Friday, May 25, 2018

Things I Learned at Great Sand Dunes: A National Park Odyssey Day 42

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Listen to our podcast about this park here!

Park number 22!

We made it to the Great Sand Dunes lodge so late that Kinley, Knox and I had a hard time getting moving, even after waking up late.  Josh, on the other hand, went to the visitors’ center, got Junior Ranger booklets, and researched sled rentals and dune trails all while the kids and I slept.  Once I finally got up and going, here are the things I learned.
We look so optimistic here at the beginning of our trek.  Little did I know....

*Planning activities for the day, every day, for forty-something days is hard.

*When you’re struggling to make a plan, having everyone list the one thing they want to do helps.

*When you almost never have a real fight, it freaks your kids out when you do.

*Josh is far more quick to say he’s sorry and be ready to move on than I am.  I need significantly more time (and possibly time alone) before I’m ready to get over an argument.

*When Josh and I are really angry with each other, I can see my kids taking on the roles that my sister and I took on as children when our parents fought.  Knox is like Gennifer who just wanted to make peace, and Kinley is like I was, just trying to lay low (and convince my sibling to lay low) until it all blows over.

*Josh doesn’t like hot springs.  I don’t like climbing sand dunes.

*Brazilians in Natal have the whole dune thing figured out.  You ride a dune buggy most of the time, and when you do sled down, the rental dude hauls the sled back up the hill for you on a rope.  And if you make a fool out of yourself and fall just ten feet from your starting point, the rental dude takes pity on you and gets on the sled with you to make it go down the hill the right way.

*If I ever visit Great Sand Dunes National Park again, I’m bringing a lawn chair and a book.  I’ll sit and read with my feet in Medano Creek while everyone else gets a workout sinking ankle-deep in sand with every step as they try to climb the 700 foot High Dune.  Did I mention that you start climbing at an elevation of 8,170 feet so those 700 feet feel even tougher?

*When you’re really struggling, you use your tried-and-true method of making yourself feel better – singing show tunes in your head.  And it just so happens that there is a show tune from Aladdin the Musical that mentions sand dunes!  And when even that doesn’t help, you’re in bad shape.
I'm singing show tunes in my head here.  It's not helping.

*In the midst of the climb with a good 200 feet or more left to go, when you are alternating between complaining in your head about how hard this is and giving yourself a pep talk to keep going, you sometimes have a moment of clarity.  You are a grown up.  You don’t have to do this.  This is not a loop trail.  The family will have to come back this same way to get down, and you can plop down right where you are on the ridge of this beastly dune and wait.  

*While you’re sitting there waiting for your family and the wind picks up and starts pummeling you with tiny grains of sand that feel like microscopic arrows being fired at you from point blank range and so you try to put a positive spin on it and think of it as a free exfoliation treatment but then you get just more irritated at the whole situation, you should just hike back down.  You don’t need to worry about your family not knowing where you are.  It’s not quicksand.  It’s not like they’ll think you got swallowed up by the angry sand that hates you.  They’ll figure it out.

*Trying to write a message to your family in the dry dune sand so that they know where you went and don’t worry about you does not work.

*Watching people less than half your age huff and puff their way up does make you feel slightly better.

*Watching people less than half your age scurry up the dunes with no problem whatsoever while carrying a snowboard and then try snowboarding down the dune only to take an epic tumble to the bottom makes you feel WAY better.
Josh and Knox celebrate making it to the top.  Not pictured : Me being miserable several hundred feet below.

*Having another moment of clarity while you sit there thinking about how your kids want to do this whole thing again later in the day only this time hauling rented wooden sleds to the top so that you can all slide down and get sand in your private places and then realizing again that you’re a grown up and you don’t have to do this is a really good thing.
Kinley and Knox prepare to haul their rented sleds back up the dunes later in the day.

Kinley and Knox sled down the dunes.

Josh takes a turn with Knox.  I'm still not sad that I missed this.

*Getting up the dune is only your first problem.  Going down is a different kind of hard.
That's me in the red shirt.  Far ahead of the rest of the family.  Ready to be done with sand dunes.

