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Saturday, 5 May 2012 – Phoenix and flying back to Blighty

We had to check out of Motel 6 by noon, but by around 11:30 we had enough of sitting in the small room without having had breakfast. Angie wanted to find a Columbia shop to buy some more lightweight – easy washable etc shirts and via the internet we learned there was such a shop at the Anthem Retail Outlets, 39 miles from the Motel. We had plenty of fuel left in the tank; our Platinum deal with Dollar meant that we could return the car on empty.

At least the shops were airconditioned but once again, the desert air was scorching at 96 F. I couldn’t resist a couple more shirts myself – they are so much cheaper in the US, especially in these out of town Outlets.  The Columbia cash desk recognised my name from last year in Palm Springs and gave me another $14 discount as a result of reward points collected on that occasion. Thank you – that covered the cost of one of my shirts!

The rental car pick up and drop off points for a comprehensive range of rental companies is found in its own ‘terminal’ with shuttle bus services from each of the four flight terminals to it. Very well arranged! It’s the first time that we’ve come across this – well done Phoenix!

Mileage at the drop off was 17,652. That means that with a mileage of 14,468 miles at the pick up, we had driven 3,184 miles during 20 days, so averaging just 160 miles per day.

We took off as the sun was setting, but the windows on the plane were not clean enough at this stage to take any worthwhile pictures.

Friday, 4 May 2012 – Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden

When we plan our trips we’ve learned to build in some ‘escape’ options in case we should run into health or car problems that can cause unexpected delays. This includes arriving at your final destination in Cactus Country with a day to spare – just in case. This is when we fit in goals such as botanic gardens and the Desert Botanical Garden proved to be a great was to spend the day. For the first time this trip I managed to fill an 8 GB memory card, with lots of cacti and other desert plants, many in flower – S2558. In 2000, the late Ted Anderson, then recently retired as curator at the DBS, had agreed to be a speaker at the Derek Desborough Memorial Lectures then organised by the Crawley Branch of the British Cactus & Succulent Society. The day after the lecture I took him to the Holly Gate Cactus Nursery, then managed by Terry Hewitt, where we had a great day taking pictures that Ted still needed for The Cactus Family book that he was writing. As I dropped him off at the house he was renting during his stay in the UK, he said that we had to do this again at ‘his place in Phoenix’. Sadly Ted died in 2001, but I felt that he was there as we walked between the plants.

My pictures of Saguaros on earlier visits usually failed to catch them in flower, but this time, a bit later in the year, we had hit the jackpot. I always envied those who had taken pictures of birds feeding on the flowers’ pollen and here they were, doing their thing – I should have some great shots of them. Also of hummingbirds, feeding on Lobivia huascha from north west Argentina, of a ground squirrel that seemed intent on catching our attention by giving us a little performance right along the side of a path in the Gardens and of a Harris’ Antelope Squirrel climbing up Ferocactus to get to the fruits and seeds. Angie did even better by catching them on video.

Walking through the garden in the heat – temperatures went past the 38 degrees C (100 F ) mark and all the water we had brought had gone. By around 15:00 we were reduced to sitting in the shade sipping ice-cold Colas. Time for that other ritual at the end of the trip – the car wash! Compared to other trips, this had been a fairly easy trip for our Ford Escape and it had treated us well, but had picked up some dirt both inside and out, so we treated it to a valet make over, inside and out.

Back in Motel 6 we started to solve the riddle of how to get everything that should come back to the UK inside our luggage. Worn out walking boots and jeans were sacrificed and despite the fact that they were way past their best by date, we still felt a little emotional saying goodbye to these items that had served us well for a number of years. We’re old softies really.

Late tomorrow afternoon we leave for the UK where we arrive on Sunday. By Sunday night I plan to post the final report of the trip.

Thursday, 3 May 2012 – Holbrook to Phoenix

A quick look at the UK weather forecast for Salisbury, England makes depressive reading: 9.7 C max. So that’s what we’ll have to look forward to when we get home on Sunday! Better make the best of the days that we have left in the USA.

