I need to get out of town and away from screens and the internet. My day goes from ipad to laptop to iphone to TV or kindle. There’s glass between me and life and I need the cliché dose of nature to clear my head. I log onto the Yosemite reservation site, not really expecting to get anything at the last minute, but there are tent cabins available. I book one, sure that R. will be willing to go on a last minute trip.
The first glimpse of Yosemite valley literally stops traffic–people careen to the left and right turnouts when Half Dome and various waterfalls come into view. It really is jawdropping, but we’ve been in the car for longer than we’ve expected and just want to freaking get there. The 180 miles from San Francisco to the valley have stretched to a five-hour trip thanks to traffic and two-lane roads meandering through the stoplight-filled downtowns of the central valley.
It’s been a nice drive. No complaints other than the usual, which is that it is impossible to get in or out of the Bay Area anymore. We planned a Sunday–Tuesday trip specifically to avoid traffic and we still find ourselves shaking our fists and asking, “What are you all doing on this road?” The You All of course, being Us. We are part of the problem. So many people.
We don’t pull over at first few pullouts, but when we get to the valley floor we can’t help it. It’s too much. Too pretty. Thank god we do because Bridal Veil Falls is magic. It’s a half a mile hike from the road and a complete change of climate. A cold mist fills the air before we get anywhere close to the bottom and I shiver in my tank top. I’m glad I keep going because when the falls hit the granite they make rainbows. Everyone is soaked and ecstatic.
Which makes our arrival at our lodging, Housekeeping Camp, all the worse. The Camp can’t help but be anything but a crushing disappointment after what we’ve just experienced but I’d swear someone actually tried to take our souls, pull them from our bodies, and grind them into the pine needles.
Housekeeping Camp looks more like a refugee camp when we arrive at sunset. A blue fog of smoke hangs over the forlorn canvas structures. The ground is bare dirt. “Park wherever you can,” the buffed, outdoorsy, 20-something dude at the reception desk tells me. My fellow guests have taken the “wherever” to heart and crammed their automobiles in and around the stones the separate the camp from the road. We squeeze into a space next to a giant pickup truck.
I chose a riverside tent which promised, I dunno, something about waking up and looking at Half Dome. What we got was a creepy, inland, poo-brown concrete block and canvas prison tent, surrounded by other prison tents and located next to our car/the road/the giant dumpster.
I’d warned R. that Housekeeping Camp was a nightmare. Thanks to me expertly managing his expectations, he is pleased by all the “space” we have. He’d pictured a seven by seven tent with no furniture, so what we go was an improvement. 8 x 15 (?) with a patched canvas roof, double bed, bunk bed, shelving unit, two outlets and an indoor and outdoor light. Woo hoo!
Never mind our plastic-covered double bed is littered with sand. The canvas roof and door filthy and held in place by black tape. The bear box opens with a shriek and groan no matter how slowly and carefully we let down the steel door. The fire pit littered with trash. We can’t see the river.
Deep breath. It’s okay. We’re here.
We brush the sand off the bed and unroll the sleeping bag. We put our food and lotions and toothpaste into the bear box as per regulations. We hurry to the store to buy firewood.
We’re good. We unpack. We get the Christmas lights in place despite bringing too short of an extension cord. The river isn’t that far away. The scenery is pretty in an August-in-Los Angeles kind of way. I read that housekeeping camp is the only place you can have a campfire in the valley and I understand why now. I’m bathed in smoke. I don’t know if it’s the wood or the nature of the valley but every fire creates a veil that drifts and swirls but doesn’t dissipate. We move left, right, we can’t escape.
We’ve got to create our own fire if we want to eat. We do, and add to the smoke. Our lukewarm sausages and buns are pretty good because we’re starving. Now what? The family next to us is already in bed. The group of friends across from us is drunk and raucous and we listen to their tales of socialism and home invasion. The long, one-act play is entertaining to a point. The only mom in the group is also an audience member, pacing the periphery, bouncing her cute, animal-costumed baby against her chest. Hopefully it won’t be eaten by a mountain lion. Seriously–there is a sign warning parents not to let children walk alone. This little one can’t walk so hopefully she is safe. Though if the mom was trying to camouflage the baby, dressing it as a bunny might not have been the best choice.
Eventually R. wants to go to bed. I’m determined to see the fire burn down. He does, and I don’t, because a camp ranger comes by to “remind” me that all campfires must be extinguished at 10pm. With water.
