Monday, November 30, 2009

Biding Our Time in Bandera

The weather is once again having an impact on our travel plans. This time we're being held-up a day instead of being pushed out early as we were a few weeks ago in Nevada and again in New Mexico. A cold front combined with a storm system passing through this area have combined to bring a couple days of cloudy and cold and wet conditions to South Texas. We had expected to leave Bandera and arrive in Rockport tomorrow, Tuesday. But we've extended another day here in Bandera and will now be on the move Wednesday.

Yesterday, Sunday, we took a drive through the Hill Country. Our first stop was good old Luckenbach. We stopped there almost two years ago and found it a friendly, if quirky, place. [journal entry from 2008]  There's an old building that serves as a general store, a saloon, and the Post Office, there's a large dance hall with a stage, and just a few other small scattered structures for restrooms, storage, and such. That's it -- it's not much. What attracts people is the music. Talent from all around the Hill Country and beyond... some good, some great, but all entertaining... can be found performing on stage or maybe just jammin' in the saloon. You'll always find chickens roaming around the grounds and, often, a full-sized longhorn steer that all make up the peculiar but warm and friendly country environment.


We stopped for a beer, a Luckenbach hat, split a BBQ sandwich, and enjoyed some live music from 5 very talented musicians that were nothing short of excellent. It would have been easy to kill the rest of the day there, which is what happened the first time, but we really wanted to get into Fredericksburg and explore that historic town during the rest of the afternoon.

Fredericksburg is just 8 miles from Luckenbach.  It's a town of about 10,000 people that was originally founded by German immigrants in the 1840's. The wide main street through downtown is lined with historic buildings built during the mid to late 1800's. Today, tourism is a big economic driver for the town. We walked both sides of the historic downtown area, poking our noses in here and there, and generally enjoyed the busy sidewalks, shops, museums, and restaurants. The whole place felt alive and vibrant... and very much in the full spirit of Christmas.

What a great afternoon.

Looking forward to making a batch of chili on Tuesday...
Thom

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Brazen Bold Bandera

After a dinner of Thanksgiving Day leftovers here at Pioneer River Resort in Bandera on Friday night, a large group of us headed up-town. One of the great advantages of this RV Park versus some others around town is that we're within easy walking distance to all the action on Main Street. As the self-proclaimed "Cowboy Capital of the World", you can be assured there's no shortage of honky-tonks for all the cowboys and cowgirls who fancy live music, Texas beer, and dancing -- especially on Friday and Saturday nights. The little town can really get rockin.

We sampled live music at two establishments -- Arkey Blues and Blue Gene's. The talent was great and the crowd lively. Dar and I are still trying to get the hang of the Texas Two-Step, an un-natural variation of the simple two-step dance that anyone can do. It seems Texans are born with the innate ability to dance their version without even thinking. Small town boys (at least this one) from the upper Midwest, who know the polka, the waltz, and some modern dances -- all of which I can just feel and move my feet to the beat -- well, I've got a problem making those same feet feel the beat of the Texas Two-Step. Just when I think I'm getting the hang of it my mind wanders, I loose it, and have to start over.

At any rate, we had a great time. Our neighbors at the RV Park are largely from the Upper Midwest and Canada. As a result we think alike, have similar senses of humor, and are all down here for the same reason... we all have a severe snow allergy which is best treated with warmth. So, with so much in common, in just a short few days we've already found another extended family here in Texas. I think we'll be spending more time in Bandera and the Hill Country of Texas in the future.

Working on my Texas Two-Step in Bandera...
Thom

Friday, November 27, 2009

Leftovers

I was not among the throngs of people, whipped into a lather by advertising and promises of big sales, that were headed to the malls and retail stores of America this morning at 5am. We even saw that some stores were opening at Midnight. Sheesh! If fighting crowds and standing in lines is what trips your trigger, I hope you enjoy yourself today. But this consumer is staying home and finding more productive and less stressful things to do.

Our Thanksgiving dinner here at the RV Park was wonderful. About 35 people showed up and there was enough food for twice that number. Isn't that the way it always is with Holiday feasts -- way more food than necessary? So tonight at 5pm, we're all re-congregating at the club house for round 2, Thanksgiving the sequel, Holiday redux, leftovers. Yummm!

Dar is now officially up to date with our online photo albums. After a typical day of exploring she downloads all the photos from the day into her computer. Then she culls the obvious bad ones, selects a subset that will be put in an online album, makes simple enhancements, adds captions, and uploads to our online photo gallery. It takes time to do all that, especially after a day at Zion or Bryce Canyon where there were hundreds and hundreds of images to go through. We were so busy exploring on our way from Washington to Texas, and taking so many photos, that it wasn't possible to stay apace with our travels. But she's all caught up now. If you haven't already done so, and have the time, check out our latest albums.

Day-dreaming about leftovers in Bandera...
Thom

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Day

During the holidays, many fulltimers and "snowbirds" do their best to justify their absence from family holiday gatherings back home, or up north, or wherever. They say the cost, stormy weather, and the hassle of traveling during these busy travel days makes it tough and, often, impossible for them to be with family during the holidays. Dar and I have said the same thing.

There's no doubt about it, missing these family get-togethers is one of the big negatives of this lifestyle. We try to compensate by being with friends and like-minded people wherever we happen to be. We make heavy use of the phone on these days in an attempt to "be there" if not in person, then in voice, as inadequate as that is. But nothing can relieve that gnawing knot of nostalgia that comes from not being with loved ones on these traditional family days of Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Today, we'll be having Thanksgiving Dinner with about 40 others from the RV Park here in Bandera. I'm sure we'll enjoy it and the food will be excellent. But our hearts and thoughts will be back with Family in Wisconsin and Washington.

Happy Thanksgiving Day to you all...
Thom

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Is that Roast Turkey in the Air?

We're going to take part in the Thanksgiving feast offered by the RV Park here in Bandera tomorrow. Everyone who signs up to attend also signs up for a dish to pass. Dar's taking a 3 bean salad that's actually going to be a 4 bean salad, she tells me. I think I'll take a bag of Snickers bars. Enjoying holiday dinner with family would be better, but being with new friends and like-minded travelers in a setting like this is an acceptable second choice.

Things have been slow these past few days, which allowed me to knock a few more things off my to-do list. One of the chores I've been working on is Dar's health insurance for next year. The policy she's currently under, a high deductible policy coupled with a Health Savings Account, went up by $1200/year -- a 30% increase from last year -- despite the fact that she paid all of her few medical expenses out-of-pocket from her HSA account. Anyone who feels we have the best medical care system in the world should have to find and pay for their own medical insurance, and have to deal with the exorbitant price increases every year. In my humble opinion, unless something is done soon, medical care expenses will eventually swamp this nation and transfer all of what little wealth people have been able to accumulate to the insurance companies, drug companies, and so-called "care providers".

By increasing the deductible on her plan even higher we were able to minimize the increase in premiums, but that also means we're personally on the hook for a lot more if she needs "the system". (Ok Thom... take a deep breath.)

The weather has cooled off. Early this morning we were close to freezing. But the sun is out now and things are warming up nicely.

Bandera is a magnet for musicians. Last night we attended a local jam-session at the club house here in the Park. And tonight we're going to stop for a while at a bar or two up-town where live music is planned. Live music is usually pretty darned good and, as long as the cigarette smoke isn't excessive, it can make for a fun evening out.

With a hankering for pumpkin pie...
Thom

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Memories of La Posada Hotel

A while back I wrote a journal entry about our visit to Winslow, Arizona and promised to write more about the La Posada Hotel.  -- the last and most elegant of the great railroad hotels built in the West. Since there's not much else to write about today, I guess this would be a good time.

