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Southwest Tour

Volume 30: Wed April 9, 2003

The famed Zion Canyon

Taking advantage of a long period of time that Amanda had off from work, we decided to see a little of the American Southwest on another road trip. In particular, southern Utah. We left San Luis on a warm January morning making a couple of stops along the way. I had recently discovered the wonderful world of cross-stitching, so Amanda drove (we took my car) while I proceeded to try my hand at a cross-stitching project I bought at Michael's for 70% off. (It was a Christmas item!)

The drive was fairly uneventful until we reached the small town of Mojave. Iíve mentioned it before in my Las Vegas adventures because of the hundreds and hundreds of airplanes parked out there with the downturn in the aviation industry. Amanda, being a flight attendant, insisted on getting a close-up view and found a dirt road that led right up to the airport where only a flimsy barbed-wire capped fence separated us from the hundreds of planes parked in the middle of nowhere. Amanda seemed oddly excited that most of the ones we could see were from her own airline joking about this place as having the highest concentration of US Airway planes in the world while gleefully taking pictures.

Our next stop was at Zzyzx, another location I mentioned in my Las Vegas adventures. Amanda was out to get the letterbox I placed there. I know she enjoyed herself a lot because she complained during the whole hike out to the letterbox. =) And the area here was FLAT! I, on the other hand, had the good fortune of finding some sunglasses that Iíve been using ever since. (I lost my old ones a couple of months back, but never bought new ones hoping the old ones would magically 'show up' some day. They never did.)

Zion Canyon has many sheer cliffs you really don't want to fall off of!

Then we returned to the car and continued our drive. Through Baker with the worldís tallest thermometer. Through Las Vegas with the towering monuments of excess. And on we continued to drive, until we stopped at Valley of Fire SP in Nevada where we decided to camp for the night. I had camped there once before many, many moons ago and remembered it to have an excellent campsite with showers for the bargain price of $13. Which, I might add, included the entrance fee to the park as well, so the campsite itself amounted to about $7.

The next morning we woke up to the brilliant red rocks the area is known for and packed up camp. Before leaving, we did some short hikes around the park and continued our journey to Zion National Park where we planned to spend a couple of days looking around.

One of Amandaís guidebook explained the history of how Zion Canyon got its name. Word about the beautiful area had already been spreading, called a "Zion" by many. Until some guy arrived and said something like, "Well, it sure is pretty, but itís not Zion." And for years after that, the place was called "Not Zion" before it was shortened to "Zion." It sounds rather like a tall tale to me, but if it was in a guidebook, it must be true, right? =)

As it turned out, the weather was absolutely perfect. A heat wave was roasting the area breaking records all over Utah as the days got into the 60s while the nights dropped into the 40s. The guidebook showed that at that time of year, sometimes itís even gotten below 0 degrees. Fahrenheit. Thatís pretty darned cold, and Amanda and I were quite grateful for the beautiful, warm weather. Chalk one up for global warming!

Amanda's favorite position on a hike—especially an uphill hike—is sitting!

That night, we built up a large, raging inferno called a campfire. And we made dinner. It worked like this. A few months back we stumbled upon a recipe for making hotdogs in the great outdoors. Which didn't really impress either of us except for one thing:The method of cooking it. It said you could cook a hotdog by rolling it up in aluminum foil, place it into a liter milk carton (empty), and throw it in the campfire. When the carton was burned away, the hotdog was ready. While hotdogs may not be too exciting, the thrill of throwing them into a blazing fire was too much to pass up! We had six cartons we had saved from previous outings, and a six-pack of hotdogs. And an eight-pack of buns. Why the heck canít they make the number of hotdogs in a batch equal the number of buns in the bag?! Weíre in the 20th century now!!

