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A Southwestern USA Expedition: Salt Lake City

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The only stop we made between Moab and Salt Lake City was the small town of Price, which was the setting for the Great Brain books. This was one of my favorite series as a child and I bought them anew for Cleo and Ian who loved them as much as I did. The books tell the story of an early twentieth century family in Utah whose middle son is a prodigal if unethical mastermind. The books were popular but never to the extent that there would have been a museum or some tourist attraction in the author's home town to commemorate them. The modern town of Price was pleasant enough, surrounded on every side by low mountains that could be seen from every intersection, but bore no resemblance whatsoever to the bucolic frontier town described by Fitzgerald. We drove around for a little while to get the feel of a typical Utah town and then got back onto the highway.

By the time we rolled into Salt Lake City our stomachs were growling and it was clear our first stop had to be dinner. Salt Lake City had one food hall and since we didn't want to call around to find an open table on a Saturday evening that seemed to be our best bet. The HallPass food hall was located in a vibrant open-air mall called The Gateway and fortunately for us we emerged from the parking garage on the opposite side from our destination. That took us through the center of the mall underneath a beautiful installation of colorful umbrellas suspended overhead, where we passed a Japanese hot pot called Mr. Shabu. We spontaneously decided this would be a better bet than anything we were likely to find at the food hall. There was some whispered discussion regarding our lack of a reservation before we were shown to one of the few open tables in the large restaurant. We loaded up at the well-stocked food station and gorged ourselves for the next hour. We hadn't realized how much we'd missed authentic Asian food over the last three weeks. On the way out there was a long line for tables, so clearly we'd made it just under the wire. We did check out HallPass and it seemed to be a rather weak version of a food hall, with a layout resembling a sports bar and mostly generic greasy food. Afterwards we went to the upper level which had some recreational spots and nice views of the surroundings.

Our Airbnb was in a quiet residential neighborhood south of the city center. There was a surprising number of rainbow flags displayed on front porches, including our own. I later learned that despite its conservative reputation, Salt Lake City has one of the highest percentage of gay residents among major US cities. Perhaps that's because gay people throughout Utah gravitate towards the largest city. Our place was the basement of a rather generic-looking home with an attractive garden and a private entry. Despite the subterranean location our space was bright and cheerful and the kids made themselves at home promptly.

On Sunday morning, which also happened to be Independence Day, we went straight to the Wheeler Sunday Market at Wheeler Farm in the southern part of town. The farmers market section was pretty good, on a par with the markets in Flagstaff and Santa Fe we'd visited the previous two weeks, and there was an excellent crafts market and an enormous play structure. The kids climbed around in the playground and occasionally wandered over to us for bites of the food we'd collected from the various booths and trucks. Afterwards we checked out some creative artwork which included a potter throwing vessels right at his booth.

The centerpiece of Salt Lake City is Temple Square, a ten acre rectangle that was selected by Mormon prophet Brigham Young upon the group's arrival in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Within the site are the majestic Salt Lake Temple and numerous other architecturally impressive buildings that are central to the processes of the Mormon church. The area is somewhat reminiscent of the Vatican City on a smaller scale. On the day of our visit virtually everything worked against us being able to see the interiors of these buildings. It was a Sunday, many activities were still curtailed because of the COVID epidemic, and the square was in the midst of an enormous renovation project that had begun in 2019 and is not projected to be complete until 2025. We still had an enjoyable walk through the square and could appreciate the beautiful grey stone and white spires of the Assembly Hall and the glistening aluminum roof of the remarkable Mormon Tabernacle. Unfortunately the Temple itself was covered in scaffolding and surrounded by a dirty Plexiglas barrier, so that the only decent view could be obtained from across the street.

The Utah State Capitol, a few blocks north of Temple Square, is a typical American Neoclassical capitol building in the model of the United States Capitol. We'd already visited similar buildings in Wisconsin and Colorado and chose to just drive by as we only had one day in Salt Lake City. We then fortuitously stumbled onto the single road that leads up to Ensign Downs, a small residential enclave filled with large, stately homes that look down over the city. A hiking trail leads from the hillside to the summit of Ensign Peak, one of the highest points in the area and the site at which Brigham Young and other Mormon leaders laid out their vision of the city they planned to build. We were already flirting with triple digit temperatures and it was an easy decision to forgo the twenty minute scramble to the top.

Just east of downtown the Gilgal Sculpture Garden is hidden in the interior of a relatively nondescript mixed residential and commercial block. If we hadn't known it was there we would have walked right past the innocuous concrete path that led to the entrance. The garden represents the work of one devoted individual who built the eccentric and religious sculptures in his own backyard. After his death the property was eventually turned over to the city and made into a public park. Among the more notable works are a sphinx with the head of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith and a stone archway that threatens to drop an enormous boulder onto the head of anyone who dares to stand beneath it.

We were working our way through my list of things to see in Salt Lake City faster than I expected. I had to choose between the Red Butte botanical garden and the Tracy Aviary and went with the latter because we'd been to the botanical garden in Santa Fe just a week earlier. The aviary is located within Liberty Park just a few blocks south of the sculpture garden. It was a nice enough place but a little sleepy and quite hot in the peak sun of early afternoon. The highlights were some stunning black crowned cranes that welcomed us with a symphony of honks and the opportunity to hand feed Australian rainbow lorikeets. Despite the keeper's repeated warnings that the birds didn't like to be touched, the colorful animals had no reservations about perching on Cleo's head. Oddly enough I have quite a collection of videos with birds landing on Cleo's head, although I think this was the first that took place outside of China.

