Amarillo & Oklahoma City – National Parks Road Trip – Day 19

A cold, rainy , dark morning greeting us as we left Albuquerque for the long drive to Oklahoma City. Our route, I-40, parallels U.S. 66 the entire route, and most of the towns that have been bypassed try and entice you off the interstate with Route 66 kitsch. We finally succumbed to the allure at Tucumcari, New Mexico as we drove along Route 66. The town now seems vacant and most buildings are boarded up and dilapidated. We did see some Route 66 murals and signs of a once vibrant area.

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After passing through town, essentially non stop, we were back on the Interstate.Just before the Texas border we near Glenrio, New Mexico at Russell’s Traveland.  Here the owner has a private collection of cars and 1950’s memorabilia nicely displayed next to a 1950’s diner, novelty store and gas station.

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Next stop was Adrian, Texas, who has the appeal of being the midpoint of Route 66 from Chicago, Illinois to Los Angeles, California. It is exactly 1139 miles to each end of Route 66. The town had a few buildings, and a cafe. A historical marker noted the midway point while the exact midway point is also painted on the road.

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After a quick couple of photos, it was back onto I-40 headed to Amarillo, Texas for what I expected to be a highlight of a lap around America tour, Cadillac Ranch. It is raining as we drive down the freeway and we can see the back ends of the Cadillacs sticking out of the ground.

Parking behind other tourists making the trip through the mud to get a close up look at the Cadillacs, I schlepped through the mud to walk back to the cars. The Cadillacs were thick with inches of paint over every inch of surface inside and out of the cars. People who have visited from all over the world left their mark on these cars by spray painting bright colored graffiti and attaching items.

It was amusing as we watched other tourist trying to remove shoes caked in mud. The mud was so thick on their shoes that they had trouble walking. I foruntately had put on my ‘mudders’, so after a quick shoe change we were off again on I-40.

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On the south side of Amarillo, Texas is an RV museum, which is actually a personal collection at Jack Sizemore’s RV Traveland. The Sizemore’s began restoring and collecting unusual vintage RV’s over 25 years ago. They built a museum that houses many of the RV’s in their collection.

These include the Flexible Bus from the Movie RV and the first Itasca motor home ever built. The museum also had a great display of motorcycles that sat upon shelves on the wall, camping items, and 50’s and 70’s memorabilia strewn about relating to different campers and RV’s through the decades. All were open, so we wandered in and out of them for about an hour, including the retro RV driven by the Gornick’s in the movie.

We signed the guest book and pinned our town of Columbus, Ohio on the map at the exit. Two world maps were posted since so many people have come to see the museum and marked their homeland with a pin. Europe and the USA were jammed with pins but other countries around the world were pinned also.

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We arrived at Oklahoma City about late afternoon, and after checking into the Holiday Express in the old Bricktown section. As we walked through the city, we found the Chickasaw Brickyard Stadium, home for the Oklahoma AAA baseball team. It is a minor league team for the L A Dodgers. We sneaked a peek at batting practice before we were asked to leave. After dinner at the Bourbon Street Restaurant for dinner, we continued to tour downtown Oklahoma City.

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At the edge of downtown is the Oklahoma City National Memorial dedicated to the 168 killed in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and their families. Two gates tower at each end of the reflective pool. One gate marks the time one minute before the bombing and the other gate marks the time one minute after the bombing. The later time stands for the start of healing.

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A museum detailing the disaster stands on one side of the pool and black metal chairs placed in rows upon the lawn line the opposite side of the pool. The nine rows of chairs represent the nine floors of the building and each chair is the position of the floor for each victim.

The large chairs embody each adult victim and the small chairs symbolize each child victim within the building’s daycare who died. Five separate chairs signify those victims who perished outside the building at the time of the bombing.

As the sun set through the opening of the west gate, lights illuminated the chairs. Though the scene was a perfect photographic moment, the memorial posed a somber reflection for all.

