Hello, readers!

Hello, readers!

This year's trip has concluded and I am no longer on the road. I hope that you enjoyed the ride just as much as I did. Please check back periodically - next year I'll be back!


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Saturday, November 9, 2019

Recalibration complete


Ah, yes. Once again, I’ve reached that part of my road trip where I have to try to make the two-day trek back to Austin through the wastelands of West Texas interesting. This is my least favorite part of writing this blog, though it does provide a good opportunity for some quality introspection.

It seems that every year, I end up having to rush home from some amazing faraway destination, driving long grueling hours to get back home miraculously just in time for some event. Last year, I hauled my buns home from California in a couple of days flat so that I could catch a flight out of Austin to go to Raleigh for the Hot Rod Power Tour. In 2017, I sprinted from Southern California to Roswell, NM, so that I could view the solar eclipse, then sprinted the rest of the way home in one day flat. In 2016, I got caught up in extreme monsoons that threatened to swamp me if I didn’t get home quick. In short, I have never experienced a nice, leisurely, relaxing drive back to Austin.

So this year, I planned a few days to kind of hop from destination to destination, just hanging out and slowly making my way back to civilization.

Of course, this year, I also found “the” house in Austin, while in Reno, and then bid on and subsequently won the bid on it while at the Grand Canyon. So my planned leisurely trip back to Austin turned, once again, into a mad dash – this time to get back into town in time to view my new house before finalizing the deal on it.

Fortunately, a little flat-out running never bothered Jane, and this year she’s running even better than ever thanks to the new fuel system and a freshly-tuned motor. So on the morning of the 15th, I packed her up and departed Kanab, AZ with my sights on Albuquerque, a short 500-mile hop away. This drive is so familiar to me by now that it almost feels like an old friend. My favorite landmark is this mesa on AZ-98 just outside of Page. I have dozens of photos of this mesa stretching back to my first road trip in 2014 – I don’t think I’ve missed a year of photographing it yet!

Jane and I settled into our familiar rhythm as the scenery whipped by, our ribbon of black asphalt stretching endlessly into the horizon. Fields dotted with cattle and horses turned into blurs of green and yellow, speckled with dark spots. Mesas and buttes were a little more long-lived – as rocks always are – rising from the landscape, patterned in the unmistakable red-and-white candy cane stripes of this part of the American Southwest. The day was clear and blue and the weather was fine, and Jane howled along relentlessly, eight hard-working cylinders adding their voices to the wind. And once again I was reminded of how lucky I am. Of all the things I've done in my life, road tripping this car has been one of the best.

I reached Albuquerque without incident, had some green chile enchiladas, then got up the next morning and drove some more. 

A really silly sign
The landscape dulled and flattened, brilliant reds and rich yellows and vibrant greens and deep blues giving way to a more muted color palette.

And still I drove. Eventually, I hit a band of the typical mid-August West Texas storms, fortunately skirting the worst of it.

And still I drove. The sun neared the horizon, and I was fortunate enough to be treated to one of the spectacular West Texas sunsets, finally splashing some color back into my life for what felt like the first time in days, though it had only been that morning that I left Albuquerque.

And still I drove, as the sun slipped below the horizon and night spread across Texas. Just me and the roar of a muscle car, somehow quiet, almost lost in the endless velvet black of uninhabited desert. The twinkle of lights far in the distance - maybe some small town, maybe Austin seen from a hundred miles away - called me onwards out of the blackness, away from solitude.

As strange as it is, this part of the trip – the kind of crappy long run home – is essential to my yearly “recalibration”. Let me explain. Every year, I head out on the road for a few weeks to have a grand adventure, and it has never failed to be full of new sights and experiences and people. Those few weeks help me remind myself that there is always more out there. Not to say that there’s anything wrong with day-to-day life, of course. Being on a neverending adventure would be ultimately exhausting, lonely, and fairly impossible, given that I’m not made of money. But I find that without a little adventure, it’s far too easy to fall into a rhythm of life that pushes you into a rut. When that happens to me, suddenly time seems to accelerate and weeks can pass with me doing nothing but existing. That works for some people, but it doesn’t work for me. I like to keep the hunger for more – more experiences, more adventures, more knowledge, more life – keen and sharp. And these road trips are like a whetstone. At first, it is hard to get out the door, and hard to push on to new places and new experiences. And then it gets easier and easier until it seems unfathomable to not do something interesting with my day. When I’m on the road, I’m the best version of me that I can be. At least, I’m the version of me that I like best.

