Favorite Travel Quotes

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts."
-- Mark Twain
Innocents Abroad

"Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and celebrate the journey." -- Fitzhugh Mullan

"A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving." -- Lao Tzu

Archive for March, 2008

Unique Airstream Gathering

posted: March 30th, 2008 | by:Bert

Airstream gathering

Airstream gathering


©Bert Gildart: Without a doubt, this past weekend’s gathering of Airstreamers was the world’s most unique. For starters, several of us Airstreamers were using Rich, Eleanor and Emma Luhr’s home as a home away from home; and Rich produces a unique magazine, in part about the life and lives of Airstreamers.


But certainly the presence of yet another couple makes my opening statement credible, for Sue and Adam own the only Airstream Class-C motorhome ever made. Initially, it was intended as a prototype, and, who knows, it may still work in that manner.

But shortly after it was created, the economy shifted and the Airstream Company decided to postpone their entrée into the world of motorhomes. That means, then, that Adam and Sue own the world’s only Airstream Class-C motorhome, which they now use to explore America.

Yet another Airstream family also showed up at the Luhr’s, and they join Janie and me in now owning one of the few Safari’s with slideouts. In 2006, Airstream stopped including a slideout with the Safari, apparently because they were just too expensive.

Inside unique motorhome

Inside unique motorhome


For us, however, the slideout provides the perfect floor plan, enabling us to tow a shorter Airstream, but one that has space equivalent to that of a 30-footer.


Airstream still makes the slideout, but now it is included only in their most extravagant model, the Classic. For those who can afford the Classic we enjoy our slideout so much that we have absolutely no qualms in recommending an Airstream slideout. If demand increases, who knows, perhaps they’ll build it again for the Safari.

Adam and Sue

Adam and Sue


But why are we all assembled here at the Luhr’s? Janie and I are here because we wanted to see all these people, and this gathering provided a perfect opportunity. The others are here, however, as they have been planning a trip to Mexico. We’d like to go-and were certainly invited, but we must wait for another year because of other business obligations.


In the meantime, Janie and I are using this time to catch up on work and in Janie’s case, a chance to get her hair trimmed. Because the Luhr’s have been traveling fulltime in their Airstream for the past few years, Rich has had to take on a few extra duties and one of those has been trimming Eleanor’s hair. He does such a wonderful job that Janie decided she’d trust him. And now, with her new coiffure, she’s so thoroughly satisfied that she says she wants as many people as possible to learn of Rich’s extraordinary talents, and so she’s allowed her picture to be posted.

“Ladies,” she says, “trust Rich to cut your hair.”

Janie recommends Rich's talents

Janie recommends Rich's talents


Though most have now departed from the Luhr’s, we’ve remained. Tomorrow we have an appointment with the local Airstream dealer who is going to install the necessary wiring so that I can have a dedicated 12-volt outlet adjacent to the table in my Safari around which I perform all my typing. Previously, when boondocking, I used an outlet that required I run wires through the kitchen area “other people” stumbled over.


The job will require about two hours, and then, about 11, we’ll head back to Organ Pipe, for our Tuesday outing to Quitobaquito Springs, something we’ve discussed in previous postings.

And because Organ Pipe has no Internet connectivity, our next post will not be for several days. In that subsequent posting, hopefully we’ll have answers to some problems that are vexing for all who are concerned about access to areas in national parks now rendered dangerous by virtue of illegal border crossings–and the drugs sometimes associated with such crossings.

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Organ Pipe Photo Restospective

posted: March 29th, 2008 | by:Bert

Departing Organ Pipe

Departing Organ Pipe

©Bert Gildart: Though we are returning to Organ Pipe on Monday to accompany a Park Service led drive to Quitobaquito, currently we’re at Rich Luhr’s in Tucson, Arizona. Rich produces Airstream Life Magazine and in the course of writing stories for him, we’ve become good friends. Over the years now, we’ve rendezvoused about a dozen times. Another Airstream couple, Adam and Sue Maffei, are also “courtesy parking” at Rich and Elenaor’s, and in the last few years we’ve also rendezvoused with them. They’re a delightful couple and once worked for Public Radio.


In a day or so the Luhr’s and Maffei will be departing Tucson for a week long trip to Mexico. We were, of course, invited to join, but I have other priorities at the moment, and one of them is to learn more about Organ Pipe and some of the immigration problems. In other words, though the park is now out of sight, it is not out of mind. As a result, we offer here a few photographs from time spent this past week in that park, and hope they suggests the beauty spring in this desert has to offer.

Matilda Saraficio, a memember of the Tohono O’odam tribe, still harvests saguaro cactus. She also makes baskets from beargrass and other native vegetation. In the past Janie has purchased her baskets, and we carry a small one with us in our Airstream to hold coins and other loose items. They are exquisitely made. Photographically, the light streaming over her shoulder presented a problem, so I used a strobe. The light from the strobe complements the sunlight meaning that I was actually using two light sources. Nikon makes it easy to balance the two sources with their TTL lighting, an inherent part of their SB-800 strobe.

