Thursday, February 24, 2011


The second half of my stay in southern Arizona was WAY better than the first half, and here is an extra-long post to prove it! Most significantly, our great friends the Lawrences flew out to visit during their April school vacation. Gene, Theonne, Austin and Athena flew into Tucson late Wednesday night, picked up a car, and drove to a hotel 9 miles north of me, in Benson. They came to camp the next morning full of the excitement that comes of vacationing in a new place. The warm Arizona sun warmed their skin which had been previously bundled up against this year's severe New England winter. The first thing we did was to go for a hike on the park trail, where everyone familiarized themselves with all of the prickly plants that make up this desert landscape.

Next, we drove down to Sierra Vista to a bike shop that I had identified as one which rents out high-end mountain bikes: Sun 'n' Spokes Thanks to "Comino" for showing me all of the great bikes available for rent, and for an awesome free cleaning and tuneup while replacing my worn-out bottom bracket and derailleur cable!

We got everyone set up with a bike, including a brand new, never-been-used, Giant Cypher women's-specific trail bike for Athena - awesome!

Here is a Gigantor-full of bikes:

We did a family ride at the site of the ghost town Charleston. Here we rode among ruins of a once thriving silver-mining town, and up into the hills above. Thenonne and Athena were terrific sports following us boys up scrabbly single track into the hills!

Especially cool to see were the ancient native-American petroglyphs:

The next morning Gene, Austin and I went for another ride down in Sierra Vista, this time at Brown Canyon, where we gave our full-suspension bikes a real workout. After the two-mile-long dirt-road climb from 5000' to 5600' we thoroughly enjoyed the rewarding single track descent, covering most of the remaining 3 miles of trail.

After dropping off the bikes we did some shopping (Austin had to have a real cowboy hat!) and then went over to Fort Huachuca (wah-chooka). This is listed as an historic site, which sounded touristy, but it didn't feel so touristy as we all handed over ID and answered the guard's questions at the gate! Once inside we drove through the massive base until finally finding their museum, which was very good, but closed at 4:00. At about 4:15 we made for the exit, but it seemed like the place was all locked up! Just an illusion - not locked - we made our escape!

That night I retrieved Nancy from the airport. She was happy to get back to the adventure, especially since the Lawrence's were here, and also as she'd been separated from Kinsey during the horror of her medicine overdose. Toby also celebrated his 10th birthday that day, and was happy as a puppy to receive a new toy:

I took the crew out to Texas Canyon to explore the fantastic rock formations there. Everyone had a great time climbing around and taking photos.

In the afternoon, we headed on down to the wild, wild west town of Tombstone. "The Town Too Tough to Die" used to be a thriving mining town until the miners broke into the water table and got flooded out. After a couple of restarts, failed pumps, and fires, mining shut down for good. The town was poised to become another Arizona ghost town, but rallied instead to create a tourist destination. The famous gunfight at the OK coral provides much of the fodder for the tourist trade. For a scarcely justifiable fee, you can watch a re-enactment of this gunfight:

Then we wandered around the dusty streets, stopping to enjoy the humor of Toughnut street:

Overnight, Arizona got itself a serving of New England winter weather. We awoke to freezing temperatures and an inch of snow on the ground! W.T.F.?

So...we went underground. Kartchner Caverns State Park features: surprise! Caverns! We followed our animated Jane Lynch lookalike tourguide down into the steamy depths of the mountain, and marveled at the formations and colors of the limestone labyrinth. Here are some that look like bacon. Mmmmmmmmm, bacon...

Thankfully, the next day the weather returned to normal, and we drove out to Saguaro National Park to admire the towering cacti that give the park its name:

It was a nice ending to a great visit with Gene, Theonne, Austin and Athena, who dashed off to catch their plane back to Connecticut.

I was two weeks in Benson, Arizona, the longest stop of our trip besides our own house. Biking, hiking, dogs near death, wheel bearings, and the Lawrences made it a busy and very memorable location.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Alone in Arizona

Another couple-a hundred miles westward brought us into Arizona, to Kartchner Caverns State Park, south of the town of Benson. We needed to be within a reasonable drive of Tucson, from where Nancy would fly home the following morning. This left me on my own for the next 10 days. At first I was concerned that I would have trouble filling the time, as it was the first time I've been on my own out here on the road without also keeping moving. As it turns out, I've been very busy.

