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View of Mt. Jefferson as I drove to Bend.

One of Tara’s summer classes this term was geology field camp. Oregon State University has a great geology program, and Tara has field trips as part of a class multiple times a year. But field camp is when the entire class is on location. This latest class was 5 weeks out in the desert of eastern Oregon, near a tiny town called Mitchell. OSU geology students have been going out to the field camp location for so long that locals in Mitchell refer to them as “dirt nerds.”

The students had only two days off during the entire class. In addition to those two days, once a week they did get what the professor called “free days,” which were not so much free, as a few mandatory field trip days. The professor felt these were days off because the material was not testable, but students were still expected to learn. On one of these field trip days, which would be around the Bend, Oregon area, I got permission from the professor to meet up with the group when they went out to Smith Rock.

It’s a 4 hour drive to Bend from my home. After I arrived I checked in with my AirBnb host and then got some coffee while I waited for Tara to let me know where they were. It was clear immediately that either I was in a very geology-friendly town, or PALATE is a geology-friendly coffee shop. In the bathroom I found this gorgeous giant rock with a note that said, “I thought the Bolivian Rose Quartz needed a friend.” Not sure if what I saw was the rose quartz, or if this rock is the companion. I got my coffee and took it outside to enjoy the sun, and saw that the entire courtyard was surrounded by rocks. There was a lot of obsidian – very common in this highly volcanic part of the US.

In the bathroom of the coffee shop.

Courtyard of the coffee shop.

Tara got in touch with me right away because the group had come into a zone with cell phone service (not at all commonplace out there in the desert). They said they were on a hike and expected to arrive at Smith Rock State Park around 4pm.

With hours to kill, I had time to play in Bend. I used my AllTrails app to find something quick and easy, and soon found myself walking along the Deschutes River South Canyon Trail. I walked first toward the center of town, along a very pretty waterfront walk, clearly a hit with summer tourists. The trail crossed the river and I headed back out of town for an unexpectedly great 3-mile loop back to my car.

Walking the Deschutes River Trail in Bend, Oregon.


desert blossom

As the trail got closer to the city center, there were murals and outdoor coffee shops and people using all kinds of wheeled contraptions on the paved trail.

I get a kick out of duck butts.

This is the bridge I used to cross the river and head back out of town.

The Deschutes River South Canyon Trail provides educational signboards along the way that taught me about the health of the river, the fish, the flora and fauna in the area, as well as some geological perspective. There are also name plates that identified trees and bushes. It was nice to see a lot of people on the trail enjoying the weather and the outdoors, but people do tend to visit Bend, Oregon for that reason.

Lots of people were in the water on this warm day.

Through the arches I could see a woman fishing on the other side of the river.

The trail is in good condition and hugs the river when possible.

View of the Deschutes River from the bridge at the far end of the loop trail. Clearly, at this point, I had left city boundaries.

Once I found my Jeep again, I drove out to Smith Rock State Park. I arrived before the kids and had time to relax in the shade while I waited. Soon the OSU vans showed up and I joined the group. I listened while the professor took them all to the ledge and pointed out stuff they should notice about the formations surrounding us.

If you’ve ever seen a photo of Smith Rock, you’ll recognize it. It’s a cliff formation surrounded by comparatively level ground, with the Crooked River winding its way through the base of of the cliffs. It’s the biggest, most eye-catching thing around. The tuff and basalt cliffs are famous for being the place where the sport of rock climbing began in the States. Trails for all levels of athletes wrap around the huge rocks on all sides. I’ve been on a lot of them in visits over the years.

The iconic shot of beautiful Smith Rock State Park, looking East.

This is a less commonly photographed angle, looking due North.

Tara spotted this shallow cave and had to climb inside to explore.

I was especially sad not have my good camera when we hiked down to the bottom of the valley, because we spotted this astonishing sight. Can you see it?

Yes, the black speck between the two peaks is exactly what you think it is.

Our visit to the State Park was very brief! The professor had been so excited to show the students so many things all day long that they were way behind schedule. They absolutely had to get back to Mitchell by a certain time, because they had reserved dinners at Tiger Town Brewing Company. When we were released we hurried down to the trails at river level.

