Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

DAY 56 Antelope Canyon, AZ


November 23, 2012

If you’ve been to the Monday Night Meditation in Felton, CA, you have seen Antelope Canyon. Above the altar is a large framed photograph. It shows a peach colored slot canyon with a beam of sunshine ending in a pool of light on the sandy floor. A holy sight if ever there was one. That is Antelope Canyon.

Chris and I spent Thanksgiving with my cousin Sue and her family, at their home in Flagstaff, AZ. It was serendipitous that we were near enough to accept their invitation to share the holiday with them. I hadn’t seen Sue in a number of years and I had never met Steele, her husband.

They suggested that on Friday we make the long journey to Antelope Canyon. I was immediately excited. They had never been there and, as we all know, having guests is good way to get to the places you want to go but haven’t. November is not the time of year to see the famed shafts of light, the sun is too low in the sky to shine directly in. But we all trusted it would still be a special sight.

Slot canyons have held a certain fascination for me. (DEFINITION: “A slot canyon is a narrow canyon, formed by the wear of water rushing through rock. A slot canyon is significantly deeper than it is wide.”) Their otherworldly light and colors create an enchanting reality, a quiet pristine realm separated from the world. Beautifully sculpted passageways take you on a labyrinthine path as if guiding you to a secret destination. Truly the opposite of the magnitude and majesty of the Grand Canyon, slot canyons are touchable and intimate, sometimes only wide enough for one person to pass through. A few years ago Chris and I hiked alone through a slot canyon in Utah, one off the beaten track. It was great. But Antelope Canyon is in a class of its own.

Slot canyons also come with danger which, I suppose, adds to their lure and mystique. The thing that creates them is thing that is dangerous, the raging waters of flash floods. Winds and rains add the finishing touches. Antelope Canyon is the site where 11 people drowned in 1997, mostly Europeans, when a distant storm sent a racing torrent like a sudden below-ground tsunami. More precautions are in place now, both for predicting a flood and for helping people escape the canyon. This day was sunny and clear with no predictions of rain anywhere in the region. We were safe.

Antelope Canyon is on Navajo land and you can only enter it as part of a tour. There are two parts to the canyon, Upper and Lower, and they are separate tours. We chose the Lower since a friend of Sue’s had recommended it. Mid-day provides the best light and we arrived about noon. Many others had the same idea about how to spend Black Friday and both parking lots were full of cars, most with California plates. Eventually, our specific tour was gathered and our Navajo guide gave is an introduction.

You enter Antelope through an narrow slit on the surface, more like entering a cave than a canyon. Watching the people in front of me slip through this crack and disappear was uncanny. It was as if each person was being absorbed into the earth. People dropped out of sight down a flight of metal stairs into a large opening. As they first looked around, the oohs and aahs were immediate.

Although we were with a large group of excited, chattering, photo-snapping, international tourists, I was quickly able to take little notice of them and focus, awe-struck, on the beauty that enveloped us. This is one of the most beautiful place I have ever seen.

The Lower canyon is not long, about 1/2 mile; we took about 1 1/2 hours to slowly walk its length. If it were allowed, I would have loved to spend the entire day, mesmerized by the hues, changing light and undulating forms. With every few steps, new stunning combinations of colors and shapes emerged. Overhead were arches and openings, and glimpses of deep blue sky. Under foot, the pale sandy floor narrowed and widened, and was sometimes barely passable.

Early on, as our group trickled into a large luminous chamber, our guide paused and played a slow haunting melody on his v-shaped native flute. His music harmonized with the glowing warm tones and the soothing womblike shape of the room.

For much of the walk I was alone, behind the fastest group and ahead of the slowest. I savored this opportunity to be in this magical place, to be quiet, reverent.

The sandstone glowed in pastel variations of red, pink, rose, peach, ocher, yellow, orange, gold, lavender, tangerine; the shadows deepened into purple, mauve, magenta, eggplant, sienna and umber. Some formations resembled animals, one appeared to be a woman in profile with flowing hair. Most of canyon was remarkable for its simple abstract beauty.

