Bat Central: Carlsbad Caverns

We left Tucson in mid March and headed back to our hometown in Georgia for the birth of our granddaughter.  On the way, we tried to take the time to visit some great places.  Our last stop in New Mexico was Carlsbad Caverns.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located in southeastern New Mexico. The primary attraction of the park is the show cave, Carlsbad Cavern, oh, and the bats.

Personally, I’m not a fan of caves.  I have claustrophobia and the thought of being hundreds of feet below ground makes my teeth hurt.

But Dave wanted to see this particular cavern because he had heard so much about it.  And we certainly couldn’t just drive right by without taking a look.

The entrance includes a large visitor center building that contains a cafeteria, interesting museum, gift shop, and two elevators that can take you down to the caverns below. 

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It is at this point that you have to make the big decision.  Do you want to hike down into the cavern on your own, or take the easy way out and grab the elevator?

We chose to hike down.  After all, how difficult could it be?  The ranger said that it would take several hours to hike the four mile path down into the caverns.  We would end up being 75 stories below ground.

At the entrance to the cave is a huge amphitheater, created for crowds to watch the evening show of up to 300,000 Mexican Free-tail bats as they emerge from the cave in a huge cloud of blackness.

Yes, seriously.  There were bats.

The path zig-zags down into the darkness below.  Ready for our new adventure, we started the hike.  Carlsbad Cavern is the fifth largest cavern in North America and the twenty-eighth largest in the world.  And as long as the bats minded their own businesses, we would be perfectly happy to take in the views!

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As we descended into the cave, it was amazing to look up at the pathway that we had already traveled.  The descent is steep, and honestly if you have bad knees, I wouldn’t recommend it.

It is a steady downward descent for 75 stories.  Craziness.

This passageway continues into narrower tunnels where the first extensive collections of stalagmites and stalactites are found, including named features such as Devils Spring, Queen’s Chamber, Kings Palace and the Boneyard.

Note that I am now carrying my jacket.  It is surprisingly humid in the caves.  I believe it was around 90%.  And warm.

The surroundings become steadily more scenic, with small side-caves filled with intricate rock forms.

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We stopped often to take photos and small breaks from the walk down. Unlike many caverns that I have visited, Carlsbad was not brightly lit with different colors.  They maintained the natural look with low lighting.

The lighting was just enough to enjoy the amazing scenery.  Once reaching the bottom of the shaft, you enter the huge Big Room.  It is here that you can further explore, visit an underground gift shop, and then make the next big decision.

Do you want to climb all the way back out or take the elevator up?

We chose the elevator.  You can feel free to call me a wimp.  LOL!  As for the caverns themselves, I highly recommend a visit!  Amazing rock formations, lots of history, and tons of bats!  You can’t go wrong there!

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A visit to White Sands National Monument

Well, lets backtrack a bit.  I want to tell you a bit about the sites that we were able to visit on our way from Tucson to Atlanta.  We took about three weeks to cross the country, which gave us time to do a few tourist things.  Our first major stop was the little town of Alamogordo, NM and White Sands National Monument.

Crossing into New Mexico from Arizona, we were not sure what to expect.  Arizona had been a big surprise.  Where we had expected nothing but desert, we found mountains, forests and amazing things to see and do.  New Mexico just might surprise us too!

White Sands National Monument is a unique experience.  There’s really no other place like it on the planet.  It’s the world’s largest gypsum dunefield, with miles and miles of stunning white landscape.

Surrounded by mountain ranges on all sides, the basin of white sand dunes is roughly 275 square miles.

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Driving into the park, you follow a road that increasing becomes packed sand.  With the constant movement of the dunes, this roadway needs to be plowed daily and driving along it, reminds me of a freshly plowed snow covered road.

Gypsum rarely occurs as sand because it is water-soluble. Normally, rain would dissolve the gypsum and carry it to the sea. Because this particular basin has no outlet to the sea, it traps dissolved gypsum from the surrounding mountains.  As the water sinks into the ground, it leaves crystals of gypsum.

It is hard in photos to give perspective of the size of this place.  In the photo above, Dave and I are standing on a dune looking down at our car below.

