Road Trip 2017 #17 – Zion and Virgin

We left Duck Creek Village early in the morning and arrived at Zion National Park well before 9am.  Nevertheless, we found the place was already packed with people.  It was a holiday weekend and I can only assume a lot of people had chosen to holiday at Zion.  We drove through the park and occasionally pulled over and exited the car to admire the rock formations and the mesas.  The younger boys loved it when we drove through a mile long tunnel that was pitch black except for the odd window cut out so as to showcase stunning vistas.  Our plan had been to undertake a particular river hike but it was sadly and annoyingly not to be.  There was nowhere to park anywhere near our intended hiking spot so the plan was to park up at the Visitor Centre, get our National Parks passport stamped, and hop on the shuttle bus to get us to where we needed to go.  When we arrived in the vicinity of the Visitor Centre, however, and employee turned us away.  The car parks were heaving.  Even the overflow from the overflow car park was full and there was no remaining space to squeeze into on the adjacent roads.  Our only option was to find a parking spot in the nearest town and then walk back into the National Park.  The idea, however, of walking from town to the Visitor Centre, riding a shuttle bus for several miles, walking to a trail head, and then undertaking a hike through a river, to then do all of that in reverse, was anathema to our kids.  I understood their perspective but still it was completely frustrating to not be able to fulfill one of our plans and to not feel as if we had properly experienced Zion.  I also confess that it made me feel a bit anxious – often the corollary of my control freakery – that we had been in Zion but would not have a Zion stamp in our passport.

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Not much further along the road, we decided to pull over in a place called Virgin so that we could regroup and decide how to portion out our day, given the massive and unexpected change of plans.  The place we happened to pull off the road turned out to be a restaurant (though that was closed), gift shop, and petting zoo.  The younger boys decided they wanted to visit.  Well, why not?  The gift shop was entertaining to poke around in.  It reminded me a little bit of junk shops I used to visit as a child, sifting through the shelves in the hopes of uncovering treasure.  After a bit of rummaging, we picked up our share of carrots and headed out to the petting zoo.  There were llamas, ponies, and donkeys to feed and all of the animals were very friendly and allowed the boys to pet them.  The whole outdoor area was set up like a wild west frontier town so the boys also enjoyed pretending to be in jail, barging through the swing doors of the saloon, and sitting in a covered wagon.  It wasn’t remotely on the list of possibilities of things to do in the area but it was a little slice of Roadside America that perked up the boys’ moods after the frustrations of Zion.  We could then proceed with the rest of our day’s travel and pit stops in brighter moods.

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Road Trip 2017 #16 – Bryce Canyon

We decided that for once we would permit ourselves to sleep past 6am and would chill out in the morning so that we could extend ourselves at the other end of the day.  Our first stop of the day, therefore, was for lunch in a town named Panguitch.  Our youngest son selected the diner on the basis that it advertised its “homemade pies” – though we ended up not eating any.  The diner was pleasant – rough wood, chalkboard walls, booths separated by corrugated metal sheets, rustic in a fresh way – but the food turned out to be only middling and the service was lacking.  It did, however, give me the opportunity to learn a bit more about Panguitch.  Butch Cassidy apparently grew up nearby but more fascinating was the story of the Quilt Walk.  The Mormon settlers found themselves lacking food to see them through a hard winter (they can get snow on the 4th of July there) so dispatched a group of menfolk to go and fetch some food from another town.  When the oxen could not get any further on the journey, the men took to their feet and found the only way they could proceed was by placing a quilt on the ground, walking over it, placing another on the snow, walking over it, ad nauseum until they reached their destination.  Incredibly, they made it back to town with food and saved the day.

Fuelled for the day, we headed along the road towards our next National Park: Bryce Canyon.  We travelled on “scenic byway 12”, an “All-American Road”.  I can testify that it was indeed a very scenic route as it took us past blazing red rocks and the Dixie National Forest.  We did not arrive at Bryce Canyon until almost 3pm and we stopped in to the Visitor Centre to get our passport stamped, use the restrooms, and acquaint ourselves with what we would be seeing.  We watched a short documentary about the park in a room filled with stuffed animals and the younger boys enjoyed playing in an area that was set up to be a giant prairie dog burrow.  We topped up with water and then we set off for our first hike.