We couldn't take more than an hour and a half under the sun in the aviary, so it was still mid-afternoon when we found ourselves back on the sidewalk trying to decide what to do. I knew I wanted to check out the Great Salt Lake, even though my research indicated it was foul-smelling and full of bugs. The most interesting part of the lake seemed to be Antelope Island, but it was a full hour's drive just to get there. Eventually we decided to go for it since the kids were probably better off having a nap anyway. The island is by far the largest in the lake and appears deceptively close to the city, but the only access is via the causeway that leads from the eastern shore of the lake to the northern tip of the island. The drive over the causeway is one of the best ways to see the unbroken expanse of the lake, a bizarre-appearing mixture of open water and salt flats with blue-grey mountains visible on distant shorelines.

Soon after we passed the park entrance booth we found a wide sandy beach with practically no one else around. As we walked towards the lake we found ourselves sinking through a layer of salt into sulphurous mud. We walked out as far as we dared until the mud was sucking our footwear to the extent that our feet were coming out of them. It seemed a lot of other people had had the same problem. There were deep footprints in the mud around us and on close inspection a few of them had abandoned sneakers at the bottom. Apparently some folks had panicked at the thought of sinking further into the mud and had sacrificed their footwear to make it back to the safety of the sand. Even more ominous were dozens of bird carcasses that became more frequent as we got closer to the shoreline. Apparently the salt water prevents them from decomposing so even birds that died months ago will wash up along the shore fairly intact.

One of the attractions of Antelope Island is the herd of some seven hundred bison, the descendants of a small population brought there in 1893 by the owner of the land to protect the species from overhunting and extermination. Bison are often confusingly referred to as American buffalo, although this is a misnomer as bison and buffalo belong to different genuses within the bovine family. True buffalo are native to Africa and Asia, but early European settlers mistook the bison for buffalo despite there being numerous substantial differences between the species. The park ranger at the booth had told me the best place to see bison was along the eastern shore of the island. We set off down the road in hopes of spotting one or maybe two of the animals, and were shocked when after just a quarter of a mile we came across the entire herd grazing along the area between the road and the shoreline. We pulled over along with a few other cars and got out for a better look, of course maintaining a respectful distance from the potentially dangerous animals. A little bit further down the road we had to stop because a group of bison was crossing in front of us. It wasn't as spectacular as the experiences one is prone to have on rural highways in Wyoming or the Dakotas where enormous herds can congregate around cars for hours, but I have no doubt that experiences like that lie somewhere in our future as well.

We kept driving until the highway turned into a dirt road after the Fielding Garr Ranch but didn't see anything else remarkable and elected to return the way we came. Before we reached the bison again we turned onto a promising side road which turned out to be the access to the Frary Peak Trailhead. It was far too late to be considering any real hiking but we had just a short walk to a rocky promontory with great views over the lake.

We drove back across the causeway immensely grateful that we had found the time and the motivation to visit Antelope Island, which had turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences of our trip. As usual the decision to push a little harder and further rather than take the easier path had provided us with invaluable memories. We wiped and scrubbed as much of the stinking Salt Lake mud off our shoes and drove straight back to the city center for dinner. We had a little trouble finding a restaurant that was open on July Fourth but eventually located the Copper Onion, a decent New American bistro. They only had an outdoor table available which we gladly accepted despite the blanket of hot air that enveloped us, as we were still afraid that some of the odor of the lake might still be clinging to us.

The original plan was to head to a park downtown to see a fireworks show, but by the time we got back home to change we were so wiped out that we couldn't summon the motivation. I felt a pang of guilt when we began hearing the explosions and the kids ran outside in excitement, but we were still able to see some of the display from the driveway. There will be countless more firework shows but it could be awhile before we have another chance to get up close to a herd of bison.

Posted by zzlangerhans 22:44 Archived in USA Tagged road_trip utah travel_blog antelope_island temple_square tony_friedman family_travel_blog tracy_aviary donut_falls Comments (0)

A Southwestern USA Expedition: Moab

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Just fifteen minutes past the Forrest Gump overlook we reached the turn-off for Goosenecks State Park. I hadn't even had this place on my itinerary but our down time at the hogan had given me the time to do a little extra research about our route. Goosenecks only has one sight but it is a knockout. Just steps from the parking area is the viewpoint for a geologic masterpiece where the San Juan river has cut a thousand foot deep serpentine pattern into the sedimentary rock forming what is known as an entrenched meander. As usual the river at the bottom of the canyon was rather unassuming while the walls formed vast layered peninsulas that narrowed to ridges at their highest points. The polypoid peninsulas interlocked perfectly like the teeth of a zipper at a scale that was breathtaking. The other fortuitous thing about stopping at the park was that I was able to buy Cleo an authentic Navajo turquoise necklace from a vendor at the parking lot. I hadn't found what I wanted anywhere we'd looked over the last two days in Navajo Nation and now I had finally found the perfect item at a very reasonable price. Cleo was thrilled and I can only hope she still loves it as much when she's older as she does now.

