Oasis in the Desert

A lingering neck injury on my part has kept me off the bicycle.  Well that’s not entirely true.  I’ve been getting back on the bike a bit, telling myself I’ll take it easy on the smooth trails and not overdue it.  But that gets boring.  Maybe boring isn’t the right word.  But it quickly becomes apparent that the gentle ride is not as exciting as say the stray trail, likely a horse trail, that forks off to the side and towards sights yet unseen.  I give in of course and the ride gets a lot more fun.  A half mile down a dry creek bed and I find myself in a steep canyon with rock carved smooth rising 10 meters above.  Now this is more like it!  And then two hours later back in the trailer I find myself wincing in pain every time I look to the right.  That was the case at our stop outside Flagstaff.  And that is the reason we have been seeking out bodies of water to camp on or near, for the next while, which starting with Bartlett Reservoir.  Watersports.  Kayaking has provided a great low impact form of exploration and adventure, especially now when biking is on the back burner for a bit.  The problem though, is we are in the desert.

After moving on from Bartlett we set sights on Theodore Roosevelt Reservoir.  It was a bit of a bust.  Not in the sense that it wasn’t a beautiful location.  The “bust” was on us.  Recall a time you were going out for dinner or drinks.  You walk up to the door of a place that has your attention from either curb appeal, reviews, or a peer recommendation.  You barely get far enough inside to see the place.  You don’t give yourself a chance to get to know the place.  You just “nah”, lets go somewhere else.  Well that’s what Roosevelt was.  And I regret it, now, 4 days later and 400 miles away.

After leaving we decided to go to Yuma.  The winter capital of 55+ Canadians.  I’ve never heard it called that and just made it up, so please quote me on it even if it’s wrong.  Before Yuma, we did stop overnight at Painted Rocks Petroglyph Site, outside Gila Bend.  They should change the sign to read “The Site Where Painted Rock Petroglyphs Used To Be”.  A crumbed pile of rock surrounded with signs erected far to late that read “stay off rocks” is what stood just next to our campsite.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t much left to see.  We still spent two nights there, roasting ourselves in the hot sun.  We hoped to blend in when we got to Yuma.

Yuma is a unique place.  I’d be curious too see the numbers, but I have a feeling there are more RV park lots here than houses.  And likely less people here that call Yuma home than those that do not.  Some of the RV parks were the size of small towns.  With the amenities to boot.  Tennis courts (as in 3-4), swimming pools that put big city pools to shame, bars, restaurants, even golf courses littered these places.  Resembling all inclusive resorts, but where you bring your own condo, these were the exact opposite of what we seek.  In search of an intimacy with nature, we headed to the brewery in Yuma, Prison Hill Brewing Co., to lubricate our decision making.  Jake and Rubix kept guard in the trailer, however Gus was forced against his will to socialize, joining us on one of their pet friendly patios.  Gus is great stranger bait.  With little effort on our part, when he’s around people just want to come say hi, first for his story, then ours.  When we’re lucky they share a bit of theirs as well.  Being on a strict budget doesn’t allow for much indulgence when it comes to food.  Once in a while though, something is spotted on a menu that must be tried.  We usually reserve these splurges for something we’ve never seen before.  Beer battered deep fried avocado.  That was the splurge at Prison Hill Brewery.  And damn was it good!  After filling up our growlers we were on our way.

Since leaving Roosevelt Reservoir we hadn’t seen water.  We even crossed the Gila River, which had no water in it.  Arizona is desert in the most absolute sense of the word.  It is dry as can be.  Without break.  Our sites were set on the Lower Colorado River.  A series of dams just north of Yuma have created a slew of small lakes interconnected along the river before it crosses the border and empties into the Gulf of California, or Sea of Cortez.  Not far from Yuma, on the California side of the river, we snaked through miles of perfectly manicured fields of leafy greens including lettuce, kale, and the occasional date tree plantation.  This was such stark contrast to the bleak desert that surrounds.  Man made irrigation waterways lined the fields in perfect symmetry.  And then, just like that, we were out of it.  Back to lifeless hills of brown and beige.  But that wouldn’t last.  The source of all things green came into sight.  And looked so out of place.  Lakes that look like spilled paint pooling and running out in every directing, surround by thick green reeds, grasses, and more date trees, came seemingly out of nowhere.  Scattered RVs in no designated stalls, perched under hills, behind bushes, and just about anywhere else they could find in the sun littered the surroundings.  But not in such a way to intrude on the beauty.  Solar panels lay out in front of many, and fixed to the roof of many more, these RV’s were boondockers.  Like us, they are not confined to pad with a post with a number on it where you can get mail.  What a difference from the gridwork stacks of Lego back in the RV parks in town!

