Week 50: Mesa Verde & Hovenweep

After a week in Moab and visits to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, we continued on our roadtrip, heading southeast into southwestern Colorado.  We had originally planned to visit the famous Monument Valley at this point – it appeared in Forrest Gump, along with many, many westerns – but it didn’t work out.  The area around Monument Valley is incredibly remote, and with so few services, we had been planning to just park in the desert for free.  However, with triple-digit temperatures every day, no air conditioning, and a living space that heats up like a greenhouse, we decided to save Monument Valley for “next time” and head for cooler climates.

Well… air conditioned climates, anyway.  We stayed in Cortez, Colorado, just northeast of the Four Corners (which we did not visit because it is a horrible tourist trap).  From Cortez, it was a short but winding drive to visit Mesa Verde National Park, and a longer but much straighter drive to Hovenweep National Monument.

One exciting development, by the way: Cortez had real stores!  Safeway, CVS, a place to change the oil on our RV – all very welcome for your weary correspondents, who had spent the last month in small towns in the Utah desert.

Mesa Verde

We only had two days in Cortez, but we made them count.  We first visited Mesa Verde National Park, a little-known park set, like Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky, on top of a giant plateau.  Unlike Canyonlands, however, the scenery is not the draw here (although the views were gorgeous).

Unique among national parks, the main draw of Mesa Verde is the huge number of archaeological sites.  In particular, this is the finest place in the country to see Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings, located along the edges of valleys like the one below.

The area around the park has been settled since approximately 7500 BCE, but most of the cliff dwellings were built between 750 and 1300 CE.  They are amazing in person, surprisingly large and in excellent condition due to the dry desert air.  (It’s worth noting that many were also restored from ruin by the park service.)  We previously saw cliff dwellings at two locations (one and two) in New Mexico, directly to the south, but the buildings at Mesa Verde blow the ones we saw out of the water.

Much of the park involves a self-guided driving tour, where we looked at various preserved archaeological sites.  This frankly wasn’t all that interesting, but periodically an overlook would provide a view down into a nearby canyon, and we would excitedly point out a visible cliff dwelling.  They’re well camouflaged, so we probably missed some – the park holds more than 600 cliff dwellings in total.

After the drive, we had tickets to take a ranger-guided tour through the Balcony House, one of Mesa Verde’s three largest ruins.  The tour group was huge, but we all fit inside the incredibly well-preserved main room.  In our photos, you can see different rooms – used for storage and sleeping – as well as the large central “kiva,” the round cut-out in the floor that served religious and ceremonial purposes.

The most important part about Balcony House is actually hidden.  In the back of the cave, there is a small, muddy pool of water, fed by a spring in the rock.  Access to drinkable water was hugely important in such an arid region, and all of the major cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde were built around such natural plumbing.

One other fun thing about Balcony House is that the Native Americans who used it did not use ladders or rope.  Instead, they climbed up and down the sheer cliff walls via tiny finger-holds carved into the rock.  Crazy!  Tours today are a little more forgiving, but we did still have to squeeze through a small tunnel in the rock near the exit.

If you ever decide to visit Mesa Verde, you might want to hit the gym first.

After escaping the crowds, we took one last stop to check out the Far View Sites, a short trail that links several ruins that are on the top of the mesa. These ruins are about 200 years older than the cliff dwellings, making them over one thousand years old (!). We were pretty much the only people here, other than a ranger stationed near the trail head. Ah, sweet solitude. Our favorite way to explore.


On our second day in Cortez, we stopped at the excellent Anasazi Heritage Center*, where the friendly volunteer staff answered all of our dumb questions and even gave us some chocolate bars.  (One thing that became clear to us on our trip: most of our nation’s parks and museums run on volunteers!)  The artifacts on display fascinated us, especially a seven-thousand-year-old basket, as well as the beautiful examples of modern-day basket weaving. And, of course, there was another archaeological site – ruins from the 12th century.

* The preferred word for these peoples now is Ancestral Pueblo; the term “Anasazi” comes from opposing Native American tribes, and was essentially a slur meaning “Ancient Enemy.” 

After having our fill, we decided on the advice of the locals to check out Hovenweep National Monument, a tiny, extremely remote park located on the border between Colorado and Utah on the Utah side.  It’s absolutely barren all around – we were frankly surprised to find that the visitor center had electricity.

