Learn Something New Every Day!

Cows? Yes, Cows.

The day promised a leisurely drive from Jackson, Wyoming, to Salt Lake City, Utah.  It was just what I needed.  I was about two weeks into my 2016 Nature Trek Vacation and had spent three tiring glorious but long (12+ hour) days exploring Yellowstone National Park.  A simple five-hour drive sounded like a perfect plan.

IMG_1771My GPS routed me away from major highways, sending me along various state roads. Although the roads were one-lane each way as they wandered through open country and farmland communities, they were well maintained major state highways, typically posted at 65 or 70 mph speed limits.  Speed limits did reduce as cars passed through small towns—one little hamlet had a sign boasting a total population of only 169.  (When I was teaching full time, my total student load for a semester would often reach that number.)

IMG_1769IMG_1770Other cars were on the road, forming small ques waiting for the stop lights in various little towns.  But for the most part, it seemed as if I had the road to myself.  I enjoyed seeing the cows and IMG_1768horses along the way as well as field after field of dandelions.  (How can anyone call these cheerful blossoms weeds?)  Since the area was technically “open range,” there were also occasional warning signs along the road as well.  Having been on the lookout for bison wandering the roads in Yellowstone for several days, keeping an eye out for an errant cow or two did not seem a major challenge.




Then I caught sight of something alongside the road when I was traveling on state road Utah-16.  What I saw was dark and big—and not fenced in.  It only took me a couple seconds to figure out what I was seeing: A cowboy on horseback prancing along the roadside.  As I turned my attention back to the road, I wondered what he was doing there, loitering along the shoulder.  I quickly saw my answer:  Ahead of me, spread across the entire roadway was a small herd of cows.  Cows?  Yes, cows.


While I tried to make sense of what I was seeing, I managed to screech on my brakes to keep from running into this little herd made up mainly of momma cows and their calves.  I managed not to hit them, but not by much.  And everything in the car flew to the floor.  (I almost became a poster child for a Keep-Your-Eyes-On-The-Road campaign!)


These were not happy cows.  One big momma seemed especially incensed that I had the nerve to be blocking her path.  By the time I got my wits about me and retrieved my camera from the floor, a good part of the herd was behind me. (The dirty front window did not help with the pictures either–sorry.) By now, there were cars about 6 or 7 deep stopped in both directions as the cows ambled along.  There were a few other cowboys skirting the edges of this little cow drive, but they did not really seem to be in charge.


lost-cowI finally was able to move on, enjoying the rest of the day’s drive.  I must admit, I felt like I had just detoured through a little corner of Gary Larson’s Far Side World so often populated with cows.


Daisy Grey


Looking back, it was a rather nice adventure.  Moo.

A Little Background

dragon tattooI have already reviewed Stieg Larsson’s three-book Millennium SeriesThe Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005), The Girl Who Played with Fire (2006), and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2007).  They bring to life an intriguing title character, Lisbeth Salander—a dark, brilliant young woman with a slight build, horrendous past and gruff attitude.  She captures the reader’s heart even as she antagonizes most people she encounters. The second main character is Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist and eventual friend and colleague of Lisbeth.

played with fireLarsson planned a 10-part series but died in 2004 only having completed the three books that were all published posthumously.  The novels gained critical and popular acclaim almost immediately.  As of March 2015, the three novels have sold over 80 million copies worldwide.

hornets nestA few months ago, a friend and I were lamenting that there would no further books in the Millennium Series.  We both really like Lisbeth—she is a unique character come to life.  We have both re-read the trilogy several times, and I have recently watched the three Swedish films made from the books.  There is also an American film of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  I was disheartened to read that plans for American films #2 and #3 were on hold but more so that there were plans to diverge from Larsson’s plots for those films.

As sad as it is to contemplate no further tales of Lisbeth Salander, it would be worse for her to be changed, modified in some way.  Above all, Lisbeth’s dark, quirky anti-social brilliance needs to not be tinkered with.  Then I heard the news that Lisbeth was slated to live again; in fact, had already come to life in a fourth book in the series:  The Girl in the Spider Web (2015).