Tara and I talked a blue streak because we hadn’t seen each other in weeks, and we barely had time to look around us when it was time to jog up the steep steep hill to get back up to the parked cars. Tara got permission to ride back to Mitchell with me, to our delight. We were able to continue our chatting and catching up during the hour and a half drive out to the desert again.

The students were clearly pleased to be at Tiger Town. I gather that most of the time they eat camp meals prepared on site (Tara said the food is good!), but once in a while there is a splurge and the class gets to eat dinner out. They had to buy their own beers from the seasonal selection of craft brews. I paid for my own meal (and my own beer. I opted for the Danger Melon.) and the great staff at Tiger Town agreed to put my order in with the kids.’ For the next hour I sat outside in the warm evening air and listened to the kids talk about what was on their minds, joke with each other and with their professor. After a while they decided I was ok, and they included me in their conversations. It was a treat to have this peek into Tara’s world that I usually don’t get to see. All too soon it was time to go and I hugged my goodbyes and made my way back to my Airbnb room.

Looking at volcanic peaks in the background, rising over the Crooked River.

The next morning I left early in order to get home early, but I simply was not able to drive past Peter Skene Ogden State Scenic Viewpoint without stopping. From the highway I could see the snowy peaks of volcanoes and wanted to pull the car over so I could get a photo. Early in the morning, I could access the parking lot, but the road to the cliff was still gated. I parked and walked through the dewy grass, fretting a little about the time I was wasting by stopping to look. But oh, it was worth it.

Sadly, the elevation of the Viewpoint was lower than the highway and it was not a good view of the volcanoes. However, there was an incredible view of the canyon.

Mt. Washington, Black Butte, and Three Fingered Jack are barely visible above the trees.

Train bridge over the canyon.

Looking into the rising sun over aptly named Crooked River High Bridge.

It was really time to get back on the road though, and I hustled back to the Jeep and headed north again on Highway 97. I snapped a few shots while driving (bad Crystal habit, do not try this at home), then I settled in and spent the rest of the day driving back to Rainier.

Mt. Jefferson peeks around a scenic bluff beside Highway 97.

I was about to enter the forest and leave the fabulous views behind, so I took one parting shot of Mt. Jefferson and then put the lens cap back on the camera.

Is it cliche to call this a natural tapestry? How else would you describe these colours and swirls and dynamic fingerpainted streaks across the mountainsides?

Is it cliche to call this a natural tapestry? How else would you describe these colours and swirls and dynamic fingerpainted streaks across the mountainsides?

Thursday morning we rose early as usual. Well, to be honest, we’ve been “sleeping in” till around 6:30 this whole vacation. We typically rise at 5am on a weekday, so this is more relaxing. Arno has been so indulgent and supportive of me on this trip; often rising to make coffee so I can disappear with the camera, and several times entertaining himself while I write blog posts and then again while I post them at some borrowed wireless stop. This morning we skipped the breakfast routine in order to make an early tourist stop.

Me with my coffee at Dante's View

Looking north toward me with my coffee at Dante’s View

Looking down onto Death Valley from Dante's View

Looking down onto Death Valley from Dante’s View

The white path is what we walked on the day before. The black curved strip is the paved road. From Dante's View we could actually discern little black people specks on the white.

The white path is what we walked on the day before. The black curved strip is the paved road. From Dante’s View we could actually discern little black people specks on the white.

Our goal for the morning was to hit Dante’s view (5475 feet elevation) in the morning light. It made sense that with the sun rising in the east, the view of Badwater Basin (5577 feet below) would be best in the morning. It was a great view despite the hazy air, and we got a better sense of where we had walked the previous afternoon. The area that we assumed was packed flat by mere human feet alone, coincided with a drain channel in the basin. People seem to have walked to the edges of the channel, rather than forcibly widening a walking path beyond what was necessary. This information was easily ascertained from our great height, and made me less irritated with the tourists.

Arno makes breakfast on the tailgate, at the site of a supposed ghost town called Furnace.

Arno makes breakfast on the tailgate, at the site of a supposed ghost town called Furnace. The vastness of the desert appeals to me.

We bought only a couple gallons to get us safely to the next gas station, because gas prices in the park were a bit steep.

We bought only a couple gallons to get us safely to the next gas station, because gas prices in the park were a bit steep.

