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California to Colorado and to Home

December 3 through 12
Written December 1 plus

Dear Diary,
This is the story of our America Trip - the last part.  This should have some good travelogue parts:
-- Mojave Air and Space Port (really)
-- Hoover Dam
-- Grand Canyon
-- Santa Fe

We pulled out of Mamo's house at 8 on Monday morning, not really knowing what to expect.  Mapquest said  our day would have seven hours of driving, but we always run over a bit, since we need to eat and refuel and, occasionally, look around.

The Highway-99 drive down the California Central Valley to Bakersfield was about as dull as we expected.  This is some of the most fertile farmland in the world, but miles and miles of orchards, vineyards, and garlic fields don't make for interesting driving.  At Bakersfield, we turned east toward the Mojave desert.   Shortly after getting out of the valley fog and into the desert sun, Marianne spotted a row of big airplanes, just sitting on the distant desert floor.  We were ready for a break, so we left the highway, "looking around".

What we found was the Mojave Air and Space Port, an interesting place as it turned out.  At first glance, it seemed to be just a couple of dozen big industrial buildings, surrounded by dusty parking lots, with broken-down airplanes along the frontage road.  Then we noticed signs of higher technology.  First, we stopped at a tiny park display that featured a space-capsule-looking thing.  That "thing" turned out to be part of the RotaryRocket, a late-1990's program to more efficiently launch into space.  The effort ran out of money after a couple of near-ground test runs, but it remains one of the most ambitious privately-funded space efforts.

The park also displayed a replica of SpaceShipOne, the first manned private spacecraft.  The original is in the Smithsonian museum.  The Rutan-designed craft flew from Mojave in 2004, winning the $10million Ansari X Prize.

Peeking through the chain-link fence, I spotted an unusual craft with the distinctive VirginGalactic  logo.   It was LauncherOne, part of Sir Richard Bransen's ambitious program of private space travel.  LauncherOne can air-launch reusable space vehicles and serves as the prototype for an even-larger twin-fuselage launcher that will carry and launch manned space craft from a New Mexico "space port".

Finally, we drove past Stargazer, the Lockheed L-1011 modified to launch Pegasus rockets, the first air-launched orbital launch vehicles.  This completed our self-guided tour of America's private space center.  I'm not sure I have ever seen modern historic artifacts in such an up-close and ad-hoc fashion.  This proves the value of "looking around".



After this stop in the future, the rest of the trip was just long stretches of desert roads, distant and then nearby hills, Joshua tree "forests", and finally the Nevada border, marked by Whiskey Pete's, the first of the garish roadside Nevada casinos.  An hour later, we were settled into the Hacienda Hotel & Casino, our home for the next two nights. 



On Tuesday we were up early, but in our normal travel pace, not out so early.  I needed to sit, sip coffee, read email, look through pictures, and write the diary (see above).  Marianne sleeps a bit later than I and then she joins me for coffee, email, and conversation.  It's a nice pace.

We had two specific goals; Hoover Dam and Memorial Bridge, but we started at an overlook above Lake Mead.   In fact, our hotel room looked out over the lake too, but the panorama from the view point was much better.  Lake Mead is 110 miles long, so we were only looking at a part, but it was impressive nonetheless. (The panorama was taken with my new, pocket-sized SONY camera.  It has pretty amazing technology built in, including the ability to do panoramas like this in the camera.  No need for time-consuming work at breakfast.)
Hotel views, including tour helicopter
Lake Mead View Point

The next stop was a security check on the entrance to the Hoover Dam area.  This was instituted after 9/11 and consists of a simple stop where the security folks size up whether to do a full search of the car.  We apparently looked innocent enough and were sent along with a simple: "Have a nice visit."

A mile or so past security, we pulled into the parking lot for Memorial Bridge, more properly: The Mike O'Callaghan and Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge.  Nevada and Arizona each provided a memorial name for the bridge and Nevada selected a local political leader, Mr. O'Callaghan.  Arizona picked Pat Tillman, an inspirational football player and soldier who had been killed in Afghanistan about the time names were being selected.

The 2000 foot bridge, built between 2003 and 2010 to relieve infamous traffic jams, is impressive enough, but the best part is the view of Hoover dam.


The real goal though was Hoover Dam and we joined the stream of tourists headed down the last part of the approach road.  We paid our $7 parking fee and put the Hertz car on the third level of the  six-story parking structure.  Glad we are off-season because  the place is clearly designed for much larger crowds.