Stieg Larsson

Stieg Larsson

Apparently, Larsson had a common law wife but no will.  Swedish courts gave control of his estate and thus of Lisbeth Salander and the Millennium Series to his father and brother.  Although his wife insists that Larsson would not want further books written, would not sanction someone else bringing Lisbeth and Mikael to life, David Lagercrantz had been commissioned to write the fourth novel in the series.  Lagercrantz is a respected Swedish author with journalistic experience who loved the original three novels and their title character.

I was hopeful but cautious as I picked up this new novel.

The Girl in the Spider Web:  A Book Review

Spiders web

David Lagercrantz

David Lagercrantz

David Lagercrantz has done a good job writing the fourth novel in the Millennium Series:  The Girl in the Spider Web.  The Swedish title was initially That Which Doesn’t Kill You.  Of course, although that title does not follow the pattern of the first three, it does point to Lisbeth Salander’s ability to survive and endure.  As in the original novels, Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist and their unusual relationship are the heart of the story.  Lagercrantz draws these two characters as well as a few others from earlier books with careful attention to their pasts while setting them free in new situations.

Lisbeth Salander rings true to the young woman who came to life through the first three books.  Lagercrantz even adds some explanatory details about her childhood that help readers better understand what motivates her approach to life and generated her hacking alias Wasp.  Her actions are as direct and purposeful as ever even as her conversations are short and to the point.  Her willingness to risk all to protect someone else, to right a wrong, is at the heart of this novel’s main conflicts.

Mikael Blomvkist is still the brooding journalist committed to the integrity of a story while being bored with the superficial that can take over everyday headlines.  He jumps into action when a lead sparks his interest as well as his sense of decency.  He works to balance protecting sources while also helping the police when events turn deadly.  And above all he is fiercely loyal to Lisbeth.  Their interaction starts slowly, since they have been estranged for some time, but follows from the creative and intimate albeit somewhat cryptic exchanges via his computer. Lagercrantz entices the reader, slowly pulling Lisbeth into the story line:  she is first merely mentioned, then is seen in small snippets until she actually takes action.  It is not until about half way through the book that she and Mikael actually connect directly.

The plot offers layers of complexity similar to what is found in the original novels.  This time the journalistic expose centers on digital surveillance, privacy, hacking, national security vs. personal gain, and international espionage.  Sapo, the Swedish secret service, is part of the picture again, but this time the intrigue is international as it pulls America’s NSA (National Security Agency) into the action as well.  Slowly pieces of the puzzle surface as those involved share what they know—sometimes for the greater good and other times for personal concerns.   The big picture slowly takes shape, so that by the end of novel the suspense builds keeping readers fully engaged.  I stayed up much too late, just to finish the last chapters, so I could see how things turned out!

There is also an element of social awareness in the novel through some of the new characters that Lagercrantz brings to life.  There is an autistic boy whose memory offers a clue to solving the murders at the heart of the plot.  Several of the other characters focus a spotlight on such topics as effective parenting and domestic violence.  There are also some fun surprises and revelations in the characters and plot twists that readers will just have to discover on their own.  The ending neatly ties up the disparate threads of the plot—some perhaps a bit too easily—but overall the resolution is satisfying and seems realistic.  And there are enough loose ends to warrant another novel in the ongoing adventures of Lisbeth and Mikael.

If you enjoyed Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Series and especially the characters of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomvkist, you will enjoy Lagercrantz’s addition to the series.  As in any series, it helps to have read the previous works to fully appreciate the subtle details and connections within the current novel, but you do not need to have read the originals to enjoy The Girl in the Spider Web.  A short who’s who is offered at the start of this fourth novel, explaining some of the main characters and plot points from the first three books.




