Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

Journey Through the West – August 2016 – Part 3

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Journey Through the West – August 2016 – Part 3

I have been a dinophile since I was small. In the 1950’s, I had a collection of the first hard plastic dinosaur toys ever produced. So going to Dinosaur National Monument on our way to Crestone was high on my list. I didn’t know then that this Park played an essential role in my childhood interest in dinosaurs.

On our way, we took a little detour and stopped to check out the unique Homestead Crater Hot Springs, hoping to squeeze in a soak and add a new location to our hot springs life list.

The Crater is at the heart of a resort in Midway, Utah. It’s a natural geological feature formed by the hot springs themselves. The mineral laden steam gradually, over thousands of years, has created a travertine dome, 55 feet high and 400 feet across at the base. There are exterior stairs leading to the top of the outer dome where you can view the entire valley and peer down the top opening and see the bathers below. A 110 foot tunnel was drilled through the dome in the 1990s, allowing the hot springs to become accessible to everyone; before that, you had to rappel from the hole on top. The pool inside is 65 feet deep and about 95°.

The number of people allowed in the pool at one time is strictly controlled. The fee covers only 45-55 minutes at a time in the warm waters. Wearing life jackets was required. I begrudgingly donned the raggedy, slightly soiled jacket, quietly grumbling about this ridiculous rule. But after a few minutes in the water I actually like having it on, the extra buoyancy made floating completely effortless. I was a carefree gently bobbing cork on the surface.

We doggy paddled slowly in the silky, soothing deep blue waters, the whole scene dimly lit by filtered light from the small opening above and a few added spotlights. Most of the people there were young Russians. Their whispered incomprehensible conversations adding to the muffled sound of gently splashing water, all of it echoing off the rough, cavernous walls dripping with steam. Not only do people snorkel and scuba dive here, the resort offers yoga classes atop paddle boards. If you fall out of your tree pose, you just tumble into the warm, comforting waters.

If you saw the movie 127 Hours, you saw the Homestead Crater. It’s in the scene where James Franco shows two young woman how to jump into a subterranean pool after sliding through a thin crack in the red rock. The Crater is, in reality, no where near that supposed location and it is most definitely not hidden in a remote slot canyon. Hollywood fools us again.

We drove into Dinosaur National Monument campground after dark. The next morning we changed sites to be closer to the Green River which skirts the campground. There were numerous warnings posted about swimming in the river due to strong currents (although it was not prohibited). Generations of campers had rearranged river rocks to create little jetties that made pools of slower water. The river became a delightful, enlivening refuge from the desert heat.

In front of the Visitor’s Center was a life-sized stegosaurus surrounded by a low fence, looking like a cow in a petting zoo. The gift shop was a dinophile’s dream, displaying dinosaur-related paraphernalia in all possible media, including a table piled high with hard plastic dinosaur toys, very much like my childhood set except more colorful. I was tempted to buy a few.

We boarded the shuttle bus for the newly renovated Quarry Exhibit Hall, a short drive up a winding road. When you enter the building you face a nearly vertical rock wall, 150” long, chaotically scattered with over 1500 skeletal remains. They appeared tossed there like a giant game of pick-up sticks. Allosaurus, Stegosaurus, Camarasaurus, Diplodicus. Seeing this wall of fossils must bring out the paleontologist-wannabe in everybody. There were spots where you could lovingly stroke a 150 million year old bone. I felt saddened by their demise.

Rather than take the shuttle back to the Visitor’s Center we chose instead to hike down a 1.5 mile trail. It was mid-day and very hot. Not surprisingly, we found ourselves alone on the trail. We spotted a few fossils along the way barely emerging from rocks, left in place by scientists to give visitors a sense of what the first paleontologists may have seen. It wasn’t hard to imagine the thrill of discovering these remains.

The connection to my childhood? The person who discovered and unearthed these dinosaurs was Earl Douglass. He was a paleontologist at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, PA. In the summer of 1909, searching for fossils for the museum in Utah, Douglass found eight dinosaur tailbones protruding from a sandstone hill in what is now the National Monument. This discovery was the beginning of one of the most productive Jurassic era quarries ever found. The great wall in the exhibit hall is what is left of it.

The excavated remains – more than 700,000 tons of material – were shipped by train to Pittsburgh. By 1915 the Carnegie Museum exhibited a completely reconstructed  Apatosaurus in their new Dinosaur Hall, one of the first, best and largest collections of dinosaurs in the world.

Growing up in Pittsburgh with grandparents who lived close to Carnegie Museum, I visited these exhibits frequently.  I was mesmerized, fascinated, enchanted by the towering skeletons that filled the huge marble rooms. Real monsters! Thus began my love of dinosaurs. I can still recall the pleasant musty smell, the echoing sounds of murmuring awed voices and the clacking of footsteps on pale gray stone.

