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A Southwestern USA Expedition: Zuni and El Morro


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There's no question that Route 66 is the iconic highway of the American Southwest, but it's more of a nostalgia trip than a true driving adventure. In my opinion, most people bypass the current king of the roads in the region when they stick to I40 between Albuquerque and Arizona. Route 53 in New Mexico, also known as the Ancient Way, proved to be one of the most interesting eighty mile stretches of road we've driven anywhere in the country.
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I was excited about staying at Zuni because it would be the kids' first experience with a Native American reservation and I really wanted them to learn about the culture. Zuni belongs to a group of tribes called the Pueblo, so named by the Spanish due to their distinctive style of multi-family dwellings. In modern parlance the word pueblo now refers to ancient native buildings constructed from earth and stone as well as the modern towns in which the members live. There are nineteen different pueblos in New Mexico with various degrees of openness to visitors. The true name of the Zuni tribe is A’shiwi but they were misnamed by Spanish colonizers who had a poor understanding of their language. As is common with native American tribes, the Zuni adopted the name that they were given. Zuni Pueblo is small but reputed to be one of the most accommodating with a well-regarded hotel, a restaurant with local specialties, and a strong artistic tradition. It was still fairly early in the day when we landed at The Inn at Halona, the only choice for accommodation within the pueblo. The lack of options was not a problem as the hotel is well known for its atmospheric rooms filled with local artwork. The inn was everything we hoped it would be although food options were lacking. We got lunch at the cafeteria in the convenience store attached to the hotel which was very basic. I bought Cleo a T-shirt representing the local school which she loved.
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Most of the commercial buildings in the pueblo were on Route 53 as it passed through the middle of town. Most of the stores were related to Native American crafts in some way. We stopped in one called Turquoise Village that supplied local artists with raw materials and also sold their creations. There was plenty of Zuni pottery, silver and turquoise jewelry, and Hopi kachina dolls on display. The kids were playing with some chunks of coal while I was browsing and before I knew it their hands and faces were covered with black dust. I hadn't had any luck getting a response to my e-mails about visiting local artists so I asked the shop owner if he knew of any who were allowing studio tours. He didn't but a local customer in the store overheard and told me he would ask around for me. I didn't expect anything to come of it but I gave him my number.
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The one decent restaurant in town was shut down, likely due to COVID, which left a Subway franchise and the supermarket. The kids are fine with sandwiches but Mei Ling and I can't stand fast food so we drove out to the big supermarket at the edge of town. On the way we passed the majestic mesa called Dowa Yalanne, or Corn Mountain. The mesa served as a refuge for the Zuni from Spanish colonizers during several conflicts. The supermarket was well-supplied with fruits, loaves of the famous Zuni bread, and some prepared foods. We ate our self-catered dinner on a large outdoor deck on the upper floor of the inn.
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In the evening we took a drive around town. We could see that even though the whole pueblo seemed economically depressed, there was substantial variation in the quality of the homes. Modern homes with a traditional clay brick design were mingled with others largely constructed from plywood and even some trailers. One ubiquitous sight was the hornos, traditional bread ovens that were sometimes arranged in rows of three or four outside even the most basic dwellings.
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In the morning I got a surprising phone call. My acquaintance from the previous day had arranged for us to visit a well-known Zuni potter named Noreen Simplicio, whose apartment was just across the main road from the hotel. We drove over and were welcomed inside by Noreen and her husband. The home was filled with Noreen's pottery as well as the work of other artists. Zuni pottery typically displays dark red and dark brown designs on a white background. Deer and birds are frequent motifs, but we noticed that Noreen also incorporated some non-traditional, playful elements like little frogs that were climbing in and out of the bowls.
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Noreen explained to the kids with the help of videos how she harvested her own clay from a special area close to the river. As more accessible areas became depleted she had to push deeper into caverns under the rock which could be dangerous for inexperienced diggers. She gave the kids some clay to experiment with and demonstrated how she painted her designs on the surface of the pot with a fine brush. She told us that every year there were fewer kids on the pueblo who were interested in continuing the tradition of Zuni pottery, much in the same way that fewer were learning the Zuni language. COVID had also done terrible damage to the population of tribal elders on the reservation. It's possible that in two or three more generations the language, the dances, and the art of the Zuni may have died out completely. We bought a couple of small bowls before leaving, partly to support Noreen and thank her for teaching us about her work and partly to keep us close to the memory of the experience.
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We continued onward on Route 53 until we reached the tiny town of Ramah, where we had lunch at Stagecoach Cafe. This was the only restaurant in town and the locals seemed somewhat confused by our presence. I don't think Route 53 had started seeing much tourist traffic since the end of the most recent COVID wave. It was a cute place with average food.
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There was no answer when we called our B&B so we stopped off on the way to our next destination. The door of the front building at Cimarron Rose was open but no one was in the office. We peeked around the grounds for a bit and didn't see any sign of life. It was still early in the day so we drove onward a little further to the Bandera Volcano, a large cinder cone that was the origin of most of the lava flows in the area. The volcano is on private land and the owners run the site as a tourist enterprise. A wide, spiraling gravel path took us for a half mile up the side of the cone until we reached the crater at the top. Despite the relatively gentle grade it was an exhausting climb.
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Back on ground level another trail led to the ice cave, an underground cavern contain a pool of water that remains frozen year-round due to the critical mass of ice and the lack of air circulation within the chamber. These permanently frozen pools are an occasional feature of lava tunnels even in warm climates. The temperature in the cavern is freezing, of course, but on the platform it felt about the same as standing in front of the refrigerator.
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There was still no answer when we called Cimarron Rose, and once again there was no sign of human activity when we drove back onto the property. At this point there was no cell phone service. This time around I knocked on one of the doors inside the office. A sleepy person who seemed to be a guest opened the door and told me that he didn't know where the owner was, but she was probably around somewhere. I figured we would just have to wait in the car but after another fifteen minutes Mei Ling decided to explore the grounds a little more deeply and eventually turned up the owner doing maintenance in one of the cottages. Our mild annoyance soon turned to delight when we realized what a serenely beautiful place we had found to spend the night. The cottages were colorful and beautifully decorated inside and out with local crafts and Native American designs. There were bird feeders everywhere which were being put to constant use by hummingbirds and woodpeckers. The only restaurant nearby was being renovated so Mei Ling cooked the pasta that the owner had generously provided. We ate on the shady patio surrounded by the gentle buzz of hummingbird wings.
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In the morning the owner brought over a breakfast of blue corn pancakes, scrambled eggs, and fresh fruit that was a welcome fortification for what promised to be a very strenuous morning. Despite the minor inconveniences I decided that if we ever chose to get off the grid entirely for a week, Cimarron Rose would be a top candidate for the location.
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The plan was to retrace our route slightly and hike the Headlands Trail of El Morro. El Morro is an enormous, weathered sandstone bluff that appears to spring out of the desert just south of Route 3 and dominates the landscape. El Morro is a Spanish word that is typically translated into "headland" although this term is generally reserved geographically for projections of land into water. El Morro is probably more accurately described as a bluff. It was named by the conquistadors who discovered there was a permanent pool of fresh water at the base of the cliff. This made it a critical source of water in an arid environment that could be spotted from miles away. Of course, they were hardly the first humans to know El Morro's secret. Native Americans built an enormous pueblo at the top of the bluff seven hundred years ago, although this was abandoned long before the first Europeans arrived in the area. Those ancient Puebloans followed by the Spanish and then Anglo Americans left their marks at the base of the cliff near the water hole in the form of petroglyphs and inscriptions carved into the sandstone.
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I knew from my research that there were two trails at El Morro, an easy paved trial to see the inscriptions at the base of the cliff and a more strenuous trail that ascended to the top of the bluff. My understanding was that the more difficult Headland Trail began where the easy Inscription Trail ended so my idea was to do the easy trail first and then tackle the other depending on the weather and our endurance. That plan fell apart when the ranger at the entrance assumed from our early arrival that we were intent on completing the entire circuit and directed us to what is normally the end of the Headlands Trail. She advised me it was easier to climb the stairs when we were fresh and descend on the switchbacks rather than vice versa. After about fifteen minutes of steady climbing we reached the top of the wide bluff with amazing views of the surrounding countryside.
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The ranger had cautioned us to remain between the parallel lines that marked the trail. We were more than happy to follow that advice since we knew that the bluff was surrounded by tall cliffs that we wanted to keep a healthy distance from. In one or two places the markings were ambiguous and we had to push forward without being completely sure we were on the right track until once again the trail became obvious.
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As we progressed along the trail we realized there was a hidden canyon within the bluff. At the base of the canyon was a remarkable sandstone monolith surrounded by trees. We also encountered the ruins of the ancient pueblo, just a small remnant of what was once an enormous complex that housed more than five hundred. Eventually we rounded the northernmost aspect of the promontory and followed the trail along the part of the bluff that was on the far side of the canyon. Here the only thing that separated us from the precipice was a metal railing with uncomfortably large gaps that a kid could easily slip through. I was quite relieved when we reached the switchbacks and began a steady descent towards the safety of the ground level.
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At the base of the bluff we merged into the Inscription Trail. An easy paved path on a gentle grade took us along the side of the magnificently stained sandstone cliff, first to the rather unimpressive water hole and then to the renowned inscriptions. Seeing a four hundred year old message from an important Spanish explorer brought home the incredible history of the colonization of the area. Somewhere in the eighteenth century the Spanish inscriptions were supplanted by the chiselings of American soldiers and pioneers.
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We continued on Route 53 until it ended at the intersection with I40 in Grants. Although Grants was the largest town we had encountered in New Mexico thus far, it had a quite grim and depressed atmosphere. It's a former Route 66 town without the kitsch and the souvenirs, just tattered old signs and shuttered stores. The industry that keeps Grants running these days is prisons, with three major ones close to the center of town. We ate lunch in Grants out of necessity in a featureless little restaurant that matched the town. The only surprise was a restroom that proudly billed itself as being for all genders.
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El Malpais National Monument is a large area of volcanic landscape between Route 53 and Route 117 that attracts experienced hikers to its caves and lava fields. It's well known for being a dangerous area for those who aren't as experienced or prepared as they think they are. We detoured down 117 to visit the area's most famous feature, a natural sandstone arch known as La Ventana. It was just a short walk on a flat dirt trail to the arch, a relaxing complement to the much more difficult hike we had completed earlier in the day.
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I had another exciting destination on our original itinerary but we weren't able to complete it. Acoma Sky City is a thousand-year-old pueblo located atop a high mesa that remains the ancestral home of the Acoma tribe. I was excited to see the ancient pueblo, the acclaimed views from the mesa, and the distinctive Acoma pottery but the pueblo had been closed due to COVID for many months. I checked online every day leading up to our passage through the area but the pueblo remains closed even four months later as I write. It's something to look forward to if we ever find a reason to return to the Albuquerque area.