Just a couple of miles from Goosenecks was the west entrance to Valley of the Gods, a site owned and administered by the Bureau of Land Management whose name makes it hard to resist. Since we had been denied a drive through Monument Valley it was great to have a chance to see some magnificent rock formations up close. The loop drive through the valley is seventeen miles but the bumpy dirt road made it feel much longer. The monoliths here were smaller than the spectacular Monuments but no less fascinating and the opportunity to see them up close was unforgettable.

We stopped for lunch in the town of Bluff, a tiny burg that seemed to have progressed past sleepy into comatose. Our first two restaurant choices were closed but that proved fortuitous as our third and final option was quite an amazing place. The Twin Rocks Cafe was nothing special when it came to food but the setting at the base of a cliff topped with jaw-dropping rock formations was unbeatable. The twin pillars of layered sandstone topped by limestone boulders that gave the restaurant its name were particular impressive. Indoors we restored the union of body and soul with the typical utilitarian southwestern fare. I had a craving for a beer after the dusty drive through Valley of the Gods but our Navajo server told me he had to find someone else to take an order for alcohol. I wasn't sure if that was because of his age or some other ordinance, but after some time had elapsed no one else had shown up at our table. I had to flag him down again to request an audience with the "beer sommelier" before I could get my drink. A friend had recommended we visit the Bluff Fort, the main tourist attraction in town, but the midday sun was blazing hot and we decided to push onward to Moab.

By now we should have been oblivious to rocks and cliffs but the truth is that every scenic location we had visited had its own unique look. Sedona had its red rocks, the Petrified Forest had painted mesas, Navajo Nation had layered sandstone, and now Moab was something altogether different. As we entered the region the landscape transitioned from a relatively flat expanse into outcroppings and rounded bluffs of pinkish sandstone. The harbinger of this was Church Rock, a magnificently striated and colorful chunk of weathered rock that looked to me more like a surfacing submarine than a church. Fifteen minutes later we were shocked to see an enormous sandstone arch right by the side of the road, with people clambering up to its base. We were expecting to see arches in the Arches National Park, but had no idea that one could be accessed so easily from the highway. This was Wilson's Arch, a spot that I'd missed completely in my research.

Our Airbnb in Spanish Valley was so unobtrusive that we drove past it three times before we finally identified it. It looked more like an outbuilding at a construction site than a residence, but inside it was surprisingly comfortable and spacious. The backdrop of mountains and cliffs eased the minor annoyance of being located right next to the highway.

The first order of business was getting showered and changed. There hadn't been any showering facility at the hogan which made me feel like I was only half awake during the day. The hot air and hours in the car hadn't helped, so the cool water streaming into my hair felt blissful. The past few days in Navajo country had been fairly rough from a culinary perspective as well, and thankfully we had reservations for Moab's top spot for fine dining. Desert Bistro was a beautiful restaurant that also felt amicable and laid-back, much like Moab itself. We had a very satisfying dinner and began to soak in the atmosphere of this legendary adventure town.

We had one adventure planned for each day in Moab. For our full day I had scheduled a rafting trip, intentionally booking the gentlest option that still had some rapids. I was pretty sure the older kids could handle class II rapids but Spenser had just turned six and I thought it would be wise to ease into the whitewater thing gradually. I needn't have worried because the rapids were so minimal that it was more like a float trip. We didn't even have our own oars. The kids had plenty of fun getting bounced around a little and they had a chance to try rowing the raft and swimming in the murky water. The current was surprisingly strong and I felt a rush of anxiety when the kids floated a couple hundred feet downstream from the raft. My rational side told me the guides would never expose us to any real danger but my parental instincts induced me to strike out as fast as I could swim to catch up with them. By the time I finally caught up I was completely out of breath. The red sandstone cliffs around the river looked like they had been carelessly shellacked with a black substance everywhere they were exposed to the sun. Our guide told us that this was "desert varnish", manganese oxide produced by the metabolic activity of bacterial colonies on the rock surface. It's an incredibly slow process and is useful to geologists in that the thickness of the layer allows a determination of how long the surface has been exposed. We could pick out the most recent rockfalls by spotting the bared areas of the cliff which invariably had piles of boulders beneath them that were varnished on just one side.

We had an early dinner at a serviceable Thai restaurant and then killed the time until sunset at the small city park. The kids were having so much fun making new friends that we eventually abandoned our plan to drive up the hill adjoining the main road to watch the sun go down.

We had saved the main event in Moab for our last day. Arches was the first of three national parks in Utah that we would be visiting over the next week. Utah actually has five but it would have been obsessive for us to try and visit all of them. Arches National Park is of course named for more than two thousand natural sandstone arches that are distributed within, although only a few of these are considered worthy of being destinations unto themselves. I had made the decision to buy a personal half day tour for the family via jeep, considering the limited time we had available to see the park. We met our guide fairly early in the morning and drove into the park via a back entrance that wasn't open to the general public, bypassing the line of vehicles that had already formed at the main entrance. The first place he stopped the jeep was an open area with dinosaur tracks, where we had a chance to educate the kids about the different impressions left by sauropods and therapods.

We soon found our way to Arches Scenic Drive, the main road that snaked through the park. This brought us right up to one of the park's iconic formations, Balanced Rock. The fact that the mushroom cap boulder at the top is attached to its seventy foot pedestal, rather than balanced on it, does nothing to detract from the stunning beauty of the formation. No matter how many geologic masterpieces we had encountered during this journey through the Southwest, it seemed like Mother Earth always had more to give.

