STORIES ALONG THE WAY: Come wander with us

The best part of traveling in the Grey Panther after rigid career schedules is the ability to wander here and there changing our minds as we wish. We explore small monuments, parks and other spaces that we would probably neglect when on a tight time frame. Here are a few…..

SCOTTS BLUFF is a national monument in SW Nebraska. We stopped on our way out of town after a night at a hotel. It is a monument to the Oregon Trail–the people and wagon trains that traveled west to seek a better life. Between 1841-69, 350,000 people joined wagon trains. It also tells the stories of discomfort, breakdowns, illness and death the pioneers endured. The pioneers were split into 2 groups—the Mormons, including many Europeans who traveled on the other side of the river on their way to Mormon Lake, choosing not to travel with the “sinners,” and all other pioneers.

Lucky for me there are gift shops in those stops—I can only handle so many historic facts, unlike Jim. What I like is that the shops, in addition to the usual items, include special items made locally. In this shop there were calico bonnets for $14 (I couldn’t figure out what I would do with a calico bonnet so didn’t buy one) and special dolls, black and white, made from scraps—typical of those made for children on the wagon trains. The Sprinter just made the measurements to drive through the tunnels and up to the bluff. From there we could see for miles and miles….and almost see the wagon trains fighting the way west filled with dreams and hopes.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK was next on our agenda and we desperately tried to find a campground as the night darkness quickly surrounded us. We finally settled on a rundown motel for the night. Most of the hotels in Estes Park are expensive and filled since it was the weekend. I checked in at the desk with the raggedy-dressed, baseball-capped, but polite and articulate young clerk who asked the model of our car. “Sprinter.” Ford? “Un no, Mercedes.” His eyes got big. However, the towels were fluffy, the bed clean and the bathtub decent.

The next morning was bright, sunny and snowy as we entered the park. I was happy to buy the Sunday NYTimes for the first time in weeks. The snow and blue skies reflected on the spruce and pine trees. Many hikers and skiers were out to enjoy the day. We drove through the park, planning to reach the other side and ddown. Jim didn’t believe the sign that said the highway was closed for the winter a few miles down or I should say, up the road. There was icy snow on parts of the road and Jim did a “controlled fishtail”. Sure enough, the road was closed AS STATED, and we went down again to continue on our trip. The best thing about the park was that it was the headwaters of the mighty Colorado River. On the Park’s west side, in the Never Summer Mountains, the Colorado River begins as a tiny stream fed by snowmelt. Downstream, it will provide water to 40 million humans. The Rocky Mountains form one of the world’s longest ranges, stretching almost unbroken from Alaska to Mexico.

Less than satisfied with our Park visit and reluctantly headed to I 70, (we avoid interstate highways) we turned off the Idaho Springs exit to reach I 70, We suddenly found ourselves in a real life fantasy world. The sunlight was still strong .

Tumbling streams flowed on both sides along the winding road. On the left an elderly man stood in the shallow water fly-fishing with his equally aged golden retriever standing patiently by his side. Next we passed rock climbers practicing climbing on the roadside cliffs. The car parks were full and hikers and families joyfully embracing the beauty of a day made in Heaven. Soon enough we reached I 70 and the rushing life of the” need to hurry”.

We drove past ski areas and skiers were out for the day on the limited number of slopes open. For the first time we actually saw a semi-trailer that had just bulleted into a emergency ramp for runaway trucks. Red cones marked it off and a police car was at the bottom. The trucker had managed to stop in time.

It was time to find a place to camp for the night along the highway that wasn’t noisy and crowded. I found a BLM “one site” campground near Gypsum and navigated to the campground, not sure what we would find. Within a mile and a half, we had left the bustling highway and drove through a quiet canyon, except for the large stream running next to the campsite. Indeed, there was one carefully designated campsite—beautiful in the woods with a picnic table and a grill. The creek ran joyfully over the rocks nearby.

What a beautiful awakening this morning! In our secluded spot the sun reached out to the bare treetops and spread golden light down the tree trunks, the canyon walls and into the Sprinter window where I lay in bed watching the day begin upside down. Jim got up to make tea and coffee and I turned over to observe the cheery morning right side up. I enjoyed tea in bed watching the day unfold while Jim read. I’ll get up shortly to make breakfast—a Denver omelet with sourdough toast and the remainder of Elise’s special blackberry jam. Awakening to such a morning in the woods fills me with an overwhelming feeling of good will to the world—everything will be all right. I got up and prepared the omelet and toast. The large windows over the stove let in all the natural night we needed and I cooked listening to Joshua Bell’s Romance of the Violin. Jim had checked the picnic tables, but since the thermometer registered 32 degrees, we decided to eat in the Sprinter. Filled with happiness, we sat down to eat. Suddenly, Jim’s nose started bleeding and we froze. This was a problem when he was in the hospital getting cancer treatment. We know his last checkup was good, but still…… We got it stopped, finished breakfast, explored a little along the creek, but the day was a little less bright. Thankfully, the nosebleed did not start again.


