Monday, June 30, 2014

From Canyons and Caves, to Glitz and Glamour, Vegas!

Posted by Christopher


We love staying in city’s, because only on the outskirts of a city can you stay at a residence inn, the hotel that we like the most because of it’s three room suite. This has two bedrooms and a communal room with a pull out bed, so that everybody gets to sleep on a bed. So we decided that we could stay in Las Vegas for a night since, that was on our route to get back to Canada.

We stopped to check out the Hoover Dam on the way into Las Vegas.

We reserved a nice room in the residence inn, and we stayed there in Vegas. as soon as we got comfy in our room, we decided to go drive up and down the big ‘'strip” where all the Vegas stuff is. So we drove down there and instantly were confronted by flashing lights and giant neon colourful signs, even in the day time. We drove up and down looking at Caesar's Palace, the Flamingo, and the Bellagio. All of them have big shows playing, like Celine Dion, hypnotists and magicians.

If you want to see up and coming acts like Celine Dion, Donny and Marie or Olivia Newton John, head for Vegas!
Money, money, money.
Once we were back at our hotel, I didn’t really know what to think of all of it. We had seen near starving people, but now we were seeing a place where people file their money away in to some big company’s coffers in the form of gambling. Either way, we were near starving by that time, so we decided to go and see if there was somewhere to eat.

One of the fountains outside Ceasar's Palace.
We were walking for a while, before we found anything that we actually thought might be ok to eat at. It was a Mexican restaurant called The Cantina, and it was inside a casino. We thought it would be interesting so we walked in, and sat down. That was when I noticed the second hand smoke wafting in the air. I considered asking to leave, but we were all so hungry I though it was unwise. So I ordered a burrito, via the sub-par service. When it came to me, I was not impressed. It did not taste that bad, but compared to the looks and tastes of other food, even in Guatemala, it was demolished. So we ate and just headed back to the hotel to sleep.

The pools at Ceasar's Palace looked inviting, but unfortunately, we didn't bring our bathing suits.
The next day, we thought we should go see a high end casino. So we went to Caesar’s Palace which came off to me, as pretty much the same as the seedy casino we ate at, but everything was just a bit fancier. After that, we decided we’d had enough of Las Vegas, and drove off to our next destination, Zion national park in Utah.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Grand Canyon

Posted By Alexander

Hiking Grand Canyon was really hot, but really amazing.
While on the way to Grand Canyon I was reflecting on our experience in the Canyon de Chelly. It was so big that I didn’t expect much more out of Grand Canyon. Boy was I wrong. Grand Canyon had it’s own national park just like Yellowstone and the first thing we did when we arrived was head to the main lookout point. It was so deep that the Colorado river was lost in the cracks and folded rock. It was wide enough that the other end of the canyon was faded blue and a little hard to make out clearly. There was a tower where you could look out the windows but I thought it was better to look at outside. It was also really windy.

The one thing you can say about Grand Canyon without a doubt - it is huuuuge.
At this point, we were still part of the 95% of tourists that never go below the rim of the Canyon.
That was our first taste of Grand Canyon and also or last for that day. We went to our hotel and hung out there for the evening. It took us a while to work out dinner and we finally settled on pizza before Katie ate someone.

You had to be careful not to step off the trail on the hike down.
Turns out heights don't really bother me too much.  Dad and Christopher did not like standing here though.
Some of the switchbacks that drop you into the canyon over a short distance.
The next day we went to see the Imax Movie about the canyon. It was really interesting and it talked a lot about explorers and their encounters with Grand Canyon. It also showed a bit about the Natives who used to live in the canyon. The Anasazi or ancient ones in the language of the Navajo. The Movie kept calling the canyon “Grand Canyon” instead of “The Grand Canyon” as I believed it was called, so that is how I am referring to it now, too.

The easy part (going down) was at the start of this hike.
More trail side life.
The next thing we did that day was hike into Grand Canyon. We had already learned that only five percent of all the visitors go below the rim of the canyon and we feel that we went further down than most of the five percent do. We didn’t go all the way down because that is extremely hard to do in a single day but we went some of the way down and then came back up. It’s a really tricky hike because you start out going down and do the difficult part (coming up) afterwards.

We had two backpacks with us and it was my turn to carry it on the way up. Some of us were a little anxious because there were some pretty steep drops next to the trail. They didn’t freak me out much though. Just because you stand in a high place doesn’t mean you’re obliged to jump does it? Anyway I thought the whole trail was a little bit crappy. That’s a joke because the trail was covered in Mule feces. That’s what us hikers get when everyone else picks the Mule tours.

Sharing the trail with these guys meant we had to watch our step.
A real American cowboy.
The views from the trail were amazing and it was a great way to see the canyon in a way that most people don’t. I’m very happy that we got to hike Grand Canyon.

This spot was where we turned around and went back up.  It is called Cedar Ridge.
The views were amazing.
Heading back up was the hard part.
The trail dropped off to the side pretty steeply in places.
I’m also supposed to talk about Monument valley. I found it underwhelming.There were lot’s of tall rocks sure, but we saw some much cooler ones beside the road on our way to monument valley. After the big ones we saw the others seemed less amazing in comparison. To end things on a high note though, we left the Grand Canyon and now we’re heading to Las Vegas!

