A Travellerspoint blog

Waterfalls and Glaciers: Selfoss to Landeyjahöfn


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Selfoss is an idyllic small town that sits on the bank of the Ölfusá river, nor far from where it empties into a wide estuary on the southern coast. Although well short of ten thousand people, Selfoss is the largest town on the south coast and the fourth largest in all of Iceland (if all the municipalities of Reykjavik are lumped together). Selfoss is the only significant town that sits on a river and the town is clearly proud of the distinction, with most of the major commercial establishments arranged along the riverside thoroughfare of Arvegur. I wish I could say we stayed in a fashionable abode with a view of the water, but our Airbnb was a pokey converted garage set several blocks back from the river.
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As tempting as the meager twin beds appeared after a day and a half of sleep deprivation, we forced ourselves to unpack for the first time and get our gear sorted. The top restaurant in town was undoubtedly Tryggvaskáli, situated in a renovated 19th century house filled with antiques. The crowded first floor provided immediate validation of my strategy of making dinner reservations for the entire trip. I gave my name and we were immediately escorted to one of the private dining rooms upstairs where we had a solid meal which included horse tenderloin. If I hadn't known better I would have thought I was eating beef. As is common in Iceland the bill was paid at the front desk. When I arrived a man with a Spanish accent was demanding to leave a tip even though the waitress told him it wasn't necessary. It seems with every year that the American custom of tipping is becoming the default for the rest of the world, even in countries that generally want no part of it. Iceland in particular doesn't subscribe to the practice but here was a customer who wasn't even American himself pushing a tip on his server. Eventually she laughed and told him she wouldn't refuse it which seemed to satisfy him. I'm a committed 20% tipper in the United States, but only for the specific reason that certain service workers are underpaid with the expectation they will make up the difference in tips. In most of the rest of the world those service charges are included in the prices so it is silly to duplicate them. Americans still believe they are demonstrating their exceptional generosity by tipping in Europe, but they would laugh at a tourist in the United States who tried to give a tip to a supermarket cashier or a clerk at an electronics store.
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On the way back to our car we detoured for a closer look at the elegant grey and white town church Selfosskirkja, sitting serenely at the edge of the Ölfusá. It was a peaceful conclusion to a very exhausting day and a half that had begun with a frantic near-catastrophe at the Miami Airport and had taken us through two plane flights and an adventure-filled drive through just one tiny segment of the fascinating country that would be our home for the next two weeks.
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I anticipated that the kids would wake up at some unholy hour of the night during jetlag, but all three of them and Mei Ling slept blissfully until the morning. It was actually I who awoke at 1:30 in the morning despite having been awake for thirty-six hours before finally putting my head on the pillow. I knew this meant I would have a second exhausting day but I was wide awake with no chance of going back to sleep. I used the time to review our itinerary for the next two days and also caught an early e-mail from the horseback riding tour we were scheduled to meet up with in the morning. They wanted to know if we could change from 9 AM to 1 PM because of some conflict they had. I didn't really like to disrupt our tight schedule but I try to accommodate people as much as I can when they ask a favor. I figured we could still make our ferry to Vestmannaeyjar if we drove straight there after riding. That meant we wouldn't be able to visit the swimming pool at Hella but that hadn't been a very high priority stop in the first place. Instead we could drive a short way back west towards Reykjanes and visit the Raufarhólshellir lava tunnel, which I had previously planned on seeing when we did the Golden Circle at the end of the trip. By the time everyone else had woken up I had reorganized our day. After a buffet breakfast at one of the hotels on the river we headed south towards the coastal road. As soon as we reached the coast we saw a pretty little village wedged between the road and the coastline. This was Eyrarbakki, once a major trading port but now a very modest fishing village. We had a little extra time so we pulled off the road and drove down the single main street admiring the colorful houses and the stately church in its own little square.

