End of the Road

What a long and wonderful trip it has been!  I logged over 3,000 miles behind the wheel and burned nearly 100 gallons of gas through six states in the last nine days.  I saw mountains, valleys, rivers, flats, canyons, deserts, cities, and much more.  It was the most successful road trip I think I've ever taken.  Sunday, the final day, took me from Amarillo back home to Tulsa.  But it wasn't a straight shot; I had a few stops to make.

First came the 'Slug Bug Ranch', a tongue-in-cheek display of classic Volkswagen Beetles mimicking the Cadillac Ranch on the other side of town.  It was fun to see these vehicles, designed to cater to the opposite side of the automobile buyer, dealt with in a similar artistic manner.  Like Cadillac, all the cars were spray-painted a multitude of colors.  After seeing this and The Big Texan (a restaurant in Amarillo famous for advertising a free 72 oz steak if you can eat it all; no I didn't try it!) I took Highway 207 north to Borger, TX.

Back in the 1960s, my Mom lived in a couple of small oil towns in the panhandle of Texas.  When I told Mom about my trip, she reminded me of that time in her life and I made a note to at least drive through these places to get a feel for them.  Borger was bigger than I expected, boasting 13k people as the oil industry there was still active.  It was a far cry from the small towns in Oklahoma I'd been used to seeing die slowly over the years.  It didn't take long for me to find the house Mom lived in, and I took a photo for her.  I sent it to her, pleased to be able to stand in the same place she did when she was in elementary school.  She told me she could see her daddy's pickup truck in the driveway and thanked me for seeking it out.  She hadn't seen it for about fifty years.

After Borger, we drove to Pampa, TX.  Although Mom couldn't recall the houses she lived in specifically, she knew the street.  After a little searching, I found the street and the school she attended.  I took a few more photos for her and basked in the solitude that is small-town Sunday morning.  The business districts of both towns were shut tight and the only parking lots that were filled belonged to the churches.  The faint smell of oil lingered from the fields that were active 24/7.  Additionally, on the horizon you could see the giant windmills that worked to supply power to the area.  It's strange to see what doesn't change in the face of emerging technology.  Seeing cattle graze at the bottom of those giant constructions was a little surreal.

The final stops on this road trip through the American West were places along Old Route 66.  McLean, TX housed the first Phillips 66 Gas Station in Texas, now painted a lovely orange color and sitting on an otherwise derelict corner of the tiny town.  In addition to that station, I found another old theatre (though it was in pretty poor shape compared to the others I'd visited) and a few old gas pumps scattered about town.  The last town was Shamrock, which has a restored gas station called the Conoco Tower.  It was built in 1936 and is a fine example of art deco architecture, something unusually ornate for gas stations at the time.  It was also used as the basis for one of the buildings in Pixar's 'Cars' film.

DeeDee and I made it into town, returned the rental car, and parted ways after our long, excellent trip.  I sat in my house at about 5:00 PM on Sunday, happy about the things I'd seen and the experiences that occupied my memory.  It was a busy time, but in a good way.  It's back to work and the normal day-to-day business that is life.  I'm excited to start thinking about the next trip I want to take and what sights I want to see.  It's been too long since my passport has had any stamps in it...


The Home Stretch

Today was a long day.  Which is odd, really, when you think about how busy every day has been for the last week.  But the 8 and 1/2 hour drive from Flagstaff to Amarillo isn't populated by much.  Lots of wide open spaces full of scrub brush and dust.  We only had one stop planned, and that was in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Some time back, I read an article that named 50 of the most beautiful old movie theaters in the country.  I made myself a map of them so that I could reference it any time I did some traveling.  That's how I discovered the Fox Theatre in Hutchinson, KS that I visited last Saturday.  The same is true of the KiMo Theater in Albuquerque.  After driving five-and-a-half hours, we arrived in town to find the theater.  It was downtown, which was just a little ways off I-40, but the lovely GPS took us to a road that was completely closed due to construction.  We weren't the only people caught off-guard; the traffic snarl took about half an hour to get through before emerging on Central Ave, which is also Old Route 66.

This part of downtown, much like other places I've visited, really plays up the Mother Road heritage.  Lots of signage, touristy shops, and diners.  The KiMo Theater is a gorgeous building from 1927 that blends the local traditional adobe style (which is EVERYWHERE) with art deco and other architectural influences of the time.  It was a beautiful day; the blues, yellows, and reds of the building shone as bright as they must have when the building was new.  It wasn't open (though it's in the middle of a Stanley Kubrick retrospective) but the awning and interior appeared to mirror the amazing style of the exterior.  Lunch was had across the street at Lindy's (an old Route 66 diner) and we left town with another 4+ hours on the road ahead of us.

