Last summer the boys took their Dad to see the “big trees” in northern California. Dad enjoyed it so much that I planned another adventure for Christmas. Because of other commitments, this adventure involved a lot of miles on the highways. On Sunday we traveled from Albuquerque to Burleson, TX to drop off the kids with their cousins and pick up Dad. Monday Dad and I drove to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Tuesday we visited the cave, Wednesday we drove back to Burleson, and Thursday was the drive back to Albuquerque to be home for Christmas.
The weather cooperated, the roads were clear; we had blue skies the whole distance, despite having snow the Friday before the trip. On the East Mountain they got 2 feet of snow and I-40 was closed. Fortunately by Sunday morning the snow was gone.
(As always, you can click on any photo in this blog to enlarge it.)
Road Trip Tech
A long road trip like this, with the better part of four days spent driving, goes better with the right technology along. On this trip I tried out a new GPS navigator, listened to audio books, and experimented taking photos in the dark.
Garmin Nuvi 1350 GPS
Garmin’s Nuvi line are automotive GPS units, designed for road trips as opposed to off-road use like most of their handheld cousins. I had been using the Nuvi about town, but this was the longest road trip so far. The Nuvi 1350 performed like a champ. We were going to Ennis, TX first to drop off Abigail and Richard with their cousins. (They did not want to see the cave.) I had never been this route, usually going straight to Burleson. The route to Ennis involved a number of exits and road changes in Fort Worth. I almost missed one turn, but due to the Nuvi’s lane predictor I was in the correct lane to make the exit. I’ve gotten lost in Fort Worth before, even when I know where I’m going, so making all the right turns on an unfamiliar route was great!
We like to listen to audio books when traveling. I had loaded up the MP3 files into my iPhone before departure. The car setup is a mild Rube Goldberg production: Bluetooth from the iPhone to the Jabra hands-free device, then FM to the car radio, which plays the audio over the car stereo. The Trailblazer has a nice Bose sound system, but it does not have an aux input so we have to go through the FM. The FM spectrum in the Dallas-Fort Worth area is completely used up. Eventually we were not able to find even one clear channel for the Jabra to use. At one point we counted 16 radio towers visible simultaneously!
Fortunately Albuquerque is not so congested, and the system worked great on the open road. If you live in or near a large city like Dallas-Fort Worth I would not recommend any hands-free device that plays over the car radio using FM. It may be impossible to find a clear channel to use for the hands-free function. Even on the road, it was necessary to change channels frequently, as it was often the case that the single FM station in a small town was broadcasting on the frequency we had chosen for the Jabra!
The Jabra is primarily designed as a hands-free device for a mobile phone. It clips to the sun visor and has its own speaker so it is not necessary to use the car audio system.
For the visit to Carlsbad I needed a fast lens to be able to shoot in the cave without a flash. The park service has done a fantastic job with lighting the formations, but a flash will wash out the subtle colors and textures. Also, the cave is so large that a flash will not illuminate the larger areas. My old SLR was Ricky, a Ricoh XR7 that used Pentax K-mount lenses; Ricky passed away when his electronics failed, but I had kept his lenses and they fit Penny. Ricky’s prime lens is a Rikkenon 50 mm f1.4. With that lens I was able to practically shoot pictures in the dark! (I did not even have a flash for many years.)
Of course, the older f1.4 lens is completely manual. I expected to have to focus manually, but I expected the camera to recognize the aperture setting on the lens. However, the camera does not stop down the lens when shooting, so all photos are taken at f1.4 regardless of the aperture setting on the lens. This is not a problem underground, where the lighting is dim enough that the lens has to be completely open, but could be an issue if I am shooting in brighter light and want more depth of field. I’m still learning about all the features of Penny, my Pentax K20D whom I adopted off eBay, and there may be a way to get Penny to recognize the aperture setting on the Rikkenon lens. I tried one shot with the built-in flash, but it came out all white, so either I can’t use flash with this manual lens, or I haven’t learned how to set it up.
