Sky Art in the Desert

“Blessings are meant to be shared” – Dennis S. Avery

anza art  004anza art  050Borrego Springs is a small town of about 3500 with many seasonal residents, which is actually an unincorporated area of northeast San Diego County about 100 miles from the city of San Diego.  It’s in a really dramatic setting surrounded by mountains and badlands.

The town was California’s first dark sky community, and has no stoplights. So it’s quite beautiful when the stars come out at night.  And the town’s surroundings are part of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, which, at 643,000 acres, makes up more than half of the land of the entire California State Park System.

anza art  011But Borrego Springs might be best known for the life size sculptures found scattered all over the desert around the town on parcels of private land (Galleta Meadows Estate) owned by the recently deceased Dennis Avery, millionaire heir to the Avery labeling fortune, philanthropist and visionary.anza art  002anza art  016anza art  021

The sculptures are crafted of metal by sculptor Ricardo Breceda of Temecula, California, who welds scrap reinforcement bars, wire and metal together, and uses hammers to pound texture into the patches of metal.

Mr. Breceda, sometimes referred to as “the accidental artist” was a carpenter until he fell from a second story during a construction job.  While selling cowboy boots for a living, he traded a pair for a welding machine, and then began to “play” with it as a hobby.  He created his first sculpture, a Tyrannosaurus Rex, when his daughter asked for one after watching “Jurassic Park III”. He continued making sculptures as a hobby for a few years prior to selling any of his works.

anza art  022anza art  003anza art  010anza art  035In 2007, Dennis Avery happened to drive by Ricardo Breceda’s studio and spotted a 30 foot T-Rex leaning over a fence.  Mr. Avery owned about 3,000 acres of noncontiguous parcels in Borrego Springs that he wanted preserved from development, and had opened his land to the public.  A paleontology buff, he had financed a book cataloguing the fossil treasures of the Anza-Borrego Desert.

The philanthropist and artist shared an obsession with the prehistoric, and, in 2008, Mr. Avery commissioned Mr. Breceda to create some of the prehistoric beasts from the book, animals that had roamed this area millions of years ago when it was a lush jungle.  They brainstormed the project and Mr. Avery named it “Sky Art”.

I love a great partnership, whether business or personal or both.

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Over the years, the sculpture collection grew to include prehistoric creatures not from this area, then historical incidents and characters, desert wildlife and mythical creatures.  There are now more than 130 sculptures.

Although Mr. Avery passed away last year, Galleta Meadows LLC remains, and a fund was set up so that when any of the sculptures are damaged, Mr. Breceda can repair them.

Hector and I love outdoor sculptures and set out to see all of them.anza art  014

anza art  030They are dispersed throughout the desert near town, to the north and the south and most are located within sight of the Borrego Springs Road.anza art  024

For those wanting a closer up view, there are a number of dirt roads from the main road leading to the sculptures and though some of these dirt roads are made up of softish sand, most are flat and hard.anza art  007

And, of course, I wanted to get REALLY close and walked over to many of them.  There is a lot of detail that can only be appreciated once you are close up.anza art  015

anza art  043There are enormous birds, prehistoric horses, camels and elephants.  There is a wonderful, giant Spanish Padre, an Indian Head, and a jeep going over rocks.anza art  044

Not to mention a sculpture of farm workers working a grape field.anza art  032anza art  028anza art  046anza art  034anza art  001anza art  049anza art  012anza art  038anza art  031anza art  045anza art  036

anza art  008anza art  027anza art  037anza art  005anza art  013anza art  019anza art  009anza art  029anza art  047anza art  039anza art  040One of the most impressive sculptures is a 350-foot sea serpent with various parts emerging from the sand and seemingly crossing the road.

Fabulous!anza art  042

anza art  041Sky Art is the most unique art project I’ve ever seen.  How wonderful of Mr. Avery to have commissioned these unique sculptures and opened up his land so that the public might enjoy them.

~ Brendaanza art  023

RV Care … A Side Trip to Yuma

yuma1 yumaWe’d planned an overnight stop in Yuma, Arizona to have Island Girl washed and waxed for a very cheap rate that we found out about on the Wheeling It blog.

