Sunday, November 15, 2015

In the Badlands of the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument

The Monument is an interesting place, whether you see fossils or not.

In the days before Las Vegas swallowed a large patch of the Mojave Desert, you could see Tule Springs as you approached from US95. It was a distinct patch of green in the middle of the desert. When I was growing up, the park and its historic buildings were popular for school field trips. I remember the extensive badlands all around Tule Springs Park, which is officially known today as Floyd Lamb at Tule Springs.

Tule Springs, however, isn't just the park—the name encompasses the larger area, which in ancient times was a marshy place that attracted late Pleistocene Era mammoths, camels, horses, and bison. Now, Tule Springs includes the fossil beds holding remnants of those creatures and the Upper Las Vegas Wash. In Vegas' boom years, parts of the badlands were lost to development, and the land that’s now protected as a national monument was nearly sold for development in 2003. Thanks to the hard work of many dedicated people over the course of several years, the new Tule Springs Fossil BedsNational Monument now protects over 22,000 acres of this fossil-rich, undeveloped desert.

I set off to find a way into the Monument close to Tule Springs Park and wound up at the end of Durango, where the street dead ends into an access point into the Monument.

Here’s the thing: this is a brand-new Monument—the newest in the United States—and if you’re expecting a visitor’s center and kiosks and a interpretive trail with a bunch of neatly labeled fossils, you’re going to be disappointed.

In my opinion, this lack of development is a major bonus.

If you like exploring wild, untamed places, you’ll find plenty of things to appreciate in the Fossil Beds. Before you get into the more untouched sections, you’ll find evidence of the area’s former life—shotgun shells, ATV tracks, trash. Beyond that, the Upper Las Vegas Wash is as wild as it can be.

The Monument is long, skinny piece of land, running somewhat parallel to US 95 for several miles and wrapping around Tule Springs Park. It’s full of Ice Age fossils, which scientists have known about since the 1930s.

I wasn’t expecting to see tusks sticking out of the ground… at least, not in the area closest to the parking lot. I did think that I’d be able to identify some fossils, but although I picked up several interesting rocks and closely examined the badlands, I was never able to identify a fossil.

(Later, in speaking with Jill DeStefano, President of the Protectors of Tule Springs, I learned that I had probably walked right over and past all kinds of fossils without knowing it. Learning to identify fossils takes some training, she explained. You can sign up with the PTS for tours, if you'd like some guidance.)

Although I may not have found any fossils, I found a landscape that made me think of the Mojave Phone Booth.

If you’ve never heard of this cult landmark, it’s exactly what it sounds like: a functioning phone booth that was out in the middle of nowhere, in what is now the Mojave National Preserve. People from all over the world trekked to the booth to answer the calls that came in from other people all around the world. Until the Park Service decided it needed to be removed, and then the odd attraction was gone.

But although that single attraction is gone, if you wander the Mojave you’ll still find deserted and abandoned mines, ranches, homes, and other eerie bits of evidence about the former inhabitants of the area.

The fossil beds are like that.

Why? Let me explain what we found on the day we explored.

Two Descansos

I’ll admit I have a fascination with roadside memorials, also known as descansos, although I’m rarely in a spot to get out and read memorials. The larger memorial closest to the access point on North Durango looks like it’s been there a while, but the smaller one atop the hill appears to be about a year old.  

Right next to the big descanso, we found…

The Stove Shrine

At first, we thought the metal parts on the ground were pieces of a car. Then we found that it was a stove that looked like it had been blown up. Then we found…. Stove Shrine.

“There’s like a bag of something inside,” my son said, peering under the dome of plastic.

“Don’t touch it,” I said.

“Don’t worry,” he replied. “That’s creepy.”

The Badlands... or, “Where are the fossils?”

“Is this a fossil?” was the most common thing we said to each other during the first 45 minutes of our hike, usually followed by, “Well, if it’s not a fossil, what kind of rock is that?”

Our preoccupation with fossils soon gave way to a general fascination with the badlands, which are littered with the remnants of their former life as a free-for-all area for shooting and ATV riding.

As we turned the corner around the first set of badlands, I saw someone had put up a rock labyrinth. We sighted in on the furthest badlands we could see, setting out across…

The Upper Las Vegas Wash

It’s big. It’s wide. It’s without any kind of trails, and it had obviously just been full of water not long before because the ground was still wet in places and we found plenty of puddles.

There were no tracks, no trails, and no people. The only thing north of us was open desert. The badlands behind us hid most of the houses. To the west, we could see the peak of Mt. Charleston, and to the east we could see the shooting complex.

