I recently wrote about returning to favorite places. A lifetime favorite, for me, is the Four Corners region of the United States. I could return there, and only there, for the rest of my life and be quite satisfied. For many reasons - perhaps some related to my content mental state these days - this was my favorite trip -of the many I have taken, in recent memory. Hyperbole? Yeah, maybe - but, candidly, I can't imagine having a better trip.
I traveled to places new and old - strange and familiar. My comfort level toting around a 3000 lb. trailer has increased and my trip planning has improved as well. I'm at that place of not worrying so much and enjoying things more...it's a good place to be.
This trip also felt a bit like a watershed for my photography. I've reached a point where I've grown somewhat satisfied about my approach - I have struggled balancing fun, relaxation and photography. On this little journey I felt I was able to better handle doing all the things I love to do.
My goal was to get to Hovenweep National Monument as soon as I could and so I drove 525 miles the first day back to Homolovi Ruins State Park. It was a long drive but between Audible, the MLB station on Sirius XM and my playlists it wasn't too brutal. The sky was wonderful when I got to Homolovi.
I gassed up and grabbed a quick bite at a chicken joint in Winslow and went to bed very early. I got up at the crack of dawn and headed for Four Corners. For a few years now I've wanted to see Hovenweep National Monument which sits on the border of Utah and Colorado. No reservations are available at the campground but, arriving on a Wednesday, it was wide open and I got a wonderful spot. After setting up camp, I went to the visitor center and took a few photos.
The next morning I was on the trail fairly early. I hiked the Square Tower Trail, the Castle Trail and Tower Point. The hiking was very easy and, in total, only covered about 4 miles. What a 4 miles, though! Each of the Ancestral Puebloan structures is fascinating and quite reminiscent of my trip to Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.
A highlight of the hike was, after picking up trash along my way, I ran into an NPS Ranger. We had a wonderful conversation and just as we were discussing how visitors can be idiots, she spied a guy dangerously off trail across the canyon and let out an awesome bellow. She yelled, “GET BACK ON THE TRAIL!”. The fool, near a precipitous edge, jumped back and said, “Oh. Sorry”. I gotta admit, it was pretty cool.
The eastern Utah sky put on a show that afternoon.
After two blissful days at Hovenweep I loaded up and set my compass east toward Montrose, Colorado.
Four years ago I went to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River National Park and transfixed by the beauty, I decided on leaving that I had to come back and as soon as I could. It did take four years but it was worth it. This is an unheralded gem of the Park system. Uncrowded and serene and gloriously beautiful. After I arrived I couldn't help myself - I grabbed my tripod and headed directly for the rim.
I spent the next morning at the Visitor Center and on a Ranger Archaeology walk. In the bottom photo you can see the mighty Gunnison which still roars at times despite being dammed three times before the river gets to the National Park.
That night, well, you know what I did that night. You are correct, I grabbed that tripod again and went for a drive. The weather was perfect and I rambled along the trails in shorts and a t-shirt...just breathing in the grandeur.
One of the nicest things about this National Park is the access to magnificent viewpoints within 300-400 yards off the main road. It's great - you drive a few minutes and then walk and sight-see for 30-45 minutes at each stop (or longer - I spent 2 hours one afternoon at Rock Point). There are much longer hikes and rock climbing in the Park too - it's got something for everyone.
I was able to get to Sunset View literally just as the sun was setting. What an evening...
Four years ago when I was at the Black Canyon I camped down by the Gunnison River in East Portal. The road is, I believe, the steepest I've ever driven but it merited a return. I loved it down there. As I was walking to the river a strikingly pretty Smooth Greensnake crossed my path and, after all these years of being frustrated with people harassing wildlife (and being idiots in the Parks - see above), was tempted to pick it up. These human minds of ours... Of course, I thought better of it and watched it cruise across the road and into the tall grass where he/she melded into the reeds. Just lovely - as was the sweet, cool river.
That night, as is my way, I went to the Ranger Talk at the South Rim Campground. As a testimony to my traveling days I talked to a Ranger I'd met two years ago at Lassen National Park. He said he remembered me (we discussed the government sponsored bison kill at Yellowstone) and he said, in his many years of moving around the Parks I was his first repeat customer. He gave another excellent presentation and it was kick to see him again.
