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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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)

Waterfalls and Glaciers: Hengifoss to Dettifoss

On Saturday we had more things on our itinerary than we could possibly accomplish so we were strongly motivated to get out of Egilsstaðir early. Unfortunately once the car was completely packed we realized we were missing Ian's hoodie. This might not seem like a serious problem but we had packed light and the only other option for outdoor activities was his winter coat. It was also a good quality item that hadn't been worn until this trip. We scoured our cabin and then unloaded all the bags and opened them but it was nowhere to be found. Finally we went back to the restaurant where we'd had dinner the previous night but it wasn't there either. By the time we gave up on finding it we'd lost a half hour and were fighting off a bad mood. Soon after we got on the road, however, our exasperation dissipated as we found ourselves driving along the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes I have ever seen. Lagarfljót is a long, skinny lake that doesn't get a lot of tourist traffic despite being the largest lake in East Iceland. It's best known for abutting Hallormsstaður, Iceland's largest forest, and possibly hosting a sea monster. Driving along the eastern shore of the lake was an epiphany as the road approached the water's edge and we could see how faithfully the mirrored surface reproduced the colorful landscape and cloudy sky. We couldn't resist the temptation to pull off the road and absorb the sight. On closer inspection we saw that by some refractory property of the surface the details were blurred slightly, almost as if an impressionist had painted the reflection of the landscape on a giant canvas spread across the ground.

My research had told me that there was an extraordinary buffet restaurant close to the road so we took the turn off for Hótel Hallormsstaður to fuel ourselves for the hike that lay ahead. The clusters of birch trees that we passed through felt incongruous after a week of seeing nothing but grass and scrub on the Icelandic landscape. The Lauf buffet restaurant inside the hotel lived up to expectations and we ate vigorously while looking out over the forest and the far side of the lake.

The trailhead for Hengifoss was on the opposite side of Lagarfljót but there was a convenient causeway that traversed the lake. We had already seen several of Iceland's famous waterfalls but we had learned there was a lot more to appreciate than just falling water. Each one had been unique in the combination of height, forcefulness, and setting. Of course, half the fun of a waterfall that was at the end of a trail was the task of getting there. This one began with a long climb up a hill alongside Hengifossárgil gorge.

After a couple of sheep gates we reached an overlook with a spectacular view of what to me was the most amazing waterfall we had seen yet. The flow wasn't particularly powerful but the background was incredible. The river had cut a deep gash in the rock so the top of the waterfall was already halfway down the cliff, and it poured a long distance into a tranquil pool before flowing into the gorge. The upper walls of the chasm were lined with a remarkable display of basalt columns that looked like a colossal design project. This was actually Litlanesfoss, about two thirds of the way to the end of the trail where Hengifoss lies.

We continued onward until we reached a bench with decent views of the final waterfall. Hengifoss was an attractive waterfall in its own right with a backdrop of layers of basalt separated by stripes of red sedimentary rock. Given that we were pressed for time we made a collective decision that we'd walked far enough and decided to turn our attention once again towards sustenance.

After our buffet breakfast it was too early to sit down for a full lunch, but the Klausturkaffi cafe inside the historic home of Icelandic novelist Gunnar Gunnarsson was so renowned for its seafood soup and cake buffet that we had to make a stop. The 1930's mansion is quite beautiful and distinctive, constructed of dark basalt and white mortar with a lush and wellmaintained turf roof. We arrived just as the cafe was opening and had a piping hot tureen of seafood soup that was almost like a bouillabaisse in its richness, followed by a fluffy rhubarb pie. The cake buffet looked amazing but it would have been far too much to handle so soon after breakfast.

We doubled back towards Egilsstaðir on the western shore of Lagarfljót and then took the Ring Road west to the turn off for Stuðlagil. This colorful canyon was revealed only after the Kárahnjúkar hydropower plant was brought into operation in 2009, diverting water from the Jökulsá á Brú and lowering its level dramatically. Even after ten years the canyon hasn't made it into the 2019 edition of the Lonely Planet so it was fortunate that I supplemented the guidebook with my own research. I did make one significant mistake that caused us to miss the experience of entering the canyon itself, which was in trusting one person who wrote that the hike into the canyon was four kilometers each way. That led me to choose the option of the viewing platform above the canyon which had a parking lot adjacent to it. Only once we were looking over the platform did we see another parking lot on the lower level much closer to the entry point that is accessible to any four wheel drive vehicle. One excellent resource where locals explain the different access points to the canyon is the reviews on Google Maps.

