Wednesday, March 30, 2016

1 Week, 3 States, 3 Deserts

Written March 21st

A desert, by definition, is an area of land that receives less than 10 inches of rain per year. With that limitation one might assume that all deserts are pretty much the same, especially ones that lie roughly on the same longitude. The last couple of weeks proved that assumption entirely wrong.

Since leaving Ash Meadows, we've driven east through Nevada, and Arizona to New Mexico and through the Mohave, Sonora, and Chihuahua Deserts. They may all receive less than 10 inches of rain per year, but due to differences in temperature range, and the timing of those 10 inches (or less) they are noticeably different deserts.

Mohave Desert (in bloom)
Driving through Nevada and then South-western Arizona we were in the Mohave Desert.  The landscape was a lot like what we'd been living in for the last three months. We were surrounded mostly by mesquite trees, occasional Joshua tree forests, creosote bushes and an occasional cholla or beavertail cactus. This being the year of the super bloom, ie the year after record fall rains, there were also lots of wildflowers. Acres of desert gold, desert ghost, phacilia, and other wildflowers.

The Mohave, the driest and most extreme desert, receives an average of 5 inches rain per year, generally in the spring and fall. Temperatures range from 20 degrees on January and February nights to as high as 130 in July and August. This creates a distinct landscape, a barrenness relieved by the occasional plant.

The cactus jungle that is the Sonoran Desert
Driving east through Arizona and into Tucson we were in the Sonoran Desert.  The Joshua tree groves were replaced by short then soon, towering Sonoran Cactus. Prickly bear, fishhook, barrel, organ pipe and lots of other cactus plants all crowded together. Succulents like agave, and yuccas also forced their way in to the wild plant jumble along with ocotillo, a tall, thin cactus-looking plant sporting red blossoms at the tip of their long spikes.  Hiking through this intimidating jumble looked impossible, if not painful. The Sonora desert is like the rainforest of deserts. It receives approximately e3 - 16 inches of rain, and temperatures are more moderate. Desert plants not fond of freezing temperatures thrive in the climate as do birds and animals. We spent a day at the Desert Museum just outside Sonora National Park in Tuscon. Five hours of walking through bird aviaries, cactus and agave gardens, desert reptile and mammal displays and we hadn't even begun to get a handle on the Sonora Desert's diversity. 

Chihuahua Desert
We hit the road, again heading east and into New Mexico. Plants began to thin out, the Sonora cactus disappeared and the remaining desert plants desert spread themselves out a bit thinner. Creosote bushes and mesquite once again appeared. And everywhere there were bright yellow desert popChihuahua's temperature range is closer to that of the Mohave, but days spent in the extremes are fewer. A more defining characteristic of this desert is that it has a monsoon season in July and August. What rain does fall, about 10 inches per year, the majority of it falls in those two months. Oh, and in the spring there is a lot of wind. Lots of wind. We stopped at the welcome center just over the line in New Mexico. The woman at the desk was less than welcoming but did manage to tell us that "The Wind" was coming. She couldn't tell us when, or from where, or what kind of wind it was going to be, just that "The Wind" was coming. Her ominous sounding prediction was made more so by frequent highway signs warning that "Dust May Blow" and instructing drivers to "Pull completely off the Highway during periods of Low Visibility". Well, the wind has arrived. It's blowing about 30 knots out there right now with gusts up to 45. Tonight they're predicting gusts as high as 60. There's something that happens with jet
Preview of hikes to come !
stream and land temperatures that really packs the isobars close together. If you're in a dusty area, and there are a lot of those in Southern New Mexico, then you could get a brown out. If there isn't any dust, you still have to keep an eye out for blowing debris and keep your own stuff tied down.
pies.  The

Tomorrow we're heading into the Gila Mountains. We'll be out of the desert and into the trees for the first time in over five months. It's going to be an adjustment.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Water - and the Radicalization of an Easterner

Kings Pool - Restored Spring at Ash Meadows
If I had a shot of whiskey for every time in the last few months, the months we've been traveling out west, when someone told me, "Whiskey is for drinking, and water is for fighting over" I'd have been drunk half the time.

And while it's a foreign concept back East, it does appear that water out west is for "fighting over." It's certainly something I've been thinking a lot about, pretty much ever since we crossed the Missouri River in South Dakota.  Not so much the fighting, or the whiskey, but the water.

