Tuesday, 29 September 2009

South West USA: From Capitol to Bryce

As promised: a little entry about our day between Torrey and Zion Canyon which held two (!) National Parks in itself namely Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon. Both of them still in red rock country, and both of them very beautiful in their own way.

Capitol Reef is named ‘reef’ because it is really a long fold in the landscape, like a ridge or reef. (At least, I think that’s why.) Before we have always driven through the topmost point of it, from Hanksville to Torrey, on our way from here to there. We have good memories from Torrey so it is a logical place for us to stop.

The good memories from Torrey? Okay: the first time we were there we arrived late in the evening and everything was really dark. It was me, my guy, his brother, and a friend. The guy’s brother and me went into the lobby to find out if they had a room for us. There was a man before us, discussing rooms with the lady behind the counter. He travelled with his family with two kids or so. He looked very tired. The lady explained to him that she had rooms downstairs or up on the second floor where he would have a better view. The man sighed, thought for a bit (probably about his family, the suitcases, etc.) and said Ah, screw the view! I’ll take downstairs! “Screw the view” became a bit of a household expression after that. At the lobby (where we got the upstairs rooms, obviously) we found out that we had travelled into ‘mountain time’ meaning we had only 30 minutes left to have dinner in the restaurant across the street. Two women were playing country music as we ate our steaks. The following morning the to-be-screwed view presented itself to us: it was absolutely stunning!

Back to 2009. Since the cross-country drive the previous day had been cut short due to the weather (see earlier entry) we drove into the north side of the park and did the scenic drive. Quite a beautiful bit there, along the river. Theoretically it would have been possible to continue down the small, unpaved road to the south, on towards the highway, but we were cut short by a small stream. The stream itself we could have tackled, but not the steep bank on the other side of it. The Aspen was not a proper 4-wheel-drive, you see? Having little desire of tearing the underside of our car out, we doubled back.

Did you know that large portions of the American landscape are preserved just for the silence and tranquility of the place. Quiet as a natural resource. I know they're trying to do it in the Netherlands, but it just. isn't. the same. ("I can see Germany from my house!!!")

Bryce Canyon is on the way between Capitol Reef and Zion Canyon. It is very different from either of those though, in fact very different from most parks. The main attraction is the ‘amphitheatre’, a grand bowl of weird rocks and spires called ‘hoodoos’. Everything is a pinkish kind of orange. It is a very strange landscape and you have to see it to believe it. Which is why we also hiked into the canyon (and out again obviously) to be in the middle of it. My mom, not a good climber, huffed and puffed a bit on the way but overall she did really well, that was encouraging for hikes in Zion Canyon.

As we drove into the eastern part of Zion Canyon at the end of the afternoon we spotted some bighorn sheep. We had never seen those in the wild before. It was a beautiful sight. The rams (two) kept a watchful eye over the flock and we had plenty of time to admire their curved horns. Watch a short video of the sheep (actually they’re goats, technically speaking…) here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RcI8BIpQzoY.

Monday, 28 September 2009

South West USA: Colorado encounter


My father had spotted a good hat and decided to buy it. We went into the ‘sports shop’ which held all kinds of gear for outdoors activities: clothing and flashlights, but also knives and fishing rods. A row of hunting rifles and guns was displayed just behind the long counter.
The man behind the counter was in a good mood. He explained to everyone who passed by that it was wonderful how Talk Like a Pirate Day fell on the same day as Jewish new year, and greeted everyone with ARRRR! Oy!

When it was my turn I told him Arrrr! and said “Hold on sir, I have something to show you” before conjuring up the Dread Pirate Gavroche from my bag.

He was delighted. Would it be alright if I took a picture of the pirate in front of the rifles? It would be fine. In fact, the man would pose with the pirate himself! He did, once in front of the rack and once while holding the rifle with the pirate on top.

