We made our second trip of the year to Florida (see the documentation on our first trip.) This time we hit Gulf Shores, Ala., to do some beachin’.
The first beach trip Gina and I ever made was to Gulf Shores many years ago, but we hadn’t been back since. We have been to Pensacola and Destin a few times each and have always stayed in a regular hotel or one of those high-rise condo monstrosities. For this trip we decided we wanted to try the beach house route. Gina found The Green Heron House on a canal in the heart of Gulf Shores. It was small but quite adequate for our needs.
The house’s namesake patrolling the canal behind the house.
Being a map guy, I enjoyed that the owners had hung up a couple of historical maps of the Alabama gulf coast.
We ate a ton of great food. I remember not being impressed with Gulf Shores’ restaurant options, but this trip was pretty stellar. We discovered that the best eateries were so close by that we could get takeout, avoid the long wait, and still get back to the house with hot food. So we did that several times. S&S Seafood, which is just a takeout joint, not a restaurant, was a great find.
One day we drove over to Pensacola to tour the haunted lighthouse and eat at Crabs We Got ‘Em.
We went a little crazy one day and signed up for the local zip line madness. It was a lot of fun and pretty scary at first. We were pretty impressed that Abby just jumped off the edge of the first tower with zero hesitation.
At one of the stations we were told we needed to go down backwards with our legs propped up in the safety lines in the “torpedo position” because the headwinds would prevent us from reaching the landing area if we went in the front-facing configuration. That was a thrill. All the zip line pics except this one were shot by the venue’s staff photographer.
We capped it all off with a little night crabbing and family beach portraiture.
It turns out that there’s a couple of sections of a major theme park in Orlando, Fla., mocked up to look like locations in the Harry Potter novels. And because Abby has turned into a Harry Potter nerd in the last year and Gina has been a Harry Potter nerd since sometime in the ’90s, they hatched the idea to go to this theme park for spring break this year. I’m not a Harry Potter nerd, but this is my payback for making them go to Big Bend last year. They even convinced the aunts Jodie and Katie to come with us.
Abby has been agitating to go on a place for three or four years and she finally got her chance. She had her fancy matching luggage and carryon so she was pretty adorable making her way through the Hell of the airport. When the miracle happened and the plane lifted off she nearly flipped her lid. “This is so cool,” she was almost trembling with excitement. She knows I don’t like to fly. She kept looking over and saying “You’re scared, aren’t you.” And then laughing manically.
So we got to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and I admit it was pretty neat what with the rides and the recreation of Hogwarts and fictional London.
The first stop was the wand shop to get our interactive wands, which are used to make things move in various areas of the park. Picking out just the right wand is a laborious process.
Abby worked out the kinks with some help from a passing witch and then gave me some spell-casting instruction.
They like to keep things authentic at TWWOHP, even down to having an actual giant as the maitre de at the Three Broomsticks tavern.
On the second or third day (it’s easy to lose track of time in paradise) we hit a giant water park with some major league water slides. I commonly deride water parks as merely big tanks of pee, but I really enjoy a good waterslide. After this place, I’ll never be able to go to Wild Urine Country again.
We hit the fictional London locale Diagon Alley at night, which is not to be missed. It made for some cool photos except for the people standing shoulder to shoulder in every inch of the place.
A giant dragon was perched on the roof of the Gringotts Bank building and every 10 minutes it belched a massive flame blast.
People would line up just before the flame time and hold their phones up to video the spectacle in the horribly wrong vertical orientation. I lined up a great shot of them and that jackass in the striped shirt walked in front of me right when the flame went off.
We ate some great food.
We got some exotic hair accessories.
We rode the Hogwarts Express a few times.
We acted silly.
And on the last day while killing time before we had to be at the airport we ate at what must be ground zero for the Orlando hipster scene, Yellow Dog Eats. It had this awesome VW Bus photo area out back.
We kicked off our final day in San Francisco with a completely excellent breakfast at MyMy Coffee Shop before heading out to return a lens I had rented for the week. Our next destination was famously crooked Lombard Street. It was a mile or so from the camera shop so we decided to walk.
It turns out the non-famous side of the street is one of those super-steep affairs. The UPS drivers must be used to it from the way they just park in the street. I guess those trucks have space-age parking brakes.
This was the scene that greeted us when we finally topped the hill. Tourist insanity. Cars line up to wait for the crowd to part so they can slowly make their way down, down, down the block.
The downhill end of the street is just as tourist packed as the top. It wasn’t a great time of the day to get a decent photo and anyway it’s impossible to get a shot without tourists in it. I was lucky to get one with only a couple people in it.
We sorta wandered around for the rest of the afternoon and had a semi-bad dining experience at a very expensive restaurant. Gina kept trying until she got an excellent steak. Mine sucked. I should have sent it back. Then we headed down for another go at China Town just before dark. This shot is looking east down California Street. That’s one of the towers of the Bay Bridge way out there.