Originally, the last half of today was just going to be a drive straight to Amarillo.  However, after my last post, my friend Randy messaged me and encouraged me to visit the town of Tucumcari, an old Route 66 spot.  I saw a few of his pictures and, since it wasn't far off the main highway, figured I'd give it a try.  On the way, I noticed a LOT of small towns with signs encouraging drivers to see 'Historic Route 66' and drive through their main street instead of zipping by at 75 miles per hour.  Every sign I passed filled me with more despair that I was missing these small gems of Americana; finally, I could bypass no more.  I pulled off I-40 at Moriarty to have a look.

Moriarty is the name of Sherlock Holmes' nemesis, so DeeDee and I took pleasure in photographing the town sign.  Aside from that, it was pretty quiet.  Not a lot of classic stuff left aside from occasional 'Historic Route 66' highway signs.  When we picked back up on I-40, I began to wonder if these detours would be worth the time.  Tucumcari was coming up soon, but before that a small town called Santa Rosa beckoned to me with giant billboards promising fun and adventure.  Although the adventure in Santa Rosa was as faded as the billboard was, there was evidence everywhere of the former glory days.  Old restaurants, motels, and obviously repurposed buildings lined Route 66.  By the time I'd stopped for a few photos, my excitement matched the promise of that ancient roadside advertisement.

Tucumcari was next.  The photos I'd seen the day before were of restored hotels and shining classic automobiles in the center of town.  I took the first exit I could and entered the edge of town on Old 66 because what I wanted were the dregs:  the unrestored, abandoned, and closed ghosts of road trips past.  The town exceeded my expectations.  Dismantled drive-ins, overgrown hotels, and boarded up filling stations were everywhere.  Even in the middle of Saturday afternoon, the town moved at a snail's pace.  I want to go back some day when I can REALLY spend time in these small towns and explore each street, not just the main route.  Before long, it will all be gone.

As we approached Amarillo, we stopped at our last detour of the day:  Cadillac Ranch.  An art installation dating back to 1974, it consists of multiple various-model classic Cadillac cars buried past the hoods and sticking out of the ground at an angle.  People are encouraged to come by and add their own art to the living canvas by spray-painting on the junked vehicles.  It's really something, especially considering the cars are on an actual in-use ranch.  Cows grazed nearby as I sprayed my initials on a tire rim and took pictures of the rest of the cars.  It's definitely a surreal sight.

Tomorrow is the last hurrah; driving home to Tulsa with only a few minor detours planned.  I'm very eager to get home and into my own bed, but this trip has been truly wonderful and I don't want it to end.

Back to the Canyon

Friday brought with it the last big destination on my trip west:  The Grand Canyon.  After decided to just wing it on the day of, my attention turned to the possibility of getting a picture of the sunset at the canyon.  Since the sun sets at about 7:40 PM this time of year, that would mean not leaving for the canyon until much later in the day.  I had most of the morning to mill about and do a whole lot of nothing...which was nice!

During that downtime, I reflected on my previous trip here.  It was a stop on my trip to California, where I would board a cargo ship bound for New Zealand.  I was with two of my best friends and my wife.  Interestingly, the hotel I stayed at in 2009 is right next door to the one I'm in now, so it was really easy to put myself back there.  I've changed a lot since then.  I've been single for nearly three years now, my father and all of my grandparents are gone, and I work in a job that's similar to the one I left back then, vowing never to return to.  But the changes are not all losses; I've gained friends, a greater sense of self, a wonderful appreciation for my home town, and my skill as a photographer has increased.  My previous two-week road trip to California has less than 120 pictures to catalogue that journey; not counting today, my one-week trip now has over 540.

I've also learned to let more things go and enjoy the journey, rather than the destination.  On our way to the Ramada last night, we missed a turn onto I-40 here in Flagstaff.  By this fortuitous error, I found myself driving on Route 66, which cuts right through the heart of Flagstaff.  That happy accident lead to my plans for the day before going out to the canyon; seeing Flagstaff's contribution to old Route 66 culture.  DeeDee and I walked through the old downtown district and drove up and down the Mother Road, seeing old motels and diners along the way.  Once we left town for the canyon, I was met with ANOTHER wonderful surprise:  Route 66 continued on to Williams, AZ and they REALLY held onto their roadside heritage.  Considering how important Route 66 is to Tulsa, it was wonderful to see another town that made 66 into a big deal.  I wish I'd have been hungry so I could've eaten at one of their many retro diners.

