You can click on "photos" to get directly to the first photo page, which has a connector to the second page, or you can click on specific links in the text to get to the photos associated with that part of the travelogue.
Finally! After spending the last six months of 2000 doing a "friends and family tour", and spending seven weeks in the Phoenix area, we were more than ready to actually start ROAMING AMERICA. Our first stop would be the Sedona area. Diane and I had both been to the area before, me when I spent a week in Phoenix at a conference, Diane when she traveled to Phoenix to visit with her sister Carol. We both loved the area and always knew that we'd go back to spend more time there. So we left Phoenix on April 29 and headed north to Camp Verde to spend a week in the area. We booked into the Western Horizons Verde River RV Park, which is also affiliated with Coast to Coast (C2C) in which we had a membership. Some of the C2C affiliated parks are loathe to let RVers stay there too long unless they can sell them one of their own memberships, in this case it would be a membership in the Western Horizons network. This is because the C2C nightly rate is $6 and they'd rather sell folks a $5,000 membership. We wanted to stay a week, but they offered three nights. So we took it and settled into Verde River. We then found out that we could get two more nights FREE if we listened to their sales pitch, so we said "sure". We did the 2-hour pitch, said "no thanks" and got two more nights, although the sales guy wasn't very happy with us at that point. As it turned out, the park wasn't full and our mail hadn't yet arrived, so they gave us two more nights on our C2C membership. So we got a week out of it after all. :-)
We fully intended to make good use of our week in the area and took off the first day to find the post office in Cottonwood and then drive to Jerome, an old copper mining town, for lunch. We were told that we should visit Tuzigoot, which was on the way to Jerome, so that was our first stop of the day. Tuzigoot is the Apache word for "crooked water". Tuzigoot is the remnant of a village built by the Sinaguans ( Spanish for "without water") between 1125 and 1400. They were pithouse dwellers and dry farmers. Sometime around 1125 they moved down into the valley to occupy land that was vacated by some of the Hohokams who were the first settlers in the valley. The Hohokams migrated north to lands made fertile by the ashfall from the eruptions of Sunset Crater in the mid-1060s. It has been determined that the Sinaguans abandoned everything they had in the valley in the early 1400s, and no one can say why they did so. It was pretty interesting to see these ruins, as it was to see Montezuma's Castle the next day. These places would serve as a prelude for our first look at pueblos. Our travels would eventually take us to Mesa Verde in Colorado for a look at some large pueblos ruins.
Jerome was built on the side of Cleopatra Hill which meant lots of up and down streets. The mines closed in the early 1950s and Jerome was nearly abandoned. However, in the late 60s, the town was found by retirees and artists. Today, it is home to around 500 full-time residents and visited by tourists and artisans who stay in the bed and breakfasts in the town. Some of the views of the Verde Valley are stunning as you look down from the hills of Jerome. We had lunch at the Jerome Grill and then walked around the town to check out some of the shops.
It was still too early to call it a day, so we decided to go up Route 89A to Sedona and then up to Oak Creek Canyon. We didn't stop in Sedona as we knew we'd be back another day. Route 89A north of Sedona is known as the Oak Creek Canyon Scenic Drive and it most certainly earned its name. The road twisted and turned through the canyon, including a few switchbacks, getting us up over 7000 feet for some great scenic views. We spent some time taking photos and looking at the wares being sold by local Indian women and then decided to continue north to pick up I-17 and head south back to Camp Verde. Most of our touring days are long ones, and it isn't uncommon for us to leave between 9-10AM and get home around dinner time, if not after dinner if we decide to eat out somewhere along the way.
For our second day in the area we decided to go back to Sedona for lunch and spend some time in the town. On the way there we visited Montezuma Castle National Monument and the Chapel of the Holy Cross which was built into the red rocks of the Sedona area. The first stop was Montezuma's Castle just off I-17. Whereas Tuzigoot was pretty much in ruins, the Montezuma Castle was still pretty much in tact. It was a five-story, 20-room dwelling built by the Sinaguans in the early 1100s. It was built in the recess of a cliff a hundred feet above the valley floor. Another dwelling in the area was six-stories high with 45 rooms, but it was mostly deteriorated and in ruins. As with Tuzigoot, it was abandoned in the early 1400s and no one knows the reason why.
Diane and I had been to the Chapel of the Holy Cross once before on a visit to the Phoenix area, but it was definitely on our list to visit again as we made our way to Sedona. We took I-17 to AZ 179, which is known as the Red Rock Scenic Highway, and for good reason. Every time we came around a curve we saw new vistas of red rocks. We saw red rock monuments known as Bell, Cathedral, Castle, and Twin Sisters. We were able to see these monuments as we drove to the chapel, and had great views of them from the chapel grounds. The Chapel of the Holy Cross is a non-active Catholic Church that was conceived by Marguerite Brunswig Staude in 1932 as she watched the newly completed Empire State Building in New York City. As she said in her article entitled "How the Chapel came into being":
"However, being a government property, it took practically an act of Congress to receive a deed and building permit. Thanks to Senator Goldwater's recommendation, the church could proceed. Plans were started in 1953, completed in '54. Having been approved by Bishop Espelage, the building was handed to the William Simpson Construction Company who broke ground in April, 1955, and the structure was completed in April, 1956."