But Hovenweep protects something very, very cool: the ruins of dozens of ancient brick towers, built hundreds of years ago by Native Americans – and then abandoned.

The towers at Hovenweep were built between approximately 1200 and 1300 CE, mostly along the canyon edges, with some on the canyon floors.  Nobody really knows why the towers were built, or why they were abandoned.  The largest are three stories high, the precision-cut stone and mortar still holding strong in the desert air.

You can get right up close to many of the towers, with others only visible in the distance.  With so many unique and arresting shapes, it’s a photographer’s paradise.  It was also quiet and still, as only about 4 other people were around in the entire area.  For the first time, we broke out our zoom lens and tripod, trying to capture the somber, slightly awed feeling we felt at being among the ruins.

We probably still didn’t do it justice, but we hope you like the pictures.

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We’ve reached the end of our roadtrip!  We’re settled down in Denver, but we’re going to keep making blog posts and posting our favorite photos from the trip, so stay tuned for more.

Our trip to Mesa Verde and Hovenweep was June 10-11, 2016.

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Week 49.2: Canyonlands

Sorry, friends, it’s been a while since we posted one of these.  But now we’re back!

Let’s return to early June.  As our final day trip from Moab, we headed out to Canyonlands National Park, the final of Utah’s “Mighty Five” national parks.  Canyonlands is split into three districts, and we visited the most popular and well-developed district, “Island in the Sky.”  We had also planned to visit The Needles, another district to the south which focuses on hiking, but we ended up skipping out due to the constant 100+ degree temperatures.

Canyonlands’ third district is known as The Maze, and it is a natural preserve devoid of services, “one of the most remote and inaccessible areas of the United States.”  We weren’t too keen on recreating the events of 127 Hours – which took place just to the west of Canyonlands – so we decided to stick to Island in the Sky.

We have no regrets.  Island in the Sky’s evocative title is fitting: this section of the park encompasses a massive, flat-topped mesa, and the district’s scenic drive took us around the rim of the plateau for stunning views in every direction.  The park reminded us of the Grand Canyon, and although the vistas may not be quite as spectacular, they are much more varied and weird.

And we like weird.

You Got Your Arches in My Canyonlands

We started things off with an incredible view – through an arch located on the edge of a cliff.  It was pretty early in the day, so we probably didn’t fully appreciate how cool this was at the time.  But that’s why we take photographs!

Awesome.  After the arch, we had fun climbing around on some giant, spherical mounds that arise out of the center of the plateau.  They connect to each other on each end, looking a bit like a giant stone caterpillar or snake.

We also hiked around Upheaval Crater, which scientists believe is either (1) a collapsed salt dome, or (2) the impact crater of a large meteorite.

To be honest, it wasn’t that thrilling in person, but the surrounding terrain was beautiful.

As you can see, we took a lot of nifty photos of each other standing on cliff edges at Canyonlands.  For the below shot, we wandered slightly off the trail to take some cool adventure shots.  Jake had everything lined up when a Swiss hiker saw what we were doing and decided to get his own photos.

He did this by walking directly into the frame, then up next to Heather – where he proceeded to stand and obliviously admire the view for about ten full minutes.  Seriously.

That’s fine, random Swiss guy, take your time.  We’re just standing around here, holding a camera and posing and glaring at you, for your own amusement.  At least the photos turned out pretty well, once he left.

I can see for miles and miles…

After the crater, we stopped for lunch at one of the prettiest picnic spots you will ever see, located right on the edge of the plateau.  The pictures don’t quite do it justice, unfortunately.

From there, it was just one stunning overlook after another.

If you need an awesome picture for your Facebook profile, we recommend Canyonlands.

Roads go ever ever on

On our way out, we stopped at an overlook we had skipped in the morning.  (As crafty national park veterans, we knew its east-facing view would be better once the sun had risen higher.)  There was a rather cool cliff to stand on here, and walking the narrow ledge to get there was only slightly gulp-inducing.

We love that shot, but we mostly wanted to draw your attention to the road you can see running down the canyon.

That’s White Rim Road, a crazy, 100-mile dirt road that you can drive with a 4×4 vehicle.  We actually saw someone driving it in a jeep.  It takes 2-3 days to drive the whole thing, at which point we assume you are helicoptered out because you had to saw off your own arm.