First, let me set the stage. The time was the late 1920's... the roaring 20's. The country was in a period of unprecedented affluence and in the midst of the industrial revolution. Between the automobile and the railroads, the average person was suddenly thrust into a world that could travel at 40, 50, 60 miles per hour -- a far cry from the 3 mile an hour world of a just a generation or two earlier. Most families could afford a car for the first time. Railroad travel over long distances was financially possible for most people. And air travel was another wonder that was just beginning to assert itself as yet another transportation alternative -- at this point mostly for the rich.

It was a wondrous age. Anything was possible. The Sante Fe Railroad's main line from Chicago to Los Angles ran through Northern Arizona and thousands of travelers came through Winslow every week. In addition, the Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest National Parks, and other Northern Arizona natural wonders, were becoming popular and increasingly in demand by some of those cross-country travelers. A hotel was needed as a lay-over rest stop and as a base for explorations to the National Parks of Northern Arizona.

So, in 1928 the Sante Fe Railroad decided to build a new hotel in Winslow, the home of their Arizona operations. At that time, the Fred Harvey Company was used by the railroad to operate all their hotels and food service operations. Mary Colter, an architect employed by Fred Harvey, was given free rein to design and supervise construction of La Posada, which means "the resting place" in Spanish. Colter was already noted for a number of other structures she designed in the Southwest... 6 different structures at  Grand Canyon Village, and hotels in Sante Fe and Gallup, NM. Her rugged landscape-integrated design principles would influence a generation's worth of future structures built by the National Park Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps.

La Posada opened in 1930. Costing $1 million in 1929 dollars, it was warm, elegant, and a hit with the traveling public. During the 30's and '40's, all trains between Chicago and L.A. would stop here. Many famous celebrities, among them Howard Hughes, John Wayne, Dorothy Lamour, Bob Hope, Albert Einstein, Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, and many others, would spend time at the hotel. During WWII, most troop trains stopped for a break. The Fred Harvey Company added the "spam kitchen" to the hotel in order to prepare and serve spam sandwiches to the troops during their stop.

Winslow was the largest town in Northern Arizona during the heyday. Built immediately adjacent to both the Sante Fe's mainline tracks and the Highway that would become the famous Route 66, the hotel was the obvious stopping point for any cross-country traveler. In addition, because of the limited range of airplanes the Charles Lindbergh designed Winslow airport was also a normal stop-over for cross-country flights.

The hotel grounds included large grass-covered areas, gardens, flowers, and large trees. Imagine what people felt as they approached this oasis in the middle of the desert they've been traveling through for many hours. Guided by a fictional fantasy, Colter designed the Hotel to resemble a wealthy ranchers hacienda so it would have the warm feeling of a home but the large spaces necessary to serve many guests. Natural materials and lighting added to the ambiance. It was the kind of place one would go to be swept into Colter's fantasy as a guest in a comfortable grand hacienda. From the hotel, guests could visit the Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest, or other natural wonders of Northern Arizona by guided motor car, provided, for a fee, by the  Fred Harvey Transportation Company.

But after WWII, things slowly started downhill for the Hotel. People started to prefer travel by car and the railroads went into decline. The Interstate Highway System blossomed but I-40 by-passed Winslow a few miles to the North. The range of commercial aircraft increased and they didn't need to stop at Winslow to rest and refuel any more. Guests stopped coming and the hotel struggled. Finally, in 1957, La Posada closed. Mary Colter was still alive and living in a rest home in California. When told of the closing and the uncertain fate of the Hotel, she's reported to have said "I now know it's possible to live too long."

For a period of time it sat empty and with an uncertain future. Eventually, the Sante Fe Railroad moved their Arizona Offices and Operations into the building. But the cold hard attitude of business gutted the warmth of the building, replacing it with antiseptic suspended tile ceilings, covered the stone floors with asbestos tile, and tore out walls in guest room areas to create larger open office spaces. For 30 years the building was used in this way until it was abandoned in the mid-1990's. Again, it faced an uncertain and, probably, bleak future.

But the National Trust for Historic Preservation found out about the property and had it added to the endangered list. And then, in 1997, Allan Affeldt and his wife, famous artist Tina Mion, along with some investors, purchase the property and began an estimated $12 million restoration. For the past 12 years they've been hard at it. While not yet complete, the lobby, dining areas, ball room, and large public spaces are restored, along with a bunch of guest rooms. It's a functioning hotel and, really, the bright spot of Winslow.

We spent most of the afternoon that day at La Posada. The place will draw you in and it just makes you feel at home. There's a self-guided tour, a couple of videos that are continuously played that describes the history and the process of restoration, and a lot of Tina Mion's work on the walls. I've got to say that I was totally blown away by this artist. There's something in her work that speaks to me in a way I've not felt before. She and Allan both live in the Hotel. She has her studio here too.

We did stop in the bar for a drink, mostly for the experience. We had a really interesting conversation with another couple from Southern Arizona, and just soaked in the atmosphere.

La Posada was a delightfully unexpected highlight of our exploration of Northern Arizona.

For more information, here's a link to the La Posada website [Link], and here's a link to Tina Mion's website [Link].

Enjoying that day all over again...
Thom

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Simple Sunday

Nothing complicated about our day today... we did take a few hours this afternoon to walk around downtown Bandera. It seems the countryside around town is a real destination for motorcyclists from all over South Texas... winding curvy roads, interesting scenery, and the terrain of the hill country tends to limit the winds most days. In any case it sure beats riding the flat dry range land found in much of the rest of the State. During weekends there are motorcycles everywhere.

We spent some time with Gary and Monica, and checked out their new motorhome. And for dinner we threw a couple burgers on the grill. Then we settled in for a football game (Go Eagles!) before nodding off for the night.

Not a very taxing day in Texas...
Thom

Saturday, November 21, 2009

By the River in Bandera

Our night of boondocking at the Visitors Center in Ozona was a good one... no problems at all. The fact that we were parked across the street from the police station probably helped alleviate any concerns... concerns that can grow larger and more threatening the darker and later it gets when you're by yourself in the middle of a parking lot. But we're becoming desensitized to these mostly imagined threats. The reality is they're blown way out of proportion by active imaginations. For the most part, few people even notice we're there and most all of them just don't care.

Boondocking get's us up early and on the road early since there's not much that needs to be done before rolling. Just a few mile down the road we stopped at a truck stop to fill the diesel tank, and while we were at it filled our stomachs with a good hot breakfast. Haven't done that for a while.

The trek today was about 160 miles. I-10 east from Ozona to Kerrville where we picked up SR-173 south about 20 miles to Bandera. It was an agreeable drive and we made it before 1pm.

Bandera is billed as the Texas Cowboy Capital. With a population of about 1,000 people, it seemed larger and more touristy as we drove through. We're at the Pioneer River Resort which is right at the edge of downtown... an easy walk to any of the honky-tonks and cowboy hangouts we'll be visiting. What the RV Park lacks in ambiance it makes up for in convenience. Once we explore the area a little more we'll have a better idea of what's what and will report interesting stuff later.

We're planning to be here for a week -- through the Thanksgiving holiday. The RV Park is planning a Thanksgiving Dinner for any guests or campers who are around. Our plans for the day are still open while we check things out.

Oh... we ran into some old friends from Wisconsin that we know from the past two holiday seasons in Rockport. As we're driving in to our site in the RV Park I glance over and see a couple familiar faces sitting by their motorhome... checked out their toad's license plate... sure enough!.. it's Gary and Monica. "Hi Guys!" This could be an interesting week. And all without any planning whatsoever.

