Coyotes, Cacti, and Church: Tucson, Arizona

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

We spent a warm and sunny week in Arizona in early November, relishing the last days of wearing shorts and the last nights of sitting outside under the stars reading without shivering and diving into our sleeping bags as soon as the sun went down.  We spent the first couple of nights at a very nice (and very inexpensive) hotel in Phoenix while we ran errands.  We continued south to Tuscon, and spent the rest of our week camping in Tuscon Mountain Park just west of the city.

Our first night of camping was less than ideal.  I wouldn’t call it our worst night of camping (that was the night of the never-ending trains just south of Bellingham, Washington), but it was a close second.  The setting was picturesque, but our neighbors were less than ideal.  To one side of us was a couple that believed they could only communicate by shouting.  Their shouts continued into the night and were only drowned out by the deafening sounds of a concert celebrating the Day of the Dead.  It seemed like we were off in the wilderness when we set up camp.  We weren’t.  Though it was out of sight, our tent was not too far from an old-west theme park, complete with live (and loud) entertainment.  When the music finally stopped a couple of hours past midnight, we thought we could finally catch a few zzzzs before daybreak.  Hahaha!  Shortly after the music stopped, our tent was illuminated by headlights from the cars of concert-goers as they parked, partied, and then crashed for the night in the site on the other side of us.  Alan awoke to one man asleep on the ground, whiskey bottle to one side, Budweiser cans on the other side.  Watching them awake one-by-one made me so happy that it has been a very long while since I’ve drunk enough to earn a morning hangover.

The second, third, and fourth nights were better, but no less interesting.  Once all of our neighbors cleared out, new ones moved in.  Replacing the drunk and passed out concertgoers was an older man and his dog.  They had no car, no bike, and did not appear to have a backpack.  They never left the site for the three remaining days we were there, and we’re still not sure how they arrived.  There was a bit of muttering and full-on conversations with the dog, but things got interesting at the first sounds of the coyotes.  One coyote started, then a second, a sixth, and a twenty-sixth.  And then the older man joined in, howling right along with the coyotes for a few minutes until they all quieted down.  Alan and I looked at each other, whispering that we were in for a long night.  Though our human neighbors changed, one thing that did not change was the very regular sounds of coyotes near (sometimes very near) and far.  Luckily for us, our neighbor did not choose to join in every chorus of the canines.  Phew!  Sleep was much better during the rest of our stay.

When we weren’t listening to neighbors, concerts, or coyotes, we were out enjoying the desert and the tree-like cacti that dotted the landscape.  We went to both the western and eastern sections of Saguaro National Park (pronounced Sawaro) and both prefered the landscapes and the hiking trails of the western half of the park.  The eastern portion is more easily accessible from the city, which also means that large portions of it have wide views of the urban area.  The western portion is set further off from the city and gives you the feel of being in a more isolated locale.  Regardless, the cacti, and particularly the Saguaro, were fascinating.

Saguaro Cactus, Arizona

Saguaro Cactus, Arizona

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

I always thought of cacti as something apart from other plants, but as I get to know cacti better during this trip, I begin to see the many similarities.  Saguaros are very much like a tree, from their height and girth to their woody stems.  The decaying Saguaro allowed us to see the similarities most closely.

We spent our time hiking, taking photographs, and helping Van earn his fourth Junior Ranger badge.

Hiking in Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Hiking in Saguaro National Park, Arizona

In between our forays into the desert, we spent a morning at the International Wildlife Museum, run by Safari Club International.  As one might expect, there were many taxidermied animals – big game and small game – as well as a stunning collection of butterflies, moths, beetles, and other insects.  The exhibits were very well done and, except for a cavernous trophy room (which was interesting and educational in its own right), were focused on wildlife conservation.  They even had a display on famous hunter/conservationists, including none other than Aldo Leopold, and a quote from an author and individual I greatly admire, Wendell Berry.

Though we spent most of our time in the Tuscon area exploring its natural wonders, we did make time for a few man-made wonders.  The highlight was our visit to Mission San Xavier del Back, which was constructed in the late 1700s.  It’s hard to overstate the magnificence of the bright white walls against the deep, blue, afternoon sky.

But most of all, our week in Arizona will bring back memories of late night howls and the tree like cacti recoiling from any attempt at an embrace.

Heaven

Up in the clouds in Rocky Mountain National Park

Up in the clouds in Rocky Mountain National Park

No, we weren’t in heaven, but it certainly felt that way.  I’ve been to Rocky Mountain National Park before on two occasions, but I’d never had the opportunity to spend more than a day in its embrace.  For a million and three reasons it was my absolute favorite place we’ve visited thus far on this trip, and definitely in the top five of places I’ve ever visited.  Everything, from the wildlife to the heart-swelling views to the camping to the hiking to the peacefulness, contributed to me declaring that I was ready to stay forever.

