Day 19 New Orleans To Point Clear, THE END!

We woke early in New Orleans, before the people with hangovers could stumble out for aspirin. Shopkeepers were hosing down their sidewalks. I don’t want to know why. We walked a few blocks from our hotel to here:

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Cafe Du Monde has been serving up beignets and cafe au lait for just about forever, so long that they have it down to a science.

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A delicious, delicious science.

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We passed by Jackson Square. I have no idea what it is, but ain’t it purdy?

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You can’t leave New Orleans without a few pralines. (Or maybe you can, but I can’t.)

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I chose this place because it looked like a mom-and-pop store in the middle of huge praline chains. Plus they said they had the best pralines, and you know how I feel about places that say they’re the best.

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But in this case, they weren’t exaggerating because OH, MY GOODNESS!! Seriously the best, best pralines I’ve ever had. (And I’ve had a few. Heh.)

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Since it’s our last night, I chose a sort of special occasion place on the coast of Alabama, in Fairhope, to be exact. I’d always heard the gulf shores are lovely. Turns out they are. For supper, I had fried seafood at an Italian place named Gambinos. (Somehow that made sense at the time. Also, it was delicious!)

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We spent the rest of the night swimming and enjoying the ocean at our wonderful, fabulous hotel.

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Tomorrow we head north again to Tennessee. (We’re planning to stop for supper and ice cream in Chattanooga, woo-hoo!) It’s been a wonderful, fabulous road trip. Thanks for tagging along!

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Day Eighteen: Houston to New Orleans

The day started off well. We went to the Breakfast Klub, a super-friendly eatery that specializes in made-from-scratch breakfast dishes bigger than your head. They also have awesome, bottomless cups of coffee, and not the thimble-sized ones. These are for serious coffee drinkers. Then we got to the parking lot and someone sideswiped the rental car, leaving a small but distinguishable scratch. We spent the next two and a half hours being shuttled between three police stations to try and make a report for insurance. Nothing says vacation like soul-crushing bureaucracy.

On the way to New Orleans at last, the scenery began to flatten out into marshes, sugar cane, and bridges. The massive bridges stretched for miles and miles. (One was eighteen miles, to be precise.) To take a break, we stopped at one of the visitor centers in Louisiana. What a delight!

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This is what rest areas dream of being when they grow up–clean, spacious, staffed with friendly people, and good smelling. Plus they have alligators!

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The wasted time made a massive dent in my near lifelong desire to see New Orleans. But we still had time for a po’ boy.

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The Parkway Bakery & Tavern is the place to go for these sandwiches. I got the oysters, which they only have on Mondays and Wednesdays. I can also heartily recommend the bread pudding. (Take note that they’re closed on Tuesdays.)

I was game for ice cream, but no one else was. That might have been a good thing since the baby had one of those diapers that’s so bad it takes a pit crew to change it.

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On the way to the hotel, we saw a bit of the French Quarter.

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Tomorrow we finish New Orleans and head for our last day. Sadness.

Day Seventeen: San Antonio to Houston

We were warned to get out of San Antonio early. (Not in a malicious shoot-out-at-noon way, but in a you’ll-be-stuck-in-traffic way. Apparently I-10 on this route becomes a parking lot on most days.) But we couldn’t scoot out of San Antonio without visiting my mom’s favorite TV preacher, Pastor Hagee.

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Cornerstone church was ultra-huge, but the music was good and so was the sermon. And the people were friendly. And the baby got to play with toys instead of hotel ice buckets and toiletries. It was a win for everyone.

Due to our early departure, the three-hour trip was fairly uneventful. In fact, we arrived too early to check into our hotel. So we went here to feed the police horses some carrots. They know when you’re coming and flock toward the treats. It’s adorable.

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Did I mention it was 99 degrees? It was 99 degrees. We drove by the water wall, but didn’t get out. Because it was 99 degrees.

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Then we found a bakery, Uncommon Bond. The chocolate chip cookies, oh, the chocolate chip cookies. They’re 3.50 per cookie, but they’re worth it. Seriously. (Take it from a connoisseur.)

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The bakery was in Montrose, a strip full of quirky stores and antique shops.

Next we went to our hotel, a Sheraton Suites near the Galleria. For the uninformed, the Galleria is the country’s fourth largest mall. To beat the heat, we swam for a bit and then grabbed supper here.

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Good Dog Houston makes upscale hotdogs. They’re good, so good that I forgot to get a picture.

