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Journal of No. 118


September 24th, 2004

Part III - Yellowstone to Los Angeles @ 02:51 pm

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All the Western States Tour 2004



Friday, September 10th

Packing up the bags in the early morning, the sun not yet peeking over the mountains that ring Old Faithful, I got a nice picture of the early dawn light behind the geyser, which was steaming abundantly in the cold morning air.
Off and running, we retraced our route to West Thumb, but this time, it was early enough that the animals were all over the place. A small herd of elk, some sleepy bison… every few miles, there'd be a four-footed friend to look at.
Turning south, we headed out the South Entrance and immediately ran into road construction. It stalled us for quite some time, but we kept on into Grand Teton National Park, with its spiky and crazy mountains, some of the youngest (and hence least eroded) in the world. You have to be a pretty lonely and frustrated French explorer to imagine tetons in the Tetons. Further down in the park, we caught sight of some moose in a field. Over the course of the trip, we collected sights of all the big mammals except grizzlies and wolves, which is perhaps just as well.
Actually, I guess we missed one more notable picture-worthy mammal. As we passed Jackson Hole, we did not find Harrison Ford standing around along the roadside in his natural habitat, which was quite disappointing.
Into Jackson proper, we refueled the car and then ourselves at the charmingly named Wort Hotel. The building is a Historic Landmark, built in 1941. They had huge, albeit overpriced, breakfasts. Jackson seems to cater to nature enthusiasts in the summer and skiers in the winter, overcharging both types with equal facility. There are lots of gift shoppes and retail establishments in the center of town, where you can spend your money. Despite the merchandizing, you can't beat the scenery.
Heading south out of Jackson leads to about 100 miles of nothing. Some of it was slightly prettier nothing than the other nothing, but still there's not much to recommend places like Boulder, WY (pop. 75).
Finally, we hit the big city in Rock Springs, which appears to be at least 98% rock. We gassed up and continued south, crossing over into a little slice of Utah. Shortly thereafter, we passed into Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, where some of the red rock outcropping are really striking. We passed over the Flaming Gorge Dam, which blocks the Green River. After its completion, it took 12 years for the reservoir to fill completely.
Somewhere in this area, we crossed a pass that was the highest point we had yet reached on the trip, 8,428 feet, slightly higher than a couple of the passes in Yellowstone. Shortly after that, we turned up the little road in Jensen to Dinosaur National Monument. You can tell you're in the right area when half the decrepit businesses along the highway have large fiberglass dinosaurs in front of them.
We got there in late afternoon and the center was already closed, but we could still drive the roads and look at the giant fields of sedimentary rock and take a look at some nice petroglyphs. Back at the main highway, we crossed over into Colorado and soon entered Dinosaur, CO, which changed its name from Artesia about 40 years ago, presumably to capitalize on the nearby monument. It has seemingly had little success in that endeavor. I had wanted to stay here, to reward the city fathers for their bold move, but there are only three motels in Dinosaur. One was closed and overgrown with weeds, one was skanky and the remaining one was hovering near the bottom of the scale of acceptability. The surrounding town looked even less inspiring than that.
After canvassing opinions, we pressed on into Rangely, a far more acceptable place. It has four times as many restaurants within walking distance of our motel than are in all of Dinosaur (i.e. 4-1). We ate at Los Tres Potrillos, which was a fair Mexican restaurant, with some more authentic items like Sonora-style stacked enchiladas (which seem to be common in the Four Corners area, so maybe they aren't all that authentic) and the like. I had a steak with tomatoes and jalapenos which was quite good, though I would take them to task for their flavorless beans and from-a-mix margaritas, but it was still just what the doctor ordered after a long day on the road.
We overheard some of the conversation of a couple across the aisle from us. They had talked a bit about how this was the first time they'd gotten a sitter and been able to eat alone as a couple in a few weeks. After dinner, the wife asked for a box, and when it came and she was plopping her half-burrito into it, she exclaimed cheerfully in a lilting drawl, "Now mah babies kin eat!"
It was a great Cletus the slack-jawed yokel moment, though I think she was indulging in a bit of humor of her own. At least, that's what I prefer to believe.

