All posts by Iwillfigureitout

I am a traveler, a writer, and a seeker of truth and beauty. Author of THE UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES OF NOT LIVING FULLY (Available on Amazon) Based in Austin, Texas

White Sands National Monument & Alamogordo, New Mexico ~ November 6 – 9, 2014

White Sands National Monument

We fell in love with White Sands National Monument (now a national park). Best we could tell, we had the dunes to ourselves.

Drive into White Sands National Monument
Drive into White Sands National Monument

Hiking the 2-mile Backcountry Camping Trail was great for gaining a sense of the parks’ magnitude and beauty. It also provided us with the surreal experience of exploring an alien-like environment.

White Sands NM 1
Backcountry Camping Area, White Sands NP, New Mexico

The San Andres Mountains rise up along the park’s western border. Their size and contrast against the white gypsum give the allusion that they’re closer than they are… White Sands encompasses 228 square miles! No, you can’t walk across it.

Trey, White Sands National Monument
Trey, White Sands National Monument

Treading across the vast whiteness, amongst the ever flowing and shifting dunes, one can easily lose their bearings. It’s both exuberant and eerie, but always having a trail marker within sight was reassuring.

Trail Markers, White Sands National Monument
Trail Markers, White Sands National Monument

November was perfect timing for our visit… cool and gorgeous weather, perfect sky, and no people.

We played like kids and appreciated the experience fully.

White Sands NB 3
Backcountry Camping Area, White Sands NP

Once again, the visitor center was looping an informative film on the park’s history, geology and ecology.

At 10,000 years, White Sands is a relatively young environment. The expanding (even onto surrounding highways) sandy tract was formed by gypsum deposits in the nearby mountains.

White Sands NM 2
White Sands National Monument

Northeasterly winds break off gypsum pieces and grind them into fine bits, dusting the basin continuously.

White Sands NM 4

We’d already decided to return after dark for star gazing but learned that the park’s gates close at 6pm – no entry or exit after that time.

Escape Mobile, White Sands NM
Escape Mobile Alone in the Parking Lot

Alamogordo, New Mexico

We’d chosen Alamogordo as a base due to its proximity to White Sands and only became aware of all it has to offer upon our arrival. First up…

New Mexico Space History Museum

Tularosa Basin has been an epicenter for military research and testing since the U.S. entered World War II. It is home to Holloman Air Force Base and White Sands Missile Range, both innovators in technology and aeronautical aviation.

As a Smithsonian affiliate, the Space History Museum preserves New Mexico’s role in space flight and tells the larger story of the U.S. space program, from the space race with the then Soviet Union to NASA’s ongoing mars program.

Not only are there numerous exhibits from each progressing stage of the U.S. space program, there are several educational videos and interactive displays.

You can even test your skill at landing a space shuttle using a simulator. Trey managed to crash, while I ranked “flown where no man has gone before.” I don’t recall if that was a good or bad thing.

The Museum and it’s International Hall of Fame where Ham, the first space chimpanzee is honored, kept us fascinated for hours.

Then there is the John P. Stapp Air and Space Park that surrounds the museum building. A lunar module capsule, land-speed vehicle, launching track, and rockets of all sorts cover the grounds overlooking the City of Alamogordo.

Wine & Pistachios

We didn’t realize we were back in wine country until we passed a billboard on the way to the space museum. The billboard advertised a winery further up the main road, White Sands Boulevard, but several other vineyards surround the area.

Tularosa Basin’s soil composition, altitude, and temperatures make it ideal for grape production. Spanish settlers and missionaries knew this and were the initiators of New Mexico’s wine tradition.

We sampled wines at Heart of the Desert and Arena Blanca wineries and bought a couple of bottles.

Arena Blanca is associated with the Pistachio Tree Ranch, or Pistachio Land, a 90-acre orchard and home to the world’s largest pistachio.

Pistachio trees benefit from the same natural conditions that make this basin ideal for grapes. A bag of roasted and shelled pistachios sustained us through the remainder of our trip. Very fresh and yummy!

Food…

Blake’s Lotaburger, a family owned chain, is a New Mexico tradition much like Texas’ Whataburger. Its fame expanded beyond New Mexico when it was featured in the AMC’s series Breaking Bad. We hadn’t yet watched Breaking Bad but were lured to Blake’s simply by its authentic and nostalgic burger joint vibe. It did not disappoint; the green chilies burger was nothing less than phenomenal!

We thought our last family visit had taken place in Reno with my brother and his family. No, one more Alamogordo surprise awaited.

Trey’s nephew lives in El Paso, which wasn’t on our path of travel. Happily, Jim contacted us and proposed meeting for lunch in between El Paso and Alamogordo. He suggested La Posta’s in Messila (Old Town Los Cruces).

Best Mexican food of the entire trip! And if anyone has read through these blog posts, they know we love Mexican food and ate it whenever we could… from Montreal, Quebec to the Redwood Forest.

It was wonderful catching up with Jim and we were so grateful for the opportunity to add one last reunion to this six-month trek.