Thinking plans are way over-rated...
Thom

Friday, November 20, 2009

Overnighting in Ozona

We're boondocking in the parking lot of the Ozona Chamber of Commerce Visitors Center in Ozona, TX. We got a later start this morning than we'd have liked -- about 10am. Once we crossed the state line into Texas another hour instantly evaporated as we entered the Central Time Zone. At noon we only had 45 miles on the trip log.

But the rest of the drive went smoothly despite scenery that, for much of the way, was boring with a capital B. With a tailwind and our primarily downhill route the fuel mileage was looking good too. Dar took over the helm at Fort Stockton and a couple hours later we decided to throw out the anchor here in Ozona.

After checking in the Visitors Center that it was OK to overnight here, we walked up the street to a local eatery and ate dinner. We'll be in bed early tonight and that means we'll be up early tomorrow. The drive to Bandera is another 170 miles or so which should put us there around noon.

Looking for ozone in Ozona...
Thom

Moving Into Texas

This morning we pull the jacks and say good-bye to The Ranch RV Park and hit the road for Texas. The plan is to take US-285 south through Carlsbad, across the border into Texas and all the way to Fort Stockton. There we pick up I-10 and head east. When we're tired of driving, we'll stop somewhere for the night. Tomorrow, Saturday, we'll drive the rest of the way to Bandera, TX., where we have reservations for the week of Thanksgiving.

I'll post updates on our progress during the next day or two as I'm able.

Rollin' down the road...
Thom

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Living Desert State Park

Just down the road from our camp is a small State Park named the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens. It's located on top of a hill just North of the town of Carlsbad. Yesterday, Wednesday, we stopped by for a visit.

Driving into the parking lot it was clear we weren't going to be bothered by large throngs of people as we explored the Park -- there were only a few cars to be seen. This is probably a tough time of year for facilities like this one that thrive by tapping into summer vacationers that come to see Carlsbad Caverns. The population of the entire county that includes Carlsbad and Artesia is only 50,000 people so maybe they can pull in enough locals on the weekends to justify the expense of keeping it open. I hope so.

The focus of the Park is the plants and animals of the Chihuahuan Desert. There's a well-done visitor center that includes interactive exhibits, informational displays, and an extensive mineral exhibit. Out back is a 1.3 mile trail that takes visitors through a series of recreated desert life zones complete with examples of the plants that common and typical of each. The most common are varieties of the prickly pear cactus, mesquite, and types of sage. But there are many many more. As I wrote the other day, the amount and variety of life in the desert is a surprise to first time visitors and those who don't bother to look closely.



The Park also has a zoo. All of the animals here have been rescued from difficult circumstances of one kind or another and are incapable of surviving on their own in the wild. Here they are well cared for and serve to give visitors a chance to see animals, up close and personal, that they wouldn't have a chance to see on their own. They have a pair of very rare mexican wolves, a couple mountain lions, bobcats, a couple eagles, and even a black bear. More common, but still fun to see up close, are elk, bison, pronghorn antelope, and mule deer. A collection of creepy crawlers, which I couldn't get too close to, included various spiders, scorpions, tarantulas, and snakes (man-o-man!)(gulp).



Both plants and animals that live and thrive in the Chihuahuan Desert have adapted to the lack of water and the extremes of temperature. Whether it's deep roots, or waxy coatings, or holes in the ground, or ways to store water for future use... they've developed the means to live in this tough environment. Life, if given enough time, is very adaptable to changes and very rough conditions.



Today, Thursday, there are two things on the agenda. We're going to explore another State Park in the area, and we've got to get ready for moving day tomorrow.

Adapting in the desert...
Thom

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

50 degree swing

Another cold morning -- 19.8f on the thermom. Should climb to 72f this afternoon.

Not sure what we'll be doing today -- no plans at all. Dar has a couple more albums ready to view in our online photo collection and I've been working on financial and administrative stuff, and reading a little more than usual. Not very exciting, is it?

Cooling it near Carlsbad...
Thom

The Fisherman and the MBA

An American businessman was standing at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish.

"How long it took you to catch them?" The American asked.

"Only a little while." The Mexican replied.

"Why don't you stay out longer and catch more fish?" The American then asked.

"I have enough to support my family's immediate needs." The Mexican said.

"But," The American then asked, "What do you do with the rest of your time?"

The Mexican fisherman said, "I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take a siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos, I have a full and busy life, senor."

The American scoffed, "I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds you buy a bigger boat, and with the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats."

"Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the consumers, eventually opening your own can factory. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually NYC where you will run your expanding enterprise."

The Mexican fisherman asked, "But senor, how long will this all take?"

To which the American replied, "15-20 years."

"But what then, senor?"

The American laughed and said, "That's the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO (Initial Public Offering) and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions."

"Millions, senor? Then what?"

The American said slowly, "Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take a siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos..."

-------------------------

I have to give credit to another blog that highlighted this story by some unknown author earlier this week. It really strikes a chord with me and I wanted to share it with all of you.

This simple little story explains a lot about why Dar & I are living this unconventional nomadic lifestyle.

This life we're living isn't a dress-rehearsal. It's the main play...
Thom

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Cold Carlsbad

Here at The Ranch near Carlsbad it's downright cold this morning. My outdoor recording thermometer bottomed out at 20.5f degrees -- not the worst state of affairs for those tough and hardy people from the upper Midwest, but colder than we're used to and colder than we prefer. Here in the high country of the West the typically dry air can get very cold very quickly at night. But the flip-side to that is the normally bright sun usually warms things up just as quickly the next day. Today should wam up into the 60's, tomorrow and the rest of the week into the 70's.

Putting on a second pair of socks...
Thom

Monday, November 16, 2009

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

On Monday, after a cold morning (low of 30f) and a couple pots of coffee, we headed out to explore Carlsbad Caverns National Park. It's about 50 miles from our camp at The Ranch, but an easy drive and it was a great sunny day.

This corner of New Mexico is desert -- Chihuahuan Desert to be precise. Of the four recognized deserts in the USA (Mojave, Sonoran, Great Basin, and Chihuahuan) the Chihuahuan Desert is higher in elevation and slightly wetter than the others (but still less than 10 inches of precipitation per year). Even now, during a relatively dry period, the desert is full of life and the drive to the Caverns was quite agreeable.

The tours available at Carlsbad Caverns range from easy (take the elevator, walk on hard surfaced pathways) to the challenging (hardhat, sliding and crawling on your belly through tight cramped spaces). We decided to forgo the challenging tours and take the basic self-guided Big Room tour, but instead of taking the elevator down, we made it a little tougher by walking into the cave from the original natural entrance on a series of switchbacks that decline 800 feet from the surface starting point. "Self-guided" means you're carrying a "plastic digital ranger", a device that provides an audio description of what you're seeing but allows you to proceed at your own pace -- sort of the best of both worlds. At the end of our descent and tour around the Big Room -- about a 4 hour tour -- we did take advantage of the luxury of the elevator ride 750 feet back to the surface.

We're not experienced cave-dwellers but prior to this have done Kartchner Caverns in Arizona and, recently, Lehman Caves in the Great Basin National Park. We're beginning to understand what the various cave structures are called and what to look for, what to expect. In all three of our caving experiences we've been in awe at the incredible beauty -- at what nature can do given enough time.

Of the three caves, Kartchner is the most natural, the most undisturbed and untouched. Both Lehman and Carlsbad were discovered in the late 1800's and were somewhat abused by curiosity seekers and tourist early on, before enough people realized the value of what these things were and started protecting them. Really, that's what National Parks do... protect natural wonders like these from us... the same people they're protected for. Hmmm.

Carlsbad Caverns are notable for their scale. The Big Room is 800 feet below the surface and is the second largest cave chamber in the world. It's 4,000 feet long, over 600 feet wide, and 350 feet high at it's highest point. It's so large that even people with a severe case of claustrophobia shouldn't be bothered. It's simply incredible... another of those great natural wonders of the USA.

As normal, we took far more pictures than we can use. Shooting in low-light environments like a cavern, and without a tripod to hold the camera still, many pics are blurry throw-aways. But we got enough for a good online album. In case you haven't checked them out, Dar has a few new albums uploaded to our online photo gallery from the Grand Canyon... and she's busy working on more every chance she gets.

Deep below the Chihuahuan Desert...
Thom Hoch

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Cell Phone Savings

Dar and I used to have two Verizon phones under a "family share plan". It was the least costly family plan available which came to about $85 per month after taxes and other fees. For that we got 700 minutes "anytime" minutes, free nights and weekends, and the usual stuff that comes with a cell phone plan these days. Because we try to bunch calls to family and friends on the weekends, the number of "anytime" minutes we used in a month was usually in the 300 to 400 minute range.

One day we talked about whether we could get by with only one phone. Since we're usually together anyway a single phone would serve our purposes just fine the majority of the time. But there are times when we're apart and it's handy for each of us to have a phone along -- for safety, convenience, and to have the ability to reach each other. That second phone is something we decided was too important to give up.

But what if we modified this single phone idea? We could make one of our existing phones our main phone. That would be the number we'd make sure all our family and friends used, the number that would be on our accounts, the only number that we would ever expect an inbound call on. For all intents and purposes, at least to the outside world, it's the only phone we have. But to solve the second phone issue, we could buy a prepaid phone, like a Tracfone or one of the other no-contract prepaid phones that are increasingly popular these days.

Prepaid phones work like this: you buy a phone and then you buy minutes. The minutes you buy will expire if not used within a period of time that varies with the plan. Usually, as long as you purchase more minutes before the old ones expire, those old minutes will be extended to the expiration date of the new minutes. In order to determine if any of these prepaid plans work for you, it's necessary to make some assumptions and do some math.

We decided to buy a Tracfone. For about $120, we walked out of the store with a phone and 900 minutes that need to be used in a year. Some basic math tells us that for $10/month, we can use this phone an average of 75 minutes each month. Because usage is concentrated on our primary phone, after 5 months of having the Tracfone actual usage is averaging 40 minutes per month. Except when we're apart, the Tracfone is turned off. No one besides Dar & I have the number anyway. As for cell coverage, we've had no problem at all -- the phone connects to a network every place we've needed it.

The rest of the story is that we were able to drop our Verizon phone plan from $85 for two phones to just $45 for one. The new single phone plan gives us 450 "anytime" minutes and has the same free nights and weekends -- which we haven't come close to exceeding after 5 months.

The net result is that we're now saving $30 every month from what we used to spend on cell phones -- a savings of 35%. And as far as we're concerned, there is no change to our service level or ability to communicate with the outside world.

Wondering who to call next...
Thom Hoch

The Satellite TV Experiment

The bus-house came from the factory with an automatic satellite TV receiver up on the roof. We variously referred to it as "the dome" or "the low-clearance early warning system" (it's the highest point on the bus-house). From the time we took delivery of the camper in April of 2007 until last January, we hadn't subscribed to any satellite TV provider. We're not huge TV fans and had trouble justifying the cost. But I had this lingering notion in the back of my head that at some point I'd like to give it a try... if for no other reason than to see if the dome actually works.

Well in January of this year, 11 months ago, we bit the bullet and subscribed to DirecTV. The experience of getting the service up and running was a challenge but we did find out the dome works just fine. We signed up for an 18 month "commitment" with a discount to about $32/month for the first 12 months, after which the price goes to the regular rate of somewhere around $54/month. The package we bought is supposed to give us about 150 channels including local stations for no extra charge. However, those "free locals" don't apply to people like us who move around all the time. For nomads like us to get "local" stations (ABC, NBC, CBS, etc.) we have to subscribe to something called DNS (distant network service) for an additional $14/month which gives us "local" stations from the East Coast and the West Coast. We declined to subscribe to DNS, opting instead to poke up our onboard batwing antenna and pull the local stations from the area we're in right off the air for free. We also declined to pay even more to DirecTV for HBO or any other movie channel, choosing instead to use DVD's we buy on the bargain rack or trade for with other campers.

So how is it going? After 11 months we find we're rarely using DirecTV and generally prefer to watch local stations we pull in off the air. Sure, once in a while we're so remote we can't pull in anything or maybe just a channel or two. But, in my humble opinion, the quality of programming off the satellite is no better (often worse) than what we get off the air for free. Sure, there's a lot more channels, but we find little to interest us. News off the satellite isn't news -- it's opinion and screaming that seems intended to boost ratings by fanning the flames of polarization. In addition, we can get HD (high def) signals off the air for free... something we'd have to pay even more for to DirecTV. Our take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward TV means we often opt to settle in with a book or work on a crossword puzzle in the evening.

When we get back to Rockport I intend to cancel DirecTV. I'll have to pay a penalty for early cancellation, I'm sure. But I'll categorize that penalty as an educational expense. The dome will return to it's earlier role as an expensive "low-clearance early warning system".

Trying to learn something new every day...
Thom Hoch

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Quiet, Enjoyable Saturday

This will be a very short entry, as we did NO exploring today. In fact, we did almost nothing. We knocked out a few mundane chores but if I wrote about them you'd be switching to another blog in short order.

No change to our status: we'll be here at The Ranch until next Friday. While the wintery precipitation looks like it'll stay well north of us, the low temps are expected to drop into the 20's on Sunday or Monday night. It should moderate upward from that point the rest of the week.

You'll hear no complaints from me...
Thom Hoch

Friday, November 13, 2009

It Was All Downhill...

We got a good start from our camp this morning on the Plains of Augustin... near the Very Large Array and not far from Magdalena, NM. By 9am we were headed down the hill and, except for a few intermediate mountain passes along the way, it was mostly downhill all day long. The one thing we did fight today was wind. In my experience New Mexico can often be windy, but the approaching winter storm has generated some high wind warnings for much of the state today and tomorrow. During today's drive through those intermediate mountain passes we had tail winds, head winds, side winds... you name it and we had it. There were a couple good gusts that hit us sideways in the passes that moved the whole bus-house like it was a billboard on wheels. Come to think of it, it is a billboard on wheels -- at least size-wise.

But we made it to our intended destination, an Escapees RV Park called The Ranch. It's located about 18 miles north of Carlsbad, NM -- down in the southeastern corner of the State if you're trying to find it on a map. But despite being within spitting distance of the Texas border, we're actually closer to Tuscon, AZ. than we are to either Dallas for San Antonio. Texas is a big State. Oh, and we're at only 3400 feet of elevation tonight... a net drop of 3800 feet during today's trek.

Escapees Parks are always the friendliest places we stay. Within an hour of arriving we had been introduced to, no kidding, at least 20 people. After planting the jacks and getting a little set up, we went down to their 4:00pm happy hour. They usually have a short program where they make announcements, introduce new visitors (us, for example), say good-bye to visitors who are leaving the next day, tell stories or jokes, and generally have a good time. It doesn't last long, but it's a way to get people to mingle and learn about one another.

As we traveled today, Dar cooked dinner. On the menu tonight was meatloaf and cooked veggies, which were all done in our slow-cooker during the drive. We learned this trick from some other fulltimers and it's just the bee's knees for travel days: Before leaving, load up the slow-cooker with your favorite recipe... as you normally would. When it's all set to start, put the slow-cooker in the kitchen sink (to keep it contained during the bumps and jars of travel) and plug it in. Turn on the inverter -- that great device that takes 12v power from our batteries and converts it into 120v power -- and get the bus-house rolling. As we travel, the combination of solar panels on the roof and the alternator on the diesel engine keep the batteries fully charged and the slow-cooker cookin' it's little heart out. However, there is one big downside to this technique... the odor of a fully cooked meal wafting around the bus-house as we near our destination. At least once Dar has had to physically restrain me from digging into dinner at a wayside rest stop because I just couldn't stand it any more.

We're thinking we'll stay here at The Ranch for a week. The "down" time will come in handy for Dar, as she works on the hundreds of photos we've taken over the past couple weeks to get them ready and uploaded to our online photo collection. And being a practiced procrastinator, I'm always behind on a long list of to-do's.

Getting used to all the oxygen at these lower elevations...
Thom Hoch

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Into New Mexico

This morning we left our boondocking spot near the south entrance to Petrified Forest National Park and headed toward New Mexico. Our path was US-180 to Springerville, AZ. where we picked up US-60 toward the state line. We settled tonight near the town of Magdalena, NM, high on the Plains of San Augustin about 40 miles west of Socorro, NM. This area is a large elevated plain -- 7,000 ft. above sea level -- and is surrounded by mountains on all sides. Tonight we're camping at our highest elevation ever, 7120 ft. We have power tonight, a real treat after boondocking the past couple.

The reason I wanted to stay up here is that the VLA, the Very Large Array Radio Telescope, is here.


This is an installation of 27 individual parabolic receivers that are hundreds of tons in weight and can be moved into different configurations depending on the demands of the projects their assigned to. During our visit, the antennas were tightly configured near the center of the triple axis arrangement of the facility. They are moved by a specially designed double-tracked railroad carrier that picks each antenna off it's concrete base and moves it to a new base maybe miles away. At it widest, most spread-out configuration, the furthest antennas are more than 20 miles from each other.

By arranging many small (relatively speaking) antennas in this way, and linking them electronically, they literally become a single antenna from the standpoint of the distant and faint radio signals they listen to from the cosmos. Radio telescopes are another tool in the arsenal of gear that astronomers use to understand the universe.

We were able to walk through the self-guided tour at the visitor center, and then explore the grounds within certain limits. The entire facility is undergoing an upgrade. It's been here for 30 years and technology has advanced far beyond what was available during the 1970's. In January it will completely shut down for a couple months in order to complete the upgrades. When it starts searching the skies again, who knows what we'll learn about the origins of the universe and our understanding of the cosmos?

Here's another one of those coincidences that seem to occur when you least suspect it: just down the road from the VLA, and I'm talking within sight of the visitors center, is the Torstenson Family Wildlife Center. The guy behind this place was Bob Torstenson, the third generation owner of Duo-Fast Corporation -- the company I spent 25 years with. Bob was a real outdoorsman. He loved to hunt and be in the woods as much as possible. After he sold the company to ITW in 1999, he purchased this large tract of land in New Mexico in order to pursue his interest. Tragically, he became ill and died in 2002 at the age of only 51. He left all 95,000 acres that he owned in New Mexico to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, along with a $4 million endowment for it's perpetual care. Click on this link to learn more. He was quite a guy!


So that was our day on Thursday. Tomorrow we're moving again, being chased by Old Man Winter once again. We'd like to make it to a camp near Carlsbad, NM., a good 250 miles away and almost 4,000 feet lower in elevation.

In the thin air of New Mexico...
Thom Hoch

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Petrified Forest National Park

If you've seen the Ken Burns/Dayton Duncan film The National Parks: America's Best Idea, you're familiar with the background music that emotionalized those incredible video images. When we were in Bryce Canyon a few weeks ago we bought the soundtrack of the film on CD -- which is now in the toad's CD player slot 3. Since that time, as we're driving through a National Park we often play that music and the result is very much like watching the film, except that we're actually there, in the Park, and in the "film". We've driven winding Park roads through jaw-dropping scenery at Zion, Bryce, The Grand Canyon, and now here, at Petrified Forest N.P. -- with the soundtrack playing -- and we can go for miles without saying a word, just the scenery, the music, and the motion of moving through the scene. I've got to tell you, it's a powerful way to add a little emotion and enjoyment to what's an already incredible experience.

The Park is spread out with a generally north/south orientation and a single park road running down the spine. We're boondocked at the south end, just off US-180. After establishing camp yesterday we toured the visitor's center at the south entrance, did a short hike, and drove to a number of pull-outs and points-of-interest in the lower half of the Park. Today we explored the rest of it.

The quick story about the petrified forest is this: Over 200 million years ago this land was a tropical forest and very wet. During floods, heavy rains, periods of high water, full sized trees would be swept downstream by the currents of water and deposited in wet swamps, lakes, shallow seas where they became waterlogged and sank to the bottom. Due to all the erosion, and possibly from volcanic activity as well, they were soon covered in thick layers of silt and debris. They became entombed. Under the right conditions, natural chemical processes slowly dissolved all the organic matter of the tree and replaced it with minerals, most often silicates like quartz. The petrified log amazingly retains nearly all the original structure of the wood and appears amazingly like the original.

Petrified wood occurs in nearly all 50 states and many places around the world. It's not rare. What's different here is the concentration -- the amount of it in one spot. Discovered here in the last half of the 19th century, petrified wood was carried of in great quantities by tourists, treasure hunters, and rock hounds for the better part of a hundred years. In 1906 Teddy Roosevelt made it a National Monument, but lack of manpower meant little change to the amount of material being taken from the area. It was made a National Park in 1962 and security was greatly improved. But, sadly, even today tons of petrified wood are being taken from the park each month -- much of it in the pockets of tourist who believe their few pieces won't make a difference.

Dar's working hard on photos, but lately it seems we're taking pictures faster than she can process them. And we're moving again tomorrow. With a little luck we'll camp somewhere around the Magdalena, NM area -- still relatively high at about 7300 feet. Old Man Winter is threatening to make things interesting this coming weekend so we'll keep one eye on him as we make our plans from there.

Thinking the wood in my head may be petrifying...
Thom Hoch

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Very Hard Wood

We're boondocking tonight just outside the Petrified Forest National Park. The drive here from Rimmy Jims, near the Meteor Crater, was less than 70 miles, so it was an easy day. Once we got settled we drove into the Park and scouted around a little, did a visitor center and a short hike.

Where we are tonight there is NO ONE for miles around. Not a soul with the exception of a few pronghorn antelope. It's so quiet, so peaceful. We're without hookups of any kind and running on batteries and LP gas. It's relatively warm outside tonight... about 62f degrees at 7pm... and no wind at all.

More adventure tomorrow in the Park.

Thom Hoch

Monday, November 9, 2009

On a Corner in Winslow...

This'll be a short update tonight. We've been going all day and didn't get back to the bus-house until almost 8pm. Then make dinner -- one of the best deals around right now... the 12 inch Supreme Pizza from the Walmart fresh deli area for only $5. There's enough goop on it that we can stretch almost two meals out of it. And it's suprisingly good. (End of commercial ad.)

We did visit the meteor crater earlier today. Just a 5 minute jaunt down the road from our camp, it's the best preserved impact crater in the world but not the largest. This one is 4,000 feet across and 550 feet deep -- and created from an meteor impact some 50,000 years ago. They estimate the meteor was about 150 feet in diameter and it hit the earth traveling about 10 miles per second... far faster than the fastest rifle bullet... and the resulting crater is still here after all that time. It was an enjoyable stop and it's certainly something you don't see every day.

We then headed into Winslow, AZ., just 20 minutes up the road from camp. Part of our mission was to, just for fun, stand on that corner in Winslow referred to in the classic Eagles song "Take It Easy"... a portion of those lyrics go like this:
Well, I'm a standing on a corner
in Winslow, Arizona
and such a fine sight to see
It's a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed
Ford slowin' down to take a look at me
Come on, baby, don't say maybe
I gotta know if your sweet love is
gonna save me
This song was released by the Eagles the same year we were married -- yes, it's that old! So we stood on that corner in Winslow, Arizona, snapped a few pictures and had a few laughs acting like kids again. The city of Winslow, in an effort to revive the tired old town and attract a few tourist, has created a small park on that corner, complete with a flatbed Ford truck. Sure, it's corny, but what self-respecting small town boy from Wisconsin doesn't like a little corn once in a while.

The next stop was absolutely unplanned and very unexpected. On good authority from a local we walked a few blocks to the La Posada Hotel, the last of the great railroad hotels. I want to write more about this stop, but will have to do so when I'm more awake and lucid. We were also introduced to an incredible painter, Tina Mion, whose works are on display all around the newly renovated hotel. As I said, this will have to wait.

The last stop of the day was a Walmart stop for provisions. We're heading further east tomorrow and would like to stay near the Petrified Forest National Park. We may be boondocking (no hookups) and I'm not sure what the internet connection will be like either. So if updates to the Journal are slow in coming, just check back the next day.

standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona...
Thom Hoch

Sunday, November 8, 2009

From Canyon to Crater

We had very mixed emotions about leaving the Grand Canyon this morning. This is the perfect time of year to be at the Canyon -- as the crowds we ran into attest. It's relatively cool compared to the intense heat of the summer. And even though it was busier than we expected, compared to the millions that show up during the summer, the late fall crowds are easy to take. We know we'll be back, we know we'll do more hiking deeper down into the Canyon, we'd love to take a float trip down the Colorado river, a helicopter flight down the middle of the Canyon would be good too. It may sound touristy, but these are other ways of experiencing one of the greatest natural wonders of the world. There's something about it... once you see it you want more. You want to see it from different places, angles, elevations, seasons. You want to hike, float, climb, jump... did I say "jump"? Hmmm. Scratch jump... touristy enthusiasm.

Anyway, we were on our way before 10am. The only minor concern I had was the less than quarter tank of diesel fuel we had and the 75 miles we needed to travel to get to the truckstop where I planned to fill. The bus-house's ECM computer was telling me I had 150 miles to empty... there was some comfort in that. But as we traveled along the fuel guage was closing in on "E" faster than we were closing in on the truckstop. Do I trust the guage or the computer?

Well, we made it. When the diesel tank was topped off we had pumped a bit over 85 gallons into a tank that's supposed to have a 100 gallon capacity. Assuming the tank does in fact hold 100 gallons, and further assuming that there might be 5 gallons at the bottom that are below the dip tube for the fuel pump, we may have been able to go another 70 or 80 miles... about what the computer said. This is the lowest I've ever taken the tank, so it was a learning experience.

The route today took us south, through the Parks south entrance, on AZ-64 to Williams. There we picked up I-40 East, around Flagstaff to an exit out in the middle of nowhere, exit 233, which is Meteor Crater Road. There's an RV Park just a short distance south of the exit -- Meteor Crater RV Park. Hmmm... there must be a meteor crater around here somewhere.

More on that tomorrow.
Thom Hoch

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Now That's Some Hole

We're back from our hike... no twisted ankles, broken bones, or pulled muscles. My GPS reported we walked 8 miles today including our walk from camp to the trail head, but GPS's only report the horizontal distance traveled, not the vertical distance. The vertical distance, or elevation change, today was about 1,400 feet -- first down, then back up -- and almost all that change was in just 3 miles of the total 8 we walked today.

The trail we hiked was the Bright Angel Trail, the most heavily used trail in the Park. It can take you from the South Rim all the way down to the river... 4,500 feet down and 3 miles to the north. You can cross the river on a suspension bridge and then hike another mile or so to Phantom Ranch, a touch of civilization at the bottom of the Grand Canyon where a hiker can stay overnight in a small lodge or cabin. We didn't get anywhere close to Phantom Ranch during our hike today.


The Bright Angel Trail is a shared use trail, with both people and mules having access to it. Mules are used to haul both passengers and supplies between the rim and the river. It's been done for many years and the mules are an institution around here. While hiking on the trail there's a protocol the must be followed in order to avoid spooking the beasts and potentially throwing a rider off and down the canyon... basically, stand aside, shut up, and don't do anything that'll scare the mules. We passed a number of mule trains on the way down and up today.


Our little hike took us only about a third of the way down into the canyon. It took us a little over an hour to go down 1,500 feet and a mile and a half of walking. We spent almost an hour at that point (picnic lunch, talking with people, etc.). The trip back up took about two hours. The rule of thumb is that the "up" trip is twice as long as the "down" trip.

During our hike we ran into all kinds of people. Some actually run down and then run back up. These cannot be normal people. But they do it and they time their result only to return the following week to do it all over again in an effort to better their previously best time. There must be some kind of defect that causing this aberrant behavior. At what point can they call what they've done a success?  How will they know? At what point will they decide they've had enough and quit?

Then there's the other extreme... people walking down the trail with flip-flops, or pointy toed purple pumps (which I actuallly saw today), or people obviously too large and out-of-shape to go very far. The first part, the going down part, is easy compared to the return trip.  I wonder how many people require assistance at the end of the day to get back to the top?

My thoughts from our brief descent into the canyon today are these: 1) that's one heck of a hole 2) it's just as hard to fathom the scale of the Grand Canyon from down in it as it is from up top, and 3) I can't wait to get back and go further, all the way to the river, maybe all the way to the North Rim.


As we neared the top we saw 6 Desert Bighorn Sheep clamoring around and feeding on who-knows-what as they were working the side of a near vertical canyon wall. They're top-notch natural entertainment. It doesn't seem possible for any four legged beast to be that sure-footed, that adept at standing on the tiniest slivers of rock ledges... and make it look like it's easy... no big deal. I've been told that seeing these Bighorns is a rare treat. Well, we certainly enjoyed it.

After our successful return we somehow managed to crawl into the Bright Angel Lodge's Bar, and with my last burst of energy, order a couple beers. That was some of the best tasting beer I've had in a long time. We eventually made it back to the bus-house where we watched the best sunset sky-show we've seen in a long time.  It'll be an early night tonight so we can get rested up for the move tomorrow.

In Grand Canyon N.P...
Thom Hoch

Cold Slow Saturday Morning

Dar's sleeping in this morning. I've been up for almost an hour, have had a couple cups of coffee already, and perusing the internet. We have great speed on our Verizon aircard here at the Park which makes anything internet-related much faster and more efficient -- very little wasted time waiting for pages to update.

The Grand Canyon airport is reporting 21f degrees this morning. But the wind is calm and it doesn't feel like 21f. The next 5 days look like carbon-copies of yesterday... sunny, clear, bright, highs in the low 60's, lows around freezing. We can deal with that just fine.

We're going to hike down into the canyon a ways today... NOT all the way down, not 4,500 vertical feet down and 3 miles horizontal to the river. No sir! We're not geared up for that as they recommend at least two days for that. We're going to take the Bright Angel Trail down about 1,000 feet to get a feel for what the place looks like from down there. By the time we're back up top, we should have about 3 miles of walking under our belt... but none of it level. I offered to carry Dar down if she'd carry me back up. Seems fair, doesn't it?

Tomorrow is still set as moving day.

Slurping coffee at the Grand Canyon...
Thom Hoch

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Grand Grand Canyon

Today, Friday, we spent the day exploring the Grand Canyon Village area on the South Rim. We started at Mather Point on the east side and finished at Hermit's Rest on the extreme west side... a total of some 8 or 10 miles. There's a walking trail right along the rim from one end to the other. We walked segments of our trek, drove a small portion of it, and used the Park's free bus shuttle system for part of it too. We probably walked 4 or 5 miles during the day... not that much really... but a portion of it was somewhat steep and it felt like more than it was.

First off, let me say how fantastic the Grand Canyon is. From the South Rim it's easy to see the North Rim, and with binoculars, the North Rim Lodge some 10 or 11 miles away. Here on the South Rim we're at about 7,000 feet of elevation above sea level, the North Rim is about 1,000 feet higher. Between the two rims is the most incredible and massive canyon cut by the flowing water of the Colorado River over many millions of years. The Canyon runs for more than 250 miles through Northern Arizona -- between the Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Mead, the lake created by Hoover Dam near Las Vegas. It's simply massive... on a scale that humans just have a problem dealing with.



As one looks out on the view, the Colorado River, the culprit in creating this Grand Canyon, isn't very visible in the twisted and tortured canyons below. First, because it's flowing more than 4,500 feet below the viewers vantage point it's usually hidden by parts of the canyon itself.  Second, because it's 4,500 feet below, if one does see the river it's so dang far down it looks like a minor creek to a small-town boy from Wisconsin.  4,500 feet sounds like a lot, but to put it in different terms: you could build three Sears Towers starting at the river level, one on top of another, and the three of them would still be slightly below the top of the canyon where we were standing. It's hard to get your arms around that kind of scale. Come to think of it... why was I standing so darn close to the edge today?



As noon approached, we had a snack picnic lunch out on an unprotected ledge over the rim and soaked in the view for quiet moments without saying a word... just looking and thinking and wondering.



As we walked westward along the rim we soon came to the lodge area, the real heart of the village. There stands a series of lodges built over the years to cater to the needs of ever larger throngs of people coming through the park. The grand-daddy of the lodges is the El Tovar Hotel, a wonderful old log and stone structure that's as elegant today as it probably was when it was built over 100 years ago. Not wanting to pass up an opportunity, we had "phase 2" of lunch in the lounge of the El Tovar... something we'll remember for a long time.



Another lodge of note is the Bright Angel Lodge, a more casual lodge built from local logs and stones in 1935. We stopped in for a quick look around and were impressed with the comfortable "lodgey" atmosphere of the place. It looked and felt like it should be here in this grand place.

However, a couple of "lodges" were tucked between the grand El Tovar and the Bright Angel Lodge that screamed early 60's Holiday Inn. I'm sure someone thought they were great at the time, but they sure stand out now as really out-of-place. We also explored the historic 100 year old Sante Fe Railroad Station just below the hill of the El Tovar Hotel. And there was a train at the station... the Grand Canyon Railroad tourist train that one can take between here and Williams, AZ., about 45 miles to the south.

Then we continued the trek westward toward Hermit's Rest, still some 7 miles distant. We walked part of the way but, not wanting those shuttle bus drivers to think we were shunning them, eventually gave in to comfort and our sore legs, and took the bus the rest of the way.

It was a full day of exploring one of the most spectacular places on earth. Tomorrow there will be more.

Exploring the Grand Canyon...
Thom Hoch

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The South Rim Boogie

evening edition
Well, we made it... all 257 miles from our camp in Zion to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon without major incident. There were a couple of minor ones... headlight problems with the motorhome again (an electrical gremlin I'm sure) and a flapping chunk of back tire rubber resulting from a curb strike while squeezing ourselves into the overly-narrow driveway at the Glen Canyon Dam Visitors Center in Page, AZ. The former has been nagging me for months... one headlight is working fine but the other is a mear glow of it's former self. I've been counseled that it's probably a ground issue with the headlight fixture, but I haven't taken the time to really dig into the issue. However, today I flashed my bright-beams at someone I was starting to pass (a real stick-in-the-mud if I have to pass him) and the brights stayed on... I couldn't flip them back to normal beam. Hmmm. This is not a major issue because we almost never drive at night. But it sure is something I've got to get resolved before too long. The latter problem was solved when we stopped, investigated a noise Dar (the cute one with the great ears) was hearing, and found the flapping chunk of rubber. As it was a small chunk (4" by 1/2" or so) I ripped it off the rest of the way and we proceeded, but I'll keep an extra close eye on that tire for a while.

An observation: Utah roads are terrible... at least based on the roads we used during our almost two week stay. Today, from Zion almost all the way to Page, AZ... a distance of a hundred miles or more... the fillings in our teeth were being jarred loose every painful inch of the way along US-89. Everything smoothed out nicely as we crossed the border into Arizona and for the rest of the drive to Grand Canyon Village.

The drive today was on the aforementioned US-89 to the junction, near Cameron, with AZ-64, which took us westward and into the Grand Canyon National Park from the east. Although a little pressed for time (headlights, remember?) we did make a brief stop at the Desert View Visitors Center near the East Entrance and took in our first views of the canyon. This is the first time either of us have been here. Impressive, to say the least.

Another 25 miles along the south rim of the canyon and we arrived at Grand Canyon Village. We found an adequate, though expensive, site in Trailer Village Campground right in the Village. We quickly set up and settled in just before sunset.

This is the highest elevation camp for us since we started the Sabbatical Project two and a half years ago -- over 7,000 feet. We'd love to stay longer than the three nights we're planning now, but old man winter hits the high country first and we're going to be lower and warmer before he gets too serious.

At the Grand Canyon...
Thom Hoch

Tunnel Travel into Arizona

morning edition
Yesterday,  Wednesday, we stayed close to the bus-house. Dar worked on pictures -- the 500 photos we snapped at Bryce Canyon created a lot of work for her. I worked on getting my chores done in preparation for moving tomorrow. Before settling in for the night we visited with a couple we met at Bryce -- Lawrie and Monica from British Columbia. They're camped here at Zion now and came over to our camp where we watched the stars while talking about earlier working days and travel experiences encountered along the road. This is one of the things we really like about our lifestyle... meeting usually interesting and talented people along the way.

This morning we hope to pull the jacks about 8am and head toward the Grand Canyon. The first leg of the trip should be interesting as we've got to go through the Zion - Mt. Carmel Tunnel and some narrow roads, tight curves, and fear-inducing switchbacks on our way out of the park. Since we're too big to go through the tunnel under normal two-way traffic conditions, they'll have to stop traffic coming through from the opposite direction before permitting us into the tunnel as our own one-way, down the middle of the road, traffic column... us and whoever happens to be behind us. Dar will have to drive the car separately too, as we'd be too long if connected. It'll be an experience for sure.

If I have a good internet connection wherever we perch this afternoon, I'll post an evening edition with the news of the day.

Travelilng today...
Thom Hoch

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Native Pictographs in Zion

Yesterday we joined Zion camp host Mike Fousie and new friends Julianne and Jimmy on an exploration of some caves here in the Park. I won't reveal the location of the caves because the park is trying to protect the sites from vandalism by keeping traffic to a minimum. You'll understand why in a minute.

After a short hike and a degree of scrambling up loose rock and sand we found the first cave, a rather shallow affair that certainly offered early peoples a degree of protection from the elements. At first glance, I really didn't see the pictographs that we went there to see. But then, I found one... no, a group of them... and then more. It's like your eyes have to adjust to "antiquity mode", and then you start to see them.



These ancient figures are pictographs -- paintings, as opposed to petroglyphs, which are etched or carved into the rock itself. The people who made these paintings are thought to have been hunter-gathers who lived in the Zion area about 2,600 years ago, possibly longer. Now referred to as the Virgin Anasazi, the western-most Puebloan group, they lived along the banks of the Virgin River in small settlements and primitive cliff-dwellings. They survived in this simple manner for almost 2,000 years before drought and a shortage of resources made them move further to the Southwest.



The pictographs are simple, often representations of people, animals, or spirits. There was one large figure that may be a shaman -- a religious person that acted as a middle-man between the real and spiritual worlds.



Some distance further we found another cave, and after some time, found a few more pictographs and a bunch of animal bones that are apparently dragged into the cave by scavengers where they can enjoy their meal in the luxury of some shade.

I thoroughly enjoy seeing evidence of early peoples. I wonder what they were thinking as they drew these figures. Were they done by select artists of the day, holy people, or just ancient teenage pranksters -- the ancestors of the modern day people who paint the colorful and ornate graffiti on the sides of railroad boxcars? Hmmm.

After our day of exploring we gathered at Zion Park Lodge --  drinks and some light fare for parched and hungry explorers.  Then, back at camp, we all enjoyed another blazing fire, talked about our day, and experimented with variations of the ever popular s'mores, which we all agreed are better without the graham cracker.

Today, Wednesday, we're planning nothing and getting ready for departure tomorrow.

In Zion, and loving it...
Thom Hoch

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Hoodoos at Bryce Canyon

Yesterday, Monday, we got an early start and drove to Bryce Canyon National Park. It's only about 80 miles from our camp in Zion so we thought we'd take a day and do the Bryce Canyon 101 overview. The weather was perfect, traffic was light, and the little Ford Focus performed flawlessly, reporting 41 mpg at the end of the day.

Bryce Canyon is only about a fourth the size of Zion -- and Zion isn't large compared to the big parks like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, or Glacier. Bryce is at a higher elevation than Zion, with much of the park over 8,000 feet. At Zion, visitors are at the bottom of the canyon looking up; at Bryce, you're at the top looking down. And what you're looking at is something you just don't see everyday.



In pre-historic times this whole area was the bottom of a shallow sea. The sediments that built up on the bottom of that sea, which were subsequently uplifted by tectonic activity deep within the earth, now make up the layers of rock and sandstone that lie beneath and around Bryce. These layers of rock are very soft and easily eroded. Water easily "melts" the material away, leaving delicate structures called "hoodoos" that can be as much as 200 feet high. This erosion activity is still taking place and this is considered one of the most rapidly changing landscapes on earth.



The textbook definition of "canyon" is a land form that's cut by a central stream. The land form at Bryce is not, strictly speaking, a canyon as there is no central stream responsible for the erosion. Instead, rain and melting snow at Bryce stay in the basin and create what's called an "amphitheater". The area we explored during our short visit yesterday is called Bryce Amphitheater, which is 12 miles long, 3 miles wide, and 800 feet deep. It's the largest of a series of amphitheaters in the park. 



With a little imagination, it's easy to see figures or faces in the hoodoos. They can look like cartoon characters, or gnomes, or your Uncle Charlie. There's a myriad of colors in the rock -- it looks like an artist's palette or a paint factory explosion. Once again, I'm going to have to defer to the photos we took to give you an idea of the place.

After a visitor center orientation, we decided to do a three mile hike that took us down to the bottom of the amphitheater and right down among the hoodoos -- about 600 vertical feet down and another 600 feet back up. We took two cameras and snapped almost 500 pictures (which will keep Dar busy at the computer for days!).



The experience is stunningly awesome, not just from the colors or the scale of the dramatic land forms and structures, but from an appreciation of the amount of time it must have taken to create this place. Nature is incredibly powerful and adaptable. The things we've seen during our explorations that past few weeks have been here long before humans evolved and will be here long after humans are gone.

From Bryce Canyon...
Thom

Monday, November 2, 2009

Biking Through Zion

Sunday was a slow day for us. I need one of these every once in a while.

We did shake the dust of the bikes and took an easy ride up the canyon on a dedicated bike path that kept us separate from the weekend traffic on the Canyon Road. The bright sunny skies and temps in the high 70's made the ride even more enjoyable. The views from the bike are more dramatic and, it seems, closer than what you experience from inside a car. From a car, you're looking at scenery; from the bike, you're in the scenery. I keep trying to capture what we're seeing with photos, but I'm growing weary of my meager and disappointing efforts.

After a great Mexican dinner that Dar through together, we sat outside in the early darkness, and watched the full moon rise over the canyon rim. While waiting, we saw a shooting star and a couple satellites pass by -- a bonus sky show that, in my book, can easily replace TV any day.

Today, Monday, we're planning an early start and driving up to Bryce Canyon National Park. We thought that since we're close -- about 90 miles away -- we'd make the effort to at least do an overview exploration of this, another of Utahs magnificent National Parks. We've decided to stay here at Zion until Thursday, so we have the time.

In Zion and, today, Bryce Canyon NP's...
Thom

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Confusion in Zion

Our trip to the Kolob Canyons part of Zion yesterday was more of the same... incredible scenery, a sensory festival that's hard to believe is real. Indeed, since we're relatively close to Vegas and California -- two places that thrive on the confusion of the real and the fake, the true and the false, reality and fantasy -- I was initially skeptical that Zion was real. I kept looking for, but never finding, the theme parks, casinos, and the local Cirque du Soleil theater.

No, Zion National Park is real. And, once again, I'm having trouble describing it in words. The brilliant colors of the canyon walls -- the shades of red, crimson, vermilion, browns, tans, whites, pale yellow, black, gray, slate -- all of them mixed or streaked or layered on the vertical, 2000 foot high canyon walls... The realization of the time frame it must have taken to create this... The textures of the various layers and types of rock... The effects of erosion and weathering... It must all be seen in person to be really appreciated.

We joined new friends Jimmy and Julianne for dinner and a campfire last night. Jimmy's pressure cooker pot roast was excellent, and the fireside conversation was stimulating. We're all enjoying the full moon and the resulting sharp long shadows that confuse night with day. The high canyon walls on either side of us are clearly silhouetted on one side, and lit up in moon-glow on the other -- like a negative of a photo

With Halloween and the end of daylight saving time on the same night we were ready for anything. No goblins or ghosts or imitation Hannah Montana's showed up at the bus-house door, so our supply of M&M's is safe for a while longer. The clocks seem to be confused this morning... or is it us? What time is it anyway?

We're thinking we'll take it easy today and try to recover some degree of stability. We may take a short bike ride up the Pa'rus bike trail this afternoon. Dar's working on photos from yesterday, of course, and I'm writing and reading and keeping an eye on the canyon -- to make sure it doesn't vanish and this all becomes a dream.

In Zion NP...
Thom