Monument Valley has been in a bunch of old Western movies.

Friday, June 27, 2014

If you ever plan to motor west, travel my way, take the highway, that’s the best…

Posted by Scot

Hiking down into the Canyon de Chelly, Navajo Nation, Arizona
Leaving Carlsbad, we headed north through the Arizona desert.  The first place we passed of any interest was Roswell, New Mexico.  They trade pretty heavily on the UFO rumors, with billboards and statues of aliens all over town.  We briefly entertained the idea of going to the UFO museum.  Then we remembered that there are actual real museums to see in the world, and decided to save our money for one of those.  We settled for a photo op with an alien statue at a gas station.

I guess being famous for something is better than being famous for nothing.
Aliens everywhere!
There wasn’t much traffic heading out of Roswell and continuing north, until we hit the famed Route 66, and turned to the west.  Then the RVs and tourists from around the country came out of the woodwork.  It’s unclear to me exactly why Route 66 is famous, other than the fact that it rhymes with “get your kicks.”  We did spend the night in one of the towns named in the song – Gallup, New Mexico.  My apologies if you now have the tune stuck in your head.

Leaving Gallup the next day, we worked our way a couple of hours north to the town of Chinle, in the Navajo nation.  This was to be our introduction to the famed Arizona canyon lands.  We managed to check into our hotel early and grab some lunch.  The Navajo nation has been a surprise to us.  We have been impressed by how much of a nation it really seems to be.  There are few non-native faces to be seen.  Everyone working in our hotel and restaurant in Gallup was Navajo, and things were even more culturally concentrated in Chinle.

After lunch,we met up with our tour guide for a 3 hour jeep trip through Canyon de Chelly (pronounced, “de Shay”, which was the Spanish bastardization of the original Navajo word “Tseyi”).

Jeep tour of the Canyon de Chelly.  A great recommendation.  Thanks Dave!
Our tour guide was JT Hunter.  He was a pony-tailed, soft spoken 29 year old, who had spent his life around Chinle.  In fact, he was raised by his grandparents, who owned land in the canyon.  Growing up, they spent their summers living there.  He has only recent started giving tours with Beauty Way tours.

TJ, showing us some pictographs.
As he wrestled our 4 wheel drive through the deep sand in the middle of the canyon, at first he pretty much kept to the script, and pointed out some of the interesting pictographs and petroglyphs on the canyon walls.  He also showed us the remains of some ancient native structures, perched high on the cliffs above the canyon, safe from floods and other attacking tribes.

Ancient Anasazi ruins.  This ruin is called the "White House", named for the whitish building in the middle of the rock shelf.

Petroglyph showing two horsemen chasing down a deer.
Pictographs, decorating what is thought to have possibly been a maternity chamber for the Anasazi (the Navajo's ancestors).  The figure lying on his back playing the flute is Coco Pele, who is featured in a lot of Navajo art.
The kids loved the rock formations that looked like animals.  I guess the Navajo people that lived in the canyon had lots of time to study the rock formations and see all sorts of things in them.  TJ was great at stopping the jeep at the perfect spot for us to see what the Navajo had seen.  It didn’t take much imagination for the animals to pop out of the rock.

Can  you see the cat? (This one is pretty obvious)...
... how about the St. Bernard...
... or the duck, lying on it's stomach...
... or my favorite, the two owls, with the blowing cottonwood seed looking like snow.
As we got to know him a bit better, TJ started to tell us stories of living in the canyon as a boy.  His grandmother was an herbalist and medicine woman, and she taught him about the plants growing around the canyon.  He described what it was like to go collecting plants with her to dye wool, or to treat various illnesses.  He stopped the jeep a few times to pick plants and berries off various trees and describe what they were for.  We also heard great stories about flash floods in the canyon, and the time his grandmother sheltered them in a hidden cave for the night when rising waters made it impossible to get back home.
Spider rock, acting like a big sun dial.
The canyon itself was stunning.  The red rock rising straight up from the flat canyon floor made an impressive sight.  The next morning, we hiked from the south rim down into the canyon to get a closer look at the walls themselves.  After a bunch of days driving, it was great to get out and stretch our legs, and everyone enjoyed the exercise.

Hiking down the steep cliffs into the canyon.
A good view of some of the fields being tended by Navajo who own land in the canyon.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Carlsbad Caverns

Posted by Scot

Getting ready to descend into the depths.
The drive across Texas from Dallas to the New Mexico border satisfied more of our preconceptions.  Flat, flat, flat, with little to break the horizon other than oil donkeys pumping away.  It looked a lot like our drive across North Dakota, heading in the other direction last summer.

An oil well donkey, making Texas look legit.
After an overnight in Abilene (does it get any more Texan than Abilene?) we crossed into New Mexico.  It was a short drive to Carlsbad, which is a rough and ready town that seems to be busy with oilfield workers.  It kind of reminded me of a southern Fort McMurray.

