Destination: Little Rock

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Leaving the Fort Smith area I headed east on I-40, with a stop at Petit Jean State Park.  Miles of creek side trails and a big lake make Petit Jean a great spot for outdoor adventures.  One of the central features is Cedar Falls, which tumbles 90 feet into a gorge.  There’s a couple of vantage points above it that are easy to get to, but to see it from below requires a hike down into the canyon.  Another interesting spot is Rock House Cave, a petroglyph site.  Beautiful Civilian Conservation Corps construction on roads, trails, and picnic areas round out this gorgeous location.

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Right smack in the middle of Arkansas is its capital city: Little Rock. Once upon a time this was the place everyone was talking about as nine black teenagers struggled through the integration of all-white Little Rock Central High School. The school itself still operates so you can’t just go wandering around in it (although there are tours occasionally, see the NPS website for info) but the grounds are open and the National Park Service operates a very nice (and free) visitor’s center kitty corner to the school. I was there in the afternoon and watched for a bit as the students were heading out for the day. Black, white, sixty years after the National Guard was used to keep out the Little Rock Nine everybody mingled together and it didn’t seem to matter a bit what color anybody’s skin was.

Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, Little Rock, Arkansas
Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, Little Rock, Arkansas

The River Market District is a beautiful section of the city packed with restaurants, shops, and historic buildings.  I stopped for lunch at Ottenheimer Market Hall where stalls offer just about any kind of food you can imagine.  Pizza, ice cream, Asian, Middle Eastern, soul food, nobody could possibly go hungry in this place. While I was there I saw everybody from bankers to construction workers chowing down.  I was basically eating with the Village People.  Wandering along the street I came to the Old State House, where Arkansas seceded from the Union on May 6th, 1861.  The free museum inside covers every aspect of Arkansas history you can think of.  There were big sections on governors, civil rights, the history of bicycles, movies with any sort of tie to Arkansas, there was even a whole room of dresses worn by governor’s wives.  When my feet started to hurt I hopped on a trolley; for $1 it meandered through the river district, over the Arkansas River into North Little Rock, and back again while the driver pointed out interesting things along the way.  North Little Rock holds T.R. Pugh Memorial Park which contains The Old Mill.  This was never actually a mill, it was created purely as a picturesque ruin, but it is pretty enough to have made it into the opening scenes of Gone with the Wind.

Continuing along I-40 there are three different archaeological parks to visit. These are mound sites, created hundreds of years ago by the ancestors of modern Native American tribes. Some of the mounds have fallen victim to farming over the years but several are still visible. Toltec & Parkin have trails going out to their mounds, but Hampson is just a small museum dedicated to a site that remains privately held and can’t be visited. The ranger at Toltec told me that they had excavated one mound for study and when they rebuilt it they had to bring in 18 dump trucks of dirt. Imagine doing that by hand, carrying the dirt in baskets.  Village Creek State Park also resides along this corridor and has some nice trails.

I really didn’t expect Arkansas to be so incredible, but I’m already scheming to go back.

Destination: Petrified Forest National Park

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Unfortunately for me this isn’t really a hiking sort of park.  There were a couple of short trails but it seemed like one of those places were you drive through, stopping at pull offs to see a few things.  A few minutes there, a couple of pictures here, on to the next.  I read in their guide later that “off the beaten path” hiking is apparently OK in some places, but I had seen so many signs telling me to stay on the paved paths that it just got confusing.  Anyway I never really know what to do in these kinds of places.  Like am I supposed to dive out of the car to examine every single one of the bazillion petrified logs that are laying all over the place?  They’re interesting, but they’re not THAT interesting.

There were some things that I DID find really interesting, like the petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock and a handful of other pull offs.

The park is arranged as a 28 mile drive between the Painted Desert Visitor’s Center at the north end and the Rainbow Forest Museum at the south end.  I started at the south end, but either way is fine.

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I stayed about 20 miles away in Holbrook.  It’s one of those desert towns with a profusion of Route 66 memorabilia and goofy dinosaur statues.  (I loved it)

Route 66 was replace by I-40 long ago, but once upon a time it ran through where the park is now.  The pavement is gone, but the telephone poles remain, and there’s even a rusting Studebaker to mark the spot.

Prints of the black and white versions from this series are now available for purchase here.

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Gallery: V-Bar-V Heritage Site

V-Bar-V gets its name from the ranch that used to occupy the land.  Having been private land for so long, the petroglyphs here are remarkably well preserved.  The site is believed to be a solar calendar – the sun falls on certain drawings at certain times of the year, telling the people who made them when to plant & harvest crops, or when to expect rain.

This Week In Awkwardness

I learned how to throw spears using an atlatl during V-Bar-V Heritage Site‘s Archaeology Discovery Days.  After a half-dozen throws I was getting halfway decent at it; my last spear actually hit the board, although not any of the ground sloth targets painted on it.

I discovered a PBS show called Time Team America that follows a group of specialists helping out on archaeological digs all over the United States.  They spend three days on a site, using high tech gear to help the group conducting the dig accomplish a specific goal, like finding evidence of a building they’ve been looking for.  The show covered a wide range of topics from throughout history – everything from 13,000 year old Paleo Indian sites to Civil War era prison camps.  If you’re into history or archaeology it’s definitely worth a look.


