The Six-Month Road Trip: the results are in.

We are three days away from being back in Canada. After 191 days, 56 distinct stops, one accident, one flat tire and one possible concussion, we are ready to bring this trip to an end and get off the road for a while. We drove over 22,000 kilometres.

We know that after a few weeks, we will be restless and ready to go again. That is our new reality – the blessing and the curse of being unhoused means that “wherever we lay our hat that’s our home.” Every new home feels exciting.

We chose to stop in Las Vegas for a three-night respite before the long drive north. We had a wonderful time here in November with our friends and we were craving space, comfort and relaxation. The Tuscany Suites are set on several lushly landscaped acres a 15-minute walk from The Strip. Our room is 600 square feet, compared to our 120-square-foot trailer.

It was too cold to use the pool in November, but with temperatures in the low 30s in April, this was a different scene.

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Back in November those fire pits were lit and warming; we met our friends here each morning for coffee.

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After we left Vegas in November, I had no desire to return.  I realize Vegas needs to be accepted and enjoyed for what it is, but the ability to do that escapes me.  I still see the ugliness, excess and wretched souls.  Hustlers, jittery addicts, rock-bottom street prostitutes, aging C-list performers and the endless swath of tourists – it feels jarring to be here.

So back to what we wanted to share with you all – the gritty details.
I’ll begin with what you really want to know – how much did this cost us?

Expenses
Insurance.
 Costs vary tremendously depending upon age and duration of stay, but our insurance for six months  in Mexico and the U.S. (we’re both over 65) = $1700 (with a $5000 deductible)
Mexican car insurance – 2 months – we overpaid (long story)   = $850

The U.S. dollar costs roughly $1.35 – $1.38, which means everything cost at least one-third more. The difference for four months in the U.S.?   = $5000

Food, accommodation & misc.  – this figure is a moving target, as it will be affected by the type of campground you choose, whether you cook or eat out, if you take a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon, etc.

Since we follow a fairly strict budget, we tend to cook most of our meals and to stay away from the luxury RV parks. With the cost of campgrounds,  groceries, wine and beer,  restaurant meals, firewood, laundry, three oil changes for the truck, museum and entry fees, we averaged $120 a day.  We never felt as though we were skimping or doing without and if we were more adept at boondocking (camping on beaches or public lands for free or very little), that figure would have been much lower. This lovely beach in Baja  was one of our best camping experiences and cost us nothing.

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If you are travelling through the U.S. for any length of time, make sure you pick up an America the Beautiful card.  It costs US$80 for a year and grants admission to all National Parks and National Monuments. With most of the big parks charging $30-$35 entry and the smaller ones charging $10-$20, it pays for itself very quickly.

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Our grand total for travelling for 191 days through the U. S. and Mexico?         $25,000

Campgrounds – reserve or take your chances?

If you want to guarantee a campsite in any of the National Parks and many of the state parks, you will need to book ahead – often six months or more. We were very lucky to snag spots in Zion and Grand Canyon, but they were last-minute cancellations and Steve happened to be online at the right time. A couple of hours later and we might have lost them.

It is a hard call – we changed our travel plans a number of times due to snow, and a few times we extended our stays because we were enjoying ourselves so much.

However, we met a couple who are on the road for a year. She booked up all the parks almost a year ago and they are simply making it work.

Campgrounds – private, public or boondocking?

We tried to stay in national or state parks as much as possible. Usually the setting is attractive, the sites are spacious and the campers are often of a similar mindset – they are there to enjoy nature and tend to be more respectful. Most sites offer dry camping or have electricity – they seldom have full hook-ups. Usually there are restrooms and showers and almost always there is a sani-dump and potable water. Occasionally, but not very often, you get wifi and cell reception. They cost from $15-$30.

The private campgrounds run the gamut from high-end costing $75 – $80 a night to more modest campgrounds that charge $30-$40. Private campgrounds almost always offer full hookups, wifi, and other amenities such as a small store, showers, laundry, firewood, book exchange, etc. We appreciated the private campgrounds when we needed to clean up ourselves and our trailer.  But private campgrounds are often cheek by jowl sites with little privacy and a couple of times we had  bad experiences with inconsiderate campers.

Boondocking is the way to go if you can make it work. BLM (Bureau of Land Management) lands in the U.S. and the beaches of Baja are there for the taking (or for a nominal fee). In some cases, there are pit toilets, garbage cans but in the vast majority of cases, you are on your own. Once you figure out how to handle your water and waste issues, you’re all set. Drive in, pick a spot and set up camp. The camping experience is sublime – dark skies, coyotes howling, and utter peace.

We can boondock for four nights. We arrive after having emptied our grey and black water and filled our fresh water tanks. We have a six-gallon jug for our drinking water and are very careful with our fresh water usage. We have discovered we can go up to four days without a shower (never our first choice, but it is possible). After four days we need to hitch up, go to town, use a sani-dump, refill water, have showers and begin again.

Exercise on the road

Although we hiked a lot, our best intentions about maintaining a formal exercise routine quickly fell away. The excuses are easy – no space, no privacy, too cold, too hot, etc. We have a yoga mat, resistance bands, Pilates cards, and even a skipping rope.  I will freely admit that Stephen is more disciplined than I, and hauling out the equipment a few times in six months does not an exercise routine make.

Grooming

I have “accidental long hair”. After wearing my hair short for decades, I let my hair grow out last winter in India. Indian women have long hair and I was stymied as to where I would find a hairdresser who knew how to cut a short style. I have carried that sentiment forward as we continue to be on the road – how to maintain a style that needs tending every few weeks, without having a tragic cut? My solution was to let it grow long enough that I could pin it up. So far, I am feeling less soigné than I had hoped.

When you camp for a long time, you tend to retreat into a bubble. We are keeping good company with other campers who wander the grounds in their jammies, and brush their teeth into the bushes. It’s always a shock to come into town and see women with mascara and a color-coordinated outfit.

Health Issues

Sooner or later, you may require medical attention, or at least wonder if you should find a doctor.

Several weeks ago, I managed to bash my head so hard in our trailer that I literally bounced off the wall. While Stephen tried not to laugh, I sat there, tears streaming and a bit nauseous. After much online consultation, we concluded I probably gave myself a concussion, as I developed a headache, dizziness and mental wooliness that lasted for several days. If we had been in B.C., I would have gone to our doctor, but in the U.S., far from a decent hospital, I decided to wait it out.  It worked out, but it did raise the question of what to do in situations that aren’t emergencies, but could turn out to be serious.

Libraries

We cannot sing the praises of libraries enough.  Every small town has a library that is welcoming with its great wifi and in many cases – a book sale. We have replenished our books, usually for 50 cents or $1.00, and either discovered new authors or grabbed a book we’ve been meaning to read.

The People

Campers tend to develop a quick and easy rapport with each another. We’re all away from home, and everyone has a story. We have met such wonderful, interesting people – this is one of the highlights of this kind of travel.

The Cost of Travelling in the U.S. 

We were expecting gas to be cheaper than in Canada, but it varies from state to state. California prices are almost equivalent to Canadian, while Arizona, with exchange, runs to about $1 a litre.

I was surprised by the cost of groceries. Again, I expected food to be less expensive, but in most cases found prices to be the same as in Canada or even higher. For example,  fresh pesto costs $5.99 (CA $9), a loaf of bread costs $4 (CA$5.50) and Salad-in-a-bag – $4 (CA $5.50).

Cell Phone Plans: AT&T vs. Verizon 

WE bought an AT&T cell plan, which was supposed to give us unlimited phone and texts in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. Calls out of Mexico to Canada were problematic, and we also found access to cell towers was limited in much of Arizona.
According to many other people, Verizon has much better service and coverage. 

Final Thoughts:

We had a fantastic trip and would highly recommend almost every place we visited. If you are contemplating a road trip, or contemplating buying an RV, or if you have any questions at all, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

We are back in British Columbia for a housesit on Gabriola Island, and we are looking forward to welcoming our grandson in early June. After that, we head up north to the Yukon and NWT for the summer.

Thank you for following along with us – it means a lot. See you again in July.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Grand Finale

My very first glimpse of the Grand Canyon was squinting through the lens of my red plastic Viewmaster. I was seven or eight years old and highly impressionable. I have Viewmaster to thank for planting the early seeds of my travel bug.  Each Viewmaster came with themed reels; Wild Animals, Seven Wonders of the World, etc. You popped in a reel, peered in through the lens and with a flick of the wrist, presto – a 3-D image would appear. My memory puts the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls and the Pyramids on the same reel, which I don’t think is correct, but I do remember being enthralled at the image of the Grand Canyon and finding out everything I could about it. My dream was to one day ride a mule down to the bottom of the canyon.  All these years later, we are here and nothing prepares you for seeing The Grand Canyon on the big screen. It is overwhelming.