Here’s how you get down.

Dead Horse Point State Park

OK, so you’ve already gotten the cliffside arch, the stone caterpillar, the crater, the overlooks, and the crazy dirt road – but wait, there’s more!  Right next to Canyonlands is Dead Horse Point State Park, which was named after early settlers herded wild horses onto the plateau, tamed a few, built a wall to hold in the rest… and then inexplicably left all the horses to die of thirst.

Sorry, horses, that’s some pretty terrible stuff.  Today, the park exists as basically a single, $10-per-vehicle overlook, piggybacking off of the national park next door.  But man oh man – what an overlook!

One of the prettiest views we’ve seen.  If you’re curious, the bright blue water in the last few photos is from a potash factory.  Obviously unnatural, but kind of beautiful anyway.

That’s the end of this blog post, and as it turns out, the end of our stay in Utah.  Stay tuned for a quick diversion to Colorado before we get to the biggest, baddest parks of them all.

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We’ve reached the end of our roadtrip!  We’ve settled down in Denver, but we’re going to keep making blog posts and posting our favorite photos from the trip, so stay tuned for more.

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Week 47: Kanab, Utah

After a slightly weird caving experience at Great Basin National Park, we continued south through Utah, quickly leaving the interstate behind. Southwestern Utah contains some very rolling hills, and it was a bit of a tense drive before we finally made it to Kanab, Utah. We stayed for nine days in mid-May, mixing some amazing sightseeing with more everyday tasks like laundry and trip planning.

Nothing mundane, of course.  Never that.

Kanab is a small but busy town of only 4,300 people.  As any real estate agent can tell you, it’s all about location, location, location, and Kanab has that in spades. Situated between three national parks (Zion, Bryce Canyon, and the north rim of the Grand Canyon – all coming up next) and numerous state parks and national monuments, the scenery around Kanab is breathtaking. As a result, it’s a touristy place, but in a low-key sort of way, and we found the vibe more charming than annoying.

Kanab UT 1

As in most tourist towns, the residents are enterprising. For example, there is a local newsletter with detailed write-ups on all the area activities, and it runs close to 50 full-length pages. It was quite helpful, but we didn’t realize until later that every article was written by the same woman! Ms. Dixie Brunner, thanks for all the advice.

By the way, despite staying for more than a week, we didn’t even come close to seeing everything.  Touristry in Utah requires some serious time-management triage.

In the 1950s, some similarly enterprising locals convinced Hollywood producers to shoot westerns in the area – including the TV show Gunsmoke. Tipped off by Dixie, we stopped by one of the old sets, now decaying slowly in the desert near some new housing developments. Sort of sad to see, but it made for some cool pictures.

Unlucky Numbers

As the headquarters for several federal park activities, Kanab has the unique distinction of being the location for a very special lottery. Six times a week, tourists gather at 9:00 a.m. sharp to try to win a coveted permit to see The Wave. You’ve probably never heard of it, but you may have seen a picture – The Wave features parallel bands of red and white rock curving gracefully in the shape of… well, a wave.  Here’s a picture from Wikipedia:

TheWave 1600pixels.jpg
[By Gb11111Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15724006]

There were at least eighty people at the morning lotteries, but only a few winners – only ten people total are allowed to see the Wave each day.  We tried three times, but never won.  Bummer!  At least we got to see something similar earlier in our trip at the Valley of Fire.

Hard Rock Life

With no Wave, we instead took another Dixie suggestion and visited the Toadstools. These are a series of super-cool hoodoos – weathered rock pillars – with caps of harder (and therefore larger) stone on top.

The toadstools were pretty awesome, as was the general landscape.  What really blew our minds, though, was that the toadstools aren’t even a big attraction. There is so much cool stuff in southern Utah that these amazing rock formations barely even merit a parking lot! We would never have known they were there if not for our Kanab newsletter, and we couldn’t help but wonder what else is waiting out there to be discovered. (Answer: a lot.)


Our final stop in Kanab (aside from the national parks) was a pretty heart-warming one. Kanab is the headquarters for the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, a non-profit group dedicated to ending euthanasia for unwanted animals. Their motto is “Save Them All,” and although they have grown to many locations nationwide, the Kanab facility is the largest and most important. It is their “shelter of last resort,” where un-adoptable animals of any species are sent to live out their days in the peace and quiet of beautiful Angel Canyon – mostly dogs and cats, but also pigs, horses, birds, and more.

