Destinations · US Travel · USTravel

Riding the Rails to Grand Canyon National Park

It didn’t seem right to leave Arizona without seeing the Grand Canyon. Cal and I have been there a few times in our lives, separately and together, so I looked around for a different way to see it. Riding a train seemed like a perfect idea.

The depot is in Williams and they have quite a set up: besides the train, there is a hotel with all the amenities plus the RV park where we stayed for just two nights. It was a packed park. We were right in front of some railroad tracks, separated only by a ditch and a fence. You either love the sound of the trains, or you hate them. I don’t mind if they are off in the distance, but the train horn blowing woke me up once each night.

Small price to pay for the convenience, though. We were able to walk to the depot in the morning of our excursion. Before we boarded the train, there was a shootout outside the depot. The sheriff was having a little trouble with the Cataract Creek Gang. This was a huge event; why did I not see it in the morning news?

Silliness aside, we enjoyed the two hour ride up to Grand Canyon. Our host in our car told us about the trains and the scenery we were passing, there was a little snack buffet, and a singer came by with guitar in hand to entertain us with a few songs. Before we knew it, we were at the Grand Canyon Depot.

The 64-mile Grand Canyon Railway was originally completed in 1901 and was instrumental in the development of Grand Canyon Village. It was built by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. With the decline of the railway, the last passengers rode the train in 1968. Developers purchased the line and restored operations again in 1989. Today the train runs 364 days a year. Our car was full and it looked like the others were too on the day we rode.

Of course, the Grand Canyon is the main attraction. We climbed up a lot of steps from the depot, and there it was. I had forgotten. Forgotten how it takes my breath away and almost brings me to tears every time I see it. I’m struck, every time, by its beauty. It truly is grand.

A National Park Service informational sign says much of what I was feeling:

Gazing upon this view, one is struck by the canyon’s vastness. The mind struggles to comprehend it. Try to describe the canyon’s size in words. Try to measure in your mind the canyon’s depth, width, and length. Measurements like 1 mile deep, 18 miles wide, and 277 river miles long leave us scratching our heads. Perhaps the best we can do is just feel the canyon’s enormity. Measure yourself up against it. We are miniscule in comparison…”

We rode the park shuttle to Hopi Point and hiked back along the Rim Trail. That was a good way to get some quiet trail time. We appreciated our host’s suggestion for this; our walk from Hopi Point was all down hill.

From Hopi Point, we could see the Colorado River far below.

The view of the canyon was dizzying in some spots, as there was no barrier rail in many places of this part of the trail:

Maricopa Point looked like a good viewing spot, although we did not hike over to it.

If one wants to hike down inside the canyon, Bright Angel Trail is the trail to take, and it will be four to six hours to the bottom. It is a long and strenuous hike, and hiking back up takes twice as long as venturing down. If one is overnighting, Phantom Ranch has basic accommodations at the bottom. I think it would be fun to hike down and stay at Phantom Ranch, if someone could come by and pick me up in the morning! Before we hopped on the shuttle, we passed the Bright Angel trailhead.

As we got closer to Grand Canyon Village on our hike, we could see the trail far below.

Looking down on Bright Angel Trail closer to the beginning of the trail head:

This little squirrel posed nicely for me. Or it was looking for a handout, I can’t be sure.

You wouldn’t think you’d see much wildlife so close to all the humanity around, but this bighorn sheep was oblivious.

I visited Grand Canyon with my parents when I was twelve, and again in my late teens with a friend on our way back to Texas from Las Vegas. Each time, I loved to see the Hopi House on the edge of the canyon. I wondered if this was a real Hopi house. Did Hopi Indians once live here? At the time, I received no answers, or I don’t remember that I did.

Fast forward to the Internet age. Our host on the train told us that the Hopi House was designed by Mary Coulter for the Fred Harvey Company which was instrumental in promoting tourism in the canyon. In the early 1900’s, she was revolutionary in the field of architecture. Her designs blended the natural landscape with whatever building materials were local. The Hopi House was finished in 1905.

The Hopi were a native canyon tribe and at the time were considered more civilized because they lived in permanent pueblos and created beautiful arts and crafts. The Hopi House was built as a place where Hopis could work and live, and visitors could observe and purchase their goods. It’s built like a true Hopi home, where several families could live, enjoy the rooftop terraces and vistas in the evening, and enjoy the company of fellow artisans. The exception to this is that there is a door in the front on ground level; the Hopi would not have had one. At one point, three generations of one family lived here. A dance platform was built in the 30’s but the evening Hopi dances ended in the early 1970’s with resentment by many Hopi for having their culture on display for tourists. Today, we know that several tribes once lived in the Canyon, not just the Hopi, and we celebrate their cultures as well.

I found much of this information on gracahistory.org and for further reading you can visit their site with a search on “Hopi House”.

The Hopi House has been refurbished. True to its original conception, it is a shop and art gallery that sells mostly native crafts. The items for sale are beautiful, and I also tried to look past them to see the original house as it was.

My parents were also here on their honeymoon in 1938, which was probably the heyday of the Hopi house. I faintly remember my mother saying that the Indians would be sitting along side of the road selling their wares as they traveled. I would love to see the Hopi house as she saw it then.

All too soon, it was time to board the train back to Williams. We had a different singer this time, who billed himself as “The Rock-n-Roll Cowboy.” And then we were held up by the Cataract Creek Gang! We saw them on their horses as we passed and soon the train stopped. The robbers actually got away with some of our cash, which was in reality tip money.

The sheriff just before the robbers boarded our car, certain that the passengers ahead of us knew of their whereabouts

The train was great fun and we liked not having a car at the Canyon, but I would not recommend it if it would be someone’s first visit there. I was surprised that, even as a repeat visitor, our time at the Canyon felt a little short. Or maybe I just got lost in the Hopi House. Some passengers had luggage and were staying at the Canyon with a return trip the next day. I wish I had thought of that earlier! The train ride would also be a whole bunch of fun for school-age kids.