Intricate forms sculpted in the walls mirrored the swirl and crest of waves. Currents, eddies and whirlpools seemed to be frozen motionless. The stone miraculously evoked the sensation of fluidity. It was as if this canyon was the original mold from which God created water. With its curving, bulging and rounded forms and its calming colors this place had a deeply feminine energy and beauty.

I would have missed the light beam, if Steele hadn’t pointed out that I had just walked through it. A thin light shaft cut across the corridor, hitting the side wall like a laser. As I stopped to enjoy it, it began to fade, the rotating sun moving out of range.

Sadly, the canyon came to an end and we ascended a long set of stairs to reach ground level and the ordinary world of sun and expanse.

On our ride home, after a visit to Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell, we stopped by the road to view the Colorado River. A half mile hike took us to an overlook of what is called Horseshoe Bend. You are able to walk to the edge (and beyond if you are not careful) of the precipice and peer down into the river’s dramatic journey toward the Grand Canyon.

This gallery contains 21 photos

DAYS 48 – 51 Tecopa Hot Springs, CA


November 15 -18, 2012

After a few nights in a motel in Las Vegas and days of tasks and errands, we escaped, sneaking back into California to camp at a hot springs. We planned to return to Las Vegas on Sunday for me to give a talk with the Lotus in the Desert Sangha.

Chris stumbled into this area a few years ago and has wanted to return. It is just below Death Valley National Park, a flat desert expanse with hot spring pools and creeks, dried lake beds and ringed by stark mountains. There are several places to stay that offer maintained hot springs. We chose the county owned, Tecopa Hot Springs Campground and Pools. A hot springs guide describes the “vibe” of all the places in Tecopa as “snowbirds RV park” which is accurate. Have we officially become snowbirds?

The whole area reminded me of a poorly maintained parking lot, crusty, white parched earth with a smattering of trees, shrubs and RV hookups. Nearly everything in town was either an RV, trailer or trailer home, some permanently settled into the ground surrounded by “lawn” (sand, carefully placed rocks and a few cacti). We found a pleasant spot among some scrubby trees and enjoyed the warm days, mild nights, and the opportunity to sit in the springs. Rather than natural open air springs, the waters are pumped into separate men’s and women’s buildings into square concrete pools. You are required to soak naked because clothing affects the quality of the water. This gave the place the ambiance of a bathhouse.

Most of the people there were Asian. Other cultures seem to be more familiar with the tradition of the public bathhouse. While indoor and outdoor swimming pools are common in America, bathhouses are not. I recall the important role the public bathhouse played in the wonderful Japanese movie, “Departures”. My first bathhouse experience was many years ago in a Turkish bath in Istanbul. That was truly memorable.

This site was originally Paiute land and was considered healing ground for all tribes. Apparently, when Chief Tacopa gave this land to the county, he declared that the healing waters were to remain open to all people at no charge. Now, there is a small fee to keep it clean and safe.

There is a Native American center in town as well. One morning was welcomed in with a sunrise drumming ceremony. Classes are often held. Basket weaving and native herbs and food were offered while we were there.

Just behind the bathhouses is a cone shaped rocky hill with a trail up one side and down the other. On its peak is a large white cross, calling this “Mary’s Hill”  and suggesting prayer. There is also a wooden bench for taking in the view. I walked up the hill each sunrise and sunset to see what spectacular display the sky had in store. One late afternoon, there was a partial rainbow, looking like God’s own paint stroke.

As I gazed over the view the second morning, a woman hiked up and joined me there. She paused at the cross and crossed herself. We chatted for awhile. She eventually revealed that it was her daughter Mary’s birthday, her daughter who had died recently from a long bout with cervical cancer. Mary was 27-years-old when she died, that day she would have been 28. She left behind six children, or as her mother called them, grandbabies. This woman was taking some time off, on a road trip, to sort things out for herself.

