Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Playing in the Sand at Imperial Sand Dunes

Since we decided to stay in Yuma two extra days, we had some out-of-town trips that we now had time to take. We had heard about the sand dunes about 20 miles away from our campground, so we headed to the Imperial Sand Dunes.

These dunes are famous with OHV riders. That stands for Off-Highway-Vehicles, and these guys are serious about driving WAY off the highway.  They zip and zoom over these dunes at high speeds. That's why we were a little worried about how two hikers could share this sand with all these motorized vehicles.

We met a family at the bottom of the dunes, and they explained that the rains and winds convinced most of the weekenders to leave early. Normally this parking lot would be packed, so we were lucky to have such a small crowd this day.

When Denisa mentioned her fear of being ran over while hiking up the dunes, one of the young boys quickly sprang into action. He retrieved an extra flag that OHV riders attach to their vehicle so they can be seen before they top a dune.  What a great idea--now the motorized drivers would know we were coming before they could actually see us.

We're happy to report that the flag is working, as the flag showed up in the picture above several steps before Denisa appeared in the picture below.

She carried that flag all over those dunes. There weren't any "pedestrian only" sections, and you can tell from the picture below that there were plenty of tracks to attest to the number of OHVs on these dunes.

One of the safest places to walk was in the middle of one of the giant bowls of sand that were too steep for the dune buggies to drive in and out.

Mark wasn't scared of those dune buggies. He only held the flag when Denisa finally convinced him that he needed to be in at least one picture (and she needed both hands to take that picture).

When we made it to the highest of the dunes we used the flag to acknowledge our accomplishment by planting it in the sand for a bit. From that tall peak, we could see the mounds of sand for many miles around.

We could also see all types of motorized buggies and cycles racing and chasing in that moist sand. Since we were there a day after the rain, we asked our new friends if they liked the wet sand. One thought it was better, the other thought it made it harder--so the jury is out. The truth is that moist sand happens so seldom in the desert so they had little experience with it.

We trekked back to the parking lot and Denisa returned her much-appreciated flag. This family invests in outdoor toys rather than video games, and it seems to be working well for them. The boys loved to answer questions about their cycles, and were so helpful.

Notice the back tires have paddles on the tread that helps to give them traction in the sand.

Those paddles also help to do some tricks on flat sandy surfaces as well.

Our new friends also described Test Hill, on the other side of Highway 8. Known for its steep face, it will test the courage of OHV riders trying to get to the top, or riding too fast to the bottom. They have races here on the weekends.

They explained that people using this parking lot closest to the dunes have to pay a $50 fee that is good for up to one week. But short-timers like us can park for up to an hour at the ranger station parking lot. That's where we saw this creasote bush in full yellow bloom. We see spindly versions of this plant in the desert, but this one has obviously been pampered to be so full and colorful.

From there we made the 3-mile trip to another section of the recreation area where they had a display of the plank road that was built for the earliest car traffic through the desert. Because those Model-T's didn't have paddle wheels, there was no way to get through the sand to the California coast. In 1915, boards were laid onto wooden piers over the sand. This is a newly built section, just to give visitors an idea of what it would look like when the plank road was first built.

Sections of the decaying road were gathered up throughout the desert, and were put together to make a historic site.

One of the problems with the plank road was that it was easily covered and then impassible when covered with the shifting sand. That is happening to this historic section as well.

We walked beside the plank road, because the 100 year-old wood and metal are too fragile even for foot traffic. This section of the park is away from the dunes, and we could see that we were less than a mile from the Mexico border. That long dark brown line on the horizon is the border fence.

Since we are walkers, we decided to take a hike to see that famous fence up close for ourselves. That also gave us a chance to see that the desert is trying to bloom, even with all this motorized traffic.

We made it to the fence, and it stretched as far as we could see.

The sign on the fence warned us to stay 100 feet away. We didn't see anyone wanting to cross into or out of Mexico. But we did see several border patrol vehicles also patrolling this area. This is a "floating fence," as putting a stationary fence would be impossible on this shifting sand.

As we hiked back to the car, we couldn't help but notice that this dune buggy wasn't staying 100 feet from the fence.

When we saw those tall sand dunes, we were wishing that we had kept the sand sled we had at the White Sands National Park. But we didn't see any other sledders today. We enjoyed hiking in the sand, and we can check another national monument off our list on another beautiful weather day.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Getting Schooled on Agriculture and Water in Yuma

We had three different tours planned during our stay in Yuma, Arizona. They all just happened to be morning tours, so we have set the alarm clock earlier than usual. But we have learned more about our new home-town. One of our favorite tours was at the Imperial Date Farm. We've gone on dates, we've memorized historical dates, but the truth is we haven't eaten many dates in our lives. This day we learned that the medjool date is the preferred type, and the weather conditions in Yuma are perfect for the medjool.

