Day 44-45: Bryce Canyon

Wednesday, July 27-Thursday, July 28

Let’s hear it for southern Utah! Before this trip the only time I had set foot in Utah was about ten years ago to attend the wedding of Kamini , the daughter of our long time friend and former nanny, Punam. The Mormon wedding was in Salt Lake City and a splendid occasion since we consider Kamini and her sister and parents part of our extended family. Next to the festivities (Not being Mormons we could not attend the actual wedding ceremony, but a more conventional reception followed), the thing I remember most was ordering a martini and being presented with a martini glass with so little gin in it that it did not even touch the olives, which dangled on toothpicks above the liquid. One swig and it was over. Oh well, I thought, I will just order another, but this time it will be a double. The waiter somewhat apologetically informed me that doubles were not permitted in Utah, and that it was not until the Winter Olympics a few years before that alcoholic beverages of any type were allowed. Strict state laws, if not followed to the ounce, could land a bartender in jail. I decided to switch to beer.

That was my first encounter with Utah customs, heavily influenced by Mormons. Since that time we have attended a Mormon naming ceremony and a baptism and have observed how important their faith is for Kamini and her husband, Brandon. To put it simply, there is something tangible and real going on with lessons for all—especially with regard to family values and religious commitment. This time in southern Utah, we find ourselves amongst some of the friendliest and warmest people we have encountered on the Big Trip, and my assumption is that this is due somehow to their being Mormon or at least the influence of the LDS church.

The other thing about southern Utah is that it is drop-dead beautiful, not just in the national parks, but everywhere. And there are no billboards or road signs to be seen outside of the occasional villages we drive through. The countryside is similar to the purple mountains, red cliffs, beige sand and grey sage we have seen in Nevada and Arizona; but for the first time since we left Las Vegas, we see a few green pastures and fields of green crops, due, I presume, to irrigation.

We arrive in Bryce National Park mid afternoon and make our way to the lodge where we check in despite the fact that the lodge is full and that our reservation was for another day (again!). After they scramble around, the lodge staff manages to find one unit that has not been spoken for and sign us in. Embry’s guardian angel is at work again.

The special feature of Bryce are the hoodoos. Hoodoos are ancient people who have been turned into stone by coyotes   because they acted badly. At least this is the legend of the Paiute Tribe that has lived in the area for centuries. A hoodoo rock formation looks sort of like a giant, drip, sand castle you might find on an ocean beach. Most are tall and thin and pink. Many take on forms of animals or buildings like cathedrals or castles. Most are hundreds of feet tall. All are stunning; and when you get thousands of them clustered together like you do at Bryce Canyon National Park, the effect is truly magical.

The park is situated on a rim at an elevation of between 8,000 and 9,000 feet, looking down upon a vast valley at an elevation of around 4,000 feet. Technically it is not a canyon but rather an “amphitheater,” with the hoodoos forming a giant wall along one side of the mountain. There are numerous steep trails allowing visitors to hike down among the hoodoos (which Embry did), but most visitors drive or walk along a 15 mile rim trail, permitting spectacular views of the rock formations and the valley below. We spend the first afternoon mostly driving and the next morning walking along the rim for a couple of miles and gazing at the hoodoos along with a cast of hundreds of gawking, fellow visitors. The heavy crowds are the great achievement and the great shortcoming of the national park system.

We attended two ranger talks, one on understanding tree rings, the second on advanced life in the universe, a topic of special interest to me ever since I was nine years old and living on Sunnybrook Drive in Nashville, when my 12-year old neighbor, George Singleton, observed a space ship landing in his back yard at 3:00 a.m. The topic is especially appropriate here at Bryce because there are few places in the U.S. with less light pollution. You can see stars here that are not visible most other places, and this makes you aware of how big and vast the universe is and how small we are. So it is only natural to ask the question, “Are we alone?” and this is what the ranger attempts to answer.

Here are the highlights:

  • Our sun is one of about 400 billion stars in our galaxy.
  • There are about 400 billion other galaxies in the universe.
  • With new technology astronomers are able to detect whether planets exist around other stars. So far thousands have been documented, and it appears that virtually all stars have planets.
  • Life on Earth occurred because of a lot of moving parts coming together at the right time: being the right distance from a star so that water did not evaporate or freeze, having a warm core, gravity to keep an atmosphere from evaporating, tectonic plates to push rock up from the sea to form land, ozone to keep out damaging rays from our star, and two mass extinctions to permit the evolution of mammals—just to name a few.
  • The question is how many of these other planets exist in the “Goldilocks Zone”—not too hot and not to cold, not too close and not too far from their “sun,” and about the same size and age of our own planet. So far thousands have been observed and more are being found every year.

So what are the chances that among these trillions and trillions of other planets that there is advanced life? Well, in my view they would seem to be pretty high, like close to 100%.

But here is the rub. The first is that “advanced life” might not have all that much time on the stage of their respective planets. The dinosaurs were around a couple of hundred million years, and human-type beings have been around for about a million years, but “advance life”? We are talking only a few thousand years of historic human life and a couple of centuries of technologically advanced life. And we already have the ability to blow ourselves up and are trashing the planet. We may only be around a pretty short time. In other words there is probably a pretty small window of opportunity for catching these other beings before they wipe themselves out.

The second rub is the distance factor. The closest star to us (except for the sun) is 4.4 light years away. Using the current space flight technology, it would take a space ship over 74,000 years just to get there. Any volunteers for making the voyage?

So this is where science and religion come together. Scientists basically all agree that this all started with a Big Bang about 14 billion years ago and that our solar system is about is about 4.5 billion years old, about half the way through its natural life when the sun will eventually give out. Science does a pretty good job in exploring the “what” but has no clue to the “why.” The role of religion is to explore the “why.” We humans look up to a cloudless night sky with little light pollution like you find at Bryce Canyon and you can’t help asking why? Certainly these trillions upon trillions of other stars and planets must have some purpose. Or do they? Such is the question in my mind as we depart for our next destination— Arches National Park.





Day 40-43: Zion

Sunday, July 24-Tuesday, July 26

Every time we depart a national park, we conclude that it will be impossible to beat. (Well, maybe not Death Valley, but it does have its own charm and is certainly unforgettable.) Sequoia, Yosemite and now the Grand Canyon—how can you say that one is better than another? They are all different, have their own distinct character; and as far as wonder and natural beauty go, they are the best the Earth has to offer.

It turns out that this planet actually has quite a bit to offer, and our country seems to have received more than our fair share of extraordinary natural places. Add one more to the list: Zion National Park.

The drive to Zion from the North Rim is only a couple of hours and retraces some of the original route we took  since we are doubling back. In some respects Zion is a miniature Grand Canyon (about one-tenth the size), but while the Grand Canyon is vast , Zion is intimate. The big difference is a change of perspective. In the Grand Canyon on the rim you are looking down with a view not dissimilar from what you would experience in an airplane. In Zion you drive down hairpin curves and switch backs until you get to the bottom where all the action is. You look up at red cliffs that tower between three and four thousand feet over your head, straight up. Of course this is a perspective similar to what you have in Yosemite Valley, but that valley is wide and spacious. In Zion the valley is narrow and enclosed, like very long, narrow, curved room, with very tall walls and a high celling of blue sky and white cloud puffs. You feel like you are being embraced by the canyon walls, the green trees and golden grass, and a bubbling stream.