Matilda Saraficio creates baskets

Matilida Saraficio creates baskets

ORGAN PIPE: It is always a challenge to dramatize the organ pipe species, and so I photographed a large clump with backlighting, allowing the sun to register in the lower right hand corner. I thought the silhouette might dramatize the pipe appearance of the desert plant, which only grows in North America in Organ Pipe National Monument.

Organ Pipe

Organ Pipe

Brittle Brush now covers many hillsides, though it appears as though it is starting to fade. It has been blooming, however, for over a month and has been with us not only in Organ Pipe but in several other desert parks as well.

Brittle Brush

Brittle Brush

Cholla: I used two strobes to photograph what I believe is Teddy Bear Cholla. I held my two SB-800 strobes off to either side. By setting the strobes at f32 and the shutter on the camera at 250, the strobes so overwhelmed the existing daylight that the background went dark, helping to isolate the color of the flowers and dramatize further the spiny nature of this species of cacti.



As mentioned, Janie and I will be returning to Organ Pipe and be joining a group to Quitobaquito springs, a particularly beautiful spot in the monument. Getting there is symbolic of the problems the park now suffers, specifically, the illegal border crossing. To see these beautiful springs, the park must send out an advanced patrol to make sure no illegal immigrants are in the area, particularly ones smuggling drugs and that could be potentially dangerous. After the park has been assured the area is safe, we then board a van that is further protected by rangers and then make the drive.

To prepare myself for the return to Organ Pipe I’ve been reading articles about the immense problems created by illegal immigrants. By joining this group I’m hoping to learn more about what the future bodes for this spectacular desert park.

(Where were we about a year ago ? Not far from Organ Pipe–and Tucson.)

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Organ Pipe, Struggling to Keep the Stories Accessible

posted: March 27th, 2008 | by:Bert

Twin Peaks Campground and mountains in Mexico

Twin Peaks Campground and mountains in Mexico

©Bert Gildart: Last year about this time we camped for almost a week in Organ Pipe National Monument. Subsequent to our stay I wrote several magazine stories, and posted a number of blogs that focused on the park’s beauty, but also on its tragic problems.

We’ve returned again because this is one of the nation’s premier desert parks–and because we’re curious to see what new procedures have been implemented to enable the American people to continue enjoying Organ Pipe. For the most part, we’re delighted with our findings…


Immediately adjacent to Twin Peaks campground in Organ Pipe National Monument, there is a mountain you can climb that enables you to peer over the assortment of enthusiastic campers–as well as the Cubabi Mountains about five miles to the south. The mountains are in Mexico and it is this proximity that continues to create an immense problem for National Park Service managers.

Not only do the lovely mountains flank the park but so does a 30-mile long boundary, and unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to patrol. Each year literally thousands of illegal immigrants stream across this border, some seeking work and a better way of life.

Others, however, are desperately pushing drugs, and they are creating a dangerous situation in Organ Pipe National Monument, a situation the park is struggling to remedy. In some cases, they’ve closed sections of the park or are offering special trips so that visitors can enjoy the special heritage the monument preserves.

Visitors saw Gila Monsters on Ajo Mountain Drive

Visitors saw Gila Monsters on Ajo Mountain Drive

“National Park Administered areas are the keepers of our American heritage,” says Andy Fisher, Chief of Interpretation. “If you want to learn about legal immigration and your possible ancestors, you go to Ellis Island. If you want to learn about the Civil War, you go to Gettysburg. Likewise, if you want to learn about the organ pipe this is the only place in the nation where you can do that. That’s not easy to do right now, but our new superintendent is doing everything possible to make it possible to see all this park has to offer.”


Fisher continues, emphasizing that it is in fact, safe to visit much of this desert park. “Flowers”, she says, “are at their peak right now, and there are few places you can go to see such immense spreads of brittle brush. And the Ajo Mountain Range is always spectacular.” Fisher continues, saying that those areas that are not safe are either closed or can be visited with an organized and armed patrol.

“The superintendent is working hard,” says Fisher, “to make the entire park accessible once again to all visitors. Right now the task is not easy and is exemplified by a trip now being offered to one of the park’s most beautiful springs, Quitobaquito.

Cholla, now in bloom

Cholla, now in bloom

The springs is home to the pupfish, a tiny species that provided the students of Ajo, Arizona, with a project that won Ms. Fisher the prestigious Freeman Tilden award, something I learned not from Ms. Fisher, rather from Sharon Genaux, one of the park volunteers, who is proud of her association with the innovative naturalist. “Andy won first place regionally and second place nationally. Quite an accomplishment.”

The award was for a project Ms. Fisher spearheaded. Between 2005 and 2007 she and students from the junior high school at the nearby settlement of Ajo recreated a refugium at park headquarters that replicates the habitat of Quitobaquito Springs. Here, pupfish from the springs can easily be observed in a small pond at the park’s headquarters. “Should something happen to the pup fish at Quitobaquito,” said Genaux, “it’s now preserved here.”

