"" Writer's Wanderings: October 2014

Friday, October 31, 2014

The National Park Road Trip - The Grand Finale

It has long been on my bucket list. I don't even remember when I first heard of it but when I did, it stuck with me and the desire to see it only grew. Albuquerque, New Mexico. The International Balloon Fiesta. We were here!

Neither of us slept very well at the Hometown Suites where we were staying. For one, the A/C was loud and located right in the bedroom. Who designed that?? When it was off, the room heated up even though the night was cool and we could open the windows about three inches in each room. Bob gave up and turned on the noisy A/C.

Part of not sleeping though was excitement and anticipation, I'm sure, on my part. We had to leave at 4:30 a.m. in order to arrive at the Balloon Fiesta Park some time around 5 which was suggested in order to get into the parking area on time. My wonderful husband, knowing how much this meant to me, bought us all-day tickets for the Gondola Club. It got us special close-in parking, breakfast and dinner, and a front row seat for all the festivities on the field.

A golf cart driven by a cheery volunteer (must have been a morning person) took us to the Gondola Club which was a huge tented area with chairs and tables inside and out. We checked in and were in time for the start of a fantastic buffet breakfast.

Great hot coffee helped warm us until Bob found an outdoor heater. He claimed a spot under it and I wandered down to a corner of the outdoor area nearest the temporary fence where I could set up my camera and tripod. Thanks again to my beautiful daughter-in-law, Lori, for all the suggestions for how to get good shots at the Fiesta.

In the dark of the early morning, shadowy forms began to rise from the ground and suddenly started to light up for a couple of seconds here and there. It was the early morning dawn patrol getting ready to test the winds. About a dozen lifted off the ground at about 6 a.m. and floated over our heads to the cheers of thousands on the field below us. I was in awe.

But so much more was yet to come! As dawn lightened the sky, more and more balloons began to fill and grow from the field to huge colorful objects, some round like balloons and others taking on the shape of many different characters--a beaver, a cow, Yoda, Darth Vader, Angry Bird, a fire hydrant with a little fireman soon following, dogs, cats, a witch on a broom, the list went on.

At 6:30, the Morning Glow began. Those balloons that were fully inflated began to glow with a controlled burn. The announcer would count down so that they would glow together--somewhat. That was helpful to all the photographers who had their cameras on tripods with a delayed shutter. (I've learned that hands off helps keep the camera steady while the shutter is open longer.)

Soon after, there was the playing of the National Anthem and the Fiesta Balloon rose into the sky with the flag. The music done, the balloons began the Mass Ascension. It was estimated that there would be about 600 balloons participating. The biggest year was 1,000. I wondered how in the world they would all get off the ground without running into each other.

As the balloons began to rise and the sun was high enough to dispense with the tripod since I didn't need a longer exposure for pictures, we stuffed the tripod into my backpack and walked down onto the field where the balloons were still being inflated and launched. The Mass Ascension would take about two hours.

Careful to not step on lines and stay clear of the crews, we were able to walk among the balloons and get a close up view of how the balloons were inflated. It is all done with hot air provided by the heat of propane tanks. Some of those flames seemed so big that I wondered they didn't catch the material of the balloons on fire.

Along the way we found out how the Mass Ascension was organized. There was a team of people dressed in black and white striped shirts like referees and with a big white Mickey Mouse type glove on one hand who would give the all go signal when it was safe to proceed. They were all connected by radio so that various balloons in the field were spaced far enough apart for take off. It's an amazing organization and I'm sure the 43 years of experience have lent to the success.

Crews were often dressed in themed costumes that went with their balloons. At times it almost felt like an early Halloween. Silly hats were the order of the day. And one very daring lady had a fake naked butt hanging on the outside of her jeans. She was the one of the crew who crawled under the balloon to help lift it off of the wet dewy grass. I wondered if the smooth plastic butt helped her to slide beneath the nylon.

The sky was filled with balloons before long and as the day dawned, the winds shifted a bit. Instead of passing directly over the Gondola Club, they were now veering slightly more to the East. I wondered where they would find a place to land. Albuquerque is a growing city and stretches out in all directions. This year according to new reports we'd read, they had sodded a new area that could be used for landing. We also read that a new app was made for balloon operators and tablets containing the app were handed out to balloonists to help navigate (as much as you could a balloon at the mercy of wind direction).

