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Archive for the ‘USA – 2011’ Category

Thursday, 24 March 2011 – a visit to the Huntington Botanical Gardens

Our hotel in Monrovia had been selected to give us easy access to The Huntington – it was right on Huntington Drive. It would have helped if I had taken this road heading south-west instead of to the north-east. Never mind, we were looking for a place to have breakfast and I realised that the foothills were on the ‘wrong’ side of the road as we parked up. The matter was corrected when we left.

The Huntington’s opening hours are 12:00 to 16:30 and despite our drive in the wrong direction, we still arrived one hour too early. I had expected her to be jet lagged, but her body clock was still 8 hours ahead of California, so had been rearing to go when I was still waking up. We found a Starbucks to kill time and entered these famous gardens soon after noon, straight to the Cactus Garden (there are several other themed gardens, including a Chinese and a Japanese Garden).

The mass planting of some of the cacti make a very photogenic subject, even though it does not reflect the way that the plants grow in nature. And I still have to get used to see South American cacti growing alongside Californian cacti or South African succulents.

The weather forecast had been for rain but we were glad to see that they had got it wrong, at least until we had arrived at our hotel and went out for a bite to eat before heading to the Orange County Cactus & Succulent Society at the Fullerton Arboretum, where a good crowd had gathered to see ‘What I Saw Last Winter 2010-2011’ – just the South American part.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011 – Angie arrives at LAX

Another rest day – monitoring Angie’s progress on flight tracker across the Atlantic and the North American continent. When her flight touched down at LAX, the temperature was a cool 12 C (16 C when she had boarded the flight in London) and it poured down with rain –  she had left the UK in brilliant sunshine.

Never mind – a change (in scenery) is as good as a break.

Monday, 21 March 2011 – rest day in Bellflower, CA

Just a quick message to say that we arrived safely in Bellflower, late last night and in the pouring rain! The song says ‘It never rains in California.’  The song is wrong!!

We have had a number of extremely long driving days to get back to Bellflower, when on arrival each night I have been too tired to write up the Diary entries. On other occassions the wifi connections and my laptop problems prevented the Diaries to be written or published. I hope to rectify some of this over the next few days.

We now have a couple of days until Angie arrives on Wednesday for a 2 week look around the US SW area.

Sunday, 20 March, 2011 – Tucson to Bellflower

Tucson, AZ to Bellflower, CA is ‘only’ 487 miles (784 km) – 8 hours drive, which ever way you want to count it through some of the less inspiring landscapes on fast highways. That’s a full day’s task, so we were perhaps a bit silly to arrange a visit at Miles Anderson’s Miles to Go nursery out in the desert near Tucson (S2337). We managed to tear ourselves away just after noon, so expected to make it to Bellflower by 8 p.m. The visit was well worth it with excellent cactus chat and opportunities to photograph the cultivated versions of plants that we had seen shrivelled and dry during the last few weeks in habitat. Thanks Miles!

The weather forecast for California suggested rain – hard to believe when you’re standing in the burning (for a Dutchman) Arizona sunshine, but sure enough, as we approached Blythe, clouds gathered and by the time that we had some 100 miles left to go, it started to rain, ending up with a good old English style down pour.  It was at this time that Ruby, who had been so well-behaved during her Mexico adventure, started playing up. Warning lights that had told us that an oil change was due ‘soon’ started to insist that the time had come now, another cryptic message said that the right hand rear indicator light was malfunctioning and to cap it all, when the heavens were raining down at full strength, a new message told us that we had ‘low tyre pressure’, with an icon of a punctured tyre on display. We almost ‘swam’ off the highway and to a garage, fortunately where Eunice had studied at University, so where she was familiar, at least 30 years ago. The guy at the fuel station kindly switched on the air line but we had four round ones, and as far as I could tell in the wet and dark, the tyre pressures were fine. The temperature had fallen from 85 F to 40 F, so that might have caused a fluctuation in pressures? Or do cars in California really dislike ran?

The important thing was that we arrived safely home with Eunice driving the car through some awful conditions, avoiding the Californian drivers who still have a lot to learn about driving in these conditions.