It started out as you might expect: with mountain biking. I found a trail system outside of Tucson called Fantasy Island, and went out the next day to experience it. I found it to be a fun tangle of single-track laid out in a lumpy rectangle of land sandwiched between a residential neighborhood and an air force base. The trail made the most of the terrain which did not feature any real elevation change, but was almost entirely vegetated with many different varieties of cacti. No room for error - veer a little off-trail and spend the next 20 minutes plucking cactus spines from your flesh! Thankfully, I made no errors!

It was a beautiful place with a backdrop of mountains:

The next day I took the dogs to the vet, and the previous post decribes just how well that turned out...

That, and the news that our friends the Lawrences would fly down the next week to visit, made it make sense to stay put at the state park until the end of the month. This way we'd still be near Tucson and its airport, and also have attractions like the park's own caverns, the town of Tombstone, and good bike trails within a reasonable drive. So, I made arrangements to move to a better campsite for the duration.

The sunrises are spectacular here:

And there are good hiking trails up into these mountains:

On one hike I came across an abandoned mine high in the hills overlooking the valley and the campground. I clambered up and in to get this photo:

Kinsey came back home ater just one night at the vet. She's better off here, for sure, but doesn't do much but sleep and recover from the horror of her poisoning. Here she is sleeping while Toby keeps watch:

Kinsey couldn't really participate in any activites, as she is struck with blindness as another maddening side effect of her overdose. Although her eyesight is expected to recover, it does, as you would expect, severely hamper her ability to move and interact with her surroundings. So, she slept in the Whale or in Gigantor while Toby and I did hikes, or while I did chores like change all the grease seals on the trailer wheels. You may recall that last fall I did this for the first time and discovered that three out of four seals had failed, contaminating the brake assemblies with grease. This time I am happy to report that there were no failures, and all four brakes are in excellent condition.

On one of our outings we drove east to an area called Texas Canyon which has amazing rock formations:

And I scoped out another riding spot down in Sierra Vista called Brown Canyon:

Shortly the Lawrences will arrive, which I look forward to, and then Nancy will also come back to me, and we'll have lots of adventures here in the desert.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Decimal Point

A decimal point almost killed my dogs...

Such a simple mistake - so nearly fatal.

Toby and Kinsey have been scratching for six weeks now, ever since we left the Georgia coast. We took them to a vet in Louisianna where they were (mis)diagnosed with allergies and given injected and oral steroids. These helped only minimally, so the inching continued, getting to the point that Toby, particularly, was cutting up his ears and losing a lot of hair. We went to a second vet in New Mexico, where the allergy theory was reinforced, and another batch of steroids administered. Still no improvememt. So, another vet in another state, in Sierra Vista, Arizona.

Nancy is back home getting in some face time with Network-IT and her clients, so this time it was just me bringing the dogs to the vet. Also, this time I insisted that a new direction be taken. The doctor suspected mites and did a test which confirmed this. What great news - a conclusive diagnosis! The treatment, ivermectin taken orally, is common and affective.

But here's where it all went wrong. The doctor calculated dosage based on the dogs' weights. Unforunately, the vet tech who filled the prescription got the decimal point in the wrong place and sent me home with instruction to administer TEN TIMES THE PRESCRIBED DOSE! And that's exactly what I did...

1:00 AM: Kinsey wakes me up as she is convulsing next to me on the bed. She lurches forward, then falls. Struggles up, lurches again, and again, and again... I tried to comfort her - sometimes she gets belly aches and acts funny. But it quickly became apparent that this was something new. I got up and went to the computer - looked up ivermectin overdose. Sure enough - the symptoms rang true: drooling, disorientation, staggering, unsteady heart rate, breathing difficulty, head pressing. She was doing them all. Well, almost all. Other possible symptoms are coma, and death...

I was at the vet when their doors opened. At this point we did not know why she reacted this way to the dose of ivermectin. But they started an IV and admitted her to try to keep her alive. Then I questioned the dosage. The doctor double checked his calculations and found them correct. BUT, he was quoting to me in tenths of a milliliter, and I distincly remembered the dose in whole milliliters. After some confusing communication back and forth, the doctor suddenly grew afraid that a mistake had been made. He consulted his technician and confirmed the error.