We chose to arrive on a weekday, knowing that the campgrounds fill up quickly on the weekends.  We were lucky enough to secure a home for three nights in the beautiful Moraine Park Campground near the east entrance to the park.  As we began the process of choosing a campsite, Alan asked whether I’d prefer to be closer to other campers or further away.  Hahahaha!  We laughed about that question during the rest of our stay.  While the campground may not fill up before noon on weekdays, it does fill up!  But, the sites are well situated so that you’re not on top of your neighbors and there are plenty of places to amble off to explore right from your site.

Our home base in Moraine Park Campground

Our home base in Moraine Park Campground

On a walk from our campsite in Rocky Mountain National Park

On a walk from our campsite in Rocky Mountain National Park

On our first full day in the park, we spent the morning hiking up to Gem Lake, a great spot for a picnic.  The hike itself provided fantastic panoramic views of Estes Park and the surrounding area, but Gem Lake was definitely the highlight.  The hike was about 3 1/2 miles round trip, with about a 1,000 foot elevation gain on the way up.  A pretty short hike by our normal standards, but with a two-year old (who spent most of the time riding on dad’s back), this was a great length.  Once we returned to the car, Van quickly fell asleep and we decided to drive up towards (and past) the Continental Divide to see some of the towering views the park has to offer.  We made a decision to return the next day when Van was awake so that we could leave the car behind and do more exploring.

Gem Lake

Gem Lake

Before heading back to our site, we headed to one of the trails where Alan and I had previously hiked so we could take Van on a walk before dinner.  He was getting pretty feisty around water, so we decided to turn around.  That turned out to be a pretty great idea because we would have missed this…

An elk staking out his territory

An elk staking out his territory

Two elk in a minor tussle

Two elk in a minor tussle

Peaceful elk

Peaceful elk

After a great second night in the park, we headed back up to some of the higher elevations in the park so we could do some exploring while Van was awake.  The views were amazing.  I simply don’t have the words to describe them.  This is definitely a place that everyone should come and explore if they have the ability and opportunity to travel to Colorado.  I have vowed to make regular camping trips up to the park when we visit our family in the Denver area.

The Rockies

The Rockies

Bighorn sheep

Bighorn sheep

Alan in the snow!

Alan in the snow!

Views from the western side of Rocky Mountain National Park

Views from the western side of Rocky Mountain National Park

Mountain Views

Mountain Views

In addition to the bighorn sheep (one example in a photo above), countless elk, and Van’s Buddy the Bison (photo below), we were also lucky enough to cross paths with three moose.  Alan served as photographer extraordinaire while I tried to keep Van from making too much noise that might spook the moose.  This proved to be much more difficult than expected as Van just wanted to keep shouting MOOSE loudly and repeatedly in their direction.

Van and Buddy the Bison

Van and Buddy the Bison

Moose in Rocky Mountain National Park

Moose in Rocky Mountain National Park

Moose in Rocky Mountain National Park

Moose in Rocky Mountain National Park

The only downside to our visit to Rocky Mountain National Park was that we had to leave.  But, now I can just get excited about our next trip to this little slice of heaven.

Salida, Pikes Peak, and Garden of the Gods

We’ve been lucky enough to enjoy a significant amount of family time over the past month and a half.  Much of that time has been spent around the dinner table or in the backyard, but we’ve also taken weekly family day trips with Alan’s parents, Carole and Bijan.  On one of our first weekends in Colorado, Alan, Van, Carole and I set out for a day trip to the beautiful mountain town of Salida, Colorado.  The drive took us just under three hours and we were treated to spectacular mountain views along the way.  Salida is wonderfully situated along the Arkansas River in a large valley with the towering Rockies all around.  I imagine that its distance from the Denver and Colorado Springs metro areas keeps it from being overdeveloped, because this is certainly an ideal place to visit or call home.  We spent the morning poking around the streets and getting a feel for the place.  We had a fabulous lunch at Laughing Ladies, which was not nearly as crowded as it should have been given the quality of the food.   I couldn’t get over the view of the mountains around every corner.  I clearly hadn’t been in Colorado too long at that point!