An interesting note:  White Sands National Monument is surrounded by the White Sands Missile Range, a military testing area for the U.S. Army.  Most of the dune field lies within that missile range. The world’s first atomic bomb was detonated at the Trinity test site in the missile range, just 65 miles north of White Sands National Monument in 1945.

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Because the park lies completely within the White Sands Missile Range, both the park and U.S. Route 70 between Las Cruces, New Mexico and Alamogordo are subject to closure for safety reasons when tests are conducted on the missile range.

Miles and miles of white sand.  But unlike actual quartz based sand crystals, gypsum does not get hot under the summer sun.  In fact, the dunes are great for downhill sledding along with hiking.  Just be sure that you follow the signs and bring plenty of water.

The desert can be a beautiful, yet deadly place.

High in the clouds: Cloudcroft, NM

Now lets take a look at where all that gypsum comes from!  Just a short drive in the other direction from Alamogordo, high up in the mountain range is the town of Cloudcroft.  Located at 8,600 feet above sea level, Cloudcroft is one the highest towns in the US.

Following the winding road to the top takes about 30 minutes, with lots of places to pull over and enjoy the vistas.  In the photo above, you can see White Sands National Monument in the distance.  The rock that Dave has his foot on is gypsum.  Here is where White Sands begins.

Back in the early 1900’s, Cloudcroft was a major tourist destination.  Due to the altitude, it was the perfect place to get away from the desert heat.  A rail line was created to bring those tourist up from Alamogordo.

Climbing from the valley into the mountains required numerous trestles, switchbacks and grades as steep as 6.4 percent.

With the arrival of US Route 82 to Cloudcroft around 1945, traffic on the railroad line diminished. Southern Pacific discontinued passenger service in 1938, and freight service in 1947; abandonment of the line came soon after in 1948.

The only evidence of the railroad line today is the remains of the trestle over Mexican Canyon, as seen above.

Our visit to New Mexico had just begun.  Our next stop along the way east would be Carlsbad Caverns.  We heard they had bats.  Can’t miss that!

Stay tuned!

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Back home to Atlanta and a new grandbaby!

We left Tucson in mid March and headed back to Atlanta, GA.  The main reason?  Well, we were expecting the arrival of our first grandchild!  Our trek to Atlanta took us through some great stops and I will definitely take the time to share them with you here over the next few weeks.

When we travel long distances, we like to go with the 3-3-3 Rule.  Basically, it means no more than 3 hours of driving per day; or 300 miles per day; or arrival at a campground no later than 3:00 PM.  Following one of those options each day means that Dave doesn’t get too tired and at the same time, we both get to enjoy the sights along the way.

So the route home to Atlanta took about three weeks, and included stops in Alamogordo, NM; Carlsbad, NM; Galveston, TX; Mobile, AL; and Martin Lake, AL.  Stay tuned for more posts about the sites that we visited along the way!

We parked our coach in my daughter’s driveway and began baby watch.  Meet our daughter, Amanda and her husband, Daniel.  This photo was taken about a week before Esme was born.

Our daughter went into labor on Wednesday and it was wonderful to be there with her for this amazing experience.

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Esmeralda was born on April 20, 2017 at 8:35 AM after a long sleepless night.  She weighed 6 lbs. 1 oz. A beautiful perfect little baby girl!

She looks like a little doll, doesn’t she?  Me?  Well, I look like I’ve been up all night.  But it wasn’t nearly as exhausting for me as her mom!

Baby Esme is a beautiful addition to our family!  She is the first grandchild on my family’s side, and the first girl grandchild on Daniels family’s side.

Did I mention before how excited we are to be here?  That is one of the best advantages of full time RVing!

We will be in Atlanta until around the end of June when we will start our next campground job.  I am currently working on making that one official and will let you know as soon as we have something on paper.

In the meantime, we are enjoying the Atlanta area, our wonderful family and our beautiful granddaughter!

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The Science of Tucson

We are currently on our way back across the country to spend a bit of time with my daughter and her family in Atlanta.  In the meantime, I wanted to finish up talking about the Tucson area with one final post.

