Category Archives: Nature

Posts about places showing the beauty of the natural world.

Olympic Peninsula

We had the good fortune to spend a week on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. We visited four major areas on the peninsula, each one very different.

Sol Duc

We started out by camping in Sol Duc (Sole Duck), deep in Olympic National Park. The campground was run by the concessionaire, and was part of the Sol Duc Resort. We sort of lucked into this one via Sir Google; there are actually two campgrounds in Sol Duc that take RVs. The other one was heavily wooded and we would probably not have been successful getting Scarlet and Rhett in there. The one we had was small (about 15 sites), but wide open. The site was nestled in a grove of birch trees.

Beautiful in the morning

It was also a short walk to one of Sol Duc’s main attractions: thermal springs! We spent quite a bit of time soaking… The spring water is 150°, and is mixed with the river water to the desired temp for each of three pools. The hot one was hot enough that even I couldn’t stay in it for more than about 10 minutes—and I love hot baths! Just like in the Three Bears, the middle one (temperature) was just right.

Ummm. Sorry. No pictures; we were too busy relaxing!

You may have heard that the Pacific Northwest (PNW) gets a LOT of rain. There are several rainforests within the park. We were not in one, but looking around at the trees it sure looked like it. The older trees were covered in moss!

There are several trails leading out of the Sol Duc campgrounds; we encountered some deer browsing just off one of the trails.

Only about 15 feet off the trail.

We followed one of the trails out to the Sol Duc waterfall.

It is hard to comprehend the amount of water that cascades through these falls every day.

On the way back home (yes, the trailer really is “home”) we found another waterfall, albeit not quite as large.

A pretty, small stream, part way up a hill from the trail.

Sol Duc is completely surrounded by mountains. Nice scenery! Lousy connectivity! For the first time ever, we had to send a text message out through the Garmin Inreach satellite communicator that we carry for back country emergencies. (It wasn’t an emergency…)

Crescent Beach

Sol Duc is southwest of Port Angeles, which seems to be the major town on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the northern boundary of the Olympic Peninsula. Crescent Beach is a little west of Port Angeles, but is on the shore of the Strait.

Being here made us appreciate Oregon’s beach access law. Directly across the road from the campground was “their” beach, but “don’t go past the rainbow pole! That’s not our beach and you’ll be trespassing.”

In the distance (right side) is Vancouver Island, Canada!

About 1/2 way toward the trees in the distance, the beach belongs to someone else, and campers can’t go there. Sigh.

A state park, at the other end of the beach… and people in the park can’t go onto the campground’s beach, either.

Nevertheless, it was a beautiful setting and we enjoyed strolling on the sand.

Can you find Kathe? What’s she looking for?

Kathe normally beachcombs for sea glass, but we haven’t been successful finding any in the PNW. Here she was looking for…

Sand dollars!

We had a visitor.

But what are all those dark spots on the beach? Something is living in the sand (clams?). It leaves two kinds of markings.

Tracks from the creature from the deep!
They can be quite complex.
Piles of sand, expelled from below. These are all over the beach, and are those dark markings in the previous picture.

Please leave a comment if you know what animal is creating these tracks and the… what shall I call them?

Sometimes I wonder about the people who lay out campgrounds. Who would think that putting the sewer connection at the highest point in the site would be a good idea? Remember: it flows downhill!

Hurricane Ridge

Crescent Beach isn’t part of Olympic National Park, but we went back into the park to visit Hurricane Ridge on the recommendation of a friend who is a former park ranger there. So, so, so glad!

Also we were so glad that we didn’t have our trailer hooked up to our truck for this one! The road up the ridge is steep and twisty. But the views are worth it. Down at sea level the skies were gray and cloudy, so we almost didn’t go. (Note to self as a future reminder… Always go!) Up top? Take a look!

Kathe getting pix of the horizon.
Yes, it was worth …
… the drive up the ridge.

Despite the name, the weather was quite mild with calm winds. We enjoyed our hike to the end of the currently open trail. The remaining trail to the peak of Hurricane Hill was still closed due to snow.

And there was still lots of snow on the ridge. Some people like to fight with Darwin’s attempts to clean the gene pool. The pictures below are at the top of a very steep slope down into the valley.

Stating the obvious: “Caution. The contents of this coffee cup may be hot.”
Close up of the signs.

They are doing a lot of work on the trail up to Hurricane Mountain. It seems like they are widening it, and are using a lot of large rocks along the up-slope edge of the trail. I was quite surprised to see what appear to be ferns on this rock. I don’t know whether they are fossilized in the rocks, or somehow imprinted on the rock after it was split. I suspect the latter, but…

Images of fern leaves on the rock.

Fort Worden State Park

Unexpectedly, Fort Worden turned out to be the highlight of our time on the peninsula. Located on the northeast corner of the peninsula, with the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the north and west, and Puget Sound to the east and south, it was the main one of three forts that guarded Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, and Seattle. The driving force for the creation of the fort was the shipyard, not the city! Fort Worden was built between 1898 and 1917 in the second wave of the Endicott Board forts; the first wave (of which Fort Stevens was part) was built before the establishment of the shipyard when defense of the Sound was not deemed critical. The fort was activated with the arrival of the first troops in 1902, and served in both World Wars I and II. The gun emplacements were never used; the guns were removed in WWI, for use in Europe. The primary use for the fort after that was training.

Reduce, reuse, recycle! Fort Worden is a poster child for reuse. Decommissioned by the Army in 1953, it was purchased by the State of Washington in 1957 to become “Fort Worden Juvenile Diagnostic and Treatment Center,” for troubled youth. This center closed in 1971, and in 1973, Washington re-created it as the current state park. For a more detailed history of this fascinating fort, read Fort Worden: Rebirth Through Decay, by Peter St. George.

What makes Fort Worden special, compared, for instance, to Fort Stevens, is that a large number of its original buildings are intact. Most other forts of this era have had their (mostly wooden) structures torn down leaving only the foundations.

A Public Development Authority (PDA) was created by the city of PortTownsend, WA, to

“help renovate and fill the 70-plus historic buildings on Fort Worden’s campus, expand the number and types of partners and programming at the fort, and create an outstanding hospitality experience for guests.”

The state still owns the property; the PDA has a 99 year lease on the buildings. The PDA is renovating the existing buildings to enable other uses. The base hospital is now a remote campus for Goddard College. Local businesses at the fort include two publishing / printing companies, a yoga studio, a massage therapist, the Port Townsend School of the Arts, and Centrum Arts Foundation. There are concert series, with some of the larger concerts held in the WWI-era balloon hangar!

The officers’ and NCOs’ residences and a dormitory are being refurbished and furnished with antique period furniture. These are available for rental, from 30 beds down to three or four. Apparently many family reunions and some weddings book there. We were taken on a tour by one of the PDA board members! We were so gobsmacked by what we were walking through that we forgot to take any pictures. (Us? Forget pictures???) But you can see some of the refurbished officer’s houses and other residences on the PDA’s website. (You can also reserve time in them on those pages, if you will be in the PNW.)

Finally, not all of the buildings remain. There are foundations here too, all that is left of some of the quarters. The PDA is in the process of building new structures there, within the original building footprints.

The state park also includes the remains of the gun emplacements, in pretty much the same state as those we found in Fort Stevens. However, we found some types that we didn’t see in Oregon.

Mounting for a five inch gun. Much lighter construction than for the ten inch rifles used in both forts.
Mount for a three inch anti-aircraft gun.

The fort was constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers. Being engineers, they were very detailed. Being the Army, meticulous records were kept. Here are some pictures of the plan for the three inch anti-aircraft gun mounts pictured above.

Diagram of this battery of anti-aircraft guns. (Can you find Kathe?)
Closeup showing measurements.