We got a hugely generous offer from my cousin Anne, who lives near Napa, to give us a tour of the Napa Valley wine country and show us the sights and be our designated driver. We got up early and rolled down to the historic Ferry Building to catch a ferry across the bay. Unfortunately, the sunburns and the long bicycle ride from the day before left us feeling less than 100 percent. Neither one of us felt like going on a daylong-wine-drinking spree, so we were pretty low-key.
We hit the winery owned or partially owned or formerly owned by the great movie director Francis Ford Coppola. The place had quite a bit of Hollywood memorabilia on display and a bizarrely huge collection of vintage magic lanterns.
The valley is beautiful and the vineyards are very picturesque, but the sun was straight up, making outdoor photography pretty tough. Besides, I was pretty out of it due to the highly uncomfortable sun burn and I didn’t try very hard. Anne took us to a great little restaurant for lunch and we had a fun visit.
On the way back to the hotel in the mid-afternoon we passed a LEICA camera store and I had to stop in and check out the cameras I will never be able to afford. Wow. I’ve never been in a more customer-unfriendly store. All the merchandise is behind glass and the decor is pretty stark and intimidating. A few LEICA Men™ were standing around discussing how LEICA cameras were on the verge of curing cancer. The sales staff could clearly tell I was out of my element and didn’t even bother to offer any assistance.
One thing I wanted to see on this trip was Pacific Ocean waves crashing on jaggedy black rocks, so we headed down to the imaginatively named Ocean Beach on the west side of the city. It was on the trip out there that we discovered the ride-sharing service Uber™. It was a revelation. No more frustrating mass-transit rides for us. You just use a phone app to request a car and one shows up in less than five minutes. The fare comes straight of your credit card so there’s no hassle of paying the driver. Most drivers even refuse an extra tip, saying the tip is built into the fare. Uber™ was having some kind of sale in which fares were 25% off. On top of that we got a few discounts for being first-time Uber™ users. We took Uber™ cars several times during the next two days and a couple of those trips were totally free.
We wandered around the corner to the south side of the bay where we could see the western side of the Golden Gate Bridge. I had done a poor job of planning and I had it in my mind that the bridge would be closer. There’s a hiking trail that runs all the way to the bridge but it was something like two miles and we just didn’t have that in us.
We made our way down to the water’s edge and I got a few sunset/beachy/rocky photos.
Then we watched the sun sink into the Pacific Ocean. A first for us. We even caught the green flash as the sun slipped out of view.
We saw all these bike-rental outfits advertising bicycle tours of the Golden Gate Bridge and we thought it was a brilliant idea. The way it works is you pick up your bike at wherever, ride it along a dedicated bike path on the bay to the GGB, across the GGB and into Sausalito. After a couple hours of suffering Sausalito sticker shock you roll your bike onto a ferry and ride it across the bay and drop off your bike. It’s about 8 miles of bike riding. It is such a great idea that approximately 97% of tourists in the city at any one time are also doing it. At times it feels like you are in the pelaton of the Tour de France. Except you are going much, much slower. At the bike rental place I asked Gina if she thought sunscreen was in order. Despite it being light-jacket temperatures the sun was high and bright. “Nah, I don’t think so,” Gina inexplicably replied. “OK,” I replied with equal inexplicability.
We made the 5 miles to the beginning of the bridge and I had shed my jacket and could feel my tender pink arms and face sizzling. I knew by then that it was most likely going to be bad. I had been on the lookout for any kind of store that might carry sunscreen but the bike path stayed in mostly parks and residential areas, so I was SOL on that front.
Somehow I made this picture and the bike/walking path looks reasonably uncrowded. I can assure you it was not. We spent most of the time kinda straddling and walking the bikes. The pushing from behind from other riders was so intense that I didn’t feel like I could stop and really enjoy the bridge. One cool thing is that while we were on the bridge there was some kind of filming going on of racing boats in the bay. A helicopter with one of those gyroscopic cameras on the front flew under the bridge a couple of times from the ocean side capturing a big group of power boats heading under the bridge at top speed.
We finally made it across and down into Sausalito where apparently a lot of rich folks hang. We checked a marina full of huge yachts and then made our way onto the ferry. These houses are on the hillside in Sausalito overlooking the bay.
Being of the sea, I was pretty fascinated by the giant ocean-going vessels plying the waters of the bay like this one that the ferry eventually passed behind at about 100 yards.
We got a pretty great view of the ship as we passed by.
We also passed pretty close to Alcatraz. By this time we were feeling the effects of the sunburn. The last time I got burned that bad was 7 years ago in Destin when I went out into the waves and the gallons of sunscreen I had applied evidently got pounded off in the waves and I didn’t have enough sense to reapply before lounging on the beach for a couple of hours. It hurt. After we returned our bikes we didn’t even feel like going out to eat. We just stopped at a Walgreens to get premade sandwiches and sunburn medication before going back to the hotel to crash.
We kicked off day 2 by buying our three-day pass to the SF mas transit system, which includes the iconic cable cars. It was foggy and drizzly and cool enough to require a jacket.
We rode a cable car to near Fisherman’s Wharf and headed over to Pier 39 to see the famous sea lions that gather there.
