Road Trip 109: The Angels & Death Valley

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I slept in the next morning, rolling out of bed with sore legs. I’m getting too old for this shit. I decided to take my time and do some writing before heading off to the Hoover Dam. I found a coffee shop and blogged. After overhearing an insufferable conversation between two guys about the lack of fulfillment felt by one of their girlfriends, I made fun of them to Mr. Canada who reminded me that I was in for more of the same when I moved to Portland. Turns out Flagstaff, is a mini-Portland, with more tourists, probably.

I had a long conversation with Lauren, found a Thai place for lunch and asked Google maps to take me to the Hoover Dam.

After the Grand Canyon kicked my ass, I decided to scrap Joshua Tree. It had been a week since I left Lafayette and I was beginning to feel the first strains of road weariness. But I wasn’t skipping Hoover Dam, solely because I wanted to see the big angels. There are two large, very art deco angels near the entrance of the the dam, just before the Visitor’s Center on the Nevada side.

I found my way to a parking place and walked to the dam. It was hot and windy. I loved seeing the subtle details of the art deco design. You could clearly see what parts had been added later, the design a sad attempt to copy the original elegance of the archdam1smitects and designers.

Like the Grand Canyon, the angels did not disappoint. I worshipped them in the only way I know how. I photographed the shit out of them. I sat before them, taking their presence in and watching the reaction of people as they passed by. Some people didn’t even give them a second look. Others timidly touched the gold toes. When I took my turn, I caressed both sets of feet with the hopes and wishes of my future channeling through my hands. A bit silly? Maybe so. I don’t care.

I loved those angels and I’m so happy I got to see them in person.

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I went to the Visitor’s Center and ordered a burger. The tables were packed so I asked a man if I could sit next to him. Turned out he owned a tourist bus business and drove tourists around from Vegas to the East end of the Grand Canyon and the dam. I asked him about the skywalk there. He informed me that photography was not allowed because apparently too many people were losing their cameras and cell phones, hanging over the edge. Why that happened more at the skywalk then at the rim trail….I don’t know. But that settled it for me. I would not be going to the East end skywalk.

Next: Death Valley

I feel like at this time I need to say a couple of things.

  1. The Earth is a fucking weird planet. The landscape of the southwest freaked me out. Rolling hills with dessert vegetation. Jutting edges with stripes of multi-colored rock. Evidence of millions of years of geological history. Mountains with large, round rocks that look like the toys of giants. I didn’t understand it all. Faults and tectonic plates and glaciers and ancient rivers and lakes. It freaked me out. I wanted to go back to school, major in geology, write papers and then maybe it would all make sense.
  1. The mountains are beautiful. Fuck the mountains. Coming from the prairie/swamp land of Louisiana, the rolling hills of the southwest took my breath away. I still stay the drive from Las Cruces to Eager in the Gila Mountains was one of the most endorphin-inducing experiences I’ve ever had. (Ok…yeah….maybe there are more endorphin-endorsing things…..but it was pretty damn awesome.) The mountains in their various settings have their own unique beauty, like they’re living giants looking down on us, born in ancient times. But they are a bitch to drive through. Oh my God, I hate driving in the mountains. The twists and turns are complicated by high winds and spectacular views. You come around a tight turn, feeling like you took it a little too fast, only to be greeted by a breathtaking view. But you can’t take in that view because now you’re free falling down the hill and you have to watch the road like a mother watches a hyperactive toddler. You take your eye off one second and disaster can strike.

 

That’s what I was thinking on the way to Death Valley. It would not be my last time to curse and fear the mountains.

Death Valley was weird and my Element didn’t like it. Some of the views were spectacular, something that was becoming routine on this trip. As I descended into the valley, the temperature rose and a strong, hot wind belted me through the open windows. The highway through the park seemed empty but when I arrived at the sand dunes, the usual crowd of tourist peppered the scene. Our national parks sure are popular.

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When I was driving out, again up and down I noticed the Element was dragging a little. It didn’t want to accelerate. I also thought I smelled something burning. I pulled over and opened the hood. It wasn’t hot. I checked the oil, it was a little low so I added a quart. (Yes, I actually had oil with me.) The radiator wasn’t hot either. I got back in the car, the wind nearly pushing me over. That’s what it is, I thought. This box is trying to go forward on an incline with the wind doing everything it can to make it fly off into the clouds. No wonder it’s struggling. I tried to take it easy on the old girl, taking my time up an incline, and not wearing out the brakes on the decline. I couldn’t wait to get out of those damn mountains. (I never did, really.)

