Wednesday, December 25, 2013

State parks are fantastic too: Part II.A - California

As much as we enjoyed the state parks of southeastern New Mexico, I can vouch that at least a few parks and reserves in the great state of California are as spectacular, or maybe more so, than any other state parks I've been to. I was fortunate, within a little more than a month of our visit to New Mexico, to join my friend LCB in San Francisco for a spectacular tour down Highway 1 along the Pacific Coast to Los Angeles. The weather was predicted to be cool and drizzly, so we reeled in our expectations. As it turned out, every day of the week was temperate, sunny, and, except for requisite morning fog many days, and a layer of drippy clouds one afternoon in Pasadena, beautifully clear for taking in the views.
Our first state park of the trip was Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, near Santa Cruz. This is a modest woodland as redwood forests go, both in area and number of giant trees, but it is nonetheless a joy to see trees that were sprouts more than 1,500 years ago standing staggeringly straight and tall. The tallest is about 281 x 17 feet (at its base). The park wasn't busy that afternoon, allowing us to walk peacefully along the wide, duff-paved paths.
The area, coolly shaded by the gigantic canopy, has long been a tourist destination. Here, in the detritus of autumnal deciduous trees (particularly the fragrant California bay, Umbellularia Californica) that live trunk-to-trunk with the conifers (in the case of Henry Cowell, Sequoia sempervirens and the ponderosa pine, Pinus ponderosa), we found an early 20th century fire hydrant out-doing the colored leaves. While the hotels and campgrounds are no longer close by, this little guy, with his full history of changing colors revealed, is a reminder that the area has long appealed to tourists. 
Happily, the enclave of old growth is still attracting new generations of redwood-gazers, here taking a doubtless well-earned rest on a convenient redwood bench.
Not far from Henry Cowell, along the Pacific coastline, is Point Lobos State Reserve, set aside because of its historical whaling and fishing legacy as well as its spectacular scenery and abundant marine wildlife. It features this 1851 whalers' cabin, now serving as the Whaling Station Museum. As noted in the brochure, "[i]ts contents represent hundreds of years of occupation of Whalers Cove by indigenous peoples, Chinese fishermen, Japanese abalone fishermen, Portuguese whalers, and others." Its exhibits certainly bring home how phenomenally rich and important the natural resources are along that stretch of ocean.

This is a quiet spot in the Cove below the cabin where moon jellies have drifted into the kelp (Nereocystis leutkeana). We had of course aimed to see sea otters, which make the cove their home, but it was not to be this time.
The drive south from Whalers Cove quickly yields vaster views...
...and typical California wildlife. These are harbor seals (Phoca vitulina richardsi), clearly enjoying the sun on a little outcrop close to shore. Not disturbed by the presence photographers and other polite on-lookers (and of course it's illegal to pester or harm them), they spend untold hours lazing in what look like terribly uncomfortable positions on the safety of offshore rocks. One unusual characteristic is their coloration, which varies from white with Dalmatian-dog spots to brownish gray to charcoal with white spots. Some even have a distinct bluish cast to their fur.
Farther to the south, near the little town of Cambria, is the Piedras Blancas State Park with its remarkable elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) rookery. The elephant seals spend half the year or more out of the water, shedding their skin and fasting on safe sandy beaches. When we were there  the females and juveniles had arrived; the males, with their exaggerated proboscises, were still out feeding in the ocean. Watching them was very entertaining nonetheless. 
They hang out in enormous piles, mostly snoozing, snoring, and grousing at one another as they jockey for a comfortable place amongst the resting bodies between naps. Grumpy as they seem I think the one in the middle just told a good joke.
Sometimes they look like best friends.
But would a friend flip sand all over your head?
The viewing is wonderful and safe for all concerned. That's Piedras Blancas ("white rocks") lighthouse in the distance.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

