Our Southwestern Trip, August 2001

Monday, August 6: We spend much of the day packing. I order a taxi to take us to JFK tomorrow morning and chat with Leon’s dispatcher who just returned from Vegas and insists on giving me all the knowledge he gained – where to play, which bus to take, where to eat, etc. I didn’t have the heart to tell him we were not planning to spend our time at the crap tables.

Tuesday, August 7: The taxi arrives at 6 am and the trip goes smooth as silk to JFK to Las Vegas, to car rental and off to the Grand Canyon. We arrive in Tusayan around 6 pm, check into hotel, then head off to the Park to check out the sights. It seems quite crowded to us, although all of the merchants grouse that the tourist traffic is way down. The weather is quite cool and mostly cloudy. Somehow, I had expected that our only weather problem would be grappling with sunburn but it turns out that, with the exception of Lake Powell and Las Vegas, the weather is fairly cool and often overcast. We look over the rim – yes, definitely Grand. Off to our hotel, dinner and an early night.

Looking into the canyon

Wednesday, August 8: Back to the Park, where we diddle around a bit before parking near El Tovar Lodge. I have ruled that the only way to experience the true delights of the GC is to get away from the Rim Trail, where all the tourists are, to the trails that dip below the rim and head towards the mighty Colorado. We walk along the Rim Trail to Bright Angel Trail, then down the trail into the GC for about 1 ½ mile to a rest-stop where we lunch and return, the mighty Colorado being nowhere in sight. It seems that most tourists have had the same insight and the trail is still quite crowded as well as being somewhat steep and dangerous and filled with mule poop. When we turn around, the going gets hotter and harder and tempers fray – no-one is speaking to me by the time we get back to the top. To improve the morale of the troops, I hurriedly organize an expedition to check out the El Tovar gift shop – and who do we see there but Sir Paul, former Beatle!!! He works the crowd very skillfully, chats with adoring fans, and sings happy birthday to 6-yr old girl. Boy, will she have something to tell her grandchildren! I try to avoid bothering him but Louise misses him altogether and is pissed off with me for not summoning her. We dine at El Tovar – it rains hard outside but the food is good and I am forgiven. And so to bed.

Thursday, August 9: Off to Moqui Lodge where we go on a 2 hour trail ride. The horses are docile to a fault, the weather is very nice and a good time is had by all. No Canyon views, though. Our cowboy, Jim, who used to be a dairy farmer in Wisconsin, says that he thinks the best way to see the canyon is by air, so afterwards we call Air Star and book a scenic flight for tomorrow. We return to the park and try to take the shuttle bus westward along the rim to Hermit’s Rest. We eventually succeed, but we have to wait over half an hour to get on a bus. Supposedly the shuttle bus system is a great improvement over the dreadful traffic jams they used to have when private cars were allowed to drive at will, but it seems like a disaster to us. Whatever happened to the good old American wisdom of just building a bigger road? Discouraged, we go back to Tusayan and romp in the pool all afternoon.

Friday, August 10: First, we pack up our stuff then off to GC airport (which is small, although there are a zillion small planes and helicopters in the air at all times), then into small Cessna for a 50 minute ride, which is sensational. It is just the four of us and the pilot, whose name is Tony the pilot, to distinguish him from Toni the passenger. There is a canned audio program on the headphones, complete with portentous music, but the perspective on the GC is unbeatable. (Later, we hear that a tourist helicopter crashed that same day and killed almost everyone on board which gives us a new perspective on aerial tourism.)

The canyon from the air

When we return, we check out and head for Page, which takes us all the way down the East rim drive (most of which is still open to private cars), stopping occasionally for assorted awe-inspiring sights. Much of the drive to Page is through the Navajo res which looks very benighted and poor, although there is also some really wild scenery and we also witness a couple of violent storms featuring some truly bizarre rainbows. One of these is kind of a rain stump – a multi-colored glow at the horizon, not extending any way up into the sky. Weird!

We arrive in Page and check into our hotel, Louise suffering from cramps something awful. The girls and I wander around town and see an Indian dance on the village green, put on by the municipality to wow the tourists. The girls join in one dance but pronounce me a chicken for not doing the same.

