Discovering Places: San Ysidro Trails

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I took a couple hours and went out to San Ysidro Trails, a BLM public use area about thirty miles from where I live. This was my first visit although I’ve gone past it many times.  The area is just west of the town of San Ysidro  (NM) on highway 550. There is a sign and a small parking lot. The gate is locked so you need to request a key if you want to bike or do any off-road vehicle exploration. Check with the area rules on how to get the key and what is allowed. Take plenty of water.

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The area is located just to the south of the Jemez and Naciamento Mountains and bumps up against the Jemez Pueblo lands to the north. The highway is the south edge and across the highway is the Rio Salada, White Mesa and the Ojito Wilderness.  The trails area has two small canyons and there is usually some permanent water pools in the deeper recesses. I visited in early May and there was a surprising amount of water in the canyon…it is probably drier later in the year. That much water means there is wildlife in the area and there were plenty of tracks but in the middle of the day I didn’t see much. I heard a few things moving through the Junipers and sage but didn’t actually see anything. There were hawks circling in the distance, some songbirds and what I assume was some type of large grouse that took off in a frenzy when I got too close.

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The name “trails” is deceiving because there are no real developed trails but there are lots of faint trails going off in random directions.  The place is mostly sand and a little broken cobble with some significant sandstone (?) outcrops and canyon walls. Actually the geology seems puzzling. I saw sandstone and what looks like shale but also lots of igneous rocks scattered around including some obsidian. The Jemez Mountains are volcanic and there is a lot of solidified volcanic ash (Tuff) so I may be mistaking the tuff for sandstone.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI only had a couple hours so I started off following the footprints of some other recent visitors up one of the random trails. At first, on the macro level there isn’t a great deal to see: mostly junipers, sage, cholla cactus and prickly pear scattered on slightly rolling sand hills. The interest is in the details — there is a wide variety of broken stone mixed in with the sand and a variety of blooming wildflowers. There is a lot of cow poop but no cows. When there are cattle in the area I guess they are responsible for the random trails.

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The high cliffs are across the highway

It takes a little bit of walking to get away from the highway sounds but eventually you are out of range and in an interesting desert landscape. This is the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert at about 5,600 feet in elevation. Keep your eyes open, this is rattlesnake country. You will also see some interesting stuff if you pay attention. I saw a small white horned lizard (AKA horned toad) no larger than a cricket. I didn’t know they came that small. He easily blended in to the sand and rock pebbles.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKeep walking in a roughly northeast direction and you will eventually arrive at the western canyon.  As far as I know they have no other names beside West and East canyons.  On the way I passed something I guess was an adobe shelter of some type – now just dirt mounds with a little wood and sheet metal mixed in. There also are a few old forgotten fences with rusted and broken barbed wire. There are gaps in the fences if you follow the animal and hiker trails.

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The (west) canyon was a major departure from the sand and gravel. Intermittent rock walls are maybe fifty foot high at the most and there is a lot of tumbled down boulders. The canyon floor is lush green grass. I was running out of time so I just stayed at the western canyon. The eastern canyon is reported to be more impressive and is a slot canyon in a few places. I saw some hedgehog cactus growing in the canyon which is a departure from the usual cholla and prickly pear.

 

 

Heading back to the car is a little tricky unless you marked your route. If you just head south you will eventually get to the highway some distance east of the parking area.  I need to make a full day of it and get over to the east canyon on my next trip.

 

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Discovering Places – Georgia O’Keeffe Country

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I’m spending a fall week in southern Colorado and drove up north out of the Albuquerque area through Georgia O’Keeffe’s stomping grounds in northern New Mexico. I have never seen it more beautiful.

Georgia O’Keeffe lived in Abiquiu, New Mexico, for almost forty of years and was inspired by the surroundings. Here’s an example of one of her paintings from the O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe….a view of Pedernal Mountain, one of her favorite landscape subjects.

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Abiquiu is a tiny village north of Espanola. There’s not much there and there was probably less back in the 1940s when O’Keefe bought a house there for her home and studio. She moved there permanently in 1949. The parish church, Santo Tomas el Apostol, is most notable today.  The church was established in the 1700s but the current building dates to the 1930s, built in the old colonial mission style.  Visitors need advance arrangements to visit O’Keeffe’s home and studio and I will do that on a future trip.

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Abiquiu offers an interesting perspective on old Spanish colonial life in northern New Mexico. It was the starting point for one of the trading routes between New Mexico and California. There are still artists and galleries scattered around the village.

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The Rio Chama flows through the valley and was dressed in beautiful yellows and gold of autumn. Rio Chama is one of the major trout streams of northern New Mexico.

