Trans America Part VI -- Back to the West

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Continued from Part V - Texas.

Of all the natural wonders I have visited, few were as exotic and otherworldly as the White Sand National Monument in New Mexico. Here I was, standing in a glittering snow-white world, with white waves, white dunes, and white mountains, all decorated by fine rippling textures sculpted by the wind. If the snowy scenery was vaguely reminiscent of a Tahoe skiing trip, the atmospheric temperature, which was well above 100F, never failed to remind me of the reality. I was in the middle of a vast scorching desert, a bleached version of the Sahara.

The 275-square-mile white sands desert is the planet’s largest gypsum crystal dune field. It is a world-class rarity because gypsum (calcium sulfate dihydrate or CaSO4.2H2O) is soluble in water and thus seldom accumulate in open space. The White Sands Desert, however, is right at the heart of the Tularosa Basin, where no water outlet leads to the ocean. Hugging the basin are San Andres and Sacramento Mountains, which are rich with layers of gypsum deposit – the remnant of an ancient shallow sea some 250 million years ago. Wind and rain slowly erode and carry the soft gypsum down to the basin, where they accumulate. They dissolve, crystalize, and crumble into fine crystal grains that are the building material of this dreamy world.

I learnt all that from the Visitor’s Center, a tastefully constructed adobe building that resemble a traditional Pueblo Indian dwelling.


As I drove in the park, the surrounding gradually turned pale. Passed Big Dune Nature Trial, even the road was paved with white sands. It has become a completely snowy world. Families were snowboarding on the large dunes on the roadside; I could hear the kids shrieking excitedly.


At the end of the road, I took a deep breath, checked my gears and supplies, and prepared for the ambitious climax, and the scariest part of the trip – I would hike through the most strenuous trail in this forbidding, exotic desert. The Alkali Flat Trail, at the heart of the desert, was a 5-mile round trip hike deep into the white sand dunes and through salt flats.
If the name of the trail suggests a stroll on a flat plain, don’t be misled. The bulk of the trail was up and down huge undulating sand dunes (typically about 60-ft tall), with no shade, little vegetation, and minimal trail markers – it was lined by sparse soft red poles that at times collapsed and buried by sand. Because the gypsum grains were more reflective than normal sand (a bit like snow), the blazing sun would attack from all angles. In a blistering summer afternoon with temperature above 100-degree F, the heat could take its toll in a long hike. Just one year ago (August, 2015), a French couple were overcome by the heat, became disoriented, collapsed and died on the trail. They were only about 1.5 miles from the trailhead. Their 9-year old son, fortunately, was rescued because the couple gave him most of their water supplies and the park rangers found him on-time. It was a perilous world out there.


So I proceeded. And my good God, the glittering white sand under my feet was unlike anything I have walked upon. It was powdery and soft like fine sugar; and it was sprightly and capable of creeping into any space within reach. It was not as hot as I have imagined, probably because its high reflectivity bounced back much of the heat. I could probably have walked bare foot on it. However, trekking up and down the dunes was no easy stroll. There was no actual “trail,” but just a series of scanty red markers that defined the route. Sometimes the markers would skip one or two spots, possibly collapsed and buried by the sand, I had to stop and scan for the next marker – believe me, you don’t want to get lost in this disorienting world.


In the first half mile or so of the hike, there was still spotty vegetation; some were even cautiously blooming with small, modest blossoms. Some shrubby plants, notably sumac, would grab onto the sand even when the dunes drifted downwind, forming interesting crowned sand pestles. From time to time I would startle a ghostly white lizard (Bleached earless lizard, Holbrookia maculata ruthveni), who scurried around me like a spirit of the desert. As it retreated to a safe distance and examined me, it lifted its slender toes up to minimize the contact area with the scorching ground. It was all wonderful.


Soon, the landscape was completely devoid of vegetation, and the scenery was reduced to only an abstraction of blue and white. It was surreal; and there seemed to be no end to it. At first climbing up and down the glittering dune embellished with exquisite ripple textures was kind of interesting and inspiring, except I had to stop once a while to pour sands out of my shoes. But after a couple hours, the glitter gradually turned into brutal glare from all directions, and the unrelenting heat began to seep into my mind. I gave up cleaning my shoes as my feet grew numb and couldn’t even feel the sands in the shoes. I was completely soaked in sweat and grease, presumably like a piece of sizzling steak sitting on the grill. After I plodded and dragged myself up a huge dune with a sigh of relief, what greeted me was the impossible sight of more dunes appearing right ahead of me, and there would be still more ahead of those dunes. It was simply dispiriting, and it went on and on, until I lost track of how far I have gone. What if I collapse right here? At some point that alarming thought suddenly popped into my mind, when the pressure inside my skull built up. I immediately checked my water bottle. Thank God, it was still half filled. So I trudged on, vaguely driven by a dogged belief that eventually, the trail would end.


