April-May, 2012 - It took us a few days to decompress after our awe inspiring three
weeks in inland Chiapas. We had studied Spanish in colonial San Cristóbal, seen
Mayan ruins in Palenque, Yaxchilán and Bonampak, and visited sparkling waterfalls
at Agua Azul and Misol-Ha. But we had received alarming news while in the jungle
that Mark's parents had unexpectedly taken very ill. Their prognosis for survival had
become bleaker by the day.
We scrapped our plans to
sail 200 miles further to El
Salvador where a rollicking
annual rally of 50 boats was
in full swing, and instead
prepared our boat Groovy for a six month wait at Marina Chiapas while
we made a hasty retreat back to Mark's family homestead in Michigan.
It was jarring and disorienting to rejoin
modern American life after months of
immersion in southern Mexican culture.
Far more upsetting, however, was suddenly finding ourselves face-to-face with the specter of
death. We passionately pursue our dreams everyday, always feeling the immense pressure of
time, but now the grim reaper was at the door trying to collect. For days we huddled inside the
drab sterile walls of a modern health care facility trying to be positive while pondering the
Fortunately, spring was in full bloom outside. Flowers were bursting with
color everywhere, and flowering trees seemed to grace every front yard.
Every time we stepped outside we were greeted by the cheerful image
of tulips, a heartwarming flower neither of us had seen for years.
Very gradually, and totally miraculously, both of Mark's parents began to
recover and were able to return home. As they gained strength we did
too, and the dark, raw emotions in our hearts began to ease. Out in a
friend's garden a cluster of bleeding hearts reminded us that often the
most precious things in life are also the most fragile, and that life itself is
a gift we receive every day.
When we eventually returned to our own hometown in Phoenix, Arizona, we
found spring had sprung there too. Our beloved saguaro cactuses were
wearing their little springtime crowns of white flowers on every limb.
Just a few weeks earlier an ancient saguaro in a friend's
yard had died and toppled over. It now held the fledgling
chicks of a starling that had moved into her condo when
the cactus was still upright.
Despite living in a house that was now eight inches from the ground,
not a great spot for a small bird, she bravely got those chicks raised to
adolescence, and in no time they had all moved out.
We got our trailer out of storage, dusted it off, and set up camp at
nearby Roosevelt Lake. Still recovering from all that had gone on, and
feeling a bit battle weary, we reveled in watching a cardinal come to
our little seed plate every day. We could have stayed for a month, but unfortunately the desert temps
were climbing and soon became intolerable.
Fortunately, just 80 miles north of Phoenix we found ideal temps
up on the Mogollon Rim (pronounce "Mugeeyone"). At 7500'
we were in the cool pines, and we found a camping spot right on
the edge of the rim with views to the valley floor far below.
The rim is a jagged shelf of flat rocks that stick out in layers.
The views are expansive and the smell of the ponderosa pines
is invigorating. There is something about the edge of the rim
that is very alluring and draws people to it, even though the
sheer drop-off is a little unnerving. At all the scenic overlooks
everyone gets out of their cars and walks right out to the edge
to take in the view and get a photo.
While we were there four huge forest fires were
burning in the valley below us. The Gladiator Fire
made the national news, and we saw the hotshot
firefighting team's base camp nearby. Firefighters
had been flown in from all over the country to help
out, and some 1,000 people were fighting the
blaze. The smoke was intense
at one point, and it billowed
over us like a huge wave.
That evening the sun was
almost totally obscured by the
smoke. But the hotshots
managed to wrestle all the
fires under control, and in just
a few days the air was clear
We discovered a wonderful
paved trail that runs along the
edge of the rim for a few miles.
Luckily for us, it had just been
lengthened by a mile. The edge of the rim
is magical, and at every rock outcropping
we found ourselves stopping to get another
look. This same trail also heads into the
forest towards Woods Canyon Lake where
it weaves past several campgrounds. We
rode our bikes along the trail and savored
the crisp air and pretty views.
Spring was happening up here too. The
pines were all adorned with their new
feathery soft needles, and we found flowers
that looked like wild irises growing in a
We passed a mother elk
sitting under a tree
chewing her cud. Nearby
her young calf was
hanging out chewing its
cud too. They were
totally indifferent to our
presence -- or to that of
the cars that had started
to stack up in the road as
everyone grabbed their
cameras and jumped out
for photos. We stood
there for quite some time
watching the mouths of
these two large animals slowly working around and
around while their gazes wandered calmly between us
and the cars. It was as if they were kids hanging around
at the street corner, chewing gum, and waiting for
something to happen.
Woods Canyon Lake is cool and serene, surrounded
by pines. Families were out fishing and an energetic
guy rowed a skull back and forth.
We stayed in this beautiful mountain forest
for two weeks, settling into our homestead
as if it were our own private mountain home.
Every day we ran, biked and walked. Then
we read, napped, played on the internet and
watched the boob tube, something we hadn't
done for eight months. Isn't it amazing, we
kept saying to each other, that we can get 12
Phoenix digital TV stations via our antenna
and good internet from our nifty new Verizon
MiFi unit, while we are camped several miles
down a dirt road deep in the woods on the
edge of a cliff?!
