Saturday, April 30, 2011

Our home and native land

Saturday, April 30, 2011

SAULT STE. MARIE, ON – We’re back in Canada again! Yay!  The signs are bilingual, there’s a Tim Hortons down the street, and the money has lots of colour to tell one bill from the other.  It feels great.

We made another early start today, gliding as quietly as a diesel truck will allow from the RV park just after 6:30 am.  We had heard a weather report for rain, but the sky was almost completely clear with no sign of the wet stuff once we got onto the highway.  When you get on the road that early, there are very few other vehicles, so we were able to make good time.

Glimpses of the northern shore of Lake Michigan came into view as we traveled along Highway 2, and we could see white caps on the waves in the steady breeze.  Every creek and river we passed was swollen with snow melt, rising past the banks into the woods.  There were also a few clumps of snow as we got closer to the Canadian border, but we pretended they were just white birch logs lying in the bush.  Until it was obvious a birch log couldn’t possibly be a meter in diameter.

We passed through the little town of Escanaba and, by the highway on the outskirts of town, we saw a group of people in high-visibility vests.  It was a team of kids with a couple of adult supervisors, gathering trash into bags to clean up the roadsides.  They had been at work for some distance, because we passed trash bags set by the road more than a mile further along.  It sure made the scenery more attractive without plastic shopping bags snagged in the bushes or pop cans and plastic bottles strewn around.  Those kids were learning a valuable lesson, I hope!

The highway through the upper peninsula, as that portion of Michigan is called, is fairly long and straight, with tall pines on either side and only a few little burgs.  We stopped to refuel one last time in the US, where prices for diesel are rising but not yet as high as in Canada.  Then it was on to Interstate 75 and the short hop to Sault Ste. Marie.

As we crossed the bridge over the Soo canal, there was a long lineup headed the other way into the US.  We hoped it wouldn’t be quite so long when it came to the Canadian side.  The view from the high bridge is quite interesting, with the canal and ships passing below, factories and smokestacks beyond, and, on the horizon, the wind farms with their rotating turbines.  One of the nicest sights was the beautiful Canadian flag, flapping stiffly in the wind.

The wait was not long when we got to Canadian customs. We had to pull aside because our declaration exceeded the amount we were allowed for a stay outside the country longer than 48 hours.  Buying a new laptop kind of augmented the grand total somewhat, but the customs agent was reasonable in any case. 

Then it was off in search of a hotel in Sault Ste. Marie that would have a parking area big enough to hold our rig. The KOA where we stayed here last time doesn’t open till May 6, and, besides, it’s not exactly camping weather in these parts.   We succeeded with very little searching, fortunately.  We winterized the trailer so nothing will freeze as it sits unheated for a couple of nights.  We also put anti-freeze into the holding tanks to keep the contents from freezing until we can drain them.

There’s a nice restaurant next door to the hotel where we can have supper tonight.  We’ll even get to watch a little TV for the first time in two months!

The marathon

Friday, April 29, 2011

IRON MOUNTAIN, MI – Four years ago on our way back from Alaska, we stayed at Rivers Bend RV Park, the same campground we’re at tonight. At that time, it was in high season, and the wi-fi was operating. This time, however, we hit the park just prior to May 1 when the camp’s wireless internet contract resumes, so we are bereft of our connections – not only as regards the internet, but also our cell phone. It is like being in the dark ages.

Today we covered the longest distance of our entire trip – 411 miles in all. As I write this, Val is asleep in his easy chair, having been at the wheel since 6:30 this morning when we rolled out of the KOA. The fields were still sparkling with frost and the sun was barely above the eastern horizon. We had to scrape the frost off the windshield before we could head out! Nevertheless, it was a lovely clear morning that bloomed into an even lovelier day, with the mercury reaching 68 degrees before day’s end.

Using our road atlas, I plotted a route that took us on a couple of interstates plus some state highways of reasonable quality to get us here as directly as possible. We crossed the entire state of Wisconsin and are just inside the Michigan state line. Tomorrow we cross into the Eastern time zone and our watches will match Ottawa time for the first time in weeks.

Our introduction to Wisconsin was through mist and cloud that had settled in the valley, through which flowed the Mississippi River. As we drove across the bridge, it was like driving into oblivion, as cars and road were swallowed in mist! The river itself was very wide at this point, and high as well. The trees were standing in water up to their knees, and the water’s surface was not far at all from the underside of the bridge. Aside from swollen banks, however, there was no other sign of flooding.

We’d heard on the radio, and saw in the newspaper we bought, about the terrible devastation caused by tornadoes through the southern central states. It made us grateful that we had altered our original travel plans to avoid that corridor. There are a lot of people who have no homes tonight because of the storms. I imagine they count themselves lucky though, because they are still alive. We actually passed an area where a similar wind storm must have recently hit, because we saw big trees snapped off and houses with siding ripped away, and crews clearing lots of brush with chain saws. Mother Nature can be pretty severe at times.

We really enjoyed seeing pine trees, lakes and forests that remind us of Canadian landscapes. It’s easy to feel close to home when there aren’t saguaro cacti, yuccas and ocotillo plants on every side (beautiful and exotic though they were)! We spotted some deer today – one young buck sauntered up onto the shoulder of the road, hesitated and then scampered back when he saw us and our big rig coming at him. It caused us some angst before the beautiful creature made his wise decision! We also saw a couple of wild turkeys, plus a whole flock of turkey hens, in our travels.

I had hoped to call up some video clips of the royal wedding this evening, just to see how things had unfolded, but that’s not possible. I did locate the shortest of clips at around 5:30 this morning on the laptop before we set out, so I got to see Kate’s dress, hear a bit of the choir music, and see William slip the ring onto his bride’s finger, but that was it. I guess I’m one of about a dozen people on the planet to have missed pretty well the whole thing. When we get to civilization, I’ll have to get caught up.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Our new royal coach

Thursday, April 28, 2011
HAYWARD, MN – It has been quite a day!  After a chilly night under an extra blanket, with only a “milk barn heater” for warmth, thanks to our new friend Chad from last night, Val was up and on his way by 8 o’clock to fill the propane tanks.  At the same time, he looked up the repairman Chad had mentioned, to us to see if he could help us find out what exactly our propane problem was.
We battened down the trailer, hitched up and headed over to the RV dealership for our morning appointment, and Ken, the propane repairman, arrived in his truck right behind us!  He got to work right away, and was still at it when we had to go inside. 
Casey, our sales rep, was in her office when we arrived, having done all her homework from yesterday afternoon.  She said it would probably be best if we sold our truck and trailer on our own rather than selling it to them, and we were quite happy with that.  Then she quoted a price which was literally thousands of dollars less than we had anticipated!  We were blown away, and to make a long story short, we bought the new motorhome with a deposit, with the balance due on delivery in a couple of months when the unit is built.
So we are turning a page in our RV experience, saying farewell to the fifth wheel and truck in exchange for a 24-foot, 2012 Itasca Navion iQ, built in Forest City at Winnebago Industries.  We are thrilled!  It has two slides, one for the sofa and one for the bedroom, which includes a queen-sized bed.  We’ll have a microwave convection oven, bathroom with shower, a diesel generator, even a TV, and all in a very compact vehicle.  We’ll be flying back to Forest City in the summer to pick it up and drive it home, and the dealers will have all the paperwork done for its transfer into Canada at that time.  It’s all very exciting.
When our business was all attended to, we went back out to the truck and trailer, where Ken had left a note saying there was more work to be done on the propane system, so we drove to his offices and parked outside.  It was bitterly cold as he laid down on the ground and pulled out a piece of pipe and connector.  He had discovered a leak in the pipe that fed our furnace, caused by a couple of tiny cracks that he attributed simply to old age.  We took this to be a sign that we were due for a new RV!
It was lunchtime by this time, so we stopped at a nearby café and celebrated our purchase, and the promise of warmth once again in our trailer, over Reuben sandwiches and hot beverages.  Then we were on our way, aiming for a KOA not far away in Minnesota.  Once we were set up there, we turned on the furnace and were delighted to feel warm air coming through the vents!  Good thing, too, because it was still only 47 degrees outside, next to the cornfields and highway nearby.

After studying our maps and mileages, we’ve figured out a route that will make up for a lost day and get us back to the travel schedule we had originally planned.  We are looking forward to getting home!

Small town friendly

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

FOREST CITY, IA – We were up and at it promptly today to take the tour of the Winnebago Industries complex. It started with a film showing how the motorhomes are constructed. The thing that impressed me most was how many components are manufactured on site. Very little is made somewhere else and assembled here.

They extrude their own aluminum from pellets to make frames; they have a stitchery building where workers sew all the bedspreads, cushions, car seats and curtains; they have cabinetmakers who make and hand-finish all the cupboards, closets and paneling; electricians who string all the wiring; specialists who liquefy plastic pellets and twirl the result in molds that produce seam-free shower stalls and other plastic components – the list goes on and on!

