I am having an affair. It’s serious, I am head over heels and it’s got real potential. I think I’m in love with the National Park Service.
Had you going there, didn’t I? But really, I feel so uplifted – just wonderful. It’s hard to leave home and friends and family and move into a new part of the world. The National Park Service is making the journey easier, giving me something special and so nourishing to the spirit.
I couldn’t leave the American West without saying goodbye. That’s why I am driving across the country instead of flying to my new home. Flying just seemed too quick. First on my tour was the incomparable Big Sur coast of California. I think this is one of the most beautiful places on earth. I began my journey in a fine hotel on the edge of the west, and had lunch overlooking the vast Pacific Ocean. From there, I lingered and took my time along the way, stopping at the marked vista points and any other place that moved me. I spent the sunset on a stile in a cold sea breeze, saying goodbye to my ocean and the majesty of its coast.
From here, I soon had to turn east. Now, several years ago, I had to make an illegal left turn onto Market Street in downtown San Francisco, driving a manual transmission moving van at lunchtime on a weekday. That was, to date, my most challenging left turn. I think the left turn from the Pacific Coast Highway onto California route 46 eastbound was just as difficult. There wasn’t any traffic and I didn’t even have to slow down much for it, but it was hard. Rolling eastward into the night and into the future, paralleling and crisscrossing historic route 66, I kept on until I got to dusty Barstow around midnight.
The next day was filled with the Mojave National Preserve, and a whole lot of driving before and after. The preserve itself was otherworldly, almost Martian in its feel. The only place I’ve seen anything like it is in Morocco, on the way to the Sahara between Zagora and Erfoud, although they have far fewer plants and more rocks. The Mojave is unforgiving, beautiful and strange. The first thought I had was “wow, this is some incredible landscape.” My second thought was “you could get dead in a hurry in here.” I continued down the desolate main road for 28 miles until I got to the visitor center, an old train station house in the town of Kelso. Kelso was once a fair-sized depot for soldiers and materials during World War II, because the Vulcan mine was nearby. Back then the trains had to stop more often for fuel and the little town of Kelso was one of those places, in the Mojave. Now they have a nice visitor’s center and not much else. After an enjoyable but hot afternoon, I continued east. Soon I would be leaving my home state. I admit I had a little cry when I crossed the border of California.
Fortunately, the land in Arizona got pretty before long and I had a good distraction. I was on my way to the Grand Canyon national park. I had a special place reserved at the El Tovar lodge, literally a few feet from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. I drove on, and on and on, and eventually reached the turnoff for the Canyon. An hour late, driving in the dark and in the snow, I arrived. The El Tovar is an old traveler’s haunt, established in 1905 when the railway first came to the Grand Canyon. The railway depot is right in the park, not too far from the canyon’s edge. The hotel is a bit of a throwback even though it’s obviously been recently renovated. It’s noisy and the service is not luxurious, but everyone is nice and they do try. The reason to stay there though is the fantastic location. In the morning, I walked out the hotel door and was steps away from the rim of the canyon. Pretty awesome location, eh? Unfortunately, it was 23 degrees Fahrenheit outside, even after 10 AM with the sun shining. Oy. The wind blowing up from the canyon was so cold it made my face hurt. I bravely soldiered on with my camera anyway. There were some brave hikers in their winter gear headed down the canyon, and I imagine that during the spring and summer months, it is a beautiful hike. I think the Grand Canyon is better seen from inside rather than from the top. I bet you could feel like you were part of that miraculous structure by walking in it, whereas from the top, there’s sort of a lot of vertigo and marvel but nothing more. Maybe someday I’ll go down into it, but not during winter! Finally I got so cold that it was time for some shopping in the Hopi House, where I bought a Zuni bear fetish carving. The bear is supposed to offer protection and strength – always a good idea. Sadly, I had a schedule to meet. It was time to leave the canyon. I went back down to Interstate 40 and drove a long way east.
As I checked my route for the day, I looked for National Parks, and I noticed the Petrified Forest (and Painted Desert) was on my way. I thought if I had time, I might stop. Around 4:00 PM, I saw the brown road signs indicating the park. Good! It was still early enough, in that beautiful late afternoon light. The park was a 20 mile detour, I’d guess, and about an extra hour of time out of the car taking pictures, but wow, was it worth it. It reminded me somewhat of the Badlands up in South Dakota, and the scenery was raw and breathtaking. The Grand Canyon is amazing, and probably much better if you’re hiking it in spring rather than trying to see it from afar in winter, but for my money, I’ll take the Petrified Forest and the Painted Desert any day. While I was in there, it started snowing and the temperature was a balmy 29 in the sun, but I didn’t care. I took my time and enjoyed it. The things you’ll do for love, eh? I leave you with many images of the western parklands, hoping you’ll appreciate my new beau.