It was built on a twin pinnacle spur, about 250 feet high, jutting out of a thousand foot rock wall. Although it is a Catholic Church, it is visited by people of all faiths. After lunch we spent the rest of the afternoon visiting various shops in Sedona before heading back to Camp Verde.
We try to alternate "do something" days with "do nothing" days. There is usually enough to do everywhere we visit that we could be busy sightseeing every day. That would be like being on vacation and burn us out. Like someone I know who has been full-timing for more than seven years once told me, "Rich, remember that you don't have to see everything in the first year". That was good advice. Last year we moved around a lot as we were doing our "Friends and Family Tour". This year we aren't into moving every two to three to four days. We are trying to stay a week, or at least five days, at each place we visit. We need time to sit around and do nothing which, by the way, is one of my favorite pastimes. So we decided to just lounge around the campground on Wednesday. We did meet our neighbors at the campground, De and Sharon Wedell, and it turned out that they had met John & Libby at The Ranch in New Mexico. We went out to dinner with them and had a nice visit and chat.
On Thursday, we decided to take one of our long driving tours, this time on the east side of I-17. Our route took us through the Coconino, Prescott, and Tonto National Forests, and the towns of Pine, Strawberry, Happy Jack, and Mormon Lake. Strawberry sounded interesting, so we stopped there for lunch at the Strawberry Lodge. When we came out of the lodge, we noticed a sign to a historic site, so we went up the road to check it out. It turned out to be the oldest standing schoolhouse in Arizona built in 1885. On the way back towards I-17, we saw a road on a map that was listed as a forest service road, that is, DIRT. It was 11 miles on dirt, which sometimes got rough and bumpy with standing water in spots. Luckily, I didn't have to drive the Honda through any water holes as we were able to get around them. We thought for sure we'd see some wildlife back in the boonies, but can you believe that we did not see one animal in the entire 11 miles? I guess they heard us coming and kept a low profile.
Diane and her sister Marge, who lives in New York, went out to Phoenix many years ago for their sister Carol's wedding. Diane and Marge took a side trip to see the Grand Canyon. I had never seen the Grand Canyon and Diane wanted to spend more time there, so we decided to route ourselves to the canyon for a few days. After getting set up at the Trailer Village campground near the South Rim, we headed back out of the park to the IMAX theater to see the movie about the Grand Canyon. What a great movie. We learned that the canyon is 277 miles long and saw views that one doesn't get to see from the canyon rims. We learned that the canyon was discovered by the Spanish explorer Don Garcia Lopez De Cardenas while looking for the lost cities of gold. The film then showed how Major John Wesley Powell explored the canyon in 1869. How daring these explorers were as they went down the Colorado River not knowing what lay ahead.
After the movie, we went to take a first look at the canyon. We spent most of the day taking the shuttle buses to places where you aren't allowed to drive your own vehicles. We also walked a couple of miles along the rim. The weather was perfect with sunny skies and temperatures in the 70s, so we went back to the canyon after dinner to watch the sunset. I still like sunsets over lakes and oceans the best, but the sunsets we saw on the two nights we watched it set over the canyon were quite beautiful. We spent three days at the canyon and we were out most of every day walking and riding around. We didn't hike any of the trails down into the canyon, although I think it would be great to hike down to the Bright Angel Campground which a 9.3 mile hike to Phantom Ranch. I'd have to get in much better shape than I was at the Grand Canyon to be able to do such a trip. Diane and I walked about five of the 9.8 miles of the trails along the rim. Of course, walking the trails meant rewarding ourselves with dinner out, so we ate twice at the Bright Angel Lodge. The prices were good compared to the other restaurants at the canyon. One evening we noticed a crowd gathered outside the restaurant, so we went over to see what everyone was looking at. It turned out to be a California Condor perched on a branch of a tree. We watched it for a while, but it never took flight. When we came out of the restaurant after dinner, we looked again and it was gone. We would love to come back here and spend a week. The campground is so-so, but it's in the park and has full hookups.
When I think of "cowboy" movies, Monument Valley, UT is surely what comes to mind. That's because so many of them were filmed right in Monument Valley. The first movie filmed there was Stagecoach in 1938 with John Wayne. Some of the other movies filmed there include Fort Apache in 1947 (John Wayne & Henry Fonda); She Wore a Yellow Ribbon in 1948 (John Wayne); Wagon Master in 1950 (Ward Bond); plus many others.
We stayed at Goulding's Campground and that gave us a view from our front "porch" that was between two huge rock formations out to the monuments in the Navajo Tribal Park. The campground was a little pricey at $25 per night, but the alternative was the Navajo park, which was dry camping (not a problem), but not very appealing. After relaxing on arrival day we set out the next day to take the 17-mile drive around the park on a sometimes rough dirt road to see the rocks up close and personal. The rocks were sandstone and orange-red in color. We saw many rock formations up close with names such as Elephant Butte, Three Sisters, the Mittens, and John Ford's Point. You can find photos of some of the formations on the photo pages.