Although we didn't have to hike at all to get to the platform we did need to descend about a hundred stairs and of course ascend them on the way back. The basalt columns that line the canyon are truly amazing in their different curvatures, heights, and coloration. We were fortunate to have the opportunity to see something so beautiful even from a distance but it would certainly have been even more spectacular to have explored the bottom of the canyon.

I made another mistake with our itinerary on the way to Mývatn, although we were largely able to recover from it. There was a heavy concentration of worthwhile sights about half an hour north of the Ring Road before arriving at Mývatn. I knew we wouldn't have time to see all of them before our early dinner and my plan was to see as much as we could and try to push back our dinner reservation if we wanted to. When we reached the turn-off that Google Maps had given us we encountered an interesting sign. Were the authorities trying to help us or were they tricking tourists out of the best experiences for their own nefarious reasons? We decided to put our trust in the local authorities over Google Maps.

We drove up 862 instead of 864 and after about twenty minutes reached the turn-off to Dettifoss as promised. We learned that Dettifoss can be observed from either the east or west sides but there's no way to cross over without returning all the way to the Ring Road. People are divided about which side is the best. On the west, where we were, there's more spray and the view is partially obstructed unless you cross the barriers and get dangerously close to the edge. However the road is paved and well-maintained and the waterfall is still quite impressive. People also agree that the view of the Selfoss, the other waterfall close by, is better from the west. The road to the east is gravel and people say that flat tires and dents are quite common even with a four wheel drive. The area around the parking lot was very desolate and volcanic, even for Iceland. We followed a path through a lava field with stubby basalt columns towards the cloud of mist we could see arising from the gorge. After about a kilometer we found ourselves at the top of a path that descended to the edge of the most thunderous and terrifying waterfall I've ever seen.

Dettifoss is known for being the most powerful waterfall in Iceland and the second most powerful in all of Europe. The river appeared foamy and angry even before the water burst over the edge in a cascade of grey and white loops. Invisible rocky projections blocked the downward flow in spots and added to the sense of chaos. The strongest human alive would have fared no better than an ant in that cataclysm. Even from a safe vantage point behind the rope the sheer ferocity of the waterfall was intimidating. We navigated our way to the highest viewing platform via a path that went perilously close to a ten foot drop-off. From here we could finally see where the sheets of water impacted the bottom of the chasm. We could also see people on the opposite side who had clambered down to the slippery basalt above the gorge for a closer look. There was no barrier whatsoever and it was hard to believe that no one ever plunged to their deaths from that precarious spot.

We doubled back towards the parking lot and then took a path about half a kilometer upstream to Selfoss. This waterfall shares its name with the town we stayed in on the first night, despite the fact that they are in completely different parts of the country and there's no waterfall in the town. The distinguishing feature of Selfoss is the way the basalt columns separate the water flow into individual streams, but the waterfall isn't very high and I don't think most people would drive out of their way for it if they weren't already going to Dettifoss.

The restaurant declined to move back our reservation which turned out to be a good thing as an extra hour and a half would not have been enough time to visit the next spot on our itinerary. We returned to the Ring Road and drove another half hour en route to Mývatn, the most well-known lake in northern Iceland.

Posted by zzlangerhans 03:01 Archived in Iceland Tagged iceland family_travel travel_blog family_travel_blog lagarfljot 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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)

Waterfalls and Glaciers: The Eastern Fjords

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We had now been traveling in Iceland for five complete days and working non-stop. Someone might scratch their head at the use of the term "working" but for us travel has never been about taking it easy. It's more like a constant quest for new experiences, distinctive sights, and unexpected situations. We find the idea of spending days lounging around a resort with a fruity drink in hand to be gruesome, but there's no question that all the planning, packing, unpacking, navigating, shepherding, dining, and everything else that goes into road tripping with three kids is a form of work. It's very rewarding, worthwhile work but it's not for people who believe that vacations should be relaxing. As far as we were concerned, we had done more memorable living in those five days than we did in several months at home. We had walked on a glacier, boated around icebergs, summited a volcanic crater, ridden on horseback, explored a lava cave, and hiked through canyons. We had cleared out of our accommodations early every morning, hustled our way through a demanding itinerary every day, barely made our dinner reservations, and crashed out in a brand new spot just to begin the process anew the next morning. Every ounce of effort and stress had been worth it for the experiences Iceland had given us. It had also been amazing to see our kids rising to all these new challenges and appreciating some of the natural wonders they were being exposed to. They were clearly on their way to becoming intrepid travelers.