Of course, seeing a replication is not the same as seeing the springs in real life and that is what the superintendent is now struggling to provide. Quitobaquito is located in the park’s southwestern quadrant, within a few hundred yards of the Mexican border. Safeguarding the area is not an easy task and requires an early morning, predawn patrol by a number of rangers. Once the area has been deemed safe from drug runners or illegal immigrants, each week those who have signed up can board a park van and travel with an armed escort to the springs, about 25 miles distance. With time the park is hoping that the installation of the new fence and better patrol will permit more traditional visitation.

Mexican poppy, now in profusion

Mexican poppy, now in profusion

Though visiting the springs is certainly a park highlight, if you miss the opportunity (and it is limited to about 12 individuals a week) the park still offers an incredible display of natural history features–all safe to explore or attempt to find. The Gila monster is often seen, and right now wildflowers are at their peak. As well, many species of cacti are now starting to bloom–all of which helps to make Organ Pipe National Monument one of the nation’s premier desert parks.

I’d also like to report that I am signed up to visit Quitobaquito next Tuesday, and if it all works out, I’ll have much more to report.

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Sunset For the Joshua Tree?

posted: March 21st, 2008 | by:Bert

Sunset For the Joshua Tree

Sunset For the Joshua Tree?

©Bert Gildart: Sunset for the Joshua Tree? That’s what climate scientists say may be the fate for this magnificent species, a member of the lily family that also influences the lives of at least 25 other species.

In other words, if current warming trends continue then global warming will have taken its toll not only on the glaciers of Glacier National Park, the pika of the Great Basin, the polar bear of the Arctic–but also on the Joshua Trees of this diverse California national park.

“It’s happening all ready,” said a park naturalist yesterday at the park’s visitor. “Joshua Trees require cool temperatures in order to flower and set their seeds. Because of global warming, they’re not getting it.”

The National Park Service goes further, and has published an agency-wide brochure. In the brochure, they say that human activities contribute substantially to the current warming trend.


“Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely (90% certainty) due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentration… Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere today are higher than they’ve been in over 650,000 years.” The brochure attributes such statements to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change–and its exhaustive research.

Though I’ve attempted to maintain an open ear, living as we do (when not 3/4-quarter timing it in our Airstream) close to Glacier National Park, that has been difficult, and this past summer posted a blog on a hike to Grinnell Glacier Overlook. The hike provides a hard to refute visual example that global warming is real. I realize, of course, that there are many who do not dispute global warming, saying that it is a natural cycle and not human caused.

But judging from the publication of this government brochure and the fact that certain leaders initially attempted to squelch such materials–but now accept it–it appears as though the debate may be over. Certainly the issue won’t be much of a debate among the presidential candidates, as the way the campaign has now shaped up, all (regardless of party affiliation) agree that global warming is real–and that we can control it.


As Janie and I have hiked trails in Joshua Tree National Park, it certainly does appear as though some of the trees are experiencing stress. In some cases portions of trees have died, and whether this is cause and effect, I’m not enough of a desert ecologist to be able to say.

Under stressful conditions trees don't always produce blossoms

Under stressful conditions trees don’t always produce blossoms

All I know is that park naturalist are saying that trees are dying. But they also say there is some hope: “Regardless of their [global warming factors] causes,” says the brochure, “we must do what we can to manage these impacts, and adapt to the new circumstances they bring.” The brochure concludes it thoughts, saying, “Perhaps the same wisdom that has preserved our heritage in the past can guide us in making choices for the future.”

Some, now blooming in profusion

Some, now blooming in profusion

By inference, I take it that if we group together and insist on responsible action from our leaders that it may not, in fact, be sunset for the Joshua Tree.

(Note: For those who may have attempted to communicate with us, Joshua Tree has no cell phone or Internet access.)

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Photographing Mitchell Caverns

posted: March 17th, 2008 | by:Bert

Mitchell Caverns

Mitchell Caverns

©Bert Gildart: Photographing caverns can present an immense lighting challenge, and Mitchell Cavern, a California state park literally engulfed on all sides by the Mojave National Preserve, is no exception.

The problem is even more acute if you are trying to include people in your scene, and the only way I’ve found that works somewhat successfully is to place your camera on a tripod, attach a cable release and then set your camera to “Slow Sync,” available on my Nikon D-300 and on most advanced digital cameras. Light from the flash will be adequate to illuminate visitors, but not the huge cavern. You’ll then need a long exposure to properly record all those stalagmites and stalactites illuminated only by the low lighting provided by the caverns.


Here, then, is the way the camera functioned in response to those settings. In my case, proper exposure for the cavern illuminated with fixed cavern lights was F-5.6 at about five seconds. First, then, the camera used F-5.6 and the quick high-speed blink of the strobe as the proper exposure for people–and then left the aperture open. Then, because of the slow sync setting the camera remained open for five more seconds and used the cavern lights for the rest of the exposure. The result is the image shown here.

Tour guide for today’s outing was a delightful speaker named Myke Ray. Because weather was not ideal, he prefaced his talk from a sheltered area explaining the importance of tiny calcium-producing micro-organisms that provided the foundations for the cave millions of years ago. Tectonic plate activity subsequently took the layers upon layers of calcium and thrust it into the right position for subsequent cave formation. Ground water did much of the rest.

