Silent Night, Holy Night

Tires crunched through the snow as the SUV inched along the deserted, unmaintained dirt road.  Slowly, tediously, it negotiated the frozen ruts, and when the road finally ended abruptly in a large semi-circular open area, inched gingerly into what appeared to be a parking space.

But appearances could be deceiving in this land, so far from the forced order of civilization where there was a place for everything, and everything in its place.  The steaming engine sighed and  clanked to a stop, and after a moment’s hesitation the doors opened, releasing two passengers into the snowy, empty and completely silent landscape.

Mosaic at El Santuario de Chimayo

“Are you sure we’re in the right place?” my husband asked delicately, after a brief pause during which we took a collective moment to catch our breath and acclimate to the frigid air surrounding us. The cold wind, gentle yet insistent, was alive — creeping with icy tendrils into any unguarded crack or seam in our multiple layers of warm winter clothing. “I mean, I’m not saying you don’t know where we’re going, but there’s nobody else here ~ maybe we should keep driving  and see if there are any parked cars further up? Maybe that guy at Chimayo didn’t know what he was talking about.”

Earlier that day, we had stopped at El Santuario de Chimayo, a small Roman Catholic church in the Sangre de Cristo (‘Blood of Christ’) Mountains between Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico. The ‘Santuario’, or shrine, built in the early 1800s, is known as the ‘Lourdes of the Americas’ because of various miracles reportedly connected to it and, more specifically, the sacred dirt found in a small hole in a little room off the sanctuary.

After filling a plastic baggie with sacred dirt and lingering for a good twenty minutes over the rows of crutches, casts and pictures covering almost every inch of the walls inside, we had accosted another tourist and asked him to take our photo in front of the Santuario.  During the friendly conversation that ensued, we mentioned that we were hoping to find a place to attend Christmas Eve mass that night in Taos, our next destination. Without hesitation, he excitedly exclaimed that we should attend Midnight Mass at Taos Pueblo.

Snapshot of us in front of El Santuario de Chimayo

Taos Pueblo, traditionally known as ‘Tuah-tah’, is one of the 19 New Mexico Pueblos clustered along the banks of the Colorado River and the Rio Grande; villages of the modern Puebloan people who are believed to be descendants of the ancient Anasazi, a culture now more commonly referred to as the Ancestral Puebloans.  These peaceful farmers had never seen a European face until the Spanish descended upon their villages in 1540, forcing all of the inhabitants to convert to Catholicism.

Due to an ingenious adaptability (perhaps stemming from their peaceful nature) the Puebloan people adopted the forced religion while at the same time managing to retain most of their traditional ceremonies, opting to practice one ‘religion’ alongside the other in lieu of choosing between the two.  Despite the survival of the traditional ways, remnants of the Spanish conquest remain: today nearly 90% of the Puebloan people are practicing Catholics, and a Spanish mission still stands near the plaza at each and every Pueblo.

Taos Pueblo
Taos Pueblo

I was familiar with Taos Pueblo’s Christmas festivities and the various ceremonial dances that were open to the public each year, and knew of San Geronimo, the mission church at Taos Pueblo.  The chance to experience Midnight Mass at Taos Pueblo was an opportunity I was not going to pass up.  So here we were on Christmas Eve, just before midnight, in the middle of nowhere; and by the look of it, completely alone in this frozen New Mexico night.

“No,” I replied to my husband, “the guy at Chimayo knew what he was talking about and I know the church is over that way. We came all this way, let’s at least check it out.”

As we approached the Pueblo, one of the oldest continually-inhabited communities in the United States, I thought about how much life it had witnessed over ten centuries’ time.  I marveled that a village built while Europe was still entrenched in the Middle Ages had remained, intact, to this day.  In fact, remarkably little had changed here in the last thousand years; the people who called the Pueblo home still walked in the path of their ancestors each and every day and Taos Mountain, with its holy Blue Lake, watched perpetually over them from its home in the East.

San Geronimo Church Taos
San Geronimo Mission

I took my husband’s hand as we ducked through an opening in the low wall that surrounded the Pueblo and made our way towards the back of the little church, poised humbly on the edge of the plaza.  We crept around the side of the church, flecks of straw in the ancient caramel-colored adobe walls glinting eerily in the dark night.  Crunch, crunch, crunch…our heavy boots methodically covered ground but it was slow going with all the ice, snow and total darkness.

There is no electricity at Taos Pueblo, and the night possessed a mysterious depth I have not experienced anywhere else.  Tipping my head back, I was dazzled by millions of stars, so thick they were practically dripping from the sky in a mind-boggling three-dimensional display.  In the distance, sacred Taos Mountain stood guard over the pueblo; although it was too dark to see it, I could feel its  presence – brooding and silent – at home and alive in the inky darkness.

The church, San Geronimo Mission, was named after St. Jerome, the patron saint of Taos Pueblo, and was originally built by the Spanish in 1619.  Destroyed when the Puebloans rose up against the Spanish in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, it was soon rebuilt on the same site – only to be destroyed once again in 1847 by the U.S. Army during the Mexican- American war.  In 1850 the present-day church was erected near the site of the old church, where it still stands.  Its freshly-whitewashed adobe walls a startling contrast to the hollow ruins of the old mission.  Tonight it stood in darkness reflecting only the dark night sky…cloaked in its thick mud walls, and seemingly unconcerned about the weary travelers outside.

Old Church at Taos
The old mission at Taos

We rounded the corner of the church and it was as if someone suddenly turned on the volume. The faint sound of muffled voices wafted from the front door, and as we approached a glowing light shone softly out, mingling with the scent of incense as it welcomed us, beckoning us closer.  We were ushered quietly into the church and it was as if we had been transported back in time.

The thick, musky-yet-pleasant smell of incense and smoke from the candles, their dim, flickering, golden light, the closeness of the people crowded shoulder to shoulder in the rough wooden pews, the smooth adobe walls that enclosed us – and above all the feeling of community sacredness – presented an air of mystery and timelessness.  It’s almost dreamlike in my memory.

Shuffling into the back row, we stood in humble regard through the short yet moving service.  The gentle chanting voice of the priest alternated with voices raised in song.  A feeling of enchantment permeated the small room, and I melded into my surroundings and became a part of the otherworldly atmosphere.  The quiet majesty of the scene before me, the beauty inside this small and unassuming mission church in the middle of an ancient Pueblo, was an unexpected treasure and I took it in with moist eyes and a thankful heart.

When the service ended, we left the church in silence, both lost in our own thoughts. As we stepped over the threshold and into the frigid dark night, the spell was broken and we were brought abruptly back into the present – to the stars and the snow and the sacred mountain before us.  Everything remained exactly as it had been before; as it had been for over a thousand years.

But something inside me had changed; I had been transfixed and transformed by the beautiful experience.  The stars glittered and winked knowingly in  the velvet sky as we silently made our way back to the car.

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New Mexico Posole


Date With Mooney

Havasupai 2011 160
200-foot high Mooney Falls

I can still hear it plain as day – her urgent silence against the deafening roar of the falls – and it chills me to the bone.

Me: “Where is Dan (my husband)?”

Chris (his sister): mouth moving, but I can’t hear what she’s saying through the noise of the waterfall…no sense of urgency, I assure myself as I glance again towards the pool where Dan had been frolicking like a child not two moments earlier…she’s walking towards me slowly…she’d be more agitated if there were a problem…

Me: “Where is Dan?” Jogging towards her now, realizing my husband is nowhere in sight – a sick feeling beginning to twist itself in my stomach, my worst fears inching closer and closer to the surface, about to be realized.

