Animals, Dunes, and Depression

Monday, 4 September 2017

Blanding, Utah to Lamar, Colorado – 475 miles

Colorado route

Map credit: Google Maps 2017

There weren’t many options for breakfast this morning, but we found Yak’s Cafe on our way out of town.  The parking lot was pretty full, and that’s usually a good sign, so we were hopeful – and again, we were not disappointed!  The staff was friendly and though we got the expected ‘you’re not from around here’ looks from the regulars, everyone was nice and the food was hot and good.  Nothing fancy – good ole scrambled eggs, bacon, and hash browns are a great way to start the day.  You may have noticed that we’ve been eating only two meals a day most days.  We’ve learned that a hearty breakfast can go a long way, and we haven’t even been snacking on the snacks we bought at the Dutch Bakery.  Well, except for the vegetable chips which I may be becoming addicted to…  Back to the subject at hand – today’s route would take us across southern Colorado, most of which we had not seen before.  We visited Durango, Mesa Verde, and the Four Corners Monument on our Sassy Sister trip in 2013, and this time we’d be passing through Durango from west to east instead of north to south, although we did reminisce about our stormy, rainy, curvy, scary drive on US 550 past Ouray on that trip.   We also realized that the lovely day we spent soaking in natural hot springs was in Pagosa Springs, which was right on our route on Highway 160 today.  Sadly, we didn’t have time to stop at any of those places this time, as we had lots of ground to cover.

Our first stop of the day was an unexpected one, but who can resist hand-lettered signs for an elk ranch?  We were near Del Norte, and Kim gamely (haha) turned in at my request.  What a hoot!  From the Burma Shave-like signs lining the drive to the ‘Welcome to Ribeye, Colorado’ (population 12) sign to the photo ops to the store full of game meats to the pens of elk and caribou to the cute little kittens hanging out on the steps, we enjoyed our short detour at Anta Grande Elk Ranch.

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It turned out to be a good thing we stopped here, because from Del Norte to Lamar, there was very little of interest.  The small towns were sad – very depressed, very little open – we wanted to stop for rest and refreshment, but there were no options along our route, even in the bigger places.  We were astonished to learn that there was a National Park in the middle of this nothingness, so we decided to have a look at Great Sand Dunes National Park, and we planned to ‘sled’ down the dunes.  Alas, you needed to have procured your sled in town before arriving at the park.  Oh well, we just opted to take a short hike, get some photos, and learn a bit about the dunes and the surrounding area.

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The rest of today’s trip was blah!  No scenery, no people, no place to stop, and very little of interest.  We took a little accidental side trip in Walsenburg, and that was even more depressing! We were glad we actually knew a good place to eat in Lamar and we really wished we had known there was a brand new Holiday Inn Express (right next door to our dreary Days Inn) – Booking.com, you let us down this time!  We stopped at a Sonic in Lamar for some iced tea and saw an interesting sight, but we couldn’t get a good photo. Until we stopped for gas a couple of blocks later (whew!) and the same truck pulled up next to us.  Too funny!  We passed our Days Inn and were really tempted to drive on, but it had been a long day and there was nothing promising on the horizon, and we had already paid for the room.  We ate a delicious dinner at Thai Spicy Basil (we had eaten here on our 2013 trip) – Kung Pao Chicken and Moo Goo Gai Pan, with some chicken coconut soup for me – and then we resigned ourselves to the motel.  Just to add insult to injury, there was no elevator, and even though we both had two bags and the guy ahead of us had a tiny bag, he got the first floor room and we got the second floor room that was as far from the front desk (and stairs) as it could have been.  We see how it is.  I think I get cranky when we are heading home!

Surviving the Surreal

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Cedar City to Blanding, Utah, 360 miles

0902 Cedar City to Blanding Route 360

Map credit: Google Maps 2017, courtesy AAA

Thanks to our superb server, Jacee at Centro Pizza, we knew that the place to go for breakfast this morning (another Sunday morning in Utah – sort of limits your breakfast choices!) was the All-American Diner, and we even knew where it was, since we had passed it on our way to dinner the night before.  We were not steered wrong – I had a standard All-American breakfast of eggs over easy, bacon, and hash browns with a splurge of a pancake.  It was all great, and I didn’t even eat all of the pancake or the potatoes.  It was about 9:30 when we started off on what would be one of our most challenging drives ever on our trip across what must be America’s strangest state, at least as far as terrain and topography are concerned!  The drive started out innocently enough, and we were on familiar territory, as we had stayed three nights in Cedar City on our very first Sassy Sister trip in 2006, on our way home from Route 66.  The first part of our journey took us through the Dixie National Forest until we turned onto Utah Scenic Byway 12 (an All-American Road), which took us past Bryce Canyon National Park, but we didn’t stop since we had spent a day there previously.

