Road Trip to Utah - part 2

After checking out of the Econo Lodge in Cortez, we backtracked the scenic 14 miles on Highway 160 to the entrance of Mesa Verde National Park. I had been to the park a couple of times previously, but my traveling buddy had not and I wanted my friend to see and experience it. Usually, I'm not big on going somewhere and seeing the same thing more than once - there's just too much of the wide, wide world to see before I shuffle off this mortal coil. However, Mesa Verde is different. I want to go back every time I find myself in this part of the country. Maybe it's some kind of subconscious connection or maybe I just like standing on the edge of the canyon wall wondering what it was like to live in the crevices of the cliffs. It's an awesome setting. It's peaceful.

The little orange spot you see
in the middle right is me,
enjoying peace and quiet on
the canyon rim.
Mesa Verde, Spanish for "Green Table,"  is where Ancestral Pueblo people made their home for over 700 years, from AD 550 to 1300. The Anasazi (Navajo word meaning 'ancient ones') and their descendants lived and flourished there, eventually building elaborate stone communities in the sheltered alcoves of the canyon walls. Why they built their homes in that manner is not known for sure; perhaps protection from enemies or shelter from harsh weather. Archeologists estimate there were about 2,000 people living in the communities. Then, for some unknown reason, within a space of 50 - 75 years, they all moved away and were lost to history. There are over 5,000 known archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings, located within the park.

The Anasazi used nature to their advantage by building their dwellings beneath the overhanging cliffs. Their basic construction material was sandstone that they shaped into rectangular blocks about the size of a loaf of bread. The mortar between the blocks was a mix of mud and water. Walls of thick, double-coursed stone often rose two or three stories high and were joined together into units of 50 rooms or more. The rooms averaged about six feet by eight feet, enough space for two or three people. Isolated rooms in the rear and on the upper levels were generally used for storing crops. Underground kivas, (ceremonial chambers) were built in front of the rooms.  The kiva roofs created courtyards where many daily routines took place.

Cliff ruins
As always, I thoroughly enjoyed the visit and my friend was very impressed and glad we took this little detour on our way to Utah. Our timing (mid-May) couldn't have been better as the weather was chilly, but not cold, clear air with beautiful blue skies and it was just before the high tourist season started so we had a lot of the sites and almost all of the short hikes we took all to ourselves. We ended up staying almost a full day and enjoyed every second. It was an amazing experience I'll not forget.

Shortly before the sun slipped behind the cliffs, we left the park and returned to Cortez via Hwy 160. After a quick bite to eat at Wendy's, we caught Hwy 491 going north and 2 hours later we arrived at the Bowen Motel in Moab, Utah. We actually stopped at several other motels in town, but didn't want to pay their outrageous prices. The Bowen was a bit older, but well-maintained, clean and a little cheaper than the other places so we settled in for the night.

We were surprised by how expensive the rooms in Moab were, but I guess it's a "destination" and there aren't that many rooms available. Neither of us are cheapskates, but it does bother me to pay more than twice the price we paid for a room the night before and it's not as nice. Supply and demand, I guess. However, the front desk person was nice and the room was clean so what the heck, it's only money. (Did I really just say that?)

We spent time that evening going over maps and brochures we had picked up and a Utah visitors book I had purchased from Barnes and Noble before we left on the trip. We decided to get an early start to hike a remote trail the next day so with that in mind, we made calls to our respective spouses to let them know we were still alive and turned in for the night - after I gave Mike my extra blanket and turned down the A/C to "meat locker" temp of course!

Parking lot of the Bowen Motel in Moab, UT

(go to part 1 here.)
part 3 will be posted 4/28/17

Road Trip to Utah - part 1

Early last summer, a good friend and I headed to Utah on our annual “Mancation.” Mancation is what we call a vacation taken together by 2 heterosexual men – leave the women-folk and children behind and go somewhere to do manly stuff. Having been married to our respective wives for lo these many years now and especially since we both retired, the women we belong to don’t seem to be very upset when we go on these sojourns. As a matter of fact, every few months they are kind enough even to strongly suggest it’s time for us to have another Mancation!

Having packed up the truck the night before, we left early on a Monday morning (yes, 8:30 is early for us. Hello - retired!) from his home in a suburb of Dallas, Texas. We drove almost 2 whole miles before deciding we were hungry and should eat breakfast before we hit those long, lonesome Texas roads. The next IHOP we came to took care of our hunger and with a coffee to go, off we were.
We made good time getting to Amarillo and caught Interstate-40 to keep going west at a good clip. Having not seen each other for several months the first couple of hours were spent in conversation talking about football, cars, what was going on in the kid’s lives, politics and complaining about getting old and the various ailments that come with that. Easy conversation between good friends, randomly jumping from one topic to the next and back again. Once on I-40, the mind-numbing sameness of the interstate gradually brought us both down from our beginning-a-trip adrenalin high. We fell into a comfortable quietness as we drove on and on, mile after mile through the flat, seemingly endless west Texas landscape.