It was hard to leave, but once we
got the wheels rolling on our
buggy, we couldn't wait to get out
and see our beautiful country. Our
first stop was the Petrified Forest
National Park. Actually, we
stopped just before the National
Park because the guy who owns
the vast acreage next door has
been mining petrified logs from as
deep as 30' down in the ground for
decades, and the collection he has
on display and for sale at his store
"Jim Gray's Petrified Wood Company" is astonishing.
Petrified logs are created when a log gets buried in sediment, preventing rot, and then becomes
infiltrated by silica in the groundwater, replacing its organic material. This stuff eventually
crystallizes and "petrifies" the whole log. Over time, as erosion peels the ground out from under
the log, it cracks into short drum-shaped pieces that for all the world look like they are ready for
We wandered through the
endless display of petrified logs
and even found a pile of geodes
out back. This pile stood almost
10' tall and maybe 30' around at
the base. What a treasure trove!
This is also dinosaur country,
and the local gift shops have all
kinds of fun making crazy
displays for tourists. Mark found
a few out by the geodes.
Petrified Forest National Park is an easy park to miss
inadvertently because it sits on a road that cuts between an
Arizona highway and an interstate. We had made that mistake
years ago. We had driven along at 55 mph waiting to see a
Forest, and we skipped the pullouts because there was no
evidence there was any Forest there. After an hour we emerged
at the other end of the park having seen nothing but wide plains
and a few scattered logs in the distance. That goof-up has been
a standing joke between us ever since.
The only way to see this national park is to get out
and do some hikes. The hilly field behind the
visitors center is strewn with huge logs, many
resting in a row and fitting together to make an
entire tree trunk. These things are massively heavy
and are 8 times harder to cut than granite. From a
distance the crystalized bark, knots and tree rings
look lifelike, but up close the agate colors merge
and swirl in non-treelike patterns.
We hiked on the Long Logs trail which features one tree
trunk after another, each one segmented into shorter
logs that lie end-to-end. Looking around the sweeping,
empty, grassy plains it is hard to imagine that 260 million
years ago this area was a logjam in an ancient riverbed,
back when all the continents were joined and Arizona's
latitude was somewhere around modern day Panama.
13 species of large but extinct pines forested the area.
Out at the Agate House we
found an ancient Indian
pueblo made of petrified
wood pieces. Archaeologists
believe it was constructed
between 1050 and 1300 AD.
Those guys built very small
The trail took us past tall,
horizontally striped "sand
piles" that are now solid
stone. It looked like a gravel
yard that had been carefully
layered in different types of gravel. The heights of the
dark stripes matched from one pile to the next. There is
an otherworldly quality to this landscape.
As we walked back to the
truck Mark spotted a collared
lizard sitting on a hunk of
petrified wood. His little pink
mouth seemed to be grinning,
and his long skinny tail trailed
almost twice his body length
This is cattle ranching country
too, and before we could get
to the petrified log that spans a chasm -- the Agate Bridge -- we had to
get past a group of cows standing in the middle of the road. These
guys didn't move an inch as we drove past. Only their heads turned to
watch us as our enormous truck and trailer nearly brushed them when
we drove by.
The Puerco Pueblo hike took us to an ancient Indian settlement built
around 1250 AD. It was home to some 1,200 people. 6'x8' was a typical
room size, and unlike the mammoth Mayan and Zapotec buildings we'd
seen a few thousand miles to the south, these ruined walls have been
just a foot in height.
Far more intriguing
for us were the
petroglyphs that the
pecked into the nearby rocks. One showed what
looked to me like a stork carrying a baby. I'm sure
the archaeologists would disagree about that, but
these images are often a bit like ink blots -- what
you see in them is up to you.
The park road crosses I-40 and deposits visitors in
the middle of the Painted Desert. But first you get a glimpse of the
Santa Fe railroad and some relics of the old Route 66. While we
were wandering the hiking trails closest to I-40 we kept hearing
the horns and rumbles of endlessly long trains rolling past. I
climbed up on a bridge overlooking the tracks and caught a train
as it approached. Running to the other side I watched it
disappear around the bend. These tracks date back to 1882
when the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad went through. Early visitors
to the park arrived by train and took guided tours hosted by the
Fred Harvey company.
Mark was fascinated by an ancient rusting hulk of a car
that had been abandoned long ago on the side of the
old Route 66. Stretching 2,200 miles from Chicago to
Los Angeles, that historic road passed right through
this area, bringing tourists to the park in their own
private cars instead of by train. Now this part of Route
66 is overgrown by prairie grasses.
Our final miles along the park road
took us past some incredible vistas
overlooking the Painted Desert. This is
a colorful area of more gravel-pit
looking solid stone "sand piles," and
we had taken so long
getting through the park
that we arrived while the
late afternoon sun was
lighting the vivid
landscape to its most
brilliant hues. Gazing out
at this exotic land, the
sun beating down on us
and our sinuses rapidly
shriveling up in the dry air, it was hard to imagine what the ancients or the early
settlers must have thought or how they even survived. So harsh and yet so
By now our spirits were fully restored. As we studied our maps we decided to
head north via the tiny squiggle labeled "Indian Route 12" and head towards
Canyon de Chelly National Park. This road was marked as a scenic route
but despite being Arizona residents before our traveling lifestyle we had never
heard of it before.