 

Albuquerque – National Parks Road Trip – Day 18

Easily the best breakfast we have had on this road trip was at the Drury Inn in Santa Fe, setting us up for another excellent day. Before we retrieved the car from the valet and checked out of the hotel we set off on a two hour walking tour of more of the city. Santa Fe was settled in 1610, making it one of the oldest towns in America, and as a result they have some very old structures, including what is commonly thought of as the oldest house in America, an adobe structure in the historic downtown district circa 1646. The doors and windows are small to combat the desert heat. Directly across the street is the San Miguel Church, which, according to its plaque, is even older than the Oldest House.

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Our morning walk allowed us to admire even more art along the street, eventually leading us to the New Mexico State Capitol. It is a round building with a southwestern style filled with galleries of art. We took a self-guided tour after registering at the front desk, wandering through office hallways of people working as part of the tour. The capitol had paintings in watercolors, oils, fabric as well as photography.

We stumbled into the governor’s office where Fran, the governor’s assistant, kindly gave us information, pins, and a map, as well as the opportunity to purchas a Christmas ornament as a souvenir which helped support the governor’s art program. After returning to the hotel and checking out we took a last drive down Canyon Road through the art district to see the many galleries and the exterior art displayed outside their shops. Santa Fe is a beautiful city and we enjoyed our time there.

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Immediately upon our arrival late morning in Albuquerque we went to the Balloon Museum, finding it closed that day (a Monday). For an alternate choice took us to Sandia Peak Tramway. The tram took  20 minutes to go up the mountain reaching an elevation of 10,378 feet lifting us up 2.7 miles.

The 11,000 square-mile panoramic view of the Rio Grande Valley was striking. The temperature dropped dramatically at this elevation from the valley below and it was also windy. One of the features of the tram is the opportunity to see different climate zones as the tram made its way up the mountain. Once at the top there is a ski lift for snow trails and ski runs at the top of the mountain during the winter months.

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After a quick lunch of Kobe burgers (they were excellent) at the High Finance restaurant, situated at the top of the mountain, we went back outside to photograph the tram and the view of a distant Santa Fe and Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Amazingly, at times, the tram will stop at the towers to let workers climb out of the tram to grease the equipment then let the tram continue up the mountain. Another tram picked up the worker after he finished. Maintenance is performed regularly during its operation. This seemed extremely dangerous while the worker hung to the tower in the wind more than two hundred feet above the ground. Fourth-grade schoolchildren poured out of the next tram and things got noisy. Later we rode the tram back down the mountain with the last load of school kids.

It was time to find another Roadside America offbeat tourist attraction. So we drove to a residential section of Albuquerque to see the (bug house or spaceship house as some refer to it). The bug house is tucked into an average neighborhood but the sight of this house is not average. It looks as if a giant caterpillar is mounted to the top of the house where the roof should be. The house has a glass and rounded metal facade The house was designed by Bart Prince, a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright. Two metal dinosaur sculptures stood guard in front of the home. The house across the street was also interesting with its angular style.

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We moved on to see the Albuquerque Isotope baseball field. After yet another t-shirt purchase, and a brief explanation about our 24 day road trip around America, the manager opened up the gate allowing us to walk in the stadium and pose with the Simpson characters and to look around. The Simpsons are part of the theme of the park since the team is called the Isotopes and Homer Simpson worked at a nuclear plant.

The Isotopes earned their name by a majority vote of its city residents influenced by a TV Simpson episode threatening to move the Springfield team to Albuquerque, New Mexico and also because Albuquerque has research labs. The Isotopes are a Triple A team for the Colorado Rockies.

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Old Albuquerque is just west of downtown, and is the original site of the town. While the buildings are very old, the entire area is very touristy, with the typical trinkets shops. We spent a brief time here before returning downtown to check into our hotel.

We reached our hotel, The Andaluz in downtown Albuquerque. The Andaluz was a sophisticated boutique hotel opened in 1939 by Conrad Hilton for the wealthy. The lobby has classic Moorish decor with private dining rooms built into alcoves behind heavy drapes. It also has a hotel library, a terrace lounge and a tapas restaurant.