Raufarhólshellir is one of the better known lava tubes in Iceland, partly because it is one of the largest and also because it is easily accessible from Reykjavik for day trippers. For our guided tour we got to wear helmets with lights, which was exciting for the kids and frustrating for us as we kept having to escalate our threats to keep them from constantly clicking through the different brightness settings. A gravel path led to an ominous hole in a lava field which permitted our group's descent into the underworld.
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The cave was a good choice for us as it required a little bit of clambering to reach the metal walkway but nothing too strenuous, and there were no tight squeezes or areas of danger. The walls of the spacious tube had an intriguing jagged and rocky composition, almost as though they had been constructed by a giant gluing boulders together. Deeper inside some of the walls had a smoother, grooved surface testifying to the passage of lava centuries earlier. We had chosen the standard one hour tour but there is also an option for a more rigorous four hour tour which requires significantly more climbing and navigation of tight spaces. Our kids were nowhere near the minimum age of twelve so this was never a consideration for us, and it remains to be seen if we'll be up for that kind of adventure in five or six years.
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We had to pass back through Selfoss on the way to horseback riding so we decided to eat at Mjólkurbúið Mathöll, a food hall in the center of town that we'd accidentally discovered the previous evening while walking to our dinner restaurant. The operation occupies an old dairy building and is part of a major renovation of the center of town that was ongoing at the time of our visit. It was a small food hall with only six or seven restaurants but still quite impressive for a town the size of Selfoss, and quite busy as well. We had Thai food along with some skyr, a cultured dairy product similar to yogurt that has been a part of Icelandic cuisine since medieval times.
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Horseback riding is a very popular activity for travelers in Iceland mainly because of the small stature of the horses, their friendly dispositions, and their flowing manes. It's common for travelers to feed horses close to the Ring Road much to the annoyance of farmers. Our riding experience was with Riding Tours South Iceland on a small farm called Syðra Langholt. It was the prototypical Icelandic farm with bales of hay rolled into white coverings like giant marshmallows on the pastures. I was a little nervous about the trip because on our last attempt in Belize a few months earlier Spenser had been too afraid to go through with the ride. It hadn't mattered because Mei Ling had taken his spot and Spenser had hung out with me at the barn, but this time all five of us were planning on riding together. I spent the minutes before we got on the horse building up his confidence and the guides were very patient with him as well. They taught us how to control the horses with the reins, although I think it was an illusion as our horses generally followed the lead of the guides. The only exception was that since our pace was slow they would frequently stop to chew on some favorite grasses and weeds. The kids were also impressed by the volume and duration of flatulence a couple of the horses emitted on the trail. It was a pleasant experience although Mei Ling and I were mainly in it for the kids and our butts were pretty sore at the conclusion of the experience. Spenser finished his ride despite some initial anxiousness and was quite pleased with himself.
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We finished horseback riding half an hour later than scheduled which meant there was no way we'd be able to make our scheduled ferry to Vestmannaeyjar. This seemed unlikely to be a tragedy since the boats left every couple of hours and there didn't seem to be any problem with space, especially as we weren't planning on bringing our car. I confirmed this by calling ahead and they assured me there was plenty of room on the later departure, although I would have to wait until I arrived physically to change the ticket. That gave us an additional hour and a half which I hoped to spend at the Lava Centre, but when I checked the hours online I saw a very early closing time of four o'clock. The earliest we could make it there would be a few minutes before closing. I had no other plan except to wait at the ferry terminal but fortunately I let Mei Ling convince me to drive to the Lava Centre anyway. When we arrived we learned that four o'clock was just the time they played their last movie and that visitors could stay until five. As usual Mei Ling had made the right call. The admission price was pretty steep but the Centre had glowing reviews online so we decided to go ahead with it. The exhibit turned out to be pretty small with just one or two interactive features. The part my kids enjoyed the most was a video timeline of Iceland's formation that could be advanced or reversed by spinning a giant wheel. On the roof there were placards explaining the different volcanos that were visible on the horizon. Overall I would say the Lava Centre definitely wasn't worth the price of admission but it was better than sitting in the lobby of the ferry terminal.
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The ferry to Vestmannaeyjar usually sails from the port Landeyjahöfn which sits on the closest part of the southern coast to the island, in which case the ride is about forty minutes. In times of bad weather, which is much more common in the winter, the ferry sails from the small town of Þorlákshöfn at the base of the Reykjanes peninsula and takes almost three hours. I can only imagine what a miserable experience that must be on a rolling ocean. Fortunately luck was on our side and the seas were calm when we arrived at Landeyjahöfn. It was clear we had arrived at the right place from the large puffin statue at the turnoff from the Ring Road. We had to sort our belongings in the parking lot to avoid bringing both large suitcases to the island while being careful not to leave behind anything essential. I changed the time of our departure after paying a tiny fee and soon enough we were shoveling our kids and belongings onto the ferry. After eighteen years I was finally making good on my promise to return to Vestmannaeyjar.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 15:58 Archived in Iceland Tagged road_trip family_travel travel_blog selfoss reykjanes tony_friedman family_travel_blog raufarhólshellir lava_centre icelandic_horses Comments (0)

Waterfalls and Glaciers: Arrival and Reykjanes peninisula


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2021 has been a wild year so far for our family in many ways. After not traveling at all in 2020 due to COVID we've overloaded our plate this year with spring break in Belize and not one but two huge summer trips. For the first we were able to thread the needle with a month-long road trip in the American Southwest that ended just before the delta wave of COVID crashed into the United States. We were exhausted on our return and had to decide quickly if we were going to cram another trip into the tail end of summer vacation. It seemed fateful that Iceland, one of our most desirable targets, had recently relaxed their entry restrictions and we would now be able to enter the country without any quarantine as long as we were fully vaccinated with negative pre-departure tests. Our small children had no requirements at all. Our only other choice was Alaska and we were ready for a dose of a different culture that only another country could provide. Painful as it was to abandon the comforts of home so soon, I nevertheless got hold of a Lonely Planet for Iceland and went to work. I quickly realized that it's not easy to book accommodations in Iceland three weeks in advance. I was able to find a place at every stop I wanted but at one remote location I had no choice except to put down a non-refundable payment of over $700 for one night. The other accommodations were generally quite expensive as well, partly because there's almost no Airbnb/Vrbo presence in Iceland outside of the capital. Whether that is because of the sparse population or government restrictions I don't know. The cost of our two week 4WD SUV rental was over $5000 as well and that was with a local Icelandic outfit called Lotus. The international brands were considerably more expensive. This two week trip was going to cost us more than our month in the Southwest, even excluding the airfare difference.

The choice of Iceland wasn't based purely on word-of-mouth and impulse. I'd been there alone on a brief visit almost twenty years previously and only seen Reykjavik and the island of Vestmannaeyjar. I'd especially loved the island and clearly remembered standing atop a mountain there looking down at the only village and the surrounding islets, vowing to myself I would one day return when I had someone with whom to share this indescribably view. I now had four of those people in my life and I eagerly anticipated returning to that island. I was also excited about finally driving the legendary Ring Road and seeing all the natural wonders that are near it, as well as the myriad opportunities for family adventure that Iceland provides. I created a two week itinerary that covered the entire Ring Road with enough time to experience all of Iceland's more accessible adventures. The only regions excluded were the Westfjords, which would have required another two or three days, and the Highlands which seemed too risky and strenuous for the kids. Realizing how difficult it had been just to arrange accommodations, I had taken the extra step of making restaurant reservations for almost every night of the trip as well. Being forced to scrounge for dinner at a gas station convenience store would have been a lousy way to end an exciting day of travel.