Posted by zzlangerhans 18:14 Archived in USA Tagged new_mexico family_travel travel_blog family_travel_blog zuni Comments (0)

A Southwestern USA Expedition: The Petrified Forest


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We had left Flagstaff early Friday in order to visit the Sedona Community Farmers market, and now we returned the favor by leaving Sedona early for the Flagstaff Sunday Farmers Market. We felt a little sad to leave the beautiful red rocks of Sedona behind without another hike, but the market turned out to be a pretty large and busy operation with lots of interesting booths with produce, crafts, and prepared foods. It was quite a different vibe from the afternoon market we'd visited in the Historic District on Wednesday. We stuffed ourselves with well-made savory crepes and finished them off with cold drinks and gourmet popsicles. It was a good way to kick off a long and hot day of travel.
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Meteor Crater is just forty minutes east of Flagstaff. It's debatable how far one would want to travel to see what is essentially a big hole in the ground, but since we were passing on the highway regardless it was a pretty easy decision. The only issue was that we were back to dealing with three digit mid-day temperatures, although it wasn't as bad as Hoover Dam the previous week. We spent a short time in the small museum with some displays about the history of the crater and the largest chunk of the meteor responsible for the crater that has been recovered.
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Of course the real show is the enormous crater outside. Fifty thousand years ago a three hundred thousand ton nickel-iron meteorite smashed into the ground at this spot, leaving a circular chasm that is one of the most well-preserved impact craters on the planet. While many larger impact craters exist, they are mostly unrecognizable or buried due to millions or billions of years of erosion and layer deposition. Meteor Crater is the closest thing we have to what one might see on the surface of the moon. The guided tours around the crater rim had already been canceled for the rest of the day due two cases of heat exhaustion, but we were content to look at the crater from the viewing platform near the main building. There's only so many ways to look at a giant hole in the ground.
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On the ground floor was one of those annoying gift shops that prominently displays rubber dinosaurs and all the other stuff that kids can't keep their hands off of, even though it had nothing to do with craters. Outside a perfectly rectangular gap in a brick wall looked like an enormous painting of a desert landscape. Mock-ups of an astronaut and an Apollo command module commemorated the crater's role in training astronauts for walking on the surface of the moon.
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We stopped once more on the way to our Airbnb in Holbrook. Winslow would be just another faded town on the track where Route 66 used to be if it wasn't for a prominent mention in one of the top rock and roll songs of all time, Take It Easy by the Eagles. It's probably the only thing anyone's heard about Winslow in the last fifty years. Glenn Frey probably never would have heard of the town either if his car hadn't broken down there while he was on his way to Sedona. In the 1990's a community group seeking to revitalize the town came up with the idea for Standing on the Corner, a monument to 1960's culture. A bronze statue of a man with a guitar stands in front of a brick wall that is covered by a mural showing the reflection of the girl in the Ford truck from the song. If you look carefully you can see that all of the windows and other features of the wall are expertly painted to appear three dimensional. A bronze statue of Glenn Frey was added to the corner after his death in 2016. I'm not sure the display ever had its desired effect of stimulating the local economy. Winslow was as dead as dead could be on a Sunday afternoon with the exception of a steady trickle of passers-through getting their photos taken with the statue. There were a couple of souvenir shops and some attractive storefronts in the immediate vicinity but not enough to make us linger in the area more than half an hour.
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Holbrook was another plain little desert town largely indistinguishable from Winslow and Kingman. There was one real neighborhood full of featureless, one story houses and dusty streets that seemed way too wide for the complete lack of vehicular traffic. All the restaurants and businesses were clustered on a couple of commercial streets with gravel lots and sun-blistered signage. Are these places really as depressing as they seem to me or am I just biased by having lived in major East Coast metropolises for my entire life? I think a person has to have a very different mentality to live in one of these places and they probably think exactly the same way about me. Most of them would probably be miserable in New York City or Miami. At least the Airbnb we had chosen had some personality despite the lack of sunlight inside.
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Not many people would stop in Holbrook if it wasn't the only town in close proximity to the Petrified Forest National Park. Needless to say there are a lot of rock shops in town that specialize in petrified wood, but the one that comes most highly recommended is Jim Gray's. This is a huge store that contains amazing specimens of petrified wood including some dazzling furniture with prices into the six figures. The kids found the colorful crystals even more interesting and there was enough to see to keep us there for an hour. Knowing that it is quite illegal to take any wood out of the national park I bought each of the kids a small polished piece to have as a memento.
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It might seem odd that there are so many rock shops selling petrified wood in the area when the National Park Service is so rigorous about prohibiting removal of the tiniest specimens from the park, but there are large quantities of the material scattered around and buried in private and public land in northeast Arizona. Probably the best place to experience the thrill of discovering one's own specimens is the DoBell Ranch which is located fairly close to the southern entrance of the National Park. I knew if we went the next morning it would delay our entrance into the park until the heat was already oppressive so we decided to go that same evening as the sun was still up. I called and confirmed they would still be open and we set off eastward on US 180. After about fifteen minutes on featureless grasslands Google Maps instructed us to turn off onto a bumpy dirt road. For the next ten minutes we passed through some parched-appearing farmland with cows that barely moved to avoid our car as we drove by. The road ended in a cluster of cars and sheds that clearly had to be the ranch but even after scouring the property we couldn't find any sign of human occupancy. I called the ranch again and this time only got voicemail.
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The kids were the first to realize that there were chunks of petrified wood all over the place. Not stuff that had been collected and set aside, but lying around all over the ground. It seemed like half the rocks in the field were clearly petrified wood or possible fragments. I was a little uncomfortable since we hadn't found anyone to pay yet but I figured we could take care of that once someone showed up. The sun started to drop quickly and hung like a yellow basketball over the horizon, diffusing colorful light through the clouds. The kids discovered some beautiful black pinacate beetles, also known as desert stinkbugs, crawling through the blades of grass.
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A short while after that someone texted me a confusing photo of a broken outdoor plumbing fixture, which I figured was a wrong number. The kids had already gathered hoards of petrified wood in their shirts when I got a call from the same number. It was the guy from the ranch telling me he'd gotten hung up fixing someone's plumbing and was on his way back to the ranch. We occupied ourselves playing forced perspective games with the descending sun. Eventually it dropped below the horizon and we could barely make out the shapes of the sheds and the cows still grazing in the fields. I was starting to get a little creeped out by the darkness and isolation. I realized that no one else on the planet had any idea where we were and I was starting to get some chainsaw massacre vibes, even though I knew it was ridiculous. I began rehearsing lies about having friends in Holbrook who I had told where we were going. Twenty minutes after the guy texted me "four minutes" we decided to leave.
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Naturally as soon as we got back on the dirt road we ran into the owner's pick-up coming towards us. He didn't bear any resemblance to Leatherface. I apologized for leaving and offered to pay for the petrified wood we'd taken but he declined and we resumed driving. We had to stop a couple of times as black cows appeared in our headlights in the middle of the road, and heaved a sigh of relief once we'd made it back to the highway before we were in complete darkness.