We arrive in the Zion valley around three and check into our lodge—the Cliffrose Lodge and Garden, a bed and breakfast of 50 rooms, all of which have porches or balconies that permit you to look over a sparking brook (technically a river, the Virgin River which carves the Canyon) and up to a gigantic, sheer, red cliff which seems almost as big as El Capitan. The lodge is located in Springdale, a tiny, attractive (surprisingly trash-less!) tourist village, situated in the heart of the canyon, where all the hotels and restaurants are located except for the Zion National Park Lodge, which was fully booked when we made our reservations. The Cliffrose Lodge, however, is fabulous and has lots of amenities we would not find in the Zion National Park Lodge—like television, and a decent size swimming pool. The gardens surrounding the property are exquisite. Deer and chipmunks roam at will, fearless of humans, and hummingbirds dip and dive around the trumpet vines on our porch. The service is excellent, and there is even a small bistro and bar. We rate it number one in accommodations so far. The television is especially important because it permits us to watch practically all of the first day of the Democratic Convention. More about this to follow.

Zion is a fabulous park. The Virgin River meanders along the narrow valley floor, nourishing tall pines, a few hardwoods and green and gold meadows. Gentle rapids flow into pools deep enough for a dip, and plenty of hikers take advantage of that (as does Embry). The valley walls go straight up and change colors of varying shades of red depending on the angle of the sun. It should be on everyone’s bucket list. Except for one thing: it is very crowded and during the summer, very hot—over 100 degrees during our visit.

Because of the breath-taking natural beauty, lots of people are attracted to Zion. The Park Service made a decision to open it up to visitors to the maximum extent possible just as they did with Yosemite (but not  the North Rim of the Grand Canyon). Their solution was to close off the valley road to automobiles and use shuttles to carry visitors up the river several miles (40 minutes) with nine hop on/hop off shuttle stops providing access to trail heads. It works pretty well but results in opening the trails to hundreds—perhaps thousands—of people per day so that on some trails you feel like you are back in Yosemite Valley. The river trail—a two-mile, relatively easy and especially beautiful trail—was jammed with hikers of all shapes, sizes and languages the entire time we were on it. Embry’s solution was to leave the main path and walk along the river, which it turns has a narrow, sandy trail beside it with few hikers. So if you want to enjoy Zion, the idea is to find the trails less traveled. These include most of the difficult trails and those not written about in any guide book. The second day Embry went by herself and waited to hop off  the first shuttle stop where no one got off the crowed bus. So on stop 4 when no one exited, she bolted, squeezing her way out to find herself on a completely deserted trail leading to the river with pools deep enough for dipping For her this was one of the most pleasant experiences of the whole Road Trip.


Now a word about the television. One of the best  parts of the Road Trip is to find ourselves in isolated locations with little or no communication with the outside world. We are in our own cocoon—a wonderland of natural beauty. For a fleeting moment it is possible to vision the world as a happy and joyful place with beauty that could only be created by a kind and loving God. The Emily Dickenson line, “All is right with the world,” comes to mind. Not only are we in the middle of a paradise, we observe other humans enjoying it and see so many, apparently happy families. Life is good.

But we know life is actually not all good and there is a world out there where much is happening right now which could well determine whether we will move toward the good or toward the bad. We know we are missing the action, and the action right now is the Democratic Convention. Since we will be staying in national parks the next few days where there will be no TV and probably no internet or email, we devour the first day of the convention on the lodge TV.

It is too early to know how it will all turn out. As I write Trump is ahead a couple of points in the polls—and this achievement follows what virtually every pundit has described as the worst acceptance speech of all time and the worst convention, along with the news that Trump is rejoicing in Russia’s email hacking of the DNC, ostensibly in an effort to influence the election.

Watching the first day, we are enthralled by Michelle’s speech, and impressed with Corey Booker, Elijah Cummings, Al Franken and practically everyone else. We are relieved that Bernie has finally come around, but not happy with the boos and shouts coming from his “movement” every time Hillary’s name is mentioned. If the “movement” sits this one out or, God forbid, goes with the ultimate political outsider, Mr. Trump, it could spell real trouble.

At the end of the day of watching almost every moment, we are proud to be Democrats, believe our country is great, not awful, and pleased with the progressive Democratic platform that sets a course for dealing with the very real problems we must address.

We will miss the next three days as we move on to Bryce and Arches, before heading to the Rocky Mountains.

Now on to Bryce!



Days 38-39: The Grand Canyon

Days 38-40: The Grand Canyon

Thursday, July 21-Saturday, July 23

Vegas is history and we are en route to the Grand Canyon. I can’t help thinking of the alpha and omega idea again. The U.S. is a country of extremes. Going from dark, endless rooms with people crouched around gaming tables or mindlessly pushing buttons on slots to perhaps the most sublime setting on the planet Earth—and all within a matter of a few hours by car—where else does something like this happen?

The normal four-hour trip to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon takes us close to six hours since our trusty Google Maps steers us toward the South Rim. By the time I figure this out, we are well beyond Hoover Dam. But, hey, how can you understand the Real America without driving across Hoover Dam—going and coming in our case? It is a bit disconcerting to see Lake Meade at 37% capacity, another reminder that water is a finite and limited resource, which we are using up very fast. Maybe the rains one day will return and all will be well, but you can’t help thinking that at least in the West, supply and demand are frighteningly out of balance.

Once we get our directions right,we head back through Las Vegas, and take I-15 north. We find ourselves once again in a desert with only minimal glimpses of evidence that humans or animals ever lived here. This is perhaps the big story of the Road Trip—just how far you can go in the West in what can only be described as a vast, arid, vacant wilderness of sand, sage and towering peaks. My guess is the landscape we are witnessing is not that different from what the pioneers saw in the mid 19th Century. However, I do not believe their covered wagons had air conditioning or were able to whiz along at 80 miles an hour. One might conclude that we Americans have gotten pretty soft with all the comforts we enjoy, which we now call necessities. Maybe the awareness of our softness is behind the ultra marathons like the one after we departed Death Valley or the 180 mile event that will happen in the Grand Canyon this fall with runners responsible for carrying their own gear, food and water. I am certain that it is one of motivations of the Serious Hikers. We realize that with all the modern creature comforts, we somehow have lost something—our primeval connection with the land, the sky, and Earth itself–and yearn to restore this lost connection.

I am not sure the early pioneers would necessarily agree with this perhaps overly romantic notion, but do believe the Native Americans they displaced surely would.

The drive to the Grand Canyon takes us through Nevada, then the south tip of Utah and finally into Arizona. Talk about extremes. In Nevada, brothels are advertised alongside gas prices, booze is sold at every grocery store and drug store, and guys walk around with pistols in holsters. In Utah, if you can find an alcoholic beverage to quench your thirst, you will be limited by law to less than one ounce per drink. We are indeed a vast and diverse nation.

The Utah part of the ride is especially beautiful and spectacular as we travel through several deep canyons with red rocks before starting our long climb to the high plateau. Just as it was when we drove through southern Arizona on the way out, when you reach an elevation of around 6,000 feet, Ponderosa Pines start springing up everywhere, and the higher you climb the taller they get. By the time we reach the gate to the Grand Canyon at an 8,100 foot elevation, they are huge—some reaching close to 200 feet—and the gray sand and sage of the valley has been replaced by lush, green forests and golden meadows. The landscape is much like that of Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite but with deeper greens and no mountain peeks visible.