One of the things that Winnebago does import is the chassis. We saw rows of them – basically four wheels, a frame and a motor, from Mercedes-Benz, Ford and Freightliner, and Winnebago cuts them and welds pieces in to make them longer if they are to be used for motorhomes longer than 24 feet.

Terry, our guide, took our little group of eight on a bus through the entire campus of buildings, and in several buildings we went upstairs to a mezzanine level to look down on the assembly line. When they introduce a new design, they make a full-scale model entirely of clay and get a computer to “read” all its contours so it can be reproduced exactly in the appropriate materials. The whole tour was fascinating, and we learned a lot. It was clear that the company aims for the highest quality at every stage of the process – very reassuring when you are thinking of buying one of their units.

Which is exactly what we are doing. We’ve had the fifth wheel for 10 years and are ready to get something newer, simpler and smaller. So, after lunch today we went to the local Winnebago dealer to see the model we’ve been eyeing and find out how to get the best price while meeting the requirements for taking a US unit into Canada. You can save thousands by getting a unit this way. It was an interesting afternoon with Casey, the sales rep, a young woman who knows the product well and showed us all its features. We even went for a test drive and I took the wheel for a time (which I never do with the fifth wheel!) and found it quite driveable!

We’ll be going back in the morning to hammer out the details, so we left Casey and came back to the trailer. That’s when we discovered the propane furnace had pooped out. Though the two tanks seemed full, no heat was coming into the trailer, nor could we light the gas range. We went out to find a phone to call some dealers we’d located online and stopped in at a gas station. The attendant and one of her customers offered several options and let us use their personal phones. We couldn’t reach anyone after hours but thanked them for their help.

Then we went on to find a diesel fuel station to fill up the truck, and while we were doing so, a man in a pickup truck pulled up and asked if we were the folks with propane problems at our trailer! He’d heard about it after we left the gas station and came in to town looking for us! He offered to lend us an electric heater for the night and then drove to his place to get it and bring it to our trailer. It turns out he’s director of marketing for Winnebago, and he said we could leave the heater at the Visitor Center in the morning where he’d pick it up.

When he came with the heater, Val showed him the tanks and the regulator, which he figured was the source of the problem. But he also discovered that the tanks were, in fact, empty as well. So Chad, our new friend, went back home a second time and brought us a small propane tank to supplement the electric heater! He insisted he knows what it’s like to run into problems when on the road and left it at that. We were amazed at his generosity and kindness. We will not forget Forest City for a long time!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Winnebago world!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

FOREST CITY, IO – Our resting place tonight is in the parking lot of the Winnebago Industries Visitor Center, where up to 14 RV owners are allowed to stay for free for a couple of nights. They even provide electricity and wi-fi, but no water or external washrooms and showers. Still, we are in the perfect spot to catch tomorrow morning’s factory tour, where we will see how the world-famous motor homes are built.

We left the outskirts of Omaha this morning in a steady drizzle that continued for most of our journey east and north. After we reached Des Moines, we left Interstate 80 and switched to the I-35, heading due north. Through the mist and rain, we could see thousands of acres of rich farmland and homesteads every few miles, ringed with trees where the barn, sheds and farmers’ homes stood, with the pickup trucks in the driveways and farm implements stowed out back. There was a comfortable, wholesome look to the landscape, just taking on the fresh green blush of spring, with the moist, brown soil ready to nourish the new crops.

Corn and hogs are two of Iowa’s biggest resources, which are relevant to our story a bit later, and we saw scores of huge wind turbines on various hillsides, churning electricity from their three-armed blades as they slowly traced huge circles in the breeze. They may be useful in contributing to local energy needs, but to me they lack the romance of old-fashioned windmills. Others must think the same way, as we saw a highway sign directing visitors to a real Danish windmill at one point today, but not a single mention of the turbines!

One of Iowa’s favoured sons is actor John Wayne, whose birthplace, De Soto, we drove past today. There are scores of others, such as Mamie Eisenhower, Herbert Hoover, Elijah Wood, and Johnny Carson.

To reach Forest City, we left the Interstate and took state Highway 69 west and north, passing through the town of Clear Lake. I noticed a sign for Buddy Holly Street at one intersection. When we queried this later on the internet, we learned that this was the town where the rock-n-roll star gave his last performance, in February of 1959. The tour bus heater was not working so he and two other music greats, Ritchie Valens and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, decided to hire a plane to the next venue. Six miles after take-off, the young pilot lost control of the plane and crashed into a farmer’s field, killing him and his three passengers instantly. They call Feb. 3, 1959 “the day the music died”. The site of the crash is marked with a memorial in the shape of Holly’s signature black eyeglasses.

When we arrived at the Winnebago Visitor Center in Forest City, the rain had let up a bit, so it wasn’t too unpleasant getting settled after we had registered inside. Since it was still fairly early, we went over to see the display room and museum, where the history of the factory is explained.

In the late 1950s, Forest City was dying with little else but farms to give it any lifeblood. That’s when John K. Hanson, a local businessman, convinced a California company to open a travel trailer factory. Originally called Modernistic Industries of Iowa when it was incorporated in 1958, it took on the name of the county where it’s located (Winnebago County) not long afterward, and with Hanson’s guiding hand became the immensely successful company it is today. At one point, he advertised that, instead of spending money, customers could trade hogs or corn for one of the new trailers – a gambit that garnered national attention!

The museum displays Hanson’s school report cards and Boy Scouts of America badge sash to illustrate the strong values he applied throughout his life. His wife Luise was a dedicated partner in the business, and both were very community-minded as well. Prior to the recession, the company had more than 4,000 employees, but has downsized to 1,500 to remain in the black. It’s clear there is great pride here in the Winnebago success story.

Monday, April 25, 2011

A trip to the shop

Monday, April 25, 2011

GRETNA, NE – A few raindrops were spitting on us as we pulled in the trailer slides and prepared to set out this morning, but Mother Nature was kind and waited till we were on our way before starting with the real rain. However, Val had checked the pressure on the trailer tire which had picked up a nail the other day – and which had been plugged by the truck stop folks near Grand Junction – and found it down again, so we needed to stop and replace it with the spare.

Our KOA host told us of a tire shop in town, and Steve, another man in the office at the time, said he was going that way and would lead us there. Dawson’s Tires was just on the other side of the Interstate, and Steve even got out of the truck and went inside with us to get some help. It turns out he is a retired teacher and Eric, at the truck store, was a student of his back in the day, so he said we’d be in good hands.

The shop was clearly used to handling big rigs, because they opened the big garage doors and we were able to drive the entire truck and trailer inside while they worked on it! That was nice for Julio, the attendant, who didn’t have to change the tire in the rain. He not only put the spare in place of the plugged tire, but checked the latter so it would be roadworthy as well. What he found was that the nail we had picked up had actually pierced the tire twice, but only one of the holes had been plugged! He took the rim off and did a proper patch job in jig time, and put that tire back where the spare had been. We were on our way again without much delay at all – and the bill was ridiculously low as well.

Our destination today was Gretna, just west of Omaha. For pretty well the whole trip, the rain came down, sometimes heavily, so that tractor trailers passing us trailed a huge plume of wet mist every time – and there were lots of them! We had picked up some mud splashes on both the truck and trailer on Saturday’s drive, so this took care of them big time.

Nebraska is big on agriculture, and that was evident with the miles and miles of cropland, combed into stripes and ready to sprout this year’s crops. Alfalfa is one of the biggest crops, and it grows well because the roots go deep into the aquafers underground, according to Eric at the tire shop. We tried to remember what alfalfa is good for, and figured it must be good fodder for all the cattle we’ve seen. There were thousands more grazing by the highway today as well. We caught sight of a few more wild turkeys, but with the wet, not as many were venturing out today as yesterday.

Our route took us past Lincoln, NE, the state capital, named after President Abraham Lincoln not long after his assassination. It’s the second largest city of Nebraska (population 258,000) after Omaha (450,000). Given its central location, Nebraska is a hub of transportation for the country, and we sure saw that on the Interstate – but also in North Platte yesterday, which boasts the largest trainyard in the world.

Our early arrival at the KOA here in Gretna has allowed us some welcome rest time, as we listen to the rain pattering on the trailer roof. It’s spaghetti and meat sauce for supper tonight – we want to use up the meat in our freezer before we cross the border back into Canada!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Happy Easter!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

GOTHENBURG, NE – The Easter Bunny had a bit of a challenge finding the usual goodies to deliver to the Zanins’ home on wheels. Still, as Easter dawned in this sparsely-populated KOA campground, a small display of tasty treats did materialize on the dining table, albeit arrayed on a grass-free, hand-decorated paper plate. The Easter Bunny is not easily dissuaded from accomplishing the appointed tasks of the season.

