Friday, June 26, 2009

The Nature of Wonder

It's been rainy for the last month, and the world is sodden, though we haven't had any precipitation for the last two days. I went for a walk in my neighborhood last evening and stopped by to see one of my favorite neighbors, a dear, sweet, but eccentric woman in her late 60s whose husband was killed by a drunk driver five years ago. My neighbor has a deep and abiding love--but a very shallow understanding--of the natural world. When I stopped by, she became very excited and said, "Oh, I've got to show you something really wonderful!" She led me to the decaying stump of a red oak that had died and had been taken down a few years ago because the snag was too close to her house to allow it to stand. (Otherwise, she would have let the tree stand to attract woodpeckers). When we got to the stump, she excitedly pointed out a bright yellow mass. "Isn't that glorious? Look how brilliant the yellow is!" She proceeded to show me another mass (this one was dull orange) on her firewood stack. She commented, "This one was just like the yellow one earlier this morning, but now it's not nearly as beautiful."

I explained to my neighbor that the masses were slime molds. She winced and said, "What an unpleasant name for such beauty." Before she was distracted by one of her dogs, she finished up with the remark, "Isn't it a joy to be alive to see such a wonderful thing?"

I think, at one time, I shared my neighbor's sense of wonder, but now it's nearly gone. It's a shame and I regret it immensely. The last time that I can recall anything approaching this level of awe was a decade ago. I was in Austin, Texas for a conference and went downtown one evening to see the famous flight of the Mexican Free-tailed Bats emerging from under a bridge. I was so overwhelmed by the wonder of the event that I actually teared-up with joy.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Straddling the Continental Divide: Western New Mexico, May 2009 (I)

Aligned windows
Pueblo del Arroyo, Chaco Culture National Historical Park

This was our third vacation trip to New Mexico. Nearly two decades ago, we traveled in northern New Mexico, visiting Albuquerque; Santa Fe; Taos; Los Alamos; Las Vegas, NM; and Durango, Colorado (as a base for Mesa Verde National Park). During the course of that trip, we rafted down the Rio Grande, took a llama pack trip in Bandalier National Monument, and a horse pack trip in the Pecos Wilderness (where bighorn sheep ate horse rations out of our hands).

On our second trip three years ago, we concentrated our visit in the southeastern part of the state, flying to El Paso, TX and driving to Albuquerque by way of Guadalupe Mountains National Park (TX), Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Ruidoso (where we watched Brokeback Mountain and Heath Ledger get shot down at the Academy Awards on a gastopub television), White Sands National Monument, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, Acoma Sky City, and Old Town in Albuquerque.

For this trip, we wanted to see the western and southwestern parts of the state. So, we flew to Albuquerque, rented an SUV and set off on I-40 west to Thoreau, New Mexico, where our adventure (and this account) begin.

Zuni Mountain Lodge, Thoreau, New Mexico
Zuni Mountain Lodge

Lodging options between Grants, NM and Gallup, NM are completely non-existent--except for the Zuni Mountain Lodge, located 13 miles south of I-40 in the tiny hamlet of Thoreau, NM (pronounced Thoo-ROO). Most people stay at the Zuni Mountain Lodge because they want to visit Chaco Culture National Historical Park via the southern route, and this is the closest lodging (56 miles away).

We stayed for five nights, visiting Chaco, Gallup and Zuni (for shopping), El Malpais National Monument, and El Morro National Monument, all on separate days. This was just the right amount of time to stay in the area. Zuni Mountain Lodge is, by far, the closest lodging to all these attractions and made a convenient staging location for our exploration of the area.

Zuni Mountain Lodge is a compound consisting of four rental houses (not available to travelers) plus the lodge building. All of the buildings in the complex are brightly painted wood and are of relatively modern construction (1970's?). If you're looking for a romantic getaway to a traditional stone-and-timber Western lodge set among pines you may be disappointed. But, if you're looking for very good accommodations, centrally located, in a quiet location, and have a bit of a sense of adventure, then this is the place.

The lodge is approached via a 13-mile (15-minute) drive south of I-40. The road (NM 612) first enters a scenic canyon, then opens onto an expansive vista of low forested mountains and ranch land. We found the drive calming and very pleasant--not at all a nuisance. The road travels through several small settlements and finally ends near the inn. Lodgers turn up a gravel road and park across from the inn at the end of the road.

We were greeted by Bob, the slightly eccentric owner and manager, and by one of the numerous friendly dogs that live at the inn. Bob escorted us to our room and gave you a tour of the facility. There's a pleasant gazebo in the yard with an obstructed view of Bluewater Lake (a sad little reservoir) off to the east.

Bob served breakfast and dinner (included in the tariff) in a sunny dining room. The meals were good, solid fare--not great cuisine--and Bob did his best to please his guests, especially at breakfast, where eggs are cooked to order.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the lodge is that Bob has several long-time boarders living in the lodge. These folks work at the hospital in Crownpoint, NM. Rental housing is very hard to come by in the area, so they stay at the lodge with their dogs. They joined us for breakfast and dinner, and then we joined them to watch television in the common room. The lodge sometimes felt more like a boarding house or a "movable feast" than a lodge, but we became very friendly with these long-term guests and their pets.

