Monday, October 28, 2019

What's a Joshua Tree?

The landscape in Florida, where we, the Good Girls live, hovers just above sea level and stays humid most of the year. On our visit to Palm Springs, the dry, harsh landscape of the Mojave Desert in California felt just about the opposite. We’d never seen a Joshua tree before, the largest species of yucca, and were eager to get into the aptly named National Park. The species are only found in the southwestern United States at altitudes between 1,300 and 5,900 feet elevation.

A typical Joshua Tree with sparse foliage.

A Joshua Tree with many limbs. 

Upon entering Joshua Tree National Park, we found massive piles of granite boulders and rocks jumbled together. The ground looked dry, a  sparsely covered grassland with twisted and strangely foliated trees. The Joshua trees extend barren limbs, which end with spiky green shoots or leaves. They wear rough, weathered trunks, and are scattered widely apart from one another as opposed to a denser growth of trees in a  deciduous forest.

Rock formations and grasslands in Joshua National Park. 

According to the National Park Service, “The tree’s name is owed to a group of Mormons settlers who crossed the Mojave Desert on their exodus west in the mid-19th century.” Supposedly in silhouette, their extended limbs evoked images of Biblical Joshua with arms outstretched, leading his followers to the Promised Land. Can’t say that I saw that, but the trees were oddly likable and rather cactus-like.

As much of a forest of Joshua Trees as you are ever likely to see. 

Most folks make a day-trip or spend only half a day in the park driving along the roads and stopping at various formations. There are three entrances,  each with a visitor center, so you can drive through as opposed to making a loop. Joshua Tree National Park has no lodge or restaurants, but camping is permitted. Those interested in rock-climbing, hiking, or biking should bring plenty of water and start early in the day.

Cactus-like tips at the end of tree limbs. 

We visited in June, one of the hottest months, and our itinerary allotted only a few hours. Our local host did the driving, and we got out to photograph along the way. We did not see Keys Ranch, which I understand is one of the most exciting spots. But we managed to catch views of several different sections of the park and its arid landscape.

Driving within Joshua Tree National Park. 

A visitor celebrating the splendor of the park. 

My favorite spot in the National Park was the eerie skull rock. Pretty obvious why it’s called that!

Skull Rock, a park favorite. 

Looking up at the teetering rocks and giant boulders, I imagined various figures and shapes. No wonder the park lures many rock climbers.

What do you imagine? 

Teetering Rock Formations

The overlook area, called Keys View, provided a seemingly endless panorama reaching to the distant city of Palm Springs down in the valley.

Keys View

During this late spring, the Joshua trees were still in bloom but fading. A large, white cone-shaped cluster of flowers grows at the tip of the leaves.

Flowering Joshua Tree

The park also attracts dark sky enthusiasts and photographers.

 I am delighted that President Franklin Roosevelt created and preserved the area back in 1936 and that  Joshua Tree National Park was established in 1994. It annually receives about 1.4 million visitors.

Grand enough, but this was not a park that begs me to revisit over and over. I didn’t feel the vast majesty of the Grand Canyon or the curiosities found in Yellowstone. That’s just my opinion, but I’m pleased I was able to see it once. Should you be in the Palm Springs area, I’d heartily encourage you to go and learn about Joshua trees.

The Good Girls in Joshua Tree National Park.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Aliens, Integratron, an orrery and other sci-fi doings between Pioneertown and 29 Palms CA

Image of an alien in front of a store near 29 Palms. The one man in the area who claimed to have interacted with aliens described them as about 5'6" tall, with youthful looks just like one of us.

Landers, CA, 20 miles north of Joshua Tree National Park, is UFO country.  Nearby Giant Rock, one of the largest free-standing boulders in the world, was the site of "Spacecraft Conventions" for 20 years.

George Van Tassel, an aeronautical engineer for Lockheed Douglas and a test pilot for Howard Hughes, learned of Giant Rock from a prospector, Frank Critzer, who had hollowed out rooms beneath the boulder where he lived and stored supplies.  Critzer, an American of German descent, was suspected of being a spy during World War II. When he refused to cooperate, authorities tossed in tear gas bombs to smoke him out. They caused the dynamite to explode, killing the innocent miner.

In 1947 Van Tassel left his career and moved his wife and three daughters to Giant Rock where he leased four square miles from the Bureau of Land Management, opened Giant Rock Interplanetary Airport and a restaurant that became famous for Eva's hamburgers and spiced apple pie. Unlike the prospector, the Van Tassels lived in tents.

George Van Tassel

(Cue intro music from Twilight Zone)

As the story goes, at 2 a.m. in August 1953, he was awakened by the landing of a ship from Venus. A being named Solgonda invited him aboard where he was given the secrets of the Integratron and developed a telepathic relationship with his host and a Venusian Council. He then began to channel information about time travel and rejuvenation.

