Remembering the road, day 17

Day 17

This morning I woke up at 4:45 and got my brother up and saw the sun rise. It was another beautiful sight as the red ball of flame slowly lifted over the canyon wall. Once it was blazing above the rim, we set out on a 4-mile roundtrip hike into the canyon. The guidebook told us to plan one hour per mile, but we figured we could do it in half that time.

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As we set out, the cold wind chilled us so we moved briskly. The trail was made of sand with wooden ledges, rocky steps and debris, and plenty of mule manure. Initially we’d walk carefully trying to plant our feet solidly without stepping in the mule dung. But before long, we gave up that hopeless plan and just plodded ahead. Deeper into the canyon the views were clearer and stunning. It’s hard to describe how big the Grand Canyon is. Within about 20 minutes we made it to the two-mile mark where a tunnel has been carved out of a massive piece of rock. We used the restroom facilities there and turned around to head back. For the first quarter mile, Mark and I were step in step. But when I needed another break, he pushed on ahead, leaving me to make the steep climb alone. What a brother!

The hike back up was exhausting. Walking in sand is tiring, walking uphill is tiring, walking on uneven terrain is tiring, and walking at 8,800 feet is absolutely tiring. Putting them all together is just flat out exhausting, but I still managed to get back to the top in about an hour, just 10 or so minutes behind Mark, who, I was informed by a hiker heading down into the canyon, was jogging part of the trail. Ugh.

As I walked up the hill, I started noticing pain. First I was getting blisters on my toes. My thigh muscles were beginning to ache, and most oddly, my armpits were getting really irritated. I couldn’t figure it out until I realized that because it is so dry here, any sweat is nearly instantly evaporated. So as I was walking, my arms were rubbing against my sides without the benefit of perspiration lubrication. It was really uncomfortable. Hmm, perhaps I’m revealing too much? Then I won’t speak of my nosebleeds.

Back at the cabins, everyone else slept. I’m glad they did because I’m not driving today. I’m sleeping. I have to make up for these early morning hikes.

Having slept for a hundred miles or so, I awoke to find ourselves on a Navajo reservation… very different from what I expected. Because I really haven’t thought very much about reservations since I was in about the fifth grade, I guess I still had this vague idea that Indians live on reservations sort of like they used to live throughout the country before Europeans arrived. Yeah, that’s pretty naïve, but I really hadn’t ever thought about it.

Of course, it’s nothing like that, or at least, this reservation wasn’t. It was a vast tract of land  I’m not sure exactly how big  with houses and stores and gas stations and such. It seemed like a fairly poor area, with your standard assortment of fast food joints and such. We drove around a bit and found a small place that looked to me like a biker bar. Called “Kate’s Café,” it featured a ham, veggie, and mashed potatoes special for $3.95, a dollar more to include a soup or salad. It was fantastic.

As we ate, I noticed that my nephew Sam was wearing a Cleveland Indians t-shirt and mentioned it to my brother. Knowing that the name and even more, the mascot (Chief Wahoo), is considered by some as racist and discriminatory, it probably wasn’t the wisest choice of wear on an Indian reservation at a restaurant catering to locals. (Later that day, when we stopped at another restaurant touting Mexican fare, I noticed Sam was wearing the shirt inside-out.)

After leaving Kate’s, we continued to head northeast, eventually re-entering Utah and taking a drive through Monument Valley. Anyone familiar with Westerns, especially those made by John Ford, will instantly recognize Monument Valley. It’s a relatively flat desert boasting gigantic thrusts of rock and dirt in the forms of plateaus and spires. As we rounded a curve presenting us with the view, it was like coming across a famous actor on the street.

Sadly, the two giant wildfires in the area conspired to fill the sky with a thick smoky haze, greatly reducing the visibility and the beauty of the landscape. Still, they are impressive and I was thrilled to drive through there.

Passing Monument Valley, we were treated to more canyons, ledges, and other landscapes that changed with each passing mile. One canyon looked like a rock junkyard with giant boulders just strewn about. And then before we knew it, we were back on flat, arid land. As we sped along the two-lane highway, several large animals moved towards the road. At first we thought they were cattle, but their shape wasn’t quite right. Soon we realized we were looking at what we believe to be several wild horses. The horses appeared to be tagged, but were clearly ungroomed. It was an open range area and the horses were simply wandering throughout the open plains.

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We turned back to Arizona and within a few minutes we found ourselves at Four Corners  the only place in the country where four states meet at the same point. I was expecting a bit of a marketing zoo. It thought there’d be all kinds of fast food places, shops hawking knickknacks, and such. Instead, it’s a small site run by the Navajo tribe in the area. Flags surround a platform where the four intersecting boundaries are clearly marked on an metal plate. A wooden platform stands over this so that moms and dads can take photos of the kids. Surrounding all of this are stalls from which Navajo members sell art, souvenirs, photos with themselves, and anything else someone might want to buy. To access the area it costs $3 a person.

I took the opportunity to jog from Utah to New Mexico to Colorado to Arizona all within a few seconds. There didn’t seem to be much difference from one state to the next. It’s neat and a fun stop if you’re passing through. But I don’t know that I’d go out of my way to go there. “We planned our whole trip around this,” said one woman whose children posed on the crisscross of the four state boundaries. Clueless as to what to say, I got back in the car.

With us in the car was my niece Jane. Half the time I didn’t even realize she was there, she just sat quietly as we listened to a book on CD. No “are we there yet, are we there yet?” No “I’m hungry…” or “I need to use the bathroom…” She was simply a great traveler!

Since we’re a two-car caravan, we have small walkie-talkies that enables us to keep the other car informed of upcoming stops and needs. This is proving invaluable. I want to have these all of the time. It would be an incredible time saver. I can imagine using them for telling people in cars ahead of me that the light has turned green, or for finding people in the movie theater! There are so many uses!