It is now twilight as we make our way to the North Rim Lodge. During the entire ride up the plateau, we have seen only a handful of cars, and now we see a convoy of lights coming toward us. Could a massive evacuation of some sort be underway? As the lights get closer, we see they are huge tanker trucks and count over 30 before they start to thin out. Then we start to smell smoke and look up to see a smoky haze in the evening sky turn a bright orange. This is happening long after the sun has set.

The forest fire started on June 29, almost a month ago, caused by a lightening strike. We learn when we check in that it was thought to be under control until about 10 days ago when the winds picked up, creating a huge furnace effect, which now has consumed over 14,000 acres, with some 600 fire fighters trying desperately to contain it. It is anyone’s idea as to what will eventually happen though the lodge and camping area do not seem to be in imminent danger since the fire is still miles away, and because of a southerly wind is heading north, away from the settlements in the park. The impact on tourists is that a large of the park is now off limits to visitors, and most major trails are closed.

The ranger at the front desk tells us that forest fires are not that unusual and are a natural part of nature’s renewing process. They usually burn themselves out and would not be the menace they are were it not for the danger to humans.

Since it is pitch black when we check in the lodge, our first view of Grand Canyon will have to wait for tomorrow morning.

This is my third trip to the North Rim, Embry’s first. I am always astounded. You really don’t get your first glimpse of the canyon until you walk through the lodge lobby onto the large outdoor patio, and there it is. As far as you can see, there are colors of bleached white, gray, beige and red. What really gives the Grand Canyon its character is its relationship with the sun. The sun’s angle casts deep shadows into the depths and brings out the deep red and brown colors. Because the light of the sun is constantly on the move, the canyon is never the same. The shadows are moving. The colors are changing; and from one moment to the next you are looking at a different landscape—subtle but always in transition. The most beautiful times are early in the day and late in the day when the shadows are longest and the colors the brightest, but it is stunning all of the time. Judging by the number of people at or near our age who find a chair on the patio and seem to remain in it all day, almost as if in a trance, I surmise that the Grand Canyon’s mystical power is as strong as ever. It certainly is with me.

The only thing that detracts from this sublime and peaceful setting are the fearless people—mainly  20 and 30-somethings–who feel compelled to walk a few hundred feet down to one of the overlooks and then climb up a rock with thousand foot cliffs on each side and take a selfie with their iPhone. One false move and it is over. Better yet, give your camera to a friend and ask her to take a photo of you extending your arms in an embrace of all that is beautiful around you and shouting a primal scream. Oh, to be young again!

The two days  here are well spent. We pass the time in our own trance, walk an easy 2.5 miles around the rim loop trail, take in a few ranger talks, eat in the elegant lodge dining room (great views and ambience, excellent service, mediocre food) and get some needed rest. The second afternoon Embry takes one of the Serious Hiker trails down toward the canyon for a strenuous 1.5 mile hike.

One of the things that makes this place special is how few people are here. That is because it is so far removed from civilization that day trips are out of the question, and the lodge has only about 250 rooms and a few hundred campsites. Even on a popular, easy trail like the Rim Trail, you pretty much have it to yourselves. Something like five million people visit the park every year, the second highest number in the national park system. Over 98% go to the South Rim, 20 miles away by the way the raven flies, on the other side of the canyon. The North Rim is a rare gem in the national park system.

This is our fourth national park so far on the Road Trip, and the accommodations are without question the most basic. The cabins are a small step above the tents in Yosemite ( a tad larger and they do have their own bathrooms, no small achievement). My guess this is by design—an effort to keep the lodge as close to its original concept as possible. There are no swimming pools, no luxury options like in Death Valley, no Wi-Fi, very limited cell phone connections, and nothing anywhere resembling a television set. The lack of communication with the outside world turns out to be a blessing during our stay here because we miss the last three days of the Republican Convention.

Tomorrow we set out for Zion.



Days 36-37: Vegas

Tuesday, July 19-Wednesday, July 20

If we received warnings and cries of disbelief about putting Death Valley on our itinerary, we received even more about Las Vegas. “You, Las Vegas? You have got to be kidding! Why would you put the country’s most garish, over-the-top, and obscene city on your trip?”

For that very reason. Plus what really puzzled us on our trip around-the-world last year when we chatted with scores of European and Asian travelers, every one of them who had visited the U.S. had been to Las Vegas. And they loved it! What is it about this city in America that is appealing to foreign visitors? What will this tell us about the Real America?

After our high stress drive across the desert due to the gasoline issue, we find ourselves on the outskirts of this sprawling desert city of two million. We are headed to Bellagio, an upscale casino resort, located on the Strip across the street from Caesars’s Place, and recommended by Dr. Killebrew, my friend and sailing companion, who is best known by his nickname—Killer, perhaps not the best nickname for an orthopedic surgeon but whatever. “Hey, he said, “If you are going to Vegas, you have to do it right, and Bellagio is doing it right.”

After a few missteps and false starts taking us through several seamy and rundown neighborhoods, we finally find ourselves in the bustling Strip. A replica of the Eiffel Tower rises in front of us, with the Arc de Triumph beside it, and we are surrounded by sky scrappers with names like Trump, Harrah, Flamingo, Caesar’s Palace and Bellagio. We drive up a ramp which runs alongside a large, elevated, man-made lake and then up to a 12- lane porte-cochere, where dozens of taxis, limousines, buses, and cars like Rolls Royces, Jaguars, and BMWs are lined up discharging passengers, and bell hops are scurrying about carting off luggage at a feverish pace. A half dozen cars are ahead of us in line; but within five minutes, we are greeted by a friendly bell hop, who welcomes us to Bellagio, takes our baggage and escorts us to the check-in area.

The minute you set foot inside the lobby of Bellagio, you know immediately that you are in another world. The lobby is huge with a gold ceiling and some sort of gold flower arrangement, a large fountain, a casino off to one side, and a large aquarium next to giant figures of fantasy creatures created with fresh flowers. Contrary to what I was expecting, I find the décor tasteful and attractive, even bordering on artistic.

The lobby is jam packed with people of all sizes, shapes , colors and languages breezing by, often laughing, mostly smiling, and naturally taking selfies. The line for check-in is set up like the line for screening people at airport security. I count over 100 people ahead of us, but with 37 clerks frantically working, the line moves fast and we are registered in about 20 minutes.

Think Disney World on Steroids for Adults.

To get to your room, you must first go through the casino area. I later find out that this is how all resort casinos in Las Vegas work. You can’t go anywhere—to your room, to a restaurant, to a café, to one of the upscale mall stores, to a bar, to the street, or to a restroom—without traversing the casino. As we make our way to the guest elevators, we pass hundreds of gambling options in full swing. The black jack tables, poker tables, roulette tables are all comfortably full as are the endless lines of slot machines. Many gamblers are smoking cigarettes and sipping drinks. And it is only five in the afternoon! We soon find out that the area of the casino we walk through to get to the guest elevators is only a fraction of what is available as one gambling room leads to another and then another, where all you can make out are ghost-like images of people standing around or sitting at tables or pulling levers on weird machines with blinking lights of all colors in what otherwise is a dark and mysterious space.

Meanwhile, cocktail waitresses in skimpy dresses are hurrying about with trays carrying drinks as wave after wave of people stroll past in search of the guest elevators.

For the record, Bellagio, is an average size casino hotel in Vegas with 4,000 rooms and over 115,000 square feet of gambling space. But that is only the beginning. There are at least a dozen upscale restaurants, probably at least as many bars and cafes, and there are auditoriums and theaters, scores of fancy shops selling expensive stuff, a huge fitness center and a court yard where you will find four giant swimming pools, more cafes and bars, and out in front, a man-made lake with a world famous fountain and water show. There is even an art museum. Once inside this giant, fantasy cocoon you never have to leave. I suppose that is the point. Probably most don’t.

Disney World on Steroids for Adults.

We make our way to our room, which is large, tastefully decorated, with a large, fancy bathroom with a separate shower and tub with marble floors, mini bar, giant flat screen TV, and buttons next to the king size bed that turn on and off everything including opening and shutting the drapes on the windows. The check-in lady asked if we would like to upgrade to a nicer room for only $50 (or $100 for one even better) per night, and when I accepted Embry looked at me aghast. I explained that I wasn’t going to stay in any hotel room wit no windows. Embry responded that I misunderstood what she was saying (She actually said $50 for a “better view”), so we stayed put. It was just fine.

Actually “just fine” is not quite the right word. This place is so far over the top that it defies description. I have got to hand it to the shrewd people who came up with the idea of creating a fantasy world in the middle of a desert. Only in America, as they say. There is, I suppose, no place on earth quite like Las Vegas, hence its appeal to a world-wide audience. “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” we are told; and from first observation, there appears to be a whole lot happening in Vegas.

There is something profound about all this, which tells us about human nature and about the Real America—perhaps even about the meaning of life itself.

But I have no idea what that is.


We soon learn that being in this fantasy cocoon has many dimensions. One is that since it is so difficult to find your way out of the hotel, what is available for consumption on site is really your only practical option. We pay the following: $28 for one pastry, two coffees and a small (not fresh) orange juice, $18 for a small (premade) ham and cheese sandwich and a small (not refillable) ice tea, and over $100 for the least expensive dinner we could find from room service—but that was for only one dinner, which we split. Drinks in the bar or minibar are $15, sushi is $12 per piece, and a la carte dinner entrees start in the $60 range in the nicer restaurants. Once you are inside, they have you. You might as well hand over the keys to your car or house. And I am not even talked about gambling (which we avoided).

So we find ourselves in a bit of a dilemma: how to eat without having to declare personal bankruptcy. And even more significant, how does a hard core Scots Irish Presbyterian like Embry stand this without drowning in a pool of guilt?

Easy. You don’t eat. That is, you do not eat the way you are supposed to. You take some short cuts like splitting a meal—there is way too much for one person anyway—and using leftovers for future meals. There was bread left from our room service meal so we saved that; and when Embry went down to buy the $6 cup of coffee for breakfast the next day, she returned with plenty of butter and additional rolls and pastry that were just sitting there on a cart in our hallway waiting to be picked up by room service. Is this an example of creative recycling or what? This little maneuver can be used for any meal, if you are careful, and can save you a lot of money. If you don’t get thrown out of the hotel.

We only spend two nights and one day in Vegas so it is an overstatement to say we understand the soul of this city. But the following story should provide some insight: I am in need of computer equipment so I use the internet to discover that there is anApple store literally across the street, in a mall that is part of Caesar’s Palace. Perfect. I tell Embry, who is lounging by the 75 meter swimming pool, that I am running a quick errand and will be back in a few minutes.

I walk through the Bellagio casino, eventually find the front desk (not a small accomplishment), and then walk down the ramp to the street. There are four intersections in front of Bellagio that should allow a pedestrian to walk across the street to Caesar’s Palace. But there is no crosswalk and do-not-walk signs are everywhere. In a couple of places there is not even a sidewalk, and I notice that practically no one is on the street, only bumper-to-bumper cars. I am witnessing an urban planner’s hell. Watching me stand there trying to figure out what to do, a young man taps me on the shoulder saying, “Don’t try it, buddy. You’ll be arrested or run over.” He explains that the only way you can cross the busy streets in the Strip is to use  pedestrian  bridges and pointed to two. The only way to access the bridge, however, is through your hotel.

Back to the hotel lobby. One of the bell hops gives me careful instructions, which involve going through at least three casino rooms, making several turns and then going down a mall, which opens onto the bridge. I make several failed efforts at this, ending up in dead-in hallways, trash rooms, and more endless rooms of slot machines and black jack tables. I try Google Maps, which is as useless as I am, and continue to ask for directions until finally I manage to stumble out of the building. I feel like I have just broken out of prison. There is only one problem: I am back on the street, more or less where I started. Someone comes up to me and warns me not to cross.

“Yeah, I know.”

This is now becoming a challenge: is it actually possible to go from Bellagio to Caesar’s Palace, separated by a distance of some 100 feet? It would probably even be a fun challenge if my knee wasn’t hurting. So I start over, ask more directions and finally, about an hour after setting off from the pool, walk triumphantly across the bridge going to Caesar’s Palace.

This should be the end of this nightmarish ordeal, but actually it is only the beginning. If Bellagio is Disney World on steroids, Caesar’s Palace is Bellagio on steroids, except a bit down-at-the-mouth, darker, and more crowded. It appears to me to outsize Bellagio by a factor of ten. Eventually, after going through one casino room after another and past hundreds of upscale stores selling lavender purses for $499.00 and purple shoes for $799.99 and gold jewelry for $999.99 and perfume for….I stumble on the Apple Store. During this ordeal, I am convinced that I am a character in a real time realty TV show called something like “Quest.” I have passed through at least a half dozen crowded, dark rotundas with giant statues of Greek gods, Roman heroes, emperors and replicas of Michelangelo’s David. Weird lights come on and then disappear and smoke comes out of bubbling fountains. This must be a dream, I keep telling myself. It can’t be happening. My aching knee reminds me that it is real.

Naturally Apple does not have what I want, try Best Buy.

No problem, I respond, just tell me how to get out of this building. The tone of my voice is desperate. I look at my watch. The Quest is now nearing its third hour.

Easy, he says, just take this corridor and then that one, turn and go trough the restroom area. You’ll find the street. It is a shortcut.

I follow his instructions exactly and within fifteen minutes find myself gasping for air, feeling the bright sun and 106 degree heat. I am in the middle of a narrow, deserted alley. I follow it to another empty street, look at my Google Maps, which obviously has no idea where I am, and then hail down an employee, who is leaving Caesar’s Palace, heading for his car. When I ask how to get back to Bellagio (keep in mind that I am talking about a building across the street), he replies that I can’t. It is not possible from this location. I have got to go back through the casino. When he senses that I am about to lose it, he motions for me to follow him. He will show me the way. He is like a forest ranger finding a lost child in the woods and returning the child to her parents. He gently leads me through more underground corridors, a parking garage and finally to a place where I can see the elusive bridge. This act of kindness reminds me of how decent and caring we as humans can be.

In another ten minutes I am back in the Bellagio lobby. I refrain from spreading my arms in a victory gesture and glance at my watch. It has been over two and one half hours. I swear I am never leaving the hotel again.

Welcome to Vegas!

But as it turns out we do leave the hotel that evening to go to a show. When in Vegas you have to go to a show, and we select Brooks, Dunn and Reba, three country music icons performing at Caesar’s Palace. Now that I know sort of what I am doing, we walk there in only fifteen minutes. The sold-out show is fabulous. The music is the best country has to offer, and the rapport the performers have with their adorning audience is extraordinary. What is perhaps most impressive is the staging with the most startling use of lights that I have ever seen.

We skip the steaks and the sushi and buy two small salmon salads, which will suffice for a late dinner and breakfast and save us $250.

Tomorrow we are off for the Grand Canyon. Have we found the Real America here in Vegas? In some ways I think we have—at least a small part of it: our continuing optimism, innovation, excess, self-indulgence, diversity, kindness, and hope. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. People are having fun. They are loving the experience even if it is fleeting, even if it is a fantasy. For a few brief days, you are a part of this nether world where anything goes and where you have a chance to be rich beyond your wildest dreams. This is hope and it is part of being human. That when you leave you are actually much poorer than when you came is ok. You have had your shot. You were in the game. Next time maybe you will be lucky.








Days 33-35 Death Valley

Saturday, July 6-Monday July 18

When we told people that Death Valley was on our itinerary, the typical response was, “Death Valley? Are you nuts?”

But we are in search of the Real America. How can you search for the Real America and not go to Death Valley?

We start our journey to Death Valley by visiting the two alpine lakes giving Mammoth Lakes its name. At an altitude of around 9,000 feet, we begin our descent, which will take us today to elevations below sea level. We slowly make our way down to the flat, arid valley below and turn south. The giant Sierra Nevada are on our right and a smaller mountain range with no vegetation on our left. U.S. Highway 50 is like an interstate, and there is very little traffic. After a hundred miles we turn left onto a two-lane road near the foot of Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the Lower-Fort-Eight. Actually, the mountain itself is a bit of a disappointment since you really can’t tell which of the high peaks it is. At 14,400 feet it is the tallest but only by a few hundred feet. The narrow road is straight and flat and seems to extend into infinity with hazy, gray mountains in the distance and no sign of any cars. We will drive almost another 100 miles before reaching our destination for the evening—the Furnace Creek Inn.

Actually I had no idea to what to expect. I envisioned Death Valley to be a flat, sandy plain with weary prospectors, staggering around in search of water. I knew that Death Valley has the lowest point in the U.S. at almost 300 feet below sea level. I did not know that it is actually part of the Mojave Desert or that Death Valley National Park is the largest in the U.S. (excluding Alaska) with over three million acres—about the same size as Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Yosemite combined. And the park is not just flat desert. It includes several tall mountain ranges with peaks as high as 11,000 feet.

We drive slowly up and down three mountains before finally reaching Death Valley. There is practically no traffic, but the drive is a nail biter nonetheless. Very little vegetation is visible, and the endless rocks of varying shades of beige and grey are quite beautiful. As we creep uphill, a sign reads, “Don’t overheat your vehicle. Turn off your air-conditioning.” I observe from the dashboard that the outside temperature is 102 degrees. Fat chance.

We arrive at the Visitor’s Center around five. We open the car door and immediately are hit with 40 mph winds that feel like a blowtorch, almost taking our breath away. The only equivalent I can think of is opening the door in a blizzard. All you can think of is getting to shelter. The temperature gauge at the Visitor’s Center reads 119 degrees, and that is in the shade. Now it occurs to me why there was some skepticism about coming here in the summer. The odd thing is that the parking lot is more than half full, and plenty of people are milling around the museum in the Visitor’s Center. Who are these people? Are they nuts?

The Furnace Creek area is the only oasis in Death Valley. Clumps of trees provide a modicum of shade and minor relief from the oppressive heat. A cluster of structures associated with a hotel –restaurant, general store, bar, post office, golf shop and a few modest houses for the workers– are situated under the trees like tired cows on the edge of a hot pasture.

The first glitch occurs when we ask the park ranger where the Inn at Furnace Creek is, to which he responds that it is closed for the summer. He suggested we might be confused and should check the other hotel, the Ranch and Resort. Perhaps our reservations are there instead. We gulp and immediately head to the Ranch Hotel, only a few hundred yards away. We are told we do not have a reservation at the Ranch either , but the clerk says the ranger does not know what he is talking about. The Inn is open and they have our reservation. Whew! Another close one. The nearest inhabitable hotel would probably be in Las Vegas, another hundred and fifty miles away.

The elevation of Furnace Creek is 190 feet below sea level. Getting out of our car, my eyes burn, my lips dry out, and I feel dryness in my throat as I stumble back to the car. What the oppressive and dangerous dry heat really does to you, however, is suck the strength out of you, leaving you completely exhausted.

The inn is perched on a cliff about a mile away and several hundred feet higher than the Ranch. It is another one of those classic historic structures, constructed in the Spanish Colonial style in 1927 and quite charming in an understated way. Offering 65 rooms, most looking out on the valley, the inn offers a 30 meter swimming pool on a deck overlooking the valley,a fitness center, quaint dining room and lobby, and best of all, fireplaces in every room and men and women’s saunas, perfect for the summer weather (though handy in the winter).

There is lots of activity with people checking in and sitting around the lobby. Our plan to avoid heat exhaustion is to remain inside, which is what we do most of Sunday, reading, catching up on the blog, watching a little CNN, and swimming laps in the pool early in the morning before the water is too hot. Late in the day when the temperature drops to around 100 degrees, we visit the famous Mesquite Sand Dunes, which are like those in the Sahara. The buffet-style food in the dining room is especially good, much better than what we had at the Alwahnee. The coldest water you can get out of the cold tap feels like hot bath water, but overall we give the inn very high marks.

The puzzle regarding who these guests are and what are they doing here is partially answered when I meet a guy in the hall about my age taking photographs of the portraits of past presidents of the Forty-Niners Association, the non profit organization that has supported the park since before it was even a park. He is the current president and is trying to determine what kind of portrait would be most appropriate for him. He is very friendly and provides a lot of history about the park. What is perplexing to me, I tell him, is who are these people here right now in this inferno. He shakes his head and says, “Well, there are not many Americans. We Americans know better than to come here in the summer. In winter ,though, it is ideal. In summer—well, it is like it is now. They are Europeans mostly. They come here to discover the Real America, to experience the real West. They love it!”

Discovering the Real America? Sounds vaguely familiar.

We learn the next day that this is a special week for Furnace Creek, which also accounts for the hotels being full. It is the annual Ultra Marathon event, which involves running 135 miles, non stop, across the valley, up the mountains and ending in Lone Pine—a vertical climb of over 14,000 feet. Over one hundred, elite ultra marathoners are gathering for the event, which starts Monday at eight p.m.—unfortunately when we will be in Las Vegas. The winner is expected to finish in under 24 hours.

The runners are an interesting mix of what must border on super-human. About a fourth are women. The oldest runner is 69, the youngest 20; and the average age around 40. They come from 27 different countries and 30 different states in the U.S.

Monday morning we drive 25 miles to the lowest spot in the country at Bad Water, measured at 282 feet below sea level, situated in a part of the valley with a white floor of salt and borax, looking much like the remnants of a snow fall. A tour bus and a few dozen cars are parked at the viewing area, and scores of people are walking out toward the low point, I suppose so they can say they have done it. Embry follows but does not get very far in the 120 degree heat and near gale force winds.

After viewing the low point we are on our way to Las Vegas. Our trusted Google Maps says the quickest way is to continue on the road we are on, which we do for another 30 scenic miles until we come to a sign saying “Road Closed.” There is another option as we study our map— a dirt road which seems to link up with the road to Las Vegas in another 25 miles. However, there is a warning posted on the map saying that the road is subject to drifting sands and at times may be impassable. This option doesn’t sound like a great idea, so we retrace our steps.

No problem since there is no specific time we have to get to Las Vegas. All the confusion causes us to forget about filling the tank with gas before we leave Furnace Creek. It occurs to me that this could be a problem, but I check the gas information on the dash board, which says we have 100 miles to go before we run out. Certainly we will see a gas station before we run out.