And we were very satisfied with the service provided by Robert’s RV Wash, Wax & Carpet Cleaning.  Not quite like a wax job we’d do ourselves (we are persnickety) but certainly very well worth the price they charge.  There are multiple companies doing the mobile wash and wax that you can find either online or in the “White Sheet”, a little pamphlet listing all manner of local services.10627998-LThe going rate seems to be $1 a foot for a wash and another $2 a foot for a hand wax. This is less than a third of what we’ve seen in other parts of the country.  All 39′ of Island Girl got scrubbed and waxed for a mere $125!  She looks wonderful.yuma  002

But right before we left Quartzsite, we had an unwelcome surprise.  As mentioned in the last post, our most expensive purchase by far was a SeeLevel Gauge, an external tank sensor and monitor to measure our fresh water supply and gray and black water volume in the holding tanks more precisely, specifically when we are boondocking as here in the desert.

quartzsite  048Ok for the “newbies”, boondocking essentially means you are self-reliant, with no electric, water nor sewer connections and likely in a remote location.  So if you plan to boondock for more than a few days, it’s important to manage your electric and water usage.  RVs have tank level monitors that provide information on current tank volume of the fresh water, grey water (sink and shower), and black (toilet) holding tanks.

Unfortunately the original sensors, which live inside the tank, often stop working due to gunk buildup. This is a VERY common problem, even in newer RVs.  Island Girl is a 2004 model we bought in 2011 and her tank level monitors have never worked properly.   Even after multiple cleanings with commercial cleaner and various other products and combinations of products including Borax, Calgon, Dawn, and even a trip with ice cubes in the black tank we were unable to get them to work.

Thus the expensive purchase.  But we apparently didn’t do enough research, a caution to all.  The SeeLevel Gauges claim on their website that “with nothing inside the tank all the usual problems of corrosion and clogging are eliminated”.   And the day they were installed, it seemed that they were.  Not so much.

12065721271543272128johnny_automatic_NPS_map_pictographs_part_69.svg.medA couple of days later, after we dumped, the readings remained at full.  Ugh!  When we called the installer, he said that on older coaches there is sometimes enough buildup inside the tank walls to prevent their externally mounted sensors from reading properly.  Surprise!  So now we were stuck with these non working sensors.   With the advice that we should clean the inside of the tanks.  Nice.

Okay, now that I’ve totally bored those who are not interested in RV holding tanks, here comes the somewhat happy, though expensive ending.

We contacted a company that pressure cleans the insides of RV tanks, Royal Flush in Yuma with a one day advance notice to see if they were available to clean our tanks.  Hector got a good vibe from the lady on the phone who said they were available and that “her boys would stay until the job was done”.quartzsite  123 (1)

And they did.  As it turns out, the three guys who came out are grandfather, father and son.  They had to get creative due to some challenges caused by the design of the plumbing in our coach, but they stayed until those monitors worked.  And they were friendly and nice and courteous.  And funny too.

And we thought that calling them “my boys” was just an expression, but the lady answering the phones was grandma.  It’s wonderful to see a family working so well together.

$200 more dollars later, we finally have working sensors.

A learning for owners of older motorhomes considering external sensors.  They don’t always work and you may wind up having to pay for a professional cleaning if you get them.  And we didn’t appreciate that there was no mention of this possibility at time of purchase.

yuma  001The good news is Island Girl is sparkly and clean, and we can tell by 5% increments how full each of our tanks is.  And thanks to this being Yuma, the winter home of a zillion RVers and lots of companies to service them, our total expense to wash, wax the outside and clean her tanks was still less than the exorbitant prices some folks wind up paying for just washing and waxing their RV’s elsewhere.

~ Brenda

The Merchants in the Desert

quartzsite  075quartzsite  082We have arrived.

Quartzsite is a tiny town of 3,500 year round residents located between Phoenix and Los Angeles, 20 miles from the California border.  quartzsite  093

It was once a gathering place for pioneers traveling to the gold fields of California as well as other travelers and then agates, limonite cubes, gold and quartz were found nearby, so the town itself became a destination for the “rock hounds”.quartzsite  133quartzsite  081

And nowadays, between November and March each year, known as the season, snowbirds, rock hounds and others converge here to escape the harsh winters elsewhere and to shop at various indoor and outdoor swap meets that began 40 years ago.quartzsite  095

The majority of these swap meets take place during January and February when thousands of merchants also come here to sell their wares.quartzsite  103

quartzsite  024We are here in January and during our ten day stay there are eight of these events in town, including “world famous” gem and mineral shows and the Quartzsite Sports, Vacation and RV show.  January is known here as “the largest gathering of RVers in the world”.

The little white dots are RVs

The little white dots are RVs

quartzsite  007Many of the RVers come to stay in the desert, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) public lands as far as the eye can see.  There are five BLM areas here.  With free camping for fourteen days in one 28 day period.  And there is also a Long Term Visitor Area (LTVA) that charges $40 for two weeks and $180 for seven months.

quartzsite  060quartzsite  026“Boondocking”.   No electric, no water, no sewer.  Just open land, pick your spot and set up camp. Beautiful sunsets almost every day.  And lots of stars at night.

