Saturday, October 30, 2010

SWS Day 6 - Nature's Fault

Sunday, August 29, 2010 - There are many perfect breakfast settings, and Red Cliffs Lodge on this specific morning is on that list. Sitting beside the lazy Colorado River, framed by red cliffs and quiet, warm breezes - it was a damn fine way to enjoy my family and my eggs.

Breakfast by the Colorado!

Still feeling the vibe from our early-morning breakfast, we donned our hiking boots, slathered on some sunscreen, and steeled ourselves for the impending hike to Delicate Arch. On our coach journey to Arches National Park we picked up our local guide, Preston - a born and bred Moab local with a fact and a story for every rock on the horizon and every bend in the road. I was especially rapt during his stories about the movies shot in and around the area because, in many cases, he had a personal anecdote to share (e.g. a friendship with The Duke and some horses for Indiana Jones).

After a quick stop at Balanced Rock, Dan dropped us at the Visitor's Center where our hike would begin. Those not interested in the hike stayed on the coach with Preston, who would take them on an alternate tour of numerous arches in the Park. My family, of course, was ready for walking the 1.5 miles over slick rock trails to Delicate Arch. The hike was not too strenuous and had just one section that was (sort of) steep and one other section that was (sort of) narrow. It was an altogether unwordly experience walking on the vast, flat fields of wind-polished sandstone. My inner geek kept thinking: Tatooine!

 The steep part of the trail.

 Our family portrait under Delicate Arch.

After 45 minutes of hiking (with rest stops) we closed in on the Arch - it being perched on the edge of what I can only describe as a sandstone 'bowl'. My words will not describe the scene, so I will let the pictures do it for me. Needless to say, the 30+ minutes (and bazillion photos) we spent there were not long enough. But eventually we had to make our way back down the trail to Dan, Preston, and the one family who opted for Preston's tour.

The coach drove us all into Moab for a few hours of free-time for lunch and exploring. The town is small and quiet, although it seems to do a decent business catering to the extreme sprots crowd (judging from some of the local shops). We opted for lunch at Pasta Jay's, which serve a pretty decent meatball sandwich along with cold beer. After our meal, we explored the shops a bit in search of a waterproof, disposable camera we could use later in the week (only to find that the RCL gift shop carries these, too).

 Moab caters to a certain clientele.

We met Dan at the appointed time and made our way back to Red Cliffs Lodge for our afternoon of free-time. For my family and a few other ABDers, we arranged (through RCL) for an ATV tour of the backcountry! No sooner had we cleaned up from hiking when our ATV guides, Cody and Dan, rolled up to the front door in vans pulling trailers packed with ATVs! We piled into their vans and we all drove out to Onion Creek (just down the road from RCL) where we would ride the dusty/muddy trails. At the load-out spot, we were all fitted with helmets, goggles, and gloves before being assigned our ATVs. My wife and I would be driving with each of us taking one kid on the back of our vehicle.

We received a driving lesson - starting, stopping, turning - before heading off with one guide up-front and one at the rear. An ATV is similar to driving a snowmobile. Being Canadians (eh!), we soon got the hang of things, although I will admit that my Northern Ontario spouse was a more adept driver than I. For the first half of the tour, we stuck to groomed trails with easy turns and minimal rocks to navigate. Earlier rains kept the dust at bay, which meant we could enjoy the scenery as we snaked through canyons at speeds of up to 35mph. Still, we were glad for the jeans and light shirts we wore since our trail criss-crossed through Onion Creek numerous times, whipping mud and water up our legs.

 ATVing was the coolest thing EVAR!

The halfway point meant a little rest, a little water, and a few group photos. Because our small group was able to handle the ATVs at such high speeds, our guides elected to take us down some more challenging trails for the second half of the tour. They were rocky, twisting, dusty, and bi-sected by deeper areas of the Creek. There were a few points where I scared myself (and my son riding on the back) by fishtailing too hard or cornering a little too late. But the breaktaking view around us was something alien-looking, and it distracted us from any lingering nervousness about my driving.