The single defining formation of Arches National Park is Delicate Arch. This fifty foot freestanding arch is by far the most popular site in the park and is featured on the Utah license plate. The only catch is that seeing Delicate Arch up close requires a three mile round trip hike on rock that is completely exposed to sun. On sunny days many people underestimate the hike or fail to bring enough water and have to turn back before the goal. While all the pictures of Delicate Arch show it in magnificent solitude against the backdrop of the La Sal mountains, what you don't see is the line of people waiting for up to an hour to get their chance for their individual picture. Knowing all this I had decided that for this trip we would forgo Delicate Arch in favor of less popular locations inside the park. Fortunately our guide knew a vantage point from which we could get a decent picture of the arch from ground level. As I expected, when we passed the Delicate Arch trailhead there was a long line of hikers snaking up the rock surface towards the arch despite the blazing sun overhead. I was very glad we were not attempting to join them.

Now that we had seen these iconic features of Arches it was time to have a little adventure of our own. Our guide brought us off road to a spot where there were no other visitors at all. Our guide took us on a short hike to an arch where we could scramble across a smooth rock slope and get right underneath an arch. He explained the process of arch formation which begins with an uplifted section of sandstone called a dome. The same process of lifting creates numerous vertical fractures in the rock which are gradually enlarged by freezing and thawing of water that collects in the cracks. Eventually the domes cleave along the fracture lines to form freestanding rock walls called fins. The way in which fins become arches is less clearly understood, but one theory is that as the fin itself erodes away the most stable remnant is the part that forms the arch and thereby supports itself. It's the same principle that led the Romans to utilize the arch so successfully in their construction of enormous aqueducts and colosseums.

After the hike the boys fell asleep in the jeep but Cleo and I were able to take one more short walk on our own to another popular area of arches and fins. I think that for us the guided tour was probably the right decision mainly because we were able to have that one arch completely to ourselves, but I can't say that it's really necessary even for a short visit. The scenic drive makes it very easy to get to Balanced Rock, the Delicate Arch trailhead, and most of the other popular areas of the park. There are a lot of amazing hikes in Arches that we didn't have the time nor inclination to attempt and many people stay in the area for a week or more. It's a National Park that I would definitely return to in order to see Delicate Arch up close some time in the future when the kids are older.

At this point we were all packed up at the northern end of Moab in perfect position to resume the northward drive to Salt Lake City. However, I felt a distinct sensation that we had unfinished business in the area and I knew it would continue to bother me even after we had returned home. We had lunch in town and then got back on the main road south towards Wilson Arch. When we had passed it the first time on the way into Moab it had just looked too interesting to pass up. It was further south than I remembered, a full half hour's drive from where we'd met our Arches guide. As soon as we found the turnoff I knew we were in for a challenging climb. The arch was a lot further from ground level than it appeared from the highway. It still seemed doable, although once we got started I regretted having changed out of our hiking boots into sandals. As we moved upward there was less gravel and dust on the sandstone and it became harder to get a grip on the smooth surface. Fortunately the slope was never that steep so even if one of us had slipped completely we wouldn't have slid down very far. There was one final scramble across a slick surface and then we were under a magnificent arch, much larger than the one we had climbed up to in the park. There was a beautiful view through the window to an idyllic landscape of a tree-dotted valley and a majestic butte, but I wouldn't let the kids close because of the drop on the other side. We spent a few minutes up there savoring our achievement and enjoying our closeness to this magnificent natural creation.

Our final stop in the Moab area was The Hole N"The Rock, a classic American roadside tourist trap that is actually quite an interesting spot. The hole is a five thousand square foot home that was dynamited out of the base of a sandstone bluff by a local settler in the 1940's. The interior is quite comfortable and well-ventilated, and also fairly modern from a 1950's perspective. There's plenty of fascinating period kitsch and artwork inside, although how much of it was really there when the home was inhabited is questionable. No pictures were allowed inside so we had to be content with capturing the exterior of the bluff, which was still very memorable with an enormous bust of FDR chiseled into the sandstone. I never did ask why there's a solitary quotation mark after the N instead of an apostrophe before it, but I probably wouldn't have gotten a very good answer. We skipped the petting zoo and some other little cash grabs at the site and got back on the road to Salt Lake City.

Posted by zzlangerhans 14:26 Archived in USA Tagged road_trip arches family_travel travel_blog arches_national_park goosenecks tony_friedman family_travel_blog valley_of_the_gods wilson_arch hole_n_the_rock Comments (0)

A Southwestern USA Expedition: Navajo Nation

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The most surprising thing about arriving on the Navajo Reservation was that we were even there at all. All my research about Navajo Nation before the trip advised me that it was "closed" due to COVID, but after that the situation became very murky. The Canyon de Chelly and Monument Valley parks were closed, but did that mean it was impossible to see any of the famous stone formations? Were the roads blocked, like the one to Taos Pueblo? No one seemed to know for sure. In the end I decided the best solution would be to leave those two days open just in case the Nation opened during the first half of our trip, and hope that an alternate path to Moab through Colorado would still have accommodation available at the last minute. Not long before we left I spoke to an old friend who had stayed in a traditional hogan near Monument Valley in the summer of 2020, when the epidemic was at its worst in Navajo country. He said he hadn't had any problem at all and that it had been a great experience. I looked up the hogan on Airbnb and it was available, so that took care of the second night. That left Canyon de Chelley where there were no Airbnb's. I checked the Navajo Nation website regularly but there was no hint of reopening. Eventually with two days to go I called the reception desk of the hotel by the canyon that my guidebook recommended. They advised me that the hotel was open and although the park itself was closed, it was still possible to see the canyon and the most famous formation, Spider Rock, from overlooks along the road. That was enough for me to commit to a night there, which is why we found ourselves driving into Chinle on a Tuesday afternoon.

