25,000 Words

It’s been a few weeks since I wrote anything on my blog. Other stuff just kept taking priority—but that was priority of my choosing, so I really have no excuse.

Anyway, rather than write any big, long piece to make up for what I haven’t posted in almost a month, I’m going to share some of the output from one of my hobbies: photography.

My grandparents gave me my first Vivitar camera when I must have been three or four, and I’ve been snapping pictures ever since. (I still have the Vivitar!) I upgraded to a digital Panasonic when I turned thirteen and more recently upgraded to a Canon DSLR last year to really take it to the next level.

Now, whether my eye for photography has ever been any good is for you to decide. And whether the shots come out looking great is also up in the air.

My goal as I work on photography on the side is to learn not only the mechanics of camera settings and framing the shot but also the post-processing that is done with image-editing software such as Photoshop. I’m a cheapskate (and Adobe charges out the nose for a Photoshop subscription now), so I’ve been using the open-source image-editor called GIMP. I think the results are pretty darn good, if I do say so myself.

So, without further ado, here are some shots of airliners taken at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in Grapevine, TX and muscle cars taken at Lone Star Muscle Cars in Wichita Falls, TX. Enjoy and please let me know what you think.

Omni Air International 767 taxiing in the foreground; American A321 taking off in the background.
Omni Air International 767 taxiing in the foreground; American A321 taking off in the background.
American MD-83 in the foreground, American 777 in the background. Both planes are landing into the south.
American MD-83 in the foreground, American 777 in the background. Both planes are landing into the south.
American 737 landing in front of Omni Air International 767.
American 737 landing in front of Omni Air International 767.
American A321 coming in for a landing.
American A321 coming in for a landing.
Omni Air International 767 taking off into the south. A Qantas A380 is parked on the tarmac in the background.
Omni Air International 767 taking off into the south. A Qantas A380 is parked on the tarmac in the background.
Omni Air International 767 retracting its landing gear as it switches to the departure frequency.
Omni Air International 767 retracting its landing gear as it switches to the departure frequency.
Volaris A320 "María Amalia" approaching the runway.
Volaris A320 “María Amalia” approaching the runway.
Alaska 737 painted in a Toy Story 4 livery.
Alaska 737 painted in a Toy Story 4 livery.
American A321 landing in the foreground. The Alaska 737 is lined up for takeoff on the neighboring runway. Lined up in the background are an American (Embraer) ERJ-175, American 737, another American ERJ-175, and an American 787 Dreamliner.
American A321 landing in the foreground. The Alaska 737 is lined up for takeoff on the neighboring runway. Lined up in the background are an American (Embraer) ERJ-175, American 737, another American ERJ-175, and an American 787 Dreamliner.
Air China Cargo 777, JFK-bound, taxiing in the foreground. A Canadian CargoJet 767 waits to cross the runway in the background.
Air China Cargo 777, JFK-bound, taxiing in the foreground. A Canadian CargoJet 767 waits to cross the runway in the background.
The Air China Cargo 767 waiting for clearance to cross the runway.
The Air China Cargo 767 waiting for clearance to cross the runway.
American A321 at the moment of touchdown.
American A321 at the moment of touchdown.
Hmm, which one do I want?
Hmm, which one do I want?
1970 Ford Mustang Mach I. Easily my favorite Mustang ever.
1970 Ford Mustang Mach I. Easily my favorite Mustang ever.
1985 Mustang GT Predator 302. Probably my second-favorite Mustang.
1985 Mustang GT Predator 302. Probably my second-favorite Mustang.
1969 Dodge Super Bee.
1969 Dodge Super Bee.
1962 Chevrolet Corvette Roadster.
1962 Chevrolet Corvette Roadster.
1969 Chevrolet Camero.
1969 Chevrolet Camaro.
2001 Dodge Viper. Get stung with V10 power, baby!
2001 Dodge Viper. Get stung with V10 power, baby!
1966 Dodge Charger.
1966 Dodge Charger.
1967 Chevrolet Camaro RS "Moovin' Milk". I wouldn't mind if the milkman drove this. Wait, I guess milkmen don't exist anymore.
1967 Chevrolet Camaro RS “Moovin’ Milk”. I wouldn’t mind if the milkman drove this. Wait, I guess milkmen don’t exist anymore.
1965 Ford Mustang grille.
1965 Ford Mustang grille.
2002 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. I really like the firebird graphic on the hood.
2002 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. I really like the firebird graphic on the hood.
A spider! Guess the Dodge D150 he was hanging out on hasn't been driven in a while.
A spider! Guess the Dodge D150 he was hanging out on hasn’t been driven in a while.
Another shot of the 1969 Dodge Super Bee, but the grille this time.
Another shot of the 1969 Dodge Super Bee, but the grille this time.

One thing I really like about photography is that it gives me an excuse to get out, explore, and experiment. As you can probably tell, I like photographing machines, but really anything that (I think) exhibits beauty is worth capturing.

Coming soon: enhanced photos from my spring-break trip to Utah. Until then, thanks for reading and viewing.

How to Set Up a Printer and Avoid Bloatware

Photo by Fernando Arcos on Pexels.com

Last weekend, my parents bought a new wireless printer by HP. Our previous printer, also an HP, is ten years old and resides on my desk. It’s still a good printer, but it’s USB only—meaning that you can’t remotely print to it because it’s not on the network.

Fortunately, this new printer allows us to print from any device, anywhere in the house.

Unfortunately, when setting it up, HP wanted us to install their software package on every computer we’d be printing from.

Now, I think HP makes some really good printers. I’ve used Dell printers, too, and they are pretty well-made, too. The problem is, most printer manufacturers “require” you to install a bunch of software you don’t need in order to use the printer.

I call this software bloatware, because it slows your computer down.

The good news is, in most cases, you don’t have to install this software at all in order to interface with a printer. All you need is the driver.

A driver is a piece of software that creates a communications interface between your computer and a piece of hardware. Your computer already has dozens of drivers installed: one for your keyboard, one for your mouse, one for every USB drive you plug in, and more.

With printers, the principle is the same. Your computer needs a driver in order to send the printer the pages you want to print, as well as to receive any pertinent information from the printer, such as whether it’s low on ink.

When printer manufacturers want you to install all their software in order to interface with the printer, the driver is included in that software package. The thing is, you probably don’t need all the other software that they want you to install.

That’s not to say that this software isn’t useful in some way, but in my experience it can be more trouble than it’s worth. Our old HP printer “required” four separate programs to be installed, and if memory serves, I think we only ever used one—just one—of them.

The advantage of not installing the extra software (bloatware), of course, is that there’s a much lower chance that your computer will start slowing down. You’ll also eliminate a possible source of pop-ups or annoying prompts that appear when you’re normally using your computer.

The one disadvantage I can think of for not installing printer software is that you may not be able to use some of the printer’s features, such as scanning. However, there are usually ways around that, as well, as I’ll cover in a moment.

If you’re like me and you just want to install what’s necessary in order to get the printer up and running, follow these steps.

  1. Follow your printer’s installation instructions up to the point where it says to install the required software. If you’re setting up a USB printer, don’t connect it to your computer unless instructed. If you’re setting up a wireless printer, don’t sync your computer with the printer unless instructed.
  2. At this point, do a Google search for the printer’s make and model, and include the word “drivers”. Here’s an example: “HP Photosmart C4150 drivers” (that’s our old printer).
  3. Look carefully at the Google results and click on the manufacturer’s official website, when it appears. If your printer was made by Canon, look for Canon’s website (usa.canon.com). The first few results can be ads, and take you to the wrong sites. Don’t click on them.
  4. Choose the driver for your operating system. (If you’re not sure what operating system you have, try checking whatsmyos.com.) Find the list of software available for your printer, and download the files to install the drivers only.
  5. Once the download is complete, start the installation by opening the installation file (usually a single- or double-click will accomplish this).
  6. Follow the installation instructions in the driver.
  7. After the installation is complete, the driver should be installed—and you should be able to use your printer!

Before you go off on your own with these directions, there are a couple more things I’d like to note.

First: Read the fine print. In the case of my old printer, when I go to HP’s site and enter the printer info, I’m enticed to still download the entire software suite. If I want to download just the driver, I have to look for the “HP Photosmart Basic Driver”.

In this case, HP more or less forces you to install their full software suite, which is probably not what you want to do. Look at the file size—260 MB! I’ll note that a search for the “HP Photosmart Basic Driver” yielded no download page. They don’t make it easy. In this case, what you’d want to do is let your computer try to find the correct driver on its own (see below).

Second: Installation may even be easier than this. A lot of computers will find and automatically install drivers for you. My Mac automatically found and installed the requisite drivers for the wireless printer. Sometimes, Windows will do the same, installing the standalone driver without you having to hunt around for it. (If you can get the driver installed automatically, then you don’t need to follow the seven steps above!)

Most printers will scan to a USB drive or email scan results to your computer. Instead of starting the scan from your computer, you’ll need to do it from the printer itself via a menu or button option.

In summary, I don’t think all the extra printer software is bad; however, I see it as another way for the manufacturer to make money and an easy way for your computer to start slowing down. So, if you want to avoid those issues, just follow these directions!


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What if I told you that you could quickly and easily learn how your computer or smartphone works?

What if I told you that troubleshooting your technology can be easy and painless?

Well, now I’m telling you! My book How Computers Work and What to Do When They Don’t explains, in everyday English, how your computer operates and what you can do when it’s not operating the way you want it to.

It teaches you about the basic components without getting too technical, so you can become more computer-literate.

It walks you through simple steps to fixing common computer problems, so you can get back to using your computer instead of struggling with it.

It explains how to easily solve issues such as sluggish performance and virus infections, so you can keep your computer running smoothly—instead of running out to buy a new one.

And… it includes over 30 full-color pictures, so you can actually see what I’m talking about.

I’ve spent a great majority of my life solving computer problems (and I’m only in my twenties!), and I studied IT in college partly for this reason. I’ve helped kids, seniors, and everyone in between… and now I want to help you.

This book contains all the “secrets” I use to solve computer problems… secrets that everyone can use, including you.

Imagine feeling confident that you can solve your own tech problems without calling your tech-savvy friend, child, or grandchild. Imagine quickly feeling at home with software or apps you’ve never used before.

With How Computers Work and What to Do When They Don’t, you will!

How Computers Work and What to Do When They Don’t is available on Amazon in all regions for Kindle and in paperback. Why not pick up a copy today and start becoming comfortable with computers?

P.S. If you opt for the paperback version, you can also get the Kindle version for only $0.99 more and read wherever you go on your smartphone, tablet, or Kindle e-reader. Also, be sure to sign up for my email list to receive free bonus content to supplement the book.