O’Keeffe first came to New Mexico in 1929 and stayed in Taos with Mabel Dodge Luhan, who hosted a number of writers and artists. She bought a Model A Ford in 1929 and began exploring northern New Mexico and eventually discovered Ghost Ranch a few miles north of Abiquiu. She acquired a house at Ghost Ranch in 1940 and spent much of her time there until finally moving to the renovated adobe home and studio in Abiquiu. Georgia O’Keeffe used the colorful hills and cliffs of Ghost Ranch as subjects of many of her landscapes. Today Ghost Ranch operates as a retreat, nature and educational center.

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Pedernal, the prominent flat-topped mountain, dominates the horizon west of Ghost Ranch and dominates several of O’Keeffe’s paintings. She never seemed to get tired of it. The shapes and colors are highlighted by the bright light and clear skies of New Mexico, the changing seasons, and shadows of sunrise and sunset.

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Perdenal makes an interesting subject and creeps into the horizon even from a distance.

This was my second visit to the area since my initial trip back in 1979 or 1980. That trip was also in October but I don’t remember being awestruck by the beauty of the area. As I recall, we were on a tight schedule. Georgia O’Keefe was still living in Abiquiu at that time. She lived to be almost 100 and was in failing health and losing her eyesight beginning in 1972. She hired a helper in 1973 (Juan Hamilton) who became her companion and business manager. When she couldn’t paint any longer, Hamilton, himself a potter, helped her take up ceramics and sculpture for a while. Her health declined further and she moved to Santa Fe in 1984. She died in 1986 at age 98.

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(Todd Webb photo – c. 1961)

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San Lorenzo Canyon

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI stopped at San Lorenzo Canyon (a BLM Recreation Area) on the same day that I scouted out the road to the Sierra Ladrones  Mountains. This was just sort of an add-on side trip and I had no idea what I was going to find. This seems to be a well-kept secret unless you live around Socorro, New Mexico.  But, hey, I’ll drive fifteen miles just to eye-ball a natural feature any day.

Getting there is a little tricky. Coming south on I-25 out of Albuquerque, take Exit 163 and cross over the interstate. This is San Acacia. Look for the frontage road heading south and turn right (south) and continue driving a couple miles. You will see two small underpasses that cross to the west side of the highway. Take the second underpass and follow the dirt/gravel road west several miles. There are several dirt roads…stay on the one that looks most travelled. You will eventually come to a sign  pointing the way to the canyon. These back country roads might require high clearance and four-wheel drive if weather and road conditions have deteriorated. It’s  about 5 miles on the dirt road. I’ve included a map at the end of this post that might help. There’s an alternative published route from a few miles to the south if you are in Socorro.  The area can be reached by taking the western frontage road north from Lemitar (along I-25) and driving about 5 miles. At that point, visitors follow a maintained dirt road west which will go to the main canyon. Google maps do not seem to be current in this area. Sevillita National Wildlife Refuge is just to the north of San Lorenzo Canyon (Strangely, the refuge office/museum is not open on weekends).

At any rate, it takes some effort to get there but it is well worth the trip. You might see other visitors as the place is locally known. There will be some evidence of horseback riders along the canyon road.

I only scratched the surface during my visit and I didn’t venture very far off the road. There are trails going this way and that so it seems like people just ramble up the canyon as they please.  Rather than having me babble on, I’ll just post some pictures and add a few comments.

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If you see this, you are on the right track. This is a pretty classic example of a geologic unconformity with horizontal layers of sedimentary rocks laid over a bed of eroded tilted layers. This is exposed as part of the Rio Grande Rift zone.

The first view of the canyon doesn’t give much of a hint as to what follows..

Things start to get interesting…

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There are a few brave survivors showing their blooms — and the invasive Tamarisk.

 

 

I mostly had the place to myself on the day I visited.

Alcoves, arches, a slot canyon and rock shelters line the route up the canyon. There are some springs, I’m told, up near the head of the canyon where you might see some wildlife.

Watch the sky — don’t get caught by a flash flood.

I only spent about an hour at San Lorenzo Canyon but this could easily be an all day trip in the right weather. There are no facilities so bring plenty of drinking water.

 

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Wandering Toward the Outlaw Mountains

cropped-p61200291.jpgIf you take a look at the header image on this blog you will see a huge expanse of New Mexico desert, green from a rare period of frequent rains, and in the distance a shadowy hulk of a mountain. The mountain is a cluster of mountains called the Sierra Ladrones, the Outlaw Mountains, and they are about forty miles off in the distance from the camera.