North 317.39 feet, East 231.25 feet. But from where? The entire fort was laid out from a single benchmark, which still exists.

The benchmark is the brass point on the side of this block. Note the engraved, “B.M.”

The trees have grown in the many years since the fort was active, but in some places you can still see what the soldiers would have seen.

Looking east across Puget Sound, to Whidbey Island. Taken from the roof of one of the ten inch batteries.

In other areas, you can’t.

Looking out from an observation bunker.

We’re now over 20,000 miles into our adventure, and are still having a great time.

Loving our new life—and each other!

SERENDIPITOUS SPRING and salmon

I love to photograph flowers.

In a workshop we took with the amazing photographer/writer Colleen Miniuk, I learned that before I capture the image, I should title it. Yup. Before I even push the button.

That has stuck with me.

We camped recently in Mount Vernon, Washington. When we made our reservation, the campground owner made mention of the fact that since we’d be there “after the big crowds,” he had space for us.

Imagine our thrill when we learned upon checking in, that the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival was ongoing! The busiest time was the weekend just before we arrived but there were still fields and fields of tulips to enjoy (and far smaller crowds).

After we settled in, we grabbed our cameras and took off in the truck to take in tons of terrific tulips. It was totally astonishing!

Roozengaarde features a five acre display garden planted with over a half million bulbs, a 25 acre tulip field and 20 acre daffodil field. Tulip Town has another half million bulbs planted. The entire event goes on for the entire month of April (but sometimes the tulips are a bit early or late). The festival includes dozens and dozens of coordinated events in the region, everything from parades to fun runs, art shows to salmon barbecue dinners, and classes of all kinds.

We enjoyed a scrumptious salmon dinner sponsored by the local Kiwanis Club; it’s their biggest fundraiser of the year. It was a great way to meet and support the locals.

Back to the tulips. Here are a few of my favorites.

Whisper

Shadow Play
Lean on Me
A River Runs Through It
Parrot Song

Roozengaarde was founded when William Roozen emigrated from Holland in 1947. The family began raising tulips in Holland in the mid-1700’s and has continued through at least six generations. It is now the largest tulip-bulb grower in the country and farms 2000 acres!

Fancy Fence

Here is a gallery of the rest of my favorites — hope you enjoy them! Click on any picture to view them all as a slide show.

Oregon Coast

From Sequoia National Park, we boogied pretty quickly up to the Oregon coast. We wanted to encapsulate this part of the adventure into one post rather than sending several with only a day or two apart, so it is a bit long. Go get a cup of tea or other beverage of your choice.

Here’s what I really wanted the title of this post to be, but it is (way) too long!

The Oregon Coast: Waves, Windy, Winding Roads, Weed…

Let’s get the “Weed” out of the way. Oregon was the first state to decriminalize marijuana possession in 1973, although it didn’t legalize recreational marijuana until 2014—two years after Colorado and California. There are “Cannabis Dispensaries,” “Bud Barns,” and “Pot Shops” everywhere you look. It seems every small town has one or two. No, we didn’t partake.

The Oregon coast is amazingly beautiful. We went up US 101, which runs near the coast—at times, right along it. There are many sea stacks (very large rocks out in the water), which together with frequent cliffs on the shoreline make excellent targets for the waves to crash against. It is frequently very foggy!

Sea stack through the fog
Waves crashing… minute after minute, hour after hour, year after year.

In the sections below, you can paste the latitude and longitude into Google maps to see where we camped…

Gold Beach: 42.536509 -124.396648

We had been advised to check out the area around Gold Beach by many people. We found Honey Bear RV Resort and Campgrounds a little north of there. As we drove in the campgrounds’s driveway, I noticed two small elk in a field. Cool! We decided to have dinner in the campground’s restaurant (is that what makes it qualify as a “resort?” I still don’t understand the distinctions…), and I was carrying my camera with me as I often do in new places. A man came up to us, and asked if we’d like to get some pictures of elk. Of course! Our order had just gone into the kitchen so we had some time.

We followed the man out of the restaurant, down the road a bit, and then he turned and said, “I normally don’t let campers in here, but this is the best place to get elk pictures.” He was the campground owner!

Part of the campground’s herd… wild elk that happen to graze here.

Kathe and I walked down to the beach just before sunset. Our first night on the coast…

Sunset over the ocean. A Pacific Ocean treat.

Gold Beach is just past the north end of the Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor. Coming north from California, we had decided that we would drive past the sights to get to the campground, and then return south without the trailer on our first day at Honey Bear to see all (OK, “some of”) the scenic pull outs the state has marked. We had divided the coast roughly into fourths, with the idea that we’d day trip up and down the coast from our campsites in order to see the sights. Rocks and water! The same draw that made us love Acadia so much.

Aside… Oregon has a crazy number of State Parks—255, to be exact. Incredibly, 93 of those state parks are along the coast! Granted, many of are very small with some being little more than a parking lot for beach or view access. But fifty seven of them have campgrounds, and we made use of two of them.

The Oregon Beach Bill was signed into law in 1967 and
established a permanent public easement for access and recreation along the ocean shore seaward of the existing line of vegetation, regardless of ownership. A policy soon followed that provided for public access to the 362 miles of beach at regular intervals.

The next day we headed north on the coast for another day of sea-gazing… This brought us past three of the nine lighthouses on the coast, and many more spectacular shore vistas!

Coquille River Light
Arago Light
Cape Blanco Lighthouse

Florence: 43.922106 -124.113042

Dunes… The only sand dunes I had experienced were on the Outer Banks of North Carolina’s shore. They were big! Ummm… Not as big as Oregon’s dunes.

The Oregon Dunes National Recreational Area stretches for over 40 miles, and encompasses 31,500 acres. For part of its stretch near Florence, it is bordered by the Honeyman State Park, our next stop. The dunes near Florence are not the tallest in this huge dune field, so where we saw them they weren’t as tall as in NC. Our particular campsite was backed by a steep, thickly vegetated hillside. I’ll guess it was 50 to 60 feet high. I found a nearby trail and went up. When I got to the top, the other side was sand dunes! We were right on the edge of the recreational area.

Kathe and I hiked into the dunes in another spot a few miles away. There, the dunes were heavily grassed, and the dunes went right down to the beach.

The grasses are now considered an invasive species.

Depoe Bay: 44.860257 -124.04309

They advertise the Sea and Sand RV Park as “Camping on the beautiful Oregon Coast.” They aren’t kidding! Driving to our campsite we thought we were going to drive right into the ocean.

Come ride with us, and remember that we have over seven tons of trailer pushing us down the hill.


We had possibly the best space in the campground (94, if you want to book it). There were no more sites on our door side, so no neighbors there, and we were on the third of three tiers, about 60 feet above the ocean with a completely unobstructed view! Simply amazing. Apparently this site is usually booked a year ahead of time; we had called about a week and a half before, so someone must have just cancelled! Hooray for us! (As we were getting ready to leave, another camper stopped by to tell us that they had just booked the site for this same week, next year…)

Hard not to love this campsite!
This is the life…

There is a downside to camping this near the ocean. The waves make a lot of noise all night. I know… poor me.

Someone turn the waves off! I can’t sleep!

Tillamook: 45.428327 -123.937862

This was the least picturesque stop on our trip up the Oregon coast. There is a large dairy processing plant which produces mostly cheese but also ice cream and yogurt, known locally as “The Cheese Factory.”

“Are you going to the Cheese Factory??” “Have you been to the Cheese Factory?” Everyone in the area wants to know… Apparently it is The Big Thing in the area.

They have an interesting self-guided tour via a glass-walled walkway above the factory floor. I was surprised to learn that it takes less than 24 hours for the milk arriving in the tanker truck to be turned into a block of cheese ready for aging. According to a Tillamook website, the warehouse next door where they age the cheese accounts for about ten percent of the nation’s cheese supply. I guess it is a Big Thing!

