Saturday, May 19, 2012

May 19, 2012 - Coming Home

Returning home from vacation is always with very mixed feelings.  We are looking forward to seeing family and friends, sleeping in our own bed and getting back in a routine.  However, we will also return to the things at work and home that have accumulated over the past two weeks.
The evening before leaving on vacation or returning from vacation is always stressful.  We worry about forgetting something or oversleeping and missing a flight.  Although Mary is such a careful planner, we always remember the important things and set several alarms so we don’t oversleep.  We were awake before the alarms and caught the motel shuttle to the airport in plenty of time, especially since Mary had checked us in the evening before.  We went through security with no problems and we were at the gate well ahead of boarding time.
We had lunch at Mandarin Express in the Atlanta airport which was pretty good for airport food.  While in Atlanta, I ran into a friend, Bev Kingery, who is superintendent of Nicholas County Schools.  She was coming home from New Orleans after a few days off.
We were in Charleston a little after 4:30 and headed for home, tired but happy to be back.
Along the trip home, between naps on the flights, we were reflecting on the trip.  We wanted to list some of the things that we thought we would do again and things that we would change if we were to do this trip again.
We were very pleased with the rental car.  The Toyota Corolla was just the right size and had plenty of power and got great fuel economy.  The over 2100 miles that we put on the little car were tough miles of desert driving.  Between 5 and 10 percent of the mileage was on dirt roads.  We liked the option of being about to return the car without gas since we only had to pay $3.58 per gallon which is less than the prevailing price.  We did not choose the optional insurance options since the rate for the rental would have more than doubled with the insurance.  In addition, the collision coverage on our cars covers rental cars.  Another option that we did take that we would not do again was the additional driver.  The arrangement that we have always found best is for me to drive and for Mary to navigate from the passenger seat.  Even if we have GPS, it is great to have her checking tour books, maps and brochures to identify places of interest.  Just taking a rental was the right decision.  If we had driven to Albuquerque, we would have put over 7,000 miles on our car and would have used five days just getting there.  That would have left only seven days for our vacation to tour the sites.  In addition, after all of that driving, we would have been so tired that we wouldn’t have enjoyed the trip nearly as much.
The duration of the trip was about right.  A trip of that distance would have not been worth the trip if it were any shorter.  A longer trip would have been too long.  The pacing of our trip was perfect.  We knew that a couple of days would be long (May 16 at Chaco Canyon) but we had a lot of flexibility and sometimes added things as we went.  For example, on May 13, we had planned a short day with a trip to the Needles area of Canyonlands.  Since we completed our tour of the area, we decided to go to Moab and drive through Arches National Park which we always enjoy.  At no time did we feel that we were on a schedule or had to keep to a timeline.
The timing of the trip was just perfect as well.  Many of the attractions that interested us are not open until May 1.  However, after Memorial Day, the weather is typically very hot and the number of visitors to the attractions is much higher.  The only other time that would be as ideal as early May would be late September or early October.  In years past, we could only go on vacation in July since we were both teachers.  Mid-summer is just not a great time to be in the Four Corners area.  We would recommend early May for a visit to the area if at all possible.
The annual pass for the National Parks was a good move for us.  We went to 14 National Parks (historical areas, monuments, etc) and many of these have a fee of $5-15 and the pass exempted us from the fee.  If we were to do this again, we would just purchase our pass at the first park we visited rather than ordering on-line in advance.
In thinking about our favorite things about the trip, Mary and I agreed that our favorite visit was to Chaco Cultural Historical Park.  We had seen Pueblo ruins at Canyon de Chelly, Monument Valley, Hovenweep and Mesa Verde but none were as impressive as those of Chaco.  The road to Chaco was terrible.  There just is no good way to get there but the visit is well worth the drive.  The ruins at Pecos National Historical Park were interesting since ancient Pueblo people who had lived in other areas came to the Pecos area after they abandoned their home areas in the mid 1200s.