Heavy sigh. I don’t have a bucket. I find a Taco Bell cup in the car and go back and forth to the bathroom faucet until I’ve put out the perfect-for-marshmellows embers.
Now I’m in bed at 10 p.m. instead of my normal midnight. R. is recovering from a cold so he’s okay with this. He’s snoring and I’m crammed next to him in a double bed (we’ve got a queen at home.) We spend the night wrestling in a non-sexy, exhausting way.
We wake at 6 a.m. to the grumble of a diesel truck and the beep beep beep of heavy equipment. The truck is delivering Pepsi to the store near us. The beeping comes from across the river. Something under construction. Seriously?? I can’t believe this. I thought last night was hell with all the smoke but this is too much.
I get up. R. stays in bed. His ability to sleep in is legendary. I open the bear box as quietly as I can and eat yogurt for breakfast.
Now – to hike! I’m groggy but excited. It’s a beautiful day. A sweet pine-scented, sun-drenched, high sierra dream. I cross the stone bridge near camp. The Merced river is high. It’s been reaching flood stage on and off all spring. What surprises me most about it is not the strange green color of the powerful, turbid water, but the variations in the sounds it makes. When I’ve listened to streams before, they sing a steady song, something along the lines of tinkle tinkle tinkle. This river is wild, roaring and hissing and swirling unpredictably. What’s happening upstream? Giant chunks of snow slipping down slopes, boulders tumbling when the ice that has held them all winter melts? Big things, to affect this volume of water.
I try to make my way to the hotel formerly known as the Ahwahnee. They had to change the name to the Majestic because when Delaware North lost its government contract to run the restaurants and hotels, they claimed they owned many of the famous names – including YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK. It’s basically extortion. While this goes through legal channels the park changed the names so the new company could take over the concessions without a problem.
I have a few moments of peaceful bliss before coming upon the road-working crew that woke me up. They are grading and paving a new road with the usual assortment of Cat equipment. A woman stops the motor grader to allow me to cross the fresh asphalt.
From here on, the hike is idyllic. Where are the hoards? I pass charming cabins, presumably to house staff, and spot the webcam with the view of a meadow and Half Dome I’ve been watching.
I find the trail to Mirror Lake and it’s just me, birds, oaks and pines, mosquitoes, and giant granite boulders. I love this landscape. I can’t believe the sheerness of the rock that surrounds me. I make my way to the bottom of a small waterfall I spotted from camp and stare straight up at the sheets of water cascading down. It’s amazing and I’ve got it all to myself. I need this nature time. The flora and fauna I see in San Francisco is ragweed and homeless people.
Mirror Lake is looking a little fetid these days. Turns out it was never a “real” lake. Entrepreneurs in the early 20th century (?) dug out the area to make a place for Half Dome to reflect perfectly. Now the prissy park department has decided to let it go back to being a meadow…I read on a fancy display sign next to the paved path. <– You get my drift? Fer god’s sake, it’s been a fake lake for 100 years. People love it. What is and isn’t “natural” in Yosemite is up for debate. Dredge the one acre and let people have a special moment. It’s famous!
After I get to Mirror Lake I really want to hop on a shuttle and go meet R. for lunch. I’m tired. But argh…turns out the shuttle is a mile away. I trudge on.
I wait at the shuttle stop with a bunch of other pink-faced tourists. Extreme hiking Dad is trying to convince his five-year old daughter–who’s sitting exhausted on the dirty ground–that they should walk to wherever it is they are going since he has no idea when the shuttle will show up. She resists and I support her. “It will be here soon,” I say. “I’ve been here 15 minutes and it comes every 20.”
Fortunately it does show up and the little girl is saved. : )
Lunch is pathetic. I’m sooooo hungry but I’ve got a choice of four greasy meat things on buns or pizza. All too heavy for a hot day with more walking ahead. I get pizza and only eat two slices and give the rest away to a family. I love when people take food from strangers! Humans are trusting – sometimes!
R. and I try to get on a bus to Yosemite Falls and are turned away from the first one. The buses are crammed. Standing room only squished like sardines crammed. We walk back a stop and wait on the other side because those buses seem emptier, and do manage to catch one, ending up on a 45-minute tour of the park. Which is pretty okay, but the bus is hot, and the driver angry from having to yell, “Move to the back of the bus! All the way back, not partway!” at every stop.
Looks like I had the trail to Mirror Lake to myself because everyone in the park is going to Yosemite Falls. I can see why. The approach is dramatic. We hundreds of tourists are tiny specks compared to the super-sized attractions around us. We try to ruin Yosemite but can’t, it is just too awesome.