The town of Williams is on the original Route 66 and was one of the last towns to be bypassed by the highway. We were able to walk over the tracks for a little visit.

Our time in Williams was brief but with much to look forward to on the road ahead, we were ready to go. I’ll leave you with one last view of the Grand Canyon.

Next time: on the road to Utah

Destinations · Uncategorized · US Travel · USTravel

Ft. Huachuca, Arizona

Morning snow cover on the Huachuca Mountains

We arrived at Ft. Huachuca early in February. After a week, we were off to Hawaii. Frodo and Sam (our truck and 5th wheel) went into storage for a month in a lot on post close to Apache Flats, our RV park. We were there another month after our trip to Hawaii. I was working on the Hawaii blogs the whole time, so none of the fun excursions we did were posted. Perhaps I will catch them up at a later date.

Ft. Huachuca is an old Army post that dates back to the 1800’s, when new trails were being explored across the West and the Indian wars were happening. Today, it is the home of Military Intelligence (MI). There is a training school for mostly new recruits fresh out of basic training and a handful of MI battalions, among other units. It’s tucked up into the foothills of the Huachuca mountains, and sprawls all the way down to the Sonoran desert. The whole post is quiet and relaxed, although maybe not for the students at the MI school.

Looking at the Huachucas from the historic side of post

The RV park on Ft. Huachuca is in the foothills on the edge of civilization before the road goes off into the brush. There was nothing but nature all around us, and we started to think of the mountain as “ours”, in all its moods.

We called Ft. Huachuca home for a couple of years back in the 80’s, and loved it here. It was the only military assignment Cal had, after we married, in which we lived in government family quarters. It was a quiet, laid-back place to live. We were at the end of a 6-plex row of homes, and became friends with several of the neighbors around us. There were game nights, dinners together, and plenty of chats on the driveways. I went to school on my GI Bill and was one semester short of an Associate’s Degree when Cal received a “can’t miss” chance for reassignment in Washington, D.C. I always thought we’d at least come back for a visit, but this was our first time here in all the years since.

The rows of 6-plexes are gone now, replaced by beautiful new housing, schools, and a daycare facility. There is a larger emphasis on taking care of soldiers’ families in the military today, and I’m happy to see that. Our quarters were old even when we lived in them. Two rows of the 6-plexes were saved from the bulldozer for use as maintenance offices.

Looking down the row of the 6-plex. The front yards would have been grassy with the occasional prickly pear cactus.

The “A” unit was ours, on the end. I checked the address on the side of the building and it was not the one we lived in. That would have been a huge coincidence. Since all units were identical, I stood on the front entryway of the “A” unit and felt just a touch nostalgic for what had been.

This was our view when we lived here, minus the new buildings. Our unit was on the edge of the desert.

Ft. Huachuca is home to a lot of wildlife. Deer are numerous, and we often saw javelinas. We had a sighting of a coyote one evening, and I stumbled on the huge flock of turkeys on one of my walks one day. I counted at least a couple dozen.

This deer and I had a stare-down contest. I lost the game.
Sort of reminds me of the Beatles walking across Abbey Road. But wait, there’s one missing!
Ah, there’s the little straggler.
They’re easy to miss because they blend in, but there is a whole row of turkeys behind the one in the front

The birds! There were so many of them. The mountains of southern Arizona are “sky islands” in the Sonoran desert. The birds migrate up from Mexico along the chain of mountains. Sierra Vista, the town outside of Ft. Huachuca, is known as the hummingbird capital of the U.S. for all the types of hummingbirds that come. For a while, a couple in an RV with three hummingbird feeders were parked across from us. They would be gone all day, and we could enjoy the hummingbirds from our lawn chairs when we were home. They told us they had seen 8 varieties while sitting at dinner one night. Even without the feeders there were plenty of them zipping around the park at any time. And this little red bird came to visit us often.

We took many hikes into both Huachuca and Garden canyons, right on the military post. I don’t remember this from when we lived here. We visited many beautiful places while we lived in Arizona; how did we not know this was in our own back yard? I guess it was a combination of the pre-computer era, and also the busyness of daily life, plus only having weekends for exploration. If we didn’t know anyone who hiked the canyons, we just wouldn’t have known about it.

Garden Canyon even had some petroglyphs.

Before getting deep into the canyons, we would pass multiple picnic areas which are no longer being maintained. I couldn’t understand why not, at first. I finally decided that they hearken back to an earlier era when government family quarters didn’t have air conditioning. Parents might’ve been happy to get up into the cooler canyons to let the kids play and have a picnic on a Sunday afternoon. I never saw anyone using the facilities.

We also attended a rodeo at the only rodeo arena in the world that is inside a military installation.

There was a competition in which four teams of military guys had to put panties on a bull. It was hilarious to watch their efforts!

Ft. Huachuca also has horse stables. Back in the day, you could go up to a window at the stables, show your ID card, give them a few bucks, and “check out” a horse. Cal and I did that several times, just riding the horses up into the hills by ourselves. We would always put a carrot or two in our pockets for them. Sadly, you can’t do that anymore. You have to go on a trail ride. We went on a sunset ride, and although it wasn’t the same, it was still enjoyable. We’ve heard that there used to be around 90 horses, and now there are only 16. They stopped individual check outs because too many people were getting bucked.

Back in the Midwest, spring was my favorite season. I loved the arrival of spring flowers and the budding and blooming of the trees. Here at Ft. Huachuca we have enjoyed a spring season also, but it’s just a little different. It started back in February when I saw a barrel cactus in bloom in Tucson:

The cholla cactus was in bloom throughout our entire stay at Ft. Huachuca. At Apache Flats, we enjoyed watching a bird building a nest in one of them on our evening walks.

This huge agave was sprouting inch by inch. I would’ve liked to have seen it when it reached full growth.

When March turned to April, the ocotillo went into bloom. Their flowers are only at the top. On a desert hillside full of ocotillo, they look like orange waving flags. Usually the rest of the ocotillo stems are black, but in spring they turn green.

