West by Southwest: Desert scenery travelogue
CATCHING UP: It has been nearly five years since my grand summer vacation into the desert southwest, and here at last is a full trip report. It was an ambitious adventure that included (of course) baseball, birding, and family affairs. I posted separate blog accounts related to those two special topics in July 31, 2014 (baseball) and August 25, 2014 (birding), but this task somehow got relegated to the back burner during my extremely hectic year of 2015. Slowly but surely, I'm getting caught up with things. Over the course of six weeks from mid-June through July, I drove over 6,861 miles, which is more than a quarter of the Earth's circumference. I had long hoped to finish my goal of visiting the "lower 48" states of the U.S.A., and I did that at last by going to Arizona and New Mexico. (Louisiana may not count, since my only time there was during a brief stopover at the New Orleans airport in 1985, and I didn't even get off the airplane. Same thing with Panama in the 1990s and El Salvador in 2017.)
It all began on Wednesday June 18 when I hit the road westbound from Staunton on I-64, stopped to view the Greenbrier Resort before driving through West Virginia and then Kentucky. I reached Louisville in the late afternoon and St. Louis at dusk. (I took advantage of the fact that daylight is a maximum during the third week of June.) By the next morning, almost exactly 24 hours from the start, I was at my brother Dan's house on the outskirts of Kansas City! We had to be at our nephew Aaron's wedding in South Dakota on Friday, and I suddenly realized I didn't bring dress trousers. So, the first stop that day was the Sears store at a mall which has since been demolished. Dan and I made it up to Vermillion after about five hours of driving, and family activities commenced. The photos below are just scraping the surface of the amazing variety of sights that I experienced. There are many, many more photos on the Chronological (2014) photo gallery page.
Getting there is half the fun!
After all the weekend fun had ended, my father and I embarked on a long journey that fulfilled multiple objectives -- baseball, birds, and family matters. We began by driving from South Dakota south to Kansas City, and visited with Dan overnight. The real adventure began the next morning on Monday June 22, when we resumed our southbound course. The first stop was in Joplin, Missouri, where there is a historic Route 66 mural adorning a downtown building. I was impressed with the historical significance, but just couldn't persuade Dad to get out of the car and take a look. This became standard procedure for much of the trip; he was getting old (85 at that time) and was having more and more back trouble. I was curious about the damage caused by the devastating tornado that struck there a couple years ago, but in fact I saw no evidence of any damage. Our next stop was in Springdale, Arkansas, where some of the Clem ancestors had lived during the early 20th Century. Dad had often expressed curiousity about the town and its part in the Clem family story, so we headed into the fringes of the Ozark Mountains. Unfortunately, it started to rain heavily, and we didn't have a clear destination in mind, so we gave up after driving around the town for just a few minutes. From there we drove west into Oklahoma and then southwest across the Red River into Texas, where we soon found suitable accommodations.
The next morning we drove into Dallas and stopped at Dealey Plaza, where President Kennedy was assassinated. It's a familiar sight to most Americans, but actually being there is rather chilling. We encountered a few hucksters and conspiracy pushers along the sidewalk. After a while we drove west to Arlington, since I wanted to see Globe Life Park, home of the Texas Rangers. We parked on the south side where at this very moment a new stadium is being built to replace the one that is only 25 years old. Once again, Dad declined to join me in a brief inspection, so I had to make my visit quick. Then we headed west through Fort Worth and then oil country, as the terrain gradually changes from grassland to desert. We made it to El Paso around midnight and arrived at his sister Connie's house in Las Cruces, New Mexico about an hour after that.
For the next five days, Dad stayed with his Connie and brother-in-law Bill for a few days while I continued even farther west into Arizona. It was an ingenius plan that combined multiple objectives between Dad and me, and fortunately, everything worked without a hitch. (Well, almost.)
By the Time I Get to Phoenix ...
Early on June 25 I departed Las Cruces heading west, with the goal of getting to Phoenix that evening to see a baseball game at Chase Field. To my surprise and annoyance, just west of Las Cruces I had to go through a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint, even though Interstate 10 was at least 30 miles from Mexico at that point! My first encounter with the Chihuahuan desert in southwestern New Mexico was quite dramatic. It's fairly flat, and you can often see for ten or twenty miles, with the blazing hot atmosphere producing mirage effects. I saw a few "dust devils," which are like mini-tornadoes that emerge out of clear sky. (Jacqueline and I had seen one of those at Monte Alban in Oaxaca, Mexico in 2003.)