From July through October it was all about the drought. And while folks seemed less than happy when rain was in the forecast, they mostly talked about snow pack. Water out west, generally doesn't
Irrigation Control Gate
come from the sky, it comes from the ground and from rivers. The rivers and aquafer get charged by the winter snows high in the mountains. Up and down the west coast, from the Cascades of Oregon through the Sierra's of California, there hadn't been much if any snow for the last two winters. Lakes were low, rivers only a trickle. People were arguing about where they should get more water. Could they dig deeper wells? What about cutting back on the dam releases? Sure the Salmon might die but the crops would be watered...and so on. 

Meanwhile the concept of water conservation seems total foreign. Farmers and ranchers are irrigating crops mid-day, spraying the precious water into the air, half of which evaporates in the dry air before reaching even plant leaves, let alone the roots. Where they don't spray they rely on the ancient and inefficient practice of flood irrigation. Cheap to install and maintain, but highly inefficient water use. The town aren't much better. Desert dwellers water suburban lawns, have no idea of what a low flush toilet even looks like, refill their pools daily and don't own covers that would cut down on evaporative loss.

On the Eastern side of the Sierras, in the Owens valley, 120 miles from Los Angeles we learned more and more about the ecological devastation caused by the Los Angeles water grab. It was a hard, sad read but "Cadillac Desert" lays out the story of how water from the Sierra's, the Colorado River, etc has all been diverted from their original courses and sent on to agriculture and far away cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix. From looking out the car window we could also see how so much of that
water was just wasted. It was a drought, but more than half of the water was still just wasted! Sometimes I needed that whiskey just to calm down.

The Endemic Ash Meadows Sunray
And then, in October, we came to Ash Meadows, walked into the bathroom and read an Edward Abbey quote on the wall:

"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."

Hayduke rides again! After living at Ash Meadows for two and a half months, western water issues are even more obvious - and even more worth fighting over. Ash Meadows is a wildlife refuge located along the Amargosa River watershed, and on top of miles-long faults.  It was created in the mid 1980's to save the very special ecosystem created by water in the desert. The result is 50 natural, mostly warm springs pumping out 11,000 gallons of water per minute. 50 little oasis-es and their resultant outflow streams. Along with the endemic and endangered pupfish there are 27 endemic species, plants and animals found nowhere else in the world.  All in the Mohave desert. Ash Meadows is really all about water.

What could have been - this alone makes
me want to drink
But not everyone is thrilled about the refuge or its "waste" of water. Locals resent the loss of 20 farm jobs, and/or the lost income from a potential housing development. There have been and continue to be campaigns against the refuge (and other wildlife refuges, national forests, national parks, etc). A "Kill the Pupfish" bumpersticker was produced - by the local town commissioner. Like the spotted owl for the lumber industry, the pupfish are the anti-symbol of agri-business. The feeling seems to be, if there's water here, people have the right to use/waste it. To hell with the species that have occupied the land for the past thousands of years, to hell with biological diversity.

Living at Ash Meadows, and being out West have changed all that for me. If some says that the need to pump all the water out of the springs for a few jobs, the ability to flood the desert or spray water into the air and grow some crop that would more economically be raised elsewhere is greater than the need to set aside precious acres in order to let special, endemic species live and to allow  people from all over to world to enjoy the beauty of the springs and appreciate the diversity of the unique environment, not to mention giving those rare and endemic species a safe place to thrive. Then I say - pass the whiskey, them's fighting words.

Monday, March 07, 2016

New Mexico - Here We Come

Ignorance may be bliss, but is it a good way to start a new adventure? Knowing next to nothing about 'the land of enchantment' we're heading to New Mexico next week to learn more, and maybe, just maybe be enchanted? (And find out what the flag is all about too)

Here's what I do know. I don't know enough Spanish. There are aliens in Roswell. Bats at Carlsbad Cavern.  The southern-most peaks of the Rockies are there, rising out of the desert. There are trees. After two months in the desert, S.D. is looking for trees. Big trees.  And chilies. Chilies seem to be ubiquitous in and with New Mexico.  After Nevada, I'm lusting for good food. Towns and cities include Albuquerque (which means an annoying Partridge Family song will be running through my head for most of the month), Taos and Santa Fe.  Willa Cather wrote a rambling, almost boring novel, "Death Become the Archbishop"
about it. And last but not least, Georgia O'Keefe painted awesome works there.

S.D. and my two and a half months at Ash Meadows have been awesome. We've both explored a lot, and relaxed. We've also installed a water pressure tank and solar panels with the idea of spending more time off the grid and out in the wild. So we are ready to go.

Suggestions and tips for what to see and do in New Mexico would be highly appreciated!