These mountains are isolated from any other mountain range and are considered a “massif” in geologic terms. They sit like an island, complete unto themselves. Unlike many of the other local mountains, the Sierra Ladrones are not volcanic but are an up-thrust of Precambrian rock that somehow, through ancient tectonic movements, managed to rise above the surrounding surface and withstood erosional forces over the eons of time. Ladron Peak reaches 9,176 feet in elevation, some 4,000 feet higher than the Rio Grande valley to the east. Monte Negro, a secondary peak, rises to 7,572 feet. Most of this is BLM land but Sevillita National Wildlife Refuge includes part of the southeastern slope.

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I have been fascinated by the Sierra Ladrones and always look for them when I venture south from Albuquerque. They play hide and seek. Now you see them — now you don’t. That’s because of the terrain and the Interstate 25 highway route that follows the Rio Grande south to Socorro and Truth or Consequences…that’s where the people live, after all. Not many people live up near the Sierra Ladrones; only a few isolated ranches and a few ranchers running cattle on open range. It would be a hard place to raise a family, albeit a beautiful place.

On a whim, I decided to see if I could get close to the mountains and maybe find a way to get up into them. I’m no mountain climber or even an endurance hiker so it would depend on finding a road. After a little searching on Google and my highway map I found that Socorro County Road 12 would be the way to get close. There are a few webpage accounts of hikers and climbers venturing up into the mountains and there is a wilderness study area described on one webpage — CR 12 seemed to be the preferred route. This is an unpaved road running from Bernardo, past the “ghost” town of Riley to Magdalena, on US 60. The sign says it all.

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The route out of Bernardo follows a portion of “old” Highway 60, or maybe “old” Highway 84 depending on the map. There’s not much there — a KOA campground and a rickety bridge over the Rio Puerco.  This is the paved part…okay, mostly paved…but the pavement runs out just past the bridge where you take a hard right onto CR 12. You are pretty much on your own from here. I think I saw three ranch trucks all day until I got back close to the interstate.

The road is certainly unpaved and for much of the early portion it has a jarring wash-board surface that almost makes you want to turn around. Maybe that’s intentional to keep the faint-hearted folks out. After that it gets better and turns into a bumpy but reasonably well maintained dirt and gravel road.

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This is mostly BLM land. Some of it it fenced and some is just open range. I didn’t keep track of my mileage but after about five miles or so you encounter power lines.   I lost track of the number of cattle guards I crossed but there were plenty. If you do see an approaching rancher’s truck you will see the dust long before you see the vehicle.  There was always a wave.

 

I’ve said often enough that I have the curiosity of a fourth grader even though I’m almost sixty-seven. I can’t remember the last time I took a walk and didn’t find something that caught my interest. A lot of times my pockets are full of rocks or seeds or something that warrants closer attention. When I’m out walking I’m looking at plants and the geology, mostly. There are animal tracks and burrows and places where some unseen drama took place. Luckily, I’ve not yet encountered a rattlesnake…yet.  Mostly there were lizards, a few birds and a desert cottontail. The ground was desert sand and dust. It made me think of decomposed tuff or volcanic ash, probably blown in over the centuries from the ample number of ancient eruptions. There is an active magma body under Socorro and TorC that fuels the local hot springs.

I paused at a dry arroyo but there was no exposed bedrock. About a third of the rocks I saw strewn around on the surface was milky quartz — sometimes an indicator of a nearby vein of some type of ore. Where I’m from I’ve seen that with a little silver and tungsten ore. There were also some nice examples of reddish feldspar-rich granite. I always wonder how these fist-sized rocks appear out of nowhere.

Some of the plants I know, like the Apache Plume growing wild through the area. They sell that as a popular ornamental and out here it looks healthier than in my yard. There was a woody, yellow-flowered bush that I didn’t recognize. It seemed to be full-grown at about three feet tall.  Most prominent is the cholla forest stretching all the way to the mountain. Some were in bloom and being visited by bees…who manage to survive out here somehow.

There doesn’t seem to be much available for cattle to eat or enough water to keep them alive. They seem to do quite well, anyway. I saw several young calves running through the cholla and a small “herd” staring at me on one of the tracks leading off of the county road.

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As I said, I was out here wandering with no particular agenda or goal. I had no expectation of actually getting up into the mountains but was just looking for a possible route. I got a late start and it was well into the afternoon and I was twenty-some miles out on an unpaved road. It was a gorgeous day and it lifted my spirits…I’ve been a little glum lately.

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From the higher elevation you can look back towards the Rio Grande valley and see the dark colors of the river bosque and the wetlands and across to Black Butte and the mountains beyond the valley.