Interestingly, I read on Wikipedia that ocotillo is more closely related to tea and blueberries, even though it is semi-succulent and a desert plant.

The trees by our site went into leaf a little more slowly than I would have liked. I think we need to stay an extra couple of weeks into spring the next time we are here, so we can finish watching everything come into full bloom. Yes, there will be a next time, but as always, we don’t know how many years down the road it will be. We’re on the road again!

Next time: Grand Canyon

Destinations · US Travel · USTravel

Saguaros in the Desert, and An Announcement

Saguaro National Park West, Tucson, Arizona

Saguaro cactuses have been all around us during our stays in both the Phoenix and Tucson areas. They are the sentinels of the desert and I never tire of seeing them. They don’t all grow straight and tall, with two or more arms up. Just as humans do, they all have their personalities, and it began to be fun to look for the “different” ones.

First, I have for you five fun saguaro facts:

Saguaro National Park East, Tucson
  1. Young saguaros can best survive when “nursed” by trees which shelter them. Above, these saguaros in Saguaro National Park East are being sheltered by a palo verde tree.

2. Saguaros only grow an inch or two in their first six to eight years. These “babies” are really older than you would think.

Saguaros and the Superstition Mountains near Phoenix

3. It may be 70 years before they sprout branches, or arms. These saguaros near the Superstitions are very, very old. And, some saguaros never sprout arms.

Saguaro National Park East

4. Saguaros reach full height of about 40-50 feet at about age 150. The tallest can be as high as 75 feet. How old do you think this saguaro, with its many arms, is?

Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson

5. Birds find food and homes in saguaros. Raptors perch on the tallest branches to search for prey. The long beak on this little fellow seems well suited for saguaro drilling!

My favorite saguaros:

Teddy Bear Saguaro
Saguaro Stacks
Saguaro on the Rocks
Bunny Ears Saguaro
Dead Saguaro ( and most of these others don’t have arms. From a distance, they look like telephone poles)
Dead Saguaro 2, with a flair
Confused Saguaro

The best is last. This is a “crested saguaro” which lives at the Desert Museum in Phoenix. It’s a very rare mutation, and there are only about 2,500 of them spread throughout the saguaro habitation zone. I only saw one other during our time here, and it was not nearly this beautiful. I happened to catch it at sunset.

Glam Saguaro

An Announcement

We are leaving the land of the saguaros for awhile and going to Hawaii! Frodo and Sam will be going into storage for a month. This is a long-planned, Covid-delayed retirement celebration. We will be in Hawaii three weeks before going to Denver for some time with our grandchildren.

I am hoping to not go totally dark with this blog during that time, and would like to think that I may blog while I am there. But I’d rather live the journey while I’m there than to be holed up and on a computer, of course! If all else fails, I will be back, and will write about the whole trip then.

Aloha!

Next time – Hawaii!

Destinations · Uncategorized · US Travel · USTravel

Sabino Canyon

Sabino Canyon, Esperero Trail

After spending a month at Gold Canyon, we moved a little further south to Tucson. This is a city we were very familiar with years ago, but time changes things and we didn’t see much that was familiar. Several people we talked to told us to go to Sabino Canyon, which was not a place we had heard of.

The proper name for this place is “Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, Coronado National Forest”. It is not far from Tucson so it is a popular place to hike. There is a whole network of trails in here. In an effort to ease congestion, a shuttle service was installed years ago. There’s a one-hour narrated 7.4-mile roundtrip tour into the upper end of the canyon, with nine stops to get off sooner to hike various trails. There is also another shuttle route with service to Bear Canyon which is shorter and not narrated.

It is an error these days to think you can just show up and ride a shuttle. When we arrived at Sabino Canyon, all the shuttles for the day were full. We should have booked ahead on-line. They’ve recently converted the pollution-belching gas shuttles to electric – but several don’t work. However, a volunteer ranger was ready for us. He mapped out a route for us from the visitor’s center with several interconnecting trails – just over two miles, he said. I think it was further than that. I had 12,000 steps on my Fitbit at the end of the day, which is about six miles.

No matter, once we hit the trail we left everyone behind, and mostly had it to ourselves.

This little ledge overlooking a creek was a great spot to have a picnic lunch
An old dam is gone, but has left a pretty waterfall
Another great way to visit the trail!

Bear Canyon Trail to Seven Falls

We thought our first hike at Sabino Canyon was fun, but we actually missed the one that everyone talks about: the Seven Falls hike. It was a longer trail than we had wanted on our first visit: 8.6 miles. The distance can be reduced down to about 5 miles by taking the Bear Canyon Shuttle. We returned the next week to give it a go. The Bear Canyon Shuttle isn’t as busy as the Sabino Canyon Shuttle, but I still made sure to get tickets this time.

The sun was still coming up over the higher mountain peaks as we walked.

Soon we were following a creek–

And then, we crossed the creek. And then crossed back. And back again. The river got deeper, the rocks farther apart. Finally I consulted our trail map: there are seven creek crossings before reaching Seven Falls! Which means, of course, seven crossings back, since this is an out-and-back trail.

We looked back behind us, and saw an arch in the rocks:

On trails in the Southwest, I’ve learned that a sign like this means switchbacks are coming, which means going up. Shortcutting is going off-trail and climbing straight up, as opposed to the gentler zig-zagging on the trail. We did indeed hike upwards, and then around the edge of the cliffs, and the trail narrowed. It was a little treacherous, so there are no pictures on that part!

Our first glimpse of Seven Falls:

The view is breathtaking. I counted them and indeed there are seven waterfalls. The distance from top to bottom is of considerable length and couldn’t be captured on Cal’s phone or my camera well, especially with the sun in the wrong spot. Trust me…it was worth the hike and all the creek crossings. Looking at the above picture: from here, we climbed down to the right, crossed the creek, and then back up to the first rock in the sun on the left to enjoy the waterfalls and the view. In the picture below, you can see people in the bottom left, and that’s where we sat for awhile.