Then we set out on a 200+ mile day-trip (not unusual for us to do that) and did a big loop through Mexican Hat, then lunch at the Turquoise Restaurant in Bluff. The loop we took covered part of the "Trail of the Ancients", which was a scenic byway that highlighted the occupation of the Four Corners region by Native Americans. We didn't stop at the archeological sites due to the length of the day-trip we had planned, but someday we plan to return and spend more time in the area.
After lunch we continued on the loop and stopped at the Four Corners area, which is the only place in the USA that four states come together in one spot (UT, CO, NM, AZ). It was a long, but rewarding drive. I love driving through such wide open and beautiful country. We sat outside each evening and watched the sunset shine on monuments as dark engulfed the valley and the stars came into view.
We only stayed two nights in Monument Valley and then drove to Durango, CO. We unhooked the Honda at the visitor center to check out some Campgrounds in the area. They were all a bit pricey with the only cheap one ($92 for the week) being a trailer park with some open sites. A couple we met in Monument Valley said they stayed at the United Campground just north of Durango. We checked out three places and decided on that one. The Durango-Silverton narrow gauge railroad goes through the United Campground and we were setting up as it returned to town. Folks pour out of their RVs to wave to folks on the train when they hear the whistle blow in the distance. For anyone so inclined, the website for the train is http://www.durangotrain.com.
Durango was founded in 1879 by the Denver & Rio Grande Railway. By 1881, the railroad had arrived in Durango and then the line to Silverton was begun. It was completed in 11 months and opened in July 1882. The main purpose of the Durango-Silverton line was to haul silver and gold ore out of the San Juan Mountains. However, passengers realized how beautiful the views were from the train and a tourist business began. The train has been in continuous operation for almost 120 years.
Given how much Diane and I love to ride trains, we opted for the round trip rather than one way train and one way bus. It would take pages to describe the beauty. We were told by several folks that this train ride was a MUST DO and they were absolutely correct. The ride was spectacular, including the views and the dropoffs straight down to the Anamas River, which is almost all rapids once you get in the mountains. Lots of snow capped peaks, too. The decision to delay our departure from Phoenix, due in part to an engine recall and a faulty jack, proved to be quite fortuitous. We had nothing but PERFECT weather since we left Mesa, sunny and warm every day, not a drop of rain. However, a storeowner in Silverton said they had two feet of snow about 10 days prior to our arrival in the area from a storm that stalled over northern AZ, UT, CO, and NM. Now that was a stroke of good luck to avoid that storm.
We got back at 5:30 right on time and decided it was time for dinner. So we walked around Durango a little to scout out some restaurants to find someplace with some light fare. We ended up at the Chelsea London Pub & Grill. For those of you to whom I have moaned about not being able to get into my suit for my 40th high school reunion in July, I decided it was a lost cause. I know I could have had a salad, but the Fish & Chips were on special, so that's what I got. I'm sure you know that the fish is deep FRIED. Yummy. I'm also sure you know what one drinks with Fish & Chips. Yup, two pints of BEER. :-) Yeah yeah, so maybe I could have done with one pint. NAH. Gotta have two with Fish & Chips. There also just happened to be a restaurant in Durango that served game. No way could I go through Colorado and not eat game. They had bison and elk, so we decided to go eat some of that low fat stuff one evening and it was DELICIOUS.
One of the main attractions in the area that we wanted to visit was Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado. We were going to stop there on the way to Durango. I had seen something on the web about a park in Mancos where you could park for free. However, when we went through Mancos to check it out, we found out that the park was posted to not allow overnight parking. So we just went on to Durango and figured we'd drive back to visit Mesa Verde (Spanish for "green table"), which we did a few days after arriving in Durango. The area was populated by Ancestral Puebloan people who built spectacular cliff dwellings between 450 and 1300. Archeologists called these people the Anasazi, a Navajo word meaning "ancient ones". The Anasazi lived in the cliff dwellings for 75 to 100 years and then mysteriously abandoned them.
We visited the visitor center and decided we would visit Spruce Tree on our own and also signed up for a guided tour of the cliff dwelling known as Cliff Palace. It is the largest cliff dwelling in North America and it is the most recognizable and famous one. It was discovered accidentally by two cowboys who were looking for stray cattle in the winter of 1888. Many of the artifacts were removed by the people who came to the dwellings as they weren't protected until Congress established Mesa Verde National Park in 1906. When you consider that these dwellings were built hundreds of feet up from the valley floor and down from the top of the mesa, these dwellings are quite spectacular. Some of the dwellings are four stories high. I have seen photos of these dwellings many times, but it was awe inspiring to actually be there and walk around the various buildings built into the side of a cliff.
As we were awaiting the start of our tour, we had another small world incident. One day when we were at Valle del Oro (VDO) in Mesa, AZ, Diane and I were in the library when a couple came in to look around. We chatted for a while and then they left. So here we were in Mesa Verde and I see this guy that I thought looked familiar, but I couldn't place him. Finally, we figured out that we had seen them at VDO. I went up and asked them if they were there and they said they were. It was Larry and Bonnie Kapp. What are the odds that they would be in Mesa Verde the same day as us, and on the same tour? It sure is a small world out here.
