Along the way: The Southwest and the rest of the West

I’m sitting down to start this last “Along the way” blog on our last night along the way—our last before we arrive back in Birch Bay, WA, tomorrow (on July 30). We’re both feeling slightly stunned that it’s over.

It still feels a bit like we’re just getting started; that is, until we look back at how much we’ve done and where we’ve been. Then it’s startling that it could only have been 14 months since we left.

One amazing gift I’ve gotten from this trip is waking up every day feeling: I just can’t wait to get out of bed and get into this day! I’ve always (OK, mostly) loved working, but I did kind of lose that can’t wait to get up feeling towards the end there. Our year around the country has given that back to me.

And the last couple of months in the Southwest and the West have proven why.

Crazy, musical Louisiana

OK, you’re right. When did Louisiana become part of the Southwest? When my blog about the South got way too long, I didn’t include Louisiana; and then I forgot. So please forgive the blurring of the regional borders here, but I want to pick up where I left off. I’ll get to the Southwest in a minute.

Robert Cray Band, New Orleans Jazz Fest

Robert Cray, New Orleans Jazz Fest

Ashlin Parker, New Orleans Jazz Fest

Ellis Marsalis Band, Jazz Fest

I made a little movie about our musical journey that started in Nashville and Memphis, followed the Mississippi to New Orleans, then into Acadiana. If you’ve been to New Orleans, and especially if you’ve been to Jazz Fest, you know the vibe. Jazz Fest is one part sunny Caribbean, one part rainy Woodstock, and one part each jazz, blues, gospel, folk, indie, rock, and pop, with some New Orleans street music thrown in for seasoning. Speaking of seasoning, Jazz Fest has the best food I’ve ever had at a festival—amazing Gumbo and Étouffée; mmmmm, muffaletta.

Backstreet Museum New Orleans

2nd Line costumes, Backstreet Museum

Ashlin Parker at the Spotted Cat Club

Ashlin Parker, Spotted Cat Club

New Orleans is much more than Gumbo and Jazz Fest of course. The best part was sharing it: Liann, Lorna, Ken and Susan joined us for Sazeracs and Hurricanes. Parades and beignets. Kaleidoscope costumes and music in the streets. I think I could live there someday.

Crawfish Festival, Breaux Bridge LA

Crawfish Festival, Breaux Bridge, LA

Crawfish Festival, Breaux Bridge LA

Crawfish eating contest

East of New Orleans lies Acadiana, where the French-speaking Acadians settled after being kicked out of Canada by the Brits during the French and Indian War. The region is a unique cultural soup cooked up by Native Americans and Creoles, descendants of the region’s original settlers: white, black, and colors in between—Creole just means “native to Louisiana.” One thing I found striking about these folks was how much they love to dance. I mean, every gathering includes music and has a big dance floor. And man, the Cajun food, it goes without saying, is wonderful.

Crawfish Festival, Breaux Bridge LA

Dancing to Zydeco at the Crawfish Festival

Crawfish Festival, Breaux Bridge LA

Cajun at the Crawfish Festival

In Breaux Bridge we stayed in Poche’s Fish-N-Camp so we could take in the annual Crawfish Festival. Lots more music. LOTS more dancing. Not to mention lots more crawfish.

Crazy, stormy Texas

Llano TX bumperstickers

Tell us how you really feel!

We had kind of hoped we could hop from the Louisiana border and land directly in Austin. That’s because about the time we rolled in, the governor was reassuring the good citizens (the ones who were egging him on) that he’d asked the National Guard to prevent President Obama’s planned federal takeover of Texas. Yep. Those Wal-Marts that were closed? Those were really guerilla warfare staging grounds and political prisoner processing camps. I didn’t want to go to Wal-Mart anyway.

Austin TX

School mural, Austin, TX

Peterson Bros, Continental Club, Austin tX

The Peterson Bros.

Austin was cool though, except for all the rain. We found more terrific music there—like the funky blues of the young Peterson Brothers, born and raised “deep in the lost pines of Bastrop, TX.” And on our one dry day (out of five), we rode clear around Lady Bird Lake, a wide spot in the Colorado River that runs through the city. Then we made like the locals, and watched zillions (OK, thousands) of bats leave their hiding places under a bridge at dusk to go find dinner.

Mission San Jose, San Antonio tX

Mission San Jose

Mission Espada, San Antonio TX

Mission Espada

Actually, San Antonio is fun too. More great cycling along the river of the same name. You know the famous Riverwalk? You can ride from there along a wonderful path that runs from the Alamo south to four more colonial-era missions, established to feed and protect the Catholics—both missionaries and the locals who gave up their traditional hunter-gatherer life and swore allegiance to the Spanish king.