As I pondered her situation and how this death would effect so many people, a brew of emotions and thoughts bubbled up. It reminded me that the weight of loss and hardship that people carry is so often unknown to us. If I had passed this woman on the trail with only a smile and a hello, I probably would not have given a thought to the possible suffering this stranger was struggling with. It fostered my commitment to remember the secret vulnerable heart within each of us.

This hill with its white cross reaching toward the sky was for me a sacred tor. Perhaps it was sacred to the Pauite as well.

One afternoon, Chris went for a bike ride along the main road to the next tiny town to see what was there. He rarely comes back from anywhere without some treasure. Back at the campsite, I saw a furry tan foot sticking out of his pack. What’s that, I asked. Along a remote section of road in the “middle of nowhere” he noticed something brown perched in a desert shrub maybe 20 feet off the road. Ever curious, he stopped and found, as if carefully placed, a new (with tags still attached) stuffed animal. An African lion holding a red heart-shaped pillow with “Love” embroidered on it. This little beast has become our trip mascot. You may not believe this, ESPECIALLY if you know Chris, but he has a soft spot for stuffed animals. We call this fuzzy feline many names, Mr. Love, The Love Lion, and Love Buddy.

This gallery contains 12 photos

DAY 43 – Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, NV

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November 11, 2012

Our first night in Las Vegas we spent outside of town. After seeing Ajahn Brahm in the evening, we drove west on Route 160 to camp in the desert. Although Las Vegas is large and sprawling, when it ends, it just ends, and you have easy access to open lands and national forest.

After one day, I was already overwhelmed by trying to maneuver through the big city. Our GPS took us in circles, on and off freeways, as we headed to Ajahn Brahm’s talk and we were 40 minutes late. At one point, I had three GPS’s (a Magellan and two iPhones) balanced in my lap, two of them barking orders, hoping that one of them would get us to where we wanted to be. All three kept instructing us to take an exit that didn’t seem to exist.

We frequently stop to spend the night along dirt roads in public lands (rather than finding developed campgrounds.) Although Chris has no qualms about wandering around in the dark, I dislike searching for places to camp after nightfall. This has become an area of contention between us. In complete darkness, it can be impossible to tell where you are, much less where you are going or what might be around the next corner.

The first few miles of the dirt road we found off 160 went through privately owned camps belonging to the Boy Scouts, the Methodist Church, and other groups. Eventually, the road entered national forest. It got more and more mountainous and the road climbed ceaselessly, higher and higher with no level ground to park on. After some concern that we’d never find any place suitable, we spotted a side road just wide enough and flat enough to pull over. I had no clear sense of the surrounding landscape except for the steep drive and the low trees illuminated by our headlights. In the morning, we woke up to discover we were surrounded by rocky cliffs and forested mountains, a beautiful sight.

Heading down the mountain again toward Las Vegas, we saw several desert bighorn sheep ewes by the road. We turned around to get a better look and to take a few fleeting photos.

Closer to town, we reached the southern portion of Red Rock Canyon, a well-known park that abuts the big city. Its name derives from the large rock formations of deep red at the northern end. The red stands out in isolation against the grayer, tanner, greener earth and vegetation around it. I have spotted these formations from the plane when landing in Las vegas.

The southern end has a variety of trails through the desert. Chris had ridden his mountain bike here on a previous trip and was excited to try it again. By the looks of all the car bike racks in the parking lot, this was indeed a popular spot for bikers. At least, there would be other people on the trails to help Chris if he got lost or hurt.

While Chris rode, I took a slow hike on the less-used flatter trails heading north. Not interested in walking quickly or getting anywhere, I just meandered and breathed in my surroundings, looking, listening, smelling the desert and its inhabitants, being present for what presented itself.

