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November 1, 2006

Southwest Odyssey

Dr. Dregs and I have just returned from the first "real" vacation we've had in a number of years: we roadtripped from Minneapolis to Phoenix and back, stopping to visit several national parks and passing through many other scenic places along the way. Going back to October 21st, the first day of our trip, I have written about our journey and my impressions of it, including a few of the photos we took. This is an area of the country that neither of us had ever traveled to before, so these are first impressions of places that we feel sure we'd like to return to someday.

My descriptions of most of the sights we saw have ended up relying on the same overused, trite language that is always used to describe this area of the country. But sometimes -- as in the case of the Southwest -- the language is always the same because it fits the area so well. I don't claim to offer anything new or especially insightful here, but I wanted to document our trip both for ourselves and for others who might be interested. With that, I give you the trip:

Day 1: Minneapolis to Southern Nebraska
Day 2: Nebraska to Moab, Utah
Day 3: Arches National Park
Day 4: Canyonlands National Park and Monument Valley
Day 5: Monument Valley to the Grand Canyon
Day 6: Grand Canyon
Day 7-8: Phoenix
Day 9: Phoenix to Santa Fe, New Mexico
Day 10-11: Santa Fe to Minneapolis

Posted by at 10:39 PM · Travels

October 26, 2006

Southwest Odyssey: Day 6

I open my eyes at 6:20 AM, just about ten minutes before sunrise. At first, I'm not sure where I am (a hazard of the road trip). Then I remember that we're staying in a hotel on the rim of the Grand Canyon. Right, then! We need to go watch the sunrise. I poke Doc Dregs to wake him up, and we both quickly pull on some clothes and head outside.

It's a very cold morning (about 19 degrees), but all of yesterday's clouds are gone, and the sky is completely clear. There are a few other people out and about, but everyone's pretty quiet because of the early hour. We walk a short distance east until we find a spot that satisfies us, then we settle in to watch the early morning sunlight play across the formations in the Canyon.

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It is beautiful, but we are both freezing. After a while, we decide we've had enough and go in search of coffee and a quick breakfast. Back in our room, we shower, dress, and pack as quickly as we can. We are planning to make the hike today that the weather deprived us of yesterday (partway down the South Kaibab Trail), and we want to get started as soon as possible. Once we've checked out of the hotel, we need to catch a shuttle bus to the visitor center, where we'll have to catch another shuttle bus to the trailhead. It's a pretty tedious way to travel a relatively short distance, but the crowds are so large here that the shuttle buses are an absolute necessity. Even today, when the park is relatively uncrowded, parking spaces in many lots are few and far between. A mass-transit system for Grand Canyon is in the works, but won't be complete any time soon. For about the tenth time since arriving here less than 24 hours ago, we vow never to visit here in the summer.

I'm very excited and a little apprehensive about the hike we're about to undertake. The National Park Service works very hard to inform prospective hikers into the Canyon about what they're getting themselves into. They want you to know that "hiking in Grand Canyon is not like hiking anywhere else," and to remember that "what goes down, must come up." Scary warning signs are posted prominently at the trailheads to ensure that hikers carry adequate water and food, and that they know just how exorbitant the costs are in the unhappy event that they should have to be Medevac-ed out of the Canyon. I'm not really expecting anything we can't handle on a 3-mile hike in sunny, 45-degree weather, but all the warnings do give one pause.

We venture down the trail. It is steep -- very steep. Going downhill is easy, in a way, but it's hard on the knees and leg muscles, and the steepness means that we have to work hard to control our descent. The South Kaibab Trail is one of the "corridor trails" into the Canyon (like the more famous and more heavily-traveled Bright Angel Trail) that people have used for centuries to travel from the rim to the floor of the Canyon. The South Kaibab is shorter than the Bright Angel, reaching the bottom (a descent of over 5000 feet) in only 6 miles. But because of the shorter distance, the trail is also steeper. The initial descent follows a series of steep switchbacks, which look pretty impressive from below:

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We have chosen this trail over the Bright Angel despite the fact that it's likely to be a bit more strenuous because of the supposedly excellent views, and we are not disappointed. Our goal is Cedar Ridge, 1.5 miles in (and 1140 feet down), which is the recommended turn-around point for day hikers. An earlier turn-around point is almost a mile in, and we plan to go that far before deciding for certain whether to continue to Cedar Ridge or not. On the way down, there are plenty of gorgeous views to enjoy; the Canyon looks very different "from the inside," even this near the rim.

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At the first stopping point, we meet a group of older women who, we learn, are from Minnesota. They are the first fellow Minnesotans we have met on the trip, and they are friendly, chatty, and in very high spirits. They are planning to turn back, but once they have determined that we are carrying water and food, they encourage us to go on. After a break and a snack, we decided we're up for it, and continue downward. It's not long before Cedar Ridge is in sight, but it still seems like a long way down there:

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When we finally make it Cedar Ridge, we find a comfy rock to sit on, and we have something to eat and drink while we try to take in the unbelievable scenery. We see a number of small parties of backpackers on their way in or out of the Canyon, and Doc Dregs decides that we should come back someday and backpack here. I encourage him to wait until we've made it back to the rim before declaring that we're ready for that.

