Having a Me Party

After enjoying Halloween and a show with my friend Sallie in Salt Lake City, Ken made a last-minute decision to fly to Los Angeles to visit his friend David. That left me with a car and a drive across Nevada.

Fear and Loathing

Before you think I did some wild gambling and other crazy stuff, a la Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it was pretty much one of the most boring drives in my life.

Next gas 130 miles

I made my way toward Bishop, California, and over the next eight hours I saw almost nothing. A gas station here, an extinct volcano there, some slightly interesting mountain peaks. If you want to get lost, try the middle of Nevada.

I spent three days in Chalfant Valley, home to my friend Julie, her husband Bill, and the lovely two-and-a-half year old Violet. East of the Sierra Mountain range, nestled in the desert valley, the area is desolate and beautiful at the same time. We hiked to see the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest and visited the Owens Valley Radio Observatory, home to 10 large telescopes.

It was nice to play games, relax, and drink wine. Hope Ken is okay in that L.A. traffic!

Death Valley

Needing to make my way to Las Vegas to meet Ken at the airport, I left Bishop a day early to squeeze in a visit to Death Valley National Park, home to some of the hottest temperatures and lowest elevations on earth.

It was hot, it was low. And it was nice to have some me time.


USC Reunion

If there’s one thing Karen and I learned from the international leg of our trip, it’s that we can’t spend every waking hour together, day after day. Sometimes we need a break. So while Karen drove over to Death Valley, I booked a flight to Los Angeles to visit my college friend, David.

David and I go way back to 1992, when we both took a summer film class at the University of Southern California. I had just finished film school, while he was still trying get into film school. Apparently, there’s not quite as much demand in Iowa as in Hollywood.

As we strolled onto USC’s gated campus, I was looking forward to a walk down Memory Lane, until I discovered that it’s not there anymore. Buildings that were landmarks to me back then have been bulldozed and replaced by gleaming new structures, like the towering George Lucas and Steven Spielberg Buildings.

Back at my alma mater in Iowa City, there’s a Chipotle in the mall now. That’s cool.

Not only did David successfully complete USC film school, he also played in the famous Trojan Marching Band.

Today’s focus was not nostalgia but football, and so I found myself in the historic L.A. Coliseum, watching the Trojans get crushed- not just beaten, but crushed– by the Oregon Ducks. (That’s really the team name, the Ducks?)

The final 62-51 score hints at a competitive matchup, but it didn’t seem that way to us in the stands, cringing at Oregon’s seemingly effortless plays.

While the action on the field was uninspiring, the action in our section was straight out of, well, Hollywood. A disruptive Oregon fan caught the attention of an LAPD officer, and before you could say “Rodney King,” there were no fewer than four police officers and two security guards patrolling our aisle. Now we’re in L.A., baby!

And the band played on.

And the band played on


Petroglyphs Greatest Hits

IMG_3789 Petroglyphs sign

From Mesa Verde to the Painted Desert to Albuquerque, we’ve seen a potpourri of petroglyphs, those mysterious rock carvings from long ago. A few points petroglyphic shone particularly brightly for us.

Newspaper Rock

There are several places with that name; we headed for the one near Canyonlands. The road is little-used, the turnoff is easy to miss, the reward is great: a giant wall jammed with carvings.

Rochester Rock Art Panel

Our GPS unit wasn’t even sure the road to this spot existed. At the end of the road, a hike over rocky terrain awaited us. Then an explosion of petroglyphs.

Black Dragon Wash

Our friends John and Brenda told us about this site. Astoundingly (to us), you pull off the freeway onto a gravel road. We missed it the first time and had to loop back and try again.

Pretty Much Anywhere

Yup, you find them even when you’re not looking for them. Just outside Moab, a nondescript sign promised “Indian Writings” (I was hoping to see some Hindi). We pulled over to investigate.

Again and again, we were surprised at how little protection these artifacts receive.

Leave no trace

Then again, what can you do: post an armed guard in every canyon? While graffiti and even bullet holes mar some displays, most of the carvings we saw were in good shape.

