From Sea to Shining Sea, Day 37: La Quinta, CA to Blythe, CA

One of the reasons we were eager to move north to I-10 yesterday was the opportunity to visit Joshua Tree National Park, and this morning it was only 30 miles east of our hotel.  The Cottonwood Visitor Center, seven miles north of I-10, was our first stop this morning.  The park covers an area slightly larger than Rhode Island and spans two very different deserts—the higher and cooler Mojave to the northwest and, below 3,000 feet, the hotter Colorado Desert, itself part of the Sonoran Desert, to the southeast.  The two are separated by Wilson Canyon.
As we entered the park, we were scanning the landscape for our first sighting of a Joshua tree.  On a trip to Nevada several years ago, we had seen a good number of these overgrown members of the yucca family, so recognition was not an issue.  They just weren't there.  When we reached the ranger station, we found—not the Joshua trees but the reason for their absence—from a friendly ranger.  The park's name is a bit of a misnomer, he explained.  Its original name in 1930 was Desert Plants National Park due to all the diversity of flora there.  But apparently that name just wasn't catchy enough.  It didn't generate interest.
NEAR COTTONWOOD SPRING, A SHOW OF PLANT DIVERSITY
So it was decided a name change was needed.  Even though the Joshua tree grows only in the Mojave Desert, the northwestern section of the park, it made for a recognizable symbol and had an interesting back story.  In the mid-19th century, Mormon missionaries crossing the Mojave spotted the unusual plants, which reminded them of a Biblical story of Joshua reaching his arms to heaven in supplication.  Thus, they began calling the tree-like yuccas Joshua trees, and the name stuck and later was attached to the park as well.
FAN PALMS GROWING AT COTTONWOOD SPRING OASIS
Though the Joshuas are limited to the Mojave section of the park, the Colorado desert is not without its share of interesting plant life.  The southeastern section boasts five fan-palm oases, set atop cracks in the bedrock which allow groundwater to rise to the surface and nourish lush vegetation.  The fibrous roots of the fan palm suck up so much water that one tree can produce more than 6,000,000 flowers when in bloom.  Unlike many palms, whose fronds fall off as they die, the fan palm hangs on to its dead fronds, which fold down to create a protective skirt until they are ripped off by high winds or burned away by fire.
OCOTILLO BEFORE (L) AND AFTER (R) RAIN
Another star of the Colorado plant life is the ocotillo (oh-koh-TEE-oh).  Although it looks like a cactus with its long, spiny branches, it is not.  During dry spells, the ocotillo appears to be a tall, brittle dead plant.  But it reacts quickly to infrequent rainfall by sprouting new leaves within days.  Not one to succor superfluous parts unnecessarily, the ocotillo will shed the leaves within a few weeks to conserve its water.  In the absence of leaves, the plant's branches are capable of photosynthesis.
SPECIMENS IN THE CHOLLA GARDEN
Perhaps the sneakiest plant in the eastern half of the park is the cholla (CHOI-yə), a variety of cactus that visitors are warned to keep their distance from.  Sometimes called the "jumping cactus," the cholla tends to impale its spines into anyone who even brushes past it lightly.  Its branches grow in easily detached joints that accompany any spine that attaches to a passerby who gets too close.  Though it sounds like some diabolical plot to attack its enemies, this is actually the plant's way of reproducing, as the emancipated segment will usually grow into a new plant wherever it falls.
SOME OF JOSHUA TREE NP'S OVERSIZED ROCKS
Even without all this fascinating desert plant life, Joshua Tree National Park is worth visiting just for its boulders and rock formations that help define the park landscape.  Though they look like layers of sandstone at first blush, the rocks are actually a kind of granite, not unlike the type popular for kitchen countertops.
WHITE TANK CAMPGROUND OFFERS PRIVATE LITTLE NOOKS BETWEEN THE ROCKS.
Formed from molten lava, these rocks solidified below the earth's surface millions of years ago.  Over time, the soil and softer rock around the granite boulders eroded away, leaving what appear to be gigantic piles of rocks left behind by some gargantuan quarryman.
THERE'S JOSHUA!
Continuing northwest on Pinto Basin Road through the park, we transitioned from the Colorado Desert to the Mojave, where we finally began seeing some Joshua trees.  The ranger had told us that a grove of more than 1.8 million Joshuas was in the western section of the park but we never made it to the areas where the plant grew in such profusion.