The trees must have warm winters and even warmer summers. Yuma has the 100 days over 100 degrees that date palm trees need. They also have the water rights from the Colorado River that allow them to flood these fields and provide 200 gallons of water per tree per day. These are thirsty trees! Right now the workers are spending their time removing the thorns from the palm fronds. They use a portable scaffolding system that lifts them to the top of the trees.

These younger trees are shorter, so easier to trim and harvest. Another part of the harvesting process is to thin the fruit. These younger trees will have their fruit thinned so they raise less than half the crop that first sets on.

These older trees won't have to be thinned as much, and they can produce up to 200 pounds of dates per trees. But these taller trees will still have to have bags tied around each branch of fruit to protect them from damage and help with the harvest process. Each tree requires much hand labor during the year--hand trimming, hand germinating, hand thinning, hand bagging, and also several trips up that tall trunk to harvest dates as they ripen.

The good news for the date farmers is that it is easy to propagate new trees. The seedlings that develop at the base of the tree can be removed here and then planted as a new tree in a new field.

We saw one of those new fields of tiny starter trees--flooded with water to help satisfy the thirst of these water-loving trees.

We also got a tour of the processing plant, where the dates are cleaned, sized, graded, and then boxed and frozen. Dates can be thawed and frozen over and over, and we also saw the warehouse-size freezers where a whole year's harvest can be stored.

At the end of every tour is a sample, and we tried a piece of a premium medjool date. But the real treat that everyone talks about is the coveted date shake. That huge straw allows for all those chunks of dates to get through. It was tasty, but very rich. It might be the first time Denisa has heard Mark say that he was full of ice cream by the time we got to the bottom of that cup!

Another tour was to the Peanut Patch, where we learned about and tasted all things peanut. We assumed we would see peanut fields, but they are no longer grown around Yuma. We found that peanut plants host white flies--which destroy leafy vegetable crops. Because this is the lettuce capitol of the world, peanut farmers gave up their crop years ago to ger rid of the white flies and save the lettuce. It was interesting to see that the nuts they are now using for the Peanut Patch brittle and fudge came from Texas or Oklahoma. The owner did teach us much about peanuts, and we got to see their roasters and kitchens. No pictures, because we ate the brittle and fudge before we thought about how picturesque it was.

The last early morning wake up tour was with the Yuma Desalting plant. Mark had read that they offered tours on request, and we found that we could join a group on Friday. This group was from the University of Wisconsin, and we expected college coeds. Instead, we were surprised to find we were the youngsters on this "continuing learning" tour for senior adults.

We started with the electronic version of the tour, that included a well done model of the entire process that water would pass through to remove the excess salt.

Our second surprise of the morning came when we found out that this plant hasn't been operational for years. Even though it was built in 1992 for $250 million, it has just set ready to "fix" the water coming down the canals. Their purpose is to bring that water up to code in order to provide the amount of water necessary in water agreements with Mexico. So far, the United States has been able to provide the water to their southern neighbor without the help of this desalting plant.

This is an expensive process, that uses the same technology as osmosis purifiers that many households use under their kitchen sinks. We were walked through the giant buildings that hold all the equipment needed to run vast amounts of water through here on a 24-hour-per day process.

But these giant tanks and vats are lying empty. The team of people here are keeping the screws tightened and the gears greased until they get the orders to start the water works. 

The last time water flowed through here was seven years ago when they did a test run just to prove that they could be operational. They could do it again, but they estimate that it would take 18 months to start up. In the meantime, they give a very informative tour including some mighty fancy head gear.

It wasn't the tour we expected, but still was educational. We feel like we know more about the agricultural and water aspects of Yuma now, and that's a part of travel that we really enjoy.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Changing Weather and Changing Plans

We had made a week-long reservation at our campground in Yuma, Arizona. That's a long stay for us, as we usually average 3-4 days per stop. But our 6th day here we got to "enjoy" the windy weather of the desert. There was so much sand blowing around that we couldn't see the mountains outside of the city. In fact, we could hardly see things right across the street.

That windy day was followed by a record day of rain. Yuma averages around 3 inches of rain per year. So when we got almost 24 hours of constant rain, that added 0.80 inches of rain to that desert rain gauge. So in that one rainy day, we saw over a third of the normal annual rain fall. All those dirt roads we've been driving on turned to nasty mud. Even a couple days later, we saw that this mud was making the harvest messy. That lettuce needs to be harvested, and the tractor tires were making a muddy mess of the field. Unlike most people in agriculture, the Yuma vegetable farmers don't like rain. They can get the water they need from the river without the interruption of rainy days and the mud it causes.

