Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

September 2013 – Wild Willy’s Hot Spring and More . . .

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(The Big Trip is, of course, long over but I am putting in an overdue effort to complete the blogging for this. The last few posts will likely be more pictures than words.)

September 2013 – Wild Willy’s Hot Spring and More . . .

The Mammoth Lakes region in California it is very geologically active with small daily tremors. The earth’s molten core is so close to the surface that it has created numerous hot springs across the valley just east of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. We sought to find them all. Their setting for a good soak could not have been more beautiful.

This gallery contains 23 photos

September 2013 – Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, California

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September 2013 – Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, California

We were on our way to meet some of the oldest beings on earth. From the high pass over the White Mountains into California we turned north into the Inyo National Forest and toward the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, a small sanctuary for these extraordinary trees. There lives Methuselah, originally the oldest recorded non-clonal individual on earth at about 5,000 years. (In 2013 an even older tree was discovered). Methuselah and the other most ancient of the ancients are not labeled as such to help keep them safe from souvenir seekers and vandals.

At 10,000 feet, the air was clear and bright, the trees illuminated against the deep blue skies. This was the end of their short growing season.The trunks are so dense and impenetrable, it is if they are wood and stone at once. Some of the dead logs have rested there for a millennium without decay. We walked on the trail that bypassed several trees over 4,000 years old. The younger Bristlecones look like normal conifers. But as they age over eons they become gnarled, carved and molded, their barren branches turning into claws and hooks reaching out into space. They looked like quirky characters with an interesting past. Some of the trees looked dead and probably were, but many were still alive sporting small green shoots among the naked branches.

The bristlecones have turned some scientific theories on their heads. For example, it was thought that for organisms to be long-lived, they needed ideal conditions. The Bristlecones instead chose the opposite route to longevity. They flourish in a place so remote and harsh that few other life forms can exist there. This means there is little competition for the meager resources.

I am sure they have a story to tell. Having been trained in shamanic views, I do believe their story can be “heard”. But it can only be received in the unique Bristlecone language.

Scientifically, the core samples carry many stories. Using the 5,000 year history recorded in their growth rings, more precise dating of global events has been possible. But I wondered what more subtle teachings they had to offer. Admittedly, the Bristlecones hadn’t traveled much but still they must have witnessed a lot, standing in one place for five millennia.

As I walked the silent trails, the idea of creating the “Bristlecone Club” popped into my mind. This would be a loosely-knit organization devoted to seeing aging as opportunity for spiritual growth. It seemed if there’s one thing the Bristlecones knew, it was how to age. In the Visitor Center were T-shirts that listed the lessons one could glean from a Bristlecone Pine. I borrow this idea and created my own list. I also eventually wrote up a mission statement for the Bristlecone Club. It reads:

As a Bristlecone Club member you are dedicated to getting older with curiosity, wonder, humor and radical acceptance of what may come. You understand that old age is life’s best opportunity to be released from over- identification with body, personality and ideas about self and other. We – The Bristlecones – allow our experiences of aging to be the catalysts for spiritual awakening – for going beyond all ephemeral appearances and into the mysterious groundless ground of being.
The Bristlecone Pine is the symbol and inspiration for our journey. The Bristlecone’s wisdom includes:

• Sink your roots into the earth, lift your arms to the sky and breathe
• You are always growing even if it seems imperceptible
• Live free of competition with others
• Appreciate the unique natural beauty that comes with aging; don’t try to look like a young sprout
• It’s OK to be a little gnarly, rough around the edges, twisted, and bristly
• Live with an expansive view and perspective
• Remain grounded
• Give others lots of space
• Sometimes the most adverse conditions can support growth, life and longevity

Do you want to join?

If there is nothing else impressive about California (and of course there many things), it is being home to the tallest (coastal redwoods), largest (sequoias) and oldest trees (bristlecone pine) on planet Earth. Returning to commune with the Bristlecone Pines is high on my post-Big-Trip travel agenda. The campground nearby in the national forest is also a gathering spot for amateur astronomers because of the clarity and darkness of the vast night sky.