After exiting the park on the north side in the town of Twentynine Palms, we planted a letterbox near the entrance and checked out the visitor center three miles outside the park.  About 3 p.m., we headed east on CA-62, a desolate ribbon of highway through an uninhabited stretch of the Mojave Desert.  Just outside of town, a sign warned that no services were available for the next 100 miles.  Our gas tank and water bottles near full, we pressed on toward Arizona.
CA-62 THROUGH THE MOJAVE
Some fifty miles later, we dropped south on CA-177 and in 30 miles had reached I-10.  Another 50 miles took us to Blythe, CA (pop. 20,817), a border town five miles from Arizona.  With its position midway between Los Angeles and Phoenix, Blythe is a popular stop-off for travelers on I-10 and offered a good selection of hotels.  By the time we arrived around 5:15, the sun had long since dipped below the horizon, and deep darkness had set in.  We stumbled upon the local outlet of a regional chain called Pizza Studio, a design-your-own pizza place with a fabulous array of crusts, sauces, fresh toppings, and seasonings.  We opted for a rosemary herb thin crust with basil pesto sauce, roma tomatoes, truffle roasted mushrooms, and freshly grated mozzarella, finished off with a brushing of garlic olive oil and shredded basil.  My, oh my!  It was absolutely delicious.  And we didn't even know we were pizza designers.

Tomorrow we'll continue east into Arizona on our way to the Phoenix area, where we plan to regroup, study the weather forecasts, and evaluate our chances of getting to the Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce Canyon on this trip.

THURSDAY, 22 DECEMBER 2016

    •  Started in:  La Quinta, CA
    •  Ended in:  Blythe, CA
    •  Miles driven:  210  [trip: 5,354]
    •  Weather:  41° to 59°, cloudy to light rain
    •  States:  CA   [trip:  8]
    •  Letterboxes:  Found 0, Planted 1   [trip:  F91, P14]
    •  Counties:  2   [trip:  111]
    •  Towns:  5   [trip:  243]
    •  Joshua Trees:   <1.8 million 
    •  Campers in JTNP:  52
    •  Cholla Hitchhikers we picked up:  0
    •  Total rainfall:  scant, but the desert plants seemed happy

Loved:  After hearing about Joshua Tree National Park's summer temps (average high of 95 to 100°), we loved being there on a moderate and misty December day.

Lacking:  Opportunities to see any wildlife since most desert animals are wisely nocturnal.

Learned:  Even adjacent deserts can have quite different ecosystems.

More Photos from Joshua Tree National Park
DON'T LET THIS FELLOW JUMP ON YOU!
ADJACENT FAN PALMS LOOK LIKE CONJOINED TWINS. 
 FOR NATIVES AND EARLY SETTLERS, A STAND OF FAN PALMS SIGNALED THE PRESENCE OF A SPRING.
A NATURALLY OCCURING CHOLLA GARDEN GROWS NEAR PINTO BASIIN ROAD. 
THIS JOSHUA TREE LOOKS MORE LIKE A MASK THAN A PROPHET.