After almost ten years of negotiating and planning, Hoover Dam (Boulder Dam at the time) was built from 1931 through 1936.  The Depression-era project had no shortage of men willing to do the dangerous work for wages starting at $4 per day.  They first diverted the Colorado River and then dug through silt and loose rock to bed rock.  From that point, it was  a process of pouring 3.25 million cubic yards (2.6 cubic meters) of concrete, 24-hours a day, 363 days per year.  The arched design meant that the entire structure was built without reinforcing steel, just block by block of concrete, compressed in place by water pressure and weight of the concrete itself.  Here are some construction-era pictures from the dam's website, just to give a feel for the conditions.
old photos and post card and model

There have been zillions more pictures taken of the dam since then and we added ours.  The massive, elegant, arch and the Art Deco details invite photos, although I'm sure mine do not convey the feeling of seeing things in person.  You have to visit yourself!
outside views

We opted for the deluxe tour of the inside of the dam at $30 each.  It was worth it as we descended first to the Nevada-side power house and then ascended up into inspection galleries along the face of the dam itself.  Pretty cool for nerds and even my school teacher said she enjoyed it.
inside views - power house
interior walkways, including to a downstream vent
After almost six hours of lake, bridge, and dam touring, we were ready to rest. Our casino-hotel just wasn't very personal and we were sure we could find something better in nearby Boulder City, a community built during construction of the dam.  The evening December air was warm and we wandered through an antique store, interesting junque, but not worth adding to our suitcase load.  We searched for a decent place for a light dinner and settled on Milo's, a wine and bistro place that exactly met our needs.  It also has four B&B rooms that we might consider if we ever come back.
Bolder City views - not much, but something

Tuesday's drive to the Grand Canyon was a mix of open spaces and ... more open spaces.  Other than a stop in Seligman on the original Route 66, there was not much to see beyond desert.
map and trip scenes
By about 3pm, we arrived at the Grand Canyon National Park and soon checked into cabin 6164 in Bright Angel Lodge.  This was our first introduction to the architecture along the rim, much of it designed from 1903 up through the mid-1930's by Mary Colter, and built by Fred Harvey, the most famous tour facility developer of the American Southwest.  Their stories are fascinating and I will put in a link or two for anyone interested.

Nowadays, the whole area is run by Xanterra, the National Park concessionaire, and I have to put in a plug for some of the nicest, most helpful and friendly hotel and restaurant staff we have experienced.  The facilities' condition belied their age and the room was clean and comfortable, despite being the "economic" alternative on the rim.  Bright Angel cabins are about $125 per night, while a room in the 105-year-old El Tovar hotel running three or four times that!
A few shots of cabin and facilities
But, what we came for was The Canyon and it was just fifty feet away from BA 6164.  We walked along and looked out from the rim all three days we were around, including the afternoon we arrived and the morning we left.  It was more spectacular than we could have imagined.  Every viewpoint had drama that changed every time the sun moved or clouds came and went. Shadows and colors changed whenever we turned around.  At night, even the moonless blackness mesmerized and drew us to the rim edge.

And I took pictures, hundreds and hundreds of pictures.  It will take longer than just this trip to sort everything out, so our picture gallery will evolve over the next few weeks.  Our first day pictures were taken with hazy sun, up through a not-too-spectacular sunset, most from the rim just in front of the El Tovar Hotel.

Day One pictures, mostly Bright Angel
Pan with Sony camera that does in-camera stitching
"Regular" pans, stitched afterwards


On day two, our only full day, we first wandered the facilities. I found the Kolb Studio to be the most interesting.  The Kolb brothers were turn-of-the-century (19th to 20th) photographers who took remarkable risks to generate interest in Grand Canyon, and in their photos and movies.  They manhandled cumbersome cameras up and down the canyon and along the Colorado River, mocking all of us who now stay on level paths, behind handrails, clicking away with light and easy technology.  To be fair, many tourists do make the six or eight-hour hike down (and a bit more up) into the floor of the canyon, a trip we did not even try.

For pictures, we drove west from Bright Angel on the rim road.  The road is closed to private cars except for December, January, and February, so this was a real treat.   The sun was bright and we had puffy clouds to dress up the view. It was intriguing to look out and think how many people had seen their own versions of the same scenes.  I could have stayed all day, except even I know that one only needs so many pictures of red rock canyons.

I know there are more pictures here than anyone needs, but just look at a few.
Day Two pictures
Rim drive, Grand Canyon village with Kolb House and Vista House
Vistas from Bright Angel to Hermit's Point
A few of my favorite pictures; shadows and ever-changing scenes
Interesting details: Old uranium mine, Bright Angel trail, visitors
The Colorado River far away
Rim views call for panoramas
Trees and details

Thursday morning we left, bound for Santa Fe, a seven-hour drive if we took our navigator's advice to leave the canyon directly south, by the road we had come in on.  We ignored the advice and took the east exit and enjoyed several more stops along the canyon rim as far as "Desert View", Mary Colter's stone tower that marks the eastern end of the National Park.  This route change, and the several associated stops, added a couple of hours to our drive, but was a wonderful addition to our memories.
Day Three pictures
Grandview.  Oldest tourism landmark.
Desert View Tower and Colorado River below

Eventually, we did settle down and head for Santa Fe.  We stopped for breakfast at Mary's Cafe near Flagstaff, a perfect example of an old hole-in-the-wall breakfast joint and a "typical" Indian trading post where tourists have been stopping outside of Winslow for over forty-years.  There was cheap kitsch, albeit made in America, but also some very nice Indian pottery and stone-inlay jewelry and knives.  We picked up both a knife and stories of the disappearing Indian artists from the owner.
Trip over map and pictures
Long, flat drive.  Trading post and our purchase.
More drive, across the NM border, and into Albuquerque at sunset
After that, it was long, straight, fast highway travel that ended after dark when we checked into the Inn of the Governors in Santa Fe.  This had been our longest travel day, but the hotel proved to be among the most comfortable we have been in, a bit of a splurge but very welcome.

