Thursday, August 21, 2014

Our Monumental Trip

We've had three places on our Bucket List that we've talked about for several years: Arches National Park, Four Corners and Monument Valley.  In fact, we've even tried to visit them a couple of times only to be turned back by snow or closing times.  (Four Corners closes at 5 PM during the winter season.)  We decided that 2014 was to be the year that we visited all three.

Paul and Ali
We set out on August 13th with our first night's stay in Salina, Kansas.  All was good! Next morning we stopped and found the world's oldest geocache: Mingo.  Next stop was Denver where we linked up with Paul and Ali for some Colorado pizza.  Love the honey on the leftover crust. Yum!  All was well.

At precisely 12:05 AM on August 15th “all was well” turned to “not all is well” as Mona got sick….like stay in the bathroom all night sick.  Not good. Not good at all. She suffered through the night and in the morning we discussed canceling our plans. She didn't want to do that so around 10 we hit the road.  Obviously, she couldn't drive so she did her best to sleep as I drove through the mountains and into Utah.  

Balancing Rock at
Arches National Park
Our hotel was in Moab, but Arches National Park was just north of there so we went there first to finally see this park.  It’s indeed beautiful with all of the red rock and the incredible rock formations.  We drove through the park, spending about 90 minutes there.  We got out of the car a couple of times, but with Mona being ill we needed to cut our visit short.  Not as much of a visit as we planned, but we finally made it to Arches!  Scratched it off the Bucket List!

Moab is a neat little town tucked in the middle of several national parks.  It would be a great base camp to use for a week or two of National Parking.  However, for us it was a one-nighter as we were determined to hit Monument Valley the next day.  

Milepost 13, Forrest Gump's Point
Next morning Mona was feeling some better and we were hopeful for a better day.  We hit the road early and headed south.  Our first stop was at milepost 13 on Highway 163.  This is the spot where Forrest Gump stopped running.  It’s an iconic view and actually a little dangerous as tourists stand in the middle of the road and tend to ignore the traffic speeding by at 70 miles per hour.  Yep, I’m a tourist too…got my pic and managed to not get hit.

Just a few miles further south we crossed into Arizona and turned onto the road to Monument Valley Navajo Park.  We crossed back into Utah and headed for the restaurant.  Mona was hungry!

Our dining view.  By luck we had the
same table for three meals.
There is only one restaurant on the property and it is owned, like everything else here, by the Navajo Nation.  Since we were pretty much a captive audience I had low expectations for the food.  However, I was pleasantly surprised by the Navajo Taco…at least I was pleased after i got some extra green chilis to put on it.  Mona was taking it safe with her food…understandably.  Good food or not, the view was incredible!  The restaurant is perched on the rim of the valley and you get a birds-eye view of several of the monuments from your table.

At 1:00 we went outside to meet Will, our tour guide from Navajo Spirit Guides.  We had done our homework and learned that these guides are considered to be the best in the valley.  We climbed into the back of the tour truck, modified with cushioned seating for twelve.  We shared the truck with a family of four from England.  We loaded up and headed down the “road” to the valley floor.
Marlboro Man

The road is basically just soil hardened by the passage of countless trucks vehicles touring the valley.  It’s full of ruts, potholes and huge mud puddles making driving a challenge.  Car rental companies don’t allow their cars to travel this route and I was really glad we were in a four wheel drive vehicle.  Nonetheless, we saw several nice cars, including a few new Mustangs, bumping along on this road.  (Speaking of Mustangs, this is open range country and horses wander around freely.  More on that later.)

Will, singing in Navajo to us.
Down in the valley you get a better idea of just how huge these monuments are.  They rise 700 to 900 feet straight up and loom over you like structures from an alien world.  Even though this was a first-time visit for us we felt like we had been here before.  Will explained that was because of all the movies and commercials that had been made here.  While he was talking about this he pointed at Merrick Butte and told us of the time they had helicoptered a Cadillac to the top for a commercial.

The valley floor has an area open for all tourists and tours.  However, there is another section deeper in the valley that can only be accessed if your driver is Navajo.  That’s where Will took us next.  The roads were worse here and we bounced all over the seats.  Thank god those seats were cushioned!!!

