Final Thoughts

Back at home in our apartment at the Kennedy-Warren, overlooking the National Zoo. Two months of travel, 5,000 miles (actually 4,985 to be exact), 21 states and 14 mini reunions/visits with 49 old friends and relatives (plus about 50 former work colleagues at Embry’s company reunion). It was quite a trip!

Thanks to everyone who put us up and took care of us. We are truly grateful!

I am not sure we discovered the Real America in the Age of Trump, but we surely did rediscover just how vast and beautiful the United States of America is. In terms of landscape and terrain, the U.S. is just about as diverse as it gets, and we have seen and experienced a lot of it on the Road Trip of 2016—the luxuriant Appalachians and foot hills and valleys of the East, the green hills of Middle Tennessee, the flat farm lands of West Tennessee and Arkansas, the wild Ozarks, the vast prairies of Oklahoma and Texas, the stark Mojave Desert, the high, arid plains of New Mexico, the beautiful California Coast, the towering Sierra Nevada and the Rockies, the grazing fields of Colorado, the sand hills of Nevada, and the rich farm lands of Iowa, southern Indiana and southern Illinois, Ohio, and Maryland. Yes, we all know that these places are out there but tend not to think about them much. Seeing is believing.

We have seen a lot of other countries—over 40 between the two of us, and we are grateful to have seen them. There is, of course, so much to see on this planet, which in our around-the-world-no airplanes experience of last year seems actually rather small when compared to the universe that surrounds us. But a trip like this makes you realize just how special your own country is. There is no country like it, and we are lucky to live here.

Much of the credit goes to the National Parks Service, celebrating its 100th Anniversary this year. We visited eight fabulous parks—Sequoia, Yosemite, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce, Arches, and Rocky Mountain. There are over 400 national parks in all. We tend to take them for granted. We Americans invented the idea of preserving these wonders for everyone, not just the elite few who might claim them as their own private estates or put up huge hotels and billboards advertising them. Parts of these parks are quite crowed, but the parks are so big that it is not hard to hike off the beaten path or into wilderness areas. While strapped financially these (given the dysfunctional Congress), they are doing the best they can. If there is one message from the Road Trip that is important, it is this: get out and see our national parks. You have many to choose from. The ones we visited are certainly among the most spectacular and beautiful, but there are hundreds of others.

On the other hand, we were continually reminded how we humans have trashed too much of our landscape and natural environment—the endless billboards, the myriad fast food and crummy establishments at most intersections on interstate highways, the boarded up stores in so many small towns, the big box stores, and urban sprawl. As one trained in city planning, I keep thinking that it did not have to be this way.

Did we come back with profound insights as to the Real America in the Age of Trump?

Not exactly. In fact we wondered if anyone is actually following the election campaigns. The total number of Trump signs we saw could be counted on one hand. (None for Hillary.) Our views continue to be shaped by what we read in the newspapers and see on TV and by our experience living in Washington. Getting outside of the Washington bubble was one of the reasons for making the trip, but we did not find that people are much different or that Truth is any more accessible beyond the Beltway.

There were a few hopeful signs, however. Of the 49 friends and relatives we saw, some are committed Republicans, and nary a one plans to vote for Trump. We remain apprehensive, but Trump’s continuing self-destruction makes us breathe a little easier. (If you want to read something really scary, check out the September issue of The Atlantic and read “Trump’s Intellectuals” by Peter Beinart. It turns out that some right wing intellectuals are beginning to embrace the idea of a strongman government, not unlike what occurred in Germany in the 1930s.)

Much of what we do read and watch on TV tells us that the country is in turmoil, and that we have lost faith in our institutions and desire radical change. It is true that there is much that needs fixing. But I have to tell you that spending two months on the road, we came away with a feeling of awe. We live in an extraordinary country and have the ability to fix what is wrong. Having the will is the issue. We live in a country that is vast, diverse and beautiful. Our diversity is our strength. Good people live here. It is the most beautiful country on our small planet. We have been blessed.

Finally, we want to thank you for following us. I know who some of you are but hardly all. Our posts have been averaging about 250 hits each, which astonishes me. I appreciate all your comments and welcome more. Now that we are back and I have loaded the images into my computer, I will try to post some photos on the website and will let you know when they are available.


A few final comments from Embry: If you plan to make a trip like this (or something similar), I have a few comments on the practicalities. We stayed in four types of accommodations: (1) with friends or relatives (some of you!)—this is the best kind, and cheapest of course (!), but don’t stay more than 2-3 nights, following Ben Franklin’s suggestion about the smelly fish; (2) cheapish motels (chains)—while this is necessary in some circumstances when you are pushing through to a destination, we found few that were a place we would want to stay more than a night, and I’m glad we didn’t have a high proportion of them on the itinerary (La Quinta was the best of the bunch); (3) “historic hotels” (there were four of these that we stayed in, all on the historic register)—the advantage is you get a feel for history and feel you are supporting a “good cause,” ie. historic preservation, but they were all four overpriced for the quality of the accommodation, and looking back I would probably have skipped staying in them and just gone there for a meal; (4) cabins in national or state parks—for the money these were the best value and I wish we had planned on more and longer stays where you can cook your own meals or eat at a lodge. Speaking of meals, of course while you have to eat at chains sometimes (Joe actually likes fast food and we both like Cracker Barrel), we found lots of “local” eateries where the meals were reasonably priced and you can be near local people and feel the local atmosphere. Seek those out. We carried a cooler with drinks and snacks and made picnics when we could. Finally, keep your pace as slow as you can. We had only one stay longer than 3 days in any place, and so we felt constantly on the move. I am glad we saw all we did, but I really wish we had broken up the trip with a few more longer stays, for example in state parks. That’s is: take off and enjoy our beautiful country!




