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.

American Southwest Bro-Trip, Part 2: Day 1

He who must travel happily must travel light.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Friday, March 8, 2019: 10:37 AM

We closed the doors of Vader the truck for the final time as we sat in the driveway. I turned the key and the twin-turbocharged V6 roared to life, accompanied by the usual dinging: Fasten your seatbelts. I checked the load of gear piled up in the extended cab behind me. It looked stable enough, and I had decent visibility. We buckled in, I shifted to Drive, and we turned out of the driveway and onto the open road.

We got to the intersection with the main road and I realized I forgot my cold-weather coat.

After a u-turn, a dash into the house, and a final last good-bye to Dad, we strapped in and pulled out again, and this time, we didn’t come back.

Then, as we navigated the snaking highways of downtown Fort Worth with Eddie Money’s “Gimme Some Water” playing through the stereo, Daniel realized he forgot his water bottle. How ironic.


I woke up around 6:00 AM that morning and immediately got to work packing the final things on my list: toothbrush, toothpaste, pillow (I almost always travel with my own), and the like. Daniel woke up around the same time, ate breakfast, and went to school to take that exam that his crazy professor moved forward from after spring break.

Dad, operating at Mom’s behest, bought a us all a second breakfast from Chick-fil-A to eat before we left. I must say that trip planning and packing and loading do sap one’s energy, so I was more than happy to eat on a hobbit meal plan. We devoured the chicken minis and then saddled up.

Which brings us back to the Fort Worth traffic and Daniel forgetting his water bottle. Of all the things we brought, all the gear piled high in the extended cab and all the other camping gear and food in the truck bed, he had forgotten his water bottle. I wondered what else he might have forgotten.

We would find out before too long.


Our plan for Day 1 was to drive from DFW to Santa Rosa, NM, and spend the night at the Best Western Santa Rosa Inn. The original plan was to drive all the way to Albuquerque on Day 1, but due to our delayed departure from Daniel’s unexpected exam we had to shore things up a bit. Since Daniel had been up well after midnight studying for said exam and only had about four hours of sleep, I decided I would do all the driving on this first day and let him rest.

It’s hard to rest when you’re excited about a trip, though. We talked a lot and listened to his special trip playlist. The first song as we pulled out was “Hammer to Fall” by Queen, followed by “I Can’t Drive 55” as we hit the highway and proceeded to hit 75. Following that were some deep cuts from Eddie Money, such as the aforementioned “Gimme Some Water”, which I abused so much by singing at Daniel over the trip that I don’t think he’ll ever want to listen to it again.

Our first stop was the Love’s in Wichita Falls, just two hours down the road. We took this opportunity to empty our bladders and get Daniel some water (partly so he could quench his thirst and partly so I would stop repeating the “Gimme Some Water” refrain). On the way into the city we spotted our first international license plate: Quebec.

After a quick stop, we got back on the road and pressed on to Amarillo, where we planned to eat dinner. The drive from Wichita Falls to Amarillo is not a very exciting one, unless you count State Troopers pulling out to pull over speeding motorists exciting.

Daniel switched his playlist up and I was treated to–ugh–Ween. He mixed it up by throwing in some Mike Posner, but neither did much for me. Posner has some interesting arrangements, but Ween is just kind of weird and hard to take seriously. I will give them props for touching on so many different genres: One minute they sound like Motörhead, the next they sound like Stone Temple Pilots, and then after that they’re drawing influences from Ennio Morricone.

Around Childress, Daniel fell asleep. That enabled me to put on some music I wanted to listen to, namely Rush. I drove us onward as the dystopian-themed Grace Under Pressure album played at low volume, grooving to Geddy’s Steinberger bass lines and occasionally air-drumming (with one hand on the wheel!) to Neil’s fills.

As we neared Amarillo, Daniel woke up and I told him to find a place to eat, preferably somewhere right off the highway. We’d seen signs for The Big Texan Steak Ranch along the road for many miles, and I asked if he’d like to try it out. He agreed, so we set our course for an early steak dinner.