As the sun rose higher in the sky, we positioned ourselves with the sunlight behind us in order to enjoy the balloons more without squinting. It allowed for better pictures as well. The two hours passed quickly watching the spectacle on the ground take to the skies and soon it was obvious that not all would be airborne. The larger character balloons often don't take off but inflate just for show. They are a bit trickier to navigate.

There was still one character balloon before us that we could watch inflate and when it did, we watched delighted children get a "ride" on it. The younger ones were too short to be seen over the gondola so the owner lifted each up for a picture. The tether held the balloon just about three feet off the ground. Later we saw him take older kids up a bit higher, still tethered but about 15 feet off the ground. What a thrill for them. Appropriately the character balloon was a stork.

We found ourselves about halfway down the huge field now mostly empty of balloons and decided to walk back to the Gondola Club along Main Street. Vendors of all sorts mostly with food and souvenirs lined the street. It was like visiting the county fair back home. A larger tent held an entertainment area for bands and/or dancers.

When we got to the place where people were amassing to take the shuttle bus back to their parking areas, we were doubly thankful for the special tickets we'd gotten. The crowd was huge. Still, it was a great way to come to the Park. You could park at several designated areas a couple miles away and get a bus ride (school buses) to the Park and back to your car. The cost of a park and ride ticket was only $12-20 depending upon when you purchased it.

Back at the Gondola Club, we got another cup of coffee and used the temporary facilities set up there which were almost like a regular restroom. Another star for my husband. As we exited to rest for the evening festivities, we collected our gift, stadium seats w/blankets, and souvenir pins. We drove back to our hotel and I crashed for a couple of hours only to awake to the sounds of my husband cheering on the Buckeyes. His second treat for the day--wide screen TV for his beloved OSU Buckeye game. And they won!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The National Park Road Trip - Petrified Forest

While I'm not sure we got a great night's sleep worrying about bed bugs, we were up and thankful in the morning to not have any evidence of them. The Travelodge had breakfast included and a new item for us, a pancake machine. While we weren't ready for pancakes again, we were fascinated as we watched others make them. You push a button and inside the machine some batter is pressed between two griddles (I'm guessing) and when it's done, it slides out a small conveyor belt at the other end. Cool!

We packed up our freshly laundered clothes and headed off int he direction of the Petrified Forest National Park about a half hour drive from Holbrook. 

We reached the South Entrance and stopped by the visitor's center for a little orientation on the park. This area, although hard to believe now, was one a wetland inhabited by large reptilian dinosaurs. The conifer trees fell into the streams and they were washed to adjacent floodplains. A mix of silt, mud, and volcanic ash buried them and with the oxygen supply cut off, it delayed the decay of the logs. Silica-laden water seeped into the wood and replaced the original tissues causing the logs to be petrified. After that, continents moved, land rose, climates changed and over time wind and water wore away the layers that covered the petrified logs exposing them.

There is a whole history of human inhabitants as well. Remains of a Pueblo Village were on the list to see along the way. Sadly precious stone was also embedded in the petrified wood and when discovered, miners came and dynamited many logs to obtain the gems. Eventually, the park was established to protect what remains.
Puerco Pueblo

The road between the north and south entrances to the park is about 28 miles long with lots of interesting stops along the way and trails to explore. We passed on the trails mostly simply because of time and, let's face it, we were getting a little tired and sore from hiking so much. We did take the short trail behind the South Visitor's Center and get a close up look at the petrified wood there.

Up the road from the Center, we stopped at the Crystal Forest which apparently was quite something a while back but has been pillaged so much by visitors (even though it is illegal to take anything out of the park) that what made it look like a forest of crystal isn't there any longer.

The Agate Bridge still stands however and is supported not with a piece of concrete below it. It was once a large tree that fell across a small stream. In the really old days, you were allowed to walk across it.

Just before the Pueblo Village, we stopped to take a picture of the area called Teepees. Lots of beautiful colored layers of earth.

Old Route 66
The Puerco Pueblo is a partially stabilized 100-room village built between 1250 and 1380 and may have housed nearly 200 people. There was a short trail around the ruins and views of the petroglyphs. One of them resembled a stork carrying a baby. I smiled. That legend must really be old.