Cliff had suggested that if we saw Jim Gray’s Petrified Wood Company, we stop, as this is where, years ago, he bought some great T-shirts that by now had served their time and needed replacing.. And soon after leaving Motel 6, there it was (S2554). It’s a cross between a builder’s yard where mechanical diggers are used to help you to take your shopping (lumps of petrified wood – to be used as garden landscape features) to your car. Not sure what you are supposed to do when you get home – how do you get several tons of stone out of the car? Inside, it is a cross between a museum – with cut and polished pieces of wood, plus fossils and crystals from every corner of the planet. Some are just exhibits (although I bet that at the right price you could take them home) while others are for sale, some at outside our budget prices, some outside our flight weight allowance but some very suitable as last-minute souvenir shopping. They no longer sold the line of T Shirts that Cliff wanted. Oh well.

Right on the Holbrook City limits – in fact, next to the sign – we stopped again to adjust the luggage as there was something knocking against something else. When you’re stopped, you may as well look around for plants right? Before too long, Cliff had found a small cactus on the gravely soil, probably Sclerocactus whipplei. Unlike our stop earlier this week at Mexican Hat, here the plants had finished flowering. We found about a dozen plants. (S2555)

As we carried, on the road crossed through an area of flat sandstone terraces, similar to where in Minas Gerais, Brazil, we had found Coleocephalocereus aurea, although there the terraces were made of limestone. Anyway: cactus country, so at the first available place we pulled off – S2556. Angie soon found a cactus in bud – Echinocereus sp. probably E. fendleri. The usual rule of thumb is: where there is one, there will be others, but during the 2 hours that we enjoyed out in the sun, this was the only Echinocereus found.

Throughout the trip, Cliff & I had told Angie to look out for Toumeya papyracantha, a master at mimicking its environment and almost indistinguishable from the grass clumps found just about everywhere in the desert.. She was still not 100% sure what these plants looked like, so Cliff obliged by spotting a single individual without the grass around it. It had recently flowered but the fruit was not ripe yet.

Pediocactus peeblesianus had been reported from around Holbrook, so, encouraged by our Toumeya find, we carried on looking while the temperature carried on going up and up. Cliff announced a find over the walkie talkies – small cactus, in flower under shrub. It did not look much like P. peeblesianus, but Cliff believes that it looks like Escobaria missouriensis that he used to grow in England. [Note to self: look up how a plant called missouriensis – from Missouri – ends up in Arizona. Answer: because it occurs over a huge distribution area in Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska., New Mexico, North Dakota., Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Wyoming) and northern Mexico (Nuevo Leon, but strangely Missouri is not mentioned. Why?].

Angie found her ‘own’ Toumeya and another E. missouriensis in flower in an almost identical location, hidden underneath a small shrub. If not in flower, we would have walked straight by it and probably had passed by hundreds more. It seemed as though the area had enjoyed some rains a short while ago. The reddish sand in the cracks between the smooth sand stone rocks still seemed slightly moist. It seemed that the rains had washed some of the fine sand away to collects against rocks. As soon as the brain had registered this, I spotted two tiny plants that appeared to have been covered by this silt like sand and then had started to swell due to the availability of water. The had recently flowered but again, the fruits were not yet ripe.

Excited by these finds we had stayed perhaps longer out in the heat than might have been advisable. My mouth was getting very dry. Normally we would have carried bottles of water, but we had expected just a quick look around, so had not bothered. Back in the car we realised that we still had a good four hours to drive before reaching Phoenix.

S2557 was for images taken from the car, some 50 miles north of Phoenix, as the first Saguaros along the road. As we got closer to Phoenix we saw that most were in full flower, but there were no places on the highway to pull over and after the long drive, we did not look too hard – we still have tomorrow to take a look.

Another great day, slightly sad in the knowledge that all too soon we’ll be back home.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012 – Mexican Hat to Holbrook

Today was another day of sightseeing with cacti as the incidental support cast.

S2551 was for the drive from Mexican Hat to the settlement (a Census Designated Place) of Many Farms in Apache County, Arizona, just before the Canyon de Chelly National Monument at Chinley with short stops to stretch our legs or to take a comfort break. In the past I have been asked to act as quiz master in quizes between BCSS branches and I thought that the name sign would be a good question- ‘How Many Farms are there in Many Farms, AZ?’ I had hoped to find the answer on Google, but only learned that at the 2000 census there were 1,458 inhabitants in 606 housing units. No cacti were photographed.

