Day 83 – Chattanooga

We’re pretty much on a mission to get home now. We’ve done our last hike (Hot Springs) and we’re not even camping anymore, just hitting inns.

Walt and I are looking forward to being back in DC for a few days. We have hair, doctor and dentist appointments lined up before we head to a conference in Annapolis for a few more days.

We have a room at a very nice B&B on the bluff above Chattanooga and wander around a little bit before heading to friends’ house for – wait for it – a home-cooked meal!

Lisa and Allen live in a new, gorgeous house on a creek. We sit on their screened back porch and enjoy a lovely evening, made even nicer for me by the addition of their two cats, Peaches and Yoko. Peaches is a little shy but Yoko and I hit it off and I get some quality kitty time.

I like dogs (Lisa and Allen have a nice quiet, older dog named Allie) but I love kitties. We put the last of our cats to sleep in December. Except for the visit with my parents and the very short visit with Walt’s niece Jenn and her family, I haven’t seen any kitties this trip. It’s a nice topper to a very nice evening.

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An Alexander Calder sculpture in the Bluff View Arts District

Day 82 – Graceland

When we first started talking about the route we would take to get back east, one of my few requests was that we stop at Graceland in Memphis. My mother was a teen-ager when Elvis hit the national stage so as kids we watched every Elvis movie, some many times over. I grew up loving Elvis and really want to get a souvenir for Mom, who doesn’t like to travel and has never visited Graceland. (Whenever people see 1950s photos of my dark-haired, good-looking father, they often remark on how much he looked like Elvis. They were of similar age, too. My Mom certainly noticed the resemblance.)

When we bought our tickets online, I did a little reading so we’re not surprised when the mansion seems incredibly small by today’s standards. Elvis bought the house in the 1950s and while he expanded over the years, he also died in 1977, well before the era of mega-mansions.

We’re on the first bus of the day, which is very nice because it means that the house isn’t very crowded. We take our time looking at the living room, kitchen, dining room, billiard room, lounge/movie room, his parents’ bedroom as well as the famed “jungle room” before heading out for a brief tour of the grounds, offices, pool, racquetball court and “meditation garden.” What surprises us most is that Elvis and his parents are buried in the meditation garden that he’d built several years before he died. I guess I’d always assumed he was buried in a normal cemetery, not at Graceland.

Anyway, we’d bought the “Elvis Experience” tickets so when we get back to the main complex across the street, we tour Elvis’s cars (the white Lincoln was my favorite but there were a bunch of sweet cars), his stage costumes, his two airplanes. There’s really a lot of memorabilia but there’s also nearly as much merchandise for sale. There’s everything from pink Cadillac keychains to peanut-butter-and-banana-flavored coffee. There’s a pair of $1,000 rhinestone-studded sunglasses and Elvis saltwater taffy, potholders, guitar-shaped ties, beach towels, a jailhouse rock clock. Of course there’s t-shirts and hats galore. There’s young Elvis and 1960s loungey Elvis but no mid-70s bloated Elvis. I buy Mom a scarf that has an image both of Graceland and a young Elvis. My souvenir is limited to our tickets and the ice cream we have before heading out.

We wind up at Corky’s BBQ for dinner. I mean, really, how can we come to Memphis and not eat barbeque? It’s tender and yummy and the restaurant has got a fun vibe with lots of signed photos from celebs who have stopped by, as well as concert posters from people who have played in Memphis.

Day 81 – Hot Springs, Arkansas

Neither one of has ever been to Hot Springs and we’re pleasantly surprised by how much the green, rolling hills remind us of Virginia. We decided against camping in favor of a B&B, again because of heat. It’s still in the high 80s and, according to the frizz in my hair, humid. I certainly haven’t missed the humidity while we were out west.