San Antonio TX

Shop in San Antonio, TX

Billboard in New Mexico

Billboard in the Southwest

Then the Texas floods (I didn’t hear anyone mention the drought down there) chased us north. Along the way we came across more cultural artifacts, like billboards warning us about “geoengineering,” the government’s weather warfare program. Yep, they’re seeding the skies with toxic nano particles to cause droughts, floods, fungal proliferation, and species extinction. THANKS Obama!

Odessa TX oilfields

Odessa, TX, oilfields

San Angelo TX

Near San Angelo, TX

Parts of central Texas are beautiful—the Hill Country is rolling miles of greenery and wildflowers along the road. Other areas, like the oil and gas country above and below the New Mexico border, feel like a dystopian wasteland. One of many, many times on this trip when I said: I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve also never seen any state that loved their flag more than Texans do!

New Mexico’s grand vistas and plateaus

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Carlsbad Caverns

Crossing into New Mexico, the geology got really interesting again. Carlsbad Caverns National Park was easily the most amazing cave system we visited—a strange world beneath your feet (as I wrote in an earlier blog). You’re taking a hike down a big hole and into a fantasy world.

And talking about fantasy worlds, have you been to Roswell? Enough said.

Alfred Steiglitz, Georgia O'Keefe, 1918

Steiglitz, Georgia O’Keefe

Georgia OKeefe, Horse's Skull with White Rose,

OKeefe, Horse’s Skull...

San Miguel Mission Santa Fe

San Miguel Mission, Santa Fe, NM

Although I’ve never felt especially at home in the desert before, I found the grass- and scrublands of New Mexico to be strangely inviting and beautiful. The area around Santa Fe really does have the most uplifting light and air; I can see how they feed an artist’s soul. Also, more amazing bike rides, Georgia O’Keefe’s museum, and good food fed our wanderer souls. We loved Santa Fe—it was one of the handful of places that was so appealing we thought we’d like living there.

Bandelier National Monument

Bandelier National Monument, NM

Bandelier National Monument

Kiva in a cave 140′ high

Nearby, the Bandelier National Monument was our introduction to the Ancestral Puebloans, the culture that emerged from hunter-gatherer societies in the Four Corners region after domesticated maize was introduced from Mexico. They mostly flourished between about 700-1200 CE (formerly known as AD). You hike out and climb ladders into dwellings carved into soft rock cliffs; museums preserve their striking pottery.

The Four Corners region—as the intersection of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado is known—is roughly the center of the Colorado Plateau, that crazy bunch of geological processes and features that produced the highest concentration of gorgeous national parks in the country.

The Ancestral Puebloans (they used to be called the Anasazi, but that turns out to be a pejorative name from their Navajo enemy) occupied thousands of sites in the southern region of the Colorado Plateau.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument,

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, NM

Between Santa Fe and Albequerque in north central New Mexico lies one of those geological wonders I was talking about: Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. It’s my favorite kind of hike, not too long (saving my stupid feet) but steep (so you work up a sweat), with geologic wonders to discover and fantastic  vistas.

Petroglyph National Monument, Albuquerque, NM

Petroglyph National Monument, Albuquerque, NM

Albuquerque is mostly just a biggish city, but we found things to love there. There’s an excellent museum (always my idea of a good time), and the most amazing rock art. Petroglyph National Monument protects one of the largest petroglyph sites in the country. You can hike around miles of volcanic rocks and see thousands of images carved by Native Americans and Spanish settlers 400 to 700 years ago.

Colorado and Utah, my new favorite rocks in the world

Canyon Palace, Mesa Verde National Park

Canyon Palace, Mesa Verde National Park, CO

After following the Puebloan people’s migration route to Aztec Ruins National Monument, in northern New Mexico, we cut across the southwest corner of Colorado. I’ve always wanted to visit Mesa Verde National Park, and hike to some of its more than 600 cliff dwellings. Several of the biggest and most spectacular are accessible to mortals like us. You traverse the high mesas, then drop down into multi-story dwellings carved out of the cliffs. And as always, the excellent park rangers help make the culture come alive.

Delicate Arch, Arches National Park

Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, UT

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park, UT

Then on to the red rock country of Utah, starting in Moab—it must have the highest concentration of rock climbers /hikers /mountain bikers /canyoneers /ATV-ers around. You can just cycle out of town and find massive straight up red cliffs, petroglyphs, even dinosaur tracks. Arches National Park is five minutes away; Canyonlands National Park is 30 minutes out.