We are joined by RVers of all stripes; the ATV crowd with their desert toys, the hippies and ex-hippies, the young, the old and the oldest – quite a few of those rocking their mobility scooters and walkers down the dirt and gravel. Hector says of this latter group  – “I admire them, they are still after it”.

And all of those merchants.  We are all here.  quartzsite  037

quartzsite  001So people plan massive get-togethers; members of clubs, small groups of friends, people with common interests, you name it.  They lay claim to an area of land and circle their wagons.quartzsite  008quartzsite  005

quartzsite  009quartzsite  010Others, like us, find a cozy little spot somewhere as far from the crowds as possible.  A place to escape from the crowds and enjoy the desert.  “Our” own little spot, with “gardens” on both sides and a great fire ring.quartzsite  011quartzsite  012

quartzsite  070And we have our very own Saguaro, which now has a circle of white rocks around it that Hector “created”.  And we also “enhanced” the fire ring with additional pinkish/brownish rocks. This rock thing is contagious.

The Travelocity Gnome … campsite protector !

The Travelocity Gnome … campsite protector !


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quartzsite  015quartzsite  063And with so many people around it’s a pretty sure bet that you’ll make some new friends.  RVers form strong communities, and it’s really evident here.   This is a great place to connect with old friends and to make new friends.  And we did both.  Including meeting some fellow bloggers that we’ve gotten to know over time on the internet.

First, we got together with Amanda and Tim, who write the blog Watsons Wander that we’ve been reading for quite awhile.  We figured out they were staying at the same BLM area, Dome Rock, as we were and invited them over for happy hour.  They have a beautiful Airstream that they’ve renovated and polished (I miss Luna … our first RV, also an Airstream).

It’s great to see younger people like Amanda and Tim make the choice to travel while working, they are smart to do that early in their lives, and we admire them for it.  Oh, and their blog is great as well.quartzsite  108quartzsite  035

quartzsite  025Of course, we head to the shows to shop on various days while we’re here.  There is lots to choose from;, some low quality old stuff, even stuff covered with dust.  But as they say, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.  There’s lots of cheap new stuff made in China. And nice vintage stuff and some fun buys.  Something for everyone.

On the high end, there are beautiful gemstones and jewelry and multi-million dollar RVs.  Like I said something for everyone.  For the RVers, there’s a big white tent which houses most of the RV show.  But there are lots and lots of other vendors at other shows in several locations throughout the town.  Rows and rows of vendor stalls all over town.

In spite of attempts at restraint we made quite a few purchases including:

Best bargain – three kitchen knives professionally sharpened for $8

Most fun buy – a metal roadrunner sculpture for $20

Most impulsive buy – a knife with etched petroglyphs on an elk antler handle and a triple flow obsidian blade – this is our official “rock” memento from the “Q” -$45

Biggest buy – A See Level II tank sensor system to monitor holding tank levels. $385 installed – ouch!  

Hector dreaming of installing our new Oxygenics shower head

Hector dreaming of installing our new Oxygenics shower head

Terry, the guy who fixed the boo boo Hector made installing the shower head

Terry, the guy who fixed the boo boo Hector made installing the shower head

Contrary to what some may think, many RV products are not available here and some items are actually more expensive here than online.  Shoppers beware and do your research before making your purchases.

Aside from the buying, for me it’s always fun to see the amazing product sales pitches, these are a reminder of another time.

The whole thing has an air of “only in America”.  And it’s kind of hypnotizing.

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And there are lots of interesting characters here.   A historic character is Hadji Ali, who quickly got nicknamed Hi Jolly, a camel driver from Jordan who became a legend around these parts.

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He came to Arizona in 1856 as the lead camel driver during testing by the U.S. Army for possible use of camels for transporting of supplies across the desert during the Civil War.  About 80 camels were brought to the area and apparently did very well, but this particular strategy ultimately was abandoned.quartzsite  054quartzsite  057

Mr. Ali served for over 30 years in the army, became a U.S. citizen and married a woman from Tucson.  He moved to Quartzsite where he mined and did some work for the U.S. government.  He died here in 1902.

In 1935, a monument was dedicated to him and the Camel Corps at his gravesite, which is now the most visited location in Quartzsite.  As well as the inspiration for naming many town businesses, who use the “Americanized” version of his name,  Hi Jolly.quartzsite  134

And, speaking of characters, there is also a bookstore in town whose owner Paul wears nothing but a sock on his naughty bits on warm days (almost every day).  Reader’s Oasis Books is actually a fine bookstore and an interesting place to visit.

quartzsite  066quartzsite  040We found a few other characters prospecting just across from our campsite; searching for gold.  I don’t think they were finding much, but they seemed to be having fun looking.  I guess it’s the thrill of the search.