The creation of the Monument protected the Upper Las Vegas Wash as well as the fossil beds. The Upper Wash is part of the valley’s watershed and drains into Lake Mead. It’s home to jackrabbits (we startled a large one), all manner of birds (including burrowing owls, which we didn’t see), tortoises, and rare desert plants like the Las Vegas bear poppy.

My son and I clambered up and down the uneven ground of the Wash, an area that I would have been nervous about venturing into had there been even the hint of a cloud anywhere in the distant western sky. It’s a mammoth (no pun intended) stretch of Wash, and evidence of the water that had just swept through (during some of the same storms that flooded Scotty’s Castle inDeath Valley) was everywhere.

After crossing the Wash and examining more badlands for fossils, we turned and headed back to the trail head.

The Weather Balloon

At first we thought we’d found a hunting snare, but we traced the string to a weather balloon, which made both of us giddy with excitement. My son was delighted to note that a handle was included for easy carrying.

(Naturally, we returned the balloon back to NOAA with pictures of where we found it.)

The Mussel Shells

“Are those oysters?

“Yep, and clams.

We were both baffled. We looked around for anything that would indicate someone had camped in the vicinity because there was a large pile of oyster and clam shells, all of which looked very modern--not to mention the broken porcelain bowls. It was a huge pile of shells. We never found a good explanation.

The Upside-down Truck Cab

…but only the truck cab, no bed, with a pile of new-looking women’s clothing next to it. I stayed on top of the Badlands while my son explored the weird scene. We again looked for anything that would look like someone had been camping/squatting, but found nothing.

It’s easy to get lost in the badlands, and we climbed atop them twice to make sure we had our bearings when we were heading back to the car.

In most badlands, you’re contending with ATVs, but here you’re free to explore without being run over. I was a little worried about the obvious evidence of illegal shooting, but never heard shots nearby or saw anyone shooting.

Groups like the Protectors of Tule Springs are doing their best to help keep the area cleaned up, to install signs, and to help educate people about the importance of the area. It’s a precious repository of Ice Age fossils and an important swath of desert that was (thankfully) saved from being sold and developed into more houses. Get out there and enjoy it before it becomes tamed.

There are several points where you can access the Monument; one of the most popular is actually at the far north end of Decatur, the site of the “Big Dig” where heavy equipment was brought in to excavate trenches in the 1960s.

Have you been to the new Monument? Or have you ever found a fossil while out exploring? If you have, leave some comments!
All pictures by Terrisa H. Meeks

Saturday, October 17, 2015

An Afternoon on the Red Rock Loop

A couple of weeks ago I had an open Friday afternoon and new camera, so I headed to the Red Rock Loop. My mission for the day: Stop at all the major turnouts and take pictures.

Stop #1: Calico Hills Overlook 

The first thing I learned was that even on a weekday, a significant number of people visit Red Rock. There was a line to get in. There were people everywhere. (Maybe not like on the Strip, but still.)

Back in the days when I was ditching high school, there was no one at Red Rock in the middle of the day on a Friday. Also, the Loop was two ways and you didn't have to pay to get in--but I digress.

Trails have been worn all over the desert in this area, where the landscape dwarfs the people. See if you can spot the hiker in this picture, and you'll see what I mean.

Stop #2: Sandstone Quarry

Right after I got out of the car and started snapping pictures, I heard a conversation between two women.

"But where's the trailhead? How do we get to the Calico Tanks?"

"Is it this way?" (Said while walking in the wrong direction completely.)

"The trailhead for Calico Tanks is over there," I said, pointing to other end of the parking lot.

A few minutes later, when I was wandering around the trailhead, I heard, "Oh, look, there's our friend! Which trail do we take?"

"It's that trail right there," I said, pointing to the only trail option available. "Just bear to the right whenever you have a choice on which way to go. There's signage." Since I didn't hear anything about lost hikers that day, I assume they were fine (although I seriously doubt they ever found the Calico Tanks).

Stop #3: Red Rock Loop High Point Overlook

It's bizarre to see the city from anywhere at Red Rock--outside of the tops of the hills and mountains--but you can plainly see the sprawl of Las Vegas in the distance. Appalling.

Stop #4: White Rock and Keystone Thrust Trails

I thought maybe the dirt road at this stop would deter people, but apparently everyone disregards that clause in their rental agreement.

For some reason, while cell reception at the High Point Overlook was terrible, next to the Yuccas in the dirt lot, I could converse with my boss just fine. Gotta love technology.