The wharf area is where most of the local commercial boat traffic in the San Francisco Bay originates. Lots of fishing boats, ferries and tourist craft around.
It was also a good spot to see Alcatraz, despite the obscuring fog. We didn’t learn about the insane demand for Alcatraz tours until a couple months before our trip. By then it was too late to get a ticket. So we didn’t make it to Alcatraz. I can’t decide which photo I like better.
The wharf area is also home to the National Park Service Maritime Historical Park, which boasts several full-size historic ships.
While touring one of the ships the fog began to lift and we got our first glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Gina was more interested in the bridge than the ship.
After hanging around the wharf until well into the afternoon, we eventually made our way to the BART line headed out to the Mission District because Gina had a line on some good Mexican food. We didn’t rent a car because we planned on using the various mass transit options, but we found the city’s mass transit system sort of difficult to use. San Francisco is served by a mish-mash of regular buses, electric buses, cable cars, trolley cars, light rail, subway and even ferries. And we found that most of the time we had to walk several blocks at one or both ends of a trip. At one point we got on a light rail car powered by overhead electric lines that moseyed along a street stopping at regular stoplights. Then the train stopped and like a Transformer™ the cars retracted their electric poles and the exit steps raised up to form a level exit platform. The cars started again and dove underground and kicked on the afterburners going about 20 times faster. The next stop was on a subway platform.
After supper, as I was photographing this mural an older homeless woman came up to us and demanded a money “in the name of God.” Gina gave her a couple bucks and then she turned her guns on me, refusing to believe me when I insisted I didn’t have any cash. She pulled up her shirt to reveal a truly massive scar running down her entire torso and then pulled up one of her pant legs to show another giant scar. That was enough for me, but she also showed us a scar on her arm. I tried to give her $5 bill and she saw I had a $10 and she decided she wanted it “in the name of God” even if she had to make change. She was going to give me $7 in change and she didn’t care that that would leave her with less money than if she just kept the $5. I ended up giving her the $10 and she finally wandered off. She wasn’t the only super aggressive panhandler we encountered. Gina was full-on accosted by a man who pelted her with profanity when she didn’t any attention to him. He wouldn’t let up and I finally ended up nearly screaming at him to back off, which he did.
The downtown area has some nice buildings.
The view from our hotel window.
For our last day in Big Bend we went on sort of an aimless ramble over to Lajitas and drove a short distance down the River Road in Big Bend Ranch State Park. We came across the “ghost town” of Contrabando, which is actually a defunct movie set. We had the place all to ourselves. This church facade is probably the most interesting building there. The town sits right on the bank of the Rio Grande and if you stop for moment and let the atmosphere settle around you it really feels like the border circa 1880.
This might be the greatest sign ever. It sits on the outskirts of Terlingua on the road to the west entrance of Big Bend National Park. I mean, you can’t beat free water and hundreds of wind chimes. I imagine the person who painted it spent awhile planning out where they would place each come on for maximum effect. Then they started at the top left and after maybe a whole day of painting finally finished at the bottom right. Then when they finished the job and stood back to admire it, reading from top to bottom, sighed deeply and said, “Screw it. I’m not fixing it. Spell check wouldn’t have even caught it.” I’m sure they’ve endured endless ribbing from the other townfolk.
Late that afternoon I went back to the Terlingua Ghost Town hoping to catch a magnificent sunset over the cemetery. The ghost town is full of roofless abandoned adobe buildings. My awe-inspiring sunset was a no-show again, but I did get to make more sunburst effects as it went down.
Many of the cemetery’s graves are elaborately decorated with figurines, flags, money, beads, and empty alcoholic-drink containers.
With the sunset a bust a searched around looking for anything eye catching. Nearly every grave played host to clear glass jars used to hold candles. Just before I lost the light I noticed how the jars glowed in the golden rays of the fading sun. I then frantically scrambled around looking for the most photogenic jar. I thought this one fit the bill nicely.
We kicked off the morning by making the short hike into Boquillas Canyon fully expecting to see Victor The Singing Mexican standing on the far bank crooning something in Spanish. Instead we found Jesus The Singing Mexican on the American side setting out his trinkets for sale to the tourists.
Just across the river is the tiny village of Boquillas del Carmen, which was once a must-visit destination for Big Benders. Tourists would board a flat-bottomed boat to be ferried over to a burro wrangler in Mexico. A short burro ride later, the tourists would drink and eat and shop in a pretty authentic desert village. Robert Earl Keen even wrote a great song about the whole thing.
Here I am in full mullettude back in 1992 when I made the crossing with my dad, my uncle and cousin. My dad is the guy directly behind the pirate. See that colorful hat on the boat captain’s head? Dad would shortly trade his Nick Nolte Extreme Prejudice style cowboy hat for it. After the events of my 32nd birthday the government clamped the border shut and, since Boquillas is literally in the middle of nowhere, the little town just about died. A few hardy souls like Victor hung on and would daily sneak across the border and put out a few wares to get some much-needed cash flow into the village. I don’t think the authorities worried much about these people causing trouble.