Coastal scenery wise, there is a “three capes drive,” which held promise. But most of the time the road was behind trees, and the access to the capes was via hikes of a mile or more. It was cold and raw, and we decided to not hike it.

We did get to one part where we could drive to the shore. We almost got stuck one more time in deep loose sand! Fortunately, we didn’t have the trailer with us this time…

There at the beach we saw these folks having fun on the winds from the ocean hitting the dunes to give them lift.

I’m wishing that it were me up in the parachute! It looks like so much fun…

Wildlife

In addition to the elk, above, we saw sea lions at several locations, as well as large colonies of birds.

Soaking up those rays…
Incoming! Common murres, a relative of the penguin but in the northern hemisphere. Unlike penguins, they can fly!
… and outbound.

Astoria / Fort Stevens:
46.181835 -123.965693

Fort Stevens is the farthest north state park in Oregon, and also the largest. We were in a very nice campground of over 500 sites, which actually had full hookups for RVs: 50 amps, water, and sewer. Sewer hookups are very rare in state parks! We saw another Solitude (our type of trailer) with a different floor plan and much more storage capacity. That—or something like it—might be a next camper… but certainly not this year. We’re just getting this one the way we like it!

The address of the park is on Peter Iredale Rd., which got me wondering… “Who was Peter Iredale?”

Peter Iredale

That was the wrong question. Not who, but what.

The Peter Iredale was a four-masted, steel hulled sailing ship around the turn of the 20th century that carried grain from this area to Australia. (Peter Iredale was one of the owners of the company that owned the ship, so there is also a who—but he’s not the reason that “Peter Iredale” is a common place name in the area.)

The Peter Iredale

The ship was wrecked here during a storm in 1908. Much of her hull was cut up and sold for scrap, but the forward part was left on the beach. Nature will eventually reclaim her, but for now she is an interesting subject for photography.

The steel plating of the hull is gone to scrap, but a small amount of the iron framing remains.

South Jetty

The land currently occupied by Fort Stevens forms the southern portion of the mouth of the Columbia River, a vital, but very dangerous shipping lane.

The geography was constantly changing as storms moved the land, and deposited much of it on the bottom of the channel, increasing the navigational challenges. The area needed to be stabilized.

There were three jettys built by the US Army Corps of Engineers at the mouth of the river, of which the south jetty is one. It was started in 1885, and the whole project of controlling the mouth of the Columbia took 50 years.

The jetty is four and a half miles long and projected into the ocean one mile; at the time of its completion it was the longest in the world. To build it, they had to first build a railroad track on trestles out into the ocean to transport the rocks.

The South Jetty of the Columbia River. It still extends far into the ocean.
Some of the pilings remaining from the many miles long trestle built to create the south jetty.

The Fort

So why is this “Fort Stevens” State Park?

Fort Stevens was the primary installation of three forts guarding the mouth of the Columbia River. The fort saw duty in the Civil War, Spanish-American war, and World Wars I and II. It started as an earthen construction in the Civil War and was enhanced with large concrete installations for several batteries of ten inch rifles by the First World War. Improvements in ship construction (thicker hulls and steel decks) made those guns largely obsolete by WWII, at which point the river was primarily guarded by a mine field comprising up to 148 mines that were electrically controlled from Fort Stevens. (I had assumed that they were contact mines, but not so.)

Fort Stevens holds the distinction of being one of only two places in the continental US to be fired upon by a foreign power. On June 22, 1942, a Japanese submarine fired nine five inch projectiles at the fort. They landed without harm, and the fire was not returned from the fort. Later, the captain of the sub was quoted as saying that if he had known how many large rifles were at the fort, he would not have been anywhere in the area!

The guns are long gone and the emplacements are deteriorating, but some are still open to be wandered in and on.

A gun emplacement; the circular structure allowed aiming the gun through an arc of about 200 degrees.
Fixtures like this one allowed pulling the gun mount to aim it.
The back side of one of the batteries.
A magazine for storing projectiles and powder, immediately below the gun deck.

What’s next?

We have one more stop before we cross into Canada, to visit with Beth, Jon, and the kids. Can’t wait to get there!

We’re starting to plan our travel after we visit with Beth’s family, and are starting to run into problems finding a campground with available space. We had heard about this, but hadn’t experienced it up until now. We’ve plotted our travels up through the second week of June, and now have to slot in the remaining two weeks until our grandsons Graham and Dean join us to visit National Parks in Utah! Lots of possibilities…

Big Mountains, Giant Trees

We’ve left our winter home of Quartzsite, AZ, and are headed north—initially to Vancouver, BC, to visit our daughter Beth’s family. Can’t wait! As much as we enjoyed being in the desert in Quartzsite (thank you BLM!), it is good to be on the road again and seeing new things.

Our second stop was in Three Rivers, CA, just outside the southern entrance to Sequoia National Park, the second National Park (what was the first???). Nestled in the western flank of the Sierra Nevada mountains, the scenery was gorgeous!

There is a downside to being surrounded by mountains… No cell signal. Nada. Zilch. Zip. It made us long for the very slow connectivity in Quartzsite! However, the campsite had a poor WiFi signal—I think through a satellite—so we could occasionally check our mail / Facebook messages. Sigh. We’re addicted to the net.

The restaurant we went to for breakfast was using dial-up to tie into their credit card system. When was the last time you heard the dulcet (!?) tones of a dial-up modem?

The reason for being here was to go into Sequoia NP, so let’s get to it!

The major attraction here is the trees, of course. In terms of volume (mass), the giant sequoias are the largest living trees. Coastal redwoods can grow taller, but they have a smaller diameter, and don’t retain that diameter at higher heights as much as sequoias do. The sequoias are limited in height due to limits on the capillary action which brings water and nutrients up from the root system. The redwoods can take in moisture through their leaves more efficiently, and thus grow higher than capillary action by itself would allow. (The ranger giving the talk accused the redwoods of “cheating!”—he must be a sequoia fan)

Note the building for scale!

We went up into the mountains to see the tree named “General Sherman,” the largest known living tree in the world, in terms of volume. The diameter at the base is greater than 36 feet! And the volume of its trunk is more than 52,000 CUBIC FEET. It is up at around 6,900 feet elevation; getting there was fun. Vehicles over 22 feet long are prohibited from making the drive. Our truck is exactly 22 feet; we can see why longer vehicles are excluded!

Unfortunately, I forgot to dump the dashcam that evening, and the video of the drive got overwritten. However, here are a few pics showing the road.

I don’t want to think about the effort it took to create the road! The designers did an excellent job of siting it; with very few exceptions the road above you is invisible. Looking down (way down), you can occasionally see the path ahead of you.

Yes. That’s road WAAAY down there!
All those sections of road that you can see are one road, back and forth and back and …
A portrait of the artist.

We were particularly taken with this roadside wall construction; it is so different from what we were used to at Acadia!

Smooth, flat walls, with a precise 90° corner to the smooth, flat top.

What were we talking about? Oh, yes. The trees!

General Sherman. World’s largest living tree
Can you find Kathe?

There are 75 known groves of giant sequoias in the world. The adjacent Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks protect “over 30” (NPS statistic) of those groves. (Three more groves are protected in nearby Yosemite NP.) General Sherman is in the grove named Giant Forest, an apt name if ever there was one. It contains 2,161 sequoias with a base diameter of over ten feet.

The sequoias live for a very long time. The ages of General Sherman and “The Sentinel” (near the museum in Giant Forest) are both estimated to be 2,200 years (“plus or minus 600 years,” according to one research article, we were told by a ranger). A page in the Yosemite NP site refers to a sequoia 3,266 years old, but is written in the past tense, so it may not still be living. Yes, you can buy giant sequoia seeds in the gift shop, but you’d better will them to your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren!