Of the towns we visited, Mary liked Cortez, Colorado best while I enjoyed Farmington, New Mexico best.  While we liked different towns best, we like them for the same reasons.  Both towns are large enough to have some amenities of town but have managed to maintain the small town attitude and feel.
Favorite meals of the trip stimulated a good deal of discussion for us.  We had a lot of excellent food in our travels through the Four Corners area.  Many of the places we ate were featured on shows in the Food Network or Travel Channel.  Some places were reviewed by Jane and Michael Stern in their RoadFood column.  Other places were recommended to us by friends.  When we travel, we really try to avoid chain restaurants.  We can eat at Applebee’s a mile from home.  We want to eat where locals eat and have the specialties of towns we are visiting.  We did not have a bad meal the whole trip, if you don’t count the continental breakfasts at motels.  Mary’s favorite meal of the trip was her barbacoa at El Burro Pancho in Cortez, Colorado.  She had a huge serving of tender flavorful beef with well seasoned sauce.  My meal of Mole Pollo there was very good with a very dark rich sauce.  However, my favorite meal was the rabbit mole enchiladas at Buck’s Grill House in Moab, Utah.  She liked her duck tamales there but the barbaco in Cortez was her top pick.
We agreed on our favorite lodging spot at the Holiday Inn Canyon de Chelly in Chinle, Arizona.  The motel was just outside the entrance to the National Park, was quiet and comfortable.  The restaurant there was very good and had huge portions for all the meals.  We ate only half of the sandwiches that we had there and ate the other half the next day for lunch.  Hotel and restaurant staff there was friendly and helpful.  The motel is operated by the Navajo Nation and is on the reservation.  We felt that we had great rates on all of our lodging with the possible exception of our night in Kayenta, Arizona which is understandable because there was a large track meet nearby that had all rooms booked far in advance.
We did not agree on the most beautiful site of the trip.  Mary really liked the 360 degree overlook on the hill behind the Anasazi Heritage Center in Dolores, Colorado near Cortez.  Although fires in Arizona, especially in the Flagstaff area created some haze, the view from the hill you can see the surrounding mountain ranges and famous peaks.  My favorite view was the panoramic views at Monument Valley.  Many western movies have been filmed in Monument Valley including Stagecoach, National Lampoon’s Vacation, The Searchers and Back to the Future III.  The new Johnny Depp version of The Lone Ranger was filmed there just a month ago.  The Goulding Brothers were successful in bringing John Ford to the area where he filmed many westerns throughout his career.
We discussed things on our trip that we could have skipped.  We were pleased that we saw Anasazi ruins in the sequence that we saw them (Canyon de Chelly, Hovenweep, Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon) since each the quality of the ruins was better at each location.  Had we been to Chaco first, we would have been disappointed with the others.  That being said, we would not have wanted to skip any of these historic sites.  If we had to pick something to skip on the trip, Mary would have passed Natural Bridge National Monument since we saw similar formations on a grander scale at Arches National Park.  I would have chosen Navajo National Monument to skip if something had to be taken off the list.  There were ruins there but less well preserved or spectacular than those we saw elsewhere.  There were also interesting rock formations but bit as grand as those at Monument Valley or Canyonlands.
We always enjoy our vacations.  We like to do things that are educational.  We like to be outside and on short hikes.  We like to see things that we have never seen and to experience other cultures.  We like to enjoy the food of different regions of our country.  This trip had all of these things and more.  We had never been to many of these places but our drive through the Southwest reminded us so much of trips to Utah when the kids were young back in the 1980s and 90s.  We have a lot of great memories in the area from years past and made many good memories on this trip.
We will not update this blog but will refer to it from time to time to relive the places we have been.  Since this trip was so successful, we will use it as a model for future vacations.  Right now we are thinking of possible trips to Yellowstone, Florida Keys, and Northern California. 
The maps below show the overall route of our trip.  Since there were so many stops, we couldn't get everything in one interactive map so it it divided into two parts.