Saturday, August 11: The beginning of the Lake Powell Follies. We go over to the boatyard where the houseboat is kept and are given a cursory walk-though by Christopher who is eager to leave us and go meet his fiancée. He gives directions to the launch point at Antelope Point which we screw up, taking an incredibly circuitous route to the launch ramp. We finally arrive at the launch point. I stand on the boat and try to direct Louise as she backs the truck into the water, but I have her go too far – the boat floats but the truck is stuck up to the camshafts in water and doesn’t budge until a friendly fellow boater winches her out. I start up the engine and circle around to the dock to pick up the girls – I shift into reverse to stop the boat but the engine cuts out and I realize I am about to ram the boat in front of me. I try to moderate the collision by using my arm as a bumper – probably not the smartest move I could have made. I scrape off a little skin and get the biggest bang on my funny bone ever – it is still tingling an hour later and by the end of the trip my elbow is thoroughly black and blue.

Finally I tie up to the dock and go to drive the truck to the parking lot. What will go wrong now? There are many possibilities for scraping things with the trailer, but I manage to avoid them. Perhaps the worst is behind us? However, when I get back the girls run up to me and tell me excitedly that one of the ropes attaching the boat to the dock became unattached, leaving the boat to drift off sideways into the way of all of the other boats. Fortunately, they were able to display great bravery and skill in retrieving the boat without disaster striking. Well done!

Then it is time to go. I try to start the engine, but it won’t catch. We flag down a passing Park Service boat and the guy pokes around at the engine for a while but to no avail. (I actually feel relieved that it wasn’t some stupid oversight on my part, although I have to admit that it would have gotten us back into operation right away if I had just forgotten to turn on the ignition.) I pronounce it flooded which is a convenient excuse for inaction while it dries out. Louise is unhappy with this course of action and so I try to call Dave Tibbetts, the owner of the boat, from our cell phone. The phone doesn’t seem to work. I try to raise the marine operator to make the call on the boat’s radio but the operator is apparently not operating right now. Finally, Louise dispatches me back onto dry land to seek out a phone. There aren’t any public phones, but I chat with a security guy who lets me use his cell phone. I talk to Dave and he gives me instructions on how to deal with a flooded engine. I return to the boat and triumphantly start it up. All is well!

We leave the launch area and set out for the Dangling Rope marina, which is 3 hours or so away, and which has a refueling station where we can top up the tanks and then look for a nice little cove where we can spend the night. All continues smoothly until I notice that we are shipping too much water which begins to flow into the main cabin. I quickly throttle back and the girls bail until we are back in business again. And we didn’t even sink! We are definitely getting the hang of things!

Louise is not up for navigating because of the combination of severe cramps and worry about imminent death by drowning, so I try to do it while driving. We soon pass Navajo Canyon and I look for the right turn that will put us on the main channel leading up the lake. We go for some hours until it painfully obvious that I have passed it ages ago. Finally, we beach ourselves next to another houseboat and I ask for directions. Yes, indeed, it is way back. And, of course, we are stuck on the beach and require the services of the nice houseboater to shove us off. After going a decent way, we find something promising, but it seems to be a dead end (although later it turns out to have been the main channel), so we keep going back. Finally, we are headed in what seems to be the right direction when we encounter a buoy, saying Navajo Canyon. Oh, well! What a splendid place to spend the night!

We beach the houseboat and set the anchors. It is now 6:30 pm and we are almost back where we started, only we have now used up enough gas so we probably can’t make it to Dangling Rope in the morning. We cook up some noodles and it gets dark. We decide that it is too hot to sleep in the cabin, so we go upstairs to the upper deck. As the sky gets dark, the stars shine brighter than I have ever seen them and a soft wind gently tickles our backs. Toni is entranced and keeps asking me questions about galaxies and the like, which I answer as well as I can, while Louise grumbles about wanting to get to sleep. Then the shooting stars put on a show like nothing in the world. Every 10 minutes or so, one sizzles across the sky, leaving a vivid trail that persists for a few seconds. Incredible!

After an hour or so, the wind suddenly jumps up to gale force. A plastic chair that I had tossed onto the table to make more space for us flies into the air and lands on Madeleine and me. The sky is still quite clear, but it begins to feel much cooler. I try to wrap myself in a single sheet to keep warm. Louise and Toni give up and go down to the cabin. Madeleine and I tough it out a bit longer – the moon comes out and diminishes the star light show and then we surrender too and go below. But what a show it was!