The Sentinel—at least, a part of it!
The base of The Sentinel, showing fire damage.

Giant sequoias require fire to reproduce! The fire does two things. It causes the seed cones (should these be called “sequoia cones,” like “pine cones?”) to open and release their seeds, and it removes the debris covering the forest floor so that the seeds can reach the soil and take root. A decades-long policy of complete fire suppression resulted in unhealthy groves with dense underbrush of other trees. That policy has been reversed, allowing some fires to take their natural course; the groves are regaining their health and there are now immature giant sequoias of different ages growing in the forest. There are few trees in the Giant Forest that do not bear signs of fire. Fortunately, they are able to withstand the fires, in part due to a bark that is up to two feet thick.

With a person for scale.
Amazingly, still alive!

A good portion of the park is still closed due to snow. It is hard to believe that only a few days ago we were in the desert, with the temps in the high 80’s. When we drove through the park gate, the ranger told us, “You can’t go through to King’s Canyon. The road is closed due to last night’s avalanche.” Never been told that before!

Speed limit…. BLANK? Let’s go fast!

In addition to the trees, the park has high mountains, deep valleys, and fast flowing streams.

Do they really need to say this?
We’re really both still traveling together!

Before Europeans discovered this area, indigenous people were here. There is at least one site with pictographs; quite possibly more that they don’t tell visitors about.

Pictographs at Hospital Rock

And we found this “community kitchen” fascinating.

Grinding holes worn into the rock in the kitchen
Can you get acorn flower at Whole Foods?

We enjoy visiting parks “out of season;” not only are the crowds thinner (sometimes non-existent), but it also forces you to come back again to see the parts that are currently closed! Lots more to see here.

Our next post will probably be from the Oregon coast… See you there!

“Paging Dr. Seuss!”

Joshua Tree National Park is a great playground with varied terrain; large portions are covered with myriad granite structures. Some are weathered and rounded, with large smooth (-ish) boulders in the area. Some are jagged with rubble scree at their base instead of the boulders. The geology of the area is complex. From what I’m reading, some of that difference depends on the depth of the magma that was the source. The crystalline structure of much of the granite is quite large and rough; this draws rock climbers from all around the world. We saw many there.

We traveled to Joshua Tree NP with friends James and Gloria, whom we met first at the Grand Design RV Owners’ rally back in January. James is a ham radio operator, so we also went to the Quartzfest gathering together.

The park has two very different ecosystems, the Mojave desert and the Colorado desert; they are distinguished by elevation with the Mojave much higher than the Colorado. Vegetation and animals are different between the two, with the higher Mojave being both wetter and more vegetated, and the Colorado more arid. We spent our first two days in the Mojave desert on the north side of the park, which contains the majority of the Joshua Trees.

The northern part, Mojave desert

The scale of some of the rock formations is hard to get across in pictures, until you see some with people in them. Can you find the four climbers in the picture below? Hint: one of them is the climber in the picture above.

Climbers’ playground! And a nice place for us to pause for lunch and to watch.
No people in this one (to the best of my knowledge!) But trust me; it is big. Larger than the surfaces the climbers were using.
Can you find Kathe?
With rocks like these, who needs a gym???

Joshua trees

Have you ever looked at the trees in Dr. Seuss’ books, such as the cover of The Lorax? It is said that the Joshua trees are the inspiration for his Truffula trees; he lived and worked in the southern California area.

They are oddly shaped! Twisty and gnarly. But oh, so cool to look at.

Kathe and James, both looking for the best picture of this tree.

Technically, Joshua Trees aren’t trees, but related to the agave. They are long lived, typically living several hundred years. The visitor center was selling Joshua Tree seeds and a little, itty-bitty pot to plant them in. Might work, if the person buying them can wait a few hundred years!

We were very lucky to be there while the Joshua Trees were blooming. There are several fairly distinct stages to the bloom cycle.

The lower right picture is a fully formed bloom. Not a usual “flower” structure!
Art in nature!
Joshua tree blooms
Another tree in bloom. It seems to be a young tree, but that’s a guess.

A part of the Mojave desert portion of the park holds a Joshua tree forest. It isn’t a dense forest, but there sure are a lot of Joshua trees!

A view of the forest; the tree in the foreground is blooming.

A few more pictures of scenes from the Mojave part of the park that I just found visually magnetic.

Yes, there is vegetation other than Joshua trees//

Life in the desert is hard. Even for the cholla (CHOY-ah) cacti. The lace-like skeleton of the cholla is interesting.

Do you know the purpose of this mesh-like construction? I don’t. Another year’s free subscription to our blog to whoever dreams up the funniest answer.

But life tries hard to find a foothold! (“roothold”?)

The transition zone

Where the two deserts meet is called the “transition zone.” Overlooking the transition zone is the highest point in the park reachable by vehicle, Keys View.

Looking southwest, toward the Colorado desert. The Coachella Valley in the midground is nearly a mile below us. The dark stripe on the right a little above the midpoint is a section of the San Andreas fault which runs through the valley. Just to the left of the picture is the Salton Sea, at 230 feet below sea level.

Although the transition zone contains animals from both sections, we saw very little wildlife in the park at all, just a few lizards. We’re just as glad that we didn’t see any of the rattlesnakes which are starting to come out as the days grow warmer. (People camping near us in Quartzsite have seen them!)

The Colorado desert

It is possible to drive from the northern part of the park to the southern part through the park but it is an approximately two hour drive due to the speed limit in the park. We opted to pick up our stakes and bring our rigs to the southern entrance, going around the west side of the park. Part of the reason for moving instead of just doing the southern part as a day trip from the north is that this brought us that much closer to “home,” i.e., Quartzsite.

Going around the park that way on I-8 (or, “the 8,” out here) one comes across this.

Think this is a windy stretch of road?

If you’re hauling an RV as we were, you better hope it isn’t a windy day! But we’re really glad to see large wind and solar farms. This one went on for miles; it is the largest we had seen since Texas.

There is a BLM dry camping area immediately outside the park at the southern entrance (the area abuts the park). This turned out to be one of the prettiest places we have ever camped, with desert flowers blooming right alongside our camper and all around us, and mountains in the background. We would go back there in a heartbeat!

Desert lupine, smaller than the kind we have in Maine. Nice campsite!

The southern part of the park has few Joshua Trees. Being more arid, the main vegetation here is various types of cacti. The main draw there, especially this time of year, is the desert bloom—at least it was for us.

This has been an exceptional year for the bloom.  We didn’t go to two highly reported areas, one near Tucson and one in Southern California where the authorities had to close a town of 60,000 people when 100,000 people tried to come photograph the flowers one Sunday.

But Joshua Tree was really pretty!

Fields of flowers in the desert.

The Cholla Garden

“Be careful! They’ll jump out at you and attack you!” Gloria warned us as we were getting out of the car at the Cholla (CHOY-ah) Garden section of the park.

The Cholla Garden

“Yeah. Ha ha ha ha.” That’s me, of course. (You’d think I would have learned by now…)

Cholla are well guarded, but those needles are for transportation, not protection!

Cholla cacti spread by dropping small sections to the ground which then take root. The dropped sections are transported by passing animals, including those of the homo sapiens variety. See all those needles? Barbed!

I was walking through the garden being careful to not brush against cacti. Then the wind blew a small dropped section against my boot. Instantly about twenty needles were stuck in the leather (thank goodness that I wasn’t wearing sandals or even regular low shoes)! Did I mention that the needles are barbed? Trying to pull the needles out of my boot’s heavy leather simply resulted in them breaking off.

The cholla bloom isn’t a typical flower.

We really enjoyed our three days in JTNP. There is much more to do there, including several hikes we’d like to take. We’ll be back.