S2552 was for the scenic pictures taken at the Canyon de Chelly National Monument and S2553 for the plants photographed in the Park. This included Juniper trees infected by a parasitic plant that I have not yet found in the Canyon de Chelly Flora, found on the internet. The Echinocerei in flower were no doubt the Claret Cup – here E. triglochidiatus spp mojavensis, but E. coccineus and E. fendleri are also reported from the park and can be difficult to ID in nature when the plant photographed is at the end of the 200 mm range of my zoom lens and is located between the cracks in rocks or on isolated ledges. Opuntia are always difficult to ID in nature and the plant list still includes Cylindropuntia in the super genus Opuntia, so that I’ll have to see which of the following fits the plants in the images taken and see which are accepted names and which are synonyms and of what: O. erinacea – the grizzlybear prickley pear – O. fragilis, O. macrorhiza, O. phaeacantha, O. polyacantha, O. whipplei and O. x viridiflora. Coryphantha vivipara and Sclerocactus whiplei are also listed but not seen / photographed. There were also at least a couple of Yucca species – the flora lists Y. angustissima and Y. baccata.

We finished the day at Motel 6 and dinner at Denny’s next door, where Cliff & I finished the day with an ice cream eating competition that finished in a draw. Angie was the judge and event photographer.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012 – around Mexican Hat

Where’s Angie?

Cliff and I had been checking emails for the latest news on the wettest drought that ever hit the UK. Angie had popped ‘across the road’ – actually, the San Juan River – to take some images of the San Juan Inn & Trading Post but that was 45 minutes ago. We took a look on the landing and saw Angie taking pictures of something close tothe ground. She spotted us and wrote a large ‘C’ in the sky. Cacti!

We spent the next 90 minutes in burning sunshine on the flats across the San Juan river and photographed hundreds of Sclerocactus parviflorus with every flower colour from pure white to deep purple and petal shapes from very rounded to very pointy. (S2547) We checked the internet to confirm the species searching for ‘Sclerocactus Mexican Hat’ and even found a field reference of  AM793 – Angie! you never told us that you had been here before!

Next on the aganda was Monument Valley for a scenic photo shoot. Not the best conditions as there seemed to be a lot of water vapour inthe air. Cliff was exhausted after our earlier ‘stomp in the sun’ so decided to stay ‘at home’. We had come quite used by now to impressive rock formations but seeing these famous silhouettes still brought out the cameras for images filed under S2548.

S2549 was for images taken at the actual Mexican Hat – the rock formation of a balanced rock in the shape of a sombrero, if you have a lot of imagination. Angie posed for the shot where the hat was lined up above her head, but her head was too big.

S2550 was for shots at and around the Goosenecks State Park. We had learned that State Park admissions are not covered by the Annual Pass for National Parks, Monuments etc, so made a stop half way to the entrance and took some nice shots of the river that had cut out some impressives canyons, just in case. We also spotted another Sclerocactus parviflorus in flower – after this morning’s session, we don’t take their picture anymore unless they are in flower.  When we arrived at the scenic view that was ‘the park’, there was no gate and no-one collecting entree fees. The scenery at the view point was much nicer than our earlier spot.

That would have been it for today, if it had not been for our dinner at the Swinging Steak restaurant where Cliff and I each made a 16oz rib-eye steak disappear. Angie took care of a more modest 10 oz New York strip and took videos as the monster steaks were swinging above the BBQ.

Another great day!

Monday, 30 April 2012 – Durango to Mexican Hat

So we tried to do the right thing and presented ourselves just after 9 a.m. at the Southern Ute Indian Tribe Department of Natural Resources Lands Division – Crossing Permits, only to find that they had already been open from 8 a.m.  We made our case to the two ladies who regretted that they had to disappoint us as the place where we wanted to go was not designated a leisure area. After a very pleasant chat they suggested that we’d have a chat with their colleagues in the Wildlife section. Again a very nice chat with the guy who was present who was unaware of the plant and its location but echoed what his colleagues in Crossing Permits had told him. However, he did note that the name of the road along the place where we wanted to go – to see Pediocactus knowltonii – was Road 4000 and this would indicate that it was just across the border in New Mexico, outside Ute or Colorado juristriction and that it was therefore on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land, which was public right of way, unless local signs or fences indicated otherwise – Have a nice day!!

