Monday, May 21, 2012

Deserts, Indians, and Solar Eclipses

As always the trip out of San Diego requires a trip to the desert. You can pick which one, but if you are going east you will cross one.

The weather was cool and foggy, a typical May morning at departure. The Mojave Desert was this year’s choice, passing Joshua Tree National Park, the improbably named town of 29 Palms which exists only to house feed and clothe Marines, their kin, and old curmudgeon retired Marines who spent so much time there in their careers they grew to like it which is indictment enough. When we detoured to Amboy and the other smaller towns before rejoining U.S. 95 we found little but remote houses, straight roads, heat, red mesas and lots of very white sand which gives a special beauty to this forbidding place. Services are non-existent. There is a small service station and store in Amboy but that is all that marks the turn in the road.

This route is a shortcut found after many years of hewing to the Interstates in order to reach Kingman which is the first stop simply because it is far enough to drive in such conditions in one day. Little else recommends it unless one considers the birthplace of Andy Devine a place of cultural significance. It was 95 degrees in town when we arrived and the wind was at near 40 mph and it would stay that way for the next night and day. It is what one finds in Kingman this time of year. By dark it was below 70 and except for the incessant wind, not all that unpleasant. A very early start in the morning found the wind as advertised, the entire state under red flag fire warning, and two out of control fires large enough to gain national news attention to the south of my route. The usual wrestling match with the steering wheel in a high profile vehicle ensued for the next five hours whether we were headed east or north. We turned at Flagstaff where it was cooler because it is higher but even windier.

The renewed desert landscape that lasted most of the next 250 miles going north surprised me. There are more than subtle differences between it and the one crossed the day before. Here is a white grass that carpets the earth, black soil from a volcanic eruption more than a thousand years ago and signs that it once was well watered and farmed by the Hopi and perhaps even earlier tribes when they migrated into the area. The ruins of the adobes at the Wupatki National Monument are some of the more impressive I have seen. The largest, a 100 room high rise built partially underground is incredible in the diversity of materials used and for the fact that despite weathering and vandalism, remain partially intact 700 years after their owners inexplicably walked away. Why they left is one of those vague Indian stories, part reality, part spiritual and part legend. As is true in Monument Valley and other centers of Indian culture near here, it is not even clear how many times these were inhabited and by whom. The Indians can tell you the oral history, but the clarity is only as good as the memories that are pass it down. There is no written record so much of what we know of these peoples is at best guess backed by stories and relics and shards of pottery of different materials. All that having been said, it is still a place of wonder and incredible innovation, more proof that these “savages” the migrating whites chose to shoot on site or treat horrifically were a great deal more innovative and wise than they are credited.

Climbing to the top of Arizona on U.S.89 is both breathtaking in its rural splendor and depressing in the grinding poverty of the remnant Indian population selling trinkets by the roadside to those headed for Lake Powell and the eastern end of the Grand Canyon. The neglect of these people, who subsist in the most substandard of housing, much without electricity or plumbing and live each day in a quiet, yet proud desperation makes questions about priorities part of the journey.

One turns east again to climb to the north rim of the Grand Canyon at 8000 feet and passes through the Vermillion Valley with its nearly deserted lands of remarkable rock formations. Eventually the mountain is climbed to Jacobs Lake where there are pines forests, some late afternoon clouds and a temperature not unlike those left two days before.

The next day is spent at the North Rim, which is higher and much less developed than the South Rim with which most are familiar. I confess that the temperatures and the lure of the arms of Morpheus kept me from a sunrise or sunset visit. What was clear was that many camping there were waiting for Sunday to see the Aureal eclipse. The National Parks in the west are hosting special programs for the event. I chose to go on to Bryce Canyon to see it. It is clear the interest in this invitation was vastly underestimated. The camps are packed. I managed the second to last spot at Bryce Canyon and watched the event amid an array of portable radio telescopes and camera equipment that defies imagination. Vehicle traffic into the Park was stopped before noon although the shuttle bus ran. There were people from everywhere. The Europeans were here in strength as were east coast amateur astronomers. The rest of us watched through special glasses given to us for the twenty minute event. It was an awesome sight. Applause greeted the circle of fire, and then we went back to camp and talked about it awhile. Today, there are thirty campers in the campground and some sense of normalcy has returned.

The weather was excellent for all this and expected to remain so for the next three days. Memorial Day Weekend may well be another story. There may be snow here. I will be in Idaho by then where rain is forecast in that “perhaps” language used when the Chamber of Commerce wants the picnics, festivals and the rest to go forward. The campgrounds will be full despite how bad it may be.

Juan and the rest of my “companions” are fine, I am bothered a bit by the altitude at the moment, but otherwise content that the trip is a good one so far.

And so it goes.


  1. My first trip to NM taught me about poverty in our native American realms. It is so sad. It sounds like the trip is going wonderfully so far. I wish you well. We plan on making a trip to the canyon sometime after we get moved in here. I can hardly wait. God speed.

    1. So far so good Sherry, hope the move is smoothing out. On to Idaho tomorrow with rain forecast there for the weekend. Not a good thing.

  2. About 20 years ago I read an Annie Dillard essay (it was in either Pilgrim at Tinker Creek or Teaching a Stone to Talk) about watching a solar eclipse. For years, it made the hair stand up on my neck if I even thought about it.

    As I remember it, she was sitting with friends and others on a hilltop with a vast vista, waiting for the totality (is that what they call it?). And though it occurred at extremely high speed, the crowd saw the darkness of the totality moving toward them like a wall of void – it was that well defined.

    Maybe I'm imagining I read that. Either way, I am extremely jealous of you.

    Isn't Zion incredible? My brother, Mike, and I spent at least one night there when we took a cross-country camping trip in 1964. I was in junior high school. And back then, there were no crowds. (Sigh.)

    1. This one was one that never went totally darkm so what you describe could be true, I have never seen on of those. It is amazing in its way because you can see the solar flares coming out the sides of the ring,The whole thing lasted a very long 20 minutes.

      Zion is always incredible, my favorite is still Bryce. The hidden treasure up there is Capital Reef because it is less developed and the neat stuff is harder to get to (translated that means NO tour buses!) I was at Zion six years or so ago myself.The difference is astonishing eb=ven in that time span.