Monday, December 11, 2006

Back Home

Location: Delaplane/The Plains, Virginia
Milage: 15,350
Music: Christmas Carols

Well, after almost exactly four months on the road we have finally made it home! It's been so great to relax and stay in one place, but I'm already a little nostalgic for living on the road. Perhaps that's because our last two weeks were so great:

After getting Speedy a new set of front brake pads, an oil change, and even a tire rotation, I picked Alina up from the Pita Pit and we decided to do some walking around the university and the surrounding neighborhoods. We had a good time window shopping in the trendy vintage stores and book shops. We also walked around the massive UT campus for a while, impressed that it was host to twice as many students as live in our home town. After our share of the university area we decided to walk downtown to the Congress St bridge, which 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats make their home every summer. When we went to Bat 101 at Calsbad Caverns, the guide had mentioned this site, the largest urban bat colony in the world, where every evening at sunset the sky is blackened by the clouds of bats leaving for their evening hunt. Well, at least that’s the case for half of the year. We apparently just missed the migration and waited a half hour to watch about 20 stragglers take off. Not to be discouraged, we decided to hunt for dinner instead of bats. We were much more successful in finding dinner at this great place perfect for us called Vegetarian Heaven. Full and happy, we got back into Speedy, sang along to some of our favorite trashy pop songs until we reached the campsite and retired for the evening

The Texas Capitol building, which in true Texas style, was built just a bit taller than the Capitol building in Washington.

This statue was about as close as we got to the Austin bat experience.

The next morning we got up and hit the road. Our destination was my grandparents’ house in Kilgore where we would spend Thanksgiving. We made pretty good time and arrived at their house by mid-afternoon. I was really glad to see them since it had been so long, so we spent a while just talking and catching up. We ate dinner and spent the rest of the evening watching the old Casino Royale, a 1967 spoof of James Bond movies, not to be confused with the new blockbuster that might actually be good. The movie was a tre sixties kitsch and pretty much put all of us to bed.

The next morning – Thanksgiving Day – we got up slowly and my Grandpa made us pancakes. We spent most of Thanksgiving unceremoniously lounging around and relaxing, which is my favorite way to spend it. Oh yeah, we also got some being thankful in as well. But mostly we just read and talked until late that afternoon when it was time to start on the big feast. My grandparents were very understanding and forwent the traditional Thanksgiving turkey for salmon filets instead. Though there was only four of us we had an enormous amount of food and we did our Thanksgiving duty of eating until incapacitated. That evening we just sat around digesting and watching the highlights of my grandparents’ TiVo, most importantly celebrity Jeopardy featuring the Margaret Spellings, the head of the Department of Education. A few hours of Thanksgiving digestion put us in the mood for more than a few hours of sleep, so to bed we went.

My Grandparents and me sitting down to our Thanksgiving feast

Friday morning we got up, ate breakfast, and said goodbye to my grandparents before hitting the road for a long day of driving to New Orleans. The day was spent mainly reading Anna Karenina in the car, save for a lunch break at a Waffle House. Also we stopped to use the facilities at a gas station and came out to find Speedy blowing up huge wafts of steam out from under the hood. The coolant bypass Speedy received in Seattle had come undone so the engine overheated, but it was an easy fix. While we were tooling around a good ole boy stopped by and tried to help us in classic Southern style: “Y’all see that puddle under that car? That’s a leak.” Very helpful.

We made it to New Orleans by late afternoon and spent a while searching for the Habitat for Humanity site where our friends Victoria and Nell had been staying all week. We actually found it relatively quickly, which was surprising because the best directions they could give us was that they were in St. Bernard’s Parish in an old school that was across from a few big Navy ships. We found them and it was so great to see some college friends. We all jumped into Nell’s brand new Prius (named Super Coche) to drive around the Ninth Ward, the area hardest hit by Katrina where they had spent all week helping to build a musician’s village focusing on providing homes and a creative environment for, you guessed it, musicians. The Ninth Ward was truly something to witness, over a year after the storm it is still a ghost town full of abandoned houses. The site that Victoria and Nell had worked on all week, full neat looking houses fresh-painted in neon colors, appeared almost garish amongst all the destruction.

Eventually we left the ward and drove to Uptown, an area practically untouched by Katrina because of it’s (relatively) higher elevation. A friend of Victoria’s from UVA was now living and working there, so we went to her apartment to figure out what to do about dinner. Alina and I had thought that we might stay at the Habitat area and work the next day, but for various reasons that just didn’t look like it would work so we needed to find a place to stay. When I asked Victoria’s friend Annie if I could use her internet for this purpose, her and Margaret, Annie's sister, quickly offered to let us stay there that night. Elated by their generosity, Alina and I set out with the rest of the group towards a nearby restaurant where we all enjoyed traditional New Orleans cuisine, including oysters and catfish platters. After dinner we went for a long walk until we were finally able to get a seat at a swanky creperie where we gorged ourselves on some truly delicious (and healthy!) fudge and ice cream laden crepes. We then waddled back to Margaret and Annie’s aparetment to sit around and chat for a while until we were all nodding off. Because Speedy was back at the Habitat for Humanity site (Camp Hope) we had to drive back with Nell and Victoria and then return to our generous hosts, not without getting lost on the beat up and unsigned streets of New Orleans, of course.

We got up the next morning and went in search of a bakery where we could get our hosts something delicious (and again, healthy) for breakfast. At a nice little café just down the street we bought croissants, muffins, and scones to bring back. We spent most of the morning talking to Annie about her move to New Orleans and what life has been like there. She had lots of interesting things to say about the city and its recovery from Katrina, some of it encouraging, but much of it not. She told us that the most persistent problem in the rebuilding efforts, as we noticed ourselves during our time there, was the lack of government organization. After a while, we decided it was time to go out and start the day.

Jackson Square in the French Quarter

Beignets are gifts from heaven

This marking, found on so many New Orleans homes, was left by rescue workers as they went throug the city looking for survivors. It includes the date of their search, and the number of survivors, and bodies found.

All day we walked around the French Quarter, window shopping and sightseeing. The French Quarter was in full swing because of a big football game in the area, and because it was comparatively unscathed by the storm, it seemed just as vibrant and happening as it had been when we’d been there three years ago. We got a bit of Christmas shopping done in the French market, had a quick lunch and then enjoyed dessert at Café du Monde, a New Orleans landmark where they serve up beignets and coffee with chicory. So good. We spent the rest of the day strolling up and down the streets of the French Quarter and walking alongside the Mississippi River. Eventually we went back to the same coffee shop where we'd picked up breakfast to get a bit of internet and caffeine before our friend from High School, Adam, was ready to meet us.

Adam soon met us and the three of us set out for dinner. We caught up over classic New Orleans cuisine, like poboys and catfish. After dinner we went to a cheap dive bar and spent the rest of the night talking over just a few drinks. It was nice for Alina and me to see Adam because it had been years since either of us had seen him. He's in his final year towards getting his architecture degree from Tulane University. It was interesting to hear him talk about all his experience in New Orleans since Katrina, since as an architechture student he has been designing houses, and will spend most of next semester working on a site. Around midnight Alina and I had to get back to Annie's because she was getting off work and we didn't want to keep her waiting up for us, so we went back and got to bed, planning on meeting Adam the next day.