Surprisingly, a few flowers were blooming; I was happy to see them. There were many cactus dotting the landscape, more varieties than we had seen on this trip. I was particularly drawn to the stout barrel cactus. They were covered in a tangle of large pinkish thorns that created a prickly protective cage around them. Many of the barrel cactus appeared to sprout directly from shear rock as if the stone itself was bulging into plant life. Large yuccas and joshua trees added vertical height to the desert floor. The joshua trees had the most personality. Each tree had a unique form with the trunk and branches jutting out at strange angles. At the end of each arm was a green starburst of new spiny leaves, the old dried leaves collapsed against the limbs, covering the tree in a tan fur.

The air was still; little moved in the desert. As the sound of the traffic receded, a deep pervading quiet emerged. The sky was limitless blue. The sun was a kind companion, illuminating the beauty and offering a soothing warmth. This day the desert was gentle, allowing everything, including myself, to be bathed in spaciousness and tranquility. No wonder people through the ages have gone to the desert for prayer and revelation.

I am well aware that the desert is also a place where the elements express themselves in dangerous extremes, where every stone, creature and plant can seems sharp and jagged. I will continue to go to the desert for exploration and sanctuary, but I don’t think I will live here. Perhaps too accustomed to abundant water and greenery, I like the redwood forests and the woods of the north.

Chris returned smiling and exhilarated by his ride and, as is common in mountain biking, he made what he calls, “a blood offering”, his shin scraped and bleeding from a fall.

This gallery contains 15 photos


DAYS 43 – 45 Las Vegas Daze

November 10 -12, 2012


From Ajahn Brahm’s website (

They drew a circle that shut me out,
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout!
But love and I had the wit to win
We drew a circle that took them in.
(Edwin Markham 1852-1940)

We planned to spend a few days in Las Vegas to complete some big city errands. Chris needed to ship a few things and we both needed some things shipped to us. We looked forward to buying organic food and going to bookstores. With readily accessible wifi, I hoped to get caught up on my blog. (We have become what I call “Wifi Vampires”, stealthily, lustfully searching for opportunities to drink up wireless internet wherever we go. Sometimes we are also “Electrical Outlet Vampires”.)

I have taught two weekend meditation retreats in Las Vegas so there was also the possibility of giving a talk to the Lotus in the Desert Sangha. It turned out that the City of Sin offered the first formal Dharma of our trip.

Exploring the web, I discovered that Ajahn Brahm was schedule to teach in Las Vegas that very weekend. What a stroke of good luck! I have been curious to see him and, as far as I knew, he rarely comes to the U.S. from his monastery in western Australia. We left Pahranagat Wildlife Refuge early Sunday morning to travel the 90 miles to his talk at 11:15 AM.

Although Ajahn Brahm (his full name is Brahmavamso Mahathera, “Ajahn” means teacher) has been a well-known and respected Buddhist teacher for some time, he gained notoriety in 2009 when he gave full-ordination to four western women as Buddhist nuns. This may not seem like a radical or controversial act but in traditional Asia, it was.

I won’t go into all the complex historical and cultural details. But the short story goes like this. The lineage of fully-ordained nuns from the Buddha’s time was “lost” so today, in many Buddhist countries, women can only ordain as limited “8-precept” nuns. This role has less prestige, power and respect. Simply put, nuns are second-class citizens compared to the monks. This gap in the treatment between men and women doesn’t go over well in the Western world and it makes no sense according to the Buddha’s teaching. There are many explanations and justifications given for not changing the ordination rules, but from my standpoint, it boils down to an attempt to maintain power and control by patriarchal systems that discriminate against women and by cultures that rigidly adhere to traditions (especially ones that uphold patriarchy). In my view, patriarchy is so, so passé.