Want to Expand Your Comfort Zone? Hop on a Motorcycle

Though you don’t necessarily have to do this. Photo by GEORGE DESIPRIS on Pexels.com

Just over a month ago, I did something I’d been wanting to do for a long time: I signed up for a motorcycle training course.

Now, why motorcycling? I don’t know that I can really give a good answer, other than it’s just something that I wanted to do. A skill I wanted to learn. An item on my bucket list. (Actually, my life list.)

So I showed up early at my alma mater’s parking lot on Saturday morning a couple weeks ago, ready to learn. There were six of us taking the course, ranging from no experience on motorcycles (me and a few others) to many years of experience but no Texas license endorsement.

The first component of the course was in the classroom: We went through a PowerPoint presentation that reiterated much of the content we learned from an online training course we had to take prior to the “real deal.” We dissected and discussed some risky street scenarios and “what-ifs” before breaking for lunch and getting on the bikes for real, hands-on training.

Most of us started out like babies learning to crawl. We hesitantly straddled the 125cc machines, turned the ignition on, checked for neutral, and hit the engine start switch. I know those of us who hadn’t ridden before either felt a surge of adrenaline or a surge of fear when the engines throttled to life beneath us for the first time.

We progressed from crawling to walking: We learned how to slowly let out the clutch and apply throttle to move forward. We learned how to stop. We learned how to turn and shift gears and slow down without braking.

By Sunday, we were making U-turns, weaving in and out of cones, swerving to avoid obstacles, and zipping around at 20 mph on straightaways in the parking lot. It was the most fun I’d had in a long time, better than Six Flags or Disney World.

Then came the skills evaluation, the two-wheel equivalent of a final Drivers Ed test. This test determined whether we would pass the course and be eligible for our M endorsements—or have to take the course again in order to legally ride a motorcycle.

I’ll be honest: Even with practice, I freeze up with practical tests. Maybe it’s because the crazy lady who rode with me on my first driving test got on my nerves so much that I hit a curb and failed.

“It’s okay, Baker. You’ve got this. You’re the man.”

Yet I still went wide in both the sharp right turn and the U-turn. I lost the friction zone of the clutch when coming out of a corner and barely kept the momentum going through to the end. And I was half-certain that I failed.

But, I passed. And that was a confidence-builder. I can now legally ride a motorcycle in Texas, the United States, and (as a matter of fact) Canada, France, and Germany as well.

Does that mean I’m a proficient motorcyclist, though?

Heck no. I need to get my own bike and keep practicing what I’ve learned.

And I need to keep learning. In fact, I have a couple books on my shelf for this purpose: Proficient Motorcycling and More Proficient Motorcycling, both by David Hough, and both incredibly informative on more advanced riding techniques and maneuvers.

It’s my opinion that people should always be moving forward. You certainly don’t want to be moving backward. And if you’re standing still, well, unfortunately you’re likely to be left behind by those who are moving forward.

Moving forward means that you’re constantly stepping out of, and thus expanding, your comfort zone.

In his fascinating book 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson argues that the optimal place to be in life is with one foot placed firmly in order, and one tentatively placed in chaos. In other words, there needs to be a balance—or in Johnny Cash’s words, you have to “walk the line.”

Too much order and you’re going nowhere. Your life is stagnant and slowly becomes boring. You can’t grow as a person.

Too much chaos and your life spirals out of control. You have no tether. You don’t know what to expect around the corner and you live in a constant state of duress from fear or uncertainty.

But, if you can toe the line between order and chaos, Peterson argues, you can live optimally. You can expand your horizons (and your comfort zone) without feeling distress (the negative stress). Instead, you might feel eustress (the positive stress), and that’s what helps you grow.

If, for the first exercise, my motorcycle instructor had told us to hop on the bikes, fire ’em up, and accelerate to a speed of 20 mph in second gear, that would have distressed most of us because we had no experience. We would have been completely submerged in chaos. We might have quit the course then and there out of intimidation, or (worse) tried to follow his directions and hurt ourselves.

Yet if we were still just practicing rocking the bikes backward and forward by the end of the weekend, we would have been completely immersed in order. There’s nothing exciting about that!

So, if you want to expand your comfort zone and become a better, stronger, more well-rounded human being, start by dipping your toe into a little bit of chaos.

Do something you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t yet. Take an art class. Learn to dance. Learn how to use a computer (I have a book that helps with that!).

Fall down, mess up, and get back up again. Eventually, your paintings will improve. You won’t step on your partner’s toes. You’ll know more about computers than your friends and maybe even your tech-savvy grandkids.

Or, you can always hop on a motorcycle. Because on a motorcycle, there is no gear for reverse. You can only move forward.


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What if I told you that you could quickly and easily learn how your computer or smartphone works?

What if I told you that troubleshooting your technology can be easy and painless?

Well, now I’m telling you! My book How Computers Work and What to Do When They Don’t explains, in everyday English, how your computer operates and what you can do when it’s not operating the way you want it to.

It teaches you about the basic components without getting too technical, so you can become more computer-literate.

It walks you through simple steps to fixing common computer problems, so you can get back to using your computer instead of struggling with it.

It explains how to easily solve issues such as sluggish performance and virus infections, so you can keep your computer running smoothly—instead of running out to buy a new one.

And… it includes over 30 full-color pictures, so you can actually see what I’m talking about.

I’ve spent a great majority of my life solving computer problems (and I’m only in my twenties!), and I studied IT in college partly for this reason. I’ve helped kids, seniors, and everyone in between… and now I want to help you.

This book contains all the “secrets” I use to solve computer problems… secrets that everyone can use, including you.

Imagine feeling confident that you can solve your own tech problems without calling your tech-savvy friend, child, or grandchild. Imagine quickly feeling at home with software or apps you’ve never used before.

With How Computers Work and What to Do When They Don’t, you will!

How Computers Work and What to Do When They Don’t is available on Amazon in all regions for Kindle and in paperback. Why not pick up a copy today and start becoming comfortable with computers?

P.S. If you opt for the paperback version, you can also get the Kindle version for only $0.99 more and read wherever you go on your smartphone, tablet, or Kindle e-reader. Also, be sure to sign up for my email list to receive free bonus content to supplement the book.

Sgt. Carl Burton “Bubba” George: MIA, POW

Growing up, Memorial Day didn’t mean a whole lot more to me than a day off from school, as I’m sure is the case with many American kids. Even though I respected the sacrifices made by all men and women who served in the armed forces, I didn’t even know what the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day was. However, all that changed for me in high school, when they found my long-lost Uncle Bubba.

I knew growing up that my grandmother’s brother, my great uncle, was named Bubba, served in the Army, and went missing in action in Korea, never to be seen again. Beyond that I knew little else about him, except that my grandmother loved and looked up to him.

Imagine my surprise one day when Mom announced, “They identified Bubba’s remains!” My great aunt Marcella, Bubba’s younger sister, had sent a DNA sample to the Army that could potentially help with identifying remains of American soldiers that the North Korean government turned over to the United States. Two years later, the Army came back with a match: They found Bubba.

The Army flew his remains to San Antonio, where he would be buried in the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery. On a Saturday in March, my family drove down from DFW for the funeral with full military honors and, I have to say, it left a big impression on my fifteen-year-old mind.

Here was a man, dead for over fifty years, lost and forgotten about in some North Korean prison camp for who knows how long, reduced to unidentifiable remains, now found, identified, and remembered. The Army that he served honored his service by transporting his casket on a horse-drawn hearse, playing “Taps”, and then sending him off for the last time with a twenty-one gun salute.

They folded the flag that was draped on his casket and gave it to my great aunt Marcella. I remember the soldier kneeling before my great aunt with the flag in his hands, talking so softly to her that I could not hear his words, and her and my grandmother tearing up. This was the closure they didn’t get back in the fifties, when someone from the Army, perhaps a chaplain, drove up to their small house near Bowie, Texas and tried to softly break the news that their beloved son and brother Bubba would not be coming back home.

Well, now he was finally home, and what a homecoming it was.

Now, whenever I think of Memorial Day, I think of my Uncle Bubba, a bright, hard-working young man with a great future ahead of him, who chose to serve his country in a war he probably didn’t know much about. I don’t know what he went through in that North Korean prison camp. I don’t know how he died, or how long he suffered before the Lord finally took him home. But I do know that Memorial Day is for men like him.

So, today, as you enjoy a day off from work, maybe fire up the barbecue or do some shopping, stop for a moment and think about the men and women who died while serving the United States of America. Their sacrifices preserve our liberty. As Thomas Jefferson said, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Thank God for all the patriots who spill their own blood while shedding the blood of tyrants.


If you want to read more about my great uncle, please see the following links:

Technology and 21st-Century Camping

Photo by Teemu R on Pexels.com

Spring is here and summer is just around the corner. The weather is getting great for camping, and there’s nothing like the great outdoors. Forests, mountains, and lakes have the same ability to awe and calm today that they have always had, but in this Digital Age of constant connection, it’s even more imperative (and often necessary) to seek temporary solace and solitaire in nature.

For better or worse, modern technology has changed camping quite a bit. The tents, knives, and equipment we carry are lighter, sharper, and more durable than ever before. On the digital side of things, cell phones, GPS, and the Internet provide a wealth of information even out in the boonies, information that you could never pack out in years past.

Some campers and outdoorsmen shun technology altogether and stick to old-fashioned maps, compasses, and backcountry knowledge. Others willingly embrace technology on their trips because they can carry a small library of outdoors guides on a tablet, for example.

I fall somewhere in the middle. When I go camping or do anything outdoors, I carry my phone and maybe a tablet or e-reader with me, but use them minimally.

Regardless, we live in the 21st century, and if you’re planning a camping trip or outdoor excursion, you should consider taking advantage of technology to improve your trip. Below are some things you can do to make sure you and your devices make it into and out of the backcountry safely. If you click on a product link in this article and purchase something, I get a small tip at no cost to you. Much appreciated!

Turn devices off when not in use. Enjoy nature and leave the ‘Gram behind. Besides, if you’re lucky, you’ll be out of cell range anyway. If you want to take pictures, consider taking a camera specifically for the purpose, and share the pictures to social media when your trip is done. This will also help you re-enjoy the trip as you sift through your shots.

Portable chargers, also known as power bricks or power banks, are essential when heading out into the wild without a way to charge your devices. The Anker PowerCore+ 10050 shown here is a great option that I used on a recent trip to Utah. Just make sure you charge your charger before leaving!

Take backup power. Regardless of how much or how little you use your devices, their batteries will drain. I carry at least two power banks when I travel, one dedicated to charging devices and another that can jump-start a car (because there’s nothing worse than a car that won’t start when you’re miles away from civilization). I recommend the Anker PowerCore+ 10050 portable charger for phones and tablets and the DBPOWER 2000A 19200mAh jump-starter for vehicles (which will also charge phones and other devices).

