Road Trip 2017 #29 – Foggy Morning in San Francisco

We did not have a great start to our final day of vacation.  First of all, we discovered that we could not do online check-in for our flight the following morning because our youngest son had been listed as an “unaccompanied minor”.  Secondly, we could not pull off our planned trip to the Muir Woods.  We expected it to be busy and were not surprised to find the car park was full.  However, on scouting for a parking space on the road, we drove for ages without spotting a single space.  When we finally found a spot, it was so far from the entrance to the National Park that we would have had to walk on the road for well over an hour.  The kids were absolutely not up for walking uphill for over an hour only to walk around another grove of redwood trees.  This was especially frustrating for me since this was the second time I had failed to visit the Muir Woods.  Third time lucky?  Maybe some day.  We abandoned the woods and headed towards San Francisco.

Prior to entering the city, we stopped at a vantage point to see the Golden Gate Bridge from up high.  The famous San Francisco fog was in dense evidence.  Initially it seemed like we would never actually get a glimpse of the bridge.  Then, like a spectre emerging from the mist, a couple of bits of distinctive ironwork emerged.

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That was the aperitif.  Loaded back in the car, we headed across the Golden Gate Bridge.  The boys know the bridge not just as a distinctive landmark but also as a location for many movies.  They were, therefore, pretty stoked to be crossing the bridge.  They were a tad less stoked when we told them we were going to be crossing it again.  On foot.  I have never walked on the Golden Gate Bridge before.  I have driven over it and I have walked under it but I have never walked over it.  It was time to tick that item off the travel bucket list whether the kids liked it or not.  Plus, it was going to be the eleventh and final National Park of our road trip.  It was chilly on the bridge in that way that the damp cold creeps into your pores.  The kids pulled their hoods up and scowled.  The bridge was crowded.  The pathway was divided into a cycling lane and a pedestrian lane.  The tricky part, however, was that when bicyclists travelling in opposite directions met, one bike would end up on the pedestrian side to overtake and all the pedestrians, therefore, ended up even more smooshed into their designated lane.  Consequently, our walk across the bridge was at the pace of a very gentle stroll.  We had promised the kids spectacular views over the bay and city but, alas, the fog was still dense.  We could barely see the iron struts of the bridge let alone views.  The kids scowled even more.  In addition to their other gripes, the 10 year old did not like being up high.  Allegedly.  Finally, just as we were walking back off the bridge, the fog disappeared and we finally got a great view.  We could see the bay, with Alcatraz plonked in the middle, and the skyline of the city.  I am not sure the kids were convinced that it was worth it.

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When we first booked our flights, our plan for San Francisco had been to visit Alcatraz.  Mr Pict and I had taken a tour in 2000 and loved it.  It was an incredible experience and one of the highlights of that particular vacation.  We knew the boys would love it so we went online to book tickets.  There were none.  None.  I guess to visit Alcatraz in July, one has to book a year in advance.  With Alcatraz out of the question and having reduced our time in San Fran down to a single day, we decided to concentrate on Fisherman’s Wharf.  First up: lunch.  Mr Pict and I had fond stomach memories of eating soup from sourdough bread bowls and the kids loved the idea of trying that so we headed to a chowder place.  The eatery itself was pretty basic but the food was utterly delicious.  Most of us had clam chowder but my 14 year old had crab chowder and my 10 year old had shrimp salad.  We all thoroughly enjoyed our food and were replete for the rest of the day because we had essentially eaten the crockery.

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Wandering along Fisherman’s Wharf, we stopped to watch a very impressive one man band perform.  He had an electric instrument, rock and roll twist on the traditional format.  The kids were keen to see the famous bay sea-lions at Pier 39.  Annoyingly, the sea-lions had decided to park themselves on a little floating dock that was as far as possible from the pier which made them difficult to see in any great detail.  Nevertheless, the kids were entertained by watching the sea-lions jiggle around, slipping in and out of the water, and wobbling over each other.

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Road Trip 2017 #25 – Yosemite

Fourteenth day of our road trip and we visited our tenth National Park.  The entrance to Yosemite is just north of Mammoth Lakes so we were able to arrive pretty early in the morning.  We were still at a high elevation at that end of the park and the mountains we passed had snow drifts tucked into their crevices and there were chunks of ice floating on the surface of the water.  We wound our way along the road, past rock faces lashed with small waterfalls and fast running creeks glimpsed through the trees.  Every time we turned a corner, we were met with a new, beautiful, striking vista.  One scene reminded my husband and sons of Rivendell, where some fancy elves live in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies.  We also saw the famous sights of El Capitan and Half Dome but only from the car.  There was no free space to park anywhere close that would have given us the opportunity to get out and have a look.