IMG_7225generalI have visited Canyon de Chelly or Tseyi (The Rock Canyon) many times—and each time is always a great adventure.  Visitors can more intimately explore ruins at Chaco Culture National Historic Park or wander on their own a bit across the landscape at Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park.  But Canyon de Chelly is special. Its mark of distinction is its link to the past.  Native peoples have lived in the area continuously for 4,000 years, and Navajo families still reside there today.  It is only through Navajo-led tours that visitors can wander the canyons themselves for a close look at the ruins and pictographs of the past.

broad view cottonwoods

IMG_7083Canyon de Chelly National Monument is located in Arizona within the Navajo Nation.  The area is actually comprised of the floors and rims of three major canyons:  de Chelly, del Muerto, and Monument.  Its 84,000 acres of land were authorized as a National Monument in 1931 by President Herbert Hoover.  In 1970, the park was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.  The park is jointly managed by the National Park Service and the Navajo Nation. Free access is provided via the scenic rim drives and a moderate hike to one of the ruins.  Navajo guides conduct private tours (hikes, horseback or tour bus), providing access to the canyon floor.


IMG_7097The area surrounding Canyon de Chelly offers gorgeous vistas that showcase the area flora as well as wonderful clouds.  From the road, the vistas can even belie the existence of the steep canyons that are not far off.







IMG_7152IMG_7163This ram was hurrying to catch up with his little harem that was taking off without him alongside the road.  (I think his actions must be an example of leading from behind!)  Some horses were wandering around as well along the road and near the visitor center.



Two scenic rim drives—The North Rim Drive (seven overlooks) and The South Rim Drive (three overlooks)—offer some dramatic views.






tour truckdavid, tour guideThe first time I visited Canyon de Chelly, I took a bus tour through the canyon.  I especially enjoyed meeting the Navajo tour guides and ease-dropping on our senior guide talking to the guide-in-training in native Navajo.  It is a beautiful language.  I also just loved the canyon walls, the cottonwoods and the occasional wildflower evident throughout the day.


driving 2

driving home end of the day

Speaking Rock

Speaking Rock

Window Rock

Window Rock


Tour Guide's Family Hogan

Tour Guide’s Family Hogan

north canyon 2

jimson weed datura

yellow cactus

A Coyote Wandered By

A Coyote Wandered By

north canyon near david's parents hogan


first ruins wide

first ruins 2


juncture ruins 2

juncture ruins 1

Pictographs Near Juncture Ruins

Pictographs Near Juncture Ruins


Hopi Hands

Hopi Hands

pictographs stray

pictographs two cows

Spanish Mural

Spanish Mural

WHITE HOUSE RUINS is accessible via a moderate hike from the surface as well as via the ground tours.  Although visitors cannot enter the ruins, the area does offer some picnic tables and bathrooms.

Trail Head

Trail Head

white house area

white house wide view

white house close

Mesa Near Spider Rock

Mesa Near Spider Rock

SPIDER ROCK is probably the best known geologic feature of Canyon de Chelly.  It is two sandstone spires, rising nearly 800 feet about the canyon floor.  Spider Woman is prominent in creation myths for several Native American peoples.  Accounts vary, but the core of the story is that Spider Woman is responsible for the stars in the sky.  She spun a web, laced it with dew and threw it into the sky, creating the stars.  Navajo stories explain that Spider Woman lives on the taller of the two spires.  Spider Woman is said to have given the rug loom and the artistry of weaving to Navajos.

spider woman rock

spider woman rock odd view

Base of Spider Rock Looks Like a Hogan

Base of Spider Rock Looks Like a Hogan

View from the Rim

View from the Rim

I encourage you to visit this wondrous place.  

Its links to the past always captivate me.




I was visiting my sister Barbara to help her celebrate her birthday.  She lives in Las Vegas. It was a beautiful day, in the 80s, blue skies, nice and breezy.  We were not certain what we wanted to do.  Our plans did not include the crowds or the noise of the casinos and downtown strip.  Instead we were debating if we might find some wildflowers at either Mt. Charleston or Valley of Fire State Park.  Even though we were not going to tackle any hikes today, we decided to explore Mt. Charleston since neither of us had been there before.