After that fun detour, it was on to the Grand Canyon.  Highway 64, which runs north to the canyon itself, is peppered with small touristy roadside attractions that grabbed more of my attention on my second go-through.  The several stops we made soon brought me a new realization:  the sky was darkening.  I didn't realize we even HAD a monsoon season in the US, but we do.  And Arizona was in the midst of it.  The time I'd taken in downtown Flagstaff, Williams, and along the road had threatened the time we'd dedicated to the canyon.  Although I'd been before, it was DeeDee's first visit, and I didn't want it to get rained out.  We pushed on as I quietly muttered against the weather.  We arrived at the park and attempted to find parking.  I grumbled as I drove up and down the lot near the Visitor's Center before I decided to move on to another view point.  Thankfully, I was rewarded for this shortly and we found a spot just east of Mather's Point.

Even though I'd seen the Grand Canyon before, it was no less awesome.  The human mind cannot comprehend the depth of the canyon at first glance; it looks like a painting or a trick of the light.  But it isn't; with time and attention, you begin to truly see the layers of rock, the distance between the rise and fall of the chasm, and you cannot help but be amazed.  Like last time, I felt panicky when I or anyone near me got close to the ledge...and EVERYONE seems to think it's a GREAT idea to hop the little stone barrier (or go to one of the many places where there is no barrier or guard rail) and get close to the drop-off for pictures.  I can't even think about it now without my stomach clenching.  I just have to walk away and not think about it.  Even so, I was able to get closer to the edge this time without going bananas.  At one point, a nice couple asked if I could take their picture.  Of course, I said yes and made sure their photo was to their liking.  "Where are you from?" I asked.  "We are from Rome, Italy."  I excitedly told them how much I enjoyed their city, and they asked where I was from.  When I said Oklahoma, they remarked, "Ah, a local!"  Even though I don't consider fifteen hours away 'local' I suppose it's all a matter of perspective.

After we'd been to a few viewpoints and outrun the sprinkles by the skin of our teeth, the storm finally set in.  And what a storm it was!  It began raining torrentially; the huge drops of water were mixed with hail and high winds.  The temperature dropped from the lower 90s to 57 in a matter of minutes.  We debated leaving right then, but decided to try and find a place near the main Visitor's Center and see if we could wait out the weather.  We were rewarded once again when the storm let up about half an hour later; we were able to enjoy Mather's Point and the main area of the south rim.  Though the wind had kicked up rather fiercely; I was afraid my trusty hat was going to blow into the canyon.  As we toured a few more viewpoints, rangers and police were out handling fender-benders and directing traffic away from flooded roads.  Like I said...it was a heck of a storm.

We headed back to Flagstaff by taking the scenic route through the San Francisco Peaks.  It was a lovely drive through the Coconino National Forest and we didn't run into much other traffic.  The clouds in the distance remained menacing, though, and once we made it back to town they unloaded once more, bringing localized street flooding, lightning, and more high winds.  It was the first day that any kind of rough weather showed up, and I am thankful that in spite of that the day went well.  Tomorrow brings a long road day, driving from Flagstaff to Amarillo, and Sunday brings me back to Tulsa.  Although I don't expect anything nearly as exciting on the last few days, I do have a few stops that I'm eager to experience and share.


Monument Valley

Monument Valley: a place I've wanted to visit as long as I could remember.  And visit I did.  For a brief time, I walked in the footsteps of John Wayne and learned some of the sacred history of the Navajo Indian tribe, the valley's original inhabitants.  Throughout my time there, I thought about my father and his love of the Hollywood Western.  The images I saw with my own eyes had graced our television for my whole life.  And now, here I was, breathing the hot Arizona air myself.

The previous night, on Wednesday, I was pulling my hair out trying to figure out what our plan was going to be on Friday, the day we planned to spend at the Grand Canyon.  There was so many options as far as where at the canyon to visit and what time would be best.  We started looking at some guided tour options (as I've never been IN the canyon) and that opened up a whole new world of impossible choices.  Somehow, I found myself looking at information on tours in Monument Valley, a stop en route to Flagstaff.  Even though Monument Valley was the primary reason a flight to SLC to see Alex turned into a road trip, I hadn't even considered anything guided.  We found one that was highly cited on TripAdvisor, called, and made a reservation for the next day.