ARCHES NATIONAL Park and Moab was our next stop, but fatigued we holed up at the most delightful budget hotel for four nights. We had seen the arches on our earlier trip so limited ourselves to short trips during the day and getting to know Moab a little better. We had taken the back way into Moab and were rewarded with early twilight magically spreading over the sandstone cliffs and the Colorado River. A bookstore store stop resulted in a bag of happy expectations and free shopping bag, for buying so much. The 60+ ex civil engineer happily picked three books for Jim he felt he was sure to enjoy. It’s always fun to watch a booklover enthusiastically share his favorites. I went away with the last three of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series and two more locally interesting books The thousands of visitors to the Arches allows the busy independent bookstore in the small town to stay open. And, of course, Desert Threads.

Well rested we were ready to get on the road again, looking forward to new adventures.

It was unplanned, but Jim and I were both reading books that included information about the Colorado River, its politics and the desert—Edward Abbey’s 1968 “Desert Solitaire” and recently published “The Emerald Mile” which quoted Abbey. We often read relevant parts of our books to each other. Highly recommended.

MESA VERDE COLORADO, a world heritage was next. It was created in 1906 to preserve the archeological heritage of the Ancestral Pueblo people who lived there since 550 AD. We arrived near closing time. A quick stop at the visitor’s center and a long drive up to the Museum and back was all we could do. But, again, the reward was the setting sun on the cliffs. The next morning we left our snow-covered campground to spend the day in Mesa Verde. The sun was bright and quickly warmed the desert air. If possible, we always watch the introductory show at the visitor center. It gives us a good understanding of what we are about to see. Mesa Verde was no exception. We were fascinated with the story of the cliff dwellers, the Anasazi, or the ancient ones. Some of the multi-storied dwellings housed 150 people. After seeing the film and viewing the museum artifacts including the dress made from turkey feathers, we decided to drive around to see the dwellings around the canyon. Since there were only a few travelers, we nonchalantly pulled into roadside parking with no competition and had a chance to take as much time as we wanted to view and absorb the amazing engineering and architecture feat of the dwellings. We had time to watch and imagine life in the dwellings uninterrupted. We exchanged knowing smiles when we ran across an occasional traveler. I sooooo love off-season travel!! Gift shop pottery was copied from pottery remnants found during the excavation.

Note: Because of a loose itinerary, we sometimes see a pattern from parks and monuments such as where the Asanazi moved when they left Mesa Verde. However, there is no clear understanding as to why the dwellings were abandoned.

CANON de CHELLY in Chinle, AZ occupied us for two days. It has been inhabited since 2500 BCE. We camped in the adjacent Navajo managed campground with less than a handful of other campers. Amazingly, one of the other vehicles was a Sprinter with Alaska plates!! Of course we connected with them and exchanged information. We spent two nights in the campground. The Canon was too full of wonders to skim through it. In many ways I think it is more amazing than the Grand Canyon. There is only one site you can hike down to one of the ruins, but I knew that I would not be able to do it, so we were satisfied driving to different sites and getting out and walking to the edge of the canyon. We did the south rim drive starting at the furthest point. Again, the dwellings, not as big as Mesa Verde, were intriguing. They were smaller in numerous locations. There is some indication that the Asanazi from Mesa Verde moved to this area. At the bottom of the canyon, it was very green and farmers and ranchers still lived there. However, some of the American West “heroes” were really murderers and torturers like Kit Carson.

In 1863 Col Kit Carson began a brutal campaign against the Navajo. In the winter of 1864 Carson’s troops entered the eastern end of Canyon de Chelly and pushed the Navajo toward the canyon mouth. Resistance proved futile: most Navajo were captured or killed. Carson’s troops returned in the spring to complete their devastating campaign. They destroyed the remaining hogans and orchards and killed the sheep. Forced to march over 300 miles, called the Long Walk, to Fort Sumner, scores perished from thirst, hunger and fatigue. Poor food, inadequate shelter and disease brutalized the survivors. In 1868, they were allowed to return home, but found it mostly destroyed.”

Today, about 40 people still live in the canyon. Standing on the edge, you can see free running horses, smell the burning juniper and sage and see the small homes and hogans. Navajo tours are available to drive to the bottom of the canyon.

I believe there is a great deal wrong with American school textbooks that do not tell the REAL story of what happened to the American Indians. We know about the Trail of Tears that drove the Cherokee to OK, but obviously there were many other forced marches. Too often, in the national parks and monuments we see that the American Indians, military and white people lived peacefully together until another military figure arrived and caused havoc. SO wrong and SO sad.