The problem is that when I get home from these trips, the return to normal life can chafe pretty badly. It’s jarring, going from a life of complete freedom to a life with schedules and deadlines. Even though I am lucky enough to have an amazing job and almost no other life responsibilities, I still feel it. But I find that the long drive home through West Texas is just enough of a chore that it helps anchor me back down into a happy middle ground. So even though I’ll always complain about this drive, I’ll always appreciate it as a way to get my feet back on the ground so I can live like a functional member of society again when I get home.

 And so I drove - slowly letting go of life on the road, slowly shifting back into my daily life, slowly returning to normalcy - until I reached home. As always, the soft thump of the closing garage door had a kind of bittersweet echo of finality to it. Another year, another road trip in the books, closed out and finished. It would be sad, if I didn't have so many other things to look forward to in my everyday life. After all, in the next couple of weeks I'll be moving into a new house, with all kinds of interesting things to sort out and an entirely new neighborhood to explore. I've got field trips and conferences and new projects to tackle at work, and I've got a big backlog of new recipes I'd like to try in the kitchen. It's all normal life stuff, but it's so much easier to do when I come back refreshed from a road trip.

So, with that.... my recalibration is complete. Kelly signing out.


Footnote: Thank you all for your patience as I finished up these blog posts! The past couple of months have been insanely busy, but Jane and I are finally settled into our new house. I hope you all enjoyed reading about the trip as much as I enjoyed writing about it. I'll see you all next year!

Thursday, October 31, 2019

A Geologist's Wonderland

THE LONG-AWAITED POST HAS FINALLY ARRIVED!!! After a long bout of many back-to-back events, I've finally got both the time and the motivation to finish up this post. The next one will conclude this year's road trip chronicles. For what it's worth, I had to go through 600+ photos for this post to select the very best ones to show you all! I hope the wait was worth it.



A couple of nights ago, I signed up for an August 14th tour heading to Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. This northern Arizona monument is somehow little-known despite containing some very well-known rock outcrops, the most famous of which being the Wave. Somehow, this is one of those places that remains generally out of the public eye. Part of it probably has to do with access problems, as all of the roads in the monument are 4x4 and are mostly deep sand. That’s been limiting me for years, as Jane is absolutely not the kind of car to take on such roads! I’ve really wanted to visit this place for years though, so it seemed like a great opportunity to jump on when a spot opened up on a tour with Dreamland Safaris! Jane could sit the day out and I could go sightseeing in a 4x4 SUV that would be much less likely to bury itself in sand.

Many places in Vermilion Cliffs are accessible by permit only, with a limited number of permits given out in a day. Coyote Buttes, for example, only has 20 visitors per day, and the Wave has a meager 10. Permits are only assigned the day prior, so it can be really hard to visit those places when you’re not a local. You have to spend a part of a valuable vacation day sitting in a permit office waiting on the lottery, and then if you don’t win it then you’re SOL for the next day. That’s where the tour operators really shine: they go to enter your name in the lottery for you the day before your tour, and take care of all of the paperwork and admin stuff. Then, if you are picked to get the special access permits, they adjust your tour accordingly; if not, then you go to a few places that are always open access. When I spoke with Dreamland, they informed me that all of their tours go to White Pocket, with options to go to Coyote Buttes or the Wave depending on what kinds of permits are acquired. 

I ended up getting super lucky and getting permits for Coyote Buttes, so I woke up bright and early this morning filled with anticipation. My tour guide for the day, Andrea, picked me up at 8 AM and I got to meet the three other travelers in my tour group. Fortunately, Dreamland keeps its groups small: partially for the experience, I’m sure, but also to be practical since there are very few permits available per day for some of the locations they visit.

The big SUV trundled along, transitioning from hard-packed dirt roads to deep sandy tracks without incident thanks to Andrea’s expert handling. It was pretty immediately clear to me that I would not have made it even half a mile in Jane on the smaller tracks. I guess there are just some places that Jane can’t go, whether I like it or not.