I didn’t know how long I’ve trekked through, but surely the undulating dunes finally dissipated, and I stepped onto solid ground, a huge salt flat no less. This was the bottom of the basin that created the gypsum world, the remnant of an ancient Lake. In rainy season, dissolved gypsum would gather here into shallow pools, which eventually dry out and leave gypsum in crystalline form called selenite. The crystal was averagely 3-feet deep, as I learned from the visitor’s center. In a distance were a few buildings of the White Sand Missile Base, a site that developed at the end of WWII. The American version of the famed V-2 rocket was first tested here.


After surviving the Alkali Flat Trail, the rest of the park seemed unimpressive. I managed to walk through a couple boardwalks that introduced the vegetation and wildlife in the park, and decided I had enough white sand for one day.


I spent the night in La Cruces, NM, where I found a good Mexican restaurant and indulged myself with another hearty serving of Rico Menudo. Menudo is a dish that takes long hours to prepare. That’s probably why I could no longer find it in California, where Mexican restaurants were assimilated by the American fast-food culture. Everything has to be ready NOW for the short lunch break; nobody has the time to boil the beef stripes for hours anymore (to remove its unpleasant odor).


The next morning, I continued west towards Tucson, AZ. Interstate 10 shot straight through the flat desert landscape, which offered few distractions. Occasionally I would race pass a freight train that ran parallel to the freeway, or spotted a sign celebrating the centennial of the state of Arizona. I never realized before that Arizona was the last of the lower 48 states to be admitted to the Union in 1912. Much of the land was won or acquired after the Mexican-American War ended in 1848, when Arizona was still a dusty piece of hinterland.


Not anymore, as evidenced by the neat and tidy street scenes of downtown Tucson. Tucson was a mid-size city with the air of a college town (home of University of Arizona). Just 60 miles north of the Mexican border, it was also a hot spot for good Mexican food.


But what I really came here for, was the giant saguaro cactus forests in the Sonoran Desert. The saguaro is a tree-like cactus that’s found only in the Sonoran Desert. It was so impressive that a Saguaro National Park was dedicated to it here in Tucson in 1994. The city split the park into two pieces, one in the Tucson Mountains in the west, the other in the Rincon Mountains in the east. After lunch, I first drove west up the Tucson mountain, and made my first stop in the renowned Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum at the southern edge of the National Park.

The desert museum, though named a museum, was much more than that. At 98 acres, it contained not only a variety of well-curated in-door natural history and art displays, but was also a zoo and an arboretum. In fact, most of its exhibits were outdoor, in the desert heat.


I went through arguably the most comprehensive and riveting collection of local minerals and fossil.


And an impressive flock of reptiles, some kept in cages, and others roaming free. Apparently, there were quite a few species of the rattlesnakes in the desert, all looked wicked with their menacing little slit pupils.


There’s a natural cave next to the museum, with interesting formations such as stalactites and cave pearls and all. But it was all dried up now.


This was also a zoo. The aquatic mammal was a beaver (1st 2 pix), and the pig-like beast was Javelin (3rd pic). Its reputation: looked like a pig, smelled like a skunk.


I particularly liked this aviary, where you can sit right next to a resting humming bird. I’ve never been able to approach this shy and elusive creature so closely before.


But the most impressive exhibit of all, was a panoramic view of the boundless saguaro forest on the Tucson Mountains. From a distance, the imposing giants looked like a bunch of match sticks decorating the hill tops -- that was the habitat and life source of all the wildlife I just met.


Saguaro, or Carnegiea gigantea, is an extraordinary tree-like cactus that can reach 40 feet / 12 meters in height, giving it a regal statue in the Sonoran Desert. Nothing is more emblematic of the Southwest desert than a towering saguaro silhouette with uplifting arms in front of at a bloody sunset. But growing a pinhead-size seed into such a giant is incredibly time-consuming work. In such an arid environment, it takes about 10 years for the cactus to reach 3 inch, 35 years to match a human at 6 feet, and 75-100 years before it decides whether to branch out and grow a limb. Its lifespan can easily exceed 150 years.


There were more than just giants, but also a wide variety of cactus of different sizes and shapes. Some were blooming splendidly now.