The falls are immense and like the river, wild and irregular, the huge plumes more like an avalanche than water. The spray is so thick that anyone who ventures out on the bridge over the river comes back soaked. I hide behind a log, prep my camera and jump up for a quick shot.
We decide to walk back to housekeeping camp from here, though we end up west of where we meant to cross the river in a beautiful, huge, spring-green meadow. The views are amazing…of everything. The scope of the place is astounding.
On the other side of Swinging Bridge we find more great photo ops – the falls reflected in a still spot on the river.
By the time we get back to camp we’re beat. We planned to eat dinner out but parking is awful (most lots are full) as is traffic, and we can’t face riding the bus for 45 minutes – if we manage to get space on one. We get beer and pretzels from the store and sit by the river to enjoy sunset on Half Dome, but it isn’t the most spectacular thing we’ve seen today. I’m embarrassed to admit I’m a bit bored. I should recognize this as a symptom of being overstimulated but I don’t. I miss my usual toys. I’m trying to have a tech-free few days and except for a few tweets and instagrams, I’ve kept off the internet and I don’t have my computer. I brought a good old-fashioned paper book to read but after seven pages I’m reciting the overwrought prose out loud to R., who isn’t interested. Neither am I.
I’ve had a great day and am ready to chill but no chill is to be had. Chill being a comfy couch and sushi delivered. The evening campfires are lit and smoke chokes the camp. It seems worse tonight. We both cough. We opt not to build our own fire and eat cold turkey sandwiches for dinner. It’s now 9 p.m. and we are completely unable to entertain ourselves. Pathetic? Maybe. We retreat to the forced snuggling of our double bed and listen to an audio book.
I wake pre-dawn, having to pee, which involves getting up and getting dressed. It’s 5am though I haven’t seen this hour in years, I feel pretty good. I’ve slept six hours and that seems to be enough. We leave today and I was worried I wouldn’t have time to hike, but I’ve now got loads!
I’d like to be in the big green meadow for sunrise so I set off. All the service trucks are on the road, getting in before the gridlock, but overall it’s peaceful. I check the weather on my phone and find out the river is at flood stage right now. The first sign I see of this is a two-inch deep coating of water over a ten-foot length of the path I’m traveling. What to do? There is no way around it. Though I don’t want to get my feet wet this early, I’m wearing all terrain sandals, so I go ahead.
I make it to where the meadow should be and find a lake. The meadow is completely flooded. This doesn’t seem strange. I didn’t know the meadow well enough to miss it and the lake looks fine where it is.
I cross the bridge and shuffle through cold water to a grass island and watch the sunlight creep its way down what might be El Capitan…not sure what all the big masses of rock are called. I’m surrounded by birdsong, though I don’t see the birds themselves. As the light slowly approaches me, I acknowledge I’m not a sunrise person. Daybreak isn’t particularly glorious or amazing. I know what comes next–whereas sunset thrills me…the start of night…of mystery. The period at the end of the sentence that was the day. Sunrise is ellipses. Not a thing in itself but the start of everything else.
The sun is up and it promises to be another beautiful day. I really want to see Yosemite falls again. We saw it in the afternoon and I know it will look completely different now. Every feature in Yosemite has a different golden hour. The problem being that the paved path that leads to it is also part of the lake, fast moving water rushing over the black asphalt. I can see the shore, near the lodge, and it isn’t that far. What the hell. My feet are already wet.
The water isn’t just cold, it’s ice cold. Freezing. By the time I’m halfway across I’m knee deep and my legs are burning. I wonder how long it takes to get frostbite but don’t bother to look it up. It takes only taken five minutes to cross but it feels like longer. I stumble out of the river lake, embarrassed because I’ve done something kind of stupid. Fortunately no one is there to chastise me because they are all SLEEPING. As they should be.
My legs are both numb and burning and I towel them off with my sweatshirt. I take the paved road by Yosemite Lodge instead of the nature path because I’m temporarily sick of nature. I can wiggle my toes if not feel them. I think they’ll make it.
The cafeteria at the lodge is open and I go in for two eggs scrambled and multigrain toast and a chance to thaw my feet. The population of the sunny room is split between dazed people such as myself, and sporty people wearing backpacks with too many straps and pockets.