After passing through a broad valley, I encountered a mountain range that more or less coincided with the Arizona state line. The topography of Arizona is unique and hard to describe, with isolated mountain ranges that rise out of flat deserts and divide the state into distinct ecological zones. (That is what makes it such ideal habitat for diverse bird species, and is therefore a haven for bird watchers.) I was impressed with the high quality of the rest stops, one of which was the point from which I took this photo:
I was already aware of the four major desert regions in the southwestern U.S.A. (Chihuahuan, Sonoran, Mohave, and Great Basin), but didn't know much about what makes them distinct or what the dividing lines are. As I descended from the mountain range toward the city of Tucson, I entered the Sonoran desert and that is where I saw saguaro cacti for the first time. About 70 miles after passing the city, I stopped at a rest stop in Gila River Indian Reservation, and was soon bedazzled by all the bird species and saguaro cacti all around. I couldn't help myself lingering at that location, even though I had to get to the ball game in Phoenix. I was worried that I would arrive very late, but fortunately I only missed about an inning of the game. I didn't realize that Arizona does not go by daylight savings time, so in effect it is part of the Pacific Time Zone from March to October. I was in such a rush I didn't even think to take photos of downtown Phoenix during the brief time I was there. After the game at Chase Field, I spent the night in a motel south of Phoenix.
From Phoenix to Tucson
With more time on my hands the next day (June 26), I took full advantage of my second visit to the Gila River Indian Reservation rest stop on my way back south to Tucson. Further south I exited Interstate 10 at the town of Marana, where there are pecan orchards and an aircraft "graveyard" where they salvage parts. I had heard of such places in the southwest, but seeing with your own eyes dozens of big old jetliners in the middle of the desert is rather strange. (Marana Aerospace Solutions provides such services as "heavy maintenance, overhaul, commercial storage, component repairs, paint, interior, detailing, and end of life options.") Next, there were some particular places I wanted to see birds, using a guide book that my brother John lent to me. I was impressed by the irrigation canals, but I soon realized how the influence of agribusiness often results in environmental depletion: water diverted to keep pecan and almond trees growing harms the natural habitat in other places. Late in the afternoon I spent about an hour at Saguaro National Park, just east of Tucson, and then found a motel in town to spend the night.
Tucson, Arizona is an attractive city in many ways, but some people might prefer the "California grass." (Get Back!) My first stop the next day (June 27) was the Sabino Canyon visitors center, a few miles northeast of the city. It features an amazing variety of cacti in a desert "garden" of sorts. After birding there a while, I continued north into the Santa Catalina mountains, which rise abruptly out of the flatlands. I ascended to an elevation of over 9,000 feet near the summit of Mount Lemmon, which was the culimination of that day's travel. Pine trees were everywhere, and it reminded me of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. It was delightfully cool at the top, almost chilly, and quite a contrast to the 100+ degree temperatures down below. It was late in the afternoon, and I had to hurry to get back out of the mountains before dark.
South to Mexico, and back
The next day (June 28) I headed straight south from Tucscon toward Mexico. Oddly, the distance markers along that part of Interstate 19 are in kilometers rather than miles, evidently catering to Mexican tourists and/or truckers. (Under the terms of NAFTA, truckers from Mexico can only drive so far into the United States.) My first stop was at the Titan Missile Museum, located at a former Titan ICBM (intercontental ballistic missile) silo. I was utterly enthralled, and would highly recommend paying a visit. Until the Titans were decommissioned late in the 1980s, there used to be dozens of such missiles with huge multi-megaton nuclear warheads in that area. Quite a sobering reality to absorb. Then I resumed my southbound trek and entered the city of Nogales, where I was pleased to find an old community baseball park in good repair with two uniformed teams getting ready to play a game. About a half mile away, I could see the actual border wall, and some Mexican people huddled in the shade perhaps contemplating how to get across. From Nogales I headed east and stopped at a nature preserve near the town of Patagonia. (No relation to Argentina that I know of.) The town itself was pleasant, and some kind of festival was going on. But I had to keep going and find a motel in the town of Sierra Vista, adjacent to the Fort Huachuca Army base.
San Pedro River
I had several destinations on Sunday June 29, beginning with the San Pedro River natural area. It is an incredible refuge of lush, wet greenery in the middle of hot, barren emptiness, obviously a major birding hot spot. I spent almost five full hours in that desert paradise! From there I went east to Bisbee, Arizona, which features a huge open-pit copper mine that is apparently operating much less intensively than it used to. I gathered that the copper ore has been depleted. But it was interesting, and I spent some time at a mining visitor center and gift shop.
Next came the town of Douglas, which is right on the Mexican border. Under different circumstances, I would have loved to cross the border into Mexico, but I had to content myself with just getting close. I was driving my Dad's car (much more comfortable for two people than my old compact Hyundai Accent would have been), and I didn't want him to take undue risk on my account. I was like a kid looking in the window of a toy store, yearning for something he can't have. While in Douglas, I was amused to observe how the local economy works: there is a WalMart store two blocks from the border, and most of the customers come from Mexico to buy huge bundles of things they can't get in their own country. Many of them take the shopping carts away from the premises, in spite of big signs and some kind of wheel lock system that is supposed to prevent such misuse. At the border station itself two blocks away there are several dozen abandoned shopping carts, and I suppose every day the WalMart employees have to retrieve them, over and over again.
