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A Fine Line

Flagstaff, Arizona, began as a railroad town, founded in 1876 as a distribution center for the timber industry. The railroad still has a pervasive influence on the city today.

How pervasive? Well, mammoth freight trains rumble through town about 100 times a day. That pervasive.

U.S. Route 66 is one of the main highways through the city, bisecting Flagstaff from east to west. Roughly paralleling it are the tracks of the BNSF Railway. The city has a few overpasses and one underpass, but most of the railroad crossings are the old-fashioned kind with crossing gates.

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In short, much of Flagstaff is at the mercy of the trains. And the problem is at its worst in the downtown district, which has significant vehicular and foot traffic from visitors, residents, and students from Northern Arizona University, which is close to downtown.

The city’s relationship with BNSF has been prickly for years. Not only are the trains a constant disruption, but deaths occur regularly from accidents (inattention, drugs, alcohol) and suicides.

A few years ago, the city went to court and forced BNSF to slow the trains down, improve the crossings, and stop blowing their horns for the hell of it. The locals were furious at being startled awake multiple times overnight, plus having to endure the horns all day.

Part of me finds the situation amusing. But, noise and inconvenience aside, a moving train is a truly sobering thing. There is a fine line between continuing your day and being dead.

That lesson was driven home when I was in Flagstaff on vacation in September. Specifically, along with several dozen other people, I had an alarming close call with a passing freight train. The memory of it still gives me the willies.

To get you oriented, here is a map of the downtown area that I lifted from the city website.

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The main business district is north of the railroad and Route 66. The area south of the tracks is a mixture of retail and residential.

I should add that, inside the city limits, the BNSF tracks are double. Eastbound trains use the south tracks, westbound trains use the north tracks. Like a two-lane highway.

The close call happened at the Beaver Street railroad crossing. Beaver Street is one-way going south. This is the crossing looking north.

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The day it happened, I had just returned from shopping downtown. When I reached the tracks, a westbound freight was in the process of passing. The crossing arms were down, holding back the vehicles. Waiting with me at the northwest corner were six or eight pedestrians. A dozen more were across the street on the northeast corner.

Later that day, I took this photo, looking west from the same spot. The westbound freight had been on the right set of tracks, blocking the view of the eastbound tracks on the left.

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After the westbound train passed, the crossing arms went up, and the cars and pedestrians started south across the tracks. At the same time, pedestrians on the south side of the tracks proceeded toward us.

Suddenly, the warning bells went off again. The crossing arms came down.

I looked to my right and saw another train, this one eastbound, almost upon us. The first train had hidden it until the last second.

Train #2 was going faster than the westbound freight. The engineer leaned on his horn. Most of the pedestrians, me included, were caught by surprise and were a bit disoriented.

Later, I took this photo of another eastbound train. This is what I saw bearing down on us.

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In the next five seconds, a lot happened. The first few vehicles proceeded across the tracks, maybe unaware of the oncoming train. The cars behind them were stopped by the crossing arms.

But among the pedestrians, pandemonium ensued. People screamed, shouted, and scattered in panic.

I was halfway across the tracks when I spotted the oncoming train. I ran forward toward the people coming in my direction, waving my arms and yelling for them to get back.

Most stopped, but one young couple looked at me funny and continued forward. “No! No!” I yelled. “Train coming! Another one!” They retreated.

With a blast of wind and noise, the train shot past. People milled around, breathless, rattled.

Like all the freight trains, it was a long one. After it was gone, I looked around the crossing. No casualties.

The excitement was over, and everyone disbursed. I walked across the street to Altitudes Bar & Grill to have lunch and a well-earned beer.

The waitress was friendly and chatty, and I told her what had happened. She was a native. The subject was close to her heart.

She sat down opposite me in the booth and gave me a detailed report on the city’s battles with BNSF. She also told me about some of the more memorable deaths — a gruesome litany of horrific accidents and suicides.

“Honey,” she said, “there ain’t no sugar-coating it. Death by train is always messy.”

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I just got back from a satisfying road trip to the Southwest in my RV. I was on the road for 17 days, had good weather, no problems to speak of.

I went to Roswell, Hatch, and Gallup, New Mexico. Also Flagstaff, Grand Canyon, Tuba City, Lees Ferry, and Page, Arizona.

I largely avoided the Interstates, which allowed me to pass through countless cites and towns that are their own little worlds.

As always, I came home with a nice batch of memories. To my surprise, one that stands out is not an experience, but an article I read in a promotional publication at Grand Canyon. It amounts to a fluff piece in a brochure for tourists, but it’s nicely done.

Maybe it clicked with me because I’ve been to Grand Canyon so often (this was my 27th trip), and I’m so familiar with the place, physically and operationally. When the writer describes a coyote at Lipan Point or the shuttle bus to the South Kaibab Trailhead, I have mental pictures.

The article is presented as the “untold story” of anonymous park employees and volunteers, but, inevitably, it also includes the experiences of visitors.

For the record, I forgive them for liberally taking artistic license — basically, making up hokey stuff to advance the story — because it gets the job done.

Here’s the article.

———

A Day in the Life of Grand Canyon National Park

(From “100 Years, One Million Lives, One Grand Canyon,” published by Grand Canyon National Park and Grand Canyon Conservancy)

Much has been written about the beauty, geology, and history of Grand Canyon. But the canyon does have an untold story — the tales of the people who live and work there.

For a national park as immense and remote at Grand Canyon to operate smoothly, it requires an army of dedicated employees and volunteers.

