I picked my dad up from the Flagstaff airport, and off we went. He was in good form, immediately losing his phone (he was sitting on it), and mistakenly trying to go into the girls’ bathroom (I stopped him). Anyway, eventually we rolled up to the El Tovar Hotel in the Grand Canyon.

(Image is an approximation of our actual arrival.)

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The El Tovar opened in 1905 as a first class accommodation for travelers on the Santa Fe railroad, which had finally reached the Grand Canyon. As the card in our room informed us,

“Nothing was spared to make this one of the great hotels of its era. The building was completely equipped with electric lights powered by its own steam generator. Railroad tank cars brought fresh water for the hotel from Del Rio, 120 miles away; fresh fruit and vegetables were grown in greenhouses on the premises. The hotel even had its own dairy.”

Nowadays it’s a destination for thousands of short-pants ruffians like ourselves. It’s right on the edge of the canyon, prime location. Our first order of business was to check out the view.

Woah. It made us a dizzy the first time we looked into the canyon. It’s just so massive and deep, and all the different layers of color funnel your vision down, but you can’t even see to the bottom. Only in a few spots can you glimpse the Colorado River.

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Second order of business was to get some food in us. We sat out on El Tovar’s deck and looked out over the canyon while sipping on tea and munching on vegetarian chili and crab cake sliders. Twas good.

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Properly fueled, we ventured out to walk the Rim Trail. This is just a paved path that goes along the rim. My dad was mad because it wasn’t more trail-y, but it had some educational merits of its own. There are no rails anywhere, because to rail the whole canyon would  require as much metal to go halfway around the earth, then for every foot of height you’d need another bar of rail, multiplying that amount. Besides, people would climb over it anyway, so the park admitted there was just no point. However, there are plenty of copies of the book Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon, detailing the 550 deaths in the Grand Canyon, on sale everywhere you go to give you ample incentive of your own not to wander too close to the edge.

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Overlapping the Rim Trail, the Trail of Time  is set up to give you a physical metaphor in the distance you walk comparing to the amount of time it took for the Grand Canyon to form. Along the way there are plaques explaining the formation of the different rock layers. Dad helped to further elucidate in his coloquial style, “Look, so there’s where that shit seeped through”.IMG_1411

They’ve also mounted rocks from each layer and era so that you can touch them. Dad insisted we walk along petting each rock. After this first one he paused to analyze the texture and came up with his official scientific observation: “This would make a great granite counter top.”

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One plaque shouted at us that 1.2 billion years were missing from the rock record. Dad muttered to himself, “Goddamn teenagers.”

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Then he made us take this picture where “it will look like we’re falling into the canyon”.IMG_3734 Shortly afterwards he came running up behind me yelling I had to stop. He wanted to show me this ancient geological specimen he had found…IMG_3740

Ie. a piece of the road.

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We finally made it to the end of the Trail of Time and this vista point.

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Dad tripped and almost fell off the cliff taking this picture of me, evoking a shout of “Jesus fucking Christ, Dad!”

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So then we had other people take pictures of us.

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After that we went to fancy dinner back at El Tovar. You could tell it was fancy because their butter is stamped with a crest.

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Also because they had a crumb sweeper. This is someone who comes around after they take away your bread and sweeps away all your crumbs with a little silver comb so that you are aware of how messy an eater you are.

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Honestly, their food was pretty bad. My dad’s celery soup was inedibly salty, they brought him the wrong entree, and though it’s hard to mess up a salad, it just had too many over-powering components to be truly enjoyable. Even their pie was too sweet. Their chefs obviously had heavy hands.

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The next morning we got up early to go on the Cedar Ridge Hike, a Ranger lead hike down the Kaibab trail. I have to reiterate how awesome park rangers are- always so nice, with zillions of helpful and interesting things to tell you. I was particularly comforted by his presence, because everywhere on the trailhead and heading down there are posters detailing all the different ways you can die. I must also give props to their commitment to making visits to the park exceptionally educational, especially when visitors usually show up with no intention of it being so, and environmentally friendly. Nowhere in the canyon will they sell you bottled water, because the bottles end up in landfills or blown into the canyon by the wind. They provide their own water in filling stations along the trails, straight from the Roaring Springs below the North Rim.

Before we started, Dad made me take this picture of him to prove to his personal trainer that he was warming up. So here you go, Craig…

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Then we started down in a group with about 12 other people. It was a little chilly, but just in the way of nice, brisk morning air. Our ranger told us that of all the thousands of people that come visit the canyon each year, only 2 percent actually descend into it. What punks.