August 57-63 Last Leg

Monday, August 7- Friday, August 13

This is my penultimate (next to last) post. Omaha is nothing to write home about as far as I can tell—a typical, medium-sized (almost one million people, metro), Mid Western city, making an effort to revitalize a rather dull downtown. (One question is where all the cars are. In the middle of a workday, downtown streets are mostly empty, and on street parking is abundant.) But we are here only one night and part of two days and are a bit weary of driving. There is probably more than meets the eye.

The journey to Des Moines begins in a dense fog so we see little of the Iowa landscape until the sun finally burns through. Iowa turns out to be beautiful.–deep green fields of corn and soy beans, rolling hills, pastures and occasional farm houses. We arrive in Des Moines around ten-thirty a.m. at the old library downtown, which has been turned into an international, feeding-the-hungry memorial honoring local Noble Lauriat, Norman Borlaug, the Des Moines scientist who pretty much invented the Green Revolution. There we meet Erik, Mary and their daughter, Anya. Erik worked with me at Howell Associates, heading up our marketing services and now works for Life Care Services, the largest manager of retirement communities in the country. He is a world class sailor and has remained a close friend. Their beautiful 13-year old daughter, Anja, is our goddaughter.

The four days and three nights with them are fabulous—great tour of the city (actually quite impressive, especially with regard to cultural stuff) , a day sailing with Erik and two of his former, now retired, work colleagues, on Iowa’s largest lake (not very large) in near perfect conditions except for the 95 degree heat , visiting Mary’s new framing and gift shop business near their home, enjoying Mary’s delicious meals, and just hanging out. Embry was even able to attend a Hillary rally (while I went sailing) where she picked up a tee shirt (“Madam President, Get Used to It”) and bumper stickers (“#Hill Yes”).

The big story, of course, is the Iowa State Fair. In fact we arranged the trip so that we would be able to attend this world famous event, which is the oldest (started 1850s) and largest state fair in the U.S. and, I presume, the world. The day starts with ferocious thunderstorms so we delay our departure until the skies start to clear and arrive mid morning. Today is the first day of a 10-day run, which will attract over one million visitors. To put that into perspective, there are only three million people who live in the entire state.

The best way to describe this extraordinary happening is to envision Disney World on steroids and with much more food and more varieties of farm animals than you thought existed in the U.S.– all in one place. Huge pavilions each contain many hundreds, perhaps thousands of animals–a pavilion for horses, one for cows, for pigs, for sheep, one for chickens, geese and ducks, and probably others. Any animal that you can eat is alive here and in abundance; and they are all competing for best-in-show prizes with their nervous owners standing by and leading them in front of judges and panels.

Then there is the food. Every conceivable vegetable that is grown in Iowa is also on display and competing for a blue or silver or yellow ribbon—corn, tomatoes, beans, beets, squash, onions, soy beans and stuff you have never even heard of. The same is true for “dairy.” Visitors stroll through the vast pavilions admiring all the produce and cheese, which already boast ribbons from county fairs. I have no idea how you judge one green pepper from another but someone obviously does. People have been doing it here in Iowa for over 150 years.

Naturally we stand in line to see the “butter cow”—a life size sculpture in butter of a Hereford cow–and walk along the midway with the rides, arcades, and booths where you can throw a ball and win a teddy bear. We also pause for a beer at Diamond Jack’s Bar and hear fabulous country music from “Heart’s Desire,” two women who sound like Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn. Various concerts and special events go on each day, and there is a four page program booklet describing what is happening just for that day. Crowds are large but not overwhelming (as will probably be the case on the weekend), and you don’t have to stand in line for much of anything. Country music is blaring over a loudspeaker. Kids are blowing soap bubbles, one guy is using spray cans to paint cartoons on the sidewalk, most–many wearing tee shirts sporting names like “Proud Pig Farmer,” or “ Iowa is Best”–are just strolling along eating cotton candy, candy apples, kettle corn, corn dogs, chili dogs, pork on a stick, or just gawking at the vast activity that surrounds and engulfs them.

I try to figure out why the atmosphere, while like that of Disney World in some respects, seems different in others. Part of it are the animals and the competition, but what it really seems to boil down to is authenticity. There is something here that seems natural and real in contrast with Disney World, which by design is unapologetically imaginary and contrived. The atmosphere here puts you in touch with your roots—the closeness and dependence we have with animals and crops and food and our common humanity–real people of all shapes and sizes (especially a lot of xxx large sizes).

The lack of diversity is also apparent, but this is Iowa (only 3% African American, 5% Latino). If this is not all of the Real America, it is surely one of the pieces.

