the house was made of. They think that when the people moved on from their area, they burned the houses they built and let them collapse. The burnt charcoal matter is what makes the grass grow much better, plus it is a little obvious because there are slight lumps in the field where the house spots are. The rangers told us that the archeologists don't think the houses were burned in war because there is no evidence of war-like weapons at the site. I don't know if I agree with that because somebody could still come through and raid and burn without actually using weaponry, just fire would be enough to destroy the village, you know? Also, the Mogollon people must of used pottery a lot because there were so many pottery shards everywhere! They were preserved so well that you can see the detail of the painting so well. Why would the people leave behind so many useful and beautiful pots if they were purposely burning down their village and moving on? Wouldn't you think they would take it with them? As always with historic stuff, it's all 'interpretation'.

Gila Hot Springs
The hot springs along the Gila River, near the cliff dwellings.

Well, when we were done with our walk around the archeological site, we asked the rangers if they knew where the hot springs were (that we were looking for last night). They told us where they were (the same place I had a feeling they were, near a private campground and general store), so we headed over there. (Jenn seems a little bitter about the whole hot springs thing, but there was absolutely no way we would have found them the night before.) It was a very short drive from the cliff dwellings, actually. When we got to the general store, we took a left down towards the river. We drove through a farm and finally got to a small parking area. There was a little information sign where they took donations. We walked around to check it out. These hot springs were cool. There were three different pools, all built by hand out of rock and cement, and they were artfully decorated! And just the perfect temperature for a nice dip. Again, we were the only people there, so we had our pick. It was very quiet and peaceful, and the Gila river was running right next to all the pools. I bet if you got really hot, you could just jump into the river to cool off! It was really cold outside though, so sitting outside of the tub was enough to cool you off. What I liked the best about this place was the craftsmanship in how the pools were set up. All the piping was hidden and water cascaded into the pools over rocks or wooden chutes!

Gila Hot Springs
A hot pool at the Gila River hot springs.

I wish we could've stayed at the pools longer, but we needed to move on. We still had an hour drive through the mountains to get back to the main road. We discovered as we were driving back that it had snowed over the pass (whereas it was raining on us last night camping)! We had to take it really slow, and in some parts we were sliding a little, but in general the road was in pretty good driving condition for not being plowed at all! When we finally hit the main road, we decided our next destination should be south. We wanted to stay out of the snowy blizzard in the northern part of the state. So we set our sights on checking out White Sands National Monument, and Carlsbad Caverns National Park. That night on the way to White Sands, we got stopped by the US border patrol. We'd been driving pretty much all afternoon and into the evening so that we could get as close to the White Sands area as possible. We spotted a state park campground nearby, so we started heading there. Apparently we didn't realize how close we were to the Mexican border, until we got stopped by border patrol! They asked us what country we were citizens of, and then looked at us in the face. They must of thought I looked really funny sitting in the back bench seat with my selk bag on, hood and all! Then they started knocking on all of our body panels, I guess checking if we stuffed them with drugs (or people)? Well, they must of realized we were just a bunch of traveling hippies in a hippie bus, and let us pass. After that, we were pretty close to the campground. We pulled into a spot which had an electric hook up. What a luxury! We used that opportunity to crank up the electric heater. That night we also finished off all the sour patch kids (a 2 lb bag Mark bought at WalMart in Cedar City) while watching the skies.

White Sands National Monument
The white sands at White Sands National Monument.

The rainy weather was finally starting to break-up, which was great. That next morning, we packed up the bus as quickly as we could and headed for the White Sands. The region, geologically, is a basin, which is the reason the sand is so white. It isn't actually sand, which is made from silica (basically tiny glass beads). The white sand is gypsum. The basin collects water, but since its a desert, the water evaporates at a very high rate. It leaves behind gypsum crystals (which is the same thing dry wall is made from). The crystals eventually break down into sand-sized pieces, and collect in huge dunes because of the prevailing wind patterns. From far away, the dunes looks like sand dunes, but when you start walking on it, the gypsum has a slightly different quality about it. It hard to explain - its just a little different. I guess its somewhere in between sand and playa dust.