The following morning we packed up, had a quick breakfast, and headed straight to the south entrance of the Petrified Forest National Park. There are a lot of trails in the park so I had to do some research to determine how we could get the most out of the experience without getting overexposed to the heat. Our first two stops were focused on seeing actual petrified tree trunks rather than the chips and chunks the kids had collected on the farm. The Giant Logs trail that starts behind the museum is a short loop that passes by many of the longest and thickest logs in the park. The wood on the Crystal Forest trail isn't as impressive in size but shows more detail in the way the organic material has been replaced by mineral. The kids were a little disappointed at first because the name of the park had led them to think they'd be walking through an actual forest with standing trees of stone, but they enjoyed being able to clamber on top of the logs and experience their surprising hardness and coolness. It was fun to explain to them that petrified wood and dinosaur fossils were actually formed by similar processes, with nothing remaining of the original organic material that had been so faithfully reproduced by mineralization.
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The northern part of the park is more notable for its landscape than for petrified wood. The Blue Mesas form an alien landscape of striated lumpy hills sculpted from Chinle sedimentary rock by millennia of erosion by wind and water. Repeated expansion and shrinking of the bentonite clay in the mesas due to cycles of water and sun exposure gives them their characteristic cracked appearance. The driving loop through the mesas provided enough viewpoints that we didn't feel the need to take the paved walking trail as well.
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Eventually the Petrified Forest Road crossed under I40 and entered the Painted Desert area. The landscape opened up into a vast badlands filled with buttes and mesas in hues of red and gray. In terms of pure visual impact it was the most impressive area of the entire park. The Painted Desert Inn, actually a museum, offered us a harbinger of the stunning adobe architecture we would soon experience in New Mexico.
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After we passed the northern entrance station the road deposited us gently onto the interstate. Instead of following the well-worn cross-country pathway along I40 to Gallup and then Albuquerque we detoured south on US 191 and then east on State Route 61. Soon we would be in New Mexico, one of the nine remaining states I had never visited.

Posted by zzlangerhans 22:20 Archived in USA Tagged petrified_forest family_travel travel_blog meteor_crater tony_friedman family_travel_blog winslow_arizona Comments (0)

A Southwestern USA Expedition: Sedona


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Just one week into our trip we had already experienced three iconic American destinations. Las Vegas, Route 66, and the Grand Canyon were all behind us but there was still so much ahead. We bounced out of Flagstaff early in order to have plenty of time for the Friday morning Sedona farmers' market before it closed at 11:30. The drive down 89A was a real treat. The winding single lane road was initially surrounded by the evergreens and limestone cliffs we already knew well from driving around the Walnut Canyon area, but these eventually gave way to our first sightings of the legendary red rocks of Sedona. The neverending variety of shapes that the weathered rocks acquired from millennia of wind erosion was even more impressive than their distinctive coloration. As we got closer to town we started to see a wild plant by the roadside that was different from any I'd ever seen. It had a tall bare stalk and then several clusters of yellow and rusty red flowers near the top that always pointed directly upward. It looked like an illustratrion from a Dr. Seuss book come to life. I learned later it is called goldenflower century plant, a type of agave.

