Barbara and I decided to take our mothers on a trip to the Grand Canyon. This developed into a 10 day trip around the Northern Arizona region. Friday April 4: "Getting there is half the fun" I was the only one with a confirmed seat flying to Las Vegas. So I took Barbara and her mother to the airport at 5:00 in the morning. They got to Atlanta and met my mom, and they all had standby seats to Vegas at 9:25PM that night - LONG layover. So they began shopping for earlier vacant seats and found them. This let them sightsee in Vegas most of the day. After a couple of trips to the airport, they managed to get all of their luggage. I left Fort Lauderdale around 5PM and got in to Vegas a little past midnight. I picked up the rental van and headed into town. I was so amazed at the strip at night that I just drove up and down Las Vegas Blvd. for about a half an hour. Finally I drove up to the front of our hotel, Circus Circus, which I had seen blinking in the night from the airport. After walking through about a quarter mile of casino, I finally found the registration desk. I picked up a key and hauled my luggage through another casino up to the room. Everyone was asleep except my mother, who lay awake worrying about me. The first words I heard were, "It's about time!" Now she could finally go to sleep. Saturday April 5: "Hardhats required" Saturday was our only whole day in Vegas, so we decided to head to Hoover Dam. Of course, this was a wonderland for an engineering type like me. The drive to the dam is beautiful and gave us our first close up look at the massive mountains made of red rock. When you come over the ridge at Boulder City, you get a wonderful panoramic view of Lake Mead, which is the product of the dam. Then you wind down a steep and curvy mountain road into Black Canyon where Hoover dam resides. We drove across the dam and took a few photos from the Arizona side. Then I dropped off the females at the dam entrance and went off to locate a parking place. In the tourist center, we discovered that a new "hardhat" tour had been added which is more of a "behind the scenes" tour of the dam. My mom opted out of this because she was concerned that the huge generators might disturb her pacemaker. But she is great at making friends with strangers and wound up talking with just about everybody who walked by to pass the time. During the tour, we saw the first holes drilled that were the beginning of the dam construction site. They were drilled to blast a tunnel that was used to reroute the river around the site of the dam during construction. We walked through these 50' diameter tunnels and saw the 30' penstock pipe that now carries water to the turbines. In the tunnel deep inside the canyon wall, we could hear the rumble of water power under our feet. We saw the 200 ton generators up close - I walked right up to one and read the spec plate: 110000 horsepower each! And there were about 17 of these. They supply power for the region and cities as far away as Los Angeles. We also went under the generator room where the actual turbines are housed. This required not only a hardhat but also hearing protection because there was such a loud cacophony. I was amazed to see the 2 foot diameter steel shaft spinning at exactly 180 RPM and all the control machinery required to keep it going. Occasionally, you could see the system make tiny adjustments to the way the water was flowing. We also saw the transformers, a staircase that runs the whole height of the dam (stairs as far as you can see in both directions), visited the spot where part of "Vegas Vacation" was filmed, and looked out the grate in the center of the dam (down the river). The latter required walking through a tunnel where I had to stoop over, and to cross over a floor grate that covered a vertical shaft that went down as far as the eye could see. As you can imagine, some in our party had a little hesitation in walking over this. It was a great tour and gave us a better appreciation for the immensity of this project. After all the walking, we were glad to get back in Vegas to our hotel, Circus Circus. This hotel was so large that there was a tram from the front to the back. It had three huge casinos, a wonderful buffet (which didn't do me a bit of good since I was still on the mule diet), an arcade, and a continuous set of circus acts. The amazing thing about the Vegas strip is the way all the hotels try to out-do each other. Every hotel has its own "draw." We went down to Caesar's Palace and had a walk around. It is amazing all the effort they put into decorating this place. There are statues and ornate columns and ceilings that go on and on. Click for full picture The females decided to play the nickel slot machines for a while. I tried to help out but didn't do any good. Barbara hit a jackpot and got about 90 coins out of the machine, but then sat there and put them all back in. Didn't anyone take statistics in school? Sunday April 6: "Get your kicks on Route 66" This was the day we totally lost track of what time it was. We crossed into