Sunday, August 30, 2015

Hooray for Ouray!

August 30, 2015

We had a very nice, fairly low-key day today in Ouray, CO. I slept until about 8:30. Joe said he woke up several times earlier, because he was having anxiety dreams as an aftermath of the flood of testosterone during his drive over those narrow switchbacks yesterday. So we took it easy in the morning. We put out our mat so Cassie wouldn’t have to lie on gravel. I ate my breakfast outside, and sat in the sun reading for a little while. Then we decided to take a walk and see Ouray. We are only about two blocks from the center of town—which is not very big to begin with!

We took Cassie with us and walked over the Uncompahgre River, which as I wrote yesterday is running directly through town and beneath our bedroom (it was lovely last night!) At the end of the bridge, we met a guy with two dogs, who told us that there was a dog park just one block around the corner. We made a note of that for later, and walked one more block to the main street. There are numerous benches all along the street (which is the same Route 550 that we followed all day yesterday), so whenever I found a store to browse in, Joe and Cassie sat down and people-watched. We strolled slowly down two blocks, then back up the other side of the street for 4 blocks, then back across again, and that was the whole town! I had an ice cream, picked up a few small odds and ends, dropped a postcard in the Ouray post office box, and we bought some dog food, the one
A great example of how steep Ouray's streets are!
item we really needed.

Ouray is a little Victorian town known as the Switzerland of America. I have never been to Switzerland, but I assume it's because the mountains tower over the town. There are only a couple of blocks on each side of the main street, many of them are unpaved, and they are STEEP. All the cars are parked at steep angles, and the entire town runs downhill from south to north. The photo of the old Beaumont Hotel shows how steep the street really is. Our RV park, which is just along the river, is on the only horizontal street I have seen. The mountains rise just behind us here, only 3 blocks off the main drag.

It rained briefly twice during our walk, but we took shelter under awnings—the rain didn’t last more than about 5 minutes each time. However by the time we got back to Sam, I felt it was gray enough that taking a nap rather than pursuing any more sightseeing nearby was my entitlement! We had a light lunch, and then settled down with our  books.  Just then, I finally heard from Ben and Miriam. They were on their way to see us in Ouray, and expected to arrive at about 3:30. Perfect! I had time for a 45 minute nap. 

At about 3:40, Ben, Miriam, Naama (age 3) and Yael (age 1) arrived, along with their dogs Isis and Sampson. After hugs, we decided to walk to the dog park and let the dogs play. We all enjoyed ourselves and Naama and Joe enjoyed eating apples off the tree which was growing inside the dog park. Then we went back to the RV, encountering yet another short rainfall. We had intended to go to the hot springs pool, but by then it was getting a little late to take full advantage of the water slides and other kid-friendly features, which close down at around 5pm. So we sat and visited in the RV until it was dinnertime.  Sampson stayed in the car, but Ben tied Isis to our picnic table, and she and Cassie crawled under the camper during the occasional rain.

I had asked Ben how they managed with food, because they only eat kosher meat, and they have been away from home for a couple of weeks camping. They bring some meat from home for the first few days, but Ben mentioned that he “hadn’t had meat in a VERY long time”, so we made them an offer they couldn’t refuse—kosher hot dogs we’d brought along with us. We had two packages in our freezer. Joe took over at that point, cooking the hot dogs on the grill and putting a great salad together to go with them. I had a bag of corn chips, and altogether it was a feast! We ate inside, because it had sprinkled several times again during the afternoon and we were concerned that it would start raining during dinner. (I should say that we can’t put our awning out—for one thing there’s a tree in the way, and for another, the corner with the back end of the awning is suspended over the river!) Anyway, we managed to all fit in somehow, including Yael’s portable camping high chair. It was our first dinner party in Sam, and I think hope the kids enjoyed it as much as Joe and I did!

After dinner, we said goodbye--  but not for long. I looked at the map to Big Cimarron Campground, where they are currently camped, and we are going to join them there tomorrow and stay for one night. By then, it will be time for us to start meandering eastward again. After tonight, I am not sure when we will have an Internet connection again--there is absolutely none at the Big Cimarron Campground. But I'm sure we'll find something again soon after we leave here.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

A Spectacular Anniversary

August 29, 2015
Panoramic View from Molas Pass
Today was Joe’s and my 44th wedding anniversary—the years sure do fly by! Last year, we spent our anniversary driving from Ohio to Michigan and celebrating at the first Michigan State football game of the season that night. This year, we drove on an All-American Road from Cortez to Ouray, Colorado. We have driven on some spectacular roads—my two favorites are the Bear Tooth Highway from Montana to Yellowstone National park, and the TiogaPass into Yosemite. But the Red Mountain Pass is right up there with them, emphasis on “UP there", at 11,018 feet.