Dinosaur National Monument is also known for its many petroglyphs created by the Fremont people about 1,000 years ago. Chris and I drove to several spots and hiked short distances to see them up close. I enjoy standing in the spot where someone long, long ago picked up a stone and began to draw, expressing something – although mysterious to us – about their life. One of the more unusual, rare petroglyph includes several sizable lizards, the largest almost six feet long. It seems more than coincidence that these people lived in an area along side the remains of “giant lizards.”

In 1994, a Buddhist monk in remote Thailand, unfamiliar with dinosaurs, dug up some T-Rex bones after he had visions in meditation of a huge creature that was “bigger than a elephant with a long neck.” Its location was revealed in a dream. (The monastery now has toy dinosaurs on their altar.) Maybe the ancient spirit of the local dinosaurs entered the dream world of the Fremont people who lived here.

We also visited the homestead of Josie Bassett Morris, a true character and independent woman of the wild west. After five marriages, four divorces and several children, in her 40’s she moved to a nearby canyon and homesteaded alone, building her own cabin (which is still there) and raising her own food and livestock. During the prohibition era, she was known for her apricot brandy and chokecherry wine. She died at 89 in 1964. It was a beautiful spot, quiet and green, with a gurgling spring.

Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission. Prints are available for purchase for some photographs. If you are interested, contact Carla at: You can also find Carla’s photographs, paintings and jewelry on her Etsy site (Stones and Bones):

This gallery contains 54 photos

Journey Through the West – August 2016 – Part 2

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Journey Through the West – August 2016 – Part 2

Our next destination was the Great Salt Lake; neither Chris nor I had been there. Decades earlier I read Terry Tempest William’s essays about that area’s human and natural history. Although I don’t recall specific details from her writing, I have retained an evocative impression of that special environment. I imagined that the high desert landscape along side the super saline waters might create unique light, color, pattern, atmosphere. What plants and creatures are attracted to such an extreme place?

As we crossed the wide white plains of Utah – the salty remnant of the ancient Lake Bonneville – we noticed a line of vacation vehicles turning off the highway. They drove in droves toward a mass of RVs, trailers and tents parked on the white featureless expanse. What’s going on here?

Then we saw the sign, “Bonneville Salt Flats,” the well-known public lands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management that include the “Bonneville Speedway,” a stretch of salty ground where land speed records are set. The fastest record so far was in 2012 at 439 mph.

“Let’s check it out!” We agreed.

The air was oven hot, the sun blazing, and the ground seemed to sizzle. Mirages shimmered on the highway and the horizon. Following the long slow line of cars we eventually came to an entrance booth and discovered that it was opening day for the Southern California Timing Association’s (usually annual) “Bonneville Speed Week.” People come to race each other in all manner of contraptions in hopes of becoming a world record holder. Many show up just to watch those obsessed with spinning wheels, powerful engines and, of course, speed. Everyone was there to party. There are races for just about every kind of vehicle:  hot rods, roadsters, belly tankers, lakesters, motorcycles, streamliners, and even diesel trucks.

It had been several years since the last SCTA event because of the thinning of the salt layer. Many blame the shrinking salt fields on a nearby potash mining operation, which siphons the brine from underground aquifers. Recently, several groups have worked closely with the Bureau of Land Management and mine owners to pump brine back into the flats and it seems to be working.

Chris would have stayed to investigate this strange new world if we didn’t have a deadline to meet in Colorado. This scene, as you might imagine, was not my thing. But I might have remained a day or two just to witness this previously unknown part of American culture.

We continued toward Antelope Island within the Great Salt Lake, a state park connected to the mainland by a seven-mile causeway. Despite its proximity to the megalopolis of Salt Lake City, it seemed wild and remote. Our campsite looked out across the lake to other islands and nearby mountains ranges. We arrived in the early evening hungry and tired, but went without rest and food to walk to the water’s edge before nightfall.

The distinctive, enchanting light of this place did not disappoint. Waterfowl covered the still waters, gathering to consume the plentiful bugs that covered both ground and lake surface. With each step we took, the hordes of small flies fanned out in a dark circular wave. The deep hum of a thousand wings beats followed their movement.

We spent two days there. The island supports a large bison herd, as well as pronghorns and big-horned sheep. Chukars regularly patrolled the campground, clucking and pecking the ground like chickens. These grouse family birds were introduced from Eurasia and have taken to the American West like pigs in s**t.  Possibly there is some irony in the fact that the chukar is the national bird of Iraq and Pakistan. Small trees had been planted at each campsite for future shade but probably not in my lifetime. Still, these trees created safe refuge for the flittering songbirds and hummers to alight. Many of the small birds were hard to identify but I sighted my first loggerhead shrike. Its song is reminiscent of a mockingbird, random notes and short melodies. Western sunflowers bloomed everywhere and most were home to large decorative orb weaver spiders as well as grasshoppers and other insects.