Arizona from Pacific time to Mountain time, plus changed to Daylight Savings time, but oops - Arizona stays on standard time. Good thing we were not on a schedule! Just driving in Arizona is mind-boggling. There are unusual mountains, rock formations, and desert life everywhere. We took the scenic route, old US 66 that winds from Chicago to LA. We passed close to the Grand Canyon, and since there was a little road on the map, we decided to take it and see this part of the canyon. We were still over 100 miles downstream from where all the sightseeing takes place. We started out on pavement, then gravel, then just a dirt road. It kept getting more and more isolated and we eventually were driving through cow pastures in two narrow ruts. We had to drive over some rocky hills that really put our minivan to the test. With a little careful maneuvering and LOTS of stern advice from the females, I managed to get us within sight of the Grand Canyon. This portion of the canyon is very different from what we would eventually see. There is no sudden dropoff, but rather rolling grassy hills that just gradually give way to the erosion. We could see the majestic North Rim rising up about 10 miles away. We were there about 1 hour before sunset, so it was quite a sight. We bumped, slid, spun, and dust-trailed our way back to Route 66 and continued on into Flagstaff, where we found snow on the ground. We checked into our timeshare that would serve as base for the week and made ourselves at home. Monday April 7: "America's largest ghost city" We got a late start, so we decided not to make the 80 mile trip up to Grand Canyon this day. Instead, we went west from Flagstaff and toured Verde valley, Sedona, Oak Creek Canyon, Clarkdale, Cottonwood, and Jerome. Sedona had charm and beauty in a class by itself. There was a nice mountain stream that cut out a lush green canyon with lots of sheer cliffs and amazing formations. Again, just driving to anywhere is amazing in itself. We popped out of the mountains and crossed the huge Verde Valley (about 25 miles across) and climbed up a mountain on the other side to Jerome. This was a quaint little town, about half of which has been abandoned. It was a spectacular view of the valley, and some houses seem to precariously hang onto the edge of the cliffs. It was a mining town, where tons of copper, silver, and gold had been produced, but when the mine shut down, so did the town. We saw all the old mining equipment all over the town and the old mine shaft. We visited the Jerome Hotel, which was undergoing a total renovation project. If you want to stay off the beaten path in Arizona, Jerome hotel is the place for you. It is like stepping back in time with its antique but functional operator switchboard and manual open-cage elevator. From Jerome, we worked our way over to I-17 and back up to Flagstaff as the sun was setting. Tuesday April 8: "We're finally here!" Tuesday was our first visit to Grand Canyon National Park. Well, what can I write? Words and even pictures do not do this wonder justice. Theodore Roosevelt was right: every American should see this. It is so amazing that you can just stand there for hours and look. Of course, my mom had a fit every time I got within 20 feet of the edge. Click for full picture There is just so much to see and you get a different view from each point along the south rim. The view also changes with each position of the sun. We worked our way west along the South Rim, making an important stop at Bright Angel Lodge, where I weighed in for the mule trip. I passed with flying colors at 193 pounds, where I was at 210 five weeks prior. We also let Barbara and my mom take a good look at the mules and the trail. Barbara and I walked down Bright Angel Trail (one of the two main trails into the Canyon from the South Rim) for about 1/4 mile. She didn't feel comfortable with the mule ride. There was no way my mother would try it. Barbara's mother didn't even consider it, so it was up to me to conquer the canyon! After 5 weeks of unlikable dieting and walking or cycling into work, there was nothing that was going to stop me from going. But my actual trip wasn't until Saturday. We booked a helicopter ride for around 5PM that day when the colors would be nice. None of us had ever been in a helicopter before, so that alone was quite an adventure. We had a great pilot. It was such a strange feeling to just lift off the ground, slowly turn, and then hover about 10 feet off the ground. We gradually moved to the "take off" portion of Grand Canyon Airport and then "whoosh!" Suddenly we lifted and accelerated at the same time. We flew about 200 feet over the trees of Kaibab forest. It seemed like we were just floating along very casually, but our speed over ground was about 90 MPH during the 45 minute flight, so we covered quite a bit of territory. They provide you with headphones that both subdue the noise and provide gentle instrumental music to help you get in the mood to view something awesome. An occasional soft voice narrates what you are seeing