This gallery contains 24 photos

September 2013 – Fish Lake Valley Hot Springs, NV

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September 2013

Continuing our westward movement, we next drove to Ash Springs Hot Springs in Alamo NV near the Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge. We had visited there on our way east the previous fall. The hot springs were lovely, a small county park with a stone block pool and a warm flowing creek bounded by trees and greenery. When we arrived, it was closed within a padlocked fence. At the gas station nearby, the attendant said the hot springs had been closed down indefinitely after a group had vandalized it. Honestly, my reaction was: WTF?!?

Disappointed to go without a soak and much more disappointed in the human race, we went to the wildlife refuge for the night. When we were there in November 2012 we were a few weeks late for the huge fall bird migration. There now in September we were a few weeks early. Even so, there were quite a few birds on the lakes. At night they were most vocal. That evening was dead calm and the squawks, trills, chirps, clucks and quacks of the evening serenade carried across the open waters and woke me from sleep. Numerous times during the night I got up to record the pleasant chatter of this nocturnal bird discourse.

The next day we had an uneventful drive along the Extraterrestrial Highway, not stopping for Area 51 or the Little A’le’Inn. I had located another hot springs near the Nevada-California border, Fish Lake Valley Hot Springs. By early evening the weather had turned menacing, the clouds especially dark and ominous to the north. We pulled over at a rest stop west of Tonopah NV for the night. Later the wild winds intensified, shaking and buffeting the camper. By now we had survive several windstorms and were confident the camper would hold up. Morning was calm and cold; the high mountains encircling the valley had fresh snow. It was first the day of autumn.

We drove through more geologically naked landscapes. I love Nevada for its endless miles of unoccupied starkly desolate mountain ranges and valleys. Eventually, we found Fish Lake down 7 miles of dirt roads, in a wide valley with 9000’ mountains to the west and wildly colored smaller mountains to the east and south.

This hot springs, on public land, was surprisingly nice. A true oasis in the desert. The springs first emptied from a pipe into a cement pool, about 7′ x 5′ and 3’ deep, at 105°. It then streamed into two tepid ponds surrounded by cattails. The springs were home to goldfish, waterfowl and blackbirds. The coots seem to be the permanent residents who begrudgingly tolerated sharing their turf with the transient humans.

The coots had many fuzzy gray chicks and I spent a lot of time watching them defend their territory and feed their babies. Aggressive squabbles between coots were frequent. Parents dove repeatedly to bring lake weed to their young. The chicks were especially noisy, cheeping often. Other wildlife we saw were coyote, jackrabbit, lizards, ravens, and small rodents.

In many ways, this place was idyllic except for two uncontrollable variables, the weather and the human race. Two forces to be reckoned with. The weather mostly cooperated, but the humans, a little less so. A sign threatened that the springs will be closed if vandalism and killing of wildlife continues. The three other campers were quiet and respectful. But in the evening, people came, opened their pick-up truck doors, and played loud music. In the morning there would be beer bottles, cigarette butts and other garbage to clean up.

We met Mark, from San Diego, who was a frequent visitor here. He was friendly and chatty and filled us in on the ins and outs of this place. Mark mentioned that there were a lot of “Apache tears” on the dirt’s surface near where we had set up camp. Apache tears are droplets of obsidian; obsidian is volcanic glass formed from quickly cooled molten lava. Once clued into this, they appeared everywhere and I began collecting them; I fantasized about the jewelry I could make. The tears ranged in size from small peas to plums and when held up to the sun many were transparent gray like smoky quartz, others had red oxide streaks. Other interesting mineral pieces were abundant, but, although I am a rockhound wannabe, I was unfortunately not knowledgeable enough to identify potential treasures from the rough rocks surrounding us.

For the several days we stayed at Fish Lake we soaked and swam, wandered the desert, napped, wrote and read. And decided we would return someday.

This gallery contains 21 photos

Days 353 – 355 Snow Canyon State Park, St. George, Utah

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September 2013

From Bryce Canyon National Park we made a short hop (150 miles) to Snow Canyon State Park in the southwest corner of Utah. This little state park would be the last red rock country we would see. Nearby were mountain biking trails and the town of St. George for Chris to explore. For me, there were acres of desert and unusual stone formations to wander in.