And so we drive on, eyes open, searching for more mysterious messages from long-ago civilizations.

GOPR0611 dashboard


Enter the Fiery Furnace

IMG_3980 Fiery Furnace EWS

We had seen the dire warnings and heard the cautionary tales. But we could not be dissuaded. We would enter the scorching crucible of the Fiery Furnace.

Um, well, it’s not quite as dramatic as all that, though they do tell you to bring extra water and a snack. The Fiery Furnace is a spectacular labyrinth of sandstone fins at Arches National Park. It is off-limits to visitors without a permit or guide, so we signed up for a tour.

Downward into the Furnace

We were warned that that the hike would be strenuous, requiring us to traverse rocky trails and squeeze through narrow passageways. To which I say: it’s about time. After walking in the footsteps of Indiana Jones, we’d better do something challenging.

Entering the Furnace

Throughout the three-hour tour, Ranger Anna stopped to point out arches, give geological information, and yes, remind us not to bust the crust.

Don't bust that darn crust

At precarious points along the trail, Anna would demonstrate how to safely proceed and we would obediently follow. In a few places, we benefited from footholds and even a railing installed decades ago; today’s National Park Service is far more reluctant to make such changes to a preserved natural area.

Having survived the Fiery Furnace, we had one more stop to make: Landscape Arch, quite possibly the world’s longest natural arch, with a span of 290 feet. In 1991, a 60-foot-long section unexpectedly crashed to the ground below. Expectedly, the hiking trail beneath the arch is now closed.

We departed Arches National Park and, a hundred miles later, found ourselves in Grand Junction, Colorado, sharing pizza and red wine with our friend Brenda and her husband John. An appropriately relaxing end to an action-packed day.

Pizza party


Next Stop: Arches

The arch that dreams are made of
The arch that dreams are made of

Many moons ago (in 1994, to be exact), Karen visited Arches National Park.

Her intriguing photo of Delicate Arch hung in the sunroom of our Milwaukee home for years, taking on a mystical air. I had to see this place for myself.

Contrary to my magical musings, our time in Moab was a bit disjointed. Our hotel wasn’t very nice but we had prepaid and we tried to book a tour in Arches but it books up quickly so maybe we should go to Canyonlands first and then do Arches on a day when we could get the tour but we wanted to take a day off and go to the Pumpkin Chuckin festival and have some Mexican food but the restaurant didn’t turn out to be that great and on and on and on.

Finally, we entered Arches, where we were greeted by a twisty road up a mountain. When I say twisty, I mean it:

Road to Arches

OK, are we finally there?! Can my mystical experience begin already?! We made a beeline for Delicate Arch, passing other sculpted formations and outcroppings- hey, wait a minute, pull over!

Balanced Rock, you look familiar. Have we met? Hmm, where were you in 1989? Right here? Then this must be where the opening shots of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade were filmed. Seems Mr. Spielberg used the Three Gossips and Double Arch as well. Now we’re getting somewhere (since movie locations are about as mystical as it gets for me).

Finally, we reached the end of the road and my chance to feast my eyes upon Delicate Arch. I guess I should have known that the well-worn trail would be crowded: this arch is famous. We see it all the time, since it’s featured on Utah’s license plates and the Welcome to Utah sign.

Welcome to Utah

Getting up close to the arch requires some walking, which happily thins the crowds, allowing us to enjoy the view in relative peace.

Delicate Arch panorama

After years of gazing at that photo, I was finally looking at the real thing (kind of like seeing a movie location, it occurs to me). Karen and I examined it from every angle, and I discovered what’s just beyond the arch: a sheer drop into a valley. Kept my distance.

We walked back to the trailhead and still had enough time to hike the easy trail to Delicate Arch Viewpoint, so I left Karen resting in the van and hit another dusty trail. Viewing Delicate from the back (or is this the front?) was just as impressive.

Delicate Arch in context

Gazing at Mother Nature’s work of art, I snapped many more photos. Now we just need to decide which one to hang in our house. And we’ll need to get a house.