From Sea to Shining Sea, Day 36:  San Diego, CA to La Quinta, CA

On our final day driving west on this trip, we left the hotel just after 8 a.m. and headed to Coronado Island on CA-75 to scoop up a few ounces of the Pacific Ocean.  To reach the island, we crossed the landmark Coronado Bridge.  With its elevated deck and lengthy curving span, the bridge offers a terrific view of both the island and downtown San Diego.
AERIAL VIEW OF SAN DIEGO-CORONADO BRIDGE (Photo from LA Times)
Talk of a bridge spanning the bay from San Diego to the resort town of Coronado began in the 1920s.  For some time, the Navy, which has long operated a major base on Coronado, opposed the construction, finally agreeing to support the project if it permitted at least 200 feet of clearance for its ships to pass underneath.  To achieve that height while maintaining a reasonable grade to access the bridge, engineers increased the length by incorporating a swooping curve into the design.  The two-mile bridge opened in 1969 on the occasion of San Diego's 200th anniversary.
GOT IT.  NOW WHAT?
Silver Strand State Beach on Coronado's western shore offered easy access to the Pacific Ocean to obtain our water sample, as we continue to ponder what we'll do with this growing collection.  At this point we could go west no further, so we turned back east with plenty of time to consider what to do with the water as we began our long journey back to Georgia.

We followed I-8 as far as Alpine, where we turned north on CA-79 to move up to I-10.  Yes, we are driving on some interstate highways in California because we've not driven these particular sections of I-10 before.  Just about lunch time we reached the quaint mountain town of Julian (pop. 1,502).  With its elevation above 4,000 feet, the town is often decorated with winter snow, making it a popular day trip destination for residents of SoCal.
JULIAN'S PICTURESQUE MAIN STREET
Even though it was a weekday, the streets and sidewalks of Julian were busy with tourists today.  Parking was at a premium, but a bit of trolling rewarded us with a just-vacated space directly across Main Street from Soups and Such Cafe.  There we enjoyed a warming bowl of hearty vegetable soup and prepared to order up some apple pie.  After all, we were in Julian, the town that claims to serve the world's best apple pie.

Once a frontier town fueled by a minor gold rush, Julian is now better known for its apple and tourists industries, a pair that go hand-in-hand.  That same cold-winter climate that attracts tourists also proved ideal for growing apples, and all of Julian's apples are sold locally, often in the form of pies.  But alas, none are served at Soups and Such.  So off we went to the Julian Cafe and Bakery, where we claimed the last empty table, our tastebuds tingling in anticipation of a super special apple pie.  After all, the restaurant serves a BLA sandwich and all manner of other dishes featuring local apples.  We figured they were experts.
YOU CAN DO BETTER, JULIAN CAFE!
Sad to say, we were in for a big disappointment.  Our Julian apple pie à la mode turned out to be a tasteless, cold slab of pie topped with a huge glob of ice cream.  The single-serving frozen pies we bought at the grocery store 40 years ago were far superior.  Not cool, Julian Cafe.  We left most on the plate and slinked out of town.
NEAR BANNER, CA, JUST EAST OF JULIAN
From Julian, we turned east on CA-78 through the Anza Borrego Desert State Park.  At 600,000 acres, the park covers one-fifth of the large San Diego County, itself twice the size of Delaware.  Extending about 25 miles east-west and 50 miles north-south, Anza Borrego, a subsection of the Colorado Desert, is California's largest state park and, behind New York's Adirondack Park, the second most extensive state park in the continental U.S.
CA-78 IN ABDSP
It came as no surprise to learn that this section of CA-78 has been designated a scenic highway, offering up one spectacular vista after another.  From Julian through the ghost town of Banner, the area was completely uninhabited except by desert dwellers such as bighorn sheep, mountain lions and jack rabbits, none of whom crossed our path today.
CA-78 NEAR PLUM CANYON
Once we were through the mountains and exited the park, we drove through sandy desert flatlands as the road approached an intersection with CA-86 near the Salton Sea.
TODAY'S CLOUDS PUT ON A SHOW TO COMPLEMENT THE SCENERY.
After turning north on 86, we stumbled across an odd ghost town called Salton City.  In 1905, the Colorado River, swelled by floodwaters, breached its levees in southern California and flooded a desert valley known as the Salton Sink.  For two years, the water flowed into the valley, creating the largest lake in California, which became known as the Salton Sea.