After the museum, I drove directly up to the Tucson Mountain, into the western district of Saguaro National Park, where I could hike into the saguaro forest for an up close and personal encounter. The majestic pillars above me were not just giants that dominated the skyline, but also guardians of the desert. They were home of birds, bats, bees, and other creatures, which live in the cavities in the stems, or nests on the arms.


I spotted a few cavities and a Gila Woodpecker (Melanerpes uropygialis, first 2 pix) skipping about, but unfortunately didn’t chance upon a classic image of an owl looking out curiously from the burrow in a saguaro.


Up on the Tucson Mountains, overlooking millions of saguaros sticking up over a boundless desert plain, I was simply speechless. It’s a spectacular sight you won’t find anywhere else on this planet, as saguaro are found only on a very limited range in North America.


The sun began to set, and these were the proverbial postcard photos of the Arizona desert.


And some even more poetic ones as the moon rose.


One merit of a fine college town was, you can often find cultural sophistication that exceeds its size. Case in point, I spotted an Ethiopian restaurant near my hotel on my way back. Without any hesitation, I decided to give it a try. It was amusing to watch the chef prepare my meal by pouring flour batter onto a heated flat metal plate, until it was puffed into a soft, thin piece of flatbread the size of a steering wheel. It was a bit like crepe, I thought. The dish was served with fish stew and mashed vegetables on top of the flatbread. I served myself by tearing a piece of the bread and wrapping the stew inside. The bread was some sort of chewy sourdough; while savory, the stew was far spicier than I anticipated.


The next morning, I drove east up the Rinco Mountains to the eastern district of Saguaro National Park. The Rinco Mountains occupied a considerably higher ground than the Tucson Mountains (2,641 vs. 1,429 feet at the high points), and thus enjoyed a cooler, wetter, and more vegetated environment. The saguaros, still eminent, were foiled by a carpet of lush low-growing shrubs.


The visitor’s center offered not only an interesting and instructive exhibit of the desert environment, but also the best desert view of any visitor’s center I’ve ever visited, right outside the window.


I continued westward along Interstate 10. The next stop was Phoenix, which was just a couple hours’ drive away. I debated if I should wait till Phoenix to have a late lunch, but decided against it. I’ve passed by Phoenix multiple times before, and was totally unimpressed by its culinary scene. It didn’t seem to be any better now, as the “Top 50 Restaurants in AZ” gave only 12 spots for Phoenix, a pitiful performance considering the area contained some 61% of Arizona’s population. I supposed it was not worth the wait, so I swerved towards a McDonalds’ instead.

The same cannot be said about the funky Hole-in-the-Rock formation in Papago Park east of Phoenix though. I stopped by that rounded hill of red sandstone before entering the city. Some 6-15 million years ago, hydraulic erosion hollowed out a large chamber inside the rock, with two sizable holes in the back.


Through a moderate trail, I hiked up the hill, and climbed through the lower hole into the chamber. From the front “windows” I could have an amusing panoramic view of the city of Phoenix, from inside a rock. This would make a perfect mansion, I thought, if I was the chief of the local Indian tribe a few centuries ago.


I drove into Phoenix, and stopped by the Arizona State Capitol Mall in downtown, which was a worthy side trip for a couple hours. It was a large open space filled with memorabilia, statue, and monument.


But the center of attention of course was the old State Capitol building, although it wasn’t all that old (completed in 1900). Built with slabs of beige malapai rocks and granites and sealed with a dark-colored copper dome, it was not fancy but every bit of it exerted gravitas. I decided that it was likable. Today it no longer housed the state government, but has been converted into the Arizona Historic Museum, to which I strolled in for a look.


The interior was much like the outside, (relatively) plain, solemn, even elegant.


The history of Arizona, which was fitted in one exhibition hall, only traced back to mid-19th century (when it was confiscated from Mexico) and was relative straight forward. No revolutions, no rebellions, and (almost) no bloodshed. It was such a barren land, nobody wanted it except the Apache and a few headstrong homesteaders that were reckless enough to confront the Apache. If it wasn’t the discovery of the copper and silver mines that brought moderate wealth, it might have taken longer for Arizona to gain statehood, if ever – the original plan was to integrate Arizona into New Mexico.


But to their credits, early Arizona state government were as progressive as their era would allow. They’ve written a state constitution that was so radical (which included provisions that allowed voters to recall all judges and elected officials) that it offended much of the Washington politicians and almost ruined its chance to become a state. The state government maneuvered around it by temporary removing the offending items from the constitution; but after gained statehood, they added them right back within a year. Arizona was also one of the earlier states that granted women suffrage. It was a remarkable thing for an under-developed backcountry to adopt such a progressive stance. You certainly won’t see that in the deep south.


