The Big Trip, Part 8

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Big Sur – Pfeiffer State Park – Pomona, CA

At 6 a.m. I stepped out of the Beast into cool air and the fresh smell of evergreens. We hadn’t realized it last night but we are camped in the midst of redwood trees that seem a mile high.

The unheated wash house was bone-chillingly cold and it took a long time for the heated water to flow in the shower. I write, “heated” because the water never became hot. We are camping after all.

Today has been a driving day, 350 miles, from the redwoods of Big Sur, along the California Coast to San Luis Obispo, then on Route 101 through the Central California hills, and onto to the traffic-clogged freeways around Los Angeles.

Along the way we made a couple of memorable stops:

Julia Pheiffer Park

The Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is at the southern end of the Big Sur Coast. It’s named after a woman who, with her husband, was an early pioneer in this land. From the park’s entrance, a trail leads back under the highway and along the steep, fragile cliff to a spot overlooking the sea where a waterfall empties into a tiny cove. At this time of year the waterfall was not much to look at;

Julia Pheiffer Park

however, the surrounding beauty of the sea, the sky, the cliffs with their scattered stands of pampas grass, and the sunny, fresh air made this a special place.

Elephant Seals

Our second stop occurred some distance to the south at a large parking lot overlooking a beach filled with adolescent elephant seals. Standing at a railing, looking down on the mass of blubbery bodies, I didn’t count them, but there seemed to a couple hundred at least. Most were lying still, occasionally using their flippers to toss sand over themselves in an effort to keep cool.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

North Scottsdale, CA – Apache Junction

Taliesin West

In the Phoenix area, without even stopping for lunch, we drove straight to North Scottsdale to Taliesin West, the “desert camp” that Frank Lloyd Wright and his wife and students began in 1938.

In recent years, Kay and I have become very interested in America’s most famous architect and his work. We have visited the original Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin. We’ve also looked at or toured Wright’s buildings, including Falling Water, around the country whenever possible.

The architect was 70 years old when he and his wife bought 600 acres of Sonoran Desert in 1938. At that time the nearest town, Scottsdale, was eighteen miles away and tiny. Wright’s career had stalled, and, short of money, he had begun a school, the Taliesin Fellowship, to teach young people architecture according to his principle of “learning by doing.”

Taliesin West

Wright had long practiced what he called “organic architecture,“ making his structures align and harmonize with the nature around them. Whenever possible, he used local materials, and there is no better example of this than at Taliesin West where the architect used the hard stone, called quartzite, from his nearby mountain for the walls, binding the stones together with a concrete of his own mixture.

Taliesin West

There was no electricity on the desert at the time, so Wright constructed his desert buildings to be lit with daylight by covering the roofs and with translucent, white canvas. The window spaces he left open until persuaded by his wife and the elements to fit them with glass.

Taliesin West is a study in simplicity and elegance. As in other Wright homes, the seating in what might be called a large living room is mostly on banquettes, or as the Turks would say “divans,” placed against the stone walls. Other seating is made of plywood covered with a veneer, as are the low, triangular tables that accompany the seating. The triangle motif is evident everywhere around Taliesin West; it echoes the shape of the site’s nearby mountain.

Taliesin West

Taliesin West is an active school where students spend the winter months before returning to Wisconsin’s Taliesin in the late spring and summer. The buildings include a dining room, a drafting hall where students work on their projects, two auditoriums, and the living quarters used by Wright and his wife. There are also student dormitories. In the beginning the students lived in tents in the surrounding desert; Wright believed that they should become acquainted with nature’s moods first hand.

Taliesin West

On the grounds of Taliesin West are a few pre-Colombian petroglyphs found on the desert property. These are drawn on the black portions of desert rocks known as “desert varnish.” Other decorative pieces include Asian art objects Wright collected; some are beautiful vases. There are also at least three grand pianos on the property. The architect, who loved music, played them himself.