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Both Stephen and I had imagined the Grand Canyon to be somehow smaller and more contained, I don’t know why. The Colorado River runs through it for 217 miles. The canyon is one mile deep and 10 miles wide, and because so much of it is visible from the 14-mile Rim trail, you get a tremendous sense of its scope. We met one gentleman who has been coming to the Grand Canyon for over 20 years; each year brings him a fresh perspective and a different adventure.

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I appreciated this apt quote printed on one of the interpretive boards: “No language can fully describe, no artist paint the beauty, grandeur, immensity and sublimity of this most wonderful production of nature’s great architect.” C.O. Hall, Grand Canyon visitor, 1895

Once again, Stephen’s perseverance paid off and we managed to grab a three-day cancellation at Mather Campground, right in the Park. It is a gorgeous campground, with loads of space and privacy and our very own resident elk population. We had been told that this is their birthing season, and if we were lucky we would witness a live elk birth.

When I asked where they might go to give birth, I was given a rather incredulous look. While I realize that wild animals do not have midwives, I thought they might seek out a bit of privacy and have favoured spots. However, we were also told we might see one of the magnificent California condors that have been brought back from near-extinction, but that is not likely, either.

Our closest wild animal connection so far (besides the elk) has been hearing coyotes howling a couple of nights ago.

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Back to the famous Grand Canyon mule rides I heard about in my youth. These days, you need to book months, if not a year, in advance and you have a choice – a one day or overnight trip. We passed fresh evidence that a mule train had already passed by on the way down on our hike and then these two cowboys appeared, leading more mules down to the bottom.

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We wondered what the difference was between a mule and a donkey and this sign explained it, as well as giving us a bit of a history of the use of mules in the canyon.

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So why the use of mules and not horses? According to a mule wrangler, “The difference between riding a mule and riding a horse is like the difference between riding a Cadillac and riding in a washing-machine. Mules are a whole lot smoother.” 

There are so many things about the Grand Canyon that will have to wait for another trip. Mule ride, Rim-to-Rim hike, overnight hikes – these are all essential GC experiences that require a bit of planning, different gear, and I’ll be honest,  a higher level of fitness than I currently possess. Stephen is like a mountain goat – he can climb up steep inclines without pause; I’m huffing and puffing, with my heart pounding and legs cramping. I take breaks and work through it and eventually it gets easier, but there’s work to be done.

Still, there are plenty of day-trippers in the Grand Canyon, and if a few hours is all the time you have, you can begin by visiting the Desert View Watchtower on the eastern edge of the park. This was designed by famous architect Mary Colter, as well as a number of other buildings within the park. She chose to build it “in the Indian spirit”, based on many examples of Indian architecture she had admired. It is possible to walk up to the top for a better view of the canyon.

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Our very first glimpse of the Grand Canyon. It choked us up.

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There are dozens of hikes within the Park – from easy 2-3 hour hikes to very strenuous multi-day hikes. However the 14-mile Rim hike, which follows right along the top of the canyon, and is quite flat and fully paved, is where every tourist sooner or later ends up. It is a linear hike, but can be done in segments and there is no such thing as a bad view.
We were on the South Rim, by the way, which is by far the busiest part of the Grand Canyon. The North Rim does not open until May.

Although we were there on Easter weekend, it was not nearly as crazy as we had feared. It was busy,  but bearable, although at times we had to wait for a space to clear to snap a photo, as cameras were in overdrive, capturing their loved ones from every imaginable angle.  My favourite.

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My second favourite.

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Every year people fall to their death at the Grand Canyon and sadly sometimes it is because they have taken a foolish risk to capture that Instagram-able moment.

These three young people were much closer to the edge before I snapped this shot. One of them had been sitting with her legs dangling over the side, looking backward for a photo. It took my breath away.

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But these two young women actually drew a horrified crowd. We watched while they posed and stretched backwards, just inches from the edge; clinging to one another like death-defying contortionists.
Are they “influencers” – that strange new breed of media stars who must always seek a better photo, a bigger thrill?

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We took one  three-hour hike down into the canyon, but not before reading the stern warnings about the potential hazards, especially between May and September, when canyon temperatures reach the 100’s.

Many hikers have to be rescued and every year there are fatalities related to heat and/or dehydration. Hikers are either poorly prepared, run out of water or underestimate the power of the intense sun and heat. Each year over 600 assists are required in the Canyon and over 150 helicopter rescues take place.

At a number of strategic locations, there are free water filling stations; a much-appreciated service, even for casual walkers.

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We chose the popular Bright Angel Trailhead; it offers several hikes and we went for one that lasted about  three hours.

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We descended about 1200 feet, which is a whole lot easier going down. However, we met up with a mother and son, who were concluding their 2-day, overnight hike from the south. They had camped in the rustic campground below and rose at 4:00 am to make their final hike back up. They were tired and hungry and looking forward to ice-cream!

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The trail is narrow in spots, but very well-graded and easy to walk. It was still early in the day when we hiked down, so most people we ran into were in quite cheery moods.

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Stephen, still cheery.
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Our little beacon on the trail – called Resthouse 1.5 – restrooms, a bit of shade and time to contemplate the long hike back – uphill.

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A view from another part of the Rim
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And…another view

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It’s not all about the hiking – there is quite a rich history here. The Village of Grand Canyon has about 1500 residents, swelling to 3000 in the summer. They are all park employees, and their work revolves around the various lodges, restaurants, gift shops, services and amenities that the village and the visitor centre and the market offer.

Most of the original buildings are intact and well maintained, such as the Mary Colter-designed El Tovar hotel:

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The Kolb Studio was the photography studio of the quirky and daring Kolb brothers, who began working in 1904 and became famous for their photos of visitors on mule rides.

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They were avid outdoorsmen and went to great (some said foolish) lengths to capture a shot.

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When trains began arriving in the Grand Canyon, they brought the first intrepid tourists and once the depot opened in 1910, a community began to develop.

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Train travel was very popular until the road from Williams was paved and tourists chose to travel by automobile. This depot closed in 1968, and only resumed again in 1989 when a clever marketer devised a package using a vintage train that included singing cowboys a Wild West shootout in Williams and a mock train robbery. Trains run twice daily and take two and a half hours, combining breathtaking scenery and corny, fun entertainment.

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The Grand Canyon was so much more than we had hoped for.  We only scratched the surface of what there is to do and see here, so it has been added to our “Must-return” list.

We waited this long to see it, which is less than a blink in its geological timeframe. This is an example of one of the oldest rocks in this area.

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From the Grand Canyon to Las Vegas – we are letting ourselves down gently! We will be back in British Columbia in about a week.

From Little Hollywood to Hoodoos

We’ve been camped out on BLM lands near Kanab for the past three nights, and have been enjoying every minute there out among the dunes. During the day we explore, at night we build a fire and watch the stars come out.

This small rustic (pit toilets, no hook-ups) campground (10 sites), is first-come, first-served and is simply idyllic. It charges $5 a night ($2.50 for seniors), and the sites are spacious and private.

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We chose Kanab as a base from which to explore southern Utah’s parks and landscapes and our initial plan was to boondock for a few days then come into town and set up in an RV park for the usual water/ sani dump/shower refresh. Today is a rainy day and perfect for catching up on emails, grabbing some groceries and doing some last-minute planning. We thought to reserve a spot at one of the RV parks in town, but our heart sank when we saw how crowded they were, so we’ve moved to Plan B.  We will stay at our lovely campground for another couple of days – just hitch up to use the dump and water facilities at a campground further down the road, then return to our little slice of nature.

Kanab is well-situated within an hour’s drive of two national parks, several state parks, and a number of other attractions and amenities.  Kanab has a rich cinematic history; it has long been called “Little Hollywood”. Since 1924, over 100 movies and TV shows (mainly Westerns) have been shot here and in the surrounding areas.  From 1924’s Tom Mix movie Deadwood Coach to such notables as The Lone Ranger, Stagecoach,The Misfits,  The Rainmaker, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and more recently, The Planet of the Apes.

As westerns have become a less popular genre,  filmmaking in the area has fallen off.

The Little Hollywood museum offers a peek into the backlot and peels the curtain back on the mystique of set design.

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This “adobe” structure used in the critical last scene of “The Outlaw Josey Wales” is actually made of styrofoam blocks.

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The building to the right is simply a facade; last used in a Kenny Loggins video.