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Great Sand Dunes National Park  and Zapata Falls

A couple hours South of Poncha Pass the valley widened and the mountains grew shorter with peaks more dispersed.  We neared Great Sand Dunes National Park.  40 miles (roughly 65 km.) we spotted a beige cluster in the southeast distance.  The fact it was visible from such a distance suggests the scale of it.  We stopped for a quick bathroom break off the highway at a pit stop with no more than 2 of any item in stock, and less than a ¼ of the shelves with anything to catch the dust at all.  There was a diner attached.  If crickets paid they might make ends meet.  How these communities and places survive is a mystery to me.  The sandy, infertile, and incredibly inhospitable land was littered with mobile homes and trailers whose tin roofs were weighed down with old tires so not to fly away with the winds that whipped the land into it’s current condition.  Living in Edmonton and Saskatoon I’ve been questioned by many as to how we survive seasons.  The seemingly unfathomable cold is nothing compared to the un-growing, unproviding lands these are.  With cold brings snow, brings melt and feeds growth.  The native plants seem to barely survive here.  It’s hard to imagine this land providing in the sense we are accustomed to in the fertile, frozen north.

We lucked out coming into the park.  It seems those at the gate were on break.  The typically manned pay window was closed tight with a sign saying “gone, will collect payment on re-entry”.  Awesome!  National Park entry fees are $30.  Based on our cheap living budget that’s 3 days of meals for the two of us.  The dunes were barely visible from about 1km before the park gates until almost 2km after.  By that point they seem to quadruple in size.  What looked once like a sandy first rise up a desert mountain was suddenly a deep mass of sun warmed wash.  From the sandy, mostly frozen creek-bed below the dunes there is no camera lens that can capture the volume of what lies before you.  Carefully we skipped across 100m (300 feet) of partially frozen, still running, wet sand wash to get to the dry warm beach that is the base of the dunes.  And a beach it was!  This is by far the cleanest, softest, purest sand I’ve ever seen or set foot in.  It was dry 6” deep and I just can’t explain…  think the “champagne powder” of sand.

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With a quick preview and a plan of making the 750 foot vertical climb the following day, we left the park and headed up the next mountain south to a free campsite at the base of Zapata Falls.

I have a thing for waterfalls.  I find them absolutely fascinating and am obsessed with seeing and participating in as many as possible.  How exactly does one participate in a waterfall?  Good question.  I haven’t really given this much thought until this moment, the first time I’ve tried to explain or justify my obsession.  There is such a power behind any waterfall.  The only way they exist is because of thousands of years of water, something that seems so soft and gentle, forming rock; something so hard and un-formable.  You can participate by hiking nearby, ascending the same landscape they have cut through with no regard to its previous shape.  We swim and bath in the pools they form.  We jump off cliffs with them, feeling for a brief second the same power plunging into the pools below.  That’s all if you’re lucky. In most cases we participate simply by being there to observe and feel a power and force that cannot be measured by any man-made unit.

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Zapata Falls was all of that, but frozen.  Paused in time as for what you can see.  Your ears and feet disagree though.  Under thick, cracked ice, mostly clouded with air but for a few glimpses through a clear block.  This flow was alive and well beneath a frozen cloak of cold trying its best to put you on your backside with every slippery step.  I feel winter may be the best and possibly only real time to view these falls.  From the end of well groomed trail leading to them, the frozen state allows you to climb back into the tight and tall canyon, around a bend where the giant falls stand.  Without the solid water I’m not sure we would have witnessed this sight.

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Half-way back to the main parking area, the trail forks and leads an alternate route back to one of the best laid out campsites we’ve stayed at yet.  Two large loops, one for tenting and one for RV’s are lined alternately, either side with pull-through stalls, each complete with a bear-proof storage bin to keep food items in overnight, as well as picnic tables and steel fire-pits including removable grilling grates.  It seemed there wasn’t a site that didn’t offer beautiful panoramic views of the valley below, with the city of Alamosa to the South, the distant peaks of the San Juan Mountains to the West, and the Great Sand Dunes National Park to the North, slightly dwarfed by the Sangre De Cristo Mountains behind.  But just slightly.  From this elevated viewpoint we were able to, for the first time, really view and comprehend the 31 square mile sprawl of the dunes.

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Truck and Trailer- sunset view
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Rubix looking at the sunset from the trailer.