Along the way we spotted deer, lizards, and even Indian cliff-dwellings that were long-ago abandoned. And before we were ready for it, the tour was over. We put everything away in the vans and trailers before Cody drove us back to RCL.

We spent some time getting ourselves presentable for the evening - amazed by how much red dust one can carry on their body. Everyone was in good spirits since the evening would be the obligatory Adult Dinner/Junior Adventurer Night. At 14 (almost 15) years of age, my son was a little torn about what he would do, but the promise of pizza and the company of an ABD friend of similar age made his decision to be a Junior Adventurer a little easier. My 17 year-old daughter, of course, opted for the adult's table in the RCL dining room.
With my son off in another part of the Lodge, we met the other adults in the lounge for a few drinks before all 7 of us moved to the dining room. It was just a lovely, lovely evening with new friends - sharing stories, sharing appetizers, and laughing a lot. While the pickup time for the JAs was supposed to be 8:30pm, our dinner ran rather long and, by 9:30pm, the kids were 'released' into the dining room to collect their parents. We were slightly chagrined in our hopes that Guides Mike and Chris were not (too) upset with the parents!

The remainder of our evening was spent laundering the clothes we had made filthy by hiking and riding ATVs. We all needed clean jeans for the next day's equine activities!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

SWS Day 5 - Western Monuments

Saturday, August 28, 2010 - Sometime much too close to 2am, my subconsicous - spurred on by the sound of running water - tapped my bladder on the shoulder and said, "Yo! You know what you need to do." And the only thing better than awakening to that sound at 2am is the chance to quietly repair a toilet's flapper valve - the source of that sound. At some point during someone's pre-bed ritual, the chain had disconnected from the handle, leaving the toilet in a permanent state of 'flush'. It was a simple operation, and I kind of giggled (in a totally macho way) at this weird tablaeu - late night plumbing work with the Grand Canyon looking on from just a few hundred feet away.

A few hours of shut-eye later, my wife, Dee, and I were doing our 6:30am breakfast run with our sleepy teenagers 30 minutes behind us. Nearing the end of our meal, Guide Chris shouted from the door that a few elk had been spotted outside. Cutlerly clanging, 8 of us raced out the door and slowly pursued two massive elk as they sauntered across railway tracks and into the surrounding green-spaces. While the animals were wary of our quiet camera crew, they still deigned to provide a number of photo-ops for us tourists.

 Some elk hold a debate outside Thunderbird Lodge.

Our coach left the Thunderbird Lodge by 7:30am on what would be the longest travel-day of the tour - Grand Canyon to Moab, Utah by way of Monument Valley. While a DVD played to help pass the time, the real show was outside the coach windows. The rolling hills gave way to frequent sightings of colourful buttes and mesas as we grew closer to the Utah border. At the 3-hour mark, we stopped at Goulding's Lodge, located withing the Navajo reserve that surrounds Monument Valley.

As we de-coached, we were met by Mike, a local Navajo guide who be taking us for a tour of Monument Valley. Mike's conveyance was an open-air truck (of sorts) with padded benches and clear, retractable coverings acting as protection from the clouds of red dust that dominated the landscape from time to time. We found our seats and Mike - via his PA system - narrated the short drive down the highway as we made our way into the Valley. At first I found the plastic windows a bit of a nuisance for getting a clear look at the outside scenery, but as we descended down the dusty hills into the Park it became obvious why we needed protection from the elements. Fine red clouds of dust found its way into everything: clothes, cameras, hair, etc. and etc.

 Our tour coach awaits.

Once onto the Valley floor, the winds died down and Mike began naming off Monuments left and right (the kids especially liked the Left Mitten and Right Mitten). We soon stopped at a look-out where, conveniently, local Navajo merchants had tables with local jewelry and crafts for sale. It was at this stop where Mike rolled up the plastic windows on our truck so as to afford us an unobstructed view. Back on the bus, we toured the Valley some more and stopped a second time at John Ford Point. The view was amazing and it was obvious why so many Hollywood Westerns had been filmed in the area. Again, local Navajo merchants had tables setup and this time we bought a few items (at very reasonable prices). We toured some more, making one final stop where Guide Chris had our Group yell out in unison - all to experience the unique echo qualities of the rocks surrounding us.