Or the bugs. The ranger at the visitor center reminds us to bring bug spray on our hike. He’s mapped what he calls a 6-mile loop but which really turns out to be about a three-miler. That’s ok. We have some nice views and the hike ends at the pool of the Arlington Hotel. Apparently changes to the landscape over the years have resulted in the hotel eating into the mountain so we come out of the woods, walk past the pool, into the hotel and take the elevator seven stories down to the lobby. It’s the first time we’ve ever started a hike across the street from a B&B and ended in a hotel.

Hot Springs National Park includes a row of early 20th century bathhouses. These huge brick buildings have been repurposed as art galleries, modern spas, a brewery – the first one located in a national park – and a cultural center. The park service uses one as the visitors’ center and preserved it, to a large extent, as it looked back in the day. We tour it, marveling at the exercise equipment that looks like very sturdy iron-wood-leather versions of leg presses and other machines you’d see in a gym today. There’s also the actual baths, with huge, deep tubs; massage rooms, changing rooms and so much more. In the basement there’s a piece of glass covering a hole in the ground and we can see the actual spring bubbling out of the ground. Apparently that’s always been there so that visitors to the bathhouses could view the healing waters. Interesting, at least to us, there’s also a “needle shower” that looks remarkably like the one we saw at the Castle in the Clouds mansion in New Hampshire earlier this summer.

We decide against trying the baths. I’ve experienced the authentic baths in Saratoga Springs, also known for its mineral springs. Instead we sample the brewery’s offerings, sitting in the windows and watching the passersby.

Later we meet old friends of Walt’s for dinner at a lovely downtown restaurant.

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Days 79-80 – Eastward! (Santa Fe-Hot Springs via Oklahoma City)

The drive from Santa Fe to Hot Springs, Arkansas is almost 850 miles. Through the course of it, we pass from the desert into rolling hills with sparse greenery before finally traveling through rich green, low mountains to Hot Springs. The most interesting part, at least for us, are the enormous windmill farms we see along the way. We passed about half a dozen farms, each with 100+ windmills. We’ve both seen windmill farms but nothing on this magnitude.

During the two-day trip, I think about all the places we’ve eaten during nearly three months on the road. Believe it or not, with the exception of one Denny’s in Gallup, N.M., we haven’t eaten at a single chain restaurant the whole time. Of course that precludes all the snacks and drinks we’ve bought at various Shell and Chevron stations but other than that, we eat local.

Sometimes we go for upscale places, like Coyote Café in Santa Fe. Sometimes it’s very low-brow, like the Whiptail Grill near the Arches. It looked like a renovated gas station and was tiny, with maybe a dozen tables. We ordered fresh guacamole, salsa and chips to start then moved on to tacos. Everything was excellent.

We’ve eaten duck, wild boar, lobster, elk, venison, steak, burgers, wraps, salads.

Usually we only eat two meals a day, breakfast and an early dinner. Breakfast is either at our hotel – bed and breakfasts have the best, of course. We’ve had cream cheese-stuffed French toast and fancy egg dishes served in beautiful dining rooms. We’ve also eaten breakfast at many little cafes. One of my favorites was the Alamosa coffee roaster/restaurant. It had the best breakfast potatoes plus scrumptious coffee and an industrial chic vibe that made me want to bottle it and take it with me. At a little spot near Green River, Utah, Walt ordered a huge, iced cinnamon roll that we couldn’t finish.

We’ve tried all sorts of local breweries as well. I’m not a huge beer fan, but I do like a good stout, especially the ones that are described something like “strong coffee and chocolate flavors.” Sometimes breweries also have very good root beers and we’ve sampled more than a few of those as well.

As I’ve mentioned before, my first choice to find a restaurant is to Google “best restaurant” in whatever town and see what TripAdvisor comes up with. I’ll take the trouble to sort through the recommendations, including looking at menus and pictures of the restaurants. I’m not looking for the most upscale or trendy, especially at breakfast I’m just looking for something authentic.