Chris starts walking faster, begins gesturing, pointing at the falls. I see her mouth moving but still can’t make out the words. As she nears, fragments of her voice begin to reach me through the roar of the falls.

“Danny’s in trouble!”

Oh my God. My stomach turns.  No! I can’t believe I’m hearing this.

My jog turns to a run as I rush past Chris and her husband Paul, who had been playing in the falls with Dan, and race closer to the edge of the pool beneath the waterfall. All the while, searching wildly for any sign of Dan – a bobbing head – his face above the water- a hand – anything.

Havasupai 2011 152
Makeshift Warning

Only minutes before, I had been languidly washing my hair in the pool that breaks the massive 200-foot drop of Mooney Falls, deep in the Havasupai Indian Reservation near the Grand Canyon. Submerging my head in the frigid water – silence…except for my heartbeat – only to rise above the water again to the crash of the falls. The whole time willing myself not to be overly concerned about Dan and Paul, who were swimming close to the waterfall’s base.  Too close for my comfort.

He was an adult after all. Did I really need to tell him to be careful? His sarcastic response to past admonitions rang only too clear…”Thanks for reminding me, I was actually NOT going to be careful until you said that.”

Up to this point in our trip, a trip replete with waterfalls, I had fought the urge to comment on how dangerous they could be.  That the depression gauged out by the falls was like a huge washing machine, trapping, churning and rotating anything unlucky enough to get caught in its cycle down into the depths of that impossibly clear blue pool.

Havasupai 2011 168
Look closely above the ladder at the bottom for the route up.

At 200 feet, Mooney Falls is the largest waterfall in Havasupai (Cataract) Canyon, a side canyon that meets up with the Colorado River and Grand Canyon proper about eight miles downstream. Mooney was named for an unfortunate miner who in 1882 had met his demise at the bottom of the falls after falling from a rope while trying to descend.

At the time there was no other discernible way down to the bottom of the falls, so Mooney’s friends were forced to leave his body to the elements on the canyon floor. It was only when, eleven months later, one of them noticed a local Native American wearing Mooney’s boots that they were shown a precarious route down a crevice in the canyon wall.

Unwilling to risk the dicey-looking descent, they attempted to make it more navigable by blasting a small tunnel through the rock, chipping crude steps, and drilling in iron spikes.  The white-knuckle route, slick with spray and with the rusty chains linking the iron spikes the only handholds, still serves as the only way down to the bottom of the falls and is the one visitors follow today.  At their own risk, I might add, and as a foreboding sign just before the initial descent warns.  It is not a trip for the fainthearted, nor for those afraid of heights.

Havasupai 2011 162
Making our way down the crude, slippery steps

On our first trip to Havasupai in 2010, after hiking nine grueling miles and trekking through the mile-deep campground, we got our first glimpse over the edge of the falls – and what magnificence we beheld!  We were immediately captivated, and have returned faithfully every year over Labor Day weekend, spending three or four days in the veritable paradise tucked away like a land lost to time.

Now, this “paradise” threatened to become a place of nightmares; a place where the unthinkable, the unspeakable, was unfolding right before my very eyes.

As I jogged across the gravelly shore and rounded Mooney’s base, I thought I saw a flash of flesh and curly hair beneath – and directly behind – the falls.  In a moment I caught a better glimpse of Dan, now clinging to the slippery rock wall carved out of the cliff by the falls, and heard his cry as he lost his tenuous grip and Mooney pulled him back into its grasp.

In a panic, I entered the frigid pool at the base of the falls, getting about waist high before spray and mist obscured my view.  The strong undercurrent pulling me towards the falls broke through my panic and I realized it was not safe to continue.

Havasupai 2011 170
Haze created by the force of the falls

Oh my God, oh my God…I repeated over and over in my mind, as I stood there racking my brain for a solution, feeling more helpless than I ever had in my life.  It was the end of the holiday weekend and, unlike the past three days, the campground was deserted.  On this afternoon, we were completely alone at the base of Mooney Falls.

Suddenly, before Chris or I knew what was happening, Paul struck out slowly yet determinedly through the water towards the falls, hugging the rock face of the cliff from which the powerful torrent catapulted.  As the water reached his waist, he turned towards the cliff and carefully selected two handholds, testing them before taking another step.

The next moment, Mooney spat Dan out again, and he kicked weakly, clawing at the slippery rocks before finding a handhold.  He was losing strength, I could see it in his face, and in the way the pull of the falls played tug of war with his body as he clung to the rocks for dear life.

In what seemed to take an eternity, Paul painstakingly made his way hand-over-hand, closer and closer to the spot where Dan clung to the wall, in danger of disappearing once more as the suction from the falls slowly loosened his grip.

Paul inched along patiently until he was about a foot away, just on the other side of a small rock abutment.  With a swift movement, he reached out and grabbed one of Dan’s hands.  A mighty tug brought Dan’s hand around the abutment and placed it on a hidden handhold, holding it there until he was sure of Dan’s grip.  Dan remained still for a moment, his lower body drifting back towards the falls…

Havasupai 2011 171
World of perpetual mist at the bottom of Mooney

Finally, with one last burst of strength, Dan relinquished his left-handed grip and pulled himself around the rock outcropping towards Paul, finding another solid handhold with his left hand. I held my breath.  Paul took Dan’s his right hand again, and carefully placed it, again not letting go until he was sure Dan could hold on.  They continued this way, one hand at a time, until Dan could finally stand on his own in the swirling water.

I will never forget his face as he turned towards me and our eyes connected.  Literally white as a ghost, he had the look of someone who had come face to face with his mortality, and was in disbelief that his life had been mercifully allowed to continue.

Havasupai 2011 178
Posing before the drama unfolded..

As he stumbled, shaking, through the shallow water, I ran to him and bear-hugged his freezing body.  We wrapped him in towels and helped him to shore.  After some time, we eventually made our way back up the slippery route to the campground.  Before Dan started up the rickety ladder he turned and gave Mooney one last look.  I saw him shudder visibly, and we embraced as a wave of emotion overcame him.

As we held each other there at the base of Mooney in that remote canyon, we were both engulfed by a feeling of insignificance, coupled with a new respect, in the face of such a great force of nature.  At the same time we felt an overwhelming gratitude for all the gifts in our lives, and for Life itself.  This time, unlike that day in 1882, Mooney did not win.  Dan had been given a second chance, and we both came away with a new appreciation of life that will stay with us for the rest of our days.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Adventure!


This week’s Weekly Photo Challenge speaks to a topic I love – if you couldn’t already guess – Adventure!  Maybe I’m just in Grand Canyon mode lately, but when I think “adventure”, this image immediately comes to mind.

I remember the moment captured in the photo clearly…we were at about the half-way point in our ten-mile journey down to camp at Havasupai.

I can feel the warmth of the canyon emanating up from the rocks…the excitement of it being our first hike down into the unknown…the anticipation of what we’d find there.

As we came around a bend, we suddently beheld a beautiful alcove; its hollow, arching chamber beckoning us to come in and rest a bit.  We accepted the invitation and stopped under the huge overhang, rubbing our aching feet and re-hydrating while imagining aloud who else – be it native inhabitants or outlaws – had been drawn to its inviting coolness in the past, just as we were that blazing day.

While lost in that reverie, the Canyon chose to fully maximize our feeling of adventure by sending a string of unsupervised pack mules clattering down the narrow canyon, right past our shelter!  It was a glorious site to behold.

