The Great Cross Country Caper: The Day After

In which a Woman fulfilled her Dream of Driving across This Great Land of Ours, accompanied by her Husband, who Hates to Drive

Starting a new job* sure eats into blogging time…

It’s been a week since we got home from our Great Cross Country Caper, and I think it’s time to do a post mortem.

It was amazing in the extreme.  My claim of hating to drive is true, but all that discomfort dissolves in the face of the incredible landscapes through which we drove.  Okay, in Texas that became an issue, but on the whole I was not going mad.

So let’s look at our itinerary and evaluate.

San Francisco

Do it.  It’s a great city with tons to do.  We only scratched the surface.  Plan ahead for hotel rooms and Alcatraz.

Fisherman’s Wharf is fun.  Don’t miss the Musée Mechanique.  You can skip Ghirardelli Square: it’s a puny shopping mall, and you can actually get the chocolate cheaper at the Walgreens at Fisherman’s Wharf.

Don’t miss the sea lions at Pier 39!  Shopping/dining is not bad there, either, although of course it’s all touristy.

Do drive across the Golden Gate Bridge and go up to the headlands overlook.  Be advised: you have to pay a toll going south back into the city, and they no longer take money.  Go here and link your rental car license plate with your credit card.  You can set a time limit on that, e.g., I set it for the two days we were in SF.

Cable cars are fun, but plan better than we did.  Riding the thing all the way from one end to the other is kind of pointless unless you have a destination; if the ride’s the thing, consider going up and down a couple of hills, then hop off and catch the next one going back.

Things we’ll do when we go back: Alcatraz; the Science Museum; The Presidio; Chinatown; art museums; the north headlands (which we would have had time for except for rescuing Chinese tourists).  Also, we’ll make it to Yosemite.

Muir Woods

It’s an hour north of the city.  Go. Just go.  Plan to spend 2-3 hours exploring this beautiful spot.  (Remember you have to pay the toll on Golden Gate coming back.)  Send me a banana slug postcard!

Las Vegas

Unless you’re with a group of great friends with whom you can yuk on America’s Gomorrah, you can skip it.  Really.  Trust me.  If your goal is the Hoover Dam, there are hotels between Vegas and the dam that would work just as well as Vegas and probably be cheaper.  I think we would have done better to use that two days to visit Yosemite/Sequoyah/Death Valley.

Hoover Dam

Go.  Its size and beauty make it an imperative.  Take the full tour.

The Grand Canyon

Go, and stay at least three days.  The lodges in the park require planning at least a year in advance—if Congress doesn’t crap all over your plans—but the hotels in Tusayan (right before the park) are fine.

The National Geographic Visitor Center there in Tusayan has a nifty iMax movie on the history of humans in the Canyon.  It’s both fun and awe-inspiring.

The Pink Jeep tour is fun—book it at the National Geographic center—and the Sunset Tour was especially handy for us since we planned a too-short stay, but if you have a couple of days you can find your own way.

In the park itself, start at the welcome center (which we didn’t get to) and then just meander.  The El Tovar Lodge is a good place to start, but make sure to go out Hwy 64 to the Watch Tower.  That’s a good spot to watch the sunset, but also consider Moran Point, which is where we were taken.

Save your pennies and go on a helicopter ride.  There are no words to describe the canyon as you fly through it.

Things we’ll do when we go back: hit the visitor center; stay in the park; raft; hike; take the 12-hour helicopter ride and land on the canyon floor to drink champagne.

Monument Valley

This is Navajo Nation property, so your National Parks card won’t get you in, but it’s cheap.  Again, staying at The View hotel would be great, but you have to book way in advance.

If you don’t have four-wheel drive, I wouldn’t risk driving the valley on your own.  Take one of the tours, preferably at sunset.  Tell someone you want to end up at the last Artist’s Point for sunset.  Dress warmly.

The gift shop is a good one.

Things we’ll do when we go back: camp overnight in the valley (not with my lovely first wife, but with my fellow Lichtenbergians).

Santa Fe

Take it easy here.  You really are going to be hit by the altitude.

Get a hotel close to the Plaza.  Ours, Las Palomas, was beautiful and convenient.  From there, most everything was walkable.  There is also an on-demand shuttle which will take you practically anywhere in the downtown area plus Museum Hill, although we didn’t use it.

The Georgia O’Keefe Museum is worth seeing, although as I stated before, all her iconic works belong to other museums.

The Plaza is fun, although it’s trending upper scale.  The galleries are fun to visit, especially if you’ve won the lottery or embezzled on a grand scale.

Canyon Road I’m going to recommend sight-unseen.  Just driving down the street was enough to convince me to come back and take an entire day poking around all those galleries.

The Museum of International Folk Art is by itself worth the trip. Do. Not. Miss. It.

Things we’ll do when we go back: Canyon Street galleries; more of the museums downtown and on the hill; more walking about side streets.

New Orleans

Again, try to stay 2-3 days.  There’s a lot of the city we didn’t get to see, and it’s worth seeing.

Bourbon Street is great fun.  Take ones and fives to distribute to the street performers: pay for your art, people!  Royal Street (one street over from Bourbon) has fun shops: antiques, arts, some entry level souvenir stuff.

The famous restaurants are famous, but our best meal was on a side street.  Don’t be afraid to get off Bourbon Street.

Jackson Square is OK; the street art sucks, but I highly recommend the fun of having a Tarot reading on the north side.

RiverWalk will probably be finished by the time you get there, but my guess is that it’s not going to be anything other than a mall.

Things we’ll do when we go back: the Arts/Warehouse district; more French Quarter; the cemeteries; neighborhoods of historic homes; actual jazz clubs.

Amtrak

We cannot praise Amtrak’s Crescent enough.  It was comfortable, convenient, and clean.  The food was excellent, and the staff was first-class.  We’re already planning our next train ride.

General advice

The two weeks we traveled were a very good time: no crowds, moderate weather.  I highly recommend early fall.

As you calculate the cost of the trip, remember to consider gas, tolls, admissions, entertainment, meals, postcards, postage, souvenirs.  It adds up.

Get a comfortable rental car.  We ended up with a brand new Ford Explorer.  If you’re going to Monument Valley, you will need four-wheel drive.  Ask if it has USB ports to a) charge your phone; and b) use your phone as a GPS device and as a music device.

Ask also for the driver’s manual for the car: there were things we never did figure out how to do on that car.  Make sure you know how the buttons and levers for the lights and the windshield wipers work before you leave the rental place.

Buy a National Parks Pass. It’s $80, and it gets your car and its passengers into every park and recreational area on your trip.  You can pick one up at Muir Woods and at other parks.  There’s a list of places on the website.  If you buy it ahead of time, it can take a couple of weeks to get, so plan ahead.

Check the 10-day forecast on your Weather Channel app as you pack.  It’s more the highs and lows you’re packing for, not necessarily rain.  It was a high of 90°-ish in Vegas and New Orleans, and a low of 28° in Grand Canyon and Monument Valley.

Whenever you’re driving, charge your phone.  Also, if you’re in an area where there is no signal, switch your phone to airplane mode so that it’s not draining your battery by constantly searching for a network.  Hint: major swaths of this country have no cell phone service at all.

Before you start your day’s journey, fill your gas tank.  There will not be another exit over the hill, and if there is, it will have no development attached.

When you arrive at your starting point, go to the nearest grocery store/Walmart and buy a case of bottled water to keep in the car.  Snacks are also a good idea. You can also save yourself the headache of flying with liquids by buying everything you need once you get there, especially if you’re not flying back.  Save plastic bags to clean out your car every day or two.

Make a plan for getting photos off your phone/camera if you don’t have enough storage for the whole trip.  Dropbox [dropbox.com] can make that automatic for you.

iPhone tip: Form the habit of swiping up from your lockscreen to get directly to the camera, rather than swiping open and then tapping Camera.  Saves precious seconds when that elk is standing right there.