Saturday, Sept. 11th

The Café across Main Street (the Cowboy Corral) was open for breakfast, and it clearly had the mark of approval from the local truckers. Several semi rigs were parked along Main Street (i.e. the highway), with the drivers inside. The food was plentiful and good; one of the best breakfasts we had, I think. One grizzled trucker was wearing a baseball cap that read "FBI – Female Body Inspector". His jacket also bore a patch that read, "Fuck You - I Have Enough Friends". I would have studied him more closely, but prudence dictated a certain amount of discretion.
South out of Rangely, you take the 139, which the AAA map shows to be a prefect geometric line between Rangely and Loma. Whereas in the real world, the road twists unceasingly for most of its 73 mile length.
Rebecca navigated the curves and then zipped along a 10 mile section of I-70 to the 50, which we took out of Grand Junction to the southeast. At Delta, we gassed up and switched drivers, knowing that there were even more hideous twists and turns to come. Also in Delta, we stopped at the local farmers' market to honor Judith's wish to visit one. There were few vendors, but we picked up some grapes and homemade spice drops. Delta is a cute town, but not as cute as another one up the road.
At Montrose, we continued south on the 550, which climbs steadily up into the mountains. Ouray is nestled in a little gap in the mountains and is as cute as a bug's ear. It was a center for gold mining, pouring out $12 million in gold (in 1900 dollars). One of the main beneficiaries, the Walsh family, grew so wealthy that they moved to Washington D.C. to become socialites, buying the Hope Diamond for their daughter Evalyn. Ouray even has its own opera house, now converted to a movie theater. The gold is mostly gone, but Ouray seems to thrive on its cuteness and an enormous RV park.
South of Ouray, the 550 is known as the Million Dollar Highway. Opinions differ as to whether the road is named after how much it cost to build, how much money in gold was carried along it or for the value of the scenery. In about 13 miles, it gains a mile in elevation, reaching Red Mountain Pass. At 11,018 ft, this was the highest we reached on the whole trip – over two miles in elevation and higher than the highest points in 37 states. Along the way are fantastic views, as well as scenic old mining equipment scattered here and there. Red Mountain is agreeably red, and covered with patches of snow. There is a high meadow in the area with a small pond that reflects the mountain as well as the trees, including the aspens which had turned a luminous gold-yellow with the approach of fall. Truly spectacular country.
The beauty slowly fades as the elevation drops on the other side of the pass, and the road winds on through Silverton, Purgatory and Durango, where the 160 took us out to the west to see Mesa Verde National Park.
After entering the park, it's a long twisty 15 mile drive to the top of the mesa to the visitor's center, where we got tickets for the Cliff Palace tour. Cliff Palace is the largest of the Anasazi cliff dwellings here and is very impressive. Like Yellowstone, I remember visiting it as a child, but it seemed completely new again to me. If it weren't for all the tourists and tour guides, it would be a peaceful place, with the little birds darting through the canyon and taking refuge in crevices in the cliff face.
The tour was somewhat marred by an older woman, who decided to take the tour, despite the strict warning from the ranger about its strenuous nature. She huffed and puffed her way down the steps, leaning on her companion from time to time. When she got to the bottom, she paused for quite some time before hauling her muumuu-clad form up a ladder. I gave her plenty of space and time for that, as I did not care to see That Which Lay Under the Muumuu. Once down, she refused to budge and took up the ranger's time. Another old gent was 'trapped' down there as well, with an oxygen tube in his nose. They were down there at least another hour as we learned later from some rangers in a different part of the park, who were discussing the "two medicals at Cliff Palace". But they got them out eventually.
We also saw Spruce Tree House, which is the best preserved of the sites. It's fun to climb down the ladder into the restored kiva. The wood construction of the roof was very interesting. Pillars atttached to the circular wall were set up at the points of a hexagon, and six long beams spanned them. On top of that were six more, offset at an angle and so on. Then a roof of thinner branches and adobe. Hard to imagine what it would be like in there with a roaring fire while spaced out on peyote.
The nearby museum was quite informative, with well-designed exhibits on the Anasazi and the other aboriginal inhabitants of the region, slicing the subject by both time period and by the different aspects of their material culture.
Driving back down off the mesa, we reached Cortez, found a nasty motel (only smoking rooms left, no shampoo in the rooms and the lobby had complimentary Bike Rags for wiping down your hog) and wandered down for some well-earned grub at the Main Street Brewery. It was packed, however, and the waitlist seemed excessive for a beanery in Cortez, so we turned back and went to Francisco's Mexican restaurant, which was both excellent and allowed us to sample the local beers brewed by that selfsame Main Street Brewery (aka Mesa Cerveza). Better yet, of all things, they had Guinness on tap there! So I started with a Black & Tan (with Dos XX instead of Harp's), while Rebecca had the Schnorzenboomer, which was a decent doppelbock that came in a 23 oz bottle as I recall. After that, I tried Mesa Cerveza's wheat beer, which was depressingly American-style, but more than welcome after a long, hot day in Anasazi-land. The food was also pretty good. My Spicy Matador was a sort of chimichanga, while Becca had the Sonora enchiladas with egg on top (one of my favorite dishes from El Cholo, and my one bite of this one was up to that standard).

