Saturday, February 20, 2016

Plecerias Hesternus, Petrified Forest National Park, Holbrook, Arizona

A Plecerias hesturnus in the Petrified Forest National Park visitor center in Holbrook, Arizona, seems to lunge right at you, whether to bite you or lick you is uncertain.
Plecerias hesternus looks like a big, happy dog lunging in for a slobber. To me, anyway. Described as “mammal-like,” Mr. P. hesternus’ kin got up to about 11.5 ft. long (3.5 m) and weighed up to about 2,200 lbs. (1,000 kg). They were aquatic herbivores, and paleontologists think their ecological niche was similar to a modern hippopotamus.
Drawing of P. hesternus compared to human in size
Credit Dr. Jeff Martz/NPS

Placerius hesternus is just one of many dinosaurs found at Petrified Forest National Park. There are other kinds of Triassic fossils found there, too: crayfish, ancient crocodile-like creatures, ferns, giant amphibians, and more. There are archaeological sites as well, not to mention that the painted desert is just gorgeous.

Of course, the park is justly famous for it’s petrified wood. But I was intrigued to learn that the “forest” isn’t really an ancient forest. According to the little movie I watched at the southern visitor center, the logs fell into a river or rivers during flooding. They wound up in a swamp downstream, got waterlogged, and sank to the bottom. There, muck, clay, sand, and volcanic ash covered and preserved them (kind of like how the Chinese make century eggs). Over time, the cellular structures were replaced by various kinds of crystals formed from minerals in the groundwater.

Oh, you were expecting photos of the petrified wood, maybe? Sure, I’ve got them in spades. Sign up below for my trip letters, and I’ll share some with you. I’ll also share a photo of the wash where I left a milkweed seed ball in Liz’s honor.

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Here’s a video with more about Petrified Forest National Park’s dinosaurs.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Coco at Play, Homolovi State Park, Winslow, Arizona

Coco at Play, Homolovi State Park, Winslow, Arizona

Coco took advantage of our downtime at Homolovi State Park to begin the painstaking process of tearing apart her green dino squeaky toy. It was an early Christmas gifts from her Aunties, Lisa and Julia, who live in Florida.

I’d been busy, busy, busy since finally escaping San Angelo, Texas, on Tuesday, Feb. 9. Mostly driving. My body said “Stop!” So I did. I slept much of the day.

One of the things about a long-term trip like Milkweed Memoir is that you simply can’t do something new and exciting every day. This is a life, not a vacation. You have to pace yourself. It’s more than stopping to smell the roses. Some days you just need to veg.

PS: The squeaky toy has since been utterly destroyed.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Dust Storm, I-40, Winslow, Arizona

Wind-blown dust and cloud cover obscures I-40 straight ahead near Winslow, Arizona.

Dark clouds chilled Winslow, Ariz., as 40 mph *average* southerly winds blew dust and I-40 traffic around. Suffice to say, no one “was standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona.”

But in Winslow, they don’t call this a storm. It’s a breeze. Anything less than 70 mph is just a breeze, according to the ranger at Homolovi State Park, where I camped a few days. He added that their local record wind speed is over 150 mph!

These speeds were high enough for me and the dogs. On the drive from Prescott, we’d been nearly knocked over several times by gusts and swerving 18-wheelers. Once we got to the campground, we huddled inside Kennel and tried to nap as the van shook. We didn’t come out for a walk until the winds subsided at sunset.

Homolovi State Park is a good overnight stop if you’re traveling I-40 in northeastern Arizona, by the way. A non-electric site is only $15 a night, $18 if you want an electrical hookup. There is no additional park entry fee. And the campground has HOT SHOWERS! Being close to the highway, cell reception is great.

From Homolovi, it’s less than an hour to Petrified Forest National Park, which has no campground. The state park is also an archaeological site with several ancient villages. The sites are co-managed with the Hopi Nation.

I didn’t check out the ruins myself, though. I was too tired from days of fun around Prescott to care. But below is a video I found online about the archaeology of the Homolovi State Park.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Buxom Mascot, The Bordello of Jerome, Arizona

Amusing porcelain sculpture of a heavyset, buxom prostitute stands as mascot outside the front door of The Bordello of Jerome, Arizona, a restaurant, bar, and art gallery.

Jerome, Ariz., has to be the most interesting little artist colony, ghost town, and tourist trap I’ve come across to date. And I don’t like such places normally, so that’s saying something!

A former copper mining town, clasping crags of the Bradshaw Mountains south of Sedona, it reminds me of nothing so much as the Greek island of Santorini, only Old West style.