They are on hand daily doing their jobs, and that simple act allows millions of visitors each year to experience one of the best of America’s natural crown jewels.

12:01 AM — A shooting star streaks across the sky, catching the eye of a coyote near Lipan Point. No one knows whether she made a wish.

Day-1

1:22 AM — A river guide assisting with a science trip wakes up and pushes the rafts farther out into the Colorado River because the water drops after the daily release from Glen Canyon Dam.

2:06 AM — Search and Rescue Dispatch takes a call from a distressed hiker on the South Kaibab Trail. Staff immediately respond to aid the struggling hiker.

2:18 AM — A Delaware North (note: a park concessionaire) plumber is roused from sleep when he is called out to respond to a broken toilet in a Yavapai Lodge guest room.

3:06 AM — Xanterra (note: also a concessionaire) mule packers arrive at work to begin grooming mules and packing supplies for Phantom Ranch.

4:00 AM — The Hiker’s Express shuttle leaves Bright Angel Lodge on its way to South Kaibab Trailhead.

5:34 AM — An excited Boy Scout troop starts a backpacking hike down Bright Angel Trail.

5:58 AM — Staff at Canyon Village Deli begin assembling breakfast burritos and bagel sandwiches.

6:03 AM — Shades of soft purple melt away, and the canyon’s terraced formations seem to glow as the first rays of light caress ancient stone. Dawn’s color wheel turns, saturating the sky with pink, gold, and bronze hues so astounding they do not yet have a name. The sun has risen at Grand Canyon.

6:08 AM — Bright Angel Bicycles & Café serves up the first cappuccinos and cinnamon rolls to visitors who were up early to witness the sunrise.

6:47 AM — Custodial staff finishes cleaning the restrooms at Yavapai Geology Museum.

7:38 AM — An Italian father wakes his sleepy son and carries him to the window of their North Rim cabin so the boy can see deer grazing just outside.

8:00 AM — Grand Canyon Visitor Center opens for the day.

9:00 AM — Morning briefing begins for the park’s emergency services personnel.

9:03 AM — Trail crew pushes wheelbarrows of dirt down South Kaibab Trail for maintenance work.

9:17 AM — At Desert View Watchtower, a Hopi painter and a Navajo silversmith work on their art and answer questions as part of the Desert View cultural demonstrator series.

Day-2

9:21 AM — An Oregon family pedals along Hermit Road after being carefully outfitted with bikes and helmets from Bright Angel Bicycles.

9:30 AM — Volunteer campground hosts begin rounds to ensure visitors are checked out and campfires are extinguished.

9:31 AM — An El Tovar Hotel bartender starts the three-hour preparations for a busy day and evening ahead, full of thirsty Grand Canyon guests.

10:04 AM — A visitor from Minnesota takes photos of her family as they ride mules to Phantom Ranch. She cannot remember the last time she’s seen her moody teenager wearing such a broad smile.

10:37 AM — Grand Canyon Conservancy Field Institute staff lead a group of new backpackers down Bright Angel Trail to Indian Garden.

11:01 AM — Law enforcement rangers respond to people feeding squirrels near Bright Angel Lodge. They provide first aid for a bitten hand and instruct the visitor to get rabies shots as a precaution.

Day-3

Day-4

11:16 AM — In Desert View Watchtower, a young woman from Canada chats with Grand Canyon Conservancy staff. Amazed to discover the building and many other park structures were designed by Mary Colter, she purchases a book to learn more about the pioneering architect.

12:01 PM — A philanthropy manager from Grand Canyon Conservancy meets with prospective donors over lunch to discuss endowing the park’s trail maintenance program.

12:22 PM — While strolling along the Rim Trail, a Swedish couple stops to enjoy the playful cawing of a raven seemingly saying, “Come fly with me.”

12:41 PM — Fee collection staff at South Rim Entrance Station competes to see who can move vehicles through their lane the fastest.

1:13 PM — A Canyon Trail Rides mule packer leads visitors on a ride through the North Rim’s lush forests to Uncle Jim Point.

1:26 PM — Representatives from the park’s Traditionally Associated Tribes meet with park staff to give input on a new vision for the Desert View area that will include more tribal participation.

1:30 PM — A volunteer on summer break from college begins a guided tour of Tusayan Ruin.

1:43 PM — Custodial staff restocks Grand Canyon Visitor Center bathrooms with a pallet (48 cases) of toilet paper, which will last one week.

2:11 PM — Diners finishing a delicious meal on the patio of Grand Canyon Lodge strike up a conversation with the busboy, only to discover they once lived in the same small Idaho town.

2:38 PM — Wildlife staff work to move elk away from human drinking-water sources at South Kaibab Trailhead.

3:07 PM — Park rangers and emergency medical technicians administer CPR to revive a visitor who collapsed in the Market Plaza parking lot.

3:25 PM — A shaft of sunlight pierces the cloud cover, bathing Brahma Temple in a satiny glow while the surrounding formations are dappled by shadows. An Indiana man watches and wonders whether it is the single most beautiful sight he has ever seen.

3:36 PM — A couple from Missouri celebrate their 34th wedding anniversary sitting on the rim, eating ice cream cones from Bright Angel Fountain.

3:42 PM — A park ranger and her equestrian partner, Rio, stop to talk to a family about the desert bighorn sheep they can see from the rim. The kids pose for photos with Rio and give him lots of love.

3:51 PM — During a program on California condors, two of the impressive birds fly past. The park ranger conducting the program wisely takes credit for the visual aids.

