Archives For national parks

yellow sign

Our place in Jackson Hole was a motel, and when I opened the door the next morning to grab coffee, it was cold! In the mid-20s, the car windows all frosted. Looming just across the street was a steep ski slope covered in manmade snow. Mtuseni, who’s chilly when it’s below 65, was not gonna be happy! 

In the light of day — and sitting in the little breakfast room past the front desk — I realized this was the same place I’d stayed at when I visited in 1996! That’s crazy. And it just deepened my sense of connection to and affection for Jackson.

The day’s itinerary was the Tetons and Yellowstone. The park is big, so I was debating in my head how to approach it. But my options ended up being limited by that pesky low tire from Tahoe.

Heading out for the day — after making Mtuseni scrape the windshield for his first time ever — I saw the orange warning on the dashboard again. This time it was really low. I searched for a garage to get it repaired, which the guy said would take an hour. After waiting and walking around aimlessly, the guy calls and asks where the tool is to unlock the lug nuts. What!??

Evidently, the car’s prior owner had put locking nuts on the wheels. WTF? Who’s gonna steal tires off a Camry? I’d bought new tires for the trip. The shop never mentioned locking bolts — and they never put the unlocking tool back in the trunk, or anywhere. The mechanics went through the whole car looking for it. The bolts were locked on!

I called the tire place back east; they knew nothing. Thankfully the guy in Jackson said he could cut the nuts and put on new ones. I told him to do it on all four wheels. I didn’t want to deal with this again, ever. 

One good thing I realized later… thank god I never got a flat on the trip. If I’d waited for AAA to come change the tire on an endless prairie somewhere … and then found out the bolts were locked on, well, I would have experienced a new level of losing my shit!

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tetons wide

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So in the end, we lost two hours of the day. I was pissed, but the beauty of the Tetons quickly brightened my mood. They’re so majestic. In 1996, I’d spent the afternoon by an abandoned farmhouse, watching a snow squall blow through the peaks, near a shallow, rutted twin path heading north through the grass — the faded route of pioneer wagons so long ago. I never saw another person. And I’ll never forget that afternoon.

I looked for the farmhouse as we sped toward Yellowstone, but I couldn’t see it. We didn’t have time to stop anyway. Just enough for photos. I’d originally thought about hiking in the Tetons, but we were both freaked out by the bear warnings. You need to be in a group of at least three — and then I guess hope you can outrun your friends as the grizzly devours them! 

Check out our Instagram from the road to Yellowstone!

tetons pair

So glad there was snow on the Tetons! It just adds to their beauty.

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teton river

I just wanted to sit in this spot all day. Sigh.

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As with the Grand Canyon and Flagstaff, I’d forgotten how far it is from Jackson Hole to Yellowstone. I was hoping to do a sweep of the main park loop, through the main area where buffalo often block the road, then a quick hike to Yellowstone Falls, then finish off with Old Faithful. But Mother Nature and the Park Service had other ideas.

At the entry gate, the ranger told us the northern route had already been shut down; parts of the Rockies had been hit with a blizzard days earlier. The rest of the road was set to close for the season on October 15: tomorrow. She said our best bet was to head up to the geysers.

Yellowstone Park is big and sprawling. Unlike Yosemite, where so many sites are close together in the main valley, the key attractions in Yellowstone are separated by long drives through somewhat dull forest. A half hour later, we pulled into the fairly empty parking lot to see Old Faithful spouting off. Luckily it does that frequently, so I wasn’t upset that we caught the tail end of the show.

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old faithful

Old Faithful from deep into our walk. It’s actually better from afar.

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Mtuseni and I walked along the boardwalks. It’s like a moonscape there — but one surrounded by lush hills. Near the hotel lot, a woman jumped out of her car and ran with her camera toward a bison that was grazing. A woman ranger giving a tour yelled, “Lady, no! Get back! That’s a wild animal. He can charge you.” The woman stopped on a dime and sheepishly went back to her car. Mtuseni and I laughed. That ranger did not care about sounding polite: “Lady! No!” How many times does she have to do that during a season? People are so dumb. 