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During its heyday, Kanab hosted a huge number of A-list stars, including John Wayne, Glen Ford, Charlton Heston, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Barbara Stanwyck, Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable and this fellow:

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Parry Lodge was in the centre of much of the action in those days. It opened in 1931 to help attract, house and feed the movie industry who had just discovered the area and were arriving in droves. Most of the film companies stayed here, and the lobby is filled with photos of the stars who made this their temporary home.

By today’s movie star standards, Parry Lodge seems homey and quaint, but at the time it offered an oasis in the desert.

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The town of Kanab offers a lot for tourists in terms of lodging and restaurants. We had a terrific lunch at Rocking V Cafe – very cool spot. We did pause for a minute when we realized our US$15 burgers were actually CA$22, but that has been the inescapable equation throughout our trip. Most restaurants in the U.S. have the same (or higher) prices as Canada, but then we have to add another one-third to that price.  We mainly ignore that depressing reality. If we waited for our Canadian dollar to be less dismal before travelling to the U.S., we could be waiting a long time.

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The understated simplicity of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

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Even Kanab wrestles with this unknowable question.

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We took a drive up the Johnson Canyon Road, an area where a lot of outdoor shots and action shots were filmed. It was a pretty drive, but you had to really stretch your imagination to see where the old “cowboys and Indians”  scenes might have happened.

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The original set from Gunsmoke. Much like the popularity of the westerns, it has fallen onto hard times.  It ran for 20 years from 1955 to 1975 – how many people have even heard of it?

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I don’t know anything about this little building and windmill, but I thought they added to the atmosphere.

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After we left Zion, we thought our chance to see Bryce National Park was gone, as they had received such a dump of spring snow that several trails had to be closed due to avalanche risk. It was disappointing, but we just added Bryce to our list of “next-times”.

Well, luckily for us, we had a brief window yesterday to make the 1 1/2 hour drive up to Bryce. The roads were clear, weather was good and today they are expecting another big snowfall, so it was now or never. We hopped in the truck and headed north.

Good grief – every day-tripper in southern Utah had the same bright idea – it was madness. As we were about 15 miles from the park’s entrance, the scenery began to change and become the dramatic backdrop we all wanted to capture. Cars pulling off the road, veering onto shoulders and spilling out their various occupants, armed with cameras and tablets and cellphones. It was a race to the finish, with dozens of people crouching, climbing, standing in the road; you would have thought we all had 30 seconds before the images in front of us erased. (We were no better, by the way).

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When did we stop simply looking and admiring what is in front of us? It was a bit embarrassing and disconcerting, and I asked Stephen, “Do we want to do this?”  Well, yes, we did, so we carried on.

We drove through a couple of arches along the way.

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We reached the Visitor Centre, where I had an urgent pit stop; NO available parking, so Stephen just circled and finally found a spot at the entrance.

Bryce has had a few issues lately – high snowfalls, construction in campgrounds, only one campground open, many trails closed due to unsafe conditions and the unstoppable flow of tourists putting great demand on the infrastructure.

We did have a very enjoyable visit, but we don’t feel as though we experienced the park as we might have. We didn’t hike (other than a couple of 1-mile hikes to overlooks), we didn’t stay in or near the park for a couple of days and we didn’t have the chance to get away from the crowds. We were all crammed in together, grabbing the good weather and all wanting the same thing.  It is worrisome to consider how our national parks will cope going forward.

The geology of Bryce Canyon is simply stunning.  The tall bulbous formations, called hoodoos vary. Some are ridged into walls, others  have created holes or windows, and others are spindly stand-alones.  They’re all awesome and it is difficult to take in this landscape and really appreciate what you’re seeing – it looks like nothing else you’ve seen before.  Much of the canyon is viewed from the trails along the rim, which provides tremendous aerial views. The recent snow lent a dramatic contrast.

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It is possible to walk right along the rim; there are few fences or guardrails. There are signs to “Watch your Children”  but I would be a very nervous mother (or grandmother.)

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Stephen wanted to see the contrast between the white birch, the white snow and the white hair.

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On our drive up to Bryce, we drove through a number of towns with great  signs – old neon, or intriguing business concepts. There was one sign in particular…

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Home of the Ho-Made Pie? How could we resist? And of course, our server would look just like this buxom French maid.

Our server was Steven,  a friendly and garrulous fellow who was full of local gossip and history. A history of the restaurant was printed and propped on our table, so we spared ourselves having to ask the obvious question – “Ho-made? Typo or bakers with an interesting sideline?”

The Thunderbird Restaurant is located in Mount Carmel  and was built in 1940, in response to the traffic that developed after the building of the tunnel linking this town to Zion National Park. When the owner Fern was widowed in 1961, she overcame a series of obstacles to not only stay in business but create a small empire – a restaurant, inn and golf course. But always, the pies were the draw – Fern’s skills as a baker were legendary. When they had the sign made, it wasn’t possible to fit “Homemade” neatly into the design, so they shortened it to “Ho-made” – a term that was still innocent in the early ’60s.

It has turned out to be a marketing dream – it is what brought us off the road and through the door.  Are the pies as good as they say? They were excellent, although I’m sure a lot of home bakers could outdo that pastry.  I had apple pie with warm butter rum sauce and Stephen had Thunderberry (4 berry) with ice cream. When was the last time we stopped anywhere for a piece of pie? It was so much fun.

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The other sign we couldn’t resist was this one. We just loved the versatility of a skilled tradesman – caskets or gun cabinets.  According to our new friend at the Thunderbird, this man does a ripping business.

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Next time we talk, we will have peered over the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Zion!

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Zion is our favourite National Park so far; so filled with contrast and unimaginable beauty that adjectives are inadequate and our conversation on the trails was often reduced to “Wow”, “Beautiful“, and “Look at That.”

Before we arrived we were warned by fellow travellers in rather ominous tones that, “Zion will be crazy.”  We were a little nervous about having to cope with long line-ups, parking nightmares and conveyor belt trails, but none of that came to pass.

Yes, Zion was busier than other parks we have visited so far, but it is also the beginning of the high season and weather right now is ideal. The real crowds don’t start until the summer.

We were also warned we would not get a campsite in the park; they are reserved months in advance. Also true, except Stephen kept checking online and managed to get us a total of five nights from cancellations, with just one move.

This is the view from one end of our campsite:

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When the first Mormon settlers arrived here in the mid-nineteenth century, they called this area Little Zion or “a place of refuge”. The original Paiute name was Mukuntuweap, meaning “straight-up land.”  It officially became Zion National Park in 1919 and has become one of America’s most-visited parks.

Zion has a number of trails closed this year due to rockfall and road washouts, including a chunk of the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway that heads east out of the park. Very luckily for us, we arrived on the last day that portion of road was open before they closed it to begin road repair. The ranger urged us to hop in our car and drive the  nine-mile stretch – we are so happy we had the chance. The masterpiece of this road is the one-mile tunnel that was blasted through the rock; opening the Park from the east side of the state.

Normally we would have entered the Park from the east and come in on this road, but with the washout, they were only allowing vehicles of a certain size and weight through.

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A view from the lower level – that hole is one of a number of portals blasted out for ventilation and views and it will give you an idea of the magnitude of the project.

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We weren’t the only ones enjoying the rush of this switchback mountain road.

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The Checkerboard Mesa was one of the notable landmarks along this road.

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The sandstone mountains in Zion present in a stunning array of colours; from the deepest pink to the palest grey.

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Zion has set up an excellent and efficient people-moving system – they provide free shuttles that lead up and down the canyon and into the nearby town of Springdale, where most of the hotels and inns are located.

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Cars are not allowed in the main part of the canyon; drivers must attempt to snag a free parking spot in the Park (usually gone by 10:00 a.m.) or pay $20 a day in town. This system works like a charm – visitors hop on and off as the shuttles move up and down the canyon road.

There is never more than a couple of minutes wait and zero congestion on the road, making it a joy for the numerous cyclists who travel the route.

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There are dozens of hikes in Zion, from half-hour strolls to multi-day hikes. Due to the extra precipitation and rockfall this winter, many of the longer and more difficult trails are closed. This didn’t impact on us, as our idea of a long hike is five or six hours.

One of the most popular hikes in Zion is The Narrows. We began by hiking The Riverside Walk; a 2.2 mile hike along the Virgin River – The Narrows hike extends at the end of this walk. The Riverside Walk was one of our favourites, and we were in good company that day. Because it is described as “Easy”, there was a bit of crowd on the paths. But somehow it all worked out well and never became annoyingly congested.

This little Virgin River is responsible for the creation of the Zion Canyon. Over the centuries, it cut through the walls  and carved out the formations we see today.