The next morning, we headed south of town to see the world famous Carlsbad Caverns.  For the first time since we left Florida, we actually had to drive up a few hills.

The first hills of any significance that we have seen since Florida.  The south east US is flat.
We had little idea what to expect from the caverns.  After paying for a park pass, we walked through the main building.  We passed some elevator signs without noticing them, and walked out the door.  A Park Ranger standing on the path warned us of the hour long hike down into the caves that lay ahead.

A short way along, we approached the gaping, dark hole in the side of the mountain called the “Natural Entrance.”  There were benches set outside the entrance where you could sit to watch the stream of bats flying out in the evening.  In fact, apparently that is how the caves were first discovered (at least by European settlers).  A cowboy saw what he thought was black smoke filling the air in the distance.  When he went closer to investigate, he realized it was thousands and thousands of bats winging their way into the darkening sky.

The Natural Entrance.  Still too early for bats.
The path wound down and down into the massive cavern.  In about half an hour, we hit the “twilight zone”, where the last of the outside light penetrated the cave.  Without the artificial light the park service has installed, it would have been pitch black.

Coming into the twilight zone.  Say goodbye to any light from above.
We continued on down, marvelling at the immensity of the cavern, and the unbelievable formations.  Stalagmites and stalactites of all shapes and sizes abounded.  We also saw “draperies”, “cave popcorn”, “cave pearls”, “soda straws” and “flowstone”, all formed over centuries by the erosive forces of water and runoff on the limestone of the caverns.

The Whale's Mouth.
Awesome stalagmites and stalactites.
Once we reached the bottom, we finally figured out how the elevators worked.  Sure enough, there were two of them that went 750 feet straight down from the visitor’s centre to a rest area in the middle of the caverns.  We took advantage of their presence, and went back up to the surface for lunch.

Hanging out in the visitor's centre to warm up before heading down into the caves again.
After topping up on Vitamin D, we headed back down into the darkness and explored the “Big Room” which is a massive cavern, again with all sorts of unreal features, including a “bottomless pit”, and a couple of lakes.  Being the nerds that we are, we couldn’t help but imagine what it would be like if Dwarves, Orcs and Balrocs were wandering around with us.

Watching out for Orcs.

We wandered along the paths in the big room for about an hour, then went on a tour of the “King’s Palace”, so named because of the extremely detailed formations and draperies of stone.  The highlight of the tour was the couple of minutes when the ranger turned out all the lights, so we could fully appreciate the depths of the darkness that the early explorers faced.  After a couple minutes of impenetrable blackness, she lit a lighter, which, remarkably, cast a glow further than you would have expected.  Still, the first cowboys to venture into this place must have been incredibly brave.  I couldn’t believe they ever found their way out, but the ranger told me she had never heard of anyone being lost permanently in the cave system.

In The King's Palace, getting ready for the blackout.  It was about 13 degrees in the caves, which is the coldest we have been for a long time.
Formations in the King's Palace.
More of the incredible ceiling formations.

If you ever happen to be in Southern New Mexico, Carlsbad Caverns are definitely a must see.  Particularly because I don’t think there is much else to see in Southern New Mexico.  But, seriously, the caves blew us all away, and are definitely worth the visit.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Golfing And Rusty Tacos In Dallas

Posted by Alexander

Cruising the Texas highway.
We had a plan to visit an old friend of Dad’s while we were in Dallas. Matt and Dad went way back which actually led to a lot of remembering sessions and it was kind of cool to see them both piece it all together. Matt and Gillian’s kids are Trevor and Olivia and we had a pretty great time hanging out with them. They are 13 and 11 so finally we got to meet some kids that were closer to my age. They have a pool in their back yard so we were able to go swimming when the Texas heat got to us. Trevor has a Ps3 and a Ps4 so we played some video games as well as shot each other with nerf guns.

Dad and Gillian kicking back.
Matt and Gill are really nice too. They took us to this place called Top Golf. It’s a big driving range with lots of little bays big enough for a family and you can tee off from there. Basically we took turns whacking golf balls and sending them as far as we could. There were also big nets that were targets. I actually did better than I thought I would but I have taken a few lessons when I was younger so I guess that helped. We all had lunch at Top golf.  It was really good and everyone had a great time.

It took a bit of doing, but I remembered how to swing a golf club.

2014-06-20 15.34.09
Christopher and Gillian doing a little dance while they wait for their turn at Top Golf.
The next day Trevor and Olivia went early because they had sports. We had breakfast and then went to watch them. Trevor was playing a championship baseball game and we went to watch him first. The other team was had way bigger kids than Trevor’s but they still lost in the end and Trevor’s team won the championship and got trophies. Yaaaay! 

Christopher and Trevor getting photo bombed by the waiter.
Then we went to watch Olivia’s volleyball. She was against a team which had very short players. They were still way better at volleyball than I am. It was really cool to see them play. In the end Olivia’s team was victorious. Afterwards we went to a place called the Rusty Taco for lunch. It was authentic TexMex and it was actually pretty good. There was this weird melty cheese stuff called queso and it was better than I expected it to be.

Good lunch with great people.
After the Rusty Taco we had to go but we are hoping to see those guys again soon.