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The farmers market was in a colorful commercial center called Tlaquepaque, designed to resemble a colonial Mexican village. There was a good combination of artisanal foods, beautiful crafts, and ready-to-eat foods. There were magnificent wooden boxes with dendritic designs created by arcing electricity as well as amazing paintings on emu eggshells. We had freshly made burritos and tamales for brunch in a beautiful setting.
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Once we were done with the market we spent some time exploring the extensive grounds of Tlaquepaque. It was probably the most beautiful shopping center I've ever seen, incorporating a variety of trees as well as sculpture and water features into exquisite Spanish colonial architecture. The buildings were filled with busy restaurants and high-end boutiques.
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On the second floor of the main building we spent some time in a magical little toy store where I bought the kids a kit for making flying dinosaurs out of cardboard cutouts. Afterwards we joined Mei Ling who had found the showroom for a local winery that was decorated like the living room of an eccentric multimillionaire oenophile. The manager's spiel about Arizona wine, which I previously hadn't known existed, was so elaborate and enthusiastic that we had to buy a bottle even though it was four times the amount we usually spend on wine.
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Sedona has an unusual layout as the expansion of residential areas is limited by the mountains and mesas. There are several separate small communities which are connected by the state roads. Uptown has much of the industry geared to tourists including accommodations, restaurants, and boutiques and is studiously avoided by many of Sedona's year-round residents. To the south along Route 179 are the Chapel area and then Oak Creek, while West Sedona is a short distance from Uptown along 89A. Almost anywhere along these roads one can expect have breathtaking views of majestic red rock formations. We wondered if the locals ever became so accustomed to their surroundings they stopped noticing them completely, or if driving around town was always accompanied by a feeling of profound satisfaction.
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The Chapel area is named for the Chapel of the Holy Cross, a spectacular modernist church that looks as though it is growing from a two hundred foot pedestal of red rock in front of an imposing butte. A curving concrete walkway that seems to be suspended in air leads from the parking area to a viewing platform in front of the church. The platform provided dazzling panoramas of some of the most majestic red rock scenery in Sedona.
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We still had a couple of hours before our Airbnb check-in so we headed to the local swimming hole, a segment of Oak Creek called Grasshopper Point. The attendant at the gate waved us off because the parking lot was full so we decided to head in the direction of the Airbnb in West Sedona and just explore the neighborhood. I was curious about what happened when we turned off the main road and drove to the very end of the side roads on the map. As it turned out the residential area just ended abruptly and the land behind it inclined upwards towards multicolored, striated projections of red rock. The one we chose happened to be at the beginning of a trailhead. Not the worst view to have from your backyard.
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We killed the remaining time before check-in at a used bookstore attached to the public library across the street from our Airbnb. It was a convenient find because we needed to restock on books as Cleo and Ian had voraciously consumed the ones we had brought with us from home. I discovered that the gaps around the spare tire beneath the trunk made an excellent place to cache books that had been read but were too precious to dispose of. The Airbnb was a two bedroom cottage behind a family house with a comfortable living area and a well-equipped kitchen. There was a large open area between the two buildings that was perfect for the kids to fly their cardboard dinosaurs around once they had been assembled.
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Before dinner we drove up to Airport Mesa for the famed view of the sunset. It's not exactly a secret so we had to jockey for position with dozens of other oglers, but fortunately it was easy to get unobstructed views. The star of the show is Capitol Butte, one of the tallest formations that stands out dramatically in the valley. It's one of the best places to see the layering of white Coconino sandstone over the iron-containing red Schnebly Hill sandstone. The softer, younger white sandstone is much more vulnerable to erosion than the red which results in fascinating shapes such as Bell Rock on the western end of the butte and Coffee Pot Rock on the eastern end. We didn't have time to wait for the sun to drop below the rocks but it was very rewarding to see the views and the changing illumination of the stone as the light broke through gaps in the clouds.
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We returned to TlaquePaque for dinner at René, which was very atmospheric but didn't live up to the stellar reviews in terms of the food. Nothing was really off, but for the prices we expected a little more than sides of string beans and mashed potatoes with every entree. The kids had never seen an artichoke served whole before and it was entertaining to teach them how to drag the edible part off the end of the leaf with their teeth. I was reminded of a case from our home town of Miami a few years back where a diner sued a restaurant after developing a bowel obstruction from devouring the indigestible leaves of an artichoke he had been served, apparently without being provided instructions on how to consume it.
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After a respite from the heat in northern Arizona we were back to dealing with three digit highs in Sedona. I was determined that we would do our first hike among the red rocks, but the trail had to be chosen carefully. Fortunately the ladies at the bookstore had recommended the Fay Canyon Trail which was already on my list of options. They advised me it was relatively short and shady but still recommended we be back at our car by eight in the morning. I knew that wasn't going to be feasible but I figured if we got started at eight we could be back before ten when the temperature was still in the low nineties. The parking lot at the trailhead was already three quarters full at a quarter to eight. The outward walk was comfortable and fairly shady, and the cliffs and striated formations surrounding us were amazing.
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After about a mile the trail ended at an overhang of red rock that looked like it had been hacked into a half-moon shape with a giant axe. We climbed about halfway up the rock and basked in the satisfaction of completing the outward leg of the hike. I followed some other hikers around the back of the formation and I could see it was possible to penetrate deeper into the canyon, but the official trail had ended and I didn't want to scramble with the kids around the base of the rock surrounded by dense thickets of prickly pear. It was clear that the heat was on its way to becoming intense and we still had to retrace our steps a mile back to the parking lot.
