To a Midwesterner, the big skies and huge vistas of the Southwest have always captured my imagination. What must it have been like to be traveling across the land for months, and stumble across the Grand Canyon (for me, one of the most incredible of all the huge monuments out here)? But, last week, we rolled into the Petrified Forest, and it opened up a huge new world of wonder. This really stretches my imagination.
First, we had to deal with a few logistical items. There’s no camping in this National Park. There are two gift shops on the southern end which offer free camping (dirt parking lot on a highway), but we were happy to have a spot. There really isn’t anything else within 20 miles. So, here was our home for two nights. We opted to have an electric site for $10, so that we would be able to run our air conditioning for Jezzy, while we were gone for a whole day. Bathrooms are available from 11am-6pm. No water is available (“Don’t drink the water. It will make you sick.”) For two days, that wasn’t a hardship, although it would be tough if you weren’t prepared for it.
Since we only had a few hours to explore the first day, we decided to bicycle in, and check out the Visitor Center at the southern end of the Park. It sits in the middle of an astonishing forest of petrified wood. Here’s Petrified Wood 101: Two hundred million years ago, Arizona was at about the same latitude at Costa Rica – about 10 degrees north of the equator. It was loaded with conifer forests. Trees fell, sank into the mud, and were covered with mineral deposits, turning the wood into stone of the most incredible colors. The color of the stone depends on the mineral in which the tree was buried. It really is indescribable – so different than the petrified wood we saw last year in North Dakota, which was essentially gray, with a woodlike appearance. I couldn’t resist, and purchased about a 50lb boulder at the gift shop. You can see it in my back yard if you stop by.
These mammoth rocks have knots and swirls like live trees. Many have fallen over, and have remained essentially whole and unbroken. The circled rock is a great example of that – the deposits above it have eroded away. Eventually, the deposits below will blow or wash away, and it will fall. You can see the floor below is littered with petrified boulders. Others are segmented, some by natural forces, but others cut by opportunists searching for valuable crystals before the forests were protected. Whether whole or broken, they challenged my imagination.
“Would you walk across this log on a horse for $.25?” That was the question a Park worker asked John as we viewed the Agate Bridge, a complete petrified tree that had fallen, been buried, and millions of years later, re-emerged from its mineral mountain. Apparently, in the early tourist days, a local gent did just that – collected quarters from tourists, and rode his horse across this narrow bridge above an abyss. The rock has since been reinforced with concrete beneath, but the thought of riding or walking across is harrowing. It’s admittedly difficult to see in this photo.
We drove the length of the Park Drive, from the Petrified Forest on the south to the Painted Desert National Park Visitor Center at the north, which is a totally different change of pace. We pulled in at every turnout, and hiked every little hike. It’s mind boggling.
John has always been interested in astronomy, which led us to our next stop at Datil Wells Campground, just outside the town of Datil, NM. This immaculate BLM (Bureau of Land Management) campground cost us just $2.50/night with our Sr. Pass. Our campsite was enormous! There aren’t enough kind words to say about these camp hosts, their friendliness, and their dedication to making this a spectacular spot to camp. We hiked with Jezzy one day, and enjoyed spectacular overlooks from our 8000′ vantage point.
But, our real quest was the Very Large Array, a farm of 27 huge radio telescopes which scan the skies 24/7 for faint natural radio waves from distant galaxies, black holes, and baby stars. These 82′ dishes can be arranged are mounted on a series of railroad tracks, which enables them to be moved into four different configurations – from 1/2 mile to 13 miles from end to end. Every six hours, the dishes repoint in unison to a new position. Every four months, the entire array is repositoned, using a giant forklift-type of device which lifts, then rolls each telescope to a new position on the grid. It’s amazing. At one point, John thought he was receiving signals from outer space, but it turned out just to be that damned New Mexico wind roaring through the vents in his bike helmet.
A big part of this adventure though, was our bike ride to get there. Google Maps is both our friend and foe. When it’s spot on, there’s no better tool. But, woe be to the cyclist who gets ‘googled’ with faulty directions. In our case, Google suggested that we cycle Highway 60 for a short distance, then turn right on County Road 152. After another short distance we would arrive at “Old Highway 60”, which would take us right to the VLA. What could be more simple?
What we didn’t know was that Old Highway 60 probably hasn’t seen any car traffic since I was a baby. It consists of an occasional splotch of pavement surrounded by huge clumps of weeds. You can just barely see John in the center of the photo.For a while, it was fun riding. A pack of Pronghorn Antelopes (fastest animal in North America) ran alongside us, as if issuing a challenge. It didn’t take them long to decide we weren’t worthy of a race. We let ourselves through two wire gates, into increasingly barren partures. At one point, three gigantic horses seemed to take exception to John’s advance (I, of course, stayed back in my role as official photographer). The lead horse was very aggressively advancing toward John, leaping and pawing the ground, when he wisely decided to turn around. After that, we had to drag ourselves and our bikes under a barbed-wire fence to get to a gravel road, where we eventually got back to the ‘real’ Highway 60. From there, we still had about 8 miles to get to the VLA.
But, what’s life without a little adventure?
We’re now at Bottomless Lakes State Park in Roswell, NM. Tomorrow we venture into Roswell to explore the International UFO Museum, and perhaps to meet a few extraterrestrials. Rest assured, we won’t be cycling in.