When I’m fed and dry I head across the road to the falls and am rewarded by rainbows! Yosemite falls makes rainbows in the morning. I’m so glad I came. I people-watch from a mist-free location. It warms my heart to see adults completely in the moment, and so gleeful in the face of a thunderous and powerful and beautiful force. Thank god Yosemite is a clumsily-managed national park and not a for-profit venture. We don’t need zip lines and the Yosemite Under the Falls Experience. Okay now that I’m thinking about it, I do want that because it would be amazing. And that probably will happen, but back to my point. Watching my fellow humans “have a moment” is really nice. That woman could be a CEO or a waitress and she’d be making the same face. We stand together in awe. I guess that’s what keeps people coming to this place.
I take the long way back to camp, hiking a trail on the north side that puts me surprisingly high above the valley. On the map it’s just a fingernail from the road. I’m completely alone again, just me and the lizards and the birds. My analytic brain calculates the chances of me being raped and murdered and thrown in a crevasse and my creative brain says it’s zero. I’m sweaty and tired and safe and happy and very much living the moment, mosquitos and all. Success.
I needed a few days off the grid and in nature, and although I wasn’t technically off the grid and the nature was interrupted by the hideous structures in Housekeeping Camp, the nature still got me. Despite its awesome power and clear ability to smash and flood and eat unattended children, something in us wants to look up at a clear blue sky and impossibly vertical cliffs and gushing water and rainbows and smile at a stranger and proclaim, “Wow!”
I don’t usually write about one-day trips. This blog is for significant adventures. Then it occurred to me that most people will never visit Volcano. Most people will never visit California, or even the U.S. I thought about someone in a country I’ll never visit, maybe Poland, taking a weekend trip to a small town. Would I want to read about that? Yes. So here you go.
I wanted to take a tour of spring. For a few weeks each April the dry golden hills of California turn a crazy vibrant green and explode with wildflowers. I wanted to see the green, to lay in the green, to take pictures of the green, to find a field of wildflowers and bring back a big bouquet that would make me sneeze once it was confined to our tiny house.
It wasn’t supposed to rain. My dream trip was sunny. I’d prepaid the first night at the hotel with the expectation we’d arrive late after a long day of “car-hiking,” what we call it when we take back roads and stop often to take photos. Now the weather was shitty and we had to go anyway.
The problem with trying to take back roads in a rapidly-developing state like California is that that little squiggle on the map is now the main drag through a city. It took us longer than it should have to get out of the Bay Area because country was now suburb. Our car-hiking was past strip malls.
When we escaped from the sprawl of Concord I finally felt I was somewhere else. The Sacramento delta has an understated charm but the light was crappy and I wasn’t inspired to do much more than snap a few crappy photos from the car.
I cheered up when we got to Volcano. We’d discovered the town a few years ago when we were driving around the gold country and vowed to come back and stay overnight.
All the gold rush towns along highway 49 are really cute, though most are sadly soul dead, any normal businesses long gone and replaced with antique shoppes and jewelry stores. Still, the buildings are preserved and if you squint your eyes you can pretend you are back in 1890. And 1890 is ancient history in California. That said, there are more authentic-feeling ruins around. Old mining equipment and such. So even if it is quite new compared to things in Europe or even the east coast, it is part of our history and thrilling to us natives.
Because – if you were wondering – in elementary school we spent about a week on world history and the whole rest of the year on California history. Making dioramas of log cabins in shoeboxes, taking field trips to Sutter’s Mill to pan for gold, learning about the missions, writing reports on how to grind acorns…
Ai yi yi. As a kid I loved this, as an adult I’m not sure I got the best education. Was it good for me to study our rather unimportant history in so much detail instead of learning about the rest of the world? Would the rest of the world have been too abstract? I caught up later and love to travel so I guess it all worked out.
Anyway, Volcano. At two or three square blocks, Volcano is too small to ruin. There aren’t enough storefronts to attract tacky retail. It boasts two small hotels, two restaurants, a bar, a post office, a grocery store, and a theater. It’s off the beaten path.
Our hotel, the Union Inn, is lovely on the outside and slightly less so on inside, as if some HGTV contestants had $1000 and five hours to make the place “look like a BnB.” Boxes checked, barely.
We walked around town during a break in the rain. Every Single Building in town has in informational plaque. This is simultaneously educational and unnerving. It’s like, hi. You are a tourist. I’m a cute building. I used to be a jail. I’m adorable, aren’t I? Take a selfie with me. Don’t worry. No one will make fun of you. No one really lives here.