We headed first to South Coyote Buttes, the permitted portion of our tour. A quick mile-long hike through sand brought us to a series of spires rising crown-like out of the ground, all swirled with fanciful bedding patterns and tinted with brilliant southwestern hues.

Upon reaching the base of the outcrop, I found some of the best-preserved dune cross bedding that I’ve ever seen. Wind-driven erosion had accentuated the layering of the bedding, carving it out into dramatic spikes and sharp lines. Purples and reds and oranges and yellows flickered across the rock with little regard for the original bedding, instead following their own unknown paths.

 Even more amazing were the peculiar hills just to the side of the main outcrop. Instead of preserving sweeping cross bedding, they seemed made up of puffy hexagons, looking much like mounds of well-baked yeast rolls.

I especially liked the hexagons within the hexagons.
The geologist in me was delighted to have a puzzle to sort out. I claim no expertise in this area of the world, nor even in this specific type of rock - I'm first and foremost a limestone geologist, not a clastic geologist. But I like to turn these things over in my head, examine them from various angles and see if I can teach myself something, or at least hone my observational skills.

I have to admit, I was totally mystified by those polygons. My first thought was that maybe they were relict mud cracks. I'm sure you all have seen how mud pulls apart into polygons (mostly hexagons) when it dries up in a puddle. Problem is, these things were made of fairly coarse sand, which is not known to behave this way. Furthermore, they crawled up the side of the hills with no apparent change, which means they were draped over the preexisting hills when they were formed. A mystery!

Andrea did a great job shepherding us (me) without making the tour into a "cattle drive". While I was busy glaring at these strange rocks, she showed the others some of her favorite spots. It turns out that the initial crown-like outcrop that we saw from the start of the trail obscures an entire small valley of fantastically colored, magnificently swirly buttes, hills, and spires. 

Still annoyed by these

One small rock in particular stood out from the rest once I noticed it, though I mostly had to trip over it before even seeing it. Andrea said that it has been dubbed "Gumball Rock", and from the right direction, it's easy to see why!

Aha! The Gumball becomes visible!
The others took their turn checking out the Gumball, and I turned my attention elsewhere. I passed by a small puddle - a remnant of some rain long past - and saw quite a lot of tadpoles in it. But as I squatted down to inspect further, I found that most of the squiggly inhabitants were not tadpoles at all! Behold, the new-to-me mysterious and completely fascinating TADPOLE SHRIMP. 

Is it a shrimp? Is it a tadpole? It's pretty much neither actually... but it is weirdly cute in a kind of crustaceany way

These guys apparently belong to the genus Triops, a type of crustacean that is a kind of "living fossil" that has been more or less unchanged since the Jurassic. They live in fresh water but usually inhabit temporary water bodies - in other words, they are crustaceans that somehow inhabit desert environments! They've accomplished this by adapting their eggs to remain dormant until appropriately saturated with water, at which point they will hatch. They're short-lived but really cool little animals. I was totally engrossed by them and the group mostly left me to my own devices, opting to head further into the main attraction while I stared at swimming bugs in a 6" puddle. Priorities, you know.

Eventually I caught up, rounding the corner and descending into a hollow to see more awesome outcrops. The colors of some of the rocks were indescribable. Good thing I took pictures.

Close up of the above rock - I really liked how the wavy color banding runs at a 60-120* angle to the actual bedding 

Tilted layers all weathering down at once, producing a really beautiful pattern

It was all so overwhelming - the vastness of the sky, the brilliance of the colors, the fantastical shapes of the outcrops, the swirls and patterns in the rock - that it almost felt like an assault on my eyes. Maybe that's why I got sucked into watching some little prehistoric monsters scoot around a puddle. And maybe that's why I found the world's tiniest desert flower.

But you just can't escape the power of this place. Andrea led us a little further down into the valley, and we began to encounter more and more fantastically shaped outcrops, towers of fluted sandstone cut by wind and time into amazing sculptures of sharp lines and softly curling features.

Me for scale

I like how these layers are curled like the pages of a well-read book.

Our final stop at Coyote Buttes was a pocket shaped from a conglomerate of buttes. It's hard to tell scale here, but they must have been a hundred or so feet tall.

There was also a pretty funky rock that looked like the Sorting Hat from Harry Potter, so I liked that one too.