He told my parents about the gun laws in the United States and Colorado in particular. (Colorado is an ‘open gun’ state which means that you don’t need a permit as long as you carry the weapon visibly for everyone. Colorado is the state with the highest ‘concealed weapon’ permit percentage of the US.)

He had obviously told Europeans before because he also told us about the differences and history between the continents. You see, he said, the gun policies in Europe are different because historically the royalty wanted to keep firearms for themselves. The US, he explained, never had this kind of history. In fact, the US was a nation built on guns. Therefore, gun control was silly.
As he positioned the Dread Pirate on top of the rifle and posed proudly, I said to him: “Only in America!” He agreed.

(Stay updated on the Pirate's adventures through his very own blog on http://dreadpirategavroche.blogspot.com)

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

South West USA: Trails and trials

Oof, tough decision. Do I fill you folks in on what happened between Sedona and Durango, or do I tell you about yesterday's weirdness? I fear that the Grand Canyon is going to lose out on this one. Could I appease the gods of continuity by making a summary?

Here it comes!

After we left Sedona and the stunningly beautiful Oak Creek Canyon we drove up north to the Grand Canyon. We arrived at the South rim just as the last rays of daylight hit the rocks. The sun sets so much earlier here than in Holland at this time of year, since it is much more south, so we are constantly aware that we need to be at a certain point at a certain time if we're going to enjoy the views. In case of the Grand Canyon, that is totally worth it.
The hotel was not very good, the restaurant was not good at all. (It was The Grand.)

The day after that was a full one indeed. It was our longest drive of the whole vacation, over 400 miles, and packed with activities on the way. The Grand Canyon was neat of course but we (the man and me) have been in that area several times but never managed to see Antelope Canyon... We tried last time but there was danger of flash floods so we couldn't go in. This time we did. That meant getting into the back of a jeep with Henry the Navajo guide, a bumpy ride through soft sand, and waiting for other people to satisfy their photo urges. Because Antelope Canyon is really a photographer's dream. Gods how I missed my wonderful camera!

But! No time to ponder!

The trip to Antelope Canyon took us more time than expected, meaning that we had to make our way to Durango in only the afternoon. It was a looong drive. Coming up to Colorado (driving through New Mexico, our third state on the trip not counting the Detroit transfer...) we ran into the most dramatic rainstorm yet. It was amazing. The rain came down like a heavy curtain, making it almost impossible to see the road. Luckily it got better as we came into Durango and could look for our hotel in peace. We found it: a beautiful place where we got _the last two rooms_. We had decided the night before to book in advance anyway, because it seemed online that Durango was pretty full. It was. But it was great fun – as you could read in my previous entry.

Leaving Durango. The road down from the Rockies into Utah is beautiful. There is no other word. You pass through so many different landscapes, it is mindboggling. The space! THE SPACE!

*Let me tell you something about space. Coming from a person who was born in Haarlem and moved to Amsterdam about 20 kilometres down the road. A person who travels between Holland's two main cities. A person who has cycled around the 'quieter' bits of the Netherlands. Here it is: _anyone who says that the Netherlands has empty, quiet, peaceful spots too... IS LYING._ There is no emptiness over there, not like here. Illustration of 'space' in SW USA: from Capitol Reef you can see for 285 kilometres into the distance. That would mean that I would see Germany from my house...*

We did a novel thing on the way: we took the ferry across Lake Powell. That was nice. Up to that point, everything was peachy. From that point something went wrong. We tried to go over the pass in the south of Capitol Reef NP. This was marked as having unpaved roads with a bit of shallow water to go through (our Aspen had enough clearance for that!) and steep switchbacks. Okay, no problem. Except that we encountered extremely bad weather just as we reached the first peak. First hard rain was falling, then hailstones started hammering our windows. We had stopped the car at this point because it was really not safe to drive, and we couldn't see an inch in front of us. The storm rocked our (heavy and heavily packed!) car back and forth like a cheap shed. Since we didn't know the state of the switchbacks in front of us and the red dirt around us was quickly turning into mud streams, we decided to turn around and head back the way we came. The road was flooded more deeply now, but more risky were the mudstreams across the road here and there. We made it back to the main road and continued down to Hanksville. It was a strange experience up there, especially since about twenty minutes later we were driving down the plains in bright sunlight. Summer was back, the winter storm a thing of the past.