I woke up this morning twice—once  at about 5:30, and after I read for a little while, I fell back asleep until about 8:00. I puttered around a little bit, called my mother, and made plans for the day. We decided not to linger in Cortez—we were here in 2007 on our first cross-country RV trip, and had both a great time and several intense adventures. So instead I followed up on some research I had done in advance by calling the 4J+1+1 RV Park (what a name, right?) in Ouray, to see if they could accommodate us tonight. It turned out that they had a space for us, by the river, so I gave the lady my credit card number, realizing that the way we dawdle, we might not make it by 5:00 as she suggested.

After that, we packed up and left Sundance RV Park. Our first stop was literally across the street at the Colorado Visitor Center, where we picked up a bunch of brochures covering our plans for the next few days in Colorado. I also discussed our route with them—there are two routes north to Ouray. Together they, plus a couple of other roads, form a “loop” which are the San Juan Skyway.  The thing is, route 550, which includes a section called the “Million Dollar Highway”, is reputed to be full of very narrow roads with tight twists and turns (no guardrails!), whereas the other route, while also very beautiful, is “easier” to drive. The lady at our RV park had told me that she literally could not drive that particular stretch, between Silverton and Ouray, because of her fear of heights, and that she’d seen people show up at her park literally shaking. However, after due reflection—and remembering we got over the Beartooth Highway with Mo—Joe decided that there was no problem, and Route 550 was for us.

We came from that road down there!
So we set out east on US 160 . We passed the entrance to Mesa Verde National Park, and continued on until Durango. There we stopped for gas and then headed north on Route 550. It immediately began to climb, and I calmed my nerves by concentrating on taking photos. Several times I just closed my eyes as we went around the curves, even though Joe did a GREAT job driving. We went through two passes, both well over 10,000 feet high.
View of Coal Bank Pass, 10,640 feet
 The second one, the Molas Pass, was totally gorgeous! We actually spent an hour up there, with me taking photos and Joey and Cassie wandering in the meadow, before we had some lunch (it was already 3pm, we discovered in surprise.) 
Molas Pass meadow view
The road began to descend from the Molas Pass with some quite nerve-wracking twists and turns until we arrived in the town of Silverton. Silverton (and also Ouray) are both designated as National Historic Districts, being full of well-preserved Victorian architecture from the late 19th century when both towns were connected with the discovery of silver and other precious metals, and the development of large-scale mining in the area. Since it was already getting a little bit late, I probably would have just passed Silverton, but we inadvertently took the turnoff to the main street, and it was so charming that we just had to stop. We parked our RV and wandered down the street, looking in windows and snapping photos (and Cassie was making friends with people and other dogs.) Besides all the cute little touristy shops in the vintage buildings, with the mountains for the backdrop, we came across a tiny park filled with various kinds of musical instruments, all played with mallets. There were hanging chimes, horizontal ones, and a fairly standard xylophone-type thing. It was all a kind of participatory art piece, and I heard someone saying that it was the work of a particular artist, who makes these musical installations for parks around the country.

The Road into Silverton
We didn’t do much to help the Silverton economy until Joe spotted a store which had batteries and data cards for cameras. I had been a little concerned that a couple of days ago, my batteries ran out. We thought we had plenty of AA batteries, but it turned out we didn’t! Luckily, we’d bought a gift and bought a small package of batteries to go with it, so I used those. I’ve had batteries on my shopping list since then. Then last night, just as we hit that extraordinary sunset, my data card read “full”. I took most of my sunset photos last night on my cell phone.  Here I was, about to begin driving the “Million Dollar Highway”, and God forbid my data card would be full! So I went in and bought both batteries and a new data card.

