Tag

Road Trip

Browsing

Turning off of Chispa Road’s crisp smooth pavement deep in the heart of West Texas, I veer onto what seems to be an unassuming stretch of dirt road.  “Take a left at the fork in the road about ten miles in,” Fred had told me.  “Unlock and pass through the gate then drive right into the ranch.”  Driving right into an unexpected driving adventure is just what lie ahead of me.

The thirty thousand acre Coal Mine Ranch is a privately owned investment and playground for a group of businessmen who have called the ranch their sanctuary for more than twenty years.  On the rear side of the Sierra Vieja Mountain Range, a world away from the flat grassy desert plains of Highway 90 and thirty miles of rough dirt road winding through steep arroyos from the end of the pavement on Chispa Road, is the Coal Mine Ranch. 

Less than midway, with the pavement far behind me, the only sound I hear is the gravel and rock being churned by my 4×4’s wheels and hitting the underside of the vehicle.  Clank, pop, clackity clack, in an erratic yet rhythmic cadence. 

Lightning fast jackrabbits race by every so often; otherwise, there is no sign of life save for the desert brush,  blooming yuccas along the way and a petrified rattlesnake or two.  I reach for my mobile phone only to see there is no signal.  Immediately, thoughts of the 4×4 breaking down, a flat tire, or more dramatically, a sudden ailment race through my head.   Who would find me?

No one would find me and I had convinced myself of this.  “Keep on going,” I told myself after the first 60° dive into an arroyo and a serious rev of the engine in a low grinding gear to carry me up and out at the other side.  And forward I traveled through several more arroyos with bright clear blue skies above and a piping hot West Texas sun glaring down upon me until I reached a tunnel, twenty feet high and fifty yards deep, blasted from solid rock more than a hundred years ago. 

At last, after a wild hour and a half adventure drive to what felt like the middle of nowhere, I turn the corner to find the Coal Mine Ranch.  What lie behind me is what some would call extreme terrain with civilization somewhere behind that .  Directly ahead of me was a modern ranch house, a feeling of peace and solitude as well as a fantastic time for introspection. 

The ranch lies on the rear side of the Sierra Vieja mountains, a world away from the flat grassy desert plains of High- way 90.  From the end of the pavement on Chispa Road, thirty miles of rough dirt road winding through steep arroyos lead to the Coal Mine Ranch.  This road features its own tunnel, twenty feet high and fifty yards deep, blasted from solid rock by Chinese migrants.  How did they ever find their way deep into the rugged and unforgiving West Texas landscape

Eighty-five-million-year-old fossils of clams, turtle shells, coral, and snails can be found below the sandstone bluffs where once a river delta said to be six hundred miles wide—bigger than the Amazon— fanned out as it approached the sea. Deeply nestled in West Texas, the ranch is about solitude, introspection, and the crackling of the campfire at night.

The rugged West Texas landscape is most definitely the master of the scenario but the adventure is what one gains internally from the experience.

Unexpectedly arising from southern New Mexico’s barren landscape is a natural arrangement of larger-than-life rocks reminiscent of urban high rises.   Formed of hot volcanic ash that solidified nearly thirty-five million years ago, these formations have been carved by the elements into gnomish shapes and fanciful columns that can reach forty feet high.   Only a handful of places in the world have formations like these.  I know all too well they are not easy to climb.  I tried.

Popular with many overnight campers, the “city” is webbed with pathways that I curiously trundle through, feeling dwarfed along the way, until dusk.   It is during the golden hour, when the sun begins to set, that the magic begins.   The sun’s rays bounce from the ancient volcanic rock giving off an exquisitely rich cornucopia of color—sparkling hues of pink, orange, yellow, and purple—that you can only see in these moments.   The “city” comes to life, making this an ideal time to begin clicking the camera’s shutter.

The reason to visit City of Rocks is to escape routine and stress.  Trust me, it will be you and the rocks and no phone signal when you visit.  The landscape is a nice blend of the west’s rugged rock formations and grassy plains.  You’ll be in the desert, tho’ the land is not barren like you see in Arizona or Southern Utah.

I always to see Fred Flinstone as the large rock formations literally remind me of Flinstone’s Bedrock.  Close your eyes and envision for a moment.  You see this, too.  Don’t you?

