An Unexpected New Mexico Walk

or “A Rangeland Encounter”.

Yesterday I was eating up the miles driving through central New Mexico, on my way back to Bisbee, Arizona. Such vast expanses of dry short-grass grazing land! The tufted bunchgrasses were interspersed with clumps of sage and yucca. I could imagine the thoughts of the pioneers moving slowly along the Santa Fe Trail, as they wondered how long these bleak treeless wastes would last before more inviting landscapes for settlement appeared.

My 23-year-old Ford truck had been running smoothly for the past thousand miles, but the engine seemed to be running a bit hotter than usual, a cause for concern out there where cell-phone coverage is spotty at best and towns were few and often abandoned.

A few miles west of Vaughn my temperature gauge became alarmed and I pulled over. I had jugs of water, but I thought that I should pull over and let the engine cool down for a while.

Here’s a shot of my truck by the side of the road:

On the opposite side of Rt. 60 a train track parallels the highway across much of the central portion of the state. I was intrigued by the long trains which periodically rumbled by. Often they had three locomotives pulling the chain of cars, and the train cars often seemed to be carrying cargo containers from China. I wondered what port they were coming from. A typical train:

Making the best of the forced delay, I decided to take a walk. I walked up the highway with my camera as occasional RVs and pickup trucks whooshed past. I could see some structures in the distance and my curiosity was aroused. After about one-quarter of a mile I came to a cattleguard, a welcome interruption in the tightly-strung fence. I had considered climbing over that fence, but it wasn’t an easily crossed fence and I would have risked tearing my clothing.

The name of the ranch:

It was a breezy and cool day, a pleasant time for a walk up a desolate road. One of the structures I had seen earlier turned out to be a round stone water tank, an old tank which had been replaced with a steel one nearby. Nearby was the weathered-silver trunk of a large tree, one which evidently had flourished in a wetter period. Trees were noticeably absent from the landscape.

A root-prong of that tree which has been rubbed to a glossy sheen by the scratching actions of generations of cattle:

The stone water tank can be seen in the background of the above photo.

I walked farther along the road. There was something a half-mile away, but I couldn’t tell what it was — a ruined building, or a stack of hay, perhaps? As I walked I noticed a large mammal in the distance. It looked like a prong-horn antelope. As I came closer I could tell that the animal was keeping an eye on me. I wasn’t walking directly towards it and I got fairly close before it spooked and bounded away. I snapped this photo in which the antelope seems to be peeing:

The structure I had seen from the highway turned out to be a ruined stone house. I wonder when it had last been occupied? Someone, at some point, had stuccoed two of the walls but the project had been left unfinished. Such a picturesque sight under the vast high country sky!

Just two walls remained standing. It seems that various creatures used the walls as shelter from the persistent winds, and one had died there:

Other animals had been using the remains as a favored defecation site, including one who seems to subsist upon some sort of berry. The ribcage cradles a substantial pile of scat.

The house had been built upon a slight rise, and two ancient mesquite trees are growing out front. A view of the trees from a gap in the wall, and an April shoot trying to eke out another year in this dry and dusty site:

A raptor of some sort, perhaps an eagle, had built a twig nest in the branches of one of the mesquites:

I walked back to the highway; my truck had cooled down, so I added water to the radiator and proceeded on my way. Sometimes a forced stop can yield a novel experience!


Across The High Plains

Driving, driving — it gets old making my across this vast continent. Large cities are a necessary evil to be endured, all of the endless mazes of interstate convolutions to be negotiated, the price one pays for rapid travel.

After a few days in Quincy, Illinois, where I retrieved my truck, gathered up some abandoned possessions, and visited my folks, I headed west and south again. Bev got to meet my parents during our stay. We stayed in a state park across the river in Missouri.

Oklahoma is quite a broad state! I could feel the climate changing as I drove across the rolling spring-green plains, becoming dryer and higher. Indian Paintbrushes (Castilleja species, parasites upon grass roots) graced the sides of the turnpike. How unfortunate that stopping for a closer look is frowned upon!

I was parked at a McDonalds in the commercial wastelands surrounding Oklahoma City yesterday afternoon, taking advantage of free coffee and wi-fi access. I lingered by my truck in the parking lot as the whooshes and whirs of incessant traffic filled my ears. In a grassy median strip planted with sorry-looking honey-locusts I saw a splash of cream-colored ovals in the grass:

Mushrooms always lift my spirits, as they are so unpredictable in their appearances, just like people in a way. Evidently a small dog had chosen the mushroom patch as a suitable spot for defecation; two small dog turds defiled the patch. The patch will no doubt flourish in the future.

I plucked a mushroom; it seemed to be a large, robust species of Agaricus, probably the Horse Mushroom, Agaricus arvensis. The gills had the characteristic pink tones:

I was intrigued by the height of these mushrooms, which seemed to grow only as high as the sweep of the mower’s blades. Horse mushrooms in undisturbed habitats typically grow taller; perhaps the species has evolved a sub-species adapted to frequently-mowed lawns, Agaricus arvensis subspecies mcdonaldensis.

I took a nice profile shot which shows the partial veil and the jaunty cocked aspect of the cap:

A large battered flatbed 3/4-ton truck pulled up beside me. A large compressor-like machine was strapped to the bed. A sixty-ish man climbed down from the cab; he looked weatherbeaten and wore a stained feed-cap. I approached him:

“So is that a compressor in your truck?”

“Naw, that’s a vacuum pump. Lotta gas wells around here, and much of the machinery dates back to the late twenties. Maintaining them keeps me busy!”