So closes another portion of our adventure. We wish you the best on your own adventure through life, whatever it may be!

Camping is tough when you have to put up with scenes like this every evening! The view from our BLM campsite south of Joshua Tree NP.

Sunrise, Sunset: swiftly FLY the days

Each sunset marks another day of our adventure together.

Al: “I retired seven months ago today.”

Kathe: “That’s not possible!”

We’ve been living here on the desert for over three months. The time has gone by so quickly. We are now starting to plan our spring and summer travel; it is almost time to leave.

We’ve come to love it here on the desert. At our own choosing, we can be quiet or busy—with friends or on our own.  And, with apologies to all our family and friends still in the colder climes, the weather hasn’t been too bad, either!

Palm Canyon

Last week, we went with some friends to Palm Canyon, in the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge. According to this, it is the last place in Arizona that California palm trees grow in their native environment. A nice one-mile in-and-out walk, it was our first time up actually near the mountains that surround us.

Entrance to the NWR: Several miles down a dirt road.
We’re walking back in there! The start of the Palm Canyon trail, yet several more miles down the dirt road.
Kathe, on the trail!
Surrounded by the remains of volcanos

A comment I had read on the net said that the viewing point was a half mile up the trail, but that the palms themselves could be reached in an additional third of a mile “up a fairly steep trail.”

Yeah. Got rope?

At the viewing point.
“Up a fairly steep trail.” Yeah.
A closer view. Longer lens; we didn’t go toward the palms past the viewing point!

The desert is greening up. We’ve apparently had an unusually large amount of rain this winter. A person we met on the trail said that in a normal year, this scenery would be brown.

Not lush like in non-desert areas, but there is green there!

And we’re starting to see some flowers blooming. We hope to see more of the “desert bloom” when we go to Joshua Tree National Park in California for a few days this week.

The “ghost flower” (Mohavia Confertiflora). The petals are translucent!

Et cetera

So what else have we been doing these “desert days?” Some of it we’ve written about before, like Kathe’s quilting, the rock and gem shows, and our trip to visit Mike’s family over Christmas.

Out of town

We had been warned that for a few weeks in January Quartzsite is an overcrowded madhouse with long lines, terrible traffic in town and so on due to multiple rock and gem shows, and a big RV show. Additionally, the population on the LTVA (BLM’s Long Term Visitors Area), where we are living, swells. We wanted to avoid all that humanity if we could.

Fortunately in addition to the LTVA, the BLM has six “fourteen day” camping locations in the Quartzsite area. These sites have no services whatsoever, but are free to camp in for 14 days. After that you have to leave for at least fourteen days. If you want to continue to use free BLM land in that time period, you must move at least 25 miles away.

We were fortunate that we had two back-to-back events at a fourteen day area three miles farther out of town than we normally reside: a (yes, another) Grand Design RV owners’ rally, and a ham radio gathering, “Quartzfest.” These allowed us to avoid the worst of the Q-crush. Just to experience the big RV show in town we did ride our bikes there one afternoon; no way we were going to try to drive in and find a parking space. For all the hype surrounding the “big tent” show, we were unimpressed.

Quilt Show!

We had fun helping with the Quartzsite Quilt Show put on by the local quilting group Kathe is part of! I helped set up (and tear down) the exhibit space, and Kathe was busy before, during, and after the show. The quilts were quite impressive.

“Wolf Maiden” by Janet Nieuwenhoff. More than 68,000 1/4-inch squares.
“Hummingbird” by Kathy Chesher
“Running Free” by Kathy Chesher and granddaughter Kaylee Wilcox
“Storm at Sea” by Cara Osmin

Road Trip: Yuma

We spent a week in the Yuma area, staying at BLM’s Imperial Dam LTVA in California with “blast from the past” friends, Henk and Mary.

Arizona didn’t become a state until 1912; Yuma had Arizona’s first prison, in use from 1876 to 1909. A portion of the prison, now called the “Territorial Prison,” is preserved as a state park (part was long ago demolished to make way for a railroad line). There is a museum with many displays about prison life. One showed interesting information about the prisoner demographics; some that stuck out to me were that most of the prisoners were considered to be literate, and virtually all used tobacco of one form or another.

Entrance sally port into the prison.
Some of the timeline stones…
The original cell block. The doors had a second identical grate about 18″ inside; the two were interlocked so that it was impossible to open both at the same time. Only a few of the cells still have this mechanism intact.
The “new” cell block. The interlocked double-gate mechanism seen in the old cell block did not seem to be used here. (Remember, the prison was shut down in 1909.)

The territorial prison had enlightened leadership. From one of the museum displays:

The Prison had more modern amenities than most homes in Yuma, and Yumans resented that.

  • Electricity
  • Forced Ventilation
  • Sanitation, including two bathtubs and three showers
  • A library with 2,000 books, the most in the Territory at the time
  • Enlightened, progressive administration
  • Even a Prison Band!

Some of the cells are open to enter, and, of course, pretend to lock your friend in!

Each cell housed twelve inmates, and was exposed to the weather. Note the steel bunks. Ouch!
Prisoner Al!

From Yuma, Kathe went to Corning to play Grandma Lobster, giving Mike and Laurelyn the opportunity to travel during school vacation week. While Kathe was gone, I went to another ham radio gathering in Yuma.

By the time we got back to Quartzsite it was obvious that the exodus had begun. The desert is emptier again; so is the town. People have started heading north preparing the way for us.

Sunrises and Sunsets

One of the advantages of living on the desert is the essentially unrestricted view of the horizon, especially compared to New England. We have been (usually!) waking up before sunrise, and have gotten in the habit of looking for the sunrise, and again for the sunset every day.

Click on any of the pictures below to see them all as a slideshow of larger versions, and remember you can always right click on any picture in our blog and choose “open image in new tab” or similar, to see the largest resolution that we uploaded..

One other thing…

Drum roll please! When we set out on our adventure, we told ourselves that we would try RV “full-timing” for a year before deciding whether to sell our house on Mount Desert Island.

Well, it hasn’t been a year, but we’ve made the decision! We want to continue this adventure for the foreseeable future, so we will be putting the house on the market this summer. We’ll fly back to MDI to take care of all that has to be done to get a house ready for new occupants.

That’s about it for now. Life has been fairly quiet so we haven’t been posting frequently. Rest assured that as we start to travel again we’ll be keeping you up to date with the activities of your favorite lobsters!

On the moon?

Early on in our trip planning, White Sands National Monument was on our list.  But then we decided that we’d like to see some of Utah “before it got too cold,” so we planned to go west on I-40 all the way into Flagstaff and then north.  We decided that we’d do White Sands, NM some other time.

Well, “too cold” seemed to be following us all the way across the country (local temperatures were often 15° to 20° below normal—we started to think that it was our fault!).  We decided that we would drop down to a more southerly, i.e., warmer, route—I-10—after Bosque del Apache.  Yea!  White Sands was back on the route!

White Sands National Monument visitors’ center, built in the 1930s.

We knew that there are basically two “White Sands” things.  There is White Sands National Monument, and also White Sands Missile Range, the largest military base in the country in terms of area. The Missile Range is closed to the public (of course), so we focused our imaginations on the Monument, which we thought was completely separate.

It turns out, it isn’t so separate.  The Monument is completely inside the missile range; it closes to public access any time the military launches a missile. Phew!

The other thing we didn’t know was that the missile range has a museum open to the public! Did I mention in a previous post that I like space-oriented things?

White Sands Missile Range Museum

The first day, we went to the museum.  Since you’re entering a military base (by all of about 100 yards), you must present ID, and they run a quick check with the FBI to see if you’re a baddie. (Sorry, no pics of the entrance station where we had to register.  That is apparently a serious no-no.)

Outdoors display

We spent most of the time at the museum outside at the rocket display.  It was neat to actually see some of the rockets whose names I knew from the ’60s.