*Eating lunch at a place with ten varieties of homemade pies and watching the pie lady bring out even more freshly-baked confections as you eat your lunch helps your mood considerably.

*It’s way easier to be nice and forgiving over a big slice of coconut cream pie.

*It takes Knox a long time to get all the unwanted mayonnaise off of a BLT, but when he does, he can eat the whole thing.

*Staying behind at the motel to nap and blog while the rest of the family sleds down the dunes is an ok thing to do.

*If you wear a hot pink shirt and red shoes sitting outside near a bank of hummingbird feeders, you’re going to get up close and personal with lots of curious hummingbirds who think you might be lunch.
Just one of the ten or so hummingbird feeders behind our hotel that attracted swarms of hummingbirds all day.

*Getting a picture of a hummingbird while it’s dive-bombing you is hard.

*Having crappy wifi is actually worse than having no wifi.  You keep getting your hopes up only to watch the little circular “loading” symbol over and over and over. 

*When your family returns from sledding on the dunes with tiny grains of sand seemingly permanently embedded in every single orifice of their bodies, you do not regret staying at the motel one little bit.
Sand.  Everywhere.

*Josh Boyd does not, in fact, hate all hot springs.  Only the naked ones, apparently.
The water was so pleasant!

*Sand Dunes Recreation is a great place to go from 9:00-10:00 at night.  The 98° spring-fed pool has two diving boards and plenty of room for family swimming.  Plus, that late at night you get in for half price.  And the 107° pool is nice for a brief dip, too.

*Blogging makes me feel better and helps me to look at myself and my circumstances more objectively.

*I’m grateful for readers like you.  You’re cheaper than therapy.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park: A National Park Odyssey Day 41

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Checking out our 21st park of the trip!

Check out our podcast about this park here!

The town of Montrose, Colorado, where we had stayed the night is about a 20 minute drive from Black Canyon of the Gunnison.  We didn’t get a particularly early start on our day in the park.  In fact, we barely made it to our free hotel breakfast before breakfast hours were over.  Once we had cleaned up, availed ourselves of the free wifi, packed the car, checked out, and made the drive to the park, it was approaching 12:00.  We went to the South Rim Visitors’ Center where we picked up junior ranger booklets for the kids to work on and then checked out the overlook out back. 
The view from the overlook at the South Rim Visitors' Center was breathtaking!
The canyon was so different from what we saw at the Grand Canyon, Kings CanyonZion, or Bryce Canyon.  Its dark grey walls were streaked with white and fell in dramatic jags more than 2000 feet to the Gunnison River below.  While Josh and I were enjoying the beauty of the overlook, the kids started working on their junior ranger booklets.  I couldn’t keep myself from occasionally checking out the stability of the overlook structure because the steep canyon walls meant that there was nothing to break a fall to the bottom.  *shudder*
The kids wasted no time getting started on earning their badges.

Since it was nearly lunch time, we decided to head back to Montrose, let the kids work on their booklets during lunch, and then drive back afterward to see more of the park.  We found a brewpub called Horsefly Brewing Company that was highly rated online, and while the food was good, the kids had plenty of time to work on their booklets because the kitchen was painfully slow. 
Participation in a ranger-led program was required to earn the junior ranger badge at this park, so back at the park we joined one already in progress on the 1.6 mile Warner Point Trail.  Juniper and pinyon pines lined the trail, and Josh and the kids followed the junior ranger book’s directions to get an up close look at the forest floor. 
The place was packed, but the kitchen was slow.

Josh was a little more willing to go all in on checking out the forest floor than Knox was.  He preferred to squat.

Getting an ant's eye view of the ecosystem.

The ranger explained that there are no trails to the bottom of the canyon but that this doesn’t stop intrepid hikers from doing it anyway.  Josh had read one author who explained the hike to the bottom as more like controlled falling.  Hikers who want to go off trail must apply for a wilderness permit, and rangers limit the number of permits given.  Our trail guide told us about the many times that hikers have had to be rescued and easily convinced us to stay on the safe side of this wilderness sign.
After the trail, we went to check out the famous Painted Wall of the canyon which at 2250 feet is the highest vertical wall in the state of Colorado.  To give you some perspective, the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) in Chicago is 1450 feet high.  The white streaks that give Painted Wall its name are actually veins of pegmatite, a type of granite.  We took in the stunning views and then went back to the visitors’ center to let the kids collect their next badge.
I was happy to stay on the marked trails, thank you very much.