Coming out of the falls, we passed a group of young college students (judging by their t-shirts and ballcaps). By the time we reached the cliff above the falls, they had stripped down to bathing suits and had jumped into this pool (above) under the waterfall. This was accompanied by much whooping and hollering, as we could hear even from our vantage point! The water must have been cold!

Next time – Saguaros, and an announcement

Destinations · US Travel · USTravel

Phoenix and Gold Canyon Hodgepodge

Part of a 30-foot long “art fence”

There are other places we visited in Phoenix while we were staying in Gold Canyon. And no, this picture is not more Chihuly glass. It is in the Heard Museum, which features both ancient and contemporary Native American art. We spent an enjoyable morning here on a dismal weather day.

Native Americans were using the symbol at the bottom of this tapestry long before the Nazis gave it a terrible meaning. To the Natives, it was a symbol of the sun, of the four seasons, or the four directions, depending on the tribe.

There are a lot of famous people and icons painted into this picture. See how many you can find!

There was a very sobering exhibit at the end of our visit to this museum about the Indian schools which began at the last half of the 1800’s and into the 1900’s. Children were ripped from their families to be “reeducated” so they would lose their native culture and be “assimilated”. Abuse of all kinds was rampant in these schools, and many children died of disease. Phoenix had a large one. There were success stories, but that was the exception. It made my heart sad to think of the sorrow heaped on these families.

On a sunnier day we also visited Hole-in-the-Rock, which is in Papago City Park. It’s a great place to enjoy the city, the desert, or perhaps just to watch the planes taking off at the airport.

It’s an easy .3-mile hike around the backside and up to the top.

There were surprisingly a lot of people up there enjoying a mid-week afternoon break from the city. I don’t think I’d want to be here on a weekend.

If you’re ever hungry for pizza in Mesa, Arizona, I can tell you where to go: Organ Stop Pizza. There is a Wurlitzer theater-style organ smack dab in the middle of the dining area, and the music is played daily by a revolving schedule of organists.

He played many genres of music while we were there and he took requests. The theme from Star Wars was playing while we came in…awesome!

The lights flash on the different pipes while he plays and there is also some percussion that he can control from the organ. He played the national anthem at one point. A flag came down and everyone stopped eating to stand up and sing. What a pizza joint! Not only that, but the pizza was excellent.

Gold Canyon is located where the freeway ends at the far western edge of Phoenix. Gold Canyon RV Resort truly lives up to the “resort” in its name. It is for people 55 and older only, and only relatively new RV’s can stay. There are also “park models” here, basically RVs that don’t move and that people can buy into. It is a place unlike any other that we have been to so far. We had seen our family for a week over Thanksgiving, but for Christmas we were on our own. I wanted a nice place to celebrate, and it was the place to be.

A street at Gold Canyon RV showing a park model on the right, and RVs mixed in.

The street above was quiet this day, but usually there are people walking their dogs or just walking or jogging, riding bicycles or golf carts, pushing a golf caddy. There is a golf course here and it runs like a pretty green ribbon throughout the resort. The residents here are very active and the resort delivered the activities. If a person doesn’t golf, no worries – there are (very busy) pickleball courts, a fitness room, lots of fitness classes, not to mention workshops for many hobbies and classes that go on all day. The resort was so large that I could get all my daily Fitbit steps in just walking the streets, and I had great fun at a line-dancing class.

Out on the street, when you passed someone, they would nearly always wave and say hello with a big smile. We were invited to join groups of people at various events, and it was interesting to hear their stories. Most people were from the upper Midwest states and came directly here for the winter to stay. Those that tired of pulling an RV after many years bought into the park models.

We enjoyed jazz by the swimming pool and a guitar player at the bistro:

There was a golf cart Christmas parade, and many of the residents of park models had their places decorated.

The lemon tree next door

We could get in some short hikes close by.

One day we stopped at a food truck to purchase tamales. I turned around and there was a woman unloading sacks of oranges from her truck. She’d picked them from her orchard just that morning. They looked so good and the bag was only twelve dollars so we brought one home. Later I had some buyer’s remorse – what was I going to do with all those oranges?? No worries. They were sweet, juicy, and the best oranges I have ever had. I made juice, smoothies, orange chicken, and we just ate them. Aside from four that we gave to our neighbors, we soon had them used up.

We are learning on our journey that there are all kinds of parks to stay at for all kinds of reasons. I’m a state park kind of girl. I love wide spaces and RV spots, and being out in nature. But some times, community is needed, and this community set a gold standard for us.

Cal basking in the sun

Next time – we move on to Tucson

Destinations · US Travel · USTravel

Frank L. Wright and Dale Chihuly

Bear with me for just a bit of background. Frank Lloyd Wright, who died in 1959, was a famous architect and designer who left us with around 300 buildings, one of them being the Guggenheim museum. His houses taken altogether are UNESCO sites. He’s considered to be one of the the greatest U.S. architects of all time, and his greatest legacy is “organic architecture,” or the idea that buildings harmonize both with their inhabitants and with their environment.

“No house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other.”

– Frank Lloyd Wright: An Autobiography

Dale Chihuly, currently 80 years old, is an American glass artist whose work is in museum collections worldwide. We were introduced to his work at home in St. Louis when he exhibited in the Missouri Botanical Garden. I loved seeing the exhibition for the year that it was there, and returned often to see it both by day and lit up at night. Some of the art became permanent installations there.

So what do these two men have in common?

I was happy to discover, upon arrival in the Phoenix area, that Chihuly had two exhibitions in town. One was at the Frank Lloyd Wright house, Taliesin West, and the other at the Desert Botanical Garden. We went to both. The picture at the top of this post shows Chihuly’s glass as part of the exhibit at Taliesin West, which is located near Scottsdale, Arizona.

Both Chihuly and Wright were inspired by light, color and nature. Above, the blue glass are saguaros and the low red glass next to them are desert plants; the red glass in the water are reeds. Wright’s house blends with the desert and is made of natural materials. Neutral brown, red, and orange colors match the colors that you see in the desert.