The Patriot, launched from a truck

Some of the missiles in the outdoor portion of the museum

 

The OH-50, an unmanned helicopter developed in the 1950s for anti-submarine warfare. Drones aren’t new! Although it is no longer in use in combat, it is still the only unmanned helo to be combat certified.  The OH-50 is still used at the Missile Range to tow targets.

WSMR is an Army base, but used by all branches of the military. This is a Navy guided missile launcher tested here.

The rockets on display here were almost all developed for the military, but they also enabled our manned space program.  Until the Apollo program’s use of the Saturn V booster, all of the rockets used for our manned space flights were repurposed military rockets—Redstone, Atlas, and Titan.  The Redstone held a special place in my memory because it was used for Alan Shepard’s and Gus Grissom’s sub-orbital flights at the start of Project Mercury, the beginning of the US manned space program.

I didn’t know that the Redstone was designed to be “transportable.”  From the information sign in front of the rocket:

As a field-artillery missile, Redstone was mobile and transportable by plane, truck, or train. However, when on the move, it needed a convoy  eighteen miles long, with 200 vehicles carrying approximately 10,000 individual pieces of equipment and more than 600 men.  The Redstone itself was carried on three trucks—its nose section (warhead), midsection (power plant and fuel tanks), and tail section—to be assembled in the field.

Transportable?  Maybe.  Stealthy? No way!

Indoors

There was also a nice indoor portion of the museum. Part of it covered the computing resources used in the early days of the missile age.  Here is a “patch panel” used to program a computer in the days before software.  This is from a computer used into the ’70s!

A quote on the information card: “You had to be a bit crazy to work on the patch panels!”

One way of gathering data about test flights is to track the rockets visually, with “cinetheodolites.”  Each of these required two operators, and many were used around the range.

A cinetheodolite ($75,900 on eBay!  Get yours today!)

Housing for a cinetheodolite

Trinity

There are moments that change the course of history forever; one happened here. On June 16, 1945, the world’s first atomic explosion happened on White Sands Missile Range, at the Trinity Site.  The Trinity Site is only open to visitors twice a year so we weren’t able to see it first hand, but a good portion of the museum’s indoors display space is devoted to it.

A one-third scale model of the bomb that was detonated at the Trinity Site.

The Trinity bomb was the same design as the second bomb, dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, to end World War II.

White Sands National Monument

On the second day, we went to the National Monument.  Mile after mile of white “sand,” actually gypsum.  After having seen the delicate gypsum florets in Mammoth Cave, it was amazing to see this much gypsum, literally piled up.  Kathe thought it looked like we were on the moon!

This plant’s root system causes these hills to remain even after the dune has moved on.

The leaves of this tree are thick and very waxy

It was interesting to walk on the dunes.  I have lived near the water all my life except for our time in New Hampshire, and am used to walking on sand—including the sand dunes on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.  The gypsum packs much more tightly than sand,  and is very easy to walk on in comparison.

We went sledding down the dunes on a plastic saucer (like would be used on snow).  Despite waxing the bottom of the saucer, other than the color of the dune’s surface, it wasn’t anything like sledding on snow!  It was quite sticky, but once you got going, it was fun riding down the dune.  Kathe got some good rides, but I fell out of the saucer each time! Unfortunately, I didn’t get any good video of me tumbling down the dune. (Sand-sky-sand-sky-sand-sky…)

The dunes are always moving, driven by the wind.  Keeping the tourist area road open is a constant problem.

Harder than plowing snow? I don’t know…

We had a really good day there, walking some trails and seeing the scenery.  Al finished with a ranger-led walk just before sunset.  The guide is an astronomer by training,  working as a paleo-geologist.  He described some of the research going on at the whole White Sands site, much of it outside the bounds of the Monument.

On the desert floor (where there isn’t currently a dune), the water table is only a foot or two below the surface. The geology  of the area depends on this.

A wet stick shows that there is water about 18 inches down this hole. The water table (the level of the water below the ground) is closely monitored.

The yucca plant below may be 30 or more feet tall.  It is rooted on the desert floor, and as a dune comes along it grows to keep its leaves and flowers above the level of the dune.  Unfortunately, when the dune passes, the yucca can’t support its long stem.  It collapses and dies.

You didn’t think I’d leave without a sunset shot, did you?

Blue sands at sunset

If you get a chance, do plan to go.  White Sands National Monument is other-worldly.  (Lunar?)

Bucket list: √ and √

Go get your bucket list. I’ll wait while you go find it.

Now add these two items which are in New Mexico, if they’re not already on your list:

  1. The Very Large Array,  otherwise known as the VLA, and
  2. Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.

√ and √!  Our bucket lists are now two items shorter!

The Very Large Array

I’ve been a space fan since the late ’50s, when my dad took me out in the yard and showed me one of our first two satellites—Explorer or Vanguard—at this point I don’t remember which.  I remember watching all of the Project Mercury launches on TV with him.

I’ve known about the VLA for a long time (yes, even before the movie Contact!), but I had never been there.  Now we have!  It is even more impressive in person.

The VLA is a radio telescope, one of the most sensitive in the world.  From the National Science Foundation website:

Among a broad range of scientific capabilities, the VLA addresses four primary science themes: measuring the strength and topology of cosmic magnetic fields; imaging young stars and massive black holes in dust-enshrouded environments; following the rapid evolution of energetic phenomena; and studying the formation and evolution of stars, galaxies and active galactic nuclei.

Phew!

The VLA is open to scientists all over the world who must submit research proposals to compete for telescope time.  The proposals are reviewed for scientific worth and feasibility. It is so highly competitive that, “Even highly ranked proposals are not guaranteed to receive observing time.

The VLA is a long way from anywhere.  We approached from the east, from I-25, and it is over 50 miles away—50 miles of passing almost nothing but beautiful scenery!

Typical central New Mexico scenery (not actually on the way to VLA–where I neglected to take pics!)

Located on the Plains of San Augustin, the site is both high at approximately 8,000 feet, and ringed by mountains. The height reduces the amount of atmosphere-induced distortion of the radio waves, something I had never considered.  The mountains block most of the man-made radio interference.  Any electronic devices you may have with you like cell phones, tablets, fitness trackers, smart watches, etc. must be turned off—completely. Digital cameras are (surprisingly) OK.  Needless to say, having your cell phone off doesn’t matter as there is absolutely NO coverage!

Approaching the VLA—still a fair distance away

The 28 antennas are huge!  The dishes are 25 meters (82 feet) across, and they over 200 tons each. When pointed up, they are 90 feet to the apex. You can’t really get an idea of how big until you have something to use for scale.

Four flights of stairs and we’re not even up to the pivot!

Twenty seven are in active use; there is always one in maintenance; they rotate through all the antennas to keep them all in good condition.

The VLA has four configurations, called “A” (far Apart), “B”, “C”, and “D” (Darned close together).  The configuration is changed every four months, and we were very fortunate to visit when the telescope was in configuration D.  In configuration A, each of the three arms of the telescope is thirteen miles long, and photography wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun!

Antennas close together! The beauty of Configuration D.

The VLA is laid out in three legs radiating out from the center, spaced at 120°.

Looking out the north leg, currently comprising 11 of the 27 antennas.

To reconfigure the array, and to bring antennas in for maintenance, they use a transporter. Top speed is 5 MPH; however when transporting an antenna, it usually moves about 2 MPH.

Zero to two in… several minutes.

The reason for the different configurations is that antenna spacing controls the field of view, how wide a portion of the sky it can view, and resolution, how small a feature it can distinguish.  Close spacing (like now) offers a very wide field of view, but relatively poor resolution.  The widest spacing, configuration A, views a much smaller portion of the sky, but can distinguish much smaller features.