We weren't sure what this crop was, until we got down-wind from the harvest. They were separating the vegetable away from the plant with sharp knives, and the smell was the same as when you cut celery sticks. We just saw our first celery harvest!

Normally the workers are so focused that they don't have time to look up. But this guy saw our camera, and waved. His smile makes us think that he likes the smell of celery.

When the roads dried enough, we rode our bikes down more of those country roads beside our campground. We have been enjoying watching vegetable harvest around us. Now we are enjoying the smell of rotting vegetables, as a considerable part of the harvest doesn't match the size and quality characteristics set by the buyer of the crop. Denisa thinks there should be a way to have a secondary harvest for those less-than-perfect vegetables to make them available to feed the hungry. It seems such a shame to have it go to waste.

That's when we took more pictures of those beautiful heads of lettuce. This field had already been harvested, but for some reason they left the last few rows uncut. We're guessing that wasn't just because they were picturesque. We were told that if any wildlife goes into a field, that section cannot be harvested because it will be classified as being contaminated. Because these were the rows closest to the road, it might have been determined that the road dust made them unacceptable?

We also had questions about this crop. Covered with yellow flowers, it is a crop of broccoli that has not been harvested. These odorous flowers seem to be very attractive to honey bees, as we see hives all around this field. This field will become broccoli seeds for next year's crop instead of being broccoli florets for this season's table.

We are obviously still enjoying our time here at the winter vegetable capitol. We are also still enjoying the citrus fruit that we brought from Texas. So we made the decision to stay around for a couple more days to replace the two days we lost with the wind and rain. That will give us two more days to eat our tangerines and grapefruit (and to juice the rest) before we have to go through that California agriculture inspection stop. That will also give California more time to dry out from the torrential rains and flood this storm season brought them.

Friday, February 24, 2017

International Travel to Los Algodones, Mexico

Another reason we chose our campground at Hidden Cove was its proximity to Mexico. We've heard that the town of Los Algodones makes for a safe trip across the border. So we loaded up the passports and headed west to cross into Mexico. We are used to making border crossings in Texas, where our first order of business was climbing up and over the bridge over the Rio Grande River. But here the crossing is flat and dry. We parked our car for $6 in an Indian reservation parking lot on the U.S. side, and began our exploration of Los Algodones, Mexico.

The streets are a little crowded, and the traffic a little chaotic, so we were glad to be walking instead of driving.

There are the usual stalls of brightly colored goods that the shop keepers hope to tempt the American tourists to take home. But tourists that live in a motor home can't be tempted with these big heavy pieces.

So the only shopping we did was for services. That would include a cheap pedicure for Denisa.

At the same place, Mark got a $5 hair cut. Instead of adding weight to the motor home from buying things, technically we should be coming home lighter.

We reversed this trend, by stopping by the open-air restaurant in the middle of the plaza for lunch. We shared a combination Mexican plate for lunch, and enjoyed the music on the stage. We even did a little dancing after our chimichanga and enchiladas settled. This place was really crowded with Americans and Canadians enjoying the beautiful weather and great deals of Mexico.

One of the reasons that many of those people cross the border is for medical services. We stepped inside several different optometrist offices that look just like the ones back in the United States. Our next door neighbor at the campground made the trip to Southern Arizona just to get new bifocals in Mexico.

The streets of Los Algodones are lined with dentists and optometrists and pharmacies. There was a news story on our local television channel that explained there are more dentists per capita in Los Algodones than any other city in the world. There are 300 clinics with 900 dentists in this tiny border town. We talked to other campground neighbors that are in this area specifically for dental procedures. One reported that the procedure their dentist in New Jersey estimated would cost $3,000 was completed here for $800. So we have personal testimonies from our neighbors here that the international medical trips are certainly being used.

Our last stop in Mexico was for gelato before we headed for the border. Okay, so we're definitely going back heavier instead of lighter! But that's not a bad cup of strawberry ice cream for 80 cents.

We took our ice cream, and walked--and walked--and walked to find the end of the line to go through customs. The good news is the entire line is shaded, but the bad news was the line was several blocks long. It took a full hour to get to the customs officers, who seemed surprised that we had absolutely nothing to declare when we crossed back into the United States.

We had a good day in our first trip across the border at Los Algodones. Our favorite story of the day happened as we walked down the street with our gelato. One of the street vendors teased us that his favorite flavor was strawberry, and he would take it off our hands. The same vendor gave this guy a hard time about the load of bricks in his trailer. He yelled, "Are you going to use those bricks to build the wall?" There's still a sense of humor in Mexico!