In the Magical Land of the Standing Up Rocks

Twenty-seven million years ago, eruptions from the Turkey Creek Volcano spewed ash over 3100 sq. km. in this area or the Chiricahua Mountains and created layers of grey rock called rhyolite. Weathering by ice and water erosion enlarged cracks and formed spires and balancing rocks.

The Chiricahua Apache called them “standing up rocks” – a perfectly apt description.

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This unique and stunningly beautiful landscape is also the result of four ecosystems meeting – the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts and the Sierra Madre and Rocky Mountains.

What is now called the Chiricahua National Monument was established in 1924 to protect the pinnacles.

We learned about the importance of the CCC in the creation and early preservation of many of the U.S.’s National Parks, including Chiricahua.

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As part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was launched in 1933 and enlisted 3.4 million young men who were out of work and hit hard by The Great Depression. The CCC also offered classroom instruction for those who could not read or write. They were taught carpentry, plumbing and other important skills. They were housed, fed and given clothing, and were paid $30 a month, $25 of which was sent to their families. The CCC was disbanded with the outbreak of World War II, which sent the workers into military service.

One young man said, “you cannot express in words how much the Three C’s meant to a bunch of boys out of work and with no jobs. To me, I will always have wonderful thoughts and memories.”

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We had the great fortune of running into a park ranger on one of our hikes. She could have had a pleasant chat with us and continued on her way, but to our delight, she  walked alongside us for a number of miles. We picked up a couple of other hikers along the way who were also very interested in her ongoing interpretation. How lucky for us – we had no idea of what we were seeing; how often do you get your very own Park Ranger along on a hike?

Our new friend Helen, who was out hiking on her day off. How many people do you know who go into the office on their free time – for fun?

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Helen is passionate about her life’s work, but ongoing funding challenges have slashed ranger jobs for years. She and her husband have worked at parks all over the country; moving about as suitable positions became available. 

It made me think about the contrast between the  CCC in the ’30s and the current state of the Parks system in both Canada and the U.S.  For so many years now, funding has been  an issue, and yet attendance and interest in our parks is at an all-time high.

We love our parks and we want them to be available for our grandchildren. We want to continue to book our campsites and go on hikes and attend interpretive talks. It seems only fair that we hire enough rangers and then compensate them with well-paid secure employment.

So…back to our hike with Helen. As we walked, she pointed out so many things. “Listen to that call – I love it – the canyon wren – they sound like they’re laughing.”   Now I know – I’ve heard the canyon wren a couple of times since then.

We began to notice evidence of a forest fire, and Helen told us it happened in 2011 – they believe it was human caused, possibly migrants who had built a fire for warmth and did not put it out properly.

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She told us about the importance of stemming the growth of invasive plants and how they upset the ecosystem – one of the many duties park rangers do in the course of a day.

Some images from our hike:

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A lookout that gave us a glimpse to the snow-capped mountain range just beyond.
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One of the many balancing rocks in the area. Helen assured us these giants were not going anywhere.
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An area of the mountains called “The Grotto”

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Just to back up a bit, the Chiricahua National Monument is in the far southeastern corner of Arizona – almost to the New Mexico border.  As we drove toward our campground, the landscape gave little clue as to what lay ahead.

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Just outside the turnoff to our campground, we got our first clue:

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The Bonita Canyon Campground was beautifully situated, with lots of space between campsites and a number of small trails leading right from the campground. For the first time since we’ve bene camping in Arizona, we were warned about wild animals (bears, mountain lions) and each campsite was equipped with a bear locker.

There are also coatimundi in the area. Nope, we had never heard of them either, but our very chatty little neighbour Olivia had apparently seen a whole family of them while out hiking with her family. They are a member of the raccoon family, or as Helen put it, “what happens when you cross a lemur with an anteater.”

We didn’t see the elusive coatimundi, but this stock photo will give you an idea of what they look like.

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What we did see were these delightful birds – the Mexican jay. Unlike their bossy, squawky cousins, these birds are pretty, graceful and relatively quiet. They welcomed us when we arrived; swooping and soaring around the trees and picnic table as we set up. I suspect they have been fed in the past.

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A short, but very sweet side trip to a beautiful part of Arizona. We would have stayed longer, but once again had to flee a forecast of snow. At an elevation of 6800 feet in the Chiricahuas, we have been reminded that north, south, east and west in Arizona don’t really guarantee weather – it is the elevation that can turn rain into snow. It is making for an interesting hopscotch across the state.

From shoot-outs to sandhill cranes to spelunking

There are numerous tourist sites within an hour’s drive of Bisbee; all of them uniquely fascinating.

We began with Tombstone; a small town that has developed into a walloping tourist destination by  capitalizing on the infamous Shootout at the OK Corral.  This gunfight took place on October 26, 1881; a showdown over control of Tombstone between the “good guys”  –  The Earp Brothers and Doc Holliday and the “bad guys”  – the Clantons and the McLaurys. When the dust settled, and the dead and wounded were accounted for, only Wyatt Earp walked away unscathed.

The re-enactment of this infamous duel is held three times a day and yes, it is hokey, but still lots of fun.

The crowd was warmed up by an actor who instructed us to  clap for the good guys and boo the bad guys. And then the fun began. Good guys entered – yay!

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Followed by the bad guys – boo!

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After much posturing and yelling, the gunfight broke out.

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It didn’t end well.

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After the show, we were encouraged to have photo ops with the actors. Since the lineup for the bad guys was far shorter than for Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, I chose the latter, including the actor who had miraculously risen from the dead.

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We were told at the Visitor Centre that there are more actors per capita in Tombstone than in L.A. With a 2019 census of 1, 380, that may well be true. The town is crawling with emoting thespians in period costume – prostitutes, gunslingers and stagecoach drivers.
This stagecoach is a replica:

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This stagecoach is one of the originals – less spacious and comfortable, but still road-worthy and drawn by burros.

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The main street of Tombstone is lined with shops selling cowboy boots, gaucho pants and all manner of western gear. The selection of saloons/restaurants offers interchangeable and mainly mediocre menus of beef and starch – tourists aren’t here for the food.

Off the main street are a number of pretty residential streets and elegant municipal buildings, including the court house.

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Tourism has revived this town and pumped up lots of peripheral businesses. We passed by this saloon that was populated by present-day characters who could well have been out of Central Casting.

Aging Outlaw Biker with impressive mutton-chops and nothing to prove.
Barbecue King who just smoked 30 pounds of ribs and enjoys his own cooking.

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All in all, a fun day in the Wild West.

On to the impressive sight of 20,000 migrating sandhill cranes. We would not have known about this phenomenon but for a fellow camper. This is where travelling without a (firm) plan works well. Our new friend Jan insisted we find our way to Whitewater Draw  Wildlife Area to have an up-close-and-personal encounter with sandhill cranes that have flown south from Siberia and Alaska for the winter.  Ideally, one would rise before dawn to watch  tens of thousands of birds rise from the shallow waters to fly north to Willcox (about 60 miles away) to feed. The sight and sounds of these birds flying en masse is a memorable one, but…we slept in.

We arrived at Whitewater Draw at about 11:00 a.m. – plenty of time to set ourselves up and watch the cranes as they returned again. We were part of a festive atmosphere as fellow birders joined our group, and then…the first few groups appeared on the horizon – squawking pterodactyls with charcoal wingspan and spindly extended legs.

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As more and more  cranes arrived and as they swooped and soared before landing, we wondered how they avoided calamitous mid-air crashes. These birds are about 3 feet tall, and weigh between seven and eleven pounds. At times, there were hundreds of birds in the air.