We say good bye to Erik, Mary and Anja and make our way in two days to Cincinnati where we stay with my senior year, Davidson College roommate, Bud and his wife, Mary Ann. Bud is a retired cardiologist and they live in a huge apartment (four balconies) on the 17th floor of a 23-story condominium with stunning views of the Ohio River and downtown Cincinnati. Like all the other mini-reunions along the way, it is great to see them and catch up.

Before reaching Cincinnati, however, we stop in Peoria, Illinois for a stay in a Motel 6. Naturally we have seen hundreds of Motel 6s along the way, and Embry wisely suggests that if we want to truly understand the Real America, we must stay in one. This is our last chance. We arrive around six at the modest motel building, buried in a sea of chain motels, just as a major thunderstorm is arriving. We scamper with our bags to the tiny and somewhat bedraggled front office and check in.

Seconds after Embry opens the door with her key, she jumps back, exclaiming, “There is someone in that room sleeping!”


Embry goes back to the front office while I wait with the bags in the hall in front of the room we were assigned to. Not a good decision. In a couple of minutes the door opens, and a huge hulk of a man peeks his head out and looks directly at me. My guess he is in his 30s, has a red beard, tattoos up and down both arms and is not pleased. Pointing his finger directly at me and scowling, he slowly says in a very deep and serious voice, “You broke into my room and woke me up!”

“No, sir,” I respond in my most contrite way, “It was not me, it was my wife.”

The guy has to be close to 6’6’’ and must weigh over 250 pounds. One swat at me and it would be over, like extinguishing an annoying fly.

“But she had a key and has gone to get another room assignment. We are so sorry, so very sorry….” I then hold my breath and mentally prepare for the worst.

He pauses for a moment, his face suddenly lights up with a smile and replies, “Hey, Motel 6, baby, happens all the time. No problem.”

Embry returns with a new key, this one for the last available room. It is supposed to be non-smoking but in fact reeks with cigarette smoke, with cigarette butts along with other debris on the floor. There is one old-fashioned, box, color TV with a wavy picture, which keeps going off completely from time to time as we try to watch the Olympics, and air-conditioning which does not work. The thunderstorm has cooled the 95 degree temperatures down a bit but still….Embry calls to complain and receives a ho hum, “sorry to hear this” response but nothing more.

So this is Motel 6—half the price of most of the other chains and now we know how they do it. We now have seen and understand the Real America. We do not talk to anyone else staying there but guess most are Trump supporters.

It turns out that the last day of the Road Trip of 2016 is the most stressful of the entire trip. We drive the 400 plus miles in a blinding rain storm that starts minutes after we leave Cincinnati and continues until we hit the Maryland border, 10 hours later. We are completely exhausted and so glad to be home as we stumble into our apartment at close to midnight.

The Road Trip of 2016 is now over. Long live the Road Trip of 2016!

Next and final blog post will attempt to pull it all together.






Cows by Embry


I am writing a second and last blog post from our drive-around-the-U.S. trip, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” This one concerns Cows, which whose presence has been a constant theme of our trip.

Cows have been raised by humans since domestication millennia ago, and from what I can figure out, their major goal in life is to eat. At the same time, one major goal for humans is to eat cows (witness the presence of a McDonalds at lots of the interstate intersections).

In Tennessee we visited two friends who (after being a doctor and lawyer respectively) have been gentleman farmers for several years. They both raise beef cows. The cows looked big and healthy to me, and relatively happy, with lots of room to move around and lots of good grass and hay to eat. We learned some interesting facts about the amount of acreage needed to raise a beef cow in verdant Tennessee (not much), the fact that they have sex once a year with the bull on Christmas Day, so that all the calves come about the same time (that bull certainly has a good time on Christmas), and some of the other interesting technicalities of raising beef cows. Females and the few male bulls are somewhat lucky, in that they get to live a pretty nice life as long as they are reproducing, but all the others get slaughtered, which is (of course) the main point of raising beef cows. I did ask about how they slaughtered the cows, which is kind of a sensitive subject (they get “sent off to slaughter”), since the cows are so nice. In spite of some misgivings, I admit I enjoyed the tasty beef for lunch.

This set me up for a shock when we passed, near Amarillo, TX, the largest “feed lot” in the U.S. At first, when I saw it from a distance, I thought some kind of environmental devastation had occurred, but as we got closer I began to discern acres and acres of cows (all white with black spots). They were packed together, lying in the heat, and could not move. I later learned more about the system of “harvesting” cows, which involves shipping the cows from far and wide to these lots where cows are kept in these crowded conditions to fatten up before slaughter. The smell of the feed lot was pervasive for miles and miles around.

Later I was able to talk to a family at Ghost Ranch who had a ranch and raised cattle in Oklahoma, where it takes many more acres per cow because of the dry conditions. They are very aware of the ethical issues I brought up. One thing they have done is giving up branding their cows (too cruel). Because of all the fencing now, it’s not as necessary–happily for the cows. Still they do not slaughter their own cows, so off to the feedlot they go (same as for the Tennessee cows).