May 8-12

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May 13 - 19

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Friday, May 18, 2012

May 18, 2012 – Can you hear Albuquerque without thinking of Bugs Bunny?

Although we had planned for our last day in the Southwest to be a short and relaxing day, we ending up having a full but excellent day.  We left the Bernalillo Super 8 at 7:30 and went to our 14th National Park of our vacation, Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque.  As we walked the 2.5 mile trail, we were amazed by the 1200 petroglyphs visible to visitors.  These examples of rock are very different that ones we have seen at places like Nine Mile Canyon because they are much later, perhaps only 500 years old.  In addition, rather than being made on the desert varnish of sandstone, the petroglyphs in the Albuquerque area carved into dark basaltic rock.  We were happy that we were at the park in the morning before the day heated up.  A group of students arrived at the park as we were leaving.

As we drove into the city, we stopped at Garcia’s Kitchen which is a large restaurant that has a small town feel.  Mary had a breakfast burrito filled with pork and egg, served with refried beans and home fries then all covered with local green chile.  I had pozole which is a pre-Columbian type stew made with meat, potatoes, vegetables and green chiles.  Our sopapillas came with local honey.  Both of us enjoyed our brunch very much. 

We walked around Albuquerque Old Town for a couple of hours then went to the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center that provided interesting information on the history of the Pueblo cultures of the area.  In addition, each of the 19 existing Pueblos had displays on their current status, traditions and culture.

Since it was only about 2 pm when we left, we detoured to the Albuquerque BioPark (Zoo).  The zoo had some nice displays.  We especially enjoyed the Australia exhibits of koalas and kangaroos.

The dinner choice was Frontier Restaurant which is across the street from the University of New Mexico bookstore.  This restaurant was recommended to us by my friend and former student, Ashley, who was an exchange student here for a year.  In addition, they have been featured on RoadFood and will appear on the Travel Channel’s Man v. Food on June 22, 2012.  We both had the signature meal, green chile cheeseburgers, and fries on the side.  Mary had one of their famous sweet rolls as well.  We were both very impressed with the quality, quantity and value of the meal.  We were happy that we were there between semesters since I suspect that it can be very crowded at times.

After dinner, we drove to the Albuquerque Airport Day’s Inn and unloaded the rental car.  There were no problems returning the car and the airport shuttle was waiting to bring us back to the motel.

We hope to turn in early this evening since we need to be at the Albuquerque International Sunport around 6:30 am tomorrow. 

Once we get settled back at home, we will prepare a reflection on the trip which will be posted.

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Thursday, May 17, 2012

May 17, 2012 – Do you know the way to Santa Fe?

We woke up early this morning at the Bernalillo Super 8 since the air conditioning wasn’t doing much good to keep the room cool.  After grabbing a motel breakfast we drove to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
San Miguel Church in Santa Fe

We had no trouble finding a parking lot available near the state capitol building allowing us to walk around Old Town Santa Fe.  We were impressed with the antiquity of the area and saw the San Miguel Mission Church that may be the oldest church in the United States since it was built in the early 1600s.  There are a few adobe buildings remaining in the city including the church and a few old houses.  However, most are what locals call “faux-dobe” which looks a great deal like the real thing.  We walked through the Palace of the Governors and the state capitol building which has a lot of art displays.  The Loretto Chapel was a beautiful old church that has a spiral staircase that is said to be a miracle since it has two complete 360 degree turns and has no supports other than at the top and bottom.  The stairs were built of wood in the 1870s.
Spiral Staircase at Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe

We grabbed a mid-morning snack from a street vendor, Rogue’s Carnitas who has been featured on several Food Network shows. Mary had a red chile chicken tamale and I had a green chile tamale.  We both enjoyed our snacks.  Rogue’s specialty is the carnita but they looked too large for us this morning so we opted for the smaller tamales.

We took a short drive to the Wheelwright Museum which was small but well organized and displayed.  The museum houses the collection of Mary Cabot Wheelwright and includes art from many of the native Pueblo cultures, Navajos and Spanish Americans.

