Wednesday, February 25, 2015

My bucket list's B-list

This would have been up a couple of days ago but for the lack of internet. It took at least two hours just to upload the photos.

HH and I went to Boulder City, Nevada last Friday to spend the night in a hotel that's on the National Register, the Boulder Dam Hotel. It was built in 1933 to accommodate official visitors during the construction of Boulder (now Hoover) Dam, and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. Amazingly enough, I didn't take one photo there. Maybe next time.

HH and I had diverging destinations in mind for this trip. He wanted to see Hoover Dam, especially its innards, and I wanted to see the Neon Museum and go to Costco. Ha ha ha, you say. Costco!? You bet, it's one of my favorite places because nowhere else can you get Costco pizza, a huge bag of frozen chicken wings, and still-warm French bread all in one spot.

Ever since I heard about the Neon Museum in Las Vegas, years and years ago, it's been on my Bucket List's B-list - not important enough to make a special trip for, but if I was in the neighborhood, it wasn't to be missed.

The Hoover Dam photos will be coming soon, but this is my journal so I get to decide what goes up first, and it's the Neon Museum today.

The museum is a nonprofit organization exhibiting iconic Las Vegas signs. One might expect lots of neon from a neon museum, but we were surprised to find most signs were made with incandescent bulbs.

The letters and other images that comprise the museum's sign mimic those of historic provenance. The N is from the Golden Nugget; the E from Caesar's Palace, the O from Binion's Horseshoe; and the final N from the Desert Inn. The stars are from the Stardust.

Visits to the 2-acre boneyard are available by guided tours only, which makes sense when the signs are at ground level and within touching distance. There are about 150 signs here and more in another lot that's not open to visitors.

One of the first views is of the mix of symbols from different casinos.

 Not all signs are in good repair.

The script is from Moulin Rouge, and the stars from the Stardust.

The walkways are narrow so we were strung out like ducklings in a row.

 This sign from Binion's Horseshoe resulted in my favorite photo of the day, below.

It looks like a school of fish. Well, I think so.

Here's a good neon-tube example. It's a yucca blossom, formed freehand. The sign below it is made of metal cut in yucca-leaf spikes and of neon tubes formed to resemble leaves. Our guide pointed out the different colors of the tubing in the leaves. The varying colors are due to the discovery that the metals used to color the glass originally were on the unhealthy side and when a repair was made, a different metal was used instead.

The visitor center, which I also neglected to get a photo of, is the former La Concha Motel lobby, built in 1961 in mid-century modern design. Donated to the museum to save it from demolition, it was cut into pieces, moved across the city, and reassembled on-site. From the museum's website:
A popular name for this type of architecture is “Googie,” which describes a style that references a time when the United States was enthusiastically anticipating the future. The La Concha lobby exhibits the Googie style with its exaggerated shell form, and thin, concrete structure seemingly held up by large plates of glass.
The Googie style of architecture thrived in the 1950s and early 1960s. It began as commercial architecture designed to make the most of strip shopping centers and other roadside locations. It fit the needs of the new California "car culture" and the dreams of the even newer space age. Googie has also been known as Populuxe, Doo-Wop, Coffee Shop Modern, Jet Age, Space Age and Chinese Modern. It is also sometimes identified as part of a larger overall movement of space-age industrial design.
The motel's sign follows the lines of the building itself in swoops and dips.

 Sassy Sally's.

A short loop detours from the final stretch.

A close-up of a skull from Treasure Island that, according to our guide, can be seen clearly on Google Earth.

A marvelous exhibit of the Stardust typography and stars behind.

 There are a lot of stars.

Aladdin's lamp. Silly me, I thought it was a teapot, thinking of the Disney ride with teacups. It's funny how the brain misfires.

Tropicana and Silver Slipper signs.

The silver slipper that once rotated in front of the casino now stands motionless across from the visitor center.

The Frontier sign is low key for Vegas.

I think the Sahara sign was my favorite.