Apparently this is also the fate of the milk cows. We just had the wonderful experience of attending the Iowa State Fair (another bucket-list event, well worth a trip). At the fair, we watched the judging of the Holsteins (milk cows who are judged mainly on the size of their udders, which are truly huge). We chatted with one of the keepers, and I brought up my touchy subject again. Just as with the beef cows, once they are no longer producing milk (about 6-8) years, they are also slaughtered for beef. They get to be hamburger, because of their muscular builds. Off to the feed lot and then to McDonalds, I guess.

After my Amarillo experience I was kind of a low key vegetarian for a while. I couldn’t eat steak or hamburger. I kept thinking about those cows lying in the heat. I have always loved the occasional steak or hamburger, and it just didn’t taste right. Then I got to Omaha, and couldn’t resist. I have to admit that steak was very tasty!

I have wondered if there isn’t a better way to slaughter those cows. Why does everyone, even the small scale farmer, send them off to these cruel (and seemingly unsanitary) conditions before they get to the market? I realize that humans have evolved to eat meat (at least some), and that domestication is better than killing off all the wild animals, but isn’t there a better way to accomplish this?

I went to the PETA website, but they don’t have any proposals other than for everyone to be a VEGAN. That’s not for me. I like dairy too much (which then leads me to realizing that all those young male cows and females who no longer produce meat would be off to the feedlot). I think we need another muckraker, to take this to a political level.

Oh, and by the way, I forgot to mention that the Hillary rally I attended in Des Moines was disrupted by animal rights groups. This is apparently a big advocacy group in Iowa. So maybe they will take on the feedlots!

Days 53-56 Cowboy and Corn Country

Thursday, August 4-Sunday, August 6

Heading home. With the last park behind us, we have our eye on Washington. We will have two visits with old friends–one in Des Moines and one in Cincinnati–and will arrive home in just over a week if all goes well. So the assumption would be that the best is over and the only thing left is a grind.


It turns out that still much to see and much that is surprisingly beautiful and interesting. I find myself repeating that I can’t believe how vast and extraordinary our country is.

Our first stop is Cheyenne, Wyoming. To get there we leave the Rockies through a narrow, winding canyon that turns out to be the most dramatic ride yet with steep canyon walls of granite rising straight up for mile after mile. Soon, however, the road becomes flat and we find ourselves in cowboy country. As you would expect, vast open fields and pastures line both sides of the road with cows and occasional horses. Around two we arrive in Cheyenne, an old cow town at the southern tip of Wyoming, which we are too tired to appreciate. We check in at a pretty nice motel billed as a “motel resort” (A golf course surrounds the property.) and immediately set out to see Cheyenne and replenish our beverage supply for happy hour. I type “liquor store” in Google Maps and some 10 or 12 options pop up. The names of all the stores except two are something like, “Abe’s Bar and Package Store.” The other two are some distance away—59 miles in fact for Sam’s Liquor Mart,” so we decide to head to the “Ace Bar and Package Store,” only a mile and a half away.

The store is located in sleazy part of town with auto parts stores, used car lots, fast food outlets, truck stops, two Dollar Stores (Family Dollar and Dollar General, both of which are ubiquitous in small town America) and the like. The building appears to be quite small with a huge blinking sign, “Ace Bar and Package Store.” In the parking lot I count eight Harley Davidson motorcycles and six pick up trucks. It does not exactly look like your typical liquor store, but I decide to enter anyway, leaving Embry in the car. As soon as the door closes behind me I realize that I have made a mistake. Country music is blaring from a juke box. The light is so dim it takes a few moments for my eyes to adjust, but through the haze of thick cigarette smoke, I make out a long bar with a rather large, middle aged lady in a red dress mixing drinks and about a dozen bar stools, all occupied by very large, beefy men, some with cowboy hats, and some with black leather jackets, engaged in loud and boisterous conversations. There are a few empty tables and two, old fashioned TVs displaying blurred images of a baseball game and a rodeo. I look for where the wine selection might be and see a dozen, half-full whisky bottles above the bar and nothing else. As the door shuts, the loud conversation pauses and one hulk of a man with a bushy beard and leather jacket looks around at me and stares, not saying a word, but communicating pretty clearly, “What are you doing here?”

The thought occurs to me that it may seem inappropriate if I ask to see their selection of California chardonnay.

“Oops,” I say, “wrong address,” and bolt for the door.

I am a chicken. I should have stayed. The incident certainly recalls some pages out of Hard Living on Clay Street. But I was 30 then and 74 now. But I confess that I regret I did not “suck it up” and ask where the wine bins were. It surely would have made for a better story.

With that experience I scratch off the list all the “bars and package stores” and head to the only “liquor store” actually in Cheyenne on the Google Maps list, about five miles away. On the way there we pass several dozen “bars and package stores” and drive through a bunch of neighborhoods that look pretty rundown and raunchy. After purchasing the beverages we head back to the resort motel to watch the news—Trump appears to be well on his way to self destructing–enjoy happy hour and then head out to Denny’s for dinner. We regret that we do not have more time to explore Cheyenne, but we are too tired and the next day have to leave early to stay on schedule.