More challenges were ahead this festive morning, however. I had searched on line and in the local newspaper for an Episcopalian church. We left in good time for the 11 o’clock service, driving to Cozad, 10 miles down the highway (since Gothenburg had every denomination but), and following the GPS instructions from the address we plugged in.

The GPS announced we had reached our destination, but we were in a neighbourhood where no church was anywhere to be seen. So, we drove around till we found a church (Baptist, I think) that was obviously in session and I went in and caught the eye of a sidesman, who kindly came out from the service to see what my problem was. He was able to give me directions, so I trotted back to the truck and we headed off again.

With five minutes to go before 11, we spotted the building and parked. When we opened the church door, we realized the service was well advanced, and several people turned around to look at us. Clearly, we had been misinformed by the newspaper, and had almost missed the whole thing! Less than 15 minutes later, the service was over. I explained to the minister why we were late, and she said she hadn’t seen the ad to know it was wrong. She kindly offered to give us a hymn book so I could go over the hymns we had missed, but I said I knew them by heart anyway!

Back at the trailer, we got into relaxing clothes and started working out our route back home. We have to figure out what spot to aim for that’s within reasonable driving distance, and then find out whether there are RV parks that are open this time of year where we might stay. As we get further north, this becomes more of a challenge! Most don’t open before May 1.

Without that option, we have to find a hotel or motel with a large enough parking lot to take our big, 32-foot trailer plus 22-foot truck! That will involve some research and some phoning. Challenge #3: our cell phone has not provided service for some time, although Val had arranged for full service in the US before we left. So we have to find phone booths at locations where we can park the big rig while we make the calls. It’s a lot of work, this holiday of ours!!

To take a break from our figuring and research, we went out for a nature walk along the Platte River, which is gliding swiftly past the campground. We spotted some ducks on the water, and I enjoyed the wildflowers that are popping up on the shore. I also snapped this picture of daffodils. After walking a short distance, we were swarmed by clouds of cluster flies, so our stroll was not a lengthy one.

We decided to treat ourselves to a restaurant meal for Easter dinner, so we headed west again to North Platte, a larger town that had several restaurants that were likely to be open on Easter Sunday. Our search was successful, and we had a tasty meal complete with a yummy dessert.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Two bunnies, four antelope and seven turkeys

Saturday, April 23, 2011

GOTHENBURG, NE – Spring is bustin’ out all over this part of America’s Midwest. Robins are hopping around the KOA campground, daffodils and tulips are starting to bloom, and in town, fruit trees are covered with snowy blossoms. It’s a nice setting for the Easter weekend, especially as we learned that today, only 24 hours after we passed through it, the ski resort town of Vail has been dumped with 20 inches of snow! We are so grateful all that didn’t come yesterday.

When I stepped outside the trailer this morning, there on the ground between our trailer and the neighbour’s was a small brown rabbit, quivering slightly and eying my every step, but standing his ground. I was reassured that, even this far from home, the Easter Bunny knew how to find us.

We got an early start today, as we are trying to cover some distance. It was a chilly 37 degrees, and as we headed down the Interstate we saw that snow had dusted the rooftops and fields just outside of town, and a few flakes were actually drifting down.

Fortunately, neither the falling flakes nor the whitened fields lasted for long, although it was fairly overcast for most of the day. Our route took us past enormous ranches with great expanses of grazing land where we saw hundreds of cattle. There were lots of new-born calves as well, trotting along beside their mothers.

The total absence of mountains pleased Val greatly, as did the clear dry surface of the highway. In addition to the cattle ranches, we saw lots of prosperous farms where crops were already starting to grow, encouraged by large irrigation frames on wheels. We had pretty well agreed that the desert was behind us, but when we stopped for a break by the road, Val noticed that the low, nubby plants along the ditches were actually prickly-pear cacti! That surprised us both.

Not long afterward, I spotted four antelope out on the prairie; I kept looking for more after that, but they were the only ones we saw all day. Val was the one who first noticed the wild turkeys. There were five of them, a couple with their tails spread like peacocks, pecking at the side of the highway! I saw several more after that – and they were a hefty size too.

The local hero in Nebraska seems to be Buffalo Bill Cody, whose home was in these parts, although he was born to Canadian parents! He earned the nickname after killing more than 4,000 bison in eight months back in the late 1800s, but his fame grew from the wild west shows he put together. Visitors could see his ranch in North Platte, a few miles west of our final destination today.

Another rabbit hopped along the side of the road to greet us as we arrived at the campground. Once we got settled, we drove into town for some fuel and groceries. Gothenburg is a charming little place with neat homes and pretty gardens. The city park has an authentic Pony Express station from 1854, a hewn log cabin which was moved there from its original location some years ago. The people seem quite friendly, too; several smiled and said hello as we shopped and toured the town.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Rocky Mountain high

Friday, April 22, 2011

BRIGHTON, CO – Well, the wind didn’t blow us to Kansas, but it followed us to this suburb of Denver where it’s rocking the trailer again. It’s bright and sunny and in the 50s, but we hit a whole range of seasons and altitudes today!

Our travels took us along Interstate 70 till we got to Denver, where we switched to the I-76, headed northeast. On the map, the highway looks like a gentle diagonal line, but in reality, our truck toiled its way to an altitude of 11,185 feet at its highest point, with Val’s tight grip on the steering wheel the whole way. His concern was mostly with respect to the weather, which got colder the higher we got.

Only a couple of days ago in Las Vegas, we were running the air conditioning for the first time, and today we were driving past ski resorts in full action with chair lifts chugging up steep slopes of pure white snow! We saw more of the white stuff today than we have since we left Binghamton on our first day out. It was actually blowing across the highway in a couple of spots, in sinewy white wisps, as we drove by. That was from the soft powder that had fallen recently; the only stuff coming out of the sky were a few lazy flakes. Our truck thermometer dipped to 29 degrees at its coldest today!

It was the wet patches on the highway that were the most unnerving. Were they merely wet, or had they frozen into black ice? These thoughts would nag away in a driver’s mind, while a passenger might be musing at the beauty of snow-dusted pine trees and glistening mountain tops. Shared observations from either party would provide quite different perspectives at times like these!

The trek through the Rockies went on for a long time. Each time we came around a bend, there were more jagged peaks ahead! The Rockies must have presented a tremendous challenge to explorers trying to move westward across the continent, deprived of the paved ribbons of asphalt we enjoyed.

We passed the turnoff for Aspen, Colorado, the renowned ski resort area for the world’s rich and famous, and through Vail, another resort with scores of beautiful chalets and slopes that are clearly a skier’s dream. From the activity at the resort and shopping centres we passed, it didn't look as though Good Friday closed anything down in these parts.

We drove through the Eisenhower tunnel, which seemed to never end – not my favourite thing, especially when you can’t see the light at the end of it. Finally, back in the light again, we came around a bend and off in the distance was the sprawling state capital of Denver, filling the entire valley. Val was delighted to see flat land and no mountains once again!

According to my research about Brighton, it is a centre for manufacturing of blades for wind turbines, although we didn’t see any as we drove to our destination. But there are two large plants setting up here, and there is certainly enough wind for them to test their products on.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Nails, rocks and winds

Thursday, April 21, 2011

GRAND JUNCTION, CO – Our trailer is once again being buffeted by strong winds that are causing the trees outside to hiss and wave. Grand Junction is just inside the Colorado border, next to the brown Colorado River and ringed by mountains. It’s a fairly big city that boasts several big box malls, which we passed on our way to the KOA campground.

We had a rather uncertain start to the day, as we had to take the trailer to the Flying J truck plaza for a look at one of the tires. I had noticed that it was looking softer than the others, which certainly shouldn’t be happening to brand new tires. Val checked the tire but couldn’t find anything obvious, but when he and the service attendant went to look again, they both spotted the nail at the same time. It must have been hidden under the soft part of the tire when Val looked earlier.

The nail was bent in half and looked very old, with a square head and a very thin shaft. They pulled it out and inserted a plug, tested it for air-tightness and brought the tire pressure back up from 40 psi to the proper 80. Anyway, it was quickly done, so it didn’t affect our planned destination at all. We had visions of having to remove the tire and put on the spare, but this should last us till we get back.

After about 20 miles on Highway 15, we turned eastward onto the Interstate 70. The landscape was very reminiscent of Canada, with green grassy plains, small rivers, deciduous trees and beautiful mountains. We thought we had left the desert behind finally, but we were wrong!

