Sunday, March 23, 2014

Carlsbad Cavern NP/ Guadalupe Mtn. NP



P1000388P1000414You'll have to imagine how excited we were to see something that looked like mountains again! Coming out of the flatlands and into New Mexico gave us new energy and enthusiasm, just to see those mountains. And they aren't even all that big. After getting our bearings in Carlsbad, stopping at the BLM offices and Visitor center we were ready to go. There are some BLM lands near the entrance to Carlsbad and though it was noisy with oil trucks rolling by we endured one night there.

Carlsbad Caverns were splendid beyond words, I won't even try to describe them but I'll post a bunch of pictures. I will explain a little about the unusual geology of the area. Most caverns are located in large limestone formations created millions of years ago by industrious little sea creatures like algae, sponges and shellfish. Many caverns are created by water from the surface flowing through cracks in limestone formations, dissolving the soft rock, and creating the large rooms and passageways. Then, over hundreds of thousands of years, groundwater seeping into the spaces and dripping and flowing creates the stalactites and stalagmites that make up the amazing formations, including columns, chandeliers, crystals, sheets, curtains, and everything in between. What is unusual about Carlsbad is that the major work of hollowing out the ancient coral reef was not done by flowing water, but by hydrogen sulfide rich water seeping up from  fossil fuel deposits below, reacting with the water in the limestone to create sulphuric acid. This acid ate away the limestone much faster than just flowing water and contributed to the many unusual and enormous rooms of Carlsbad. Most of the formations were then created in the usual way, water seeping into the caverns over millennia. Carlsbad is mostly a dry cavern now, there is very little dripping water, partly because is it located in a desert on a warming planet. The two and half miles of trails through the main part of the cavern are very easy and well planned and maintained. You can do side trips and additional sites for a fee but we found that two and a half miles was plenty. The NP works hard to preserve and protect the cavern and have pretty strict rules. What we really liked is that it is self guided and you can really take your time and enjoy the cave. Thayer and I had fun playing with our cameras and experimenting with different settings and effects. 
Main Entrance Carlsbad Caverns




Looking good!



Lion's tale formation


Heading back into Texas (sigh) we drove a few miles down the road to Guadalupe Mtn. NP. These beautiful, rugged mountains are made of the same limestone as Carlsbad and probably even have caves and caverns underneath. The highland areas, at 8000 ft. resemble a northwest forest rather than a desert habitat. We didn't visit this area but it looked very beautiful in the video. There are two main entrances to the park, the first being McKittrick Canyon, arguably the most beautiful place in Texas. It has a very different ecology than the surrounding areas, many plants and animals are hold overs from way back when there was more water around. A stream flows through the canyon, though you can't always see it as it goes underground for long stretches. The gray and brown cliffs tower above the creek bed and forests of pine, cactus, maple and even Texas madrone trees fill in the low areas. What really stands out is that the stream bed is filled with white boulders, all rounded and shaped from tumbling downstream during the flash floods that happen fairly regularly. These white rocks came from the cliffs above but the brown and gray coloring gets worn off on the way downstream, exposing the white sandstone. It is quite beautiful. In 1930 Mr. McKittrick built a beautiful stone lodge about half way up the canyon, above the flood areas and lived in it for many years. He donated the lodge and the property in the 60's, initiating the formation the park. 
Guadalupe Mtn. NP
Homesteader spread with springs

McKittrick Canyon
McKittrick's Lodge

View from Frijole's 



The other entrance to the park has an old farm house and barns of one the earliest white settlers in the area. Many hiking trails start near the Visitor's center. We spent the night in the parking lot that they call a campground and had a fun evening with a young couple from Seattle on a 6 week jaunt in their old VW camper. Andrew works for Homestreet Bank and Andrea works for the Seattle Parks Dept. in Environmental Learning so we had lots to talk about. We had so much fun listening to their adventures at Mardi Gras in Eunice, LA. Totally different from our experience but it sounded wild and fun! Next time we are going there for Mardi Gras!
The next morning I hiked up another canyon similar to McKittrick Canyon except it was a little more rugged with much of the trail in the empty streambed. The very best part was about 3/4 the way up where the water way wound its way down a steep stretch of canyon. It cut a slot canyon about 60 feet deep and 15 feet wide and 150 feet long, below that took several 90 degree turns, dropped into a pool, turned 90 degrees again and then flattened out. It would be awesome to see in a flood stage! 



Monday, March 17, 2014

No, we're not lost!! We just had to get through Texas!

