September 15, Wednesday: Phoenix, AZ
This was a slower day. We got up, ate breakfast, went swimming, and then called the hotel manager up to the room to look at Terry’s bed, with the stuff still sticking out. The manager arrived with her head of housekeeping. Turns out that, as part of the hotel’s conversion to all of the Hampton chain’s new amenities, they had ordered new bases and queen-sized mattresses. The bases arrived and were installed, but the new mattresses and box springs for the second and third floors didn’t arrive, and wouldn’t be delivered until next Monday.
They offered to move us to a converted room on the first floor, which we accepted – but we couldn’t help but wonder about all the other people who’d be sleeping on the second and third floors!
We killed the major part of the day at the Heard Museum, which displays the history and art of Native Americans, particularly of the American Southwest. This was a lovely museum, separated into multiple galleries that were small enough not to overwhelm, but full of information and interest. One display covered the experiences of children taken to the Indian boarding schools, where they were, for most of the schools’ existence, forcibly separated from their families, cultures, native languages, and beliefs. Another gallery provided information on the 21 separate, recognized Indian nations in Arizona.
Other galleries explored how cultures use images to tell stories in pottery, weaving, jewelry, and paintings. In one display was a large collection of Hopi katsina (or sometimes, katchina) dolls, representing the spirit figures that dance in the ceremonies of the Hopi calendar year.
There were many exhibits aimed toward children and designed to be hands-on. Simple puzzles in pictures accompanied narration in which key words were spoken in native tongues: you would guess the meaning of the word from context, and could lift the appropriate image from the puzzle – a horse, a yucca plant, a child’s mother – to see the native word written below. There were stations where kids could learn braiding and beading techniques, or make figures from pipestem cleaners. In the Indian boarding school exhibit, children were urged to take a composition book and work through entries and exercise, starting with being given a new “American” name. Very well done!
We had lunch at the museum’s trendy Arcadia café, which served very original and tasty sandwiches and salads. We ate out in the courtyard beside the long pool and fountain, under the pleasant shade of trees. The museum is laid out with colonnades that reminded me of the design of the Franciscan monastery in DC. It was a lovely place. And the gift shop was full of gorgeous and fascinating things, even if we didn’t buy any of them.
We headed back toward our hotel, but ran into unexpected traffic that led us to abandon our plans to find a laundromat before dinner (this Hampton didn’t have a laundry room, alas). Instead, after a water stop, we headed out to this evening’s restaurant, the almost legendary Someburros (Terry talks wistfully about going there for dinner even when she’s in Milwaukee) where we were supposed to meet just the “inner circle” of Terry’s Emtek friends – only to discover that it had closed for renovation on September 12! There was another Someburros across town, but when Terry used her cell to call Cindy about changing plans, both decided that it would be unrealistic to have folk going that far, so they settled instead on a kicky take-off of a train depot near the university, the Depot Cantina. I had a great time while we were sitting in the outdoor area waiting for the rest to arrive and watching all the airplanes flying directly overhead on final landing approach to Sky Harbor airport. The fun continued when we got to our table and discovered that our indisputably male waiter was wearing a nametag that proclaimed him to be “Melissa”! The food was good, and the company was the same: Cindy, Greg, and the two Kim’s.
Oh, I forgot to mention a couple of salient things. One is, we drove back to the CAF museum to take pictures of the bike somewhere distinctively Arizona. The other is that the temperature in Phoenix has been about 105 each day. It doesn’t seem to be bothering Mom much, but Terry and I are sweating out fluids about as fast as we can put them in – and that’s without wearing the chaps!
September 16, Thursday: Phoenix to Flagstaff, AZ
Today was a short run that took all day. We left Phoenix around 8:30 on 17 North, but took a scenic detour onto 89 to see Cottonwood and Clarksdale, because at dinner last night, Cindy had told us about a scenic railroad that offered a really neat tour. We got to the Verde Valley railway depot a little after 11:00, and Terry put us on the standby list for the train, which would pull out at 13:00. Meanwhile, we had mesquite-grilled cheeseburgers at the depot café and browsed the gift shop. After a while they called our names, and we were able to buy coach tickets. (The difference between coach and first class is a buffet luncheon served on board the train.) The ladies behind the counter in the depot kindly let us leave our chaps, jackets, and helmets behind the counter, since we couldn’t lock them in the bike because of all our luggage.