Sunday, Sept. 12th

We nibbled some food at the Super 8's "Toast Bar" along with the bikers and cleared out of Cortez. We sped toward that favorite of meaningless geographical oddities: Four Corners. The monument lies on Navajo land, but only the Navajos selling merchandise were there as early as we were, so the Navajo Nation missed out on getting $3 a head on us. I danced a brief jig entering each of the states in swift succession, liberated by my joy at not having to pay for the privilege.
Then some zooming into New Mexico toward towering Shiprock. Coming down a long hill on the two lane deserted highway, I put the pedal to the metal and topped out at 103 in a 55 mph zone. I was hoping to go twice the speed limit, but didn't quite get there. At the town of Shiprock, we turned back onto the 491, which used to be the 666, until some whiny Christians bitched and moaned about it and got the number changed last year. A few commercial signs and billboards still mention the 666, but all the highway signs are gone. Anyway, I know it was the 666, and the desolate area invited demonic speed, so I probably spent the whole time ripping along at an average 90 mph down the western edge of New Mexico to Gallup, passing cars that were only doing 80 or 85 when there was a long enough break in the oncoming traffic. You could usually see a couple miles down the road, but at those speeds, it doesn't take long for oncoming cars to get uncomfortably close when you're passing. At one point, I look ahead and see that a semi is passing a car. Thus, it is in my lane and pointed at me with a combined relative speed of approximately 170 mph. The semi is having difficulty getting past the car, it would seem, because it's still in my lane, and visibly growing in size, its headlights growing brighter. It is clear now that it is not going to pass the car in time. I'm headed straight at it at 85 miles an hour and there's really nowhere to go. So I drive as far to the right as I can, the other car does the same on his side, and the semi plows straight down the dotted yellow line. After checking to make sure we were all alive, I allowed myself to feel exhilarated at the close brush with death.
After reaching Gallup, we merged onto I-40, which took us west into Arizona. Not much to see other than Indian Trading Post billboards on the road until we stopped at Meteor Crater. This was sort of a Holy Grail or Mecca for me, as I mentioned before. Dad would never pull off the road to go look at a hole in the ground, so I was damned if I was going to pass it by this time. And I certainly don't regret the trip, despite the $12 fee to see it. It's a magnificently big hole and it's nifty to see the all the sedimentary rocks at the rim tilted away from the center by the blast. The meteorite hit only 50,000 years ago, so the crater is quite fresh and well-preserved. The drive up gives a better view of the raised rim than is usually apparent in photographs of the crater. You can't see the crater at all until you've climbed up onto the rim. Then it stretches out, a mile across and deeper than the Washington Monument is tall. The museum there is also quite nice for what amounts to a privately owned science-geek tourist trap.
Continuing west, we sped as fast as possible through the land of more fiberglass dinosaurs past our closest approach to Donovan, Greg and Lisa. We feared that we had strayed too close, but we made it safely past. It was a near thing, though, and we realized that being in the same state might be dangerous, so at Kingman we turned up the 93 and headed for Vegas. Including the little jaunt to Four Corners, the day's trip from Cortez to Vegas probably totaled close to 600 miles. Of course, at an average speed of 85 mph, that's only seven hours of driving.
On the way to Vegas, we went across Hoover Dam, taking us into Nevada. We cursed the fact that the tarted up tour of the Dam now costs $10. Just ten years ago, the tour was (I kid you not) fifty cents. There's also a lot more security around the Dam. Cars are inspected, while trucks and buses are pulled aside for more thorough inspection.
Across the bridge, we went on into Vegas, mainly because Em suggested that taking Judith here might make her head explode.
Based on selfish motives, I suggested we go to the Las Vegas Hilton, since it houses the Star Trek Experience. The rooms were really nice there, and the Sunday night rate was quite affordable. We had a great view of the Stratosphere and the mountains around Las Vegas from the 16th floor rooms.
We went down for the usual fun dinner at Quark's, followed by a walk down the strip, taking in some of the sights. I'd go into more detail, but What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.


Monday, Sept. 13th

We left Vegas, crossed into California and drove to Los Angeles, passing the World's Tallest Thermometer on the way and precious little else of any interest, apart from the unbelievable smog around San Bernadino.

The End

Total mileage: 2,609 miles on 104 gallons of gasoline.
 
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Journal of No. 118