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Clouds were building by the late afternoon and it was time to head back home. The danger is more from lightning than from rain but there are some arroyos that would be subject to flash flooding. I’m satisfied that I’ll be able to continue this trip at a future date. There will probably be a part two at some point.

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Trinity – April 2, 2016

The word “Surreal” comes to mind. It is an absolutely gorgeous day. A man is taking a selfie while standing in front of the rough stone obelisk that marks the spot…the very spot…where the first atomic bomb exploded. This is “ground zero” at the Trinity Site. There are thirty or forty other people waiting patiently for their turn to take a selfie at the same spot or to take pictures of their loved ones standing at the ground zero marker. This is only the beginning of what is to come. While you are there experiencing it, it seems nearly normal but on reflection on what this place is and what it represents it descends into almost a dreamlike experience.

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The Trinity Site is open for public visitors for one day only, twice a year (April and October) because it is located on restricted military real estate: that being the White Sands Missile Range. They still blow things up here or shoot things out of the sky. You can’t just drop in and take a gander at where it all began. This is a secure place and you go through a security gate, show identification and follow a precise route and park in a designated spot and walk several hundred yards across the desert to a fenced circular space maybe 100 yards across. You can stop along your walk to purchase a T-shirt.

 

There isn’t much to see. Ground Zero is just a monument and a piece of desert but if you look closely you see that you are standing in a shallow depression. It is gradual but the ground you are walking on is a round saucer with a relative depth of about eight feet caused by the tremendous compression from the blast. The surface was once covered, almost paved, with Trinitite, a greenish glass-like stone created from the quartz and feldspar sand exposed to the pressure and extreme heat from the plutonium bomb. Most of the Trinitite is gone but people are walking stooped over like beach comers looking for shells on a beach. There are examples on display. It isn’t a pretty stone…just a novelty. It is illegal to remove any from the site but they look anyway.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPositioned along the eight-foot perimeter fence are a series of official black and white photographs with captions explaining various aspects of the test site, the engineering and construction work, the bunkers used for observation and photos of the actual blast. Visitors walk along the fence and pause at each photograph like the Stations of the Cross. Looking beyond the fence you see only desert and mountains and a slight rise…almost a lip…designating the edge of the depression.

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Across the enclosure, parked on its own flat-bed truck, is a full size replica of “Fat Man”, the plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Fat Man was over ten feet long and 60 inches in diameter…hence the name. It weighed over 10,000 pounds.

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Nagasaki wasn’t the primary target on that mission. The flight crew made three bombing run passes over the main target, the city of Kokura, but clouds and smoke from earlier bombings obscured the city so they went to Nagasaki instead.

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The Gadget — Nuclear Museum

At Trinity “The Gadget”, as the first bomb was called, was assembled largely on site and then hoisted 100 feet up on a steel tower and housed in a small hut-like enclosure. The tower was vaporized and all that remains is part of a concrete footing for one of the tower’s legs. I’m surprised that that managed to survive as everything else was vaporized or blown far beyond recognition. The temperature of the blast was measured at 14,710 degrees Fahrenheit. The sound of the explosion was heard in Gallup, New Mexico, 150 miles away. None of the observation bunkers remain. They survived the blast but have been demolished in more recent years. The main viewing bunker was at 10,000 yards – over five and a half miles away. Robert Oppenheimer watched from there but many others, including General Groves, watched from a point ten miles away. Edward Teller watched from a hilltop point twenty miles away. There were a few project scientists at the time that theorized that the blast might be sufficient to ignite the oxygen and hydrogen in the atmosphere…no distance would have been safe in that case.

Once you have made a walking tour of the fenced enclosure and taken your photos while dodging young parents with baby carriages and folks enjoying the bomb site with the family dog, you head back to the parking area. There you board a waiting shuttle bus to carry you over to the George McDonald Ranch, located about two miles from ground zero.

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The George McDonald Ranch and the residence (the 1913 Schmidt House) was the site of the actual assembly of the plutonium device. The residence is a 1700 square foot adobe and stone structure that, as fate and geology and location would have it, survived the blast with only the windows blown out. The building was at the very core of activity as the scientists and engineers assembled the bomb…in what was the master bedroom.

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Over the decades the building was left to deteriorate until it was “rescued” and stabilized in 1982. The National Park Service restored the residence in 1984 to what it looked like in 1945 but it is now in need of further rehabilitation. A crew of volunteers will work on several restoration projects in the fall of 2016.

This had been a working ranch up until 1942 when the entire area was purchased as a bombing and gunnery range. There was a large livestock tank — sometimes used as a swiming pool by the bomb assembly crew — and a bunkhouse.  The windmill tower survives but the stone bunkhouse is in ruins.

