Wednesday, September 10, 2014

My Western Swing

I recently had the opportunity to accompany Anna on a business trip to Grand Junction, Colorado. However, rather than going directly to her destination, we flew into and out of Salt Lake City, where a friend of hers lives (he had served as our guide on our only previous trip to the west back in 2007). This gave us the opportunity to see a lot of the amazing territory in that part of the American West.

We arrived late Friday afternoon, and her friend suggested we check out Antelope Island State Park. This is the largest island in the Great Salt Lake, and its residents include not just pronghorn antelope, but also mule deer (with their large ears) and a herd of bison. A long causeway connects the island to the coast, and then a park roadway allows exploration of much of the island. We checked out the visitor center/museum that helped to explain a lot about the Great Salt Lake. The island was an interesting place to kick off our western week, and we enjoyed watching the evening sun reflecting off the water of this inland sea.

The next morning, we went on a roadtrip to cross another state off of our list of those we have visited (you might recall that earlier this summer we were able to cross Maine off our list). Anna’s friend is dating a girl from Idaho, so we drove north from Salt Lake City to visit her hometown of Pocatello. It was interesting to see this old railroad town, and to explore the campus of Idaho State University. We also drove through lands designated as an Indian reservation just north of Pocatello. I enjoyed seeing a crop duster airplane spraying a field—something I’ve never seen back home. The geology of the west is just so different than what we are accustomed to in the east. We returned to Salt Lake City in time to enjoy a nice dinner in downtown Salt Lake City.

On Sunday, we started on our trek to Colorado. Rather than stay on interstate highways, we wanted to explore the back country on two lane roads. We chose to cut across U.S. Route 6 from Provo through the town of Price and on to I-70 near Green River. It was a fascinating drive through sparsely populated areas which first had us driving through mountains but eventually through flat desert.

We were only on I-70 for a short distance before exiting on a two-lane highway that took us southeastward to Arches National Park. The unusual red rock formations were incredible! We enjoyed taking a few hikes to see the recommended sites in this park, including several of the natural stone arches for which the park is named.

Afterwards, we drove into the nearby tourist town of Moab for a nice dinner. Moab makes me think of what a much larger version of Fayetteville, WV, might look like, because it serves as the base for many visitors exploring the unusual landscapes in Southeastern Utah. There are a number of outfitters there, providing opportunities for whitewater rafting, rock climbing, ziplining, etc.

Rather than backtrack on the highway we had come in on from I-70, we opted to take a twisty two-lane that follows the Colorado River and joins I-70 closer to the Colorado border. The views we enjoyed in this red rock canyon were indescribable! There was only the road and the river, with majestic multi-layered walls on either side of us. The pictures we tried to take simply can’t convey how “wowed” we were on this drive. As this seldom used road left the canyon and the river, but before it joined I-70, we were treated to two different unexpected encounters with wild antelopes along the highway. Not long after getting onto I-70 again, we crossed into Colorado and were soon checking into our hotel in Grand Junction.

After driving Anna to work on Monday morning (using U.S. Route 50, which also runs through West Virginia less than a mile from my house), I was free to roam about during the day. My morning was spent at Colorado National Monument, which is a 26 mile road that is part of the National Park Service. It is a bit like Skyline Drive or the Blue Ridge Parkway, except it is along the edge of a mesa. There are numerous pull-offs with breathtaking views of the canyons. It is a stunning way to see the beauty of this area.

That afternoon, I arranged to take a solo kayak trip on the Colorado River. The outfitter provided me with an inflatable kayak (also known as a ducky) and drove me upstream towards Grand Junction from their headquarters at Fruita, Colorado. For the next few hours, it was just me alone drifting down the upper Colorado River. I enjoyed seeing familiar Great Blue Herons (like we have back home) as well as the black and white long-tailed Magpie birds that are only found in the western states. I had noticed a beaver dam and was lucky enough to later see a beaver swimming in the water. Once he realized I was there, he dove under the water, while a companion on the bank was slapping its tail on the ground as a warning call. I really enjoyed the solitude of this trip, not knowing what was around each bend of the river, and knowing that this water would eventually flow through the Grand Canyon and into the Gulf of California.