Next Stop…

Ruidoso, New Mexico (via Cloudcroft and the Lincoln National Forest)

Lincoln National Forest

More Pics…

Tombstone, AZ & Gila National Monument, NM ~ November 4 – 5, 2014

Tombstone, Arizona

Tombstone, AZ 1
Tombstone, Arizona

Between I-10 and the Mexican border lies the infamous town of Tombstone, Arizona. It’s an easy drive from Tucson —about 75 miles—and the cutoff (Hwy 80) was on the way to New Mexico.

Tombstone, AZ 2
Tombstone, Arizona

Like Virginia City, Nevada, Tombstone’s classic western scape is preserved and attracts tourists now rather than cowboys, miners, and outlaws.

OK Corral, Tombstone AZ

Since we weren’t interested in souvenirs or saloons, there wasn’t much to do except walk around, bask in the nostalgia, and read historical markers.

In 1877, and after being told he was foolish and would only discover his own tombstone, Edward Schieffelin found silver in the surrounding hills. By the mid-1880’s, his small encampment had grown into the town of Tombstone with a population upwards of 15,000.

Yet, Tombstone is worth the detour whether you love the lore of the American West or are simply curious. In fact, it enticed us longer than we’d meant to stay.

Heading East on I-10

The detour to Tombstone added 50 miles to the 200-mile drive to southwestern New Mexico, and it was already late afternoon. By the time we were again heading east on I-10, the sun was setting.

Waxing Moon, I-10 east of Tucson
Waxing Moon, I-10 heading toward New Mexico

Cookies, it’s what’s for dinner!

After the deluge in Redwoods National Forest, we had no more camping plans. We also knew there’d be no kitchen access for the remaining eleven days of this adventure, so there was no need to tote food, other than a few snacks. Plus, we’d filled our bellies with a hearty breakfast at Cross Roads Restaurant in Tucson and felt satisfied enough to get through to evening. But, the long day and drive had us arriving in Silver City, NM just after restaurants had closed. Luckily Petit Écolier cookies, leftover from making s’mores, sustained us to morning. This wasn’t the first time we had cookies for dinner.

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument (Pronounced Hee-la)

Gila Cliff Dwellings NM 9
Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

The remnant cliff dwellings lay deep within Gila National Forest. After turning off Silver City’s main road onto Hwy 15, we started climbing and signs of civilization soon succumbed to a verdant wilderness.

GNF Map

The road mostly follows the Gila River while twisting around, over, and atop the ridges of mountains for 40 miles.

Atop Ridge, Hwy 15, New Mexico
Atop Ridge, Hwy 15, New Mexico

At the visitor center we watched a brief and informative video. The cliffside homes are believed to have been constructed by Mogollon (Mo-go-yone) Puebloans beginning in the 1270’s. But these original inhabitants had moved on by 1300, perhaps due to drought.

The Chiricahua Apache settled there in the 1500’s and remained in the area until the U.S. government forced their removal between 1870 and 1886. The last Apache to sadly leave this ancestral land were led by a defeated Geronimo (Goyahkla).

Gila Canyon, Cliff Dwellings Nat'l Monument
Gila Canyon, Cliff Dwellings Nat’l Monument

The Gila National Forest is spotted with ancient pueblo ruins, yet none as unique and Eden-like as the cliff-dwellings… seven caves high on a canyon cliff topped with fertile soil for growing corn, beans, and squash (the “three sisters”).

Gila Cliff Dwellings
Caves 2, 4 and 5 (Cave 3 is between 2 & 4 but its entrance is set back and not visible from this angle)

The middle fork of the Gila River runs below the caves and in early November appeared more creek-like.

1-Mile Loop Trail to Gila Cliff Dwellings
1-Mile Loop Trail to Gila Cliff Dwellings

Only five of the caves were used as living quarters. Cave number 6 appeared to be used for rituals while hard-to-reach cave 7 had no trace of human occupancy.

Gila Cliff Dwellings NM 4
Gila Cliff Dwellings, New Mexico

Unlike Montezuma’s castle, visitors are allowed into the Gila Cliff Dwellings. Being a weekday in November, the forest ranger and a volunteer were the only other persons inside the caves.

Gila Cliff Dwellings NM 1
Inside Cave 3, Gila National Monument, NM

The ranger pointed out unique architectural details including a structure believed to be used for food storage, like a pantry.

Storage Pantry, Gila Cliff Dwellings
Storage Pantry, Gila Cliff Dwellings

We particularly enjoyed cave 3, the largest and coolest (as in temperature), and its view was fabulous.

Meditating, Cave 3, Gila Cliff Dwellings
Meditating in Cave 3, Gila Cliff Dwellings

Having the dwellings to ourselves was special and a memorable experience.

We were able to spend amble time inside the caves to fully appreciate the area’s beauty, sense of safety, and peace.

Gila Cliff Dwellings NM 8

For the return trip to Silver Springs we opted to continue looping the scenic byway—the Trail of the Mountain Spirits—into San Lorenzo then back west to Silver Springs.

Trail of the Mountain Spirts Byway

This only added thirty miles to our trip, but Trey and I both agreed the more picturesque route was Hwy 15.

