Jan 1, 2008

Nov 27, 2007

Heading to Las Vegas..........

We are now on the road to Las Vegas to be with Jo's Mom who fell and fractured her pelvis...........We've been on the road for two days and have 2-3 more days...................stay tuned..........................

Nov 19, 2007

Family Visits in Austin and San Marcos, TX

After leaving Big Bend N.P., we headed east towards Austin where we planned to stay for several days while enjoying the Thanksgiving holiday with David’s younger brother Glenn. Was Jo ever delighted when, after an hour’s drive north of Big Bend, she was able to gain at least temporary internet access and receive some voicemail messages that had come in while we were in the “electronic desert” at Big Bend. Once we hit Interstate 10 and started zipping down the highway towards Austin, the internet access proved a pleasant distraction from mile after mile of traveling through the Texas desert. Had it not been for our extensive exposure to western desert terrain over the last several weeks, particularly in Big Bend, we might have found the drive through western Texas to be more pleasant. As it was, we had clearly grown somewhat tired of desert scenery and were looking forward to a change of scenery in the Texas hill country around Austin.

We had pledged months ago to limit ourselves to driving no more than 4-6 hours per day and to getting into campgrounds well before dark. Our enthusiasm to get to Austin caused us to break both rules. Driving eastward on I-10 proved to be easy driving conditions because of the sparse traffic and high speed limits. The flip side was that there were few good options for stopping at campgrounds prior to getting into the Austin area. Accordingly, we ended up driving about 8-9 hours and got to our campground at Johnson City shortly after sunset. Being able to relax that night in our Big Sky, knowing that we would not have to hitch up the next morning made the long drive worthwhile.

Monday morning, we went over to Glenn’s home to get together with him and his lovely wife Tamara. Glenn had been urging us to consider bring our Big Sky over to his property and staying there as he had ample land around his house for parking our RV. However, we quickly determined that our Big Sky would bottom out trying to make the climb from the road up into his driveway, nor could it have negotiated the tight turn in the driveway just after entering the gate to his property. While disappointed that we couldn’t stay right next to his house, we congratulated ourselves on being prudent about protecting our precious home.

After visiting their home, we followed Glenn downtown to the building he had recently purchased to support his business. He was in the process of converting this office building into a conference center where he could host several conferences a month for current and prospective clients as well as providing a venue for groups interested in sponsoring conferences focused on opportunities for personal growth. Contractors were all over the place painting, running duct work, wiring and plumbing in an effort to finish the project before a conference scheduled for the following week. Since we had brought our truck along with us, we were able to be of some assistance by helping Glenn transport construction supplies from Home Depot and picking up cabinet doors at IKEA. Our primary reason, however, for going to IKEA was to buy new chair for the living room in the Big Sky. Jo had grown tired of constantly having to move the big, bulky recliner that came with the Big Sky every time we set up in the evening or tied things down in the morning before hitting the road. And boy does that new chair look nice in our living room. We hope that the new IKEA chair doesn’t cause too many problems, even though Jo feels that David is monopolizing it, at least in the first few days that we have had it. LOL!!!!

During the next several days, we had a lovely time interacting with Glenn and his family, including being able to watch his daughter Autumn playing with her 9th grade basketball team. We also had a pleasant visit on Wednesday to historical Fredericksburg, a German-based community an hour’s drive west of Austin. We enjoyed the shops, and David had a fun time wandering through a very large museum focused on World War II in the Pacific and the exploits of Fredericksburg own son, Admiral Chester Nimitz, who was commander in chief of the naval forces in the Pacific during World War II.

After leaving Austin Saturday morning, we took a short drive south to San Marcos where we had a pleasant visit with Jo’s cousin Margot and Aunt Helen. Aunt Helen, who is 89 years old, is a wonderful repository of family history, and Jo really appreciated listening to her talk about family. Boy, we sure hope that we are as mentally sharp at age 89 as Aunt Helen is!!!!!

Nov 13, 2007

Big Bend National Park on the Mexican Border

On Wednesday morning we said a sad farewell to Davis Mountains State Park which had been a delightful and surprising campground over the last two days. The 3 hour drive to Big Bend National Park was uneventful but noteworthy for the extent to which much of it was driving on a highway that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. For the last 90 minutes of the drive through the Chihuahuan Desert before reaching Big Bend NP, we saw almost no cars on the highway and few signs of human habitation. Boy, were we glad that we didn’t have the truck or RV break down on that lonely road.