Chinle was a quiet, dusty town that didn't bear much resemblance to Zuni, the other reservation town we had stayed at. The two highways that passed through the town became long, bland commercial stretches that intersected at a T. Side streets led to clusters of prefab housing without any of the interesting touches of Zuni, such as the outdoor bread ovens. There was clearly nothing to do here except visit the canyon. The only game in town for Native American food was the Junction Restaurant at the Best Western. I learned that lamb is a Navajo specialty and the roast lamb sandwich at Junction was one of the most satisfying things I'd eaten in a while. We also had our introduction to fry bread, a sweet deep-fried staple of the local diet that doesn't do the human metabolism any favors.

It was still light outside and way to early to retire to our boring motel. We'd already visited the only crafts store in town and found it to have overpriced, inauthentic merchandise geared mainly towards casual tourists. That just left the canyon, which we had expected to see the following morning. Canyon de Chelly is the ancestral home of the Navajo since the early 18th century and was the origin of the ill-conceived and tragic Long Walk that exiled the tribe to New Mexico. Chelly is pronounced "shay" and is the Spanish version of the Navajo word Tséyi' which means "rock canyon". Right outside our motel the road out of Chinle split in two, with Route 7 passing along the south rim of the canyon and Route 64 hugging the north rim. We had actually been driving along the edge of the canyon when we drove into Chinle on Route 64 without realizing it. We chose to explore the south rim in order to see Spider Rock, a 750 foot sandstone spire that arises from the canyon floor in magnificent solitude. According to legend an important deity named Spider Woman lives at the top of the rock making it one of the most important sites in Navajo theology. The Spider Rock overlook is the final one along the south rim, a twenty minute drive from Chinle. When we arrived we encountered the coldest air we experienced for the entire trip, thanks to the overcast sky and a brisk wind coming over the canyon. The kids only had light jackets but they hardly complained as we walked along the trail at the rim. It was our first look at the canyon and it was absolutely magnificent. The pattern of erosion made the richly textured walls of sedimentary rock look as though they were melting into the bottom of the canyon, a pristine and tantalizing wonderland of greenery in a dry riverbed. I felt a pang of longing knowing that on this visit at least we would be denied the experience of standing on the floor of that beautiful canyon.

Towards the end of the path we finally got our look at Spider Rock. It was a dominant feature of the canyon even from the rim and we could only imagine how imposing it must look from the base. The double tower of fissured sandstone looked like the incisors of a gargantuan beast that lay buried underground. I could have happily contemplated the canyon for an hour but the icy wind was making short work of our light clothing and forced us to return to the car.

On the drive back to the motel we stopped at Tsegi Overlook for a different perspective and immediately became aware of a majestic double rainbow over the canyon, the first that I had ever seen. Not only were the individual bands of the primary rainbow as bright and clear as any I could remember, but we could follow it all the way down to the bottom of the canyon. It was like a CGI scene from a movie with the only thing missing being the pot of gold. We admired it for a while and as we were driving off we encountered a group of grazing horses by the roadside. Mei Ling began filming them from the car and then turned the camera around to catch the rainbow as we drove away from it, and ended up with one of the most spectacular travel videos that either of us has ever created.

In the morning we went back to Junction for breakfast and to my delight the lamb sandwich was already on the menu. I could probably have eaten a couple of those every day for the rest of the trip. There was plenty of time to kill so we drove back along the south rim almost as far as Spider Rock to visit a Native American gallery which had been closed the previous evening. We didn't see anything we wanted to buy but it was cool to see the inside of a hogan and we had an interesting conversation with the owner, who had also done most of the weaving and knitting that was on display.

From the north rim the canyon was less dramatic but just as beautiful. Fingers of sandstone extended from the walls towards the center where there was a thin, muddy river that might or might not have been flowing. We could see some small buildings at the bottom as well. Piles of rock had accumulated at the base of the walls in some areas where the friable rock had crumbled under the onslaught of the elements.

Except for the canyon the terrain around Chinle was as dry and monotonous as any we had seen. That all began to change as we made our way down the one lane highways through Navajo nation to Kayenta. Majestic and colorful formations of both volcanic and sedimentary rock began to appear on either side of the road. Anywhere in the eastern half of the United States these would have been famous attractions but here they were probably only familiar to the locals. These occasional behemoths made our drive pass by very quickly as we admired the landscape.