Friday, 25 February, 2011 – Alpine, TX to Monclova, Coahuila

We have driven 1,100 miles from LAX to Alpine and have travelled about half the width of the USA. So far we have few cactus images to show for our troubles, but that is all part of the plan. The elite of Mexican cactus flora, the Connoisseur Cacti as John Pilbeam might call them, occur farther south then we managed to get last year when Saltillo was about as far south as we travelled. Our options are to fly into Mexico City, rent a car there and head north or to drive from where I was staying in the LA area, following much the same route that we had followed last year.

As a result we had been very disciplined as far as making time consuming stops was concerned and had been eating miles and now, in Mexico, kilometers.

Today’s thirteen images are all scenic and are not filed under a specific stop number.

This time we crossed the border at Del Rio into Acuna. This is a small crossing, open 24 hours per day and probably the most relaxed and friendly crossing between the US and Mexico yet. Last year we crossed at Eagle Pass, a bit farther to the east, but had to drive some 50 km south to Allende to complete the temporary car import formalities. At Acuna, this could all be done at the border so that once formalities had been completed we could drive to our destination without interruption.

For anyone wishing to try this themselves in a rented car, our experience is that Dollar are (possibly the only) one that allows renters to take their vehicles into Mexico. You need to buy Mexico Insurance on top of the usual rental / insurance costs and the current cost is US$27.80 per day. You also need a letter of authority from the rental company, granting you permission to take the car out of the US. The Mexican authorities require photocopies of all these documents plus copies of your passport page with the photograph, of your driving licence and of your Mexico Tourist Visa. Passport and driving licence photocopies are also needed for any co-drivers. If you are smart, you can save time by taking these in advance. We were not that smart and so had to we walk a couple of hundred meters in the burning sun (temperatures were up to 30C) to a money change office that also did photocopies, all for the sum of US$1. By the way, there was a photocopier behind the lady that wanted the copies, but it was not allowed for her to take the copies. There was no one else in the queue, but the whole process still took one hour.

Just as last year you have to pay US$35.82 for the equivalent of a UK motor vehicle licence and a US$ 400 deposit (cash or credit card) that you get back when you leave the country. We had the correct amount of cash and thought that the Mex Government holding this was probably safer then us carrying it around with us for 4 weeks.

During this time we were watched by armed soldiers with machine guns and Balaclava masks, on the square, at the entrance to the Customs office and even inside the offices. Perhaps the most worrying time was when suddenly they all disappeared on the double. Did they know of something coming? No idea. Everything went smoothly and the town of Acuna is actually a very nice little town for a bit of tourist shopping or a bite to eat. On the US side, there are plenty of good hotels to use as a spring plank for an early crossing into Mexico or to find a bed if you arrive from Mexico late at night.

Tomorrow we head for Bustamante for a bit of plant hunting.

Thursday, 24 February, 2011 – around Alpine

We had a day sightseeing in Big Bend. Unlike last year, when we hunted down some 6 GPS locations and found the plants expected at these stops, this time we went to tourists spots such as an overlook and a canyon in the Rio Grande and watched people walk through the water from Mexico and the US. Stop numbers are S2252 (scenery), S2253, at the northern entrance to the park, coming from Marathon, S2254 at the Fossil Bone Exhibit, S2255 at the Rio Grande Overlook and S2256 at the Boquillas Canyon Trail. We asked at two of the visitor’s centres to see the local cactus experts. As usual they were out elsewhere. At one of the centres, a nice lady, who was on leave from her regular job as a warden at a Park in Alaska, tried to remember what she had been taught when she joined, which took us to the Rio Grande Overlook where we failed to see Epithelantha and Lophophora, but we had seen plenty of those elsewhere last year.

Tomorrow we cross into Mexico

And of course we looked around for cacti and found Echincereus engelmannii, E. dasyacanthus, lots of Cylindropuntia and Opuntia sp., Escobaria tuberculosa, Mammillaria pottsii and Ariocarpus fissuaratus – some dozen plants before we got fed up with taking their picture.