Wright’s office at Taliesin
Chihuly’s glass in Wright’s living room
In the drafting room

Wright is from Wisconsin and his home there is called Taliesin East. He was a snowbird! Taliesin West is where he came in the winter time. He wanted to teach others, so this place was, and still is, a working laboratory. My picture of the drafting room shows only a couple of the many drafting tables here.

He loved music and played the piano, and his was a Steinway which he would drag outside for impromptu concerts. Taliesin also has an acoustically sound cabaret.

The Steinway in the living room
Chihuly’s glass in Wright’s orchard

On another day, we visited the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. We purchased tickets for late in the afternoon, to catch the setting sun on the glass and to see it lit up.

I hadn’t realized that the setting sun would have its effect on the cactus and other plants in the garden, bathing them in a warm glow.

There was an exquisite indoor display of Chihuly’s work.

More than 1500 pieces of glass are used to make this installation!

The desert plants definitely held their own beauty against Chihuly’s glass. I had to take a second look at these pretty blue flowers; they looked like little pieces of glass in the setting sun.

I thought the cactus above was a saguaro until I read the description of it. It is a cardon, brought from Baja more than 75 years ago when it was less than 5 feet tall. Truly amazing! I was happy to catch the person walking by it for a little perspective.

Toward the end, the Chihuly installations were starting to glow.

Ahhhh…happy sigh.

Next time – More of Phoenix and Gold Canyon

Destinations · US Travel · USTravel

The Superstition Mountains

The Superstition Mountains from our RV Park in Gold Canyon, AZ at sunset

We limped into Gold Canyon before Christmas, happy to have a full one-month stay to sit for awhile. It was to be the first time we didn’t move the RV for a full month since we were in Austin last April! Cal sprang into action getting a mobile tech out to our RV to replace Sam’s front left jack leg, which he’d already purchased and had at the ready. He also replaced Frodo’s hitch with one that wouldn’t take up so much battery power every time we need to hook and unhook it from Sam. Meanwhile, I was nursing a bad cold for almost a week and didn’t even want to go out the door.

Once I was starting to get a case of cabin fever, though, we looked for something low-key to do, without a lot of walking, and decided to take a drive on the other side of the Superstitions – the side we can’t see from home. Mountains are always full of surprises. This was our view from the first turnoff:

The rugged other side of the mountain

We were driving the Apache Trail. It is an old stagecoach road and, before that, a footpath through the Superstitions by the Apaches. Ironically, when the road was paved, it was Apache labor, among other construction workers, that built it. They were starving on the new reservations and the income greatly helped them out. The forty-mile road is otherwise known as SR 88.

We were totally surprised to come upon a reservoir, Canyon Lake, as we rounded a corner:

The town of Tortilla Flat, population 6, is the only one on this road. The Apache trail runs right in front of a line of their original Western-style buildings with a boardwalk, and that’s about it. The town began as a stagecoach stop in 1909 and they like to brag that neither flood nor fire can take them down.

The place, and the only place, in town to have lunch is the Superstition Saloon and Restaurant. It was both fun and delicious – street tacos, for me, and a burger for Cal. The walls are papered with dollar bills, the bar stools are saddles, and the wood floors are creaky with age.

Hopefully not the original stagecoach!

Not far past Tortilla Flat, the road turns to dirt for awhile, then it is totally closed. There was a forest fire a couple of years back that caused burn damage to the water table which in turn causes flooding whenever it rains. If you want to see the other end of the road, you have to go way around the other side of the mountain. Cal decided he was up for finishing the drive on our end, dirt road or no, so we went as far as we could. We were glad we did, because the view of the canyon below was astonishing – in our opinion, second only to the big Grand Canyon.

I took the first picture to show the work of the Apaches, which is still holding up well. If you look closely, those are the straight rows of stones to the right of the road sign. When I saw the picture, though, I realized it also shows how narrow and winding the road is here, with no guardrails!

Well…that’s the end of that!

On another day, we took a hike on our side of the mountain on the Hieroglyphic Trail. It’s a popular Phoenix area trail. On our first try ( the day after Christmas) we couldn’t even get into the parking lot. We had better luck waiting a few days and then going fairly early in the morning. We’ve learned that winter desert mornings are chilly, but we soon warm up after hiking a bit.

We were finally able to see our mountain close-up as we wound through saguararos, ocotillos, and teddy bear chollas.

Phoenix behind me
We have arrived!

We were astonished to see this beautiful waterfall. Everywhere we’ve been, we’ve seen nothing but dry washes, gulches and creek beds. We’ve been told about droughts and have seen very little rain. A volunteer ranger out for a hike chatted with me for awhile, and cleared up the mystery. It had poured rain all day and all night on Christmas Eve, along with some short bouts of rain before and after that period. The mountain is porous rock, and all that rain seeps down into the rock. It takes a few days, but then the water starts to run. He has seen whole years where there has been no waterfall. Unbeknownst to us, we had hit this just right, and so we were grateful we had been turned away by the packed parking lot a few days earlier!

The reason I had wanted to hike this trail, though, was that I wanted to see the petroglyphs:

It bothered me that this trail is named Hieroglyphic Trail, and not Petroglyph Trail. I did a Google search later, and yes: the trail is misnamed. Hieroglyphics (boy, I sure do have a hard time spelling that, and I hope this is the last time!) are Egyptian script writings or drawings. Petroglyphs are images made by carving rock by prehistoric peoples. It’s okay, though. Maybe if the trail was correctly named it would draw too many more people to it. The petroglyphs were tucked in and around the rocks around the waterfall. You can see them above in the second waterfall picture that I posted, off to the left.

We took a minute from the beauty around us to look up, and saw a balanced rock way up high:

Here’s the closeup

All too soon, we had to come down off this little mountain paradise, and find our way back to town.