Santorini, Greece
Jerome, Arizona
My friend, Aaron, and I wandered about the town snapping pictures on Wednesday, Feb. 17, but none of my photos captured the eyrie feeling of the place. That’s “eyrie” as in an eagle’s nest, not “eerie” as in spooky (even if Jerome does have a literally ghastly reputation.) The town’s roads wind up sharply, one atop another, the whole place hanging over the Verde Valley. It feels like the town should be an ancient village in the Alps or Nepal or something, not Arizona. I wish I were a better photographer to capture that essence.

Jerome seems to be about one-third galleries, one-third general gift shops, and one-third restaurants and cafes. The Bordello of Jerome, where the buxom broad at top comes from, is two out of three: restaurant, bar, and art gallery.

Since I’m a tightwad, I didn’t buy anything at the galleries or gift shops. But if you’re into art, the galleries seem to have mostly original, inventive art, not just imported Chinese kitsch for tacky tourists.

Aaron and I weren’t ready for lunch yet, so we didn’t try any restaurants. But if I go back, I might try Bobby D’s BBQ in the historic English Kitchen building, the oldest restaurant in Northern Arizona.

Jerome is a tourist trap, but it’s worth a stop anyway if you’re going to be in Northern Arizona. More interesting than Sedona, IHMO. And it’s a beautiful (if hair-raising) drive through the Bradshaws.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Lynx Lake, Prescott National Forest, Prescott, Arizona

Lynx Lake, Prescott National Forest, Prescott, Arizona

Prescott, Ariz., joins my list of rich, educated, beautiful, and relatively fit American cities. Privilege has its privileges.

In yesterday’s post, I compared Boulder, Colo., to Flagstaff, Ariz., implying that they both similarly have lean citizens. That was a bit misleading. I don’t have the data to back that up. But I do have some data for nearby Prescott, which like Boulder does have a leaner, wealthier, more-educated population, as well as beautiful surroundings.

Take Lynx Lake for example (pictured above). It’s right in town and offers boating, swimming, and a fairly strenuous 2.3 mile trail around the lake. Other trails lead out from the lake, and still more wander through surrounding Prescott National Forest.

Being in the high desert of the Colorado Plateau, Prescott summers rarely go above the low 90s and cool down at night. Winter highs are usually in the 60s and 70s, though snow does blow in from time to time. Combined with beautiful forests and mountains, it makes for a year round playground. This has attracted wealthy folks, especially retirees, to the area.

According to, 35.7% of Prescott residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher, and the average household income is $41,043. According to Gallup’s “U.S. Community Well-Being Tracking,” only 22.8% of Prescott residents are overweight.

Compare that to the 33.8% of overweight residents in McAllen, Texas, near my hometown. As I said yesterday, McAllen and the Rio Grande Valley cities generally are among the poorest metropolitan areas in the USA. And they aren’t fun places to exercise outdoors.

I hold to my position that more money and education works in concert with access to the beautiful outdoors for a healthier population.

Now, how can this info help all Americans? Would better public gardens and parks, bike trails, and other facilities encourage people to get outdoors more? Would that, combined more equitable wealth distribution and a more well-educated society, result in a healthier, more-active, less-overweight populace? I think so. I wonder if any social scientists have the data to back me up?

The video below, “Park Poor” by KCET Los Angeles, has at least some of that data.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Humphrey’s Peak From Buffalo Park, Flagstaff, Arizona

Looking across dry, winter grass at snow and pines on Humphrey Peak from Flagstaff, Arizona’s, Buffalo Park.
Is it any surprise that cities with beautiful mountains and great weather have fitter, leaner people living there than less appealing parts of the country? I mean, look at that view?! Who wouldn’t want to walk the 2 mile Nate Avery Trail in Buffalo Park every day? It’s a great place to live, if you can afford it ...

A few years ago, I heard about a Gallup study, which found that Boulder, Colo., had the leanest population in the United States. It’s a lot like Flagstaff: right at the base of the mountains and with great weather.

I spent the summer of 2009 at a friend’s in Boulder. The weather was nice most days, and I could be on a mountain trail 15 minutes after leaving my buddy’s place. With mild weather and beautiful, peaceful hiking trails, is it any wonder I walked just about every day and even lost some weight? Most people in town seemed pretty active, and only 12.4% of the population is overweight. The surroundings encourage activity.