After observing the border for a while, I drove northeast toward the Chiricahua Mountains, my next destination. On the way, I stopped at a monument marking where Indian rebel Geronimo surrendered. Unfortunately, I didn't arrive there until very late in the afternoon, forcing me to scramble for lodging. My habit of improvising travel arrangements runs into snags.
On my way to the Chiricahua Mountains on June 30, I stopped at a couple places along the road, and saw my first Roadrunner as well as a Gambel's Quail in that area! I passed several pecan orchards and According to tucson.com "Arizona's 2013 pecan production was an estimated 22.5 million utilized pounds, up 13 percent from 2012 and 22 percent higher than 2011... Arizona is the nation's fourth-largest pecan producer, with about 7 percent of the market share in 2011, the most recent figures available."
Once you enter the Chiricahua Mountains, you find yourself in a network of canyons, and the main road takes you to a medium-elevation spot that provides good views as well as some interesting birds. I came across some kind of research station with barracks for students and researchers. The combination of trees with various kinds of yucca plants is very distinctive. It was my final destination in Arizona, and I was sad to leave it behind. But I to get back to Las Cruces to pick up my father at his sister's house. Late in the afternoon, I made it back to Las Cruces.
Northeast by north
After saying goodbye to Aunt Connie and Uncle Bill the next day (July 1), Dad and I headed north toward Santa Fe. I had ambitious plans to cross New Mexico and reach Kansas in one day, but that turned out to be unrealistic. There was just too much to see along the way! We passed the town of Truth or Consequences without stopping, but spent two full hours at the Bosque de Apache National Wildlife Refuge. It's a huge wet oasis in the middle of hot, dry flatland. I had thought about stopping in Albuquerque, the biggest city in the state, but decided against it. We did stop in the historic city of Santa Fe, and I photographed the state capitol building. But there was no place to park in the charming downtown, so we just kept going. East of Santa Fe we inadvertently got diverted onto a side road looking for a gas station, consuming more valuable time. That part of the state is higher elevation, with moderate temperatures and lots of pine trees. We spent the night in the town of Las Vegas -- New Mexico, not Nevada!
In the morning (July 2) Dad and I visited the Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge, where I was lucky to see and photograph a Burrowing Owl! We finally exited New Mexico later that morning, and entered Oklahoma for a second time, the "panhandle" region to be precise. We were taking Route 56, which came within a mile of the northwest corner of Texas and within about five miles of the southeast corner of Colorado. It is sort of a geographical anomaly. The The terrain became more typical of southern plains, with arid grassland, with irrigated crop fields. Right across the Kansas state line we stopped for gas and food in the town of Elkhart, and then visited the nearby Cimarron National Grassland. To my surprise, there were several functioning oil wells within that protected area. I got a map from one of the park rangers, and thought I could navigate some rough roads to get to some good birding spots, but along the way we briefly got stuck in a patch of loose sand. Fortunately, I kept my head and we got out alright. No more back roads! Then we resumed our northeast course along secondary highways, stopping at a historic marker Dodge City (home of the fictitious Marshall Matt Dillon) and later at a vast wetland area called the Cheyenne Bottoms, where we saw a number of Avocets and other wading birds.
After spending the night in a motel on the outskirts of Salina, Kansas, on the last day (July 3) Dad and I spent a couple hours touring the city where he lived as a boy. He was happy to show me the cathedral where he and Mom were married, as well as the country club on the east side of town where his father taught him golf. We drove through downtown and past the old train station and some huge grain elevators. (Every town of any size in Kansas has at least one such storage facility.) But the main attraction that day was St. John's Military School, where Dad attended elementary and high school. There is a building named for my grandfather, Remey Leland Clem, and a bronze bust is outside. Tragically, we recently learned that St. John's will be closing down for good at the end of this school year. After talking to some people there, we resumed driving, this time straight north. We stopped in the small town of Gresham, where my grandfather lived as a young boy. We spent some time paying respects to some Clem ancestors at a cemetery near the town, and then got back on the road. The final tourist item of note was in the city of Norfolk, Nebraska, which was home to comedy legend Johnny Carson. I took a photo of a "Johnny Carson Blvd." sign, and a couple hours later we were back home in South Dakota.
In sum, it was truly the adventure of a lifetime, and I count myself as so blessed for taking the opportunity to make a trip like that with my father before it was too late. Two years later, Dad was gone. As noted at the top, I have been meaning to finish this travelogue for a long time, and I figured that since today (March 4) would have been Dad's 90th birthday, it is an appropriate occasion. It was a great opportunity for us to share memories of years past along the way. Here are the states Dad and I traveled through, in chronological order, including Arizona, which he did not see.
- South Dakota
- New Mexico
- New Mexico
- South Dakota
To see many more photos, please go to the Chronological (2014) photo gallery.