The most interesting information gained today came from a geology book (too heavy to bring back to the UK, and a cactus book that I bought here last year – but of course left back at home in the UK. Echinocereus viridiflorus ssp davisii and Coryphantha nellii are said to occur near Marathon and we were driving backwards and forwards along US Highway 385 from and to the town. The cactus book told us to look along the 385, around c 10 miles south of Marathon where it has a very restricted distribution growing on novaculite. The geology book told us that south of Marathon novaculite occurs folded so as to form horseshoe shaped layers, similar in shape to those that we saw in NW Argentina. The map told us that we were driving along the Caballos Mountains, with geological structures as described. Caballos is Spanish for Horseshoes. Stories picked up back home in the UK suggest that the plants grow on private property with owners who do not take kindly to visitors on their property. I am glad to know where to look on a future occasion and to try to contact the owners by email in advance for a future visit.

Wednesday, 23 February, 2011 – Tucson, Az to Alpine, TX

In exactly 4 weeks, Angie arrives in California for a whirlwind 2 week look at the highlights of my previous visits. We hope to squeeze in a trip to Tucson so I’ve been making notes of things to see and what to avoid.

But today we focus on Day 2 of the 2011 Mexico trip as we drive to Alpine, Texas where we aim to stay in the Best Western which impressed us last year.

This is another driving day and much of the landscape is flat and boring with any cactus or succulent that resides here having been snapped on previous trips. So the ideal conditions to set the cruise control to the maximum speed permitted plus the 5 mph grace on top and take it in turn to hold the steering wheel, with toilet breaks as necessary.

The result was just one plant stop, S2251, as we turned off Interstate 10 about one exit before last year’s exit at the Dragoon Road. At this spot we found Ferocactus wislizeni, Yucca sp. and Opuntia santa-rita, that I think is called O. macrocentra these days.

We had agreed not to stop at Van Horn for the night that provided one of the worst nights in the US last year, mainly because of the rather sleazy customers at the fast food places on the outskirts in town that seemed the only places open when we arrived after dark. That time we had also ‘enjoyed’ a thorough search of car and clothes by the US Border Patrol station just out of town, triggered by the sniffer dog finding Eunice’s ground coffee for the trip. This apparently is a popular decoy to put sniffer dogs off illegal drugs. Needles to say we left with a clear record but the thoroughness of the search when we were tired after a long drive was unsettling.

This time we had left earlier and made fewer stops so that we could drive straight on to Alpine, Texas.

Tomorrow we take another look at Big Bend.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2011 – Bellflower to Tucson

Today was an essential driving day We took Interstate 10 towards Phoenix but took the 89 Phoenix by-pass (new to us and to Eunice’s SatNav system).

We made just the one stop, S2250, off I10 mainly for a comfort break and leg stretch, but stayed long enough to capture two different Cylindropuntia species (C. bigelovii and C. kleinia?) and Fouqueria splendens.

It was dark by the time we rolled into Tucson, found the usual Motel 6 and arrived at the Silver Saddle for another great steak, just in time for their 9:30 closing

Monday, 21 February, 2011 – Rest day in Bellflower

We picked up the car, a nice metallic red Ford Explorer 4×4 which seems more than adequate for the task ahead. The lady helping us to check out the car looked blank when we mentioned that we needed Mexico insurance and a letter of authority to take the car out of the US and into Mexico. I suggested that she’d check last year’s booking for the same purpose and the 2009 one, when we wasted four hours in Mexico because we did not have the letter of authority. She went to see her supervisor and ten minutes later came back with a big smile complementing us on the thorough research of what was necessary.

I mentioned to Eunice that in 1997, when I visited LA for the first time, with my sons Anton & Christiaan, they traded a morning at the Huntington Botanic Garden (a treat for me) for an afternoon at a huge Retail Outlet centre – their treat. Eunice immediately knew what and where: The Citadel and mentioned that the Columbia outdoor clothing chain that I favour for my explorer’s gear, had an outlet there. Guess where we went for the afternoon! I bought three nice new shirts, the lightweight, quick drying ones with sunblock, and anti-everything treatment that retail for GBP 20 to 30 each for around GBP 5 each! It was President Day – a US Bank Holiday, so the place was heaving with people. If I had unlimited luggage weight allowance for the flight home, I could have bought a lot more! I have suggested that Angie just brings hand luggage when she comes over next month and we’ll go shopping here straight from the plane.

Tomorrow we start the next trip, driving to Tucson, from where we head to Texas, drive through The Big Bend and cross again into Mexico at Eagle Pass from where we head south for a look at the Connoisseur cacti of Mexico.