View from Hwy 15 New Mexico
View from Hwy 15 New Mexico

Silver City, New Mexico

Silver City is a friendly mining town nestled aside a mountain and a tad east of the Continental Divide. More modern than expected (not rustic) yet it retains a quaint, small town quality. We savored an authentic Mexican dinner at La Cocina and a hearty breakfast at the artsy Adobe Café. Highly recommend both!

Next Stop…

Alamogordo & White Sands National Park, New Mexico (via quirky Hatch New Mexico…)

More pics…

Lizard, Gila Nat'l Monument, NM
Gila National Forest Lizard 🙂
Casting Shadows, Gila Natl Monument, NM
Casting Shadows, Gila National Monument

Saguaro National Park & Kitt Peak National Observatory ~ November 2 & 3, 2014

We were back among the stately saguaro cacti of the Sonoran Desert.

Sun setting over Saguaro Natl Park W, AZ (Golden Gate Rd)

Tucson, Arizona has a bit of a funky college town feel. That vibe and its 530k population reminded us of our home, Austin, from when we’d first moved there in the 1980’s. Austin’s population has since exploded and it’s small-town funkiness has faded somewhat, so we relished our time in Tucson.

We’d slept in after arriving late the previous evening. By the time we waited for seating at a popular brunch spot (see below), the sun had moved well west of 90⁰. Yet, we continued as planned… to hike among the enchanting saguaros.

Saguaro National Park – West

The city of Tucson divides Saguaro National Park into west and east sides.

SNP Maps

While the city seems to be encroaching the parks’ borders, both are full of saguaro cacti, and have hiking trails and scenic loop drives.

Saguaro Natl Park W, AZ 1
Saguaro Natl Park W, AZ

We first headed to the western section, or the Tucson Mountain District, because it is smaller and recommended for those pressed for time.

Sendero-Esperanza Trail, Saguaro NP W 2

Yet, it still provided us with a sense of wilderness hiking.

The Sendero Esperanza Trail begins just off Golden Gate Road near the Ez-Kim-In-Zin picnic area where we found plenty of parking space. The first mile stays within a valley and crosses through and around sandy washes.

Sendero-Esperanza Trail, Saguaro NP W 1
Sendero-Esperanza Trail, Saguaro NP W

The valley was lovely, with the trail winding through saguaro, barrel and cholla cacti.

Birdsong filled the air and critter holes dotted the trail’s sides.

We saw several lizards and beetles and kept a lookout for road runners, snakes, and cactus mice.

Cactus Wren, Saguaro Nat'l Park, AZ
Cactus Wren, Saguaro Nat’l Park W, AZ

As the trail began to climb the saguaros became more abundant.

Saguaro NP W

We noticed how each one, with their varied appendages – twisting, pointing, displaying, signaling – seemed to have its own personality.

I Love You So Much! Saguaro Nat'l Park W, AZ
I Love You So Much! Saguaro Nat’l Park W, AZ

We loved hiking among them! 

After a series of switchbacks, we reached a ridge and the intersection of another trail, the Hugh Norris Trail.

Hugh Norris Ridge Trail, Saguaro NP W 2
Trey on the Hugh Norris Ridge Trail, Saguaro NP W

Instead of continuing down the Sendero Esperanza Trail, we cut left up the ridge that leads to Wasson Peak, (4,687’).

Saguaro Natl Park W from Hugh Norris Ridge
View from Hugh Norris Ridge Trail, Saguaro NP W

Although the summit was only about 1-1/2 miles away, the sun was now low in the sky. We had to turn back to avoid hiking after dark.

Saguaro Natl Park W
Sendero Esperanza Trail, Saguaro NP W

We returned to the Escape Mobile just after the sun had set and turned the western sky a gorgeous shade of burnt orange.

Saguaro National Park W, AZ
Sunset, Golden Gate Road, Saguaro National Park W, AZ

The silhouettes of our new friends, the saguaros, against the backdrop of an orange sky is a favorite memory.

Saguaro National Park – East

Cool, crisp air filled the Rincon Mountain District. The morning was beautiful and perfect for touring the east side of Saguaro National Park by bicycle.

Cactus Forest Drive, Saguaro Natl Park E, AZ (2)
Cactus Forest Drive, Saguaro Natl Park E

Cactus Forest Drive is a one-way, 8-mile loop covering a tiny portion of the park.

Saguaro NP E
Saguaro NP E Overlook from Cactus Forest Drive

But its saguaro forest, scenic overlooks, and optional ecology trail offer a taste of the vastness that stretches eastward from the road.

Access to this wilderness is by foot only so we stayed to road.

Cactus Forest Drive, Saguaro Natl Park E, AZ
Trey on Cactus Forest Drive, Saguaro NP E

The ride is hilly, at times steep… you need durable legs and good brakes.

Saguaro Natl Park E, AZ

Fortunately, there are several areas to stop, rest, and bask in the desert vistas.

Our early arrival allowed us to take our time and return to our hotel to rest up for the evening’s adventure.

Kitt Peak National Observatory

“We must not allow the clock and the calendar
to bind us to the fact that each moment of life
is
a miracle and a mystery.”
~H.G. Wells

 From every direction, mountains spring up from the desert floor and surround the city of Tucson. There are five mountain ranges within and around the city’s perimeter, and even more on its outskirts, including the Quinlan Mountains.