Once it started raining in earnest we settled into the bar adjacent to the St. George hotel. And geeze that place works. I worry I’m being manipulated when I’m in a tourist town but the décor is great, the vibe is great and the bartender was an amazing kind soul who told us the history of the place as if he didn’t do that 20 times a day. He actually led me into the hotel lobby to show me a photo of Volcano in its heyday. Population 5000, wood shacks everywhere and a landscape destroyed by strip mining.
A lady from a group of drunks at the other end of the bar informed me that I was in charge of music and that the jukebox was free. I dutifully picked 10 songs. The bartender nodded “good choice” at one of them and I beamed.
I gathered, after a couple hours, that because this place is really close to Sacramento there are “regulars” who often come to Volcano for weekend getaways. We were befriended by a fascinating “May/December” couple. I don’t know if people even use that term anymore but it’s what my mom calls someone very young with someone much older. The man, in his early 70’s, struck up a conversation with us and after a few minutes of yelling he and his 20-something girlfriend moved a couple bar seats over to be closer to us.
I wasn’t sure they were a couple at first but the woman kept touching his arm whenever he got too loud and boisterous, which was all the time, and rolling her eyes at his outrageous statements, then telling us what he thought about related subjects–exasperated with him in that way that only a mate can be.
I’m familiar with the concept of older men with younger women, but only from magazines…Hugh Hefner with his newest bunny, the grizzled president of some South American country with his mistress. No one I know has ever dated someone 40 years their senior. Since it doesn’t seem to happen all that often I wondered how this relationship came about.
I liked them both. They were intense and opinionated and we had a great time discussing California politics, but I did sense some tension. I asked the woman if she’d heard of Roughing It, a book by Mark Twain about the gold and silver rush, and she replied, angrily, “Of course I’ve heard of it. All young people aren’t idiots.”
Oops. Someone has a chip on their shoulder!
After another glass of whiskey she began to high five me whenever I agreed with something she said, and then she’d nudge her boyfriend and say, “See, she understands.”
At some point they went out for a cigarette and smoked and cuddled on a bench in front of the window, then disappeared. I was relieved. They’d been acting something out for me, the audience, and I was confused and not eager to see how it ended.
After that, a bearded, red-faced man who looked like he’d arrived on one of those large, RV-style motorcycles asked if we were from San Francisco, because we looked like we were. I expected some good-natured ribbing when he found out he was right, but he lived in San Francisco back in the day, and pointed out a leather-clad man behind him. That guy’s daughter was the director of a play that was opening in the small theater that night–a soft open for friends and family so we couldn’t go. Too bad.
We had a good dinner back at our hotel and fell asleep early.
The next morning it was still raining. I was determined to get some photos, dammit, so I got the umbrella and my good camera and trudged up Church Street to the old cemetery. The gravestones listed birth and death dates as well as country of origin. People came from all over the world to Volcano to search for gold. What a crazy place it must have been in its heyday. And funny that people still come to California the strike it rich, this time with tech companies.
It was nearly impossible to keep my camera dry and absolutely impossible to avoid soaking my feet, so I gave up.
The inn only had four rooms and we were the last to breakfast. I’m not a fan of BnB’s for this specific reason. Breakfast is served from 8:00-10:30 but if you come down at 10:15 you’ll be greeted by a very impatient server. If we came down at 8 like everyone else, he could clean up the food and get on with his day. Not to fault the guy–he was super nice and friendly, just with an undercurrent of wanting us to hurry up and leave.
I’d discovered there was a cave right nearby, and I love caves. The owners of Black Chasm (it’s privately owned) had hand-painted a sign on the road in the style of official brown and yellow government signs declaring Black Chasm a National Landmark. Which I’m sorry to say turns out not be true…according the the NPS website.
Shrug. It was still a good cave. I liked it. And no rain down there!
We had amazing pizza for lunch at Pizza Plus in Sutter Creek. The best sauce I’ve had maybe ever. Still too rainy to walk around, and my feet were still wet from my morning adventure.
We stopped for a few minutes in Locke, a town in the shadow of a levee in the Sacramento delta, built by Chinese workers in the early 20th century. The polar opposite of overly cute overly touristy Sutter Creek, poor Locke is sad and rundown and barely inhabited. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground for these historic towns.
We got home that evening and despite the cave, my overall feeling was that the trip was a disappointment. I barely took any pictures and saw almost no wildflowers. I didn’t get my spring fix.