After the view, we backtracked to the dirt roads again to find a ghost town because Arno was hoping we might find something cool. There turned out to be only minimal evidence of mining operations, and I hardly think the nomer “town” was appropriate. If the place had ever been a town, there would surely be more residue. Today there is a framed mine shaft with a steel cage around it (for safety we assumed), and nothing else but a leftover pile of tailings. I wrote for my blog while Arno cooked breakfast.

mine shaft

mine shaft

Breaking News! Death Valley has now been officially recognized by the World Meteorological Organization as the hottest spot on the planet. On July 10, 1913, a temperature of 134 F was measured at the Furnace Creek Ranch. Previously the record was believed to have been set at El Azizia, Libya, but the WMO determined that the inexperienced observer mistakenly recorded the temperature 7 degrees too high in 1922 when he used replacement instruments.

The courtyard of Scotty's Castle. Family living quarters on the left, and guest quarters on the right.

The courtyard of Scotty’s Castle. Family living quarters on the left, and guest quarters on the right.

We calculated our time available, and were saddened to have to cross the Racetrack Playa off our itinerary. That’s the place where rocks appear to have been pushed across the dry desert floor. Instead we aimed for Scotty’s Castle; our last stop before leaving the park.

We drove almost 80 miles to Scotty’s Castle, still in the park. This truly is a ginormous park; apparently the largest National Park outside of Alaska, and the 5th largest in the U.S. at 5,269 square miles. The trip took about two hours, and at one point we climbed high up into the mountains and were able to look behind us and spot Mt. Whitney. There are 85 air miles between Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the contiguous United States, and Mt. Whitney, at 14,495 feet, the highest point. (They’re also in the same state!)

Looking down into the living room from the second floor balcony

Looking down into the living room from the second floor balcony

Prior to this trip I had heard about Scotty’s Castle, but had no idea what it was.  We were in for a treat! This amazing Spanish style house is also called Death Valley Ranch. It was built by Albert and Bessie Johnson, two young and wealthy adventure-seekers from Chicago. Scotty (Walter Scott), our tour guide told us, was famous for being famous. He began working for Buffalo Bill Cody in his Wild West Show, but after being fired, began one heck of an investment fraud. Scotty duped many, but when he found physically disabled Chicagoan Albert Johnson, he thought he had hit the jackpot. What were the odds that Johnson would ever take the trouble to visit Death Valley and discover that Scotty’s famed gold mine didn’t exist?

Bessie's fabulous Spanish kitchen

Bessie’s fabulous Spanish kitchen

The dining room. Scotty's initials are on the porcelain plates. I want to know how he pulled that one off.

The dining room. Scotty’s initials are on the porcelain plates. I want to know how he pulled that one off.

Johnson did come to Death Valley however, and Scotty desperately cooked up a plan with his buddies to fake a pistol battle and robbery in a desert canyon, intended to scare the bejeebers out of Johnson and send him howling back home. The buddies accidentally shot Scotty’s brother in the leg, and the whole plot was revealed. In the meantime, Johnson was having the time of his life, and all his fantasies about the Wild West had come true in that one crazy afternoon. So he continued to fund Scotty, who looked after the property that the Johnsons began acquiring in 1915.

dragons everywhere

dragons everywhere

Bessie and Albert built the gorgeous mansion near a generous spring that supplied power and water. They built Scotty his own room in the mansion, as well as his own house, 4 miles up the canyon. When the Johnsons were away, Scotty used the setting to dupe a growing list of investors in his gold mine, and not one of them saw a return on their investment except Johnson, who got a mad storyteller and a desert guide out of the bargain.

Today the mansion is a museum, owned by the Park Service. The place is stuffed with all the original furnishings, to include the leather curtains, a refrigerator and freezer, and Albert’s own invented electric fixtures. Since I am a dragon collector, I was delighted to see dragons scattered throughout the place. Though Bessie was an intensely devout Christian, and took it upon herself to preach every Sunday, she apparently loved the mythical as well. Our tour ended in the music room (where Bessie held her sermons), and we were treated to a song from their Welte-Mignon Pipe Organ.