For those who don’t know, the unique thing about The Big Texan is its Texas King steak challenge. If you can eat a 72 oz. steak with sides and a salad within an hour, your meal is free. Like they say, everything’s bigger (and better) in Texas.

Neither of us were that hungry, but steak sounded good, so we whipped into the parking lot and sat down in the lodge-themed dining area underneath the mounted heads of bucks, bulls, and bears. We came in just before 4:00 PM, which meant that we could still order from the (cheaper) lunch menu. Talk about great timing! We each settled on a 9 oz. ribeye, me with a baked potato and green beans for sides, and Daniel with fried okra and, if I remember correctly, steak fries. We admired the taxidermal wonders around us and watched as a man sat at a table on a stage and attempted to devour The King Steak while waiting on our own steaks.

And what great steaks they were! Cooked medium, juicy and flavorful, chewy and succulent. My potato and beans were delicious, too. They even brought a jalapeño for each of us. I took a bite of mine and said, “This isn’t too bad!” I ate it easily.

Daniel, the guy who tries spicy peppers, took a bite of his and couldn’t handle the heat. “Do you want mine?” he asked. I thought he was wimping out on me.

He wasn’t. I took a bite and instantly regretted it. My sinuses started running, my eyes teared up, and my face flushed. I couldn’t drink enough water. It was that bad. Daniel laughed as I languished. And yes, I was too manly to ask for some milk.

After the jalapeño fiasco, we paid and hit the road again, pressing on all the way to Santa Rosa. We topped off the tank before we left Amarillo listening to “Amarillo by Morning” by George Strait (to whom I argued we should listen because, heck, we were in Texas!). I let George serenade us all the way to the New Mexican border as we drove past cattle, ranches, and wind turbines.

The landscape took a stark change as we approached the New Mexico. The ranches disappeared and suddenly there was rock and scrub brush on both sides of I-40. I noted that the wind started picking up, too. A few minutes later, we crossed into “The Land of Enchantment” and watched the sun set ahead of us.

It was the most unusual sunset I think either of us have ever seen. We indeed saw the sun for the first time all day, blazing directly in front of us and low on the horizon. Maybe it was the clouds, or the wind, or some other weather phenomenon, but the sky was colored all colors of the rainbow: purple on our left, orange and yellow in front, and even green on our right. I’d never seen a green sky before.

And the wind was intense. Daniel’s phone warned of wind gusts up to 60 miles per hour, I think. I slowed my speed a bit as I watched my gas mileage tumble on the truck’s trip computer. Driving Vader into the wind was like trying to slice cold butter with the rounded part of a spoon.

The sun fell below the horizon and left us on the dark desert highway, along with everyone else trying to reach Tucumcari, Santa Rosa, or Albuquerque at a reasonable hour. The miles went by fast even at a slower speed, and before we knew it we were in Santa Rosa, pulling into the Best Western off old Route 66.

It was our first time staying in a motel, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. The lobby was clean and inviting. I checked in and drove around to our motel room, where we unloaded only the necessities for one night. Our motel room was fantastic, too: two queen beds, two sinks, and immaculate. And if we needed anything from Vader, he was parked right outside!

We settled in, which didn’t take long, and unwound. Daniel fired up the TV and watched basketball; I grabbed one of the books I’d brought with me, Armada by Ernest Cline, and read a few chapters while munching on a bagel topped with peanut butter and honey. Good stuff.

We showered and hit the hay early, because even though we’d gained an hour when we crossed into Mountain Time at the New Mexico border, we would lose that hour the next night due to Daylight Saving’s Time. We would soon find that time was relative, as Einstein might say, not only based on which state we were in but which part of which state we were in. I found it easiest to just assume we were already on Mountain Daylight Time and deal with any time-related issues later.

“Oh, dang it.” Daniel interrupted my thoughts as I finished up my journal entry for the day. “I brought the wrong pillow!”