Sunday, August 12: In the morning, I take a walk on the beach and up the red rock slopes. There is evidence of some small critters – I like to think they are coyotes, although who knows. Also dried cow poop but no sign of cows. The rocks are like onions, with many thin and incredibly soft layers and you can hear them crackling when you walk across them. The weather is fine and we feel optimistic that all is now well. We have breakfast, shove off, start the engine (which gives us a hard time, but eventually fires up), and are off again. We head for the marina at Wahweap (a Paiute term meaning bitter water), where we plan to gas up before once again heading for Dangling Rope. The sun shines, the motor purrs and all is well with the world!

We find Wahweap with relatively little trouble and spot the fuelling station. I manage to dock there with no major damage to the houseboat or the dock and we take on a full tank of fuel. I pay the cashier and try to start up the engine – the starter turns it over OK but it refuses to catch. Ah! – perhaps it is flooded again and we should hang around for it to dry out. We leave the boat at the fuelling station and visit the marina store to buy more provisions. When we return, I try the engine again. This time, nothing happens at all – the starter makes not a sound. Hmm – more serious now! We chat with a very nautical-looking fellow who works for Executive Services, which provides services for troubled boaters. His lip curls when he looks at our boat and he says he remembers refloating it after it sank two weeks ago. (Christopher mentioned this little item when he was prepping us as a lesson on the importance of not getting too close to the tour boat wakes.) He snidely points out a resemblance between it and the African Queen. We are not amused, but can’t entirely deny it either.

The African Queen

We call Dave at home from our cell phone, which is now working, but no one is there. We call Christopher and leave a message on his voice mail. We are confident they can guide us into making some simple adjustment to get moving again, but hours go by and we hear nothing. We discuss our situation – we can’t even get a tow back to Antelope Point because Dave will have picked up the truck and trailer. It is hot and everything smells of gas. Finally, Dave returns our call. When we describe what has happened he concludes that the main fuse has probably blown – a simple repair – so he drives over with a replacement fuse. Ah! – we’ll be back in business in nothing flat, now!

Dave checks the fuse and finds it is fine. He then observes that the boat is heavy in the stern, which is causing the exhaust to be below the water, which probably accounts for the trouble we had starting the engine, although he can’t figure out why it should be riding like that. Then he starts hunting for the starting problem which appears to be either a blown starter or starter solenoid. By now, it is getting on for 4 o’clock, so it seems unlikely we will back in business tonight. Dave spots a friend who tows us to the launch ramp and Dave manages to wrestle it onto the trailer.

By now Louise has lost all faith in boats, lakes, God and her husband. When Dave talks optimistically of getting the boat running first thing in the morning, she breaks down and confesses that nothing short of being tortured by Torquemada himself will get her back on the boat. We agree to meet with Dave again in the morning and then go off and get ourselves a motel room. It is comfortable. It is air-conditioned. It doesn’t move and nothing goes wrong with it. We sigh a big sigh of relief. We have an excellent dinner at the Dam Bar and Grille and retire for the night.

Monday, August 13: The night turns out to be a rare one – it rains a couple of inches of rain and is still raining when we meet Dave at the boatyard. We confess that we have no faith in the houseboat and would rather do some day trips on the lake on a power boat. Dave offers us the Sea Swirl, a little (highly reliable – guaranteed!) runabout we can buzz around on, see the sights and go water-skiing. We decide that we don’t want to do anything like that in the rain, but maybe tomorrow? Dave also offers the use of a huge houseboat that is sitting in the boatyard – he has sold most weeks on the boat as interval ownership but it is not in use for the current week. This will save us having to hunt down hotel rooms and save Dave from having to pay us for them. So we end up spending days on a houseboat, not going anywhere. It is a decent setup – good size bunks, fridge, propane stove, bathroom with shower – but it gradually becomes clear to us that nothing works quite the way we would like it to. There are some regular electric appliances such as a TV, Mr. Coffee, microwave and so on, but we are currently on battery power, which is 12 volts DC, so none of them work. The fresh water tank is empty and the only way to get drinking water is to descend the ladder to the ground, go over to a faucet in the ground and fill up a pot. The toilet and sink work off lake water, which is normally pumped in from the lake, but which is now being pumped out of a bucket. The bucket has to be refilled periodically from a hose connected to the faucet in the ground and the pump uses too much battery power to be left on all the time. The light switches are too high for the girls to reach, so the lights tend to be left on all the time. Then the batteries run down and the refrigerator goes off and our meat spoils. It is also too hot in the bunks and too cold on the upper deck. But, hey! who’s complaining?