Last year the border crossing was finally reopened in an effort to restore a fun tourist experience and to help out the people of Boquillas. It doesn’t really have that scruffy feel anymore because you have to have a passport and go through customs. We didn’t plan far enough ahead to get passports so we didn’t make the river crossing. Despite the border crossing being open, many people still cross the river from Boquillas to sell their handicrafts. Life is hard down on the border so I won’t pile on about this merchant’s abuse of the apostrophe s.
Jesus told us that Victor had taken his show back to Boquillas, leaving him with the gig.
I had a thing for dogs there for a couple of days. This one had just swum the Rio Grande and he stopped to pose while his owner set up shop along the trail.
We didn’t really go to Big Bend. I shot all the photos at home using a green screen.
After leaving the Rio Grande Village area, we headed up into the Chisos Basin to grab some lunch and hike the Lost Mine Trail. Gina and I hiked this trail back in 1996 and I didn’t remember it being all that strenuous despite it’s being very uphill. I guess my memory is faulty, because it was pretty tough. Abby and Gina made it without a single complaint, though. (I need a sarcasm mark for the end of that sentence.) We hit right during the middle of the day and the sun was just too sunny for good photography.
The trail tops out after 2.75 miles and 1,200 feet of elevation gain right on a narrow ridge separating two canyons that lead out of the mountains and into the desert. At roughly 7,000 feet elevation the views south toward Mexico are pretty spectacular. This photo is view of Casa Grande to the northwest. This was the beginning of a short love affair with that sunburst effect. Going back down was much easier, but still it was 5.5 miles. The longest hike Abby has ever made. And, despite her insistence to the contrary on the way up, it didn’t kill her.
These last are both views of Pine Canyon and the South Rim of the Chisos Mountains. They look pretty terrible in color, but I think black and white captured the moment so nicely.
When we got back to the car, I had a particular sunset photo in mind, but it was too late when I got the location. But I did find a fellow nearby shooting the sunset with a 4×5 large-format-film camera, Ansel Adams style. He graciously arranged his rig so that I could get a shot of what he was seeing on his ground glass.
We got word early in the morning that someone had held up the evening stage in Terlingua so we put together a posse to find the culprit and string him up. Unfortunately, our posse leader just took us through an area of old mine tailings, a historical dump and an abandoned golf course. The robber got away.
Awesome horse riding sound and you can hear how impressed I am with the posse leader’s tales of past exploits.
Posse Assistant Joe gave us all some training on how to steer a horse. Yes, I know I pretty much look like Teddy Roosevelt in his Rough Rider days. Joe was on the front porch of the stables working on writing a new song when we pulled up.
Abby had been beside herself for days in anticipation of going riding. The posse organizer made her wear a helmet, but by all indications, she had a great time.
The posse leader (whose name I can’t remember) had a specific order in which we had to ride and the horses were not to pass each other. She didn’t tell us, but we were not to dismount the horses, either. Gramps found out about that secret rule the hard way. That put me behind Abby and I exclusively got shots of her back while she was riding.
I did somehow manage to get a nice horseback portrait of Gramps.
This dog greeted us every morning at the duplex. We took to calling him Morning Dog. Gina liked him so much that when she got home she invented an imaginary dog named scout based on Morning Dog. Except Scout wears a bandanna around his neck.
That evening we went to the Starlight Theater, the hub of the local tourist industry, located at a historic abandoned mining village known as Terlingua Ghost Town. The restaurant/performance hall and associated souvenir store is just funky enough to not scare the tourists away while keeping the locals coming back.
The place has a few works by local artists for sale.
This is a confusing situation because a couple days later in the town of Lajitas we saw a live goat in a pen with a sign proclaiming it as “Clay Henry the mayor of Lajitas”. Some research reveals that this is the original Clay Henry and he’s had an interesting go of it in both life and death.
I don’t know this duo’s name, but I saw the guitar player playing a coffee can on the front porch of the store on our first day in town. He must really love music.
I had a filet with some sort of demi glace and mashed potatoes and a locally brewed beer. I gave the meal the extremely rare Golden FPW. It was that good.
Terlingua seems to have a certain type of dog – very laid back, but looking like they are very experienced. I’m sure they all have tangled with a skunk or two and rolled around in the carcass of a road-killed deer and narrowly escaped a rattlesnake bite. See that our-of-focus guitar player in the background? That’s Joe from the posse mentioned earlier. He said he had played his new song and had gotten compliments on it. I’m sorry I missed it.
Behind the store and restaurant in the ghost town proper, there’s an old Catholic church that is still in use. It’s got great details.
A minute before I took this shot the entire sky was on fire. I was too busy jacking around and missed it.
Our second day in the desert got off to an inauspicious start. We made the long drive over to Dagger Flat in hopes that a sea of yucca would be in full magnificent bloom. We’d seen many yuccas blooming in some areas of the park so I had high hopes. After a jouncey seven-mile drive on a dirt track we broke through into the flat and ….. nothing. The big bloom hadn’t started yet. So it was back to the drawing board. We headed over to the Grapevine Hills to hike the short trail through a geologic wonderland. Nana and Gramps had other plans so we didn’t catch up with them until later. It being midday, the light was harsh so the photography wasn’t that great.