We boarded at 12:45 and pulled out on schedule. The train alternates closed coaches with open cars covered by sun shades. Tickets are sold only for the closed cars, and each closed car has its accompanying open car, so people can choose whether to ride indoors or out. Needless to say, we spent most of our time outdoors in our open car. Our onboard guide, Marlene, was the woman who had initially put us on the standby list. She stayed out in the open car most of the time, augmenting the CD narration and pointing out features of the landscape, including blue herons in the Verde River and turkey vultures and bald eagles on the cliffs and riding the thermals. Guides in each car were equipped with radios so that creature sightings could be reported all along the train.
The one thing I didn’t get pictures of (for which I’m kicking myself now) was the slag heap from the copper mine that once dominated the district. The slag heap was fully 40 feet high and covered many acres of land. It looked as if a very peculiar solidified lava flow had created a butte across the valley. When the smelter was running, people down in the town saw burning rivers of slag creeping and flowing across the pile. A corrugated steel retaining wall held the molten slag away from the railroad line, but in the years since the mine and smelter closed, much of that retaining wall has rusted and fallen away, leaving the pattern of corrugation impressed into this bizarre layering of successive slag flows. Very strange.
Also along the way were caves used by various native tribes long ago, which can be spotted sometimes by the soot stains on the cliff walls from their ancient fires. The eagles’ nests can be spotted because the bird droppings paint a white smear across the cliff around the nests.
The train ride takes four hours – two narrated hours up, and two quiet or musical hours back. The train runs along the course cut by the Verde River, so always running beside the train is a veritable oasis of green. The river valley contains a riotous mix of species, ranging from prickly pear cactus, ocotillo, yucca, and mesquite to cottonwoods, black walnut, white sycamore, and oak. It is positively lush. One interesting sidebar is that parasitic mistletoe lives on many of these tree species, and because mistletoe incorporates the DNA of its host, it looks different on every different type of host tree. Its leaves will ape the shape of its host’s leaves – heart-shaped on a cottonwood, feathery on mesquite – but it will always be a somewhat different color than its host. In the winter, if this host species drops its leaves, the tree will be bare except for the clumps of mistletoe.
Something I particularly enjoyed was watching the changing play of colors on Black Mountain. The top is volcanic black basalt, but lower down, it’s streaked with grey and red. Gorgeous.
The train goes through a tunnel, which is neat – the walls are only a few inches from the sides of the cars, so they warn you very strongly to keep all your limbs inside. There are no lights on the open cars, so while you’re in the tunnel, it’s black as pitch, but you can still sense the close bulk of the walls slipping past just inches away, even though you can see nothing at all.
The train pauses on its longest, highest trestle, which offers a great view back up the river valley. When the train is rented for weddings, the service is conducted on that trestle, and after the vows are spoken, the train’s horn sounds to announce the happy news!
Along the way, we saw a house for Sean, except that it’s probably out of his price range – it’s up for $650 to $750,000, a lovely house on seven acres with a Verde riverfront. That may not seem like very much land, but the house is entirely surrounded by the Coconino National Forest. There’s only one other house nearby. Of course, there’s also a rail line across the river, with tourists going by every day ... The midpoint of the ride is the Parker ranch, where the train is stopped on a siding, uncoupled from the engine, and left standing while the engine and power cars swap ends – the last car out of the main station is the first car back, and that one was ours.
Once we got back to the train station, we reclaimed our gear, said a cheery farewell, and got back onto 89 heading the other direction, bound for Flagstaff via Sedona. Sedona was pretty in a trendy, Southwestern yuppie kind of way, but it really was the gateway to a spectacular set of canyons that signaled yet another dramatic change in the landscape. As soon as we entered the canyons and started to climb, we were cut off from the sun by the steep cliffs, and the temperature dropped at least twenty degrees like a stone. Suddenly, we were in the midst of towering evergreens. The deciduous trees we’d seen in the Verde valley were nowhere to be found here – just tall, dark pines and firs. The air was cool and moist, and the desert we’d been traveling through for days on end seemed impossibly far away, even though it lay just on the other side of the mountains we were crossing through.