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Sandhill cranes have a distinctive appearance – downy grey feathers and a tuft of red around their eyes.

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Snow geese are another species of migratory bird that can be found in this marsh and they seem to co-exist with the cranes very peacefully.

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One reason why this area has become such an important migratory stop is the vast marsh. The birds spend the night in the water, to evade predators like coyotes. They fly to a nearby area each morning, which provides reliable feed in the harvested grain fields.

As thrilling as this experience was, it was another opportunity missed.  If we were serious birders and had binoculars, we would have picked off several other species, including pintails, quail, teals, heron, ibis, hawks, shorebirds, flycatchers and blackbirds.

We did see this handsome Big-Horned Owl in the barn by the parking lot. He was positioned on one end of the barn,  keeping a very watchful gaze on his partner on the other end, her ears barely visible above her nest.

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And finally – spelunking. This is an activity I cannot imagine – willfully inserting your body into tiny passages underground and then inching forward, with no idea when or if your body-width tunnel will open up into a  room. You have a head lamp for light – otherwise you are in complete darkness. You may come face to face with rats. You have no guarantee you won’t get stuck in your tunnel. Why would you do this?

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In November 1974, 19-year-old Gary Tenens and 20-year-old Randy Tufts discovered an “exhale”  (gas) through a grapefruit-sized opening in the limestone hills of Whetstone Mountain. The hill to the right is where they made their discovery.
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After a couple of explorations into the cave, they finally crawled into what is known today as “The Big Room.” They were so stunned by their discovery they just “sat and giggled.”

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Randy Tufts

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As young as they were, they understood the importance of this living cave and the critical nature of protecting it.

They kept it secret for another four years, as they continued to explore and finally they contacted the property owners, James and Lois Kartchner.  Everything conspired to work in their (and the cavern’s) favour. The Kartchners were keen to protect the cave and the governor of the day, Bruce Babbit, was a geologist. He pushed for appropriate and protected exploration.

On November 5, 1999, Kartchner Caverns State Park opened to the public. It is carefully managed, with just 500 people allowed in daily. Since we had been in a cave or mine in the past month, Stephen and I had to have our shoes sprayed to guard against White Nose Syndrome, a fungal disease that kills bats.

We were not allowed to bring in bags, phones, devices, cameras, food or drink. Photos were not permitted, as in the past eager tourists had pushed each other for a good photo, and had done damage to the formations.

We were instructed not to touch any of the walls or formations and if we did, to let the guide know. She would mark the area with tape and the cave crew would come by later to disinfect it.

We were warned that the caverns would be humid and hot and after about a half hour (we were in for one hour), both Stephen and I began to feel quite uncomfortable. We did not want to be the ones to have to be evacuated, but we were both very happy to be out and breathing fresh air again.

The caverns are remarkable because of the story of their discovery and the tremendous effort to keep them pristine, but we were underwhelmed by these caverns.  We had been in caverns in Mexico and in Vietnam that were five times the size and and scope and colour of Kartchner  and we came with the wrong expectations. We thought we would be seeing similar formations.

Still, Kartchner is a remarkable cavern, set in a beautiful state park and is well worth a visit.

Weather is turning again – we are heading east for some mountain hiking, but will keep a keen eye on the forecast – snow by Monday or Tuesday!

See you when we have cell service and wifi once again.

 

 

 

 

 

Sleeping 900 feet above a copper mine

This open pit copper mine is one of the first things you see as you drive into Bisbee and this is the exact view from our trailer. We do have a 6-foot fence that prevents us from rolling down the hill into the bottom.
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We are camped out at Queen Mine RV Park for a week; this is the only campground in the area that is within walking distance to Bisbee.   It is by far the most unique campground we have found ourselves in so far. The mine operated from 1915 until 1975, when the richest deposits of copper were mined out. What remains is a gigantic multi-coloured gash in the earth – 4000 feet wide, 5000 feet long and 850 feet deep. Each “step” is 50 feet high.
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The view of Bisbee from the front of our campground:

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Bisbee had one of the richest mineral deposits in the world, with eight billion pounds of copper extracted, as well as three million ounces of gold and significant deposits of silver, lead and zinc. We decided it was best to begin our exploration of Bisbee with a tour of the underground mine.

The entrance to the mine is just at the foot of our campground, so we hopped down the hill to put on our “protective” gear before jumping on the train that took us 750 feet underground.

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We were lucky enough to be at the front of the line, so I got the front seat and had a bird’s-eye view.
The entrance to the mine:

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Our 80-year-old guide Benny worked in the mine for over 20 years. He was a knowledgable and humorous guide who told us that at one point he was making $45 a day and at his peak up to $2000 a week with bonuses – big money for the time. “Do I have anything to show for it?,” he asked us. “I’ve been married twice.” Alcohol, as they say, may have been a factor – a coy reference to the hard-working, hard-playing lives of the miners.

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The tour took about an hour as Benny talked about the challenges, dangers and huge discomforts of mining; including the rats that swarmed underground, but were allowed to live as they were the veritable canaries in the coal mine. They would sense tremors and if they started running, it was a clue for the miners to follow suit.

In case you have ever wondered how bathroom needs were handled in an underground mine, Benny and his assistant demonstrated. The two-seater (no men ever sat on the throne at the same time!) was on a short rail and the miner could just crank it down a distance for privacy, then bring it back again for the next person.

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Back up on terra firma, it was time to explore the town. Bisbee is an unusually lovely mining town; there was so much money flowing for so many years that the main buildings were quite ornate and for the most part have been well maintained. Most businesses are set in the flat of the canyon and the houses rise up on the hills. In its heyday, there were over 50 saloons and numerous brothels. We assume the brothels are gone, but there are still a few saloons left from that era.

Built in 1902, St. Elmo is the oldest bar in Arizona. Although patrons are now required to stand outside to smoke and a sign advises that firearms are not permitted, there is a huge whiff of the wild west that lingers. It might have been fun to pop in and soak up the atmosphere, but the stools were filled with bikers (not the respectable kind) who were already partying – we kept walking.

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After the mine closed in Bisbee in the ’70s, the town went into significant decline, but was saved by the influx of artists who were attracted to the beauty of the surroundings, the cheap real estate and the wonderful climate. The population shifted to a more bohemian crowd and has become a magnet for free spirits and independent thinkers.
Businesses are as eclectic as the inhabitants.

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You won’t be in Arizona for long before you’re checking out cowboy boots and a decent custom-made hat.

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While every Bisbee resident we’ve met has been very friendly, there are a number of signs around town that remind you the frontier spirit runs strong – they are not to be messed with.

Duly noted – we will not be climbing over razor wire onto your rooftop.

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Parking in old Bisbee is at a premium, but really – who would park in someone else’s garage?

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A little irony?

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Even the Episcopalian preacher can get a bit touchy over parking.

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Walking in Bisbee is a feast for the eyes – every corner gives you plenty to think about. Gorgeous copper sculptures leading up to a private home.

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An old school that is re-purposed as an art center.

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One of the theatres in town – $5 movies, live performances and vegetarian chili.

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One of Bisbee’s main downtown streets.

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A Bisbee landmark

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Street art in the most literal sense. An entire wall is hung with paintings – most of them with questionable artistic merit.

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There were also a few photographs, including this haunting image. I had heard that the teardrop tattoo speaks of death (either accidental family member or intentional murder).

I really wondered what this complicated tattoo means and what on earth this tortured man had been through.

The more we travel about the U.S. in our trailer, the more I realize how little I know about this world. That may be a sanity-saver.