The hike out of the Canyon is difficult and strenuous, and we stop frequently to enjoy the views and catch our breath. Although the ascent is challenging, it isn't as bad as I expected it to be; it's actually easier on my knees and feet than was going down. The weather helps: it is cool and sunny, which means that we're neither overheated nor cold. Doc Dregs looks awfully perky as we get close to the rim:

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We are tired when we emerge from the Canyon, but we feel pretty good otherwise, and we are pleased to find that the return journey took us only an hour and a half when we expected it to take two hours.

There is one more area we want to explore before we leave Grand Canyon, and that is the road and viewpoints to the west toward Hermit's Rest, another historic building on the rim. It is from these western viewpoints that we will get our first glimpses of the Colorado River as it flows through the Canyon. We take a shuttle bus as far as Pima Point, and we hike the mile west from there to Hermit's Rest, stopping to appreciate the views of the river along the way.

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After stopping for a few moments at Hermit's Rest to, well, rest, we board a shuttle bus for Grand Canyon Village to retrieve our trusty little car. The daylight is fading fast, and we have 220 miles to drive to Phoenix tonight. This is sadly the end of the vacation portion of the trip for me, since I'll be attending the OLAC conference in Phoenix for the next couple of days. Doc Dregs, however, will still be on holiday, and has plans to keep himself entertained while I am busy.

On our drive southward, we can't stop talking about the amazing things we've seen. This trip has already changed us in some ways. We're much more eager to spend time outdoors and spend time in places of natural beauty. After our time at Canyonlands, we were determined to return there someday, and we feel the same way about the Grand Canyon. The crowds and the hassle can't ruin the experience of the Canyon; it's too beautiful and too overwhelming. We will go back someday - possibly on Doc Dregs's backpacking trip (but never in the summer!)

Unfortunately, because darkness falls so early this time of the year, we don't get to see much of anything on our drive southward, but we amuse ourselves by watching the car's outdoor temperature indicator gradually increase. When we leave Grand Canyon, the temperature is 46 degrees. A few hours later, when we arrive at our hotel in Phoenix, it is 70 degrees. It feels good to be in the warm weather after the chilly air at the Grand Canyon, but I feel as if I've just reluctantly returned to earth after a sojourn on a high, lovely cloud. We know that Phoenix has its charms as well, and we look forward to discovering a few of them over the next couple of days.

Posted by at 11:52 PM · Travels

October 25, 2006

Southwest Odyssey: Day 5

Day 5 of our trip is another flexible day; we have a hotel reservation tonight in Flagstaff, Arizona, but we have deliberately left our plans for what to do on the way there open. We consider checking out the Monument Valley Tribal Park (Monument Valley sits on Navajo Nation lands), but after the last two days in Arches and Canyonlands, we have been bitten by the hiking bug and are less interested in simply seeing the sights from a vehicle, which our guidebooks indicate is the primary method of exploring the tribal park. We consider simply heading straight for Flagstaff, to spend some time there with a possible side trip down to Sedona, and we are about to strike out in that direction when Doc Dregs says, "How far are we from the Grand Canyon?" Much to my surprise, he adds, "I've never been there." It's amazing the things you don't know about someone even after 10 years together.

I consult my map, and discover that in fact, we can easily get to Grand Canyon in a couple of hours, have time to take in the view and possibly do a little hiking, then drive to Flagstaff. I feel a little (okay, a lot) silly for not considering this while planning the trip. After all, I've never been to the Grand Canyon, either. But somehow, I had placed it too far west on my mental map, and thought it was too far out of our way. The guidebook we've relied on most, Lonely Planet Southwest USA, tells us that "visiting Arizona without seeing the Grand Canyon is like leaving your house without shoes," and we decide that we had better seize the opportunity before us and just go there. We say our farewells to Monument Valley, taking a few more pictures before we hit the road into Arizona.

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Our drive takes us through the western portion of the Navajo Nation and the northwestern corner of The Painted Desert. The evolution and diversity of the landscape as we've traveled southward from Arches and the Moab area continues to astonish us: as we noticed yesterday in our Canyonlands excursion, the scenery is the same, and yet not the same. When we turn west, we catch a few glimpses of the Little Colorado River, and start to get excited as we approach the grandaddy of all national parks.

There is quite a climb involved as we approach the east entrance to the park. Elevation on the South Rim of Grand Canyon is over 7,000 feet, and we are pleasantly surprised to see the scrubby sagebrush of the lower elevations gradually give way to a pygmy forest of pinon and juniper, and then eventually (at around 6,500 feet) to a tall pine forest of Ponderosa. This scenery is delightfully familiar to us (both having spent our formative years in South Dakota's Black Hills), and it feels both welcoming and comforting after several days in the desert.

Our first stop after entering the park (our third national park in three days!) is the Desert View area, which includes the Watchtower, one of several historic structures on the South Rim of the canyon. As expected, there are many more people here than anywhere else we've been, but we are glad to be here at this time of the year when the crowds are relatively much smaller than during the summer months. Here we get our first views of the canyon, and although the scenery is familiar from countless photographs, we are still struck speechless. Nothing prepares you for the actual scope of the canyon, which is just completely overwhelming.