The next morning we stop again at Denny’s for breakfast (By the way if you are searching for the Real America you do not have to look farther than a Denny’s.) and then head north for a couple of hours before turning east toward Nebraska. We have made reservations to stay in a motel in Valentine, a small town in the middle of the sand hills of Nebraska but some 400 miles away. It is going to be a long day.

There are several things that stand out most about the small part Wyoming we drive through and Nebraska. Neither have many trees. There is lots of grass. You don’t see many houses or people or really all that many cows, and there are hardly any towns.

But what is most impressive are the roads. They are long and straight, have wide shoulders, and have no traffic. You can go miles without seeing another vehicle. There are no billboards whatsoever (not, I presume, out of any regard for the environment but because there is nothing to advertise). And beside these long and straight roads, there is often a long and straight river and almost always long and straight railroad tracks. Unlike the roads, the railroad tracks have all kinds of traffic with four diesel engines (two in front and two in the rear) pulling along 150 or so coal cars, one train after another. In other words we find ourselves in another world again, so different from our experience in the desert and the mountains and so different from the East.

Nebraska is especially intriguing. For one thing, it is not flat. Rolling hills surround us almost the entire 400-mile journey of day one and over half the time they are sand hills, which are ancient, massive sand dunes, now covered with a thin layer of grass. Sometimes you think you are driving through a vast golf course like you might find in Scotland. Small lakes and ponds are abundant and dot the landscape. And for the entire first day we see no corn, or for that matter any other kind of crop. It is just one vast wilderness of grasslands, sand hills, and occasional cattle.

Our stay in Valentine, a tiny hamlet of several hundred houses, two gas stations, two motels and two restaurants is pleasant enough, and we set out the next day for another 400 mile drive. Embry has the idea that we must see one of the lakes up close since that is where all the birds and ducks will be. As we pass through a wildlife preserve, we see a dirt road with a sign that says, “auto trail” and decide to take it. Immediately I realize that we may have made a mistake because the bumpy, narrow road is really no more than a path and impossible to turn around on since marsh land is on both sides. We inch along for a good thirty minutes through several small herds of cows before at last finding a spot where we can turn around. I breathe a sigh of relief. We know we are close to small lakes but can’t see them because of the high marsh grass. I concede that the ride is beautiful and worth the effort. We are seeing a part of Nebraska that few tourists see. But it would have been even nicer to get to one of the lakes.

By mid morning when we leave the region of the sand hills cornfields suddenly start to appear. The fields are the largest I have ever seen and go on forever. Small towns are also now abundant and each one seems to have its own towering grain elevator, which is positioned alongside the railroad tracks. By mid afternoon, our back road intersects with the interstate and we take it for a couple of hours to our destination, Platte River State Park.

Embry somehow found this spot on the internet, and it is a real gem. In fact state parks in general are a best kept secret, which tourists often overlook. This one is pretty small, probably under a thousand acres (The national parks we visited tended to be in the millions.) but is packed with stuff to do. It is nestled beside the river and offers hiking trails, a small lake, large swimming pool, a lodge with a dining room, observation deck and something like 100 small cabins. Our cabin is a one bedroom unit with a working fireplace, kitchenette, flat screen TV (permitting us to watch the Olympics), and magnificent views of a valley of fields and pastures. And trees! Hardwoods, the first trees like those we have in the East that we have seen since we entered Oklahoma six weeks ago, surround our cabin. Our only complaint is that one of the activities is a firing range, which is located close enough to our cabin that we hear shots throughout the day.

We spend two nights here, journey into Louisville, a small town six miles away for breakfast and to buy food to cook. The next day we will depart for Omaha.


Days 51-52 The Rockies 3

Tuesday, August 2-Wednesday, August 3

A little after three p.m. on Saturday, Ian and Kathy arrive at the hotel to take us to their mountain vacation home just outside of Estes Park.

Ian is a colleague of Embry’s at the Urban Institute, and more important, is now the co-owner of Carolina Blue, the sailboat I raced for about 10 years with Ian being one of the crew. He and Kathy built their vacation home a number of years ago though the home site has been in the family since Ian’s grandfather purchased it from the YMCA during the Great Depression. Their cabin and a dozen other, privately owned vacation homes occupy a hillside which is within the huge YMCA complex with camper and family lodges, a huge indoor swimming pool, stables, family reunion compound, fishing lake, and all sorts of activities available.

When we left Peggy and Perrin’s house, I was sure I would never see another cabin with as much charm and appeal. If this cabin is not equal, it is surely close. It is tastefully designed—similar in many respects to Peggy and Perrin’s with natural wood siding, a huge fireplace, a loft, and huge porch. The view, however, is unsurpassed with unobstructed views of 14,000 foot peaks on all four sides.

Having known Ian for some time, I knew that he was a bit of an adventurer—an amateur race car driver, once a serious cyclist, and now a racing sailboat owner—but I did not know that he was an elite hiker, having hiked up (and scaled in in some instances) 20 peaks in the Rockies over 14,000 feet high. This 15-hour effort per hike requires starting the climb at three a.m. in order to reach the summit and return before routine, afternoon thunderstorms hit.

I gracefully suggest that such an activity might not be appropriate for his current guests.

We did not scale a 14,000 foot peak, but we did hike trails that most visitors to the park take—the Beaver Lake trails—which lead to several alpine lakes. (Due to the steep incline—and continuing knee issues– I made it only to one of the three lakes that the others hiked to.) The trails were crowed like most accessible and relatively easy trails but beautiful and the crowds did not ruin the experience.

We end up spending two nights and two days with Ian and Kathy enjoying the views, a delicious dinner cooked by Kathy, a Mexican lunch in downtown Estes Park and just hanging out with them.

Tomorrow we say goodbye to the Rockies and to our last national park on the Road Trip of 2016. The magnificent beauty of the Rocky Mountains is about as good as it gets.

But wait, you say, haven’t you said this about every national park you visited? You have a point, but I suppose that actually is the point. These parks are all spectacular in their own way and get five stars.

Okay, maybe not Death Valley in the summer.

We have now visited eight parks—Sequoia, Yosemite, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce, Arches, and Rocky Mountain. That is eight out of a total of 412 national parks and monuments. No other country has anything like what we have. We even invented the idea. I suppose it is something that most of us just take for granted. But it was not preordained. We could just as easily have trashed these natural treasures and probably would have were it not for enlightened national leadership starting over 100 years ago. We have so much to be proud of and thankful for in the U.S. in this Age of Discontent, and the national park system is surely at or near the top of the list.

But what I wonder is how many Americans actually do get to visit the national parks. Last year there were some 307 million visits–the most ever– which sounds like a lot, but this includes people from other countries, and some people make multiple visits in one year like us. What a shame to grow up in this country and miss out on seeing how beautiful it is. My guess is that there are a whole bunch of us Americans who have not visited any national park and only a very small percentage who have seen as many as we have this year. So we are the lucky ones, and for this we are deeply grateful.

Days 49-50: The Rockies 2

Sunday, July 31- Monday, August 1

The drive to Estes Park takes about six hours over more beautiful–and stressful– mountain roads.Perrin and Peggy suggested a short cut, which would take us 60 plus miles along a dirt road over Cottonwood Pass, which at 12,200 feet marks the Continental Divide. Sensing my reluctance to take a dirt road up a mountain that high, they assured us that it would not be that hard.


In any event we made it, with Embry driving up and me driving down the other side, which was much easier since it had shoulders and a paved service. At the top it was raining and cold with temperatures in the 40s. Patches of snow were everywhere, and there were no trees since the tree line is around 11,500 feet . A dramatic but bleak setting.

Since most of the land in this part of Colorado is in national forests or parks, there are only a handful of towns between Crested Butte and Estes Park , the most interesting being Leadville, an old mining town at over 10,000 feet elevation that still has much of its character.

We arrive in Estes Park, exhausted, in late afternoon. Our hotel for the first three nights is The Stanley. The Stanley is expensive but worth the price of admission. Built in 1909, like the infamous Crescent in the Ozarks, it is on the National Register of Historic Places; but unlike the Crescent it is vibrant and a center of activity in Estes Park, which actually is more bland than we had expected. The carpets are a bit threadbare, and the hotel has had its ups and downs but seems to have found its niche with fine dining (best food on the Road Trip so far), a destination wedding location (averaging two or three per day), a world famous whisky bar (over 200 brands), a strong convention and conference business, and all sorts of cultural activities like concerts and lectures. Views of the mountains are spectacular from almost every one of the 140 rooms; the lobby almost always is bustling; and the 30 or 40 chairs on the big front porch are occupied most of the time.

The hotel was actually started as a guest lodge by a rich inventor and entrepreneur, FO Stanley, who moved to the area at the turn of the previous century from Massachusetts in hopes of curing his tuberculosis. He and his wife built a huge “vacation home” along with a 100-room guest lodge for their rich, East Coast friends. The lodge was expanded to 140 rooms, sold and converted to a commercial hotel before the stock market crash of 1929. Since that time it has had 26 different owners, gone into and out of bankruptcy, and for years struggled to survive. In any event it seems to be doing fine now due to an experienced and enlightened owner who specializes in managing historic hotels.

But what really makes the hotel special is that it is haunted. The hotel runs “Ghost Tours” every 30 minutes starting at 10 in the morning and going all day. They are usually packed with 25-30 wide-eyed tourists following a guide through the building. Naturally, I could not resist signing up for $20. It was worth every penny.

According to our guide, a 30-something woman with a quick wit and special affection for ghosts, sightings of dead people happen all the time at The Stanley along with doors opening and closing by themselves, guest’s finding their dirty clothes neatly folded or hung up in closets, windows opening and closing mysteriously, hair of guests standing on end, men (never women) falling out of bed, and the hazy figure of a cowboy who seems to wander routinely in the middle of the night in room 408. She went to great lengths to assure us that these ghosts were friendly ghosts and that no one had ever been hurt or really scared all that much. People come from all over the world to visit because of the ghosts and are especially interested in staying in room 217.

Room 217 is the room where Stephen King stayed in 1974 when he and his wife stumbled onto the hotel in late fall just as it was closing down for the winter and found themselves to be the hotel’s only guests. They had dinner in the spooky, main dining room as weird orchestral music was piped in, and then retired to room 217 where King experienced the worst nightmare of his life, which inspired the 1977 book, The Shining (and 1980s movie adaption by Stanley Kubrick, starring Jack Nicholson). The movie is available 24/7, playing continuously on the hotel’s television. Of course, we had to watch it. This is one weird and scary movie! (The movie was actually filmed at a hotel at the foot of Mt Hood in Oregon.)

