Thursday, February 18, 2010

Contrasts and Details

The weather in Metz this week is rainy with highs in the low 40s. In El Paso, we have highs in upper 60s and lots of sun. So before we get on the plane on Saturday we're using some of our free time to soak up as much of the sunshine as we can. Yesterday I walked for about 90 minutes back toward the Thunderbird formation to explore possible trails.

I was able to confirm that a trail heading southeast of the upper water tower is the best path into the Thunderbird; I'd followed this trail out the other day. But it still disappears into the erosion of the wash, leaving a good part of the way for clambering up jumbled rocks and stones. I had spotted somthing of a trail heading up the north side of the main canyon, and I thought it might be a different route in. As it turns out, after climbing quite a ways, the trail turned into a deer path, and then the deer path turned into nothing. It was one of those falsely encouraging looks-like-a-trail that many people had apparently tried. I knew, though, that there was a trail running down the ridge to the water tower. So I followed what natural terraces I could find, clambered over a small rock ridge, crossed a couple of ravines, and made it to the ridge trail.

On this walk, I took pictures of some of the desert's details. Here's a bright yellow butterfly, prominent amid the winter landscape.

The rocks below the Thunderbird formation have lots of fossils. Here's an example that had washed down the mountain along the trail.

After the agave lechugilla blooms with its spectacular stalk, the plant dies. The dried stalks fall, kind of like really big pick-up sticks. The root end of the plant, after the stalk falls and plant dries, can look like a kind of dead terror-fish.

Finally, here's a view from near the top of the hike as I was close to reaching the ridge trail. You can see that it's not exactly a walk in the park.

Visas in Hand

On Saturday, we're headed back to Metz. After months of process, a lot of work by the GTL staff, and in-person appointments last Thursday at the French consulate in Houston, our visas arrived this morning. The doorbell rung by the Fedex driver was the most welcome sound I've heard in a long while. Susie and I both breathed big sighs of relief.

Our appointments Thursday morning were conducted through a large window, like that of bank teller, with a speaker system and a slot for passing documents. The person with whom we spoke was at first rather formal. But as we conversed in French and she learned a little about us and why we were going to France, the formality disappeared. We gave her our documents, filled out a fedex delivery form, paid some fees, and had our fingerprints taken electronically. And that was it--about 40 minutes in all. The consular staff ended up being very helpful.

The visas, glued into our passports, look highly official. With their printed photos, fancy reflective text and such, they resemble the main page of a US passport.

So, after a month of teaching remotely, I'll get to work with my students in person. And instead of describing El Paso hikes I'll start blogging again about France.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Susie back in El Paso!

I'm happy to report that Susie made it back safely to El Paso, where she is sharing tales and pictures of her adventures.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Thunderbird

The Thunderbird is a dark red formation in El Paso's Franklin Mountains that stands out as one of the area's most distinctive features. The Thunderbird spreads its wings on the west side of South Mount Franklin, high above Coronado High School, for which it serves as the namesake for the school's mascot. Geologically, the Thunderbird formation is volcanic, formed of rhyolite about 950 million years ago. It sits above a precambrian sedimentary layer of Castner marble formed about 1.2 billion years ago that is the oldest exposed rock in Texas. A dissertation from UTEP explains more than most people would ever want to know about the Thunderbird's geology. This afternoon I walked, and scrambled, to the base of the Thunderbird.

From the point I took the picture above, it's another 45 minutes of hard uphill slog and scramble to the base of the Thunderbird. If there ever was a continuous trail, most of it was probably washed out in the big storm of 2006. At times you have to go up the stream bed, which is pretty rough.

The stream bed passes through a narrow point between two cliffs. Looking back, you can see the Coronado Country Club, the west side of El Paso, El Paso's upper valley, and Santa Teresa (New Mexico), with Mexico in the center of the horizon and the southern end of New Mexico's Potrillo Mountains on the right side of the horizon.

After you pass through the gates, the canyon opens up a little before it splits into the canyons that outline the Thunderbird's north and south "wings."

If the route to the base of the Thunderbird is something of a ramble and scramble, the routes up the north and south canyons look much more daunting. This is the canyon for the north wing.

Even in the more open canyon at the Thunderbird's base, the canyon walls are spectacularly rugged and wild.

From Thunderbird Drive, a round-trip hike to the base of the Thunderbird takes about two hours. This is a serious walk, requiring good boots, heavy long pants, and desert hiking awareness. There are a lot of difficult plants. On the way down, I noticed prickly pear needles sticking out of the leather on one of my boots, and I had to pick a bunch of needles from my jeans, too. Some parts of the route require modest clambering over the larger rocks in the stream bed. With few exceptions, the terrain around the canyon is impassible.