State parks are fantastic too: Part I - New Mexico

As all my readers know, I'm a huge devotee of national parks; the ones I frequent are the American and Canadian parks, but there's no doubt there are plenty of equally fantastic set-asides for nature and history in other parts of the world, all therefore, by default, on my to-do list. But lest I give the wrong impression, many state (U.S.) and provincial (Canada) parks can be the small equals of national parks. I've blogged about the pleasures of Brown County State Park in my natal southern Indiana, but recently had opportunities to explore other truly remarkable state parks, all new to me.
As our ambitions to see Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains National Parks were completely knee-capped by the October 2013 government shutdown, we had plenty of opportunity to avail ourselves of particularly nice state parks in that corner of New Mexico. Not wild, but easy to love, is the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park in Carlsbad.  It sits upon a small rise overlooking the basin busy with extractive activities, an oasis of regional plants (with the exception of the wonderful world-wide greenhouse of succulent plants) and wildlife. The animals, birds, and reptiles cannot for whatever reason be released to the wild, so it serves as their refuge as well. The view back towards town provides a good impression of the landform and makes it easy to picture how the area might once have been the floor of the Permian Sea.
The Park's Succulents of the World collection documents the amazing variety of botanical adaptations to desert conditions like those around New Mexico, western Texas, and northern Mexico. Note KLK in the background there, for scale:
Sere though it may appear, the desert amply supports mammals large and small. Most endearing at the Living Desert is Mounty the mountain lion (Puma concolor). As is so often the case with attractive animals that end up in refuges, someone thought she would make a good pet. Although she apparently relates well to people, and did not flinch at the excited screeches of the little kids watching her, mountain lions don't do kitty litter, and they need a diet rich in animal protein and minerals that doesn't come out of a Friskies can. Mounty is obviously well-cared for at the Living Desert and was so much enjoying wrestling with her tough plastic toy that we could hear her loud purrs on our side of the fence.
A creature that was new to me was the New Mexican gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus). It was  skittish and, like a lot of wild animals, nervous about the big black eye of the camera following it around.
The fox maneuvered to avoid me, almost levitating itself high into the crook of the tree in its cage to get some privacy.  Although this species of fox, with its huge ears and tiny face, is more petite than the ubiquitous red fox, it shares the characteristic out-sized bushy tail of its vulpine brethren around the world. 
The Living Desert honors the local geology as well with this big gypsum outcrop glittering in the sunny landscape.
Gypsum (aka, selenite) has many commercial uses, including as an important ingredient in drywall, fertilizer,  cement and concrete, and is among the many economically important resources that the region yields. It's quite pretty in a rock garden too.
Of course the one thing we really wanted to see was the Mexican Free-tailed Bat that gives Carlsbad Caverns such scientific and ecological significance. Unfortunately, the Living Desert Zoo has no live examples, though they do have an informative exhibit and this odd, "somewhat" enlarged (maybe 4-½ foot tall) disembodied model with teeth better scaled for chewing up small children than the moths and other flying bugs the bats are famous for consuming.
The geology of the region is endlessly interesting, as a visit to the little Bottomless Lakes State Park a few miles to the north in Roswell illustrates. Among the more informative descriptions of the "bottomless lakes" are Wikipedia's and New Mexico Tech's geology tour. The water-filled sink holes, technically cenotes, are collapsed caves fed by underground water sources, perhaps supplemented by precipitation, rare and scant as it is in southeastern New Mexico. One of the most interesting things about these deep (hence "bottomless") mini-lakes is that, due to happenstance of depth, orientation, presence or absence of shade from surrounding cliffs, algal growth/overgrowth, water levels, salinity, acidity and the like, the character of each is slightly distinct even from its closest neighbors. Some allow the survival of fish (stocked), amphibians, and aquatic insects. The avian silhouette is of course that of the ever-present turkey vulture.
The glittering red cliffs (sandstone, limestone, gypsum, shale, siltstone) of Cottonwood Lake are striking:
By contrast, Lea Lake is suitable for swimming and kayaking and I suspect is especially appreciated by the local people in the heat of desert summer.
Beside Lea Lake is an impressively large and interesting Civilian Conservation Corps-constructed bath house and pavilion (built between 1935-1938 with that era's version of government stimulus money) which has been well-preserved by the state.
Click to get an idea of how large the bath house, with its shady pavilion and viewing tower, on the far shore in this photo, really is.
This large, hairy, and dramatically marked male silkworm (Agapema anona) moth was on a shady wall at Lea Lake, Bottomless Lakes State Park.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Underbelly

Last night (which was cold and clear, and completely dry) around 10:30 we heard loud sirens and giant air horn blasts. Got out the binocs to watch the sequelae of a weird and apparently not deadly accident on southbound Lake Shore Drive. A large Econoline-type van had somehow managed to flip on its side at an angle to the lane divider; we could clearly see its underbelly. Lots of flashing lights and firemen-types walking around, but in spite of the later arrival of an ambulance, it seems no blood and guts were shed. Finally the tow truck showed up, hooked a couple of lines to the top of the van, and pulled it upright with a little bounce. No people got or were pulled out so we assumed the passengers had long since gotten out safely. The tow truck pulled it forward a few feet, then a guy got out and emptied several bags of what I would bet was kitty litter over a small wet-looking area (oil? coolant?) on the pavement, then summarily left with his haul. Finally all the flashing lights ("looks like Christmas - red, green, yellow, blue" says Kevin) departed. Minor dramatic action but much more interesting than what was on TV.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Having said all that...Carlsbad is different