The drive was easy, and my anticipation grew as our destination drew closer.  All of the sudden, we crested a hill on Highway 163 and the iconic mesas were spread out across the horizon.  I immediately recognized the area as the spot of road that Forrest Gump decided to stop running, so of course I had to stop and take some pictures.  It was also a great place to get a feel for how vast the valley was.  We drove down to our meeting place: The View Hotel, a resort of sorts on Navajo land right at the entrance to the valley.  The view, as one would expect, was absolutely spectacular.  Our guide, Aaron, arrived and we set into the valley at about 1:00.

Aaron was Navajo and throughout our trip we learned about the local culture as well as his history.  He had been in construction most of his life and returned home a few years ago to raise his two young children.  His family had been running these tours for many years and, although he still had a lot to learn himself, enjoyed sharing his culture and heritage with others.  Much like Arches, there were people from all nationalities here.  For most of our journey through the valley, we were by ourselves.

After hitting some of the big places like the Mitten Buttes and John Ford's Point, Aaron drove us back to the areas available only to Navajo guides.  Our jeep skittered around on sandy trails as we passed homes and traditional hogans (pronounced ho-gones) still occupied by Indian locals.  All of the mesas and buttes had names that carried meaning and history; moments underneath the Suns Eye and near the Sleeping Dragon were so absolutely quiet that I could've gone deaf and not realized it.  Our solitude was most appreciated when Aaron took us to the Big Hogan, a natural rock formation that mimicked the traditional hut, where I stared into the sky while listening to him play a traditional cedar Navajo flute.  At that moment, I was seeing the exact same thing that the Navajo saw for hundreds of years.  I didn't even have to close my eyes and pretend.  It was in that moment that my thoughts of my father were the strongest; oh how I wish he could have been there with me.

We saw a few more of the sights around the valley after that, including an AMAZING view of the valley from what's called the Northern Window, before saying goodbye to Aaron and Monument Valley.  The drive to Flagstaff was uneventful (save some small rain pockets) and the Ramada was a welcome sight after such a hot and dusty day.  Tomorrow brings the Grand Canyon, and although we finally decided to just drive up and wing it, I know it'll be spectacular.


Arches National Park

Wednesday morning came early, as one of Alex's cats decided rattling blinds was the best fun-time activity to pursue at 6:30 AM.  Though, considering I'd awoken early every day of this trip anyway, it wasn't that big of a deal.  Too quickly, it was time to say goodbye to Alex.  We had such a wonderful time together in and around the city and she was such a gracious host.  DeeDee and I piled our things into the Ford and set out for our next destination, Moab.  Why Moab?  Because it sits right next to Arches National Park!

I had marked the park down as a 'must visit' back in April of 2012.  That road trip never happened, but fifteen months later I was finally on my way.  The drive covered some of the same ground I drove from Grand Junction to Salt Lake City, but seeing it coming the other way was a new experience.  I saw things I missed the first time around and found places to stop and take pictures.  After a quick 4 hour drive (seriously, it just breezed by) we arrived.  We immediately stopped to get a picture of the entrance sign and met a family from Minnesota.  "Have you been in before?" the father asked.  When I said no, he grinned.  "Oh, man.  You're going to LOVE it!"  I was already excited but random traveler excitement just added to my anticipation.  Once we actually entered the park, every license plate I saw was from a different state.  I heard as many different languages as I did in Washington, D.C.  It was amazing to share the sights with people from all over the world.  

I also became less tolerant of the occasional sprinkles I'd driven through on the way down.  Surely it would clear up soon.  We stopped at a few early places and marveled at the unfathomably large rock structures and I used my hat to shield my camera from the maddening precipitation.  Thankfully, after about twenty minutes, the clouds parted and I was greeted with blue sky.  The amazing landscape that I could scarcely believe was amplified by the change; the orange and red colors of the rock formations blazed in the sunlight.  When we arrived at Balanced Rock, the rain clouds were almost totally gone.

At Balanced Rock, I noticed something strange.  There were small stacks of rocks EVERYWHERE.  I remembered this was something important, but I couldn't recall specifics.  Turns out they are a hiker's way of marking a trail.  In such a heavily populated area, though, it appeared that people started stacking rocks because someone ELSE stacked rocks; there were no discernable paths.  But I continued to see these little pillars of stone throughout the park.  We drove to several other rock formations and marveled at the strange shapes the earth had taken; rock spires jutted defiantly out of the ground, the last remnant of some larger structure that was literally weathered away.  The temperature rose as the sun got comfortable above us and it became clear we were NOT prepared with much water...but the park is easily drivable, so no big deal, right?  Right.