For dessert, we headed here. They make ribbon ice, sort of a creamy shaved ice milk. They also have sno-cones with all-natural syrups. My daughter, who is allergic to all food dyes, was able to have a sno-cone for the first time ever. It was a grand day.

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After, we drove around Memorial park, a giant green space in the middle of the city. There were people out walking. They must not have gotten the memo that it was too hot for that sort of thing. Houston seems like a lovely city, especially when viewed from the safety of our air-conditioned van.

Days Fifteen and Sixteen: San Antonio

Before heading to San Antonio, we needed to finish Carlsbad Caverns. We arrived bright and early to head into the darkness seven stories below ground.

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We explored one mile of the cave, called The Big Room.

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That left 30 miles of cave we didn’t explore.

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It was a cool and moist 56 degrees below ground, something we would remember fondly as we headed into the heart of Texas hill country, San Antonio. As we made our way southeast, we spent a long time on a highway in the heart of oil-boom country. All we saw were oil trucks, pipelines, and crews and crews of men, trucks, and equipment working on them. It was oddly fascinating. Then we hopped on I-10 and the fascination came to a halt. Let me just say that there is very little for a very long way and then all of a sudden you’re in San Antonio, which is huge.

Last night, exhausted from our long day, we grabbed a bite at The Big Bib, a BBQ joint. (If you don’t eat BBQ while you’re in Texas, they don’t let you leave, I think.) The Big Bib is one of those Mom and Pop-type places that makes you smile when you walk in, probably because it smells so good and you know you’re going to get good food, which we did. In fact, the food was pretty spectacular.

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See that sweet potato casserole? Nom, nom, nom. Delicious! PS. All this food isn’t for me. I shared it with both my kids. Just felt I needed to put that out there before people start mailing me anonymous memberships to Overeaters Anonymous.

The next morning we went to the Riverwalk. We parked at the far end of the walk. (At The Pearl, an outdoor marketplace. It was also free to park.) We then hailed a river taxi, the best way to see everything. (You pay $15 and can hop on or off anywhere all day.)

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And my husband got to add some new birds (a yellow crowned night heron) to his bird list.

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(We also saw some neo-tropic cormorants and black bellied whistling ducks.)

If you’ve never been to San Antonio, let me explain that the Riverwalk is fifteen miles of scenic downtown, comprised of shops, restaurants, and this place.

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Despite the fact that the Alamo battle took place in 1836, you still get a sort of sad, reverential feeling when you step inside. Or maybe it’s because you’re waiting in nearly hundred degree weather in a line that looks like this.

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It’s worth the trip, if only to see this flag which riled my fighting spirit.

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You want this cookie?? You’d better come and try to take it!! But I digress…

The river walk is beautiful, even if you never leave the boat. (Considering the high temperatures and crowds of people, you might be better off never leaving the boat. Bring water. And don’t go on the weekend that 85,000 Seventh Day Adventists are there for their annual conference like we did. Oops. At least we had the pork products all to ourselves.)

We left the river walk and headed back toward our hotel for supper. We stopped off at a ginormous shopping mall called La Cantera and ate at a place called Whiskey Cake.

Normally I don’t condone eating at chain restaurants on vacation, preferring instead to eat locally. But this is a regional chain that cooks from scratch using locally sourced ingredients. I would give it a mixed review.

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My BBQ pork Bahn Mi was meh. But their eponymous whisky cake was fabulous.

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After such a long, hot day, nothing sounded better than a dip in the pool. Nothing except fresh, warm cookies hand delivered to my door, that is. Thankfully Tiff’s Treats offers such a service.

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They come packaged like an engagement ring. Coincidence? I think not.

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Our biggest surprise about San Antonio was the size. It’s huge, and tonight we learned that Houston–tomorrow’s destination–is four times bigger. Fingers crossed that means four times the cookie bakeries.

Day Fourteen: White Sands to Carlsbad Caverns

The best kinds of surprises are the ones that sneak up on you. That’s what New Mexico did for me. I didn’t expect much from it—mostly desert, maybe a few cacti. But it’s been so much more. First there was the stunning beauty around Albuquerque, followed by the artistic majesty of Santa Fe. Then we swung in from the west and got to enjoy the stunning vistas around Los Lunas.