That doesn’t mean we haven’t eaten at lovely restaurants, even in some of the most out-of-the-way places. We had a really nice meal in Thunder Bay, Ontario in a gorgeous restaurant. We ate at a beautiful steak place in Billings, Montana, where we finished with a huge slice of chocolate cake – like the cinnamon roll, one of the few times we couldn’t finish dessert.

Mostly we order dessert to share. We’ll take turns deciding what to order. We’ve had lemon cake, tartufo, crème brulee, cheesecake, among many others. The fried ice cream in Montreal was a standout, as were the banana cream pie/tart at Coyote Café and the chocolate/Nutella creation at Red Rock Canyon Resort.

Of all the ice cream we’ve had, the milkshakes at the Moab Diner and the soft ice cream stand we stopped at after several New Hampshire hikes were probably our favorites. The New Hampshire cones were not only rich and creamy, they were huge. The first time we stopped, Walt ordered a medium and I ordered a small. Mine came out first but it was so big that Walt thought it might be his and waited until the second, larger, cone came out before handing over mine.IMG_4389

Days 76-78 – Santa Fe & Taos

We’ve checked into the luxurious Inn and Spa at Loretta. Since it’s only two days since we left our luxury digs at the Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas, it’s a bit decadent but since we’re still in the desert and the days are in the 90s, we’re still not in the mood to camp.

We didn’t know we were arriving during the annual Santa Fe Fiesta, apparently celebrating the reoccupation of the city by Spanish colonists after an uprising. So there’s even more vendors on the historic square than usual as well as musicians. Later there is a candlelight procession following a mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi.

We’re up early the following morning for the 90-minute drive to Taos where we do a 6-mile hike. We’re a little disappointed that the Devisadero Loop Trail doesn’t top out at a bald peak. Devisadero, I read, means “lookout” and the mountain was used by Native American tribes as such. Maybe when it was named, the trees were bigger than these little scrubby ones that are all around us now blocking the view. It’s still a pleasant hike. We only see a few other people during the whole hike, there are some nice lookouts and we’ve chosen the shady side of the hike to do the “up” part. One of the few other people we see on the trail has stopped to watch a tarantula on a rock. We’d have never seen it otherwise. It was off to the side of the trail and I don’t look for spiders. The man says we’re sure to see more during our hike (we don’t).

We’re done in time for lunch before heading out to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. We’re driving along the plain and Walt keeps saying, “I don’t see the gorge.” I keep saying, “just wait.” The land looks flat until you get right up to the edge of the gorge when it drops off more than 600 feet.

We had planned to hike again, near Santa Fe, the next day but we decide to spend the day enjoying the city. After a quick breakfast of pastry and coffee, we head to the Georgia O’Keeffe museum. It’s not huge but it encompasses the breadth of her long life’s work. Even though I studied art history in college and have visited O’Keeffe exhibits before, I learned a few new things. She embarked on international travel late in life and some of my favorite “Cloud” paintings are a result of sketches she made from airplane windows during those travels. Also, we see a couple of works she did based on her travels in Peru. Walt and I were in Peru last year and can better appreciate her paintings of Saksaywaman, the Incan ruins at Cusco, having seen the ruins ourselves.

Afterward, I indulge in some Santa Fe window shopping – so many jewelry stores – while Walt heads back to our private patio at the hotel with a book.

We’ve eaten well while we’re here and we end with a very nice dinner at the Coyote Café. Walt orders the “gentleman’s vice” cocktail, which is aged bourbon served in a decanter of cherry smoke. We have no idea how they make the drink but it’s incredibly smooth and smells like fine pipe tobacco (and I mean that in the most complimentary sense). After elk tenderloin for me and a pork chop for Walt, we end with what the restaurant calls a “banana cream pie.” It is scrumptious but it’s really a small tart with carmelized bananas and toasted marshmallow fluff on top; not your typical banana cream pie in any sense. Yum.