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We had a really solid lunch at a restaurant in Uptown called Cowboy Club which served exotic meats like rattlesnake sausages and elk chops. Afterwards we took another shot at the swimming hole and once again were turned away at the parking lot. It seemed that some planning would be needed if we ever wanted to take a swim in Sedona. We decided to escape the midday heat instead at the Sedona Arts Center. A large gallery displayed the work of several local artists and we found a lot of it very appealing, especially the pottery. Even Mei Ling who complains a lot about my art purchases insisted on buying a colorful ceramic vessel which had to be carefully packaged and stored carefully in the trunk of our SUV.
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We were turned away once again on our third attempt to park at Grasshopper Point, so it was clear we had to change strategy. There was parking along the side of 89A in stretches but there was only the side of the highway to walk along and the cars were rounding the curves way too fast for the kids to be safe. I dropped Mei Ling and the kids off at the parking lot and drove off to try my luck at the roadside. I actually found a perfectly sized space not too far off fairly quickly and I was already beginning my walk when Mei Ling called. A spot had opened up in the lot and she'd convinced the attendant to save it for me. Have I mentioned yet that Mei Ling is a Jedi? By that point I almost preferred to walk the rest of the way rather than get back in the car again, but then we would have had to split up again at the end while I retrieved the car. So I abandoned my excellent parking spot and met my family at the lot.

On one side of the creek was a jumble of dirt and boulders that people were relaxing and eating on as best they could. On the other was a tall red rock cliff with natural shelves created by uneven erosion of the different layers. People were climbing up on the rock shelves and jumping or diving into water that didn't look particularly deep. Some of the more reckless folks seemed to be trying to one up each other by jumping from higher and higher shelves, sometimes barely clearing the rocky projections underneath them. Hopefully they had experience with that spot and it wasn't as dangerous as it looked, although we watched one small boy who clearly couldn't swim nearly drown right in front of his mother after taking his jump. Cleo was urging me to take her to the cliff and I had no problem answering her with a hard no. They still had fun playing in the shallows although it was quite uncomfortable walking on the boulders on the creek bed in bare feet.
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In the afternoon we spent some time exploring the roads that connect the different areas of Sedona. On Highway 179 we saw a turnoff to a promising overlook. We made the short climb up the hill and found ourselves alone with beautiful views of a famous formation called Cathedral Rock. Neither one of us is particularly mystical but it was easy to see from the majestic symmetry of the formation why many consider it to be a spiritual vortex.
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We stopped off back at the Airbnb to get changed for dinner and met our host filling up his pool. He was originally from Colombia and had three small kids of his own. We chatted for a while about our visit to Cartagena when Mei Ling was pregnant with Cleo and the kids got to know each other. One of the things I like best about Airbnb is how it brings us closer to the local community than a hotel in a commercial district.
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We had made a dinner reservation in a nearby town called Jerome that was famous for copper and gold mining and bawdy nightlife a century ago and then became a ghost town once the metal deposits were exhausted. In recent years it has been reborn as an artists community and subsequently developed a small tourist industry of boutiques, wine bars and restaurants. I wasn't expecting anything particularly memorable but it would be a change from the Sedona vibe that we had become well-accustomed to. The red rocks soon disappeared and for most of the way it was an ordinary highway drive with the typical flat Arizona landscape. Suddenly 89A took a sharp turn and we embarked on a series of hairpin loops up a steep hillside. We entered a town full of interesting, historical houses and colorful storefronts with signs advertising galleries and wine tastings. This was clearly no average small town. I didn't want to go straight to the restaurant at the top of the mountain and miss out on seeing the town so we found a small lot to park in. We were immediately struck by Jerome's unique atmosphere. It was far from the first redeveloped frontier town that we'd seen but the most distinctive aspect was the way it spilled down a steep hillside like a southern European city. The place I was immediately reminded of was Taormina, Sicily although it was obviously a completely different culture. Main Street passed right along the edge of the mountain and provided excellent opportunities to take in the view of the surrounding countryside.
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Jerome packs a huge amount of historic boutique hotels, art and antique galleries, and stylish homes into just a few blocks at the center of town. It was a very enjoyable place to explore before we began the climb up to the Jerome Grand Hotel for dinner. The town was full of captivating little oddities such as decayed and ruined buildings that had been converted into art installations. At one spot we could look down at the basement of a building that no longer existed where bathroom fixtures and an old outhouse were now inexplicably displayed. The floor glittered with coins that had been tossed towards two toilet bowls, most of them missing the mark.
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Fortunately there were a couple of pedestrian shortcuts that reduced the distance to the hotel but it was still a solid walk. We took a short break at a very pleasant playground and admired some beautifully-landscaped homes before we finally arrived.
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The restaurant at the Jerome Grand Hotel is named Asylum as the entire building was once a hospital that also included what was then known as a lunatic asylum. A steep, cracked outside staircase ascended to the second floor of the hotel where an elegant and spacious dining room overlooked the mountainside from an ever higher vantage point than we had experienced previously. The food was the best we had tasted since Mizumi in Las Vegas a week earlier and the kids insisted on having their new favorite vegetable, a boiled artichoke, for the second night in a row. We ordered two chocolate desserts and were overwhelmed when each was double the size we had expected. The excellent meal together with the remarkable and picturesque town had made this the most enjoyable and memorable evening so far, and I still look back on Jerome as one of the top experiences of the entire journey.
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We stopped once more in the playground on the way back down to the car for the kids to burn off some chocolate energy on the tall slide. On the way back we detoured through another well-regarded small town called Cottonwood. A few blocks on Main Street were packed with busy restaurants and bars but there was no compelling reason to stop after we'd already stuffed ourselves. Cottonwood was quite flat in contrast to the three-dimensional Jerome and we felt certain we had chosen the superior destination to explore. Jerome had been a fitting conclusion to an amazing two day stay in Sedona.