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Besides seeing delightful scenery and thought-provoking art, a walk in Bisbee will challenge your lungs and legs. As soon as you leave the canyon floor, it is all uphill and most of the winding streets have numerous steep staircases to access from one level to another.

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Every October, Bisbee hosts the Bisbee 1000 – a 4.5 mile event that involves climbing nine staircases up the many twisty roads. We can’t imagine – we were winded after one staircase.

The view is worth it though and the roads take you past some pretty homes.

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We are in Bisbee for another three days; it is a handy location for a number of day trips, which I will tell you about in an upcoming blog posting.

We are very close to the Mexican border here; the tiny town of Naco was subjected to the building of a controversial wall that seemingly no-one wanted. We were curious to see it for ourselves.

Before I begin, let me tell you that we have spoken to numerous Arizonians about The Wall and their feelings about it and, to a person, they are adamantly against it. They understand the need for security – but they feel erecting a wall is like killing a flea with a hammer, only way less effective.

If anyone should be concerned about the influx of “bad hombres” that are clamouring at the border gates, it should be people living in border towns.  Nothing could be further from the truth. As one woman in Nogales told us, ” We are completely integrated – we are friends with each other, we marry each other,  we are bosses and employees together, our kids go to school and play ball together.”

Back in 2011, it was proposed to build a 7.5 mile wall at  the border crossing between Naco AZ and Naco Mexico to replace the existing fence. When Arizona government officials pushed through for this wall, they assured everyone they would raise $50 million from private donors. In fact, they raised only $270,000. In 2017, the building of the wall went ahead – with a price tag of $35 million that was absorbed by taxpayers – for just 7.5 miles.  Naco residents were not notified – and homeowners woke up one morning to concrete trucks and dust… and eventually this – an 18-foot high wall running along their back yards.

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It destroyed the communities of Naco on both sides. In Arizona, the traffic that formerly ran right down Main Street was now diverted to the edge of town. A number of businesses have since closed their doors and the town has a desolate, ghost-town feel.

This is what a modern border wall looks like:

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An inside view. No question it will keep people out – not even a gopher could make it though this line of defense.

The border between the United States and Mexico is 1,954 miles. Since 7.5 miles of wall have already been completed at a cost of $35 million, how much will the rest cost?

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Being in Arizona has blown my preconceptions right out of the water. The people we have met so far (no matter what state they are from) have been charming, warm, interesting and forthrightly American! We continue to learn a lot.

Snow in Arizona – it’s a beautiful thing.

A week ago, we drove back to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, seeking refuge from the snow and sub-zero temperatures that were forecast just about everywhere else in Arizona.  What we got instead was rain – torrential rain that poured for hours and hours and created flash floods and turned dry arroyos into treacherous creeks with a foot or more of water raging through. We made it to the high ground of our campground and waited for brief spells between storms to set up. It was incredibly cozy – we had lots of food to eat, plenty of books to read and I even had a 500-piece puzzle I had picked up at the campground book exchange. It was absolute luxury to tuck in and listen to the rain pound on our roof.

As much as this snow and rain is excessive, the locals are delighted. Arizona needs all the moisture it can get and as tourists, we need to learn not to complain.  The day after the big storm, we went out for a walk in the desert and everything had perked right up. I have no idea how much water was here before the storm, but we sat for about a half hour, watching the birds and hoping to spot wildlife. (no luck – those coyotes and javelinas are too smart to be out mid-day.)

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And then,  a huge helicopter flew right overhead, banked hard and flew down the wash.

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A half hour later, as we were hiking  back out again, someone pointed to where the chopper had landed.  We had seen lots of border patrol activity on our way to the hike.  I was so curious to go over and peer down and see what was going on, but thought that might be frowned upon, so left it alone.

This is the snow we wanted to avoid driving in and camping in and now we have the best of both – bright sunny days with snowcapped mountains and the remnants of the storm still in the fields.

This is just outside the town of Patagonia; about 10 miles from Patagonia Lake State Park, where we have camped out for the past four days.

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This area is abundant and more lush than we have experienced in Arizona so far. Still semi-arid, but ringed with mountain ranges that surround broad valleys. This is cattle country.

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We’re also in serious birding territory. We had no idea – this is a magnet for serious birders due to the huge variety of species and the area’s geological and ecological diversity.  Prime time for viewing is March to September; a moot point since we are neither birders nor in possession of binoculars – arriving in this area was purely by accident. We were the only people on the trails without being there for the express purpose of seeing birds. Of a type, birders travel singly or in small, quiet groups; outfitted with hats, comfortable shoes and field guides.  They whisper to one another and identify birdcalls. They don’t appear to frighten the birds, who  have seen them all before. This is a group I would love to join. “It’s addictive,” one serious birder told me, after she had expertly mimicked the difference between an owl and a white-winged dove.

In the town of Patagonia, we stopped by The Paton Center for Hummingbirds, which began in the 1970s when local residents Marion and Wally Paton created a garden and began attracting birds with specific plants and feeders. They attracted several varieties of hummingbirds and migrating birds, and the birders soon followed. The Patons set out chairs and invited strangers into their front garden. Before long, it became a world-famous destination and has since expanded into a trail behind the house. Now in alliance with Tucson Audubon and supported by private donors, this magical space belongs to everyone.

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We saw many, many birds (which is like saying we went to a botanical garden and saw many, many flowers), but without a decent camera or binoculars or even a passing grasp of bird species, this is the best we could do:

The ladder-backed woodpecker

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Gambel’s Quail

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The town of Patagonia is so interesting; a town that is both rough-hewn and in the words of a local, “hippie-dippie.” An artistic community that is managing in spite of a depressed economy. From a couple of quick walks around town, Patagonia revealed an eclectic crowd.

The car and the gent, possibly of a similar vintage (1928 Ford).

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Many of the houses in Patagonia are modest; others have a more cared-for appearance and Spanish influence in design.

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We were lucky to find the Patagonia Museum open. It is run by volunteers and usually open only a few hours three days a week. It is housed in what was the Grammar School that ran from 1914 until 2014.

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The docent was a teacher there for number of years and she even allowed Stephen to pull the rope and ring the bell, ” a great privilege for my Grade Twos,” as she pointed out. It was fun to wander through the four classrooms, now filled with local artifacts and display boards.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…  Patagonia Lake State Park is set on a man-made lake which is stocked with fish, primarily bass.

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It is also a lovely spot to rent a boat and row your sweetie around until you are exhausted. The young woman was curled up on the bow, laughing; the young man was grimly rowing. We caught up with them again as they cleared the bridge, heading for the dock.

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The park is also surrounded by more prime birding opportunities. We walked to this trail from our campsite, where we easily identified white-winged doves.

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The trail led through forests of mesquite – low-ish trees that look dead right now, but are slowly developing that lovely green haze we all wait for that tells us winter is almost over.

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Incongruously, there is a herd of cattle that grazes in this state park and this little crew gave us the hard stare as we approached.   We encountered cows on a number of our hikes, miles and miles away from anywhere; in Arizona, cattle are allowed to  graze free range on public land.

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Yesterday we took on a 3-mile hike through the Patagonia Sonoita Creek Preserve that should have been easy – a slight elevation and a loop trail leading though cottonwoods and ocotillo, with grand views of a number of mountain ranges.

We can’t say we weren’t warned. The ranger advised us that the creek running through the upper end of the hike was flooded due to the snow, and the normally wet rock crossing was now submerged under 2-3 inches of water. We can do that!

A beautiful walk – everything just on the verge of greening up and springing into blossom. “If only we were here two weeks from now”, we said.