Kitt Peak Natl Observatory, AZ 1
Kitt Peak National Observatory

At 6,877 feet, Kitt Peak is the highest of the Quinlan Mountains and is accessible off AZ Hwy 86, about forty miles west of Tucson. Kitt Peak lies on native land (Tohono O’odham) far from city lights; it’s also home to the world’s largest collection of telescopes. 

In addition to daily public tours, they offer nightly sky/star viewing programs, which is what we opted to do.

0.9 Meter Telescope, Kitt Peak
0.9 Meter Telescope, Kitt Peak

With temps in the 30’s and the moon close to full, the conditions weren’t ideal for star gazing. Yet, we were thrilled with the experience.

Sunset from Kitt Peak
Sunset Nov 3 2014, from Kitt Peak

Our guide, Sean, explained the purpose and capabilities of each telescope and was extremely knowledgeable. We watched the sunset and then identified stars and planets as they appeared in the darkening sky.

Kitt Peak Natl Observatory, AZ 2

Eventually, and with some help from Sean and a pair of binoculars, we spied our galactic next-door neighbor, Andromeda. Using one of the telescopes (not heated, but at least sheltered from the icy wind) the night sky was even more wondrous!

The 12-mile drive from the highway up to the peak is narrow and winding… not a problem in the daylight. But the return drive down the mountain was harrowing. Because headlights interfere with the telescopes, only parking lights are allowed until you’ve passed a certain point.

Moon, Nov 3 2014 from Kitt Peak
Moon, Nov 3 2014 from Kitt Peak

Even with a near-full moon, it was extremely dark. As we strained to assure the Escape Mobile stayed on course we also kept an eye out for wildlife. We were instructed to continue driving slowly after turning on our headlights because wildlife hang out along the road, including a great Horned Owl around mile marker 8. We had hoped to see that owl.

After safely descending Kitt Peak and soon after turning east onto AZ Hwy 86… Wowza! That Great Horned Owl cut right in front of us! His wings spanned across our entire windshield blocking our view briefly and scaring the heck out of us. We weren’t sure if he was chasing after potential prey or exclaiming, “Here I am, you dummies!”

FOOD

Blue Willow was a fun, funky, and delicious brunch spot. Fresh and local. They also have a great gift shop to peruse while waiting for a table… it is extremely popular with the locals!

Blue Willow Breakfast, Tucson, AZ
Blue Willow Breakfast, Tucson, AZ

Local dive, Franks, was great for a cheap, quick, classic American breakfast. No frills and that’s the way they like it!

1103140909

Cross Roads Restaurant was advertised as some of the best Mexican Food in Tucson. We skipped the buffet and ordered off the menu.

Crossroads Restaurant, Tucson AZ 3

Trey was incredibly pleased with his favorite… enchiladas con huevos, as was I with a southwest version of huevos rancheros. Two yums up!

Next Stop… Gila National Forest and Silver City, New Mexico

Sign of home (Texas)
Sign of home (Texas)

 

More Pics…

Cholla, Saguaro Natl Park W
Cholla, Saguaro Natl Park W

Calliandra, Saguaro Natl Park W
Calliandra, Saguaro Natl Park W

 

Coachella Valley & Joshua Tree National Park, California ~ October 29 – November 1, 2014

Always looking to take advantage of good deals on accommodations, we were lured into Coachella Valley by an email received a month prior. The promotional offer was from a lavish golf resort in the town of Rancho Mirage:  four nights in a luxury villa at an on-budget rate if we listened to their one-hour sales pitch.

Westin Mission Hills Pool
Source: Westin Mission Hills Resort

Situated between the desert havens of Palm Springs and Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage was not on our bucket list, but Joshua Tree National Park was and lies 40 miles away. No brainer!

For the first time since Seattle (almost two months back), we had a kitchen.

Cooking dinner followed by lively conversations with other guests in the hot tub became our nightly routine.

Dinner, Rancho Mirage

Our stay in Rancho Mirage was an extravagant gift that we appreciated fully…

Trey played a round of golf while I spent the afternoon at the spa.

Gary Player Signature Course, Rancho Mirage CA
Gary Player Signature Course – Source: Westin Mission Hills

We basked fully in luxury’s lap while we could.

Mt. San Jacinto

The two excursions we made outside of the resort was to drive through old school celebrities’ neighborhoods north of downtown Palm Springs, and to travel up the side of San Jacinto Mountain via the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. (Trey also spent an evening at a local casino, but doesn’t want to talk about it.)

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

The rotating tram travels 2.5 miles up the mountain, dropping you off at the edge of a massive wilderness.

View of Coachella Valley from Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
View from Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

The views across the valley to the Little San Bernardino Mountains are stunning.

View from atop Palm Springs Aerial Tramway 1
View from atop Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

Along with restaurants, a gift shop and other amenities, the top offers access to loads of hiking trails. We hiked only about a mile down from the mountain station because it was late in the afternoon (tram ticket prices are lower), quite chilly, and the climb back up was steep. Yet, we ventured far enough to sense the wild vastness ahead. We hoped to see wildlife, but I think the cold and late hour kept them away.

