Tuesday, May 26, 2009

It has been a full two weeks since my last entry. Things have been really busy, but so much fun. Delphine had her commencement two Thursdays ago (the 14th), and I tagged along to take pictures of her and her family. I figured it was the least I could do since they came all the way from France. Besides, getting your PhD is no small task, and deserves lots of celebrating + pictures.

The next day, I hung out on campus for a bit and had lunch with Garrett and some of his friends. I also decided that I needed to splurge at Urban Outfitters and buy a few clothing items, mostly because they were having a sidewalk sale (and who can resist that kind of thing anyway?). That evening, Garrett and I got dressed up (well, dressed up for us, that is) and went to the dollar theater to see “Watchmen.” I can’t believe I waited so long to see it, because it was a pretty awesome movie. I guess I was expecting typical superhero comic book movie fare, but it was so much more than that.

Saturday we woke up around noon and did a short walking tour of downtown Tucson. If I had been wearing the proper shoes we could have done the whole tour, but I was stupid and wore the brand new sandals I had purchased at Urban Outfitters (which severely shortened the distance we could go before my ankles started to hurt). After that, we drove out to the southern side of the city to have some beer and snacks at the Nimbus brewery. I absolutely love going to microbreweries. Arizona seems to have a lot of them.

Around 7, we went over to Delphine’s mentor’s house for a big party to celebrate her graduation. Much drinking, eating and merriment was had by all. They cooked up some pretty amazing food - burgers, potato salad, spinach salad, etc. The best parts by far were the crepes that Delphine and her mother made, along with the French champagne. Nothing makes a cookout better than crepes drenched in Nutella that have been lovingly prepared by a French person. Holy crap, it was yummy.

Sunday was the start of the trip within a trip. Sedona, the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas were all on the itinerary.

We got a pretty late start on Sunday. Since we had stayed up late drinking the night before, we didn't start packing until mid-afternoon that day. Luckily, the drive to Sedona from Tucson wasn't that long at all (3 1/2-4 hours) so we got to Sedona right around sunset. Sedona is a crazy place. It was a recommended by a good friend of mine that we stop there. I had never heard of the place until he told me about it, but I'm not really sure why. Supposedly, the city is famous for having the highest number of vortices of "spiraling spiritual energy" in one place. Check out the Sedona Vortex Map. I guess people from all over the world go there to experience the vortices, which is evident by the high number of brochures available at every possible stop along the road advertising spiritual healers and vortex tours.

I hate to make fun, but I found it all to be rather ridiculous. It was all topped off by this old guy whom I asked to take a picture of Garrett and I. He took the picture, then struck up a conversation and asked me to hold his hand. Then he says "do you feel that?" and I'm thinking, "no, but I'll pretend I do if it'll get you to stop holding my hand." He claimed to be a touch healer from the Appalachian Mountains in northeastern Tennessee and said he had cured a girl from a lifelong meth addiction simply by touching her. Well, that's great and all, but I'll keep my beliefs and let him keep his.

Whatever the case, it made for an interesting couple of days just seeing all of the old hippies walking around trying to find twisted trees (evidence that there was a strong spiritual energy present in the area). The funny thing is, we saw lots of twisted trees there and in the Grand Canyon, and I'm pretty sure it's a feature of the tree itself (a Juniper tree) and not the fact that there's some hardcore swirling energy field in the immediate area.

Anyway, Sedona was beautiful, vortices or no vortices. As I said earlier, we arrived around sunset on Sunday evening. We had decided earlier that morning that we'd just look for a hotel to stay at for the night, and that turned out to be a pretty good decision.
SO...Garrett locked the keys in my car accidentally as we were getting ready to pay for our hotel room. We had to call a locksmith (who charged $60 to remove the keys from the car). When the hotel desk clerk found out about our hardship, he decided to be a nice guy and gave us a suite instead of a regular hotel room for the bargain price of $75 for the night.

I mean, we had a fireplace for christsake. Granted, it was fake, but it was a fireplace all the same. We were happy with the way that turned out, to say the least. :) We stayed up late in the room, drank too much wine, watched a movie, and woke up fairly late the next day. At 11AM we checked out of the room and began our tour of beautiful Sedona. We went to the downtown area and walked around to all of the corny little gift shops, took pictures, ate lunch at a small Mexican restaurant that provided us with a great view from the balcony, then hit the highway for a scenic drive to Flagstaff. I didn't feel the "healing energy" of a vortex, but I did have a wonderful time (and a tasty enchilada).

Flagstaff is a freaking cool place. Really freaking cool. The drive that day was short (about 30 minutes) and we arrived in the late afternoon at our couchsurfers' home just in time to grab one of the many bicycles they had sitting around outside and ride to the grocery store for dinner supplies. Scott and Amanda (our hosts) were so kind and generous. Scott let me ride his fixed gear bicycle (my first time on one of those things) to the store, and then he cooked all of us an amazing Mexican dinner complete with guacamole and this funky sweet cucumber limeade drink. After dinner we all sat around in the living room and listened to him and some of his buddies jam on their instruments (everything from a guitar to an accordion to a banjo to a didgeridoo) while we relaxed with glasses of chardonnay.