Stop #5: Willow Springs Area/Lost Creek Trails

This area is full of trails, including several that are great for families, especially the Lost Creek Children's Discovery Trail. This is also the only place on the Loop with picnic tables.

Look for wildlife here--where you have springs in the desert, you have critters. I've seen chuckars, quail, and a herd of big horn sheep in this area. I once walked up to a group of people on a trail here who claimed to have spotted a mountain lion. You'll find lots of petroglphys here also.

Stop #6: Ice Box Canyon

By this time, the clouds were moving in, and my new camera and I were starting to have some minor disagreements. (We overcame our differences.)

Ice Box is a great trail with plenty of rock scrambling, but on this day I merely explored the trailhead, where I found several cairns. You'll find these all over Red Rock, along with rock labyrinths.

Stop #7: Red Rock Wash Overlook

You've got cliffs and cholla cacti behind you, a wild untamed wash below you, and construction in the distance. A big truck nearly ran me off the road after this stop.

Stop #8: Pine Creek Canyon

Pine Creek is my favorite place to hike in Red Rock: there's a stream, the ruins of a homestead, loads of pine trees (naturally), and two fabulous canyons for bouldering. 

I also saw a convo of those little scooter cars leaving the parking lot. I'd seen them back at Ice Box, too, and they look like fun.

It was back off to town after that, off to First Friday and to ponder on how to learn more about my camera.  

When’s the last time you were on the Loop? 
All pictures by Terrisa Meeks

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Hiking the Bristlecone Trail

Earlier this month, my son and I headed to Mt. Charleston to hike the Bristlecone Trail. The cooler temps were a relief, but 80°F in full sun is still hot when you’re hiking.

When my son and I got out of the car in Lee Canyon, we were thrilled to feel the cool mountain air. At 9:30am, it was 74°F.

We began our hike at the upper portion of the Bristlecone Trail (also called the Bristlecone Loop Trail), which is at the very end of Lee Canyon, right next to the helicopter pad. The trailhead is clearly marked and has signage about the trail and information on how to identify a bristlecone pine: the tree’s needles look like a bottle brush. A very large, green bottle brush.

My original plan that day was to hike the Upper Bristlecone trail to the Bonanza Peak cut-off, and then turn around and hike back. This was about four miles, I guesstimated, versus doing the whole six mile loop, which would include walking up the road to get back to the car. When I told my son my plans, he said, “Can’t we do the whole trail? Six miles? I can do six miles.”

“I can do six miles too,” I said. And we were off.

I was excited about hiking this trail because years ago, my husband and I accidentally discovered the Bristlecone Loop Trail. We thought we were on a quarter mile loop, and instead of turning around when we realized our error, we kept walking… and walking and walking, until we had walked all six miles. Our long hike sparked a deep interest in hiking. (Mostly so that we’d never go on another accidental six-mile trek with no water.)

My son enjoyed this story immensely, especially when he heard that his dad had hiked the entire six miles in sandals.

The trail has great views, especially from the high point (9,400 feet elevation), which is close to the Bonanza Peak trail.

Spotting the bristlecones is easy because of their distinctive needles. They’re fascinating trees that grow in harsh climates at high altitudes, sometimes living to be thousands of years old.
See the bristlecone on the left?
The Carpenter Fire didn’t damage any areas visible from the Bristlecone Trail, but there seemed to be more deadwood than I remembered. Pests and diseases have taken a toll on forests throughout the West, and the Spring Mountain are no exception.

We saw wild horses and a Palmer’s chipmunk, but the most impressive things we saw were two mountain bikers, who passed us twice. We said to each other, almost in unison, “Twice?? They’re doing the trail twice?”

The Upper Bristlecone Trail turns into the Lower Trail when it joins the remnants of an unfinished Civilian Conservation Corps road. The wide, gravely road is in full sun. It was hot, but still pleasant compared to any July day down in the Las Vegas Valley.

We encountered a steady stream of people walking or biking, which is no issue at all on the wide Lower Trail. Passing can be tight on portions of the Upper Trail.

Walking back up the road to the car, we made a note that the trail would be easier if done in reverse, so that you’re walking downhill at the end. We also should have prepared better for the sun, but the sweat and sun burn was worth it.

Once we made it to the car, my teenager inhaled the sandwich we brought, and we drove down the mountain, back into the heat of the Las Vegas summer.

Have you been hiking at Mt. Charleston recently? 