Day-5

4:00 PM — A Phantom Ranch park ranger begins a program in the amphitheater about water conservation.

4:12 PM — A sudden monsoon drives visitors into Grand Canyon Visitor Center. The movie theater fills, and the line to the information desk backs up the length of the building.

4:23 PM — A park ranger roving the campground at Desert View tells visitors about the sunset talk happening that evening. At one stop he hears a Grand Canyon pink rattlesnake shaking its tail.

5:48 PM — As quickly as it began, the rain ends. The buildings in the Village nearly empty as everyone hurries to the rim to watch the shifting pattern of sun and clouds, light and shadows reinventing the canyon right before their eyes.

6:07 PM — A bartender at Yavapai Tavern pours another local Arizona beer for a guest.

6:30 PM — Employees from different departments of the park gather for a weekly volleyball game.

6:41 PM — Over plates of salmon tostadas at El Tovar Hotel, two old college friends compare aches and pains acquired from their backpacking trip to Horseshoe Mesa.

6:47 PM — A river guide serves a cake baked in a Dutch oven to visitors rafting the Colorado river.

7:11 PM — Although the sky is mostly clear, a few low-lying clouds linger. They seem to go up in flames as the sun slips below the horizon. Bands of red and orange streak the sky, dancing across the formations below. Spontaneous applause is heard from several viewpoints. The sun has set at Grand Canyon.

7:13 PM — With lavish sky and a color-streaked canyon as a backdrop, a young man from Wisconsin proposes to his girlfriend. She tearfully accepts, thus ensuring the couple an impressively romantic engagement story.

8:00 PM — A park ranger on the North Rim welcomes visitors to the evening program in the Grand Canyon Lodge auditorium.

8:26 PM — Wildlife staff net bats to determine if white-nose syndrome is in the park.

9:11 PM — Unable to sleep after an amazing Grand Canyon day, an aspiring 12-year-old poet scribbles in her notebook at Maswik Lodge.

9:39 PM — A family from Phoenix stands at Mather Point gazing skyward and for the very first time sees the Milky Way.

10:06 PM — The musician at Bright Angel Lounge launches into an obscure Bob Dylan tune, and without a word two friends at the front table smile and clink their glasses.

11:59 PM — A coyote lopes across bare stone, pausing near the rim to sniff the breeze wafting out of the canyon. She glances at a slice of moon, yips twice, and trots off.

No one knows what she said.

Day-6

Not bad for a fluff piece.

 

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Road Trip 11/18, Part 5

My November road trip to Grand Canyon concludes…

———

Hatch, New Mexico

The “Chile Capital of the World” is a fun and interesting place. Stopping for a visit never gets old.

The little town is surrounded by vast fields of chile pepper plants. Something in the soil agrees with certain varieties of peppers, and the local farmers have taken advantage of it for the last century.

Naturally, numerous shops around town sell all forms of the product — fresh, cooked, dried, powdered, frozen — as well as souvenirs of the town, the state, and the region.

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Also, Hatch is only 100 miles from Mexico, so Talavera pottery is everywhere.

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The prices are low, and I have a grand time perusing the merchandise. As if I need more Talavera pottery.

###

Meridian, Mississippi

On Day 11, I stopped for lunch in Meridian and pulled into the parking lot of a Mexican restaurant.

Immediately, a large brown dog appeared. He sat at attention next to the RV, wagging his tail furiously and looking up at me. He was a big, short-haired, pitbull-looking dog. He seemed friendly, but I was a little apprehensive when I got out of the RV.

No worries. he took the lead and escorted me to the restaurant entrance, looking back frequently over his shoulder. At the door, he stepped aside and sat at attention again, tail still wagging. Amused and bewildered, I went inside.

My table had a view of the entrance and the dog sitting outside quietly. Suddenly, he leapt to his feet and disappeared from view.

But not for long. He returned, escorting more people to the restaurant. They entered, and he resumed his sitting position at the door.

A few minutes later, a couple paid their check and left the restaurant. The dog escorted them to their car, then returned to his station.

While I ate, he escorted numerous customers to and from the restaurant. He never got uncomfortably close to anyone, never begged for food or attention. He was just, well, escorting the customers.

I flagged down the waitress. I had to ask about the dog.

“He showed up about a month ago,” she said. “Nobody knows where he came from or where he goes at night, but he’s always here when we get to work. We call him Jeeves.”

The employees had asked around, but no one knew anything about Jeeves. Nor could they explain his behavior with the customers. Some thought he was looking for his owner.

Jeeves was always friendly and a gentleman, the waitress said, and no customers had complained, so they saw to reason to call Animal Control.

A girl’s voice came from the booth behind me. “Mom, can I go over by the door and look at the dog?”

“Okay, honey, but stay inside.”

The little girl stood beside the glass door for several minutes, studying Jeeves. I was compelled to step into the aisle and take a photo.

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When the waitress brought my check, I asked what Jeeves did about food. Did he fend for himself — like, eating out of garbage cans?

“Oh, no, Jeeves is well taken care of. He gets all the restaurant leftovers he can handle.”

After lunch, Jeeves escorted me to the RV, then trotted back to his post at the front door.

###

Jefferson, Georgia

As always, it was good to be home. I sprung Jake from the kennel, and we resumed our routines.

Among my mementos of the trip was a $10 ristra I bought in Hatch. I found a suitable spot in the living room to hang it.

I didn’t set out to create a Southwest theme, but it seems to have materialized anyway.

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A good road trip is satisfying and therapeutic. But, a few months from now, I’ll start getting antsy to go somewhere again.