After passing the entrance station at the west end of the park, we had a 40 mile drive through the park to the campground we were planning to stay at along the Rio Grande River. Although most of the drive was through Chihuahuan Desert landscape similar to what we had seen outside the park, somehow the desert seemed to be more special – more like a park and not like a desert. This was not withstanding the fact that most of Big Bend National Park consists of “miles of miles of miles and miles.”

As we descended 2,000 feet from the center of the park to the Rio Grande River, it was amazing to watch the car thermometer inch upward and upward. By the time we got to the campground, the temperature had gone to the low 80’s to the low 90’s and it really felt like we were in a hot Texas desert climate. Being experienced travelers, we figured the best way to deal with such hot weather was to take a nap!!!! About an hour before sunset, we took a drive down the road to a nearby nature trail which the guidebook said had an overlook over the Rio Grande River which is a great place to watch the sunset. Unbeknownst to us, however, a weather front had decided to move in and bring with it very high winds. By the time we got to the top of the overlook, the wind was blowing so strong (gusts had to exceed 50-60 MPH) that we had to hold onto each other to keep from being blown off the hilltop. Unfortunately, the winds were accompanied with a heavy cloudbank which ended up obscuring most of the sunset but we could see that this spot indeed had great potential for gorgeous sunsets, so we vowed to come back later during our stay when the weather conditions were better. That night, we were constantly reminded of the power of Mother Nature as our Big Sky repeatedly rocked from the buffeting of these very high winds. And we felt very grateful to be safe in the campground and not traveling through the desert on our way to Big Bend when the high winds hit – we would have had to pull over on the side of the road in some remote spot to wait until the winds calmed down to continue our journey.

Big Bend NP - Day 2
We were delighted the next morning to find that our Big Sky RV had weathered the gale force winds without damage. However, as the winds were still blowing quite strongly, we decided to confine ourselves to visiting places of interest near the Rio Grande Village rather than venture into higher elevations in the park which we feared would be even windier.

Our first trip of the morning was to Boquillos Canyon, a narrow slot canyon cut by the Rio Grande River. After hiking along the river in order to reach the Boquillos Canyon, it was hard to envision how this somewhat sluggish river could have been powerful enough to cut through the mesa walls towering above us and carve out Boquillos Canyon. Either the river must have been more powerful in the past, or the canyon is a testament to how much even a sluggish river can accomplish when given enough time. In any event, it was a delight to be walking along the river and to see all of the varied colored layers of rock exposed when the river cut through the canyon. It was also startling, after all the political talk we had heard during the last year about problems of illegal immigration from Mexico, to look across this narrow river, which could easily be waded and realized that Mexico was just 30-40 feet away on the other side of the river.

As a side note, one aspect of the hike which added an unusual flavor dealt with its proximity to Mexico. At the parking lot at the trailhead, there were two signs of interest posted by the park service. The first warned that there had been a number of instances of cars being burglarized while people were hiking, and it advised us to remove all valuables from the car. Now they tell us!!!! The second sign of interest warned against buying any goods being sold by Mexican Nationals and that we risked possible prosecution, and confiscation of any products purchased. The reason for this latter warning soon became apparent as we came across piles of merchandise set out at various spots on the trail. The merchandise in each case consisted of a collection of painted walking sticks, scorpions made of twisted wire, and chunks of mineral/crystals being offered for sale. However, other than a piece of wood or stone set on the crowed indicating the prices for the merchandise, near an empty milk jug or other container in which to place the appropriate payment, there was no seller anywhere in evidence. We ultimately concluded that what must be happening is that Mexicans were crossing the river, depositing their products at various points on the hiking trails near the river, and then hiding in the nearby brush and watching to see either when someone bought some of this merchandise or a park ranger showed up to confiscate it. Both because of the warnings we had been given not to buy this merchandise and the generally cheap/shoddy nature of the merchandise, it was not hard to forego making a purchase. However, we did feel somewhat sad that Mexicans who are trying to earn some extra money by selling their wares had to be treated as criminals. In so many other ways, their offers to sell such merchandise seemed identical to the various offers we were subjected to by Americans or Native Americans at so many of the places we have travelled to in the last several months.

