Rolling Ocean to Desert Sands

By Irene Butler

Ahhh, the Ocean. After five months of travelling inland we arrived in San Diego, California. Palm trees swaying in the breeze and a warm sun added to a glorious setting in which to roam the streets of the historic “Gaslamp” area, brimming with enticing shops, restaurants, museums and art galleries.

This pulsing heart of the city ends at the harbour. The S.S. San Diego, a military air-craft carrier retired from duty in 1946, looms in steely grey covering the space of a city block in the bay, but it was the white sails further down that drew us like a magnet. We were soon scouring the decks of the Star of India, launched in 1863. Milling through the first class deck with oak tables and comfortable bedroom cubicles contrasted greatly with the steerage deck where the majority of the four hundred passengers lived in canned-sardine fashion for the three month voyage from Britain to India, followed by immigrants to New Zealand in the early 1900’s. She later became the property of an American Fish Packing Company, hauling salmon from Alaska each spring until she was replaced by steamships in the 1920’s.

Boarding the H.M.S. Surprise, we were immediately transported to life on the high seas. This 28 gun frigate was used in the motion picture “Master and Commander; The Far Side of the World”. It was enthralling to be standing in the re-enactment vessel where Captain “Lucky Jack” Aubrey (Russell Crowe) and his seamen ate, slept, played and fought both storms and enemies, many to their last breath.

The San Diego trolley system is an excellent mode of transportation. Choosing to say in Chula Vista, the most southern suburb, we were 20 minutes by trolley from both downtown San Diego and from the Mexican border. Leaving Emili and our back-packs at the hotel in Chula Vista, toting only a day-pack, we headed to Tijuana. After exiting the end-of-line trolley stop we walked over a spiral concrete skyway, concluding in a mere glance by the Mexican authorities as we walked through a turn-style into Mexico.

Resisting the swarm of cab drivers who offered a ride “anywhere” downtown for $5.00, we found out through enquiries that downtown was a 5 minute walk through a vendor-filled pathway. Revolution Street is where the action is. Music blared from bars. Not only do shops, bars, and cafes have hawkers to corral you in, but “farmacias” have white coated drug pushers calling out best prices for Viagra, Zoloft, HGH, Prozac, and every other pharmaceutical you could possibly desire. A perpetual bombardment of, “Come to my shop” or “It’s my turn” every few steps along the street soon only brought a polite smile in response. To find out if passer-bys were even hearing them, some peddlers flippantly called, “Come in so I can sell you something you don’t need” or “It’s your last chance to get ripped-off” which would always at least get a laugh.

A tap on both our shoulders while focusing our cameras on a bold blue, magenta and bright yellow building, brought us face to face with two Spanish speaking police officers, whose gestures indicated “No Pictures”, whether to warn us of camera theft, or so we would not capture the lines of prostitutes and other huddled dealings, we were not sure. At any rate, we had wandered into an area of town, away from the tourist area, where we felt unwelcome, and quickly backtracked.

Chiki Jai (small house) just down the street from our Rio Rita Hotel was as cozy as its name. Homemade chic-pea soup with hunks of fresh bread and blue cheese, followed by fish (not sure what kind) fried in olive oil and garlic, spicy rice paella topped with fresh shrimp was our tasty fare each evening.

Wandering over to see how the other half lived in the upscale Zona Rio district, along Paseo de los Heroes Street, we admired four sizable statues in the middle of four consecutive traffic circles, large malls and four star hotels. Still convinced the place to stay is in the midst of carnival-like Revolution Street reminiscent of Bourbon Street in New Orleans, we avoid most of the revelry, described locally as “1 tequila, 2 tequila, 3 tequila, floor”, as turn-in time is about 11 p.m. for us.

Crossing back into the United States was a sham of security for foot-passengers. Crowds of people filed through customs with humongous packages, with barely a quick glance and nod to proceed.

San Diego held more delightful excursions. Old Town State Historic Park, where the city was born, was both a wealth of information on the early settlements and a pleasant milling through streets of reconstructed huts converted into colourful shops and galleries, casually mixed with browsing through no admission historical spots. The Steely Stables contain a fine collection of carriages and stage coaches, La Casa Jose Maria de Estudillo Hacienda built in 1827 shows how people lived and worked 170 years ago.