The was one formation near Kayenta significant enough to rate individual mention in my research. Agathla Peak is a volcanic plug, formed by solidification of magma within the vent of a volcano millions of years ago. It is a geologic cousin of Shiprock, a diatreme formed by solidification of the central column of the volcano. The approach from the south along Highway 163 was remarkable in that there was an amazing sandstone formation diametrically opposite from Agathla that I was certain had to be a sculpture until we were close enough to see that it only resembled a woman's figure from that one perspective. Agathla was smaller than Shiprock but similarly imposing and mysterious, and there were no obstacles to a close approach and inspection of the formation. We still felt like interlopers as we gingerly traversed the dirt road that led from the highway to the rock, and when a pick-up came towards us from the opposite direction we half expected to be harshly directed back from whence we came.

It was still early afternoon when we arrived at the hogan. This was going to be our most unusual accommodation of the trip and a calculated risk, since the small hut had no air conditioning and no bathroom. An old friend of mine had stayed there with his kids one year earlier and told me in was one of his family's best travel experiences. One of my goals for the trip was to introduce our kids to Native American history and culture so I had decided the experience would be worth whatever temporary discomforts presented themselves. I was grateful for the relatively cool and dry weather as the environment was my most pressing concern. We turned off the highway where we had been directed and drove uphill through a confusing labyrinth of dirt roads until we arrived at a small complex of buildings and spotted the sign for the hogan. Even though I knew what to expect from pictures, I was still somewhat shocked by the mound of brown earth that would be our shelter for the night. There were some swarms of brown ants on the outside and it wasn't hard to imagine at they had been the ones that had built this little hill. When we opened the door we were surprised by how spacious and attractive the interior was. Beautiful Navajo rugs were spread on the chairs and beds and the log roof was a miracle of craftsmanship. We had a large container of water over a sink to wash up with and a decent-sized fan to keep the air circulating. It seemed the major downsides would be the absence of a shower and having to use a Porta Potty, an appliance for which I have a deep and abiding distaste.

From the hillside we had a fantastic view of the some of the most famous monoliths of Monument Valley such as the Mittens and Merrick Butte. Behind us another enormous sandstone butte arose from the ground and towered over the little homestead. There was no one there to meet us on our arrival but we didn't mind the opportunity to explore the locale on our own. When our host Rosalyn eventually returned from a shopping trip she found us completely stupefied by the majesty of our surroundings. She told us that everyone says the same thing when they arrive, but she couldn't see it herself since it's just been home to her ever since she was born.

If the loop road in Monument Valley had been open this would have been a perfect time to drive it but as it were we just hung around the outdoor common area and watched our kids play with Rosalyn's grandkids until it was time to eat. There was a mischievous band of sheep that seemed to have free rein of the property during the day and they wandered in circles around us foraging for any dropped food and occasionally nudging the kids.

We had chosen the option to have a home-cooked meal at the hogan in the hope that Mei Ling would be able to pick up some Navajo cooking techniques but unfortunately the only thing on the menu that evening was frybread and chopped salad, also known as Navajo tacos. Mei Ling did get to have some fun hand-kneading and frying the dough but since she doesn't eat starch there wasn't much for her to eat there except sliced tomatoes and beans.

I'd already had enough frybread for one day that morning in Chinle and the kids had already decided they didn't care much for it so it was clear we would need to find another dinner nearby. We made the excuse that we wanted to get an early spot at the overlook near Forrest Gump Point for sunset over the valley and then sped off to find some meat. Some quick research brought us to Goulding's Lodge, a hundred year old accommodation with restaurant that was located at the foot of another monstrous block of weathered sandstone.

Despite the awe-inspiring setting the food was quite pedestrian and took so long to arrive that sunset was halfway over by the time we had finally managed to pay our bill. We got back onto Highway 164 and raced north to the overlook as the sun rapidly descended. We crossed the border into Utah and soon approached the base of a steep hill where we saw several people standing in the middle of the highway taking photographs of each other. Some were even lying prone in the road shooting pictures from ground level. These were the folks determined to recreate the famous scene from Forrest Gump when he abruptly ends his marathon run with Monument Valley as a backdrop. They didn't seem eager to get out of the way of our approaching car either, only leaving the middle of the road when we were a couple of hundred feet away. At the top of the hill we reached the turnoff for the overlook which did provide an awesome perspective for a picture with Monument Valley's finest specimens.

Although the outside temperatures were only in the seventies,. it felt somewhat stuffy inside the hogan. We elected to keep the door closed for fear of a coyote or some other desert beast entering our abode while we were sleeping, and put the fan on at full blast. We fell asleep fairly quickly after another exhausting and complicated day but I awoke just a few hours later feeling like I was trapped under a blanket of warm air. I threw caution to the winds and opened the door which did alleviate the mugginess somewhat but I only slept another hour or so. This time when I awakened I knew there would be no returning to sleep, even though the sky was still pitch black. I was conscious of every little sound that penetrated the stillness on the hill. Fortunately there was a little plastic chair outside the hogan and just enough light from a small spotlight to read by. As the first light started to break over the horizon Mei Ling joined me outside and together we watched the sun slowly turn Monument Valley from a jagged silhouette into the beautiful and stately natural sculptures that we had already become familiar with. Once we were in full daylight we roamed the grounds one more time, infuriating the corralled sheep by ignoring their pleas to be fed.

We returned to Goulding's for a basic breakfast and hurriedly got back on the highway north into Utah. Before we reached the Forrest Gump outlook we encountered another turn-off that led to a small clear area with an even better perspective than we'd had the previous evening. Sunset behind the monuments may be amazing but my preference was for the deep palette of colors formed by the sky, the monuments, and the dusty terrain. We paused for ten minutes or so to absorb this majestic spectacle one final time before pressing forward into the fourth and final state of our road trip.