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We reached the halfway point, and walked for a while on an old railway line.

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When we reached the rock crossing, it was not two or three inches, it was over a foot of water over the rocks, which meant the water on either side of the rock crossing might be two to three feet deep.  (forgot to take a photo of the creek, sorry).

We walked back and forth and saw one part of the creek that we thought we might be able to cross by getting our feet a bit wet, then hopping up onto a fallen tree and shimmying over it to the other side. If we had to save our very lives, we would have attempted it, but I had visions of plunging off the tree into the water, ruining my camera, and possibly doing harm to myself.  We had no choice but to retrace our steps and add another mile or so to our hike. We had fun in spite of ourselves, and our lone truck in the parking lot shone like a beacon.

We’re off to Bisbee area tomorrow for a week – see you again soon.

 

 

 

The Snowbirds are freezing in Tucson

First of all, I strongly dislike the term “snowbird” and the image it portrays.  Older folks fleeing snow and cold and then huddling in groups for safety and comfort. There is little diversity in campgrounds and RV parks – this is the playground of senior retired white people in protective hats and three-season activewear. And yes, this describes Stephen and me as we travel about, but I’m not happy about it.

So you can imagine our chagrin that our snowbird payoff (sun and warmth) is nowhere to be found here in Arizona. If British Columbia’s winter was behaving normally, we would be experiencing this exact weather back home.

We are in Tucson, staying at a scenic campground about 20 minutes out of town, up in Tucson Mountain Park with the coyotes and the cactus, and we’re freezing.  The past two nights have dropped to below zero; this morning we woke up to frost on the truck. This is the coldest and wettest February that locals can remember – at least 10-15 degrees cooler than normal. They are calling for yet another storm system to pass through over the next week; most places will have snow and nighttime lows of minus three to minus six. We have changed plans to ride out the next week – we will head back south to Organ Pipe Cactus Monument for a few days. It is the only place we can find that does not have snow on the horizon.

In the meantime, as they say down east, this is where we’re to.

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Our campground is just around the corner from this twisty mountain road; a hugely popular campground that is first-come, first-served and competition for a spot is fierce. You must line up as early in the morning as possible to wait for campsites to empty out; being granted a spot is like winning a lottery – they are usually gone before noon. We are here for seven days (our maximum allowable stay) and trying to see as much of the area as possible in spite of the weather.

Tucson is a sprawling city with a stunning University of Arizona campus and an historic downtown well worth exploring.  There are a number of museums, theatres and galleries on campus, including Arizona State Museum.

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This museum is largely devoted to the history and culture of the 21 Indian tribes in Arizona. Basket weaving has always been an important indigenous art form – these baskets were exquisite:

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I have never seen shoes woven from reed or straw before; these were probably created more for the artistic challenge than for the practicality of actually wearing them.

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We were befuddled by this sign, and wonder if it was posted as a result of an over-zealous and missing-the-point-entirely complaint.

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There is a section devoted to each tribe and a photo section that was particularly striking.  I loved this photo:

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Also on campus is the Center  for Creative Photography; a research and archive facility with exhibitions by Richard Avedon and Ansel Adams, among others.

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Avedon’s current exhibition is entitled” Relationships”, showing a series of photos in which he captured the chemistry between people.
This couple from Nova Scotia tells quite the story:

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Tucson’s historic downtown is very walkable, and we had the excellent Turquoise Trail map to guide us. We followed a turquoise line painted on the sidewalks and consulted the brochure, which listed points of interest along the way.

Every city should do this – it is such an easy, helpful and informative way to explore a new destination.

Barrio Viejo streetscape – typical brightly painted adobe homes.

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Homes in Tucson are almost entirely one-storey and many have deeply recessed porches to help cope with the summer heat.

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The splendid Tucson courthouse.

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Tucson is filled with interesting old signs and neon. This  apartment building appears to be undergoing a renovation; the lower stucco was being refaced.

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While this hotel and swimming pool is no longer in business, the sign and building remain, waiting perhaps for someone else’s great idea. You can see the turquoise line on the sidewalk (with Stephen in the distance.)

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As business plans go, this one is hard to resist:

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Not all downtown is historic, of course. Modern steel and glass fits right into the streetscape.

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We visited the beautiful double-domed San Agustin Cathedral, went inside and took a pew.

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We are not religious, but there is something reassuring about being in the quiet and calm of a church and we often take time while travelling just to sit and reflect.  We witnessed a deeply moving sight. A frail man who was leaning heavily on two canes and appeared to be blind made his way slowly past us. He set down his canes, dropped to his knees and inched painfully and slowly, up the tile floor. When he reached the top, he turned and made his way back, again on his knees. He appeared to be in such pain, so unwell and alone – was this penance, asking for strength?

Not far from the cathedral, we came upon another poignant site – El Tiradito, or The Castaway.

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This Tucson Historic Site is a shrine dedicated to the souls of sinners buried in unconsecrated ground. There are burned-out candle stubs, flowers, small notes tucked into small holes in the adobe wall. I wondered about one photo – three young men with their arms around each other, full of life and energy. Two of the men were born in 1971; one in 1977. Two died in 2006, one in 2014. Clearly they had all been friends and now were all dead. How did they die? What was their story – why did they all die so young?

With no clear answers to unknowable questions, our next stop with the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

The 98-acre museum, which is largely outdoors, is comprised of several botanical gardens, aviary, aquarium, zoo and natural history museum. This is a huge favourite with visitors and locals alike; we made the mistake of going on a Saturday and it became very crowded at times. Since the museum is so spread out, the crowds did tend to alternately clump up and thin out.   It is a well-interpreted museum and for the most part, we thoroughly enjoyed our 3-mile walk.

But… and this is a perspective I know many of you will not share, but… we both struggle with most zoos and aquariums. I know there are a number of excellent zoos in the world (Toronto’s zoo, for one), and animal sanctuaries and refuges do important work. The museum had several areas, none of them large, to showcase the area animals. We saw an ocelot in a cage the size of a bathroom, running in circles; demented behaviour that was deeply upsetting. This poor roadrunner also showed distress – it ran the length of a cage that measured about 20 feet.

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The rest of the desert animals were housed either in fenced compounds or in a large cage designed to look like its natural environment.

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We have heard coyotes howling and yipping in our campgrounds, but still haven’t seen one in the wild. This is what I hope to encounter one day in his own turf.

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We were both so hoping to see javelinas in the wild – these peccaries are quite the local fixture and as one gentleman told us, we would be more likely to see them in town looking for garbage than out in the desert. He also advised us they could be aggressive and to keep our distance.

These characters were not one bit interested in photo ops, but this will give you an idea of their size and appearance.

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We finished our tour of the museum with a “raptor in flight” show. Five Harris hawks that had been rehabbed and could not return to the wild have been trained to fly close to spectators. They have been trained with food and their handlers put small pieces of meat on branches to allow us all a closer viewing.

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They are beautiful creatures – it was a thrill to see them so close. We had been warned ahead of the show to keep our arms down – to take photos at eye level only and not to hoist small children on shoulders for a better look. The hawks frequently flew right over us, literally a foot or two above our heads.

They would then return to the same area, squabbling over territory.

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Another common bird in southwestern Arizona is the turkey vulture.

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More to come – we have another couple of days in Tucson, and weather permitting, we have a lot yet to see.

Defending the border in southern Arizona

Sometimes certain realities take longer to sink in than others. With the exception of distinct regional accents, I never thought of Americans and Canadians as being that different from one another. Most Americans comment on the fact that we don’t sound “Canadian”, so I guess we blend in.