The little mountain range is the remains of an eroded igneous intrusion. It’s littered with all manner of red flaky boulders. The first mile was a nice stroll on a well-beaten, flat path, but the final quarter mile was a pretty decent climb. In the warmer parts of the year the little valley is probably a furnace, but we had a nice day with temps in the lower 80s. The area looks like a classic place for the hero in a cowboy picture to get trapped by wild Comanches. Abby was dying to see some javelinas and she finally got her chance. They were sneaking around in the brush around a spring so I couldn’t get a picture.
Abby used her binoculars to watch for Indians. Note how she leaned up against a rock to keep from sky-lining herself and becoming an easy target. Louis L’Amour would have been proud.
The payoff at the end of the trail is this balancing rock situation and a magnificent view of the untrammeled desert beyond.
The ocotillo or Devil’s buggy whip was putting on a show across the park. A veritable forest of the thorny plants grows near the west entrance to the park. I went out there at sunset hoping to get a great sunset I could silhouette the branches and flowers against. The sunset was a dud so I did the best I could. The wind was blowing hard, causing the stems to sway and blurring most of the flowers. Right at dark a bunch of humming birds descended on flowers, so that was pretty neat.
Things got weird there for a bit, but we finally pulled a the trigger on a return trip to Big Bend National Park for this year’s Spring Break. I’ve been to Big Bend 4 times now. Gina has been 3 and this was Abby’s first trip. All the previous trips involved camping for multiple nights inside the park. This time we decided to go the radical route of staying in some sort of fixed lodging in Terlingua, a tiny town just outside the the western entrance to the park.
I found this weird sign draped over a pile of junk in Grandfalls, Texas. A tiny burg a couple of hours north of the park.
Gina somehow discovered the duplexes offered by the Chisos Mining Company. We were placed in the Mesa View unit on the outskirts of town. My Mom and Dad rented the other side of the duplex. The place was fantastic. A bedroom, bath, kitchen and sitting area. Plenty big, quiet and way more comfortable than camping even in Daisy. I recommend the place, but don’t go thinking it’s going to be like the condo you always rent at the beach on the Redneck Riviera. CMC also offers traditional motel rooms along with small cabins in an area they call Easter Egg Valley. We didn’t go inside any of those, but based on how they look from outside, I’d avoid relying on them for your lodging needs.
The pastel colors are a thing with the CMC properties.
Needing to kill some time until Nana and Gramps rolled into town, we headed up to the Terlingua Ghost Town to check out the famous pickin’ porch. Stand by for more on this quaint tourist draw in a later post.
We got soon got word that Nana and Gramps were running later than expected so we headed into the park and down to the trail that runs into the downstream end of Santa Elena Canyon. The canyon is one of three seriously deep canyons inside the park carved by the Rio Grande. The walls at the exit of the canyon are 1,500 feet tall from the river.
From the end of the canyon the river heads out across the Chihuahuan Desert.
We finished off the day watching a magnificent sunset.
Abby got it into her head several months ago that she wanted to go to the beach. I think she heard Gina and me talking about our past adventures in the Redneck Riviera. Then we were talking one night in early June about taking a summer vacation and I asked Abby her thoughts on the matter. “I’d like to go to the beach, IF SOMEONE WOULD TAKE ME (emphasis hers),” she replied testily. Since she generally gets her way, we started making plans to drive to Destin, Fla. We knew it was short notice and it might be hard to find a decent place to stay, but Gina called the condo in Miramar Beach where we had stayed five years ago and a room was available. It being such short notice they agreed to give us the room at a slight discount from the normal rate. You can never tell if Abby is going to like something that is obviously fun to the rest of the world, so we were prepared to see her balk at going into the ocean. But she ran right in and acted like it was the greatest thing in the world.
The surf was up pretty decently (the red flags were out) and on our second day we went and bought a couple of wave boards and Abby jumped on hers and started belly surfing like she’d been doing it her whole life.
On our final full day in San Antone I got up at the butt crack of dawn to shoot the Alamo when it wouldn’t be swarmed with tourists and vendors hawking to the tourists. It was pretty neat being the only person visiting the Alamo besides the grounds crew blowing off the walkway with super loud industrial strength leaf blowers.
We kicked off our third day by hitting a caverns tour in the morning. It was really dark underground so no pictures. The next morning we hit the Alamo, a short walk under the interstate from our hotel. It turns out that Texas takes the Alamo way too seriously. When we walked in the front door I was immediately accosted for wearing a hat. You see, the Alamo is a shrine and any arbitrary form of disrespect is met with swift and brutal consequences. It’s not OK to wear a hat inside the Alamo, but it’s perfectly fine to operate a money grubbing souvenir stand selling the usual crappy items aimed at tourists and their kids. For all the love of the Alamo, it’s not even a very good museum. The exhibits are sparse and do only a superficial job of explaining the history. Also, photos aren’t allowed. I got the top photo of the best exhibit in the place by putting my camera on its super-spy-silent mode and firing from the hip.