Totem Pole Formation
It was worth it.  We got to see the Totem Pole formation, several arches and the Big Hogan where Will and another guide sang songs to us in Navajo.  These songs probably made fun of us tourists, but they were cool nonetheless.

Finally, the tour was over and our truck climbed the steep valley wall back to The View.  (That’s the name of the complex which has the restaurant, the hotel and a trading post.)  As we attempted to climb out of the back of the truck we realized that our previously-broken tailbones were reinjured.  Ouuuuuuuch!!!  Poor Mona now had this to add to her list of ailments.

We waddled to the Highlander and drove over the campgrounds to check into our cabin.  There we were thrilled with our little cabin.  It was brand new and had an awesome view of the valley.  It felt like we could reach out and touch the West Mitten Butte.
Merrick Butte from Our Porch

That evening, we sat out on our private porch (on pillows) and watched the sunset show.  As the sun set in the west it caused the red rock monuments to turn bright red with an other-worldly glow.  Now, this is the way to complete a Bucket List item!

After sunset we were enjoying the dusk from our porch and we heard some kids clomping towards our cabin.  Much to our surprise, the kids turned out to be a horse…wandering around checking the garbage cans and hitting up the campers for handouts.  That horse had no sooner rambled by when another horse turned the corner and sauntered by.  You just never know what’s going to be out there when you’re sleeping on the open range!
Night Stalker Horse

Early next morning, we began the turn towards home stopping first at Four Corners…another Bucket List place for us.  Here’s where Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico come together.  You can stand in four states at once and then shop at the Navajo stands that circle the corner stone.  Yep, it’s touristy, but remember we are tourists so of course we loved it!

We spent our next night in Santa Fe.  Had to stop here and get a good New Mexican dinner and we had a great meal at a local’s place called Artisco.  Definitely a memorable spot!

Four Corners at Last
We had decided to cut short this trip and get Mona home to see her doctor.  She was some better but still not herself.  She was a trooper but even troopers have their limits.  We were aiming for Wichita via Dodge City for our next target.  We wanted to see more of the local country so we cut across New Mexico on a two-lane road; enjoying the grass-covered mesas and the occasional butte.  Mona was driving and as she was cresting a hill she saw a police vehicle, lights flashing, facing her in her lane.

You could see the near-panic in Mona’s eyes as she tried to figure out why she was being pulled over in this dramatic fashion.  What more indignities could she be facing?!?  She pulled over on to the shoulder and the cop pulled up alongside her window.  The officer and Mona both rolled down their windows and exchanged pleasantries.  This officer looked just like the Mexican officer in “We’re The Millers”!  He said, “I bet you’re wondering why I pulled you over.”  Well, duh!  

Turns out, there was a huge wide load coming down the road and the police were making everyone pull over to the side of the road.  So we pulled over and waited.  And waited.  And waited.  Finally, we decided to move forward anyway.  Just then the wide-load caravan came into view.  There
Wide Load!
must have been eight vehicles in addition to the tractor-trailer itself.  The tractor-trailer had a semi in front, then the load, then another semi pushing.  We were glad we had pulled over because there was no room for anything else on the road.

That was our last excitement of the trip.  We continued our diagonal track across New Mexico, caught the northeastern corner of Texas (literally, we found a cache a foot inside of Texas), and sliced through the Oklahoma panhandle.  We stopped at Dodge City for a short time then headed to Wichita for the night.  Next day we were home.

This trip wasn't as smooth as we had hoped and we had to cut it short so Mona could go see her doctor. But, in spite of her ills Mona toughed it out enough to where we could scratch three items off our bucket list and have some fun doing so.  Now we’re safely at home, sitting on pillows.

P.S. Mona is feeling better and hopes to be back to normal soon.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Fallingwater Road Trip

We have been talking with Sheryl and Laura about a road trip for a couple of years and we decided it was time to make it happen. We choose Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater as our objective because Laura has long been a fellow FLW (Frank Lloyd Wright) fan and because Sheryl loves art and this building is an incredible piece of art. Okay, I’ll also admit that we wanted to pick up a few more caches in a few more states. All four of us love to geocache so it sounded like a perfect trip for us all! 

