Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Day 3 Part 2: Sunset Horseback Riding

I rushed out of the park around 415pm because my sunset horseback ride was scheduled for 5pm. I had found them through trip advisor and they were worth every penny!

Nimbly through the drying creek beds
I had told Sena, the woman who answered my phone inquiry that I have zero experience with horses. Other than the horse rides you get as a kid where the horses are attached to a pole and walk around in circles. I know I was a mean bronco rider for as long as my dad kept putting quarters in the ride, but a real live animal is well, a real live animal with a mind of its own and teeth!

Dry gullies are no match for our nimble horses
I climbed as nimbly as I could, although I didn’t look as dashing as John Wayne since I had a step stool. But I felt smart in my saddle. My horse was a Paso Fino, known for its smooth stride and a good reputation as an excellent trail horse. That’s what my guide, John told me. I couldn’t agree or disagree because all I knew was I was on a horse and it was so fun.

I can whistle like a lonesome cowboy too!
Except when she decided she wanted to trot or gallop, things that aren’t meant to jiggle start jiggling and I was very conscious of the 2-1/2 hours of riding ahead. There were 5 of our tourists, a European couple and a mother and adult son rounded out our group. It was a nice small group which is how the owners like to run things. Of course, some of us were better riders.  The mom seemed to have more experience on horses because she gave me tips on how to ride my horse, El Paso, when she starts to gallop. I basically have to half-stand on the stirrup, sit back and keep my back straight. I found myself leaning forward for some reason.

I was enjoying myself so much; almost 45mins had passed on our ride before I remembered to pull out my cell phone and just video record everything.  Firstly, there is no making a horse stand still so you can take that perfect shot. Secondly, my SLR was tucked away on a small saddle bag which sat just above my saddle. The saddle bag had my SLR on the left side and two bottles of water on the right.

Where they filmed "John Carter" this was Mars!
My one cell phone, with the better 8MP camera, rode on my right hip and was easier to slide in and out of its holster so I would slide it out and video tape, knowing I’d have to simply screen cap still photos. But I’ll know now, even before I have my film develop, no photo I take will do justice to the magnificence of the back country that I saw.

Fisher tower - the other half of Mars
I’m sure the locals would smile at me benignly thinking, awww, you ain’t seen nothing yet! But it was the only time I had.

RT 128 Scenic byway
Of course as I rushed to my 5pm appointment, I drove on the breathtaking RT 128, which winds along chasing the Colorado River. There are parts of the desert that blaze in the sunset and this was one of them.

If you get the chance to visit Moab, UT, I would highly recommend taking a sunset horseback ride. 

I went with the folks at www.moabhorses.com but there are many other outfits as well, some may have it through a resort, etc. But I enjoyed these folks because they also have a small little lodge for overnight accommodations. They are tucked in a dirt road close to the river and in an area where it is nothing but open sky. Fisher Towers is nearby and visible and I could only imagine how the night must be out there in the desert. 
The sun falls slowly as if savoring the land with a final long good night

Day 3 Part 1: Arches National Park

When I drove down to Moab on US191, there is a few turns as you drive through the mountains that are part of the Arches National Park system, but at one point I took a turn, looked up at the startling canyon walls and saw a big recreational vehicle(RV) sliding up the side of the wall and I gasped.

Entrance road
I realized that to enter the park, you had to drive up on the side of the mountain! But I had gotten lucky that the hotel I had booked was literally 5 minutes away from the main park entrance. So on day 3, I steeled myself to drive the sheer cliff walls! (dramatic music)

Park Ave
Let me preface that I am deathly afraid of heights and even the hint of an edge of open space leaves me pale. If you go to google maps and look at the road that runs through the park, you’ll see it looks like a series of switchbacks, it looks like a cool road to drive if you like to drive on curves. I like to drive on curves but when you hit a curve and it suddenly looks like it’s about to take you over the edge, I get twitchy. My palms were actually sweating so much I noticed how slippery my steering wheel had gotten. I would have loved to shown photos, but I was clutching the wheel with both hands tightly and refused to go anywhere near the edge. It’s a failing of mine but I’m working on it.

Twisting roads
Arches National Park, by national parks standards isn’t very big, 76k acres vs 761k acres for Yosemite National Park. So you can take the drive through the park and finish it in one day. I took the drive, following the speed limit which was generous considering the road wound through the varied environments of the park. 

Unfortunately, there were aspects of the park that I couldn’t explore because of time constraints. The drive to Lake Powell in Arizona was a long drive; it took me fully 12hrs for the round-trip drive. So I didn’t set my alarm the night before. Then when I woke, I lingered in bed and barely got myself out of the room.

Upper Delicate Arch  Viewpoint - you can climb up there
So when I finally decided to go to Arches, it was 11am already. So my day began at almost noon and the sun was high and hot against the sky when I started at the first stop and went hiking. The ‘hiking’ was really just a walk, but because of the altitude and my inability to think at such high altitudes (ok, I was so excited about the place, I’d leave my car and start walking without bringing water-big no no), I was sweaty, panting and in pain and only went as far as I could go to get a good shot with my zoom lens.  I shorted myself some incredible views because I was unprepared.