Afterwards, Van Tassel held weekly meditation and channeling sessions in a 400 square-foot chamber under Giant Rock. The first Interplanetary Spacecraft Convention was held at the rock April 3, 1953. Thousands attended the annual events for 20-plus years. In 1957 Van Tassel broke ground for the Integratron on a powerful geomagnetic vortex in the Mojave Desert. Tassel claimed its design is based on Moses' Tabernacle, the writings of Nicola Tesla and directions from extraterrestrials. Financing came from private sources including large donations from Howard Hughes.

Van Tassel died in 1978, before its completion, but his daughter and others kept the project alive. Today the unique 38-foot high, 55-foot diameter building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is owned and run by two sisters who offer regular "Sound Baths."

A special mirror lets visitors take selfies of themselves with the Integretron as Judy is doing.
Naturally, the Good Girls had to give the hour-long "sonic healing" experience a try. No photography is allowed so we are borrowing images from the website.

"Bathers" enter the first level, stow shoes and belongings in lockers then climb a steep ladder to the top where each one takes a blanket and stretches out on an individual floor mat (there are few metal folding chairs for those who can't handle the ups and downs).

Quartz crystal bowls of varying sizes are "played," creating resonant sounds that can be quite loud. Judy liked it but sitting in one of the chairs was uncomfortable. Debi found it painfully loud, hated it and emerged with a splitting headache. Others had similarly mixed reviews.

Nonetheless, we pressed on to the Giant Rock some 5 miles north. It is a big one, seven-stories high covering almost 6,000 feet.

A hunk that cracked off in 2000 may have jeopardized its largest of all status.

Centuries before Van Tassel or his aliens discovered it, Giant Rock was a spiritual site to Native Americans, especially the Hopi. Sadly, graffiti mars its granite surface.

For a true scientific approach to our galaxy and solar system, visit Sky's the Limit, a grassroots, all volunteer-run dark-sky park at the northern border of Joshua Tree National Park in 29 Palms. In its 15 acres are an Observatory Dome with telescope so powerful we could imagine ourselves leaving footprints on the moon and an orrery.

A what?

A mechanical device or in this case a walkable one that allows viewers to see the solar system and its movements in perspective. It was too dark for us to truly get a feel for the circular pattern of stepping stones, each of which represents four days travel around a planet's orbit. At a scale of 20 billion to one, the specks or pinpoints representing planets are one-twentieth of a bllion the size of real ones.

A volunteer docent demonstrates a speck of a planet.
It is complicated to explain, but the oldest orrery in existence, Antikythera, goes back to 150-100 BCE. The first one constructed in the modern era was produced in 1704, by English clock makers and was named for Charles, the fourth Earl of Orrery,  who commissioned it, thus the tongue-twister of a moniker.

Arriving earlier would have given us time to experience the orrery as well as the meditation garden built on Zen principles, the nature trail of desert plants and the astronomy-themed sculptures of Simi Dabah.

Certainly not your standard art galleries, museum and performance space can be found amid the strip shopping area near Joshua Tree.

Designed by and for liberal adults the galleries exhibit gay and lesbian themed

The Crochet Museum fills every inch of a very small trailer.

We puzzled over the sculptural sort of Jungle Gym

 and it was hard to know what to expect at the open air performance space tucked in behind the store fronts.

Although we enjoyed much of what we saw, it was frustrating that our hosts in Palm Springs scheduled our excursion into these desert communities so that we missed seeing Gubler Orchids, the Noah Purfoy Desert Art Museum and had no time to receive informed explanations from a park ranger at Joshua Tree or to visit the National Park's Visitor Center, always a fascinating source of information and perspective.If you manage to see them, please let us know what we missed.

If you go:
The Integratron is open Wednesday-Sunday March through May, October through December and Thursday through Sunday February, June and September. Price for the sound bath is $35 per person over 13 years of age, $40 weekends and holidays.

Sky's the Limit campus is always open, but there is no running water and restrooms are locked unless a docent is present. A volunteer docent is usually on campus Saturdays from10 a.m. until 2 p.m. to give tours of the Orrery and set up the Solar Scope. Free public star parties are on Saturday nights when the moon is not full  beginning at about an hour after sunset and lasting about two hours. Check for exact times and dates of these and other special programs.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

One Day in Yosemite Is Not Enough

The Good Girls love slow travel, taking time to absorb a place beyond the surface, but travel time is precious, and we can’t always linger. Such was the case with our Mammoth Lakes, California trip. Even though we could allot only one day, we decided to make it a full day-trip and see as much of Yosemite National Park as possible.
A local tour company named PLAYosemite picked us up at the Westin in Mammoth Lakes, and we headed to the park along with another friend and travel writer. Our guide was most knowledgeable and provided much background history and information as we drove along. 

