Road Trip VIII, Days 10-13, LA to Arizona’s Chiricahuas: Hidden Treasures and the Sisterhood of the Traveling Avocados

Is anything more satisfying than seeing or experiencing or eating something hardly anyone else gets to? I think that’s why we humans love secret hideouts, bragging about buying stuff on sale, and scarce foods like truffles (not the chocolate kind, which are much less rare and infinitely more delicious).

I’m writing this from a special place which has been, in fact, a historical hideout—for the Apache leader Cochise, and also for Gerónimo—and which is so little known as to count as a hidden treasure. The “town” is named Portal, but it’s the portal to the Chiricahuas, a region of such grandeur it belongs more in the class of the Grand Canyon than in the obscurity of this southeasternmost corner of Arizona. One side of the mountains is actually a national monument; we’ve camped there before but I never blogged about it and don’t have those pictures accessible. But no worries: the non-monument side, where we’re staying in a cabin (since it was starting to snow, no camping)…THIS side manages to be just as spectacular.

How to describe the Chiricahuas? Soaring rock towers in gold and orange…

caves and hoodoos carved by wind…

…presiding over a deep valley of scrub oak and sycamore.

I also was startled by several javelinas, aggressive little wild piggies that burst out of the brush and give you a heart attack. Alas, I wasn’t able to grab my camera in time, so I had to settle for this picture of their diggings next to this barrel cactus:

Desert riparian: that’s the term for the rare phenomenon of streamside vegetation in the midst of drought. And along with the sunrise-colored rock, that habitat is what makes this place so special.

The only people we’ve met who have heard of this place are birders, and for good reason: as a little island of Sierra in the midst of the Sonoran desert, the Chiricahua offers a familiar haven to birds usually found only in the mountains of Mexico. Birders from all over the world congregate here every spring to “bag” rare species of hummingbird, and that most prized of sightings, the Elegant Trogon.

We aren’t birders. Also, it’s February. So we make do with what we can spot: turkeys!

But what about those avocados?

Getting back to the joy of rare things: our cousins in LA have a 100 year-old avocado tree, a huge beauty that bears fruit like green butter. When we left them, they gifted us with half a dozen, which we have been ripening serially as we travel. So, Avocado #1 went into a quesadilla in a motel outside of Joshua Tree National Park, where, sadly, a freezing windstorm was filling the air with dust and blasting our hopes of camping.

#2 met a similar fate in Tucson, where, still stymied by wind and dust, we holed up with map and weather reports and figures out where we could find some clear air to recreate in.

So Avocado #3 had the honor today of gracing an arugula salad…and the front porch of our cabin. Thanks, cousins!

Where will the next Traveling Avocados end up? Stay tuned.

Road Trip VI, Days 12-15, Anza-Borrego Desert Park: Musings on Rarity

I know–usually I title my posts based on the start and end points of the days in question. But would you read a post about “LA to Scottsdale?” Me neither.

Yes, we left LA last Friday and are now visiting friends in the greater Phoenix area. But in between we visited Son One up in the San Bernardino Mountains–think 5,000 feet above the valley, where the air is scented with cedar and more different kinds of pine than I can remember–and from there spent nearly three days in Anza-Borrego Desert Park.

Never heard of it? Neither had we, until recently. It’s only the second-largest state park in California (and simultaneously a national monument), but it’s pretty much in the middle of nowhere: halfway between San Diego and Palm Springs. You have to WANT to go there.

The Mate and I went on two gloriously sunny hikes with our friends, noticing the touches of spring the recent rains have brought. I saw lots of tiny golden poppies, and red chuparosa looking like the custom-made hummingbird feeder it is.

Hummingbird feeder.

Hummingbird feeder.

But the flowers that really caught my attention were the singletons.

In a whole giant desert full of agave, I saw exactly ONE blooming.

Also called Century Plant, 'cause supposedly that's how often it blooms

Also called Century Plant, ’cause supposedly that’s how often it blooms

And traditional-looking barrel-type cactus? Same thing: ONE.

Actually I've no idea what kind of cactus this is. Anyone?

Actually I’ve no idea what kind of cactus this is. Anyone?

So which pictures do I post and write about? Why, those two. They’re not the prettiest things we saw, just the rarest. Rare = Special.

Why is that? Is the answer too obvious, or too subtle to perceive?