Joe and Cassie enjoy Silverton's Main Street
Harmony Park (Joe is playing at left)
As soon as we left Silverton, we began going up and up and UP again, and the roads became a lot more winding. We have gone over hairpin turns before, but you never really get used to them. The scenery, however, was as advertised—gorgeous. So I refused to look at the road too closely, and got out my camera. Wouldn’t you know it, the data card was FULL! I was SO VERY glad we’d picked up that second card!
It is only about 25 miles or so between Silverton and Ouray, and I probably took about 3-5 photos/mile. I’ll just put a bunch of them up here—there’s no point in trying to describe it! But when we got to the Red Mountain Pass, that is when all bets were off. As with last night, we’d timed it perfectly—it was about 5pm and the sun was low enough to bring out all the reds in the rock face. That, and the fact that the mountain was spectacular, ALMOST distracted me from the fact that the road was insanely twisted. I think we went down most of the way in 2nd, if not in 1st, gear. There were S turns and looping turns and hairpin turns and it was completely crazy—one set of turns had a 10 mph speed limit, it was so twisted and difficult to negotiate! Luckily, at the end of the worst set of twists, there was a big turnout for a scenic overlook, so Joe could park Samantha, get out, and really SEE the mountain. Man, it was incredible!

Red Mountain
From there we drove the rest of the way to Ouray—the road was beautiful, but not nearly as scary most of the rest of the way. There were two scenic overlooks that we could not stop at, because they were on the other side of the highway (where the cliff was dropping off) and on curves with double yellow lines. I didn’t envy the people on the other side of the road, however…. Near Ouray there was some construction and there was one section with a single lane, and there was NOTHING on the other side of the concrete barrier. The people going UP at that point were going to be looking down the side of a cliff the entire time.

We came down into Ouray at about 6pm, and found our campground without much difficulty. Ouray, like Silverton, is a lovely little Victorian town. The reason I chose this RV park, however, was entirely due to its location. It is right on the river; it is about two blocks from the center of town; and it is only a 5-10 minute walk to the town’s Hot Springs Pool, which is a public facility making the most of the fact that Ouray sits on natural hot springs. The Hot Springs Pool is like a big swim club with several pools of varying temperatures, plus a lap swimming section and a shallow section for young children. There’s also a massage facility right there, and a fitness center on the second floor of the bath house.

Our campsite is RIGHT on the river, and I mean ON it. Or rather, OVER it—our bedroom (the back end of our RV) is hanging over the edge. Our neighbors are as close as they were last night (these town-located RV parks are always quite stingy on the size of the individual sites) but we should have the sound of the river lulling us to sleep all night.

Anyway, we ate an anniversary dinner of grilled lamb chops, grilled romaine lettuce with a yummy dressing, and mashed potatoes. Then we quickly washed up and walked to the Hot Springs Pool. The facility is very nice, but it was pretty noisy and crowded—I guess being Saturday night, that’s not so surprising. We enjoyed our soak very much—it was a great ending to a great day—but we had to agree that we preferred the hot springs that we went to in Lava Hot Springs, Idaho, back in 2011. 

After about an hour, we got dressed again and walked slowly back to our campsite. Now I have about a million photos to go through to illustrate this blog! I’m hoping to sleep in tomorrow, though. We are waiting to hear from Ben and Miriam to finalize our plans for the next couple of days.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Traveling Through Red Rock Country

Full moon rises over red rocks, southwest Colorado

August 28, 2015

Today was a day with a little of this and a little of that. But first, I want to catch up with something I forgot yesterday! When we were in the Painted Desert, we stopped at an overlook to see Newspaper Rock, a large rock face which is covered with pictographs. They date back centuries. There was a scope to view the details of the pictographs, but my camera has an awesome zoom lens, and I captured photos which I think are as good as the ones in the park brochures! Here are a couple. I can’t believe I left them out of yesterday’s blog, so here they are.
Newspaper Rock
OK, so today…. We woke up pretty early this morning. I could have used more sleep—I was up until midnight last night catching up with the blog! But anyway we did wake up, so we had some breakfast, showered, and went back into “downtown” Holbrook to deal with the leaky tire. It took a little while just to get the tire off the RV, but once we did, the mechanic determined that the problem was not the tire at all, but the tire tube extender used to fill the tire with air. For only about $42, we not only got a new part, but Joe picked up a new tire pressure gauge, which was also something he had wanted to pick up at some point.