 Mittens, Left and Right.

Mike took us all back to Goulding's and, along the way, serenaded us with his renditions of Navajo songs. While I'm sure it was part of his normal tour itinerary, there was a poingnancy in the experience - staring out at the landscape and hearing Mike singing his songs through scratchy speakers.

Back at Goulding's, it was time for lunch and I can heartily recommend their Navajo Tacos. There were a few minutes for pictures (check out the John Wayne cutout) and gift shop exploration before we began the final 3-hour leg of the day's journey. We passed through Moab and followed the Colorado River via Highway 128 (one of America's most scenic drives) to take us to our destination: Red Cliffs Lodge.

There we were greeted by attentive and friendly Lodge staff who bid us welcome and directed us to glasses of lemonade. In no time we had room keys and directions towards the outbuildings where we would be staying. It was clear that RCL was going to be a very special place - everything you might imagine a Western horse-ranch to be and more. After a few nights at the modest Thunderbird Lodge, RCL was positively palatial: oh-so-spacious split-level rooms, kitchenette, a large patio overlooking a creek and horse pastures. This would suit us quite nicely for our 3-night stay!

 Red Cliffs Lodge main entrance.

With a hour of cleaning up behind us, we met the Group for a (very good) taco dinner in the main lodge. Guides Mike and Chris gave us instructions for the following day - a hike in Arches National Park, a few hours to explore Moab, and a free afternoon at the RCL (and more!). We broke for the night after lots of leisurely dinner conversation (and maybe some wine or beer). Many of the kids dragged their parents to the pool for a nighttime swim. Dee and I elected to do laundry (facilities also by the pool) to get rid of some of the red dust we'd accumulated. And by 11pm, laundry had been folded and lights were out...

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

SWS Day 4 - Grand Discovery

Ed. Note: These posts having been mighty slooooow in coming. Honestly, I've been focused on getting many hours of video edited, scored, titled, and burned (my home movies are sometimes too elaborate). Now that the film is in the can, I'm hoping to finish up these trip report posts asap!

Friday, August 27, 2010 -While the previous day entailed just a skirmish with the Grand Canyon, today would be an all-out assault! As everyone knows, an army travels on its belly, so with that in mind we hit up the breakfast buffet at 6:40am. We left the kids behind, of course, because teenagers would only slow us down. In all, it was a lovely time as we gazed out over the Canyon and swapped ABD Costa Rica stories with our Guide, Chris.

By 8am the entire Group was boarding our coach out front of Bright Angel Lodge. Joining us for the morning South Rim tour was a local National Parks guide, Robin - who I can only describe as having the vague appearence of a backwoods hermit coupled with encyclopedic Canyon knowledge and a sardonic sense of humour. Naturally, I liked the man.

As the coach made its way towards Grandview Point, Robin gave us a detailed rundown on local geography, the village of Grand Canyon, and the logisitics for the seasonal Park staff. Grandview afforded us a very different perspective on the Canyon. In addition to the elevation, the Rim is dotted with large boulders and rock columns - all perfect for unusual 'floating in air' pictures of your Loved Ones. The best/worst was a column that required the Subject to step (jump?) across a small chasm that seemed to separate the column from the Canyon Rim, itself. Once across, you are presented with a 7-foot platform of rock surrounded by, well, the Grand Canyon. My son was onboard with this photo-spot, so he and Guide Mike made the leap. My wife and daughter were totally not interested, while I eventually relented and hoped my heart would not pick this point in time to fail.

 The Boy and The Guide defy death as the
Grim Reaper (not pictured) checks his watch.

After Grandview, we travelled on to The Watchtower - an iconic (and slightly touristy) part of the South Rim affording amazing views of the Colorado River. Robin was kind enough to escort a few us around the building to point out various features of its design and the Native wall-paintings on the inside that depict the Creation Story. We all then went up top for more of Robin's lessons about the Canyon and the River. Interesting note about context: from the top of the Tower I might guess the River below to be approximately 30 feet across when, in fact, it is closer to 300 feet between shores!

 Looking inside the Watchtower at Native paintings.