First, we passed through Fishlake National Forest, with a steady climb between high rock formations and mountains, some of which had snow on top of them. Then, shortly after crossing the Dirty Devil River, we found ourselves descending into Sinbad Valley, a huge expanse of desert-like terrain with gigantic rocks and cliffs, and almost no vegetation except the scrubbiest of plants. Some of the rocks were scraped into swirling stripes by centuries of wind, looking like mounds of mashed potatoes! Again we could see on the cliff and mountain walls the sedimentary stripes of white limestone, red sandstone and layers of other colours.

As we continued eastward, we passed deep gorges that resembled the Grand Canyon. The highway signs indicated that Canyonland National Park and Arches National Park were off to our right – and worth a visit, certainly, on a future trip to these parts. As it was, we enjoyed what we could see from the truck windows.

We did turn off at a viewpoint to stretch our legs and look at the amazing vista of rocks and gorges. Some Navajo vendors had laid out their wares on the ground – beaded necklaces and bracelets, rings, earrings, and horsehair pottery. Some of the pieces were lovely. The elderly Navajo lady we spoke to said they were from Arizona, so they’d come quite a way to try and sell their goods.

After lunch, we carried on, gasping in amazement as we turned a corner to another breathtaking view of plains and mountains. Huge clouds were developing in the sky, like puffs of cauliflower with deep grey underbellies. Some of them were shredding into rain showers in the distance, but we never caught up to the rain.

That is, not until it was just about time to get out at our campground. I scrabbled around retrieving my jacket and putting it on for protection from the spattering we were getting, but just when we pulled in and stopped, so did the rain! Let’s hope we don’t get blown to Kansas overnight.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Back to nature

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

BEAVER, UT – Exactly two months ago today, we left on our wonderful holiday. Today, as we left Las Vegas, we began our journey back home to Ottawa. I can’t exactly say we were sorry to leave the glitz and glamour of the big city, although we enjoyed it thoroughly. But once we were out on the open road again, with wide desert plains and distant mountains and a big blue sky over our heads, it felt great.

We headed north on Highway 15, toward the northeast corner of Nevada and then clipped Arizona for a 20-mile stretch before entering Utah. At Littlefield, just into Utah, the mountains were no longer distant; in fact, it looked like we were going to drive straight into them, until the highway entered a long, curving pass with high rocky walls on either side.

Each turn in the road revealed new vistas of mountains, striped with sedimentary layers and varying in colour. As the pass descended, we caught sight of a muddy brown torrent coursing at the bottom of the ravine, the Virgin River that feeds into the northern end of Lake Mead.

When we got out the other side, the desert scenery changed to agricultural plains with more mountains in the distance, some of which were capped with snow. Fragile wildflowers billowed in the wind by the roadside in clumps of orange and yellow, and there were some expanses of pale purple in the grassy fields beyond.
We passed signs for Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park, but we had to postpone visits to those spots for a future time. We can’t see it all! Besides, it will give us something to look forward to in addition to the sites we hope to revisit from this trip.

When we left Las Vegas it was already a warm 72 degrees, but by the time we got through the pass, it was down to the high sixties. It will undoubtedly continue to get cooler as we travel eastward. Tonight we will resume our freeze-proofing exercise, turning off the water and draining the taps before we go to bed. Those hot, summery days are with us no longer – at least till summer hits Ottawa.

Beaver, Utah is a small town of just over 2,000 people, and it’s the birthplace of Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of television, and Butch Cassidy of cowboy outlaw fame. Our campground is lovely, with tall trees, spacious sites and the snow-capped Tushar mountains to the east as a backdrop. There are some dark clouds on the horizon and the wind has picked up. We’re hearing rolls of thunder as well, so we might get a few raindrops overnight. No problem, the truck could use a wash anyway.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Back in circulation!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

LAS VEGAS, NV -- I am writing tonight's blog on a brand new laptop which we bought this morning. After clear indications that our old one was failing rapidly, it finally gave up the ghost. No amount of tapping, button-pressing, plug-pulling or even silent prayer would get it going again. At seven years of age, the laptop had become a better doorstop than anything else, but for those years, it served us well.

So, after picking up some groceries this morning, we headed to a local Best Buy and talked to Eric, a young man with lots of advice on what would serve our particular needs well. We've got a Samsung that's sleek, lightweight, and with plenty of memory and other good things.

Val devoted the rest of the afternoon to setting everything up; a tedious and frustrating process which he tackled with great patience and few swear words. The reward of seeing e-mails from family and other helpful information from the Internet was most gratifying! There are still installations and preferences to settle, but we're connected at least, and that means a lot.

So, now I can catch you up on what has happened yesterday and today. Yesterday we walked over to the section of Las Vegas Boulevard known as The Strip and caught the double-decker bus to ride it to the end of the line and back. We got excellent seats, on the top deck at the front, so we could see all the amazing hotels, colourful landscaping, flashing billboards and passing throngs. We also hopped off to pick up our tickets for the show we went to tonight, at Bally's, and grabbed a sandwich before heading home.

When we came full circle, we returned to the trailer for a quiet afternoon, including a nap, to get ready for our night out. We had tickets to see Jersey Boys, the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, at the Palazzo Hotel. It was a terrific show! Excellent acting, stage effects and, of course, all the old songs we listened to in our teen years, performed perfectly. We really enjoyed it. And when it ended, we walked out of the theatre and virtually straight onto the bus which took us back to our RV park.

This morning was our shopping session. We wanted to stock up on food so that when we leave tomorrow, we can save time at the campgrounds by not unhitching the truck. It's much easier to shop without dragging the trailer along!

Our evening's entertainment was Jubilee! -- a traditional Las Vegas show with chorus dancers in feathers and rhinestones by the ton, gents in top hats and tails, as well as acrobats between set changes. They depicted the story of Samson and Delilah as well as the sinking of the Titanic, with spectacular sets and lighting, and even pyrotechnics. A glittering show! We weren't quite as lucky with the bus this time, but the crowds were in good spirits, so it wasn't tedious.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Fights, lights and LOVE

Sunday, April 17, 2011

LAS VEGAS, NV – The game plan for today didn’t start out so well, but there were redeeming moments! Being Palm Sunday, I had researched and found an Episcopal church close to our location. We woke up quite early, so I had plenty of time to take care of the week’s laundry before it would be time to leave.

At the laundromat, an argument arose between two parties, because there weren’t enough machines to go around. It got quite heated, to the point of shouting and throwing of clothes, and I was trapped in the corner trying to mind my own business!

When the drying cycle was over, one of my loads was just as wet as when I’d put it in. So I went to report this to the office, and the lady gave me a refund. That was when I glanced at the clock and was shocked to see it said 11 o’clock. My watch said 10 o’clock. The service started at 10:45.

We had changed the time on our watches because Nevada is in the Pacific Time zone, and we must have moved the hour the wrong way. I was not able to attend the Palm Sunday service I had been looking forward to. I was not a happy camper.

Even the second dry cycle failed to complete the job, which did not improve things. I ended up stringing the damp clothes on a line between our dining room chairs (no outside drying allowed) before we could head out to see the sights!

By this time it was getting up near the high 92-degree temperature of the day. We hopped on the bus with our 24-hour passes and headed up The Strip to the Mirage hotel, where the box office was holding our tickets for tonight’s show, LOVE The Beatles, presented by Cirque du Soleil. I had booked them early this morning and was delighted that we actually got in, even though the agent told me we’d have an aisle between our two seats. We could handle that.

Our eyes popped at the grand sights along The Strip. Huge hotels, majestic fountains, sculptures, flower beds, loud music, casino come-ons, massive billboards – it was sensory overload. We got to the Mirage and walked through a football-field sized casino full of people at slot machines and games tables to get to the box office for our tickets. The inside of the hotel had full-sized palm trees and lush flowerbeds, chandeliers and flashing lights.

We continued our walk and went in to the Palazzo to see about another show for tomorrow night. Where else could we catch so much entertainment in one place? These tickets are for Jersey Boys, a show I’d hoped to see when it was in Toronto but never got to before it left.

The Palazzo is part of the Venetian hotel, where they have replicated the Piazza san Marco tower from Venice, the Rialto Bridge, the Doges Palace and even a canal with gondolas paddled by striped-shirted gondoliers! Across the street was Treasure Island, with two full-sized pirate ships. And up the way we could see Celine Dion’s picture, 20 feet high, on the marquee for Caesars Palace (again, no apostrophe!).

We needed to rest before the show, which started at 9:30 pm. For the first time in years, we actually activated the trailer’s air conditioning and enjoyed the cool and quiet as we recharged.

Then we headed back to the Mirage for a taste of Las Vegas night life. The streets were full of crowds and blazing neon and marquee lights everywhere. We made it to the hotel in time to see the once-hourly volcano eruption out front – complete with lava spewing, loud rumblings, orange and red steam and hot flashes of fire!