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Our trip to Iceland was almost over before it began. We packed two days in advance and carefully reviewed our checklist. I even remembered the binoculars I had forgotten to take to the Southwest. We arrived at the Delta check-in desk with our passports and COVID tests in hand and the agent asked us about our vaccination records. I had kept mine in my wallet ever since it was first issued, but I saw a stunned look come over Mei Ling's face. This was the first time we'd needed vaccination in order to travel and she'd never thought to take the card out of her folder in the filing cabinet. We had a little more than an hour to departure, nowhere near enough time to take an Uber back to the house. The only person at the house was Mei Ling's mom who didn't know how to drive or even text us a picture of the card. Mei Ling started frantically calling her friends and found someone on the third call who was available. Meanwhile the gate agent was on the phone and confirmed we needed the actual card to get us through screening in Iceland, not just a photo. I simply could not conceive how someone could drive to our house, find the card in the filing cabinet, and bring it to the airport in time for our flight. Taking the flight to Iceland without proof of vaccination was not an option. We were almost certain to get quarantined in a grim hotel for the first five days of our fourteen day trip which would have been worse than just staying home. Meanwhile Mei Ling was unable to contact her mother because she was napping in Spenser's room and had left her phone on the other side of the house. Mei Ling's friend arrived about ten minutes later to a locked house with no one answering the bell. Here our luck finally started to turn. Spenser's bedroom is at the front of our single-story house and I was able to direct our helper to the window facing the front yard. Mei Ling's mom must have had the shock of her life to be awoken by banging on the window. When she came to the front door she finally picked up her phone and Mei Ling explained to her what was going on. Then I had to guide Mei Ling's friend to my office, to the correct filing cabinet, and then to the actual folder. The next moment of despair came when she emptied Mei Ling's medical folder onto my desk and the vaccination card wasn't there, followed shortly afterwards by a return to exhilaration when she found it in the adjacent folder. We now had forty minutes until departure and our check-in agent had very patiently waited for us for about twenty minutes. The card had been retrieved but our home was twenty-five minutes from the airport under the best of conditions. We decided that I would take the kids through security while Mei Ling waited for her friend at check-in. The agent weighed and tagged our bags and stored them behind the counter pending the arrival of the vaccination card. I'd been through so many cycles of despondency and elation in the last half hour that I was almost numb. Even though we were in a much better position than when we first realized Mei Ling hadn't brought her card, I still couldn't see how we would make our flight. I'd put so much work into organizing every step of our trip and now our itinerary would have to be cut short if there was even space for us on a flight in the coming days. We shuffled along on the way to the TSA desk and then after what seemed an impossibly brief period of time Mei Ling ran over with vaccination card in hand. It couldn't have been more than twenty minutes since her friend had been in our house. I still have no idea how she managed to get to the airport so quickly but somehow the universe just seems to flex in all the right ways when Mei Ling needs help. Amazingly our flight was departing from the very first gate after we got through security. We arrived just as people were starting to line up to board without even suffering the indignity of a mad rush through the airport. I planted myself in my seat in a state of complete shock, my head spinning as I contemplated the emotional roller coaster we had experienced over the last hour. It was time to put the trauma out of mind because we were now embarking on the first leg of our trip to Iceland and it seemed that we had skirted disaster. Just to keep our karma in good shape Mei Ling Zelle'd a solid tip to the check-in agent who had let us occupy his station for half an hour while we frantically dealt with our self-inflicted wound. The funniest part was that this wasn't even the first time we had come so close to missing an entire vacation. Four years ago we forgot to renew Cleo's passport and Mei Ling conducted a Jedi-like act of persuasion on the supervisor at check-in that got us on a flight to Mexico.

Iceland is a relatively easy journey from Miami but it requires a connection through NYC or Boston. Red eyes are a good option for us because Mei Ling and the kids sleep pretty well on planes, allowing us to start fresh in the morning rather than arriving exhausted. The flip side of that is that I can rarely sleep at all on a plane and I do most of the driving. I've discovered from experience that my long years of working overnight combined with the adrenalin of kicking off a road trip are enough to keep me active and alert through that first day as long as we don't try to push ourselves too late. Mei Ling and I wore N95's under our cloth masks on the way to NYC and then relaxed our precautions a little on the international leg, figuring virtually everyone on that flight had both been vaccinated and recently tested negative (with the exception of the kids). At the baggage carousel we had to endure one final episode of suspense as our suitcases failed to appear after almost every other passenger had moved onward. Had the gate agent remembered to load our checked bags onto the carousel or had he left them at the desk? Mei Ling had been so consumed with the vaccination card that she hadn't paid attention. Then our bags popped out together at the top of the ramp and we could finally breathe again.

Although Iceland's international airport is often referred to as being in Reykjavik, it is actually located near Keflavik at the end of the boot-like Reykjanes peninsula forty-five minutes drive from the capital. We picked up our rental, a Kia Sportage 4WD SUV, from Lotus Car Rentals without incident. There was a GPS that came with the car but we were able to use Google Maps for the entire trip without any difficulty. Google Maps is always the best choice when it's working because GPS is very difficult to use without a street address, and canyons and waterfalls rarely come with street addresses. Years ago we encountered lots of problems using Google Maps in Europe but the app has come a long way since then and in Iceland it was almost infallible. We stopped at the first gas station we came to for a snack and a Siminn prepaid SIM card. For a little over twenty bucks I got 5GB of data and 50 minutes of call time which proved to be more than adequate over our two week stay. It was a major price improvement over the $140 it would have cost me to roam my iPhone, and I had the best network for rural areas. I don't know what coverage would have been like with roaming but with Siminn I only lost service when we were out on a glacier. There were no activation annoyances either. I switched the SIM cards and my phone was immediately up and running.