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Slightly different perspectives along this trail

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One of a number of waterfalls in Zion

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And finally – the entrance to The Narrows. This is a hike that is done entirely by wading in the Virgin River and probably best done in summer, as the water is always cold. The hike takes two days, requires overnight camping and at times is done in chest-deep water, with one’s pack hoisted overhead. We laughed just trying to imagine ourselves as two senior voyageurs with our freeze-dried stew and our wicking shirts tumbling into the river and floating away.

Normally this river is running a lot slower; due to rockfall and other obstacles upstream, it is currently closed as the river is not safe. This is where one would normally begin The Narrows hike.

It is also possible jut to hike in as far as you want and then return back. That would have been a lot of fun and we’re regretful we missed out on that experience.

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The other big iconic Zion hike is called Angel’s Landing. We encountered two young women who had just completed it and they were pretty shaken. Going with the adage that one must do what one fears, I was considering it, but for the fact that I’m not good with heights and people have plunged to their death.

This legendary hike goes for 5.4 miles, climbs 1488 feet, and has a series of chain-assisted narrow switchbacks, with 1000 foot drop-offs on either side. You pull yourself up over the ridge to claim victory, and then you have to make your way down again.  I’m sorry to have to admit it, but we took a pass.

Heights aren’t an issue for these big-horned sheep, although we didn’t have the chance to see them in action. They were quite contentedly munching away on the side of a trail.

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Climbing is very popular in Zion, and we saw a number of climbers from our shuttle rides up and down the canyon. This is definitely not an area for beginner climbers – take a look and see if you can pick out the climber on this rock face.

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We might not have been scaling mountains or hanging onto chains, but Zion still left us with lots of hiking and fabulous views.

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A short but lovely hike was to an area called Weeping Rock. It was possible to climb up under the ledge behind a waterfall.  This was one of the views from the ledge.

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Look to the wall on the left of the waterfall – it is a hanging garden of ferns and other plants created by the constant moisture.

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We were going to take a day and drive up to Bryce Canyon. That park is at a much higher elevation and two days ago, a storm front went through. We got high winds and a bit of rain – they got several inches of snow. Sadly we will not have a chance to see Bryce this time – it means a return trip to Utah for sure.

We leave tomorrow to hit a few more spots before we arrive at The Grand Canyon. It’s hard to imagine, our trip is winding down.

 

 

“Rocks Remember”

Astronaut Neil Armstrong attributed that quote to geologists, who understand so well that rocks carry the stories of the planet – history, geography, weather events, flora, fauna and human activity – all contained within their solid, immoveable forms.

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We have spent the past five days camped at Bluff, Utah; a perfect base from which to travel to a number of state and national parks. Rocks are the thing in southern Utah – the landscape is a variation on a theme of canyons, washes, mountains, spires, hoodoos, and formations.

They are all different, all jaw-droppingly gorgeous and all between 250 and 350 million years old. Three hundred and fifty million years worth of stories to tell – that’s a lot of history to remember and it is also an impossible number to understand.

As we were pulling into a parking spot at one of the parks, we noticed a vintage truck camper – an ’85 Palomino in mint condition.  “Wow! 35-years-old – can you imagine where that camper has been?”  

Bluff, Utah is the site of far more recent history. In April, 1880, Bluff became the final destination after a gruelling six-month journey by 250 Mormon pioneers who travelled the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail to set up the San Juan Mission. They averaged 1.7 miles a day as they had to dig and cut their way through the rock to build a wagon path large enough to allow passage.  Their intent was to establish a mission that would establish better relations with the two Indian nations in the area and to provide a supply link to other Utah settlements.

We visited the Bluff Fort Historic site to learn  more. This is one of the original wagons that made that passage.

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One of the original cabins built by the settlers.

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A little background on their story.

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We spoke to a charming gentleman who lives four months of the year in central Utah, but volunteers at the Fort an incredible eight months each year. When I remarked on that, he smiled and spoke of  “being of service” ; offering his time at a mission is part of his faith. The majority of Utah’s residents are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, although those numbers are declining; in Salt Lake City membership sits at about 50%. The use of “Mormon” is no longer accurate and the diminutive “LDS” is discouraged.

As we travelled around these past few days, we noticed an unusual sight (for 2019) – young couples with very large families ( five, six and seven children). While large families were imperative at one time, it is no longer a religious edict to “be fruitful and multiply” and is now considered to be a private matter “between couples and their Lord”. Still – the couples we saw were so young – in their 30’s – calm, relaxed and in control; their children well-behaved, well-dressed and well-adjusted.  I was captivated by them. We have had our eyes opened to the “normalcy” of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. There have been no overt attempts at indoctrination and the extreme fundamentalist polygamous sects that make the news were outlawed over a century ago. These have been welcoming and illuminating encounters.

Our campground has been fun – we’re at the Cadillac Ranch RV Park, overlooking a cottonwood creek and bluffs beyond. As you can tell from the sign, the Ranch has seen better days. While our sites are spacious and it is quiet and peaceful, there is a pontoon and a couple of old trailers parked at the back of the lot. But the young couple who have taken over are working hard to improve everything.

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Back to the rocks…
Our first drive out was to Valley of the Gods – a 17-mile drive on a dirt road. We left the highway, turned down the road, and the landscape transformed at every bend of the road.

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We are so lucky – winter in Utah has been like Arizona – longer and wetter and colder. We weren’t sure we could even come to Utah to camp. This road has only been passable in the past couple of weeks, and in spots there was still a bit of water and mud to get through.

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We ended that drive with a spin up the Moki Dugway – a steep road with switchbacks to get to the overview. It was a bit hairy,  very narrow in spots but perfectly doable. We encountered just a few other drivers and they were also obeying the 5mph signs.

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View from the top. Every time we find ourselves on roads like this, we say the same thing, ” We drove way worse roads in Mexico.” Whether it is true or not, it is a great calming statement.

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The next day, we drove an hour and a half north to Arches National Park.  Even the drive up to Arches was a scenic treat – Utah is a state that we want to return to at some point.

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We heard that most of the national parks are packed this time of year and Arches was no exception. We turned the corner to see a discouragingly long lineup of vehicles waiting to get to the kiosk. We inched along for a half-hour, (long enough for me to get in a stew about what lay ahead in terms of crowds on the trails, parking, etc. ), but it all worked out just fine. The crowds dispersed and there was room for everyone.

The linear road is 35-miles in total, with a couple of side roads, and plenty of trails, pullouts and picnic areas. The ranger assured us we could see the park in one day.

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While Arches National Park is best-known for its arches, there are plenty of other fabulous formations to stop and admire.

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A number of trails led off to varied landscapes – some past solid rock walls.

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Other trails  led into wide open spaces.

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One of the notable arches.

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Another much larger arch.

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With all this rock precariously balanced and hanging in mid-air, we began to wonder how often these structures collapsed.

Much of this arch fell in 1991. Hikers heard a thunderous crack, and managed to get out of the way before tons of rock came crashing down. This is the delicate arch that remains and the path is now closed to hikers.

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We ended our day with an ice cream in Moab – the small town just south of the park that caters extensively to mountain biking adventures. It was a charming stop and a reminder of an ill-fated couple we met on one of the hiking paths. She had her arm in a sling and he was limping. They had come to Moab to bike, but just a couple of days after their arrival, she fell off her bike and broke her shoulder and her husband pulled his hamstring. They were making the best of it – switching from biking to hiking.

Gooseneck State Park offers a close look at one of the most striking examples of  an “entrenched river meander” in North America. We didn’t know that was a geological term, but again, another example of 300-million-year-old activity.
The river does not appear to be more than a shallow stream of silt and water.

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We wished we had known about the camping – rustic, no amenities, but just $10 a night. This would have been a stunning place to watch sunrises and sunsets.

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Last stop – Natural Bridges National Monument. By now, we had reached our rock limit. Just as there is an inevitable tipping point of ABC (another bloody church) when traveling in Latin countries, we did not have it in us to keep hiking through rock formations. So we drove and stopped at viewpoints to take photos.

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It can be a challenge to see and appreciate the parks in northern Arizona and southern Utah in a compressed period of time, as they are all different, but still variations of a similar landscape. It seems blasé to write off anything in this area as being “just more rocks”, especially since we are on our way to “more rocks” – Zion, Bryce and the Grand Canyon.  We’re not losing sight of how special this landscape is, nor of how lucky we are to be here. See you again in a few days.

“Standin’ on the Corner”

Everyone’s heard the lyrics – this monster hit song co-written by Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey and released on The Eagles’ debut album in 1973. It put  the whistle-stop town of Winslow Arizona on the map and has created huge business for merchandise with T-shirts, keychains, posters and hats bearing “Take it Easy”, “Standin’ on the Corner” and “Route 66” imprints.