Curious to know the significance of the name ‘Taliesin” we learned that it is a Welsh word meaning “shining brow.”

Leaving Taliesin West in the late afternoon, we drove to our KOA kampsite in Apache Junction west of Mesa. It was during this drive on new freeways choked with traffic that I realized how much the area has changed in the past couple of decades. I remember the country east of Phoenix as being very open with no freeways and little traffic. Now, it is filled with cars and suburban sprawl. It seems to be human nature to exploit and overcrowd places of comfort and beauty until they no longer possess the qualities for which people sought them in the first place.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Flagstaff, AZ –Grand Canyon – Tuba City, AZ

We were happy as we drove up I-17 toward Flagstaff. The blue sky had just enough clouds to keep it from becoming ordinary. The strong sunlight playing on the contours of the high desert and the distant mountains made a powerful impression. At times I was so struck by a scene that I got out of the Beast with my camera only to be disappointed at not being able to capture in two dimensions the dramatic effects I was seeing.

Instead of passing by Flagstaff through its highway sprawl as I’ve done in the past, we decided to drive into the small city’s downtown and were richly rewarded.

Flagstaff – Heritage Square

As we walked the streets around Heritage Square we discovered historic buildings with placards identifying their builders and describing their original uses. Even on Sunday, some of the stores and galleries were open. The thought occurred to me that 35 years ago, when I first drove up to Flagstaff, this town, like others we have seen on this trip, probably had no art galleries or historic plaques.


Flagstaff has learned that its historic features are appealing and has taken care to protect and enhance them.

Grand Canyon

The view of the Grand Canyon from East Desert Point was Kay’s first look at what has to be one of the most magnificent sights on the planet. In length, breadth, and depth the Grand Canyon is immense.

Grand Canyon

We arrived late in the afternoon when the low sun illuminated the variegated colors of the canyon’s northern walls as well as the Painted Desert beyond them. The canyon was formed over a period of geologic time too vast to contemplate. For those scientists knowledgeable enough to do so, the canyon’s history can be read in its exposed horizontal layers. For the rest of us, the Grand Canyon is just one of nature’s most awesome sights.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Tuba City, AZ – Mesa Verde, CO – Durango, CO

The oddly named town of Tuba City is the Navajo Nation’s largest settlement. Its name resembles a Navajo expression meaning “tangled waters.” We arrived in the dark so didn’t see much of the surrounding countryside until this morning.

Northern Arizona

The 200-mile drive from T.C. to Mesa Verde is a kaleidoscope of natural beauty. The changes happened slowly at first, then more rapidly as we approached Four Corners and the Colorado State Line. To see the terrible beauty of this land is the only reason to cross it, for there is little else of general interest in these wide, empty spaces.

Arizona near Colorado

These are Navajo and Hopi homelands. The Native Americans’ sparsely located dwellings are modest in the extreme. Most are trailer homes set down without shade or shelter on flat, arid plains. We have trouble imagining the stoicism of these people that allows them to live under such harsh conditions. Clearly, they are sustained by a different mythology than our own.

Mesa Verde is the name given to the national park that protects and interprets the ruins of a civilization of ancient cliff dwellers. We were surprised at the park’s entrance to learn that we would have to drive a further 20 miles up a twisting road to reach the park headquarters and the museum. We arrived at the top early enough to take in the atmosphere and visit the museum but too late to join a ranger-led tour of the ruins themselves.

In spite of the late hour, the museum visit made the effort worthwhile. There is a lot to learn about the puebloan people: their ancestors began as hunter-gatherers before settling down to become primitive farmers and basket makers. Finally, their agriculture, architecture, and pottery making reached a sophisticated apex between 1100 and 1300 AD.

Why they abandoned the fastness of their cliffs and mesas around 1300 is a mystery that will probably never be fully understood. What they left behind is a trove of artifacts and architecture, some so well constructed that it has survived intact for 700 years.