Posted by zzlangerhans 04:37 Archived in USA Tagged road_trip sedona family_travel jerome tony_friedman family_travel_blog grasshopper_point sedona_arts_center fay_canyon_trail Comments (0)

A Southwestern USA Expedition: Flagstaff


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I might not have devoted two nights of our itinerary to Flagstaff if I'd realized what a small town it was, and that would have been regrettable. Flagstaff turned out to be a fascinating and entertaining city with awesome places to visit outside the metropolitan area as well. Downtown Flagstaff was the beneficiary of a major restoration and preservation project in the 1990's that has given the area an enduring atmosphere of history and character. It's a bustling neighborhood filled with restaurants and cafes, small boutiques, and stately brick buildings that look like they date back to the inception of the city in the late 19th century. The streets were enlivened by numerous colorful murals that adorned the walls of some of the more utilitarian buildings.
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We were fortunate to have arrived on Wednesday afternoon because that turned out to to the day for the weekly Downtown Community Market, an impressively sized farmer's market and street fair. There were hundreds of people there and plenty of space for them to spread out in so that it didn't feel crowded. That was an especially good thing since face masks were pretty much non-existent in Arizona. The vibe at the market was as if COVID had never happened, although cases had only really begun to decline a couple of months earlier. I had the feeling that masks were probably never much of a thing at all here. I couldn't really complain because I'd pretty much stopped wearing mine as well by then, although we still had the kids put them on when we were indoors or in crowds. Being able to forget about COVID was another nice thing about Flagstaff and fortunately none of us caught it. We browsed the different food and craft stalls, watched some public swing dance lessons, and got sewing lessons in Heritage Square.
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After two nights in motels we were thankfully back to Airbnb. Can't beat two bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen for less money than two rooms at a motel. The other cool thing about Airbnbs is that they give the feel of living in a city instead of just passing through. Our place in Flagstaff was a cozy two bedroom unit attached to the back of a larger home in a quiet residential neighborhood on the west side of town.
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After settling in we went to our early dinner reservation at Brix, one of the more upscale restaurants in Flagstaff. We ate in a beautiful courtyard with stately trees but the execution was underwhelming and the food couldn't live up to the setting. Perhaps we just didn't order the right things. We sat at a round table with one support in the middle and every time one of the kids leaned on the table it would start to topple over. After a couple of close calls I kept one hand on the edge on the table and ate with the other hand for the rest of the meal.
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Flagstaff is also the home of the famed Lowell Observatory which had reopened to visitors on a limited basis after shutting its doors for COVID. With everything we had planned I hadn't wanted to commit to visiting the observatory but as it turned out we had the evening open after finishing dinner. Regretfully the receptionist told me they were already booked for the whole week, so that's clearly not an activity to remain undecided about until the last minute. Instead we returned to the downtown area for another look and were greeted by the sight of the historic Weatherford Hotel brightly illuminated for the evening.
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The following day we had a full slate of activities in the rural areas outside of Flagstaff. We fueled up for the long day at Tourist Home All Day Cafe, an oddly named but atmospheric restaurant with creative breakfast fare served up in a shady courtyard. The artfully decrepit wall next to us reminded me of the ruin bars in Budapest. Here in the Southside neighborhood the vibe was funky and bohemian compared to the stately antiquity of Downtown. Ethnic restaurants and brewpubs lined the neighborhood's main commercial drag of South San Francisco Street.
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Our first destination was Sunset Crater Volcano, about half an hour northwest of town. While the popular name of Sunset Crater evokes images of a huge hole in the ground, the crater is actually within an extinct volcano that is off limits to climbing. The only way to actually see the crater is to hike to the summit of a taller mountain nearby. The real attraction at Sunset Crater is the Bonito Lava Flow which was formed from the last eruption of the Sunset Volcano 900 years ago. We walked the short trail through the field of broken lava and black sand marveling at the amazing landscape that had been created by the extreme forces beneath the earth's surface.
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Another trail took us closer to the volcano itself, where we could see that one side of the volcano was covered with sparse vegetation while the other had only black sand. There were some different lava formations we hadn't seen on the first trail and the twisted, split remnants of trees that looked as though they had been struck by lightning. It was rapidly growing hotter and there was no shelter on the trail so we kept a steady pace along the loop until we were back to the coolness of our vehicle.
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Instead of returning to the highway we continued down the one lane state road to our next destination. We were rewarded with stunning vistas of bright green scrub set against a background of arid brown soil dusted with a fine coat of lava sand. Eventually we reached the beginning of the Wupatki National Monument, an area that contains the ruins of several ancient Native American pueblos. We followed the signage to the Wukoki ruin, where a mercifully short trail led from the parking area to a low sandstone outcrop atop which were the remains of the brick pueblo. It was a fascinating spot because of both the intricate masonry of the building as well as the pristine severity of the surroundings. It was hard to believe that at one time people called this inhospitable and seemingly barren area their home.
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Slightly further down the state road were the ruins of the Wupatki Pueblo. By now the kids were sleeping so Mei Ling and I went out in shifts for a quick scan. This was a much larger complex than Wukoki and had a remarkable background of hills that were an exquisite blend of luminescent green foliage and black lava sand.
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Just to the east of Flagstaff is Walnut Canyon National Monument, a 350 foot deep trench whose walls contain the remnants of cliff dwellings that were inhabited by the Sinagua tribe until they were abandoned 800 years ago. There are two ways to see the canyon. We opted for the easy, paved Rim Trail with expansive if distant views of the Kaibab limestone canyon walls. The more strenuous Island Trail dives into the canyon and meanders past the cliff dwellings, but it has some unprotected dropoffs and eventually requires a 185 foot climb back to the rim. The kids were already a little tired from the earlier activities so we decided we'd done enough for the day.
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We got back to Flagstaff early enough to check out a few art galleries downtown that we'd missed the previous day. We had a decent dinner at a Thai restaurant on the main drag and finally retired for the night quite pleased with our experience in the city. Downtown Flagstaff and especially Wupatki had more than justified the decision to spend two nights in Flagstaff. In the morning we had an early departure for the Friday morning farmer's market in Sedona.

