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A Discovery in My Backyard Wilderness

During a recent storm, the ancient, huge prickly pear cactus behind our backyard shed collapsed. Fortunately, with my holiday break from teaching, I had plenty of time to complete the cleanup. Just yesterday, I finished the chore by raking up the cactus, leaf, and trash litter that had collected behind the shed. Just beyond the tip of the shovel I was using to pick up the debris, a flash of movement caught my attention. I had to look closely to find the small, camouflaged creature who had just barely escaped the metal blade: a Mediterranean house gecko!


Studying the gecko’s pink mottled skin, I began to wonder if I had seen it before, as the tiny baby lizard I had rescued from inside my house just after moving in. Our very first night, walking along the carpeted hallway, I saw movement by the baseboard. But then I had such a difficult time finding what had moved, since its color–unlike that of most insects–was so similar to the carpet’s. The experience was as if a speck of carpet fluff had spontaneously come alive to scurry away from my feet. When it fled into the bathroom, we could see it wasn’t an insect, and we used a glass to trap it and give it closer inspection. We were beholding the most delicately formed lizard with pink transparent skin! Not wanting to give our cats another chance to find it, I took the baby lizard outside to the shelter of a mock orange bush, hoping a bird wouldn’t discover it, either. Finding yesterday’s lizard felt very good, like a promise that this new backyard would continue unfolding secrets of nature that I will always treasure.

Please note: Today’s slideshow contains two images of the gecko. To activate the slideshow, click the “Play” triangle below the picture.

Celebrate Christmas at Christmas Tree Pass!

So, it’s Christmas day in Southern Nevada: the luster of newly opened presents is already fading, a malaise of “Is that all there is?” is settling over the family room, and little storm clouds are brewing on the horizon of your children’s boredom. But outside, the sky is bright blue, the sun is shining, and unseasonably warm weather beckons. What do you do? Why not pack the kids into the family car—or, better yet, SUV—and surprise them with an adventure along Christmas Tree Pass?

Accessible from Hwy 95 south of Cal-Nev-Ari or from Hwy 163 west of Laughlin, Christmas Tree Pass is a dirt-and-gravel scenic drive that leads to a display of decorated juniper trees. A few of my favorites from my recent holiday’s excursion are featured in this slideshow.


Christmas Tree Pass – Images by Jennifer Nelson

The trees are situated along the highest, narrowest, and most twisty part of the road (the middle, closer to Hwy 95 than to Hwy 163). Since no one lives along this back country byway, you’ll have no difficulty convincing the young ones that Santa’s elves created this high-country Christmas display out in the middle of nowhere.

That isolation, of course, means you need to travel smart. Yes, the 12-mile road is in generally good condition when it’s dry though a couple rutted and steep sections can pose challenges for low-clearance cars and inexperienced drivers. If the weather has recently rained or snowed, do not attempt this excursion in anything but a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle. Pack a picnic with plenty of water in addition to the juices and sodas your clan usually drinks. There are spots among the trees where you can park off the road and allow the children to explore. Yes, you’re in snake country, but even on winter’s warm days those creatures are hibernating. If you want to experience Christmas at other times of year, the trees will still be decorated, but you will want to be more cautious of where and how you walk through the rocky desert.

With the right precautions and a wondering spirit, traveling along Christmas Tree Pass can be a gift of experience the whole family will enjoy.

To Albuquerque and Back Again, Part 2: Petroglyphs National Monument

As I look with dismay upon the months elapsed since I last posted to this blog, I am reminded of French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre‘s insights on people’s relationships to the stories we tell about our lives. In his book Nausea Sartre writes,

This is what I thought: for the most banal even to become an adventure, you must (and this is enough) begin to recount it. This is what fools people: a man is always a teller of tales, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his own life as if he were telling a story.

But you have to choose: live or tell.

In my silence we find evidence that I have chosen to live.  In doing so, I left you, dear Reader, behind, and now it’s (long past) time to catch you up with all that has happened since our last visit together.

