Archives For nature photography

Painted Desert, Arizona

After a decent breakfast in our lonely motel restaurant, we headed out to the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest. I didn’t have super high expectations; I assumed Mtuseni would be bored. But I’d been here in 1989 on my cross-country drive to California, and I’m really big on closing circles.

What I’m not big on is predicting Mtuseni’s responses. He was totally into it! We spent the entire day here. I didn’t recall the park being so large, and truth be told I zipped through the place 30 years ago. I was doing a drive-away then — and the clock was ticking down for me to deliver the car to its owners. 

It was great to take time to really explore and take photos. We started out in the visitor center, where we found a woman in the lab clearing soil away from a dinosaur fossil, using a giant magnifying glass and tiny brush. I was thrilled and fascinated. I’d always wanted to be an archeologist as a kid. It’s like finding buried treasure for work!

I grilled the woman with questions and she showed us all the recent fossil finds in various states of documentation on the office tables. I could have stayed there for hours. I don’t know why I didn’t get any photos. I thought I had. But the experience will always stay in my mind. 

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cactus

A cactus outside the visitor center. Why didn’t I get photos of the dinosaur fossils in the lab?

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From here we headed out to see the colors of the Painted Desert. The entire time I had the first few lines of the 10,000 Maniacs song running through my head. Here it feels like the space of the Southwest really opens up. The endless sweep of empty land always draws me in, and I want to walk across it to the far-off horizon. Knowing my outdoor and survival skills (which add up to zero), I’d probably die from a rattlesnake or scorpion or dehydration in 20 minutes! But I still feel compelled to explore that forbidding space. 

bbpainted desrt cliff

 

Mtu Paint Desert cliff

 

desert shack

I always wonder what kind of life and activity occurred in abandoned buildings long ago. Sadly, this place is about the size of Mtuseni’s family’s shack in South Africa.

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We continued along the park road to the Petrified Forest. Along the way we stopped at an overlook to see Newspaper Rock, covered in petroglyphs by people who lived in the area up to 2,000 years ago. (I thought I took photos, maybe I was delirious from sun stroke.) 

The park road crosses old Route 66. You can see its ghostly outline heading across the barren land, parallel to the highway. I explained to Mtuseni how this was the road people used to traverse the country long ago, and how Route 66 is an American icon. Evidently, some cars didn’t make it!

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Mtu desert car

An old car at the Route 66 marker. It reminds me of Bonnie and Clyde’s car!

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It’s always fascinated me that much of the American West was wet long ago — like ocean wet. To see these huge, ancient fallen trees in a land where now scrubby bushes and grasses barely grow, gives you a window into the passage of time — big time! 

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Pet Forest logs

 

forest sign

 

Pet forest log mtu

 

log trail

Logs of stone strewn across the trail — the shadows of an ancient forest.

 

log rings

Since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated how you can tell a tree’s age by counting the rings. Here the rings have turned to quartz. Doubly fascinating!

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The park is as empty and desolate as the land: No cafes or snack bars along the route. We lunched on energy bars and water. I couldn’t believe we had to hustle to the exit gate before the park closed; I really thought we’d spin through in about two hours.

It was a simple, mellow experience of just appreciating an ancient, silent landscape. It felt healing and sacred and pure. Again, that mysterious energy of the Southwest. It was a good day. 

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Pet forest log pair

 

After a quick pop into the gift shop, we headed off to Flagstaff for the night — grabbing supper at a Love’s truck stop along the way.  If I’m ever abducted and my captors want to torture me for information, all they’ll have to do is show me a foot-long tuna sub from Subway and I’ll squawk like a bird. If I never eat one of those again, it’ll be too soon. 

Checking into our hotel after dark, Mtuseni went right to sleep as usual. The kid sleeps like a newborn. I walked across the street to a shopping plaza — mainly to take in the crisp, cold night air. After weeks of late summer heat, this was the first feel — and smell — of fall. Once again, I was reminded of time passing.   

 

desert train

A freight train crossing the desert always gets me. Maybe because my grandfather worked the railroad in the 1930s. Or maybe I was a hobo in a past life.