Next time: Wright and Chihuly

Destinations · US Travel · USTravel

Military Family Camping

Sunset at FE Warren Air Force Base, Cheyenne, Wyoming

In the last blog’s look-ahead, I promised that I would be writing about Phoenix. If you were looking forward to that blog, you’ll have to wait for one more. I’d like to tell you about another aspect of our RVing experience before I dive into our Phoenix adventures.

Long ago, both Cal and I were in the Army. I did six years but he went for the whole enchilada – 20 years and retirement. That retirement has been a gift that keeps giving. The latest benefit that we’ve uncovered since we started RVing has been our ability to stay at RV parks, called Family Camps, that are on military bases nationwide. As with normal RV parks, some are jewels – from what I hear, mainly those that are located primarily on the east and west coasts. We’ve stayed at several now, some better than others. Usually we stay for the convenience of their location on the route we’re traveling. They are also a budget-stretcher. Family camps generally cost much less than what regular RV parks do. And like regular RV parks, they are all different.

Barksdale Air Force Base, Shreveport, LA

The funds for each camp are allocated by that base’s commander as part of “Morale, Welfare, and Recreation”, which is why each one is different. Some commanders make the camps a priority, some don’t. The current trend is for parks to be upgraded, or even rebuilt. This section of Barksdale’s family camp is brand-new. We were in the back row on the end, with a huge lawn all our own, very private. Barksdale gets the prize for most spacious site.

A bugler at military bases still sounds reveille in the morning, retreat at 5:00, and taps at the end of the day, but now it comes over a loudspeaker. At some bases at the Family Camp it is faint or not noticeable, but at Barksdale it was definitely attention-getting. 5:00 retreat is accompanied by the playing of the National Anthem. If you are outside, you have to stop what you are doing until the song is over.

Man emptying his trash, walking his dog, and standing at attention (facing the loudspeaker) for the National Anthem.

When we were in the Army, we would always check to see if it was near 5:00 before we would go outside, or else would do a dive for a door if we were outside and could go in. Especially in inclement weather. We are amused to find that on military bases and posts, old habits kick in; we do the same thing!

Air Force Bases are notorious for placing the family camps at the end of the flight runway. On our first day, this B-52 bomber zoomed over us right after the playing of the national anthem. What a show! Lest you think this was an every day occurance, this was a Friday and we were only here for the weekend. On weekends the bugle is silent and the planes don’t fly.

Kirtland Air Force Base, Albuquerque, NM

View of Sandia Mountains from the parade field and walking trail at Kirtland AFB

The reservation system is different for each family camp. At some, you can reserve a few months in advance, and usually active duty military have priority. Rightly so, since many of them use the family camps as a residence while they are making a move to or from other bases. It’s a much better place for kids, I think. Kirtland’s family camp, like many, is first come first serve. It makes me nervous, just showing up, but we had no problem getting a site.

I didn’t like our site at Kirtland. Because this is desert, the sites were gravel and close together. But again, we were here for just a couple of nights and weren’t at the site much. We visited our nephew Mike, who is stationed at Kirtland, and his wife. I’ve already blogged about our cable car ride up the Sandia mountains, and there are many other things to do in the city. Kirtland did have a walking track around the parade field within walking distance from our camp, and a great view of the mountains.

F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Cheyenne, Wyoming

Squeezed in at Warren

F.E. Warren was the most scenic base with the campground that needs the most updating. I presume it was built back in the 50’s or 60’s, when most people just had a tent or small trailer. It had the feel of a campground from my childhood. We were side-to-side with our neighbors here. There was a green area behind our RV that had a picnic table, but if you sat there, you had a nice view of everyone up and down the row.

This air base was originally built as Ft. Russell in 1867. It has gone from being an outpost on the lonely frontier to its current mission as a missile base, making it the oldest continually operating airbase. There’s a cemetery, and the graves do go all the way back to the 1800’s. What’s crazy is that the old buildings are still here, and any new construction is made to match, except for new housing. It was like staying in a living history museum. Today’s officers are still staying in those original homes. We saw this also at Barksdale and Kirtland, beautiful century homes that reflect the character of the region they are in.

Antelope could be seen at any time, even lounging on the officer quarters’ lawns in the evening:

The old entrance to the family camp

We were visiting nearby Cheyenne while here. In the evenings we enjoyed long walks in which we strolled out in nature or up to the parade field area that had the officers’ quarters and the other old buildings, including the large ones that housed the enlisted mens’ barracks back in the day. It was so peaceful, usually with hardly a soul about, and even the camp was quiet. There are some big meadows next to the camp, so perhaps one day it could be enlarged just a bit.

Only in a Family Camp…this was in the front of someone’s RV

Ft. Bliss, El Paso, Texas

Ft. Bliss was our first Army post stay. When I was still active duty it was considered an “armpit” assignment, not a place you’d want to be. It has 1,700 square miles and is home to the 1st Armored Division. The post is weirdly chopped up, with highways cutting through it. The Family Camp is an example of another one that has been beautifully updated. But – and this was a deal breaker for me – the highway is right in front of it, as you can see by looking carefully at the top picture. See that guardrail? Ummm… yes. I can put up with a lot of strange RV sites but highway noise, no. And it was loud. There were a lot of families living here, with loads of kids running up and down all the time, and that highway didn’t seem to bother anyone but me.

No matter, we were here for well over a week but only physically in the RV for two nights. We left it here while we drove up to Denver for Thanksgiving with our family. It was perfect for that, and we may do it again. We were able to leave it here, plugged in and snoozing, for a paltry $17 per day.

When we returned from Denver, we needed to go over to the commissary (grocery store) and Cal needed a haircut, because it is cheaper on post. We stopped in to the PX shopping area, which generally has two or three lunch choices, and our jaws dropped. This is the Army?? We have never seen an actual “food court” on a post or base, and this one boasted around 18 choices. Outside were many shops in an outdoor “mall”. It was truly amazing. I would surmise that your tax dollars have been poured into this facility not only because of the size of the post but also because of their participation in numerous overseas deployments.