Posted by zzlangerhans 22:35 Archived in USA Tagged road_trip navajo family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog kayenta chinle Comments (0)

A Southwestern USA Expedition: Bisti Wilderness and Shiprock

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Our first stop on the long drive to the Bisti Badlands was the Monday farmers market in Española. We only knew about it because of a sign we'd seen while driving the Low Road, and it turned out to be a pretty small operation. We bought some snacks and looked around for a few minutes but there wasn't much to see. The driving was pretty routine until we turned off the main highway to state road 96 after Abiquiu. Almost immediately we drove by a huge lake that was so pretty we had to turn around and visit the overlook. This was Abiquiu Lake, a reservoir formed by the damming of the Rio Chama. The still, chalky lake was surrounded by juniper-covered hills with stately mesas in the background. For the next hour or so the one lane road snaked gently through the mesas of the Santa Fe National Forest, passing by towns on the map like Coyote and Gallina that were barely more than clusters of buildings.

As we drew closer to the New Mexico badlands the ground flattened completely and the vegetation largely disappeared. The last hour and a half of driving was as dry and boring as anything we'd experienced on the trip. It was tempting to cut across the badlands on one of the ramshackle county roads but I knew we had enough time to make our rendezvous if we took the longer, more conservative route so that's what we did. We arrived at the meeting point which was just a sign at the intersection of two roads and waited about fifteen minutes until our guide arrived. I'm pretty sure Navajo Tours USA is the only outfit that conducts tours of the Bisti Badlands. Our guide Kialo founded the company and he leads almost all of the hikes himself. I was glad to be a part of supporting a local small business with a mission of introducing travelers to this largely unknown natural wonder.

One of the things that drew me to Bisti was that I had never heard of the area before beginning my research for the trip, yet as soon as I saw the pictures I realized that it would be an unforgettable experience. I don't think I'm alone in my ignorance. I haven't spoken to a single person outside the immediate area who has ever heard of it either. Bisti Badlands is the western section of the larger Bisti/De Na Zin Wilderness. Both Bisti and De Na Zin are derived from the Dine language of the Navajo, with the former meaning "shale hills" and the latter meaning "cranes". The area is protected and administered by the Bureau of Land Management but does not enjoy any special federal status.

The hike was scheduled to be five hours, but I prevailed on Kialo to shorten it a little for the sake of the kids. I've never known them to walk more than three hours at a time, and that was in cities with frequent breaks. I soon realized that part of the reason for the long duration of the trek is that we had to walk almost an hour from the parking lot across a relatively featureless expanse of dense, cracked ash. Kialo kept the kids entertained by teaching them about the geology of the badlands. The land where we now walked was once at the edge of a huge inland sea that left behind coal, fossils, and petrified wood. The kids had some fun playing with the red "clinkers", clay chips that had been hardened by a cataclysmic fire thousands of years previously.

Eventually we reached some taller hills of hardened ash and clay in shades of beige, black, and ochre. As we crossed through them we began to see clusters of hoodoo rocks, mushroom-shaped structures formed through millennia of gradual erosion by water and wind. Some of them looked fragile enough to be toppled over with a gentle push and probably were, although they may stand for centuries longer if undisturbed by human touch. Eventually all the ones we saw will crumble to be replaced by others which hopefully will be marveled at by future generations for centuries to come.

The heart of the Bisti Badlands was a breathtaking, barren tableau of grey-striped ash hills, flat clearings criss-crossed by the dry beds of ancient streams, and innumerable clusters of hoodoo rocks. I could easily have believed that we had been deposited on the surface of some unknown planet as this was the most alien landscape I had ever experienced. I was grateful to have an experienced guide as the area seemed designed to disorient neophyte hikers.

I could have spent hours exploring the badlands and marveling at every new vista and formation but it was clear the kids were getting exhausted. We still had an hour walk back to the parking lot which proved very brutal for them. We were lucky that it wasn't hot but the distance was really overwhelming after we had already been walking for three hours. Even after we passed the last hill and could see the parking lot in the distance it was still forty more minutes of walking. Eventually both Spenser and Cleo flagged out and needed to ride piggy back part of the rest of the way which was no small burden. It hadn't come easy, but seeing this incredible and unique place had been completely worth the effort.

By the time we reached Farmington it was dark and a steady cold rain was falling. We ducked into a Thai restaurant downtown for a quick meal before locating our Airbnb on a quiet little cul de sac in a nondescript part of town. It was one of those evenings where our only goal was to get our belongings indoors and get to bed as efficiently as possible.

Farmington was a convenient place to crash for the night after an exhausting day of traveling and hiking, but it felt very generic from a cultural perspective. Main Street was a bland selection of fast food joints and Americanized ethnic restaurants along with the usual assortment of brew pubs, thrift stores, and tattoo shops. Armed with my research we did spend time at a couple of interesting businesses at the center of town. Artifacts Gallery is a collection of artist's studios with a small cafe that also sells chile-based foods and cookbooks, all housed within an atmospheric old lumber warehouse. Not many artists were there on a Tuesday morning but it was fun to browse through the displays. A few blocks away, Fifth Generation Trading had the best selection of Native American artwork and crafts that we had seen since Albuquerque, but the prices were significantly higher for very similar items. I was hoping to find a turquoise necklace for Cleo and concluded I could probably do better on the Navajo Reservation, where we would be spending the next two nights.