Other local characters showed off their classic cars at a local “auto show” in a Shell gas station in town on Saturday night.   Hanging out talking cars and engines and stuff like that for a few hours.

Okay it was no Barrett-Jackson but good community fun (50 cent hot dogs!).

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The Wheelin It folks.  Nina is on the left, Paul far right. The tall one is Mike from Bear Tracks Blog

quartzsite  111Later in the week, we met Nina and Paul.  Nina writes the blog Wheeling It, by far the best RV blog we’ve read. We’ve been reading it for years and it is a great resource for us and all RVers.   Nina and Paul have a LOT of followers on their blog and arranged the meet and greet to create an opportunity for all of the people that reached out to them in Quartzsite to meet them and each other.

Tim and Amanda were there

Tim and Amanda were there

We had a great time meeting Nina and Paul and some of their many fans, including Mike and Linda, another adventurous couple who write another fun blog that we’ve been reading for awhile, Bear Tracks Blog.

That's W for Watson

That’s W for Watson

Mike and Linda from Bear Tracks

Mike and Linda from Bear Tracks Blog in the center

One night, we joined George, the owner of RV Driving School and my RV driving instructor from last year, and his wife, Valerie at one of their campfire gatherings.  So nice to connect with them again.

quartzsite  119quartzsite  121We ended the week with a potluck dinner with Amanda, Tim, Nina and Paul (Paul is the OTHER Cuban-American full time RVer, I wonder if there is a third out there somewhere) and their sweet dog Polly.   Good food, great conversation, lots of laughs, another big campfire, oh and yes a little rum.quartzsite  132

quartzsite  116Quartzsite may not be for everyone, it can be dusty, crowded and dizzying.  But it’s one of those “you should do it at least once” kinds of events for RVers.  And who knows, the lure of the desert, the rocks, the shopping and, especially, good friends may bring you back again and again.quartzsite  109

As we publish this blog we’ve left Quartzsite.  We had a blast at the “Q” and were sad to leave, knowing that we might never stay at “our” campsite in Quartzsite again.  Or maybe we will.

~ Brendaquartzsite  110

Circling Phoenix

Phoenix  052As much as we’ve traveled, we hadn’t realized how enormous the city of Phoenix is.  It’s the fifth largest city in the U.S. and per the Phoenix Business Journal “the Phoenix metro area’s population surpassed 4.3 million in 2011”.  More than one person we met compared it to Los Angeles minus the ocean.

Phoenix  001So the campground that we chose to stay in, McDowell Mountain Regional Park, although quite pretty turned out not to have been the best choice in terms of getting around this huge and extremely spread out metropolitan area.  On the plus side, it was located in a large county park with lots of trails.Phoenix  002

But our priority was to visit family and friends, so first things first.  Our first visit was to Jon, Hector’s cousin son, who lives in Scottsdale.  And Scottsdale just happened to be the closest town to Fountain Hills where we stayed.

We met in the very trendy Old Scottsdale for some food and drinks.  This area has lots of great restaurants and nightclubs.  And Jon took us to one of those “secret” bars that is not recognizable from the front, this one was accessed through an unmarked door in an alley.  The place had a great mix of people and cool music.  But I cannot divulge its location.

1553243_10201980928497611_358732582_oPhoenix  051The next day there was a Denver Broncos game, and Jon invited us over to his place to watch the game.  So we spent a nice afternoon watching the game in good company.  And, as an added bonus, the Broncos won!

Once again, we really enjoyed spending quality time with one of our family’s younger generation and are really impressed, though not surprised.

In between visits, we hiked and biked a little around the campground.  While with Hector, Angel got a thorn from a cholla cactus in her paw.  Those thorns can be extremely hard to remove, but Hector was able to get it out incurring only slight pain himself. But it served as a reminder to carry a comb and tweezers in the desert.

Phoenix  007Next we visited Hector’s ex-boss and friend, Simon and his wife Janet at their lovely home in Litchfield, a suburb west Phoenix,  very, very far from our campground.  They moved back to the Phoenix area recently from New Jersey and are enjoying the weather tremendously as evidenced by their fabulous yard complete with pool, outdoor barbecue and wood-fired pizza oven.Phoenix  013Phoenix  008

We took Angel who got to run around the house with their two pups.  Dinner included a couple of different pizzas from the wood-fired oven, delicious!Phoenix  011

Phoenix  044Phoenix  017We’d reserved one day for a drive around the area and chose the Apache Trail for our journey.   The trail was originally used by Apache Indians and was later built up as a road to get building materials through the Superstition Mountains to the Roosevelt Dam, which was completed in 1911.Phoenix  039

Phoenix  021The Apache Trail begins on the east side of Phoenix and continues to the town of Globe, covering 48 miles of road, mostly unpaved.  It crosses through the Superstition Mountains and the Tonto National Forest through mountains covered by desert plants.   The beautiful drive also passes by three man-made lakes.  We stopped at Canyon Lake, a beautiful little spot.Phoenix  022Phoenix  040

Phoenix  023We also stopped at the small town of Tortilla Flat, described as “an authentic remnant of an Old West town”, with a population of six.  It was a stagecoach stop starting in 1904 and still serves as a stop for many of those traveling across the Apache Trail.

