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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Intro to Tucson Mountain Park

Hi Blog!

Today is Tuesday, October 18, 2016 - Happy Birthday Matt!

We are all settled into Desert Trails RV Park just southwest of Tucson, Arizona. We'll be here for three months, as we await delivery of our new motorhome and Jeep. The RV park is located just outside the boundaries for the Tucson Mountain Park and Saguaro National Park. We can start our hikes and bikes right from our 5th wheel.

This morning we decided to explore Tucson Mountain Park. The park was established in 1929 by the Pima County Parks Commission. At approximately 20,000 acres, the park is one of the largest natural resource areas owned and managed by a local government in the U.S. The park has approximately 62 miles of non-motorized shared-use trials. We'll that should keep us busy for a few weeks, at least.

We started today's hike just as the sun was peeking over the horizon. Tucson is having unseasonably hot weather this week. Highs are expected to be in the mid-90s. We need to be out and back before noon or we'll melt! No time for a coffee walk this morning, so we brought the coffee on the hike! Kathy stopped for a sip at the trailhead. Cheers!

With such an early start, we watched the moon set in the arms of the saguaro.

The park maintains several miles of bike trails which loop around between the campground and the park boundaries. It can be a little confusing at times, but with friendly sentinels like the guy below, we should be able to find out way.

In about a mile, we reached the park boundary road, shown below. We had decided on a five to six mile loop hike. We would start out on the Ironwood Trail to the Ironwood Picnic Area and then circle back on the Caliche Flats Trail.

As we hiked along the Ironwood Trail, Golden Gate Mountain loomed before us. That will be a hike for another today. For now, we contented ourselves with scouting out the various trail connections and plotting our future routes while getting to know the local saguaros.

We stopped for a rest at the Ironwood Picnic Area in the shade of a mighty ironwood tree. Desert Ironwood is a “keystone” species of the Sonoran Desert: a tree with enormous ecological value, critical to the very structure and function of the desert. It is considered a “habitat modifier,” as it plays a primary role in creating the ecosystem it occupies, and greatly enhances desert diversity.  It does this by creating shade, building soil, and providing shelter. We certainly enjoyed the shady shelter it provided.  As we enjoyed its beauty, we noticed striking red seed pods hanging from its branches:

Saguaros sometimes grow in odd or misshapen forms. The growing tip occasionally produces a fan-like form which, if present, caused the cactus to be described as "crested" or "cristate."

Though these crested saguaros are somewhat rare, over 25 have been found within the boundaries of the park. Biologists disagree as to why some saguaros grow in this unusual form. Some speculate that it is a genetic mutation. Others say it is the result of a lightning strike or freeze damage. At this point they simply do not know what causes this rare, crested form. Can you say treasure hunt?  One down, 24 more to go!

On the way back to our RV, we discovered these little beaver tail cacti hiding among the prickly pears.  More than we expected, our desert hikes are discoveries of new types of plants and animals!

It will be a week or so before we're back on the trail. We are heading back east for our grandson's five-year-old birthday party. Until then, stay thirsty my friends.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Continental Divide Trail: Trailhead 74 to Jack's Peak

On Thursday, October 13, 2016, we decided to set our boots on the Continental Divide Trail (sometimes referred to as the "CDT") - something we have been aching to do for years.  In New Mexico, the CDT runs about 700 miles.  In the stretch north of Lordsburg, New Mexico, where our RV was parked, it passes through Gila National Forest.  Part of the forest, the Gila Wilderness, was formally established in 1924 by the U.S. government as the first designated wilderness reservation. Aldo Leopold Wilderness and the Blue Range Wilderness are also found within Gila National Forest.

The Continental Divide Trail is a National Scenic Trail that stretches 3,100 miles along the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains from Mexico to Canada. With the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail it is part of what thru-hiking enthusiasts call the "Triple Crown" of long-distance hiking in the United States. In establishing the Continental Divide Trail as a National Scenic Trail in 1978, Congress set aside a 100-mile wide corridor for its construction.  The CDT passes through the states of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico. Only about two hundred people a year attempt to through-hike the entire trail. Hikers of the CDT can continue north into Canada on what is known as the Great Divide Trail, as far as Kakwa Lake north of Jasper National Park.  Occasionally along the stretch of the trail, you'll find trail markers like the ones we saw as we began our hike:

We first came to know the Continental Divide Trail when we attended an annual dinner of the Pennsylvania chapter of our hiking club, Appalachian Mountain Club, more than 10 years ago.  The speaker that night was Cindy Ross, an outdoors writer who, over five summers, from 1993 to 1998, hiked the CDT with her husband, Todd Gladfelter, their children, then ages 1 and 3, and four llamas. She wrote about their thru-trek of the CDT in a book titled, "Scraping Heaven," which is fascinating reading for anyone who loves the outdoors as a family activity.  Here's a photo of Cindy, Todd, the kids and the llamas along their journey:

More recently, our appetites were whetted to the breaking point when we were introduced by our good friends, George and Nan Finlayson, to our now also good friends, Dick and Gaila Mallery, at the Quartzsite Boomerville encampment in January 2016. Dick, publisher and founder of the bird-feeding and nature newspaper The Dick E. Bird News, fulfilled a 30-year dream in 2003 by completing the Continental Divide Trail from New Mexico to Jaspar, Alberta. Instead of leaving his family behind, he shared the adventure with wife Gaila and daughter Maggie, who followed in the front country in the family's 27-foot motor home towing a Saturn.  The family began their adventure in 1999, the year Dick turned 50. That year, he walked 3,200 miles along the Continental Divide from New Mexico to the Canadian border — a trip that would take him through five states in five months. Gaila and Maggie, then 12, were his support team, driving the motor home to campgrounds paralleling his route and meeting him on his weekly exits from the trail for more supplies and a little R&R.  Their adventure resulted in a book titled, "Crossing the Divide: A Family Adventure along the Continental Divide” (MalleryBooks).  Here's a photo of Dick heading back out on the CDT in 1999 after resupplying in Twin Lakes, Colorado:

Unlike the Appalachian Trail, the CDT is a do-it-yourself bushwhack rather than a civilized, constructed path. A mirror of the untamed land it crosses, the CDT has fewer directional markers, fewer places to grab a hot shower and square meal, more places where a mistake will kill you.  There are very few water sources along the CDT where it passes through the Gila National Forest. Local volunteer groups place water caches (usually a pile of plastic gallon jugs) at strategic points along the trail.  As we arrived at our trailhead (known as Trailhead No. 74), we spotted these examples of trail magic:

Our path started slowly uphill, and soon we caught sight of our destination - Jack's Peak, in the distance in the photo below with large cell towers perched at its summit:

Turning west and more steeply uphill, we started to see interesting geologic formations, including this rock dressed in colorful lichen:

It is autumn in the desert now, and we were surprised at the abundance and variety of desert blooms we encountered as we hiked.  A glance across canyons and arroyos along our path showed landscapes splashed in bright yellow.  Up close, the yellow blossoms were beautiful against the dried greys and browns and silver-greens of the desert environment:

Occasionally, we ran across red blossoms and foliage, which stood out all the more for their sudden, rare appearance in this landscape:

About 2 miles into the hike, we were high enough to encounter rock outcroppings and high enough to get dramatic views from them.  Here, David looks out across the valley to our south:

Climbing further, we started to get high enough to encounter greener grasses, which we assume could survive due to heavier rains as the clouds swept across the hilltops:

Suddenly, along one ridge where the canyon floors dropped away from us on both sides, Kathy spotted a huge field of quartz rocks strewn among the sandstone.  Some prior hiker had spent the time gathering his or her most favorite quartz nuggets and piled them on this rock for our pleasure:

Higher yet, and on the north side of one of the larger ridges, we experienced a complete change in the environment.  This zone was suddenly full of scrub oak, live oak, ponderosa pine and other non-desert plants and trees:

We entered an area that obviously had burned in a wildfire.  Some hiker had come across this rusted pot, discolored with carbon from the fire, and had hung it on one of the cut tree branches for those who have followed to see:

As we climbed further toward the summit of Jack's Peak, we came suddenly upon these ruins - we learned later they are the foundation of one of the staff houses for a Solar Observatory which operated from 1938 to 1946 on Jack's Peak:

A look around the area revealed numerous concrete foundations which we assume were from the same observatory, its staff housing and supporting facilities.