At its widest spacing, the telescope is about 22 miles across.  To allow even finer resolution, the VLA is one component of the VLBA, the Very Long Baseline Array, which has a maximum distance between antennas of 4971 miles (8000 km).  The VLBA is controlled from the same building as the VLA, in Socorro, New Mexico; the antennas are spread out from Hawaii to the U.S. Virgin Islands and points in between.

If you want to see the VLA, go soon.  Its replacement is currently in the works, called ngVLA, which will increase its power and its resolution at least tenfold. The individual dishes will be smaller, but there will be many, many more! More information is here, and here (FAQ).

√ The Bosque del Apache NWR

Several years ago I heard about a great place for bird photography, especially for sandhill cranes and snow geese.  It wasn’t over-hyped! In the two days we spent there, we took on the order of 3,000 pictures!

The peak of the bird population happens during the depth of the winter in December. At that point they have approximately 20,000 sandhill cranes, 50,000 snow geese, and 50,000 ducks of various species.

The refuge is heavily managed.  The staff plant several food crops during the summer to feed the birds through the winter—mostly corn.  They plan to feed 100 pounds of corn per bird across the winter.  That is a LOT of corn! They also flood fields with water from the Rio Grande river to give more shallow water areas so the birds have safe places to spend the night. When we were there,  only a few of the fields were flooded; more to come!

Even now in November, there are a phenomenal number of birds here. During the day, the birds are spread out widely across the 58,000 acres of the refuge.  Even so dispersed, the density on any of the feeding areas is pretty high!

Sandhills feeding

Snow geese soaking up the rays.

At night they congregate in a few, relatively small wet areas—being in shallow water protects them from many predators.  This congregation into a few areas results in massive “fly-ins” and “fly-outs” at sunset and sunrise. Photographic heaven!

Go ahead! Count the sandhill cranes. I dare you!

Predator spotted! Snow geese flying out.

Incoming! Sandhills arrived in groups like this continuously for over a half hour.

Three sandhills landing simultaneously.

During the second day, we took two  (free!) tours with naturalists to find other birds which were located on the Reserve. Many were too far away to get good pictures of, but here are a few of the birds we saw.

A trio of cedar waxwings – one of Kathe’s favorites!

Phainopepla, the desert black cardinal.

We think this is an American Kestrel, a small falcon.

A bald eagle, in a snag.

In addition to so many birds including quail and turkey, there are many other species of animals on the refuge including mountain lion, bobcat, jackrabbits, and lizards.

It will take us weeks to work through all of our refuge photographs! Based on this fabulous experience, we’ve decided we’d be thrilled to visit as many wildlife refuges around the country as possible. Fortunately, there are quite a few in Arizona where we will spend the winter. Yahoo!

Smoky Mountains and Sunsets

From Shenandoah we went to Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP).  We stayed in Big Meadow Family Campground, in Townsend, TN—about two miles from an entrance to the park. The park owners were very friendly and accommodating (we had several large packages delivered there), and the park was maintained meticulously.  Highly recommended if you travel that way.

I (Al) had been to GSMNP many times, always the weekend before Memorial Day weekend, and had several places I wanted to go with Kathe.  Late May was usually somewhat crowded, but not so much as to make getting to what you wanted to see difficult.  I was hoping that the park would again be fairly quiet now, being “after season.”  Maybe it was fairly quiet with respect to the summer crowds, but it certainly wasn’t quiet.

On our first day in the park, we went to Cades Cove.  This is a roughly 11 mile one-way loop through an area that was settled for about 100 years before the creation of the park.  Kathe and I enjoy trying to understand something of small communities by looking at their graveyards.  There are several in the Cades Cove area, along with several small churches.

There are three churches in the cove:  Primitive Baptist, Missionary Baptist, and Methodist.

We think that the Primitive Baptist church is the oldest in the cove.

The steeple and bell of the Primitive Baptist church

Interior of the Primitive Baptist church

Pulpit Bible in the Primitive Baptist Church. Note the vandalism / graffiti on the inside back cover.

Traditionally, Methodist churches had two doors, one for men and one for women.  Although the Methodist church in the cove has two doors, the practice of separating men and women was not practiced in this church.

The Methodist Church

The Methodist cemetery

We were able to see several generations of the cove’s families, and marriages between them.  We noticed that families would sometimes switch denominations with part of the family being buried in the Baptist cemetery and others in the Methodist.

The Oliver family was one of the founding families of this settlement, and remained a presence there. (Click on a picture in the gallery to see the larger, uncropped, version.)

It was hard to see the infant graves with only a single date on the headstone, or a span of only a few weeks or months.

Especially heartbreaking was to find several groupings of three infant headstones from the same family.

The cemeteries are still active, despite being in a National Park. People who lived in the cove before the creation of the park are still able to be buried there.

Two of the things we wanted to see in the cove—Abrams Falls and the mill—we had to pass on due to the crowding.  By the time we got to the parking area for the falls we didn’t have enough time for the hike, and when we got to the mill area, there was no available parking. So we headed back to camp.

Afternoon in the Smoky Mountains

After dinner we went to Look Rock to see the sunset.  This is several miles out the Foothills Parkway, a separate part of the park.  Right at the parking lot, there is a short walk to a viewpoint to the south.  While very pretty, it wasn’t going to be the best for sunsets.  As we were walking back to the car to try to find another place, a young couple asked if we were looking for the tower.  Yes!  They showed us the start of the path across the road from the parking.  After a short (uphill!) hike, we were set for some good sunset photography.

The next day we decided to drive to Clingmans Dome for sunset.

The first part of the drive is along the Little River, which has many cascades and is quite pretty.  One of the disadvantages of driving a large pickup truck is that there are very few places you can pull over for a photo stop.  We did find a few though.

A small cascade along the Little River

The Little River can also be serene

Eventually the road leaves the river and heads into the mountains.  Here we saw our first hints of fall colors, although we missed the bright reds of Maine.

This is a long drive (the Dome is in North Carolina, and the road is a twisty mountain road). The drive was worth it! At many points there are good views of the mountain range that we are in.

The Appalachian Trail passes directly under the tower we watched the sunset from, so I guess I can now say I’ve been on the AT!  (Nah.  I wouldn’t do that to my friends who have hiked the AT.)

Row after row of Appalachian mountains at sunset

In addition to sampling sunsets wherever we land, we love to eat, too! We eat out fairly often, possibly more than we should.  But here we “had” to eat lunch twice at the Black Bear Cafe in Townsend.  Their fried grouper sandwich was outstanding!

We continue to find that meeting people is one of the most enjoyable aspects of RV life.  At Big Meadow, we met Joe and Judy, and two of Judy’s sisters, Jo and Rachel.  We enjoyed comparing our RVs and the modifications we each have made (their rig is a larger version of ours), and talking about favorite places to visit. The sisters are three of seven sisters.  When we left the park the three, who were roughly in their late 70s, were heading out to have lunch with some of their friends…they hadn’t seen since elementary school!

From here, we went to Mammoth Cave, which Kathe already covered in her spelunking post.  We’ll catch you again from Memphis!

Caverns, Caves, and Bats, Oh, My!

I remember a small cave in the woods out behind my Nanny and Pop-pop’s house when I was a little girl. My brother told me about it; I decided to take his word for it.

Two weeks ago, while in the Shenandoah Valley (Virginia), we visited Luray Caverns. Luray is a commercial attraction and not part of Shenandoah National Park. We signed up for a tour and were led down a long, fairly steep staircase to an amazing underground world. I remember seeing stalactites and stalagmites in Howe Caverns in New York State as a youngster. But these…

Stalactites hang ‘tight’ to the ceiling.

Stalagmites (bottom left) ‘might’ reach the ceiling some day.

