Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Tours--Assorted and Sundry

I've found myself on a few organized tours and a few de facto tours over the past few months, even though I've been roaming just around the western United States and everybody speaks English and I should be able to find my way around on my own. Sometimes, it's just easier or more interesting or more fun to join a group with a guide.

The most recent of these tours were in Sedona, Arizona with my friend Georgia two weeks ago. We covered everything from cowboys to vortexes. The Latin-style plural of this word is "vortices." However, as a native speaker of vernacular English, I find that "vortexes" sounds more natural. They are both listed in the Oxford dictionary. Georgia turns up her nose at "vortexes" and says that's only one example of why she no longer considers the Oxford dictionary to be an authoritative source on grammar. Interestingly enough, even as I am typing this sentence, the spell check in Blogger is now showing that "vortices" is misspelled and does not have a dictionary entry for it. Did I mention that I met Georgia in a writing group?

But back to the tours!  The classic tour in Sedona is a jeep ride in the red rocks. Our driver was a retired steel industry executive from Indiana who now drives jeeps while wearing a cowboy hat and spurs, with a bandolier full of bullets draped over the seat back. He never did use the spurs on the jeep--he probably didn't want to scratch the pretty red paint. But the jeep ride was fun and took us through some really pretty country.

Georgia smiling even though she had to get up too early...

We found a list of more unusual tours at Sedona Summit, the timeshare resort where we stayed. Of course, when staying at a timeshare resort, the tour to be avoided at all costs is the one that ends in a lengthy sales pitch. I refused to sign up for the sales pitch about 8 or 9 times, then snagged a list of resort activities. Patrick Houlihan, a former director of the Heard Museum in Phoenix, leads a few tours for Sedona Summit. I loved the Heard when I visited it last year, so we signed up for two local tours, figuring Patrick would give us an interesting anthropologist's perspective. And bonus, he turned out to be funny and entertaining, as well as knowledgeable.

We went out to hear about the vortexes Sedona is known for.Over the years, I"ve hiked to and stood on three of these vortexes. I myself have not felt the energy. Patrick took us to parking spots from which we could overlook the general areas of four of the vortexes. I couldn't tell for sure if he's a believer or not. At first, I thought no. Then I thought maybe. By the end of the tour, Georgia and I were thinking maybe he doesn't feel the energy himself, but he keeps an open mind. I can't help feeling a bit skeptical, mostly because these vortexes first became popular in 1981 when a psychic living in Sedona announced them to the world. She first promoted them in somewhat Buddhist-like terms. Later she switched to somewhat Native American-like terms. On the other hand, I have often felt some special energy when I've stood in a particularly beautiful, wild place. Usually that doesn't happen if there's a crowd gathered at the spot. And usually in Sedona there is a crowd gathered at a vortex. So, whatever idea or place helps someone focus on their own spiritual path is good by me.

 This photo shows the energy from the Bell Rock vortex sucking in Georgia's hat....

...and here the vortex is sucking my stomach fat sideways towards Bell Rock.

We made the short hike up towards a vortex in Boynton Canyon. On the trail, we met a man who handed us palm-sized flat pieces of sandstone carved into heart shapes and said, "I want to give you a piece of my heart." Patrick told us he's there every morning, and gives a sandstone heart to every woman he meets. He was quite sweet. And another night, I felt quite an energy surge from a Mexican waiter who kept pouring water for us. I theorized that perhaps he had been spending time at the airport vortex, which puts masculine energy into people, but Georgia scoffed and made some disparaging comments about precisely what energy surge I was feeling.

Over the Memorial Day weekend, further south in Tucson, my friend M and I joined the Tucson Hiking Meetup group for their weekly Friday night Sabino Stroll. It's a very easy two-mile walk up a section of paved road in Sabino Canyon. It's still light out when they start, but since Arizona insists on  marching to their own syncopated drummer and refuses to switch to daylight savings time, it gets dark early. The group advises participants to bring a good flashlight because rattlesnakes may be lolling about on the warm pavement after dark! And, apparently, scorpions are out and about in Sabino Canyon after dark, too. 