While “vending” in the park is not allowed, we did buy some beautifully painted tiles by two Navajo young men casually painting in the back of their pickup truck and 2 juniper bracelets from a Navajo elder to ward off nightmares. We could have easily spent a week in the park contemplating everything that had happened and what exists today.

Tradition says that “Haashch ‘eeh dine e, the Holy People, created plants from the air, water, light and soil to beautify the land and provide for the Navaho People. The Navajo respect plants as perpetually renewing gift and as being connected with all things on Earth.”

MONTAZUMA WELL AND CASTLE in the desert was our next stop. Small monuments on the map, but I enjoy navigating to areas that are less known. The Well, inappropriately named (it was thought, but not true, that the Aztecs lived there). It is a limestone sin formed long ago. The mysterious well is 65 feet deep with no fish (heavy metal like arsenic) or fauna except swimming leeches that come out at night (ick). Every day the Well is replenished with 1.5 million gallons of new water. Like a bowl with a crack in its side, the water overflows through a long narrow cave to the southeast rim to which is cool and watched the water flow into it.

We drove to the Castle. We walked from the parking lot and into the visitor’s center and out the other door to an amazing walkway. It had large deciduous trees that were turning beautiful colours. I felt I was in the middle of a beautiful fall again. We walked along the path and looked at the dwelling made high on the cliff, again wondering how the work was done.

We headed to Fossil Creek Lane in the National Forest to camp. A bumpy road, but not far and we spent a wonderfully peaceful night alone in the desert with a sky bursting with stars. We walked a bit the next morning over the rolling hills and came across a “stone teepee village”. No idea how long it had been there. We headed out on the highway, vaguely south.

TONTO NATURAL BRIDGE STATE PARK, the sign said, even though nothing out of the ordinary was in site. We turned on to the level road but soon found ourselves winding along cliffs looking at a prosperous green valley below. We came to a former lodge that houses the park staff. It was resplendent with antiques. The plan is to finishing restoring it and rent it to groups. It was a beautiful park with big trees still shedding their leaves, manicured grass, signs pointing to trails, picnic tables…and a small group of javelins. We seemed to have again stepped into a beautiful Midwest fall day. The real excitement was out of view, at the end of the trails.

It was not worth considering. There was simply no way I could walk all the way down and back up the trail to the natural bridge. I was content just to look at it from above. Before my surgeries, of course, I would have automatically headed down the steep trail. 

I got my walking sticks and Jim and I walked over to the viewing area of the natural bridge, the largest natural travertine bridge in the world and looked down from the secure railing. Water poured down the waterfall near the bridge. Water splashed over the rocks below. In the protective large rock overhang, giant boulders stood tall. To the left of them was the Natural Bridge opening. We watched people walking on a narrow bridge to get to the opening. A volunteer ranger came by and talked about how hard the first part of the trail was and the switchbacks. “But when you get down there”, he said “you can sit on the deck as long as you want—It’s almost like being in a cathedral.”

I thought about it some more and Jim and I started walking over to the trailhead—just to see. I passed a warning sign for anyone with health problems, NOT to do it. That it was extremely hard. Then I remembered that US Parks tend to exaggerate sometimes. I have first hand experience, though that Canadian Parks DO NOT exaggerate difficulty. We walked to the top of the trail and started down. A couple, younger than us, came up the trail puffing and panting. We continued slowly down the rocky, uneven trail, with Jim turning to help me with difficult steps. My walking sticks provided security and helped me balance. Finally, we reached a few short switchbacks, and for a few steps, it was easy. Then we reached the bridge and continued on to the end of the trail and the deck where we rested. It was magnificent! I had made it!! The hardest hike I have done in 2+ years!! It was like a cathedral, but with school out, there were lots of families on the rocks and on the deck. While I would have enjoyed a solo experience, it was fun to listen to watch happy children scrambling on the rocks. A young couple, he with a marathon participant t-shirt had managed to crawl up the giant rocks and were tucked in a crevice watching the scenery and the children. I had forgotten the amazing balance and energy of children. Even Jim was not willing to scramble on the rocks. After a rest we headed up the trail, stopping for me to rest along the way. In many ways coming up the trail is easier than going down. But, I made it back up in good time. We walked back to the Sprinterl and got in. I was done, having exerted much of my energy reserve.

Jim drove over to the waterfall trail. “Do you want to go down it,” he asked. NO. He did and went down to the trail and disappeared. When he came up he was breathing hard. Then I realized he had walked down and up 110 stairs each way!

The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets, which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired in value. Theodore Roosevel

We left the park and headed down the road to find a camping space. We were climbing in elevation, 7800 ft, and evergreen forest around us grew taller. We drove into a national forest with a few white spots of snow around us. Even though it was cold, we got out for a walk.

What’s the sound I asked Jim, thinking it was water or the highway. “Look up,” he said, it’s the wind blowing rustling through the tree tops.”