No matter where our wandering took us through the day, we always ended up back at the waterfront to breath in the salty air with a routine stop at “Anthony’s”. Though there is a formal indoor section to the restaurant, the small outside “Fishette” is far more entertaining. After our initial feast, we became aware on subsequent visits of a Pavlov response induced by the anticipation of more sensationally grilled shark as we sat waiting for our order number to be called; leaving no doubt as to whom the predators are. A cold beer, perfectly crisp fries, and a heaping portion of creamy coleslaw were additions to our choice cholesterol fix. Savouring our fare to the rhythm of the sea slapping against the peer, sea gulls circling against the blue sky, some perching on the dock pillars hoping a morsel or two would land in an accessible spot, I contentedly called out “9”. Rick understood my laconic utterance, as only two soul-mates can, and countered with a “7”; we finally agreed on “8” in our “Hobbit-Worthy 1 to 10 Restaurant Rating.”

Perhaps the scenery from San Diego to San Bernardino along Hwy 15 is great, if only we could have seen it. ARNOLD, HOW ABOUT TERMINATING CALIFORNIA’S SMOG! If ever there was a pollution S.O.S., we were in it. An upper dull blue sky morphed into a used dish-water hue; below a dirty brown haze hovered like a wall hiding everything further than a stone’s throw. A putrid chemical smell stung our nostrils. The last time we encountered such shocking pollution was in the antiquated coal-fed industrial city of Chong Qing, China.

Past San Bernardino we veered off onto Hwy 395. The landscape slowly became discernible. A flat expanse of sandy terrain, punctuated with low desert growth towered over by the grand sight of Joshua Trees. These gnarled, thick brown stocked trees with a flourish of long, spiky green leaves projecting from the thick arms were given their name by Mormon pioneers after the biblical Joshua with outstretched arms lead the Israelites to the Promised Land. Dusty charcoal hills in the distance appeared as we neared our night stop in Ridgecrest, for an early start through Death Valley.

On our way the next day a few miles off Hwy 178 down a dirt road a pre-Death Valley encounter was of the 3rd kind. Dark, spiky, irregular formations appeared in the distance. As we neared the site, even Emili looked bewildered as she made her way through the alien muddy-grey-brown bulges of the Trona Pinnacles National Natural Landmark. More than 500 “tufa” (calcium carbonate) spires, some as high as 140 feet rise from Searles Dry Lake Basin in ominously bizarre shapes. These creepy formations grew under the water of the once 640 ft deep Searles Lake that existed 100,000 years ago; drying up in the past 10,000 years. The spires of highly concentrated calcium carbonate deposits from the run-off of surrounding sites and underground springs would have been ordinary, except for the little blue-green algae that chose to make the deposits their home bonding in clumps resulting in the diverse formations. These tufa towers can be seen in “Starwars” and “Planet of the Apes”. I would never have imagined the filming location was anything but a Hollywood set, if not standing in this weird terrain.

Our first steps out of Emili’s air-conditioning and into the searing heat of Death Valley was at Stovepipe Wells. Relishing cool lemonade on the front porch bench of the one and only store, six large ravens lingered in the shade of an antique wagon decorating the parking lot three feet from where we sat. A coyote casually paced back and forth across near the birds, then suddenly decided to take over the shady spot as the ravens scattered. Just before pulling into town, we had stopped to take a picture of two coyotes on the edge of the highway nosing a plastic cup half filled with water, oddly unconcerned with our close proximity. No doubt, this pack of coyotes had taken up residence in the vicinity, scavenging for human food, their wildness diminished. Startlingly bright sand dunes stretch out to the north with ever changing ripples and patterns drawn by the fingers of the wind.

Mosaic Canyon, near Stovepipe Wells, thankfully had a series of reprieves from the scorching heat behind the towering cliffs. Running our hands over the marble walls, polished slick by the elements in gleaming hues of cream, caramel and mottled-browns heightened their impact on us. The canyon opens up a half mile from the entrance. Some passes along the route are so narrow only one person can squeeze through at a time; others require scrambling on all fours to negotiate the inclines on the slippery marble. Coming across Desert Holly, the hardiest of Death Valley’s flora, warranted an admiring inspection. The whitish smooth leaves reflect the heat and turn sideways to lessen the area exposed; turning pink during the summer dormant period.

