Southwest, Fall 2005

October 28-November 14, 2005
[All Photos] [California/Nevada] [New Mexico/Arizona] [Baseball] [Aviation Nation]

My quasi-annual fall visit to the Southwest hit some familiar sites in Arizona and New Mexico, but also took me to some new places such as Death Valley National Park in California. Photos are in four groups:


Coyote in Death Valley
 

California and Nevada – I flew into Las Vegas on Oct. 28 and spent the next four days exploring the area to the west along the California border, including the Mojave Preserve and Death Valley. My first day in Mojave I came to a "Road Closed - Flooding" sign but there were tire tracks going around it, so I figured if it got wet I could turn around. What I didn't know is the sign should have read: "Loose Sand." I was probably lucky to get through a couple of spots and decided to abide by the signs after that. The second morning the window of my rental car got off its track and jammed halfway down, but rather than waste the morning light I tolerated it before driving back to Vegas late in the day to exchange the car.

The next day I switched my lodging location from Primm to Amargosa Valley and hit several spots along the road northward, including Red Rock Canyon Conservation Area, Kyle Canyon, Lee Canyon, and Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. The first three days in Nevada and California were very scenic but the critter watch yielded very little to see and no photos. I saw a red-tailed hawk (Mojave) and a kestrel (Ash Meadows) sitting on power lines. There also were quail and bunnies skittering around half-hidden in the desert vegetation. It was better on the fourth day as I toured Death Valley, spotting a covey of quail along the road near the park entrance and a roadrunner on the lawn of the visitor's center. But the highlight was a coyote hunting along the road. He trotted along paying no attention to me as I slowly followed him in the car. I snapped a few dozen photos in 10 minutes before moving on.

It was only about 80 degrees rather than the 130 it can hit during the summer, but looking through the binoculars showed intense heat shimmers coming off the ground around Badwater. I expected to see The Man With No Name suddenly materialize on his way into Lagos to dish out frontier justice. I did some hikes and took some photos of the scenery. It takes a better (or different type of) photographer than me to make a landscape interesting without at least one animal or human eye in it, so only six of the 75 posted images from the two weeks are strictly scenery.

The day after touring Death Valley (Nov. 2) I drove into back to Las Vegas and flew to Phoenix. I returned to Las Vegas for Aviation Nation on the 12th (below), and drove through Valley of Fire State Park on the 13th. The park has lots of multicolored rock formations, but I was unable to spot any of the bighorn sheep that allegedly frequent the area. I was hoping to drive through Lake Mead National Recreation Area on Northshore Road down to Boulder City, but there was a bicycle race going on and I didn't think it was a very safe situation for either me or the bicyclists. There was no opportunity to enjoy the occasional view because of all the bikes on the road. I bailed at Highway 147, which took me back to Las Vegas. I killed a few hours at Excalibur, Luxor and Mandalay Bay before catching the redeye flight home to Boston. I'm still amazed that people consider feeding money into a slot machine to be fun, but there were thousands of such people in the three casinos. Actually I'm happy that the masses prefer to be sitting inside in a trance because it leaves the roads through the parks and refuges open for my enjoyment.

New Mexico and Arizona – Nov. 2-11 I hit some familiar sites in New Mexico and southwest Arizona. The highlight as usual was several days at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge south of Albuquerque. There were plenty of cranes, snow geese, ducks, hawks, meadowlarks, blackbirds, ravens and coyotes. One morning there was even saw a bald eagle swooping around, which caused quite a commotion among the waterfowl. The evening of Nov. 5th, I stuck around after sunset to get some photos of the crescent Moon and Venus together above a pool of cranes settling down for the night.