We took a tour of the vast sanctuary, and it was really wonderful. Everything is thoughtfully designed with the animals in mind, whether it be bright, airy houses for the cats, or the dozens and dozens of individual and shared runs for the dogs – they have both a “Dogtown” and a “Dogtown II.”

The fantastic trainers work diligently to rehabilitate every animal, even the ones that will never be adopted. Some have physical or mental issues – we saw a volunteer walking one dog which constantly turns in circles as it walks – while others are there for different reasons.  Many of Michael Vick’s abused pit bulls ended up at Best Friends, and we actually got to meet one. She was smaller than we expected, but with an incredibly broad chest and the deepest bark we have ever heard. Like many “fighting” dogs, she actually had a very sweet disposition, but due to court order, she can never be adopted.

So, she gets to live here instead.

Best Friends is the rare kind of place that makes you happy about humankind. But of course this sort of thing happens in a lot of different places, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that Jake’s aunt and uncle in LA, Fran and Bob, foster rescued cocker spaniels for another wonderful charity, Camp Cocker. Despite our cold, cynical hearts, we have to say thanks to Best Friends, Fran and Bob, and everyone who does such amazing work for animals everywhere.


Rather than end on a warm, sappy note, we’ll share one more quick story. After leaving Zion National Park late one night, we grabbed a bite to eat a restaurant just outside of Kanab called Thunderbird, which advertises itself as the “Home of the Ho-Made Pies.”

We just had to try them, but friends, we’re sad to report: those pies appear neither ho-made, nor even homemade!  In fact, we’re pretty sure some of the filling was still in the shape of the Sysco jug it came in.  We were so dispirited we didn’t even get a picture.  To quote Lionel Hutz, “[t]his is the most blatant case of fraudulent advertising since my suit against the film The Neverending Story.”

Ah, well.  We figured we’d just have to eat some more pie in the future to make up for it.  (Spoiler alert! We did.)

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Still alive?  Check.

Where are you now?  Pittsburgh, PA, beginning the job search process.

Next location?  We’ll be in Pittsburgh for a while, for once.

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Week 29: Elderly Burning Man

As we wrote before, after our crazy road trip back to the Northeast, we spent a few days recharging in Phoenix.  Then, we headed back out onto the road in our RV, southwest from Phoenix into the desert.  Our destination was Quartzsite, Arizona, home of what we call “Elderly Burning Man.”

Gathering of the Clans

Quartzsite is not just annoying to spell, it’s a highway town of 3,600, very near the border between Arizona and California.  Quartzsite is in the for-real desert, and it is nearly “deserted” in the summer, when temperatures can reach 120+ degrees.  But in the winter?  Oh, that’s quite different.

For reasons we still do not fully understand, Quartzsite is the winter meetup location for over one hundred thousand RVers.  Every winter, swarms of people come and meet up in the desert outside of the town, where you can park for free for as long as you like.  Some people live there all winter long.  There are very few places to hook up, but this area attracts an off-grid crowd, with large solar panels and giant tanks that can go weeks without filling.

This is where the hardcore RVers go, and as we know well from our travels, full-timers are almost exclusively retired.  We’d guess the average age is about 80.  (Relatively) wealthy, white retirees, with a… let’s say, “Midwestern” build, gathering in their off-grid RVs in the middle of the desert.

Elderly Burning Man:  It doesn’t get much weirder than this.

Desert Sea

Vendors set up tents and stalls in a huge area inside the town, and we walked through.  There was a lot of RV-related stuff, but also plenty of touristy stuff, rocks and minerals, and especially deep-fried food.  Considering the demographics, Quartzsite is more than a little like being in an Iowa county fair, just mysteriously transported into the desert.

Some of the stuff we saw was just bizarre – dozens of cow skulls, laid out for sale, next to fifty large geodes and a table full of T-shirts.  A few of the stands appeared to just be piles of junk to scavenge through – the desert drifter dream.  Nearby, there were crazy RVs for sale, with kitchen islands, electric fireplaces, and full master bathrooms.