As we drove, my brother decided to get his car washed. I considered it for a moment, but I really feel the layers of dust, grime, bugs, and tar is giving our car real character. I’m looking forward to rolling into to D.C. with a car that really looks like it has put on about six thousand miles.

Our final stop tonight is Mesa Verde, a national park in the southwest corner of Colorado where there are ancient condos carved into cliffs. After finding our lodge, we unhappily heard that nearly the entire park was closed due to extreme fire dangers. This is a real bummer, the first of our trip. Fortunately, there is one cliff dwelling area still open so we hope to see that tomorrow, but it’s still a letdown.

As we settled in for bed, we noticed a bright flickering light in the distance… we’re fairly certain it’s a fire. It’ll be interesting to see what the story is in the morning… or if we’re evacuated before then.

Remembering the road, day 16

Ok, so I finally wised up and am going to submit the rest of my road trip diaries and schedule their publication over the next few days. Then I’ll return to more on-topic blogging.

So, without further ado:

Day 16

The previous night I announced to my family that at 5 a.m. I was going to watch the sun come up. They announced to me that I’d be doing it alone… and they were half-right.

At 6, I finally dragged myself out of bed, checked to see if anyone else was stirring (they weren’t… my nephew Truman had asked me to wake him up and when I did, he said, “Ok, I guess I’ll go.” “You don’t have to,” I answered. “Ok, I’ll stay in bed then.”), and headed out. By the time I arrived at the canyon ridge, the sun was just about to peek over the distant hill. I waited for a moment and there it was, illuminating hundreds and thousands of what are called hoodoos: tall spires of rock and dirt reaching skyward. They look a bit like stilts that no longer are supporting anything.

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One lookout point was crowded already, so I went a different direction. I followed a steep path down into the valley where nothing other than my footsteps and breathing could be heard… and I was listening because bear and mountain lions hang out down there. After a little while, birds starting singing and eventually I reached the end of the trail where a natural bridge at the bottom of the canyon.

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However long it took my to hike down, it took longer to hike back up. The moon still hung in the sky affording me ample photo ops, and the beautiful colors and shapes of the hoodoos sparkled in the morning sun.

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By the time I reached the top, it was past 8 and I decided I needed to head back to see who was stirring. Everyone was up and starting to look around for food. Cyn handed me a bag of laundry and I was off to do that.

After a big breakfast and laundry was all done, we looked around Bryce a bit more, seeing another magnificent natural bridge, and then it was off the Grand Canyon.

Going to the Grand Canyon from Bryce necessitated driving through Hatch again, so we stopped off to look for Hatch mementos. Hatch is not a big tourist town… perhaps 100 people live there, and most of them seem to be packing up and moving out. The only Hatch souvenir we could find was a T-shirt and that had to do.

At one point along the drive, I thought we were in big trouble. For some reason, several kids were driving cattle down the two-lane highway. A big bull was running and he didn’t like the look of our car. I thought for sure he was going to run right into us, but fortunately he sidestepped us. It was the first time on the trip I was actually nervous about the intentions of an animal, and it was just a cow… not a bear or a bison or anything like that.

Meanwhile my other nephew, Sam, was riding with us. I caught him slipping a CD into his walkman and asked him what it was, guessing he’d answer “‘N Synch,” or “Backstreet Boys.” Instead he told us it was The Beatles‘ Abbey Road. I was floored. “Well, let’s put it in the car’s CD player so we can all listen to it!” As we did, he started singing along with the music, his little 8-year-old voice nicely complementing John’s and Paul’s.

After Abbey Road, we played Rubber Soul and Let it Be. Before long, I saw that Sam was listening to his walkman again. “What are you listening to now,” I asked, thinking he was going to tell me the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan. “Backstreet Boys.” Oh well.

When he wasn’t listening to music, Sam and I played 20 questions. He stumped me with woodpecker, and I stumped him (and his auntie Cyn) with kangaroo. Cynthia just couldn’t imagine what animals there are that aren’t mammals, yet have fur and legs. I’m looking forward to reminding her of that in years to come.

As we arrived at the north rim of the Grand Canyon, the scenery was all pine trees and subtle rolling hills nothing to indicate the gigantic gorge ahead. But before long, we could glimpse it through the trees. Multiple signs warned of the fire hazard due to incredibly dry and windy weather.

Our cabins at the Grand Canyon
Our cabins at the Grand Canyon

We’re staying on the North Canyon in two small cabins. The lodge nearby sits on the rim of the canyon and overlooks the deep plunges. It’s about 11 miles across to the southern rim, and thousands of feet deep. Unfortunately for us, nearby forest fires meant that the canyon was filled with a smoky haze.

Still, even with the haze, the view was beautiful. We took a nice walk along the rim and ended up back at the lodge for sunset. Even though people are told not to go off the trails — both for their safety and so that plants aren’t crushed and rocks further eroded an awful lot of brainiacs climb rocky ledges for a “better view.” One smart guy brought along his beer and two kids. They guy really was asking for it, but it seems his genes will live on to see another day.

Speaking of drinks, there’s a microbrew here called the North Rim Ale and it’s excellent. As Sam describes it, it has a unique spaghetti/cheerios aftertaste, and to him, that’s a good thing.

We attended a brief lecture by a park ranger on the many past errors of the park service (such has having a policy of killing mountain lions) and then enjoyed a late but spectacular dinner. It further proved to me the uselessness of Las Vegas. Here I am in a place of amazing natural beauty, spending less to stay there, and having a dinner many times better than anything we ate in Vegas.

By the time dinner was done, the kids were half asleep in their plates and we trekked back to the cabins and fell fast asleep.