The Cirque du Soleil show was fantastic. The aisle that separated us was merely an angle between seats to accommodate the round design of the theatre, so we were not far apart at all. We were blown away by the imagination, athleticisim, costumes, staging and special effects, not to mention the wonderful sound track of Beatles music. It was terrific!

Back home at around midnight, we tried to fire up the laptop and load our pictures. I really did intend to write the blog of the day, but the computer was dead. It has been increasingly hard to boot up, and we really thought this was the end. So, I am writing this on Monday morning, having resurrected the laptop once more. If the blog dries up in the coming days, you’ll know why.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Bedazzled and be-dammed

Saturday, April 16, 2011

LAS VEGAS, NV – When you think of a KOA campground, you would probably never think of one quite like the one we’re in tonight. We are one block back from “The Strip” – the most visited street in this huge city, and through every window of our trailer you can see the flashing neon lights of enormous hotels and casinos. Overhead is the buzz of helicopters taking visitors over the city to see the lights from above. We’re right in the thick of it!

The drive from Kingman was not long. We followed Highway 93 over the westernmost section of Arizona, and crossed the brand new Hoover Dam bypass bridge into Nevada. Before last October everyone drove over the dam itself, but now the bypass handles most traffic. Despite being so close to the dam proper, people crossing the bridge are unable to view it. That probably has prevented quite a few crashes.

We stopped at the visitor centre in Boulder City next to the dam, but were dismayed to discover it was closed on Saturday and Sunday! Without a clear idea of how we could visit the dam with our RV in tow, we decided to carry on to Las Vegas, settle the trailer, and return unencumbered after lunch. It was only a few miles from town anyway. That was the plan.

On we went to the big city, and there it was, spread out in all its glory across the Nevada desert, ringed by mountains under a bright sky. Towering skyscrapers rose near the city centre, and huge signs blazed out exotic names. There were castle turrets, pyramids, even palm trees with their fronds tied into onion shapes to capture the eye.

We managed to find Circus Circus, the street where the KOA was located, got in, registered and set up the trailer on our site. After a bite of lunch, we headed out again. Working with the sketchy maps that the KOA provided, we found our way onto the highway out of town. As the designated navigator, I felt comfortable we were headed in the right direction because we were passing sights we’d seen on the way in. There was the castle – and oh, look! There’s another monorail! Wow!

On we went, and then Val remarked how strange it was that we hadn’t seen any signs for the Hoover Dam. That’s when I realized I wasn’t recognizing things any more. This was new territory. In my bedazzled state, had missed the point at which the merged Highways 15 and 93 split. We were headed south to California instead of southeast to Boulder City. I had earned a well-merited place in the doghouse.

Scrambling to find a way back to our destination, I studied our atlas and found an alternate route. We had to head into California, turn eastward across the desert back into Nevada, and then north to Boulder City. It was a very long detour that ate up a couple of hours and who knows how many gallons of diesel fuel. One saving grace was a fascinating stretch of highway called the Joshua Tree Highway, with hundreds of the twisted, tufted trees on either side of the road.

We made it to the Hoover Dam in time for one of the last tours to see the power plant underground. They showed us a fascinating film about the construction. They said if all the concrete that went into the dam had been made into a sidewalk four feet wide, it would have reached all the way around the equator. Engineers had to figure out a refrigeration process to get the concrete to cool in reasonable time, because otherwise it would have taken a hundred years. There were all kinds of other challenges they overcame.

The dam brought many benefits. Chiefly, it brought control over the wild Colorado River so it could be kept from flooding and used for irrigation and power generation. Also, the thousands of jobs it created were a welcome relief for the many unemployed people in the Depression.

Once we’d had the tour of the inner workings, we were able to walk across the top of the dam and take in its great height as well as see Lake Mead on the upper side of it. It gave us a real appreciation for this amazing feat of engineering.

Friday, April 15, 2011

A town where burros run free

Friday, April 15, 2011

KINGMAN, AZ – What a difference a couple hundred miles can make – in Arizona, anyway. This morning we could almost see our breath and clumps of snow were still melting in the woods, and tonight we’ve opened all the windows, the ceiling fan is running and Val is in bare feet and shorts!

We’ve gone from an elevation of 7,600 feet to around 3,000 feet. We could really see that on the highway as we traveled west from Williams to Kingman. We went down a lot of hills! We also left a region with tall pines and grassy hills, and entered into a desert zone again, with prickly-pear cacti, agave plants and the tall thorny sticks known as ocotillo, which are covered now in tiny green leaves and a bright red blossoming plume at the top of each stick.

As we drove, the temperature rose from 47 after breakfast to 90 just before we came in for supper. We were forewarned, so I put my winter jacket back in the closet, for the time being anyway. I know I will be digging it out again before long!

Our drive from one KOA to the next was short; we got here in time for lunch. But once we were all set up and had eaten, we set out again to visit the ghost town of Oatman. We had heard about it from a couple we met on our train ride in the Verde Valley. They said there were wild burros that live there and wander free in the town. The animals are descendants of the burros that carried ore out of the mines in the area. When the mines closed, they were left to run free.

On the map, Oatman looks fairly close to Kingman, but the topography was a different story. We headed toward the Black Mountains west of Kingman, and ended up driving right into them on the historic Route 66, a two-lane, twisting highway with hairpin turns, no shoulders and sheer cliffs off the passenger side on several occasions. I waited till we were past them to tell Val I had seen several car wrecks rusting at the bottom of the drop-offs.

Rugged hills and mountains surrounded us as we continued on our way, and on the roadsides were spring wildflowers in colourful clumps. The land was very dry and scattered with agave plants, spiny chollas and sagebrush.

Just as we turned one bend, we caught sight of a lovely grey donkey grazing by the roadside, all by himself. It made the final eight miles of twists and turns a bit easier to take, knowing there would be more sightings to come.

Finally we rolled into town – little more than a single street, flanked with old-west style store-fronts of weathered wood with equine names like Jackass Junction and The Classy Ass. We found a place to park and headed over to the main street where, sure enough, several burros were standing, surrounded by tourists.

There were three or four babies with stickers on their foreheads that read “please don’t feed me”, since they are still surviving on their mothers’ milk and don’t really need chocolate bars or potato chips to supplement that diet yet. To be fair, there were vendors selling brown paper bags with donkey fodder for people to dole out. As soon as the donkeys heard the rustling of a paper bag, they swarmed the person holding them like bees to honey!

There were signs indicating a staged cowboy shootout would take place at two o’clock, so we enjoyed an ice cream cone and a browse through the town and then left before the guns blazed. Val actually spotted a fellow strolling along in blue jeans and a stetson, and hanging from his belt was a holster and gun. And he wasn’t part of the show!

We continued along Route 66 rather than retracing our journey of switchbacks and sheer cliffs. It brought us to the town of Golden Springs, and after miles of desert scenery, we were amazed to see a bright blue-green body of water – the Colorado River, fresh out of the western end of the Grand Canyon and flowing along the Arizona-Nevada border. It was a day of contrasts, for sure.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Whirling blades

Thursday, April 14, 2011

WILLIAMS, AZ – Last night’s stiff gale had quieted to a gentle breeze when we got up this morning, so we were looking forward to our view of the Grand Canyon from the sky as we headed for the heliport.

A steady thrum of helicopter blades came through to the waiting lounge from outside, as one craft after the other landed or took off. Grounds crew with bright yellow earmuffs escorted passengers out for their flights, after cinching a belt with an inflatable PFD in a pouch around their waists.

Seats were assigned according to each person’s weight, which was taken at the check-in desk when we bought our tickets. I was hoping I wouldn’t get the only middle seat on the helicopter. You weren’t allowed to switch seats.

Finally our names were called and we were escorted onto the tarmac. Happily, I got to sit at a window, facing backward, but also facing Val, so no complaints! On this flight, the middle seat wasn’t even used, so it didn’t present a problem for anyone.

Our pilot called herself Bec, and spoke to us in a high-pitched, little-girl voice that added no gravitas whatever to her leadership role! Our headsets filled our minds with recorded music to start with, and then a narrative about what we were seeing below us. At first, it was just trees by the acre in the Kaibab National Forest that’s adjacent to the Grand Canyon National Park.

Then, as we approached the rim, our ears were filled with the opening bars of Also Sprach Zarathustra, the theme music to the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, reaching the first cymbal-clashing climax just as the flat treed land dropped away into the abyss! Wow! It was a thrilling sight, augmented all the more by those majestic chords.

Bec carried us eastward along the Colorado River, flowing green at the bottom, to the point where it was fed by the Little Colorado River, which was the colour of café au lait. It was neat seeing the two colours blend together. We also caught sight of some tiny dots on the river: people in inflatable boats heading for a white-water adventure on the rapids.