We did. The next challenge, near our location, still in Colorado was a sign to warn us that the bridge ahead was unsafe and that people would cross at their own risk. It did not look too safe. We noticed a ford to cross the river, but on entering the water, soon changed our minds. A bit farther along, a man was busy at one of the oil well heads.We asked aboutthe bridge. Although it did not look too safe he had been across it quite often. As we approached it for our second attempt, two Dodge Rams pick ups, about twice the size of our car, came across the bridge. It was still standing afterwards, so we gave it a go – no problem. Next we passed a turning to La Boca Cemetery and a sign confirming that we were on Road 4000. SatNav confirmed that at the sign, our front wheels were in New Mexico while our back wheels were still in Colorado. Some 50 meters on and we felt safe to park and take a look. The terrain looked right, very similar to so many other Pedio locations. And soon we found the first cacti. (S2544).  But these Pedios looked very similar to P. simpsonii, not like the P. knowltonii that I had seen in cultivation. No flowers – things looked very dry here. Again Coryphantha vivipira was here, making it necessary to check the tubercles for grooves to distinguish it from Pediocactus. Opuntia sp was also noted.

Friends have since confirmed that the ‘true’ knowltonii grows on the otherside of the road in the fenced off area that we had considered too risky as cars passed regularly. I had ‘walked the wire’ but had not found any stragglers that had ‘dropped out’ of the conservation area. So near and yet so far. Still, perhaps our observation that P. simpsonii grows so near by (less then 20 meters?) throws some doubt in my mind as to whether the distinct looking P. knowltonii, growing on slopes under a reasonably dense stand of pine trees deserves a botanical rank or is merely a ‘sport’. [Note to self: What is a biological ‘sport’? – Answer : Any organism that shows a marked change from the normal type or parent stock, typically as a result of mutation.]

We considered today’s mission as completeand headed back into Utah and told SatNav to find us the way to Mexican Hat. (177 miles) Fortunately, it selected the route via Four Corners (S2545). I had suggested that Angie leave most of her souvenir purchases for this monument (not a National Monument, as we still had to pay $3 each to get in, despite our Annual Parks pass). I wonder how it will fit in my luggage. Cliff says that if I take pictures first, then make the pots smaller with a hammer, I can fit it all in and have hours of fun back home, gluing them back together. Fortunately we had bought extra luggage earlier to accommodate the pottery items that are due to come home, so I hope to avoid the ‘restore-from-kit’ stage.  We managed to avoid any ‘Made in China’ items and selected some nice pieces signed by the artists with their Navajo names. The nicest pieces was priced at $765 (plus tax?) but representing 60-70 hours of work with a tool-steel needle and a scalpel. We were allowed to take its picture for free. The artist was working on a much larger piece that would eventually sell for around $6,000! And worth every cent considering the skills, time and effort that goes into such piece. Our budget was a bit more restricted – I’m sure that my sons will heave a sigh of relief!

S2546 was for a stop as we approached Mexican Hat, more for the rock formations lit up by the sun as its reddish tinge in the late afternoon accentuated the shadows. They did have rain here, judging by field flowers attempting a Desert-in-flower’ scene.

Sunday, 29 April 2012 – around Durango

Today was D Day, or rather, the day that we would try to photograph Pediocactus knowltonii. This small plant, closely related to the very wide spread P. simpsonii, is considered to be the rarest Pedio. So, it is small and occurs in a very limited area – just one more complication: it grows on or near Southern Ute Indian Land and they do not like trespassers. On the plus side, pictures of the plant in flower all seem to be taken at the very end of April or the very start of May, so we should be here at flowering time. The other plus side is that its location information is in the public domain, on the website of the Colorado State University Herbarium through SEINet. The main question was: could we get to these coordinates without trespassing on Indian land?

