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Southwest Trip 2006

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"It was controlled wanderlust, with a passion for seeing, absorbing, learning, and adjusting to many different scenic environments. More than just natural scenery, it was surprisingly variegated with culture and history...The Southwest was like a familiar brand to me, but it was not so much what I expected, or not expected; it was something to behold!"

June 2006


“Strange travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.” Kurt Vonnegut

I had never been to the desert. The only place I had ever been to that was even remotely desert-like was Malta, back in 1991, and it was in March, not exactly dry summertime. So, when Linda suggested we go to the Southwest region of the U.S.A., I was slightly taken aback, wondering what it would be like. The Southwest has been a huge void in my life that I almost conceded I would never get to see. The Southwest had some appeal to me, but I must admit that it wasn’t very high on my “must see” list as far as selecting a destination for our once-a-year family vacation. I like going to someplace foreign, and preferably somewhere far from home. But, the more I researched the SW, the more it seemed to fit my criteria as a foreign, far away place that held many natural and cultural mysteries.

The thing that gave this idea urgency was that I have a cousin in Ridgecrest, CA, named Greg Watson, who I knew I would like to visit, but, other than that, I knew I had to count the days we had available and estimate how much we could see, and pack as much in as possible. For the first time in my life—I think—I can say that we saw everything that was reasonably expectable and more! For once, I saw everything I wanted to see, and I was satisfied with the experience, and ready to go home! That is an amazing admission for me.

Briefly, we flew to Las Vegas, visited six states in thirteen days, drove 3,773 miles in a rented SUV, stayed in eleven motels, visited eight National Parks, three National Monuments, one National Forest, two huge dams, attended services at two churches, crossed the Old London Bridge, and spent quality time visiting my cousin Greg, and his family, and an old friend who has moved to Las Vegas and is working in show business. My Dad joined us for the first seven days of the trip. Everyday was brimming with anticipation for what we would see, and there were no letdowns!

Daily summary: June 19 – July 1, 2006

Day 1: Flight from Nashville to Las Vegas. Drove 140 miles, Las Vegas to Barstow, CA

This was the first time we have flown on Southwest Airlines, and we were not used to the boarding procedure of having no assigned seats, so we got on the plane nearly last and got four separate seats. Fortunately, Linda, Reanna and I had isle seats close together, so we could keep an eye on Reanna. She sat next to an elderly couple from Rhode Island who kept her company. An hour after landing we were at Alamo rental cars picking up our Chevy TrailBlazer, and we were on our way by 7:00 p.m. I got a little lost finding I-15, initially, and ended up detouring toward UNLV, and part of Las Vegas’ tourist hotel district, but before long we were headed south on I-15 towards California. I tried calling my friend, Brad Ward, who is living in LV and working for Cirque du Soleil, on my cell phone, and I got him, but he was in a car heading north on I-15 for a couple nights camping with workmates. We agreed to try to phone each other later in the week. It was my intention to get as far as we could tonight, and we got as far as Barstow before we looked for a motel. The desert scenery in Nevada and SE California was “otherworldly” to me. It felt like we had landed on a foreign planet in a parallel universe, and they had identical roads and vehicles, but the scenery was hot, rocky, and mountainous. And we saw Joshua trees for the first time.

Day 2: 233 miles total. Barstow to Ridgecrest, and environs

I hardly slept because I was so excited to be in California, but I had plenty of reserve energy as we drove through desert to Ridgecrest, passing solar energy farms, observatories on hills, and small mining towns. Ridgecrest is located in the high Mojave Desert, at the end of the Sierra Mountains, and below Death Valley. It is the home of China Lake Naval Station, which began in 1944, but today has a population of about 28,000. Gas prices in Ridgecrest shocked us at $3.29 a gallon, and we noticed a lot of four-way stops instead of traffic light intersections, but it had a Wal-Mart and a lot of typical businesses for a town its size. We reached Greg’s house sooner than expected, but he, along with wife, Kathy, and daughter, Kelly, greeted us with a warm welcome. It was great to see him again. Greg has lived in Ridgecrest and worked as an engineer at China Lake for 28 years. He knows this area better than just about anybody else for its history, geology, plant, and animal life. We had last met in June of 2004 when he and Kelly visited us in Tennessee for a day. Greg is related to me through my maternal great-grandmother Hester Watson Hix. His grandfather Edward was Hester’s younger brother. Edward, along with a few other Watson siblings, and their parents, moved to New Mexico beginning in 1915 and shortly thereafter. Hester was the only member of the family to stay in Tennessee. Greg has lived in the Southwest all of his life, but has visited Tennessee several times over the years.

After lunch, Greg showed us the local college, Cerro Coso Community College (, which, incidentally, is where Kelly will attend this fall. It looked very nice with its modern Southwestern architecture. Then, Greg showed us some sites outside of town. We went to the ghost town of Randsburg, an old mining town to the south, which still had some residents and a tourist soda fountain/store, saloon, jail, a history museum, and some antique shops, among other things. Next, we went out to a dry salt lake, and then came back to Ridgecrest via Red Rock Canyon, which was part of the route of a famous group of 49ers who almost perished crossing Death Valley, but luckily survived. That evening, Greg and family took us out to dinner to the Indian Wells Restaurant, located at the base of Owens Peak, the highest of the southern Sierra Navada Mountain range. I ate some really good shrimp.

Day 3: 217 miles total. To Sequoia National Forest, Walker Pass, and Kernville

This was our one-day excursion with Greg to see the “Trail of 100 Giants.” We saw a lot of Joshua trees on Walker Pass and in the Kern Valley. An almost continuous river stream from the high mountains provided a green strip of vegetation within the valley, including a Lake, called Isabella. The contrast between the dry valley mountains and the green, river-fed vegetation was amazing. The scenic drive up to the Sequoia took about 2.5 hours, and we drove up to about 6,200 feet on a winding road. We passed a lot of camping places along the way, none of which looked crowded. At last, nothing could prepare us for the size of the Sequoia, not even all the pictures we’d seen before in books, or National Geographic. They were huge—and I’m talking—HUGE! They were burnt orange in color, and the bark had the texture of a coconut shell. They dwarfed all the other trees in the forest, but you could tell that the practice of planned burning has kept the ground clear of too many trees sprouting. The trail was paved and not strenuous, but it was just like communing with the Sequoia. That’s all that mattered here.

We ate lunch by the parking lot in a cool breeze provided by the elevation. Greg brought some packaged “long-life” Army food, and let me try some, since I’d never sampled it before. It was ham and shrimp Jambalaya—not bad. On our drive back home we stopped in the hip-town of Kernville for a “five-minute” tour. Later on, since we were in a SUV, we made an unscheduled, off-road excursion down a long sandy road, to see some stone pictographs that Greg recommended. Stepping down from the comfortable SUV onto dry desert dirt, creosote brush, well-populated cholla cactus, and granite boulders was a bit of a shock the first time, but it was good for us. The Indian pictographs were red-painted stick figures of humans (typical of a Shaman’s trance), and perhaps a set of primitive calendar keeping symbols, fascinatingly old (about 1,000 years or less), and little known, preserved near ground level on huge granite boulders in the Canebrake area. I just couldn’t resist playing my CD of U2’s The Joshua Tree.

Next, we hurried back to Ridgecrest to shower so we could go meet with the members of Greg’s church, the Inyokern Church of Christ, for mid-week service. Meeting this friendly bunch of people was a little like being in a Steinbeck novel to me, I guess, because I wanted it to be, and because I was still in disbelief that we were in California. Meeting people at church is a much more personal experience than interacting with people on the street. I wanted to filter Californians through my preconceived eyes, and a lot of that had to do with the Steinbeck novels I read in high school. I wanted to remember everything—I was attentive, but at the same time I was getting weary from the lack of sleep I was getting lately at night (I was too excited to sleep). After church, we went back to Greg’s for dinner, and good conversation, but alas, it soon began to get late, and we had to retire to the motel (except for Dad, who stayed at Greg’s for the two nights).

Day 4: 482 miles total. Ridgecrest to Death Valley, and onto Las Vegas, Hoover Dam, Kingman, AZ, stopping at Williams, AZ for the night

It was traveling day, meaning we had to move on. It was great to be with Greg and his family—they treated us very well, and now I was hoping his two-day tutelage about the area’s history, climate, and geology had prepared us for Death Valley, not far away, actually. Greg checked our radiator, tire pressure, and we left as early as possible; 9:45 a.m.—it was a bit frightening to drive into DV for the first time. I expected an extremely inhospitable environment, and I wasn’t disappointed, all the while feeling like I was in a fantasy world, another planet. We were in Death Valley! Unbelievable! “This can’t be happening,” I thought. I had half expected my car rental company to WARN me not to go to DV, but they did not. My original plan was to cross DV at its narrowest point and get the heck out, but when we descended into the valley, the last thing in the world I wanted to do was climb back out of it.

We stopped at Stovepipe Wells General Store, in the National Park, and at the visitor’s center and museum at Furness Creek. Other than that, our only other stop was at the lowest point on the highway, a sign marking “242 feet below sea level.” The heat was intense, and I didn’t want to play around in it. At Stovepipe Wells the temperature was 112 F in the shade. I met some German tourists; the first of many encountered on this trip, and asked the man why they weren’t in Germany for the World Cup? “I can watch it on television,” was the famished German's answer, as he bit into a hoagie sandwich in the cash register line. At Furness Creek we only stayed long enough to look around the museum, the gift shop, and go to the bathroom. I wanted to make good time and get as close to the Grand Canyon today as possible.

Leaving DV, road signs and advertisements beckoned us to take the “scenic route” through less-visited towns to Las Vegas, but we opted for the fastest way, and ended up cruising through Vegas on I-15 around 4:30 p.m., just as traffic was clogging the already slow artery with road construction. Las Vegas is a rising metropolis in the Nevada desert, make no mistake about it, and the show billboards have some impressive names on them (it looks like every entertainer in the country has a show, even if it can’t be true). We passed the Mirage, on the left, where my old friend Brad Ward works for the newest Cirque du Soleil show, about the Beatles called LOVE. I tried to call him a couple of times, but to no avail; I still hoped to meet up with him later, perhaps Sunday evening.

We stopped for a late lunch in construction-booming Henderson, NV, at a Jack in the Box, and then we made an all-out assault on entering Arizona. We slowly wound through the Hoover Dam road, noting the construction underway of a giant overpass that will some day allow traffic to glide by the dam at almost skyscraper height. We stopped for a view of the lake and famous dam, to take photos, and to absorb a bit of what’s left of a route soon to change. From here, Highway 93 plunged into Arizona, revealing a rocky outcrop of canyons and mesas that stretched to the south as far as the eye could see. We saw our first butte, then, things leveled out and we were on the straight and narrow to Kingman. On the way we stopped, out of panic, for one of Reanna’s rare, if untimely, toilet requests. No modern gas stations were in sight, so we stopped at an apparition from Route 66’s past glory, called Rosie’s Café. It looked like a dump, and we would never have stopped at a place like this normally (paint pealing everywhere; sign that read: “Cook Wanted”), but what a hoot it turned out to be! Steinbeckesque no less. I took some photos, got a couple of souvenirs, and we left satisfied. At Kingman, we knew there was too much daylight left to call it a day, so we got on I-40 and headed east with a vengeance.

Not knowing what motels lay ahead, we called Greg on my cell phone to see how he was doing, and to see if he knew of any motels off I-40. I was afraid they’d all be filled up with Grand-Canyon-bound-tourists; hot, readying themselves for the next morning’s ground attack on the National Park most noted for its title. Greg said to try the town of Williams, so a little past dusk we coasted into the first motel we saw, a Best Western, and negotiated a discount with Dad’s AARP card. It was pricy, but we felt relieved to stop for the night. It was here that I got my first chance to check email on the trip, after waiting my turn for the complimentary computer in the lobby.

Day 5: 210 Miles total. Grand Canyon to Page, AZ

There was a fairly big crowd in the breakfast dining room the next morning, and, since Williams was located right at Highway 64, a straight shot north to the GC, I feared that there would be hordes of cars heading that way, so I hurried the family to get ready to go. As it turned out, the traffic wasn’t bad along 64; we were just a little ahead of the horde, actually. We stopped at the brand new National Geographic Welcome Center outside of the park entrance, and looked at souvenirs, just long enough for the horde to catch up with us. Fortunately, I bought an entrance fee ticket ($25.00) in a machine, earlier, and we were able to bypass the long line of cars at the park entrance.

We noticed going north to the GC that the land leveled off and became very flat. As far as the eye could see was just flatness! When we entered the park we drove to the main east-west road and parked on the side of the road. Lots of cars had already parked along the road, and I figured we were just a short walk from the rim. Sure enough, we walked about 50 yards through short trees, and the whole canyon just opened up. We had arrived! Even though I’ve seen it a thousand times in pictures and television, it was amazing. Why is it so amazing? Are we just brainwashed into thinking it is? The Park Service supplies plenty of information and the rangers give nice talks about how the canyon formed and how it’s a result of millions of years of erosion, etc., etc., etc.

Well, what if I want to believe it’s the handiwork of God? “Oh, no, no, no, no, that can’t be, it’s scientifically proven to be erosion,” seems to be the prevailing theme. Only the native Indians are allowed to believe in creation, and that’s OK for them, but any educated human is supposed to believe in evolution. That is what the scientific mindset tells us. So what’s the use traveling so far to see these natural wonders? Why get inspired by a bunch of gullies, or arches (or mountains, or giant trees)? Ok, I get it, they eroded, but who’s to say that God didn’t create them and give them a head-start with the scratch of his finger nail?

Anyway, we walked west on the rim from about Mather Point, on and on, until we reached the Blue Angel Lodge. We were just admiring the rim, and having a good walk. When we reached the west village we realized there was a lot more to the park than we realized. We thought we’d gone too far to walk back to our vehicle, so we sought the shuttle bus. We found a shuttle bus stop, near the train depot, which was streaming with people coming off the train from Williams. The shuttle bus stop was getting more crowded by the second, but we managed to get a bus back east, which meandered a long time from stop-to-stop. Finally, we got back to the SUV, and then drove to the Market Plaza to eat the sandwiches we bought early in the morning (we had a cheap Styrofoam cooler in the back of the SUV, and we bought ice and drinks everyday).

After lunch, we bought some t-shirts, and then drove along the east road (Hwy 64) to the older part of the park, seeing a few viewpoints, finally ending up at the Desert View area, where we went to the Watchtower. The stone Watchtower was built in 1932, and is one of the oldest buildings in the park, and houses a gift shop. The whole place was abuzz about two large Condors that were perched on the top of the tower. They were just sitting there, looking down at the people, and perhaps, wondering what the fuss was about. I took photos of them, but the tower was so tall that they didn’t show up very well, unfortunately. Condors are not attractive, but they are big, and these two had unusually long necks!

We departed GCNP going east on 64, and noticed the long confluence of the Little Colorado River, and how it cuts a deep but narrow gorge for miles. When we reached Highway 89, I turned north and we rode it all the way to Page, AZ, just below Utah. On 89 we got our first glimpse of the Navajo lands. We saw many modest Navajo farms and villages along this highway, which also displayed some weird rock formations, some of which were gray, concrete-like blobs, and some were purple, sphinx-like formations. Ever so often we would see a Navajo Hogan, a traditional house for ceremonies. Many of them were the more modern hexagonal shape, but they were unmistakable. Even if the Navajo lives in a larger house, or trailer, they often have a Hogan nearby. For the most part, these people were living on desolate land with only well water or water tanks. The most striking feature of the route was the long red bluff that was on the right side of the road for miles and miles. On the left were lower rock formations, or grassy land. Finally, the road went up and over Antelope Pass, a very craggy pass, and then descended to Page.

Page, AZ, turned out to be a surprise. It was only established in 1957, as a place to house builders of Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell, but today it has a population of just fewer than 7,000. It is a well developed little town, with lots of recently constructed schools (including a new public library) and businesses, and it considers itself located in the center of canyon country. The first motel we went to was full, so we went to a Motel 6, and found room, but it was filling up fast. There must have been something going on in this town, or else people were coming to Lake Powell. We went to a Chinese restaurant for dinner this evening, and it was actually crowded.

Day 6: 292 Miles total. Page, AZ to Bryce Canyon, Zion NP, and to St. George, UT

Immediately outside of Page is Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell. I didn’t realize it but two of the largest electrical generation plants in the west were located right here. The local color was dusty pink; the rock, the dirt, and the canyon. Very shortly, we crossed the state line into Utah, and continuing on 89, we noticed the color and terrain began to change into a more alpine look, and the culture changed from Navajo into Mormon pretty drastically. The towns became more Victorian and the valley held cattle farms and irrigation.

Bryce Canyon was named for Ebenezer Bryce and became a National Park because of its unique geological structures, called Hoodoos. This is Hoodoo Heaven! They look kind of like a bunch of orange chimney stacks arranged in an amphitheater. FYI, Bryce Canyon is at a higher elevation than nearby Zion NP, and the Grand Canyon, reaching almost 9,000 feet. We gazed in awe at the canyon, and Dad and I walked down into it for a bit, passing a paramedic unit who had just rescued an old lady from exhaustion. They carried her on a stretcher that had a single, built-in bicycle wheel on the bottom for leverage. There were young and old alike going down into the hoodoos, but we thought this might be too strenuous for Linda and Reanna.

Next, we located the General Store for lunch and souvenirs. We bought sandwiches and a big pretzel for Reanna, because she wanted one, only she really didn’t want it, and I had to eat it. The park was crowded, but it was on a much smaller scale than GCNP. Next, we drove up to Bryce Point, to see the higher viewpoint, and the temperature was pleasant. A large group of Italian tourists were hanging-out up there, and, of course, everyone was impressed with the hoodoos, but nobody seemed to know why. By now, it was 4:30 p.m., and we were satisfied, so we headed back to 89 south. We had to figure out what to do with the rest of the day, and have a good idea where we would spend the night, because the next day was Sunday, and Dad had to fly back to Nashville at 6:50 p.m., from Las Vegas Airport.

We stopped in a little town, called Orderville, because Linda saw a couple of souvenir rock & gem shops with ample displays of rocks on the ground. She likes rocks, crystals, and gems. There was also petrified wood, and big glass-like rocks. We went inside and the owner began an animated conversation with Reanna. He introduced his daughter to us and said her name was “Summer” and that she was going to be a country music singer (she almost had a contract with a label in Nashville). She looked to be about 17. They were both interested to learn that we were from Tennessee, so we gave her some encouragement, though we don’t exactly know anything about the music business. However, I recommended she sing at the Blue Bird Café’s open-microphone night, if she ever got the chance. So, if Summer becomes famous, we can say we met her when she was just a teenager in Utah!

A few miles down the road from Orderville was a large grassy range with a wire fence around the parameter, and there was a herd of buffalo walking slowing toward some water troughs. Signs on the fence warned that the buffalo were wild and that you shouldn’t do anything to startle them. Something unmistakable was that little cabin-like wooden houses were built on a slight hill overlooking the range, which made me think of the song “Home on the Range.” Instead of deer and antelope, the buffalo play.

Moving on, we decided to go through Zion NP, even though it was getting late, and we still had to pay the $20.00 entrance fee. But the park turned out to be a driving bonanza through unusual and appealing mostly red canyons. While our experience at GCNP and Bryce Canyon was primarily at the top looking down, the MO at Zion is that you drive into the canyon and look UP at the peaks! And there were at least two or three long tunnels, with windows to the right-side, revealing open walls of canyon. We didn’t really spend much time at Zion, because it was getting dark, and our senses were overloaded with scenery. However, we had one more unexpected sight to see in the town of Springdale, just west of the park.

Springdale, we quickly assessed, was a yuppie tourist town, but there was this open and inviting little Elk farm right there on the strip. There were big Elk, with furry antlers and all, right there for you to feed, plus a steer, and some donkeys. A few donation boxes were posted along the fence, as onlookers watched, but the owners weren’t around. A lot of antlers that the Elk had shed were lying on the ground with price tags on them (pretty pricy!), but payment was on the honor system. The Elk were an unexpected treat to see, but we had to move on. About forty-minutes later, we reached St. George, in the lower SW corner of Utah, which was a big little town right off I-15 and it seemed to be hopping with weekend guests, so we opted for another Motel 6, which wasn’t too crowded. That night I got a voice message on my phone from Brad. He said he would meet us at his place at about 7:00 p.m. Sunday evening.

Day 7: 245 miles total. St. George to Mesquite, NV, to LV and back to Mesquite

I strategically chose St. George because, according to my research, there was a Church of Christ there, so we attended there on Sunday morning. It was small, but the brethren were nice, and the attendance was buoyed by several visitors, among which, we were part. The preacher’s name was Paul Ditoro, a gentleman in his sixties who’d come from Pennsylvania, and he’d been there about four-years. It’s always nice to meet brethren on a trip, to get a local perspective, and to see if you know any people in common, and this was no exception. The building was located in a residential area, so we drove around some after church and looked at the houses. There seems to be an amazing amount of building going on in some towns, despite the fact that the environment is so hot and dry. One female member of the church, who’d been living in the area for 12 years, said she couldn’t understand how so many people are building such expensive houses. I must say, I find the whole idea a bit baffling.

We ate lunch in Mesquite, NV about an hour later, having crossed into the upper NW corner of Arizona on I-15 reaching Nevada through an incredibly massive pass. We found a brand new restaurant, called Buffalo’s Southwest Café, which was a SW version of an Outback restaurant. It was mercifully empty and we got a good meal in a timely manner, got gas, and headed onto Vegas with loads of spar time to sally forth. Unfortunately, twenty-miles out of Vegas, there came the longest, slowest backed-up pile of traffic I’ve ever seen on an Interstate!!! There was an accident up ahead and the police were directing traffic onto Highway 604, which eventually becomes Las Vegas Boulevard. With this detour we lost about an hour and a half of leisure time, so when we reached the Airport, we had to get Dad to the check-in line ASAP.

The line was long, but he had enough time. So, we left Dad in the Airport to fly home without too much hanging around, because Reanna was getting very sad. We made our way back to the Chevy TrailBlazer; noticed the parking meter had expired already, and drove south to find Wigwam Avenue, where Brad Ward lives, to visit him. We found Brad’s neighborhood pretty easily, and decided to go into a local grocery store to look around and buy some things. It was a big store, and we noticed that there was a casino in part of it. After that, we saw what looked like a new public library across the street, which looked nice, and was even OPEN, late on Sunday afternoon, but we didn’t stop.

Brad’s apartment was in a semi-gated area, and it took a while to wind around to his number, but he was home, and we went inside for about an hour and talked. I hadn’t seen him since, about early 2000, and a lot has happened to him since then. He’s been to the Yale School of Drama, in New Haven, CT, doing graduate studies since then, and has landed a job with Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas as lead audio technician on the brand new show about The Beatles, called LOVE. Brad grew up in Nashville, TN, and is making the adjustment to LV very well. I first met him in London, the summer of 1991, and have kept in touch ever since. Incidentally, his father was director of the David Lipscomb College Library when I attended there. After visiting Brad, we drove back to Mesquite and spent the night.

Day 8: 422 miles total. Mesquite, NV to Moab, UT. Went to Arches NP

Today, I planned to drive all the way to Moab, UT, or bust, via I-15 and I-70. This was almost all the way across Utah, covering some very remote and high country, but it was necessary to get there to see Utah’s amazing Arches National Park. We drove, without stopping, all the way to Green River, which was a small town in a desolate area. Many of the big, modern gas stations out here have fast food restaurants attached to them, and we ate at an Arby’s. It looked like most of the people at this place were going camping, or doing some sort of Canyon exploring. The dining room had two TV’s with ESPN on, which is getting to be more common. At this time, we also started a daily habit of buying an orange sherbet “Push-Pop” for Reanna, or the three of us, which were a refreshing counter-punch to the heat. Not long after resuming our drive on I-70, we exited onto Hwy. 191, a two-lane road, and went 33 miles to our destination—the town of Moab. We immediately checked into a brand new Motel 6, and went straight to Arches National Park because it was getting late in the day.

The entrance fee was just $10.00 at Arches. Then, we stopped at the visitor’s center to go to the bathroom, and luckily caught the 15-minute movie about the Canyon Lands in the auditorium. Interesting! Then we sped past enormous chunks of naturally sculptured red Entrada sandstone, to the end of the park, through miles and miles of curves, to Devil’s Garden, where there were some trail heads, most notably to Landscape Arch. I had wanted to see this ever since we started planning the trip! It is a super long, thin arch that defies gravity (306 feet); the longest in the world. The trail was very beautiful and calming, but we walked fast because the sun was going down, much to my chagrin, and I didn’t want to drive all the way back here tomorrow morning to see it. When I first saw Landscape Arch, my stomach fluttered, and I said, “There it is!” over, and over, audibly.

There was just a few people here and there. A log fence keeps people from hiking up to the arch, since it is unstable from a big fallout in 1991 that left it looking rather delicate, though, “Delicate” is the name of another arch we will see the next morning. It took Linda and Reanna a couple of minutes to catch up with me, and I took several pictures. The sun was going down well behind the arch, so it was looking a bit dark, but there was still about a half-hour of “daylight.”

We walked back to the car and drove out of the park stopping briefly to see Skyline Arch and Balanced Rock before returning to the motel. As usual, at night, I went to find a fast food place (usually McD’s, Burger King, or Wendy’s) to buy us a late night snack/meal to take to the motel room. Whilst on my fast food run, I spotted a bumper sticker on a car that read, “London, Paris, New York, LA, and Moab!” Wow, I had no idea Moab was such a classy place—I guess I was supposed to be impressed. In the room, I tried to call my old friend Gene Fletcher, who lives in Denver, but got no answer, and left a message on his voice mail. We played phone tag for a couple of days hence but never connected in person.

Day 9: 218 miles total. Moab to Cortez, CO, to visit Mesa Verde

Moab was a hip town, but we were on the edge of town and only found a Denny’s to eat breakfast at. This was both time consuming and expensive, but at least Linda and I were full as a result. Reanna could never be counted on to eat at any predictable time of the day, so she usually made untimely announcements regarding hunger and thirst. We went back to Arches, pronto, to hike a half-mile to the Delicate Arch viewing point. It was bright and the temperature was rising, but this was most preferable to the three-mile trail to the arch itself. That was out of the question, unfortunately, but this was a fine consolation. I captured some good shots and video of Utah’s most famous rock-symbol with my zoom lenses, and we returned to the TrailBlazer to go back to the visitor’s center for souvenirs. I was certainly glad we got to see the amazing red-colored rock canyons and arches here, but they seemed almost too good to be true; like they were sculpted, buffed and polished by giants for us to admire. The literature says it’s a “magical place,” which is fine with me. Stuff all the geology baloney!

Next, as per our custom, we filled up with gas and ice for our drive to the next attraction, which was Mesa Verde, down in the SW corner of Colorado, a little beyond Cortez. Red rock gave way to dried grassy hills as we passed Mt. Peale, a 12,721 foot high range to our left. Entering Colorado on Highway 491 (the old Route 666), was exciting because we had never been to Colorado before and this was “extended” territory for us, because I didn’t know for sure if we’d be able to make it this far when I was planning the trip. Cortez was a welcome sight because I wanted to reserve a motel room ASAP and get on up to Mesa Verde before it got too late; it was about 4:00 pm. The first motel we tried had only suites left and was expensive, so we looked further and found a Comfort Inn at a reasonable price, which turned out to be a nice big corner room.

Forging ahead to Mesa Verde, the entrance fee was only $10.00, and the drive up to the main attraction was 23-miles of climbing, winding, winding, tunneling road—a beautiful drive, but I wanted to get there in time for a tour. We stopped at the visitor’s center and booked a 5:30 p.m. tour of Cliff Palace. Fantastic! We were set, but we hadn’t eaten since breakfast at Denny’s, so we went to one of the cafes and got a pleasant little meal and looked at the gift shop. Then, before long, we were on our way to Cliff Palace, a few miles further and we went to the staging point for the tours. A few drops of rain came down in the parking lot, but it didn’t rain on us at all after that.