The doctor was visibly upset, as well he should have been. I said that I understood that it was a simple mistake, but that they must now do everything in their power to make her better. So, that's what they're doing. Kinsey is in their care. When I last saw her she was conscious but unresponsive, just suffering her poisoning. As of this writing I have learned that there has been improvement - that she drank some water and ate some food on her own. Excellent news, and a sign that she will probably recover fully.

As for Toby, he is clearly affected. He suffers some of the same disorientation and resulting stumbling gait. He cannot negotiate stairs, and sometimes falls when he walks. But, he remains alert and interested in the world: in food, in water, in smells, in other dogs. We think that he will recover without assistance. It has been especially difficult for Nancy to deal with all of this from afar, unable to comfort her dear little dog.

SO...a bit of a nightmare. And all because of one of these: .

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Las Cruces; White Sands

Westward from Carlsbad: we drove along the Guadalupe Mountains, and through a pass that gave Gigantor's exhaust brake a chance to show its stuff under tow. It was awesome at keeping our speed to around 55 on a long descent from 5200' to 4000'. We then drove over very flat land, among dry lakebeds and endless ranchland where the curvature of the earth was the only limitation on visibility. We skirted El Paso and turned north for Las Cruces. 15 miles north of the city we arrived at Leasburg Dam State Park where we were lucky to squeeze into the last remaining available site. New Mexico state parks are popular with winter campers because with an annual parks pass ($225 for non-residents) it costs only $4/night for a site with electricity ($0 for dry camping)! So, you could camp for a year in NM for less than $1700! Hmmmm.....

Anyway, the site we squeezed into affords us a 360 degree view, an adobe picnic shelter, water and electricity for $14/night without an annual pass.

From our window we watch the sun rise over the Organ Mountains:

The sun quickly warms the dry desert air. Each brilliantly sunny day the temperature rose around 45 degrees, from below freezing to over 70. The park has lots of nice trails through the thorny landscape, which we walked each day:

Many species of birds about here, like the cardinal-like Pyrrhuloxia, the curve-billed Thrasher, and the silly Gambel's Quail with their song like a tipsy English lady giggling over her afternoon tea.

I rode my bike around here, too, but picked up tire-fulls of these nasty thorned seeds called goat-heads. I had to refill my tires with sealant to keep air in them after pulling all of these horrible spines out of the rubber.

We drove back east through the Organ Mountains and out into the massive White Sands Missile Range, which surrounds White Sands National Monument. It was worth the drive, however. You can't really see much of the white sand from the road; not even entering the park can you see it. But around a few bends, behind the scrub covered dunes, you enter another world. It's like being on a different planet, really. The temperature drops 10 degrees, and everything but the sky is pure white. It looks so much like snow that you can't help but be surprised to set foot on it and find it hard and dry. We drove the park road through the dunes to its end, then walked out to where we couldn't see any other footprints.

White on white:

Lastly, we had dinner in Las Cruces on Valentine's Day at a classy little sushi place. Getting there was aggravating. Somehow at least 50% of the traffic lights in the city weren't functioning, resulting in near-gridlock: an every-man-for-himself approach to multi-lane four-way intersection crossing. Surviving that, and finally seated with drink in hand, we relaxed and had a very enjoyable meal:

Now we're off to Tucson, where Nancy will fly home for a week, and I'll tend the camper and dogs, suffering in the sun and warm air of Arizona ;)

Friday, February 11, 2011

Carlsbad Caverns

The lands north of the Davis Mountains are some of the most desolate that we've seen. There was no habitation and very few cattle, but quite a few oil rigs. Most of the oil pumps were small, old-fashioned personal-sized rigs, but there were also a few towering structures with an array of tanks around them to collect the crude. Another thing we noticed is that all (not most, not 99%, I mean ALL) of the passenger vehicles on the roads were pickup trucks. In Texas, Dodge seems to be the favorite by a large margin, followed by Ford and then a smattering of the General's products.
Once we crossed into New Mexico, Dodge Rams were still very popular, but GM trucks became just as common. Most of these trucks were huge, heavy duty monsters with giant off-road tires, lifted suspensions, and brush guards. These are the trucks of the tough, leathery desert people. Gigantor felt right at home out there.

