Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Arizona: The Grand Canyon & Beyond

As we packed up and prepared to head out from a lovely stay in Albuquerque, our great host left us with a few parting suggestions. First, we should take Central west, as this followed the Old Route 66 (and eventually hooked up with the Interstate), and one could get a glimpse of some roadside attractions of days gone by. Secondly, he suggested we check out Pro Ranch Market to pick up some edibles for our upcoming days of camping. Lastly, he said we just had to check out Acoma, otherwise known as the Sky City. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in all of North America. Sadly, not all of his suggestions panned out.

Just a short ways down Central, we arrived at Pro Ranch Market. What a trip. Picture your standard grocery supermarket (e.g. Cub Foods) taken over by our friends south of the border. Inside was a bevy of sights and smells not commonly seen in the gringo grocers: Tejano music playing from the speakers, colorful sweetbreads, large clear vats of juice drinks which ran the spectrum of flavors, piles of chiles and even piƱatas and streamers hanging down from the ceiling! It really was quite a remarkable sight. And while most of the clientele were of the Spanish-speaking variety, never did we feel uncomfortable or unwelcomed. Being a foodie-in-training, Heidi was immediately in a state of euphoria which has been nearly unmatched along our journey thus far. When I started to get a little perturbed at her loitering in the produce section, among jamaica and tamarind, she equated it to my love of unique architecture, and I understood…if only a little.

Upon leaving the Pro Ranch Market experience, which was quite fun and highly recommended, we continued down Central, or old Route 66. It was rather unimpressive, as the old motor lodges were sparsely dotted in amongst the corporate-run fast-food joints and mini-markets. I planned to stop to fill up the van, and Heidi mentioned that she had to go, so we started looking for a place to accommodate both needs. I pulled into a Shell Station and started fueling the machine, while Heidi ran inside. Seconds later, she came out and her antsy dance moves suggested she hadn’t taken care of business: both restrooms were out of order! How convenient. There was a fast food joint just across the lot and I suggested she scurry over there. Again, she came back unsatisfied. This time a large sign on the door stated only customers were invited onto their porcelain thrones, and she didn’t bring any cash with her. We hopped in the van and drove over to the Smith’s Supermarket just across the asphalt prairie. As if the gods had frowned upon her bladder, she came out again. The ladies’ room was being cleaned, and therefore, was closed! Would this be the debut of our just-in-case pee bucket? I spied a Taco Bell across Central and we headed over. I drove right through a throng of teens, washing cars in some sort of fundraiser, on a mission to get Heidi to a toilet. Jesus finally heard her prayers and answered them. Although the Taco Bell restroom was also only for customers, a young employee named Jesus assisted Heidi, by handing over the key. Sweet relief! (I am much luckier than her, as I packed away a special pee bottle, which has already been used on a few occasions. Why go through the hassle of searching for a toilet, when I can just pull over and take care of business?)

I was excited about Bob’s suggestion of Acoma, the Sky City, so we made the 20-mile detour off of I-40. I’m sure the tribe sees a lot more visitors at the casino than the historic pueblo village atop a mesa, but I preferred the latter. Sadly, we pulled into the lot of the visitors’ center just minutes after the last tour left at 3pm. Furthermore, the place was a jip and we wouldn’t have paid anyways. It was $20 each to go up onto the mesa and an extra $10 per camera! We’re on a budget and blowing $50 on an hour tour is not the way to make it a year on a shoestring. Besides, one could see just a small portion of the village from ground level and much of it looked modernized, as people live there to this day…further eroding the appeal of the place. I apologized for the detour and we headed back on I-40, en route to Holbrook, AZ.

I was exhausted so Heidi took the wheel and I snoozed out. She woke me at 5pm, when we pulled in to the gates of the Petrified Forest. As the park was closing an hour later, I suggested we head into town and hit the National Park the next morning, prior to driving towards the big daddy of AZ attractions: the Grand Canyon.

Holbrook is home to one of the few wigwam motels in the country and we considered staying in one of the concrete structures, as Heidi’s pop had suggested it. We decided the cost wasn’t worth the experience and merely snapped a photo of the place before pulling into the OK RV Park, where $25 got us electricity, hot showers, muffins in the morning, wifi and a manager all too eager to suggest myriad things for us to try. Don’t get me wrong: he was a real nice chap…but you gotta wonder if the man ever gets to talk to anyone with the way he spoke to us. That being said, it was much better than the alternative. We prepared a simple dinner and had a little “me” time, placing a black curtain in the middle of the van so Heidi could read in silence while I watched “No Country for Old Men.” Truth be told, we probably both need a little more “me” time, as we’re getting plenty of “us” time.

The next morning we pulled into the Petrified Forest National Park and were notified that our visit was free, as it was National Parks week. So, we got to forego the $25 entry fee! The park consists of two parts: the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest. The park is set along a 28-mile road, with some spots to pull over and even a few short trails to hike. The Painted Desert is a series of geologic anomalies that cause different bands of color throughout. Meanwhile, the Petrified Forest consists of ancient downed trees, which spent thousands of years buried among sand and sediment, allowing them to become petrified, producing some beautiful semi-precious stones within their rings. Sadly, exploitation has left the Petrified Forest almost bare, and Park Rangers report that 10% of the visitors steal a ton of rock every MONTH! It really is sad that such a national treasure disintegrate before our very eyes, especially when private businesses peddle the same rock, harvested from private lands, at a very reasonable cost. Some say there is a curse associated with pilfering the petrified goods, and thus a conscience pile of returned petrified rocks has grown over the decades, accompanied by letters of those apologetic for their earlier actions.