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2012-07-02 05.58.54“If anybody is not blown away by the Grand Canyon, they won’t be blown away by Judgement Day, either.  To spend the night on rocks that have been warmed to 120 degrees by the sun, to feel the incredibly insistent and very dangerous Colorado River rush by you, to be down in the depths of the Grand Canyon with no one around you but your own party, you begin to feel your own insignificance.  At the same time, you are made larger by that realization.”
filmmaker Ken Burns, to Arizona Highways Magazine

I recently confirmed our spots on our second Colorado River rafting trip, set to embark in July of 2015.   Since doing so, I often find myself staring off into space, my mind wandering back to our pre-baby – and virgin – trip…images flash through my mind of sun-seared red sandstone cliffs…the roiling rush of the river, like a writhing beast, beneath me during the day and beside me at night…and slowly but surely I get drawn back down, down, down into the Grand Canyon. It has a way of doing that.

Like it was yesterday, I can feel the hot, industrial-thick rubber of ‘The Rail’ (what we newbie river runners dubbed the side pontoons of the raft – the front of the raft, where you’re sure to get soaked, is The Bathtub, of course) under my sunburned legs and the soft spray kissing my face…the rhythmic rise and fall of our craft as the river swelled beneath it…Like some living thing, the Canyon is already calling to me, pulling me back in.

When we signed up for our first river trip with Hatch River Expeditions back in June of 2012, one of our main goals was to check a ‘big one’ off of our Bucket List.  I mean, what adventurous soul does NOT yearn to raft the mighty Colorado at least once in their lifetime? Little did we know that the allure of the Canyon was not something easily-escaped once whisked top-side via helicopter.  Nor did I expect, even weeks later, to start from a sound sleep, feeling the roll and sway of the raft beneath me as if I were still being carried down the river.

There is something haunting about the Grand Canyon – and something absolutely visceral about experiencing it while riding on the back of the mightiest river in America, spending a whole week sleeping exposed to sheer, sun-baked rock faces under the craziest, thickest expanse of stars imaginable. That canyon gets into your blood somehow.

Nankoweap Delta
Nankoweap Delta

For all the intensity of experience and mysteries unveiled to us during that memorable first trip, one spot stands out for me above all the rest.  Nankoweap.

“Nankoweap”…I had seen that word hundreds of times, almost always gracing the caption of a stunning photograph of ancient ruins nestled high above the water back-lit by an impossibly beautiful straight-shot view three miles downriver.

Nankoweap…the humongous delta – the largest on the river in fact – named for Nankoweap Creek, which drains into the Colorado at this spot where Nankoweap Canyon and Marble Canyon meet.

To me, the name Nankoweap had become so synonymous with these ruins perched high above the river, which were not dwellings but granaries where the ancient inhabitants stored their food, that I had no idea this place held so much more.  I had read about Nankoweap in countless captions, but never did I imagine I would see it for myself, and be able to view the remnants of its ancient civilization up close – let alone bed down in the Nankoweap Delta, where Ancient Puebloan people made their home nearly 1000 years ago in what had been one of the largest settlements inside the Grand Canyon.

Indian Dick Campsite
Indian Dick Campsite

It was day two of our trip, and we had spent the preceding night, our first inside the canyon, at Indian Dick; a popular camping spot lewdly named after a prominent rock feature that overlooks it. After an intoxicating second day on the river, I consulted my trusty waterproof mile-by-mile Colorado River guidebook (which sadly ended up in its namesake when I rode The Rail on Hermit Rapid just days later) that we were approaching Nankoweap, located approximately 52 river miles below Lee’s Ferry.

I excitedly anticipated getting a glimpse of the fabled granaries from afar, as the raft whisked us around the curve of the delta and on our way. As I braced myself and my waterproof camera so as not to miss them as we rounded the curve, imagine my excitement when I overheard the guides discussing whether we should pull in for the night – a possibility as long as no other river runners had beat us to the few good camp sites on the delta.

As we rounded the bend, I sucked in my breath; pleasepleaseplease…yes! There was nobody there!  It only felt real when our guides carefully guided our boat and our sister boat to shore – we were actually spending the night at Nankoweap!

Technically inside Marble Canyon, part of Grand Canyon National Park, Nankoweap’s expansive delta was officially studied back in the 60s by an archaeologist named Douglas W. Schwartz.  Not only did Schwartz thoroughly investigate the famous granaries in the cliffs, but also a number of petroglyph sites and ruins on the canyon floor along the river – in all, thirty pueblo structures- upon which he based his conclusion that the Nankoweap Delta may have been home to as many as 900 people at one time, most likely between AD 1050 and Ad 1150.  He also concluded that the people farmed the delta, based on remnants of ancient corncobs and pumpkin seeds that he found in the granaries.

Mooring at Nankoweap
Mooring the rafts at Nankoweap

The boats drifted to shore, as crafts of millennia past must have done, and we commenced our nightly ritual of unloading supplies and setting up individual camp sites. As the sun dipped lower in the sky, casting shadows onto the canyon walls, our guides beckoned and a good number of us gathered at the foot of the salmon-hued cliffs to begin the ascent to the Nankoweap granaries.

As we started along the sandy trail, I couldn’t help but notice our guides wore flip-flops…a modern testament (in my mind) to the woven sandals the Ancient Puebloans surely wore to make this very same trek. We navigated silently among the mesquite, tamarisk, and other brush, the trail often choked with obstacles, forcing us to scramble over toppled rocks and exposed roots. Soon, the trail began to get steeper, seemingly chiseled through the exposed rock, and the granaries came into view, over 600 feet above the river.

After a bit of huffing and puffing, we finally made it up the last stretch and the granaries sat as they had for nearly ten centuries, tucked away tight in the cliff side, accessible only by a narrow walkway. In ones and twos, we carefully navigated the precarious zig-zag path up, and finally I stood on the threshold and beheld that coveted view. I looked off down the river, relishing the moment, then let my gaze wander over to the granaries themselves. So small really; humble storage caches for a people that lived and breathed and walked here a thousand years ago. A people who, after all, were only trying to survive.

Ancient granaries, tucked away in the cliffside.
Ancient granaries, tucked away in the cliffside.

I reverently approached the caches and peered inside, trying to imagine the need – the urgency – that drove these people to store seeds that would ensure their survival in such a high and inaccessible place. Was it a fear that the river would rise? Was it to keep them out of enemy hands? Archaeologists dance around the truth, seemingly getting closer and closer to The Answer; but I am convinced there are some things we will just never know.

I let my gaze linger inside one of the small depressions and a faint shimmer of blue caught my eye. Turquoise. The revered symbol of water, sky, and life itself. Like the archaeologists trying to decipher the clues left behind by the Ancient Puebloans, I will never know for sure who left this hopeful offering or why – but to me it was the perfect embodiment of the People, whose essence and spirit will always live on within the canyon.

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Vegas or Bust!

Not too long ago I received a random, seemingly innocent text message from a good friend: “Hey, just wondering – which Vegas chapel did you guys get married in?”

Needless to say, it didn’t take a huge mental leap to figure out something was up…I give full credit to my persuasive texting skills that, after some initial denials and backpedaling, it took me less than three minutes to get her to spill the beans and admit her secret plan. And of course, being just a hop, skip and a jump – OK, about five driving hours – away in Arizona, there’s no way I was NOT going to be there for her big day.

