Going Green(ish)

During our international travels we tried to limit the number of plastic water bottles we purchased, since plastic is the least biodegradable material on offer and regularly ends up tossed into a pile at the edge of town.

Trying to go green on our Southwestern USA tour is a different story. Driving thousands of miles in a minivan isn’t exactly eco-friendly, I’m afraid. Then again, how else can one efficiently traverse the vast expanse of the western states?

Staying at hotels that offer free breakfast is a treat, but at our first stop in Omaha, we recoiled in horror at the aftermath: a pile of styrofoam cups, plates, and bowls, plus plastic silverware and paper napkins. One use and into the trash. We have dishes with us for when we stay at campgrounds, so now we bring our own dishes, glasses, silverware, and napkins to hotel breakfasts.

Our breakfast kit
My beloved waffles deserve the best

You should see some of the looks we get, even at our oh-so-fancy hotel in Sedona (not fancy enough to offer real dishes at breakfast, though). A quick wash in the sink, and a bit less in the local landfill.

Back in our hotel room, we regularly put up the Do Not Disturb sign when we’ll be staying multiple days (there’s no need for towels and sheets we’ve only used once to be replaced). I’ve even started taking “navy showers,” where you get wet, shut off the water while you suds up, then turn on the water to rinse off. I first heard that term in the Somewhere in the Arabian Sea episode of This American Life.

Having our own toiletries along, we don’t break open those teensy-weensy, usually-thrown-away-when-half-empty shampoo bottles and such.

Happily, we won’t be buying disposable water bottles on this trip. We have several refillable water bottles, which we can fill- amazingly, wonderfully- from the tap anywhere we go. We’re not the only ones alarmed by plastic bottles: in 2011, the national park system decided to ban the sale of disposable water bottles at the Grand Canyon, which make up a startling 20% of the park’s waste stream. The ban was suspended at the last minute, apparently when the mighty Coca-Cola corporation (national park donor and maker of Dasani bottled water) expressed “concerns” over the plan. Those concerns must have been addressed, because the Grand Canyon website now says:

There are new filling stations scattered throughout the park, making free spring water available to all visitors (stop at our lovely gift shop for your souvenir refillable bottle).

Karen fills up a former soda bottle at a water station

Don’t shed a tear for Coca-Cola. Soda machines still sell sugar water in plastic bottles.

Recycling bins and dumpsters pop up throughout the park, with some accepting everything from paper to plastic to glass to metal.

Since our visits a couple decades ago, the Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks have taken steps to deal with traffic congestion and pollution by closing certain areas to motorized traffic and offering free shuttle service.

The shuttles make seeing key viewpoints a breeze (perfect for those looney visitors spending just a few hours in the park), while there are plenty of hikes and other drives for those of us sticking around for a few days. The Zion park shuttle runs every seven minutes, and there was even a free bus to whisk us from dinner at the Bit & Spur back to our hotel (both outside the park).

As we continue to do our small part by carrying dishes to breakfast, it’s good to see the National Park Service taking more sweeping steps to protect the environment.



The Grand Canyon is obvious. Rocky Mountain National Park is self-explanatory. But I didn’t know what to expect from a place called Zion.

Things got interesting right away, as we cruised through a one-mile long tunnel (wider vehicles pay a fee to have it all to themselves) into the heart of Zion National Park. The white rock of Checkerboard Mesa gives way to bright reds and oranges at ostentatiously-named places like Court of the Patriarchs and the Temple of Sinawava.

Itching for a strenuous hike, we chose the Angels Landing trail. But are we fit to fly with the angels?

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In the neighboring town of Springdale, Karen returned to the Bit & Spur, a favorite restaurant from her days working at a Utah theater. The tamales were tasty, the pork ribs perfect, and the margaritas… mmmm.


Kane County Cops

Cruising through Kanab, Utah, I saw a squad car on the side of the road and hit the brakes.

Upon closer inspection, the officer didn’t seem to be very enthusiastic about his job. He just sat there.