Yosemite National Park ranks as one of our nation’s oldest parks, established in 1864 during President Lincoln’s administration. Lincoln, however, never visited. During those early days, it took a visitor about 4-5 days to reach Yosemite by carriage or horse from San Francisco. Today, the world-famous park draws an international crowd, about 5.2 million visitors each year, including rock climbers, hikers, anglers, campers, birdwatchers and photographers. 

Climbers at Cathedral Peak
En route we passed Mono Lake, brimming with water that’s three times saltier than seawater, and stopped nearby to pick up sandwiches. We entered the park at the Tioga Pass gate, only open in the summer. Having a driver/guide who was very familiar with the area roads really helped us see the highlights: El Capitan, Half Dome, Yosemite Waterfall and the Valley. We wouldn’t get to the Giant Sequoia trees at Mariposa Grove as they were too distant. After all, Yosemite encompasses a total of 1,200 square miles. 

We started in the less- crowded High Sierra terrain and would make our way down into the famed valley. First stop became the Tuolumne Meadows where we watched a few people sketching and others rock-climbing on granite crags. 
Tuolumne Meadows

An artist sketches the view. 

We then continued stopping at Olmsted Point for a view of the northern or backside of Half Dome (only seen from the Tioga Pass). We wandered over giant boulders and took plenty of photos. Olmsted Point is named for landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., who were early supporters and designers of the park.
The back side of Half Dome as seen from Tioga Pass.

Olmsted Point
Farther along, we briefly paused at what is called Tunnel View.
The view right before entering the tunnel. 

Our guide drove through the Wawona Road Tunnel and parked at the overlook, the classic panoramic view of Yosemite Valley. This traditional scene becomes a pinch-me moment. It's one of those spots you’ve seen in pictures all your life, but now you are standing there. Photos don’t do it justice; the grand natural gem stands as one of those places you must see for yourself. 

We took our time and gazed in wonderment at the world’s tallest unbroken cliff, El Capitan, that rises about 3,000 feet, and Half Dome that looks like it’s been cut in half. Its face was slashed by glaciers during the Ice Age. From this vantage point, we also noticed the wind blowing across the beautiful Bridal Veil Falls. The Ahwahneechee Native Americans called the waterfall Pohono, which means, “Spirit of the Puffing Wind.” 
Pohono or Bridal Veil Falls

Then, we piled back into the van and drove down into Yosemite Valley, pausing where the old village once stood and photographing the Yosemite Chapel. We watched some daring rock climbers but were perfectly content view the rock from below.

Yosemite Chapel is the oldest structure in the valley.
Look closely to see the climbers on Half Dome. 
 Our guide knew of a secret spot for a picnic lunch and we enjoyed our sandwiches as if we were the only ones in the forest primeval. Pretty amazing. 
Crossing Yosemite Valley on foot. 

We next took off on foot and crossed a bridge on the valley floor, seeing rafters enjoying a ride on the Merced River. 

Rafters enjoying ride on the Merced River. 

We proceeded to the pathway that leads to the spectacular Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls. The falls drop from 2,425-feet over three cliffs and are the tallest in North America. Peak flow is usually in late May. You must walk to get there but worth the effort. 
Yosemite Falls drops in three stages, 
We wished we had time to tour the historic Ahwahnee Hotel, a National Park Lodge endeared by thousands of past guests for more than 90 years. The hotel briefly lost its name during a change in management, but as of July 15, 2019, it regained it. 
At this point in the day, we sadly had to begin to make our way back to Mammoth Lakes. We noticed evidence of past fires and signs that marked highwater peaks in the flood of 1997. Can’t stop Mother Nature. 

Earlier fire damage in the park. 
Spectacular does not come close to describing the grandeur of the park, with its towering summits, cascading waterfalls, and shimmering lakes. Of course, a multiple night stay, including sunrises and sunsets, would be far superior, but if you only have one day, do not hesitate. Go for grandeur. No one is disappointed—ever.  
I think this was my favorite view in Yosemite, so peaceful. 
Be sure to check out Yosemite National Park’s website before and during your journey (
Leaving Yosemite, but the views continue. 
Note from Judy: Between Olmstead Point and Wawona Road Tunnel, our guide pulled off the road to the right and stopped at Fern Spring, a spot you have to know to notice. A sacred spot to Native Americans because it flows even during the driest seasons, the water is clear, pure and delicious. If you are carrying water bottles or canteens this is a good place to refill them.