So it was only just past 10:00 Arizona time (which is 11:00 Mountain Daylight Time) when we left Holbrook. I had spent some time with the maps while the tire was being dealt with, and had decided to take a route through northeastern Arizona to the Four Corners Monument, even though it would be longer than going via I-40 back to Gallup, NM, and heading due north from there. My rationale was 1) we could stop at the Hubbell Trading Post, 2) some of the route was dotted (meaning it was a scenic route), and 3) we’d much prefer to avoid the interstate if possible. As it turned out, we were pretty much ooohing and aaaaahing over scenery all day.
Roadside scenery
Our route (US 191) took us through Indian territory—I think mostly Navajo (it is hard to tell from the maps.) It took a little over an hour, driving on a pretty road with some great scenery—more “painted desert” landscapes—but  almost no other traffic and no intersecting roads, to get to the Hubbell Trading Post Historic Site. We drove over a one-lane bridge and noticed a small mud-brick visitors center to our right and a long building ahead of us, with a parking area in front of it. We parked at the far end, near a stable (two horses) and corral. We walked to the other end—there seemed to be only the one door facing the parking lot, so that’s where we walked in.  The floor was creaky and not quite level, and as our eyes got used to the darkness inside, we realized we’d walked into a “store”, at least that’s what it seemed to be. What it actually was was the original Hubbell Trading Post, which still operates the way it always has—it is the oldest continuously operating trading post in the Navajo territory.

Original Hubbell Trading Post
What this means, we found out, is that this “store” is actually a source of supplies for the people who live in the surrounding area, and many of them continue to trade their goods for store credit. Besides grocery staples of all kinds, there were two more rooms, which contained jewelry, rugs, and handmade items of various types (musical instruments, children’s toys, etc.) These goods are traded for store credit, and then the Hubbell Trading Post sells them to tourists. Although we looked at all the items, many of them are quite expensive and we weren’t actually planning on shopping. We did, however, pick up several kinds of food items, including a box of traditional Navajo tea made from a shrub called greenthread (I will be tasting it while I type this) and a few other things that looked yummy.

Turned out, we were hungry! No wonder everything looked so yummy. So we went back to the Samantha (the RV) and had some lunch before going to the visitors center, where we probably should have started. It was only after reading the history of the site and learning how it functioned that we truly appreciated the store we had just been in. We read about the family of J.L. Hubbell, who ran the Trading Post for three generations before selling it to the government in 1965, with the stipulation that it continue to be run in the traditional way.  Members of several tribes, including Hopi, Navajo, and Pueblo, operate the Trading Post now. Most (if not all) other Trading Posts have become convenience stores.

Joe checks out the bread oven
Also on the property was the original home of the Hubbell family (but it was closed—they give tours but we weren’t there at the right time), a “guest Hogan” which is currently occupied, most likely by a park ranger, a vine-covered pagoda, an old brick bread oven, and a chicken coop. There is also a large corral with a small herd of churro sheep. One of the mainstays of the Navajo economy is weaving, and the sheep are integral to that occupation. There is a weaving room in the visitors center, and we saw looms and read about the sheep, how the yarn is woven, and the background of the colors traditionally used (it turns out, the deep Navajo red color was a specific preference of Hubbell, and his customers purposely used it in order to make their goods more attractive to him.) We strolled around for a little bit, looking at the buildings and animals (besides the two horses we’d seen earlier, the chickens, a turkey which kept gobbling at us, and the sheep, there was a llama in with the sheep). 

We left the Trading Post and continued on Route 191 to the town of Chinle. This is the location of Canyon de Chelly National Monument. I have heard that it is extremely beautiful—but we arrived at 4pm, and my guidebooks all said that each of the rim drives took about 2 hours. Joe and I went into the Visitor Center and talked to the ranger there, but after thinking about it, we decided we would have to skip seeing the canyon on this trip—we wanted to continue to Colorado. However, we did need some groceries, and Chinle is the largest town in the area. Sure enough, there was a supermarket as we headed out of town, so we stopped there to pick up a few things.

It seemed that everyone in the entire area had the same idea—the parking lot was hopping and the store was very busy. There was a line of folks waiting outside a check-cashing window, and we decided that everyone got paid today (Friday) and that accounting for the bustle both inside and out. 

Navajo Supermarket in Chinle
We always like to go into grocery stores in different parts of the country and see what they have that we might not see at home. Sure enough, the first thing we encountered were HUGE bags of flour. Then I noticed bags of corn husks—Joe says they are used to wrap lots of foods with. He had purchased a cookbook of Native American recipes while we were in the Canyon de Chelly Visitor Center, and the subject of lamb jumped out at him. We both went “Mmmmm”, so when we saw a butcher counter with lamb, he bought some (it was sold by the pound, not pre-packaged, so they cut it into chops for him while we waited.) The thing that tickled me the most was the fact that all the departments had the names not only in English, but in Navajo! I surreptitiously took a few photos while we were in the store.

By that time, it was almost 5pm, and we hit the road in earnest. It didn’t take long to remember reason number 2 for taking this road—suddenly we started seeing fabulous formations of red rocks, and we entered a magical land of eroded sandstone castles. They were some of the reddest rocks I have ever seen anywhere, and they were magnificent. We oohed and aaahed for the next two hours, even as the landscape changed a bit and became greener as we approached Four Corners Monument.