Arches National Park

Park Avenue, Arches National Park, UT

Arches is definitely in my top five. We spent days hiking there, but I could spend many more. Red sandstone arches—thousands of them actually—giant balanced rocks, fins, and slickrock domes loom against a huge blue sky.

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park, UT

Meandering west, we visited Capitol Reef National Park, with fewer people but equally stunning canyons and cliffs, domes and bridges—all dotted with black boulders from a distant volcanic eruption—along the Waterpocket Fold, a geologic monocline (that’s a wrinkle on the earth) that stretches almost 100 miles.

Bryce Canyon, hiking Queens-Garden-Navajo

Bryce Canyon National Park, UT, hiking the Queens Garden-Navajo trails

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park

And Bryce Canyon National Park is smaller than some, but more spectacular than most! One of those places where you hike down from the trailhead instead of up; down into the hoodoos, those tall, skinny,  totem-like rock spires. You feel like you’re wandering through a forest of 100’ tall red goblins; hiking here was magical.

Just when I thought it couldn’t be topped, we arrived at Zion National Park, where you’re craning your neck up at slot canyons and massive cliffs of red, pink, and cream. Like most photos of Zion, these don’t come close to doing it justice. It’s Tait’s favorite place in the country, so he joined us for the week, which just made everything better.

Zion National Park

Along Angel’s Landing, Zion National Park, UT

Zion National Park

The last 300′!

It was amazingly hot, getting up to 110º and above—maybe not unusual for Zion in summer, but a bit much for me. So we hiked early every day, then spent the rest of our time jumping in and out of the very popular pool at our campground. Tait and I hiked Angel’s Landing, probably our most memorable hike, where you have to pull yourself up by chains along the last acrophobic stretch to the top. Of course, The Narrows hike is also pretty wonderful, but because you’re hiking largely through the river, it’s extremely popular on a sizzling day. It’s like hiking in a stream through Central Park.

And the rest of the West

Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

I know it sounds stupid to say this, but I found Grand Canyon National Park a little anti-climatic! It’s spectacular for sure, but after the glories of Utah, I didn’t have the same strong visceral reaction. Maybe I’ve seen too many photos. Or maybe by that time I couldn’t be impressed any more. Or, possibly it was just too overrun with people. We did our hiking and biking very early in the morning again to avoid the hottest part of the day (which was most of it). A ranger told me only 5% of park visitors step even one foot inside the canyon, so hiking is a good way to get away from the crowds; and on the trails you meet such cool people from everywhere.

Hoover Dam

Hoover Dam, NV

After leaving the Grand Canyon, it really felt like we were on the home stretch of the trip. We traversed Nevada pretty quickly, except for a visit to the deco-era Hoover Dam, mainly remarkable right now for how little of the emerald green water is coming through.

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite, from the top of Sentinel Dome

Suddenly, as if a year hadn’t just gone by, we found ourselves driving into California. While the west coast is familiar and un-exotic, having grown up there, Yosemite National Park has all the sense of wonder that we’ve loved experiencing for the last year. A ranger said it’s all one 1,100 square mile piece of granite. Like the Grand Canyon, you don’t go there for the solitude. The best way to escape the crowds and really appreciate this incredible place is by heading to the hiking trails. My favorite spot has always been the top of Sentinel Dome. It’s not unpopulated on a gorgeous day because you can drive to it, but if you hike up you get to feel superior to everyone else, which is always so gratifying!

Crater Lake National Park

Crater Lake National Park, OR

Now we really were on the downhill of the trip. Except for our visit to the pure, cobalt Crater Lake in Oregon, our last national park (which made us incredibly sad), the rest of our trek up the west coast was spent with family, who we hadn’t seen in more than a year. And before we knew it, we were coming around the bend to that first glimpse of Seattle’s skyline.

Now we’re trying to adjust to planting our feet back on the ground in just one place. Our feelings are mixed—we’re glad to be back with our friends and family, who we’ve missed terribly; and excited about finding our next place to live. We’re also feeling wistful about the end of our trip, and pretty stunned about how quickly 14 months can go by.

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park, CA

We’ve decided there’s only one way to deal with this feeling. We need to begin dreaming about our next adventure, so we don’t get so caught up in normal daily life that we forget how to be the free and footloose explorers that we’ve loved learning to be over the last, glorious 62 weeks.


All photos: © 2015 Sue Cummings and Bruce Howard. All rights reserved. 

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