This was definitely a scenic route – very twisty ups and downs and breathtaking views – but I’m sure Mom and I saw a lot more of it than Terry did, given the challenge of keeping the bike on the road. We passed an accident where a biker had apparently gone down and slid on a curve not long before we reached the spot. There were many people on hand, and as we continued on, three cop cars passed the other way enroute to the scene.
We came out of the canyons as abruptly as we had gone in, to find ourselves nearly on the edge of Flagstaff. Flagstaff appears to have much more in common with the forests and the canyons than with the desert lower down, curtained with a preponderance of evergreens.
Tonight was another laundry night – two loads, this time! – and wouldn’t you know, despite this being among the larger Hampton Inns we’ve stayed at, they had only a single guest washer and dryer? For the first time, I had competition for the machines, but I lucked out by getting into line behind two gentlemen who were just finishing their respective washer and dryer loads. I’ve definitely seen Hampton guest laundries on this trip; I should do a laundry guide!
September 17, Friday: Grand Canyon, AZ
While we were going through the Flagstaff end of the Sedona canyons, we had noticed a woodsmoke smell. We learned today that there’s a programmed burn in progress. Well, the fires were actually started by lightning strikes, but they were in a remote spot due for a controlled burn, so the fires are being allowed to burn freely within a carefully maintained perimeter.
Today we drove the 30 miles to Williams, the home of the grand Canyon Railroad. this was great – a 2-hour train ride up to the Canyon, followed by lunch at a lodge and a motorcoach tour along the rim of the Canyon. But even before the train ride, there was the Wild West show.
This was a hoot! We had four cowboys working the crowd: Buck, Shiloh, Deacon, and Grady. Buck was the principal, wielding a bullwhip and teaching children to snap the whip and flick a drinking straw off a post. The setup was a blatant act: false wooden fronts through which you could see a parking lot. Three horses were tied to the fence rails, and when Terry asked about petting the horses, Buck told her to go ahead. They were sweet animals. The one in the photo with Terry was a true character. He was standing in the sun, clearly bored and dozing off. His head would start slowly nodding down toward the ground, until he reached the end of his rope; then he would startle, stumble a half-step backward, and his front end would go down as if in a cat-stretch while his rear end went up as he caught his balance on his hind hocks. It was hilarious, and it happened repeatedly while we waited for the show to start. The horse never actually fell over, but it kept looking iffy!
The Wild West show setup itself was hilarious. Buck warmed up the crowd with smart comments: to ladies wearing capri pants, for example, “You know, if you washed them pants in cold water, they wouldn’t ride up on you like that.” Deacon took ladies’ hands, blatantly admiring their jewelry, and making no bones about being a train robber “because that’s what I do.” What a scream! the four eventually started the show by trying to figure out what to eat for breakfast, what with “Ma” being in jail and all of them being broke. Eventually, they decided to try to sucker a tourist from the audience into playing poker with them, while all of them were cheating with cards up their sleeves. They picked on a big, heavy-set guy in Bermuda shorts and carrying a flowered tote bag. When Grady claimed to win, boasting a hand containing five aces, the other three all shot him. Of course, the sheriff arrived, and the cowboys tried to blame the killing on the tourist. In the end, the marshal dropped them all, although not without much silliness and many laughs, including Deacon being told to do his death scene again to let the tourists get pictures, and on his second fall, catching himself before he would land in a pile of horse manure, scooting instead a few feet off to the side to collapse dramatically onto clean dirt. Afterward, all the cowboys got back up, brushed themselves off, and posed for pictures with their horses.
This same bunch later on “held up” the train on its return trip to the station, with all the same hilarity. Why did the train stop to take on the robbers, you ask? “Because none of ‘em would jump from a galloping horse to a moving train for minimum wage,” our dome car hostess, Birdie, sagely observed. Birdie, by the way, was the mother of Amber Rose, our hostess in the different dome car we had going up.
