Ain’t Life Grand?

We entered Arizona on a blustery day, which led to several entertaining complications. Just as we crossed the border, Andrew yelled some profanities and I looked behind us to see that the hatchback to the trailer had managed to pop open. The latch for the hatchback had broken many miles and states before, but there was enough weight in the door to keep it down. I’m not sure if the wind is completely to blame, but for some reason the door had swung up and open, and so we pulled over to assess the damage. My first concern was for the coffee, especially since it had been so cold and wet these last few days and coffee has become my morning lifeblood. I ran back and saw that the coffee was still safe and sound, and assumed that meant everything else was in order. We secured the door with a bungee cord and continued on our way, unaware until later that we had actually lost four plastic cups and my vanilla sweetener somewhere down the highway.

The second funny thing happened when we pulled over at a scenic overlook so Andrew could make a sandwich. It was incredibly windy so I decided to stay in the truck while Andrew fought the wind. Apparently the wind won out, as I once again heard Andrew swearing. I opened my door in time to see bread, ham, and cheese go flying past. Andrew had set his sandwich down for a second on the tailgate and the wind had lifted it up and sent it sailing. Not one to let a good sandwich go to waste, Andrew put it back together after attempting to brush out the gravel. It turned out to be a rather crunchy sandwich, and he ate begrudgingly with a hearty side of grumbling.

We continued on into Northern Arizona, driving through the Navajo Nation Indian Reservation on our way to the Grand Canyon. Heavy, dark clouds loomed ahead, warning us of the cold, wet weather to come. I zoned out in the warm truck, delirious from lack of sleep and the physical exertion of our morning hike in Zion. On the radio we picked up a local Navajo station, and I was lulled into a spiritual stupor by the steady drumbeat and harmonic chanting as we passed increasingly impressive chasms and colorful canyons.

Our first order of duty upon entering the National Park was to take showers. We arrived at 5 PM, and only had one hour before the showers closed so we high-tailed it over to the laundry/shower facility.  I was still cold and damp from our rain-soaked hike, so I was prepared to spend $4 for 16 minutes of shower time. As I put in my first two dollars, the machine got jammed, and when I pushed with force one of my quarters popped back out. I don’t know what happened, but the shower started running, and not only was the water hot and wonderful, somehow the timer was disabled and so I was able to shower as long as I liked for $1.75. I was so stoked for this little bit of luck, I felt like I could go out and buy a lottery ticket and win the jackpot.

After our showers we were wonderfully warm and dry, just in time for the hail/sleet/snow to start falling. At this point we couldn’t imagine sitting outside in the cold trying to cook and enjoy our dinner, so we took advantage of how developed the Grand Canyon is and headed to a restaurant. We had a mediocre and overpriced meal, but I would have paid double just to sit inside and drink my spiked coffee. After dinner we went back to our campsite to let Zephyr run a bit, since he had been cooped up in the truck all day. As we shivered in the snow, Zephyr ran, romped, rolled, and shook about, in love with the weather. Being half husky he is naturally prepared for the cold, and his joy was palpable. That night I made a promise to Zephyr that I would never take him to Florida, or any tropical locale, ever again!

The next morning I awoke early to the eerie silence that accompanies bitterly cold weather. I bundled up and went outside to let Zephyr out, but was thwarted by the frozen truck doors. After a lot of yanking, pulling, and cursing I pried open the back door and let him out. I fed him and then grabbed his water bowl, only to find a thick layer of ice instead! We had some fun sliding on frozen puddles, and then packed up and headed to an overlook parking lot that was in the sun to cook our breakfast.

Sun aside it was a frigid morning, with a temperature of 27° F and a wind-chill of 18° F! We ate our breakfast quickly, and had a brisk walk along the Grand Canyon’s rim. We would have preferred to take a hike down into the canyon, but dogs are strictly forbidden and so we satisfied ourselves with the occasional rock scramble to get some good photos. After our stroll we loaded up and drove out into the chilly Northern Arizona day with our cold noses pointed south towards my native city of Tucson.

I Feel Better Already!

Hot Springs National Park is the strangest National Park we have yet to visit. The town of Hot Springs, Arkansas sprang up in the 1800s because of the natural hot mineral water that flowed into a nearby river, and people would come to sit in the river for recreation. Eventually it was determined, (through what kind of testing I have no idea), that these waters were beneficial to health, and so a city was built with various bath houses that captured the natural hot spring water and diverted it into tubs. Doctors would prescribe their patients trips to Hot Springs to cure their ails, and for the first half of the twentieth century business was booming. The National Park was created in order to preserve the history and healing properties of the area, although really the “park” is actually just the town itself.

Unfortunately, (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), modern medicine was born and with it came miracle drugs like penicillin. People no longer needed to travel to Hot Springs to get well, and the area began a steady decline that is still apparent today. Out of the many historical bathhouses in the town, only one is still in operation in the same fashion as it was 100 years ago. Another has turned into a more modern spa, and the rest of the buildings are being retrofitted and leased into various businesses, including a brewery that is slated to open in the near future.

In light of this decline, it is easy to see why locals are now investing their time and energy into typical tourist traps like the Mafia Museum, along with kitschy shops and mediocre restaurants. They need to do what they can to stay afloat, and if people no longer want to pay for the healing waters, maybe they will pay to learn about Al Capone’s trips to the area. That said, we decided we did want to pay for the waters, and so we checked into a hotel that allowed dogs and had the hot spring water piped into the bathroom. The hotel was a shell of its former glory days from the 1920s, but we still enjoyed the live music in the lobby, the decent restaurant, and the various fountains and spigots that dispensed delicious untreated mineral water.