Who knows about these things? Our guide swears she has seen ghosts many times herself and that guests have taken photos with people dressed in early 20th Century garb, mysteriously showing up in prints. As for me, I remain a bit of a skeptic, and Embry will have nothing to do with it at all. But, hey, it works for the hotel and may have saved it from yet another bankruptcy. And they even have a full time psychic on site who takes bookings months in advance. If you ever get to Estes Park, put The Stanley on your bucket list.

Besides hanging out at the Stanley, we spend a day in Rock Mountain National Park driving along the ridge road, which is the highest paved road in the U.S. at an average height of over 10,000 feet and often rises higher than the tree line. The road is about 50 miles long and requires a return trip, so it is all-day activity if you stop at the overlook areas, which of course we did. It was quite crowded as you might expect but did not exceed the enjoyment threshold. These mountains are so vast, so tall and so massive that human impact seems almost insignificant.

We return to The Stanley for a dinner at the whisky bar and a good night’s rest, hoping we do not bump into any ghosts in the night.



Day 47-48: The Rockies 1

Friday, July 29- Saturday, July 30

From Arches we set out to join our friends, Peggy and Perrin, who have a vacation home near Crested Butte in the Rockies. We wake up early to see the sun rise, changing the vast desert in front of our tent from gray, to purple to red and then to white as the sun peeks above the horizon and pours light into our tent. The evening had not been too bad with temperatures dipping into the 50s; but by 8:00 a.m. it is already in the low 80s, and expected to top 100 by noon.

Our first stop is a small town in the desert, Thompson Springs, about 40 miles away where one of the camp attendants lives, a middle aged woman with a face showing years of hard work in the sun. We spend some time discussing life in the area, and she volunteers that she lives near her parents in an old mining town that is now a ghost town, a situation she describes with stoic resignation. Naturally we are curious as to what a real ghost town looks like, get directions and arrive there in about 45 minutes. We count about 10 mobile homes, some in disrepair, clustered around a small intersection just minutes off the interstate. Six or seven buildings located in what must have been the village center are boarded up and falling down. The only former establishment that can be identified displays a hotel sign. It is also rundown, and has a truck in the driveway suggesting it is now a residence.

We wonder how many towns in southern Utah are like this, having lost population as mining petered out and are struggling just to survive. What must it be like to live in these towns, which have lost all their services and are often long distances from grocery stores, pharmacies, and schools?

The drive to Crested Butte is up the western slope of the Rocky Mountains, which takes about six hours. We climb from about 5,000 feet to almost 10,000 feet before descending to a valley around 8,000 feet and then up again. The scenery is stunning though similar to what we have seen before in other parks like Yosemite and Sequoia except greener with an abundance of water in streams, brooks and occasional alpine lakes. Traffic is surprisingly light though the absence of guard rails on most hairpin curves keeps us–me anyway–from thoroughly enjoying the views, I am reminded of my granddaughter, Josie’s, comments to me in Yosemite, “Just suck it up, Pepe!” but am sadly finding that I am becoming more anxious rather than less. Perhaps this is just a sign of getting old. But consider this: when guard rails do exist, look at them carefully. All of them—or at least most of them—have dents where vehicles obviously banged into them at some point. Some are even partially destroyed. Now imagine what would have happened if these guard rails had not been there.

Embry says she is tired of hearing me complain and asks to take over the wheel.

There are virtually no villages or signs of human habitation anywhere until after a couple of hours when we roll into Gunnison, a tourist town of several thousand people, located in the valley near the southern boundary the Rocky Mountains. From there it is only another 50 miles north to Peggy and Perrin’s mountain home as we drive along a small highway curving through a green valley with bubbling streams and large ranches with horses and cows grazing. No sign of any desert here.

The email directions provided by Perrin take up one full page when printed out. Three miles here, then four miles there, then turn when the road bends, look for Sam’s cabin, then…. Naturally the GPS has faded, so we are now on our own. Just after the sign for Sam’s cabin, the journey starts to get serious with 7.1 miles to go on a road that starts off paved but quickly deteriorates to gravel and dirt and narrows so that it is virtually impossible for two large cars to pass. And everyone who lives in these parts of the woods drives a very large car.

Since not many people do live around here, you meet few cars coming from the opposite direction, but you do meet some; and unless you are extremely lucky, somebody has to back up to a spot where the road widens a bit, so the oncoming car can squeeze by as you pause along side a 50 foot precipice, biting your nails.

Following Perrin’s explicit directions we start a steep climb with numerous switchbacks, see an entrance to a summer camp, a couple of trail heads, a beautiful alpine meadow with plenty of cows grazing, and finally the trailhead which according to his directions abuts his property. We are there!

Talk about secluded!

