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.
As part of our commitment to go full-on tourist, we hit the Empire State Building first thing and got near the front of the massive line to go to the top. This is the view looking south at the Financial District on the tip of Manhattan. There’s a big gap there now where the Twin Towers once stood. We didn’t have to try very hard at the full-on tourist thing. We got off the subway with little idea of where to go so we consulted the map on my iPhone. The little dot indicating the location of the ESB appeared to be on the next block over. We started pointing and talking about what route to take to get there when I looked up and there was the damn ESB right above us.
Day 2 dawned miserable. Rainy and chilly. So we decided to get some indoor touristing out of the way. We hit the subway for the first time and rode the uptown C train from the 50 Street Station to the American Museum of Natural History. The subway stopped in the basement of the museum. In the lobby were probably 1,000 people in line for tickets. The museum probably loves cold and rainy weather. Also in the lobby was a super-tall skeleton of a barosaurus.
For years Gina agitated for a New York City vacation and this year, with my characteristic magnanimity, I decided to grant her wish. (Your B.S. detector should be screaming right now.) Several people expressed surprise that I would go to New York for a vacation. I guess because I’m usually a national park/driving cross country kind of guy. But NYC is one of those places everyone should see, right? Also I knew NYC would be a fantastic place to take photos, so I got pretty excited about going. The only time I’d been in the East Coast Megalopolis was way back in the summer after 8th grade when I went to Washington, D.C., to visit relatives for a few weeks.
I’ll admit that I’m not much of camper. I love going out into the wilderness and rambling around and I’ll camp out if that’s the only way I’ll be able to visit some places, but I don’t like it. The whole camping thing is just such a hassle. Screwing with ice chests and camp stoves and flashlights and cooking outdoors and not bathing and participating in different bathroom routines is all bothersome but not really that big a deal. The thing that gets me is the tent. First you have to put the damn thing up and arrange some kind of bedding. Then you have to hope it doesn’t rain (admittedly not a great danger in the desert). Then to get up to pee in the middle of the night you have to use to the preternaturally loud zipper, which wakes up your tentmate(s) and possibly other nearby campers. And, if you’re in a campground, to pee in the night you have to put on pants and shoes and walk to the restroom. In addition, there’s the dish washing in cold water and the constant not being able to find things. Eventually you have to take down the tent and put up the bedding. It just sucks.
We got all rested up on Day 2 and we were ready to tackle some more desert hiking on Day 3 (or at least I was). We planned to meet Dale and Amber at 8 a.m. at the Pine Canyon trail head, but we got off to a late start after another rough night in the tent. A gale blew up and pummeled our cheapo Wal-Mart tent for hours. If you’ve never slept in a tent with a 35 mph wind blowing then you haven’t lived, my friend. I finally went to sleep around 1 a.m. and Gina was awake until the wind calmed down sometime around 3. Plus we had to take down our tent and pack up because checkout of the campsite was at noon. So we showed up at the trail a little over an hour late. Luckily Dale and Amber got there only about 30 minutes before we did and were inclined to wait for us. There’s very little cellular reception in the park, so we couldn’t communicate with each other. We were all going on plans we’d made the last time we saw each other two days earlier.
I had another long hike planned for the second day at Big Bend National Park, but the hike the afternoon before wore Gina and me out pretty good. Plus we had some inconsiderate campers in the site next to ours and they were whooping it up late into the night. At about 11 p.m. they were talking loudly about the cobbler they were cooking in a Dutch oven. Only about 15 yards separated them from the nearest other campers – us, and several other campsite were close by, but they acted as if they were 100 miles from other people. A little bit of excitement ensued earlier in the evening when a skunk invaded their campsite. To top it all off, they started being loud at about daylight. So they were the last thing we heard before going to sleep and the first thing we heard upon waking up.
We decided to scrap any plans for strenuous hiking for the day and instead went for drive on the west side of the park to see what we could see.
It only took 14 years, but I finally talked Gina into returning to Big Bend National Park for a camping trip. Her first trip, in 1996, got off to a shaky start when we rolled into the campground and the thermometer at the little store showed 114 degrees. In hindsight, it’s clear that visiting the desert during the last week of May is a bad idea if you’re not a big fan of heat. Then there was the fact that we went there in my little Ford Ranger that didn’t have air conditioning. Then there was the late-night incident with the javelina. Then there was the sandstorm that blew in and drove tiny grains of sand through the tent fabric, coating us in grit. We cut the trip short after three days and fled back to comparatively mild Little Rock.
This time, with a March trip planned, the weather promised to be much more reasonable and it was. It was even pretty chilly during the nights. Granted, I haven’t been many places in my life, but Big Bend is the most beautiful, scenic and downright neatest place I’ve ever been. This trip was my third to the park. I shot about 500 pictures and have picked out about 40 to put on the blog, so I’m going to dole them out over the next few days as I find time to get the photos processed. If you want to stretch you’re imagination, you can pretend I’m doing these entries in real time even though the trip was actually last week. I recommend you do that.
It appears the old saw “time and tide waits for no man” is actually true. As recently as last month I thought it wouldn’t happen, but I actually turned 40 years old. I’m dealing with it, but it’s going to take some time. To commemorate the august occasion, Gina booked a couple nights at Lookout Point Lakeside Inn, a nice B&B in Hot Springs.
Accommodation review: Nestled on the shore of Lake Hamilton, Lakeside Inn provides the comforts of a luxury hotel in a relaxed, unpretentious atmosphere. Each of the rooms is named after a town in Arkansas. The owners picked the names to convey relaxation and a sense of country life. (They eschewed my personal favorites: Bald Knob, Oil Trough, and Blue Ball.) My companion and I stayed in Evening Shade. The king-size bed was draped with super-soft sheets (Egyptian cotton perhaps) and the bathroom contained a glorious two-headed shower. Other amenities included a whirlpool tub, a separate toilet room and a fainting couch. Large windows provided a view of the lake. (I think all the rooms have lake views.) Couple of weird things: the television was tiny and we had to sign some kind of contract promising we wouldn’t smoke on the property under penalty of $500. Soft drinks, ice and breakfast are included in the rather pricey accommodations. We opted to sleep both Saturday and Sunday mornings in lieu of having breakfast.
We went to Branson to visit Abby’s Mimi and Papa about a month ago. We’ve been to Branson many times because Gina’s parents live there, but we hardly ever do any Bransony type stuff. We made a mini-vacation out of this trip so we thought it would be appropriate to bite the Branson fruit and let the nectar run down our faces. Gina’s mom works at a big resort and she got us a very nice suite to stay in. The place has several swimming pools so Abby was pretty happy about that. A huge draw in Branson is the World’s Largest Banjo. As you can see in the picture the neck goes all the way out the window.
I love me some Dukes of Hazzard, so you can imagine my delight to see this Cooter’s outlet just down the street from our hotel. Abby did not share my excitement at getting my picture taken with the General Lee.