in whatever language you prefer. It helps take your mind off of how many moving parts are required to keep you in the air, not to mention that most of them seem to be moving in the wrong direction. Approaching the rim is a whole new experience. You suddenly go from 200 feet off the ground to 4000 feet off the ground. Then there is so much to see and it all changes minute by minute. This is another one of those things that words just cannot describe. We saw a completely new part of the canyon, none of which we could see from where we had been on the south rim. Moving over the canyon gives you a perspective of the dimension of everything that is really cool. We saw the junction of the Little Colorado River and the [big] Colorado River. We got a close look at the North Rim, towering 1500 feet higher than the South Rim, which was now about 12 miles behind us. This was our closest look at the snow-covered North Rim, since the road that goes there is closed until May. We made a big circle over the "East Canyon" area and returned to Grand Canyon Airport for a very comfortable landing. This trip was well worth the money and exceeded our expectations. We quickly drove back into Grand Canyon National Park for the sunset in the canyon. We continued west along the Rim all the way to Hermit's rest, which is the end of the road. From there you can see about another 20 miles downstream and see point after point jutting out into the vast space over the river. We went back to Pima Point and watched the awesome sunset from there. Wednesday April 9: "Dust" This was our longest driving day. We left Flagstaff and headed northeast to Monument Valley, at the Arizona-Utah border. Our first stop was just north of Flagstaff at Sunset crater. This was a place that has both a volcano and a huge lava flow (now cold) that looked like nothing we had ever seen. It was very jagged, all black and desolate. We also saw a mountain - or actually a half a mountain because the other half had been blown away. The remaining face was covered with black basalt and was so smooth that it looked like it had been paved with asphalt. An adjacent mountain was completely covered with basalt, so that it looked the same way. Only one or two trees had managed to make their home in the scorched hillside. Very unusual. Click for full picture We then passed through the Painted Desert, where you could see sandy plains for miles. They were surrounded by red rock cliffs and interesting formations. Truly a geologist dream! Once-level sedimentary layers were now tilted as a testimony to the regional up-faulting that had occurred, possibly caused by continental drift. We crossed lots of bridges over creek beds, but didn't see a drop of water. It was dry and windy, and we saw our share of dust storms. There were places where the sand was crossing the road in a steady stream, causing a spooky wavy effect. At one point we were in a "white out" of dust such that visibility was only about 20 feet. But being the valiant tourist that we are, we pressed on to our goal, passing through the tiny towns of Gray Mountain, Tuba City, Cow Springs, Kayenta, Rough Rock, Many Farms, Steamboat Canyon, Holbrook, and Winslow. Monument Valley is the place where countless western movies have been filmed. The monuments are very big, and all have flat tops that are all level with each other. Likewise, the valley below is almost flat. We visited Gouldings trading post, which served as a base in the old west and headquarters for Hollywood filming. Click for full picture Much of the original house was preserved, which our mothers really enjoyed touring. The post was built right into the corner of one of the monuments, so you could get an up-close and personal feel for the sheer cliffs, bizarre erosion formations, and balanced boulders. Turning back south, we made a circle out toward Chinle, home to Canyon de Chelley. (pronounced day shell-A) This is a beautiful canyon. Of course, it is not on the scale of the Grand Canyon, but has an unusual plain at the bottom of the canyon. The plain was once inhabited by an Indian tribe, which cultivated it and built homes in the cliffs back around the 1100's. Some of their buildings still remain down in the cliff. It was very windy and rather cold at this canyon, so I did most of the sight-seeing while the females stayed in the heated van. We took a scenic road back to Flagstaff, but unfortunately the sun set and we were not able to see whatever it was that was out there to see. Thursday April 10: "That cactus is HUGE!" We made a road trip to Phoenix to visit some friends of Barbara's mother. We took the scenic route south through Strawberry, Pine, Payson, Rye, and Sunflower. We saw the world's largest travertine arch (grown by mineral and organic deposits, not eroded), Tonto Natural Bridge. It is so large that you can be on top of it and not even know it. The top of the arch is covered with trees and bushes, and the tunnel underneath is about 400 feet long. Under the arch is cut a scenic little canyon surrounded by steep mountains. The