City of Rocks
LATITUDE
32 ̊35’24” N

LONGITUDE
-107 ̊58’33” W

ELEVATION
5,250 feet (1,600 meters)

AREA
1,230 acres (497.8 hectares)

Flying high above Elephant Butte offers a delightful study in contrasts.   The lake’s stunning cobalt-blue water strikes my eye as if a painter had left masterful strokes on the desert floor below.   Draining into the once mighty Rio Grande, the blue water sends out tendrils in brilliant complex shapes, like veins.   The colors vary splendidly in pastoral shades of green and yellow where water nurtures the conspicuous vegetation clinging to life at its banks.  Have Van Gogh or Monet been here with his artistic touch, I wonder?   The answer is clear, as is the evidence of the importance of the Rio Grande.

Over one hundred million years ago, this area was part of a vast shallow ocean. Once the sea receded, the area was the favorite hunting ground of the Tyrannosaurus Rex dinosaur.  Evidence of the Rex, one of the largest land-dwelling predators of all time, and other dinosaur species have been discovered in area rock formations.  Evidence has also been found at Kilborne Hole, which I wrote about in a previous post.

Although fossils of the Stegomastodon (a primitive relative of today’s elephant) have been discovered near the lake, the area was not named for its former inhabitants, but for an island in the lake—once the core of an ancient volcano—that is shaped like an elephant.  The lake itself formed when a dam was constructed across the Rio Grande in 1916.  Forty miles long, the lake shoulders more than two hundred miles of shoreline.

The flow of  the Rio Grande River through Southern New Mexico and West Texas is controlled at Elephant Butte.  At certain times of the year river water flows like a mighty river and at other times one might wonder if the river has dried up.  

Elephant Butte is yet another example of the beauty you can find if you take the time to explore El Paso and one hundred and twenty miles around.  All of the areas I mention throughout this blog may seem like a massive amount of area to cover.  The truth is, however, each destination is roughly a day trip from El Paso.  

I’m a fairly particular traveler in that I never want to feel as if I’ve wasted my time traveling to a place.  I’ve gone to great extents and expense traveling to some places.  I know the feeling of disappointment.  So, when I highly recommend exploring the Desert Southwest, I do so with confidence.  I do so knowing you’ll be in awe if you follow these trails yourself.

There are fifty shades of green, and none of them are jaded.  Welcome to Ireland!  It’s said that Ireland, once visited, is never forgotten, and for once the blarney delivered treasure to be kept for a lifetime.   The Western Irish landscape has a mythic resonance, the country’s history is almost tangible with ruins standing the test of time and its people seem put on earth expressly to restore faith in humanity as their warmth and humor will make all feel welcome.

My dear friend Daragh and I set out for an adventurous experience second to none along the Connemara Loop which is situated in breathtaking North West Connemara, County Galway, Ireland.   Following the Loop, we were taken on a journey through an ever changing landscape of craggy mountain peaks, spectacular expansive sandy beaches, the wild North Atlantic, mist covered lakes, pre-historic bogs and shady glens.   All exemplify the peaceful solitude and rugged beauty of the West of Ireland.   A landscape peppered with quaint but lively villages where all the convenience of the modern day is available alongside an opportunity to step back in time to a more relaxed and friendly era.  Though the roads are rather narrow for this West Texas driver there was no getting lost although the wandering sheep may be inclined to cause a traffic-jam here and there.   I must admit, too, to closing my eyes the first few times I drove past a tour bus leaving Daragh convinced he would not reach his 40th birthday, which we were there to celebrate.  

One can easily get lost forgetting the trials of the world while rejuvenating the soul and centering the mind in this small area of the universe.   Connemara is an area comprising of a broad peninsula between Killary Harbour and Kilkieran Bay in the west of County Galway or south west Connacht. From the rugged Twelve Bens mountain range in the north through lake-rich Roundstone Bog to the golden beaches reaching out into the Atlantic Ocean, you’ll know you’re in Connemara by the light that constantly changes the mood and tone of the landscape and the incredible reflections on the almost still lakes.  Connemara has long been regarded as the real emerald of Ireland and I must concur this was a feast for this photographer’s eyes.  The natural terrain and unspoiled environment offers a wonderland of sights and experiences.  The people are warm, friendly and extend a hospitality which is the essence of Ireland as were greeted with a smile, a gentle hello on the street or the single finger “Mayo Wave” while driving.  It is difficult to not feel as if you’re right at home in this land far from home.

As William Thackery quoted in 1842: “one of the most wild and beautiful districts these wild mountains over which the clouds as they pass or the sunshine as it comes and goes casts such a variety of tint, light and shadow.”  I would venture to say not much has changed since the time of Thackery’s quote but this traveler appreciates a slower pace where the days still pass quickly though the abundant green Irish landscape whispered in my ear to take a deep breath and let go of the pressures of the city.