The 74 (Carefree Hwy) to Wickenburg

I love road trips. There’s something about the idea of being on the open road with the world (well, at least the continental U.S.) spread out limitless before you that has always spoken to me. On a road trip it’s just you, whichever year’s road atlas happens to be in your vehicle, and miles of endless possibilities.

When I road trip I usually have a final destination in mind, but the feeling of freedom reigns; around each corner there’s an opportunity to throw all plans out the window, do a U-turn and head in the complete opposite direction on nothing but a whim.

I have to admit, part of me wished I were going to be passing through more interesting and possibly cooler (temperature-wise) territory; the road from Phoenix to Las Vegas is a special kind of scenic – very dry and barren – and after the first couple of times it’s better enjoyed when you have time to stop and explore as opposed to viewing from a speeding vehicle. But a road trip is a road trip. Besides, the sun was shining, my special Road Trip CD was blasting, and it was a Tuesday and I wasn’t at work. What more could I ask for?

Carefree Hwy near Lake Pleasant

My route began on the 74, also known as the Carefree Highway; a flat, straight stretch of road slightly less picturesque than its name, which would take me out of the sprawling Phoenix valley.

I gleefully passed at least five RVs (in my mind the ultimate pinnacle of road trip freedom) before even leaving the Phoenix city limits – each and every one towing a Jeep no less, and each a more fascinating conglomeration of adventure potential than the last.

I nearly bounced out of my seat with excitement at the fifth, which far surpassed all the others; not only was it pulling a Jeep, but the industrious owners had also managed to strap what looked like a small pontoon boat to the top of the vehicle. Ingenious! Out of habit, I risked life and limb craning my neck trying to get a good look at the passengers, as if by simply laying eyes on them I might gain some insight into their plans.

Were they old? Retired? Or maybe an impetuous young couple living their dream and eeking it out along the way with nothing between them and the road but their hulking house on wheels? Their forms were shadowy in the sun’s glare but even so, I spent a few moments daydreaming about the conversations playing out in the wheelhouse before snapping back to reality and the road ahead.

Historic Wickenburg

It took about an hour to get to Wickenburg, a quintessential Western town and the former ‘Dude Ranch Capital of the World’, nestled in the floodplain of the Hassayampa River. The area was originally settled by the western Yavapai along the river they called Haseyamo, which means ‘following the water as far as it goes’. Inhabited in turn by subsequent waves of hunters & trappers, miners, and finally ranchers and farmers, the town was officially founded in 1863 by gold-seeker Henry Wickenburg, discoverer of the famed Vulture Mine, the most productive gold mine in Arizona history.

Dinosaur Brokers?

As I entered Wickenburg, I couldn’t help but notice the huge Smith & Western sign on the east side of the highway. The outer yard of the establishment was filled to bursting with practically life-sized rusted metal dinosaurs and a hodge-podge of other random knick-knacks, all disturbingly at odds with the smaller print on the sign:


My gaze shifted back and forth from the sign to the yard a few times as I passed, trying to reconcile the two. I never solved the puzzle but made a mental note to stop in next time to see what it was all about.

I was on a bit of a tight schedule, so with what has become a bona-fide talent born of many road trips, I managed to snap an acceptable picture of both the ‘Welcome to Wickenburg’ sign and the Smith & Western shop without exiting my vehicle or in fact even stopping (thanks in part to the 35 mph speed limit).

Unfortunately there’s no not stopping for gas. And on my road trips, that’s become pretty much synonymous with stopping for Corn Nuts. In some inexplicable phenomenon, I can go months without Corn Nuts so much as crossing my mind, and then the minute I’m in a roadside gas station on a road trip, they’re all I can think about.

Corn Nuts: The Ultimate Road Trip Companion
Thankfully, they do have Corn Nuts in Wickenburg, and at a very fair price I might add. I took to the highway again, reveling in my new, teeth-cracking distraction until approximately half a bag of Corn Nuts outside of Wickenburg my jaw began to seize up – yes, this can happen with Corn Nuts, it’s only a question of when – and I was forced to find another form of amusement. Right about then I began to take notice of the particularly picturesque street names.

Quiet Hills Road, Echo Hill Drive, Burro Creek Crossing, Cholla Canyon Ranch Road, Chicken Springs Loop, Lower Trout Creek Road, Windmill Ranch Road, Cattle Chute Pass Road, Crazy Horse Road…it went on and on. Are the street names so much more descriptive and interesting out here in the West, or have I just never paid attention anywhere else? Then there are the place names…Rattlesnake Wash, Coyote Pass, Calamity Wash…wow, why hadn’t I ever noticed this before? Could the Corn Nuts be raising my consciousness to some higher level?

Not much happening in Wikieup

I snapped to attention as an oncoming semi veered uncomfortably close as it whizzed by. Route 93 between Wickenburg and Kingman is one of the most dangerous roads in Arizona. Not only are you contending with a two-lane highway with quite a bit of slow traffic and avid passers, you have the added danger of traveling north on this road, when the people coming towards you are often on a return trip from Las Vegas and not necessarily in their right minds.

To compound the situation, I had somehow managed to wedge myself behind at least four semis (based on my latest neck-craning reconnaissance). This created a new diversion as I furtively crept left at every sign of a passing zone, sometimes rebuffed by oncoming traffic but nonetheless slowly but surely managing to pass all 4 before noticing I was on ‘E’ again and having to pull in for gas at Wikieup. As my tires crunched into the station, I looked forlornly over my shoulder as the four semis I had so painstakingly passed sailed by at a steady 50 mph.

A Joshua Tree

Like many of the towns along the 93, Wikieup appeared nondescript and seemed pretty much deserted, but don’t be fooled into thinking nothing of interest happens here: not only is this unincorporated community of about 300 known as the ‘Rattlesnake Capital of Arizona’, it’s also home to the “World’s Largest Machine Gun and Cannon Shoot”. If you just caught yourself thinking ‘huh?’ or experienced even a slight feeling of curiosity, you may not want to view this video which could just leave you even more perplexed.

For miles before you hit Wikieup, as you make the invisible transition between the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts, the land adjacent to the highway is dotted as far as the eye can see with eery silhouettes of Joshua Trees, Dr. Suess-like plants that are actually members of the lily family. It’s worth pausing on this stretch of road (aptly named the ‘Joshua Forest Scenic Parkway’) to snap some shots of this strange desert dweller, named by Mormon settlers for the biblical character Joshua, whom it apparently bore some resemblance to. Must’ve been an awkward-looking guy. Fighting the inclination to stop, I managed to get a not-too-bad shot through my open passenger window without dropping below the speed limit.

Nothing, AZ-Population 4

Not too far beyond Wikieup, my attention was drawn to a dejected-looking sign barely holding on above a cluster of dilapidated buildings on the side of the road. Sadly, this is all that is is left of Nothing, AZ, population 4 – a wanna-be pit-stop for weary travelers that never seemed to catch on.

At one time Nothing had boasted a rock shop, convenience store and gas station, and the town sign had proudly declared, “The staunch citizens of Nothing are full of Hope, Faith, and Believe in the work ethic. Thru the years these dedicated people had faith in Nothing, hoped for Nothing, worked at Nothing, for Nothing.” As I pass, I feel bad for Nothing, and wish the town founders could have had a positive-thinker among them, or at least someone aware of the cosmic laws dictating that naming your town Nothing might be setting yourself up for failure.

Approaching Kingman

Speaking of Nothing, I was about to experience a lot of it until the next real point of interest, the Hoover Dam. I sped along the highway, giving a quick nod to my astrological sign’s namesake, the Aquarius Mountains, shimmering in the distance to my right. Drowsiness began to descend, inspired by the searing & bland landscape, whose monotony was broken only briefly by the approach of Kingman, founded in 1882 while Arizona was just a territory and named for Lewis Kingman, a surveyor for the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, which passes through the area.