See all the pictures from the day on my flickr page.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters – Brooklyn Bowl Vegas – May 28, 2015

Today's post is a guest post from guest blogger Tricia Llanes, who recently got out to the Brooklyn Bowl to check out Robert Plant.

I wonder if it gets tiresome being indelibly stamped with the label “rock god.” In the hierarchy of troubles, this is admittedly a first world problem, but still. I imagine it must be a crushing weight to feel a constant pressure (from your adoring fans, no less) to be who you were at age 20—especially when you’re pushing 70.

Robert Plant at the Brooklyn Bowl Las Vegas May 28
These were the thoughts that kept me occupied as I stood waiting for Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters to take the stage on May 28. Staking my claim a scant three rows from stage front, I planted myself like a mini Gandalf wielding an unambiguous “you shall not pass!” attitude. It was my first time at the relatively-new Brooklyn Bowl Vegas, and though the teeny general admission floor seemed to afford good views from practically any spot, I and my fellow die-hards were determined to hang onto our primo stage front real estate.

I’ll say this about RP: he doesn’t tiptoe around the Zeppelin in the room. As he and his joyful band of musical brothers took the stage, they launched straight into “The Wanton Song,” settling any speculation over whether he’d delve into his old band’s repertoire.

Delve he did. Just over half the tunes on the night’s setlist were Zeppelin classics, most rearranged to some degree to reflect either their Delta blues origins or the world beats that Plant and his comrades clearly relish. But to my delight, the other half was packed with tunes from the group’s 2014 disc, “lullaby and…The Ceaseless Roar.” (It’s a gorgeous collection of songs, heartbreakingly raw and intimate, rhythmically playful and inventive. If you don’t own it, download it immediately.)

For a band that’s been touring for the better part of two years, what struck me was their unabashed gusto. My only disappointment was the number of yahoos who squandered their time in the presence of real-deal musical brilliance (sorry, am I gushing?) by trying to capture it on their meagre mobile phones--drawing the ire of RP himself, who (bless him!) repeatedly called for them to “put down your phones, let’s go!” Alas, to no avail.

If the post-show chatter is any indication, no one left the Brooklyn Bowl feeling let down that night. Except for maybe this one fellow I overheard, who just can’t let go of his classic rock nostalgia. Pontificating to his girlfriend, he conceded it was a great show, and that Robert Plant is a bona fide rock star. “But,” he said, lamenting the fact that Plant couldn’t bring himself to name his former band onstage, “he really needs to get over himself.”

For the rest of us, Robert Plant and The Sensational Space Shifters brought it with an intensity and generosity that we wouldn’t trade for any packed-stadium nostalgia show. Not on your life.  


Tricia Llanes is a PR Consultant, Writer, Locavore, and (obviously) a Robert Plant fan.

This post originally appeared on Tricia's personal blog.

Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Bowl on Facebook.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Photo Friday – St. Thomas Ruins

In 1938, the rising waters of Lake Mead overtook the town of St. Thomas and the town’s last resident left in a boat.  For many years, the town was 60 feet under water. Today, you can’t even see Lake Mead from the ruins.

I first saw St. Thomas in 2008, about six years after Lake Mead had receded from the townsite. At that time, the ruins were almost hidden in a large field of tall, grassy vegetation. Fresh-water shells and relics—tires, dishes, tress—dotted the landscape.
St. Thomas Townsite

The last time I visited St. Thomas, the vegetation had been cut down and many artifacts were gone. More stumps and deadwood were visible, though, and the town's roads were becoming easier to see.

It’s a spectacular ghost town/ruins, and a sobering reminder that Nature often has different ideas than we do.

Do you have any favorite ghost towns? 
Picture by Terrisa Meeks

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Robert Durst and the Murder of Susan Berman

In 2000, Susan Berman—a writer, Vegas aficionado, and the daughter of Vegas mobster David Berman—was found dead in her Benedict Canyon home in California. She had been shot execution style, in the back of the head.

Investigators soon came to suspect  her long-time friend Robert Durst, who is the subject of a recent “Investigation Discovery” episode and a six-part HBO series (in which he appears), “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” premiering tonight.

Berman’s life (including her years in Las Vegas in the 1950s) and her untimely death are well documented in Cathy Scott’s book, “Murder in Beverly Hills: the Mob-Style Execution of Susan Berman, Her Crime Boss Father, and the Deadly Secret She Took to Her Grave.” She was the privileged only child of a noted mobster, one of the men who took over the Flamingo after “Bugsy” Siegel.

