Saturday, December 29, 2018

My Western Adventure: National Parks, Monuments, and Sketches

At the end of October, my family went on our long-awaited Western Adventure - a two-week vacation in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. We visited three national monuments and seven national parks, put about 3,000 miles on our rental SUV, and took O-H-I-O pictures at every stop, as Ohioans are bound to do.

The irony of writing all this about national parks and monuments in the midst of a government shutdown is not lost on me. If you're preparing for a visit to any national sites, please try to wait until the shutdown is over! Many national parks are operating on a skeleton crew, or are semi-closed. You may be able to get in, but facilities are not being maintained. Not only will the parks be extremely unpleasant (garbage is overflowing, and many visitors have deemed that the great outdoors is their toilet, since bathrooms aren't being maintained). Already, damage has been done that may never be remedied. Besides that, accidents happen and you or your loved ones could be at needless risk without the usual park staff and rangers available! A few of the parks I'll mention here are open and staffed, currently operating at the state's expense, which is astronomical. If possible, postpone your trip until congress has worked things out and the parks are back at full-staff and proper maintenance, on federal dollars!

El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico
I saw this trip not only as a family vacation but as an opportunity to kick-start my languishing art-making, and it definitely worked. I took along my DSLR camera, watercolor pencils, a paintbrush, and a large, unlined blank book to use as combination journal and sketchbook.

My family and I flew from Cincinnati to Denver, and drove about 6 hours from there to El Paso, Texas, arriving in the wee hours of the morning at my sister and brother-in-law's home.

We relaxed in El Paso for the next few days, enjoying the gorgeous mountain sunsets, Texas barbecue, and Lay's Chile Limon potato chips (my new favorite!) from the Mexican grocery store.

El Paso is a fascinating city, particularly for someone who has spent her entire life in the rolling green hills, forests, and corn and soybean fields of Ohio. I'm pretty sure over the course of this vacation I saw more shades of brown than I ever had before, many of which were in El Paso. Yet I also saw color in some of the most unexpected and beautiful of places. Turquoise trim on the highway overpasses, pale green cacti, and the bright red, white, and green flag marking the US/Mexico border.

Pretty soon, however, it was time to get on with the adventure...

We started with a day-trip to Carlsbad Caverns, spending my brother's 16th birthday trekking into the cavern and through the Big Room.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park
I didn't expect my fear of heights to bother me inside a mountain, but the birthday boy ended up holding my hand and helping me inch back and forth down the narrow switchbacks as we made our way into the heart of the cavern. Once inside the Big Room, the trail was mostly flat, with only occasional drop-offs on one side or the other. Much more Cailey-friendly terrain!

However, I still found myself clutching the handrails, even on those flat areas. I don't know if my feeling of unsteadiness was the low-level anxiety I have constantly running in the background, or if it's a normal reaction to walking through these dark, stunning, massive, alien-like vaults inside the mountains. I've never experienced much claustrophobia, but maybe it was related to that. I don't know.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that a fairly large portion of the Big Room is wheelchair accessible, with an elevator bypassing the steep trail that we took to reach it. If you're an adventurer with mobility challenges, Carlsbad Caverns may be a good stop for you.

The next day saw us off on the big road trip. The nine of us packed into our two rental SUVS and made our way across the gorgeous state of New Mexico.

Taking turns sledding at White Sands National Monument

View of White Sands from Tularosa, New Mexico. Colored
pencil on paper, October 2018.
We stopped briefly at White Sands National Monument for sledding, lots of pictures, and a very messy lunch of barbecue ribs, fruit, and my new favorite flavor of potato chips, chile-limon.

The white sand was enchanting - even in the warm sun, the soft gypsum grains felt cool on our bare feet!

Then we were off again, driving diagonally across New Mexico, our ultimate destination: The Grand Canyon. 

However, we made a couple of side trips...

Horseshoe Bend and the Colorado River. October 2018.
First, Four Corners National Monument, where we got in trouble for playing 4-square in four different states at once... At least Dad got to cross that off his bucket list!

The second side trip was to Horseshoe Bend, Arizona, the world-famous curve in the Colorado River as it meanders its way to the Grand Canyon and beyond. Reaching Horseshoe Bend involves a short hike. The path is well-established and easy to follow, but steep at times, and the elevation (4,200 feet) isn't helpful for those accustomed to about 500 feet.

Following a quick picnic lunch at Glen Canyon Dam, we got back on the road. Grand Canyon or Bust!

Grand Canyon National Park from Lippon Point, shortly before sunset. October 2018.
We got a quick first look at the Grand Canyon that evening, but the next day was to be our Grand Canyon adventure. We walked a few miles along the South Rim, marveling at the vast canyon. When people say the Grand Canyon is big, what they really mean is that it is unfathomable. It's aptly named, because the only proper word for it is grand.