When we arrived at the Double Arches, I immediately suspected this would be my favorite spot in the park.  Not only is it an amazing rock formation, beautiful in color and shape, but it was also used in the filming of 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade'.  I already had a picture outside of the 'library' in Venice from the film, and I became giddy at this unexpected opportunity.  I gleefully set up my picture before going to the arches themselves.  I even climbed up to the highest point inside the arches, triumphant in another small victory over my fear of heights.  I enjoyed a few minutes of glory before realizing I now had to figure out how to get DOWN.  I made it, but not without some muttering and anxiety.  Such is life.

We toured the rest of the park afterwards, which included the Devil's Garden, the Skyline Arch, and the Delicate Arch.  The latter is used as a backdrop for modern Utah license plates, so I expected it to be the most populated arch in the park.  As we reached that section of the park, I noticed it was an actual hike out to the arch; there was a view point, but it was a fair distance from the arch itself.  Our lack of water planning kept us from hiking out to the arch proper; heck, even the hike to the view point was rough enough.  I reached the top of the viewing area out of breath, the words of Richard's long-ago letter echoing in my mind.  We both made it, though, and left Arches very pleased with our day's journey.  Once we got to Moab, we ate a late lunch (which also served as dinner) and prepared for the next day, which would take us to Arizona and my most anticipated destination since...well, ever.

Monument Valley.


A Dash of Salt

We didn't have much in the way of plans for our full day in SLC; in fact, it wasn't until Tuesday morning that I recalled the salt flats as a point of interest.  Alex was definitely up for the trip, even though it was two hours outside of town.  We piled into her Rondo and set a course due easy on Interstate 80.  After breakfast, of course, which consisted of a croissant sandwich, donut, and coffee from Dunkin Donuts, a pleasure we don't have yet in Tulsa.

The road out of town went past the airport, past the Great Salt Lake (more on that later), and then to an expanse of salty flatness that's hard to describe.  People that say western Kansas is flat need to spend a few minutes driving I-80 towards the Nevada border.  It's FLAT.  They even have signage warning drowsy drivers to pull over rather than risk lives.  On top of that, the flatness is so pronounced there are also 'High Wind Area' warnings and Alex spoke several times of her vehicle getting waylaid by strong winds.  But just because the drive was flat does not mean it was uneventful.

At one point, DeeDee noticed there were messages in the salty soil just off the highway; it was evidently a thing to arrange rocks by the roadside to spell out messages, names, and symbols.  Of course, we decided to hop out and do the same.  Much to my delight, the fence separating the highway from the railroad was gone; this allowed me the pleasure of taking some pictures from the rail line itself.  Afterwards, I collected some rocks and started placing my name on the ground.  Alex found it funny that, even when using rocks, my handwriting was the same.  I hadn't noticed.  DeeDee also gathered some rocks and placed her initials on the roadside.  It was pretty cool!  We piled back into the car and continued west.

We approached a rest area outside of Wendover and stopped.  This was the main touristy spot for folks to stop, pointing out the significance of the salt flats and the Bonneville Raceway, where the world land speed record was set.  I walked out onto the flats proper, which was quite different than the name-writing area, and marveled at the white expanse in front of me.  The thick salt stuck to my shoes and filled my nose; the sun shone as brightly as it does after a snowfall.  Even though we were still close to the highway, it was serene.  I noticed a man nearby in full garb, some kind of priest.  All around me shone the brilliance of the flats.  But there was one more place to visit before heading back east.

I'd read about a small access road a little further up the highway, one that went a little further into the flats.  We found it and drove out to the end of the line, next to a marker for the Bonneville Raceway and an older gentleman with an easel.  I complimented him on his artwork and he asked where I was from.  When I said, 'Tulsa' he was awestruck.  "You have one of the greatest museums in the country there."  I guessed Philbrook, but he corrected me:  Gilcrease Museum was on this man's list of must-see places in the US.  We talked for a few minutes about the nature of art and he shared some of the work he'd painted that day.  I took his information and told him I'd be in touch.  Afterwards, I wandered the asphalt terminus and marveled anew at the flats; there was an area of standing water that looked absolutely gorgeous.  The mountains reflected with brilliance and it could've been hundreds of feet deep if I hadn't known better.  It was an amazing moment.

We drove back to Salt Lake City, stopping once because I saw an old husk of a bus in the desert that I HAD to see through my camera lens.  As we got closer to the city, DeeDee asked if we could stop at the Great Salt Lake, as she has a penchant for putting her toes in water at all opportunities.  Of course, that was no problem!  We found an access road to the lake and stopped.

This did not go well.