One of the buildings of Palmetto

One of the buildings of Palmetto

Finally we left the park and bent our way north, hoping to find some greenery to camp in for the night. We found the ghost town of Palmetto, right beside the highway. It is the site of lots of broken down stone buildings and is much more interesting than the one we investigated in Death Valley. So Arno got his ghost town fix, which made me happy.

The mountains in a darkening sunset as we made camp in Big Pine

The mountains in a darkening sunset as we made camp in Big Pine

The truck was almost running on fumes when we finally made it to Big Pine, California. After feeding our ride, the attendant told us we could camp right there in town. The spot we found was unexpectedly beautiful. We parked the truck and carried our gear across a creek by stepping on stones. We fell asleep to the sound of rushing water; a different environment entirely from Death Valley.

North Six-Shooter Peak

Thursday morning we packed up and left the beautiful little Hamburger Rock campsite. We stopped a few times on the way so that I could snap a last couple of photos of North and South Six-Shooter Peaks, on our way back to the highway. We headed back toward Moab to replenish supplies of dry ice and water.

South Six-Shooter Peak

We had enough gas for the return because we had stopped at the tiny gas station at Needles Outpost on our way in, the first day. There are two ancient gas pumps, and price is about $6.85/gal so I decided to get two gallons to make sure I could get back to Moab. Arno helped me get the thing going. (I had forgotten how to operate those old things. Remember back when we had to lift the nozzle in the side of the pump, then crank down the long handle on the side of the pump to open the flow, then watch the plastic numbers flip behind the glass?) As it clunked into gear, Arno proceeded to tell me a story about gas a long time ago…and I forgot all about my stupid expensive pump. Luckily we caught it at $27.50 for four gallons!

In the meantime, we met Lizard Lady. The kids had spotted some northern whiptail lizards sunning themselves on rocks outside. When I went to pay for my gas, the woman running the cash register noticed the kids and went ballistic! She opened a window and yelled at them, “Don’t kill my lizards!” We tried to assure her that our children would never kill the lizards, to which she responded, “oh, not intentionally!” Poor woman was very very upset and could not take her eyes off the three teenagers placidly watching lizards in the parking lot.

Three Gossips to the left of the road, The Organ and Towel of Babel to the right

After we had our supplies, we found parking spots in the shade at the downtown Information Center, then made sandwiches for lunch. It was hot and dry and the bread dried out before we were able to finish them. Sated, we decided to browse the shops a little. Miguel was still feeling sick and laid down in the truck again, and the rest of us took off. We had the most fun at a T-shirt shop. The entire place was filled with blank T-shirts and hoodies, of all colours and styles and sizes imaginable. The walls were blanketed in T-shirt decals. There must have been thousands of them. We chose the clothing we wanted, then chose the image we wanted, then the shop owners pressed it for us in just a couple minutes. We were able to have them remove parts of the designs too. For example, I had them scratch off “Moab, Utah” from my design, but I had them leave the artist’s name at the bottom corner.

A desert queen

Our next adventure was to head into Arches National Park. Miguel was still feeling sick, so he laid down in the truck – still in the shade at the Information Center. The rest of us left in the Dragon Wagon. At the entrance, a park ranger handed me a park paper (like they always do), and the cover story about how Arches National Park receives over a million visitors every single year would have made Edward Abbey aghast. We made our way in, and were treated with wonderful sights along the way, as was the case in Canyonlands. We stopped to look at a rock in the shape of Queen Nefartiti’s profile, and we saw rocks aptly named Three Gossips. Right from the road, we were able to spot the Windows Arches. With my zoom lens, it was like we actually drove out there!

North and South Windows Arches

View of “The Windows Section” with the La Sal mountains in the background

Balanced Rock

We stopped at one short path, and walked around balanced rock. With only half a day left, we had chosen our destination of Devil’s Garden, and did not take any side roads. We did stop for sights we could walk to from the main road. Though Arno assured me that Delicate Arch is beautiful up close, it is also the most famous and most visited. For that reason, we left it alone as well. We can see it on all the license plates anyhow.

We parked at the very busy trailhead at the far end of the park, and made our way in between sandstone fins on a wide, flat, beautiful path in Devil’s Garden. We listened to tourists twittering in Korean, German, Spanish. It was a wonderful trail with several arches and even when there wasn’t an arch we were treated to magnificent scenery.