Day 75 – Petrified National Forest

We swing out of Prescott via Sedona, which is even prettier than Prescott. We stop long enough for a late breakfast before continuing east toward the Petrified National Forest in western Arizona. We had hoped to camp here but the website says backcountry camping only. We’re really not in the mood to overnight hike in the desert: we’d have to carry enough water for the whole trip, plus it’s 90+.

We stop at the visitor’s center and see that we can pretty much hit the short walking trail here and then drive 25 miles through the park, picking and choosing a few overlooks and short walks before continuing east. We’ll find some place to stay once we cross into New Mexico.

The petrified forest is, again, not like anything I’ve ever seen. We’re standing in what today is just badlands and desert but millions of years ago was a huge forest. What remains today are cracked pieces of petrified wood. They’re gorgeous since minerals have crystallized in the trees as they decayed over the centuries.

I am very tempted to pick up a small chunk of petrified wood as a souvenir but there are signs everywhere warning visitors to leave everything in its place. There are also warnings about security cameras. As we’re leaving the park, there’s a huge sign saying the park has the right to search your car if park officials think  you’ve taken anything. We breeze through; if we’re ever going to have a chunk of petrified wood, we’ll have to buy it.

As we stop at a few overlooks, the wind picks up and we look up to see storm clouds moving our way. We’re very glad we decided not to camp.

There’s some very pretty scenery but overall we don’t spend much time at the park before heading east to Gallup for the night.

Day 74 – Friends in Prescott

We’ve left Las Vegas, the furthest west we will get on this trip. We are heading to Prescott, Arizona, to see friends but first we stop at the Hoover Dam. Walt’s taken a tour before but I’ve never seen it. We don’t take the time for a tour but drive over it, take a look from a couple of overlooks and head on our way.

The dam is amazing, of course. Walt points out the high line that has been used since the dam was first being built to lower parts down into the canyon. Hard to believe workers strung this huge cable across the gorge all those years ago.

We head off, through the scrubby desert until we finally come to another mesa and the landscape greens up a bit.

Our friends Wally and Nicole and their two children, Elli and Liam, live in a nice residential area of Prescott. After a walk around the neighborhood with the kids and their dog, we check into our funky hotel, the Grand Highland in downtown Prescott. We enjoy a lovely adults-only dinner.IMG_4307

Days 72-73 – Sin City

Las Vegas probably seems like an odd stopping point for two hikers who have visited six national parks in 10 days, but we’re ready for a little downtime. More specifically I’m ready for a massage and the car is ready for a good washing and vacuuming.

Both Walt and I have stayed on the Strip many times, so we’ve opted for Red Rocks Canyon Resort on the outskirts of town. There’s a casino, of course, but there’s also a huge pool complex – I never did count them all – as well as a spa.

We spend our first “zero day” in a long time, just relaxing at the very nice hotel. In the evening we head to the Rio downtown for a dinner at the 50th floor VooDoo Restaurant, where we watch people zipline from one Rio building to another. Then we head to the Penn & Teller show downstairs. We really enjoyed the show (much more than another Vegas magic show we saw the last time we were here).

On our second day, we decide to head off to the Mt. Charleston area for a short day hike or two. We could have hiked at Red Rocks but it’s about 20 degrees cooler here. Plus, our waitress last night told us that Red Rocks is filled with snakes this time of year. No thanks. Haven’t seen a snake yet on this trip and I’m OK with maintaining that status.

The Mt. Charleston area is in a canyon with aspen trees. It looks more like Colorado than the desert we just left. We decide first to tackle a 1.4-mile hike up 1,000 feet to Cathedral Rock. We make it up in good time and enjoy the view. As we’re heading back, we hear thunder and look up to see that the clouds have closed in a bit.

As we get into the car, it starts to sprinkle and we decide not to do the second hike we’d planned.

By the time we get back to the hotel, the weather has cleared so we head to the pool for the afternoon.