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The Reykjanes peninsula gets ignored by most travelers who are rushing to either Reykjavik or the Ring Road, but sometimes the least visited places turn out to be the most interesting for us. As soon as we left the airport area we found ourselves in a completely unfamiliar landscape. The ground was uneven and rocky with patchy areas of long grass. It was clear we were driving over land that was in various stages of evolution after volcanic eruptions. On our way to our first planned stop we saw cars pulling into a small parking lot by the side of the highway. On instinct I followed them even though our scheduled visit to the Blue Lagoon didn't leave us much time. A path led to a shallow chasm traversed by a metal footbridge, and I immediately recognized we were at the Bridge Between Continents. This is one of several locations in Iceland where one can observe the meeting of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The bridge spans the two plates and a popular activity is to toss a football across the chasm from one continent to another.
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At the heel of the Reykjanes boot are the cliffs of Valahnúkamöl. This area contains some of the peninsula's most dramatic scenery. A side road from the highway took us first past the hill topped by the Reykjanes lighthouse, which was surrounded by flocks of circling and swooping Arctic terns. We drove slowly to avoid the birds which flew low around the car and even paced on the road in front of us. Other drivers clearly hadn't afforded them the same courtesy as there were several squashed birds on the asphalt.
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Next to the parking area was an incongruous statue of a solitary great auk, a flightless species that once frequented the area but was hunted to extinction. Close to the shore was the tiny islet of Eldey, a bizarre-appearing rock that looked like it had been cleaved obliquely with a giant sword. The slanted facet facing us was patterned with long white stripes of guano. The cliffs were jagged and daunting, tantalizingly hilly and climbable from the landward side but then ending in abrupt precipices. I couldn't deny the kids their first opportunity for a real scramble but it was quite unnerving trying to keep between all three of them and the seaward side of the cliffs.
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One popular attraction that almost everyone visits on the peninsula is the Blue Lagoon, a man-made spa filled with cloudy, sky-blue water that is ideal for Instagram posturing. Although the water enjoys a reputation for being beneficial to the skin, most patrons would probably be horrified to discover that it is actually the discharged water from a geothermal power plant that has been directed into a hollowed out lava field. The water acquires its unearthly and photogenic color from dissolved silica and blue algae. After the lagoon started becoming popular among locals the site was expanded and upgraded to make it more amenable for visitors and it has now become one of the crucial boxes to check for international visitors. The admission prices vary by demand but typically range from $60-76 for the most basic package which only provides a towel and one free drink. Children under 14 are free which was nice for us. We had booked well in advance to get a lower price and to be sure to get the time slot we needed. I hadn't planned on eating at the Lava Restaurant at the lagoon since it had a reputation for being overpriced and uneven on quality, but when we arrived we were starving and the restaurant was almost empty. We ordered the Icelandic standards of cod and grilled lamb and were quite pleased with the food. Afterwards we spent about an hour in the pleasantly warm water wading around and getting our free silica masks, which were a lot easier to put on than to wash off.
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Our next stop was the geothermal area Seltún, positioned conveniently right by the road and traversed by a well-maintained boardwalk. Although we would see more impressive hot springs and mudpots later in our journey, this was the first time the kids had seen anything like it. They were even more amazed that the earth could produce a sulfurous stench more intense than the most noxious flatulence any of them had ever emitted. There are opportunities for more extensive hikes in Seltún but we opted for the simple walk along the boardwalk and then took a dirt footpath back to the car. Across the road was a pond that was bright blue with algae and an abandoned farm with graffitied silos.
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Just a few minutes drive north is Kleifarvatn, the largest lake on the peninsula. The water was an amazingly deep shade of blue that contrasted with the surrounding black sand beach. As we approached an enormous flock of white birds rose from the beach in synchrony, swirled in the air, and departed.
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By now we had checked off all our planned sights on the peninsula and we were ready to drive inland to our Airbnb in Selfoss. I saw that Google Maps was directing us all the way to Reykjavik to pick up the Ring Road when there seemed to be a perfectly acceptable shortcut via Highway 417. We decided to take the shorter route but after just ten minutes we found that the highway was completely closed in both directions. Before we turned back we noticed a car emerging from a small parking area next to the barricade. We pulled into the now-empty area and saw a sign indicating we were near the Leiðarendi Lava Cave. We followed a gravel path from the parking area into the lava field by the highway. We had already seen a few of these lava fields from the road but it was totally different to walk through the middle of one. The lumpy basalt was covered in patches of thick spongy moss as far as the eye could see. The dark grey rock that was still exposed was a patchwork of lichen in white and tan. In the background were steep hills with the characteristic striped pattern caused by flows of black volcanic sand over the green carpet of grass at the base.
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Most lava tubes form when the outside of a lava flow cools and solidifies while the hot lava underneath continues to pass through. If the flow is fast enough the deep magma will pass through and leave an empty space behind. Iceland has many lava tubes, some of which are vast and highly popular as tourist attractions. Leiðarendi isn't one of the most famous but it seems to be fairly well-known. We arrived at the opening of the tube and I clambered down into the small entrance chamber. I couldn't see to the back and my cautious nature inhibited me from trying to proceed any further. I didn't even have a flashlight, let alone a helmet or any familiarity with the cave so it was probably a wise decision not to push onward. We made our way back through the lava field and charted out our new route to Selfoss.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 23:15 Archived in Iceland Tagged iceland family_travel reykjanes tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