Mesa Verde Sunset

We descended the mountain in the last light of day and then drove a further 35 miles in the dark to the city of Durango. With nightfall, the temperature dropped until it felt as cold as it had in our earlier days in Wyoming.

We found these at the Diamond Belle Saloon in the historic and beautifully maintained Strater Hotel on Durango’s Main Avenue. Not only were the drinks and flat iron steaks exactly to our taste, but we also had the extra pleasure of some delightful entertainment that kept us in our seats until after 10 p.m.

As we entered the saloon, our first impression was of a man named Joel Racheff standing on a dais, playing an acoustic guitar and singing a cover of one of at least 200 songs he has mastered. Totally professional, Racheff has printed his repertoire on laminated ‘menus’ that circulated in the room. More than a musician and singer, Racheff engaged us in jokes and word play. On this Monday night, the room was far from empty but not overcrowded. We, along with others in the audience, called out titles from the menu, and the singer performed them. Mostly these were well-known and well-loved songs from the 1900s ranging from hillbilly favorites like Luckenbach Texas, to the Everly Brothers’ Bye, Bye Love and numbers from the Beatles and the Police.

Wednesday, November 21, 201

Tucumcari, NM – Amarillo, TX

Route 66 at Tucumcari

We made a stop at the town of Tucumcari in order to view a short stretch of the original, fabled Route 66, the main route west through New Mexico before Interstate 40 covered most of it up. The few blocks that we viewed still have the remnants of the defunct motels and businesses that once made such a lively array.

Tucumcari, New Mexico

On my first trip west to California the summer of my 18th year, I hitch-hiked along this very highway, drawn, of course, by the song that has been covered so many times. I did get some kicks on Route 66.

Cadillac Ranch

Our final stop, in Amarillo itself, before reaching our kampground, was to view the ten Cadillacs buried nose downward in the middle of a wheat field along I-40. Known far and wide as Cadillac Ranch, they have been there for more than 30 years. Today, besides us, there were a dozen others busily tagging the rotting car bodies with spray paint. This was not Stonehenge.

Driving across the Texas Panhandle we encountered a very strong crosswind that kept both of my hands on the steering wheel. It was a relief to reach our KOA kampground on the outskirts of town before the sun went down.

Thanksgiving Day, November 22, 2012

Oklahoma City

Lucille’s Roadhouse

There wasn’t much traffic on I-40, and many services along the highway seemed to be closed. Seventy-five miles from Oklahoma City, Kay and I stopped at Lucille’s Historic Roadhouse. I took a couple of photos, and we stayed to eat the Thanksgiving Day Special, plates of turkey or ham with all the fixings. So, we had our T-Day dinner after all.

Oklahoma City Memorial

Before driving to our KOA kampsite, we made a stop in downtown Oklahoma City to visit the memorial to the bombing of the Murrah Building by domestic terrorists, McVeigh and Nichols, on April 19, 1995. It’s a beautiful memorial on a hallowed site. Approaching from North Harvey Street, we first encountered a tall, smooth wall cut out in the center to form an arch. On it is inscribed the following:

We come here to remember those who were killed, those who survived and those changed forever. May all who leave here know the impact of violence. May this memorial offer comfort, strength, peace, hope and serenity.

Oklahoma City Memorial

Beyond the wall is a long reflecting pool built on what was the footprint of the bombed building. On a lawn to the right of the pool are 168 chairs, each representing a life lost. Each bronze and stone chair rests on a glass base etched with the name of a victim. Some chairs are smaller symbolizing children who were killed.

Oklahoma City Memorial

On this most important American holiday, downtown Oklahoma City was like a ghost town. We were almost the only visitors at the Memorial, and there was almost no traffic.

It’s unseasonably warm here at our kampground outside the city. We give thanks for our many blessings, the most important of which are health and, you, our friends and family. We are indeed a couple of lucky ducks.