The next morning we got a slow start and spent a while hanging around talking to Annie and Margaret's housemate Katie. We left late in the morning to give Katie some down time before going to work and also to go get ourselves something to eat. We dined at a pizzeria and then got in touch with Adam, who was on his way to a sports bar to watch the Saints and Redskins games. We drove over there to meet him and spent the afternoon watching the games on enormous televisions. It was a lot of fun, especially since both teams won. The fans in the bar were fanatical in their cheering for the Saints, and were also cheering for the Redskins because their victory would ensure the Saints the top seat in the division. After the games, Adam needed a few hours to work on a paper, so Alina and I headed out to a park and laid around reading, listening to music, and napping for most of the afternoon. When the mosquitos came out, we again went to our favorite New Olreans cafe on Magazine St. to get something to drink before going to dinner at a Middle Eastern place. By that time Adam had called to say he was done with his work so we drove over to his place to figure out our plans for the night. We decided to go see if we could find some live music somewhere, which we did in the Frenchmen's Quarter. We went to two different places and enjoyed the music at both. At the first there was a funny band with a little white guy whaling out lyrics like "my girl she likes my hambone." Touching. After enough of that we went a few blocks down where there was a really good band that did perhaps a few too many Marley covers but made up for it with how good their own original stuff was. After that we returned to Adam's and spent the rest of the night watching Arrested Development.

The next morning Adam had to go to class early and we had a long way to go, so by 8:30 we were on the road headed towards our friend Nell's house in Americus, Georgia, where she works for Habitat for Humanity. We spent the entire day driving, and being that the drive was primarily across Mississippi and Alabama, it was a very uneventful day. We got to Nell's house just in time for dinner, which we were pleasantly surprised to find that one of her roommates was busy preparing. Such luxury. We ate dinner with Nell and her roommates, who both work at Habitat for Humanity with Nell, though in different capacities. The dinner was delicious and we even had dessert provided for us, so we were feeling quite spoiled. Not to mention that Nell lives in what looks like an only slightly scaled down version of the house from Gone with the Wind. Swank. That night we just hung out with Nell, catching up and relaxing. We went to bed pretty early because Nell was planning on getting up at 5:00 the next morning to go to a spin class. Impressed by her dedication, we took the opportunity to go to bed early, and then to sleep in.

Once we got ourselves together we left Americus and pointed ourselves towards Savannah. The drive took us until early afternoon, when we arrived, parked along the river front, and set out to explore by foot. We spent most of our stay in Savannah just strolling around and enjoying the incredibly beautiful city. Savannah is the capital of Southern charm and it was a spectacularly crisp and sunny day, so we had a great time. We got dinner at an English pub and then gelatto by the riverfront, where one of the many vendors of hand-made leaf roses offered Alina one of his creations for free. By that time it was getting towards bedtime, so we hopped back into the car and set out to find a motel. Feeling surprisingly alert, we decided to drive towards Atlanta, our next destination, until a suitably cheap yet decent place offered itself, and an hour later we found ourselves at the Scotland Motel in Metter, GA, where we watched trashy television way past our bedtime and then fell asleep.

The next morning we woke up to someone baning on the door. As I stumbled out of my bed in my underwear I glanced at the clock and realized that it was 11 AM and it was probably the proprietor of that fine motel telling us to get out. Correct! He asked me if I wanted to stay another night, and I said no and promised to be out in 5 minutes. He graciously didn't charge us even though we were in our room a whopping seven minutes past checkout, and we were on the road, feeling quite rushed because of our quick start, even though we were in fact in no rush at all. At any rate, we sped up the highway and made great time getting to our friend Kate's house north of Atlanta. We arrived mid-afternoon and spent the time before dinner hanging out with Kate and catching up. Once her parents arrived home from their jobs, Kate orchestrated a dinner preparation effort, and we enjoyed a delicious salmon dinner. After dinner that night we just hung out and did a lot more chatting right up until bedtime.

The next day we got up and drove into Atlanta to do some sightseeing. We started out with the Martin Luther King historical sight at Sweet Auburn. Here lies his grave, buried in a shrine alongside his wife Corretta Scott King. We walked into the church where he preached during much of the time he was doing his famous civil rights work, Ebenezer Baptist, and went to the National Park Service's visitor center where there is a small but well-done museum about Martin Luther King and the history of American racial inequality. We spent a long time in the small exhibit, nearly an hour and a half. Even though I had been to that same exhibit a few years ago, I had already forgotten the enormous scope of the sacrifice made during struggle for civil rights. I think many of us forget how many people were willing to lay down there lives in the name of nonviolent protest for social change. Humbled and thoughtful, we realized that if we were going to make it to the Georgia Aquarium by 2, the time we had bought advanced tickets for, and eat lunch, we had to get going. We made our way to a little place that Alina had read about in one of the Atlanta guidebooks at Kate's house called the Flying Biscuit Cafe. We knew that we were in for an interesting experience when our waiter asked us completely seriously if we were "ready to ride the train to deliciousville." We sure were! The food was incredible, a very vegetarian friendly place where the waiter practically ordered for us because he claimed to know what we wanted. He seemed disappointed when Alina didn't take his recomendation, and her meal really, sorry to say it Alina, paled in comparison to the meals Kate and I enjoyed. So headstrong that girl. At least she and Kate split plates she wasn't left out in the cold. Eventually, we finished eating, our waiter wished us a "biscuitastic day!" and we were on our way to the Georgia Aquarium.

We were quite impressed by the Georgia Aquarium, which is the largest aquarium in the world (Why? There isn't an ocean near Atlanta...). We were pretty much sold within minutes of our entry, when we stumbled upon the petting area of the aquarium where we got to touch cownose sting rays and bonnethead sharks. Also incredible were the beluga whales, the otters, the huge tank with whale sharks, and the jellyfish. On top of how impressive the aquarium's marine life was, I think we were all also impressed with how nicely the place is laid out. All in all, we had a great time there and spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying it. Eventually we decided to get going, so we let Alina have one more shark petting session before heading out. We went for a little stroll through the Olympic Park and even into the nearby CNN headquarters before hopping in the car and heading over to one of Atlanta's must-see locations, the Varsity. Varsity is the world's largest fast food place, and probably my favorite as far as fast food goes. We got their famous orange shakes and some fries and went for a long drive around downtown Atlanta to see some of the city and give the highways a chance to thin out - Atlanta's gridlock is riveled only by LA and, of course, our own beloved DC area. Soon we made our way back to Kate's house, had a bit of soup that Kate had made for us before our arrival, and retired for the evening.

Martin Luhter King and Coretta Scott King's tomb

Alina and penguins.
The jellyfist

Kate's small stature made some of the exhibits a stretch.

The whale shark in the biggest tank I've ever seen

CNN's headquarters, where you can get the latest breaking news and Anderson Cooper panties.