Apps I was glad I had

  • TripIt: You can store all your reservations, plans, maps, etc. in this one app.  Needs internet to do its thing.  Trips are shareable with fellow travelers.
  • Hotel Tonight: Every day at noon, participating hotels in major cities (i.e., not Amarillo) dump rooms they’re trying to get booked for the night.  You can get some really good deals.  If America’s Cup is in town, it will let you know that.  They classify hotels as Basic, Solid, Luxe, or Hip.  You can book from within the app.
  • Hotels.com, Kayak, etc.: It doesn’t hurt to be able to check on reservations, book new ones, etc., especially if you’re really going to just wend your way across the country without a schedule.  We used these and Hotel Tonight once we got past Santa Fe.
  • SimpleResize: If you’re blogging and need to upload smaller, optimized photos, this will do the trick.  Once you’ve adjusted the settings for width, etc., they stay that way until you change them.  The program saves back to your Photos app as a duplicate; you have to do a little eyeballing and mental tricks to remember which ones are your duplicates when it comes time to upload. Protip: save a bunch at one time and the duplicates will all be in a row. The app takes you back out to the list of folders after every save, but that’s a minor annoyance.  (iPhone only, not iPad)
  • FTPOnTheGo: Only if you’re like me and prefer to upload photos directly to your own location on the server rather than let your blogging software put it where it wants.  Simple to use, but set it up and test it before you hit the road and realize all your server settings are on your laptop back home.
    Protip: develop a naming system for your trip photos (mine was cc + day number+ underscore + location + ordinal number); as you upload the first one, rename it and copy the stem, i.e., cc5_canyon.  That way you can hit the little x to erase the gibberish name, then slow-tap to bring up Paste, paste in the stem, and then just type the next number on your list.
    Also protip: I had a miniature Moleskine notebook in my pocket, and I wrote down each of those numbers and a reminder of what the photo was.  Made it a lot easier to write coherently and insert the right photo without fumbling.
  • DropBox: For storing excessive photos.
  • StarWalk: OK on your phone but phenomenal on your iPad.  (You need this one whether you’re traveling or not!)
  • iWant, AroundMe, and Yelp: We tended to ask our hotel people for recommendations for dining, but on the road it helps to know how many hundreds of miles away the nearest food is.
  • AAA: Didn’t help me any with the Chinese tourists because my phone was dead, but boy it would have been useful!
  • Forecast: I use this all the time anyway because it’s phenomenal: it compiles data from weather radar maps and tells you how much it’s going to rain and when: light rain in 3 minutes; medium rain for 26 minutes, then clear for 15 minutes.  It’s not an App Store app; it’s a web app.  Go to forecast.io on your phone.  It will prompt you how to save it to your home screen as an app.
  • Wonkette.com: Because snark-deprivation is a terrible thing.

—————

We—my lovely first wife and I—are among the fortunate: we could afford to do this, to fly to  San Francisco and then take two weeks to drive back.  If I hadn’t had to start the new job* we would have taken three weeks.

It was expensive, but here’s a lesson we learned when we were a lot younger about travel: it’s worth it.  True, had I still been unemployed I might have held back on buying a few things, but probably not.  I had a charge card, and I was prepared to use it.  And to pay it off for months if necessary.  If you see something that really speaks to you, buy it.  You will not pass that way again, and if you do, it won’t be there.

Even if you’re on a budget, plan to splurge on a really nice meal every two or three days.

—————
* I have not blogged about this, but the Monday after we got back from the trip, I started at my new position as director of Online Faculty Develoment at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton.

The Great Cross Country Caper, Day 13: The Crescent

Up by 5:00, showered, revamped clothing plans—since my quick-dry travel clothes do not dry overnight if you’ve actually soaked them—in the cab by 5:30, at the Amtrak station by 5:45.

On one of his old blogs, Mike Funt has a great rant about train vs. plane.  I will now steal shamelessly from him.

Two bags checked for free.  Two carry-ons.

No security line.  No taking off of shoes and unpacking of CPACs. (In fact, I checked my overnight bag.) No photo ID.

Wide seats, only two on a side.  Footrests, because your legs can’t reach the seat in front of you.  Legrests that you can pull up from your seat, which of course reclines.

Large restrooms.

Dining cars.

The fact that it will take eleven and a half hours to get to Atlanta instead of seven driving or an hour or so flying is largely irrelevant.  Let’s keep our eye on the main idea here: I  don’t have to drive the final leg of this CROSS COUNTRY DRIVING EXTRAVAGANZA.

So we’re seated, rolling, cleared Lake Ponchartrain…

…and have stopped at our first stop.  Next up: breakfast!

—————

I mentioned the dining car, did I not?  That is separate from the lounge car, which serves snacks and that kind of thing.

The dining car, on the other hand:

Yes, tablecloths, cloth napkins, full menu, full service.  I like the carnations, don’t you?

—————

After lunch, we asked if we could see the sleeping cars and one of our hosts showed us to the front of the train to look at a couple of empty ones.  The ‘A’ and ‘B’ sleepers are fairly tiny but will sleep two, plus they come with their own toilet.  The ‘H’ sleepers are a bit more like the Orient Express, though still spartan, and come with a shower.  Quelle luxe!

We’ve left Birmingham behind—next stop Atlanta.

I have to say that if we have enough time in our travel plans, the train is definitely to be preferred.

—————

We’ve crossed the border into Georgia. (“Do you heff your peppers ready, hm?”) Having traveled through the absolute wastelands stark landscapes of northern Arizona and New Mexico, I find myself wondering what the residents of those places would make of ours?

All that green!  Even on the hills and mountains!  And sometimes lakes, big ones!

And everywhere, little towns—with houses!   With grass and flowers.  All of them connected by many intersecting roads.  With grocery stores!

And 3G/4G networks almost the entire way, even on the train.  It’s insane!

—————

And yay, Atlanta!

And as you can see, we made it safe and sound.  O you doubters!

The Great Cross Country Caper, Day 12: New Orleans

We returned the car this morning to Budget, including gassing it up and confessing that we had no idea when, where, or how the front left fog light had gotten busted.  (We noticed it in Santa Fe.)

Eerie coincidence of the day: while driving to gas up the car, we crossed Claiborne St.  As in Delores Claiborne, our semi-failed opera back in San Francisco.

Then we hopped the streetcar back down to the River Walk, which is mostly just a big outlet mall and is under renovation/construction.  So we just walked up and down the river for a while. I was checking where we were vis-á-vis Jackson Square on the phone when I saw that we were standing directly in front of the Museum of  the American Cocktail:

NOOOOOOOOO! THE VACATION IS RUINED!!!!1!!

The website says nebulously that they’ve packed everything up for the move to their new location elsewhere in NOLA “next spring,” but there’s no date.  The only clue is a sidebar invitation to celebrate World Cocktail Week, May 6-13, 2013, so maybe they mean the spring of 2014, which means I don’t have to be grumpy about not knowing about the place until it was too late to track it down.

Also, Alert Readers will have noticed the most important thing here: both World Cocktail Week and World Labyrinth Day fall within the orbit of My Birthday.  Just sayin’.

Then we hopped the streetcar again went downstream towards Jackson Square.  We got off and began walking, stopping at only a few spots on the way.

There was this:

Well alrighty then.  It’s good to know that before renting.

Jackson Square is where the street art folk display their wares.

All of it was schlock, just plain out tourist art, mostly “voodoo” related, and almost all NOLA postcard material in varying low-grade styles.  You see the same thing outside the Metropolitan Museum in NYC.  One website referred to all of this as a plein air artist community. I suppose.

Here is the Cathedral of St. Louis sitting on the far side of the square:

If you walk around the square to the cathedral, you will find the psychics.  I had proposed to my lovely first wife that we get ourselves a tarot card reading just for kicks, and so when we came across these people with their small tables and lawn chairs, I took us to the first one we saw.

This is Michelle:

I don’t know if you’ve had a tarot reading from a gifted reader.  Of course everything about it comes from you—there’s no “magick” about them—but the synchronicity can be gobsmacking.  I used to have a friend on America Online way back in the day who did readings in one of the chat rooms, and she was amazing.  I have a tarot app on my iPad, and occasionally I’ll pull it up to trigger some thoughts about issues that bother me.

Since you’re pulling cards at random, it’s pretty clear that your brain will make sense of whatever turns up, but it’s astonishing how apt most of the cards turn out to be.

Michelle’s method was to give you definitions of the six “realms” your reading would address, and at each one you would take the deck (the blue one in the above photo) and select a card from it and give it to her.  She built this stack of six cards, weighted against the wind, and then she spread them out, again weighing them down with little glass stars.

She went through each card and its meaning within its assigned realm.  I don’t know which deck she was using—there are many—but each card had interesting details.  She pointed out some, and asked if you had questions about any details which jumped out at you.