Our hotel, a wonderful Holiday Inn Express, was located in Belen. (Pronounced B’lynn.) The people we encountered there were so friendly and almost seemed to find it fascinating that we were from Ohio. (Fascinating and Ohio aren’t words that often go together. Ohio is more like the flour and baking soda of baked goods. Can’t make a cake without them, but on their own they don’t taste so good.)

Today we saw a different side of New Mexico when we headed south to here:

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White Sands National Monument is one of those places you’ve vaguely heard of before but don’t really know what it is. Well, let me tell you—it’s a whole lot of fun!

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We went based on the recommendation of friends who are from the area. (Hi, Kriss and Felicia. Thanks!) I’m so glad we did. Not only is the sand like nothing you’ve ever experienced before—it’s cool to the touch and packs like snow—but it’s uncrowded and you can sled to your heart’s content. (The gift shop on site sells kids’ sleds for 14.99, along with sled wax for 1.99. You can sell them back before you leave for 5.00 for the sled and 1.00 for the wax.) Expensive, but worth it. Or bring your own sled. Either way, this is a site that is not to be missed, especially if you have kids.

Unfortunately the nature of a road trip is that we always have to get on the road. After way less time than we would have liked, we re-sold our sled and headed east, stopping first for lunch in Alamogordo.

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Caliche’s is a local frozen custard chain that also makes a mean chili dog. (The chili dog began to feel especially mean when we headed east through the mountains.) But we stumbled upon a picturesque little ski town in the middle of a lush national forest. So beautiful!

After we made our way through the mountains, the land flattened out and became scrubby again and then we arrived here, our sixth and final national park of the vacation.

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*A note about the weather—Be prepared for anything when you travel in the southwest. Here is my husband borrowing my mother’s sunglasses. (This will henceforth be referred to as his Elton John phase.)

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It’s easy to think that, since it’s the desert, you will only need shorts and lightweight t-shirts. Those have comprised the majority of our wardrobe, but we’ve also experienced temperature variations from 107 to 59 degrees. And it has rained almost daily for the last week. An umbrella would have been a marvelous idea.

Back to the park. In all of our vacation research, we somehow missed the fact that the caves close at five. We arrived at a little after six. The bat flight program starts at a quarter ‘til eight. The gift shop closes at seven. As you can see, the math doesn’t add up. We waited for the bats a long time in the amphitheater. When they finally arrived, we had to keep an active, tired baby completely still and silent. He did better than expected, lasting a good forty-five minutes before we had to flee the arena.

Here is a glimpse of the cave. Unfortunately you have to turn off all devices in time for the bat flight, but it was fairly spectacular.

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Tomorrow we return to the cave before heading into the heart of Texas. Yee-haw!

Day 13: Petrified Forest National Park and the Painted Desert

The Wigwam Motel, cute as it was,did not supply breakfast.

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We headed into the town of Holbrook and stopped at Tom and Suzie’s diner.

All of Holbrook looked vaguely familiar, probably because (by its own claim) it’s the home of the movie Cars. 

Heading east again, we made our way toward the Petrified Forest National Park. But first we had to stop at a rock shop to look for petrified wood because no one can possibly see or have enough petrified things. (This is what happens when your husband teaches a summer camp on geology.)

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Finally, we arrived at the park.

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They had an awesome visitor’s center, and this was the small one. If you’re looking for an uncrowded, cheap ($10 entrance fee) national park, stuffed with dinosaurs and fossils, this is your place.

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The above is what petrified wood looks like. Here are some dinosaur bones, found near the park.

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It’s a hands-on kind of place, which was good for my daughter who earned a junior ranger’s badge, her third this summer.

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Word of warning: It’s hot and sunny. Dress appropriately and bring water.

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Keep your eyes out for wildlife and tracks, like these:

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(The ranger thought they might belong to an ibis, a bird I had never heard of before. Judging by the size of its feet, I also wouldn’t want to meet it in a dark alley.)

After the Petrified Forest, we headed slightly north to the painted desert.

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For supper we ate at Pete’s Cafe in Belen, and excellent New Mexican restaurant where everything is made from scratch.

*A word about the weather. It’s raining here, and it’s cold, too cold to swim in the outside pool. So far the only times I’ve needed my jacket on this vacation were in the Grand Canyon, the desert in Arizona, and New Mexico. Thankfully, it might help break their drought. Tomorrow we head west toward the border. Something tells me I might not need my jacket there.