A Southwestern USA Expedition: St. George & trip conclusion


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I had never heard of St. George but we needed one last place to spend a night between Zion and Las Vegas. St. George was big enough to have some decent restaurants and there were a couple of interesting things to do in the morning, and that was all we needed. Our Airbnb was in the residential suburb of Ivins west of town. The parkway that connected the cities was regularly interrupted by traffic circles containing landscape installations with marvelous sculptures with western themes. The Airbnb was on a quiet street with small, utilitarian houses that had gravel yards and an interesting mixture of palms and evergreens. A red massif provided a formidable background to the end of the street. The 117 degree temperature when we arrived in the late afternoon was the highest I had ever experienced by far. I was anxious enough about it that I made sure to have the house door unlocked and then hustled the kids straight from the interior of the car to the interior of the house in less than ten seconds. I don't know if I expected them to burst into flames spontaneously but it felt like walking through a gauntlet of ovens that had just been opened. I commemorated the occasion with a photograph of the thermometer on the front porch.
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We cowered indoors until the sun began to go down and then ventured out to dinner in St. George. We had a hankering for Asian food now that we were back in a real city but the highly-rated Korean restaurant we chose turned out to be a dispirited cafeteria-style place where we ordered and received our food at a window. It was still quite good so it felt like a success, and then we drove to a restaurant on top of the huge bluff on the west side of town for dessert and the view. Even though it was dusk it felt like we were being slowly baked in the heavy, torrid air on the patio. We could see the entire expanse of the city in the flat valley surrounded by a ring of buttes. Most of the buildings were just one or two stories tall with the exception of a solitary church-like structure that glowed gold in the dusk. I made a mental note to look it up and discovered later it was the city's Mormon temple.
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In the morning it was substantially cooler, although the temperature still hovered around the century mark. We decided to play it by ear and see as much as we could around town, knowing that it would be unbearable outdoors after noon. The entire northern side of St. George is defined by a large protected expanse called Red Cliffs National Conservation Area which is filled with scenic wilderness and trails for hiking and biking. It's not a bad place to have on one's doorstep. At the southern edge of the conservation area adjacent to the town is a more orderly section called Pioneer Park which is filled with natural red rock formations to explore and also contains a unique botanical garden called Red Hills Desert Garden. The garden was created from a featureless area of arid red desert in 2014 and displays countless species of cacti and other water-efficient plants in a well-manicured plot with its own stream and a replica of a slot canyon.
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Next door at Pioneer Park we found a safe-looking chunk of rock to scramble up. As always in the southwest I was amazed by the prioritization of naturalness over safety, not that I objected to it. I kept a watchful eye on the kids as there were numerous wide fissures on the rocky surface and it wasn't easy to tell the difference between a change in grade and a drop-off. We had no protection from the sun here and the heat quickly became uncomfortable so it wasn't too hard to convince the kids to head back to the car.
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The outdoor portion of our morning was essentially completed by ten. Anything else we did in St George would consist of hustling between air-conditioned environments. The other area of interest to us was a neighborhood called Kayenta in the northwest corner of Ivins. The Kayenta Art Village is an aggregation of interesting galleries with fascinating collections of southwestern sculpture, paintings, and photography. It also contains one of St. George's most celebrated lunch restaurants, Xetava Gardens Cafe. We browsed the galleries and chatted with some artists while we waited for the restaurant to open. The restaurant was designed and decorated in that unmistakable southern Utah style with red rock elements and Native American themes. Lunch was delicious and refreshing, especially the homemade lemonade.
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The residential area around the Art Village looked interesting so we went for a drive along the black asphalt roads that curved through the desert landscape. The crumbling red cliffs of the conservation area formed a grandiose background. The homes around us all had a similar aesthetic, adobe ranches with a large footprint yet unobtrusive. Many were almost hidden by the low scrub that enveloped them, partially due to the sloping ground and partially because of the foundations having been poured lower than the surrounding land. We had stumbled upon a very unusual planned community. It was clear that these were expensive, luxury residences yet the location was so isolated we wondered what could attract people here when there were so many other options. Later we came across a video that helped explain the draw of this particular community, although it seemed like there were plenty of completed homes and lots that remained unsold. There was even one street that ended abruptly in the desert as if funding had evaporated in the middle of the job. It definitely wasn't a place we could ever live but it was beautiful in its own way and I hope the community survives and prospers in that parched and secluded spot.
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St. George had proved to be an unexpectedly interesting city, and even more surprisingly the insane temperatures hadn't prevented us from seeing everything we had planned and more. We had one final task which was to check out the Mormon temple we had seen from the restaurant patio the night before. When we arrived we found that the temple itself was closed for renovation, just like the main one in Salt Lake City, but we could still see it through the windows of the visitor center. There were some interactive displays in the visitor center as well that the kids had fun with, as well as an impressive shelf of copies of the Book of Mormon translated into dozens of languages.
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By mow we were disappointed if we weren't surrounded by amazing landscape on our drives between cities, and the first part of Interstate 15 that passed through the northwestern corner of Arizona was no disappointment. Massive dark cliffs loomed on either side of the curving highway, almost devoid of vegetation. Once we entered Nevada our surroundings reverted quickly to nondescript flatland. We passed close by one of Nevada's most celebrated natural attractions, the Valley of Fire, but it was far too hot to consider any hiking and I had plans for our last few hours in Las Vegas.
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We returned to Las Vegas from the north, passing through a seemingly endless flat expanse of warehouses and commercial buildings. The relative compactness of the Strip belies the enormousness of the sharply defined Las Vegas metropolitan area. We drove straight to Area 15 to try out Particle Quest, the augmented reality scavenger hunt we hadn't had time for on our first visit. It felt strange to be back in the same place a month later having completed the huge itinerary that had stretched before us on our first visit. Area 15 had the same avant garde energy as before although the 110 degree heat meant that virtually no one was around the outdoor installations. The game was entertaining, especially for the older kids, although it was a little confusing and lacked much of a payoff for solving the puzzles. I hope the Area 15 concept will spread to more cities since it's a fascinating, although expensive, alternative to the typical forms of entertainment available in large cities.
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One of the few things I remembered about visiting Las Vegas as a kid more than forty years previously was getting taken to Circus Circus. Most of the entertainment on the Strip is designed for adults but this casino's selling point is the entire floor devoted to arcade games and circus acts. Parents will drop their kids off in the arcade and gamble for hours, and hopefully will find their kids still there when they finish. I wanted to finish the trip with a fun and memorable experience for the kids so this would be our final stop of the journey except for dinner. We got off to a great start when Cleo miraculously won a large stuffed animal for placing first in her first game, a Roll-A-Ball horse race. I never expected her to win because there were several adults among her seven competitors so I didn't bother to take a video. Much to everyone's amazement her balls kept dropping in the highest scoring holes and she finished comfortably ahead of the next contestant. Afterwards I videoed every game she played in the hope that lightning would strike again but it wasn't to be.She got interested in another game in which the goal was to launch chickens into pots by hitting a lever with a mallet, but it was clear she wasn't strong enough to achieve the required distance. I took the game over and I was able to win another small prize so that Ian wouldn't have to leave without anything.
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Our timing worked out well because just as our prepaid cards ran out of funds it was time to head over to the stage for the hourly show, a talented acrobat performing on aerial silks. I don't think anyone would have mistaken it for Cirque du Soleil but it was another nice piece of entertainment for the kids to leave them with good final memories of the trip before the long flight home.