The "Great" Salt Lake turned out to be a putrid, desolate landscape swarming with bugs and littered with bird carcasses.  The smell was nearly overpowering as we trudged through the crunchy soil towards the lakeside, which had receded to the point where it took a five minute walk to reach it.  Once we arrived, though, the condition of the water was too dire for even DeeDee to brave the muck.  It was just awful.  We walked back to the car, a trio of pungent and defeated travelers, cursing the signs that encouraged anyone to visit the lake for any reason.  When we got back to the car, we felt the best way to get past this blighted, desolate "lake" would be to have a delicious late lunch at In-n-Out.  It didn't disappoint.

Our day ended with time downtown and wandering around the Temple grounds.  I gotta hand it to the Mormons: they keep their city clean and organized.  The Temple is an amazing area with beautiful flowers and other peaceful surroundings.  I couldn't count the couples getting wedding photos done as the sun started to set.  The evening wound down and we settled back at Alex's place, packing and getting ready for Wednesday.  I can't believe it's only been four days!

The Beehive State

The Grand Vista Hotel in Grand Junction, at the end of all things, was a little less than Grand.  I don't have any big time complaints, especially in light of some of the places I've stayed in the past, but it straddled the line between hotel and motel such that I had higher expectations AFTER I arrived.  By the time I showered, packed, and checked out I was ready to get on the road.  Aside from my slow burn of disappointment, today's drive would take me into Utah and into the company of my friend Alex, who moved there almost a year ago.  Alex was beside herself in excitement, eagerly awaiting our arrival.

We had breakfast at a lovely little mom 'n pop place in Grand Junction and then headed out.  I didn't really have much in the way of expectations to the landscape in Utah and I crossed the state line with heightened curiosity.  The drive through Utah was full of browns, reds, yellows, and if a town was nearby there was a strip of green signifying irrigation.  We drove through canyons, down mountainsides, and across desert landscape dotted with mesas.  It felt like the old west in the movies.  Much of the day's highways were laid parallel to railroad tracks; it was easy to imagine an old steam locomotive moving along, bringing eastern citizens westward in search of riches and a fresh start.

The drive to Salt Lake City was short in comparison to my recent experiences and we arrived in early afternoon.  Alex was super excited to see us and eagerly welcomed us to her home.  After a brief visit, we piled into her car and she showed us around town.  We drove through downtown (briefly; I definitely want to spend more time there) and she took us up a steep neighborhood road to a stunning lookout spot that overlooked the entire city.  It was like a painting; the mountains to the left, the city below, and the long expanse of landscape as far as the eye could see.

"Where to next?" Alex asked.  I checked my phone for any notes I had and instead saw a message from my friend Kristi recommending a local beer.  A short Google search later and we were en route to Park City, home of the brewery/pub for said beer.  Unbeknownst to me, the GPS on my phone routed us to a small, one-gas-station town an hour out of our way.  The drive was beautiful, but I was still angry at myself for not checking my map closer.  Nobody else had any issues, though, and we made it to Park City without any further issues.

Park City is a big skiing town.  Since it's the middle of summer, it's definitely not peak tourist season.  Still, it was really busy.  The downtown district is made up in a style like the Old West and there was plenty of boutiques open for trading.  We had a wonderful meal at the Wasatch Brew Pub (complete with an AMAZING porter) and wandered Main Street until we were weary.  On the way out of the town, we stopped by the Olympic Park used for the 2002 Winter Olympics.  Although it was closed, it was a beautiful sight.

Another day filled with highway miles, tasty vittles, good company, and amazing sights.  I'm tired, sure, but I'm also excited for everything tomorrow brings.


"As I look out over this magnificent vista..."

Some people take vacation and decide they're going to sleep in every day, relax, and not do much of anything.  That's fine and good…when I take a day off here and there, that's definitely what I TRY to do (my body doesn't let me sleep in that far these days, and if it does I usually awake with a headache) but when I take time off in a long stretch I gotta do something with it.  So when I woke up bright and early just after 6:00 AM on Sunday to greet the sunrise, I felt fantastic.  We got rounded up without much fanfare and left the Stagecoach Motel in Colorado Springs to our first stop:  Garden of the Gods.

I visited this park last year, and although I had a fantastic time and really enjoyed it that entire vacation to the Denver area was soured by the strange events that followed my trip; the couple that had opened their home to me and, it seemed, had really enjoyed my company for the week I was visiting sent me an email a few weeks later that said some really hurtful things. They severed all ties to me and that was that.  I still don't understand what happened…but that's a year ago now, and I was here in Colorado to make some new, untainted memories.  Not only that, but being in this magnificent place at sunrise provided us with cool temperatures and low population.  Like last time, I was struck at how quickly I ran out of breath; just because I wasn't on a mountain didn't mean the elevation wasn't a factor.  I could exercise more, too, I suppose.