Carlsbad Cavern
Shaking out the rug at our camping spot above the Carlsbad Caverns.

We did a little driving tour of the area, and we took a short hike into the dune fields. The dunes were cool to hike on, but there were *gasp* other people milling about, and every time we parked somewhere where there were no cars, a few minutes later there'd be several other cars. Monkey see monkey do I guess. We got our fill of the dunes then we moved on to our next destination, which was far off in the southeast corner of the state, the Carlsbad Caverns. The park is on the border of Texas, and just across the Texan border is another national park (which unfortunately we didn't have time to see). That whole general area used to be a huge coral reef, once under a shallow sea. The coral reef was uplifted and now forms what are called the Guadalupe Mountain Range. Since the coral reel was made of limestone, caves formed very easily due to the ease at which limestone can be dissolved, just due to slightly naturally acidic water. There are actually over 100 caves under the ground that is protected by the National Park, one of them being the deepest cave system in the US. But visitors are only allowed into 3 of them, and we only had time to see one of them. We didn't make it in time for the last cave 'tour,' so we checked out the visitor center to prepare for our cave tour the next day. The rangers also told us about some free camping spots on BLM land that was adjacent to the NP land. So we headed out to find the BLM land, which wasn't too far at all. We took a dirt road which ended up taking us to the top of the big hill/small mountain which was one of the foot hills of the Guadalupe Mountains. We picked out a nice level camping spot just in time to watch the sunset. We were probably camping above some kind of cave that might of been below us and yet undiscovered. The information at the visit center said that it was important to keep trash and other toxic run-off out of the natural environment, especially the caves. Anything that fell on the ground as liquid would eventually seep its way down into the ground, and into the cave system. We kept commenting how when we went pee, in hundreds of years, it would land on somebody's head in the cave as a cave kiss! And since we were in a VW, someone would get a black cave kiss from the bus!

Carlsbad Cavern
Cave formations in Carlsbad Caverns (The Witch's Finger).

The next morning, we drove back into the park and went into the cave. We entered at 9:30am and walked down through the natural entrance. In summer, this is where the famous Mexican Free-Tailed Bats emerge at dusk to feed. There are hundreds of thousands of them, but we didn't see any because in the winter, they are all hanging out in Mexico! The cave tour is actually a self-guided tour. There are information signs that you can read as you walk along. We rented an audio guide from the visitor center too, to get more information. As we walked deeper and deeper into the cave, the cave decorations started getting better and better. It was kept pretty dim in the cave, with only the major decoration features illuminated. We saw a lot of flowstone and drapery, which is what the cave is famous for. We walked so slowly because we kept looking around. We brought in our own flashlights and sometimes we illuminated things to get a better look at the different features. After an hour or so of walking, we finally got to the main large rooms. It was amazing how suddenly the cave opened up, and it was just filled with so many cave formations. The ceilings were pretty high, and they were all decorated with cave stuff. The rangers told us that this cave was considered to be one of the most decorated caves in the world. It really had so many things to look at.

Carlsbad Cavern
Need to go pee? The caves have bathrooms!

After a few hours, I was getting kind of hungry. My feet were getting tired, but we still wanted to explore every inch that visitors were allowed to see. So we kept walking and walking and walking. The battery on our camera was getting low! Oh no! When we finally saw everything that we could, we walked to the big elevators. The elevators took you up to the visitor center. When we got back out into the above-ground world, it was all sunny and I had to adjust to the light level. We also realized that it was about 3pm and they were about to call the last cave tour! We couldn't believe we spent that much time in the cave, but it was just so cool! No wonder I was getting hungry! We didn't think we would be down in the cave as long as were were, so we quickly bought some souvenirs, and hopped back into the bus. We now had to start our big drive north, towards Chicago. We had only two days to get there!