Determined not to have dinner in Phoenix, I continued westward along Interstate 10. The next sizable town that likely to offer a reasonable meal was Palm Springs, CA. It was dark when I entered the town, through streets lined of very tall palm trees on both sides. Sure enough, I was able to find a hearty dish of steaks and a steaming bowl of French onion soup near my hotel.


Palm Springs was a curious resort town at the western edge of the Sonoran Desert. A valley with shades and hot springs, it attracted celebrities from the nearby Los Angeles in the early 1900s, and quickly became a fashionable getaway spot. In the 1930s, you could spend all day fishing movie stars out of the swimming pool of the El Mirador Hotel during the winter months. But nowadays, the town seemed to cater more to celebrity worshippers and ordinary folks, with a replica Walk of Stars, pretentious restaurants, and a huge outlet mall.

I knew how low Palm Springs has sunken when I entered the town, and was slammed by a huge billboard that said “Make America Great!”, erected “By Rocky, a Legal Immigrant to the USA” and the owner of the “Rocky’s Pawn Shop.” Consider California being one of the bluest states, and half of the population in Southern California being Hispanic (and presumably so were many of the Rocky’s patrons), wouldn’t the liberals would find the apparent anti-illegal immigrant sign somewhat offending? Since when Palm Springs has been infected with such conservative vibe of a deep red zone, was a question that worth pondering upon.


Anyway, my interest in movie stars and local political scene was limited, but there was something here I certainly wouldn’t miss: the world’s largest rotating cable car up to San Jacinto Mountains. I drove up to the bottom of the Coachella Valley the next morning, and hop onto one of the pumpkin-shaped cars. The aerial tramway, about 2,600 feet in length, took over 12 minutes from the bottom of the valley up to the top of San Jacinto Peak (10,834 ft. / 3,302m). If I was to hike on foot instead, I was told, it would take several hours up the hill, an obviously unwise choice given the scorching sun and the barren mountains out there. Along the way, the car thoughtfully rotated constantly to give everyone a 360-degree view of the rocky surroundings, which was kind of neat.


The top of the San Jacinto Peak was considerably cooler and far more pleasant than the desert down there. An observation deck on the edge of a cliff offered a stark panoramic view of the canyon that cradled the desert town. The bare and dusty landscape below was the perfect contrast to make the hilltop feel like heaven. Despite its vicinity to the smog capital known as Los Angeles, the visibility can still be as far as 175 miles in a good day.

Occupying the mountain top was Mt. San Jacinto State Park, an excellent spot for hiking and bird watching. The weather was balmy and the park was comfortably wooded along the trails – it doesn’t get much better than this.


I lingered for quite a while, until I reminded myself that I had to hit the road again, to have lunch in Los Angeles. I hurried down the hill, and drove pass the San Gorgonio Pass Wind Farm as I exiting the Coachella Valley. California has been the national leader in wind power industry in the past decades. In 2017, wind energy provided 6.8% of the total electricity in the state (that was the power for some 2 million households), and 31% of the total renewable energy output. It was a big deal.


I had a bowl of zesty Japanese noodle at the fringes of Los Angeles, and entered the La La Land. I was not particularly fond of the town, on account of its perpetual smoggy sky, dissolute culture, and manic drivers. However, I was obligated to stay overnight because among the 17.8 million souls that trapped inside this bowl of smog, two of them were my parents.


The next morning, I pressed on to Interstate 5 North. It was such a familiar routine that I could practically find my way home with my eyes closed. As usual, I stopped at Kettleman City in the Central Valley for gas, where the locals thoughtfully fabricated a fake frontier town called “Bravoland” to sell local produces and crappy souvenirs. Along the mind-numbing drive along the bleak and desolate Interstate 5, this was one of the few distractions that provided more than just a pit stop.


I was approaching Northern California now, but an inner voice from my wilder side declared that I wasn’t quite ready to go home yet. Com’on, it was still early, I still got energy to spare, and there’s still a couple more days of vacation time left... What’s the problem?  

While still in cruise control mode with a wanderer’s mindset, I impulsively veered off the interstate, exited west towards Pinnacles National Park, the youngest national park in the country. It was practically in my back yard, but I still haven’t found a chance to visit it till now.