There is so much to see and do in this beautiful area of the country.   Earlier we covered the amazing Biosphere 2.  This week I wanted to talk a little about Pima Air and Space Museum, the huge aircraft boneyard, Titan Missile Museum and the amazing Kitt Peak National Observatory.  All are within a short driving distance of downtown Tucson!

Kitt Peak National Observatory

For those that love the science of observing the stars or those that just love a fantastic scenic view, a drive to Kitt Peak National Observatory is something you should not miss!

Kitt Peak Observatory includes 24 optical and two radio telescopes, and is the largest, most diverse group of astronomical instruments in the world.  It sits at 6875 feet above sea level overlooking the beautiful Sonoran Desert.

And talk about an amazing view!  The drive from Tucson is a little over an hour and the road up the mountain includes lots of switchbacks and a bit of steepness.  But it is very worth the drive.

Kitt Peak was chosen because of it’s high percentage of clear weather, low levels of humidity, and the fact that there is very little light pollution in the area.  A perfect place for an observatory!

One of the most interesting structures was the McMath-Pierce telescope.  It includes a tower nearly 100 feet high, and a shaft that slants two hundred feet into the ground.  The purpose?  McMath-Pierce telescope is used to study the sun!

The McMath-Pierce is used to study the structure of sunspots, as well as sunspot spectra. A sunspot is a temporary cool region in the sun’s photosphere.   This telescope makes it possible to look directly at the sun.

Kitt Peak is also famous for hosting the first telescope used to search for near-Earth asteroids, and calculating the probability of an impact with planet Earth.

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Local Secrets of Tucson

Yesterday, we left Tucson and are currently heading east towards Atlanta.  We plan on making a slow trek back.  Our daughter is due to have our first grandchild soon and we would love to be there for that.

It was an unplanned exit, as we had intended on staying in Tucson until April 1.  Unfortunately, our job there did not work out.  I will go into it more at a later date.  Things are too fresh right now and Dave and I are planning on decompressing a bit as we head back across the country.

In the meantime, I would love to share with you a few of the local secrets of Tucson.  We truly loved the area, and will go back one day.   Arizona was home to us.

Unique Local Food of Tucson

As with most southwestern towns, Tucson has a large abundance of Mexican restaurants.  We tried as many as we could while we were in the area.  All were good and each had their own unique flair.

Guadalajara Restaurant offered the unique aspect of making your salsa for you at your table.  Not only was it fun to watch, but your salsa was made to our own specifications.

Want it extra hot?  No problem!

We loved the mariachi band, the festive atmosphere and of course the food!

Sonoran Hotdogs

Our coworkers, Rob and Connie from Circle Pines, spend their winters in Tucson.  They told us not to miss the Sonoran Hotdogs.  In fact, they made a point to take us out to their favorite place to get them.

The best thing about work camping is making lifelong friends.

So, what is a Sonoran hotdog?

It starts with a hotdog wrapped in bacon and grilled until it’s crispy. It is then stuffed into a hand made split-top roll called a bolillo (pronouced boh-lee-yoh). It is topped with pinto beans, chopped tomatoes, grilled and raw onions, mayonnaise, mustard and jalapeño salsa.

It is literally heaven in a bun.

El Güero Canelo, is perhaps the most famous maker of Sonoran hot dogs in Tucson.  Seriously, if you are in the Tucson area, don’t miss out on Sonoran Hotdogs!

Want pizza?  Grimaldi’s is a great place for just that.  Huge is the word.  And tasty too.

Raspados

And finally, we need to get dessert, right?

Raspados is the Mexican version of “scraped ice” or snow cones.  They are made with layers of shaved ice, homemade syrups, fruits, candies , ice cream, and sweetened condensed milk.  While standard flavors like strawberry, banana, plum and pineapple are popular, there are also exotic combinations such as the chamoyada with lime, tamarind candy and spicy chamoy sauce.

Don’t leave Tucson without trying one.  They are amazing!

Sentinel Peak (Also known as “A Mountain”)

From downtown Tucson, you can see the big white “A” on Sentinel Peak located just southwest of the city.  The A is a 160 ft. tall structure made from basalt rock, constructed in the early 1900’s by students from the University of Arizona.