As I neared the vicinity of the Hoover Dam I began obsessing about what lie directly ahead – my first encounter with one of the scariest things I have ever seen: the new bridge spanning the Colorado River above the dam. I was vaguely aware that my palms were getting sweatier and sweatier as I tightened my grip on the steering wheel, anticipation building with every mile.

Scariest bridge in the world
Scariest bridge in the world and the old highway way, way, way down below

On each trip to Vegas over the past several years, as I drove the winding old highway that traversed the canyon’s bottom, I frequently looked up with horror as they slowly built each side of the bridge – apparently planning, by some intricate feat of engineering, to eventually meet in the middle – thousands of feet above.

Just looking at it literally gave me chills, and while driving below its impossibly-high, arching span, I had voiced an internal vow to avoid it at all costs. From what I understood at the time, it was only going to be an option if you wanted to speed up your trip – it wasn’t going to be the only route.

Now, how I had come to mistakenly believe that I would have a choice, I don’t know. But as I got closer I realized there were no detours, no alternate routes…for through traffic to Las Vegas, the new bridge was now the only way across the canyon! As the bridge appeared, my breathing quickened and my heart felt like it was going to beat out of my chest. Suddenly, concrete barriers taller than my vehicle sped past on both sides for two full seconds, and then – I was released safely on the other side.

That was it?!? All that buildup, all that trepidation for nothing? As I reached safety, a part of me silently thanked the architect, who must have had an inkling in some corner of his mind how terrifying it might be, not to mention how many accidents it might cause, for travelers to be forced to gaze down from the dizzying heights at the dam below while still trying to keep an eye on the road ahead. At the same time, another part of me (probably the part that rubber-necks at above-mentioned accidents) was also a teensy bit disappointed that I hadn’t been forced to face my fear.

Gateway to the bowels of the earth
Gateway to the bowels of the earth

The one redeeming thing about the new bridge was that that it completely removed the necessity of driving past the former Most Terrifying Feature in the vicinity: ‘The Hole’. To me it needs no further description, but if you’re wondering, it is in fact a diversion tunnel at the end of the dam spillway that had been bored, inconceivably huge and cavernous, into the mountainside next to the dam. Now this is a hole unlike any you’ve encountered before; a hole so immense that just driving over it makes you dizzy and produces a feeling akin to that of teetering on the edge of the roof of a skyscraper.

With that final hurdle behind me, the rest of my trip went off without a hitch – well besides the one I witnessed there in Vegas; the reason for my trip. The wedding itself was small and intimate and beautiful. But that is another story…

Related Posts:
Green Chile and Luminarias Day 1: Dreamcatchers & Black Ice
Green Chile and Luminarias Day 2: Albuquerque

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‘Quick Jaunt’ to Cooper Forks

I didn’t breath a word to anyone, but as we climbed down out of Pueblo Canyon, I was secretly thinking to myself, “there’s NO WAY we’re doing another hike tomorrow.”  The plan had been to hit Pueblo Canyon, the harder and longer of the hikes, on day one and follow up with a quick out-and-back to what the guidebook called ‘Cooper Forks’ the next morning, before heading home to Phoenix.

Early Morning Campfire

In that moment, on the tail end of what I will officially deem “one of the hardest hikes I’ve ever done,” (Adventure in the Sierra Ancha) I mistakenly believed that if I was feeling the pain, everyone else must certainly be feeling it.  So when our silent descent was broken by random banter about the following morning’s hike I just smiled and nodded diplomatically.

Morning dawned bright and early; I laid with my sleeping bag up over my face for as long as possible, until I could hear that everyone was up except for me.  I am not a morning person, so was a bit slow coming out of the bag entirely but once I got moving around I began to revive. I was still quite confident that we’d probably putz around the campfire for a while before reaching a unanimous decision to break camp and head back home a little early.

I dressed and freshened up a bit, and came around the side of the truck to see everyone standing slightly beyond the fire, shading their eyes and squinting intently out across the wide canyon that stretched below our campsite.  As I approached, John handed me the guidebook and pointed to a hill that rose steeply from the creek at the canyon bottom to the base of a sheer rock cliff.

View without binoculars – huh?

“That’s where we’re going, see up there at the base of the cliff?”

“Huh?”  I glanced at the guidebook, then back up at the large hill.  John offered me the binoculars, and after scanning the hillside for a bit I found the cliff face and trained my view down to where it met the bare slope.  Nestled inside what appeared to be a gash running down the cliff was a cliff dwelling, perfectly centered in the narrow opening.

Zooming in on the cliff face and cave

“Wow, that looks pretty far…” I trailed off as I realized how lame I sounded; it was obvious that the plan was to do it – and nobody else was complaining.

“Well, the guidebook says it’s only a half mile down to the creek, then another half mile to where we hit Cooper Forks Canyon, and then another half mile up to the structure.”  John assured.  OK, that didn’t really sound too bad – really just a quick jaunt.

If I hadn’t been so eager to believe it was a short hike I would have realized those distances made no sense based on what I was seeing with my own eyes.  Regardless, there was no way I was going to be the only one who didn’t want to go.

Brian…examining bear scat?

I gathered up my gear a bit reluctantly and followed everyone down the dirt road where we met up with the old mining trail again, this time heading down-slope towards the creek.  The warm sun on my face, singing birds, and flowers blooming all around quickly captivated me and I was suddenly really glad we were on another adventure.

We hadn’t gone a quarter mile when some strange-looking droppings in the trail prompted me to wonder aloud what type of animal might have produced them…My husband Dan swiftly delivered the first blow to my serene state of mind when he revealed (after some hemming and hawing) that it was probably bear.  Apparently, he and John had already had this conversation the day before when they came across the same thing multiple times on the trail to Pueblo Canyon (Adventure in the Sierra Ancha).  When John told Dan it looked like bear scat, Dan had sworn John to secrecy – bears happen to be my biggest fear ever.

The second blow came when we reached the creek.  There, marked clearly in the sandy bank, was the BIGGEST paw print I had ever seen. “OMG, the bear’s down here!”  was my first thought.  However the number of toes must not have matched up because Bill joyfully exclaimed that it was actually a mountain lion…”And he must be a big sucker!”

Where I slept the night before

Numbness crept up my body as I furtively scanned the banks and the encroaching forest, positive the animal in question was watching and waiting just beyond the treeline.  Nobody else seemed to be that worried, so I tried to mask my terror, but in reality I could not get out of the forested area near the creek fast enough.   I cringed thinking about where I had slept the night before, totally exposed and ripe for the picking.

As usual, my fierce yet shameful sense of self-preservation took over.  In a carefully-calculated strategic move, I fell in behind Bill and John, with my husband Dan and his friend Brian from Jersey trailing behind me.  My thought was, if we surprised the mountain lion, Bill and John would create enough of a distraction for me to have a chance – and if the mountain lion came up behind us, the same logic would apply from the back end.

Crossing the creek

In loose formation, we boulder-hopped across the creek and up the other bank.   Trying to stay close to the creek, we slowly made our way among the boulders and slippery rocks, but were eventually forced by a tangle of impenetrable vegetation to veer right and up onto a little terrace that rose above the river.