Solar chargers are also an option but you should be aware that solar power charges devices considerably slower than a battery bank will. Solar is also dependent on whether the sun is out, so if it’s a cloudy day, you won’t be able to charge your gear.

Consider buying a satellite phone. While I personally have no experience with this, if you know you’re going to be really out there (good for you!), you should consider acquiring a sat phone for your trip, as you will likely have no cell service. This would have been great on my recent trip through the Navajo Nation in northeast Arizona, as my brother and I had no cell service for over twenty-four hours as we more or less traversed the entire upper-right quarter of the state. Get one in case of emergency.

At the very minimum, carry an old phone if you have one. Even if it no longer has a SIM card (meaning it’s not on a phone plan), you can still use it to dial 911 in case of an emergency. The caveat is that you still have to have service in order to call 911. That aside, it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.

Use GPS, but take a map or atlas anyway. A couple years ago, my family took a trip to Fredericksburg, TX. We got as far as Cleburne (not very far) before the route went down to one lane under construction and traffic was backed up for miles. Both Google Maps and Apple Maps provided no alternate routes. Fortunately, I whipped out my trusty Texas map and cobbled together a new route that got us out of traffic and safely to Fredericksburg, where beer and brats awaited. It just goes to show that technology is not infallible.

You can buy a Rand McNally road atlas at Wal-Mart for under $10 that covers all states in the U.S. and all provinces in Canada, with an overview map of Mexico to boot. Also helpful are the Wal-Mart locations indexed in the front of the atlas. If you’re a AAA member, stop by your local office and pick up maps for the states you’ll be traveling through. And, when you get to wherever you’re going to stay, acquire local maps so you know your way around the surrounding area and trail or park maps so you don’t get lost while hiking.

If you have a tablet, load it up with outdoors books and guides. How do you know whether that berry is poisonous? How do you treat that kind of insect bite? What are you supposed to do, again, if you encounter a bear or mountain lion? With the right books at hand, the answers are just a few page swipes away.

If you have a tablet, such as an iPad, Samsung Galaxy, or Kindle Fire, you can easily and cheaply load your digital library up with great outdoor reference works. Yes, I agree that there is still no substitute for a real, tangible book, but when weight is an issue and you can’t feasibly pack out your entire library of outdoors guides, digital editions on your device of choice are a great alternative.

I suggest you download the free Amazon Kindle app and check out the following titles:

  1. 100 Deadly Skills: Survival Edition by Clint Emerson
  2. Bushcraft 101 by Dave Canterbury
  3. Boy Scout Handbook (currently in its 13th edition, although you can also buy the highly-revered 1st edition from 1911)
Bushcraft 101 is comprehensive and inexpensive: only $1.99 for Kindle!

Also consider stocking up on some good, adventurous reads in case your hiking plans get washed out by a day of heavy rain. Again, nothing beats a hard copy, but a tablet loaded with e-books lightens your load considerably. Here are some of my favorites to get you started:

  1. The Call of the Wild by Jack London (though anything by London is fair game)
  2. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
  3. Hatchet by Gary Paulsen (part of the five-book series called Brian’s Saga, aimed at young men but entertaining for adults as well)

Finally, keep your gadgets clean and dry! Dust, dirt, sand, water, and bugs are just a few things you might encounter out there, and while you are washable, your tech probably isn’t. Keep phones and tablets in water-resistant or waterproof pockets or containers, as these will also protect against dirt. I bought my brother and I each a Pelican 1060 Micro Case for keeping our phones dry while kayaking the Colorado River in Austin. It’s not a bad idea to use these whether you’re on the water or not.

The Pelican 1060 Micro Case is excellent for storing phones, keys, wallets, and more when in wet or dusty environments. Clipping it to your person, a backpack, or kayak with the included carabiner ensures that it doesn’t get lost or end up in Davy Jones’ locker.

With these tips in mind, you’ll be able to enjoy your trip and stay connected as need be. Just remember to take nothing but pictures and leaving nothing but footprints—and enjoy being outdoors, away from the Internet and social media!

So, who’s going where and what are you taking?


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What if you could feel inspired and empowered to fix your computer the next time something goes wrong with it? Now you can! How Computers Work and What to Do When They Don’t explains, in simple English, how your computer operates and what you can do when it’s not operating the way you want it to. It also teaches you how to solve many existing issues, including sluggish performance and virus infections. When computer woes happen, you’ll never have to worry again.

How Computers Work and What to Do When They Don’t is available on all Amazon sites for Kindle and in paperback. You can read more about it here on my website, including an excerpt. Be sure to sign up for my email list to receive free bonus content to supplement the book!

American Southwest Bro-Trip, Part 7: Truck Trouble and The Final Drive

Morning in Page at the Red Rock Inn.

We rose at 5:30 A.M. Page time since we finally learned which time zone we were in: Mountain Standard, which meant we would lose two hours driving east over the next two days (one hour entering Mountain Daylight, and another entering Central). We both slept unbelievably well that night after four nights on the ground in the cold inside sleeping bags—but those four nights on the ground made sleep in a bed that much sweeter. You learn to appreciate the things you take for granted in life when you go camping, and that’s one reason I like doing it.

We loaded up Vader and, since the motel office wasn’t open yet, left the keys on the table as our hosts instructed us. We drove around the block to grab a Southwestern breakfast at Ranch House Grille. I enjoyed an omelet while Daniel had huevos rancheros. We talked about what we wanted to do that day on the way back, and decided that we would have to forego a tour of Antelope Canyon for time constraints. Instead, we would stop at Horseshoe Bend on our way out of town, and then play the rest of the day by ear with the goal of reaching Albuquerque before sundown.

We paid for breakfast and then drove to Horseshoe Bend, just outside of Page. Our hostess had told us something about having to park in town and take a shuttle to the trail, but we simply drove to the trail, parked, and hiked about a mile round-trip to see the bend and back. At our visit, the trail was under construction and the parking lot was small, so I understood why there would be a need for shuttle busses, but I didn’t see any running while we were there.

Daniel dangling his feet off to “get one for the ‘Gram.”

Horseshoe Bend is simply a bend in the Colorado River that’s shaped like a horseshoe. It’s become a favorite site of photographers and Instagrammers (Daniel made sure to “get one for the ‘Gram”). It’s neat to look at, and it’s a short but moderate hike to the bend, but there’s not much else to do. It’s free, though—can’t beat that.

We got back on the road and drove U.S. 89 to Flagstaff. This route took us around the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Reservation, areas we didn’t really want to drive through a second time if we could help it. There is an incredible pull-off near Bitter Springs that looks out over the desert and towards the Grand Canyon that made the whole route worth it.

Approaching Flagstaff from the north, through the Coconino National Forest.

As we approached Flagstaff, I frequently took advantage of passing lanes to get by slower cars and trucks. I got pretty good at it, too—and then the check engine light on Vader’s dash started flashing.

“Oh, no,” I said. “Daniel, open the glove box and grab the owner’s manual. See what it says about a flashing check engine light.”

Daniel is not the best when it comes to using an index, but to his credit he found exactly what I was looking for, just as the light went away. “Misfire occurred,” he reported. “Could be due to spark plugs, over-revving the engine, or a bad fuel-air ratio. It says to take it easy on the engine and get it inspected by a dealer immediately.”

Not what I wanted to hear. Thoughts of what could be wrong rushed through my head. We had gained considerable altitude as we approached Flagstaff; could differences in air pressure or temperature, combined with accelerating, have caused the misfire?

I decided, since the light went away, to keep driving at a steady clip. We passed through Flagstaff and briefly got turned around as we tried to find Interstate 40. We also got cell service back and Daniel texted Mom to let her know where we were at.

“You know there’s a meteor crater near Flagstaff,” she said via text. “Y’all might want to check that out.”

“Hey, Matthew, did you know there’s a meteor crater near here?” Daniel asked.

“Yeah, I read something about it. It’s twenty dollars per person.” I was trying to keep Pard’s finances in mind. “You want to check it out?”

“Heck yeah!”

That decided it.

A chunk of meteorite, mostly nickel-iron, that weighs as much as a Volkswagen Beetle. It’s the largest fragment found to date.

The meteor crater is about thirty miles east of Flagstaff and four miles south of I-40. It doesn’t have a name; it’s just called “Meteor Crater Natural Landmark”. It’s not maintained by the National Park Service or any other governmental agency (which could be a good thing); in fact, the land is owned by a long-time rancher and the proceeds from the visitor’s center go to help maintain the crater.

The crater as viewed from the guided tour trail.

The crater was completely worth it. For eighteen bucks apiece (we each paid twenty and got a two-dollar bill in change!), we got access to the small but impressive museum and a free, guided tour along the crater rim. You can’t descend into the crater because doing so would start to erode it, but you can get some spectacular views from the rim anyway. Our tour guide told us quite a bit about both the natural history and the human history of the crater, and we learned that it is, in fact, the largest, best-preserved impact crater in the whole world. On top of that, the blast created at impact was equivalent to twenty-million tons of TNT.

A piece of wing from a Cessna that crashed in the crater back in the ’60s. Fortunately, no one was killed in the crash. Don’t fly into craters, kids.
Mining equipment left down inside the crater from over one-hundred years ago.
We love it when space comes to Earth!

After spending a bit longer at the crater than we intended, we drove a short distance further to Winslow, where we did indeed stand on the corner (yeah, we’re tourists!) and then stopped for gas. Things move slower in small towns off old Route 66, and that includes fuel.

“I could urinate faster than this!” a fellow traveler complained to me at the pump. “I mean, this is crazy!”

The good thing about our delay was that we got acquainted with a couple from Florida who had just retired and were taking a road trip across the country. “We just saved all we could and started investing in real estate, and now we’re basically being paid from our investments,” he explained. “We were both able to retire with all the benefits and we’re still making money on the side. You two guys are pretty young and you’ll get good jobs if you don’t already have them; just start socking away everything you can and learn about real estate. It pays for itself.”

We thanked him for the advice and said we would look into real estate. I stopped gassing up my truck before the tank was full because Daniel and I were both tired of waiting. We said good-bye to the kind man, and when we left the gas pump had evidently not shut off as it filled his Ford Edge. Gas spilled down the side of the car. I was glad I shut the pump off early and made a mental note never to stop at the Phillips 66 in Winslow ever again. (Word to the wise…)

Just takin’ it easy.
The man, the myth, the legend.

Daniel took the wheel and drove us on the long-haul from Winslow to Albuquerque with one brief bathroom pit-stop. As we rolled through I-40 construction outside of Albuquerque, he said the words I didn’t want to hear: “Matthew, the check engine light’s back on again.”