We made a quick stop at the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument Visitor Center in Cannonville and talked to a friendly ranger there who suggested that we stop at the Escalante Petrified Forest State Park and do a short hike there, since we really didn’t have time to explore the Grand Staircase much more than that.  It wasn’t too long before we traveled the 32 miles to the park, where the ranger there didn’t seem to think we would be up to the challenge of the short but steep hike up to see the petrified trees. Needless to say, that decided it.  We filled our water bottles, put on sunscreen, hats, and sunglasses, and after checking out the 50′ petrified tree at the base of the hill, headed up the dirt trail, which was almost completely unshaded.  Mrs. Ranger had given us a map that had info for each of the numbered stops along the trail, so we learned a bit as we hiked.  The trail was at its steepest early on, so the going was hardest at the beginning. Since we were just off of Vernal Fall though, it was a piece of cake!  One of the interesting things we learned was that the town of Escalante was named for a Spanish Franciscan priest who had explored the area in 1776, looking for an overland route from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Monterey, California.

With a little hike under our belts, we were ready for some more driving.  We thought! What no one had mentioned to us (and since we had done no research, we didn’t know) is that the next section of the road we would be traveling was near another road called ‘Hell’s Backbone‘, which is a gravel road built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933, and let me just say that I am sure it is very aptly named!  I have to give total props to Kim, who drove Highway 12 masterfully and didn’t get to enjoy the spectacle nearly as much as I did.  The road featured several sections of 8 to 10% grades, no guardrails, and lots of curves.  The best news was that the road was obviously recently repaved!  The other good news – evidently, most people travel on interstate highways!  We were both thankful that we didn’t come upon any crazy bicyclists on this road and were stunned to read (days later) that Colin had taken this exact route on his travel the opposite direction!  Colin, when you read this, we are SO GLAD you made it safely!! These next photos need no explanation – the first ones were taken over about a 15 minute time period, and the ones with the aspen trees were about 25 minutes after that.

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About thirty minutes later, we turned off of Hwy 12 onto Hwy 24 at Torrey and soon found ourselves in Capitol Reef National Park, with yet another stunning terrain change. Capitol Dome is a Navajo sandstone feature that was named for its resemblance to the US Capitol. This dome, along with the nearly 100-mile Waterpocket Fold (a barrier of rock that obstructed early travelers like a barrier “reef”), inspired the park’s name.  Capitol Reef became a National Park in 1937, and it has three main districts – the Fruita area, which was a Mormon settlement with a school and orchards, which are one of the largest historic orchards in the National Park Service with almost 3,000 trees, including apple, peach, pear, apricot, cherry, and plum; the Waterpocket District, which encompasses the 100 mile long Waterpocket Fold; and Cathedral Valley, which is a backcountry area.  While we would have liked to have explored this park more, it was quite hot and we still had a long way to go to get to our destination before dark.  And if the road ahead was like the one we had just traveled… Anyway, we stopped in the Fruita district to see the petroglyphs.

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We continued on Hwy 24 until we reached Hanksville, where we turned south on Hwy 95 (the Bicentennial Highway), headed for Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Natural Bridges National Monument, and ultimately, the town of Blanding.  Kim was almost over it with the driving (and I can see why) and we really wanted to make sure we were situated well before dark, so we mostly enjoyed the views from the car.  We stopped at an overlook to see Lake Powell, and we were in for a nice surprise.  From the Hite Overlook (which was quite a ways up and a mile or so off the road) we could see not only Lake Powell, but also the bridge over the Colorado River that we would be crossing soon.

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Before long, we were pulling into Blanding, not sure whether or not we would be happy with our choice of a place to stay.  Let’s just say it was not up to our usual standards, and if we had known then what we know now, we would have gone a bit farther up the road. But we were safe and had beds and a shower – and air conditioning, so no complaints. Before we checked in, we drove around town a bit since it was still light and found pretty much the only place to eat, which looked okay.  Turned out, we really enjoyed the Homestead Steak House!