Beautiful art decks the halls and every piece of furniture and lighting is interesting. A three-panel colorful glass wall is at the end of the lobby. The Andaluz was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. I love this building and it is the most outstanding thing in Albuquerque. We ate dinner at the tapas restaurant and tried multiple dishes, spicy shrimp with chorizo, scallops and the Mexican cheese plate. The food, atmosphere and service was excellent. After dinner we strolled the halls of the hotel admiring its unique but lovely atmosphere before retiring for the night.

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Southern Colorado & New Mexico – National Parks Road Trip – Day 17 – Great Sand Dunes National Park, Hot Air Balloons & Santa Fe

Our morning in Pagosa Springs, Colorado started out with a beautiful sunny morning, perfect for the dozen hot air balloons to take flight to the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains. We spent a couple of hours running around the town and surrounding countryside for the best views.

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Nearly all the balloons had come up from New Mexico, which is famous for hot air ballooning. Our best views came from a small neighborhood park with a view across a pond with the aforementioned mountains in the background.

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Leaving town to the east you quickly start to ascend Wolf Creek Pass, eventually reaching the pass summit at 10,870 feet, our highest altitude of the road trip. In addition to the usual collection of impressive switchbacks, and far mountain views U.S. 160 has an impressive ‘S’ curve tunnel. Once you drop down the eastern side and arrive in Del Norte, Colorado, you have reached an extensive, perfectly flat prairie that is the San Luis Valley.

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As you leave Del Norte and start across the flatland you see the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the distance, seemingly just a short distance away, but in reality they are 50 miles off. While the valley was filled with farms on this Sunday morning there was nobody out on the roads, so we were able to blast across the small country roads in rapid fashion, arriving at our destination in about 40 minutes.

The Great Sand Dunes National Park has dunes reach as high as 700 feet high, with the mountains behind them rising 3000′ and more up from the valley floor. As mentioned we could see the mountains from 50 miles away, and started seeing the white of the sand dunes from 30 miles away. The dunes were created by loose soil from nearby flat farm land carried by the wind and deposited at the foot of the mountains creating a wide tall dune with many ridges.

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Finally reaching the visitor center, we once again received some excellent guidance from the rangers and set off on a walk up to the first ridge of dunes. There was a scene of young men sand boarding down the dune just beyond us, children trying to sled, and people trekking the high dunes. The dunes were so high that people at the top looked like specks on a giant wall. The sand was difficult to walk in because we sunk with each step. Without a doubt walking in sand feels 10 times harder than walking on a dirt path, the pain in my knees noticeable.

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While there are options for going into the mountainous portion of the park, it is restricted to 4 wheel high clearance vehicles, so we opted to continue on our trip. About an hour south we arrived in Manassas, Colorado to see the statue of Jack Dempsey, a famous boxer, which the small town exploits to the fullest with a bronze statue and a museum of Jack Dempsey.

We quickly moved on toward New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment. The landscape of southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico is desert, exemplified by a group of tumbleweeds barely missed our car as we drove. Travelling down the road exposed us to pastures and hills but no towns or homes for a long time. Just north of Taos we stopped to experience the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, part of the Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument, that spans over a very deep 650 foot gorge. Since the area just off the bridge is on state land, and not in the National Park Service land, we found a number of vendors selling trinkets and jewelry. Sadly since this bridge does not have extremely high railing, it is a popular spot for people committing suicide, as a result there are telephone hotlines to suicide prevention on each of the observation points on the bridge.

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We passed briefly through Taos, a ski and artist colony as we continued through the canyon to Santa Fe, stopping at our first Roadside America type place in days, the Classical Gas Museum along the way. We did not go into the museum but we did see old gas pumps and other weird items outside the building such as a pole of stacked tricycles as art.