From the Petrified Forest we headed to Flagstaff and then further north, towards the Grand Canyon. As we climbed in elevation the scenery changed dramatically, from barren desert to a seemingly alpine setting in the San Francisco Mountains, complete with thick groves of pine and birch. The drive was simply breathtaking. We stopped in Tusayan, just miles from the gates of the park, and ate an overpriced meal that left much to be desired. From there, we retreated a couple of miles and into the heart of the Kaibab National Forest, for our first night of dispersed camping. We took a forest road into the forest, and followed a couple of turn offs before stopping at a place that was secluded from both man and machine. It seemed as if we had the entire forest to ourselves! We played a little catch until the sun began to hide it bright rays amongst the trees to the west.

Dispersed camping essentially means you just set up shop wherever you please, and leave no trace behind upon leaving. As such, there are no toilets or running water. I made sure to clear my bowels prior to heading into the forest, because I had little desire to dig a hole for my business, but it didn’t work out so well for me. Since I neglected to pack a shovel, I grabbed a plastic automotive funnel and used it to move the softened red dirt, in order to make a depository…of sorts. Everything worked splendidly, although such practices make one even more grateful of modern plumbing, or even pit toilets for that matter. Although Heidi didn’t get the pleasure of trench pooping, she did have to go #1 after it was pitch black outside, and got a little freaked out when she opened the door of the van, only to hear something scurry away from only feet beyond. We turned on the headlights but were unsuccessful in spotting the creepy critter.

The next morning we went to the Grand Canyon. Despite the free admission I expected the park to b relatively empty, given the fact that it was a Monday in mid-April. Luckily, I was right. But relatively empty at the Grand Canyon is packed for most National Parks. License plates from nearly all 50 states in the union already filled a number of lots by the time we arrived in the late morning. Beyond that, thousands of tourists sleep within the park every night, camping, RVing, or staying in one of the many guest lodges available for those who plan months in advance.

As for the Canyon itself, it is a breathtaking site and no picture will ever truly do it justice. Standing along the south rim, staring for miles into the gorges which drop thousands of feet, you really get a sense of just how massive the place is, and how inconsequential we all seem. We took a leisurely stroll for a few miles along the south rim of the canyon, prior to feasting on a fantastic lunch in the Arizona Room of one of the lodges in the Village. For the more adventurous hikers, you can take an entire day negotiating steep switchbacks down to the bottom of the canyon. I am sure that the view from below must be just as incredible, although with temperatures 25-30 degrees warmer, it could also become unbearable. I expect to return many more times, in order to try the trickier trails and, perhaps someday, share the experience with some rug rats of my own.

Since we hadn’t had the opportunity to shower that morning, we were gonna find a relatively cheap motel to bed down for the night, but only after getting started on our way to Tucson, our next stop. I feared that any place near the Canyon would be pricey and didn’t want to fork over the extra cash. So, we drove for hours before stopping in Camp Verde and checking out a hotel attached to a Native American casino and a Super 8. They ranged from $65-81 and I wasn’t willing to pay it, especially pulling in at 7pm. Quite frankly, I can be a bit frugal at times and if we’re gonna pay for a room I want to check in at the earliest possible time and take full advantage of all the amenities offered. Frustrated, I handed the keys over to Heidi, who suggested trying a campground or RV park. We stopped at one of each, only to leave frustrated both at the situation and one another. I took the wheel and resolved to drive straight through to Tucson, where we could crash with my sister an extra night.

The path we chose took us through mountainous national forests and as the light dissipated the drive became more nerve-wracking. By about 9 or 10pm we arrived in the hamlet of Payson, a fair-sized town complete with a Wal-Mart supercenter and a Home Depot. (Clearly, corporate America had found its way into small-town Arizona.) There, Heidi and I discussed our options rather passionately. I wanted to drive straight through, while she desperately wanted to stop for the night. Again, I had no desire to get a motel that late in the night, so I ended the discussion by pulling into the Wal-Mart and pulling the blinds. I made a basic meal and lay down for the night, while Heidi got some air…flustered with my decision, and feeling like our large van had become something of a holding cell.

The drive fro Payson to Tucson the next morning took us through Tonto National Forest and Roosevelt Lake. Again, the scenery was beautiful and I am amazed by the natural beauty and varied ecosystems which abound in Arizona.

We got to Tucson in the late afternoon and I suggested we use up some KFC gift certificates we received from my sister Margaret prior to beginning this adventure. I had to try the new Double Down sandwich, which consists of two unnaturally large chicken breasts (in lieu of a bun), with pepper jack and bacon in the middle. Quite frankly, it was a little much, but I did manage to scarf most of it down.

Next we drove through the Saguaro National Park, in order to get to my elder sister’s home on the outskirts of town. She wasn’t expecting us until later in the week, but we arrived in town a little early and I figured they’d let us crash for the night, and they obliged.

As we followed the last of Tom’s directions and rounded the corner of one dirt road onto another, there he was: a fifty-something man with a grey mohawk, aided with a cane and armed with a pistol on his hip. He guided us into our parking spot and quickly greeted us with a tour of their estate. They have an acre of land, on which a double-wide trailer sits. In one corner of the property is a coop, complete with a number of chickens and one rooster. There is a mini-semi trailer (for use as storage) on the lot, my old 1968 AMC Ambassador (which they now own) hiding beneath a tattered cover and a large solar panel in another corner of the property, which generates enough electricity (during the day) to sell some back to the power company. They are well on their way to off-the-grid living, although I suspect water is a resource hard to come by in the AZ desert, without the assistance of some sort of municipal system.