Snow goose
 

I have never seen so many ravens. When they travel as a flock, it is in a loose formation rather than a line or V, and it is sort of creepy when a cloud of several hundred ravens appears. It's even more creepy when you hear them flapping before you see them. Blackbirds flock more tightly and in greater numbers, but they are smaller birds so they are (slightly) less creepy. There were plenty of geese and cranes around, but it was still a bit early in the season. I got a few distant shots of geese flocks taking off, but I wasn't satisfied with those so the goose and crane flight shots I posted are individuals and pairs. I'll be back to try again.

As a break from the driving at Bosque, I hiked the Canyon Trail and the Rio Viejo Trail. The Canyon Trail is 2.5 miles through a desert canyon. On the return path along the north ridge, there is a good view of the refuge and the Rio Grande valley. An attempt last year to do the 2-mile Rio Viejo Trail was foiled by mosquitoes, so this time I covered myself with a heavy layer of Deet and managed to make it unscathed. But there really wasn't much to see because despite the name you really don't get very close to the river.

I drove south after leaving Bosque, making a stop at desolate Fort Craig, the ruins of a 19th-century frontier and Civil War fort near the Rio Grande. From the visitor register it appears that three cars would be a busy day. It's five miles to the nearest paved road, and it's not hard to imagine the isolation that the troopers stationed there must have felt. There is a sign posted that says:

The Bureau of Land Management, Socorro Field Office, maintains a list of volunteer applicants for the position of Host/Caretaker at Fort Craig. We are looking for volunteers, possibly a retired couple, with their own RV and an interest in history. The BLM provides free utilities (solar electricity and propane) and a small stipend. The stipend is not a living wage, so applicants need to be financially independent.... Considerations for the selection will be: an interest in New Mexico History, willingness to greet visitors and provide appropriate levels of information, willingness to maintain and improve facilities at the fort in cooperation with BLM, ability to live in a remote location and be self sufficient, willingness to maintain a presence to deter vandalism, no acute health problems, and have some secondary interests or hobbies so you don't go stir crazy!

There is a couple living there now, but I suppose BLM maintains the list in anticipation of the day when they feel the need to move on. Sometimes I feel like getting away from it all, but that seems more like a confinement than an escape. They should have sent Martha Stewart there instead of to prison. Fortunately, I was free to leave and I continued on to Portal, Arizona for a day exploring Cave Creek Canyon. My next stop was Tucson and Pima County's Agua Caliente Park. It's a nice park with elements of both natural desert and city park, and I think they achieved a good balance between the two. A few months ago I sold two photos of a Vermilion Flycatcher to the county for use in the park's bird list brochure. Vermilion Flycatchers are out of season at the moment, but I did see plenty of woodpeckers and ducks. (I was interested to see that the newsletter of the Tucson Audubon Society is called the Vermilion Flycatcher.) After a couple of hours there, I headed to Phoenix for some baseball.

 
Thunderbirds

Baseball – For the seventh time in the last eight years, I took in a few Arizona Fall League baseball games in the Phoenix area. For details see BaseballArizona.com. Usually on vacation I shave every 3-4 days, but by this time it had been two weeks and I noticed that I was taking on an unhealthy resemblance to dirtball pseudo-filmmaker Michael Moore. Time to clean up!

Aviation Nation – The annual air show at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas is headlined by the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, who call Nellis their home base. In addition to usual dynamic show by the Thunderbirds, other highlights were the appearance of an F-22 Raptor in the Heritage Flight (along with a P-51 Mustang and a F-4 Phantom), and a Predator UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle). The Predator flight was after the Thunderbirds so many people had already left, but it was fascinating to see that thing buzzing down the runway. Maybe one day a Predator will make the news by blowing up Osama.


Investment idea: Las Vegas was under a disgusting brown cloud throughout my visit. It also seemed more hazy than usual in Arizona. With the population in the Southwest projected to continue to grow at a fast pace for several more decades as Boomers retire and move south, I think a good investment would be to find a company that fills oxygen canisters for people with respiratory difficulties.

But away from the cities and their brown clouds, the deserts of the Southwest are still my preferred destination for an annual vacation.

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All photos 1998- by Thomas O'Neil