Crossing the Desert

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Yosemite NP to Cedar City, Utah, 495 miles

0902 Yosemite to Cedar City 495

Map credit: Google Maps 2017, courtesy AAA

Saturday morning, we were not in a huge hurry to get going, as we planned to use our breakfast vouchers at the Majestic, so we got packed up and made our way down to the dining room.  While we would have preferred to order from the menu, it was pretty clear that having the buffet would be the thing to do, so we surrendered.  The buffet was good, and the food was fresh since there were a lot of people getting it, too.  Just one problem – the eggs Benedict was a very popular item, and it was out almost the whole time we were there.  I finally got one just when I was about to give up, and had the egg over the delicious lox they served.  It was time to say goodbye to Yosemite Valley, though we would still be in the park for quite a while longer.  After one last look at the lovely old hotel, we hit the road – turning east for the first time….

Our route would take us back out to California Highway 120, which would take us completely across the northern portion of Yosemite, and then we would take US 395 south for a bit.  It was a pleasant drive through parts of the park that we hadn’t seen, and there were lots of people hiking, camping, swimming, and hanging out on this holiday weekend.  We drove past Tuolumne Meadows and then caught a glimpse of Mt. Dana, the second-highest peak in the park, which still had snow on it!  Kim was getting her first practice at winding mountain roads after a few days of no driving at all.

We were almost out of gas, and we had heard all about a little gas station that had a great restaurant in it, but somehow we missed seeing it.  We went into the town of Lee Vining hoping to find it, but no luck.  We did find Lake Mono National Park, so we stopped there to see what it was and to find out about the gas station, which turned out to be just inside the park.  We had a look at Lake Mono, which is a big saline lake with some volcanic islands in it, and it’s a great place for birding.  It was already getting hot, and we had a lot of ground to cover, so back we went to the Mobil station (home of the Whoa Nellie Deli) to fill up, and then we were off, ready to cross the desert that is Nevada.

While US 50 across Nevada may have earned the title “Loneliest Road in America”, we would beg to differ with that opinion.  At least it had three little towns on it!  This southern route was much more deserted!  If not for the horses, cows, and extraterrestrials, we would not have seen any living things.  We saw not a single other car going in our direction!  Early in the route we went through the town of Tonopah, home to the creepy Clown Motel (calling David M!!) and then we saw not much else except the ‘town’ of Rachel (which was pretty much a trailer park). We enjoyed the Extraterrestrial Highway, but we disappointed not to have any (live) ET sightings. We stopped for gas in Caliente, the smallest incorporated town in Nevada (population around 1100) and admired the depot (which is also the library, town hall, and museum) that was across the street from the Sinclair station. We finally made it to the Utah border and found our way to the Holiday Inn Express in Cedar City.

Even though it was Saturday night, we barely made it to Centro Woodfired Pizza before it closed at 10 PM; however, the host seated us cheerfully and our server, Jacee, could not have been friendlier.  We shared a pizza – Kim had Fennel Sausage and I had Pollo Bianco – and had a beer and both were delicious!  The thin crust pizza was done perfectly and the toppings were plentiful and good.  We were enticed by the Nutella Piegato for dessert – “pizza dough filled with creamy Nutella, folded (Piegato) and baked in our wood fired oven until gooey and delicious. Finished with whipped cream and a nutella drizzle.”  Oh boy, was it good!  And we saved enough to give Jayce a couple of pieces, too.

We didn’t even try to blog or do pictures tonight, because tomorrow would be a LONG day and we needed to get some rest.

 

Staying on the Straight and Narrow

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Orem, Utah to Carson City, Nevada  ~570 miles

0827 Orem to Carson City route 570

Map credit: Google Maps 2017, courtesy AAA

We tried to get off to an early start (you may be noticing a pattern here) and were excited about going to Guru’s for breakfast before hitting ‘The Loneliest Road in America”.  It was amazing how little traffic was on the road in Orem and Provo, compared to what we had seen the night before.  We pulled up to Guru’s and found a primo parking place; alas, it was closed on Sunday.  As was almost EVERY place around!  We decided to move on, wishing we had taken advantage of the free breakfast at our Hampton, and were just about to get on the highway when we saw a diner that was open.  Hold the bus!  We didn’t even have to wait to get seated at Café 300, housed in a gleaming chrome building just like diners of the past.  Soon we were fortified and ready to tackle the desert.