Snow white and mysteriously beautiful, New Mexico’s White Sands National Park is the world’s largest gypsum dune field, with huge, wave-like dunes that constantly roll across some 275 square miles of desert in the Tularosa Basin.   These pristine waves affect me more than any other place in this world.   Here I am in awe of the dune’s ever-changing natural beauty.   I like the notion of the blowing wind shifting the sands into different for-mations, as this reflects my own life.   Not much ever remains the same for me over time, and I look forward to change.

White Sands touches deep within my soul, often serving as a healer—a place of solace, if you will.   When life becomes hectic, the pure silence of the dunes provides calm, allowing my mind and spirit to become centered once again.   There are no distractions, and what sometimes appears impossible in other surroundings reveals itself to be the opposite.

This is where I retreated to make some sort of sense of my father’s sudden passing at an all-too-young age, and where, saying goodbye one last time, I was able to let go.   Only me, the dunes, and unfiltered thoughts of a man who worked so hard to give me so much.   Too, after being diagnosed with a virus that will never leave my body, it was the white sands I kicked, pounded, yelled at, then cried over from fear and disappointment.   And it was among the graceful dunes that my partner of twenty-four years and I reconnected, strengthening our relationship well beyond words.

Yes, I’ve spent countless hours hiking White Sands as far as possible, seen more than a million stars overhead, watched the sand illuminate under the full moon, and have had the good fortune to view the area from overhead, hanging out of a small plane.   The dunes of White Sands have a personal hold on me.   I may go in with a heavy heart from time to time, but I always leave knowing I am not running from anything; instead I am running to- ward the day with eyes wide open.   For this, I will be forever grateful.

Gypsum sand is rare, because gypsum is usually dissolved by rain and carried out to sea.   But the deposits of gypsum washed down from the San Andres and Sacramento Mountains that ring the Tularosa Basin are trapped there, for the basin has no outlet to the sea.   When shallow pools left by the rain evaporate, they leave on the surface a layer of gypsum in a crystalline form called selenite, which forms in crystals that can be well over a foot long.   Whipped by constantly blowing winds and exposed to extreme temperature changes, the crystals are eventually pounded into a fine-grained sand that gathers in brilliant white drifts moving across the desert floor. Because the terrain is in constant motion, only a few plants and animals survive here, adapting to the changing conditions in unique ways.

 

Whether I’m hiking or mountain biking, Cloudcroft is my top spot to escape the West Texas Summer heat.  Nestled up in the Sacramento Mountains high above the desert, this is where I enjoy a glorious view of White Sands in the far distance before starting out on my favorite trek—Trestle Trail.  What a sublime scene it is.

The area’s elevation and closely woven pine trees offer immediate relief from the West Texas heat.  As I descend the winding trail, the air cools almost to a chill.  Vegetation becomes denser and more varied, with clusters of vines clinging to any support they can find.   The murmur and trickles of water can be heard as streams make their way to the high canyon floor.  The sights and sounds are calming.  This is beauty in nature at its best.

This trail is not to be rushed, as it is here that nature awakens the senses to its idyllic beauty, its euphonic natural sounds, its savory green and earthy scents.   The treat at the end of Trestle is to lie in the tall wispy grasses at the bot- tom, without a care for anything awaiting outside these mountain walls.   Its as if the world slows; the roller coaster of life comes to a halt, even if for a brief moment in time.

The village of Cloudcroft and its environs lie within Lincoln National Forest, a protected forest in New Mexico that encompasses more than a million acres.   The forest is birthplace of Smokey Bear—known to generations of children as the embodiment of forest fire prevention—the forest was named in honor of Abraham Lincoln.

The name Cloudcroft, which means a pasture for the clouds, suggests the area’s high elevation compared to that of the surrounding Chihuahua Desert.   The town of Cloudcroft was put on the map in 1898, when a railroad crew discovered that the area wasn’t just an accessible source of timber—it was a place that could attract visitors.  If you visit at the weekend, you’ll immediately be met with a throng of other visitors.

In the winter, Cloudcroft offers sports such as cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, and ice skating.   Winter or sum- mer, the area confounds the expectations of those who believe the Southwest is invariably hot and dry.  

Pack your hiking shoes, pull out your walking stick, wheel out your mountain bike or rent a cabin to extend your stay.

A flaming hot desert day— you know, when the proverbial egg can be fried on a rock—is my favorite time to visit Hueco Tanks.  