She was very good at connecting the cards to each other, and, again, the synchronicity for each of our readings was pretty amazing.  (Both fit neatly into where we are in our lives/careers at the moment.)  Great fun, and a lot to think about in each case.  It just now occurs to me that my lovely first wife drew The Moon for her first card, while I drew The Sun for my last.

The only thing that didn’t make sense to me about my reading was her insistence that I was destined for, absolutely must decide to enter politics.  For the greater good of all.

Can you imagine me running for office?  I chose to decide that my manipulative, problem-solving abilities are meant to be used to assist the faculty at West Georgia to realize their potential in online instruction.  That’s got to be it, right?

Michelle was skeptical.

Nice long session with Michelle, who was articulate, educated—she was reading a book on language and its structures when we walked up, and she constantly alluded to literary and Biblical topics—and soothing.  We liked her a lot.  Look for her if you’re in NOLA.

After our encounter with the cosmos, we walked into the cathedral.  This is the altar:

And here is the barrel vault:

Kind of austere, I thought, for such an exuberant society.

Repaired for lunch there on the square.

It is raining off and on as Tropical Storm Karen bears down on us.  My decision to end our trip here and take the train back to Atlanta has been smarter than I thought.  I knew that I didn’t want to drive another two days after this, especially if we did Bourbon St. again tonight (we’re about to do Bourbon St. again tonight), and I especially didn’t want to do it in a tropical storm.  So yay, Amtrak!

After lunch, we wandered Royal St., popping into one gallery or the other depending on what appealed to us.

I bought art:

The artist is named Darrell George; the work (oil on canvas) is Ingenuity Pathway.  It’s about 14 x 20.

Not a very good photo, but that was my reference photo as we walked on down Royal St.  Once we got to the end and I realized nothing had appealed to me as much as that piece, we went back and got it.  We had a nice visit with the young man staffing the place, and then the owner came in and we just relaxed in the chairs and had a fun chat with everyone.  It’s being shipped for us.

On down Royal St., we came across punk zydeco:

You can’t really see all the tattoos and the piercings, but they’re there.

Again I can’t embed video, but here’s a link: http://dalelyles.com/crosscountry/dalelyles.com/crosscountry/cc12_nola14.mov

One more comment about art/nonart.  In one of the tonier galleries on the street, the window was taken up with a large work, painting, using enamels of some kind.  Very abstract, very drippy and pool-ly.  And not at all art.

Detail of upper left corner:

I had to stop and look at it and puzzle out why I thought it was offensive a) that someone should produce this thing; and b) that someone should put a huge price tag on it and put it in their gallery.  I finally decided this: Jackson Pollock used his media to create pieces of complexity and depth;  this guy was content to let the medium do the work.  I know that’s not clear, if you saw this crap up close and live, you’d understand.

We walked back to the hotel, pausing to snap a couple of iconic photos:

So yay, Mississippi.

A piece of public art about Katrina, right next to our hotel:

Made from salvaged materials.

Now we’re back at the hotel to recharge our phones and our bodies.  Here it is October, and it’s still sweltering.  We’ve been dressing in layers almost the entire trip, but honey let me tell you, here in NOLA I’m only wearing one layer, so when it’s time to take that off, it’s time to head to the room.

—————

Yes, we went back to Bourbon St.

The first thing we saw when we go there was yet another parade:

We picked up a couple of beads without having to work for them.

Here we are before going in to Jean Lafitte’s Old Absinthe House:

We had stopped at the Old Absinthe House last night, but the service was terrible (only two bartenders when they could have used one for each side of the rectangular bar), and when I selected La Fée for my hit, I was told only then that they were out of it.  We moved on.

But if we were going to partake fully in the debauchery of NOLA, I needed the absinthe, so we returned.  This time I was more aggressive in being served and settled for an absinthe that I saw on the bar and which of course I already possess, Grande Absente.

Here it is:

Absinthe, besides having a ridiculously high alcohol content, is all about the ritual.  There’s the slotted absinthe spoon, upon which you place a sugar cube.  Pour the absinthe over the sugar cube and light it.  When the sugar cube goes out, pour cold water over it to dissolve it.  The absinthe turns cloudy, or to aficionados, louche [LOOSH], which in French means literally “cross-eyed.”  Possibly because of its association with the wickedness of absinthe, it has taken on an extra meaning, “disreputable or sordid in a rakish or appealing way.”  I like this.  I shall aspire to this.

We walked down the street, stopping at one or two bars along the way.  Having eaten lunch fairly late in the day, we were in no hurry to dine.

Street performers were rife:

This was a team of four break dancers who were not only fun dancers but who also had a hysterical and polished schtik to go with it.

The violinist and guitarist are playing Pachelbel’s Canon.  The tuba player is scatting to it because of course why not?  When he finished to general applause, the girls launched into a jazz version of the piece.  Awesome.

At some point, one of our party took a photo of an extraordinarily healthy young man dancing on a bar—we did not actually enter the establishment; this was from the street—whose broad chest and firm, tan buttocks might have been the cause of the ladies stuffing cash into his precariously worn nether-garment.

It’s because of things like this that we enjoyed New Orleans far more than we thought we would.  Having been dismayed by the life-draining energies present in Vegas, we were prepared to be on guard for the same energies in this, America’s other Gomorrah.

But quite frankly, New Orleans is life-affirming.  Yes, Bourbon St. is over the top, but on the whole it exudes fun and naughtiness, more corset and tutu than tasseled pasties, if you see what I mean.  The food is better, the drinks are fine if you avoid the frozen slushy ones (avoid the frozen slushy ones), the music permeates the night, and the fact that the culture has developed over centuries means that it’s all on a human scale.  In Vegas, you meander down a four-lane divided highway with neon lights.  In New Orleans, you are the street, along with all the other revelers.

New Orleans invites you to partake of the pleasures of the senses.  Vegas just wants your money.

We also detoured onto Royal for a while, and several stores were still open.  One was Goorin Brothers Hats.  We went in.  I do not need another hat.  I have every hat I need. So did I buy the excellent suede fedora that is truly Indiana Jones’s father’s hat?  Yes.  Yes I did.

We were on Royal St. mostly because we were looking in vain for a restaurant that one of our party remembered bookmarking on our walk from the Jackson Square to Bourbon St., a nameless restaurant on a street that did not exist.  After we finally gave up on that as a bad deal, we found the Orleans Grapevine Wine Bar & Bistro.  It was an excellent meal, and far better than the slice of pizza I had set out expecting or the po boys for which we had been fruitlessly searching.

After that, we walked back down Bourbon to Canal and caught a cab back to the hotel, ready to be asleep by midnight so that we could arise at 5:00 a.m. to catch our train.

The Great Cross Country Caper, Day 11: Shreveport to New Orleans

Not a lot to talk about today, but a little more exciting than I had expected.

First, the obligatory road shot:

This is I-10, which most of the way seems to be a bridge. A long, long bridge.

It did prompt me to think of the extremes through which we’ve traveled.  We’ve gone from 7,000 feet above sea level to below sea level.  Yes, my ears had the same problem they do after a flight, staying unreasonably clogged for a day or so.

We’ve gone from absolute desert to the bayous, and it was one of those eerie coincidences of my life that as we started traveling under rainclouds (the first we’ve seen in two weeks), the iPhone decided to play “Cloudburst” from Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite.

We’ve gone from desolate isolation to the generic urban landscape, with its Walmarts and Rooms 2 Go and Hooters.  That’s when you know the trip is almost over.

The plan for the trip was to ship our purchases home periodically, which we’ve done once, but like laundromats post offices are sometimes inconvenient.  At this point, we’ve accumulated so much stuff that it was cheaper to go to the nearest Walmart (“Siri, where is the nearest Walmart?”  I love my phone.) and buy a suitcase and just check it at the Amtrak station on Saturday.  (Two free bags each, plus two carry-ons.  What’s not to like?)

Anyway, the drive was uneventful, and we arrived in New Orleans during early rush hour.  We checked in and were waiting for the elevator when another of those eerie coincidences showed up.  And this one was really eerie: I was casting my eye casually over the conference board, meeting rooms, all that, and there was the National Conference of Governor’s Schools.

For those who do not know, Georgia is the only state that doesn’t call its summer gifted thing a Governor’s School.  (Why they’re called Governor’s Schools at all would be an interesting topic.)  And here they were, meeting in my hotel. Not only that but I’m a member in good standing.