At the beginning of October of this year, KLK's and my stars came together to make possible a last-minute trip to southeastern New Mexico to realize a long-standing plan to visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park -- where untold hundreds of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats stream en masse out of the cave each dusk to spend the nighttime saving the world from mosquitoes (well, moths primarily ) -- and while there to explore the adjacent, and much less well known Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Our flights to El Paso were booked for October 4. On October 1, the government shut down, and all national parks along with it. We decided to make the best of it, vainly hoping Washington would see the light and switch it back on. So off we went.

The adventure proved entirely worthwhile even though the parks remained decidedly closed. This is not to say that we didn't greatly regret not getting into the parks, which looked so very inviting from the outside, and, off the beaten path as they are, who knows when we might have an opportunity to try again?
Entrance to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, road closed ahead.
We stayed in the small desert town of Carlsbad, New Mexico, which has all the potential to be a classic gateway town, with its foundation, and survival, related to, and dependent upon, the discovery of natural wonders of sufficient importance to ultimately receive national park designation. However, Carlsbad is a little different from, say, Gardiner, Montana (Yellowstone) or Springdale, Utah (Zion NP).  Founded in the late 19th century by European immigrants attracted by the availability of water from the Pecos River for irrigation, deposits  of potash and other commercially important minerals, and so-named because of the early tourist attraction of mineral springs reminiscent of those of Karlsbad in what is now the Czech Republic, Carlsbad has always had a life of its own, independent of the cave and Guadalupe Mountains not far beyond.
My paternal grandfather and his wife visiting the baths in the original Karlsbad, 1937
Nonetheless, the value of the cave as a natural treasure and tourist destination was recognized in the early 20th century. First declared a national monument (a sort of "national park lite") in 1923, and a national park just seven years later, the main attraction was the exceptionally large and beautiful cave itself. The bats were only latterly embraced as the most interesting and important feature of the park.

So why was it that some of the locals I spoke to during our brief stay were in fact unaware  that Carlsbad and Guadalupe Mountains were closed? Because in recent years, the presence of bounteous and easily extracted oil and gas deposits have overwhelmed many times over the importance of the national parks as drawers of economic activity to the area.

I know nearly nothing about the extraction of oil and gas, but the briefest of internet researches enlightened me about the richness of the Permian Basin where Carlsbad lies, more or less due South of Roswell on this map. Note please that this is the oil industry's idea of where the Permian basin is, not necessarily 100% overlapping with the scientific designation of the Permian Basin in North America. 
Map borrowed from Rigzone, but available from various sources
My appallingly rudimentary understanding of how oil is formed is that accumulated organic matter (animal and vegetable) is buried, and over eons ultimately compressed by layers of sediment and rock that either form, or slide over by subsidence and uplift, the remains until pressures, heat, and chemical reactions form petroleum hydrocarbons. The Permian Basin was once the Permian Sea, creating ideal conditions for the build-up of organic matter and silt, and, presto-change-o!: fuel for the internal combustion engine and many other purposes eons and eons later. Live Science has a better explanation of the process of oil formation; The Texas State Historical Association provides a good brief history of the  discovery and business of oil extraction in the Permian Basin.

Despoliation of the desert landscape and atmosphere is easily visible from the highway along the corridor from just north of the entrance to Carlsbad Caverns all the way to Roswell. 
I did my best to observe something about the relationship of the petroleum industry to the town of Carlsbad in the brief time we were there, starting when I made a reservations at our hotel. I inquired as to why the prices were unexpectedly high, and varied such that they were lowest over the weekend (when one might expect regular influxes of park visitors) and highest on Monday, the only weeknight of our stay. The answer was, "Oh, it's because travelers are here on business with the oil and mineral industries" during the work week: a tid-bit of evidence as to the unexpectedly minor impact of the national parks. 

There were no authorities around to chat with me, but I did start a conversation with a young man, also a guest in our hotel, who told me he was a geologist with the Dutch equivalent of the US Geological Survey, in town to meet with US Bureau of Land Management colleagues, who of course were furloughed and unable to do business. Yet another example of the economic impact of the government shut down, not just on Americans, but foreign partners in enterprise as well. His thing turned out to be fossils, which I take it are hints of the age of the formations in which they're found, perhaps informing conclusions about the likely presence of untapped oil or gas. While the conversation was interesting, I learned little about the matter of drilling for oil.