The backstory of this song is intriguing. Jackson Browne’s car broke down in Winslow and as he was waiting to get back on the road, he noticed a number of attractive young women driving pick-up trucks – a Western phenomenon he found “damn sexy.”  It inspired a song, but he wrestled with the lyrics and just couldn’t find what he was trying to say. His friend Glenn Frey took a run at it and added the critical lines,” it’s a girl, my Lord, in a flat-bed Ford, slowing down to take a look at me. ”  Bingo. Browne loved the lyrics and “Take it Easy” was born.

Forty-six years later, tourists line up to pose for photos beside the statue commemorating Jackson Browne’s fortuitous stop in Winslow. It would appear from the second-floor mural that the girl in the flat-bed truck did more than slow down.

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The main street of Winslow is the old Route 66 – The Mother Road.

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Like many American Main Streets – there is a look, and definitely worth slowing down for.

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For some reason, this sign just struck me as being absurd – “The Good Job” award.  Not “Great“, not “Best of”  – just “Good.” Is this the Winslow Historic Preservation Commission’s  version of a kindergarten participation award? (“They coloured within the lines”.)

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There are Remembrance Gardens all over the United States – pieces of metal beams from the wreckage of the attacks on the World Trade Centre on 9/11 have been donated to create permanent memorials. The one in Winslow is especially poignant as it also flies the flag that was at the Pentagon before the attacks.

We all remember where we were that day and it is wrenching to touch these beams and wonder what part of what tower they came from.

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It is also wrenching to read the hopeful words “we will  not fear terrorism” and understand how far away the United States is from realizing that hopeful goal.  Rising white supremacy, racism, hate crimes, anti-Muslim rhetoric, ramped-up border tensions – they all point to a country who is more fearful than ever – it is still looking over its shoulder.

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Winslow is a major railway centre – we have heard that up to 100 trains go through in a day; Amtrak still runs two passenger trains a day. The train whistle is such an evocative sound; we enjoyed listening to the rumble of the trains from our campground just a few miles away.

The Santa Fe Railway was the cornerstone of travel in the Southwest until 1996, when they ceased operation.

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During those years, a number of fine hotels sprang up on the route – the brainchild of Fred Harvey – who wanted to provide travellers with decent food and accommodation.

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Renowned American architect Mary Colter designed both the Winslow train station and   the signature Fred Harvey hotel – the famed La Posada – the finest hotel on Route 66. Everyone from John Wayne to Dorothy Lamour to Albert Einstein stayed there.

Fred Harvey was fussy about keeping high standards for his hotels and when he became exasperated with the male waitstaff, who often brawled and boozed and came to work hung-over, he fired them all and decided to hire women – unheard of at that time. He put out ads for “women of high character“, and offered room, board, a decent wage and “liberal tips.” This was a clarion call for adventurous (yet respectable) young women and Fred Harvey’s staffing challenges were over. The “Harvey Girls“, as they were affectionately known, were well trained and disciplined. Fred Harvey and his “Harvey Girls” were credited with civilizing the West.

Winslow was on the map for bigger and better things until Route 66 was bypassed and the town abandoned.  La Posada sat empty for years and then became offices until the railway decided to tear the building down. Entrepreneurs Allan Affeldt and his wife Tina Mion rescued the building in 1997 and took years to restore it and bring it well beyond its former glory.

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Tina Mion is an internationally-acclaimed artist. She painted this image of her dear friends, Ruby McHood, (on the left offering tea and wearing the Harvey Girls uniform), and Dorothy Hunt on the right. They are two of the original Harvey Girls.  Wouldn’t you love to have tea with them and listen to their stories?

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La Posada is a delight to visit – we planned to drop by for 15 minutes and stayed for two hours. The hotel halls are hung with Tina’s paintings – most of them portraits of such depth of feeling that you can’t look away. I love paintings that  create ambiguity and confusion and are open to interpretation.  We actually bumped into Tina as she was walking her poodle up the stairs of the hotel. She stopped to talk and was quite modest about her incredible talent.

Here are just a few of her paintings:

This one, entitled “My Mother’s Wedding”.

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Tina calls this painting “Two Stars“. I see two women who are angry at one another. They may be friends or sisters, but there is intimacy and rivalry and long-standing feuds.

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Tina did a series on First Ladies (she got as far as Hillary Clinton). Each portrait was  brilliant – capturing Rosalynn Carter’s watchful side-eye to Jimmy’s open grin; Nancy Reagan’s openly adoring gaze to her Ronnie, and this ( showcased at the Smithsonian): Jackie Kennedy after her husband’s assassination. Such an eloquent expression of shock in those eyes, it takes your breath away.

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In 2000, Tina  painted Hillary Clinton in a fishbowl, circled by sharks. She felt Hillary was unfairly attacked for everything from her hair to her pantsuits to her ambitions. “It seemed to me the story of this woman, who lived her life in a fishbowl, was far from over.”

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We didn’t head to Winslow so we could “stand on the corner” – it was a strategic location to allow us to camp for a few days and use the area as a base for a couple of day trips.  Winslow ended up being a pleasant surprise – lots of history and stories we hadn’t known anything about before our arrival.

At our last campground in Cornville we were plagued with Spring Break families. Most of them were okay – excited, kids tearing around on their bikes – good happy vacation noises. On our last night, we had three or four couples get together two doors over and yell – for hours. I put in ear plugs but kept waking up and finally at close to midnight, I couldn’t take it anymore.  I went out and asked them to please keep it down. They dialled it down a touch, but only enough to prove to themselves they weren’t total jerks and yet still loud enough to prove they weren’t going to be told.

In Winslow, we camped at Homolovi State Park, which is also the site of 14th century ruins of the Anasazi people (known today as the Hopi Indians).  Homolovi was the opposite of that campground in Cornville – people who love nature, who walk their dogs and stop to chat and are respectful of others. Homolovi is the campground we are always so happy to find – beautiful sunsets, train whistles, fragrant air through our open windows and even a good chance of seeing a rattlesnake.

We didn’t see a rattlesnake, but we did see remnants of the ancient village. It seems the rangers have been having a rough time with miscreant tourists for a long time.

We came upon this sign:

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The evidence of holes where treasure-seekers had been digging  before concentrated efforts were made to stop it.

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Signs are also posted asking visitors not to remove anything from the ground – pottery shards, petrified wood, etc. We came upon dozens of collections like this one – large rocks covered with pottery shards – horizontal inukshuks.

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I asked the ranger about these collections and he sighed, “Visitors are not supposed to do that – I have to go out every week and disperse the pottery.”

Petrified Forest National Park ( with Painted Desert within the park) was just an hour’s drive from our campground.  I was never that excited about the Petrified Forest – great hunks of very dense, colourful logs strewn about a desert landscape – not something I would have gone out of my way to see.

But here we were – armed with a map that guided us through the 28-mile drive from north to south, with umpteen stops long the way and numerous lookouts and short hikes to enhance the experience.

Our very first Painted Desert Overlook – multi layers of basalt and sandstone and limestone that is between 207 and 225 million years old.

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We hiked down this rather vertiginous path to the bottom of the canyon.

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Like walking on Mars – no signs of life at all.

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And we reached the Petrified Forest at the southern end of the park. After walking among the giant colourful quartz logs at a number of different stops, we had both a sense of wonder at the transformative process of millions of years, and a sense of “seen one, seen them all.” I have the same reaction to fossils and arrowheads after a while – my eyes glaze over.

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This piece of petrified wood is about a foot in diameter.

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This is the largest log in the park – Old Faithful.

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On our way out of the park, we drove by this old Studebaker – commemorating the days when Route 66 helped to shape this part of the country. It is in alignment with the telephone poles that roughly mark the grand old highway.  Just to the left is a ramp to Hwy. 40 – the new highway that bypassed so many small towns, like Winslow and left them to either wither away or find ways to revitalize.
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We’ve left Arizona for a bit – we’re up in Bluff, Utah now to hike a couple of their famous parks.  See you again in a few days.

Searching for the Vortexes in Sedona

We have heard about Sedona for years – otherworldly red rock formations, unparalleled hiking and perhaps most intriguing – the opportunity to tap into our spiritual power through the vortexes that are supposed to be found here.

I would love to say that I’m as skeptical as the next person, but that would not be true.  If you have swampland to sell, I’m your gal. I believe in unexplained phenomena, intuitive powers and chakra alignment. I might be a little more easily swayed than say… Stephen, and I came to Sedona with an open mind and more than a little excitement about being transformed by an energy field.