The result today is a series of spectacular caverns with individual formations that Myke helped embed into our memories with names familiar to us all. “See South America?” he said. Or, “see the giant rooster?”

He was referring, of course, to the orientation of the various stalagmites and stalactites and what, with imagination, you might easily envision–and then easily recall in the future.


The tour took about 1-1/2 hours. Temperature inside the cavern registered 65 degrees and it was a measurement on everyone’s mind. Outside, the Mojave Desert which typically averages about 70 at this time of year, was asserting her temperamental side and had taken a drastic turn downward.

Snow engulfs Hole in the Wall VC

Snow engulfs Hole in the Wall VC

Today, Palm Sunday, outdoor temperatures in and around the preserve registered about 32. Snow was falling and the wind of several days ago had not yet abated, so it was a good day for spelunking.

However, these outrageous weather conditions must come to a halt, and after complaining to the weatherman, have learned he will accommodate us visiting Montanans and that by mid-week temperatures will be back in the low 80s.

That, Sir, will be more like it–and we thank you for your cooperation.

(Alert: Here’s a posting from ABOUT one year ago.)

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Mojave National Preserve–Beauty and the Beast

posted: March 15th, 2008 | by:Bert

Camped in austere beauty

Camped in austere beauty

©Bert Gildart: For much of the time, Mojave National Preserve provides a 1.6 million acre expanse of desert beauty, a place where total and complete silence backdrops its assortment of volcanic rock, Joshua trees, and tiny desert plants that strike you as brave for what they at times must endure.

What they endure is the beast part of this posting, and what has driven both Janie and me to the point of frustration. Three days running now (with absolutely no cessation!!), the winds have swept down from between Table Top and Wood mountains and pounded our trailer–relentlessly!

At times gusts approached 60-miles per hour and as they blew, they shook our Airstream, which groaned in pain. Because the awning over our slide-out flapped violently we pulled in this (our slideout) extension of our living space. Not all other RVers we saw followed suit, but that’s their problem. They may not mind paying the replacement cost inherent in the fabric of their slide-out’s awning, but we do.


Another thought is that we remained two days at Hole in the Wall Campground while many others left, and that could be because our aerodynamic trailer better deflected the wind.

Like the low-growing wildflowers that so characterize this desert.

Of course, Dick and Linda, our new friends from our last posting remained, but in their 30,000 pound motorhome, they were rock solid.

But it’ all relative, after all, and the winds have greatly affected us. They’ve prevented sleep–totally–and that’s been particularly frustrating as three days ago, I picked up a horrible desert cold manifest by a persistent night-time cough that was at times violent in itself.

Low growing, to endure the beast

Low growing, to endure the beast

Wind! Cough! Janie has gotten absolutely no sleep and neither have I. We recall that for prairie women, wind was the bane of their existence, creating insanity in the extreme. Now I can empathize, and the result is that this morning, I am writing this blog from the KOA in Needles, about 40 miles from the preserve. In a hollow; protected from the wind!

As a result, we both slept well last night, and this morning, my cold is more the curse recalled from a bad dream. That’s the beast of Mojave National Preserve, what follows is part of this park’s staggering beauty.


All that came on the heels of several more informative days of exploring the requited beauty of Mojave National Preserve, most notably a day with Dick Pfeifer who took us on a tour of a trail he has laid out. As Dick says, “The idea was to find old trails, old roads, old cattle trails and then link them together. Because the trail is to be six miles long, we added new segments. That’s where I came in.”

Built by the VIPs

"Built by the VIPs"

Because the trail does not yet have a name, I’m calling it Dick’s Trail. Dick says that’s OK, but that “VIP trail” might be a more acceptable Park Service name. In this time of great fiscal hardship, some way of recalling the contribution of Volunteers in the Park might be appropriate. Appropriate allusion would have a ring of historic importance, similar to “Built by the CCC Boys,” but in this case, “Built by the VIPs.”

Not only has a VIP laid a trail, but as well the trail will actually be constructed in the next few weeks by a group of national volunteers Dick will pick up in Las Vegas. When completed, the trial will begin and end at the campground and will thread through geological features unique to this park. It will pass a Ryolite cliff from which Indians once gathered shards to create arrowheads. Chards came from a band of opalite in the cliff of ryolite.


The trail will also pass an old Native American midden and will acquaint hikers with some of the park’s many floral spectacles. It will introduce you to a few techniques ranchers once used to maximize water retention. Finally, it will take you back to your campground via the already established and very popular “Ring Trail.”

In short, the roundtrip trail will provide insights into the natural history and history of this spectacular preserve, and you won’t have to do anything but depart your campsite, and then hike six glorious miles.

Holes are unique geological formation

Holes are unique geological formation

Assuming my cold stays gone, tomorrow we’ll make a day trip back to Mojave Preserve. We’d like to see Dick and Linda and learn more about their summer plans which will take them near our home in Montana on their way to Alaska. In the meantime, there are some other things Dick and Linda have suggested we do to truly see all the beauty that characterizes this preserve–most of the time.

(Note: Rich Charpentier , an Airstream enthusiast, has been adding links to posts he made one year ago. I think it is a great idea and am following suit with one of our posts made ABOUT this time last year. I intend to do this frequently.)