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The trail is unpaved, 3 miles round-trip, and descends 1.120 feet. It took us a little under 3 hours, and that was with stopping at the bottom to chill out and snack. It’s somewhat steep and rough going, windy, and it certainly would be possible to fall off the edge and die, but if you hold on to your hat and pay attention to where you put your feet, it’s so much fun! The views were spectacular, exponentially better than you get just walking along the rim. Our ranger told us interesting anecdotes about the building of the trail, some of the plants along it, and the park’s legal battles with Ralph Cameron, an original settler on the canyon.

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The hike up is a bitch, but stop to rest frequently and it’s fine. Excellent father-daughter bonding time. If I come back, I want to do the hike all the way to the bottom of the canyon, where you can stay the night at Phantom Ranch, then hike back up the next day. But that’s for another trip.

We were back on the road. Next stop: Los Angeles.

There’s no place like home. Even if it’s someone else’s home.

When Rachael and I got to Flagstaff, I dropped her off at the airport (only one gate, what!?) and went to go find my friend Clio. Flagstaff was nothing like I’d expected. I guess I thought Arizona was all red rock cliffs and desert, but I was way off. As I drove through Flagstaff, I found myself in a quaint little mountain town. It was so peaceful. Exactly the sort of place you’d want to drive into after a long day of skiing to get hot cocoa and nestle into your bed with a nice book, plenty of covers, and a snowy forest view. Meanwhile it’s the middle of summer for me in real life, but this is a town that immediately captures your imagination.

Flagstaff was one of my favorite towns I visite; I wish I could have stayed longer. Maybe I was just so grateful to be in a real home, eating a real home-cooked meal, with some of the nicest company in my friend and her lovely mother, but I immediately felt so relaxed and happy to just be there. This wasn’t the kind of town that shouted at you, “See this! See that! Buy this weird trinket and everything else we can throw at you!”. No, this was the kind of town that just was. It was itself, and though I can’t say I had time to make a thorough study of it, I can say it had its own personality and charm that had nothing to do with trying to seduce tourism.

The first thing Clio did was to take me on a walk out her front door, straight into Buffalo Park. She told me a funny story: the guy that bought this land in the 1960’s wanted to make it into a Wild-West themed wildlife park. He brought in more than 200 animals: buffalo, elk, antelope, llamas, etc. And they all pretty much immediately escaped. The park lasted fewer than 5 years, and then eventually was absorbed by the city as a recreational park. As we walked around and she pointed out remnants of the shoddy fencing,  she told me she often sees Olympians training there because of the high elevation. That’s pretty cool. Not to mention the views of the mountains are awful pretty.

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Next was a delicious, just-what-I-needed, home-cooked meal. Her mom’s from-scratch pizza. It was glorious! Way better than most of the restaurant meals I’d eaten so far on the trip.

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The crust was so light and fluffy! And fresh out of the oven, the pizza was perfectly warm, and crispy, and ooey gooey just like it should be.

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After dinner we exchanged our dish-washing services for clio’s mamma to whip up some chocolate chip cookies. I was in heaven.

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The next morning Clio took me to Macy’s for some people watching. I learned that 1)she did not mean the department store, and 2)that Flagstaff is home to some cute mountain men! It’s a college town, so there were great prospects here. I mean every guy was wearing flannel and had a beard, but that was kinda part of their allure. Exceptions were those that looked like they’d been on the mountain so long they were starting to become part yeti. Yikes man, no beard should be long enough that it can start to meld in with your chest hair.

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On the way there we passed Biff’s Bagels, which touted this mural on the outside. I immediately was like, “Whoa what the what? Who’s acid trip was this?”

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Then Clio pointed into the shop through the window- the walls were decorated with hundreds of portraits of dogs. She explained that at Biff’s, if your dog dies and you’re really sad, you can bring in a picture of it and they’ll hang it on the wall for you. Biff is actually the name of the founders’ beloved dog, who passed away in ’95. That crazy mural is a portrayal of The Rainbow Bridge. It’s really a sweet story, and made me even more partial to this town where such compassionate people live. http://www.biffsbagels.com/about.html http://www.petloss.com/rainbowbridge.htm

Macy’s was obviously the real deal, because it was packed. The decor was hippy meets hindu-investigator meets weird pregnancy photographer. Seriously, there were a lot of photos of the naked-pregnant-belly type.

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Then menu was very vegan-friendly, but we just got a coffe and chai. Excellent Oregon Chai, I must say.