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The sun is out, but it is cold and windy, and the storm clouds are ominously gathering to the west. We are hoping to fit in a short hike into the Canyon on the South Kaibab Trail before we need to head to Flagstaff (about 80 miles away), but it's beginning to look as if the weather isn't going to cooperate. We head back to the car, and drive west toward the visitor center, where we hope to catch a shuttle bus to the trailhead. Sure enough, as we drive, the clouds roll in and the rain begins. We park, and as we make a run for the visitor center, the huge, cold, wind-driven raindrops turn to sleet. The Canyon is now almost totally obscured by the storm clouds and rain; clearly, there's no way we're going to be hiking in this.

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Deeply disappointed, we check out the exhibits in the visitor center, which are interesting and informative, but definitely not what we came here for. I try to joke about our bad luck, but we are both pretty upset at this turn of events. Having grown up on the edge of the West and knowing what to expect of its weather, we fully expect that this storm will pass quickly -- and we are not disappointed -- but by the time it does, there isn't enough daylight left for us to do our planned hike. We try to content ourselves with more views and photos from the rim in the Grand Canyon Village area, knowing that we will have to leave for Flagstaff soon. The storm has left some cloud remnants hanging over the formations in the Canyon, and their beauty provides a small consolation for what we will miss.

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The Village itself is fairly astonishing to us as first-time visitors. It's almost a full-fledged town, with a post office, bank, and grocery store, in addition to the souvenir shops, bookstores, and lodges. It makes sense that the park would require such services to accomodate its 5 million annual visitors, but it comes as a bit of a shock to us after visiting Arches and Canyonlands, where such services are nonexistent. The buildings in the Village are a mishmash of historic structures on or near the rim (including the El Tovar Hotel and the Bright Angel Lodge) along with more recent buildings, most (unfortunately) in the utilitarian architectural styles prevalent in the 1960s. Still, despite its extreme degree of remove from the Canyon's wilderness, we find ourselves liking Grand Canyon Village. Both of us are simultaneoulsy attracted and slightly troubled by the ways in which it reminds us of Walt Disney World, and we make jokes about "Disney's Grand Canyon Experience." We recognize that hanging out on the Rim in Grand Canyon Village is one of the archetypal American national park experiences, which has, for better or worse, become in many ways inseparable from the natural wonder of the Canyon itself.

El Tovar is an extraordinary place in its own right, as we discover when we spend a few minutes warming up in the lobby. It's a classic national park lodge that reminds us of the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone, despite its architectural differences. Both of us are immediately seized with a strong desire to stay here, though we are sure it would be impossible to get a room for the night. Besides, we still have a hotel reservation in Flagstaff (which it's too late to cancel). But our desire to stay here combined with our disappointment that we did not get to hike into the Canyon today overcomes our better instincts, and Dr. Dregs inquires about room availability for the night ("it couldn't hurt to ask," we say to each other, fully expecting the inquiry to be met with laughter from the front desk staff). To our amazement, however, one room is still available: not in El Tovar, but in the neighboring (architecturally and historically undistinguished) Kachina Lodge. We take it, and the desk clerk tells Doc Dregs that it was literally the last room available in the park. We consider that a sign that we are meant to stay here tonight and spend another day at the Grand Canyon.

This means that we are sacrificing the cost of our hotel in Flagstaff (fortunately, it was relatively cheap), and that we won't have time to see Flagstaff and Sedona. We regret this, but now that we are here, we feel that Grand Canyon is too special a place to leave after such a short time. Our room in Kachina is extremely comfortable, having been recently remodeled, and though our room is on the side of the building with a view of the parking lot rather than the Canyon, we still feel the excitement of staying on the rim of the Grand Canyon. We hang out on the rim (with many of our fellow tourists, natch) waiting for the sunset and snap a few more pictures.

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We have a surprisingly good dinner at the Arizona Room, one of the restaurants in the Village, and return to our room, exhausted but content, and sleep soundly until just before dawn.

What goes in, must come out: Day 6

Posted by at 10:15 PM · Travels

October 24, 2006

Southwest Odyssey: Day 4

Today is one of our less planned days on the trip: we knew for certain that we would spend our first day in the Moab area at Arches, but we had several options for the second day, and had decided not to choose until after our day at Arches. Southeastern Utah presents an almost overwhelming number of choices for places to see and outdoor activities to engage in. We could return to Arches, and do the longer hikes that we hadn't had time for yesterday, including the hike up to Delicate Arch and the longer, more primitive route beyond Landscape Arch. Or we could visit Dead Horse Point State Park, renowned for its jaw-dropping views from above the Colorado River. If we visited Dead Horse Point, we could also see the nearby "Island in the Sky" section of Canyonlands National Park, a large, high mesa with similarly astonishing views of the Colorado and Green Rivers. Or we could opt for a visit to the "Needles" district of Canyonlands, which was the biggest unknown quantity to us. Needles is a long drive from Moab, and it is little developed and not much visited: there are very few roads accessible without a high-clearance 4WD vehicle. To see the park, hiking is absolutely necessary, and multiday hikes and backpacking trips are a common way to see the sights.

