The Standards Blog

Not Here but There: A Wilderness Journal

Desert Thunderstorms

Not Here but There: A Wilderness Journal
I'm currently hiking and camping in New Mexico and Utah, which explains this off-topic post. I'll continue to cover big news when I'm able to access email, and will also upload and time-phase these entries for posting when I come into town for gas and supplies. To find more of this type of writing based on past trips, look to the folder link at left titled Not Here but There: A Wilderness Journal.
 
 

 

 

Summer is the time of storms in the deserts of much of the Southwest, just as it is the time of intense heat. Except for its mountainous areas, the Southwest receives most of its meager precipitation in this way. The weather systems that form the thunderstorms of summer are thus vital to the cycle of desert life, and were they ever to fail, so, too, would most of what lives in these dry regions.

 
 
There are two essential elements to the weather system that produces these storms. The first is the uneven heating of the desert surface by the sun, which creates variable updrafts that can rise high into the sky. And the second is a summer wind pattern that regularly carries moist air from the Gulf of Mexico into the Southwest – the technically accurate, but rather misleading name given to this element is the "Southwest Monsoon." 
 

When desert updrafts meet this moist Gulf air, they carry it skyward into cooler altitudes, where the moisture condenses into white, decorative cumulus clouds reminiscent of cauliflowers. If the air is sufficiently moist, the clouds can grow in height, becoming "towering cumulus" clouds. And if the updraft is strong, the air more saturated with moisture, and the differential in temperature between warm updraft and cool upper air sufficiently great, then you have all of the necessary elements to create a cumulonimbus cloud - also known as a potential thunderstorm.

Preserving Our Past to Warn of the Future: A Reunion with Spirit House

Not Here but There: A Wilderness Journal
I'm currently hiking and camping in New Mexico and Utah, which explains this off-topic post. I'll continue to cover big news when I'm able to access email, and will also upload and time-phase these entries for posting when I come into town for gas and supplies. To find more of this type of writing based on past trips, look to the folder link at left titled Not Here but There: A Wilderness Journal.   I hadn't thought about it before I reached Utah, but once I neared the border I knew where I wanted to hike first when I arrived.  Six years ago, I took a month-long, solo cross-country trip to hike and write in the Southwest. Then, as now, what I wanted to see most was Spirit House.   There are thousands of ruins spread across the Southwest, each of them interesting and all of them extremely delicate. The greatest number of the most dramatic, like Mesa Verde in Colorado, are protected through heavy supervision. Others, like Walnut Canyon, in Arizona, can only be viewed from nearby walkways. Some, like Canyon de Chelle, are located in the middle of Native American reservations. Canyon de Chelle, perhaps the most spectacular of these, may only be viewed by car from afar, unless accompanied on foot by a guide.    But the great majority of Native American ruins, including the hundreds of cliff dwellings in the Four Corners region, have no such effective protection. Happily, some of these sites are noted on topographical maps, most are sufficiently remote and (in the case of cliff dwellings) often hard to reach without technical climbing skills as well. That hasn't saved them from being picked clean long ago of all of their artifacts, but those activities have for the most part left their fabric largely intact. With the very small budgets of their nominal protecting agencies (the staff of the national parks, national forests, and the Bureau of Land Management), the most that can be done to protect them against further destruction is to avoid publicizing their locations, and hope for the best. 

At Kin Bineola

Not Here but There: A Wilderness Journal
I'm currently hiking and camping in New Mexico and Utah, which explains this off-topic post. I'll continue to cover big news when I'm able to access email, and will also upload and time-phase these entries for posting when I come into town for gas and supplies. To find more of this type of writing based on past trips, look to the folder link at left titled Not Here but There: A Wilderness Journal.   I did not visit the ruins of Kin Bineola the night I arrived nearby, but made camp and turned in instead. August is the month of thunderstorms in the Southwest, and especially in New Mexico. By midafternoon, the anvil shapes of thunderheads were spreading in the four corners of the sky, and not long thereafter grey skirts of rain began their slow descent to the parched earth beneath them. Thunder rumbled richly across the valley, and the sky acquired a rich assemblage of angry grey clouds, towering ivory domes blushed with gold by the setting sun, and a double rainbow arching overall.   I dislike tents. I rarely use them in the Southwest, and revel in the stars above. Usually, there is no rain and never are there any noxious insects to annoy, unless you choose to lay yourself down by the rare, still waters. But this trip, I should have known better and brought one along, as nature has made its habits known here for long enough that I should not have expected it to make an exception just for me.   

So there was naught to do but rig my ground sheet up as a rough lean-to against a barbed wire fence, and listen to the pit-pit-patter-pit of rain from dusk to midnight as the occasional thunderstorm struck a glancing blow, scattering droplets via gusty winds as it passed in the night, and illuminating the valley floor in sudden bursts of light as it rumbled by.

In the Lands of the Anasazi

Not Here but There: A Wilderness Journal

I'm currently hiking and camping in Nevada and Utah, which explains this off-topic post. I'll continue to cover big news when I'm able to access email, and will also upload and time-phase these entries for posting when I come into town for gas and supplies. To find more of this type of writing based on past trips, look to the folder link at left titled Not Here but There: A Wilderness Journal.