Dinner’s at the hotel. The food is OK but the waitress suggests we try the “chef’s creation” for dessert. I can’t remember what she called it but it was a dark chocolate/nutella concoction that was so smooth and silky… it was as cool as pudding but much thicker. It had the consistency of hot fudge sauce that hadn’t been heated. It was indescribably delicious and a great way to end our Vegas stay.

Days 70-71 – The North Rim

We’ve headed to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim because we’ve both been to the South Rim. Walt very much wants to hike down into the canyon, at least a little bit. So a few minutes after 8 a.m., we’re headed down the Kaibab Trail. It’s 14 miles to Phantom Ranch, the traditional “midway” point for people doing a rim-to-rim hike.

We are neither doing a rim-to-rim nor going anywhere near as far as the ranch. Actually there are signs all over the place warning people that attempting to hike to the bottom of the canyon and back to the rim in one day is a very bad idea.

About 15 minutes into our hike, we stop at a nice outlook, our first great view into the canyon from the trail. It just seems so endless. Another hundred feet on and we come to a ranger perched under a tree.

“Hi,” she says. “Where are you headed today?”

“Just to the tunnel,” Walt replies. The tunnel is some two miles down the trail and 1,400 feet below the rim.

“That’s great,” she says, nodding approvingly. “Far enough in to get a taste of the canyon but still in the fun zone. Have a great hike.”

We have no idea what the “fun zone” is and we’re pretty sure we won’t be in it when it’s 95 degrees and we’re hiking back uphill. But if we’re approved to do what we want to do, that’s ok with us.

When we arrived at the North Rim yesterday, we just did a short 1-mile loop to Angel’s Point and back; it was too hot to hike more so we got a snack and listened to a ranger talk about the geology of the canyon.

Now that we’re hiking, we can really appreciate the different layers we learned about yesterday. We started at the top of the plateau with pine trees and aspens. Soon we’re in a rocky band with smooth, pale sand under our feet (and lots of mule droppings since a group of day-trippers is ahead of us) and no trees. Then we’re in the pinions and junipers and the sand underfoot is now dark pink.

Actually I wish the sand were just underfoot. It is so soft and dry that my lower legs have what I call a “grand canyon tan” – a dark pink/orange tint.

At only two miles – less than hour down from the rim – we’re at the Supai Tunnel. We can see the Redwall Bridge, another half a mile and 800 feet below us. Hiking to the bride still would be in the ranger-approved “fun zone” but we don’t see a need to go further. We have a long break, waiting for the two groups that came down on mules to head up so we don’t have to be passed by mules on the trail before heading back uphill.

It’s not our hottest, highest or hardest hike but it is ice-cream worthy although treats will have to wait until we get to our home for the next three days: Las Vegas.

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Days 68-69 – Zion National Park

We’ve gotten what we think is an early start from Bryce and we arrive at the east entrance to Zion National Park at 9:30 a.m. We are hoping that we can get a first-come, first-serve campsite but no luck. The ranger tells us everything filled up “earlier this morning.” The main canyon, where all the sites and hiking are, is located on the south side of the park, as is the town of Springdale, which is our best shot for someplace to stay.

The drive through this side of the park is gorgeous, of course. Just huge towering rocks, several tunnels and, oddly, a big-horn sheep standing at the edge of the road, looking more like yard art than a wild animal. He’s oblivious both to stopped and passing cars. It occurs to us that we have seen most wildlife – toads, chipmunks and squirrels excluded – from our car.

We drive down to the south entrance, where the campgrounds are, and decide to take a swing through, just in case. As we enter, we see that other people have had the same idea and there are several cars waiting. OK. Time for Plan B.

Out the park we go and find a parking lot to reassess our options. The ranger has given us a list of campgrounds but we have neither cell service nor wi-fi. We decide just to drive to some places to see if we can get a campsite. As we pull into the side street, we notice a Quality Inn and RV/Campground across the street. We’ve located our first stop.

