Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Devil's Highway - Part 4

*click the title for a greater gallery of megabitish pics*

The Lechuguilla Desert is named for a small spiny yucca more painfully known as shin-daggers.  This unforgiving expanse is lain against a seemingly inpenetrable wall of jagged granite, the Tinajas Altas Mountains; yet that is where one will find a sure source of water (if you can get to it) and hidden but easy passes leading to the Rio Colorado beyond.

Across the desert flats, the old El Camino is now maintained as a "drag road" by the US Border Patrol.  Wide, well-graded and sandy, their vehicles drag a simple rig of lashed tires that smooths the surface, making it impossible for illegal border crossers to not leave evidence of their presence.  Many of them have been dumped by coyotes (nefarious immigrant-traders) with little warning of the hardships they could be facing.

Tinajas Altas  ("High Tanks")

"The most important waterhole in the western United States."

This steep rocky chute hides ten natural rain catchments that can hold up to 20,000 gallons!  It is said there are up to 400 graves on the flat areas near the mouth of the canyon; all those lives squelched by the elements just yards from quenching their thirst.  Modern travelers have obliterated most of the markers.

Only the lowest tank is easy to get to.  Friends shoulder bottles of purified water while contemplating the unappealing alternative...if you think that's bad, you should have seen it the first time I was here!

Algae Art!!

The rest of the tanks are hidden among the boulders and crevasses above.  None are easy to get to...the exposed slab of bedrock at the base of the climb may be the least of your worries.  My dad chooses a crab-walking technique on the way down.

Seems we've been out in the desert for a while now, doesn't it?  Many folks end their adventure here and boogie north to Wellton on Interstate 8.  It's a good road most of the way and, every time I've been along there, well-used by the military...including camoflaged encampments and an impressive array of equipment.  On one such journey out of the range, I spotted an F-16 on the floor at my 10 o'clock and headed straight for me.  It screamed overhead and, presumably using our truck as a mock target, made two more unseen but ear-splitting passes.  Glad they're on our side!!

Manuevers Over the Davis Plain

There's just one leg left on this adventure called The Devil's Highway: from Tinajas Altas to Yuma.  It's slow going so best to just add another day.  North of the famous waterhole, Tinajas Altas Pass makes an easy cut through the mountains, depositing you onto the Davis Plain on the opposite side.  From there it skirts Vopoki Ridge and the Gila Mountains before running out into the surreal setting of manicured surburbia on the eastern outskirts of Yuma.  There's an even a street named "El Camino del Diablo" as a proud resident declared when queried (the dirt road can be difficult to find on that end), "Yes, this is El Camino.  I live here...that's my house!"  He had no clue the historic significance of the road.  *heavy sigh*

It was the only time I've done that leg of the journey, entering from the Yuma side with my father back in April of 2001.  Having gotten a late start, we came up short of the Fortuna Mine and made camp in Woodcutters Canyon.  Before sunset, we were visited by a buggy-driving Marine and his gorgeous australian shepherd.  It may have been an informal check-up, as permits were mentioned, but the guy was very interesting and friendly.  He said we might see some action out on the Davis Plain the next day, as shown in the photos above. The helicopters were shooting off flares and doing quick touch-downs / lift-offs.  They didn't seem to care about us being there but we slowly minded our own business anway...so all was cool.  The marine also gave me GPS coordinates of a crash-site out in the Kofa Mountains...not much left of it (an A4, I think) from hitting a ridge after the pilot ejected.  Word is they'll clean up any secret equipment very quickly, but older aircraft and junk are often just left out there.

Morning haze accents craggy ridges of the Gila Mountains.

Warning signs are spaced within sight of each other on the western side of El Camino.  I figure it's a good idea to obey them...the plains beyond are a high-tech playground for the Yuma Marine Air Corps.  All of the interesting stuff you're allowed to see is on the other side anyway.

This journey gets a bit more personal here at the end, because it turned out to be the last I would take with my father.  A year later, he died suddenly of heart disease.  I think he knew it was coming.  On this day we hiked into Spook Canyon, a winding box that cuts deeply through Vopoki Ridge.  You can drive 'off-road' a bit to cut some distance to the mouth of the canyon...otherwise, just use your topo maps and go for the obvious features.  We spent about three hours exploring; the sense of isolation out here is incredible.  It was during this time that my Dad told me of his final wishes for the placement of his ashes in New Mexico.  He also talked about needing a purpose to keep on living after retirement...neither of which he seemed to be accomplishing (retiring or finding a clear purpose).  He surely meant it as advice but I also read it as lamentation...he'd done a lot to drive his own children away.  I'd come to terms with much of that before he passed away but I try to remember the lesson every day.

Purple Carpet

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Devil's Highway - Part 3

The Tule and Cabeza Prieta Mountains

West of the Pinacate is a long section of roadway enclosed by a sandy trench, one of the few places you might actually need 4-wheel drive. (If it had been raining heavily you wouldn't have made it past Los Playas before the Pinacate...don't expect me to tell you about all the hazards you might run into!)  Just keep your momentum going and the landscape hums by pretty quickly.  Ahead lay the Tule and Cabeza Prieta Mountains...one in the same range really, the former named by the Spaniards for the reeds found growing near water tanks; the latter for the lava-capped mountains further north and west in the range.  For practical purposes, the Tule Mountains are mostly south of the road, while the Cabeza Prietas lay to the north.  The vegetation in these mountains is sparser, the landscape more exposed. As for scenery, it is my favorite.

Graveyard Pass is an austere but gentle entry into the area.
Several markers can be found here. 

Cabeza Prieta Peak ("Dark Head")

This valley floor is laden with a carpet of blooming brittlebush.

The international border is just two miles away, in the next range of hills to our south;
as El Camino del Diablo continues to snake westward.