Amanda and I read this recipe slightly differently. She was under the impression that you put everything in the hotdog, well, in the hot dog and burn it allóincluding the buns. I thought we were just supposed to burn the hotdogs then put them in buns afterwards. Well, Amanda got her way because she 'prepped' all the hotdogs while I was called away by an act of nature. =)

So hot dog numero uno goes into the fire. The carton catches fire. It flares up and burns quite nicely, and shortly it was out. And Amanda keeps watching it doing nothing. "Take it out, Amanda!!!" But sheís didnít think it was in there long enough to actually cook the hotdog. By the time the hotdog came out, it had a nice taste of charcoal. Our first attempt at this new method of cooking hotdogs was basically a failure. Amanda tore off the burnt parts and ate the rest, though.

Amanda scrambles down a trail with steep, thousand-foot cliffs on each side

Our second attempt went a little better when we pulled out the hotdog immediately after the carton finished burning, although even then the bun was still a bit burnt. I let Amanda have that one too. =) For my hotdog, I wanted to cook just the dog and leave the bun out of the burning business, so we 'unprepped' one of the hotdogs and threw it into the fire. Pulled it back out and it was a little burnt on one side, but not too badly. With the bun back on, you could hardly tell.

Anyhow.... Our conclusions amount to this: Throwing hotdogs in the fire really is a hoot, but youíve got to be quick because theyíre easy to burn when you do that!!!!! =)

I already told you a little about that first night while camped at Zion. Amanda and I were reading A Walk In the Woods by Bill Bryson, cracking up at the hilarious antics of Bryson and his hiking buddy, Katz, attempting to hike the 2,100+ mile Appalachian Trail. If youíve never read this book, run out and buy it NOW! I was reading it aloud for Amanda to enjoy, but there were parts Iíd be laughing so hard she wouldnít be able to understand what I was saying. "Huh? Whatíd you say?" And Iíd repeat the sentence, tears streaming from my eyes, unable to breathe, and attempt to say it again. And again. The book became the basis of multiple ongoing jokes throughout the rest of the trip.

To understand the ongoing jokes, you have to know a little about the book. Stephen Katz volunteers to hike the AT with Bryson. But as the back of the book says that heís "gloriously out-of-shape" and with an "overwhelming desire to find cozy restaurants." Bryson always hikes ahead, and ends up waiting for Katz to catch up at the end of the day. From then on, whenever weíd be hiking up a steep trail and Iíd be walking circles around Amanda, sheíd catch up. And sheíd say, "Iím your Katz, Ryan!" And Iíd laugh and say, "Yes, you sure are." =)

But the thing that really came out of that reading of A Walk In the Woods was that it planted the idea to hike the Appalachian Trail myself. I could do that! But I told you about that in my last adventure. Now itís official: Iíll be riding Amtrak to Atlanta, and hopefully, if all goes well, Iíll be up there on Springer Mountain—the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail—on April 16th.

But back to the story at hand....

Angels Landing got it's name because it was thought only angels could reach this point—we went anyway

Looking through the park guide for Zion, Amanda and I chose a hike that looked like it had promise for adventure: Angels Landing. It supposedly got that name because the first explorers that saw that imposing geography and figured that only angels could land there. The guidebooks and pamphlet warned that it wasnít recommended during the winter months because of ice and snowy conditions near the top where one could find the trail passing through areas with thousand foot cliffs on both sides. When a guidebook says you shouldnít do something, havenít you always wanted to do it because you arenít supposed to?! Yeah, us too. Anyhow, with the record-breaking heat wave across the region, there wasnít much danger of snow or ice.

The trail to Angels Rest was right up a very steep cliff!

The trail was an amazing piece of work, blasted into solid cliffs towering hundreds of feet in the air and through the famed Walterís Wiggles, a series of steep switchbacks shortly before the top. Amanda loved every minute of it, complaining the entire way. =) Thereís a 'base stop' just before the final hike up to Angels Landing with a sign warning not to pass beyond that point if a thunderstorm is approaching. I guess if ice and snow along the steep cliffs didnít get you, the lightning could. This was just getting better and better! Of course, it was a cloudless sky, and lightning was not an issue.