Days Eleven and Twelve: Grand Canyon to Holbrook

We had reached our farthest point west. It was time to head back east. Reluctantly, we left the luxury of our hotel in Vegas and headed toward the wilderness of the Grand Canyon. But first we passed the Hoover Dam. IMG_1164

(My dam picture didn’t turn out. Did I mention I’m horrible at photography? Sorry.) IMG_1167

And we couldn’t go back east without eating at In-N-Out.

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A few hours later, we arrived.

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This is the view from our cabin.

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(That’s an elk, in case you’re wondering. We saw several, all females and babies.)

It was raining and stormy, preventing us from hiking. (Apparently it’s monsoon season. Also apparently there is a monsoon season in the US.) But there was this.

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We stayed at Maswick Lodge, the Grand Canyon’s affordable alternative for families. There was no air conditioning, but miraculously when we arrived it was a cool 78 degrees. The temperature dropped until we began to feel chilly. (Until we went into our room where cool air wouldn’t reach. It was like sleeping in an oven. Thank you, person who invented air conditioning. I love you.)

For supper we ate at Maswick, a cafeteria-style place known for convenience and low prices (relatively speaking. Nothing in the park is ever cheap.)

The next morning we took the red line shuttle west to Hermit’s Rest. (They had me at hermit.)

The highlight of this trip was this guy.

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A California Condor!! It flew about ten feet directly above our heads, but no one was camera ready at that point. After the shuttle tour, we loaded up the car and headed east toward the Watchtower. (Don’t be scared, this is not going to be an attempt to recruit you into the Jehovah’s Witness protection program.) This watchtower was built by the Santa Fe railroad and had awesome views of the canyon.

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We left the park and headed east toward Flagstaff where we stalled until it was time to go to our restaurant.

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Black Bart’s is a steakhouse musical review that hires local college kids to sing between waiting tables. Not only was the food delicious, but it was so much fun.

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I could have stayed much longer, but alas we continued east to here.

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If you recognize the Wigwam Motel, you might be a fan of Disney’s Cars. It was the inspiration for some of their scenery and has been an iconic part of Route 66 for a long time. The rooms are exactly what you’d imagine, but they’re cheap with cable and internet. Tomorrow we continue east for a bit before heading south and we lose our first hour. We have loved gaining three hours on this trip. Tomorrow we begin to pay the piper for our greedy time hoarding.

Days Nine and Ten: Zion National Park to Vegas, with a Baby

Our last morning in Zion seems forever ago because apparently two days in Las Vegas can have that effect. I remember that we hiked near a river. The rest is a blur. This was our cabin.

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This walk leads to one of Zion’s most famous walks, The Narrows–a hike through the river. This sounded fun to me, but there were deep spots and some rushing currents, not exactly ideal for a one year old. The river walk, however, was fully paved and wheelchair accessible. We took the stroller. A good time was had by all.

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We dangled some piggies in the water.

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And said goodbye to Zion.

Before we left Utah, I had to try a sugar cookie at Swig in St. George. (Utah is all about the sugar cookies. I have no idea why.) IMG_1087

They specialize in cookies and sodas with flavor shots.

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The cookies were awesome. And I drink soda maybe twice a year, but my Coke with coconut was so good it might make me a convert. A couple of hours later, we arrived in Vegas.

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It might be a law in Vegas that you have to eat at a buffet. I’m not sure, but to be safe we ate at the Garden Court Buffet downtown. It’s not as grand as some of The Strip buffets, but at $15.99 for prime rib, it’s a much better value. We cruised the strip and saved our explorations for day two. Here’s a word about our hotel. It wasn’t on the strip, and that’s a good thing. I read somewhere that it’s better for families to stay a bit out of the way, and it’s advice I would give to anyone with kids. Not only did we not have to walk through a smoky casino every time we wanted to go to our room, but we avoided the crowds and noise. (And our pool was open later, unlike some of the strip hotels.) Plus our place had swans. It was a win-win. IMG_1102

Day two began at the Venetian. I was on a desperate hunt for Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery, the vacation restaurant I most wanted to see. After wandering nearly as long as Moses in the wilderness, we finally found it. IMG_1111

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*Side note. I recently discovered Thomas Keller’s chocolate chip cookie recipe from his cookbook Ad Hoc. It’s amazing and my new go-to chocolate chip cookie. We finally found our way out of the Venetian where the family took a Gondola ride.

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We dipped into Caesar’s to escape the melting heat and some guy stripped down to his skivvies and dove into the fountain. IMG_1140

The excitement was too much for the baby.