The next day we again had a long list of things to do and see. First on the list was to go to Kate's cousin's house and see her new baby, Luke. I was excited to finally see the baby, who I had heard so much about. It was a lot of fun to see him and his mom, Amanda, and we stayed there until about noon. Then we had to be going because we were planning on a hike before heading into Atlanta to see the botanical gardens. We did a nearby hike called Indian Seats, a short little hike up the hill that provided a nice view at the top. The hike took us only about an hour round trip, and then we went back to Kate's to have soup for lunch. We were planning on heading up to the botanical gardens right after, but decided to hang out for a little while to insure that when we were returning from the city the rest of the Atlanta metropolitan area wasn't. So we hung out for a while but then Kate realized that on that day the gardens were not open until 7 or 8, but only until 5. So our plans for going downtown were scratched, and when Kate's father came home from school and offered to take us out to dinner we had new plans. Dinner was at a nice Italian restaurant and it was delicious. We talked for a long time, primarily about Kate's parents' work in the Georgia Public Schools, which was a big transition for them from teaching at a well run international school in Okinawa. Eventually we went back to their house where we lounged around for most of the night watching an America's Next Top Model marathon. Our favorite episode challenge: "Does the hair wear you, or do you wear the hair?"
At the top of the hike

The next day we got up early so we could get the rest of our Atlanta area to-do list, well, done. We had breakfast and then ran over to Kate's Aunt Helen and Uncle Gordon's house to say hello before we headed out towards the mountains to see the pretty views and, more importantly, get caramel apples and cider at an apple orchard. The drive was beautiful and the caramel transcendent. Our next stop was to Kate's other Uncle's house where we went out on Lake Lanier in his motor boat. It was a perfect day - few other boats but beautiful, sunny, crisp weather. We enjoyed our hour long boat ride and then got lunch at a place called That Biscuit Place, figuring we had good luck at the last biscuit place we had gone to. Well unfortunatley this one wasn't quite as great, and didn't even serve biscuits past breakfast, which we'd missed by thirty minutes. Oh well. After lunch we drove downtown to the botanical gardens, where a special art exhibit was going on called Niki in the Garden. The exhibit consisted of huge sculptures placed all around the gardens. They were beautiful, and it was extra fun because we were able to walk into or on many of them. We spent a long time going around the gardens before moving on to seeing a different part of the city called Little Five Points. This is one of Atlanta's trendiest neighborhoods full of hipsters and liberal bumper stickers, quite a surprising find in Georgia. We busied ourselves by walking around for a little while and eventually found that we were all hungry for an early dinner. That night we went to one of Atlanta's best restaurants, the OK Cafe. We dined on absolutely delicious southern cuisine, like homemade mac and cheese and candied yams. We even splurged on dessert, a huge brownie sundae that the three of us could hardly finish. Don't worry though, we made it. We left the cafe full and happy, and returned to Kate's house to relax for a little while before getting to bed.

Me an Kate on our joyride on the lake

At the botanical gardens
Those sculptures were not ready for our ninja skills. here we do battle with a large, shiny bird-thing.

The next morning we took our time getting up and out and said goodbye to Kate and her family and headed towards Columbia, South Carolina. A friend of mine from college, Allison, is in graduate school at the University of South Carolina, getting a masters in Public Health so I wanted to visit her while we were relatively in the area. We made good time getting to Allison's house in West Columbia and spent some time just sitting around her apartment, catching up. After a little while she offered to give us the grand driving tour of the city, so we did that for the next 20 or so minutes, hitting all of the highlights like the SC capitol building and the bbq restaurant owned by a notoriously racist guy that ran for mayor. Eventually it was getting on towards meal time so we began our search for dinner. We had to drive around for a while to find someplace that was open, this being South Carolina on a Sunday, but we eventually found a brick oven pizza place that was quite satisfactory. We returned to Allison's place after dinner and a Ben and Jerry's (where we had the honor and pleasure of meeting the surliest ice cream scooper I'd ever come across) to chill out for a while before going to a night club down the street where Allison's boyfriend was playing in a show. He was part of a series of twenty to thirty minute sets, and he was actually very good. His name is Tim and he plays guitar and accordian to funny numbers like "God Invented Spywear" and "My Nazi Girlfriend Found Out I'm Jewish." Presumably Allison is not the Nazi girlfriend, although she does have the blond hair mentioned in the song... After the show Tim wanted to go to another bar and we agreed, so we headed over to a place in the basement of a building right across from the capital, which seemed to be the one hipster place in town. On the way we jammed to some of our bad pop favorites and got all kinds of pumped up, plus they had cheap rum and cokes, so I was set. We had a good time getting to know Tim, except for one small skirmish between he and Alina due to the fact that he and his family hate Thomas Jefferson. Something about bad fiscal policy, and Alina countered with something about wine. Weird. At any rate, it was his birthday, so we celebrated for a while before heading back to Allison's house to watch some TV (if I have to even allude to what show we watched then you just don't know us at all) until falling asleep.

The next day our destination was Durham, North Carolina, to visit another good college friend, Matt Price, who works at Duke University now. Because he wasn't going to get off of work until six or seven, we were in no real rush to get there, so we took it slowly that morning and didn't say goodbye to Allison until about 11:30. Since we had six hours to make a three or four hour drive, we decided that it was a good day to do something that we had been meaning to do for a while, take THE WAFFLE HOUSE CHALLENGE. What's the Waffle House Challenge? Glad you asked. It is to stop at every Waffle House that you come across all day and to get a waffle. A few hours later, in much pain, we remembered that the original idea was Alina's, and we both hated her for coming up with it and me for thinking it sounded fun. Who is the real idiot here? You decided. At any rate, we didn't quite make it. We stopped and ate at ten Waffle Houses in the first few hours and just couldn't stomach any more. Plus, by that time it had become apparent that we were never going to make it to Matt's before he got off of work if we did complete the challenge, and we didn't want to sacrifice a night with an old friend for more waffles that we would probably throw up. And so, having completed a particularly tough stretch of four Waffle Houses within 21 miles of each other, we decided to just continue driving. As it was, we got to Durham only a few minutes before Matt got home. We went on a short walk to wait for him, and soon he called us to let us know that he was at his apartment. That night we went to dinner at a generic Asian place close to Matt's apartment - we were suprised that we were in a way hungry, just not for anything even closely resembling a waffle - and spent the rest of the evening just hanging around Matt's roomy but sparse apartment.

One is delicious, ten is sickening. But we'll always be able to say we gave the challenge our best.

The next morning Matt had to get up relatively early and we figured that it wouldn't hurt us to get going early either. It was only about 45 minutes down the road that I realized that we'd completely forgotten to check out Duke University, which we had been planning on doing. Not wanting to turn around we pressed on towards our own college, for our next and final stop was good old Williamsburg, VA, home to William and Mary. Another good college friend of ours, and another Matt, Matt Draper, goes to law school there and we were looking forward to seeing him and our alma mater. We made good time getting there and finished Anna Karenina with perfect timing, just as we were rolling in to the Burg. We went for a walk through Colonial Williamsburg while we were waiting for Matt to finish up his afternoon of tutoring at a local elementary school before meeting him back at his house to figure out our plans for lunch. We decided (well, I kind of insisted) that we would dine at a Williamsburg favorite, Nawab. We feasted on their buffet of Indian food and returned to Matt's place relatively blimp like. We spent the short remainder of the afternoon just relaxing and ventured out again for dinner at the Green Leafe a few hours later. Alina and I just relaxed that night while Matt alternated between hanging out with us and studying for one of his finals, which he was taking the next morning.