The house, which they built about 15 years ago, is a gem, worthy of a cover story in Architectural Digest—natural materials, multiple porches and nooks, huge fireplace, cozy but elegant. My guess it is about 2,000 square feet—medium sized. It is situated in a small clearing surrounded by huge spruces, Douglas Firs, and Aspens with views when looking almost straight up of peaks towering to 12,000 feet above sea level and 3,000 feet above the cabin. Below the house is a roaring trout stream which creates a soothing, never ending ,white sound. Humming birds are ubiquitous.

Peggy and   Perrin are old friends from Chapel Hill graduate school days when I was in planning school, Embry in the School of Public Health and Perrin in law school. They are great outdoors people with whom we have enjoyed many white water canoe trips and cross country skiing weekends in West Virginia. They bought the vacation property— an outparcel in the middle of the Gunnison National Forest—almost on a whim. Due to a snow storm preventing them from skiing in Aspen, they went instead (for the first time) to Crested Butte, and when cross country skiing fell in love with this part of the mountain forest. It turned out that one small outparcel was for sale, and they jumped on it without even seeing the property. The rest is history. They spend several months here each year, and it is easy to see why they love it.

We spend the afternoon hiking on a tiny path next to the trout stream, then onto a vast, alpine meadow with breathtaking views of peaks surrounding the valley. The next morning we drive for breakfast to the town of Crested Butte, an upscale, charming tourist community with a wild West theme and plenty of coffee shops, cafes and boutiques, along with music festivals, food festivals, wine festivals and other cultural activities.

After breakfast, we say our goodbyes and head out to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park in what will be our last –and perhaps most spectacular–national park.

Day 46: Arches National Park

The travel from Bryce to the Arches National Park is in some respects among the most challenging of the Road Trip with at least three mountain ranges to cross with countless switch backs and hairpin curves, most without guard rails. It is also the most spectacular. We take Utah State Road 12, which is billed as one of the most scenic in the state, which takes us past three state parks, several national forests and one national monument. For the first 100 miles or so we can count the number of cars we see on two hands. We pass through only two towns—Boulder and Torrey—both old mining towns with current populations in the 100s. These tiny hamlets did not even get paved roads or electricity until the 1950s. You have to wonder how people get by—where kids go to school, where people do routine shopping, what they do all day.

We also pass through several ecosystems—bone dry desert, grass lands, thick mountain forests of Douglass Fir, Ponderosa Pine, and Aspen, and several alpine meadows. The toughest climb is Mount Boulder. We finally cross the pass at 11,000 feet with temperatures in the 50s. An hour later when we reach the valley on the other side, the temperature is over 100.

Our destination, Arches National Park, is located just north of Moab, Utah, an old mining town, turned out-of- doors, adventure, tourist town. Since there are no overnight tourist accommodations in the national park, Embry has booked us in a “luxury tent camp,” called Moab Under Canvass. The only problem is that as we roll into Moab in search of the tent camp, the temperature on the dashboard reads 106 degrees. We are talking Death Valley temperatures here. In a tent? Are we serious? For a moment I think we may be saved by the bell, since we can not find the camp. It has all the aspects of a scam—inaccurate directions, limited information, etc.—but just as we are about to give up and head to a Motel 6, there it is, perched on a cliff overlooking the valley. Doomed.

It turns out that tent camping in these conditions could be worse. The tents are actually pretty nice, better than those in Yosemite; and ours has a wood burning stove (great for 106 degree temperatures) and even a shower and toilet. While there is no electricity, this gives the tent a cozy feel. My guess is that about 10 of the 40 tents are occupied. After checking in and getting help with the bags by a young woman riding in a golf cart, we head to the Arches after which we head out to find an air conditioned restaurant in Moab, activities which take several hours and get us back to the tent at nine p.m. when the temperature has dropped to 103. It’s still hot but could be hotter, and the temperature is going down. We pull out a couple of chairs and sit on the small porch, watch the evening sky as it turns pink and lavender and have a glass of wine and more water. By eleven we are still alive, so our plan is working. The night sky is now dark with few lights anywhere to obstruct the vision, giving Embry the opportunity to use her spotting scope. The Milky Way is overhead. We are spellbound by the beauty of the sky and the desert at night. By midnight the temperature is in the mid 90s, low enough to turn in, and by early morning will be in the mid 60s before it starts to soar again. Sleeping is not impossible—probably due to our exhaustion– and we manage to make it through the night. Victory!

We ended up spending a couple of hours driving through the park that evening. Like all the other parks we have seen, it is fabulous, similar in some ways and different in others. It is probably 2,000 feet above the valley where we are staying, a little cooler, and includes hundreds of rock formations, many with arches (hence the name) and many which are named due to their unique shapes. Best of all are the vistas of the vast valley below. Another treasure of southern Utah.

The stay in Moab Under Canvas and visit to Arches National Park will be our last in the desert. We have been zigzagging over mountains and across deserts ever since we entered the Mojave Desert on our way to Santa Barbara weeks earlier. I never understood how vast, rich and beautiful it is and how much variation exists from one desert location to another. Even more striking is how uninhabited the desert is.

We will miss it and doubt that at our age we will ever return—certainly not to an immersion experience like we have had. But how fortunate we have been! To have missed this experience would have been such a shame. If you have not experienced the American desert, put this on your bucket list.