And we were happy to become one of those travelers, stopping for a late lunch at the Superstition Saloon and Rest Area.  The place had lots of character, with dollar bills lining the walls, real saddles as bar stools …

and the cutest bathrooms ever!

The unpaved part of the road becomes quite steep and narrow at points, but the views of the cliffs and rocks are well worth it.  Not recommended for RV’s though.Phoenix  041Phoenix  045

Towards the end of the drive we reached Theodore Roosevelt Dam, built of bricks, and still the world’s largest masonry dam at almost 300 feet tall.  An impressive sight.Phoenix  046

Once we passed the dam, the sun started to set and the moon was rising, a pretty sight just a couple of days before the full moon.  But since it was getting dark, we decided to head back on the highway, which was a looong drive.

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We passed through Miami, Arizona. A faded copper boomtown.

The Apache Trail was truly a stunning place though, and very much worth the long drive.
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Phoenix  049On our last afternoon in the Phoenix area, I visited my friend Marisol.  We met in Tempe and had a wonderful Lebanese dinner together, catching up on many events that have taken place since we last got together.  So much so, that the restaurant started to turn off the lights while we were there 🙂

Phoenix  053All too soon, it was time to move on, as we were on a bit of a schedule headed to the big RV show in Quartzsite, Arizona.  And as our visit to Phoenix ended, we realized that we never actually set foot inside the actual city limits of Phoenix.  But we really enjoyed circling the town.

~ BrendaPhoenix  050


Raptors and Monsters and Snakes – Oh My!

Tucson  073Tucson  059It seemed as if everyone that had ever been to Tucson and everyone that lives in Tucson recommended that we visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.  The Desert Museum is actually a combination of a zoo, a natural history museum, an aquarium and a botanical garden.Tucson  061Tucson  065

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We were especially interested in seeing the raptor free flight presentations where multiple handlers get the birds to fly outdoors in nature but up close to the guests.  There are two a day, and we caught all of one and most of the other – they were amazing.

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It was the New Years holiday week so the museum was packed, in fact, one of the  ladies working at the gift shop told us this was the largest crowd she’d seen – yikes!  Fortunately, the only place where it felt super crowded was actually the raptor free flight, as people were packed into two specific areas.  Even so, the way this demonstration was set up, each bird flies back and forth and perches on different trees all around various spots where the crowd is gathered, and so everyone has an opportunity to get multiple good views of each bird – well done!

Tucson  042The Desert Museum is the only zoological park that features plants and animals from one region, the Sonoran Desert, demonstrating their interdependence.   Since a large part of the desert is in Mexico, the museum collaborates with organizations in Mexico to provide educational programs and conduct research.  This place is awesome!Tucson  097

Beep Beep

Beep Beep

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The museum also has lots of very knowledgable docents spread out throughout the exhibits.  All docents complete a rigorous 15 week training, and they are very friendly and informative.

One of our favorite exhibits at the museum was the hummingbird aviary; I never knew there were so many types of hummingbirds! Another was the desert loop trail, which has lots of agaves and palo verde trees, and coyotes and other animals in their natural settings.

Tucson  055And my favorite animal from the desert loop trail was the javelina (pronounced as if in Spanish havelina).  Javelinas are peccaries and they are members of the same suborder as pigs, Suina.  They have tiny dainty legs and big eyelashes and are truly adorable.  We keep hoping to see them in the wild since they are not aggressive.

Tucson  067Tucson  051 (1)Last, but not least, we saw an interesting presentation about gila monsters and rattlesnakes.  Both animals were brought out and placed on a table while the presenters provided fun, interesting and scary facts about them.

Since the audience included kids, part of the presentations was a bit basic, but it was cool to see these very dangerous animals up close.

Tucson  108One basic thing I learned was how to spell gila monster – I always thought it was helimonster!  Ok, the rattlesnake was cool but I found the little gila monster – named Diablo – pretty cute.