Oh dear.

The truck drove fine and the engine wasn’t shaking or making any sounds as far as we could tell, so since we were out in the middle of nowhere anyway, I told him to drive it steady into Albuquerque, where we would take it to an AutoZone and have the code scanned. I prayed it wasn’t anything serious, and that pressing on wouldn’t make anything worse.

We arrived in Albuquerque right at sundown, just as planned. We had a little trouble finding our AirBNB casita for the night, due in part to confusing roads and addresses, and in part to the lack of streetlights to illuminate the addresses. We stopped in briefly to examine the casita (quaint, quiet, and comfortable), then hopped back in Vader to grab dinner at a place called Monroe’s. We each had Southwestern-style sandwiches, but I don’t remember much of the meal because I was thinking about the truck. All I wanted to do was get it to AutoZone and, hopefully, be able to breathe a sigh of relief that the code was nothing.

We drove up to AutoZone and a guy about our age, from Fort Worth in fact, read the codes and then pulled them up on the computer. “Man, it doesn’t look good,” he said. “One’s a misfire, the other’s an issue with turbo underboost. Could be an issue with the turbocharger. I think you should get that checked out immediately. Don’t want you two breaking down on the way back to Texas; there’s nothing between here and there.”

I sighed. “Where can we take it?”

He consulted with one of the local guys, not an employee, who hung around the store to chat cars. “You need to take it to Brothers. I think they’ve worked on F-150s before. They open at nine tomorrow because it’s Saturday.” He wrote down the address and phone number on the printout of the error codes and handed it to me. “Good luck, guys. Hope you can get it figured out.”

We went back to the casita and made plans for the next day. I had hoped to leave early, as had been our precedent, but having to wait until nine o’clock to visit the mechanic would scrap those plans. I gave Dad a call and asked if he had any advice.

“Do your research,” he said. He and Mom were watching a James Bond movie. “Pray about it and sleep on it. Let me know tomorrow morning.”

Everything I was reading online was making me worry even more: Owners who reported the same codes were having their turbochargers overhauled and replaced. That would be expensive, time-consuming, and unsafe to drive without. I pulled myself away from my phone and prayed fervently that God would provide us a way to get it fixed quickly so we could get back home, and a backup plan if not.

Daniel, true to form, took a leisurely, hot shower, then plopped down on the mattress to listen to reggae music while checking in on social media. My shower was cold because he used all the hot water, but I didn’t get onto him about it. Instead, I told him we’d sleep in, take our time getting ready to go in the morning, and then be at the garage called Brothers well before they opened. He agreed, and we turned out the lights.

We both slept pretty well that night considering we shared a bed. It always winds up being a battle for the blanket whenever we sleep in the same bed, but I think we were both so tired that it didn’t matter.

The next morning, I washed my face and checked my phone. A text from Dad lit up the screen: “Good morning travelers! Call me when you get up and we will talk truck stuff.”

I did. Dad had spent some time researching the same error code and came across different results. He said it was likely spark plugs, from what he read. “Take it to your guy,” he said, referring to Brothers. “He’s the one they recommended, so go to him, and go with God.”

After I got off the phone with Dad, Daniel and I packed up and ensured the casita looked spick and span before walking out for the last time. I looked up and saw a dozen hot-air balloons dotting the clear, blue Albuquerque sky. Maybe the day wouldn’t be so bad, after all. (Sadly, all our camera batteries had died, so I didn’t get any good photos of the balloons. And that’s why, sadly, the rest of this post has no pictures.)

I looked at the map on my phone and saw that there was a Chick-fil-A close to the garage, just on the other side of I-25 (the CanAm highway). We drove through and grabbed breakfast, then parked ourselves outside Brothers Complete Autocare at half-past eight, eating our chicken biscuits and drinking milk while we waited for nine.

I saw the garage bay door go up at a quarter to nine, so I got out of the truck and walked in to investigate. I looked around and didn’t see anyone, but then a middle-aged Hispanic gentleman peeked around the corner at me. “Buenos días,” I said. I don’t know why I automatically went to Spanish, but I trusted my instincts. “¿Hablas inglés?”

He smiled. “Eh, little bit.” He gapped his thumb and forefinger for emphasis.

I tried to explain what the problem was across the language barrier. I told him I was from Texas, trying to drive home, and was having engine trouble. I thought it was the spark plugs. He listened attentively and I could tell he wanted to help. “Is outside?” he asked, pointing.

“Sí,” I said, and led him to it. We popped the hood and he set to work on it immediately. I stood outside and watched him, while Daniel sat inside and slowly enjoyed breakfast, listening to Tears for Fears.

As the minutes ticked by, some local guys, the kind who like to hang around garages, showed up and stood around as the mechanic worked away at the engine. He explained to them what the problem was, in Spanish, and they would ask questions or offer suggestions. My Spanish being rudimentary at best, I could catch a few key words and phrases, but much of it was lost on me.

“Look here,” he said finally, pointing to the number-one coil pack. “See? Is new.” He pointed at the others. “Original.” The coil pack for the first cylinder was not nearly as dirty as the others were. “Might be some problem before, I don’t know?”

“I don’t know,” I said. I knew I had never changed it, nor had my mechanic back home. “Do you have a replacement?”

“Un momento.” He put on his headset and made a phone call. “Hola, Carlos.” He told Carlos, who worked at the local O’Reilly Auto Parts, what he needed. He shook his head and took the headset off. “They no have it. You want me to try spark plugs?”

I told him yes, and he asked Carlos about them. “They no have spark plugs,” he said regretfully, shaking his head.

“What else can we do?” I asked him.

“I will call someone else.” He dialed another nearby store and told them what he needed. “They have them,” he said to me. “Fifty dollars.”

“Do it,” I said. He nodded and placed the order.

“Gracias,” I told him when he got off the phone. “I appreciate your help.”

He smiled. “De nada. Is my job. Is what I do.” He plunged back under the hood and started unscrewing the old spark plugs.

Pretty soon, a young lady drove up in an auto parts truck and dropped off the new plugs. The mechanic quickly gapped them and set to work installing them. In the meantime, I kept Mom and Dad posted on the progress. “Trust your mechanic,” Dad encouraged. “He is the answered prayer.”

The mechanic’s son, who spoke fluent English, showed up about this time and started working on someone else’s car but then came by to talk to us when the work was finished. He cleared the codes on the truck and we fired the engine up. It turned over fine and sounded healthy. The check engine light stayed off. He advised I get some octane booster from AutoZone and then fill up with premium gas to ensure the fuel-air mixture wouldn’t be too lean.

“How much do I owe you?” I asked him after he lowered the hood.

“Eh, one-twenty?” he reckoned on the spot.

“Do you have change for one-fifty?”

“Sure.” We both pulled out our wallets and exchanged the money. I shook his hand. “Muchas gracias, señor.”

“You’re welcome. Good luck.”

And with that, we hit the road just after 10:00 A.M. Mountain. I drove us from Albuquerque to Tucumcari, and Vader ran great. We filled up in Tucumcari, and Daniel drove us from there to Wichita Falls, where I took the reins one final time and drove us the last two hours into DFW. We arrived at 8:30 P.M. Central, for a total of nine hours of nearly non-stop driving. We made good time and the miles rolled by as we listened to everything from Willie Nelson to Pearl Jam.

And so ended our bro-trip to the American Southwest, packed with adventure, thrills and chills, and many more memories than what I’ve shared here. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.

There are a few things we learned for the next trip. First, it’s good to know what cell coverage is like where you’re going, especially if you’re driving through places like the Navajo Nation. A backup satellite phone would be good to have. Second, it wouldn’t hurt to carry some basic auto parts, such as spark plugs and coil packs, just in case. Third, make sure your tent sleeping arrangement is comfortable; we suffered from no support until we bought new Therm-a-Rests and struggled with a lack of space the whole time.

Finally, when camping, stay clean! Our campground didn’t have showers, so we made do with body wipes and dry shampoo (or at least I did) for four days. One reason a lot of people don’t like to camp is because they can’t get clean, and it’s completely understandable. No one wants to go to bed feeling sticky from the day’s sweat. Some good body wipes go a long way (such as these from Surviveware, which were awesome—affiliate link alert). And dry shampoo (I used this one from Hair Dance), even for those with short hair, makes a big difference. Just ask Daniel; he didn’t use any and his hair was hideous!!

I hope you’ve enjoyed these tales of our epic adventure. If you get a chance to “go west, young man (or woman)”, go! Every state we passed through had its own unique natural beauty and charm, but Utah was simply beautiful to me. There is so much more to do there, including Bryce Canyon National Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Canyonlands National Park, and Arches National Park—not to mention a myriad of state parks and other natural areas. And, of course, there’s the Grand Canyon, too.

I can’t wait to go back.

American Southwest Bro-Trip, Part 6: Day-Trippers

On Wednesday morning, the morning after we conquered Angel’s Landing, we quickly made breakfast and then made tracks. Our destination for the day was Valley of Fire State Park near Overton, Nevada, just over two hours away (and one hour from Vegas, if we got the inkling!). I’d read good reviews about the place, with lots of incredible rock formations quite different from those in Zion or elsewhere in Utah.

I-15 in Arizona.

We drove through the scenic towns along Utah Highway 9 before picking up Interstate 15 in St. George, traveling southwest towards the Arizona border. And let me tell you, I-15 through Arizona into Nevada may be one of the coolest highways I’ve ever traveled on. Canyon walls rise up on every side as the road winds among them, the strata coming out of the earth at odd angles. And, going south, it’s a fairly decent decline.

Somebody planted some grass off the side of the road!

Coming out on the Nevada side, the terrain changes dramatically again. Green, wide-open plains are barriered by ridges of mountains. Somehow, it’s exactly how I pictured Nevada, at least this part.

And then we crossed the state line and saw the big casino. That was actually how we pictured Nevada.

After driving through several small, sunny Nevada communities, we arrived in Valley of Fire. I deposited our fee at the unmanned entrance and we drove in, not quite sure where to start.

Welcome to the Valley of Fire! Mwah-hah-hah-hah! (Not really; there’s nothing scary out here.)

We visited the visitor’s center (as visitors do) and were disappointed to find that park maps were only available for sale, and for more than we wanted to pay. So, we did what any twenty-first century tourists would do and took a picture of the map on display outside the gift shop, then headed back out to the truck. Along the way, a young German family held the door open for us as we exited. “Danke schön,” I said as we passed through. They laughed in surprise and looked at us. “Wir sprechen ein bisschen Deutsch,” I explained. We speak a little German. Always good to bolster our international relations.