After 4 days of canyon bliss it was time for me to drive over the Lizard Head Pass and get to my next destination, Mesa Verde National Park. The photo below is from a turnout on the San Juan Skyway.
After arriving at Mesa Verde I made a beeline for the showers and then, feeling fresh, I moseyed over to the Visitor Center and ran into some friends along the way.
The last time I was at Mesa Verde I was a young man. Since then the Visitor Center has changed and now a statue adorns the entrance which I thought was quite striking. It's an Ancestral Puebloan cliff dweller.
After securing my tickets for the next days Cliff Palace Tour and a congenial visit with the Rangers in the Center I decided to just drive back to camp and relax but an early autumn storm began moving in and I took some photos. It was a magnificent afternoon.
The next morning I went to iconic Cliff Palace and enjoyed myself despite one weird Ranger/Docent. On the way out an elderly woman was struggling to make it out of the little canyon and the Ranger started complaining that she needed to hurry up because he, "had to pee". The woman, hearing this, started to cry. One of her friends looked down at the Ranger and said, "WE ARE GOING TO WAIT UNTIL SHE'S READY!" He piped down after that. I could go on and on about this guy but he wasn't representative of the typical well-meaning, knowledgeable, helpful, underpaid and under appreciated National Park Rangers (like my buddies at Black Canyon and Hovenweep). Eventually, the woman was able to climb out and we went on our merry way although I felt awful for her.
I do enjoy the photos below. We know very little about the people who lived in this place -there's a sense of mystery here - we have many more questions than answers about the Ancestral Puebloans...
I shared on social media the photo below which seemed to garner some interest. The photo is of the old and original road into Mesa Verde. It has been washed out and is closed to hiking, but one can still get a sense of the harrowing experience it must have been driving to see the old cliff dweller structures. It was called the "Knife's Edge" - makes sense. While the current road looks and feels a bit treacherous it's nothing compared to this...
The following is a panorama of Navajo Canyon in Mesa Verde. It is quiet and grand and filled with wildlife.
I spent the next day over on Wetherill Mesa which, sadly, has been marred by a few fires and little resembles what I remembered from my last visit. I got up the next morning and headed for the Navajo Nation and one of my favorite places on earth - Canyon de Chelly. After I arrived I immediately decided to eat a traditional Navajo taco in Chinle. I then went back to the campground - waited for the afternoon shadows, and then drove along the south rim to make photos of the canyon and, in particular, iconic Spider Rock seen below.
Occasionally, on the road and at home, I'm asked for advice on seeing the "real Southwest". It's a tough question - but I typically recommend Four Corners and then I tell them about Canyon de Chelly. I'm always surprised about how few people actually know about the wonders there. In my last blog post I discussed places in which I enjoy returning - I've been a regular at this canyon since the early 1990's and I know I'll never stop going - it's too stunning and too sacred and powerful.
Sadly, that evening I prepared to leave and make the long drive home but I had one more stop to make - I wanted to camp at the free campground at Chiriaco Summit, just south of Joshua Tree National Park, where my friend - known professionally as PJ Finn - is the manager. PJ is a quintessential desert rat and a helluva photographer. There is no question that he and has been one of my biggest inspirations since I started making photography an almost full time avocation. Moreover, I admire PJ's ability to live simply and happily in a place he loves - despite the sometimes terribly harsh environment of the California desert which he calls home year around. You can see his photographic artistry on Instagram and Twitter and on his blog.
I rolled in, after a 550 mile drive, about 5:30 PM. We had dinner at the nearby diner and hung out and, of course, I made some photos from the campground. I particularly like the first photo of Interstate 10 from the campground - it still looks like the California of my youth or somehow captures that feeling or something.
We got up early the next morning and went for a drive. PJ was an excellent tour guide and I finally figured out how to pronounce Chiriaco properly (it's a family name). Here is the man himself, his dog Abbey, and the cholla protector of Chiriaco Summit.
Lots of photos on this post - but hey I took over 1400 images in those 2 weeks! Many interesting ones left on the cutting room floor. I did my best to show what I thought were the most representative of the magnificent country I visited. Here's the last - a lonely desert road south of Joshua Tree. Thanks for joining me. I hope you sensed a tiny bit of the joy and wonder that I did on this meaningful journey.