There are signs for casinos, coffee shops, restaurants, and motels, but only one that I know of from a car wash. What's interesting about this one is that it incorporates channeling, a technique that places metal ridges around some of the tubes, making them more distinct when lit.

The museum offers a nighttime tour as well, to see the half-dozen signs that illuminate. It's on the pricy side and we didn't go, but did take a drive down the Strip to get to Las Vegas' cathedral so I could take photos of the windows. I'm sure they were gorgeous when the church was built in 1963, but it now stands in the shadow of an overpowering casino. I'm still trying to resurrect their original beauty.

Thought of the day:

A little bit of this town goes a very long way. - Hunter S. Thompson

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Gold Rush

One of the most accessible, and therefore busiest, places to hike is Golden Canyon. Combine that with a holiday weekend, and a free-entrance weekend, and the result is a packed trail.

I got to the trailhead at 7:30 one morning last weekend to find nine vehicles in the parking lot already. By the time I came out a couple of hours later, every spot was filled, the perimeter of the lot was solid with cars, and the road was lined in both directions.

When I saw a group hanging around their vehicles, suiting up as for a trek into the Outback, I threw on my backpack, slung the camera around my neck, and set out to get at least a couple of views without people... but just after the shot below, the camera began shutting off as soon as I pressed the shutter release. The malfunction was due to operator error and I spent a lot of time trying to get it to work. It wasn't until I was at the end of the canyon that I figured out the problem and was mad and frustrated all the way in. However, a good way to look at it is that I will never make that mistake again.

Red Cathedral is a formation at the far end of the canyon that's visible from the trail almost from the start. It's easy to understand how it earned its name. This was my destination.

The trail looks like it ends when it reaches Red Cathedral's base, but being willing to keep climbing an incline over rocky terrain, continuing to the right of the darker outcrop below...

yields this reward. The trail continued even higher but this was my limit. The gray formation in the distance is so pretty it deserves a closeup.

Its graceful, fluted curves are just lovely, don't you think?

I keep this photo even though I don't remember where it was on the trail, because it makes me look like a great adventurer, hiking to a drop off that requires rappelling to descend.

On the way out, I explored some side canyons. They are much narrower than others I've seen, and in some places the narrows allows only a one-person squeeze-through. This one needed a little ducking, a little sucking in of body parts, and confirmed my belief that I will never be a spelunker. I like elbow room.

Different views of Red Cathedral kept appearing.

A different side route took me to this car-sized boulder. The track continued through a crevice between the gray rocks on the left, which was wider than it looks here, and which doglegged quickly off to the left, so that I couldn't see...

this thirty-foot fall until I was on it. There are undoubtedly climbers for which this would be child's play, but I didn't even debate the issue. It was the end of the line for me.

One mesmerizing quality about Death Valley is its changeability. The weather, the time of day, or any variable imaginable, all contribute to the urge to explore, go, see, and do, yet never be bored. We can look at the Panamint Mountains across the salt flats a dozen times a day and never see the same shadows, the same hue, or the same detail in the fans. One afternoon I walked as the sun was low and watched the mountains behind the house light with a golden glow. Nothing different, right? than would be expected from late, slanting light. But what made this sight different, no - unique, was that among the peaks and valleys of those mountains, only the farthest peaks, but those peaks in their entirety, even down into the valleys in front of them, were lit, but not one bit of the peaks in front of them that were at the same level as the valleys and in some cases, even taller. It's hard to describe.

So this view down another canyon was a fun surprise, an arch formed of two kinds of rock. Anywhere else I would expect to see arches made of the same rock, but not Death Valley, where the unexpected is the norm. After all, who would expect the riches that are here for the looking in a place called Death Valley?

HH and I speculated about what this place would have been called if the '49ers hadn't gotten to it first. We, who are rarely without words, were practically speechless. Gold Valley? Borax Valley? Yikes. Now that we've been here, even this short time, our impressions of this vast, empty, indescribable place seem to conclude that there is no other name that so suits and yet is so unforgiving, as its current one.