In the lands of the AnasaziWhen you think of spectacular Native American ruins, you're likely to first envision the magnificent cliff houses of Mesa Verde, and their cousins in the Four Corners region of the Southwest. But there are less-well known and equally dramatic sites that can be found near the intersection of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, with the grandest to be found in and near Chaco Canyon.

 These buildings were constructed at the same time as the cliff houses, but they are more mysterious. While Mesa Verde and the other cliff ruins in canyons throughout the region were clearly once habitations, the purpose(s) of the "Great Houses" of Chaco Canyon is ambiguous. For example, they contain many rooms, like the cliff houses, and the circular kiva chambers as well. But unlike the cliff dwellings, fireplaces and granaries are very few. If they were dwellings, then, where did they cook? And where did they store their food?

 

 

 

Many archaeologists today therefore believe that the Great Houses of Chaco were not full-time dwellings, but rather some sort of cultural centers, acting as gathering places for a more distributed population. This, despite the great size of the buildings, with hundreds of rooms, and their impressive height - some are as tall as five stories. Indeed, the buildings raised by the Chaco culture were among the largest buildings in the world at their time. And like the cliff dwellings, they were all built – and then abandoned - at roughly the same time. 

 

An Arizona Strip Sketchbook – Day 3

Not Here but There: A Wilderness Journal
From time to time I take a break from technology blogging and write about backcountry hiking and camping. This is one such entry, and you can find others at the Not Here but There: a Wilderness Journal.   The next day, I walked across a loop of the canyon to watch the sun probe in its depths to find the river, and this time could listened to the twittering of swallows plunging and soaring against the northern wall of the canyon, riding the updraft formed as it warmed in the sun. Again and again, a bird would suddenly wheel and dive, catching a meal as a hapless insect was wafted upwards from the safety of the shadows, and betrayed when its sparkling wings caught the sun.    Along this section of the North Rim, the land for some miles back is protected as a National Park, and therefore off limits to grazing, and protected from resource extraction. Almost all of the few dirt roads that once branched out to stock tanks and corrals are now slowly returning to some semblance of natural vegetation, unlike the land to the north, where only those plants that are sufficiently unappetizing to cattle can thrive.  

The single dirt track that branches off the road in from the north leads to the Lava Falls trailhead, which zigzags drops precipitously from the edge of the canyon, and drops rapidly down to the river, a half a mile below. The name of the trail derives from what must have been a spectacular event of only a few thousand years ago, when a lava flow cascaded in a flood of fire over the brink, presumably damning the Colorado far below in a cloud of steam. Over time, the force of the backed up river would have worn the dam away, or perhaps more cataclysmically torn it apart.

An Arizona Strip Sketchbook – Day 2

Not Here but There: A Wilderness Journal
From time to time I take a break from technology blogging and write about backcountry hiking and camping. This is one such entry, and you can find others at the Not Here but There: a Wilderness Journal.   The next morning, the dawn sun shone obliquely through last season's dead grass, igniting the silica in the dried stems, making the dry slope above my campsite gleam like a meadow after an ice storm. The welter of needles worn by Cholla cacti blazed more brightly, as if invested with St. Elmo's Fire rather than simply catching the brilliant light of the rising sun.

When I had stowed my gear, I drove north to St. George, the first town lying across the Utah border, to gas up before heading south again. St. George is exploding with growth, and seems like nothing so much as a piece of southwestern Florida somehow transported by night into the middle of the desert, there to open its eyes with surprise, blinking, in the bright sun of the new day.   The town is sourrounded by new construction, and each upscale, impeccably landscaped development is graced by its own substantial brick Church of Latter Day Saints house of worship, complete with tall white steeple.

Across the valley in the older part of town you can't help noticing a much grander temple, the oldest LDS church in Utah. Brigham Young broke ground for it himself in 1871, and even today it rises high above everything that surrounds it, commanding the valley.  The swampy ground upon which it was built was supposedly "packed with volcanic rock using a cannon — first employed by Napoleon during the French Revolution — as a pile driver. The temple itself was constructed using timbers hauled by oxcart from the ramparts of Mount Trumbull, 80 long miles to the southwest, along a dirt track I drove a few hours later.

An Arizona Strip Sketch Book – Day 1

Not Here but There: A Wilderness Journal
From time to time I take a break from technology blogging and write about backcountry hiking and camping. This is one such entry, and you can find others at the Not Here but There: a Wilderness Journal.   Returning from my first Linux Foundation board meeting ten days ago required a flight change in Las Vegas, and this gave me an excuse to invest a few dollars renting a Jeep Wrangler and a few days exploring northwest Arizona. My favorite pastime is poking around the parts of the US whose maps reveal neither towns, nor even paved roads. This is one of the last such areas I haven't already explored, and it goes by the name of the "Arizona Strip."    The first part of the name explains itself, given that most of the area lies in Arizona, although in fact the Strip extends up into southern Utah, and a bit west into Nevada as well. The feature that explains its emptiness is the nature of its border to the west and the south: the Grand Canyon – a gulf that along this lengthy stretch has not as yet been (and I hope will never be) violated by a bridge or adjacent highway.  In consequence, you can only reach the Strip from the north and east, and only then via one of a small number of dirt roads. For that matter, there's not much to be found to the east, either. Only to the north are there any towns at all.   

