Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Celebrating an Epic Adventure 46 Years Ago on December 12

Today is December 12, one of the most important religious and cultural holidays in all of Mexico. The feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe commemorates the appearance of the Virgin Mary to an indigenous peasant in 1531, twelve years after Hernan de Cortéz rode boldly into the Aztec capital of Tenotchitlan and eventually and forever changed the course of history in the America's. The Vatican News has published a nice write-up of the events here. Another, longer version can be found on Wikipedia here.

I happened to be in Mexico on December 12, 1977 on the first of what would be many adventures to this colorful and historic land. And three years ago on this blog, I wrote up the story of an unforgettable night I experienced while traveling in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Like a reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, or a recitation of David Sedaris's "Santaland Diaries" over the Christmas Holiday, I cannot forget the scene that unfolded before my eyes 46 years ago today. Here is a complete reposting below (with minor updates). Enjoy the read and a very happy Dia de Fiesta de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe!


December 12 is one of the most important religious holidays in all of Mexico. On that day people are on the move from rural villages to their parish church (sometimes many hours away on very poor roads),  to visit family members, or to take part in colorful celebrations. (Here is one article about the importance of Our Lady of Guadalupe to the Mexican people). My first experience with this feast day came in 1977 when I was on my fourth significant lifetime adventure - traveling by bus and hitchhiking for three months through Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala. I will never forget what I saw and experienced on that night in rural, tropical Mexico. It is a memory that comes to life each December 12 from 43 years ago. 

16th century image of Our Lady of Guadalupe

We were about four weeks into our adventure. I had just finished my second season as a backcountry ranger at Grand Canyon National Park. Those two years changed the course of my life but they did not take me away from my desire to throw off the chains of predictability and hit the road. I had previously made three, six-week long hitchhiking adventures in the USA and Canada during the summers of 1973 and 1974, and the winter of 1976. After my expected seasonal layoff at Grand Canyon, I drove with my girlfriend, Cindy Kane, to Austin Texas where we met her old boyfriend Peter Sprouse. Peter was a professional caver who with his fellow spelunkers, was going down to eastern Mexico to map the Cueva de Infiernillo, at that time thought to be the second longest cave in the Western Hemisphere. A paper describing the cave system can be accessed here. Back then, how was I to know that the cave system was formed in Cretaceous limestone?

After this amazing 10-day backcountry camping adventure, we made our way south and completed a seven-mile hike to another cave, the Sótano de Las Golondrinas, where at sunset thousands of white-collared swifts dive headlong into the bell-shaped cavern that is over 1200 feet deep. We visited Mexico City and then took a bus to Oaxaca city, where we caught passage on a second-class bus to Puerto Ángel, a beachside resort where we slept in hammocks under a palapa. This is where the Guadalupe story begins.

The road to Oaxaca
Puerto Ángel was a tried and true stop along the Gringo Trail in the mid-70s. After our early December arrival, we looked out onto the south-facing Pacific Ocean with temperatures in the low 90s. Columnar cactus graced the nearby hillsides and I reflected on what the weather must've been on this very day in mountains of northern Arizona. I could not believe my good fortune to be laying out on a beach, hotter than I wanted to be, but enjoying a superb road trip. We paid the equivalent of one dollar a night (about 22 old Mexican pesos) to string our hammocks at a place called Suzanna's. When I asked the proprietress, "Donde está el baño?" she lifted her chin towards the garden and said, "ayi" - out there. As I went outside she muttered under her breath, "el puerco". I was confused but what the hell - this was Mexico and I was often confused. Sure enough, within five minutes of me completing my business, there was not a trace to be seen as the pig snorted looking for more goodies to gobble amongst the cacti. What I had left behind, including the paper was gone. I didn't eat bacon for a month. 

After a few days being beach-bums, Cindy and I decided to move towards the state of Chiapas and the ruins of Palenque. So we packed our hammocks into our backpacks and went to the bus station in Pachutla late on the afternoon on December 12. As we entered the bus station, what a scene was spread out before us! Hundreds of tiny Mexicans were crowding toward the three-window ticket office. Cindy, a long-haired blonde about 5' 7" really stood out amongst the sea of black hair. She and I towered over these mixed-race Mestizo's, who held more Indian blood than Spanish. Everyone was crowding cheek to jowl towards the caged ticket agents - there was not even a slight semblance of a line. We asked a few people next to us why there were so many people here and they replied. "La Fiesta. La Fiesta de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe." Whoa! We had no idea.

