“Where are you going THIS time?”
My friend was kidding, but we are traveling again for the fifth time this year, and it’s not getting old. THIS time, we’re traveling into the land of enchantment, the land of mesas and long horizons, the land with dirt that coats your shoes and pant legs and gets into your pores. This is the land of rock and cactus, a land of exceptional beauty, the jewel of America, the Southwest.
Bombing down I5 through the Central Valley, we were happy to turn east through Bakersfield instead of crawling through El Lay Basin for five hours. In Palm Springs, we stopped at a small but delightful botanical garden called Moorten’s which boasts the World’s Largest Cactarium. The yucca and ocotillo sprawled with joy across hand-lettered signs. The greenhouse was full of rare variations: cactus with hair six inches long and soft to the touch, cactus that grew downward from a hanging pot, and even cactus that stretched like a pile of snakes along the ground — “Grows Horizontally.”
In Redlands, a small college town on the east side of San Bernardino, the “fast food” joint called Red Panka, begs to be franchised. The theme was Peruvian food and my quinoa shrimp saltado salad was virtuous and delicious; the fried plantains for dessert topped it off beautifully. I jotted a note to my Post-Traveling Self: Convince someone to open a Red Panka shop in Castro Valley!
Twenty-Nine Palms: Joshua Tree National Park has the Wrong Name
The Joshua tree was named by Mormons who thought the tree’s distinctive up-crooked arms look like a prophet calling to the heavens. Southern California has few Mormons these days, so why that name stuck is a mystery. The trees are a curiosity but what’s the true beauty in Joshua Tree National Park are the rock formations.
The park owes its legacy to volcanic activity from eons ago. The gneiss rock of the Pinto formation formed rectangles thrust upward which was turned to humps by molten mozogranite, which eroded over time to leave the gneiss standing upward, now with yucca and cactus latching on wherever a patch of sand holds a little water. We smeared on sunblock and clapped on broad-brimmed hats in the glare and walked among the giant toddler’s building blocks.
I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams…
–Antoine St. Exupery, The Little Prince
Flagstaff: Cousin Susan’s Cabin in the Stars
We rolled through the flat suburbs of Phoenix, which exhausted its charms for me years ago, and moved quickly through the “scenic” part of Sedona, with its red rocked McDonald’s and real estate offices next to neon signs blaring CRYSTALS! VORTEX! Sedona also doesn’t do anything for me; I can get my fill of crystals in Berkeley. We pressed on to Flagstaff to visit my cousin.
I hadn’t seen Susan in at least ten years. I knew she was doing something scienc-y, something involving the Lowell Observatory, but I hadn’t kept up much. I mentioned something about telescopes to her in my email — I have a little table-top scope and she cheerfully agreed to help me figure out how to use it.
As it turns out, she also had a telescope, a magnificent 20-inch model, five times the size of mine. It took several trips for the three of us to carry the pieces from her garage out to the grassland in front of her house. Well, not so much a house as a two story cabin that looks like it belongs in Sea Ranch or the priciest parts of Marin; it was gorgeous! She’s going to list it on AirBNB, and we mused about what to call the house while she set up the scope…. Starscape? Starfall? Susan’s Cabin Under the Stars?
Susan was an excellent teacher. I’d never quite understood before how the bowl of the sky moves around us during the night, but she pointed out Arcturus, Sagittarius, and there went a satellite, arcing overhead. She explained how you can tell a satellite from a plane or shooting star, and we briefly hoped it was the International Space Station, but a helpful NASA website said no. There was also a pesky full moon unfortunately, which rose like the Great Pumpkin glowing above the freeway as we drove to her house, but upon our arrival kind of mucked up the stargazing.
Looking at the moon through the huge telescope was blinding but incredibly clear, with views of craters so sharp that you could see the blast impacts that stretched for miles, like a rock that hits your car windshield. Even with the interfering moon, we saw plenty: the Ring Nebula, Vega, and globular clusters, including the M-13 Hercules cluster, the brightest cluster in the northern hemisphere. After she put Saturn in the eyepiece, I looked and saw the rings fully separate from the planet, as well as two of its moons. I’m afraid I got especially excited at that point because I pounded her on the shoulders and yelled at her that it was Flipping Awesome! She’s a foot taller than I am, so it was a bit of a reach, but I was jumping at the time.
I set up my piddly little tabletop telescope, and she went to flip on the laser pointer. Apparently, it has a laser pointer. “When did you last change the batteries?”she asked. Batteries? Ahem. Forget the laser pointer. The moon was so bright that I aimed right for it as she explained how the light would bounce off the mirror inside to the eyepiece. All I saw was dark, though, until she came over and said, “Try it this way…” and moved the mirror from table to the sky. I was looking at it through the wrong end. “Ohhhhhh!”
She showed us Sagittarius and the edge on view of the Milky Way, although the galaxy wasn’t strongly visible with that darned moon. We continued to swap science talk that merged into ticking through the list of family members, who’s been divorced, who’s recovering from cancer, and who is ! Wow! really? graduated already? I remember when they were…. Family talk. She had baked cupcakes and we brought oatmeal cookies from the Natural Grocers, while we stared through her floor-to-ceiling windows at the night sky. Look for a listing on AirBNB in the next year or so; you won’t be disappointed.