We have been camping for the past week in the Verde Valley area in northern Arizona; a perfect base to see our friends Bob and Jeannie and to explore the many attractions in the area.

The view from our campsite – overlooking a creek and a grove of cottonwood trees.

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This area is so rich and varied – within just a few miles there are several state parks and national monuments, a number of historic towns, Sedona, and Bob and Jeannie’s winter home in Cornville, home of the late Senator John McCain.  We packed a lot in, but a week in this area is just not enough – we missed as much as we saw.

Bob and Jeannie tried to warn us that the town of Sedona might not be what we were expecting. They showed us a shopping area called Tlaquepaque that is designed to resemble a Mexican village, presumably the one by the same name near Guadalajara.

It’s a thoughtfully laid-out plaza, with sculptures, fountains and shops filled with Navajo rugs, fine art and jewellery.

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We arrived before the crowds and enjoyed poking around the stores and admiring beautiful things.

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Sedona’s town centre was a different story. Since we have never been here before we have nothing to compare, but as we crawled along in bumper-to-bumper traffic, we wondered at the sameness of it all. We saw one identical block after another of generically-designed tasteful homes, with wine boîtes, art galleries and gift stores. Sedona kindly provides free parking and after we found a place to park and began walking, we began to assume the “tourist shuffle.” In one store and out the other – most of them offering cheap jewellery, crystals, rocks, T-shirts and metaphysical books.

The backdrop to all of this is a ring of red rock mountains that could take your breath away, but the view is distracted by signs for psychic readings, aura readings, UFO excursions ( UFO sightings guaranteed!) and a host of vortex-inspired experiences promoted by photos of women who appear to have moved to Sedona years ago to find themselves and are now barking mad.

Bob and Jeannie, you were right! There is nothing more annoying than visiting a place with high expectations and then discovering the marketing folks got in there ahead of you and you’re just another dumb tourist. Vortexes are big business.

Okay, let’s move on to what is beautiful about Sedona and why you should still go. There may well be vortexes in Sedona; we did not experience any energy connection there other than the spiritual lift we usually get when we’re outdoors surrounded by beauty. But…that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

The next day we returned to hike the Baldwin Trail, one of dozens of trails that wind their way around the iconic sandstone rock formations. Clear blue skies, nice warm temperatures and not too many other hikers on the path.

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About fifteen minutes into the hike, the land opened up and showcased the stunning formations that attract visitors from all over the world.

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Depending on the light, the rocks appear to glow.

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How could we not feel spiritually connected being part of this environment? This famous and much-photographed formation, Cathedral Rock, is one of four recognized vortexes.

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More rocks – different shades of red.

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Hikers aren’t the only ones out enjoying the scenery and terrain. We came across a number of mountain bikers along the way. This one was the last of a group of young men who had just surfaced from a black diamond area.

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For part of our hike, we climbed along the rocks beside the creek.

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And that is why you want to come to Sedona. Perhaps if you choose a time (not Spring Break) when the crowds are a little thinner and you devote yourself to just being out in the surrounding area, you will experience the side of Sedona that made it famous.

There are lots of other things to see and do in the area. Two powerful sites are Montezuma Well and Montezuma Castle. Montezuma Well is quite extraordinary – an oasis in a desert.

This deep green pond contains over 15 million gallons of water, despite having very little annual rainfall. Water flows into the Well every day, and since it contains arsenic and high amounts of carbon dioxide, no fish survive, although five species survive here that exist nowhere else on earth.

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A path circles the Well – Bob, Jeannie, Stephen and Ginny on our way back up.

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Not far from the Well, we stopped to visit Montezuma Castle – a cliffside pueblo  which were built between the early 1100’s and 1300s. The Sinagua farmers, who were hunters and gatherers built these complex masonry structures.

The structure at Montezuma Castle is a five-storey, 20-room dwelling that is set into the cliff about 100 feet above the valley floor.

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The setting around Montezuma Castle is so beautiful right now; after the heavy rain and snow melt, this area is enjoying an unusually green landscape.

This is a sycamore tree – common in Arizona – they are massive trees with mottled white bark – just gorgeous.

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Nearby Tuzigoot (Apache for “crooked water”) is the remnant of a Sinagua village that was originally two stories high with 87 ground-floor rooms. We could not visit the summit of the village the day we visited as there was restoration work being done.

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In the valley below, we saw an excellent example of a riparian forest – willows and cottonwoods, growing in abundance because of their proximity to the creek.

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Finally, we had to check out Jerome, billed as a former “ghost town”, which according to one gallery owner, is not entirely accurate. In its heyday as a copper mining boom town, the population swelled to 15,000 souls. When the mine closed in 1953, much of the population left in search of work. The town was never abandoned, and within a few years, word about this funky mountain town started to spread among the counter culture who were all heading west at the time.  Artists began to reclaim buildings and homes and soon the word was out. As is so often the case,  artists take on risky neighbourhoods or towns and once they are transformed, the developers and real estate speculators move in. It is a town in transition, perhaps a victim of its own success.

This old apartment building has been condemned and slated for redevelopment; artist renderings are posted in the front windows. Although this building does not look fit for habitation, there does appear to be a couple of apartments still occupied. The worry of course is that, bit by bit, affordable housing will become less and less available to those who put Jerome back on the map.

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Prostitution flourished in Jerome during the mining years, and  a number of businesses are playing off that bawdy image.
This former bordello is now called House of Joy,  but houses a gift shop.

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The Husbands’ Alley. The locals gave major pushback to the reformers who attempted to restrict brothel location.

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Jerome’s oldest bar.

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A refurbished brick building, now housing a beautiful art gallery.

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The old Grand Hotel, originally a general hospital.

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Lots of building facades and open spaces; just waiting for reclamation perhaps. There are many stores and restaurants in Jerome, but it is not totally gussied up yet. It still has plenty of evidence of its earlier days.

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And finally, this bit of oddness. Three toilets sitting in an empty space, surrounded by coins. Someone came up with the brilliant idea of encouraging tourists to toss coins from between the fence railings on the street above. A coin landing in a toilet is good luck!

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As we drove away from Jerome, we passed this sad-looking building. So far, no takers to bring this 24-hour shop back to life.

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And so, it is time to move on – tomorrow we head to Winslow Arizona (standing’ on the corner). Beginning our slow trek north.

Prescott: Mile-high city with down-to-earth attitude

Prescott is where Arizonians (Arizonans?) head in the summer to escape the sweltering triple-digit heat of the south. We met a gentleman who is a snowbird within his own state. He spends his winters in Phoenix and his summers in Prescott. “I can deal with the high ’80s and even the low ’90s, but once it hits the ‘100s, it stays there for weeks. Prescott has the perfect climate.”

Prescott, which is pronounced “Preskitt”, has racked up a number of admirable accolades, among them: Cleanest Air in the Nation; Number One Place to Live in the Southwest; Top 22 Best Places to Retire; Best Destination for Nature Lovers; Five Must-See Small Towns in Arizona and One of the Coolest Downtowns in North America.

We drove to Prescott from Quartzsite; a three-hour drive that lifted us out of the Sonoran desert into the high-desert landscape. We passed a number of  lush and prosperous ranches along the way:

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Prescott is a city of just 45,000 people that was founded in 1864, and has the distinction of being known as The World’s Oldest Rodeo. It also has more than 800 buildings listed on the National Historic Register and the vast majority of them have been fully restored and carefully maintained.

Prescott is a very walkable city. We spent several hours following our self-guided walking map through the historic downtown.

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Prescott and surrounding area is cowboy country; the horse is king. Statues of horse and rider can be found in a number of spots around the downtown.  This one, Cowboy at Rest  by artist Solon Borglum was right in front of the Courthouse Plaza.

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In front of City Hall

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Just up the street, the Hassayampa Hotel, built in 1927,  was designed to serve those early adopters who chose four wheels over four hooves: travellers arriving by automobile. It is also reputed to be haunted on the 4th floor; the site of a tragic death.

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In its day, it was voted “the most beautiful hotel in the Southwest.” We peeked inside and had to agree – the hand-painted ceilings, the antique light fixtures, the discretion. We sank into plush sofas in the lobby and agreed it wouldn’t take much to pry ourselves out of the trailer for a night or two and enjoy a bit of luxury.

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A major and devastating fire took place in Prescott in July 1900; wiping out many of its downtown wooden structures. The old Palace Hotel and Bar was one of the buildings burned, but incredibly the ornate back-bar was saved. It is a fixture in the current Palace Restaurant and Bar, which is the oldest bar in Arizona.

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The Elks Opera House was built in 1905, and is currently still in use as a theatre/movie house, although we did think a fresh set of eyes might be needed for more up-to-date programming. Pretty Woman was one of the movies showing that week.