Upon first entering Death Valley we took note of a sign that read, “Death Valley Junction Closed” as this was our planned route out, but were not concerned as there are other exits. It was not until we arrived at the Furnace Creek Park Centre we were advised the whole of Hwy 190 East past Furnace Creek to Death Valley Junction was closed due to flash floods on August 5th and September 11th. Pictures of the aftermath, at the Information Centre, showed gouges ripped out of Hwy 190, plus vehicles washed miles from where the rushing water engulfed them, sticking out of mud at odd angles and plastered with pieces of sage brush and cornstalk. This meant the panoramic scenery from Dante’s View and Zabrinskie Point were off limits; warranting another visit someday. Though Artist’s Drive was also out of bounds, as we drove along Hwy 178, we were able to get a glimpse of the colours splayed by varying mineral content; pale pink, sea green, interspersed with browns and black all growing in intensity in the evening sun.

Death Valley is known to be one of the hottest places on earth. Swallows dropped dead in flight when a temperature of 56?C (134?F) was recorded in 1913. In 1849, when a group of gold rush enthusiasts entered the valley, thinking it was a short-cut to California, the extreme heat left one man dead and the rest barely escaping with their lives; their tag of “Death Valley”, stuck. Little did they know at the time they were passing over the “white gold” of borax crystals on the valley floor, soon to be hauled out by Chinese labourers in the famed “20-Mule Team Borax”. Ancestral peoples were part of this land when it was filled with lakes and marshes 10,000 years ago. The Timbisha Shoshone of today trace their ancestry back to these tribes.

Reaching the Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the western hemisphere at 282 ft below sea level, Emili’s thermometer rose to a “cool” 40?C (104 ?F), the average summer temperature is 49? C (120?F). The desert currently supports nearly 1000 plant and animal species, some found nowhere else on earth – sheer miracles of adaptation. Standing on pure white salt flats, we looked upon pools of stagnant water with four times the salt content as the ocean; home to tiny pupfish that once lived in the area’s fresh water lakes – an example of evolutional acclimation. Equipped with kidneys and gills that excrete the excess salt, they lay dormant in the bottom mud to withstand the heat of summer, becoming active during winter when the water is slightly cooler. On the outer rim of the flats strands of salt-resistant Pickleweed staunchly flourish.

Devil’s Golf Course is another briny spot. The last lake dried up 2,000 years ago leaving an immense area of rock salt eroded by wind and rain into serrated spires, “where only the devil could golf”. As night fell, an eerie pinging sound was emitted from the jagged topography as the salt crystals contracted with the drop in temperature. They will repeat their crackle with the expansion in heat of day. Further out from the greyish gnarled salt reef, pristine salt flats gleamed in the moonlight and the distant mountain tops became blurred as if the artist took his thumb and gently smudged the division between earth and sky.

We bade our farewell to this 140 mile long, 10-20 mile wide, 330 acre desert valley by way of alternate route Hwy 95 heading for the fantasy playground of Las Vegas.

“Sin City”; “I Do City”; “Slots of Fun”; “Fabulous shows”; “Glutinous Buffets”, are all present and accounted for in this city of neon, where prostitution is legal and select hotels rent rooms by the hour; and a multitude of wedding chapels prevail; some the drive-thru variety. We can personally vouch for the great shows; our own Canadian born Celine Dion, a variety of Cirque de Solei’s, and an amazing array of super-star impersonators, comedy acts – always with a before or after gourmand extravaganza where after a half dozen savoury selections, at least two deserts are mandatory. It’s a good thing we only stayed four days as we were on our last belt notch. Las Vegas boasts of having 18 out of the 20 largest hotels in the U.S. Casinos do not favour our kind; we did not drop as much as a nickel into a slot this trip, and stuck to a small gambling budget on previous visits to this city that thrives on superlatives: biggest, longest, tallest, glitziest, brightest.