The Hueco Tanks are regarded the world over as one of the best areas in the world for rock climbing. The formidable rocks, which seem to be arranged by pitch and toss, present an obvious but not daunting challenge. At best, I rank somewhere below amateur status as a rock climber, and might very well be a pro at stumbling, whether it’s up or down.  

I can’t say I’ve ever made it to the highest point here.  The enjoyment for me is in my clueless but ever-so-careful methodology, negotiating from one level of boulders to the next—not to mention the simple pleasure of breathing the immaculate, flushed air.

My improvisational drama comes when reaching an outlook offering an unobstructed view of the idyllic, wide-open space sweeping its way across the rugged desert floor to the Hueco Mountains, miles away.    The fun part of Hueco Tanks is negotiating the often slick (and hot) rocks while also holding my camera in a safe position.  One wrong move and not only do I risk tumbling and crashing, but so does my pricey DSLR.

Over thirty million years ago, an upheaval of molten rock from the earth’s interior created these four-hundred-foot-tall granite hills that seem to spring out of the Chihuahuan Desert floor outside of El Paso.  There is an awesome, heart-expanding grandeur in this place.

Long before climbers discovered Hueco Tanks, Native americans were drawn here because its huecos, a Spanish word for “hollow,” trap and hold drinkable water— the most valuable desert commodity.   Not much more than a century ago, Hueco Tanks held the only dependable source of water between the Pecos River and El Paso.

The Hueco Mountains rise in southern New Mexico and extend twenty-seven miles south into Texas, generally along the El Paso-Hudspeth County line just east of the city of El Paso.   The highest point of the range is the Cerro Alto Mountain (6,787 feet).

Lying between the Hueco and Franklin Mountains, the Hueco Bolson, a dropped- down area four thousand feet above sea level, contains sedimentary fill nearly nine thousand feet thick.

If it is adventure you seek, or you simply want fresh air and an abundance of natural beauty, Hueco Tanks should definitely be added to your travel list.  Far West Texas is far off the beaten path tho’ well worth the effort when you want to get away from it all.

 

Colorado is famous for its 52 fourteen thousand feet mountain peaks but one of its hidden treasures is situated in a river valley at 7,700 ft. in the heart of the Rocky Mountains.  Here lies the spectacular mountain town of Ouray in Southwest Colorado. This small intimate community is nestled in some of the most rugged and towering peaks of the Rockies and is set at the narrow head of a valley and surrounded on three sides with 14,000 feet snowcapped peaks – Ouray has been eloquently nicknamed the “Switzerland of America.”

Ouray officially began in 1876 with the eager stroke of the mining prospector’s pick; however, the future brought with it those simply inspired by its beauty.  Because of Ouray’s majestic peaks, cascading waterfalls, natural hot springs, the famous Million Dollar Highway and its reputation for being the Jeep Capital of the World, modern visitors flock to Ouray as much for its beauty as the miners of the past did for the riches they hoped to find.

The present year-round population of approximately 800 swells considerably in the summer months as thousands of travelers visit this unique valley but the town can not grow much and is only six blocks long and six blocks wide.  It is not uncommon to find a wandering bear or a family of deer crossing Main Street.  Ouray is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream. Whether you set out to conquer the mountains with rope and carbineer, on foot, bike, or four-wheel drive—there’s a route for everyone. There are panoramic vistas, mountain basins with waterfalls and wildflowers gracing each turn.  Autumn is truly an outstanding time of year, with aspen stands and mixed conifer forests exhibiting glorious displays of golden colors and an inspiring winter wonderland waiting to be discovered should one visit then.  At night when the lights meet the formations of ice and snow they join in a shimmering dance of magical light. There are few inhabited places where one can look up to view millions of stars and see the Milky Way so pronounced.  It’s no wonder that this area has been described as the “Gem of the Rockies.”  Remarkably, about two-thirds of Ouray houses original Victorian structures, both private and commercial, and have been lovingly restored in order to preserve their turn-of-the-century charm.

Ouray is the perfect retreat for rest and relaxation. Throw away your cares to experience the area’s outdoor opportunities or stop in one of the many reputable art galleries, shops and restaurants  that line Main Street.   After only a day you’ll find you, too, are a local and will realize this is one place you’ve visited that you won’t want to leave.  Only a nine hour drive from El Paso, this is a vacation you will want to remember for the rest of your life.  Take a step back in time to enjoy the Victorian architecture, friendly mountain people and a peaceful atmosphere that runs on its own time.  Reward yourself – escape to the dramatic and breathtaking beauty of Ouray and transform yourself in this year-round recreational playground.