Most people who come to Mesa Verde take the tour of Cliff Palace. Built by the Anasazi 1,400 years ago, it's the biggest and most famous dwelling. It was spectacular in every sense of the word! To imagine what it must have looked like to the humble cattle rancher, Richard Wetherill, who discovered it in 1888, and to the Swede Archaeologist who made it famous, Gustav Nordenskiold, is a bit of a stretch, but today it looks astonishing. The female Ranger guide was very good at her job, which was herding a group of two-dozen or so people down the manicured cliff trail to the main ledge of the dwelling, telling them about the ruins, and keeping control. All of the people in our group seemed genuinely honored to be here. Reanna’s favorite parts were going down into, and climbing out of the canyon, the rest was over her head, but Linda and I enjoyed the history immensely. I won’t go into detail about it, but it was all fascinating, and it was the 100th anniversary of the park in just two more days. It was one of the many places that became National Parks as a result of Theodore Roosevelt’s administration. Our tour was the next to last for the day, so we were extremely grateful to have it.

After that, we drove back to Cortez, and we were able to get our stuff into the room and had time to eat (Taco Bell take-out), let Reanna swim a little in the atrium pool area, and I was able to check my email on a complimentary PC in the lobby, all before it got too late. What a wonderful day!

Day 10: 308 miles total. Mesa Verde again, Four Corners, Monument Valley and on to Chinle, AZ

Our motel had the biggest breakfast dining room we’ve ever seen at one of these middle-of-the-road priced motels. We packed up the SUV and went back to Mesa Verde—all 20+ miles of park road to Spruce Tree House cliff dwelling for the self-guided tour. It was a smaller version of the day before, but this one had fully reconstructed kivas, or round, underground ceremonial chambers. You could climb down into a kiva via a ladder, and it was like being in an underground Hogan. It was an exceptional, but brief experience, because many people wanted to get down into the only publicly accessible kiva. I have a lot of respect for the Rangers; they seem to be knowledgeable and easy to talk to. The walk down to the cliff dwelling was about a half mile of super scenic walkway, and there were small oak and spruce trees growing; the oak leaves looked miniature. One more visit to the gift shop, and we had a few more souvenir items that we felt compelled to buy.

Then, we drove southwest to Four Corners. The land was about as desolate as could be, not bad for a four-way border. The price of admission was supposed to be $3.00 a person, but the lady only charged me for one. Not many people were there, but as soon as we got out of our SUV, more vehicles seemed to drive in. We looked at the border monument, a very flat, wide expanse, and I photo’d Reanna doing an up-side-down bridge (that she learned from gymnastics) touching all four states at once. What fun! There was also this heavy, 50-ish-looking Harley-biker, who wanted his photo made whilst stomping his foot right on the spot where the borders intersect, and he wasn’t too polite about it. I figured he didn’t know how to behave in the presence of women and children. Then we checked out the row of stalls where there were wonderfully made Indian art and jewelry. We would have stayed longer, but we had to keep moving on.

The drive to Monument Valley required going into Arizona, and then cutting north into Utah. Along the way, we saw an accident that reminded me of the commercials for the Robin William's film, “RV.” It appeared that an RV had turned over on its side and was straddling the road and the shoulder, while pulling a SUV behind. The SUV’s rear-end was lifted up in the air, and stuck out into the road. However, upon looking at the pictures I took, while passing, it wasn’t an RV, but a long camper trailer, which the SUV was pulling. Two police cars were on the scene directing traffic around the obstacle, but there didn’t seem to be any casualties. The sight of that overturned camper sure broke the monotony of the endless road, but Linda and Reanna shortly slipped into nap-time.

Before long we arrived in the town of Mexican Hat, which gets its name from a flat rock (that looks like a sombrero) balanced atop a pinnacle, and this literally looked like the reddest place on earth! Apart from a nice new gas station, everything looked old and nondescript. An oriental couple was tooling around on a recumbent bicycle, which eluded my camera, though I tried to snap their picture. We were famished, so I bought sandwiches in the gas station market, and we ate them in the SUV. All the locals were Navajo. We needed to get lunch out of the way because we didn’t know what to expect at Monument Valley in the way of sustenance, and how much time we needed.

This is what I'd been waiting for!

We crossed the San Juan River, just outside of Mexican Hat, and then finally saw the view that I’d been waiting for—that had been building up inside of my brain for so long—the long approach to Monument Valley on Hwy 163! That view has been included in just about every road atlas of the USA ever printed! I was tingling all over because I’d built this moment up to be bigger than anything I’d seen on this trip…and it was GREAT. It looked just like a long, narrow, descent into a cavernous void located on Mars.

We saw a dust devil (a harmless dirt twister) from a distance, as we drove to the park entrance, paid a $10.00 fee, and went to the visitor’s center, where we looked at the display cases with history and stuffed indigenous animals, and then checked out the gift shop, which tried hard to play up the John Wayne Western-flick-mystique. I bought a small Arizona flag. Next, despite numerous friendly offers from Navajo guides to take us, we drove into the 17-mile dirt road tour, self-guided. I did not intend to go the whole route, and I don’t think many people do, who go alone. Some people, who aren't very smart, try to drive nice cars with low-clearance underneath; such as a woman I saw, who was driving a new white, Dodge Magnum onto the dirt road. I thought that was a pretty bad idea, but some people do crazy things! We saw enough after about 3-4 miles, and saw another dust devil, which I got on video (it must have been over 100 feet tall). The scenery was terrific, but time constraints persuaded me to turn back. I got what I wanted, which was to see the Mitten Buttes, and the Three Sisters. So we were done.

Back at the main highway, we wrangled into Arizona and onto Kayenta, a small Navajo town, and then took a shortcut, via Hwy 59, southeasterly, and made it to Chinle before dark. Chinle (pronounced “Chin-Lee”) was the most completely Navajo town we’d seen for its moderate size. There was a large grocery store, a Wells Fargo Bank (where I got an ATM), a Burger King, and some motels. There was a large public high school and their nickname was the “Wildcats.” We also saw some horses roaming the streets, solo. Our motel had two Internet PCs in the lobby, so I checked my email.