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Our last dinner was at Trattoria Nakamura-Ya, the first Italian Japanese fusion restaurant we've ever encountered. It was a cool concept and some of the dishes were good, but it didn't meet our expectations of being one of the best meals of the trip. With that our itinerary was complete and there was nothing left to do except drive to the airport and check in for our red eye flight back to Miami. At the time all I can remember feeling was a huge sense of relief that we'd made it through all those challenging environments without any injuries, illnesses, or other disasters and COVID had only resulted in some minor inconveniences. It was only after I had time to reflect on everything we accomplished that I realized that this journey was at least the equal of any of the long road trips we had taken in Europe. Of course it's hard to compare national parks and Southwestern Americana with the rich and historic atmosphere of major European cities, but in terms of the thrill of adventure and new experiences this trip was unparalleled. One of my favorite ways to cope with annoying aspects of daily life such as traffic jams and dental cleanings is to cast myself back mentally to a period of travel, and lately I've found myself choosing episodes from the Southwest trip more than any other. The ten greatest experiences were scattered around all four states and from the beginning to the end of the journey. There were so many incredible adventures that even the Grand Canyon didn't make the top ten, although I think if I extended the list to eleven it would have been on there.

10. Shiprock
9. Rafting the Sevier
8. Fishing in Lake Powell
7. Jerome, Arizona
6. Exploring Albuquerque
5. Antelope Island
4. Las Vegas Strip
3. Bisti Wilderness
2. Low Road to Taos
1. Bryce Canyon and the Hogback

With that trip we've explored most of the iconic regions of the United States, having already done the Deep South, Pacific Northwest, Southern California, Great Lakes, and New England. If I ever need to make an itinerary for a month-long summer road trip in the US again I will probably do Appalachia with a focus on Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, and the Virginias. However I truly hope we don't have to take that trip this summer, as I'm more than ready to return to continental Europe after a four year absence due to COVID.

Posted by zzlangerhans 22:22 Archived in USA Tagged road_trip family_travel travel_blog friedman tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

A Southwestern USA Expedition: Zion National Park

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For the third morning in a row we were up at the crack of dawn. The reason this time was that we had to reach the parking lots at Zion National Park by eight in the morning or we might not be able to find a spot. I wasn't sure what would happen then and it I didn't want to find out. The other factor was that temperatures in the park were projected to reach 108 and we needed to be done with anything involving physical exertion before noon. We had an easy half hour journey along an empty highway from Kanab and then a beautiful drive to the Visitor Center once we had entered the park. We were surrounded by massive cliffs of striated sandstone in every direction. Towards the end we drove right into a mountain via a tunnel and emerged into a set of tight switchbacks surrounded by breathtaking landscape.
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We arrived at the parking lots right about eight and had to drive to the farthest one before we found some open spots. We made our way to the shuttle bus station and realized that we wouldn't be allowed on the bus without masks, which I had forgotten in the car. I had to jog all the way back to the parking lot which by now was completely full just twenty minutes after we'd arrived. We had cut it a lot closer than I had realized. Fortunately there wasn't much of a line for the buses, despite the horror stories I had read. In fact there had been a reservation system in place to cut down on crowding up until a month before we arrived. I had been prepared to get up at midnight to be among the first to reserve our place once the July schedule opened, but they ended up canceling that system before it became an issue. The shuttle is the only way to travel along the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, as private cars are forbidden. The most famous Zion hikes, Angel's Landing and The Narrows, originate from the last two stops on the route. We had no intention of attempting either of these so we got off the bus at the Zion Lodge stop, about halfway to the end, to tackle the Emerald Pools Trail. I'd done a good amount of research and the hike to the lower of the three pools seemed fairly easy and straightforward, with the option to continue onward to the other two pools if the heat wasn't overwhelming. We passed by the lodge and crossed a wooden bridge over the Virgin River to reach the trailhead.
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The walk to the lower pools was an easy, shady stroll without much change in elevation. At one point the path went underneath a gentle waterfall that emanated from the edge of the cliff above us and fed the lower pools. The spray of cool water was even more welcome when we returned at the end of the hike.
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We hadn't expended too much energy getting to the lower pools so we decided to continue on as far as we could. As I expected, the route to the middle and upper pools was steeper and less protected but we still managed to complete it, although the kids were clearly getting tired and uncomfortable towards the end. The shallow pools of water didn't really live up to their romantic name, but the massive sandstone cliffs and the views of the unspoiled wilderness around us more than made up for that. The satisfaction of completing the hike made the hard work totally worth it.
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It was only ten thirty by the time we got back to the shuttle but the temperature had increased dramatically. My other goal at Zion was to see the beginning of the famed Narrows but I wasn't sure if we would be able to withstand the heat on the one mile trek to the trailhead. Fortunately the one mile Riverside Walk was an easy, paved path sheltered from the sun by the towering cliffs on either side of us. It was a long walk but eventually we got there and we got the iconic view of the beginning of The Narrows and all the hikers with their water shoes and walking sticks starting to disappear up the river. We hung out for a while soaking up the energy and the excitement of all the people around us getting ready to set off on the journey or just enjoying the view like we were.
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The last thing I wanted to do before leaving Zion was see people walking along the ridge that is the final section of the Angel's Landing hike. This is a hike I would never consider doing myself, let alone with the kids. I don't think of myself as tremendously afraid of heights but I'm not exactly comfortable around them, and being on a narrow walkway with thousand foot drops on either side is absolutely out of the question for me. Nevertheless an enormous number of people complete this hike every day and since 1908 there have been only seventeen deadly falls, far fewer than at the Grand Canyon. We took the shuttle back one stop to Weeping Rock and got out to peer at the top of the cliff on the opposite side of the river. Of course we couldn't make out the ridge from ground level so I just stared at the top of the cliff as hard as I could. Just as I was about to conclude that there was nothing to be seen I realized that a couple of the tiny dots I had assumed were bushes were unmistakably moving. I tracked them for a while as they made their way along the top but the sight of the colossal, impassive cliff reinforced my conviction that I would never find myself up there personally.
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Zion is one of the most iconic and beloved of America's national parks but we aren't at a level where we could take full advantage of it. I can't say we felt the same euphoria at Zion that we had experienced at Bryce Canyon or Arches or Canyon de Chelly but it was still a beautiful and rewarding morning. By noon we were already in the town of Springdale, just outside the west entrance of the park. Despite being even tinier than the other National Park towns we had visited there was a sizable collection of restaurants and galleries to feed the bellies and minds of the throngs of park visitors. Virtually all of these were strung along the main road that provided access to the park. The prodigious and colorful cliffs of Zion were still in view and provided an inspiring backdrop to the modest businesses on the road. We'd barely eaten anything that morning so our first stop was a Mexican-inspired grill where we had a pretty satisfying lunch.
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The art galleries in the southwest are always amazing so we visited a couple of those and enjoyed some landscape paintings and an endless variety of beautiful and creative ceramics. Afterwards we browsed through an awesome outdoor rock shop for as long as we could withstand the heat before getting back on the main road that followed the Virgin River west.
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We still had the whole afternoon ahead of us and we didn't want to arrive in St. George too early , since it was going to be far too hot to do anything outdoors. Instead we hooked a right at the barely noticeable town of Virgin and embarked on the Kolob Terrace Road, another well-known scenic drive. We had a very enjoyable and solitary forty minute drive through spectacular landscape to the Kolob Reservoir, where many people were spending the weekend camping and kayaking. From here I had hoped to continue north all the way to Cedar City but there was no cellular signal to be had and I could not find a route on Google Maps without the GPS. Instead we had to return to Virgin the way we came and then continue westward to St. George.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 00:47 Archived in USA Tagged road_trip hiking utah family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog springdale kolob_terrace_road Comments (2)