Here's the story behind its name from the NPS website:

Death Valley was given its forbidding name by a group of pioneers lost here in the winter of 1849-1850. Even though, as far as we know, only one of the group died here, they all assumed that this valley would be their grave. They were rescued by two of their young men, William Lewis Manly and John Rogers, who had learned to be scouts. As the party climbed out of the valley over the Panamint Mountains, one of the men turned, looked back, and said "goodbye, Death Valley." This name, and the story of The Lost '49ers have become part of our western history.
On my way out, I passed about twenty people heading in, all in one group (including a guy who was barefoot, for heaven's sake). That's not fun to me. To me, the fun lies in quietude, a sense of discovery, a feeling that I am the first one there. There's a young seasonal employee here who's working on his Ph.D., his thesis on wilderness in our national parks. He came over a couple of nights ago and we talked about that. What does wilderness mean? How do we define it? Does it have the same definition wherever we find it? If we had a chance to hike in an old-growth forest or an old second-growth forest, which would we choose? Would we be more excited to be in a place where there's the appearance that no one has been there before? There are no right or wrong answers.

 I know that nowhere I ever go will be in unexplored land, but my imagination and my heart are fueled by the magic of not only seeing no one, but also not seeing the evidence of anyone: no bootprints, no trash, no overturned rocks, no cairns, no packed trail through a canyon. I had never thought about it enough to put words to it but now that I have, it will be a compelling pursuit to seek those places that fuel me like they do.

Thought of the day:

To those devoid of imagination a blank place on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part.  -  Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac with Other Essays on Conservation from Round River

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Show time!

 [Edited 2015-02-13]
It's been uncommonly warm here, and combined with the rain we recently had - a soaking kind I call Seattle rain, what the Navajo call a female rain, the flowers are beginning to bloom. These confections of perfection are common according to a guide I have, but to me they are uncommonly spectacular.

The first blooms I spotted were brown-eyed evening primrose, Camissonia claviformis. The blossom is no bigger than a half-inch across.

You can see where the brown-eye part of the name comes from. These are the most plentiful of any I've seen.

Golden evening-primrose, Camissonia brevipes. I saw a couple yesterday and many more today. A tiny pollinator is already at work (at 3 o'clock).

This lesser mojavea, Mohavea breviflora, was just a couple of inches tall. There were only a few in bloom today.

I almost missed this scented cryptantha, Cryptantha utahensis. It's a spreading, mounding plant only a couple of inches tall. The blossoms are about 1/32 of an inch across.

Yesterday there were only buds of desert gold, Geraea canescens; today there were two or three blooms. The brochure says the desert sunflowers form golden fields. The dark specks look like they're marks on the flower, but instead are insects.

Three stages of the notch-leaf phacelia, Phacelia crenulata, are on this specimen. More tiny flowers, again no more than a half-inch across. This is a look-but-don't-touch plant; contact with this tiny beauty can cause skin irritation.

I have no idea what this one is yet. The rosette leaves don't appear in my guide, so I have to wait for the flower to appear.

Finally, bees were ecstatically moving from flower to flower. Spring has arrived in the Valley.

On the way back home after all these discoveries, I heard coyotes yipping and calling nearby and got the camera ready. This lone critter was the only one to make an appearance and was so neatly camouflaged that I saw him only as an irregularity on the curve of the ridge. A bat, no bigger than my palm, flitted and swooped around me, pivoting mid-air on the point of a wing, while I watched the coyote watching me. As I walked the final distance to my house, to my HH, an unbidden thought traveled at the speed of light from my heart to my consciousness: I love my life!


Thought of the day:

The biggest adventure you can take is to live the life of your dreams. - Oprah Winfrey

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Ash Meadows

When HH and I got close to Death Valley on our way from southern Arizona, the GPS kept telling us to turn in at the road leading to Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, miles away from the Valley. It was one of those GPS things that makes no sense, so rather than emulating the Japanese tourists who blindly followed their GPS's directions straight into the ocean, we followed the directions that were painted on brown steel and pounded into the earth. What we didn't find out until later was the GPS was actually correct. Boy, were we sorry for saying bad things about the Garmin.

