Monday, March 23, 2009

March 21: Salina to Denver, CO via Canyonlands and Arches National Parks

We departed from a little earlier this morning, at around 7 AM, taking I-70 for around 120 miles to Crescent Junction, UT and then heading south towards Moab.  We were unable to book a hotel closer to Moab (which would've been preferred) as there happened to be a 1/2 marathon taking place that weekend; in turn, all rooms were booked within a 70 mile radius.  

I have visited this area a number of times over the years; this was to be my 6th visit to the region.  From the first time, this has been one of my favorite areas of the country, primarily because of its geologically unique features: the largest concentration of natural sandstone arches in the world, canyons, and the convergence of the Colorado and Green rivers.  

Our first stop was Dead Horse Point State Park, so named due to the use of a narrow neck of land as a natural corral by horse thieves in the 19th century.  An unintended consequence, thanks to hot and dry desert conditions and the relative lack of food, was that the horses often died.  The park is currently undergoing significant parking lot construction for the viewpoint at the end of the park's only road and the access fees have been dutifully marked up (presently $10/car).  Regardless, the view at the end is grand - so grand in fact, it was used for the Grand Canyon scenes in the 1991 film Thelma & Louise.  The serpentine Colorado River switches back on itself creating the centerpiece "gooseneck" (the typical term for the relatively narrow plateau of land created by a river's switchback) which rises at least 500 feet from the river bed, which is 2000 feet below the viewpoint.  

From here, we moved south into Canyonlands National Park, which is split into 3 districts: Island in the Sky, the Needles, and the Maze.  Island in the Sky, where the main park entrance is located was our district of choice as the Needles district is only accessible via a 100+ drive from the main park entrance and the Maze is even more challenging, restricted to only 4WD vehicles, bikers, and backcountry hikers geared up for the prospects of no food, little water, and a great chance that rescue is nowhere to be found if conditions should deteriorate.  The main viewpoints in the Island in the Sky are generally canyon overlooks, be it from the Colorado (east side of the park) or Green River (west side of the park) canyons.  The views are spectacular and the park is rarely crowded.  This day, the sky was filled with frequent bursts of white clouds and a temperature in the mid to high 60s - rare for this time of year - which made viewing and picture taking all the more worthwhile.  

Next, we visited Arches National Park, home to over 2,000 natural sandstone arches.  The day was equally perfect for this visit as we stopped at the Windows, Balanced Rock, and Park Avenue.  

It was around 3:30 PM when we hit I-70 again to continue west to Denver.  As we were approaching, I realized that since I booked the hotel while on the trip, I did not have a map print out of its location.  I decided to call the hotel to inquire about which route to take once in Denver.  Unfortunately, the inept front desk associate (mind you, this was a 3-star Hampton Inn for which some level of service is expected) interpreted my statements (variously "eastbound", "driving from Grand Junction to Denver" & "heading east") to mean that I was heading west.  What additional information I could have provided, I do not know.  The worst part is that the same associate committed this error in sensible logic 2 different times, as I made an additional phone call when we started heading back into the mountains based on her advice.   Thank goodness I-70 and Highway 6 only run in 2 directions.

We still arrived on time by reversing her logic and directions to make them applicable to our course.  Upon checking in, I decided to spare her the multiple choice "If I am heading eastbound, what direction am I heading?" sarcasm and slowly began to relax and prepare for tomorrow's final, though 9.5 hour, drive home.  

Sunday, March 22, 2009

CA-AZ-UT Trip - A 66 Picture Overview

Below is an embedded video slideshow of selected pictures from the trip.  The images are presented in order as they were taken; feel free to guess at the locations as they are not labeled.  Note that these have been compressed to aid in loading time and do not reflect the full quality of the source images.  

March 20: Springdale to Salina, UT via Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks

We left a little later this morning as I decided to give some attention to my studies.  We had breakfast at the Pioneer Restaurant at around 10:30 and then proceeded to the west entrance of Zion National Park, a mere 2 miles away at the edge of Springdale's city limits.  For most of the year, Zion operates a free shuttle bus service which is required for trips into the 6-mile-long, one way drive into Zion Canyon (excepting those staying at Zion Lodge, who may drive personal vehicles to the lodge but no farther).  This service does not resume, however, until April 4th.  As this was a pristine Friday with temperatures in the 70s, the drive into the canyon from Zion Lodge to the terminus at the Temple of Sinawava altered the name of the park to Zion National Parking Lot.  This was, of course, the way the park functioned year-round prior to 1997; but I had not visited the park prior to 2003, and had ridden the shuttles for each of my 3 prior visits.  Believe me, once you have experienced the canyon with shuttles channeling visitors in and out of the park there is no other way.  Due to this, our stay was brief, with a few pictures snapped and few parking spaces to be found.  

We headed out of the park following the Zion/Mt. Carmel highway to its junction with US 89 outside the eastern reaches of the park.  Turning north, our next destination was Bryce Canyon National Park, a scenic 60-mile drive away.  The weather at Bryce was unseasonal as well (typically 42, today 64-66), which certainly made the visit very pleasant.  The centerpiece at Bryce, which is not really a "canyon", is the elegant rock spire known as the hoodoo, which is created over time by erosive forces.  These hoodoos are present throughout the park and occur side-by-side to create a vast amphitheater of formations which present themselves in colored layers of red, orange, and white.  Additionally, due to the time of year and 8,000 foot elevation, a layer of snow was present around the base of the formations in many areas.  We stopped to take in the scenery at the four essential viewpoints (though there are at least 10 more to see if one has time): Bryce, Inspiration, Sunrise, and Sunset. 

After this, we continued north on Highway 89 towards I-70 and our hotel in the small town of Salina, UT.  From here, I continued work on my studies as we passed a most uneventful, though very relaxing evening generally sitting around.  

Saturday, March 21, 2009

March 19: Solvang to Springdale, UT - Goodbye Ocean, LA Commute, and the Slot Canyons of Eastern Zion National Park

We left the hotel in Solvang at around 7:30 AM and headed towards the distant, smog-filled expanse that is Los Angeles. Ventura Highway in the sun it was not to be as fog meandered across the landscape from the Pacific. We said goodbye to the ocean in this way, as it disappeared mysteriously beyond the low-lying clouds as the congestion of LA morning traffic became a reality. Amazingly, we were only halted for a few minutes (less than 5, not a complete standstill) during the crossing of the Ventura Highway and the 405. The rest of the time was spent at varied speeds, with the speed limit of 65 of little concern to many drivers. My speed varied from 75 to 90, as I was quickly feeling at home in the swift lane-switching tactics that saved us at least 45 minutes and significant frustration with some fellow drivers.

Our goal today was simple, to escape LA, to briskly pass Las Vegas, and to come to a halt in one of the better National Park entrance towns: Springdale, Utah. After significant delay for construction in Las Vegas (this was actually slower than any of the times in LA traffic), we arrived in Springdale, and in turn, Zion National Park at around 5:00 PM. After dropping off our belongings at the well-appointed and beautifully landscaped Desert Pearl Inn, we headed to the eastern parts of Zion, following the twisting Zion/Mt. Carmel Highway and it intermittent 1.1 mile tunnel. The eastern reaches of Zion are often passed up for the splendor offered in the valley below; however, this has quickly become one of my favorite parts of the park. Pulling off nearly anywhere above the tunnel, one can descend into the washes of the higher elevations and meander through various slot-like canyons. It is amazing to me that this part of the park is so often overlooked. After hiking in nearly complete solitude through a few different slot sections, aside from meeting a couple of climbers, we headed back to Springdale for a New York Strip dinner at the moderately pricey though tastefully presented Spotted Dog. Laundry was the final order of the day, followed by a restful sleep - aside from an incredibly strange dream involving the defense of my life against rattlesnakes - in the 530 square foot hotel room with the carving forces of the Virgin River at work a mere 100 feet off the back patio.

March 18: Montana de Oro State Park, Hearst Castle, and the Pacific Coast Highway

The day began with a trip north on the 101 to Montana de Oro State Park, located near the town of Los Osos, CA. This was my first visit and for my money, I have to say this is one of the most impressive beachfronts in California. The beach is composed, in various stages, of sandy portions, followed by small pebble sections, and lastly, larger rock sections. Many of the larger rock formations, which appeared to be composed of some type of sandstone, extended out into the pounding surf like fingers extended from the beachfront. Some of these rock outcroppings contained small coves which could be easily explored, including a small natural archway eroded over the ages. This was the first and only beach where significant amounts and varieties of small shells were found as we searched the beach. Traffic in the park was very light and it was very secluded. Again, I would say a stop at this park is a must for those traveling north towards Monterey/San Francisco from Los Angeles on the 101.

After this stop, we moved through lushly green hills towards San Simeon and our primary destination of the day, the Hearst Castle. Perched five miles inland, high atop a coastal mountain with a commanding view over the area, the castle impresses well before one can make out the particulars of its structure. The 1 hour and 45 minute "Experience Tour" - recommended for first time visitors like us - was $20/per person and was worth every penny. The relics contained therein, be it inside or outside of the building space bring a true and relevant meaning to the use of the word "castle" in its name. From a 2000 year old stone tableau representing the backdrop of the famous Neptune Pool, to various 13th-17th century tapestries, to entire ceilings transplanted and rebuilt from centuries past, to frankly, every other single item contained on the premises the complex represents a truly wondrous intersection of the ages. If one is driving up the Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) from Morro Bay to Monterey, this is not to be missed. Take multiple tours if you can; it would certainly be worth it (there are 4 to choose from, highlighting different indoor and outdoor spaces in the complex). Reservations are recommended during the summer months, though this is also the hottest time of year (with temperatures on the mountain often in the 90s); visiting in the spring is a much better option, as the surrounding landscape will be in prime form as well.

From here, we continued north up the storied Pacific Coast Highway towards Big Sur. This drive is not to be taken by those with a fear of heights, nor those with a desire to reach the Monterey Peninsula or San Francisco quickly - the speed in most areas will be confined to 35-40 mph as you navigate hairpin turns on the precipice of the road, at times more than 1000 feet above the Pacific. The views are magnificent, however, and it is worth the occasional stress of the road. Our destination was Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, where the 80-foot McWay Falls drops onto the sand merely feet in front the ocean. If this sounds appealing, it should, as it is quite a sight. The water in this area, apparently more shallow than other Pacific locales, is nearly turquoise in color.

From here, we began to work our way back south.  I decided to stop at a pull off called Jade Cove, which I had been meaning to do for some years.  My Grandpa Davis' 1st cousin Clare, who lives in Campbell, CA, mentioned that he took his boys there in the 1960's and that you could climb down to the beach from the road to look for jade, an ornamental stone.  He also mentioned something about a rope which was anchored to the cliff which was required to get back out of the cove.  We proceeded down the path, which became increasingly narrow and filled with loose rocks as it switched back down the cliff face.  Sure enough, there were two stakes pounded into the rock wall serving as anchors for a 20 foot strand of rope, which by the looks of things would be required if we were to reemerge.  At the bottom, waves crashed against large boulders strewn from the beachhead well into the water.  I collected a few rocks which were green but were probably not jade.  Either way, this was an incredible spot to witness the raw power of the ocean.  We left after about 30-40 minutes, at first clinging to the rope with camera around neck (me) and camcorder in hand (Dan).  We arrived at the top breathless and frazzled and plopped down in car seats which had heretofore looked uninviting.  

Following this, we drove the 2+ hours back to the hotel in Solvang for what was to be our last evening in California.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

March 17: San Diego, CA to Solvang, CA

We left our hotel at around 8 AM to head towards Solvang, CA.  We drove through Los Angeles on I-5 and then I-405 with significant traffic, but were able to maintain the speed limit (65) or above (70-80) for most of the drive.  We were only ground to a halt once, and this was fleeting at best.  The driving conditions certainly took a toll however; by the time we exited the 405, I felt exhausted, having spent the previous 2 hours 5-10 lanes of heavy traffic.  

Upon exiting the freeway, we noticed a sign to Venice Beach, which, according to Chad at work was somewhere we had to stop.  We did; but it wasn't very interesting.  We were one of maybe 15 people in a quarter-mile vicinity along the beach.  Fortunately, one of our beach companions was a woman of undetermined age doing aerobics with a hula-hoop, clapping and, it appeared, singing.  If this description sounds rather boring, believe me, it was not.  I have never seen someone so singularly affixed on what appeared to everyone else to be extremely exaggerated and nonsensical gyrations.  Worth the price of admission (parking $10)?  No.  But interesting none the less.  We departed a mere 15 minutes after arriving and drove down Santa Monica Boulevard towards the Getty Museum.  

The Getty Museum, situated atop the Santa Monica Mountains overlooking Los Angeles and the 405, contains pre-20th-century European paintings, drawings, illuminated manuscripts, sculpture, and decorative arts, and 19th- and 20th-century American and European photographs.  The complex, known as the Getty Center, is made up of 4 directionally-named sections of 2-3 stories.  Aside from the smog looking back towards downtown L.A., the day was magnificent, with temperatures in the low 70s.  To visit the museum, one parks at the bottom of the mountain on 1 of 7 parking garage levels.  From here, a tram is accessed from the top of the parking garage which takes passengers up to the Getty Center.  This museum is truly a testament to philanthropic vision and the interests of one man in bringing art to the public.  We spent around 2 hours at the center viewing a number of things, including Van Gogh's Irises.

Next, we proceeded to Solvang, which was around 3 hours drive to the north of L.A.  We drove Highway 1 along the Malibu coastline to Santa Barbara and took Highway 101 from there.  Solvang, founded in 1911 by Dutch educators, is home to a number of wineries.  Unfortunately, all of these close at 5 PM and we had arrived at around 5:50.  In lieu of this, we headed back to the ocean to view the sunset and peruse the beach.  We finally settled in to the hotel (Hadsten House) at around 9 PM after eating a tasty, but slowly and inattentively served filet mignon at the hotel's eponymous restaurant.  

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

March 16: San Diego and Mission San Juan Capistrano

Following an evening of pleasant rest, we departed the hotel at 8:30 AM and headed for Mission San Juan Capistrano, about 1 hour north of San Diego off of I-5.  This was to be my 3rd visit to the mission, dubbed the "Jewel of the Missions" because of its beauty.  As with Balboa Park in San Diego, I feel this location is a required visit for anyone traveling to the area.  A history of the mission can be found here.  We were arriving just 3 days before the famed "return of the swallows" upon which the Cliff Swallow ends its 6,000 mile migratory journey to San Juan Capistrano from Goya, Argentina.  Indeed, a few swallows were already present, evidently not content to sit outside the mission walls for another few days.  As usual, the building and scenery were quite enjoyable, though a preferred time to visit would be between April and September as more flowers are in bloom.  

Afterwards, we drove back towards San Diego, stopping briefly at Torrey Pines State Reserve which is home to the United States' rarest pine, the Torrey Pine (its existence limited to a range of around 4,000 trees in the preserve and another closely related variety of 100 trees to be found off the coast of Santa Barbara on Santa Rosa Island).  Our visit was brief, though the scenery was enjoyable.  The park features a number of trails which meander atop cliffs overlooking the ocean and northern San Diego.  

Our next stop was downtown San Diego, where we walked along the harbor to view various ships and people (homed and homeless).  

Finally, the day was concluded with what must've been a 6-8 mile walk from the beachfront of our hotel (Pacific Beach) to Mission Beach and back.  On the way back, we noticed a number of homes for sale along the beachfront with asking prices anywhere from $1-$2.5 million and declined to make immediate offers on any.  Interested in earning our millions before spending it, we returned to the hotel for some momentary relaxation and sleep before tomorrow's trek into the abyss of traffic and smog that is Los Angeles.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

March 15: Phoenix to San Diego, CA

We (Alan, Dan & I) awoke at 5 AM to get ready to leave for San Diego.  Alan was coming along to pick up a car from someone in San Diego to drive back to Phoenix.  The previous evening I remembered that when crossing into California, there are checks at the border to see if you are carrying in any plant life.  The chili peppers.  The 2 strands of chili peppers.  Devotees will recall that I had previously spent almost $40 on 2 strands of chili peppers while in Taos, New Mexico.  Now, I was assuming that if we crossed the border with them, particularly with a strand dangling in the rear passenger window, things would not go well.  I imagined the border check guards starved of their one favorite food, the chili pepper.  I then imagined them taking 2 $20 bills from my pocket and lighting them on fire in front of my face.  Something had to be done.  I spoke to Alan about this and he mentioned he could pack them up and UPS them to Iowa.  Plan A had been devised.  In the morning, the first steps were executed (i.e. leaving the chili peppers with Alan, whose apartment now sports a distinctly Taosian flare as they are hanging off his balcony).  