On leaving the museum, we drove on the Santa Fe Trail to toward Pecos, New Mexico.  We stopped for lunch at Bobcat Bite, a local favorite that is also featured on Food Network shows.  The restaurant is tiny with about a half dozen tables and perhaps six seats at the counter.  The two waitresses stayed very busy the whole time we were there since the place was very busy.  Mary had a ham and cheese sandwich on whole grain bread that had two slices of ham that were about a quarter inch thick each and a generous coating of melted cheese.  I had the Albuquerque/Santa Fe regional favorite, the green chile cheeseburger.  Bobcat Bite makes theirs with a 10 ounce patty of sirloin and chuck with Swiss and American chess with green chile.  Both of us enjoyed our meals although both were very large servings.  Bobcate Bite got the name because when the restaurant opened in the 1950s, bobcats would come down from the nearby mountains and scavenge for food around the restaurant.
Spanish mission ruins at Pecos, NM
From there, we drove to Pecos National Historic Park to walk around ruins of Pueblo culture from the 1200s to the 1800s.  It is believed that when Ancient Pueblo people like Anasazis left their villages at Mesa Verde, Chaco and other locations, they may have come to areas like Pecos.  The area was occupied by Spanish missionaries in the 1600s who built a large mission from adobe that remains standing, although in ruins today.  The walk around the sites was about 1.5 miles but the strong breeze made the heat very comfortable.  Also at the park is the site of the Battle of Glorieta Pass which is called by some “The Gettysburg of the West” since the efforts of the Confederates to expand into the western territories were thwarted by Union forces in March 1862 and was a turning point in the war.  We took a walk of about three quarters of a mile out to one of the battle sites.  There were also places where wagon tracks from the Old Santa Fe Trail were still visible in the ruts in the desert.

On the drive today, we drove on several historic roads including the Santa Fe Trail which was an important route from Franklin, Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico from 1821 until the about 1880 when railroads make the route obsolete.  We drove part of the Old Pecos Trail, the Las Vegas (New Mexico) Trail and Rt. 66.  Part of Rt. 66 was once part of El Camino Real which was the royal highway between Mexico City and San Juan Pueblo, New Mexico from 1598 to 1882.  The highway has nothing to do with a half car/half truck from Chevy although we did see an old El Camino on El Camino Real!  Although we didn’t have Jill (our Garmin Nuvi) with us, the GPS in the rental car (Maggie since the GPS is a Magellan unit) did fine to help us find our way around.  One thing that is difficult to adjust to is the way that the GPS announces directions.  Jill will say, “In 2 miles, make a right turn on Rt. 123”, however, Maggie will say, “Make a hard right turn on Rt. 123 in 2 miles”.  It just startles me when she says to make a turn BEFORE telling how long to drive until the turn.

We got back to the Bernalillo Super 8 by 6 pm and since we were still full from the huge lunch, we ate fresh fruit for dinner.  

Tomorrow, we plan to do some sightseeing in Albuquerque and return the rental car before checking in at the Days Inn near the Albuquerque Airport.  Our flight home leaves at 8 am on Saturday morning.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

May 16, 2012 – Chaco Chaco Man

Because we wanted to visit the Chaco Culture National Historical Park early in the day, we left the Super 8 in Farmington, New Mexico a little after 6 am.  After driving on a rough section of road for 21 miles (16 of which were dirt) we arrived at the park.  Without a doubt, the ancient Pueblo ruins and the access to the dwellings were the best we have seen anywhere we have been.  This canyon would  have been a thriving agricultural community between 800 and 1300 AD.  The pueblo structures at Chaco are amazingly well preserved.  There are places where visitors can actually walk through the buildings.  We took a ranger led tour through Pueblo del Arroyo then did self guided tours at the Pueblo Bonito ruins that are huge areas that would have served hundreds of people.  While on the tour at Pueblo del Arroyo, we saw workers stabilizing the walls to preserve the structures.  Other self guided tours through Hungo Pavi, Chetro Keti and Casa Rinconada are also interesting.