We decide to devote today to doing all the little things you need to do – buy postcards, do the laundry, and so on. In the afternoon, we go on a tour of the Dam which is educational and quite entertaining. By the end of the day, the rain has stopped after dumping about 3 inches of rain over the past 24 hours, which is half of Page’s average of 6 inches per year.

The dam from the bridge The dam from the base

Tuesday, August 14: After a reasonable night on the houseboat, we pile into Dave’s truck again with the Sea Swirl in tow and head for Antelope Point. The weather is now back to Page standard deep blue sky and balmy breezes. Louise backs the trailer into the water, the boat’s engine starts first time and we are soon neatly tied up at the dock. I park the truck in the lot, return to the boat and we are off for our adventure. To our amazement, everything seems to work fine. The boat starts up every time and we find that, armed with a handy nautical map of the lake we obtained at the Dam gift shop, we can actually find our way around the lake with only a minimum of missteps. We zip up the lake at a respectable speed, stop for a swim and then again for lunch. We pass Dangling Rope marina and turn down the canyon towards Rainbow Bridge. The canyon itself is amazing – quite narrow, with almost vertical red rock walls. At the end is Rainbow Bridge – the biggest natural rock bridge in the world, standing nearly 300 feet high and wide. Excellent!

We head back to Dangling Rope to gas up and then start back home. It is about 4:30 and we go straight on back to make sure we get off the lake before dark. We are back at Antelope Point by 5:30 and we actually manage to get the boat on the trailer, with only an insignificant $50 worth of damage to the propeller from banging it on the bottom. Most triumphant all around!!!

Rainbow Bridge

Wednesday, August 15: Louise is feeling a bit sun-burned and we decide it would be nice to stay away from the lake for another day. So we pile into town, buy some useless trinkets and sign up for a tour of Antelope Canyon. This involves taking a Jeep to the res near Antelope Point, paying another fee to the Navajo, and bumping along to the Canyon, which is also called Corkscrew Canyon. It is a slot canyon, with only a small crack at the top but opened up into fantastic shapes lower down by years of work by the wind and the rain. (On Monday, they had closed the Canyon because of the danger of flash floods – they lost a pretty large party to a flash flood some years ago.) Very dramatic and photographable.

Antelope Canyon

Thursday, August 16: Dave has another boat for us to try out – the Sea Ray – because the little runabout has been rented. The new one is heavier and has a big Chevy V8 engine. Off we go and it purrs like a big cat. We have rented a tube in which to tow the girls behind the boat if they misbehave – kind of like keel-hauling. We head for Gunsight Canyon, where we stop, swim, eat and tow the girls, the sound of the engine not quite masking their screams. Let that be a lesson to them! We are all a little bit sunburned, so we are not too sorry when the sky clouds over in the afternoon and we head for Antelope Point. We get the boat on the trailer without any measurable damage and return triumphant. We decide that we have had enough of life on a houseboat – especially one that doesn’t go anywhere – and so we check into a hotel, tired and happy. Louise conks out while I take the girls for some greasy but tasty Mexican food.

Maddi in mid-air

Friday, August 17: We have breakfast and then the girls decide they must go swimming again, so we head down to the hotel pool. ("But didn’t you spend the whole day yesterday in Lake Powell??") Then off to Bryce Canyon, where we are staying at Ruby’s Inn. We register, and then the girls decide that the first order of business should be another swim. ("What!!! Again???") Ruby’s is like Wall Drug, which started as a simple drug store in South Dakota and is now a mega-enterprise covering an entire block and advertised for hundreds of miles in all directions. Ruby’s is a hotel, general store, gas station, gift shop, rock shop, provider of western art, horse rides and helicopter tours, etc, etc, and is located just a mile from the Park.

Saturday, August 18: With some trepidation, I propose a hike in the morning. Louise adds a clever spin – namely, that the girls get to choose the trail, so that they can’t complain if they don’t like it. The girls pick Navajo Loop – an excellent choice that can be completed in a couple of hours in a leisurely fashion. It goes down below the rim but is much less crowded than Bright Angel at the GC and the sights are more strange, though perhaps less Grand. After our hike, we have lunch at Lodge and then go on a drive through the rest of the Park. The drive is pleasant, but we encounter a thunderstorm which restricts our sight-seeing. After dinner, we go to see another colorful remnant of America’s past – a rodeo (put on by Ruby, of course). The riders are mostly kids, with only a couple of real cowboys among them. When it gets to the calf-roping, Madeleine suddenly becomes dreadfully offended and pronounces the whole thing to be animal abuse and we leave.