But in Boulder, health also seems to be a combination of exercise opportunities and social status. Boulder has the nation’s most-educated population – 59% have a college degree – and is among “America’s Richest Cities,” with average annual household incomes at $68,637.

Compare that to where I’m from, the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, which includes the Brownsville-Harlingen and McAllen metropolitan areas. These cities have the lowest educational attainment and average household incomes of any metropolitan areas in the USA. McAllen is Numero Uno of “America’s Poorest Cities,” with an average household income of $31,077 – and nearly 40% of households below the poverty line. Brownsville comes in at Number 2. These cities also have some of the nation’s highest “fatness” levels, with 33.8% of the population in McAllen being overweight, for example.

I can also tell you that South Texas is an inhibiting place to exercise outdoors. The weather is hot and muggy much of the year. The scenery is bland. And you don’t have many places to safely and peacefully exercise outdoors. (Thankfully, that has improved over the last few years as bike trails have been built and expanded.)

How do access to outdoor beauty and socioeconomic status combine to encourage or discourage good health? Do wealthier, better-educated people have better access to healthier foods? Do poorer, less-educated people eat worse? Do the better off usually get to live in places that are outdoorsy? Are poor folks just too overworked, tired, and despondent to get out and get sweaty? Do poor folks end up living in places where being outdoors just sucks? Do wealthier people prioritize healthful lifestyles more? I’m not sure.

What is clear is that you’re statistically likelier to be leaner and healthier if you get an education, get a good job, and live someplace where you love to hike, bicycle, swim, kayak, or generally engage in outdoor sports. And if those things aren’t available, good health is going to be harder to attain.

Below is an interesting TED Talk about the relationship between health and social inequality, among other things.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Castle and Cottonwoods, Montezuma Castle National Monument, Camp Verde, Arizona

Montezuma Castle, near Camp Verde, Arizona, is seen through the white branches of leafless, winter cottonwoods.

Montezuma Castle National Monument has nothing to do with Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II. (You know, the guy Coronado defeated to conquer Mexico.) But it has everything to do with an ancient mystery: What happened to the Ancestral Puebloans?

The Ancestral Puebloans – ancestors of today’s Hopis and others – had extensive, well-developed villages. These were spread throughout the Colorado Plateau, what’s known today as the Four Corners region: Northern Arizona, Southern Utah, Northern New Mexico, and Southern Colorado.

The civilization, which archaeologists believe was comprised of several nations, ramped up from around the 10th century. Farmers, traders, and irrigation specialists, they built cliff dwellings, like Montezuma’s Castle, and non-cliff villages, even cities, like Chaco Canyon, usually near perennial water sources. They also had extensive road systems which covered the entire region and traded with Central and coastal Mexico.

Then in the 14th century, many, many of these settlements were just ... abandoned. That’s the mystery! What drove them away? Was it drought? War? Religious fervor? No one really knows. Hopi oral history says they headed toward present Hopi settlements for spiritual reasons, kind of like the Jews wandering the desert, then settling the promised land. 

But that’s sketchy. Religious motivations tend to be undergirded by pragmatic considerations.

I think it was a combination of war and drought. Reading up on the history, I noticed that the ancients resettled closer to large river valleys. Why? Well, first, rivers are more dependable water sources than smaller streams, like Montezuma Castle’s Beaver Creek. That speaks to drought. But rivers also allow you to support a larger, more concentrated population. That has defensive advantages that a cliff dwelling can’t meet.

In the same period, I noticed, Apaches, Ute, and Navajos moved into Colorado Plateau. Maybe they came as invaders or bandits. Let’s say there’s a drought and wild food sources aren’t enough. The Puebloans have crops. Why should hungry Apaches, Utes, and Navajos not take them? As it happens, the cliff dwellings and other cities don’t show much record of war, such as fires.

But why should wandering tribes try a siege? They don’t want to take over farms or settle in houses. Let the Puebloans hold up while your people take as much crop as you can eat and carry. All you need is to gather a band that vastly outnumbers any defenders, and there wouldn’t be much of a fight. Small, scattered Puebloan communities would have sat there helpless as their crops were ravaged. Hunger and migration would follow.

The solution is to field an equal or larger army to the invading bands. But armies take food. Small, scattered villages could only raise up a few dozen fighters. But larger settlements with vast croplands could raise hundreds, perhaps more, certainly enough to protect what they have. In other words, I suspect that in a time of drought and an influx of new peoples, the Hopi’s ancestors found refuge in urban concentration along the river valleys.

It’s a hypothesis, anyway. Maybe I’ll turn archaeologist and get to test it one day.