Not necessarily.

I do not start to get worried until we have gone about 70 miles without seeing a single gas station. Actually we did see two, both closed. By this time the gauge is saying we have 40 miles left and the warning light is on. I look at our map again, which shows a town coming up in five miles with a small symbol showing a gas station. If the map is correct, we are fine. If not, it will be at least another 60 miles before we will be in any decent size town. It could be close. I check Google Maps and scan for gas stations in the area. Negative. I am now starting to sweat.

We pull up to the small town and there is a sign for gas. Eureka!

As we pull up to the pump, we note that large oil cans block the lanes. The station is closed.

Desperately glancing across the street I see a large sign, advertising “Brothel,” next to a pink building with a smaller “Brothel” sign offering “free tours, free Wi-Fi, and free restrooms.” (Hey, this is Nevada!) And next to that sign is a smaller one simply stating, “gas.” This little station is open. Saved again.

Now onward to Las Vegas!




Time Out

As I write, it is Sunday, July 17, and we are just past the mid point on our journey. When I compare this trip to our around-the-world-no-airplanes trip of last year, the thing that stands out most is what is going on in the world around us. During that four-month journey, I can’t recall any news of extraordinary significance. In the past month, here are the news headlines: Brexit, police killings by white officers of unarmed black men in Minnesota and Louisiana, the killing of five police officers by a black army veteran in Dallas, two more police killings today in Baton Rouge, the Paris truck massacre, and the failed coup in Turkey. On top of that, we are engaged in what may turn out to be the nastiest and also the most significant presidential race in our nation’s history with many people expressing dislike for both candidates. In our travel bubble we have missed some of the shocking headlines; but as a news junky, I can’t help reading the Post and the NY Times on line and certainly get the gist. At times I confess that I even feel a little guilty about being removed from the action, not that there is anything that I could be doing to help.

The contrast is what gets you. On the Road Trip and on our around-the-world -adventure last year, we see a country–and a world– that is beautiful and vast and–I believe–basically good. I know that our country and our world have certainly been good to Embry and me. I also know that the “good experience” is not evenly distributed and that many are hurting. The stakes seem to be so high right now. There is so much that is beautiful and good; but if we can’t somehow make this planet we inhabit more equitable, the whole world will pay a big price. In the U.S. it is as if we have the option of celebrating our diversity while acknowledging our failures (slavery, Jim Crow, race and social class, greed and excess) and moving on to make things better, or the option of turning back to the dark side of human nature, to tribalism, authoritarianism, and violence. Let us hope and pray that we can somehow muddle through and choose the former.

Days 31-32: Mammoth Lakes

Thursday, July 14, and Friday, July 15

After spending the morning visiting the Yosemite Valley museum, we drive back up to the high country a good 50 miles or so to the Tioga Pass, which is at an altitude of almost 10,000 feet and is the eastern gateway to the park. (Jessica and the grandchildren departed for San Francisco very early.) Vestiges of snow decorate the peaks, most above 12,000 feet. The road beyond the park is much easier and permits breathtaking views as we descend to the arid valley below. Another dramatic change in eco systems. Mono Lake, a huge salt water lake, sits at the bottom with sparkling blue water surrounded by a vast desert. In the Sierras of California, if you don’t like the scenery, just drive another 20 miles.

We are on our way to Mammoth Lakes. Who ever heard of Mammoth Lakes? The reason we are stopping there is because it is about half the way to Death Valley, our next destination, and was recommended by our California friends as “not a bad place to stop.” This was an understatement. Nestled on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada, this little town of around 5,000 people turns out to be a world class resort area with dozens of ski trails, resort hotels, and at this time of year mountain biking trails. Serious hikers and mountain bikers are everywhere, carrying their bikes with them on ski lifts and whizzing downhill on the gentler slopes. There is nothing distasteful anywhere in this town—no garish signs, no in-your-face billboards. Even Burger King looks kind of nice. Once again we are impressed with how some towns in California have avoided the utter degradation of the landscape and wonder if it has to do with state laws and regulations or just blind luck.

We are thrilled to be here, probably the biggest surprise of the trip so far! Our reservation puts us in the nicest hotel, looking up at Mammoth Mountain, and only a short walk to the ski lifts. Unfortunately at the check-in counter we discover that we actually do not have a reservation and that this hotel—and apparently all others—are fully booked. It seems that some kind of classical music festival is underway. Embry feverishly searches her emails and confirms that we do in fact have a valid reservation and have already paid for the room. Unfortunately, the date for the reservation is for a date two weeks earlier. (Not an unusual computer screw up since that was the day we made the reservation, not when we needed it.)

Have I mentioned that Mammoth Lakes is basically in the wilderness with 50 miles to the next town?

So what do you do when all hotels are full and there do not appear to be a lot of other options? Plan B—back to the internet. Hotels are full, but there is one available apartment in a condo development, and it is about the same price as the hotel room. Embry books it, and we charge off, arriving at five minutes to five, the appointed time for the office to close for the evening. Nice to know Embry’s guardian angel is alive and well.

It turns out that our reservation is for a one-bedroom unit, but the only unit available is for a two-bedroom plus a loft unit, and it is the choice apartment of the entire condominium complex with stunning views of the mountains and an adjacent meadow. The manager—a slightly pudgy lady with a nice smile, probably in her 60s– gives it to us for the same price. The apartment is spacious, tastefully decorated with a Southwest/outdoorsy theme, has both a wood burning fireplace and a small balcony, and does in fact provide splendid views from every window and the balcony. We end up staying two nights and one full day using the time for doing laundry, shopping for food and preparing six home cooked meals, the first we have had for some time. It also provides a brief respite for two weary, but continually amazed travelers.





Days 28-30: Yosemite

Monday, July 11-Wednesday, July 13

First, I would like to retract a statement in the last blog, which said that in addition to representing Absolute Beauty, Yosemite “is Exhibit A of how we humans tend to screw everything up.” That is not fair. My failure at the time of that writing was due to a paradigm confusion, that is, thinking of Yosemite Valley as a wilderness paradise. The more appropriate comparison is Times Square. Once you understand that, the accomplishments of this extraordinary park become even more impressive.

The average number of people who visit the park in July is a tad under 600,000 or 20,000 people on any given day, and 99% of them end up in the valley. That is a lot of people in a relatively small space and accounts for the bumper-to-bumper traffic and over booked parking lots. To relieve the congestion the Park Service runs free shuttles every 10 minutes on a 22-stop route that connects all the villages, and the buses are packed. The easy trails are also usually crowded as is just about everything else in the valley. But once you understand that the goal is to allow as many people as possible to enjoy the park, you realize that not only is it remarkable that the Park Service pulls this off without ruining the park experience, it adds to the fun—especially if you like people watching. And if you are a wilderness person, you are only minutes away from a trailhead which will take you far away from the maddening crowd. The national parks are a treasure and evidence that government can and does do a lot of things right.

But, of course, everything does not go right all of the time. Take the “Curry Village/Half Dome Village” name confusion. Well, it turns out that just about every name in Yosemite has been changed due to a trademarks dispute. Yosemite, like most national parks, uses private management companies to operate the hotels and campgrounds and provide food service. When the Park Service was not paying attention, the former private management company, Delaware North, proceeded to trademark under their name virtually every historic place in the park; and when they were replaced by Aramark, they offered to return the trademarks to the Park Service for a mere $52 million. (Does this sound like something Trump would do?) In fact, there is no such thing as Yosemite National Park anymore because Delaware North trademarked that name as well; so it is now just “Yosemite.” Lawsuits, counter lawsuits, and outrage by park visitors will probably continue for a while before this is resolved. In the meantime all the new names are on signs that are designed to look temporary.