IMG_9804Mt. Charleston is a quaint little community sitting at about 9,000 feet above the surrounding desert floor.  It is only about 25 miles outside of Las Vegas. The drive up into the mountains offers some beautiful vistas that are atypical for what I think of when I imagine Las Vegas.  In the winter, visitors can play in the snow.  The hikes and picnic areas would be especially welcoming in the summer because the temperature difference from the bottom to the top of the mountain is said to be as much as twenty degrees.


On this spring day, we drove up to the mountain and saw a drop in temperature from 82 degrees to 66 degrees.  The little town is picturesque with its library, church, volunteer fire station—and a lodge for visitors.  But basically, I loved the mountains!




IMG_9807There were even a few flowers left along the roadside, especially when we drove back down to the desert via Lee Canyon.



IMG_9916IMG_9857The trek up to Mt. Charleston was a pretty little drive, but it was too early in the afternoon to head to dinner—but far too late in the day to wander out to Valley of Fire.  Instead, we decided we would take a quick scenic drive through Red Rock National Conservation Area, hoping for wildflowers. After all, it too is just about 25 miles from Vegas.   I am always disappointed when I do not see the wild burros who live out there, but I remain hopeful for future visits.  There were some flowers still blooming, but they would have been much more vibrant and lush several weeks ago.  Next year, maybe I’ll visit in April!















Next time you visit Las Vegas, along with the glitter, the lights, the shows and other various spectacles, think about visiting one of the nature treks close to the city.  You’ll have a great time!


Lt. Joe Leaphorn

Officer Jim Chee

Officer Bernie Manuelito

If you have read Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn and Chee Mystery Series set in and around the Navajo Nation, then you know and love these three main characters.  They are the tribal police officers who solve the problems inherent in each novel’s main action.  Their humanity shines through as they deal with not just their work but with love, family and culture as well.

After Tony Hillerman’s death, his daughter Anne Hillerman continued the lives and stories of these (and other) characters, much to the delight of her father’s fans. Her first effort –Spider Woman’s Daughter—proved she was up to the task of continuing the characters and stories bought to life by her father.

AnneHillermanrock with wings coverHer second novel Rock with Wings (2015) is another fitting addition to the series, adding another layer of complexity to the inter-relationships of the primary characters while exploring several interrelated mysteries.  Anne Hillerman uses adept character development and a sensitive sense of place to weave together an impressive tale as intricate and beautiful as a carefully designed rug. She weaves the lives of these likable characters together with a movie about Zombies, solar energy, secondary characters such as lost teens and an elderly grandfather, financial intrigue, and photo tours into a seamless whole that builds to an engaging conclusion that ties all the loose ends together.

IMG_5768Rock with Wings starts with Bernie and Chee planning a short vacation to Monument Valley to visit one of Chee’s relatives.  It is their first get-away since their honeymoon two years earlier.  As can be expected, the overdue vacation is interrupted as various cases and family matters pull at the time and attention of the two tribal officers.  Bernie is bothered by the nervous behavior of a driver she stopped for a traffic violation; the guy tries to bribe her to let him off with a ticket.  Federal interest further sparks her curiosity into this ongoing investigation aided by her attention to detail and interest in local flora.

The vacation is initially interrupted when Bernie rushes home to address family problems.  At the same time, Chee is temporarily re-assigned to work at the Monument Valley office, in part to serve as the liaison to a film crew using Monument Valley as its backdrop for a zombie movie, of all things.  This movie production twist allows Hillerman to skillfully add film history of the area into the novel.  In fact, John Ford’s classic Stagecoach offers a useful clue to solve one of many intertwining cases Chee is juggling.

Although exploring her odd-driver situation, Bernie also tends to family matters with her mother and sister. There are even a few glimpses of Chee’s rather atypical relationship with his mother-in-law.  Since the couple are separated for several days, when Chee is not working, he willingly helps his cousin who is setting up a photo tour guide business within Monument Valley.  This domestic theme shows insights into Navajo culture and adds a refreshing balance to the criminal trails that each officer is following.  This thread with its strong focus on family life is a nice addition to the series that Anne Hillerman brings to the novels.