We all agreed that, impressive at the view was as we walked along the South Rim, it was not all that exciting. I think, to truly appreciate the Grand Canyon, we would have had to do one of the hikes down into it. Unfortunately that would have been well beyond the skill set of most of our group.

One of the highlights of our day at the Grand Canyon was simply sitting on the rocks at Lippon point and enjoying the sunset. It was really nice to just sit, talk, laugh, and enjoy the view. We arrived early enough that we had our pick of spots on the point, and the view was incredible as the sun set beyond the canyon walls.

Bryce Canyon National Park
View from Zion Lodge, Zion National Park,
watercolor pencil
As night fell in Arizona, we got back on the road, bound for a rental house in a small Utah town tucked away between Bryce Canyon, Zion, and Cedar Breaks National Monument. We stayed there several days, zig-zagging between the parks, hiking, relaxing, even worshiping under the stars at over 10,000 feet elevation.

Bryce Canyon was beautiful and otherworldly, like it had been nestled in the Utah wilderness by a pack of aliens or elves (depending on whether you prefer sci-fi or fantasy!).

The vivid orange and white sandstone walls and hoodoos were spectacular. We compared them to rows of stone gnomes, nature's answer to the Chinese terra cotta warriors, or the ruins of some massive ancient castle.

We spent the next two days roaming Zion National Park, adventure shoes tied tight.

Zion quickly became my favorite park.

Unlike Bryce, where you can look down on the bowl of the canyon as if from the top of an amphitheater, Zion is entered from the canyon floor. Peaks and cliffs soar above, and if you look closely you may see climbers inching their way up the sheer pink, orange, white, and grey rock. Our visit fell in late October, which meant another layer of color - bright yellow foliage on the trees lining the Virgin River winding its way through the canyon.

The first day at Zion, we hiked a portion of The Narrows, a narrow stretch of the Virgin River with towering cliffs on either side. It was grueling, exhausting, wet, cold, and beautiful.

The second day there, half our group went on some tough hikes while the rest of us (the tired and the acrophobic) took it easy. We finished out Zion with a Mexican fusion restaurant just outside the park.

At the Lower Emerald Pool, Zion National Park. Watercolor pencil and
water from the fall
After leaving Zion, we packed up again and headed toward the city of Moab, Utah, lodged between Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park.

But first, we had to stop at Capitol Reef National Park for pies and petroglyphs!
Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef contains quite a few historic buildings from an early Mormon settlement.

This settlement includes a fruit orchard and a small shop where you can get fresh pies, ice cream, honey, fruit preserves, and souvenirs. It felt as if we were visiting a historic village in some park at home in Ohio, but with great orange mesas in the background instead of more trees.

The home-like feeling vanished as soon as we left the ghost town-turned-tourist-center.

Petroglyph at Capitol Reef National Park
Entering the canyon was like entering a prehistoric movie! I imagined that at any moment, pterodactyls might pass overhead in v-formation or a squad of velociraptors might race past our SUVs on their razor-sharp tip toes. 

Indeed, there was some prehistoric action in Capitol Reef. Ancient petroglyphs mark the orange stone walls, answered by a multitude of carved names and messages dating from two to two hundred years old. The graphitied walls of Capitol Reef look like America's illegal guest book. 

After the breathtaking golden hour passed into a quiet sunset, we got back on the road to Moab. 

Buckeyes will be Buckeyes... even at Arches National Park!
In Moab, we did a doubleheader - two national parks in one day. In the morning we visited the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park, the largest and least-visited of the Big Five national parks in Utah.

After a quick lunch at Wendy's, we went to Archest National Park.

Like Bryce, Arches was otherworldly. It looked as if some massive baby had left their building blocks sitting about, some in towers and arches, some left tumbled about on the ground.

These cliffs, gargoyles, spires, hoodoos, and of course, arches seem to obey physics only out of a spirit of generosity rather than the obligation of nature.

Arches was a beautiful way to wrap up our tour of national gems. But that last evening in our Moab rental house, spent relaxing, playing goofy games, and enjoy takeout barbecue and Chinese food, was another trip highlight in its own right. The next day, we'd part company - my sister and her husband bound for Texas, the rest of us bound for Ohio.

Two weeks after first departing from CVG, we arrived back home. It was an amazing trip. We saw breathtaking mesas and mountains, played on perfect white sand dunes, saw horses, deer, cattle, and ravens, explored underground caverns, and stargazed about 20x above the elevation of our hometown.

Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah, I have four words for you:

You stole my heart.


p.s. the sketches and drawings here ain't nuthin. There's more art from my western adventure and it's headed this way soon, so stick around!

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