A researcher in the archives who was interested in pupfish told me about this place. We pass it every time we go from the park to Pahrump (I'm not making that up), Nevada, but it looked like a whole lotta nothin' out there, and kept passing it by. The researcher said it's a wonderful place, so off we went this weekend. He was absolutely right.

The Visitor Center is brand new, open only a month and with exhibits still under construction. No photos of it, but one of the signs outside it spoke about the native people of the area. Ash Meadows is the ancestral land of the Nuwuvi (Southern Paiute) and Newe (Western Shohone) who consider the spiral formations to represent the rattlesnake who commands respect and watches over the land. The formation below was cited as a representation of the snake.

Behind the visitor center is a one-mile-long boardwalk that leads to Crystal Reservoir and Lower Crystal Marsh, where a small population of Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish lives. Pupfish were named for behavior that appeared as playful as puppies. The behavior, attributed to the males, is related to breeding. Need I say more?

One species can live in as little as one inch of water. Other species tolerate salinity three times greater than the ocean, and another has adapted to water temperature as warm as 110° F. Several species of pupfish are on the Endangered Species list.

In the 1980s a developer saw $$$ in the desert where Ash Meadows now is, and made plans to build 20,000 homes, shopping malls, and other accoutrements of civilization that would have eliminated the habitat of every living creature there, including at least 24 species of plants and animals that live nowhere else on earth. In fact, Ash Meadows has the highest concentration of indigenous life found only in one location than any other local area in the United States and the second greatest in all of North America. Of course there was huge controversy, complete with competing bumper stickers of Kill the Pupfish! and Save the Pupfish! 

In 1983 The Nature Conservancy purchased the 13,000 plus acres, saving 12 major spring systems whose 10,000–year-old “fossil waters” feed numerous pools and riparian systems. Most of the water comes from rain and snowmelt from the Spring Mountains of southern Nevada, taking thousands of years to trickle down the cracks and seep its way into the aquifer. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, custodians of this now-23,000 acre property, is in constant activity to remove exotic plants and animals that divert resources from native species, and to repair the damage that was done by decades of farming. It took the Supreme Court to halt pumping of the aquifers that threatened the tiny habitat of the pupfish.

The turquoise color, even more vibrant in person, is due to being filtered through limestone.

In the only photo of the 2-inch pupfish that remotely turned out, two green females are camouflaged by rippling water. Males are bright, electric blue. I saw many but none stayed still long enough to photograph.

 In stark contrast to the apparent desolation of the Mojave Desert...

is the appearance of oases, described as being like "charms on a bracelet" that appear when the underground Amargosa River breaks the surface. They're breathtaking and unexpected.

We made our way to Devil's Hole, the only place the Devil's Hole pupfish live, and the place the GPS tried to send us on our way to the Valley - because Devil's Hole is actually Death Valley property, wholly surrounded by Ash Meadows NWR.

The iridescent blue inch-long fish's only natural habitat is in the 93 degree waters of Devil's Hole. According to a Fish and Wildlife website, a count of the fish in April 2013 estimated 35 Devils Hole pupfish remained in their natural habitat.  A September count estimated 65 fish. When population counts began in 1972, pupfish numbered around 550 individuals.

Devils Hole pupfish is one of the world’s rarest fishes, spending most of its life in the top 80 feet of the 93° waters of a cavern in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Its habitat is one of the smallest natural ranges known for any vertebrate. The surface water is only about 3x5 feet, but is at least 500 feet deep.

I thought I'd be able to see the fish but this is what greets the visitor.

The cage continues to a platform that is also entirely enclosed, and all that's visible is the small surface area of the water at the mouth of the cave. There isn't anything to see. The fish and their habitat are being protected and that's a good thing.

Finally, I give you this lovely sight, turquoise water vivid against the sober browns and gray-greens of the desert; imagine the 49ers, not believing their eyes. It was no less welcome a sight to me.

Thought of the day:

Water, water, water....There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount, a perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand, insuring that wide free open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here unless you try to establish a city where no city should be. - Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness