Day 200 – Glen Canyon Dam and Bryce

This morning we packed up our stuff and headed out to the bottom of the Glen Canyon Dam for our rafting adventure (another “ride or our lives” according to Julie).

The bottom of the Dam is not an easy place to get to. The last two miles are a one-way tunnel bored into the rock. Security is at the same time both tight and lax. Theoretically you’re not allowed to bring any guns/knives/explosives/weapons of mass destruction beyond the security checkpoint, but the river rafting company gets to do its own security checks, which basically involves someone glancing in the general direction of your bag and saying, “yep, that looks fine.”

At any rate we made it to the bottom of the Dam which, amazingly, looks even larger from the bottom. There is about 150 feet of hard hat area when you get off the bus (you’re standing right under the bridge and anything falling from that has 500 feet to pick up speed before hitting you. We walked down to the water on a long causeway that ate the soles of Dad’s water shoes for breakfast. The boats were large twenty-seater pontoons but they were filled less than half full for us. Our river guide, Cory, was very knowledgable about the river, geology, and the history of the region. He told us a couple of yarns though, including a herd of big horn sheep that had been trained to cross the river in a cart suspended by a cable about twenty feet up (reality: geologists use it to get from one side to the other).

The water is a balmy 47 degrees when it comes out of the Dam. Early in the morning when the river is still in shadow it’s a bit cool down there. We saw a couple of brave souls in wadders fishing for trout. Cory recited a bit of Powell’s journal (the passage about beginning their journey “how many ________ lie before us, we know not…”) and we started our own journey.

There was a bag full of cans of lemonade hanging off the side of the boat, keeping them at a crisp 47 degrees for us. We mostly floated for the first part of the journey. The walls are about 700 feet above the river at the mouth of the Dam but by the end of our journey they had soared to more than 1000 feet around Horseshoe bend. It’s very difficult to get any sense of scale when you’re down there though. They’re simply enormous!

At about the halfway point we pulled up onto one of the few sandy beaches (most have been eroded away and aren’t being replenished because the sediment is trapped behind the Dam). We walked a short way up but it was amazing how much hotter it got even a few feet from the River. Cory and I chatted on the way up. He went to the University of Colorado to study Environmental Science. He worked for an oil company for a couple of years and was miserable, so he moved back to Arizona and started running tours on the Colorado River during the summer and is a ski patroller in the winter.

Our destination was a rock wall, covered in black manganese that had petroglyphs carved into it by the Anisazi. There were a few rare depictions of humans, as well as the four steps (one of the only land accessible trails) and long horn sheep.

We retreated back to the relative coolness of the river and the kids on the trip did the polar plunge by rushing into the water and submerging themselves up to their heads. Dad waded in up to his knees, but I stuck one foot in Lake Michigan one time and that was enough (and it’s about ten degrees warmer than the Colorado!).

We hopped back on the boat and continued on to Lee’s Ferry, which is mile 0 of the Grand Canyon. White water rafting trips put in at Lee’s Ferry, but we got out.

Those of us who were soggy changed and got back on the bus to head for Bryce. We crossed into Utah and lost an hour so our late lunch was very late. It was at a Western Movie Museum. It was a little kitschy but all in good fun. We were seated at long tables but before the dinner bell was rung we were all drafted into the filming of our very own Western. I was an Indian, but Dad got to be the playboy (meaning the fiddler, of course).  We were costumed, choreographed, and then played out our movie. After than we had our Tauk group photo taken. I have to say it will be the most unique group photo ever taken on a Tauk tour…

We went back inside and had a really tasty barbecue lunch. There was salad, corn-meal dusted biscuits, roasted potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and beef with homemade barbecue sauce. Everybody chowed down.

After lunch, there was (predictably) one enormous gift shop to go through. I ended up purchasing a straw cowboy hat. Out here you can really use the extra sun protection. I can see why they invented them! Also it will look dashing on tomorrow’s trail ride…

After lunch we loaded up the bus and headed into Bryce. We passed and Elk farm and a Bison farm along the way, as well as a lot of baby horses. We got dropped off at the Bryce Visitor Center while Julie and Ron went to drop our bags off at the hotel and get our room keys. We watched the orientation video (standard def on an old projector, yeesh) and the scenery was beautiful. After we were back on the bus Dad immediately e-mailed his company to tell them to follow up with the visitor center about upgrading their system.

We got to our hotel and headed out to the Rim of the amphitheater (it is incorrect to call Bryce a canyon because there is not water running through the middle of it, rather it slopes down only on one side merging with the plane below). Dad pointed out that the design of the Bryce lodge is just the way Disney would have done it. The buildings are inset about from the edge of the canyon and are on the lower part of a downward slope. You have to walk up to get to the rim. This means that you don’t get any sneak peaks of the beauty in the amphitheater until you see the whole thing suddenly drop away before you.

Bryce's Hoodoos

And Bryce is breathtaking. The rock spires (called hoodoos) caught the setting sunlight, which made them appear even redder than they really are. We walked along the rim taking in all the different angles of the hoodoos. Some looked like chess pieces, others looked like greek statues… with a little imagination the whole valley appears to be filled with fantastic creations.

Shadow with cowboy hat

Adorable siblings

Eventually we strolled back towards our room. We saw a california ground squirrel (commonly miscalled a chipmunk) and they are tiny! I bet I could comfortably fit three of them in one hand. They have very long tales and are very quick.

"Chipmunk"

We had dinner at the lodge and created our own surf and turf by sharing blue cornmeal dusted trout and short ribs coated in cinnamon. The cinnamon was a really great idea. I was fading very fast so we went back to the room and I conked out right away. I suppose I could try blaming the altitude for my sleepiness, but I have a feeling it’s just from doing so many wonderful things a day on this tour.

Day 199 – Lake Powell

This morning we took a scenic flight out over Lake Powell in a little Cessna Caravan, an eight-seater prop plane. We took off at about 8:30am and looped over the lake, circling around the impressive Rainbow Bridge. The water is so low in the reservoir right now that the only way to get to Rainbow Bridge is to hike or to fly. After that we turned towards the Navajo reservation and headed out over monument valley. We landed at an even smaller air strip on the reservation and were picked up by a Navajo guide.

Pilots getting ready for take off

Plane's Shadow

Glen Canyon Dam from the air

Lake Powell

Rainbow Bridge

Our first stop on the tour was only about 150 feet from the landing strip and it was a hogan, a traditional Navajo dwelling constructed of cedar logs, a layer of insulating bark, and then lots of mud. There was an older Navajo woman in the hut demonstrating traditional arts, crafts, and Navajo homemaking. She spun wool into yarn, had beautiful weavings she was working on, and ground corn into meal.

After that demonstration we headed out for the valley proper…

Our flight over the lake was perfectly smooth. Things got a little bumpier once we were over the warmer plains air, but those bumps were nothing compared to the bumps we felt on the unpaved “road” through the monuments! It was a roller coaster out there!

We had several stops along the road to get out and take pictures of monuments. Amazingly there were Navajo “strip malls” tables or plywood shacks at every stop! Imagine that. I bought a $10 necklace and Dad browsed through the interesting stones they had for sale.

Monument Valley

The best thing I bought however was a $2 picture sitting on top of a mustang! It was the most patient horse I have ever met. We were right next to the Three Sisters formation, a location that has been scouted by Hollywood for decades, and everyday this Navajo man brings his horse, decked out in traditional western gear, to stand and have inexperienced people of all shapes and sizes sit on him and get photographed. He was so well behaved for all of that though! The guy helped you mount up, then basically just backed away and the horse didn’t move or do anything at all, except stand there, presenting his best angle. Oh, and he was really fuzzy too.

Our own personal Lone Ranger

Unleashing my inner cowgirl

Dad and I both took lots of pictures of the monuments. It was amazing and beautiful country. Looking out at the sweeping desert definitely made you want to saddle up and ride into the sunset. The temperature discouraged such activities though. It could have been much worse, I’ll admit. It probably was only in the mid 90s today because the rain cooled things off a bit, but it was still too hot to be out for long. Despite our early start and layers of sunscreen Dad and I both got a little bit of color.


We headed back to the air strip and took off for our return flight to Lake Powell where we were met by Julie and Ron, who spent all day playing musical passengers. Today there were several activities and combinations of activities you could choose from, and most involved Tauk transportation which must have been a scheduling ordeal for poor Julie.

We opted for the Monument Valley tour and a boat excursion onto Lake Powell to see Antelope Canyon.

We had a little down-time between our return from the airport and our boat tour. We had lunch with a man and his son, who had also been out to Monument Valley with us. It turned out he was a radiologist and he gave me some comforting news about medical school: it’s easier than undergrad! Thank goodness! He also suggested some other medical schools I might consider applying too including Duke and the University of Vermont.

After lunch we headed back to the room and chilled for a little bit, examining our pictures from today. The boat tour left from our hotel’s backyard (literally) so it was a short walk over. Dad and I opted to not sit on the top deck in full blazing sun. The canyon was cool, and it was neat to be so up-close to the canyon walls. The color is quite dramatic because there is a shift between the white calcium carbonate that coats the walls up to the high-water mark and the red oxidized iron in the sandstone above.


We discovered a shady spot aft for part of the return trip and took some good photos of the rock formations. I played around with my camera settings and polarizer, experimenting a little.

Girl diving into the water

After the 90 minute cruise it was back to the room for a bit before we headed over to the Rainbow Room for dinner. We were seated alone at a table for six so I guess we can’t complain about the elbow room! Our server, Glade, was an interesting character! He suggested two delicious appetizers, corn fritters and a spinach queso that was lighter and fluffier (due to a ricotta-like cheese) than most spinach dips. I had 16 spiced chicken that had a sweet prickly pear sauce drizzled on top. I was impressed considering how many times we’d been warned about the service here! Glade was very fascinated to learn that French restaurant edict does not involve the waiter pouring the wine or water, but rather leaving it on the table for the guest to pour.

Tomorrow will be an early morning and we’re going to float down the Colorado river starting at the mouth of the dam and then head on to Bryce.

Day 197 – The Grand Canyon

This morning began with a 6am wake up call, bags out at 7am, wheels rolling at 8am.

On our drive out of Phoenix our guide, Julie, talked about a variety of things including: Arizona sports teams, Saguaro cacti, local flora, history, and geography.

We made a quick stop at Montezuma’s Castle, misnamed by previous explorers (Montezuma never built anything in this part of Arizona). There was a walking path that made a circle around the cliff wall so you could see the impressive (somewhat impractical) structure. Julie gave everyone on the bus a “Passport to the National Parks” with blank pages for stamping each time you visit a national park or monument. We got four stamps at Montezuma’s Castle alone! One with the date, one for the park, one to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the visitor center’s “new” building, and one with Teddy Roosevelt’s face on it.

Dad in front of ancient cliff dwelling

Squirrel

After that we headed into Sedona for lunch. We were dropped off on a touristy yet charming main street area. I actually suggested a Mexican restaurant for lunch, Taos, which turned out to be quite tasty. I had fish tacos with mango salsa that were really delicious! I didn’t touch my refried black beans though…

The weather has been quite changeable on our trip so far but I don’t mind at all. The intermittent rain is keeping the temperature down and my Chicago skin from instantly crisping in the sun. It rained heavily for about three minutes during the first part of our lunch but by the time we had paid the sky was completely clear again. I bought a couple of postcards and we admired the red rock formations while waiting for the bus to pick us up.

After lunch we continued the drive toward the Grand Canyon. The scenery changes quite rapidly with the changing altitude. It is amazing how there seems to be an invisible line above or below which certain plants simply do not grow.

