The American Southwest attracts and repels the Director-Knudsen-Quinn families

July 8, 2016 at 8:56 pm (Uncategorized)

Dad is a planner. He likes to get things in place. Such as trips. A year in advance, at least. Such was the case with our family’s recent Caravan Tours trip through National Parks in the American Southwest. And what better year to go: 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the National Parks System, something entirely unique to America.


Roughly one year ago, Dad confirmed that Mom, my sister and I, and our families would embark on a trip via fancy tour bus that would originate in Phoenix and, over the course of a very full week, take us to and through the Grand Canyon, Sedona, Navajo Nation lands and Monument Valley, Lake Powell/Glen Canyon, and Bryce and Zion national parks, concluding, at last, at the Las Vegas airport, the departure point to more humane and comfortable climes.


The week prior to leaving on our trip, we were very busy with end-of-school-year events and celebrations, as Hayley completed 6th grade and Alyssa left middle school behind. Mom kept texting me about the weather in the Southwest; I kept ignoring her frantic missives, just knowing that the region’s 100+°F weather would subside by our arrival, a mere 2 ½-hour flight away from and in the same time zone as Portland (save for the Navajo Nation and Utah, which are an hour ahead of the West Coast).


I was SORELY wrong. Alyssa originated – and used – the following phrase ad nauseum during our trip: “Satan’s butt crack.” As in: “It is hotter here than in Satan’s butt crack!!!” She’s actually right. Particularly in the concrete jungles of the Lake Powell “Resort” (air quotes mine) and Las Vegas’ strip. (Satan was absolutely in evidence at the latter.)


The tour launched in a Phoenix airport hotel, where our guide, Pe-tah, assembled his 48 charges – our kids brought down the average age by about 70 years – and commenced yammering at us with his jolly good English accent with infinitesimal details about our forthcoming trip. We started to panic: Would the entire trip’s soundtrack be Pe-tah’s high-tea ramblings?


(His real name is Peter, but in the Queen’s English, it’s Pe-tah. By the end of our trip, we all had forgotten our initial consternation and concerns and had fallen deeply in love with this amazingly jovial, kind, funny, informative professional tour guide who decades ago made Texas – of all places – his home. So informative, in fact, was our guide, that his name by the end of the trip was Wiki-Peter.)


First stop: Grand Canyon, via Sedona (where I got a mild case of food poisoning, so I won’t focus much on that city with Red Rock vistas…and an alarming lack of quality TP).


You’ve likely heard or read this before: Words do not do justice to the vista that is the Grand Canyon. Dated to 2 billions years ago, some of its rocks are simply alien. To learn that you’re peering down upon a substance that is 2 B I L L I O N years of age is not a concept one can fathom. And so, we joined the throngs of tourists just looking – and looking, and looking – down, way out, and across the Grand Canyon. All day long. I just couldn’t peel my eyes away from the natural phenomenon that outdates God and dirt. Its myriad colors continually shift throughout the day, as the sun, cloud cover, plant life, dry riverbed on one side/roaring Colorado River on the other, and soaring turkey vultures and California condors (and other birds) all conspired to change the view every time I gazed upon the maw.


Grand Canyon Mather's Peak at Sunset


Our tour offered us two days on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. At first we thought, Why are we here for that long? There’s not that much to do. But we were wrong: Just staring at the layers of red, cream, green, gray, even purple rocks that cascade down to a depth of 1 mile beneath the rim took up 48 hours of our time. (Could we have gone on a mule ride? You bet your ass we could’ve, but no one in our family opted for what – to me, at least – sounds like a back-cracking, dust-eating trip from hell.)


Speaking of hell, have I mentioned the heat? In all honesty, we spent many of our 48 hours at the Grand Canyon in our A/C-ified rooms, draped over our units like wet socks plucked from a failing clothes dryer.


Next stop: Lake Powell/Glen Canyon, via the Navajo Nation and Monument Valley


I experienced both trepidation and excitement at the idea of driving through Navajo Nation country. Would it be a voyeuristic journey? Would it be very educational? Would it be depressing as all get out? The drive through the Navajo Nation while comfortably seated in a top-of-the-line, climatized tour bus was all three.


We learned – or, in some cases re-learned – about the Long Walk, the forced death march the U.S. government foisted upon the Navajo, when it wanted the people who were there first off that land and onto another swath, 300 miles away. Thousands died along the way; it’s a miracle any survived.


I, too, would have died in Satan’s butt crack; the sweltering temperatures we experienced during our few stops on Navajo Nation land at least made the Navajo’s 1864 journey seem that much more impossible. When the survivors were released to what the Navajo believed was their sacred, ancestral land, they marched themselves right back to the lunar landscape we drove through in northeastern Arizona, skirting the Utah border.


I hated that we stopped in Cameron, a wasteland composed of a post office, a bridge over a dry river bed, a hotel, tumbleweed, telephone wires, and pissed off looking Navajo awaiting our arret at a labyrinthine shop filled with Native American kitsch. It felt like a movie scene, told from the point of view of the ticked off Navajo, eyeing us warily from the rooftop of the hotel (which they were): “Stupid, whitey tourists. Hope they overpay for some dumb piece of pottery that wasn’t even made by our people.”


I did wander my way into the back of the shop and came upon a woman squatting at a floor-to-ceiling loom, painstakingly creating a rug with internecine patterns. I learned it would take her about six months to complete her work; I’m not sure she’d ever earn back the equivalent of the time and tradition she put into it.


Icky Cameron Weaving woman


Back on the bus, we continued to Monument Valley.