Road Trip V, Days 35-37, Yucca Valley (Joshua Tree N.P.) to Lone Pine, CA: Why Big Rocks Rock

Let me rephrase that. Why DO big rocks rock?

The Mate and I just spent two days looking at and clambering around on the big rocks of Joshua Tree. (“Clambering”–what a great word!) We’re still feeling high. And I’m trying to figure out why.

Is it because big rocks erupting out of the earth make us wonder what else is under our feet?


Is it because their whimsical shapes and configurations make us think about geologic time, or God?



Or let our imaginations romp to giants stacking their toy blocks?


Maybe they’re just pretty, especially in spring.


But my favorite theory? Big ol’ rocks bring out the lil’ kid in all of us.

imageWhat do you think?

Road Trip V, Days 32-34, Flagstaff to Yucca Valley, CA: Grand Canyon, Leprosy and Redemption

It’s hard to imagine something called “bright angel” being evil, but that’s how I felt about the Bright Angel Trail. It’s the one that takes you from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon down to the Colorado River. 9 1/2 miles, 4,380 vertical feet. In the desert.


The Bright Angel Trail and I have a history.

27 years ago, before The Mate was my mate, we joined a small group of friends for the Trip Of a Lifetime, down the Colorado River by raft. Or half the Colorado; our trip was only 6 days, which meant that we stopped mid-canyon to say goodbye to the river and hike up…you guessed it.

The night before our take-out, one of our friends was stung on the foot by a scorpion. (The guides warned us about going barefoot, but it was night, he had to pee, and…yeah.) “George” spent the rest of the night soaking his foot in the river, but when morning came there was nothing for it: he had to hike up the Bright Angel Trail.

Another friend, an elite marathoner, volunteered to run the five miles ahead to Indian Springs to find a ranger. Surely they’d take care of George, maybe let him ride a mule back up.

Nope. You know all that “hike at your own risk” language you see on signs? That’s what it means. Our running friend came back down the trail with a pair of crutches and a pair of Benadryl. The rest was up to George, and us.

We took turns carrying George’s pack. We stopped to rest as often as we could so he could elevate his swollen foot. But meanwhile the temperature was climbing. Did I mention it was summer? In the desert? The slower we went, the hotter we got, and that heat started to take its toll.

First George’s girlfriend started showing signs of heat exhaustion. We took her pack. Then another friend got clammy and lightheaded, so we took hers too. By now all of us healthy ones were carrying packs on front and back–not a good strategy for maximizing air circulation. We continued to stop often, pouring water over our heads. Poor George on his crutches never complained, but he couldn’t keep from moaning softly. I remember he was wearing white–or he was until the red dust and the water changed his look a little.

In fact, we all must have looked terrible. I know this because, when we neared the rim and the crowd of down-hikers thickened, they all stared at us. And, I’m not making this up, one little boy said, “Look, Mom–lepers!”

Not the most enjoyable hike I’ve been on. I remember almost nothing about what the trail looked like, other than the end, which looked like heaven.



Fast-forward to 2004. Our youngest had just turned 12, the minimum age for a paddle trip. Once again we put together a group of friends; once again we booked our trip for the top half of the canyon. (The lower half is longer, more dangerous, and more expensive.) Once again, we faced the Bright Angel Trail on the last day. And once again, she kicked out butts.

No scorpion this time, but a couple of members of our party, though in good shape, were not able to deal with the heat. That whole thing about carrying two packs, stopping often, pouring water on our heads? Yeah–we did all that. Again. At least no one called us lepers this time.

So there’s a reason I have barely any photos of the Bright Angel Trail. Both times up, I was too busy helping miserable friends, and feeling miserable myself, to pay attention to scenery.

Nope--don't remember that.

Nope–don’t remember that.

But this week? Redemption. I got a whole glorious five hours alone to hike down the trail and back up. I hiked as fast as I could down for two hours–not long enough to get down to the river, of course, but long enough to get to Panorama Point.

That little line disappearing into the distance? Panorama Point Trail.

That little line disappearing into the distance? Panorama Point Trail.

River in View! O the Joy!

Ah, the Inner Gorge! Can't see this from the top. Can you say Vishnu Schist?

Ah, the Inner Gorge! Can’t see this from the top. Can you say Vishnu Schist?

And as I hiked back up, at my own blessed pace, on a beautiful spring day in the mid-60s, I celebrated by taking all the pictures I couldn’t take before…and feeling powerful gratitude. Gratitude at being allowed to return in the SPRING, when–who knew??–desert hiking is a breeze!