It took me a few weeks to realize that the only problem with that trip was that what I expected to happen didn’t happen, so even though a whole bunch of other things did, I couldn’t appreciate that right away. My expectations create a kind of haze over the real world, a transparent overlay, so that when things align, everything is super colored, super amazing. When things don’t work out, I’ve got this pesky vision of sunny skies overlaid on the gray clouds, fields of poppies on the walls of the dark bar and it’s hard to have a good time because of that.
Should I stop having expectations so I can be more flexible and adapt to the “real world?” Yes, I’d like to be more flexible, but I dunno. I like having expectations. It’s still spring in California so I’ll try again. There are still poppies out there.
I felt a bit melancholy as we sat in a diner on Route 66 in Flagstaff this morning eating another greasy breakfast and watching the freight trains rumble slowly past. When we were heading out on the first day of this trip, crossing the Arizona border made me feel so far from home–the first step on a grand adventure. This morning, Arizona didn’t feel exotic at all, but instead like the beginning of a slippery slope leading to California. I wanted to back up and keep traveling. I had more national monuments to see! Sunset Crater and Walnut Canyon were only miles from the motel!
Sometimes I’m homesick on these trips and ready to return, but not this time. I think it is because a friend of ours graciously offered to stay at our place, so I haven’t been plagued by worries about the cat, the yard and all that.
As we approached Nevada, we seemed to be driving straight into a thunderstorm. I was nervous about this thanks to our last southwest trip when I learned a German tourist was killed by lightning on the rim of Bryce Canyon. Fortunately, either the road skirted left or the storm moved right, so all we got was enough rain to wash the windshield free of smashed bugs.
We stopped at the new Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge near Lake Mead. That’s a mouthful! Unfortunately we were *on* the bridge so we couldn’t see the bridge, but I gotta say, this is the most substantial shadow ever!
The middle of somewhere…that is what I learned this trip. At first this made me a little sad. I like the idea of “the middle of nowhere.” On our last southwest road trip I was completely out of my element, the way burning man used to make me feel. I liked this.
This time I had enough dots to connect to make a picture. The towns weren’t isolated. Every lonely road was one that numerous people used to get to work every day. For instance, we took the road that goes northeast from 70 (below, right of center). That looks like a whole lot of nowhere, doesn’t it? Especially when you do a side by side comparison with a map of the Bay Area.
Yeah, we had very spotty cell coverage and drove through some amazing, seemingly untouched scenery, but this was not The Middle of Nowhere. We rounded a bend and there was a huge power plant.
I’m a romantic, but also a realist. Am I willing to trade my dream of a rugged, uninhabited southwest for one of small towns populated by people like me, sitting on the couch on a Thursday night watching Tivo and arguing over which designer should be cut from Project Runway? Reluctantly, yes. : ) Those people could be my neighbors.
I’m eager to hit the road, but as soon as we do, I realize the magic spell is broken. We aren’t meandering, we are headed to Flagstaff–the first step towards home. What makes this feeling worse is me knowing it is all my own state of mind. I wish I had to power to compartmentalize this day and make it as special as any day on the trip out here. I try my best.
This route is along a very busy train corridor, and the skies, as usual, go on forever. I’m almost glad not to live here so I can’t get used to it.
A particularly large, red rock formation rising straight out of the valley floor is too much to resist, so we pull off and hike around Church Rock, New Mexico for a bit.
As we get closer to Flagstaff, the scenery changes to pine trees and flowers.
We get into Flagstaff and after driving for hours I’m not up for doing an archeological dig into the conflicting Yelp reviews of the two old-time hotels in town. Awesome! Sucks! Loved it! Hated it! Great room! Noisy!
Guiltily, we check into a down-at-the-heels Hampton Inn. We luck out with a quiet ground floor room with a nice view. We go to dinner at a brew pub and get an “our kinda town” feel from the waitstaff and clientele. Must be the nearby university. I imagine an alternative universe where I went to school here and had a good time.
Everyone spent the day preparing for my parent’s anniversary party that evening. You can skip the rest of this post if you aren’t interested in rants about bad customer service. You should skip it! This is old news to all of us…the familiar problem of trying desperately to give a company money and they just won’t take it!
I’ve been trying for over two weeks to get a cake ordered from “the best bakery” in Santa Fe, according to Yelp. I went to the bakery website, found a cake I liked, and called the bakery.
“I’d like to order a cake.”
“Oh, lemme transfer you.”
I am put on hold for a long time. Minutes.
“Hi. I’d like to order a cake.”
“Do you know what kind you want?”
