Thursday, January 29, 2009

29 Miles to Prescott

When we were 29 miles away from Prescott (see previous post), we began to see the snow storm clouds -- we were racing towards it, and it was racing towards us. We met at the outskirts of Prescott.

NOTE: The grass and the trees here are not snow covered. They were a light gold color, and show up as white in this black and white rendition.

And here's the view as we got a little closer -- the falling snow was visible as a huge white streak from the sky to the mountains, just to the left of center at the horizon:

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Trip to Prescott and Quartzsite

Location: Prescott, AZ and Quartzsite, AZ

My friend, Cookie, and I took an overnight trip from Yuma to Prescott this week. When I retired in April 2007, I thought --naively as it turns out -- that I was done with snow. Last year, in the winter of 2007-08, I made it though the traditional winter months with only a few frosts and a couple freezes to shiver through and thought I had done it -- but then I went to the Grand Canyon in May, and got to experience the canyon cloaked in the white stuff. This year, I couldn't even make it out of January -- we could see the snow falling on the horizon as we neared Prescott, and by the time we got there it was too late -- snow all over the place! Guess I'll need to try again next year.

To get to Prescott, we had to pass through Quartzsite, our recent RVer's playground. We realized that we had both failed to visit one of Q's renowned landmarks, the Reader's Oasis Books! So, to fortify us for what lay ahead, we stopped at Darlene's Bakery for a piece of excellent pie -- and then it was off to the bookstore. The temperature was cool, somewhere around 55 degrees, so we got to experience the bookstore (or at least the bookstore owner) in a way most people don't -- with the Naked Bookseller himself half clothed instead of mostly naked.

Yes, the owner normally is clad in only a black knit thong, but this day, because it was so chilly, he augmented his outfit with a sweatshirt, and moved his discussion with a customer outside "where it is warm."

Quartzsite is always one of those Special Places.


Saturday, January 24, 2009


Location: Yuma, AZ

I haven't been able to identify this insect, but he was big, furry, and intent on getting all he could from this flower. A bee fly, perhaps? Here is a closeup of his head and wings, along with another bee pollinator who was busy on a near-by flower (most of the flowers that are in bloom here seem to be yellow for some reason):

(UPDATE 1/25/2009: Richard has identified this as a Valley Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa varipuncta) -- see his Comment on this entry)


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Like Spring Break For Seniors

Location: Quartzsite, Arizona

For most of the year, Quartzsite, AZ is a sleepy town in the Sonoran desert, the ground a uniform platform of desert pavement, baked over the millenia to a dark, burned patina. Cacti grow here, but nothing else can take the lack of water and the year-long sun. The animals that call this place home are mostly nocturnal, coming out in the night when the temperatures have dropped dramatically -- a 40 degree variation from day to night is not uncommon.

And then January comes.

Senior RVers descend on Quartzsite for the biggest party of the year. The landscape becomes dotted with hundreds of thousands of RVs, parked helter-skelter on Bureau of Land Management land where there are no hookups, no responsibilities, and very few rules.

Senior men, most of whom one may assume are balding on top, wear visor caps adorned with long strands of fake fur on the top. Cars and RVs clog the roadways, and off-road vehicles are zipping everywhere, driving with abandon whether off-road or on. Bands and karaoke fill night-time entertainment needs for some, but others watch the sun go down as they gather with friends around the bonfire. Between the shows and the flea markets, everything you might want or need is for sale: RV supplies, gems and minerals, animal skulls and their assorted body parts, flags, vitamins, biker paraphernalia, waterless cookware, bamboo blankets ("only $30, and they are better than cotton because cotton is made of protein and bacteria can grow in them" .... er, what?), 12-hour lipstick, 30-second salsa, coolers that stay cold for 5 days, swords, and the last nail file you will ever need. Plus, they have the nicest hang out area for the dump workers I have ever seen.

Here are some of those images from Quartzsite:


The rally with the Escapees Solo group has ended, and the trip down the alphabet -- from Q (Quartzsite) to Y (Yuma) is underway. Quartzsite has been fun, but spring break for seniors must now come to an end. See you all next year!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Saguaros -- Including A Crested Saguaro

Saguaro cacti, best known for their curving, uplifted "arms," on occasion grow a fan-like topknot for reasons unknown. These are the rare Crested Saguaros, and occur once in every 200,000 saguaros.