I decided on how much more I wanted to drive and asked Google map to take me there: Ridgecrest, Arizona. As the sun lowered in the sky, it lit up the mountains following me on my left. So often during this trip I was torn between the goal of making good time and not missing an opportunity for good photos. I was in such a predicament when I gave in to my impulse and pulled over the side of the road. Not wanting to be rude to my fellow travelers, I pulled farther right of the road. I took out my camera and snapped a few pics, then got back in to pull away. The tires spun in the sand. Fuck. I tried again. I tried reverse and first gear. I was just making it worse. I got out and dug in the sand, hoping to remove it from behind and in front of the tire that was stuck. It didn’t work. A long line of black jeeps sped by, not bothering to stop to see if I needed help.

I got a couple of bulletin boards out from the back of my car and stuck them under the tire, as I had seen my ex-husband do with pieces of wood in the mud. It didn’t work. I wasn’t panicking yet. I was right on the edge of panic. I saw another jeep coming my way and put out my arms, waving. When the jeep passed me by, I put up my hands in a “Really? Nothing?” gesture. The jeep stopped and turned around. I clapped my hands as a display of gratitude. An older man got out and assessed the situation. He had a winch on his jeep. Thank God. Another man, pulled up and offered to help, advising the first man that he should probably pull the car out from the back. It worked beautifully. I pulled the element into a safe place and got out to thank both men and the older man’s wife. “We do this all the time,” the wife said. “That’s why we have the winch.”

I continued to weave through the hills and mountains as the sun set, hating the drive more and more as it got darker. I waited to see some sign of civilization as Google maps told me Ridgecrest was 28 minutes away, 19 minutes away…..the minutes going by in a time warp.

I passed through such weird places. The Searles Valley…..a mineral deposit that looked like a white sea of salt. I passed by industrial buildings, lit up and operating with broken windows and decay. Small, boarded up homes and rotting cars. Weird pipelines that jutted out into giant C-shapes. What the fuck am I looking at? I saw a sign that said Trona Pinnacles. I looked it up when I got into a motel room. It’s a site used as a movie set for westerns and space movies. Weird spikes made of minerals. Like I said, the Earth is weird.

Finally, I came over a hill and a valley of civilization opened up before me. I found a Greek restaurant, hoping for a salad, only to be told they were closed when I got there (at 7:30pm on a Saturday night!). Then I went around the corner to a tex mex place and got a surprisingly good plate dinner. I found a place to crash at a cute little, local-owned motel with a big bed and bathroom.

The next day, I vowed to make more progress.

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Road Trip 108: The Grand Canyon

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I made a point to get up early and head out to the east entrance of the canyon as per the advice of my research. Once again the landscape was spectacular and the temptation to stop after every twist or turn was strong. I stopped a couple of times at designated scenic views and when I saw a sign for buffalo jerky. I like buffalo jerky. Buffalo jerky is usually locally made. I pulled over and looked at the other wares for sale at the Navajo-run little market. It was early and they were just setting up. I bought a little pendant piece that was different than the usual tourist stuff I had seen at roadside places.

I finally arrived at the first view of the canyon, the Desert View Watchtower. It was early but the crowd was healthy. I walked up to the viewing ledge and got my first view. It was impressive, even at the smaller end. I spent some time there, trying to pace myself, following the map given to me at the entrance.

The tower itself wasn’t impressive, since it was made as a replica of Native American building technique but was really a frame of metal. But at least they told you so on the little information stand.

I continued on down the road, stopping at recommended viewing sites, the view becoming more and more breathtaking as the canyon got larger. I sought out the Kaibab Trail, also as per recommendations. I looked at the trail on a map. It was only 3 miles. I could do that. I easily and happily began descending, stopping often to admire and reflect and, of course photograph.

Tourists always say they want to avoid other tourists. It’s completely hypocritical of course, but I’m no different. I sometimes try to seek out the path less traveled  or less populated. But in the end, so is everyone else. The canyon was a bit different. I was glad to have people around me. For one, they didn’t disrupt what I had come there to see. No matter how crowded it was, the canyon itself was devoid of people. No one could take the view away. Even at viewing sites with crowds pressed against a railing and posing endlessly, all you had to do was stand behind someone, wait a few seconds and take their place and the extraordinary beauty opened up before you. It didn’t matter who was standing beside or behind you.