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We took a stroll up the street to “Nob Hill”, a line-up of stately homes built in the late 1800’s. Although Senator Barry Goldwater was from Prescott, we don’t know if he was related to Henry Goldwater, the wealthy merchant who had this home built in 1894 for $4000.

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The next-door neighbour:

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Prescott has gorgeous residential neighbourhoods, filled with one heritage home more beautiful than the last.

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This old Motor Lodge has been in business since 1910, when it was first a series of small cabins. In 2008, new owners Joe Livingston and Brian Spear took over and turned the cottages into affordable retro-cool lodgings, right on the edge of the historic district.

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We had lunch one day at the Dinner Bell Cafe, an old diner from 1939, whose menu has not likely changed that much over the decades – pork chops and mashed potatoes are still on the menu. Huge portions, homey service, atmospheric interior – these diners endure and are distinctly American.

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We spoke to a local who has mixed feelings about her town. She is in her 20’s, Prescott born and bred and has watched her hometown change over the past few years. The combination of climate, natural setting, great amenities, health services, etc. and an inventory of charming affordable homes are drawing the crowds in from “California and back east”. With that growth comes increased real estate prices and new ideas of how Prescott might be improved. Naturally neither are welcome to a population who have been doing just fine.

From our perspective as tourists, our first impressions were one of a very conservative city. We noticed one or two Catholic, Anglican or United churches, but dozens and dozens of evangelical churches.

We also noticed many gun shops.  The argument that Guns Are Why America is Still Free was one I had not heard before.  We had no idea America’s freedom was at risk in 2019 and that civilians might be called upon to bear arms. Certainly they’re safe from us Canadians and all the Mexicans want to do is take the jobs Americans don’t want.

It is safe to say we have not had a calm reasoned discussion about guns with a pro-gun advocate; our positions are too far apart.

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Arizona is a Concealed Carry state, which means you do not require a permit to carry a concealed weapon, if you are over the age of 21. We noticed this concealed carry purse in a shop window and went in to have a look. Please excuse the poor quality of this photo, but it will give you an idea. This bag costs $150 and this store sells “not many, about one a week.”  The zippers on either side hide a holster; presumably after a woman has been grabbed from behind and overpowered, she will still be able to unzip and extract her weapon.
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On a lighter note, the young man in this store (which predominantly sold hats) was lots of fun and did us a huge favour. Stephen has been wearing a bucket hat for the past several months, and I, rather unkindly,  have been comparing him to Walter Matthau. As Stephen began to try on different Tilley iterations, our young man told him that his bucket hat was a hip-hop favourite. Jay-Z has done a lot for the bucket hat. Now, Jay-Z  could make a sun visor look cool, but we began to look at Stephen’s hat with fresh appreciation. You be the judge.

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Lucky Prescott-ians – they are spoiled for choice with outdoor activities. There are miles and miles of hiking and biking trails and many lakes in the surrounding areas.

We spent a number of hours wandering around “the Dells” –  huge rock formations surrounding Watson Lake.  Since the trails are mainly a series of rock formations, they   are marked with large painted white dots – a quite ingenious idea to prevent people from getting lost.

The entrance  to the lake – the trailhead is just to the left.

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There has been so much rain in this area in recent weeks that several lakes and creeks are overflowing. You’ll notice the base of this tree is a bit underwater. We had a little extra clambering to do to begin our hike, as the path was submerged, but we were soon on our way.

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Swimming is not permitted in the lake, as it is an important area for birds, but we did see a couple of kayaks.

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We could have stayed another day in Prescott – there was lots more to see and do. As had been the case with some of our other stops, rain prevented us from really exploring the outdoor trails.

The weather looks like it is beginning to turn. The trees have that beautiful green haze and the nights are getting a little less frigid. We are experiencing spring in Arizona!

See you again in a few days.

Quartzsite: Boondocking bonanza or land of broken dreams?

We first heard about Quartzsite from a couple of brothers we met while traveling through British Columbia last year. They spend their summers working for one of the provincial parks and their winters boondocking in southern Arizona. They appeared to be in their 60’s, in good health and good spirits; far from destitute or desperate.  Reading between the lines, it seemed that although they did not have a robust revenue stream, they had options and their ability to live and work outdoors was a healthy and desirable one.

We read a little more about Quartzsite and were curious to check it out for ourselves.  In and around Quartzsite there are thousands of acres of land belonging to Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that have been designated as Long-Term Visitor Areas (LTV).

Boondocking on BLM lands is common in the United States – there are no facilities and there is no charge.  To make the distinction, boondocking on LTV lands is set up in Quartzsite to allow for the demand. It requires a permit, charges a fee and offers minimal facilities such as a dump station, water fill-up, trash dumpsters and a few toilets.

Fees are ridiculously inexpensive; one can camp for seven months for $180; the land is open from September 15 to April 15.  Since we were there for just four nights, we paid the minimum charge of $40 (for a max. 2-week stay). It is a democratic system; there are no assigned spaces – you drive into the desert and pick a spot. As someone told us, “If you don’t like your  neighbour, you just move.”

Here, our cozy space, tucked in beside a dry creek.

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We arrived at Quartzite last week, just as the winter season was drawing to a close. At the height of the season (November, December, January, February), there are hundreds of thousands of RVs staked out in the desert. Estimates have reached as high as 500,000.  By mid-March, the desert clears out considerably, as normally the day-time temps would be getting uncomfortably hot. This year, with much of Arizona being colder and wetter than usual, we just experienced mid-80s, but such an intense sun.

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Cyclists, hikers and dog walkers are here to take advantage of the trails that circle the area. Off-roading is hugely popular – dozens of ATVs ride up into the mountains and are gone for hours. Surprisingly, we found it extremely quiet – the only noise was one generator in our area; and it ran for just two hours every afternoon. I’m sure it is a different scene in mid-January.

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So, while we enjoyed our space and privacy, we also did not get a true picture of the community of Quartzsite during its peak.

Tens of thousands of people are drawn to the area to attend numerous events such as the Gem and Mineral Show, the RV Show and the ongoing swap meet.  The swap meet is famous – vendors come from all over to sell everything from jewellery to socks to RV parts to antiques. It’s a five-month garage sale.  By the time we arrived in mid-March, many of the stalls had packed up; all that was left was the junk that nobody wanted. We could have picked up cookies for 50 cents, but their best-before date was September 2018.

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Buying things is a major pastime here, but if shopping is not your thing, every day offers activities from Spanish lessons to line dance to pickle ball. Although it is most definitely not our scene, we could see the attraction for snowbirds. Quartzite is affordable, warmer than wherever you live up north and has a built-in community.

This is also the place to find spare parts of your RV, or tend to those pesky housekeeping issues you’ve been putting off.

We were struck by this sign (a multi-generational business, no less), and wondered what essential maintenance we may be neglecting with our own rig.

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Quartzsite is not pretty; the entrance sign is the most attractive part of the town.

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Camels? Why yes. Back in 1855, Jefferson Davis (later president of the Confederacy) hatched the idea of importing and dispatching camels to build a wagon road through the Southwest. After 77 camels were brought to Texas, they needed actual camel drivers. Philip Tedro, (who was born a Greek in Syria, and later converted to Islam and took the name Hadji Ali) was their main man. He became known as Hi Jolly since no-one could pronounce his name. By all accounts the camels were a great success. Unfortunately, when the Civil War broke out, the camel project was abandoned and some were sold, but the rest escaped into the wild.

This colourful tale is related on a plaque in the Hi Jolly cemetery, named in honour of the famed camel driver.

Hi Jolly’s tomb

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There is very little to do in town – a scattering of fast-food restaurants, some dollar stores,  and a little library. Off-season, it becomes a sleepy, dusty town.

Since there is not so much as a creek within many miles of town, we wondered about this restaurant (which now appears to be closed.)

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Back in the late ’70s, a local businessman decided that a little humour and business savvy was needed and revived an old bar, renaming it the Quartzsite Yacht Club. His motto was “long time, no sea.”  He worked around the obvious water challenges by offering a one-time membership fee of $49.99 (which would be reciprocal at other yacht clubs in the world), and it took off. Memberships sold like hot cakes (over 10,000 memberships), and his restaurant was a success.

After driving around town for a bit, the inspiration for this ice cream parlour became a bit clearer.

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We wandered around some of the outdoor stalls. Rumour had it there is a naked bookseller in Quartzite, but we didn’t run across him.

We did see piles and piles of T-shirts. There are clever, funny and thought-provoking message T-shirts on the market, but there are just as many that are crude, vulgar and cretinous and they always makes me wonder: Who makes these shirts? Who buys these shirts? Who wears these shirts?