Our sleeping quarters were in the garage (modified to be a mini skate park of sorts for his teenage son) on our inflatable mattress. Sounds uncomfortable, but the garage had quite a few amenities, including an old skool Atari arcade racing game. Oh yeah - I played that thing. :)

We got up the next morning and (sad to go) packed up our belongings and ate lunch at a nice small cafe downtown before making our way north to the Grand Canyon.


Day 1
The Grand Canyon is called grand for a reason. It's big. Really, really big. And it's beautiful. More beautiful than I could ever hope to convey to you just by showing you my pictures. I'm a good photographer, but there's no picture in the world that can do that place justice. So that having been said: GO THERE. Just do it. I promise you won't be disappointed. We arrived there in the mid-afternoon, just in time to see the sun starting to fall behind the low clouds. The weather wasn't perfect, but the little bits of light streaming through the clouds gave us a cool view of the some of the canyon's features. I was completely speechless at first. You drive into the park and the first (and most popular) stop is Mather Point. You can see the land completely drop off right in front of you from the front seat of your car. Wow. It was GORGEOUS. And WIDE. And, well, GRAND. My god, nothing could have prepared me for that first view.

So, I took pictures for a good long while, we found some dinner, checked into getting a backcountry camping permit (a whole other story altogether), and set up camp at the Desert View campground which was located on the easternmost side of the South Rim drive (about 25 miles from GC Village and the only place in the park that had camping sites available in a first come, first served fashion). We saw our first canyon sunset that night, and man was it glorious.
You can see our campsite location here.

Day 2
So, on to the story of the backcountry camping permit...

Most people that are smart and know what they're doing when camping in the Grand Canyon obtain a backcountry permit. It's the little piece of paper that allows you to hike down to the bottom of the canyon to the river, stay overnight at a campsite, and hike back up the next day. Apparently, less than 2% of the people who visit the canyon actually end up hiking all the way to the Colorado. I think that's sad, but now I kind of understand why. The waiting list for that kind of camping is horrendous. So, we settled. We chose a last minute site that had two openings on Horseshoe Mesa. The only problem with that is that Grandview trail that goes down to the mesa is one of the hardest trails on the South Rim (crazy elevation drop off right at the start), and the trail has no water along it and no water in the immediate area of the campsite itself. You can imagine what kinds of problems this poses for fairly inexperienced hikers such as ourselves. A short description of the area. But, we're total rockstars, so you better believe we attempted it. Yes, attempted (we're also smart wusses).

We packed up our campsite, set out on the hike and got about 3 miles down the trail before Garrett reported feelings of queasiness and leg pain. Of course, this was no surprise to me since he packed up a bag that probably weighed about 40 pounds (complete with a full size air mattress, non-lightweight sleeping bag and water filtration system, among other things). So, we turned around and hiked the 3 miles back up (which turned out to be a very good idea).

We both got a good amount of exercise for the day, and we got to take hot showers back at GC Village and have a hot dinner at Maswick Lodge - 2 things we couldn't have done if we had been tired and in pain down on the mesa. Now don't get me wrong, I'm disappointed that we didn't make it all the way down and back up again. But, I also realized that we probably wouldn't have been very comfortable and were certainly not adequately prepared for the overnight stay. Luckily, our same campsite at Desert View was still available when we got back late that afternoon. At only $12 a night, I couldn't complain.

Day 3
You better believe that we took things easy today. After the Grandview trail ordeal, it just made sense. We decided to do the Rim Trail hike, which was about a 13 mile stretch of path that covered the Village and an area all the way to the westernmost side of the South Rim that dead-ended at Hermit's Rest. We hiked for about two miles and then said "screw it" and took a free shuttle from the village that made stops along all of the major vista points along the trail. Yes, we were tired (and it was spitting rain by mid-afternoon anyway). But again, the views were spectacular, and not at all ruined by the fact that we were on a shuttle bus traveling between them.

When we got done that evening, we took showers in the Village (god, I love showers) and had a nice dinner at the Arizona Room restaurant at the Bright Angel Lodge. It started raining hard as we were on our way back to Desert View that night, and so we had to deal with the wet and the cold all night and all morning in that tiny tent. Garrett called it romantic. I called it something entirely different. But, as long as the tent didn't leak (not too badly at least), I could handle it. :) Sleeping in a semi-wet tent is one thing. Packing up the semi-wet tent in the rain in the early morning is something entirely different. Suffice it to say that we didn't get along too well that morning. BUT...all was well. The rain cleared up by the time we got halfway to the Village and Mather point, and the fog and clouds that formed over the roadway on the way back only made the canyon that much more beautiful. I'm no weather expert, but I suspect that the hot weather at the bottom of the canyon combined with the cool, rainy weather at the rim to create these massive low-hanging clouds that just moved up from bottom to top faster than any cloud movement I've ever experienced before. One minute you're standing on the edge and it's completely clear, 30 seconds later you're surrounded by a big white cloud. It would have been too easy to just walk off the edge of the canyon rim at that point, so I'm glad they had safety rails. I wish Garrett's camera had been charged, because then I could have gotten a video of the clouds. Oh well.