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We decided we would hike the Queen’s Garden Trail as it was supposed to be pretty accessible and showcased a lot of hoodoos.  Hoodoos are what Bryce Canyon is probably most famous for.  To the best of my (limited) understanding, they are tall columns of mixed hard and soft rock formed by the gradual erosion of the softer rock.  The hoodoos at Bryce were eroded through cycles of freezing and thawing.  Between the intense colour of the rocks and all the weird hoodoos, it really is a strikingly weird and utterly fascinating landscape.  I have seen the interesting rock formations in Monument Valley but the geology at Bryce Canyon was something else entirely.

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We headed down the trail and were soon surrounded by this alien landscape.  The advantage of having left it late in the day to undertake a hike was that it was no longer baking hot and also the sun had that late afternoon golden quality to it that really brought out the shades and tones of the rock.  Going down was easy enough as the gradient wasn’t too hard going.  We still took frequent breaks but they were in order to take in the view, take photographs (I took hundreds), and befriend the odd ground squirrel.  Our 10 year old told us the Paiute story of how trickster coyote turned people into hoodoos as punishment for reckless greed which entertained us on our trek.

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Queen’s Garden is so called because there is allegedly a hoodoo that looks like Queen Victoria.  It took a great deal of imagination to see what once have been Britain’s dumpy Queen in the rock formation that greeted us.  Perhaps she had been eroded a bit since the likeness was first claimed.  We walked a little further on and considered doing a bit of the Navajo Trail but, in all honesty, I think that was more because moving forward would postpone ascending back out of the canyon.  But time was of the essence and we knew where we wanted to be at sunset and what we wanted to do before then so we decided to retrace our steps and climb back up to the rim.  Going down was easy but getting back out was much less so.  I could feel the gradient in my knees plus there were no new vistas to distract me.  I was distracted by some beautiful Steller’s Jays who were swooping between trees, their blue feathers glimmering in the light, but by the time I got back to the starting point of the trail, I decided I had had enough of climbing out of canyons for one vacation.

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We hopped back in the car and drove to the furthest point of the park – or at least the furthest point we could reach by car.  The route to Rainbow Point took us along the narrow crest of a ridge.  It was actually a little terrifying, truth be told.  I was glad to get out of the car when we reached Rainbow Point, even if it meant I was just staring at more heights.  There are lots of colour-themed spots in this area of the park (pink, vermilion, grey and chocolate cliffs) plus a site known as Molly’s Nipple.  I am not sure I successfully identified any of the locations but the rocks were definitely interesting for the variety of colour.  It was a pretty majestic scene spoiled only by the fact that one young couple had decided to pose for selfies while balanced precariously on the barrier above the cliffs.  They were giving me palpitations.  We drove the ridge again and stopped off at Natural Bridge.  This is a visually striking natural arch but what my kids liked most about our stop off there was that they were able to interact with a particularly bold raven.  We had been seeing ravens all over the park but, unlike the others, this one showed no inclination to fly away and instead let us get really close to it.

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We arrived at Sunset Point just as we had planned, just before sunset.  The plan was – obviously – to watch the sun setting over this incredible landscape.  There were no vibrant hues in the sky but we patiently waited as the golden glow from the sky slipped across the rock formations until it disappeared entirely.  I enjoyed the restful calm but my kids did not have the required patience.  They instead proceeded to give me repeated Ass-Ma Attacks – the thing that happens when you make your mother hyperventilate by behaving like little asses near precipices and sheer, steep, rubbly escarpments.  In all honesty though, I did expect the sunset effect to be a little more dramatic than it was.  There actually wasn’t as great a contrast between areas of shadow and the areas still catching the fading light as I had anticipated.  However, it was still beautiful because the views were still breathtaking.  At the risk of lowering expectations for forthcoming posts, Bryce Canyon was my highlight of the entire road trip.  I had never experienced a landscape anything like it.  It was completely arresting.

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Road Trip 2017 #15 – Fire and Ammo in Utah

The eighth day of our road trip was rather uneventful as it was really all about repositioning from our base from Arizona to Utah.  It was touch and go whether we were going to be able to relocate to our next vacation rental because the area was in the midst of a raging wildfire, the biggest uncontrolled fire in the country at that point in time.  After reassurance that the particular area had been missed by the fire and that the fire was moving away from there, we decided to go ahead with the plan – albeit with an awareness that we might have to evacuate at short notice.