We stopped to rest briefly, when we met a guy coming down from the trail. Actually, he tore past us while going UP the trail a mile or so back—practically burning holes in the soles of his shoes. A macho guy, with that military kind of haircut. Not a guy Iíd want to meet in a dark alley. Anyhow, he comes down to the base where Amanda and I were resting, warning us of how scary the trail was up ahead. Itís sketchy. He couldnít make it to the top. It was just too iffy for him. Amanda and I looked at each other thinking the same thing—maybe we bit off more than we could chew? While the guy keeps talking saying that we could certainly try it, but he wasnít going to go back. No sir-e-bob.

Someone scratched this plea for help mere inches away from a 1,000+ foot cliff (that's the black hole you see on the right)

Amanda and I decide to leave our packs at the rest area and continue without that extra, awkward weight on our backs that might fling us to our deaths. And if we reached a place where we felt it wouldnít be safe to continue, weíd just turn around like that guy did. No big deal. *shrug*

Amanda surveys the view from the top of Angels Landing....

And it wasnít. Amanda and I made it to the top without any problems at all. In fact, we were kind of miffed at being scared into leaving our packs behind, because by the time we reached the top we were sweating bullets and didnít have any water on us to quench the thirst. Donít get me wrong—those warnings in the guidebook are there for a reason. If there was a lot of snow or ice, that last part of the hike could really have been a dicey proposition. We could look over cliffs that went straight down for thousands of feet. But there were cables dug into the areas where it was a bit sketchy so that you could hang onto them instead of falling to oneís death. It wasnít a big deal—or so Amanda and I thought. That guy we passed must have had a serious phobia of heights to turn around when he did.

After taking the necessary pictures, we tromped back down to the rest area where we filled up with water and ate lunch. Amanda hid a letterbox, then we hiked back down to the trailhead.

...and declares it good!

When we made it back to the car, Amanda wanted to drive a couple of miles to the small town of Springdale to eat at the Bumbleberry Inn. I told her about the inn before we even arrived. The last time I passed through the area, I had eaten at the Bumbleberry Inn where they served their world-famous bumbleberry pies, bumbleberry pancakes, and so on. The menu explained that the bumbleberry was a rare plant that grew on only a single nearby hilltop. But the exact location of the hill was a deeply held secret so the only place in the entire world to try a bumbleberry something was at this small inn in this small town in southern Utah. Naturally, when I was there with my friends many years ago, we knew there was no such thing as a bumbleberry and tried pumping the waitress about what it really was. She wouldnít budge from the official storyline, but that didnít stop us from trying to guess what it was—a mixture of several types of berries, most likely, but we never did get the hidden story.

Bryce Canyon was our next destination, and this time it had a layer of snow to keep things interesting

I told Amanda about this bumbleberry and she was itching to try it out herself, so we drove into town. Sadly, it was closed. January isnít exactly tourist season at Zion National Park. It had been closed the day before when we passed by it too. And since we were planning to leave Zion first thing the next morning, Amanda would never get a chance to try eating at the world famous Bumbleberry Inn. Itís a loss that haunts her still.

The next day we packed up camp and continued our journey out to Bryce Canyon National Park. We took a small detour to Kanab, Utah, where we learned about a movie museum with sets used from real, honest-to-goodness movies that were shipped to Kanab for no other reason than to suck in movie fanatics such as Amanda. =) It was closed when we first arrived, but the library was open and we killed some time there surfing the web with their free Internet access until the movie museum opened. I donít think Amanda was too impressed with the place, but it had a lot of sets from The Outlaw Josey Wales. Who ever heard of that movie anyhow? Okay, besides Amanda, that is? =) The authentic looking adobe buildings were actually made of fiberglass, and you could see Amanda and me walking around knocking on all the walls to hear the dull THUNK! that would have never come from an adobe wall.

Amanda rests along one of the hikes in Bryce Canyon

Then we continued toward Bryce Canyon. This park sits several thousand feet higher in elevation, and we expected colder weather and even snow on the ground. We werenít disappointed. But the record-breaking heat wave continued, and nighttime temperatures only got into the 30s. Daytime temperatures were in the 50s. Seeing as it had been a few days since our last shower and that the temperatures would be colder (not cold, just colder), we got ourselves a hotel room just outside the park. The snow on the ground might have been a contributing factor to the hotel room as well. =) Then we continued onward to the park to at least take the driving tour along the canyon rim while the sunlight lasted.