Well.

After we got to the room and settled a bit, I popped down to the meeting rooms.  No one was at the registration table—it’s not a huge group, after all—so I snuck a peek at the agenda.  Some cool stuff going on.  Then the registration lady showed up, having gone to warm up a bit in the business center.  (New Orleans refrigerates their indoor spaces worse than Valdosta State.)

I introduced myself and was welcomed warmly.  For the next hour or so I met GSers from other states, chatted with them about their programs a bit, told my tale of woe, raised eyebrows across the nation.  It ripped the bandaid off a bit, but it was fun.  I met someone who remembered Lonnie Love, GHP’s director when I started there in 1984 and who asked me one fateful day, “Would you like to run this program?”

What I learned was that Georgia serves more students than any of the states I talked to, even New York.  I think maybe Virginia may equal us, but that’s with 20 campus/programs, most of them one-week, non-residential camps.  What a crown jewel GHP is!

After consulting with the concierge about which bits to do tonight and which tomorrow, i.e., in daylight, we hopped in a cab for Bourbon St.

For those of you still in the pool.  Sorry about the quality of the photo.  She was a bit wobbly at that point.  Bourbon St. and all that.

We dined at Bourbon House, where the Sazerac was good and the food was excellent.  We mused, though, that it was just a good restaurant.  For bon vivants such as we, it was no more than we have come to expect from a high quality place, and we have more than we can afford in Atlanta.  Actually, we have enough to do in Newnan.  The pinnacle will always be Bacchanalia in Atlanta, and of course we’re not going to search out costly—if perfect—temples like that on a regular basis.  It kind of surprised us to discover how blasé we were about world-famous establishments, and with reason.

Afterwards we walked all the way down Bourbon St. and halfway back before getting a cab back to the hotel.  As we started out, the sounds of live bands playing boomed out of each bar we passed.  Although my lovely first wife had sniffed at the place when we first got there, I commented that I thought this actually was her kind of place.  She shivered with delight and admitted the truth of that.

So we may be back someday.

The Great Cross Country Caper, Day 10: Amarillo to Shreveport

Here’s the thing about cross country capers.  One has to pack light, which is not our wont.  We tend toward the Three-Hour Tour Method.  One never knows when one will need one’s lamé gown, after all.

Packing light means eschewing multiple changes of evening clothes and going with less than enough to get you through: a handful of t-shirts, a week’s worth of socks, that kind of thing.  I even went out and bought the nifty travel shirt and pants you’ve seen in every photo of me, the kind that can be rinsed out in the sink at night and be dry by morning.

For the rest of it, however, not having enough to get through means that at some point… one has to do laundry.

So here’s my protip for the day:  don’t pack light.  Because unless you’re spending 48-72 hours in a single place one week into your trip, YOU WILL NOT HAVE TIME TO DO LAUNDRY.  Many hotels have laundry rooms, by which they mean one washing machine and one dryer—and everyone else who packed light will be there ahead of you.

There are laundromats, of course, but THEY WILL NOT BE NEAR YOU, NOR WILL THEY BE IN A NEIGHBORHOOD YOU WANT TO BE IN AFTER DARK.  Think about it, boys and girls: they’re where people who do not own their own washing machine or dryer live.  You know.  Poor people.

::sigh::

It took till 9:00 this morning, but I have clean, dry socks.  Learn from my mistakes, oh my children.  Pack for the Three-Hour Tour.

—————

So we set out for Shreveport this morning.  Here’s a photo:

There you go.  That’s it.  Texas.  I’m sure Texans would point to that vast plain with pride, suggesting that it’s a feature, not a bug, but these are the people who elected Ted Cruz to the Senate.

We’ve been playing “guess the crop” for  miles.  To be fair, at least there is agriculture, unlike our earlier trek to Santa Fe.

Here are some random thoughts on the road.

This is back in New Mexico, but I wasn’t able to snap a photo as we whizzed along.  Personally, I thought the graphic was being over-hopeful about the suavity of their drunks.  A bottle of PBR or a flask of MD 20/20 might have been more apropos.

Lots of DWI signs in Texas too, but they don’t have the same savoir faire. (How do we know geeks created the iPad and its dictionary?  It flags “savoir” as unknown/misspelled, while “faire” is perfectly acceptable to those who spend their time at Renaissance Faires.  Honey, please.)

In fact, I am a little concerned about the criminal nature of Texans.  They clearly need more divine intervention/redemption than the rest of the nation based on the number of God billboards alone.  It seems to be a critical area of concern from what I can see.  Bless their hearts!

Sign of the day: the small orange rectangle that informs you that HITCHHIKERS MAY BE ESCAPING INMATES.  (Vid. sup.)

Second-best sign of the day, at the Texas Travel Information Center: “Rattlesnakes are present in this area.  Please treat them with respect and caution.”  Well, okay then.

Perhaps this billboard is up in Georgia now, but this is the first time I’ve seen Dr. Pepper 10 advertised with the catchphrase TASTETOSTERONE: the manliest lo-cal soda. Swear to God.

Fortunately for Texas’s lowlife problem, there exists the Full Armor Biker Church.  Swear to God.

Ft. Worth offers the world’s only twice-daily cattle drive.  I appreciate the effort, boys, but really…

Addison has the Mary Kay Museum.

For lunch, we got off at Vernon and headed to downtown based on a lead from the About Me app, but it was boarded up, as was most of downtown Vernon.  Further down the list was Mic’s BBQ, so I clicked on it and was directed through some residential areas back to the previous exit, where we pulled up here:

Believe me, the photo makes the place look almost respectable.  We bravely went in, and were delighted. Wanda, the owner, was pleasant and fun, and her food was excellent.  Of course, this is Texas, and when they say BBQ, they mean cows, not pigs like Cthulhu intended.  (Geek alert: the iPad didn’t even blink at “Cthulhu.”)  Still, it was very good, so yay, Wanda!

It’s now 5:30 pm CDT, and that’s all I got.  Because of laundry issues, we have another two hours till we reach our hotel in Shreveport, booked through the Hotel Tonight app—highly recommended.

—————

I’m going to be fair to Texas:

Here we are east of Dallas, heading towards Louisiana, and it’s a lovely area indeed.  (There are four or five Texases (Texoi?), actually.  Everyone knows that.)  We’ve actually been on I-20 (!) since Ft. Worth.  If we weren’t heading to New Orleans, we’d just truck on to Atlanta.

—————

Dinner at a nice little seafood restaurant, Ralph & Kacoo’s, right near the hotel.  Nothing exciting from the bar.  I had hoped to make fabulous cocktails a recurring feature of this blog, but no place since San Francisco has had a bar worth mentioning.  The restaurant in the Four Queens Hotel & Casino in Vegas at least had a bartender who was able to make a Barnum Cocktail using my instructions, but since then it’s been simple gin and tonics.  Oh well.

The Great Cross Country Caper, Day 9: Santa Fe and points east

We had thought we’d stay in Santa Fe two nights, and then book it across Texas in order to get to New Orleans on Friday, where we have to turn the car in.  But  our hotel here, the lovely Las Palomas, does not have a vacancy tonight.  We thought about just moving to another hotel for the night, but in checking through her books last night my lovely first wife discovered that one of the museums we wanted to visit (Site Santa Fe, an über-avant garde kind of place) is not even open on Tuesday.

Therefore, our plan now is to finish our stroll through downtown, make a few purchases, see the International Museum of Folk Art, and then book it across Texas.  That will give us two days in New Orleans instead.

I’ll let you know  how  that goes.

—————

The first thing you notice about Santa Fe is that you can’t breathe.  Denver may be the Mile-High City (for real), but Sante Fe  is higher than that: 7000 feet above sea level.  Just walking to your room leaves you gasping and nauseated.  This is the highest we’ve been the entire trip.

The altitude sickness barely abates in 24 hours.  Lots of water, and move slower.  That’s about the only thing you can do.

Here we are at breakfast:

From there, we walked back to the Plaza and began our shopping.  I splurged on two items: a new native flute (in D), and a flat shaman drum.  Then we set to the serious business of the day—gifts.  That kept us going all day.  I am sorry I did not get a picture of the artisans under the arcade of the New Mexico History Museum.  I thought yesterday they were the equivalent of  those little roadside places that all sell the same crap, but boy was I wrong.