Hey cactus flowers, where were you when I needed you, those summers before?

Hey cactus flowers, where were you when I needed you, those summers before?

Indian Gardens in March is alive with redbud and fresh new cottonwood leaves.

Indian Gardens in March is alive with redbud and fresh new cottonwood leaves.

So, me and Bright Angel? It’s all good now between us. She totally redeemed herself.

All is forgiven.

All is forgiven.

Road Trip V, Days 29-31, Dallas to Flagstaff: News Flash, Scenic Texas NOT An Oxymoron!

Texas, I owe you an apology. You know you’re my favorite love-to-hate state. You’ve heard me say that someone must have picked you up and shook you so that all your scenery ran down into one corner, down at Big Bend. Oh, you pretend you don’t give a gosh durn, Texas, but I know I’ve hurt your feelings.

No scenery in Texas? I stand corrected. The Mate and I have discovered Capstone Canyon. It’s a lil’ ol’ state park about 90 miles south of Amarillo. For hikers and bikers and campers like us, it’s a lil’ ol’ slice of joy.

Crumbly red rock striated like glittery bacon with stripes of quartz:

imagePeople-imitating red hoodoos like something you’d see in Arches National Park:


Slickrock a la 127 Hours:


Balancing white capstones fallen from the canyon rim like giant clamshells dropped by giant seagulls:




Yes, bison. Wandering around free. Capstone is apparently home to the Official Texas State Bison Herd. (Note to other western states: do YOU have a bison herd? Why not? Talking to YOU, Colorado!)

Now add to these images a perfect blue sky, 75 degrees with a cooling breeze, the honey scent of blooming mesquite and the buzz of happy bees, and…scene. Bucolic western scene. Within a stone’s throw of Amarillo! Texas, please accept my apology.

How The Mate and I wished we had planned to camp in Capstone Canyon! But we had only paid a day fee, and changing our minds would have meant driving all the way back to the entrance. Plus we wanted to make some miles that night to get us closer to Grand Canyon. Plus there were, ahem…some basketball games we wanted to watch. But we will be back to spend a couple of nights, weather permitting, and I can’t wait.

Leaving the scenic area, Red Rover climbed up out of the rolling redness and suddenly–boom, there we were back on the North Texas plains, and let me tell you, they are PLAIN. As in plain ugly. But now The Mate and I know their pretty little secret: beneath that flat brownness lies a curvy red heart.

If only more Texans knew about it! No one we know has ever heard of Capstone, or its more famous cousin Palo Duro Canyon. On the other hand…maybe it’s better this way. Bison don’t really enjoy company.

Road Trip V, Days 6-8, Bishop to Albuquerque: A Desert Buffet

Foodies, sorry–that’s “desert” with one “s.” You’ll have to try someone else’s blog for the caloric kind. I’m writing about dirt today.

We just spent a day and a night in Death Valley, where the dirt looks like this:

(Courtesy Wikipedia)

(Courtesy Wikipedia)

and this:

(Courtesy Wikipedia)

(Courtesy Wikipedia)

We were hoping for wildflowers, but a heat wave a couple of weeks ago seems to have sped them through their cycle too fast. We enjoyed a few glimpses of yellow and purple, but most of the color came from…dirt.

The cool thing about America’s deserts, though, is that they come in infinite variety. You may be familiar with the red-rock areas like Arches and Grand Canyon; we are, which is one reason we didn’t route ourselves that way this year.

Sorry, Zion, not this year!

Sorry, Zion, not this year!


Instead we found ourselves discovering little patches of Amazing, like the tiny tip of Nevada where we saw Joshua Trees and wild burros,

(Courtesy Wikimedia)

(Courtesy Wikimedia)

or the western edge of New Mexico, where the earth seems to have neglected to clean up the results of a brief spell of vomit:

(Courtesy Wikimedia)

(Courtesy Wikimedia)

Of course, this being the weirdest US weather year in recent history, everything we saw while pulling into Albuquerque was covered in snow, and I was too chilled to stop and take pictures. But I think I’ve made my point for now, which is that we Americans are SO lucky!! We don’t have our just deserts–we have a whole glorious smorgasbord of sand and dirt and rock to choose from.

So the next time you feel deserted? Think about it–is that really such a bad thing to be?