There are no campsites but they do have a room. We don’t hesitate before taking it for two nights. Looking at the campground – just bare, open spots all crammed together with very little shade, we are happy to have a hotel room. Later, after we’ve hiked in 104-degree sunny weather, we count ourselves among the very lucky that we have a shower, air conditioning and a bed.

We decide to scope out the park a little and take a short hike up to the Emerald Pools, despite the heat. The first pool is barely a puddle. The second pool is a little bit bigger but the third pool, a very hot three-tenths of a mile up from the second, is worth the trip. There’s no waterfall at this time of year but it’s shady and pretty and definitely cooler out of the sun.

We had back and then over the Grotto Trail, adding another mile to our day before catching the shuttle back out of the park.

After dinner – tacos at the Whiptail Grill – we plot our course for the next morning. The classic “must-do” trail in Zion is the Narrows. While we’re sure it would be interesting to walk in the 20-foot wide canyon and there’s a low chance of thunderstorms and flash flooding, we just don’t want to do it. For one thing, it requires walking in ankle-deep water for a good portion of the hike. For another, “must-do” hikes are often filled with people who really have no business hiking. I lose patience with people who don’t know how to go over rocks or who get scared when they have to descend a steep slope. It’s not a big deal to run into one or two people but this is Zion, we’re likely to run into hundreds of people with these types of problems.

We want to do a significant hike and decide Angel’s Landing would be a good choice. It was recommended to us by a guy we met hiking in The Arches. The hike is an out-and-back, not Walt’s favorite, but it’s supposed to have some narrow cliffs and steep drop-offs as well as phenomenal views.

Again we start early and we’re at the line for the shuttle by 8 or so but judging by the 150+ people ahead of us, we’re not as early as we thought. A ranger comes out, reminding people that the park is busy this weekend, the weather is hot, bring plenty of water, etc. He also says that the crowds will only get worse as the day goes on, that people later in the day will wait 2 hours just to get on the shuttle bus into the canyon. We find this hard to believe. The buses are all doubles and hold 100 people or so. We only have to wait until the second bus, a whole 10 minutes of waiting, before we’re on board.

We’re hoping that all these people – many with rental boots and neoprene socks – are headed for the Narrows, which is the last stop. When we reach our stop, three-quarters of our bus gets off. Uh-oh. There’s no other hike from this stop except Angel’s Landing.

Walt and I look at each and decide it’s not worth it (see “I lose patience” above). Walt consults the map and suggests we go up to the Narrows, not to hike it, but to take the 1-mile walk along the river to the spot where you have to get in the river to see what we can see.

It’s a nice walk but we really can’t see the Narrows, just people walking in the river. We turn back and get back on the shuttle. Now what?

Walt consults the map again. Under “day hikes” there’s a Hidden Canyon listed. There’s no description, just a note that says it’s closed until Sept. 1, 2017. Today is Sept. 2. Walt asks the shuttle driver if Hidden Canyon is open. Affirmative.

Excellent. Maybe there won’t be as many people on the trail.

At the foot of the trail, we see a sign that says it’s 1 mile and 850 feet of elevation to the top. Sounds like fun to us. Also, we note that we are on the east side of the canyon and it is still shady and likely to be for our entire hike. We couldn’t be happier if we’d just scored a hotel room instead of a campsite.

Our hike is very pretty, with very few people. There’s a few spots jutting out along a cliff where the park has affixed chains to hold onto. They’re not really necessary but they’re nice. At the top we can see down to the parking lot.

We hike back down; still in the shade and catch the shuttle back to the visitors’ center, where we are astonished at the huge line of people waiting to board a bus. The ranger wasn’t kidding. It’s going to take at least an hour for people coming now (at noon) to get on a bus.

Walt takes copious pictures, muttering “unbelievable” and we walk out of the park to the brew pub right next door. We’ve probably not earned our snack of beer, hummus and veggies, and ice cream but we enjoy it anyway, congratulating ourselves for having gotten in and out of the park with an enjoyable day.

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