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Lady No!

This munching buffalo didn’t know the drama and hilarity he caused. The woman with the camera got about three feet away from him. “Lady! No! Get back!” LOL. (I zoomed in to get this guy from maybe 50 feet.)

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As we strolled among the the colorful bubbling pools and sulfurous steam, looking at the brittle crust that was off limits, we noticed big blobs of buffalo dung on it. We wondered how those heavy animals could just walk freely on that crust — but humans can fall in and turn into shabu-shabu. We joked that after dark when the visitors are gone, the bison probably relax in the geyser pools like hot tubs, laughing at the silly humans who are afraid to go near them.

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blue pool

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castle geyser

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Unlike in 1996, now there’s an app that tracks when certain geysers might erupt. I saw that Grand Geyser might erupt that afternoon. When we got to it, a bunch of people were waiting. But the potential window was about 90 minutes, and there was no guarantee: it’s a geyser, not a train. I wasn’t gonna sit there for nothing.

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grand sign

Mother Nature doesn’t give a guarantee on these things, and I wasn’t gonna sit and wait for nothing.

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So we kept following the path deeper into the geyser field. It’s a long, meandering boardwalk. We saw a few other smaller geysers erupt along the way. Mtuseni was pretty enthralled. At one point I turned to say something to him and saw Grand Geyser behind him start to erupt. I yelled, “Oh my god, it’s going!”

And then so did Mtuseni. He took off like a shot, running back toward the geyser. I trotted along behind, wanting to skip the meandering boardwalk curves and run straight across the crust of death.

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mtu geyser self

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It lived up to its grand name, spouting for a good 15 minutes with double jets. It’s better than Old Faithful, because you can get closer to it, and it creates a river of steaming water that flows under the boardwalk. It really is amazing. Later I watched Museni’s run to the geyser, which he captured with the GoPro and narrated continually. It’s hysterical. I’ve never heard someone say “wow” so many times.

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geyser river pair

This was the first day I had to pull out a winter jacket. A big change from the sticky, stifling September days in the South!

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When the show was over, we walked along another section of boardwalk. I wanted to show Mtuseni the stunning lobby of the historic hotel there, but it was already closed for the season. It felt a little bittersweet. We’d spent weeks in blazing heat and humidity at the start of the trip — and now places were closing down for winter. I felt the clock ticking…

I also knew this was our last really impressive sight to see for a while; there’s nothing spectacular in the Great Plains. But we were rewarded with a stunning view across a valley toward snow-capped peaks that seemed to be floating. It was breathtaking, and I knew we wouldn’t see any more snow on the trip.

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rockys lst shot

On the road out of Yellowstone. I had to get out and take this photo; there’s wasn’t even a turnoff! It’s like a glimpse of heaven.

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tetons fading

So long Grand Tetons. Till next time. (And I will be back!)

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We grabbed a few last dusky shots of the Tetons then headed back to Jackson. We had dinner at the historic Silver Dollar Bar, where brave Mtuseni ordered the bison chili. Actually, he’ll eat anything that’s meat. The place was packed, with TV screens showing baseball playoffs and a Monday Night Football game. Sports nuts Mtuseni tried to watch both… and learn the games. But he still preferred soccer.

The raucous atmosphere and sounds of football on a chilly night made it really feel like fall — and a good wrap to the adventurous part of the trip. I was dreading the days ahead of driving through flat nothing… and leaving my beloved West in the rearview mirror.

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cowboy bar

My old boyfriend in San Francisco used to call me cowboy. This place in Jackson brought back happy memories of him and those younger days. Damn, how quickly time flies.

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valley sunse

After the disappointment of the Bay Area, I was excited to get to Yosemite — one of my favorite places in the world. I went there often during my San Francisco days. But I hadn’t been in over 20 years. I couldn’t wait to bask in the magic of this natural wonder — and to share it with Mtuseni.

