Death Valley National Park.

The logo of the 2017 Mars Fest at Death Valley National Park.

We were in Death Valley the weekend of Mars Fest. We hadn’t planned this but the wonder of our pilgrimage to here lies in discovering the synchronicity of life. Last year, it was the wildflowers super bloom and this year, it’s Mars Fest.

What, you might be asking is Mars Fest? It’s an annual collaboration among an alphabet-soup of organizations: NPS (National Park Service), NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), and a couple of other organizations who gather for keynote evening presentations, daytime guided hikes, and afternoon talks, centered on the general theme of the exploration of Mars.

Death Valley or Mars? The landscapes are remarkably similar.  This is Death Valley.

Why in Death Valley? Well, parts of this place look remarkably like parts of Mars. In one talk, the presenter challenged us to name which of the photographs of the basalt fields, craters, and playa fields were from Mars and which from Death Valley. It was hard to distinguish which was which. The extreme environment here (lack of water; extreme heat; wild cycles of weather, including dust storms; and similar geology) invite comparison with the raw materials that could support life, as we know it, on Mars. For example, astrobiologists are studying microbes found in Death Valley under the salt bed of Badwater Basin, learning how they have adapted to living in the hottest place on earth. The assumption is that if we can observe microbes adjusting to these conditions, we might learn about what to look for in the extreme cold of Mars.

Meet Curiosity, the Mars rover now working in Gale Crater on Mars.

In addition, this is one of the places where the planetary scientists at NASA (and the Jet Propulsion Lab) test some of the gadgets that they will be using in Mars rovers. Right now, the planning is centered on the 2020 launch of the next Mars rover. Currently, the rover named Curiosity (which landed on Mars in 2012) is climbing around Gale Crater on Mars and the photos of the rock formations the presenter shared looked like the dry hills behind the Visitors Center in Death Valley. Early in its mission, Curiosity found signs on Mars that fresh water was abundant, including ancient stream beds and minerals that formed in water over millions of years. Curiosity also found chemical elements, liked carbon-based molecules, common in living things here on earth. Curiosity is also studying the radiation environment on Mars, which will be used in planning future human missions to Mars. I asked one of the NASA guys about the movie The Martian, and how accurate it was in depicting Mars and he said the movie got it, “about 75% right”. I think we need to watch it again now that we have been to Mars Fest.

In this crystal cave in Mexico, Dr. Boston discovered microbes that could be 50,000 years old. Hmmmm.

One of my favorite talks was by Dr. Penelope Boston, NASA Astrobiology Institute, who is studying microbes living in mysterious places on earth, like crystal caves, caves full of pools of hydrogen sulfide, the ice fields of Antarctica, and deep ocean vents where no light is available. It was totally intriguing to hear what we are learning from studying life forms that would be helpful in understanding some of the possible life forms on Mars.

The talk by Dr. Margaret Race, SETI Institute, challenged my understanding of the impact of exploring, searching and protecting extant life on earth. She talked about the ethical, theological, and philosophical questions that are raised by the exploration of life in the solar system. For example, if we learn that an astronaut who has been in space has been exposed to a dangerous and alien microbial substance, how do we handle the astronaut’s re-entry into the earth atmosphere? Do we allow re-entry not knowing the repercussions of possible exposure? Wow.

NASA’s number one focus for exploring life as we know it is Mars.

Peter was impressed with Dr. Christopher McKay, NASA Ames Research Center. Dr. McKay is a planetary scientist and has studied the atmospheres of various planets and moons in our solar system, looking for the elements that might support life. He has ranked the most likely places of finding life forms, as we know it, starting with Mars, followed by one of the moons of Jupiter. Peter confessed that he thought that planets in our solar system were the places to find life, and moons were rocky and barren. In fact, some of the planets are cold and dead, like Mars. Earth and Mars started as molten gases but because of Mars’ smaller than earth size, its core cooled more quickly than earth and it lost its atmosphere. But a larger planet, like Jupiter, is still a gaseous ball and some of its moons, caught in the gravitational orbit, contain carbon dioxide (dry ice). One of Jupiter’s moons, Europa, has a water ice surface and may be covering larger oceans of slushy ice underneath. Like Earth, Europa has a core and a rock envelope around the core, and then ice. Dr. McKay puts Europa on his top five list of likely places for life. His talk was incredible.

Peter at Natural Bridge, one of the very few arches in the park.

Looking for the imaginary golf ball on Devil’s Golf Course.

Tucked in with this stimulating and deeply moving information, we continued our exploration of the park. We hiked into a new canyon called Natural Bridge, visited the dry lake bed called Devil’s Golf Course, drove up the road to Scotty’s Castle (still closed while repairs are made to the devastating floods of 2016) and watched the light cast beautiful patterns on the craggy mountains along the road to Mesquite Springs. We rode our bikes along the trail through the 1893 Harmony Borax Works mine site. We watched the full moon rise from our campsite. We experienced the temperature topping 90 on March 10, setting a new early record in a place that breaks records frequently. Death Valley is mesmerizing.

Mesquite Sand Dunes.

This is a place where the veil between life and death can be thin. It is a wild, challenging place for us fragile humans. Everywhere around the park, and in every bathroom, there are posters informing you of the dangers of dehydration based on the color of your urine. Clear-to- light colored urine indicates a fully hydrated body, whereas rust or brown means things are not looking good. Sobering. It’s as if God stripped down to the essential questions here of life, stretching one to see with new eyes, and listen with careful attention, and observe the unspeakable wonder of creation.