The trip really kicked off on day two with a visit to Sea World.
Gina’s cousin Ginger and her husband, Mike, drove over from Houston to hang with us for a few days. Ginger, Abby and Gina braved certain dousing to ride the whitewater raft ride.
For Spring Break we headed south to San Antonio. We arrived on St. Patrick’s Day and the downtown River Walk district was in a full-blown Irish frenzy. The water of the San Antonio River was even dyed green for the occasion.
After six days touring the great American West, it was off for Arkansas the grueling heat and humidity. We went back across Kansas so we could stop for the night at Mom and Dad’s farm in far eastern Kansas. We stopped just outside of Dodge City to get a look at the Arkansas River, or what used to be the Arkansas River. By the time the river leaves Colorado and enters Kansas it’s bone dry, as you can see in the photo. Compare it to the photos in this previous post. All the water is sucked out for irrigation purposes. I find it fascinating that we can allow one of the great American rivers to exist in this condition. The river runs about a half-mile from our house in Little Rock where it’s nearly a half-mile wide.
After a night in Pueblo we headed up to the golden hills of Cripple Creek. Cripple Creek is a classic former gold camp that experienced a huge boom in the late 19th century followed by a huge bust. Gina and I visited there in 2005 and took the tour of the Mollie Kathleen mine. For some reason we thought Abby would enjoy being 1,000 feet underground. To get into the mine, they stack you nine deep into this tiny miners cage. We got the privilege of touring with a Boy Scout troop. No evidence of farting was apparent on the elevator, but later during the tour, it seemed that one of the Scouts needed to get back to the surface before something awful happened.
It turned out that Abby did enjoy being 1,000 feet underground. It’s really an interesting tour. I recommend it. Cripple Creek also boasts a fantastic tour of a former brothel, which we went on the last time, it’s pretty graphic and we didn’t feel it would be appropriate for Abby. I also recommend it.
The Mollie Kathleen has a bunch of old equipment and vehicles sitting around on the property. I didn’t have much time to check them and the light was bad for photography, so I only shot this old truck. I gave it the HDR treatment because the light was so contrasty.
We took the short ride on the Cripple Creek and Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad. It’s pretty cool because the engine is powered by coal-fired steam. we sat up in the very front so we could watch the engineer do his work. He had to shovel coal, operate the engine controls and be a tour guide all at the same time.
The railroad operates two trains. The other one was painted to look just like Thomas the Tank Engine. Abby got a huge kick out of that.
We then drove a couple of miles to Cripple Creek’s sister town, Victor. In between, there’s a giant open pit gold mine that still produces millions in gold. Victor is little less tourist oriented (there are no casinos) and there’s a lot of historic structures just sitting out waiting to be explored. I found this collection of nails, all of which apparently failed at their job, on one of the abandoned head frames that dot the countryside.
Down on the main drag the museum was holding a gold panning fund-raiser. For $5 you got to pan in the wooden trough all you wanted. The museum owners said they bought some gold from a company and mixed it with sand and dumped it in the trough. They also added a bunch of colorful rocks and iron pyrite so that the kids wouldn’t go away empty handed. Abby seemed quite pleased with the “treasures” she got. Gina and I are big fan of the TV show Gold Fever, so we’ve seen a bunch of footage of Tom Massey panning gold. The museum’s co-owner, who also works for the giant open-pit gold mine, watched us and remarked, “You folks look like you know what you’re doing.” Damn right.
Victor offered some excellent late-afternoon-wall-porn shooting.
We left the sand dunes and headed out for Royal Gorge located on the other side of the Sangre de Cristos. We went over Poncha Pass out of the Rio Grande drainage and into the Arkansas River drainage. The highway runs right next to the river for miles, and we stopped a couple of times to watch rafters running the whitewater.
We had decided that this day would be an Abby day and we knew she’d like Royal Gorge because it’s basically a permanent county fair complete with carousel, petting zoo and funnel cakes. This would make the third trip to RG for Gina and me. We stopped there on our honeymoon in 1994 on the way out to Arches National Park and again in 1999 during a tour of the West. RG has changed quite a bit since our first visit. The main reason to visit used to be the bridge, which was once the highest bridge in the U.S. Now the bridge is just a means to get from the merry-go-round on the east side of the bridge to the fake Old West town on the west side. The bridge is supposedly the tallest in North America and was once the tallest in the world. Although some dispute over the actual height has arisen in recent years. An exhibit of elk and buffalo along with one of those giant three-man swings were new attractions since our last visit. The swing zooms out over the gorge for what must be a true pant-soiling thrill. We didn’t try it. The whole thing is crass and ridiculous and the perfect example of everything that is wrong with America and Americans.