Phil, the young man who leads the walk, is a scorpion expert. He brought an ultraviolet light and shined it over the rocks and there were scorpions everywhere glowing in the dark! (Note to self:  never sit on a rock in the dark in Arizona!) M and I hung to the back of the group on the way down so we could walk with Phil and catch all the scorpion action. Phil had two friends, a female college student and an older gentleman with a gray ponytail, who were also really into scorpions. So we're walking down this road, in the dark with our headlamps. Phil and the girl have ultraviolet lights and are scanning the rocks along the edge of the road. A hopeful boy is following Scorpion Girl, trying to make friends. She is lecturing him, in very scholarly style and a loud voice, about scorpions. I said to M, "This is like one of those crossover TV episodes where the characters from one show visit another show. 'Big Bang Theory' meets  'Survivor Man.'"

When Phil spotted a scorpion, he'd try to catch it and put it in a vial. I was puzzled, and asked him why he'd want to catch them. He collects them, and keeps "about 40 or so" in his house. Also, his brother has a business in which he sells scorpions to people who collect them as "pets" or feed them to "pet" snakes. Phil could identify the species of scorpion and knew what regulations governed collecting for each (as well as assorted other insects, arachnids, arthropods, and reptiles we encountered that night). I asked if any ever escape inside his house, and he admitted that it happened once, but it was no big deal, because it went into his roommate's bedroom and was never seen again! I said, "It must be hard to find roommates with all those scorpions in your house." Turns out the roommate is his brother.

Most of the scorpions evaded Phil that night. He said they're quick when the weather's so hot. And they were! He did catch one-- a big one-- which he placed on the front of his shirt and let it run around--on the front of his shirt--while he told us about scorpions. He's very knowledgeable, but I was so freaked out that I don't remember much of what he told us. He was confident that this scorpion would not sting him, unless it got inside his shirt somehow and got smashed against his skin and felt threatened. He repeatedly used his fingers to herd it away from his collar and sleeves while he talked. Then he set it back on the ground and it scurried away into the dark. 

As we proceeded down the road--in the dark--Phil and the older gentleman swept their flashlights along the pavement several yards out ahead. They picked out the reflected glow from the eyes of  wolf spiders standing on the pavement. There were even more wolf spiders than scorpions! (Note to self: just stay indoors after dark in Arizona!) The older gentleman was very knowledgeable about wolf spiders and filled us in on the health and activities of the spiders we met. For example, one was probably sick and starving because its abdomen was very small. The next was thriving, because its abdomen was full and round. And a pair facing each other from a foot apart were engaged in courtship behavior.

And then...Phil made the big find of the evening. A baby gila monster right on the edge of the pavement! It was only about eight inches long and really cute, even though it was a venomous reptile. I'd seen an adult gila monster a few weeks earlier, and it was shy. It crawled off the trail and took cover under a pile of branches. But this little one was fierce. Phil was shining his flashlight on it and trying to get close enough to take a picture with his phone. It hissed at him, twice, then jumped at him! At that point, he backed off because he didn't want to harass it (I don't think he was concerned about the venomous reptile thing at all).

 M and I were both thrilled to see the baby gila monster and cringed at the scorpion on Phil's shirt and found the whole scorpion crew to be delightfully odd. When we got back to my apartment, M made me turn on all the lights and investigate every piece of leaf or paper or dust lying on the carpet. And I was a little jumpy for a few days afterwards!

M was with me on another off beat tour last fall. We found ourselves in Monument Valley watching sunset and moonrise over the huge rock formations known as the Mittens.

Monument Valley is just astonishing. It's on the Navajo Reservation and the tribe limits access by outsiders. There's one dirt road you can drive on your own, and it's not very good, so even though I'm always saying how much I love my Subaru with all-wheel-drive, I felt hesitant to tackle it. Plus, if you sign up for a tour with a Navajo guide, you get to go on other roads and see more.