This lodging experience may not be for everyone. One overnight guest with whom we spoke at breakfast was a little disappointed that the lodge was not more like the traditional Western "national park" lodge. But, we were flexible and willing to enjoy the company of a rambunctious and lovable group of puppies and dogs. We were very glad we spent five nights here.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park

As our first excursion, we decided to visit Chaco Culture National Historical Park on Wednesday, May 13; visiting Chaco was one of the main reasons we decided to vacation in western New Mexico. The park is 56 miles north of Thoreau, but the last 20 miles are on a Navajo nation dirt road whose condition restricts driving speed to 25 mph or less; the whole journey took 1:50.

We got oriented at the Visitors’ Center, and then headed out on the one-way loop road. We stopped and walked around at the first ruin, Hungo Pavi, but it is only partially excavated and in relatively poor condition. While at Hungo Pavi, we saw another visitor who told us that his relatives recommended spending nearly all the time at Pueblo Bonito and not bothering with the other ruins, so off we went.

Pueblo Bonito is the most famous of the Chacoan ruins. The largest ruin in the canyon, Pueblo Bonito was the center of the Chacoan world. Planned and then built in stages, Pueblo Bonito was inhabited from the mid-800s to 1200s. It eventually grew to four floors with over 600 rooms and 40 kivas. Pueblo Bonito is one of the most extensively excavated, studied, and preserved sites in North America. We walked throughout the structure for about an hour, trying to imagine living here and marveling at the wonderful and distinctive stonework in the walls.

After completing our tour of Pueblo Bonito, we had lunch (with beggar ground squirrels) under a picnic shelter, and then it was off to hike the Pueblo Alto Trail, which afforded overlooks of Kin Kletso (another ruin that was built in two stages, the first from about 1125, and the second from 1130; it is a great house with 100 rooms and five enclosed kivas) and Pueblo Bonito from above, and of the Pueblo Alto complex on the mesa high above.

The Pueblo Alto Trail begins at the base of the cliff behind Kin Kletso. The trail ascends to the top of the mesa via a narrow crack in the sandstone cliff; a huge slab of sandstone has partially separated from the cliff face, and rocky debris has collected in the crack, making it possible to walk atop the rocks 200 feet to the top of the mesa.

Great kiva at Pueblo Bonito
Chaco Culture National Historical Park

Kin Kletso ruin from Pueblo Alto Trail
Chaco Culture National Historical Park

Once on top, we walked over to the Pueblo Bonito Overlook, and then further up onto the mesa to the Pueblo Alto complex of ruins. After circling the ruins, we headed back to Kin Kletso.

Pueblo Bonito ruin from Pueblo Alto Trail
Chaco Culture National Historical Park

Pueblo Alto Viejo
Chaco Culture National Historical Park

Finally, before leaving the park, we stopped at Pueblo del Arroyo sitting alongside Chaco Wash, a deeply eroded arroyo. Early white settlers reported that the wash was broad and shallow, but now it is highly eroded, deeply incised, and dry. Overgrazing by white ranchers and conversion of the native grasslands to non-native species have increased runoff, which has, in turn, led to significant erosion of the wash.

I think that I may have enjoyed Pueblo del Arroyo the most of any of the ruins. It is modest and accessible in scale, and it is very well preserved. It also features a few interesting architectural elements not found in the other ruins.

There are many other ruins in the park, and plenty of hiking opportunities, but we certainly got a good introduction to the landscape and the cultural history. Even though we were visiting in mid-May, it was very warm and we did not come prepared for any extended hiking. If we had intended to hike, it would have made sense to camp in the park campground, since making the drive from a town was such an investment of time.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Proposal

We went to the movies to see The Proposal this weekend (along with lots of other folks, apparently--it was the top grossing film nationwide). A winner, for lots of reasons. First of all, I love good romantic comedies, and this one is well-written and well-directed. Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds--in fact, all the cast members--are great; the leads give this formulaic script lots of sizzle and fizz. Betty White, an actress and comedian whose talents I have only lately come to appreciate, is superb--not too silly or over the top, but spot on.

And, of course, there's Ryan Reynolds (or did I say that already?). He is to die for. He's unbelievably appealing in his role, and he appears shirtless in one scene so that we can appreciate his perfectly hirsute chest and his abs (which, in the film, are not as defined as they are in the image above, but who's complaining?). In fact, we get a bare ass shot, too!

In addition, the film's a hoot--I laughed out loud more than at any film that I can remember in quite a while. So, while our local film reviewer only gave the film 3 out of 4 (probably because of its rather predictable trajectory), the reviewer enjoyed it immensely anyway, so go see for yourself.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Rain, Rain Go Away...

Today is the 17th day in a row that it has rained here in our section of the Mid-Atlantic. It hasn't rained all day, every day, but we've had precipitation at some point every single day for over two weeks. We're supposed to get a reprieve tomorrow (Friday, June 19), but then the wet weather returns for at least the next five days. In addition, it's been cool (I'm not complaining!). This is the year without a summer--so far. Now, watch, that comment jinxed it, and we'll have a drought and temperatures in the 90s every day!

Saturday evening (June 13) was the worst part of this wet period. Starting at 4 p.m and lasting until 8 p.m., we had very heavy rain. I was at a "picnic" at a friend's house, and we were all driven inside. By the time the rain stopped, we had received four inches of rain in four hours. Naturally, with the soil already saturated, nearly all of the stormwater drained into the creeks. The image above is the creek flowing through the natural area that I frequent. The image was made three days after the torrential flooding, but the stream is still high and muddy. Of course, it came out of its banks at low points.