We discovered that one was growing within a few miles of our boon-docking site in Quartzsite -- while the crest is not as lovely as some appear to be, it was worth the search on the back roads of the desert to find it. Here it what we found -- a crest, although somewhat deformed AND arms:


Saguaros remain armless, like the ones to the right of the crested saguaro in the photo above, until they are 50-75 years old at which time some -- but not all -- begin to grow their arms. They can live for 200-300 years, and are often home to small birds such as finches or woodpeckers.

In Arizona, it is illegal to engage in "cactus plugging" -- stuffing a saguaro with explosives or just shooting them for the "fun" of watching them fall. In 1982, a saguaro got the last laugh -- a vandal named David Grundman was killed when the arm of the saguaro he was plugging fell on him. Darwin award candidate, perhaps?

Here is a photo of John next to a mature saguaro to give you an idea of how big they get. They can weigh up to six tons -- the interior is not just composed of vegetable material like an aloe or a prickly pear, but instead contains wood-like ribs that support the weight:

The saguaros we saw in the desert often were paired with their own bush (or maybe it's a small tree), although I haven't been able to find out why. Maybe the bush shields the seedling from the hot sun, or maybe they just both found the same bit of underground water. The crested saguaro above had one, and here are some photos of a few more:


And, finally, a bit of Flora Personification. Some saguaros take on a human look, especially when the arms are even. This one I'm calling, "The Stick-'Em-Up":

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Desert Burials

Location: Quartzsite, AZ

Camels in Arizona? You bet! In 1856, 33 camels, later joined by an additional 41, came to call Arizona home. The Camel Corps, as they were known, were part of a freighting experiment thought up by Jefferson Davis, the Secretary of War who was later to become the President of the Confederacy. But how would Americans know how to care for camels? Probably they wouldn't, so with the camels came an Arab camel herder named Haiji Ali, whose name was immediately anglicized to "Hi Jolly." When the Civil War broke out, the war department abandoned both the freighting experiment and the camels, leaving the latter to roam the desert on their own. Hi Jolly died in 1902, and is buried in this tomb in Quartszite. Presumably the camels all died, too.

The cemetery in which Hi Jolly is buried has been used for decades for Quartzsite burial. Lush green cemeteries are not practical here, for water is expensive and difficult to find. Everything is rock, baked to a dark brown patina by the relentless sun. Grave sites would be lost in the sameness of the land without being marked somehow, and the logical marking material is what is on hand -- the outlines and decorations of the graves here are primary rocks and stones, although some have borders of paving stones or small fences. A few slabs are scattered throughout the cemetery, complete with circular holes just the right size to place an empty pickle jar that can later be filled with flowers. In a few places, the only indication that a grave was there was a slightly higher mound of gravel and stone, with, perhaps, 2 pieces of scrap metal screwed together to form a cross. Here are some images of the cemetery:


Sunday, January 11, 2009

On The Way to Quartzsite

We are now on the way to Quartzsite, AZ, for what is arguably the largest winter RV party in the country. In January, thousands -- up to 1.5 million -- of RVers descend on this small desert town, normally home to only 3500 people. They come for the gem and mineral shows, the RV shows, the swap meets, the boondocking (camping without hookups) on Bureau of Land Management land, and -- maybe the best reason -- for the socializing.

We should get there tomorrow -- in the meantime, here are a few photos from the trip -- a finch in the desert, copper mines in the mountains of Arizona, and my first sighting of wild Saguaro cacti (Carnegiea gigantea):

Click for Larger Image of Finch in the Desert

Click for Larger Image of Copper Mine

Click for Larger Image of Saguaro Cacti

Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Marfa Lights

Location: Marfa, Texas

Click for Larger Image of Observing StationThey are the stuff of legend and lore: mysterious balls of light that float near Marfa, Texas. We went out at dusk to see them at a viewing platform set up just for that purpose, about 10 miles east of Marfa itself. The platform stood alone amid miles and miles of nothing but desert scrub and dried grass, looking out over an Army airfield that was abandoned in 1945. Two restrooms, three mounted binoculars (impossible to focus accurately due to excessive usage, but amazingly operational without feeding a coin slot), a large viewing platform, and lots of parking was all that was there -- and about a dozen people, all waiting for sunset and a chance to see "The Lights."

