A Sight to Behold

Virgin River Gorge, Arizona

Virgin River Gorge, Arizona

According to my friend David, the coolest part of the trip was up ahead – something about a virgin. No, we’re not talking about a sighting of the Virgin Mary or two species of fish, the Virgin spinedace and the Virgin River desert sucker. We’re talking the Virgin River Gorge, a staggeringly beautiful canyon carved out by the Virgin River in the northwest corner of Arizona. Red and brown cliffs form the steep and overhanging limestone walls of the gorge, a huge draw for rock climbers, hikers and campers, except on a day like today when you could literally fry an egg on the pavement. OMG, the heat! There’s not a wave left in my hair and my forehead is being seared by the hot July sun. But the terrain is stark and bewitching, calling me to take a few more photographs. And I most certainly comply.

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Whew, It’s Hot!

Mojave Desert

Mojave Desert

Back on the road we continued north to Barstow, a California town made famous in songwriter Bobby Troup’s classic American tune “Route 66.” U.S. Route 66, one of the original U.S. highways, ran from Chicago to Los Angeles and was decommissioned in 1985. Troup’s lyrics pay homage to America’s love of the automobile and the lure of romance and freedom found on the open road.

Beyond Barstow the Mojave Desert, home to the Mojave National Preserve, stretched some 22,000 square miles, a vast desert characterized by broad valleys, parallel mountain ranges and little annual precipitation. The outside temperature was well over 32 degrees Celsius (over 90 degrees F) and it wasn’t even noon. In the distance, what seemed like a mirage shimmering in the morning light was in fact Soda Dry Lake, a playa lake formed under arid conditions when water drained into the basin with no outlet to the sea or ocean and quickly evaporated, leaving a crust of minerals such as sodium carbonate. It was a breathtaking sight, an unexpected jewel in the desert expanse.

Nevada state line

Las Vegas was the very antitheses of Soda Dry Lake. The flat afternoon light painted the city in tones of gray. Where was the magic, the sparkling lights, the carnival-like atmosphere I’d seen in photographs and in films? I imagined the riot of color against the night sky and the sound of dice rolling across casino tables as men and women cast their lots for a dream. And in a blur the city was behind us.

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The Rise and Fall of Gas Prices

Chevron gas prices off I-15 in Victorville, Calif.

Chevron gas prices off I-15 in Victorville, Calif.

First pit stop: Victorville, Calif. Regular was priced at $4.39 a gallon, an 18-cent increase over last night’s price in La Mesa. Although David had heard that gas prices would be higher in Utah, we found the least expensive fuel in Cedar City at $4.08 a gallon. In Tremonton, near the Idaho border, gas was priced 11 cents higher than in the southern part of the state. Justin Wolfers, a guest blogger for the New York Times blog Freakonomics, elicited many reader comments on his “taxonomy of concerns” associated with rising gas prices. It’s definitely worth a read and a comment.

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It’s Pitch Dark!

Okay, whose idea was it to rise at 4 a.m.? Not a creature is stirring. Not even the birds are singing! David, a high school friend and professor at San Diego State University, and his family own a cabin in southwestern Montana. And that’s where we’re headed at such an ungodly hour of the morning. We’ll log 1,200 miles on the open road, traveling through six states and two time zones or is it three? Holy Mackerel, it’s too early! My eyes are barely open! With two thermoses of coffee in hand, we hop in David’s Kia and set out for Interstate 15, one of the longest north-south transcontinental highways in the U.S. Before morning light surrenders to dusk we will feel sweltering heat, watch gas prices fluctuate and cast our eyes upon lands swathed in hues of gold, red, copper, and green.

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Connections

The trip west to San Diego from Washington, D.C. was long. Two flight connections, as I skipped across the country, included doing figure eights in a shuttle bus on the tarmac at Reagan National Airport – the driver couldn’t locate our plane – and friendly encounters with fellow travelers. A young girl with blue eyes and a wide, sun-kissed face was on her way to Odon, Ind. She spoke passionately about her small town, a farming community that is home to one of the largest Amish and Mennonite settlements in the Midwest. “I love it,” she exclaimed. She spoke of corn and bean fields, and her excitement about her upcoming junior year in high school, where football and basketball rule. Before I knew it she was off to board her plane; I felt grateful for our brief interlude.

Enroute to San Diego from Philadelphia I sat between a young pregnant woman from Colorado and a totally hip grandmother from Yuma, Ariz. Turns out that the grandmother was born and raised in Russell, Kan., and her mom and former senator Bob Dole are first cousins. Well, that about just knocked off my sandals, except they were already on the floor underneath my seat. I was once again struck by the openness of people – complete strangers. As the plane flew west through cloud banks and over vast tracts of land, I learned about the Cocopah Indian Tribe and that Yuma is known as “The Winter Lettuce Capital of the World.” We talked about Colorado River water rights, immigration and her childhood in Kansas. When the plane touched down in Phoenix, we each said a quick “goodbye,” and made a dash for our connecting flights.

Palm tree in La Mesa.

Palm tree in La Mesa.

Thank goodness the flight to San Diego was short, as I had been up since 5 a.m. The drive to David’s house in La Mesa was liberating after flying across the country. I put my bare feet up on the dashboard and gazed out the open window. Soaring palm trees against intense blue skies and cool breezes reinvigorated me. An evening walk followed by a delicious meal on the balcony was the perfect coda to a day of excellent traveling adventures.

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