road down to the national park is a constant 14% grade. The stream of water that deposits the minerals and plant matter that built the arch still flows. Even today this huge natural bridge is ever expanding. About half way to Phoenix, we began to see a few Sagura cactus. At first it was just a few here and there. Then suddenly they were everywhere. These are the large cactus that look like big green pipes that you see in the movies and on the Arizona license plate. In stark contrast to driving through the middle of nowhere the day before, we spent what seemed like hours in the heavy Phoenix traffic. Also amazingly different was the need for air conditioning as opposed to the snow we had left that morning. The difference is not so much in the 136 miles south we had traveled as in the 3000+ feet of elevation we had come down. Barbara's mothers' friends, Grace and Walter, were great hosts and fed us a nice home-cooked meal. They have a beautiful home in Sun City West. The yard doesn't have a single blade of grass, but does have lots of interesting desert plants. Their neighbor has a Sagura cactus that is about 30 feet tall with lots of arms coming out of it. Click for full picture These cacti do not put out an arm until after about 75 years of growth. We all had our picture taken next to it, thinking - "you don't see anything like this in Florida!" Friday April 11 "Whew!" Since we have been traveling a great deal every day this week, and since we had to get up at 4:30 the next day, we decided to just take it easy this day. I took my mom to see Meteor Crater, about 30 miles east of Flagstaff. This is the best preserved crater on earth, since it almost never rains there. It is in the middle of flat desert. When the meteor hit at the speed of about 30,000 MPH, it created a hole deep enough to hold the Washington monument and large enough to hold 20 football fields. Rocks and minerals were vaporized or melted by the crash. Once again there are lots of weird formations in the area. The rest of the day we just goofed off around the condo and relaxed. We did go for a short drive through the town of Flagstaff. It's a small city where everyone is friendly. We went out to the movies that night. Saturday April 12 "Wilford" Mule day had finally arrived. I have been dieting and exercising for 6 weeks in preparation for this wonderful day. I had carefully read over the information they sent me to prepare. Today the females were very patient and cooperative with me since I had them up at 4:30AM. I was due at Bright Angel Lodge, 80 miles away, at 6:30AM. It was cold that morning. To an thin-blooded Floridian like me, it was extremely cold. I was wearing two of everything. Two hats, two pair of socks, two jackets, etc. I felt like the Michelin man I had so many layers on. The park rangers are very gracious to the mulers. First they take you out to the overlook and point out where you are going. They keep you out in the wind long enough to see if you'll be able to stand the cold. They tell you that you will have to whip the heck out of your mule if it lags behind the group. They check your equipment to make sure everything will be tied on. Sitting on the back of a mule, I would have to handle a camcorder, a camera, a water flask, kleenex for my runny nose, and oh yes - the reins. All this with Barbara's ski gloves on. They took us up to the corral and explained everything to us again very carefully. They told us that even after we get on the mule that if we chickened out they would refund our money. They told us that most of the mules will walk along the outside edge of the trail "because they want us to have a good view." Then they loaded us up in groups of about 7. That was when I met Wilford, my mule for the day. Click for full picture Wilford turned out to be a great mule. I only had to whip him one time at the beginning of the trip. Once he knew I meant business, he was totally cooperative. But Wilford did not like the idea of just doing what all the other mules were doing. Whenever we came to a fork in the trail, Wilford always went the opposite way of everyone else. But once I caught on to his adventurous spirit, we got along fine. That first hairpin turn in the trail is the toughest one. At that point we were not yet accustomed to that part about the "outside edge of the trail." When you are sitting on the mule, you only really see the mule's neck and a head in front of you. Well, when the mule walks up to the turn, if his front feet are on the outside edge of the trail, his head is hanging out over the edge. This gives the rider the illusion that he is just going to go right over the edge. It takes a few turns to get used to this. After two turns, I realized that it was standard operating procedure for the mule and that we weren't going to tumble down the canyon together. So I was able to look around and the amazing scenery that we were passing through. Click for full picture Most of the other mulers were looking down to try to see that the mule didn't step off the edge. One lady in our group