Pueblo Bonito

Pueblo Arroyo

Kiva at Pueblo Arroyo

Excavated kiva at Pueblo Bonito

Lunch was peanut butter on crackers, oranges and mixed nuts along with a lot of water since the day became hot quickly despite the 7000 feet altitude of the park. Since we weren’t interested in some of the longer hiking trails today, we opted to leave the park a little after 1 pm which meant another 21 mile drive on mostly dirt roads to get back to Route 550 to head southeast. 
While walking around Chaco Canyon, we met a lady who had worked as a botanist at Fernow Experimental Forest near Parsons, West Virginia.  She knew several of my friends from the College of Science at Marshall University.
We were in Bernalillo, New Mexico by 4:30 pm and crashed at the Super 8 a bit before taking a short walk around the motel before going to dinner at a local Southwestern restaurant called The Range CafĂ© on Rt, 66, known here as Cameno del Pueblo.  They specialize in meals with blue corn, especially enchiladas and chile rellenos.  Mary had blue corn chicken enchiladas and I had a combination that included a chile relleno and two blue corn beef enchiladas.  Both meals had beans and arroz verde on the side.  We swapped enchiladas and enjoyed our meals.  This place wasn’t a Mexican place but is more a southwest cowboy fare.  One thing that we have noticed here in going to many Mexican and Southwestern restaurants is that there isn’t hot sauce on the tables.  This is true even in very authentic Mexican places in some of the small towns.  The only restaurant we have been to that had hot sauce on the tables was the Holiday Inn in Chinle, Arizona.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

May 15, 2012 – How green is my mesa

We arrived at the gates to Mesa Verde National Park before 8 am after leaving the Day’s Inn in Cortez, Colorado.  Our hotel was only a few miles from the entry gate to the park but the visitor center was over 20 miles into the park from the gate.

I have wanted to go to Mesa Verde since reading about the cliff dwellings as a child.  My favorite book as a small child was a big book on Indians.  While I am certain that the book was very politically incorrect by today's standards, I recall seeing drawings of how the residents of Mesa Verde may have lived long ago.  That has made me want to visit the ancient cliff dwellings for over 50 years now.  However, as teachers, the only time we could go was mid-summer which is a terrible time to visit this part of the desert.  For one, although the park is at 8,000 feet, it is still very hot in the middle of the day.  Secondly, the park is really busy in mid-summer.  We were there in mid-May on a weekday and it was still pretty busy.  In a way, it is very encouraging that so many people want to come to an area that is very educational and historic.  There were a lot of families visiting as well as student groups from schools.

We purchased tickets for a ranger-led tour to one of the larger cliff dwellings called the Cliff Palace.  Our guide was excellent and gave us an interesting and informative walk into the cliff dwelling.  We were able to walk into the remarkably well preserved dwellings and see how the Pueblo people lived 800 years ago.  On the walk back up to the canyon rim from the ruins site, I got really winded.  That was the first time that the altitude has affected me since we have been here.  At over 8,000 above sea level, there is a significant reduction in the physical activity that is possible.  Even when I was 25 years younger, I recall noticing a reduction in available air when we would visit places in the Wasatch Range which can be above 10,000 feet.

Following the Cliff Palace tour, we drove around the Mesa Loop making 12 stops at overlooks and archeological sites.  Our final stop for the day was at the Spruce House Ruins where we took a self guided tour down a long and steep path into a canyon to see some extremely well preserved cliff dwellings.

One of the day’s highlights was seeing collared lizards.  There were two of them on one of the trails to an overlook.  The males of the species are stunning with bright colors and the lizard’s large size.  The rangers were surprised when we told them we saw the lizards since they are not common in that canyon.