We arrived at our hotel in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the Drury Inn, giving the dusty car over to the valet. Santa Fe is a very walkable town, so we headed off to tour the old town, taking in the sights of Spanish Puebloan style architecture and the abundance of art throughout the city. Since the early 1900s Santa Fe has been very strict with architecture laws controlling the look of all the houses, buildings and public works resulting in what is generally thought of as one of the best towns in America.

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Even the bridges and underpasses are decorated with art and more bronze statues dotting gardens and nooks for everyone to enjoy.

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Nearly every building and street had an artistic touch to it. Large churches, many galleries and a governor’s palace built in the 17th century when Spain controlled this area of North America were here. We walked through the town square as an artist fair was wrapping up and a Christian band played on stage.

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Our dinner in Santa Fe was in a courtyard of the Palace Restaurant and Saloon on Palace Street, which specialized in Italian and Mexican cuisine. While waiting for dinner we decided to name the coolest person from each state. We thought Dean Martin was the coolest personality for Ohio trumping Paul Newman. Arnie Palmer was crowned coolest person for Pennsylvania. James Dean coolest for Indiana and so on. It was fun to find a cool famous personality for nearly every state before the arrival of dinner. After dinner we strolled the streets of town admiring the clean contemporary native style of Santa Fe.

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We got cups of gelato and walked a while longer through the city on a very pleasant night taking photos. Soon after getting back to the hotel, the fire alarm sounded but soon shut off. There did not seem to be a problem or it necessary for us to leave. We enjoyed our day and looked forward to seeing more tomorrow.

Southeastern Utah – National Parks Road Trip – Day 15 – Natural Bridges, Hovenweep & Four Corners

The Spanish Valley is south of Moab, and our initial scenery leaving in the morning.  As we made our way down US 191 we passed a natural bridge arch before coming to a giant rock with ‘Hole In the Rock‘ painted in 30’ letters on the side of it. Apparently it is a 5000 square foot house someone carved into this giant rock, but we were too early in the day for them to be open, so we continued on our way.

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South of Blanding we reached Utah 95, a narrow state highway  that runs out through the desert up and down small hills. As I turned onto this road a dirty old 4 wheel drive pickup passed me, which of course I took as a challenge to keep up with. It is 38 miles from Blanding to Natural Bridge National Park, and according to the GPS should’ve taken us 45 minutes to make the drive, but following Deliverance Boy I did it in 30 minutes.

Once we did land at the park headquarters we received instructions from the ranger on the best option for a couple of hours of time that we had. As with many parks they have a auto tour loop that we took, providing views of three natural bridges and as well as a view of Native American ruins. The trails were steep and strenuous so we skipped the longer hikes and soaked in the view from the overlook. The first natural bridge named Sipapu was large and had a lot of rock above it with trees and a river below it.

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Our next stop was at the Horsecollar Ruin overlook. Here pottery was once found that dates these ruins between 1 AD and 13 AD. The ruins were well preserved but accessed was denied to them. These ruins are considered to be the best preserved ancient Puebloan ruins ,mostly due to their isolation. Horsecollar Ruin earned its name because the doorways to two structures resemble horsecollars, the site was abandoned more than 700 years ago.

We moved on to see the Kachina Bridge where the White Canyon and Armstrong Canyon meet. Kachina Bridge, known as the middle bridge which spans the canyon equally from both Owachomo and Sipapu bridges, is named for the petroglyphs of dancing figures resembling Kachina dolls. Kachina Bridge is larger than Owachomo but smaller than Sipapu. Owachomo Bridge is a natural bridge 180 feet high and spans 106 feet across thin stone and is older than any other bridge. Erosion through the years has thinned the span of the bridge. It was beautiful and we were happy to see it since it will not last forever.

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Leaving Natural Bridges we continued south on Utah 261 another nondescript highway across the desert – for about 30 miles – then you come to the Moki Dugway, a dangerous road to drive made of dirt and gravel carved into the face of the cliff edge of Cedar Mesa. It consists of 3 miles of steep, unpaved, but well graded switchbacks (11% grade), which wind 1,200 feet from Cedar Mesa to the valley floor near Valley of the Gods. A nerve racking but really cool drive down the mountain side.