The idea of monastic life is deeply appealing to me, with its simple lifestyle, and its complete dedication to meditation, to self-knowledge and to awakening to wisdom and compassion. However, I have never seriously considered it because traditional Buddhism, like the other major religions, is steeped in old-time patriarchy (even misogyny) and in limiting and out-dated cultural beliefs, expectations and mores. Ajahn Brahm’s decision to disobey tradition and bypass the appropriate lines of authority, resulted in his ouster as a member and teacher in the Buddhist Thai Forest tradition. He is still a monk and abbot of the Bodhinyaya Monastery and he continues to be a popular teacher. He has been both celebrated and condemned for his stance and his actions.

Despite all the controversy, Ajahn Brahm is enthusiastic about being a monk and in monasticism in general. He referred to his monastery as “a community of hermits.” This is the same oxymoronic expression I have used for my ideal sangha (spiritual community). But I would prefer it to be peopled with lay contemplatives instead of monks and nuns.

Most Western monastics I have spoken to agree that women should be included as equals. However, their Asian counterparts, often do not. And despite what they believe, many people do not want to rock the boat. Hierarchical authority and decision-making can be strict and challenging that system can have unfortunate  consequences.

Ajahn Brahm is outspoken in other ways too. A few years ago when the Dalai Lama described homosexuality as sexual misconduct, Ajahn Brahm simply said that the Dalai Lama was wrong. Many other Buddhist teachers did as well, including myself, but Ajahn Brahm was able to say it to a wider audience and he continues to bring it up in his talks today. (In the West, there are many openly gay, lesbian and transgendered Buddhist students and lay teachers.)

Ajahn Brahm semi-jokingly said that now that gays are being openly accepted into Western culture he has a new cause célèbre . . . Celibate Rights! He said that people say to him what people used to say to homosexuals, for example, “It isn’t natural.”

Over two days we saw Ajahn Brahm three times at three different venues. He is British, educated at Cambridge University in theoretical physics, witty, funny, frank, original, and thoughtful. His primary style of teaching is through stories. A born storyteller, he not only shares true examples from people’s lives, but he has also amassed a repertoire of parables. Some are culled from other sources, but many appear to be his own. They sometimes sound like children stories – with animal protagonists, for example – but they clearly, often with humor, demonstrate his point. He obviously enjoys retelling these tales even though he has shared them hundreds, probably thousands, of times; he delightfully strings them out and then pops the moral of the story on you. Many of these teaching stories are collected in his book (which we got after seeing him), Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung? Many of his talks can be seen on YouTube.

Probably the most controversial thing Ajahn Brahm said was directed to the western Vipassana or Insight Meditation community. He stated that the Buddha emphasized jhanas not vipassana meditation in the suttas (the written record of Buddha’s teaching). Vipassana means insight and it, along with mindfulness, are most often considered to be the core practices. Jhanas are usually referred to as stages of samadhi, which is usually translated as concentration. Ajahn Brahm was adamant that samadhi does NOT mean concentration – at least as we understand it in the West – but instead stillness. The role, meaning, and practice of samadhi and the jhanas is currently a hot-button issue within the Insight Meditation community.

Afterward, someone concerned about his declaring the preeminence of jhana meditation, asked me what I thought. I shrugged my shoulders; if you get ten Buddhist teachers, you’ll get ten different answers about the best way to practice. They will mostly agree on the underlying philosophy of Buddhism (the Four Noble Truths, etc.) but often do not agree on how to practice it. Having heard all these different approaches over many years, I take it all in stride. I teach from what I have learned from my many teachers and from my own experience.

I did like Brahm’s redefining of samadhi as stillness. Because Westerners usually lead busy, distracted and agitated lives they have not learned to access the fundamental stillness and silence of awareness. Both concentration and mindfulness, when not applied correctly, can become additional activities to keep the mind occupied and busy rather than allowing the mind to fully open to and rest in awareness.

Also, Ajahn Brahm told a story which softened his jhana point somewhat. He talked about how Sam (samadhi) and Vi (vipassana) with their dog Metta (lovingkindness) walked together up Meditation Mountain. The point was that no matter what approach you lead with in meditation, all three will eventually be present, all three will be part of your experience. Stillness, clarity, love.