That rock looked eerily like a skull. (Maybe that “mwah-hah-hah-hah” is indeed called for!)

Our first hike was called Mouse’s Tank, short and in-and-out. At fifty degrees and sunny, it felt great and we shed our unnecessary layers before starting out. The hike itself was all on sand between large rock formations on either side, and along the way we saw a fair amount of pictographs from times and people long gone. The trail terminated at a fairly large (for a desert) body of water, the Mouse’s Tank that gives the trail its namesake. We took some pictures and then hiked back, and I noticed one of the pictographs looked like ripples of the sea, perhaps an indicator to ancient passers-by that there was water nearby. It’s amazing how that sign has lasted so long, and how its meaning is still interpreted all these years later.

If you can’t tell by my hair, it’s windy.
Daniel puts his back to the wind! He’s barely able to keep his balance against the gusts.

After Mouse’s Tank, we drove around the park a bit, marveling at the different colors of rocks, extensive sand dunes, and the like. We made it to the White Domes hike, a loop trail just a mile or so long but promising some excellent views. It did not disappoint. We also passed the remains of a hacienda used in the film The Professionals with Burt Lancaster. I later learned that other movies have been filmed in the park, including Elvis’s Viva Las Vegas and the original Total Recall for all the Mars scenes. It is indeed like Mars; it’s also a lot like Tatooine.

The start of the White Domes Trail.
We had some really good, unplanned “album photos” like this one.

We still felt worn out after Angel’s Landing the previous day, so we took it easy in Valley of Fire and did more driving and observing than actual hiking. Plus, being that we had to drive over two hours to get back to our camp in Zion, we were limited on time. The park is definitely something to check out, if only for its otherworldly terrain, if you find yourself in Vegas or the surrounding area; Lake Mead is also close by.

La hacienda ya no existe.
The road back to the interstate.

When we got back to camp, we ate dinner and then cracked open the Uinta Golden Spike (to put an end to our delayed gratification) while roasting s’mores by the campfire. We sat out until we ran out of chocolate and marshmallows and the weather started getting chilly. I crawled into my sleeping bag and journaled while Daniel played “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” by John Denver through his phone. Then it got too cold for us to sit up, so we nestled ourselves inside our cocoons and turned the lights out.

It rained that night with strong winds and the temperature dropped to 29º F, the lowest it had been during our stay. Listening to the wind and rain outside while you’re warm and dry inside a tent is a very cool thing.

The next morning, we ate quickly again and packed up our camping gear. We decided to leave a day early and hit Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park on the way out, then re-enter Zion from the now-open east entrance on Highway 9 if we had time.

Let me tell you, packing up wet camping gear at 32º F with a fair morning wind is not a very cool thing.

Thankfully (perhaps miraculously), we got the tent zipped up with no problems. I lost my patience trying to fit one sleeping bag into its storage bag, so I threw it in the back of the cab with all the other gear. “We’ll sort it out when we get home,” I said, somewhat breaking my rule of keeping a neat and tidy backseat. “Let’s go.”

We drove into Springdale and intended to eat breakfast at Oscar’s Cafe, apparently one of the best places in town, but unfortunately they weren’t serving breakfast. We talked to the owner, a cool guy who recommended we try a place called MeMe’s across the street. We thanked him and told him we’d be sure to visit Oscar’s the next time we found ourselves in Springdale. (And, Lord willing, there will be a next time.)

MeMe’s turned out to be an excellent recommendation. We each ordered a breakfast crêpe with hollandaise sauce drizzled on top, and man was it good! For those who like a hearty, fancy, French-infused breakfast and gourmet coffee, this is the place. (Neither of us are coffee-drinkers, so I can’t speak to how great the coffee was. The water was, though!)

Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park near Kanab, UT.

We said good-bye to Springdale, good-bye to Zion, and retraced our route to Highway 59 into Arizona. A couple hours later, we had driven completely around the large mass of rock that encapsulates Zion and the area around it, and found ourselves north of Kanab, UT on U.S. 89, looking for an entrance to Coral Pink Sand Dunes. The first one we came to was closed, but we drove on and found a second one further north, then drove many miles back south to actually get to the park.

“Someone was in the pod. The tracks go off in this direction.”

Coral Pink Sand Dunes is not a very big park, but it’s something to see. Due to the area’s geography, many grains of sand from the desert (remember, we are technically in a desert, even though there are trees and such) accumulate in this one place. The signs at the park explain how this works; I can’t remember it all, but I found the topographical views of the terrain and explanations of how the grains are moved fascinating.

Saltating sand. Bet you never learned about that in science class.

But, enough scientific stuff. We hiked out onto the sand and found ourselves again on Tatooine, or in a small Sahara. There weren’t too many other people out there, and it was incredibly quiet even despite the wind. We hiked up a dune, ran down (that was the easiest way to prevent our feet from sinking deep into the sand), and did it again. Daniel had me time him running to the top of a dune, and I think he misjudged how difficult it would be. For one thing, it was steep; for another, it required extra effort because sand moves and shifts when you stamp down on it with great force, like he was. If you want to get fit, start running up dunes.

“Yeah, runnin’ down a dune / I’ll be at the bottom soon” (alternate lyrics to Tom Petty’s classic)
All I can say about this picture is that I don’t remember who or what I was looking at. But I look pretty cool doing it, if I do say so myself.

After an hour or so, maybe even less (time becomes irrelevant in a desolate desert), we hiked back to Vader. It would have been more fun had we had some motorized vehicles with which to tear into the sand. Unfortunately, neither of us were old enough to rent them for a day (darn you, insurance!), so we merely talked about how great it would be to drive ATVs around in the sand. “Next time,” we said.

From there, we picked up Highway 9 again in the “town” of Mt. Carmel Junction and drove into Zion from the east side. This afforded a much different view of the park because, unlike the south entrance where you come in at the bottom of the canyon, the east entrance brings you in on top of everything, winding among the tall rocks.

Hiking underneath an overhang in Zion.

We drove through the two old, narrow tunnels for the heck of it before parking and hiking the Canyon Overlook Trail, our last one in Zion. It is accurately labeled as a moderate trail, and didn’t seem to take as long as we thought it would. At the end, we were treated to a breathtaking view down into the canyon, another different perspective on the park.

The terminus of the aptly-named Canyon Overlook Trail. Pictures do not do this view justice.

On the hike back, a fellow hiker pointed out a family of bighorn sheep on the rocks far above us. I pulled out my long-range camera lens and zoomed in to get some shots, then offered it to others so they could see the young sheep close-up.

A happy family outing on the rocks.

On the drive out of the park, we encountered something even better: bighorn sheep right alongside the road. We parked and Danger Dan jumped out with the camera to get all the best shots. And I would say that he did.

A young bighorn sheep. (Does that make it a littlehorn sheep?)
The thousand-dollar shot.

With one final stop for Daniel to play in the snow off the road, we left Zion for good and drove to Page, AZ for the night. We checked in at the Red Rock Inn, a wonderful, family-owned motel that more than exceeded our expectations: two separate rooms, each with a twin bed, for only $70. (I’m all about bang for my buck!) Our hostess provided us plenty of literature for things to do in and around Page; sadly, we would only be there overnight and wouldn’t have time to do much of anything. I didn’t realize there was as much to do there as there really is. Add this city to the list of places to return to!

Vader the truck parked outside the Red Rock Inn in Page, AZ.

We each showered—something we hadn’t done in five days—and, feeling cleaned up like cowboys might after many days on the trail, we moseyed on into town to rustle up some grub. We dined at the State 48 Tavern that night, a burger-and-beer kind of place that suited us just fine. We each ate the Cowboy Burger (because we’re cowboys, baby!—not really, but maybe), which more than sated us. Instead of drinking and hitting on the gals, we went back to our motel room and crashed for the night (because we’re Christian cowboys, baby!—yes, really, to that one).

American Southwest Bro-Trip, Part 5: Zion National Park

We checked in with the park ranger at the campsite and quickly found our spot, just near the entrance and a short walk from the restroom. Before setting up our tent, we looked around at the rock formations around us and marveled. “We get to camp here?!”

The little green Coleman. Just big enough—just.

We chose a (small) two-person Coleman tent that Daniel previously took to Big Bend National Park with some of his friends. On previous trips, we had used a Walrus tent that was at least twenty-five years old, and though it was a good tent, we found it was prone to leaking even after I resealed it. Since we expected rain and potentially snow during our stay, I decided we should use the newer, albeit smaller, tent that I hoped would keep us dry.

Our base station, complete with food and water.

After pitching the tent and positioning the truck to act as a wind block, we started on supper. We brought an abundance of canned goods, from soup to chowder to green beans to refried beans to spinach. I did most of the cooking, and my methodology was simple: open can, pour into pan, heat, and eat. Remember, I’m a Baker, not a Cook.

As evening approached and the air cooled down, we tried building a fire with some wood we brought from home. Daniel took charge and I gave tips as best I could, but we were unable to get a blaze going. I started bundling up in the cold evening air and thought of the Jack London short story “To Build a Fire”. Even the protagonist in that story had better success than we did! Did this bode ill for the rest of our trip?

Finally, dismayed but not distraught, we prepared for bed and quickly realized how small the tent was. There was enough room for each of us to lie stretched-out on either long end of the tent, and just enough room between us for our clothes bags. Otherwise, we were quite cramped.

Mule deer in our campsite.

That night was our first night sleeping in sub-freezing temperatures. We crawled into our mummy bags and zipped up. Daniel’s advice, since he’d done something similar in Big Bend, was to sleep in his day clothes. I’ll just say this: Don’t do that. Strip down completely, or do like I did and wear a base layer inside the mummy bag. You’ll stay much warmer and far more comfortable that way.

That first night’s sleep was rough. I slept like a rock, but also felt like I was sleeping on rocks. The old Therm-a-Rests we brought offered nil in the way of lower back support, and sleeping on the side wasn’t much better. I managed. Daniel didn’t.

At 5:30 AM the next morning, Daniel woke me up saying he had to go to the bathroom. I groaned as he climbed over me and outside to do his business. “Whoa!” he said in his half-wakened state as he exited the tent. “Look at the stars!”

I groggily leaned my head out of the tent and looked up. There were, indeed, innumerable stars in the early morning sky. We could even see part of the Milky Way.

So began our stay in Zion National Park. We camped four nights, three in the tent and one in my truck. The second night we decided to try truck-camping in the cab, since neither of us slept incredibly well the night before. It was warmer than the tent, for sure, but still not very comfortable. I think I slept a grand total of two hours that night; Daniel slept more like six because he’d been the one who slept two the night before.

Two hours of sleep on the Watchman Trail.

