Sunday, July 3, 2011

Making the [National Park] Rounds

At some point, I came to an odd realization: I've seen more of the natural wonders of places like Mongolia, Argentina, Nepal, and New Zealand than I have of our very own U.S. of A. This didn't seem right - there's no shortage of natural wonders to see in this country of ours ... so, over the past twelve months, I've started making a conscious effort to check some of the more famous American outdoor sites off the list.

Let's begin in upstate New York just under a year ago - the Niagara Falls:

Iguazu's still bigger, but Niagara is mighty impressive

Traversing this grand country of ours (by rail) for a couple of days brought me to the Great Plains, and pretty soon, I was staring at one of the grandest man-made outdoor sites in the world:

South Dakota's Mount Rushmore

Which brings up some philosophical quandaries - it surely is an outdoor site, but it's not exactly natural... I say as long as it's a National Park, and is one of the more heavily visited of American sites, it belongs on this list!

So, moving right along - likely the single best known of America's natural wonders, and certainly the grandest (no pun intended) is Arizona's Grand Canyon. This one, I'd actually been to once before, but that was all the way back in '99, when I was such an un-seasoned traveler that I didn't even have a digital camera. All fixed on the visit this past March:

The Canyon was glorious and snow-covered shortly after sun-rise on this early spring day

So, Niagara, Rushmore, Grand Canyon... how to round that bunch out? Right - Yellowstone! You don't get a lot more authentic with your outdoor sites than the gigantic tract of land comprising the world's first National Park. So, early June, just under a year since having started this latest journey of discovery at Niagara Falls, I landed in Yellowstone to join my parents for a week of sightseeing at this grand national park.

Yellowstone, looking positively other-wordly with geysers smoking all around

The geysers are constantly going off - this one is simply [and appropriately] named "The Grand," seen sending a powerful spray of water up here

When not exploding, the thermal features are busy smoking (a bit menacingly) and creating an astonishing array of bright colors. The Grand Prismatic Spring pictured

I didn't have much time to research Yellowstone before arriving - it's huge, there's a bunch of geysers, a lot of wildlife - no shortage of sites to see. The details of these sites we learned en route - none disappointed. Yellowstone is actually amazingly vast and diverse, it's not just Old Faithful and the rest of the geyser bunch - traversing the park puts you through an ever-changing cavalcade of scenery: the geysers and the hot springs give way to the lakes, waterfalls, and rivers, which merge into the Canyons, which lead you to Lamar Valley - "America's Serengeti," dubbed so for its wide mixture of wildlife out easily in view. And then, there's the Mammoth step springs up in the North-Western corner of the park, which simply defy classification altogether. Click here for a hundred or so pictures of the best of the park, but a few more of the highlights:

A pair of buffalo playfully fighting early in the morning... all of 20 or so feet away from the road

Mom, dad, welcome to the blog! The three of us at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone - not quite the Grand Canyon, but pretty Grand nonetheless!

And eventually, you might start thinking, "you know, one thing that's missing here? That's some big ol' mountains - up close and personal! There's snowy peaks off on the horizon, but couldn't they have planted them a little closer!?" Well, never fear - just drive South for two or so hours (and the one thing that annoys me about American National Parks is that you do absolutely have to drive everywhere) and you are surrounded by those snowy elusive peaks, smack in the middle of the Grand Teton National Park, dominating the valley of Jackson Hole:

The Teton Range

The mountains rising up above Jenny Lake on a beautiful, sunny day out in the park

And at this point... I think it's safe to say my American National Parks are beginning to catch up to all those other far off lands. Sure Yosemite, which I'm yet to see, makes a strong argument for being in the top five (and it remains high on the list), along with Alaska's Denali, Hawaii's big volcanoes, Florida's Everglades, Montana's Glacier National Park... who knows what else! But a few at a time, and so far, over these past twelve months, I'm off to a good start. Mt. Rainier, right here next to Seattle, continues to beckon to be climbed as well, and that may well be the next piece of American Nature to conquer, as I keep hoping/planning to summit this year... If I can get there before July 24th, it'll even fall within a year of Niagara!

So pretty... so beckoning! Not even nearly as tall as the mountains in Nepal, Bolivia, Peru... it must and shall be conquered!