To a degree, the destination will matter. But not as much as the doing of the thing.

 

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Road Trip 11/18, Part 4

More on my November road trip to the Southwest…

———

Cameron, Arizona

35 miles east of Grand Canyon National Park, well into the Navajo rez, is the venerable Cameron Trading Post, established on the banks of the Little Colorado River in 1911.

This remote place is a veritable oasis. It consists of the trading post, restaurant, motel, gas station, RV park, gift shop, and, one of my favorite stops, a truly awe-inspiring art gallery.

Everything in the Cameron gallery is premium quality, some of it modern, some of considerable age, all for sale. Most of the merchandise sells for many hundreds, even thousands of dollars.

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Pay no attention to that man behind the pottery.

But I think of the gallery as more of a museum than a store. I go there to admire and enjoy the merchandise, not to buy anything. The touristy gift shop next door is more my speed.

###

Tuba City, Arizona

25 miles beyond Cameron is Tuba City, one of the larger towns in Navajoland.

Traffic when I arrived was unusually heavy, and, in fact, eventually stopped moving at all. Police vehicles were directing drivers in both directions to pull over.

In the distance, I could see why. A hundred or more men on horseback were approaching in a slow, solemn procession. The only sound was the clopping of hooves on the pavement.

I knew immediately what was up. The next day was Veterans Day, and the Tuba City veterans had turned out for a Saturday morning parade. In the procession with the horsemen were several cars carrying older veterans.

The scene was genuinely moving. Despite a lump to my throat and a tear in my eye, I grabbed my camera.

After I shot the video, a young rider peeled off from the group and rode over to my RV. The van sits high, so we were at eye level.

“Yah-ta-hey. Where you from, sir?” he said. I told him.

“You a veteran?” I said I was indeed.

We shook hands and introduced ourselves. He said he was in Afghanistan with the Army. I told him my service was Air Force, Vietnam era. He tipped his hat, wished me a safe trip, reined his horse around, and rejoined the procession.

I later learned it was Tuba City’s first Veterans Day parade. A lavish lunch was waiting for the veterans and their families next to the local VA office.

###

Ganado, Arizona

The Navajo town of Ganado is the home of Hubbell Trading Post, founded in 1878 and now a National Historic Site.

Hubbell is still in business. In addition to being a grocery store for the locals, it has an eye-popping selection of Navajo rugs and baskets, old and new.

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By sundown, I had crossed into New Mexico and was back in Gallup.

The trip home continues in my next post.

 

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Road Trip 11/18, Part 3

My November road trip to the Southwest continues…

———

Grand Canyon, Arizona

This year, the entrance fee at Grand Canyon National Park went up to $35 per vehicle. But I laugh at entrance fees. On Day 7 of my trip, when I arrived at the South Rim entrance gate, I flashed my lifetime Senior Pass and got in for free. Ha!

Actually, the geezer pass itself has become rather pricey. The cost of the lifetime pass is now $80. I got mine 10 years ago for $10. Ha!

For the record, this trip marked (drum roll) my 26th visit to Grand Canyon National Park. It also marked the first time I showed up without reservations.

If you’re familiar with the crowds and the limited accommodations at South Rim, that’s really betting long odds. Vacancies are rare and ephemeral.

Yes, you do have options. A campground and numerous motels are available in the village of Tusayan, seven miles outside the park. But, other than services, Tusayan has few redeeming qualities.

Tusayan is where tourists can watch an Imax movie showing them the wonders of Grand Canyon. Tusayan is where all the souvenirs are made in China.

That morning, my first stop in the Park was the RV campground. No vacancies.

My second stop was the front desk at Bright Angel Lodge. I approached one of the clerks and gave her an engaging smile.

“Hi,” I said. “I’ve been coming to Grand Canyon for 25 years, and this is the first time I’ve showed up without reservations. Any chance you guys have a vacancy, in any of the lodges?”

“Ten minutes ago, the answer was no,” she said. “But we just got a cancellation for a room at Thunderbird Lodge. Just for one night.”

My heart fluttered.

You’re lucky,” she added. “It’s a room with a canyon view.”

A room with a canyon view? Rooms with a canyon view are for rich people and visiting royalty, not for ordinary folks like me. I nearly swooned.

As it turned out, the view was somewhat less spectacular than I envisioned. The room was on the second floor, and you looked out at the roof of the first floor.

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But it was still a treat.

The weather was beautiful, if a little cold. For the rest of the morning, I walked along the rim, enjoying the views and taking photos. I’ve shot the same scenes countless times over the years, but I keep shooting them anyway.

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I also wandered through the usual gift shops and bought a couple of magnets and decals.

At Hopi House, a gallery featuring high-quality Native American crafts, I came across a small, handsome Hopi seed pot that I didn’t need, but nonetheless was drawn to.

I resisted the urge to purchase it for quite a while.

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Later, while walking along the rim behind Bright Angel Lodge, I noticed a small paper bag that someone had left on the stone railing. The bag bore the logo of Xanterra, the company that runs the shops and concessions. It probably contained souvenirs.

Bright Angel Lodge has a lost-and-found service, so I figured I would take it there.

As I reached down to pick it up, a raven landed on the railing a few feet away, looking at me in that weird, bug-eyed way birds have.

Ravens are everywhere at Grand Canyon. They are accomplished scavengers and thieves with little fear of humans. They’re also sleek and beautiful. I raised my camera to get a photo.

Simultaneously, he hopped closer and grabbed the paper bag.