Eventually we reached the summit of Jack's Peak.  We found the survey marker, which Kathy admires in the photo below:

Although much of the summit was occupied by radio and other transmission towers, nevertheless the views were striking.  You might start with this 360 degree view from Jack's Peak, which will put in context the following two photos -- one looking toward a unique, pointed peak to the south --

-- and this one looking west, with a brilliant, scarlet clump of vines of bushes splashed on the near side of the rock outcropping in the center of the photo:

After a leisurely lunch at the top, we started down, encountering two Forest Service rangers who had driven up a fire road to inspect the tower complex.  The only other soul we encountered on the whole trip was this lizard who obliged us by posing long enough for us to get his portrait:

By the time we returned to our trailhead, we had logged nearly 10 miles of up and down on rocky terrain.  David slipped on the sand and pebbles on one rockface and skinned his elbow, but otherwise our return was uneventful.  We felt this was a dramatic success, for having chosen this stretch of the CDT solely for its convenience to the RV campground where we had stopped for two nights.  It merely increased our desire to get out on yet more sections of the Continental Divide Trail in our future travels.

Eddie and George Suddenly Remember Waking Up on the Continental Divide

Someone forgot to push the button (we're not saying who), but the boys posed for this photo on the Continental Divide on New Mexico Highway 90 between Lordsburg and Silver City back on October 13, 2016, just before David and Kathy started their hike to Jack's Peak.

Pay no attention to the disembodied arms under the boys.

Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta 2016

Hi Blog!

We survived another Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta! We arrived at the Balloon Fiesta Park on Wednesday, September 28, 2016. Even though the Fiesta didn't start until Saturday, we were treated to a preview, as a number of commercial ride balloons launched on Thursday morning. We watched the balloons sail over our corner of the RV park while we finished our coffee walk.

We were so busy last year that we never found the time to visit the Balloon Museum. This year, we came in a day earlier so that we would have time to walk over to the museum. The Museum exhibits include artifacts and materials related to the history and science of ballooning. We spent several hours reading all the exhibits and watching all the videos. The back wall of the museum is a two-story atrium that looks out over the balloon launch field, with, in the foreground, the envelope of the balloon that in 2012 lifted Felix Baumgartner, the man who now holds the record for the highest freefall:

We spent Thursday night with our fellow Escapee Boomers watching the balloon crew safety video. After signing the crew waiver, we received our all-festival passes. On Friday, we managed to get in a bike ride before dinner at the Chinese Buffet. After dinner, it was early to bed. The fiesta started before dawn on Saturday. The first bus rumbled through the campground at 4:15 a.m.! When you know you'll be awakened before 4:30 am, you just plan to get up early and head over to catch the pre-dawn action.

Here was our first look at the Dawn Patrol getting ready to launch.

The balloon we were assigned to was called Laughy Taffy. Our first meeting with our pilot and crew chief was Saturday morning. Here is Team Laughy Taffy (from left to right) - our pilot, Steve Scheer, Kathy, Dave, Mary and Rick Sorenson, and our crew chief, Donna Scheer. In keeping with the "laughy," every launch starts with a joke. (Example:  "What type of music is scary to balloons? Pop music!")

Here you see Laughy Taffy, the teal, pink, purple and green one, taking its place in the center of this mass ascension.

Pam and Mike, our next door neighborsin the Boomer encampment (which we like to call "Boomer Pueblo"), volunteered to crew for Scorch, a giant purple dragon. He made Squirt, the shaped balloon we crewed for last year and this, look small.

Speaking of Squirt, we ran into Jean-Francois Ferland, the owner and pilot, at one of the tailgate parties. We agreed, in a moment of weakness, to help crew on Thursday and Friday nights for the evening glow events. In a glow event, at sunset, the balloons are all inflated and folks can walk around taking pictures. As the sun sets, the balloons are packed back up.  In the photo below, Kathy is demonstrating that Squirt is "THIS BIG!"

We were still packing up Squirt when the fireworks went off.

We never know what we'll see when we head over to the launch field.  One morning we experienced a fiery red sunrise:

Launching 550 balloons at one time is an awesome undertaking. Lucky for us, the launch officials ("zebras") keep us safe.  In the photo below, Kathy poses with the two zebras who were in charge of Laughy Taffy:

After the morning launch, the special shape balloons prepare for their "rodeo."  (If you look closely, you'll see Squirt in that crowd.)

After launching all week, our pilot and crew chief decided not to launch on the last day. We got to sleep in on Sunday, but we were still up early enough to see the balloons come floating in toward the landing field  How could we resist taking the photo below of Bimbo Bear floating placidly over our 5th wheel?  We decided to just let the balloons come to us.

And come they did! While Dave was busy taking photos, Kathy was running around the landing field catching balloon as they came in for a landing.

Here is one of Dave's amazing photos!