Abby did the burro ride twice, riding a different burro each time. They were named Strawberry and Blueberry. The rules were that two grownups had to accompany the child on the burro, one to lead the animal and one to hold onto the kid to prevent a fall. I was leading Strawberry when I stopped to take a picture and the girl in charge started screaming at me to never let go of the lead rope. In mortal fear of shattering what sounded like the #1 rule of the burro ride, I grabbed the rope and wasn’t able to get a photo of Abby and the burro’s head in the same picture.
This trip to RG might have been the greatest experience of Abby’s life. She’s not big on showing joy. She doesn’t smile much normally, but she smiled nearly the entire time at the gorge.
We panned for gold and Abby tried to convince me of the utter folly of looking for gold in a wooden trough whose contents are controlled by the owners of an amusement park.
Then we rode the scary tram/elevator thing to the bottom of the gorge. While we were down there, Gina re-enacted a photo pose from our honeymoon trip.
A wag, while looking at our freshly developed honeymoon photos way back then, remarked that Gina looked as if she had been suddenly struck blind.
The park also boasts the highest tram in the world. We didn’t ride that thing either.
An older Asian gentleman with a loose grasp of English and I swapped cameras in front of the water-driven clock/calendar. I shot a photo of him and his family and he shot a photo of me and mine.
RG is also home to the most craptastic tourist-crap emporium that I’ve ever had the privilege to visit. Its crowning glory is this huge wall dedicated to displaying the crappiest possible useless crap to be found on the earth. This hideous collection of lame scenes laquered onto tree slices (which quite possibly are actually plastic) doesn’t even contain one example with the words Royal Gorge crappily painted or printed on it. I want to meet the person who hangs one of these on their wall and proudly boasts that they got it at Royal Gorge so I can see with my own eyes why we’re all doomed.
When we got up on our third day in Taos, we could see new snow on the mountain tops and decided to go back up to Taos Ski Village to check it out.
After an hour in the ski village, admiring the various view of snow capped mounatins, we took off for Colorado.
On the outskirts of San Luis, Colo., we stopped at a historical marker to take in the view of the fresh snow on the Culebra Range of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The marker said the irrigation ditch in the foreground is the San Luis People’s Ditch, dug in the 1850’s by the community and the oldest operating irrigation apparatus in the state. After San Luis we stopped off in Fort Garland to eat some of the worst road food I’ve ever had at the Cowboy Cafe. Then we visited the town’s grocery store, inside of which it remains 1975. Pretty charming actually.
Our next stop was Great Sand Dunes National Park where we had reservations at the Great Sand Dunes Lodge. Gina and I visited the sand dunes back in 1998, but only stayed there for an hour or so and barely made it past the parking lot. I’ve always wanted to go back and hike out into the dunes. We trudged about a quarter of a mile across a sandy flat to reach the first dune. When we got there Abby threw herself on the ground and started rolling in the sand.
At one point we lost her as she went rolling down the side of a dune. The wind was gusty and strong at times. The strong gusts lifted a layer of sand about a foot thick up off the ground. I guess the sand was too heavy to go any higher, need a stronger wind for that. Abby, in an amazed voice, said, “Look at the sand! It’s glowing!” The sun was shining down through the layer of blown sand and from a low angle it did indeed look like the sand surface was glowing.
The sand dunes are major geological wonder. Erosion carries sand out of the mountains and onto the vast Rio Grande Valley. The southerly winds pick that sand back up and carry it toward the Sangre de Cristos. But wind blowing downslope out of the mountains stops the southerlies and the sand drops out. Over the eons a huge dune field has formed. And although the dune field is huge, it doesn’t extend all along the mountains. Conditions are only right in one area of the valley for dune formation.
Here’s a shot of some people for perspective. Some of the individual dunes are immense. The tallest dune is 750 feet.
The lodge is situated just outside the park. Each room has a back patio with this view. I think that tallest mountain is the 14,294 foot Crestone Peak.
I took Abby and Gina to the lodge and went back out on the dunes to shoot some photos in the magic hour light.
The wind became constant and stronger as the afternoon wore on. That foot-thick layer of airborne sand was everywhere. The ground in most of my photos looks a little blurry because of the blowing sand. I liked this one because my shadow was extended beyond the rim of this dune because it was falling on the sand being blown past the edge. At one point I laid my tripod down and the wind created a tripod shaped sand drift. Also, sand stuck to every slightly lubricated part of the tripod. It’s still gritty.
Medano Creek runs along the edge of the dunes and is a big draw for dune tourists. The creek normally runs well into June, but this year the mountains had a smaller than usual snowpack and the creek was going dry by mid-June. You can actually go to the place where the creek ends and watch it soak into the sand.
While I was messing around shooting the end of the creek I turned around and saw this awesome sunset spectacle over Blanca Peak, the tallest mountain in the Sangre de Cristos at 14,345 feet.
For day 2 in Taos we headed into the mountains to see Taos Ski Valley and do a short hike. A little snow remained at the highest elevations and the snow melt creeks were running pretty well. We found this waterfall right below the idle ski lift.