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He launched skyward, flapping mightily, taking the bag with him. But he underestimated Rocky Smith. I snatched the bag from him in mid-flap, and the little pirate only got a torn piece of brown paper.

Inside the bag were a few postcards, a bookmark, and an “I Hiked the Canyon” bumper sticker. I dropped off the bag at Lost and Found.

That evening, I had prime rib at the Arizona Room, one of the better restaurants at South Rim. Afterward, I walked along the rim for a while. The night was chilly, but I was bundled up.

I marveled, as always, at how the constellations and the Milky Way stand out so clearly at Grand Canyon. Especially in winter, the night sky defies description.

This twilight photo is pretty good. 

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After a beer at the Bright Angel Bar, I retired to my room, pulled a chair up to the window, turned out the lights, and sat contemplating the stars.

The next morning, I checked at the front desk to see if another cancellation had materialized. The answer was no. If I wanted to stay longer, I would have to bed down in Tusayan.

I decided to move on.

In my next post, my trip continues east across the Navajo and Hopi reservations.

 

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Road Trip 11/18, Part 2

More highlights of my road trip to the Southwest…

———

Flagstaff, Arizona

Flagstaff is a fun, funky, free-spirited place. It’s a mountain town, a college town (Northern Arizona University), and a ski resort. You can make day trips to Sedona, Grand Canyon, Lake Powell, and the Navajo and Hopi reservations. Young, outdoorsy people are everywhere.

To me, this mural in a downtown alley, one block from Route 66, is typical of the vibe.

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When I’m in Flagstaff, I visit certain attractions, shop at certain stores, and eat at certain restaurants. Which ones will vary a bit from trip to trip, but I have a list of favorites.

On this trip, I wandered through the shops of the Indian traders downtown, and I went to the Museum of Northern Arizona, which has a world-class collection of Native American art and artifacts.

MNA also has one of the best gift shops on the planet for high-end Native American stuff.

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Among my notable dining experiences were a fine breakfast at La Belavia,

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a superb lunch at Diablo’s, home of the Diablo Burger,

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and a soul-satisfying supper at Beaver Street Brewery, where I am partial to the brewer’s platter.

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Earlier, to preemptively walk off some of the calories, I drove a few miles north of town to a picnic area with a great view of Humphreys Peak (which, in a few weeks, will be snow-capped until well into next summer),

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and, for an hour, I walked the trails under the ponderosa pines.

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On this trip, Flagstaff was the only place I stayed two nights. I couldn’t resist.

On the morning of Day 6, I left Flagstaff for Grand Canyon. This was the first time in 25 years I would show up at the park without reservations. It was a long shot, but I was hoping someone had canceled at the last minute, and I would be there to claim the room.

I will explain how that worked out in my next post.

 

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Road Trip 11/18, Part 1

It’s a familiar feeling. When I haven’t been on the road in a while, I start to get antsy.

Thus, not having been out of Georgia since June, and facing a two-week period when nothing of consequence was on my schedule, I decided an RV trip to Arizona was in order.

I made no advance arrangements, which was a rarity. I simply would drive to Grand Canyon and back, camping along the way. The details would take care of themselves.

I headed west via I-40 (the northern route below) and returned home across southern New Mexico and central Texas on non-interstate highways. In Shreveport, I picked up I-20 back to Georgia. About 3,600 miles, round trip.

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Other than the unpleasantness of the Interstate driving, it was a terrific trip. All good, all enjoyable. Free of trouble and disappointments.

A few times, campgrounds weren’t convenient, so I got a motel room. Not exactly a calamity. I also had genuine good luck a few times, as I will explain.

I’m home now, and the adventure is over. My co-pilot Jake was worn out from adventures of his own at the kennel, the nature of which will remain a mystery.

Here are some recollections and observations from the trip.

———

Jasper, Alabama

By the time I crossed into Alabama on Day 1, a light rain was falling, and it was obvious that my windshield wipers needed replacing. To deal with that, I stopped at the Walmart in Jasper, just west of Birmingham.

The lady at the automotive counter wrote up a work order. I handed her my keys and went into the waiting room, hoping they would be quick. They were. I was back on the road in 30 minutes.

Two people were in the waiting room: an African-American woman and her daughter of about four. The girl was a tiny thing. The soles of her shoes were 12 inches above the floor. I sat down, nodded to the mom, and smiled at the little girl.

The little girl waved. “Hello, old man,” she said cheerily.

“Alicia!” the mother barked, “That is rude! You shouldn’t call this gentleman an old man!”

Alicia’s chin dropped to her chest. She made a sour face and began to cry.

“You’re wrong, Mama!” she said amid the blubbering, “I was not being rude! He IS an old man! I was just saying hello to be friendly!”

The mom was working on a reply when the little girl turned to me, blinking back the tears. “What’s your name, old man?” she asked.

“My name is Rocky. And you’re right, I’m pretty old.”

“See, Mama! See!”

###

Forrest City, Arkansas

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At the end of the day, I camped at a state park in eastern Arkansas. I took the above photo of the waning twilight as I sat at the picnic table, having a toddy and watching the bats fly around.

###

Acoma, New Mexico

The people of Acoma Pueblo are an admirable and interesting bunch. Much of their pottery, jewelry, and other art is tasteful and elegant. Sky City, their historic home atop a remote mesa, is a fascinating place to visit.

And, like many tribes these days, they are savvy and enterprising. To take advantage of — make that cater to — the tourists traveling on I-40, they operate a major complex at Exit 102 consisting of a travel plaza, restaurants, a campground, a snazzy hotel, and a modern casino.