Ajahn Brahm was asked his opinion about another controversial issue: abortion. First, he said that women should make the decision (and the laws), not men. He then went on to say that when making any complex, difficult decision – like whether to have an abortion – one should inquire within to see if one’s decision is being overly influenced by any of the following: 1) ill will, 2) self-serving wants (greed), 3) fear, 4) ignorance (lack of information). These seem to me to be a good guide for life’s many hard, confusing choices.

These four mind states often emerge directly from our past conditioning and when dominated by them, our ability to clearly understand our current situation will be muddied. The wisdom and good heart we need to make decisions may be obscured by past grudges, old hurts, doubt, longstanding feelings of inadequacy. This is why psychological work can be such an effective ally on the spiritual journey. It can help us identify and release obsolete conditioned patterns allowing our unconditioned true nature can shine through. Our deepest intentions will direct our choices.

After leaving Vegas for a few days refuge at Tecopa Hot Springs, we returned for two nights to complete various errands and for me to give a talk on self-compassion at the weekly Sunday meeting of Lotus in the Desert.

Ajahn Brahm at Chaiya Meditation Monastery in Las Vegas, NV

DAYS 43 – 44 Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge, NV

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November 10-11, 2012
The morning was clear and bright. Our campsite was right along side Upper Lake with our own beachfront. I was up early trying to photograph waterfowl. It was challenging, between the cold temperatures and the skittishness of the birds. I make a plan for later, when it is warmer, to set up my tripod on the shore and to sit still next to it, and quietly take photos.

My key to the camper was missing. Since I last saw it at Ash Springs Hot Springs, I figured it had dropped out of my pocket there. After breakfast we drive to the springs again to look for the key and to take a morning warm soak. We imagine we will be there alone in the cold. When we arrive many people of all ages have assembled around tables with food and there is an atmosphere of celebration. Children run around excitedly. People look at us expectantly, assuming we are part of this event but with quizzical looks on their faces . . . who are they?

It’s not the ambiance we want for our soak and we don’t want to crash this event so we decide to look for the key and then leave. Unfortunately, if the key was there, it was probably under a person, a table or a cooler; we don’t find it. We were told there would be a baptism here, I imagine they will use the warm springs for a full water immersion. I explained to someone that I had lost a key and if they find it, to leave it on a big flat rock.

The morning warmed and returning to the lake I was excited to get in my kayak. As I changed my clothes and inflated the boat the weather suddenly changed. A cold wind picked up and both light and dark clouds appeared in the previously empty sky. The wind continued to increase and, although I put my boat in, I didn’t go very far before I turned back to shore. My hands were freezing and the surface had become choppy. I became concerned about battling the wind to make progress through the water. The birds gave me a wide berth, quickly swimming or flying away to no closer than a 100 feet, usually farther. There was hunting on the lake south of here and these birds had no interest in finding out if I was friend or foe.

At 2 PM there was a scheduled birding class. Chris and I joined the docent and the couple who were the campground hosts. The docent had set up three sighting scopes and showed us photos of some of the birds we might see. He and the couple said that just a few weeks ago the lake was so covered in migrating waterfowl that you could “walk across the lake on them.” That is something I’d like to see! A completely solid sea of birds.

The wind was constant and the chill factor extreme. Bare hands were needed to operate the scopes and my fingers ached from the penetrating cold. Tears filled our eyes making it difficult to see. We braved it for about 30 minutes and then ran back to the truck for shelter and warmth. Despite the hardship we were able to identify a variety of birds, including . . . canvasbacks, ruddy ducks, ringnecks, snow geese, American widgeons, buffleheads, coots, mallards and Canada geese. Still cold, I sadly give up my plan to sit outside by my tripod and I forfeit more photos of birds.