It was getting late and the Monument was closed when we got there, so we didn’t get the opportunity to spend $5 to stand in four states—Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico—simultaneously. Not long after, however, we DID have to stop. Once again, we encountered red rocks in the distance, but this time the full moon was rising over them, and it was the most exquisite thing we’d ever seen! I was taking pictures like a crazed person, and when a pull-out appeared, I made Joey stop the RV. We stood there for about 15 minutes, watching the shadows move over the rocks as the sun went down, and the moon grew brighter. Even after we finally continued on our way, I was taking more photos—the moon was amazing! The rocks were gorgeous! Definitely what we came out west to see, but the moon was just an added bonus.

By this time it was 8pm, and we really needed to stop for the night. I’d been kind of hoping we might get to Mesa Verde National Park earlier, so we could camp there. But by this time it was truly dark, and I remembered from our trip in 2007 that the park would be a little way past Cortez (our goal for tonight) and then going in and finding a site would not be easy, despite the light of the full moon. So I found an RV park in downtown Cortez—it is not beautiful but it was certainly convenient, being right on the main street in town. We pulled in at about 8:10, and that is where we are now. The town’s visitor center is right across the street, and tomorrow morning we will go over there and see what we want to do next.
PS: Note on the taste of the greenthread tea: It is a pleasant, grassy taste.

Joe, Debbie and Cassie at the Painted Desert
August 27, 2015

I am not going to write much today—it has been a long day and it’s late. But more important, a picture is worth 1,000 words! And the views we saw today are worth 10,000 words, for sure.

We began our morning before eating breakfast, leaving our Cracker Barrel overnight spot and heading west over the Arizona state line to finally get our Arizona sticker onto our states visited map. We stopped at the visitor center at the border for breakfast. I was dismayed when I went inside, however—the lady there told me that the visitor center would be closing next week! Apparently state budget cuts are responsible. I think this is terribly short-sighted of the legislature; we have stopped at every visitor center as we cross state lines, and it has encouraged us to visit more places (and spend more money!) The one time we entered a state with no visitor center, we felt unwelcome and were not inclined to stay very long. In any case, she encouraged me to “take as many brochures as you want”, so I took a number of things which I hope will be informative in the future, if not on this trip.

After breakfast, we sped off down I-40 again until we came to the exit for the Painted Desert/Petrified Forest National Park. We followed the single road from the north end of the park to the south end—it took us the entire day. The park is dog-friendly, so Cassie joined us on a number of walks and overlooks. We spent much more time than we expected—the park was just so beautiful! Here are some photos of the Painted Desert:

The Painted Desert is the only national park through which the original Route 66 passed. This 1932 Studebaker and the sign by it are on the site of Route 66.

The southern part of the park (south of I-40) is the part with the petrified trees. I was not expecting to be blown away by rocks that looked like trees, but I was wrong. The longer I looked at them, the more fascinating they got. As Joe put it, they really “mess with your head.” They look JUST like trees on the outside, yet the insides are so colorful and clearly a mineral, not a vegetable substance like a tree should be.  Here are some photos:

It's almost impossible to believe this is a rock!
At one point, we were entirely alone on an outlook, except for this raven (we think), who kept cawing and cawing at us. Finally as we stood watching him, he deliberately walked closer to us and I took these photos. He opened his mouth VERY wide—we could see his dark pink throat as he cawed LOUDLY at us. He finally made us a little bit nervous, because he was clearly totally unafraid of us, and he seemed to be quite determined to communicate something. Being merely stupid human beings, we were unable to understand the details of the message.

When we left the park, it was about 4:30ish, and we were tired. We decided to spend the night at a “real” campground, as there was a KOA in Holbrook, the next town to the west of the national park. So we drove there from the southern park entrance. This turned out to be a serendipitous decision for us, because I checked with my Route 66 guide, and discovered that old Route 66 runs right through the town.  The centerpiece for us was the Wigwam Motel—it is just the iconic Route 66 landmark! But we also took photos of several other vintage signs and businesses on the main street. We just loved the place!

Tomorrow morning we will be going back into the center of Holbrook—we have decided to deal with the tire which keeps losing air. Joe says it’s been a problem since he bought it. The Route 66 Tire company is just opposite the Wigwam Motel, so I suspect I’ll end up taking even more photos before we change direction toward Colorado and have to leave Route 66.