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Good morning everyone and welcome to SMGB, the Mojave Desert Edition. It's Ed in Montana guest blogging for our esteemed hostess Ms. Frankenoid and our team of master gardeners.  This past Winter has been an exhilarating journey into retirement as a campground host, with lots of natural beauty (and wildflowers) along the way.

It all started several years ago when Ms. Ed was thinking ahead toward retirement. “I want to volunteer to work in a national park,” she said. “I need to do something completely different.” Both of us had worked on similar projects, mostly on cleaning up Superfund toxic waste sites. Sites contaminated with toxic pollution are all the same. “Who would have thought that dumping tons of crap on the ground and into the rivers would be so bad?”  Anyone with half a brain, that’s who. Didn’t your mother ever teach you as a child to clean up after yourself?  Obviously not.

Having seen the worst of what humans can do to the environment, retirement would be the time to see what people’s best care and protection of nature can do, like in our national parks. As luck would have it, last March the campground hosts in one of our favorite campgrounds in Death Valley National Park were considering taking a year off.  Mrs. Ed and I applied in June and were accepted in early September. It was a busily chaotic September and October retiring from our longtime jobs, preparing the house for renting and escaping south in our new travel trailer. By November 2nd, we had settled in as the new volunteer campground hosts at Mesquite Springs in northern Death Valley. The two labradogs would serve as the official greeters.

Mesquite Springs is a forty campsite campground in the middle of nowhere with flush toilets, fresh water and an RV dump station, but no utilities.  The camp hosts get fresh water and sewer connections, but no power, which is why few people want to host there. The campground is 40 miles from the nearest gas station, 50 miles from nearest cell phone reception and 120 miles from the nearest grocery store. In other words, it is near the center of the universe. Space, solitude and awesome sunrises and sunsets. What more does one need?

Sunrise lighting on the nine-thousand-foot Cottonwood Mountains to the west of Mesquite Springs

 Golden dawn light illuminates the northern Cottonwood Mountains

People ask us how we survived five months in a small 18 foot travel trailer. True the bedrooms and kitchen were tiny, but the living room was 3.4 million acres. Death Valley is the largest national park in the country outside of Alaska, half again as large Yellowstone and three times the size of Glacier Park. Step outside of the trailer and you can see mountains sixty miles away and more.

 Our little house on the desert: The Camper Van, the Honda Element and the 18ft Nash Travel Trailer.

Mesquite Springs is a true oasis in the desert, with a small perennial spring providing drinking water for wildlife and humans alike, while watering the Honey Mesquite shrub thicket which gives it its name. Other water loving plants such as Rabbitbrush and Creosote Bush cover the small alluvial fan that holds the campground.

 The view from the hills: The upper restrooms, the camp host site and the Mesquite Springs.

The labradogs adapted well to the desert accompanying us on campground patrols and lounging outside the trailer to enthusiastically greet new campers in the afternoon and evenings. The local coyotes took an intense dislike of the Giant Chocolate Monster Puppy, frequently howling at him and leaving their droppings strategically placed near the trailer door for him to notice. It is THEIR campground!

The official greeters wake up from an afternoon nap.

Death Valley Wash, which may flow several times each year, forms the western edge of the campground just below the fifty foot cliffs of the bajada at base of the Cottonwood Mountains. In late 2013, August cloudbursts had allowed the Rabbitbrush to bloom in the Fall, attracting hundreds of butterflies, as well as many birds.

Cracked clay in Death Valley Wash.

Blooming Rabbitbrush in November.

Death Valley is a landscape filled with color and sharp contrasts. There is something to see everywhere you look, whether it be the stunning geology or the hardy plant life.

Manley Beacon from Zabriskie Point at dawn.

No plant is more odd than the clumps of Arrowweed that form the Devil's Cornfield near Stove Pipe Wells.

The Devil's Cornfield and the Kit Fox Hills.

Also near Stovepipe Wells, Creosote Bush fills the swales between the sand dunes. Starting in February, sufficiently watered Creosote began to bloom with their tiny yellow flowers, attracting the first hummingbirds of the season.

The Mesquite Flat Dunes with Creosote Bush.

2013 was a very dry year in Death Valley as in the rest of California, but several small rainstorms hit isolated parts of the park in late August, and few small showers passed over Mesquite Springs late in the year. A major rain event hit the entire park at the end of February, dropping nearly an inch of moisture in 48 hours at the campground, half of the average rainfall expected each year.

Rainstorms bring out the rain plows to clear the muddy roads.

The famous desert wildflowers, mostly annuals, require a precise amount of rainfall distributed in three or four events from September through the following February to germinate and flower. At least two areas of the park were fortunate enough to meet these environmental requirements and rewarded us with small to moderate blooms. In late February, we were overjoyed to hear a ranger report blooming wildflowers in far southeastern Death Valley at Jubilee and Salisbury Passes. Even though it was nearly one hundred miles away from the campground, we immediately went to explore!

Wildflowers including Apricot Mallow and Desert Dandelion at Salisbury Pass.

The drive was well worth it, and we returned two more times to study the extent of bloom, seeing dozen species or more of flowers in small meadow-like patches.

A field of Desert Dandelions.

Desert Dandelions, Golden Poppies, and Shredding Evening Primrose.

The blooms of Apricot Mallow closeup.

Bigelow's Tickseed.

Lesser Mojavea.

Beavertail Cactus.

Mojave Aster.

Salisbury Pass is at nearly three thousand feet in elevation and had a more robust bloom than the lower and drier Jubilee Pass. Jubilee Pass had a different collection of wildflowers though, such as the sunflower Desert Gold.

Desert Gold and the Black Mountains.

Desert Chicory.

Golden Evening Primrose.

Desert Five Spot.

A few weeks after our trips to Salisbury and Jubilee Pass, we heard of a large bloom in the Greenwater Valley at the eastern foot of Dantes View. The bloom there was more extensive comprised of Desert Dandelions, Little Gold Poppies and Freemont Phacelia. The constant desert winds made photographing the entire field difficult, but a few pics of the Freemont Phacelia turned out well.

Freemont Phacelia.

The colors of the desert wildflowers and the rock formations were only outdone by colors of the sky at sunset. Each evening was a special treat with some displays rivaling the best sunsets we have ever seen. There are not many clouds in the desert sky, but when they blow in the colors and patterns are amazing.

Mare's tails at sunset.

Alpen glow on the north side of eleven thousand foot Telescope Peak, sixty miles away from the campground.

Pink sunset.

Yellow sunset.

Blood-red sunset.

On many nights, the show was not over at sunset. In Winter on pitch dark moonless nights, the Milky Way Galaxy would shine in a brilliant arch across the sky. With a full moon, you didn't need a flashlight to walk around the campground.

A hazy moon and the planet Venus over the Cottonwood Mountains.

Having returned to the semi-frozen North in early April, I already miss the space, solitude and colors of the desert. The wildflower bloom continues at higher elevations in Death Valley as you can see from their Facebook Page.  But few things have greened up here in Montana’s capital city as yet, although the daffodils have started to rise.

Finally this year in retirement, I might have the time to really prep the backyard garden for June plantings, rather than having just an hour or two to work on it. There’s no supply of veggie compost from last Winter though, so some organic fertilizer may be in order. What’s happening in your gardens?

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