We slept in a bit the next morning as we had nothing pressing to do and our host was busy taking his final. Eventually we made our way to campus, where we busied ourselves by walking around and checking out some of the new developments such as the new dorms and rec center. I was most impressed by the new parking garage, just because the idea of parking garages in such a tiny town perplexes me on some level. Eventually it was time for me to part with Alina to go to coffee with my favorite WM professor, Bella, my Russian professor for years and the woman who lead my St Petersburg study abroad group. It was wonderful to catch up with her as well as the ladies at the AIDS Network, where I had volunteered throughout college and visited after coffee with Bella. Unfortunately I was unable to catch the other professors I wanted to see, and I think Alina also had that problem, but we weren't very surprised about that as it was the week before finals and we hadn't been good about planning ahead and getting in touch with people. It's okay though, I'm sure we'll both be back soon. The rest of the afternoon was spent just lounging around Matt's place, where we ordered a very late pizza lunch and hung out all day. Eventually we all had things to do on campus: Alina and I were off to the meetings of clubs we were extremely involved in during undergrad, her to Young Democrats and me to AIDS Tanzania, and Matt went to a floor hockey game. After the meeting I went out for a few drinks with this years president, Jenn, and we returned to Alina and Matt's together where they were eating a very late dinner. For the rest of the night we just hung out with Matt, his housemates, and some of their friends, enjoying the good company and how much this reminded us of the four years of our life in Williamsburg.

The next day we took our time saying goodbye and didn't get on the road for our last day of driving the familiar Williamsburg-Warrenton route until noon. This worked out because I was planning on meeting our friend Dana for lunch in Fredericksburg, and she didn't finish class until two. We ate at Sunset Thai, a gem deep within the fortress of capitalism that is Fredericksburg's Central Park shopping center. I'd been comparing all Thai restaurants on the trip to this place, so I think that Alina was excited about it, and I don't think that she was disappointed. After our huge lunch, our fitting final meal of a trip of four months of really exceptional food, we were on the road again. Before we knew it we were unloading Alina's stuff and then only a blink of an eye later I was at the diner table with my parents in my own house.

All in all, this trip was the best thing I have ever done for myself, and I think that we both had a truly incredible experience. Thanks so much to those of you who kept updated though our blog, kept in touch with us as we drove in and out of communication, and especially to those of you who hosted us, because you are truly who made this trip so special! Alina will be following with a post of our trip by the numbers, which should be very interesting, so look for that soon. This is the last word for me, so thanks again for reading!


Tuesday, November 21, 2006

This is not the newest post, so keep scrolling down. (It's just a pain to post that many pictures in one go.)

For stats, scroll down. I'm still in the same internet cafe, so nothing has changed (unless... is that a tumbleweed blowing past the window?? Oh. No, that's a UT student.)

Friday was a good day. Paul and I spent the morning relaxing and catching up on email and the sort while Peter was at work, all in anticipation of that evening’s events. Sherman Alexie, an author who I happen to really enjoy, was speaking in Durango, CO – an hour’s drive from Cortez – that evening and tickets were free. The only catch was that the 700-seat auditorium could fill up fast. Sherman Alexie, not only an extremely talented and acclaimed writer, is also a hilarious, political, forward speaker and never boring. We popped in the car as soon as we could, and the three of us took off for Durango. After realizing that we may have overestimated how quickly seats would fill (we arrived at 5,) we decided to grab a quick dinner at a Himalayan restaurant in downtown before returning to Fort Lewis’ concert hall. Friday also happened to be Peter’s birthday, so we got to toast him over dinner, which was nice. Dinner was delicious (the matter paneer was better than Nawab’s…) but I, for one, was eager to return to the concert hall. Good thing, too, as the place had filled considerably since we left! The auditorium was nearly full, yet somehow there were extra seats in the front, so we grabbed three of those and sat down to await Sherman Alexie’s entrance.

I really don’t know what to say about the event except that I probably laughed 90% of the time. He spoke about the elections, he spoke about “veee-gans” (which he is not,) he spoke about Native Americans (which he is,) he spoke about his appearance on Oprah, he spoke about his family, he spoke about a lot and made fun of it all. And it was just hysterical. He also flirted with the crowd as a whole and also, and we can thank our front row seats for this, Paul and me specifically. He talked about Paul for a little while (“I bet you could buck a few bales of hay”) before we figured out it was actually Paul that he was speaking of but once we did, it was awkwardly hilarious. Alexie even recommended to us that we start a website:

We stuck around after the show for the book signing. We were all the way at the end of the line, and assumed that he would be exhausted by the time we got up there, but we were amused (and red-faced) that he again called us out. He even apologized for embarrassing us, but made a pretty good point: “If you’re going to be called out in front of 700 people, it’s probably not bad to be called out for being good looking.” True, Sherman. Things could have been worse. We thanked him for his speech, got our books signed, and moved along our way. Poor Peter, who hunched down in his seat and then hung back a bit during the signing, didn’t get noticed enough to turn it into but perhaps that actually makes him luckier than us. We drove that night to Bondad, just outside of Durango, to stay the night with Jan and Joe (Peter’s dad.) They are newly moved into their house (about one week ago) which is just gorgeous. Big windows overlooking the river, airy rooms, it was all just amazing.

The next morning, after delicious huevos rancheros prepared by Joe, the boys went about some business of transporting the llama or something (don’t ask me, I have no idea. They left while I was on the phone with my parents and appreciating the views from the deck.) We soon packed up and headed into town with Jan and Joe to catch a screening of Borat. Now, this was the first time I had ever seen that character – I am apparently the only person in the country to have missed the Ali G show – but after rave reviews from critics and excitement heard from both Paul and Peter, I had high hopes. I think we all agreed afterwards, though, that while the movie had very funny moments, it was quite over the top and hard to watch at parts. We headed back to Cortez for a relaxing evening before retiring early with ideas of an early morning for the next day’s plans for Arches National Park.

The next morning proved rainy and less than ideal for a day of hiking, so Paul and I delayed our plans for Arches for a day and had another relaxing day. We read, emailed, napped, wrote, and had just a really great day of doing nothing. It’s amazing how tired we get on this 4-month trip, but we are appreciative of those sorts of days. Or, in the case of Cortez, the entire weekend. Anyhow, that Sunday night also brought about an event that Paul and I had been waiting many moons for. It brought about our version of the Superbowl. It brought about… Iron Chef America, Rachel Ray and Mario Batali versus Giada De Laurentiis and Bobby Flay. Oh, Paul and I had been drooling over this event for weeks. We had gone out to Tequilas for dinner that night (a delicious Mexican restaurant) and we rushed rushed home in order to get there in time. It was intense, it was fun, and it was a beautiful showcase of culinary mastery. Especially on Rachel and Mario’s side. They won, which pleased Paul and me immensely. I tell you, between the midterm elections and Iron Chef, I don’t think I’ve ever had so many things going my way at once.

Monday morning, the weather was much nicer (despite our first snow of the trip, for the first few minutes of the drive) and we headed out to Arches National Park, back in Utah. Shortly before reaching the park, though, we stopped at what I was hoping to be one of the most touristy spots of the trip: Hole in the Rock. We took the guided tour of the house that had been built into rock (not in any natural cave either. The man dynamited out all of the rock he and his wife needed for living space.) It was hilariously awful.