For a millisecond, no tourists visible on the trail at the entrance to Devil’s Garden

View along the trail

I don’t know what I’m laughing about, here in front of Landscape Arch

{click to enlarge} Tara breaks rules

Landscape Arch is very impressive and – dare I say it – more delicate than Delicate Arch. From our viewpoint, it looks as though it could crash into a thousand shards tomorrow. Or in a hundred years. Due to a relatively recent (1991) peeling off of 180 tons of rock from the underside of the arch, we tourist sheep are not allowed anywhere near the arch. I imagine some moron would get beaned with a falling rock and then sue the park for a gazillion dollars, so the Park Service is forced to keep us all away. The trail is clearly fenced off, and a sign declares that we are not allowed to get any closer to the arch.



Hikers climbing down to the hole left by collapsed Wall Arch. You can see the wear of the trail. Yes, that is a trail.

We hiked past Partition Arch and Navajo Arch. Arno was looking, and pausing, and finally said that the trail looked different from his last visit. Then we spotted the sharp edges like broken pottery pieces. By this point in our trip, Tara and I had finally acquired mild slickrock skills, so we scrambled up past the crashed Wall Arch. Arno remembered correctly: there was a different trail that used to pass Wall Arch until 2008 when it collapsed in the night. I didn’t mind: the trail in use now is a bit challenging, which added excitement to our afternoon, and a distinctly worthy view from the top. After a look around at the high point of the trail, we turned around and went back down. Arno of course descended by his fingertips over the edge of a rock nearby, rather than use the trail like us sealubbers. (Well, if a landlubber is unfamiliar with the ways of the sea, then a sealubber would be….)

Arno descends over the edge of the rock

We were beginning to worry about Miguel at this point: still in the truck back in Moab. So we made our way to the car. Arno, driving, was getting better at anticipating what kind of views call to my camera, so he pulled over a couple of times for me to run across the highway, clamber up onto a ledge, switch my regular lens for the zoom lens, and pull in just one more awesome shot. I keep my spare lens in a purple felt Crown Royal bag, so any observant tourists might have suspected I was a crazy drunk running around in the orange sand of the desert.

Partition Arch

Miguel was fine, and the shade was still covering the truck. In no time, we were heading north on the highway again. We found a campsite in Green River with actual grass to pitch tents on. The bathrooms had showers! Tara and I scrubbed clean for the first time since we were at my Pa’s house.

A raven squawks at us in an enviable setting. He is saying, “Nyahh! Nyahh! I live here and you don’t!”

The long week was taking its toll on Arno, and I got my chance to be a partner and family member by dragging Diego’s attention from his dad to me. Diego wanted to build an apple cobbler dessert in the Dutch oven I brought. His dad was too busy to deal with it. It was obvious that D had been counting on making this recipe for a long time and was terribly disappointed on our very last night camping to be told “no” yet again. After multiple redirections of D’s attention from dad, and dad’s attention from D, they both let me step in and handle it. I was able to build a little trust with him, so he finally realized he could ask ME for help too, not just his dad. With Tara’s help cutting up apples, the cobbler turned out so yummy!

Sun sets on desert hoodoos

Hoover Dam holding back Lake Mead, with the new bridge in the background. You can see the orange colour of the 3-story parking garage behind the dam.

I took extra time this morning to check the weather across the state of Arizona. It is much colder than I expected to see. In the eastern and northern parts of the state, snow and temperatures in the teens and twenties are widespread for the next couple of days. Well… such is the benefit of no fixed plans: I decided to head south instead of east today.  Originally I had not planned to go as far south as Phoenix, since my intent was to jet east as quickly as possible. Now I see that normal desert weather doesn’t exist for the next couple of days except south of the capital city.

First though, I wanted a better look at Hoover Dam. I haven’t been there for years, and from the bridge yesterday, it looked vastly less occupied than I recall. The truth is that the crowds were indeed thinner, but the steady stream of people and vehicles made it clear that this remains a substantial tourist attraction. What a good idea to get the highway off the dam.