As the hotel was otherwise almost empty the first couple of mornings we were there, I befriended the lovely lady who attended the breakfast buffet (very good, and included in the price!). She clearly enjoyed our conversations and came out of the kitchen every day to say good-morning. She was of Mexican heritage (as is a very large fraction of the local populace) but spoke standard American English suggesting she was raised on this side of the border. Curious as to the local benefits of all this extraction, I asked her if there were good jobs to be had for the locals in the oil fields. She immediately answered, "Oh yes, there are lots and lots of good jobs around here, but the people can't keep them. They fail the drug tests!" She meant it sincerely. That was one of the saddest answers I could imagine.

So who is doing all the heavy lifting? Right on cue, as foretold by the rising price of a hotel night, on Monday the town filled up with roustabouts and roughnecks and swampers and technicians and truck drivers and riggers, men of all races, ages, sizes and descriptions, and a tough-looking woman or two, the kind you'd expect to see with their hardhats resting on the table next to their plates as we did at the Carlsbad China Dragon Buffet at our last dinner before heading back to Chicago the next morning.

They're not locals, so they must be commuters from elsewhere in the region, maybe El Paso 160 miles to the southwest, but within driving distance of the oil fields. One thing we did not see was any evidence of a residential building boom. Wise, as once the fields finally play out, there will be only the environmental clean-up work and the business of the national parks to sustain Carlsbad.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Oh, what a relief it is. And, how fascinating it was.

Barrier at the entrance to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, October 8, 2013
I count myself was among the millions in this country who felt like a massive weight was lifted when our justly-beset politicians in Washington ended their game of brinkmanship and authorized appropriations to re-open the government -- at least for the near term -- and to restore functions critically important in one way or another to all segments of Americans society. These functions include payroll for civilians employed by the Department of Defense; yes, our uniformed services budget was authorized during what quickly became known as the "partial" shut-down, but hundreds of thousands of civilian Defense Department employees were furloughed. These civilians provide indispensable services to the military, including servicing and maintenance of machinery (like jet engines), medical care, IT services, the list goes on. Meaning, although our sailors, soldiers (but not our spies, to channel John le Carré), and pilots  were on the job, any sense of national security was utterly false, as most could not perform their full duties without the support of the civilian corps. Other halted government resources impacted, or would soon impact if further prolonged, the country's ability to track the spread of, and deploy interventions against, contagious disease outbreaks (SARS, bird flu, to name a couple); those dependent on unemployment compensation for income; support for food and nutrition programs for needy families, and early education programs for children such as Head Start; those needing services like Meals on Wheels for disadvantaged senior citizens; and the millions of people employed by government contractors (such as the company I work for) to pay their mortgages and feed their families and the ripple effects thereof. In other words, the shutdown sooner or later would have affected not only our most vulnerable citizens, but the rest of us too, all the way up the socioeconomic ladder. 

In spite of immediacy of these and countless other government supports and collaterals thereof, none were at the top of the sound-bite lists of closures. From the most benighted conservative to the most enlightened of liberal media outlets, the number one closure on every list was America's national parks. This caught me completely by surprise. No, it's not that I think I'm the only person who puts extremely high value on our parks (and national forests and monuments, shores and historic sites), it's that in times of personal and public disaster, alas, the parks are not likely to be savers of life and property.
Google search page header, October 1, 2013. (Thanks to Google for use of the image without formal permission.)
Having said that, one reason for their prominent place on the list (and in many subsequent discussions) may be that the parks are symbols of values that almost all Americans share: they represent our wide-open and fruitful lands, our sacred histories, and in many senses, our prosperity. Look at us, we are well fed and clothed, and employed and secure, and we're still able to set aside massive acreage "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." 
Yellowstone's barricaded Roosevelt Arch at North Entrance, "For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People" writ in stone at the top. Even the elk seem puzzled by the closure. My thanks to Patty Bauchman for the use of her wonderful photo, "Barrier at Roosevelt Arch" October 5, 2013.
Another reason is that the national parks and related units are a subtle proxy for all the affected economic engines, unlikely though it is that most people would readily make that connection. Although government run, units of the Department of Interior (national parks, monuments, historic sites, shorelines) and the Department of Agriculture (national forests, grasslands, recreation areas) rely on concessionaires and other contractors to provide guest services -- lodging, gift and convenience shops, guided tours and transportation, food service, gas, and emergency medical services for instance -- plus road construction and maintenance, utilities, communications... The list of businesses required to service visitors on federal land is remarkable. When the government shutters the parks, the concessionaires and vendors get stop-work orders. When the concessionaires and vendors get stop-work orders, they lay off personnel.The domino effect on the economy is obvious and nearly immediate.