Posted by zzlangerhans 16:31 Archived in USA Tagged arizona family_travel flagstaff travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

A Southwestern USA Expedition: Route 66 and the Grand Canyon


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Once we had crossed into Arizona Mei Ling and I were feeling exhilarated. Las Vegas had been fun but now our road trip had started and we knew we would be seeing dozens of new places over the next month. The sheer expanse of the journey ahead of us was electrifying. We weren't daunted by the fact that the landscape we were now driving through was some of the most barren I could remember since the Dead Sea seven years previously. The scrub had its own strange beauty and in the distance we could see the blue of a river snaking between a low range of rocky, black mountains.
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We didn't see any signs of life until we came upon our first town more than an hour later. Kingman, Arizona seems like a generic hot and dusty Southwestern town these days but a century ago it was a bustling stop on the east-west railroad. We had lunch at a downscale but atmospheric diner in Kingman before embarking on our exploration of Route 66, which occupies a mythic position in the canon of Americana. The road was one of the primary means by which tourists and migrants reached California from the Midwest before the interstate highway system was developed and air travel replaced long-distance driving. The steady stream of travelers engendered a new form of roadside culture along the route, from motels to filling stations to souvenir shops. John Steinbeck christened the highway "The Mother Road" in his novel The Grapes of Wrath and the name has stuck. Most of the historic segments of Route 66 have been overlaid by interstates, with US 40 being the culprit in Arizona and New Mexico. However one long segment of the road between Kingman and Seligman has been preserved, largely through the efforts of local chambers of commerce. Most drivers choose the wider and faster interstate but for those of us in the area to see what is there and not just traverse it, the Mother Road still lives.