Low mesquite trees created a canopy over the flat terrace, interspersed with the occasional prickly pear or creosote bush.  I imagined that this would have been a perfect place for the ancient Anchans to live, overlooking the river and all, but I didn’t notice any signs of habitation except for a few possible stone alignments that may or may not have marked the location of ancient structures.

So close, but yet so far…

Finally, we came to the edge of the terrace, where Cooper Forks Canyon intersected the creek.  Unfortunately, by this time we were quite high above the creek and the canyon floor, without any obvious way down – the problem was that we needed to cross Cooper Forks Canyon.  Before I knew what was happening, Bill disappeared down the side of the terrace, to the sound of cracking branches and cascading rocks.  A moment later, John followed.

I gingerly stepped forward a few feet in the direction they had gone, looking for handholds.  Just then Brian spoke up and said his heel had been bothering him for a while, and he felt he’d be better off going back to camp to wait for us instead of pressing on.  Before he had even finished his sentence, Dan chimed in, offering to accompany him back to camp.  Bill and John were already out of earshot.  I craned my neck, trying to see where they had gone, to no avail.  Looking at Dan and Brian, then back down the steep terrace, I reluctantly decided to push ahead; at this point I just couldn’t stomach giving up and turning back after coming so far.

Strange conglomerate rocks lined the trail

Bidding Dan and Brian farewell, I returned to the task at hand; negotiating a way down the slippery, vegetation-choked dirt bank.  Seeing no obvious route, I finally launched into a brisk downhill slide, grasping wildly at any plant within reach (most of which happened to be covered in either spines or thorns).

I made it down about 20 feet and finally caught sight of Bill and John waiting in the wash below.   After another 20 treacherous feet of basically skiing on dirt, I finally reached the wash and the base of the steep hill leading up to the cliffs and the ruins.

I can’t lie; at this point I was secretly envying Dan and Brian, imagining them kicking back with a cool drink at the campsite, leisurely watching the remote hillside, waiting for us to appear.  As we wearily crossed the wash, Bill paused for a moment before staring up at the steep opposite bank.  “You know,” he said, “I’m feeling a bit tired myself – I think I’m going to go join those guys at the camp site and sit this one out.”

John and I looked at each other.  For a brief moment, I thought I might get my guilty wish and we’d all turn back.  But I could see John was excited to continue, and despite my pure physical exhaustion, I did really want to see the cave and the ruins first-hand.  So after making sure our walkie-talkie was synched with Bill’s, we agreed to contact him when we reached the ruin.

Descending towards the cliff base and cave

The cliff and cave appeared tantalizingly close at just over a half mile away, but this final stretch involved a 1200 foot climb, and to quote the trusty guide book, “most of the route follows no recognizable trail”.  For once, the book was astoundingly accurate.  John and I started up the steep winding trail that switch-backed up the base of the hill.  Within minutes, the trail had dwindled to nothing and we stood staring out over a rocky, sparsely-vegetated slope.

In the absence of a trail, we opted against pushing ahead on a steep route directly towards the ruins, instead choosing a more gradual approach which would take us left along the hillside and a bit out of our way before (hopefully) veering back up towards the cliff and our destination.  We were encouraged when we eventually picked up a faint trail again, but after about 20 minutes it was obvious that it was taking us around the mountain and not up towards the cliff.

Our first close-up view

Abandoning the trail to nowhere, we bushwhacked up through a copse of mesquites to the crest of a low rise, hoping we’d be able to see our destination and adjust our path accordingly.  Frustration mounted as, no matter how high we climbed, a clear view of the cliff we needed to reach eluded us.

We had nearly reached the top of the mountain without catching even a glimpse of the cliff face when we suddenly had an ‘ah-ha’ moment and pulled out the camera.  Examining the pictures we had taken earlier from below and matching up distinctive landmarks, it became obvious we had climbed too high and were actually above the ruins!

Cautiously but excitedly, we began to descend towards the edge of the hill, and where (based on the pictures) we thought the cliff should be.  After a harrowing, albeit quick, slide down a field of shattered rocks that rolled and shifted under our feet with a sound like breaking glass, we finally rounded the corner of the cliff and found ourselves directly below the ruins.

Ancient camouflage

Looking up in awe, we beheld an amazing sight!  Blending perfectly into the natural openings in the cliff were the most well-constructed ancient dwellings I have ever seen.  And compared to the structures in Pueblo Canyon, this small enclave of 10-12 rooms brought new meaning to the word ‘inaccessible’.

After personally experiencing the difficulty of reaching these dwellings, it was hard to imagine what prompted the Anchan people to expend the time and effort required to build in this remote, waterless cliff side – a question that archaeologists are still trying to figure out.

As John and I spent the next hour joyously exploring this amazing place, there was no question as to whether the trek was worth it – bears and mountain lions notwithstanding.

Related Posts: 
Adventure in the Sierra Ancha

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Adventure in the Sierra Ancha

It was a motley crew that set out from our house early Saturday morning.  I had proposed this little expedition after reading an amazing article about the Sierra Ancha in Arizona Highways magazine a few months ago, and was really jazzed when a few people actually seemed serious about accompanying us.

Fellow Traveler

Aside from my husband Dan and I, our group included our longtime petroglyph-documenting mentor and camping-in-the-outback guru Bill; an amazing man in his 70s who has the body and stamina of a 20-year old. Fellow companion was rock art buff John, who had also been accompanying Bill for years on the many petroglyph-documenting camping trips out in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest.

The oddball of the group (in an outdoorsy sense) was Brian, Dan’s best friend from Jersey.  Perhaps inconveniently for him, our trip just happened to fall on the weekend he was to arrive for a week’s stay.  After going back and forth with Dan as to whether Brian would be up for something like this or if we should just reschedule, Dan decided he might as well ask him.  Brian, in his typical non-committal manner, let us know he was up for the trip.  Actually I think his exact words were, “Eh – yeah…I’ll go.”

His response didn’t carry a lot of emotion, but this was a brave move on Brian’s part.  He had only ever camped once in his life — a comparatively cushy night in our pop-up camper in a nice campground in Sedona’s Oak Creek Canyon. After a harrowing night involving a trio of racoons and a picnic table full of glass beer bottles, he had vowed never to camp again.

Stay Left Bill-Far Left!

We set out from Phoenix bright and early, taking the 60 all the way out past the mining town of Miami to Claypool, then heading north towards Roosevelt Lake.  It was relatively smooth sailing, including the next leg of the trip which involved a nearly 20-mile joggle on a washboard dirt road.  It didn’t get hairy until we hit the last three or four miles of the drive.

“High clearance vehicle required for last approx. 4 miles,” is how the guide book put it — which was true, especially for the second creek crossing which involved hitting the creek at about a 45-degree angle and praying you didn’t bottom out coming back up the other side.  What the book failed to mention was something more disturbing than the condition of the narrow, gnarly, boulder-strewn final stretch of road:  the approximate 1000 foot drop on the passenger side!  I felt sick as I crawled along at a snail’s pace, only thankful I wasn’t the passenger.  After about 30 harrowing white-knuckle minutes, we finally spotted the little mining road where we would begin our trek up into Pueblo Canyon.

View into Cold Spring Canyon

It was there, hidden high in the cliffs, that the ancient Anchan Culture had lived.  Evolving out of an indigenous Archaic culture as early as AD 800, the Anchan people had started out as farmers living in stone pueblos along the creek banks, but late in the 1200s something changed.

It was then that some of them began to retreat up into these secluded canyons and build nearly inaccessible, and possibly defensive cliff dwellings.  To add to the mystery, these dwellings were only occupied briefly — no more than 100 years — before the Anchan people abandoned the area completely in the early 1300s.