I do, and I rattle off all the specs from the online menu they have…but this is where I ruin everything…”I’d like custom decoration. I’m looking at your website and I’d like it to look just like the one on your gallery page, second row, last cake.”
“Can you describe it?”
“Well, I’d rather have you look at it. Do you have a computer?”
No, the person on the phone did not have a computer and I’d have to call back and talk to the cake decorating lady who was not in right now. I ask if I can send an email with a picture of what I want. They say yes and I ask if the email address on the webpage I am looking at is correct. No – instead of emailing the bakery I have to email a gmail address.
Needless to say no one emails me back. I call a few days later to check in and the cake decorating lady is not in. A day or so later I get a voicemail message from her acknowledging my order and asking me to call to confirm and give my credit card number. I call back, she is not in.
Now we are on the road and it is hard for me to make calls during business hours. Cell service is really spotty. When I do manage to call, she is not in.
Screw it! When we arrive in Santa Fe I go to a nearby Whole Foods. The people at the bakery are super nice. The woman who does cake decorating is there and she comes out from behind the counter and looks at my computer and does a sketch based on my photo. She doesn’t want a down payment, and the price of the cake is (bizarrely) about half what the other bakery was going to charge me.
Today we pick up the cake and it is absolutely perfect. Just like the photo. (Sorry about the crummy photo *I* took. The restaurant was dark and a flash ruins everything.)
I want to patronize small businesses and time after time I hit a brick wall when I try to do so. Anyone at “the best bakery” could have helped me if they were willing to go beyond their job description but no one was.
Ironically, when I try to send a thank you letter to the manager of the Santa Fe Whole Foods, I discover the store has no email address online. : )
Why have I never heard of this place? In fact, why is nearly every national monument I see on the map a complete mystery to me? I’m embarrassed to be so ignorant of the facts of our county, but on the other hand, I have a problem with getting overly excited about places and things I read about, so on this trip I’ve been trying to figure out what will be interesting without learning too much.
I’m predisposed to like Bandelier National Monument, if only because I really want to get out of Santa Fe. For nearly a week we’ve explored wide open spaces with skies that went on forever, and I’m feeling a little claustrophobic in the suburban sprawl. I can’t get my bearings. I’m eager to spend one whole day outdoors and on my feet. The scenery on the way there is fascinating. I’m ready to jump out of the car right now and explore!
We arrive in Los Alamos, where we have to take a shuttle the last 20 minutes to the park. There was a flood a while back and…well as far as I can tell the shuttle was probably needed for a few months but now no one wants to fire the drivers, because I can see no reason we couldn’t have driven right in. Everything is fine.
Anyway, the park is way better than I expected. A pretty, 2-mile round trip totally level walk along a river canyon, with native American stone houses and cave dwellings.
This rock, if I remember correctly, is actually compressed ash from a volcano, and this lends itself to all the cool, naturally occurring caves and holes! You can see, on the photo I took when we were driving in, these holes are everywhere in this area. This seems like a good place to live in olden days. I like that you can still see evidence of wallpaper, aka plaster with decorations. The round holes are where the logs for the roofs were secured.
The best part is that, at the end of the trail, you can climb up a sheer cliff face on wooden ladders to get to a really big cave. I’m amazed this is legal in the U.S.! Wow! I hate to even write about this because I don’t want to bring this to the attention of the wrong person–who will start a campaign to get the ladders removed. None of my pictures can do this justice so I won’t bother posting them. Instead here is another neat scene. You can get an idea of the scale from the tall pine (?) tree up on top.
That night after dinner we met our friend Aneel–coincidentally also on a southwest road trip–at a nearby dive bar. I felt very out of place when we walked in. Everyone but us was dressed up in southwest style garb, well over 60, completely drunk, and dancing to an extremely loud cover band.
There was one thing I could do to fit in, and it wasn’t dance. After a few drinks I began to relax it all made more sense. These retirees were Getting Down! I haven’t seen such enthusiastic dancing in a long time. They spun, they waved their hands in the air, they ground pelvises. After each song ended, the dance floor emptied as everyone collapsed into chairs for a breather, but once the band started they jumped up like jack in the boxes. They were having a blast!
It was an inspiration. I saw my future and I wasn’t sitting in my front room yelling at the hovering drones the pesky teenage kids were using to spy on me. I was in Santa Fe in a dive bar swing dancing with a cowboy. Yee haw!