Buckley Space Force Base, Denver, CO

Out on the prairie

Buckley is our “home” park. We can stay here 45 days in a season, which is nice because the two state parks that we normally spend time in make us move every two weeks. Right behind the RVs in the above picture is the airfield. But what are those weird white balls?? Golf balls? Something dropped from outer space? Actually, they house huge satellite dishes used to detect missiles and other space activity, with the white aluminum shell on the outside to protect them from the weather. There are actually ropes hanging down them to aid in brushing off the snow, and they can withstand a powerful tornado.

Cal, and our grandson, love Buckley. They can watch airplanes come and go. Our grandson loves trucks and RVs, and there are no trees at Buckley, so he can see them all at once. Very exciting, along with those big white balls!

As for me, I prefer the state park. Everything is too far away for walking except for the walking path in front of the camp. For a longer stay, I begin to feel isolated and I miss seeing trees. Accountant that I am, though, I can appreciate the savings on our budget, since staying here is half the cost of a stay at the state park. We couldn’t stay here much in 2021 because earlier in the year the camp was closed to retirees due to COVID. We’ll be adding it to our mix in 2022.

US Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, CO

I’ve saved the best for last, my favorite so far. The camp is called Peregrine Pines, aptly named for the pine forest that it is in. The campground roads wind in and around instead of being laid out in straight lines, and the park has the feel of a National Park campground. We were here only for a couple nights and definitely hope to return for a longer stay another time. It’s easy to visit the whole Colorado Springs area from here.

When I was a young soldier, my life didn’t intersect much with retirees. My friends and I would good-naturedly complain about them when we wanted to make a quick run into the commissary or PX. They would take up room in the aisles or be ahead of us in line and we had more important things to do, or so we thought. We would poke fun at retirees who spent years in the military only to take up permanent residence outside the main gates. Cal and I think it’s pretty amusing that we have become that which we once made fun of. It’s a convenience to be able to use military facilities, and a benefit that we are grateful for. We’ve met people who only stay at military camps when they travel. That would certainly be a savings, but we think there are many different places to stay on the road to experience.

Next time – Phoenix, really!

Destinations · US Travel · USTravel

Rocks, Wine and Pecans in the Southwest

Having spent the last month in Phoenix, Arizona, the Twosna Travelers are now officially snowbirds. Snowbirds are people who spend the warmer months in the upper regions of the United States and “flock” to the Southern states when it becomes cooler. We’ve spent 95% of our lives living in places with cold winters. I realized I didn’t like cold weather around the time I was in high school, while Cal has only recently arrived at this realization.

But if one is going to winter in Arizona, one has to get there first.

A lot of folks will zip from El Paso, Texas on interstate 10 to Tucson or Phoenix without giving anything a second look. We did stop in El Paso, but it was only to leave Sam (our 5th wheel trailer) plugged in and snoozing peacefully there for a week while we drove to Denver for Thanksgiving with our family. We’ll have to give El Paso more of a look another time.

On the way back from our Thanksgiving trip, we stopped off for dinner in a little no-name restaurant in a little no-name town just north of El Paso. This cute little house was right next to where we parked.

Deming, New Mexico

What drew me to Deming was the idea of going to Rockhound State Park, located just southeast of the town. At this park, one can just pick up rocks and keep them, unlike any other state or national park I have been to. Geodes, jasper, onyx, agates, and perlite are some of the rocks that can be found. Upon doing further research, however, I realized that the best rocks are to be found only on the remote trails, and they have already been dug pretty deeply. A person would need to have a pickax slung over their shoulder as they hiked, and some pretty good equipment back at home to split them open. Despite my interest, I have total ignorance on the subject, and would have rocks in my head to think that I should add more heavy rocks (and weight) to Sam’s load. Cal politely pointed none of this out, but let me figure it all out all on my own. So I contented myself with the nature trail in the park, and picked up a few small little rocks that fit in my pocket to add to my growing collection.

Still wanting to learn at least a little more on the subject, we stopped at a rock shop outside of the park. The ancient proprietor of the establishment was more than happy to have someone to talk about rocks with. My rocks are garden variety rhiolytes, formed as the result of (surprise, surprise) volcanic activity. He used to pull out a lot of geodes with his partner, now passed, at his claim somewhere in New Mexico called Baker Egg Mine. He had some beautifully split and polished geodes, but all I wanted was a small one that had only been split – much easier on the budget. I’m not sure that I learned much, but I still like picking up pretty little rocks. I guess I don’t need to know what they are. The small oval one fits nicely in the palm of my hand, and is surprisingly smooth.

Spring Canyon – Rockhound State Park

The funny thing about all this is, while I thought Rockhound would be the highlight of our time in Deming, the highlight for me was actually the Deming Luna Mimbres Museum, billed as “New Mexico’s largest free museum”. It is located in their old Armory, built just two months after the famous Pancho Villa Raid in 1916. It became a USO during war time, and then the museum with its repository of many collections. And yes, a large collection of…rocks.

Thundereggs straight from our rock shop proprietor’s mine

The Mimbres people lived in this area as far back as 1000 AD. Their pottery is something Deming is very proud of, as can be seen in this mural and fountain in downtown Deming:

There were pieces just like these in the museum

Whenever I’m under an outcropping of rock just like this, I always like to imagine how the people lived who took shelter there. This painting did a fine job of showing that.

The museum went on and on. There was a huge doll collection, rooms with antique furniture, storefronts showing actual Deming turn-of-the-century establishments and what would have been there, and many other varied collections from area residents over the years.

We passed some time in a couple of local wineries, and restocked our wine cellar. Lescombes Winery was a large establishment and their parking lot was so large that we could have stayed the night there (for the price of a bottle of wine or a tasting, of course). The wine was good, but we preferred the wine at Luna Rossa. They weren’t such a large commercial operation and their wines were cheaper and complementary to our (un)sophisticated wine palate.