A Southwestern USA Expedition: Lake Powell and Kanab


View Southwest USA road trip on zzlangerhans's travel map.

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We had dealt with plenty of hot weather thus far on the trip but the town of Page was a dry furnace. We drove straight towards the restaurant we'd chosen for dinner and parked as close as we could to the entrance. Even the short walk to the front door felt suffocating in 106° heat. The Japanese restaurant had a promisingly cool vibe but we found the food to be pretty grim.
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Once we got to the Airbnb, a featureless cube of apartments in the center of town, our mission was to get to sleep as early as possible to minimize the pain of waking up before four for our Lake Powell fishing trip. The older kids really enjoy fishing and I've never been able to take Spenser because it's too much to manage three inexperienced kids on a charter trip. Spenser is also a handful. One of my priorities for the itinerary was finding a nice fresh water fishing trip where we wouldn't need to worry about Mei Ling getting seasick, and Lake Powell turned out to be the perfect spot. I'd arranged a charter trip before we left and now we'd finally arrived at one of our most anticipated adventures. Our captain had wisely insisted we get going by five in order to be safely back at the dock before the real heat of the day began rolling in. After experiencing the atmosphere in the late afternoon the previous day I was grateful for the timing, although I wasn't looking forward to prying the kids out of bed well before dawn.