Our first stop after Kingman was just a photo op. Outside a shuttered souvenir store near the miniscule hamlet of Antares is Giganticus Headicus, a fourteen foot sculpture that resembles a truncated green moai. The head was created by a local sculptor in 2004 and is an apt symbol of the quirkiness of Route 66.
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Just five minutes further down the road we arrived at Hackberry General Store. When the store was built in 1934 it was the only option for residents of the small town of Hackberry short of driving to Kingman until it closed in the 1970's. When the abandoned store was reopened in 1992 the new owner carefully maintained the mid 20th century aesthetic which has been preserved through several owners since. To some extent entering the store feels like passing through a time warp into the 1950's, but there's no question that the expensive T-shirts and souvenir knick knacks that keep the store operating are straight from 2020's assembly lines.
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Route 66 and Interstate 40 meet again in the town of Seligman, the ultimate destination for all travelers obsessed with the history of the Mother Road. It was too late at this point to check out any of the famous Route 66 stores in town so we headed straight for our motel. By the time we'd settled and I was able to turn my attention to dinner, I found that the only real restaurant in town had stopped seating for the evening. They did agree to cook me up some food for pick-up, so we ended up eating in the parking lot of the motel using plastic furniture that the manager had generously provided. Eating in such humble conditions by the red neon light of the motel sign seemed like the perfect way to honor the generations of travelers that had wandered this glorious American road before us.
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We had breakfast at Westside Lilo's, the same restaurant I'd picked up dinner from the night before. Like everywhere in Seligman it was full of kitsch and character, from the animal trophies on the walls to the skeleton with a permanent seat at the bar. More importantly, the pancakes and omelets were delicious and filling.
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Seligman has the most famous souvenir stores on Route 66 but we didn't see much different than what had been on display in Hackberry. We did pick up a nice cowboy hat for Mei Ling that didn't seem unreasonably priced. The kids' endless begging for junk that they didn't really want got old quickly so after about an hour of browsing we decided it was time to get back on the road.
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Having departed Seligman earlier than expected we had a lot of free time before we needed to head to the Grand Canyon. I reviewed my trip planner and realized we were quite close to one of the activities I'd relegated to the Flagstaff stop. Bearizona is a wildlife park mainly focused on bears although there are sections for wolves, bison, and other animals. It's one of those places where you drive through and see the animals from the car. We'd had a really good experience with a park like this near San Antonio many years earlier but Bearizona was a disappointment. There were bears surely enough but they were mostly sleeping or listlessly wandering through their enclosures, which I'm sure is very appropriate behavior for bears. We caught some glimpses of deer and elk and even wolves but nothing that particularly justified the experience. In Texas we'd been provided food for the herbivores and the animals had been roaming the road and sticking their heads into the windows. Obviously that wouldn't work for bears and wolves but the lack of interest from the animals made for a rather boring drive. After the driving route ended there was a "walk-through" section that turned out to be a regular zoo. Once again I was bemused by how a seemingly pedestrian wildlife park garnered such scintillating reviews on TripAdvisor.
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The only other thing I could find to do in the area was ... a deer farm. I was a little hesitant to pile on another wildlife activity but my kids aren't old enough to be cynical and they generally trust me to find fun activities for them even if I've already swung and missed a couple of times. Fortunately the Grand Canyon Deer Farm turned out to be a lot better for us than Bearizona. The big difference here was that we got to get close to the animals and feed them which for kids makes all the difference in the world. The deer were pretty pushy and had a way of knocking the cups out of the kids' hands but they weren't as frighteningly aggressive as the ones we'd fed in Nara, Japan a couple of years before. Besides the deer there were farm animals, a camel, and a zonkey (zebra donkey hybrid). Luckily I had time to read the warning sign about the camel having a tendency to pluck hats off of heads so when he came trotting towards us I knew to step well back from his enclosure.
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Our lunch in Williams was bad enough that I forgot about my plan to bring take-out to the Grand Canyon. My search for restaurants worth eating at had turned only one: the restaurant at the El Tovar Hotel. Reservations there were snapped up immediately when they became available a month in advance. There was fast food for the kids but the actual sit-down restaurants seemed to be universally awful. I had been proud of myself for coming up with a solution in advance and now here we were on our way with nothing but snacks. The landscape was surprisingly flat and plain considering that we were headed to the most acclaimed natural sight on the continent. I had decided that it would be worth seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time via helicopter, even though it was an expensive trip for the five of us. I wanted our experience to be more special than just looking over the edge of a railing and saying "Yeah, that's a huge canyon". I figured at least the older two would be pretty excited for their first helicopter ride but once we arrived at the airport they were pretty blasé. We watched a safety video and got kitted out with flotation devices which were mandatory since our flight path crossed the Colorado River. Although there have been a number of helicopter crashes at the Grand Canyon I was more worried about Mei Ling or one of the boys getting motion sickness than anything else.
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Almost as soon as we took off we were floating over the densely packed ponderosa pines of the Kaibab National Forest. I was so preoccupied with hunting for wildlife amid the trees that it came as a shock when we flew over the edge of the canyon. As I looked back at the lip it struck me how much it looked like someone had cut a layer cake rather clumsily. The colored strata were sharply defined but the wall of the canyon had been scalloped and gouged by millennia of erosion by wind and water. As we flew out further it became clear how incomprehensibly vast the canyon was in width, with the area between the rims filled with its own terrain of nameless red and gray mountains, each bearing innumerable scars of time. At the very center of it all snaked the innocuous Colorado River which had done so much of the sculpting of this intricate landscape over the centuries.
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I needn't have worried about motion sickness. Mei Ling was fine and both boys had nodded off by the time we gently landed back at the airport. We drove on to our room at the Yavapai Lodge, which was the only accommodation still available at the canyon when I had gotten around to making reservations two months earlier. It was a fairly bare bones and unappealing motel with non-functional wifi. Once we were settled we decided we might as well drive to the rim although my research indicated that we would be completely unable to find parking in the early evening. As it turned out my premonition was false and we found the parking lot at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center to have plenty of space. There were plenty of people at Mather Point, the closest and most popular outlook, but it wasn't crowded by a long shot. We'd been spoiled by the views from the helicopter but it was good to be able to focus on the amazing colors and topography of the jagged rock formations that extended from the inner walls of the canyon. I realize now that it's quite challenging to get good photographs of the canyon from the rim with an iPhone, as any brighter objects in the foreground cause the camera software to wash out and blur the more interesting structures in the back. Fortunately I took enough photos to have a couple worth saving just by pure luck.
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We didn't have any intention of hiking into the canyon but we walked for a while along the paved rim trial, stopping at each viewpoint for a slightly different perspective on the canyon. The setting sun was continually changing the appearance of the rocks as clouds passed in front of us. My skin crawled as I saw people walking out on narrow promontories from the rim just inches away from unimaginable plunges. My rational side knew that there have been relatively few deaths from falling at the Grand Canyon over the years but at the same time I could never tolerate being just one misstep away from a sudden and grisly end to my existence.
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We never went out to dinner in the end and subsisted on our snacks without getting too hungry. In the morning we had a decent breakfast at a Mexican restaurant in the little commercial town of Tusayan and then headed back for one more look at the canyon rim. This time we chose Yavapai Point, about a mile to the west of where we had been the previous evening. The light and the perspective were a little different, but it was clear we had seen everything we were going to see from the South Rim.
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We drove a little further west to Grand Canyon Village which has the Hopi House, a pueblo-like gallery of mostly Native American artwork and crafts. The architect was Mary Colter, who designed many of the iconic century-old buildings of the Grand Canyon. There were two floors filled with pottery, rugs, jewelry and paintings of very high quality. Of course we still had the reservations ahead of us which is where we were planning to make any purchases of Native American art.
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Across the road from Hopi House is the El Tovar Hotel, considered to be one of the top national park lodges in the country. The hotel has an antiquated yet timeless look, constructed of pine wood painted dark brown to blend with its surroundings. We hadn't even been able to book a dinner reservation let alone a room but we took a short tour of the interior and marveled at the obvious sturdiness of the early 20th century wooden construction. By now we felt that we'd truly extracted everything we could from this visit to the Grand Canyon. Perhaps some day in the future we'll return and find our way to the base of the canyon by foot, mule, or helicopter but that will have to wait several more years at least.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 18:28 Archived in USA Tagged grand_canyon route_66 family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

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