Birds flocked to the area, and fish thrived in the 15- by 35-mile lake.  Of course, developers weren't far behind, branding the area the "Salton Riviera."  People flocked to the area as hotels, yacht clubs, homes, and schools were built along its shores.
VINTAGE SALTON SEA POSTCARD FROM THE 1960S
No one paused to consider how this lake in the middle of a desert with virtually no annual rainfall could be sustained.  The unfortunate and inadvertent answer was irrigation runoff.  Of course, that water was polluted with pesticides and fertilizer.  With no drainage outlet, the lake became more and more poisoned until its shores were littered with the skeletons of dead fish.
A PALTRY FEW RESIDENTS AND A FEW BUSINESSES HANG ON AMIDST THE POLLUTION.
What was once a lush oasis, a haven for resort lovers, today stands eerily silent, littered with abandoned homes, boats, and beaches.  Driving through the town evokes an odd other-worldly, post-apocalyptic feeling—until one comes across a still-occupied house or two and wonders how people could continue to live there.  At best, it would have to be depressing to live in such an environment.  At worst, extremely unhealthy.



But we were just passing through, and once we shuddered our way through town, we continued north on CA-86 and felt refreshed when a cleansing rain began to fall just a few miles from our destination for the night at La Quinta, CA.

Tomorrow we'll continue on our journey eastward with no set plans about where we'll end the day.

WEDNESDAY, 21 DECEMBER 2016

    •  Started in:  San Diego, CA
    •  Ended in:  La Quinta, CA
    •  Miles driven:  210  [trip: 5,354]
    •  Weather:  59° to 62°, cloudy to light rain
    •  Walked:  1.5 mi.  [trip:  93.2]
    •  States:  CA   [trip:  8]
    •  Counties:  3   [trip:  110]
    •  Towns:  13   [trip:  240]
    •  Ghost Towns:  5 
    •  Abandoned buildings:  173
    •  Scenic vistas:  84
    •  Plans to revisit Salton City:  0
 
Loved:  Our favorite part of the day was certainly the ever-changing array of scenic vistas as we drove through Anza Borrego Desert State Park.  We had seen the southern edge of this park on our way west and sensed that it had much more to offer.  It certainly did.

Lacking:  Good apple pie in Julian.  People in Salton City.

Learned:  The folly of believing in desert miracles.

More Photos from Today
VIEW OF SAN DIEGO FROM CORONADO BRIDGE 
ANOTHER VIEW OF SAN DIEGO FROM CORONADO BRIDGE
ANE YET ANOTHER VIEW OF SAN DIEGO FROM CORONADO BRIDGE
ANOTHER SCENIC VISTA IN ABDSP 
AND ONE MORE
TYPICAL FLAT SANDY DESERT APPROACHING THE SALTON SEA