Margaret and Tom have three rescue dogs, and they rule the roost. There is Cookie, a quiet yet friendly Australian Shepherd dog with haunting eyes. There is Spike, a little multi-colored beast that yaps ad nauseum, and Ziggy, a three-legged bitch with an abundance of energy and, occasionally, a lack of balance.

Once we arrived at their pad we took some much needed showers (48 hours+ of dirt accumulation), used their wifi and otherwise just relaxed. Tom prepared a great stir fry meal and some extra chocolate brownies. (I suspect the brownies were an attempt to win Heidi over. Regardless, it worked).

The next few days were spent with Heidi’s maternal uncle Jim, and his wife Mary. They are a very youthful couple, but spend the winters in a retirement community in Tucson. They certainly didn’t act the part of their neighbors. After introductions and some storytelling, Jim and Mary took us on a nice rigorous walk through the Saguaro desert, pointing out the different types of cacti and exchanging more stories.

Jim really is a fascinating man and I must admit I have a bit of a man crush. He has been self-employed most of his life and seems to be doing what he enjoys, and he is successful at it too. Mary entered his life a little later than in a traditional marriage, but that only fits in with the bond they have. They are an unconventional couple and not only play, but also work together. In less than a month Heidi and I have already come to the realization that the amount of time we share together can be a bit overwhelming…yet they have been doing, essentially, the same thing for more than two decades. Currently, they spend the summer months tending to a campground and resort in Darby, MT while they spend the other half of the year raveling and kicking it in Tucson. I really enjoyed our time with them and they even sent us to the Desert Museum, which is definitely a must-see if you are ever in the Tucson area. (There you can find native flora, fauna and minerals of the area. An aviary and other exhibits allow you to really get close and interact with the ecosystem.)

While staying with them Mary prepared some excellent dinners, while Jim whipped up a lovely breakfast consisting of blueberry Belgian waffles. I am definitely looking forward to reconnecting with them in Darby for some biking and other outdoor activities. After parting ways, so they could get moving back towards Montana, we rolled back over to my sister’s house. She and Tom brought us to Sabino Canyon, where we took a tram along the bottom of the formation. Our driver was full of information, but seemed a bit out of place with his NYC accent. It was a nice little outing. Of course, Tom whipped up another nice meal (and more brownies) before we hit they hay and prepared for our drive to Phoenix.

We drove to Phoenix on Saturday and hooked up with Heidi’s paternal Uncle Jim and his wife, Vicki. They are another awesome couple and have a beautiful little home in Tempe. They really have the feng shui working well and the house seems lived in yet not cluttered. It is both functional and fashionable. I can only hope that some day I will have a little sanctuary half as perfect as theirs. (That being said, I cannot fathom the upkeep of such a beautiful little crib.)

On Saturday we went out to eat with Jim, Vicki, Heidi’s sis Amy (who flew in from Minneapolis) and Jim’s son Landon. We feasted on some fabulous Mexican cuisine in Scottsdale. While waiting for the restroom, I was reading a review of the joint that berated the typical Mexican spots, where beans, cheese and sauces just drown the food and create a mediocre soup that passes for authentic. While these guys at Los Sombreros do it right and my Pork was some divine melt-in-your mouth stuff. Meanwhile, Heidi had a chicken in mole sauce which was equally exquisite. That being said, I’m grateful Jim treated us, as meals hovered around $20/plate and that’s a quick way to destroy our budget.

We spent Sunday separately, which was probably way overdue. Heidi just lounged around with her big sister, while I went out and exuded some testosterone with my buddy Graham, who also flew in, and our friend Brad, who just moved back down to PHX. We went to the Tonto Forest where we hooked up with a couple of other guys for some rock crawling. Essentially, we piled into four-wheelers and spent the afternoon either crawling treacherous hillsides at a snails pace, or racing through sandy creek beds, taking turns at heart-pounding speeds. All in all, we were out there for about 5 hours and it was a blast…not to mention a welcome respite from three weeks joined at the hip with the love of my life. (Don’t get me wrong: Heidi is the bomb diggity…but we still get on each others’ nerves at times.) Later in the night, after Amy headed home, we hooked up with the boys again for a late dinner. It was great seeing Graham and I’m glad we got to connect while he was here.

We spent Monday in Sedona, a town surrounded by beautiful red rock formations, but overrun by tourists and those waiting to prey on them. With Jeep tours, psychics on every corner and 4-star resorts dotting the hillsides, the place has lost some of the charm that I am sure existed two decades earlier. That being said, we had a nice time hiking a fairly tough trail under the mid-day sun and then grabbed a bite to eat in town. On the way back to PHX we took the long route, through Jerome. It’s an old mining town along a mountainside. Heidi wasn’t too impressed, but I enjoyed the scenery, both natural and otherwise.