On Monday evening, Anna and I attended a local minor league baseball game to support a former WVU graduate (and Bridgeport native) who pitches for the Grand Junction Rockies. Although he didn’t pitch that night, it was an interesting evening at the ballpark (home of the U.S. Junior College World Series), with a good view of Mount Garfield (a high peak) in the distance beyond the outfield. Their concession stand even sells local peaches from nearby Palisades, Colorado, which are renowned for their flavor. I tried one (served in a cardboard basket similar to the way French fries might be served) and I must say it was the best peach I’ve ever tasted.

My Tuesday was spent primarily indoors to avoid some intermittent showers. I first toured the Museum of the West in downtown Grand Junction, before traveling to Fruita to check out the Dinosaur Museum there. This area is known for dinosaur discoveries, including the large dinosaur in the Field Museum at Chicago—I also hiked the interpretive trail on the nearby hillside where that huge dinosaur was recovered. I finished the afternoon at Allen Unique Autos, a car collector’s warehouse turned into a museum of sorts.BR>

Wednesday was a big day for me. I had decided to make the long drive (more than four hours) over more two-lane roads to visit the Four Corners (where Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico meet). It was a beautiful drive through mostly desolate areas. I started off by taking U.S. 50 east of Grand Junction before turning south. As I crossed the first ridge, I saw Big Horn Sheep along the roadway. They were more like deer with strange horns than the sheep we have back home. Later, I saw a large black bear amble into the highway ahead of me, and disappear into the brush, followed quickly by a small cub. I had slowed down but just as I started to speed up, a second cub crossed the road in front of me! Other sights I’ll remember from my trip south to Four Corners include the resort built at Gateway by the owner of the Discovery Channel, a huge field of tall sunflowers, and a large Indian Casino in the desert south of Cortez, Colorado.

The Four Corners monument is located in the middle of nowhere—folks just like to see the exact point where four different states meet. I was able to practice my skills from the old “Twister” game by placing my left hand in Colorado, my left foot in Utah, my right foot in Arizona, and my right hand in New Mexico (thus allowing me to cross off the last state I needed to visit in the southern half of the United States). Surrounding the plaza are shopping booths where Indians sell a variety of items such as jewelry, knives, t-shirts, food, etc. I purchased some “fry bread” and a few souvenirs and then headed back to the rental car.

Rather than retrace my route through southwestern Colorado, my plan was to take other small roads north through southeastern Utah to see more territory. This enabled me to make a stop at the Hovenweep National Monument. Hovenweep was a village that once housed as many as 2500 of the same early Native Americans who also inhabitated the better known Mesa Verde cliff dwellings. Numerous stone buildings, including multi-story towers, are still standing even though the Indians left this area in the 1300s. After checking out the visitor center, I took the two-mile trail around the small canyon where most of these stone buildings were located. It was fascinating to see what a large and vibrant community had lived here for hundreds of years, but who had mysteriously disappeared long before the Europeans arrived.

After my hike at Hovenweep, I drove north (past beautiful mountains, mesas, arches, and other scenery) to Moab, where once again I took the roadway that follows the Colorado River through the canyon it cuts on my way back to Grand Junction. It was definitely worth taking that road twice!

Some folks might wonder why I spent the day driving more than eight hours to spend only about half an hour at my primary destination (the geographical oddity of Four Corners)? The driving time can be justified because the entire drive was an experience—not just the time spent at the destination. I saw so many incredible sights that day that will long reside in my mind. Now, whenever I look at a map of the USA and see the only spot where four states converge, I will have a treasured memory of the awe-inspiring landscapes I witnessed during my day spent driving there.