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Just beyond Moki Dugway we arrived in the Navajo Nation to the town of Mexican Hat, Utah, where we stopped for lunch at the Olde Bridge Grille. The town is named after a large flat rock 60 feet in diameter perched precariously on a much smaller base at the top of a small hill. The village itself is small, home to fewer than 100 people We had a burger and vegetarian taco on Navajo bread. The Navajo bread was delicious.

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Just south of Mexican Hat is the Monument Valley, a place of mammoth rocks in the desert with beautiful thin spires on the Arizona border. The rock formation resembled a city from a distance and it is also the site where Forrest Gump stopped running in the movie of the same name, which of course I needed to recreate, much to the amusement of the European tourists parked along the road. Returning back through Mexican Hat we had gone just a few miles before we were stopped by the Sherriff’s Department while a Toyota commercial was being filmed on the road ahead.

By mid afternoon we arrrived at the Hovenweep National Monument. There are Pueblo ruins of a culture there that thrived from 1 AD to late 1200 AD. A variety of structures, including multistory towers are perched on canyon rims and balanced on boulders. We hiked the Little Run Trail to tour the ruins at Little Ruin Canyon which is made up of Square Tower, Tower Point, and Twin Towers. Towers at Hovenweep were built in a variety of shapes- D-shapes, squares, ovals and circles.

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These towers had different purposes, including tool and grinding work areas, kivas (for ritual/social functions), living rooms and storage. We started at the overlook to see the stronghold house which is the upper story of a large structure with well-shaped stones. Then we climbed down the trail for a close-up view of more buildings. The Holly group is at the head of Keeley Canyon. The five buildings at the site are known for a rock art panel that has been interpreted as a summer solstice marker.

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The Hackberry group was a medium sized Pueblo III village in the east fork of Bridge Canyon. The Horseshoe House is a D-shaped structure containing three rooms surrounding a possible central kiva. The architectural style suggests ceremonial or public use

As we hiked the loop we saw Rim Rock House that had peepholes built into the walls; the purpose of these peepholes is unknown. We continued down the trail to Hovenweep House which is one of the largest structures in the community. Next we saw Hovenweep Castle in the Square Tower Group. The Cajon Group is at the head of Allen Canyon, is primarily a remains of a tower, estimated to house 80–100 people, that was constructed on a boulder that sits below the rim of the canyon

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Cutthroat Castle group is in an offshoot of Hovenweep Canyon. Cutthroat Castle, the largest of the remains, is on the north side of the stream. Cutthroat is unique among the units due to the lack of a spring, the numerous kivas and the fact that much of the architecture sits below the rim.

Goodman Point group contains small and large clusters of pueblo buildings built partially underground.

Finally the Square Tower group, with the largest collection of pueblo buildings at Hovenweep. These towers still have lintels showing that these were some of the most carefully built structures in the southwest

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Leaving Hovenweep we passed Palomino horses roaming freely on our drive to the Four Corners. We arrived at the entrance to the Navajo Nation being required to pay the $5 entry fee per person to enter their tribal lands to get to the Four Corners monument. Prior to the trip I had read that with modern survey techniques the actual marker is really not at the point of the four corners, the original surveyor, using 19th century tools, missed where the spot should have been by about 1800 feet. The marker was placed in its current position and accepted by the U.S. Congress. From that time forward, the marker has been the legal divider among the four states.

We took turns standing on the spot of the Four Corners at the center where Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah meet, contorting ourselves to place a body part in each quadrant of the circle. After our Twister exercise we strolled the booths of vendors with their souvenirs that surrounded the monument. There was no food available here so we went to headed back onto the road to Cortez, Colorado, where we came upon the Sky Ute Casino on a suggestion that someone had given us. The large casino had a restaurant but it was an hour wait before we could eat so we drove on to Cortez to spend the night.

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Checking into our hotel we found a nice casual restaurant called Destination Grill next door. We sat on the deck in the cool evening and enjoyed a very good dinner.