After returning from our hike to this delightful little canyon, we next drove over to Hot Springs, which were the remnants of a commercial establishment which operated in the 1920’s and 30’s to take advantage of some thermal springs adjacent to the Rio Grande River. The road into the Hot Springs ruins was extremely rough, and we were glad that we had both 4 wheel drive and high clearance with our pickup truck. But the ruins themselves were delightful. The few buildings still in existence showed evidence of quite attractive stone works used in their construction. There was a wonderful little cluster of palm trees near the river itself, and it was easy to imagine how visitors to the hot springs 70 years ago would have sat in their lounge chairs, sipping some exotic drink in the shade of the palm trees, while gazing across the Rio Grande River flowing nearby.

When we reached the site of the hot springs themselves, all that was left was the foundation of the bathhouse adjacent to the river where visitors used to come to take advantage of the healing properties of the hot springs. The foundation was sufficient, however, to trap the hot water bubbling up before it flowed into the river. Jo took off her socks and shoes, rolled up her pants, and dangled her feet above the incoming jet of hot mineral water while sitting on the stone wall foundation just a foot away from the flowing waters of the Rio Grande. Time will tell whether the hot mineral springs had any therapeutic value but Jo certainly enjoyed it and sat beaming while dangling her feet in the water…..and her hands too. As we eventually hiked away from the hot springs, Jo wanted to leave open the possibility of making another stop here before leaving the park later this week.

After leaving the hot springs, we drove up the main visitor’s center to view their exhibits on the park and a little nature trail next to the visitor’s center. Thereafter, we drove back towards the Rio Grande Village, stopping in a little Oasis in the midst of this large expansive desert. There was a windmill left over from an old farmhouse established here 70-80 years ago. The windmill was still in operation and was pumping out a small amount of water as the wind spun the blades of the windmill. Although the amount of water was small, its affects were substantial – there was a profusion of trees and other dense vegetation totally unlike the surrounding desert landscape. It really made us appreciate the critical value of water. The difference between the vegetation around this oasis and the surrounding desert was driven home even further when we took a walk on an extended nature trail in the surrounding desert landscape. The signs on the nature trail provided useful insights into how the various plants in the desert find a way to survive under such arid condition, either by storing water in the plants (as many of the cactus do), and/or by growing a profusion of thorns to keep animals from feeding on the plants. While beautiful to observe, we were glad we were wearing heavy slacks so as not to be injured by the sharp thorns on the plants all around us. What austere beauty.

Our last stop for the day was to return to the overlook above the Rio Grande in order to watch another sunset. What a difference a day makes as we were no longer subjected to the heavy winds we had experienced the day before. We had a good view of both the western sky and the cliff walls to the east, in Mexico, which reflected the setting sun by transitioning from light pink sandstone to a bloody red color in the last glow of the setting sun. The clouds in the western sky progressed beautifully from yellow to pink to orange and finally to bloody red. While not as overwhelming as the beautiful sunset we had experienced above Davis Mountain State Park a few nights ago, this was a very pretty sunset and a wonderful way to end the day.