We departed at 6 AM.  The drive across Arizona (taking I-10 west to Highway 85 south to Gila Bend, then I-8 West to San Diego) is relatively boring.  One writer described the area (really the entire area known as "basin and range" which stretches through southern New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona) from the sky as the appearance of a number of spaced out catepillars attempting to flee Mexico.  In essence, this means long stretches of flat ground with a distant mountain in view.  Once you have reached the mountain, rinse and repeat.  

We entered California at around 8 AM; as we approached the fruit/plant check point, we were waved on by the guard on duty.  The chili peppers were to have breathed California air as it turned out; either way, they will now be shipped.  Following this, we had to go through 2 border checks - yes, border checks - as if we had left the country.  Fortunately, we were waved on through both of these, though search and seizure was clearly in order.  As a side note, I received a text message from Alan today (3/16) stating that he did get searched on the way back into Arizona (roughly 15 minutes, according to first hand reports).  Additionally, during the drive we were easily able to view "The Fence" - i.e. the border fence between the U.S. and Mexico.  Atop one mountain, we spotted a U.S. Border Patrol van overlooking the area surrounding the fence.  

After about 5-5.5 hours, we arrived in San Diego, dropped Alan off at "Mike's" - the possessor of the car - and drove to Balboa Park for, I hoped, lunch at The Prado restaurant and some museum viewing.  The place (Balboa Park) was packed.  We were able to find a parking spot fairly easily, but there were a number of people scoping out the park and the museums.  Situated just east of downtown, Balboa Park is a wonderful example of public park space.  The parklands were put in reserve in 1835 by newly elected San Diego city officials from the Mexican government took office.  This makes it one of the oldest land areas set aside specifically for public recreational use in the United States.  When we dropped Alan off to get the car, Mike stated that in 5 1/2 years, he had never visited Balboa Park; a sin in San Diego indeed.  Much of the park's appearance today is due to the 1915 Panama-California exposition, which celebrated the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914 and touted San Diego as passing ships' first port of call.  The park is home to a number of museums (including the San Diego Museum of Man, the San Diego Art Museum, the Timkin Art Museum, and the Museum of Photographic Arts), an outdoor performance pavilion, and a Shakespeare troupe which performs at 1 of 3 theaters (2 outdoors, 1 indoor replica of Shakespeare's original Globe theater) - which is well, well worth the price of admission - and, of course, the San Diego Zoo (which, in addition to being the most loved zoo in America, is featured on the cover of the Beach Boys' 1966 seminal album Pet Sounds - which I personally have never cared for (the photo), but the music is quite inspired) all in all, Balboa Park is a beautiful expanse; a visit is required if one is to visit San Diego.  We arrived at the entrance to The Prado around noon.  Based on the number of people waiting in the open-air courtyard, I assumed it would be difficult to get in; I was wrong.  We were seated immediately, which I felt was quite amazing, for this restaurant has been voted "best outdoor restaurant" in 5 different polls in the last 4 years.  Once seated, I ordered a glass of wine, the aptly named "Evolution #9" (after the Beatles' song "Revolution #9) and waited for a very tasty, though $16, burger put forth (I'm guessing unwillingly) from organic-fed cows on the Moon or some equally impressive feat.  Dan and I agreed our meals were quite tasty; we alighted full and pleased of our first experience in San Diego.  Following this, we toured a few museums, took in a few minutes of a pipe organ concert performed by an apparently studied organist named Carol.  

Following this excursion, we returned to Alan who was to follow us to La Jolla Cove and the rocky, sandstone outcrops that make up much of the beach footing in the area (this is specific to La Jolla, as there are certainly all-sand beaches in San Diego).  We parted ways at around 4 PM, as Dan & I proceeded to the luxurious Tower 23 hotel (website).  From here, we ate dinner at one of the number of local restaurants present along the strip near the hotel, this one interestingly posing itself as "Home of the Iowa Hawkeyes".  Following dinner, we arrived back at the hotel and went to sleep at around 9 PM which was to be my first full night of sleep of the trip.  