Not quite sure why the " is after the N, but okay!

On to Arches. The drive had been lovely and the park was lovelier. We took a mini hike up to the Windows, appreciating the red and orange colors of the rock up against the brown and yellows of the desert sand up against the blue snow-capped mountains. It was really something. After that hike, we debated over whether to hike up to delicate arch (the one on the Utah license plates) or to head to a longer hike in the back of the park recommended by my mom. As I had done the delicate arch in May and Paul was happy to see the arch from a viewpoint, we decided on the latter hike and were so glad that we did. It was a 7 mile hike that took us to many arches and up and over rocks and culminated in Dark Angel, a rock formation that was so stunningly interesting, largely due to the fact that we ended up seeing a total of five different angel faces in the rock. Paul believes that he knows the actual one for which the rock is named, but I think that many of them could be the namesake. Any which way, it was a glorious hike and we tiredly but happily returned to the car for the drive back to Cortez. We stopped along the road for dinner at Nero’s, an Italian restaurant with Southwest décor. It was… interesting looking. The food, though, was exquisite. (In the words of our good friend Roy, Paul and I are “looking very well-fed” and we are only growing more so.)

The windows also make for a creepy face

Paul and the Arch

Ohhh, snow-covered mountains...

Can you spot the dark angel?

One more thing worth mentioning about this drive home is that Speed Blazer picked up yet another quirk. The overhead light in the car now flickers on and off, at its own discretion. We attributed the problem to the backhatch, which you may remember stopped opening, as we believe it’s stuck in a state of not-quite-closed-yet-not-quite-open and thus triggers the open door light from time to time. It was disconcerting at first, but we’ve grown quite used to it and hardly notice it now. We just feel for the other drivers on the road when it is dark, as they must be perplexed by us (and maybe even, at a distance, confuse us for a cop car with blinking lights.)

Tuesday, Paul and I headed into downtown Cortez to check out some shops and the bookstore, for Internet access and lunch before meeting up with Peter to head out to Mesa Verde, the National Park nearby which houses ancient Puebloan cliff dwellings. We got there in time for a guided tour down to Spruce Tree House, where we saw and learned about a massive dwelling that was home for 60-80 people. Our tour guide was great – informative, interesting, and very good at dealing with the obnoxious members on the tour (not us!) – and we even got to climb down into a reconstructed kiva, which was exciting. We returned to Peter’s house for dinner and a viewing of Tortilla Soup, a very cute, fun, and delicious movie. Between Iron Chef and Tortilla Soup, I think Paul and I are craving the liberty of having kitchens again when we finally get off the road in December. I know we both have had multiple dreams about food, including one for Paul where he (I was awake to witness this) started chewing noisily and said, “Mmmmmm, that’s gooooooood!”

the cliff-dwellings

the non-roofed kiva

Wednesday morning, Paul and I left early for the gorgeous drive along the San Juan skyway. This is a loop that Cortez is conveniently located in the middle of, which drives through gorgeous scenery and several adorable old towns. The high elevation and the cold weather of the past several days gave us beautiful snow pretty much everywhere we drove. Our first stop was in Telluride, the well-known ski town. Unfortunately we were just a little too early for the ski slopes to be open, but it didn’t stop us (well, maybe just me) from lusting after the map of the slopes. I had hoped that we could take the free gondola up the mountain to get a good view but, for the second time in my life now, the “Every day, 7 AM to midnight!” sign was a lie and we were out of luck. We enjoyed just walking around the town, though, even while lamenting its lack of coffee shops.

Back in the car, we enjoyed more snowy scenery as we headed into Ouray, another tiny town with a cute little downtown. Again, we had some difficulties finding a place to grab a hot beverage (and some soup for lunch) but I suppose that happens when you visit towns between the summer tourist rush and the ski tourist rush. We drove through many more towns and many twisty roads not stopping again until Durango, where we paused just briefly (having seen some of it already the night of the Sherman Alexie event) to visit the famous Jean-Pierre French bakery to pick up some croissants for the next morning’s breakfast. Paul and I also, and I can’t remember how it started or why we thought it was such a good idea, decided to speak in only rhyme for part of the drive. This lasted for probably, oh, about two hours. Two hours, people. Needless to say, we forced ourselves to end the game when we started reprimanding ourselves for not thinking in rhyme. We got back to Cortez that evening just in time to see the sun setting behind Sleeping Ute and pick up some groceries for dinner. We got back to Peter’s house in time for cooking, foosball, and several episodes of Arrested Development. This was one of the nicest days in quite awhile, in my opinion.

San Juan skyway


Thursday morning, after those delicious Jean Pierre pastries, Paul and I bid farewell to Francesca and Peter and hit the road. We drove a short while down to the Four Corners monument where we enjoyed standing in four states at once. Even more than just stand, though, I had a dance party in four states and Paul ran through four states! After that exhausting workout of ours, we got back into the car and headed across New Mexico to Taos, “the soul of the southwest.” We walked around, enjoying the southwestern architecture and cute shops, for a few hours before pressing on to Santa Fe. We got to Santa Fe late enough to check into our hotel, grab a quick dinner at a Mexican restaurant down the road recommended by our check-in guy, and retire for the evening to Austin Powers 3.

Dance Party

Long run

We took a nice relaxing morning in the hotel room, catching some news, before heading to the Santa Fe plaza. The town was cute but I think that the guidebooks were right on to note that many tourists will wonder, “what’s the fuss about?” It was quaint and the architecture was certainly lovely, but after a quick lunch at the highly praised Tia Sophia, we were on our way.

I did my best to look South-western

Our next stop was one of my highly-anticipated places of the trip: Roswell. Roswell has all of the alien merchandise you could dream of, as well as a knock-out museum detailing all sorts of UFO info, including a well-done chronology on the events of the alleged UFO crash near Roswell in 1947. The information that was presented was really interesting and certainly makes you wonder. Now, I think neither Paul nor I were convinced that the crash definitely took place, but we were not certain that it didn’t happen either. It was curious that so many military personages had issued statements in favor of the UFO and military cover-up theory.

If only Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny had been part of the exhibit...

Our awesome dining experience

We planned to camp Friday evening in the Bottomless Lake State Park down the road from Roswell, but we sadly discovered that we needed a New Mexico state park permit in order to do so. We pressed on looking for another campsite. Or at least that’s what we said we were going to do. We both secretly were scouting out motel signs, hoping to find a cheap one along the way that we could nonchalantly mention to the other. When we discovered that the other didn’t want to camp, either, we happily found a motel in the town of Carlsbad, not too far from our planned stop the next day at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. And so there we sat, enjoying Paula Dean on the Food Network and having walls and a bed.

The following day we got into the Park too late for our long spelunking expedition that we so badly wanted to do (4 hours of crawling through mud into tiny spots) because it had filled up; but we were not dissapointed due to the great lecture on bats and well-guided 2 hour tour of one of the caverns. Our tour guide looked remarkably like Ellen from "Pete and Pete." Anyone know if that actress pursued a career in the National Park Service? We pressed on to camp that night at the Guadelupe Mountains National Park, enjoying another gorgeous campsite before losing all natural light. We concluded Season 3 of Arrested Development in our tent that evening. It was intense. It was enjoyable. It was also very sad, knowing that we were officially done.