We did finally have to turn around and scoot back out to the vehicles so that we could head to our next destination. I felt like I had been out there for days - not in a "it's so hot and I'm so hungry and tired" kind of way, but more in a "too much information to process" kind of way. I guess I was lucky, though - everyone else in my group, being from more temperate climates, was hot and tired in addition to experiencing total sensory overload. On my end, sunny 95*F weather is kind of balmy, and a couple miles of hiking is hardly anything. I guess that's kind of a nice thing about living in Texas, if you could call that nice. So, having some extra energy to spare, I busied myself talking bull about rocks to Andrea, who humored me. I also got her to take a few photos of the biggest cross-bedded butte with me for scale on the way out! Of all the rocks on this hike, this one was my favorite.

So there, now you have a better sense of the sheer monolithic presence of this thing. Sure, the features of Coyote Buttes are really a much smaller scale - even a few orders of magnitude smaller - than the features of some of the other places I've been on this trip. In comparison to the Grand Canyon or Colorado National Monument or Black Canyon of the Gunnison, these buttes are quite small. But there's a distinct difference when you're standing at the bottom looking up. We spend so much time looking down, I think, that our brains automatically erase some of the awe we might otherwise feel, even at spectacles as large as the Grand Canyon. But when you're looking up, and up, and up, and all you can see is the silhouette of this giant rock - which abruptly seems like just a small bit of the world, really - against a backdrop of cobalt blue that intensifies and deepens the longer you look... well, it's different, that's all.

Andrea and the rest headed back to the truck for a rest and lunch, and I took the opportunity to wrap around the side of the outcrop where we hadn't been yet. And, surprise... I found more awesome swirly coolness!

My explorations were cut short by the rumbling of my stomach, so I doubletimed it back to the truck to get my sandwich and a piece of shade. The rest break didn't last long, though, as we still had an entire second location to visit! Exciting stuff. We piled into the truck - the rest gratefully exclaiming over the AC, me content to close the vents and let them have more of it - and set off again through the sand, slewing left and right through the slippery tracks.

We arrived at the White Pocket trailhead and found a couple of other tour trucks there already, but it was really fairly deserted given the beautiful weather and the lack of restrictions on this particular area of the park. Since you don't need a permit to go here, technically anyone with 4x4 capabilities can go. If you can find the way, that is... since there are not really any signs to point you in the right direction down the sand tracks!

From a distance, it's easy to see how White Pocket got its name: the outcrops shine like white beacons even from far away. From the parking lot, the glare was strong; after the short hike to the outcrop itself, the glare was more than a little strong. But the outcrops were well worth squinting at! 

The white part of White Pocket is that same hexagonally-fractured clumpy, puffed-up rock that I saw back at Coyote Buttes. It probably belongs to the same geological unit, as the succession of rock types that I saw at White Pocket matched the Coyote Buttes succession perfectly. At White Pocket, though, less of the underlying cross bedded duneform sandstones are exposed, so you get to walk around on what is essentially the upper part of the Coyote Buttes succession. And because the outcrop here is less eroded, it means that the white unit is much more widespread rather than just occurring as caps on top of discrete buttes at Coyote Buttes.

Andrea turned me loose at the outcrop, opting to show the others parts that required less of a strenuous hike. I took off for the top of the highest point of the "yeast roll rocks", as I had come to think of them. I really wanted to check out the entire outcrop and figure out the best places to go with the limited time we had left in the day. But also, the yeast roll rocks are really cool so I kind of just wanted to play on them.

Looking at a section of more irregularly fractured rock

Looks like the joints are kind of layered and buckled (see the overhanging lips on the left side of each of the polygons?). Trusty backpack for scale!
So pleasingly symmetrical

Looking up into space

From the top, I had a really spectacular view of the exposed outcrop to either side of the hill that I was on. Here, the rocks were more uniform striped red and white, in contrast to Coyote Buttes' rainbowed hues. That didn't make them any less beautiful, but it did certainly make them a little easier on the eyes! 

The view to my right from the top of my hill was a pretty spectacular outcrop that showcased three different units - which I also saw at Coyote Buttes - each dominated by distinct sedimentary structures. The photos below show them quite nicely: a lower cross-bedded dune sandstone, a middle contorted sand (swirly looking stuff), and of course the upper hexagonally fractured massive white sandstone on top. 