On our first morning in Zion, we woke up, made breakfast in the crisp, brisk morning air, and then geared up to go hiking. First, we visited the visitor’s center to grab maps and other park literature, as well as to speak to a ranger about trail conditions and recommended hikes. She steered us clear of the Archaeology Trail, the first trail we intended to hike, saying it was too easy and pretty boring. She also pointed us to some other nearby state parks we could check out during our four-day stay, and advised us on conditions on Angel’s Landing, which is possibly Zion’s most popular hike (for good reason, as you’ll soon see).

We were down there, once.

Our first hike was on the Watchman Trail, which wound up into the rocks overlooking the campgrounds and provided some great views of the valley and the town of Springdale to the south. It was not a hard hike, but did take about two hours to complete. The hardest part for us was having to gradually de-layer as we hiked; it was about forty-five Fahrenheit when we started and felt like sixty by the time we reached the overlook.

The view looking northwest.
The view looking southwest over the town of Springdale.

After completing the first hike, we decided to ride a shuttle bus around the park to see everything there was. This proved to be a good decision, because we learned quite a bit about the park from the pre-recorded narrations onboard the shuttle.

The waterfalls at the Lower Emerald Pools.

We stopped at Zion Lodge, which books up thirteen months in advance(!), too hike the Lower Emerald Pool trail, approximately one mile total, and paved the whole way. The trail keeps going, but due to winter weather and rockfall, the Upper Emerald Pool was off-limits. Still, Lower Emerald Pool was completely worth it.

We’re smiling because one of the prettiest girls in the world asked if we wanted our picture with the falls. Two of the handsomest guys in the world returned the favor a minute later.

We then decided to do the short Grotto Trail that walked along the bus route for about a mile from the Lodge at Stop #5 to Stop #6 [check numbers]. Daniel started getting bored during this hike, but that quickly changed once we saw two mule deer foraging just off the trail. I let him take the camera and get some close-ups, though I think the deer were a little annoyed because they showed him only their derrières.

Daniel and the deer. He’s a regular Jack Hanna.

We hopped back on the shuttle and rode the rest of the way around the park, stopping briefly at Stop #8, called Big Bend, to look around and take photos. We sat in the shadow of Angel’s Landing, looking up at the colossus that we intended to conquer the next day. As we snacked on trail mix, we heard a victorious whoop come from far above. “Someone made it to the top,” I said, explaining the trail to a couple from Pittsburgh nearby.

The Big Bend along the Zion shuttle road.

Angel’s Landing is a four-hour, five-mile trail with a fifteen-hundred-foot ascent. The first half involves climbing up a steep trail that switchbacks up the side of the rock; the second half consists primarily of scrabbling along the “backbone” of the rock formation holding on to heavy-duty chains. Seven people have fallen to their deaths since 2004. And once you get started on the last half, there aren’t too many places where you can decide to go back.

Daniel enjoying Chef Bubba’s gourmet meal after day one of adventuring.

So, the next morning, we grabbed our crampons, just in case, and boarded the shuttle for Angel’s Landing in spite of the severe weather warnings posted at the shuttle stop. Clouds covered the park and it did look a little foreboding, but we (and others) went ahead anyway.

The switchbacks at the first part of Angel’s Landing.

The hike up was indeed intense. For the first time, I felt winded at the higher elevation than I was used to. We stopped frequently to catch our breath and let the burning in our legs subside, but the easiest thing was to simply keep hiking on. Stopping too long, we felt like staying stagnant. We had to keep pressing on.

Looking down the Angel’s Landing trail, just before another switchback carried us up to the chains. We had to put the camera up for that part.

The second half, with the chains, was even more intense. In certain areas, there was only a foot or two between us and empty space, and a thousand-foot drop. It was the equivalent of a one-lane road in that we had to stop and coordinate climbing up with the folks that were climbing down; there were only so many chains to go around. It was also made worse by the wet sand, which caused many slips as our boots lost their grip and became caked with dirt. In many cases, I found it easiest to hold onto the chain and use my upper-body strength to propel myself forward and upward.

Two hours of sleep and still trucking!
The view from 1500 feet up. Note the shuttles on the road.

Finally, we reached the end of the trail, and were rewarded with one of the best views I’ve ever seen in my life. We stopped for at least a half hour just to take it all in, snack, and talk to fellow hikers.

She’s braver than I am.

We encountered a group of Texas A&M Aggies (not to be confused with the Utah State Aggies, whom we also saw plenty of), and they were in the process of “impressing” some midwesterners with their Texas accents. “Do you guys really speak like that?” one girl laughed. “Why, yes ma’am, we do,” an Aggie replied.

“Boy, I tell you hwhat, Bubba,” Daniel said to me in his Big Tex impersonation. That elicited laughter from some other folks nearby.

Achievement unlocked: Angel’s Landing.

After taking pictures, having other people take our picture, and taking pictures of other people, we descended Angel’s Landing. In my opinion, the descent with chains was far tougher than the ascent. With gravity propelling your body forward, it’s tough to maintain your balance, and one misstep could send you dangerously close to the edge. Nevertheless, we made it, and lived to tell the tale.

The red rocks looking towards The Narrows Trail, which we did not hike due to extremely cold water.

Exhausted in a good way, we climbed back onto the shuttle to ride to our campsite. Behind us sat a family speaking in German. Daniel elbowed me: “You should say something to them in German.” So, I turned around, smiled, and did: “Kommen Sie aus Deutschland?” Do you come from Germany?

Their faces lit up and we began a conversation in a mix of German and English, before eventually defaulting to English (because Germans like to practice their English when traveling in English-speaking countries). They were taking an extended family vacation around the world, which was culminating in some RV-ing across the American Southwest. We told them we were from Texas and then learned that one of the ladies lived in San Antonio for a while during an internship in college, and she loved Texas. We talked about the differences in culture, travel, and work between our two countries and concluded that white-collar Germans have it better than we white-collar Americans do: Over a month of paid vacation every year, often with the ability to take more with job security. Man.

Clouds rolling in on us in the late afternoon. Storm’s a-comin’.

After hiking Angel’s Landing, we were tired and famished. We knew that sleeping in the truck again was not a good option, and we needed to do something to make sleeping in the tent more comfortable. We drove into Springdale and hit up one of the sporting goods stores for new Therm-a-Rests, which promised comfort and insulation for only $50 apiece. We then stopped at Sol Foods and bought a six-pack of Uinta Golden Spike to reward ourselves for conquering Angel’s Landing, and some real firewood, before heading back to our campsite.

I prepared dinner while Daniel got the fire roaring. We planned to eat, then sip beers and make s’mores. As we finished eating supper, we saw the German lady, Julia, we met on the shuttle walking with her young son. She waved and came over, then told us that her son, Jahale (whose name I hope I spelled correctly—pronounced ya-ha-la, Nordic in origin), wanted to help us build a fire. We gave him some small sticks and helped him throw them on the blaze. I asked him in German if he wanted some s’mores, but Julia told us that he didn’t like marshmallows. He then looked at his mother in surprise: “Mama, sie sprechen Deutsch?” Yes, she told him, they do speak German.

A campfire I dub “the Pard special,” even though I had a lot of input in architecting the thing.

Jahale was one of the cutest, most well-behaved three-year-olds I’d ever seen. He had light blond hair, blue eyes, and high German cheekbones. He stood safely away from the fire and was very careful when pitching sticks into the blaze. He noticed me and Daniel standing with our hands in our jean pockets (as Texans do), and he wanted to stand with his hands in his pockets, too—so Julia showed him how. I told Julia he’d be walking with a little cowboy swagger if he hung around us too long. When she told him it was time to go, he didn’t want to, and insisted on staying. “Bis fünf Minuten?” Julia asked him. Five more minutes? “Nein!” he replied in his high-pitched voice, wearing a contagious smile. “Bis hundert!” One hundred minutes!

Finally, he did get tired and wanted to go back to their RV. We wished them a good night and safe travels—they were heading down to the Grand Canyon, then on to Las Vegas—and hoped we’d see them later on. The fire was reduced to ashes by this point, and the air began to get chillier. We still hadn’t popped open the beer. “We’ll drink ’em tomorrow,” I told Daniel. “I’m ready to bed down for the night.” He agreed. We put the last of the cookware away and hit the hay. Nothing like delayed gratification.

Lying on the new Therm-a-Rest, I could already tell that it was going to be a much better night’s sleep. I replayed the hike of Angel’s Landing and the other events of the day before drifting into dreamland, only occasionally interrupted by the wind and rain that battered our tent as I stayed snug inside the mummy bag.

American Southwest Bro-Trip, Part 4: Time Travel, Dam Tourists, and Zion

At some point Sunday morning, as we dozed comfortably in our motel room at Goulding’s, we lost an hour to Daylight Savings Time. I had accounted for this by keeping us on Central Standard Time, so the lost hour would be a wash. That meant my watch was finally accurate for Mountain Daylight Time, and I didn’t have to keep subtracting an hour to figure out what time it really was.

Let’s talk a moment about time, relativity, and how Daylight Savings Time really screws things up. Traveling one time zone west when DST begins isn’t a big deal. People who stay in their time zone, however, lose an hour of sleep and have to get used to the sun rising and setting a whole hour later. We get that hour back later in the year, when most people either take advantage of an extra hour of sleep or an opportunity to watch a couple more episodes of The Office for the umpteenth time. Unfortunately, then people have to get used to an earlier sunrise and an evening that gets darker much earlier.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the state of Arizona does not observe DST. That’s right—the state is more or less in Mountain Standard during five months of the year and in Pacific Daylight the other seven.

And as if that weren’t bad enough, the Navajo Nation does observe DST. That means that, if you’re in the state of Arizona, but you’re within the Navajo Nation, you’re in DST.

Confused yet?

Fortunately for us, this timey-wimey stuff didn’t throw us off too much or impact us too significantly. We woke up when we intended to and headed to the restaurant at Goulding’s for a continental breakfast: pancakes, eggs, sausage and bacon, fruit, and grits. I ordered us a side of frybread, a traditional Navajo dish, for the sake of trying something more cultural. (It tasted a lot like a funnel cake to me.)

We watched as the sun slowly rose over the eastern horizon, getting our first views of the monuments before us. They were purely incredible.

That’s what I call a monumental view.

Our plan for the day was to do a driving tour through Monument Valley and then drive to Zion National Park immediately after. Like Canyon de Chelly, Monument Valley is on tribal land and therefore belongs to the Navajo people. Also like Canyon de Chelly, Monument Valley requires (rather expensive) tour guides for certain areas, but the self-guided driving tour costs only $20 per vehicle.