Chinle: Windfall in the Canyon
Canyon de Chelly is off the beaten path, as you need to drive an hour and a half north of the Petrified Forest to get to the tiny town of Chinle. Most tourists seem to stay on the interstate making a beeline from Phoenix through the Painted Desert to New Mexico. We took the detour because this is my favorite canyon of all.
At sunset, we meandered out on one of the rim drives that overlooks sculpted red and brown rock dotted with ancestral stone ruins and fluffy green trees. For me, Canyon de Chelly has it all over Sedona, that new age Las Vegas. Natives still farm in the canyon as hogans dot the greenery next to the ancient kivas. Humans have occupied the canyon for hundreds of years and will go on doing so among the millennia-old sandstone and clay. It’s like civilization breathing in front of your eyes. If you want a spiritual experience, come up to the canyon at sunset and listen to the wind howl. At one spot, as the breezes flowed across the rippled rocks and through holes, it sounded like a waterfall – a windfall voicing the songs of the rocks.
We booked a jeep tour down into the canyon, our first time to see it, looking up. As our guide Connie steered the jeep into the park, it quickly became apparent that the roads were sand, and the trip would be slow, leisurely, processional. Connie told us dozens of Navajo family stories, from the aunties and cousins who still farm the soil to her dad, an interpreter with the National Park Service. She stopped under the shade of a tree and lit a fragrant piece of tobacco as she told the story of her great-great-something-grandmother, part of the Bitter Water clan, who was forced out as part of the Long March. She showed us fortress rock, where Navajos successfully hid from the Spanish soldiers but were starved out by Kit Carson. She explained how to tell the petroglyphs from the ancient dwellers apart from the newer drawings by Hopi and Navajo. We saw dozens of cliff dwellings for living, storage, and burial built throughout the rocks a thousand years ago. Everywhere when you looked up, the walls felt imposing and impenetrable. They hold secrets of the ancestral people; they could hold your secrets if you cared to share them.
Albuquerque: Mass Ascension
We left the quiet beauty of my favorite canyons and headed east for the Balloon festival, the pride of Albuquerque. The Sunday night Balloon Glow was cheerfully busy, finishing up a Chainsaw Carving Contest when we arrived. The festival has a state fair atmosphere, with vendors selling handcrafted alpaca blankets and mounds of ribbon potato chip fries smothered with cheese, bacon, and green chiles. The field was already dotted with rectangles of balloons-to-be, baskets, blowers, and burners. We sat on a Korean war era army blanket which my father-in-law said kept you “neither warm nor dry,” but it was a serviceable perch. The balloons inflated slowly as the burning afternoon sun moved across the low horizon.
At the evening event, the ballons are grounded but once full, they light their burners and flash orange, white, and red in the dusk. When fully dark, there are “All Burns” ; the crowd counts down and, at the signal, all the balloons light up. At one point, the announcers asked people to shine their cell phones at the same time, and suddenly we were amid a sea of big yellow lights and small white lights — our own little galaxy of huge giant suns dotted with white stars.
The festivities finished with a fireworks show, more cartwheels of stars and rockets shooting up into the black. We walked towards the parking lot at the finale, as the lights exploded across the sky, reflecting off the cars and trucks like a hundred extra mirrors.
After the evening festivities, the next step was an early alarm. The Dawn Patrol is at 6 am, so we struggled up into warm layers since the outside temperature at the park was in the forties. Our picnic table spot was coated with a layer of rime, and the sixty-year old blanket came in handy once again as we warmed our hands with styrofoam cups of hot chocolate.
The Dawn Patrol boasts over a hundred balloons, which started to inflate as the sky went from black to periwinkle. Many are yellow or rainbow-bright in the familiar shape, but favorites include the special shapes: a bear, lion, kiwi, pirate, baby, astronaut, dragon, Darth Vader & Yoda, flying pig, elephant, French cavalry, and three penguins. They rise up in shadow, but as the sun starts to crest the Sandia Mountains, the highest gleam gleam in the sun, and the mass of orbs are alternately dark and brightly lit.
It is living art, a quiet and slow canvas of colors that changes over the hour of ascension. Some cheer when a balloon takes off, but mostly there is the quiet of dawn and the sound of a burner cord yanked as a basket drifts above you.
My favorite balloon is Arabella the cow. This day, she stayed on the ground, but I have seen her lift through the air to float among the dots. More than one culture has a cow goddess – the Egyptians called her Hathor — and she gave birth to the world and fed the people, the ultimate mother symbol. Nothing seems more fitting to this journey than to look up into the sunrise to see a cow overhead, symbol of sustenance and blessing among the glowing yellow orbs.
We’ve seen sunrise, high noon, sunset, moonrise, and dark of night in these travels. It has made me more aware than ever of how temporary we are, moving through the land like smears in a time-lapse photograph, a dot on the landscape and then gone. But I can at least remember. Looking up, after all, is about hope and nothing can bring such hope than to see such the range of what the earth can show, from the rocks to the stars, the trees and the balloons, stretching out across this landscape of rock and cactus.