The next morning on our way to Las Vegas we retraced the 12 miles again to Ash Springs to look for my key. There it was on the flat rock with a note! They had found my key but, not explaining why, had cancelled the baptism. Too cold? I was grateful to them.

This gallery contains 8 photos

DAY 42 – The Extraterrestrial Highway, NV

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November 9, 2012

Snow fell lightly as we packed the truck in Tonopah. One enormous ominous cloud hung overhead from horizon to horizon. The night before, we had stopped there for gas and a break in driving south. As the afternoon quickly transformed into evening, it became windy and painfully cold; snow was predicted. We lost the will to go on to find a place to camp. After circling around the town a few times we settled on cheap lodging at the Clown Motel. The idea of it made me smile and I considered that possibility that it was a motel catering specifically to clown clientele. I frequently feel like a fool, not a clown, but maybe that would qualify me to stay there just the same. The room was well-used and threadbare, but it was good enough for us. It had a satisfying shower, fast wifi, a microwave and a fridge. Not to mention the now novel distraction of a TV. Everything your average clown needs.

The motel office walls had shelves stuffed with all kinds of small clowns. Larger ones sat on chairs or hung from the ceiling. The motel sign, as well as each room door, sported a clown. The only artwork in our room was, of course, portraits of clowns. I asked the office receptionist, what’s up with all these clowns? He shrugged and said tersely that the previous owner collected clowns. End of story. The whole thing was a bit amusing and I felt that the quirky over-the-top excess of Las Vegas had trickled into little Tonopah. I actually think clowns are a bit creepy.

Our big event of the day was to travel the Extraterrestrial Highway (NV Route 375 . . . yes, its really called the ET Highway, check your road atlas.) This 98-mile long stretch of road passes by the entrance to the notorious Area 51, part of Edwards Air Force Base. Area 51, if you are unfamiliar with it, is the subject of books, movies, TV shows, speculation and imagination. Many people believe it houses the UFO and its extraterrestrial crew that supposedly crashed in Roswell, NM. Area 51 security is so intense that trespassing signs are posted that say “lethal force is authorized”.

The ET Highway is also a remote scenic road passing by a variety of ecosystems on the way to Las Vegas. As we climbed elevation from Tonopah we saw that the surrounding mountains ranges were white with new snow. Entering a broad valley that swept upward to rugged hills in the distance, the line where rain turned to snow was as clear-cut as I have ever seen it, revealing that only a fraction of change in elevation and temperature can create a transformed world. (See photo below.)

The only town on the ET highway is a tiny outpost called Rachel. We planned to stop there for lunch. As we drive there, we traveled in and out of rain and snow. Thick fog often obscured our view; hills were shrouded in eery mist. Any hope for viewing a UFO were dashed!

Rachel has a small restaurant called “The Little A’le’ Inn”. We each had an “alien burger”, hoping this did not mean it was made from fresh alien meat. They also sell an assortment of Area 51, ET, and UFO goods, including mugs, posters and T-shirts. There were signed photographs on the wall from renowned ufologists and other famous people who had visited the restaurant. The decor included life-sized aliens hanging limply on the wall like hunted ducks. The outside had a flying saucer theme and included a real tow-truck hauling a disabled UFO. When Twentieth Century Fox released the 1996 film, Independence Day (which partly takes place in Area 51), they placed a time capsule outside the restaurant to be opened in 2050.

Heading again south we hope to find the dirt road leading to Area 51. Mountains come in and out of focus through the shifting white thick air. Small stubbly joshua trees start appearing for the first time on our trip. They are initially unbranched single trunks only 1-3 feet high, making it look like the desert needed a good shave or at least a tweezing. After a few more miles south, full-sized joshua trees, with their branches oddly akimbo, spread out across the arid plain. Chris spotted the landmark for Areas 51, a large white mailbox, and we stop. In good weather, groups of conspiracy theorists and the UFO-obsessed gather here. If you travel too far down this road, you will be visited by military security. We quickly take a few photos and then run for the comfort of our truck out of the persistent biting wind.