From there, the helicopter swung toward the north rim, a much snowier place than the south, where we could glimpse sections of highway, mostly snow-covered, but bare in enough places to see that it was highway. It won’t open to the public on that side till some time in May.

We saw some wonderful formations, like the Battleship, and Dragon’s Alley, where the row of pointed ridges looked like the spiny plates on a dragon’s back. There were also peaks of rock with different coloured layers that looked like rings of rainbow stripes from above. We were in flight for 45 minutes, but it went really quickly. It was fantastic.

Back on terra firma, we drove in to Grand Canyon National Park one more time, stopping at the entrance to get a picture in front of the big sign. Val also wanted to check out the campground in the park for future reference. They have sites big enough for a fifth wheel, but as the season gets busier it can be hard to get a spot. They do take reservations, however. Now we know!

After a rather chilly picnic lunch (it was only about 47 degrees), we set off in search of the mule stables that we had seen yesterday from one of the distant viewpoints on the rim as we looked into the village. We’d never seen a mule up close.

We did finally find them, penned next to a large barn. They look like sad creatures, with heads low and dull-looking eyes, but they also look very sturdy and well-suited to carrying packs up and down the canyon paths.

There was a nature talk we tried to get to, but we couldn’t find a parking spot anywhere for the truck, so we relegated that experience to our “next time” list and headed back to the KOA, bidding a last farewell to one of the wonders of the modern world.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

At the edge of the Abyss

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

WILLIAMS, AZ – We had to walk briskly from the parking lot to the Yavapai Geology Museum in Grand Canyon park, to make the 10 o’clock geology talk. Lucky for us, Ranger Mike was chatting with the handful of participants and hadn’t actually begun his spiel yet.

Although geology can be a pretty dry subject, Ranger Mike did an excellent job of livening it up. At the same time, he gave us a much better insight into how the Grand Canyon came to be the way it is. He said a better adjective than “grand” for this canyon would be “unique”, because there are other canyons larger than this one, but unlike them, much of the Grand Canyon’s evolution is visible to the naked eye in the unmistakable stripes of limestone, sandstone, schist and shale from the top to the bottom.

Mike also explained the role of water erosion, the movement of tectonic plates, and the tilt of layers here that made water flow more forcefully, deepening and widening the canyon over millions of years. He compared that tilt with a long downhill highway with the police at the bottom with a radar gun! He said you could imitate the formation of a mountain range quite well by ramming your vehicle into a tree. Like I said, he livened things up!

The wind began to really pick up by the end of the nature walk, and Mike had to remove his straw stetson lest it fly over the edge. We went in to the geology museum afterward with its very informative displays, dioramas and picture windows over the canyon.

Our next item on the agenda was booking a helicopter flight. At the heliport, we learned one would be available at one o’clock, so we signed up. We ate our picnic lunch in the truck, because it was still blowing quite briskly outside. It was actually a relief, at flight check-in time, when they told us were canceling flights for the rest of the day due to the high winds. So we’re rebooked for tomorrow morning.

The change in plan brought us back into the park to take the free shuttle through the route where public vehicles are not allowed to go. This followed the rim of the canyon in a westerly direction, stopping at nine different points, each with a different view. Between each point were walking trails of various lengths, so you could choose to take them or wait for the next bus.

From the Trailview Overlook, we were able to see hikers wending their way up and down a trail that zig-zagged way down into the canyon. They looked like ants from our height! The signs and literature advised against attempting to go all the way down and back in one day because of the risk of exhaustion or even death. We were aghast, therefore, to hear from a young man on the shuttle that he had run down and hiked back in about seven hours.

Our hiking was of a far gentler nature, covering about a mile and a half between three points along the bus route. The high altitude takes getting used to, and even with very mild rises on the path, we huffed and puffed a bit. Sometimes we were right on the very edge of the rim, which made Val grateful for the railings, especially when there were stronger gusts of wind. Some parts were not railed, however, causing some angst! The views at every stop were spectacular.

The Abyss was the name of one viewing point where the drop was just about vertical. Every now and then we caught glimpses of the blue-green Colorado River at the bottom, sometimes flecked with white rapids. Val’s super lens on his camera caught some great close-ups of those parts.

The end of the route was at Hermits Rest (yes, the lack of an apostrophe did annoy me!), named after a Canadian prospector, Louis Boucher, who came to the Canyon in 1891 and worked on developing some of the trails. There was a lovely stone building there with a huge fireplace inside and a snack bar where we warmed up with hot chocolate and coffee.

On our way home, we stopped in Tusayan, a village just outside the park, for a nice steak dinner in the Grand Hotel before heading back to Williams. A great end to a terrific day.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Grandeur part deux

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

WILLIAMS, AZ – The snow crunched underfoot this morning as we got our day started, so it was a good thing we had disengaged the water hose and ran our faucets dry for the night. Still, it was clear and sunny, as we headed north for our second day at the Grand Canyon.

Our first stop was at the National Geographic Visitor Centre just outside the park, which has some interesting interpretive material about the Canyon, including models and maps, plus an extensive gift shop and an Imax theatre. Val was rattled a bit at having popcorn at 10 in the morning, but what’s a movie, especially an Imax movie, without popcorn?

Dizzying scenes, filmed from aircraft weaving through the canyon, left us gripping our armrests. The show gave us an overview of visitors to the canyon from the first native peoples through the Spanish explorers in 1540 to John Wesley Powell and his adventurers, who first navigated the treacherous rapids of the Colorado River in 1869. Powell was also the first to call this place a “grand canyon”.

The thing that struck me about the Powell scenes was that there were real actors depicting the gut-wrenching ride through the rapids for the cameras, probably having to do several takes before getting it right, using a replica wooden boat and dressed in period gear! Sometimes the boiling current swallowed them entirely before spitting them up in a flash of spray and foam and swirling them further down the channel. Definitely not for the weak of heart.

The final scenes of the movie showed a man in an ultra-light glider sailing silently over the heights, with the whisper of the wind as the only sound. Beautiful! We got to see portions of the canyon that visitors can’t access, so it was a very worthwhile stop.

Once inside the park, we stopped at the Grand Canyon visitor centre where there was more information about hiking, interpretive talks, upcoming weather, wildlife and tours. There is a free bus shuttle that takes visitors to various viewpoints, running every 15 minutes. Some of those routes aren’t accessible by personal vehicle.

After stopping for lunch, we headed back along Highway 64 eastward to pick up where we had left off yesterday. We visited each stop-off point and marveled all over again at the awesome grandeur stretching to the horizon and hundreds of feet below us.

There were lots of people doing the same thing, and we heard all kinds of foreign languages being spoken as visitors posed for photos or exclaimed over the view. We were glad to be here at a relatively quiet period; it must get incredibly crowded at the height of the season. At some stops, we had to drive around twice before a parking space opened up for our truck.

Ravens were the predominant wildlife that we saw. It was amazing looking over the edge and seeing them soaring below us! One cocky fellow hopped right up to Val in the parking lot, and then up onto the rim of the box of our pickup truck, and actually posed for the camera, offering several angles on his sleek, black feathers and fine pointed beak! We saw caution signs by the highway warning of mountain lions over a 10-mile stretch. Val thought it strange that such a furtive animal should be the subject of such warnings. There were also elk warning signs.

Finally, it was time to head back to Williams, as we needed to pick up groceries before the stores closed. The town has a population of only 3,000 and used to be a wild frontier town rife with brothels, opium dens and shootouts. There is still a wild west look about it, with local businesses like Canyon Country Inn or The Red Garter, as opposed to the standard franchises you see everywhere. Another unique aspect are the two parallel one-way main streets, Railroad Avenue heading in to town and the famous Route 66 out.

Monday, April 11, 2011

A grand introduction

Monday, April 11, 2011

WILLIAMS, AZ – Outside our trailer in this KOA park, clumps of snow are everywhere! The sound of trickling rivulets of melted snow is comforting, indicating that what we are seeing will be short-lived. Williams is 29 miles from Flagstaff, and we knew that town had received a dump of eight inches a couple of days ago, so we weren’t exactly surprised, but it’s not the kind of scenery we drove 2,000 miles to see!

We had a longer drive than usual today – about 260 miles – so we got up early and were rewarded with our last breathtaking sunrise behind the monuments. We headed south into Arizona again, and westward on Highway 160. There were still some massive rock formations to see as we continued on our way, as well as lots of flat land. In some places the land was so devoid of vegetation it almost looked like a moonscape.

Scattered throughout this area were Navajo homes, but none of them were close enough to others to be able to call them villages or towns. We did pass through Tuba City before turning south to Cameron and then west again toward the Grand Canyon.

A sign for a scenic viewpoint drew us off the highway shortly after we left Tuba City. The Little Colorado River – one of the tributaries of the Colorado River which flows through the Grand Canyon – could be seen from this vantage point.