Shaking ourselves back-to-reality, we aimed Emili across the south-east corner of Arizona, along Hwy 15, turning onto Hwy 9, ending up in Hurricane, Utah a few miles away from the multi-coloured vertical sandstone cliffs of Zion Canyon. Stunning in their massive elegance, a winding river at their base, the red cliffs are contrasted at lower levels with patches of greenery, and a wealth of animal life. Amazing “Weeping Rock”, is just now releasing water tested to be as old as 12,000 years since it first seeped into the mountain of rock. Half-way up a vertical escarpment, we watched an intrepid climber crawl out of his bivouac-tent affixed to crevices where he had spent the night, preparing to complete his journey to the top.

With the exception of people registered to stay at Zion Lodge in the middle of Zion National Park, individual vehicles are left at the Visitor Centre, where free, propane-fuelled shuttle-buses drive the flood of hikers, climbers, campers, horseback riders, and window-viewers through the park. A perfect solution to pollution and traffic congestion, the system is great for visitors allowing them to bop on and off the buses for longer stays at any of the stops.

Exiting Zion onto Hwy 89, we made our way to the little town of Panguitch, with more motels than people. After stashing our gear at the Purple Sage Motel, we hopped back in Emili under heavy cloud cover as we were anxious to get a glimpse of what we had come to see.

Chatting as we rushed in a drizzle toward the cliff at Bryce Canyon, we were rendered speechless as we reached the edge not ready for the overpowering sight. As far as the eye could see turrets, spires, obelisks, towers and columns climbed skyward in delicate layers of salmon pink, coral, and pale orange. Fairyland, a surrealist painting, the work of a giant hand. Shivering as much from the exhilarating panorama as the cold rain now pelting down, we vowed to wait out the inclement weather and walk among the Hoodoos (pillars of rock, usually fantastic shapes, left by erosion).

Hibernating all the next day as the storm swirled and the temperature dropped to 7 degrees Celsius, we were praying for accuracy in the next day’s forecast.

The weatherman was right; with ice on the windshield, but under a bright blue sky, we made our way back with fleeces and hiking boots, determined to hike the most spectacular and also one of the most difficult trails called Peekaboo, 8.8 km of steep inclines and declines and switchbacks down to the bottom and up again to Bryce Point.

A large freshwater lake once covered the whole of southern Utah. Sediments rich in iron (yellow and red) and magnesium (pink and violet) were washed into its waters from rivers and streams. Over time the lake disappeared leaving the beautiful layered sandstone hues. The uplifting of the Colorado Plateau left fractures. Millennia of wind and water did the rest. With an elevation of 8300 ft, 200 days a year a freeze-thaw cycle occurs; through the day, water seeping into the rock from rain and melted snow, freezes and expands through the night to pry the cracks in the rock.

The sun grew warmer as we descended into the canyon. At every turn in the trail was another awesome sight. The top layer of the plateau is harder and more resistant to erosion resulting in the giant stone arches we walked through and numerous windows in the rock high above our heads, so gigantic, a person standing on the ledge would have been insignificant. Eventually the top layer around the windows collapses and the pillar of rock stands alone – another hoodoo is born. Peekaboo trail is also a horse trail, and though we did not have to move aside for any horses, there was ample evidence of their passing; no wonder the plants grew so profusely near the trail. Grottos were honed out of the bottom and into sides of rock where rivets of water found a path from the top, becoming raging flash floods with heavy precipitation. The air was heavy with the fragrance of Pinion and Ponderosa Pine, Juniper, Spruce and Aspen growing wherever they managed to root. Along the bottom giant Bristlecone Pines, some 1600 years old rise up alongside a pink pillar. Becoming oblivious to time, we often lingered in silence; the intimate encounter with this phenomenon of nature was incredibly soul-stirring.

Salt Lake City bound, we are thrilled at the array of golds and reds along the highway. If I was washed up on a tropical island, I would not miss winter or spring, but would pine away for Autumn with its crisp, sunny days, cool, clear starlit nights. It is such a delicious season, with harvests of a cornucopia of ripened fruits and vegetables; I am on the lookout for fresh picked corn and pumpkin pie.

A favourite American saying: A Canadian is an unarmed American with a health plan.
Irene & Rick


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