Still not convinced about the variety of natural wonders to be seen in this vast land of ours? A few more picturesque destinations from the year past:
The Tulip Fields in Washington's Skagit Valley
Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada and the Rocks of Sedona, Arizona
The Mountains of Utah
A different perspective of Mt. Rainier, still just outside of Seattle
The Playa of the Burning Man festival... one of the most spectacularly amazing settings
Alcatraz Island, San Francisco Bay - did you know it too is now the domain of the National Park Service?
Victoria Island and its Burchart Gardens are in Canada, but I'm willing include the great land up North in this little exhibition!
Devil's Tower, on the great plains of Montana (you're gonna have to scroll down some)

And a couple more natural sites of note rewinding another year back in the way back machine: Lake Tahoe and Crater Lake.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Taliesin West

I rather hate lumping Taliesin into the 'Arizona's kinda weird' category. Not because Taliesin isn't weird - this workshop and architecture school established by Frank Lloyd Wright certainly is quite weird and unusual, it's just that its airy, geometrical, modern designs are exactly the kinds of weird that I like! But then again, I did enjoy the dateshakes and the ocotillos too, so maybe it does fit after all?

Just take a left on Frank Lloyd Wright Blvd

And in short order, you will arrive at Taliesin West (symbol pictured)

Main building, full of airy, geometrical, modern designs

Frank Lloyd Wright, the uber-famous architect of the early 20th century, had his main base in Wisconsin. He'd named that base Taliesin. At some point (in the 1930's, I think?), he realized that winters really sucked in Wisonsin, so he promptly came out to Phoenix, Arizona, bought a large parcel of land and proceeded to construct Taliesin West - a place that was to become a winter headquarters for his operations. Soon enough, it became a studio and a prestigious architecture school as well. Wright was a lot more into inspiration than he was into details, so he was happy to put through the would be students through rigorous training, but it took another fifty years before the school was to become a fully accredited institution.

These days, Taliesin West continues to function as an architecture school and a design studio. It is now occupied year-round and is a permanent home to some thirty students, but you can also come by and take a fascinating tour - trying not to disturb the work of the students and getting a chance to experience some of Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural brilliance firsthand.

One of the buildings in the complex, featuring symmetrical protruding spikes

Inside one of the buidings. Featureing a design drawing of one of Frank Lloyd Wright's buildings

Heloise Crista was once of the students here - now a number of her statues is featured in the courtyard. 'Being in the Moment' pictured here.

And this will conclude the 'Arizona is Weird' introspection. We had a good time in Arizona actually - Grand Canyon, Sedona, seeing friends, going to a couple of spring training games, having a date in Dateland, learning about the life and times of Frank Lloyd Wright... it was all quite interesting. Arizona as a whole though, this land of retired 'snow birds' and immense urban sprawl, did strike me as just a bit nonsensical. All in good fun, of course!

Next stop on the whirlwind adventure of the South West was a weekend in San Diego, but I'd been to San Diego many a time before, what with my parents having lived there for over ten years now, so it doesn't seem quite as interesting and exotic. Besides, it was over two months ago now, and I've since moved to new interesting and exotic sights, seeing how I'm composing all this from right outside the Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone Naitonal Park, so I'm going to skip posting about San Diego. If you want a quick glimpse at what we did there, including the funky natural environs of San Diego's Wild Animal Park, click here for a full album of the Southwest, including all the best of San Diego!

PS. Yup, it took another three weeks to get from composing this over by Old Faithful to actually posting it - apparently, working does not leave a lot of free time for blogging... Erica may be able to catch you up on adventures in San Diego though, dear Blogosphere. I will aim to post something about Yellowstone eventually - give it another month or two, just to be safe!

Dateland, Arizona

- Hey Erica, how about a date?

And thus was conceived a stop in the otherwise forgettable desert outpost of Dateland, Arizona. True to its name, the town is famous for its dates ... (for growing dates) ... and for poking fun of its own name. I wish I had more to say about this place... let's see... 20 minutes was plenty of time to see all of Dateland; I had a date shake... we took some funny pictures. I'm pretty sure twenty minutes is enough to drive around Dateland at least three times. Pictures really are worth a thousand words, as I'm clearly struggling to come up with appropriate words to describe this bit of Arizona oddness:

Thanks for choosing Dateland - Be safe. Practice safe dating?

Dateland, what a great place to get off! Giggle.

The sign above would lose some of its charming humor had they simply been consciously making fun of themselves. 'Dateland, Home of the Cougars,' however is entirely unintentional and, thus, entirely, overwhelmingly hillarious!

And thus continues our whirlwind tour of the odd, weird, unusual, and non-sensical bits of the State of Arizona. There were many spots that fit into this category - Dateland was easily my favorite to visit!