We also learned that about 3/4 of the incidents of people getting bitten by gila monsters or rattlesnakes are caused by the person wanting to interact with the animal.  What???!!!  And the three most common characteristics of the majority of those unfortunate people are:  1.Male 2.Young and 3.Intoxicated.  Gila monsters are actually shy and slow moving, but, if threatened, they will clamp on very tight, and, what probably makes them so scary, they have to chew in order to release their venom.  That’s one way to sober up!

Tucson  002 (1)Unbelievably, after about seven hours at the museum we still missed quite a few exhibits.  So, along with tons of others, I highly recommend a visit, but do plan to get there early and stay late!

Update:  We’re currently in Phoenix, having visited Sedona after Tucson, but are catching up on the blog and two more posts on Tucson area visits are coming up – lots to see there!

~ Brenda

2013 … A Dream Year

angel  004What a year!  We traveled a total of 9,448 miles in Island Girl, from Florida to Maine to Canada, then south and west reaching Arizona by the end of the year.  We visited 18 states and 4 Canadian provinces.  In October we reached a couple of milestones:  one year of fulltiming and one year of blogging.

Whew!  Here’s a month-by-month recap of our dream year:

January – visited with friends and family in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale.

February – stepped back into nature at Everglades National Park.

March – a nice long stay in Funky Key West for ocean fun and an awesome air show.

April – a busy month: first north and west to the Gulf Coast of Florida for more family time, then back east to the John F. Kennedy Space Center and the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, north to St. Augustine, and north again to the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia and the low country of South Carolina, and finally to Atlanta to see old friends.

May – visited the Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee, the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Washington, D.C., then ended the month in New York City and upstate New York where we visited more family and friends.

June – a quick stop in Boston and then on to beautiful Maine.

Here was our route for the first half of the year.

July – crossed the border into Canada on the 1st, and spent the month in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.  Discovered absolutely astounding people and places.

August – visited idyllic Prince Edward Island, buggy Kouchibuguac National Park in New Brunswick, then over to Quebec to the gorgeous and oh so French Gaspé Peninsula.

September – visited the St. Lawrence River in Quebec where we saw an amazing number of whales and concluded our fantastic Canadian summer in charming Quebec City, then crossed the border back to the U.S. to enjoy the beautiful Vermont autumn.

October – continued leaf-peeping in Vermont, then began our westward journey with stops at Niagara Falls, then Cincinnati, Ohio, Louisville, Kentucky,St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri, visiting friends and family along the way.

November – a stop in Denver, where the journey began, to get annual checkups for all and check in with friends and family.  Then south to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

December – another busy month.  Traveled around New Mexico, south to Albuquerque, then further south to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge and Las Cruces, then crossed the border to Arizona and ended our most unforgettable year in Tucson.

And here was our route for the second half

Some things we learned:

We ran a little hot this year, with an average stay of 8 nights at our 45 stops, not complaining, it was fabulous, but we’d like to slow it down a bit this year and try staying longer in each place.

We set a goal of no more than four hours driving time between stops and for the most part kept to it; averaging 185 miles per trip, but a couple of the trips were still way too long.

denver  038We stayed too far north too late into the year, and plan to head south earlier next year to avoid frigid cold and snow (although the falling snow was beautiful).

Crossing from the east coast to the west coast really took a toll on us, we were tired puppies by the time we reached Denver, and plan to stay in the West next year.

Our planning paid off in some fabulous campsites, on the other hand, we discovered that it’s best to have a balance of planned and unplanned stops.

Re-connecting with family and friends, and making new friends along the way has been one of the most important parts of our journey.

NYE2014  002And we learned to be grateful each and every day, we are so fortunate!

We wish you all a very Happy  and Healthy New Year in 2014!

~ Brenda, Hector and Angel

White Sands and Missiles

white sands  042white sands  059Once again we encountered more of the contrasts of New Mexico.  White Sands National Monument is a beautiful place with soft white dunes and beautiful vistas.  It happens to be surrounded by the White Sands Missile Range, whose mission is to “provide Army, Navy, Air Force, DoD, and other customers with high quality services for experimentation, test, research, assessment, development, and training in support of the Nation at war”.  In fact, the road leading to White Sands National Monument and between Las Cruces and Alamagordo is regularly closed due to due to testing of missiles and other scary devices.  The Trinity SIte, where the first nuclear bomb was detonated, is located at the far north end of the missile range (closed to the public).white sands  009white sands  002white sands  010

Interesting that when approaching the national monument, all cars were diverted to an immigration checkpoint.  The monument is about 100 miles from the border with Mexico, and we drove from Las Cruces, which is south and west of there. The guard just gave us “the look” and asked about our citizenship.  When we replied “U.S.”, he waved us off.  He didn’t ask Angel, who was in the back seat, any questions.