It became obvious to us that we were going to have to be as proactive as we possibly could to get to those ticket windows. There was no other way. We were told that if we didn't get a bus ticket that night, there would no more buses until the following morning. I was still a bit uncomfortable traveling in a country that I didn't know the language well, nor the customs. So it was rather easy for me to use our height advantage to struggle our way to the ticket window. It was like a scene out of a movie, hundreds of people attempting to make it to the window, with very little movement at any one time. After about 45 minutes, we got to the window where I obtained what seemed like the last two seats on a second class bus, traveling through the night for nine hours on the bumpy road to Oaxaca. I felt exhausted from the ticket ordeal, but had no idea that most of the adventure still lay ahead of us. In a situation such as this, I thought there was no guarantee that we would even get on the bus, ticket or not. Nevertheless, we did get a seat on a bus at about 8 PM. (Bus travel in Mexico back then was nothing like it is today, where reservations can be made online on busses that are roomy with Wi-Fi - it was quite primitive then).

It was pitch-black dark outside in the warm tropical air and I looked forward to being in the mountains overnight where it would be much cooler. I also entertained visions of sleeping on the bus all the way to Oaxaca. Once seated on the bus, I began to relax. The trip started out easy enough as we climbed into the Sierra Madre de Sur. The road was extremely rough in those days and that was part of the reason why it would take nine hours to do the approximate 150 miles. What I didn't count on was that our backseat was not completely bolted to the floor of the bus. The gentle rocking of the seat was barely noticeable as we left the station. But as we began to climb and the road was beset with more rocks, it became obvious that sleep was going to be very difficult. 

After a few hours, difficult sleeping turned to impossible as with every bump in the road, the seat rocked forward and backward such that my head slammed onto the back window of the bus with each jolting rock.  If that wasn't enough, the back door of the bus did not close firmly and was only being held partially closed by a wire. About an inch of open air creeped in behind the seat the whole night. Along the coast, this might have been welcomed relief from the stuffiness of the crowded bus and the tropical heat. Here, it merely meant that cold air from the mountainous setting was let in. To add insult to injury, the opening also let in prodigious amounts of dust, which at first in the nighttime darkness was not obvious but soon became thick as smoke inside the bus. Between the bumpiness of the road, the rocking seat, and the choking dust, I was unable to get comfortable, let alone sleep. The bus was like most of the buses in Latin America, a Blue Bird. It was therefore made for elementary school children and so there was very little legroom to begin with.

What a night! There was no sleep. The ordeal at the ticket office would've been memorable enough, but the bus ride only added to the adventure. I was in a very foul mood when the bus finally pulled in to the second class bus station at sunrise in downtown Oaxaca. I looked at my clothing, caked in white powdery dust. I wondered what my lungs might look like too. I went to the young conductor who was on the bus and showed him how the seat was not bolted properly to the floor, hoping that he might somehow make it all go away. Shrugging his shoulders all he could muster was "lo siento," I'm sorry. Cindy was none too happy as well, as it had been my idea to "sleep" on the bus rather than stay in a cheap hotel to save precious funds (we did the whole three months on $350 each). Her bad mood might have been more likely due to my handling of the situation. She seemed more willing to let the night be chalked up to just another Mexican adventure. 

To think that I had fought off hundreds of other Mexicans in a crowded second-class bus station, only to obtain a seat on an overcrowded bus (a rickety old school bus at that), with an ill-fitted bench seat and a door that did not close, on a bumpy dirt road with clouds of dust and bitter cold for nine hours, was about as much as I could take.

As the city awoke in the station yard in Oaxaca, I marched off brusquely and bleary-eyed toward the baño. As I entered the restroom I saw it was filled with many tiny little men standing at the urinals. But I had other business there and as I scanned the space to locate the toilets, I saw none. Focusing more clearly, I could see across from the urinals where the toilets should have been. Instead I saw only their foundations where they apparently had been broken off with a sledge hammer rather than repaired. I could not believe my eyes. Even if had I just walked into this baño after a drunken round of cold Modelo's, this would have been a shock. But after the previous night's adventure, it was all part of an evolving story. Only the sharp, upturned edges of the toilet foundations were protruding above the hole where the toilets should have been, their normally white porcelain edges draped in piles of human waste. My need for a morning constitution quickly escaped me. It was only as I exited the east-facing door, with the brilliant sunshine in my eyes, that I came to see the entire situation in a more comic sense. It was there and then that I regained my composure and laughed at the incredible sequence of events that brought me to this place at this time. Something clicked inside of me in this indignant end to an unforgettable night.

Some readers may wonder why I recall this story. I will be the first to admit that the final act in this play is not a pleasant memory. However, throughout the entire night there was not one Mexican who treated me badly, nor I suppose would think my attitude towards it inappropriate. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Most of them looked at me with sympathy and understanding, knowing that I came from a culture that saw life's little inconveniences as major traumas to be avoided at all costs. To them, this was just the other side in the coin of life. Throughout that three month-long journey, I became schooled many times in the different ways to frame what happens to you along the road of adventure. It took a number of incidents similar to this for it to break through - that how I reacted to what was placed in front of me, mattered much more than how the encounter appeared. 