Today is Heidi’s birthday and we drove all day to La Jolla, just outside of San Diego. We just got here and will be spending the next two nights near the beach, before heading to Palm Springs and a free stay at a beautiful home!!! Woot woot!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Kitschy Route 66

The saga continues: The windshield started leaking again! As we were driving near Amarillo, Texas the other day the heavens opened up and liquid manna poured from above. Not long afterwards a slow, albeit VERY annoying, “drip, drip, drip” started coming in from the site of the leak mentioned in previous blogs. I spent the next few minutes swearing, cursing the windshield repair industry and wondering if we’d have to cope with this for the remainder of our journey. I decided we’d have to grin and bear it, at least for the time being, and hopped back on the interstate, towards the infamous Cadillac Ranch along Historic Route 66. After enjoying the landmark, and snapping a few future works of art, I went back to inspecting the van, in search of the source of our leak…and, by George, I think I found it! There are two pinch welds along the top seal of the windshield, and the one over the passenger side developed a gap, causing a slight bit of rust, and most likely allowing water to seep in, finding refuge in the vehicle’s interior. I convinced Heidi to humor me and she feigned agreement with my diagnosis. At that point I decided we’d fill the gap with some sealant, when we next got to an auto parts store. In the meantime, I filled the gap with a piece of gum Heidi was about to discard. It seems to be doing the trick, but we’ll have to wait for the next significant rainfall to really test things out.

As for the rest of the adventure…

After leaving Tulsa we headed out for Keystone State Park, on the outskirts of the city. First, we stopped at K-Mart (yuk!) and a local grocery store, in order to buy a few necessities for our camp outing. Both places affirmed not only our geographical position, but a number of stereotypes about Southerners and rednecks. In the same breath, I’m sure we provided some entertainment for some of the folks we interacted with. I can just picture them impersonating characters from the movie “Fargo” after we got out of earshot.

We had to find State Highway 51 in order to get to Keystone State Park. And while we followed the appropriate road signs we seemed to never find the place and headed for Walnut Creek State Park instead, only about 20 miles from where we were. On the way there I pulled into a little country gas station, touting an upcoming Catfish Festival with a banner on the side of the building. As we pulled in a twenty-something man, likely with two first names (e.g. Bobby Joe, Jimmy Lee, etc.) hopped into his 80’s Chevy pickup and cranked up the country music as he sped away, spraying gravel in his tracks. Yes, we had arrived in a part of America were I would not feel comfortable with any additional pigment in my epidermis.

Our campsite was situated yards from the shore of a beautiful lake, and the sun was setting in the west, providing beautiful scenery as we set up camp while Heidi prepared dinner. We feasted on some chicken sausages, baked beans and mixed vegetables. Unlike some of the commercial campsites we had stayed at, we were far from any other campers, and could only see one other family about a quarter mile away.

The next morning we headed for Oklahoma City. For the first time I let Heidi take the wheel and she did an admiral job. Sometimes it’s kinda hard for me to let go and, quite frankly, part of the reason I handed her the keys is because we were having a pretty heated argument the night before, and it carried into the morning, so I wanted to extend this offer as a sort of olive branch. Like I said, she did a great job driving and I spent a majority of the drive sleeping and just being a relaxed passenger.

Upon arriving in Oklahoma City we visited the Oklahoma City National Memorial, the site of a domestic terrorist attack in 1995, which caused the deaths of 168 men, women and children. Walking among those hallowed grounds was a sobering experience. There are 168 empty chairs on the grounds (representing those lost in the attack), the Gates of Time, a Survivors Wall, the Survivor Tree (an oak which withstood the blast), a Children’s Area (adorned with some of the thousands of hand-painted tiles which were sent in by students following the tragedy), and an orchard for the rescuers. The entire memorial was thoughtfully designed and left one feeling somber, yet resilient. This is indeed an incredible nation and I am proud to be a citizen of the greatest country on earth.

After leaving the memorial we walked over to a nearby park and just enjoyed the weather for a while. We decided to get a hotel for the first time on the trip, and spent the better part of the next hour searching for wifi to steal, so we could book a cheap room. We ended up at the Baymont Inn on the Southside of town. The room was nothing special, but certainly a welcomed retreat away from the van, which we have spent a LOT of time in.

For dinner we went to Chelino’s Mexican Restaurant and were waited on by Juan, who I suspect to be the proprietor. He was an extremely friendly man, nearing the age of retirement (although I imagine he’ll be working well beyond that) and had a slight limp. As Heidi pointed out, he was your stereotypical proprietor of a family-run Mexican joint. All of the locals, gringos and Mexicans alike, knew him by name and he engaged each and every one of them in genuine conversation. He really was the highlight of the meal, although the food was delightful. When we were ready to go he was sitting at another customer’s table and just told us we could leave the money on our table, and to have a great night.

We checked out of our room precisely at 11am and headed further west, for Amarillo, TX. Along the way we stopped at a gas station to use the restrooms and a gaggle of good ole boys were gathered near the back of the station and pointed us in the direction of the relief we both sought. Upon coming out I was greeted by the patriarch of the group: “Where ya from…friend?” I explained our journey and we exchanged some polite conversation, prior to me wishing them a wonderful day. The conversation concluded with the leader saying, “You sure got a pretty daughter.” Heidi was a bit creeped out by this comment but I explained it was merely southern hospitality.

We arrived in Amarillo in the late afternoon and checked out the Cadillac Ranch, an icon of the Old Route 66. In 1974 a local man, along with an artist’s cooperative, assembled 10 old Cadillacs, from 1949 to 1963, and partially buried them into the ground. Today they are covered in graffiti and the grounds are littered with spray paint cans. The site we visited is actually about 2 miles west of the original location, as development forced the creator to move his work of art in 1997. This was one of a number of landmarks we passed along the way, including a leaning water tower and, possibly, the largest cross in the Western Hemisphere, towering some 19 stories.