The four days we spent in Yosemite with our daughter, Jessica, and her kids, Jasper(age 11) and Josie (age 8) were fabulous. The first two days of tent camping  –contrary to my expectations– were actually fun though the first night when temperatures dipped into the 40s, I thought I was going to freeze to death. The first day the five of us took a hike to Vernal Falls, billed as a 1.6 mile “moderate” hike with a 400 foot elevation change. I should have paid more attention to the elevation change since my strained knee is still a problem. The paved “trail” was quite crowed with people coming and going almost in a continuous line, but the views of the stream and valley walls were spectacular. The uphill part was manageable but coming back downhill very slow and painful; and at times I was wondering if I might become one of the 200 hikers each year who are carted back to the valley on stretchers. But I made it. Jessica and Jasper kept going another five miles (out and back) to Nevada Falls, an elevation gain of 2,500 feet, and returned later in the day, exhausted, to join us at the Half Dome Village pool.

The second day we all hopped in Jessica’s car and drove 50 plus miles on winding roads up the mountain to Tuolumne Meadows, which is the center of the high country, at an elevation of almost 9,000 feet. We were disappointed that we came too late in the season to see the magnificent wild flowers but had a pleasant walk in the meadows, and enjoyed a picnic lunch beside a meandering brook where the Ellis family all took a dunk in the ice cold water. I was pleasantly surprised to see so few people there, unlike the congested valley.

On the way back to the car, two serious hikers approached us. You can easily tell a serious hiker because of the heavy back pack, the walking sticks, hiking boots and a look of determination and resolve. They move steadily as if on a mission and keep a sharp eye on the path ahead. These two guys looked older than most of the serious hikers, a bit bedraggled, and their pace was slow. They stopped to ask if we had any idea if there was a visitor’s center around; and when pointed to it a few hundred yards away, they suddenly became elated, confessing that they had been hiking for five days, were already a day behind schedule, and ready to go home. When Embry asked if they had had a good time, one responded, “Well, yes and no.”

While his hiking partner chatted with Embry and Jessica, I asked him about what it was like, hiking in the back country. He grimaced and said: “Are you kidding me? It should be against the law to let anyone over 70 do something like this—and we both turned 70 this year. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. You can’t believe how steep the paths are, and they go on forever. You round a bend and think you are at the peak and look up to an endless path even steeper. You fry during the day and freeze at night. You walk on narrow paths where one false step will send you dropping thousands of feet. You are thirsty all the time and can’t get enough water. We are from Minnesota where the altitude is 900 feet, not 9,000 feet like it is here. All I can say is thank God we made it here. Would I ever do something like this again? Never in a hundred years. Now where did you say the Visitors Center is…?”

We wished them luck and hoped that could find someone to give them a lift to their campsite where they started.

Day 3 was the transition day for us. Embry and I are saying goodbye to our tent and the Half Dome Village. This was part of the deal we negotiated way back when we planned the trip; and I was ready for it. It was not that it was freezing cold in the middle of the night or that our neighbors were two feet away on each side, or that you could hear every word being said within 20 feet of your tent, or the stopped-up toilets that left water standing several inches deep in the rest rooms. Actually it was the energy level. There was so much going on and so many families coming and going, kids playing everywhere, serious hikers off on a trek or staggering home to their tents, the gatherings for dinner at the massive dining pavilion, and streams of people at the shops or café or laundry mat or amphitheater. We needed a break. The solution: off to the “Yosemite Majestic Hotel” formerly The Ahwahnee Hotel, an historical landmark.

Josie protested that it was not fair for us to leave them even though she and Jasper had already made friends their age and they were perfectly happy.

“Oh come on, Pepe, suck it up!” she said. “You can stick it out a couple of more days.”

The Majestic Yosemite Hotel and the Half Dome Village represent the alpha and omega of tourist accommodations at Yosemite or practically anywhere else for that matter. The hotel was constructed in the 1920’s and underwent a $12 million renovation a few years ago. It was what I was expecting the Crescent Hotel in the Ozarks would be like: huge formal dining room with tall ceilings and high windows, a walk-in fireplace, dinner by candlelight with superb service, a vast lounge area and beautiful grounds. Our room on the fifth floor shared a huge balcony with one other room and looked out on Half Dome. The décor was elegant but understated. The food was not quite up to the level of the environment but certainly not bad. We hosted Josie, Jasper and Jessica for one breakfast and one dinner and heard no more from Josie about sucking it up.

On the final day, everyone but me went biking in the morning and rafting in the afternoon. I spent the time catching up on the blog and riding the shuttle bus. It took almost one and a half hours to complete the loop with passengers crammed in like sardines most of the way, struggling to get on and struggling to get off. More languages than I could count were spoken and complexions were every shade of white and brown. I do not know the split between residents of the U.S. and visitors, but it was about as diverse a population as you will find on one bus or, for that matter, the Planet Earth. This, I thought, is what makes our country great. To try to return to “good old days” when white folks ruled the roost is a pipe dream. As they say, that train has done left the station. How we adjust to the new normal is, of course, in part what the election of 2016 is all about and right now, Hillary and The Donald are tied in the polls at 40-40. Scary.

Tomorrow we leave Yosemite for points east. It has been a magical four days. Yosemite is a magical place in a vast and beautiful country. We Americans are blessed.




Day 27:Yosemite

Sunday, July 10

Up early for breakfast in the lodge, then a short drive to see the largest tree in the world, the General Sherman Tree, 2,200 years old, 275 feet tall, and a circumference of something like 150 feet. This involves a 30 minute walk, a 150 foot change in elevation, a lot more big trees and probably 150 or so other people, a good number speaking languages we understand—French, German, Spanish—and a lot that we don’t—probably Korean, Japanese and Chinese. It turns out that Sequoia is no longer a best kept world secret, not that it ever really was.

When you look at a map, Sequoia/Kings Canyon and Yosemite appear to be only a few miles apart occupying prominent spots in the Sierra Nevada. Because no roads connect them, however, you have to go down the mountain all the way to Fresno, about 80 miles, before heading northeast to Yosemite, another 50 miles before entering the park, and then 40 more miles to the famous Yosemite Valley. By the time we reached the Village we had traveled over 200 miles much of it on winding, precipitous roads with spectacular views and no guard rails.

When you say “Yosemite,” what do you picture in your mind? Half Dome? El Captain? The meadows with wild flowers and bubbling streams in the valley, the waterfalls, some dropping over 200 feet? Has anyone not seen the iconic Ansell Adams photo of the valley as you emerge from the Highway 41 tunnel? I have been to Yosemite twice and am a big fan of Ansell Adams. So I think I know Yosemite. Hardly. I am not prepared for what we see when our car emerges from the long tunnel, and there is the valley below with enormous granite cliffs on three sides rising straight up almost a mile above the valley floor. The stone mountains are gray, shining in the late afternoon sun. The valley is all shades of green. You can see winding blue streams meandering through the meadows. The cloudless sky is Carolina blue. The temperature is in the mid 80s with very low humidity and gentle breezes. Could this be the Garden of Eden?

Worth the price of admission, as they say. You can turn around right now and go home and will have experienced a thrill of a life time.