Monday, March 16, 2009

March 14: Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West

The main excursion of today, besides picking up 4 12-oz New York Strips for grilling that evening (by the way, great job Alan), was to visit Frank Lloyd Wright's winter home Taliesin West.  In addition to being the Wrights' home, the location also began to function as a school for a few (22-30 per class) of upcoming architects to apprentice under Mr. Wright.  Known for his strong will, extreme attention to detail, and a tenedency to be an outright egotist (case and point: when Wright was ordered to testify at a trial of another architect who was being sued, he was sworn in and asked to state his name and profession.  "Frank Lloyd Wright, World's Greatest Architect" was his reply.  His wife was furious about his remarks and confronted him later about it.  In response he said, "But dear, I was under oath.  I was obligated to tell the truth."), Wright designed and lived in the home each winter from 1937 until his death in 1959.  

At $32 a ticket for a 90-minute tour, the Frank Lloyd Wright foundation makes their goal relatively clear as well.  Visitors were not deterred however, as the parking lot was very full upon arrival and departure.  With tours departing every 30 minutes, presuming 20 people per tour, a cool $10K could be procured on a good day.  Regardless, the tour was wonderful, insightful, and relevant.  The $32 ticket did not seem overpriced once the tour was over.  Among the highlights:

  • A dinner theater room shaped as an irregular hexagon in which whispers from the front (even with the guide's face turned away from the audience) could easily be heard in the back.  A group of sound engineers retrospecively declared the room 95% acoustically sound. 
  • Mr. Wright's personal doctor still lives and works at the compound, in addition to a sculptor who has lived and worked there since 1949
  • Taliesin West is still used for 6-months worth of a participating architect student's education (the other 6 months are held at Taliesin East in Spring Green, WI), which is now offered in a Bachelor and Masters degree format.  
After visting Taliesin West, we headed back to Alan's for dinner and a movie.  The rest of the evening passed in a relatively relaxed fashion, with the knowledge that we'd all need to get up at 5 AM to leave for San Diego the next morning.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

March 13: Flagstaff, AZ to Phoenix, AZ via Grand Canyon and Sedona

We left Flagstaff at around 8:20 AM, following US 89 north towards Grand Canyon National Park.  

Here are some brief highlights from the day:

As one approaches the Grand Canyon, a number of scenic pulloffs begin to serve a dual role; Native Americans of the area (presumably Navajo or Hopi) set up stands to display and sell jewelry and other items.  After passing the first one of these a sign read: "Friendly Indians Behind You!"  

Inside the park, we spotted a coyote and were treated to the sight of a some elk crossing the road in front of  my car.

After viewing the Grand Canyon from over 15 different locations, we left the park to head towards the interstate (I-40) and Williams, AZ.  From here, we were on to Sedona, AZ, whose backstory can be found here:

In general, Sedona seemed to thrive on the confusion of its scenic parks and scenic parking locations.  As you drive into the town, following the increasingly narrow US 89A, one becomes aware of many scenic locations to pull off and take pictures.  Unfortunately, you need a pass ($5/day) of some sort to park at these locations - though, according to one of the park administrators, if you don't park your car, you don't need to pay.  Either way, this is all very confusing when combined with an additional $8 pass to visit some of the locations.  So, the impression that is given on the drive to Sedona, as in the town itself is one of a particularly monetary fascination.  You'd like to see scenery?  Pay us.  You'd like to see more in depth scenery?  Pay us more.  You'd like to peruse the works of local artisans and perhaps purchase something?  You'll be paying with a second mortgage.  In all, Sedona has the makings of a place that could be really great, but unfortunately it seems the town lacks a cohesive vision of what that greatness could be.  

Following this, we drove to Phoenix, descending from over 6000 ft above sea level to just over 1000 ft above sea level.  During this drive, the temperature changed from 40 degrees in Williams, AZ to 75 degrees in Phoenix.  The interstate for this section, I-17, is actually quite scenic as you move through the mountains and, around 80 miles from Phoenix, start to see the impressive Saguaro Cactus as it begins to fill the mountainscape.  