The troops were getting hangry by the time we reached Page so we pulled over for something to eat.  It had to be something quick so we could get on the road again and it had to be open.  That limited our options.  We, therefore, ended up in Jack in the Box.  That was OK though since none of us had ever eaten in a Jack in the Box before and we could convince ourselves that part of our road trip itinerary was to experience regional fast food.  Page is a strange place.  It was built in the 1950s to house workers who were building the Glen Canyon Dam.  It’s position on Lake Powell, however, meant that it continued to grow because of tourism.  Personally I failed to see the attraction of the place.  It didn’t have much character or charm.  The best thing I could say about it was that it was conveniently located in the middle of nowhere to offer some respite to weary travellers.

Not long after we departed Page, we crossed the border into Utah – a new state to claim for our kids.  When we next needed to stretch our legs and have a break from driving, we pulled into what we took to be a large layby.  What it actually turned out to be was a public shooting range.  It took me a while to absorb that.  As a Brit, I can barely wrap my head around the concept of a shooting range let alone a public one.  And the fact it was open air and barrier free just added to my befuddlement.  We were the only people there so we were entirely safe to get out and stretch our legs.  The kids found the place fascinating.  The ground was completely littered with spent bullets and shell cases.  I am probably not using the correct vocabulary because I know zilch about guns but you get the idea.  My magpie-eyed 11 year old loved all the shiny metal.  It was a bit like a disco floor in the desert sand, the way the metal glinted in the sun.

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Comfort break over, it was back in the car and off for the final leg of our journey.  We knew we were on the right track when we could see the huge plume of smoke from the forest fire on the horizon, like an otherworldly cloud.  We wondered if our chosen route would be blocked but, while side roads were closed, we were able to press on to our final destination: Duck Creek Village.  We had rented a timber house nestled in the woods to be our abode for two nights.  When it comes to preferred landscapes, I find I am always most content when among trees.  It was, therefore, perfect in that regard.  It was otherwise a bit of a weird location, however, as it was too far from anywhere to be convenient but was surrounded by other houses so was not isolated enough to offer that sense of peaceful seclusion either.  In fact, the house across the road from ours had a loud party until the wee small hours on our first night there.   While it was not the perfect vacation property for us (especially since we had just been a bit spoiled in Flagstaff) the kids loved being able to go out and explore in the woods and play around the exterior of the property.  Lo and behold, they managed to find shotgun cases and an arrow.  Ammunition seemed to be the theme of the day.

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Road Trip 2017 #13 – Slide Rock and Sedona

On the seventh day of our vacation, we decided to drive south from Flagstaff and visit Sedona.  We had an incredibly stressful drive there as we ended up on a road that was barely moving.  It turned out the traffic jam was caused by a blasting zone on the road meaning the workers kept having to halt traffic in both directions.  Even when the cars were moving, they were doing so incredibly slowly because a convoy system was in place.  This was because there had been a landslip or massive rockfall.  The road was virtually impassible at that point and was near impossible to drive for its entire length.  The surface was appallingly uneven.  At one point, a ridge of rubble caught the underside of our rental car which caused me peak stress for the rest of the journey.  The powers that be really ought to have closed the road entirely because it was downright dangerous.

Mr Pict and I were, therefore, super glad when we reached our first destination for the day and could finally get out of the car.  We were at Slide Rock State Park in Oak Creek Canyon.  While Mr Pict and I had been to Sedona before, we had never visited this state park so all six of us were experiencing something for the first time.  We were lucky to arrive as early as we did as the car park was filling up fast.  Indeed, when we left, there was a queue of cars all along the road waiting to enter.  We found where all the hundreds of people were when we reached the creek.  The place was absolutely heaving with people.  The lure of the water on such a baking hot day was understandable and Slide Rock turned out to be a fantastic spot for cooling down in the water.  It was the landlocked equivalent of a beach and I probably loved it even more for not having sand.

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We found a spot to set down our stuff and then straight away my four boys were wading out into the water.  The air temperature may have been extremely hot but the water was ice cold.  Since I was merely paddling, I rather enjoyed the fact my feet turned to glaciers as it cooled the rest of me down.  Being entirely immersed in such frigid water, however, was a whole other challenge.  The kids were moving tentatively through the water until, one by one, they slipped and fell with a splash into the water.  That was one method of acclimating to the temperatures I suppose.  Once they had been drenched, it was much easier for them to just let loose and play.