Day 11: 307 miles total. Canyon de Chelly, the Petrified Forest, Flagstaff, and onto Camp Verde, AZ

We watched a little Wimbledon on ESPN; the Spaniard, Rafael Nadal, was given a good run for his money against an American, Robert Kendrick. We went to Canyon de Chelly, which I’d read was one of the most scenic but least known about of the Indian cliff dwelling variety. There was no entrance fee, but you had to pay to be on a Navajo guided tour for all the trails, except one, the White House Ruins, which was free to all who could hike the 2.5 mile roundtrip trail. It was the most dramatic of the cliff dwellings, and we decided to go for it. The descent was only 500-600 feet, but it looked like 1,000! The warm air was sultry, but the scenic, rocky trail was compelling as we switched back and forth going down. I knew coming back up would be a killer. Several sheep were awaiting us at the bottom, along with the ever-present Navajo souvenir traders.

The ruins were on two levels: one at ground level, and one above in a cliff pocket that was strikingly similar to Mesa Verde, only smaller, redder, and more dramatic. The reason these are called the White House Ruins is because of the faded white-wash barely visible on the upper level. Ancient symbols are painted and etched into the cliff by the former inhabitants, as well as large script markings (graffiti) from at least two Caucasian visitors in 1873 and 1884 that you can see with binoculars. We met an African-American father with two sons, from Phoenix, and chatted a while. They were going onto Durango, CO, and we were heading toward Phoenix. Then a group of Australians, led by an American woman guide, came along, and we chatted. When we decided to head back I knew we hadn’t packed enough water, so I bought a bottle of Gatorade from a Navajo woman for $2.50. Boy, did we need it!

We climbed out of the canyon and drove back to Chinle, where we filled up with gas. A young Navajo boy approached Reanna and Linda in the SUV, while I wasn’t looking, and talked them into buying a handmade necklace for $4.00. I drove on south on Hwy 191 to I-40, turned west, and kept going till we came to the Petrified Forest National Park. We got off there, because Linda had never heard of the Petrified Forest; watched the movie presentation in the visitor’s center, and then paid the $20.00 fee to drive through the park. The movie implored visitors not to steal the wood, because about a ton of it is stolen every month, and there is a limited supply. It wasn’t essential to me that we tour this park, but it was interesting after all. Indian ruins, petroglyphs, the Painted Desert and fossilized trees, all in one place. It was cloudy and windy during this jaunt but it didn’t disturb us too much. The one truly long log, called “Old Faithful,” was worth the time and effort to see.

Leaving the park, there was one last ranger station to stop at, where a nice female ranger asked us if we enjoyed our visit, and had we heeded the warning not to steal petrified wood. We told her the truth and she smiled and allowed us to exit the park. Immediately outside the park there were two big gift shops that were stocked full of petrified wood in a multiplicity of souvenir shapes and sizes. There was even petrified wood from Madagascar! From here, we took the highway to Holbrook, passing by an authentic looking old Teepee Motel, and got back on I-40. We encountered some rain on the way to Flagstaff.

We were hungry, so we stopped in Flagstaff, which actually felt a lot cooler, because of the elevation, for a late dinner. While eating at McDonald's, Linda and I contemplated going south to Saguaro National Park. The only thing we hadn’t seen on this trip was tall cactus, and we really wanted to see some. We heard that you begin to see them north of Phoenix, but to really see them you must go down to Tucson. So, I was prepared to do that the next day and Linda agreed. But first, we had to determine how far we could go tonight.

We turned south on I-17, and drove in twilight through thick pine forest for half an hour. When it was dark we could tell the pine was thinning out, and we were descending back into dry country. We stopped in Camp Verde and spent the night at a nice Comfort Inn. I checked my voice mail and there was a message from Gene Fletcher that said if we had been in Colorado a week later he could have come to see us, but wished us good luck. Linda discovered a laundry room in the motel, and set forth washing clothes pronto.

Day 12: 541 miles total. Camp Verde to Saguaro National Park to Lake Havasu City, AZ

Linda had some more clothes to wash this morning so we stayed a little longer, watched some of a World Cup match between Germany and Argentina, and I called my staff members, Patra, and Margie, at Motlow on the toll-free number. It was good to relay our progress to them, and how we were doing. This was our last full day of exploration on this trip, and we left at 10:00 a.m., hoping to make the best of it. A little south of Camp Verde we started seeing some tall cactus. It was exhilarating to finally see some! I saw smoke from a brush fire burning on a mountain, to the west, and I became concerned about the prospect of fires further south. I didn’t want to drive all the way to Saguaro and find out that it was closed due to fire. We stopped at a rest area to see what we could find out. There were lots of people there, and the typical road maps on display, and notices, but there were no warnings about fire down south.

We drove completely through Phoenix unhindered hoping to make good time, and taking the measure of it, it is a large city. I had no idea it was the sixth largest city in the country (almost 4 million), but I had no desire to stop anywhere. I even have an uncle who lives there, somewhere, and a cousin, whom I’ve never met, but focusing on speed, with the deftness of a cartoon Roadrunner, we had to keep moving. We switched to I-10 and went as fast as we could to Saguaro National Park, but when we got there we needed to eat, for it was past lunchtime. Opting for something fast, we ate at an A&W fast food grill attached to a gas station.

I felt like we had gone extremely far to see a bunch of cactus, but when we entered the park and popped into the welcome center, all my apprehension disappeared. We watched the slideshow in the auditorium, and at the end, the screen rolled up, and behind it, curtains parted mechanically, revealing a large window. Sunlight flooded in and the most exquisite panorama of cactus lay before us. It was a nice touch! The slideshow described the spiritual/ritual relationship between the Indians and the Saguaro, so we were aptly primed to go out and cozy-up to the tall, friendly monarch of the Sonoran Desert. We drove to the nearest loop trail, and got out and walked. It was hot as blazes out there, the ground crackled under our feet, and the cactus were as prickly as, well—CACTUS!