We still had quite a way to go to get out of Utah before we were actually on US 50 in Nevada, and we knew we needed to start that part of the trek with a full tank of gas, so we went ahead and filled up in Nephi, UT with plans to fill up again in Ely, Nevada.   At the gas station in Nephi, we ran into a whole group of antique car owners who had been to a big rally in Bryce Canyon.  Man, those cars were something else! We drove through the smallish town of Delta in Utah, where we picked up US 50, and saw some decent-looking motels – we were a little bit sorry we hadn’t kept driving the day before, until we remembered our wonderful dinner at Communal.  Driving along US 50, we passed a couple of interesting looking brick structures, so Kim u-turned it so we could check them out.  The highway sign said they were ‘Burining Pits”, but we are pretty sure that was a typo. The beehive-shaped charcoal ovens were used from 1876 through 1879 to help process rich silver ore that was discovered in Nevada. Once mining ended, the ovens were used to shelter travelers and even had a reputation as a hideout for stagecoach bandits. We were glad we stopped to investigate!  It was a warm sunny day, and one of us, not the driver, may have dozed off for a little bit…  The road was long and straight, except when it wasn’t, usually because we were going through a mountain pass.  We stopped briefly at the Nevada state line to take some pictures (but not to play the slots) and then went on to Ely and stopped to gas up.

 

Ely (pronounced eely) looked like a neat little town, so we went to the historic district and walked around a bit until it started raining on us.  There was a pretty park, some great murals, a duck pond with a man on a bike with a big sack of bread for the eager pigeons and ducks, a library, and the semi-famous Hotel Nevada.  It was nice to walk around a bit!  Ely is also the closest town to the Great Basin National Park, which we considered visiting until we realized how far off the route it was.  We definitely got the feel of being in a great basin, ringed completely by mountain ranges.  It reminded us of the Midland/Odessa area of Texas in the Permian Basin.

The only towns of note between Ely and Carson City are Eureka, Austin, and Fallon, so we didn’t anticipate too much excitement today.  We passed one bicyclist and two different walking people (who looked like they were walking across the country), and there were more cars than we expected, but it was a pretty uneventful drive.  We saw a huge archway made of antlers and we passed a large windmill farm.  We stopped in Austin because there was a little restaurant advertising “Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner” and ice cream; unfortunately, it closed at 4 PM (early dinner, I reckon!) and it was 4:20 when we arrived.  Fortunately, the door was unlocked, and when we and a local father/son combo came in, they relented and sold us some cones (only vanilla, only small cones!) so we did have a little break.  Between Austin and Fallon, we passed some really sandy areas with some dunes and a lot of quicksandy-looking places right next to the road.  We didn’t stop to see if they were really quicksand though!

Fallon is the home of the NAS (Naval Air Station) made famous by the movie Top Gun.  We drove right past it but didn’t get to see any fancy flying going on.  We did get behind a driver who was either drunk, sleepy, or texting though – we kept our distance and finally called 911.  It was pretty bad! Fallon also had a unique irrigation system full of small dams and spillways right next to the highway.

Sooner than we thought, and before dark (YAY!), we arrived in Carson City and made our way to the Hampton Inn.  They even had covered parking there, and in the light of day, it appeared that the covers were actually solar panels.  Very clever!  We got a great recommendation for dinner and showed up slightly underdressed at Glen Eagles, where there were white linen tablecloths!  We sort of got a dining room all to ourselves, and we had HUGE portions of pasta Pomodoro (Kim) and scrumptious pork chops (not one, but TWO) perfectly grilled chops for me, along with mashed potatoes and veggies.  I could only eat one chop – so good!! – but we did get a French Silk pie to go and then didn’t eat it that night!

We were excited to spend the next morning exploring Carson City before meeting our new friend Laura, who had invited us to stay at her place at Lake Tahoe!  Our excitement was tempered by seeing the reports coming in about the horrible flooding taking place in Houston and the area between Houston and Galveston, as well as much of southeastern Texas.  I’d be lying if I said I wish I had been at home, but it sure seemed surreal but very believable and sad to see the damage and reports from afar.