At the end of Day 3, I stopped for the night at the Acoma campground. After hooking up the RV and having dinner at the hotel, I decided to do a bit of gambling at the casino.

When I gamble, which is a rare thing, I stick to the slot machines because they require so little skill. And I have a system of sorts that has served me pretty well over the years: (1) I play the dollar slots, (2) I always bet the maximum for the machine, usually three dollars per spin, and (3) when I’ve lost $100, I walk away.

With slot machines, the payoff is puny when you bet the minimum, but much higher when you bet the maximum. To make a lucky spin count, you bet the maximum. Simple and logical.

I chose a machine, sat down, and, in the course of 15 minutes, played my way through two $20 bills. I won a little and lost a little until the machine bested me.

On the third $20 bill, I won $75, which I cashed out in the form of a voucher.

I continued playing, still betting the maximum. On my last $20, I got lucky again and won $200, which I also cashed out as a voucher.

A few minutes later, my original $100 was gone. I got up, took the $75 and $200 vouchers to the cashier, and departed the casino $175 richer than when I entered.

The campground cost $15, and dinner was $20, so, technically, my take was $140.

I’m sure my modest good fortune didn’t ding the tribe’s profits that day too badly.

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Gallup, New Mexico

When visiting the Southwest, I’m on the lookout for pottery, rugs, baskets, kachinas, and other treasures for my collection of Native American arts and crafts. I don’t need more stuff, but I like it, and I rarely go home without something new.

A great place to find such items is Gallup, which probably has 40 or 50 retail stores and trading posts that sell the work of regional craftsmen — Zuni, Navajo, Hopi, the pueblo tribes, and others.

When I arrived in Gallup on Day 4, I was open to anything appealing and priced right, but I was especially interested in silver rings. Namely, this inlaid, continuous-band style:

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The design is Zuni. Hopi and Navajo rings tend to be silver without inlays.

Prices range from $10 to $300, depending on the quality of the work and the artist. $50 is about my limit, but good deals are everywhere.

By the end of the morning, I had purchased these three rings for about $30 each:

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When you’re out west, it’s important to take advantage of the authentic Mexican cuisine. For lunch, I went to El Sombrero, a favorite place of mine in Gallup.

El Sombrero serves an excellent chili con carne made with red and green chiles from Hatch, the legendary chile town in the southern Rio Grand Valley.

This is the good stuff, people. The genuine taste of New Mexico.

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Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico

After lunch, I left Gallup and drove south to Zuni, which is probably the least pueblo-like of the New Mexican pueblos. No offense, but Zuni is drab and unremarkable. It is, in reality, just a small, dusty town.

Signage isn’t their thing, either. Small retail shops are plentiful, but you have to look hard to find them.

In one such hole-in-the wall establishment, I made a great deal on this handsome Zuni pot, which, FYI, is 4″ tall and 3″ in diameter.

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Nothing else in my collection features a butterfly, so I’m pleased.

From Zuni, I drove west into Arizona, turned north, and by suppertime was in Flagstaff, one of my favorite towns anywhere.

In my next posts, Flagstaff and beyond.

 

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New Territory

Nothing clears away the mental cobwebs like a road trip. Especially a road trip to new territory.

Which is why, earlier this month, having a block of time when no obligations kept me home, I set out in my RV to see the Texas coast.

Somehow, at my advanced age, I’d never been there. I made no reservations. Had no plans to visit Austin or San Antonio. I was more interested in seeing the countryside and the small towns.

February, I admit, is a terrible time to go to the beach. It was a spur-of-the-moment trip out of simple curiosity, and I was stoked.

My plan was to drive down to Port Arthur, head south along the Bolivar Peninsula, cross to Galveston Island, and the rest would take care of itself. As is my custom, I would camp in state parks along the way.

Before the trip, I had a feeling I knew what I would find down there. And, pretty much, I was right. My observations:

First, much of coastal Texas is, no surprise, tourist-oriented. It being February, the attractions and shops were a bit sleepy, but no doubt they’ll be ready for the onslaught of vacationers when the season arrives.

Second, large parts of the beachfront are private and residential. I passed long stretches of homes, second homes, time-shares, summer rentals, hotels, motels, and resorts that go on for miles, unbroken except for occasional empty lots for sale.

Now and then, if you look carefully, a sign will identify a small public access point to the beach. You know — the beach you sometimes glimpse, over there beyond the private property.

Third, the terrain is flat and featureless, covered by a modest layer of low-growing vegetation. Bays and inlets are rare. So are sand dunes. No wonder hurricanes surge many miles inland instead of glancing off the coast.

Fourth, I was unsurprised to find that so much of the coast is heavily industrialized. You regularly encounter not only oil wells, refineries, and petroleum processing facilities, but also giant chemical plants and manufacturing operations.

I passed numerous industrial plants the size of shopping malls, with thousands of cars in the parking lots, a sprawling sea of gleaming, steaming pipes, and generic names that reveal nothing about the nature of the business.

Names like Texas Heavy Industries. MHI International. Direct Energy. Varco. Schlumberger — all quite mysterious to a passing tourist. The one thing they seem to have in common: belching smokestacks.

In sum, coastal Texas is what I expected. I was neither pleased nor disappointed. It is what it is.

My curiosity satisfied, I enjoyed a leisurely drive south to just short of Corpus Christi.

Along the way, I sampled the local cuisine as often as possible.

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Delicious char-broiled oysters.

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A superb shrimp po-boy.