I had picked up a flyer at the United Campground for a German restaurant located in Dolores, which was north of Cortez on CO Hwy 145. Although that was west and north of Mesa Verde, we love German food and decided to go there for dinner. There were two German restaurants in Dolores, but we had heard the smaller one was "more German". It was pretty late on a Sunday afternoon on Mother's Day, so the restaurant was fairly empty since most folks tended to do brunch or lunch with their moms. That gave us ample opportunity to chat with the owners of the German Stone Oven Bakery and Cafe, David and Gisela Northrop. She was from Munich and he spent nine years in Berlin, which is where he learned his cooking trade. Having been to Germany for a total of some 15-16 weeks on four different business trips, we had lots to talk about. We love Germany, especially the south, and they loved that we loved Germany. She even knew the little town of Ettal where we stayed twice. The special was wienerschnitzel with three sides (like red cabbage, spaetzle, German potato salad) and homemade apple struedel for dessert. And all this for $14.95. Oh yes, did I mention that they also had German BEER on tap? ;-) It was a great way to end a good Mother's Day after visiting the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde.
One can take the Main Avenue Trolley Service into Durango. There was a stop right in front of the campground, so we took advantage of the trolley for several trips into town. It ran every 20 minutes, seven days a week and cost 50 cents each way. We wanted to take a day to just tour the town, so we took the 9 AM trolley into town one day to eat breakfast and walk around Durango. There were lots of choices for breakfast, but we opted for the Durango Diner. That turned out to be a great choice. Not only was it a price-performer, but the owner had lots of photos and memorabilia on the walls. Right above my head were some framed items showing the Yankees and Newsday, a Long Island newspaper that I delivered as a kid in the 50s. I asked the waitress if someone was from LI and she said the owner/cook was. I asked her to tell him that I lived there and delivered Newsday. When he got a break, he came over and chatted with us for a few minutes. He delivered the paper in the 60s and graduated from Levittown Memorial HS in 1973 (12 years after I graduated). He knew Island Trees HS, the school from which I graduated. He was/is a big Yankees fan as a kid and I told him I was a real big Yankees fan during their heyday in the 50s with Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Roger Maris, etc. I'm glad we selected his restaurant for breakfast. After touring the town, we started walking back to the campground and ended up walking the entire four miles.
Well, Diane and I are getting sort of brave in our "old age". Just up the road from the campground was an airstrip from which they gave glider rides. We had been watching them being towed up and released every day since we arrived at the campground. We checked it out and decided to try gliding. What a hoot. It was 25 minute ride and Diane went first. She lucked out, or maybe the guy really liked her, because she got 40 minutes. She loved it and had a great time, even with the couple of bumps up there. By the time I got up the weather had changed. The sun was pretty much staying behind clouds that were blowing in. Diane got up to 12,000 feet, but when the sun goes in there is less lift and I only got up to 10,500 feet. We were at 6,000 feet elevation at the campground, so you can do the arithmetic to see how high up we were. I did get my 25 minutes, and the pilot did try going to some different areas to find lift. None was to be found so we glided at around the 9,000 foot level most of the time. Ever since I saw a WWII movie about gliders going in behind enemy lines I have wanted to fly in a glider. What a great experience. There was no noise except for the whooshing of the air passing by. It was SILENT FLIGHT.
In keeping with our desire to see as much of the countryside as we can when we are in an area, we decided to travel the San Juan Skyway. This loop goes over and around the San Juan Mountains and covers 232 miles, at times climbing to over 10,000 feet with views of mountains that go up to 14,000 feet. The route includes the towns of Durango, Silverton, Ouray, Telluride, and Cortez. Since we spent a couple of hours in Silverton when we took the train ride, we didn't stop there, but only took some photos from up high looking down on the town. However, I have included some of the photos I took of the town when we were there on the train ride. The route for the loop is up US 550, then west on CO 62, then south on CO 145, and finally east on US 160. Let me say that I love to drive mountain roads. IN A CAR! Could I drive the motorhome on 550 between Durango and Ouray? Sure. Would I ever CHOOSE to do so in a 30,000 pound motorhome pulling a car? NEVER! Not if I have a viable alternative to get us where we are going. It would only be fun for the passenger, not for the driver, and I've been told it's not necessarily fun for the passenger as they look out their window and see only a dropoff straight down the mountainside. In a car, I can sneak a peek left and right eveyr now and then. There is no way I could do that while driving a motorhome on a road that narrows down dramatically in spots, has no guard rails, and the dropoff is several thousand feet straight down. As John would say, "it's a real E-Ticket ride". That said, it was a great ride in the Honda.
Our first stop was Ouray (pronounced "u ray"). The road between Silverton and Ouray is known as the Million Dollar Highway. It got its name from the views one has along the way, and also because that's what it cost to build the road in the 1920s. Ouray is known as the "Little Switzerland of America". It's interesting to me how many places label themselves with titles such as that. When we visited Eureka Springs, AR last year, they also thought of themselves as the Little Switzerland of America. In the late 1800s, Ouray was a bustling gold and silver mining town. Today it is mostly tourists that feed the local economy thanks to the spas and hot springs in the area. We were told that John Wayne used to play cards in the saloons in Ouray when he was filming True Grit, and we were also told that Ralph Lauren owned a farm in the Ouray area.