We camped in Carlsbad, New Mexico, at a private park which was decent enough for a gravel lot campground. The diagonally aligned sites helped make it feel slightly less crowded. We paid a visit to a local veterinarian to see if there's anything we could do to stop the dogs from itching. They've been scratching more or less continuously since the Georgia coast. Toby got a shot of cortisone, and some lower dosage pills for little old Kinsey. Seems to have helped.

I also got out for a ride in the desert - a dusty single-track in the low hills on federal land, through hard, prickly terrain. The trail was well made and marked, I enjoyed it, and there was no blood-loss.

Of course the primary reason for coming to Carlsbad was to visit the caverns. After turning onto the park road it's a seven mile drive up a valley and onto the top of the hills.

We entered at the natural entrance (as opposed to descend via elevator) and walked the mile long descent, 750 feet under the surface. Here is Nancy at the entrance on the switchbacked walkway:

In the summer hundreds of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats fly out of this opening in a giant funnel cloud. The parks service has built stadium seating into the amphitheater-shaped cave opening for people to sit at dusk to view the spectacle. At this time of year, however, these critters are wintering farther south in Mexico, no doubt filling up on chips, salsa and tequila.

The walk down...
...past ancient Native American petroglyphs...
.......past heaping mounds of bat guano............ the twilight zone, the farthest reaches of natural light...
and then the speleothems begin:

Stalactites, stalagmites, columns, flow-stone, curtains, soda straws, popcorn, cave pearls...

This cave is so much larger than any other we've experienced. The Hall of the Giants, the largest at Carlsbad is nearly 4000 feet long and 350 feet high at its apex! The path around its perimeter is 1.25 miles long! The formations within are on a grand scale as well. Here is Nancy standing near towering stalagmites:

This column is 65 feet tall!

Many of the features have common names. This one is called Whale's Mouth:

They didn't post the name of this one, but I think it's obvious:

The self-guided tour ends with a mandatory elevator ride 754 feet up, back to the surface. The National Parks Service has done a great job protecting this amazing cavern from the over 500000 visitors per year. Almost none of the formations are broken, and very few show signs of human contact, remarkable given the monumental task of building elaborate walkways and installing hidden lighting systems. We'd love to return some summer day to see the evening flight of the bats.

Fort Davis & McDonald Observatory

Driving north out of Big Bend we re-entered the vast ranchlands of west Texas, and the landscape got pretty dull until we came to the Davis mountains area, where the prickly scrub groundcover was replaced with golden grass dotted with junipers and dark exposed ledge and boulders - quite beautiful. We made camp at David Mountains State Park, just uphill from the little town of Fort Davis. The campground is in a hollow surrounded by peaks, and is almost exactly one mile high in elevation. At the bottom of this picture you can see Gigantor and the Whale (click to enlarge):

While here we hiked some of their rugged trails on slopes where javelinas forraged:

And I rode up to the mountain top on a trail of loose, jagged rocks lined with blood-thirsty thorned shrubs. One of my least favorite rides of all time, but the views from the top made it worth the time and bloodshed:

The dusty little town had a cute little tex-mex restaurant, at which we enjoyed a delicious and inexpensive meal of enchiladas, and a great whole-foods market where, on Jim and Julie's recommendation, we got excellent pastries for the next day's breakfast.
Then we headed higher into the hills to Davis Observatory, run by the University of Texas. Here we attended a Star Party, where we were able to look through telescopes at various celestial bodies. When we arrived at dusk the temperature was nearly 70 degrees, but while inside waiting for the party to start a front blew in and the temperature plummeted into the 30's. By the time we went outside to the telescopes it was in the 20's, and the atmosphere, which appeared clear to the naked eye, was disturbed by the colliding air masses and dust particles. Another disturbance was a busload of teenagers which transformed our intimate evening into one buzzing with the urgent chatter of 50 hormone-infused voices. Actually, they were remarkably well-behaved and their presence did not undermine our enjoyment of the evening.

The massive telescopes in the background are for research. In the foreground, next to the visitor's center, is one of the smaller scopes that we commoners are allowed to peer through:

We viewed the waxing crescent moon:

Jupiter and several of her moons:

and this double star cluster:

Pretty cool stuff - another unique experience that we have stumbled upon in our travels. Next stop: Carlsbad Caverns...coming soon!