This was slated to be a whirlwind trip because we had only a two day window to make it all the way out to Pennsylvania and back. We figured that would be pretty easy as we had four good drivers and we could easily split the driving burden. We set out about 6:00 AM and headed east. The drive was nice and the company was fun. Lots of silliness from the three women, but I of course, demurred. 

Our lunch stop was in Springfield, Ohio, at Rudy’s. It’s a BBQ joint where you order your food before you sit down. After a short wait we got our pulled-pork sandwiches. This was some of the most tender pork I’ve ever had and on the softest of buns. Oh man, this was excellent BBQ!!! Must come back! 
Everything in the town
fit on one sign!

A couple of hours later we were rolling into West By God Virginia. Of course, everyone knows you have to sing as you enter this state, so we all sang along with John Denver as we sped through West Virginia’s 28 miles on I70. “Take me home, country roads!” 

Laura uses her Zen Geocaching skills
After about eight hours of driving and caching we checked into our hotel in New Stanton, PA. It was too early to eat, so we went geocaching, of course. The first cache was across the street from our hotel. Easy. Second cache was near a wildlife preserve. Easy. Third cache was “The Local Cat House”…easy, but I was a little disappointed. Then came the last cache of the day, “Monkey See, Monkey Do”. All had gone well up to this point, but the location of this one was a little circumspect. Now, is when the true geocaching skills needed to kick in. Unfortunately, I had three geocaching navigators EACH with a different idea of where to go. “Turn left here!” I heard. So left, I turned. Wrong way. “Stop, go back!”, yelled another voice. So I stopped and turned back. Wrong way. “Left! No, right! South! Six miles! NO, two blocks east!! Over there! No, OVER THERE!” The commands came fast and with increasing intensity!!! OMG, it was liking driving in the Bermuda Triangle with a church bus of yelling monkeys telling me where to go! OMG! 

Finally, after about twenty miles we found the cache about two blocks from where we had begun. Oye! All that “fun” caching made us hungry. We had driven by our targeted dining place at least three times on our geocaching journey so we knew exactly where it was. We were quickly seated and ordered our food. We almost immediately knew we had made a wrong choice for dining. The lighting was subtle with lots of pastels. The clientele was nicely dressed and chatting quietly. The place settings were immaculate and our waitress had all her teeth. Argh!!!! We had violated Road Trip Rule 3.26, “Never eat anywhere that has linen table service.” We suffered through our pasta and wine and got out of that hell hole as fast as we could! 
Beer Express!

Just down the street we had seen “The Beer Express”, a drive through beer store. Sheryl and Laura had never seen one of those so we had to drive in! Even though there were stacks of cases of beers all around us and the attendant walked up to the truck apologizing because they were almost sold out. “Sold out” and there must have been a thousand cases of beer in there! After buying a case and taking the appropriate pictures we headed to the hotel to crash. 

 Next morning we met downstairs for the hotel’s breakfast buffet. All had a good night’s rest except Sheryl and Laura had been awakened by a tornado siren. Apparently, this was a siren for only their room because no one else had heard it and there were no storms within 400 miles of the hotel. Not sure what happened in their room, and I’m not sure I want to know! 
Ohiopyle Falls

We hit the road and with only a few incorrect turns we were soon on country roads headed to Fallingwater, which is in the middle of nowhere, just down from Yogi’s Yellowstone Park. In fact, we actually passed Fallingwater and first visited Ohiopyle. This is a little village in the middle of Ohiopyle State Park. We had about thirty minutes before our Fallingwater reservation so we decided to pick up an Earthcache here. Glad we did because this is a charming little area with rapids, a waterfall and hundreds of white-water rafters. Very cool place! But couldn’t stay long, because Frank Lloyd Wright was waiting on us! 

Mona introduced me to FLW (Frank Lloyd Wright) not long after we began dating by taking me to visit the Dana Thomas House in Springfield. I was pretty sure I would be bored to death, but instead I was captivated by the genius of this incredible man. Over the subsequent years I've read many books about FLW and we've managed to visit about twelve of his creations scattered across the country. Mona also introduced Laura to FLW at an early age and Laura likes to talk about a paper she wrote in eighth grade about him. Laura has also visited the Dana Thomas House and last year she visited Taliesin with us in Wisconsin. 