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VIPs Acquaint Us with Mojave National Preserve

posted: March 13th, 2008 | by:Bert

Exploring backcountry roads, near Mid Hills Campground

Exploring backcountry roads, near Mid Hills Campground

©Bert Gildart: “Hold on,” shouted Dick above the rattle of the washboard road and the chatter now occurring inside the 4-wheel drive Jeep. “We’re about to board a roller coaster.”

Dick was referring to ribbon of sand and rock that ground its way through Carruthers Canyon and into the New York Mountains, where we hoped to find an old gold mine.

Janie and I were exploring California’s Mojave National Preserve–now with a delightful couple we had met in Hole In the Wall Campground, where they are based.


The couple was on one of their two days off, and more and more in this period of immense fiscal cuts to our national lands, the National Park Service is relying on the hours contributed by VIPs, or Volunteers in the Park.

Like most VIPs, Dick and Linda are retired, Linda as a high school guidance counselor and Dick from a job as an avionic technician and manager. Because of their life-long interest in camping (Dick was once a Scout Leader) the role is perfect, and the park is certainly getting their money’s worth from this couple! They’ve been in the preserve since January and will stay until mid April. Like many volunteers, they are “fulltimers,” basing themselves–full time–out of a motorhome. While working, they patrol the campground, clean up backcountry fire pits, and then one day a week are provided with a park vehicle to learn more about the area and to help clean it up. Dick has even volunteered to lay out a new hiking trail.

Our excursion to find a gold mine was not part of their work assignment, though they are allowed a little time simply for “area familiarization.” So we decided to call it work, even though we were exploring on one of their days off.

Preserve hosts huge Joshua Trees

Preserve hosts huge Joshua Trees

“We’re working now,” joked Dick, as we passed through an extensive forest of Joshua trees. “Want to stop? Mojave’s got the most extensive forest in the world–and some of the country’s largest specimens.”

We stopped.


Many stops later, we arrived at the Death Valley Mines, just off the Cedar Canyon road. Though a family once lived here, today the outbuildings are eroding. Nevertheless, Janie and Linda discovered about a dozen jars of pickled vegetables to include potatoes and cucumbers.

Old canning jars intrigue Janie and Linda

Old canning jars intrigue Janie and Linda

“Don’t think we’ll eat any of these,” joked the two ladies, looking at the corroded bottles.

As well as the general structure, an old grave marker at the base of a Joshua Tree is also eroding, but the inscription pecked into a piece of sheet metal is poignant and still legible. In part, the inscription reads:

In loving memory of husband Lee. May God be with you until we meet again.

Dick examines Death Valley Mines structures

Dick examines Death Valley Mines structures Dick examines Death Valley Mines structures

Departing the mine we returned to the Cedar Canyon road, then traveled east. As we traveled we paralleled the old Mojave Road once used by explorers, trappers and army scouts. Among the list of notables were Jedediah Smith, John Fremont, and Kit Cason, among hundreds of others well known at the time.

The route is one I was particularly interested in learning about and both Linda and Dick wanted to explore it, too, though probably from their jeep. The road is still maintained and one of the more exciting back-country challenges is to drive all that still exists of the old route. It begins at the Colorado River proceeds west and then in about 20 miles enters the Mojave Preserve. From here it proceeds about 80 miles to Zzyzx–at the western edge of the preserve. The name is not an Indian name, rather it was created by a Dr. Springer who wanted a unique name, and his thought was that he could do so if he drew from the last letters in the English language. So far, he’s not had any competition.

Mojave Road

Mojave Road

Though Janie and I have yet to travel to Zzyzx, Dick took time to drive to a segment of the old road, and it appeared as though it might challenge a biker because of the soft sand, and, so, I will be doing some more inquiring. The group of friends with whom I climbed Rainier (links: Rainier & Rainier ) last summer are now looking for a new challenge. “Seems like you’re looking for an adventure,” said Dick, “and not a slog. You may want to test it first in a 4-wheel drive.”


Other stops we made include one at Government Holes. Here on November 8, 1925 is where Matt Burts and J.W. “Bill” Robinson, shot it out. Both were killed. Because the men had been professional gunfighters the shootout has become part of the colorful history of the Mojave Preserve. It was, according to all historic accounts, one of the last classical gunfights of the Old West.

The last excursion of the day took us into the New York Mountains, home too, for many former ranchers–most of whom have allowed the government to buy out their holdings. The road was bumpy, and Dick kept asking how we liked the carnival ride. “We like it,” said Janie,” between her “umphs.”

“Glad to hear that said Dick,” laughing a bit as Linda joined Janie in creating a chorus of “UMPHS.” Dick, who is justifiably proud of his jeep’s comfort, added that it was in part because of the deep shocks, three-inch lifts and the big tires. “Creates a softer ride,” he shouted as we bounced along.

New York Mountains

New York Mountains

As we drove we also took time to enjoy more Joshua Trees, here on the verge of blooming; but our longest stop included a mile hike searching for an old gold mine. The mine was described as the Shelf Mine, and because we did find a huge shelf and the remnants of old mine diggings, we thought we were near. But the day was late, and so we departed.