Willcox, Arizona

Full-time RVing, fun as it may seem, is still full of the ups and downs of ordinary life. One of the downers for us is the on-going trouble we’ve had with our left front jack erroring out during leveling, and the amount of battery power needed just to get Sam up and down off of Frodo’s (the truck’s) hitch. It got worse with every stop we made. Our stop at the Willcox KOA was supposed to be one overnight, but we canceled some plans and made the decision to stay for five, so that our arrival in Phoenix would be our last until some repairs were made.

KOA parks can be good or bad, depending on who is running them. This is true especially of KOAs located just off the highways of America, usually used for only an overnight stop. The Willcox KOA is indeed off the highway, but when learning of our situation, the kind folks put us in a spot furthest away from it, with a much-coveted tree on the site. It’s pictured at the top of this post. We watched people painting and upkeeping the grounds every day. There is a restaurant (with excellent gyros) and a heated pool on-site. Just this past week, I read a newsletter from the KOA national organization which named this park a “rising star” in the franchise for 2021, and I would definitely agree.

What softened the blow for having to stay in Willcox was being able to visit Chiracahua National Monument, 40 miles away. We lived in Arizona for a couple of years back in the 80’s, and one of our favorite tent-camping stories is from a weekend we spent there. One evening, a pair of skunks wandered through our site while we were sitting in our lawn chairs. We froze in place, not daring to move, as they sniffed around and actually passed right underneath us. We were lucky we didn’t get sprayed! It was fun to drive through the campground again, a wooded oasis right under the tall rock cliffs, but we wouldn’t be able to stay there in our 5th wheel. Chiracahua is an other-worldly, magical place:

The rocks at Chiracahua are in columns, pinnacles, and balanced rock
“Claret Cup” rock, which shows how impossibly a lot of the rocks are balanced.
“Organ Pipes”

We had an audience for our picnic lunch at Chiracahua:

A spotted towhee and a Mexican jay eying our lunch
Three birds, plus one in the bush. At one time we had seven birds all watching us, hoping for a handout. We had some fresh crusty bread so I hope they were happy with the crumbs we left.

Starting in Roswell, New Mexico, but also in southwest Texas, southern New Mexico, and now Arizona, we saw a lot of pecan farms. In Roswell in early November, the leaves were still green on the trees. By the time we got to Texas, the leaves that we saw on the trees were changing color. There was a farm near our KOA, so we had a nice chat with Paul and Jackie Lee. They were happy to take us around. I’m munching on their pecans as I write. In mid-December, they were only three weeks away from harvest. This is a very small operation, so they send the picked nuts out to New Mexico and Texas for processing, then the shelled nuts are returned to them. They are then placed in one of several chest freezers for sale all year round, until the next harvest.

The nuts can’t be harvested until all the trees lose their leaves. Some nuts fall in the process, so when the leaves are raked, Paul puts everything (minus the leaves) into this separator to get the rocks and other debris out. He welded this contraption together himself, like so much of his equipment.
Final result..and the real harvest hasn’t even started
The orchard is the Lee’s retirement project and they planted all the trees themselves in the early 80’s. The trees are now in their prime.
Almost ready for harvest; the outside pods have to be open, like most of these are, and the nuts inside have to be dry. They were expecting a bumper crop.

Like Deming, Willcox also has a healthy amount of wineries, but as we were already extended on our wine budget, we limited our purchases to pecans. By the way, if I have made you hungry for pecans, the Lee’s pecans can be purchased on-line. Who knew this was such a good climate for growing grapes and pecans?

Cal was nursing a cold during our Willcox stay so this was pretty much the extent of our activities. I entertained myself with many enjoyable walks into the desert around our KOA. I’ll leave you for now with some of the pictures from those walks.

What a big, fluffy bush! The un-fluffy part looked like bittersweet, the tiny white “filler flowers” in a bouquet of flowers from the florist.
A very late autumn burst of color

Next time – Phoenix!

Destinations · US Travel · USTravel

Alpine, Texas

The Desk and The View

Back in the Eighties, three students decided they needed a quieter place to study than their dorm rooms at Sul Ross University. They hauled a desk and a chair all the way up the hill behind their dorm. They greatly enjoyed their spot and spent a lot of time up there. One of them accidently left his notebook in the desk, and when he returned for it, he was surprised to see a hiker had signed it. The notebook, the desk, and the chair became the stuff of legends. By now the desk has been replaced two or three times and there are several filled notebooks in a museum. I kept running into suggestions to “Hike to The Desk” in my research for this area of Texas, so we did.

It isn’t the easiest hike. The trail is only 1.3 miles to the desk, but there is a 219 foot ascent on a rocky and uneven trail. Once up at the top there are several trails crisscrossing each other and we had to ask some other hikers where to go. It is on the opposite side of the hill from the university. I couldn’t believe they hauled a metal desk all the way up there! These bicycles in a tree let us know we were finally almost there:

Cal signing us in The Notebook
On the side of The Desk
Sul Ross University and Alpine view before our final descent

Once down, we visited Museum of the Big Bend, since it was located on the university campus. Being a fan of petroglyphs, I thought this 17 foot replica of a remote petroglyph was interesting. The original was done in six colors of pigment and belongs to a hunting gathering culture dating back to 700 AD. The meaning is unknown, although archaeologists think it relates to their belief system. It looks like a lot of scribbles to me, but what do I know?

There were some very old maps, and I also liked this recreation of a general store, back in the 1800’s:

An 1836 map of Texas, the first to show the Rio Grande to the 42nd parallel

There was an art festival going on in the town, which was a huge deal before COVID hit and canceled it last year. Someone in an information booth gave us a walking tour map to see Alpine’s murals. It was fun looking at these. These were some of my favorites:

A pretty little courtyard

If I could pick Alpine up and move it closer to my family in Denver, I would love living there. It is a small, walkable little university town with a lot of flavor. And the milkshakes and Mexican Wedding Cakes at Scoops Creamery weren’t bad either!

Next time – On the road through the Southwest