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The secret is that you can actually drive up this mountain, see the A up close and personal and look down at amazing views of downtown Tucson!

The perfect time to check this view out is either a sunrise or a sunset.  Since we don’t love getting up early, we hit it one evening during an amazing sunset.

Touching the A is considered good luck.  So naturally, we did.

And then we enjoyed the sunset over Tucson.  Sentinel Peak was surprisingly busy for the sunset viewing.  Apparently, this is not such a secret after all…

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Mt. Lemmon and life in Tucson

Well, its been a couple of weeks since my last update and life in Tucson is a bit cold (especially at night) and a bit frustrating at times, but I have to say it is a beautiful area to live this time of year.

We really love the fact that we can step right outside our door and pick fresh oranges every day for orange juice.  We are definitely getting our share of vitamin C.

As for the work thing.  Well, it could be better.  I’ve written about work camping before- The Good, the bad and the ugly.   We came to this campground to work in the kitchen.  We thought it would be a nice break from working guest services; a job that we have consistently been doing for the past few years.

However, it seems that working in the kitchen, at least at this campground was not working for us.  We asked to be moved back to customer service and they moved us to the front office a little over a week ago.

So, with that said, we are making the best of our stay here and enjoying the area.  And looking forward to our move onto the next part of the country.  LOL!

Tucson has some pretty amazing sunsets.  This photo was taken from our doorway.   I have to say that it truly is a beautiful place to live.

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This past week, we decided to take advantage of our couple days off and take a drive up to the top of Mt. Lemmon.  From the campground, we can see it rising above the city of Tucson.  This time of year, you can see the snow at the summit.

We wanted to touch some snow.   So off we went.

Mt Lemmon Scenic Byway is the only paved road that leads to the top of Mt. Lemmon and the Santa Catalina Range. It is said to be one of the most scenic drives in southeast Arizona.

Because the road starts in the Lower Sonoran desert and climbs to high forests, it offers the biological equivalent of driving from the deserts of Mexico to the forests of Canada in a short stretch of 27 miles.

Here at the base of the mountain, we were surrounded by Saguaro cactus and desert scenery.  It would change pretty quickly.

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The Human Experiment called Biosphere 2

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I love science and I love history and our next place to visit just happened to fall into both categories!  You see, in the fall of 1991, eight men and women confined themselves into a glass and steel complex known as Biosphere 2 for a total of two years.  Their mission was to see if they could live in a self-sustaining sealed off environment.  A possible model for colonizing outer space.

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Twenty five years later, Biosphere 2 still stands.  It is located in the town of Oracle, about 40 miles north of Tucson.  Depending upon who you talk to, it is a representative of a massively expensive failed experiment, or a unique and fascinating look into future possibilities.

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Now owned and operated by the University of Arizona who currently use it for research, Biosphere 2 is a popular attraction for those of us that are fascinated by what was later called, “The Human Experiment”

Back in 1991, I was the mom to two young children and busy with job and family, I remember vaguely about this place in the news.  So, we decided to take a tour of the facility and learn a bit more!

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Named Biosphere 2, as the original Biosphere is the current one that we all live in, it was built to demonstrate how a closed ecological system can support and maintain human life.

It is a 3.14-acre structure and remains the largest closed system ever created.  Costing nearly $150 million, it was entirely funded by one man- Edward Bass, an environmentalist heir to a Texas oil fortune.

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Biosphere 2 contains five separate biome areas:  a rainforest, an ocean with a coral reef, a mangrove wetlands, a savannah grassland, and a fog desert.  It also includes a human habitat and a huge below ground infrastructure that supports it all.

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Here we are looking down at the biome that includes the self contained “ocean”.  This includes a wave making machine and at one time, a nice coral reef.

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This is the rain forest.  It was meant to be the main source of oxygen in this sealed environment.  The Biosphere 2 contained over 3000 documented species of plants and animals across its five biomes.

The premise of the experiment was that the eight people would be locked into this self-sustaining environment for two years.  No coming or going permitted.  It was meant to test if living inside an artificial reconstruction of Earth’s environment for long term was possible.