We arrived at my friend Alan's apartment at around 5:30, went to eat at an In-And-Out Burger (and, of course, for fans of The Big Lebowski, listened to Santana's Oye Como Va on the way back to the apartment).  Other than some mountain outcrops in the city, Phoenix is impressingly flat and, even in 75 degress, the sun equally impresses its will upon the traveler.  After arriving back at Alan's we actually decided to sit around and relax for a while - and it had been a while since we'd been able to do that.   

Friday, March 13, 2009

March 12: Denver, CO to Flagstaff, AZ via Taos, NM

We left Denver at 7:45 AM. I know what you're thinking if you know me; this seems like a very late start. But, the drive from Denver to Flagstaff is made up of a mere 10.5 hours and I felt we had a little time to spare.

A Tiring Experience, Part 1

After stopping in Pueblo, CO for a restroom break I noticed, while walking out of the gas station, a piece of plastic protruding from the hubcap of the front tire on the driver's side of my car. To my immediate interest, this piece of plastic - which appeared to correctly be part of the tire's anatomy, though incorrectly placed - had worn a 1'' long and 1/8'' deep gash in the side wall of the tire. Feeling fortunate to find this when we did, we proceeded to a conveniently located Big O Tire shop preparing to hear how immediately this tire would need to be replaced. I approached the front desk with caution, wallet tightly gripped in hand. A genial young man we'll call Jose suggested he take a look at the tire to assess the damage. We walked from the building to the parking lot and he bent down to take a look. "Oh, that's only cosmetic," Jose said instantly, "You don't need to do anything. You've got a good 1/2'' before there would be any problems." I thanked him profusely and we were on our way, with my wallet's weight no less than when I entered the tire shop. I include this passage as a reminder that we're not always going to get screwed, even when we think we know what's coming.

Taos and the Rio Grande Gorge

With some time to spare, Dudley and I decided to descend on Taos, NM, a town I had been interested to visit for some time. We entered the town by way of the battered Highway 64, though the battery did not really begin until the last few miles before Taos. The road remained in this condition throughout the town, which did little to improve upon my mind's eye perspective of an artisan community made up entirely of rustic adobe dwellings set against the impressive Sagre de Cristo (literally "The Blood of Christ") mountains. The center of town fit more to this picture - the adobe dwellings were surely there, if one forgives the fact that nearly all in the town center exist today to cater to a meandering crowd of tourists, skiers, and transients. With a little spit and polish Taos could really be made into a great experience. As is, which is what the sign should read for many parts of town, it provided a pleasant excursion for 1-2 hours. I was drawn to the chili peppers hanging from wooden rungs clung to the adobe; Dan and I entered a store which appeared to have some for sale and $29 later, I walked out with my own strand. Before leaving, however, we had to endure the psychobabble of the storekeeper, a Caucasian female transplant from northern Washington who had lived here for "a long time" and referred to white folks who do not live in Taos as, I kid you not, "gringos".

15 minutes later, we re-entered the car and drove the 8-9 miles to the Rio Grande Gorge bridge, which is evidently the 2nd highest suspension bridge in the United States - to this I cannot attest, as I left my measuring tape at home. This was quite an enchanting view, as long as one can stomach walking along a raised sidewalk with a mere, 3-foot rail on the Rio Grande sides of the bridge and absolutely nothing on the sides closest to oncoming traffic. Either way, it was worth it. The Rio Grande meanders some 600 feet below surrounded by a jagged cataract which breaks through the surrounding basin and range and continues on towards the Sangre de Cristos.

On the way back from the gorge, we stopped at another shop that sold a variety of items which appeared to be procured mostly from Old Mexico, perhaps using NAFTA agreements. Lining the outside of the store, in addition to weather-worn wooden chairs, a horse made of various scrap metal, and a sign promising 50% off for a "Summer Sale" (Spring begins 1 week from Saturday), were rows and rows of chili peppers. We entered the courtyard and began to peruse. A kindly Hispanic gentleman inquired about our purchasing interests, at which point I asked the prices of the small-sized chili strands. "$9.95," he responded. "How about the larger strands," I asked. "$9.95," he responded. I now immediately thought back to our friend at the shop downtown and perhaps may have cursed her existence under my breath, I simply can't recall. I decided to purchase another larger strand to hang in the window of the backseat of my car; the previously purchased strand, you see, had been boxed in a fashion which made its access difficult, though this service was apparently worth an additional $20. I paid for my new strand, had an extremely pleasant and unimposing conversation with the Hispanic gentleman and left. We hung the $9.95 strand in the window, spat on the impenetrable box containing the other, and left.