The upcoming day would provide a change of pace. We would be driving more miles than any other day of the trip thus far but we wouldn't be visiting any natural sights at all. Instead the day would be dedicated to exploring small coastal villages in a part of Iceland that most Ring Road travelers bypassed entirely. It might not be as exciting as the previous days but it would be interesting to see places where there were actually more locals than tourists for a change.

The best thing about our depressing motel in Höfn was departing from it. We had found the town overall to be a disappointment, much less interesting or pretty than similar-sized places like Selfoss and Vestmannaeyjabær. We drove down to the western shoreline for the view but aside from one cute little rock garden there wasn't much worth seeing. We had spotted some impressive slides at the town swimming pool and we figured we could probably manage a later start so we took the kids there for a couple of hours. We discovered that swimming pools in Iceland are actually a really good deal for us. Small kids generally get in for free and the slides are better than the ones our kids are allowed onto at a water park in the US, without the lines. Our only expense was for renting a towel which cost more than buying one in a store, but we had all three kids share one. They had a blast and we practically had to drag them out of there.

We had a full hour and a half of coastal driving before we encountered our first village at the end of a long peninsula between two fjords. By most standards Djúpivogur is a little hamlet but it was the largest and most energetic of the towns we visited in the early part of the day. Our first stop in the village was Eggin í Gleðivík, a quirky sculpture by the port that displays thirty-four oversized eggs representing every local species of bird. Apparently the concrete pedestals for the eggs were remnants from a dismantled fish processing factory. Rather than remove the pillars as well, the town manager consulted with a renowned Icelandic artist and the idea for the sculpture was born.

As we left the port area we passed a large red house with whale skeletons in front of it. There were prominent signs indicating it was a gallery so we pulled in. We found a lot of whimsical carvings and sculptures made from wood and whalebone. Behind the house there was a steep hill with stacked rocks and carved wooden heads arranged along its face. Spenser immediately started climbing the hill with Mei Ling close behind, while I explored the grounds with the older kids. We found the artist working in the main house and he acknowledged us amicably but didn't interrupt his work. The interior was crammed with smaller pieces and it was clear that the owner had dedicated much of his life to the work he was doing.

We had lunch at Við Voginn, which was a fish & chips type of place but also had interesting choices such as an Icelandic sampler platter. The platter had a variety of quite tasty cured meats and some pickled fish which made a nice break from incessant preparations of lamb and cod.

The gallery we had on our itinerary to visit was JFS Handicraft, which gets a prominent mention in the Lonely Planet. The establishment was strangely similar to the other gallery we'd visited, a house crowded with sculpture and crafts and a steep hill in the back. Here the emphasis was on stones and the artwork was several notches less creepy. JFS is Jon, a very friendly guy whose grey beard belies his youthful energy. It seems that every village in the Eastern fjords has at least one rock collector and Jon must have one of the largest collections. His house and the backyard were filled with colorful chunks of jasper and agate in raw and polished forms. Some had been fashioned into jewelry and small sculptures. Jon told us how he scours the countryside for rocks that bear the characteristic signs of having a crystalline interior. He was amazed that his hobby has brought him visitors from al over the world and caused him to be featured in travel guides written in many different languages. Before we left he gave each of our kids a polished white stone and we bought three beautiful woolen hats that his daughter had knitted.

Djúpivogur had been a very enjoyable little village and we hoped that the ones ahead would be similarly interesting. We drove along the southern edge of Berufjörður enjoying some breathtaking scenery on either side of the Ring Road. The landward side was sealed from penetration by a formidable series of terraced mountains, but every now and again a narrow pass gave us a tantalizing view of a green valley within the peninsula. Out in the fjord boats were tending to rows of circular fish farms that looked like a setup for a giant's game of lawn darts. Dense fog obscured the mountains on the other side.

At the end of the fjord we ignored the Öxi shortcut to Egilsstaðir and continued onward to the next inlet and the tiny hamlet of Breiðdalsvík. There were only a couple of commercial establishments here. Kaupfjelagið Art and Craft cafe had a small grocery store and some souvenirs in addition to an array of appealing cakes. There wasn't much to be seen in the way of arts and crafts. We only hung around long enough to get some coffee for ourselves and a snack for the kids. Next door the Beljandi craft brewery was just opening up so I had an IPA while the kids messed around on the pool table. No other customers showed up and the atmosphere wasn't exactly festive. We had been looking for a quiet place off the tourist track and Breiðdalsvík definitely fit the bill, but we had enough of it fairly quickly and got back on the road again.