Anyway, on the ride up, we grazed on a continental breakfast of fresh fruit and bakery. We were serenaded by Colonel Jim Garvey, a cowboy singer, from whom Mom bought a CD during the afternoon ride back. He was offering a special deal for riders on the train today: a flat $10 instead of the usual $15 plus tax, in honor of the railroad today celebrating the 103rd anniversary of the first Grand Canyon railroad’s founding by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railroad, and also the 15th anniversary of the re-creation of the current railroad company by the couple who bought the track and derelict rolling stock after it had lain abandoned for 15 years. During the summer, the train runs with restored antique steam engines; the rest of the year, including now, the engines are diesel.
We reached the Canyon at noon, just in time to transfer to a bus and be ferried to lunch at the Matewas lodge. The food was tasty, the logistics of handling the crowds were impressive, and then it was onto the bus for a tour around the rim.
First stop was Hermit’s Walk, with its view of the Bright Angel Trail and the stretch of the Colorado River qualifying as Class Five rapids. Next stop was Hopi Point, with the “lucky seven” inscribed in the rock. I don’t know the name of our last stop offhand (or maybe the last stop was Hopi, and I’ve forgotten the middle one ...), but the view was the most panoramic of all. Photos simply can’t capture or convey the sense of immensity, nor can they capture the voice of the wind crying over the rocks and through the Canyon pines and junipers. Looking down from the rim at tiny sprigs of green far below, it was hard to realize that those green dots were 80-foot-tall mature cottonwood trees, or that the Colorado River was 300 yards wide at one point that looked like a thick piece of yarn. Off in the distance was the smoke from the ongoing burns.
Our bus driver was a good guide, explaining the plant and animal life and the ideas behind the formation of the Canyon. Time, land movement, water, and erosion – and what results!
Several of the folk on the train were staying overnight or longer at one of the rim resorts, so passengers shuffled around for the trip home, with amusing consequences. We learned as we were disembarking that the Biker Babes had already become legend in several cars on the train, with the story of us and our cross-country trip traveling with the passengers on our first train dome car and on our bus to spread through the other cars where those folk rode for the trip back. What a stitch!
On the ride back, in addition to our galloping bandits, we saw cattle spooked by the train (which runs through unfenced range, meaning that the cattle freely cross the tracks), as well as very un-spooked pronghorn antelope and even a family of four elk. Wow!
All in all, it was a great, fun, majestic, silly, and memorable day.
For the next three days, we do nothing but drive: tomorrow to Albuquerque, NM, then to Amarillo, TX, then to Fort Smith, AR. We start our last week of the trip with tomorrow’s ride.
September 18, Saturday: Flagstaff, AZ to Albuquerque, NM
Not much to say for today: basically, all we did was drive, to cover the 325 miles from Flagstaff to Albuquerque. We left Flagstaff about 8:00, under a threat of – gasp! – rain.
The theme of the day, carrying over appropriately enough from the past two days, was trains. We saw at least 12 long freight trains paralleling or opposing our course. Our highway, 40, was also a major trucking route, so we really saw freight moving across America.
An amusing note along the way: Winslow, AZ – where we paused for our customary morning treat of water, apple juice, and apple pies at MacDonald’s – capitalizes on its fame through the Eagles’ song “Take It Easy.” One billboard along the highway proclaimed: “Stand on this corner in Winslow, Arizona ...”
We had lunch at the Cracker Barrel in Gallup, NM, and then hit the road again. Only about half an hour later, we pulled into a truck stop for gas and to put on rain gear. Mom and I went inside to dress while Terry tanked up. By the time the two of us came back out, rain was slashing down and sideways with the wind. We decided to wait it out a bit before hitting the road again, particularly after hearing from a lady trucker who’d come out of Albuquerque that they’d traveled the last 7 miles in a horrible storm that pushed their semi constantly sideways. After a short wait, the worst of the rain and wind passed by, and we took to the road again for the last couple of hours to Albuquerque. We hit intermittent rain along the way, but saw the worst of the storms off to the side. We were apparently running along the back end of the storm.