Biosphere 2 was only used twice for its original intended purposes as a closed-system experiment.  Originally from 1991 to 1993, and then again for just a few months in 1994.  Both attempts ran into major problems.

How did those eight people fare after two years closed up in this ultra huge terrarium?

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Both heavily publicized experiments ran into problems including low amounts of food and oxygen, die-offs of many animal and plant species, squabbling among the resident scientists and management issues.

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This is one of the two “lungs” for Biosphere 2.  As we stood here, we could watch the ceiling rise and fall as air pressure regulated it.

With the Sun’s heat frequently causing Biosphere 2’s contained volume of atmosphere to expand, the formation of cracks started to indicate some structural stress on the building’s exterior.

The solution for this problem was provided with an additional set of chambers or ‘lungs’ which allowed for the overflow and extraction of air.

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But as problems were solved, more presented themselves.  An unusually dark and overcast winter was to blame for reduced plant and crop production.  Lowered oxygen and increased carbon dioxide affected the crew’s health.

The human experiment itself was widely considered a failure.  However, much was learned in the Biosphere 2, and still continues to this day.

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The University of Arizona assumed full ownership of the structure in 2011 and continues biological research onsite, with an emphasis on growing plants in space, on earth in closed biospheres and possible space colonization.

Want to know more about what actually went on inside Biosphere 2 during those two years of enclosure?  I did too.  I figured with 4 men and 4 women, there had to be drama.  So I bought the book, The Human Experiment by Jane Poynter.

It is an interesting look from her point of view as one of those 8 people enclosed in this fascinating place.

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Mission San Xavier del Bac

We love the fact that on our days off from work camping, we can take the time to enjoy the beauty around us.  We were told by the locals that Mission San Xavier del Bac was an experience that we really couldn’t miss while we are here in Tucson.

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Mission San Xavier del Bac is the oldest intact European structure in Arizona and is widely considered to be the finest example of Spanish architecture in the United States.  It is located just 9 miles south of downtown Tucson and draws around 200,000 visitors each year.

We decided to take a trip out there to see it this week.

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And we were not disappointed!

Mission San Xavier del Bac is affectionately called the “White Dove of the Desert”.  It sits on the land of the Tohono O’odham Indians who have protected the mission for hundreds of years.

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San Xavier Mission was founded as a Catholic mission by Father Eusebio Kino in 1692.  This particular church was completed in 1797 with the help of the local Tohono O’odham Indians, over 220 years ago!

As we walked inside, we were in awe of the amazing detail in every nook and crevice of this fabulous church.

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Little is known about the people who decorated the interior. It is assumed that much of the artwork was probably created by artists from Queretero in New Spain (now Mexico).

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The sculptures were created elsewhere and then carried by donkey through the desert to their destination at the Mission.

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We were told that what we were seeing today is the result of careful restoration.  Because of it’s age, the structure of the Mission obtained damage over the years.  An earthquake in 1887 caused major damage, and in 1939, lightning struck the West Tower lantern.

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In 1978, a group of community leaders began a five-year program to conserve and restore this national treasure.  An international team of conservators were brought in to clean, remove over-painting and repair the beautiful murals and sculptures within the Mission.

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Exterior preservation is still in process when funds are available.

Walking the grounds, we discovered several beautiful desert gardens and a small museum and gift shop.

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Through the gate, you can walk up to the hill next door that has a large cross on top.  The view is worth the small climb.

And don’t miss the local Tohono O’odham Indians who have set up stands in the parking lot selling lots of freshly made fry bread.

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I just love it when I run across a totally unexpected sign.  Certainly, don’t feed the coyotes.

Apparently they like fry bread too!

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If you are visiting the Tucson area, don’t miss this historic landmark!  It is free to the public and is an awe inspiring look into ancient architecture, amazing art, and religious history!

Do keep in mind that this is still an active church.  Masses are held daily.  All are welcome to attend mass, but be aware that no photos are allowed at that time.

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Only in Arizona- The Tumbleweed Christmas Tree!

Yes, at first glance it looks like a normal Christmas tree in the center of town.  But Chandler, Arizona creates something unique and beautiful each year.  Something that you can find nowhere else in the country…

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This beautiful tree is made up of thousands of tumbleweeds!