Mining Trail & Steep Mountainside

After parking the trucks, we headed back on foot to pick up the little mining road where it bisected the dirt road and traversed up the side of a broad hill.  It was a pretty steep grade, and it was hot out.  As always, I took mental stock of our situation and my mind rested on my usual first concern; Dan’s water supply.

For all of his meticulous (i.e. OCD-like) preparation in every other area, I’m now convinced that Dan will have to actually suffer from full-on dehydration or heat stroke before he truly believes he needs more than one quart of water per hike, no matter the distance.  True to form, today he carried two 16-oz plastic water bottles — and a Camelbak with an empty pouch.  I reminded him that we had an at least six-mile, difficult trek ahead but he didn’t seem too worried.  Ugh.  At that point there was nothing I could do but firmly remind him to please ration his water.

Nearing the Top

We began the hike, which the guide book had cheerfully termed “bushwhack out and back,” with Dan and I falling into the rear with Bill, while John and Brian from Jersey forged ahead at a good clip.  The trail quickly narrowed as the mining road faded and finally disappeared beneath our feet, replaced with what looked to be no more than a well-traveled game trail.  We switch-backed up the flank of the hill, practically burrowing through the thick manzanitas in a grueling, steep, nearly 1000-foot climb.

Finally the trail leveled out and opened up and we were able to see the far canyon wall, getting our first tantalizing glimpse of the cliff dwellings, although we weren’t yet a third of the way to our destination. John and Brian quickly disappeared ahead again as Dan, Bill and I took a much-needed breather, enthralled by the view across the canyon and taking advantage of the photo-op.

First View of Dwellings

As we hit the trail again, it got narrower still, and began tunneling through thick, low, deciduous-looking trees.  In parts, we weren’t even sure we were still on the trail.  After an exasperating muddy scramble up a 10-foot, nearly 90-degree stretch of trail during which I managed to drop my walking stick, my hat and my knife in quick succession, we all stopped to catch our breaths and I realized we hadn’t heard nor seen Brian or John for a while.  Now even more unsure as to whether we were on the trail, I yelled for them, to no avail.

Dan recalled seeing what appeared to be another branch of the trail about 10 minutes earlier, and wondered if they had gone that way.  At that moment a hot wave of anxiety washed over me, and I got a sinking feeling in my stomach.  How dumb we were to not stay together!  If they had gone the other way, they could be heading for an entirely different canyon than us, and our only hope would be to head back down to the vehicles, adventure aborted, and hope they eventually turned up.  I  opted to stay with Bill while he rested, and Dan pushed ahead; soon I heard his unmistakable bird call…”Twee, twee!”  Thank God — he had found them!


We all regrouped, vowing not to separate again, and started back along the trail as it opened up into a rocky, cathedral-like stretch that hugged the canyon wall.  Great streaks of minerals streamed down the rock walls, and natural seeps dripped water all around as we continued on.  After passing what appeared to be a small rockslide that had covered part of the trail, I suddenly heard what sounded like a huge maraca rattling and echoing back and forth across the canyon walls.  Everyone jumped backwards about three feet, which was a bit dangerous as the trail was only about three feet wide with a steep drop-off behind us.  Finally John spotted the perpetrator; a large rattlesnake coiled against a rock, huddled, rattling and ready to strike.

They say your true nature comes out in crisis situations and I have to admit this isn’t the first time I’ve felt a twinge of guilt at my incredible sense of self preservation.  I finally got close enough to take a picture (full zoom of course) after being reassured that the snake was not going to unexpectedly fly four feet through the air at me.


The trail continued along the canyon wall, passing a solitary ancient one-room structure perched right next to an historic uranium mine (the guide book warned not to go in, for obvious reasons!) before reaching the back of the canyon and a beautiful, seasonal waterfall.  This time of the year it was sprinkling healthily, although I’m sure if we would have been a month or so earlier it would have been more of a force to be reckoned with.

Apparently, the ledge below the falls, which you must cross, also gets icy in the winter, but rest easy — if you slip the drop won’t send you “plummeting 300 feet” like the guide book says.  I’d estimate it at a good 50-foot plunge, although it is pretty much sheer rock so I suppose the actual height is irrelevant; you wouldn’t be walking away from that fall.  Just sayin’…

Pretty Amazing!

The crown jewel of this trek was the reason we came:  Magnificent cliff dwellings lie just beyond the waterfall.  Room after room, they lined the cliff ledge in a seemingly endless progression, better-preserved than any I have seen before.  It truly brought me back in time to see the actual posts and beams, stucco still clinging to the walls, and even faded paintings right on the stucco walls.

Interesting factoid:  famous archaeologist Emil W. Haury visited these very cliff dwellings back in the 1930s to collect tree ring samples for his monumental tree ring dating project.  You can see cuts on some of the beams, but I’m not sure these were from Emil — although it made for an interesting thought.  There was almost too much to take in, the pictures in the slide show below will hopefully do the experience some justice.

After visiting these amazing and extremely inaccessible structures, it’s hard to imagine what would have caused the Anchan people to choose to live somewhere so difficult and seemingly inconvenient to reach.  Some archaeologists think they moved up there to be closer to reliable sources of water but others believe it was a defensive move in response to a threat by other, possibly invading, Native Americans.


After drinking in our fill, we headed back the way we came, eager for the comparable civility and comfort of our camp site.  Most of us were silent on the way back; whether from exhaustion or reflection, I can’t say for sure, but for me it was a little of both.

I was happy we all made it in one piece and got to experience the wonder of the cliff dwellings.  I was thankful that Dan still had one sip of water left by the time we finished, thanks to careful rationing.  I was glad no one had gotten hurt, bitten, or otherwise incapacitated.  I was excited that Brian had gotten to see something so remarkable, and so different from what he was used to in Jersey.

Back at the campsite, while enjoying a celebratory round of Skinnygirl margaritas in plastic camping cups, I eagerly asked him what he thought of the journey and whether the  end made it worth the strenuous hike in.  His response was typical Brian: “Eh – it was OK I guess.”

Related Posts: 
Quick Jaunt to Cooper Forks

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Three Years and Counting

I still have to pinch myself when I realize I’ve been married for three years.  Not only has it been much more enjoyable than I ever anticipated, but the time has absolutely flown by!

It’s interesting to observe what type of ‘married people’ we’re turning out to be.  Being my first go-round (it’s my husband’s second), I was pretty gung-ho in the beginning about all things ‘marriage’, even though I had never pictured myself having a big wedding or anything that extreme.  It was more the idea of marriage and a lifelong partnership that was appealing to me, not the showy wedding aspect. Lucky for me, my husband and I were on the same page about this…Vegas – CHECK!

Once married however, I was really into the anniversary thing and my original Big Plan was to adhere to the traditional wedding gift for each year of our marriage.  I secretly pictured myself coming up with a clever gift that my husband actually loved year after year, no matter how challenging the traditional gift material (I must admit I was dreading the ‘tin’ year).

Needless to say, although I was pretty impressive out of the gate, this year I completely forgot our anniversary was even approaching.  Yikes.  I thought the guy was supposed to be the forgetful one!  I was only reminded when my husband announced he’d made dinner reservations.

When he caught my momentary blank look I was compelled to admit I had totally forgotten our anniversary.  Imagine my surprise when instead of the hurt reaction I feared, I swear he actually tried to backpedal, thinking he might be able to save some cash and not have to take me to dinner after all.