I lead DeeDee to a perch I'd discovered on my last trip and we sat for a few minutes, looking out at the rock formations and marveling at the ingenuity of nature.  Once we felt like moving again, we wandered around the park for a bit longer, seeing the Kissing Camel rock formation and the Balanced Rock just down the road, and then left town.  The original plan was to drive north to Denver and cross over to our next stop, Grand Junction.  That plan changed when I was telling some other friends about my upcoming trip and they insisted I take the south route, taking Highway 50 through the San Isabel National Forest.  That was absolutely the right thing to do, because boy howdy was it a picturesque drive.

Not only did the road we took go through many small towns like Salida and Gunnison, but we stopped at many natural wonders to soak them in.  Even though the Royal Gorge National Park was completely closed due to the wildfires last month, we were able to find a small picnic area still open so we could see the gorge and the bridge.  It was breathtaking.  Even though I have a really rough fear of heights, I scrambled out to an area closer to the edge than I can normally tolerate to take some pictures and view the river below.  Suddenly, I became aware of my surroundings (I blame other tourists that showed up and started crowding me) and literally ran back to the car.  It was a real shame about the rest of the park; were surrounded by blackened trees and a barren landscape where once wildlife flourished.  Although the ranger I talked to said they'd re-open eventually, 48 of 52 buildings burnt down in addition to the forest and it would be a long time.

The unplanned nature of our stops throughout the rest of the day added excitement and unpredictability.  We wandered through the downtown arts district of Salida, rode a sky ride up to the top of Monarch Pass (not only did that give us the opportunity to see the Continental Divide from 12,000 ft up, but a small thunderstorm rolled through and we got stuck on top of the mountain for about half an hour!), and watched rafters navigate the rapids of the Arkansas River.  At one point, I was driving and noticed a road sign that had a camera on it with an arrow pointing to the right.  "Take a picture?  Of what?  There's not…OH!"  As soon as I started talking, the landscape opened up on my right to reveal the Dillon Pinnacles, an amazing rock formation across the river.  I laughed at myself; how crazy is it that these amazing natural sights seem to pop up out of nowhere?

After a long day of beautiful vistas and winding roads, we arrived in Grand Junction.  We ate at a local Irish Pub recommended to us by Alex, spent a few minutes in the hot tub (good for my aching shoulders, bad for my ears courtesy of the many screaming children), and slept soundly, knowing the next leg of our journey would take us into Salt Lake City itself.


Hitting the Road

Don't you hate it when you wake up in the morning suddenly, startled, somehow KNOWING instantly you overslept?  "WHAT TIME IS IT?!" your brain screams before anything else even registers.  That's how I woke up on Saturday, at five minutes to 8:00 AM.  I was supposed to go pick up a rental car at 8, but in my early morning haze I had turned my alarm OFF instead of snoozing it.  I scrambled to get ready quickly; when my friend DeeDee arrived to get on the road, instead we had to go get our car first.  It added about an hour to our morning, but overall it wasn't a terrible thing.  In fact, we got a better car than I reserved for a great rate (gotta have cruise control) and we got on the road a little after 9 without any other issues.

This road trip came together rather quickly in the grand scheme of things; I had some vacation for early July that I hadn't decided if I was actually going to do anything with or not.  When I ended up moving it to this week due to a software launch at work (which ended up getting delayed anyway) DeeDee asked what I thought about visiting our mutual friend Alex in Salt Lake City.  It grew pretty quickly from a flight to SLC to a ten day road trip through six states.  After only about three weeks of planning, we zipped out of Tulsa with a full itinerary.  Yes, we actually typed up an itinerary.

Day One's driving would be the longest single stretch of the entire trip.  Over ten hours of travel time from Tulsa, up to Wichita, and over to Colorado Springs.  There was one stop I definitely wanted to make on the way, conveniently about half way, in a small town called Hutchinson, KS.  Some time ago, I read an article that listed some great old cinemas throughout the country.  I keep that list in mind any time I plan any kind of travel, and one such theater exists in Hutchinson.  The Fox Theater was built in 1931 and the facade looks brand new.  It's nestled in a small town full of the character you'd expect from such a location; I was actually a little sad that we couldn't stay longer to explore the quaint downtown, but we had a long ways to go.  We did stay to eat, though, at a local drive-in place called R-B's that had FANTASTIC homemade onion rings.