Three Gossips, Sheep Rock & Tower of Babel
But then again, my best adventures are based on my inability to think ahead of time. Que sera sera, what will be will be. Some days I think I’ll be famous for being the idiot who had to tweet SOS because I went and did something stupid, but after the SOS there would be an LOL, because that’s basically what I do. I do something stupid then laugh because despite my stupidity, I’m still ok.

A view from the road
I’ve driven through quite a bit of the US, but I’d never been in Utah where if you have an ATV or a horse and want to go off roading or horseback riding through the back country, you are more than welcome.

That is fantastic and the song “Don’t Fence Me In” just absolutely rang through my head.  I like that unfettered feeling. Of course, other states may have the same policy and I’m only hearing about Utah’s because I actually stopped and talked to the locals.

Balanced Rock
I do have to note that considering how small the park it, it was incredible how the vistas change from almost one turn to the next. After the harrowing climb on the entrance road, you reach a plateau that looks like you’re driving on a flat plain. There were still instances of the odd rock formations because of the erosive damage of time and water, but then there are also fossilized sand dunes. You can drive through the park and be dazzled by the bright redness of some of the rocks then turn a corner and be blinded by the white blazing sun against the petrified sand dunes that look like were captured in mid wave.

I was surprised to learn that the park is open 24hrs a day but the visitor center has fluctuating hours depending on the time of year and I’m assuming, when sundown actually occurs. I stopped at the parking lot but there were so many people milling about, I decided to see the center after wards. I never did.

Fiery Furnace - you need a guide to hike there!
Instead I spent my time assiduously visiting or stopping at all the recommended stops and did some other stops because something caught my eye. It was perfect because even though it was a Sunday, the park wasn’t as crowded as other national parks I’ve been in. I was able to get to a parking spot, jump out(my film SLR hanging around my neck, a digital camera banging in my pocket and two cell phones on my hip), practically run to a spot, position myself, click click ok, one more for good luck, click, then back to the car before the air conditioned air faded to hot.

The tight entrance to Sand Dune Arch
It’s a really good reason why I travel alone, I’d have to stop and take a picture of my traveling companion if I had one. I don’t take a picture of myself! Although since my phone has a front facing camera, I’ve had some interesting results when I’ve tried to take my photo by myself, such as I look cross-eyed in most of them. So dear reader, you’ll have to forgive me my vanity because I’m not posting those photos.

The sun was relentless
Arches National Park is only one of several that are in such close proximity to each other that a week in Moab would have been much better than the one day I scheduled. As I type, I realized I shorted myself having only ONE full day scheduled for Moab.

Day 1 I drove down from Salt Lake City, finally arriving late afternoon, just in time to check in, eat dinner and pass out.

Day 2 had me driving from Moab all the way to Lake Powell, Arizona, which turned into a 12hr day on the road.

Thus Day 3, I lolled about in my room wasting my morning.

So I rushed through Arches National Park, but you couldn’t tell by the amount of photos I took.

I’ll definitely have to come back again.

It pays to keep your eyes open, stop and climb a rock.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Weekend in Utah - Day 2: The Impossible Tourist

Do not attempt - I'm  a professional.
I think I’ll start calling myself the impossible tourist; it fits on so many levels. Mostly because when I tell people I’m going somewhere, whether by plane, train or automobile, most times I’m traveling alone. I think the main reason is that most people lose their minds when they travel with me. But most people tell me how they could never travel alone the way I do. I know there are other solitary travelers, I’m not alone in that. Because there’s always ‘that guy’ or ‘that girl’, so that’s me.

Random road rock
The hard part of traveling alone isn’t the non-social aspect of it; it’s the inability to do it all. I’d like to be able to drive AND take pictures at the same time. But 1) it’s really not safe, 2) I only have two hands 3) I only have one set of eyes.

Wilson's Arch - just south of Moab, UT
But again, being the impossible tourist would explain some of the photos that I downloaded, they came out looking like crap. When you try to shoot out of your windshield, the autofocus focuses on the glass.

You really have to stop and take the picture.

Just to the right side, there's one of the widened shoulders

Thanks to the state of Utah, who conveniently put turn offs along the side of the road of US 163 Scenic Drive, look it up on Google, that’s what it’s called, a scenic drive. Just when you turn a curve and see another fantastic rock, there’s a widening of the shoulder, there’s no sign or any indication that you can pull over, and you just do. Just make sure your car can take it, it’s all just gravel and rock and not much else.

If you Google images of “monument valley” you see that stretch of road that seems to run straight into those three towers. Technically that isn’t Monument Valley, Monument Valley is what you’re actually driving in. I think these are called The Mittens.

The only pix I found of the perfect Mittens stop
But if you’re going to go there, see it east to west first, that’s THE money maker shot. There’s a specific spot and you’ll know it when you get there, simply because every few feet there are the convenient photo ops areas.