There are also a few permanent shops in the town, and the one we wish we had visited is the Quartzsite Yacht Club.  Despite being utterly landlocked, the Quartzsite Yacht Club touts itself as having the “largest membership in the world.”  Membership is open to the public for a nominal fee, and it comes with one real perk: “real” yacht clubs often offer reciprocal access to members of other clubs, so membership in Quartzsite can get you in the door elsewhere (they claim).

It was so crowded everywhere we decided not to bother trying, but we’ll likely always regret it.  If nothing else, it probably would have helped Jake’s odds at becoming a maritime lawyer.

Thug Life

Not having been there before, we were a little unsure what to do.  We ended up just driving into the desert, weaving between all the other RVs (they gather in packs), and parking in a random unoccupied area.  Everything seemed fine, until the next night, some new entrants parked, like, 8 feet away.  In the middle of a giant, empty desert.

And then they glared at us, every time we went outside.

We have guessed, in retrospect, that we were somehow encroaching on their (unmarked, unoccupied) “turf.”  Friends, we have never claimed to be the most heroic of travelers, and it’s fair to say we fled from this confrontation.  Those “toughs” were up to no good, and there were more of them than us, never mind that they were in their 80s.  Like Jesus, we turned the other cheek, and like Sir Robin, we bravely drove off to a different, empty spot in the desert.

After getting muscled out of our first spot by the infirm, we took a stroll around our new, neighborless backyard. Highlights of our hike included: a cactus that looks like an armless man buried headfirst, lots of rocks, and a coaster from cybererotica.com – “It’s where you go to make money!”

An Oasis of Youth

It wasn’t all snark and fear in Quartzsite, as we did have one positive interaction with other humans.  We learned via social media that the “Xscapers,” a “working-aged” sub-group of an RV community, was meeting up in Quartzsite at the same time we were there.  We crashed their meet-up, and were rewarded by meeting friendly people who were – *gasp – approximately our own age!

Yes, it was an exciting night for us, although sobering.  (Not literally – we of course brought beer.)  Because our online business has been lackluster, we can’t live like nomads in the desert forever, like many of these folks do.  Still, it was a fun time, and we were invited back for movie night the next day.

The movie was “The Martian,” projected onto a screen.  Although we had seen it before, it was still kind of a trip to watch a story of survival while under the stars, running off of solar power and batteries, in the harsh desert landscape of Arizona.  Thanks, Xscapers!

Those Sunsets

We stayed in Quartzsite for three nights, which is about as long as we can last before our batteries run low.  If you’re curious, we have a generator for power in a pinch, but it doesn’t do much to recharge the batteries, and we don’t have any fancy solar panels to help out.

Of course, we could always put away our computers and phones and just live in the moment, but on the other hand, no, we aren’t doing that.

We won’t miss the crowds, the bizarre bazaar, or the elderly gangs, but there is one thing we’ll certainly miss from Quartzsite.  Desert sunsets are always amazing.

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Still alive?  Check.

Where are you now?  Portland, Oregon, getting our blog post on!

Next location?  We’ll be here for a while longer, then on to Seattle!  For more information, check out our shiny new road trip plan.

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Week 24: A Forest of Stone

One of our goals of our road trip is to see all the cool stuff you always hear about, but rarely get to see.  Lots of people visit the Grand Canyon in their lifetimes, but how many go to Death Valley?  (a million people per year, actually)  Well, a big item on our road trip bucket list was seeing the Petrified Forest in northern Arizona, the next stop on our tour after Albuquerque.  The idea always just amazed us – wood that turned to stone?!

So we checked it out, and we have to say, petrified wood is pretty cool, but it may have been a little too high on our bucket list.  That said, the park has more than just petrified wood, and is definitely worth visiting.

Mmm, Dessert

We entered Petrified Forest National Park off interstate I-40 (easiest national park to get to ever), which started us in the northern half of the park.  This area doesn’t have petrified wood; instead, it’s a preserved part of Arizona’s Painted Desert, a huge stretch of beautifully colored badlands in northern Arizona.  (Badlands is the term for when the area is dry, hilly, and covered with ridges like bunched up fabric.)

The terrain was mostly flat, so we could see for miles in every direction from the overlooks.  With bright colors and numerous striations in an otherwise featureless desert, it was extraordinarily scenic. Reminds us of the surface of Mars (probably).

While exploring the Painted Desert, we stopped at the Painted Desert Inn, which is now owned by the park service and serves as an art gallery.  (It’s also home to an extremely lucky artist-in-residence!)  The upper floor features a preserved 1950’s style diner that we found pretty groovy.