I fortuitously awoke on my own around three thirty, which was much more pleasant than being torn from deep sleep by the alarm. I had plenty of time to clean myself up and get ready for the boat before we had to wake up the kids, which proved somewhat easier than I anticipated. We drove the fifteen minutes to Wahweap marina in near darkness and took the long walk down to the bottom of the boat ramp just as the first rays of light began to illuminate the sky. As dawn broke we began to see the brownish cliffs that lined the marina and the multitude of houseboats anchored close to shore.
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Our captain wasn't at the bottom of the ramp where we were supposed to meet and we had an anxious fifteen minutes or so when he didn't respond to calls or texts. He did show up eventually and we clambered into the boat and quickly took off. Lake Powell is an enormous dendrite-shaped reservoir created by the flooding of Glen Canyon by the construction of a dam in the 1960's. We had to ride for an hour through the channel between Antelope Island and the mainland to reach the first fishing spot. We passed countless large yachts of a similar design, many of which were rented out as summer homes for family groups. We could see the high water line on the cliffs far above the current level. Lake Powell water levels have been in a choppy decline since the beginning of the new millennium and are currently at their lowest level ever, just 30% of full capacity.
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I had reminded the kids several times that catching fish was no guarantee, but coming home empty-handed would have been a serious downer. Fortunately the striped bass, commonly known as striper, started biting fairly quickly after the captain anchored up at his chosen spot. They aren't enormous fish but they fought reasonably hard and a few of them were big enough to eat. Everyone got some chances to feel their rods suddenly dip as the fish took the bait and then hoist the beautiful fish into the boat. I think we caught more than twenty and kept the two largest for dinner. I would have been happy to try for another species in a different spot but I knew it wouldn't make much difference to the kids so we stayed there until they had caught so many they were actually getting bored of it.
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Even though we hadn't used our full allotment of time we decided to return to the marina to be sure we didn't get too much exposure to sun and heat on the return trip. We got back on land before ten in the morning and the marina was a hive of activity. Anyone going out on the lake at that time was a hardier soul than us, as a heavy blanket of heat had already descended upon us. We only stopped at an overlook on the road back to Page for some pictures of the beautiful lake with its chalky walls before returning to the apartment for a well-deserved nap.
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Having decided to save our fish for dinner, we ventured out in the afternoon for lunch and a quick exploration of Page. Big John's Texas Barbecue was a much bigger success than the restaurant we'd had dinner at the previous evening. We withstood the furnace that Page had become just long enough to pose with the giant smokers and bits of Americana outside the restaurant before racing inside for cooler air. I'm not the biggest barbecue fan but there was no arguing with the tenderness and flavoring of the meat at Big John's, nor with the cold beer that I washed it down with. I bought a shirt that said "I Like Pig Butts" and we were on our way quite pleased with our choice.
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There was nothing to see in Page and entertainment choices were quite limited. The only game in town was a dive bar with a bowling alley that looked like a leftover set from a Coen Brothers movie. It was the kids second time bowling and I probably should have requested the lane with the blocked gutters, but I figured they should learn to bowl the hard way. About thirty gutter balls later we'd given up on bowling and we were at a ping pong table with a saggy net that could barely withstand the ball's impact. Afterwards we made a quick stop at the supermarket for dinner supplies.
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Back at the apartment Mei Ling got to work on the striper filets while I worked on setting up a slot canyon tour in Kanab for the next day. A slow afternoon had helped me realize that there was nothing at all left for us around Lake Powell, and I hadn't set anything else up. I wasn't optimistic that I would find anything on such short notice, but I did get through to someone who offered us a tour the next morning. The only catch was that we would have another super early wake-up call, although not quite as brutal as the one for the fishing trip. The fish was quite flavorful and tender although the kids mostly focused on the pasta we had bought at the supermarket.
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We finished up dinner early enough to head back to Lake Powell for sunset. There was a large resort with a patio overlooking the lake at Wahweap Marina where we had met our guide. The rock formations around the lake looked even more alien and formidable at dusk than they had at dawn. We had a very successful visit to Lake Powell but I don't see a houseboat rental in our future. It's hard to imagine how we would have occupied ourselves if we'd spent more than a couple of days there.
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In the morning we had another stroke of good luck when I woke up ahead of my alarm again and realized I had forgotten to account for the one hour time change between Arizona and Utah. We actually had to leave an hour earlier than I had planned in order to make our slot canyon tour. I woke up Mei Ling and we rushed around madly getting ourselves cleaned up and the bags fully packed. Finally we hoisted the groggy kids out of bed and poured some cereal down their throats before tossing them into the car and tearing back out onto the highway. We made good time and arrived at the departure point a few miles north of Kanab right about the scheduled time. Our guide, a friendly fellow with a ZZ Top beard, helped us get kitted out and then showed us to our UTV. These vehicles are operated like cars with steering wheels and foot pedals and also have a reinforced cab to protect passengers in case of rollovers. We told the guide we were up for an exciting ride but probably not the most hair-raising that he was capable of, and shortly afterwards we were off. The UTV bounced and careened madly through the undulating hills of sand but I could see that he was avoiding some of the rougher terrain.
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Our tour included a stop on the dunes for sandboarding. It's a pretty simple concept: get on a skateboard deck at the top of a dune and slide down without falling off. We all attempted it with varying degrees of success, after which we had to trudge back up the hill through the sand if we wanted to try it again. It was all good fun until Cleo suddenly asked me if I had any nausea medicine. Before I had a chance to respond she threw up into the sand. It was kind of a shock since she'd seemed perfectly fine up until that point. I had a Zofran tablet in my wallet and I put it under Cleo's tongue. Meanwhile the boys at the top of the hill were reacting as expected, screaming and laughing about Cleo's gastrointestinal distress. I figured she had probably overexerted herself in the sun and I let her sip Gatorade until she was feeling better. When we began to make our way slowly back up the hill I saw that Ian was on his hands and knees in the sand throwing as well. Mei Ling yelled down that Spenser had also tossed up his breakfast. Nothing like this had ever happened before. Our kids get sick once in a while, but probably less than other kids and certainly never all at once like this. I was racking my brain to try and figure out what was going on. The ride to the dunes had been plenty rough, but that was already half an hour back and none of the kids had gotten motion sickness for years. Was it the fish we 'd caught and eaten the previous night? Mei Ling and I had eaten much more than any of the kids and we felt fine. A stomach virus? Hitting all three of them within a couple of minutes? The good thing was that Cleo and Spenser now seemed to be fine, but Ian was clearly still miserable even after he'd finished with his bout. I only carried one Zofran in my wallet, although I had more back at the car. We decided to press onward to the canyon but soon after we got inside the UTV Ian started vomiting again in the back seat. That was just too much and I decided it was time to pull the plug on the tour. We still had to endure the rough ride back to the departure point and then Mei Ling changed Ian out of his dirty clothes while I slipped a tablet under his tongue. We called the hotel to see if we could check in early but they couldn't accommodate us until noon, so we still had to kill a couple of hours in Kanab. Fortunately the town had a public library so I took Cleo and Spenser in there while Mei Ling waited in the car with Ian, who had fallen asleep.
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The library was a pleasant, air-conditioned place to hang out with a small section of books for sale, allowing us to make one final restock of our depleted supply of unread books. It was an enormous relief when Mei Ling and Ian joined us browsing, with Ian a little subdued but otherwise apparently recovered. That marked the end of the anomalous vomiting episode, which I have resigned myself to never understanding. Fortunately nothing like that ever happened before and thus far it hasn't repeated itself. After the library we visited an art gallery with some beautiful polished wood and rocks and then had lunch, where I had to hold Ian back from devouring half the restaurant. The motel on the edge of town had pleasing rows of wooden cabins with a backdrop of striated brown cliffs.
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I would have probably written off the slot canyon as a loss and never thought about it again, but Mei Ling is built a little different than I am which is one of the reasons we do so well together. Before we lay down for a nap she called the tour outfit and they agreed to let us give it another shot at the slot canyon that afternoon. I was rather apprehensive about this but Mei Ling doesn't like to get defeated by circumstances. When we arrived back at the departure point, we found we had the same guide who didn't seem at all troubled to be once again taking on the family whose last attempt had ended so ignominiously. He even offered to take us sandboarding again, an invitation that we unanimously declined. I watched Ian anxiously as the UTV tore once again through the hills and dunes but as far as I could determine behind the helmet and goggles he seemed to be doing fine. I was quite relieved once the ride was over and all the kids still had smiles on their faces.
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Slot canyons are another iconic feature of the southwestern USA landscape, especially in southern Utah. We had been close to Antelope Canyon, the most famous of them all, the previous day in Page but the tours had been closed due to COVID. These narrow chasms are formed over millions of years by the passage of water through cracks in solid rock, resulting in gradual expansion and polishing of the passage. Magnesium and iron deposits in the stone account for the swirling colors that make the canyons so memorably photogenic. Despite the high temperatures it was shady and fairly cool between the stone walls. It was an easy and short walk through the canyon and yet another remarkable interaction with geology on this incredible journey. We returned to Kanab with a sense of satisfaction, having overcome another unforeseen obstacle to complete our mission.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 14:28 Archived in USA Tagged fishing road_trip arizona family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

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