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Yosemite has been protected land since the time of Abraham Lincoln  – and thanks in large part to my fellow countryman, John Muir – and it really does have that feeling of wilderness to it.  It is also incredibly vast.  We had lots of choices for places to hike to and in the end we plumped for the Yosemite Falls.  It was an easy walk that led us through woodland.  The route was paved the whole way but the younger boys and I chose to wade through some shallow water anyway, just for fun and to cool our feet.  It was not long before we could hear the strong rumbling of the waterfalls and a little further on we could feel the spray even before we could catch sight of the falls.

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Yosemite Falls is the highest waterfall in the park and falls, in two drops, a total of 2425 feet.  Our walk brought us to the bottom of the lower falls where we could watch the water pounding into the pool and flowing out into the creek, hear its roar, and be cooled by its spray.  Despite the noise, despite the crowds, there was something restful about watching the falls, something mesmerising about it.  We spent some time taking in the view of the falls.

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I wanted to cram in a visit to the Ahwahnee Hotel, as it’s interiors were used as the inspiration for some of the decor in the Overlook Hotel, the setting of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’.  As a big fan of the movie, it was a big pull for me.  However, Mr Pict was keeping a better eye on our timings than I was and pointed out that we still had a very long drive ahead of us.  Sadly, therefore, I had to accept that on this occasion I would have to abandon the film nerd bit of our visit to Yosemite.

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The drive north was indeed long.  Long and boring.  Boring largely because it was relentless.  The landscape outside the car was actually fairly interesting, so it was not like the cabin fever boredom that sets in when driving through featureless desert.  There were rolling hills, golden grasses dancing in fields, and clouds in the sky.  Actual clouds.  I think they were the first clouds we had seen on our entire road trip.  Our route took us up and down steep mountains, on twisting roads, through areas devastated by wildfires with trees turned to charcoal.  What we did not pass was anywhere we could stop to eat.  By late afternoon we were ravenous but the only towns we passed through were too tiny to have a grocery store or place to eat.  This was not good planning on our parts.  We had water and the kids had access to some snacks but we were hungry enough that the cranky moods were kicking into gear.  The long stretches of nothingness somehow seemed longer because of our hunger.  We passed through Calaveras County, a place I had heard of because of Mark Twain and his jumping frog.  Having heard of it, I had some hope we would pass through a place big enough to at least have a convenience store we could grab some sandwich fixings from.  Alas, no.  We must have been in the depopulated part of the county.  We kept on trucking.  Finally, we reached civilization in the form of a truck stop.  We ate there – nothing special but we were grateful all the same – and then headed to our sleeping quarters for the evening, a hotel just north of Santa Rosa.

Road Trip 2017 #22 – Manzanar

Travelling north from Death Valley, we stopped in at Manzanar.  We felt it was important to connect the boys to a tangible reminder of how ugly and inhumane a great democracy like America can allow itself to become.  Manzanar was one of ten camps where Japanese-Americans were interned during the Second World War, having been forcibly removed from the communities they were residing in.  Being the best preserved, it has come under the protection of the National Park Service.

We started in the exhibition area that adjoins the Visitor Center.  The displays were informative and engaging and really helped the boys grasp what had happened in wartime America and what unchecked intolerance can lead to.  They were staggered to learn that even Japanese American soldiers, returning from fighting for America, were subject to abuse simply because of their heritage.  They could not comprehend the degree of prejudice that would lead to a democracy legislating in order to subject men, women, and children to such treatment.  They understood the history and the placement of Manzanar in a wider context of historic examples of a nation legislating in favour of intolerance but they could not comprehend the inhumanity.  Sometimes it is simply impossible to explain hate.  Because they could most relate to it, they were most moved by the section dedicated to the history of children in the camp.  These children included orphans who were removed from institutions and relocated to the camp because somehow tiny orphaned children were seen as a threat to national security because they happened to have Japanese heritage.  All of the exhibits were incredibly emotive.  It was impossible not to be moved.  It was impossible not to be provoked into asking questions.  How did people allow this to happen?  What do we need to do to ensure it can never happen again?