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This area is where the creek gradually descends down bumps and through shallow crevices across the smooth surface of sandstone.  There are, therefore, areas for very shallow paddling with sudden (but visually obvious) deep pools of water, there are shallow gorges through which the water crashes at speed, there are wide, deep pools for swimming, and the steep rocks on either side create opportunities for diving in.  It was like a natural swimming pool full of flumes and diving platforms.  Everyone had an absolute blast playing in the water.  Mr Pict and the older boys had several turns at leaping from the rocks and splashing into the pool below.  They also experienced the rush of coursing down the water filled chutes.  The littlest Pict meanwhile was delighted to befriend a group of butterflies who were resting on the silt between the hot red rocks and the chilly water.

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After a morning of exercise, we were ready for some lunch.  We headed into Sedona, parked up, and immediately found a charming Mexican restaurant called Oaxaca.  We welcomed the shade but even more so we welcomed the hearty, flavourful food.  Once more, I opted for a salad that turned out to be so immense I could not finish it.  Mr Pict and the kids all had more traditional Mexican fare, enchiladas and burritos, and declared that they were delicious.  They then shared some desserts as an extra treat.  After that tasty pit stop, we had a brief wander around that end of Sedona.  There were lots of interesting shops to explore if shopping is your thing.  Shopping is not my thing and it decidedly is not my thing when I have four kids in tow.  We, therefore, didn’t spend long in Sedona.  Besides which, we had somewhere else to go onto that day.

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Road Trip 2017 #12 – Sunset Crater Volcano

We left the Grand Canyon in mid-afternoon and took a different route back towards our base at Flagstaff.  You might recall that I love old abandoned buildings so when, somewhere near Cameron, we drove past an abandoned motel and gas station, I had Mr Pict do a U turn so I could go for a quick explore.  I don’t think the motel had been abandoned too long ago so real decay had not had time to take hold.  However, three of my boys and I had a brief wander around to stretch our legs and have a poke around.  We especially loved the artwork on the gas tanks.

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Our proper detour on the way back was to our fourth National Park of the vacation.  Sunset Crater Volcano is a cinder cone volcano that erupted a little before 1100 AD, which is the most recent volcanic eruption in that plateau.  I have been to many an extinct volcano and one active one (Vesuvius) so far but this was my first ever experience of visiting a lava field – albeit one that had solidified 900 years ago.  We took the  designated trail across part of the Bonito Lava Flow, a trail on the ash at the base of the volcano itself, and it was instantly like being in an alien landscape.  The rubbly, black volcanic rock was definitely different from regular rock (can you tell I suck at geology?) and the whole field – somewhat barren and monochrome – was at odds with the surrounding landscape of trees and fertile fields.  There were a few ponderosa pines growing and even the odd flower but otherwise it was a pretty desolate landscape and I really rather liked that about it.  We had a wonderful time clambering our way across the trail and the younger boys found dozens of lizards which kept them content.

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I wanted to press on a bit further along the road to the Wupatki National Monument to see the preserved pueblos built by the Anasazi and Sinagua people.  I think, after a full day of looking at landscapes, I was desperate for something to do with anthropology, ethnology, just humans.  Mr Pict was the sensible parent this time and suggested that extending our day any further might just lead to a mutiny from the children.  He was right.  The kids looked hot, grubby, tired, and hungry.  I really very much wanted to see the pueblos but reluctantly I agreed to be sensible.  We headed back to Flagstaff, had a nice home-cooked dinner, and the boys lazed in the hot tub while we read on the deck.

Road Trip 2017 #11 – Whelmed at the Grand Canyon

As far as Mr Pict and I were concerned, the showpiece event we had organised our vacation around was a trip to the Grand Canyon.  We had both visited before and been wowed by it and felt the boys just had to see this natural wonder for themselves.

We set off early in the morning (we don’t do lazy lie-ins when on vacation) and soon found ourselves driving through the Kaibab National Forest.  There were wildfire warnings along the whole stretch and some side roads were closed off to cars because fires were actively being fought along that route.  There was evidence of previous forest fires all around us too – trees with their bark turned to blistered charcoal, trees that were nothing more than long, thick stalks with no branches, singed scrub.  There was plenty of wildlife to spot too, however.  We saw deer and elk and I even saw a small mob of prairie dogs.