Another view of Bryce Canyon

Our first stop was at the visitor center. It had a gift shop, and Amanda never likes to pass up a gift shop. Just outside the front was a shoe cleaning thing where one could brush all the mud off their shoes from whatever hike they had been on. Later, we would learn first-hand about the mud-inflicted trails of the park.

We also discovered a couple of interesting things on the dry erasure board there. First, Amanda and I had noticed that a lot of flags were flying at half staff in the area but didnít know why, and we learned that was because a deputy had been killed in the line of duty. I donít know if it was a local deputy or maybe a Utah deputy, but at least this part of Utah was in mourning for his death. The board didnít actually say how he was killed, though, just that it was in the line of duty.

The second thing we learned was that the Columbia space shuttled was scheduled to fly over Bryce Canyon at 6:41 the next morning. Amanda was tickled pink about the thought of being able to watch the space shuttle fly overhead, although I had my reservations of waking up so early in the morning and jumping out of a nice, warm hotel room into the cold, snow-covered ground outside. But still, how often does one get a chance to watch a space shuttle fly overhead? We certainly werenít going to miss that!

Then we headed out to tour around Bryce Canyon and do a short hike, along which Amanda made a snow angel. The funniest part about that was that for the rest of the afternoon she complained that her pants were wet. Yeah, well, that happens when you roll around in the snow, Amanda. =)

Amanda makes a snow angel

You all know what ended up happening to the space shuttle the next morning. Amanda and I woke up at 6:30 the next morning, put on all our layers of clothing, and proceeded outside to watch for the shuttle. We didnít really know what to expect. It obviously was going to be pretty high up in the sky so it could have just been a small dot crossing the sky or something that looked like a huge, flaming, shooting star as it entered the earthís atmosphere. We didnít know what to look for, or even where in the sky to look for it. In addition, there was a light layer of clouds out so if it was just going to be a dim dot in the sky, we werenít going to be able to see it at all. We didnít know if the shuttleís landing might have been postponed due to bad weather at the landing site. We didnít know exactly how accurate that precise time of 6:41 was actually going to be.

I'm standing on this arch in Canyonlands NP. If you ever visit, don't do this. After this photo was taken, we were told that walking over arches is illegal.

By around 7:00, the sky was starting to get lighter from the rising sun, and we called our pre-dawn watch a failure and got back into the warmth of the hotel room and back to sleep.

When we woke the second time, we turned on television to find any news we could about the space shuttle—still not having any idea of its disintegration. We just wanted to find out if it had landed when it was supposed to and if it had actually passed over us while we were out there freezing our butts off. Iím sure everyone suffered some degree of shock at learning of the shuttleís disintegration, but I canít imagine it could have been any greater than Amanda and I felt. We were actually outside trying to watch its reentry without any clue of the disaster happening overhead.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid allegedly had a hideout in the area. We, I'm sad to report, did not find it.

Later we learned that the shuttle did pass overhead of us, and they even sent out parties to look for shuttle debris in Garfield County, which is where Bryce Canyon is located. All the flags already flying at half-staff would be doing so for a while longer.

Rather than watching television all day, which was depressing anyhow, we checked out of the hotel and went back to Bryce Canyon for a hike. The place was absolutely stunning as we tromped through the steep mud and ice-infested trails.

The next part of the trip passed through classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid country. And Amanda would not let me drive through without knowing it! She even made me watch the movie before the trip so I could appreciate the area more. *rolling eyes* We stopped briefly in Capitol Reef National Park—a spectacular but virtually forgotten area—where the famous duo were thought to have a hideout. We didnít stop for long, but did stop long enough for a short hike before continuing on to Moab, the scene of the duoís first bank robbery that propelled them into legends. We arrived in Moab fairly late and ended up getting another hotel because we didnít feel like setting up a camp in the dark. That, and we learned from the radio that the record heat wave through the area was coming to an end, along with an end to the beautiful weather we had been enjoying. There was a significant chance of rain in the forecast.