The mountains are criss-crossed by miles of hiking trails, all of which had serious elevation gains. We chose the trail to Williams Lake. The trailhead was at around 10,000 feet and the lake is above 11,000, so we didn’t expect to be able to do the entire 4-mile round trip. But we made it about halfway before turning back. The trail followed a beautiful snow melt creek and the whole area was covered with Douglas fir Christmas trees.
We stopped at one point for a snack. We dug out some chips and cookies and a gang of four or five birds descended upon us looking for their share of the food. They got so close that it was unnerving at first. They would come close enough to eat cookie pieces off our shoes, but they couldn’t quite commit to eating out of our hands.
For some reason they pipe the melt water from somewhere up above into the trail-side creek.
More snow melt.
We headed back to Taos so Abby could visit a toy store she found the day before in this alley off the town square. Unfortunately, the store was already closed, so we headed up to the other end of the alley to eat at one of the town’s highly touted restaurants. As we started off, Abby squealed and I looked down to see a big splash of blood hit her leg. She’s prone to nosebleeds and the super dry air had taken its toll on her nasal passages. She immediately clamped her nose shut with her fingers just like the doctor showed her to do. The nosebleed was minor and she got it under control quickly, but she didn’t want to go inside any restaurant for fear the bleeding would start again in front of a bunch of strangers. We decided to just drive through Wendy’s and head out to the Rio Grande gorge to watch the sunset.
The gorge slices through the bottom of a flat valley. You can’t see it until you get right to it. The main attraction is the Gorge Bridge that passes 650 feet above the river, the nation’s fifth highest bridge. It’s such a big tourist attraction that people set up tables in the parking area to sell all manner of tourist geegaws and other items. One guy was selling tools, wrenches, socket sets, screwdrivers. I guess he wasn’t afraid of competing with Wal-Mart. It’s also apparently a big draw for the suicidal. We walked out to the middle of the bridge and looked around. I found it hard to get a decent photo of either the bridge or the gorge. Tall fences and big warning signsare meant to prevent the adventurous from leaving the highway right-of-way so I couldn’t really get to place for a good angle for a photo.
Arkansas is hot in the summer. Like, I mean, really hot. If you think you know hot, but haven’t been in the south during the summer, then you don’t know hot. And this June has been particularly hot. Easily over 90 almost every day this month. And the thermometer doesn’t tell the whole story. It always feels hotter than the thermometer says. Humidity, you know. Gina decides she needs another vacation (we just went to New York City in March) and we start looking at the heat index values in New Mexico and Colorado. It actually feels cooler there than it really is. So that settled it, a week-long jaunt through a small portion of the west. After buying a whole bunch of junk to keep Abby happy in the car, we took off.
We headed out Interstate 40, which follows the route of the famous Route 66 through western Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle and into New Mexico. Route 66 artifacts are a big deal to a lot of people and lot of photographers, so I decided I wanted to see some Route 66 icons and shoot a few photos. After our first night on the road in Elk City, Okla., we pulled off the Interstate early the next morning in Shamrock, Texas, to check the famous Conoco Tower station. The billboards said it has been featured in movies.
We rolled into Las Vegas, N.M., and had lunch at the Landmark Grill in the historic Plaza Hotel. I had the Santa Fe french dip and it was just OK. The hotel retains a 19th Century feel with lots of well-aged wood in the floors and walls.
We hit Taos, N.M., for a two-night stay. Taos is full of adobe and pottery and buckskin. It’s almost exactly like Hot Springs, but with western-themed kitsch instead of southern-themed kitsch. And without the oppressive, soul-crushing humidity. And you can go skiing nearby in the winter. Actually, I guess it’s only like Hot Springs in the kitschy crap category.
We stopped at a shop devoted to chocolate and Abby got a caramel apple.
Taos is home to a lot of artists and hippie-types selling their wares. It’s also home to a phenomenon known as the Taos Hum. I meant to spend a few quiet moments outside of town listening for the hum, but I forgot all about it until a couple days after we got home, obviously too late.
Taos is fertile ground for window and door photos.
Not every artist can make a go of it. Maybe this outfit relied too much on the power of its logo.
I told Gina before we left for NYC there were two things I wanted to do for sure, one of them was to go to Brooklyn and shoot the sunset over lower Manhattan. The sleet and snow and overcast finally went away on our last full day in the city, so the plan was to go to Brooklyn, eat some authentic NYC pizza and watch the sunset on the banks of the East River. But we still needed something to do in the meantime. After much hemming and hawing we decided to go visit the Museum of Modern Art to get a little high culture.
I’m a big fan of sandwiches. It’s just a perfect food form. So one of the two things I told Gina I wanted to do in NYC for sure was to go to a classic New York City deli. We slept in on Day 4 and headed to Katz’s Deli in the Lower East Side. I got a corned beef sandwich, aka a Ruben without the horrifyingly awful sauerkraut. It was excellent. Katz’s is one of those places that’s now famous for being famous. They’ve got hundreds of signed celebrity photos all over the walls and they really play up the fact that the fake orgasm scene in “When Harry Met Sally” was filmed there.