Exploring the town we discovered that there are fountains everywhere that pump out hot springs water, and several faucets that the public can use to fill up their water jugs. We took advantage of this and now, (over a week later), are still conserving the last of our delicious, magical mineral drinking water. The National Park visitor center was under renovation, so we visited the temporary location which was placed inside the gift shop. It was pretty depressing to see the rangers in their uniforms hawking bathrobes and sea salt soaks, but Hot Springs is an important cultural site and I am grateful the National Park exists here. Because of the National Park designation the old bathhouses must be maintained or refurbished in their original style, so the unique history of this city will forever be preserved, at least on some level.

After a peaceful night enjoying the luxury of the mineral bath, a king sized bed, and bad television we hit the road into Oklahoma. We found a state park alongside a lake, and as we drove up we were greeted by the park ranger. This man was a sight to behold. He was missing a few fingers, and even more teeth, and smoked so many cigarettes that his plastic lighter was attached to his pants via an elastic leash. Looks aside he was quite friendly, and even had us follow him to the best campsite in the park. We were the only campers that night, and Zephyr enjoyed the freedom to run about untethered and swim in the lake.

The next morning we awoke early to frost, and a thick fog was resting on the lake. We had a quick breakfast and with chattering teeth we drove the next few hours into Oklahoma City. I needed a spot to post my blog, (lucky you!), and so we stopped at Elemental Coffee, a hip, industrial-style coffee house with hand pour overs and delicious coffee. Again, as I discovered in Chicago, I know the coffee is good if I don’t need to add a bunch of flavored sweetener! In this case our barista (or baristo?) was a nice young man from Escondido, a town in San Diego County not far from our last home. I asked what on earth brought him to Oklahoma City, and he replied, “I dunno. I just wanted something different.” Obviously someone like me cannot argue with logic so sound. I tip my hat to this fellow adventure seeker. Knowing that there are so many of us out there makes me all warm and fuzzy inside.

What’s in this Drink, Exactly?

A couple of years ago I visited New Orleans on a work-related trip, and I became enamored with the architecture, history, and general vibe of the old French Quarter. I have always wanted to return, and since the city was only a few hours drive from Pensacola we made it our next destination. There were a few campground options around the New Orleans area, but many of them had the word “Bayou” in their name and I figured that was synonymous with “mosquito habitat,” so we opted for an RV travel park just outside the city limits. This was our first time staying at a place like this, but it was relatively affordable, very close to the French Quarter, had hot showers, and was operated by a very nice woman who was happy to let Zephyr roam around.

We ditched the teardrop at the RV park and drove into the French Quarter, where we walked around admiring the buildings, live music, and ample outdoor bars. We each grabbed a drink to go and walked around the streets with our “adult beverages,” a novelty that we are always compelled to enjoy whenever possible.  We stopped for dinner at a nice outdoor restaurant called Amelie, and had a delicious meal of chicken breast for Andrew and Creole shrimp for yours truly. As darkness descended over New Orleans, the noise and energy began to elevate, and our silly dog started to have his usual “I hate cities” panic attack. In his defense, the children of the area were out and about in costumes doing their trick-or-treating, and so things were probably a little strange from a dog’s perspective. I imagine that the neighborhood kids have to trick-or-treat a week early every year in order to avoid the chaos and hedonism that must accompany such a holiday in the French Quarter!

Before Zephyr could be too much of a buzz kill we walked him back to the truck and put him to bed while we went back for some more fun. We indulged in some disgustingly sweet (aka amazingly delicious) frozen, brightly colored cocktails as we walked down Bourbon Street ogling the go-go dancers in the windows and the bartenders trying to entice people through their doors. Andrew slurped on something purple containing bourbon (so we were told), while I stuck to the more “traditional” pina colada.  We stopped in several shops before finding the perfect Halloween masks, despite not having a clear idea of where we would even be on October 31st. We figured even if we are alone in the woods we can don our disguises and dance by the firelight under the full moon and have a good time!

The next morning we grabbed breakfast at a small locals-only type restaurant where I had some delicious praline bacon with eggs, while Andrew devoured fried green tomatoes, grits, poached eggs, and TWO biscuits. That boy sure does enjoy his Southern food! The restaurant was in a neighborhood that was clearly affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Isaac, and it was a sober reminder of how much people in this area have suffered. It’s hard to get a feel for the tragedy of it all when you are a tourist enjoying the relatively unscathed French Quarter. I was grateful for the visual dichotomy, as it provided me with a more complete understanding of New Orleans.  It is too easy to be an ignorant visitor and only see the neon lights and entertainment value of any given city. After walking the dog we said our goodbyes to New Orleans, confident that we will return again someday with more time for exploration.

Our next destination was Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, but before we could get there we had to drive up the Mississippi River and into the state of Mississippi itself. We stopped at a fun health-foods store that had the largest selection of bulk candy I have ever seen (really healthy right?). As we checked out I was honestly embarrassed by the amount of candy passing through the scanner! After we grabbed our bags I asked the cashier if I could put the cart away for her, and she offered me a job on the spot! I politely declined, but it is still good to know that politeness and a little initiative can still get you a job in this economy!

We spent our next night in a National Forest that had free campsites complete with free firewood. Finding these spots is always like winning the lottery, and usually comes after a long day of driving and uncertainty about where to sleep. We were grateful for the site, and even more grateful for the nice gentleman who warned us that it is coon hunting season, so if we hear dogs barking all night that’s why! After a quick dinner we enjoyed a campfire and were then lulled to sleep by the sounds of baying dogs off in the distance. It brought back profound memories of my favorite childhood book Where the Red Fern Grows, and I wished desperately I had brought a copy of it with us so I could read it aloud to my lovely husband as he drifted off to sleep beside me.