As it turned out, the weather was still looking great the next morning, sunny and warm. We loaded up the car and headed out to Arches National Park and scene of the most famous arch of them all: Delicate Arch. If youíve ever seen a Utah license plate, thatís the arch.

The world-famous Delicate Arch. To get a sense of scale, notice the tiny dot on the left side of the photo. That's Amanda!

It is an amazing area, and words nor pictures really give it justice. The enormous size of the arch is difficult to imagine without standing directly under it, and even the rock formations surrounding the arch are amazing in themselves. However, by the time we reached the end of the trail where the arch was, the weather turned decidedly nastier. The winds were howling, lightning streaked across the sky, and thunder roared through the canyons. Rain started to sprinkle, then poured down in buckets. Those signs warning of flash flooding took on new dimensions. In a word, the hike was awesome. =) I absolutely love a good thunderstorm, and that lightning was close and it was loud.

After making it back to the car, we drove out to Double Arch where the weather continued to worsen. The rain became snowflakes and the thunder continued to get louder. The snow became slush then rain, then slush again. The buckets of rain became dump trucks. We maybe ran out into that weather for fifteen minutes—it wasnít very long—but by the time we made it to Double Arch and back, we were soaked to the bone. Time to crank up the heater and continue our adventure.

Some of the cliff dwellings to be found in Mesa Verde

We made a brief 'drive-by' of Canyonlands National Park where the temperature continued to drop and the snow started collecting on the roadway. The drive out to Canyonlands was probably longer than the time we spent there. The park is stunning from what I hear, but most of it requires a vehicle better than a Ford Taurus to really see in all its beauty.

Our goal for the day was to continue on to Cortez, Colorado, which we planned to use as a base for exploring the Indian cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde. It was a real thrill for us when we turned onto Highway 666. Amanda learned from a guidebook that there was a place called Cutthroat Castle somewhere along the road, although she had trouble figuring out exactly what Cutthroat Castle actually was. A building? A park? A town? Whatever it was, we both felt that any place called Cutthroat Castle on Highway 666 deserved a letterbox, but alas, we passed up the opportunity. =(

Our guide let us go where tourists normally aren't allowed for an "insiders view" of the cliff dwellings

By the time we arrived in Cortez, the snow was going at full-throttle and collecting at a rather alarming pace on the roads as far as I was concerned. I donít know much about driving in snow except that I donít like it. I began to drive like there was an old person behind the steering wheel. But we made it to Cortez, safe and sound, and due to the inches of snow that collected on the ground, we decided to hotel it. Again.

The next morning was gorgeous. The sky was clear, the sun was out. My car was buried under several inches of snow that Amanda ruthlessly cleaned off before I could get a picture in edgewise. And we were back in the car on our way to Mesa Verde. It was a long drive—I drove very slowly, because if thereís one thing I hate more than snow on the road, itís when thereís ice on the road. If youíve ever seen the backend of my car, those 'dents' are due to ice on the road. Iíve learned my lesson, and I wasnít taking any more chances than absolutely necessary!

Another view of the cliff dwellings

We made it to the visitor center just as a new group was being herded down to one of the larger cliff dwellings that we promptly joined up with. Nobody is allowed to go down to the cliff dwellings without a ranger present, so it was a necessary evil to go down with the group. But if thereís a time to see Mesa Verde, itís the winter. The vast parking lots for the hundreds of thousands of tourists were practically empty. Perhaps a dozen people were in our little group. The ranger was particularly nice about showing us around the dwellings by even allowing us to walk into and through the dwellings despite the signs posted everywhere saying that we werenít to do so to protect the fragile dwellings. But because our group was so small, he didnít mind letting us look 'inside' where we found tons and tons of archeological equipment stored just out of view from the 'tourist' perspective. It was rather fascinating. We could even see the original wooden floors built over a thousand years ago.