There was nothing pleasant about it, but the desire to see more cactus in its various forms was COMPELLING, and we knew we hadn’t been anywhere like this before in our lives. Getting up close, and touching the cactus was compulsory to me. The skin of the Saguaro was surprisingly slick; similar to the way, I imagine, dolphin or whale skin feels. Next, we drove through miles of trail, and I tried to photo and video as much as I could, while driving. Just one other vehicle was out on this road, and we kept jockeying back and forth. We’d pass him for a while, then he’d pass us…Finally, we parked together at the Signal Hill Petroglyphs Trail. I caught the young man’s attention and we talked a while. It turns out he was from Alberta, Canada (originally from lower Ontario), a college dropout, of sorts, who was touring the USA in his car by himself. He’d been down the West Coast already, and was going to New Orleans, Florida, and up the East Coast, and back to Canada. He said he liked the Southeast States the best. Apparently, he’d done some touring before. I admired his audacity, and I wondered why it never occurred to me to do this sort of thing when I was in my early 20s. Of course, the fact that I was doing virtually the same thing in Europe at that age is a whole different story!

Anyway, we walked to the petroglyphs up a rocky trail, called Signal Hill, and they were indelibly scrawled on the rocks; pictures of cattle, birds, people, spiral shapes, masks, etc. Another bonus for our over accentuated expectations. We rested in a pavilion built by the CCC on the way back to the SUV, and then, reluctantly, drove out of the park. It was a fine day already, but now we had to drive as far as we could, to limit our need to drive tomorrow—our departure day. I hoped we would make it as far as Lake Havasu City, in NW Arizona, so we had to make good time to get there by a reasonable hour. We totally bypassed Phoenix by taking I-8 and then linking to I-10 west. We stopped at Gila Bend for gas, and then in Quartzsite, AZ for a snack, before turning north on Highway 95 to Lake Havasu City.

Going north on 95 it grew dark and we totally missed the scenery, which must have been noteworthy, for all the “scenic view” signs we passed near Parker Dam. The town of Parker was populated by lots of Navajos, and was part of a Navajo reserve area. When we reached Lake Havasu City, it was almost 10:00 p.m. The town looked very glitzy at night. We took the second motel we inquired at, a Hampton Inn, and it was the most expensive motel on our trip, but we were ready to crash for the night. Friday night in a town like this would certainly be booked up, and as it happens, we weren’t far from London Bridge.

Day 13: 158 miles total. Lake Havasu City to Las Vegas airport, and flight home

The next morning—our last day—we ate breakfast in the nice large dinning room. England and Portugal were playing in the World Cup quarterfinals on TV. England went on to lose in OT, so our being close to London Bridge didn’t bring any luck to the Limeys. When we checked out, we drove over London Bridge (a slightly shorter version of it), and I felt dutifully accomplished for having seen it and gotten a few photos of it. It was located over the River Thames, in London; from 1831-1968, and today it is Arizona’s second-biggest tourist attraction after the Grand Canyon. Somehow, it just doesn’t look at home in its present setting, to me, decked with American flags, next to palm trees, but I’m not knocking it. When I saw the official London Bridge Plaque I felt like I was standing on a piece of my beloved city! It had been crossed by monarchs, millions of commuters, travelers, horses, motor carriages, had survived World War II—and still had many more years of service to endure in the desert-lake-resort of Havasu City!

We left town by 11:00 a.m. and drove to Las Vegas, 158 miles. We crossed the Colorado River one last time and briefly entered California, again, before returning to Nevada. We filled the SUV up with gas, and then went to the Alamo rental return place. There were a LOT of rentals being returned, and the Mexican accented man who checked us in (with an electronic scanning device) said, “Boy, you sure put a lot of miles on that thing!!” We were blessed to have a good vehicle on the trip. This TrailBlazer—though a little cramped in the front seats—performed admirably. Not a single problem! We took a shuttle to the terminal, and on the way to the Southwest Airlines check-in desk, my hands were so full of bags that I felt the strap of my laptop bag slip off my shoulder. It fell to my forearm, and then I felt one of the laptop’s corners hit the floor with a slight jolt. A terrible feeling came over me. Could it be damaged? But I had no time to waste because we had to hurry and check in.

To make a long story short, we made our 4:30 p.m. flight back to Nashville ok, and we even got to sit together in joining seats, which was good. Dad picked us up and I drove us home, reaching at the slightly inconvenient hour of Midnight, and we were exhausted. All things considered it was a terrific trip. It was controlled wanderlust, with a passion for seeing, absorbing, learning, and adjusting to many different scenic environments. More than just natural scenery, it was surprisingly variegated with culture and history. My laptop was crippled for a few days, but that was because the CD-ROM/DVD drive had gotten dislodged when I dropped the computer. I later reinserted it and the computer has been operating like normal ever since!

Getting back to the hectic, heckling, hubbub of normal work-life and home-life (work-life, especially, being the all-consuming time-vacuum that it is) it is EASY to let our vacation experiences evaporate into a thin residue that is wiped away by the cleansing spray of the American work-ethic. Well, not so fast, I say! I want this travel experience to last, and to count for something, even if the pressures of the real world try to push me back into submission. The Southwest was like a familiar brand to me, but it was not so much what I expected, or not expected; it was something to behold!

Post trip: we saw the Pixar movie, Cars. It was well made, and evoked the memory of the desert southwest scenery in our minds. It was quite fortuitous that we saw the movie shortly after our trip.

You can see lots of photos from our trip at my page.