It's an interesting hike, though, with great canyon formations on the way up and beautiful down-canyon views to the Rio Grande valley on the way back. You may even see some wildlife. As I cut over to the trail home that runs east from the upper water tower, I startled a large jack rabbit who bounded out of view before I could get to my camera.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Franklin Mountain Trails

In my post a few days ago I talked about the trails in the Franklin Mountains, so I thought I might share with you some views of and views from these trails. I've been walking in the southwest side of the Franklin Mountains State Park, which, despite abutting west El Paso, is nowhere near any of the park's formal or maintained trails. As you can see from this view looking east to Gunsight Notch and South Mount Franklin, this is not territory through which you'd want to bushwhack. There are a lot of spiky plants--agave lechuguilla, Spanish dagger, prickly pear, yucca--and many thorny bushes whose names I do not know. The trails, such as they are, meander along the lower slopes and up into the canyons, where they peter out as dry stream beds.

Some of the trails are paths that people follow as they walk or bike. Others are disused and overgrown jeep tracks that were abandoned after they were used to place the poles for the power lines. In some places the trails have been washed out by torrents from downpours. In other places the trails just kind of end. That's where you figure out that you're simply the latest person to follow a hint of trail to the point where everyone has realized that it wasn't really a trail, with your footsteps in both directions just adding to the misleading trailness.

Yes, that's the trail--one side of an old jeep track heading up to the low point next to the shoulder of a bluff. When you get to the top, you earn a panoramic view of El Paso and Juarez extending to the southwest.

To the left is about where UTEP is. The smokestacks of the old Asarco smelter stand along the Rio Grande. In the center, Mount Christo Rey rises along the Rio Grande right on the border. The stripes to the right of Mount Christo Rey are dirt streets in Anapra, a poor, dusty district on the edge of Ciudad Juarez. And Mexico's Juarez Mountains define the horizon. What amounts to a goat track (if we had goats here) heads right from the jeep track to the top of the bluff. In fact, the informal nature of the paths, combined with the rocky terrain, often makes it hard to spot trails at all.

This is the trail leading from a wash to the top of the bluff. It runs for a while over solid rock. The first time I was at this spot I missed seeing the trail entirely and walked right past it. I noticed, later, that someone had piled up a small cairn near the trail. As I explore and stay watchful, I'm beginning to piece together the outline of the trail network.

The Remote Digital Life

For the last few weeks I've been living in the future, leading what amounts to a remote digital life. I'm in El Paso, my wife is overseas, the students I'm teaching are in France, and the colleagues with whom I'm working on a grant proposal are scattered across the USA. So over these weeks, most of my interaction with people has been via Skype, over the telephone, or via a wiki. The people with whom I spend most of time--my family, my students, my colleagues--exist primarily as disembodied voices and as arrangements of pixels on my laptop computer. Technology has made this kind of life possible; I never would have been able to do all this without these Internet-based interaction and collaboration tools. And the fact that this life is now possible has also, in a way, made it inevitable; were the tools not there, I wouldn't be in a situation where this remote digital life was necessary.

Because I'm in El Paso and my work is in Metz, my schedule has had to accommodate an eight-hour difference between time zones. In terms of El Paso time, I'm teaching twice a week from 9:30 to 11:00 a.m. and twice a week from 4:30 to 6:30 a.m., plus office hours and other meetings with students. These odd hours, combined with the digital nature of my interaction with people, have produced a feeling of dissociation akin to long-term jet-lag. Susie and I expect to be able to get back to Metz by the end of February. I'm looking forward to again connecting directly to people, places and times by moving from my remote digital life to a present real life.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Ocotillo in Winter

Because I'm in (mostly) sunny El Paso rather than snowy Metz, I'm making the best of the circumstances by taking walks from our house onto the lower slopes of Franklin Mountains. This rugged sedimentary uplift range, with spectacular volcanic intrusions, rises to over 7,000 feet within the city limits. My own rambles are on the lower western bluffs, at around 4,500-5,000 feet.

Walking in the desert differs radically from the forest hikes I took when I lived in Oregon. In the Cascades and the Olympics, you walked for a long, long time on conifer-needle paths among tall trees. Until you reached a lake or the treeline, your view was almost always limited to the 20 yards of path in front of you. In the desert of Trans-Pecos Texas and Southern New Mexico, you have continuous views as soon as you start on the trail. It's true that the desert's lack of trees, and thus shade, makes summer hiking problematic. But in the winter, the skies are sunny while the afternoon temperatures are moderate--a great time to go for a walk.

If the desert lacks conifers, it still has forests of a sort. On my walk this afternoon, heading south of the Thunderbird formation, I passed through what is, in effect, a forest of ocotillo. The ocotillo is an otherworldly deciduous plant that grows a bunch of spiny branches seven to ten feet high. In late spring, the tops of the will sport striking cones of orange flowers. And when weather gets warmer and the rains come, the ocotillo will, seemingly overnight, sprout deep green leaves all along their branches. But for now, in winter's sleep, the ocotillo's branches stand unadorned.