Painted Wall with the Gunnison River below

Enjoying the view

From there, it was nearly a four hour drive to our next destination, Great Sand Dunes, so we piled in the car and took off, marveling at the beauty of Colorado along the way.  Small roadside streams surely filled with native fish called to Josh as we drove, and we decided then and there that this definitely would not be our last trip to this area.
Just one of the many inviting trout streams we saw on the drive

Monday, May 21, 2018

Ancient Cliff Dwellings and Modern Disappointments: A National Park Odyssey Day 40

Mesa Verde to Montrose, CO

Listen to our podcast about this park here!

Mesa Verde National Park's Cliff Palace
Our fortieth day began with a free breakfast at Mesa Verde National Park! The night before I had noticed that the trash in our hotel room hadn’t been emptied after the last guests checked out.  Disgusted, I called the front desk to complain, and we were given four complimentary breakfast passes at the Far View Terrace Café to make up for the mistake.  (They also sent someone to empty the trash, of course.) 
Free Breakfast!!
After breakfast, we drove to the Balcony House area of the park for our first ranger-led tour of the day.  Balcony House is an ancient cliff dwelling built by the Puebloan people who lived in the area from about 500 AD to about 1300 AD.  The people lived and farmed on the top of the mesa for 600 years before moving into the cliff dwellings in the late 1100s, and then they migrated south less than 200 years later.  Ranger Diana warned us in advance about the tunnels and the 32 foot entrance ladder, making us even more excited to visit this cliff dwelling.
We loved the fonts on the park signage.
Josh and Knox climb the 32 foot ladder that leads to Balcony House
Josh prepares to squeeze through one of the tunnels to get to Balcony House.
Kinley emerges from one of the tunnels through an ancient doorway.
Ranger Diana teaches us about the ancient Puebloans at Balcony House.

Knox and I listen as Ranger Diana tells us about the kiva below us.

Balcony House has about 40 rooms including kivas which are ceremonial rooms.  The room for which the site was named has a window with a little wooden balcony that has endured for more than 800 years.
Josh climbs out of the Balcony House cliff dwelling.

After our tour, we had to hurry to our next tour.  The drive to Cliff Palace was only about 5 minutes, but a wrong turn on a one-way loop made us fear we’d miss our time slot. We made it in time to hear Ranger David Nighteagle make his introductory remarks before leading us through the locked gate and down the cliff for our hour-long tour.

Cliff Palace is a larger dwelling than Balcony House and probably housed about 100 people when it was in use.  Ranger Nighteagle pointed out ancient artwork and handholds carved into the stone walls that allowed the Puebloans to climb up to their farmlands on top of the mesa.  He talked to us about the lives of the people who inhabited the area and about possible reasons for their migration south.  But the best part of his tour came at the very end when he took out his handmade Lakota flute and played a song to thank the spirits of the ancient Puebloans for allowing us to visit their home.  It was haunting and beautiful and poignant and perfect.  As we made the climb back to the top of the mesa, Ranger Nighteagle told us about his Lakota grandfather who refused to be referred to as a Native American.  “All my life I’ve been called an Indian and now you want to change that?” his grandfather had asked.  “No way.  I’m an Indian.”
Knox, Kinley, and I with Cliff Palace behind us

Knox and Kinley at Cliff Palace

Ancient painted walls at Cliff Palace

Ranger David Nighteagle prepares to play his Lakota flute for us.

Knox climbs out of Cliff Palace.

Back on top of the mesa, we continued on the loop drive to the Pit House, an ancient remainder of the dwellings the Puebloans used before they built the cliff dwellings.  Continuing around the loop we came to an overlook where we could see Square Tower House, and then we decided it was time for lunch.  The Spruce Tree Terrace Café near the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum had a smoker set up outside and was serving up some delicious barbecue.  We chowed down on ribs and pulled pork before wandering across the street and into the museum.