was so terrified that after 10 minutes she got off her mule and walked back up to the top. Going down the trail to Plateau Point is a fantastic experience. You get such a better appreciation for what you are looking at when you can actually go down in there. There is so much to see along the trail that you cannot see from the top. There are sheer cliffs, cracks, fissures, boulders, and Indian markings to marvel at along the way. When you look down from the rim, everything more than about 1/2 mile away sort of blends into the same dimension. But when you pass down through the canyon, all the layers and canyons-within-the-canyon come to life in a new perspective. Wilford required no control on my part (except for the forks), so I could just let go of the reins and snap pictures, record with the camcorder, or just gawk. We reached our destination, Plateau Point a little behind schedule. We spent a half an hour there, which included lunch. I gulped down my lunch because there was so much to see. We were about 200 feet above the Colorado River. The point is the convergence of two sheer cliffs. There is a great view of the river and the trail that leads down to it. It is also neat to look up at all that you were looking down on from the rim. There is a little pinnacle next to the point with about a 10x20 foot area on top. Of course, I had to climb up on this thing and get my picture taken. Click for full picture Our 30 minutes went by real fast, and it was time to head back up the trail. I gave my apple to Wilford as thanks in advance for the job he was about to do. When you are down at the bottom of those cliffs and look up, you think it is impossible to ever get out. After a quick stop for the bathroom at Indian Garden, we began our trip upward. We didn't mess around, because there was some nasty weather rolling in from the North Rim. Going up, we have to stop about every 30 minutes for the mules to rest. Although the weather was quite pleasant at Plateau Point, it kept getting colder and colder as we gained altitude. The last 30 minutes of the trip it was snowing so hard that we could only see for about 1/4 mile. As we approached the top, we could not see any of where we had just come from. The South rim was also fogged in, so the people on top couldn't see anything at all. The mule ride is well worth the effort and the money. I had an experience that I will never forget. I would recommend it to anyone who visits the Grand Canyon. While I was on my mule adventure, the females went for a ride along the South Rim toward the east, which we had not yet seen. They were waiting for me when I got back to the corral. It sure felt good to get out of the snow and into the heated van! Since the weather had turned sour and we were so tired from getting up a 4:30AM, we decided to head back to Flagstaff. While Don was having his Mule ride, we all had lunch with a cousin of Don's that lives at the Grand Canyon. Her name is Karen and she is a nurse at the clinic. Her husband Matt is a park ranger at the Grand Canyon. She is so nice. We had a nice lunch with her and got to know her. Sunday April 13 "Arizona Strip" Sunday was our day to check out of Flagstaff. So we loaded up the van and headed for Utah. We crossed the Colorado River at Marble Canyon. Amazingly, this was the first place that could be crossed by car upstream from the Hoover Dam, over 100 miles away as the crow flies and about 300 miles down the river, downstream from the Grand Canyon and Lake Mead. Around Marble Canyon is a vast plateau that is surrounded on 3 sides by huge cliffs of red rock (Echo Cliffs and Vermillion Cliffs). After crossing the river, we learned that we were in the "Arizona strip" - the part of Arizona that is cut off from civilization by the Colorado River. There are no cities in the Arizona Strip - just tiny towns and mostly open land. We visited Pipe Spring National Monument, which is a fort/trading post once owned by the Mormon church. It was a ranch built around a spring (water is quite scarce, so a spring is like a gold mine). It supplied food to the Mormon community in St. George, Utah. At the time it was built, they thought they were in Utah, but later discovered that they missed the state line by about 5 miles. Our mothers especially enjoyed the tour of the old fort with lots of interesting homemade quilts, looms, spinning wheels, Arizona's first telegraph, and dairy equipment. We also came up on an unexpected surprise at a tiny town called "Cliff Dwellers, Arizona," not even on the map. There is hardly anything there, but there is a mesa from which boulders have fallen down. Keep in mind that everywhere you look in Arizona, there is a form of geology that you have not seen before. After these boulders fell, most of the supporting dirt eroded away, leaving them miraculously balanced on pedestals. Cliff-dwelling Indians had made their homes in the shelter of these boulders, adding to the intrigue. My mother especially enjoyed this unexpected attraction since she has an interest in cliff-dwellers. We crossed the