Just outside of most parks are gateway communities. Take Yellowstone, for instance, which has several adjacent communities that owe their existence, or if not their existence, their prosperity, to the park: Gardiner, Montana at North Entrance; the twin map-dot towns of Silver Gate and Cooke City, Montana at Northeast Entrance, and West Yellowstone, Montana to the west. Fifty miles beyond East Entrance is Cody, Wyoming, and just beyond South Entrance is the little tourist development of Flagg Ranch. These settlements are all about visitor amenities (museums, snow-mobile rental, guided tours), services (restaurants, lodging), and necessities (groceries, gas, medical care). Although not park service contractors, when the parks close, visitors cancel or divert and business activity is flat-lined.

There have been numerous studies of the benefits of national parks on the economy, and a variety of estimates on the negative effects of the shutdown -- all of them staggeringly large for an approximately 2-week period of downtime. The pundits who chose national parks to represent the immediate impact of the shutdown were right on the money.
Barrier at the entrance to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, October 4, 2013

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Jesús and Margarita

Jesús and Margarita Cuevas, thanks for remembering me. I will always think of you with affection and admiration. Two lives well lived, may you rest together in peace now and forever.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Built Environment: Parkitecture in Yellowstone National Park

The tradition of structural creation in Yellowstone National Park particularly fits the idea of "parkitecture," which is variously defined as the often rustic, always romantic styles of architecture and decor intended to celebrate and enhance the experience of that particular public space we call a park. What interests me most is parkitecture in natural parks that is intended to resonate with the environment. Sometimes that intention includes the preservation of pre- and historic structures, and more and more lately, as the parks are pressured to better accommodate increasing numbers of visitors and existing structures age, it includes the studied design of new structures along with the restoration of irreplaceable classics.

The granddaddy of parkitecture is of course Yellowstone National Park's Old Faithful Inn that has been accepting lodgers since the summer season of 1904. OFI was designed by the architect Robert Reamer, who is quoted as saying, "To be at discord with the landscape would be almost a crime. To try to improve upon it would be an impertinence.”  His genius touched many other major structures in Yellowstone, including the now deceased original hotel at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and the still flourishing Yellowstone Lake and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotels.

Old Faithful Inn is a triumphant survivor, to wit, just 25 years ago almost to the day, the devastating forest fires of 1988 came treacherously close to igniting the world's largest log structure. Disaster was miraculously avoided by the effectiveness of the sprinkler system, installed only the year before, combined with the massive efforts of firefighting crews to keep the exterior drenched until the wind direction changed.
Since then, the Inn has undergone extensive rehabilitation and deep renovation, including incorporation of much more sophisticated fire suppression systems, and shoring up of the foundations and massive stone and log infrastructure to better resist the almost constant small, and occasional large, earth quakes shaking the region. 
Today it is difficult to get a good head-on view for photographing the front-central exterior inn, in part because of the exuberant growth of lodgepole pines and because area directly in front of the inn is relatively sunken.
But within the Inn's doors is a most stunning lobby of proportions not dissimilar to the many grandiose natural features of the park.
Only Reamer could carry off such splendorous rusticity.
A great place to sit and restore trail-sore feet is in front of the 85-foot floor-to-roof lava stone  fireplace with its firescreen depicting the stylized plume of Old Faithful geyser just a few hundred feet beyond the Inn's east wing.
Even the dining room at the Inn is renowned for its "I want to be there" appeal aimed right at people like me and KLK. And yes, the menu includes bison stew and trout, needless to add, both from farmed sources. 
The Inn still accommodates overnight guests, and we were fortunate enough to nab a room there this June. The modern decor makes pleasant, if simplified reference to the rustic Prairie-Craftsman style of the building, with details successfully echoing the tastes of Reamer's day. 
OFI is extraordinary from every angle, inside and out.
There is no question in my mind that it was very wise to invest in the conservation of this extraordinary building through its numerous trials and tribulations over the past 109 years: the ordinary vicissitudes of time, fires, earthquakes, budget cuts, and competing priorities. May it last another 109 and many more than that.