The following morning, realizing just how big Texas is, we decided to get as much distance covered that day as possible. There's not much to say about the day, as we just drove and drove, except that we made good progress in Anna Karenina, which we are happily engaged in once again. We camped that night outside of Fredericksburg, a German-settled town, which had a very cute and festive main street. We dined in a Texas bar, complete with a crooning guitar player with a strong Texas accent.

The next day we drove to a campsite in between San Antonio and Austin, set up the tent, and heading south into San Antonio. Our first matter of business was, of course, to check out the Alamo. It actually was very neat to see and great to get a history lesson in the surrounding museum. I feel we got a better understanding of Texan mentality. And we have been careful not to mention our political leanings too loudly.

After the Alamo, we walked the riverwalk ("Other towns have rivers. San Antonio has a riverwalk.") which was exceptionally pretty until you look too closely down into the river and notice the chairs and soda cans littering the bottom. We dined at a restaurant right on the river (very fancy for our budget) and enjoyed the lights along the river as well as all of the people-watching. We also enjoyed our second night of hangman games while awaiting our meal (I just realized how hilariously appropriate it is that we get into that game while in Texas...) much to the amusement of our waitress.

We returned to our campsite for sleeping that night, appreciating and admiring the lake-front site that we selected before retiring. And now we're in Austin! I don't really know much about Austin yet, as I sit in a Pita Pit for the wi-fi to complete these posts and Paul sits somewhere nearby in a garage while Speedy gets a makeover (an oil change and new brake pads!) But I'm sure we'll have good stories to tell about the city on the next post. Until next time!

(And good job to those of you who read through the whole lengthy post(s)!!)

Love, hugs, and kisses,


Sometimes cafes with WiFi are hard to come across

Location: Austin, TX
Mileage: 12500
# of Tumbleweeds seen: 4
# of Tumbleweeds run over!: 1
Number of times one of us has broken into the chorus of "All my exes live in Texas" since entering the Lone Star State: Far too many.

We hit Zion National Park just long enough before the sun set to book a campsite and set up tent. We had no firewood that evening so our camp night was not the typical meal-wine-fire sort of evening, but we instead utilized the cell signal (in the middle of a national park!) and caught up with friends for awhile. That was nice to chat with our friends but we were also appreciative of the fodder for conversation it provided over dinner. Sometimes Paul and I run out of things to say to each other, so it was nice to just be able to talk about the lives of whomever we had spoken with instead of trying to think of something interesting on our own. We retired to the tent and, it being close enough to Thanksgiving, we finally watched the copy of Home for the Holidays that we had brought with us. Between the phones and the laptop, this was probably our most technology-dependent camping evening. However, we were both awake and alert after the movie and it was one of the warmer camping nights we had had in a long time so we decided to walk around the campsites and admire the canyon walls surrounding us by the still nearly full moon. (See, we like nature, too.) It was stunning.

Our campsite as the sun went down

The next morning we tore down camp and hit the park. We picked out a scenic drive through the canyon and two medium-lengthed hikes to fill the day. The drive was lovely, taking us through gorgeous rock formations with varying colors. The sights were particularly special due to the trees. Dozens of yellow-leaved trees framing the reddish multi-hued rocks made for striking sights. After our drive, we stopped at the Emerald Pools trailhead and hiked up to the middle and upper pools and falls. At this time of year, the falls are little more than trickles, but the pools were calm and glassy and attracted a lot of photographers.

River, Rock, yellow leaves -- what more could you ask for?

Reflecting Pools

All the photographers even looked the same

Our next hike was Sandy point loop, which didn’t take long to confirm its name. Steep hikes are difficult; steep hikes on sand are much more so. We worked hard to make it up the hills on the sand but thoroughly enjoyed the views we got for doing so. We settled down on a rock about halfway through the loop to enjoy our lunch and the views. Zion is magical; after hearing less than favorable accounts of the park, we realize that it is a park that must be visited and appreciated later in the year. This is partly because of the fall colors but also because the park, which is purportedly packed during the warmer months, feels as if it is nearly empty during this time of year.

Paul, proudly wearing the fanny pack

Zion and the moon (hey, that would be a good name for a bad band)

After our full day of appreciating Zion, we hopped in the car and made the short drive east to Bryce National Park. This day also happened to be Election Day and our plan was to find a bar somewhere along the way for us to sit in to watch the results come in. Well, folks, we discovered something about Utah — they don’t have any bars. Or if they do, they’re cleverly disguised as tiny houses with Republican candidate signs in their yard. So no bar for us; but, we did find cheap firewood! Two big bundles for $5, which sure beats the standard $7-one bundle that most national parks provide. We set up camp at Bryce and called some friends (again cell signal in a national park – maybe Utah does have a couple perks…) to plead for election news. The rest of the evening was spent anxiously around the campfire awaiting cell phone calls. Needless to say, every time a call came in, Paul and I were excited and happy with the news we received. We were left that evening waiting to hear about our home state’s election results but pleased with everything else.

The next morning, we embarked first on Bryce’s scenic drive, blasting NPR the whole way. The park certainly is lovely, but Paul and I were actually hesitant to leave the radio in order to check out the viewpoints. Between the news of taking the House, possibly taking the Senate, and Rumsfeld’s resignation, you can imagine how we might be eager to listen, as everything we were hearing was such good news. We were able to pull ourselves out of the car finally to hike down into the canyon, passing through multiple hoodoo formations. It’s hard to describe exactly what hoodoos look like, if you haven’t seen them, but they are rocks that have been weathered away on the sides, forming what somewhat resembles all the drip castles I used to build at the beach. We hiked back up, out of the canyon, and headed back to our campsite with an hour of sunlight to spare. We enjoyed some reading before having to put our books away and enjoyed a more typical camp evening that the prior two evenings.

A Bryce arch

NPR was more important than getting out of the car. Hey, I could see the sights from there anyway...


We had planned a very long day of driving that morning, taking a very loopy route over to Colorado. After packing up the car, we headed south out of the park in order to catch a drive through some more national park beauty. We headed down toward the Grand Staircase and Glen Canyon for some views. We took a slight detour into a state park before righting ourselves and getting directions from the woman at the entrance booth, who had kindly taken our $6 only ten minutes before. I showed her the road that we were trying to drive on, having initially believed that said road ran through her state park. She directed me towards the dirt road that Paul and I had not taken, assuming that the little dirt road that we passed could not be the 45 mile-long road that was on our map. It was and the guide assured me, “that road’s just been re-done and is in the best shape it’s ever been in. It’s 45 miles and will only take you 2 hours!” We were moderately worried about driving Speedy on the bumpy, dusty road, but the sights were enjoyable! We pulled off for a stop at an arch (whose name I’ve just forgotten,) just another of Utah’s interesting natural formations. Who knew Utah would be so pretty?