Now there are many dimensions to Yosemite. It is a complicated place. On one hand it represents the closest thing we humans have to experiencing absolute beauty and at the same time is Exhibit A of how we humans tend to screw everything up.

Our first challenge is finding our campground, which Embry booked over my objections. (The historic hotel sounded pretty nice to me and we eventually compromised with two nights each place.) We are meeting our daughter, Jessica, along with Jasper and Josie (Peter had to return to work.) who have been visiting friends in San Francisco. Embry correctly thought it would be good to be near them and they are supposed to arrive at Curry Village about the same time we do. The first question is where is Curry Village.

After descending from the viewing area to the valley floor, we suddenly find ourselves in stop and go traffic, complete with traffic cops, madly trying to direct confused tourists, and who are not pleased when you go in the wrong direction on a one-way road as we did. We holler at one cop, asking where Curry Village is and he points back to the way we just came. I study the map for the tenth time and see Curry Village distinctly marked. We must have passed by it several times. How could we have missed it?

Surrendering, we dart into the registration parking area for Half Dome Village, a place we had passed at least a half dozen times to witness 50 or 60 people waiting patiently in line to register. Embry remarks that she is not going to wait in line for an hour at Half Dome Village only to be told we have to go to the other side of the valley or wherever. So off we go again until we return out of desperation to the Half Dome Village parking lot where there is now a huge sign which reads, “All Parking Lots Full in Yosemite. No Additional Parking Allowed.”

“Well, this is interesting,” I remarked.

Embry spots a young woman, rolls down the window and asks if she knows where Curry Village is. She tells us that this is Half Dome Village. We tell her we know that, but where is Curry Village, to which she answers casually that there is no Curry Village. When we ask what she means by that, she says there used to be a Curry Village, but they changed the name in March to Half Dome Village.


Things now start looking up. The registration line is down and it only takes about 20 minutes to get checked in. The clerk is sympathetic and supportive, commenting that no one knows why the maps have not been changed. Apparently most everyone   drives a an hour or so desperately searching for Curry Village before figuring it all out, arriving despondent and angry. We find a space in the no-spaces-available parking lot, drag our luggage to our tent, just as Jessica turns into the parking lot. She did know of the name change, learning about it when searching on line for park information. Since we are all starved and it is now approaching eight p.m., we go straight to the jam-packed pizza house, our third pizza in a row, but this one is actually hot and pretty good.

We collapse after dinner, wondering what the next three days will bring.




Days 25-26: Heading Back East

Friday, July 8 and Saturday, July 9

We awake to hear the news of the Dallas massacre. It appears that instead of subsiding, the violence in the U.S. is only getting worse. Since revenge is a basic human emotion, you know that there will be retribution, then more violence—all facilitated by elected officials, owned by the NRA, which encourages a culture where there are more lethal weapons than people. The rest of the world thinks we are nuts.

Today we begin the National Parks leg. We have reached our farthest western point, Santa Barbara, just under 4,000 miles and 23 days on the road, and are heading back East. The first park on the list is Sequoia, about a six hour drive, which we wisely decide to split up into two days. Route 101, the old Coastal Highway, will take you all the way to San Francisco, but we bail out at San Luis Obispo, a quaint, touristy town exactly halfway between L.A. and San Francisco. This highway could well be the most scenic highway in the country with golden hills, punctuated by occasional wineries and cattle fields. Perhaps most remarkable, except for the brief periods when you drive through villages and towns, there are no billboards and no advertising. I conclude that the state of California must have figured out how to accomplish what is so tragically rare in most of the rest of the U.S.

The hotel in San Luis Obispo is a 25 room, bed and breakfast, with gas burning fireplaces, and large, tastefully decorated rooms with a Great Britain theme. (Ours was “The Devonshire.”) and probably the nicest hotel so far. The trip the next day, Saturday, July 9, took us first over the Coastal Range and then down 2,000 feet to the vast, flat, irrigated fields of the San Fernando Valley. Here fields are measured in square miles, not acres. Canals provide water. Where irrigation is not provided, there is only bone dry dirt. I can’t help wondering how long it will be before water becomes the scarce resource oil is now. If the canals and irrigation cease, we who depend on this rich valley for food—and that is just about everyone in the U.S.– will be in deep trouble.

We see few houses but a surprisingly large number of “Another Farmer for Trump” signs.

After a couple of hours of speeding along at 70 miles an hour on a two-lane, almost deserted highway, we start to climb again and the golden hills we saw on Route 101 start to reappear. The hills get larger, becoming small mountains and then in the distance we see the silhouettes of the towering Sierra Nevada. It is not before we reach an altitude of around 4,000 feet that the gray sage and arid conditions suddenly and miraculously give way to pines and firs, which every few hundred yards of steep incline seem to add 10 feet in height. A deep valley is to our right with giant mountains upwards of 13,000 feet visible on the other side.

One troubling part of this part of the trip is the number of dead and dying trees. Their demise is due to a blight caused by the mountain pine beetle infestation, which tends to occur every 40 or 50 years but this time is much worse due the five-year drought affecting most of California. Hundreds of thousands trees must be affected in this park alone. Another sign of global warming?

It is not far beyond the 4,000 foot mark that we enter Sequoia National Park and then sharply start to climb to what will be 7,200 feet. This is about the altitude of Santa Fe and Flagstaff but it surely feels different. The narrow two-lane road curves back and forth with one hairpin curve after another. Since it is late in the afternoon, you would think people leaving the park would have been well on their way by now, but this is not the case. Cars are almost bumper to bumper going up the mountain and down, creeping around the hairpin curves and trying to stay on the road while not running into another car and still catching brief glimpses of steep valleys and giant mountains when you can. It is a driver’s nightmare. When we finally arrive on the top of the mountain at 7:00, we are both completely exhausted, and I am a nervous wreck. Even though our nerves are worn thin, we can’t miss gawking at the beauty of the forest and at the size and height of the Giant Sequoias. They are the largest trees in the world and are found only on the Western slopes of the Sierras. Many are over two thousand years old, some as high as 25 story buildings. I remember being here before twice—once when I was around 13 with my parents and once when we took our own kids here when they were youngsters. It is puzzling that I can’t remember many of the details but that allows me to experience this again as if it were the first time.

We find our lodge—very basic, but comfortable—and check in. Too tired to walk down to the main building, for dinner we decide to finish off the three pieces of cold pizza, which we boxed up from our meal in San Luis Obispo, which Embry immediately proceeds to drop on the floor, face down. No problem. She carefully picks up the mushrooms and pepperoni and places them back on the crust, then searches for a hire dryer, which she finds and  is surprisingly efficient in warming them up.

What permitted this from being a complete disaster was the extended happy hour, which began after we removed all perishable items, “including all alcoholic beverages” from our car. When you check into the lodge you are provided all sorts of information about the park including the bears, who are apparently so smart and so skilled that if you have anything that can be eaten or consumed in your car, the next morning the eatable and drinkable items will be gone. For some reason the  items that must be removed are alcoholic beverages–even if the bottles have not been opened.

The only conclusion that I can draw is that there is something special about bears and booze. The image of a black bear walking up to your car and examining its contents through the window and spotting a bottle of Tanqueray gin must drive them crazy. They will do anything to get in, break your car window, and you will walk out the next morning to your car to find a 500-pound black bear, passed out on your hood with a smile on his face.

We dutifully avoid such an encounter, rewarding ourselves for finally making it here, one of the most beautiful spots on Earth.