In the evening we arrived in Torry after a beautiful drive through Capitol Reef. The hotel had only two rooms left but they weren't finished yet. So we had to wait. The restaurant had no tables (!) so we had to wait. We ordered drinks but there were no glasses left (!!) so we had to wait. The silverware was in the dishwasher (!!!) so we had to wait. The waitress offered us some bread but it was still in the oven (!!!!) so we had to wait. Did we have to wait long for dinner? Yah: !!!!!

And now we are in Zion Canyon. I will tell you more about the trip here, with visits to Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon, later. Probably. We hit a new state today: Utah. And it feels SO GOOD to be in Zion Canyon again.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

South West USA: From canyons to mountains

So far so good. Maybe I should do a bit of travel updating to let you know where we are now, at this moment. After Sedona we drove to Grand Canyon, and after that past Antelope Canyon (Page) all the way to the Rockies. We are now in Durango, Colorado. This is the land that is shown in pictures and movies about the Wild West. This is where the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was shot. Durango is an old mining town with nineteenth-century buildings, like the saloon, and nice little shops that are not part of a chain.

Of course a lot of it is touristy but not all and some quaint little gems can be found. For example yesterday I walked into a tiny little bookshop. The proprietors (a past-their-middle-age couple who looked like they had a full life, so to speak) were sitting outside on a bench. The lady told me “go on in, there's three rooms in there!” in an accent I had so far heard chiefly from Cletus of the Simpsons. (I could be wrong but that's what it sounds like to eurotrash like me.) There were three rooms in there, small ones packed to the ceiling with second hand books: romance novels, classics, childrens books from the fifties, how-to books about everything from fixing lawnmowers to finding spiritual enlightenment, science fiction and gardening. And pretty much everything else, in varying states of use, wear and tear, with beautiful old binding or cheap paperbacks for $2.95 (Much Ado about Nothing).

I had wandered into this shop as my man was checking out the bike shop across the road. Durango was the location this weekend of the mountainbike race called Singlespeed World Championship (SSWC). Singlespeed is a highly specific subculture of mountainbiking which is quite a subculture in itself. It means that the bike have no gears... Everywhere around town there are bikes, bikes, bikes. Most of them pretty expensive ones with the gears torn off. Many bikes have extraordinarily large tires to tackle the obstacles on the way, tyres up to 29 inches and we even saw a 36''.

The mountainbiking culture includes rowdy drunkenness, witnessed by us upon arrival in Durango on Thursday evening. The hangover (for them, not for us!) was Friday morning, registration for the race on Friday afternoon, the party (for them, not for us!) on Friday evening. The race was on Saturday. I have no idea who won. I believe you're not supposed to take it very seriously anyway.

Our Saturday consisted of a train ride on the historical Durango-Silverton line, up the mountains. We had booked it in advance and the views were indeed quite stunning. Especially my father enjoyed the trip very much. It was something else.

From here we will leave in the direction of Zion Canyon. I will keep you updated, of course. I obviously also have other tales to tell: my last entry left us in Sedona so I owe you a bit of travel log. I promise to write it for you. After all, you can't just skip the Grand Canyon, can you? You can't. So I will be back. But now I need to sleep: we leave tomorrow at 7:30 – and I am not much of a morning person. :)

Friday, 18 September 2009

South West USA: Emptiness and full days

I love the desert. I can't put it any other way. If it weren't for the spiders living there, I'd adore it even more. We drove from San Diego past LA to Joshua Tree National Park and there is something very soothing about leaving the hubbub of cities behind and meeting nothing but boulders, sand, cacti and the occassional crawling insect beyond the stretches of civilization. In my Japan Diaries I reported about the cultivated emptiness of the Zen Buddhist temples – this is a natural void that is extremely good for my soul.