Several people had been very adamant that western Kansas was extremely flat and boring.  Once we got on I-35, I could tell what they were talking about.  Luckily for us, though, the sky was dynamic enough that we were able to keep ourselves entertained on the long drive to the Colorado border and beyond.  In fact, we ran into a few pretty harsh pop-up thunderstorms, including one where the rain was so heavy I nearly pulled off the road to wait for it to pass.  At least it washed all the bugs off the car!  Wind farms also dotted the horizon was we wound through corn and wheat fields and to the Colorado border.  Highway 24 in Colorado was a lovely twisty-turny highway full of small towns to keep the scenery fresh.  The car handled very well and I was quite thankful we hadn't opted for the compact car.  Regardless, when we finally arrived at our motel, it was a quick dinner and lights out.  Tomorrow promised to be a day full of wonder.


A Piece of Route 66

It's been a while since I've posted here!  Truthfully, it's been a while since I've done much in the way of travel or had anything I felt was worthy enough to write about.  Thankfully, over the extended 4th of July weekend I had thanks to a strategically-placed vacation day, I was able to get out of town for a day and take a trip I've been meaning to take for years:  the section of Route 66 from Tulsa to the northeast corner of the state.

I started by taking the Will Rogers Turnpike up north, zipping along at 75 miles an hour.  It was uneventful, aside from passing underneath the former World's Largest McDonald's near Vinita as it was being dismantled after falling into pretty poor shape.  The reason I wanted to start in Miami (pronounced My-am-uh) was a single place:  the Coleman Theatre Beautiful.  However, I arrived pretty early and it wasn't open yet.  In fact, I wasn't sure it WOULD open considering it was the day after Independence Day, so I wandered Main Street.  Miami is very proud of their Route 66 heritage and the quaint storefronts all have ties to the rich past of the Mother Road.  I was welcomed inside a small tourist shop and was told that, indeed, the theatre would open for visitors shortly.  I entered with great joy!

This old vaudeville theatre was built in 1929 by the guy that discovered the 2nd largest deposit of lead and zinc in the world, underneath what was once Pitcher, OK and is now the largest Superfund site in the country.  This guy made over a million dollars a month (not adjusted for inflation!) and wanted a place for road acts to stop and entertain, so he built a beautiful Spanish Revival style theatre.  In the last 20 years or so, the city has restored it and with good fortune they have it looking very close to how it appeared on opening night; they even found the original Mighty Wurlitzer organ and have silent film festivals with it!  I marveled at the ornate work, both inside and out, as a volunteer toured me through the facility.  I stood on the same stage that once hosted the Marx Brothers, Will Rogers, and even Tom Mix and his horse.  I marveled at the elaborate rigging backstage and the intricate lighting system as I was regaled with story after story of discoveries, donations, and pure luck throughout the restoration process.  The entire place felt magical.

After finishing my tour of the Coleman, I needed to eat...so I stopped at another Route 66 landmark, Waylan's Hamburgers...also affectionately known as the Ku-Ku Burger.  It was a delicious roadside dive burger and was more than enough fuel to get me down the road.  When I'd visited the tourist shop earlier, I was told about a small section of Route 66 nearby called 'Ribbon Road' or the Sidewalk Highway.  Back in the day, Route 66 was a single lane because of how few cars were on the road.  Builders assumed *IF* two cars happened to be traveling at once, it would be no big deal for one to pull off and let the other pass.  I had to see this.  The road was in deep disrepair, considering it's now very rarely traveled due to a bypass, and the only other vehicle I saw was a tractor.  But I took the opportunity to stop and marvel at the landscape that was not unlike what it had to look like back when it was originally built.  I felt really special, standing on the gravel and cracked asphalt and listening to the sounds of the world as it turned around me.

The rest of my trip down 66 took me through several small towns; Afton, Vinita, Chelsea, Claremore.  All towns in various states of twilight that were trying desperately to stay relevant in a world that continued to speed past.  Afton had a delightfully restored service station, Vinita's downtown had several points of interest, and even tiny Chelsea had one of my favorite things:  an old steel bridge!  Claremore is the town I spent my first six years living in, so I was somewhat familiar with it, but it was still nice to take a break and explore the downtown and pause to appreciate the tenacity of small town America.

After re-entering Tulsa, I took care to ensure I stayed on the route until I got home, seeing familiar sights through the lens of the day's journey.  I arrived at my house after a long day of driving and smiled, for I had seen a piece of Americana that I felt a real connection to.  I am already planning the sights to see on the rest of Route 66, traveling southwest to the other corner of the state, and the many opportunities to experience the slower pace of yesteryear.