We’ve been to the U.S countless times but this was the first time it really struck us that America is a military nation. While the role of the United States as “the world’s police” does not come as a surprise, seeing it in action is new to us.

Southern Arizona is home to a number of military installations, including the Barry Goldwater Air Force Range and eight border security stations. In our first week here, we have heard the roar of fighter jets, seen planes fly in formation over the desert and heard bombs drop (not on citizens, there is a practice area not far from here) .

The 262-mile Arizona border has become increasingly militarized, with over 4200 agents covering eight stations. The white and green Border Patrol trucks are ubiquitous and this morning a helicopter flew low over the desert in front of our campground.

We are currently 10 miles from the Mexican/U.S. border and this is a common sight:

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While truck patrol is the first line of defence, the region is also covered by agents who ride out into the desert on ATV’s.

Signs like this one are posted throughout the desert.

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Seriously, if you managed to flee your country, travel hundreds or thousands of miles and cross the border, only to have to cross a mountain range like this one, you should be given automatic entry. Your perseverance, bravery and strength of character could only be considered assets to the country.

There are hundreds of migrants who die each year in the desert, from exposure and dehydration; in 2017 there were 294 recorded deaths, but actual numbers are much higher. There had been a lot of controversy in the past couple of years over the treatment of humanitarian workers who had been leaving water in the desert, to try and prevent more deaths.

There was huge outrage after a video showed border patrol agents deliberately kicking over gallon jugs of water left behind by aid workers and harassing them about leaving “garbage” in a pristine area.  A number of workers were arrested and posters like this one began popping up:

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Interestingly, in Republican Arizona there appears to be a shift in mood in some quarters. People mention “the wall” with an eye-roll and a shrug – apparently many border patrol agents believe the money could be better spent in improved technology. We can’t know the behind-the-scenes machinations of border security, but this was a heartening sight. There are several of these bright blue water stations, marked with a flag. The border officers know about them and they have remained in place.

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We ran into a couple from B.C. who were boondocking in the desert.  They work actively in the desert – picking up garbage and clothing left behind by migrants and helping migrants with food and water if they see them. They told us that there are boxes of unclaimed human remains in Tucson; heartbreaking in that their journey ended with such suffering and their families have no way of identifying them.

In the context of Trump’s government shutdown, this manufactured fear of desperate migrants seems pitiful. We have to assume the real criminals have easier channels to the U.S. than having to crawl through the desert.

Also in the context of the shutdown, we spoke to a number of National Park rangers who were discreet but clear in their views about this administration. I have learned (I think) to allow others to lead the conversation if it takes a political turn. When the talk turns to Trump, we smile ruefully and nod in agreement and say little and that seems to work.

And so…on to the beauty of the Sonoran desert. We began our time in Arizona in the small town of Ajo (Ah-jo). a sweet little place that became prosperous with the copper mine that operated from the 1890s to its closure in 1985.

We were able to see the vast open-pit mine from a fenced-off viewing area. There is a greenish lake at the bottom, about 100 feet in depth.

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With the mine closure came a reversal in fortune; the town has seen better days.  The central plaza is beautifully preserved though and the buildings around the downtown are worth a look.

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One of the churches:

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This old school has been converted to an artist’s community, with thirty low-income apartments. There was a quilt show on while we were there; the organizer told me the artists take turns setting up events.

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These homes are typical of the miner’s cottages that line the streets of Ajo.

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As we headed south from Ajo, we passed through the tiny crossroads called Why, pop.2. The name came about because it is situated at a Y-intersection. Since places are required to have a proper name (not a letter) and no-one appeared to be too inspired,  Why was born.

We stopped for gas at the Why Not:

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We camped for four nights at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, at the Twin Peaks Campground. The Park is named for the Organ Pipe Cactus, (which resembles the pipes of an organ) and is found in Mexico, but only in this area in Arizona.

These cacti are about 6-10 feet tall.

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The campground is set high on a hill, with gorgeous views of the mountain ranges. We have not witnessed one of those technicolour Arizona sunsets yet as the weather has been a little unsettled. Our first night here was lovely – the sunset cast a pink glow over the mountains.
The view from our trailer:

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There are a number of hikes and scenic drives from the park; here are some images of this landscape.

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The desert flowers are not quite out yet in their full splendour, but we walked past many poppies – the first of the season.

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We go to sleep at night listening to the owls and wake up in the morning to a wild chorus of birdsong. This little cactus wren has the most beautiful voice.

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Tomorrow we drive three hours to Tucson, where we will camp at a county campground about 20 minutes outside the city. We have a few things to take care of – oil change for the truck, haircuts, repair a broken latch for the trailer, etc. We plan on being in the Tucson area for about a week – so much to see in Old Tucson as well as the surrounding areas.

Baja’s wine region busts out

With recent headlines about threats of violence against the busloads of migrants approaching Tijuana, along with border shut-down uncertainties, we headed to Mexico with a good measure of unease.  We had made the decision long ago to avoid Tijuana (world’s busiest border crossing), and go through at Tecate, about two hours east. Now we figured this normally placid crossing might become swamped to avoid the mess at Tijuana, so when we arrived to find just one car in front of us, we wondered if we were at the right place. The kind customs official politely asked to inspect our trailer and the back of our truck and after about five minutes, he waved us through. We’ve felt far greater scrutiny (and far less warmth and welcome) crossing into the U.S. We found out later that the Baja/United States border crossings are fluid; many people work and live in either Tijuana or San Diego and cross effortlessly back and forth.

And so…our adventure in Baja begins. We will be here for at least two months and have begun our travels in a most delightful way – touring Mexico’s wine country. The Valle de Guadalupe (or Ruta del Vino) stretches from south of Tecate to the coast at Ensenada, and is now on the tourist radar.  Luckily for us, early December is not peak season and we had our campground to ourselves.

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Our only experience with Mexican wine in the past was nasty – warmish red liquid that burned the throat and rivalled cheap tequila for a hangover. Grapes have been grown in northern Baja since the 16th century, but it is just in the past 15-20 years that the “industry” has exploded; attracting winemakers from all over the world. There are between 100 and 150 small wineries, with Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Nebbiolo, Merlot, Syrah, Zinfandel and Grenache being the predominant red varietals. Interestingly, each small area with its rolling hills and protected acreages has its own microclimate. One winery produces superb Cabernet grapes and has ample access to water. Just two kilometres away at another winery, those same grapes would struggle to produce the same high quality – that ground is better suited to Syrah.

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Many of the wineries plant olives and grapes side by side, as is the case with the gigantic L.A. Cetto; one of Mexico’s oldest and largest wineries. We stopped by for a wine tasting, and found the wines to be unexceptional. The smaller wineries do not hold Cetto in high regard; one young man smiled tightly at our mention of Cetto and referred to them as “commercial.”

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Stephen and I are barely wine-literate; just skip through the photos if you are looking for keen insight and/or reliable information. But as the saying goes, we know what we like.

Our three days here were spent in a happy haze of driving through glorious countryside, chatting with passionate and informative people, admiring fabulous architecture and gardens, sipping glasses of very good wine, and eating very good food. Naturally, where there is wine, there is food and this burgeoning scene has also produced some astounding eateries – everything from food trucks to a restaurant run by a Michelin-starred chef.

Our first food experience was at Cocina de Dona Esthela; endorsed by Anthony Bourdain and described by FoodieHub as being “The Tastiest Breakfast in the World.