I love the drive from the Bay Area to Yosemite. On the southern route from San Jose, you cross the flat farmland of the Central Valley. After a couple hours, you notice a few rocks and some grassy bumps — then bigger rocks and small hills. You’re gradually, almost imperceptibly climbing into the foothills of the Sierras and then into the mountains.

Along the northern route from San Francisco, you also drive straight across the Central Valley. But then suddenly you come to a steep, narrow road of hairpin turns, where you quickly rise in elevation, like a twisty elevator. Bye-bye valley; we’re in the Sierras now! 

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sno whites

I was so happy to see Sno-White’s is still around — so many memories of stopping in for a thick cheeseburger and classic crinkle-cut fries.

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That’s my preferred route. Not only because it’s more fun and familiar — but because you get to stop at Sno-White’s… a classic car hop from 1952, with perfect cheeseburgers, thick shakes, and crinkle-cut fries. So. Damn. Good.

I discovered the place in the 1990s on a ski trip to Yosemite with a kooky friend who’d been there before. As we walked in for the first time, she inhaled deeply and happily announced, “Ahhh, smell the grease! It’s fresh grease!” I will laugh about that ’til the end of time.

Unfortunately, this time we were there too early; it wasn’t open. But in this era of nostalgic old places closing left and right, I was happy and relieved to see that Sno-White’s is still there.   

Driving across the Central Valley I could smell smoke; there were fires burning everywhere in California. I didn’t think too much of it… until we were descending into Yosemite Valley and I could see the haze. It wasn’t thick, but it was there. We pulled off the road for a quick photo by the Merced River. Out of the car for five minutes, I slipped off a rock and got one of my shoes soaked. I’ve never been an outdoorsman, but that was pretty ridiculous. Luckily I had multiple pairs of shoes!

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merced river 1

Less than five minutes inside the park, I slipped off this rock and submerged my shoe. Nobody has ever mistaken me for an outdoorsman!

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Following my itinerary for everyone I’ve taken to Yosemite, we first headed up to the famous tunnel view of the valley. And, sure enough, the smoke from a fire in the Sierra foothills obscured that iconic view. You could barely make out Half Dome. That introductory “Oh, wow!” factor was not to be.

mtu valley view

The Merced wildfire filled the park with smoke, spoiling the iconic tunnel view of the valley. Half Dome is in the center — lost in the haze.

We then headed down to Bridalveil Falls — which I knew in October would be a wisp, if anything. Still, Mtuseni was excited to see a waterfall. And just being out in the grandeur of Yosemite … you can’t not be swept up in the natural beauty. 

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bridalveil duo

Bridalveil is always a wispy waterfall. We were lucky to see any water in October!

From there we stopped to gape at El Capitan. I’ll never forget seeing it loom up on us for the first time on a trip with an old boyfriend in 1991; we were awestruck. You can’t explain the sheer scale of that 3,000-foot tall granite monolith. You just have to stand in its presence. 

Then we parked and headed on the trail to Vernal Falls, completing the classic first day visit. It’s a paved trail with some steady elevation, not much. I’d buzzed up there so many times I didn’t think about it. So I was stunned to be huffing and puffing halfway up the trail. I even needed to stop and catch my breath a few times. I was disgusted with myself! How could I be so out of shape?

Then I remembered: On prior visits, I was living in San Francisco. I walked five miles … and many steep hills … every day; I didn’t own a car. And I was in my 30s — not rounding the corner to 60! Plus, I’d been going nonstop on the road trip and sitting and driving for more than five weeks. And the valley air was laced with smoke. Those are all perfectly rational, valid excuses — but I was still bummed out. It was the age thing that bothered me most of all.

Mtuseni zoomed past me and went straight up the Mist Trail to the top of Vernal Falls and the Emerald Pool. I kicked back at the base of the falls — which was also pretty minimal compared to its roaring springtime state. I was just happy being there and remembering past visits with different people. Back in my youth. 

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Vernal Falls in Yosemite.