We drove around the town and then went to check out the hot springs at the Weisbaden Motel that Barb Hofmeister told us about. Then we went to the Ouray Coffee Shop for a cappuccino and tea. That's where we met David, a carpenter by trade. We figured he was in his 30s. He worked for company that built displays for retail stores, so he did a lot of traveling. The work was cyclical and he said he sometimes only needed to work 5-6 months a year and then he traveled the other months. He drove a pickup with a camper shell and did a lot of "car camping". His company gave him travel money to go to the work site and how he got there was up to him. Sometimes he saved the money and just camped enroute. Recently, he was in Maui for a week. Nice job. He mentioned that he would love to do some international travel. That opened up the gates to talk about some of our travels. He was very interested in Japan and Argentina, so we told him about our travels to those countries.
We continued on our loop with the next stop being Telluride. What a nice little town. I had always wanted to visit a real Rocky Mountain ski resort town, such as Aspen and Telluride. Although I don't ski, and I don't like the winter, I can understand why skiers flock to places like Telluride in the winter. The photos of the area covered with the winter snow were stunning and beautiful. Telluride is in the San Juan Mountains at the southern tip of the Rockies and was populated by the Ute Indians who cherished the Telluride Valley and mountains as sacred lands. A modern village known as Mountain Village was developed above Telluride. Whereas Telluride is an old town, Mountain Village is relatively new with some magnificent homes.
In 1901, Telluride was a mining town filled with folks looking for gold and silver. By 1917 and the start of WWI, the mining boom had ended. The population continued to dwindle until Telluride was almost a ghost town with less than 600 residents. In the 1970s, some locals saw possibilities to take advantage of the snow that blankets the area in the winter months. They cut out a ski area in the mountain and the town started to grow again as skiers started to find Telluride a great place to ski. During the summer months, artisans found Telluride and started flocking to the town, which resulted in summer festivals taking root. Today, approximately 1985 residents call Telluride home year round. That's about half of what the population was during the mining days in the early 1900s.
Diane and I stopped in the visitor center to pick up some literature and chatted with the nice man who tells folks what they should do and see in Telluride. We weren't going to be there long and we wanted to walk the main street, so we only went to see a waterfall that he suggested. Telluride has a free gondola system that moves people from the town up to Mountain Village. It is known as one of the most beautiful commutes in the world. Unfortunately, the gondola was closed from the end of the ski season until the Memorial Day Weekend, at which time it is operational for the summer months. We were there the week before Memorial Day. I guess we'll just have to return to Telluride again.
The German Stone Oven Bakery and Cafe in Dolores was closed the day we drove the loop, so it was a good opportunity to try the other German restaurant in town as we went through Dolores on our way back to Durango. Although it was a good meal, I would have to agree that it seemed a bit more commercial than the smaller restaurant. We both liked the German Stone Oven Bakery and Cafe better. We finished our meal and then finished the final hour's drive of our all-day trip around the loop. The weather was perfect all day and that made for lots of nice photos.
Our last day in Durango was spent hanging around the campground. We wanted to eat some game before we left, so we took the trolley to town to eat at the Carver Brewing Company. I ordered a bison ribeye and Diane ordered the elk loin. Both were delicious and was a great way to end our visit to the Durango area. We had planned to stay for a week, but added a couple of days and ended up spending nine days in Durango. We would love to go back someday and spend a month.
However, as much as we liked the United Campground, we will have to find another place to stay when we return to the area. I asked if they had a monthly rate, especially prior to the busy season. The campground was never more than half full when we were there. The owners were Tim and Sherry Holt. Tim pretty much ran the place, including the office, during the week as Sherry worked at the hospital in town. When we checked in, Tim set us up as a "pol" (pay on leaving). Sherry was in the office when we went to check out and she told me that they do not offer a monthly rate, and actually don't advertise a weekly rate. They gave a 10% discount if you stay for a week. When I told her that we'd love to come back and spend a month and asked why they don't offer a monthly rate, she told me that they were so busy in the summer months that they didn't feel they had to offer any other discounted rates. I told her that $25 per night for 30 days is much too expensive, and that retired full-timers wouldn't pay that much for a month's stay. I'm afraid that fell on deaf ears, which is unfortunate because it really was a nice campground and I had several nice conversations with Tim during our stay. The campground was never more than half full during the nine days we were there, so I couldn't understand why a business person wouldn't offer discounted rates to get more business. Oh well.
It was now time to move on and head to Pueblo where we would hook up with John and Libby for our journey to Yellowstone together. We are rarely, if ever, in a rush to drive someplace and will try to limit our daily drive to something around four hours, although we've had some five and six hour drives. The longer drives are definitely the exception. Looking at the map, we decided that something about half way to Pueblo would suffice and we noticed that the Great Sand Dunes National Monument was near a small town called Blanca, so we decided to spend a couple of days there.