The next day, heading for Mt. Carmel, I spotted a Sheriff’s Department SUV and hit the brakes.

Wait a minute… they wouldn’t… would they?

Yes, they would.

Hmmm, the population of Kane County isn’t very high. Let’s hope that these two aren’t the only officers on the police force!


Playing the Lottery in Kanab

We were addicts, determined to win. Three days in a row we got up early to try our luck. It was a game of chance, watching the bingo numbers tumble inside their cage. Yet money was not the prize. Instead, we were hoping to win a permit to hike The Wave.

The Wave is a geological beauty in the Paria Wilderness area, just south of the Utah border, near Page, Arizona. Prior to 12 years ago, anyone could hike this area, known for its pink and orange rock formations that look like waves. Then someone realized the area was going to be destroyed without some regulation. And regulate they did. Only 20 people per day are allowed to hike this area. Lottery number one: ten spots are available online, four months before your desired hiking date. Over 400 people per day could be vying for those spots during the high season. Lottery number two: the other ten spots are available the day before you hike. Depending on the season, 50 to 120 people are praying for a lucky draw.

It’s a simple enough process. Show up to the BLM Visitor Center before 9am, fill out an application, and wait. At 9am, you are assigned a number.

Those numbers, etched onto bingo balls, are put into a hopper. Spin, spin, spin, draw, draw, draw, until the 10 permits are assigned. Everyone is friendly enough, yet there is a certain tension in the room, desperation over getting your number called.

The competition

While we wanted to do this hike, Ken and I were pretty Zen about the whole experience. Some foreign tourists wait five, six, seven days and still don’t get picked. There are plenty of other things to do in Kanab, so it was not hard for us to go three mornings in a row.

October is one of the more popular months for visitors to try their luck in the lottery. Temperatures are about 20 degrees cooler and crowds are smaller. That didn’t stop us from having large showings at our lottery mornings. 120, 83, and 77 people on our three days. Sadly, our number was never called. No bingo, no hike of The Wave for us.

Briefing the winners to keep them from, you know, dying out there
We drowned our sorrows at Lotsa Motsa Pizza’s $5 lunch buffet

Mobile Home, Sweet Home

We’re not just driving around in that minivan, we’re sleeping in it (sometimes). Come aboard for the grand tour.

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A Different (Yet Equally Grand) Canyon


Where are we again?!

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The North Rim receives 10% of the Grand Canyon’s five million annual visitors. There’s a different vibe up here- more like a small state park than the tour-bus-jammed melee of the South Rim. That big hole in the ground even looks different from here.

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While the South Rim goes strong all year, the North Rim shuts down when snow closes the access road. In fact, many services shut down while we were there. One morning, we woke up to find the General Store, Post Office, and laundromat closed. Gift shop hours were cut, foodservice scaled back, and water was being turned off at key locations… like the bathrooms at our campsite. Time to hit the road.

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Wow, Wow, Wow

Finally, I got to visit the Grand Canyon, just the second most visited park in the National Park system!

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We worked through the busy crowds on the shuttle buses and trails, always enjoying the breathtaking scenery. Every turn made me say, “wow, wow, wow.” Yes, at least three wows.

Though we contemplated a rim to rim hike, we kept it easy on our visit inside the canyon. Soaking in about 60 degree temps, we hiked six miles total on the Bright Angel Trail and wondered how anyone would do such a hike in the boiling heat of summer? Tom Mortonson and Dee Braaksma… you kids are crazy.

It just so happens that Ken’s parents and Aunt Pat and Uncle Phil are also traveling in the Southwest, and our paths crossed on the South Rim. They treated us to an anniversary dinner, and we swapped road stories. Thanks, Schellins and DeCabooters!

I truly encourage you to visit the Grand Canyon at least once in your life. You too will wow, wow, wow.


Red Rocks Rock

Sedona. Many thoughts pop into my head upon hearing that name…..pricey, new age-y, pretty.