Tram Map

If we had planned better, we would have gotten an early start and hiked to San Jacinto Peak, which is a 5.5 mile one-way trail that connects up with the Pacific Coast Trail. But alas, darkness was approaching so we dangled back down Mt. San Jacinto and drove to Rancho Mirage where we spent the remaining evening plotting our course for the next two weeks.

Rancho Miraco Lizard
Lizard Outside Our Villa

Joshua Tree National Park

We were heading eastward toward Texas, to our home. Joshua Tree was on the way, so we waited until we were leaving California to visit it.

Joshua Tree Nat'l Park, CA 3

Best I can tell, the park’s 794,000 acres encompass five mountain ranges (Coxcomb, Eagle, Cottonwood, Hexie, & Little San Bernardino) and two deserts (Mojave & Colorado).

We entered from the south off Interstate 10 and through the Cottonwood Mountains.

Pinto Basin, Joshua Tree NP
Pinto Basin, Joshua Tree Nat’l Park

A ranger at the Cottonwood Visitor Center helped us to strategically plan our time. He suggested continuing our drive north through the heart of the park and hiking the Barker Dam Loop Trail.

Joshua Tree Nat'l Park, CA 2

The drive alone is a great way to experience the joshua trees… they’re everywhere!

Cholla Cactus, Joshua Tree NP
Cholla Cactus, Joshua Tree Nat;l Park

Scattered among them are mojave yuccas and cholla cacti.

The Joshua Tree cactus gets its branches through a unique process. It grows straight upwards until it blooms…. no blossoms, no branches. Once it blooms and the blossoms die and fall off, a new branch will leaf out from residual scar and grows until it blooms and restarts the process.

Joshua Tree Nat'l Park, CA
Mature Joshua Tree, Joshua Tree NP CA

On the drive to Barker Dam, there are several places to pull over and enjoy the scenery.

Skull Rock, Joshua Tree NP
Skull Rock, Joshua Tree National Park

We particularly enjoyed the Cholla Cactus Garden…

Cholla Cactus Garden, Joshua Tree NP
Cholla Cactus Garden, Joshua Tree Nat’l Park

and the “jumbo rocks” along Park Boulevard.

Joshua Tree Nat'l Park, CA 4

The Barker Dam loop is perfect if you’re crunched for time.

Trey, Joshua Tree Nat'l Park
Trey on the Barker Dam Loop Trail

It’s just over a mile long, and wends through giant rock formations on a pathway lined with impressive and playful joshua trees.

Although our time was limited, we gained an appreciation for, and were inspired by, the plant-life, mountains, and deserts that make up Joshua Tree National Park.

Joshua Tree Nat'l Park, CA
Joshua Tree Nat’l Park

Next stop…  Tucson, Arizona

Joshua Tree Nat'l Park, CA
Leaving Joshua Tree National Park

More pics…

Barker Loop Trail, Joshua Tree NP 1
Barker Loop Trail, Joshua Tree Nat’l Park

Barker Loop Trail, Joshua Tree NP 2
Old Water Tank Along the Barker Dam Trail

San Diego, California ~ October 26 – 28, 2014

Excited to be in San Diego, a new city for us, we strategically plotted how best to spend our limited time. With actual set reservations beginning on the 28th, we would only get to dip our metaphorical toes into all that San Diego has to offer. Plus, we desperately needed to do laundry so cracked that out at the hotel on our first morning.

Original Pancake House, San Diego
Original Pancake House, San Diego

After laundry and an indulgent brunch at the Original Pancake House (the veggie omelet and German pancake that Trey and I split could have easily fed four), we drove to La Jolla and strolled the upscale beachside community while awaiting 2:30 pm kayaking reservations. We were thrilled at the prospect of kayaking through an ecological reserve, alongside sea cliffs, and venturing into sea caves. As we walked the shoreline we noticed the ocean’s choppy waters and high waves, so headed to the kayak rental shop early. Yes, all tours were canceled for the day and, based on the marine forecast, they’d probably be canceled for the remaining week.

Trey on Ocean Front Walk, Mission Bay, SD

Plan B on the fly… we drove back to the hotel for our bikes and headed to Mission Bay’s Ocean Front Walk, a six-mile bustling stretch of concrete chock-full of walkers, joggers, skaters, and bicyclists.

Ocean Front Walk, Mission Bay, SD
Ocean Front Walk, Mission Bay, San Diego

With condos stacked on one side and the vast Pacific spread out on the other, this ride was another memorable one.

Mission Bay, San Diego 2

We peddled south to the path’s end and then north to it’s other end, stopping atop a seaside cliff to rest and enjoy the scenes below.

We struck up a conversation with a lovely woman who was originally from Rome but had lived in San Diego for going on twenty years. As her baby played around us, she offered suggestions for dinner and traveling into Mexico, which we had been contemplating.

One of our favorite aspects about traveling and living in we-will-figure-it-out mode is all the people that temporarily, and seemingly magically, enter our lives through shared moments. Strangers with perfect timing, uplifting the present with smiles, kindness, and guidance that always nudges us in the right direction.