The emptiness of the Arizona Strip is also due to the fact that it is almost exclusively public land in all of the popular western flavors (National Park, National Monument, State Park, and the balance under the supervision of the Bureau of Land Management). At its greatest extent, the Strip is 150 miles wide, and almost as many again from north to south, and nowhere in that vast expanse can you find a single paved road. No paved roads, and no towns, gas stations or even running water, either  –  but a great deal of quietly (and often spectacularly) beautiful country can be enjoyed wherever you go.

Time and Redemption Among the Living and the Dead

Not Here but There: A Wilderness Journal

It had been six long weeks since I returned from a backcountry trip to Utah, and six exhausting weeks at that.  Thoroughly drained, it was high time to leave my demons behind (or try to), and seek comfort in the clean fall air of the White Mountains of New Hampshire.    

Saturday morning found me not on a trail that would lead to the dramatic viewpoints popular at peak-foliage time, but instead on one that would thread the valleys between the peaks, meander past beaver ponds, and eventually bring me back to my point of departure, suitably (I hoped) refreshed.  

The landscape I explored all that day proved to be unexpectedly spectral, haunted by the shadows of countless thousands of dead birches that loomed above a maturing understory of hemlock, spruce and maple.  The explanation for their presence was not hard to guess:  birch is a "pioneer" species with small, easily wind-borne seeds that sprout into seedlings that not only tolerate, but demand bright sunlight to survive.  Throughout the west, aspens are the opportunists that retake the clearings.  But in these northeastern woods, it is birch that is most likely to colonize areas burned by fire, or (like this) clearcut by man. 

But birch is not a long-lived tree.  The thousands of pioneers that together sprouted on these mountainsides a century ago had now together died, their reforesting mission accomplished.  In the years that followed, their twigs rotted and dropped, and then their larger branches.  Now, like hapless lepers, they raised only blunted limbs to the sky.

Playing the Canyon Slots

Not Here but There: A Wilderness Journal

After ten days of staying off the beaten track in Arizona and Utah, I decided to make an exception and visit a few of the slot canyons for which this part of the country is justly famous. Like many other visitors to the Grand Staircase of the Escalante National Monument,I chose Dry Forks Coyote Gulch, a drainage in the southeast corner of the Monument, into which three slot canyons empty in rapid succession: Peekaboo, Spooky, and Brimstone.

Upstream of where the trail enters, Dry Gulch itself becomes a slot canyon that can be followed for miles. Anywhere else, it would be an attraction in its own right, but its easy, winding path pales in comparison to the drama of the serpentine, and sometimes almost impassable, corridors of its more famous tributary slots.

Although I had not seen a soul in a week of wanderings in the Escalante, there were already three vehicles at the trailhead when I arrived early in the morning; there were three more by the time I left. And no surprise, because each of the slot canyons that can be accessed less than a mile from the trailhead is spectacular in its own right.

 

Like most visitors, I scaled Peekaboo first. The canyon enters from the north, emerging as a narrow cleft ten feet up the stone wall of the main canyon. After clambering up (using handholds) the canyon wall, and then up and over a modest pouroff, you work your way gradually uphill for .25 miles, past fins, dry whirlpools and modest pouroffs, looking up on occasion through arches that span the narrow canyon. At times, you need not only all of your arms and legs, but your back (and some ingenuity) as well to span, brace and lift yourself up and over obstructions. Eventually you emerge into the gravelly wash above, from which it's less than a half-mile hike due east to reach the next wash, which almost immediately dives down into the bedrock to form Spooky - the second slot canyon.

Backcountry Driving, Part II: A Practical Guide to Getting There (and Back Again)

Not Here but There: A Wilderness Journal

You have been warned
Entire text of a sign on a Lake District mountain road

Safe backcountry driving is one part experience and three parts caution and good sense. If you exercise the latter, there's no reason to get into trouble while acquiring the former. In this installment I'll provide some rules to keep in mind to keep you out of trouble, as well as offer some practical driving tips for driving in the southwest. While I'm hardly an expert or professional driver, I have driven several thousand miles of unpaved backcountry roads over the past ten years, and pass along what I've observed in that time for you to test on your own.

The first thing to keep in mind is that once you leave a paved road, you should assume that you're on your own. Cell phones will rarely work, and the more isolated your destination, the less likely it is that anyone is going to happen by to help if you're stuck, broken down, or out of gas. As a result, it's up to you to avoid any of those things happening, and it's also up to you to make the type of preparations that will get you out of a fix if you end up in one anyway.

Subscribe to Not Here but There: A Wilderness Journal