They are licensed Native American artists, and everything they sell they make themselves.  That’s why when you pick up a lovely silver and turquoise necklace, it’s $1800 and not $49.99.  Still, a lot of their stuff is affordable, and they will dicker.  All their work is signed and most of it is very lovely.

In general, Santa Fe is an art lover’s mecca.  Dozens of galleries downtown, and then a whole street, Canyon Street, of quirky and great stuff.  We merely drove through Canyon Street;  it’s on our list for when we return.

After our shopping spree downtown, we hopped in the car and drove up to Museum Hill, where we went to the Museum of International Folk Art.

Oh my.

Here’s the entrance.  You must understand that this is one of several museums up here.

Here’s a bench outside:

This is what Santa Fe is like, all over the city.  A neoprimitive, deliberate design instead of a park bench?  Sure, why not.

They have a labyrinth.  It’s a variant of the 7-circuit pattern, i.e., mine, and it’s slightly domed.

Here’s the entrance:

Here I am at the center:

The little arrow points South.   Don’t know why.  That means you enter from the North. There are no markers for the cardinal points otherwise.

Here’s the view from the center:

It was odd walking an unfamiliar pattern.  I didn’t have time to even begin to figure out its metaphor, of course, but that’s okay.  Sometimes a walk in the labyrinth is just a walk.

An interesting thing about this labyrinth: because of the dome shape and the wall, you get a spooky echo when you stand in the center and whisper.  Your sibilants just come bouncing back to you like ghosts.  One wonders if it were deliberate or just an accidental gift from the gods.

Inside, the bulk of the museum is taken up by the Girard Wing.

But, you will say, that looks like a Walmart, not a museum.  You would  be wrong.  Alexander Girard and his wife collected folk art.  This is not their collection.  This is one-tenth of their collection.  This is just an exhibit of that tenth.

It is absolutely overwhelming.  Skip the Georgia O’Keefe Museum if you have to, but do not miss this museum.  The mind boggles at the sheer volume of human artistic expression.

Pay attention.  We have a lot to work through here.

The first idea you should take away from here is that anyone who says that art is a frill and students don’t need to be wasting time on it should be taken out back of the Capitol and shot.  Publicly.  (Maybe CNN could get better ratings that way if C-SPAN doesn’t beat them to it.)

It is clear from this collection that creating stuff, making stuff, is just part of us.  We cannot help it.  From the simplest materials, whatever is at hand, people will create objects which have meaning.  Often that meaning is religious; over two-thirds of the items in the exhibit are specifically religious, mostly Christian but certainly not all.  Sometimes the objects are for entertainment; a lot of puppets and dolls and scenes.  Often the objects are functional, and sometimes the objects are just pretty.

Not all the objects are made by unsophisticated artists.  There are a great many commercially produced items from the 18th and 19th centuries, dolls and doll house items, for example. Those did not hold my attention, however, as much as the hand-made-by-hand items.

I have a few random photos, snapped after I realized we were permitted to photograph the exhibit and I zipped back through trying to document the pieces that really stuck out.  Not enough, alas.  And they did not have a big heavy book covering the exhibit in the gift shop.

So let’s start here:

Jaguar, clay.  Here is one of the facets of the exhibit.  You’ll be walking along, fascinated by the cases and cases of objects, and then you’ll remember to look up, and there is entirely other exhibit going on over your head.

Whimsy:

In the corner of an enormous circus display, we find this rabbit tamer.  These scenes are mostly patched together from disparate items in the Girard’s collection—although there are a couple of gargantuan scenes with every item done by the same folk artist—and so whether the clown actually came with the rabbits is an open question.  Nevertheless, it’s charming and more than a little bit creepy.

One thing that will strike you about the objects is how very very powerfully modern they are.  Look at this:

Terrible photo, but the reflections were unavoidable.  If you saw this without any context, you would be forgiven for thinking you were looking at a painting from a gallery over at the Plaza, or over on Canyon Road.  It is beyond sophisticated in its design.

But it’s a hunter’s jacket.  The bow-tie-shaped white space is the hole for your head.  Close up, in the upper lefthand corner, there is actually a pocket.

Close up, it’s even more sophisticated.  The fabric is the brown; the black is dye.  The rings look as if they’ve been double-stamped, with a slight registration problem, that is, dimmer gray circles can be seen just off kilter with the black.

Here’s another textile:

I cannot remember what this was, functionally.  It’s embroidered.  Seriously, people, artists have to go to SCAD to get this sophisticated in their approach to materials and design.

How about this:

You’ll notice it’s part of a parade of iron pieces.

Another textile:

This one is from Peru.  Look closely at it.

Now look at the closeup:

The whole thing is hand-stitched.  Keep looking at it.  Really, just keep looking at it.

Now remember that this is just one item out of an entire Walmart of items just like it.

The first idea we looked at was that humans are artists and it’s part of who we are.  The second idea I came away with was that given sufficient materials and time, humans prefer the ornate, the baroque, the over-the-top.

This is a thing used in religious processions:

See what I mean?  But wait, there’s more:

That’s right, all those wires are covered with beads.  Thousands and thousands of beads.  The exhibit was full of such items, and the idea that most of them are “objects of devotion” seems an insufficient explanation to our modern minds for the utter time-consuming work it took to create them.

This is from Poland:

It’s about four feet tall, made of wood, and covered with foil.  All the little people (sold separately) are handcarved.  Notice the floral arrangements to either side.  Yes, all the flowers are handmade.

This tendency to the exuberant could be seen throughout the exhibit.  If the objects were simple, there would be a lot of them.  But often the objects were not simple.

Our third idea flows from the first: why aren’t we all folk artists?  Why aren’t  you? Unlike the idiots who stand in front of a Pollock or a Mondrian and say, “Herrgh, I could do that” (Protip: no you couldn’t),  you can make art.

I confronted my lovely first wife with this proposition and she demurred.  She doesn’t have artistic talent, she said.

Look at these masks, I said:

Are they polished?  Are they “professional”?  No.  Do they have glaring “flaws”?  Is it obvious that the humans who made them had no artistic training?  Yes.

Are they beautiful?

Yes.

So why not you?

Look at this:

It’s part of a headdress for a Catholic festival procession.

Now look closely:

Do you see it?  The maker of this has taken a piece of gold fabric and stitched trash, ladies and gentlemen, onto a religious article.  (Not coincidentally, this flows from  our idea #2.)  The maker has taken whatever was to hand—broken glass, beads, charms, keys—and splashed it onto that pretty fabric in an almost random manner. It’s gorgeous in its simplicity/complexity.

What do you have lying around the house?  Do you, on your morning walk, leave lying in the street the makings of a pretty thing?

Something more modern, perhaps?

This is a machine-stitched tapestry from Africa.

Closeup:

Got a sewing machine?

Got a Hobby Lobby?

A huge part of our reluctance to plunge in and make stuff is the fact that we are college-educated, middle class Westerners.  We can’t make a thing like these things.  It wouldn’t be “right.”

Wait, what?  Why not?

We’d expose our “untalentedness” to others.

Really?  If you made something as beautiful as any one of these things, you’d be the envy of others.

But as over-educated, middle class Westerners, shouldn’t we be expected to produce more polished, academic work?

Well, I suppose if you went to an academy

Enough.  Go make a thing.

—————

The Girard collection  leaves you breathless (even for Santa Fe).  It’s truly so overwhelming that it’s hard to make your brain get back to the real world.  I had this problem after Grand Canyon and Monument Valley as well, finding it difficult to concentrate on driving even.

This was even more extreme, so it’s a good thing there were several more exhibits to get through.  There was one on Southwestern cuisine as relates to chocolate (!) and yerba mate.  Kitchens from different eras were displayed, with all the practical objects identified.  Lovely chocolate sets and mate sets.  We’ll be having some interesting cocoa in the next few months—they had recipe cards.

A powerful exhibit of worldwide folk artists’ responses to AIDS/HIV.  The work of women artists was particularly interesting, since they had clearly decided that their societies’ traditional morality and modesty was getting them nowhere, and their voices were bracingly strident: put a condom on that thing, buster.

An exhibit of Japanese kites, like the Girard exhibit the collection of a single man.  Hundreds of kites, grouped by region.

We exited through the gift shop, as usual.  I was extremely disappointed that the only book they had on the Girard exhibit was nowhere close to being representative of the exhibit.  Nor were there any replicas of my favorite pieces.  Hello, people, let’s get to work here!