As we crossed over Route 40, we stopped to check out the old car that marked the place where the infamous Route 66 used to be. We didn't realize we were actually traveling part of it as we made our way to Albuquerque. 

Painted Desert
We stopped at a few more view points to view the Painted Desert before we got to the Painted Desert Inn. Originally the Inn was built of petrified wood but the owner, Herbert David Lore, had built it on a seam of clay and over the years as the ground swelled and moved from moisture, the foundation began to crack. Enter the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps. After the purchase of the property by the National Parks, the CCC came in and reconstructed it with an adobe style. In the 40s it was a stop along Route 66. Some of the original mural paintings by Hopi painter, Fred Kabotie, can still be seen and the dining area is still done in a 40-50s style.
Painted Desert Inn

While at the Inn, we asked about the old Route 66 and if more of it existed at the park. One of the ladies there told us to look for a dirt road marked Authorized Personnel Only before we got to the Northern Visitor Center. We couldn't drive down it but it was a part of the old 66. We found it and Bob turned into it just long enough to take a picture. As we did, our GPS registered the Route 66. It's the little things sometimes that add flavor to a trip.

We didn't linger too long in the Northern Visitor Center. We had miles to go yet before we would reach Albuquerque, NM and our final destination, The Balloon Fiesta.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The National Park Road Trip - From A Canyon To A Crater

We were out of cereal and fruit. At least that was our excuse for going to eat breakfast at the Bright Angel Lodge restaurant at the Grand Canyon before leaving. We both ordered pancakes. Mine were multi-grain, Bob’s buttermilk. It was a big stack and we almost polished them off. Then it was time for one last look at the Canyon before we headed toward civilization, Albuquerque, NM.

Because it would be a very long drive, when Bob planned our trip he decided to make a stop in Holbrook, AZ. Holbrook is near the Petrified Forest National Park and we planned to drive through that before checking into the Travelodge. As I studied the map however, I found a spot labeled Meteor Crater. Then I remembered that somewhere out here there was a crater made by a meteor thousands of years ago and decided that must be it.

Again, looking at the map, the forest was beyond Holbrook, we needed time in the afternoon to do laundry and the Meteor Crater was on the way. We decided to put off the forest for the next day and stop at the Crater instead. It was a good choice.

The cost of the Meteor Crater seemed a little steep even for us seniors @$16 each. There was a nice museum display that explained meteorites and their impact on the earth through the ages as well as other planets they have impacted. A movie was interesting in the graphic presentation of the impact of the meteor that created the huge crater.

This crater is the most preserved in the world probably because of the environment in the Arizona desert. It is estimated that 50,000 years ago a huge chunk of an asteroid broke off and hurled at 26,000 mph at the earth crashing into the Arizona desert and creating an explosion basically like those in the Nevada desert when the nuclear testing program was running. Hurricane force winds would have resulted and anything within several miles of it would have been destroyed. While early explorers of the crater dug down hoping to discover the huge meteorite that made the crater, later geologists determined that it would have broken apart into many pieces.

It was all quite interesting and brought back memories to both of us of stories and studies in school. I was a big student of space information especially where Mars was concerned. I even did a report in junior high on what space explorers would eat. It wasn’t far off of what actually happened when the space program got underway with the first flights.

The Meteor Crater courtyard also had a test module from the Apollo program. They claim the astronauts trained in the crater before going to the moon. There was also a wall honoring the astronauts in the whole of the space program. It was neat to seek out the name of the astronaut, Thomas Jones, who will be on our world cruise and whose book, Skywalking, we both read.

Lunch was had at the Subway at the Crater and then we were on our way to Holbrook. I was happy to see that the Travelodge had a guest laundry but unhappy to see that they were treating a room with heat—the kind of treatment they use for bed bugs. We inquired about it and were told that it was a precaution because they had a couple of guests who brought in all the equipment they’d used camping in the Grand Canyon. Okaaay. Do we stay or go? Well, at least we’d get the laundry done.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The National Park Road Trip - Grand Canyon Day Two

The worst part of watching the sunrise is having to get up at the crack of dawn so we chose to sleep in the next morning at the Grand Canyon. It was nice staying right in Grand Canyon Village. There was no extended travel time and no matter where you stay, you are always close to a blue line village loop. We took the blue line shuttle to the yellow line shuttle to begin our day.