We hit some construction along the way, a stretch that lasted for miles with traffic shrunk down to a single lane. After that, however, we had clear sailing to our hotel for the night. We pulled in at 16:45 local (we crossed into Mountain Daylight Time when we left Arizona), too late for anticipatory mass at the local Catholic church. We unpacked and walked across the street to Rudy’s Texas Bar-B-Que, a pretty unique place that reminded me of crab houses back East. You ordered your dinner meat by weight (we opted for the pork ribs), and it was wrapped in coated paper and dropped on your tray along with 2 slices of bread per person. You picked up your drinks and whatever quantity of cold sides you wanted, and then you were given as many large sheets of coated paper as you had people in your party. You found an empty table, spread your paper placemats, dumped your food onto them, and ate. It was messy but fun and tasty, although it definitely wasn’t the best barbecue we’d ever had.
This Hampton proved something of a disappointment. The outdoor pool was cold and dirty, not just with leaves floating, which you’d expect, but with loose stones, plastic, and something that looked like dryer sheets on the bottom of the pool. The spa looked inviting, but proved to be way too hot, far above the 104° F maximum. When we told the front desk clerk, a heavy-set, dark-haired young man by the name of David – who had earlier been reluctant to call the church for Terry to learn the mass schedule – he flat-out said that there couldn’t be any problem because the spa needed to be a certain temperature, and people had been in an out of it all day without any complaints. We ultimately dumped ice and water from the pool into the spa, which cooled it off enough for Mon and Terry to spend a few minutes in it, but I couldn’t even keep my feet in for a full minute. Another woman who had been sitting on the edge with just her feet in the spa – like us, because it was too hot for her to sit in it – had red feet and calves when she pulled them out, and they were still red when she and her husband went to their room 15 or 20 minutes later.
Tomorrow morning we’ll catch the 7:30 mass, return to the hotel to check out, and drive the 283 miles to our next stop in Amarillo, TX.
All was not entirely lost at this disappointing Hampton: Terry made 30 cents off the place by using the pool scoop to bring 3 dimes on the bottom of the pool to the steps, and picking them up with her toes. That’s what they get for not cleaning their pool!
September 19, Sunday: Albuquerque, NM to Amarillo, TX
We started the day with 7:30 mass at the local Catholic church on Claremont. Big difference between this church and the Hispanic one we were at last week: white folks don’t sing much. Last week I just blended in, singing (oddly enough, since we kind of stood out visually!); this week, I stuck out – people were turning to look for the big, trained voice. Hey: it was fun. especially at the end of the service, when the organist turned around, obviously scanning, and gave me a big “OK” hand sign when I gave her a nod.
It had been raining at breakfast, so we suited up in full rain gear before church. We wound up wearing it all day, because we kept going through bands of rain and sun. We had a nasty crosswind smacking us from the right for virtually the entire trip.
We stopped for lunch at a Denny’s in Tucumcari, and then hit the last stretch to Amarillo. Just before we arrived, we passed Cadillac Ranch, the sculpture of cars upended in the ground, which proved disappointing enough viewed in a quick pass that I told Terry not to bother planning on swinging back this way tomorrow for the photograph I’d intended to take.
The last stretch saw some accidents. First, we saw a car flipped at a rest area: how the driver managed that one, on flat ground, no less, we haven’t a clue. Then there was the semitrailer that had burned just where a ramp ascended to the highway. we could still smell the smoke, although everything had been put out before we got there. The third was the worst: a semi off the road on its side, with a crushed SUV. That one caused a long backup for us.
We made it to our night’s Hampton Inn at 17:00, counting the time change from Mountain to Central as we crossed from New Mexico into Texas. Alas, the pool was unheated and there was no spa, although it was so windy that we might not have been able to use it anyway. We walked to a nearby Schlotsky’s deli for supper, and were charged by the owner to go to the West Allis Schlotsky’s, inquire for Dave Pepke, and if he was still there, to tell him “hello” from the folk in Amarillo who trained him. Small world ...