Vernal Falls is like a mini Niagara in the spring. But Mtuseni wasn’t disappointed by the meager autumn falls. Everywhere you look in Yosemite there’s beauty.

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View from the top of Vernal Falls in Yosemite.

The view from the top of Vernal Falls. I only made it up there once, when my boyfriend cajoled me into climbing the precarious Mist Trail. (It was terrifying, but worth it.)

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After returning from the falls, we stopped in the valley meadow to gaze at Half Dome. Normally as the sun begins to set, the flat face of the granite monument glows with gorgeous color. But not when the valley is hazy with smoke. I was disappointed, but thankfully my spirit tree was still there: the lone California oak reverently keeping watch over Half Dome.

I’ve sat by that tree so often, in various states of mind, alone and with others. There’s something sacred about that tree; we have a relationship. Like Sno-White’s, I’m happy and grateful to see it’s still there. I was surprised that it’s gotten much bigger. (Duh, it’s been over 20 years!) But thankfully the tree’s distinctive shape hasn’t changed. It’s been waiting for me to stop by and say hello. We had a nice little talk.

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Half Dome from the meadow in Yosemite Valley

My spirit oak tree in the meadow, keeping watch over Half Dome. The National Park Service may have a different opinion, but that tree is mine. Just sayin’.

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Our hotel was outside the park, past the southern gate. I’d hoped to get a room at the historic Wawona Hotel, where I’ve stayed many times. It’s part of my Yosemite ritual: having coffee on the broad porch to start the day and dinner in the stately old dining room with the tall paned windows. Alas, it was all booked up.

I stopped by to see if we could have dinner. It was full, so I made a reservation for tomorrow. Just being in the lobby, steeped in classic old resort history, I was flooded with memories and happily choked up.

But on the way to the Wawona, we encountered something I’d never seen before in Yosemite. Or anywhere. The smoke from the wildfires west of the park — the source of all that damn haze — created the most stunning sunset. Cars were pulling off the road everywhere to marvel at this breathtaking event. 

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Sunset from the Wawona Road in Yosemite.

The setting sun shone blood red through the wildfire smoke. This looks like a piece of collage artwork… but it’s real.

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As I’ve always said, Yosemite never disappoints. We may have had a hazy view of Half Dome, but the gods traded us up for an epic sunset. And we still had two more days ahead!

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sunset wawona road

 

 

Me Canyon 1989 wide

Purple socks? And a pink stonewashed shirt? Someone should have thrown me over the side! Well… it was the 80s.

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After one month on the road, we reached one of the country’s most breathtaking sites: the Grand Canyon. I was here 30 years earlier on my drive to the West Coast. Funny, I didn’t remember it being such a long trek from Flagstaff! In my memory it was like 20 minutes, but it’s over an hour. 

There’s not much you can say about the canyon. No words can truly capture what the place is like; you just have to see it. Mtuseni didn’t have much idea of what to expect. Like every first timer, he was awed.

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canyon tower

Inside the observation tower at the eastern lookout along the canyon’s South Rim.

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tower view

View from the observation tower. Probably one of the few elevated views you can get.

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selfie pair

 

After a stop at the observation tower lookout, we headed to the main parking area. Everything was much different than my first visit, with a huge new visitor center and many parking lots. I was stunned at how packed it was in late September; I almost couldn’t find a parking spot in the farthest lot!

Strangely, the visitor center didn’t have paper trail maps. We couldn’t find one anywhere. Sometimes the government just insists on demonstrating its incompetence. Did nobody in the park planning staff say, “Shouldn’t we have places for visitors to pick up a map?” Years ago I worked with federal agencies on communication projects. The “fog of bureaucracy” often steamrolls over logic and common sense. Not until halfway through our hike along the rim did I find a map — in a little gift/bathroom shed.

 

mtu rock

I didn’t join Mtuseni on the rock lookouts. I told him I’d stay back and get photos from a distance to provide context. (He wasn’t buying it.)

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mtu rock open

See… context! No way in hell was I going out on that rock!