We left the Grand Canyon around 11AM and began our drive south to the city of Williams, AZ, which would connect us to I-40 and Las Vegas.

This is where my Grand Canyon tale ends. On to something different...


The best thing that happened after we left the canyon wasn't Vegas. The Hoover Dam was much cooler, and is quite a sight to behold. When you know the story and the facts behind its creation, you're even more impressed and in awe of this gigantic structure. We parked on the Arizona side of the dam (can you believe the Nevada side charges a fee to park in their parking garage?) and walked down to the museum and visitor center. We decided to take the power plant tour, which leads down into the generator rooms at the base of the dam. It was impressive and a little bit scary all at the same time, being surrounded by all of that concrete and water.

After the dam (haha) tour and the long lines in traffic, we crossed into Nevada and drove the short 30 minute drive into the heart of the city of Las Vegas, where we arrived at our surfers' residence around 7:30PM.

Walter and Shayra had plans for the evening, so they dropped us off at Fremont Street (which is the "old" Strip, apparently) and we walked around and had a quick dinner at one of the casinos. A portion of the street is home to the world's largest LED screen, and it was stunningly insane to walk underneath that thing.

After the Fremont Street walk we took the city bus to the beginning of the real Strip, and went up to the top of the Stratosphere Hotel & Casino. It was around this time that I started to realize Vegas was not for me. First off, it costs $14.95 to go up to the top of the tower. Second, they don't tell you that you can't bring a tripod up with you until you get to the security check at the elevator. SO, not only have you paid a ticket price for a lame view that you can't even take a proper picture of, but you have to go all the way down to the first floor of the hotel and walk halfway across the casino to get to a secure place where the bellhop can stow the tripod for you. Then, you ride their shitty elevator to the top, wishing the whole time you hadn't wasted your hard-earned money.

Once we left we continued our walk down the Strip, stopping along the way to take pictures. I actually had some drunk guys approach me outside of a Walgreens and offer me $20 to take a picture of them. That was nice.
We made it as far as the Venetian Hotel & Casino, and by then it was around 2:30AM, and certainly time to call it quits for the night.

Saturday was our 2nd (and thankfully, last) day in Vegas. We started the day with a bus ride out to the area of the Strip we had left off at the previous night. The first thing we did was go into Caesar's Palace, and that was probably the highlight of the whole Vegas experience. I think this is mostly because it was filled with the most expensive, fancy stores I'd ever seen situated all in the same area in my life - Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs, Tiffany and Co., Dolce & Gabbana...you get the point. And, there was no shortage of ridiculously wealthy, fake-looking couples walking around whipping out credit cards left and right. Don't get me wrong - I know that Los Angeles, NYC and Milan probably have the same configuration at their major shopping centers, but I'm just a poor girl from the midwest, and the idea of dropping a few thousand dollars on a purse worries me. Oh, and there was this crazy spectacle in the center of the mall with fire and stuff. I don't really know how to explain it, but it was insane. Just these mechanical moving characters in a fountain with flames all over the place. I'm pretty sure the ceiling was singed where the flames had jumped. Weird. It was right in front of the Cheescake Factory. I should have gone there for lunch that day, I suppose.

Instead of the Cheescake Factory, we went to Subway. Yes ladies and gentlemen, even the Strip in Vegas offers $5 footlongs. :) Oh, and Garrett bought a $26 margarita at the mall as well. What does that tell you when our alcohol purchase more than quadruples our real food purchase?

So after Caesar's Palace, we continued our walk down the street to some other casinos. We hit Paris (I bought a $15 margarita there), New York New York, The Bellagio, The Venetian and the Luxor.

We wanted to see the MGM Grand (can you believe they have actualy caged lions inside the hotel lobby?), but by the end of the afternoon we were just so tired and had to make it back for a dinner date that was set with our hosts. So...that was that. No more Strip, no more fake crap, no more fancy stores...just a simple (but wonderful) down-to-earth home-cooked meal and a $7 bottle of wine to share amongst the 4 of us. That's more my style anyway. :) Walter and I stayed up fairly late and talked about / exchanged music, and I finally got to bed around 3AM.

Sunday was our last day of traveling. We left Vegas around midday and decided to go by Lake Mead on our way out of town. It seemed like an appropriate conclusion to our vacation. A perfect blend between the city lights of Vegas and the wild and beautiful country of the Grand Canyon.

We went swimming for a couple of hours, then got back on the highway to make our way to Phoenix, where we stopped for a couple hours to watch an early release of The Brothers Bloom, which I had been wanting to see ever since I heard of its release 6 months ago. The movie was great, and we arrived back in Tucson around 2AM.

And, there you have it. The (almost) perfect vacation within a vacation. I'm sitting here on Garrett's back porch typing these final words, contemplating the beauty of the Catalina mountains in the sunset, wondering exactly what my next move will be and where this crazy journey is going to take me. The next time I write, it will be from California. :) Wonderful, sunny California...

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