Big Bend Day 3
We decided to spend the next day visiting the western side of the park. The immense size of Big Bend National Park was driven home by the fact that we had to drive over 35 miles to get to the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive on the western side of the park and then had to drive another 20 miles to get down to the Santa Elena Canyon at the far end of the scenic drive. The western side of Big Bend NP is at an intermediate elevation, higher than the low desert near the Rio Grande Village where we were staying, but lower than the volcanic Chisos Mountains which form the central area of the park. It is amazing how the vegetation in this area of the park differs dramatically from that around the Rio Grande River area. The scenic drive provided some great overlooks and vistas allowing us to compare and contrast the landscape at the higher elevations near the volcanic Chisos Mountains with that on the land as it sloped down towards the Rio Grande River to the west. The highpoint of this day’s trip was a hike into Sonta Elena Canyon. The Rio Grande enters Big Bend on the western side of the park by carving another slot canyon through the mesa forming the western boundary of the park. Fortunately, there is a narrow band of land along the U.S. side of the river which allowed us to hike 0.8 miles into the canyon to truly appreciate the beauty of this slot canyon. In addition to being able to gaze up at the sheer rock walls carved by the Rio Grande River, we had an added bonus by in affect hiking through a jungle-type environment as we crept along the trail at the base of the canyon walls. The thick bed of reeds, which seemed very much like bamboo that was 12-15 feet high, formed a canopy over our heads as we bent over and crept along the path carved out in the midst of this profuse vegetation. In many areas, we really felt like we were crawling through a tunnel in a jungle as we made our way along the path. At the same time, we were again confronted by the fact that Mexico was no further away than the Canyon wall on the other side of the 40 foot wide river. A delightful little surprise at the end of our hike was to see three canoes paddling down the river waving to those of us clinging to our path along the canyon walls. On our return back to the trailhead, the darkening skies released a light trickle of rain, the first rain we had experienced since leaving Bryce Canyon National Park over a month ago. Not only did the rain not cause us any problem, it gave us the added bonus of a rainbow hanging in front of us when we worked our way out of the jungle!!!!!!

As with our travels the day before down near the Rio Grande Village, we again saw virtually no wildlife in the desert with the exception of a few birds, a couple of lizards and lots of tarantulas. Driving down the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, David would from time to time notice some dark little mass moving across the highway ahead of us. The first time we slowed down and were able to ascertain that it was a tarantula walking slowing across the highway. Since there was not oncoming traffic, it was relatively easy to maneuver the truck so as to straddle the tarantula and spare it from becoming road kill.

Big Bend Day 4
On our last full day in Big Bend, we drove into the Chisco Mountains and down into the basin nestled in the center of a ring of volcanic peaks. It was a pretty setting and we had a pleasant hike in a loop around a portion of the basin area. Wildlife were more plentiful than down in the desert area, including a deer who ran across the road on our drive up and two deer we say foraging during our hike. The lodge in the basin provides the only non-campground lodging in the park and the café there is the only food service facility in the park. Even with its captive population, however, the café was not crowded at lunch time and we had a nice window table with a good view of the surrounding mountains.

While at the visitor’s center, we had an extended chat with a middle-aged couple who are volunteers at the park. In return for working 3 days out of every 6 at the visitors center, they receive a free campground site and full hook ups for their RV. This is a somewhat different arrangement than our friend Kelley had at Chaco Canyon; apparently each park is free to work out its own arrangements with its volunteers/work campers. We obtained from them a brochure about the volunteer program and spent a good part of time that evening after dinner talking about the feasibility of getting this type of volunteer position in a park, perhaps next fall after we return from our planned trip to Alaska. It would provide a much more in-depth way of experience a national park and maybe a very viable alternative lifestyle once we have had a chance to see a number of the parks of interest to us around the country.

Nov 12, 2007

Fort Davis, Texas and McDonald Observatory

Looking for a logical overnight stop on our trip from Guadalupe NP to Big Bend NP, we decided to stop in the little town of Fort Davis. There were two factors favoring the selection of Fort Davis: (1) the Fort Davis National Historic Site, a post Civil War frontier Fort; and (2) the McDonald Observatory, which some people had noted as an interesting place to visit.

The Fort Davis National Historic Site was a short and pleasant visit. It reminded us in many ways of our visit to Fort Laramie National Historic Site in Wyoming, as both represented frontier military posts primarily designed to protect settlers traveling westward. The Fort Davis Site had fewer restored buildings than Fort Laramie but its visitor’s center had a nice exhibit on the Buffalo Soldiers who were stationed there. The Buffalo soldiers were African Americans recruited by the Army to man several of these frontier forts during the post Civil War era. They distinguished themselves in their service, although many of their accomplishments were overlooked or unreported to more recent times. Fort Davis had two other notable benefits: (1) they played various bugle calls over the loud speaker to give visitors a flavor for some aspects of life on an old military base; and (2) as an NPS site, Fort Davis gave Jo another stamp to her NPS passport.

