Road Trip to Utah - part 3

I woke up just before the sun did, looking forward to our day's adventure. I like to sleep in a room that's a little bit cooler than my buddy Mike likes (he say's Eskimos would complain) so he always grabs all the blankets in the room and hides under them during the night. I fumbled my way to the bathroom and flipped on enough lights where I could see to turn on the heat so the room would be just short of hellish and I wouldn't have to listen to him bitching about the cold. The shower had plenty of hot water and nice, fluffy towels so I took my time conducting my morning ritual. 

Walking back into the room, there was no Mike up and at 'em, but there was a lump under the pile of covers on his bed so I grabbed the approximate place where I judged his toes to be and gave a good tug. "Get your butt out of bed, Dude, daylights a burning" A few mumbles of protest later, he crawled out.

While he took his turn in the shower, I spent the time outside standing on the 2nd floor walkway watching the new day be born as the sandstone hills behind the motel across from us changed from dark red to bright orange. This early in the morning, there wasn't much vehicle traffic, but I noted lot's of tourist-type businesses up and down Main Street. Nowadays, Moab is in the tourist business; its sole purpose seems to be in getting thousands of tourists each year to part with as much of their money as possible, but I thought of what Moab must have been like in years past.

In the 1830's and 1840's, travelers crossed the Colorado River just north of present-day Moab. In 1855, members of the Elk Mountain LDS Mission built a settlement here, but were soon driven out by Ute Indians who did not take kindly to uninvited outsiders taking over their land. In the 1870's after the Utes were driven away, a ragged collection of rustlers, drifters, outlaws and broken Civil War veterans began settling at the formerly abandoned site. Eventually, another group of Mormons came in and established a settlement with laws, homes and businesses.

Charlie Steen (file photo)
Moab continued to be a sleepy little hamlet miles from anywhere until 1952. It probably would have stayed that way if not for the atomic bomb. As part of a nationwide search for uranium, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) established a very generous fixed price as an incentive for miners. A down-on-his-luck Texan named Charlie Steen discovered a big strike just south of Moab in an area the AEC geologists had declared "barren of possibilities." Steen, his wife and 4 sons went from living in a tiny tar-paper shack where they had been barely subsisting day-to-day into a mansion on a hill which cost $250,000 (over $1,300,000 in 2017 dollars) to build. The mansion included an in-ground pool, green-house and servant's quarters. He named his mine Mi Vida (my life) and before it was closed, over $100 million of uranium was pulled from it, making the Steen's very rich. It also led to a huge increase of Moab residents which overnight became "The Uranium Capital of the World." The town owes much to Charlie Steen as he donated most of the money for the hospital and donated money and land he purchased for the building of schools and churches.

The mansion he built in 1953 still stands and has been converted into a restaurant called The Sunset Grill. I kind of wish we had dined there as the view overlooking the hills and town is supposed to be spectacular, but we didn't. It was only open between 5:00pm and 9:00pm and we were always busy doing something at that time or were real tired after a full day and just wanted to chill in the room with pizza delivered. Plus it's pretty darn expensive (as in $40 - $50 per person) and the food is stuff like Wild Mushrooms Vol au Vent, Escargot Kathleen, and Raspberry Duck with basmati rice. Not only did we heathens not know what that stuff is, with food like that, we didn't know if they would even let us in wearing jeans or shorts and t-shirts, the only kind of clothes we had brought.

Between 1980 and 1990, the population of Moab doubled as entrepreneurs bought surplus army rafts and converted them to river-running boats and surplus Army 4-wheel-drive Hummers which were converted for back-country and rock climbing adventures. From 1995 through 1999, the population doubled again as mountain biking the slick rock trails became hugely popular. Today, over 5,225 souls call Moab home.

The Bowen Motel didn't have a "free" breakfast so after Mike was finally ready for the day, we walked next door to a little cafĂ© called Love Muffin. It was better than expected. Good blueberry muffins and a really good cup of coffee. Good enough that we agreed to eat breakfast there again the next day.

Colorado River along Scenic Byway 128
With water bottles full, camera gear strapped on, a handheld GPS, light jackets and hiking shoes on our feet, we set off northwest through town on Hwy 191 for 2 miles and turned northeast on Utah Scenic Byway 128. Scenic is a good word for this road as it winds its way through red rock canyons following the Colorado River. Several times we stopped in pullouts to walk around and take pictures. Just 3 miles traveling on Byway 128 brought us to our destination, the Negro Bill Canyon trailhead. The 3-mile moderately difficult trail is considered to be one of Utah's most pleasant day hikes. It parallels a beautiful little year-round creek beneath high cliffs and ends up at Morning Glory Arch in the northern end of the Sand Flats Recreation Area. The canyon was named in the 1800's for African American pioneer William Granstaff who grazed his cattle there. Although now politically incorrect, it has retained its name for historical reasons.

Trailhead information sign
Turning into the paved parking lot, we were surprised to find nobody there. After grabbing our hiking sticks and making sure we had everything we needed, we marked our position on the GPS, set it to drop breadcrumbs, read the trail information sign and headed out. Right out of the gate, there's a stretch of uphill going in an open, rocky area. With no trees for shade and even with a chill in the morning air, it got real warm real quick and it was easy to tell we did not want to be doing this in the middle of the summer! Within a few hundred yards though, we picked up the gently gurgling creek and the trees and grasses growing up on either side. The trail wasn't marked, but we had no trouble following it as it went along next to the stream. There were a couple of places where we had to cross the creek due to tall, sheer walls of rock blocking the way on one side. Mostly the water wasn't deep and we were able to take big, quick steps to keep our shoes mostly dry, but in one place we took off our shoes and socks and waded across as the water was up to our shins and too wide to jump.