We headed for the Ute Visitors Center signposted from the main road. Unfortunately it was closed – probably not open on Sundays.

With the coordinates in my SatNav, everything went well until we got near the spot. Here we had to make a turning onto a County Road. We had seen these on the way and they had been good gravel surface roads. SatNav wanted to send us onto a rough dirt track. We saw trespass notices, but surely a CR road is public highway and therefore OK, as long as we did not get out of the car? The mud track got worse and worse, clearly it had been used during a wetter season by large lorries servicing the oil drilling / pumping installations that were all around us. We decided to return to the main road and looked for alternative points of entry, without luck. Driving back towards Ignacio, we passed another CR road, one number higher than the one that should have taken us to our target plant.

We pulled over and I started up my laptop to double-check the coordinates and to study screen prints taken from Google Earth to look for hints as to where we had gone wrong.

Then the Ute Patrol passed by.  And five minutes later passed by again – we saw him do a U-turn at the crossroads and he parked up behind us and an officer walked over to Cliff’s window at the steering wheel side.’Good afternoon Sirs, this is just a courtesy call, is everything OK?’ ‘Yes, fine, we are tourists from England and it seems that our SatNav is playing up.’ I replied. He could see my SatNav in my hand and the laptop plus maps on my knees.  Re-assured that we were no troublemakers he was about to say goodbye, when it struck me that here was a man who could help. I explained that we were cactus freaks, travelling the Americas to take pictures of cacti. We had information that suggested that this plant occurred nearby but our SatNav could not find the CR number, which was one higher than the road that we were parked on. He smiled: ‘It’s the next turning, about 100 yds up the road.’ I asked if this was public road or if we needed permission from the Ute Nation and explained that we had called by the Ute Visitors Centre in Ignacio, but had found it closed. He confirmed that this was the right thing to do, and that they are closed on Sundays, but open on Monday when they could direct us to the place where we could obtain a permit in case the plants grew on their land. The CR road was public highway and we could drive on it, but the land on either side of the road was Southern Ute Indian Land and therefore off-limits.

Like on a number of occasions in the past, in Brazil and Cuba, it can be hard to do the right thing as the processes of obtaining permission to see plants is not widely published. We took the turning onto the right CR road and drove to within 10 yards of the coordinates. So, back on the main road and back to Ignacio and back to the Visitors Centre sign post. We’ll return tomorrow morning to obtain the necessary permission.

What to do with the rest of the day? We decided to take a look at the Mesa Verde National Park. This meant that we had to drive back to Durango and as we had found the Alpine Inn there comfortable, clean and with helpful staff, plus within our budget, decided to book in again for another night.

From there it was a 37 mile journey to the entrance of the Mesa Verde National Park entrance. We’ve not been disappointed at any of the National Parks with the scenery and photo opportunities that they present. This was no exception. A huge Mesa (Table Top type mountain) rose out of the desert in front of us. Behind us were the snow-covered San Juan Mountains.As the road climbed up the Mesa there were lots of pull outs where we could pull in to point our cameras at the land below. Visibility was not perfect, due to pollution and / or water  vapour in the air. As we climbed higher, we were struck by the huge number of skeleton trees that covered the hillsides. At the top, at Park Point Overlook, we were at 2,613 m (8,572 ft) altitude. Here information boards explained that the hills had been victim of frequent fires caused by lightning. We saw Opuntia sp. at most of the overlooks where we stopped, but here, at the highest point we found several clumps of Coryphantha vivipara.

We carried on to the visitors center and from there to the Mesa Top Loop. Here there were several pull outs where we could walk to the edge of the rim and take pictures of the cliff dwellings on the rock face opposite us. Back at the hotel I looked at The Mesa Verde National Park website and found many of the pictures that we had taken. Why do we go on these trips? I think that in future I’ll stay at home and prepare presentations called ‘What I Found on the Internet’!

We fell in bed once back at the Alpine Inn, too tired to go out for a meal. Angie and I did pop out for a KFC. Up early tomorrow in the hope that it will be Knowltonii Day!