Dona Esthela’s story is a big part of the visit. She was cleaning houses and doing laundry and cooking for the local workers when her reputation as a great cook began to circulate.  Today, she still serves food from her property, but her takeout window has turned into a large dining room.  Cars begin rolling in at 8:00 am and by 10:00 am there is a non-stop lineup until she closes at 5:00 pm.

What did we do before the Internet? We would have walked by this unassuming little place without a second glance.

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Dona Esthela, still making tortillas and with a big smile for everyone.

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I could not resist the corn pancakes and fresh fruit. That little dish with white cubes is queso fresco – slightly salty cheese made fresh each day – heavenly.

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We also ordered two house specialities. Machaca, which is dehydrated beef mixed with eggs, vegetables, chilies and garlic, and served with a warm basket of tortillas, wrapped in an embroidered doily.

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Stephen ordered the Borrego au jus – we’ll pass on the photo because it is simply a brown bowl filled with brown meat and brown liquid, but, to borrow a teenage expression, OMG. Lamb, seasoned and slowly cooked in an underground pit – the meat is so tender, so full of intoxicating flavours that any lamb you have eaten in the past simply pales by comparison.

All of this is washed down with freshly squeezed orange juice and cafe de olla, dark coffee made with cinnamon. If this was not the very best breakfast we have ever had, it came close. We didn’t even think about food again until dinner.

We visited 11 wineries in three days, and after just one tasting of four wines at Cetto, we opted to choose a glass instead and sit and relax and enjoy the properties and the views. We didn’t sample wine at every winery, but in all cases, there was plenty to appreciate.

The architecture and design in Mexico is exquisite. Mexican craftspeople have such a sophisticated eye for detail and their work is impeccable.

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Even the rustic design is striking – wire structures filled with decorative rock.

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A side wall of one of the wineries – built to resemble a Spanish hacienda.

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At first glance, this winery, Finca la Carrodilla, appeared quite nondescript…

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…until we climbed the stairs to the rooftop tasting room. Stunning plantings of succulents and cactus, far-reaching views and communal seating have transformed this space.

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Las Nubes (Spanish for clouds)  was another favourite. Simple, clean, spare – we sipped on a full-bodied blend called Cumulus and watched three stylish young women trim the room for Christmas.
This young man spoke perfect English. We noticed that a lot – there appears to be a comfortable foot in both worlds for many young Mexicans in this region, both staff and visitors.

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Adobe Guadalupe –  another photogenic winery.

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We had a fabulous lunch here – fresh shrimp stuffed into soft floury buns and served with a little salad. Add a glass of red wine, a sunny table, some canine companions and a beautiful view – there are worse ways to spend an afternoon.

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The owners also run a boutique hotel and raise Azteca horses, the sturdy breed favoured by Mexican horsemen.
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While this region is small and compact, most of the roads leading to the wineries are packed dirt, in varying degrees of repair. You will lead from this lovely paved road:

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…to this. You don’t need a 4×4 to navigate, just patience and a keen eye to avoid potholes and rocks. This is an example of a typical winery road.

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Vena Cava, billed as “the hippest winery in Mexico” is only reached after a bone-rattling, torturous 20-minute drive on a twisting, rutted, washboard road that had us questioning our sanity to even attempt it. Finally, we arrived to this sight:

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The winery design is fashioned from discarded boats, and is unquestionably hip – they even have a DJ. We were the youngest ones there by at least 30 years, and whether we were just annoyed by the drive, or annoyed by the fact that we are not hip, we felt put off and did not stay long enough for a glass of wine.

Still – Vena Cava is doing all the right things to add to the scene and to catch the attention of travel writers. They feature prominently in “Best-ofs” and “Must-see” lists, and  for that reason alone are worth a visit.

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We were fascinated to learn about the Russians who began growing grapes in this area over 100 years ago.  This winery, Bibayoff  has a small museum attached.

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A photo of the original Bibayoffs. This small area still has a number of Russian descendants.

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We spoke to David Bibayoff, the grandson of the founder and a most charming man who speaks English and Spanish fluently, but “very little Russian.” He talked to us about the area and how it has attracted so many interesting people from all over the world to move there, including a Canadian couple who were drawn to the beauty of the valley.

David and his son and grandson.

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What would Mexico be without Frida? Casa Frida’s homage to the artist begins with the bright blue wall at the entrance  to the design of the wine labels:

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To the tasting room:

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To the outdoor kitchen:

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To the seating around the bar and pond. We ordered two glasses of Syrah and sat down to people-watch and enjoy the late afternoon sun. This was the last winery on our tour, and a memorable one.

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Touring wine regions can almost be too much of a good thing. The wineries are only open for a few hours each day, and covering a lot of ground is a slow process.  We may pop by again on our way out of Mexico.

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Anza Borrego: bring a jeep

We had never spent much time in deserts before – just drove through and gazed out the car window at scrubland and tawny hillsides without understanding what we were looking at. After Death Valley, with its negligible vegetation, and Joshua Tree, a little lusher and now Anza Borrego, lusher and more varied still, we’re beginning to get a picture of how different deserts can be. This desert may be our favourite.

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But, and this is a big but – you cannot see this park fully without a 4×4 vehicle. Many of the roads are dirt and many of them have spots of deep sand, so we were limited to just a handful of trails. We did have the chance to play at being off-roaders a bit, but it was disappointing to know we were leaving some fabulous trails and scenery behind. The hiking trails are very well marked for vehicle access, so there is little chance of getting stuck.

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Anza Borrego is California’s southernmost park – we are just two hours to the Mexican border. It is also the largest state park outside Alaska – at 500,000 acres. It draws people for many reasons – as we were entering the outskirts of the park, we came upon dozens and dozens of ATVs bouncing over the terrain – we could easily imagine our own sons tearing around that landscape.

Once in the park, the main activities are hiking and cycling as the terrain and animals are protected, so off-roading is prohibited. The town of Borrego Springs was an unexpected little jewel, with a lush green roundabout whimsically called the Christmas Circle.

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There are a number of restaurants in town, but this one caught our eye because of the sign. You know a place has been around for a while when they are still offering “char-broiled steaks.”

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We really enjoyed this place – The Red Ocotillo. Food was fantastic, decor very southwestern, and service saucy (remember Carla from Cheers? That was our server.)

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We stopped by the Borrego Art Institute – a gorgeous building with artful landscaping and plans for a garden out back to service the adjoining restaurant. They offer art classes, talks, and shows with local artists.

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The town is about two weeks away from the grand opening of their new library.  There has been some controversy over this building apparently. One of the locals confided that the new library was “towering” over the rest of the town, and built high on stilts, which was sure to attract nesting animals and possibly trap children. We were expecting a skyscraper. It is amusing to see how every community has its intrigues!

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I am writing this outside the old library (which does not open until noon), so I’ve joined the ranks of the wifi-deprived, all of us lined up outside with our devices. We have really come to depend upon libraries as we travel and appreciate all they offer – great wifi, clean washrooms, the chance to sit for a few hours without feeling guilty and also the chance to get a feel for the locals. We overhear some fascinating conversations. It is a tremendously reassuring place to be in and feel part of the community, even for a short while.

While I write this blog, Stephen is doing laundry at this picturesque laundromat.

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Our campground – set into the hills – quiet and magical.

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The sun woke us up every morning around 6:00 am.

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And gave us a show each night. Our other show was the night sky – Anza Borrego is a designated Dark Sky area and particularly a draw in June when the Milky Way is visible. We were happy to sit out bundled up, with our necks craned, just enjoying the view and the quiet.

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One of our favourite hikes was the three-mile Palm Canyon hike – back into the mountains, leading to a palm oasis.