As it was too late in the day to visit the McDonald Observatory, we returned to our campsite at the Davis Mountain State Park. This was our first exposure to a Texas State Park, and it certainly lived up to all of the positive things we had heard about Texas State Parks. The campsites were spread out so that each of us could have fine views of the surrounding hillsides rather than having to look at other campers. We were also surprised at the large number of mule deer wandering around in the campground. We had at least 5 or 6 deer wandering up to check us out while we were setting up our camper. When they finally realized that we were not going feed them, they eventually wandered over the adjacent campsites in the hopes of handouts. Later that afternoon, in driving through the part to visit the Adobe Indian Lodge, we passed several Javalinas, small, ugly pig-like animals who wander around in the park. Jo was excited when she saw two adults and one baby Javalinas along the side of the road, which she jumped out to photograph. A nearby camper then pointed out a whole family of Javalinas grazing in the underbrush on the other side of the road. She eagerly dashed across the road to take more pictures of these ugly beasts. We wondered if we would have ever seen the Javalinas if our friends Rick and Ann had been with us since they repeatedly tell us that they are jinxes who are never able to see the wildlife that others can find.

Thereafter, we took the “Skyline Drive” to the top of one of the nearby peaks to enjoy the sunset. WOW!!!! There were quite a few clouds in the sky and they all seemed to catch the light from the setting sun at different points in time, so we were constantly looking around in different directions to see which portion of the sky was now showing beautiful pinks and oranges and red colors for the 30+ minutes that we were able to enjoy this beautiful, prolonged sunset. We both agreed that this was one of the most beautiful sunsets we had ever seen and was certainly the most unusual sunset in that it was a virtual 360 degree visual experience as the setting sun reflected off clouds at various points of the compass.

The next day we went up early to the McDonald Observatory so that we could look at the exhibits prior to the first tour of the day which was schedule to start at 11:00 am. McDonald Observatory is an astronomical site operated by the University of Texas. It is situated on top of one of the highest peaks in the Davis Mountains and claims to be one of the best locations for astronomical observation in the U.S. because of the very low levels of light pollution – except for the small town of Fort Davis, there is NO human activity for miles and miles which could interfere with astronomical observations. It turned out that the o observatory offers a host of tours and activities, and David was so excited and interested in what they were offering that we signed up for all of them. In addition to a fine exhibit in the visitor’s center, we were given a two hour tour which included two of their large telescopes. One of these was a traditional telescope, 106 inches in diameter, incased in a long tube which could be positioned to point anywhere in the sky. The other telescope was a newer, larger one of a totally different style of construction. Instead of one big reflecting mirror at the base of the telescope, this telescope had 90+ small mirror panels which were constantly adjusted to focus the incoming light from distant stars. And instead of a tube to enclose the telescope, this merely had a lattice work or steal supports connecting the mirror at the base with the reflecting mirror at the top of the telescope. It certainly didn’t look like any telescope we had ever seen, but apparently it performs its intended functions.

Since the next program was not scheduled to start until the Twilight program at 6pm, we returned to the campground for the afternoon. We went by the interpretive center at the campground because we were told that foxes frequently came by to drink from the little waterfall there each afternoon. Unfortunately, several deer decided to spend the afternoon grazing outside the center, and that seemed to keep the foxes away. We did, however, have the opportunity sit there and look through the plate glass window at the dozens and dozens of birds of different species who flocked to the bird feeders which were set up behind the interpretive center. We left when they closed the center but later learned that the foxes eventually turned up less than 20 minutes after we left.

We returned to the McDonald Observatory at 6pm for several hours of informative tours explaining how to use star charts to look for constellations in the sky as well as a “Star Party” which allowed us to look through 7 or 8 different telescopes focused on different Homer’s Comet, stars, star clusters, and the Andromeda galaxy. Because of the great observing conditions on the mountaintop, we also able to see a satellite crossing the sky and several shooting stars (oooops, we were told not to call them shooting stars but instead to call them meteors since we were in at an astronomical observatory). While looking at the comet and the various stats through the telescopes was enjoyable, the most fascinating observations we had were to look at the Pilates (the seven sisters) using first a pair of high powered binoculars and then looking at the same formation through a telescope. The guide who was giving this demonstration used these two instruments to show how narrow a field of vision one gets when looking through a telescope as opposed to the wider field of observation permitted using binoculars. This persuaded us to save the cost of buying a telescope (and finding some place to keep it in our RV), but we pledged to buy a good set of binoculars so that we could enjoy looking at the stars, as well as other sites as we continue on our Great Adventure.