On Saturday and Sunday we toured Santa Fe, sticking to the downtown area around the plaza that was the original end of the famous Santa Fe Trail.  The area is filled with very nice "southwest" shops, art galleries, restaurants, museums, and local Indians selling traditional handcrafts. We sampled everything.

In the "shops" category, we managed to buy several Christmas presents, most for other people.  Both Marianne and I are drawn to the local style, but felt that we would stick to just window shopping since these things don't fit into Bavaria.  We visited a few of the several art galleries, including a pair of photo galleries.  There seems to be a very active professional and "enthusiast" photography spirit locally, no doubt inspired by the colorful countryside.

Our highlight museum was the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum.  O'Keeffe painted for almost 70 years, much of it done with inspiration from New Mexico locations.  The Museum provides both biographical information of a very interesting life and fine examples of her art over the decades.  I found both her life and her art inspirational.  We also visited the Museum of Contemporary Native Art (MoCNA) where we learned art and social situation among local native populations.

As for the Indian kiosks along the plaza, Marianne bought a doll and looked hard at jewelery. Touristy street vendors  seldom seem authentic, but  those around the Santa Fe Plaza seemed as authentic as one could imagine.  I do hope it is so.
Plaza at the end of the Santa Fe Trail and St. Frances' church
Museum of Contemporary Native Art
Sunday turned snowy and was especially beautiful as evening fell.  Santa Fe had planned a "posada", a parade of sorts, featuring visits of Mary and Joseph to buildings along the plaza.  Unfortunately, the actors came from a village that was snowed-in, so we all had to settle for cookies and singing in a nearby museum.  It was a wonderful start of the Christmas season.
Sunday snow dressed up plaza area.
No posada, but cookies and songs instead.  And icy roads and snowy walkways.
On Saturday, our favorite restaurant was Cafe Pasqual's, where the menu was remarkably creative, mixing Mexican, Southwest, and "America" recipes.  The restaurant was near our hotel and we walked by several times during our stay and, breakfast, lunch, or dinner, there was generally a waiting line.  Sunday evening we went to a more famous restaurant, one whose cookbook Marianne had bought years ago: Coyote Cafe.  The snow had kept the Cafe pretty empty, but the food was truly special.  It was also expensive, the most expensive meal of our six months of travel.
Snowy Pascals and quiet Coyote Cafe

d121210_01_Map.jpg Monday, we headed to a Denver airport hotel.  The first few hours out of Santa Fe was over very icy roads, but the interstate was OK by the time we reached Colorado.  The roads were wide, flat, and empty, not unlike the conditions we have seen since leaving Fresno ten days earlier.
Road pictures: Snow in Santa Fe, boredom elsewhere

In fact, we drove past Denver, up to Longmont, for dinner with  Brian, Jen, and Rich.  I expect we will be seeing family more frequently now that retirement allows more away-from-home time.

After dinner, we went to the airport and checked into the hotel and returned our car to Hertz.  We had driven 4847 miles!  Lots of open roads in Colorado, Nevada, California, Arizona, and New Mexico.  Tuesday morning, we took our half-dozen bags to the airport and gave most of them to United Airlines, marked "FRA".  For me, that's when I might start to relax, but I'll admit getting through security still kept me nervous and grumpy.

The first flight, from Denver to Washington, was fine with good leg room in an exit row.  On the Washington to Frankfurt flight, we also had pretty good seats, so we were happy.  Total travel time for us, from Denver to Frankfurt, would be about 12 hours, long enough, but the guy in our row from Denver had come from Canada and was headed to Nairobi, Kenya.  Better him than us.

Our cross-Atlantic flight was uneventful.  We arrived about 6:30, 20 minutes early and before the crowds that Frankfurt can suffer.  We got our SIXT rental car and, after struggling with the obscure controls of the Opel, went on our two-hour drive home.  Our luck held, because the roads were free of snow and ice.
Leave hotel; leave Frankfurt; home

However, when we did get to Pommersfelden the house itself was pretty cold.  I had set the heating system to restart a day early, but our heavy stone walls need at least three days to really heat up.  We would wear sweaters for a couple more days.  No matter, we were glad to be home.


John and Marianne


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