As I walked down the trail, I watched people of all ages and sizes walking back up. They were hot and sweaty and out of breath. Many were taking breaks and panting. I realized the further I went, the more I was setting myself up for the same fate. I set the timer on my phone for 60 minutes. I wouldn’t walk down longer than that. After about 50 minutes I arrived at a particularly scenic view with a large rock cliff jutting out, inviting poses. Lots of people had stopped there, so I did too. I waited my turn to scoot up to the edge of the rock. I didn’t walk it like others had. I’m too clumsy and I had too much swinging camera equipment on me to risk it. I sat on the edge, feeling the wind on my face and took a long time to soak it all in.

Everyone talks about the Grand Canyon. How you have to see it in person to really grasp the scale and beauty. They were right. It did not disappoint. It was wonderful. I was so happy to be there. I listened to the conversations around me. One woman, sitting just below me, her back on the rock I was sitting on, commented on what a perfect spot it was. “If only we could get some kind of drink service,” I joked. “Like a margarita and good pizza.” She laughed. “That would be better than nuts and water.”

The hike continued down to another view. It was only .3 miles and I couldn’t decide if I wanted to keep going. That walk up was looking more and more imposing. I decided against it and started back up.

My God, I am so out of shape, I thought. I could only make it a section at a time before my heart threatened to burst out of my chest. So, like the others I had seen before, I rested often, drank my water, waited for my heart to calm down then went up a little further. Before I knew it, I had made it back up. I walked over to a shaded, grassy area, removed all my bags and camera stuff and laid down for a few minutes before going back to my car and moving on.

I parked at the Visitor’s Center, cheating a little. The regular slots were all filled up, so I snuck into the RV parking and hit behind a big one. An element is technically a recreational vehicle, right?

The Visitor’s Center is very well designed and pleasant to navigate with lots of big informational panels, a coffee shop, restrooms, gift store and a place to take the shuttle back and forth along the rim trail.

I walked west along the rim, stopping often to soak in a new view and take photos. I wanted to see the sunset at one of the west-most locations, again, based on research, so I walked back to the Visitor’s Center and found the right shuttle to take. I was behind a trio of older people. (I say older….they were in their 60s, I would guess.) I ended up staying with them most of the way and we exchanged information about shuttle schedules and how to get back after the sun went down. It was a bit confusing.

We got off just before Hopi Point, which I think is the last one. I left them and began to meander west. I passed by a perfect viewing area, another rock jutting out, but a young, couple was sitting there, clearly hoping to be alone. A few feet later, I found a similar rock and copied them. I sat right in the middle, faced toward the canyon, took my thinks off and tried my best to give off a “this is my rock” vibe.

The sun was low in the sky and I sat and watched the shadows and colors slowly change across the weird landscape of the canyon. I took pictures and breathed it all in. I thought about mom. She had always wanted to see this. I tried not to cry but did anyway. I wondered what she would think that I had actually made it there. And that I was on my way to move to be with Lauren. I hoped, as I have many times since her death, that she would have been proud of me.

I wanted to listen to music, but my phone battery was dying, so I took the headphones off. I heard the couple next to me bickering. I don’t know if they were serious or just teasing. I overheard, “What do you mean I don’t do things you want to do? When’s the last time you wanted to do something and I didn’t do it?”

How can you argue in such a landscape? I wondered. It reminded me of a line from A Room with a View when the pastor realizes the driver is flirting with his girlfriend, whom he claimed was his sister, and fusses at him. Eleanor Lavish rebukes him, “How can you object in such a landscape?”

How indeed? How could anyone be anything but happy and in awe with that wonder before you, as the sun played with it’s colors and shadows, highlighting one edge than hiding it for another protrusion. It was quite possibly one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen.

Well, besides the sight of freshly boiled crawfish pouring onto a table next to custom made dip and a beer. Nothing beats that.

I put my headphones back on, finding a particularly dramatic song from Pride and Prejudice and allowed the battery to drain itself. It was worth it.

Before the sun hit the edge of the earth, I sought out the proper shuttle pick up stop. I was exhausted and I wanted to be on the first bus back.

As the sun set, more people joined me and when the bus arrived, I grabbed a seat and leaned my head against the window. I was so tired and I still had to drive an hour and a half.

Arriving back at the Visitor’s Center, I had to find the parking lot where the element was in the dark. Then, too I was happy to have lots of people around. I followed the sidewalk to the first parking lot and detected the shape of a lone vehicle. Getting closer, it was my beloved, old Element and I was so happy to see her.

By the time I got back to my motel room, I was pooped. I had considered going back to see the North Rim or even Antelope Canyon the next day but I couldn’t imagine doing that. I had had enough hiking for a while.

Tomorrow, I would sleep in, hang out, write and then go find the Hoover Dam and the giant angels.