The rim from Navajo Loop Thor's hammer

Girls on the trail The rim from Navajo Loop
Mini-Bryce Maddi resting
Toni Toni saws some logs

Sunday, August 19: We check out of Ruby’s. Before we go, Louise checks her e-mail and finds that she has a number of rave e-mails from people who have read her interview in the New York Times and are rushing out to buy the book. She checks Amazon and finds that her book has moved up from being ranked over 1 millionth among the titles sold by Amazon to about 87 thousandth!! Way to go, Louise! To celebrate, we go over to the rock shop and buy some rocks, after which we wonder how we are going to get them home. We then set out for Cedar Breaks National Monument. It is a pretty drive with little traffic. We get there around lunchtime and grab some pizza. The elevation is over 10,000 feet and the air is cool and refreshing. We do a short hike around Alpine Lake and encounter some bristlecone pine, which can run more than 1,000 years old. Then we pile back into the car to proceed to St. George, where I think we have reservations. I drive into a Best Western Hotel, the name of which sounds vaguely familiar but the desk clerk doesn’t find us in the ledger. She then calls a couple of dozen hotels before she finally tracks our reservations down at a Quality Inn in Hurricane. Hurricane is close to Zion National Park but the motel is stranded on a fast highway with a backdrop of scrub and cacti. It is a strange, God-forsaken place for a motel. We have dinner in our room and admire a spectacular sunset and go to bed.

Peter and Maddi at motel

Monday, August 20: In the morning, Louise awakes with a dreadful stomach-ache, so we hang around the hotel for a while before setting out for Zion. The park is a 23 mile drive away, but when we get there we find that you cannot drive the road along Zion Canyon but have to park and take shuttle buses. The buses actually work pretty well, unlike the buses in the Grand Canyon. Seems a bit communistic to me, though. We go up to Zion Lodge, have lunch and walk the Emerald Pools trail, which gives nice views of the big lumps around, although the pools themselves are disappointing.

Tuesday, August 21: We check out of the hotel and head up to the other visitor center in the North-west corner of the Park, in Kolob Canyon. This is much more satisfactory – the views are almost as magnificent as Zion Canyon, but there’s very little traffic and no-one interferes with my God-given right to drive through the park.

Louise in Kolob Canyon

Then we head Southwest for Las Vegas. We lose quite a bit of altitude and gain quite a bit of temperature. We drive though downtown and down through the Strip to our hotel, Bally’s. God! What a weird place Las Vegas is! After checking in, we go over to the Bellagio to see "O" – the Cirque du Soleil show done in, above and around a big pool. Awesome! It includes many of the Cirque du Soleil’s typical kinds of acts – contortionists, acrobats with fantastic artistic flair – but the pool venue adds some spectacular new ones. Defies description! We leave stunned.

Wednesday, August 22: Louise checks her e-mail again and gets one from her brother Paul enclosing a very favorable review in the Chicago Tribune. A good omen! We are all put in good moods. We stroll over to Paris, which is attached to Bally’s, to grab some breakfast. Paris includes the Eiffel Tower and other familiar sights, as well as French stores and restaurants. Perhaps in years to come, people will have trouble remembering which came first – Paris in France, Paris in Epcot, or Paris in Las Vegas.

The hotel room is reasonable, but everything else we buy in or out of the hotel is horrendously expensive. The pool is nice – we bask in and around it all afternoon, ordering expensive pool-side drinks and eats. For dinner, Toni and I go to the Bally’s steakhouse while Louise and Madeleine eat in the room. The food is excellent and we also have a roving photographer snap us – turns out very well.

Peter and Toni Girls by the pool

Thursday, August 23: Our last day. We set out for Aladin’s for breakfast at Starbucks. The girls need to go to the bathroom and set off across the Casino to find it. Quite a bit later, they are returned to us by an unsmiling Casino cop who found them loitering by the slots and promptly clapped them in irons. No charges are filed. We pack and check out before heading down to the pool for a last roasting and pricey sandwich. Then to the airport and home.

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