A Day Full of Forks

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Casper, Wyoming to Orem, Utah 475 miles

0826 Casper to Orem 475

Map credit: Google Maps 2017, courtesy of AAA

Breakfast at the Red Butte Lodge was being served at 7:30, so for once we were assured of a somewhat early start!  Ruth, our host, cooked a most delectable veggie omelet with fresh dill and served it along with a fresh fruit salad, a huge muffin, toast, and juice.  We had time to look around the property a bit and have our pictures taken next to the river and in front of the red rocks.  We were on the road by 8:30, with good suggestions from Gerise about places to stop along the way.  We checked in with Rex to see how things were doing on Tiki as Hurricane Harvey was making its way across the area.  So far, so good for us, but Houston was in for a very wet few days.

Our first stop was at Independence Rock.  All three of the main trails west, the Oregon Trail, the California Trail, and the Mormon Pioneer Trail all followed essentially the same route to this point and about 100 miles farther before they branched off to Oregon, California, and Utah.  Like Scott’s Bluff, Independence Rock was a ‘register rock’, where many pioneers carved their names into the granite monolith.  Wagon trains first passed it on Independence Day, 1832, which is how it got its name. It is estimated that 50,000 emigrants passed this rock in 1853 as pioneers continued moving west across America.  We walked around the northwest side of the rock where most of the names are carved, and along the way we saw lots of rabbits, hawks, and one little frog.  Again, we were reminded of our many blessings and vowed to be more patient and ever grateful, especially when travel plans don’t go just the way we want them to.

Our next stop was the small town of Lander, WY, which was just a short detour north at the first fork in the road.  We parked and wandered down main street, stopping to buy some jewelry in a local art gallery/shop called Alchemy.  The women there told us we must go a bit farther out of town to see a river that flows into an underground cavern and then comes back out again a ways downstream.  We were really thirsty though, so first we stopped at a cute restaurant called The Middle Fork and sat outside to have a glass of tea.  Our tea turned into lunch (the first time we’ve had breakfast and lunch in one day!) and Kim had a grilled cheese with wilted spinach and I had a BLTA and fresh fruit.  Once fortified, we were ready to ride up the canyon to see the river whose name we couldn’t figure out.  We passed a sign that said something about the middle fork of the Popo Agie, but that still didn’t ring any bells…

Soon we came to the Sinks of the Popo Agie visitor center, so we went in to check things out.  Turns out the river’s name is pronounced ‘Puh – Po Shuh, and it’s thought to be a native American word for ‘gurgling water’.  At any rate, it was very cool!  The river comes down the steep rocky bed and flows into a cavern, where it disappears from view.  We hiked down to the cavern, which had a rocky but very sandy trail ending on a sandy beach.  We went back up, then followed a sidewalk down the hill and across the street and down the hill a bit farther until we were at the ‘rise’ of the river.  At this point, there was a huge pool of crystal clear water bubbling up from the bottom, and it was full of giant trout!  Big brown trout and beautiful rainbow trout were feasting on food thrown by visitors – it was quite the site!  The river flowed on from there – it was really pretty, and we were glad we had taken the time to see it.

We drove back in to Lander and retraced our route back to the highway, where we opted to take the right fork in the road and continue on the more scenic drive away from the interstate for a bit longer. Eventually, we would be forced to hop on I-80, but we could wait for that!  Once we did get on the four-lane, we were not surprised to see it reduced to two lanes, no passing, due to construction…  We crossed the Utah border and bypassed Salt Lake City, since we have been there before and seen the capitol (albeit when we were 12 and 13) and since it was after five on Saturday afternoon.  We made our way to the Hampton in Orem/Provo, and realized we were lucky to have gotten a room, since there had been a BYU game that day and there was an outdoor concert right across the street.  We found a cool place to eat and decided to Uber to it so Kim could have a break (and a drink or two!)

The name of the restaurant where we ate was called Communal, and there was a long table where many people could sit as well as several small tables.  Kim and I had a two-top, and our waiter explained that the menu was designed to be shared.  We had no trouble agreeing on an heirloom tomato, watermelon, feta, and watercress appetizer and an almond-crusted smoked sockeye salmon with creme fraiche and capers with a side of succotash of edamame, local corn, asparagus, tomatoes, and chives.  Dessert was fabulous, and we didn’t share it.  Kim had a sundae of Marionberry pie and blackberry- Oreo ice cream with warm cinnamon-chocolate fudge sauce, and I had a Nutella-banana pudding with crumbled shortbread and whipped cream.  DIVINE!!  Oh, and we each had a couple of local beers.  It was a wonderful night out and we were still in at a decent hour, ready to rest up for our trip along the ‘loneliest road in America’ tomorrow.