Peter and Liz wrap up their desert time and head next to reunions with California friends for the next several weeks as their pilgrimage to here continues.

Joshua Tree National Park

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Pig in our backyard at Indian Cove.

Last year, we both fell in love with the monzogranite boulders at Joshua Tree National Park.  Peter is a serious rock hound but I was equally smitten when we first came to this campground (Indian Cove) last year. And so we are back. In one way, we are conventional because we reserved the same impossibly un-level site (#36) simply because of its primo backyard.

We took our site for five nights of dry camping, excited to try out our new Zamp solar panels. Learning the ins and outs of dry camping started with the purchase of our Honda 2000 generator last year. National parks have strict hours for generator use, which we completely understand.

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Phoenix in our rear-view mirror.

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Gardens in bloom at Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

After our stay at Usery Mountain Regional Park, we headed to the west side of Phoenix to another Maricopa County Park, White Tank Mountain. Before leaving Usery Mountain, we made a day trip up into the Superstition Mountains to the Boyce Thompson Arboretum.  It was as lovely as our friends had mentioned.

There are a series of individual gardens here, including desert, legumes, cactus, butterfly and hummingbirds, a rose garden, succulents, and so many more.  Tucked into the valley below a formation called Magma Ridge, the arboretum is a peaceful and inspiriting place.

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Musical Instrument Museum, Phoenix. MUST SEE.

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At the Musical Instrument Museum, MIM,  in Phoenix.

Day 10 and 11. Usery Mountain. We had read numerous positive reviews about the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) in Phoenix.  Neither Peter, nor Davis, nor I are musicians and couldn’t grasp the idea of an entire museum dedicated to musical instruments but we gave it a go. OK, in one word, “Wow”.  It was so amazing we went back a second day and still didn’t get through the museum.

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Guitarra portuguesa.

I think the best way to describe this experience is to imagine a museum that in video, audio, and physical exhibits gives you a view from 30,000 feet of world cultures and the vast human spiritual connection to making music. Continue reading

The Heard Museum – Day 9 at Usery Mountain Regional Park, Arizona.

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The outdoor fountains at the Heard Museum in Phoenix are stunning, even in the rain.

Day 9.  The Heard Museum in Phoenix is one of our favorite places. The permanent exhibits about the native people of the southwest are stunning and as often as we have been, we learn more every visit. This year, there were two special exhibits Peter, Davis and I wanted to see. The first was about the Fred Harvey Company, named for the original founder, Fred Harvey.  The second was an art installation by Arizona artist, Steven Yazzie. Continue reading

Usery Mountain Regional Park – Tonto National Monument. Day 7 and 8.

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Another spectacular Arizona sunset here at Usery Mountain.

Day 7.  February 16.  Today was a joyful day of reunion. I went to the airport to pick up both Peter and his son Davis. Peter looked rested and sported a winter “cowboy” tan (just face and hands) from the sunny and bright time in Montana.  Davis looked happy to be in sunny Arizona after the snow and cold of New Hampshire.

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Usery Mountain Regional Park, Arizona – Day 4, 5, & 6

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The colorful chuparosa are in bloom here in the Sonoran desert.

Day 4.  February 13.   A coyote sauntered through the backyard this morning.  I had heard a pack howling a couple of nights ago, so I knew they were in the neighborhood. The desert is always full of surprises.  Today, I took a walk along the Nature Trail and discovered some new kinds of cacti. Some of the cactus are budding, and not yet flowering, so there were not as many hummingbirds as we have seen in the past when we have been in the Sonoran Desert in March. The chuparosa, also called hummingbird bush, was new to me and its beautiful red, tubular flowers are eye-catching along the trail.

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Usery Mountain Regional Park, Arizona – Day 1, 2, & 3

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This is the Sonoran Desert, with its beautiful saguaro cactus, seen here at sunset against Usery Mountain from our “backyard”.

February 9.  We arrived at Usery Mountain Regional Park in Mesa, Arizona after a drive of 155 miles.  This officially completes our drive from Estero, Florida. The final totals:  Drove 2,689 miles and used 234 gallons of gas in the 12 nights on the road.  Plus, we discovered we still like each other and haven’t lost the “gypsy” in us after three months of staying put.

 

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South Florida to Arizona – Day 10, 11, & 12.

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Texas ruby red grapefruit before…

Day 10. February 6. After a solid night’s sleep following the Super Bowl win, we got ready to move and hooked up in the frosty cool, scarlet sunrise morning at Davis Mountains. We were headed north and west to Hueco Tanks State Park, just east of El Paso, Texas. It was an easy 230-mile drive under clear and cool skies.

We’ve been packing snacks for the drive and the current feast is Texas ruby red grapefruit.

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South Florida to Arizona – Day 7, 8, & 9

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The unique Buc-ee’s sign outside of the Rosenberg, Texas store.

Day 7.  February 3.  Today’s 285-mile drive was relatively uneventful and much less stressful than the earlier travel days in this road trip. From Brazos Bend we went north to the town of Rosenberg, Texas and stopped in at the local Buc-ee’s, the Texas convenience store chain. The saying here is it’s not a real Texas road trip without a stop at one of the many Buc-ee’s stores. They are open 24/7 and known for, among other things, their super-clean restrooms, remarkably friendly staff, and Rosenberg was no exception.  On our way to San Antonio, we passed the turnoff for New Braunfels,Texas where the Buc-ee’s there is the largest convenience store in the world at 68,000 square feet. The store features 120 fueling positions, 83 toilets, 31 cash registers, 4 ice machines, and 80 fountain dispensers. Texas through and through! Continue reading