Don’t Bust the Crust!

No, this has nothing to do with pie or creme brulee or anything tasty like that. Little signs dotting Utah’s national parks sported the phrase, “Don’t bust the crust.”

The crust they are referring to is this:

Blackened crust

What looks to be burnt soil is actually a colony of fantastic critters. The scientists call it cryptobiotic soil. Living crust is made up of algae, lichen, and bacteria and is the foundation of life in the desert. These crusts hold moisture for plants and nutrients for animals, providing a base for growth and keeping the dry sand from blowing away.

It's Alive!

While checking out the Visitor Center at Canyonlands National Park, we noticed that Junior Rangers (that is, kids), could earn a “Don’t Bust the Crust” button by answering a few questions about cryptobiotic soil. Noticing my disappointment that I was not age eligible for Junior Ranger status, the park ranger was happy to pass me a button. Yeah! I felt honored to have one and made sure to wear it as we hiked around.

Don't Bust the Crust!

Ken and I looked diligently for the black crust, treading carefully and furrowing our brows when we noticed other hikers who were not so caring. One misstep can wipe out ten years’ worth of growth.

If you are trekking about the desert southwest, watch your step and please, don’t bust the crust.

Desert crust


The Many Lands of Canyonlands

Canyonlands cutout

As if one “canyonland” weren’t enough, the Green and Colorado rivers divide Canyonlands National Park into three separate districts. As I pondered the park map, my head started to swim… the first symptom of canyon fatigue, an ailment common to travelers in the American southwest.  We’ve seen a whole lotta layered red rocks in the past few weeks. Wisely, navigator Karen broke our canyonlanding into bite-size morsels, with rockless respites in between.

On the drive to Moab, we crossed through the Needles district, named for the spires of sandstone stretching toward the sky. Arriving late in the day, we hiked the Slickrock Point loop in a race with the descending sun. (OK, so if we don’t make it back to our car by dark, what exactly happens next? Luckily, we didn’t find out.)

After some Pumpkin Chuckin, we returned to Canyonlands, this time to the Island in the Sky district. Besides classic canyon views, we hiked along the edge of the mysterious Upheaval Dome, which is either a meteor impact crater or a salt dome. Whichever it is, I’m sure it has inspired and/or appeared in some sci-fi movies.

While Canyonlands was impressive, I must admit that I’m still suffering a bit of canyon fatigue. Good thing we get a change in scenery at our next stop: Arches National Park.


Get Your -ology On

Hovenweep tower

Anthropology, archaeology, geology, mineralogy… choose your -ology, and it’s represented here in the Southwest.

As scenic as Hovenweep National Monument‘s natural sights are, it’s the human landscape that beckoned to me. The structures dotted around Little Ruin Canyon boast some of the finest construction of their time period (1200-1300 AD), which is why they’re still standing and in such good shape.

On a chilly fall morning, we walked the trail from the Visitor Center and marveled at precariously-perched, gravity-defying structures like Boulder House.


Why Did the Critter Cross the Road?

After a holiday break, there are a few more sights from the American Southwest that we’d like to share with you. So flip the calendar back a couple months, and here we go…

Roadside horses

Driving in the American Southwest can be a treacherous business. Just as that road stretching to the horizon lulls you into complacency, some local wildlife decides to dart across the pavement. Subtract the sun for real fun: one night, we did a couple hours of driving in the dark, then swore, “Never again.”

Sheep crossing

Critters that we saw crossing the road:

– Coyote
– Horse
– Donkey
– Dog
– Sheep
– Steer
– Cow
– Elk
– Mule deer
– Chipmunk
– Squirrel
– A vole/mole/gopher kind of creature

Luckily, none of them became intimate with our minivan, and we all lived to careen across the countryside another day.

Staring down the deer


One Year Ago… Durian Bonus Clip

Spiky durian

On New Year’s Eve a year ago, we finally tasted durian, with predictably extreme reactions. A few moments from Karen and Annette didn’t make it into the original video, so here they are: bonus reactions to the King of Fruits!

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