As sunset approaches, the sky begins to clear, creating dramatic lighting. We find Ash Springs Hot Springs, a sweet county park, and take a soak. Part of it is a man-made pool and the rest is natural, allowing us to swim under the trees in the warm wide creek. Lovely. A little farther down the road, we pull into Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge and park beside the lake for the night.

This gallery contains 16 photos

DAYS 37 – 40 Rye Patch Recreation Area, NV

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November 4 – 7, 2012

We next head to Rye Patch Recreation Area with the hopes of both kayaking and biking. We had hit a streak of exceptionally warm weather, which the ranger there kept reminding us, wouldn’t last. Our campsite was under a large Russian olive tree along the Humbolt river just below the Rye Patch Reservoir dam. The campground spans both sides of the river and we were the only campers on the east side.

The large cottonwood trees were glowing yellow as if illuminated from within. As a long-time New Englander, I relish the onset of autumn colors. Even though the fall leaves of the West generally only range from greenish-yellow to orangish-yellow, they are still magnificent and I can’t take my eyes off them. The bright luminous gold colors against the infinite blue sky and the milky aqua of the river are breathtaking.

We soon meet Jim, the primary ranger there. He is helpful and informative, talking about the wildlife we might see and suggesting places we might go. A quintessential man of the West, he is quiet, relaxed and unhurried, friendly, laconic and good-looking. Twice he delivered firewood to us and he showed me where the great horned owls roost during the day.

Our first evening I sat at the picnic table writing on my glowing computer in the dark, with an owl hoo-hoo-hooing in the olive tree above. The next day, as I wandered along the river, I startled bucks and does several times; sometimes they were alone, sometimes together. Ranger Jim said that when rutting season started in a few weeks, there would be a couple hundred deer in the campground. At one point, I thought I was looking at a great blue heron, until it flew off and I realized it was a sandhill crane (their flying forms are very different.) Jim said that the area is “thick with porcupine” but we didn’t see any. He also said “the antelope are like rats”, meaning plentiful and everywhere, but we didn’t see them either.

The several days we spent at Rye Patch were easy and peaceful. Days were deliciously warm while nights became quite chilly. We made campfires so that we could enjoy the evenings outdoors. Although I stared mostly into the flames, glancing upward now and then, I saw four falling stars each night. As we sat by the fire our third night, we awaited the national election results. Cell service came and went but we stayed up until we were able to determine on our smartphones that Obama had won and we went to bed relieved.

Chris took off for bike rides and one afternoon I kayaked on the large reservoir. Although it is 14 miles long, I only saw two other distant boats across the open space. Lakes like this, imposed onto the desert by the ambitions of man, are striking, but odd. The expanse of blue water seems incongruous against the barren dry surrounding hills. Like the other reservoirs we’ve seen, it was very low. I am guessing that because of the dramatic shifts in water level, plant growth depending on a reliable water supply never take root. Along the Humbolt River with constant water, large cottonwoods and other trees and shrubs hug the shore.

Mostly of the time here, I just relaxed, wander, take photos, meditate, stretch out in the hammock. In Ashland, Oregon I picked some Tibetan prayer flags; they now adorn campsite.

Hiking downstream by the river, I found myself in a long unoccupied picnic area stretching south along the eastern shore. A large plaque there explained that the Humbolt Trail – one of the main routes to California for settlers – is on the other side of the river. I wanted to find a way to the western shore to see if there was any remaining evidence of the trail (but never did.) Several times, in other places in the west, I have seen the old wagon wheel ruts still etched in the dirt from the groups of explorers and pioneers. It is hard to believe these tracks still exist today and I wonder when these remains will completely disappear. My lifetime? I also wonder what those hardy settlers might have thought if they stumbled on the running water, flush toilets and hot showers here now.



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