And I had experiences not available back home in North Georgia. I shot this video on the ferry to Galveston Island.

To get from Georgia to Texas, I followed the Interstate highways, always a stressful and unpleasant experience. Once I arrived, I switched to ordinary federal and state roads. They were, almost without exception, well-maintained and lightly-traveled.

In fact, I was so impressed with the non-Interstate routes that I followed them, exclusively, on the return trip to Georgia.

Specifically, from South Texas, I drove north on U.S. 77 to Waco, then followed U.S. 79 to Shreveport. There, I picked up U.S. 80, which parallels I-20, and followed it across Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama and into Georgia. In Macon, I turned north on U.S. 129 back to Jefferson.

Those four routes are divided four-lane highways with minimal traffic. In Texas, the speed limit is 75. In the other states, it most often is 65.

Rarely did the roads bypass the towns. Which was fine with me.

The trip home was an easy and pleasant ride, and I remember it primarily for two reasons.

The first reason: the afternoon I spent at the Lowndes County Interpretive Center, located midway between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama. The Center is a museum, part of the Park Service’s “Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail.” It chronicles events leading up to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

If you recollect your history, blacks were demonstrating in Alabama in the early 1960s to protest the use of literacy tests to block them from registering to vote. At the time, the voter rolls in Selma were 99 percent white. That was not unusual around the South in those days.

In March 1965, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, police attacked and beat a group of marchers. The episode quickly prompted a massive organized march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery, led by Dr. King and other civil rights leaders.

When Gov. George Wallace refused to offer protection to the marchers, President Lyndon Johnson nationalized 1,900 members of the Alabama National Guard and assigned them to escort the demonstrators.

The direct result of all that was the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting.

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The film and exhibits at the museum are excellent. Moving and effective. Much more powerful than I expected. They reminded me of a time when the courts and our political leaders — most of them, anyway — were on the right side of important moral issues.

I miss those days, when I was optimistic about the future. When the government made me proud. It pains me that our progress toward fairness and social justice has slowed since those times.

Progress has slowed because, for decades, the terrified conservative masses — you know, the ones clinging to their guns or religion — have been steadily descending into paranoia, inflamed by the right-wing media, enabled by Republican politicians, and now, for crying out loud, abetted by Putin. No wonder we have a vulgar, incompetent clown as President.

But, hey — I digress.

The second memorable moment of my return trip to Georgia happened earlier that same morning in Selma. When I stopped for a red light near the center of town, I looked to my left and saw a man dancing.

Why the man was dancing, or to what music he danced (note the earbuds), I have no idea. I don’t know if it was a spontaneous, one-time thing or if he did this often.

Was he celebrating? Was he high? Are mental issues involved?

Whatever the answers, I was compelled to capture the moment on video.

From my standpoint, the music on my radio (Blue Monday, New Order, 1983) was a nice complement to the performance.

Road trips are, indeed, the perfect way to clear the mental cobwebs. Especially road trips to new territory.

 

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Clever Girl

More on my road trip earlier this month to Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine…

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My final night in New England was in Bennington, Vermont, in the southwest corner of the state. The next morning, I sucked it up and headed south on a succession of interstate highways, down through New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia.

At the end of the day, I stopped in Winchester, Virginia, near the north entrance to Shenandoah National Park. I would have an early start on the Skyline Drive.

The next morning was clear and nicely brisk. No one was on duty at the Shenandoah entrance station. A sign read “Pay when you leave the Park.”

I had the road to myself. I turned off the radio, rolled down the windows, and headed out.

Two minutes later, a young adult black bear emerged from the greenery on the right side of the road about 20 yards ahead. I stopped immediately and grabbed my camera from the passenger seat.

The bear — which turned out to be a female, as you’ll understand directly — glanced at me, then ambled across the road.

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When she reached the grassy strip on left shoulder, she stopped and looked toward me again.

I eased forward, camera at the ready, until I reached her. At that point, my car was paused in the right lane. The bear was 10 feet away on the left side of the road.

Although she showed no aggression, I was apprehensive. Could I romp on the gas and get away if she rushed me? I decided I could.

The bear stood stoically on the grass, looking at me. I took a burst of photos that I knew would be keepers.

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Why she remained there instead of continuing on her way was puzzling. She seemed in no hurry to leave.

But I had my photos, and I figured it was best not to prolong the encounter. I tossed my camera onto the passenger seat and slowly drove on.

Mere seconds later, I watched in my rear-view mirror as a bear cub emerged from the woods and scampered across the road to join mom.

Clever girl. She had been waiting for me to leave, so it would be safe for the youngster to cross the road.

No cars were in sight in ether direction. In fact, I hadn’t seen another car since I entered the park. Undoubtedly, driving backward on the Skyline Drive is illegal, but I put the car in reverse anyway, and I began inching back toward the mama bear and her cub. The two of them sat quietly on the grass at the edge of the road, watching my approach.

This time, for reasons I still don’t understand, I grabbed my cell phone instead of my Nikon. I raised the phone and took three photos.

Two were hopeless blurs. This was the third.

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Thinking back on the episode, it’s obvious why I could never be a professional photographer. Having taken several shots, I became concerned that I was hassling the poor bears, and I felt compelled to go away and leave them alone.

A real photographer would have continued shooting with both cameras, firing off hundreds of shots using a variety of angles and settings.

But, no, I drove away, leaving the bears posing perfectly for God-know-how-many-more awesome photos that I do not have.

What a jerk move.

A few miles south, I arrived at the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center. It was 9:00 AM, and two female employees were just opening for the day.