The yellow line goes all the way out to a place called Yaki Point but we chose to get off at the stop just before that. There was no trail leading from Yaki back toward the village. The stop we chose, South Kaibab Trailhead, gave you a choice of two directions to hike. One was the unpaved trail that went down into the floor of the Canyon and the other, a paved trail, went toward the Visitors Center. We did look at the trail that went down but what goes down must come up again if you want to return. There was no way either of us would choose to walk a mile UP so we chose the path more traveled.

It was one mile to the next stop, Pipe Creek Vista. When we arrived, we looked at each other, nodded and continued on. The next stretch was 1.4 miles and got us to Mather Point which is right by the Visitors Center. It was a good time to take a break and decide if we could continue on. 

While we were there we decided to catch the movie shown at the Center. It was a good explanation of the formation of the Canyon and some of the sights to see plus it gave us a chance to sit and relax a bit.

Once the movie was over we took inventory. Knees, feet, calves were still good so we continued on. From Mather Point to the Geology Museum was .7 miles and at that point, the Trail of Time began. It was fascinating. Along the trail, there are markers that represent the passage of time in the creation of the Canyon and samples of the types of rocks found in the Canyon and their ages. You could really see what kind of rocks were contributing the colors and textures of the Canyon.

As we hiked, we could hear a helicopter and we finally located it below us flying a scenic route in the Canyon. It eventually landed and we could see a small figure get out. Well, that was one way to get to the floor of the canyon and not have to climb a steep trail to get out. If only I didn't mind a helicopter ride. . . 

Two miles down the trail, we were once again at the El Tovar and ready to eat. We had enjoyed the Navajo Nachos so much the day before we decided to eat lunch at the lounge again. The mistake we made was each ordering something different instead of splitting one order. Our excuse? We were hungry. My brat came with big fries and Bob’s steak tenderloin chili was almost all meat. It was too much for either of us to finish but it was very good. And you couldn’t beat the view from our table on the porch.

Phantom Ranch Lodge-stopping place on rim to rim trail.
As we ate lunch we tried to remember whether or not the walk west from the village was uphill or downhill. We chose wrong. We should have taken the red line to Powell Point and walked back to the village from there. Instead we trekked uphill to Powell, stopping a lot to take pictures—a good excuse to catch our breath. The walk here gave us a good view of the village and of course another excuse to take a picture while we caught our breath again.

Grand Canyon Village
Reservations for dinner at the restaurant at El Tovar were made two days previously so we got a little better time, 5:15. By the time we got back on the shuttle from the end of our walk, we had just about time to shower and dress and make our reservation time. Our table wasn’t as close to the window as before but our dinner more than made up for that. After our big lunch neither of us was that hungry so we asked if we could split a dinner and our waiter was very gracious about it. We ordered the duck (a half duck) with orange sauce. It came with rice and beans and a variety of veggies. The waiter even split the entrĂ©e for us. It was perfect and tasted heavenly.

Our day so far had been very successful. We had finished hiking all 12+ miles of paved trails and enjoyed two wonderful meals. There was only one thing that would make it perfect. Pictures of the night sky.

I began to text my daughter-in-law, the photographer in the family, and she graciously gave me a starting point with suggestions for f-stops, shutter speed and ISO settings. Once I figured out how to set them all on the camera and put it on the tripod we were ready to try again to capture the night sky’s jewels.

We set up in a dark spot on the rim trail near the lodge and tried the first shot. I was so excited I almost jumped up and down. You don’t want to do that near the rim. 

We made a few more adjustments testing what worked best and managed several really good shots. The moon was bright enough that it lit the Canyon just enough to show in the pictures along with the stars. It would have been nice to capture the Milky Way but even to our eye, the moon was so bright that the MW got washed out. Still, I did it!! Success! Many thanks to my photographer daughter-in-law, Lori. Her patience was much appreciated and rewarded with the pictures I got. Take a look below.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The National Park Road Trip - Grand Canyon

Of course we couldn’t visit the Grand Canyon without viewing at least one sunrise so we awoke early at 5:45 and dressed warmly. The temps were into the 40s at night and it was a chilly morning. Many were gathered at the rim on the side of the El Tovar Lodge, holding their coffees in one hand and cameras in the other. We watched as the sun came up and began to light the walls of the canyon. When we’d had enough and were chilled, we returned to the room—Bob back to bed and me to the computer to catch up on recording our trip.