We ended up going to the Needles, for a few reasons: first, we were curious to see this bit of National Park land that most visitors to Utah's parks simply didn't bother with. Second, we were deeply drawn to the solitude that a hike in the Needles supposedly offered. Finally, one of our guidebooks recommended Needles in the strongest terms possible, saying that if by some tragic combination of circumstances, one could visit only one of southern Utah's national parks, it should be the Needles district of Canyonlands. This description intrigued us; any place that could elicit such a strong reaction from a travel writer surely deserved a day of our precious time. So we bought ourselves another picnic lunch at the grocery store in Moab, and headed south on US 191, the major route through southeastern Utah.

The drive south from Moab along 191 is not known as a scenic drive, but it can only be considered "not scenic" in the context of other southern Utah drives. Anywhere else, this route would easily be labeled "scenic," with swaths of flat, high desert interspersed with redstone cliffs and snowy mountain peaks. But the truly scenic part of the drive to Needles begins when you turn west off the main road, onto state highway 211, which dead-ends in Needles. As we approach the park, ranchland to our south contrasts with majestic red buttes to the north. Much of this land is apparently BLM land with few use restrictions, and we see backpackers and climbers heading off into the wilderness at several points along the road.

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We see a few other cars as we enter the park, but we can tell the crowds are light here, since the booth at the park gate is unmanned and bears a sign instructing us to continue on to the visitor center to pay the entrance fee. We pull up to the visitor center, where ours is the only car in the lot. We buy our park pass from a friendly ranger, take a brief look at the exhibits in the visitor center, and get back on the road. Our goal is the Slickrock Trail hike, a 2.5 mile hike mostly along canyon rims that is supposed to offer amazing 360-degree views of the park.

We are not disappointed. This is a "primitive" trail, marked by cairns like the primitive trails in Arches. There are a handful of other hikers on the trail, but mostly we are blessedly alone. The day is beautiful, the desert full of vivid colors and deep silence. Canyonlands is both like Arches and unlike it: there's still plenty of red sandstone formations, but Canyonlands has a sheer variety of rock formations and colors that make it seem like a different world than Arches.

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Here is a distant view of the formations that give the Needles district its name:

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About halfway through the hike, we find a comfy spot on a rock near a canyon rim and settle down to eat our lunch. No one disturbs our peace while we eat; the handful of other hikers are nowhere to be seen. We press on when we finish eating. The Slickrock Trail has four viewpoints along the trail which are reached via short detours from the main trail. The first three are very short detours, and the viewpoints are suitably rewarding. But the fourth viewpoint requires a little more dedication to reach: it's quite far off the main trail and a little climbing and scrambling are necessary in order to reach it. When we get there, though, we find that it was well worth the extra hike:

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We return to the car regretting that we have to leave Canyonlands soon if we are to make it to Monument Valley before dusk -- important because we plan to camp there, and don't want to pitch our tent in the dark. We toy with the idea of camping here in Needles instead, and taking more time tomorrow to hike another of the vast network of trails here, but reluctantly we decide that we don't want to miss Monument Valley. We have to move on, but we both feel strongly that we will return to Canyonlands someday to spend time hiking and camping. There is true desert solitude here, much more so than in Arches, and the diversity of the landscape is endlessly fascinating. We are so glad that we decided to visit this park, feeling that we've discovered a hidden gem -- not that any national park is truly "hidden," but this one, as the least visited of southern Utah's five parks, certainly qualifies as "hidden" by the terms of the myriad attractions in this area.

Back on the main road, our minds are still full of our Canyonlands experience, but there is plenty to see as we continue south on US 191. We pass through several small towns, and then: the most famous view in the Southwest is before us as we approach Monument Valley from the north. The landscape as we approach our evening destination is almost pure reds in various shades. Again, we marvel at the sheer variety of the Colorado Plateau.

Our goal is Gouldings, a large complex/borderline-tourist-trap originally founded as a trading post in the 1920s. Today, it includes a lodge, campground, several stores, a restaurant, and the original trading post building, which now serves as a museum full of information about the early years of the trading post and memorabilia from the many films shot in the area. The place was started by Harry Goulding, who worked closely with the Navajo and was almost single-handedly responsible for bringing the film industry to Monument Valley. It's a pretty neat place, in a kitschy sort of way. We set up our campsite and get some dinner at the restaurant, which includes a large piece of delicious, decadent Navajo frybread. The clouds we've seen on the southwest horizon all day move through during the night, and periodic rain showers make our sleep less than ideal, but out tent keeps us dry, and we wake to clearing skies with a view of sunrise over the Valley from our campsite.

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1 Wonder of the World, coming right up: Day 5

Posted by at 11:48 PM · Travels

October 23, 2006

Southwest Odyssey: Day 3

Today is the day our vacation begins in earnest: no more 10+ hour drives for us until next week. We begin our day in Moab grateful that we won't be spending most of it in the car. Our plan for today is to explore Arches National Park, the entrance of which is only two miles outside Moab.

But first things first: breakfast! We are sick of fast food, having eaten almost nothing else for the last two days, so we take the advice of a couple of our guidebooks and head for the Jailhouse Cafe, a breakfast-only place located in Moab's original jailhouse. Moab is a tourist town, and makes no bones about it: the long main drag is lined with hotels, motels, and restaurants, but there are many locally owned and operated places among the chains, including our motel, which is quite pleasant (and cheap). After breakfast, we go to the grocery store to pick up some sandwiches and fruit for lunch, since there are no food outlets in Arches.