The young man who toured us thru the caverns seemed to be in training for some kind of footrace; we wanted to take lots of photographs but he kept insisting that we stay together and keep up with him. It was frustrating and we finally decided we’d take our time and take the photos we wanted to—we had paid dearly for the tour and wanted our money’s worth.

Sometimes the stalactites reach up to join the stalagmites to form pillars or columns.

The stalactites are formed by water coming down through the roof of the cavern carrying dissolved limestone. The limestone is left behind when the water evaporates.  Stalagmites are formed when those drips of water drop off and hit the ground; as the water evaporates, the stalagmites grow upward. Many experts claim that the stalactites and stalagmites grow as slowly as 10cm every 1000 years. They are precious.

We were fascinated to learn that until the 1920s, tourists were allowed to snap off the end of a stalactite as a souvenir. Once the tip is broken off, the stalactite will cease to grow. It was sad to see so many broken, flat ends as we worked our way through the passages.

The old expression “A picture just doesn’t do it justice!” came to mind when we downloaded our pictures of the reflecting pool. It was pure magic; footsteps ceased and all you could hear was the intake of air as each tourist rounded the passage and gasped as they faced the pool head-on.

Can you find the waterline? See the perfect other-worldly reflection?

On our way to Luray, we passed dozens of billboards (and I mean dozens!) advertising the caverns. Many of them called attention to ‘The Great Stalacpipe Organ’—what could that be?

Sure enough as we were nearing the end of our tour, we came into a huge room within the cave that had an organ console up on a landing. Apparently you can make arrangements to get MARRIED in this room, complete with a pipe organ accompaniment. (It’s a bargain at $1900 for just 12 guests!)

The famous stalacpipe organ in Luray Caverns.

The organ is actually an electrically actuated lithophone that produces tapping of a large number of pipes (stalactites)  throughout 3-1/2 acres of the cave. You can see the wires along the walls, weaving in and out of the limestone appendages. The tour guide pushed a button and we were regaled with the limestone version of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”—you could almost make out the tune! Because of the enclosed space of the cavern itself, the song can apparently be heard throughout the entire cavern.

One of the most magnificent features in Luray Caverns are the ‘curtains’— they are beautifully translucent stalactite formations that drape down from the ceiling —almost like long sheets of beautiful linen. Glorious!

Stalactite curtains

During our stop in the Shenandoah Valley, we had the solar panels installed which required Al to be at the campsite all day. He encouraged me to go out into Shenandoah National Park by myself.  The first day I went out, I missed a sign and ended up driving across the width of the park into the next town before I realized what I’d done (without my trusty navigator with me). So I turned around (I’m getting really good at those twisty-turny mountainside roads) and found the turn I’d missed.

When I finally got through the gate, I drove up to the first viewpoint. It actually involved a 4 mile loop hike and it was not something I was up for. So I stopped into the ladies’ room—The woman at the sink reminded me of someone from back home. “Wait! I know you!” I exclaimed. It was Dot—I’ve known her for a couple of decades — we attended the same rughooking retreat for many, many years back in Maine. What were the chances? We had a great time catching up for a few minutes. Back to the park . . .

Shenandoah NP boasts its centerpiece Skyline Drive as one of the VERY BEST places to see beautiful fall foliage (don’t worry, Mainers —I don’t believe anything can top autumn in Maine); it runs the entire length of the park. Unfortunately, there was not a smidgen of fall color. There were, however, some beautiful overlooks with views that reminded me of the Great Smokies—I stopped a number of times and made a stop at the Visitor’s Center just as a few spritzes of rain appeared on my windshield.

From Skyline Drive in Shenandoah NP–no fall foliage in sight

By the time I got back to the truck, the clouds and fog had really socked in—and it was raining more steadily. Yeah, doing twisty roads—steep and downhill—and not being able to see past a very few feet in front of my bumper was NOT FUN.

I went back to the national park on the second day of the solar install and was able to spot just a few more leaves giving way to a touch of dark yellow. Many leaves appeared just brown and shriveled. Disappointing. We’ll go back another year— and for Al, it will be his first time IN the park.

Fast forward five days — poof! We’re in Cave City, Kentucky, the home of Mammoth Cave National Park.

Imagine a series underground caves and tunnels that layer, twist, and intersect for more than 400 miles! We stopped at the stunning visitors’ center and learned quite a bit about the cave system. O.K., I knew about the bats but not about the cave crickets and cave rats!

The descent into the Historic Entrance

We had pre-purchased tour tickets online for the Grand Avenue Tour for the next day so this first day in the park, we decided to venture into the self-guided “Historic Entrance.” It comprises two huge rooms with numerous placards with all kinds of information; you can read your way right through. There were lights — just enough so you could see your way around and read the signage (kind of). There were three rangers on duty. Al’s great about asking questions and learning as much as he can from the rangers. Interestingly, one of the rangers told us that since those placards have gone up, it’s rare for anyone to talk to the rangers anymore. How sad! She explained that they have so much knowledge to share but if no one approaches them . . .

During the revolutionary war, much saltpeter was mined from the cave to make gunpowder.

We stopped to speak to another ranger on the way out. I asked about the bats. They’ve lost about 90% of the bat population due to the White Nose Syndrome; it’s a fungus that has killed millions of bats across the U.S. It came from Europe and Howe Caverns was where it was first detected here. The ranger said he’d only spotted two bats today and he pointed his flashlight to a tiny black spot high up on the cavern wall. So small.

The next day’s Grand Avenue Tour comprised four miles of strenuous walking and climbing—-all at 260+ feet underground!
Two rangers accompanied us —one at the front who flipped light switches ahead of us and who taught us so much along the way. The second ranger brought up the rear and switched lights off as we moved on.

It was magnificent—see for yourself!

Notice no stalactites or stalagmites! A sandstone layer above the cave’s limestone prevents water infiltration through most of the cave.

Gypsum (calcium sulfate) “flowers” grow throughout the cave.

The gypsum takes on many different appearances but yes, it’s the same gypsum that is in the wallboard of our homes.

Sometimes the passages are wide and low; other times tall and (very) narrow.

They reminded us of the slot canyons we saw in Arizona.

The cave was a commercial attraction in the 1800s. People were encouraged to put their names on the cave ceiling, using candle soot!

At one point during the tour, the rangers had us sit at on benches along the sides of the path. They wanted us to experience TOTAL DARKNESS and turned off all the lights and just listen. It was amazing.

Can you see my hand? Neither could I!

There were side passages everywhere!

As we neared the end of our Grand Avenue Tour, I asked the lead ranger what the difference is between a cave and a cavern; having visited both, I was curious. He gave me a very simple answer: “RN!”

Toward the end of the tour we reached a section without the sandstone cap, resulting in some stalactites. Places that are moist are lit with amber light to cut down on algae growth.

As we approached the exit, the ranger stopped us and shined his light on the ceiling so we could see a large group of cave crickets. They hang out there and only leave the cave every 7-14 days to eat. Cute little critters, eh? I told the ranger I was glad to see the crickets and was REALLY glad I HADN’T seen any cave rats. “Don’t look over to your right then,” he told me. “I can’t guarantee they’re aren’t some over there.” Aaaaaand, I made a very quick exit!

The cave crickets are about 1.5 to 2 inches across.

Water, water, everywhere! It’s what carved the magnificent cave system. The Green River and its tributaries did most of the work and it still runs several layers below the tunnels that we traveled.

We hiked a trail near the historic entrance, and found river height / flood gauges…

Don’t want to be anywhere near here when there is a 56 foot flood!

Finally starting to see some color!

The cave systems we visited were magnificent and very different from each other; Luray was commercialized with a very quick, pricey tour while Mammoth Caves had a huge range of tours and with our Senior Park Pass, it was a steal! We’re so glad that we got to experience both of these amazing places. And, yes, we’re still on the prowl for some fall foliage!