Downtown Salida

Downtown Salida

On our way home from Salida, I convinced Alan to take a detour to the St. Elmo ghost town.  The ghost town was excellent fun to wander around, but even better was the route to town. About fifteen miles north of Salida, we turned left and drove another fifteen miles to reach the ghost town.  About half the road was paved, but it was all spectacular.  That stretch of road was (up to that point) the most beautiful stretch we’ve driven during this entire trip.  The chalk cliffs were on the north side of the road, Mount Princeton was ahead, and a creek and campgrounds that made me jealous we weren’t staying overnight were along the south side of the road.

St. Elmo Ghost Town

St. Elmo Ghost Town

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One of many spectacular views on our drive to the St. Elmo Ghost Town

We finished our day trip with a short jaunt through the river town of Buena Vista (apparently pronounced Boona Vista by locals).  This town is definitely in the throes of being discovered, especially by the numerous kayakers and rafters we saw around town.  Not surprising given its setting.

The following weekend, we all piled back in the car (this time with Bijan) and drove south to Colorado Springs.  Our first destination was the aptly named Garden of the Gods.  This is a place I’ve always wanted to see and was so lucky to visit on a gorgeous late-spring day.  We spent most of our time in the central garden trails area, but if you wanted to get away from the crowds, this is easily doable by heading out on any of the number of trails that are not in the main, developed area.  Van had a blast watching the climbers and running around like a wild man when he was through with being toted around in his stroller.

Garden of the Gods

Garden of the Gods

I think we found a new career for Van - baby fashion model!

I think we found a new career for Van – baby fashion model!

Garden of the Gods

Garden of the Gods

Our brilliantly-colored company in Garden of the Gods

Our brilliantly colored company in Garden of the Gods

This is so much fun!!

This is so much fun!!

After a lunch of pizza and calzones, we made our way to the road to Pikes Peak.  The drive is a bit different from the drive to Mt. Evans.  It’s a lot more expensive ($40 for all of us vs. $3 or free with a National Parks Pass at Mt. Evans), has many more signs warning drivers to have a full tank of gas and to use low gears when descending the mountain, and is wider and generally a little less nerve-wracking.  That being said, the drive up (and down) was fantastic, and the two cars we saw being towed down the mountain reinforced why there is that much signage  about how to drive properly up and down a mountain.  Clearly this road sees a bit more traffic than the Mt. Evans route.  The views from the top also could not be more different from the views atop Mt. Evans.  Instead of being right in the midst of the mountains, Pikes Peak is set off, which gives you a broad and unique view of the Rockies and the plains.  Instead of feeling like I was in the mountains, I felt like I could see forever.  Both pretty cool feelings to have!

At 14,114 feet atop Pikes Peak

At 14,114 feet atop Pikes Peak

At Altitude

Over the past month we’ve taken a number of glorious excursions into the mountains.  On my (and Van’s) first trip to the top of a fourteener, we opted to use the assistance of four wheels.  While we would love to climb one with our own legs, that will have to wait until our toddler gets a bit older.  Instead, we opted to drive up the highest paved road in North America.  When we reached the forest service entrance, the ranger on duty informed us that the road to the summit was closed, but that we could get as far as Summit Lake, about five miles before the summit.  We began the drive with crossed fingers, hoping that the snow would clear up and we’d be able to make it to the top.  We drove as far as we could and got out for a romp through the snow.  Van did amazingly well hiking over snow, slush, and ice at a very high altitude, but we knew better than to keep him out for too long.

Most of the way up Mt. Evans, hoping the road to the summit will open for us

Most of the way up Mt. Evans, hoping the road to the summit will open for us

Once he started to show signs of exhaustion, we headed back to our car and watched as another car began ascending the road to the summit.  The road had opened!!!

Mt. Evans Road - the highest paved road in North America

Mt. Evans Road – the highest paved road in North America

View from the summit

View from the summit

The temperature was reading in the twenties without the wind, and the wind was practically blowing us over.   Needless to say, we didn’t subject Van to the cold wind (we don’t want him to hate us too much), but we both took turns exploring the summit.  While most of our drive was into the clouds, some of the clouds began to clear as we were at the summit.  Instead of viewing the Rockies from afar, here we were, in the mountains!

On our way back down from the summit, we stopped at Echo Lake for a picnic lunch amidst the pines and a short walk around the lake.  While this isn’t as exciting as hiking to an alpine lake, it was a perfect spot to stop and enjoy the fresh (albeit thin) air and the local wildlife.  Apparently, we brought some wildlife of our own along for the day.

Echo Lake

Echo Lake

Our lunch companion at Echo Lake

Our lunch companion at Echo Lake

Yes, he's a lion...