We drove along US 160 through Pagosa Springs and up and over Wolf Creek Pass. There was some construction in the pass which narrowed the road down considerably in spots. There was very little traffic, that is, until we got to a very narrow spot in the road. Just my luck that we hadn't seen a truck for miles until we got there and a semi was coming right at me. Needless to say, I slowed to a crawl until he was past me. Wolf Creek Pass became the longest, although not the steepest, climb and descent that I have driven in the motorhome. It was six percent for eight miles up and eight miles down.Thank goodness for exhaust brakes. It worked flawlessly to maintain our speed on the way down without having to use the service brakes. I have been told that two to three hard brakings with the service brakes would overheat them to the point of having no brakes on the rig. That's why the exhaust brake is important on diesels. For those of you who aren't familiar with the concept, the exhaust brake works similar to what you get when you downshift your car on the way down a big hill to slow it down. However, in a diesel engine, downshifting doesn't work the same way as in a gas engine. These are "smart", computer-controlled engines that will shift the engine up to the next gear when the RPMs get to a certain point. Whereas in a car you can downshift anytime with the possibility of ruining an engine, you can't do that with these diesel engines. As an example, I know someone who reached for the control pad to put his engine into economy mode and accidentally hit the REVERSE button while going around 60 mph. His heart skipped several beats as all sorts of warning lights and sounds came on, but the engine has "inhibitors" built into the computer such that it would not allow that transaction to take place. WHEW! It was enough to scare the living hell out of him. But isn't it cool how it works that way? Sort of makes it idiot proof, not that I could ever make such a dumb mistake. Uh-huh. Yeah, right. :-)
We stayed at the Blanca RV Park located in the center of town on US 160. It was a small campground attached to a store and gas station, but it was fine for a couple of nights. We didn't do anything on Saturday when we arrived in Blanca except to get set up and hang around the "house". I did go into the store to get something and the prior owners were there talking to the current owner, all local folks. That was fortuitous because we started chatting and the guy suggested that we may want to visit San Luis if we had the time.
Sunday turned out to be Exercise Day, as you will see. The guy who suggested we visit San Luis said there was a Catholic Church there and gave us what he thought was the mass time. He was wrong by about an hour, which meant mass was almost over by the time we got there. The other reason we decided to visit San Luis, which is listed as Colorado's oldest town (founded in 1851), was to see the Shrine of the Stations of the Cross and the Capilla de Todos los Santos, which is the chapel at the top of the mesa.
For those readers who are not familiar with the term "Stations of the Cross", they are a series of photos or statues that represent the last hours of Christ's life. There are 14 stations, each one representing an event on Christ's walk to His crucifixion. For example, Station I is "Jesus is Condemned to Death"; Station II is "Jesus Bears His Cross"; and so on until Station XIV, which is "The Burial of Jesus". Catholics can pray and meditate on the stations any time they wish, but they come into much focus during Lent, which are the weeks leading up to Easter.
Known formally as "La Mesa de la Piedad y de la Misericordia" (Hill of Piety and Mercy), the shrine was completed in 1986. The statues that made up each station were approximately two-thirds life size and were done in bronze by a sculptor named Huberto Maestas. The trail leading up to the shrine was about a mile in length and all UPHILL, but it wasn't a very difficult walk because the stations were along the way and one got to rest at each station while taking photos or looking at them or meditating. The trail ended at a grotto of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Also located at the end of the trail on the top of the mesa was the chapel. I have included photos of a few of the 14 stations and the chapel on the photo pages.
Although not strenuous, the walk up the trail was the first of our exercises for the day. We backtracked through Blanca and headed to the Great Sand Dunes National Monument. Along the way, we saw a sign that said "Zapata Falls". It sounded interesting, so we detoured off onto the dirt road that wound it's way up the mountain. We got to a parking area, got out of the car, and followed the signs to the falls. Well, we should have read the sign more carefully. It did say, although we missed it, that one must get WET to see the falls, and that it was about a quarter mile in on an uphill, rocky path. We got to the area of the falls and could hear them. However, one has to walk down a creek to a bend in the rocks in order to see the falls. A guy with his dog tried to make his way along the rocks, but finally gave up and came back. The creek was running too quickly, and was probably very cold, to wade through it. So down we went along the rocky trail to the car to go to the sand dunes, which were visible in the distance from where we were parked.
The Great Sand Dunes are the tallest sand dunes in North America. They cover 39 square miles and rise up to nearly 750 feet in the San Luis Valley at the base of the mountains. It is really strange and out of place to see so much sand just in front of snow-capped mountains. The dunes were created by billions of grains of sand blown across the valley by the wind. The main river in the valley is the Rio Grande. Also bordering the valley are the San Juan Mountains to the west and Sangre de Cristos Mountains to the east. When the Rio Grande changed its course, large deposits of sand were exposed to the winds. The sand was blown northeast until the Sangre de Cristos Mountains blocked their path. The heavier grains of sand stayed at the base and the lighter grains were blown upward thus creating sand dunes. It's really quite cool.
Surprisingly, there is life in the dunes in the form of plants and animals. Plants include blowout grass, Indian ricegrass, scurfpea and, in summer, bright yellow prairie sunflower. Animals include Kangaroo rats and six insects found nowhere else on the planet. One of them is the giant sand treader camel cricket that lives in the sand. There are many other animals that live near the dunes, such as mule deer, elk, bobcats, coyotes, rabbits, ravens, and magpies.