It was upon this same stretch of road that my Dad, my brother, Malcolm, and I once came upon this mysterious scene. The fresh remains of a campfire, built in a tire rim, indicated the car's occupants were here the previous night.  With nefarious activity easily imagined and wary of leaving my truck out in the open as we walked to Tule Tank, I pulled well off the road and parked out of sight. Before setting out we saw a tow truck. When we returned from our walk, the car was gone.

Tule Tank

There's water here?  Yeah, and here's a temporarily introduced species, Canis australis shepherdus (designation: Topaz), partaking of the stagnant rain water that has collected in this natural catchment.  Seriously though, this adventure is not for the dogs; lesson learned...lots o' prickly things to get stuck in paws.

I camped in this area with my father where where we were treated to numerous sonic booms in the morning, though the jet aircraft making them were eerily difficult to spot.  The road from Tule Well to Christmas Pass, with its collection of lumpish hoodoos, I think, is one of the most scenic places in the preserve...though I've not seen much wildlife beyond birds and lizards; not even a lot of insects to bother you most of the year.

Christmas Pass
was allegedly built on one of those holiday-days in the early 1930s.  It is little more than a squeeze between a wash and the end of a ridgeline.  On the farside it offers an impact-hardened campsite good for large or small groups.

Last light glows on the Sierra Pinta.

I took this photo of Comet Hale-Bopp from Christmas Pass
before sunrise on the morning of March 23, 1997.

Cruising north from Christmas Pass you can reach Interstate 8 (east of Tacna) in less than two hours, with exploration of the Mohawk Dunes an option on your way. (A real treat during a good wildflower season.)  The one time we drove out that way, a pair of redtail hawks raising a brood in the arms of a saguaro were forced to put up with my photo pestering for a few moments.

The other way out of the Cabeza Prieta Mountains is to continue west across the Lechuguilla Desert; forboding in expanse but holding the promise of dependable water in the mountains on the other side. Such was not to be fulfilled for one alleged family, whose only cistern of water fell from their wagon and shattered. Two of the men set out to find the water across the valley but could not; and so returned to die with their family...eight men, women and children succumb to the desert heat.

An occasionally-morphing memorial and/or road marker consisting of a circle, a line, and the number 8, can be found at the site where the family is alleged to have perished...pictured above with the distinctive Tordillo Mountain to the north.  The line, itself alleged to point the way to Tinajas Altas--the water tanks eight miles across the valley--points to the wrong canyon anyway.

Continued in Part 4...

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Birthday Party Videos

Brendan's first film-making experience, as he records and narrates during the inflation of the jumping castle for his birthday party.

Then we have two minutes of merry mayhem
as I submit to a waterballoon assault by all the kids!

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Devil's Highway - Part 2

*click the title for a greater gallery of megabitish pics*

Where were we?  Oh yeah, we've just entered an aerial military-combat training range, and wildlife refuge, on the remote southwestern border of Arizona.  We have arranged our permit and called to check in before entering the range, so we should not be a target of any such training...but there's always a good chance of seeing/hearing activity.  How about a sonic boom before breakfast?

Agua Dulce Mountains

It's a bit of a trek across the creosote-flats of the Growler and San Cristobal Washes.  It doesn't get much better upon arrival to the appropriately-named Cholla Pass; the jumping variety are thick.  There is a primitive campsite here; but...why?  The most popular campsite in the Agua Dulce Mountains (Sweet Water) is at Papago Well.  It features, uh, coupla picnic tables.  Shunning popularity even in the wilderness, my favorite campsite is an even lonlier bit of cholla-free desert-pavement where the road bends around the north side of Sheep Mountain; the unmarked green dot on the map below.  We sure had a purdy sunset there.

Last light on a ridge of Sheep Mountain.

Mother Nature paints a sunset tapestry behind Papago Mountain.

Sequence of a single sunset
behind the Sierra Pinta (Painted Mountains).

El Camino cloudscape.

In 1916, prospector Dave O'Neil died in the hills that now bear his name. According to Kirk Bryan: "His burros wandered away from camp in a storm, and after searching for them at least a day he died with his head in a mudhole." The grave has been desecrated at least three times...the first by the very men who buried him, who returned to retrieve O'Neil's tobacco which they had buried with him, "...and, lad, that tobacco chawed just as good as if it had been my pocket all them two weeks."

These two photos show off two of the local seasons, such as they are...a wet March and an earlier dry November.  On my last visit, the grave had become something of a shrine with offerings of coins and small stones.  What's up with that?  Leave the guy a pack of smokes!

We have arrived at the lava fields of El Pinacate!

Not quite as spectacular as its Mexican counterpart, this part of the Pinacate is the northern edge of a 30 x 40-mile shield of volcanoes, cinder cones, and ancient lava flows spilling over the border.  It's also where we pick up a more accurate reckoning the ancient El Camino del Diablo, having more indelibly etched itself upon this harder ground.  Mexican Highway 2 continues a diverted but mostly parallel course not far across the border.

A cinder cone bookends the Sierra Pinta.

Rising to 4000 feet, the Sierra Pinacate lie far to the south in Mexico.

Cinder cone and grassy dunes.

Diaz Crater - interesting only in its sublime oddity.  It is a nearly flat mar crater; walls eroded and center filled in with silt...but still visible in the pattern it has left on the ground.  It was discovered on satellite photos of the area and later confirmed on the ground.  Using those same photos I determined a barely-higher bit of nearby ground from where I could make a more modest photographic effort.  The Sierra Pinta march to the northwest in the background; their sudden transition to a lighter color (behind a foreground cindercone) is not an illusion of distance but a faultline which neatly cleaves the range in twain.

1871 Nameer.  That's all we know.
Continued in Part 3...