We were gonna spend the night in Amarillo, but I wanted to arrive in Albuquerque (the following day) at a decent hour and proposed we continue west, and sleep at a rest area in New Mexico, near the town of Tucumcari. When we neared the rest area a road sign informed us that it was closed, and we’d have to proceed another 85 miles west to the next operational facility. First we stopped in Tucumcari for some dinner at a kitschy Route 66 diner called Del’s. I enjoyed smothered chicken and Heidi took in the all-you-can-eat salad bar. The food was good, although nothing to rave about.

We continued west, through off-and-on desert thunderstorms and finally pulled in to the rest stop near Santa Rosa, NM around 10pm local time. There we picked a spot, away from the lights and other slumbering motorists and made camp (in the van) for the night. When we woke up the temperature had dropped considerably. I made some oatmeal for us, and proceeded to ruin our little camping skillet, as I neglected to use any spray on the bottom. I guess I just thought if something was considered non-stick it didn’t require a non-stick additive. Well, the coating has started to flake off and continued use will add some unwanted ingredients in our meals.

We got to Albuquerque around noon and I took Heidi to Frontier restaurant, a must-see eatery right on the campus of the University of New Mexico. I visited the joint once before, on a previous trip to the city, but wasn’t sure if I could find it again, as our USA tour book neglected to mention this place! A little before giving up we happened upon the establishment and Heidi ordered huevos rancheros with green chili (a New Mexican staple), while I had the Frontier Burrito. The food was great and, to my delight, Heidi savored every last bite.

Next we went and explored Old Town, a historic part of Albuquerque, which is much as it was more than a century ago. When the railroad came into town it ran about a mile east of Old Town, leading the way to a new town center. As such, Old Town is a charming walk back in time, although now it is little more than a tourist trap with overpriced works of art and scammers preying on unsuspecting tourists. The historic church in Old Town was gorgeous and we had a great chat with one of the photographers from a local cooperative, called the Albuquerque Photographer’s Gallery.

We spent the night with Bob Tilley,
a fellow member of Couchsurfing. If you haven’t heard about it, you are missing out. Couchsurfing is a social networking site where open-minded folks open their homes to weary travelers in need of a cheap place to stay. Beyond that, it gives travelers the opportunity to spend time with, and learn from, a local. You certainly can’t find all the good stuff there is to know about a town from a guide book.

I know that some of you are thinking this is a crazy concept and must wonder if I am worried about being held hostage and murdered by some ex-con with a thirst for blood. Well, Couchsurfers have the opportunity to post feedback on other peoples’ profiles, so if someone doesn’t have good feedback you simply don’t stay with them. Bob, on the other hand, has been an extremely accommodating and gracious host and I am grateful that he took us in on such short notice. He is in his mid-40s and always wanted his home to be a gathering place, rather than a sanctuary, and Couchsurfing is helping him accomplish that goal. (In return for the home stay there is an unspoken rule that one should bring a gift, take the host out for a meal, or something similar).

We treated Bob to dinner at a relatively upscale pizzeria, similar to Punch back home. The three of us split two pies which had ingredients not found at Papa John’s. The food was wonderful and we spoke about travel, Albuquerque, and Bob’s life, all while taking in the al fresco experience on the patio. Afterwards, he took us on an extensive evening tour of the downtown area, walking us through historic buildings (that are now trendy bars, coffee shops, etc.) and sharing a history of the town which was more comprehensive than any book on the subject. I really enjoyed the history lesson and there was definitely a glimmer in his eye as he shared his wealth of knowledge with us.

Day two of Albuquerque started out slowly. We did laundry and hung around the house, sans Bob, until the early afternoon. When we finally got motivated, Heidi and I headed out to the Petroglyphs on the western edge of town. The Petroglyphs are, essentially, the ancient graffiti of the indigenous people who roamed this land well before the Anglos came in with their alcohol, smallpox and “civilized” ways. Sadly, some of our modern-day peers, with little regard to ancient history, have marred the beauty with graffiti of their own. Perhaps one day “Steve loves Dorene” will be looked at by anthropologists as an important contribution to our culture, but for the time being it just seems asinine and disrespectful to me.

We attempted to check out a touted coffeehouse for a very late lunch, but the doors to Barela’s were closed when we got there. We turned around and walked more than a mile in the hot midday sun, before stopping at a Chinese Noodle Restaurant which had no patrons dining prior to our arrival. The food was good, although nothing spectacular. That being said, I ordered a pretty mundane meal: Sweet & Sour Stir-fry. Heidi, on the other hand, ordered some sort of soup which had a phenomenal broth that included coconut milk, lemongrass and chili. Mmm Mmm Good!

Tomorrow we’re gonna head towards the Grand Canyon. We’ve changed the itinerary a few times along the way, thus far, and if you know me I’m not a big fan of straying from the pre-planned path. As such, it’s lead to some growing pains between my companion and I, but we continue to persevere, while growing together.

Monday, April 12, 2010

One Week Down

We’ve put more than 1,000 miles on the van thus far; however we have yet to come up with a name for the beast. Heidi had suggested “Bertha,” but then quickly withdrew it, suggesting more time was needed to get the proper moniker for our home on wheels. Nonetheless, she’s been a good machine up to this point…and the van has been great too! ;-)

I am typing this in the Tulsa Central Library, while listening to Imagination Theater, one of my guilty pleasures, and a pastime likely shared only with card-carrying AARP members. Imagination Theater is a series of contemporary radio dramas, and has programs such as Sherlock Holmes, Kinkaid the Strange Seeker and Powder River, an old-style radio Western.