Looking across to North Rim 18 miles away
After a bowl of cereal and some fruit along with a shot of caffeine we were ready to begin our first hike. The parks all have these nice newspaper sized guides that include great maps and information. Using ours for the Grand Canyon, we had looked at the three different shuttle routes that would take us where we wanted to go. To the east was the orange route and to the west was the red route and in between was the blue which connected all the hotels and village facilities and connected you to the outer shuttles.

We chose to make our first trip out in the red shuttle area and walked to where the red shuttle began not far from the lodge. You can opt to get off at each stop/viewpoint and look around then board the next bus which should arrive about 15 minutes later. We decided to ride it all the way to Monument Creek Vista where a paved trail would take us all the way to the end of the shuttle run at Hermit’s Rest. The trek would be about three miles but at the end of it we promised ourselves a snack at the snack bar and a ride back on the shuttle.

California Condor
The walk was wonderful. Fresh air and beautiful scenery and with the sun at our backs and beginning to warm the air a bit, it was refreshing. I was snapping picture after picture and wondering what I was going to do with them all. The most difficult thing was to try to capture the depth and breadth of the canyon. The canyon is 277 miles long, 18 miles wide at its widest point and a mile or more deep. Next to impossible to portray in a photo.

When we made it to Hermits Rest, we headed for the snack shop and as we rounded the corner, I could smell chocolate—fresh baked chocolate. Who knew there would be homemade cookies all the way out there! We split a sandwich and got two coffees to go with our cookies. Best reward for a long hike, right next to the views of course.

Arriving back at the lodge, we noticed that the Grand Canyon Train was in. It arrives daily around eleven in the morning and leaves again just before four. That also happens to be the busiest hours around the Grand Canyon Village as that is about the same time the tour buses arrive. The train comes from Williams, Arizona, on a daily basis. There are several different packages available to choose from for the trip and you can find information about it at their website, Grand Canyon Railway and Hotel. The train has been running since 1901 and one of the original steam engines is on display at the train station in the village.

After a short rest, feet up, we decided to go to the lounge to get a drink and a snack. We ended up with a nice plate of Navajo Nachoes which we devoured (guess the hiking makes you hungry) and then we were off again for an afternoon trek. This time we went out to the yellow line and got off at Mather Point and walked to the Geology Museum at Yavapai Point—about .7 mile on a paved walkway. I was getting spoiled with all these paved walkways.

The Geology Museum was what you would expect, showing the evolution of the canyon and the elements that make up the walls and of course the variety of colors and layers of stone.
Back on the bus and back to the lodge for a shower and another feet up rest and we were ready to take on dinner at the Bright Angel Lodge. We ate in the more casual restaurant and enjoyed a quiet time rehashing what we’d seen and what was yet to be seen.

Notice the people on the cliff edge. 
Bob still had enough energy to go to one of the ranger programs that centered on the history of the Canyon told through the works of art by many different artists through the years. He was very impressed with the information. When he returned we tried unsuccessfully once again to take a picture of the night sky. Where could I find out how to capture the jewels that sparkled in that clear night sky? A thought suddenly occurred but with the time difference it was too late to follow up. Tomorrow I would for sure.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The National Park Road Trip - Zion to Grand Canyon

Zion Canyon from Overlook
From Zion we were to visit the Grand Canyon. As I awoke that morning, I wondered if the Grand Canyon would live up to its name. So far, we had seen so many wonderful scenes and interesting formations and flowers and animals and. . .the list went on. Would the Grand Canyon be a disappointment?