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These are California fan palms – the only palm trees native to the region, and where they grow in clusters means they are growing along a fault line, where there is water.

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We met up with a father and son from Saskatchewan, also finding refuge in the oasis. We  noted the protective fronds on the trees, evolved to capture and hold moisture.

We also commented on the numerous droppings on the ground, filled with seeds and canine-like in shape. Soon, our perpetrator presented himself – a charcoal-coloured little  fox with red tip on tail and face. He peered at us from his perch and then took off again, but I’m sure he was watching, waiting for us to leave his home.

This is a fuzzy shot, but if you look closely, you will see the little fox  at the base of the  tree on the right.

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We were really hoping to see Bighorn sheep – the endangered animal after whom the park is named. Borrego is Spanish for sheep. This park is their territory, but at midday, they were nowhere to be found.  On our way back down, a local woman told us to go to the golf course the next morning – we would be guaranteed to see them as they make their way down the mountain to feed and drink on the corner of the golf course.

Sure enough:

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After watching them for a while, we headed back to our truck and that is when the show began. At least another couple of dozen sheep were descending down the mountain and we hid out behind our truck, so we wouldn’t alarm them.

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This sheep was one of a few we saw who were collared and tagged, and since the herd now numbers 600, they are obviously monitoring to make sure they stay healthy and grow in numbers.

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Stephen took a short video:

The golf course…

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…and some of the beautiful homes and gardens around the course.

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We had never heard of a slot canyon before, so decided to give it a try.  This one began easily enough.

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Then started to narrow a bit, with rather menacing rock overhangs (one good tremor…)

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And then things got interesting:

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This is not a canyon that is for everyone. If you suffer from claustrophobia, you will have a couple of queasy moments (just look up to see the sky). Not to put too fine point upon it, but this canyon is not suitable for all body types.  We met up with another couple and walked through with them. None of us are large people, but at one point, we all had to turn sideways and squeeze through.

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Back to the parking lot, looking out over  the badlands. They give no clue as to what lies below, which is such a big attraction to the desert – so much of its charm is hidden in plan view.

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And finally, is this what you would expect to find in the middle of the desert?

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Or this?

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What is this creature?

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And back to the beginning – come to Anza Borrego and bring a jeep.

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This work is the brainchild of metal sculptor Ricardo Breceda, and thanks to the vision of town benefactor Dennis Avery, they can be found all over Avery’s private land, known as Galleta Meadows. It is an extraordinary sight to drive along and see dozens upon dozens of these giant sculptures – camels, birds, tortoises, prehistoric creatures. Somehow they blend right into the landscape.

The other must-see of Anza Borrego are the spring wildflowers. Two years ago they had a “Super-bloom”, an infrequent occurrence that produces flowers of vivid colour and waist-high abundance. We were told there were over 300,000 visitors here to see the spectacle.

We leave this glorious place reluctantly, but will be back again in the spring.
Tomorrow… crossing the border into Baja. We will be crossing at Tecate, not Tijuana, so hopefully our passage will be smooth.

Hasta pronto!

 

Visiting Joshua Tree National Park on Black Friday

I think the memo went out years ago: travelling around the U.S. during American Thanksgiving week is not for the faint of heart. However, if you’re on the road you are going to land somewhere, and Joshua Tree was it.

We figured the park would be busy, but we tried to convince ourselves that everyone would be either at home fighting with their relatives, or stuck in the malls, trying to remember where they parked their cars. So, with hope in our hearts, we left Las Vegas and headed  west.

The sky was gorgeous – big storm clouds moving toward Las Vegas, as we moved away.

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Our route to Joshua Tree took us right through the Mojave Desert; at times we were the only car on the road.  At one point we found ourselves on a stretch of America’s famous Route 66, and stopped for gas at Roy’s, our last chance before Joshua Tree.  At $5.00 a gallon, the price was almost two dollars higher than we would pay anywhere else, but we decided that there were two things we did not want to run out of in the desert: gas or water.

Roy’s – the place that time forgot – gas pumps, a small motel and a “cafe.” That vacancy sign looks permanent.

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When Stephen asked the laconic owner if he was Roy, He replied, “Nope, Roy’s been gone  a long time.” We’re thinking  Roy took the restroom cleaner with him.

We carried on and about an hour outside the park, we drove past a compound surrounded by chain-link fence, with a number of scruffy low buildings, old trucks and a prominent TRUMP/PENCE sign on the hill in front. No surprise there, but what gave us a knot in our stomachs was a huge Stars and Stripes flying on the flagpole, with a slightly smaller Confederate flag just below.

It would appear that most Joshua Tree residents do not share those politics. The town supports a good mix of shops selling crystals, pottery and boots made from recycled plastic. This sign appeared in one of the windows.

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This mural is an accurate depiction of the town and park – pretty trippy.

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We had lunch at the Crossroads Cafe, staffed by a reassuring battalion of young people with the requisite hipster beards, flowered dresses with military boots and imaginative tattoos.  We ate the very best burgers we’ve had in a long time, served medium-rare.

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When we pulled into the Visitor Centre, first we got the bad news: Every single campsite in Joshua Tree had been booked for months. We were hoping to snag a first-come-first-served site, but even those had been “reserved” with an advance payment. Anyone close enough to the park to drop by with the fee in advance gets a spot. This is the situation in most state and national parks during peak times, weekends and holidays. We were directed to Joshua Tree Lake Campground, just outside the park, and it worked out perfectly.

Our campsite:
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The campground is situated at the end of a road, with mountains on one side. They have music festivals in the spring and fall and the rest of the year, they operate a quiet, clean site with a book exchange, a small store and a lake stocked with fish (to throw back).

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Over the next two days we put many miles on our hiking boots; Joshua Tree National Park is crisscrossed with a number of trails that range from a half-mile to a multi-day hike. We kept our hikes to under five miles, especially since many of them involved altitude. Our first hike, Ryan’s Mountain, had us climbing 1000 feet and it offered up an ideal combination of the flora the park is known for and the giant boulders, that formed from magma eons ago and were tossed around like so many building blocks.

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This is a Joshua Tree, which is not really a tree, but a tree-sized yucca.

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Although there are untold numbers of Joshua trees in the park (as well as other desert  areas), there is also an abundance of cacti, creosote bush, fan palm trees, cottonwood, scrub oak, juniper and Parry’s nolina – all plants that have adapted to the desert conditions.

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Joshua Tree is a prime climbing destination – we saw a number of people bouldering (climbing without ropes) as well as a few rappelling down cliffs. Stephen did attempt one climb, but only got about a quarter of the way up – enough to give you a perspective.

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Mainly we stuck to the trails:

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A few shots of the park:

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IMG_0056Barker Dam. At one point the annual rainfall was twice what it is today, and there was cattle ranching in the area. Ranchers built a dam to provide enough water for their cattle, and the small lake still remains.

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All the photos I’ve shown so far would indicate we had the park to ourselves. In fact, it was so busy it became a little comical. A solid line of cars snaked into the park; making their slow procession to the entrance gate. From that point on, every single parking lot was jammed, with cars circling and idling; just waiting to pounce on the very next available spot.

This is the lineup, waiting for a parking spot at Keys View.  It was madness; although once you were on the trail, the crowds thinned out somewhat.

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This was a popular hike – just a quarter of a mile walk on a paved road, overlooking the San Andreas Fault and a number of mountain ranges. Apparently on a clear day you can see to Mexico.