The Ocotillo

an ocotillo is an eight-legged armadillo. Here it is in bloom:

What, you were starting to think Arizona made sense? I've fallen behind on my Arizona nonsense, but now that Jesus didn't show up on May 21st, contrary to Arizona's predictions(*), and the world didn't end, it's time to catch back up a little!

* I know, I know, it was apparently a Mr. Camping of California who'd spread the rumor (uhm, I mean made the clarivoyant, albeit wholly incorrect, prediction), but I saw the sign in Arizona, and it seemed to really belong there... And I've missed you, blog - you too, weird Arizona!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Programming...

... to bring you this Breaking News Bulletin!!!

Osama bin Laden's dead! Right, you knew that... and this probably isn't what you come to read this blog for. Ok, ok, let's try this one: the tulips are blooming! The Washington tulips are blooming!

I'll get back to the Stream of March Nonsense in the deserts of Arizona in a moment, but in April, right here in Washington State, it was time for the annual Skagit Valley Tulip festival, and the tulips were in bloom and on full display. So, while I'm still catching up on the oh so very random, random lives and times of Arizona, a brief interlude for things Pacific Northwest:

The Skagit Valley tulip fields all in bloom, in front of snowy Mt. Baker

Reds and Yellows in long, even rows

Erica and I came out to see the tulips in the middle of April. The tulip pictures were spectacular - pictures with me? Occasionally silly...

A bright hybrid orange sneaks in between the fiery reds

The purple-white's were really awesome!

Want more pictures of beautiful tulips? Here's an entire album, courtesy of Facebook.

And now, back to your regularly scheduled programming and the nonsense of Arizona. And by now, I, of course, mean 'as soon as I get around to posting next... which should be fairly soon, I hope.'

Prescot, Arizona and the Home of Dr. Evil

Stream of Nonsense continues...

Did you know that Dr. Evil has a modern and spacious Southwestern Headquarters? It would seem like he does, judging by this visual:

You mean somebody just felt it would be a good idea to build a house looking like this!? Arizona Nonsense! I shall continue to choose to think it's Dr. Evil's not-so-secret Southwestern layer...

We were actually in Prescott to catch up with Cat, whose house bore no resemblance to Dr. Evil Properties. But she had lived in Seattle as recently as three years ago, so the Nonsense may not have gotten into her blood stream quite as much yet.

Hi Cat! Did you know Dr. Evil's winter office is just a mile up the road?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Arizona ... Welcome to the Stream of Nonsense

Arizona... it is absolutely a gorgeous place. Sedona, the Grand Canyon, Lake Havasu - all lovely. All weird in their own right, but in wonderful, natural ways. Most of the rest of the state? Stream of Nonsense, for no good reason that I could figure out. Take Yuma - it's a roasting hot, dust-filled, inhospitable little spot lying right where California, Arizona, and Mexico come together. Does it have much of anything going for it? Not as far as I can tell. Yet, just as you start approaching it, you find yourself confronted with vast trailer park encampments filled with hundreds of Snowbird RV's... These would be Northernly retirees who have chosen Yuma, Arizona as an ideal place to spend the winter months. Nonsense, I tell you, Nonsense! At least, the little restaurant where we popped in for lunch had been rated as the best place to propose in Yuma... so the town's got that going for it(?) There's also a sushi restaurant we spotted near the highway... nothing quite like sushi in the Arizona desert to make you visualize horrible and immediate food poisoning... We chose to steer clear...

A bit more of the stream of nonsense, in pictures:

An Arizona Cactus snake

A native Southwestern Dragon


What to do for fun down here

Really, you just can't make this shit up!

And finally, the Arizona coup de grace:

Mark your calendars!

Catch the Gun Show sign in the bottom right?

A bit more detail about the AZ stream of Nonsense in the next couple of posts... And I'm even going to meticulously avoid mentioning any Congresswomen getting shot...

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Red Rocks

A weekend in Vegas - the glitz, the glamor, the spectacular shows, the never ending buffets, the incessant slot machines, the drunken bachelorettes... the music, the neon, the traffic, Barry Manilow watching over your every move... Two days is really all you need in Vegas. I was trying to recount, and this was about my seventh or eighth time here, and I had yet to spent more than three days in this Desert Oasis on any single trip. No reason to change now, so on Day 3, Erica and I picked up our rental car and headed out of the city, aiming towards the Valley of Fire.

The name 'Valley of Fire' doesn't exactly exude calm and tranquility, but after just over 48 hours on the Strip, it seemed the most peaceful place on Earth. Well, that may be an exaggeration - I actually found the place to be spectacularly wild and jagged, but it is amazing how a mere 45 minute drive out of the Neon lights of Las Vegas, you end up in what appears to be a remote and quiet nature reserve - the Valley of Fire State Park.