The morning drive took us back through Route 9 that we had traversed in the pouring rain just two days ago. Gone were many of the waterfalls we’d seen along the way. In their place were long streaks of black where they’d been. There was one more hike we wanted to take before leaving Zion that was said to be moderate with long drop offs mostly fenced. You never know what you’re getting into exactly but we geared up and took off.
The Canyon Overlook Trail was just past the long tunnel with the parking lot being on the right so catching this on the way out seemed to be the way to go. Yes, On the trail there were long drop offs. Some had handrails but there were a few spots where there was just enough space for one person at a time. Thrilling. The view at the end was worth the trip though. It was a great opportunity to view the canyon from the top.

As we were leaving, we passed a couple with two young children who were about six and three. I just shook my head. Did they not read the literature? Or maybe they just stopped and didn’t check. This was no place for little ones to hike.

As we were about to get in our car we realized that people were photographing something on a ledge just above the street. Sure enough, two bighorn rams sat there watching the morning traffic pass below them.

Arizona Scenic Route 89
There were two ways to get to the Grand Canyon from Zion. Both were Route 89 but on the map, one was marked as the scenic route. We chose that one and were happy with our choice. Several vistas were worth a stop for a picture as we headed into Arizona and through the flat desert between red tinged mesas.

Before long we arrived at the first viewpoint for the Grand Canyon. It’s called Desert View at the east entrance to the Grand Canyon National Park. There is a huge visitor center there but we scurried past it to get our first view of the canyon. Again, “Wow!” was all I could say. The next thought was so that’s why it’s called “grand.” It was already living up to its name.

Absolutely Grand!
The afternoon was waning and we still had twenty-five miles to drive to the El Tovar Lodge in the park where we were booked for three nights. This was one time we were truly glad to have a GPS. Once you enter Grand Canyon Village, finding your way around “the loop” is a bit overwhelming. With our lady’s helpful directions, we made our way to El Tovar but found our next challenge in trying to park. The lot closest to the lodge was full and we could find nothing that indicated a place for hotel guests. We would learn that it was pretty much a free-for-all and once we found a spot, we didn’t plan to move until time to leave.

Our room was on the terrace level which sounded lovely but actually was just a label for that level of the lodge. There was no terrace and our window looked out into a small hillside topped by the lodge’s driveway. The El Tovar was built in 1905 and was a premier spot to stay back then. It was designed in a European fashion said to appeal to the upper crust of the times who thought that anything European was the best. It was designed as a cross between a Swiss chalet and a Norwegian Villa. Built from local limestone and Oregon pine at a cost of $250,000, it was considered the most elegant hotel west of the Mississippi. Theodore Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, Zane Grey, Bill Clinton, and Paul McCartney are among the list of celebrities who have stayed there. In 1987, it was placed on the registry of historic places.

El Tovar Lodge
Our room had obviously been upgraded since 1905 and probably more than once but it maintained the look of the period with a black and white hexagonal tiled floor in the bathroom and a free standing sink adorned with Kohler fixtures resembling the period or a close facsimile. We showered and dressed in our casuals for dinner in the restaurant which had to be at 4:45 since everything else was booked until nine p.m. That worked just fine since we’d gained an hour from Zion and it was dinnertime anyway.

Our view of the canyon from the second row of tables by the window was great. I’d like to say my chicken piccata was too but it wasn’t what I had envisioned. Bob enjoyed his pasta dish and we both ate too many warm tasty rolls.

The advantage of eating early was that we were ready for the sunset which came at around 6:15 local time. By now we had learned that it’s not really the sun setting that you want to see but rather the rays of the sun reflecting off the multi-colored cliffs of a canyon. The Grand didn’t disappoint. It was a lovely evening display.

Grand sunset
This park, like Zion, has shuttles and is really the best way to get around although it can be a little slow. But remember that parking? You don’t want to give up a spot. Needing to get some orange juice and milk for our breakfast in the morning (we try to cut corners where we can) we boarded a shuttle for the market plaza that was near the campgrounds. In about 25 minutes we were there. The trip would have been short in a car—provided we didn’t get lost in all the confusing one ways and loops and found a parking place again.

By the time we got back to the El Tovar, it was very dark. There were more lights around the area than had been at Bryce Canyon but we walked to the rim anyway to look at the stars. They were still spectacular. Only now, days later, the light of the moon was beginning to wash out the Milky Way. I was determined now though. This would probably be my last chance to get a picture of the night sky. I vowed to try again the next night. Would I be successful?

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