Casa Guadalajara, San Diego
Casa Guadalajara, Old Town San Diego

This time, that guidance landed us in Old Town San Diego for an amazing Mexican dinner.

Darkness and fatigue prevented us from exploring Old Town as we would have liked, but we now know it’s worth revisiting.

A “Toe” in Tijuana

Having never visited Mexico, and being oh so close, we thought we’d make a quick walk across the border to look around and say we’d been there… you know, like our quick detour into Omaha so we can now say we’ve been to Nebraska. We’d already traveled in and out of Canada easily enough, and this was an opportunity to check another North American country off our list.

Green and Blue Lines, San Diego Trolley
San Diego’s trolley system is a great way to sightsee and explore the city

The next morning, and following the Italian woman’s advice on how to get to the border, we drove back to Old Town and caught the green-line trolley into downtown San Diego where we switched to the blue-line that delivered us, spot-on, at the border.

From the San Ysidro station the walk across the border is so quick and easy that I only realized we had traversed realities when buff, camo-wearing, AK-47 wielding Mexican soldiers began dotting the walkway. We moved swiftly with the crowd (because lingering to take in the moment didn’t seem prudent) until the bridge’s ramp deposited us into Tijuana.

[Sorry, no photos from Mexico, I think we wanted to avoid attention.]

Crowds, colors, eager taxi drivers, pharmacies, and street vendors overwhelmed our senses as we wandered, but kept in close proximity to the border. After about twenty minutes we were satisfied we’d been there long enough to legitimately state “we’ve been to Mexico.”

Earlier, we had noticed an exceedingly long line of people waiting to cross into the United States, and I assumed that the line for U.S. citizens must be close by and much shorter. Yes, that’s how naive we were. We were in Mexico; there’s no special express lines for Americans. We had no business venturing into Tijuana with that level of  inexperience, and our proverbial “toe” became an all-day folly.

We were the only gringos standing in line, and that’s “gringo” in its fullest sense. There was one other obvious American, a 30-something guy who weirdly and suddenly appeared behind us, but he seemed to know what he was doing.

Four hours passed as we inched forward, evaded offers of “quick rides” across the border, and tried to appear less gringo-ish in our manner. Once inside the Customs House, the line divided and snaked through eight separate mazes toward an actual U.S. customs agent that would soon wave us through to home. Or so we hoped. The first two lines we were in closed just as we neared the customs booth. Forces seemed to be conspiring against us.

It was early evening before we re-boarded the blue-line trolley. Our departure from San Ysidro station was then delayed by a driver shift change and we watched as two other trolley’s pulled in and back out before we finally rolled northward.

Darkness was ascending by the time we returned to the hotel. The day, and our plans to visit the zoo and Balboa Park, were blown. Lesson learned.

San Diego Zoo

The next day’s drive over the Santa Rosa Mountains was to take two hours, allowing us time to first check out San Diego’s famous zoo.

Red Panda, San Diego Zoo
Adorable Red Panda, San Diego Zoo

Unlike our experience at the Toronto Zoo, the San Diego Zoo was full of happy, curious animals with a healthy, joyful vibe.

Giant Panda, San Diego Zoo 2
Giant Panda, San Diego Zoo

We explored every section of its 100 acres, including via the Skyfari Aerial Tram that provides bird-eye views of the animals.

The Reptile House is entrancing, and we spent a much of our time awestruck by all the snakes.

Green Mamba, San Diego Zoo
Green Mamba, San Diego Zoo

 

Asian Vine Snake, San Diego Zoo
Can you Spot the Asian Vine Snake?

We were also amazed at the variety and vivid hues of their birds.

Curly-crested Aracaris, San Diego Zoo
Curly-crested Aracaris, San Diego Zoo

The gorgeous day made for both happy animals and tourists, and these tourists loved the playful orangutans, adorable pandas, colorful birds, and big cats.

Sleepy Koala, San Diego Zoo
Sleepy Koala, San Diego Zoo

Grizzly, San Diego Zoo
Grizzly, San Diego Zoo

The zoo is part of Balboa Park… 1,200 acres just northeast of downtown that also includes multiple museums, hike and bike trails, and large swaths of green spaces. We would have loved to have ridden our bikes through the park, but that would have cut short our time with the animals.

Next visit to San Diego we’ll know to forgo ventures into Tijuana.

Note: We have since visited Mexico on two occasions, exploring the jungles and Mayan ruins of the Yucatan Peninsula and enjoying white sand beaches along the Riviera Mayan. We fell in love with Mexico… its beauty, people, culture, and food!

Drive to Rancho Mirage…

Soon after leaving San Diego, we made our fourth (and last) official left turn on this six-month trek around the United States.

Heading down into Palm Springs area
Heading to Palm Springs via the Palms-to-Pines Byway (Highway 74)

More Pics…

Western Diamonback Rattlesnake, San Diego Zoo
Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, San Diego Zoo

 

Casa Guadalajara Marg

Montezuma Castle National Monument & Sonoran Desert, Arizona ~ October 24 – 25, 2014

Leaving Tusayan before breakfast, we headed southeast toward Flagstaff. The Escape Mobile had traveled 5,037 miles since leaving Seattle, so it was time for her fourth servicing.