We ended up spending far more time exploring the ruins than we had thought possible. We returned to the car, ate a bit for lunch, and continued our exploration of the park with a drive passing through most of the park, stopping at viewpoints of other prominent cliff dwellings. I had no idea there were so many of those! I always imagine that there was one or two large, well-known dwellings, but they are freaking everywhere at Mesa Verde. And if you count the smaller cliff dwellings, they probably number in the hundreds. Absolutely amazing. Magical, even. Well worth the stop.

And another view—I got trigger happy!

By the time we were ready to leave the park, it was starting to get dark, so we decided to stay in Cortez for an extra night. That wasnít our original goal, but the next stop on our journey was Four Corners, and our guidebook said it closed at 5:00. There was no way short of a helicopter ride weíd ever made that. So we checked into the same hotel as the night before (hey, there was still snow on the ground). We spent the rest of the evening eating at Pizza Hut, surfing the web at the local library, and watching CSI if I remember correctly. =)

We woke up bright and early to another beautiful looking day, although without snow on my car this time, and headed out to Four Corners. For those of you that donít know it (probably the foreign folks on my distribution list), Four Corners is the only place in the United States where four states come together at a single point. Thereís nothing especially memorable about this point. It wouldnít win awards for being remarkably beautiful. And for the short thrill of standing in four states AT THE SAME TIME, itís kind of a rip-off. But the folks there said that February was a great time of year to visit because in the summer the heat is absolutely scorching and there are actually lines to wait for the privilege of standing in four states at once. (Naturally, only one person can comfortably do this at a time.) Amanda hid a letterbox nearby, but had a tough time deciding what state to hide it in. On your left, Arizona. On your right, Utah. In front, New Mexico. Behind you, Colorado. Itís an agonizing choice. =) We pondered the legal problems of who would have jurisdiction if somebody was murdered right where the states meet, and how they would solve such a dilemma. Sounded like a case for Nancy Drew if you ask me. =)

Amanda rests again....

In all actuality, it would probably come under jurisdiction of the Navajo that inhabit the vicinity. Four Corners is actually in Navajo lands. Thereís even a Navajo radio station out there (660 AM) that was a real hoot to listen to. =) Itís the only Navajo radio station in the WORLD according to the guidebook we had. Strangely, they played a lot of country music, interspersed with more traditional Navajo music of beating drums and bizarre instruments I couldnít even begin to imagine. The commercials were very strange sounding, except for brand names that stayed in English. Although some of the commercials actually were 100% English. If youíre ever driving through Navajo country, donít pass up the chance to listen to this strange language on the only radio station in the world thatís Navajo.

I took this picture near San Jose somewhere, but I liked it and wanted to show it off. It has nothing to do with this adventure, though!

We made a special effort to drive past Monument Valley so Amanda could see where so many movies have been filmed over the years before heading off to Burger King. Yes, Burger King. There was a method to her madness, though, because the real reason for the visit was that Amanda wanted to see a well-known display for the Navajo code-talkers that, for some bizarre reason, they felt was best shown in a Burger King. Itís very strange to visit a museum in a fast-food establishment, but after Central America we didnít ponder the absurdity too long. =)

The rest of the trip went fairly quickly with stops at Jerome, Arizona, where other tourists were amazed at our ability to use a portable stove to cook lunch at some picnic tables. We did a quick hike in the Sedona area—which, in my opinion, is far more spectacular with its bright red landscapes than the over-developed Grand Canyon could ever hope to be. By this point, Amanda was itching to get back due to work and all that. (Can you believe it? She has to work?!) So we pulled an all-nighter, at one point getting off the main highway and followed Route 66 for a short ways, and got back to San Luis at 3:00 or so in the morning. Amanda spent a day or so in town resting from the all-night drive before driving her own car back to Seattle in a single day. Thatís a good 1000+ mile drive without anyone else in the car to switch off driving. A feat Iíve performed once in my life, and itís not fun.

— Ryan

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