The drive from Mesa Verde to Farmington, New Mexico was not long but it was very hot with the rental Corolla’s thermometer showing outside temperatures of 89 degrees.  Although we had planned to leave Mesa Verde early, we didn’t leave until after 3 pm.  That put us in Farmington a little before 5 pm going south on Route 491 (former Navajo 666) past Shiprock, New Mexico.  We checked into the Farmington Super 8 which is clean and comfortable as well as quiet.  Several local people we talked to recommended a place called Si Senor.  Mary had chicken sopapillas and I had the local combination platter.  We were impressed that a cook was mixing, forming and frying tortillas in a corner of the dining area.  You can’t get any fresher than that.  Our meals were very good.

We will need to leave early in the morning since Chaco Culture National Historical Park is a 20 drive down a dirt road once we turn off the road.  When we leave Chaco, we will have a long drive to Bernadillo, New Mexico.  The blog may not be updated until the morning (or later) on May 17.  I suspect that when we arrive in Bernadillo, we will get a shower and go to sleep.

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Monday, May 14, 2012

May 14, 2012 – Don’t cry for Hovenweep

After another breakfast of cold cereal at the Super 8 in Blanding, Utah, we left for the ancient ruins of Hovenweep National Monument.  Hovenweep is surrounded by the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument which includes more than 6000 archaeological sites.  When we arrived, we were the first visitors of the day and the ranger on duty was very helpful and informative.  We walked the 2 mile loop trail around the canyon seeing ruins of many structures dating back to around 1250 AD.  This canyon has been occupied from around 100 AD until a period of warming and drought in the mid 1300s caused the residents to leave the canyon for more arable fields for their agriculture.  Some believe that these people eventually gave rise to the Hopi and other pueblo cultures of the Southwest.  After walking the loop trail, we drove to some additional ruins and walked shorter trails (less than a mile) to see how the people lived.  We were fascinated that the structures that were built nearly 800 years ago using local stones and mud mortar are mostly standing.  Some of these structures are two and three stories in height.  Our modern buildings often are obsolete in 20 years!  The ruins included housing, grain storage and ceremonial structures.  Openings in the masonry walls were placed to note the solstices and other astronomical events.

In addition to the Pueblo ruins, we were fascinated by the abundance and variety of lizards.  We saw many small sagebrush lizards, and plateau whiptail lizards.  The whiptails are the lizards that are always noted in biology books as examples of parthenogenesis since no male lizards have ever been identified.  Adult female whiptails lay unfertilized eggs that develop into female whiptails.  We understand that the area has a large population of collared lizards but we were unable to see any despite our best efforts.

On the way to the El Cajon area of Hovenweep, we had to drive over a couple of miles of really bad road with dirt and slick rock.  We had to travel at a crawl but the little Toyota Corolla rental car did really well.  We also noticed buried pipeline for carbon dioxide that we later learned carried waste CO2 to an experimental carbon sequestration area.

After leaving Hovenweep, which means “deserted valley”, we drove through Cortez, Colorado to the Anasazi Heritage Museum in Dolores, Colorado.  We had no idea what a great museum this is.  Outside there is a great display of native plant life with identifying signage.  There is also a one mile trail up the canyon to a 360o overlook of the McPhee Reservoir and the surrounding mountain ranges.

We made our way to the Days Inn in Cortez to crash before going to dinner at El Burro Pancho a local favorite.  Like many of the restaurants we visited, El Burro Pancho was tiny and most of the diners were local.  Mary had barbacoa that she says is the best she has ever had.  It was tender and flavorful.  When I travel in the Southwest, I like to get mole since there are so many ways of making it.  My pollo mole was deep, dark and smokey with sprinkled sesame seeds on top.  It was outstanding!  Both of us had huge portions but it was so good that we didn’t want to waste a bite.  Mary thinks that this was the best meal we have had on our trip so far.

We are within 10 miles of Mesa Verde National Park so we will not have to leave early tomorrow although we continue to wake up at 5 am.  When we leave Mesa Verde, we will drive to Farmington, New Mexico where we will stay at the Super 8.

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