When I last wrote I was quite peeved with the proprietor from Ziebart in Minneapolis, where I had recently paid $240 to have my windshield replaced, only to have it leak upon the first heavy rain we encountered. While staying with my Uncle Jeff and his family, just on the outskirts of Des Moines, I made a couple of phone calls to local auto glass shops to see if anyone could repair my leaky window before we continued down the road. The first gentleman I spoke with noted that he wouldn’t even touch our vehicle, as those windshields were quite difficult to replace and the risk of liability was not worth the reward of a couple hundred bucks. The second place I called was an auto-glass chain and the man on the other end of the phone was most certainly a phone bank representative and not knowledgeable in glass replacement himself. Regardless, I made an appointment the following morning with his outfit.

A heavily-tattooed, yet jolly, balding man came out and took a look at the van before bringing it in for service. He relayed that there were no signs of dust coming through the seal on the newly replaced windshield and, thus, suspected that the leak wasn’t coming from the windshield at all, but rather from a leaky pinch weld between the top of the van and the extended fiberglass roof, which adds a little height to the vehicle. Needless to say, this news did not improve my mood. I figured we were relegated to just coping with a leaky roof for the remainder of the trip…and we still may. But the kind fellow had us pull the van in and ran some urethane along the pinch weld, in an attempt to slow or eliminate the passenger-side leak. Since we haven’t had any significant moisture since then it is impossible to know if the fix worked. But, I am grateful for the kind service given, especially since we were sent on our way with nary a penny less, despite my insistence to the contrary.

After spending the early afternoon with Jeff we hit the road and headed east, for the banks of the mighty Mississippi. We had decided to follow the Great River Road on the way down to St. Louis, where we were to rendezvous with Heidi’s cousin Katie and her beau, Mark. Along the way we stopped in Pella, IA where I took a quick nap in the back of the van and Heidi went for a walk. Despite my best efforts, I didn’t get all the sleep I needed the evening prior, but a power nap was just the ticket to continue the journey until nightfall. I really didn’t take any time to enjoy Pella (except through my windshield) but it looked like a quaint little town and boasts the largest Dutch windmill in all of North America.

Originally, we had hoped to make it to Quincy, Ill. to camp in the van for the evening, but circumstance deemed otherwise, so we chose Nauvoo State Park instead. Upon arriving in Nauvoo I was awestruck by the sheer volume of historic brick buildings, and a rather imposing white edifice in the center of this sleepy little town along the eastern banks of the Mississippi River. I had no idea what this town was all about, but a couple of signs along the road about Joseph Smith suggested that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (more commonly known as Mormons) may have something to do with it.

Since the moon had replaced the sun and the stars had come out to play, it was rather dark outside and so I must’ve missed the sign for Nauvoo State Park, where we planned to camp. As it was getting late, and we were tired, I pulled over at a seasonal riverside rest area (not yet open) just south of town, and we parked the van and started getting ready for bed. For whatever reason I grabbed Heidi’s cell phone and told her to have it in back with us, so she dropped in the cup holder, or what should have been one. Instead the plastic holder was missing and so the phone fell deep into the depths of the van, in between the metal exterior and the wood and upholstery of the conversion package. Heidi likened it to baby Jessica falling in the well so many years ago. This development was certainly frustrating, given my desire to get to sleep, however I wanted to get it remedied as soon as possible, so we pulled out the tools and managed to get it out after a half-hour or so. Shortly thereafter we went to sleep, only to be awakened in the night by bone-chilling temperatures which hovered around freezing. By the time the sun came out Heidi was completely buried in anything she could to retain heat.

After hunting down a public restroom to heed nature’s call, we headed into the heart of historic Nauvoo. We walked around a bit and then joined a couple of other groups into a short lecture on how bricks were made here during the turn of the century. There we were also told about the wonders of the LDS church and asked where we had served on our missions. The historic little town quickly turned from interesting to intimidating as I realized that this former center of the church was now the sight of family pilgrimages and attempts to convert the heathen. We were given a complimentary little brick which had “The Book of Mormon” scribed on it, as well as some Egyptian hieroglyphs which, reportedly, state “Mind your parents.” We then hopped in the van and got the heck outta dodge…

Our next stop brought us to Hannibal, Missouri, the home of Mark Twain…and trust me: It is impossible to overlook that fact. Upon arriving we found the Mark Twin hotel, Mark Twin Dinette (home of Mark Twain Fried Chicken), Mark Twain Theater, etc. Quite frankly, I expected a Mark Twain urinal when I relieved myself at the visitor center. It was a cool little town, and we enjoyed walking through it, but I didn’t think it was worth forking out nearly $20 in order for the two of us to go into one of the many museums detailing Samuel Clemens transformation into the literary legend now known and read around the world. We had a great, and cheap, lunch at the local diner, which catered to the locals and not the tourists in search of that famous Mark Twain rib-eye.

We made it to the St. Louis metropolitan area just in time for rush hour, and arrived at Heidi’s cousin Katie’s new place around dinnertime. She and her boyfriend Mark just moved into a great little brick townhome, blocks from beautiful urban park and in a nicely mixed neighborhood, in terms of both ethnicity and age. After getting acquainted and cleaned up we headed out for pizza at Joanie’s Pizzeria. The food was good, but no match for the company. Mark & Katie were positively delightful. As a testament to the global village we all now occupy, Katie recounted that she recently got an out-of-office email from my work mailbox when sending a press release, without any prior knowledge to my position at FOX! On it I had linked to this blog, and she quickly put 2 & 2 together.