That night, while David was outside the RV, trying to find the best spot for cell phone reception, he saw some shapes moving through the darkness near our Big Sky. When he turned the flashlight on them, it turned out to be a small family of Javalinas looking around for food. The leader of the family was one UGLY, MEAN, UGLY looking brute who did not seem at all fazed by having a flashlight shine in his face. Boy were we glad we had not left any food outside or even the barbeque, as no telling what that ugly brute would have done to it. The next morning, we mentioned this episode to a fellow camper who we had met the night before at McDonald’s Observatory. When we indicated that this was our second exposure to Javalinas here in the campground, he expressed his jealousy because he had been looking in vain; both here and at Big Bend National Park, for an opportunity see what these Javalinas look like. David was more than willing to have let him enjoy the benefit of seeing those Javalinas, especially that mean, ugly brute from the night before.

Nov 11, 2007

Guadalupe Mountains National Park - Texas

The next morning we decided to leave the White’s City campground and drive down to Guadeloupe National Park and take our chances on finding an RV space there big enough to handle the Big Sky rather than spend another night in the rundown White’s City campground. On arriving on Guadalupe NP, we found that the RV “campground” was really an enlarged parking lot with painted signs on the pavement indicating where individual RV sites were at. It felt strange to be parking in the middle of a parking lot, but what the heck -- this would be fine for one night. Actually, since they had no hook ups, it didn’t matter where they were putting us and indeed, since the setting around the campground was so pretty, even being in a parking lot was nicer than being in the rundown White’s city campground. After setting up and having lunch, we dropped by the visitors center to find out more information about the available hikes. The ranger there and two of the visitors strongly recommended that we take the hike to McKintrick Canyon to observe the fall foliage. Unfortunately, the hike up the canyon was a 2-4 hour round trip hike which had to be completed before the road was closed at 4:30. As it was already 1:30, we jumped in the truck and dashed up there to get as much of the hike in as we could before they closed.

The praise for this hike was certainly warranted, as we saw the best foliage we had seen on our adventure to date. It was surprising to see maple trees down here in Texas, but apparently they are left over from an earlier climatic period when this area was much cooler. The hike along the canyon floor was highlighted with maple trees showing yellow, orange and red foliage at various spots along the way. While it was not up to New England standards, it was certainly pretty. We were startled, however, to read in the literature that the McKintrick Canyon was considered by many Texans to be the most beautiful spot in the entire state. We guess that means it’s only downhill from here!!!! There were several highpoints on this hike in addition to the fall foliage. One was visiting the cabin deep in the canyon which had been built by the individual who later donated this canyon to the park service for part of their national parks. A lovely little cottage built of native stone, including a roof made of stone slabs and an outside table made of a 4 foot by 10 foot stone slab. Another highlight was coming across a tarantula crossing the trail in front of us. Once Jo recovered from her shock, she was in hog heaven taking multiple pictures of the tarantula that could have cared less about our presence. The final highlight of the hike was Jo’s stamina – she was feeling so much better than she has for weeks, or even months, and was able to keep a fast pace and climb up and down the slopes much better than she has been able to do on any hikes so far on our great adventure. This had us wondering whether and to what extent some of the discomfort she has been feeling for a number of weeks now might be due either to an adverse reaction to the injections she has been taking or might be due to the possibility that the medicine was damaged/frozen when our refrigerator was acting up several weeks earlier. In any event we have our fingers crossed that the good shape she is in now will continue as we continue on our great adventure.