The Grand Canyon was our third National Park of the vacation but entering it felt like driving into a theme park complex.  The place was jam-packed and we felt lucky to get a parking spot at the Visitor Centre.  We have a National Parks passport which we get stamped at each National Park we visit so we did that and our youngest son signed up as a junior ranger and was given an activity book to fill out.  We also looked at some interesting exhibits about the canyon.  Then we headed out for a stroll to nearby Mather Point.  It’s convenient location means it is most people’s first view of the Grand Canyon and we were no different.  Mr Pict and I were excited with the anticipation of how the kids might react when they first saw the absolutely massive scale of the Grand Canyon for the first time.  Mather Point offers a breathtaking view over the landscape and provides a strong sense of the scale of the place.  From there, you can clearly see all the way across from the South Rim to the North Rim, can appreciate the beauty of all the colourful rocks, can see the mighty Colorado River look like a mere trickling stream in the canyon floor below, and comprehend the vastness of the mile deep canyon.  The kids walked onto the viewing platform area and …. they were whelmed.  They were not underwhelmed but nor were they overwhelmed; they were just whelmed.  Mr Pict and I deflated.  How could they fail to be amazed by this completely stunning landscape?

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The kids perked up when we moved along the canyon a little (in the direction of Cameron) and they were able to view the canyon without crowds of people  – we had the spot entirely to ourselves – and without barriers.  I think being able to get up as close to the edge as they felt comfortable doing (and two of my kids are daredevils in that respect) started to give them some sense of the scale.  It turned out that this was the same spot where, 17 years earlier, Mr Pict and his brother had freaked me out by appearing to stumble off the edge of the cliff into the canyon below.  Of course, what they had actually done was drop down onto a lower ledge but it was a pretty cruel trick.  I was, therefore, understandably on high alert with the four boys and their father being so close to the edge as they peered down into the abyss below.  Indeed, perhaps it was the dry heat plus an incipient cold, but I am going to blame stress and related high blood pressure for the fact that throughout our trip to the Grand Canyon my nose kept bleeding.  Still, despite the opportunity for elevated anxiety, I am glad we got out at that spot to take in the view as it allowed the kids to just relax and enjoy the scenery, to wander a bit, and do their feral things like chasing lizards and climbing trees.

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Our next stop was Grandview and it was busy again.  I stayed at the top of the viewpoint while Mr Pict and the kids headed down a trail into the canyon.  Their report was that it was pretty cool being below rim level and I am sure it was but my fear of heights was just too crippling to let me walk down a narrow trail.  I was much happier just spectating and, oddly enough, felt more at ease once I could not see them anymore.  Even from my elevation, I could see the trace of a copper mine in the canyon floor, a pale patch among the warmer tones.  I got chatting to a ranger and it transpired that the trail the other Picts were taking was the one that mules took when carrying copper out of the mine.

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Safely gathered together again, our final Grand Canyon stop of the day was at Desert View, a point where the canyon starts to meet the Painted Desert.  It was pretty cool to see the landscape divided between the wide cracks of the canyon and the steep walls of a butte.  It was also at this point that we obtained some of the clearest views of the Colorado River wending its way through the canyon.  There is also a Watch Tower at this spot, a welcome little bit of added interest for the Pictlings.  The watchtower, which is essentially a folly, stands near the rim so has spectacular views over the Grand Canyon.  It was built by an architect named Mary Jane Coulter in the 1930s and was inspired by Pueblo buildings.  We first climbed up through the tower.  The interior of the building is decorated with murals in a variety of styles echoing the traditions of local indigenous peoples and I spent some time studying and enjoying these as I circled a central hollow on each floor and ascended each flight of spiral stairs.  The very top of the tower gave us fabulous views out over the landscape so it was well worth dealing with the heights.  There were also great panoramic views to be had from the observation deck.  The kids really seemed to enjoy the watchtower so we at least finally felt like they had engaged with being at the Grand Canyon.  I am hopeful that one day they will really appreciate how impressive the place is, one of the natural wonders of the world.

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House on the Green Hill

The Art Journal Adventure prompt for last week was to use horizontal and vertical elements.  Perhaps it was because I had recently been reading Dylan Thomas’ poem ‘Fern Hill’ to my 11 year old son but the idea of horizontal and vertical lines automatically made me think of fields in a verdant green landscape and a little house nestled beneath a hill.  The idea seemed simple enough but it literally took me a full week to take the page from inception to completion.  Each colour of acrylic in the patchwork landscape represents a quick burst of art action in my daily schedule.  Worked on in such short bursts here and there throughout the week, it took an awfully long time for the page to fill with colour.  Thankfully, once all the painting was done and dry, the finishing touches were completed quickly.  That was just the case of doodling with paint pens while watching the news and drinking a cup of tea one morning.  It was those little details that pulled the page together and made it a coherent, stitched together quilt of a landscape rather than a chaotic mish-mash.

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