On my last visit to Carlsbad I used Ricky with his f1.4 lens and 400 speed film. I hand held the camera. Not the best, I know, but the slides turned out pretty well. This time I brought a tripod. I think it did help, but it was inconvenient to set up in the pathway. With the fast lens and anti-shake technology, most of the pictures come out just find hand held. Pentax incorporates their anti-shake in the camera body, not in the lens. This gives even my old manual lenses anti-shake capability.
A more serious issue is that Penny lacks a split image focusing screen. In the dim light I found it difficult to manually focus. I found myself estimating the distance, setting it on the focus dial, and then bracketing the shot. Fortunately on a DSLR I can see the results immediately, and it’s no problem to throw away the bad shots. Can you imagine doing this with a film camera? I wouldn’t even know the images were out of focus until I had paid for the developing! I can see that the next improvement to Penny is going to be a split image focusing screen. Maybe she’ll get a nice gift for her Adoption Day this summer!
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Our day at the Caverns was split into three segments. On the way in to the cave we took a short self-guided tour to an Indian shelter. The big attraction was the Big Room in the cavern itself. On the way out we took a side road through a Walnut Canyon.
The Indian Shelter
An interpretive trail led down from the main road to an alcove that had in the past been used by American Indians as a shelter during the day. It is oriented in such a way as to provide shade from the hot sun during the day. Interpretive signs along the short trail identified plants common to the Chihuahuan Desert.
The Big Room
We took our time on the self-guided Big Room tour. I set up the tripod several times to take photos. At the half-way point we took the shortcut back so Dad could use the restroom. Then we walked back to see the far half of the Big Room. All this walking got Dad tired out, and he was making liberal use of any benches along the path. I noticed several park rangers were taking an interest in us, asking how we were doing. I wondered why they were so concerned. Though Dad was stopping to rest often, he did not look in distress, at least not to me. The last ranger to ask about us let me know that we had been reported to be touching the cave formations, something that was strictly forbidden. Either it was a case of mistaken identity, misinterpretation of actions, or maybe Dad had touched a stalagmite while I was taking pictures. We got a polite warning to keep our hands to ourselves – no touching of rock is permitted in the cave.
The Park Service has done a fantastic job with the lighting in the cave. Lights are indirect and use a variety of bulbs. Each type of light has its own “color temperature” due to the materials that emit the light. The Park Service has matched incandescent, fluorescent, and mercury vapor lights to the minerals in the cave to bring out the natural colors. Though you can see various colors in the rocks, no colored lights were used. The color temperature of the light source brings out the natural color within the rock.
Walnut Canyon Drive
We did not take any tours of the other rooms in the cave. Dad was pretty tired after walking around the Big Room. Instead, we took a driving tour of Walnut Canyon. I was hoping to see some wildlife, but the sun was still high in the sky and the birds were under cover.
While Blaze is an SUV, he does not have 4-wheel drive, and was a little worried about driving to the bottom of Walnut Canyon. Blaze handled the descent with aplomb, but while we were stopped on a slope scanning the brush for birds, Blaze’s low fuel warning light came on. No problem, this is probably due to all the fuel flowing to the forward part of the fuel tank, away from the sensor. Except that once level again, the fuel gauge continued to show “empty” and the low fuel warning stayed on.
What happened? Did a fuel line break during the descent to the bottom of Walnut Canyon? Were we to be stranded off the main road where help would not be passing by? An external reconnaissance found no evidence of a fuel leak, so we carried on. Eventually, after 20-30 minutes, the fuel gauge returned to a normal reading and the fuel light went off.
Coming up out of Walnut Canyon, we took the main entrance road back to the exit from Carlsbad Canyon NP. On the mountain slope next to the road we saw a herd of Barbary Sheep contentedly grazing. I quickly stopped and snapped some photos, afraid they would leave at any moment. The Barbary Sheep paid no attention to us, so I grabbed Ricky’s other lens, a Sakar 80-250 zoom, installed it onto Penny, and got some good close shots.
Roadside Markers and Signs
I like to learn about the history of the countryside I travel through. Roadside markers are a good way to do this. Here’s a selection of the markers found near Hobbs, NM on this road trip adventure.
While traveling through Texas, we stopped at signs commemorating events in the Texas War of Independence and the days of the railroad barons.