Open area at the start of the trail.
About 1/3 of the way along, we entered an area where the sheer cliffs soared hundreds of feet above us on either side. We had not seen another person along the trail. We felt very small, totally alone in the world, and the silence was deafening. We didn't talk much and when we did, it was almost in whispers. We took breaks every few hundred yards, not because we actually needed it, but because we wanted to sit and try to take it all in. No people, no rustling animals, no birds, not even an airplane flew overhead to disturb our reverie. It was one of those times which are hard to explain to others, but you will fondly recall for the rest of your life. It made me wish I was a poet.

After another 1/2 mile or so, we came to a place where we had difficulty proceeding due to another stretch of high stone walls so we decided to cross over to the other side of the stream. After walking a few feet through some tall grass, we were surprised to run into a Park Ranger squatted on the ground working on some steps cut into a section of the trail which rose about 12 feet. We stopped to talk and he told us a recent heavy rain has caused the creek to rise high enough that it washed away the cut tree limbs placed as footsteps to help people get up the steep incline. He had a saw, hammer and shovel and was replacing the steps. He said we were the first people he had seen since another ranger had dropped him off that morning. "Isn't this beautiful?" he asked. "I really do love my job." We made it up the slick incline by holding onto tree limbs and he told us to watch out for a spot a little ways on where the trail had been washed out. "Just keep going and you'll be able to pick it up again a ways on."

Along the trail
We came to a point where we had to climb over and crawl through a bunch of boulders to keep going. There was still no trail markers and we had to stop, study and backtrack a couple of times before we made it through. It was hard enough to be a bit challenging, but not so bad that we got lost or needed a break afterwards.

We had gone several hundred yards beyond "the boulders" when we heard a noise behind us. The noise quickly got closer until we saw an absolutely beautiful girl jogging on the trail toward us. Right behind her was a huge German Shepherd dog. Wearing black-and-gold skin-tight jogging pants, black shoes, body-hugging sleeveless white top, a multi-colored sweat band around her head and her pony-tailed blond hair swinging to-and-fro, this absolute vision of loveliness who could easily have been a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model simply said, "On your left" as she ran past us. The dog didn't say anything and neither did we as she went around a curve and out of sight. Mike and I looked at each other for a few wordless seconds with what I'm sure were amusing looks of extreme surprise and shock. After we found our voices:

Mike: "Where'd she come from?"
Me: "She was jogging this thing!"
Mike: "How'd she get through those boulders?"
Me: "Don't know but with a body like that, she must be a triathlete."
Mike: "Probably. Looked like she has about 0% body fat."
Me: "She was fit, that's for sure."
Mike: "I guess she'll be coming back. I'll say hi and maybe she'll stop and talk."
Me: "Right. We're like 3 times her age and hundred dollar bills are not exactly falling out of our pockets. Besides, did you see what she had in her right hand?"
Mike: "No. What?"
Me: "Looked like a can of mace or pepper spray."
Mike: "So?"
Me: "So she would most likely spray your ass and that dog will have your gonads for his mid-morning snack."
Mike: "Whatever... I sure am looking forward to her coming back."

About 30 minutes later, she did. Still jogging, still gorgeous, still not sweating, still holding that little can of pepper spray and still accompanied by that big dog. Mike and I got in a single file on one side of the trail and this time as she passed by, she gave us a quick look, a Mona Lisa smile and said "Hi" as she quickly passed by. I think we both fell in love with her a little bit right then. We didn't say it, but I'm sure we were both thinking the same thing - oh to be young again. And then she was gone.

The stream along the trail
Eventually we came to a large open area and there about 100 yards in front of us was Morning Glory Arch and the end of the trail. With a span of 243 feet, it is the 6th longest natural rock span in the United States and we were standing there looking at it. Before proceeding through the tree's and bushes to the arch, we found a large flat-topped rock, climbed up and sat down resting and looking around, marveling at the beauty which surrounded us. Mike went on ahead and I stayed behind, lost in my own thoughts and feeling a desire to spend a little time alone in this beautiful, isolated spot. On the one hand we still had to make it back to the trailhead, but on the other hand it felt like the end of a wondrous adventure. Thornton Wilder said, "We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures" and in the moment, I was keenly aware of the treasure I was experiencing.

Me on the trail
About an hour later, we began the hike back and somehow lost our way at the washed out spot the Ranger had warned us about. When I noticed I didn't recognize where we  were at, I looked at the GPS and found we had gotten about 100 yards down a side trail. We followed the barely visible trail, probably just an animal trail, for a way to see where it took us, but it ended in a little grove of trees and thick brush we couldn't get through so we backtracked until we found a place where we could cut over and get back to the right trail. We arrived at the place where the ranger was and found he had completed his repair work. Since it was now later in the morning, we thought we would surely encounter other hikers, but it wasn't until we arrived within a quarter mile of the trailhead that we ran into a group of other people. Once we passed them, we found a good number of folks hiking in.

When we arrived at the parking lot, it was almost full of cars, people were milling around all over the place and a school bus had pulled in and was off-loading about 30 laughing, boisterous, loud teenagers accompanied by 3 adults. Don't get me wrong, I like to see young folks all happy and having a good time, but my relief at not having shared the trail with all these yo-yo's destroying the peace and tranquility cannot be overstated.

Morning Glory Arch at the end of the trail
After a quick trip to the restroom, we dumped our stuff in the truck, grabbed a fresh, cold bottle of water from the ice chest on the back floorboard and headed a few miles further up Scenic Byway 128 to our next stop at a ranch where at least 9 movies and TV shows have been filmed. As they say in show business though, that's a story for another day.

(Go to part 1 here)

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.)

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)