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Most of the fabric of the camp was destroyed in the couple of years immediately following its closure.  An attempt at erasing the past, perhaps.  What we saw when we stepped outside, therefore, was really a reconstruction of some of the huts and an indication of where the others would once have stood.  We found we were walking around in almost complete silence as it seemed neither we nor our fellow visitors could find the ability to absorb what we were taking in and articulate our response.  The huts had been furnished to illustrate how the internees lived.  It must have been so horrendously difficult to go from living in private houses to living in these flimsy bunk houses with little or no privacy.  Further, the temperatures during the warm months must have been completely awful and in winter they must have been bitterly cold.  The furnishings and personal items in the reconstructed huts really breathed life into the place.  It brought the political and national history of the place into personal, individual focus.  Seeing a tiny pair of shoes tucked in beside a bedstead has rarely been so poignant.

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The last location we visited at Manzanar was the cemetery.  I think I read that over 140 people died while held at Manzanar.  Most were buried elsewhere but a few were interred on site.  The remains of many of those were then relocated after the camp was closed in 1945.  I love cemeteries.  They are among my favourite places and I always feel comfortable when wandering around a cemetery.  This cemetery, however, was haunting not because of the dead but because of its wider context.  The whole of Manzanar was haunting.  It was just that the isolated cemetery, scratched out of the desert dust, the snow capped mountains looming in the background, seemed to encapsulate the utter awfulness of Manzanar.  Never again.

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Road Trip 2017 #21 – Death Valley

The twelfth day of our summer vacation began with our eighth National Park of the road trip.  Death Valley straddles Nevada and California, a vast expanse of desert on the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.  Of all of America’s National Parks, it is the furthest below sea level and also holds the records as being the most dry and the most hot.  It actually holds the record as having had the hottest temperature ever recorded on the planet.  That temperature was 134 degrees.  Not my ideal environment but we could not complete our horseshoe route around the southwest without taking the boys to such an (in)famous place as Death Valley.  It gained its name from some folks travelling to California as part of the Gold Rush took what they thought was a shortcut from the trail and ended up staggering their way through the valley, barely surviving.  Ideal place for a wander then!

Our first stop was at Zabriskie Point.  This area was once an ancient lake so its geology is all about sediments.  I assume that these sediments along with ashy layers from volcanic activity account for all the variations in colour in the tooth shaped peaks there – but I have a brain that doesn’t do geology so I may be wrong.  The elevation gave us a great perspective on the parched landscape and was useful in helping us point out to the boys area of salt flats and places where mines had once operated.

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When we pulled into the Visitor Center at Furnace Creek, the building’s thermometer announced it was 114 degrees and climbing.  There were also signs posted all over the place warning people not to hike as it was simply too hot to be safe.  You know it’s bad when the National Parks Service is warning people to not use its resources.  The first thing we did there was to avail ourselves of the cold water from their fountains to glug down and refill our water flagons.  Refreshed, we decided to take full advantage of their air conditioning so we had a thorough nose around the museum.  This was an exhibition about life in Death Valley – its geology, of course, but also its wildlife, the Timbishu Shoshone way of life and their legal victories to reclaim land rights, the history of European settlement and of borax mining.  What my younger boys most enjoyed was an interactive exhibit that challenged them to design, using various body parts, the uber desert creature by thinking about adaptations that would be advantageous in such a harsh environment.  We had to burst a gut laughing when most of their imaginary animals either looked distinctly phallic or like winged testicles.

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We left the air conditioned sanctuary of the Visitor Center and continued along the road.  Only I, however, opted to get out of the car at the next stop.  I thought it was an easy hop, skip, and jump to snag some interesting photos but it was so searingly hot by that juncture that even my twenty minutes round trip walk felt incredibly uncomfortable.  The spot in question was the Harmony Borax Works.  This was where borax was mined from the early 1880s and for just that decade.  The works were famous for its “twenty mule team” that hauled the borax overland to the railroad at Mojave.  On a day when I could feel myself slowly turning to dust in the intense heat, it was hard to believe that people had actually managed to live and work in such an inhospitable place.  It must have been particularly gruelling for the Chinese immigrant workers who lived in tents in the surrounding landscape.  I was able to see the ruins of the works and an example of a mule wagon before scurrying back to the car and being ever so grateful for water.