We arrived in Montrose, Colorado last night after sunset, and, sick of driving, ate dinner at the restaurant across the street from our motel. This is when the internet feels like a curse. We knew in advance that the place was going to be mediocre. If we could have only mustered a little more energy, we could have had a good meal somewhere on the other side of this sprawling, suburban-feeling town. So, not only do we eat preformed, probably frozen hamburgers, we also feel like lazy asses.
The next morning, we visit the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. It is only a short drive from our funky (more on that below) motel. Unfortunately, it was overcast and the dull, uniform light made for an underwhelming viewing experience. We couldn’t get a sense of scale, or see where one outcropping ended and the next began. After we did all the vista points, the sun began to peek out, and we revisited a few spots. The difference was amazing. Very pretty, steep and fairly dramatic. Still–not black like I expected. The rock is a middle gray, shot through with pink and white veins. This is worth a visit if you happen to be in the area, but I wouldn’t plan a trip around this.
We drove down a twisty, narrow road to the canyon floor and were rewarded with a pretty river view.
After that, we drove to Cimmaron, a historic narrow-gauge railroad town. How could I resist a place with a name like that? Well, Cimmaron was a town, but is now nothing more than a few old train cars and a visitor’s center that is “sometimes open” – the plaque on the wall actually says that. Our time was not totally wasted though, as a short drive down the road put us at the bottom of Morrow Point Dam, a dramatic slab of concrete rising in a steep sided canyon. Very cool! The rocks in this area are super sparkly (mica?) and I got a few samples.
That evening at the motel I saw an ad for the Star Drive-In. I hadn’t been to the drive-in since I was a kid so we decided we had to go. I mean, why not spend more time in the car?
To my surprise, there was a line of cars around the block waiting to get in. The place was packed. We arrived late and had to park in the second to last row. I didn’t care about the movie (animated, something about a circus), I wanted atmosphere and I got it. A hot night, the echoing of 100 out-of-synch speakers, the moon rising over an airstream parked in the back of the lot…
…the snack bar, all of it made me feel I was in a time warp.
We stayed at a cute, mom and pop motel in Montrose. You can see our oversized rental car parked directly in front of our room.
I fight an internal battle every time I have to decide whether to stay in a cute little place like this or a generic chain hotel.
Here are my main pain and pleasure points. First, I need a decent bed. After a day of driving and hiking, I’m worn out. Nothing is worse than sitting down on the bed and realizing it is one of those mushy, three-inch thick mattresses that sag in the middle like my grandmother’s “one-nighter” pull-out couch. A chain hotel will generally have a decent mattress. A little place like this? It is a gamble. In this particular case, the bed was bad, and for the first time ever, R. and I ended up sleeping in separate beds (we had 2 doubles that were touted as queens) due to the roll-to-the-middle phenomena.
However, with the small motel you get lots of charm, character, and quirk. It means a lot to me to have a unique experience. Nothing creeps me out more than arriving in a town I’ve never visited and checking into a hotel EXACTLY like the one I left in the dust 400 miles ago. In a small motel, you won’t be greeted by a smiling woman in a uniform reciting a canned speech. No! You’ll be greeted by the owner or a live-in manager and they might be a sweet Indian guy who steps away from dinner to check you in, or it may be a skinny, shaved-head white guy in a dirty T-shirt with blood-shot eyes who really wants to tell you all about the motel and the area and a whole bunch of other stuff as you politely nod and slowly shuffle towards the door and promise you will come back to the lobby soon to get more of his great advice. Seriously, I cannot tell you what the woman at the front desk at the Richfield hotel looked like, but I could draw you a picture of the dude in Montrose and his equally-emaciated, equally-friendly mullet-headed girlfriend.
There is other character besides the characters. Floor to ceiling wood paneling. Unique touches like this in the bathroom:
And the art! We stay in a Marriott in Austin for South by Southwest and every single room has the same poster and I swear, every time I see it, a tiny piece of my soul dies. It is a picture of a rowboat in some kind of murky, scum-filled body of water. It is out of focus. Not artsy, just badly done. The worst part, the kicker, is that the horizon is not straight. Argh, I hate that poster!
This is a signed print of a moose–in a basket! Next to this is a slice of a tree stump with a deer head inlaid in another type of wood, also signed.
When you put your real metal key into the lock and turn it, you have NO idea what you will find in that room. Or, how it will smell, how many holes will be in the carpet, whether or not the locks on the window work, or whether you will get more than two of the tiny, frayed bath towels.
It is an adventure, and one, I’ll admit, I’m sometimes up for, and sometimes not.