A Tiring Experience, Part 2

After leaving Taos, we approached Santa Fe and rejoined I-25 to head towards Albuquerque. This was easier said than done, however, as the entire drive between the two cities involved a chain of cars in the left lane of the interstate whose speed unaccountably varied within a 25 mph range (60-85). It seems a magnetic force attracted these incapable drivers to one another and a symbiotic relationship developed between us whose apparent purpose was the provocation of, as time progressed, frustration, anger, and ultimately a blind hatred. Why not simply move into the right lane, you ask? wasn't that simple, my friend. The right lane contained a smattering of occasional vehicles which the left lane was simply not content to follow, but was also seemingly incapable of passing. It is fortunate Dan was not video recording during this time as the edited version would surely be made up of one extended, 30 minute "expletive deleted" sound. This may sound crazy, but I have never become this frustrated even in California traffic. Alas, these days may well be ahead.

We arrived at the La Quinta hotel in Flagstaff at 8:45 PM PST, tired and road weary, frazzled and beat. You may be surprised to know that both Dan and I were looking forward to monkeying around with internet connections (wireless and wired, variously) for the next 30 minutes in what will surely cause me to give this hotel a bad review. Finally, as I write now, some peace is gained with the knowledge that tomorrow brings an exciting day: the Grand Canyon, Sedona, and Alan in Phoenix. Better days ahead, indeed.

March 11: Des Moines, IA to Denver, CO

I have to sincerely disagree with the group of people I refer to as the "Nebraska Detractors". This, unfortunately, seems to put me at a disadvantage for I seem to be the only person I have asked who does not mind driving across the state of Nebraska. The Nebraska Detractors complain it is a boring route; there is nothing to see, nothing to do, and will surely induce the driver and all passengers into a kind of temporary coma - which will seem permanent, mind you, because the Nebraska Detractors believe this state is made up of endless meandering miles for which there is no end.

It is in this state (Nebraska, not the coma) Dan Dudley and I find ourselves for most of our drive this evening. I am not one to complain, however; I realize the southern route through Kansas is inferior for a number of reasons - a speed limit of 70? Are you kidding? I firmly believe the Nebraska Detractors must've misread the state sign as they crossed the border; surely they were traveling though Kansas. But, alas, we're not in Kansas anymore.

I find Nebraska to be a very paced voyage. The speed limit is 75; there are reasonable milestones with which to pace the voyage; and the speed limit is 75; but I repeat myself.

We spent the time from 2:10 PM CST to 10:45 PM MST driving with minimal stops from Des Moines to Denver. I consider this a small price to pay to awake at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, the West, and the general feeling of open expanse one can simply not feel east of the Missouri River.

Setting the Stage

What better way to travel than by car? Really. To experience this country from the open road (though at times closed roads and partially constructed roads) allows one to truly take in the expanse; to survey its contents from a first-hand perspective. Flying gives no meaning to ones voyage; lifting off from Des Moines, IA and touching down in San Diego, CA distorts this perspective. There is no ocean within 4 hours of Des Moines, period. And so it is that on this March 11, 2009, one Dan Dudley (an Agile software developer with whom I share my employ) and I alight on a voyage which, at its presumed completion, we will have traveled over 5,500 miles and driven through 9 states; crossed into 2 different time zones and over 1 continental divide; and, if we're lucky, still be able to stand each other enough to enter a confined, mobile space each morning in order to reach the destinations of the day.

This trip is undertaken for a variety of reasons - none of which are requisite to our continued existence, but all of which remind us of a world beyond our typical daily routines. To visit a friend, Alan, who recently moved from Des Moines to Phoenix, AZ. To perhaps detour to the Adobe headquarters (makers of defunct and non-intuitive PDF products - outside of Reader, which performs the function of "display" quite dutifully) in order to plant a sign with an extended middle finger reading "Optimize This!". To see an ocean; specifically, the Pacific. And of course, to visit a number of locales of a scenic nature.

We leave at 2:10 PM CST and plan to be in Denver by 10:30 PM MST.