I did pick up a couple of items.

At the entrance to the exhibit, before you even get into the Walmart portion, there’s a whole wall of charms and amulets, showcased by country of origin.  This is an amulet resembling those from Italy.  Your guess is as good as mine as to what it might protect me from.

A bell from India.  You might think it has a clunky, cowbell-like tone, but it chimes with a long reverb.  Had to have it for the labyrinth.

I also got a book by Barbara Ehrenreich that I didn’t know she had written, Dancing in the Streets: a history of collective joy.  It chronicles group ecstasy from its primitive roots through Dionysus and Jesus, then the Puritan stuff, all the way up to a chapter called “The Carnivalization of Sports.”  Let’s dance!

—————

After the museum, we drove down Canyon Street, which is nothing but one fabulous art gallery after another.  Bookmarked for a return trip.

I set our course for Amarillo, TX, and we were taken through unpaved residential streets to the nearest highway.  Even on these unpaved streets, there were some really nice homes, all adobe and walled.

We have approximately 19 hours of driving to get to New Orleans by Thursday.  Through Texas.  Blogging may be a little less interesting for a while.

So uninteresting in fact, that when we finally saw multiple billboards for the Flying C Truck Stop WITH A DAIRY QUEEN YOU GUYS, we had to stop.

All kinds of marvelously tacky merchandise.  You are all very lucky we didn’t win the lottery, because you’d all be receiving glazed ceramic coyotes.

Hit the road and eventually decided to give up whenever we got to Amarillo.  Among the things we’ve learned on this trip is that there is not an exit coming up.  There will not be a place to eat or to pee or to gas up.  If you see a place, STOP.

Using the wonders of the intertubes, I found a hotel with laundry facilities—about which more in the next post—and we stopped for the evening.  We had supper at the next door Outback.  Told you blogging was going to be less interesting.

The Cross Country Caper, Day 8: Santa Fe

It is a six and a half hour drive from Kayenta, AZ, to Santa Fe, NM, and so after a quick breakfast we set out.

I am here to tell you that after a couple of hours of driving through northern Arizona and New Mexico, I was ready to try that crystal meth just to see if it would help matters any.

Mainly it’s the poverty that gets to you.   We were accosted several times in Kayenta by unemployed men, begging for money.  The first was after dinner last night, a Sioux gentleman who needed gas money, of course.  We gave him less than he asked for, and then he offered to pray for us, holding our hands and mumbling over us in Sioux. Generous of him and it was touching, but the bedrock poverty of the area is horrific, and it’s evident with every mile you drive.

Yes, the amazing landscape was still there, but there is so much of it.  When we finally got to Shiprock, NM, and there was a river and moisture and green, we rejoiced.  We got to an intersection where a maintenance man was weed-eating the first leafy green plants we’d seen in over a thousand miles, and all I could think was, “Don’t do that!  Don’t kill those weeds!  Leave them—they’ll make you  happy and you won’t need the crystal meth, so much.”

Before Shiprock, we had passed an intersection which led off to Four Corners, but the last sign I had seen had said 32 miles to Four Corners and so we passed it by.  Miles later my lovely first wife realized that the famed location was just two or three miles from that intersection.  And that’s how we missed setting foot in Colorado.  Such short lives we live.

Farmington was even greener with even bigger rivers than Shiprock, and then we ascended to a plateau that was actually blanketed with crops of corn. But then the whole thing devolved back into endless eroded landscapes.

The problem with endless eroded landscapes is not that they are endless or eroded.  It is that they are empty.  There’s nothing.  And so when we spotted a tiny pit stop with one unsheltered gas pump and perhaps some snacks inside, we pulled over.

It indeed had snacks, which I needed for some kind of lunch, and it also had a restroom. One restroom.  While waiting in line with others, I struck up a conversation with a lovely lady who looked even more out of place than we did.  She turned out to be an artist from Santa Fe heading up to Monument Valley, and we chatted.  My lovely first wife got a couple of restaurant recommendations from her and her card.

Finally, Santa Fe appeared over a ridge.  We arrived at our hotel, the Las Palomas, a collective of adobe buildings on West San Francisco St.

Look:

That’s in the tiny parking lot, my dears.  So is this:

The place is lousy with commissioned sculpture.

Our room was in a little compound across the street, called Pueblo.  Another tiny parking lot, and then the path to our room.

Around the corner…

Down the path…

Around another corner to our door…

Notice the wood.  We need it for our bedroom.

It’s the lovely little establishment, no?  I took the photos after we got back from our walk, so they have the further mystique of dusk, but it’s undeniably engaging.

After dumping our stuff, we elected to walk to the Georgia O’Keefe Museum a couple of blocks away.

This is a small place, and most of O’Keefe’s really iconic works are elsewhere, like MOMA.  But it was nice to see what they had.  I was most amazed and intrigued by her working method: very wet brushes, laid down in supremely confident strokes.  I saw no evidence of exploration or correction in her thin layers of paint.  Of course she sketched and made studies before she tackled the final work, but it was still impressive.

From there we walked over the the Plaza, the center of  town surrounded by lovely shops, most of which sell stuff that was of no interest to the likes of you and me.  There were some items of interest, but since I’m going back tomorrow to purchase them, I’ll wait till then to discuss them.

This is the Cathedral of Saint Francis of Assisi.

I’m embarrassed to say I know nothing about it.  We arrived at 4:28 and it closes at 4:30, so we didn’t get to linger.   It is, however, beautiful.

If I have time tomorrow, I’ll go back and get details.

Here she is, for those who are still keeping track.

After we left the cathedral, we wandered down some side streets where more interesting vendors were.  I found actual sage smudge bundles:

 

I bought a goodly supply for use in the labyrinth.  All I’ve ever seen for sale in Atlanta is white sage, which is a broader leaf.  It’s fine, but this is special.

We went to eat at Del Charro, recommended by our artist friend, and it was good.  A simple bar/bistro, the food was good and the drinks were solid.

Afterwards, guided by my trusty iPhone, we walked to a World Market and bought two or three tiny bottles of Prosecco, then walked back to the hotel and now I’m caught up on our travels.

The Great Cross Country Caper, Day 7: Grand Canyon AND Monument Valley

So after we were overwhelmed by the Grand Canyon yesterday, we decided that we needed to see more of it.  Our first plan was to cancel our hotel in Kayenta, our stopping point for Monument Valley, skip that altogether, and go on to Santa Fe and spend an extra day there.

But the hotel, the Best Western in Kayenta, had a 48-hour cancellation policy and we had already passed that deadline.

Then we decided to push on through, like the troupers we are.  My lovely first wife arose early, walked down to the Best Western there in GC where we had eaten the night before, to talk to their concierge about booking a 45-minute helicopter ride for the morning.  I awoke to find her gone, and when she got back, I had a brief moment to shower, get dressed, and pack.  (You see why I’m two days behind on blogging…)

One cup of coffee later, we were at the Grand Canyon airport, watching a safety video about where to wear our PFDs in case of a water landing.  No really.  There were also some tips about not getting sucked into the tail rotor.

Allow me to say at this point that my slight acrophobia has gotten worse with age, but I’m determined to be game all across this great land of ours, and so when they came in and called our names, I bravely stood and lined up.

There were six of us: an American who seemed as if he might be capable of throwing himself out of the chopper, and three attractive young German friends, about whom I wondered how they could afford a trip to the middle of the U.S., much less this sehr teuer excursion.  I finally decided they were some of the 30,000 Oracle folk who had recently clogged San Francisco.  Rich techies.  Check.

Here we are boarding the tiny, fragile little helicopter:

And up we went.  Here are two obligatory “in a helicopter” shots, presented without comment.

Cameras clicked and whirred.  We cordially ducked out of each other’s way.  A herd of small buffalo-shaped lumps napped beneath us.

We were wearing headsets, partly to drown out the roar of the blades but also to provide narration and communication from the pilot.  When we lifted off, the first track of music was Sinatra crooning “Fly Me to the Moon.”  Cute.

It’s an amazing fact about the Canyon that it really isn’t very visible until you’re right at the rim, even from the air.  We were flying parallel to the rim, as in the photo above, and I figured early on how this was going to play out.  So I had my camera set to video:

http://dalelyles.com/crosscountry/cc7_canyon4.mov

Those of you who guessed that they played the opening fanfare from Also Sprach Zarathustra can give yourself a smug pat on the back.