A great cross-sectional view of the three main units with three easily differentiated sediment structures: cross-bedded sand dunes (below), contorted "swirly" bedding (middle), and overlying hexagonally jointed massive "yeast rolls" unit (above).

Interestingly, bedding in the butte in the background looks pretty flat (horizontal lines)

I peeled my eyes away and looked to the right to find some more Coyote Buttes-esque humps with dramatically colored bedding. Over here, too, I also found the tourists who had come in the other trucks: a group of Chinese tourists, all carrying parasols of different colors. Their neat, tidy parasols would have made for a cool contrast against the sheer outdoorsy-ness of the rocks, but unfortunately I was so far up the hill that my camera couldn't zoom in close enough. I bet you'd have a hard time seeing them in the photos below, even though I've now told you about them!

In front of me sprawled a vast plain, but I can't say that I had much interest in it with so many cool rocks surrounding me. So, I turned around, and found... well, what looks like rows of fingers.

Kind of weird, man
I decided I didn't like that very much, so with my reconnaissance complete, I hopped my way down the outcrop and off to check out the more Coyote Buttes-y part of the area to the right. As I descended into the red-and-white contorted zone, I found some pretty cool fractures creating interesting zig-zags in the rock.

I gotta say, it is pretty fun being a geologist. It's just very satisfying to look at the ground and know what you're standing on and how it formed, you know?

As I climbed back down the outcrop, I ran into the others standing at the edge of a very dramatic crossbed set taking some silly photos. Once I saw the game, of course, I wanted some of my own:

And I'm not going to lie, I'm totally posting this photo because my calves look amazing

Arghhh! I'm falling!!

A much better photo without my silliness in it
We all continued down into the little hollow, where we found, surprisingly, a grassy pond! The "pocket" part of "White Pocket" comes from the tendency of water to pool in a depression in the rocks after rain. Here, the depression is big enough that water sticks around for weeks after a rain - which would be very valuable to wildlife and cattle ranchers alike. Or, you know, tourists who want to see a beautiful green grassy pond juxtaposed against the starkness of the desert.

Just something else, isn't it?

A small puddle off to the side housed more Triops, so I got embroiled in that while the others wandered off elsewhere again. 

So cute!

Something different I found... I have NO idea what it is, but it looks like a shrimp inside a clamshell.
In no time, it seemed like the afternoon had almost gone. I wandered some more amongst the swirling reds and whites of the Vermilion Cliffs as our official departure target time came and went. It went unspoken, but all of us were keen to spend as much time there as possible, especially now that the sun was descending in the sky and temperatures were cooling off.

An interesting view showing how the yeast roll sandstone unit drapes over top of the cross bedded underlying sandstones

Person for scale

Eventually we all drifted back to the car, dusty and weathered and tanned. We had stayed a good hour and a half longer than we were supposed to, but none of us minded - not even Andrea. Our minds full of whimsically twisting red rocks, funny puffy hexagonally cut white rocks, and endless deep blue skies, the ride back to town was much quieter than it had been on the way out. We only stopped once to view a spectacular mesa that was lit up a brilliant vermilion by the golden waning light of the sun. At sunset, it's obvious how the Vermilion Cliffs came to be so named.

We arrived back in town around 6:30 and said our goodbyes. Jane sat at the motel, patiently waiting, so I took the opportunity to use the very last of the daylight to go for a quick spin. Seems like a shame to leave a car like that cooped up in a motel parking lot while I go adventuring all day, you know?

Eventually we ended up at a quasi-Mexican restaurant and I settled into my enchiladas with a nice book (probably a strange thing to do at a Mexican restaurant, I guess, but who cares). I spent a while mentally preparing for the next few days, trying to get jazzed up for a quick bolt home to Austin. You see, today marks the last day of the "adventuring" part of my road trip. From here on out, I'll be firmly in the "you need to go home now" part of the road trip, where I just drive and drive and drive and eventually end up back home with a newly-renewed hatred of the plains of West Texas. It does make my eventual arrival somewhat of a relief, though, instead of me wishing I was still on the road having a good time. So there's that.

Until then... Kelly signing out.