Downstairs, we found a single room with some cheese and crackers set out.  A lonely-looking volunteer employee told us that the park service was having a party for the whateverth anniversary of the Inn, but it seemed like they forgot to send out any invitations.  (Or maybe it had something to do with being a Tuesday afternoon in December in the empty part of Arizona.)

The volunteer proceeded to talk at us for a while, in a heartfelt but misguided attempt teach us about a local historical figure we have definitely since forgotten.  [Ed. note – we think it was this guy]  We were too polite to interrupt, but we got to eat a lot of cheese while they rambled, so all in all it turned out pretty well.

Mmm, More Dessert

After admiring the scenery in the Painted Desert, we drove back over the interstate to the Petrified Forest proper.  There were some petroglyphs along the way, but we couldn’t get any good pictures of them.  Honestly, after Gila, Albuquerque, and Bandelier, we were feeling petroglyphed-out, so we moved on quickly.

There are petroglyphs all over these rocks, but it was hard to see them.

The scenery continued to be beautiful, subtly changing from area to area but still maintaining a stark beauty.  We saw the pinks and reds of the Painted Desert shift to blues, purples and grays in the next section of the park, where the ancient Blue Mesa rock formations can be found.

Hard Woods

We soon came to the Petrified Forest.  Cool fact time!  The trees that created this petrified wood fell more than two hundred million years, then became encased in silt and volcanic ash.  Over millions of years, silica leeched into the trees via the groundwater, replacing the organic core with solid rock.  They still look just like wood from the outside, but it’s pure stone.

Break off the bark or look from the side, and you can see that the rings have been fully replaced, sometimes with dazzling colors.  Interestingly, the crystalline structure of petrified wood causes it to cleanly break apart into round sections.  Although it’s the hand of nature, it looks for all the world like two people with an old-timey saw went through and cut it into pieces!

Petrified Forest National Park features a huge variety of petrified wood, although it’s not the only place it can be found.  In fact, there used to be much more wood at the Petrified Forest, but people have been stealing it for over a century.  Luckily, plenty remains, including some really huge pieces that would be rather… difficult to acquire.  The largest weighs 44 tons.

As a final note, you may have noticed a lot of crow pictures in the galleries.  Well, aside from being easy to photograph, crows were everywhere in the park, and not remotely afraid of humans.  Crows: the squirrels of the desert?

Extra Credit

While visiting Petrified Forest National Park, we stayed in Holbrook, Arizona.  The RV park was fine, although a little odd.  The attendant was friendly, and we definitely were taken care of hookup-wise, since each spot had row after row of sewer connections.  This is pretty weird because we really could only ever use 1; it felt a little like getting 20 calculators to “help” take a math test.

Roadtrip Status

Still alive?  Check.

Where are you now?  Still in Napa, California, writing a million blog posts.

Next location?  Somewhere northwest of here, probably Arcata or Eureka, CA, to see more redwoods and do a little maintenance on our car and RV.

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Week 17: Tumbling In To Marfa

After a brief stay at the spectacular Caverns of Sonora, and carefully avoiding some crazy flooding, we headed west to our second-to-last Texas destination:  Marfa, Texas.  Marfa is a tiny town of approximately 2,000 people, located in the west Texas desert, one of the most middle-of-nowhere places you can find in the United States.

The stars on that map represent places we have stayed on our trip, so you can see the Caverns of Sonora to the east and El Paso to the west.  We’ll get to the star near Amarillo much later…

You might imagine this to be the most boring drive imaginable, and you wouldn’t be wrong about that.  The distances are long, the roads are painfully straight, and the cactus-to-person ratio is unmeasurably high.  It’s certainly more relaxing than driving the RV through, say, New Orleans rush hour (protip: never do that), but you quickly run out of things to do.  Jake spent his non-driving time holding his phone steady to make sped-up, “hyperlapse” videos of how intensely boring the drive was:

A 16x hyperlapse, so 5 minutes in about 18 seconds.

Another 16x hyperlapse (as best we can remember), driving into the big city of Alpine, Texas (population 6,000).  