While at the pizzeria I imbibed a bit, indulging in a total of about 4 beers throughout the evening, making sure to also drink water and eat along the way. Well, apparently my body no longer agrees with the intoxicating poison and told me so the following morning while I was praying to the porcelain God and dry-heaving so hard that Heidi had to plug her ears. I tried to play it off to our gracious hosts and hope they are only learning of my malady now.

Our first stop in the morning was to the St. Louis central post office, where Heidi was to retrieve her license and check card, which she had mistakenly left at home upon our departure. Her dad was kind enough to get it overnighted, via general delivery, and Heidi had until noon Saturday to retrieve it, lest we wait until the following Monday. For a moment, she was a bit worried that we wouldn’t be successful, as they were clearly having trouble finding her parcel back in the labyrinth of packages, carts and tubes. However, the women behind the counter were not only friendly but persistent and found the very important envelope, even though it was addressed to a part of the post office where only employees get their mail (or so we were led to believe).

St. Louis is a beautiful city and has one of the largest urban parks in the United States, Forest Park. Grand Boulevard is lined with impressive homes which remind passers-by of days gone by: rail and lumber tycoons and excess to the point of lunacy. Prior to heading out we visited the famous Arch, but were unable to get to the top, as the beautiful weekend weather invited thousands of other visitors to the same destination. So, we just walked about, took in some sun and got back on the open road.

By this point, we had both worn on each others’ patience at various times throughout the trip and were in need of some rest and relaxation. We drove for only a short time before pulling into Robertsville State Park in Missouri. We got in well before the sun went down, and spent the next couple of hours setting up, getting some laundry done and preparing a simple dinner of pasta with red sauce, corn and bread. The weather was delightful and the scenery tranquil. It was a much needed stop for us and we left the following morning feeling refreshed and reinvigorated.

Since we didn’t leave until the early afternoon, we only drove a relatively short distance on Sunday and stopped at a small family-run campsite in Carthage, MO sometime after the sun set and the office closed. Prior to that, we ate a hearty meal at the Mount Vernon Family Restaurant. I wanted to get a little ways away from the interstate, in order to find some grub that was both tasty and cheap, while avoiding the chains that serve ammonia-rinsed beef and preservative-laden cuts of chicken. Well, this choice certainly fit the bill. As we walked in we were greeted by the smell of cigarette smoke wafting out of the smoking section, people in jeans, flannel and well-worn trucker hats, and a no-nonsense waitress in her early 20’s. Needless to say, we stuck out like sore thumbs and certainly made for some hushed conversations amongst the other patrons. Heidi enjoyed half of her gigantic friend catfish dinner (with three fillets) and I ate as much as I could of my turkey supper, which was drowned in about a gallon of yellow gravy. The portion sizes were way too big, as nearly every plate I saw taken away was far from clean. That being said, we still took advantage of the free ice cream that comes with every dinner order.

The campsite left little to write about, except for the encounter I had when I had to run to the bathroom in the night. Standing right outside the entrance to the men’s room was a white goose, honking in what I thought to be a very angry manner. Rather then risk a goose attack I retreated to the van and sought the help of Heidi. She came out to investigate and then escorted me to the ladies’ room so I could do my business in relative comfort. As we settled up the owner explained that her goose actually likes men and can be petted.

We have only been in Tulsa long enough to eat lunch, get a little walk in and then type this lengthy blog in the library. I did take a stroll down to a Route 66 marker, complete with a part of the road now closed off to all traffic, as a reminder of the history of the thoroughfare. I am rather unimpressed with the downtown area, and it seems that homelessness is rampant in this city. But, I guess one can expect that: the weather is relatively nice year-round, and I am at the central library, which provides protection from the elements, reading materials, internet access and a public bathroom for those without a home to call their own (or to be a bit more vulgar, a pot to piss in).

Well, I think that’s about all for now. Soon, we’re gonna head out of the city, grab some groceries and look for somewhere to camp for the night. Tomorrow I hope to visit Oklahoma City and the Alfred P Murrah Federal building, the site of the worst (confirmed) case of domestic terrorism in this nation’s history, where 168 people were killed in a bombing almost 15 years ago to the day.

If you have read this entire entry, THANK YOU. Moreover, I ask that you post this entry link on your Facebook, MySpace or wherever you can. I need exposure and followers, because Heidi & I hope to shop a book to publishers once we complete this adventure…and showing that people are interested in our stuff can only help. By the way, here is a link to Heidi’s blog if you haven’t yet seen it: http://heidi-leapyear.blogspot.com/

Video Blog: The Van

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

And We're Off...

After weeks of preparation, our journey has finally begun. We arrived in Pocahontas, IA a little after 6pm Monday evening following a leisurely drive down US 169, making a few stops (and wrong turns) along the way. We spent Monday and Tuesday nights in Pocahontas, at the home of Betty and Alvin Werkmeister. Although we aren’t technically related, they are family. Many years ago Betty was married to Guy Wesley Still, my grandfather. Together they had five children (after my father was born to Guy & Donna Cant), prior to Guy’s death in Hutchinson, MN in a car accident in 1967.