I remember Berman, and her murder. I didn’t know her personally, but I knew her work about Las Vegas, in particular her memoir, “Easy Street,” and her book “Lady Las Vegas,” which was the companion book to a documentary she co-wrote for A&E.  Since I’m a “casino kid,” to borrow a phrase from Moe Dalitz’s daughter, I found Berman’s work fascinating.  

Although Berman’s killing was described as “Mob-style,” the idea that her death could be connected to the Mafia was quickly dismissed. Her father was the mobster, and he had died in 1957 in a totally non-Mob way—in surgery.

Berman’s close friend Durst, however, had a disturbing past. He’d also been giving Berman money, which could be indicative of many things… or of nothing.

Whoever killed Berman knew her. She was ultra-security conscious—definitely not a person who would open the door to a stranger—and there were no signs of forced entry. 

Berman was shot just a few days after investigators had contacted her about the 1982 disappearance (and presumed death) of Durst’s wife, Kathie, whose body was never found. Her case remains unsolved, as does Berman’s.

In 2003, Durst was charged but acquitted for the murder of Morris Black, whom Durst lived next door to during the time that he, Durst, was pretending to be a mute woman. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Not only did he kill Black, Durst dismembered him and tossed the remains into Galveston Bay. He served time for lesser charges related to the incident, but Durst wasn’t convicted of murder largely because a key piece of evidence—Black’s head—was never recovered. The jury bought Durst’s self-defense argument.

Oh, and the fact that Durst and his family are incredibly rich probably helped his case. Great lawyers don’t come cheap.

Is Durst just unlucky, as the title of the HBO documentary suggests, or is he incredibly, get-away-with-murder lucky?

Since there isn’t an official trial ahead (yet), it looks like the case of Robert Durst is in the court of public opinion. 

In July 2014, Durst was arrested for urinating on candy in a drugstore, for which he paid a fine. According to recent reports, there are 19 protective orders filed against him from his family members, who claim to be frightened of him.

UPDATE March 16, 2015: Robert Durst was arrested on March 14 in connection with Susan Berman's murder. In the final episode of "The Jinx," which aired just one day later, Durst made several self-incriminating statements (while unknowingly still miked) that will surely keep his defense team very busy for a while.
Full disclosure:  Berman’s cousin, novelist Rosalie Bruce, is a friend of mine, which biases my opinion somewhat. I believe Durst is guilty. Unfortunately, the evidence is all circumstantial.   Evidence now exists. Filmmakers unearthed a key piece of evidence when they found an envelope with Durst's handwriting that appears to match the letter mailed to the police about Berman's body--a note only the killer could have written.

Photo courtesy of Dennis Skley at flickr

Friday, January 16, 2015

Flashback Photo Friday - Rhyolite

Ghost towns are a striking reminder of the temporary nature of life. 

Rhyolite, Nevada, on the doorstep of Death Valley National Park.
According to Wikipedia, at Rhyolite's height in 1907-8, the population was estimated at between 3,500-5,000 people. This photo was taken in 2003.
Have you been to Rhyolite, or to nearby Titus Canyon and Leadfield in Death Valley?

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Does it Snow in Las Vegas?

The short answer? Yes.

One of my co-workers (originally from Back East) asked me, “Does it ever really snow in Las Vegas?”

Yes, my Vegas-transplant friends, it does really snow here. However, what people usually mean when they ask that question is: “Does it ever snow in quantities large enough to make a snowman?”  Not often, and even then the snow-people are rather small.

The fact remains, though, that it does snow here, even if you can’t put Frosty in your rocky, postage-stamp sized front yard.

Exhibit A: The Snow of 1974 
That's me, in the backyard of the house I grew up in.

According to an article in the Las Vegas Sun, eight inches fell during this January storm. I didn’t attempt a snowman, but we did have plenty of snowball fights.

A few years later, in 1979, the city was pounded again. Much to the delight of everyone I knew at the time, the schools closed for a snow day. 

Exhibit B: The 2008 Snow
On December 17, 2008, the Strip got about three inches of snow, but the ‘burbs got up to eight inches.

We lived right next to the Peccole Paseo, which offered plenty of wide, open spaces for snow to accumulate, and even a few hills to inspire my son to make a valiant attempt at sledding.

Exhibit C: The Western Snow of 2011

Only one to three inches fell in the western part of the Las Vegas Valley in 2011, so a snowman would have been tough. 

But it was beautiful in pictures.

Did you see any snow last week?

Photos by me,Terrisa Meeks