Dick wasn’t disappointed and said as much. “Now, I’ve got a reason,” he said, “to return to the New York Mountains.”

“As if you really needed one,” we joked.

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posted: March 11th, 2008 | by:Bert

Kangaroo rat tracks

Kangaroo rat tracks

©Jane Gildart: Camping at Kelso Dunes in Mojave National Preserve is a delight. Three miles off the beaten road, there are no amenities, not even water. Just sand–an endless expanse of it. In other words, those who intend to stay need to plan!

But, the rewards are silence; desert flowers popping up everywhere; stars creating a heavenly smorgasbord of patterns; and the ever-changing light playing on the dunes. And, of course, there are the stories created by all the creatures that live in these 45-square miles of sand.


Yesterday and last night a strong wind blew constantly. I woke early this morning, knowing that the lower sand dunes would be fresh, obliterating all old tracks of humans and mammals. It is kind of like looking at fresh snow before anyone else gets to see what’s there.

I knew that kangaroo rats (they hop) live here, as do coyotes and kit fox (the tiny fox with the large ears). Before long I spotted the trails of two kit foxes (maybe this is their idea of a date), going after a kangaroo rat. At one point I could see where the fox might have come to an abrupt stop, maybe playing with the rat.

The rat’s tail left a foot-long line in the sand near its hole, but it was hard to determine if the rat had escaped or had been grabbed by the pursuing kit fox.

Whatever, the fox had trotted off into the cactus area. Because kangaroo rats are so interesting, I wasn’t rooting for either. Simply said, it is all part of nature.


If coyotes had been there in the night, we’d have heard their “singing dog” sounds, and maybe seen their tracks too. Kit fox tracks are smaller than those made by coyotes and all was silent in the desert except for the songs created by the wind.

Wild rhubarb

Wild rhubarb

It was fun to see what each mound of sand had to offer not only in the way of new tracks, but also in the way of all the now-emerging spring flowers.

But for awhile, it was all the tales the mammals had left during the night that so thoroughly held my attention-in these many-storied sands.

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Geological Formation Unique to Mojave National Preserve

posted: March 10th, 2008 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: Eighteen million years ago, geological forces created a landscape at Mojave National Preserve in California that exists no where else in the world.

World class geological formations

World class geological formations

To better appreciate this condition the park has provided a trail that is unique in itself, called the Ring Trail. Because of the challenging conditions, grasps are needed to maintain balance as you scale a cliff that is honeycombed with holes that if reduced would resemble a huge wasp nest. Because of the features the trail provides in the course of a single mile, in the last two days Janie and I have now hiked it twice.

Ring Trail appropriately named

Ring Trail appropriately named

The bizarre landscape that is located adjacent to Hold in the Wall Campground resulted when rock and water were superheated to phenomenal ranges thought to have approximated 1800 degrees. That took place 18 million years ago, as first stated.

As pressures inside this gigantic pressure cooker of hard granitic rock built, they finally reached a point where they exploded, and when they did, water and rock were thrust into an much cooler surrounding. Almost instantly–within seconds, said the naturalist–the molten rock solidified, creating the pocked cliffs we see today. Wind, rain, heat and cold subsequently modified the honeycombed rock here and there adding holes.

Rings help Janie navigate defile

Rings help Janie navigate defile

And, so, today, we have Hole in the Wall campground and an adjacent canon known as Banshee Canyon; and through it threads Ring Trail. Because of its rugged and unapproachable appearance legend says it has attracted such outlaw groups as the James gang. Not all researchers, however, agree. The most likely story is that Bob Holliman, a well known gunslinger of the time, retired his ways and turned homesteader.

The trail is a delightful one and along the way we saw petroglyphs, created by the Chemehuevi Indians. Shortly thereafter we came to a narrow gap in the wall that appeared challenging, but proved otherwise because of the rings provided by the national park. Because most prefer to ascend rather than descend the narrow defile most hike clockwise, meaning that you pull up rather than hanging down.

Ancient petroglyphs

Ancient petroglyphs

The park has anchored two permanent series of rings into the sides of the narrow gap and they offer more grasp than do the rocks. The experience is just one of the many activities in which you can engage in this relatively unknown park, and because it appears as though each outing introduces new features, we may even hike it again.

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Sands That Sing

posted: March 7th, 2008 | by:Bert

Kelso Dunes and Airstream

Kelso Dunes and Airstream

©Bert Gildart: From our Airstream to the top of the Kelso Dunes is about 660 feet; not far, but the experiences that resulted from the climb were significant.

First, there’s the view that results once you have reached the crest of the dunes. But in this land of perpetual scenery that wows, perhaps even more astounding are the sands that are said to sing.

Though hiking distance is not great, I vastly under estimated the time I’d need to reach the top, for as you approach the crest the sand begins to slide, meaning that you may need two forward steps to advance over what might normally have required by a single step.

But for those interested in hearing the sands sing, sliding is precisely what you want. And that’s what happened.