On the first day we took our time getting to our destination, stopping in Saint Peter for a stroll around the historic town and a quaint little lunch at the River Rock Coffee House. I indulged in a turkey Panini accompanied with spicy carrot soup while Heidi had a chicken feta pita and a bowl of the same carrot concoction. The meal was a nice, albeit a little pricey…but that is to be expected at a locally owned business that uses only organic and natural ingredients in all of their products. I felt as if I had committed a sin when I realized I tossed my Mountain Dew bottle in the trash, less than a foot away from the receptacle for recyclables.

Our next stop was in West Bend, IA where we visited the Grotto of Redemption. I had visited this geologic work of art a couple of times in my life, but wanted to share the experience with Heidi and see what she thought of the place. In 1912 a Catholic priest began constructing the grotto using stones he had collected from around the world the decade prior. The grotto is an impressive homage to Jesus & Mother Mary tucked away in the corner of a sleepy little agricultural community. It really is quite impressive and worth the drive, in and of itself. I was pleased with Heidi’s reaction, when she stated that visiting a place like the Grotto could really have a profound impact on one’s life. (I don’t think she had an epiphany during our visit, but she was impressed with the magnitude of the place and the devotion that goes along with creating such an edifice.

After arriving in Pokie (as the locals like to call it) we grabbed a bite at the only restaurant in town with Betty & Alvin. There we chatted about relatives, both living and past. I learned some interesting stuff about my father, his father and the dynamics of their relationship…things my dad never spoke of. Some of what I learned was saddening, although I’m glad to know what I know now. (So now you’re wondering what I learned, right? Well, you’ll have to buy my book for those details.)

We spent Tuesday morning running some errands in Pokie and eating lunch at the Pizza Ranch. A former colleague of mine, Pete Harty, used to rave about the Pizza Ranches he’d encountered while running the TV news satellite truck in rural parts of the Upper Midwest. Well, I had never even heard of this chain, so when we stared seeing them on the way down I suggested we’d have to give one a try. For about $7 we had a nice lunch buffet, which included a surprisingly good salad bar, a wide selection of pizza and fried & BBQ chicken as well.

The afternoon included a visit with Great Grandma Still. She is the mother of my late paternal grandfather, Guy Wesley Still (mentioned above). I wanted to ask her some questions about the family history, but heard that the past may upset her, so instead I chose to merely enjoy our time together. For 96-years-old she remains incredibly spunky and zips around the nursing like nobody’s business, with the assistance of her walker. We visited for a little more than two hours before parting ways.

In the evening we visited my aunt Jane and her family in Sac City. She is one of Guy and Betty’s offspring and a firecracker of a woman. There we reminisced about family, cracked jokes and briefly discussed the evils of a Monsanto monopoly on the agricultural world (my words Monsanto). It was great seeing the entire Scharn clan and I am truly grateful for relatives like Jane & Jeff, two of my dad’s half siblings who have been nothing short of amazing since the tragedy that ended my parents’ lives two years ago.

On Wednesday we left Pokie relatively early in the morning, in order to get to Des Moines/Ankeny at a decent hour. A little after noon we arrived in Des Moines and hooked up with my friend Becca, whom I met through Athletes Committed to Educating Students (ACES), a youth mentoring program in Minneapolis and St Paul public schools. She recently spent a year in Brazil teaching, thanks to a Fulbright grant. We wandered around the Des Moines Art Center, caught up, and picked Becca’s brain about Brazil. She is a wealth of knowledge and a great gal. She’ll be spending the summer with Trek America, leading tour groups on road trips around the US. How cool is that?

While driving to the Art Center Heidi noticed that the windshield was leaking right above her. Well, it was raining cats and dogs all day, and there was a significant amount of drippage. Needless to say, I was not pleased about this development as I recently spent $240 at Ziebart in Minneapolis to replace the windshield. When I called the bastards about it they said I should find a local glass place (here in Des Moines) and have them run a bead of some sealant and call him to work something out. Well, I have an appointment Thursday, but a couple of guys who are in the know suggested it will have to be completely reinstalled and I expect that the buster from Ziebart is gonna try and make me eat the cost! There are Ziebarts around Des Moines but they don’t do auto glass, so I may be hosed.

My Uncle Jeff lives in Des Moines and we are spending tonight (Wednesday) with him, his wife Marybeth and two adorable daughters, Caitlyn and Carolyn. We had an excellent meal at a Mexican restaurant in town and just hung out afterwards. While going to pick up the girls Jeff and I had a nice chat, sans women, about my dad and life as a Still man.

All in all, things have been great so far. Heidi is an amazing woman and an even better travel partner. We get on each others’ nerves once in a while, but that is to be expected whenever you spend that much time with someone. Tomorrow we plan to head to Quincy, IL after the windshield gets fixed.

Oh, did I forget to mention crashing the van? Ooops. A few days before we left Heidi and I had to run up to the storage space in Buffalo. As we were leaving I took a corner too tight and scraped against a concrete pillar which was in my blind spot. I was devastated to have marred the beauty of a van that was able to stay accident-free for 17 years, but barely 17 days with me!!!! And, I take pride in being a good driver too. So, I was pretty upset over the entire ordeal. After ripping off the shattered fiberglass running board we left the storage facility. Upon arriving home I removed most of the transferred yellow paint, tried to pound out the dent and made sure the door still functioned, despite a mangled exterior. Like I said, I beat myself up pretty bad over the whole deal but Heidi was a wonderful sport about it, and her kind words are helping me move past this. At least the van still works and nobody got hurt, right?