Yes, he’s a lion…

and a cutie pie...

and a cutie pie…

with an extra helping of sass.

with an extra helping of sass.

A few days after our trip to Mt. Evans, we set out to explore the town of Evergreen.  We spent much of the day hiking at several of the many county parks in the area.  This would be an amazing place to live if you’re into hiking or mountain biking.  We were incredibly impressed by the number and quality of parks in the area.  You’d never be bored!

One of the charms of not having GPS or regular data access on our phone is that we have to use maps and intuition to find our way.  When the maps are incorrect or woefully inadequate, we wind up in some new and exciting places.  The photo below is taken along one of the roads we incorrectly but oh-so-happily drove down in our quest to find yet another park in Evergreen.  Now if only that could be our view from our (currently non-existent) front porch.

Views in Evergreen

Views in Evergreen

Northwest Arkansas

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Reaching about a month back in time, we had a glorious six days in Arkansas with my parents.  We really wanted to share part of our journey with both of our families, and the Ozarks seemed like the perfect place to do so with my family.  My father visited the Missouri Ozarks regularly as a child and has also spent time in Northwest Arkansas.  Given that much of his time in these parts were spent with his grandfather, I thought this would be the perfect place for him to travel with his grandson.  And perfect it was!

We bounced around a bit during those six days, but we saw some pretty amazing places.  Though people who have been to the Ozarks have gushed to us about its beauty, it seems to be a relatively undiscovered corner of our country.  We certainly didn’t get the same reaction from folks when we told them we were headed to the Ozarks as we got when we told them we were headed to the Colorado Mountains.  Oh well…their loss.

We spent our first night at a wonderful bed and breakfast in Mountain Home.  After spending several hours getting to know the woman who owns and runs this beautiful home, she took us to a nearby pair of bald eagles with their new eaglets.  We were all in awe, but my mother was particularly excited to see bald eagles in their natural habitat – a long time dream of hers.

Nesting Bald Eagle in Mountain Home, Arkansas

Nesting Bald Eagle in Mountain Home, Arkansas

There are two things that we saw in Arkansas that stand out to both Alan and me as two of the most amazing things we’ve ever seen.  The first was the Buffalo River, the country’s first national river.  We disappointedly looked through our photos and saw that none do it justice.  Then I looked online for photos of the river and didn’t find any that did it justice either.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some beautiful photos of the river taken by much more experienced photographers than me, but I suppose this is a place with a beauty and spirit that just can’t be captured by film.  Perhaps this is why we were so shocked and impressed when we glimpsed this glorious river for the first time.  Rather than post many mediocre pictures of this river, I urge you to take a trip and visit this beautiful, winding gem.  The shorelines are undeveloped, bluffs line the river, and the water is turquoise and crystal clear.  My father and I were lucky enough to float the Buffalo with some friends of friends on the weekend.  It seemed like everyone in Northwest Arkansas was out on the river that day enjoying the sun.  This is another spot that I’d love to return to with Van when he’s a bit older.

Grandpa and Van checking out rocks along the Buffalo River

Grandpa and Van checking out rocks along the Buffalo River

After a couple of days along the Buffalo River and a quick trip to Branson, we headed over to Eureka Springs.  My favorite part of the town was exploring the footpaths through some of the historic residential neighborhoods with my father as Van napped.  We came upon some beautiful homes and inns, spoke with a man working to repair statuary at a petite but meticulous Catholic Church, visited the famous Crescent Hotel, admired the many preserved springs throughout town, and marveled at the early date at which the town began historic preservation.  But the highlight of our stay in Eureka Springs was not in the downtown.  The second amazing place that we visited was Thorncrown Chapel, which has its home in the forest just outside of Eureka Springs.  Again, our photos do not do this brilliant chapel justice, so below is a photo from the Chapel’s website.  We knew that the Chapel was listed fourth on the American Institute of Architects’ list of the top buildings of the twentieth century, so it was not a shock that the building was beautiful.  I’ve been lucky enough to travel to many churches, chapels, and cathedrals, including many of the greatest in Europe.  This is without a doubt my favorite of all such buildings.  It is constructed so that when you’re sitting in the Chapel, it feels as if you are bathed in the forest.  The clear glass pane behind the altar provides a magnificent view of the forest, changing my concept of an altar forever.  Thorncrown Chapel evokes God through its architecture in a way that I’ve never experienced before.

Thorncrown Chapel

Thorncrown Chapel

Alan, Van, and I were so lucky to spend such a fantastic week in Arkansas with my family despite our van troubles.  The beauty and company certainly helped us to refrain from letting our problems get in the way of enjoying our travels.