We crossed back into Arizona (but not into a different time zone) and rolled up to the ticket booth. An older, stoic Navajo man in sunglasses and a ball cap sat in the booth and was listening to Pink Floyd’s “Have a Cigar”. I nodded my head in agreement with his music choice as he took our money, handed us a map, and told us not to leave the marked trail. We thanked him and drove in.

The self-guided route through Monument Valley. Use four-wheel drive in wet or muddy conditions.

For $20, the self-guided trail is worth every penny. The road is unpaved, so it’s best to have a higher-clearance vehicle, or at least not a low-clearance one, and four-wheel drive is a must if it’s rained. I only engaged 4WD High for one brief ascent over some slick rock, but I probably didn’t even need to there. (We saw people driving the trail in all manner of sedans and crossovers that were likely not even all-wheel drive.)

The views are spectacular. The trail winds through the monuments and provides ample photo opportunities. Seeing the monuments from different angles is really incredible, too. This is what a lot of people think of when they think of the American West—John Wayne riding a horse through the towering formations. And for good reason: Monument Valley has been the site for dozens, if not hundreds, of movies. (Side note: Goulding’s does offer a “John Wayne” tour of the valley, but it is an all-day affair and costs a little money. If you’re a fan of The Duke, though, it might be worth it.)

Daniel contemplates the sand dunes, wishing he could hike out to them.

We drove up to Artists’ Point, part of the trail where native artists sell their wares. A lone, elderly Navajo woman sat bundled in a blanket at a table with jewelry before her. We got out of the truck to take pictures of the view and wished her good morning.

A few minutes later, a white Chevy drove up and a middle-aged man got out. His name was Preston, and we learned that he had driven up to the point that morning to visit the woman, his mother. We introduced ourselves and told him where we were from, and then he proceeded to tell us more about Monument Valley and the Navajo way of life.

“See that metal tank down there?” he asked, pointing at a shiny object out in the distance. “I used to live there. Used to run to the road up there to catch the bus to go to school in the morning, then run back home in the evening.” He pointed farther off to the right. “Now I live out there.”

Blue Mountain as viewed through my long-range lens, at least seventy miles away as the crow files.

“See that mountain out there?” We nodded; Daniel had been wondering what mountain it was all morning. “That’s Blue Mountain. That’s up near Moab.”

He then explained some of the monuments and their names to us. “See that one over there? That’s a sleeping man—there’s his head at the left end, his feet at the right end, and his big belly in the middle!” We could see it—but we wouldn’t have without him pointing it out to us, just like with the other monuments.

After a bit more conversation, we bid Preston and his mother farewell, then hopped back into the truck and wrapped up our driving tour. It was another person we met, another interaction, that made the trip special.

Before hitting the road, we stopped to use the bathroom at The View, a resort inside the park with a view (go figure) of Monument Valley beyond. While there, we met a young Italian couple trying to take a selfie of themselves with a GoPro. This younger couple did speak English, so I offered to take their photo. Daniel pulled out his extraordinarily fake Texas accent when they asked where we were from, as if that would somehow impress them. Maybe it did, I don’t know. All I know is that they laughed. I think they thought it was funny, probably because he sounded like Joe Don Baker’s character from Tomorrow Never Dies.

I let Daniel take the reins as we drove out of Monument Valley back through Kayenta, and then picked up Arizona 98 towards Page. The route to Page is another example of how roads have to be built around the terrain in this part of the country, taking you way out of the way in order to get where you need to go. We did pass some interesting stuff to make the ride interesting, including what appeared to be an abandoned electric train and a granary of some kind with a chute that shot over the highway.

Me with Navajo Mountain in the background.

The landscape started changing again as we approached Page: fewer plants and rocks that showed greater signs of water erosion. We drove past tours in Antelope Canyon, one of the largest tourist attractions for the area. I had debated us taking a tour, but since we were trying to keep to our schedule and keep costs down (yeah, I know, nothing like road-tripping in a gas-guzzling truck!), we decided against it.

We stopped for gas at a Shell station just within the city limits. Still no cell service, and I had no idea what time zone we were supposed to be in because I didn’t know whether we were still on tribal land or not. Instead of a hidden bathroom, this gas station didn’t even have one: It was under construction, so port-a-potties sat outside instead. I won’t go into that experience, but I laughed at some of the funniest bathroom wall writing I’ve ever seen. Something written in Japanese was posted inside (don’t ask me why) and below that someone had written, “Oh no, Godzilla!”

The only thing wrong with this shot is that Daniel didn’t bring his desert camo.

We stopped to view the Glen Canyon Dam from a scenic overlook, then hiked out on the rocks to get even closer. I’d never seen any landscape quite like this: no flora around, just red rocks. It felt like a different planet.

Daniel was (morbidly!) curious about how far down the bottom was.

We drove up to the dam, parked and walked across the bridge to get a good look up close, and then drove across and over into Utah, where I could finally be certain what time zone we were in. Shortly thereafter, we entered The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which I later learned is not only some of the most remote land in the continental U.S., but the last to be mapped as well. If only we’d had more time to stop and explore, but I guess that’s what the next trip is for…

The promised land?

My phone buzzed. So did Daniel’s. “Service!” he declared, and immediately began updating his Instagram, or Snapchat, or whatever the heck he uses.

I, trying to be the good son, called Mom and assured her that we were still alive. We talked for a bit before we lost service again in a more mountainous area, but we knew we’d pick it up again before too long.

You can’t exactly blast through this to build a road, so you have to build the road around.

Due to winter weather, the east entrance into Zion via State Highway 9 was closed, so we had to take a more indirect, circuitous route south from Kanab into Fredonia, AZ, and then back up towards Hurricane. Daniel nodded off and I pressed on behind a city truck from Cortez, CO. The sky was overcast, the road was smooth, and all was well.

I soon saw signs indicating a steep descent, and suddenly I was driving a switchback downhill overlooking the town of Hurricane, with a snow-capped peak in the distance. It was gorgeous. I woke Daniel up with an elbow and he gasped at the sight.

Winding roads, steep grades, fallen rocks… what’s not to like?

We continued our drive through the quaint little towns of Hurricane, La Verkin, and Rockville—oohing and aahing the whole way—until we arrived in Springdale, the town just outside Zion. Springdale serves tourists, no doubt about it; it has a unique small-town charm and a certain hipster vibe—but in a good way.

At the park entrance, I pulled up behind a guy in a Dodge truck with Nevada plates and we sat, waiting, for five minutes while he discoursed with the ranger at the fee booth. Meanwhile, cars in the other lane breezed through. Finally, we pulled up and I produced my credit card. “I’ve got a reservation, I just need a weekly pass,” I said.

The park ranger smiled and rang me up. “Thanks, buddy. You were easy to deal with,” he said, handing my card back. “The guy in front of you was a real hardball. You guys go have a great time, you hear?”

“Yes, sir!” We intended to obey those instructions.

American Southwest Bro-Trip, Part 3: Open Roads and No Coverage

Driver Dan, looking ready for a pizza and hot wings.

We slept really well at the Best Western in Santa Rosa. We woke up the next morning, bright and early, and walked to the lobby for the complimentary breakfast. At 6 A.M. MST, the sun was already peaking over the horizon. Daniel commented on how calm and quiet the desert was, even in a town.

We helped ourselves to the bounteous, delicious breakfast as we watched the local news and people-watched other travelers. An older man with a thick Texas accent and a booming voice came into the lobby and asked the staff, “Do y’all know the road conditions going up to Pagosa? I’m trying to get to Pagosa and I don’t know what the road conditions are.”

“No, sir, but we can check for you,” said the man at the counter.

“Naw, that’s all right, I can do that myself. I’s just wonderin’ if you knew.”

He then grabbed a plate and loaded it up with breakfast items. Daniel was retrieving some sausage and eggs at the time, and the gentleman came up behind him. “Oh, excuse me,” Daniel said.

“Naw, don’t worry, bubba, I’s just goin’ to tell ya to leave the lid up for me, I’m right behind ya!” he declared to the whole room.

“Oh, well, there you go!” Daniel said as he stepped away.

“Thanks, pard!” The man placed some eggs on the plate and then left as Daniel returned to our table and we chuckled. He was evidently from far west Texas.

A minute later, he came back. “I got this food for my wife; she’s still in bed. She might appreciate a fork!” I think everyone in the lobby cracked up.

After we finished breakfast, we walked back to our motel room to pack our last things and then hit the road. We saw our cowboy friend again, but this time he was walking a little brown terrier and talking on the phone. “Yeah, I’m just out here in Santa Rosa, walking Bear!” he hollered. “I just got breakfast for Lori; she’s still in bed!”

A few minutes later, as we were loading the truck, I heard his voice again. “Bear! Come here, Bear!” I guess Bear decided to go for a morning run.

From that point on, we joked about the funny west Texas man throughout the trip. Daniel even called me “bubba” for the whole trip and I called him “pard.” And there were more than a few cases when Daniel faked a Big Tex accent when talking to strangers just to see what their reactions would be.

It just goes to show that the things you do on trips are fun, but oftentimes it’s the people you meet who make travel even more memorable. We would meet a whole cast of interesting characters during our journey.

On the road again, we drove to Albuquerque, still with a high wind blowing straight into us. We decided to stop at a Wal-Mart there so Daniel could buy himself a real water bottle to replace the one he left behind. Also, I had read online (and made the mistake of mentioning to Daniel) that the house used in the TV show Breaking Bad was located in an Albuquerque neighborhood. Daniel, a fan of the show, got very excited and said we had to see it. So we did.

Daniel standing in front of Walter White’s house. No, we didn’t buy any blue meth to take home (or take, period).

We bought the bottle at Wal-Mart after taking a bathroom break, then drove to the Walter White house. Since the show was filmed, the owners have erected a fence around the property, installed security cameras, and placed a sign out front indicating that “visitors” should take their photos from across the street and not disturb them. The house also has a new roof since, apparently, previous “visitors” threw pizzas onto the old one. (It’s a scene from the show, which I haven’t seen.)

One of many BNSF trains we passed along I-40.

After I took several photos of Daniel in front of the house (all from across the street, as the owners requested), I let him drive Vader for the first time on the trip. I navigated him back onto I-40 and we continued west to gas up in Gallup. The terrain is very interesting along this stretch of highway, and makes the BNSF trains look very small in comparison. Otherwise, there’s not much to see or do, so we kept listening to Daniel’s playlist of 70s and 80s hits while rolling on. We crossed the Continental Divide to Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” which, if you haven’t heard it before, you need to listen to immediately after reading this.

Mount Taylor as viewed from I-40.