One fjord further was Stöðvarfjörður. Remember your Icelandic pronunciation? Stuhdth-var-fjuhrdther. Stöðvarfjörður has another famous stone collector but we'd already had enough of colorful rocks and this one was charging admission. Instead we headed to the Fish Factory, one of many decommissioned fish processing plants in Iceland that have been repurposed for artistic use. Despite having minimal artistic capabilities myself, I'm fascinated by artwork and crafting and I always seek out opportunities to visit artists in their workspaces when we travel. The Fish Factory was a rather decrepit warehouse-type building near the port that had some cool graffiti-style paintings on the outside walls but otherwise looked abandoned. We finally found the entrance where a sign was hanging that stated that tours were available by advance appointment only. I was a little disappointed since we had nothing else to see in the tiny village but I didn't want to disturb anyone inside who might be engrossed in their work. Mei Ling doesn't have the same Western inhibitions that I do so after I retreated to the car she went to the entryway herself. She reappeared a few minutes later triumphantly and announced we were getting a tour. Our guide turned out to be a friendly artist from Pennsylvania who was in the middle of a residency at the factory. He showed us the different workshops and performance spaces and informed us that artists from all over the world come for periods of up to six months to work on their own projects in the beauty and isolation of the Icelandic coast. At the end we bought a hideously expensive T shirt and a shopping bag to support the endeavor and then got back on the road once again.

At the end of the next fjord over the Ring Road turned inland to Egilsstaðir. There are a couple of other peninsulas in the Eastern fjords with their own tiny villages but the roads on those reach dead ends and we hadn't found anything in particular worth seeing. Instead we stopped briefly in Egilsstaðir to fill up on gas before dinner. Buying gas in Iceland can be a little confusing. The two options are to use a credit card with a pin or to buy gas debit cards at the N1 gas stations. The problem with the gas cards is that they come in small denominations and most of the gas stations outside of the main towns don't have any attendants to sell cards. We bought one and used most of it on our first fill-up, and never had an opportunity to buy another. My American debit card with a pin didn't work but fortunately I remembered I'd called one of my credit card companies years ago to request a pin and it still worked. We were filling up as soon as we got below half a tank because we didn't want to run out of gas on some isolated stretch of road, but we needn't have worried about Iceland where gas stations seemed to be everywhere.

Our timing was perfect to have dinner in Seyðisfjörður, a famously beautiful town at the very end of the fjord of the same name. It was a half hour drive from Egilsstaðir along a wonderfully scenic and misty inland road that passed right by an excellent waterfall called Gufufoss.

The two things that distinguish Seyðisfjörður from other small villages in Iceland are the "Rainbow Street" in the center of town and the colorful houses that surround the lake at the end of the fjord. The Regnbogastræti was originally created in 2016 to support gay pride and has been maintained as a tourist attraction ever since due to the very positive attention it brought to the village. The street is lined by galleries with their own whimsical exterior decoration and ends at a picturesque blue church.

The natural beauty of the tiny lake and the surrounding mountains was more impressive to us than the colorful street. We spent some time along the shoreline admiring the reflections of the houses and the steep hillsides. A land bridge at the far end of the lake separated it from the long fjord that extended eastward to the ocean.

There were a couple of restaurants that seemed decent in the village and it would have been nice to eat in such a pleasant setting. Unfortunately this was the one night of our Ring Road journey that I had chosen not to make a reservation, as I had been unsure whether we would be visiting Seyðisfjörður that evening or the following morning. It was a costly decision as all the fine dining in town was completely booked. We turned down the suggestion of one restaurant manager that we visit the local pizza joint and began calling restaurants in Egilsstaðir. The first three places I called were also booked and I started to worry we might end up eating fast food after all, but eventually i found a hotel restaurant that had a table for us. We drove back to Egilsstaðir and had a very similar meal to the hotel restaurant near the glacier lagoons. It was the usual menu of cod, lamb, and beef at even more exorbitant prices than the typical Icelandic restaurant, but it was still better than settling for pizza.

Posted by zzlangerhans 18:35 Archived in Iceland Tagged road_trip family_travel djúpivogur family_travel_blog breiðdalsvík seydisfjordur stöðvarfjörður hengifoss egilsstaðir Comments (0)

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