It was hot again: 100+ degrees at midday. Our campsite was tucked away against a tall petrified dune. Small spaces between the cliff face and the dense scrub oaks created outdoor “rooms” for us to retreat in to. My hammock swayed leisurely between two trunks and birds moved through the trees –  scrub jays, warblers, hummingbirds, Gambel’s quail and woodpeckers. Butterflies flitted in the spotty shade. Lizards searched the leaf litter for food.

The multicolored landscape was made of petrified sand dunes, lava flows and cinder cones. Snow Canyon is also home to some seldom seen Southwest species: desert tortoises, gila monsters (with their beautiful beaded backs and poisonous bite), and chuckwallas (a large, stocky iguana–like lizard). Our chances of seeing the lizards were almost nil, but the endangered tortoises were often sighted.

We took the trail in “prime tortoise habitat” and began our search. To our right was a flat desert with shrubs and grasses edged by high red cliffs. To our left was a cement wall and the back yards of new homes in a dense housing development. We could see into living rooms and could hear telephones ringing. No doubt the land the houses stood on had also been prime tortoise habitat. I wondered how many tortoises and other species had lost their homes to make way for more suburbanites.

After hiking for a while without luck, Chris wandered off ahead. He returned and said he’d found “the biggest one of all”. I thought he was joking and that he probably had just found a tortoise-shaped rock. But sure enough, after walking a few yards there stood a tortoise in the middle of the trail. These reptiles resemble their famous cousins – the Galapagos tortoise – but are considerably smaller. Their top shell (carapace) is about 10-15 inches, they weigh between 25-50 pounds and live for 50-80 years.

They are slow moving, with dry wrinkled and scaly skin, a short stumpy tail and long black claws used to dig burrows. The humps and ridges of their reddish carapace echoed the shape and color of the petrified dunes nearby. Their bright eyes had a primeval Jurassic stare. The tortoises watched us closely, not seemingly alarmed, but still wary of our presence. More hiking revealed several more tortoises. They dined on green grasses and produced turtle turds that looked like the damp dark wads of condensed grass that collect on the underside of lawn mowers.

“Silence is my favorite sound.”

Our last full moon of the trip. I remember our first full moon; it fell on the first night of our trip at Mercey Hot Springs in California. I remember that night had a similar quiet, a pervasive, almost palpable, silence. We went for a walk about 9:30 PM. The paved bike path was perfect for hiking in the dark. As it wound through the desert, it was easy to follow without fear of stumbling. I hoped to see a nocturnal animal but none appeared. There was a complete silence except for cricket choruses and an occasional car on a nearby road. A light wind caused a few shrubs to tremble.

One large rock face blocked the moon and we walk a long way in moon shadow. The east facing cliffs glowed brighter and brighter as evening progressed. More details of the landscape were revealed yet everything maintained a mysterious vagueness that suggested hidden things that are eternally secretive and unknowable. Stars sprinkled the sky but the moonlight obliterated most. No Milky Way that night. Chris saw a falling star. He said, “silence is my favorite sound.”

This gallery contains 35 photos

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah – September 2013

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September 2013

Hoodoo –  (also called a tent rock, fairy chimney, and earth pyramid) is a tall, thin spire of rock that protrudes from the bottom of an arid drainage basin or badland. Hoodoos, which may range from (5–150 ft), typically consist of relatively soft rock topped by harder, less easily eroded stone that protects each column from the elements. They generally form within sedimentary rock and volcanic rock formations.”

After our plans to go to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument we’re dashed by washed out roads, we had to create a new itinerary. It was the last few weeks of our Big Trip. Chris was more eager to return home than I was; he had projects to initiate and agenda’s to set in motion. I was still content to roam. Still content to discover more secret corners of the universe. To let life unfold simply day by day. To let the current conditions determine what we did next rather than predetermined plans. I was happy to be unproductive and to be living outside of mainstream expectations.