As I approached the crest, the sand began to slide–and the result was startling. Some have said they hear a booming noise and that’s what I heard. Because there was absolutely no other sound on the day of my climb, the booming might have been startling had I not prepared myself with prior research. Reading indicated the sound could be created by the rapid shear rate–the actual tearing of sand particles one from the other.

Visual Feast

Visual Feast

Others, however, say the sound is related to the thickness of the dry surface layer of sand. When the sands slide, sound waves bounce back and forth between the surface of the dunes and the surface of the moist layer creating a resonance that increases the sound’s volume.


Though the sound was impressive I was not prepared for the visual feast that greeted me as I crested the dunes–third largest in the nation. It was late in the day and the lighting was particularly dramatic. Stretching before me were miles of rolling dunes, melding one into the other. In turn, they folded into mountain outliers and then–at last–into a major mountain range that could very well have been ranges within Death Valley, some 50 miles or more to the northwest.

Discovering Sand Stories

Discovering Sand Stories

Though it took me almost two hours to make the 600-foot ascent, the return to the Airstream required little more than half an hour. There, I found Janie also enjoying the dunes, but in a slightly different manner. She was studying all the tracks in the sand left by nocturnal creatures.

And that’s a story all of its own.

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Belly Plants

posted: March 6th, 2008 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: “Belly plants” are defined as: “plants that must be observed while lying on your belly to enjoy.” Because we are now camped in the Mojave National Preserve, plants that grow in this dry and sometimes blustery environment tend to be “belly plants.” They’ve acquired that low-hugging feature to help prevent desiccation.

Other survival features of such species include waxy stems and the production of tiny hairs that fringe a plant’s stem.

Though not all the species posted here are “belly plants” several are. Regardless, all are now blooming in this glorious spring of 2008, essentially because, according to a park biologists, of the abundant rain. “Best season we experienced since 2005,” said the researcher we meet at the Kelso Dunes, where we are now camped. The lady was researching bees unique to the dunes area, but stopped for a moment to visit.

Here are a few of the “belly plants” now flowering in the Mojave Desert.

Dune Evening Primrose

Dune Evening Primrose

The DUNE EVENING PRIMROSE is a month early, according to the friendly biologist. It produces a beautiful white flower and those flowers are now dotting the base of the Kelso Dunes, which is, incidentally, the third largest in the nation. The flowers are quite fragrant. “As the plant dries out,” notes our reference book, Mojave Desert Wildflowers, “the stems curl toward the center and produce a characteristic ‘bird cage.’”



One of the most beautiful plants is VERBENA, (and I hope I’ve I.D this plant correctly). From a photographer’s point of view the tiny repetitious flowers combine to create a nice pattern as does the slight curve formed by the individual flowers. We found the plant on a desert wash, which seems to characterize the habitat in which the species grow.

Desert Star

Desert Star

Finally, here’s an image of what truly is a “belly plant,” the DESERT STAR. The plant grows in clumps, which is yet another survival technique. Plants in clusters can more easily retain moisture.

All photographs of these plants were taken from a tripod, but because this particular plant grows so low, I had to dig several holes in the ground to adequately lower my camera. All these photographs, incidentally, were taken with natural light. However, because I think most close up photographs look better in subdued light, I inserted myself between sun and plant, so creating a shadow. As well, all photographs were taken at very slow shutter speeds (about 1/15 of a second) so that I could use tiny apertures (f-32) to enhance depth of field.

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Zen and the Art of Airstream Maintenance

posted: March 4th, 2008 | by:Bert

Its been a good day

It’s been a good day

©Bert Gildart: Actually, this could also have been entitled RV Maintenance 101, but my theme here is that there are some fundamental maintenance procedures that must be performed regularly, else you might loose some mighty precious cargo. I mean that both literally and metaphorically.

Our problems started several days ago when we discovered that not only was one of the taillights on our Airstream not working but neither was the associated brake light. Initially, I thought the problem might be in the actual bulbs, but a friend said “No, it’s probably a wiring problem.”

So we’d been looking around, and yesterday I discovered that the wire connecting our Dodge Pickup with the Airstream had been partially severed right where one of the sway bars and forward part of the Airstream frame are in close proximity. In my haste I had apparently passed the wire between these two components and then, making an extremely sharp turn–something one might do when navigating into a tight campground site–the sway bars had rotated toward the frame thus pinching the wire.

I discovered the partially severed wire yesterday and though it was something I could repair myself, I certainly can’t perform such repairs as quickly as a mechanic. What’s more it was late in the day and we were close to Baker, a small southern California town, and when we saw a garage, we pulled in. Though the garage was a small one, the mechanic had all the right tools as well as the color-coded wire connectors.


Stopping for repairs was the best decision I’ve made in a long time. The mechanic quickly made the repair, but then as we were hooking back up–passing the connecting wire on the outside of the sway bars–the good man discovered a substantial crack in the hitch, as shown in the accompanying photo. The crack was on both sides of the slide-in hitch.

Cracked Hitch!

Cracked Hitch!

I immediately called George Sutton RV in Oregon, the firm that sold us our Airstream. The service rep said they’d never had such a problem before and that they would check with the company that actually makes the hitch assemblage and see about remuneration. Hitch assemblages are not cheap and run about $700.