During my last full day while Anna was at work, I decided to drive east into the Rocky Mountains. I took I-70 for two hours from Grand Junction to Glenwood Springs, Colorado. There are lots of things to do there, but I chose to check out the Glenwood Adventure Park. A tramway takes you up a 7000 foot mountain above the town, where a series of caves were discovered, and then an amusement park was added. I took both of the cave tours and watched some of the thrill rides (including a giant swing powered by compressed air that swings you out over the edge of the cliff). I only chose to make my way through a maze (more of a mental challenge than a thrill ride) and to ride the alpine coaster (which was much longer and faster than the one I had previously ridden at Maryland’s Wisp Resort near Morgantown).

Before leaving Glenwood Springs, I drove into the downtown area to eat a late lunch at Doc Holliday’s Tavern. The famed dentist/gunfighter had left the OK Corral to move to Glenwood Springs, where it was hoped the mineral springs might help his tuberculosis (although he eventually died there). It was interesting to sit at a bar (which shares its name with Marshall’s football coach, who is also a West Virginia native and WVU alum) eating a buffalo burger in Colorado when I happen to overhear two guys down the bar talking about fracking in West Virginia. I introduced myself and discovered they were from Morgantown and Wellsburg—what a small world!

I made it back in time to pick up Anna after work and drive her through the Colorado National Monument from Grand Junction to Fruita. Even though I had seen it on Monday morning, it was much different to see the same exotic rock formations in the late afternoon/early evening sunlight. We enjoyed a late dinner in Fruita before heading back for our last night in Grand Junction.

Friday morning I made time to visit the Colorado National Monument Visitor Center and Museum at the western end of the road (it had already closed last night by the time we got there). This allowed me to drive this scenic roadway one more time—but this time in the opposite direction, which afforded a number of unique viewpoints. Anna was able to leave work early, so we headed back to Utah, taking I-70 to Green River before turning north on U.S. 6 towards Price, Utah. This time, we veered off U.S. 6 onto another small highway (Route 191), which took us northeast (across a couple of nearly 10,00 foot tall ridges) to U.S. 40. We then made a left turn and followed U.S. 40 (which is the same road that passes through West Virginia at Wheeling) past Starvation State Park and beyond to Park City, where we caught I-80 down the mountains to Salt Lake City. We met with Anna’s friend again, who took us to the University of Utah campus area for a delicious dinner that evening.

On Saturday, we drove about two hours west from Salt Lake City, past the southern edge of the Great Salt Lake, and on to the Bonneville Salt Flats near the Utah-Nevada border. I’ve always been fascinated by the high speeds attained by land speed racers there. We were able to walk out onto the salt flats, which stretch for miles and miles in the distance. It is truly an alien landscape! I count myself very lucky this year to have visited perhaps the three most famous racing venue names in the USA—Daytona (after our cruise in February), Indianapolis (for my first Indy 500), and now Bonneville.

We drove into the nearby town of Wendover, which straddles the state border. The Nevada side of town has about half a dozen large casinos. It also features a huge neon sign of a cowboy welcoming you to town. We saw the site of the future “Land Speed Record Hall of Fame and Museum” but unfortunately it hasn’t been built yet. I guess that gives me a reason to come back someday! We enjoyed a nice meal in one of the biggest casinos, but neither of us chose to play—we just never picked up the gambling bug.

We had a great week traveling out west, but had to catch our flight home on Sunday. I was able to visit six states (Utah, Idaho, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada), two of which were for the first time (Idaho and New Mexico). We saw a wide range of scenery over the week, from salt flats to red rock canyons to mesas to arches to Rocky Mountains to southwestern deserts. The American West is truly an incredible place to visit! Plus, I must admit how much easier it is to travel like this these days, using the apps on our smartphones. From driving directions to restaurant recommendations, modern technology makes grand sightseeing tours so much easier! I’m grateful to have had this opportunity.

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