Crossed Off the Travel Map:

Clark Memorial Clubhouse, Clarkdale, Arizona


Added to the Travel Map:

A Train Wreck in the Woods, Near Whistler, British Columbia, Canada

RKK Energiya Museum, Korolyov, Russia – space museum.

Museum of Soviet Arcade Games, Moscow, Russia – pretty much exactly what it sounds like.

Star City, Russia – once secret cosmonaut training/residential facility.

Lucky Lindy’s Contribution to Archaeology

Recently I attended a lecture at the Sedona Public Library about Charles Lindbergh’s work in archaeology.  While flying over Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, he began to wonder if the Mayan ruins he was seeing had ever been found by scientists, and it occurred to him that the ability to spot buildings and patterns on the ground from the air could be of real use to the archaeological community. As it turned out, he was right. Working with the Carnegie Institution he and his wife Anne discovered and photographed many previously unknown ruins tucked deep in the canyons of the American Southwest.  They could cover in just a few hours what would take weeks or months to explore on foot.  Ancient roads, sacred kivas, and hidden pueblos impossible to see from ground level became plainly obvious from the air.

Besides the discoveries themselves, these photos also give us an idea of what some of our most famous public lands looked like nearly a century ago, when they were still untouched by tourism.  Many of these places have since acquired parking lots, visitor’s centers, hordes of camera-wielding vacationers, and probably quite a bit of graffiti, but the Lindbergh photos give us an idea of what they were like before society marched into them.

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Destination: Tuscon

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Saguaro National Park

The park is split into two sections, one on each side of the city.  Both are fairly easily accessible from I-10, although they’re not right near the interstate. The Rincon Mountain District on the eastern side is so beautiful & pristine that I kept forgetting I wasn’t in a botanical garden.  It has an 8-mile loop that’s drivable and plenty of trails for those who want to explore on foot.  I enjoyed the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail that leaves from the Javelina Picnic Area.  It goes way up into the mountains, although I didn’t take it all that far.  At one point I came across a box where they wanted me to register my presence there, so I filled out my name and then realized they wanted to know what time I left and what time I came back.  I was so afraid that I’d forget to write down when I came back by and they’d be all in a tizzy thinking I went up in there and died or something that I filled in a time I thought I might come back and rendered the whole thing moot.

The Tuscon Mountain District on the western side borders county-run Tuscon Mountain Park.  The landscape here is totally different, with more rolling mountains and interesting rock formations.  There are miles of trails and roads, however a large stretch of Golden Gate Road is not well maintained and requires a high clearance vehicle.  A 1/4 mile trail at the signal hill picnic area leads up to series of ancient Hohokam petroglyphs on the rocks.  I always think ancient artwork is so interesting, even if nobody has any idea what it means.  It looked to me to be mostly authentic, although there were a couple bits that I thought had been carved more recently by vandals.  I’ll never understand why people feel the need to do that.  “Bob loves Jill 2002!”  Guess what?  Nobody cares.

Of course its namesake saguaro cacti are all over both halves of the park, along with tons of other cool looking plants.  I have to wonder how anybody ever made it through these places before there were roads given that everything seems to have giant murderous thorns.


A Journey

Highways 82 & 83 run through the desert from Vail to Nogales, passing many ranches and a couple of small towns along the way.  Just don’t make a wrong turn at the end & accidentally end up in Mexico.  There are a lot of dirt side roads leading off to various things, including probably some ghost towns, but be careful: signs at the turn offs warn of drug smuggling and illegal immigration.  Tuscon is just back up I-19, including a trip through a border patrol checkpoint complete with drug dogs so don’t have anything illegal in the car.  The vast majority of the road signs all the way back to Tuscon express distances in kilometers, so it’s a little harder to keep track of locations.

On the way back to Tuscon I-19 passes right by the Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley, a decommissioned Cold War era nuclear missile silo that still houses its Titan II rocket.  They offer 1-hour tours ($9.50) through the command center, including discussions of the crew’s daily life, a simulated launch, and a look at the rocket itself.  Other types of tours are also available a few times a month, check their website for details.  I went on the basic tour and found it very interesting.  Our guide, Ed, was very knowledgeable.  He showed us the technology involved in running the place, the various security procedures and steps involved in crew changes, and walked us through the launch sequence.  Given that the base operated from 1963 to 1982 their tech seems downright ancient now, and I’m always fascinated by the way complex things operated in a time before computers ran it all.  Punch tape targeting systems, thumb wheel code entry, no electronic screens anywhere, it’s completely nuts.  The other weird thing is that the whole place is set on shock absorbers.  Everywhere you look there’s huge springs on the walls and along the walkways.  Ed said one time they got a bunch of people to push on one wall of the command center and they actually got the room to move.

Prints from the Saguaro National Park infrared series are now available for purchase here.

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Destination: Jerome

There aren’t very many towns that do a decent job of straddling the line between touristy & genuine, but Jerome, Arizona is one of them with lots of hippie artists & plenty of unique shops displaying their wares.  They call themselves the biggest ghost town in the country; I’d call it the most heavily populated ghost town in the country, but whatever.

Not far away down the mountain in Camp Verde in Montezuma Castle, a set of Sinagua ruins built into a natural opening in the side of a cliff overlooking Beaver Creek.  Unfortunately the ruins themselves are closed off to visitors and can only be viewed from below, but it’s a beautiful walk along the cliff base with some nice interpretive panels discussing the history of the area & the people who lived there. 2014.11.03.023