Hillerman does a masterful job balancing Bernie’s and Chee’s investigations, and eventually—step by step—solving all the little questions and even showing some overlap of their various cases as part of a bigger picture.  An integral aspect of the novel that helps solve the cases is Lt. Joe Leaphorn.  He is retired and still recuperating from being shot in the head in the last novel.  His recovery is slow, but he is able to find ways to contribute to the investigations as both Chee and Bernie seek out his input and advice.  Hillerman has made these characters her own even while subtly clarifying their interdependence and allowing them all—especially Bernie—to develop new skills.

Anne Hillerman continues her father’s practice of making Nature in general and the Navajo Nation specifically an integral part of each novel.  The location is more than just a backdrop.  The protagonists’ constant awareness of the world around them—the pending rain, the gorgeous sunsets, the morning runs to welcome the day—highlights the importance of Nature to the characters; through Nature they are better able to achieve hozhoni, the Navajo sense of peace, harmony and balance.

In addition, the open spaces, long distances and rough terrain of the Navajo Nation compound the work conducted by tribal officers.  Bernie even gives a civic talk in this most recent novel, explaining how the long distances and rough country make policing the Navajo Nation a major challenge on the best of days.  Often, the tribal officers are on patrol alone, and they frequently have to travel long distances to and from crime scenes as well as to various offices.  Effective communication is often non-existent when not only cell phones but patrol car radios do not work given the rocky terrain.

IMG_7350But sense of place plays an even more important role in Anne Hillerman’s Rock with Wings. For one thing, “Rock with Wings” is the Navajo name for Ship Rock, an impressive monadnock that holds significance for the Navajo and is the exact setting for one of the major events in the novel. The rock formation rises almost 1600 feet above the high desert floor.  Second, Monument Valley—called Tse Bii Ndzisgaii in Navajo or Valley of Rocks—is the exact setting for the other major case being explored.  The realities of these places contribute to the stories as they unfold.



I was incredibly lucky last spring to have literally visited both Ship Rock and Monument Valley just weeks before reading Rock with Wings.  The impressiveness as well as the isolation and openness of the two locales stayed with me as I read the novel, making the reality of the mysteries even more evident.  If you have not yet read Rock with Wings, I suggest you do—and if you can visit the Navajo Nation, do that too.  The novel can stand alone as an engaging mystery, but complex layers of character and place emerge if you read it as the continuation of the Leaphorn and Chee Mystery Series.

Either way, Rock with Wings is a good read.  I am hopeful that Anne Hillerman will offer another novel in the series, soon.

IMG_6098If you are ever traveling through Arizona near Flagstaff, take a detour off I-40 through the Petrified Forest National Park and the Painted Desert.  The main park road stretches for 28 miles with spurs and viewpoints along the way and a visitor center at each end.  The drive itself is gorgeous.  You can stop and hike a bit or just keep driving, but my advice is to take your time to enjoy the beauty and solitude.


IMG_6135The Petrified Forest National Park was initially designated a National Monument by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, finally being upgraded to a National Park in 1962.  Although its official area almost doubled in 2004, the fee-access area still covers about 110,000 acres or 170 square miles.  The park draws its name from the fossilized trees prevalent in the area.  The trees—nine different species now extinct—lived in the Late Triassic Period about 225 million years ago. It is amazing to see these ancient logs strewn along the hillsides while driving through the park.




IMG_6066IMG_6076The Visitor Center at the Petrified Forest National Park’s south entrance showcases the geological, historical and cultural past of this area.  Displays share everything from dinosaur skeletons to native pictographs.  A stroll through its garden shows some of the area fauna as well as examples of petrified wood.  The wood’s many colors come from three minerals:  pure quartz is white; manganese oxides form blue, purple, black and brown; and iron oxides provide hues from yellow to red to brown.


dino skeleton

ancient cougar drawing

petrified wood

IMG_6204IMG_6261If you visit the park in the spring, you will probably see extensive wildflowers as well.  They pop up along the route, adding color to the landscape.  Three of my favorites are Indian Paint Brush, Apache Plume, and Poppies. Clouds always add dramatic impact to the vistas too.   I love cloud shadows.