We stopped at the visitor center to get some information and then drove to the dunes. What we didn't expect is that to get to the dunes, you have to walk across a shallow, but running creek. There were lots of folks out for a Sunday afternoon, so we figured we may as well join them. We took off our shoes and waded across the creek. The water wasn't as cold as I thought it would be, but the current was swift. In some spots, the water was about knee deep which was deep enough to concentrate on one's footing given the current against the legs. We got to the other side and started walking up towards the large dunes. It was here that we realized just how enormous the dunes were. We probably walked about half mile and we still weren't starting up the biggest dune. We could see people way up at the top. It was obvious that to walk up to the top and back down would be an all-day trek. One doesn't walk very fast on sand. It was about 5 PM and starting to cool down, so we decided to make our way back to the car and the campground.
Monday greeted us with cool weather as we got ready to finish our journey to Pueblo. We had gotten email from John & Libby that they were making there way up from The Ranch in Lakewood, NM and had been in Taos. We hadn't seen them since parting company in Phoenix in April about six weeks earlier. I could see that was west of us and they would probably take US 160 to pick up I-25 on their way to a rally for their motorhome model, a Discovery. They knew we were in Blanca, but not exactly where. We were in no hurry since it was only a couple of hours to Pueblo, so we just dawdled around that morning. As John & Libby were going through Blanca, they kept an eye out for campgrounds and saw our motorhome as they were going through Blanca. So they whipped it into the campground and John came to knock on our door. What a great way to meet. We all walked over to a local cafe for lunch and then they waited while Diane and I got our Dutch Star ready to roll. Off we went together to Pueblo.
It was time for us to have annual service performed on our Dometic products (two air conditioners and refrigerator), so we scheduled some time with a local Newmar dealer, JDL Trailer Sales. Our exit came first, so we said goodbye to John & Libby over the CB and exited to the dealer's lot, which is where we spent the night. John & Libby were headed for the fairgrounds to register for their DOA (Discovery Owners Association) rally.
The morning of our service appointment, Diane and I went out for breakfast to a place called the Bessemer Inn. It was recommended by a couple of folks in the office at JDL. First, we had to go find the post office. While looking for it (which we couldn't find at first), we went past the state fairgrounds and saw coach tops over the wall. It was not hard to recognize John & Libby's coach thanks to the big antenna for their ham radio equipment.
If you are ever in Pueblo and want a good breakfast at a good price ($9.90 for both of us, plus tip), then the Bessemer Inn would be a good choice. The restaurant is at the corner of Jones and Evans (entrance on Evans). It's almost at the dead end at I-25. I thought their potatoes were delicious. I usually skip meat for breakfast, but I tasted Diane's sausage patty and it was delicious. I decided to try the tortilla instead of toast. It looks like they lightly brown it so it was warm and delicious.
Given that we would be in Pueblo through Memorial Day Weekend, Diane and I made reservations at the Pueblo KOA about eight miles north of town. There are lots of folks who do not like, and will not stay, at a KOA. We haven't been to many of them, so we only have what we've read to go by as far as them being overpriced and run down. However, the KOA in Pueblo seems to be doing things right. It's not a big place, but it had:
* level, hard gravel pullthrus
* 30/50 amp service, although the 50 amp is $2/night more (we got it, but could have done with the 30-amp hookup)
* nice tent sites for tenters. The sites are bordered with those decorative wood ties (small ones) and filled with gravel, the kind that is more than sand, but less than rocks. That's where the tent goes. When we tent camped, we were on whatever "soft" ground we could find.
* four small, but nice, air-conditioned log cabins with two bunks in each
* AND THE BIGGEST THING - access to a 24-hour land line that was in the laundry room and was accessible from the outside after the door to the office area was locked.
* nice owners, young couple with first baby (girl).
With the current KOA promotion of pay for five nights and get a free night, it came to the same price as the weekly rate since that was pay for six nights and get one free. You weren't able to get nights stamped via the weekly/monthly rates, so we went with the daily rate and had a stamp towards the next potential stay at a KOA. With the 50-amps, it came to $22/night. Of course, it is outside of town and in the middle of nowhere, but only seven miles from the MOVIES, which you may remember is one of our favorite pastimes. I try not to generalize based on one or two bad experiences. We found this KOA to be quite nice.
It was easy to stay in touch with John & Libby via email and cell phone, so we did see each other a few times during the week. We went to see Shrek and Pearl Harbor together, ate at Margarita's Mexican Restaurant one evening, and went to Royal Gorge Bridge & Park and to do the Royal Gorge Route, a train ride through the gorge. The first stop was the train station. The train goes along the Arkansas river at the bottom of the 1,053 foot deep gorge. It's a 24-mile round-trip that starts at the Santa Fe Depot in Canon City and followed portions of the Denver and Rio Grande Western rail line. The train made a stop under the world's highest suspension bridge which was way above us in the park. The views were amazing as we wound our way along the gorge. We saw lots of rafters on the river and all I could think of was, Brrrrrrr, that water had to be VERY cold.