Route 66 Motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico
475 miles and nine hours after leaving Dallas, we came to Tucumcari, New Mexico and decided that was far enough for one day. We found a very reasonably priced room at the Historic Route 66 Motel on Tucumcari Blvd. The decent-sized rooms were wonderfully retro with a 1950’s/1960’s vibe and very clean with comfortable beds, plenty of hot water for showers, a TV and a nearby restaurant that served good grub. What more could a couple of guys want?! Tired from driving all day, we turned off the lights at 10:00pm and crawled into our beds. The last thing said before we drifted off to sleep was, “These sheets smell good.” “Yeah, they do.” The next thing I knew, it was morning.
After checking out of the motel and a quick breakfast, we got back on I-40 still heading west. 175 miles later came Albuquerque, where we topped off the truck with gas and got a couple of large Cherry Limeades to go from that seemingly everywhere road trip fast food staple, Sonic. Excellent cups that keep their crunchy ice frozen and your drink cold for hours! I can't remember a road trip I've taken that didn't have multiple stops for drinks at Sonic.

Continuing west on I-40 for an hour outside of Albuquerque, we came to the town of Laguna on the Laguna Indian Reservation. The interstate takes a little dip to the south here whereas Route 66 continues almost in a straight-line west for a few miles. Just for something different to see, we decided to take Route 66 until it meets back up with I-40. To tell the truth, the scenery wasn’t much different, but the pace sure slowed down once we were on Route 66. Just being on “The Mother Road” seems to evoke a nostalgic feeling of yesteryear, a time we think of as being more innocent and better than the here and now. (check out our Route 66 trip here.)

Within a few miles, we entered the community of Casa Blanca, one of those middle-of-nowhere places populated by a few hard-working folks making it through life as best they can. Surprisingly, there was a Dairy Queen right there in the middle of nowhere so we decided to stop and give them some business. Dairy Queen is known for having decent, but not great food – food perfect for a quick stop along the way, but the burgers and fries we got were actually really good. The service was friendly, the place was clean – even the restroom smelled lemony-fresh. It was a nice stop.

While talking over our Dairy Queen burgers, we discovered neither of us had ever seen Shiprock (the mountain, not the town) in person, which we had both heard about and seen in old west movies and we were less than 200 miles from it. Looking at the map, we decided instead of going up NM-170 out of Farmington into Colorado, we would stay on NM-64 to the town of Shiprock and then head south-southwest from there to the mountain. On Mancation, we usually have an ultimate destination, but no time limit to get there and the route and things to see along the way are open to whatever strikes our interest so this decision fit right in. Unfortunately, we ran into a little bit of unwanted excitement on this particular detour.

Here comes the dust!
All was good until just after we passed through the town of Shiprock. While driving along minding our own business, out of nowhere came an epic dust storm, a dust storm like neither of us had ever seen before. We could see it coming toward us, but we were still shocked at the intensity as all that sand came barreling in on howling winds. We kept going, but had to slow down to creep speed. Many cars and a lot of big trucks pulled off to the side of the road. For mile after mile, the sand obscured our vision and the wind blew so hard it felt like our truck would be blown off the road. Eventually it died down and through the gloom in the distance we could see our target.

We had to turn off the highway onto a smaller road and then onto a rough Navajo Indian Reservation dirt road. We saw no one else, not a car, not a person, not even a horse for several miles as we travelled down this almost-washed-out path of a road. The landscape was of a huge, wide-open, stark place. There were no trees to break up miles and miles of nothing much, but there was a stark beauty about it. I've always appreciated land like this and found it to be awe inspiring and conducive to quiet introspection.

Geographically speaking, Shiprock is a monadnock, a term meaning "a mountain or rocky mass that has resisted erosion and stands isolated in an essentially level area." The term perfectly describes Shiprock. After watching it for what seemed like forever as it got closer and bigger in our windshield, we finally made it to the wide base. After coming to the end of the dirt road, we had to park and walk a few minutes to get up to the huge fragmented rock that rises 1,583 feet above the flat plain. Standing at the base ensures you feel very small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

Along the way, we saw 6 young native-Americans in a group sitting on a couple of jutting rocks, a couple of girls and 4 boys. They kept staring at us, not smiling, as we were passing by within about 50 yards of them. Here we were, 2 white dudes with a couple of nice expensive cameras around our necks on their land, far from anywhere in a very desolate area with nobody else around for miles. I’m not embarrassed to admit we were a bit nervous. About the time we got even with their position though, one of the girls smiled and waved and a couple of the guys gave friendly nods of their heads and none of them made any moves toward us so it seemed ok to go on. I think they were just having fun with "the white tourists." We rounded an outcrop of rock and after walking around exploring for about an hour, we came back the same way and they were gone. We never saw any cars or horses or any other way for them to arrive at such a lonely, out-of-the-way place, but they were nowhere to be seen. Very strange, but just another Mancation adventure on the road!