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I have a lot of friends from all over the world, but I have to say, there’s something to seeing someone in their home element. Clio looked beautiful and happy, and I was glad to see it 🙂 It was a perfect visit for me.

But my travels were far from over. It was back to that tiny airport to pick up my dad, then onto the Grand Canyon…

Did you know that our National Parks are basically the best thing our government has ever done? I can’t ever recall having been to one before this road trip, but now I’m going to shout it from the rooftops (eh internet). National Parks are awesome.

Not that our government can take credit for creating this natural beauty, but when at one point it had its shit together enough to protect it, that was a great move. I never knew how beautiful America was until I drove across the country, and these parks and their rangers have done an amazing job of pointing it out, preserving it, and educating the public on how it came to be.

Now Rachael and I were just driving along from Albuquerque to Flagstaff, when we noticed that this Petrified Forest National Park was right on our route. We had time, so we went to check it out. The first stop is the visitor’s center/gift shop where you can wet your appetite by looking at all the polished specimens of petrified wood and educate as to wtf it is anyhow. Also grab a map, because the park is on a 23 mile loop that you drive through with hikes to stop and do along the way.

Right, what is petrified wood exactly? I will quote from the visitor’s center:

“Petrified wood takes us back in time. These fossils are pieces of trees that lived in ancient ecosystems. Logs were buried in layers of sediment along a great river system, the silica gradually replacing organic material. The rainbow of colors comes from trace minerals such as iron and manganese oxides. The petrified wood found in Northeastern Arizona is from the Late Triassic, over 200 million years ago. ”

Next you start to drive, but you must stop at a Ranger Checkpoint, where they ask you to declare any petrified wood you bought in the gift shop. You aren’t allowed to take any from the actual park. But what are the going to do, search your car when you exit? (No.) It’s mostly a pre-emptive guilt-trip strike, but still, don’t be a dick. Hands off the wood. (Yikes, somehow that combination of words got unintentionally phallic…)

Once you are on your merry way, it’s time for some confusion. Everywhere they tell you to stop looks out on this gorgeous desert. But are you…supposed to be able to see the wood from here? No, what you are seeing is the Painted Desert, something you only caught vague reference to in the gift shop because it was one of the options of design on their souvenir penny machine. Nonetheless, it is absolutely stunning. The inspiration for its name is obvious. Reds, golds, greens, and oranges are dabbed across the hills below, like the strokes from a paintbrush. And I never even knew such a thing existed.

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Because we are not boys, we had enough sense to consult a map. In this way we figured out that to see the actual petrified wood we wanted to take the Crystal Forest Loop. Back on the road, there was nothing like driving through this beautiful desert with the wide open blue sky above us. The road wound through one section in particular where we were surrounded by little haystacks of hills that had those very obvious different layers of strata in bright colors. It felt like driving through one of Doctor Suess’s books.

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Wait. I just realized I’ve been living one of his books. Hot air balloons in Albuquerque…

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Jazz in New Orleans…

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Caving in Carlsbad…

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Anyway, on from that revelation.

We finally made it to the petrified forest! You could just walk all over whereever you wanted and touch anything you liked. It was like the world’s coolest science museum. If we had been brought to places like these as kids when we were learning about geology and the history of the earth, it would have made such a difference in our education experience. It felt like when I saw Starry Night by Van Gogh in real life in New York, or the Mona Lisa in France. Suddenly this thing that I’d read about my whole life in books and seen in pictures was expressed to me in actuality. Really tangible! The history of our earth was right in front of us.

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It was oddly disconcerting to look at something that seemed exactly like wood, then reach out and touch it and feel smooth stone beneath my fingertips.

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There were little petrified wood chips all over the ground. I could see why the rangers made such an effort to dissuade people from taking them. It was tempting when these pretty little splashes of hard color were right under my feet.

Ps. my hair was lookin great.

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Walking along the three-quarter mile path, the sun beat its dry heat down on us, and our ears were filled with the howl of the wind across the plains. The shattered trunks of ancient trees rested on either side of us, but rest isn’t the right word. It didn’t seem peaceful, natural, like that word implies. They were broken, smashed. We had the eery sensation of walking through the ruins of an ancient civilization. The kind we could tell had been great in its day, but now lay in shambles at our feet. Or in a more macabre view, I had this image of walking through the scene of a massacre, where the corpses and chopped body parts were strewn all around me.

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The colors and setting were so fantastical it was almost surreal.

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Then back to the highway. Now that is what I call a side-trip.

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