Pinnacles National Park was the remnant of a series of volcanic eruptions some 23 million years ago. Over eons, erosion and the movement of the San Andreas Fault created this rugged land of bizarre rock formations. It’s not a park you can drive through and park at vista points without shutting off the air conditioner. There was no connected road between the east and west entrances, only foot paths. You can only HIKE into the park.

From the eastern entrance, I was greeted by a towering pile of rock on the Bear Gulch Cave Trail. It was such a scorching day, the rocks seemed to be radiating heat waves from all directions. Even the squirrels were lying motionlessly in the shade, panting like a dog.


But then the trail led me through creases and crannies between huge boulders that only a thin person should squeeze through, and the air cooled down considerably. Further on the narrowing path led me down to the pitch-dark Balconies Cave, where I could hear stream of water whispering below. I was glad that I did my homework, and produced a flash light to guide my way through the cave.


My flash light rested on a frog on the creek flowing next to the trail. But it didn’t seem to mind at all.


I fumbled my way in the dark up a stair, and found light in the front. The cave was broadened into a naturally formed chamber by piling many huge boulders on top of each other, with rays of sunlight leaking down from the crevices between. It was like the interior of an ant’s nest. Along the trail uphill there were more of the same architectural style, with rock walls and huge boulders piling up on each other. It must be a heaven for rock climbers. Some time I would see a boulder the size of a house stuck between two stone walls, hanging dangerously above me. The sight certainly hastened up my footsteps.


The trail ended on Bear Gulch Reservoir, a turquoise-colored pool of rainwater from the Santa Cruz Mountain. A sturdy rock dam, blending well with its surrounding, kept the water from pouring into the gorge below. The reservoir was indeed the water supply for the 55,500 people down the hill in the town of Atherton.


Panoramic view from the hilltop.


The trail on the west side down the hill was much steeper, narrower, and more thrilling. The boulders were barren and decorated with colorful lichens.


Part of the High Peaks Trail was so steep and primitive that there were just a few dents on an almost vertical rock wall with a steel-pipe handrail on the side. Under the scorching sun, I could almost see the wavy hot air rising on the handrail. I bet the rail would probably roast my hand medium rare if I hold on to it a few seconds longer.


Back under the tree line, I was greeted by a group of quails, the state bird of California. Didn’t they know it was late in the day, and I was getting hungry for dinner?


Well, this trip, however long, must end. So, after 23 days, 7,822.3 miles, 20 states and 8 national parks, I was finally driving through the golden rolling hills of dry grass in Northern California, heading home. Laying back low on the driver’s seat, I was immersed in a kind of quiet regurgitative mood. In a little over three weeks (which felt like a lifetime), I’ve pretty much swept through the lower half of the continent – the West, the Central, and the South. I’ve savored the most glorious of landscapes on the planet – expansive Salt Lake, endless cobweb of underground caves, smoky mountain tops, and snow-white desert. I’ve had a haste but thorough taste of the cultural diversity of this vast continent – frontier art, home-brewed religion, hillbilly music, Dixie cuisine, and the carefree Cajun life attitude – “Laissez les bon temps rouler.” I’ve passed through cities and towns and villages, antique and modern, sacred and secular, red and blue, all full of stories. I’ve survived a scary breakdown, a deadly desert hike, and country music radio. I’ve tried my best to understand and reconcile with the simpler folks at the other end of the political spectrum. I couldn’t possibly hope for a better trip.


As for the conclusion, I’m afraid the continent I saw today has moved on, far away from the post-war confusion of the 1940s (as in On the Road) and the irritation of materialism during the rapid growth in the late 1980s (as in The Lost Continent). Those good old days, distant and laughable as they were, radiated a certain wholesome spirit and unyielding optimism. People never lost faith in their quest, be it for the meaning of life, a revelation, or an ideal American small town. What I traveled through today, however, was a bitterly divided country that cried out “American carnage.” Sure, we have internet, social media, wider freeways, faster cars, and cheaper flights, but it seems like we’re more disconnected than ever, politically, socially, and racially (since the Civil Rights Movement). I was glad that by passing through the bulk of the country’s reddest rural areas, I was able to view the scenery from the other side of the table, so to speak. All I can say is, I don’t believe that the problems lied on the American people. I want to be optimistic again, believing that conflict is inevitable in a free society (though intentionally exaggerating it is not), that our democracy is sufficiently resilient, that our political system has an adequate self-correcting mechanism. Someday, I’m sure, that this would also become the distant and laughable good old days, when we’ve survived a curious misstep but shook it off like a bad joke.  

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