Friday, December 26, 2014

Southwest Road Trip

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Almost exactly 2 months after returning to the US, at the end of September, we headed out again for a much shorter trip.  We were driving towards San Diego via the Grand Canyon.  We planned about 2 weeks away from ‘home.’  Our renter was still paying our mortgage and then some, and neither of us were quite ready to settle down.  It seemed like a perfect time to get one last visit in to our close friends in California while we still had the luxury of time to spare.  We left heavy rain and flash flood warnings behind us in the plains, and headed over the Rockies, which had an early dusting of snow amongst the turning aspen. 
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It was also a little surreal at the time to be travelling again, but feeling a bit like foreigners in our own country.  We really saw the “super” in supermarkets.  Food was plentiful and we could usually find an inexpensive option. Hotel reviewers were upset about what seemed to us like trivial details (you can take a hot shower and brush your teeth with the tap water—what’s with the 2 star rating???).  Traveling in the US again was so different compared to our first road trip.
We settled back into Road Trip Mode fairly easily, armed with a jar of peanut butter, a loaf of sliced bread, a can of Pringles and some good music.  Our plan was to drive down to the Grand Canyon via Arches and Monument Valley, then swing through Phoenix to visit a friend before heading west to San Diego by way of Joshua Tree, Palm Springs, and the Salton Sea.
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It felt both wonderful and strange to be wandering again.  We had a tight budget, and a smaller amount of time we could take for this wandering road trip.  But we had completely recovered from being travel weary and jaded, and it felt exciting to be planning where to go, stay, and eat.  We spend the first night in Grand Junction, after just a half day of driving (mostly because hotels there were half the cost of anything in driving distance of Moab).  The next morning we set off early for Moab.  The heavy rainfall in Colorado had hit the Western slope as well, and we saw signs of recent flooding in Colorado and Utah.  The bulldozer below had been used to clear a thick layer of red silt/mud off the highway a day or two earlier.
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The Green River had flooded as well, and was still running very high for this late in the year.  There were several sections of road that had recently been cleared of mud flows here as well.
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We drove into Arches National Park at the same time as a group of vintage cars.  One of the old Jaguars stopped with us at the trailhead to the Windows, which we hiked out to.
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We drove through Monument Valley to Flagstaff, Arizona, where we spent two nights, devoting the day between to visiting the Grand Canyon.
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Since school had already started, we didn’t have large crowds to contend with; there were a few foreign tourists, but mostly retired couples.  David snuck a quick shot of Cookie who was blissfully looking into the wind, completely ignoring its owner camera right, who was calling its name (hence, how we knew it), trying to get a portrait.  We felt as happy as Cookie to be “off the leash” and enjoying the wind in our hair. 
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We were also on our guard, if amused,  by the warnings about squirrels and the plague.  Those squirrel bites look pretty nasty.
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The Canyon itself is stunning, if a little hard to take in and fully appreciate due to its, well, for lack of a better word—grandness.  It’s massive and it goes on nearly as far as the eye could see.  Our experience would have been  quite different if we’d hiked down into the canyon, which we didn’t.  We hiked along the South rim for a ways, but didn’t descend.  We’re saving that for another day, perhaps.  At any rate, if you aren’t going to actually to in to the Grand Canyon, you can pretty much take it in from a few viewpoints and then call it a day.   We had a nice picnic lunch overlooking the Grand Canyon and enjoyed a leisurely drive back to Flagstaff for the night.
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We were taken aback by the shelf space dedicated to tanning lotion (brown bottles on the second shelf) in Arizona; granted the selection of sunscreen was also fairly impressive.  We had originally planned to visit a friend in Phoenix, but she’d written the day before to tell us that she had strep and pink eye, and that we probably wouldn’t want to stay with her.  We were sad to miss her, but she was absolutely right.   We pondered the map and our options, and decided to spend the extra night in Palm Springs, instead.
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Our route to Palm Springs took us through Lake Havasu, and then Joshua Tree.  Both pretty in different, and mostly stark ways.  The lake culture in Havasu was fascinating—lots of very tidy mobile homes with dock access to the lake.
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Just outside Palm Springs, we drove through a massive wind farm that was hypnotic, and a little distracting to the driver.  The mix of two and three blade windmills made for some eerie optical effects.  Mid-century modern architecture is very popular in Palm Springs, both original and neo-mid-century.  It’s a remarkably flat city; mostly single-story buildings on a desert plain, with scrub-covered hills for a backdrop.  Our hotel room had a kitchenette, so we made our own dinner and then after dark, walked to a nearby street fair.  It reminded us of the several night markets we’d walked through around the world.  We chatted about how so many things we see remind us of something from the trip; we’re afraid we might sound like a one-track record.  That was a challenge we hadn’t anticipated.  After a year of daily exposure to the new and different, our frame of reference was dominated by our experiences abroad.  Fortunately, our friends appeared patient and interested. If they were otherwise we didn’t know it, and we are grateful that they played along.
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We drove along the western side of the Salton Sea, past miles of date orchards, and finally up into the hills, along curvy roads through Julian before dropping down into San Diego.  Somewhere between Julian and San Diego, our Subaru overheated—the first signs of what we later diagnosed as a doomed (and expensive) head gasket.  Fortunately we were still blissfully ignorant at the time, as that knowledge would have really dampened the rest of our trip.  Instead, we enjoyed 9 days with our friends in San Diego, where we delivered Mr. Bee, our traveling gnome, to young Mr. A, who had been following Mr. Bee’s travel photos.
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It was great to reconnect with our friends, who we hadn’t seen since we stayed with them during Christmas while traveling from South America to New Zealand. Google Hangouts are great, but it’s really hard to have a lengthy conversation with a 4 or 6 year old via video chat.  So we spent a week having chats about ninjas and school friends.  We picked them up from school, went for ice cream at their favorite parlor, and had some serious debate about what pizza to order for family movie night.  We also took some time to travel up to Long Beach to see some of Lana’s friends from grad school, enjoying their company as well as their entourage of kids, hairless cats, a chicken, a cockatiel, and Sherman, their soft-coated wheaton terrier.   By the time we had to head back to Colorado we felt thoroughly relaxed and just a little bit exhausted, the perfect time to head home.
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We got back on the road with some trepidation after our overheating incident in Julian, but our two day drive back to Lana’s parents’ house was uneventful until we were about 8 miles out. We managed to limp the rest of the way, however, if somewhat perplexed as to the cause. In our absence the season had inexorably moved its needle to fall in the mountains.  What would be our final bit of traveling in 2013 was over. We were about to settle back down into pedestrian life. But first we had to finish telling the story.