From Sea to Shining Sea, Day 35:  San Diego, CA

When making plans to include San Diego on this trip, one of the spots we thought we'd visit for sure was the celebrated San Diego Zoo, located in the city's Balboa Park.  That put the park at the top of our agenda for today, but by the time we left, the zoo was still on our 'places to see' list.
BALBOA PARK
Like the slightly larger Forest Park which we visited in St. Louis last spring, Balboa Park is the heart of the city's green space and a beehive of cultural and arts activities.  The self-proclaimed largest urban cultural park in America (and it would be cheeky to dispute this claim), Balboa is home to 17 museums, 7 performing arts centers and 17 garden spaces.  This means the park has a full calendar of performances, classes, concerts, and special exhibits, all in a beautiful setting of lavishly decorated classical Spanish architecture amid a lush landscape.
WE HAD NO IDEA OF THE TREASURES AWAITING INSIDE.
After stopping at the visitor center to purchase a park pass which would admit us to all museums and gardens (except the zoo), our first stop was the nearby Mingei International Museum, which collects folk art, craft and design.  Upon entering, we were both immediately drawn to a first floor special exhibit of works by Danish-born San Diego artist Erik Gronborg.  A retrospective of his work spanning some 50 years, the Erik Gronborg Experience brought together examples of his creations in a multitude of media, most notably sculptures in bronze and wood, furniture, and hundreds of fascinating ceramic pieces.
SAMPLES OF FURNISHINGS FROM THE ARTIST'S HOME WERE A SPECIAL FEATURE OF THE EXHIBIT.
Both of us were captivated by the diversity and breadth of this creative artist.  Since we're more invested in accumulating experiences than possessions, we've never had an urge to purchase works of art or antiques.  But we agreed that should the urge ever strike, we'd seek out a piece by Gronborg.
MINGEI MUSEUM HOUSED IN 'HOUSE OF CHARM' EXHIBITION BUILDING FROM 1915.
Just a scrub-covered mesa when it was first designated a city park in 1868, Balboa developed slowly until it was selected to host the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition, a major world's fair in its original sense, commemorating the opening of the Panama Canal.  Funding poured into the construction of roads, landscaping and a myriad of buildings in the Spanish Renaissance style.
STROLLING THROUGH HISTORY AND ART
Twenty years later, the early buildings were reconditioned for another world's fair in the park, the 1935-36 California-Pacific International Exposition.  A new infusion of capital also brought more structures, landscaping, and arts and cultural organizations.  Over the years, San Diego has continued to nurture and restore the park into a world-class attraction, drawing 10 to 14 million visitors annually.
ALCAZAR GARDEN DESIGNED TO PROVIDE A QUIET RESPITE FROM THE BUSTLE OF ACTIVITY.
From the folk art museum, we strolled through the peaceful Alcazar Garden, whose design was inspired by 14th century Royal Alcazar Gardens of Spain.  Our next stop was the Museum of Man, founded as a museum of anthropology for the 1915 exposition and housed in the most esteemed architecture in the park—the California Building.
CALIFORNIA TOWER CARILLON CAN BE HEARD ALL OVER THE PARK. 
THE ORNATE CALIFORNIA BUILDING HOUSES MUSEUM EXHIBITS.
The museum offered a fascinating range of exhibits on topics from beer-ology to monsters to race to ancient Egypt that kept us quite satisfied for an hour or more before our gastronomic appetites refused to be ignored any longer.  Based on the recommendation of a friendly volunteer at the visitor center, we walked over to Panama 66, the resident cafe of the San Diego Museum of Art.  Though we didn't arrive until almost 2 p.m., the open-air cafe in the museum's sculpture garden was as busy as the crowded park on this blue-sky sunny day.
PANAMA 66
Their clunky ordering system had patrons waiting endlessly in line, so we figured out a way to make the Grab and Go menu work for us and had completed our tasty meal long before we would have been served under the full menu system.

Knowing we had to make difficult choices, we skipped the art museum and ambled over to the Botanical Building.  Also installed for the 1915 exposition, it is said to be one of the world's largest lath structures and houses a permanent collection of more than 2,100 plants of countless varieties.
BALBOA PARK'S BOTANICAL BUILDING
Exhibits leave space for seasonal displays, and at this time of year, the Botanical Building was festooned with red and white poinsettias.
ONE OF THE PARK'S MOST POPULAR WEDDING VENUES
Our stop at the nearby Timken Museum of Art was brief as we found neither the architecture nor the collection inspiring, though we did appreciate its status as the only museum in the park with free admission.
WE FAILED TO EVEN TAKE A PHOTO OF THE TIMKEN.  (Photo from Wikipedia)
Since we both enjoy local history, we had to check out the San Diego History Center, which showcases the region's diverse history with exhibits of artifacts and artworks.  As we wandered through an installation called "San Diego Invites the World", one item particularly caught our attention—the guest register of the 1915 exposition.
THE GUEST REGISTER WAS LOCATED IN THE CALIFORNIA BUILDING DURING THE FAIR.
In preparation of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, the city's Chamber of Commerce commissioned a local bookbinder to create an extra large guest book for use at the event.  The oversized book was kept at the guest registration desk during the exposition, collecting the name, home address, and San Diego address of each visitor.