You remember the popularity of T-shirts with messages like, “Gas Tank for a Sex Machine” (to be stretched over a bulging male belly, with an arrow pointing southward, in case the meaning was lost). Another shirt that made the rounds was, “I’m with Stupid” (again with an arrow pointing sideways, which would require a little thoughtfulness –  “Stupid” would need to be walking on the appropriate side).

Well, in these  dark days when thoughtlessness is celebrated – even “The Stupids” have packed it in.

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We wished we had come to Quartzsite a month earlier to experience it properly. As it was, our time there was conflicted and nothing as we had imagined it to be.

We were not surprised to see Trump flags – this one flew on a jewellery store.

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But we were very surprised to see Trump flags flying on RVs, camped out in the desert.  As Canadians, it is not always easy to understand the American obsession with flying flags of any stripe – we don’t tend to be flag-wavers. But somehow flying a Trump flag at a campground feels like an aggressive act, ” He’s my Man. Make America Great Again. Build the Wall. YEAH!!!”  Stephen thinks I’m over-reacting.

But I was not over-reacting to seeing a Confederate flag flying. Now, it was only one flag, but it is such a controversial statement to make that it was hard to ignore.

And possibly, because the crowds had thinned out so much, we really noticed the poverty.  An older man had pitched a tent in the gully just down from us. He spent a lot of time sitting in his small car, and from time to time would make the slow shuffle down the road to the toilet. It was cold at night, he was alone and we wondered what he ate. We saw what his life looked like now – what would become of him in a few years, or when his health gave out? Would someone find him in his tent one day?

There were a number of old RVs that were barely road-worthy; someone’s home until the mold or the mechanics claimed them and left their owners homeless. We saw people sleeping in their cars, with makeshift shelters.

I had romanticized Quartzsite before we arrived. I appreciated the idea that a low-income person could live a life of greater choice and dignity here than in a room up north. To a point that may be true, but a 60-year-old travelling in an old camper is still just one health crisis away from being in a very dire situation.

There are tens of thousands of people who come to Quartzsite, enjoy the activities and the community and take the best of it away with them. At the height of the season, we can appreciate that attraction to the area.  That side of Quartzsite – people with mobility, financial comfort and choice –  is every bit as valid as the fact that there are nonetheless a good number of people who live here as a refuge. That disparity may have been more obvious to us at this time of year, with so many of the snowbirds gone.

Driving one of the world’s “dangerous roads.”

Driving the Apache Trail was high on our list of  must-do Arizona activities.  This twisty hairpin road, billed as “best scenic drive in Arizona” was originally a stagecoach route called the Tonto Wagon Trail.  You tend to think of things like stagecoaches when you’re in southern Arizona; it is a state that straddles the past and the present. I’m trying to imagine the fortitude required to be on a stagecoach under any circumstances, but bumping along over a narrow rutted mountain road, roasting in my muslin dress and bonnet, hanging on to a child or two and hoping those spindly wooden wagon wheels are up to the task is beyond my scope.

We were lucky to find a campsite at the very popular Lost Dutchman State Park near Apache Junction; a last-minute cancellation of 4 nights that we gratefully snapped up. Our preferred method of travel – poke along as we like, with detours along the way – does not work well in most parts of the United States and probably not in Canada, either. Campsites in state and national parks are booked months in advance and unless you are willing to play the last-minute game, hoping for cancellations – you are out of luck.

We scored a beautiful spot, with a view of Superstition Mountain.

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Lost Dutchman State Park is filled with hiking trails, but unfortunately for us, weather was not on our side. We had a day and a half of significant rainfall and high winds, so we fit in short walks between rain and dug in with our books.

One night there was a forecast of thunderstorms, but aside from a few half-hearted claps, that never materialized. I LOVE a good thunderstorm; something that is quite rare on the west coast.

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Apache Junction has a number of  wild west tourist attractions, including a reconstructed ghost town, which did not appeal to us.

We saw this sign on a restaurant called The Hitching Post, not far from our campground. At first I thought it was a cheeky anti-Wall statement, but now I’m not so sure – it’s up to interpretation.

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So, back to our reason for being here – The Apache Trail. On our last day, the rain had finally stopped and it dawned clear and bright. Since we were warned there were a number of washes and dips on the road that were subject to flash floods, we wondered if we might encounter difficulties. The ranger seemed concerned; with  a scrunched-up face and a worried comment about cars floating if there was more than four inches of water on the tires, we weren’t reassured. She also wondered about the state of the dirt road after so much rain, which “tends to turn to muck, and you might need a 4WD. It is up to your discretion.”

It hadn’t helped that in my research, I came upon a reference to The Apache Trail on dangerous roads.org  that described the road  as being: “a true test of your vehicle as the road abounds in twists and turns with wheels sometimes hanging above the precipice.”

What??? Wheels hanging over the precipice? Car floating away in four inches of water?

No, we chose to listen to this lofty description, written in Literary Digest, Nov. 18, 1916:

“No traveler to or from California should miss the marvellous trip over the Apache Trail. This magic pathway, which up to a few years ago could be explored only by the hardiest adventurer, now lies open to the casual visitor….

The beginning of The Apache Trail, also known as Hwy. 88. So far, so good.

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A little further along and we reach the first stop – Tortilla Flat. The manager of the restaurant (“we’re not open yet“) was also unhelpful about the state of the road after the rain. “I don’t know, I never go that way. ” 

Well, we were still on pavement and that water was no more than a couple of inches deep, so we carried on. If we had to turn around at some point, we would do that.

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A gorgeous day, hardly a soul on the road and once the dirt road began, we knew we had 22 miles before we hit pavement again. We decided to take it nice and slow – about 10mph and just enjoy the views.

The dirt road was hard-pack and easy to drive and the colours were so vivid because of the rain. There was grass everywhere in the desert; normally unheard of this time of year.

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This road really does live up to its reputation as one of Arizona’s most scenic rides. The mountain ranges unfold and we  pulled over frequently for photos and a better view.

There are three lakes on the Trail, Canyon Lake, Apache Lake and Roosevelt Lake.  We stopped first at Canyon Lake.

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One section of the road, called Fish Creek Hill, is probably the part that gives Apache Trail its reputation. The road is a narrow one-way, which might make for interesting maneuvering if you meet someone on the way up ( we didn’t.) The hard-pack on this stretch had more of a rutted and potholed surface, which required a very slow and careful descent.

If you notice the guardrail, it appears to made out of plastic and would be entirely ineffective in preventing a plunge to the valley floor below. You wouldn’t even find this in Mexico.

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Still descending to the lower level. The shiny patch on the rocks is a waterfall during the rainy season. We met up with two women who live in the area and had pulled over to the side at the bottom of the hill. We stopped to ask them if they were okay and they looked so surprised by our question. They drive this trail all the time and were disappointed that there was no waterfall to speak of. A little rain was no deterrent for them.

I’m not going to lie to you – I was not entirely comfortable on this stretch of the trail. But “not entirely comfortable” is not even close to being frightened or nervous. Although this road had plenty of hairpin turns, none of them came close to causing our wheels to  “hang above the precipice”.

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We talked to someone about the Apache Trail, and he seemed incredulous. “That road is not dangerous unless you’re an idiot. You’ve got to go slow.” Not being an idiot really does count as a notable life lesson, not just on twisty mountain roads.

There were a number of single-lane bridges, and this was the only place on the Trail where we encountered mucky conditions.

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The creek below:

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For quite a while we drove alongside the river, fairly flat and so pretty.

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And finally, we ended at Theodore Roosevelt Dam. This dam was started in 1903 and finished in 1911. It was the largest stone dam in the world at the time.

Between 1989 and 1996, the dam was raised by 77 feet to accommodate increased demand and prevent flooding.

Interesting fact – a family of four uses 325, 851 gallons of water in just one year.

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While we were there, we had the added excitement of watching a helicopter take off from the base of the dam.

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I’m adding this photo for no good reason other than I used to love seeing Smokey the Bear on TV when I was a kid. Steve was curious about my interest (and yours) in this hard-working bare-chested ranger, but all these decades later, this friendly mascot is still warning us that  “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires.”

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We did not have the chance to drive over Roosevelt Lake Bridge, but it is notable for being the longest 2-lane, single-span steel arch bridge in North America. Plus, they painted it light blue to blend better with its background.

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We had the option of turning around here and driving back from whence we came, or  driving a loop on a divided paved highway back to Apache Junction. We chose the latter.

All in all, a memorable drive and a good lesson not to believe everything you read.

Now, we’re in Quartzite and this is an entirely different experience. So much to tell you in a few days.