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While Mtuseni scampered all over the place getting photos from perilous locations, my fear of heights went into overdrive. I was freaked out even on the paved rim trail. For many people with agoraphobia, it’s not a fear of falling but a fear of being compelled to jump. It’s as if high places show you how fragile our hold on life is. At any moment we can lose control and just end it all. Still, it’s weird. I don’t have fear of sticking my finger in a light socket or lying down on a train track — though these situations present themselves every day. 

Years ago I worked with a grad student therapist at a Boston University phobia clinic. Their approach is to expose people gradually to the source of their fears, until they learn to reduce and eliminate the fear response. We’d stand on ever higher levels of a lobby atrium in the business school building. And she’d admonish me for using “safety behaviors” like holding the balcony railing or taking a step away from it. I had to just look around — and down! — and focus on my breathing. Then do the same for homework in other high places. 

Did it work? Maybe. My fear comes and goes. But the crazy thing is that this young woman was from South Africa! Little did I know that five years later I’d meet Mtuseni — who mercilessly teased me for my fear of heights. (I responded by reminding him of his fear of dogs.)

safety

My exposure phobia therapist would have snapped at me for holding on to the railing: “No safety behaviors!” In my twisted mind it kept me from being hurled into the abyss.

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As long as I kept at a comfortable distance, I could enjoy the majesty and grandeur of the place. And I was happy to see Mtuseni so excited. The Grand Canyon is a quintessential American icon — and certainly not something that most South Africans from the ‘hood will ever see. 

 

mtu sweep 2

“This one is for all my friends to see!”

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Mtuseni took a hike down the Bright Angel Trail — while I fought with my phone for an hour. It had decided to send an alert tone every minute about something stupid — then while trying to stop it, my keyboard disappeared. While I surely wasn’t going down into the canyon, the phone almost got hurled over the side!

That certainly wasn’t a problem I encountered in 1989. I loved pulling off somewhere back then and calling someone collect from a pay phone: “Hi, I’m in Kansas. You can see forever!”  Being disconnected from the world has its charms. 

 

mtu hike

A selfie from Mtuseni’s hike. His GoPro narration is hilarious. He sounds like the host of a nature show… though one who’s a bit winded!

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canyon pair

If someone had told me in 1989 that I’d be back here with this guy, I’d never have believed it. I love how life unfolds!

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We took a shuttle back to the car, then had a stunning sunset-and-moonrise drive out of the park. After another day living on Cliff Bars, fruit, and chips, we stopped for dinner at a brew pub in Williams, Arizona. We grabbed seats at the bar, where people were watching football. The guy next to us was from Cleveland — which I don’t think has won a Super Bowl in decades. He jokingly said he hated me for being from New England. I razzed him a bit and played along, as he’d expect from a Patriots fan — but honestly I could care less about pro sports.

Seeing Monday Night Football on TV reminded me for a minute that it was fall. It sort of situated me in a broader time context. So often on the trip I thought of a line from Joni Mitchell’s song Hejira: “I’m porous with travel fever.” For me, I felt like a sponge, soaking up experiences each day — only to have them all wrung out by the next day’s adventures. I never knew what day it was or where we existed in the larger framework of life. Each day was just… today. I  loved it. And thank god for cameras and our occasional memory dumps into a notebook, or so much of the little things would have been lost.

After dinner we continued on to Kingsman, Arizona. Our motel pool had a guitar painted on the bottom with a Route 66 logo, and old movie stars were painted on the walls outside. I swear I took photos of this stuff, but they’re nowhere to be found. Maybe I just thought I did. Maybe they just vanished. Chock it up to travel fever.

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Me Grand Canyon 89

Last moments at the Canyon in 1989. I could never imagine the life that lie ahead of me over the next decade!

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sunset

Final shot, waiting for Mtuseni to return from his hike. I remembered marveling 30 years ago at how the lengthening shadows highlight the canyon shapes — as they’ve done for millennia.