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The heat was even more intense by the time we reached Stovepipe Wells and the sand dunes of Mesquite Flats.  It was actually unbearable and again I wondered how anyone – whether indigenous people or mining immigrants – had ever managed to survive in Death Valley.  Clearly they were much hardier than I am.  Though we didn’t spot any mesquite plants, there were creosote bushes galore.  There was also a large, dead-looking tree that my kids were longing to climb up but a coach load of tourists were doing just that very thing, taking turns to pose for photographs, and the kids were too hot to wait patiently for a turn.  Instead, they kicked around the dunes for as long as they could stand the heat – which was not very long.  It was time to leave Death Valley before we cooked.

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Road Trip 2017 #18 – Lake Mead and Hoover Dam

After lunching in Utah, we crossed the border into Nevada.  Too early to check into our hotel, we actually drove straight through Las Vegas and headed towards the Hoover Dam.  Our route took us past Lake Mead and Mr Pict decided to be spontaneous and head to the beach.  The air temperature was at least 110 degrees and the water temperature of the lake was apparently 83 but the kids were up for the idea so I went with the flow.

Lake Mead was created by the construction of the Hoover Dam and is apparently the largest reservoir by volume in the country.  I suppose that is what is required if you are going to have people build cities in the desert.  The majority of its water comes from snow melt and, strangely enough, it experiences a lot of drought and has not been at capacity for over 30 years.  Of course, if the water level dropped too low then the Dam would cease to function so all sorts of engineering has gone into preventing that from happening.  An awful lot of resources go into allowing cities to continue existing in the desert.

Lake Mead might be a National Park but it definitely lacked the facilities and polish of all the other National Parks we had been to.  It reminded me a lot of the lake we had visited in West Virginia last year.  That wasn’t a good thing.  The surface was so bad I thought our car axle might break from driving on such uneven roads and then the beach was rubbly, grubby, muddy, and messy.  Nevertheless, the kids quickly changed into their swimming clothes and merrily galloped into the water.  Mr Pict and I stayed on the shore and did not even paddle our feet.  It just looked so gross.  Our feral kids didn’t seem to mind the mudlark quality of their experience.

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When we reached the Hoover Dam, the air felt like a constant blast from a hot oven.  It was pretty grim.  Our kids actually had zero interest in visiting the Hoover Dam.  None whatsoever.  When I last visited the Hoover Dam, it was possible for tourists to drive across it.  That is no longer permitted, for understandable security reasons, so wasn’t a compromise we could offer the kids.  Instead we had to park up and then walk along the crest of the Dam.  Trying to persuade the kids that they wanted to spend some time in the baking, parched heat to see a work of engineering they had no inclination to see was a bit of an ordeal to say the least.  Our parenting is a benevolent dictatorship rather than a democracy, however, so we prized them out of the sanctuary of the air conditioned car and forced them to see the Dam whether they appreciated it now or later.

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The Hoover Dam was famously built during the Great Depression and put thousands of people to work (and killed about a hundred of them).  It created the aforementioned Lake Mead and generates the electricity that allows for cities to exist in the middle of the desert.  It also created nearby Boulder City, founded to house all the workers.  It was a massive undertaking and an amazing feat of engineering involving much engineering but incredibly it was completed two years ahead of schedule.  It is possible to view the Hoover Dam as symbolising good and bad aspects of America: it is large and impresses through its scale; it serves a practical function rather than just being for show; it is all about power; it is apsirational, given that it allowed for the creation of a city in a location where a city had no business being built; it was massively challenge yet was accomplished; and it brought people together in a time of terrible desperation; on the other hand, however, the environmental damage was and continues to be pretty appalling; its creation was disastrous for rural communities, particularly indigenous people, because freedom for some is so often at the cost of freedom for others.

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The kids remained resolutely uninterested in the Hoover Dam.  We were not as fussed about them being impressed with it as we had been about them seeing the Grand Canyon but it is another one to file under “One day they may be grateful”.  Their reaction was more a desultory, “Yeah, it’s big. Can we get out of this heat now?”  The younger boys did perk up when we happened across a memorial to and grave of  a dog who had been the mascot of the Dam.  He accompanied the workers everywhere, he had a packed lunch each day, and chased ring-tailed cats in his free time.  Tragically, one day a worker accidentally drove over the dog as he slept and that was the end of the beloved mascot’s life.

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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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