By 11:30am we were back at the Lodge where we started the day's tour. Since the daily tourist train was set to arrive soon, we opted to grab a quick lunch at the nearby Maswik Lodge (cafeteria-style, but good food). I made sure to load up on the carbs because the free-time afternoon was going to involve hiking down into the Canyon!

My daughter, who has knee problems, elected to stay behind and explore the gift shops. My wife, son, and I hit the Bright Angel Trail under (thankfully) cloudy skies for a hike to the 1.5 mile rest station checkpoint. As instructed, we brought a few bottles of water for each of us and lots of salty snacks - all to ward off the surprising effects of dehydration for the 2 - 4 hour round-trip. Seriously, do not ignore the warnings about dehydration!

The trip down was a fast 45 minutes during which we descended 1,100 feet into the Canyon (it's much faster if you don't use the trail, I'm told). The trail alternated between rocky and fine sand. The scenery along the switchbacks was simply stunning, but the majesty of the Canyon was slightly dulled by the dead-eyed red faces of the hikers coming back up the trail. This is what was in store for us later in the day, I feared.

I will own this (ranked easiest part of) Bright Angel Trail!

By 2pm we had reached the rest station, where we....ummm....rested. Now was the time to screw our courage to the sticking place and face the climb back up. While I prayed my hockey-ravaged knees would withstand theclimb, my larger concern was for my son, who was obviously hot and tired. My wife was/is the strongest of us all, and I'm guessing she could likely carry us top-side on her back!

Well, we climbed and we sweated and we breathed raggedy breaths up the steady, unrelenting incline. In those areas that were steep, we found rough stairs constructed of rock and logs. We made frequent rest stops for snacks and water where we would spend our moments shooing away the greedy (and fearless) Canyon squirrels looking for handouts.

The view from the Trail.
But by 3:15pm we had made it to the top - all of us seemingly intact. As luck would have it, our arrival coincided with the daily 'condor talk' presented by the Park Rangers. So we spent some time learning about condors while secretly looking forward to the showers waiting for us back in our room.

We elected to have dinner at the more upscale El Tovar Lodge next door to the Thunderbird. Built in 1905, it's the one remaining log-constructed building in the area. Walking into the lobby is reminiscent of walking into DisneyWorld's Wilderness Lodge (or perhaps it's the other way around). Regardless, I was happy that my wife had made reservations the day before, because even at our 7:30pm dining time the Lounge was doing a steady business. The food and service was all very good - not the very best I'd ever experience, but still very good. What made the experience memorable for me was the feeling of being transported to another time and place. It's just something one must experience for themself, I suppose.

After 90 minutes of enjoying the El Tovar, we strolled back to our rooms where we prepared our luggage for the next morning's 6:30am pick up. This was out final chance to say good-bye to the silvery moonlit cliffs of the South Rim. Tomorrow... Utah!

Saturday, October 02, 2010

SWS Day 3 - The Mighty Canyon

Thursday, August 26, 2010 - Dee and I awoke early (again!) and quickly stole away from our comatose teens to watch the Sedona sunrise. Taking a set of outside stairs beside the Amara's spa building, we found a secluded observation deck that placed us above the treetops for a perfect view of the surrounding red cliffs. The morning air bordered on frigid, but we forgot about all that as we watched the red cliffs (near and far) suddenly light up from the first rays of the Sun. It was an amazing show - colours ever-changing as the Sun rose higher to, finally, make an appearance over the distant cliffs.

Dee greets the dawn.

By 7:30am we needed to have our luggage ready for unseen Disney elves to load up on the coach - a process that would happen while we were distracted by a final Amara breakfast. And by 8:00am Dan was driving us out of Sedona towards the day's destination - The Grand Canyon! We made a quick pit-stop on the outskirts of Sedona at a place called Airport Mesa. This is the location of one of Sedona's (in)famous 'energy vortexs' - a source of spiritual or psychic energy. I can't say that I felt anything unusual, but an inspiration for a lottery number would not have been unwelcome.