Memorable arch, unmemorable name

We finally hit the highway and were relieved to have our wheels on firm road again as we headed east, dipping down into Arizona briefly before heading northeast through Monument Valley. Our stop at Monument Valley Memorial was gorgeous, looping through massive formations that truly resembled their names (just ask Paul about Elephant Butte, which made him exclaim at least 5 times, “Oh my god, it actually looks like an elephant. Look at it!”) After Monument Valley, it was late enough that we decided to forgo the Four Corners Memorial for that day and head straight to Cortez, CO. We arrived late, having driven all day, through three states, seen so much, but we were welcomed kindly by Peter, his mother, and his sister, Francesca. Our first piece of business: showers. Campfires, good hikes, and no showers for several days make Paul and me pretty disgusting. Multiple shampoos and a few games of foosball later, we sat down for a delicious meal at a real table! (Picnic benches also get old.)

A very happy driver (wearting the BEAUtiful necklace of drink wrapper that I created for him)

"Oh my god, it actually looks like an elephant!"

The three sisters. Notice the sun shining above them. I like to think that it is because they are so holy and wonderful. Much like three other sisters that I can think of... ;)

Mexican hat (not in Monument Valley)

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Arizona is the Grand Canyon State but it should be the Superfantasticly Enormously Incredible Canyon State With Other Cool Stuff Too

Hi friends. This is another catchup post that takes us from Southern California all the way to Vegas via Arizona. If you want to read the last leg of our California adventure and haven't yet, just scroll down to the last post. Soon we'll be all caught up with a Utah/Colorado post so keep checking! Miss you all!

The drive from San Diego to Phoenix went rather smoothly. Alina read the entire way and I sped down the freeway through the desert and sang along to music. We made very good time and arrived in Phoenix by mid-afternoon. There we met up with Stacy, a friend of mine from William and Mary who just started graduate school in Phoenix for clinical psychology. She is an extremely fun and interesting person. At the beginning of the trip I actually thought that we might stay with her in Las Vegas where she spent the year after her graduation working as a welfare agent, which, as you might imagine, provided her with many funny stories which she shared with us over a delicious dinner of salmon and corn chowder that she cooked for us. Alina and I knew we were in good company when we were staying with some one who is big into cooking and the Food Network AND loves Arrested Development as much as we do. We had a nice long chat over dinner and did some catching up as well as getting to know a friend of hers who she had over for dinner. The plan was to hit the town for some Halloween celebrations, but Stacy’s friend was feeling under the weather and Alina was sleepy, so it was just Stacy and I. We went down to Tempe, where Arizona State University is located and where a huge Halloween street party was taking place. We had a great time walking up and down the main strip and seeing all of the costumes, some people had really gone all out. Our favorite was the guy dressed as Borat because he did the costume, and the accent, perfectly. Eventually we got tired of walking around and found a nice bar a bit off the main strip where we could have a couple of beers at and catch up. We had a huge amount of fun catching up and talking and then, having had our share of bars and Halloween for that evening, we made our way back to her apartment in Phoenix and hit the sack.

The next morning we all woke up at about ten and had breakfast while watching a few episodes of Arrested Development (season 3!!!). After that we showered and organized ourselves before going to lunch with Stacy at a nice Mexican restaurant called Aunt Chilada’s. Hilarious. Having enjoyed a fantastic lunch – hands down the best fish tacos I’ve ever had – we said goodbye to Stacy and hit the road. The drive up to Sedona was rather uneventful, but the scenery took a turn for the beautiful as we neared the Sedona area and began to see the striking red rocks that the town is known for. In Sedona we stayed with Peter’s father Scott, his wife Kari, and her three children. When we arrived it was just about to get dark and we sat down to catch up with Peter and get to know Scott, Kari, and the kids. After a while everyone was getting hungry so we ate a delicious salmon dinner. After dinner I played Scott and the twin boys, Chris and Joe, at a rock ‘n roll trivia game and won in an upset after Scott had led the entire game. It all had to do with escaping from disco purgatory and getting a few lucky questions: Lou Reed lyrics and the conditions surrounding Janis Joplin’s death. By the time the game was over it was past everybody’s bedtimes and we settled down to sleep.

Stacy with us right before we left Phoenix

Our first view of the red rocks as we approached Sedona

The next morning we were up and out early to go exploring in Sedona. Peter showed us around the pleasant little touristy town for a few hours and we window shopped through the booksellers and New Age stores before grabbing lunch at a cool vegetarian place called D’lish. Now fueled up with healthy vegetarian food we embarked upon a hike that featured both great views of the red rocks as well as many other beautiful colors from the changing autumn leaves. We were quite pleasantly surprised by the changing leaves in Arizona since this was the first that Alina or I had seen of any true fall colors. Our hike was beautiful and took up most of the afternoon. By the time we were finished we were due back at the house to meet Scott to ride up to Flagstaff. The drive to Flagstaff, a slow climb up the Colorado Plateau, was a beautiful hour long ride. Scott and Peter went up to Flag to go to an indoor rock climbing gym for the evening. In the presence of such good climbers (Scott is one of the world’s best and Peter is good himself) Alina and I decided not to burden them with amateur climbing lessons and instead enjoy watching all of the skilled rock climbers tackle different routes. We both had a lot of fun watching them, and for the first time in my life I think I might even, one day, far in the future, consider the possibility of rock climbing. Maybe. That’s a big step from thinking that climbing up rocks over dizzying heights is the most illogical of all pursuits, which was my former opinion of the sport. At any rate after a few hours at the gym we made our way back to Sedona and made ourselves a late pasta dinner before passing out, tired from all that rock-climbing watching. It’s surprising how tiring watching other people exert themselves can be.

The incredible view of the stunning red rocks and that foxy Blazer from Scott and Kari's living room window

View of the rocks from our hike

The next morning we left Sedona early and drove back up to Flagstaff, this time to see the town outside of the climbing gym. We spent most of the morning just walking around the cute town. It’s a pretty place with a lot of small town character, with the famous Route 66 cutting right through it. At a nice thrift shop Alina and I both found things we’d needed for a long time (her: earring backs and jeans, me: light zip-down jacket) and, of course, more used books. I think that the count of used books in Speedy’s backseat may be approaching the triple digit range. After a bit more walking around we ate brunch at one of Peter’s favorite restaurants, Bellavia, where we all had absolutely delicious and huge portions of breakfast food. Alina had a particularly interesting meal of a humongous oat filled Swedish pancake stuffed with blueberries. Now all fueled up, we did a little more walking around before saying goodbye to Peter and hitting the road once more, this time headed for the Grand Canyon.

There really aren’t words or pictures that do the Grand Canyon justice, and there isn’t a way to describe what it feels like to see it for the first time. As John Muir famously wrote of it “Nowhere else something something nature’s single bold statement in stone.” We pulled up to Mather Point late in the afternoon and spent a good little while just gaping at the immense and colorful canyon. It is truly one of the most spellbinding things that I have ever seen. After our share of jaw-dropped amazement, we made our way to a visitor’s center to get a little info about the canyon and to ask a ranger for some hiking recommendations. Having settled on a busy agenda of hiking and programs for the following day, we made our way to the campsite, got our site, and set up our home for the next two nights. That night was a pretty standard camp night featuring a hearty but modest dinner and a few hours around the campfire.