And so this is why every December 12, I recall with a smile the importance of the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the matron saint of Mexico. As Carl Franz told us, "Wherever you go, there you are"!

Saturday, October 28, 2023

An Autumn River Trip Through Desolation and Gray Canyons on the Green River, Utah

During the last week of September, I served as a geologic interpreter on a six day river trip through Desolation and Gray canyons on the Green River in Utah. This was a wonderful time of year as the hordes of mosquitoes had already flown south the fall colors were beginning to grace the cottonwood trees and the temperatures were warm in the day and cool at night. This is a fantastic geologic transect through some relatively young rocks. Have a look.

The trip began with a scenic flight at sunrise to the river - over the canyon we would float

The early morning light was just beginning to fall on the Book Cliffs

The Green River as it exits Desolation Canyon (bottom) and enters Gray Canyon (top). 
Note the large fan coming into the river channel from Three Fords Canyon on the
left. It has pushed the river to the right (west) and remnant bounders washed into the
river form Three Fords Rapid. See a view of this large fan from the ground later in
this post.

View of a cut-off meander along the Green River - we hiked this loop later in the trip

We landed on Horse Mesa Bench, a prominent stratigraphic marker bed
in the Green River Formation

There is a 1.5 mile hike from the landing strip to the river - fabulous!

Great views of the river on our hike - note the Horse Mesa Bench in the middle of the escarpment (small, center cliff face)

Note the hikers (top) and the shadows (bottom)

On the river through the famous Green River Formation

The Green River Formation is a rock unit found in the tri-state area of Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. It represents a series of freshwater lakes that formed in basins that developed on the landscape between about 55 and 45 Ma (Mega-annum, or millions of years ago). At that time the Mogollon Highlands were present in southern Arizona and the Rocky Mountains were being uplifted to the north and east. The basins for the lakes were set between these two positive areas and received sediment from all of the highlands. Prior to a 2010 study, it was unknown that a Mojave Desert source area existed (described below). See a Ron Blakey map next for this lacustrine setting of the Green River Formation.

Paleogeographic map of the Colorado Plateau about 50 Ma

Note the large lakes in the tri-state area. The lake in the middle of the image (the second largest and south of the east/west trending Uinta Mountains) is called Lake Uinta and the photos in this post show the rocks deposited in this particular body of water. The Green River Formation is famous for two reasons – it contains a lot of oil and gas that is being developed in the area, and it holds a spectacularly rich fossil assemblage - if you have ever seen fish fossils for sale in a western rock shop, they likely come from the Green River Formation. Fossil Butte National Monument in Wyoming is the best place to see these and the plants that fringed the shores of the lakes. See this Park Service web page for more information.

Sunrise from camp on the Green River Formation

River reflections

Typical camp scene on beautiful sandy beach

As we moved downstream, the Colton Formation began to emerge from beneath the river

We visited some spectacular petroglyph panels on side hikes

Recall the aerial view of a cut-off meander in the fourth photograph of this post.
Here, we are hiking in the loop of the abandoned meander.

Panoramic view of the abandoned meander near Chicken Rock - see the annotations
next photo

The yellow lines denote the old meander bend (dashed where obscured behind
the meander "island")

The "downstream" part of the Green River's old channel. The entrance and exit of
the meander are very close to the modern bed of he river, suggesting that the
abandonment is relatively recent.

Fantastic view of the Green River in Desolation Canyon. Within the distant wall
of the canyon, note the color difference between the lower, reddish Colton
Formation and the upper, lighter-colored Green River Formation.

Another beautiful camp location - sleeping on these beaches is fantastic!

The Colton is a mostly fluvial and deltaic deposit that slightly pre-dates the Green River
lakes. In the past, it was called the Wasatch Formation but that nomenclature usage is
more restricted to near the Wasatch front 
now. The Colton has an interesting hypothesis 
attached with it.

The Colton Formation is an arkosic sandstone and mudstone (meaning it
contains abundant pink feldspar derived from granitic sources). It also yields
zircon crystals that can be dated to their age of formation. Surprisingly,
the only source for these specific crystals is in the eastern Mojave Desert of
southwestern Arizona and southeastern California. Davis et. al.  postulated
that a continental scale river delivered the sediment from the area of the
Mojave Desert near Blythe to the Uinta basin some 56 to 55 Ma. They called
it the California River (denoted by the thick dashed line). They made no claim
for the exact position of the postulated river, only that it must have flowed
between the various Laramide upwarps (KU=Kaibab upwarp; MU=Monument
upwarp; CCU=Circle Cliffs upwarp; SRS=San Rafael Swell). The scientific
reference is: Davis, Stephen, J., 
(2010) "The Paleogene California River:
Evidence of Mojave-Uinta paleodrainage from U-Pb ages of detrital
zircons", Geol. Soc. of America, Geology, v. 38, no. 10, pp. 931-934.