Tomorrow will be a long haul, over 450 miles to Fort Smith. And I will need to do laundry again. Hopefully we won’t need to ride in rain gear again. Who would have thought that we’d hit rain in the high New Mexico desert and the Texas panhandle, places known for being dry? Just our luck to be here for that rare occurrence.
September 20, Monday: Amarillo, TX to Fort Smith, AR
It rained very lightly as we were getting ready for breakfast, but it stopped before we finished eating. The weather forecast showed a lovely day shaping up further east, and since that’s where we were heading, Terry and I decided to ride in leathers, although we had Mom put on her all-weather pants, just in case.
We saddled up at 8:15 and proceeded to spend the day galloping east on 40 through Texas and Oklahoma. We started out under solid overcast with gusty winds.
Texas was pretty much flat, with an occasional hill to break the monotony and give the wind a real chance to howl. One of those hills was our gas stop in Alanread, TX – this place was so small that the gas station was also the local post office, convenience store, sandwich and snack shop, laundromat, and motel! It was also solidly George Bush country.
It wasn’t until we were almost out of Texas that we saw our first oil well pumping. We were starting to wonder if we’d missed them all!
As we crossed into Oklahoma, we marveled at how little traffic we’d seen along the way. We’d met and been part of a constant procession of trucks all the way through Arizona and New Mexico, but from the time we started this morning, we had a nearly private highway through Texas. No telling what caused it, but traffic didn’t wake up until around noon, as we began to approach the Oklahoma City area.
As we ran east, the sky began to lighten, and we knew that our luck would hold. It was pleasant running under the overcast with the assurance that it wouldn’t fall on us: the clouds kept the sun from hitting us full in the eyes as we headed straight for it, and kept the air pleasantly cool.
When we crossed into Oklahoma, still under light clouds, we had to laugh that Oklahoma was more welcoming than Texas had been. Coming in on 40, the Texas welcome center was 76 miles inside the state – past our night’s stopping point in Amarillo! – while the Oklahoma welcome center was just before the 10-mile marker. We haven’t stopped at any of the state welcome centers this trip, I don’t think.
Anyway, we pressed on. The sky cleared steadily, and we were running in full sunshine and unlimited visibility before noon. That was all the better to appreciate how much the country was changing again. Texas had been mostly flat, with red, red dirt; Oklahoma started out flat, but then began to roll. After the days of desert driving we’d done, it was refreshing to the eyes to see cultivated land and acres upon acres of crops. Two things caught our eye: something like really short corn (some particular variety of maize, perhaps?) and something else that was really tall, with a stalk like a cattail and a feathery top. We haven’t a clue what that stuff was.
We stopped on the outskirts of Oklahoma City for lunch at a Cracker Barrel at 13:00. We were on the road again at 14:00, running for the Arkansas border. The skies were sunny, blue, and cloudless: perfect riding weather. We hit a lot of construction, but all of it was painless. It shrank us down repeatedly to a single lane, but with so little traffic volume to deal with, that slowed us down just to the 55 mph work zone speed limit. We saw no incidents and no accidents, and everything was smooth sailing.
Past Oklahoma City (I took a pass on going through the city itself to see the memorial), we saw increasing numbers of oil and gas wells pumping more of what we had expected to see in Texas. The ride was uneventful but thoroughly enjoyable, although portions of the road were so rough that my knees are looking forward to the hot tub tonight!
We crossed the river (and it finally looked like a river, with lots of water in it all the time, not like the Salt River in Phoenix and similar “rivers” elsewhere in the desert states that are nothing but dry sandy gulches until the very occasional rain turns it into a temporary flash flood zone!) and took the Roland-Fort Smith exit to run the five miles or so into Fort Smith. This turned out to be a quite sizeable and very attractive town. And the Hampton Inn was the plushiest yet! They actually have more than one guest laundry, and the one on our floor had two washers and dryers. (You can see that this trip has definitely affected the basis on which I rate hotels ...) I was able to do laundry, swim, and loaf in the spa, and all the amenities were totally delightful.
Read Part Four