As we got closer, I was amazed at how suddenly the landscape changed and mounds of white seemed to appear out of nowhere.  We had arrived at the world’s largest gypsum dune field, covering 275 square miles.white sands  006

white sands  031white sands  023This area was covered by a shallow sea 250 million years ago.  Pressure from colliding tectonic plates pushed up land eventually forming the Rocky Mountain Range about 70 million years ago.  Millions of years later, part of the mountains collapsed, creating what is now the Tularosa Basin.

Gypsum, which is dissolved by rain and snow from the mountains, is normally carried out to the sea in rivers.  Since the Tularosa Basin had no outlet to the sea, this mix of water and snow carrying gypsum was trapped in the ground and also formed pools.  At the lowest point of the basin, it formed Lake Otero, which eventually became a mostly dry bed, called a playa, and now named Lake Lucero.white sands  020

white sands  054When the water that had accumulated in the lake evaporated, it left gypsum in a crystalline form, called selenite, on the lake floor.  The selenite was eventually broken down by the elements into smaller and smaller particles and ultimately eroded to sand.  This sand was then moved by the prevailing winds which eventually formed dunes as the sand accumulated.white sands  053white sands  036

As the sand continued to accumulate in the dunes, their steep edges were eventually pulled down by gravity, moving them forward.  Strong winds in the area, at their strongest in the spring, continue to cause many of the dunes to move around the park.  Some travel between twelve to thirteen feet per year, others, on the edges of the dune field, move inches to a few feet per year and are firmly held in place by a various desert plants.white sands  019

white sands  003We visited the National Monument on two different days.  The monument has a visitor center housed in a historic adobe building, and a gift shop offering authentic Native American crafts and other items. white sands  005white sands  004

white sands  013A loop road leads from the visitor center eight miles into the heart of the dunes and to four marked trails, all of them manageable in less than one day.   Getting out into the dunes reveals a different world.  The one down side is that most wildlife generally stay in burrows during the day, with the exception of lizards and some birds.white sands  001

white sands  017In fact, the only evidence of life we saw in two days was two dead crickets and some tracks.  This attests to the harsh living conditions in this area.  The (few) plants and animals that do live here have had to adapt to the conditions.white sands  018

In the case of plants, some grow extremely high so when dunes collapse they are able to remain in place, others create an anchor at the base of the dune so they can remain on the “sand pedestal” when the dune moves.white sands  039white sands  011

Many of the animals here, mostly small and medium mammals (there is not enough food source for large mammals), snakes, lizards, birds and many insects, have also adapted.  Some of the mice and lizards have developed lighter skin to blend in with the sand.white sands  052

The first day we visited was clear, cool and lovely. Although we didn’t do it, a fun thing to do here is to buy or rent (or bring) a sledding disk and slide down the dunes.  This is allowed as long as you don’t roll over any vegetation.  We saw both small and big kids enjoying this activity.white sands  032white sands  040white sands  015white sands  037white sands  045

white sands  016Another thing the park allows is pets on a leash throughout the trails.  This is because of the lack of wildlife, and the ability to see for miles around you.  Absolutely a great perk for a national park.white sands  047white sands  043

We also discovered that  “backcountry” camping is available.  The trail to the camping area is just over two miles long so it’s a short way to the sites.  This is something I’d love to do one day, to hear and maybe see some of the wildlife as they come out during the night.  And the dunes must be beautiful at dawn.  But not recommended in the summer.white sands  049white sands  035white sands  041

white sands  048On our second visit, there was a storm rolling in and some pretty interesting clouds rolled in.  I’m not sure how much (if any) rain eventually came down, but the preview was the same as if a huge rainstorm was to follow.white sands  024

white sands  008It’s interesting how this place changes its look based on the weather and time of day.  I imagine it’s just a little bit different each day, especially with the dunes moving.  The park service does have to plow parts of the loop road frequently (both days we were there).white sands  014

white sands  046I’ve never been in this type of environment, and that feeling of being surrounded by sand and nothing else was pretty amazing.  I could imagine what it must be like to be stranded in a desert with no end in sight.  This national monument is truly like entering another world.white sands  015white sands  026white sands  029white sands  027white sands  007white sands  021

white sands  012white sands  030white sands  051white sands  028white sands  060white sands  058Although we were staying in Las Cruces, which we thought was a better location for our varied interests in the area, Alamagordo is the closest town to the park.  We drove to the town for lunch one day.  It’s a pretty small town, but close to the national monument.

white sands  063white sands  065There is a large military presence as it’s adjacent to an Air Force Base, which is the largest employer there.  As we toured the town we discovered both a Cuba AND a Puerto Rico Avenue, and couldn’t resist getting a photo by them.