Our first stop was a demonstration hogan where a grandmother demonstrated traditional weaving and a traditional hairstyle. When she asked for volunteers, I shoved M out into the middle of the circle, and said, "You have to do it. You have the flowing black hair for it." And the rest of the women in the group, me and several Germans, all had short haircuts. One of M's great grandfathers was Navajo, and our tour guide was the first to take a long look at her face and ask her nationality. The lady doing her hair saw it, too, and asked.

You can see in this photo that she took an immediate liking to M. 

 It was another jeep tour, but this time with billowing clouds of dust.

At one stop, we saw this petroglyph of Kokopelli lying on his back.

The evening before, in the jewelery shop inside the Navajo-owned The View Hotel, a young Navajo woman had told us a story about Kokopelli and a girl who refused his romantic advances. He followed her to where she was bathing in a pond, then hid underwater and used his flute to impregnate her. This petroglyph has to be about that story!

And finally, a tour that M and I decided not to take just a few weeks ago in Yellowstone National Park. When I was there last year, I talked with a man from back East who'd seen grizzlies and wolves on a tour with a wildlife biologist. We didn't see any! So I had it in mind that we could increase our chances of wildlife sightings if we found one of those tours. I did find a couple online. But they cost about $300 for a one day tour. And poking around on their websites and the Park Service websites, it didn't seem as if the tours provided access beyond the main roads open to everyone. So we decided to save our money--and then spent most of it buying jewelry and huckleberry ice cream in West Yellowstone anyway. But we put together our own "tour" of Yellowstone, which consisted mostly of driving over every one of the park's major roads and pulling over at geysers until we'd had enough and never wanted to see another geyser as long as we lived. We did go on one quasi-tour, a free guided walk with a ranger around West Thumb Geyser Basin right on Yellowstone Lake.

The ranger was a fun speaker, so people kept joining the group as we walked, until you could barely make your way through the crowd. 

But it was free! And I was really glad we didn't spend the $300 and get on the bus...

...because here's the gray wolf we saw on day 2 of our self-guided tour.


  1. Hilarious commentary, especially The Big Bang Theory meets Survivor Man. I've met so many of those self-righteous boutique-knowledge female big mouths in the FS, of course I and my friends are exempt from such a characterization. :-) Hee Hee (Just to be clear, I'm referring to the budding zoologist mentioned in the blog).

  2. Barbara, you should check out "Camel Spiders". They were encountered all over the Middle East when my husband, Alex, was deployed for a year over there. I adore your photos. Alex is Navajo and we've spent a lot of time on the Rez visiting with his family. If we go this year, I'll let you know and Alex can be your Navajo guide for free!

  3. That would be awesome! It's so much more fun to visit a place when you have the local insight.

  4. Barbara - so glad you blogged - I've been missing you! M was so right to make you turn on the lights and search for creepy crawlers that night. Carol in Hailey

  5. I love Sedona, but I took the Pink Jeep Tour and had an obnoxious driver who was more interested in showing how the jeep went straight up the rocks than the beauty of the land. We had to have a little discussion when he decided we did not need to go to the rim for sunset (which was one of the reasons I took the tour - you know me and my camera). Glad to have you back. Missed your adventures and your humor!!!

  6. Great photos! Looks like a great trip. I love your vortexes story and that spell check didn't like it :) Funny!

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  8. What a beautiful and funny account of your "touring." I loved it all--except maybe the scoop about the scorpions and wolf spiders. How will I ever go outside at night again?
    P.S. I tried to sign in by myself, but it wouldn't let me. That's why I deleted the one above. Sorry!

    1. Luanne--seriously! You should just stay inside after dark. Unless maybe you're going clubbing or to the movies....

  9. I've never been to this part of the US, and I'm always impressed by the variety of landscapes and environments in the country. Great trip! I'd like to try this one. As for the wolf spider, I found a huge one on a wall of my house in West Virginia when I arrived there to check up on it in May. Since the house had been empty for a while, I sure checked out the place on the inside, but fortunately found no baddies there.

  10. All the photos you have shared are captured perfectly and I feel all of them equally attractive. I also wish to have a journey of this place with my family.