We stopped for an authentic frybread lunch in Goulding’s Lodge, in Navajo Tribal Park. The food was OK, but the heat was not. It got hotter and the wind picked up. Given the heat, it was the kind of wind that offered no relief whatsoever; rather, it felt like getting buffeted over and over again by the wall of heat one experiences when opening the oven on Thanksgiving Day after the poor, defenseless bird has basted and baked at 450 degrees for about five hours.


Rather than finding respite on our climatized Mountain View bus, we first boarded a sturdy, windowless, roofless, jeep-like vehicle whose navigator was a Navajo gentleman who seemed very proud to show us his land, including the man-made hogans. They are igloo-like, one-room dwellings made from adobe that look truly unfit for human habitation. Our driver-guide gleefully pointed out all those we could see from the herky-jerky road, and I just hope he didn’t notice the look of utter horror we all had pasted to our sweaty faces upon learning families lived in them.


The valley—like so much on this trip—looked and felt alien, despite its fame within the lens of many a Western filmmaker. (“Stagecoach,” anyone? The place seemed more akin to “2001 Space Odyssey.”) At one promontory, our jeep came to a rough stop, and there our guide pointed out that while we were west of the Four Corners Monument, you could indeed see Colorado and New Mexico from our shaky foothold on the sandy Utah/Arizona border.


Monument Valley Navajo Nation flags Visible heat


All around us was either a sea of hot sand or huge shafts of eroding rock that jutted straight up from the desert floor. On some of the mesas, people (or aliens?) had planted flags. Their weak fabric whipping in the blast-furnace wind inspired not wonder or inspiration but defeat. It was incredible to be in that place, and we couldn’t wait to get the hell outta there ( “hell” is the operative word).


Our final resting place of the day (yes, it felt a little funereal by then) was the Lake Powell Resort, astride Glen Canyon. I don’t know what to say, other than it kinda sucked. Like the Grand Canyon, Glen Canyon’s various rock layers and slot canyons changed colors throughout the day, depending on the placement of the merciless sun, which felt like it was mere spitting distance, not the 93 million miles that separate it from Earth. But unlike the Grand Canyon, we wanted to leave Satan’s butt crack and were thrilled when the bus pulled up at 7 a.m. on the morning of our second day there.


Glen Canyon slot canyon


Penultimate stop: Bryce and Zion national parks


Under Peter’s watchful eye and exacting watch, we had a mere 45 minutes at Bryce. Mom, Dad and I agreed after the trip concluded that we would have preferred having at least twice that amount of time at this park. Still hotter than hell, the canyon has a very unique beauty we’d wanted to take in more than we could. It is filled with what are called hoodoos; they are thin-ish non-cylindrical towers of sedimentary rock that look straight out of Dr. Seuss.


Hoodoos galore


These natural structures are so unstable, park literature says the place is literally disintegrating by the minute. It goes on to say that for visitors to the park at night, the silence yields the sound of rocks constantly breaking away from the hoodoos and tumbling to the canyon floor. Yes, we felt a tad rickety on the short hike we were allowed to take before Peter’s searing gaze reminded us our brief time at yet another lunar landscape had concluded.


And so on we trundled to Zion National Park, 30 winding miles away. One would think that such a short distance would yield a park similar to Bryce, but the truth is quite the opposite. At the Grand Canyon and at Bryce, tourists gawp straight down; Zion, however, is the converse. Its big-horn sheep stare straight down at us – hundreds of feet down sheer rock faces. Being inside the rock walls, whose hues vary from yellow to orange to red, offers much less time in direct sun and thus more hours throughout the day of relative comfort.


The highlight by far – and Alyssa’s highlight from the entire trip – was the Riverside Walk through the park’s Narrows. I have no idea the temperature of the water that lazes over slippery rocks through a portion of Zion, but hiking through it for a few miles felt like taking a leisurely bath, so soothing was the cool water in contrast to the hot, dry afternoon.


The Narrows' Riverside Walk


Heather Hansen, my friend and author of my companion book during our trip – “Prophets and Moguls, Rangers and Rogues, Bison and Bears” – said that after she visited myriad National Parks while reporting her tome that celebrates the National Parks’ centennial, the Narrows’ Riverside Walk proved a highlight for her, too. (Get this book and read it! It’s a joyous ride through history and National Parks you may never see for yourself.)


The final stop: Vegas


Gawdalmighty, I will never, ever return to Sin City. First, it was about 115 degrees; walking from our hotel, Treasure Island, to the Bellagio felt like walking into a flaming pizza oven. It is a distance of under 1.5 miles; we barely made it. Our slow pace afforded us far too many glimpses of showgirls, drunk folks (at 11 a.m.), and hawkers of every variety passing out what looked like business cards to every Tom, Dick, and Harry (not women and not kids) who sulked past. They littered the ground like the aftermath of a tickertape parade and appeared mainly to be glossy advertisements for sleazy girls available at any hour of the day, as well as for adult beverages, also available at any hour of the day. Guess those two go well together in icky, degenerate Vegas. Dave thinks Vegas is great; he likes to gamble and, given his prowess with numbers, is a card shark. His winnings covered our hotel room, in which the girls and I spent an inordinate amount of time (and where we were at least sheltered from the heat if not from the other yucky stuff Vegas oozes).


condoms Hot AF in Vegas gamblin' man help for gamblers


Am I a prude? Probably. But whether a true prude or not, walking around anywhere in Vegas with children in tow feels criminal. Holing up in the hotel was a better option. So I guess that made me a fugitive.


We left the next morning at 4 a.m.; it already was 86 degrees and everyone we passed clearly had not slept the night before. As we got into our taxi and it pulled away from Treasure Island, a young woman was holding back her own long hair as she puked into a trash can.


I simply could not wait to be Leaving Las Vegas.










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