Inside a covered shelter was the foundation of an ancient pit house where the Puebloans lived before the cliff dwellings were built.

The Square Tower House as seen from above on the mesa

Time for some lunch!

Inside, we were all fascinated by the 1960s-era dioramas depicting Puebloan life.  The hand-lettered interpretive signs were like something out of a museum time capsule with hand-drawn borders decorating the sides of many.  We were most impressed with the ancient sandals and 1500 year old corn.  The kids found plenty of information in the museum to help them finish up their Junior Ranger booklets, and at a table in the courtyard, a ranger waited to swear them in.
Kinley admires a diorama depicting ancient life.

Artifacts from the cliff dwellings including sandals

Hand-lettered signs and ancient corn cobs

The kids earn their Junior Ranger badges.


Badges in hand, we piled back in the car started our 3 hour drive to Montrose, Colorado, just outside of Black Canyon of the GunnisonNational Park.  This park has no park lodge, so we were staying in the Black Canyon Motel in Montrose.  In the motel lobby was an advertisement for the town’s county fair which was apparently happening that very night within walking distance of the motel.  Since I’m a sucker for small-town Americana, I convinced the rest of the family that we really needed some carnival rides, rigged midway games of chance, and fair food in our lives.  They grudgingly agreed, and we followed our noses to the fairgrounds nearby singing “Our State Fair is a Great State Fair” the whole way.

Much to my dismay, there were no carnival rides or midway games, and the only fair food was being served at two lonely booths sandwiched between the Port-a-Potties and the Montrose County Emergency Management information table.  In fact, the fair was really just a small-town horse show with deep-fried Oreos and spiral-cut fries. So, of course, we ate some deep-fried Oreos and spiral-cut fries.

Disappointed and no longer singing about great state fairs, we walked dejectedly back to our motel to turn in for the night, holding out hope that the park we’d be visiting the next day wouldn’t bring the same amount of disappointment.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Monuments and Mesas: A National Park Odyssey Day 39

Monument Valley to Mesa Verde

Here's a link to our podcast about this park.
Kinley and Knox with the beautiful rock formations in the background
As the sun streamed in through the picture window in our little cabin overlooking Monument Valley in Arizona, we could see the tour companies with the backs of their pickups trucks outfitted with bench-style seating already taking guests on the bumpy road down into the valley and around the rock formations.  We had elected not to book a tour but rather to drive the loop on our own even though someone in Moab had told us that hearing the stories about the formations told by a Navajo with deep connections to the land was well worth the extra cost.  Since we were going on to Mesa Verde, we decided that investing the extra time in a guided tour might mean that we wouldn’t arrive at our next destination before the visitors’ center closed.  (Plus the dusty ROAD meant that all of the passengers were covered in red dirt.)

After packing the car and checking out, we followed the signs to the dirt road that made a loop through the desert landscape and its desolate beauty.  As soon as we pulled onto the well-worn lane, we could see why the Navajo Department of Transportation had been up all night doing maintenance in this area (though it had done little to make the road better).  What amounted to little more than a narrow cow path was pocked with potholes, and we were shocked that some visitors were attempting the 17-mile loop in sedans rather and 4-wheel drive vehicles. 13 of the 17 miles are on a one-way road, so once we got started, we couldn’t change our minds.

The first formations on the route were the ones we’d seen from our cabin, East and West Mittens and Merrick Butte, and we continued on past Elephant Butte, the Three Sisters, the Thumb, and the Totem Pole.  We even found one that reminded us of Josh’s dad’s hand with its crooked pinky finger.  In all, there were 11 marked spots along the route through the strikingly beautiful valley famous for its presence in many Western movies. 
The Totem Pole formation is the tallest formation on the far right of the picture.
Yep.  It pretty much looks like a big thumb.
This is the one that we think looks like Josh's dad's hand with its crooked pinky finger!