As we made our way North-ish towards the Canyon, we made a brief stop in Williams - a little town trying to build a tourist trade on the fact that the original Route 66 runs down its main street. We poked our heads into a few shops selling slightly-tacky tourist swag. We also had time to visit their 'train museum', which is fundamentally a preserved steam engine from times gone by.

The Boy gets his kicks on Route 66

Back on the road we went until lunchtime, when we stopped just short of the Canyon in a little town called Tusayan. Our lunch destination: a small restaurant called We Cook Pizza. The staff were all ready for us with a meal of pizza, salad, chicken wings, and deserts. It was nothing fancy, mind you, just a modest eatery offering decent food.

Next stop was, of course, the Grannd Canyon! We first hit up the Visitor's Centre near Mather Point. Dan parked the coach and we more-or-less made a beeline to the Canyon's edge. I found I was not prepared for two important facts. Number one: the Canyon is LARGE - much larger than I ever imagined. Number two: there are no railings preventing you from climbing over the edge (which only makes sense given the hundreds of miles of Canyon edge).

The Girl has her first Grand Canyon encounter.

We walked the trail along the South Rim, taking picture after picture. Around every bend, rock, and scrubby tree was a new vista worthy of a new photo. Some of us got brave and ventured out onto rock ledges for a more 'extreme' vacation memory. At one point we were even lucky enough to spot a Condor! Our stroll went as far as Yavapai Point, at which point our few hours were coming to an an end, and so we made the trip back to the Visitor's Centere to board our coach.

Our next stop was to check-in to our hotel - Thunderbird Lodge. The Lodge is close to the village of Grand Canyon and perched on the rim of the Canyon, itself. And when I say perched, I mean that one could stand in their hotel room and quite easily throw a baseball into the Canyon. Needless to say, the Canyon-facing rooms (which are standard on the ABD tour) have an amazing view. Now I know that Thunderbird Lodge gets a bit of bad rap as being low-scale in comparison to ABD's typically up-scale accomodations. As an ABD (and general travel) veteran, I will agree that's true. The rooms are small and the amenities are very simple. But I will also add that the Lodge is clean and well-maintained - and the real point of it all is its proximity to the Canyon rim. For my family, the Lodge did not disappoint in the slightest.

After some free time to rest and explore a bit, our group met for a 6:30pm dinner in a private room on the second floor of the Lodge. And, of course, there was that view again! Dinner included barbequed steak and chicken (cooked however we prefered) and a buffet with choices of potato salad, garden salads, and the like. There was even locally-produced beer (and wine) to wash down our (quite delicious) dinner. While various large tables had been set up bistro-style, our small group (who had gotten quite chummy over the past few days) elected to push all the tables together for a more family-style atmosphere. It might have been too much food, too many refreshments, or too little sleep, but I enjoyed my myself immensely!

As if the day had not been full enough, a trio of local Native Americans provided after-dinner entertainment for us all. They sang, they danced, they told stories about their culture. The highlight for me was a young fellow who did a traditional Hoop Dance - a truly incredible sight. And for the finale, our group was invited into a circle with with the performers where we learned to do a Friendship Dance. Now, I will openly admit that public displays of awkwardness - dancing included - are something I avoid, but I had a heckuva good time dancing in that circle - even if my feet may not have been totally in sync!

Native dances require a lot of feathers.

After the performers and the last of the desert had left the building, everyone drifted off to their rooms or, perhaps, a moonlight stroll along the Canyon rim. We decided to check out the Bright Angel Lodge (the Thunderbird's next-door neighbour). Even at 9:00pm-ish the gift shop was packed. But the more interesting sight (besides the Canyon) was the hotel lobby - packed to the rafters with electronic gadgets attached to spastic thumbs who, themselves, were attached to intensely focused guests all taking advantage of the free wifi. I will, also, admit to pulling out my iTouch and taking a quick spin on the Information Highway.

Walking back to the Thunderbird, we were struck at how beautiful the Canyon looks under a moonlit sky. The rocky cliffs and fearless trees all took on a million shades of silver. Standing there like that, I could imagine losing myself in that silvery vista and shuffling to my doom over the pitch-black rim. But rather than succumbing to that weird temptation, I followed my family back to our room. I was tired, and I knew the next day would require energetic legs.