I've been home almost a week and, funny enough, I'm itching to get back on the road. I know that the good weather months are dwindling and that soon it will be cold- my traveling and camping nemesis. I have a trip planned to Utah in less than two weeks and then the wait for the twins begins in earnest and I'll probably stay pretty close to home.
One of the most enjoyable activities of the winter months is planning the next year's travel. So far, I plan on two trips to Organ Pipe NM this winter. After 11 long years the monument is now fully open again which is exciting to say the least. I can now explore some places I've been itching to see for awhile but were closed due to the US Border Patrol's activities.
Have you read, "The Devil's Highway" by Luis Urrea? The setting is Organ Pipe- it's a tragic story and my views on immigration were only solidified by reading it. I know it's a complex issue but we MUST find a more humane way of dealing with those desperately poor people from Mexico who simply want a better life in the USA (as did all our relatives- except the indigenous). I have lots of deeply passionate thoughts about these issues and, perhaps, in future, I'll devote an entire blog to what I believe the problems are (and there are many - starting with the government of Mexico and US policy) and how we might go about creating a better world for our brothers and sisters from the south. If you have an interest in these matters please read Urrea, or "Border Patrol Nation" by Todd Miller. Or read anything that Charles Bowden has written on the Border problems.
If you know me, at all, you know I love all things Southwest- by extension- I love Mexico and the Mexican culture. It's everywhere you go in the Southwest and it's one of the major reasons I love it here.
Back to my plans for next year- so Organ Pipe is on big time. I'm also going to spend some time at Anza Borrego near Little Blair Valley doing some boondocking near a dry lake bed. Last year when I was there I was mesmerized by the solitude and stark beauty of the place. The problem was that it's at 3000 feet elevation, it was during a cold snap, and when I awoke it was 21 degrees F. WAY too cold. This fall/winter I'm hoping to go when it's a bit warmer. Of course, I'll also figure out a time to go to my beloved Joshua Tree NP.
In March I'm heading to Big Bend National Park in Southern Texas along the mighty Rio Grande. This is a trip that I've been wanting to do since my 20's and I'm finally going to make it happen. That trip will include stops in Arizona and New Mexico and may include a stop at Palo Duro Canyon and Guadalupe NP. April is a wonderful month to explore the coastal mountains near Santa Barbara and Big Sur and I'll backpack then. I love to travel in May because the weather is warming and the crowds are at a minimum. I will probably be in Taos and Santa Fe then. In June I'll head to the Sierras again. July is "Lupe and Lilly time" and we are still in the process of deciding. I'm considering two options for August - either Flathead Lake and Glacier NP in Montana or a Northern Cascades trip in Washington.
This last trip was really spectacular and I'm strongly considering heading back to the Four Corners in Utah and Colorado in September. I'm still, as I sit here at home, staggered by the scenery I saw in Colorado on this last trip.
My next trip, leaving on October 6, includes a visit with my very best friend from high school, Kevin D. , and still one of the best people I've ever known (or ever will know). He went to college in Utah and then got a job there and so our visits have been sporadic (at best) over the years. I'm hoping that changes in the next few years as we both move into the retirement phase of our lives. As I told him recently- one of us is still working (him) and one of us is a hobo (me) so his schedule will dictate things for awhile. Luckily he's free on the weekend of Oct. 11 and I get to hang with him on this trip. Knowing Kev he's explored most of that beautiful country up there and I'll be the beneficiary of his knowledge.
Here's my Utah tentative itinerary:
10/6 Navajo National Monument
10/7 Arches NP
10/8 Arches NP
10/9 Arches NP
10/10 Canyonlands NP
10/11 Visiting with Kevin near Vernal, UT
10/12 Goblin SP
10/13 Goblin SP
10/14 Capitol Reef NP
10/15 Kodachrome SP
Looks amazing doesn't it? Arches NP remains my favorite. Before I read Ed Abbey I visited it and had an OBE (out of body experience)- after I read, "Desert Solitaire" I understood why. I probably feel more "at home" in Arches than any other place on earth. There is no place like the Red Rock Country of the Colorado Plateau. Being there fulfills my heart's desire. I'll look forward to sharing pictures on my return as always.
Thanks for reading this. I hope all is well in your life and that you too are planning your next adventure. I'll look forward to writing again soon and sharing about another one of my new passions- playing guitar.
This will mostly be a journal of my travels. I may include other items that interest me. Feel free to join in.