After returning to the depot, we headed to the park for a look at the bridge from the top. We walked about half way across to get some photos of the gorge from the top. Here are some facts that were listed about the bridge:
* dedicated December 6, 1929
* length = 1260 feet
* weight of the cables = 300 tons
* 1000 tons of steel in the floor
* 1292 planks in the deck with about 250 replaced annually
* original cost of the bridge = $350,000
* replacement cost today = $20,000,000
There was an aerial tram and incline railway in the park and we had time to do one of them, so we all agreed to take the incline railway down to the bottom of the gorge. It is listed as the world's steepest incline railway built in 1930-31. It's a 100% grade at a 45 degree angle and travels at 3 mph. It was late in the day and we got one of the last trips down to the bottom of the gorge. It was VERY windy and cold down there, so it was nice to get up to the top again.
One of my "gotta see places" in the USA has always been the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, especially the chapel that is widely photographed. Diane and I drove up one day and toured the visitor center and chapel. It's a big chapel, more like a church, and it serves multiple denominations. Chapels are located on two floors of the structure. We drove around the campus and then went into the city. We saw a festival going on, so we parked the car and walked through the streets where the festival was being held. We had some funnel cakes and drinks and then headed back to Pueblo.
We weren't too far away from Pike's Peak, so Diane and I drove there one day thinking we could take the cog railway to the top. However, when we got there, we found out that the next train was at the end of the day. This railway is booked as the world's highest cog train climbing to 14,110 feet. I started sensing that all of the world's "highest", "longest", "deepest", etc things were in Colorado, so I decided to check out a couple of others. Diane and I have been on other cog railways in Switzerland, so I checked the height of two of those on the web. I was surprised to find out that Mount Rigi (1800 meters) and Jungfrau (3454 meters) are not higher than Pike's Peak.
Since we weren't able to get tickets on an earlier train, we decided the next best thing to do is to drive the 19 miles to the summit. It was a paved and dirt road to the top. The dirt part was very good as the road twisted and turned up to 14,110 feet. It was interesting to drive through snow drifts on both sides of the road that were higher than the car in some places. At about 11,500 feet, you drive above the timberline. Sure enough, all of a sudden there were no more trees. There are Rocky Mountain Bighorned Sheep on the mountain but, unfortunately, we didn't get to see any. You can see Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs as you approach the summit. It was here that Katherine Lee Bates was inspired to write "America the Beautiful". It was not a very clear day, but we were told it is possible to see Denver 60 miles to the north, and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains going south into New Mexico 100 miles away.
Neither Diane nor I had ever been that high without being in a pressurized cabin. It was interesting to experience the air at 14,110 feet. Breathing got a bit labored and I actually got a bit dizzy and lightheaded. We went into the cafe and got some lunch and it helped to sit down for a while. I can only imagine what it must be like for the climbers who go up Mount Everest.
It was time to start back to Pueblo, so we headed down the mountain. We made a couple of stops on the way down to look at the view and to watch some small animals near the side of the road. Diane wanted to visit a town she had read about, Cripple Creek. We headed in that direction and decided we'd make a big loop around and back through Canon City to Pueblo. Cripple Creek was an old mining town that was now nothing more than a main street of shops and casinos. It looked like there was a casino every 20 feet along the street. Diane was disappointed as it wasn't what she thought it was, but we managed to contribute $42 to the local economy via the slot machines. ;-) By the time we got back to Pueblo, it was dinner time. Actually, it was a bit past dinner time, so we just headed to Margarita's to eat.
One of the reasons Diane and I decided to go east before heading north again was to make a stop at the Brake Buddy place in Sedalia, CO. When folks tow a car behind a motorhome, it is a good idea to have some kind of supplemental braking system to assist in braking the total rig in a panic stop. We selected Brake Buddy for the reputation of the company as being customer friendly, and also because it was a system that did not require cutting into the brake lines in the car or motorhome. One of the pieces of the system was the optional alert system. Unfortunately, mine has never worked consistently, although we know lots of folks with the system and it worked fine. The problem seemed to be confined to some later model Dutch Star and Mountain Aire motorhomes and Dan at Brake Buddy was mystified as to the cause of the problem. The alert system works at 433 mhz and the thinking was that there must be something in these motorhomes that was working at exactly that frequency. Dan did several tests, but couldn't get it to work. He credited my credit card with the cost of the system and told me to stay in touch as they were working on a fix to the problem. This is a great company to work with. They want to have only satisfied customers.
Sedalia was a small town and Brake Buddy was on the outskirts. We found it easily enough. I was leading the way down the street looking for the building as John & Libby were behind me. What I didn't see was the sign that said "DIP". I was going very slowly, but this dip was huge and down went the front of the motorhome into the dip, then the rear end, then the car. John said it looked like the motorhome was being swallowed up by the ground. SIGH! Luckily, no damage was done to the motorhome or car.
We were going to spend the night at the Brake Buddy place, but there was no reason to do that, so we drove to the next town of Littleton and parked in a Wal-Mart lot for the night. We walked over to a restaurant called Rodizio's for dinner. It sounded familiar and Diane remembered it was a style of serving that we had experienced in Buenos Aires, Argentina back in 1998. The servers come to the tables with various meats that are on long sword-like skewers and they carve it for you right at the table.
We had a relaxing dinner and a good night's sleep. We woke up refreshed as we were ready to continue our journey, which would take us north into Wyoming and then west and north to YELLOWSTONE.
Until next time....safe travels.
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