Par for the course.

And, if you were wondering why there aren’t any pictures from this part of the trip, that’s because we switched out memory cards in my camera and the one from the first part of the trip has gone AWOL. I hope it’s somewhere in the truck, but I’ve yet to find it. For all I know it may have been found by housekeeping in the motel room. If so, I hope they enjoy pictures of US-287 and whatever else is on it!

Bro-Trip Report: Zion National Park and the American Southwest

The view from the top of Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park. Very strenuous, 4 miles long, and an elevation change to 1,500 feet, but completely worth it!

With spring break around the corner and no plans, Daniel and I put our heads together. Where could we go that would be exciting, affordable, and something that we’d never done before?

The beach was an option, but everyone does that over spring break. So was skiing, but that’s expensive.

Looking at the map and using my rudimentary knowledge of the American West and National Parks, I put together an itinerary and proposed a trip.

With approximately a week and a day to work with, I determined that we could drive to Zion National Park (near Springdale, UT), camp there, and use that as a base from which to explore the park and the surrounding area. Both on the way there and coming back we would be able to stop and do things along the way to break up long stretches of driving.

I ran the plan by Dan the Man, and he liked it. We would spend spring break in the American Southwest, specifically in Zion National Park.

Daniel enjoying a dinner of beef ravioli, green beans, and Ritz crackers in the South Campground.

It would be a trip unlike any we’d ever done before. We’d be camping five nights in Zion, cooking our own meals every morning and evening, and over a thousand miles away from our family, or really anyone who could help us if something went awry.

Initially, the plan was to drive about eight hours a day to get to Zion and camp every night during the whole trip to save money. Mom and Dad (thankfully) steered us away from that option due to the sheer amount of time and effort required to set up and break camp. It would quickly get old. Instead, we opted to stay at motels and AirBNBs along the way, and set up camp only once when we arrived in Zion.

We left DFW on Friday the 8th and drove to Santa Rosa, NM, and then from Santa Rosa to Monument Valley, UT on the 9th. On the 10th, we drove to Zion, and then stayed there through the morning of the 14th. From there, we started back home, stopping overnight in Page, AZ and then in Albuquerque, NM. We arrived back home on Saturday the 16th.

Sunrise in Monument Valley, viewed from our motel balcony at Goulding’s Lodge.

During our trip, we did the following:

  • Ate steaks at The Big Texan in Amarillo (no, we didn’t try the 72 oz. steak challenge)
  • Visited Walter White’s (Breaking Bad) house in Albuquerque
  • Hiked the White House Ruins trail in Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Chinle, AZ
  • Drove through Monument Valley, AZ/UT
  • Took lots of dam photos in Page, AZ
  • Tent-camped four nights in Zion National Park and weathered wind, rain, and frost
  • Conquered Angel’s Landing (1500 foot ascent with chains)
  • Walked through Valley of Fire State Park in Overton, NV
  • Climbed dunes in Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park in Kanab, UT
  • Saw mule deer and bighorn sheep in Zion
  • Checked out Horseshoe Bend outside Page, AZ
  • Walked around the rim of Meteor Crater near Winslow, AZ
  • Took the obligatory “standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona” photos
  • Successfully resolved a check engine light in Albuquerque on the way back
  • Built three campfires
  • Made numerous s’mores
  • Drove almost 3,000 miles in Vader the truck
  • Made memories we’ll never forget!
Looking out over Canyon de Chelly (Chinle, AZ).

Every evening before bed, I journaled the day’s events. Over the coming weeks, I’ll use that journal to help retell this epic trip, day by day, and all our escapades along the way. I’ll share the adventures (and some misadventures) that we got ourselves into, what we learned, and travel tips for those who wish to visit the amazing places that we did. I’ll also share plenty of the amazing photos that Daniel and I took along the way, because we all know that a picture is worth a thousand words (and, in some cases, ten-thousand words).

Stay tuned!