This was our second visit to Fallingwater, Laura’s first and this would be Sheryl’s introduction to Wright. In my opinion, visiting his masterpiece is be a pretty good introduction! As I said, Fallingwater is out in the middle of nowhere. You enter the property from a county highway and wind your way through the woods back into the property. You end up at the Visitor Center which seems to have organically grown out of the forest. It’s high on a hill above Fallingwater, yet the forest here is so dense you can’t see the structure. Here, the lower reaches of the forest are filled with Laurel Trees. It appears we had just missed the peak blooming but it was still beautiful. 

At last, it was 10:00 and our tour began. We walked down the hill along the rock bluffs and were soon in the valley below. The first view of the valley is of the Preservation Foundation’s flower garden. Hundreds upon hundreds of black-eyed Susans, purple phlox and other varieties of native flowers were all in full sun and full bloom! 
First view of Fallingwater

Walking a little further you begin to hear the sounds of Bear Creek. A little side trip of a hundred feet to the right reveals the creek rushing its way to Fallingwater. We’re happy already, but in just a few hundred feet we get happier as we get out first view of Fallingwater! Even just this view of the back corner is breathtaking! From here you can clearly see how FLW used cantilevers to float the house over the water, literally within feet of the water below. The building is huge, but at the same time it seem to fit perfectly within its surroundings and it feels as though the building and the location were always destined for each other. 

We had a wonderful tour guide, Shelby, who spent an hour sharing this incredible home with us. It was built in the 30s, but its design is so modern that you think it’s actually yet to be built in the future. Although modern, it is designed to bring the outdoors in…to make the people at home with nature. Large, open rooms with horizontal lines that match the lines in the stone outside; lots of windows and terraces; and even steps from the great room to the rushing water below. It’s magical! 
Okay, maybe it's not iconic!

All too soon our tour was over. We strolled through the backs to the overlook where we took our “iconic” photos and recorded our presence here for history. No carvings in the tree, just photo-electronic proof we were here! 
Proper Road Trip Food!

It was time for lunch so we headed back to Ohiopyle. There we had a true and proper Road Trip lunch where we ordered inside and sat outside with a view of the nearby rapids. Locals wandered around us with their dogs and finally our lunch was served. Our server had lots of tatts and was appropriately missing a tooth. Ah….this is fine dining! 

After lunch we determined that we were only about 45 minutes from Maryland, and since neither Sheryl nor Laura had a cache from that state….well, we hit the old National Road and sped on to Maryland. We soon found a cache in Maryland at the Bear Camp Historical Marker. Here in 1755, George Washington was marching with General Braddock to Fort Duquesne. Washington came down with a violent fever and was forced to stay behind here until he recovered. The things you see and learn while geocaching! 

It was time to head home so we turned east on I68 and soon we were singing with John Denver as we again entered West Virginia. Then Pennsylvania again, then WBGV again with more John Denver and then no more singing until Indiana wanted us. We kept those miles steadily moving behind us until Laura finally turned us in to Decatur on Route 48 about 10:30 PM. It had been a short and fun-packed trip, but it was good to be home. Can’t wait for the next Road Trip!

Post Script: About 11:30 I was checking to be sure the doors were locked before I went to sleep. All
Welcome Home!
seemed well, except for a persistent high-pitched noise. Thoughts of Sheryl and Laura’s one-room tornado siren went through my mind, but I pretty much dismissed it as a new tune from my ever-present tinnitus. About then Mona said, “What’s that squeaking noise?!?” She quickly narrowed it down to the vestibule closet. She opened the door and just like in the cartoons a pile of everything fell to her feet! The sound was coming from a timer for Taboo!

My first thought was that Monte had again been doing pull ups on the hanger bar. But, apparently, the shelf that held all our games and coats had given way while we were gone and the pile had been waiting for Mona to open the door and get her surprise. We couldn't close the door so we left it and went to bed.  No way would we let that spoil our road trip to Fallingwater!