I know it's been a while but here goes. I've had to look back through my notes to even get started!
In the several days that we took driving to Texarkana we made several interesting historical stops. The first being the town of Natchez. This quaint little burg is located high on a bluff above the Mississippi River. Since 1716 is has been occupied by the French, Spanish, British and finally Americans. Early on it was important to control the towns along the River.  Natchez features a lovely park at the edge of the bluff with good walking trails, historical information, and nature trails. It was once a very busy place, being a major shipping port for cotton and goods up and down the river. It has many lovely antebellum homes built by wealthy farmers and businessmen. Natchez was not involved in any Civil War battles so the homes have been preserved. In a more humble, but nice home is the Johnson House National Historic Park. It is the old home of one of the most successful free black families in the south. Johnson started as a barber and expanded his enterprises until he became quite a wealthy man. Strangely enough, he owned slaves. In general, he treated them well as long as they worked hard but was abusive when they did not. He was shot by a neighbor over a dispute and, because the neighbor claimed to have some white blood in him, and the only witnesses were black, was not punished. They had a great exhibit about the free blacks living alongside the privileged whites. There was also an upper and lower part of the town. The part down on the river, called Under the Hill, was not a safe place for decent folks. In 1816 William Richardson wrote: "From this filthy spot emanate all the contagious disorders that infest the town above."
View from the upper town
Den of Iniquity Under the Hill
Antebellum home
One of many churches
Connecting Natchez to Vicksburg is the Natchez Trace Parkway which originally was the road the Native Americans used in their yearly migrations up and down the river. Now it is a scenic highway that winds through the hills and valleys through what I am sure are beautiful forests in the right time of year. We also took a side trip to Emerald Indian Mound, the second largest in the U.S. It was not a burial mound but was used for temples and such. Other side trips included an old farmstead and the Windsor Ruins, a fabulous ruined pre-civil war home.
2nd largest in North America
Homesteader's tools
Windsor ruins
The next major stop was Vicksburg, MS, site of the battle that broke the Confederate Army's back and assured the Union victory in the Civil War. Gaining control of the Mississippi effectively cut off the South's supply lines. Though the Confederates had the high ground and were well entrenched they couldn't handle the siege that Gen. Grant  set up around them. Grant had tried to attack but was beaten back several times. He was in a bit of a hurry because he was actually caught between two armies and feared attack from behind. The siege did the trick though. The Vicksburg National Battlefield is filled with monuments rivaling those found at Gettysburg. From the high ground you can almost see the action of the tremendous battle. Also part of the park is a museum featuring the Ironclad ship "Cairo."  The Cairo was sunk in a tributary of the Mississippi by the Confederates using underwater mines. Years later it was carefully raised from the riverbed and preserved. They found many, many artifacts and have an excellent display.
Vicksburg Union cannon
Vicksburg Nat'l Battlefield
Thayer's approach- lots of digging
 In the town are more beautiful homes and churches. Down on the river you can see the levees that have been built over the years, the largest wall has the flood levels recorded. The Army Corps of Engineers has a large center there which educates people as to what the ACE has been doing over the years to control and contain the River. They showed many of the models they have gone through over the years to figure out how the river runs and what effects the dredging and levees would have on it. Now they do it all with computers. It was extremely interesting and informative. Also on the site is the ship Mississippi IV, an A.C.E. working ship dating back to the 1960's. Like the Ingham in Key West, this ship is preserved just as it was when it was decommissioned. Not as old as the Ingham, it was in much better shape. In the pilot house they had a simulator where you had to guide the ship through various obstacles on the river. Thayer had a good time with that and even completed one of the missions. 
the Ironclad ship Cairo
Cairo artifacts
Flood levels through the years
Sunset over Vicksburg
Simulator Captain on the Mississippi IV
One of the larger models of the river
The miles from Vicksburg to Doddridge flew by, where we were cheerfully greeted by Thayer's Aunt Vivian. We spent 10 days here, Thayer was mostly involved with collecting the family history, recording Vivian's stories about family, tagging faces and photos and listening endlessly. Vivian is 92 years old and has a remarkable memory of the extended family. Seeing a photo would unleash a torrent of stories about family, friends and neighbors. Thayer tried to keep her focused on family but it was hard. I walked everyday, I found about a 3 mile route through the woods that led to a little old cemetery. I also played hundreds of games of dominoes with Vivian as she chatted with Thayer. While Thayer typed up a little story we would play a few games, then she would talk some more. We met her grandson, John Paul and his family and spent some good times with them. They came out for dinner several times and we went to a Mardi Gras parade in town one afternoon. Vivian can still dish up some good southern cooking! Don't believe I've eaten that many carbohydrates in one meal in my life! She taught me how to make some awesome biscuits! We finally drove away, knowing in our hearts that we may never see her again. Thayer did a great job of collecting and organizing the family story.
Story collecting and dominoes
A couple of those wild Hughes's
Now, those are some real biscuits!
More Hughes
We then drove across the big part of Texas, staying 4 nights at boondocking sites. Next up: Carlsbad Caverns!
Right next to a rest stop and historical marker
Everywhere you look
Yup, it's flat
First views of Guadalupe Mtns. from BLM lands