And now, more pictures of interminable grandeur.

Our pilot, Kara, played narration for us, first in English then in German, accompanied by soaring music. That was completely unnecessary.  I would have cried anyway.  It was that magnificent.

(Yes, the narration referred to the mächtig Colorado.)

This is the elusive North Rim.  It is hours away by car, and the only road to get there is actually closed right about now.  It’s much higher than the South Rim: last year it got 150 inches of snow to the South’s 75.  Ew.

It was an  incredible experience and I was never bothered by the fact that we might have crashed at any moment.  It’s very expensive, of course, but protip: save the money you were going to give to the mob in Vegas and spend it here.  It’s a much better way to throw your money away.

And here is my lovely first wife buying something nice I’m sure in the gift shop at El Tovar, the very nice first lodge built on the South Rim over a hundred years ago.  You have to book it more than a year in advance.  I bought a shot glass.

This is most people’s first view of the Grand Canyon, there at El Tovar on the South Rim.  It was almost our last.

You can see my lovely first wife’s hands there at the right side of the panorama.  I’m thinking the whole betting pool has run its course, you cynical asshats.  You’ll just have to start a new one.

—————

From the Canyon, we drove north to Kayenta.  We checked into the Best Western but got back into the car and drove another 25 miles to Monument Valley.

Monument Valley is not a national park.  Straddling Utah and Arizona, it belongs to the Navajo Nation.  You can sign up for tours, but you’re also allowed to drive the park yourself.  Protip: if the car rental place does not offer you a four-wheel drive vehicle, ask for it.  You will need it.  (We discovered only the next day that one of our fog lights was smashed out, clearly from rocks bouncing off the unpaved, rutted road.)

We arrived about 6:00, about an hour before the sun set.  The drive takes two hours.  Off we went!

The landscape is littered with these buttes, strewn across the landscape like so many Trump Towers.  This is one of two Mitten buttes.  There is a left and a right.

Another butte.

This one and the two mittens are the first that greet you as you grind and toil down the road.

If you’re from Georgia, you may be forgiven for thinking you’ve never seen so much red clay in your life, but it’s not clay.  It’s silt, eroded from the sandstone, and it’s very very fine.  It’s hard to see in this photo, but I’ve crunched into the crust from the last time it rained:

It brought back memories of my one summer in outdoor drama at The McIntosh Trail in the amphitheatre in Peachtree City.  There is a powder makeup called Texas Dirt, and as Mehron puts it in their catalog, it’s “an inexpensive way to make up a large cast as Indians.”  I’m pretty sure it was made from this stuff:

We’d wet it and smear it all over our bodies.  One of the female cast had a photo of a previous outdoor drama’s male Indian cast, who had the photo made when the female cast did not believe that they smeared it all over their bodies.  The photo proved that they did.

The McIntosh Trail (which we renamed The Mac ‘n’ Trish Trials after our two leads) was written by Kermit Hunter (whose name we Spoonerized into a much ruder but appropriate name for the man), more famous for Unto These Hills and other such summer fare.  This was the grand opening for McIntosh Trail, and it was going to run a long and prosperous time.  In the middle of the summer, Hunter gave an interview with the Macon Telegraph, in which he said—and I paraphrase—the best thing that ever happened to the red man was the arrival of the white man, which to be honest was the thesis of McIntosh Trail.

The actual Cherokees in the cast immediately quit and went home to Oklahoma, including the dancers, and so Glenn Rainey and I were promoted from the Creek Injuns who muttered  rutabaga/watermelon support for William McIntosh, to the fierce warrior dancer Injuns who were all up in his face about how nuhUH were they going to move west and get civilized before the white man caught up to them.  Good times.

This was also the first time, as I reminisced to my lovely first wife, that I was ever completely naked with other men, not having played sports in school, but certainly now needing to shower before heading home after the show.  Good times.

Anyway.

You see my lengthening shadow.

Here’s another hoodoo for you.

The whole place was magnificently serene—the play of light and shadow across the faces of the buttes and mesas was endlessly fascinating.

These three hoodoos were called The Three Sisters, supposedly because they looked like a nun instructing two others.

See this butte?

If you look hard enough…

If you don’t get that joke, good for you.

This is a great photo, with the first real clouds we’ve seen since San Francisco:

We were bumping along when I suddenly saw this:

It was a little stone stack.  It’s a thing in some circles.  I added the top one you see here.

And all the time, the sun was setting.

Yes, that’s a domicile you see there.  This is not a national park, it’s tribal lands, and people live out here.  Why, I’ll never know, because it would take you an extra forty minutes to an hour to get home after you got off the highway and turned onto the road.

You can also apply to camp overnight, and my lovely first wife said although she hates the very concept of camping, she’d do it.  That’s how powerful the beauty and energy of this place is, folks.

She also succumbed to the stone stacking thing.

Mine’s on the left, hers is on the right.  I grabbed all the big stones first.

The sun fades even further.

And finally…

There is no way to overstate the staggering power of this place.  It makes an incredible sequel to the Grand Canyon, and together they leave your mind reeling.

The feeling of sacred/spiritual energy in these places (and in Muir Woods) is palpable, and goes a long way to explaining why Vegas feels so very wrong.

As we were leaving, after exiting through the gift shop of course, I took one last shot.

Afterglow, with Venus.

The Great Cross Country Caper, Day 6: Grand Canyon

More driving, also through unrelenting desert.

It wasn’t a long trip, only 4.5 hours this time, and it had some fun stuff.

This was the Last Stop (it was not the last stop), and it also had Area 51 cutouts, but we did not disport ourselves with photos.

More tempting was the offer to shoot a machine gun, one presumes out over the vast and unpopulated desert.

Most tempting were the rest rooms inside, where there were multiple signs saying you had to purchase before you peed, but so off the wall was the mise-en-scène that I did not mind buying an ice cream sandwich.

It had all kinds of really wonderfully tacky crap, the real stuff, not the mass-manufactured detritus of Las Vegas.  And in the middle of all of it, I found this:

I have recently discovered that I have an affinity for lizards, and this one was actually compelling, despite its prolish status.

Eventually we arrived at our destination, the Red Feather Lodge.  How delightful, as we approached, to discover that the Grand Canyon was on fire.

Not really, of course.  Signs everywhere announced that this was a controlled burn in Kaibab National Forest.  But it was exciting for a moment.

We headed to the National Geographic center, where my lovely first wife’s books had told her we could most conveniently purchase park passes.  However, and we knew this before we started out, today is National Park Day, and there are no fees at any of the national parks.  Huzzah!

Rather than fumble our way through our only afternoon at probably the biggest part of the trip, we elected to sign up for a Pink Jeep Tour, the Sunset Tour.  As the jovial dude in the pink shirt behind the counter pointed out, being guided around the park is better than trying to see the sights while not plunging over the rim.  It sounded like a very good opportunity to avoid frazzled nerves and/or disgruntledness.

So woot and all that: it looks as if we will probably both be alive at the end of the day.  Again.

—————

The Grand Canyon.

I’m not even going to try, guys, except to say that Congress should fund a trip for every citizen of this country to see it. (When Congress was asked by Teddy Roosevelt to confirm his designation of the area as a national park, it is said that some were not going to vote for it until they saw a painting of the place hanging in the Capitol—whereupon, overcome by the stunning beauty of the place, they voted yes. Can you imagine a Congress that was swayed by aesthetic considerations?)

First view, on our Pink Jeep Tour.

I once did a lesson with third graders on using the thesaurus. I showed them a video on the Grand Canyon, and they looked up synonyms for “big.” We went out to my oversized bulletin board in the hall, where I had posted pictures of the Canyon, and the kids got to draw their synonyms directly onto the bulletin board paper.

The place is huge.

Gargantuan.

Enormous.

As we drove from one viewing spot to the next, we encountered an “elkjam,” traffic slowed to a standstill:

These are just punk teenager elk, but later that evening, we went back out to the first viewpoint to look at the stars—you can only imagine—and on the way back I spotted a fully growed big-ass elk grazing on the median.  I whipped around because some of our party had not seen it, whereupon the animal became annoyed and stalked slowly back into the woods, mooing his displeasure.

This is a hoodoo.  No really.  Look it up; I can’t seem to make a link to the Wikipedia article.

Colossal.

Monumental.

Humongous.