The Mike O'Callaghan – Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge I stood on yesterday

Let me dispel the myths: you can still cross the dam for free! There is a beautiful new, convenient parking garage that costs $7 to park, but if you cross to the Arizona side, you can still park for free too, if you don’t mind a few hundred yards’ walk. You do have to pass through a security checkpoint, but it is quicker and easier than going through the bug station, so don’t give it a second thought. Another difference is that you cannot continue on and reconnect with the new highway. Rather, there is eventually a turn-around loop, and you must cross back across the dam in order to return to the highway. Please do make a point of going there if you haven’t already. Hoover Dam is an engineering feat rarely duplicated in the modern world. You will be impressed with the dam and the bridge, I promise.

While I stood on the dam, I spotted blue sky from over Las Vegas ever so slowly making its way toward me. I lingered. Before I left, I did indeed get to feel a blessed ray of sunshine. It planted the seed of an idea to dawdle on my journey. I knew better weather was coming and the more slowly I moved, the greater chance I had of experiencing another sunbeam.

Rain showers struck as soon as I reached open highway again, but my route took me south to Kingman. From there, I went south again, toward Phoenix. I re-examined my book of campgrounds, and chose a new one in the Lost Dutchman State Park. I drove south through rain, rain, rain. My windshield wipers never completely quit, so that was good, but they were giving me fits! I discovered that when I took the car to the shop last month and they “fixed a leak,” the leak did not actually get fixed and thank goodness I checked the oil on a whim because I discovered it empty!

A random, unmarked canyon that I trespassed into

At one point, out in the wide empty desert, I passed an unknown canyon so beautiful I pulled into the next crossover and headed back the other direction on the freeway. I parked as far off the highway as I could, and grabbed my camera and went for a walk. Though there was no sun, the rain had ceased for the moment, and it was pleasantly warm. I began walking and climbed a barbed wire fence, and before I knew it, was about a mile and a half up the canyon. The walk eased my frustrated soul. Rain drops spattered my face by the time I climbed the fence again to crawl back up the hill to the dragon-wagon. But I felt better despite the rain that poured down as I resumed my journey.

Driving the course through the city that I chose is hellish. Why oh why do people choose to live in cities voluntarily? Yuck. From Beardsley to Surprise to Sun City to Peoria to Glendale to Phoenix to Tempe to Mesa to where I finally left the highway is 62 miles of bumper to bumper traffic. Some parts of it were a maze to make the right connections, and rain poured down through it all: making visibility an issue as well. Very stressful. I turned off onto Highway 88 and went north to the park and found a solitary hike-in campsite as far away from the others as I could possibly be.

The agony through the city was worth it, however, because my choice of camp spot for the night was excellent! The park is a showcase for some of the most that a desert has to offer: craggy peaks, saguaro cactus, teeming bird life, orange rocks. I still couldn’t see much of the Superstition Mountains, towering above my tent, shrouded in ragged stratofractus and grey fog. I crossed my fingers that the next day would stop raining so I could see the whole mountain.

I set up my tent in the rain. There was no way to get through the evening dry. Ugh! Mud in the campsite, the camp gear and my backpack wet, sweatshirt and hat soaked. I put little rocks under the edges of the plastic my tent sat on, so water running through the campsite would go under the protective plastic and not touch the tent itself…but of course the rain that slid down the sides of the tent stayed on top of the plastic. So I got out a large waterproof tarp and threw it over the tent and then, using rope and rocks, I made a second shelter over the top of the rain flap.

Sunset lights up the cacti and low clouds obscure the distant peaks

Just before I went to bed, the clouds broke at the horizon and the setting sun shone through and lit up the desert. It was so beautiful, and the cacti glowed.

I had built a nice cozy bed in the tent with extra blankets on top of my sleeping bag and I stayed quite warm and was ready for sleep, but for a few distractions. There was a group of noisy kids in the campground: not trouble-makers, just joyous kid noise. There were dozens of dogs and several of them were the kind that like to go “Yap! Yap! Yap! Yap!” all night long. The rain stopped after a few hours, and a brisk wind picked up, rattling the second rain flap so loudly that I could not get back to sleep. I got up, put on my shoes, and dismantled the thing, throwing it over the site’s picnic table. I heard another joyous burst of noise that filled my heart rather than irritated me: coyotes! Very close and singing their own desert refrain. I smiled and went to sleep fantasizing that the coyotes might eat some of the pet dogs.

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