I drove up on it and had to stop when a group of German tourists were lying in the middle of the road. How did I know they were Germans? I stopped and talked with them. But since they occupied that first spot, I drove down a bit more and found an even better stop.

So I copied the Germans and sat my butt down in the middle of the highway and when a car full of Asians stopped, they followed suit. It didn’t take long before we’re a bunch of grinning idiots lolling about in the middle of the Navajo country taking pictures of a ribbon of road. When you’re on the ground, it’s actually difficult to decide what’s more of important, the mountains or the road.

The Mittens from one of those random side road stops
Instead of turning to Monument Valley road to get to the actually national park, I continued on US163 which made my GPS snippy. She often sounds like my 8th grade algebra teacher, “Turn at the corner!”

Lone Rock Beach, that's the 'Lone Rock'

It was only a few miles that I found myself in Arizona. My final destination was going to be Lone Rock Beach at Wahweap Bay on Lake Powell, by Page, Arizona, but Lone Rock Beach is in Utah. It was easy, US 163 to US 160 to US 98 to US 89 to Lone Rock Road. 

Wahweap Bay

Never heard of it before? Neither had I, but it’s where in the episode “The Impossible Astronaut” that Doctor Who is killed. Don’t ask, I seem to be making a habit of visiting movie/TV location sets.

The Mittens from the west, there are two 'stops' at the right
Afterwards, I simply turned around and retraced my steps and looked at the same thing, but from a different angle. It makes a huge difference. Things you see as you head west are different from the things you see as you head east. Especially when as you head west, you have the sun at you back and as you head back east, you still get the sun at your back!

Looking out my car window

Those estimated times you get from Google or from your GPS don’t take into account, bathroom/snack/gas/photo op stops. But then again, those are the reasons you take a road trip, for all the stops in between point A to point B.

Just remember, wherever you’re going, stop and enjoy the moments.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Weekend in Utah Day 1

Chicago has mountains of steel and canyons of concrete, you can spend eight hours driving around in Chicago and you’d never end up in the same place. But then it would just be another Saturday.

I started my weekend early, my weekend started on Thursday night. Unfortunately, it didn't end until the wee hours of Friday morning. Chicago to Salt Lake City was a CRJ 700, a two by two small plane that closely resembled a large private plane. Luckily, it was probably one of the smoothest take offs I've ever had. The landing approach was just as smooth, but the touch down was a bit awkward. Other than that, it wasn't the nerve wracking experience I thought it would be. 

So now I’m in Utah. I got a car, bought a Styrofoam cooler, loaded it with ice, water and my ubiquitous Coke Zero then I headed for the mountains. I have a destination as much as I have hotel reservations, but I have no timetables, except to stop where I want to stop, do what I want to do, because it’s my time to let my inner cowboy roll. I may not have an organic horse, but I got horsepower. 

My hotel last night had great black out drapes, so I burnt my eyes when I peeked out and the morning was bright, clear and blue. The sky isn't the usual deep blue of a winter's day, instead it was a pastel blue, a reluctant morning.

Abandoned building.
But I thought it was only fair before I left Salt Lake City to visit the Salt Lake. So I hopped on I80 and headed west. When I turned my head and saw what looked like salt flats and people in the middle of it sitting on lawn chairs, I looked for the next exit. It's Hwy 202 and the corner of Temple Frontage road was this huge, seemingly abandoned building with the entrance locked. 

So I turned and headed down the frontage road to find the people on the lawn chairs. They were in lawn chair flying radio controlled airplanes. 

Don't fence me in!

I didn't drive the entire length of the road but when I saw a spot I did a perfect 3pt turn and parked on the side of the road. There were opening in the wire fence, a path leading into the salt flats and big wide open sky. Who could say no to that?

Wide open skies.

Not a mirage

Just off the photo - I won't invade someone's privacy by taking their photo without permission - are the people on the lawn chairs enjoying the big open sky with a dive bombing plane!

This photo looks like it's a mirage as if the mountains in the distance seem to float off in the air. The sky was hazy, but it made for a great effect.

Rolling mountains

The mountains by Salt Lake seemed to lean into the highway, as if they were threatening the traffic.

Lean on me

It wasn't long before I headed back east on I80 to catch US6 and headed south. It felt like it took me an hour to cross through the greater SLC metro area, it was probably all the construction. Then suddenly, the suburbs gave way to the open road and it actually took me by surprise, especially some of the more random sights.

I looked and had the urge to yell "Hi Ho Silver!"

I didn't realize until later that I had captured this couple watching the same train I was looking at.

Rest area - looking northeast

Just before exit 182 on US6 is a very quick sign for a rest area, don't miss it. Stop at the rest area, it's totally worth it.

Rest area - looking south.

Imagine being in a covered wagon and seeing this?
Rest area - looking east

This is on US191, there's a dirt road that goes into that. 

I imagined the Navajo nation standing on those ridges and wonder how they felt staring at the great open divide.

Why I love road trips

This is one of those moments when a photograph just can't capture the awesome vista when the open road truly beckons.