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We ended our blazing day of exploration at Serendipity 3 and a frozen hot chocolate. It was crazy expensive and also crazy good.

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*Side note: We ate at the original Serendipity in Manhattan near out 10-year anniversary. That was before I heard they were shut down for an overflowing rat problem. Still good chocolate, though. We went back to the hotel for a siesta/swim session. After our rest, we regrouped and headed further out of town to Hash House A Go Go. Oh, my.

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Everything is made from scratch, including these biscuits with peach jam.

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And their specialty–fried chicken and bacon waffles.

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After supper we headed back to The Strip to fulfill my daughter’s wish to see New York, New York. IMG_1150

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We went to the Hershey store.

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And then this:

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The Shake Shack. Sigh. I wish I would have had room for an entire meal. Alas, I had to settle for a chocolate shake. (And stand in line forever while my family waited patiently.)

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It was worth the wait. For me, I mean. Heh.

Tomorrow we head back into the wilderness, literally. We’ll be away from civilization, internet, and even air conditioning for a while. Wish us luck.

Day Eight: Arches National Park to Zion National Park

We left the beautiful red rocks of Arches and headed west. But not before my husband and daughter collected some petrified wood from the roadside because geology rocks.

Speaking of rocks, the ones on the east side of Utah faded from red to brown, but were still beautiful in their own desolate way. We were now in the phase of the trip where a sign on I-70 warned that there were no facilities for a hundred miles, bad news to me as I downed my large travel mug of coffee.

Today was another long driving day as we spanned the width of Utah. Eventually we exited off the interstate onto Highway 89, a scenic byway that spans from the Grand Canyon in the south to the Grand Tetons in the north. Desert rocks gave way to lush, verdant valleys. Cows began to reappear on the landscape. (As did Mormons on ATV’s. This part of the route is the old Mormon trail and ATV’s are apparently the law if you live in the area.)

We arrived at our hotel, a working bison ranch. (They also had goats, ducks, chickens, and flies.)

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And then headed to the park.

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Zion National Park is probably the most famous (and therefore the most crowded) park in Utah. For that reason travel is prohibited inside the park. You have to take a shuttle, which is free and runs every few minutes going both directions. Today we only had time for the shuttle. Tomorrow we hope to hike a bit. But here are some highlights from the trip in.

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Supper was at Oscars, a local joint in Springdale. Our hotel/ranch had an onsite restaurant that looked good, but at about $50 for a bison steak, it was more than our budget allowed.

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After supper we walked around the (tiny) downtown of Springdale and got an equally tiny portion of ice cream. Then on our way out of the park we saw these guys:

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Tonight our resort has no TV and limited Wifi. Maybe we’ll sit on the porch and watch the buffalo roam.

Day Seven: Glenwood Springs to Arches National Park

We headed west again. But first doughnuts.

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Coloradough in Glenwood Springs custom fills their doughnuts with multiple selections of fillings. Why isn’t this a thing everywhere? How does one start a White House petition to make it so?

Moving on, we continued westward for a few more hours and arrived in Utah.

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The greenness of Colorado had slowly morphed into rocks. Then the gray and green rocks morphed into red and we were here:

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Let me tell you what I like about Arches. In addition to the beauty, the park isn’t super crowded like some others. (That’s right, I’m talking to you, Yellowstone.) There aren’t hordes of people hemming you in on every side, crowding for their turn to suck up the beauty. Also, it’s possible to see the park in one day. We drove the main road and paused a few times to take pictures. Of course die-hard hikers and campers will want to take more time, but the near-hundred degree temps mandated that we keep our walks short. Here are some of the highlights. (If some of these scenes look familiar, it’s because some movies have been shot here, including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.)

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Balance Rock

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There are petroglyphs:

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And of course some arches: (This one’s Delicate Arch.)

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This was the arch used in the Indiana Jones movie. You were also able to climb part of it.

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My husband and kids above and my husband making the final ascent solo below.

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For supper we ate at Susie’s Branding Iron.

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The food was good, the portions large, and the prices reasonable. (Their pie is supposed to be awesome, but we were too full.)

*A word about our hotel: We’re staying at the Archway Inn. It’s quiet with a nice pool and full breakfast. Best of all the room is set up for a large group. There are three queen size beds and two TV’s, so even though everyone is together we each have our own space.

Tomorrow we’ll be hiking in another national park, and it suddenly seems important to know which one the guy who did his own amputation got his arm trapped in. Fingers crossed we’ll all come out intact.