After boondocking at the Fiesta Park for 12 days, several Boomers were looking to plug in and empty tanks at nearby Enchanted Trails RV Park. You know there was bound to be a Happy Hour! Attending the Post Balloon Fiesta Boomerang:  Gretchen (Bella on her lap), Mary and Rick (in the rear), and Dee and Ron (bookending Kathy and Dave):

It is sad to say goodbye to our friends, but we know our paths will cross again soon.

Yes, we are already making plans to attend next year's Balloon Fiesta!

Monday, September 26, 2016

Balloons and Friends in Mancos

When we decided to stay in Cortez, Colorado, we had our eyes on Canyonlands National Park.  By the time we arrived in Cortez, we realized that Canyonlands was too far away to visit comfortably in a day's side trip.  On the other hand, we discovered that Mesa Verde National Park was only seven miles from our campground, so we were excited to visit that park, which is so spectacular in its preservation of unique cliffside pueblos.  (See our last blog entry to learn about Mesa Verde.)

But the surprise of Mesa Verde was only a prelude to even more exciting news: Dave Lopushinsky and Leslie Manion, ballooning friends from British Columbia, posted on Facebook that they were attending a balloon fiesta in nearby Mancos and that our Alaskan friends Duane and Jean Mathes, whom we had met at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta in 2015 were also attending the festival with them!

Never ones to turn down an offer to crew on a hot air balloon, we joined them Saturday morning to help launch Dave and Leslie's balloon, "Pi."  When we arrived at the park, it was dark, but as we started laying out the balloon envelope, dawn crept over the park, and Kathy paused to enjoy the rosy colors:

We soon turned to our labors in inflating the balloon.  One of our tasks was to hold open the throat of the balloon  while Leslie directed a fan to begin the inflation with cold air.  David and Jean really seem to be enjoying this part of the job!

Soon, we had the balloon inflated.  Pilot Dave Lopushinsky, in the yellow cap, finished his preparations as our trusty crew lent their weight to holding down the bucking balloon:

At our pilot's and crew chief's signals, the balloon rose away, and we had a chance to see Pi in all its glory:

While Dave Lopushinsky piloted Pi to a graceful landing on a nearby farm, Leslie, Duane and Jean drove the rest of us as chase crew to reach the balloon and help secure it.  Young people from nearby homes rushed over to help, and with their assistance, Dave and Leslie's pilot friend Dawnna had the balloon envelope in its bag and well under control:

Many balloon pilots have a tradition of hosting a tailgate party back at the launch field, to honor their passengers and crew.  Here, Leslie (on the left) and Marilyn, Dawnna's crew chief (on the right) show how a celebration spread should be presented:

On this Saturday, our honored guests were Ella and Henry, who took their first balloon ride with Dave and Pi.  Henry had surprised Ella with the balloon ride as a birthday present, and you can see how pleased she was at his thoughtfulness:

Sunday was the second day of balloon flights at the Mancos festival, and Pi launched early.  Further, the festival balloons - perhaps 11 or 12 of them - were all able to launch within seconds of each other, so we had the pleasure and excitement of seeing them all rise into the morning sky at the same time:

Kathy snapped this close-up photo of Pi with compatriots in the background:

Transported by the same gentle winds, Pi and its fellow balloons drifted lazily over the farmlands south of Mancos, headed toward successful landings:

Here is a view of Pi as it drifted down past the trees toward its resting place on a farm field, the morning sun lighting up its transluscent envelope from behind:

On this Sunday morning, Charles and Tom, two brothers, were Pi's honored guests.  Back at the traditional tailgate party, pilot Dave, on the right, and crew chief Leslie, to the left just behind Chuck, toasted their guests.  Dawnna added her huzzah in the background:

Having had two successful days of flights, all of the festival participants returned to the city park in Mancos at sunset to celebrate with an evening glow.  In a glow, the hot air balloons inflate until they are upright in the sky, but they do not rise up off the ground.  Festival visitors are treated to the sounds of many dragons breathing fire as the pilots fired their burners to light up and heat the air inside their balloons to keep them afloat.

Here, Pi gives us its warm, glowy, evening greeting, complete with fire from the burners reflecting light off the pilot and crew:

All in all, it was a successful and joyous weekend celebration.  We drove back to our campground in Cortez, tired but grateful that we had had a chance to join our good friends for a weekend of work and celebration.  Our next stop is Albuquerque and its Balloon Fiesta.  While Albuquerque's event is much larger, we'll remember the Mancos festival for its intimate, personal, friendly atmosphere.