We each have our own aims in this trip. For my parents it is very much a vacation of a lifetime. It is something they would not have done on their own, at least not in this way, and each corner or turning holds new surprises for them. They also have their little things to do along the way. One of them is making a picture of one of those immense trucks on the US highways, for a neighbour who loves trucks. This means that we all have our eyes peeled for big shiny trucks all the time. It's like a group hobby.

My own aims, apart from just having a good time and generally soothing my soul, include taking pictures with the Dread Pirate and Jack Sparro, as well as gathering material for the blog. This is easily done since the whole point of the blog is to tell what my experiences are. However, I have encountered a slight snag. Let me elaborate a little.

This blog is written in English for a reason: many of my readership reads English. This is because many of my readers are, not to put too fine a point to it, Americans and therefore the very people I meet here every day. And while my Japan tales were a lot about the funny cultural stuff I encountered along the way... _You see the challenge ahead?_ It is just strange to write about weirdness of people when I know those very people will read them. (And probably comment, knowing y'all.) Besides, while a lot of it _is_ weird to me (sorry folks), it seems a little arrogant to write them out like this to you. Then again, us Dutchies are not exactly weird-free either, and I would be more than willing to admit that. I'll probably start. So I'm taking all this (weak argumentation) as a reason to take some liberties. Hope you will forgive me, and that you know I don't mean to dis anything or anyone. It's just that, well, you folks are funny. Keep this in mind, 'kay? 'Kay.

Having said that...
(After all, this is the country of disclaimers. "Careful! Beverage may be hot!" I hope so, I ordered hot tea.)
Having said this...

We slept in Blythe, CA, which is a remarkably unremarkable town and drove on to Sedona, AZ, which is a stunningly gorgeous place. It was our intention to drive right ahead the next day, after our night in Hotel Matterhorn (yes, really, Matterhorn), but we decided to offer my mum and dad a helicopter ride over the area. This was a bit of a 'thing' because on Tuesday evening, in the saloon restaurant, my mother declared that she would never ever ride one of those things. Ever. Yet on Wednesday morning, after a bit of private deliberation, we cheerfully invited them anyway. My father's eyes instantly started to shine, and although the guy and me really tried and tried we couldn't stop ourselves from being enthusiastic either. It was sheer peer pressure. Hah!

We did the helicopter ride. My mother sat in front. She loved it. My father said 'Incredible!' about fifteen times. We loved it, flying over the red rocks, sweeping over the vast planes and diving prodding into the little canyons.

The rest of the day included an Oak Creek Canyon hike of about four hours (it was supposed to be two and a half but we accidentally walked way past the end of the trail) and a long drive through beautiful country to Grand Canyon. We arrived just as the last rays of sun were on the canyon rims. It was a wonderful day.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

South West USA: Starting the adventures

Well, here we are! In the South West of the USA: me, my guy and my parents. So far it has been a wonderful trip. The fact that I have had very little opportunity so far to write is indicative of how busy we have been. Travelling with a larger group (i.e. 4 instead of 2) is of course less flexible and means that everything takes a little longer than usual. So less time on the internets!

But: to keep you updated! We started the vacation with a very long travel day of course. The flight was eight hours to Detroit and then another four to LA. We had only an hour and a half for transfer on Detroit and I had been a little nervous about that because sometimes it takes ages to get through customs to the US. And we were flying on 9/11... Luckily this time everything went very smoothly. The Homeland Security people were practically waiting for us to go through (not like the endless lines we have had before) and the suitcase were picked up and dropped off again very quickly too. We are on American soil.