Some "facts" about the Marfa Lights:

  • They only show 10-12 times a year; they show 50-60 times a year; they show every night if it is clear; they show every night but slack off around midnight.
  • They are mostly white; they are white, blue, green, red and yellow; they sometimes float; they sometimes follow cars.
  • They were seen by early Native Americans and people heading west on wagon trains; they have only been seen in recent times and the reports of early sightings are apocryphal.
  • During World War II, the men at the now-closed airfield didn't see them; the airmen all saw them from the ground but pilots couldn't see them from the air.
  • They are caused by swamp gas; they are caused by a mirage due to the area's extreme temperature gradients; they are caused by quartz crystals expanding and contracting, the accumulating voltage discharging as ball lightning.
  • Scientists from NASA have swarmed over the site and couldn't find anything; scientists from Japan spent over a month there, but no one seems to know what they found; it is difficult to study them because the site is on private land so serious studies can't be done; two scientific studies were done (by students at the University of Texas and by something called the Aerial Hyperspectral and Reflection Study), and both found that most to all of the lights are associated with car headlights on nearby Highway 67.
As soon as it was reasonably dark, we looked toward the mountains and saw... lights! They were white, shimmery, and slowly increased or decreased in brightness, some twinkling out, some staying bright, and some slowly moving. Some were high, some low. This photo (click to enlarge) shows the lights -- note that the red light on the left is a known radio tower, and not part of the Marfa Lights:

Click for Larger Image of Marfa Lights

It was pretty exciting, and everyone was getting jazzed watching the lights and speculating about their origin. However, I have to say that I am totally convinced that we were seeing car lights. Here is a map showing the relative location of the viewing station and Highway 67 (I have not been able to pinpoint the mountains on this map, but the blue arrow shows the direction of view), and it shows that Highway 67 is in a direct line of sight from the platform. And, as this next photo shows, when viewed in a longer time-exposure photo the lights were situated a straight line, they all moved along that line, and some red smudges (taillights) can be seen following the white headlights, just as you would expect cars lights on a road to look (click to enlarge):

Click for Larger Image of Marfa Lights

But nothing is ever that simple -- for that was not all we saw. When we looked to our left, we saw three other lights that seemed much closer, perhaps as near as the abandoned airfield, although if they were large they could have been further away. They were bluish and faint, never changing brightness or location. I have seen no other mention of them in Marfa literature. One report said that locals know the lights against the mountains are just car lights, and the rarely seen "real" Marfa Lights are totally different and unexplainable.

Who knows what our three lights were? Left-over reflectors? Once the sun set, the only light sources were the quarter moon and Venus, and they didn't seem to be in the right part of the sky to bounce their light off reflectors in that area. It was impossible to get a good photo of them, because there was nothing around them to show as a background or to give scale -- but I'll share the photo I did get, with the note that the photo makes them appear brighter and more distinct than they did to the eye (the white dot at the top is a star):

Click for Larger Image of Marfa Lights

No matter how many photos are taken or studies are done, there will never be an adequate explanation of the Marfa Lights for those who want to believe in the supernatural. I, however, am going with car lights to explain the lights on the mountain, and I'll just file the three other lights under Mystery Yet To Be Solved. But whether you think they are car lights, swamp gas, electrical energy, or aliens visiting earth, they were lovely and it is worth an evening to go see them.

Friday, January 02, 2009

The Prettiest Info Center/Rest Area

Location: Laredo, Texas

This has got to be the nicest rest area I've ever seen! The landscaping includes native plants, fish and turtles in the ponds, and interesting architecture. I took these existing light photos just after sunset:

Click for Larger Image of Rest Area

Click for Larger Image of Rest Area

Click for Larger Image of Rest Area