We stopped at a National Geographic center to watch an Imax presentation about the Grand Canyon. They had popcorn that smelled sooo good, but I managed to refrain. Their popcorn condiments included a lot more flavors than I have ever seen on display before. In addition to salt, butter, and day-glow cheese they also had chocolate marshmallow as a flavor spread. The Imax movie was quite well done, although I would not have wanted to be one of the stunt men in that teeny boat going through those rapids…

We arrived at the Grand Canyon at about 4:40. Dad and I planned to hike along the eastern trail before dinner and take photographs with my shnazy SLR. We threw our stuff down, rushed outside in time for 10 minutes of beautiful weather, and then the sky opened up, soaking us (though thankfully not my camera) with cold rain that felt like it had recently been hail. We took refuge in the Hopi House and did a little shopping. Having only made if about 50 yards we returned to the room and exchanged our wet clothing for dryer stuff and started our hike again.

Grand Canyon Sunset


It was very pleasant. The sun was going down, turning all the rocks and formations bright interesting colors with lots of contrast. The rain cooled things down a bit so it wasn’t too much of a strain to hike in the thin atmosphere. We went about two miles and then caught the shuttle back, just in time for dinner at the El Tovar.

We had a lovely table next to a widow. Through it I could see the forecast thunderstorm approaching. We shared salmon and trout croscanti that were really excellent. I felt like our roles were reversed however when I had salmon and Dad had a Filet Mignon. Our waiter was an interesting fellow. He was an excellent and professional waiter but he had studied Physics in college and knew all about Niels Bohr and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and had even visited Copenhagen to see Bohr’s Institute. We exchanged reading recommendations. I recommended the play “Copenhagen” to him and he recommended “Copenhagen and Faust” to me. I will have to check it out when we get home!

When we left the El Tovar to go back to our room we discovered a large herd of Elk grazing on the El Tovar’s nice irrigated lawn. They seemed incredibly unconcerned by the tourists and the flashbulbs going off…

El Tovar Elk

Day 196 – Phoenix, Arizona

This morning when I opened my eyes I was convinced I had slept the entire morning away only to discover it was actually 7:45am. We went to breakfast in the dining room. They had a nice buffet with lots of little offerings. The mini everything bagels were delicious, and just the right size. But the show stealer was definitely the bacon. I have to believe they smoke it locally because it is so flavorful and fresh.

After breakfast we took a short (very hot) walk over towards the base of Pinnacle Peak, a redundant name if you ask me. I took lots of photos. Pinnacle Peak is in the background of this photo framed by some cactus.

Pinnacle Peak Through Cactus

We retreated back to the air-conditioned comfort of our room after lunch out by the pool, and spent a quiet afternoon reading and playing on the internet. This afternoon a thunderstorm rolled in and sprinkled a little rain on everything. The rain sounds quite different here. It plinks when it hits the rocks because there’s nothing to soften the impact.

We met our tour group tonight, and I am most definitely (for the first time ever) not the youngest person on the tour. There are at least 15 kids under the age of 15 on the trip. We sat with a nice family from Connecticut and a grandmother from Maryland traveling with her granddaughter. The banquet-style dinner was nice and the chicken wasn’t too rubbery.

Most of the group came in today and was fading pretty rapidly by the end. The tour starts in earnest tomorrow as we trek to the grand canyon…

Day 195 – Phoenix, Arizona

Today Dad and I jetted off for the beginning of our out west adventure. We had an uneventful flight from Chicago to Phoenix and I can guarantee no one on the plane was superstitious (today is Friday the 13th) and the flight was, surprisingly, full.

We landed twenty minutes early only. Oddly, it had rained just before our arrival, unusual for this time of year, and the rain cooled things off significantly. Today it was actually cooler and wetter in Phoenix than it was back in Evanston!

We’re staying at the Four Seasons hotel in Scottsdale. Our room is on the ground floor and has a nice patio. I’m not sure if it was the rain that brought all the critters out or if there is just lots of wildlife here but in a few minutes outside I saw a multitude of birds, four horny toad lizards, and two jack rabbits. I dusted off my camera and took some shots of the desert plants. The picture of the day is of some prickly pear blooming outside.

We had a quiet afternoon and then had dinner at the hotel restaurant, Talavera, which is quite fond of using ‘quotation marks’ around their ‘menu’ items. Dinner was tasty. Dad had a vegetarian ‘wellington’ and I had sea bass (probably not locally caught – excuse the desert humor). Tomorrow we meet up with our tour and begin the trip in earnest!