In order to see the view we were channeled through a mini-market of Navajo crafts. Compared to some other markets we had seen, this array of wares, their variety, and the artistry that went into them, really impressed us. We made several purchases before walking down the path to the rim of the chasm.

It was very deep, with a sheer drop of several hundred feet and the brown river meandering at the bottom. We could hear the rushing water, even though it didn’t appear to be flowing very fast. When I raised my eyes to ground level and looked toward the horizon, it looked as though a huge knife had cut a jagged slash into the flat land.

As we drove away after eating some lunch, I wondered out loud whether, having seen so many amazing canyons in various parts of Arizona, the Grand Canyon might be less striking than it might have been if we’d seen it first. Time would tell.

Finally, we spotted the signs for the Grand Canyon and turned on to Highway 64. We soon came to the entrance gate and congratulated ourselves once again for purchasing an annual pass to all US National Parks, which gave us entry at no extra charge. Armed with maps and brochures from the park ranger, we headed on.

The Desert View stop was the first one inside the park and Val was happy to see the generous parking area allotted to RVs and buses. We took a quick peek in the visitor centre and then walked down the path to see the view, noting the large patch of snow by the path as we went by.

Then, there it was. Spread out as far as we could see was the most awesome vista of buttes, mesas, and chasms, striped in colours of purple, pale green, orange, brown, sand, grey and black, and far, far down at the bottom flowed the Colorado River like a turquoise ribbon. I was completely overwhelmed, to the point that I actually began to cry. I simply could not believe what I was seeing, and how far it surpassed all my expectations!

After regaining my composure, we went to get an even better view from the top of the Watch Tower, an amazing structure built in the 1930s with an inner spiral staircase to the top. The inside walls are decorated with native paintings, and there are several landings with windows overlooking the canyon.

With several days planned to take in the Grand Canyon, we decided to forego other stops – especially since we had the trailer still attached behind us – until we got settled in Williams. But we did catch more awesome glimpses on the way, which simply whetted our appetites for more.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Strangers become friends

Sunday, April 10, 2011

MONUMENT VALLEY, UT – This tiny community consists mainly of the Goulding complex – an inn, restaurant, service station, grocery store, museum and RV park, all under the Goulding name – plus a Navajo craft market, high school and the visitor centre and hotel for Monument Valley. The only church is the small Seventh Day Adventist church that has services on Saturday, so I wasn’t able to attend a service this morning.

So, since cleanliness is next to godliness, we did a thorough cleaning of both the truck and the trailer instead! There were small deposits of red sand on all the windowsills in the trailer, as well as on the backrests and dashboard of the truck, and lots of other places, so we had our work cut out for us. I also did the weekly laundry at the campground coin wash to get the grit out of our clothes. There were moments when the sandstorm was in its full fury the other day when we could even feel grit in our teeth.

With everything all spic and span again, we had lunch and then headed out to see the last couple of things in the area. There is a Navajo market near the entrance to Monument Valley, with three rows of shops that look fairly new, and a generous parking lot. Several shops had signs saying “We are open!” and “Come on in!”, but in fact they were locked and dark.

There were six or seven shops that really were open, so we went in to see what they had to sell. A young Navajo man was at the first one, and while I browsed around looking at necklaces of silver and turquoise, beaded bracelets, dream catchers and other handicrafts, Val struck up a conversation. When the young man heard we were from Canada, he said he had visited from Montana where he had gone on a school exchange. He wants to move to Montana some day. As he explained, putting his hand to his heart, his responsibilities here keep his spirit fettered, but when he was in Montana, he felt his spirit take wing and soar.

Another shop was closed when we got to the door, but the owner was close by so he came and opened it up. He was older, and his brown skin was weathered on his face. In his store were many beautifully-decorated plates and vases, and he was working on more which he took out to show us. He had carved feathers and designs into the sandstone-coloured plate, and his paints were set out so he could add colours when the carving was done. In his glass case he had several blue ribbons, awards for his handiwork, and he had newspaper articles posted on the walls with pictures of him as a younger man, describing his work. He had quite a sense of humour, and began to imitate the British and German accents of tourists who came to his shop!

We browsed in several other shops where we enjoyed more conversations. One older Navajo woman told us her husband had just retired, so he was taking care of the horses and sheep at home while she tended the store. They wanted to travel, but it would be hard to find someone to care for the animals if they were to leave.

On our way back to the campground, we stopped to see a hogan that displayed a sign saying “Open 8 to 4”. There were no other vehicles parked, but we thought we could at least have a look at the outside of the structure. It was dome-shaped and covered with dried red mud. At the top was a chimney pipe, and we caught a whiff of wood smoke coming from it, so we tried the wooden door, and it opened. Inside we found Bessie, an elderly Navajo woman, quietly seated at her loom near a central wood stove.

She welcomed us in and showed us the blanket she was making, and explained how the hogan was built. It was surprisingly sturdy inside, made of large logs set vertically at the base and then laid out horizontally in a hexagon shape as it formed into a dome. There was a display showing the different plants they use to dye the wool for their weaving. Bessie had a striking face and was decked out in a deep green blouse and purple skirt, with beautiful turquoise and silver jewelry around her neck and wrists.

We didn’t have a charged agenda today, but it was very nice to have time to really converse with the people of this beautiful land. Our lives are so different, but we have so much in common.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Among the monuments

Saturday, April 9, 2011

MONUMENT VALLEY, UT – When I opened the blinds of our picture window along the back of our RV this morning, a spectacular scene greeted me — sunrise behind the perfectly silhouetted rock formations of Monument Valley! The dust storm and winds had completely obliterated that view when we set up here yesterday, so it was a wonderful surprise.

After a short trip out to get more propane and a few groceries, which were both available within the Goulding complex, we headed over to see the little museum that is housed in the original homestead of Harry and Leone (“Mike”) Goulding.

The ground floor of the two-storey building was the trading post, and when we went in, to the clang of a cowbell over the door, the front room looked much like it did in the 1920s, with a scale, a pot-bellied stove, wooden floors and counters, and vintage tins and boxes on the shelves.

Original pages from the guest register in the 1940s were displayed in plastic holders so visitors could flip through them. On one page dated 1942 was this message: “Harry, you and I owe a lot to these wonderful monuments. Duke.” – written in John Wayne’s own hand.

The other ground floor rooms displayed photos of the early days, paintings and photographs of Monument Valley, as well as Navajo pottery and blankets. We sat down to watch a documentary about what happened to the Navajo people when the settlers arrived; it was a sad story of massacres, starvation and forced marches as two cultures clashed and one gained the upper hand.

Upstairs was the Goulding’s original apartment, fully furnished with a wood stove, stone fireplace and lots of pictures and paintings of Monument Valley. It looked very cosy. In one room were more pictures of events in their lives, plus a tribute from President Ronald Reagan for their dedication to the community and the work they did among the Navajo people.

At lunch at the hillside restaurant beside the museum, we both ordered Navajo fry-bread; it’s a batter made from flour, water and baking powder that’s deep fried into patties the size of a lunch plate. It was crisp, golden and full of large bubbles. We cut off wedges, which I dipped into my cheese-and-broccoli soup and Val into his stew. Then we drizzled honey on the remainder which served as our dessert! Melinda, our waitress, told us the health clinic has advised people not to eat too much of it, and we could see why as we licked our greasy fingers.

After lunch we drove to the park entrance of Monument Valley and stopped briefly to see the visitor centre. It had a display about the Navajo Code Talkers from the second World War, and what a vital role they had played. It struck me that those soldiers displayed tremendous grace on the part of their people, to serve the country that had dealt so cruelly with their ancestors.

Back in the truck, we headed out to see the monuments close up. The dirt road across the valley floor was quite rough, so we had to take it slowly, but it took us between and around many of the iconic formations, with signs indicating their names: the Sentinel, the Three Sisters, the Camel Butte, Elephant Butte, Totem Pole. They were huge! Enormous boulders were strewn around the bases, among the red sandy dunes and short, twisted trees. Between us, we took more than 200 pictures today! It was thrilling to see such an amazing place.

Our drive took about two hours. It was quite chilly – the thermometer in the truck never made it to 50 degrees. Just after we got back to the trailer, we looked out to see billows of snow falling! We heard that Flagstaff had received eight inches of snow overnight. At least here it melted on contact!

Friday, April 8, 2011


Friday, April 8, 2011

MONUMENT VALLEY, UT – A gust of wind that rocked our trailer this morning woke me up, somewhere around 6:30, and Val was already up. Howard, the camp owner, had told us last night that there would be strong winds today, so we wanted to get down from the heights in good time. We actually did it in record time; we were on the road by 7:30, our earliest departure yet!