Back in Baker now, the mechanic said he was also a certified welder, and that if he wasn’t he would not undertake the job. “I would not,” he emphasized, “send you back on the highway with a problem that could be life threatening.”


An hour later and $100 dollars poorer, we wax philosophical, joking about how I once forgot to inset the cotter pin into the shank of the slide-in hitch that in turn fits into the receiver. I caught that problem, but it became a metaphor for the two of us on travel and on life in general.

We have concluded that we must, on a regular basis, inspect not only the cotter pins on the connecting components of our Airstream and truck, but also the cotter pins of our lives. I guess we could now add wiring and shanks. Pretty corny, perhaps, but it has helped make all of our journeys proceed more smoothly.

And so we were reminded again last night about Zen and the Art of Airstream Maintenance and all of the attendant ramifications. (Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is one of my favorite all-time books.) Of course, a little luck is involved sometimes, but tonight we’re counting our blessings.

The sun is setting, we’re camped FREE on a small parcel of our nation’s vast BLM lands, and there is a red glow on the nearby mountains.

It’s been a pretty darn good day.

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Marta Becket’s Amargosa Opera House–And the Power of One

posted: March 3rd, 2008 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: Every now and then a spur of the moment decision opens a window that reveals the amazing impact one person’s life can have on many others. Such was the case for me this past Saturday night.

After making the 40-minute drive from Pahrump, Nevada, to the Amargosa Opera House located at Death Valley Junction, I encountered a group of veterans, all former army paratroopers, who said they’d had difficulty re-entering society upon completion of active duty in Vietnam. Contemporaries, they said, turned to alcohol, others to drugs.

For this group, however, salvation had been Death Valley, Marta Becket and her Amargosa Opera House–and the fun atmosphere this Grand Dame of the art world created. Trained in ballet, titles such as: “The Goodtime Cabaret,” “The Second Mortgage,” and “On With the Show,” suggest themes–and appeal. The appeal eventually become worldwide but more locally, it found its way into the hearts of a group of army veterans.

Amargosa Opera

Amargosa Opera House

The group met Marta about 20 years ago, and has returned every year, basing themselves at the motel associated with the Opera House. During the day, these aging men jog through the park, but come performance time (now confined to Saturday nights), all attend Marta’s iconic performance.

Vietnam Vetran Hank Humphreys

Vietnam Vetran Hank Humphreys

Hank Humphreys, one of the Vets, explained the circumstances in personal terms. “It took me a long time to grow up,” he said, “and because of Vietnam I guess you could say I didn’t mature until my late forties. But then we came to Death Valley, and after a failed marriage, when I needed inspiration most, there was Marta Becket.”

Hank continued his story, and the gist is that he felt a kinship with all that Marta had accomplished.


“Marta came here in 1967 when she was in her early 40s,” said Hank, “and when she and her husband arrived at Death Valley Junction, I believe she had an epiphany. They’d had a flat tire, but when she saw the old Adobe structure she saw something that no one else saw. You’ve got to wonder alright; out here–miles from nowhere; the wind can howl and some of her first companions were kangaroo rats.

“What made her stay? Who knows for sure, but she saw something, and she made that indifferent something work. I know it’s what inspired us.”

Judging from the crowd at last night’s performance, Ms. Becket did make it work, and at the evening performance, I learned yet more about Marta’s accomplishments and the lure of her setting.

Sold out

Sold out

Though now in her early 80s, her performance remains inspiring–beginning with the artistic atmosphere she created.


Seated in her opera house, you’re engulfed by paintings, and during the performance, she explains why she created them. She said that initially her performance attracted small crowds, sometimes only one or two people. “I wanted to feel as though I had an audience,” she says, “and so I painted the murals.”

Martas extraordinary murals

Marta’s extraordinary murals

If you have ever seen the murals that grace not only the walls but the ceiling, you know her work rivals some of the most accomplished artists of our times. Generally the heroic-sized paintings depict people she has known throughout the years., and except for one she has retained them all.

The one painting she eventually eliminated was of a business man, who, she says, was a scoundrel. He told her that he would invest in her talents and help immortalize her paintings. In so many words, Marta says the man lied and so, she talked about a grand metamorphosis–and how the wall with his likeness suddenly changed.

For me, that left the question of what her future might hold.


After the program, Hank introduced me to Marta Becket. I asked her if she would mind posing with the red scarf she’d used during the evening performance. She looked askance, but Hank quickly scrambled to the chair over which she’d draped the red scarf and gathered it up. Marta blessed him with a smile and me with an image that glowed.

When I asked Ms. Becket how much longer she’d perform she responded by saying no one knew when they were going to die. By that, I assumed she met “Forever.”

Marta Becket, icon of the West

Marta Becket, icon of the West

Hank then introduced me to Jack Meegan and to John and Susan Quirk. They said that Vietnam and a society that ignored their contributions to America, diminished their “first life.” Though they deserve credit for all they’ve overcome, they still say Death Valley and Marta was their inspiration for a great “second life.”

I departed that evening amazed once again at just how much one person’s life can impact so many other’s.

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