As we're doing these things, we get our first view of the terrain surrounding the town, which we of course could not see in the darkness when we arrived late last night. The town is surrounded by high red cliff walls. It is beautiful and alien, a small sampling of what we will see in Arches. We couldn't ask for a better day: bright sun, no clouds, expected high of about 62 degrees. Perfect weather for desert hiking.

We enter the park with a few other cars (and a few road bikes -- Moab is renowned for mountain biking, but road cyclists find plenty of places to ride here, too), and stop at the visitor center, which was newly constructed only a year ago. We browse through the informational exhibits and buy Dr. Dregs a hat, since he neglected to bring one from home, and we know we won't have much shade today. Then it's onward into the park. Arches has a few relatively short scenic drives, from which many of the park's most famous formations can be seen, but there are also a large number of short hiking trails which allow you to get up close and personal with the red and orange sandstone.

We stop first at "Park Avenue," where we are able to hike along a canyon bottom lined on either side with formations resembling buildings and towers:

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This is our warm-up in a sense, and we hike back out of the canyon eager for the next chance to walk. We hike a short trail around Balanced Rock before moving onto the Windows Section of the park, where we take a slightly longer hike on a "primitive" trail (marked only by rock cairns) that circles the formations. Arches is a small park, and it is heavily visited, so there isn't much solitude to be had. Still, at this time of the year, the crowds are relatively light, and getting off the beaten path away from the classic "photo op" spots means that we do find ourselves alone for short periods of time. There is no wind today, and the desert is almost eerily quiet away from the other park visitors. It is very beautiful, very peaceful, and very calming -- just what we needed after two long days in the car.

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We stop to eat our lunch at the trailhead for the Delicate Arch hike, which is near a log cabin that was the homestead of a family that tried to ranch in this area near the turn of the 20th century. It is hard to imagine what it must have been like to live out here, with very little water and almost total isolation. We consider making the hike to Delicate Arch (one of Utah's state symbols), which is about a 3 mile round trip, but decide to simply go to the viewpoint instead. Once we have hiked up to the viewpoint (about half a mile), we wish we had done the full hike: we can see the hikers up on the ridge near the arch, and it would be great to get that close to it. But there's a lot more to see, and the daylight won't last forever, so we move on.

As we continue along the scenic drive through the park, we are treated to several views of distant snow-peaked mountains (the La Sal Mountains) rising above and beyond the red sandstone cliffs, towers, and arches. The contrast between lanscapes is at once unspeakably beautiful and confusing. I am sure that such contrasts are not confusing to residents of the Southwest, but to us, from a land of lakes, rivers, greenery, and gentle, gradual changes in topography, the extremes are jarring. This area of the country is frequently described as "alien," and it's the most accurate adjective we can come up with. It is a beautiful, special place, but it is alien and even hostile. It's a sharp contrast to the Rocky Mountains, which for all their size and drama, seem comfortingly familiar compared to this landscape.

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In the Devil's Garden area, there are several arches to see, including Tunnel Arch, Pine Tree Arch, and Landscape Arch. Getting to Tunnel Arch and Pine Tree Arch requires a short hike off the main trail, and this is where we find the most solitude of the day, since most of the crowd seems to be focused on getting to the very famous Landscape Arch. Again, we are bowled over by the pure silence and peace of the desert, and wish we had more time to spend here.

Finally, we approach Landscape Arch, which appears just as improbable in reality as it does in pictures. At its thinnest point, the informational signs tell us, the arch is only six feet thick, and a big chunk of it fell only 15 years ago, in 1991. It is entirely possible that the arch won't be here any longer, should we ever return. We snap a few pictures, and wish we had the energy (and enough daylight) to do the longer hike from here that would show us several more arches and get us further away from the crowds in the park, but we will have to save that for another time.

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On the way back from Landscape Arch, we strike up a friendly conversation with a middle-aged Tennessee couple who are vacationing in the national parks of southern Utah. As for us, this is their first trip out here. They are excited about everything they have seen so far, and they have clearly fallen in love with the high desert. I imagine that most people who visit here must; the beauty and the mystery of the place are not exactly welcoming, but they are irresistible.

We drive out of the park as the daylight begins to fade, and make one last stop at the visitor center to learn a little more about the forces that made a place like this. Then it's back into town for dinner and bed. We dine at a pleasant brewpub in downtown Moab, but we are both exhausted and almost fall asleep over our (very good) beers. Then it's back to our motel for a quick dip in the hot tub -- such a relief after a day of hiking -- and another long, deep sleep.

Road, trail, and kitschy fun: Day 4

Posted by at 8:50 PM · Travels

October 22, 2006

Southwest Odyssey: Day 2

Today marks our second day of marathon driving, made more difficult by our late departure from Holdrege. We had a pleasant if brief visit with my mother -- but not quite brief enough, considering the distance we planned to cover today: more than 700 miles across Nebraska and Colorado to Moab, Utah, which will serve as our base of operations for the next couple of days. We didn't manage to leave Holdrege until after 11:00 this morning, which in light of the 11-12 hour drive we were facing wasn't the best way to begin our day's journey. At any rate, we finally got on the road and headed west.