El Capitan, projecting from Texas’s highest mountain range, watches over me as I wander the barren salt flat at its base.   A pulsating wind whips down from the Guadalupe Mountain range as I survey the area for the ideal spot to set up my camera gear.  Each of my steps disrupts the slightly soft, cracked surface, leaving an unmistakable trail behind.  I stop, making sure my footprints are out of the image frame, when all of a sudden a blast of wind rips off my hat, sending it in a rapid tumble across the dry lake bed.  I lurch for it, my hand grabbed empty air, then I stood still and watched the hat whirl into the dusty West Texas sky and tumble only to disappear into the desert brush half a mile away. 

Strangely, there was an odd delight for me watching this, and I must wonder if El Capitan let out a slight chuckle at nature’s power over me.  Perhaps one day I will venture back in search of the lost hat, though I would be more inclined to search for new ways to capture these scenes in my lens.

The Guadalupe Mountains encompass parts of the most extensive Permian lime- stone fossil reef in the world.  Over two hundred fifty million years ago, a four- hundred-mile-long limestone reef formed along a shelf in the Permian Sea.  These mountains are part of the reef’s remains, shaped by thousands of years of  continuous weathering.

Guadalupe Peak is the highest peak and highest point in Texas, standing at 8,749 feet.  In 1972 the Guadalupe Mountains were designated a national park.

The meandering Salt Flat seen today at the base of the range is what remains of a series of shallow seas that covered much of the area two million years ago.  Sediments washed into the seas from the mountain slopes.  The water evaporated, leaving behind a thick layer of minerals, primarily table salt or gypsum.

I often find myself exploring Salt Flat as I find the landscape fascinating.  The stark white gypsum juxtaposed against the brown Chihuahua Desert is remarkable.  It almost reminds of the person who likes to stand out from the crowd, which by the way, I’m in complete agreement with.   The imposing Guadalupe Mountain range in the background simply epitomizes the popular saying – “Everything is bigger in Texas”.

Throughout West Texas and southern New Mexico, two-lane desert highways stretch to vanishing points on horizons that seem to reach infinity under a limitless dome of sky.  West Texas driving is like this.  It’s this wide open space that gives me a true sense of a spirit of freedom.

Four wheels rotating on the steamy blacktop, moving me forward to what looks like the edge of the earth.  Mile after mile, the landscape steadily zooms by, yet the destination ahead remains motionless, in full view.  Other than a stray tumbleweed rolling across the pavement on a windy day, or a few passing cars racing by, there is only wide-open space feeding the spirit of freedom I so very much adore.  Only in the western United States have I found this, and it is something I look forward to after being confined within urban boundaries and tall buildings of London or Hong Kong.  Often, it is the journey that opens my mind to any possibility, permitting me to truly appreciate the destination.   The drive also allows me nothing but time, which in every day life, is limited.

The Red Rock Ranch in the Beach Mountains, two miles north of Van Horn, is one of the only public tours offered on private land in West Texas.    Some of the rocks on the ranch are more than a billion years old, among the oldest in Texas.

The Pre-Cambrian sandstone outcropping found at Red Rock is one of only four natural Precambrian sandstone exposures in the Western Hemisphere.  Who knew something like this existed in West Texas let alone Van Horn.  And with that, you might even be asking yourself where in the world is Van Horn?   The easy answer is Van Horn is right near Sierra Blanca, which you will not know either.  If you travel Interstate 10, however, you would have no choice except to pass through Van Horn either on your way to or from El Paso.

Back to the fascinating Red Rock Ranch, which is home to Darice McVay.   If we are to believe her, a host of imaginary friends dot the wide expanse landscape.  “Imagination can be as creative as one wishes,” according to ranch owner Darice McVay. “E. T. under a camel’s chin, Donald Duck or Puff the Magic Dragon, an Indian satellite dish and Red Rock Ranch’s very own Easter Island rock” are all rock formations created by wind erosion over millions of years.  If you dive into the stories with Darice, you’ll not only chuckle but also be mesmerized by the natural beauty that will surround you.

Many of these formations are naturally balanced, as if a sculptor has worked magic.   The tour ride through Red Rock Ranch is “nice and easy” and as smooth as a Frank Sinatra ballad.  There is no rush on this fascinating tour.  If you are fond of rugged desert landscapes, you’ll be more than satisfied you took the time for Red Rock Ranch.

Do be aware, however, you have to ask around in order to take the tour.   Van Horn is small enough and the people are friendly enough so you’ll easily be led in the right direction.  Just to give you an idea how friendly Van Horn folks are –
my visit was chronicled in the local newspaper as if I were a celebrity.