Some years later, the chamber approached the bookbinder and asked to have the book cut up for scrap paper.  Scandalized by the suggestion, the binder instead offered to provide scrap paper to the organization in exchange for the book, which he preserved.  His company and the book later passed to his son, who donated the unique treasure to the history center in 2000.
BILLED AS NORTH AMERICA'S LARGEST 'ACCREDITED' MODEL RAILROAD MUSEUM
The history center's basement houses an acclaimed model railroad museum, which we were eager to see after our encounter with the display at the Mississippi Ag Museum last month.  Though their set-up was a bit larger in San Diego, we missed the 'Start the Train' buttons we were allowed to press in Jackson and had to give that collection the edge.
AN OASIS OF QUIET AND CALM
On our way back to our car, we peeked down into the tranquil Japanese Friendship Garden but we had run out of steam for exploration today.  Balboa Park has so much to offer, we could have happily spent another three or four days wandering among its avenues and gardens and museums.  Is it any wonder we didn't make it to the zoo?  Alas, that wasn't in the cards for this trip, but the opportunity to spend more time in Balboa Park may just entice us to return to this beautiful city.
LOCALS AND TOURISTS FLOCK TO BALBOA'S MANY ATTRACTIONS.
Before returning to the hotel, we tracked down one of the Historic Route 80 signs we had seen yesterday on our way to the Cabrillo National Monument for a photo op.  Tomorrow we'll drive to Coronado Island to scoop up a few ounces of the Pacific Ocean before heading back east.
ALL THAT'S LEFT OF US-80 IN CALIFORNIA IS A FEW SIGNS.

TUESDAY, 20 DECEMBER 2016

    •  Started in:  San Diego, CA
    •  Ended in:  San Diego, CA
    •  Miles driven:  13  [trip: 5,144]
    •  Weather:  57° to 61°, clear
    •  Letterboxes:  not today  [trip: F91, P13]
    •  Walked:  3.4 miles [trip: 91.7]
    •  States:  CA   [trip:  8]
    •  Counties:   1  [trip: 109]
    •  Towns:   1  [trip:  228]
 

    •  Size:  1,200 acres  (1.5 times the size of Central Park)
    •  Year land preserved for park:  1835
    •  Year founded:  1868
    •  Museums:  17
    •  Performing Arts Venues:  7
    •  Gardens:  17
    •  Sports Facilities:  9
    •  Restaurants:  15
    •  Annual Visitors:  10 to 14 million

Loved:  This is a tough call.  Clearly we were enamored with the work of Erik Gronborg, but we're also devoted fans of Balboa Park, so we'll have to cite both.

Lacking:  Visiting a distinguished and expansive urban park like Balboa on which the city has obviously lavished so much funding and attention offers up a stark reminder of the glaring lack of such places in our home city of Atlanta.  Atlanta's largest green space—Chastain Park—weighs in at a paltry 268 acres and offers amenities commonly found in most neighborhood parks—playgrounds, walking paths, tennis courts, and a swimming pool.  A mediocre golf course, a horse park and an amphitheater complete the park's offerings.  Before I finish my rant about Atlanta's lack of green space, let me just offer this comparison:  San Diego has set aside 22% of its city area for parks, Atlanta, 5.9%.

Learned:  That there's more to San Diego than its famous zoo.


More Photos from Balboa Park
GRONBORG HAS A MIND BURSTING WITH IDEAS.
HE IS PERHAPS BEST KNOWN FOR HIS CERAMICS. 
'TENEMENTS' BY GRONBORG
AND ONE LAST GROUP OF GRONBORG'S WHIMSICAL WORK.
A VIEW OF THE CALIFORNIA TOWER FROM ALCAZAR GARDEN
SPRECKELS ORGAN PAVILION FOR THE WORLD'S LARGEST OUTDOOR PIPE ORGAN.
POINSETTIAS IN THE BOTANICAL BUILDING 
AN EXHIBIT AT THE MUSEUM OF MAN SHOWCASES CASTS OF ANCIENT MAYAN MONUMENTS.