And it was movie inspiration that had brought us to Monument Valley in the first place.  As I mentioned in my post about Route 66 on Day 11 of our trip, Knox had been wanting to visit for years because of the Disney movie Cars.  But zooming around the rock formations race-track-style and turning right to go left a la Doc Hudson wasn’t an option on this rutted, bumpy thoroughfare.  I’m happy to report that the trusty Volvo made it out unscathed, but it was touch and go for a few minutes along the way.

After the experience, Josh said, “I’d like to say that this was the worst road I’ve ever driven on in America, expect that it’s not really America.  It needs, like, an asterisk or something.”  To which Knox replied, “Not America??!!  How can you say it’s not America?! It’s, like the Americaest America there is!”

Navajo sovereignty is complicated.
We had lunch at Twin Rocks Trading Post which had both good food and interesting Native American arts and crafts.

And I guess we hadn’t had our fill of the complicated part, because our next stop (after a very tasty lunch of Navajo tacos at Twin Rocks Trading Post) was Four Corners, another area of Navajo sovereignty where four US states meet at one celebrated point.  The sun was blazing, and there was no shade to shield us while standing in line for our turn to take the obligatory straddling-four-state-borders picture, so we sent the kids to check out the stalls selling Navajo crafts in the only area protected from the sun while Josh and I waited.  When it was finally our turn, we were careful to obey the sign instructing us to take no more than 3 photos (unlike the group in front of us that patently disobeyed the edict). 
Kinley touches four states simultaneously

After getting shots of each kid sprawled across four zip codes, we went in search of the facilities.  I mean, after all, we had just walked across Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico.  We were disappointed to see that the relatively-recently constructed restrooms were not in working order, so we had to use the Porta Potties in the gravel parking lot.  Not pleasant in such heat.

Moving on to our next adventure, we drove on to Colorado and Mesa Verde National Park.  Josh and I had differing expectations for this park—mine were high, his were low—so it was going to be interesting to see whose were more accurate.  Rather than staying in the gateway city of Cortez, we continued our streak of National Parks lodges with the Fair View Lodge which houses a highly-rated restaurant called the Metate Room.  Our plan was to stop at the visitors’ center, buy tickets for a tour of the cliff dwellings for the following day, check in to the lodge, and then eat in the Metate Room. 
We made it to park #20
Unfortunately, just after we arrived inside the park and snapped the requisite sign pictures, the skies opened and a rainstorm unlike any we’d seen all summer commenced.  Undaunted, Josh parked the car illegally near the visitors’ center and took one for the team, sprinting inside to buy our tickets in spite of the downpour while the rest of us waited in the car. 

The park’s ancient cliff dwellings can only be visited on ranger-guided tours, so we needed to purchase our tickets for one of the next day’s tours.  The tickets are reasonably priced at $5 per person, but you can’t buy them online.  You have to show up in person no more than two days in advance, and the website said you weren’t allowed to buy tickets to both the Balcony House and the Cliff Palace during peak season.  You had to choose just one and hope that tickets were available when you got there. While the kids and I waited in the car, we kept our fingers crossed that we’d be able to nab a spot in one or the other.

After a few minutes, Josh came dashing back to the car, soaking wet but victoriously clutching four tickets for the Balcony House tour.  “They even had tickets left for the Cliff Palace tour! And the lady said that you could buy both!” he announced.  “Should we?”  Bless his heart.  He was willing to go back out in the torrential rain to get us tickets to the second tour.  So of course I let him.

Once we got to the lodge (which is really more like a nice motel), the rain slacked off and we were able to schlep our luggage inside without getting too wet.  After settling in, we made our way to the Metate Room with its curved wall of windows overlooking the plateau and its local, sustainably-sourced cuisine.  We had heard great things about this restaurant and were not disappointed.
Pickled Strawberry Salad

Rattlesnake & Pheasant Sausage with Caramelized Onions

Roasted Corn on the Cob with Black Bean Pico

Crispy Prickly Pear Pork Belly

Seared Sockeye Salmon with Citrus Beurre Blanc

The rattlesnake & pheasant sausage and the roasted corn on the cob were both standouts, but everything we ordered was delicious.  And you can’t beat the view!
The dining room at the Metate Room. (Photo courtesy of Aramark)