There didn't seem to be much worth seeing on the drive from Farmington to Chinle on the Navajo Reservation with one possible exception. Shiprock was another Southwestern landmark I had never heard of, the solidified core of a volcano whose softer exterior eroded away millions of years ago. The rock is remarkable for its dramatic height of 1600 feet in an area that is mostly flat and nondescript. We probably wouldn't have gone far out of our way for it, but it seemed to be smack in the middle of our route. The drive west down Interstate 64 was quite boring until I noticed an oddly shaped blob on the horizon between the distant mesas. We were still twenty miles from our destination so I didn't think it could be Shiprock but as we drew closer the jagged outline became clearly defined and it was apparent that this isolated monadnock would be a more impressive sight than we had expected.

Since I hadn't researched Shiprock very much I had failed to realize that I had set a course for the town of Shiprock rather than the rock formation. Once we reached the town it was clear we were still some distance from our goal, and some quick browsing indicated that we needed to make a southward turn down Route 491. Google Maps started to get a little squirrelly after this, frequently switching routes as we were driving. The turn off from 491 quickly became a dirt road, but we were heartened by the fact that we seemed to be moving closer and closer to the rock, although not in a straight line. At this point we were south of the rock and close to an amazing formation which had previously been hidden to us. This was a dyke of lamphrphyre, the same variety of igneous rock that formed the monadnock. Lava escaping from Shiprock's volcanic ancestor had filled a trench in the earth and solidified, and then had emerged as a jagged ridge as erosion tore away the softer layers around it.

We noticed that the closer we got, the rougher the road became until we were eventually slowed to a crawl by ridges and deep trenches that appeared in front of us. Mei Ling and I probably would have continued if we had been on our own, but the thought of breaking an axle in this very deserted spot with the three kids in the back was too unpalatable. We reversed course and sought another route on the Google Maps GPS. For the next hour or so we coursed around the dirt roads nudging the GPS which didn't seem very eager to cooperate. One displayed route would dead end and we would touch activate another that the GPS had ignored. We would change direction, get a little further, and then dead end again. If we wanted to get closer to Shiprock, we would have had to go off road entirely. It seems strange now that we were trying so hard to reach the base of this rock formation that we could already see perfectly well, but both Mei Ling and I were feeling a strong pull to the site. I won't go so far as to claim it was something spiritual since we're not mystical types, but it was interesting because we hadn't felt anything similar in Sedona which is supposed to be filled with energy vortexes. Of course Sedona was beautiful and captivating, but we don't believe that places have any intrinsic energy except for the obvious kinds created by geothermal forces. I do think that we all have deep longings and emotions inside us and sometimes these can be triggered by objects and landscapes, and that effect was certainly apparent to us at Shiprock. Nevertheless, we eventually had to concede that there was no safe way to get close to the rock in our vehicle and we contented ourselves with recording the memory digitally as best we could.

Perhaps another reason that we gave up on our quest to reach Shiprock is that when I was researching for a route online I learned for the first time that many Native Americans consider the rock sacred and disapprove of tourists off-roading all the way to the base. I did read some accounts of travelers being chased and harassed by locals but I didn't give them much credit at the time and I believe them even less now after spending time on the Navajo reservation. The modern Navajo tend to react to offenses committed intentionally and unintentionally by visitors with stoic resignation, rather than open hostility. Nevertheless, I'm glad in retrospect that we knew when to call it a day at Shiprock. It was still a highly fulfilling and rewarding experience, even if we were never able to touch the rock.

Feeling subdued by our encounter with the majestic monolith, we continued onward to Navajo Nation. The route across the border into Arizona through the Chuska Mountains turned to be quite fascinating. From the road we could see small communities and occasional monoliths with the colorful mountains in the backdrop. Occasionally we would leave the road for a closer look at a particularly interesting rock but all roads eventually ended in someone's backyard well short of our destination.

The section of the highway that passed through the mountains was called Buffalo Pass. This was the most spectacular stretch of road that we had been on so far, with rapid changes in elevation and serpentine curves through stately evergreens and rounded cliffs of putty-like sandstone. Mei Ling had fallen asleep by this point which was ironic because she loves to take pictures of scenery and she was missing the best that the day's drive had to offer. There was nowhere to pull over but I had to slow the car down to a crawl at a couple of points because the road was too beautiful not to photograph.

Close to the end of Buffalo Pass we stopped briefly at the Totsoh Trading Post. Many of the trading posts in Navajo Nation date back to the nineteenth century while others are modern convenience stores that have adopted the trading post aesthetic. I'm not sure which category Totsoh fell into, but they had an interesting selection of Native American crafts and goods along with the snacks and sundries for daily living. Upon our inquiry they took us upstairs to show us their collection of hand-woven blankets, each of which cost thousands of dollars.

We were now in the heart of Navajo country. We knew that over the next two days we would be visiting some of the tribe's most sacred and historic sites and learning even more about Native American culture than we had in Zuni. With a growing sense of excitement we drove the last half hour into Chinle.

Posted by zzlangerhans 19:32 Archived in USA Tagged road_trip arizona new_mexico family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog 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)

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