Shiprock as the sandstorm calmed
After carefully and slowly making our way back down the very rutted dirt road to pavement, we headed north on Hwy 491. This used to be the infamous Hwy 666, known as "The Devil's Highway" and "Highway to Hell." Considered to be one of the most famous roads in North America, the whole 200 miles of it is reputedly very haunted. Strangely, until the Highway Department changed the number from 666 to Hwy 491 in 2003, there was a much higher than average number of accidents and deaths that occurred on this stretch that no one has ever been able to explain. After the numbers were changed, the number of accidents and deaths immediately dropped to coincide with the national average. Some say the high number of accidents and deaths occurred because of the evil that was rumored to reside on and around the road. Many say after the renaming, the drop in accidents and deaths was because individuals no longer experienced the psychological fear that something bad would happen to them while traveling down a highway numbered 666. Some, though, claim the number 491 fails to lure the same evil spirits that are said to lurk along this highway in the same manner that the number 666 does.
(file photo)
Fortunately, nothing untoward happened to us even though we didn't make it to Cortez, Colorado until after dark. We found an Econo Lodge that had a room with 2 beds at a good (read "cheap") rate with a Denny's right across the street. Plenty good enough for a couple of tired guys who just wanted some food, a shower to get the sand washed off  and a safe place to get a few hours sleep. After checking in, we walked across the street and had breakfast for supper. Not the best food I've ever had, but not bad either and it filled the hole in my tummy.
After showers, we crawled in our beds and turned off the lights. Can't tell you if the TV worked cause we never turned it on.

The next morning we jogged across the street to Denny's again for a biscuit & gravy and sausage breakfast. We were served by Deedee, a cute young lady with several of the top buttons on her uniform open. She certainly knew how to smile and "friendly flirt" with a couple of past-their-prime, road tripping guys in order to get a good tip. The service was attentive, the interaction was fun and the food was good. After Deedee provided us with coffee's-to-go, we left a generous tip and headed toward our next stop - Mesa Verde National Park.

(continue to part 2)

Tragedy in New London

The New London school before the explosion
(historical photo)
In 1937, the New London school district in Texas was one of the richest rural school districts in America due to income from the oil and natural gas fields surrounding the small town. Over 10,000 derricks surrounded the area; eleven of them operating on the school grounds itself. That income enabled the building of a beautiful, 2-story, modern, steel-framed building where kindergarten through 11th grade classes were held. Just before the 1st day of spring that year, the school would become the site of the most heart-wrenching school day in America’s history.

On March 18th, at 3:17pm,the older students were in their last class, minutes away from the last bell. The children in kindergarten through 4
th grade had already been dismissed for the day. The PTA was meeting in the gym as L. R. Butler, the instructor of manual training, turned on a sanding machine in the shop room under the building. Unfortunately, there had been a slow, but prolonged gas leak from a 2-inch pipe. At that time, no one had thought to add a noxious smell to gas to enable detection of it so even though it had accumulated in a large pocket, it had been undetected because it was colorless and odorless. When Mr. Butler turned on the switch, an electrical spark ignited the gas which had accumulated in an enclosed 253-foot long by 56-foot wide space beneath the basement floor.

Minutes after the explosion
(historical photo)
The explosion was so massive that it lifted the concrete floor and the entire building into the air. When it crashed back down, the walls collapsed and the roof fell in. Bricks, steel beams and huge pieces of concrete rained down on the students and adults trapped in the classrooms. So powerful was the explosion that it was heard over 4 miles away and it threw a 2-ton piece of concrete through the air for more than 200 feet where it demolished someone’s new Chevrolet.

Stunned parents at the PTA meeting ran
to the school building and began frantically digging through the massive mound of ruble screaming for their children buried underneath. As word of the disaster quickly spread, the town’s residents came running with shovels and rakes. Roughnecks from the oilfields rushed to the school with heavy-duty equipment. Police, including members of the Highway Patrol and Texas Rangers arrived and pitched in to help.
It began to rain as darkness set in, but floodlights were set up and the workers continued digging through the rubble looking for victims all night. There were a few miracles as a survivor would be dug out of the rubble, but mostly, the heart-breaking screams of anguished parents were heard over and over as workers pulled another lifeless body of a child from the debris and it was identified.

It took seventeen hours for all the victims to be recovered. Garages, churches and even the roller rink were all used as makeshift hospitals and morgues. Of the 500 students and 40 teachers, school employees and visitors in the building, 294 had died that day. Another 17 severely injured victims died in the days and weeks following the explosion bringing the total number to 311.
Killed in blast
5th Grade
6th Grade
7th Grade
8th Grade
9th Grade
10th Grade
11th Grade
There were many horror stories. One family lost all three of their children; one mother could positively identify her ten-year-old’s body only because the little girl, while playing dress-up the night before, had used a crayon to color her toenails red. A set of twins was found lying next to each other, the boy’s arm in death reaching toward his sister. The youngest victim was only 4 years-old. He had been excited to accompany his mother on a visit to see his big sister’s class.
As the last of the debris was being removed from the site, a blackboard was found beneath a large concrete block. The message the teacher had written that day was still legible – “Oil and natural gas are East Texas’ greatest mineral blessings. Without them this school would not be here and none of us would be here learning our lessons.”
Within two months, the Texas Legislature passed a law requiring refiners to add a scent to odor-free natural gas. Today, because of the familiar stink of a chemical called mercaptan, another tragedy like New London will never happen again.