We got up early the next morning to be at the rim for a nine o’clock ranger walk. The walk was informative and the ranger was very good, although the fact that we were about the only people there between voting age and AARP membership was a slight indication that ranger walks aren’t something targeted towards our demographic. After the hour long walk we did a bit of browsing around Grand Canyon village before gearing up for our hike and taking the bus to the South Kaibab trailhead. We had an absolutely spectacular time hiking down into the canyon. The descent into the canyon was quick and beautiful. I’m glad that the ranger recommended the Kaibab hike to us; she had told us that it offered unparalleled views and she was certainly correct. We reached Cedar Ridge, which was originally our intended turn around point, quickly and, though we knew that we had the tough climb back to the rim ahead of us, decided that we could still go a little deeper into the canyon. After a while we looked back up to the distant rim and figured that was a lofty enough goal for the day and turned around to begin our ascent. On the way we took a break back at Cedar Ridge for lunch before trekking back up the trail. The way up was pretty steep but still very enjoyable. Though there were lots of warning signs about over-exertion, I think we both felt that the Grand Canyon hike was a bit easier than both the Vancouver and the Yosemite hikes. We made it back to the top relatively quickly and took the bus back to our campsite, stopping on the way at a viewpoint near our trailhead where we could look down and see most of our hike into the canyon.

That afternoon we rested a bit at the campsite playing scrabble and reveling that golden post-long-hike feeling. Alina somewhat disrupted my reveling by clobbering me in the scrabble game, but that’s okay I’ll get her next time. As night fell we made our way back to the rim for a moonlight walk with a ranger, which sounded like an awesome program. Apparently it sounded awesome to a lot of people, because we arrived to find sizeable cadres of tourists walking around in the dark aimlessly looking for the “westernmost point of the Mather area rim path.” In an impressive show of organizing with strangers, we set up watch groups and search squads and eventually found the ranger already surrounded by a large group of people located at what is certainly not the westernmost point of the Mather area rim path. At any rate, happy to have found the program we walked with the ranger, a goofy rambling old man who really didn’t tell us anything all that interesting and was quite prone to esoteric tangents. For instance he got the crowd all riled up about scorpions and we talked about that for about a quarter of the hour-long walk. Oh well, though the program could have been better, the Grand Canyon glowing in the light of the full moon couldn’t have been a more spectacular sight. The moon illuminated the canyon surprisingly well, and the buttes and plateaus looked much like ghostly grey ships floating on the black void of the canyon below. We gawked at it for as long as we could stand the biting cold and then made our way back to the campsite to build a big fire, eat dinner, and shiver in our sleeping bags until morning.
My first view of the Grand Canyon
What is she looking at? Doesn't she know it's right in front of her?!

Crows over the canyon

The formations in the canyon are too beautiful to simply call buttes, so they call them temples. This is Isis Temple, which our hike offered many stunning looks at.

The view of the hike below from where we took a brief rest. You can see the path weaving down to Cedar Ridge.

Hiking in the canyon

No pictures even began to show how pretty the Grand Canyon was in the moonlight, but hopefully this might offer a tiny flavor of it.

The next we’d planned on waking up super early and being packed up and watching the sunrise over the Canyon by 6:45. Well we actually woke up at 8:30 so that didn’t happen, but we packed quickly and made our way back to Grand Canyon village for a last look over the rim and a bit of shopping for gifts and souvenirs. After that we drove out to Desert Point, where a four-story tower sits on the edge of the Grand Canyon overlooking the surrounding desert and its sudden transformation into the canyon. After some last views we ate lunch in the parking lot and began to head east, having not heard from my friend in Vegas and therefore deciding to bypass it and head straight up into Utah. But just a few minutes into the drive we finally got cell reception and were able to contact Travis, an old High School friend of mine working in Vegas as a software designer who told us to come on over. And so we turned Speedy around and drove towards Vegas, stopping along the way only for gas and a brief stop at the Hoover Dam, which was impressive and perhaps even neat. Other than that there’s not much to say about it.

We didn't get a great vantage point of the Hoover Dam, but you get the picture.

We made great time getting to Las Vegas and arrived at Travis’s apartment a couple hours before dinner. We spent a while catching up with Travis and getting cleaned up before hitting the strip. Las Vegas is such a bizarre anomaly of a place. Set up by mobsters tired of doing business in Los Angeles, which had the pesky problem of laws and even police, they moved out to this little valley in the middle of the desert and established what would become one of the most glamorous and lavish places in the country. It’s hilarious and sickening and fascinating and lots of fun. We parked at the Bellagio and made it outside just in time to catch the Bellagio’s fountain show to “Proud to be an American.” We walked up and down Las Vegas Blvd just looking at the outlandish sights before heading into the Monte Carlo casino where Travis knew a nice Irish Pub. We had a tasty dinner at the pub, where they had their own microbrewery featuring a particularly good red. After dinner we walked down the strip and caught another fountain show at the Bellagio, this time to Elvis’s “Viva Las Vegas,” a much more appropriate song we all agreed. Next it was time to do our big Vegas gambling adventure. We went to Travis’s favorite casino, the (relatively) less showy Barbary Coast where Travis demonstrated himself to be the only real gambler among us by hitting up the craps table. I stuck to something more my speed, the penny slots! I really wasn’t there to win money, just to have free drinks brought to me while I spent a couple of bucks. This is how Stacy, having lived in Vegas for over a year, assured me I could beat the system and extract far more in alcohol costs than I contributed through the penny slots. Well I did beat the system, but in a different way. I couldn’t get a drink on that busy night, but I did win $40 from my dollar in the penny slots, so I’m quite happy. I should have just quit then but thinking I could do it again I played a few more bucks. Once I realized that my forty to one victory was only a rare glitch, however, I gave it up, and went home that night up by over thirty bucks. Sweet!

The Bellagio fountain show

Did you know both Paris and New York are just Vegas neighborhoods?

In the MGM they have lions. Freaking lions! Why?

My lucky casino

The next morning Travis had to leave for work early and we got up with him and went back the strip to see it by daylight. It is perhaps less garish without the neon but it is certainly the same insane little city. It actually seems perhaps a bit stranger in the morning, where the morning light illuminates grandma and pimp alike, sitting side by side and both smoking Marlboro Reds and sipping their martinis over a game of blackjack at 8:30 in the morning. Curse Vegas if you wish, but never deny that it’s one of the country’s truest melting pots. We walked into a couple of the more famous casinos, such as New York New York, Caesar’s Palace, and the MGM. It was at the MGM that we splurged in a big way on one of the famous Vegas buffets. For the low price of $14 I gouged myself with every kind of food imaginable and consumed probably two days worth of calories. It is only the second time in my life that I’ve feared that my stomach might burst under the pressure of how much I’d consumed. Alina actually fared much better than I, not insisting on finishing plates but instead emphasizing trying to at least sample everything at the feast. She was nearly successful, and was actually keeping pretty good form until she loaded up on frozen yogurt at the end. Then her color began to take on the lovely distinct green tint that mine had adopted. Both ridiculously full we waddled slowly back to our car in the Caesar’s Palace parking garage and drove away from that sinful and fantastic city towards the natural beauty of Utah’s National Parks. Join us next time for our adventures in Zion, Bryce, and more!