A typical drive through the Petrified Forest, entering at the south entrance and traveling northeast through the park, offers many spectacular views.


























IMG_6309At the Petrified Forest National Park’s north entrance is the Painted Desert Visitor Center.  The Painted Desert itself covers 93,500 acres, stretching east from the Grand Canyon. While most of the Painted Desert lies within the Navajo Nation, a portion is accessible within the Petrified Forest National Park. The colorful badland hills, flat-topped mesas, and sculpted buttes of the Painted Desert are primarily made up of the Chinle Formation, deposited over 200 million years ago.  The area was given its name—El Disierto Pintado—by Spaniards who invaded the area.








The Arizona Leisure Vacation Guide posted this little video providing a big picture overview of the geological processes that created the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert. The music that accompanies the photographic montage has been called irritating by several, so you might want to turn the volume down or off.  Otherwise, its display is informative and offers some good photos.

I have visited this area several times—and each time is a bit different depending on time of year, general weather and time of day.  Once—over 15 years ago—I enjoyed an afternoon visit there with Mom and Dad.  I was picking them up in Flagstaff to bring them home to California after they were in an accident while on vacation—long story.  They were fine.  It was a nice afternoon. My memories of that day always come to mind when I visit the area—one of the reasons it is a favorite spot for me.


Do you have a favorite spot in Nature you like to visit often?

IMG_9678It was a great afternoon drive.  I did not expect to see many wildflowers at all on this little excursion.  Maybe—if I were lucky—a few blooms would still be holding out.  But it was a glorious day for a drive, so I took off anyway.  I had never been to Carrizo Plain National Monument, even though it is less than 100 miles away from my home in Bakersfield, California. I started driving east on Highway 58.

IMG_9723Heading northeast across the Temblor Range, I eventually drove down into the Carrizo Plain. The main road across this largest remnant of the original habitat of the San Joaquin Valley is Soda Lake Road.  Parts of the road are not paved, but they are pretty well maintained.  Although the area can look dry and harsh, it really is home to abundant flora and fauna now and in the wetter climate of the past. Native tribes have lived in the area since at least 10,000 years ago and homesteaders started moving into the area in the early 1800s.












IMG_9658Today, a few wildflowers were evident on my drive as well as lots of birds (black birds, ravens, meadow larks) and a few small scurrying squirrels.  Of course, only the wildflowers were willing to pose!  











Soda Lake was intriguing as it stretched for what looked like miles across the hills.  The white crust atop its 3,000 acres is comprised of sulfates and carbonates, resulting from the evaporation of mineral-laden surface water.  The winds stirred up a white dust devil swirling across the lake.






I was able to visit the Carrizo Plain this spring because steps have been taken to preserve the area.  In 1988, a joint effort of the United States Bureau of Land Management, the California Department of Fish and Game, and the Nature Conservancy pulled resources to buy about 82,000 acres within the Carrizo Plain.  In 1996, an official joint initiative was started to work on preserving the location.  Finally, on 17 January 2001, President Bill Clinton designated the area as the Carrizo Plain National Monument and soon after its area increased to its current size of almost 247,000 acres (about 50 miles long and 15 miles across).


If you have not visited the Carrizo Plain National Monument yet, plan a trip.  The area contains several interesting geological features such as a clear view of the San Andreas Fault along Wallace Creek; Painted Rock, a 4,000 year old sandstone formation that is covered with native pictographs; and Soda Lake, a dry lake bed that covers almost 3,000 acres.   On today’s visit, I did not take any of the hikes out to view these specific features; some of them are only accessible via guided yours.  Next time.  Probably in March, when more of the wildflowers might be in bloom.


Is there a hidden gem near you that you love to visit and wish more people knew about?  

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