Nov 9, 2007

Carlsbad Caverns National Park - New Mexico

Rather than stay in the town of Carlsbad, which is over 20 miles from Carlsbad Caverns National Park, we decided to drive through the town and stay at a commercial campground in White’s City right at the outside gate of the National Park. White’s City was a collection of commercial establishments set up right outside the park, no doubt in the hopes of capitalizing on the tourist trade, apparently, however, business had not been good, because all of the facilities including the gift shop, motel and restaurant appeared to be suffering. This extended to the RV campground, which looked like it had not received any maintenance or upkeep for years. It may well have been a fine campground 20 years ago, but now it is “a dump.” It does, however, have functioning electricity and good water pressure, and it is right next to the park. The best thing about the campground, however, is that when we drove into the park we saw this little creature scurrying down the road ahead of us which we recognized to be a roadrunner. It didn’t look like the one in the cartoons, but it did look funny, and boy did it move fast as it ran down the road trying to get away from us. Unfortunately, Jo was looking at the campground map and didn’t have her camera at the ready to capture this little creature on film. Beep Beep!!

After setting up the Big Sky and having lunch, we drove the several miles to the visitors’ center in the park. Unfortunately, the regular visitors’ center is being remodeled, so everything is now set up in nearby temporary trailers. While this was adequate for buying tickets for the next day’s tour, there were no exhibits about the park like we are used to seeing in the visitors centers as our first step in getting to know the parks we have been visiting.

After buying our tickets for the following day’s guided tour, we drove around to the 9-mile scenic drive through Walnut Creek Canyon. This was a very nice exposure to the desert landscape, amplified by the joy of having this drive to ourselves – we did not see another person or another vehicle at any point during this 90 minute drive. We did, however, have the opportunity to see several roadrunners scurrying down the road ahead of us. Jo was not, however, able to get any really good photographs as these darn roadrunners just moved away too fast. David wished that he had a camera so that he could take pictures of Jo running down the road trying to take pictures of the roadrunners. Jo was able, however, to get a photo of this little fox that ran across the road right in front of us and then paused once he got into the bushes to stare back at us. She also got some shots of a hawk that was flitting from bush to tree to cliff face while watching for prey.

The next morning we headed up early to the park to begin our cave explorations. Based on her uncomfortable experience at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, Jo was a little apprehensive about taking another Cave trip, but we had been reassured by the ranger the day before that the caverns were large enough that she should not feel any of the effects of claustrophobia. And was he ever correct.

While most visitors begin their tour of Carlsbad Caverns by taking the elevator down 750 feet, we went down the “Natural Entrance,” which followed a long series of switchbacks to get down to the caverns below. The hike down through the natural entrance was extremely impressive – we would frequently look down and be amazed that, notwithstanding the long hike we had already taken, the cavern continued to drop deeper and deeper into the earth. Once we got down to the main cavern level, we were overwhelmed by the “Big Room,” which is the main attraction for visitors to Carlsbad Caverns. This huge cavern extends many football field lengths horizontally as well as going off to spurs to one side or another. The ceiling in many places extends 40 to 80 feet upward and nowhere do you get a feeling of being in a confined cave. Most importantly, everywhere we looked, there were awesome cave formations from huge numbers of stalactites hanging from the ceiling, stalagmites growing up from the floor, “flow stone” coming down rock walls and/or drapery hanging everywhere from the ceiling. While the formations were mostly white in color, and did not have the varied colors of the formations in Luray Caverns in Virginia, the sheer number, size and beauty of the formations in the Carlsbad Caverns’ Big Room were just overwhelming.

After an extremely enjoyable tour of the Big Room, it felt strange to utilize the underground rest rooms and visit the nearby snack bar for lunch. Had we been up on the surface, all of this would have been normal. But to have a snack bar, gift shop and restrooms 750 feet underground just seemed WEIRD!!! But to Jo having the opportunity to shop 750 feet underground was certainly a good experience.

After lunch we met at the designated spot to join the guided tour we had paid an extra fee for so that we could see the “Kings Palace” portion of the caves. This 90 minute tour took us through several caverns with overwhelmingly beautify cave formations. Plus, we had the added bonus of a Polish-born Park Ranger who led our tour and entertained us with her amusing stories and her obvious love of Carlsbad Caverns. By the end of the tour it was startling to realize that we had spent the last 6 hours underground enjoying this marvelous National Park. Our only regret was that we had not been able to see the evening flight of the hundreds of thousands of bats who live in the caves from May to October, as these bats had migrated south to Mexico several weeks before we arrived. High on our list of future adventures is to come back to Carlsbad Caverns when the bats are in residence so that we can experience this peculiar adventure.