That said, the drive was still a lot different than we imagined.  When we thought of the Texas desert before this trip, we pictured flat, sandy plains.  However, one realization we have made from exploring the deserts of the Southwest is that “desert” almost always goes hand-in-hand with “mountains.”  Desert scenery is spectacularly mountainous; if you look carefully in the hyperlapses, you can see ridges in the background.  In person, the landscape is arrestingly beautiful.

And there is almost never sand.  Sometimes we saw grass and trees, like back home.  Mostly, Southwestern deserts are scrublands, endless fields of small green bushes atop brown, rocky soil.  This makes the mountains stand out even further, and gives new, important meaning to TLC’s 1990s classic, “No Scrubs.”

The other thing worth knowing about the desert is that it is, as a nature documentary would say, a land of “contrasts” and “extremes.”  What they mean by that is “it gets really freaking hot during the day, and really cold at night.”  With so little humidity, temperature is overwhelmingly driven by the sun.  Stand full in its glare, and you’ll be sweating; step three feet away into the shade, and the perceived temperature drops about thirty degrees, just like that.  It doesn’t help that Marfa and much of the southwest is at a surprisingly high altitude (see, e.g.Santa Fe), so the temperature swings at night were, umm, rather extreme.

Wear layers.

So, back to Marfa.  As we said, it is tiny, consisting of just a few streets and a single stoplight.  Marfa historically existed for ranchers and as a stop-over for travelers, and during World War II, there was an Army base there.  However, the future of the town took a very unique turn in the 1970s, when minimalist NYC artist Donald Judd began staying and working in Marfa part-time.  He ultimately ended up buying huge amounts of property in the area, including the abandoned Army base, and created some stunning works of art in the middle of the desert.  Over time, other members of the NYC art scene visited and worked in Marfa.

Today, Marfa still services ranchers and travelers, but it also has numerous museums and galleries.  It’s a fun and funky place, with food trucks, an organic grocery store, and a campground named El Cosmico where you can stay in a teepee or a yurt.  To the sometimes-consternation of the residents, these things have lead to Marfa becoming increasingly hip:  BEYONCE stayed at El Cosmico.  It’s really all pretty amazing, although the incongruities can be a bit jarring:  for example, seeing a farmer’s dirty, hard-working pickup truck driving behind a gleaming new Escalade was surreal.

We stayed at an adorable RV park called the “Tumble In,” and it was tough to beat the sunsets or the price.  If you’re ever just passing through the Chihuahan desert – as we all do, from time to time – it’s well worth a visit.

Since we were in Marfa, we stopped to see some of Judd’s work.  Judd converted the Army base into a showcase for his and his friends’ work, installing large sculptures into the existing buildings.  For example, three warehouse-sized structures contained a series of beautiful, polished, waist-high aluminum rectangles, each one with different sides and interiors.  We weren’t allowed to take pictures of them, but you can see some here.  Outside, 15 huge concrete forms – mostly hollow, open-ended cubes – made for silent, geometric guardians in the desert.  It was all extremely cool.  There was more, including a series of colored light installations set up in former barracks halls, and a downtown warehouse full of sculptures made from crushed cars, but you’ll have to visit Marfa to see them.

We took a day trip outside of Marfa to go hiking in the Davis Mountains, about a half-hour to the north.  (Do you like straight, flat roads with no humans?  If so, that is the drive for you.)  We stopped in to the visitor center to make sure the hiking trails hadn’t been washed away in the recent flooding, and the friendly female worker there assured us they hadn’t.  Then, she excitedly told us that the hike was “great” because there was a “huge black rattlesnake” at the top of the mountain we’d be climbing.

“You and I have very different definitions of ‘great,'” Jake said.  But we never encountered the rattlesnake, and the hike was a good tune-up for our next adventure:  Big Bend National Park (blog post sold separately).

We’re getting slightly ahead of ourselves, but we wanted to show you one more thing near Marfa, since it’s semi-famous for it.  (Marfa is also famous for the Marfa Lights, but the night we tried to see them was cloudy, and nothing appeared.)  About 20 miles northwest of Marfa, on the way to El Paso, artists created the Prada Marfa store.  It’s a fake boutique with some real (but unusable) Prada products inside, all alone in the middle of the desert.  It’s a symbol, a prank, and a fantastic photo opportunity, all rolled into one.


What’s now:  We are in Morro Bay, California, celebrating Jake’s birthday!

What’s next:  We are heading to Pinnacles National Park, followed by some more of coastal California.

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