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Dogs are not allowed on any of the trails, for a variety of reasons – wildlife, ecologically sensitive plants, undesirable conditions for pets (heat, dehydration, altitude, unsure footing on narrow trails, etc.). We saw just one foolish owner who disregarded the rules; we encountered him and his Golden retriever (off-leash) about halfway up a very steep 2-hour trail. This is a difficult park to bring animals if they cannot be on trails and they cannot be left alone in hot vehicles. The rules did not apply to this little walk (out in the open and paved), and we saw a number of happy owners and dogs.

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We had a wonderful time in Joshua Tree – we could have stayed another day or two. Perhaps we’ll be back in the spring on our way home to see the desert flowers.

We’re seeing a lot of interesting, unique old campers, truck campers and trailers. I’ll post photos from time to time – this one had driven here from New Hampshire.

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Tomorrow we head to Anza-Borrego, a state park just north of Mexico. See you again in a few days.

Waking up in Vegas

I came to Las Vegas with more than a little trepidation. Stephen has been here three times on field schools with students, and was keen for me to see it as well. “You’ve gotta go at least once,” was his sales pitch and when our friends Lorne and Anne decided to meet up with us, it was a done deal. They would fly in from Toronto; we would park our trailer in the hotel’s back lot, and we’d hit the town together for three nights and two days.

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They did not dream up the old marketing tagline “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” with us in mind. We stayed up each night a couple of hours past our usual bedtimes and that is about as nasty as we got. Even our gambling was lame. Stephen popped a dollar bill in a slot machine and when he was up ($3.60), I made him cash his voucher in. Judging by the cashier’s expression, this was a Vegas first. A few more dollars swallowed up in the slot machines proved the old maxim, “The house never loses, ” but it was cheap entertainment and good fun.

We booked at Tuscany Suites, which proved to be an ideal choice – a 27-acre oasis with two pools, a number of stucco and tile low-rise buildings, beautiful 650 m. suites and a 15-minute walk to the Strip.

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We’ve all seen enough images of the Vegas Strip to know what it looks like, but it was surprisingly nicer than I had imagined. The Vegas that most tourists see is divided into two distinct areas – the new Strip, built since the 70’s, all glossy theme mega-hotels and casinos, and the original Las Vegas (Bugsy Siegel, Sinatra and the Golden Nugget), located in the city’s downtown. Over the years, that area had become quite seedy and rundown, but in the early 2000’s, it was revitalized as the Fremont Experience and Fremont East. It now draws tourists by the thousands in search of the city’s history and old-school neon. We began with the Strip. It is possible to ride the four-mile Strip by bus, but we wanted to see as much as possible on foot.

Every hotel has a casino attached. Most hotels have exclusive shops – Fendi, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci. The Fashion Show Mall is another draw – with 250 stores, including Macy’s, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom. Shopping is as big a draw as gambling and drinking.

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New York, New York. Outside – the facades of many famous New York landmarks. Inside – tenement street scenes, pizza parlours, wrought iron fire escapes.

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The Venetian Hotel. The gondoliers  glide along the canal into the hotel, which resembles a street in Venice.

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The exterior facade of the Venetian Hotel.

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The magnificent 5-star Wynn Hotel

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We took a break from the street to stop at the Wynn for a drink in their lakeside lounge. Lorne and Anne basking in the sun.

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Caesar’s Palace – 4000 rooms

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Las Vegas is going through an unprecedented building boom. Currently there are 151,000 hotel rooms with a 95-100% occupancy rate and there are no end of new hotel projects in sight. Demand is huge; fuelled in large part by the 50+ traveller seeking sun, sights and a palatable comfort level of “sin”.  Bugsy would be mortified.

Not for one minute to suggest the seedy side of life isn’t here. This mobile billboard was one of many – Vegas’ own particular brand of room service.

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If you prefer to shell out a few bucks for a souvenir photo with showgirls, that’s another option.

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The Chippendales were out in force as well; seeking photo ops with bills tucked suggestively into their low-slung, well-endowed pants. Anne and I did not partake.

Of course, Vegas at night is the big draw – the shows, the bling, the outrageous street scene. We didn’t take in any shows, other than listening to an excellent singer and band at our hotel the first night. The action on the street, the people-watching and the bright lights were entertainment enough.

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The Flamingo Hotel neon, with the age-defying Osmond siblings still performing after all these years.

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Harrahs Hotel

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Bellagio, with its famous fountain. Every 15 minutes or so, the fountain rises up in a symphony of song.

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Food and drink are a big attraction in Vegas. There are a number of very exclusive, celebrity chef establishments; as well as the gamut of bistro/pub/American/pizza/sushi joints – a dazzling selection for every taste and pocketbook.

If your tastes run to excess, The Heart Attack Grill is right up your alley. We stumbled upon it by accident – Elvis was standing outside, smoking and checking his phone.

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Coincidently, he had positioned himself under the sign that entices,” Anyone over 350 pounds eats for free.

Food porn takes on a whole new meaning here. Heart Attack Grill customers are required to don a hospital gown and be administered to by scantily-clad “nurses” as they make their way through 6-patty burgers. Peering in through the windows is akin to slowing by a car wreck. Pill bottles and cigarettes are part of the jaunty decor.

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Even pizza is all dolled-up, for Pete’s sake. “Pin-up pizza”, when Domino’s just won’t do, although it’s unlikely your delivery person will bear any resemblance to this creature.

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In the mood for sugar? The Sugar Factory (maker of Sugar Pops, endorsed by Rihanna and the Kardashian/Jenner tribe) also makes these sugar goblets. I asked this young man if I could take a photo – his sister and mother are out of range, but it would appear that they will be sharing six goblets and three rubber duckie siphons.

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Okay – now we are going to the dark side – Fremont Street, the original Las Vegas. We took a 40-minute bus ride out, and we dropped right into “The Fremont Experience”, much of it under a covered pedestrian-only walkway.

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The Golden Nugget, in operation since 1946, is still around.

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The Fremont Experience is a cross-section of nostalgia, cheap food, souvenirs, hustlers, scam artists, pickpockets, and hookers. Music blasts from all corners, zipline adventurers fly overhead, and buskers of dubious levels of talent compete for tourists. It is utterly overwhelming.

From the hopeful: Michael Jackson moves

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To the discipline of the “policewomen”

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To the decent sax player:

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There is one in every crowd.  At some point the beer takes over and not even the hula hooper on stage can distract this man from his groove.

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We also saw bored table dancers, shifty young men moving through the crowds, and seriously disadvantaged people panhandling. Overall, we found Fremont to be a distressing and upsetting place – the underbelly is very close to the surface.

Forty million visitors arrive in Vegas each year, and many millions of dollars are left in the casinos. But the money doesn’t trickle down very evenly; many, many people in Las Vegas are not okay.

Tourists don’t come to Vegas to do socio-economic and/or environmental assessments; this is a three-to-four day escape from winter, responsibilities, kids; and fair enough.

I’m glad I saw Vegas – I doubt I will be back. It hurts my heart to see young women being exploited. This is not the land of “university student paying her way through med school” or “welder by day, dancer at night.”

We softened the impact of Vegas by heading a half-hour out of town to Sloan Conservation for a hike in the canyon to see the petroglyphs. It was a bit more strenuous of a hike than we had planned on, but a perfect antidote.

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On reflection, we had a wonderful time hanging out together, and had fun with the craziness of it all. We came to the same conclusion. You have to take Vegas for exactly what it is, and not fuss about what it’s not. It’s not a judgement about people’s needs and tastes.  If there wasn’t a market of all of this, Vegas wouldn’t exist.

Our friends left this morning, and we’ve spent the day getting organized for the next leg of our trip – a few days in Joshua Tree National Park.