We headed west on I-70 and eventually pulled over to look at our maps. A plan emerged. We’d go to Mystic Hot Springs in Monroe, Utah for a night or two and then go to Bryce Canyon National Park. Grand Staircase would have to wait for another trip. Although at times I felt disappointed to pass something by, I also felt glad that some areas were left unexplored; glad there would be places left unseen, places quietly waiting for us to return.

I have driven along route 70 in Utah, going both east and west, on many trips. Although some stretches of the highway I recognize, most areas look new and fresh each time. The time of year, the time of day, the cloud cover and weather create whole new landscapes out of the same old views.

Mystic Hot Springs is one of the funkiest private hot springs around. We camped in the muddy campground near a collection of old, rusting buses. They were intended to provide housing but were empty with tattered curtains and dusty interiors. All of the facilities are cluttered and needed work. The owner showed us his fleet of old four-wheel-drive Previa Toyota vans he had outfitted with old beds and well-worn furniture.

The hot springs oozed out of the hillside, forming colorful travertine masses by leaving tiny deposits over hundreds and thousands of years.There were two primary larger pools near the main building but up some dirt trails, were old discolored individual claw foot tubs. Several were being gradually absorbed into the travertine. These were my favorite soaking spots with their views over the valley below.

Bryce Canyon National Park

I’d been to Bryce once before with my family when I was a teenager. It was midday in midsummer. We were there briefly, taking a short hike into the rocks. All I remember is the blistering heat. In my mind’s eye, the hoodoos appeared white, bleached by the blinding light of the sun’s glare. It all seemed oppressive and unpleasant. I hoped that  my second chance to visit some 45 years later would prove better.

I knew the park would be busy since fall is peak season. Capturing one of the remaining campsites, we settled in for several days. Western bluebirds hopped around our camper. Pronghorns grazed at the base of the small hill below and farther out in the green meadow prairie dogs kept watch. We could walk to many trails and I took multiple trips throughout each day to take photographs in the changing light. If you stayed away from the lodge and the visitors center, you could avoid the bus loads of tourists. And if you hiked even a few hundred yards on the trails you left most people behind.

One morning I joined groups of tourists enjoying the early light at Sunrise Point. I heard mostly German and French, some Italian. Seventy percent of visitors to Bryce are foreign nationals, primarily Europeans. The campground host told us about a Frenchman who purchased an old ornate double holster western gun belt with two antique guns. He decided to run around the park and play wild west cowboy, taking out the guns and liberally pointing them at campers. Law enforcement was called in. After a chase through the park, he was apprehended and forced to relinquish his weapons. Only then did they discovered that the guns were inoperable. He was lucky he wasn’t shot.

As the first morning light spread across the valley floor, some stones shown as it lit from within from an unknown source. I was mesmerized by the massive earthen forms glowing like softly lit lamps, glowing with the radiance of giant embers after a campfire. Colors were muted and everything was overtaken by an ethereal luminosity. The phenomena is caused by the horizon level sunlight reflecting from cliffs, columns and the pale dirt. Catching the total effect by camera was not easy. This glowing landscape was unlike anything I’ve ever seen and was alone worth the trip to Bryce.

Although we don’t usually do what all the tourists do, this time we joined them by taking the scenic drive from lookout to lookout. Each stop revealed a new marvelous landscape. The colors rich, at times brilliant. Each column, arch or window seemed more extraordinary than the last. Just by moving a short distance one would see a whole new vista, a new view into another magical realm. The sun played hide and seek in the white clouds and these changes also radically altered the colors and forms in a blink of an eye.

I heard a French tourist say to her partner in English, “I cannot take so much beauty.” I know what she means. The enormity and intensity of the space and the exquisite exotic colors, made it hard to absorb.

The blue of the skies and the green of the trees contrasted with the infinite fiery tones of oranges, reds, purples, and yellows of the earth. Some hoodoos took on lively, even whimsical shapes. But most were massive and architectural as if part of an ancient temple ruin that one might find in Egypt or Afghanistan. They appeared both monumental and delicate.

I took more photos here than any other single spot on our trip. The pictures shared below are but a small taste of the great repast of Bryce photographs I have.

This gallery contains 37 photos