I’m not sure what exactly we gained by this tactic. Through the entire day the wind has bellowed around us along every mile of highway, raising great clouds of dust that, at times, obliterated the most distant mountains completely, and made ghosts of the closer ones.

Val said he’s never seen the truck work harder than it did today, hauling our great heavy sail of a trailer against the blasts that swept unhindered across the wide plains. We headed north on Highway 191, past lots of small Navajo settlements. Next to the low buildings we often saw a hexagonal structure called a hogan, where family gatherings or spiritual ceremonies take place.

The plain we traveled across was desolate-looking, with only low sagebrush and tumbleweed dotting the dry, red soil. In the distance we started to see some of the wonderful rock formations that have been the backdrop of many movie westerns. Some rocks shot vertically from the plain as if they had been dropped there from outer space, while others were attached to larger mountain ranges that had been sculpted by time and wind into grooves and fingers of stone.

There seems to be a great fascination with naming the stone formations around here; in Sedona there was the coffeepot, sugarloaf, Snoopy, and others, and here in Monument Valley we see the mittens (formations that appear to have a mound with a thumb pointing up, one left and one right), bear and rabbit, and the king’s throne. Maybe the names helped people peg things a bit better than, say “meet you at the large rounded rock with the two-and-a-half columns next to it”.

Highway 191 came to a T intersection with 160, where we turned west. We turned north again at Kayenta, and a few miles later, crossed into the state of Utah. It was tantalizing to see glimpses, through the haze of dust, of huge monoliths of stone that would have made fantastic photos on a clear day.

Goulding’s Lodge, where we are now camped, is the name of the collection of buildings in a channel between two walls of sandstone. Harry Goulding and his wife Leone came to Monument Valley in the 1920s and built their home at this spot. Eight years later, they set up a trading post where Navajo natives could exchange pottery, jewelry, baskets and blankets for food and supplies.

Poverty and hardship related to the Great Depression prompted the Gouldings to find a way to help the community, and in 1938 they traveled to Hollywood to drum up interest in the beautiful and rugged setting of their home for a film location. They succeeded when they met with John Ford, who came here to make the film “Stagecoach” with John Wayne. He made nine more MV movie classics, and since then crews have shot hundreds of movies, commercials and TV shows here.

Tonight we went to see “The Searchers” with John Wayne, at the small theatre that is part of the Goulding’s complex. Tomorrow night they’re showing “Stagecoach”. The shows are included in our camping fee. It was fun to see the familiar story with a background that took on a whole new significance in relation to where we are!

Guests of the Navajo Nation

Thursday, April 7, 2011

CHINLE, AZ – When we stopped in at the local grocery store of this small town for a barbequed chicken for supper, we felt very conspicuous. Nearly everyone but us had jet black hair and brown skin! And I was wearing my bright yellow jacket, too. We did not blend.

We entered Navajo country today on our way to see the Canyon de Chelly (which the locals pronounce “d’shay”), located near the northeastern corner of Arizona. There was only one campground listed in our Woodall’s directory and it didn’t take reservations. But the park ranger I spoke to this morning said finding a spot shouldn’t be a problem. And if the camp was full, there was also a private campground in the park we could try. So we weren’t too worried.

Lots of puffy clouds filled the sky as we headed east from Holbrook, and in the distance we could see some of the clouds dissolving into showers. It was windy, too, and cool – about 60 degrees was as warm as it got all day.

We turned north onto State Highway 191, which took us through wide, flat prairies scattered with low sagebrush, tumbleweed and stubby evergreens. Our first stop was at the Hubble Trading Post, which has existed as a commercial enterprise ever since 1870! It is part of John Hubbell’s homestead, and he encouraged the native people to sell their wares in his trading post. Even today there are beautifully woven blankets and hand-crafted jewelry for sale.

The floorboards creaked as we went inside, and wooden counters displayed chocolate bars, potato chips, and other modern-day supplies. The second and third rooms looked more like museum rooms, with old rifles, woven baskets hanging from the ceiling, and pictures of proud Navajo women and chiefs on the walls.

On we went toward Chinle, where the canyon is located. The town has a depressed look that is reminiscent of many Aboriginal communities we have driven through in Canada and Alaska; lots of old trailers, dusty pickup trucks, stray dogs and, in this case, stray horses that were grazing right next to the road.

The road into the park looked newly paved, as well as the one leading into the Cottonwood Campground. Val made several brave attempts to fit into the sites; however, it became clear that our rig was just too big to manoeuver into place, so we had to opt for Plan B, the private campground deeper into the park.

No one was at the office trailer when we arrived, but a friendly sign told us to find a spot on our own. We knew there would be no hookups here (or at the Cottonwood sites), so we were prepared for a night of dry camping. We eventually found a site we could get into and that has an easy exit route, so we set up and unhitched the truck.

We had passed several lookout points on our way in, to which we returned now that we weren’t dragging our rig behind us. After miles of flat prairie terrain, the land simply falls away into a deep canyon with a small river at the bottom – about 700 feet down. The sides of the canyon are red rock, scooped out in places by the wind and cut into crevices in other places. Each vista was different from the next and they were all breathtaking.

The other thing that took our breath away was the wind! It ripped at our clothing, grabbed the truck doors when we opened them, and whistled in the twisted juniper trees by the lookout paths. In the town, great brown gusts swept the streets and filled the air with fine sand.

We had an interesting chat with Andrew Henry, a Navajo artist who was selling handmade necklaces, earrings and bracelets from the back of his van at one lookout point. He told us he is funding his kids’ education by doing this. He lives at the bottom of the canyon as his grandparents did before him. His hope is that his children will return when their schooling is done to help keep the community alive.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Painted, petrified and pummeled!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Painted, petrified and pummeled!

HOLBROOK, AZ – Clouds and a forecast of possible rain greeted us this morning, along with a breeze and cooler temperature. I dug out my rain jacket from the depths of the closet, where it has sat unused for weeks, just in case.

Our destination today was the Petrified Forest National Park, about 25 miles from town, but we stopped first to see the Holbrook museum and collect some local literature. In exchange for a donation toward the museum, we were each allowed to select a small piece of petrified wood to take home.

How does a piece of wood turn to stone? That was the question we hoped to have answered at the park. We entered from the south end and stopped at the Rainbow Forest Museum, where the ranger invited us to watch a short film.

Before the continents had drifted apart, we learned, the land that is now Arizona was very close to, and similar in appearance to the rainforest of the Panama region – lush vegetation with towering trees and high humidity. The continents drifted, and in the Triassic period, about 225 million years ago, the forest toppled on what had become a flood plain. The logs became mired in volcanic ash, mud and heavy silt, and silica-laden water infiltrated the cells of the wood, encasing them with minerals. The silica crystallized into quartz, preserving the logs forever. Depending on what was in the minerals, the logs took on a variety of colours.

The petrified trees were a big curiosity in the early 1900s, and unfortunately visitors took a lot of fine specimens away as souvenirs. (They must have been fairly small ones, because the logs are extremely heavy!)

To preserve this especially rich collection, the region was declared a national monument in 1906. A large tract of the painted desert was added to it in 1932, and in 1962 the area was made into a national park.

We walked around the looped path behind the Rainbow Forest Museum to see some of the petrified logs, randomly strewn on the hillsides, sometimes in a column as if the tree had just fallen. Colours of purple, orange, yellow and red outlined the ancient rings in amazing patterns, and even though they were made of stone, you could still see the roughness of the original bark, and twisted knotholes.

Clouds had gathered in the huge sky overhead and a stiff breeze had started to blow, but we braved the wind, for a while anyway, while we ate our picnic lunch at the tables provided nearby. Then we headed through the park with its rolling hills and mesas. These were striped in grey, purple, rusty red and white, living up to the name they were given by early Spanish explorers, who called the area “el desierto pintado”.

Newspaper Rock, about half-way through the park, was a collection of huge stones that had tumbled down a cliffside, where pre-historic natives had pounded petroglyphs of people, animals and designs onto the dark, flat surfaces. The film we had seen showed one spiral sun design that was a calendar; a beam of sunlight would come between a cleft of rocks and hit the centre of the sun at the exact time when crop-planting should begin.

We looked at the ruins of an ancient pueblo village, with more petroglyphs (including one that looked just like the stork bringing a baby!), and stopped at several lookout points with breathtaking views of striped cliffs and hills, the immense flat yellow-grassed prairie beyond, and blue mountains on the horizon, all crowned with heavy grey clouds that spilled a few raindrops on us before we headed home. I hardly needed the jacket, but at least I had it handy.

Dozens of tumbleweed balls hopped and rolled across the highway as we drove back to camp, and the air was brown with dust as the wind gusted across the flat plain and pummeled the sides of the truck. It was fun to see trucks and cars smash the dry balls into twigs as they passed.