I-80 across western Nebraska and I-76 across northeastern Colorado cover a huge swath of dusty, increasingly dry prairie, dotted with ranches and a few small towns. The landscape is pretty in a desolate, almost eerie, sort of way, but we are more than ready to be past the high plains when Denver and the Rocky Mountains finally appear on the horizon. Because it is Sunday, negotiating Denver traffic is not a problem, and we merge smoothly onto I-70, which will take us across central and western Colorado and into Utah. Doc Dregs is familiar with the Denver area, having been an undergraduate at the University of Wyoming (which is just a couple of hours up the road in Laramie), but to my surprise, this particular route is mostly new to him. As for me, I traveled this route once before, many years ago: when I was 9 years old, we took a family road trip to southern California. My memories of this drive are vague, since as a 9-year-old, I was far more interested in reading my books and fighting with my brother than in appreciating the dramatic alpine scenery. And oh, is it ever dramatic. Doc Dregs and I both grew up in and around the Black Hills of South Dakota, which are friendly little pine-forested mountains (mostly 5,000-7,000 feet in elevation). The terrain of the Colorado Rockies is both familiar in the ways that it resembles the Black Hills, and jarringly unfamiliar in the sheer size and scale of the peaks.

Our little car struggles to climb the Rockies, even on the relatively tame interstate. Still, between Denver and the Eisenhower Tunnel -- a distance of only 60 miles -- we must climb nearly 6,000 feet. Slowly but surely, though, we ascend to 11,158 feet, and cross the Continental Divide. The air is thin at 11,000 feet, and we find ourselves feeling a bit breathless and oxygen-deprived until we've descended a bit. As we approach the tunnel, we appreciate the results of last week's snowstorm, which has left the slopes and trees with a pristine white coat. Apparently, the mountain goats also appreciate the view from I-70, since we pass three or four of them simply standing on the shoulder of the road. The late afternoon sun blazes, and there is not a cloud in the sky: this is a picture-postcard day on I-70 and we feel lucky to be passing through today.

We are in a hurry, so we don't stop as much to take pictures as we would like. But there is a scenic viewpoint a few miles past the Eisenhower Tunnel where we simply must stop. With a view of Dillon Reservoir surrounded by snow-capped mountain peaks, the scenery is too lovely to bypass without a picture or two:

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We can't linger long, since the daylight is fading, and we know the drive will be much harder once darkness falls. Unfortunately, our late start deprives us of daylight to appreciate the views of Glenwood Canyon, supposedly one of the loveliest stretches of the U.S. Interstate Highway system. We are still able, however, to marvel at the engineering achievements involved in road-and-tunnel building through the Rocky Mountains, and to look foward to a return visit to explore Colorado more thoroughly.

Of course, the view from I-70 is only the tiniest taste of the Rockies, and it's a pretty compromised one at that. Along much of the road, tourist and resort towns flank the mountainsides; it all seems just a little too civilized and comfortable considering the (insert string of trite adjectives here) majestic and terrible grandeur of the Rockies. We are both amused and troubled (though grateful, considering how far we have yet to drive) at the seemingly endless strip of highway through which there is a Starbucks at every exit. I'm not opposed to development, and I certainly appreciate the opportunities afforded by the modern world for the enjoyment of wilderness without too much privation. But it seems a little too easy to take this amazing landscape for granted when it's all so settled and overdeveloped. This is the first time of many that the conflict between wilderness and civilization will be presented to us in such an obvious way. It's a well-known theme of the contemporary American West that is emphasized by the simple act of passing through: the miraculous event of being able to traverse the Rockies in a few hours in the comfort of a climate-controlled vehicle reminds us of how far we are from a fundamental experience of nature.

We stop for a quick dinner in Grand Junction, Colorado, before forging onward the last 100 miles or so to Moab, which lies 30 miles south of I-70 not far from the Colorado border. The darkness west of Grand Junction and into Utah is so deep that it's oppressive and almost threatening. There are very few other cars on this stretch of road, and we feel very alone as we enter the high desert. We are exhausted and relieved when we finally reach our hotel in Moab, and very glad to have long days of driving behind us for now.

Ready to get out of the car? Day 3

Posted by at 10:37 PM · Travels

October 21, 2006

Southwest Odyssey: Day 1

Dr. Dregs and I are off on an old-fashioned road trip. Over the next week and a half, we will pass through (or spend time in) seven states and drive over 4,000 miles. The goal is to get the barest sampling of the terrain and the culture of the Southwestern U.S., an area in which neither of us has ever really traveled. We have maps, guidebooks, our trusty little car, some camping gear, and a handful of hotel reservations, but our plans are flexible to a degree and may change depending on what we decide we would like to do.

Of course, any road trip to the Southwest from Minnesota involves an initial investment of lots of driving time. Today, our first day of the trip, is the only day that we traveled a familiar route: from Minneapolis to Holdrege, Nebraska, the small south-central Nebraska town where my mother lives. There are a couple of possible routes: the easiest but most boring follows I-35 south to Des Moines, Iowa, then follows I-80 west to central Nebraska. We take this route sometimes for efficiency's sake, but the natural beauty of neither Minnesota nor Iowa is on display along this route. Instead, we opted today to take US 169 southwest to Mankato, which is a lovely drive through the Minnesota River valley, and then MN 60 to the Iowa border. That highway is picked up at the border by IA 60, which takes us to Sioux City (around which the terrain is surprisingly hilly), where we pick up I-29. I-29 takes us to Omaha, where we join I-80 for the long trek across the Nebraska prairie. The total journey by either route takes around 9 or 10 hours, depending on how fast one drives and how many stops one makes.