Painted Desert, Arizona

After a decent breakfast in our lonely motel restaurant, we headed out to the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest. I didn’t have super high expectations; I assumed Mtuseni would be bored. But I’d been here in 1989 on my cross-country drive to California, and I’m really big on closing circles.

What I’m not big on is predicting Mtuseni’s responses. He was totally into it! We spent the entire day here. I didn’t recall the park being so large, and truth be told I zipped through the place 30 years ago. I was doing a drive-away then — and the clock was ticking down for me to deliver the car to its owners. 

It was great to take time to really explore and take photos. We started out in the visitor center, where we found a woman in the lab clearing soil away from a dinosaur fossil, using a giant magnifying glass and tiny brush. I was thrilled and fascinated. I’d always wanted to be an archeologist as a kid. It’s like finding buried treasure for work!

I grilled the woman with questions and she showed us all the recent fossil finds in various states of documentation on the office tables. I could have stayed there for hours. I don’t know why I didn’t get any photos. I thought I had. But the experience will always stay in my mind. 

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cactus

A cactus outside the visitor center. Why didn’t I get photos of the dinosaur fossils in the lab?

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From here we headed out to see the colors of the Painted Desert. The entire time I had the first few lines of the 10,000 Maniacs song running through my head. Here it feels like the space of the Southwest really opens up. The endless sweep of empty land always draws me in, and I want to walk across it to the far-off horizon. Knowing my outdoor and survival skills (which add up to zero), I’d probably die from a rattlesnake or scorpion or dehydration in 20 minutes! But I still feel compelled to explore that forbidding space. 

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Mtu Paint Desert cliff

 

desert shack

I always wonder what kind of life and activity occurred in abandoned buildings long ago. Sadly, this place is about the size of Mtuseni’s family’s shack in South Africa.

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We continued along the park road to the Petrified Forest. Along the way we stopped at an overlook to see Newspaper Rock, covered in petroglyphs by people who lived in the area up to 2,000 years ago. (I thought I took photos, maybe I was delirious from sun stroke.) 

The park road crosses old Route 66. You can see its ghostly outline heading across the barren land, parallel to the highway. I explained to Mtuseni how this was the road people used to traverse the country long ago, and how Route 66 is an American icon. Evidently, some cars didn’t make it!

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Mtu desert car

An old car at the Route 66 marker. It reminds me of Bonnie and Clyde’s car!

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It’s always fascinated me that much of the American West was wet long ago — like ocean wet. To see these huge, ancient fallen trees in a land where now scrubby bushes and grasses barely grow, gives you a window into the passage of time — big time! 

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Pet Forest logs

 

forest sign

 

Pet forest log mtu

 

log trail

Logs of stone strewn across the trail — the shadows of an ancient forest.

 

log rings

Since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated how you can tell a tree’s age by counting the rings. Here the rings have turned to quartz. Doubly fascinating!

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The park is as empty and desolate as the land: No cafes or snack bars along the route. We lunched on energy bars and water. I couldn’t believe we had to hustle to the exit gate before the park closed; I really thought we’d spin through in about two hours.

It was a simple, mellow experience of just appreciating an ancient, silent landscape. It felt healing and sacred and pure. Again, that mysterious energy of the Southwest. It was a good day. 

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Pet forest log pair

 

After a quick pop into the gift shop, we headed off to Flagstaff for the night — grabbing supper at a Love’s truck stop along the way.  If I’m ever abducted and my captors want to torture me for information, all they’ll have to do is show me a foot-long tuna sub from Subway and I’ll squawk like a bird. If I never eat one of those again, it’ll be too soon. 

Checking into our hotel after dark, Mtuseni went right to sleep as usual. The kid sleeps like a newborn. I walked across the street to a shopping plaza — mainly to take in the crisp, cold night air. After weeks of late summer heat, this was the first feel — and smell — of fall. Once again, I was reminded of time passing.   

 

desert train

A freight train crossing the desert always gets me. Maybe because my grandfather worked the railroad in the 1930s. Or maybe I was a hobo in a past life.