I decided it was time for bed, even though it was only 4:30pm. I was very tired, but very excited about our physical feat. I slept 16 hours, except for a brief wakeup to share a piece of pie with Jim. The bed was so warm and cozy and the stove/heater was just right.

The next morning, we ate a quick breakfast and left. We found a state park with trash bins and showers. It was worth $7 to get rid of the trash and refresh with a shower. I was not ready for another hike, but Jim took a short one. We are very impressed with Arizona state parks. It’s amazing how state parks vary among the state

It was Thanksgiving and, though neither of us said it, we wanted a traditional, turkey dinner!! We went through the town of Globe and stopped at the grocery store. In a front display, there were mashed potatoes with gravy, stuffing in take-out containers and a turkey breast!! We happily bought our T day dinner, salivating with anticipation, we headed out to find a camping spot.

After stopping at The Gila Box (see separate story), we drove to south of Tucson to visit an 83- year- old widow who splits her time between Alaska and Arizona. Jim has done work for her including a very long custom deck for her house on a lake in Soldatna, AK. She considers Jim “a son” and always has the best cookies available. We headed back up towards Tucson for the night.

I found a BLM campsite off of the highway. It was an unusual place, mostly flat with cliffs behind it and small trees in various spots. We ended up spending 2 nights there, easy to get to and not crowded with beautiful sunrises and sunsets. Apparently it gets crowded during the holidays. It was nice not to have to drive miles through canyons, clinging to cliffs along single lane roads—but we still appreciated it!!


We had a “city” day visiting the Tucson botanical gardens, especially the orchid/butterfly house with many butterflies flying around us. We had to go to a special room before leaving to make sure a butterfly wasn’t leaving with us. Once again, the weather was so perfect for us, perhaps a little cool for Arizonans but not Alaskans. On finding the Japanese garden next door, I found new energy.

img_6843Different kinds of ikebana were on display inside and out as well as wonderful peaceful gardens and basic Japanese wooden buildings, so simple, so serene.

PEPPERSAUCE CANYON-Coronado National Forest. We looked for a new campsite on the east side of Tucson, trying to keep elevation low. We drove miles to the Canyon, which is a small riparian area down from Mt Lemon. There were winding rounds and cliffs again which I quite enjoy, but not Jim the driver. We reached the campground, letting a flock of wild turkeys cross in front of us. It had a beautiful old growth forest with ancient Arizona sycamores still shedding leaves. Each picnic table had a large metal stand next to it with a hook on it. I thought it was a meat hook but Jim assured me it was a lantern hook. Apparently, the area is frequently used by hunters. The next morning, Jim awakened first and noticed the wild turkeys walking around the Sprinter. We heard one try to jump on the hood. They left as soon as they heard us. The previous evening, a young calf wandered by. It was a beautiful morning. We had a relaxing, sun enhanced walk among the trees in the canyon, easily crossing the dry stream with warnings of flash floods near it. I gathered fallen sycamore leaves and pieces of fallen bark. Four National Forest workers pulled into the campground—90minutes from their home base. They were cleaning up the campground. “It’s a beautiful day,” I said to one worker as I walked by. “Most days are”, she replied. “Good point, I replied and we both smiled at each other.

As we drove out of the canyon, we realized we are learning more about this unfamiliar desert environment on this trip—which is slower. We learned about the cactus that puts out its beautiful stalk and flower—and then dies. Over cliff to the right, was our old friend the Gila River bordered by bright coloured deciduous trees.

We headed to Sedona for a week’s stay in a tiny cottage—a rest we greatly needed. We will fly home to Alaska on December 14 and back to Phoenix and an eastward journey mid January, with a marine highway ferry trip early March back to Alaska. This is such a good time of life, retired and an ability and desire to learn about everything, soaking up the knowledge the land from its interpreters, human and other, provide.

To follow,are separate stories about Crazy Horse/Wild Mustang Sanctuary and Gila Box—very special experiences.

STORIES ALONG THE WAY: Come wander with us

2 thoughts on “STORIES ALONG THE WAY: Come wander with us

  1. Richard Blake says:

    Well you have managed to find a couple that I missed out on in the ten years I have been heading west every summer. You pictures are great as is you writing, which is something I always admire in the folks who have the talent and persistence to articulate experience. I was an editor for many years with Holt, but never much of a writer. Very much admire what you have put together her. Safe travels and Happy whatever name pleases you for the upcoming season.


  2. Hi Christine! Thank you for a very beautiful account of Moab, SW Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. I took some of the same pictures, but you explored much more than we (Chuck and me) into NM and AZ. I’m a bit jealous, I must admit. We have to compare notes soon! Are you in Anchorage? When you are lets have tea together. I shall return to the canyon lands, but unsure when, maybe fall of 2017. Love and best wishes to you and Jim! Happy Holidays!


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