Compared to what we will see over the next week, today's drive is not particularly scenic or memorable. But even though the drive along I-80 across Nebraska is much maligned for its length and lack of interest, I enjoy it, particularly on the occasions when we are traveling west toward the sunset. The gradual transition from the gentle hills of eastern Nebraska to the low plains, and then eventually to the high plains of the central and western parts of the state has its own kind of quiet, dignified beauty. The sky is as big here as it is in Montana, and nothing makes that clearer than driving into a prairie sunset.

My mother is graciously putting us up tonight, and tomorrow, we will strike forth into an area that is mostly terra incognita for us, as we cover 700 miles from Holdrege to Moab, Utah.

Let's go to Utah! Day 2

Posted by at 8:04 PM · Travels

October 18, 2006

Glimpses of the infinite, or something...

A recent post over at Dial "M" for Musicology brought on another little bout of music-homesickness. I have such episodes occasionally, most recently last month during our live-music overdose. This time, though, it isn't orchestra-homesickness; this time, I miss the constant deep engagement with music that was the best thing about my years of musicology study. What did the very smart people over at Dial "M" say to make me feel this way? They discussed revalatory, mind-opening, life-changing pieces, those works of music that after you've become acquainted with them, you simply can't imagine how you lived without knowing them. My own list of these is surprisingly long. I don't think I can accurately claim that all of them were life-changing, but all of them had a substantial impact on me, amazed me in some way (or many ways), made me listen to them until I had every note memorized.

At the top of the list is Brahms, probably my favorite composer in all of art music. I went through a period where every Brahms piece I heard seemed to force my mind open and rearrange my brain cells for the better: the 3rd and 4th Symphonies, the 2nd Piano Concerto, the Clarinet Quintet, and the F minor Piano Quintet. Then there's Beethoven: the 7th and 8th Symphonies, the Violin Concerto, the C# minor String Quartet (op. 131), and the D minor piano sonata, nicknamed "Tempest." Mahler is on the list, with the 2nd, 5th, and 6th Symphonies, as is Mozart, particularly the Jupiter Symphony (which I am embarrassed to say I didn't know really well until grad school) and Don Giovanni. Schubert's late chamber music is on the list, especially the A minor String Quartet and the D minor String Quartet ("Death and the Maiden"). Going back a hundred years, there's the Bach B minor mass, and into the 20th century, there's Schoenberg's 1st Chamber Symphony. Shostakovich figures in, with the 5th Symphony -- a piece I learned when I performed the last movement as a high-school junior in All-State Orchestra, which at the time was like nothing I had ever heard. And there are more: Barber's Adagio (such a cliche, but still so moving); Bruckner's 8th Symphony; Debussy's La Mer...I could go on.

There is a pattern: these are primarily either large-scale orchestral works or chamber music from the late 18th and 19th centuries, and that is the connection to my orchestra-sickness. My engagement with most of the works listed above (and so many others) happened on multiple levels, as a performer and as an analyst, and that is why so many of those particular works shook me to the core. I miss that quite desperately sometimes. It's hard for me to remember, though, that I still might study whatever music I wish, to whatever depth I choose -- my failed attempt at musicology gave me, among other things, the tools to do these things at my leisure. Now if only I had enough leisure...

Posted by at 10:48 PM

October 11, 2006

Sometimes, we can just all get along

The small town of Mitchell, South Dakota is best known (when it is known at all) as the home of the Corn Palace and a Cabela's that can be seen from seemingly miles away. It's also the home of Dakota Wesleyan University, the small college George McGovern attended in the 1940s. DWU has a new library -- George and Eleanor McGovern Library and Center for Leadership and Public Service -- which was dedicated last week.

I find it both ironic and heartening that a small town in South Dakota, among the reddest of the red states, is now proudly the home of a library dedicated to the McGovern legacy. My home state has not given liberals much to be proud of recently, but it's nice to be reminded that once upon a time, South Dakota gave liberals (and the country) George McGovern, whose passion and ideals continue to make a difference.

Posted by at 10:23 PM · Politics

October 6, 2006

What's on my new iPod?

Everyone does this, I know, but I like the idea, and I'm enjoying a recently-acquired, spacious new 60 GB iPod -- so I'm going to do it, too: the first 10 random songs provided by my iPod today, with commentary.

  1. Couldn't You Keep That to Yourself? by Ute Lemper
  2. A cover of the Elvis Costello tune. Lemper's voice is sort of an acquired taste, but I like it.

  3. People on a String by Roberta Flack
  4. A little pure 80s cheese, here, this is a pleasant if overly dramatic ballad from White Nights -- which is, of course, one of the quintessential 80s movies. Flack's vocal is really lovely, and the major-minor contrast is used very effectively in this song.

  5. Window by Fiona Apple
  6. Typical Fiona Apple: dark, jazzy, piano pop. I like the bit of bounce in this song, and the gamelan-like percussion.