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There is a small amount of residual radiation at the Trinity Site after seventy years. The reported radiation (for a short visit) is less than one would get from a cross-country airplane flight or an X-ray…they say. I hope my rash clears up soon…just kidding.

Actually there were a few informational picketers outside the main security gate because of some reported health issues found among local people. Whether those are related to the atomic test or other missle range activity or something totally unrelated is a good question. Across the road from the picketers were people selling (radioactive?) Trinitite samples.

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The Canyon & Waiting for the Snow

We are supposed to get snow today and tomorrow but the forecasts are a little confusing. They make it sound like a major catastrophe is bearing down on us and then we get an inch and a half of snow and it is gone in six hours. This is New Mexico where the weather is mostly the same from day to day within the slow seasonal cycles so anything that varies from the norm gets a lot of attention.  I’m actually hoping for a little snow — not eight inches.

I recently spent a couple days at Grand Canyon — just before Christmas. That is a wonderful time to visit because there are so few people there and the snow decorates the canyon walls. So, as I await the coming blizzard (or snow shower) I’ll post some Grand Canyon pictures.

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The weather was a little unsettled first day at the canyon but the second day was clear with a beautiful blue sky. The lack of clouds or atmospheric variations tended to wash out the depth of the canyon and it was hard to get good distance photographs. I was there partially for the architecture of the 100 year old park buildings so I enjoyed that as much as the canyon shots.

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While not exactly empty, the park is not anywhere as crowded as it is in the summer and you can take as much time as you want and see it on your own terms.  One thing I noticed in the snow is the foot prints of the other visitors. They apparently ignore the safety railings and climb out on the farthest and most precarious perches. This is dangerous in warm and dry conditions but in snow and ice it is a little foolhardy. Sometimes the footprints went out to the edge but didn’t come back. I wonder how many people go missing.   Anyway, the park was mostly empty except for me, several bus loads of Chinese tourists and some hardy winter backpackers.

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Well…the clouds have moved in so I guess it will start snowing soon. I’m ready.

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The Un-Painted Desert

 

Now why would I go visit the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest National Park in a snow storm?  Good question. These places are know for their colors — the layers of multicolored sand and soil in the Painted Desert and the bright colors of the petrified trees. I thought “wouldn’t it be interesting to see these places in the winter with just a little dusting of snow?” I wanted some snow pictures and would be at the Grand Canyon in a few days so I figured this would give me some practice. I was already in the neighborhood. You know that if you saw my last blog post. So I went.

As I approached the park entry gate the snow was coming down like crazy. I mentioned to the Ranger at the gate that I was hoping for just a little dusting of snow. He said that that’s what this is….not a full blown desert blizzard. Okidokie.

I stayed in Winslow the night before and we had a nice little polite snow…maybe an inch. At the Petrified Forest the polite snow decided to stay for a while and was coming down in a brisk 25 mph wind. I plunged into the cold and made the thirty feet to the door of the visitor’s center. It was warm in there. They have all sorts of information about the Petrified Forest and what animals used to live there and what animals still do. I was intrigued by the full skeletal recreations of the dinosaurs that roamed the area. As dinosaurs go, these were pretty small.  The little guy could fly like a bird.

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This one was a little further down the evolutionary trail and was transitioning into a mammal…or so the sign says.

 

Well…I couldn’t stay in the warm visitors’ center all day so I bundled up and ventured out into the snow.  It was brutally cold with snow flying like pellets. I hope you appreciate what I go through to get this important information out there.  It’s a rotten job…yada, yada, yada.

This was looking like a full fledged snowstorm…not a light dusting.

These are color photographs.

The deeper I went into the park the lighter the snow fall. At times it stopped altogether.

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Sometimes when you go to parks or natural areas there are features with various names. Well, I admit that I often don’t see the resemblance.  But this actually resembled a cathedral in my mind….you know…with flying buttresses?

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So I continued on my way…I was driving, not walking…but I was always stopping in the road and getting more pictures. For some reason there wasn’t anyone else there.

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I was happy to arrive at the Painted Desert Inn and get warmed up. There were a few brave souls there including a weaver with a British accent  and a jewelry maker from the local Navajo community and an artist downstairs in the exhibit room. The Ranger was full of information but she didn’t have any coffee or hot chocolate….which would have been welcome.

I needed to be on the road to Flagstaff, a couple hours of driving away, so I headed back into the cold and snow. I found some coffee in Holbrook and it was getting sunny by the time I got to Flagstaff.

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