A tourist town like this would not usually be on our travel itinerary. Yet October 11, 2012 was no usual date: it happened to be our tenth wedding anniversary. Sedona seemed like the perfect place to celebrate an extra special day, and we covered it all: pricey, new age-y, pretty.

We booked a nice hotel room, received fancy massages, hiked a bit, watched a movie, and even soaked in the hottub.

This city is blessed to be surrounded by the amazing beauty of the red rock walls and canyons. Hiking trails are everywhere, and even a local may be hard pressed to hike them all.

We walked a couple trails, including stops at a Tibetean Buddhist stupa and some of the vortex sites. Vortex sites around Sedona are said to have extra energy emanating from them, including variants of masculine and feminine energy. Visitors come to these areas to mediate, dance, perform yoga, get married, leave offerings, or build cairns. Some come and wonder, what’s the big deal? We felt a wee something extra special when visiting these areas and expressed extra gratitude for the beauty surrounding us.

We were also very happy to make it to anniversary number ten. Let’s hope we can make it another ten years and keep traveling too!


The Everything for Everybody Trail

Looking for native artwork? Stuffed bison heads? A heart attack on a plate? Dinosaurs? Petrified trees? Petroglyphs? Draw a line on the map from Albuquerque to Sedona, and you’ve got all that and more.

We started our slow crawl across the desert in Gallup, New Mexico, along what’s left of Route 66. (Let’s face it, there’s not much left of Route 66.) Karen is looking for paintings by a particular Gallup artist, so we hit the local pawn shops.

Of course, Karen is always looking for culinary delights as well. Top of her list for this trip: a Navajo Taco.

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Stumbling out of Jerry’s Cafe, we noticed that the line on the map goes through a green patch called the Petrified Forest National Park. Sounds cool- let’s go there.

Making the stop was almost an afterthought, yet the Petrified Forest and the Painted Desert around it were a revelation, as jam-packed with cool stuff as that pawn shop. The desert colors leap out at those seeking natural beauty. Petroglyphs on desert rocks speak of early human habitation. Budding paleontologists can walk among evidence of some of the earliest dinosaurs, while the gem-like petrified wood gleams in the setting sun.

Yet another small spot on the map that was a big deal in real life.


The First Ever Ever Ever Albuquerque CouchCrash

We are CouchSurfing pros, having been members since 2007. What we had never done was join a CouchCrash. Albuquerque hosted their first ever on the same weekend as the Balloon Fiesta. It was time for our first crash.

A CouchCrash is hosted by the CS members in a specific city. They create extra activities for visiting CSers, a few days’ worth of awesome hospitality. The First Ever Ever Ever Albuquerque CouchCrash was no exception, with lots of meal gatherings, hiking, biking, and of course, meeting at the Balloon Fiesta.

Another highlight was a trolley tour of the city, which took us past some local landmarks. We even became honorary University of New Mexico Lobos.

Local eccentric Bart Prince’s spaceship house
We felt pity for Albuquerque’s decrepit railyard… until we were informed that it brings in millions as a movie location. If you’ve seen a movie set in post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, you’ve seen Albuquerque’s railyard.

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Through the crash we met our lovely hostess, Annie. Newer to CS and eager to get involved, she even gave up her own bed so we had a place to sleep. Good thing she is comfy in a sleeping bag on a Thermarest. She gave us lots of great tips about exploring ABQ and understanding the vibe of the residents, including the Breaking Bad vibe right on her block (a location used in the show).

Breaking Sort Of OK

Some mornings we were busy with our balloon crew duties, yet one bad weather day allowed us to attend the Free Hugs event, hosted by CS. Signs had been made by the group, along with Big Brothers/Big Sisters kids. In a number of languages, the signs encouraged balloon passersby to accept a free hug. And hug we all did. It was a hoot.

We cannot thank enough all the volunteers who worked really hard on putting this successful event together. Lisa, Antonio, Greg, Bob, Jeannie, and all the other ABQers, great work!