Immense.  A view of the mighty Colorado River. (You have to call it the “mighty” Colorado, or they look askance at you as if you’re not entering into the proper spirit of the thing.)

Mary Colter was one of the U.S.’s first prominent female architects. She designed the two lodges in the Village, and the Watchtower at Desert View point. It was part of the original tourist spots in the new park.

This photo only hints at its mystic beauty. Colter and her crew did three years of research of Native American motifs, both architectural and decorative, and while you think a place referencing Indian stuff would be kitschy at best, you would be wrong. It’s powerful stuff.

Looking down from the third tier.

Looking down onto the second tier observation deck.

The entire interior is covered by patterns, figures, and motifs painted in the traditional manner(s) by native artists.

Peeping down onto the first floor.

The ceiling on the fourth tier.

A carved bird figure with the setting sun casting my shadow.

The first floor in panorama.

Tremendous.

Stupendous. We’re getting ready to watch the sun set.

My lovely first wife at sunset.  How close she is to the edge!

This is the promontory out onto which I clambered to watch the sun go down.

And here I am, courtesy of our tour guide. I have about nine of these, since Amy didn’t know the phone was not making a click noise and so kept shooting.

The sun setting.

Sunset!

Here I must pause and tell of how my fellow Lichtenbergians and I went on our Annual Retreat last year to the California coast. Driving up Highway 1, which is as beautiful as every commercial makes it seem, we pulled over to watch the sun set. Incredible. So the next day, on the beach, we decided we would come down to the beach the following night to watch the sun do its thing.

And so, as I began to prepare dinner that evening, I looked out the window and realized that the sun had begun plummeting into the Pacific. We all leapt into the car and drive pell-mell down the street to the highway, where from thence we would cross and drive down the twisty access road to the private beach.

Every second, the sun dropped lower and lower, touching the rim of the horizon, and finally sinking beneath the ocean with a faint plop just as we reached the highway. We were all laughing hysterically, and there was nothing to do but turn right onto the highway and drive down the nearby lookout point, where everyone else was leaving. We pulled in and enjoyed the afterglow. As one does.

Afterglow.

Awesome.

The Great Cross Country Caper, Day 5: Las Vegas/Hoover Dam

In which a Woman fulfills her Dream of Driving across This Great Land of Ours, accompanied by her Husband, who Hates to Drive

Our original plan was to wander round Vegas today, see a show tonight, then head out to Hoover Dam tomorrow and thence to the Grand Canyon, but it was decided by some in our party to go ahead and do the dam today.  Fine with me.

It’s been a breathtaking day, it truly has, so far, but further reports will have to wait until after my 105 MINUTE LOMI LOMI MASSAGE YOU GUYS.

One reason I hate to drive is that my legs turn into planks of wood, and it’s just not a comfortable feeling.  So by my calculations, if I have a great massage today and another one when we get to Santa Fe, I may just survive this without a wheelchair.

Lomi lomi is a massage method rooted in Hawaiian spirituality.  I encountered it completely by accident in Newnan (!) when I went in for a massage at my then-current place.  I was given James Leipold and told that I’d probably find him a good fit.  James—young, fit and gentle—did not disappoint.  He explained briefly what lomi lomi was and then set to work.

By the time he finished, I was hallucinating. It was amazing, and I was hooked.  I worked up to a massage twice a month and probably would still be doing it if he hadn’t moved away to become a chiropractor.  Whenever he came home to visit family, he’d call and I’d drop everything to take a session with him.  (He and I recently reconnected; he’s now practicing in Asheville.  Time to visit North Carolina!)

So, when I decided to get a massage here, I figured such a sybaritic place ought to be crawling with lomi lomi specialists.  I was not wrong.  I’m pretty sure the booking was a scam (“The only lomi lomi session we have is 105 minutes…”) but I’m okay with that.

More later, starting with Hoover Dam…

————

Hoover Dam.  It is everything that has ever been said about it.

The postcards just take themselves.

For those of you with bets in the pool:

She’s still alive.  This is only Day 4, however, not even halfway through.

The most amazing thing to me, other than the sheer chutzpah of the engineering, is that they made it pretty, and deliberately so.  A focus of national pride during the Depression, it was designed as a tourist destination from the very beginning, an Art Deco masterpiece.

That, my dears, is the original men’s room, which is housed in the first turret on the top of the damn.  The floors everywhere are inlaid with terazzo, based on Native American motifs.

That one is in the turbine room.  You will also find them in the tunnels throughout the dam: tours of the entire facility were always part of the plan.

And here is the turbine room:

The dam is self-supporting, still selling its electricity to various municipalities throughout the southwest.  However, it is not a major contributor to the grid.  All the videos, etc., told us that its output can support a Million people </dr_evil>.  That isn’t a lot.  In fact, they don’t sell anything to Las Vegas, which uses more electricity than any other city in the world.

In very good photos of the dam, you can see four little shield-shaped portals. These are air holes to provide fresh air for the miles of tunnels that honeycomb the dam.

And here we are at the upper left of those ports:

And here’s the view from that view:

All those tunnels were/are for engineers to go through and check on the cracks, necessitated by the settling of the dam.  In the old days, they got there by descending stairs.

Hundreds and hundreds of stairs.  Have I ever mentioned my acrophobia?

And speaking of acrophobia, other than the thrill of walking across the dam itself, there’s the new bridge to deal with.  It just opened in 2010, reducing the travel time across the Colorado River on US 93 from over an hour across the dam to a minute.

Like the dam, it was designed as a tourist attraction as well as a functional thing.  There’s a walkway across the bridge accessed by a lovely entrance pavilion. It has lots of informative panels to explain the hows and whys of the building of the bridge.

And as you can tell from the photo up top, it’s high.  So I hope you appreciate the panic I had to suppress in order to take this for you:

It’s very hard to capture the wild beauty of those mountains with an iPhone, but I think this last one does.

—————

I found the pretty people in Las Vegas: there was a herd of them at the Encore Resort’s Beach Club.  Young, toned, drunk, preening… I had to wade through them to get to the spa.

Inside, the resort is gaudy/New Orleans whorehouse.  The spa is a hysterical temple to sybarism: other than the entry lobby, there was on the men’s side a “den” check-in area, a locker room, a “serenity’ room to wait calmly for your therapist, bathroom with all the necessary toiletries, showers, steam bath, sauna, giant jacuzzi pools, heated lounge chairs, and surround showers.

These last require button pushing, and since I had left my glasses in my locker I was completely unable to make them work.  I figured out the power button, and that the screen demanded that you pick some kind of setting, and which button make water come out of the rainfall shower, but that only lasted a few seconds, and I never could get the side showers to come on at all.  It was pathetically laughable.

After indulging in some of the easier-to-manage pleasures of the place, I went to the serenity room to await my Experience.  I will spare you those details, except to say that the approach to the massage room was down a walkway, surrounded by river rocks, in an enormous salon.  Paths led  off to the side to the massage rooms, and at the end was a gilded Buddha.  Mercy.

—————

While I was indulging myself, my lovely first wife was at the TixTonight booth back at the hotel, selecting a show for the ultimate Vegas experience™.  She was hoping for Cirque du Soleil’s O, at the Bellagio, but it was not available, so she went with Cirque’s Zumanity, at New York New York.  This is Cirque’s racy “exploration of sensuality.”  Hey, best of all possible shows, right?  Hot, tight athletes doing unspeakable things in acts of exquisite beauty.

Meh.  It was a bawdy cabaret with few of Cirque’s trademark features.  When we were treated to actual acts, they were gorgeous, and the clowns/zanies were consistently amusing, and our drag hostess was polished, but overall it was pretty limp, if you know what I mean and I know you do.  The commercial for the show was far more sensuous than the show itself.

Beforehand, we had strolled along the Strip, looking for something to intrigue or amuse us.  Alors, we found it not.  I did buy a new earring, having left the hotel in the morning without one and feeling naked without one.

You know how sometimes you get all excited about the debauchery you can get up to—getting thoroughly intoxicated, seeing a naughty show, getting married by Elvis, having to take a cab back to the hotel and the coming to retrieve your car in the morning—you know how much fun that is?  I’m sure it would be something really interesting to blog about. If we had done any of it.  Which we did not.

So either we’re old and boring, or Las Vegas is just an ultimately uninteresting place, awash in faux-Dionysism designed to titillate the unsophisticated.  I’m going with the latter.