In Gallup, I gassed up the truck while Daniel went into the station to use the restroom. He couldn’t find the men’s room, so he grumbled his way over to the nearby Panda Express to do his business. I, having finished topping off the tank, walked into the gas station and asked the attendant if there was a men’s room. He handed me a piece of wood with a key attached and said it was on the side of the building, outside. I thanked him and used the secret bathroom that Daniel didn’t bother to ask about. (Though I will say that the bathroom in the Panda Express was probably better.)

With a full tank and empty bladders, I took the wheel and we drove north on U.S. 391, known as the Devil’s Highway because it used to be numbered U.S. 666. The reassuring part was that we’d only be on the Devil’s Highway for a short distance, as our route took us along New Mexico 264 into Arizona. I suggested we listen to “The Number of the Beast” by Iron Maiden during our short stint on this highway some thought to be cursed, but Daniel instead put on some Hall and Oates. Whatever.

We crossed into Arizona in the town of Window Rock and almost immediately the terrain changed again. It’s interesting to me how one can cross state lines and the geography changes so fast. It’s hard to explain how it changes; it just does. I could already tells that the Arizona desert, or badlands, looked different than those of New Mexico.

We also were officially in the Navajo Reservation, a sovereign nation within the United States. The land is owned by the Navajo tribe collectively and not by individuals. And it certainly did feel like we were in a different country.

For one, most of the vehicles on the road were older trucks. We saw many Navajo men shouldering packs and walking alongside the road. As we traveled, we’d encounter numerous hitchhikers. I can only assume that it’s a common occurrence on the Navajo land, and that it’s a courtesy for one man to give a ride to another. Even if we did want to help someone out (we didn’t), we didn’t have room in our packed-out half-ton.

We also noticed the more, shall we say, rustic way in which many of the people lived. Houses looked dilapidated. In fact, lots of things looked dilapidated on the Navajo land. Stray dogs and horses roamed about the desert land that was every man’s but no man’s.

The land itself though was beautiful.

Blue skies and open roads stretching as far as the eye can see. This is what road trips are all about.

We drove through the Navajo National Forest, reaching an elevation of 6,000 feet with snow on the ground on either side of us. We then descended significantly into a broad desert plain, with mesas stretching out all around us. I wished I were on a motorcycle, or driving a convertible. These were the quintessential American roads, and the scenery quintessential American West!

Oh, and we lost cell service the minute we crossed into Arizona and, thus, Navajo territory. More on that later.

Canyon de Chelly as viewed from the canyon rim.

We again headed north on U.S. 191 to the Canyon de Chelly National Monument near Chinle, AZ. The national monument is on Navajo land and therefore most of the hikes and trails require a Navajo guide, and a guide costs money. There is, however, one trail that is unguided, and therefore free: The White House Ruins trail. We gathered some information from the visitor center and then prepared for a hike to break up the driving.

As I waited for Daniel to finish up in the restroom, a whole fleet of Suburbans and Tahoes pulled into the parking lot. At first I thought some dignitary might be visiting—why else would these many vehicles roll in at once?

And then they parked, and then they got out. Italians, dozens of them.

The couples had evidently rented SUVs for an American West trip not too unlike our own. From the magnetic signs they had affixed to the vehicle doors, it appeared that they were either starting or ending in Las Vegas. They looked to be mostly couples, late thirties and up. They stood around and took pictures and chatted quickly amongst themselves.

I tried to strike up conversation with a man nearby. “Where are you from?” I asked, playing ignorant but trying to be pleasant.

He looked at me blankly for a few seconds. “Non capisco,” he said. I don’t understand.

I smiled and waved. “Well, have a good day then!” I said, even though he wouldn’t understand that either. I hoped he understood the intention behind it, at least.

The White House Ruins from above…

Daniel and I started The White House Ruins hike after refilling our water bottles and grabbing some snacks. It would be about two hours total, and consisted of a six-hundred-foot descent into the canyon and then an ascent back up to the canyon rim. The main fixture of the trail is a small cluster of ancient homes, white houses, built in the recess of the canyon wall. Unlike Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, and maybe other similar places, you cannot go up to these ruins and walk through them. They are fenced off, but you can admire them from a distance, as we did.

…and from below. Note the pictographs of what appear to be a man and a bird just to the right of center.

As we approached the ruins, an elderly couple advised us to use my long-range lens to view the pictographs on the canyon wall up close. As we switched out the lenses, a young Navajo (sales)man named Wilbert stopped us to explain his history, the history of his people, and the meanings of the different pictographs. He also explained that the different between a pictograph and a petroglyph is that a pictograph is painted on the rock (in this case, using a mixture of egg white, animal urine, and other ingredients) while a petroglyph is carved into the rock. He showed us this with the facsimile carvings he had made into sandstone, which he had on display in front of us.

“Wow, that’s some really great artwork,” I said.

“Thanks,” he said. “It’s my craft. It’s my art. It’s how I express myself, you know?”

“Yeah,” I said, a fellow artist. Knowing where the conversation was going, I took the initiative. “I take it you sell these?”

“Oh, yeah, you know, I sell these,” he said. Fresh meat.

“How much?” I pointed at one with the white houses and the glyphs carved into it.

“I usually sell this one for thirty.”

I looked at Daniel. “You want one?”

“Sure,” he said, reaching for his wallet.

He had two rocks with the white houses carved into them side-by-side. “How about those two for forty?” I said.

“Yeah, I can do that,” he said. He wrapped both pieces in newspaper and handed them to us as we passed him two twenties. “Thanks.”

“Thank you, Wilbert,” I said. “We appreciate you telling us more about the graphs and your people’s heritage.”

He wished us well, threw the remaining rocks into his backpack, and walked off to his home, somewhere in or on the canyon. I felt like Daniel and I each got a good deal—our first souvenirs for the trip—and Wilbert walked away with forty bucks he didn’t have that morning. Forty dollars for selling carved stones probably isn’t a bad way to make a living for someone in his way of life.

An ancient footprint in the rock?

We took pictures of the houses and rocks and then hiked back up the trail, some of the last people around as the sun began to drop lower to the west. We still had quite a bit of distance to cover before we reached our destination for the night: Goulding’s Lodge in Monument Valley.

One of many behemoths that dotted the landscape.

Daniel fired up Vader the truck and we hit the road again. We passed lots of buttes, mesas, and other amazing (and strange) rock formations, wondering how they came to be the way they are. We also passed plenty of Navajo homesteads, some nestled beneath or into the rocks, others with grand views of the giants in their backyards. It is indeed a different country.

Our first Arizona sunset.

One thing about driving in the west is that routes are indirect by virtue. It’s impossible, or at least doggone expensive, to build roads over the incredible landscape that forms this part of America, so the roads wind around these amazing feats of nature for miles. Somewhere along the way to Kayenta, we got on the wrong road and wound up traveling much farther north than we intended to and had to double back southwest.

As the sun set, we decided to stop at the Pizza Wave restaurant in Kayenta, right next to the local Ace Hardware. Famished from the hike, Daniel wanted a large pizza and wings. We split the cost, and ate most of the king-sized pizza and twenty wings (ten mild for me, ten hot for him) alone in the back of the restaurant. (I’d managed to bust a plastic cup trying to put a lid on it, and spilled water everywhere. I figured we’d better just stay out of the way after that incident.)

And we still had no cell service.

As a habit, one of us tried to ping Mom and Dad every few hours just to let them know where we were. We’d been out of range all afternoon, and I kept thinking, “Maybe we’ll get service when we reach this place,” or “Maybe we’ll get service when we reach this town.” No such luck.

Green skies at night.

I let Daniel grab to-go boxes for the remaining food and I drove us the last twenty minutes or so to Monument Valley in the dark. It was only 7:30 P.M., but I was still apprehensive about driving on a lonely, two-lane desert highway. I just turned on my high beams and kept my speed reasonable.

We crossed into Utah for the first time and then took a left off U.S. 163 to get to Goulding’s Lodge. As we approached, Daniel leaned forward to look up. “Matthew, is that a cloud?”

I looked ahead of us in the darkness. “That’s no cloud—that’s a rock.”

Looming right ahead and above us in the parking lot was a towering butte, and Goulding’s is nestled right underneath it. Daniel freaked out in excitement. “Oh, man, that’s so scary!” (I don’t think he thought it was scary; I think he just didn’t know what to say when confronted with such a big hunk of rock.)

I parked in the wrong place, but we managed to find the lobby and walked inside to check in. “What’s the last name for the reservation?” the lady at the front asked.

“Baker,” I said.

Matthew Baker?” the other lady at the front asked.

I was a bit surprised. “That’s me.”

“I just got off the phone with your mom!”

Oh boy.

Apparently, Mom had been fairly worried about us since we hadn’t been able to communicate with her all afternoon. She called the lodge to see if I’d checked in, and they had just got off the phone with her.

“I’ll call her once we get to our room,” I assured the ladies at the front. “Thanks for letting me know.”

I didn’t even stop to take in the furnishings of our room; I went straight to the phone, not knowing what to expect. I dialed her number. I listened to the phone ring.

I heard her pick it up.

“Where have you been?”

Oh boy.

Come to find out, she’d called police departments all along our route through the Navajo Reservation and even had the Arizona State Patrol on the lookout. She was reassured by the fact that they checked local hospitals for patients and we weren’t among them. But we were still MIA as far as she was concerned.

Also come to find out, there are only certain cell providers that have coverage in that part of Arizona and Utah. The things you learn.

I did my best to reassure her and to thank her for her concern, and then asked her to call off the cavalry. We’d do our best to communicate with her tomorrow, I said. I figured we’d have service when we made it to Page, AZ—at least I hoped we would.

Next time, I’ll just ask to use a gas station phone.

With that taken care of, we were both pretty tired. The motel room at Goulding’s was plain but well-furnished, and comfortable. We had a balcony looking out towards Monument Valley, and were assured that we would have a beautiful view of the monuments come sunrise.

We were too tired to do much else but shower and hit the hay. I kept thinking about Mom and her concern for us, how blessed we are to have a mother who cares about our safety on the road. I mean that in all seriousness. Maybe next time she wouldn’t have to alert local law enforcement, though.

I did feel a tinge of homesickness as I realized that Daniel and I, two brothers on a spring break trip, were the outliers at a place like Goulding’s. Middle-aged adults and retirees flocked to places like this, and here we were, two college dudes showing up to lower the median age. This was the kind of place Mom and Dad would love to stay, and I felt a sense of something—not guilt, but similar—that we were enjoying something that most people our age would never enjoy, and certainly would never appreciate, until they were thirty years down the road. Even then, I’m not sure if they’d enjoy or appreciate it. Heck, we hadn’t even seen the monuments in the daylight yet!

With those thoughts running through my mind, I slowly drifted off to sleep after a long and eventful day, a little warm, but not too hot in the motel room at Goulding’s Lodge, with a sleeping, ancient giant watching over me.