Yes, thousands of them!  It takes around 1,000 of these tumbling dead bushes to create the massive 30″ tall tree each year.

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Local tradition holds that Chandler’s Tumbleweed Tree was the brainchild of Earle Barnum.  He came up with the idea for the tumbleweed tree after seeing a tree built with local pine boughs in his hometown in Indiana.

How do they make a Tumbleweed Tree?

Starting in the fall, the tumbleweeds are gathered and then placed around a chicken wire frame.  They are then sprayed with flame retardant white paint, sprinkled with over 65 pounds of glitter, and strung with lights.

This wonderfully unique tradition has been carried on for over 60 years in the town of Chandler.

Of course, once we heard about it, we had to see it!

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There was lots to see and do in the town area surrounding the Tumbleweed Tree including great little shops and restaurants.  Naturally, we had to try out one of the restaurants.

The sacrifices we make for this website.  LOL!

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We decided to check out Crust Restaurant, a local Italian eatery.  From inside, we could watch the tree as darkness began to fall and the lights were lit.

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We had some amazing pasta dishes at Crust.  We enjoyed a fresh board of Tomato, Basil and Parmesan Bruschetta, along with our main course of Grandma’s Pasta- a yummy mix of pasta, meatballs, sausage, ricotta and marinara!

Definitely worth a return visit!

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And as darkness fell, the Tumbleweed Tree grew even more beautiful!

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We really enjoyed the lights in the square.

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After all, it is pretty hard to decorate an RV.   The lights in the streets were amazing.

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This is our second Christmas living full time in our coach.  And one of the things I love about that is that we can experience Christmas just a bit differently each year.

Last year, we were on the beaches of Florida, and this year we are enjoying a Tumbleweed Christmas tree!

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And back at the campground, the doggies are settling in just fine.  Faith and Ralph have decided that the campground was pretty nice about supplying them with an official “doggie sidewalk”.

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We brought a few more of the old traditions back to our coach including whipping up a big batch of Old Fashioned Potato Candy.  (You can find the full recipe on my other website, Suzy’s Sitcom).

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Faith and Ralph (and both of us) wish you all an amazing, happy and healthy holiday season!

Next week, I plan on doing a review of our past year on the road!  Stay tuned!

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A visit to Saguaro National Park

First things first: it’s pronounced “suh-wahr-oh.”  Do you know how many years I have mispronounced this cactus?  Yep, I am ridiculously southern and can’t seem to shake it.

Anyway, we decided to make the short drive out to Saguaro National Park to see what all the fuss was about.

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And there you have it.  Cactus as far as you can see.

Since 1933 this extraordinary giant cactus has been protected within Saguaro National Park. There are two sections of the park, one on the west side of Tucson and one on the east side.  Our visit this week was to the west.

The Sonoran Desert is one of the hottest and driest regions on the continent. In the summer, it is common for the temperatures to climb over 100 degrees and it gets less than 12 inches of rain in a typical year.

With that in mind, it was surprisingly lush and beautiful!

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The plants and animals are able to survive this environment with adaptations specially designed for desert survival.  At first glance, desert life seems rather unfriendly.

Talk about a bunch of defense mechanisms!  It would not be a great thing to trip and fall while hiking around this part of the country!

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But in an extreme environment such as this, I imagine a great defense is necessary.

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Even the local wildlife is extreme.  The Sonoran Desert is home to 18 species of rattlesnakes.  There are also poisonous Gila Monsters,  and Coyotes, and Javelinas.

Not a lot of friendly in this part of the country, that’s for sure.

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The star of the show is the Saguaro Cactus.  It is not only the state symbol of Arizona, but a universally recognized image of the Southwest!

It is the largest and slowest growing of all cacti.  The shorter ones to the left of me in the photo above are about 75 years old.  The one to the right of me could be as old as 200 years.

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These amazing cacti can weigh up to 8 tons, partly because of the large amount of water the stems can hold. Giant saguaro cacti, unique to the Sonoran Desert, sometimes reach a height of 50 feet.

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