As the name might imply, the park is filled with a variety of rocks, fiery red in color, forming a crazy assortment of jagged and angular shapes, seemingly defying the laws of gravity and the incessant forces of erosion along the way. Highlights of the day:

Erica and I in front of the fiery rocks and blue skies.

Our rental car dominating over the highway, as the asphalt pierces through the rock formations

The Balancing Rock

The Elephant Rock. Can be a little hard to tell in the picture, but it looks an awful lot like a big, thick elephant trunk when you get close

This isn't a named formation. I think it looks an awful lot like the guardian aliens early on in the 'Fifth Element'

The Valley of Fire seemed a good start... time to step up the spectacular though - enter Arizona: specifically, enter the Grand Canyon. In order to catch the sunrise over the Grand Canyon (and come on, you gotta!), we needed to get to the South, more spectacular, rim by about 6 in the morning. Given a little more time, or a little more common sense, one might choose to just come down during the day and stay the night - we left Vegas at midnight and were at the Canyon by 5AM. What did you expect? Safety Third: Go Hard or go Home!

On the way out of Vegas: Erica at the Cathouse in Luxor... Don't ask!

Cat, a friend we'd be staying with in Prescott the following day (ahh, Cat ... Cathouse ... I'm such a genius...) had warned, somewhat cryptically, to expect snow at the Canyon(!) - I chose not to make much of it... We're way down South in Arizona, and it's late March already anyway - what snow can there possibly be to talk about!? The tops of the nearby mountains must've gotten a light sprinkling, and everyone's just freaked out, right!? Not so much...

As we drove through the night, the scenes outside my window evolved from 'light sprinkling' to 'there's several inches of snow on the road now' to 'Holy Crap, are we in a blizzard!?' Good news: if you want to save your $25 park admission fee, arrive at the gates at 4:30 in the morning in the middle of a blizzard. Bad news: Temperature at sunrise: 11 degrees! (yes, Fahrenheit) Making it all worthwhile, the pictures:

The first glimpses of the sun washing over the Western slopes of the Canyon just after 6AM!

The views becoming clearer as the clouds thin out

The Grand Canyon Panorama spectacular!

So, yeah, it was a bit more than a 'light sprinkling in the mountain tops.' Several inches at the Southern Rim was more like it, and that brings us to the view ... which was incomparably spectacular as the first rays of Sun broke through the clouds!

The last time I'd seen the Canyon was on a stiflingly hot day in the middle of June. No snow, no sunrise, no hiking (not even any digital pictures!)... still quite awesome, but the big ol' hole in the ground improved on all counts this time through:

Looking out into the Canyon, snow covering the upper reaches of the walls

Erica, pleased to be here (and happy that it's warmed up since sunrise!)

Merely an optical illusion - I'm not really hanging over the abyss... even if I'd been told it looked a lot like I was.

The South Kaibab Trail took us about halfway down towards the bottom of the Canyon, making me really regret not having done any hiking the last trip! And wanting to come back for even more...

And this brought us to lunch time. The restaurant selection was surprisingly sparse - the quality did not disappoint though, as we headed back to El Tovar, the same lodge where we had had a delicious breakfast at 7 that morning. What was a concern ... was the 170 miles worth of highway that still still lay between us and Prescott. A drive through the night, an hour of [blissful] sleep in the car, a couple of hours of hiking in the fresh mountainous air, followed by a wholly rewarding Beef Stroganoff for lunch ... a good recipe for a four hour drive this does not make. We set off anyway - Erica left firmly in charge of making sure I stayed awake. Geography - good choice, Erica! In fact, we were sufficiently certain of my awakedness to feel compelled to make one last little detour on the way down and catch a glimpse of Sedona - a magical, spiritual, hippie tourism center in the center of the state, renowned for its mystical energy vortexes and [deservedly] famous for the giant rock formations invading the town from all sides:

The Courthouse Butte, presiding over its surroundings. All the biggest rocks have been named around here

Chapel of the Holy Cross, spectacularly nestling itself in amongst the giant rocks

This shot was particularly indicative - Sedona isn't a park, a preserve, not even some remote, inaccessible area - the rocks are just right all over town. At times, simply flanking the highway.

And finally, later that evening we reached Prescott, caught up with Cat, sharing a bottle of wine, and were rewarded with a full night's sleep. Next day's adventures in a post to follow!