Route 66, Flagstaff, AZ
Route 66, Flagstaff, Arizona

Flagstaff was on the way to Phoenix, where we’d planned to spend the night, and it had a dealership that honored our maintenance purchase agreement. While waiting on our vehicle, we enjoyed a traditional breakfast at the Grand Canyon Café on Historic Route 66 in the quaint heart of Flagstaff.

Grand Canyon Cafe, Flagstaff AZ

Stepping into the café we’d entered a time warp… booths with mint-green Formica tabletops and individual jukeboxes, and a soda bar that spanned the length of the café. The owner told us they’d been continuously open  for nearly 75 years. Sadly, the Grand Canyon Café has since permanently closed.

Montezuma Castle National Monument

Montezuma Castle National Monument, AZ
Montezuma Castle National Monument, AZ

Fifty-six miles down Interstate 17 we stopped at Montezuma Castle National Monument, the former hillside condo-like dwelling of the ancient Southern Sinagua people. The Sinagua were farmers and hunter-gatherers that thrived in the Verde Valley from the 1100’s through the 1300’s.

Montezuma Castle National Monument, AZ 2

For unknown reasons, in the early 1400’s they abandoned their homes and the Verde Valley.

Montezuma Castle National Monument, AZ 3
Pathway to Montezuma Castle

The visitor center is just off the interstate and the walk to the cliffside remnants is short and quick. Music of flutist Harry Seavey, who was on site, filled the air and added an authentic and surreal feel to our experience.

Harry Seavey

 

 

“There is a message in our hearts, a truth we all know. We feel it as we walk in a forest or sit in the desert. It is the message in the cry of a hawk and in the voice of a flute. It is our connection to life; the message that we are one with Spirit.”
~ Harry Seavey

 

 

Factoid: The monument bears the name “Montezuma” because it was originally mistaken to be built by Spanish Explorers.

Montezuma Castle National Monument 2

Regrets:  For some reason we felt pressed for time and did not venture the 23 miles to Tuzigoot National Monument, another Sinagua village located atop a ridge 40 minutes northwest of Montezuma Castle.

Map

Nor did we detour from I-17 onto Hwy 89A to visit nearby Sedona, a funky, spirited community that I would have loved, I’m sure.

Sonoran Desert

As we navigated around Phoenix’s maze of highways to a hotel near Arizona State University, the sun still shone from fairly high. We entertained ourselves by strolling the campus and chowing down on some chain Chinese food before vegging in front of the television for the night.

The most interesting part of the remaining 355-mile drive to our next destination, San Diego, was the shortcut to Interstate-8.

AZ Hwy 238 to San Diego

Arizona Hwy 238 cuts across the Sonoran Desert between Maricopa and Gila Bend. It was originally built to serve a hazardous waste facility that I don’t think was ever built. It appeared to solely serve as a desolate cut-thru that provides a genuine desert experience.

Sonoran Desert From Hwy 238 AZ
Sonoran Desert From Hwy 238, Southwest of Phoenix

Saguaro cacti tower just off the roadway, which resembles concrete waves flowing through a sea of white sand.

Sonoran Desert From Hwy 238 AZ 3

Blowing sand was accumulating across the road’s lower points, and it seemed like the desert was determined to conquer the road.

Interstate to San Diego
Interstate 8 to San Diego

 

After an initial hotel snafu in San Diego, we settled into a Four Points Sheraton using points and began planning the next two day’s adventures.

More Pics…

Sonoran Desert From Hwy 238 AZ 2
Sonoran Desert from Hwy 238, Arizona

Arizona Sky
Arizona Sky

Grand Canyon’s South Rim ~ October 22-24, 2014

We’d first visited the Grand Canyon in 1992, when our daughters were six and nine. With only a half-day, we spent most that time on the Bright Angel Trail for a three-mile roundtrip hike. Quite a feat for kiddos!

Tusayan, Arizona

With this trip, our second, we’d hoped to hike into the canyon once again, but didn’t know if we’d be able to work in a full day’s hike.

South Rim Selfie, Grand Canyon

Since leaving Carmel, we’d been traveling in “we will figure it out” mode, so had no camping or hotel reservations when we rolled into Tusayan, a town just a few miles from the park’s south entrance.

When the Holiday Inn Express offered a particularly low rate, we figured it out quickly… “Oh, can we actually have the room for three nights, please?”

Tusayan is a walkable town catering to tourists… it’s primarily hotels and restaurants aligning each side of Highway 64. A quick look at Gmaps showed that we were just a block from the Grand Canyon Visitor Center. We rode over after breakfast the next morning.

As we’d done at most national parks, we first watched the informational movie. This one, Grand Canyon, The Hidden Secrets, is quite different.

IMAX Tixs

It’s more of an over-dramatization of folklore involving cougars, hostile natives, and John Wesley Powell; not the historical account of the area’s geology and indigenous people we were expecting. We left a bit disappointed.

The Greenway Trail, a 6.6 mile pathway to the south rim, is accessible from the visitor center’s parking lot.

