Parks and rec

National Park Service

Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.

edward abbey

Over four hundred parks, preserves, forests, seashores, rivers, monuments, memorials, and historic sites make up the National Park System.

During my recent tour of the Southwest, I was fortunate to visit fifteen of them. Seven of the biggest are in Alaska, including the largest park, Wrangell-St. Elias. At 12,500 square miles, it’s bigger than each of the nine smallest states.

Death Valley is the largest in the lower forty-eight states. The smallest park is Hot Springs in Arkansas at around nine square miles.

(For my post on Death Valley, please see “Death Valley days.” For Mojave and Joshua Tree, see “Wandering in the desert.” For Organ Pipe Cactus, Tumacácori, Coronado, and Saguaro, see “Borderline.”)

The National Park Service was created in 1916 to keep the parks unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations. They are often called America’s Crown Jewels.

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Too tough to die

Gunfight reinactors, Tombstone AZ
Virgil, Wyatt and Morgan

In 1881, Tombstone, Arizona, was the site of the most famous gunfight of the Old West.

On one side were the Clanton brothers, the McLaury bothers, and Billy Claiborne, members of a loose-knit gang of part-time cowboys and part-time cattle rustlers.

On the other side were Town Marshal Virgil Earp and his deputies, Wyatt Earp, Morgan Earp, and Doc Holliday.

Near the O.K. Corral, the two factions faced off, four against five. Thirty shots were fired in thirty seconds, some from just six feet away.

When the smoke cleared, three of the participants lay dead, three were wounded, and two had run away.

Wyatt Earp stood alone, unscathed.

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Saguaro National Park AZ

Borders? I have never seen one. But I have heard they exist in the minds of some people.

THOR Heyerdahl

I left Palm Springs, where the streets are named after stars, and drove east to Phoenix. In some stretches, sandstorms raged on both sides of the road.

I passed Desert Center, the birthplace of Kaiser Permanente and the site of General Patton’s Army Air Field training center. Now, it’s only a few souls short of a ghost town.

Sped past Quartzsite, a quasi-city of tens of thousands of RVs. Ten major gem shows and fifteen huge flea markets attract over 1.5 million swappers annually, mostly during January and February. Over three thousand dealers of rocks, minerals, fossils, and jewelry set up shop.

Quartzsite is also the site of Joanne’s Gum Museum with its collection of wrappers from around the world.

In Phoenix I gathered Craig, my college roommate of three years, from the airport. He agreed to join me for a few days during my tour of the Arizona borderlands. A vacation for him and rare company for me. Time to catch up, embellish old stories, and write some new ones.

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Wandering in the desert

Joshua tree
Joshua tree
Oh, and I remember something you once told me
And I’ll be damned if it did not come true
Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down
And they all lead me straight back home to you.


The Joshua Tree wilderness in the Mojave Desert may have been the home Gram Parsons was singing about. Like many, he was drawn to the barrenness of the desert for inspiration and renewal.

He asked to be buried there.

The Mojave is considered high desert, its elevation over four thousand feet. It is a harsh and dangerous place, containing both the driest location in North America and the hottest spot on the planet.

A walk quickly reveals its flora are armed to the teeth with needles, thorns, and spines. And its animals are the stuff of nightmares: tarantulas, scorpions, rattlesnakes, bats, kangaroo rats, coyotes, bobcats, and mountain lions.

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Death Valley days

Near Furnace Creek, Death ValleyFuneral Mountains. Starvation Canyon. Deadman Pass.

The names are not subtle, because Death Valley is not a hospitable place.

Hottest, driest, lowest—it is a land of extremes. In July 1913, the highest temperature ever recorded anywhere, 134 degrees, was reached at Furnace Creek. Daytime summer temperatures of 120 or greater are common. On summer nights, the temps cool down to the nineties.

I chose to enter Death Valley in the dead of winter.

The valley was named by a group of Gold Rush speculators who got lost while attempting a shortcut to the mining fields. After facing numerous topographical obstacles, the so-called Lost ’49ers arrived near Furnace Creek.

In treacherous terrain,  the miners’ wagons were of no further use. Some walked out. Some waited for help. Eventually, all but one escaped the valley alive.

Upon leaving, one of the survivors coined the epithet, “Goodbye, Death Valley.” Continue reading

Back to the future


Seven hundred years ago, in a canyon west of what is now Albuquerque, a Native American chiseled the image of a star onto a boulder.

Today, eighty miles south of this same canyon, an astronomer points an array of radio telescopes toward stars in distant galaxies.

Whether artist or astronomer, conquistador or cowboy, Puebloan or physicist, New Mexico often seems the crossroads where time and space intersect.

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Into the vortex


Sedona’s red-rock monoliths punctuate the blue horizon in fanciful, rounded shapes, imitating the forms for which they are named: Mother and Child Rock, Twin Nuns, Three Golden Chiefs, Eagle Head Rock, Rabbit Ears, Coffee Pot Rock, Cathedral Rock, Steamboat Rock, Mittens, and Cow Pies.

They glow orange in the rising and setting sun, radiating warmth and peace. They pull at your attention. And maybe at your soul.

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