state line into Utah and then passed through the city of Hurricane and on into St. George. We passed within 10 miles of Zion National Park, but sadly it was too late to see it. If you are ever in the area, don't miss Zion. If you saw the movie "Broken Arrow," much of the footage was shot in Zion Park. We settled into the Hampton Inn at St. George. I was very glad to discover that they had a jacuzzi, of which I was in dire need after the mule ride. I spent about an hour blasting my aching muscles with the hot water. We went out to dinner at the Red Lobster and took it easy. St. George was a very pleasant little city. Everyone we met there seemed especially nice. We had to get some cardboard boxes from the hotel manager because we had accumulated so much stuff (like hardhats, dirt, rocks, literature) to take back that we couldn't fit it all in the suitcases. Monday April 13 "Where are my nickels?" We got up Monday and packed one last time such that everything could go on the plane. This time, we couldn't just throw it in the van and go. After breakfast, we headed down I-15 toward Vegas. En route, we passed over the northwest corner of Arizona for 29 miles. Our last time to see this amazing state. It had even more wonders to the eyes to offer us on the last day. As we approached the Nevada border, we passed through another incredible mountain range different from anything we had seen thus far. Steep canyons had been cut by the Virgin River through these dark mountains and they built the interstate to follow the path of the river. When you looked down the road, it seemed to just disappear into the mountain and it didn't look like there was any way to get through. After winding down and down, we finally came out onto a plain and worked our way down to Las Vegas, which was clearly visible from 20 miles away. We arrived just in time for lunch and went to the buffet at the Excalibur. I was so glad the mule diet was over! In one meal, I had chicken, fish, beef, turkey, and pork, plus about 3 meals worth of side dishes. At the buffet, they give you a plate that is about 50% larger than your typical kitchen plate. Boy did I have fun eating that meal - definitely got more than my $5 worth! We enjoyed a few of the free shows at the Excalibur and contributed a few nickels in the casino to help pay for our huge meal. Then we moved on to the next hotel, New York New York. It is built to look like the NY skyline, complete with the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge. We blew another dollar or so in their massive casino, and walked around to see what they had. They have a roller coaster called the Manhattan Express, fashioned after a NY taxi ride. The ride was out of the question for Barbara and my mother, so I went with Barbara's mother. Well, it was the roughest coaster I've ever been on. It pulls you down so fast that you stomach flips. After a few loops and twists, the track rolls over 180 degrees while traveling horizontally, so that you are hanging upside down. Then a half loop brings you back to upright again. It'll mix you up! From NYNY we went over the the MGM Grand. Tossed in a few more nickels and looked around in amazement. This hotel has an amusement park. Next we went over to the Monte Carlo and looked around in that hotel. Barbara and my mother couldn't pass up the nickel slots. Finally, my mother hit the jackpot and got about 100 nickels. I took her nickels away from her before she could be tempted to give them all back. I went to the change counter to convert them into bills, then gave them back to her if she promised to take them home with her - at least she could tell everyone she won. We took a taxi down to the Luxor. I think this is the most unusual hotel we saw. It is the 2nd largest hotel in the world and is built in the shape of a pyramid, decorated in an Egyptian theme. The hotel rooms are in the walls of the pyramid and the center is a huge atrium with the casino and attractions, including an IMAX theater. This atrium is large enough to hold nine Boeing 747 planes. My favorite part of this hotel is the elevators. Think about it - you can't put them at the outside base of the pyramid because the building narrows as it rises. You can't put it them in the middle because the walls don't connect in the middle. The elevators in the Luxor start at the 4 corners at the base and move at a 39 degree angle upwards toward the tip. (You know what a propeller-head I am - I used to dream about elevators that worked like this when I was a child.) We took the moving sidewalk from the Luxor back to the Excalibur, had a light dinner, then headed for the airport. I turned in our rental van with 2400 more miles than it had when we picked it up. Well, if you've had the patience to read this far, you have a good idea of what our vacation was like. I would recommend a visit to the area to anyone. So many things are beyond description, and even photos and videos do not do them justice. We are all so grateful that we had an opportunity to make this trip. It was one we will never forget.