Because we become a little more familiar with the nuances of each others’ personalities every year, although this little incident gave me a chilling glimpse into the depths of his frugality, I won’t hold it against him…

We did end up going to dinner, and after quickly agreeing that gifts weren’t necessary, came to the conclusion that what would really mean the most to both of us was a cool outing to commemorate the date.  We never need an excuse to kayak the Lower Salt River but this trip was especially sweet!

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Green Chile and Luminarias Day 2: Albuquerque

Christmas Eve Day dawned cold and crisp, and although our thin Phoenix blood had not yet adjusted to the 18-degree weather, we were enjoying the Christmas-y feeling so sadly denied us in the ‘Valley of the Sun’.

Before heading out of Albuquerque, we made a stop at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center – a must if you have any interest in New Mexico’s Native American culture and history.

In a nutshell, there are 19 ‘Pueblos’ (Native American Pueblo villages) in New Mexico: Acoma (also called Sky City), Cochiti, Isleta, Jemez, Laguna, Nambe, Ohkay Owingeh (formerly San Juan), Picuris, Pojoaque, Sandia, San Felipe, San Ildefonso, Santa Ana, Santa Clara, Santo Domingo, Taos, Tesuque, Zia and Zuni.

These Pueblos were settled hundreds of years ago, but the exact details of their history vary depending on whom you ask.  Archaeologists claim they’re descendants of a Native American culture that has inhabited the area (as well as parts of Arizona and Colorado) for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years.  The Pueblo peoples’ beliefs about their origins differ a bit from archaeologists’ theories, a phenomenon fairly common throughout the Southwest.

Although this difference in points of view can be a point of contention, I felt it was addressed very well in the Center’s downstairs museum, where you can find artifacts and a timeline ranging from prehistoric times to the last few decades, and beautiful examples of each Pueblos’ unique pottery styles and designs.  You can find out more about the Cultural Center, the Pueblos, and Pueblo etiquette at

Unfortunately, no pictures inside the Center, and although some of the displays (especially the examples of weaving and textiles) seem to encourage a hands-on experience, I was embarrassed to find out (a little too late) that there is a strict “don’t touch” policy!

I have to admit I’m glad I got to touch the beautiful woven fabrics before I found out I wasn’t supposed to; it was a really special experience to examine that closely the white leggings, white bridal blankets with four ‘corn’ tassels, one at each corner, and kachina kilts I had seen in countless historical pictures; it’s one thing to see a picture but entirely another to actually lay eyes upon the garments themselves. And most items in the Center date from the 1800s and early 1900s.

Before we left we had an early lunch at the Center’s Pueblo Harvest Cafe, which offered a variety of delectable Native and New Mexican selections.  I went for the posole; like New Mexico’s ubiquitous green chile stew, each bowl is a little different each place you order it, and sampling the many varieties will scintillate your taste buds.

Side note:  with posole, as opposed to green chile stew, there’s less of a chance that it will be too spicy to eat – something that has happened to me with many a bowl of green chile stew, as I try it nearly every place we go…a phenomenon my husband cites as a real-life demonstration of the often-stated definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results…

Related Posts:
Green Chiles and Luminarias Day 1: Dreamcatchers & Black Ice
Vegas or Bust!


Green Chile and Luminarias Day 1: Dreamcatchers & Black Ice

Our yearly New Mexico Christmas road trip started out the way it usually does…among a flurry of texts, emails and phone calls from friends asking if we had heard about the Winter Storm Warning.  This year, along with the usual reports of a storm blowing through, came urgent warnings that portions of the I-40 to Albuquerque were closed.  Of course, as always, right along our planned route.

My immediate thought was that everyone must be mistaken; I had checked the weather report a full 10 days in advance for this very reason, and it had been nothing but sunny skies.  Where this freak storm came from, I don’t know but it seems scientifically impossible that a winter storm would blow in every year exactly the day we plan to do most of our driving.  I had a sick feeling in my stomach; after living in Phoenix for 17 years my confidence in my winter driving skills was right up there with my confidence in successfully landing a 747.  My husband was optomistic however, and convinced me to proceed as if the weather were not a concern.

Not a cloud in the sky as we departed the Phoenix area, and aside from some snow around Flagstaff it was clear sailing down I-40 all the way to the Arizona border. We stopped at one of the souvenir shops that dot the I-40 between Flagstaff and Gallup, all remnants of the old Route 66 days (and now mostly ignored by the more pressed-for-time interstate travelers).  Many of them have almost embarrassingly-outdated themes.

This one happened to be shaped like a huge…igloo?  Wikiup?  I am not sure what Native American dwelling they might have been going for, and the hodge-podge of symbols decorating the exterior – standard eagle feathers framed a window directly below a Zuni sun symbol (next to a rendering of petrified wood) – didn’t help the identification process.  On a side note, if this huge structure happens to escape your attention as you whiz by, don’t worry; there’s no way you’ll miss the biggest dreamcatcher you’ve ever laid eyes on, erected right out front!

Inside the Meteor City Trading Post were the usual kitschy offerings one expects to find in touristy establishments in this area; Arizona license plate keychains featuring your name, miniature Kachina dolls, geodes and other polished rocks…alongside some very nice genuine Native American handiwork.  But you have to know what’s what.

Fingering a beautiful wool blanket, I hesitantly asked the proprietress, “How much?”

“Seven ninety-five,” she answered.

“Seven hundred ninety-five?” I clarified.

“No, seven dollars ninety-five cents,” she assured me.

“Um, where was it made?”

“In India,” she replied somewhat sheepishly.  “But when people ask if it was made by Indians, I can say yes!”

Pretty tricky.  And I’m glad I did ask.  But it was nice, and how can you pass up that price, regardless of origin?  I bought it.

We continued on our way, anticipating any weather-related road trouble would come near Gallup and the border, but nada.  Still clear skies.  It got a little cloudy as we pushed east, but needless to say, the I-40 closures had miraculously opened  just hours before we passed through, and aside from some black-ice laden white-knuckled miles between Grants and Albuquerque we made it in one piece to our first-night’s destination.

Ah…New Mexico.  What is it about that state?  My husband and I have been making this journey at Christmas-time for the past six years.  What had started as a one-time trip to check out the many Pueblo villages in northern New Mexico turned into a yearly sojourn – and the amazing thing is we have still barely scratched the surface as far as things to see and do.  Aside from the Native American and Spanish heritage, New Mexico is known for its amazing natural hot springs, beautiful landscapes and especially its art.

This year, we had only a few days so tried to pack in as much as possible.  That first night in Albuquerque we ate at Sadie’s of New Mexico, known for its delicious New Mexican cuisine.  We had seen this little restaurant on an episode of Man vs. Food a few months back, and were especially looking forward to trying the famous stuffed sopaipillas.   After a few nervous minutes driving through a sketchy-looking area after exiting off the I-40, we found Sadie’s tucked away inauspiciously off the main strip, sign not even fully-lit.  Once we approached, our fears were put to rest – it was packed!

After being ushered almost immediately to an available table in the cozy bar area, we were treated to live jazz music in a softly-lit atmosphere, with a blazing Christmas tree in the corner and a huge fireplace filled with beautiful twinkling candles.  We loved the ambiance, but were blown away by the food.

I had the green chile stew (I try it every place we go in New Mexico – it’s always different), which was served with homemade flour tortillas for sopping up the spicy goodness.  My husband ordered the stuffed sopaipilla, which was about the size of a medium pizza!  Needless to say, we gorged ourselves and returned to our hotel satisfied, if not more than a little sleepy!

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