Since childhood I’ve wanted to float in the super-buoyancy of the lake’s briny waters. In William’s book Refuge, the natural environment of the Great Salt Lake was threatened by high waters. Today the water level is severely dwindling; the lake is nearly half the size it should be. One primary reason is the diversion of the water sources that normally feed the lake. It is now a long walk to water’s edge where once the lake came close to campgrounds and parking areas. When the lake edge is finally reached, it is shallow and mucky, sometimes fetid. I did not swim.

“Everything about the Great Salt Lake is exaggerated – the heat, the cold, the salt, and the brine. It is a landscape so surreal one can never know what it is for certain.”
– Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge

Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission. Prints are available for purchase for some photographs. If you are interested, contact Carla at:

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Journey Through the West – August 2016 Part 1

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Journey Through the West – August 2016
Part 1

Our ultimate destination was Crestone, CO, where I was scheduled to attend a retreat. We gave ourselves a week to get there, a week to stay, and a week to return home. This would be our longest trip in the NEW IMPROVED remodeled camper. It features more head room, new windows, greater counter space, a small table and a padded bench.

We spent our first night at the summer residence of an old friend of Chris’s in the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Sattley California. Her home doubles as a retreat center and I wanted to see it if it might be a suitable location to host a nature-based meditation retreat in 2017 for Bloom of the Present. A lovely place, with green lawn, a small pond, an indoor swimming pool and hot tub, space for group meeting, a modern attractive kitchen. Yes, definitely a good possibility!

During the ride back to Truckee the next day we passed mountain forests interspersed with cattle ranches. In one grassy field I noticed, to my surprise, that instead of livestock, there were numerous large dark birds with long downward curved beaks. I immediately recognized these to be ibises. But I had only previously seen them along the Atlantic and Gulf Coast as wading birds. What were they doing in these high – 6,000+ feet – dry mountains of California? They were actively poking the ground for food, insects I assume.

I insisted that Chris stop and back up. Hurriedly grabbing my DSLR camera I jumped out of the truck. I had the wrong lens. I fished out my smaller bridge camera but I couldn’t make it work. Flustered, I exchanged my wide angle lens for a telephoto on my first camera. But by then the birds had begun to disperse and only a few remained at an inconvenient distance. A mile down the road, we passed another dense flock of these white-faced ibises, as they greedily hunted food in a muddy pasture. I now regret not stopping for another photo shoot.

After dillydallying in Truckee (something we are very good at) – Starbucks, Internet, thrift shop, lunch – we finally headed east on Route 80 toward Nevada. I had picked out Angel Lake near Wells, NV as a possible destination but it was clear we wouldn’t get that far with our late start. So I chose Water Canyon Recreation Area near Winnemucca as a reasonable alternative. Campsites were free and many were shaded by large trees that grew from the damp soil of the small creek that cut through the desert canyon.

That night was the peak of the annual August Perseid meteor shower so I got the idea to try my hand at some astrophotography. I knew the basic principles but I did not have the ultra wide angle lens that is suggested. There were a few other obstacles, too. We were closed in a canyon and the moon was half full, brightening the sky. There was also an ambient glow from the town of Winnemucca. We witnessed plenty of shooting stars with our naked eyes, but they seemed to avoid falling whenever I released the shutter. I caught a few faint trails but nothing of much interest. Standing in the quiet warm dark air with camera and tripod I became inspired to play with “light painting,” shining my flashlight on trees, shrubs and hillside to create a mysterious luminous effect. Chris got into the act and I photograph him drawing lines and patterns with his red flashlight. (See below.)

We stayed there another night, in part to recover from the overwhelming multi-day effort it had taken to complete everything to get on the road in the first place. I was pretty tired and spent much of the day in my hammock, rising occasionally to wander and see what appeared nearby. Grand views and dramatic sights are great but I am often more intrigued by small intimate discoveries close at hand. I watched the reflection of leaf light in the small stream and the dance of the water striders on the green surface. They are sometimes called Jesus bugs because of their ability to walk on water.

I also witnessed a bird use the top bare branches of the tree above me as a base from which to dart out and snatch insects buzzing by. The species was unfamiliar to me. It was dark with rose red patches on breast and face. It was behaving like a flycatcher but it’s call was all woodpecker. My birding app finally identified it as a Lewis’s Woodpecker, a new bird for me. My lens was inadequate for a close-up but I still took a few photos, capturing it in various gestures of flight.

Please do not reproduce photographs without permission. Prints of some photographs may be available for purchase. If interested, contact Carla at:

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