Young Elk, Grand Canyon SR
Young Elk, Grand Canyon SR

We were excited to ride our bikes through the pine forest to Grand Canyon Village, where we planned to peel off onto the South Rim Trail. At the time though, the Greenway Trail wasn’t paved. This wasn’t a problem until the path turned into gravel piled 2-3 inches deep. Our tires dug in and we went nowhere. Unsure as to whether the gravel lasted another half-mile or for the entire remaining 6 miles, we turned around and loaded our bikes onto the back of the Escape Mobile. (Note… current photos show the pathway to be paved, but I can’t find whether or not it’s paved for the full length.)

Greenway Trail, Tusayan AZ
Source: hikingproject.com

South Rim Trail

Cycling the 13-mile Rim Trail was exhilarating.

Riding the S. Rim Trail, Grand Canyon

On the east side there are sections where the trial is only feet from the canyon’s edge, and the views are amazing.

South Rim, Grand Canyon 3

We rode until we ran into the South Kiabab Trailhead and agreed it would be the trail we’d tackle the next day.

Around Rim Trail, Grand Canyon SR
Trey on the South Rim Trail, Grand Canyon

The Rim Trail’s west side is also a peaceful, worthwhile ride. It’s mostly wooded and snakes around lodges and campgrounds setback from the rim.

Back at the hotel we did some research to plan for the next day’s hike…  in the morning, after purchasing snacks and sandwiches, we’d fill our backpacks’ water bladders, pack some extra water, catch a shuttle from the village visitor center to Yaki Point, and hike 3-miles down to Skeleton Point – the deepest turnaround spot advised for a one-day down and up hike.

South Kaibab Trail

All the prepping took time so it was early afternoon before we reached the South Kiabab Trailhead.

White Shorts - Grand Canyon SR
White Shorts?

Although warm for October, it was a gorgeous day and we headed down the canyon’s wall with an excitement-induced quick step. The entire trail is steep, that should go without saying but I’m saying it anyway. It’s easy to get distracted by the surrounding beauty, lose a sense of your downhill pace, and over-estimate just how far you’re capable of hiking in a day. The Rangers’ motto, which they repeat often, is “What goes down, must come up!”

Heading down Kiabab Trail, Grand Canyon SR
Heading down South Kiabab Trail, Grand Canyon

One of the trail’s steepest points is just below the trailhead… a dizzying series of short switchbacks that lead down to Ooh Aah Point, about a mile in. A half-mile farther is Cedar Ridge, the halfway mark to Skeleton Point and a great place for a snack, bathroom break, and photos.

Mule Train at Cedar Ridge, Grand Canyon SR
Mule Team at Cedar Ridge, Grand Canyon SR

Cedar Ridge View, GCSR
Cedar Ridge View, Grand Canyon South Rim

It’s recommended that Cedar Ridge be your turnaround point if hiking during the summer months.

Although warm, we continued downward passing two couples at separate points that had Trey and me raising our eyebrows. They were heading back up, about our ages but not fitness levels, and as Trey noted, “They weren’t looking good!” We ended up passing both couples on the way back up. Not boasting, just noting that one should undertake only what their lungs, legs, and heart can handle.

Skeleton Point, Kaibab Trail -Grand Canyon SR

Successfully arriving at Skeleton Point, we were glad to exhale and slow down to rest, eat…

Lunch Break at Skeleton Point, Grand Canyon SR

take in the scenery, pose for photos…

Skeleton Point View, GCSR
Skeleton Point View, Grand Canyon SR

Posing at Skeleton Point, Grand Canyon SR

and imagine hiking the remaining four miles to the Colorado River, which we could now see.

InkedColorado River from Skeleton Point, GCSR_LI
Colorado River from Skeleton Point, Grand Canyon SR

Yet with our late start, we didn’t linger too long as we knew it would take us double the time to climb back out of the canyon. We kept a decent pace, and were grateful when we returned to Cedar Ridge for a break, more snacks, and photos.

Cedar Ridge Overlook, GCSR
Cedar Ridge Overlook, Grand Canyon SR

It was nearing the hottest part of the day when we headed up the final steep mile. We took our time and stopped often to enjoy the scenes that we’d scrambled by earlier.

Cedar Ridge Overlook, GCSR 2

Bird, Grand Canyon SR

Back at the trailhead we were dusty messes, but thrilled with the day’s challenge, and humbled by Grand Canyon’s grace and ruggedness.

Back at the top, Grand Canyon South Rim
Back at the top, Grand Canyon South Rim

 

Food:

Yippi-Ei-O Steakhouse in Tusayan is a fun and tasty choice to carb and protein-up the night before hiking into the canyon.

Yippee-Ei-O! Steakhouse, Tusayan AZ
Yippee-Ei-O! Steakhouse, Tusayan AZ

Reminiscence of the Texas steakhouses from our childhoods, Trey and I thoroughly enjoyed the food, great service, and cowboy ambiance. Oh, and the pecan pie was phenomenal!

More Pics…

Kiabab Trail, Grand Canyon SR
South Kiabab Trail, Grand Canyon

Yoga on the South Rim, Grand Canyon
Yoga on the South Rim, Grand Canyon

Last Sunset, Grand Canyon SR

Last Sunset, Grand Canyon South Rim