I went inside, looked at a map, browsed around the gift shop, and purchased a Shenandoah refrigerator magnet featuring a bear cub.

Betty, I saw a mother bear and two cubs on the way here yesterday,” one employee said. “About a mile south.”

Oh, the cubs are so CUTE!” the other woman gushed. Apparently, everyone loves Shenandoah’s black bears.

When I told them I had bear photos taken 10 minutes earlier, they were thrilled. They fawned* at length over the mother-and-cub photo on my phone.

The bears, the ladies told me, are very mellow. They keep to themselves, but they’re acclimated to cars and people. The mother bears have learned how to deal with cars, and their cubs know to stay hidden until the mom gives the okay to come forward.

Bears, as you may know, are smart creatures, probably on a level with dogs and pigs. Some studies say they have longer memories and are more devoted and attentive as parents.

Judging from her size, the mother bear I encountered was young. The cub probably was her first.

But she already understands people and the park roads, and she knows how to care for her baby. That knowledge will stay with her every season she has cubs.

Clever, indeed.

* Fawned. That’s a pun.

 

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Wicked Week

I just got back from a road trip to Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. Most of it was new territory for me, so I went slow, took my time. I had a wicked good week.

The only downside to the trip was getting there from Georgia, which meant two long days of miserable Interstate driving. But, once I arrived, rural New England was peaceful, pleasant, clean, and green.

The residents probably would take offense at this, but I saw little difference between the three states. Basically, the terrain, the weather, the architecture, and the accents were all the same.

Everything there has a decided Yankee vibe. An interesting change from back home.

In New England, I noted, Dunkin’ Donuts is like McDonald’s in the rest of the country.

Firewood is for sale everywhere.

And I had the feeling that the locals were enjoying the pleasant summer weather only guardedly and temporarily. They were poised, I sensed, to switch back to winter mode at any time. After stocking up on firewood, of course.

 

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Typical green scene in Vermont. Or maybe New Hampshire.

Having no special agenda, I drove a number of off-the-beaten-path routes (as recommended by my copy of National Geographic’s Guide to Scenic Highways and Byways) and ended up in some interesting places.

In Burlington, Vermont, for example, frivolity reigned.

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Burlington, I discovered, is a major haven for hipsters, hippies, and other free spirits. Back in the 80s, Bernie Sanders was Burlington’s mayor.

The highest peak in the region, Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, is the “home of the world’s worst weather.” The summit is accessible via a harrowing eight-mile auto road, which was extra scary the day I drove it due to dense fog. I took these photos at the top in a chilly rain.

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One of the most magnificent places in the area is Acadia National Park, which takes up most of an island on the coast of Maine. It combines lush greenery with the rocky and majestic Atlantic coast.

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Probably not so serene and idyllic in January during a nor’easter.

Weather wise, this is the most pleasant time of year in New England, so Acadia was maxed out with tourists. Even finding a place to stop and get photos was a challenge. In another month, the crowds of leaf-peepers will triple the traffic.

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The tourist mecca of Bar Harbor is the gateway to Acadia. It’s a quaint harbor town and home to a sizable lobster fleet. Maine lobsters, they say, are more abundant today than ever before.

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Which brings me to another reason I made the trip: to enjoy an authentic New England lobster roll.

I succeeded. Three times.

FYI, lobster rolls come in two varieties: Connecticut style (served warm with melted butter) and Maine style (served chilled with mayo and a splash of lemon). Most locals prefer the Maine variety, and, in fact, I never came across a place that served them warm.

The first two times I had them, they were delicious, but somehow, a bit lacking. They were stingy on the meat, and the buns were lined with shredded lettuce, which diluted the taste.

Moreover, I had them in restaurant settings, which was all wrong. Too civilized. And the food was prepared out of sight and brought to my table like some ordinary meal.

I wanted genuine. I wanted rustic. I wanted the thing cooked where I could see it. I wanted it served outdoors, on a paper plate, as I assume all self-respecting Maineiacs prefer it.

And, fortunately, I stumbled upon a place that, in my mind, served lobster rolls in the proper manner.

It happened as I drove back to the mainland from Acadia. Up ahead was a small trailer in a gravel parking lot. A large, hand-lettered plywood sign out front read LOBSTERS.

The trailer was surrounded by tables and chairs under awnings, and a dozen people were queued up in a line that disappeared into the trailer. I pulled into the parking lot.

Behind the trailer, teams of people were carrying baskets of lobsters from several pickup trucks to a table behind a row of steaming pots.

Under a canopy, two men handled the cooking. Under another canopy, teams of pickers deftly collected the meat.

After a few minutes in line, I was inside the trailer. A stern, matronly woman with forearms like Popeye took my order: lobster roll, chips, a pickle, and a beer of my choice from the display case. The bill was $14. She took my money and sent me outside to find a table.

While I waited, I wandered around and observed the proceedings.

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Then, dinner was served.

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And wicked good it was. Ample meat, lightly seasoned, nicely chilled, no extraneous filling, and sublime taste.

My beverage, by the way, was from Sea Dog, a brewery in Bangor. I chose Wild Blueberry in honor of the small, sweet New England variety of blueberries currently in season.

I savored the meal slowly and deemed the trip a success.

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Finally, what road trip would be complete without souvenir t-shirts?

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For the return to Georgia, I decided to follow the Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway through Virginia and North Carolina. This would take longer, but it would spare me a lot of Interstate driving.

I was rewarded with an early-morning bear encounter on the Skyline Drive. That story in my next post.

 

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