Note the gradational transition between the reddish Colton Formation (below and
mostly forming
 slopes) and the lighter-colored Green River Formation above (ledges)

As the slope-forming Colton Formation rises higher and becomes more well-developed
the canyon begins to widen out to give much broader views

Above Three Fords Rapid. A large debris fan from Three Fords Canyon pushes the river
to the right (west) and remnants create the largest rapid on the river (not seen).

Camp scene above Three Fords Rapid

Red rock sunset from camp

Majestic buttes composed of the Colton Formation

One last upstream view of Desolation Canyon

The entrance to Gray Canyon - still older rocks emerge - the Mesa Verde Group

Our last nights' camp provided a short hike to a window through the rocks down
to the Green River and our camp

Downstream view in Gray Canyon. The plateau caprock is composed of the Bluecastle
Sandstone Member of the Price River Formation, the upper slope is called the
Buck Tongue; the middle cliff is the Castlegate Sandstone and the lower half of
the view is composed of the Blackhawk Formation. All are Upper Cretaceous.

The trip ended with a view of Gunnison Butte, a famous landmark in the area. This
was a fantastic trip (six days!) with a great group of "students."

Saturday, September 02, 2023

A Final Dolomites Trek Posting - Days 7, 8, and 9 - Refugio Tissi to to Refugio Carestiato to Malga Pramper to Val di Zoldo

Thank you so much for reading this series of blog postings on my trek to the Dolomite Mountains in northeast Italy! This is the last posting for that trip. I have many adventures lined up for next year and I hope you will continue reading about the places I am so fortunate to visit in my work. 

View of Torre Venezia, south of Tissi

With 2/3rds of the hike complete we began our final push to the end of the trek. A bit of overcast and light drizzle caught up to us Day 7 and we opted for a taxi ride around a difficult description of the route. (In hindsight, I would rethink that detour now). We celebrated Don's birthday at Refugio Carestiato, then trekked in fog to Malga Pramper on Day 8. Sunshine found us again on Day 9 as we finished the trip with a downhill walk into the village of Val di Zoldo.

Map showing the route for Days 7, 8, and 9 - the blue line is by taxi, yellow on foot

Day 7 - Refugio Tissi to Refugio Carestiato

The valley south of Tissi made for pleasant downhill walking

It was a beautiful valley with wide views and turreted peaks

Helen and Don passing a rickety gate along the trail

Outwash from a relatively recent debris flow

The Torre Venezia (Venice Tower) in increasingly cloudy skies

The forcella (pass or saddle) in the distance is where we would have walked

Mountain scenery in Italy

Look at the depth of rocky debris in the wall of that arroyo!

More debris flows near Capanna Trieste - we met our van driver at the bottom of the canyon

Capanna Trieste and our ride to Agordo and Passo Duran - next time I will walk it!

A rural water source along the way to Carestiato

Refugio Carestiato was a pleasant stop with great food

View of the ranges to the southeast from Carestiato

Don and Anne share a moment on the porch of the refugio - view to the west

View to the southeast from Carestiato

Day 8 - Refugio Carestiato to Malga Pramper

Leaving Refugio Carestiato through trees and mountains

This huge debris flow looked really recent and is visible on
Google Earth

A quiet morning walk through the green

This area south of Passo Duran was boggy

And quite lush!

Mountain ferns

This is the ruins of an old farm that took advantage of a large boulder for one of the walls

After the dark forest walk, I really enjoyed this contour path across a rocky slope

We saw so many flowers and I've posted so few photos of them - this one is called Dianthus hyssopifolius.

Looking back to the contour path on the rocky slope

Into the clouds - I'm sure we missed out on some great scenery here

There are many different kinds of preserves in the Dolomites - this is one of them.

A World War I ruin built in 1915

The tail junction to Malga Pramper (malga is Italian for "farm")

The Cima Pramper tucked into the clouds

Look at those debris flows issuing from the mountain!

Malga Pramper sleeps only a maximum of 8 people - there were six of us this night

They make fresh cheeses at this farm with all of the dairy cows

Fresh cheeses made here at the farm

The ricotta was made in the morning and consumed in about 10 minutes in the afternoon

Painting on the wall inside the farm

Day 9 -  Malga Pramper to Val di Zoldo Village

The last day was bittersweet - the trek was over as the sun emerged

The setting of Val di Zoldo

I want to thank my hiking mates who made this trip so remarkable - Thank you!

And to this special lady who is the light of my life!