Then, as a last quick tour, we visited the New Mexico Museum of Space History, reflecting the importance of this area in space research and systems testing.white sands  064

There is an interesting space park outside with displays of rockets, missiles and rocket engines.  Inside, the museum exhibits include events across New Mexico that advanced exploration and knowledge of space, artifacts including a “moon rock”, scale models of spacefaring craft, spacesuits, a space toilet, a shuttle lander simulator (Hector crashed twice), pioneers of space, satellites, and the SpaceShipOne competition.

white sands  069white sands  070There is also a small museum, the Museum & Missile Park, at the entrance to the White Sands Missile Range Army base.  Security is tight, no photos except for narrowly defined areas, show ID, etc.  If it is pointy and rocket powered and explosive, they have tested it here.  white sands  073white sands  074

Military ordinance, space craft rocket elements, rocket science, targeting etc.  It all started after WWII when over 300 boxcars full of German V2 missile components were delivered to White Sands. These components as well as the German scientists such as Werner Von Braun and others helped start the U.S. efforts that led to the space program.

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And, once again, the desert of New Mexico continued to reveal its contrasts.  We were duly impressed.

~ Brendawhite sands  055white sands  033

Bandalier National Monument

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We waited for the warmest day (in the 40’s) during our visit to Albuquerque to drive out to the Indian Pueblos again, this time to visit Bandelier National Monument.   Bandelier National Monument is a 33,677 acre U.S. National Monument preserving the homes and territory of the Ancestral Pueblo People. ABQ  068

ABQ  058ABQ  060Adolph A. Bandelier, a self-taught historian and anthropologist, first visited this area of Frijoles Canyon in 1880, guided by some men from Cochiti Pueblo.  He was so Impressed by the beauty and distinctive cave-room architecture of this site that he made it the setting of his novel, The Delight Makers, which depicted Pueblo life in pre-Spanish times.  Bandelier continued his work in Peru and Bolivia and also studied early Spanish records of the Americas in Seville, Spain.  Bandelier’s pioneering work is one of  the foundations for much of southwestern archaeology.ABQ  066ABQ  062ABQ  070

Archaeological surveys show that there were at least 3,000 sites in Bandelier, but not all were inhabited at the same time.  For generations the Pueblo Indians lived in scattered settlements of one or two families each, but as the population grew, larger groups came together in these settlements. By the mid-1200s, villages had grown to include up to 40 rooms.ABQ  067

For the next 250 years, the settlements continued to grow.  The villages of Tyuoni and Tsankawi and their adjacent dwellings sometimes exceeded 600 rooms. After over 400 years, the land here could not support the people any longer.  These difficulties were compounded by a severe drought and by the mid-1550s, they left this area and settled into new homes along the Rio Grande River.  Even though no written records exist, the memories of the homes where the  ancestors of the Pueblo Indians lived continue in their oral traditions.

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The Pueblos of Cochiti, San Felipe, Santo Domingo, San Ildefonso, Santa Clara and Zuni all have strong connections to Bandelier.  Representatives from each of the Pueblos work closely with park staff when decisions affecting their ancestral homelands have to be made.  

The park has only three miles of public road and the rest is an extensive trail system.  We hiked the Main Loop trail, which takes you to the Tyuoni dwellings.  There are dwellings on the valley floor as well as cliff dwellings, and visitors are allowed to enter those that have ladders.  Toward the end of the trail, we saw a number of petroglyphs and some pictographs.

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ABQ  073The Main Loop Trail connects to another short trail to Frijoles Canyon and the Alcove House.  This part of the trail is more primitive and because it’s in the shade, it still had snow on it.  And it felt pretty cold on this section of the trail, but it was beautiful with the ice on the river and the snow on the ground.ABQ  080

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Several fires in the area deforested the area at the top of the canyon and now floods have become a major problem.  There was lots of evidence of the most recent flood (last September) on our trail in the form of overturned trees, large branches on the ground and other debris.  The state park has a lot of work to do.

ABQ  071Alcove House, an elevated site once home to approximately 25 Ancestral Pueblo people, is now reached by four wooden ladders and a number of stone stairs.  There is a reconstructed kiva, viga holes (for the posts that held the roof up) and niches of former homes in Alcove House, and it’s one of the most spectacular sites in the park.

Unfortunately, the ladders had ice on them so the area was closed at this time.  Such a drag, but we enjoyed the short hike and were able to look up at the impressive site.  We must return during warmer weather, but for now, we have to say goodbye to this beautiful place and head to an area that is just for the birds.

~ Brenda