My travel last March to Albuquerque, New Mexico, focused on exploring the histories and cultures of the Puebloan peoples. The day after my tour of the Acoma Pueblo (near the town of Grant an hour or so west of ABQ), I hiked the Rinconada Canyon trail of Petroglyphs National Monument. This federally protected area, located along ABQ’s westward city limits, actually consists of four disconnected areas where petroglyphs may be found.  The Rinconada Canyon trail skirts a steep hillside strewn with large boulders and the cliffs from which they fell, before looping back across open desert to the parking area.  Examples of rock art may be seen all along the outbound side of the loop with the largest concentration of images, so we heard, situated just before the trail turns away from the hillside.  My friend and I made it nearly that far before needing to turn back, but despite missing this grand gallery we were still thrilled by all the glyphs we did find.  You can see some of what we saw in the slide show below.


Petroglyph National Monument – Images by Jennifer Nelson

Created by Pueblo people over the centuries, these petroglyphs served various functions. Some marked water sources along established trade routes; others warned of dangerous creatures, like rattlesnakes, lurking among the trail-side rocks; still others promoted the clan affiliations of those who traveled along a route that extended deep into the land we now call Mexico. Many glyphs served ritual purposes and now provide windows into the spiritual beliefs of Puebloan cultures. As reminders of communal practices lived closer to the land than our modern, urbanized way of life, perhaps these rock art images challenge us to imagine how we might reform our society to restore the planet we have damaged and how we might once again attune ourselves to receive the Creator’s many gifts.

To Albuquerque and Back Again, Part 1: Acoma Pueblo

No matter what the calendar may say, spring always arrives in Las Vegas in February, bringing with it two contradictory impulses:  plant the home garden and see the world beyond the city.  I indulged in both activities, leaving this poor blog to fend for itself, but now there’s time, dear readers, to catch you up with my stories before I take off again at the end of March for a trip to the East Coast.

February’s travels took me to Albuquerque, and I took this opportunity to explore Native American culture and history. One highlight of this trip was my afternoon at Acoma Pueblo, and it turns out that the Sky City Casino along Interstate 40 is NOT the most interesting attraction of this locale. Taking the highway exit designated for the Haak’u Museum, I found the Sky City Cultural Center, debarkation point for the guided tours of the historical Sky City atop a nearby mesa.


Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico – Images by Jennifer Nelson

My traveling companions and I joined a tour group of about 25 people, and we were taken to Sky City in a small bus.  As we walked along narrow, rutted and rocky dirt streets, our guide explained the origins, history, and culture of the Acoma people.  Sky City contains a large number of multi-story stone and adobe houses, as well as a centuries-old Catholic mission church and its cemetery, both still in use.  Photographs were permitted of anything not associated with the church’s interior or the cemetery entire:  the Acoma people maintain a firm commitment to their culture’s sacred teachings and traditions, which include preserving the sanctity of ritual spaces.

Even though the church and the cemetery were off limits, I found many interesting subjects to photograph.  Today’s posting shares the highlights of my visit and, hopefully, helps you imagine Acoma daily life at Sky City.  For instance, when you notice all the stone blocks used to build the houses, consider the weight of each one and the fact that all had to be transported to the mesa top from a quarry site in the valley below.  The tall logs comprising the ladders people still use to get into their houses also had to be brought to the mesa top from the pine forests of Kaweshtima (what we call Mt. Taylor), many miles away.  What I could not photograph at Sky City were wells or aqueducts that supplied the community with water: they don’t exist!  Although wooden drains in the church walls suggest that rain water could have been harvested, the people’s daily water needs could only be supplied by the laborious carrying of water up the cliffs from springs in the valley below.  Despite these difficulties, Acoma people accepted (and still cherish) their mesa-top home and its way of life as gifts of the Creator.

When I look at all the problems of the modern world–from global warming to community violence and government dysfunction, to name only three–I begin to wonder whether we could learn some life-saving lessons from the Acoma people.  You can explore Acoma Pueblo for yourself, now offering daily tours from March through November 2013. If you’re interested in purchasing Acoma pottery direct from the artists, touring the Pueblo is a great way to accomplish this goal.