Once in LA we picked up the (huge!) car at the airport. I'm sure any Americans (this includes Canada) reading this will not be very impressed with the size of the car but for Dutch standards it's enormous. (For the fans: it's a Chrysler Aspen.) It is also comfortable which is how we like it. And so we ended up in San Diego, after a loooong day: we travelled with the sun so September 11th 2009 held an extra nine hours for us.

You would think this would inspire us to take it easy once arrived. Yeah... kind of. We fell into our beds that night for sure but woke up very early of course and arrived at San Diego Zoo at nine, just as it opened. San Diego Zoo is the best in the world I have seen so far. We all loved it. And just our luck: as we passed by the gazelles and giraffes (in one pen), we noticed that one of the gazelles was about to give birth. We stood there for an hour and a half and only left when the newborn little one could almost stand up on its wobbly legs. Amazing.

When you need to relax, spending an entire day walking around an enormous zoo can only do so much. We were absolutely knackered on Saturday night. Needless to say we hit the sack pretty early again.

Relaxing is very easy, however, on an early-morning sunbathing terrace by the Hotel del Coronado by San Diego Bay. Cup of coffee, some muffins, lounge chairs... Life can be really good sometimes. We spent the rest of the day playing in the ocean (with dolphins about 50 yards away from us!), visiting the Old Town (where my father picked up some tobacco) and going to electronics stores. You see, I had forgotten to bring the charger for my photo camera. Yeah: stupid! We went to every conceivable store: nada. They probably don't carry the same type of batteries here as in Europe, even within the same camera brand (Panasonic). Since nowadays I can hardly live a day without my camera, we decided in the end to buy a new one. A shock-proof one so my man can take it with him when he goes biking.

This means that you should all have no fear: the Dread Pirate's blog as well as Jack Sparro's adventures are visually recorded and will be updated! (Check them out on http://dreadpirategavroche.blogspot.com and http://crittertravels.blogspot.com.)

We left San Diego for the desert on the third day of our vacation. (Fourth if you count getting there.) I will dedicate a separate entry to going inland, meeting the desert, and hitting red rock country. For now, since the jetlag is still there in my veins: goodnight!

Pictures will be uploaded in due course. Of course the new camera (Olympus) has a different type of memory card, a kind that does not fit into the computer… yada yada yada, blah blah blah. Why these things are not standardized, I really don’t know. Stupid…

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

South West USA - Prelude

(I solemnly promise any further entries will be less sappy.)

My parents' neighbour is going to take care of the little birds while we are away. I have neighbours I will ask to take care of the mail and the plants but I don't want to burden them with the daily care for the little critters. My parents' neighbours are retired and they really don't mind.

And so today my father came with his car to pick them up. We took the water and seeds out, the sand was already out, then we put a cloth over the cage against the wind and rolled it out into the elevator. The budgies don't like the cloth over the cage, it often gets them in a panic. They were a bit quiet at first, in the car on the way over they started to chat a bit again. That was reassuring, I didn't want them to freak out too much.

Once at my parents' home they were put right in front of the kitchen window. I refilled the seeds, gave them some water, put the sand back in the bottom drawer, and even gave them some extra gierst (foxtail millet). The green one (the girl called Aagje) immediately hopped onto my arm again and started biting me, as she usually does. She's not really hostile, just.. um.. snappy. Blue Mr. Koekepeertje (you'd understand if you saw him - and were Dutch) is not so brave, he stays away.

And now I am home again, and they are in my parents' kitchen, and my house is so empty all of a sudden! It's incredible. We've had the birds not even for a year yet but I'm already so attached to them. I am so used to hearing them do their little things and make their little noises. And big noises, BIG noises too.

They are loud. They make a mess. You can't cuddle them or take them for a walk outside. They don't like being petted. They don't come running to your door when you come home. They wake you up at the first light of dawn. Besides that all they do is make noise and mess, and sit on your arm or head and mess up your hair.

I miss my budgies. Already.