I returned to regarding my anomalous fungi…


Weird Kansas Scenes

The process of driving across Kansas has a deserved bad reputation; a series of flat and monotonous vistas interrupted by sad-looking little towns never fails to cause my spirits to falter. I try to like Kansas, as some of my ancestors were farmers in the east end of the state, but I can’t help but think that the existence of states such as Kansas and Nebraska might have been an incentive for the airline industry in its early days.

The west half is the most harrowing. Desolate feedlots oppress the spirits as the land imperceptibly tilts down from the high point near the Colorado border. In the east half of Kansas the terrain varies more. The entire Flint Hills section is a balm to the eyes, with vistas of rolling prairies never broken by the plow. The possibility of seeing prairie chickens adds interest to the drive.

As we drove on I-70 I scanned maps and brochures, looking for a reasonably pleasant place to camp for the night. We had stopped at a determinedly-cheery Visitors Center and picked up printed promotional material, and they even had a good wi-fi connection.

One brochure amused me; it was about a tiny state park called Mushroom Rock. Peculiar mushroom-shaped sandstone formations looked rather quaint in the photos compared to the grand hoodoos of Utah’s red-rock country, but according to the brochure Kit Carson had called the spot his “favorite little place”. I was charmed by this evidently old photo in the brochure — two people encountering one of the “mushrooms”:

As we drove on endlessly my imagination was inflamed by the periodic recurrence of sequential signs advertising an animal oddity attraction:

The largest prairie dog in the world! What could it be like? I imagined a bloated hormone-fed rodent, so fat it could barely stand up, blearily eyeing tourists through the bars of its cage. A sign warns: “Don’t feed the prairie dog! He bites!”

A wicked little child, bored by hours of driving, tosses pebbles at the prairie dog’s nose. The sleepy beast darts a fierce glance at the boy, snarls, bursts through the bars, and goes on a rampage. Tourists flee as cars are overturned. The shambling beast heads for the nearest town, gobbling up a stray steer or two and leaving steaming dung-piles on the freeway.

Another series of signs appears and I snap out of my Kansas horror-flick reverie. Hmm, look at this one:

A five-legged steer, and it’s alive! What fun watching the animal attempt to walk. Petting baby pigs would be a pleasant diversion after watching an unfortunate deformed cow, I imagine!

The next sign offers a plethora of animals — what a menagerie the place must be!

I imagine the fox has designs on the peacock, as the buffalo wearily looks on from his pen and dreams of ancestral glory on the high plains.

There was one sign in the series I wish I had captured. I was so amused by the invitation to meet Roscoe the Miniature Donkey! I could picture that donkey with a straw hat on with holes cut in the brim to accommodate the ears.

Such sights and thoughts make the miles just roll on by!


A Blind Slot Canyon

A few days ago a Dodge van was cruising along a highway in Southern Utah, headed towards a long gravel road which eventually enters Capitol Reef National Park. Bev, two collies, and I were wending our circuitous way towards the east.

We knew little of the minor state black-top, just that it appeared to be a fairly direct route — but this being Utah, right near the Four Corners, who could predict what geological wonders might be revealed as the road unspooled before us?

The road entered a deep canyon which was identified on the map only as “Long Canyon”. This is a name which could only have been bestowed by a sun-dazed settler weary of rocky spectacle. The canyon walls progressively became weirder and weirder as we drove, looking like somnolent fantasies of a Victorian writer deep in an opium stupor.

A typical roadside scene, followed by a detail which made me question the basic underpinnings of our consensus reality:

The scenes were all a bit much to take in while driving along, so we pulled over and let the dogs out. I rambled across the road and happened across an intriguing shadowy cleft in the high sandstone cliff, evidently a box canyon of some sort:

What a marvelous spot! The light seeped into the canyon from a narrow crack far overhead, and the sandstone was stained with black streaks of “desert varnish”, a mineral deposit which probably took millions of years to form:

After a while Bev wandered into the cave and regarded the windless enclosure with wonder. Perhaps she will post some of her photos once she has returned to Canada!

Looking back at the entrance and an overexposed view of the cliff on the other side of the canyon:

We walked back out into the open again. This cliff was quite striking, I thought, the vertical black stains cross-hatching the horizontal strata of the sandstone:

One last shot of two plants representative of the site. The sprig on the left is from a shrub with holly-like leaves; I never did identify it. The plant on the left is a gall-infected branch from a sagebrush plant; how many trillions of sage shrubs eke out their meager living in the West? The sage galls were peculiar growths, soft as an over-ripe blueberry and coated with soft fuzz. I imagine the galls contain the larvae of some sort of wasp.

The road through Long Canyon was as impressive as many of the sites given National Park or National Monument status, but had the advantage and privilege of having few tourist visitors. I hate to sound elitist, but sites such as Arches National Park and the Grand Canyon are difficult for me to fully appreciate when swarms of people are gawking and clambering, sometimes even rudely or heedlessly stepping right in front of me just as I am about to shoot a photo!


Headed East

The sun is approaching the lightly rippled surface of a reservoir near Pueblo, Colorado.  The lake is surrounded by tormented and twisted junipers well-separated by expanses of limestone sand and gravel.  Little else grows here, though the nocturnal presence of stunted deer is signaled by scatterings of scat.

Bev, the two collies, and I are camping here for the night after crossing two ranges of the Rockies today in Bev’s Dodge van.  We’ve been on the road now for ten days and I’ve accumulated hundreds of photos, many in the Utah canyon-and-hoodoo country.

Once I get to a place with a stable net connection and where I can use a real keyboard expect to see many of these Southwestern images!