  7. I Can't Be With You by The Cranberries
  8. Another flashback, this time to the mid-90s. This song takes me right back to my last year of college.

  9. Everything Right Is Wrong Again by They Might Be Giants
  10. A favorite band of mine since the late 80s, TMBG's stuff still makes me smile, and I still like to listen to it (unlike much of the other music I listened to back then). Some of my friends (you know who you are!) hate TMBG, but I just don't get that. They're fun, silly, often clever -- what's not to like?

  11. Rebel Rebel by Seu Jorge
  12. The Life Aquatic is definitely Wes Anderson's weakest film (though I like it anyway), but its soundtrack is definitely up to Anderson's usual standards -- Seu Jorge's covers of David Bowie songs (like this one) are excellent.

  13. Mr. Soul by Buffalo Springfield
  14. This is a sentimental favorite. I first encountered this song on a mix tape, but not just any mix tape. It was the very first mix that Dr. Dregs ever made for me, the mix that convinced me to give him a chance. So in a small way, this song played a part in setting the course of my life. It's a pretty good song, too.

  15. Birthday by The Beatles
  16. A little White Album action is always welcome in my corner of the world, even if it's not my birthday.

  17. Hey Jupiter by Tori Amos
  18. Possibly my favorite song from Boys for Pele. Partly because it's pretty, partly because the lyrics resonate strongly with a particular time in my life, and party because (unlike most of the other songs on the album) the lyrics are mostly comprehensible.

  19. Measure by Kristin Hersh
  20. Brief, atmospheric, and understated. A nice follow-up to the Tori Amos track.

Well, that was fun (for me, anyway). Maybe I'll make this a regular thing. Happy weekend, all.
Posted by at 7:33 PM

September 27, 2006

All we could eat

September always flies by; I can hardly believe it's almost gone. It passed so quickly because of all the usual reasons: school starts, everyone's back from vacation, and suddenly everything that waited around all summer needs to be done immediately. For us, this September brought something else: a surfeit of live music, a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet of great performances.

Over the course of two weeks, we heard a St. Paul Chamber Orchestra concert, two Minnesota Orchestra concerts, and saw Patricia Barber at the Dakota. We've subscribed to the SPCO and the Minnesota Orchestra for the past several years, and the beginning of the new season each September is always a little like the return of old friends we haven't seen for a while. We settle back into our familiar seats (well, our seats at Orchestra Hall are different this year, but you get the idea) and bathe in the comforting sounds of an orchestra warming up. For me, those sounds will always be a comfort. They are the sounds of a home I once had, a home I once loved more than anything, and they engender in me a kind of bittersweet homesickness for the orchestra. I don't regret having left that world behind, but at the same time, I'm deeply sad that I'll never be part of it again.

And, oh, the musical riches that have been presented to us! Three weeks into the season, and already we've heard Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Mozart, Sibelius, Bartok, and Stravinsky, along with works new to me by composers I don't know so well, like MacMillan and Martinu. Through dance, we've gained a whole new perspective on a Bartok masterpiece, and we've seen a percussionist dance his way through a great contemporary concerto for every type of instrument you can hit with a stick and get an interesting or beautiful sound out of. We've heard a rousing but nuanced interpretation of Mendelssohn by a chamber orchestra, and we've heard a large orchestra give boisterous, almost frighteningly intense renditions of Beethoven's Eroica and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. We've been surprised by a few rough edges, and a few unexpected interpretations of favorite moments, and we've shared the triumph and exhiliration of climactic moments. As trained orchestral musicians, it's easy for us to nitpick the details, and it's fun to do some of that. But the overall impact remains the focus, and we don't lose sight of that. There's always more to listen to than we are able.

And then, Patricia Barber: jazz pianist and singer, who performed with a small, intimate combo including drums, bass, and guitar. There is almost nothing more exhilirating and astonishing than seeing four accomplished musicians who really know each other's playing work together in small-group jazz. The constant communication in the midst of the blizzard of technique and musicality: that's amazing enough when it happens in a great classical chamber music performance. But in jazz, where improvisation is added on top of everything else -- it's breathtaking. As with the orchestras, absolute perfection is neither expected nor required (although it's frequently delivered anyway), because it isn't just about the product, it's also about the process. You might know where the musicians are going, but you have no idea how they're going to get there.

Two weeks, four concerts, and we felt uncomfortably stuffed, having gorged on live music until we were almost sick. But in the end, the excess is so good for the soul. September is over, there's still too much to do, the daylight is lessening, and the cold is coming. But I'm as ready as I can be, because I've been fortified by so much great music.

Posted by at 9:54 PM

June 26, 2006

Geeky and frivolous librarian must-haves

Dr. Dregs has been uncharacteristically insistent of late that we stop acquiring more junk. Normally, I'm in agreement with that plan, but clearly I must have one of these. Just in case anyone out there is suddenly seized by the urge to buy me a present, now you know what to get. Hey, it's a little pricey, maybe, but aren't I worth it?

Of course, the Sunnydale High Library could never be complete without a Rupert Giles action figure, so I'd need one of those, too. This is obviously a dangerous path to travel ... maybe Doc Dregs is right.

Posted by at 5:13 PM · Culture